Why Progressives Can’t Quit Their Masks

It is a matter of cultural identity, not a matter of policy or science.

By KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON – Feb 13, 2022 – for National Review

My cmnt: I have edited this essay for length, clarity and accuracy. As always you may view the original by clicking the link above.

While there has been a quietly energetic campaign to memory-hole the fact, some of you will remember that, in the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign, vaccine skepticism was a Democratic thing, not a Republican thing. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Andrew Cuomo, and every third progressive nitwit on Twitter cast doubt on the safety and the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines that were being developed under Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program to expedite a vaccine.

It was childishly predictable: With Election Day looming, anything that might redound to the credit of the Trump administration had to be cast into doubt or held up for scorn. We are governed by democrats who have never mentally or morally progressed beyond the politics of the junior-high lunchroom.

After the election, the Democrats and the Republicans settled back into their familiar respective grooves. Republicans who had sympathized with the Trump administration’s early efforts to play down Covid-19 went back to pooh-poohing it, Democrats returned to their peculiar form of technocratic pietism. Democrats sacralized the vaccines (developed too quickly, dangerous and of short effective duration) while Republicans scorned them and talked up quick cures (i.e., proven remedial therapeutics) to be made available. But masks became the burqa of the Covid era, with the Subaru-mounted mutaween of suburbia zealously guarding the new public morality.

The ritual covering of the head or face is an ancient tradition, one that is found in so many fundamentally different religions spread across so many disparate cultures as to make it a nearly universal phenomenon: Christians with female head coverings; Muslims with their hijabs, niqabs, and chadors; the Hindu ghoonghat; the Jewish kippah and tichel; the Sikh dastār and chunni; the Buddhist zukin — from Muslims to Mennonites, head coverings and face coverings have long been, and continue to be, points of religious, political, and social sensitivity.

Whatever else it does or does not do, the Covid-era mask has taken on that role. It may not do much if anything to stop the spread of the virus, but it says something — in some contexts, a great deal — about what kind of person you are. I think that if I could learn two things about a person — the situations in which he will wear a mask even if it is not strictly required and the situations in which he will refuse to comply with a mask requirement — I could probably tell you for whom he voted in 2020. Masks symbolize moral purity among believers, but they also communicate another message: Us and Them.

And that is what is making unmasking — and a more general return to normal — so difficult for so many of our progressive friends: It has become a cultural and social issue, and a quasi-religious one at that. For a certain kind of progressive, giving up masking feels like giving in. It doesn’t feel to them like the epidemic has been beaten — it feels to them like they have been beaten, and their cultural enemies (the common man with his common sense) have won.

This is a near-guarantee of bitter social conflict. Consider the protests going on right now in Canada. Raquel Dancho, a Conservative MP, told the BBC that Canadians, normally an orderly people, have had enough: “We abide by all the rules. We stepped up, and we have 90 percent of Canadians vaccinated,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is that Canadians have come to the ends of their ropes. We’ve done our part, and now Canadians are looking to their governments and saying, ‘That’s enough of this. We need to move forward. What’s the plan?’”

The problem with figures such as Justin Trudeau is that they have defined themselves wholly in opposition to their critics. What is Justin Trudeau? That is a question that really can be answered only in the negative: He is not x. We are in much the same situation in the United States, where the core identity of each political party is simply that it is not the other political party. The mask scolds at your local grocery store cannot give up their ritual face-coverings without looking like the superstitious giving up their garlic necklaces to ward off vampires – that is without looking like fools.

But there are a great many Americans who are not fanatics, who do not live in Idaho militia compounds — voters in California and Connecticut and New Jersey who, like our Canadian neighbors, suspect that we missed the off ramp a few exits back and are due for a course correction. What they are running up against — and what Joe Biden represents among his own base — is a species of religious fanaticism. Like the declarations of progressives who once swore off “Trump vaccines,” it is a matter of identity, not a matter of policy, much less one of science. That is why a big Republican showing in the midterms will produce a convulsion among progressives, one that looks like a political crisis but that is, at heart, a spiritual crisis.

The news on Covid is generally good these days. And it reminds me of another time in which generally good news caused so much angst and misery for the Left – President Trump’s fantastic economy. The only conceivable way to stop the landslide reelection of Trump was to use Covid to destroy the greatest economy in a lifetime by shutting down the country and then demanding and getting illegal mail-in voting to seal the steal.

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