Protests against mandated school masking in Kentucky and elsewhere remind me of my recent phone conversation with an old newspaper buddy.
“We’re in a war,” he said. “I think about that every day when I hear people complaining. In World War II, they had rationing, and I wonder if there were a lot of protests then. Did a lot of people say, ‘Hell, no, we won’t do it?’”
The answer is no, according to American history, a subject I taught for two dozen years after I left his newsroom for a community college classroom. More on that in a minute.
In a walkout at a western Kentucky high school, a dad who joined his son and other students told a local newspaper that the protesters were “defending freedom” against mandated masking. “We have sovereignty over our own bodies,” he said.
"Your sovereignty ends at my nose," is my paraphrase of an old saying. It’s especially apt for a highly contagious airborne virus which has, so far, killed close to 635,000 Americans, including more than 7,700 Kentuckians, according to The New York Times.
"It could be masks one day then mandated vaccines the next," the father also said in the paper, ignoring the fact that for years, schoolkids have had to get vaccinated against a variety of illnesses.
People who oppose mask mandates often argue that masking — and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — are personal choices. I’m with Times columnist Paul Krugman who says they really aren’t:
“When you reject your shots or refuse to mask up, you’re increasing my risk of catching a potentially deadly or disabling disease, and also helping to perpetuate the social and economic costs of the pandemic. In a very real sense, the irresponsible minority is depriving the rest of us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Anyway, a group prayer followed the school walkout. The paper didn't say what the protesters prayed. But in the Good Book, Jesus admonishes, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." People who won’t get vaccinated are endangering others not only by directly spreading COVID-19, but also by helping perpetuate the most lethal pandemic in a century. (Widespread vaccinations ultimately defeated polio, smallpox and other deadly diseases.)
Since the pandemic has revved back up, this fully vaccinated Presbyterian has resumed masking indoors —and outside in crowded places — to help protect others, not just himself. That’s because vaccinated people with a COVID-19 breakthrough infection (even with mild or no symptoms) can spread the virus, according to experts.
I found my friend’s COVID-19-World War II comparison particularly timely because on Dec. 7 we’ll observe the 80th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged us into the global conflict. (Astonishingly, the still-rising COVID-19 death toll already exceeds the World War II U.S. death toll by about 216,500.)
Millions of Americans — including my father, father-in-law and two uncles — volunteered for military service. On the home front, almost everybody swung behind the war effort, obeying rationing rules and other emergency measures. They also heeded Uncle Sam’s urging to “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without," so our fighting forces didn’t lack firepower to defeat Japan, Germany and Italy.
COVID-19 has rekindled the old World War II we’re-all-in-this-together victory spirit in many Kentuckians and other Americans. OK, the often raucous anti-mandate protests are grabbing newspaper headlines and making the TV news. But dare I suggest that the protesters are outnumbered by a “silent majority” of us in Kentucky and nationwide on the other side? “Recent polling suggests that the public strongly supports mask mandates and that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposes attempts to prevent local school districts from protecting children,” Krugman wrote.
(After the state Supreme Court limited Gov. Andy Beshear's emergency powers, he canceled his executive order mandating masking in public and private schools. However, the Kentucky Department of Education said the ruling won’t affect the state Board of Education’s mask mandate for public schools. Beshear is also reportedly mulling a statewide mask mandate, which the GOP supermajority General Assembly would almost certainly reject if he calls a special session to meet the COVID-19 crisis.)
Battling COVID-19 “calls on us to try to be the very best people we can,” Beshear said on National Public Radio. Sadly, the pandemic is bringing out the very worst in some people.
COVID-19 has produced the Covidiot, which some internet websites define as “a person who acts like an irresponsible idiot during the COVID-19 pandemic, ignoring common sense, decency, science, and professional advice leading to the further spread of the virus and needless deaths of thousands.”
While Covidiots, many of them self-serving, truth-torturing far-right-wing politicians and pundits — Sen. Rand Paul and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson come to mind — preach “freedom,” they practice “freedumb.”
The online Urban Dictionary defines “freedumb” as “a totally nonsensical and asinine belief (of many Americans) that freedom means you can literally do anything you want, including violating other peoples' rights."
Krugman argued that anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers aren’t really freedom lovers. “I could offer some hypotheses about their real motives, but understanding what’s driving these people is less important than understanding how much harm they’re doing. That goes double for politicians who are cynically playing to the anti-vax, anti-mask crowd.”
I’ll add a Presbyterian “amen” to that.
Forward Kentucky Newsletter
Sign up for free to get the latest news right in your inbox.