Masks

One of the interesting effects of the pandemic has been the opportunity to watch formerly neutral, unpolitical things get marked as “political” and people who formerly had no opinion on them at all throw themselves onto one side or the other as though they had deep, long-standing commitments on the issue. (We have always been at war with Eastasia.)

Whether or not people should wear masks in order to slow the spread of SARS-Coronavirus-2, (the name of the disease is itself a victim of political vicissitudes, shortened to just “coronavirus” by the WHO explicitly so that people would not take it seriously,) has transformed from a matter of austere medical debate to an issue of such pressing concern that a question on the subject was actually posed to the candidates at the first presidential debate.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my health policies, pro or con, to be motivated by something other than the sheer naked political process involved in presidential campaigns.

Side note: the American political system was explicitly set up with the intention of preventing any one person or branch of government from wielding too much power. Debate that intention and its functional persistence in our modern system as you will, but it is clear that there is still enough plasticity left to correct for a great many deficits in any particular leader (which is good, because our leaders are mortal men with many, many deficits).

If Trump does not order a mask mandate, then so what? Wear your own mask if you want to. Shop at businesses where the employees wear masks. Sew cute masks for your relatives. Prompt your local legislature to pass mask laws. Etc. There are many, many options here that don’t involve executive orders.

The idea of a national mask mandate is rather silly, because different people live in different places with different needs. A man in Montana who sees more cows than people in his day may not get any use out of a mask, while a man in New York who rides the subway every day may have benefitted from wearing a mask three years ago.

Masks should not be a political issue and it certainly should not hinge on the whims of one man.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone (much less mask enthusiasts) expects our current president to make medical policy, nor do they want him to. I care a lot more about our president’s opinions on trade and monetary policy than his opinions about medical advice (I’ll ask my doctor for medical advice, thankyouverymuch.)

Rather, I read the question as less about medical policy and more about political tribalism: “Here are the new shibboleths of my tribe. Will you accept them, or do you reject them?”

As a new shibboleth, masks have gone through a radical political transformation since last January. At first, they were not something we thought about at all: completely neutral, a-political objects. Surgeons wore them at hospitals, motorcyclists wore them to keep bugs out of their mouths; painters wore them to avoid fumes; skiers wore them to stay warm. Occasionally you saw a photo of someone wearing a mask on the subway in China or Japan, but that was just something done over there: someone else’s customs.

Then came the SARS-2. Wuhan shut down. Alarming videos showed the Chinese police dragging people into quarantine and welding apartments shut. In the States, only the Very Online were aware of the pandemic at this point. It was obvious that whatever was going on, the Chinese took it very seriously, and this itself was concerning. Were they over-reacting, or was it actually that bad?

This was when hazmat Twitter was born. These were the folks who photoshopped hazmat suits onto their avatars and, within a few weeks, became the first to don masks in real life, adopting the habit from Asia. Hazmat Twitter was arguably motivated by right-wing concerns about foreign infection vectors, but it was also, by modern leftist standards, completely right.

Amusingly, at this point, health “experts” in the US, being career bureaucrats interested in protecting their own piece of the bureaucratic pie and not Very Online, had no idea why people were suddenly upset over some random virus in China and adopting what they no doubt saw as a strange foreign custom–hence the early PSAs advising us that masks don’t work, there’s no need to wear a mask if you don’t feel ill, and that racism is the real virus.

Then we got the videos out of Spain and Italy. Clearly this would not be a repeat of SARS-1, which was bad enough. The virus was actually spreading. Even first world hospitals were overwhelmed. Then the virus came to New York and Seattle. Within weeks, the president ordered an international travel shutdown.

This post is not meant to be a full retrospective of covid policies. We’re here to talk about masks. It was when New York hospitals started filling up that people really started taking this seriously. Suddenly that mask idea stopped seeming so dumb. That’s when masks went from being a far right-wing thing to a mainstream thing. My health-obsessed normie Republican relatives, for example, decided that masks are awesome and spent the next two months lecturing me about them non-stop (despite the fact that I do not actually go places where I would need one).

But politicians and grifters (is there a difference?) are never content to let a good issue go to waste, and folks like Anne Coulter quickly jumped on the opportunity to make a political buck by opposing the issue of the day. And if Coulter was opposed to masks, good liberals must be in favor of them.

Likewise, since the worst outbreaks were in major cities, the people who felt the most pressing need to wear masks (for their own and others’ sakes), were city-dwelling liberals. Those of us out in the suburbs or the countryside, who don’t use public transportation and encounter a lot fewer strangers in our day-to-day lives, naturally feel less inclined to fear a spray of germs every time we leave the house.

Outside the internet, where people feel compelled to make every darn thing political, I think normies of all political stripes basically still favor wearing masks in appropriate situations, with variations only in what those situations are. Eg, this poll back in July found 3/4s of respondents favored mask mandates. Dems did like masks better than Republicans, 89% of them favored masks, as opposed to only 58% of Republicans, but that was still a majority.

So we have a real difference in the need for masks, and a real difference in preferences for masks that break down along political lines, but if it weren’t for the internet, we probably wouldn’t really notice and would go about our own business, taking care of our health problems as best we can, unconcerned that some guy on the other side of the country might sneeze on us.

The evolution of the morality around masks has also been interesting to watch. I feel like I finally really understanding what’s going on in Muslim communities when people talk about the necessity of wearing hijabs or burqas.

The early masks, as adopted by hazmat Twitter, were worn to protect the wearer. This is sensible and straight-forward: no one wants to catch SARS2.

But as the vogue for masking spread, society started running out of the good masks (and besides, people wanted to reserve them for hospital workers). So people had to make do with the smaller, flimsier masks, the ones that obviously don’t block much air at all. Here the rationale changed. Masks were no longer for your own protection, but to protect others.

Why wear a hijab? So the sight of a beautiful woman does not cause a man to feel sexual attraction for someone who is not his wife. The hijab prevents sin from happening. (Note: this is not the only reason for Islamic veiling. Islam is a big religion with many religious teachings.) Why wear a mask? So that if you have covid, virus-laden spittle from your mouth is stopped by the mask. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing too close to someone who regularly spits while talking, you understand the idea.

The rationale here for masks and hijabs are the same: they are morally required because, despite being an imposition to the wearer, they prevent the wearer from inadvertently harming others. The mask prevents the harm of catching corona, while the hijab prevents sin. Sin, of course, leads to suffering in Hell, which to a believer is a fate worse than COVID.

Well, it’s been an interesting year. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Masks

  1. I think that the differences in bubbles are interesting – the first people I saw promoting masks weren’t hazmat twitter, which exists presumably outside my view, but some “rationalist” bloggers, who were concerned about covid back in February, but, as I thought to myself then, seem to make a habit of worrying about things that most people don’t!

    Ah, the days when slightly fewer things were politicized.

    Now I’m annoyed at the shibboleth nature of it all, just like you are. I don’t wear a mask on my daily walks around my suburban neighborhood, because it’s un-crowded enough that I rarely pass even vaguely near somebody. (Though I will, e.g., cross the street to keep my distance). But I get the uncomfortable feeling that the masked people I see from a distance are judging me for this choice! Masks everywhere, masks always.

    And then there’s my mother-in-law, who believes in the protective magic of masks so much that she’s willing to spend time with me, in her house – as long as we’ve both got our masks on! She’s old and frail enough that if I weren’t quite sure that I’d already had covid (back in March, lucky, lol), I wouldn’t risk it without more precautions myself…. but since the Democratic Party and the TV stations that support it are really really into this whole mask thing, she is too, despite the fact that she used to be a doctor.

    Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The power to require masks is entirely local. Governors and some mayors can do it, but the President cannot.

    We still have a federal system. Almost all safety and police matters are controlled by local officials. The federal government has very limited authority in local matters. There has to be some over-riding interstate issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it is strange that there are not more people who use the most efficient masks. In the beginning it made sense to save them for health workers because then there were too few of them. Now there has been half a year for companies to scale up production. I guess they would have done that, if people were not too shy to use them. Why don’t at least older people and those who live with older people use them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tried one of the fancy masks a couple of days ago (I don’t normally go anywhere where I’d need a mask, but I have worn the hospital style occasionally and I’ve worn the one my mother bought me, and the fancy one was much more comfortable. It has a soft lining inside and fit well, which was a nice improvement.

      A lot of people (like my mother) complain about breathability. She found her n-95 or whatever it was far too difficult to breathe through. So the whole mask thing conflicts strongly with people’s desire to have unrestricted airflow.

      Liked by 1 person

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