We in San Francisco are into our third week of sheltering in place, officially. Neal and I had already been staying inside for about a week before the order. Other states and cities are finally getting on board. I know: I hate it too.
I’ve said a lot to the friends I text that I can’t wait for things to get back to normal. This usually means going to bars and restaurants and movie theaters. Hugging friends again. And if I think individually, this sheltering in place feels very abnormal. Something is wrong and off, and I feel driven to return to a time I didn’t have those feelings.
Thinking beyond my individual experience makes me see this desire as faulty and dangerous. The circumstances of everyday life were deeply strange and abnormal—funny, in the 2nd definition of the word—before the virus hit. I couldn’t understand why billionaires were allowed to accrue tax-free billions when even owning a home was increasingly out of reach for large swaths of the population. Or while environmental protections were being dropped as our summers get hotter and natural disasters happen every year.
You see it anywhere. The growing tolerance of racism in our political discourse. The reliance not on public services but rather profit-driven companies to provide people with basic needs, despite them being unprofitable. A constitutional right to own a gun but not to a job or a house. Very little of how we operate as a public, or a populace, makes sense or feels normal.
You’ve probably heard about the environmental impacts quarantine has had—clearer waters, birds returning, lower emissions—and what I hope everyone is talking about is how necessary large, strong government systems are in getting people what they need to survive and be well. I’m not talking just about the obvious need for single-payer healthcare (clearly affordable if we can just decide to pay for it), but also about the role of public health experts.[*]
In this light, I’m trying to see quarantine as a correction, a stabilization, a re-norming. This idea came from reading Deborah Nelson’s chapter in Tough Enough on the philosopher Simone Weil. Writing about the era in which Weil’s work was published in the U.S. (1940s/1950s), Nelson points to the return to domesticity the country was going through (or what another scholar she cites calls a “bomb shelter mentality”):
The embrace of normalcy—often under coercively normalizing terms—was a post-traumatic effect, the outcome of decades of dislocation, deprivation, and loss during the depression of the 1930s and the mobilization of World War II.
“Coercively normalizing” is key. It’s easy to see how one person’s norm is another person’s nightmare (if you’re happily, fervently monogamous in your marriage, just imagine state-sanctioned polygamy as the social norm to see what I mean).
Once the numbers come down, once a vaccine is available, if what results from this pandemic is a welcomed return to normalcy, whatever norms the country returns to will always only be majoritarian norms—that is, the norms of the wealthy ruling class. (And I think I’m not alone in being heartened by the growing criticisms toward the ultra-wealthy and how they’re spending their luxury quarantines.)
Instead, I’m thinking of this moment as the normal I want, even with all its disruptions and cruelties. For if the time before the virus came was normal, it’s not a normal I want to return to. In this line of thinking, I was very happy to wake up this morning to Peter C Baker’s argument in The Guardian about the opportunity this virus provides us to make a better world:
For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line – on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing – has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are “marketplace” solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like “the public good” but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days – even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens – and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.
From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus – and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.
When this normal is over, we’ll all be ready for something else. Let’s collectively insist on some useful strangenesses. And I don’t mean just in terms of income redistribution and egalitarian infrastructures. We can make New Normals in our behavior and personal choices.
I don’t want a return. I’m seeing this time as a wiping of the slate. I, like you, will be spending a lot less time inside. But I don’t think I’ll ever teach a traditional workshop class again. And I won’t let fears of being branded a creep stop me from seeking out the connection of touch I can feel I need.
Maybe what I’m doing is seeing the pandemic as a long New Year’s Eve, piling up resolutions to live better and to Manifest The World I Want etc etc. But I’m happy with that. On New Year’s Day, it’s hard not to look forward, the weight and mess of the previous year falling off you like a shedded skin.
Let’s all be remade by this time apart, and return better for each other.
- Though I also worry that this administration’s total lack of leadership during the pandemic will lead to people more affirmed that it’s only the free market (and like fucking Elon Musk) that we can rely on to save us.↵