Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

Masks Off

The Politics of Sincerity and Authenticity

Charlie Riggs

Kyle Austin/Unsplash.

Consider the mask. Not masks, mind you, but “the mask.” What is this symbol with which we have had to contend and live for the past year and a half? That mask made a distinctive appearance in our collective consciousness in 2020—as veil, as badge, as uniform, as deception, as guarantor of anonymity, as social and medical prophylactic. And, although its widespread use will depend on changing public health guidelines as well as the willingness of the public to go along with those guidelines, the mask will almost certainly continue to be an element of daily life in the long tail of the pandemic.

But even before the pandemic fully recedes, can we finally discuss the meaning of the mask without our customary moralism and habit for quick takes? Despite the noisy debates over public health and individual rights occasioned by masks, it is doubtful that we have begun to appreciate the significance of the mask on the imaginative and symbolic and historical levels required of us—required, that is to say, if we wish to transform the isolating and deadly ordeal of the pandemic experience into a generative event in our cultural life.

The mask, of course, has done more than contain the spread of the virus (and it should go without saying that it accomplishes this much). It has done what the best masks are supposed to do, which is to dramatize and symbolize. The surgical COVID-19 face mask symbolized the pandemic as a whole, and probably will do so for posterity—no less than those monstrous bird masks worn by plague doctors in the seventeenth century symbolize the great disease of that time, or than gas masks symbolize the brutality of World War I, or than the masks of Carnival have long symbolized the anarchic spirit of revelry and a world turned upside down.

In its everyday use, the mask also dramatized our political conflicts and symbolized other qualities: prudence, solidarity, and politeness to its partisans; cowardice, conformity, and effeminacy to its detractors. There was a potent symbolism, too, in not wearing a mask. In some quarters, especially at the height of the pandemic, going about in public without a mask was tantamount to wearing a MAGA hat. No image from the pandemic era has remained with me as much as the sight of Donald Trump, just released from Walter Reed Medical Center after having been treated for COVID-19, turning to face reporters on the South Lawn of the White House and removing his mask to reveal his defiant and scowling countenance. It was a fitting symbol of the Trump era: a confrontational and gratuitous display of toughness undertaken solely to cause offense to liberals, which of course it did.

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