Not thrilled about having to wear a mask? I think most people would understand that. It’s an inconvenience, a hassle for many. But right-wingers, especially of the libertarian variety, really seem to hate masks. Why? They will say that their freedom and individuality are violated by mask mandates. The actual reason, however, goes far deeper than a disagreement about temporary mandates during a pandemic. It’s about the virus itself. You see, the virus, like climate change, reminds them that we are interconnected and interdependent, and this is exactly what they do not want to hear. It runs against their most sacred beliefs. So, as we see, even without mandates in place, many of them still complain about masks and often criticize people merely for using them, which is a rather peculiar stance for defenders of individual freedom.
The right-wingers seem to believe that their libertarian version of freedom is necessary for individuality. They fear that without it individuals will become automatons and communist stooges. But their ideas are philosophically hollow and deeply ill-informed. For example, these defenders of the gospel of “freedom” show little understanding of the relationship between rights and duties. They show little knowledge about rights and their history, often believing rights were directly given to us by God, handed down like the Ten Commandments, and not developed over time through extended debate and discussion. They show little understanding of what philosophers call autonomy, a kind of self-determination, which requires more than doing what you want to do, whenever you want to do it.
Their views also run up against what humanity has known throughout history. We are not only social beings. We are uniquely social. Aristotle referred to us as the political or social animal. For example, no other species has our capacity for language. For Aristotle, we are obviously more social than highly organized bees, because our social relations are complex, changing, and mediated by language. We depend on and thrive because of the communities we inhabit, which support and nurture us, and help us to self-actualize.
Consider for a moment the Ancient Greeks. Did their sense of interdependence and sociality detract from their individuality? Ludicrous! They produced individuals as unique as Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Alexander the Great (a pupil of Aristotle), etc. And the Greeks looked to figures with striking personalities to admire and emulate: the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey, for example, Achilles and Odysseus. When you read about the ancients—-and not only the famous ones!—-you certainly don’t get a picture of mindless automatons. Quite the contrary.
Long story short: there is absolutely no reason a society can’t acknowledge the interdependence of its members and simultaneously have unique individuals. It requires only a cursory knowledge of history to know this, and one can only be astounded at the mythology on the right about “freedom” and individuality. There are good reasons to defend human rights, but people were quite capable of individuality before they spoke of rights.
What happened regarding masks was a genuine tragedy. Trump wanted to deny that the pandemic was dangerous at the beginning. His motivation was primarily political. A tanking economy would hurt his reelection chances. But after it became apparent that the virus was very real, he still had to deal with his base, many of whom held right-wing libertarian ideas. So we had the spectacle of him removing his mask, quite dramatically, on the balcony of the West Portico of the White House, after his life was saved by the best modern medicine had to offer. (Oh, yes, by science, a very highly interdependent activity.) This move alone probably cost the lives of good number of his followers.
We also had continuing attempts by right-wing commentators to deny the severity of the virus. “Oh, it’s only the flu or a cold. No need to worry.” (Climate change: Not to worry. Not really a big deal. The weather always changes, etc. Same mentality.) If these people did start to worry about the virus as something that we had to address collectively, like climate change, it would undermine the most fundamental tenets of their ideology.
Trump being Trump didn’t want to displease his supporters, so we continued to get halfhearted responses regarding masks from the White House. No, worse! As in DeSantis’s Florida, it became a symbol of ideological purity not to wear them or to wear them in a halfhearted and incorrect manner, and then to make fun of those who did. Sheer madness when we see how countries and regions whose citizens used masks and social distanced saved so many lives.
What we had here was a perfect set-up to sustain death and illness. (And we did it on a grand scale, with the greatest loss of life on the planet.) The capitalists and business people wanted to get back to normal/business as quickly as possible.* (Follow the money.) The mask is the most obvious and telling symbol that the pandemic isn’t over. The word came down: governments need to stop pushing masks. This pressure dovetailed and reinforced the antipathy toward masks that we find on the libertarian right for ideological reasons.** Without government support and campaigns to alert people to the dangers of Covid (especially long Covid), people jumped on the “let’s shed the mask bandwagon,” because, well, they are annoying to many, and why not? My personal risk is small (and there are only 400-500 people dying a day).
And now we are no longer talking only about right-wingers. Democratic politicians came to believe that jumping on the bandwagon was politically expedient, even when polls were still showing substantial support for continuing to mask in public places. Sadly, many rank-and-file Democrats were willing to give their leaders a pass and refrained from criticism, or uncritically accepted what they were told.
Where does this leave us? In a very bad place. The mask is the outer symbol. The heart of the matter is a desire to deny interdependence and protect a crude notion of individuality. We have large swaths of this country that believe their notions of freedom and individuality require that they undermine collective projects. These right-wingers are intoxicated by a “don’t tread on me” rhetoric, but they can’t discriminate between when it is appropriate and when it is unnecessary, inappropriate, and potentially dangerous. How successful will our society be in the future in comparison with those whose citizens are willing to make sacrifices for the collective good? With our Covid response as a guide, fair to say, don’t expect a happy ending.
*That this was an incredibly short-sighted move regarding the economy will likely become clearer as the years go by, and we lose more workers to long Covid. Consider for a moment that the Japanese government appealed to people to take precautions in order not to damage the economy! They were playing a long game. We weren’t. Turns out our business people may not have done such a good job at following the money.
** No doubt there were other factors that undermined their use besides the ones I focus on here. Among them: varieties of Protestantism that emphasize a personal one-to-one relationship to God, which undermines the kind of community of believers that we find in other traditions. Salvation doesn’t involve other human beings or, God help us, the government. This anti-collectivist and anti-government mentality certainly didn’t help us in combating Covid.
The illustrator of the poster “One Small Ask, Please Wear a Mask” was NinaChakrabati. It appeared relatively early in the pandemic. Today we would recommend N-95s or elastomerics over cloth or surgical masks.