The Age of (Now Imposed) Isolation

May, 2020
Omar Alikhan, Blog Correspondent

In this uncertain, panic-inducing period, we must remain cognizant of the truths proclaimed foreign to the naturality of our high-functioning societies. No sense can be found in gun-brandishing skirmishes over reams of toilet paper. With our technological omnipotence and post-material ethical discourses, surely we have surpassed such basal manifestations of ourselves. Yet, at this very moment, when the threat of a virus seems more a theoretical danger than a personal one, the extremity of the drive for individual preservation is once more laid bare. 

Standing as a bastion of human consideration and polite progress, it does not make sense that this is Canada. It does not make sense that in the unyieldingly efficacious production machine that is China—or so we like to believe—people brawl over pieces of polystyrene. And so, confronted with contradictions between our pre-conceptions and the near apocalyptic scenes unfolding on our television screens, we demarcate ourselves from the mayhem with suitable terms; we cry pandemonium, hysteria, craziness. These are people acting so far beyond the bounds of logic and reason that they deserve only the astonished gasps and dinner conversations that such animalistic behaviour ought to receive. What we ought to recognise about ourselves, however, is more unsettling.

Let us take, for instance, the manic crowds overrunning our local grocery. Governments have given their assurances that the supply chain is strong, that the products so desperately chased are in prolific—not short—supply. We can rest assured that our natural obligations will proceed comfortably. Rejoice! Still, people queue at Walmart in the early hours of Saturday, hoping to get a hold of their precious 2-ply.

While such actions inspire—and perhaps deserve—the ridicule that they receive, they also point to the deep distrust of public governance that now pervades our societies. Recognising the corruption and continued fallibility of the politically empowered has become the norm under which we operate. The apathetic shrugs that accompany the latest presidential scandals have now seeped into public consciousness; we have come to expect nothing less of our politicians. Many have written of the need to accept this latent mediocrity. We hear, for example, that imperfect people produce imperfect leaders, and this might be true. Yet, when these imperfections go unchecked, and are rampantly evidenced by those who hold the highest seats of power in our formidable nations, these offices cannot possibly demand deference. With the loss of this respect, then, and the loss of the requirement of superiority—be it in presumed ethical conduct or in the preservation of the integrity of ruling narratives—our authorities’ claims are rendered precipitously shallow. Why should one believe, just because the chief of such and such a department swears to it, that our nation’s top experts are working tirelessly to fight COVID-19 with the fiercest regard for Canadian well-being? We have been promised great things before. We are only too familiar with the veracity of promises.

To be very clear, I do not wish to align myself with the groups that may find unending, unreasoned scepticism fuelled by “fake news” convincing, nor do I wish to advocate for governance that operates solely on the edicts of authoritarianism. It is my contention, however, that in these times of crises, the lack of public faith in systems and figures of government that have shown their incompetence all too often is made abundantly clear; with this clarity, re-invention becomes an imperative. Distrust and discord in political discourse is often praised as a sign of deliberative progress and the fluidity of free thinking, but when these divergences rupture, , and visceral threats to individual personhood emerge, we must take notice. 

In the course of pre-pandemic life, we were afforded abundant escapism. From television to ballet, and whichever of the latest raves or concerts some were hoping to attend, it was easy to avert our eyes. We could confine our temporal experience to a self-contained drama series or feel the greatest extremities of emotion watching Liverpool comeback against Barcelona, or the Raptors clinch their first ever title. As profound as these experiences can be, we are at least subconsciously aware of the order inherent to them. The season must end. A winner must be named. The fat lady must sing. And in the knowledge that she will sing, no matter how enthrallingly tumultuous the sporting or theatrical season may be, we know its rules. At the most fundamental level, we can turn it all off, and turn it back on, at will. Liverpool’s iconic manager, Jürgen Klopp, recently stated, “I don’t think this is a moment where the thoughts of a football manager should be important, between life and football there is no contest…football is the most important of the least important things.” But the reporter was compelled to ask him, as all key players in our escapist realms have been asked, what is to be done? And Klopp’s response is entirely accurate. “Football,” and replace this sport with whatever holds true for you, is the most important of the least important things,” but it is often all that directs and structures our everyday lives. It is why we look forward to Saturday afternoons, and why we live for the weekend. Strip life of its frills, of the ability to watch a match with friends, or to go to a bar/club/restaurant, to blow off steam, and suddenly we are forced to comprehend time, and truthfully realise what it was that made us steam (if you will pardon the rather elementary metaphor).

So now, with each of us facing the reality of the Age of Isolation—to use Monbiot’s terms—as our places of gathering are ordered closed and our avenues of avoidance slammed shut, we must endeavour to understand what it is that binds us. It is no longer adequate that our social fabric be stitched by transient, manufactured modes of entertainment that disappear at a moment’s notice, comfortably controlled. We must be bound by something deeper. Perhaps by contemplating what that is, upon that ethereal force that finds its actualisation during the incomprehensible ecstasy of a football match or the visceral bodily reactions to the death of a television character, a productive base for collective growth can emerge. Maybe then, public trust can be rebuilt from the fundamental societal units into which we have now been divided. Maybe then, we will be able to rethink who deserves to rule us and how we ought to be ruled. Or, more likely, we will see the issues of the day broadcast once more on our television screen as markets crash and we panic at the stifling of material production, border’s close and we taste xenophobic sentiment, and greed is laid bare as we claw at each other for the things that we so urgently “need.” Indeed, the tragic cyclicality is continually affirmed by human history, but within every stage of every cycle, I believe, lies a radical opportunity for change. I only hope that we seize it. Just once.  

Why should one believe, just because the chief of such and such a department swears to it, that our nation’s top experts are working tirelessly to fight COVID-19 with the fiercest regard for Canadian well-being? We have been promised great things before. We are only too familiar with the veracity of promises.

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