How Mask Protestors Distort the True Meaning of Freedom

Liberty divorced from our obligations to each other is nothing more than selfishness.

As Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman suggested a few weeks ago, wearing a mask during the coronavirus crisis has become a part of our so-called “culture wars.”

Views on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have become increasingly polarized, yet another political issue that for many culture war combatants is filtered through an ideological lens. The left has been almost uniformly — and loudly — in favor of sacrificing many personal liberties in exchange for containing the virus’ spread. The right has been divided, but the vocal activist wing of conservatism that has enormous influence on social media and Fox News, has been far more willing to attack the various infringements on where people can go and what they have to wear.

The mask has become the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.

That divide was captured by this pair of photographs from Memorial Day.

In my home state of Minnesota, the clash took on a whole new level of confrontation when a local reporter showed up wearing a mask to interview people protesting the state’s restrictions.

No longer content to simply refuse to wear masks themselves, those protesters harassed the reporter with chants of “take it off.” While they insist that requirements to follow public health guidelines during a pandemic pose a challenge to their own constitutional freedoms, they demonstrated that they were also intent on controlling the behavior of that reporter. You won’t find a better example of what “freedom” actually means to conservative right wingers. It is all about the freedom to impose their will on others.

The conservative obsession with freedom feeds into an argument that began with our founding fathers when John Adams warned about the perils of true democracy, proclaiming that “they want equality more than they want liberty.” In modern times, that cause of placing freedom over equality has been taken up by (primarily white) Republicans.

During Jared Kushner’s attempt to turn the Republican Party platform into a public relations document, the conservative emphasis on “freedom” came up.

Two sources said they recalled Kushner making a more sweeping point — that they should rethink using the word “freedom” altogether in the GOP platform because polling showed it doesn’t appeal to African Americans.

I have no idea what polls Kushner had seen that led him to that assumption, but he clearly has no sense of the history of that word in the African American community.

What Kushner was probably reacting to was the fact that African Americans are smart enough to reject the kind of “freedom for me, but not for thee” that has been the hallmark of this country’s denial of equality.

The rugged individualism that is often championed as freedom has long been one of the challenges we face in a democracy that requires us to come together to solve the challenges we face. But it takes a toll on a more personal level as well. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Desperado,” written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. It includes this wonderful line in the third verse:

And freedom, oh freedom
Well that’s just some people talking
Your prison is walking through this world all alone

Many of those protesters who are claiming that their their freedom is compromised by wearing masks are the same ones Vivek Murthy wrote about in his book, “Together,” in which he identifies loneliness as a major public health issue.

As Murthy details, the leading researcher on the health impact of loneliness has shown that people with weak social connections are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than people with strong connections. Stunningly, the health outcomes of social disconnection are akin to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his life advocating for freedom for all Americans, he understood that none of us can go it on our own.

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.

A freedom that is disengaged from the responsibilities we have to each other is not only destructive to our humanity, it becomes a pathway to anarchy. Here is what Barack Obama said about that in 2012.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As Americans, we should always cherish our freedom. But divorced from commitments to equality and citizenship, it rings hollow as nothing more than selfishness.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.