“We can dance if we want to,” sang Ivan Doroschuk of Men Without Hats in 1982. “We can leave your friends behind / ‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance / Well they’re, no friends of mine.”
The song seems to be enjoying renewed popularity on classic hit radio lately, and its lyrics perfectly describe both the mass hysteria of the last 18 months and the polarization among Americans over the meaning and importance of “safety” in the age of COVID-19.
That trend has a tail dragging back into the past. How far? I’m not quite sure. But as early as 2016, students at Emory University broke into protest over being made to “feel unsafe” (one of the protesters’ exact words) by, of all things, sidewalk chalk. Specifically, sidewalk chalk slogans supporting one of that year’s presidential candidates (I’m sure you can guess who).
Recently a friend told me that, because the COVID-19 vaccine he received (Johnson & Johnson) might not be highly effective against the Delta variant, anyone not wearing a mask represents a threat to his life.
I believe he believes that. Not because it’s true, but because “feeling safe” has become an all-consuming obsession that trumps science, common sense, and often even pre-existing and seemingly strong ties of friendship or family.
I’ve watched long-time acquaintances break with each other on social media over such issues as mask and vaccination mandates, sometimes even over disagreements as to what this or that particular disease statistic portends (“if they don’t dance / Well they’re, no friends of mine”).
The COVID-19 Safety Dance seems to have less to do with actually “being safe” than with “feeling safe.” In fact, it arguably has less to do with “feeling safe” than with obsessively finding reasons to continue “feeling unsafe” whether the feeling is justified or not.
In that respect, the COVID-19 Safety Dance has a lot in common with St. John’s Dance and St. Vitus’s Dance. For nearly 300 years, between the 14th and 17th centuries, groups of people in Europe would occasionally break out in mass hysterical dances and just boogied day and night (sometimes in the direction of shrines to the aforementioned saints) until they collapsed from exhaustion or injured themselves too badly to continue. Sound familiar?
Early in the pandemic, both US Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease informed the public that “the science” doesn’t support masking as a way to reduce the spread of viral disease.
Within weeks, though, both turned tail and ran headlong away from “the science,” acquiescing to the political imperative of mandating something, anything, that might make people “feel safe.”
Many, perhaps most, Americans, spent the better part of a year wearing masks as visible symbols of their piety and devotion to the Cult of Feeling Safe, in between ritual baths in hand sanitizer.
After more than six months of widely available and seemingly pretty effective vaccines, many Americans are still looking for excuses to keep dancing.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.