My home state of Washington recently implemented a mandatory mask law. As has become customary, the law is passed with an initial insinuation that it would not be enforced:
The statewide face covering order is a public health and safety measure, it is not a mandate for law enforcement to detain, cite or arrest violators…Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs
But this insinuation is then reversed.
And the method that Governor Inslee has chosen to enforce this new antisocial mandate is fascinating.
There are essentially two mechanisms the state is trying to employ.
First, they are not directly threatening individuals who violate the mask order (at least, not with very much energy or attention). Instead, what they are doing is going after the people around the individual not wearing the mask, notably businesses which do not force their employees to wear masks and, as of July 7th, customers who they do not refuse service to for not wearing a mask.
The effect of this law is that it turns the citizens against each other, forcing us to police our own friends, family, coworkers and customers.
A brief digression: ordinarily, enforcing laws is the business of the state and its “law enforcement” agents: the police. But today, police have been suffering some tremendous negative press. This is partially to do with a decades long “war on drugs,” which has gone about as well as every other war on an abstraction in history, partially to do with the perception of racial bias, and partially to do with poor training.
But more than anything else, it has to do with the police having to enforce too many laws. People forget that on the other side of every law is a gun, and sometimes, someone is going to get hit with that gun. When it is illegal to be intoxicated in public, you can be sure that someone, at some point, is going to end up shot for being intoxicated in public. The cop tries to arrest them for public intoxication, and perhaps the man resists because he feels like he has done nothing wrong. The cop gets anxious, perhaps things escalate. These things happen.
But the disconnection from violence of the average voter means they never see the gun on the other end of the law. So Karen and her husband vote to make drinking soda or selling cigarettes illegal, and then become outraged when police shoot yet another “unarmed” citizen. That’s the position that police seem to be in today.
So rather than use the police, the state has opted to deputize the citizenry. We are now the enforcing agents, under the supervising eyes of inspecting agencies like OSHA… who are themselves “just following orders.”
Funny story: my jobsite’s general supervisor recently got called a “Nazi” in an email by a worker’s wife, who heard about and then saw how strict the enforcement of masks, gloves, and goggles had been. He said he wasn’t a Nazi, he was just doing what he had to do. “It’s the state, it isn’t me.” I actually chuckled out loud, thinking about the rejected defense at Nuremberg by actual Nazis who were “just following orders.”
In any case, there is no bottom. It’s all a trial in a Kafka novel, where your supervisor is enforcing a rule so he won’t get punished, and the people who would punish him are just enforcing rules so that they won’t get punished, etc.
That’s the first part.
The second part is attempt to modify public taste. They are trying to rebrand what wearing a mask means, from an act of obedience to one of etiquette and respect.
Inslee said he hopes this will lead to a shift in culture where the usage of face coverings isn’t just socially acceptable, but actually expected.KREM
This both gives the policing citizen a degree of moral self-righteousness, enforcing not just what is legally mandated, but what is “tasteful” and “decent.” In doing so, Inslee is attempting to declare his law to be in line with good taste (or, to borrow from Euthephro, to declare what is good taste by law).
It’s hard to guess how this will pan out. On the one hand, the mandate is so universally unpopular that it is difficult to imagine people actually changing their taste. But on the other hand, most people — aspiring to maintain their right to feed their family — will conform. And a small number of Dolores Umbridge types will loudly, and with characteristic certainty in their right to speak on behalf of others, shriek and preach about how good this is and how bad anyone who violates the order is, in morality and taste. Even if public opinion did not substantially change, it may nevertheless appear as if public opinion has shifted, such that everyone thinks that everyone else supports wearing a mask, even if very few people actually do.
But regardless of its eventual success or failure, the rebranding campaign aspires to be the more insidious one for its intrusion into the values and moral beliefs of individuals.
But what about the virus itself? What if people care about protecting others?
COVID-19 has a mortality rate that is currently estimated to be between 0.5% and 1%. This is likely to be high, given the positive-bias towards testing (those who are asymptomatic tend not to get tested as often as those who do show symptoms). It may very be lower: perhaps closer to 0.1%, or 0.05%. Among those with vitamin D sufficiency and who are not obese, the rate is probably much closer to 0%.
For all intents and purposes, COVID-19 really does appear to be a particularly bad flu. Yet we are being told to treat this as if it were Black Death incarnate.
Is it not within our legal rights — and within classical American taste — to be skeptical of, and even reject, such a mandate?
We own guns — and guns are dangerous. We ride motorcycles, and jump out of airplanes. Hell, we drive cars over 25mph. We live in houses with gas stoves and electricity pools and other things that injure and kill people all the time. We are told that all of these measures are to preserve public health, but what is health, if not an experience of being? To be controlled against one’s own will for the supposed benefit of one’s physical health is as undesirable a state as I can imagine, not merely because of the degrading nature of such a tyranny (C.S. Lewis’s quote seems to never go out of style), but also because the very means proposed to combat this pandemic of “unhealthy” seem to be moving us in exactly the opposite direction of “health.” Gyms closed, fast food kept open, anxiety induced, time in the sun reduced, faces made uncanny, and human connection discouraged. One could hardly imagine a more subtle yet potent long-term recipe for social unhealth.
I hear alcoholism is on the rise as well. But at least we aren’t getting the flu!
There are men who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly away from such phenomena as from a “sickness of the people,” with a sense of their own health and filled with pity. These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost-like this very “health” of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
I am certain that Washington will not be the last state to deputize the citizenry in this way. It is, in its own way, genius. It outsources enforcement of its mandates (including accountability for said enforcement), while simultaneously working backwards from the law to public opinion, rather than the other way around. And it is not clear what Orwellian depths cannot be plumbed, what desires of the state cannot be enacted because of the indirect nature of their implementation.
Goodbye first-world nation, hello second world living. Adjust your values and trust accordingly.