A Masked Consensus
Our current malaise has a clear cause: we have lost sight of man's ultimate end.
I’m in a large hardware store where every adult is complying with our governor’s face-mask edict. Some of us wear the coveted N-95s, others sport bandanas; one guy is wearing what looks to be women’s underwear. My twin three year-olds are exempted from the mask rule, and so are, apparently, two muscled dogs straining at their leashes a few feet from my children’s faces. Their owner calls them her “babies.” Her grip on their leashes appears non-committal, so I divert my children down an aisle, where we wait for her little family to move along.
As my twins pull random electrical parts off the shelves, I ponder how the hell this country got so upside-down that adults are forced to wear masks while dogs go unmuzzled. It’s as if something seismic has fractured our beliefs. It’s not that we don’t believe—dear God, we believe plenty, and some of it is even true. What’s fractured is the part of ourselves that binds action to conviction.
For example, when I search Google for various iterations of the phrases “was arrested” and “not wearing a mask,” I find roughly 100,000 stories. Some are duplicates, and many don’t chronicle actual arrests, but taken together, they convey the magnitude of our disdain for overweening governors and Dr. Fauci and the various busybody puritans who prowl pandemic America with outraged fingers poised over the “Record” button.
Stories like the man who refused to leave his dying father’s side after nursing home authorities ratted him out to the police, however, are harder to come by. Maybe that’s because most administrators and nurses look the other way when everyday citizens quietly resist our New Internment. I hope that’s true, but there are too many articles relaying the absence of resistance: long-married couples kept apart, grandparents decompensating in isolation, people dying with no one they love in sight. Dying alone.
I don’t know if anyone actually rearranged deck chairs as the Titanic sank, but if they did, I suspect it looked more purpose-driven than our public mask drama, what with neighbors dropping the dime on neighbors, and strangers shooting each other. We’re arguing about the wrong things, and this is because we’ve lost agreement about the right things. As the Jesuit priest and philosopher John Courtney Murray observed decades ago, a healthy society is “locked in argument” about the best ways to accomplish its ends. Argument, ironically, is the indication of a thriving democracy, as any happy Italian family can attest. But we can only argue constructively about what so long as we’re in agreement about why.
The American Why, unfortunately, has gone missing. It went off to fight the Nazis, took a spin on the GI Bill, and now it makes car commercials for state-supported conglomerates. What’s our American Why? Maybe something about Freedom. Comfort. Excellent Mileage.
Our Why has gone AWOL, and now COVID has invaded our shores to demand we pay tribute with whatever array of illness, joblessness, isolation, and religious suppression best suits us. COVID doesn’t care, it just wants to get paid, like a Hun chieftain encamped outside Rome. We’re required to choose what prices we’ll pay, but we can’t agree what costs are most bearable. We have no consensus about what the words justice, tranquility, general welfare, and posterity in our Constitution’s preamble mean. A people who’ve forgotten why their country exists have a hell of a time conjuring the fortitude to keep it going.
And let’s face it, boning up on Constitutional history isn’t going to solve anything at this point, because we can’t agree about the meanings behind those founding words so long as we lack firm convictions about our meaning. What, exactly, is the chief end of man?
The answer informs how one reads the Constitutional preamble. It governs decisions about warehousing our elderly, driving our national debt to $30 trillion, or sending federal agents into urban riot zones. Imagine the nervous prevarication, were you to ask a televised panoply of presidential candidates their convictions about the ends of man. Can you imagine the finger-in-the-wind, survey-coated, Hallmark-card responses?
The politicians posing as our leaders will never answer this question truthfully so long as we ourselves shrink from the truth of it. And just why do we do that? The philosopher Eric Voegelin hinted at an answer when he described how societies embody aspirations that pre-exist our cradles, and extend past our graves. “The promised land can be reached only by moving through history,” he wrote, “but it cannot be conquered within history.”
If surveys of religious belief are any guide, most Americans agree with the implication that we have purposes beyond health and wealth maximization, and that we’re ultimately governed by laws that we have neither the right nor the power to transcend. The problem seems to be that we’re afraid to live like we agree. And so we countenance elderly parents dying without the comfort of a son or daughter’s hand, even as our children forget our churches’ liturgies.
So what would it look like, to live as if we believe our society has purposes far more valuable than extending a man’s years and pleasure? We’d squabble over the best protections and treatments just as we do now, but we’d firmly reject the technocratic sleight of hand whereby our nation’s chief epidemiologist has become our chief ethicist. And any agent of the State who claimed authority to indefinitely block us from our churches and families would be run out of town on a rail. People will tolerate a lot of humiliation when their primary aims are full bellies and undisturbed comfort. They’re far more troublesome to their overseers once they get it into their heads that there are worse things than death.
Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in North Carolina.