Tilting at safety

By Sam Patten | Nov 16, 2020

The most memorable scene of the 1976 film “Marathon Man” binds protagonist Dustin Hoffman in a chair where he’s getting his teeth drilled by Nazi fugitive Laurence Olivier who keeps asking “is it safe?”

Olivier’s character is referring to a cache of stolen diamonds, but fast forward 44 years, and the question has broader, more existential significance. The diamonds now are your spouse, children and yourself.

Are you safe? Do you feel safe? In America today, your answer that question determines how you think about almost everything.

A September YouGov poll found that 68% of Americans who live outside big cities would feel unsafe if they lived in more urban areas. Recall, this came after Republicans made “law and order” a major theme of their campaign, with President Trump going so far as to say Joe Biden intended to destroy the suburbs.

Fear goes beyond violent crime (according to Pew, more than half of Americans perceived an uptick by August); however, especially in a pandemic, what concerns people can be even more abstract. The sense of safety becomes more elusive as anxiety runs more rampant than COVID-19 itself.

Peggy Noonan wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in May that made a big impression on me and ever since. In it, she argued that how much you worry about COVID-19 depends on how much you can afford to worry.

Professionals and the wealthy are more likely to be obsessive about the pandemic because their socioeconomic status allows, if not encourages, it. This is not to say that Americans who punch a clock are unconcerned — just that they’re not going to quarantine in the Hamptons or even Maine. Instead, they’ll go about their lives with fewer changes or fret. It fits neatly into the paradigm of a deep rift, if not a gulf, separating the country, it seemed credible.

But, reality is not so simple. Partisanship played a role, but with it came contradiction. The stereotypical Republican is well-to-do, which would make them more likely to be spun up about the pandemic were it not for the fact the leader of the party consistently played down COVID-19 fears, catching the virus in the process.

So which is more important: loyalty to class or loyalty to Trump? Of course, this is a stereotype and not all Republicans belong to country clubs.

Perception of risk is a bigger factor in how fearful one becomes. The young instinctively feel invincible and the elderly more vulnerable. So if a vaccine were released tomorrow, who would take it?

One study I read said Americans fall into three camps: a third who would roll up their sleeves tomorrow without hesitation, a third who are not ready yet, but say they will soon, and the remainder holding back further will wait and see how it plays out.

Human behavior in a time of fear is always interesting, if not sometimes depressing. As infected numbers surge, even in Maine, perceived urgency becomes more intense and impacts secondary areas of life to the virus itself.

The Daily Beast reported this week that parents at the elite Washington area school Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s children attend united in banning the President’s grandchildren, because of the old man’s “super-spreader” events at the White House and around the country.

How you react to learning this says a lot about what camp you’re in.

A professional friend in the San Francisco Bay area was recently shunned by fellow parents at the private pod where his children are enrolled because he took them to the zoo, which the small mob ruled “risky” behavior.

Almost every time I call my mother, she begins the conversation with the latest pandemic developments in Knox County and the world. I asked my father if he’d take the vaccine the moment it became available, and without batting an eye, he said yes. But aren’t you worried that Trump rushed it, I ask? No, he said, because the big drug companies wouldn’t release it if it wasn’t safe. For someone who came of age in the 60s, I thought it a remarkable statement of faith in big pharma. We seek safety where we can.

After a messy and drawn out election, people are rightly tired of hearing about democracy. Legitimate fear is healthy; some have called it a gift.

But mania is not, and often leads to a surrender of freedoms. I’ve come to like the way Nirav Shah ends his briefings — something to the effect of be vigilant but also be kind. When one group is more anxious than another, resentments build up on either side.

If each takes a moment to understand the other, it needn’t be that way.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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