I believe I speak for most of my fellow Americans who, upon seeing a guy without a mask entering a public place, wish to say something like the following: “Hey, fella, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a virus that’s killed nearly 200,000 of us, and you don’t know whether you have it or not, and, if you do, you could give it to someone else, so put on a mask before you enter that store. The people who work there probably won’t tell you that, because they don’t want to confront a customer, or because they’re just kids. So I’ll do it for them — please put on a mask.”
There. I just said what I have wanted to say a few times since the pandemic started.
While polls indicate that 90% of Americans comprehend the importance of wearing masks away from home and 60% say they always wear one in public, at least 10% say they never wear one. My guess is that most of the diligent 60% would like to speak up when they see the maskless walk by, but we don’t. And why not?
Because we live in tense times, depressingly divided times. I figure that a person who defies medical advice to wear a mask in public is someone who supports the maskless President Donald Trump and would surely see a proselytizing mask wearer as a liberal do-gooder who can go to hell.
I must say that, in my experiences across Maryland, most people have been wearing masks when and where they are supposed to. But I’ve also noticed what John McLaughlin of Baltimore vented about in an email the other day — people wearing masks with their noses exposed, defeating the purpose of the covering. “Drives me nuts,” McLaughlin wrote. “Covering the nose is super important, but people all over town violate this daily.”
I have been in four situations — in a convenience store and a discount store in southern Pennsylvania, and at fast-food stops in central and Western Maryland — where the maskless roamed, but I said nothing.
Over the weekend, Ron Young, the state senator and former mayor of Frederick, tweeted his concern about what he saw: “Sitting in downtown Frederick having brunch. Loads of people walking up and down the street without face masks. What’s the use of having a requirement if no one enforces it?”
There’s the rub — enforcement, or the lack of it.
As of July 31, Gov. Larry Hogan mandated that everyone older than 5 must wear masks inside all public buildings. The order further stated that masks must be worn outdoors when people are “unable to consistently maintain at least 6 feet of distance from individuals who are not members of their household.” And that’s what Young says he was noting on Sunday — hundreds of people on Frederick’s busy sidewalks, about 40% without masks.
Should he have spoken up? Should any of us?
That’s a difficult call for most, a risky step into a culture war. Violations of Hogan’s orders are subject to imprisonment and/or fines, and it’s up to local law enforcement authorities to cite violators, according to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
Still, you would think that peer pressure from seeing others with masks would be a major influence, and it probably has been in some cases.
But peer pressure competes with two dynamics that have been developing in American life for at least the last four decades. One is the get-mine, greed-is-good selfishness that was celebrated in the 1980s and influenced a whole generation. The other is what the poet Robert Bly described as “protracted adolescence” among Americans who, absorbed in instant gratification and consumerism, behave in such a self-centered way they never fully take on the responsibilities of adulthood. These two forces are intertwined.
The get-mine mentality might spawn entrepreneurship and handsome profits, but it can also foster rejection of an essential ethic — that is, unity and empathy in service of the common good. Bly detected a kind of national personality disorder; he saw Americans becoming obsessed with pleasure seeking, technology and materialism while rejecting the customary responsibilities of adulthood, the main one being the care and nurturing of children.
When I hear people bemoan the lack of grown-ups in the Trump White House, presumably to bring stability to a chaotic presidency, I hear Bly’s lament about where the country was headed when he wrote his book, “The Sibling Society,” in the 1990s. People who defy admonitions to wear masks in a pandemic — and a president who crowds his maskless followers into campaign rallies — represent the broken culture Bly foresaw.
I note that Thursday in Washington brings the dedication of the memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the general who led the allied forces that freed Europe from Hitler’s terror, and a Republican president for two terms in the 1950s. Eisenhower epitomized wise leadership and calm stewardship, and he gave Americans what Bly said they needed then and we need now — the “vertical gaze,” someone to look up to.
Had he been faced with a pandemic, Eisenhower would have asked the nation to wear face masks as a matter of good citizenship, and Americans would have done so. We would not have the foolish political battle over masks we have now. And there would have been no need for an “adult in the room” because, in Ike’s time, the president was the adult in the room.