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.