The videos are now showing up in your social media feed every hour or two, each one more over-the-top than the one before — viral missives from a world that seems to have gone mad and yet somehow exists right in our backyard. These “forgotten Americans” are at the lectern at your county commission meeting if they’re not yelling at you in the produce aisle — screaming that the elected officials and their so-called scientific experts demanding they wear a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus are really part of a vast conspiracy to take away their freedoms.
“I would also like to know where do you get the authority to reduce my oxygen,” one woman in a white “Trump Girl” shirt demanded of the Palm Beach County, Fla., commissioners as they met to issue a mandatory-mask-in-public order to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases in the Sunshine State. Her rant was not as remarkable as the fact she was just one of a stream of citizens with different variations on the same theme — that masks are a plot to subdue the masses in the name of Bill Gates or Hillary Clinton or whatever other Antichrist just popped up in their Facebook feed.
“You see that flag, I would die for that flag,” a man who called himself “an American Patriot” told the commissioners. “The Constitution that you were supposed to uphold, I would die for that! None of you are holding that up.” Others said masks were either the devil’s work or shielding sexual predators, or else provided unintentional comic relief like the woman who insisted: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear. ... Things gotta breathe.”
Similar sentiments echoed across Florida — “I will not be muzzled like a mad dog!” screamed one St. Lucie County man, sounding very much like a mad dog — and the United States, where residents of Huntington Beach, Calif., waved American flags and a large sign reading “NO MASKS” at motorists. But as the United States watched coronavirus cases spiral out of control in a manner that’s happened almost nowhere else in the world, the problem seemed deeper than the usual suspects of Trumpist QAnon believers. Even in “blue states,” young people packed bars and beaches and then brought COVID-19 home for Father’s Day. In Santa Cruz County, Calif., commissioners who’d tried to keep beaches closed simply gave up. “People,” a spokesperson said, “are not willing to be governed in that regard.”
The most comprehensive study published in the journal Lancet found mask-wearing could reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission from 17% to 3%. No wonder the University of Washington says universal mask-wearing in the United States would reduce the coronavirus death toll between now and October by a whopping 33,000 human beings.
Just think of all the restrictions on freedom and liberty — from the government seeing what you checked out at the library to invasive searches at the airport — to prevent another attack like 9/11 that killed 3,000 people, or less than one-tenth the toll from not wearing masks. But for millions of Americans — not a majority, mind you, but enough to cause a public-health hazard in a pandemic — the idea of masks has been launched into a different orbit where freedom talk is injected with the uniquely American viruses of free-market capitalism and media manipulation, maybe with a dollop of white supremacy.
The 1970s’ British glam-pop rockers Sweet practically predicted all of this with their 1978 smash, “Love Is Like Oxygen”: “... You get too much and get too high, not enough and you’re gonna die.” In the mask debate, just substitute the word freedom for love. Because, yes, freedom — to speak, to publish, to worship, to assemble, and to protest the government — is absolutely essential to the American experience, so much so that it’s hard to get in a “but ...”
But ... too much of the warped notion of freedom promoted by the aggressively not-mask-wearing President Trump and his No. 2, Mike Pence, and their prophets like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity won’t just get you high — to continue with the Sweet analogy — but could also kill you by an overdose. What the radio hucksters, and the wannabe dictators they installed, won’t tell you is that freedom without any social responsibility or empathy for others is ultimately hollow.
But let’s remember that American people — even the damaged souls that you’re laughing at on Twitter today — didn’t pervert the meaning of freedom on their own. The warped modern version of liberty was sold to them, first by right-wing public intellectuals like Ayn Rand, who killed thousands of trees to wrap unbridled selfishness in her endless tomes about freedom, and later by the salesmen of Big Capitalism.
Protecting your freedom became the ideal branding for what these pitchmen really wanted, which was political cover to dramatically lower taxes on millionaires (who, thanks to that, would become billionaires) and to crush unions and their demands for higher pay, freeing up profits to now pay CEOs 350 times what the average worker makes. Talk about finding the cost of freedom! With the help of academics like the Nobel economist James McGill Buchanan, backed by billionaires like the Koch brothers, warped freedom capitalism got a fancy name — free-market libertarianism. But by the 1970s, their new form of snake-oil salesmanship was threatened by the avatars of a newer “knowledge economy.”
Confronted with scientific realities like man-made climate change, the forces of conservative libertarianism turned their guns toward expertise, with the goals of thwarting environmentalism and keeping corporate profits high. The bills for global warming are starting to come due, but that has been superseded for the time being by the COVID-19 crisis; the lack of trust for medical expertise from Main Street all the way to an ignorant president whom 62 million Main Streeters installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has proved lethal.
No other nation has botched its coronavirus response so badly because no other nation holds science in such low esteem. “Who made you perpetrators over my life?” the self-proclaimed Trump Girl demanded of the experts at the Palm Beach County meeting. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Stanford psychiatry prof Keith Humphreys noted that the United States simply can’t impose a coronavirus testing regimen like South Korea or Singapore because we don’t trust the government on public health. “Clusters of gun-toting protesters opposing public health measures are a real — and uniquely American — problem,” he wrote, “but it’s the much more prevalent distrust in government’s role in public health that would curtail the success of any test, trace and isolate program.”
In a functioning society, freedom can flourish when it’s part of a broader social compact, when liberty is not abused because its practitioners also see themselves as part of a community, where they care about others — even, or especially, when it comes to wearing a mask and not spreading germs to your neighbor. But has there ever been a branding campaign as successful as America repackaging selfishness, self-interest, and extreme inequality as personal freedom?
That’s even true of the freedom that’s so central to my work life: the free press that exists under the First Amendment. I’ve seen how that only works well when publishers fuel their press freedom with common sense and an understanding of responsibility to the readers. In the internet age, the promise of an even greater media freedom has been polluted by billionaires from Fox’s Rupert Murdoch to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who made bigger profits off lies and unchecked conspiracy theories than off fact-checking in the public interest. The filth of Zuckerberg’s Facebook is what’s spewing, unmasked, from the self-styled “patriots” of Palm Beach County.
There’s something else going here, and in the age of George Floyd it cannot be ignored. As Nancy MacLean chronicled in her award-winning Democracy in Chains about the above-mentioned James McGill Buchanan, his think-tank crusade to promote libertarianism was initially rooted in preserving Southern school segregation, or white supremacy. Over the last 50 or so years, much of what conservatives have hyped as threats to personal liberty were really proposed checks on white (or male) privilege.
White supremacy is, at its diseased heart, a quest for a kind of cultural immortality. As the global pandemic advanced and as evidence mounted that COVID-19 is most lethal not just for the elderly but also for Black and brown Americans, it seems clear that for some white people, not wearing a mask isn’t just a freedom song but a defiant proclamation of their superiority. That’s validated every day by America’s white-supremacist-in-chief, whose refusal to wear a mask in public is in fact a different kind of mask, one of his deep insecurity. This toxic blend of narcissism and white privilege is Donald Trump’s idea of leadership — even as he leads some of his voters to an early grave.
The flip side is that the millions who’ve marched in America’s streets after George Floyd’s murder — many, although not all, from the under-35 generation — are making the case that a better world, built around empathy and compassion for people who don’t look like ourselves, is coming. They are using their freedom of speech and assembly to forge a more perfect union, and I fervently wish that the 33,000 Americans who may be doomed by a lethal injection of phony liberty can somehow live to see it.