In a recent stand-up set, Norm Macdonald cynically stumbles through this dimension of the coronavirus crisis: “It comes at a good time when we’re all quarantined. We know how to live like that, right? We got our magic phones and computers and everything. I don’t need no fucking people. The last step between us and happiness is people.” Macdonald’s bit echoes a quintessential Larry David joke about the joy of being canceled on: “If somebody cancels on me, that’s a celebration! You don’t have to make up an excuse, it doesn’t matter. Just say you’re canceling, and I’ll go, ‘Fantastic! I’m staying at home, I’m watching TV, thank you!’” Today, Americans in dozens of states are making the same joke. “Shelter in place? Work from home? No problem! That’s what I wanted to do anyway.” The unsurprising truth is that most people would rather be cozy than culpable. Idleness has become a moral imperative.
The catastrophe part is more complicated. On the one hand, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Arguably, to some extent, we all do. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to observe that human beings are fascinated by war, death, and calamity. Like disaster movies and combat sports and blood-soaked videogames, the coronavirus crisis scratches a deep-seated, rarely acknowledged itch. The difference from spectator entertainments, of course, is that people are actually dying in the real world. When news agencies ditch the big (and sometimes misleading) numbers and instead tell human stories of affliction, the detached fascination of mediated images turns to sober appreciation of the suffering of others. Catastrophes, like train wrecks, are something to watch, whereas Joseph Stalin’s oft-quoted formulation—“the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”—pinpoints the moment when we prefer to look away.
Less forebodingly, there’s a political element to our enchantment with catastrophe. Every MAGA Trumper and Bernie Bro agrees, albeit for very different reasons, that American society is fundamentally broken. People are exhausted, overworked, and world-weary. Like draft day for a suffering sports team, our response to the pandemic represents a rebuild opportunity, and many commentators—see: a recent piece at Politico featuring the predictions of 34 “big thinkers”—are casting the aftershocks of coronavirus as potentially chaotic good. Best of all, like John Lennon’s revolution from bed but with a Slack-connected laptop, Americans can overturn the system while wearing their PJs. A different kind of change is in the air. (So are contagious respiratory droplets; please, stay at home.)
In spite of our physical isolation, there’s something nice about everyone paying attention to the same thing for once. Typically fractured into dozens of “national conversations,” American public discourse is now rallied against a common, nonhuman enemy. It’s the most coherent that our gossip and smalltalk has been in years. And the feeling of being in the midst of a real historical event is exhilarating. You’ll tell your grandkids with pride, “I was there. I lived it. It was terrible.” That you ate frozen pizzas for six weeks straight won’t be mentioned.
In today’s United States, a country seemingly in search of a mission statement, people yearn for excitement and meaning. Whatever its tragic costs, the coronavirus crisis offers both. At the same time, Americans are too-often lazy, technology-addicted homebodies. The crisis capitalizes on this paradox as well. It shows us what we are: virus-carrying creatures in a scary, mundane world, craving at once more safety and more danger.
More From WIRED on Covid-19