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Toxic Nostalgia Helps Explain Why Some People Still Won’t Wear Masks

A protester holds a placard saying No Mandated Masks or Shutdown Freedom First during the We Will Not Comply anti mask rally.
(Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protester holds a placard saying No Mandated Masks or Shutdown Freedom First during the We Will Not Comply anti mask rally. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After months and months of refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump at long last endorsed the use of masks in mid-July. He was seen wearing his own mask in public for the first time on July 11 – and it generated headlines -- though it’s unclear whether these changes in his tune had any effect on the millions of Americans who have loudly and petulantly rejected that public health measure. The U.S. has spectacularly failed to contain COVID-19, and it is increasingly clear that that is the result not just of mistakes by the Trump administration, but of a stubborn commitment to some fantasy of rugged individualism.

The fact that stories about violent confrontations over mask-wearing seem to pop up daily, including a particularly harrowing recent example in Pennsylvania involving an AK-47, suggests that not even the president’s months-too-late pivot has done anything to make a difference.

The rationale behind mask rejection has always been fuzzy. But aside from the obvious — some intractable combination of ideology and ignorance — there are two other factors at work among those who deride public health recommendations in general, and mask-wearing in particular. They appear to be motivated by the formidable, intertwined appeal of nostalgia and enjoyment.

Nostalgia’s insidiousness was clear to American author Flannery O’Connor in the 1950s. At a pivotal moment in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a character known only as “the grandmother,” having tagged along with her son’s family on a road trip through Georgia, rhapsodizes about an old house she visited as a child. The house serves as a symbol of her most persistent character trait: a relentless drive to enshrine what she sees as “the good old days.”

After convincing her son to take a detour to find the house, the grandmother has “a horrible thought”: she realizes that the house was in Tennessee, not Georgia. Her realization startles her badly enough to cause a car crash, which initiates the horror-movie-like second half of the story.

When I teach this story in my literature course, I argue that the grandmother (and, by extension, the family) falls victim to her embrace of toxic nostalgia, an irrational psychological need to reject the contemporary world as facile, undisciplined and chaotic, especially when compared to some idealized moment in the misty past. By revealing that the grandmother is fundamentally misremembering the house, O’Connor shows how nostalgia fails us, and that the price of clinging to it is anguish and, ultimately, death.

The U.S. has spectacularly failed to contain COVID-19, and it is increasingly clear that that is the result not just of mistakes by the Trump administration, but of a stubborn commitment to some fantasy of rugged individualism.  

Toxic nostalgia is often rightly blamed for stubborn cultural world views — the regressive impulse so apparent in Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is only the most obvious example. But it is also a key element of the tendency to reject or mock public health recommendations, and this has been the case since well before the pandemic.

Riding in the back of pickup trucks. Eating raw cookie dough. Playing outside unsupervised until dusk — because “neighborhoods were safer back then.” The mindset that our reckless-but-basically-innocent halcyon days were inherently better than the present is a potent force.

And of course, grown-up indulgences are no less safe from these intrusions. Cigarettes. Drinking and driving. Helmet laws. Gun ownership. Toxic nostalgia embraces a fantasy in which statistically destructive habits are not just socially acceptable, but celebrated. People who subscribe to it call for a time before professional worry-warts put a damper on petty pleasures — before the so-called nanny state wagged its prohibiting finger.

Enjoyment is an equally powerful forceA central tenet of public health is that sometimes personal pleasure must be surrendered for a greater good, an idea that is intensely antithetical to the American myth of self-determinism. It’s fun to ride in the back of a pick-up truck. It’s exhilarating to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

How does this explain the enraged opposition to mask-wearing? What’s so fun about going into a store without a mask, and what bygone era does it make anti-maskers feel connected to?

It seems clear that the majority of performative anti-maskers are accustomed to a certain level of privileged social deference, and are certainly not used to being told that they are wrong.

Simple: they are certain that those of us who accept that the price of returning to normalcy includes covering our mouths and noses at the supermarket are puppets. Sheep. Dupes of the Deep State. With no expertise in a relevant field, no plausible medical or epidemiological argument, the anti-masker grasps for the hollow rhetoric of the conspiracy theorist, the conviction that there is no greater virtue than to reject the official story.

And this rejection, of course, is its own form of enjoyment. It might not be the same as a defiant drag on a cigarette or a guilty lick of the cookie dough spoon, but there is evidently some profound pleasure in broadcasting to the world that you’re not going to be taken for a sucker, that you “see what’s really going on,” that you’re a “patriot” who is resisting “tyranny.”

And as for nostalgia? It seems clear that the majority of performative anti-maskers are accustomed to a certain level of privileged social deference, and are certainly not used to being told that they are wrong. They long for a time when their recklessness was affirmed as not just acceptable, but as an embodiment of American authenticity. For the mythical days when no one dared question their choices in public, when they fantasized about being protectors of society, rather than a profound threat.

We will soon find out the extent to which, as in O’Connor’s story, this stubborn sense of nostalgia results in anguish and death.

The ideas and opinions in this piece are solely those of the author.

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Jason Clemence Cognoscenti contributor
Jason Clemence is assistant professor of humanities at Regis College in Weston, Mass., where he teaches writing, literature and film studies.

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