Last night, Tucker Carlson went on something of a tear against outdoor mask wearing. He did so from a place of understandable frustration, but at times he allowed this frustration to overcome common sense.
Carlson claimed that overly cautious people not only wearing masks outdoors when it is not necessary, but also judging those who do not wear them, are virtually omnipresent “in any major city.” True, for the most part. He goes on to make a complaint very specific to Washington, D.C.:
If you dare to go on foot from Union Station to the Capitol in Washington without wearing a mask, angry Biden voters will snort at you in judgment. “How could you?” they’re saying from behind the gauze.
I did make more or less this exact journey this morning on foot, while running from the National Mall to Union Station, have run it before many times, and walked it others. Many are masked as I do so, but I have never been audibly shamed in this area for it. But perhaps Carlson means more judgment of the silent variety, which I am sure has been rendered upon me as I run and walk around the city without a mask.
I have spent much of the past year in Washington, D.C., so I understand Carlson’s annoyance at the apparent omnipresence of masks when one is outdoors. I forget what the city’s regulations are because, well . . . I’ve pretty much ignored them, with scattered exceptions. My ignoring of these regulations has been most consistent, and most frequent, while running, an activity for which I have not masked myself during this entire period. The only two times I’ve ever been chastised for masklessness have been while I was running, in fact; neither chastisement has had any effect on my behavior.
Indeed, if anything, it has internalized a contrarian streak that is now increasingly justified by the science, and that makes me share Carlson’s frustration. As do absurdities such as the CDC’s recent declaration that “fully vaccinated Americans can go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging or biking outdoors, or dining with friends at outdoor restaurants” and “even unvaccinated individuals may go without masks when walking, jogging or biking outdoors with household members.” (To say nothing of the absurd framing of Axios: “Fully vaccinated people can venture outdoors without masks, according to updated CDC guidance.”) This is not simply an unnecessary permission slip for the way I’ve been living since March 2020, but also bespeaks a presumption to rule that the American spirit should find intolerable.
However, Carlson takes this frustration to extremes I would not. His recommended course of action to weaken the outdoor-mask regime is as follows:
So the next time you see someone in a mask on the sidewalk or on the bike path, do not hesitate. Ask politely but firmly, “Would you please take off your mask? Science shows there is no reason for you to be wearing it. Your mask is making me uncomfortable.”
I must confess: Safe in the confines of my own mind, confronted by the sea of masked rule-followers outdoors, I have considered similar steps. At their most extreme, my idle thoughts incline me to go about not just telling people to stop wearing masks but even ripping the masks off everyone’s faces. But they are just that: idle thoughts. I will do neither step, for reasons I’ll explain below. But my half-considered desire to do this, and now Carlson’s call for others to publicly berate outdoor mask wearers, remind me, of all things, of the opening of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The first chapter, “Loomings,” describes the mental state of Ishmael, the story’s first-person narrator, when he knows that only going to sea can relieve his malaise:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
Note, however, that Ishmael does not, in fact, go around methodically knocking people’s hats off; he takes to the sea instead. A major lingering problem with much of American life right now is not necessarily that we can’t all take to the sea, but rather that too much of life remains restricted, and that the part of life that isn’t restricted, the online world, is an inadequate substitute that can aggravate our worst impulses.
That is one possible explanation for one of Carlson’s other extremes. Taking his anti-mask message to the next level, he makes the following call to his viewers:
Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart. Call the police immediately. Contact Child Protective Services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse, it’s child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.
It is very silly that we are masking children outdoors and persisting in making so many activities part of the COVID rigmarole. But is it child abuse? Is it worth calling the police over? The answer is no, just as people who don’t wear masks outdoors shouldn’t have the police called on them either. Ours is already a time of high social and political tension; escalating those tensions in this way seems like a poor recourse. Not to mention that heavy-handed state power is at the root of Carlson’s complaints about the current mask regime.
What should be done instead? Carlson himself offered one useful step from which others can be inferred: He advised viewers to complain at the level of institutions in which they are involved, such as at schools who tell your kids that they have to wear masks when playing soccer. Starting with things we can control, such as our own institutions, our own families, and ourselves, seems a much better start than going up to random strangers and upbraiding them, which would probably invite a defensive or doubling-down reflex anyway.
We should also feel free to walk around outside in D.C. maskless, regardless of the judgments people may cast. In my experience, most of this city is too deferential to object seriously; if anyone is, that is the time at which to explain forcefully why you are not, or at the very least to ignore the aggressor. Simply the example of a maskless person moving casually about the city can serve as a tiny crack in the edifice of COVID paranoia; that has been the logic of my doing so, at any rate.
Carlson said the mask mania is mostly a phenomenon of major cities, and he’s right. The American people themselves locked down before the government made us, and we are likely to stop locking down before the government says we don’t have to anymore. It may be happening already . . . just not so much in D.C.
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