"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Masked Elite–Woke Solidarity In The Time Of Corona

There in a leafy neighborhood of a major metropolitan city walked a woman and her dog, alone in the surprisingly cool, dewy hours of the early morning.  The COVID mask she was wearing did not seem to bother her as she walked briskly up the hills, through the empty parks, and past the spacious, manicured lawns of Valley Creek.  She walked past the giant sycamores, some over 100 feet tall reaching from the creek itself to the sunlight far above in one of the most hilly, wooded parts of the city.  She stopped a number of times for her dog, let him sniff, scratch, and meander onto the verge where the street divided around a large rock outcropping, and continued.

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She was totally alone, and preferred to be so in the quietest part of the day during a time of particular quiet of the quarantine, but saluted the other walkers who had gotten a later start, but wanted to get their routine started early, great exercise up and down the steep hills among the azaleas, dogwoods, roses, and flowering shrubs that made the city famous – like Atlanta, it was at its best in Springtime.

Valley Creek like most wealthy neighborhoods of American cities was spacious – wide streets, long, sloping lawns, broad sidewalks, and plenty of open space – little vest pocket parks, cul-de-sacs, and bicycle trail-heads – and there was no reason to wear a mask especially at the hour that the lone woman was walking her dog. There were never many people about, especially now; no chance for close contact, room for respectful distance if needs be, plenty of sunshine on the hills above the creek, a light breeze always blowing variably but pleasantly from the west in the morning, from the east in the evening.

Why on earth, then was this woman wearing a mask? The dangerous zones were in the potentially crowded areas of the city, downtown, or in the ethnic neighborhoods yet to be redeveloped.  The small shopping Valley Creek shopping center was small, manageable, and woke – owners were insistent on social distancing, masks, and policing; and customers respectful of the law and others.  Yet here in the cool of the morning, down by the creek, at the base of the 100 ft. sycamores, and surrounded by greenery and good taste, there was no need for precaution or special care.  It was a liberated and liberating zone, one in which one could pretend life was normal.

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The woman with dog was not alone in wearing a mask, however.  By the time she walked up Scofield Street, the sun was just beginning to shine through the high canopy, and more walkers were out.  They all wore masks, nodded politely to each other as they crossed the street to give a full carriageway’s distance between them.

There was something odd in the scene – masked walkers in an unconfined, verdant, open, sunny, and breezy space, far from infection or contamination, all of whom seemed to share a certain solidarity.  In any other time, one might assume that the walkers were all members of a special society and that the masks were like lapel pins, emblems, or school ties, and they were people on their way to an assembly or ceremony.  While the masks were to be worn as protection against Corona, there was more to it than that.  As the quarantine was prolonged, and as the political lines of response were drawn, the masks had become a symbol of liberal solidarity, a public and very visible ‘No’ to those who thought little of the commonweal, the community of the vulnerable, and the right thing to do.  Wearing a mask when there was absolutely, positively no reason to do so, was a symbol of profound commitment not just to containment but to progressive values.

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It is not surprising of course that the virus has taken on a political dimension.  Liberals and conservatives see the world entirely differently, and the difference now in the time of Corona could not be more stark.  Liberals believe that all must be sacrificed for the protection of all.  Civil liberties, Constitutional rights, individual freedoms, and economic opportunity all must be sacrificed for the sake of the many.  Only the government, the caretaker of first and last resort of a nation’s people, can act in a unified, consolidated, pro-active and comprehensive way.  The virus is a threat not only to the nation’s health but the nation’s polity.  Nothing can interfere with the path of progress laid out by ardent progressive reformers.  In fact, many believe that Corona is a boon to this larger, more important vision, for it gives free rein to government interventionism, and the rebuilding of a renewed, stronger, Washington.

Conservatives of course see things differently.  Risk is part of individualism.  It is perhaps the feature of finance, entrepreneurship, and life itself.  As the Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov says to Ivan, “Without suffering what would be the pleasure of life? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious”; and so would it be without risk, that element which best expresses human volition and free will; that feature of life which Christ insisted upon in the Desert with his Devil.

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There is no such thing as life if it is risk-free, if there are always solicitous caretakers in the wings, someone to neuter will and individuality for ‘others’ sake’.  In the refusal to obey government’s increasingly authoritarian and intrusive orders, Americans don’t simply want their jobs back, their bars open, the the doors to their grandchildren’s homes open.  They want to get the government albatross off their backs, the ponderous weight designed to stifle human enterprise not protect it.

The lines have been drawn, the trenches dug, perimeters established, and the skirmishes will soon turn into battles, particularly important in an election year.  It was once about getting sick.  It is no longer only that.  It is also about the role of the individual within society and under government.  The lone woman dog-walker in Valley Creek was part of The Movement – willing to sacrifice her personal freedoms, subsume all her individuality within authority and by so doing, joining the ranks of the woke, those who understand and promote progress.  Her mask is a badge of that honor, that privilege.

There has been in recent years a viral petitioning for good causes – the environment, social justice, diversity, and inclusivity.  Such removed, distant commitment is a sign of solidarity, a visible symbol of caring.  Marching for The Earth, Equality, or Women provides solidarity, camaraderie, and a badge of belonging.  It feels good to fly liberal colors - change is a by-product.   A ‘Save the Whales’ bumper sticker, marching in an Occupy parade, and circulating petitions to stop fracking and to raise the glass ceiling are all ways to enhance personal credibility and self-esteem – to look good to others.

Masks during Corona are no different.  There was a recently viral Facebook image showing four masked hikers on the lower flanks of Mount Kilimanjaro – a the gently sloping, verdant foothills of the mountain.  Behind and above them far distant was the snow-capped summit.  There were no other people in the picture, nor in the background.  Just the masked hikers, standing six feet apart. We are the world, the image shouted.  Do the right thing.

This purgatory will soon be over, masks will disappear, schools and restaurants will reopen, people will go on holiday; and more likely than not government will retreat rather than enlarge.  The unprecedented arrogation of government power and an unheard of extension of public authority throughout private life will not be forgotten.  Corona was a wake-up call not just for political conservatives, but for all others who are concerned about the very libertarian principles established over 200 years ago.

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