(RNS) — I wish I’d used my phone to record it. A masked man in a NASCAR T-shirt and his daughter were sitting beside me on the airplane. A woman who did not speak English was trying to fit her suitcase into the overhead compartment as one flight attendant warned that if we didn’t take our seats quickly, we’d miss connections in Dallas. Another was trying to communicate that the bag would need to be checked. Passengers glared.
The masked man stood up. He nodded to the woman with the bag, rearranged backpacks, turned wheels and fit it up top.
She said thank you in Spanish, smiling with her eyes. The flight attendant rushed to the next task, and the momentary glimpse of Solidarność was forgotten. But in the time it took for the mood of social Darwinism we expect in air travel to reassert itself, it occurred to me how the dislocations of the pandemic — the masks and social distancing, the politics of vaccines — have made scenes like this rarer and a survival-of-the-fittest morality the dominant theme.
You can see it in the trending news stories of “anti-vaxxers” getting their due. The recipe goes like this: A person was anti-vaxx, or denied the seriousness of COVID-19 or actually used their radio show to talk about government control or implanting chips. Now they are ill, or worse. When we hear of anyone who has come down with COVID-19, we ask: Did they get the shot? On Twitter a quip making the rounds says, “It started out as a virus and mutated into an IQ test.”
It didn’t begin this way. The pandemic began for me on the day I flew to Austin to spend spring break helping my parents with medical appointments. By midweek, my boss instructed us to stay put and move courses online, so for three months I stayed just outside Austin in what one friend calls Bubba Land.
Here is what I saw at the Bubba Land grocery store in those days: a woman with a basket full of toilet paper giving half her load to others who couldn’t find any. Teenagers calling elders who’d signed up for delivery to ask if they wanted crunchy peanut butter if the creamy was sold out. Women in yoga outfits and men in camouflage awkwardly doing the COVID do-si-do in the aisles to respect the 6-foot rule. Thumbs up, peace fingers and victory fists after getting everything into the truck or Mini-Cooper.
People being gracious to one another, across every demographic, trudging through this terrifying time. This was my own first time to help parents with a health emergency, so I was performing my first rodeo during a hurricane. I often sat in the car after shopping with sloppy tears of exhaustion and awe at the prosaic miracle of kindness.
What happened to those scenes?
“We all know that crap is king. Give us dirty laundry,” Don Henley sang in a 1982 hit that has been playing on repeat in my head, interspersed with the line from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
I make my living studying morality, and my work inevitably involves what people put in front of their eyeballs. By April 2020 I began seeing stories about “anti-mask” rallies, even though no one I knew personally was against masks. Nonetheless, TV news channels were looping footage of a few dozen people standing around in front of public buildings with signs like “THE CURE IS WORSE THAN THE DISEASE.”
When Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” asked Wired’s Emma Grey Ellis why she thought these small gatherings were news but not, for instance, 2020 May Day protests that drew tens of thousands of people from Europe to South America to Canada — all of them risking workplace retribution to advocate for one another’s health care, living wages and sick days — Ellis replied that the pandemic is ripe for that particular combination of creepy/strange/bizarre that draws eyeballs to a screen.
Now I am back in Bubba Land to help my parents through the surge of 2021. I do not know personally anyone gloating over someone who has contracted COVID-19 after resisting or missing the vaccine. I do know people who are scared of losing their job if they take a sick day to recover from their second shot. I know people who are afraid they’ll end up on a national registry that could lead to their deportation.
I also know people so busy working two gig jobs, while caring for beloveds, that they keep pushing the shot down their list of emergency items. There is no way to pretend that our current system is set up to help most of us get through a pregnancy, much less a pandemic.
We think we know who is not getting vaccinated, but a Venn diagram of people who suspect the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry may not have their best interests in mind includes veterans, immigrants, people who’ve encountered the school-to-prison pipeline and, yes, some women who take Blythe Danner’s daughter seriously. Mocking such a complicated situation with memes is a distraction.
As part of the first MTV generation, I learned that “psychographics” are real. The term refers to predictive marketing that connects, shifts and adapts people’s behavior. “You tell me the music people like and I’ll tell you their views on abortion, whether we should increase our military arms … their response to political candidates, even their taste in jokes,” MTV creator Robert Pittman told The Washington Post in 1982.
If people are mad as hell, drowning in dirty laundry, feeling bought, sold and divided, this has in part to do with what is put in front of our eyeballs.
Social media promised a new form of democratic populism. A Duke University colleague, in a tome titled “Empire,“ predicted that people would come together against tyrannical regimes. Despite the Arab Spring, that has not happened. Instead, we are being divided limb from limb, in my own beloved (and, at our best, really weird) democracy.
Every Republican with job security and health insurance I know personally was vaccinated as soon as their turn came up. Many registered Democrats I know personally are women, Black, white and Latina, and we have no more sick days or hours to spare. Even if we are vaccinated, we are not so proud as to declare ourselves such.
As one friend put it, forget survival. We want, together, true flourishing. It should not be considered greedy to want joy. So, at the grocery store, people will keep talking, discovering the real news and our need, in common, for systemic change. May it be so.
(The Rev. Amy Laura Hall has taught ethics at Duke University since 1999, and her most recent book is “Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)