Oh America, you dumb bitch.
Masks have been divisive from the start, and even though the pandemic appears to be nearing its end in much of the United States, mask-related divisions remain as wide as ever. Those divisions could persist for months to come, or even for years, given the tremendous passions these flimsy little objects have continued to excite.
“Because masks have been so politicized, I think the battle will be ongoing,” Dr. Lucy McBride, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News. “For some people, masks symbolize oppression; for others, they signify the ability to control the uncontrollable.”
Masking did not immediately emerge as a culture war issue, but it is doubtless here to stay. Conservative media outlets have been criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci for days because an email from February 2020 seemed to have him saying that masks don’t really work.
The claim — that Fauci knew masks were ineffective — is false because it erases a crucial context: Everyone was uncertain about what masks were for and who was supposed to wear them and where. Fauci was merely reflecting scientific opinion, the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, when the mask was forged as a symbol of either sound science and citizenship or, on the other hand, government overconfidence and overreach.
That wouldn’t have been obvious in March 2020, when lockdowns first went into effect. It wasn’t until early April that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy put in place the nation’s first state-level mask mandate. By then, the coronavirus had been spreading across the country for four months.
All great culture war issues are psychological as much as they are political. They fire up the moral imagination, turning otherwise ordinary people into fierce partisans. Nor is the magnitude of those passions necessarily tied to real-world developments and trends. The nation’s abortion rate has been dropping for years, but few cultural issues so readily animate conservatives and progressives alike.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told Yahoo News that she thinks masks will stick around, in some form, “for a long time,” perhaps the next two years. They won’t be mandated again, she said, but that could only exacerbate matters, pitting people who want to keep wearing masks against those who see them as a pointless virtue signal. Heavy-handed though they may have been, government mandates took pressure off individuals.
Liberals don’t want to forget the pandemic because they don’t want to forget all the racial and economic inequalities it exposed, the politicians it showed to be selfish or foolish, the institutions it revealed to be broken. A recent column for Vice, the news outlet popular among millennials, argued that people were still wearing masks because they were “traumatized.”
That’s precisely the sentiment that infuriates conservatives, who think the harms of the pandemic have been overstated. That’s not to say they don’t believe that the pandemic was real or that it killed thousands of people. Rather, they argue that the economic and psychological effects of locking up were too great. The fervor of Tucker Carlson’s anti-mask diatribe in late April was a sign of just how deeply masks are associated with the caution-first approach to the pandemic — and just how deeply that approach bothers some.
It could take years to fully litigate the pandemic from its many cultural and political angles. The wounds of cultural grievance run deep on both sides, and they are likely to remain even after businesses pull down mask-related fliers once and for all.