In the Covid era, Americans have proven that we don't value the lives of strangers.
In 2009 Cameron Diaz and James Marsden starred in a surreal psychological thriller called The Box.
The premise — lifted from Richard Matheson's 1970 short story, "Button, Button" — had already been adapted into an installment of the Twilight Zone in 1986. But writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) evidently thought he could get more out of the material.
If you haven't seen it, don't worry. For our purposes all that matters is the central conceit. Encased in a box, beneath a glass dome, there is a button that has two effects when pressed — the chosen person who pressed it is suddenly a good deal richer, and somewhere in the world a stranger drops dead.
It's not surprising that the story keeps being told. It's a classic formula. The ultimate game of "would you rather."
The audience is invited both to fantasize about how that amount of money could change their own lives, and to judge the protagonists for even considering it.
The Box (2009) Official Trailer - Cameron Diaz, James Marsden Thriller Movie HD www.youtube.com
Each version of the story offers a different a twist ending, but they all work to upend the cold calculus the characters were performing to justify why a stranger's life isn't worth as much as their own happiness. Everything is wrapped up neatly, just like what never happens in the real world.
We're reminded of the fundamental interconnectedness of life — that you can't devalue a stranger's life without devaluing your own — and made to feel good about ourselves for thinking that we wouldn't have hit the button. But that's clearly a lie.
Every day we make decisions with implications that stretch across years and miles to harm people we will never meet. That was already the case in 1970 — when young men were avoiding the draft so that others could be shipped off to Vietnam to kill and die in their place. But, of course, in the five decades that have passed since the story was written, the number and the complexity of our connections to distant strangers have ballooned, as has — in a vague sense — our awareness of this dynamic.
We have a hazy sense that a cruel comment on the internet has the potential to reach and to truly hurt its target — we shrug it off. And we know that the iPhone we use to tap out that cruelty is manufactured by miserable, exploited workers on the other side of the world — we keep buying them.
We know that every year we put off major societal reforms to combat climate change is likely to result in millions of deaths at some point in the future, and that the world we'll be leaving to our grandchildren is looking increasingly broken and dangerous — we delay.
This is the kind of selfish convenience that The Box and "Button, Button" laid out in a stark metaphor. The negative consequences are somebody else's problem — what corporations refer to as "externalities" — so we decide not to worry about it. We pretend there's nothing we can do.
Twilight Zone "Button, Button" www.youtube.com
But even as interconnected as we are, it's unusual for a situation as clear cut as The Box to present itself. 2020 offered us one of those rare opportunities to prove in simple terms that we understand the value of sacrificing for others. And we failed — miserably.
It turns that — however surreal and supernatural the whole scenario is — the most unrealistic part was the price tag. Set at $50,000 in the 1970 story, the price was adjusted up with each telling to adjust for inflation and to find the balance where the audience will feel conflict and indecision most acutely. In 1986 it was $200,000, in 2009 it had shot up to a cool million. All far too generous — too optimistic.
In 2020, the price for which people were willing to let strangers die was conclusively proven to be an uncovered mouth and nose. Because, while we can all feel righteous and steadfast in our principles when watching a movie, when actually asked to do anything at all for the people around us — some portion of American humanity immediately smashes the button.
This is the lesson that COVID has taught us all as 430,000 Americans and counting have died of a contagious disease that people refuse to contain by wearing a piece of cloth over their mouth and nose. That's all it would have taken to save tens if not hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and loved ones.
But no, our culture has so ingrained in us the idea of a self-made, independent, individualist that we can't show concern for one another or listen to experts telling us it will save lives. Instead make up excuses for why it wouldn't — becoming epidemiologists and conspiracists to avoid having our breathing slightly constrained. We act like it's a serious infringement of our rights.
And there were obviously larger sacrifices being asked. Shutting down businesses and winnowing our lives down to an asocial existence is not a small thing. But if our culture was not so determined to reject any sense of a common good or shared obligation, we might have funded people and businesses to make it through a brief period of strict, serious lockdown.
We could have prevented a huge number of deaths and avoided this protracted semi-stasis that has taken indefinite hold of our lives. And we could have paid for it all by taxing those who can most afford to give — the people whose wealth has ballooned by the trillions while so many families wonder how they will eat or pay rent.
Instead, we're so atomized that we can't even do the bare minimum — can't all agree just to wear face masks around each other for a few more months. Even our disgraced former president refused to wear them, or to state the need clearly. Either our egos are too outsized to recognize that we too can serve as vectors for spreading the coronavirus, or we really just can't be bothered to spare a thought for anyone else's grandparents.
Even if you're somehow convinced that the experts are wrong — because of what some of them said about masks ten months ago — doesn't it seem like a basic courtesy? Doesn't it seem like a remarkably easy way to signal shared humanity in a frightening time? I guess not...
COVID has exposed a disease in the American soul, and transformed the tense psychological drama of The Box into a dark, absurd comedy — mocking the true scale and the scope of our selfishness.