We ‘Stay Safe’ and Dissolve Our Firmer Virtues

May 4, 2020 Updated: May 6, 2020


“Stay safe” is the emetic phrase of the moment, the treacly talisman of trite wokeness. No communication from your gym, your grocer, your haberdasher ends without that imperative, nor does any official telephone call.

Everyone is calling for “virtual” gatherings, even “virtual” cocktail parties.

Invitations to such up-to-date exercises in voyeuristic self-indulgence invariably admonish us to “stay safe” just as, once upon a time, we were all invited to “have a nice day,” itself a bland if slightly anxious diminutive of “Godspeed” and the like. The point was to mingle maximal inoffensiveness with minimal effort. The effect seldom rose to the level of actual hypocrisy, though the aroma of mindless cliché did cling to its emission.

In truth, I found “Have a nice day” only mildly irritating. It seems to have infuriated the literary critic Paul Fussell, who somewhere noted that he always countered it with, “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

“Stay safe” is a little different. There is the alliteration, for one thing, which makes it slightly more emollient. But there’s also the nimbus of medicalized concern or pseudo-concern. The utterance “stay safe” is only partly directed outward toward an individual or group of individuals about whose actual safety, in however attenuated a form, one wishes to profess solicitude.

Much more important is the complex inner-directed aspect of the expression. At bottom, it’s an inexpensive form of virtue signaling, attesting to one’s sensitivity to the amorphous but ubiquitous threat of our latest Chinese import, the nasty bug known variously as the Wuhan flu, the CCP virus, or, for the aspiring epidemiologists and science reporters among us, “COVID-19.”

“Stay safe”—because I care. “Stay safe”—because we are all potential victims of the most dangerous plague in memory.

“Stay safe” is also an affirmation of solidarity, which means that it functions as a convenient shibboleth, a linguistic token whose purpose is as much exclusionary as inclusionary. We sheep are here on the side of the caring ones; over yonder are the goats who deny the instant but apparently nonstop emergency we have diffused throughout our society.

I have several times noted that it will be quite some time before we can tot up the final cost of the corona crisis. I suspect that the most terrible cost won’t be in lives lost—terrible though every lost life is. Nor, I suspect, will the biggest cost be economic, although that’s likely to be incalculable and far more damaging than we yet know.

I think the biggest cost of this crisis will be to our cultural self-confidence, our fundamental understanding of who we are.

The spiritual declension from “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to “stay safe” is torturous and depressing. It is the distance from George Washington at Valley Forge to our current disposition of “sheltering” or, perhaps more accurately, quivering in place, face mask and hand sanitizer at the ready.

We’re under orders, of course, and we complain but weakly when the police show up at a single mother’s house to issue her a citation because she allowed her child to play with other children. House arrest is irritating, but there is comfort in sharing our oppression and insisting that by abandoning our liberty, we are battling an insidious disease and are therefore virtuous people.

Responding to something else I had written recently, a friend sent me this stunning passage from Milton’s Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

That has some pertinence to our current cowering posture. But perhaps even more relevant is Nietzsche’s depiction of the pitiful creature he calls “the last man” in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

“‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

“Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. … A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.

“One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful, lest the entertainment become too harrowing. …

“No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse. …

“One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

“‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”

The signatories of the Declaration of Independence, citing the “long train of abuses and usurpations” practiced by King George III upon the colonists, pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to secure liberty.

What would they have said, I wonder, if some public health officials, backed up by the police power of the state, had cautioned them to close up shop and huddle inside their houses indefinitely. I am pretty sure that their response wouldn’t have been, “Stay safe.”

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.