Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020 | 2 a.m.
When people ask me about my mood these days, I tell them I feel like I’m a reporter for The Pompeii Daily News in A.D. 79, and I’m sitting in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius and someone just walked up and asked, “Hey, do you feel a rumbling?”
Do I ever.
The summer of 2020 could be remembered as one of those truly important dates in American history. Everywhere you turn you see parents who don’t know where or if their kids will go to school this fall, renters who don’t know when or if they will be evicted, unemployed who don’t know what if any safety net Congress will put under them, businesses that don’t know how or if they can hold on another day — and none of us who know whether we’ll be able to vote in November.
That is a lot of hot, molten anxiety building up beneath our economy, society, schools and city streets — just waiting to blow the top off our country — because we have so failed at managing the coronavirus. We have 25% of all recorded infections in the world, and we’re only 4% of the world’s population. In the ultimate irony, Vietnam, which has a little less than one-third of our population but has reported only 416 cases and no deaths, is feeling sorry for us.
How did we get so inept?
If, God forbid, America were buried under lava the way Pompeii was and future archaeologists were to come along and dig it out, I have no doubt that the artifact they’d dust off and hold up first to answer that huge question would be a simple item that costs pennies to make and is so easy to wear: the face mask.
For something that’s supposed to cover our mouths, it speaks volumes about how crazy some have gotten. Specifically, that face mask tells how the world’s richest and most scientifically advanced country generated a cadre of leaders and citizens who made wearing a covering over their nose and mouth to prevent the spread of a contagion into a freedom-of-speech issue and cultural marker — something no other country in the world did.
There is nothing more demoralizing than this, nothing that set us back in the fight against COVID-19 further and faster. A society that can politicize something as simple as a face mask in a pandemic can politicize anything, can make anything a wedge issue — physics, gravity, rainfall, you name it. And a society that politicizes everything will never realize its full potential in good times or prevent the worst in bad times.
And that’s where we are now. When you compare the sacrifices that the Greatest Generation of Americans made to defend their fellow citizens from the scourge of Nazism with how little some members of today’s generations will sacrifice to defend their fellow Americans from the scourge of COVID-19 — by just wearing a face mask — it leaves you speechless.
It’s inexcusable. Resisting wearing a mask in a pandemic is nothing more than selfish, libertarian nonsense masquerading as a comic-book defense of freedom: “Don’t tread on me, but I can breathe on you.”
And yet for months, our president and vice president, and most Republican governors and their followers, equated resisting mask-wearing with resisting an infringement on personal freedom, rather than the most effective and cheapest thing we could do to limit the spread of the virus, get back to work and get our kids back to school.
President Donald Trump’s resistance to masks actually had nothing to do with ideology. It was just his primitive opposition to anything that would highlight the true health crisis we were in and that therefore might hurt his reelection.
But Vice President Mike Pence — always happy to put lipstick on Trump’s piggishness — dressed up his crude mask-resistance in elegant constitutional garb. When asked by a reporter at Trump’s Tulsa rally why the president appeared unconcerned about the absence of masks and social distancing at the event, Pence solemnly intoned: “I want to remind you again, freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble is in the Constitution of the U.S. Even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights.”
What a fraud.
As John Finn, professor emeritus of government at Wesleyan University, writing on TheConversation.com, noted, “There are two reasons why mask mandates don’t violate the First Amendment. First, a mask doesn’t keep you from expressing yourself. … Additionally, the First Amendment, like all liberties ensured by the Constitution, is not absolute. All constitutional rights are subject to the government’s authority to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community.”
A study by the Boston Consulting Group on which countries not only flattened the curve of the coronavirus but “crushed it,” found that the key to reopening economies while also containing virus transmission was “physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and the widespread use of masks” — and the fact that these governments developed detailed guidelines for all three when it came to workplace settings, schools and public transportation.
But our future archaeologists would also be right to focus on face masks, because the early intense resistance by Republican leaders to wearing them was the distilled essence of how far off-track today’s GOP and its enabling media ecosystem have drifted. In that sense it was yet another stark reminder that we can’t be at our best as a country — as we need to be most in a pandemic — without a principled conservative party, grounded in science, not just cultural markers and mindless, kneejerk libertarianism.
We have a way to go. Forbes reported that “of the 19 states that have yet to issue a mask mandate, 18 are run by Republican governors.”
But let’s give a small shout-out to Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Kay Ivey of Alabama, who have been or become pro-mask. It is not only good for their states’ physical health but also the country’s political health.
Wearing a mask in this pandemic is a sign of respect for your fellow citizens and neighbors — no matter what their race, creed or political affiliation. Wearing a mask says: “I’m not just concerned about myself. I’m concerned about you, too. We are all part of the same community, the same country and the same struggle to stay healthy.”
A different president would have been urging every American, from the start of this pandemic, to don a red, white and blue mask. He would have used such a mask to do double duty — crush COVID-19 and bring us together for the long march needed to do so.
As I said, a different president.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.