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The Fetishizing of Masks
A new study is being hailed as the "Scientific Nail in the Coffin" for mask mandates. But some people will be loathe to give them up.
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Alright folks, gather ‘round—it’s time for the retelling of an ageless tale: Lord Fauci the Liar.
Long ago on May 22, 2019, a prehistoric era when The Science™ was still just the science and the Wuhan Institute of Virology remained little known, our Lord and Savior Tony Fauci, keeper of the highest paid seat of the crown, noble nemesis and lifelong adversary of the Bad Orange Man with the Mean Tweets, and patron saint of overly-neurotic liberals the world over, was featured on Bloomberg TV in an airing of The David Rubenstein Show, whereupon, at minute 17:15, he scoffed at the idea of wearing a mask to protect against the spread of a virus.
Not too many moons later, circa March 2020, our liege, never one to turn down a media appearance, partook in a 60 Minutes interview during which he explained why it was silly to think a mask would protect you against covid.
But nigh the first solstice (June 2020), Fauci reversed course and contradicted himself. Suddenly, masks were indispensable.
When asked about this flip-flop, Fauci averred that obviously he wasn’t suggesting that wearing masks wasn’t important. Rather, t’was a matter beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals; had he endorsed masks, Fauci said, the peasants would’ve panicked, causing a mask shortage detrimental to the bourgeois.
But one year later, emails from a Freedom of Information Act Request revealed that our liege was not in fact engaging in a “noble lie.” Forsooth, in correspondence with other nobles he said the very same thing: Masks were ineffective and unnecessary.
Fauci’s cadre explained that the discrepancy was because “the evidence had changed,” a spurious claim and an insult to the masses. Nobody was ever able to present evidence of a scientific “change” that occurred during this two-month span; no scientific literature was produced, nor was there anything in Fauci’s emails to substantiate this claim.
Thus it was: The Science™ was born.
It is amazing that so many people still think masks work. Just the other day as I was jogging in a local park, I passed two women who were masked. They were outside, for God’s sake. I’m fascinated by the psychology involved in this sort of thing, the process by which one becomes so dogmatically certain of something that all evidence to the contrary is systematically ignored or filtered out.
But maybe, just maybe, a recent study being referred to as the ‘Scientific Nail in the Coffin’ for masks will get through to these people.
The study, one of the largest and most comprehensive on whether or not masks work, reviewed 78 randomized control trials — “the gold standard” for medicine — which assessed the effectiveness of face masks against covid, the flu, and similar illnesses. It found that wearing masks “probably makes little or no difference” for the general public, regardless of the kind of mask used. That means even N95 masks, which have been touted as offering the most protection against airborne particles, showed no clear benefit for health care workers.
The study was published on January 30 by the Cochrane Library, a world-renowned medical database that’s famous for its high-quality evidence reviews. It is a damning indictment of the U.S. public health establishment’s recommendations, which were based on The Science™ rather than actual science. Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have maintained that masks are effective covid prophylactics, but their guidance has always been based on egregiously weak studies with small sample sizes and few controls. And while these pro-mask studies were the subject of fawning articles in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post, no mainstream media outlet has covered the Cochrane review.
It remains somewhat of a mystery why so many people became such ardent mask proponents, but I have some thoughts on the matter.
The day after the CDC endorsed nationwide mask-wearing, President Trump announced, “I won’t be doing it personally.”1 Almost instantly the issue took on an inordinate significance such that covering one’s face became an eccentric phylactery henceforth adopted en masse by proselytizers of The Science™. It wasn’t much later that one could empirically verify that masks had evolved from a basic, precautionary mitigation strategy with very questionable efficacy to a badge of political allegiance and moral superiority that has proved stubbornly in vogue.
Does it make me a conspiracy theorist or crank to wonder if what started as incompetence and the inception of Fickle Fauci was subsequently seized upon as a petty political cudgel to be used against Trump and his deplorables, at which point the issue in question took on disproportionate importance such that masks became a bizarre fetish appropriated by liberals with apostolic fervor on account of Trump being “anti-mask”2 but our Lord and Savior Tony Fauci indicating the opposite, and that from thereon Fauci and the CDC never found an off-ramp that didn’t involve admitting they’d been wrong the whole time?
I can’t help but entertain the notion. The petty high school-ish ways members of the scientific community were ostracized and censored for not promulgating the prevailing mainstream consensus (The Science™) makes me feel as though such a thing shouldn’t be considered outside the pale.
Regardless, there remains a non-trivial segment of society for whom masking and diligence against covid in general — a kind of hygiene theater in line with the bizarre notion that civic duty is best expressed through lonely asceticism — remains an expression of one’s progressive bona fides, even when it means exaggerating the risk covid poses to them.
For these folks, who could be described with some degree of accuracy as self-appointed suburbian mutaween obsessed with enforcing burqa-wearing and the new public morality, donning a mask is more about signaling one’s virtue and solidifying an Us-versus-Them tribalism than it is prophylaxis.
Face-coverings became talismans for a new species of religious identitarian fanatics who equated any loosening of covid restrictions with Trumpism, even after vaccines tamed the virus’s worst effects. But for others, the desire to continue wearing a mask has less to do with politics than it does with what amounts to a sort of emotional crutch.
As the Guardian‘s Julia Carrie writes, many Americans like their masks just fine—but often for disconcerting, unhealthy personal reasons. Francesca, a 46-year-old, fully vaccinated professor in New York, is unwilling to part with her “invisibility cloak” just yet. “It has been such a relief to feel anonymous,” she said. “It’s like having a force field around me that says, ‘don’t see me.’” Becca, a 25-year-old bookstore employee near Chicago, reports that she and her co-workers “prefer not having customers see our faces,” because “[w]ith a mask, I don’t have to smile at them or worry about keeping a neutral face.” Bob, a 75-year-old retiree in New Jersey, says wearing a mask “frees” him from having to “appear happy.” Aimee, a 44-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, likes the “emotional freedom” that comes from wearing a mask: “It’s almost like taking away the male gaze.”
The wearing of masks has long been advertised as a cost-free action, a minor inconvenience that nobody should object to. Nothing could be further from the truth. Masks conceal our humanity, preventing us from seeing the emotions and sensibilities of others; they compromise human interaction by limiting communication and inhibiting understanding.
Charles Darwin wrote an entire book (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals) about how the human reliance on facial expressions sets us apart from animals. Human communication is “much aided by the expressive movements of the face and body,” and the face is “the chief seat of expression.”
And wearing masks around kids and forcing them to mask as well has had real consequences. The harm done could have, and should have, been avoided. Early in the pandemic, Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, citing studies from Sweden and the World Health Organization, warned in the Wall Street Journal about the very real hazard of stunting kids’ developmental progress. The damage in emotional processing is especially worrisome for babies who’ve had their first years of life defined by humans with the lower two-thirds of their faces covered up.
It should come as little surprise that a roundtable discussion on this very subject matter featuring Dr. Bhattacharya and several other prominent medical experts with Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis was banned by YouTube specifically because they all advised against masking children for various health reasons, which contradicted The Science™.
But it’s nothing less than astounding that three years after the start of the pandemic, some schools are still requiring masks. The Washington Examiner notes that school districts in Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania reimposed mask mandates in January amid a spike in respiratory illnesses.3 The mandates came after the CDC warned of a “tridemic” of COVID, flu, and RSV (despite cases of all three illnesses having declined significantly).
Ah yes, the CDC. A national embarrassment and bastion of inconsistency that has done more harm to the credibility of public health than anyone ever dreamed possible. Long before their ascension, Socrates made clear in Plato’s Republic that he did not want public health officials to rule, because such an order would encourage excessive risk-aversion and ultimately result in transforming cowardice into a virtue. We’ve seen this play out not just in the rise of safetyism and the fanatical self-regard of its proponents, but in the CDC’s perverse insistence on ushering in a new normal based on overtly fraudulent pretenses.
It’s worth remembering that the CDC’s loyalty is first and foremost not to the American people, but to stakeholders. This is exactly why our Founding Fathers endowed elected legislatures with the power to make policy decisions rather than unelected, remote bureaucrats. But as we all know well, public health officials and executive branch leaders have used the “public health emergency” pretext to bypass legislatures and justify mandates and policies that have no basis in science. The Biden administration recently announced that the state of emergency will end on May 11. We shall see if that finally ends mask mandates, or if bureaucrats and health officials find new reasons to justify continued imposition.
Ironically, the former president often referred back to Fauci’s 60 Minutes interview as justification. And as we all know well, it soon became apparent that Trump and Fauci weren’t especially fond of each other, with an odd kind of “cold war” between the two commencing.
Another example: Trump suggested the virus came from the Wuhan lab, and immediately the media and anti-Trump fanatics effectively banned any discussion of it. Whatever Trump was for, they were against.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul,” Nelson Mandela famously said, “than the way in which it treats its children.” If we’re going by that standard, our society’s soul is sorely lacking. A shocking number of people have revealed themselves to be selfish neurotics with sadistic proclivities who’ve been punishing children for years now and still can’t restrain themselves.