This past December and January, with the country in the full grip of the Omicron surge, I flew from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again. On a flight from Salt Lake City to Orlando, then six weeks later on a flight from Atlanta to Portland, I found myself across the aisle from men who took their masks off, kept them off, and refused to put them back on when entreated to do so by flight attendants. Both situations escalated. The passengers’ intransigence was met with increasing sternness by the flight attendants, who adopted the tone of a schoolteacher scolding an errant pupil. I could feel the tension rise among everyone in earshot of these exchanges. Other passengers glanced furtively at one another and at the scene unfolding ... Were these guys drunk and obstinate or just Republicans? Would this incident spiral out of control and make tomorrow’s headlines? It’s one thing to read about anti-vaxxers punching airline staff in the face at 40,000 feet, another to sit across the aisle from a potentially violent episode in real time — twice. I considered whether I should try to intervene, and if so, how. I began planning what I would do if things turned truly ugly.
Ultimately, with cold-eyed insolence, both men put their masks back on. They’d made their point. They’d defied simple rules clearly printed on all flight reservations, rules enforced at the airport and reiterated during our pre-liftoff safety demonstration. Maybe they fancied themselves renegades acting out Blind Joe’s country song “I Will Not Comply”: “They keep tellin’ us we gotta keep our chin diapers up/Even if we got the shot in the arm.../Quit tryna take me to task ’cause I don’t wanna wear a mask/Could take a vaccine that could maybe make me die/They got no scientific evidence to back that crap up/All they do is feed us lie after lie/That’s why I will not comply.” As a call to arms, it’s not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Old Republic.”
Illustration to Herman Melville, “Bartleby
the Scrivener,” 1853 in Putnam’s Magazine
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1964. Photo courtesy of Rowland Scherman/UMass Amherst
Around the time I was flying home in late January, the “Freedom Convoy” blockades were beginning in Ottawa. Canada, famed bastion of politeness — or, to use a more decorous synonym, politesse — fell victim to the same brand of insurrection my flight-mates subscribed to, except the blockades affected far more people. In the name of freedom, these dissenters, if they deserve that label, brought normal civic life to a standstill, disrupted the already strained international supply chain, negatively impacted the world economy, and on a more human level, kept thousands of their fellow citizens from their jobs and a good night’s sleep, thanks to the nonstop honking horns and blaring music.
These stories have already receded into a past that is tempting to dismiss thanks to the fading of Omicron and the last two years of public health mandates. And now we are preoccupied, appropriately, with Vladimir Putin’s war. But it’s important to remember such anecdotes of self-righteous rule-breaking. They illustrate a false civil disobedience far more pernicious than the wan secessionism of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” with his “I would prefer not to.” And it certainly wasn’t in the great tradition of passive resistance à la Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Nor was it comparable to the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s, with nary a Bob Dylan or a Joan Baez in sight.
I’ve also failed to see any powerful visual art come out of the anti-vax movement commensurate with what socially conscious artists of the 1960s and 70s brought us — people like Robert Irwin, Robert Rauschenberg, Gladys Nilsson, Judy Chicago, and the Mono Ha artists of Japan — in response to epochal societal change. The “Freedom Convoy” wasn’t even a genuine homegrown Canadian protest; as reported in The Washington Post, significant funding to keep the protests afloat flowed from affluent, largely Republican enclaves in the United States, doing their parts to propagate culture wars, a tried-and-true G.O.P. strategy to divide and conquer.
I want to interject something more personal here. With the possible exceptions of Zorro and the Lone Ranger, no one particularly enjoyed wearing a mask, and no one is rooting for a new variant that drives us back to doing so. Also, for someone like myself who enjoys handshakes and hugs, social distancing sucks. Being ordered by your employer to get a new vaccine or face termination is probably a bummer for a lot of people, too, although it beats the hell out of being intubated. I understand that all this tweaks people’s hot buttons and sense of autonomy. But this crisis called on us to be team players, not lone wolves. Right now, and with the contrast of Putin’s violence and repression fresh on our screens, we see what it really looks like when a free people’s autonomy is impinged upon. It doesn’t look like being “coerced” into donning a mask in a supermarket; it looks like shrapnel in the side of your skull.
We’ve trudged through this Covid crucible together, whatever our response, and none of us by choice — the inconvenience and isolation, the putting-on-hold of our lives, to say nothing of those who actually caught Covid, became gravely ill, or lost loved ones. Many of us, myself included, have had close friendships or family connections compromised by disagreements about masks and vaccines. It’s sad, and who knows whether with time such psychic wounds will heal, if with memorializing scars.
My general guidepost for getting along with fellow earthlings is that if you care about someone, you can agree to disagree. I think you can still be good friends with folks who have different ideas about thorny issues — even abortion, gun control, and the death penalty — as long as conversations keep to respectable volumes and nobody gets personal. But agreeing to disagree was a dying art whose death Covid hastened. People have grown ever fonder of drawing lines in the sand and defending their positions with all the hot air and vitriol they can muster. The ideal of civilized discourse has acquired the patina of an antique, if not an encrustation of barnacles. Decades of divisive talk radio and cable spar-fests have goaded the already boisterous American character into ever-increasing stridence, righteousness, and outright belligerence.
The Covid mask of Zorro and The Lone Ranger
There is another reason it’s been nearly impossible to agree to disagree about Covid: the life-or-death nature of the virus itself. Whether you recognize that vaccines, social distancing, and masks save lives, or you cling to the conspiracy theories that vaccines, not viruses, are the real danger, it’s hard to be neutral toward someone you believe is putting your health at risk. Radical-individualist mantras like “Laissez-nous faire” and “Don’t tread on me” don’t hold up when the viral enemy is so small that 500 million of them could fit on the head of a pin. You cannot invoke a prohibition against prior restraint when somebody’s spewing their huge viral load in your face. Pandemics remind us of John Donne’s contention that “No man is an island entire of itself,” especially in our era of jet travel, when a variant born in India or South Africa will fly on the feet of Mercury to our own neighborhood. Prohibitionist John B. Finch’s chestnut, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins,” might now be reimagined as “Your right to disregard science ends where my lungs begin.” Regrettably, perhaps irretrievably, our national spirit of cooperation toward a common good has been coopted by zero-sum-gamers.
In March 2016, before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, I wrote an op-ed for The Oregonian dubbing him “the culmination of our long cultural descent from respectful discourse and decorum into the morass of shallowness and incivility.” At the risk of sounding simplistic, I maintained that “when good manners died, Trump’s hope was born.” The last six years have borne this out. The buffer zone between not saying “Please pass the salt” and storming the U.S. Capitol isn’t as broad as one would assume. Democratic norms erode quickly, especially when you invite a wrecking ball into the White House. Four years with a fabulist autocratic bully in the Oval Office primed the pump for an age of shocking rudeness, hatred, and even political violence. Our tantrum-throwing Infant-in-Chief gave his followers the permission — no, injunction — to stomp their collective feet and run amok, the rest of us be damned. Trump may as well have deputized the sullen men sitting across the aisle on my flight and the truckers who shut down the Canadian capital.
But now the Covid cloud has, just perhaps, lifted to be replaced by the spectacle of thousands of wanton civilian deaths and the specter of mass nuclear destruction more vivid than at any time in the last 60 years. The tonal shift is dramatic.
It has been easy, tempting, and terribly unproductive for liberals to stereotype anti-vaxxers. I think it’s worth asking whether we on the left — including those of us who are devotees of arts and culture — are somehow inherently kinder and more civil than the mask-mockers and jab-eschewers on the right. These folks are not a monolith; plenty of anti-vaxxers are registered Democrats and Independents who found themselves in uneasy alliances with the Far Right on the matter of Covid. There isn’t a casino in the world where I’d bet a single chip on Blue America being more polite and less pig-headed than Red America. I know better than to wade into those hypotheticals.
Titian, “Venus and Cupid with a Lute-player,” 1555-65, oil on canvas,
digitally modified by The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
As to whether frequenters of art museums are more considerate and high-minded than frequenters of NASCAR races, I’ll allow that that’s another false dichotomy. But I will say this: on my trip to the East Coast I spent a week in New York City and went to dozens of galleries, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Opera, Feinstein’s, Bemelmans Bar, and plenty of restaurants and shops. There was still a policy in place everywhere I went: proof of vaccination required, with many venues cross-checking your vaccination card to your I.D., and doing it for real, not just a quick, pro-forma glance. Not once did I observe a soul bickering with a staff member about those requirements. I would like to believe that art-lovers have high respect for the values that undergird a free society because those values overlap with the dominant ethos of contemporary art: namely pluralism, interconnection, intellectual curiosity, and tolerance. As opposed to: narcissism, selfishness, and “My way or the highway.”
Now that mask mandates have mostly ended, and as the pandemic edges toward endemic status, we might hope that such unpleasantries as snarling an entire city’s infrastructure and cold-cocking flight attendants have also ended. At the casino, I’m still holding my bets. Polarization, not politesse and certainly not idealism, has ruled recent politics, and it is probably going to remain entrenched for some time. The dining table has been set with switchblades instead of butter knives. Don’t count on anybody asking you to please pass the salt.