The Coronavirus is Teaching Us What it Means to have Character

The pandemic is reshaping how we understand ourselves and our world.

There is much talk about the impact of the coronavirus on electoral politics, on America’s position in the world, on higher education, and on large swaths of small businesses. All of those are, in their different ways, important. Some of them can be evaluated systematically. But none is so important as the virus’s impact on our character.

The United States has the misfortune of being led by a man utterly devoid of character, a razboynik, as Sam, [the author’s grandfather] with a curl of the lip, would have termed him—a man who can whine about journalists while seated at the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s statue, disclaim responsibility for anything and everything, bully and abuse subordinates who are infinitely more valuable to public health than he, muse about injecting bleach, and generally disgrace himself and his country with his antics.

“But that only calls into higher relief the virtues of all the others—the mayors and the governors, the public-health officials and the ambulance drivers, the home manufacturers of masks and ventilators and, yes, the billionaire philanthropists.”

There is a social science of measuring happiness, which reminds one of the words G. K. Chesterton put in Father Brown’s mouth  about the early lie detectors:  “What sentimentalists men of science are! And how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs?” 

There are not, and cannot be, quantitative measures of character, but what Sam understood was that in the end, character dominated all else. Today the biggest, probably the most important, and almost by definition the least answerable question is what the coronavirus will do to our character.

Check out The Atlantic for the complete Op-Ed by Eliot A. Cohen Contributing writer at The Atlantic and Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University