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On August 21, people gathered around the Washington County School District building in St. George, Utah. They came by the hundreds to protest the governor’s mandate requiring schoolchildren to wear face masks. According to local newspaper The Spectrum, a protester said during a closing prayer that “safety is not as important as our freedom and liberty.” He went on: “Forcing masks on our children is child abuse.” Another protester “compared mask-wearing to the death of George Floyd.”
“When George Floyd was saying ‘I can’t breathe’ and then he died, and now we’re wearing a mask, and we say ‘I can’t breathe,’ but we’re being forced to wear it anyway,” St. George resident Shauna Kinville told KTVX, a Salt Lake City TV station. Video of KTVX’s report went viral this week after Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher shared it.
It was in microcosm something we should expect in macrocosm if we’re lucky enough to see Joe Biden win the presidency. The Democratic nominee has promised to impose a nationwide mask mandate to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has now killed more than 201,000 Americans (as of this writing), infected more than 6.8 million more, and injured scores of thousands of businesses and communities around the country. The pandemic is deadliest in rural and southern counties, places most likely to benefit from a nationwide mask mandate but least likely to obey one.
Should Biden win, we can expect a St. George anti-mask protest writ large in the coming years. It will probably follow a playbook similar to the one used a decade ago by the so-called “Tea Party,” by which small reactionary groups, funded by billionaires and organized by professional GOP operatives, present themselves as a grassroots revolt against centralized government tyranny. The press corps will probably play along, covering it the way it did the last “insurrection”—as if red-blooded Americans, dedicated to the cause of liberty and driven by the principle of rugged individualism, are taking back their country from eastern elites in the name of freedom and God. (Instead of the “Tea Party,” it might be the “Q Party,” after the QAnon conspiracy theory). From these political conditions, we can anticipate a permanent pandemic.
Scholars will play a role, too. Indeed, they already are. The Brookings Institution and other social scientists are studying why some Americans refuse to wear masks even though masks are the best way of avoiding contagion. (The virus is airborne, living in water droplets so small they hang in the air.) Already scholars are coming to the wrong conclusion: that the American frontier mentality, and the individualism at the root of the innovation and self-reliance that constitute our national character, trumps the government’s interest in public health. “Safety is not as important as our freedom and liberty,” the St. George protester said. Some academics, like Boston University’s Martin Fiszbein, have argued for the reevaluation of rugged individualism, a principle he calls “dangerous” in the face of public health crises demanding collective action.
America does not have too much rugged individualism. It has too little. The more we think rugged individualism is the problem, the bigger the real problem will be. People who refuse to wear masks are not reflecting the American frontier mentality. They are not rejecting commonsense out of the nobility of self-reliance. They are not harming themselves, literally, due to outrage against government overreach. They are acting in the interest of the groups they identify with. More importantly, they are acting out of fear of being punished by their group. They’re not individualists. They’re collectivists.
If we keep saying that individualism is why some Americans won’t wear masks, we can expect to occupy a hell more hellish than the one we already occupy, in which mass death is now normal because there’s no apparent way to resolve the conflict between gun rights and public safety. We should not, and cannot, allow conventional wisdom to gel in which the demands of individuals grind endlessly against the demands of public health. We must speak the truth. The tension isn’t between individualism and collective action. It’s between two collectivisms. One good and one very, very bad.
In one kind, individuals defend, maintain and expand liberty by way of accepting responsibility for and working toward a collective good. In the time of the ’rona, we are all in this together. We rise and fall, as one. In the other, individuals subordinate their interests and surrender liberty to group identity. (The group is not “America,” because the United States is not where “real Americans” live.) They claim to be rugged individualists, but they know individualism is punishable. One kind of collectivism rewards moral courage. The other kind, on the other hand, rewards moral cowardice.
We need an individualism that’s as moral as it is rugged. We need individuals rugged enough to make a hard moral choice between two visions of our country’s future. About half the country seems prepared to make that choice. That, alas, isn’t enough.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.
This article was first published at The Editorial Board.