One of the things I love about America—and there are many—is her deeply ingrained rebelliousness. When the government tells us to do something, we instinctively question it.
Of course, all principles can be taken too far. It’s good to question authority, but if a sign says, “Do not swim in pond, there are alligators here,” and your response is, “I’ll do what I want, you’re not the boss of me,” you’re an idiot.
If you’re on a lifeboat with several other people and everyone agrees to ration the fresh water, but your answer is, “Shut up, I’m thirsty,” being the sole dissenter makes you the jerk, not the hero.
Which brings me to the newest form of fashionable rebellion in some quarters: refusal to wear face masks when warranted.
Note the qualifier “when warranted.” I think mask-wearing can go overboard. In my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I see joggers running alone on warm days wearing masks, and I wonder, “Why?” It’s gotta be uncomfortable. But when I’m in a grocery store, I wear the mask. If I’m alone in an aisle, I might take it off —they fog up my glasses. But if someone is nearby, or if I’m in the checkout line, I make sure to put it back on.
Bear in mind, the CDC’s recommendation that people wear masks isn’t primarily about self-protection but the protection of others. There’s little to no evidence that a mask will prevent you from getting the disease if you’re exposed to it. There’s some evidence that if you’re infected with COVID-19, wearing a mask will help prevent you from spreading it. In other words, it’s a medically sound courtesy to others.
I don’t have any problem with Donald Trump not wearing a mask at his press conferences. He’s tested regularly, as are the people around him. I think the television reporters standing outside at the beach wearing a mask are being a little silly. The camera can easily be more than 6 feet away. But the idea that public figures should model correct behavior isn’t ridiculous either. It’s a judgment call.
That said, what I find utterly baffling—and frankly, embarrassing—is the idea that wearing a mask in any situation is a surrender to tyranny and fear. Various cable TV and talk radio hosts have embraced the idea that wearing a mask is a concession to tyrannical social engineers and a “symbol of fear,” in the words of Rush Limbaugh. Protestors boo suggestions to wear masks, and they carry signs reading “Just Say No” and “Don’t Mask the Truth.” At one store in Michigan, a security guard was shot to death for telling a patron to wear as mask.
Cheryl Chumley, the online opinion editor of the Washington Times, writes that the practice of mask-wearing is “like the red belts worn by the communists when they want to show solidarity, when they want to make public expressions of party loyalty, when they want to display their sacrifice of self for the greater good.”
No. No, it’s not like that. Wearing red belts to prove you’re a good communist is not at all like wearing a mask to ensure you won’t kill someone’s grandmother—never mind simply to reassure said grandmother it’s safe for her to shop at the supermarket.
According to any remotely recognizable theory of limited government—whether you call it libertarianism, constitutionalism, conservatism, classical liberalism, or even Americanism—the government has not just the authority but the obligation to prevent threats to public welfare. From colonial times to well after the ratification of the Constitution, governments took extreme measures—quarantines, inoculation programs, etc.—to prevent the spread of yellow fever and other epidemics. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered the mandatory inoculation of his troops to prevent the spread of smallpox.
In other words, epidemics, like wars, are the great exceptions to limited government. This used to be Conservatism 101: The government shouldn’t boss us around unless there is a truly compelling reason, like an invading army or, in this case, an invading virus.
What makes all of this even dumber is that all the federal government has done is recommend mask-wearing. Most of the places that require masks are private businesses. Admittedly, some are adhering to local public health guidelines, but so what? Why aren’t these rebels going shirtless and shoeless into restaurants to stick it to the man and his Maoist “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” signs?
By all means, continue to question authority, but bear in mind, sometimes the authorities are right.
Photograph of a lockdown protest in Boston by Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images.