Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
From the president to stay-at-home protesters, a mask-less face has become a stand-in for manliness.
When reporter BrieAnna Frank showed up to a Honeywell plant last week in Arizona to cover President Donald Trump’s visit, she was sure to wear a mask.
Masks were the reason the president was there: The former aerospace plant in Phoenix has pivoted to producing them in recent months amid a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
But the dozen or so people who had gathered outside the facility to cheer on the president were not there to support masks. They had their faces uncovered, Frank told Vox.
As she approached members of the crowd to interview them, the conversation quickly got heated. “They started to yell that me and the other journalists there were trying to incite fear and panic and paranoia” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Arizona Republic.
One man in particular seemed to take issue with the male journalists wearing masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”
9:32 am – myself + other journalists here are being harassed for wearing masks.
One man says: “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak – especially for men.”
We’re being accused of fear-mongering, not knowing anything + being “pieces of shit.”
— BrieAnna J. Frank (@brieannafrank) May 5, 2020
“I felt that it was a statement that people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the encounter went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something beyond, ‘I am trying to protect my health.’”
They’re not alone. Trump himself declined to wear a mask while being photographed at the plant, though he claims he wore one “backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for failing to wear a mask during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters showed up at the Michigan statehouse on April 30 to protest stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, many were mask-free. One shouting, bare-faced man who was photographed at the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask — “ever.”
Since the pandemic began, the issue of wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender prejudices. Earlier on, wearing masks was associated with Asian countries and often dismissed because of racist assumptions about those countries. Then, as many cities began to require residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men for covering their faces, profiling them as criminals rather than as people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a certain subset of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness.
For unmasked protesters like the ones in Michigan, “There’s an assumption of a kind of invincibility that is tied to this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, told Vox.
It’s not just men — Frank noticed many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell plant. And, of course, many men are happy to follow the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cover their faces in public. Still, a narrative has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that narrative could put everyone at risk.
“One thing about [being] macho is being fearless,” Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness comes at a cost for every single person around you.”
The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone is listening.
Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they’re seen as a simple way to protect yourself (and others) from disease, as Refinery29’s Connie Wang wrote in March. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, started requiring them in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks for the general public, but in early April — with confirmed coronavirus cases jumping by the day — the CDC recommended that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, began mandating the wearing of masks in certain settings as well.
Like much about the coronavirus, the impact of wearing masks on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But many experts believe that even cloth masks can offer some degree of protection for wearers — and perhaps greater protection for the people around them. The virus seems to spread “when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes,” as Vox’s German Lopez previously reported, and it’s true that “masks stop people from spreading their own droplets.” If everyone wears a mask — including those who are asymptomatic but may still be carrying the virus — it could help halt the spread of Covid-19.
Most Americans appear to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll (conducted from April 7 to 9), 72 percent of respondents said they planned to start wearing a face mask in public places over the next two weeks.
Others, however, have chafed at the CDC’s advice. As people around the country protest their state’s shelter-in-place orders, many have appeared in public without masks. One example is the protesters in Michigan, which has become a hotbed of resistance to social distancing restrictions — a defiance Trump has encouraged via his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them eschewing masks and standing close together in violation of social distancing guidelines, according to Reuters.Advertisement
One of the mask-less protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed shouting during the event. He later told the Detroit Free Press he believes the coronavirus was “intentionally released” by the Chinese government and that the state’s stay-at-home order is useless because people still go to grocery stores and pharmacies. “So what is the point of staying at home?” he asked.
The resistance to masks has also found support within the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response, said he did not wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in April because he is tested for Covid-19 regularly. (He later backpedaled and said he “should have” worn one.) But a mask-less Pence attended two events in Iowa on May 8, the same day his press secretary tested positive for the virus, according to the Intercept. At one of those events, CEOs were reportedly asked to remove their masks before joining Pence onstage.
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After he was photographed without one at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he had worn one “backstage,” outside the view of cameras.
“But they said you didn’t need it, so, I didn’t need it,” he went on. “And by the way, if you noticed, nobody else had it on that was in the group.”
Aides tested positive for the virus days later, and staffers have since been asked to wear masks on White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. Trump, however, is still unlikely to wear a mask himself, aides say.
For Trump, not wearing a mask may be a way to project masculinity
The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has gendered overtones. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask may be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing into “tropes of indestructibility.”
“Appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” wrote social sciences professor Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on.’”
Trump’s messaging has also helped promote the idea that ignoring the risks of coronavirus is the tough or strong thing to do. Despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of reopening the country too early, he said at the Honeywell plant that “the people of our country should think of themselves as warriors” because “our country has to open.”
Such militaristic, tough-guy messaging, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, may encourage ordinary people — especially men — to minimize the risk of coronavirus for the sake of appearing manly.
While the refusal to wear masks isn’t an exclusively male phenomenon — a Michigan woman was arrested last month after police said she attacked a grocery store employee who told her to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask — there is some evidence that men may view mask recommendations with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public over the next two weeks, compared with 67 percent of men.
Though Trump’s narrative around the virus may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, the issue of masks is revealing Americans’ racial biases as well. While white men have been able to appear in public without masks — and with guns — as part of a protest, black men have been targeted by police, both for wearing and for not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, officers were caught on video forcibly removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face, just one day after the city began requiring it, Fabiola Cineas reported for Vox in April. And a police officer in Miami handcuffed and arrested Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless people for Covid-19, as he loaded equipment into a van in front of his home — while wearing a mask.
Black Americans often have to engage in “social signaling” to make white people feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the political science professor. “You say good morning first, you smile first,” she said. “None of that can be done with masks.”
White people often already perceive black people as dangerous or not belonging in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”
Meanwhile, for white protesters like those in Michigan, not wearing a mask may signal a kind of immunity from danger — or at least a perceived immunity. As white Americans, they’re unlikely to encounter the same kind of police brutality that black people face when they engage in protest. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”
But congregating in crowds without masks is also a statement of perceived immunity from the virus, Metzl said. The unmasked protesters seemed to be sending the message that “nothing’s going to happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the coronavirus, you wouldn’t act like that.”
The fact that black and Latinx Americans in many communities are disproportionately likely to become infected and die of Covid-19 may be influencing such attitudes. “I think for a lot of the country, people feel like this is something that’s happening to someone else,” Metzl said.
But people who refuse to wear masks may be putting others, not just themselves, at risk
Obviously, the feeling of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks could backfire if they get sick. Pence and Trump may also find themselves rethinking their stance in the coming days since White House officials tested positive — Pence himself is reportedly keeping his distance from Trump and other staffers to avoid potentially exposing them.
But the especially disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that, while it may seem like an expression of toughness, it actually increases the risk to others more than yourself, Metzl said. While some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “You could also think about this in terms of all the other people you’re putting at risk by not wearing a mask,” he added — your family, friends, colleagues, the rest of society. The failure to wear one is “symbolic of a kind of loss of a bigger common sense of responsibility to each other.”
Remedying that loss is not going to be as simple as sending the message that “tough guys wear masks,” Metzl said. (Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has suggested a tagline for a potential “Masks For Him” line of accessories: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity.’”) Rather, the country has to look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to address the bigger issues that are represented by masks,” Metzl said.
For the Arizona Republic’s Frank, the confrontation over masks outside the Honeywell plant is part of a wider narrative around the virus. She recalled another incident in which a female reporter was accosted, this time by a woman, for wearing a mask. “I do think that what happened to all of us out there in the field on Tuesday is indicative of a larger issue” with how masks are viewed in the US, Frank said.
But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I try to be really careful,” she told the people gathered outside the plant. “I try to protect myself and those around me.”