There is really nothing new under the sun. This ‘social distancing’ business isn’t new; it’s just another example of good old American isolationism, something that has run in our veins since our earliest days as a nation. George Washington warned us about getting mixed up in other peoples’ politics; “avoid foreign entanglements” he counseled us in his Farewell Address. I’m sure he would have added ‘viruses’ to the list of entanglements to avoid—if he knew then what we know now.
Isolationism used to refer to remaining apart from the political affairs of other countries. Nothing good ever comes from convoluted old alliances; what did we ever do to Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria of Maria, aka Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in Serbia in 1914 and dragged the world into its first Great War? And there were a lot of us who thought Herr Hitler was Europe’s problem; with an ocean on either side of our continent, why should we worry? I guess Pearl Harbor answered that question once and for all.
Isolationism isn’t by any means an all-American idea. The Ming Dynasty moved Chinese foreign policy in an increasingly isolationist direction in the 15th Century. The Japanese Shogunate enforced a policy of kaikin—limited contact with most foreign countries—from the 17th Century until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry came sailing into Tokyo Bay. Most recently, Switzerland has made isolationism—they call it ‘neutrality’—into a political art form, the international equivalent of bumping elbows with everyone else in the world. Except Swiss bankers. They are huggers.
I wonder what George Washington would think of our current plight. You know the one I’m talking about—the one that was a hoax two weeks ago and is now a full-blown national emergency. Apparently, a wall isn’t sufficient defense against contagion, and now even all those clean Canadians to our north are suspect. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the theory that this pandemic is caused by a “Chinese virus;” that’s just political spin intended to point the finger at someone else instead of owning up to our own presidential ineptitude and the resultant lack of national preparedness. Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool isolationist, you don’t blame someone half a world away for your troubles. You figure out how to deal with it yourself.
I will say this: our current isolationist moment, terrible as it is, has produced some awfully funny memes. (A year ago, I had no idea what a meme was; I’m still not 100% sure.) For example, there’s a popular new cocktail making the rounds, the ‘quarantini: it’s a martini but you drink it by yourself. A parent of twins first experience with homeschooling ended with the two students suspended for fighting and the teacher fired for drinking on the job. Spanking and prayer are both now back in our schools. I love the spoof of the trailer for the movie 1917 in which a messenger is running through the mayhem of the first World War, except now he’s carrying an enormous package containing rolls of toilet paper. Just a few days ago, I even had a friend send me a picture of a Scot playing the bagpipes under the legend “Social Distancing in Scotland.” Ex-friend, I should say.
Despite what you might think, I’m slowly becoming a convert to this new isolationism, to “social distancing” if you prefer. I’m reading more and showering less. Just a few days ago, the wee wife and I bravely took the grandkids out to a nearby park where we all skipped rocks and raced leaves in a brook. She and I have also saved a wad of dough by eating at home, although I am sensitive to the plight of friends who own and operate restaurants. I like the idea of purchasing gift cards from them: pay now, eat later.
My parents’ generation suffered through a Great Depression only to dive head-first into a World War and they didn’t even have FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, or Netflix to help them cope. In these days of isolation, I can only shake my head in admiration of their undaunted courage.
I don’t mean to make light of all this. Well, maybe I do, but that’s just me and one of the defense mechanisms I use in order to get up in the morning. I don’t know how long this nightmare will last but I do sincerely believe we’re all in together and that we’ll all get through it. However, until then, I’m going to practice my own brand of isolationism: I’ll keep washing my hands and staying in my own little lane while you stay in yours.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com