I have a friend who opposes vaccines. I should say I have at least one such friend, for I have not polled everyone for their positions on Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. I learned recently that my friend opposes masks as well. This position surprised me at first because no one, to my knowledge, has claimed that wearing masks causes autism. But my friend, whom I will call Janet, fears the government’s compelling people to wear masks against their will. In the last couple of weeks, she wrote to me about this fear, saying in her message that I might find interesting the perspective in the linked video. I did find it interesting.
The video, which I skimmed, presented a Holocaust survivor sharing her alarm at mask mandates and sheltering-in-place orders. She said they brought to mind the requirement the Nazis imposed on Jewish people that the latter wear yellow stars of David. The stars facilitated discrimination, exclusion, deportation, and ultimately the extermination of over six million European Jews, part of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.
My first impulse, upon realizing the analogy that the Holocaust survivor—and therefore Janet—was drawing was to tell Janet how toxic and crazy the comparison was. She knows that I lost most of my family in the Holocaust more than two decades before I was even born. How dare she? Moreover, I thought, does Janet imagine that I am so thoroughly identified with the mass murder of the Jews that I will automatically adopt whatever paranoid fantasies appear before me, so long as a Holocaust survivor offers them?
Her message and that of the survivor reminded me of the “ex-gays” that the religious right trots out to persuade gay men and lesbians to attempt to change their sexual orientation. Every group—including Holocaust survivors—has its cranks. And like the “ex-gays,” whose experience of homophobia has apparently driven them to delude themselves into finding a “cure” for their orientation, it struck me that a Holocaust survivor might be especially inclined to hear the hoofbeats of Nazism whenever the government tries to regulate any part of their behavior.
The trauma of living through such a nightmare of hatred and violence would make anyone jumpy in its wake. Though I wish the Holocaust survivor would stop comparing masks to yellow stars of David—for the comparison is obscene—I have compassion for her. I remember growing up with my mother, a Holocaust survivor who feared her own shadow by the end of the war and who regarded a hostile op/ed as an augur of extermination. Had my mom lived to see this Trump campaign ad and the fascism of our last President, I cannot even imagine how scared she might have been.
Janet, however, lacks the excuse that my mother would have had. Janet therefore reminds me less of a Holocaust survivor and more of what I would call a toxic libertarian. I add the adjective because not all libertarians follow the teachings of objectivism and carry a copy of Atlas Shrugged in their back pockets. But some do, and an even smaller subset believes that no one should be able to ask anything of them save to refrain from committing violent crimes against non-provocateurs.
Such people think taxes are like genocide. Grover Norquist famously said, in response to a question about the estate tax on the NPR show Fresh Air, that “the death tax [is] the tax where they come and look at how much money you’ve got when you die, how much gold is in your teeth and they want half of it” and then asserted that taxing people based on the size of their estate is “the morality of the Holocaust.”
People in this camp say that the government may serve as a watchman and protect people from violence. But they construe violence very narrowly and thus liberate those who would inflict anti-social harm on their fellow citizens.
In considering people who refuse to wear masks and who proudly show up on my Facebook feed smiling and expressly celebrating their maskless state, I do not think of heroes and freedom. I think instead of men who refuse to wear condoms when they sleep with men, women, or anyone else who asks these men to wear condoms. Some of the offenders actually put on a condom and then stealthily remove it during intercourse. How clever! How devious! They imagine they are rebels without a cause, but what they really are is parasites, infecting their partners with unwanted fluids and causing unwanted STIs, pregnancy, and undesired skin-to-skin contact. There is nothing heroic or admirable about a parasite. And no, I am not ironically calling for anyone’s extermination.
People who refuse to wear condoms prioritize the enhancement of their own pleasure over a partner’s safety and wishes regarding her body. And such people have ready recourse to claims by some on the religious right that condoms don’t work. The anti-maskers also complain about the discomfort of having to wear a mask. Masks do not enhance the breathing experience. When I get into my car after having a mask on for several hours, I rip the mask off my face and enjoy the rapid oxygen infusion I had been missing. But masks, like condoms, serve an important purpose. They prevent me and you and Janet (if she wears them) from infecting our fellow citizens and driving hospital populations to capacity with patients who need ventilators when there are no more ventilators. Would Janet want the surgeons operating on her to forgo their surgical masks as well?
Refusing to wear a condom and refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic are not the resistance to a fascist plot. To imagine that they are is to engage in grandiose, delusional thinking. Sex and breathing may be more fun without the barriers. But the right to swing your arms (or other body parts) ends at another person’s nose. Sometimes a fist can take the form of breath droplets during a pandemic that has already taken over a half a million American lives. Refusing to wear a mask to protect the strangers you encounter each day is not a reflection of heroism or a sign that you think for yourself, any more than refusing to wear a condom is. It is just selfish.