Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British literary giant who helped to define the modern English language, once noted that people “more frequently need to be reminded than informed.” During the past year, we have been on information overload. The pandemic, politics, the election, racial injustice, antisemitism, social unrest and violence have dominated the media and saturated the national and international landscape. So, it is not information we seek.
Of what, then, do we need “to be reminded?” Without losing sight of the distinctive issues of our time, we need to be reminded that as a nation we have been through difficult times before. Natural calamities and human-caused disruptions, political and social crises have blighted the spirit and disrupted the life of the nation. We look back. We are reminded.
Some people have tried to find a silver lining to the unprecedented natural and social realities we are experiencing. There is no silver lining. There has been too much suffering, too much death, too much hatred, too much violence for there to be “hidden blessings.” We have witnessed indifference and callousness, incompetence and selfishness, conspiracy and lies. We have seen science dismissed, opportunism triumph, and politics abused.
Yet, we have also witnessed common goodness and uncommon kindness in these extraordinary times. So, perhaps we need is “to be reminded” of those individuals who have so inspired us. I propose one example: Dr. Anthony Fauci. And he is back!
One of the most trusted representatives of the medical and scientific community, Dr. Anthony Fauci, had been until he was side-lined by the previous administration, the most prominent figure of The White House’s Coronavirus Task Force since January of 2020.
Born in Brooklyn, Tony attended a Catholic High School where despite his 5’ 7” build, he was the basketball team captain. Following medical training, he joined the National Institute of Health and became the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984. He has led U.S. efforts against a series of viral diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and currently, COVID-19.
Dr. Fauci, from the beginning of the pandemic, advocated self-isolation guidelines, social distancing, PPE measures, and sound medicine. His comments were often met with antagonism and with efforts to downplay his influence by the previous Administration.
Last spring, Dr. Fauci convinced the President not to reopen the country by Easter, for which he drew the ire of the religious right. With good humor, and with diplomatic but direct language, Dr. Fauci stayed true to his message and warned against a “false narrative [of] comfort…” and the dangers of “false complacency.” He challenged the suspicion of evidentiary science by many in the administration and resisted the politicization of public health.
Speaking at a Johns Hopkins University’s commencement, Dr. Fauci encouraged the graduates to: “…stay strong and unflinching. The country and the world need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character.”
What can we learn from a person so brilliant, who can speak with full command of his subject matter with clarity and with modesty? How does he manage to gain both the respect of the powerful and of the public, staying true to the course and the cause, despite pressure to change his message? How does he reprove without insulting? How does he honor the truth, even when inconvenient?
Anthony Fauci’s example reminds us that at the heart of democracy is respect for truth. Fauci’s inveterate commitment to truth reminds me of a meditation which Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would often recite to open class: “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half-truths, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O, Lord of truth, deliver us.”
Jewish tradition speaks of the Lamed Vavnicks — Thirty-Six upright people because of whom the world endures. We do not know who they are and they do not know that they are, but their labors, their wisdom, their modesty, their sense of justice and compassion sustain and uphold the world. I would be so bold as to nominate Dr. Fauci for membership in this elite group, the entourage of the “36 Righteous.” But don’t tell him.
During a recent interview with The Daily, (January 27, 2021) a podcast of the New York Times, Dr. Fauci spoke candidly about the past year and reflected on his role within the new administration Dr. Fauci spoke of the “liberating” feeling of allowing scientific evidence to speak for itself. He confessed that he had “no pleasure in contradicting the President of the United States” but that when the previous President provided “anecdotal information” rather than science-based truths, he felt compelled to offer correctives. When asked if he had ever considered quitting, he replied, “Never. Never. No”. Asked about future plans, Fauci said that there is still much work to be done in combatting COVID-19 and other diseases (influenza, HIV, tuberculosis) and, “This is what I do!”
Welcome back, Dr. Fauci!
Dr. Dennis C. Sasso is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, IN.