If you were paying any attention to the wider world around you exactly a year ago, you would have known about the arrival of COVID-19. It was then something happening in faraway China and appeared to be no worse than the famous bird flu. There was also at this time in the West the predictable talk about how this trouble could be pinned on the Chinese habit of eating things that should not be eaten (bat soup, Pangolin soup, and so on). This is the kind of story the West likes to tell itself when ever possible because it universalizes and hides the outright accidents and bizarreness of its own dietary habits.
But when COVID-19 cases surged in Italy and Iran at the end of April, it was clear that the virus would do the exact same thing in the US: infect and kill lots of people. And it did. And then there was a lockdown, and a whole new set of social rules were encouraged (rather than imposed) by public health officials: social distancing and wearing masks in public places, the regularly washing of troublesome hands, the wearing of gloves, the banishing of hands from eyes and nostrils, and the fastidious disinfection of public and domestic surfaces. By June, it became clear that the virus's main mode of transmission was orally exploded and sucked-in droplets, and the messaging from public health officials placed new emphasis on the effectiveness of social distancing and masks.
But as we approach the middle of January in 2021, however, we still find even in Seattle, a supposedly enlightened city by most measures, a good number of urban people of all colors behaving like bumpkins when it comes to adapting to this new and possibly long-lasting regime.
Here is an example of what I'm getting at: Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, the worst possible thing you could do on one of Seattle's public escalators was, when moving upward or downward, not stand on its left side and free the space right beside you.
Listen to how I howled about it back in COVID-free 2017:
Go to the Capitol Hill Station or University of Washington Station at any time, and you will find urban minds that are really with it. But Westlake Station has nothing like the geist of these stations, save in the morning, when people are heading to work. By 11 a.m., a powerful denseness falls on the station like a thick fog on a forest. Couples display their flat and vapid feelings of love by holding hands, side-by-side, on the escalator; luggage is accorded the same status as a person or a lover; and there are just a bunch of individuals bouncing around and not making much progress.
All of this sort of feeling and insistence can today be thrown right into the bin. To borrow the words of UK grime rapper Skepta: "That's not me [any longer]." The new dispensation is this: Do not pass anyone on an escalator. You must claim one of the moving steps only when safely away from the person ahead of you. The step that rises to you at the bottom machine or the one that descends when you approach the top is the one that takes you all the way up or down. You can even share this step with a friend. That's your business now. But do not move until the ride is over. Yes, that's how it works in 2021. Sorry. Those who want to hold a lover's hand up the escalator are free to do so. But stay away from others on this moving machine and stay on your step (shared or not).
See how much things have changed? It's just breathtaking, isn't it? But there's more.
In the new order of behavior, bringing a dog into an essential business such as a supermarket is far better than bringing an unmasked or shielded baby/toddler/child. For one reason or another, parents, even masked ones, feel it is perfectly normal (normal according to the new pandemic social rules) to bring an unmasked baby/toddler/child into public places. Sorry, but that's not how it works anymore. And I very well know this rule is not without its problems—for example, it disproportionately impacts women. But what are we supposed to do? Something must be figured out about the child (a mask, a pram cover) before a parent can enter a public situation. A dog does not have to wear a mask.
And then there is bantering. Americans love to banter. To use the words of the US rapper Kendrick Lamar, it's a part of "[our] DNA." Recall how in Kazuo Ishiguro's splendid 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, the American, Senator Lewis, tries to teach his butler, Mr. Stevens, how to banter.
Indulge me by reading the butler's response to this training:
Embarrassing as those moments were for me, I would not wish to imply that I in any way blame Mr Farraday, who is in no sense an unkind person; he was, I am sure, merely enjoying the sort of bantering which in the United States, no doubt, is a sign of a good, friendly understanding between employer and employee, indulged in as a kind of affectionate sport.
This form of empty talk somehow greases a significant part of US sociality, which is framed by the pronounced emptiness of American capitalism. And I think we can find in the latter the reason why the volume of the former is often overly loud. But banter in the age of COVID-19 is no longer just a grand old waste of American social time. Now it offers the virus more access than otherwise to move from one body to the next.
The fact of the matter is that saying nothing in a public setting is much better than saying anything, even with a mask. Indeed, bantering with a mask may be as bad as that impressively popular habit that never fails to capture something like the essence of American stupidity: no-nose mask wearing. But I'm not opposed to bantering, and until very recently was opposed to philosophy's long attack on "chatter." So, I feel you. I can understand (within limits) how hard it is not to spontaneously combust the air with empty words. But this is where we are now. So, evolve.