September 17, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Anti-maskers are not rugged individualists

They are collectivists living in fear of being punished by their group.

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On Aug. 21, people gathered around the Washington County School District building in St. George, Utah. They came by the hundreds to protest the governor’s mandate requiring schoolchildren to wear face masks. According to local newspaper The Spectrum, a protester said during a closing prayer that “safety is not as important as our freedom and liberty.” He went on: “Forcing masks on our children is child abuse.” Another protester “compared mask-wearing to the death of George Floyd.”

“When George Floyd was saying ‘I can’t breathe’ and then he died, and now we’re wearing a mask, and we say ‘I can’t breathe,’ but we’re being forced to wear it anyway,” St. George resident Shauna Kinville told KTVX, a Salt Lake City TV station. Video of KTVX’s report went viral this week after Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher shared it.

A glimpse of a hellish political future in St. George, Utah.

It was in microcosm something we should expect in macrocosm if we’re lucky enough to see Joe Biden win the presidency. The Democratic nominee has promised to impose a nationwide mask mandate to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has now killed more than 201,000 Americans (as of this writing), infected more than 6.8 million more, and injured scores of thousands of businesses and communities around the country. The pandemic is deadliest in rural and southern counties, places most likely to benefit from a nationwide mask mandate but least likely to obey one.

Should Biden win, we can expect a St. George anti-mask protest writ large in the coming years. It will probably follow a playbook similar to the one used a decade ago by the so-called “Tea Party,” by which small reactionary groups, funded by billionaires and organized by professional GOP operatives, present themselves as a grassroots revolt against centralized government tyranny. The press corps will probably play along, covering it the way it did the last “insurrection”—as if red-blooded Americans, dedicated to the cause of liberty and driven by the principle of rugged individualism, are taking back their country from eastern elites in the name of freedom and God. (Instead of the “Tea Party,” it might be the “Q Party,” after the QAnon conspiracy theory). From these political conditions, we can anticipate a permanent pandemic.

Don’t forget the tip jar!

Scholars will play a role, too. Indeed, they already are. The Brookings Institution and other social scientists are studying why some Americans refuse to wear masks even though masks are the best way of avoiding contagion. (The virus is airborne, living in water droplets so small they hang in the air.) Already scholars are coming to the wrong conclusion: that the American frontier mentality, and the individualism at the root of the innovation and self-reliance that constitute our national character, trumps the government’s interest in public health. “Safety is not as important as our freedom and liberty,” the St. George protester said. Some academics, like Boston University’s Martin Fiszbein, have argued for the reevaluation of rugged individualism, a principle he calls “dangerous” in the face of public health crises demanding collective action.

America does not have too much rugged individualism. It has too little. The more we think rugged individualism is the problem, the bigger the real problem will be. People who refuse to wear masks are not reflecting the American frontier mentality. They are not rejecting commonsense out of the nobility of self-reliance. They are not harming themselves, literally, due to outrage against government overreach. They are acting in the interest of the groups they identify with. More importantly, they are acting out of fear of being punished by their group. They’re not individualists. They’re collectivists.

If we keep saying that individualism is why some Americans won’t wear masks, we can expect to occupy a hell more hellish than the one we already occupy, in which mass death is now normal because there’s no apparent way to resolve the conflict between gun rights and public safety. We should not, and cannot, allow conventional wisdom to gel in which the demands of individuals grind endlessly against the demands of public health. We must speak the truth. The tension isn’t between individualism and collective action. It’s between two collectivisms. One good and one very, very bad.

In one kind, individuals defend, maintain and expand liberty by way of accepting responsibility for and working toward a collective good. In the time of the ’rona, we are all in this together. We rise and fall, as one. In the other, individuals subordinate their interests and surrender liberty to group identity. (The group is not “America,” because the United States is not where “real Americans” live.) They claim to be rugged individualists, but they know individualism is punishable. One kind of collectivism rewards moral courage. The other kind, on the other hand, rewards moral cowardice.

We need an individualism that’s as moral as it is rugged. We need individuals rugged enough to make a hard moral choice between two visions of our country’s future. About half the country seems prepared to make that choice. That, alas, isn’t enough.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    Along the same lines, “Maskless Flash Mob at Target!” in Ft. Lauderdale yesterday:

    But this is just one aspect of the crazy far-right conspiracy theories, as a John has noted. Excellent Time Mag article by Charlotte Alter:

    “How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy”

    On a cigarette break outside their small business in Ozaukee County, Tina Arthur and Marcella Frank told me they plan to vote for Trump again because they are deeply alarmed by “the cabal.” They’ve heard “numerous reports” that the COVID-19 tents set up in New York and California were actually for children who had been rescued from underground sex-trafficking tunnels. Arthur and Frank explained they’re not followers of QAnon. Frank says she spends most of her free time researching child sex trafficking, while Arthur adds that she often finds this information on the Russian-owned search engine Yandex. Frank’s eyes fill with tears as she describes what she’s found: children who are being raped and tortured so that “the cabal” can “extract their blood and drink it.” She says Trump has seized the blood on the black market as part of his fight against the cabal. “I think if Biden wins, the world is over, basically,” adds Arthur. “I would honestly try to leave the country. And if that wasn’t an option, I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on and it would be over.”

    • Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

      Here’s the bottom line – we have to confront this lunacy head on. Ignoring it, mocking it, or hoping it goes away simply doesn’t work. I’ve learned through a lot of frustration, anger, and pain that the only effective way to combat this type of insanity is to engage directly, consistently, and firmly with people who think in this manner. It’s important to listen deeply, let them spin out their tales, then deconstruct their arguments very persistently and thoroughly until they relent and re-consider their beliefs. This can take a lot of time and effort, but it can be done.

      Doing this is not easy and will be extremely challenging politically across the whole country. The task for liberals and the Democratic party is to promote explicit explanations of why wearing masks is necessary, and to develop a comprehensive media structures to support these explanations. Otherwise, this nonsense will continue to metastasize and the Republicans. RW media propaganda, and the Russians will exploit it for their one nefarious purposes.

  2. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    Even if Mr. Biden is elected (as I hope he will be–I’ve already voted for him) I’m concerned that when people behave the way the mobs in St. George, Utah and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, at a Target, how is such reckless behavior going to be dealt with by the government. How will such crime be prevented or punished? I fear we’re in for some continued scary and unhealthy times no matter what. The US is becoming a more dangerous country for all people as it has been for people of color and religions different from what people claim to be christianity.

  3. Greg Walker on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    American Cultural Individualism…another word for denial.

  4. Dave S on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    John, you analysis is very close to one I read days ago from a Harvard professor. The divisions Trump is promoting among Americans require signs and symbols – not unlike the neck tattoos of street gangs. They have to be obvious and divisive so as to bond the “us” from “them”. Here is a link;

  5. Mimi on July 30, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    Didn’t read the article. Didn’t have to. The headline said all I needed to know. I do NOT refuse to wear a mask because I am afraid to be punished by my group. FFS there are so few around me who refuse to be intimidated into wearing a mask. I encourage my fellowship to stop wearing them and to resist the forced decrees. I have a real solution to ending the conspiracy theories: let people go back to church. People need hope for the future. Where best to encourage hope? In the house of God. Keeping people away from church is causing the belief in conspiracy theories because they find hope for the future in them. They see the present as a shit storm and need to see a brighter tomorrow.

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