To Mask or Not to Mask

To mask or not to mask

The CDC has called for Americans to wear masks.  But some people still don’t get it.  Donald Trump refused to wear a mask when he visited a mask factory this week.  “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. 

Mask-wearing is an ethical no-brainer.  If masks help us avoid further outbreaks and quarantines, we ought to wear them.  Masks also show respect for vulnerable service workers like clerks and cashiers who must daily confront the wheezing masses.  And by slowing the contagion we support nurses and doctors overwhelmed by the sick and dying. 

A mask is a symbol of solidarity and compassion.  It says to other people that you care enough about them to try to prevent them from getting sick.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “You know how you show love?  By wearing a mask.” 

But masks have become a polarizing symbol.  According to a recent poll, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear them.  Those with more education are more likely to wear masks.  Black Americans are more likely to wear them than whites.

Skeptics and libertarians have warned that masks are a sign of government overreach and even tyranny.  Officials in Oklahoma and Ohio backed away from mandatory masking after public outcry.  In Flint, Michigan, a security guard was murdered for trying to enforce a mask requirement.

One Ohio lawmaker, Nino Vitale, went so far as to declare that his Christian faith prohibits him from wearing a mask.  He said that God made us in His image and that to cover the face is to obscure the visage of God.

Some backlash is understandable.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  But most don’t bristle at similar regulations such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”  When the national anthem plays, people take their hats off.  Kids can’t wear racist, gang, or drug-oriented clothes to school. 

And of course, public nudity is prohibited.  Although even this is contentious.  Men go topless.  But women may not.  Some women have protested against this double-standard

Perhaps the libertarian backlash against masks should extend to a refusal to wear clothes.  One could even imagine a religious point similar to Representative Vitale’s.  The entire human body is made in the image of God.  Perhaps we should show it all off.

The deep question is what counts as the authentic face or body.  People shave, cut their hair, and get their nails done.  Which version of your body is the one created in the image of God?

The issue of masking uncovers questions about bodies, identities, and cultural norms.  Not too long ago, people freaked out about Muslim women’s veils and headscarves.  And masks have been banned in the past, when associated with criminal activity.

The mask controversy exposes the social construction of reality.  Veiled women, bandits, and surgeons all cover their faces.  But the meaning of the mask depends upon cultural norms and the purpose we have for masking.

It is not easy to draw clear lines here since life involves a whole bunch of masking. We routinely put on masks in order to create or alter our identities.  Some, like the President, do it with make-up, a fancy hair-do, and a business suit.  Others get plastic surgery.  Professionals put on their “game face” at work, along with a uniform.  We change our demeanor when we hang out with friends, go to church, or go to a funeral.  Life is a complex masquerade. 

Existentialist philosophers have often wondered about the reality behind the masks.  Does the person remain the same behind the masks and under all of that make-up?  Or are we simply the masks we wear and the roles we inhabit?

This brings us back to the current issue.  In a pandemic, to wear a mask (or not) is to make a statement about who you are.  Whether you wear a mask or go bald-faced you reveal what you value and what you believe. 

Some apparently prefer to live and let die.  They walk barefaced and proud among the masked masses, believing that liberty trumps public safety.  But others emphasize solidarity with those who suffer.  They compassionately conceal their faces, so that others may live.

When is enough enough?

Drawing a line in the sand isn’t as easy as it sounds

Fresno Bee, October 27, 2017

When do you throw down the gauntlet or throw in the towel? Sen. Jeff Flake did both things at once this week. He announced his retirement from the Senate and declared that his conscience impelled him to speak out against the “spell” of Trumpism.

The Arizona Republican explained, “Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

Trumpers will scoff at this. And Democrats will howl that this is too little, too late. But we can all relate to Flake’s moment of truth.

Flake said there comes a time when you simply must say “enough!” He warned, “silence can equal complicity.” Martin Luther suggested something similar at the start of the Protestant Reformation, as I discussed in this column last week. Martin Luther King Jr. also criticized complicity and complacency. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King condemned the “appalling silence” of so-called “good people.”

Of course there are risks to breaking silence. Lives will be disrupted. Relationships can be lost. And there is always room for doubt.

But justice requires action. A legal maxim holds that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Grave injustices must be denounced as soon as possible. Unless bystanders speak up, there will be more victims. And unless courageous souls blow the whistle, there will only be a shameful and appalling silence.

It is inspiring to see someone transcend the constraints of business-as-usual and declare themselves a free person. Most people have contemplated singing along with that old country song, “Take this job and shove it.” We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power. We dream of throwing caution to the wind and saying what we actually believe.

But most of the time, we stick to well-worn ruts, afraid to upset the apple cart. We do a bit of math, adding up mortgage payments and retirement savings. Our confidence wanes. Then we sit down and shut up.

It is not that we lack courage, we tell ourselves. It is that we understand that freedom isn’t free. It is actually more expensive than we can afford. Freedom creates risk and uncertainty. It is usually more prudent to stick it out and soldier on. We take what the boss doles out because, well, that’s what it means to work for a living.

So we rationalize our conformism. Those who speak up get punished. And at any rate, we tell ourselves, quitting, protesting or going on strike usually changes nothing. When people resign in a huff, their places are easily filled by sycophants and suck-ups eager to compromise their principles. When people go out on strike, the scabs are waiting in the wings.


And yet, it is bracing to witness someone like Flake declare himself to be a free man. He said he is done with political calculation and that he will only be guided “by the dictates of conscience.” This implies that others are less courageous.

But conscientious refusal is not easy. The powers-that-be will threaten and manipulate. Retaliation happens. Whistleblowers often end up miserable. We must weigh costs and benefits.

But we should ask whether we can live with ourselves in the long run. Will our children be proud of who we are and what we stood for?

The existentialist philosophers said we are condemned to be free. To be human is to be forced to choose your existence. To be free is to be confronted with the anxiety of choice. With each anguished decision, you pick a destiny and choose your fate.

Our choices are declarations of identity and affirmations of value. Senator Flake explained this, giving us a lesson in moral psychology this week. He said, “Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves.”

He is right. Our choices declare who we are. What are you willing to risk? And what are you willing to stand for?

Most of us will never face the momentous choices of someone like Senator Flake. But every now and then we confront a moment of truth. You can duck and keep your head down. Or you can draw a line in the sand, blow the whistle, and tell the boss to shove it. The choice is yours.

Voting is a leap of faith

Voting is a little like a leap of faith

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2016


Your vote does not count for much. In the U.S., there are about 150 million registered voters. You are only one among 18 million registered California voters. But there are good reasons to vote anyway. Voting allows you to express your values and participate in civic life.

Ron Hirschbein, a philosopher at Chico State, wrote a book in the 1990s, “Voting Rites,” that considers the metaphysics of voting. I spoke with him the other day. Hirschbein says, “The cruel mathematics of mass society destroys the narcissistic belief that your vote matters.”

The large numbers involved make it unlikely that your vote will change the world in your favor. If you view your vote as an instrument serving your self-interest, then voting is a waste of time.

But voting is not merely an instrumental activity. It is also a meaningful social ritual. Voting has symbolic and expressive value. It is a participatory social act. This year you can help elect the first female president or a billionaire outsider. You can also write in “none of the above.”

Your vote is meaningful to you, even if it does very little to change the aggregate vote count. It is an expression of your hopes and your values. And it matters to you, even if your vote is merely a drop in the bucket.

audienceConsider this analogy. After a concert, people applaud. Your claps only make a miniscule contribution. No one would miss your clapping if you chose not to applaud. But you would miss out on the opportunity to participate in the process. Applauding is a symbolic and expressive gesture, done in solidarity with the audience and in support of the musicians.

Voting is similar. We demonstrate solidarity with other citizens by voting. And we express a kind of faith in the political show.

Admittedly, there are good reasons to be skeptical of all of this. Citizen solidarity may seem absurd in a divided nation. Many people fear that the political show is a rigged carnival game. Monolithic parties, political dynasties, insider trading, gerrymandering and big money all serve to undermine our faith in democracy.

To vote is to say, “Despite all of this, I assert my constitutional right to participate in self-governance.” This is an expressive act and a leap of faith.

Faith – religious, civic or otherwise – is belief in the absence of evidence. In social contexts, faith performs an important conjuring act. Political societies only exist so long as citizens believe in them. Teams, social clubs, businesses, and nations fall apart when we lose faith.

Maybe we are heading in that direction. In 2012, just over half of eligible voters voted. U.S. voter turnout rates trail behind the rest of the world. Maybe Americans are simply giving up on the charade, refusing to applaud this tired old show.

Social life is an elaborate ritual that requires willingness to play along. Ghosts and witches are fantasy, but we carve our jack-o-lanterns anyway. It’s all phony. But when we play along, Halloween exists.


Weddings, funerals and graduations are games and shows that require voluntary suspension of disbelief. The ceremonies are formulaic and often lack depth. But we play along, enjoying the process and the result.

It may seem disenchanting to admit all of this, but grown-ups know that social rituals involve make-believe. Acknowledging this creates deeper understanding of social life and a more realistic assessment of our place within the social universe.

No individual matters all that much to history or society. But we create the shared social world by our individual deeds and commitments. Understanding this gives us the freedom to invest our spiritual energy wisely and appropriately.

This is ultimately a question of existential philosophy. You truly are a grain of sand. But so what? The beach is beautiful, and we find meaning in participating in things that are larger than ourselves.

Democracy is created by the faith of individuals who vote and thereby participate in the life of the country. One vote does not matter in a country of hundreds of millions. But if that one vote is yours, it matters to you. And democracy only exists when we believe that despite evidence to the contrary, our votes really do matter.

Read more here: