Mask (and Non-Mask) as Totem

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It is not news that the mask has become a political totem at a time when our head of state has, through both malevolence and incompetence, led us into a public health catastrophe that has cost 120,000 American lives and counting, with no end in sight, and now wants us to believe it’s not his fault, the crisis is past, and everything is hunky dory.

Disregarding the grave advice of every reputable public health expert, and following the lead of their grotesque leader, the refusal of Trump’s supporters to wear masks is very much a banner of partisan allegiance. It is also a batshit crazy denial of objective reality, the kind of irrational devotion to the Dear Leader—even at the cost of one’s own physical well-being—normally found only in death cults.

To that end, the politicization of the mask-wearing become the perfect symbol of the madness in the time of Trump.

And what rationale do the denizens MAGA Nation offer for this decision?

For some, it’s mere denial and wishful thinking.

For others, it is a public demonstration of belief in the Trumpian claim that the virus is a hoax. (But you need to sign this waiver saying that your family won’t sue in case it kills you.)

For still others it’s an obstinate, self-destructive act of libertarianism, a defiant cutting-off-of-one’s-nose-to-spite-one’s-face by way of proving that the government can’t tell me what to do, dammit.

All three lines of argument are indefensible, but it’s the last one that is most disgusting.

Behold this statement from the proverbial Florida man, Max Parsell, whom the Washington Post reports “hasn’t been wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic and doesn’t intend to start,” on the grounds that it is “a matter of principle.”

“Making individual decisions is the American way,” Parsell, a 29-year-old lineman for a power company, said as he picked up his lunch at a barbecue joint at a rural crossroads south of Jacksonville. “I’ll social distance from you if you want, but I don’t want the government telling me I have to wear a mask.”

That’s like saying “It’s a violation of my rights that I have to be sober when I drive.”

To review, for those who failed civics in high school: There are lots of things that we as a society say you must do (have car insurance) or not do (chug a bottle of Jaegermeister before getting behind the wheel).

Like those things, it ought to go without saying that not wearing a mask is not merely a matter of your own personal liberty, Max: it affects the health and of everyone around you, and potentially puts their very lives at risk. In case you care.

But allegiance to Trump means you don’t have to give a shit about your fellow man if it inconveniences you, and if the facts of scientific reality say otherwise, well, what are facts anyway? Only what the Dear Leader says they are.

In the New York Times, Jennifer Senior writes:

Three years ago, a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out that Trump’s election would be like one long national Milgram experiment, the famous psychological study from the 1960s that revealed just how susceptible people are to authority, how depressingly willing they are to obey even the most horrifying commands.

Can nanny state paternalism go too far? Of course. So can Friedmanesque libertarianism, which is often just a cover for might-makes-right plutocracy. As a people, we are capable of making common sense decisions about where to draw the line, a line that shifts with time and circumstance and is every malleable.

At least we ought to be.

FISH ARE JUMPING AND THE COTTON IS HIGH

The politicization of mask-wearing has become an even more urgent matter as summer comes upon us and the country begins to open up—unwisely, in some places and cases.

We’re entering a scary new phase. Like many, I’m seeing it firsthand, in my case, as I’ve begun to travel outside of New York City, where I’ve spent the last hundred days.

People are tired of sheltering in place. I get that. So, because they’re antsy, because it’s summer, and yada yada yada, they’ve decided that the pandemic is over.

Hey, I understand it. I’m ready to get out and about too. But because I’m not two years old, I know that there are lots of things in life that I want but can’t have.

The anti-mask mindset is an infantile one that fails to understand the distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from,” in Erich Fromm’s formulation. Masha Gessen explains it well in The New Yorker:

Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint, the sort of freedom that teen-agers demand when they want you to stop telling them what to do. This is also the sort of freedom Americans most often mean when we talk about freedom: individual liberty.

Positive freedom is the freedom not from others but with others; one might call it social and political freedom…..

(Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth-century British thinker) was not arguing that one concept of freedom is better than the other. A student of Russia, he was keenly aware that tyrannies can be built on ideologies of a greater good, and that extreme oppression can be propped up with rhetoric of freedom. But seeing freedom as merely the absence of coercion, he thought, was insufficient. His argument was that the two concepts of freedom have to coexist, even if sometimes they collide.

But this is America in a nutshell, much of it focused exclusively on I me me mine. Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” is alive and well here, as is the myth of rugged individualism, or at least the dangerous exaggeration thereof. It is the same philistine mentality that gave us Trump in the first place, and is now killing us by the tens of thousands.

Near the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about how the interdependent nature of the required response to this crisis makes the case for community, as opposed to Darwinian every-man-for-himselfism. It’s deeply disappointing—though not surprising—to see the way that selfishness and a lack of empathy have worked against that.

But empathy is not exactly the signature commodity in the Age of Trump.

Given how anxious people are to put covid-19 behind us, what’s especially infuriating, and ironic, is that we actually have it within our power to contain and control the virus to a large degree. According to a computer simulation led by De Kai, a computer scientist with joint appointments at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as reported by Vanity Fair:

If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, covid-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one twelfth the number of infections—compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks.

In other words, we could beat this thing right now and resume some semblance of normalcy if we all behaved like responsible, mature adults.

How pathetic that we cannot.

THANK YOU MASKED MAN

There was no better demonstration of this Know Nothing mentality than Trump’s rally in Tulsa last Saturday night. Everything about it screamed nihilistic defiance of reason, public safety, and simple human decency, from the date (keyed to Juneteenth, the better to spit in the face of African-American community), to the petri dish nature of a densely packed indoor rally in a state where covid-19 cases are spiking, to the choice of a city that saw one of the worst homicidal massacres of black people in American history, and in close proximity to where that atrocity took place.

Very on brand, though, you have to give Trump that.

Ironically, Trump’s rally in Tulsa has made millions of Americans learn about the 1921 Greenwood massacre. He’s already taken credit for making Juneteenth famous…..stand by for him to take credit for this.

As it turned out, “densely packed” turned out not to be a very accurate prediction: Trump only drew 6200 fans to an arena that seats 19,000. (Billie Eilish sold it out last October. Can she be president please? Al Franken informs us of other acts that drew bigger crowds to that same arena in 2019, including Sha Na Na, The Pips—sans Gladys Knight, Loverboy, John Tesh, and the West Virginia touring company of “La Traviata.”)

Even accounting for hacking by K-pop fans  (I love it), that was a dismal showing….. especially after Trump’s team bragged about receiving a million ticket requests—and no amount of spin from the Sean Spicer School of Crowd Estimation could hide that. Trump and Pence even had to cancel a planned outdoor address to the overflow crowd that didn’t materialize.

The New York Times reports:

President Trump and several staff members stood backstage and gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror. The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place.

Whether that low turnout was the result of his diminishing popularity, or of fears of covid, really doesn’t matter. Either way, it was a welcome sign that his gaslighting on the matter of the pandemic is not living up to Trump’s usual Orwellian standards.

The rally itself was like watching pro wrestling, with Trump as face and heel rolled into one. He’s more extreme than ever, but you can also see him actively working these days, like an over-the-hill entertainer, trying to recapture—and outdo—the outrageousness that came so naturally to him in 2016.

Since Trump lives in Bizarro World where everything he says is the opposite of the truth, here’s what he said in Tulsa about the coronavirus, as reported by the Washington Post:

“We—I—have done a phenomenal job,” he said about the federal government’s response to the pandemic. “I saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

In another lowlight, Trump admitted—boasted, in fact—that he wanted coronavirus testing slowed to improve the numbers. Some have suggested that this is tantamount to confessing to a crime against humanity. Others, no less bitingly, have pointed out that it’s like saying “I haven’t gained a pound since I stopped weighing myself.”

His pathology was on particularly full display in the insane ten minutes he spent defending his widely-ridiculed performance at the US Military Academy commencement, in the process only reminding everyone of it. The performance ended with the crowd wildly cheering Trump’s ability to drink a glass of water with one hand.

Impressive indeed.

RAT, MEET CORNER

If one of the intentions of the Tulsa rally (aside from just giving Donald an erection after three months of quarantine) was to reassure the GOP leadership that his carnival barker powers are undiminished amid plummeting poll numbers and general chaos, it failed miserably, which ought to make Moscow Mitch & Co. nervous.

Here’s Greg Sargent, also writing in the Washington Post:

This rally was meant to “reset” a much larger story line: It was supposed to reinforce and embody the notion that Trump has defeated the coronavirus, that the country is roaring back to greatness and that Trump is soaring to reelection on the wings of those triumphs.

Trump has long operated from the premise that he can win reelection by creating the illusion that he has mastered (control of events)…. The Tulsa rally was supposed to be a big part of this manufactured illusion. Remember, it was justified by Pence’s false claim that the curve has been flattened in Oklahoma…..

Don’t look now, but President Trump may finally be realizing, with creeping dread, that there may be limits to his magical lying and reality-bending powers. He may be grasping that his capacity to mesmerize his supporters into disbelieving what their own eyes and ears are telling them is not absolute after all…

The wee hours photo of a defeated Trump returning from Tulsa (taken by Patrick Semansky of AP), walking from Marine One to the White House with the body language of a whipped dog, said it all. He looked like a dazed college boy making the Walk of Shame back to the dorm after a vigorous buggering by the boys at Theta Delt.

But if history is any guide, Don won’t stay depressed for long; his default setting Is rage, and that is sure to resume prominence shortly, probably before this ink is dry. If the embarrassing turnout in Tulsa will worry the GOP, it will certainly infuriate Trump and set his course going forward. The real danger, then, is how this humiliation will drive him to even more dangerous measures to save his sorry ass.

Jennifer Senior again:

(I)t’s precisely because Trump feels overwhelmed and outmatched that I fear we’ve reached a far scarier juncture: he seems to be attempting, however clumsily, to transition from president to autocrat, using any means necessary to mow down those who threaten his re-election.

Senior details a few of the ways this cornered rat is already lashing out:

For over three years, (Trump has) been dismembering the body politic, institution by institution, norm by norm. What has largely spared us from total evisceration were honorable civil servants and appointees. Trump has torn through almost all of them and replaced them with loyalists. He now has a clear runway. What we have left is an army of pliant flunkies and toadies at the agencies, combined with the always-enabling Mitch McConnell and an increasingly emboldened attorney general, William Barr.

Barr then tried to replace Geoffrey S. Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, with a Trump loyalist who had zero prosecutorial experience—at a time when Berman was actively investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and a Turkish bank that Trump suggested to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he’d try to protect. (Berman stepped down, but Trump did not get the appointee he desired.)

That was all on Friday and Saturday. Just Friday and Saturday.

Whatever it is that the SDNY is close to uncovering (there are lots of candidates, per above), it must be something Trump REALLY doesn’t want to come out. (Berman, I will remind you, is not some “Obama holdover” as Fox would have it, but an appointee of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s own AG at the time.)

But if you will indulge me in a brief tangent, one other aspect of the Berman goatscrew that was fascinating was the scuzzy way the administration handled it.

First Barr told the press that Berman was stepping down, a report that took Berman himself by surprise; he reported that he learned of it when he saw the press release. When Berman boldly announced he would not leave his post unless properly removed, Barr then informed him—via message, not face to face or even with the courtesy of a phone call—that the president was indeed firing him. But then Trump, with his usual cowardice, claimed he “wasn’t involved” and that it was all Barr’s doing. Only then, no doubt when his handlers awkwardly explained the law to him, did he agree to fire Berman overtly.

For a guy whose tagline used to be “You’re fired,” Trump sure is a wuss about doing it for real.

Mr. Berman could have continued to fight, as the actual rules regarding who could properly remove him remain fuzzy, but he had already made his point and secured a partial retreat by Barr—at least for now—on his successor.

But the legal issue of who has the authority to fire Berman is not really the point. Regardless of the answer, it’s blatantly obvious that Trump is trying to squash an investigation that will implicate him and his cronies. That is the very definition of corruption, and in any normal time that in and of itself might be a presidency-ending scandal.

Instead, we have just taken another step on the road to full-blown authoritarianism.

HALF MAST

More from Senior:

What else this past week? Trump’s handpicked head of the US Agency for Global Media —an ally of Steve Bannon, by the way—purged the heads of Radio Free Europe and its three siblings, in what seemed like an unnerving bid to make his own version of state-run TV. Then Trump tweeted out a video he knew had been doctored by a meme-generating supporter, a supposed scare segment from CNN about a racist baby. (Twitter first stamped a “manipulated media” warning on it, then disappeared it entirely.)

That was all on Wednesday and Thursday. Just Wednesday and Thursday.

In April and May, he got rid of five inspectors general. He has replaced intelligence community veterans with partisan loyalists who’ve raised questions about the validity of the Russia probe. He’s threatened to use the military to quell civic unrest. He used pepper balls and smoke canisters on protesters for a campaign photo op.

But the true stuff of my nightmares—and the ultimate authoritarian ambush—would be a move by Trump to suppress the vote by a means I haven’t yet imagined. (Voting is left up to the states.) He’s already thrown his weight behind fund-raising efforts to aggressively “monitor” polling places, supposedly to weed out fraud, an almost nonexistent threat.

Jennifer and I share that same nightmare.

So as I go out and about in my summer travels amid a newly re-opening America—proudly wearing a mask—I see a lot of American flags flying at half mast, more than not, in fact. I know that this in tribute to the more than 120,000 of our countrymen who have been killed by covid-19, and our so-called leadership’s failure to act on it.

It’s a moving gesture.

But more and more as I look at those flags, I fear that they are lowered in mourning for something else, and this is for the American Idea itself.

*********

Photo: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. (Hi yo, Silver!)

 

 

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