We have become a society driven by crises. Every day seems to bring us closer to an apocalypse — an existential terrorist threat, a crazed shooter, a growing oil spill, a gigantic storm and now a life-threatening virus called Ebola. Our media focus obsessively on these crises to draw our attention. My study of leaders across society shows that these crises dominate their days, too. Presidents, governors and CEOs spend a very high proportion of their time trying to convince the public that they are taking sufficient action to avert disasters, or at least mitigate their harmful effects. The crises consume most of our creative energies.
American society is underperforming because this is a superficial way to act. Crisis leadership is not leadership at all. Crisis obsessions distract citizens from their values, their obligations, and their possibilities. In a society dominated by crises, we are all reacting to the latest bad thing, rather than doing what is most important to us and to those around us.
The current panic over Ebola in the United States is a clear example of our superficiality. While thousands of Americans died prematurely this month from poor health, inadequate nutrition, gun violence, drunk driving, sexual assault and child abuse, only one person has died on American soil from the Ebola virus. While thousands of children attended inadequate schools, ate inadequate meals and received inadequate health care, two Americans showing Ebola symptoms became the most talked-about people in the country.
Of course Ebola is a threat and our national health system must focus on containing and treating the virus. The problem is that defining it as the latest apocalypse encourages us to lose all sense of proportion. The fate of our society will not be determined by the Ebola virus, but it will hinge on how well we deal with the deeper problems we ignore in this latest crisis obsession. Our leaders are spending their time reacting to one death and two infections, instead of the thousands who are suffering deeper neglect and injustice. Our leaders are playing a massive prevent defense against a virus, rather than investing creativity, time and resources in unleashing the potential of our citizens. The real enemy is not a disease; it is all of us in our misplaced priorities.
How did we lose our sense of proportion as a society? The problem is deep and it is recent. It needs immediate attention or we will continue our slide from strength and prosperity to weakness and decline.
During the 1960s a generation of Americans, many of them on college campuses like our own, devoted themselves to eliminating what they called the “root causes” of suffering in poverty, prejudice and war. These young men and women marched for civil rights, they protested against a misguided war and they volunteered in large numbers for organizations like the Peace Corps. They did more than react to the crises of the moment; they looked to change the world by changing the existing priorities of leaders and digging deeper. They boldly asked why the world departed from their ideals, and they acted, as best they could, to make their ideals into reality.
Although the record of the 1960s generation is mixed, there is no doubt those citizens changed our society fundamentally. We are less racist and less sexist because of them. We are also far less idealistic because many of the larger efforts to eliminate poverty, injustice and warfare came up short. Former 1960s activists, now parents and grandparents, are often cynical and disillusioned. Many of their children and grandchildren — our current students — treat their idealism with the sarcasm of Jon Stewart. How could those 1960s kids be so gullible? Did they really believe those simple ideas about changing the world?
Sarcasm, disillusion and disbelief are behind our current superficiality. If you believe in nothing (but yourself), then the threat of the moment becomes your defining goal. If you cannot imagine improving the world, then a game of defense against bad guys and viruses seems sufficient. Cynicism and low expectations drive our attention to crises, rather than bigger priorities.
In our present condition, the crises are only going to grow in speed and magnitude. There will be a worse terrorist group after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There will be more shooters. And there will be more deadly viruses after Ebola. These threats will grow because they emerge from the root causes in poverty, injustice and violence that we continue to ignore. We are chasing the threats made from the problems we willfully neglect. We are wearing ourselves out in our superficial frenzies.
We must respond to ISIS and Ebola, but we need a sense of proportion and a redoubled commitment to do much more. We need to think about the deeper causes. We need to remember our core values as a society and begin prioritizing them. It is time to start marching again, not against a virus, but for a better world.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.