COVID-19 and Politics; the Mask Insurrection, and Peter Finch

This is not a continuation of COVID Vaccines. It’s a digression.

If I were to go political in a partisan way, I’d lose half my readership. And for nothing. You can get all the politics you want from the news sites. And yet there is an intersection of public health and politics that cannot be ignored. This intersection defines what kinds of public health responses are desirable, possible, and impossible; achievable, and unachievable.

A minority of insurrectionist mood is companion to the partisan split.  That minority has been with us since the passing of the Era of Good Feelings, circa 1817-1825. but it has found a voice. It is the hoarse, chaotic, and dissonant voice of an emerging underclass; the obsolete human being. Perhaps we’re lucky they don’t have Peter Finch to give them eloquence: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore! The discontent of the Insurrection is a mix of quiet desperation with incomprehension.

In 1976, obsolete human beings were a thing of the future. We’ve staved off the reckoning with PlayStations, but not everyone is pacified by first-person-shooter games. Some have to express their discontent in the real world. So with a cheap substitution of spitefulness for social consciousness, they refuse to wear masks. And they are every bit as sure of themselves as the 1968 draft protestors shouting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” The difference is that the mask refusniks haven’t got a moral leg to stand on.

In the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, which killed 685,000 Americans, there was no equivalent. Some were cited for failing to wear masks, but there was no protest. Society demanded conformity  in dress, grooming, and social behavior, including masks. With high barriers of class distinction and prejudice,  social mobility was a thing of the future. But there were no obsolete human beings as long as toil with pick and shovel beckoned.

This is the America I see, traveling through time like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five, past, present, and future, simultaneously, like a child’s flip-book. I see politics as a process of conflict resolution, not of the totality-of-the-reality.  Politics is caught in the eternal moment, attempting to capture the past and future with simple slogans.

With authoritarian compulsion, social distancing in China has accomplished something we could not: saving  millions of lives, más o menos. In China, this is not a political issue, even to the degree that politics exists in that country. Here, it’s the hot button. Is there a way around this? Is a nonpartisan compromise possible?

I think not. Among the Insurrectionists and fellow travelers, Live free or die has been altered to Live free and die. There are a lot of fellow travelers, because they are going broke. The more stringent the science, the more the Insurrection will grow, perhaps to massive civil disobedience.

The approach advocated by Dr. Fauci is scientifically correct. The next nine months are going to look like California in fire season. Yet potential of Insurrection blocks a national approach. The Insurrectionists have made their choice for all of us: Learn by dying.  An interesting hypothetical: If you are the politician, and you have the votes to impose strict social distancing, would you do so in the face of powerful backlash that shakes society to the core?

After the dying has gone on for a while, the Insurrectionists will not recant, but their voice will weaken. Perhaps by then, herd immunity will have developed. If not, politics will turn the page. It won’t look back to examine the social forces that lead us to this pass.

You know what? I’m sick and tired of being trapped like a rat in my house in the burbs with central heat and A/C. I’m gonna open a window. And then I’m gonna shout:

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

Thank you, Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, Peter Finch, and the rest. In Network, you shouted for all of us.