Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

What the Masks Mean

(Roman Genn)
On seeing face to face

The scene was a socially distanced checkout line at my local grocery store in March.

“This man should be removed from the store. He’s not wearing a mask,” one woman said to whoever would listen, pointing behind her.

“Mind your own business,” he replied.

“It is my business,” she shouted back at him, and then, to the whole store: “This a**h***, like the one in the White House, is not following the rules and regulations.”

I wondered what rules she thought Trump was not following. But the maskless man had the final word, and it was chilling.

“Lady, if you don’t shut up, you’re gonna wish all I did was cough on you.”

Mask-shaming is now a real phenomenon. Viral videos circulating among the smug shut-ins show clerks and retail greeters meeting demands for “freedom” with the requirements of store and company policy, which is also a form of freedom — stores have the right to set their terms of entry. It’s remarkable how much the world has changed in just a few months.

In the Western world, we traditionally associate masks with danger. They are worn to protect against harmful fumes. They are worn to signal a threat to others, by bank robbers or terrorists. They are worn by people who want to commit street violence during a demonstration but not be subject to retaliation or criminal investigation when the mêlée is over. As protests bleed into riots across America, a mask is probably the first sign of trouble.

Back in the last week of January, when a peculiar interest in the developing “Wuhan flu” story was seen as the mark of a paranoid, possibly racist rube, I decided I’d rather be safe than sorry. But when I went to look for masks at my local pharmacies, there were none. They were sold out seemingly everywhere. One clerk explained to me that “Chinese people” were buying them up, which I didn’t believe at first. And then I went home and discovered that masks were back-ordered on Amazon. That is the moment I became fearful of the disease. It was like discovering a massive hedge-fund bet against your own health and well-being.

In fact, it was Chinese shoppers, who had gone about this in an organized way. By the middle of February, Yahoo Finance reported that professional “daigou” shoppers had been sending masks back to China from all over the world. Daigou (roughly speaking, “surrogate shopping”) is a gig-economy and trade revolution in which members of the Chinese diaspora buy anything that can be resold at a profit in China, mostly luxury goods that would normally be subject to massive taxes. But household staples are just as good. Daigou shoppers have caused Australia, Singapore, and other nations to place strict limits on the sale of infant formula. These shoppers often advertise their finds on Chinese social networks. In April, Hexin Jiang, who goes by a name on Weibo that roughly translates as “fat American wife,” sparked viral outrage in America and China over videos in which she says, laughing, “They don’t know about the masks here [in Florida],” and brags to her potential buyers that she was not leaving any masks for the Americans. She even admits, with a guilty smile, “I feel like a thief.” Americans who came upon the story were angry that she bought up enough masks to fill the bed of her pickup truck and showed such callousness toward her neighbors. Chinese users thought she made their countrymen look evil.

At that point in the pandemic, health authorities and clever-dick explainer journalists were telling the world that masks were not just useless but probably harmful for ordinary people, though desperately needed by frontline health-care workers. World Health Organization official Rabindra Abeyasinghe claimed that mask-wearers could be “at more risk” of catching the coronavirus. On March 2, Vox tweeted out, “Oh, and face masks? You can pass on them. Masks are only useful if you have a respiratory infection already and want to limit the risk of spreading, or if you’re working in a hospital in direct contact with people who have respiratory illnesses.” But, of course, if you can spread the disease while you’re asymptomatic, a mask is most useful precisely before you know it will be. Later, close readers noticed — and were outraged — when a Vox co-founder admitted he had ordered his masks in February. It turned out that the recommendations against mask-wearing were little more than a bit of folk wisdom. The theory was that medical masks used at hospitals are fitted to the wearer to give the maximum benefit, while ordinary people would wear masks improperly and then probably act recklessly, thinking they were protected. There’s no science to back up that assertion, just smug condescension toward the layman. It’s as if a union of chefs advised that home cooks don’t have perfect knife technique and therefore get no benefit from that utensil.

A great deal depends on how one sees the masks. Are they a further imposition on daily life by a liberal expert class, a ready symbol of that set’s contempt for the masses, of their belief in the presumptive toxicity of unmanaged human life? Are they a useless piece of security theater, meant to keep us frightened? R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, and Helen Andrews, a senior editor at The American Conservative, see it that way. Proving that liberty is a part of the Catholic vision of the common good, Reno expressed resentment of the mask as a symbol of subjection. Andrews compared mask-wearing to the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War era, arguing that they were mostly futile against the threat, and that dignity required facing a danger with some equanimity.

In a blistering essay for the online magazine Damage, the left-wing writer Amber A’Lee Frost admitted that she hates the masks, hates the stupid consumerist fake enthusiasm for cute masks and the smug expert journalists chirping about virtuous mask-wearing. “I feel like I live in an open-air hospital,” she writes, “or a particularly cosmopolitan leper colony. I miss human faces very badly, and I hate the sensation of being trapped in a breathing swamp of my own self, as each damp exhale rolls back onto my face.”

This is a deeply human reaction, and one we’ve seen before. In the great influenza of 1918, San Francisco imposed mask-wearing on citizens when they were in public. Eventually people started letting their masks dangle below their chins in quiet defiance. An anti-mask league was formed just before the orders were lifted.

My own view is that masks are less an extension of a lockdown mentality of submission than the way out of it. In Austria, the conservative prime minister Sebastian Kurz imposed the wearing of masks at supermarkets as he was permitting the further reopening of the economy, even as he acknowledged, “I am fully aware that masks are alien to our culture.” In East Asian countries, which learned from successfully containing SARS in 2003, masks have again been part of the response to the wide-release sequel this year.

The science on masks’ reducing the spread of droplets on which the virus can travel is compelling. Some have taken this to extremes and wear masks while they are driving alone in their cars, or even while exercising outside, miles away from anyone. But indoors, masks have been shown to be effective at containing the virus. When a sizeable portion of people are wearing them, it becomes very difficult for the sick to infect others. The symbolic gesture is not useless either, since the mask signals to strangers a kind of courtesy and care for their health. If masks can enable us to get back to business, we ought to be for it.

But Kurz was on to something in observing that masks are alien to our culture. I believe that the resistance to public mask-wearing stems not just from its common association with criminality or from physical discomfort but that it goes to the theological roots of Western life, that it’s part of the same hard-to-articulate resistance we see in Europe to the intrusion of Islamic face-veiling into society. At the heart of the West is a conviction that the truth is “unveiled,” and that the face is where our personhood is incarnate. Our limbs merely gesture, but only a facial expression, and the uncovered mouth, can express, even betray, our deepest selves. That is why unveiling has featured so prominently in Christian liturgy, as a reminder that our destiny is to be transfigured when we see God face to face. This is so deeply a part of our culture that the resistance to and resentment of masks should not surprise us. They are a terrible imposition, and only a real danger could justify them. At the same time, we should have confidence that masks will not become a permanent feature of Western social life.

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