Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

Commentary

A climate of fear and righteous indignation—the two often travel together—has swept the country amid the mask mandates in many states.

As my husband and I walked to our car after mass on Sunday, a horrified parishioner yelled across the parking lot at us that we are not allowed to be outside talking without our masks on. It was clear that her objective was not to correct us but to shame us publicly.

This echoes the new directives from our Ministry of Truth that we must all wear face coverings when in public, a complete reversal of the earlier directive.

Time Magazine, one of the national arbiters and enforcers of Truth, wrote on March 4 that wearing a scarf or mask over one’s face will not help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If it could, the article says quoting Dr. William Schaffner, professor medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, “the CDC would have recommended it years ago.”

Dr. Schaffner, it turns out, quietly reversed his position on masks along with the CDC. In mid-June, Schaffner said in an interview on CNN that the reason that the United States was seeing an increasing number of COVID-19 cases is because Americans lack a “social consciousness.”

“It’s very difficult to persuade everyone to wear those masks and to behave in a prudent fashion,” Schaffner said. “So, I think, that’s at the crux.”

But just three months prior, Dr. Schaffner and others had chastised Americans for their silly and unfounded desire to wear masks. Schaffner said that Americans were wearing masks for psychological reasons, hoping to feel in control.

The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams tweeted on Feb. 29, “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Adams also said that, “Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.”

In the unenlightened days, prior to April, it was selfish and ignorant to wear a mask. Now it is selfish and ignorant not to wear one. Forgive me for questioning the motives of my mask overlords.

The science, as of July, is at best murky, with many studies suggesting that widespread mask use is not effective. There’s evidence, and has been prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, that N95 and surgical masks can help stop the spread of large droplets containing viral particles.

However, there has yet to be studies confirming that cloth masks—those that are mandated in certain states—help prevent the spread of the virus and that they prevent the spread by asymptomatic people. These two factors are crucial in determining whether widespread mask use is justifiable.

Aside from the main argument that everyone ought to wear masks because at any time an asymptomatic person could be spreading the virus, we are told that it is the “respectful” thing to do. This argument is a direct byproduct of our snowflake culture. While we might not be able to prove that cloth masks mitigate the spread, wearing a mask makes others feel comfortable.

Since the stakes are so high, we all ought to do our duty and wear the mask.

There is, however, another side.

Ubiquitous mask wearing backed by government mandate is fostering a dangerous culture of fear that is resulting, predictably, in the fraying of an already fragile social fabric. Face masks are a perpetual, visual reminder to be afraid. And with the assistance of “experts” and social commentators, ordinary citizens have been emboldened to criticize and berate one another.

Nextdoor.com, a place “where communities come together to keep a local shopkeeper in business. Where neighbors exchange recommendations … and tips,” has turned into a platform for commissars-in-training to report infractions against the mask mandate and to galvanize support, even call for protests, against the noncompliant. Neighbors complain of others daring to walk down the sidewalk without masks. Businesses and churches are called out by name, and I witnessed more than one instance of protests being organized against these places. The exchanges are heated and ugly.

We have already witnessed the deleterious effects of cultures of denunciation and fear in the 20th century. While contemporary America is obviously quite different from 1930s Germany or the Soviet Union, the willingness to report neighbors, churches, and businesses to the state nonetheless harkens to the modus operandi of these totalitarian regimes, which maintained power through the atomization and isolation of citizens. This may not be the intention, but we seem to be witnessing a similar trend in the United States right now.

The attitude today is that citizens cannot be trusted to make the right decision. To accept that masks may be unnecessary for all but the actively sick, but to believe that everyone should wear them just the same, is to condone the belief that the state must be our nanny and that we must be subject to the ever-changing decrees of the carefully chosen “experts.”

Like many of the other unfortunate consequences of our response to COVID-19, such as the wave of suicides and domestic abuse and drug abuse, mandating universal mask wearing will not be without its side effects.

So much of our communication as human beings is nonverbal, indicated through facial expressions. A smile at the person at the checkout line, an interaction with a baby passing in a stroller, a warm hello to an elderly person passing on the street—these are the subtle everyday interactions that promote trust among citizens. Instead, they are being replaced by snide comments and calls for boycotts.

In a country already torn by deep and abiding political division, compounded by racial tensions, can we afford to divide citizens further?

To go to the extreme and mandate universal mask wearing, the burden of proof rests on the state to demonstrate unequivocally its health benefit. So far, the state has yet to provide that. None of this is to argue against commonsense measures to mitigate the spread of this terrible virus, particularly with respect to the most vulnerable.

But we also must not forget how fragile a thing is civilization, and how valuable is social capital in maintaining it. We ought not sacrifice the latter in a misguided attempt to save the former.

Emily Finley holds a Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of America and is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. She is the managing editor of Humanitas, a journal of politics and culture, published by The Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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