A Year and a Half of Magical Thinking
Reflections on the new mask mandate, every bit as dumb and superstitious as the old one.
The other day I found myself having one of those M.R. James find-a-mysterious-whistle-on-the-beach experiences. I was walking in the forest near my house, a friendly little wood which lies at the bottom of a hill on the edge of a river, not far from a small hospital, when I saw something that did not belong there: It was a blue surgical mask lying a few feet beyond the right side of the path about a quarter of a mile into the woods, just past a rotting log, surrounded by a phalanx of black-eyed Susans. Some doctor must have dropped this, I thought to myself.
Here I began to imagine the mask’s owner: a reflective soul not unlike myself, not a deracinated modern but a man or woman fully alive to the Waldesrauschen, who liked to wax Heideggerian on his or her lunch break. (When my five-year-old goes with me for walks back here, I tell her we are looking for the Owl of Minerva, whom she insists she has seen no fewer than six times.) I could almost see the pensive medico walking, with a haunted otherworldly look, hoping against hope for the mystery of being to unfold itself amid this leafy seclusion before returning to less exalted duties. He or she must not have noticed its absence.
Then I remembered about masks. Two cries, the first of abject horror, the other a guffaw that must have been audible even to the shuttered ears of whatever spirits dwell here, escaped my lips as I recalled, dimly at first but with growing certainty, that for more than a year, on the basis of vanishingly little evidence, in an ostensible attempt to arrest the progress of a disease whose average victim is older than the American life expectancy, hundred of millions of Americans had worn these things. They had been mandatory in all sorts of public places—in restaurants, for example, where they could be removed so long as you were eating or drinking because the deadly pathogen would grant you a reprieve—and, indeed, remained de rigueur in airports and other places which it is rarely my wont to visit.
Now we are told that the Centers for Disease for Disease Control and Prevention, an official government entity dedicated to promoting skepticism of vaccines (not unlike those lovely hippie blogs that used to recommend chickenpox parties), wants masks to make a comeback. This seems to have been almost entirely at the behest of teachers’ unions, the same ones that were reminding their employees earlier this year not to share pictures of their foreign vacations on social media lest parents question whether it was something other than their health and safety that motivated their year-long paid hiatus from the classroom.
What possible justification is there for any of this? As far as I can tell the logic goes that even though anyone who wanted to be vaccinated against the disease that Chinese media initially referred to as “Wuhan pneumonia” long ago, there is a non-zero chance that someone, somewhere—a child, for example—might be on the receiving end of a positive test. Of course there is. There is also a non-zero chance that my children could become infected with flesh-eating bacteria while swimming or that I could be bitten by a mosquito carrying a rare disease that gives horses brain cancer. The risk posed to children by Covid-19 is emphatically lower than that of seasonal influenza, which is responsible for pediatric deaths in the four-digit range virtually every year (almost certainly an undercount, as testing for the flu is comparatively rare). Meanwhile, because their immune systems have not developed under anything resembling normal conditions, toddlers are being hospitalized across the country with what were once comparatively minor ailments, such as RSV. Millions of others are emotionally stunted, incapable of making eye contact or engaging in normal conversation, and live in a world of screens whose characters—horrifying talking dogs with magenta fur and turquoise eyes that are by now more real to them than their parents—also appear on the face coverings they wear with a resigned, almost mechanical indifference.
The effects of the CDC’s ludicrous new recommendations—which, despite what virus cultists insist to the contrary, are meant to be taken roughly as seriously by the average American as the food pyramid—will almost certainly vary by state and indeed along regional lines. One can imagine that, as I write this, in San Francisco an app-based passport system is being developed that will detail the precise conditions under which unvaccinated dogs under the age of two are allowed to go unmasked (e.g., in the company of fully vaccinated owners and members of the owners’ immediate households who have received a negative test within the last 24 hours so long as they themselves are not younger than 12). Public school teachers will continue to hire wage slaves to do their actual job—that is, babysitting—while they upload videos of themselves sitting double-masked in their own living rooms. Shrieking journalists will ask why those college students who have only received one Covid booster in addition to two shots of AstraZeneca and refuse to wear face shields over their masks during socially distanced Tinder dates are even allowed to have bank accounts.
Meanwhile, where I live, in rural southwest Michigan, there are signs on the doors of dive bars and party stores and, especially, in the windows of little Amish stores just across the Indiana border, featuring illustrations of masked bandits emblazoned with slogans like, “If you aren’t here to rob the store, why are you wearing one of these?”
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.