What is Normal?

By Robert Bernstein   |   May 14, 2020

As I write this article, people are asking for a return to “normal.” Is that what we really want?

Is it “normal” that tens of millions of Americans have no access to healthcare? That millions of Americans are homeless? That 11 million children in the U.S. literally do not know where their next meal is coming from?

Is it “normal” that humans are disrupting the climate in a catastrophic manner and that we go about business as usual?

At age 15, climate activist Greta Thunberg said in a TEDx talk, “I think in many ways we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange – especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis.”

Her comment warmed me to the core as I have always felt the same way.

In some way, it is not our fault. Our perceptual systems are mostly set up only to detect change. We are largely blind to what is unchanging in our environment.

The corporate media accentuates this effect on a grand scale. Single tragedies are magnified while gross ongoing injustices receive no coverage.

A few years ago there was a small conference in Santa Barbara where top news editors explained how they cover the news. I pointed out that news coverage is “event driven” rather than driven by what is important. I asked if that could change.

A top New York Times editor chose to answer my question. He said that this question came up at one of their staff meetings. Someone offered this solution: Let’s have a feature once a month called “Still True.” They would allocate space to a problem that is large, but creates no specific events. For example, “Still True That Three Million Americans are Homeless.”

I smiled approvingly. Once a month is not much, but still better than nothing. He smiled back at me. Then snapped back, “I killed it. It was a dumb idea.” He saw the shock on my face and said, “You can’t make people eat broccoli.” Wow. This was as good as it gets. A top New York Times editor thinks it is a dumb idea to cover what is important.

The result? “GoFundMe” campaigns replace good public policy. The leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S.? Medical bills. No other country in the world has this. As a child I lived in a civilized country where we could walk to the family doctor and there were never any bills at all.

Do we really want things to return to “normal”? Senator Bernie Sanders first ran for president in 2016 on a 12-point platform of issues that all poll at more than 60% across the political spectrum. Including true universal healthcare. The pundits declared his views as “out of the mainstream.” Yet one debate moderator took the time to look at his policy positions. He said, “You call yourself a socialist. But your positions are more conservative than (Republican) President Eisenhower’s.” Bernie replied, “You got me there!”

How do ideas get to be “normal”? When President Roosevelt proposed putting millions of unemployed Americans to work building needed infrastructure, his idea was vigorously opposed by the corporate powers. When it was seen as a brilliant success, it became so normal that Eisenhower indeed proposed massive public works projects of his own. Notably, the Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower also proposed a universal healthcare system similar to Obamacare.

When Reagan first tried running on a platform of tearing down such government investment in his 1976 presidential campaign, he was considered a fringe candidate. Not at all normal. But he was able to win in 1980 by recruiting a huge untapped part of the population that had never voted before: devout fundamentalist Christians who believed we were living in the End of Times. Are those views normal?

With fundamentalist support, Reagan was able to dismantle decades of accepted public policy. Ever since, it has been considered “normal” for swaths of people to be left to scramble for basic needs. Corporations sponsor candidates who turn around and use government to serve their needs rather than the public interest.

This “normal” situation of legalized bribery is at the root of all our “normal” problems. What got us into the coronavirus crisis? A “normal” system that rewards short-term corporate profits over long-term public investment. How about if we go beyond universal healthcare and demand a public agency to create medicines? Based on medical efficacy and need rather than on the private profits of Big Pharma?

Why don’t we envision and demand a NEW normal?


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