Is anyone else reminded of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” — the widening gyre . . . the center cannot hold . . .? Forget the next verse with its biblical overtones because, before one reads that far, you’ve already got, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. That’s enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone.
The human species is locked in a cage fight with an indifferent foe. It has no fists, no fangs or claws but it is a cunning conniver of the healthy and optimistic who would doom the vulnerable. Darkly droll, abetted by the insidious curse of narcissism, it could be the Boomer Doomer slouching toward Bethlehem. “It’s one person coming in from China,” snuffled our Narcissist-in-Chief. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Well, at least he works from home.
Civilizations have overcome contagion and economic crises in the past by cooperating, forming group bonds and choosing prudent leaders. This is no time to stop, of course. But the wisest public officials responsible for safeguarding our health have ordered us to keep our distance from one another. Your life and the lives of your loved ones may depend on it. Mine too. It’s already taken us too long to get it. We can attribte that to any number of both psychological and political reasons. (There’s no excuse for the latter.) Nevertheless, all of us are answerable for decreasing interpersonal proximity in real space but no one has suggested maintaining our distance in cyberspace. Maybe we will find it easier to cope if we simply call this practice physical distancing instead of social distancing. Just a thought.
With the possible exception of writers, people are not cut out to roll out of bed and go to work, to stay indoors for days on end. And sadly, during this corona calamity, too many of us will be deprived of income we would otherwise earn from jobs that cannot be done from home. Still, previous generations didn’t have the Internet to help them avoid going stir crazy. We are all aware, now, how we can communicate with far flung and widely diverse groups, audibly and visibly with software running on top of the Internet. It not only maintains social connections in the absence of physical proximity but radically expands them. Consider this, too. The phone call is back!
Telephony, that steadfast fin de siècle technology, will not disappoint if you call your friends; no hierarchical, circuitous robotic menu will mire you in purgatory. We already know our friends are at home; so if there’s no answer (the dread of going to voicemail), well, they don’t want to talk to you. But try it. The human voice is more present, more authentic than text or pictures on a screen, and there’s no typing or uploading necessary. Surprise someone with a pleasant chat and re-experience the timbre of the human voice and the warmth of personal conversation. Ma Bell’s slogan used to be Reach out and touch someone. As quickly as the beneficiaries of your calls get over their shock, that it’s not either a grandparent or a con artist calling, it’ll be hard to get them off the line.
Sidebar: Consider downloading a hypothetical app for your mobile phone. Call it, say, “Phony.” Voices will be crystal-clear and it will never drop calls. It might offer “in-app purchases” priced at 99¢ to call outside your local area code (415, 213, 212, et al.) , except between 7pm and 6am (non-business hours) plus Saturdays and Sundays. For all the Gen Whatevers who have either forgotten or idealized the past, what a hit! Another value-added service might be a recording of your mother interrupting calls to remind you you’re not the only one who needs to use the phone.
We have to stay home, only to venture outside for meals, medical care, or to walk the dog. The only way to respect the sanctity of our neighbors’ health is to keep the hell away from them. We have learned to expect earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, floods, avalanches, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, and devastating temperature extremes. Pandemics were the stuff of history books and science fiction, like a Texas-size comet streaking toward impact with Earth. Realistically, though, we are only on the cusp of achieving public sentiment about the morbidity of Covid-19, which does not mean a consensus of public opinion about how dangerous it is. Public sentiment is not opinion but a collective understanding of what individuals need to do — and why. Absent comprehensive public sentiment, nothing can be achieved at scale. Just the other day, in Safeway, as I put my modest groceries on the check-out counter, a young woman reached over my shoulder to speak to the clerk while getting a head start allocating her hoard on the conveyer belt. “GET BACK!” I was compelled to yell at her. Maybe the hoarders can roll up their extra long cash-register receipts to use for toilet paper.
A relevant parallel, I think, is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s rolling to the rescue in a wheel chair and a white hat, in 1933, to head off the Great Depression at the pass. When Herbert Hoover’s America hit rock bottom, having eschewed deliberate and wholesale government intervention, the “vital organs of the economy were closing down,” as Goodwin put it. That was the death spiral FDR inherited. In his inaugural address he leveled with Americans, telling them they faced dire circumstances, that they had given him an opportunity to lead them to safety, and if he couldn’t get the tools he needed to do that fast enough from Congress he would exercise his executive authority as if the country were at war. Remember his words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itseld.”
He also proselytized the reasoning of philosopher William James, who popularized the concept of a “moral equivalent of war” for the previous generation. FDR ran with it. People heard him loud and clear, supported by a responsible, authoritative, and respected free press. Americans knew they had a leader with a sense of direction they could follow.
The first thing Roosevelt did was ramrod an emergency banking bill through Congress to refloat a sunken economy. Once he achieved legislative momentum, he continued to introduce the New Deal with government jobs to carry workers through the Depression and on to mobilization for World War II. Americans pulled through together, thanks to focused and pragmatic leadership. We’re hungry for that kind of leadership now.
Author and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich has written about how Americans are wired for solidarity but molded by competitive betrayal, how we crave connectedness and use it destructively. Crass and craven political leaders are blind to that tendency, or, more cynically, exploit it. Think, for example, about the naive, young, and self-indulgent hedonists we saw, on TV, crowding Florida’s beaches during Spring Break, and a governor who deliberately declined to admonish them, let alone bar them from congregating. He didn’t need an epidemiologist to tell him that this was the most efficient way to spread an exponentially growing viral infection all over the United States once those kids dispersed, traveling home.
People find solidarity in fascism and religious fundamentalism, too, as easily as any other less malignant political or societal convention; the vestiges of tribalism cling stubbornly to cultural evolution, sometimes fomenting cultural revolution. Let’s hope we don’t go there. As humorist Andy Borowitz proclaimed, in The New Yorker recently with headline stridency, “FORTY PERCENT OF NATION’S TOILET PAPER FOUND IN RICHARD BURR’S GARAGE.” And feigning the North Carolina senator’s own defense, “My wife buys all of the toilet paper in our house and has done so since we wed, in 1984. I have never been a part of those decisions, and any attempt to imply otherwise is a malicious hit job.” The real Burr mirrors the mindset of Silicon Valley’s libertarian exceptionalists: about three hundred and fifty exemplars of meritocracy will survive. Let’s fly to our bunkers in New Zealand.
Instead of thinking about physical distancing as isolation, the more inviting notion of solitude may offer consolation to some (maybe not the parents of small children) and an opportunity to appreciate mindfulness. I, for one, will meditate longer, read more, write more, listen more to music, look more deeply into photographs, and I hope I will practice playing my clarinet. When and where the perambulating citizens of San Francisco are less densely gathered, I’ll go out for walks in Golden Gate Park or Ocean Beach. It still terrifies me, though, that polling places present a new public health threat. But to suspend elections would threaten the health of the Republic. I deeply hope the companies most likely to profit during this calamity, Silicon Valley Big Tech, are working with the government 24/7 to find a less-than-easily-hackable solution to that problem, even if it means revamping the United States Postal System. In the meantime, of course, they’ve given us the option of virtual cocktail and dinner parties. At least we only have to get half dressed; showers optional.
These are threshold times; we don’t know where we will be after passing through. The upshot of arriving here is more onerous than catching one’s breath after stomping on the brakes of modernity at the precipice of a cliff. The tires haven’t stopped screeching and we just don’t know, yet, if we’re going over. After the dust settles, if the consequences of this outbreak turn out to be less than a worst-case scenario, the political, or tribal, conundrum we face is that all of those healthy optimists, the loudest, most ignorant, and most selfish ones, will vent their outrage about how we overreacted and plunged the American economy into ruin. Nothing happened! See, it was just like the flu, they will rant, instead of breathing a great collective sigh of relief. Will they ever understand that the reason “nothing happened” is because everybody else did what they were supposed to do?
At least one public official I heard on TV said, “The only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.”