In the wooded silence, a time to rethink: How can we shift our politics away from us vs. them; red vs. blue?

April 27, 2020 3:17 pm

Michaux State Forest. Credit: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources;

SOMEWHERE ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL — We’d been climbing steadily uphill for 25 minutes, a deceptively arduous mile, with the sweat pooling in the small of my back and my breath coming deep and even against the climb, as I planted one foot ahead of the other on the rocky trail.

My daughter was behind me, and I could hear her footfalls in the wooded silence.  

And so I started thinking about time. All this time we’ve had. This time on pause, this time in silence, where we’ve been asked to surrender our autonomy; to stay away from friends and people we love; to go without so that others can stay safe, so that the experts among us can find a way to beat back this illness that’s upended all our lives.

As the highway noises below us steadily receded, it occurred to me that in this time, this pause, this silence, we’ve been handed an opportunity to rethink how we do everything; how we educate our children; how we take care of the most vulnerable among us; how we ensure equity in healthcare; how we can shift our politics away from us vs. them, away from red vs. blue, and move toward a system where we really leave no one behind.

Because we can’t hand cash payments of much as $2,900 to almost every American and then turn around and say, as was the case in Pennsylvania, that direct cash assistance to people who are fleeing domestic violence, who are living with a disability, or struggling with substance abuse, aren’t worthy of the same kindness and consideration.

We can’t say that we want our children to learn remotely, and then not address the yawning gaps in access in technology or broadband connectivity, or the quality of education, that exists solely because of someone’s zip code.

We can’t fire-hose hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to hospitals and not address the inequities in access to care or provide people with paid medical leave. 

We can’t ask people to work from home, perhaps indefinitely, and not provide them with affordable — or, even better — free access to childcare.

We can’t look at photos of nature renewing itself, of animals moving into the space once occupied by humans, and continue to cling to the fiction that our activities don’t impact the environment. Not when the evidence to the contrary is staring us in the face.

And I recognize that I come to this from a position of profound privilege. My family and I have been lucky enough to keep our health and our jobs at a time when this illness has visited severe economic and personal tragedy on more than 1 million of our fellow Pennsylvanians, and millions more nationwide. 

The pandemic has laid bare inequities in our society. We know that Black Americans are more likely to die of COVID-19 than are white Americans. We know that tens of millions among us are without the economic means to ride out the cratering of our economy. 

We can’t come out of this time, out of this silence, out of this pause, and simply go back to doing what we were doing before and pretend it was working. 

Just as it may be weeks or months before we resume what we once recognized our normal lives, we can’t go back to a dualism in policymaking that is purpose-designed to ensure that some win, but many, many others lose. We can’t call ourselves a Christian nation and leave such injustice unaddressed.

As we got nearer to the summit, I could hear my daughter close the gap between us. When we got to the top, we looked at each other, catching our breath in the chilly April air, looking down at a river valley unfolding in silent splendor below. We let it sink in.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready,” she said.

She took the lead on the way down, her dancer’s feet finding the space between the rocks to bring her safely to the bottom of the trail. And just like she will in life someday, she quickly moved ahead of me. She was waiting for me at the bottom of the trailhead when we finished.

She’s 14 now, and it won’t be long before she’s off to college, or the next adventure that life holds for her. And it’s for her, and for all her friends and classmates that the choices that we make next matter so much.

We have the chance to reframe everything, for the country to live up to the promise that our kids read about in their history books, for those national myths we cling to so fiercely to actually mean something real. Will we be brave enough?

Seeing my daughter standing at the bottom of the trailhead, there was only one answer that made any sense.

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John Micek
John Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.