Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in today’s (Nov. 19, 2020) New York Times, interviews Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. She asked the nation’s top virus expert “Do you think we need a national policy like a national mask mandate?”
Dr. Fauci replied: “The only reason that I shy away from making a strong recommendation in that regard is that things that come from the national level down generally engender a lot of pushback from an already reluctant populace that doesn’t like to be told what to do. So you might wind up having the counter-effect of people pushing back even more.”
When I was a reporter in the statehouse press gallery in the mid 80’s Governor Michael Dukakis pushed for a mandatory seat belt law that was compared by some people to mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists, and the warning labels that were beginning to festoon everything from step ladders to packs of cigarettes. Dukakis wasn’t a charismatic man of the people like Tip O’Neill. Dukakis was as charming as a book keeper at a funeral home, but he argued like a true technocrat that the cost to society of an unworn seat belt made it a matter for the commonwealth to step in and enact yet another law to relieve the rest of us from higher car insurance premiums and rising health care costs caused by some uninsured hog rider who wasn’t wearing his brain bucket when the back wheel of a semi rolled over his head.
I grew up riding in cars that didn’t have seat belts: big Plymouths and Buicks and Pontiacs from the late 1950s and a cute VW Beetle that appeared in the early 60s when Ralph Nader made his name with Unsafe At Any Speed. My father didn’t wear his seatbelt. Then again he also drank beer and smoked Salems when he was behind the wheel, eventually dying there one snowy March afternoon after running head on into a truck near the foot of the runway at Otis Air Force Base in Mashpee. In the 1970s new cars arrived equipped with seat belts and pressure switches and buzzers that nagged until the belts were secured. My father pulled out his wire cutters and starting ripping the devices out from underneath the front seat of his Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon where he stuffed his empty beer cans.
Back then motorcyclists were bitterly protesting the passage of mandatory helmet laws, holding loud rallies outside of statehouses and pushing the definition of “helmet” by wearing Prussian spiked pickelhaubes to freak out the citizenry as they bombed down the highway up to Laconia Bike Week for a weekend of rioting. Then life jackets became mandatory and I remember when a friend’s mother stood up at a meeting of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club and tried to propose a rule that all sailors and their crews be required to wear a life jacket at all times while racing. That fizzled when she was reminded that the only people who could propose a new rule and vote on it had to be single and under the age of 25.
Americans don’t like to be told what do by those faceless powers on high who know what’s best for them. They never have and never will. Most of us are descended from malcontents, scofflaws and miscreants who were either kicked out of their homeland for being contrarian dickheads or who fled capricious rules and taxes for the promised land of rugged individualism: America. In the earliest years of the new nation, tenuously glued together by a lofty Constitution but still figuring out specific laws, the notion of an omnipotent central authority — whether a king or a committee — made for a vigorous debate between those who demanded they hang onto their local authority and the priority of states’ rights over those of a central Federal overseer. That debate still rages, and has been a common thread of contention for most of American history, never more stark than the antebellum years of westward expansion and the wrenching debates over whether or not each new state would be for, or against, slavery. Hence the infamous Missouri Compromise and the nation’s gradual descent into outright rebellion and succession as the southern states exercised their right to kick up a fuss and follow their own drumbeat.
So how did masks become an icon for civil disobedience and the greater good? I wear a mask in public (one of those neck gaiter things) and I put it on whenever I enter a store, go into the post office etc.. I also wear it during my daily walks around the village, tugging it up before I get too close to an oncoming pedestrian, then pulling it back down when I’m well past them. This simple act, visible from 100 yards away, feels to me like tipping my hat to a stranger as we stroll by one another on the boulevard. Except instead of a top hat or bowler I do it with a mask. Am I offended if they don’t do the same? Not especially. I view mask wearing as a courtesy more than a preventative, an act of sparing the other person my exhalations versus the inhalation of theirs. If I was really freaked out by the prospect of inhaling some infectious miasma I’d go full biohazard.
Would it make a difference if our lame duck President magically reversed course and issued an executive order tommorrow that all Americans must wear a mask at all times in public or risk being fined? I can see some iconoclastic rugged individuals who fly Don’t Tread on Me flags and clutch their rifles and handguns with white knuckles being very upset at the chutzpah of some Beltway bureaucrats telling them what to do. Even if the Mango Mussolini was the one giving them the advice, some people are always going to chafe under authority of any kind and get tight faced with raised hackles if told to respect that authority.
The right to be pissed off, disagree, and throw a revolution is very much a part of the American tradition. Both the left and the right alike have an abiding reverence of this tradition: to push back, to speak up, to fight the power. Thoreau, the spiritual light behind Massachusetts’ tradition of Unitarian progressiveness, the godfather of civil disobedience and nonviolence who inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King wrote : “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Henry David’s fellow Concord goo-goo — Ralph Waldo Emerson — counselled in his transcendental self-help guide, the essay Self-Reliance: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
But inevitably there comes a situation where being an obstinate individual results in the Typhoid Mary phenomenon where the scofflaw gets arrested and restrained from making other people sick. Does a guy on a Harley Davidson pose a threat whether he wears a helmet or not? Mary Mallan killed a few wealthy families with her asymptomatic typhus because she insisted on her right earn a living as their cook. Eventually she was clapped into irons and spent her remaining years in prison.
Getting back to the middle and agreeing on a common cause in America seems to be our national priority following the election. What this country needs most is a return of moderates as the governing force for compromise between the nut jobs on either end of the spectrum. Let those wingnuts on the fringe carry on their Twitter slap fights and Facebook meme wars: there’s going to be a fringe element no matter what, and all of it is bullshit as long as there are bots and sockpuppets and troll accounts with no measure of authentication.
Tune out the anarchists and fascists alike and if our future sanity means we all need to take a knee before the law or just follow the good old Golden Rule then so be it. Agree to disagree, but also understand it was a tradition in this country that led President Trump to never issue a single national policy for the pandemic. Leaving the states to their own devices is rooted in the earliest years of the republic, when America was a confederation of independently governed state. For a certain segment of society, its not the law but the presumption of distant lawmakers claiming to know what’s best for them that makes them pull a Cartman, flip them off, and say “Make me. I dare you.”
The supremacy of the individual in America versus the herd is alive and well and not going to bend a knee to the collective. Brats are going to be brats. Humor them. Be patient with them. Let them be onery.
The Left needs to confront its Nannyism and the use of over-regulation and attitudes of knowing what’s best for us, and realize a lot of people on the Right view them like a bunch of smug know-it-all nannies who are a bane on society like a toe nail fungus that persists and persists. Hell, I feel it every time I walk down the lane to the beach to use my boat. That formerly serene walk is now spoiled by dozens of signs ruining the scenery around the most scenic spot in Cotuit — Hooper’s Landing — each one creeping in over time to join the usual no-parking signs, a visual testimonial to the rise in rules and regulations that seems to have started in the early 80s when my generation turned into helicopter parents and electronically leashed our kids with cellphones. No dinghies on the beach after November 15. No dogs on the beach between Memorial Day and Labor Day. No smoking. No windsurfing. No refueling of boats. No parking. All are well-intended and were doubtlessly proposed, debated and passed by some elected town officials getting pressure from an upset citizen. But the net effect is a proliferation of rules issued by the no-fun-committee which we all must obey. The bureaucrats are winning and gone are the days when the rules were few and the latitude wide. Some people may even want more rules and more warnings stuck on their tools and ladders, but do they really give a hoot if their nightly bottle of wine might pose a threat to them according to the State of California?
The point of all this? Embrace the contradiction of being true to your self while fitting into a society founded on laws, mutual respect and a sense of common cause. Learn when its time to dig in and when its time to concede. And wear a mask, sit up straight, and eat your peas.