When we reflect on the coronavirus pandemic, with its waves of shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and social-distancing decrees, will we ask ourselves whether this was the point at which we lost our capacity to behave collectively?
Perhaps at no time in American history have so many people been so dramatically torn asunder from one another. Activities once undertaken unthinkingly as part of large crowds—from attending a concert to shopping for produce to standing in line to vote—were done remotely, virtually, or, as in that most wearisome expression, “safely,” which, more often than not, meant in the company of as few people as possible.
Of course, thanks to assorted interventions on the part of both the Trump and Biden administrations, our suddenly austere, straitened circumstances were not primarily economic but were instead interpersonal. We were asked to log onto online worship services, in which the satisfactions of congregational life were replaced by the desolation of solitary screen time, and during the holidays we were implored to limit the number of family members with whom we might celebrate. Even solemn affairs of state—say, the address of an American president to Congress or the funeral for a member of the British royal family—became parodies of social distancing, with solitary figures scattered throughout cavernous spaces.
Yet throughout it all mass gatherings never really left our consciousness—not in real life, of course, but in the movie palaces of our dreams.