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Masks And Controlling The Uncontrollable

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Are face masks effective in slowing down Covid-19 transmission? The Mayo Clinic says yes:

Can face masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.

So why weren’t face masks recommended at the start of the pandemic? At that time, experts didn’t yet know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared. Nor was it known that some people have COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms. Both groups can unknowingly spread the virus to others.

These discoveries led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to do an about-face on face masks. The CDC updated its guidance to recommend widespread use of simple cloth face coverings to help prevent transmission of COVID-19 by people who have the virus but don’t know it.

A new analysis of 64 different studies finds evidence that masks make a big difference in slowing down the spread of viruses within healthcare settings. The study’s director says there is not much evidence one way or the other for mask-wearing outside of healthcare settings:

Still, he recommends that people wear masks outside. “I think common sense tells us having some kind of barrier is probably good,” he says. “It’s hard to know exactly how much it will reduce transmission. But overall it’s probably a good thing to do.”

I believe that America has to start re-opening the economy. Mask-wearing in public is a reasonable part of that process. If the public health authorities believe that wearing masks can help us to get things opened up again, what’s the problem with putting the things on when interacting with others outside the home? I hate the things, but come on, it’s not a big ask. We may not be able to say for sure that mask-wearing (in conjunction with other measures) can reduce the virus’s spread by a measurable amount, but as the doctor who headed that analysis says, it makes sense that a barrier between one’s mouth and the general public is not going to hurt, and might well help.

First Things editor Rusty Reno said in his coronavirus diary this week that he has tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. He has made an issue of going around Manhattan conspicuously not wearing a mask, because he thinks mask-wearing is what cowards do. If you interacted with Reno at some time in the past couple of months, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that he wore a mask?

Jonathan V. Last has a piece about the cognitive dissonance within people who believe we should re-open the economy, but should not wear masks. Excerpt:

If you want to end the lockdown immediately, then you will want to take any nominal precautions that will allow reopening as quickly as possible. Wearing a mask is a low-cost, high-benefit way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and hence make it possible to ease restrictions while lowering the chances of another outbreak.

But instead:

We have a “don’t wear masks” movement that overlaps almost entirely with the “reopen immediately” movement.

There are only two possible explanations for why this might be. The first is that people are dumber than a bag of hammers.

The second is that when people tell you what they think about “reopening” and “masks,” they aren’t actually talking about the coronavirus. They’re telling a story about how they see themselves and their place in the world.

I think that people aren’t dumb. I think this is part of a constructed narrative. So does J.V. Last. But he doesn’t say what that narrative might be. I’m not sure either.

A friend in the Midwest shared with me tonight about a woman who screamed at a family for letting their children play without masks in their own back yard. He also talked about people he knows who genuinely believe that Bill Gates invented Covid-19 to destroy Trump and usher in one-world government. My friend said, of these narratives, “Both evidence desperation to gain a control over the uncontrollable.”

I think that is true. I think this is deeply true. Put that insight together with Last’s, which says these events are about people displaying how they see themselves in the world. And think about them along with a couple of lines from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she discusses aspects of pre-totalitarian societies:

  • They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.
  • The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.

Arendt is talking about the state of mind of people who were susceptible to totalitarianism. These were people who didn’t care about truth as truth; whatever respectable society said wasn’t true, they believed. If respectable society said you cannot or should not go out in public without a mask, then that was reason enough for them to oppose mask-wearing. And one should then speak cruelly — like, say, calling mask-wearers cowards — to show up their hypocritical humanitarianism.

It is a performance. It’s a performance about establishing a sense of normality and political dominance at the same time.

UPDATE: Reader lawbooks10 says:

To be fair, it’s not as though “respectable society” has given us ANY REASON AT ALL to trust them or their judgment in the past, oh, 30 years. I wear masks when I’m inside, not outside. But I don’t blame people who scoff at all this because we are once again being asked to “just trust” institutions and authorities who have shown over and over again that they are not trustworthy and do not have good judgment. It’s a boy crying wolf scenario. I don’t believe any of these conspiracy theories, but I’m definitely skeptical of the motivations of the media and a lot of political officials as they react to this crisis.

I hear you, but note well that, according to Arendt, this is one social development that paves the way for totalitarianism. Germans in the post-WWI, pre-Nazi era knew that their society’s institutions had led them all into the catastrophic war. This was undeniable. Yet, understandable disgust with those institutions, combined with other factors (such as mentioned above), proved deadly to the body politic. Arendt writes that the widespread collapse of faith in institutions gave an opening to would-be totalitarians — especially those that told a coherent story (even if it was a lie) about why things happened, and how they (the totalitarians) would fix it.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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