I was idly scrolling through FaceBook the other day when I saw a post with what struck me as an uniquely American brag. A young woman proudly stated that she had just spent about two hours in a Target store brazenly unmasked, and had not been asked to leave. She saw this as some kind of personal victory, and a cry of freedom on the level of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
What a strange time we live in, when showing contempt of basic courtesy and a refusal to help protect those around you is something to brag about.
And she was not alone. One of the comments on her heroic act of defiance was about how we cannot stand by and let our freedoms be taken away from us.
Our freedom to infect others?
Seems like every day there is a new report of someone taunted, threatened, and in a couple of rare cases shot or stabbed simply for either wearing a mask, or for asking a patron to wear a mask while in their establishment (just today, a cook at a Waffle House shot).
At a time of crisis, when we should all be pulling together, we’re being torn apart. Divided into groups, politicized over temporary face covering to offer just a little extra protection for others.
Let’s be clear here about masks. Despite the chatter and noise on social media (if you don’t have anything nice to say, say it on social media), you are not taking a significant health risk to wear a mask for a brief period of time. If you are one of the unfortunate “essential” people who must wear one at work all day, then yes you do have to be careful and follow mask protocols closely.
Also, masks are NOT a magic barrier that is meant to stop the virus transmission completely. They are also not to protect the wearer – they are to reduce the odds of the wearer transmitting the disease. They are not a sign of fear. They are not a tribal marker for your political views. They are a sign of courtesy and respect for others.
I saw another post: “I guess if this mask stops a tiny virus, a chain link fence stops a mosquito”. Typical “straw dog” argument, similar to Senator Joe Kennedy who recently complained that he was not going to wear a mask in the shower.
The simple truth is that wearing some sort of face covering over your nose and mouth makes it harder to spread water droplets which carry the virus, either by coughing, sneezing, or just talking loudly. Again, not a magic barrier, but it does lower the odds.
Going unmasked in places where social distancing is hard to maintain is just a common courtesy, on the same level as covering your mouth when you sneeze, or trying not to fart in the elevator. If you choose to ignore this, fine – but don’t expect to get praise for your lack of empathy (especially in the elevator).
Let’s also take a look at this whole notion of freedom. How exactly are your rights affected by a store or mall requiring face covering to enter? Do we see armed protestors in front of restaurants with “No shoes, no shirt, no service” signs? Why not? Isn’t bare feet as much a “right” as bare face”? Do you want to eat in a restaurant where the kitchen staff feel free not to wear hairnets nor to wash their hands leaving the bathroom in the name of liberty and personal choice?
If a business establishment asks its clients to follow a rule for health and safety reasons, that does not limit your freedom. You can choose to take your business elsewhere, or you can enter if you follow the rules. Would you refuse to wear a hard hat at a construction site? Are bowling shoes an affront to your freedom to wear combat boots?
No, because your participation is voluntary. If you are denied entry because of your ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. then yes, your freedom is under assault. You are being denied because of who or what you are. But not if you choose not to enter because you don’t want to wear a shirt, shoes, hard hat, or yes, even a mask.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in the course of 75-80 years we’ve gone from The Greatest Generation to The Whiniest Generation. If you read history, it actually is pretty common. Empires rise to power, become complacent and decadent, and fall into decline. The Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Greek city-states, the Han Dynasty, are all easy to relegate to the past and declare irrelevant.
But not too long ago, Spain and Portugal were mighty powers with global influence. Once, the sun never set on the British Empire. Heck, from 1581 to 1672 the freakin’ Dutch were the biggest sea power and economic force in the world. Now they are known for tulips and cheese.
It could be that the Great American Experiment in democracy is coming to a stumbling, bumbling end. Some other country will rise to take the forefront on the world stage, possibly China or Germany, maybe even New Zealand, who knows. America will be the land of bad reality TV shows and pompous self-entitlement.
Or maybe not. Maybe we can turn things around, and learn once again how to work together for a common cause. How to make a temporary sacrifice to make our country and the world a better place for our children instead of whining about any inconvenience, real or imagined.
Unfortunately, our biggest problem at this moment is our lack of leadership in a crisis and a failure to accept science over what you wish to be true.
In the American Revolution, we had George Washington to rally around. A tall, dignified man who was by all accounts a genuinely good man, who cared about his troops and was willing to sacrifice his own comfort and fight for the idea of a new nation. Abraham Lincoln managed the seemingly impossible task of taking a nation through a bloody war and bringing it back together, walking an impossibly thin line (name another country that survived a civil war).
Although slow to get started, the US was the decisive force in World War I, and again in WWII Americans made tremendous sacrifices both at home and abroad, coming together in so many ways. Our factories and economy took up the challenge, and we emerged stronger because of it.
During the Oil Crisis of the 70’s Jimmy Carter asked us to turn down our thermostats, drive less, buy our gas on certain days of the week based on our tag numbers, and so on. We stood behind George Bush during the nightmarish time immediately after 9/11, and although I had political differences with both of them, I appreciate that they used their position to try and get us to pull together, to identify as Americans, and to be strong.
In this pandemic, we have none of that on a national level. Although some state leaders have risen to the challenge, there has been no unified national effort. Instead of being asked to pull together, we’re being divided into groups. Only in this Administration could a simple thing like wearing a face mask become a politically charged symbol, something used to divide us at a time when unity is needed.
We’ve gone into a state of extreme tribalism. People only care about their own tribe, not the nation as a whole. Even worse, there is a growing sense that you are expected to hate the other tribes. Case in Point: Senator Mitch McConnell recently said he was against any further relief to states or stimulus to the American people because it would be a “blue state bailout”.
Let’s parse that a bit, shall we? He openly admitted he favors withholding aid from ALL Americans if it means preventing aid from reaching SOME Americans that he deems unworthy. They are not in his tribe, so they do not matter. Worse, they must be punished.
The big fallacy here of course is that states are not all red or all blue. They are not all Republican or all Democrat. Not all Democrats are “liberal” on every issue and not all Republicans are universally “conservative”. To admit that you do not want to help anyone who’s viewpoint is different from yours – even knowing there are bound to be some of your “tribe” in that state hurt as well – should disqualify you from public service, IMHO.
Me against you. Us against them. They want us to fail. They lie. They hate. They want your freedoms.
People, “they” may be strangers but they are also your neighbors, your family, your friends – and “they” are all Americans. The virus doesn’t care what your tribe is. It doesn’t care what your political leanings are. It doesn’t care if you are in a red state or blue state. It doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It doesn’t care if you blame the Chinese, WHO, Obama, Trump, or whomever your pet conspiracy theory fingers.
It only wants to infect more hosts, make more copies of itself, and keep repeating that for as long as it can. Don’t make it easier for it.
I hope the American Spirit is still alive, just buried under all the smoke and mirrors. I hope that as we re-open our states and try to move forward, we recover that sense of unity we have shared before, the understanding that being an American should mean being tolerant of our differences – even embracing them as what makes us truly great.
Be calm. Be considerate. Be safe. Be healthy. Wear a mask, or don’t – but either way don’t let it become something that divides us as a nation.
I fear it may be too late. As W.B. Yeats said,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Hang on to our American convictions, and let go of the passionate intensity that divides us.