Had I been midair when the Florida court struck down the face mask rule on public transportation, I’d have joined other passengers in cheering. And had I been on a certain Southwest flight, I would have cheered again at an attendant’s call to civility.
“I require every passenger on my flight to treat everyone with kindness and respect,” he announced. “I will not have anyone have any issue with someone for wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. It’s all up to you right now. Enjoy the fresh air.”
Face mask requirements, intended to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, made great sense at one point. And I’d accept continued mandates in places like the New York City subway, where I would wear a mask anyway.
But many saw the masking rules as government oppression. When told to obey, the idiots among them turned into violent children.
The designation of an accessory as a symbol of coercion has taken a different form in France. There the disputed item is the hijab, a scarf worn by Muslim women to cover their hair. It was an issue in the vote pitting right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen against current President Emmanuel Macron.
Some consider this piece of cloth an instrument of Islamist separatism, made more fearful by jihadist terror attacks in recent years. Le Pen calls it “an Islamist uniform” and sign of female subjugation.
Macron isn’t playing. At a campaign stop, he asked a woman in a hijab if she was a feminist and did she support the equality of men and women. She answered yes and yes, to which Macron responded that this was “the best answer to all the stupidity I keep hearing.”
Underlying the headscarf controversy is a centuries-old French belief that religion — its accessories and costumes — does not belong in the public square. France already bans the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. That law extends to headscarves, yarmulkes and large crosses.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic. Religion should reside in the heart and soul and not be exploited for identity politics. Displaying one’s religious affiliation through dress is a form of signaling. But here is where I part ways with the French: I think that most signaling should be legal. It is a kind of free expression.
The debate over the Muslim head coverings can get complicated. When is a scarf a radical message and when is it a square of silk that Audrey Hepburn would wear while sitting on the back of a scooter?
Face masks are a different conversation in that these nose and mouth coverings serve a public health function. Early in the pandemic, effective vaccines were nonexistent and treatments for serious coronavirus cases were hard to come by. Face masks became one of our only defenses against debilitating disease and death.
But then demagogues turned them and, later, vaccinations into emblems of coercion. Their arguments degenerated, to borrow from Macron, into a form of stupidity, often with tragic consequences.
And so we have the recent death of DJ Kay Slay at age 55. The radio and rap star radiated toughness, saying things like, “Cats know it’s no-holds-barred with me.” The unvaccinated Slay may very well may have thought “COVID won’t kill fabulous me.” But it did after torturing him for several months on a hospital ventilator.
Back in the friendlier skies, passengers handed their masks to attendants as part of a celebration. Fine, but let’s also salute the good citizens who wore them, rather than give airline workers a hard time.
Historians may marvel at how face masks and scarves became weaponized for political warfare. We may have to live with it, but better manners could smooth the edges.
Froma Harrop writes about politics and culture.