I've heard of Muslim women in America being taunted for wearing hijabs, I've heard of Jewish men being mocked for wearing yarmulkes and now I've heard it all: A friend of mine was cursed by a passing stranger the other day for wearing a protective mask.
There is, of course, a rather nasty virus going around, and one way to lessen the chance of its spread, especially from you to someone else, is to cover your nose and mouth. Call it civic responsibility. Call it science.
But science is no match for tribalism in this dysfunctional country. Truth is whatever validates your prejudices, feeds your sense of grievance and fuels your antipathy toward the people you've decided are on some other side.
And protective masks, God help us, are tribal totems. With soul-crushing inevitably, these common-sense precautions morphed into controversial declarations of identity. What's next? Band-Aids?
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"Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans." That was the headline on a recent article in Politico by Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman that noted that "in a deeply polarised America, almost anything can be politicised."
I quibble only with "almost." And I submit that the entire story of our scattered, schizoid response to the coronavirus pandemic can be distilled into the glares, tussles, tweets, deference and defiance surrounding this simple accessory.
On Monday the White House belatedly introduced a policy of mask-wearing in the West Wing — but it exempted President Donald Trump. See what I mean about mask as metaphor? Trump demands protection from everybody around him, but nobody is protected from Trump. Story of America.
My friend was standing on a street corner in the center of a small town in New York. The state has decreed that people wear face coverings if they're in public settings where they can't be sure to stay 6 feet or more away from others. So my friend was following the rules, as were her two companions. All three of them were masked.
And a man driving by shouted a profanity at them.
Just two words. Just two syllables. You can probably guess which.
How did she know their masks were the trigger? She said that nothing else about the three of them could possibly have drawn any particular notice and judgment and that she'd encountered other evidence of objection to lockdowns, social distancing and masks in this relatively rural and relatively conservative area.
One man, she said, has been standing outside the local post office, yelling about government oppression and handing out flyers. She showed me one. It had an image of a face mask crossed out and said: "ATTN GOVERNMENT AGENTS. Please provide lawful and necessary consideration to aid the bearer in the unimpeded exercise of constitutionally protected rights."
It's not just her town. "Mask haters causing problems at retail establishments," read a recent headline in the Illinois political newsletter Capitol Fax, which presented a compendium of reports from merchants around the state, including one in Dekalb who said that a customer wearing what looked like a hunting knife refused to follow Illinois directives and wear a mask. Priorities.
When the president visited Phoenix a week ago, some residents who'd turned out to see him harangued journalists in masks, "saying how we're only wearing masks to instil fear," BrieAnna Frank, a reporter with The Arizona Republic, told Tom Jones of Poynter. Frank posted a Twitter thread with videos in which journalists were loudly accused of being "on the wrong side of patriotism" and "like communists."
Outside the state Capitol in Sacramento, California, two days later, a woman held a sign that said: "Do you know who Dr. Judy Mikovits is? Then don't tell me I need a silly mask."
Mikovits is a discredited scientist whose wild assertions and scaremongering regarding vaccines have made her a hero to conspiracy theorists and a social media and YouTube star. Naturally, masks factor into her repertoire. She has claimed that "wearing the mask literally activates your own virus."
So masks are props in our polluted ecosystem of information. They're also symbols of American complacency. When the pandemic hit, there weren't nearly enough of them, not even for medical workers, a shortage that more-prepared countries didn't experience.
And masks are emblems, maybe the best ones, of the Trump administration's disregard for, and degradation of, experts and expertise. Last month, when Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending the use of masks, he went out of his way to make clear that he wouldn't be wearing one and that no one else was obliged.
Is it any wonder that weeks later, Vice President Mike Pence went maskless to the Mayo Clinic? No. He had a boss to please. He had a statement to make. And the statement was that masks were for wimpy worrywarts keen to do whatever the eggheads and elites told them.
Those of us with masks on our faces or masks in our pockets, at the ready, are definitely doing what's right, but we're also making our own statements. I know this because I've hurriedly slipped my own mask on in uncrowded outdoor situations where it almost certainly wasn't necessary but where others were masked. I wanted to signal them. I wanted them to know: I take my own tiny role in vanquishing this pandemic seriously. Rugged individualism ends where dying on this breathtaking scale begins. There's liberty and then there's death.
I've often heard that this once-in-a-generation crisis will bring us together, making us realize how much we need one another.
But it may well be driving us farther apart. Income inequality hasn't been writ this large and gruesomely in decades. Red state vs. blue state and rural vs. urban tensions steer politicians' and the public's actions and words.
And a potentially lifesaving accommodation is a badge of so much — of too much — more. Masks have unmasked immeasurable distrust in America. Who's working on the vaccine for that?
Written by: Frank Bruni
Photographs by: Doug Mills
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES