Mask over Civility: The Indifference of Americans to Public Health

Last Saturday we decided to take a hike in the beautiful Frijoles Canyon of the Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos National Laboratory “up the hill” from Santa Fe. I had not experienced the pandemic claustrophobia that has caused so much anxiety; I guess I was just too busy. Anyway, it was a lovely cool and crisp just-before-spring day. Most of the snow had melted and we needed to get out of the house and get some exercise.

It was a nice hike. Despite living in the area for fifteen years, we had never gotten around to visiting popular Bandelier, with its many trails, ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and wildlife. A light breeze whistled through the crown of the Ponderosa forest, a sound I have always loved. The afternoon was delightful, marred only by too many obnoxious visitors who exemplified a fundamental failure of modern American culture. We saw several Mule Deer.

The Quagmire of Civility and Public Health

When we arrived at the parking area the number of cars indicated a modest attendance that day. The buildings housing the visitor center, café, and gift shop captured the essential Santa Fe style of adobe construction that reflects ancient pueblo architecture. They had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression almost a century ago. For a lot of reasons, it is time for a new Conservation Corps.

A Park Ranger stood at the entrance to the main building by some signs and informational literature. I heard him remind a couple that facemasks are required throughout the park, including the trails where hikers must pass within a few feet of each other. We had masked up when we got out of the car.

As we began hiking up the valley on the main trail, we observed most other hikers wore their masks. A few did not. Our friend, C.H., began asking, “Where’s your mask?” Most responded with a lame statement like, “It’s in my backpack,” or “We’re outside.” One simply said, “Shut up!” Others just looked away ignoring our requests as their masks hung below their chin in feigned compliance with a rule they preferred to ignore. A few simply put on their masks.

We probably walked by more than sixty people on our hike, about thirty percent of whom did not wear a mask or just let it hang from their ear. Now, the risk of COVID-19 infection outdoors with a breeze blowing is relatively low. But the more people who pass you unmasked, the greater the risk becomes. And the consequences of infection for anyone with health vulnerabilities can be terminal. However, for these people the art of civility in the interests of public health was lost to their own indifference to the wellbeing of others. Is that what they call “American Individualism”?

The Risks of a Decaying Culture

American culture has a history of conflict between individual interests and the common interests of all. The many nationalisms and ethnicities that shaped this nation both cooperated and fought for dominance independence, yet engaged in mutual aid. Many communities displayed remarkable unity and mutual support as they developed.

Nevertheless, the ‘advance’ of the extractive industrial-consumer corporate economy led to an ever worsening loss of community as individuals found themselves isolated in their dependence on large institutions that demand priority over all other social relations. Now we have a disjointed and fragmented culture of “consumer choice” and resentment at any attempt to call upon citizens to exercise personal responsibility in the interests of collective wellbeing.

Most political conflicts today, and even the rise of right-wing extremist, even insurectionist movements of white nationalism, Q-Anon, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, as well as over-the-top conspiracy theories, reflect the disintegration of whatever national coherent culture we may have once had. The desperation to find some certainty in a life out of balance leads increasing numbers of disaffected, alienated people to assert unfounded fantasies of all sorts. When it comes to facing harsh situations such as a global pandemic, they seek comfort in believing “that doesn’t apply to me,” or that the 500,000 dead of COVID-19 “is a hoax.” Anyone who disrupts such illusions with expectations for civility in the interests of public health is seen as an agent of evil.


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