“It’s rude to stare!”, most of us were told as kids. Just how rude you only realise when you’re sitting in a near empty train carriage, minding your own business, when a man in a face mask gets on, takes his seat, swivels in your direction and fixes you with a long, long, cold, hard, death look.
Culturally we’re all so unused to this kind of behaviour that it comes as quite a shock to be on the receiving end. It’s also a bit confusing – like being subjected to physical assault but only in the form of mime. That’s why my immediate response was to mime back disbelievingly, mouthing and gesticulating the message: “Are you staring at me?”
“Yes I am staring at you. You’re not wearing a mask. Everyone else is wearing a mask. But not you. Why aren’t you wearing a mask? I don’t want to wear a mask either but I’m wearing a mask because we’ve all been told to,” he shouted – or rather mumble-yelled from being his mouth-muffler.
My biggest regret about this whole incident was my failure to put him in his place more crushingly and goadingly. But it’s very hard to keep a cool, rational, calculating head when you’re under attack. Even if the person attacking you is at least as slightly built as you, probably a bit older, and quivering with so much adrenalin you’d likely beat him hands down if push came to girlie shove.
I forget exactly how the row went or when it ended. Definitely the strangest part was when he called me a “bloody lefty”, which interested me for two reasons. First, no one has ever, ever called me that before, so it had the charm of novelty. Second, it confirmed my long held suspicion that a lot of the people supporting the draconian (and, in my view, entirely unnecessary) Coronavirus measures being pushed by the Government are people that till recently I would have considered my natural allies: Conservatives, as this man clearly was; Brexiteers, as he likely was too.
It reminded me – and not in a good way – that British conservatism is a broad church and that those of us on the libertarian/classical liberal/sentient wing aren’t necessarily the dominant force right now. At the moment, I fear, the ones making the running are the hanging/flogging authoritarian wing; and the ones who’ll always support whatever a government labelled Conservative does because to do otherwise makes you a “bloody lefty”.
Even though part of me – the naughty part which gets off on provocations and which Laurence Fox tells me in our coming podcast is what will always get me into trouble – enjoyed the confrontation, I still wish it hadn’t happened. These incidents are stressful; they take up far too much headspace in the hours and days afterwards; and each one – I’ll be honest with you – tips me further towards one of the bouts of anxiety and/or depression which have plagued me on and off through my life. Not so long ago, you’ll recall, it was possible to get on a train and pass an entire journey without running the slightest risk of a fellow passenger threatening you with violence for the alleged crime of not wearing a breath-restricting piece of cloth round your mouth. But not any more. And I for one find this deeply upsetting.
If this is the new normal which we must all learn to accept then I say: “No. This is not a game I’m playing.” Not only do I refuse to play but also, increasingly, I find myself viewing with contempt those who are playing along with this strange, constrictive array of rules being arbitrarily imposed on us because I see their compliance as a form of collaboration – which is one step away from endorsement.
Some people – even friends and allies I respect on most issues – think that this intolerance is a form of extremism no better than those of the lockdown/mask zealots – the “bedwetters”, as I call them. My cheap shot response to that would be: so Frenchmen who joined the Resistance in the war are no better than the ones who served with the Vichy French paramilitary force the Milice – is that what you’re saying?
The more nuanced position from a lot of the Covid sceptics who yet choose to wear masks on public transport is this: “We’re only doing it out of politeness. You can hardly blame these people if they’ve been frightened witless by the government’s propaganda. If my wearing a mask helps them be less scared and eases them back into normal life, well, that’s a sacrifice I’m happy to make.”
I disagree. Apart from being injurious to your own health, claustrophobic, unsanitary, sinister, unconducive to communication, alienating, atomising – and quite incapable of doing the one damned thing they’re supposed to do: stop anyone getting Coronavirus – masks are a symbol of collective surrender to oppression. They’re a sign that the enemy has won.
Who is the enemy? Anyone who thinks it’s right that university kids should be fined £10,000 for throwing parties – or put in a position where they have to risk their lives jumping out of windows for fear of being busted by the police for – what exactly? For doing the very thing you should be doing when you’re at university – mingling with lots of strangers.
Anyone who thinks it’s right to force the population to wear pointless, obtrusive muzzles in shops, train carriages or even, heaven forfend, school classrooms. Anyone who thinks it’s right to use the alleged emergency as an excuse to turn car routes into cycle lanes and city centres into pedestrian zones, even though nobody actually voted for any of this stuff. Anyone who thinks people who’ve gone on holiday to the ‘wrong’ destination or shared air-space in a pub or restaurant with a sick person should spent two weeks in quarantine. Anyone who thinks it’s acceptable or proportionate to put an entire nation – or sections of that nation – under house arrest, when there’s no evidence lockdowns do anything other than kick the can down the road while doing enormous damage to the economy. Anyone who obsesses about people who died ‘with Covid’ on their death certificates, while completely ignoring: the elderly dying of loneliness and despair; people committing suicide; people dying of untreated cancer. Anyone who thinks it’s the business of the state to decide which goods qualify as ‘essential’ and which you should be unable to buy from the supermarket during your random lockdown, now rebranded a ‘circuit breaker’ (because it doesn’t sound like ‘lockdown’), etc.
None of this stuff is remotely normal. Yet we’re being encouraged to accept that all this incredibly weird, outrageously oppressive, cruel, destructive, divisive nonsense is not just necessary but something we should welcome as, well, our new normal.
Well it’s not normal. Most of us know this in our hearts. And the only reasons so many people think otherwise are a) because the government’s propaganda machine is so powerful and b) – which is related to ‘a’ – that it has been sneaked on us in increments in the manner of the slow-boiling frog. In the space of nine months, the traditions and customs and freedoms evolved over centuries – in ways that we have chosen because they please us and because they work – have been destroyed, not all at once because then we might have resisted, but in the process of death by a thousand cuts.
How many of those people I despairingly see in increasing numbers dutifully wearing their face muzzles remember that we spent whole swathes of the summer being perfectly free not to wear masks at all? How many of them remember that they weren’t even compulsory at the height of the pandemic in March, and when, indeed, experts like Matt Hancock were reassuring us that masks were unnecessary and ineffective?
I won’t participate in this charade. Nor should anyone else who values their freedoms and loves their country. Sure, wearing a mask even when you don’t want to might possibly reassure a few nervous people; but it also does a massive disservice to all those dissidents out there – and there are more than you’d think – who are desperately looking for a sign that they are not alone, that the fight for liberty and truth and honest science and jobs and the economy and common sense is still worth fighting; that the jig is not up.
I’m sorry fellow sceptics who still wear a mask: what you are doing is not principled or pragmatic or considerate. It is a form of cowardice. Do you think those of us who refuse to wear masks relish the confrontations and the explanations and the risk of being fined and the general hassle every time we go into a shop or take public transport? We hate it. It’s not some wacky game we delight in playing to ‘own the libs’. (Well, sometimes, possibly, if we’re in the mood. But not always). More often we dread the run up to it and we recoil at the memory of it because it’s stressful and potentially dangerous and it makes normal life seem abnormal. We do it not because we want to but because we feel we have to because it’s our moral duty. If you know masks are wrong – and you most of you do – then you should think of it as your moral duty not to wear one too.