Freedom… from Masks

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 10.07.2020

Americans are becoming known for politicizing absolutely every little thing. It seems like the country has turned into two kids fighting: one side says “yes it is!” and the other side responds, inevitably, with “no it isn’t!” Sounds banal enough, but the arguments aren’t about whether it’s the Democrats’ turn to use the Game Boy or even about the abstract de   inst a tyrannical federal power. It was only heroically defending its rights and freedom, and was not at all fighting to preserve the southern economy and way of life. Which is to say, slavery.

This narrative about the American Civil War isn’t new. The “Lost Cause” myth, which recasts the context of the war as a noble Confederate struggle for states’ rights—and little else—has been around for over a century. Tellingly, the myth only took off forty years after the war itself ended, helping restore honor to the south by replacing shame with pride.1 It really stuck. I myself had a high school teacher back in Michigan (a northern state) who drilled into us that our civil war was not fought over slavery, that this was a broad misconception. That was in 2003. And while you could say that the Union did threaten the Confederacy’s “right” to legally maintain slavery (fallacious enough to call that a right), such an argument still admits that slavery formed the center of the conflict. It’s less of a minority perspective, more of an outright denial of the facts.

This narrative has grown a life of its own. At his Fourth of July speech last week, Trump called the Black Lives Matter movement “a merciless campaign” whose mission is “to wipe out our history.” You bet he buys into the story of noble southern patriots, disavowing the realities of the black American struggle in doing so. But the comment also marks where the alternative version of history openly calls the actual history false. Just like when you meet a man and his evil clone, and both insist that the other is the fake. Which one do you shoot?

Sure, in this case, only a moron can’t recognize the evil clone. But stories have great powers of manipulation. It isn’t always your fault for getting swept up in one. They’re like tornadoes. Not that anybody is excused for believing racist myths or spreading reductive parables of American war heroism; I just want to point out the strength of storytelling in our culture. We’re experts at it. Sure, all humans love a story, but we in the States seem uniquely doomed to bending narratives for our own worldviews.

Like the masks. Even as Covid-19 ravages the United States, wearing a mask has become an open political statement. There are two stories. One says that tough conservatives who see through the bullshit (of science, international news, etc.) are too smart to wear masks. It says that Americans are free to do as they want, no matter if it isn’t proven or logical or advised. In fact, defying government instructions, i.e. federal power, is exactly what makes America so great. That and being white, for some reason. The other story tells of a movement of highly emotional anti-intellectuals whipped into a self-pardoning patriotism that tops all morality, and who pursue, at all costs, the preservation of a nostalgic, simplified, falsified concept of a warlike and infallible USA. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they are so butthurt about wearing masks. But I reckon that they consider it a threat to their individual rights. You can’t tell me what to do! This is America!

All this “freedom” talk in the United States… what does it actually mean? People used to say it was about pursuing your own fortune, making your own style. But presently it’s more about being “free” from any narrative of reality except your own. And as Americans increasingly divide themselves, the right-wing narrative becomes only more fantastic. It has to, to keep justifying how the narratives of others are meaningless. Sad to see. Honestly.

Anyway, until massive change is effected from the ground up… I’d just point out that, even though they aren’t that great at playing it, it is the Democrats’ turn for the Game Boy. Yes it is. Yes it is. Yes it is. Yes it is.

1 Simpson, John A., “The Cult of the ‘Lost Cause’”, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 34, N°. 4.

Jeffrey Palms
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