Why the Mask Mandate Offends so Many

We sell you your insurance. We unclog your drains. We sit next to you at church. We keep quiet on the company zoom call. We are white. We are black. Our collars are blue, and our collars are white. We are the great silent majority, and we have had enough. In the immortal words of country singer Aaron Tippin, you’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.

In the last four months, it seems that the world has fallen off of its axis. Things that in March seemed unfathomable have come to pass. We have grinned and bared as our businesses were shuttered, our founders were slandered, and our cities were vandalized. We have been told to accept a greater government involvement in our lives, that it is for our own good. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. We have been called to account for, intentionally or unintentionally, the sins of racists in other places and in some cases from other times. It feels like a great deal of condescension and blame have been levied against us, the folks who just want to go about our quiet lives unbothered, expecting no favors and imposing on no one. And now we are told that an unelected body has voted to threaten us with incarceration should we be found without a mask in public? We are not the bad guys. People will only take so much before they start to speak up.

The unelected Knox County Board of Health acted in defiance of its elected mayor’s wishes in mandating masks in all “public buildings.” Immediately after its decree, the elected Sheriff and elected Law Director decried the ruling as overly broad and unconstitutional. This is not representative government.

These “public buildings” are actually private property. It is unconscionable that a government can tell one that he can’t operate his business in his building without a mask on. It is unAmerican. This is the root of the opposition, not a question of the efficacy of masks.

In a season marked by questions about the proper role of the police and the morality of mass incarceration, can anyone really argue that having the police enforce criminal penalties on unmasked papaws at Walmart is a good or moral idea? Throwing someone in jail for refusing to wear a surgical mask along side robbers and rapists isn’t just bad policy, it verges on tyranny.

We entrust our democratic constitutional government to bring order to our society. Some have argued that this mandate is just another part of that order, like traffic laws or rules about indecent exposure in public. “It’s just a little cloth,” they say. It is fundamentally different. We do entrust the executive branch and its agencies with rule making, yes, but only under the auspices of the laws written by our elected representatives, and even those are beholden to tests of constitutionality by our high courts. Our elected representatives in county law enforcement unilaterally oppose this order. The same law that grants the board the supposed authority to make this ruling could also be manipulated to give it authority over abortion and gun laws in this county. Would anyone defend it should it weigh in on such issues? No. The board’s ruling and the law that supposedly empowers it are out of step with our constitution, and our founding principles.

The erosion of civil liberties is just that, a gradual erosion. It does not happen overnight. It is easy to castigate those who oppose this as selfish or reactionary. I’d say they’ve been quiet for far too long during this crisis as government has grown and liberty has dissipated. If we don’t put our collective foot down now, next month it will be something else, and the same chorus of nay sayers will call us the same names, and the same retorts of “it’s not a big deal” or “its such a small sacrifice” will be used against us again. The same was said by the Tories to the very revolutionaries who dumped tea in the Boston Harbor. There is no greater good than the preservation of our hard won freedoms. Our founders rejected the power politics of pure democracy for this reason. We have constitutions to protect our rights from the fervent masses in moments of national panic. They do not become less important during crises, but more important.

These are strange and trying times. I have been shocked and disappointed to find on social media those whom Churchill would have referred to as Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing salivating for fines and criminal penalties to be carried out on those who don’t wear masks long before it became a real prospect. To think that this abuse happened in Knox County, where hospitalizations remain extremely low and a coronavirus death hasn’t been seen in months, before major metropolitan hubs like Chicago is shocking and alarming. The Appalachian people are historically independent and mistrustful of centralized power. We keep to ourselves and decide on our own course. This is not our way. I hope that this issue will be swiftly resolved by our duly elected government, and these emergency powers stripped from a small body of planners that most of us don’t know, and none of us elected.

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