Great mask furor: Monkey trials redux. Faith alone vs. science and reason

How much disease and death is enough to force this nation to learn from failure, reject T.V. magic shows and return to sane science?

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Can ‘invisible’ germs shake up the backward, clarifying big ‘invisibles’ that matter?

Beset by one more smarmy culture war, now at least we face a do-or-die slugfest that links private and public health. To mask or not to mask, that is the question—“whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous [viral] fortune.” Or infect neighbors because tribalism feeds bad manners— with heartless assaults on outside immune systems. Recall Prince Faisal’s elegant line from “Lawrence of Arabia:”

With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.

And so juvenile mask defiance morphs into a perverse, anti-social crusade, a nod to Trumpian depravity. Compare pennies for a mask and a moment for social distancing vs. how this president devalues life—packing his own unmasked supporters into rallies like sardines. How better to sabotage the “common welfare” celebrated in our Declaration—without which “life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness” are empty dreams?

“Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner with the red jersey we have Cocksure Individualism, walled off by disdain for data and defaulting to divine whimsy. Across in the blue jersey behold Prudent Rationality, armored with medical evidence, confirmed disease patterns and the incontrovertible truth no one dies from donning a mask.” Is this not a descent to “in slavishness we trust” vs. “in Fauci we trust”? Which motive per Faisal is “more reliable”? When Dr. Fauci invokes globally-tested, scientific models, he’s not “offering an opinion” or doing “mind control.” When experts guarantee a “second wave,” they’re not trusting to personal gut instincts.

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

This would be one epic showdown – except shouting know-nothings crash in, defenseless against a fatal, invisible microbe while wiser folks favor safeguards against hidden, yet identifiable airborne droplets. The faith alone culture warrior risks life and limb, if not two miserable weeks, by daring fate. Because the rational adult accepts randomness, he or she trusts to scientific certainty. There’s enough menace—violence against protestors, tear gas and rightwing gasbags—without leaping from pan to fire.

The blindness of mask rejection, a slam dunk for skeptics, oozes contradictions, even in its own terms: “so if God controls all, is getting sick not a clear message about one’s misspent life, even rejection by the electoral college in the sky? Or is NOT getting sick a sign God favors you, awarding you more online cheap shots at science, brainpower, anything Democratic and scorned liberals”? We’re talking lose-lose, with nary a winner.

Herein replays another tedious Scopes/Monkey Trial, as when good science, namely Darwinian evolution, confronted a bad, fundamentalist state law against its teaching. What a glorious antecedent for know-nothing babble about Clorox as quick, wonder fix. Against hocus pocus, the science fellowship endorses the verification of proposed theories that survive rigorous, empirical testing, then are replicated often enough to become scientific laws. That methodology of knowledge counters personal bias and erroneous age-driven distortions, disowning absolutism and infallibility. Unlike fairy tale magic, science offers transparent, systemic checks and balances to offset fallibility, updating when better evidence and models surface.

Perhaps God, not Dr. Fauci, will protect the mask scoffers, though hardly the case as Covid-19 ravages obstinate evangelicals, preachers, and moralistic defenders of going maskless and crowding together. Behold feckless extremism that feeds disease, jeopardizing young and old alike. Trust only to divine willfulness, and your already compromised grandma meets her Maker earlier than scheduled – unless that was the heartless Plan all along. Oy vey!

The masks of time

Remember masks worn by Zorro and the Lone Ranger, protecting good guys doing good. Movie stage robbers (and later gangsters) wore face-covering to avoid detection (but were nabbed anyway). At least two Biblical verses invoke masks—exposing sneaky evil-doers. Yet, as with abortion or birth control, Jesus did not address life-saving masks—let alone germ theory, droplets, drugs or vaccines. No great prophet gets everything right.

One must wonder whether irrational resistance to masks exists were Trump not so infernally vain, thinking mask wearers “look weak.” What, such empty vanity from an intellectually-bereft buffoon pushing toxic disinfectants or germ-killing magic lights? From a dumb, pathological liar who slams viral testing because it somehow fuels the pandemic? So, Trumpers scorn life-saving masks but not ridiculous MAGA hats that broadcast slavish derangement? Is Trump not himself a staggering mix of old-age maladies, from slurred words to needing both hands to lift a glass, or awkwardly descending an easy walkway?

Pandemics, the great reformers

Now to the big question, tinged with optimism. Can a deadly, microscopic germ be the 2×4 that raises consciousness, proving what we can’t see can truly hurt (or help) us? Where masks are shunned, do not disease surges prove the collective peril of science-blindness? Can not an unstoppable pandemic shake up the complacent hordes, showing germs not only endanger but end life? I posit the right “invisible” lever can disrupt defenses, forcing undefiable, paramount “invisibles” into view: research, innovation, imagination and knowledge, producing similarly hidden cures packed in drugs and vaccines. If the anti-evidence crowd ever concedes its dire resistances are bogus, there’s a chance for more sanity to frame future medical decisions.

More than culture war stunts, mounting death tolls focus attention on this unarguable wisdom: none of us is an island entire unto ourselves, sole and invulnerable to threats. We are all tiny connected parts to a community whole. Only folly that defies death also intones this well-worn call-to-arms: “No smug elitist tells me what to plaster on my face.” Unless you insist on surviving. Like Trump, his insular base doesn’t yet know enough about science to know what they’re rejecting. A fatal pandemic, like any complex crisis, can be a great reformer.

Miracles, anybody?

To end with “Lawrence of Arabia,” Prince Faisal, yearning for change (here, improbable Arab independence), dreams of what “no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence. We need a miracle.”

Only miracle-working cudgels achieve the impossible: to accept as real what the backward 1) can’t see, grab or eat; 2) need not take on faith; and 3) disturbs deadly complacency. The horrors of the pandemic ultimately deliver an opportunity for all to understand knowledge is the only disease “cure.” Per William Blake (“The Sick Rose”), an “invisible worm,/ That flies in the night/ In the howling storm” enters thy bed and “does thy life destroy.”

What if a world record-busting 200K Yanks do succumb, many needlessly? How much disease and death is enough to force this nation to learn from failure, reject TV magic shows and return to sane science? Global vaccines are neither immediate, nor inevitable, may not cure everyone, and require daunting delivery methods. If mass die-offs don’t force major mindset changes, what will?

Dead people may not tell explicit tales, but their passing may instruct survivors what fails and what works, like masks, social distancing and common sense precautions. Otherwise, brace for more victims, fodder for the Grim Reaper. Sue me, but I’ll take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Robert S. Becker
For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.

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