My posts are basically of two sorts. One endeavors to share with others my own interpretation of issues when it seems to me to consist of overlooked or underestimated insights. The other doesn’t begin with a clear position and perhaps doesn’t find one by the end—it’s essentially an exercise in thinking out loud.
What I’m about to write concerning our cultural addiction to masks is very definitely of the latter sort. I don’t understand the masks—the servile acceptance of them, and especially the passionate devotion to them. I don’t understand on many levels. Right at the surface, I am nonplussed at the resistance of some people—many, many people—to allowing the obvious empirical fact that most masks don’t work as prophylactics against tiny microbes the size of a virus. The standard commercially available mask’s chances of blocking such a particle fall below one percent. Not only that… but most masks are affixed with unclean fingers, a thumb often slipping on the inside (i.e., on the surface from which your nostrils will directly draw air) after the same hand has gripped doorknobs or pawed furniture. Not only that… but few people dispose of their mask after a single use, meaning that they place before their mouth and nose an object increasingly steeped in bacteria. Not only that… but very few masks actually achieve a snug fit around nose and jawline: to a virus-sized particle, the opening has the same ratio as a meteor crater to a mouse. Not only that… but breathing your own carbon dioxide exhalation for extended periods of time isn’t particularly healthy. (Cancer, for instance, prospers in oxygen-deprived cells.)
Now, I would nevertheless cheerfully wear a mask in certain settings. If I had to stroll through Walmart on a crowded afternoon, I would welcome the opportunity to indulge my hypochondriac tendencies without appearing odd. Some people don’t know enough to cover their face when they sneeze or cough. A mask is appreciated in such mixed company. Same for crowded airports. And I fully grasp why medical personal would typically wear masks. By definition, their job confronts them with people suffering from infections throughout the day. A mask won’t block all airborne contagions… but it’s a good first line of defense against droplet infection, whether from a sneeze or a spurt of blood.
These are not the situations, however, which present themselves with greatest regularity in the Year of the Lunatic. Instead, we see drivers enclosed all alone in their vehicles tightly masked up. We see people meandering in the open air, as in a public park, masked to the hilt. We see Major League ballplayers poised disconsolately in left field, a hundred feet from the shortstop and with no spectator anywhere in the stadium, masked like Zorro. My brother told me (uncritically—quite approvingly, in fact) that the Fort Worth symphony orchestra will negotiate its “pandemic” season by masking even the brass and woodwind sections: the musicians in question are to remove their masks when their time comes to play a few notes, then cover up again like spacemen fleeing an alien planet’s toxic atmosphere.
You have to laugh… but you can’t. You want to cry, or to howl… but your stupefaction freezes the sounds in your throat. What the hell? Why? Why?
My wife, like a lot of people, will shrug, “They’re just crazy!” and move on. It’s a proletarian version of Michael Savage’s decades-old thesis that “leftism is a mental disorder.” I don’t necessarily disagree. In fact, I’d scarcely disagree at all (though I would label the disorder more spiritual than mental). But, you know, we’re all crazy in some way or other. For instance, we justly criticize the Left for supposing itself capable of creating a terrestrial utopia, where all are happy and no one will ever sicken or die; yet in the next breath, we warn anyone who will listen that we need to return to constitutional government and free-market capitalism so that everyone willing to work will be fulfilled and prosperous per saecula saeculorum. Are we crazy? Don’t we know—haven’t we learned yet—that life on this earth always decays around the edges (if not rots from the head down)? The superiority of freedom is not that it makes people happier, but that it renders them more capable of accomplishing the ends for which they were created. Many people are happier being slaves.
So I guess I’m looking for something more—some specific pedigree for our collective dementia. Why do we worship the mask as a mask? Ignoring its miserable lack of efficiency, why do we (some of us—more than a few) applaud a face wearing a mask as if it were centered under a halo? Is there not some of that love of slavery in such perverse affection? But what makes us love servitude?
Our masters order us to wear masks, and we comply because we’ve grown so sheep-like: yes, I’m distressed and disgusted by the prospect of my fellow citizens knuckling under to tinpot autocrats. But is it just because we’re sheep-like by nature? I don’t believe that. I believe that servitude is attractive to one side of our nature… but we have a more spiritual side that usually wins the confrontation. Why isn’t it winning now?
Something in us denizens of the twenty-first century (going back to us children of the Sixties) wants the mask—needs the mask. What is that something?
Could it be the very failure of that capitalist system which we’re accustomed to posing as an alternative to servitude? I mean this: perhaps, as our advancing technology has rendered us more dispensable as individuals—as our jobs have become more mechanized, more distant from our hands and our hearts—we have settled into a certain comfort with being tiny cogs in the vast machine. Perhaps we welcome the suppression of that most immediate sign of our individuality: our face. We construct identities (a.k.a. “avatars”) all the time on our bizarrely christened “social media” which we like infinitely more than the real thing. Perhaps we welcome the erasure—finally—of the real thing from public view. No more having to smile at real people greeted in real settings, no more having to bluff our way through real conversations where we feel overmatched or uninterested. At last, at long last, we can circulate in public like a home-alone teenager who stumbles from his video games to the refrigerator for a soft drink.
And how we hate those who refuse to mask! Stop calling us back to that loathsome alternate-reality! Stop making us feel that we’re hiding, that we’re not good enough—that we’re cowards! Stop standing in the way of progress!
On of the phenomena that would lead me to doubt this explanation is the degree of self-interest—indeed, of pathological selfishness—observable in many mask-idolaters. Far from accepting absorption into the Hive, the Machine—the Borg—they appear to demand that all the rest of society run off the rails in deference to their own fear of infection. “Why are you exposing yourself? You might catch COVID, and then spread it to my nephew… and then I’ll contract it from him and die. You’re threatening my life!” I hear some version of this mad rant over and over. (If it were logically applied to other conditions of modern life, then we would resume the ban of alcohol; for why suppose that laws against drunk driving will suffice to keep your life safe—why not, rather, prosecute everyone found in possession of an alcoholic beverage as an attempted murderer?)
Yet perhaps this objection is more paradox than contradiction. It seems to me that those who want to secure their lives to the point of denying anyone else the right to breathe freely are afraid of life. Their insane terror of death is really a horror at the emptiness of life. Living has brought them no reward… so they cling to it since the possibility, the illusion, of future reward is all they have. Their defense from the fetal position is no assertion of forceful ego: it’s the protest of an ego that has never fully formed, and likely never will.
If you had built a house with your two hands and raised your children in it, you would defend it to the death. If you had amassed an attic-full of paintings from your own toiling hand over a period of twenty years, you would rush up the burning staircase to rescue them. You would cheerfully die for that which has made your life worthwhile. But the slave has found nothing to bestow such worth upon his life. A mere salary doesn’t do it, a hefty hike in salary doesn’t do it, and a mansion bought with that hefty hike doesn’t do it. The slave remains a stranger to himself—and he would rather not see his face, or expose it to anyone else.
To that extent, perhaps the slave isn’t happy at all. Maybe he’s just lazy. Maybe he was only happy in choosing not to be free because he spared himself the anxiety of having to explore how far he might scale—or fall. There is higher happiness and lower happiness. Maybe the mask is visible proof that we have opted for lower happiness.
Is there a way that we could stop grinding out slaves in this progressive economy that has less and less need of human beings?