I have a rhetorical tic — which my husband mocks, and I rebrand as virtuous gratitude, which he also mocks — of expressing perhaps exaggerated enthusiasm for modern life, especially the plumbing and appliances.
I have waxed rapturous about washing machines and showers and air conditioning. These things make it possible for me to spend my workday writing instead of cleaning clothes, hauling buckets of water to a galvanized bathtub, and doing it all marinated in my own sweat. They loom in my mind as a physical barricade against the Bad Old Days, a time for which comedian John Mulaney's vision of people waking up each morning in horror of another day of wearing layers and layers of clothing and doing weird stuff very slowly is only barely a joke. For all its flaws, the modern world, for those of us fortunate to live well in wealthy nations, is different from eons past. It's easier, more comfortable, safer — better.
Or is it? The coronavirus pandemic doesn't have a role in that story, so it's unsettling all sorts of assumptions about modern life. Here are three big ones.
1. We're safe from the unexpected tragedy that haunted older eras. In 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president, his younger son, aged 16, played tennis on the White House courts wearing shoes without socks. He got a blister on his toe. A week later, he was dead of sepsis from a staph infection. "Deaths from sepsis unfortunately were quite common in Coolidge's time," explains an account of the death from the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. "Ordinary wounds, accidents, and childbirth were all ways in which bacteria could get into one's normally sterile blood." Diagnosis was relatively easy, but penicillin had yet to be discovered, and it would not be mass produced for another two decades. Knowing what was wrong was little solace.
Today, such a death is unthinkable. Can you imagine Barron Trump dying from a blister? These things simply don't happen anymore. We have tamed so many of the tempests that threatened our ancestors.
That sense of insurance against the whims of fate has rendered our present pandemic difficult to accept. Epidemics are for developing countries or the slums of Victorian London or medieval peasants. We don't have to endure such things. We're past all that.
I suspect this strong sense of dissonance undergirds much of the widespread conspiracy theorizing about COVID-19. (A nationally representative Harvard survey commissioned by The Atlantic in mid-March found three in 10 Americans believe the COVID-19 threat "has been exaggerated" or "purposely created and released.") If our assumption of our own unique safety is certain enough that the reality of this illness is inconceivable, conspiratorial explanation and its siblings — obsessive partisanship and outright denialism — will fill the explanatory gap.
It plays like the Sherlock Holmes maxim, "[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The only flaw in the logic: A pandemic afflicting us here and now isn't impossible.
2. We value life more than people in the past. Death was more familiar for our ancestors. Of course, everyone eventually dies now, just as everyone eventually died then, but now we tend to do it when we're older, with more warning, and in a more managed, medicalized setting.
Sudden death truly shocks and shakes us. We scuttle bodies away quickly to be chemically preserved by strangers, and we bury them in ornate, preservative boxes. We read with morbid fascination of ancient cultures — and not-so-ancient cultures — waiting to name children until after the worst threats of infant mortality had passed. Even our wars have so comparatively few casualties (for our side, anyway) that a single death is reported news, a practice completely infeasible in conflicts past.
We have often taken these differences to mean we value human life more than our forebears — and there are many ways in which that's true, particularly for women, children, and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. But the longer coronavirus lockdowns stretch on and unemployment claims and business closures mount, the more this assumption is straining. "Admit it," charges a recent Politico headline: "You are willing to let people die to end the shutdown."
3. Life will keep improving. This last assumption is a dearly held Americanism. It creeps into our mindsets however pessimistic our politics or apocalyptic our theology. This is why hardcore preppers — the people with bunkers full of canned goods, seeds, and medical supplies to sustain them for years after total societal breakdown — are such a curiosity if not a laughingstock: We all assume they're wrong. Whatever stupidity is happening in Washington, whatever evil transpires in world affairs, the grocery shelves will always be stocked, and my appliances will always be there, so wonderful and reliable.
Now that's not so obvious, much like how the Western world's perception of inevitable, perpetual progress was upended by World War I. Now the risk seems very real, not of mere stagnation, but of broad regression of quality of life for all but the wealthiest among us. We may come out of this with new tics, far less cheerful ones, like the strange, protective habits of our great-grandmothers, shaped by the privation of an equally unsteady time.