Saturday, November 28, 2009


During a concert I recently attended in Vancouver, folk singer Billy Bragg made reference to Canada's "national obsession with hand sanitizer". Of course this is not far from the truth, as one cannot walk more than 10 feet in public these days without having easy access to a dispenser containing this ubiquitous cure-all for our current collective germophobia.

It would seem that when faced with immense circumstances beyond our control we seek to alleviate our overwhelming anxiety and feelings of helplessness through simple measures that offer comfort.

This happened during the height of the cold war when the threat of a large scale nuclear conflict seemed like a real possibility. One response to this threat was to teach school kids to hide under their desk, and to encourage citizens to "duck and cover " (just before they got vaporized).

Now, with scary globalized pandemics making the rounds we find comfort in keeping our hands sanitized at all times and by replacing the once common victory "high five" with a knocking of the elbows. Air borne viruses be damned - we all have clean hands and won't even touch each other for one slapping half second!

Of course I am also thankful for public health officials who have offered advice around the possible swine flu risks for your children when visiting with a shopping mall Santa this holiday season. I always knew there was something sinister lurking behind that fake white beard, and now at least every child who has screamed in terror at a mall Santa can feel justified.

When Billy Bragg made his hand sanitizer comment he took it a step further into the political realm, using it as a metaphor around Canada's general approach of trying to keep it clean on the international stage, including "washing our hands" around taking any leadership on the issue of climate change.

One could argue that our obsession with hand sanitizer is a natural extension of the Canadian ethos; we like things neat and tidy and don't want to get riled up about anything. We often engage in sanitized discourse in the public realm as well, avoiding having real conversation about complex issues in the name of keeping it unoffensive.

Reality is complex and demands messy conversation about messy problems. We need to be daring enough to give name to the increasing levels of complexity that surround us. I also aspire to achieve this in my personal life and I am therefore waging bloody war against my well ingrained anglo-saxon tendency to hold back at times in the name of not rocking the boat and being polite.

As the years progress I see more urgency in keeping it real and I have started to realize that the world won't end if I let out what is really going on inside of me. I don't want a sanitized and sterile life.

Come join me if you dare in my call to arms and commit to the noble cause of NOT keepin' it clean.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

It takes a certain courage to pull off a no bullshit approach to life, as you are proposing. Fortunately it is one of those things that become easier the older one gets. On the flip side, however, it's all too easy to be written off as a crotchety old coot.

Allison said...

I have to agree with Barb, the no bullshit attitude is something that really does become easier with age and something I've noticed in myself recently. I also think we've gotten so used to "sanitizing" ourselves in public that it often seeps back into home life and you can find yourself keeping mum to avoid a mess, which is not good either.

Great post!

Westcoast Walker said...

Hi Barb - you would never be a "crotchety old coot" in my eyes, always a "refined Zombie" from my point of view.

Allison - thanks for the thoughtful comments - I guess picking your battles can be a wise move at times, still though, I often think of 100 things I wanted to say afterwards.

Randal Graves said...

What's wrong with being a crotchety old coot? Damn whipper snappers, get off my lawn. I'm not sure if hand sanitizer is as ubiquitous down south of you, but it's almost a cottage industry.

I figure since I handle books that have been handled by others every day and haven't been stricken with the Black Death yet, no worries.

Liberality said...

But it is so nice to be nice! I am sick of the polarizing rhetoric between the haves and the have nots in this country.

Revolutions, however, are not known for being nice.

Westcoast Walker said...

Randal - glad to hear the plague has spared you - books can be pretty yucky germ factories sometimes. I never buy use bathroom readers or coffee table books for that reason.

Liberality - you are one of my inspirations for being direct and to the point - there has been some great unsanitized political rants in your blog over the last few years.

Dale said...

I'm soaking in sanitizer right now and even being Canadian, I refuse to apologize -- sorry! :-)

PPLIC said...

Nice article. very interesting, thanks for sharing.