Who Gets to be Free?

Masks, Freedom and Hierarchy

These last months, defined by the ongoing pandemic, have been a fertile breeding ground for a flourishing garden of bad-faith posturing, wishful thinking, and outright stupidity. There are so many options to choose from, ranging from “It’s just the flu” to failures of governance so severe that they’d be comical if they hadn’t resulted in a lot of people dying who didn’t need to die.

Of all these expressions of human fallibility and willful ignorance, my personal favorite is the argument over wearing masks.

Leaving aside for a moment the botched implementation of the policy - that’s a whole delightful series of idiocies in its own right - the intense, and intensely partisan, dispute over whether we should be wearing masks in public is incredibly revealing. Visual cues from a mush-brained septuagenarian who happens to be president, nihilistic partisanship, and a healthy dose of individual stupidity are all certainly factors, but there has to be more going on here.

I would argue that anti-mask sentiments took hold easily among a vast swathe of the American populace because refusing to wear a mask speaks to a very particular definition of freedom.

In its basic form, broad segments of the American public share this conception of freedom, one rooted in a deep conception of personal autonomy: Resistance to authority is entirely justified when an authority figure acts unjustly. So far, so uncontroversial. This is pretty foundational to the American civic tradition, embodied in various emblematic stories that figure prominently in our national self-understanding. The American Revolution can easily be understood in these terms. So can the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s possible to take this understanding of freedom much further. Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Not every expression of freedom, either challenge or embrace, is equally salient across American society. One person’s entirely reasonable limitation is another’s unconscionable affront to an inalienable right. This is one of the fundamental tensions of American history.

Masks are a useful entry point into this broader disagreement about freedom, simply because this is such an extreme, and frankly idiotic, example. “These people can’t tell me to wear a mask if I don’t want to” is a self-own on a truly Biblical scale, but it’s also the highest expression of this tendency. Accepting no limitation on your behavior, to the point where that behavior causes demonstrable harm to other people at only the slightest inconvenience to yourself, is a borderline-sociopathic understanding of freedom.

This might be a bad definition of freedom. It’s certainly not where I draw the line about acceptable limitations on behavior. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real or that it’s not widely shared. This is a deeply and genuinely American understanding of freedom, one that’s intimately bound up with a whole bunch of aspects of socioeconomic status, occupational dignity, and race in America.

It’s been around for a long time in various forms, coexisting and conflicting with other concepts of freedom; it didn’t spring up out of nowhere, fully formed, the moment some dolt decided he or she didn’t want to wear a mask into a grocery store. In this sense, it’s an entirely coherent way of thinking about a particular definition of American identity and personal autonomy.

To be clear, “coherent” doesn’t mean “good,” nor does it imply that the people operating with this understanding of freedom are completely aware of what they’re doing, the implications of their actions, or the reasons why. That’s the power of ideological systems. They shape our behavior on an individual and group scale through our systems of governance and our institutions on every scale from the federal establishment on down to the nuclear family.

This particular way of conceiving of freedom is the keystone of a whole social order and ideological regime that operates at a fundamental level for millions upon millions of Americans. This group, while not homogeneous, can be defined by the following characteristics.

They’re disproportionately likely to be White, though not exclusively so; they’re middle class or higher and can be quite affluent, but are usually not members of the professional-managerial class (a separate cultural and social group defined by educational capital achievement); they live in suburban or rural areas, but generally not urban ones; property ownership is a core value for them; business ownership, usually small business, is common, if not the rule; and while firearms ownership isn’t a prerequisite, there’s a great deal of overlap with gun culture. Ownership - of a home and/or land, guns, a business - is foundational, because in this conception, it speaks to ownership of the self, to true autonomy.

Some regions of the United States feature this mixture of characteristics at a greater density than others, but it can be found practically anywhere, albeit with minor variations. You can find people fitting this description in suburban Milwaukee and Scottsdale, rural Eastern Washington and West Texas, exurban Long Island and Philadelphia. Sure, the details vary: more hair gel in some places, less camo in others, a greater propensity for pickup trucks here, more comically oversized RVs there. The more stereotypical symptoms of this way of looking at the world are coded masculine - guns, trucks, and so on - but this phenomenon is by no means limited to men. The St. Louis personal-injury attorneys pointing guns at protesters outside their godawful mansion are one manifestation, and the Dallas hair-salon owner who was jailed for refusing to shut down her business in the middle of the pandemic is another. Superficial differences don’t obscure the common ideological threads uniting them.

Each of those characteristics interacts with and reinforces the others. It’s easier to live a superficially autonomous life in the country or the suburbs than it is in a densely populated metro area, where involuntary interactions with other people are unavoidable. It’s hard to conceive of yourself as the ruler of your own personal kingdom when you can hear your neighbors arguing through the walls of your rented apartment. Pretensions to entrepreneurship are difficult to maintain when your daily working life consists of being told precisely what to do by a manager, her- or himself a cog in a larger corporate machine. Owning a gun, or many guns, can offer a sense of personal power and autonomy, embodying the possibility of resistance to an unjust order.

All of this goes back a long, long way in American history, even before the first bales of tea touched the water of Boston’s harbor in 1773. We can see it echoed many times afterward: in Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as a land of independent, smallholding farmers; in the Democratic Party coalition that idolized Andrew Jackson and made him the symbol for decades of American westward expansion; in the pre-Civil War Republican Party’s credo of “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men”; in the Redeemers of the Reconstruction South; in both the Civil Rights Movement and the post-Goldwater suburbs of Orange County; and now today, with Trumpism, which is at least saying the quiet parts loud.

This conception of freedom doesn’t have to lead inexorably to awful things. In theory, it seems to offer a path toward radically egalitarian outcomes. In practice, however, it lends itself much more easily to a worldview built on the twin principles of exclusion and hierarchy, and travels in tandem with some of the most toxic American tendencies and traditions. In this sense, to be free is to be American, but those aren’t qualities that apply equally to all Americans.

The easiest way to mark yourself as free, to conceive of yourself as a Real American with Real American Freedom, is to point to those who aren’t free, to those who don’t count as Real Americans. They’re reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. In a nutshell, this is the central political, social, and cultural conflict of the Trump era and presumably beyond: Who gets to be an American? Whose vote is legitimate? Who deserves the protection of the law, and who is merely subject to its unequal enforcement?

It’s easy to see how racism and xenophobia fit here. “They hate us for our freedom” is a laughable statement on so many levels - that’s, uh, not what’s happening here, guys - but it neatly encapsulates the binary division between us and them, those who get to enjoy this freedom and those excluded from it. If that can be applied to a faceless mass of foreigners, it works just as well (and maybe even better) when applied within the United States. If you don’t look like me, live in a dense urban area where you rent your home instead of owning it, work in an occupation that I find unpalatable, or eschew firearms, then you’re not a real American. Not only do you not have freedom in the way that I do; you don’t deserve it in the first place.

This sense of freedom easily bleeds into a defense of hierarchy.

I’m a Real American; I enjoy this particularly expansive conception of freedom; and therefore I’m better than you. I’m the one who’s deserving of the full protection of the authorities without being subject to any restrictions on my behavior. No matter how much damage that behavior might cause to other people, even if it demands a social order in which others are actively oppressed and harmed for my benefit, then, well, that’s the price of true freedom. Race (White), occupation (autonomous, or capable of sustaining the illusion of autonomy), and property (owned) all wind themselves together into a toxic mixture that produces a powerful sense of hierarchy.

When challenged, people adhering to this particularly privileged conception of their place within society - free, Real Americans - tend to lash out violently.

Close my businesses in the service of public health? Storm the Michigan capitol, bristling with guns. Hang the governor of Kentucky in effigy. Protest on my street? I’ll come out of my house, armed to the teeth and barefoot, to threaten you. Make me wear a mask? You can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do. The Scottsdale city council member who quipped, “I can’t breathe,” at an anti-mask protest, was channeling precisely this aggrieved sense of social position, the deeply rooted belief that they’re subject to no authority they decide they don’t want to acknowledge.

It’s easy to mistake this for some kind of inchoate and muddled libertarianism, a principled belief in individual autonomy to keep the person free of any and all outside entanglements aside from those they choose themselves. The consistent reading of the Tea Party movement through this libertarian lens during the Obama era speaks to this tendency.

But that is not what’s going on here. Authority is fine, and so are rules, as long as they apply to other people.

It is objectively moronic to reject a useful and well-proven public health measure simply because it mildly offends your sense of personal autonomy. “You can’t make me do a thing to protect myself, other people, and society as a whole, simply because I don’t want to.” That’s not principled objection; it’s a tantrum. But while it may be moronic, it’s not incoherent. This extreme conception of freedom, bound up deeply with a violent and particular sense of what it means to be American, lies at the root.

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