Masking and Masks: A Hypothetical Interview

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with The Secular Outlook, particularly since we told you that no question would be off the table. Our people did tell you that, didn’t they?

They did. And thank you for the invitation. And because turn about is fair play, it is only right that no answer will be off the table either. That’s where I find the problems that usually arise.

All right then. Many responsible evangelical leaders, all across the country, are urging their people to comply with the current masking mandates as an act of consideration and love for your neighbors. Don’t you agree with them that love for neighbor is a Christian value?

Yes, I most certainly do agree. It is. We all agree on the necessity of loving our neighbors, and there is no dispute over that. That is something we all value. But a closely related issue concerns a matter of fact. Are masks actually loving, or are they just a symbolic statement of love for some? Two doctors could completely share the value of wanting to save the patient’s life, but disagree sharply over whether a particular treatment would help to accomplish that end or not. But if one doctor persisted in accusing the other doctor of not caring about the patient’s life, then that would be an indication to me that the accusing doctor was motivated by something other than simple medicine, something political or personal. And that is what we have in this situation.

Your point being . . .?

My point is that on this issue we need to abandon the politics of polarization. I can grant that an advocate of mask-wearing could sincerely have the safety and well-being of the general public in view. His intentions could be good, in other words. But I would ask for the same consideration in return. Many of us believe there are good reasons to not have the general public wear masks, reasons that also have the safety and well-being of the general public in view. It is not a question of comparing concern for the public safety on the one hand and concern one’s personal convenience on the other.

How is it possible that not wearing masks could help with the pandemic? That really seems to defy common sense.

We can tell that it is a debatable matter in that responsible people are debating it. And, going back to the point I made earlier, it needs to be recognized by both sides that both sides should get a chance to say their piece without being characterized as automatically irresponsible. For example, the Netherlands has decided that there is no scientific reason to require their people to mask up. Sweden has done the same thing, in addition to not having lock downs.

The mayor of your own town has said that if everybody would just comply with the masking mandate, the whole thing would be over in “just six weeks.” Why wouldn’t you comply with an order like this — don’t you want it to be over in just six weeks?

I would like for it to be over now. But the reason I don’t want to comply with the order under such terms is that I don’t believe that it would be over in “just six weeks.” Not a chance. And I don’t believe the mayor can give us that kind of assurance. Would he be willing to give it to us in writing? He has not made any formal declaration that after six weeks there will be no renewals or extensions of the order. Let’s see it in writing, and then we can talk about it.

But how could he promise something like that . . .?

Exactly. And that is why I don’t believe it. He doesn’t really believe it either. There would be something that would come up — and it would naturally require another extension. All you have to do is look at the political and cultural climate out there. Anybody who believes that this whole thing could be over in early September is dreaming.

So your position is pretty adversarial. What do you say to all those evangelical leaders I referred to earlier?

I would tell them that they have spent so much time telling us that there is no such thing as political theology that when a moment arises when there is a manifest need for a robust political theology, one that is grounded in Scripture, they choked. And when they choked, they simply defaulted to whatever the spirit of the age was demanding — take a knee, put on this mask, cancel worship services, whatever. I am deeply interested in where these evangelical leaders you spoke of would draw the line. Where would they say no, and why? Suppose their worship services are closed through the rest of this year. And then the next. When would they say enough? And what standard would they appeal to when they did?

On a more personal note, your church met together in one large combined service early this summer, and you just did the same thing again yesterday. Were you taunting the city?

No, not at all. But before we get into that, I do have to correct you on one point. These were not church services. These were our beginning attempts at learning how to hold Black Lives Matter rallies.

You’re pulling my leg, right?

Yeah, but why should it matter if I am pulling your leg? Does the virus understand satire? Is the coronavirus a woke virus? Can it tell the difference between a BLM march, a John Lewis funeral, a worship service at John MacArthur’s Grace Community, or a worship service here at Christ Church? The only thing more astonishing than the Establishment’s double standard on this kind of thing is the fact that they always appear shocked and surprised when it turns out that everybody can see exactly what they are doing. And we can see what they are doing, you know.

Well, I am glad your tongue was in your cheek, at any rate. You can’t organize BLM protests — you are kind of obviously white.

Oh, that’s no barrier. White people are running all the rest of them too. BLM rallies are a white man’s game.

Okay, enough of that. It seems you are being really inconsistent in these things. Earlier you said said that both mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers should not be judging one another, that we should be able to assume good will both ways. We should assume that the other side might have good reasons for wearing or not wearing one, and so on. You were sounding almost reasonable. But now, once the subject turns to public health officials, or to our government officials, you seem ready to man the barricades.

Well, yes, that is quite true. But there is no inconsistency in it.

Okay. Tell me why. That seems to require an explanation.

When I walk by someone on the street who is wearing a mask, I have no idea why he is doing so. He might need to do it to keep his job. He might have a serious underlying health condition that he is concerned about. He might be wearing a mask because he needed something in the shop he just came out of, and they wouldn’t serve him without a mask. By the same token, when he walks by me, he has no idea why I am not wearing one. It could be that I am concerned that an amateur wearing of masks increases the chances of spreading infection. It could be that I am deaf, and the mandate exempts me specifically. It could be that I am concerned about constitutional liberty. It could be that I have one in my pocket that I forgot to put on. He has no idea. Consequently, he and I should cut one another some slack.

Okay . . .

The whole country is in the middle of this thing, and the panic reaches up to the highest echelons of our government. If I am convinced, as I am, that the whole thing is a high fusion of panic, incompetence, and tyrannical impulses, that particular problem did not originate with the minimum wage employee sitting at the card table at the entrance of Safeway in order to check masks. So I shouldn’t vent any of my frustrations on him.

So how is this not inconsistent? You are not prepared to cut government officials the same kind of slack.

When I listen to public health officials, they are laying out arguments. I can examine them. I can look at the record of their statements. I can remember how many times they have changed the benchmarks. I can look up their facts. And when government officials issue their mandates, I can look up the legal basis of their claims. If what they are saying conflicts with the facts, then I have every right to point out that discrepancy. They are wielding authority, and they are either doing so legitimately or illegitimately. They either have a legal right to do what they are doing to all of us, or they don’t. So when I evaluate their behavior, I am not jumping to conclusions about some random guy on the street. They are public officials, giving very public mandates that are being applied coercively to the general public. And in a free country the public has every right to hold them accountable. A free citizen should have standards for those entrusted with power and authority. He need have no standards for a fellow citizen when they are both leaving one another alone.

But you disagree with your mayor and you disagree with the guy in the street . . .?

I disagree with the mayor. I don’t believe he has the legal right to do what he is doing. I have no idea whether I disagree with a man in the street who is wearing a mask. With or without a mask, he is minding his own business, unlike the mayor.

So you don’t believe you are vilifying the mayor in this?

Not at all. The mayor and I have a working relationship, one that I would describe as reasonable and amiable. We disagree on important issues, and I really do believe that he has gotten out of his lane. But that is not vilification.

In order to illustrate the point, I will have to make up an imaginary public official, along with an imaginary correspondent. Say that Mayor Bunstable has mandated masks for everyone and, inspired by Dr. Fauci’s recent wishes, he has also mandated depth-tested goggles for all. And suppose that some irate fellow wrote to Mayor Bunstable in order to inform him that he was a miscreant, a misbegotten son of a whatnot, a villainous rascal, a degenerate poltroon, and that when it came to incompetence, he had been asleep his desk for so long that one side of his head was flat. That would be an example of vilification.

Good to know. So then you don’t believe that the government has the authority to quarantine in a time of an epidemic?

Oh, no, they absolutely do have the right to quarantine. That is part of their solemn obligation — they have a basic responsibility for the safety and health of the public. This is one of the reasons why they hold the office they do. On an issue like this one, I am no libertarian.

So what is your objection? Are not masks a simple extension of the right to quarantine?

No, they are the photo negative of it.

All right. Please explain that.

I believe that the civil government has the right to arrest pickpockets. I shed no tears for the pickpockets when they are arrested. But I don’t believe the government has the right to decree that all people with wallets have to stay home, lest a pickpocket take advantage of them.

I don’t follow your illustration . . .

When the government arrests a pickpocket, they are detaining somebody who is a threat to the public order, and it can be proven that this is the case. But in order to be able to do this kind of thing without tyranny, they need to have “probable cause” for the arrest. They can’t go around arresting people because there is an off-chance that they might pick a pocket someday. And they most certainly do not have a right to put all people with wallets under house arrest. So what the government is doing in this is the photo negative of a quarantine.

I am afraid you might have to spell that out a little bit more.

If there is no reason at all to suppose that I have the coronavirus, they have no reason to require me to stay at home. They have no reason to require me to carry around a portable and very ineffective “quarantine,” that being a mask. But they do have this right if they have ascertainable reasons. Say a restaurant owner doesn’t want some guy in his restaurant because he is hacking and wheezing, but let’s say that this guy is a law unto himself and he refuses to go. If the restaurant owner calls the cops, that is fully appropriate. And if the guy is diagnosed with whooping cough, much against his will, the public health officials are well within their rights to take him back to his house, and string up yellow tape all around his house. If he is told to stay put, it is not tyranny. It is simply normal government.

And you think that your take on all this is consistent with the law?

Absolutely. In the Idaho code, in a state of emergency, in a time of a genuine epidemic, the governor (and the mayors) have the right and the responsibility to quarantine the sick, and to isolate obvious hot spots. But how we got from “you have the right to quarantine the sick” to “you have the right to quarantine the healthy” is a marvelous tribute to the power of relativistic education. Guilt and innocence? These are strange words. Sick and healthy? These concepts are difficult to grasp.

Whenever the state acts coercively, we have to require them to be able to give reasons. Quarantining an infectious person is a reason that I believe we should accept. We must not accept this very subtle reversal of the meaning of quarantine. Someone who is healthy should not be treated as though he is not.

Let’s go back for a moment to your earlier claim that masking might present a hazard. If that is the case, then why do doctors mask up? Why do surgeons mask up during surgery?

Well, let me say right at the outset that if I were having brain surgery done, I would want the surgeon and the nurses to all be masked. I think masks in such a circumstance are a necessity. Mark me down as pro-mask. And this is because they are rated masks (N95), the people wearing them have been trained in mask discipline (e.g. not touching their mask), the masks have been properly fitted, and negative pressure is maintained in the operating room. Compare this with a fellow who loosely ties an old red bandanna over his beard, which he washes once a week, and which he coughs into all morning, fidgeting with it periodically with his fingers, all while he is on the way to touch the handle of the door going into the store just ahead of me.

So you think that man wearing a mask ahead of you is a threat to you?

Not exactly. On the bright side, it is more likely that he is doing his part to hasten the day when we all have herd immunity. It is just that the mask is not doing what it is purported to be doing. Everybody is just kidding themselves. Excuse me. We have made kidding ourselves into a mandatory exercise.

So if wearing masks is no big deal, then why are you in some sort of high defiance over it?

You are right that I don’t think the masks themselves are that a big deal, one way or the other. We are marching our way to herd immunity regardless, and masks are just a nuisance. But I do think that masking mandates are a huge deal. Once the government establishes its right to “do whatever” so long as it is done in the name of public safety, all our liberty is gone. Mandatory masks were just a trial run. Are mandatory coronavirus vaccines next?

But do you realize how paranoid this sounds?

A free people should be jealous of their liberty. And one of the best ways to be jealous of your liberty is to require the government, whenever it exercises its authority coercively, to be able to give a very specific reason. A general reason is not good enough. The law should prohibit stealing, for example, and when the cops arrest a thief, they should be able to say that they arrested him because he was “stealing.” Negative prohibitions are the foundation of civic liberty, and broad, general feel-good directives are the foundation of tyranny. Negative restrictions of the “thou shalt not” variety are the foundation of limited government. But if the government has come to think that its marching orders amount to “make sure that everybody out there is happy,” there will be no limit to the authority they feel they must claim en route, and the end result will be misery and unhappiness for virtually everyone. By contrast, if we tell them to limit themselves to making it hard on people who steal car stereos, for example, everybody comes out ahead.

Thank you for taking the time for this. One last question. How do you think history will look back on this moment?

I believe that the judgment of history will be severe. This has been one of the costliest panics ever to have swept through the human race, and that is saying something. But once the central driver for those fomenting the panic is removed, which I estimate to be on or around November 4, I believe that things will start edging their way back to normal. Those who did all this will be able to defend their actions (for a time) because they will still be ensconced in their positions. Ensconced is a word that I think we should use more often, by the way. But once we get some distance on it, say five or ten years out, somebody smart is going to write the definitive history of how this all happened. A mischievous ten-year-old boy crept up behind our ruling elites, who were holding the Ming vase of a mega$bucks economy, in order to pop a paper bag, after which point our ruling elites went gggaaaa!! and dropped it.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks for the opportunity. Appreciate it.