The chief cultural emblem of our times is this: Wearing a mask. Or not.

These low-tech, high-impact, low-cost coverings are so simple and effective at helping reduce the COVID-19 infection rate that our top political leaders’ failure to produce, distribute, and require them en masse when the pandemic first spread ranks somewhere between stupid and criminal. But while our “leaders” failed, the people themselves have led, rapidly turning homemade mask-making into a booming cottage industry and a charitable act.

Meanwhile, though, big corporations rushed out like masked thieves to exploit the crisis. Even as their lobbyists shoved to the front of the line to grab billions in public relief funds meant for small Main Street businesses, they churned out touchie-feelie PR campaigns portraying Amazon warehouses, Heafty trash bags, McDonald’s fries, and Walmart’s forced-to-work clerks as the epitome of all-in-this-together Americanism. Their message in this global pandemic is that what unites us as a people is crass commercialism – so buy something from us!

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Then there are the billionaire-funded, right-wing political fronts that are protests against – wait for it – masks. Yes, the Koch brothers’ network and others laissez-faire extremists are intentionally trying to divide Americans in this time of national crisis by demonizing, of all things, mask wearing! Confusing patriotism with nutballism, some self-proclaimed Patrick Henrys now feel entitled to trample on America’s Common Good. Loudly proclaiming that being asked to make a minor, temporary, life-saving wardrobe adjustment is pure tyranny, they freely breathe their Covid infections into our public air, often while mocking and even assaulting retail employees, bus drivers, and others who’re just trying to get everyone to live and let live.

In this strange time, the modest mask has become a complex social symbol of competing acts of generosity, greed, and goofiness. The good news is that generosity is prevailing over the other two.

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