We heard a story once about a woman who was in a restaurant when another customer began to choke on his food. She turned to a companion with great urgency and said, “What’s the name of that maneuver again?” We thought of that just the other day because it seems likely that soon, if not already, there will be a selfie app that puts a face mask on profile pics; and that this will occur well before people know where they can get actual masks to wear when they go out in accordance with universal recommendations. And while we are at it, how long will it be before people are ordered to wear masks?
This put us in mind of Turkmenistan, which probably ought to be called Backwardistan. Under the august leadership of dictator, dentist and rapper Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it has seen fit to deal with the domestic incidence of the novel coronavirus by banning the use of the word “coronavirus” in all state-controlled media, which is nearly all Turkmen media. To show Berdymukhamedov means it, Turkmen plainclothes police have arrested people who mention the pandemic or wear face masks in public. This is a good reminder that while many of us may wish for an orderly, disciplined and constructive response to the pandemic, such as ordering everyone to do the right thing, authoritarianism is no end in itself.
Across the Atlantic, it is becoming an anarchic time, which in some ways suits Americans, or at least feels familiar. As we eye strangers ever more warily – who are these other people in the grocery store? – “Don’t Tread On Me” becomes “Don’t Cough On Me.” First we avoid eye contact and soon, we are building barricades at the ends of our streets.
We happened to hear Emily Niehaus, the mayor of Moab, on the public radio program “Here & Now” last week. Moab has shut down all lodging and camping, hoping to discourage people from thinking they can hide from the disease, or just escape a city, in the Four Corners. “People thought their social-distancing hack would be to come and camp in Moab, and all of a sudden the toilet paper was gone from our shelves,” Niehaus said.
Asked by the host, in Boston, how far she was willing to go to keep them out, Niehaus laughed. “We’re still the wild, wild West out here,” she said. “We are a valley. There is one entrance from the south and one from the north. I’m not going to say that the shotguns won’t come out.” But, she said, by all means visit Moab when this is over.
It’s not just Moab. Up at Vallecito Lake, residents of the small community have set up a neighborhood watch, one object of which is to watch for outsiders – such as people from Las Vegas, one resident explained, who might go into stores and buy up supplies.
We are dealing with the threat by breaking into our smallest possible units when we are not altogether isolated. That may be natural, but it is not much of an argument for socialism in a storm. When the economy was good, the socialists were told their timing was bad; when it’s in free-fall, they’re likely to be met with shotguns at roadblocks. No one wants to hear about solidarity when the shelves are bare.
We still don’t know how we will emerge from this but it now looks as if we have a period reaching into the summer, at least, when we will learn to avoid anything like a mass gathering, including a political rally. We will have to reason with ourselves instead.