You don’t have to be a scientist to muster convincing arguments in favor of common-sense measures for combating COVID-19. COVID spreads through the air. Why wouldn’t a face covering of nearly any kind reduce the amount of virus that an infected person exhales, and thus diminish the chances of spreading the disease to others?
But scientists support this common-sense understanding of COVID transmission as well. One model from the University of Washington says that 98,000 people will die of the virus by Dec. 1. In an Associated Press story last week, Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the university, said: “We can save 50,000 lives simply by wearing masks. That’s how important behaviors are.”
What drives mask-resistant Americans and anti-vaxxers to reject measures that both science and common sense indicate will save lives and help us return to normal?
One objector told me that he doesn’t “like” masks. Others worry that vaccinations cause sterility. Some believe that inoculation will surreptitiously implant a chip, even as they tolerate the chips that are their constant companions in the cellphones that they carry with them everywhere.
But whatever their objections, at some point mask-resisters and anti-vaxxers nearly always resort to an essential theme: freedom.
Freedom is the heart of Americanism. We esteem it so highly that we’re in constant danger of fetishizing it.
A fetish is a fixation that elevates to the level of obsession a part above all other elements of a whole. In sexual terms, a fetish links gratification to an unusual degree to a particular object or part of the anatomy. A “freedom fetish” privileges our right to do as we please above all else. The most blunt, petulant version of this fetish is embodied in an often-heard phrase: “Nobody is going to tell me what to do.”
The obsession with freedom can become so powerful that it blinds us to other equally important principles essential to society and our well-being: a sense of mutual responsibility, an obligation to the law, the need to relinquish some liberties in order to enjoy others, the legitimacy of science, our communal health, our individual health.
I was thinking about this when I came across Caleb Wallace, age 30. He seemed like a good man. The mayor of his hometown, San Angelo, Texas, says that during the devastating snowstorm last February, Wallace volunteered to drive out to assist residents who were trapped in their homes.
Wallace was a family man. He appeared to be devoted to his wife, Jessica, and his three beautiful young daughters. A fourth daughter is due on Sept. 27.
Wallace was also a devoted anti-masker. In the face of scientific consensus, as well as common sense, he publicly objected to all mask mandates and any restraint on his right to go maskless at all times. He demanded that San Angelo’s public schools rescind any requirements to wear a mask.
A good deal of Wallace’s anti-mask rhetoric involved freedom. He was a founder of San Angelo Freedom Defenders. Last fall he helped organize a “Freedom Rally” intended to put an end to “COVID-19 tyranny.” In November Wallace addressed San Angelo city officials in a public meeting: “I care more about freedom than I care about your personal health.”
By Aug. 25, Wallace had been in an ICU for three weeks from a COVID infection. Jessica posted on Facebook: “He’s not doing good. It’s not looking in our favor, his lungs are stiff due to the fibrosis. They called and said they’ve run out of options for him.” On Aug. 28, Wallace died.
No decent person will find satisfaction in the karmic irony of Caleb Wallace’s death. He made some mistakes, but he was also a victim, and not just of COVID. Our obsession with freedom can be so powerful that we’re easily beguiled by politicians who assert that our freedoms are under constant threat of being taken away. Even if they’re not.
They use this fear for their political advantage. In fact, these days the opposite of freedom isn’t tyranny. It’s fear.