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When Is A Mask More Than A Mask? (Washington Examiner) July 22, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Many crises of the still-young 21st century are readily associated with symbols or pictures. If I were to show you a hanging chad, for example, it would bring to mind the presidential election crisis of Bush v. Gore in 2000. Surely, planes crashing into the World Trade Center in 2001 powerfully depict the story of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terror. Shrinking icebergs bespeak climate change; a pile of colorful pills, an opioid crisis; a police officer on George Floyd’s neck, a cry for racial justice.

Oddly, then, the obvious symbol of the current crisis, COVID-19, is a mask, a simple blue mask previously worn only by medical professionals in a dentist’s or doctor’s office. Remarkably, this mask has become a symbol not just for the health crisis itself, but it has also triggered crises of trust, law, politics, and culture, just to name a few. How did a simple mask become so much more than a form of medical protection?

Perhaps the rest of the mask crises were caused by the very first one, a crisis of trust. Both scientists and government officials initially indicated that masks would not provide protection from COVID-19 and discouraged their use. When that message changed, first to recommend masks to protect others and then to protect the wearer as well, there was a crisis of trust. Did experts really not know about the efficacy of masks, discouraging their use to protect an already short supply? Is it ever OK for the government to shade the truth for a greater good?

We live in a time when trust in authority is in short supply. Studies by the Pew Research Center show that trust, especially among young adults, is extremely low in elected leaders and business leaders, both in the 30th percentile range. Although trust in scientists rates more highly, most people do not trust the government to do what is right most of the time. Yuval Levin’s new book, A Time To Build, argues that the lack of trust and confidence in American institutions is one of our most fundamental problems, adding that “everybody knows that Americans have long been losing faith in institutions.” So the whole COVID-19 crisis, unfortunately, began in an environment of distrust by raising questions of trust about a simple mask.

From there, the problems began to spiral. In jurisdictions that mandated the wearing of face masks, lawsuits have been filed, claiming such laws are unconstitutional exercises of government power over a person’s freedom and constitute invasions of privacy. Deeper legal questions about the power of government in a crisis or emergency have been raised over the mask. Now, lawsuits have been filed against retailers when they mandate the wearing of masks. In Georgia, the governor and the mayor of its largest city, Atlanta, have gone to court over masks. In our litigious society, the little blue mask has turned out to be a boon for lawyers.

Next, we have the politics of masks. You’re a Democrat if you wear one, a Republican if you do not. President Trump long resisted wearing masks but has now said they are “patriotic.” Previously, he had said that people need to “think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.” Republican governors in states such as Iowa and Georgia have attempted to block municipalities from mandating masks.

Finally, the mask has become a weapon in the culture wars, the subject of bumper stickers and signs everywhere. “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19,” said one sign. “A mask is not a political statement, it’s an IQ test,” says another. We have mask shaming and mask protests. Many restaurants require masks, while others say we will not serve you if you wear one. A Starbucks barista who refused to serve a customer without a mask received over $100,000 in support. The mask war is on.

Unfortunately, the mask has been reduced to a symbol of all the many battles in our society — lack of trust in authority, a litigious mindset, the politics of division, culture wars — rather than what it was meant to be: A form of medical protection. Shame on us.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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