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Writer Stephen Carter distills what we should take away from the past two years


What an extraordinary year - two years, really. More than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID. Hospitals have been overwhelmed, health care workers worn out. There have been lockdowns, school closures, remote school and millions working from home and millions out of work, and millions who have quit. Vaccines against COVID have been developed in record time, but millions of Americans are skeptical and still refuse to get them. Of course, there have been protests over racial inequality, increases in urban crime, a return of school shootings and a deeply divided democracy. What should we take from these times? We turn now to Stephen Carter, the eminent Yale Law professor, Bloomberg opinion columnist and bestselling novelist. Stephen, thanks so much for being back with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: It's always a pleasure, Scott. It's good to hear you.

SIMON: Wow, this is a big question. But what do you hope we take from these times?

CARTER: These times are troubled in the ways that you mentioned at the outset and in others as well. You look at the seemingly unbridgeable divisions in our politics. You look at the way we seem unable to communicate or make common cause. You look at so many aspects of America that show it's a rudderless country. It's a country - it's like a team of horses where all the horses are pulling in different directions. And all that does is, in the end, break the wagon.

I think whatever may be the ultimate medical outcome, what we need is somehow to find a way to come together across our differences, to realize that instead of talking all day long about how horrible the guy on the other side is, whoever that guy may be, that we really do have commonalities. I think that's the only hope that we really have of - I hate to sound gloomy - of saving this country.

SIMON: Is part of it because we are increasingly not only getting our news from different silos of information, and sometimes often misinformation, but even popular entertainment? We - common forms of references are missing.

CARTER: Well, I think there's something to that. There's a sense that we don't feel as though we have much in common. But it's interesting. I don't think it's true that our politics are more hate-filled now than they ever have been before. There have always been hateful politics. It's that we engage in politics all the time, that every day is a discussion of politics - politics and the next election. And one of the ways that fractures us further is it means that for partisans, we tend to interpret every event in the terms of, how can we blame the other side for this, and how can we use this to our electoral advantage?

I would love to see a world in which, with something as serious as this deadly pandemic, that left and right alike would stop spending time calling the other names and blaming them for this and that and spend more time actually working together toward real, workable solutions that might actually calm that part of us that perhaps longs to compromise.

SIMON: Well, I'm sure people have asked you this question. What if another side doesn't want to compromise, doesn't want to be civil, doesn't want to make any concessions?

CARTER: Well, that's the problem we face today in our politics. Both sides think the other side doesn't want to compromise. Both sides think the other side is the one that's being un-American. I myself hate the idea of sides. That's - that may be the lapsed historian in me.

You know, the framers of the Constitution didn't like the idea of political parties at all. They thought political parties would be the death of democracy. And while there are certainly reasons to have political parties, a lot of the things that they talked about - about the corrupting influence of parties, about the divisive nature of parties - turn out to be true these 200-odd years later.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the more than 800,000 Americans who have died - lots of seniors, lots of people of color, lots of people in the lower rungs of the economic ladder. What did COVID reveal to us?

CARTER: Well, it revealed, among other things, that the people who are vulnerable most among our society, we don't go out of our way to protect them, and that's bad. But it also revealed something else, and here may be an example of a policy issue around which we can come together. A regulatory state - here I have particularly in mind the Food and Drug Administration - is extraordinarily slow and cautious in approving new treatments. And one can understand the desire for caution.

But in the particular case of COVID, widespread testing was available in other countries before it was available here. I'm talking about home tests. Vaccines got earlier approval elsewhere. Treatments got earlier approval elsewhere. I think it would be really good if we had a list of other governments that we trust enough that if a medication treatment is approved there, then you can have it here. We don't need - if it works on Germans, we don't have to say, well, ah, but would it work on Americans? We have to do our own testing first.

SIMON: Stephen, when we remember these times, who will you admire?

CARTER: I'll be very interested in the people who've tried to chronicle the times - the writers, the novelists, but also some of the essayists. What I hope that we'll forget, which is maybe the flip side of the question, is the amount of time that was spent explaining all the reasons that we should feel contempt and disdain for those who disagree with us. You know that, like you, I've been a long-time advocate of civility. Maybe that's in the past. Maybe it can't be recaptured. But I hope that we'll forget how badly we behaved during these terrible, terrible times.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale Law School. His latest book - "Invisible: The Forgotten Story Of The Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster." Stephen, thanks so much for being back with us.

CARTER: It's been a great pleasure, and have a wonderful holiday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.