The other day, I was chatting with some friends about what to do about America’s new, alien mask culture: How can we drive it from our country, why it hasn’t been rejected yet, and what responsibility each of us bears for transforming this mere hope into a reality.
At one point, a friend shared this short clip of Jordan Peterson. How would he answer the question, “Whose fault is it that the safety-above-all-else mask culture persists?”
Peterson does not lay the blame on Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci, the legacy media, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or the Chinese Communist Party. His answer?
It’s your fault.
I admit I was a little bit taken aback by this, even though I’ve listened to Peterson ever since he burst onto the scene in 2016 by cooly talking sense to irrational social justice warriors at the University of Toronto. I think that’s probably because, while his “rules for life” always seemed correct in the abstract, it also seemed to me that opportunities to live them out would be rare, perhaps even something for others to do. But now, I no longer think that—not when the once-clownish totalitarians, confined to campus safe spaces and given Play-Doh and dogs to pet because of “stress,” are steering my country into dangerous waters.
But even so, can it really be my responsibility to end this? Am I really obligated to be a kind of Solzhenitsyn, to stand up, alone (if that’s how the cookie crumbles), against officialdom’s many reigning institutional power centers, and flip them the bird, bare-faced?
I think yes and no. Peterson is certainly on to something. We are in desperate need of more courage from ordinary people. In the past, I’ve criticized what I call “gilded cowardice”—the dressing up of one’s lack of courage in the garb of “prudence” so as to rationalize one’s failure ever to take a stand for or against anything when even the slightest personal cost might result. That pathetic practice has to end. And there is a real sense in which this kind of dehumanizing, pointless regime can only exist (and expand) to the extent that we the people allow it.
Risks (and Rewards) of Resistance
But there is, at the same time, a nontrivial case to be made that for any mere individual to stand up to “Mask America” amounts to a kind of pointless self-destruction, a martyrdom complete with pain, humiliation, fear, and negative consequences but bereft of a (heavenly) reward. Given this is the case, we need leaders to speak to, shape, and mobilize public opinion so that we can move toward this maskless destination.
Angelo Codevilla has often made this point:
[D]uring the Occupation in the 1940s, Charles de Gaulle warned the people against individual acts of resistance. This is something I’ve pointed out before: Don’t do these things individually [in this case, de-mask at Walmart or wherever], do them only as part of a larger national political enterprise led by . . . well, at that time, Charles de Gaulle.
There is a tension here, though Peterson and Codevilla make good arguments for their respective positions. How do we resolve it? What should we who believe that the dangerous safety-ism represented by this new “wear yer damn mask!” culture must go?
For starters, I do not think people should be so frightened of being humiliated, called out, or “canceled” that they refuse even to test the waters on their own in manageable situations. Decide where you will first push back, try to gather support, and then execute the plan.
For example, when I went to Mass this week, I did not wear a mask. In a sanctuary packed with those who did, I alone sat as we all did a little over a year ago, before Fauci became such a ubiquitous, nauseating presence in our lives, and I quietly gave witness to the possibility of a mask-free future. I gave the people around me permission to imagine it.
I hasten to add that what I did was not illegal; even in Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan, one need not wear a mask when one is “engaging in a religious service.” I rejected only “the tyranny of public opinion,” to use J. S. Mill’s phrase, not any Michigan law. As I say: Do what you can; take baby steps if need be.
I’m happy to report that the sky did not fall. The police were not called. I was not asked to leave. I worshipped my Lord free of the stupid mask (which, in addition to being annoying, doubles as unnecessary, not least because I’m fully vaccinated). It was an incredible feeling, and I will try this again soon, somewhere more “dangerous.” Each of us should do the same, where and when we can, according to prudence, rightly understood. Ideally, we would all imitate this brave woman.
Stand Up or Lose Out
But a Petersonian approach does not solve what Codevilla identifies as “[t]he number one practical problem we’re facing”: “oligarchies, namely that state powers, public powers, are being wielded by ostensibly private organizations.”
An individual will for the foreseeable future, and as sure as the day is long, be denied access to a Delta flight, entry to Walmart to shop for groceries, or attendance at a Taylor Swift concert if they do not wear a mask—and probably also if they can’t prove they’ve been vaccinated. Anything controlled by woke corporations, whose reach has only increased over the years (and has accelerated since the pandemic crushed thousands and thousands of small businesses), will be paired with such slavish, ineffective, and performative “public health” protocols as a basic condition of access.
This is why we need leaders whose job it is to light the way and absorb the punishment that will be meted out by those who maniacally push these practices. While Peterson is right that each individual is, in the final analysis, responsible for preserving the flame of freedom, Codevilla is also correct to observe that, in a republic, we elect leaders whose job is to represent and secure our interests by acting as rallying points to organize the kind of mass action that has a chance of being effective. (Imagine if a bunch of our leaders declared July 4 “Independence From Masks Day” and got, say, half the country to agree to de-mask permanently from then on. To spark just that sort of collective action through the use of a psychologically vital date in our history is exactly what leaders are for; individuals cannot accomplish such things by themselves.)
In truth, however, both perspectives need one another. Without the courage and conviction of the Petersonian individual, a Codevillian leader has nothing to work with; all his speeches in defense of freedom and action to bring it about would likely amount to nothing. But a strong individual who stands up for what is right, alone, will be crushed by COVID, Inc. and left destitute; and besides, not even a Solzhenitsyn could bring down the Soviet Union alone—he had help from a literal saint (Pope John Paul II) and a U.S. president (Ronald Reagan).
Everyone needs to stand up for what is right. Without that, all is lost. But for what is right to win out in the end, those persons willing to stand for it need to band together in solidarity for protection and mutual support, and they need a leader to translate their hopes into concrete action. Sadly, at this time, there are precious few persons, and even fewer leaders, willing to do these things
Until that changes, the masks will stay on—and for as long as the powers-that-be wish.