The fact of the matter is face masks are unpopular in the US for a number reasons. I discussed the racial element yesterday, and will discuss the masculinity issue in an upcoming post, but today I'll consider the influence of the cult of the American individual.
Seattle, a city many believe is a run by socialists, is also culturally locked in the structure of this feeling (the primacy of the self) and its defining metaphysics (free will). The prevalence of this feeling explains the reluctance of the city and its county to fully enforce the wearing of face masks in all public place spaces.
Dow Constantine, the King County Executive praised by the New Yorker for acting swiftly on the science of the pandemic (he got the lockdown ball rolling by convincing the city's huge tech sector to telecommute), and Mayor Jenny Durkan both support the directive for face masks issued by Seattle & King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin. But the directive, which is effective on May 18 and covers indoor and outdoor public spaces, is basically worthless because it will ultimately be up to the individual to decide if he or she or they will or will not wear one. The tepid directive offers only strong words for how to wear masks, not whether to wear them.
But why not just go all the way? Because the American individual must have the right to choose, even in the middle of pandemic, even in the middle of a city with lots of socialists. Let's briefly examine American individualism in much the way one examines the stinger on a wasp: with horror.
The history of capitalism can be described as the step-by-step massification of the material culture and the precepts of the rich. This is why so many of the products at the heart of capitalism's Dutch and British moments were initially luxuries: sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, rum, and chocolate. Coordinated with massification was the spread of concepts and beliefs that made sense to those who owned property, the rich. From this sense of ownership is derived the concept of labor as a personal and law-protected possession. The key social engineer of this transition from property as land to property as labor was John Locke, the 17th century British philosopher.
Locke justified European colonization with a theory of private property that went like this: If nature produces something, no one owns it; but if you worked for it (planted it, raised it, harvested it), it’s yours. And so, if Native Americans did not look like they were working to eat and survive, you, a European, had every right to take what they owned with your labor.
The ownership of land, of the things one's body can do, and of the choices a mind makes became the enduring cult of the individual, which was fully developed by the end of the 18th century. This cult formed the constitutional foundation of a new country with a lots of land, the US. So, the rights of the individual did not come from God. They came from an average English scribbler named Locke (who, it is said, plagiarized them from some other geezer).
But let's leap forward in time to the ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19) and the pressing issue of face masks. This social practice (covering the mouth and nose with something) only works if we all do it. What this means is the mask is not about protecting you from others but others from you.
This, as you can see, displaces the self in a social universe. We are now faced with something that's conceptually hard for most Americans to grasp because it demands another belief system—one that is not derived from the rich—being the center of everything. You wear a face mask not for yourself but for those around you.
This presents another difficulty for the American mind: the benefits of face masks are not direct. They are achieved at the level of the whole or the aggregate. If all are well, I will be well.
I will conclude this post with a passage from one of the most beautifully written books in the English language, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). The passage concerns a machine that is at the center of the American moment of capitalism and the cult of the individual, the motor car.
He was about half-way through his meal when an only too familiar sound, approaching down the street, made him start and fall a-trembling all over. The pooppoop! drew nearer and nearer, the car could be heard to turn into the inn-yard and come to a stop, and Toad had to hold on to the leg of the table to conceal his overmastering emotion. Presently the party entered the coffee-room, hungry, talkative, and gay, voluble on their experiences of the morning and the merits of the chariot that had brought them along so well. Toad listened eagerly, all ears, for a time; at last he could stand it no longer. He slipped out of the room quietly, paid his bill at the bar, and as soon as he got outside sauntered round quietly to the inn-yard.
‘There cannot be any harm,’ he said to himself, ‘in my only just looking at it!’ The car stood in the middle of the yard, quite unattended, the stable-helps and other hangerson being all at their dinner.
Toad walked slowly round it, inspecting, criticising, musing deeply. ‘I wonder,’ he said to himself presently, ‘I wonder if this sort of car starts easily?’
Next moment, hardly knowing how it came about, he found he had hold of the handle and was turning it. As the familiar sound broke forth, the old passion seized on Toad and completely mastered him, body and soul.
As if in a dream he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver’s seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as if in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended. He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.