• Sona Chaturvedi

The Unmasking of America


Photo credit: Marc Schultz/The Daily Gazette.

What does freedom mean to you?


Better yet, what does individual freedom mean to you as an American? Is it wrapped up in your identity? Your civil liberty? Do you equate masks with freedom?  The coronavirus pandemic has brought the topic of individual rights to the surface. They're not often discussed in America, but it’s a conversation, an honest one, that we need to have. We are constantly perplexed as to why other countries don’t have the same issue with wearing masks to protect themselves and others. Why the vitriol here? The idea of freedom has defined us since the beginning. That word, however, has changed meanings several times throughout history. Americans’ freedom obsession blinds us, according to author Anand Giridharadas. Although it’s been a defining aspect of the American experience, we have taken it to the extreme, to our detriment. It isn’t surprising. We have been reduced to having such little command over our lives and our communities that we grasp for any sense of control. While wearing a mask through this pandemic makes sense to most, those with less sway over their circumstances hold on tightly to their perceived version of independence. This obsession, Giridharadas writes, leads some people to be so afraid of the government coming for them that they can't see other obvious threats, like the virus or climate change or bank malfeasance, for example. It wasn’t always like this. We have been asked to forgo our individual freedom for the common good countless times throughout our history. During the Great Depression and both World Wars, we happily sacrificed for the greater good. It was illegal to not wear a mask during the 1918 flu pandemic, and people voluntarily informed others in their communities when they had been infected. John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches about the concept: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” When JFK spoke these words, Americans had a shared sense of national identity and purpose. What happened? How did we get so selfish? Everything we are experiencing today fits into the narrative of a self-centered society. Take into account the disastrous effects of trickle-down economics, as we all fight for one piece of a constantly dwindling pie; then add our immersion into a consumer culture of outlandishly selfish celebrity behavior, a diminishing sense of community, corrupt politicians, Wall Street bank fraud, socialism for the rich, the recession, 9/11, medical bills, threats to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, evictions, and everything has spiraled so wildly out of our control that we hold on to every single ounce of freedom awarded to us. And now it comes in the form of a mask. How dare you ask me to put on a mask? Is this not America? The land of the free? Well, no, it isn’t, and it won’t be for much longer. We need to stop this needless war on science in the name of freedom, cloaked in an American flag and a Bible, and get back to a sense of community. A GOP talking point in the run up to the 2008 election was to diminish Barack Obama as being just a community organizer. They eviscerated Hillary Clinton for saying “it takes a village.”


Well, what is wrong with either of those things? What is un-American about a sense of community? Nothing, except it keeps us fighting under an umbrella, while the rich and powerful keep making it rain. There’s a reason they want us fighting over masks, school prayers and kneeling at football games. We are stronger together as one voice, one community, than they will ever be.


Unless we get our shared sense of purpose and community back, we will never get this virus under control. And all the Lysol in the world won’t save us.

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