Just wear the mask, we’ve got everything to lose

By Roger Bowen

“Driving my car on a back road without much traffic is pure freedom. I’ll be damned if I will ever support seat belt laws that constrain my physical and psychological freedom. Besides, if I am ever in a traffic accident, I expect to be thrown free and seat belts make that impossible.”

“Mandated mask wearing is unconstitutional because it violates my freedom. And, besides, masks are unhealthy because they catch some of the virus and it only blows back into my mouth and nostrils.”

Both statements are uttered by hypothetical Americans who believe they have found strong arguments against government intrusion into their personal lives. In the 1980s and 1990s, seat belts were cast as the enemy of freedom; today, it is masks during the pandemic. That seat belts and masks have been tested and proven to save lives seems, even if conceded, to rank lower on the homespun moral and constitutional scale of individual liberty embraced by some people.

Such thinking is wrong-headed. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights reflects the founders’ fear of government overreach. Hence, the Bill of Rights protects citizens against assaults on individual liberty from the state. Indeed, the rights enumerated serve as the bulwark of American democracy. But nowhere in the Constitution does one find a reference either to seat belts or protective masks. To state the obvious, both measures postdate our Constitution, automobiles and modern pandemics.

And that is why we have elected, more or less representative legislatures at all levels of government. Citizens elect legislators in whose judgment we have some confidence that they look after the material interests of the citizenry. We choose them to write our laws; the executive branch at all levels carries out the laws; and when the legislature is not in session, town councils, governors and presidents issue executive orders with the force of law.  

Locally my wife and I take extreme umbrage at store clerks who refuse to wear a mask, especially those who claim that “There is no law making me wear one.” We cut some slack to store owners because they are stuck between Governor Mills’ mandate for Mainers to wear masks, and store clerks whose defiance suggests they listened too often to our soon-to-be former President. The simple medical truth, which we share with clerks, is that masks protect both them from us and us from them. And as one with a list of pre-existing conditions that make me especially vulnerable to COVID-19, it takes just one ailing, unmasked clerk to send me to the hospital and perhaps to the morgue.

Yes, Congress is not popular, and Mr. Trump’s loss in the recent election shows he was unpopular with a huge majority of voters. A divided Congress with the likes of Mitch McConnell in charge of a do-nothing Senate and a House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who has been demonized by the GOP for much longer than the last four years means that many voters do trust Congress to do the right thing, whatever that means. Yet there is no guarantee that if Congress passed a law mandating mask-wearing until the virus is defeated that most Americans will obey. After 40 plus or minus years, New Hampshire still has not mandated the wearing of seat belts, and an estimated 10 percent of all American drivers still do not regularly wear them.  

No less important, popular confidence in the fairness of our democracy has been shaken badly during the past four years by a President unschooled in the ways of governing and who has been eager to divide Americans into loyalists and (“leftist”) revolutionaries, not unlike what the British Crown did to Americans in the 18th century.

Janis Joplin’s lyrics, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” may well reflect the attitude of the anti-mask, pro-Trump element. Many of them are low-income, have only a modest education, embrace provincialism and despise Washington and the elitism it has long represented. Freedom, or their unconstitutional understanding of the word, may be their last hope during this era of fewer jobs, higher food insecurity numbers and declining trust in democracy. As Trump himself once said when trying to win the African-American vote, “What do you have to lose?”  

But I would ask the pro-Trump, anti-maskers at local stores the Dr. Fauci question: Do you want to infect loved ones, even people you know like the masked man in front of you who simply wants to buy a carton of milk and not die prematurely simply because you do not want to wear a mask?

Roger Bowen lives in Prospect Harbor and is a former Gouldsboro selectman.

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