We used to worry about a country where people were bowling alone. Now we have ample reason to worry about going bowling at all.
The phrase “bowling alone” entered the American lexicon 25 years ago after Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published a landmark essay bearing that title. In that essay, later expanded into an important book, Putnam argued that civic engagement — membership in religious, veterans’, labor, fraternal, voluntary and parent-teacher organizations — had dramatically dropped and that late-20th-century Americans increasingly were isolated from each other.
In short, Americans went bowling alone. Indeed, one of the most prominent figures in American politics in the period — he would be mortified if his name were public — almost always went golfing alone.
“In the short term, we are required to bowl alone,” Putnam, a little stunned that his phrase had new relevance a quarter-century later, said in a conversation the other day from Harvard, only hours after the university ordered students not to return to campus after spring break and instructed professors to prepare for online teaching. “It’s a big deal, and my long-term concerns about social connectiveness aren’t relevant to the current crisis.”
There’s going to be a whole lot less social connectedness in the U.S. in the next several weeks.
Universities across the country have shut down; the president of Williams College, seven miles from a confirmed coronavirus case in Clarksburg, Massachusetts, told faculty members, “College funds may not be used for any trips occurring during this time.” Boston canceled its St. Patrick’s Day parade. The hardy perennials of presidential campaigning — kissing babies, shaking hands — suddenly are verboten. There will be no rope lines in American politics this season.
The cost of the coronavirus is measured every day on the stock market, in falling oil prices, in people’s portfolios, in empty airline departure lounges. But the cost to capitalism shrinks in comparison with the cost in social capital.
Fortunately, we never used the civil-defense bomb shelters erected during the Cold War. We now are constructing metaphorical shelters in the Coronavirus War. The biscuits will be better, the moral issues slightly less consequential — no debates about who gets incinerated in the Soviet onslaught of missiles as the helpless confront the heartless at the shelter door — but the effect is quite similar. A country where people have a hard time encountering each other in a civil manner is on the cusp of becoming a country where people might not encounter each other at all.
A generation ago — when the Boston Red Sox were hapless and Fenway Park so empty that the paid attendance for Dave Morehead’s 1965 no-hitter was 1,247 — the team initiated a promotion: “Being there is twice the fun.” Now being there is twice, or many times more than twice, the risk. That is why the NCAA is contemplating shrinking the number of sites for March Madness rounds. It may not be long before games are played with no spectators at all.
In Montreal, billboards have popped up promising delivery of restaurant meals that can be consumed without going into a restaurant. In a city where dining out is part of the local zeitgeist, that is a stab in the municipal back.
“People get lonely when civic rites are disrupted,” said Jason Opal, a McGill University historian who is writing a history of epidemic diseases in the U.S. with his father, Steven Opal, a clinical professor of medicine at Brown University. “When people withdraw into their households, there’s a big social cost, especially high if schools close. That is where people interact, where parents meet. It shrinks the everyday public space.”
We have shrunk the public space before, but never to the degree that could happen here this spring.
In the 18th century, when smallpox was a grave threat, people inoculated themselves and then entered self-quarantine. Cotton Mather, the New England Puritan minister and devout advocate of inoculation, spoke of the case of a man who had undergone a procedure that had “given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it.” Two important figures who stepped away from society for a time in quarantine — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
That was a period when it became fashionable to be presentable, at least in terms of hygiene.
“The cleanliness that was always a part of gentility was thus receiving renewed emphasis around 1800, and the fashion did not recede,” Columbia University historians Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman wrote in their classic article, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” published in 1988 in the Journal of American History and replete with examples of American griminess. They added that “the commitment to cleanliness grew ever stronger throughout the 19th century.”
Now it is a necessity, but the withdrawal from the public sphere that the coronavirus has triggered could bring on social diseases such as isolation, loneliness and depression. And Putnam, the prophet of bowling protocol, is deeply worried. Long before the virus began to spread in China, he prepared a forthcoming book arguing that the U.S. in the last half-century had moved from a “we” society to an “I” society.
“An ‘I’ society is actually less able to deal even in the short run with a crisis like coronavirus because dealing with a threat like this requires lots of people to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others,” Putnam said. “Americans today, as opposed to Americans 50 or 60 years ago, are less willing to pay a personal price for the benefit of someone else.”
Perhaps in isolation, Americans might retreat to the pastime of reading while we await the work of a modern-day version of Edward Jenner, who in 1796 developed the vaccination that halted smallpox. We might pick up Geraldine Brooks’ “Year of Wonders,” the story of the village of Eyam, where to prevent the plague of 1665-66 from spreading beyond their tiny Derbyshire community of fewer than a thousand, the population voluntarily went into quarantine. Scores died — perhaps three-quarters of them, perhaps half; there is no reliable figure — but the virus was contained.
The lesson of Eyam? “That we are in this together,” Brooks said in a phone conversation from Paris. “We will stand or fall together, because this is something we can only solve together.” Alone in this, perhaps, but ultimately we are together.