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No One Cared Who I Was Until I Put On the Mask
On COVID, identity, and humility
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The title of this post is a line spoken in The Dark Knight Rises by Bane, a character who promises to bring a revolution of populist democracy back to Gotham but the whole time is planning to nuke the city. Bane is what the American Right and Left each think of when they think of the other side: deceptive actors, agents of unmitigated social destruction knowingly camouflaging their apocalyptic ambitions with political rhetoric.
When the other side is Bane, nothing is more important than being a Batman: mask and all.
The CDC dramatically changed their recommendations for vaccinated Americans last week. Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear a mask anywhere, with a handful of exceptions that were not explained. Response to the new guidance has followed the reliable script that the pandemic has followed since last spring, but this time with a twist. The #Science!-centered folks have accused the CDC of behaving politically, accommodating cretin anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, while the #Liberty!-centered folks have welcomed the new rules and appeal to them as evidence that broad COVID restrictions are bad.
I promise I will stop talking about this at some point. But it bears saying again and again: Contemporary society craves identity because it refuses the one it is given, so it turns to politics, #Science!, and media wars to give it one. I believe fervently that masks give protection against airborne viruses. I also believe that for the last year and a half, masks have given a sense of self, virtue, and belonging to a large swath of Americans. The cloth mask has become the new “Coexist” bumper sticker, a sociopolitical ID that communicates, “I am this kind of person, not THAT kind of person.”
For four long, sad years the ultimate thing that mattered, according to TV news, journalism, and Twitter’s algorithm was whether you were for or against Donald Trump. Over that span of time kids came of age, armchair pundits became famous online, institutions were rocked, and people experienced deeper tribal sensations than they had sensed in many years. The politics of the Trump era offered so many of us a concrete personality, a way to know where we belonged and with whom we were at home. Trump himself politicized masks and social distancing in a way that was dreadfully harmful, but in this his loudest critics were much more like him than they ever realized. Before the basic facts about COVID-19 were even understood, one thing was clear: you were either for masks, distancing, and Fauci, or you were for doing whatever you want, and Trump. We will reckon with the fallout from this for years.
So masks were never just masks. The mask selfie was never just a mask selfie, just like the barefaced restaurant selfie was never just a barefaced restaurant selfie. Everyone had a point to make, not just a choice. Thus it is that when all the research, all the statistics, and near uniform chorus of experts say that the pandemic in the US is receding, and that vaccines and the outdoors are tickets out of masks, a solid contingent of folks simply don’t know what to do. The mask, much like #Science! itself, stands for a category of thinking and living, a category whose resistance to change proves that it goes deeper than any are willing to admit.
This might sound harsh to describe some who just feel safer and more comfortable wearing a mask. Indeed, I think we all need to practice mutual respect. Wearing a mask is a decision worth respecting. If it gives someone confidence in being with others, if it opens doors to church, restaurants, and parks, I am glad for them.
But we have to take a moment to grieve what’s been lost in this epistemological war. Mutual respect of feelings is civility, so this might mean that civility matters a little bit more than being able to browbeat others with #Science! If we really learned from this, what would it mean? It would probably mean not taking potshots at those wacky creationists from behind your double-layered cloth mask. It would probably mean refraining from using phrases like “experts say” when explaining to a parent why their kid needs timeouts instead of spankings. It would probably mean humility: sober acknowledgement of how politics tends to infect everything, even public health declarations. It would probably mean giving up a ready-made partisan identity and pursuing what’s true, good, and beautiful, no matter who is or isn’t owned by it.
I thank God for the mercy he has shown to his world. What a devastating pandemic this has been. Many have died, and most of the ones left have suffered. Mistakes were made, yes. People got it wrong, and sometimes for the worst possible reasons. The darkness is lifting, medically speaking. But no vaccine prevents a sick public soul, and no mask will either. It’s harder than that:
We need humility.