Parsing the prose of the pandemic

David MoonBlog

The phrase “social distancing” is a horrible misnomer. What authorities are encouraging is physical distancing. Or antisocial positioning. But “social distancing” is an oxymoron, much like “jumbo shrimp” or “fire department.” Where is George Carlin when we need him?

I miss the phrase “flatten the curve.” For a while, it was everywhere. It has fallen out of favor with the media and authority class. Mission creep has morphed that logical, easy-to-understand term into something analogous to “you are a selfish science denier if you want to go back to work or question the ever-changing and often contradictory advice of the exalted experts.”

But my least favorite pandemic phrase is “new normal.” Significant shifts in societal norms take time to develop and are only identifiable with hindsight. After 9/11, demographers, writers and amateur pontificators promised a new normal. People were going to be kinder and more patriotic. Instead, we got Donald Trump and Colin Kaepernick. In general, 9/11 produced only a few marginal changes around the edges of social norms, such as walking barefooted in airports. For most of us, other than longer security screenings, post-9/11 life looks an awful lot like pre-9/11 life.

My guess is that the same will be true for pre- and post-pandemic life. I don’t expect a mass exodus of downtown apartment dwellers to the country, nor do I expect masks and increased home cooking to become or remain commonplace. Maybe people will wash their hands a little more frequently, but I’m willing to bet that shaking hands is not a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, the experts promise us a new normal.

Columbia University professor Peter Coleman has already written a book describing how this coronavirus will “break America out of a 50-year plus pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization.” Uh … probably not. While our desires in fighting the pandemic are truly common, we have managed to uniquely polarize the situation in every way.

Tom Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He writes that this pandemic will cause a “return to faith in serious experts.” Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo now admits “we all failed” at projecting COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations. Until “the serious experts” admit their mistakes and stop blaming skeptics for their flawed models, I suspect their credibility has no chance of improving.

Some already developing trends are being accelerated. The 1960s promise of widespread use of video phones has finally Zoomed into reality. Delivery groceries may be gaining a foothold. Medicare will pay for telemedicine doctor visits. These and other marginal changes are certainly occurring, but, in my opinion, those types of marginal improvements are likely the extent of the new normal.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.