Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

The Great Coronavirus Non-Freakout

(Roman Genn)
Americans were ready, by gadget and by character

Pretty much every space-alien movie or television show — from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Mork & Mindy — had the same basic setup: There are aliens and spaceships and ray guns and flying saucers — these things exist — but if people discover this, the country will freak out.

Bill Bixby, the swinging bachelor in the old sitcom My Favorite Martian, hides the identity of the Martian visitor, played by veteran character actor Ray Walston, from everyone for the same reason that the little boy in E.T. doesn’t tell anyone that he’s found a real live space alien and is hiding him in the closet. Because he knows that grownups will hear this and go insane and then the government will come in and take his E.T. away.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, like E.T., is a terrific and uplifting movie, but at least a third of it is government-secrecy porn — 18-wheel trucks, disguised as just your average long hauler, bringing equipment and support to Devils Tower. Barbed wire being unspooled, black helicopters circling around, government agents tight-lipped and no-smiles, and all because they know that if we learn aliens are coming to visit, we’ll all have a conniption.

So it was weird, a few months ago, when some videos surfaced showing active-duty Navy pilots, flying F-18s, encountering some crazy nutty flying things they couldn’t identify. And what usually happens is that these videos are dismissed by the government as drones or planes or something perfectly reasonable. Nothing to see here, essentially.

But this time — and this happened a few months ago, do you remember? — this time the Navy said, Yeah, we don’t know what those were. And the audio on the tape from the pilots, where they express almost speechless astonishment — how can that thing fly that way? — well, according to the Navy, Yeah, we’re, like, freaking too.

So for the first time, video showing unidentified aerial phenomena was confirmed as just that, weird objects flying around the sky at a speed and in a trajectory that no known technology allows, and it was on television and cable news for a day, and then everyone just went back to talking about what Trump tweeted to the guy on CNN.

We didn’t freak or overreact. The country wasn’t plunged into chaos and warlordism. A weird phenomenon occurred, it was duly noted, and then we all went back to talking about celebrities. 

That snapshot tells us a lot about the American character. It also tells us something we probably already knew: Hollywood movies and television shows have a dim view of the American people. In the face of aliens — or, more relevantly, global contagion — they expect us to forget everything we know about civility and community. They expect us, at the first sniffle, to turn to black-market profiteering and to barricade the driveway, to shut the door against our neighbors, to engage in pagan rituals, to wear necklaces made of strung-together human skulls . . . 

You get the picture. And while that’s overstating it, this is undeniable: Hollywood fully expects that when the bad stuff comes, the real danger will come not from killer viruses or alien warships but from the gun nut next door and the weirdo down the street who keeps a copy of the Constitution in his back pocket.

Today we find ourselves housebound, cut off from friends, family, and colleagues, engaged in a collective action against a highly contagious virus, and so far the only mass hysteria has been that some people got nervous about their toilet-paper supply. 

But who am I to call that “hysteria”? I’m fairly certain that I have enough of those essential supplies to carry me through the crisis, but I can’t speak for you or your needs. Don’t criticize people, goes the saying, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. How do I know how much toilet paper you need until I’ve, you know, sat . . . 

You get the picture. Hollywood was convinced that we wouldn’t be able to handle this, whatever “this” is. And yes, a fuzzy and impossible-to-identify image of a certified UFO isn’t exactly The Day the Earth Stood Still. But the collective yawn from the general population suggests that we’re well prepared for when (if) the real thing comes along. Just as COVID-19 — as awful and deadly as it is — isn’t quite the killer grippe of the movie Contagion, much less the explosively bloody Ebola of Outbreak, the almost total lack of public freakouts suggests that we’re all going to be fine. We may even be more stable and calm than the folks in Hollywood, many of whom have chucked their belief in nontraditional shamanic medicine and magic jade eggs and are now screaming at their internist for an antibody test — I don’t care if there isn’t one yet! I want one! — and sending their assistant out for hydroxychloroquine, vegan, if they have it.

The American people, whether they knew it or not, had been preparing for a COVID-19-style event for a decade, at least. Americans in general (and me in specific) may be terrible at math, but everyone is familiar with the concept of a “viral video.” We’ve spent the better part of this century sharing and retweeting and forwarding videos, passing funny memes and GIFs along to our entire address book, sharing and posting “you won’t believe what happened next” content to our Facebook wall. Our timelines and social-media feeds are infested with viral content — we’re not even sure where it all came from, who sent it first, why it’s in front of us — so the idea of being touched by a virus that came from someone with whom we have the thinnest connections? We’ve been living that way since aol.com. 

And we know how to protect ourselves from it, too: log off, run antivirus software, turn the computer off for a minute, and when it’s cooled off, turn it back on. Sound familiar?

Working from home? Big deal. Our devices and software have enabled many of us to take work everywhere. The American worker has long since adjusted to late-evening emails and urgent texts from the boss over the weekend. The COVID-19 edict to work from home is, for these Americans, redundant — most of us carry our offices in our pockets, able to edit and forward and collaborate on any document, on any task, anywhere. Connectivity has already extended the working hours into the home hours — which is only fair when you consider how much time employees spend mindlessly surfing the Web at work.

The surge in videoconferencing comes just at the time when ordinary Americans have mastered the tricks to looking good onscreen. All over the country people are propping their laptops on a stack of books — when you look slightly up, you appear thinner and more youthful — and blurring the background of the home office that was, before COVID, a closet with a squeaky door and a bunch of old Swiffers. Americans have been starring in their own shows on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok for years — they are, I assure you, ready for their close-up.

Americans are ready, in general. Maybe not cheerful about it — the virus is serious business, and there are lots of tears left to be shed — but to the average American, none of this seems like something to get hysterical about. Some Navy pilots saw a UFO? Whatevs. We’ve all gotta stay in because of a deadly virus? No prob. We’re Americans, we adapt. Even if we do, somehow, run out of toilet paper, we’ll shrug and figure out a workaround.

You get the picture. Hollywood doesn’t.

This article appears as “The Great Non-Freakout ” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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