What’s Behind the Mask Controversy?

5/14/21

Can we stipulate for these purposes that science has made it clear to all that for the preceding months, the wearing of masks was for the health benefit of the nation, and therefore, also for my neighbors, even for my own family; and, secondly, can we stipulate that the wearing of a mask is a very small thing, not a great inconvenience to anyone?  

This much is quite clear to everyone.

So, why has the matter of masks turned into such a feud? Officials are named and shamed for both wearing and not wearing masks, depending on whether you are watching Fox or CNN. This can’t be entirely because there are some minor scientific differences on where and when to wear masks, because there just isn’t much scientific disagreement.

What seems a simple issue has become rancorous, divisive, and bitter, between Republicans and Democrats. This is really hard to understand unless one reflects on the sociological history of the US. Our pilgrims had little government, often none, as they pushed west. They fought their way through all manner of challenges and hardships, with little or no help. They fought through all forms of interference in pursuit of their freedom and opportunity. Even as we grew and needed so much that could only be done by working together, this deep seated attitude has sustained and prevailed.

The answer to the mask mystery must be in our nation’s long history of individualism, the resistance to accepting responsibility for the collective. 

When Ronald Reagan said, “government IS the problem,” he was playing to this sentiment. Government exists for the collective, for the communal good. So abolishing government would be victory for those who want no responsibility for others and feel they are perfectly prepared to go it alone, needing no help from anyone.

When Donald Trump proclaimed, “America First,” he was rallying to this same sentiment—we as a nation can go it alone—we can be self-sufficient—we don’t need anything from the rest of the world. Likewise, we don’t need immigrants. 

There are objections to anyone controlling when my kids can be back in school, and anyone controlling when I can re-open my restaurant or business, and just how I must operate when I do. The police are here to protect me and my property. They’re not here to be social workers for those who should be taking care of themselves.

And on and on.

Fueling this bias is the failure of government to operate in ways seen as in the best interest of the individuals, the citizens of this country. And it’s not just the institutions of government which have lost the trust of citizens. Corporations have also failed the individual. There are few pension plans remaining. “Defined benefit plans” have taken their place, essentially meaning employer abandonment of the lifetime concern for the employee. Employment “at will” prevails, meaning the boss can fire you for any reason without warning. Unions have also failed their workers. Public schools have failed their students and parents.

In quasi-individualist moves, the wealthy have taken to private schools for their kids, and some to private jets and helicopters for their travel. The wealthy belong to private clubs and live in private gated communities. Inequality has skyrocketed and polls show working class Americans don’t care to fix it—many hoping they also can “make it,” and be left to enjoy it without being taxed. 

This is all a reflection of the extreme appeal to individualism, which has been and remains uniquely characteristic of the US. Sociological studies have compared our nation to a variety of European nations and found us at the extreme.

The mask objectors have seized on this symbol of being forced to concern for the collective. They see it as a loss of freedom for the individual. The mask objectors are saying, “no one can tell me what to do—not the government, not the scientists, not the CDC.”

Our unfortunate extreme dedication to individualism has costs. The value of community is lost and starved for resources. Only with community can all manner of shared assets and services be provided—from roads and bridges to Medicare and Social Security. Only with community can we have police, military, and careful protection to our environment. Our dedication to individualism means that all of these (and more) can be seen as somehow infringing on individual rights.

I vote for government, and higher taxes for the wealthy of us. I vote for leaders who respect and appreciate government, want to improve it, not to destroy it.

I welcome your comments

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