The War of the Masks
Washington — I see a war has broken out even as we talk of opening up our states’ economies. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I get the feeling there is serious disagreement between those who insist on covering their bodies to prevent the spread of the Wuhan virus and those who are taking their chances. The chance-takers wear no masks, no shields, no gloves and absolutely never don one of those all-covering, full-body protective outfits that leave one looking like an astronaut in the Bulgarian space program. The full coverage crowd I call the prophylactic wearers. The noncoverage crowd I call … Well, I call them the noncoverage crowd.
Now, in this battle over what protective attire is to be worn in public, I intend to remain absolutely neutral. So far, as I have been able to ascertain, no one, neither among the prophylactic wearers nor among the noncoverage crowd, has taken me seriously on the one constructive recommendation that I have made during this crisis. I suggested early on, when Dr. Anthony Fauci and the pulchritudinous Dr. Deborah Birx were earnestly urging us to wash our hands after every possible exposure to the virus, we go all the way. I suggested that we wash our hands and our feet. Possibly even blow your nose. Thus far, I have heard nothing, not even from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not even from the Dial soap manufacturers. Nada from the handkerchief manufacturers.
Thus, I am staying out of the to-cover or not-to-cover controversy. In fact, I am staying home. I have undertaken a book assignment, and I am perhaps the only person who has not been in the least discommoded by the public health authorities of late, with the possible exception of the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Both men have been released from prison because of the crisis and are finishing their sentences in the comfort of their own homes. I hope they at least will wash their hands and feet. What else do they have to do?
Yet friends tell me it is getting pretty acrimonious out there in the grocery stores and the pharmacies, where both sides in the protective attire battles are purchasing supplies. A lady told me the other day that she could not tell which side was more warlike. Both sides yelled at her when she stepped into the wrong lane.
These battles remind me of a coinage by the great Tom Wolfe. He coined the term “championism” in his 2004 novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” According to Wolfe, people suffer the “real emotions” of “exultation” or “depression” over the fate of those they deem their champions. They usually do not even know much about their champions, but, by gum, they are completely committed to them. They may have simply walked into a room and seen one team competing with another. Almost inadvertently, they just find themselves pulling for that one team. They lose all sense of perspective because of championism.
Now, as the battle lines are drawn between the prophylactic wearers and the noncoverage crowd, the political commentators will tell you it is all politics. The members of the noncoverage crowd are following the cues from our frolicsome, good-natured president, Donald Trump. The prophylactic wearers are serious, sober followers of Fauci and Birx. Well, maybe they are. But allow me to add another thought. How about allowing a literary mind to have his say in the cacophony created by the voices of science and the political voices. There are — among the millions of people dressed like they are ready for Halloween and the millions more dressed like normal human beings in an admittedly abnormal era — those other citizens. The ones Tom Wolfe talked about. The ones who suffer from championism.
They are the people who walked through a room, saw a commentator shouting about COVID-19 and immediately went out and purchased a mask, gloves and a shield. There are others who were more relaxed. Possibly, they left the room and purchased suntan lotion. Both sides are suffering the exultation or the depression of championism. The fact, it seems to me, is that not many people understand the Wuhan virus. So, go easy on each other. As for me, I am staying home — not because of a virus from China but because of a deadline.
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