NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE
Imagine this. You go to your local restaurant and are seated with your family perusing the menu when a commotion erupts near the hostess podium. Curious, you look up to see a middle-aged man wearing nothing but boxers, his ample belly hanging over the elastic, one bare, callused foot stomping with great indignation. The anger on his face is palpable as the words issue from his mouth in a vituperative stream, “But it’s my constitutional right!”
Much to his chagrin, he is not seated, while you and your family share a collective sigh of relief. Laughing, you wonder what possessed the man to believe it would be acceptable to sit in a nice restaurant dressed only in his boxers. It is off-putting to his fellow patrons if not illegal.
Who has not come across that sign from time to time in various storefronts and eateries, the proprietor ensuring there is some level of decorum in his place of business? No shirt, no shoes, no service. And unless you are as rude as the man in the above-imagined scenario, you respect the admonition as well as your fellow customers rather than bellow about your rights, your freedoms as an American to do what you want, when you want, how you want. No one is going to dictate anything to me!
And yet that is precisely what is happening in the culture wars during this pandemic in which a simple piece of cloth has become the next battleground of the republic. Somehow a simple intervention to safeguard oneself and more importantly, others, has become a rallying cry of liberty.
As individuals, we have different roles and identities. A parent, a spouse, a teacher, a baseball fan, an athlete, an artist, whatever creates that blend to make us who we are. Our identity as an American, however, should be unique in that it cannot exist apart from the social contract that connects us. It is purportedly built on a set of ideals and principles and truths that hold us together. That is not to say there will not be dissension, differing perspectives, and philosophies, as respecting those differences is precisely an essential aspect of democracy, but it does assert that implicit in such a system is the need to safeguard the rights, liberties, and opportunities of one another. A simple example being red lights; I am not free to drive endlessly much as I may wish. We stop in order to accommodate others, taking turns to ensure we all remain safe while accessing public roads, a simple enough infringement on my liberty to keep on driving.
So why then does a mask become the symbol of the rallying cry of liberty? As some might argue, it is not a guarantee one who will not catch or pass on the coronavirus and of course, scientists would concede that as this is a novel virus, the critical word being ‘novel,’ that its newness means they are learning as they study it and will dispense recommendations as mounting evidence supports it.
What seems like common sense, to err on the side of caution and wear a mask, instead has become a political statement courtesy of the president. His unwillingness to don one in public likely has much more to do with his consternation that there is a virus at all, that acknowledging its severity will tank the economy and spook the stock market as if magical thinking it will just disappear is a viable plan.
Wearing a mask then is perceived not only as weakness or cowardice but as an infringement on one’s liberty as an American. The ethos of the rugged individual who will not be told what to do. That ethos, however, is reserved for the white American male. The same white American male who stands on the steps of a statehouse with an automatic weapon daring anyone to tell him what to do and nary a peep from the president about behavior that amounts to nothing more than ignorance, terror, and intimidation. Crickets.
Interestingly, of course, the same Trump supporter who cries liberty when asked to wear a mask has no issue with denying reproductive freedoms to women-the most basic right to control one’s own body-nor systemic racist laws that have denied people of color equal opportunity to acquire equity through housing nor do they decry voter suppression laws that fly directly in the face of democracy. Or how about the since-repealed Louisiana “saggy pants” law deliberately targeting men of color and not so surprisingly ending with the death of one of them? How many white men are impacted by any of the above scenarios? Suddenly, liberty and the ideals on which our democracy was founded are nowhere to be seen. I’ll deny you equal personhood, but don’t tell me a damn thing. The hypocrisy is staggering.
I wonder if there is there a written law requiring surgeons to wash their hands and don gloves and a mask before conducting surgery. Not sure, but I imagine they do so out of wisdom acquired by their predecessors that doing so can and most likely will prevent infection in their patients. Would you want the surgeon operating on your loved one to throw open the doors of the operating room announcing to his assistants, ‘I’m exercising my liberty as an American to go commando-and that goes for the rest of me, too!’ while waving about his soiled hands into which he just sneezed?
Probably not. You want the surgeon to be invested in the optimal outcome of his or her patients and ideally, that he or she would possess the empathy to care about that person’s wellness. Is this then an infringement on the surgeon’s liberty as an American or should it be about safeguarding the wellness of another? Would a surgeon need laws and consequences to follow protocol? One would hope not.
There are many little liberties we acquiesce as part of this social contract, from wearing clothes in public-that is if your preference is not to do so, waiting our turn in line rather than shoving our way to the front, refraining from playing loud music in the middle of the night to observing red lights and stop signs so we don’t kill or maim other people despite our desire to get home early. And on the other side of that spectrum are those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, our soldiers, our firefighters, our first responders, in order to safeguard their fellow Americans.
So if our hearts beat with pride as Americans when honoring sacrifice for the greater good of us all, how then does the idea of wearing a mask in the hope it can keep us all healthy become conflated with an infringement on liberty? It would seem the particular issue with wearing masks during this pandemic should have everything to do with our connection to one another as fellow Americans and not as an exercise in the ethos of rugged individualism. No one is asking you to lay down your life. Simple acts of daily heroism; holding a door open for another, giving up a seat on a train, wearing a mask during a pandemic, do not detract from our own personal liberty. The unique part of our identity as Americans should tether us to the greater good, a greater good that calls on us to recognize that subverting our momentary impulses and self-motivated desires in favor of an action that behooves us all is quintessential to our principles and ideals.
I wager to say it is unlikely that before the pandemic you vociferously decried the proprietor’s warning, ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service’ as an infringement on your rights as an American while standing on the threshold of an establishment dressed only in your underwear. Certainly not if you are hoping to attend some Republican fundraiser event. So you should ask yourself if choosing not to wear a mask in public really is about your liberty after all.
By E.A. Gilmartin