‘Things Gotta Breathe’ – The Intractable problem of Freedom and Face Masks

By Charlie Flynn

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign – John Stuart Mill

To many, the beating-heart of the United States self-image, culture and way of life, can be captured in one very short, but enduring, passage from the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” To more still, it might seem that America is the sole custodian of this particular political philosophy, embodying it better than any other civilisation on Earth. As such, the discourse around liberty, freedom and constitutional rights has always been a tumultuous one. This is not helped by the fact that Liberty is an admittedly vague notion and one with distinctly ill-defined edges. Despite being held up as an inalienable right, enshrined in the constitution since its inception, exactly what this entails has always been a matter of contention. As of 2021, this tradition doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. In the last year, as the measures necessary to ensure public safety have become ever more drastic, a particular cross-section of the American people has drawn a very peculiar line in the sand on the matter of personal freedom. 

In June 2020, Florida was plunging head-first into a crisis. It had “shattered” its record for the most coronavirus cases in a single day, with the additional 5,511 cases bringing the state’s total to nearly 110,000. The death toll was over 3000. In order to try and reign in the unrelenting spread of the disease, the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners met in order to consider approving an order making face-masks mandatory. What followed was to some a display of American Individualism at its most implacable. To others, it was a surreal farce.  

During the public comment section of the meeting, Sylvia Ball, an unassuming elderly security guard, quietly but with genuine earnest, approached the microphone to voice her views. She spoke of her love for the country she had lived her life in and opined the Commissioners for “trampling” on her constitutional rights. She explained, with unexpected calm, that they were without “any scientific evidence” attempting to “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out the door.” Cristina Gomez, a young woman, strode up to the podium with a look of unabashed moral superiority and unapologetically addressed the Commissioners as follows: “We the people will work day and night to clean every single seat[…]we will get together and do a citizen’s arrest on every single human being that goes against the freedom of choice[…]every single one of you that are obeying the devil’s laws are going to be arrested.” Before retiring, she pointed to the doctor in the room, accused him of being guilty of crimes against humanity and concluded with the words “you cannot escape God.” As if the air was not already thick enough with hyperbole, another woman summed up the feelings of the anti-maskers rather well; “you’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our Constitutional rights by these Communist dictatorship orders or laws you want to mandate.” Despite these fiery insinuations, the mandate was passed. At face value, these claims are ridiculous and worthy of nothing more than a sad chuckle. Indeed, much of their attacks stemmed from the perceived notion that face masks were severely damaging to people’s health. Put simply by one woman present, “things gotta breathe,” and facemasks would apparently prevent that from being possible. I am no scientist, but that seems far-fetched to me. 

 However, this small-town meeting is emblematic of a far wider problem. A separate epidemic of ill-informed, gun-toting, freedom-loving Americans taking to the streets to protest the implementation of these state-mandated ‘muzzles’ has become common-place. The sheer rage felt against the mask-mandates has occasionally broken out into violence. For instance, in May 2020, an employee of a Family Dollar store was shot for telling a customer that her daughter had to wear a mask in order to enter the store. More worryingly, anti-mask sentiment isn’t just a phenomenon amongst the average American. Ex-president Trump was famous for his reluctance to don the face coverings. In April, when Americans were beginning to be advised to wear face coverings, Mr. Trump addressed the nation and said, “you don’t have to do it.I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Quite the example to set. Even more recently, in march 2021, the indubitably Red State of Texas has ended its mask-mandate as a result of rapidly dwindling cases with the almost comically predictable words: “We no longer need government running our lives.” Unsurprisingly, this move was condemned by president Biden as “Neanderthal thinking”. 

To many,  this issue is utterly bewildering. No matter how convincing the science or how reasonable those proposing such mandates may be, the opposition never seems to entirely dissipate. So why is this issue so pervasive? Why is it that swathes of the American people are so vehemently opposed to such a simple inconvenience in the interest of public health? I would argue, in the interests of fair discourse, that there is the faintest germ of a good point buried beneath all the flag-waving. 

During his inaugural address as Governor in 1967 Ronald Reagan, a man for whom it would be reasonable to claim that ‘freedom’ was his middle name, offered a sobering warning: 

Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” 

His point is one that is often forgotten in developed societies today; that the right to liberty, the right to live one’s life as one chooses to, is both rare and precious. In 2021, freedom is somewhat of a throw-way phrase, a worn-out platitude bandied about to score cheap political points. However, in 1967, the reality was different. The Soviet Union was at is unglamourous peak and the roots of totalitarianism had firmly burrowed into much of the world. For those in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia or Romania, freedom was not something taken for granted but an ideal by which to strive towards; something better not to dwell on lest it induce episodes of wishful thinking. Reagan’s point, crude as it might be, is that the way of life in the United States, defined by its adherence to personal liberties, is precious. It is a rare and beautiful thing and has to be protected at all costs for once lost, it is no small task to get it back. For many, this message struck a chord. The more pedantic adherents to this view might argue that the introduction of the mask as a mandatory piece of clothing, whatever the intentions, represents a restriction of individual liberty. It is a decision made by the state on behalf of the individual, disrespecting his sovereignty as an individual agent. From here, it is a slippery slope to total tyranny. Indeed, history has taught us that states of public emergency create ample conditions for the power-hungry to seize control of people’s lives and cast their rights aside in favour of their political vision; the Reichstag fire in 1933 springs to mind. 

An immediate reply presents itself: it’s just a mask, it’s not a big deal. It’s not as if the Government has started a Gulag program—it’s a face-covering. True, but it is perhaps naive to use this off-hand response too readily. Case in point, in North Korea, there are a total of 28 different haircuts from which it is acceptable to choose from. Men can pick from a list of 10, all of which are variations on the short back and sides. It’s a small thing, some of those less fashion oriented might even say insignificant, but it represents something completely insidious. It represents the stripping away of personal choice, an utter disregard for the seemingly self-evident notion that a person possesses ownership of their body and appearance; it is for them to do with as they wish. By mandating as simple as a haircut, the North Korean State stamps their seal of ownership upon each and every citizen, reminding them that they are ultimately at the beck and call of the state, that they are not individuals but servants of the political ideals of their leaders. As such, even the smallest of things can be symbols of intolerable oppression. Perhaps the group under discussion view the masks as something similar, a symbol of oppression; something indicative of a wider problem of government interference into their lives. Perhaps, for them, the mask sets a worrying precedent which can be used to justify a creeping form of tyranny that will eventually transform their way of life and if left unopposed, will result in Reagan’s prophetic warning becoming a reality. 

Maybe so. The faintest germ of a good point is certainly there. That being said, such a thought process is a gold-medal winning stunt in sheer hyperbole; skilfully dodging the daunting obstacles of nuance, subtlety and, let’s face it, reality. For instance, the most common objection we hear is that the mask mandates violate “constitutional rights.” That sounds correct doesn’t it? The constitution says things about freedom and choice and all that good stuff, surely there must be something in there that they can use! Well,not really. Exactly what aspect of the constitution does the mandating of masks violate? Which particular passage or amendment can we point to as the bombshell proof that these masks are a slap in the face to America’s founding principles? Perhaps it might be possible to cite, as broadly as possible, an individual’s right to liberty; the key principle found running throughout the constitution—the ability to do with my body what I will regardless of what the Government tells me. This objection can be neatly summed up by an infamous Miami spring-breaker in March 2020 who railed against Government restrictions in the following manner: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”  Again, there is a very sensible response to this that was summarised nicely at the town hall meeting we were discussing earlier. The Commissioners cited the precedent set by the ruling of Jacobsen vs Massachusetts, a 1905 supreme court case which decided that a mandatory small-pox vaccination did not infringe upon constitutional rights to liberty, with such a mandate being a “legitimate exercise of the state’s police power to protect the public health and safety of its citizens. Indeed, this “police power” stems from the 10th Amendment of the constitution, which grants States the power to “enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public,” something clearly achieved by the wearing of masks. So, the commissioners, with the weight of sound legal judgment behind them, summarised their position as follows: “constitutional rights and the ideals of limited government do not[…]allow [citizens] to wholly shirl their social obligation to their fellow Americans or to society as a whole.After all, we do not have a constitutional right to infect others.” And with that, sound reason prevailed. 

Never mind how passionately an ideology is presented and how intrinsically good its principles it may be, it’s always going to slam head-first into the practical problems of living in a chaotic world such as this. Even at the best of times, we all sacrifice a certain amount of liberty in the name of ‘getting on’ with each other; whether its taxes or speed limits. The pandemic could not, under any metric, be labelled as ‘the best of times’ and the need to wear a mask to preserve the public good is a reflection of that. The mask, at it most insidious, is an inconvenience. If we were to calculate the sum total of this annoyance, to magnify that feeling of mild irritation across all Americans, would this in any way stack up to the additional suffering caused if masks were not universally worn? Not in the slightest. The mask is not a muzzle; it is not a symbol of big government but a simple and effective step to protecting thousands upon thousands of vulnerable lives. To compare the wearing of a mask to the historic or contemporary practices of totalitarianism is not only ill-informed but is an insult to the very principles which such advocates of this view proclaim to hold dear; it trivialises them to the point of nonsense. 

Freedom might be fragile, Reagan was right, but it is not so fragile as the anti-maskers would believe. I believe, as radical as it may sound, that the value of liberty can survive the adoption of the mask; that these values can transcend the simple black-and-white thinking presented by those across the country who conflate public safety with tyranny. If Freedom is something valuable, then coronavirus is a poor choice of hill to die on; for history will not be kind to those who refused to do their part in bringing this pandemic to a close. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

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