(*This piece has been updated to correct Rep. Russ Diamond’s stand on abortion rights. Diamond, R-Lebanon, is opposed to abortion rights)
Historically speaking, Americans just don’t wear face-masks. On March 1 of this year, in the lobby of a hotel in Manhattan, all the employees of China Air were wearing masks. But not a single other person.
At that time, people were talking about the virus, but not doing much about it. My wife and I went to a Broadway show. We took a plane back to Pittsburgh.
By the end of the month, the virus would ravage New York City.
As an Aug. 3 story in the New York Times about sporadic mask resistance at the time of the Spanish flu reminded us, this American attitude is not new.
But mask wearing has become much more controversial during this pandemic than it has ever been. The opposition to wearing a mask is so great that a Florida sheriff issued a ban not only on deputies wearing masks, but also prohibiting visitors to the sheriff’s office from wearing them. The ban on visitor masks was rescinded a week later, presumably because of public opposition.
Since the virus is still killing 1,000 Americans a day, and mask wearing is an effective and economically benign way to fight its spread, what could possibly be the reason for the widespread resistance to masks?
Some people feel that wearing a mask is a sign of fearfulness. This is the notion that “real men don’t wear masks.”
Others feel that masks are somehow shameful. A Norwin School Board director, Robert Wayman, posted the message on Facebook, “Gold Star of David coming to the mask wearers,” a reference to the Star of David the Nazis forced Jews in Europe to wear in the 1940s.
The broadest basis for opposition to government mandated mask-wearing is that people should be free to make their own decisions.
A leader of the anti-mask movement in Pennsylvania, state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, complained on Facebook of “intolerance and discrimination” directed at people who don’t wear masks.
He incorrectly compared the criticism levied against anti-maskers to the often deadly hatred endured by transgender Pennsylvanians, including state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, who has faced a barrage of transphobic attacks.
People who feel they should have a right not to wear masks sometimes describe themselves as “libertarians,” In 2004, Diamond ran simultaneously for Congress and the state House as a Libertarian Party candidate.
This is a misunderstanding of what libertarianism is. That political theory is about freedom for everyone from coercion. But, unlike being transgender, which does not harm anyone, refusing to wear a mask exposes others to disease. It is not intolerance to oppose behavior that is harmful to others
As a libertarian, Diamond should not expose others to the virus without their consent. That is coercion. In principle, he should go around handing out $10 bills to people to gain their consent to exposure to the virus so he does not have to wear a mask.
True libertarians might oppose seatbelt and helmet laws, but never speed limits, which protect others from a risk they have not voluntarily assumed. Libertarians should not also oppose mandatory orders to wear masks.
What people like Diamond actually represent is more like extreme individualism, in which people claim that they have a right to do anything they like, without regard to the danger to which they expose others.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls this “the cult of selfishness,” but that understates how odd this position is. People are often selfish. We don’t want to share with others. That does not usually include claiming the right to actually hurt other people.
This is why it was illogical for President Donald Trump to say that he opposes a national mask mandate because people should have “a certain freedom.”
As a society, we grant freedom for people to make decisions about their own lives. But we generally do not allow people to decide whether to harm others. Our criminal laws and tort laws punish and restrain people from doing that.
This individualism is the connection between opposition to mandatory mask wearing and defending abortion on the ground that a woman should have the right to decide what to do with her own body. That formulation simply omits consideration of the harm to the unborn child.
*Thus, it is no surprise that early in his political career, Diamond opposed *additional government restrictions on abortion. Opposition to mask-wearing is just another form of the view that I have a right to do whatever I want with my own body.
*Diamond identifies himself as opposed to abortion rights. Indeed, most legislative opposition to mandatory mask orders comes, as it does in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, from public officials associated with the anti-abortion movement.
At least earlier, when he supported a woman’s right to choose, Diamond was consistent. Now his position is incoherent. If a legislator is willing to order a woman to bear a child, how can that same legislator object to a government order to wear a mask?
Of course this inconsistency runs in the other direction as well. There are plenty of people who say, my body, my choice, when it comes to abortion, but object to this claim by the anti-mask movement.
Certainly, the abortion issue is difficult, while mask wearing is easy. The burden on a woman and her family enduring an unwanted pregnancy is not like the minor inconvenience of having to wear a face covering in public places.
Nevertheless, the principle of autonomy is the same. Americans have this streak of extreme individualism that says I have no responsibility to anyone else and no one can tell me what to do. This is why, in America, parents have the right to refuse to donate a kidney that would save the life of their child.
This is why we do not have mandatory organ donation, or generally even require an opt-out for those opposed to organ donation.
This is why America today does not have a draft or any form of universal national service, despite the many benefits we all gain from society.
That is why our safety net is so meager. Everyone is an island.
So, we should have some sympathy for the anti-mask crowd. They seem bizarre. But they actually come from a long line of American pathology.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.