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What We'll Learn About Ourselves, and Our Nation, During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

After the first of those oddly comical fistfights over toilet paper in grocery stores, and before the possibility of horrific battles over respirators in the weeks to come, I committed an act of coronavirus defiance.


I sat in a comfy leather chair in the neighborhood cigar lounge and lit a fine maduro cigar.

Why? Because I wanted to sit and think about all the things we'll learn from now forward. And I wanted to say goodbye to the guys.

Just a few days ago they were worried about the FBI raiding the place again in pursuit of Chicago Way politicos. That was when we still shook hands.

All that's changed for anyone with any sense of responsibility for others and themselves.

We're at war with the virus.

You don't need a rousing "Braveheart"-style speech. The virus doesn't care about Hollywood-style drama. And you don't need any more fearmongering and quivering lips. There's been too much of that on cable news, to keep you locked in through commercials.

You just need quiet, and time to think. Here's what I've been thinking:

If things are going to be as bad as the health professionals warn, can our fractured American culture handle what's coming?

Those of you who've paid attention know that American culture has been systematically deconstructed by the left over the past decades. It was and is about power. Liberals won the culture war, took the universities and the media, and now frame the public discussion.

Yet now, in this time of crisis, with the old culture deconstructed and a new one not yet fully cemented in, what are the ties that bind a diverse people together and keep them strong?


A meme going around tells us that our grandfathers were called to war, and all we are being asked to do is sit on the couch and watch TV. There is longing for Roosevelt's fireside chats and Churchill's stiff upper lip. But are we still made of that kind of stuff?

Or have we become a silly people wasting time agonizing over who may have been insulted by someone calling it the "Chinese virus"?

The other day, the barking dogs of media and politics fought over whether some unidentified White House staffer tastelessly called it the "kung flu." A few weeks ago, CNN anchors were calling it the "Chinese flu" and the "Wuhan virus" -- you may have seen the video mashup. But now the act of calling it by the name of origin is a sin.

China doesn't like it, and some media organizations are sensitive to China's feelings. Disney and the NBA were sensitive when China became peeved with them. But the virus originated in China, and China lied about it for weeks. And calling it "Chinese" anything gets in the way of what many of them want to call it: #TrumpVirus.

Remember what Rahm Emanuel said about never letting a crisis go to waste? Well, they're not wasting it.

But if you're in a hospital bed, with your face strapped to a ventilator, you really can't hear the barking dogs. And those in a desperate struggle for oxygen probably don't give two figs.


We've already learned much about ourselves with those infantile (and I mean it literally) fights over toilet paper in the stores. We'll learn more, if shelter-in-place orders are backed by the National Guard and hospitals hire armed security to deal with fights over ventilators and beds.

Mexico doesn't seem all that worried. They're partying in great, happy crowds. But Europe has rediscovered the virtue of borders. In Italy, doctors are now forced to ration ventilators, deciding who lives and who dies.

"In Italy, they say pan di grano," said my barber, Raffaele Raia, of Naples.

He explained that "pan di grano" literally means "wheat bread." The slang was born in Italy during World War II, when people starved. Hospitals were full and resources scarce. And doctors were forced -- just as they're doing now -- to play God and decide the great mystery for those deemed unsavable.

Those who weren't to be saved, like the elderly and the very ill, were given wheat bread. It made hungry people feel full and somewhat comforted at the end.

"So now," Raia said, "in Italy, with so many sick with the virus, someone asks, 'How is your grandfather?' You could respond with, 'Pan di grano.' But you're not talking about wheat bread. You're talking about the end. That's pan di grano."


I do wish the churches were open. A good friend regularly attends services at her Roman Catholic Church. A week ago, she was there for her daughter's confirmation ceremony. The priest applied holy oil to the foreheads of all the children, one after another, with the same cup and same thumb.

"I didn't think much of it then," she said. "But now I think, should I have scrubbed it off immediately? See how this has changed us?"

The great sadness is that churches, temples and mosques close just as people need them the most. But you don't need a church to pray. Perhaps the best prayer of all is the simplest prayer I know, uttered by that lowly tax collector, his head bowed, kneeling, whispering, "Kyrie eleison. Have mercy upon me oh Lord, a sinner."

We will get through this. And along the way, we'll learn exactly who we are.

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