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Editor's Note: Taking the masks off
Daniette Thomas's local designs

I would really love to see in North Dakota that we could just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through, where they are creating a divide, either ideological or political or something, around mask versus no mask. This is a senseless dividing line, and I would ask people to try to dial up your empathy and your understanding. If someone is wearing a mask, they're not doing it to represent what political party they're in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they have a 5-year-old child who has been going through cancer treatments.

— Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, North Dakota

I MUST SAY, I didn’t anticipate that the major sociopolitical touchstone issue of 2020 would be whether or not to occasionally wear a mask during a global pandemic, in order to protect other people.

The speed and alacrity with which the dividing lines were drawn and the culture war ensued has been as dizzying to watch as it has been disturbing.

The masks are off, all right — but not always in the way that some would prefer.

There are already all kinds of social and legal requirements that we cover parts of our bodies in the course of our workaday lives, chiefly to address the concerns of other people.

For example, if I were to saunter into the Connect office without any clothes on from the waist down, I would rightfully be known as the former editor in about five seconds, and — after I get out of jail — rightfully wouldn’t be allowed back in the building for any reason.

If I come into work without a shirt, it’s possible I might keep my job, but quite impossible that I would be allowed to stay in the office and work like that.

Any number of businesses display the sign “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” and not only do most people not bat an eye at that, they welcome it.

The most obvious analogy to the mask debate is public smoking bans. The reason smoking is banned in most public places is not because cigarettes cause cancer to smokers, but because they cause cancer in other people via second-hand smoke.

Not to oversimplify, but if you compare cigarette smoke to the invisible coronavirus you’ll immediately see the common sense behind mask-wearing.

It’s not a theoretical issue. It hits close to home, as Brighter Day Natural Foods Market discovered when a Facebook post about their mask policy for customers became the target of hyperaggressive anti-mask trolls from around the country.

I seriously doubt the Karens who invaded the Brighter Day page do the same to restaurants and bars and retail shops which forbid smoking — which is to say pretty much all of them.

While it is unprecedented in our lifetimes for businesses to routinely ask customers to wear masks, requests of a similar nature are actually quite common.

So what’s really different this time?

People are angry this time. They are confused and upset, and for good reason.

So the less thoughtful or less empathetic among us will respond as they often do, by projecting their anger onto easy targets.

The mask becomes deeply symbolic – an almost primal symbol of uncertainty, of loss of individuality, of the loss of the free life that we led before the pandemic.

When people accuse those who wear masks of “living in fear,” I think this could be a form of projection – it’s really they who are frightened.

I assure you, when I pop a mask onto my face to go grocery shopping for 20 minutes, I don’t feel scared in the least. It gives me a measure of comfort, then I take it off as soon as I can and go on with my life.

I take Constitutional rights very, very seriously indeed – and am often dragged by detractors on the right and on the left because of that.

But comparing a request to wear a mask for a few minutes while in a shop to a true civil rights violation is frankly an insult to the people who risked their lives for American independence, and to eventually author the Bill of Rights itself.

If like me you take our rights as Americans seriously, you might want to focus on the many, many other clear and present areas where our rights are most certainly in peril.

Being asked to wear a mask while buying toilet paper or kitty litter, for a couple of months out of your life, just isn’t one of them.

I am fascinated by how unwilling people are to direct the proper amount of righteous anger toward the place and people that richly deserve it: Your government.

Most other countries long ago figured out that the way to weather COVID-19 was to A) shut everything down immediately with no extended debate, and B) – this is the key part – provide adequate and timely financial relief to businesses and individuals at least through the course of the lockdown, if not longer.

It’s not rocket science, but America failed at both. A country so eager to congratulate itself on its “exceptionalism” was exceptionally bad at handling it.

From the federal level (the failure of PPP and the laughable $1200 one-time checks) to the state level (grandstanding governors, red state or blue state, whose reopening plans revolve more around politics than best practices), the American response has largely been a colossal failure.

I’ve heard people say that our poor response is an inherent critique of capitalism. There is definitely some truth to that.

But many capitalist countries, such as South Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, etc. all coped with COVID-19 much more responsibly, without the extensive, paralyzing political rancor we see here.

It seems that the countries, such as the United States and Brazil, where the top leaders have taken an openly skeptical attitude toward COVID-19, are the ones that handled it the worst.

Whether the Great Mask War is completely arbitrary or deeply symbolic – or perhaps both – is a question of perspective.

Unfortunately, true perspective is hard to come by in the middle of world crisis.