Warning: this discussion is not for children, people who are incapable of reading at a (pre-21st century) college level, or people who struggle with abstract thought. Thank you for respecting this disclaimer.
When it comes to “idiots with credentials”, I struggle to think of a more egregious example than noted fool Paul Krugman, who has spent his entire life being publicly incorrect about virtually everything, but in this case I think we might have a stopped clock telling the correct time at least once. It’s not that surprising since the OMG VIOLENCE predicted by Krugman is already happening, and has been for some time. A quick Google will show… many such cases. People are attacking other people for not wearing masks as well. There is something about “masking”, both in its presence and in its absence, that elicits strong emotional and physical reactions in human beings.
The science regarding COVID-19 transmission and masks is fairly simple, and easy to understand: nothing short of hospital-standards mask use will do much to keep a “masker” from contracting the virus. Very few people outside the medical specialties understand what’s required to wear the right kind of mask properly. It’s genuinely unpleasant, by the way. But that doesn’t mean that masks are useless. Far from it. They significantly reduce transmission from infected people — and it pretty much doesn’t matter what you use. It can be an N95 or KN95 mask, it can be a cloth mask, it can be a neck gaiter. All of them reduce the “spray” of airborne droplets that contain the virus. It doesn’t matter that the virus is individually capable of entering almost any kind of mask. It needs a “ride” to get there.
There is also quite a bit of evidence concerning the importance of “viral load”. Those of us who are of a certain age remember all the animations of HIV turning an innocent individual cell into an HIV factory — but in the real world, a single HIV particle probably isn’t capable of giving you HIV, and the same is true for COVID-19. You need a “viral load” with enough active particles to overwhelm your local defenses. This is why handling money, which is terrifyingly dirty, doesn’t automatically kill you. The strength of the “viral load” in any individual exposure case is what more or less determines whether or not you will get sick. Masks of all kinds go a long way towards reducing the amount of “viral load” in your immediate vicinity.
The science suggests that you should wear a mask if you might be sick — and forego one if you are not sick, because mask use is not an unalloyed good. It causes a variety of problems, including impaired cognition. Three out of four people who wear masks properly (to medical-professional standards) report headaches, while one in four report difficulty thinking. That’s not good. Of all the people who shouldn’t be suffering from impaired cognition, doctors are right up at the top with pilots and nuclear powerplant operators. Masks are also bad for kids, to the point that prolonged mouth-breathing from mask use can alter the shape of their faces.
That’s the science. But there’s the science, and then there is THE SCIENCE, of course. THE SCIENCE is a modern religion that is no more rational, and often more harmful to society, than any other religion in history has been. It is largely indistinguishable from whatever cherished ideas lead the vanguard of progressive thought, in much the same way that THE LAW nowadays appears to be far more concerned about who is committing a crime than it is about what crime has been committed. THE SCIENCE is obsessed with masks. Masks are a sacrament to THE SCIENCE. But how did we get to this point? And why are masks such a dangerous subject, both on the printed page and in real life?
Those of you who know me, or who have read me for a long time, know that I consider societal norms, laws, and religions to be a sort of “operating system” for human beings. As with computer operating systems, each human operating system is optimized for a different set of priorities and results. I’ve often heard it said that if you find yourself wandering in the desert with your family, you could do worse things than follow the Old Testament to the letter; much of it amounts to an oddly detailed hygiene manual for people in difficult and dirty conditions. The Egyptians followed an operating system that was optimized for building massive monuments and elevating a small group of people to godlike status. If you ever want to sit around and bake your noodle for a while, ask yourself why it took human beings so long to develop the airplane and/or the hot-air balloon. Strictly speaking, you could have had lighter-than-air flight in Roman times; they had everything required to make it happen.
The answer to this and many other questions is: the Western combination of Christianity and Renaissance thought amounted to a supercharged operating system for technological progress, sort of like how certain Linux variants are optimized for Bitcoin production. The conditions faced by humanity were about the same from 300,000 BC to 1300 AD in most places. After that, things happened thick and fast. People didn’t change. Their operating system changed. All of human progress, from bricks to Mars missions, in about one-tenth of one percent of human history. Think about that.
Our modern operating system was built over maybe 2500 years at most. We have spent the last fifty years trying to destroy it in a headlong rush of deranged degradation that moves too fast for all but the Extremely Online to even perceive, much less understand. There is not a corporation in the Fortune 500 that wouldn’t fire you for repeating certain parts of Bill Clinton’s campaign announcement speech to your co-workers. In 1992, this was the bleeding edge of the American Left. Today, just thirty years later, it’s bigoted hate speech. This societal transformation is more drastic than any envisioned by Lenin or Mao, and we are rushing into it headlong without so much as a single thought about the advisability of tearing down moral and societal “fences” constructed over thousands of years.
The fetish for “masking”, to me, is a prime example of this rash behavior. Only an exceptionally stupid or deliberately disingenuous person would claim to be unaware of the significant effect that seeing a face has on human beings. We communicate via facial expressions. I could walk into any public building in America and get someone to physically assault or even kill me simply by making faces. I’m not just talking about prisons or football stadiums or other hotbeds of “toxic masculinity”. I could do it anywhere. Wearing a mask, just like making a face, sends a deliberate signal, and in this case it is: I will not allow to you see what I am thinking, feeling, or planning.
The super-popular-among-certain-people cartoon About Face explores the idea that “combat beards” and lifted pickup trucks amount to a “rejection of communication, reciprocity and legal accountability”. The smoked windows and elevated ride height of these trucks imply a desire to “disconnect” from society, as does a beard, which hides part of one’s face. If any of that is true — and I’m not saying it is true, I’m saying that the people who run this country believe it is true — then how much more is a literal mask an attempt to reject
* communication (I can’t see what you’re thinking or feeling)
* reciprocity (I cannot mirror your expressions, a human behavior that is older than Homo sapiens)
* accountability (I literally don’t know who you are in that mask)
to an even higher degree? For all of human history, wearing a mask has meant that you are disconnecting from the consequences of your actions. Go watch Yellowjackets. Go watch Eyes Wide Shut. Read Poe, or the ancients. How many famous plays in the canon turn on the loss of identity experienced in a mask?
When we, as a society, make “masking” mandatory, we are playing with forces that we do not understand but which date back to our primate ancestors. It is not a trivial matter, and the conversation we have as a society about masks is always going to be about more than mere transmission of disease, the same way that the conversations we have about male and female clothing goes much deeper than mere matters of utility or style. We are having a smaller, but just as difficult, conversation as a society regarding the recent Florida bill about sex education for children. To hear both the opponents and proponents of the bill discuss it, you would think it was about far more than just the plain text of a proposed law — and they are both right. The proponents talk about preventing the further sexualization of children, while the opponents worry that children of alternative sexualities will be “erased” from view. Neither concern is terribly well-supported by the bill under consideration, but everyone knows that we are setting a direction. In one direction, children will be encouraged to avoid thinking about sex, which plays well for the “default choice” sexuality. In the other, children will be encouraged to explore alternative sexualities, increasing their likelihood of adopting one of those sexualities. There’s nothing trivial about this, particularly if you are a parent.
Alright. So masks are more than just masks. You knew that. If you didn’t, you’re not smart enough to be reading this; close your browser window and turn on your TV. So why do some people like them so danged much? How did they become a political marker? Why do people wear them when they are alone in their own cars? As someone with obvious symptoms of severe autism, I’m not sure I understand my fellow humans well enough to offer a definitive opinion. But I have a theory.
Western society has become obsessed with the ideas of “doms and subs” over the past few decades. In much the same way that a “Zebra Cake” has more sugar than a 300,000-year-old genetic design for eating fruit can possibly understand, our modern sexual perversities have supercharged our pleasure and obsession in ways that nobody could have guessed a mere fifty years ago. We have omnipresent pornography, omnipresent sexuality. It invades everything you see, hear, or experience. And much of it is that unholy combination of sexual pleasure and the power of control. The “Twilight” and “50 Shades” cultural phenomena are serious, they are important, and they have taken over the conversation. Want more proof that we have made a power dynamic a huge part of sex today? Go ask a gay man who is my age or older about the first time he heard the terms “top” or “bottom”. Hint: it wasn’t in 1985.
Now here’s the odd thing. You’d think that most people in a dom/sub, top/bottom world would want to be doms or tops. It ain’t so. My gay friends tell me that there is a “top shortage”. In the hetero world, there are a dozen “subs” for every “dom”, fifty would-be “cucks” for every willing “bull”. Every Greek play and every Victorian novel will tell you that people are desperate for control and power, but in the modern world everyone wants to be… helpless. Cucked. Subbed.
Wearing a mask is sub behavior. It’s meek. T.S. Eliot had Prufrock agonize over the difficulty of being ready “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. Well, in 2022 Prufrock would have been free of that worry. He is masked. He is anonymous. His face is private. It does not need to meet another face.
Look around you, at the people who were most eager to shed their masks, even before such a thing was remotely permissible. They are: young, beautiful, powerful, self-confident. They are the doms in a world peopled by subs. I’ve never been to an SCCA race where anybody wore a mask for any length of time. Of course they don’t. You have to be rich to race SCCA nowadays. You have to be the kind of person who is confident. “Subs” rarely go racing. How could you, when the very essence of racing is to beat the person next to you?
Wearing a mask, even when it is not required, is pleasurable for certain people. The way living an anonymous life in a city where you’ve never met your neighbors is pleasurable for some people. Not everyone wants to engage with the world. Your humble author, for the record, is one of those people who is shy and secretive by nature. As a child, I liked wearing hats, jackets, sunglasses. Anything to hide my face, to put just a tiny buffer between me and the rest of the world. I didn’t grow out of that until I was in my twenties. If, in fact, I did.
I do not write all of the above to “dunk on” the people who find solace, satisfaction, and even sexual pleasure in wearing a mask. I write it because we need to understand those people. It’s ironic, because wearing a mask is a first-rate way to prevent people from understanding you, but it is true nonetheless. I know plenty of people who are still “masking up” on planes, in cars, in public. Most of them won’t be honest with you as to why they are doing it. They may not even be honest with themselves as to why they are doing it. And yet we all need to continue to engage with each other in the most decent and human ways possible. Don’t be the kind of person who gets angry at a “masker” or a “mask denier” or whatever. Understand that we are all playing with powerful forces here, human motivations that are so deeply baked into us as to be incapable of rational examination at times.
If you really think that you’re masking to prevent disease — or, alternately, that your refusal to mask has zero impact on potential transmission — then consider spending some time in personal reflection. Try to know yourself a little better, difficult though it may be. The world already has enough idiots whose convictions are as unshakeable as they are ignorant. One of them would be too many, in fact. And there’s already Paul Krugman, so it doesn’t need to be you, or me.