Unmasking San Francisco
Updated: Jun 1
2020 was the year a terrible disease ravaged society and threatened to kill millions of Americans. Public health officials were forced to impose extraordinary measures to contain the disease, which required great sacrifice from every citizen. Citizens stepped up, made those sacrifices, and pressed their neighbors to sacrifice as well. Many lives were lost, but many more were saved. And although the worst is now past us and we've been able to relax many containment measures, a threat remains, and will likely require our continued diligence long into the future.
At least, that's one narrative about the past year. Here's another:
In 2020, the government conducted a test of Americans' loyalty to our traditional civic values--individual rights, the rule of law, the power of free speech and rational debate to settle differences. It sought to answer three questions:
Can citizens be scared into believing obviously nonsensical ideas, surrendering their basic liberties, and offering up their neighbors' freedoms as well?
How long would a propaganda campaign have to be to get them to do so?
How long could such a regime be sustained?
The answers are now in:
Just a few weeks.
A year without even breaking a sweat, and possibly many years.
Which of these narratives is right? Perhaps both. Since the first got all the airtime and most people's attention, it is high time to consider the second.
The obviously nonsensical ideas
Douglas Murray talks about the power of "deranging" ideas--things that you know are not true but you're forced to act as if they were. Cults want you to imbibe irrational beliefs about Xenu or whatever as a means of getting you to commit. Milton Erickson, a pioneer in hypnosis, lulled his patients into trance by sprinkling otherwise mundane patter with little contradictions that cause minds to retreat.
When you go along with a belief you know is wrong, you debilitate yourself. If the boss demands you wear argyle socks to prevent drought, your best opportunity to demand more sense is then and there. After you've been wearing the socks for a couple weeks, you're no longer in a position to point out how crazy that is. You can still recognize the crazy in retrospect, though, and resolve in the future to act while the window is open.
2020 delivered us a number of seductive but crazy ideas, and millions remain under their spell. If you're among them, snap out of it, man.
"Slow the spread."
If you're worried about catching a disease, isolating yourself is a rational strategy. But it's not a rational way for a population to get through a pandemic, which by definition is too widespread to contain. Pandemics peter out when enough of the population has developed enough resistance, and not until. There's simply a lot of work to be done by a lot of immune systems, and they can't begin until they're exposed. We knew very early on which immune systems were up to the job and which weren't, so "slow the spread" simply dragged the schedule out, like a pharoah locking up the slaves until the pyramids get built.
To be fair, back in March of 2020 there was at least a rational argument to accept a longer pandemic in exchange for keeping ICUs from being swamped. It was just quickly forgotten, and when ICUs weren't swamped officials made no attempt to speed the spread back up to make use of available capacity.
By April "slow the spread" had taken on a life of its own, as if the slope of the death count mattered more than how many people died. I watched through the summer as Mayor London Breed reneged on reopening schedules based on blips on graphs. Apparently deaths were fine, just as long as they were spread out broadly enough to avoid provoking headlines.
Reopening "goal" dates.
Last summer Mayor Breed was doing YouTube livestreams with San Francisco County public health luminaries. Maybe she still is. I had to stop watching, because they were both content-free and insulting. She lost me when she presented her "goals" to reopen restaurants in five weeks or hair salons at the end of next month.
Your four-year-old grasps goals just fine. If you told him, "No, you can't have a cupcake now, but I'm announcing a goal of a cupcake at four o'clock" he'd shut you right down. A goal is a criterion, something you're trying to accomplish. The cupcake is your decision. You might decide to make the cupcake contingent on some criterion, but you will not be able to sell that to your four-year-old until you define the criterion.
Neither Mayor Breed nor the lab coats around her could articulate a single criterion for relaxing any of their edicts. Not a case count. Not an ICU metric. Not installation of hand sanitizers and decontamination tanks and de-virusing rays. Closing businesses in March was a decision she made and proudly owned in media interviews. But allowing them to reopen was just a "goal" of no one in particular, contingent on nothing. The only new information I got from her videos was that she calculated I and the rest of San Francisco were a bunch of three-year-olds.
Evidently she didn't get much pushback. Perhaps, at least in that moment, she was right.
The experts are now even more expert.
I may have unreasonably high standards. I expect economists to be able to predict next quarter's GDP better than random guessing, and epidemiologists to predict the spread of disease. Especially when they're lavished with billion-dollar budgets and authority to impose policies on hundreds of millions of people. I don't imagine a billion dollars buys omniscience, but it at least ought to buy honesty about what's known and what isn't.
Wherever you set the bar for an expert, 2020 demanded contortions of you. The experts brought us reliable truth last month. This month they bring us a new truth, but it's just as reliable as the old truth. After all, they're still experts.
These beliefs are contradictory. An "expert" who contradicts himself from last month to now was either talking past his expertise then, or he's wrong now, or he was never an expert at all. Or--the Faucian Bargain--his expertise is genuine, he was just lying last month. Or this month. Or both. For excellent reasons, as he'll explain testily in Congressional hearings.
My mask works only when it's on your face.
Even if you think "slow the spread" is sound public health policy, mask mandates are a breathtaking contradiction. To the extent a mask is able to stop a virus, you get that protection by putting it on. If you demand everyone around you wear a mask too, you're saying your mask doesn't work, however you define works. And if masks don't work, why should anyone wear them?
You can make up numbers. Maybe you figure a mask stops 90% of the virus, but "works" demands stopping 99%, which you could get if everyone around you were masked too. Or you could get a better mask. Or wear two or three, as Dr. Fauci was doing a couple months ago. Or stay home. Whatever degree of safety you're trying to achieve you can do all on your own, and it will be easier and more reliable than trying to force some regimen on everyone around you.
But officials didn't simply tell you the best way to protect yourself, they promoted a much scarier slogan: "My mask protects you, your mask protects me." In other words, you're not in control of your own risk level, somehow I am. If you want to keep yourself safe, you have to eke certain behaviors out of me.
And I have to do the same to you. Somehow neither of us has contracted COVID, but we're both about to catch it from each other. And neither of us can prevent that by wearing a mask, only by badgering each other to wear a mask.
This belief is deeply crazy, at least from the standpoint of the physics of viruses and barriers. But if its real motivation had more to do with social control, perhaps it makes more sense.
My vaccine works only if you get injected with it.
It was not clear a year ago when, if ever, a COVID vaccine might be available. That we have several is terrific news, because allows people who otherwise couldn't risk exposure to develop antibodies and bring us closer to herd immunity. To be sure most of us could have done this a year ago with our internal biochemistry sets, but giving billions to Pfizer is sure to boost aggregate demand, right?
Vaccines have succumbed to the same paradoxes as masks. If you thought a vaccine works by triggering your immune system to develop antibodies and thereby protect you from disease, you're sadly in the minority. Millions of Americans are convinced that getting personally vaccinated helps, it just doesn't help enough. Everyone else must get an injection too. And probably still wear masks.
So do vaccines work or not? Ironically the people calling for vaccine passports sound like anti-vaxers. Neither is quite persuaded that getting the shot protects you from the disease.
Whereas demanding you wear a mask only interferes with your breathing, which has always been somewhat overrated, forcing other people to get an injection challenges a principle most of us understood to be settled in Nuremburg in 1946: the government, and by extension the society around you, does not have a right to force medical treatments on you. In those cases "the science" was appeasing its curiosity on Jewish captives; today terrified citizens are insisting their neighbors must make them "safer," even if only a tiny bit, by submitting to a treatment that they're convinced works and simultaneously doesn't work well enough.
Plenty of people who have never heard of Nuremburg are still suspicious of another agenda at work with COVID vaccines. I had never thought twice about getting a flu shot, but I'd also never seen big tech, the media, and the government work so hard to silence doubts about it. If your vaccine shot works, how is my opinion relevant, and why would you be trying to manipulate it?
San Francisco 2021
The CDC has now allowed that if you've been vaccinated you can take off your mask, even indoors. After 15 months sequestered at home, not so much for fear of COVID as to avoid having to act like I believe the crazy, I'm finally venturing out of the house again onto the streets of San Francisco.
Overall it's grim. The city is as filthy as ever, just now with a lot more closed businesses. "Outdoor dining areas" City Hall demanded restaurants build at curbsides are mostly empty. Stores that are still open have their windows papered over with warnings and scoldings and demands. Maybe one in five people dares walk the sidewalk without a mask.
Then there are the mask scolds. Done up like railway bandits, I presume vaccinated, and apparently perfectly healthy, they're happy to scream at random strangers who have the temerity to show their faces. Some are true believers, many others are functionaries who don't themselves think what they're saying makes much sense, but they fear trouble from the boss if they fail to scold enthusiastically and issue forth the bureaucratic demands for compliance.
I don't mean to strawman the scolds and the maskophiles. They would probably argue that my characterizations above are unfair, that COVID is ultimately a matter of odds, and anything we can do to reduce the chance that some stranger catches it is not just reasonable but a civic obligation. Even if you're perfectly healthy, having just emerged from a COVID-free cave, and you've been vaccinated, and you're outside, and there's a brisk breeze, and everyone around you is wearing a mask, you still owe it to them to wear your own mask because maybe that might shift some tiny decimal point. How irresponsible, how entitled of you to impose such an externality on them.
The big questions and hard tradeoffs
It sounds hyperbolic to say that America became a totalitarian country in 2020. While we didn't see gulags, that is literally what happened. Mayors and governors who had sworn oaths to defend our Constitutional rights simply ignored them and passed unilateral edicts upon even the most intimate aspects of our lives. We stopped being a nation of rules, where even--and especially--government authorities are bound by the rule of law, and became a dictatorship. The people we had entrusted with wielding government force exceeded both their writ and their competence and instead hijacked law enforcement to claim total control over our lives.
How did they get away with it? Because San Franciscans and millions of others failed the test. Some egghead made an Excel spreadsheet model that predicted dead bodies stacked by the millions, and the government and media used that as the basis for a terror campaign. My neighbors didn't just cave, they offered me up too. They offered their kids up. Never mind that the predictions had no relationship to reality, or that the "public health" measures were flagrantly contradictory, or that reopening schedules were just a sham, or that the supposed experts kept getting caught lying. Or that their neighbors lost their businesses, their jobs, their health, their hobbies, their social lives, and were cut off from their families. "If it saves just one life..."
So the problem facing me and millions of other people is that we can no longer trust our neighbors. Civic responsibility demands more than acquiescing to Dr. Fauci or other supposed authorities. I'm surrounded by people obsessing over imaginary COVID externalities yet oblivious to the wreckage all around them and dumbly causing more of it.
Wearing a mask turns out not to be just a benign courtesy for those around you. That was a critical part of the test--something you hung on your face to signal how prepared you were to submit to a whole new authoritarian regime. Had citizens pushed back in even a small way in March, politicians would not have dared slip the schedule to April. And then June. And then September.
The test is not actually over and never will be. Authorities continue to test citizens' limits. The CDC eased its mask restrictions on May 13th, yet Gavin Newsom decided to to withhold free breathing privileges from Californians for a bonus month, until June 15th. Did "the science" appear to him in a dream and tell him what would save lives? Of course not. He doesn't want to give your life back until the Friday before his recall election, so you'll cast your vote in euphoria at your newly regained freedom. He's pulling the election forward and delaying the reopening as long as he can get away with. Which he's judging based on signals you and I are sending, especially very public ones like what we wear on our faces.
Civic responsibility demands more than acquiescing to Dr. Fauci or other supposed authorities. It more often demands the opposite: standing up for citizens' rights and responsibilities, and pushing back when authorities sooner or later try to infringe them. Even when they have the best intentions and really good-sounding, urgent reasons like "millions are about to die!" Of course they're going to have good-sounding reasons, they're professional politicians. They're going to have even better-sounding reasons next time.
So the problem facing me and millions of other people is that we can no longer trust our neighbors. I'm surrounded by people obsessing over imaginary COVID externalities yet oblivious to the social and economic wreckage all around them and dumbly inviting more of it. With a vaccine available for months to anyone who needs it or cares to get it, mask fetishism has entered the realm of superstition.
I don't accept it. You have a right to breathe, even if someone else is convinced that will cause bad things to happen. Likewise you have a right to earn a living, to run a business, to see family and friends.
My fellow San Franciscans, we have set ourselves up for trouble. We failed the test in 2020 and lost sight of our civic values. The consequences will be playing out for years to come, not least because we've established a precedent that government can get away with anything if it calls it "science." Are you obediently waiting for Gavin Newsom's permission to get on with your life, which he says he'll grant in just two weeks? That's what we were told a year ago. Maybe it's time to reclaim your civil liberties and rethink your relationship to the supposed experts.
In the meantime, quit screaming at people and take that goddamn diaper off your face. You're not a savior, you're a civic hazard, and a rude one at that.