opinion | TOM KEANE

A break, too brief, from us vs. them

President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie talk with hurricane survivors at a New Jersey community center Wednesday.
President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie talk with hurricane survivors at a New Jersey community center Wednesday.

Sandiphilia is the condition of feeling empathy for one’s fellow man and woman, brought about by a catastrophic storm that takes lives and destroys property. It has been on full display for the last week and — at risk of sounding callous — one almost wishes events like this could happen more frequently, if only to remind us of our common humanity. It has also been a welcome respite from this long political season of us versus them.

It once was the case that great leaders could bring us together as a people. Now it’s weather forecasters. As Sandy morphed into Frankenstorm and then into Superstorm, it was to them we turned, with their blue screen graphics, clever storm logos and hyperventilating predictions. At first, we watched with skepticism, knowing the demands of ratings give television stations great incentive to hype even the most trivial of weather events. But the relentlessness of the bad news and the confirmation by less biased sources — such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — ultimately proved persuasive.

And so, like lemmings, we rushed to grocery and hardware stores for provisions and then hunkered down, waiting in the midst of mostly blue skies for things to turn ugly. We coordinatinated with work; if we were lucky, bosses told us to telecommute.


It wasn’t only television that drew us together. So did social media. “Off to Costco for some supplies,” would read one Facebook post and quickly would come the replies: “Be safe,” “Be safe,” “Be safe.” Twitter would relay almost instantly (and sometimes inaccurately) every unfolding event as Sandy slowly came ashore. Pictures were everywhere, from camera uploads to YouTube videos to reporters standing knee-deep in flood waters (do they stand anywhere else?), their words incoherent from the wind’s roar.

Get Truth and Consequences in your inbox:
Michael A. Cohen takes on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the current political moment.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

There was a mutuality to our concern. We were worried not only for ourselves but for each other, not just the neighbors across the street but the strangers in distant towns. It was a worry without regard to political or any other affiliation. And our politicians worried too. From city councilors to members of Congress, they all sent out e-mails letting us know they too were concerned. Again, “Be safe!”

Campaigning stopped. Politics receded and government emerged — the practical stuff of organizing, managing, and responding. It’s easy to be cynical about all of this: Even when a politician is not acting political, runs the thinking, that in and of itself is acting political. Maybe. But sometimes motives matter less than actions, and this was one of those occasions. The president acted appropriately, so too did Mitt Romney and the governors and other officials of the many states targeted by the storm (the lovefest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Barack Obama was particularly striking). After all, though, they’re elected to do a job and this was their time to execute. And for the most part, it seems, they did well. In all likelihood, the lessons learned from previous disasters — especially Katrina — along with better weather prediction and better communications (thanks to advances in computerization and the Internet) meant that lives were saved.

Even now, with the storm long gone, residual feelings of camaraderie remain, driven largely by sympathy for the plights of New York and New Jersey residents. But the conflicts drowned out by the storm have re-emerged. Obama and Romney are back on the trail. Two days from now we will be reminded with a harsh jolt that Sandiphilia was at best temporary. Half of us will support one candidate, half the other.

Some elections seem to resolve issues, to shift the country on one course or another. That was true of FDR’s election in 1932 and true as well (albeit in a different direction) of Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. Even Obama’s win in 2008, with its illusions of hope, seemed to bring us together. This election will not. The triumphalism of the winning side notwithstanding, the outlook on Wednesday will, I suspect, be grim. The losers will be embittered, the nation still divided.

Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.