BY JOHN WOOD
Donning my colorful galaxy cloth mask, I drove to a nearby gas station to fill up the my mower’s five-gallon tank. I have been self-quarantining for the last few months and adventures like this are strangely not a daily occurrence anymore.
I’m not alone, as a recent Gallup Poll found 58% of Americans say it’s healthier to stay-at-home as much as possible, albeit down 17% as states open up. As numbers go down, the number of deaths rises – eclipsing 100,000 on May 27. The government projects 3,000 deaths daily into early June, according to the New York Times.
At the station, I pulled out the gas pump handle with my light blue latex gloves and placed it in my car’s tank. I already knew to be careful before COVID-19 – a 2011 study by the personal hygiene company Kimberly-Clark found more than 70% of gas pump handles were contaminated.
At the OnCue, I was the only one with a face covering out of 14 that I had observed. Even cashier behind a sneeze guard was not wearing a mask as she greeted me with a cheery, “Hi.” A little disorienting.
REFUSING TO WEAR A MASK
Stillwater is now nationally infamous because its city leaders retreated in early May from a mandate that customers wear masks to reopen restaurants and stores. A mere three hours into the order, city officials withdrew the mandate because of threats of violence directed at Walmart employees as well as phone calls to police and city officials citing Second Amendment remedies.
Mayor Will Joyce told MSNBC that Stillwater lacked police to enforce such an order. “And so, it’s been a struggle [to] make people understand that wearing that face covering is an easy and an effective way to help slow the spread of this virus.” In the Stillwater News Press, Norman McNickle, city manager added it was only minor inconvenience to wear a mask as it protects the person wearing it and anyone they meet.
In a press release, Joyce said: “I hate that our businesses and their employees had to deal with abuse today, and I apologize for putting them in that position. I am not the kind of person who backs down from bullies, but I also will not send someone else to fight the battle for me.”
Elsewhere, for example, CBS News reported that a Colorado man shot a Waffle House employee the day after staffers told him to wear a face covering inside the restaurant. In addition, a St. Clair Shores, MI woman assaulted and spit on a grocery employee after being told to leave for not wearing a mask. The Macomb County prosecutor described the incident as “incomprehensible” to attack an essential worker.
As events like these were experienced nationwide in the following weeks, Governor Stitt felt the need to say they were merely a “personal preference.”
I guess we are allowing the bullies to win now?
WHY NOT WEAR A MASK?
From my research, I can surmise that it is a combination of things. At first glance, it’s anxiety and Trump’s antics.
In many ways, this is not surprising considering a few long months of millions of people cooped up at home and tens of thousands dying, and millions infected with COVID-19. This is on top of unemployment that surpassed 30 million, a number unheard of since the Great Depression. Unlike then – when Franklin Delano Roosevelt rose to the occasion and became a defining figure in American history – today’s federal government is failing to lead.
Indeed, President Donald Trump has made an infamous mark on history. Falling to the depravity of partisan politics, Trump’s bungled response even yielded a recent peer-reviewed article in the medical journal The Lancet, which asserted the national response to the pandemic has been rather “inconsistent and incoherent” while the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] has been sidelined.
Trump even blamed the CDC director on NBC’s Meet the Press, declaring the CDC “let the country down” with early testing problems. At other times, he has blamed China, calling it the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus. He’s even called the pandemic media-hyped and a “Democratic Hoax.”
In addition to the blame game, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been critical of masks. “I don’t think I’ll be doing it,” Trump declared in March. This is alarming because Trump’s own guidelines recommend that Americans wear a face covering in public spaces to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC website says: “The cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.”
The CDC website further explains the reason is protect those vulnerable and others in case the mask wearer is asymptomatic, but contagious, which is said to be the case between the fifth and 14th days before showing symptoms.
A noble good deed to help others.
This contrasts with Trump’s hyper-individualist point of view, famously showcased in his Honeywell mask factory visit, of course, when he didn’t wear a mask. The Guardian reported him viewing N95 masks as Guns N’ Roses “Live and Let Die,” blared from the factory floor’s speakers, certainly symbolic of the moment. A few weeks later, he visited a Michigan Ford Motor company where they are creating masks, which had a seemingly strict requirement to wear them. As reporters asked him why he was not, his retort was that he didn’t want to give media the satisfaction of seeing him wear one. He even admitted to actually wearing one upon entering the plant.
Trump is surely out of step with the American public on this one. A May New York Times poll found 80% would wear a mask when coming close to people outside their home.
Resistance to mask-wearing is beyond Trump and anxiety, but also often a “partisan pandemic,” a sign of weakness, typically gendered, and certainly anti-intellectual.
To illustrate, a YouGov poll in mid-May found Democrats were more likely to wear a mask than Republicans – 67% to 54%. The survey also discovered that 86% of Republicans trust Trump “somewhat-to-very much” to successfully manage the pandemic, but only 10% of Democrats do.
Trump’s tweet storms have fanned the fires of rightwing groups, whom a conservative New York Times’ columnist calls his followers “rippers” – they “see everything through the prism of politics and still emphasize division.”
A mask is also a sign of weakness. Steven Taylor, the Psychology of Pandemics author, told CNN that people rebel when told what to do. “People value their freedoms,” he said. “They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.”
Furthermore, David Abrams, a NYU’s School of Public Health psychologist, finds masks a symbol of vulnerability – a sign that one is scared. Rejecting a mask, by contrast, demonstrates strength.
London and California researchers found it was gendered. They studied nearly 2,500 people found that men are less likely to wear masks than women because some think it is shameful, “not cool” on top of being a “sign of weakness.” Interestingly, they found less significant differences between both genders toward masks when they are legally mandated as both would choose to wear them.
So, city officials bullied into backing off from mandating masks clearly sets a dangerous precedent.
It’s also anti-intellectual. Historian Richard Hofstadter argues in his classic 1960s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, argues that a distrust of experts is often partnered with populism and religious fundamentalism. He said that conservatives may feel threatened by scientific research, such as climate change and evolution. Often populists view experts as an elitist class seeking power over ordinary citizens.
Today, this anti-intellectualism is reflected in challenging and ignoring CDC scientists. Instead of experts, The Guardian reports, Trump often tweets rightwing media-fueled conspiracy theories, instead often borrowing Russian-inspired story lines to stir up his conservative base with a laser-like focus on election 2020.
PUSHING CONSPIRACY THEORIES
“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.
Confusion and helplessness, she said, are the fuels necessary to stoke partisan flames. And all these conspiracy theories have something in common: believers gain security and control by acquiring the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear, no matter how illusory and damaging to public trust.
Social psychologist Ilan Shira told CBS News that conspiracy theories originate by creating someone to blame. Bad things don’t just happen, someone is responsible and must be stopped and punished.
As she aptly describes the phenomenon, “It’s not our fault. It’s them.”
Therefore, when a virus from bats is spread from China, it is alternatively portrayed as the fault of a Chinese lab, or even Bill Gates, or just fake and/or overly hyped by Democrats.
New York Times even recently finds rightwing congressional candidates subscribe to QAnon, which portrays a supposed secret “deep state” plot against Trump and his followers. Watch for the “Do you know Q?” signs at Trump rallies, even a billboard was sighted around Ardmore on I-35, according to Reddit.
In his new book, Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, Thomas Patterson argues that “America’s right-wing media are a propaganda machine the likes of which the world has rarely seen.” The rightwing media, he writes, has placed a stranglehold on the Republican Party, as they have “opposed any form of compromise” and “concocted alternative realities.” All ingredients that undermine our Democracy, according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.
Even educated people are susceptible to this conspiracy mindset. The Behavioural Public Policy journal found in 2013 that educated people often say they are immune to propaganda. Tom Nichols, who wrote The Death of Expertise, calls this the “smart idiot” effect. This might explain why highly educated Republicans are more likely than those less educated to say climate change is fake and a conspiracy of self-serving scientists.
This all might also explain why Republican Congress members tell New York Times reporters “there is no need” to wear masks and the Senate is now focused on Hunter Biden instead.
And why the AP in late April found Oklahoma is among the worst states in testing capacity.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s re-opening the state was “hasty at best,” according to doctors and some mayors. As May turned into June, the state’s infection rate unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, climbed.
I take particular solace in that some places are enforcing social distancing and mask policies – think: the California Costco where a viral twitter video depicting a worker who took away a customer’s cart because he refused to wear a mask.
The customer barked that he didn’t have to wear one because he lives in a “free country.”In response, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-CA, tweeted: “#Costco has the right to require that customers wear a mask. Businesses have the right to prevent people from spewing saliva droplets in their stores. Because we live in a free country. Likewise, recently Staten Island shoppers chased a woman out of a store for not wearing a mask.
If our Oklahoma business and political leaders took this pandemic as seriously as they have on the coasts, we would be able to leave the house more often and physically spend more money in town outside takeout and porch drop-offs.
Alas, I know where I live – that’s not happening anytime soon.
Stillwater resident John Wood is an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma. The views he expresses are his and not necessarily the university’s. This essay first appeared in the June 2020 print edition of The Oklahoma Observer.