Eighth in an ongoing series, “Notes from a Plague-Time”
“Only a good thing can be abused,” goes the old French proverb. A great and good thing — the fierce independence that drove American revolutionaries to break with the English king 244 years ago and powered us onto the world stage as Exceptional Nation — is being abused, badly, and distorted into a life-threatening mutation of its original motive force.
With so many Americans refusing to don face masks in this perilous coronavirus pandemic, and with the infection rate in the U.S. breaking world records for (at this posting) the 29th day in a row — reaching now more than 57,000 new cases confirmed per day (also here) — America is now Exceptional Nation in the worst possible way. We are “winning” a race we don’t even want to be in, much less win.
Yet a critical mass of Americans, citing their constitutional right to individual freedom — “I’m an American, I can do what I want to” — refuses to play by this virus’ rules: Mask up when in public, wash and sanitize your hands, and socially-distance.
As states reopen their economies and as too many Americans, after sheltering in place for three months, party hearty — meaning: mask-free (also here)— this staggering infection rate threatens to reach what Dr. Anthony Fauci, respected voice of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, fears could be 100,000 new cases per day, as he testified recently to Congress. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is bringing the virus under control; the European Union now bars Americans from traveling to the Continent, precisely because the U.S. is now the world’s viral “hot spot,” with 133,000 deaths to date.
To be sure, a virulent pre-existing condition — political polarization — complicates this selfish interpretation of individual freedom. Liberals might be expected to be the abusers, being liberal, but it is the conservative bent of mind — anti-government, anti-science, anti-intellectual, pseudo-religious — that is proving the ultimate abuser of individual freedom, thus threatening to destroy the nation and all of us with it.
Oddly, for all their independence, conservatives sound alike, reflecting the ideo-speak of long-time Republican strategist Alex Castellanos in castigating Democrats: “Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite: smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.” Fox News babbles about “the medical deep state.” The Denier-in-Chief, Donald Trump, denies not only the utility of masks, but even the virus itself.
In response to this madness, Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has stated a position not often heard on the campaign trail: “I believe in the Enlightenment, Newtonian physics, and the Age of Reason.” It is science (a vaccine) and reason (the antithesis of Donald Trump) that will save us, if anything can.
One would think that, in a life-and-death crisis, the Life Force would kick in for recalcitrant conservatives and show the way….
Perhaps only death can penetrate the anti-mask mindset. Take for sad example Thomas Macias, 51-year-old California truck driver, who after sheltering-in-place for months went to a party without a mask — and contracted COVID-19. Before dying he posted to Facebook: “This is no joke. If you have to go out wear a mask and practice social distancing.” Don’t be an “idiot like me,” he wrote, adding: “Because of my stupidity I put my mom and sisters and my family’s health in jeopardy.”
In addition to Mr. Macias’ dying counsel to wear a mask, it is his social note — “Because of my stupidity I put my mom and sisters and my family’s health in jeopardy” — that I emphasize here: the citizenly and moral consideration of the larger family, your fellow Americans.
To counter the viral wildfire tearing through the country, some states are finally mandating the wearing of masks in public and, acknowledging they reopened their economies too soon, before the virus was quelled, are slowing their reopening or even shutting down again. All of which will wreak havoc with the reopening of schools just two months away — not to mention the continued viability of America as an economy and a nation (also here). All those months of citizens sacrificing and sheltering-in-place? Wasted.
Question to the party-goers: Was the party worth it, really?
I could expound here on the need for the party-goers and the recalcitrant conservatives to grow up, or the need for American democracy to mature beyond the exclusionary (and death-dealing) pursuit of individual freedom and expand the horizon to the commonweal. I could go into the psychology of not wearing a mask or try humor to bring the resisters around.
But, no: Instead of a treatise, a public-service announcement is called for. To cite the headline of a recent New York Times editorial:
Image: Plague doctor, circa 1656, during bubonic plague, Rome. N.B.: The doctor wears a mask.