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Democracy in Masked America

The democratic, anti-hierarchical spirit that foreign observers thought made this country what it is appears to be dead with Covid.

This month treated me to perhaps the sorriest sight I’ve seen since first setting foot on U.S. soil more than two decades ago, green card in hand.

It was the first day of the academic year at my son’s Manhattan parochial school, and he and I stood waiting on the street with other parents and kids for the pre-K-4 teacher to open the doors and retrieve the little ones (after an obligatory temperature check, of course). While the kids nattered about important 4-year-old matters like the relative merits of “real” Batman versus Lego Batman, I noticed something delightful: Nearly all the parents were unmasked, as I was.

This was a big leap forward from last year, when the same cohort of parents would be almost uniformly masked while waiting outdoors, even after public-health authorities clarified what saner people outside Covid-hysterical bubbles already knew: that masking outdoors is unnecessary, not to say moronic. Now, it seemed, reason’s gleaming rays had finally shone upon the Upper East Side mind. Huzzah!

Not so fast. It turns out I had been far too optimistic, and something darker was afoot. For as soon as the door opened, and a tightly masked Mrs. H. emerged to accept her students, the parents donned their masks, too, some even doubling up.

They were still standing outdoors, mind you, and well apart from each other. And they would never so much as step into the vestibule, per the Covid rules. The mere presence of a (relatively) powerful figure, in other words, was enough to compel these parents to do something they otherwise considered useless or irrational.

This was profoundly un-American behavior, and I use the term decidedly.

As Christopher Lasch reminded us in his final masterpiece, The Revolt of the Elites, what struck foreign visitors about Americans in earlier times was how “very few of them seemed to have a sense of their proper place.” Hierarchies always existed, of course, and if anything, these became starker as industrial capitalism took root in the 19th century. There was also an entire slave caste in the South. Even so, as practical democrats, Americans felt they could give a piece of their mind to anybody, high or low—a product, Lasch argued, not of material equality, but of the “equal distribution of intelligence and competence.”

If, relying on his competence and general sense, an American concluded that a certain opinion was foolish, he wouldn’t adopt it merely because he was in the presence of some higher personage who held the same opinion. Over and over, contemporary accounts from foreign visitors to the young republic made this same observation.

The democratic, anti-hierarchical spirit has its downsides, to put it mildly, and I’ve written about these extensively (at book-length, in fact). The aversion to hierarchical authority in morality and religion means Americans often make a hash of these things; vulgar irreverence can corrode every high and holy principle; and so on. But when it comes to practical, prudential questions—say, how to respond to a pandemic—a measure of that famous American self-confidence strikes me as healthy. It can chasten an imperious expert class and remind the high and mighty of the inviolable dignity of the low.

Which is why it was so depressing to watch my fellow parents mask up outdoors in front of the teacher, when they clearly saw no need to mask outdoors a mere moment earlier. The ritual abjection reminded me of the behavior of secular women in my native Iran, who would race to fix their “bad hijab” if they saw a “Hajj Agha” (a morality enforcer or mullah) passing by.

Except: Religious modesty norms rest on a sturdier basis of rationality than does outdoor masking, especially for the vaccinated, and these Upper East Siders were almost certainly double- or even triple-jabbed. Masking tots is likewise infuriatingly mindless, given that they are at minuscule risk from the coronavirus and transmit it at a lower rate than do adults—something we have known since spring 2020.

Lasch fretted that the democratic spirit was slipping away by the late 20th century. The level of servility on display that day outside the school suggests it might be altogether extinct—at least, among the professional-managerial upper crust in the metropoles, those who occupy the commanding heights of business, tech, media, and academe. But the rest of the country must resist, and masking is probably the better battle to pick, given the sheer unreasonableness of the practice and the visible new caste system it’s creating.

I’m not sure what exact shape such a resistance movement should take. GOP governors and Republican-led state legislatures offer some hope for red states. In blue states, mass protests and individual acts of disobedience might be the best bet, though you can bet the social-media giants will be enlisted to suppress organizing, while traditional media will frame anti-mask parents and others as dangerous cranks; the emerging social-credit system will also no doubt be deployed to ruin the lives of prominent dissidents.

Yet we must resist, if only to preserve our own sanity against the notion that a virus can threaten us while walking around in a restaurant, but not when we are sitting down to eat. That blue-collar hotel and restaurant workers should mask all day, but not the guests they serve, and especially not celebs and politicos. That asthmatic toddlers should face the police for failing to mask up on airplanes. Or that masks aren’t necessary outdoors, except when our kids’ teacher shows up.

For more about the “Taking the Mask Off” series, click here.