by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In 1960, John Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley left New York to take a road trip from Maine to California, as Steinbeck said, “in search of America.” Outside of Bangor, Maine, the pair stopped at a motor lodge for the night. In the motel and its adjoining restaurant, Steinbeck noted in his travel memoir, everything was very clean and “everything was done in plastics.”
“In the bathroom two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection’,” Steinbeck wrote. “Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.”
Sixty years later, I’m sometimes tempted to sympathize with Steinbeck when I walk into a Target, where a year-old sign urgently tells me to wear a mask “due to an emergency order.” Or when I walk into a coffeeshop and ask for a ceramic mug to wrap my frozen fingers around, and I’m told that a paper cup with a plastic lid is my only option. Or when politicians who break their own rules tell me, with a condescending smile, that I mustn’t hug my family at Thanksgiving or go to church or celebrate my friends’ weddings “for my own protection.”
Everything is protecting me, and yes, sometimes it is horrible.
There’s certainly a place for precautions, and I’m careful to take them when I’m interacting with elderly or COVID-conscious family members, friends, and colleagues. But some of the changes, which we’ve lived with for nearly a year now, are inconsistent, ineffective, and often flaunted by the politicians who impose them. They may also have lasting effects on what we value and what we’re willing to risk for that elusive thing called “really living.”