Anyone who has ever acted on stage knows the difference between a full audience and a light audience. Even when lights blind the eyes to their presence, even when they are silent, they are there. It’s like the difference between driving a box truck full of furniture or one that is empty and almost weightless. Theater, sports, movies, and church are all driven primarily by an ancient desire to be in each other’s proximity.
President Trump made some waves last week when he rejected the idea that the United States would enter some kind of “new normal” once the Chinese virus has run its course. Asked about the possibility that in this cowardly new world, would social distancing would remain, Trump had this to say:
“Oh, that’s not going to be normal. There’s not going to be a new normal where somebody has been having for 25 years 158 seats in a restaurant and now he’s got 30 or he’s got 60 because that wouldn’t work. That’s not normal. No, normal will be if he has the 158 or 68 seats, and that’s going to happen and it’s going to happen relatively quickly, we hope.”
He went on to proclaim that if Alabama football games had 100,000 fans in attendance before, they will have 100,000 fans in attendance again. It’s the right tone and the right policy. During these almost two months of social purgatory, a kind of fatalism has set in among the right sort. “Of course things can never go back to the way they were,” we are told. Nonsense.
By the 4th century BC, the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis in Athens could seat 17,000 people. Mind you the best estimates of the total population of Athens at this time was a mere 150,000. The Athenians built this massive structure that could fit over a tenth of their population for the same reason we build football stadiums and movie theaters. It is to be together, with others, to foster a sense of community and friendship, without which civilization is not possible.
The point here is that mass gatherings and physical intimacy are not some luxuries of the first world modern age, but rather universal and a priori conditions for human society. An atomized future in which we all hole up in our cubbies and have cocktails on Zoom not only sounds horrible but will not happen. Put simply, Americans will not live that way.
The most dangerous people in America today are not the protesters defying social distancing to get their lives back to normal. The most dangerous people are those who say we will never return to normal, and that they have the new rules all picked out for us. No thanks. For many progressives the virus is like climate change on crystal meth, a fast moving emergency that requires the government to seize power from citizens.
There are certainly lessons and opportunities to be gleaned from this bizarre experiment we have all been thrust into. Working from home, new forms of education, tele-medical services, fine, good. But two months ago we were packing bars and ballgames, we were attending baby showers and funerals, spreading germs willy-nilly at EDM shows. All of those things must come back and they will.
If understandable fear is what drove Americans into their homes and succeeded in flattening the curve of the virus in our country, then it is courage that is needed to see our way back to the lives we left behind. The ancient rites bequeathed to us and which we bequeath to our children is a chain that must not be broken. Society cannot long survive social distancing.
In a time of so much death it is appropriate to mourn those we have lost. It is not appropriate to mourn our society and culture as if it too will never return. It will return, not because the NBA needs money, or because the restaurant industry will collapse, but because we are human and we need to be loved, we need to be with one and other.
Death will play its sinister trick on all of us one day. But it is not undefeated. Death has never conquered humanity. Even in the darkness of death’s most ominous shadows human beings take strength in each other. Together we preserve all that is wonderful. We must not surrender to a dehumanizing “new normal,” but bravely go forward and claim our lives and society back.