In 1942, a young German woman named Sophie Scholl and her brothers founded “The White Rose,” a small student-led organization in opposition to the Nazi government. While distributing leaflets at her university, a pro-Nazi janitor reported Scholl to the gestapo. Despite her attempts to cover for the other members of the White Rose, Scholl and her friends were executed by guillotine in 1943.
In contrast, on November 25, 2020, another German activist hosted an anti-mask protest. As the activist compared herself to Sophie Scholl, a security guard at the protest walked off the job because of what he described as “idiocy.”
Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas tweeted in response to the event, “Anyone who compares themselves to Sophie Scholl or Anne Frank today is mocking the courage it took to take a stand against Nazis. This plays down the Holocaust and shows an unbearable oblivion of history. Nothing connects corona protests with resistance fighters. Nothing!”
In the U.S., the months-long pushback against government involvement in the coronavirus crisis has been just as, if not more, impassioned as the rest of the world. However, in many respects, the anxiety and distrust is quite understandable. Congress has been extremely slow to roll out small stimulus checks while millions of Americans are behind on rent and fighting unemployment. In the wealthiest nation on earth, food insecurity skyrocketed during the recent crisis, with data suggesting that 10% of families with young children simply do not have enough to eat. Business shutdowns are often intimidating, because, without sufficient economic security, how can we expect people to abandon their livelihoods and means of survival?
While the economic solutions to balance welfare and business is another matter worthy of discussion, masks specifically serve as another divisive point of U.S. discourse, and even Rexburg citizens themselves hosted multiple protests to fight back against the mere possibility of mask mandates. With new viral videos emerging every day depicting angry freedom fighters cussing out Walmart or gas station employees for having to wear masks, one wonders what people like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Sophie Scholl herself would say to someone trying to convince them that having to wear a mask is “oppression.”
In my own experience, I often ask anti-maskers if they feel that seat belt laws are oppressive. I analogize the two scenarios because they are both simple guidelines that are proven to reduce death, yet require the compliance of an individual that may or may not feel like they are really at much statistical risk whether they follow the rule or not. Surprisingly, a significant amount of individuals respond that, yes, seat belt laws are technically oppressive.
Now, I don’t think this position is as ridiculous as I might imply. There are various political philosophies that explore the sensible reduction of government and hierarchy down to its most peaceful level, that in some respect, might even include analyzing how a society should or should not enforce certain rules like seat belts.
What is truly ridiculous, however, is that anti-maskers are almost always loudly hyper-focusing on masks as a liberal-communist-Bidenist plot for power — despite the inherent contradictions in those terms. It is this exact type of rhetoric that leads impassioned MAGA fanatics to storm the U.S. Capitol over the repeatedly falsified idea that the election was stolen. It is this strange mix of nationalism and misplaced skepticism that leads people to believe that they are resisters against tyranny when they are just acting as pawns for the special interests that guide the most powerful person in the world. As a Twitter user with their finger on the pulse recently joked concerning the capitol attack, “Wow this is just like the American Revolutionary War, where the colonists rose up to tell the king he’s a big beautiful boy and demand that he rule over them forever.”
Ironically, anti-maskers have no problem staying silent with regard to the actual, bonafide authoritarianism perpetuated by our own government, but the authoritarianism of the U.S. has historically continued — and continues — under the watch of both political parties. So, even if one feels smug at not being an anti-masker or a capitol protestor, the responsibility falls to each one of us to stay vigilant and critical of power from multiple angles. What is the authoritarianism we need to be aware of? What authoritarianism could the U.S. possibly be committing that is worse than masks?
The above current-day examples are really just the tip of the iceberg. A deeper dive into the recent history of the 20th century United States reveals shocking examples of authoritarianism. Top military leaders of the United States planned alongside the CIA to provoke a war with Cuba by conducting terrorism on innocent U.S. citizens in the 1960s. Furthermore, racist segregation laws were so abhorrent in the U.S. during the 20th century that the Nazis themselves studied them to figure out how to separate favored and unfavored classes of citizens.
In analyzing the historically racist authoritarianism of the United States, from the Trail of Tears, to chattel slavery, to Jim Crow-era segregation laws, it is clear that people of color are still facing the ramifications today in numerous socioeconomic ways.
Black people, for example, have disproportionately less access to healthcare, while working a disproportionate amount of “essential” or front-line jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Black people are hospitalized 3.7 times as much for the coronavirus as compared to white people in the U.S., and die 2.8 times as much.
So, ironically, when people refuse to wear a mask in the name of “anti-authoritarianism” while interacting with front-line and essential workers, they are increasing the risk of those demographics that have been the greatest victims of actual authoritarianism and its ramifications.
Ultimately, you can take two positions.
You can double down on masks being “authoritarian” while radically changing your politics to be consistent opposing the many current and historical forms of actual authoritarianism that exist…
Or you can realize that masks represent more than just blind compliance to the top medical experts of today; they offer a chance to collectively care about your fellow citizens.
Protesting seat belts might be a third option.