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Mask Truthers

The pre-totalitarian politicization of Covid-19
A sickle and a hammer in a medical mask.

Darel Paul correctly calls this, from Stillwater, Oklahoma, an example of right-wing “folk libertarianism”:

An emergency declaration that took effect at midnight Friday has been amended after businesses reported their employees were being threatened with physical harm by members of the public who didn’t want to wear face coverings.

Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce released the amended emergency proclamation just 16 hours after it was enacted, in response to concerns voiced by residents and the proprietors of businesses, according to a City of Stillwater release.

The changes make the wearing of face coverings in retail establishments optional rather than mandatory for customers, although it is still strongly recommended, employees are still required to wear them and the proclamation is extended to 11:59 p.m. May 31.

The emergency proclamation can be amended further as becomes necessary.

City Manager Norman McNickle issued a statement about the change and the controversy surrounding mandatory face coverings:

“In the short time beginning on May 1, 2020, that face coverings have been required for entry into stores/restaurants, store employees have been threatened with physical violence and showered with verbal abuse. In addition, there has been one threat of violence using a firearm. This has occurred in three short hours and in the face of clear medical evidence that face coverings helps contain the spread of COVID-19.

“Many of those with objections cite the mistaken belief the requirement is unconstitutional, and under their theory, one cannot be forced to wear a mask. No law or court supports this view. In fact, a recent Federal lawsuit against Guthrie’s face covering order was fully dismissed by the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.”

These thugs have been threatening store employees and owners with violence — for expecting customers to abide by public health guidelines that are no more than an inconvenience, and that lessen the chance that a deadly virus will infect them and/or spread through them.

Idiots. Selfish idiots. They are given the opportunity to ease back into normal life, by shopping, but they’re not going to do the minimum necessary to help the community be safer. So now business owners and other shoppers are going to be more at risk from the virus, because Rights. Man, that ticks me off. Selfish creeps.

But you know what? They’re getting this from Rush Limbaugh and some other prominent conservative talk show hosts:

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, the recent recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, was an early mask paranoiac. On April 20, he promoted the idea, later picked up by Ingraham, that masks are totems of control.

“It is clear that the mask is a symbol of fear, and when you see various people suggesting that we may now have masks as part of our public lives for the rest of our lives?” Limbaugh said. “Uh, why?”

For some conservatives, refusing to wear a mask has become just the latest way to thumb their noses at social distancing mandates. Talk radio host Dennis Prager said in a video that he refused to don one—and compared himself to Rosa Parks or dissident Germans in the Nazi era for his defiance.

Mask truthers are a thing, it turns out. I do not and cannot understand this idea on the Right that the coronavirus is a social construct that the Left is using to oppress us. How, exactly, does this differ from the Social Justice Warrior belief that saying a penis person is a man is oppressive? Man parts, lady parts, coronaviruses — they’re all political fictions.

A friend e-mailed this morning and said the latest WHO guidelines recommend against using masks for most people. This is so frustrating! In late February, the US Surgeon General said “no masks.” Then, a month later, the CDC said, “Yes masks.” What now? In my family, we are following the mask guidelines in public, but also using hand sanitizer, and limiting our excursions outside the house. It makes sense to us that masks may offer some protection. We don’t like wearing them, but it’s merely an inconvenience, and worth doing to protect ourselves and the supermarket check-out ladies, and the other workers we come in contact with. If it turns out that masks aren’t worth it, what have we lost by wearing them?

Note well, though, that the mask truthers aren’t refusing to wear masks because they don’t believe they help. That might or might not be true, but it’s a defensible position. They’re refusing to wear masks because they see them as a symbol of social control.

This is not the kind of conservatism I signed up for. In fact, one reason I consider myself a conservative is because, according to Russell Kirk, conservatism proper rejects ideological thinking. He wrote:

Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells. I set down below some of the vices of ideology.

  1. Ideology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation through grace in death, and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith, and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular.
  2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries”, and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions. …

Now I contrast with those three failings certain principles of the politics of prudence.

  1. As I put it earlier, ideology is inverted religion. But the prudential politician knows that “Utopia” means “Nowhere”; that we cannot march to an earthly Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive “righteousness” in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state.

  2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible, I pointed out. The prudential politician, au contraire, is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats.

Hannah Arendt, talking about the kinds of men that brought totalitarianism to Russia and Germany (here she speaks of writers and intellectuals):

To them, violence, power, cruelty, were the supreme capacities of men who had definitely lost their place in the universe and were much too proud to long for a power theory that would safely bring them back and reintegrate them into the world. They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content…

Arendt goes on:

The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.

She says that one characteristic of modern mass man is that he will believe anything that suits his own imagination. “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. … Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”

A society is pre-totalitarian when its people will only accept as “truth” what confirms what they prefer to believe. Arendt says that movements that turn totalitarian are those that manage to protect the frightened and uprooted masses from “the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.” I have paid a lot of attention to the way this has been working on the political and cultural left. I think this has been the right thing to do, mostly because the left controls most of the institutions in this country. The media is so deep inside a progressive epistemic bubble that it doesn’t see how it functions to present the world in a way that is consistent with its ideological worldview. This is a fact. No matter how crazy the right behaves, this remains true.

I write about this so often that I trust I don’t have to elaborate on it in this blog post.

However, I don’t want to keep one bunch of ideologues out of political power, only to empower another set.

It’s hard to deny that many conservatives have reacted to Covid-19 more out of ideology than fact. That’s exactly what these Stillwater people have done: opposing wearing masks on ideological principle. It’s what Limbaugh is encouraging people to do. Heterodox Academy, the non-partisan academic group, studied the reactions of both liberals and conservatives. One puzzle they tried to sort out: conservatives are generally more sensitive than liberals to threats. But Covid is flipping that rule. Why? These social scientists did three studies:

The results were striking.  We found little evidence that different experiences with COVID-19 account for liberals’ and conservatives’ different views of the pandemic.  Instead, participants’ desired political outcomes more consistently accounted for ideological differences in disease threat perception. The figure below reports the indirect effects for both political beliefs and experiences across our three studies. These indirect effects are measurements of the degree to which the relationship between political ideology and perceived COVID-19 threat is accounted for by (a) desired political outcomes related to COVID-19 or (b) participants’ exposure to or experiences with the effects of the disease. As clearly indicated, it is participants’ political desires – and not their level of experience or exposure – that account for the different threats liberals and conservatives assign to COVID-19.

What kinds of ideological goals were most important in explaining conservatives’ relative apathy toward COVID-19?  Out of six, the strongest effects emerged for goals that involved government-imposed social distancing rules.  Conservatives oppose the government telling them when they can or cannot leave their homes; liberals support such policies.  Because a threatening disease might validate government interventions that conservatives dislike, conservatives appear motivated to downplay the severity.  Or conversely, because a threatening disease might validate government interventions that liberals do like, liberals seem motivated to magnify the threat.  Note that our results cannot say which of these is happening in greater measure.

Thus, it is these ideological lenses – and not direct experiences – that appear to explain better liberals’ and conservatives’ different views of the pandemic.  In a sense, the proverbial cart may be driving the proverbial horse: rather than the actual threat of the disease influencing political policy preferences, political policy preferences are influencing perceptions of disease threat.

Look at this part, though:

We found that the general effect of ideology on perceived COVID-19 threat significantly decreased at higher levels of experience with COVID-19.  Conservatives view the disease as less threatening than liberals, but this difference shrinks among participants who have been more impacted by the disease.  Thus, although a lack of experience did not account for conservatives’ lower threat perceptions, the more experience they had, the less their own ideological goals mattered.

Read the whole thing. Let me repeat: the more actual experience conservatives have with Covid-19, the more likely they are to take it seriously as a threat. Until then, though, most conservatives regard the virus with ideological eyes. Remember your Arendt: “Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.” Thus the Mask Truthers of right-wing talk media.

Hear me: I am not talking about people who argue that we have to have a compromise of some sort on the lockdown rules because they’re being economically ruined. That is a reasonable demand. We cannot keep going with the economy frozen like this. Letting people go out and shop and open businesses and do work while wearing masks seems like a commonsense compromise to me on the way to returning to something like normal (which we’re not going to have anyway until there’s a vaccine, or we have herd immunity, the latter of which is at least two years away). If it doesn’t work, well, we can try something new. But for these right-wing ideologues, it’s their way or the highway. Are they not going to be satisfied until people in rural America start dying of Covid-19? It’s crazy.

I was texting this morning about this stuff with a conservative Christian friend, who said this is what it looks like to him:

The Democrats are nasty as hell and hate people like us. The Republicans are absolutely batshit crazy. Can’t take a risk on the latter. Dems will make life very hard for Christians. GOP may well destroy the entire country.

I’ll finish with a letter from a Muslim reader with whom I have corresponded in the past. He wrote me about my “Weimar America and the Michigan Mob” post:

I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about the Michigan armed protesters, in particular, this line:

“That’s where the protesters lose me. They lose me completely. No lawmaker — and no professor, and no student, and no citizen of this democracy — should be afraid for their lives because of violent political actors, or from political actors that want people to think they are violent.”
It could be that the protesters are merely angry nuts looking for any excuse to sling a gun in a liberal’s face. It could be that they are such extremist libertarian ideologues that they view any restrictions on their beloved personal freedoms and right to consume a provocation to war. It’s a possibility, sure. Maybe even a probability.
But can you also see the possibility that some of these gunslingers have not had a paycheck for a month? That they don’t know when- or if- they will be able to go back to their jobs again?
I will be making it through this pandemic economically unscathed, alhamdulilah [praise God]. So too will the Governor of Michigan, and the state representatives. And the infanticide-loving Klanner governor of Virginia, who initially proclaimed it would take 2 years for them to fully reopen. As you can imagine from a guy who wants a khalifah [caliphate], I’m not a fan of secular liberal democracy. But one of the things I’ve always really admired about America is its smoothness and simplicity of bureaucracy. You don’t have to bribe anyone to get a driver’s license, or have your passport renewed, the system, annoying as it may be, just works.
But here’s the thing: the system doesn’t work in America because the people are better than in, say, Sudan. The low-level pencil-pushers in the Muslim world who take bribes and do other immoral things aren’t bad people, I know this from experience. They believe in God and have families like the rest of us. They are simply willing to do whatever it takes to keep food on the table. America doesn’t have this problem because it’s America.
But what do you think is going to happen when the dollar gets devalued to nothing? When unemployment hits 30, 40%? I really like what you said a couple days ago, America simply does not have the social capital to keep it together. “Should” lawmakers have to fear for their lives because of some disaffected citizen? It’s an irrelevant question. You may as well be asking whether heavy objects “should” fall when you drop them. If you are going to compare it to the Weimar Republic, compare it not to disenchanted intellectuals and the brutes they spawned, but to those ordinary people who were willing to do anything, anything at all, to stave off economic ruin.
This reader makes a good point. What I don’t get is why so many conservatives won’t even put on a mask as a measure that allows us to get the country moving again, because it violates their ideology. Russell Kirk called ideology “inverted religion,” and said that it “makes political compromise impossible.” I get it: for these right-wing ideologues, wearing a mask is like asking early Christians to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar.
What kind of bizarre deity is it that makes it blasphemous to put on a face mask amid a deadly pandemic, because it’s a symbol of government control? It’s a right-wing version of the left-wing deity who instantiates a metaphysics enabling its devotees to proclaim penises on a self-proclaimed woman to be a fleshy form of fiction, and anyone who denies that is an enemy of the people.
These kinds of conservatives believe that truth is whatever owns the libs. We are such a screwed-up country. I believe that we are closer to totalitarianism than at any time in our history. I still believe the greater threat comes from the left, for reasons I have made clear on this blog over the past couple of years, and that I will make more explicit in my forthcoming book. But this virus is showing that the conditions exist for some form of it to emerge from the right. I wish that weren’t true, but just look.