Can the pandemic serve America as the cradle for a rebirth of civil society?

by Bill Benzon

This pandemic changes everything, we can’t go back to the way we were. That’s what everyone is saying. Well, not everyone, but I don’t know how many times I’ve read some version of that over the past month.

What rough beast…

I would like to reflect on that theme, albeit in perhaps and oblique and impressionist manner. I want to begin by invoking a recent essay in which Marc Andreessen urges us to “reboot the American Dream.” Then I move back half a century and look at Walt Disney’s version of, well, the American Dream. I return to the present through an essay by Ezra Klein and conclude with a video in which Sean O’Sullivan talks of how he came to form an NGO that worked on building Iraq early in this millennium.

Marc Andreessen: Let’s Build Something!

Roughly two weeks ago a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, issued a call to action, It’s Time to Build, which has been getting a lot of action, pro, con, and sideways. Here’s how it opens:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

That made my heart sing. Yes, yes! We’ve lost the will to build.

I read the whole thing and began to think about it. I’m not sure what I think. It’s complex, tricky, moves in multiple directions. Let’s skip over most of it and jump to the fifth paragraph from the end:

In fact, I think building is how we reboot the American dream. The things we build in huge quantities, like computers and TVs, drop rapidly in price. The things we don’t, like housing, schools, and hospitals, skyrocket in price. What’s the American dream? The opportunity to have a home of your own, and a family you can provide for. We need to break the rapidly escalating price curves for housing, education, and healthcare, to make sure that every American can realize the dream, and the only way to do that is to build.

Now we’ve got a place to start, the American Dream.

It seems to me that the American Dream – whatever that is – began to unravel in 1960s, a decade that opened with the Cuban missile crisis and ended with an American flag on the moon, a decade that was served up to us no-so-long-ago in Mad Men.

Walt Disney Dreams a Dream

Let’s consult Walt Disney, who made a long and fruitful career out of mining, refining, and modeling (his version of) the American Dream. Disney was born into a middle-class though not particularly prosperous family in Chicago in 1901. For what it’s worth, his father, Elias, was a socialist. The family moved to Missouri when he was four and then back to Chicago in 1917. He went into the army, then back to Chicago, and moved to Hollywood in 1923, where he joined his brother, Roy, and they set up the Disney Brothers Studio.

Walt was at the drawing board and Roy handled business affairs. As the business prospered Walt had others do the drawing, but cartoons were his central focus through the end of World War Two, when his interests shifted, though of course he never abandoned cartoons. After the war Disney moved to live-action films, pioneering in nature documentaries, put it all on television in the 1950s, and built the Disneyland theme park in the middle of the decade. As you know, the park was structured into four divisions: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland.

At about the time (a fictional) Don Draper was on the rise in the advertising business, Disney began thinking about building an experimental city in central Florida (while having his agents surreptitiously buy up land). By that time spent four decades interacting with, shaping and being formed by, the American Dream as some version of it took form through his cartoons, live-action films, theme park, and television program. Note, in particular, that that Disney had tremendous faith in technology. He developed it for films and for Disneyland and he promoted it in his television programming.

Disney began forming his decades of experience into something he called E.P.C.O.T. – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was never built. Instead, we have Disney World, and the associated theme park called Epcot. Here’s a promotional video from 1966 where Disney lays it out for captains of industry and commerce and for government officials:

The first five minutes recaps the history of Disneyland, which you may skip over it you wish. Uncle Walt – the persona Disney took on screen – starts narrating at about 5:13. The good stuff starts at 9:30, when Disney starts laying out the E.P.C.O.T. concept. Here’s how he ends his part of the story:

But where do we begin? How do we start answering this great challenge? Well, we’re convinced we must start with the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land and building a special kind of new community. So that’s what E.P.C.O.T is: an Experimental Prototype Community that will always be in the state of becoming. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future where people actually live a life they can’t find anyplace else in the world.

Everything in E.P.C.O.T will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work, and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase.

We don’t presume to know all the answers. In fact, we’re counting on the cooperation of American industry to provide their very best thinking during the planning and the creation of our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And most important of all, when E.P.C.O.T has become a reality and we find the need for technologies that don’t even exist today, it’s our hope that E.P.C.O.T will stimulate American industry to develop new solutions that will meet the needs of people expressed right here in this experimental community.

Well, that’s our basic philosophy for E.P.C.O.T. By now, I’m sure you’re wondering how people will live and work and move around in our community of tomorrow, so in the next few minutes we will go into detail about some of our preliminary sketches and layouts. Remember though, as I said earlier, this is just the beginning! With that thought in mind, let’s have a look.

At that point (c. 12:20) we move to a presentation of those preliminary sketches and layouts.

I have no idea what Andreesen thinks, or would think, about this (I don’t know whether or not he has seen it). And I’m certainly not urging it on him or on anyone else as a model to be emulated and realized. I offer it simply as an example of what a serious, gifted, accomplished, and influential man, a man who believed passionately in the arts, technology, and business, had to say about the American Dream.

I want to emphasize two things: 1) E.P.C.O.T. was not conceived as a theme park. It was to be REAL; people would live and work here. 2) It was conceived to be ever in motion, ever experimental – “always be the state of becoming”. The entrepreneur’s engine of creative destruction?

For various reasons that dream was never realized. For one thing, Disney died about two months after delivering his narration. But even if he’d lived, it is unlikely that it would have been realized, if only because it required a degree of central control that residents, both individual and corporate, would have balked at – a point Michael Barrier makes in his superb biography of Disney, The Animated Man.

Beyond that we need to consider the historical context that cradled that conception, the fabulous fifties and into the sixties. But also, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and protests against it, and the rise of the counter culture. E.P.C.O.T. was the expression of a consensus culture that was unraveling at the time Disney was developing the idea.

That culture is gone. American is badly fractured. Whither the American Dream?

The fracturing of America

In a reply to Andreessen in which he talks about a deadlocked federal government, “Why we can’t build”, Ezra Klein observes that “Andreessen is uncharacteristically underestimating the appetite for building”. There’s plenty of desire in Washington, DC, but it’s tangled up in an institutional maze “in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. […] America’s system of checks and balances requires unusual and even extraordinary levels of consensus to pass legislation.”

Klein goes on to observe that “for most of our political history […] the parties were ideologically mixed, which made compromise easier.” That is no longer the case. The country is badly polarized and few are inclined to compromise. Similar problems exist at state and local levels – Klein cites New York City’s inability to revamp Penn Station, the city’s “flagship rail station” and California’s “inability to build high-speed rail, despite tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies.”

That is the context in which we must negotiate the Coronavirus pandemic. Historian Peter Turchin notes:

… at the level of an individual country […] Covid-19 is an external shock. Its long-term impact depends primarily on the social resilience of systems that it hits.

On one hand, Coronavirus is an external enemy, and external threats tend to increase internal cohesion of societies. This effect is strongest with such external threats as interstate wars. There is a substantial body of research showing that war increases social cooperation (of course, within, not between, societies). An epidemic is readily conceptualized as a war (and has already been done so), and thus can serve as unifying force.

On the other hand, too strong an external shock shatters, not unifies. As we know, the social resilience of the US has been declining over the past four decades. By 2019 a number of fault lines polarizing our society have developed. Two of these fault lines, the one between the poor and the rich, and the one between the liberal coasts and the conservative heartland, have been deepened by the Corona shock.

How and what, in that context, can we build, build, build?

Sean O’Sullivan: To revive civil society

I want to conclude with a 2017 TEDx video by Sean O’Sullivan, founder and managing general partner of SOSV, a venture capital firm with accelerator programs in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Taipei, San Francisco, New York City, Cork, London and Tokyo. O’Sullivan co-founded MapInfo in 1986, the year after he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and was the company’s president for several years. He left MapInfo to form a rock and roll band, Janet Speaks French, which didn’t go so well, and was involved in several other ventures before he entered film school at the University of Southern California. He went to Iraq as a journalist just before the American invasion.

Realizing that he wasn’t really a journalist, O’Sullivan founded JumpStart International, a non-profit organization, in 2003. The basic idea was to clear bombed out areas so that rebuilding would be possible. In the following video he talks about his experience in Iraq and why he founded JumpStart International.

O’Sullivan makes these observations near the end at about 13:43:

On coming back to the United States and to the West in general, I find myself dumbfounded by how little we appreciate what we have and how readily we mistake people who are famous and come from wealth or come from power for people of character and people of purpose and people of meaning and it’s that latter group, not the former, that we depend on for our way of life. It’s for my children that I fear in American we’re not going to have the kind of cataclysmic failure Syria is facing today that Civil War brings. But we face the continuous erosion of the unprincipled leadership and a never-ending self-centered chase the money at all costs focus that I think doesn’t lead to a civil society, frankly. In the absence of a civil society the gangsters and the thieves win.

The current pandemic is not going to wreck America the way the last two decades of war have wrecked large areas in the Middle East, but political polarization has eroded our civil society and hence our ability to build.

That, rebuilding our civil society, has to be our first priority. Without that any other building will serve only to reinforce and further fracture our nation. Only when we have revived and reconstituted our civil society can we reboot the American Dream.