If I had been mid-flight when the Florida court struck down the face mask rule on public transportation, I would have joined the other passengers in cheering.
And if I had been on a certain southwestern flight, I would have again applauded the call for civility from an attendant. “I demand that every passenger on my flight treat everyone with kindness and respect,” he said. “I won’t let anyone get in trouble with anyone for wearing a mask or not. It’s all up to you now. Enjoy the fresh air.”
Face mask requirements, intended to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, came into their own at some point. And I would take continuing assignments in places like the New York City subway, where I would wear a mask anyway.
But many viewed the masking rules as government oppression. When told to obey, the fools among them turned into violent children.
Designating an accessory as a symbol of coercion took a different form in France. There, the object in dispute is the hijab, a scarf worn by Muslim women to cover their hair. It has become an issue in the upcoming vote pitting right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen against current President Emmanuel Macron.
Some consider this piece of fabric as an instrument of Islamist separatism, made more formidable by the jihadist terrorist attacks of recent years. Le Pen calls it “an Islamist uniform” and a sign of female subjugation.
Macron does not play. At a campaign stop, he asked a hijab-wearing woman if she was a feminist and did she support gender equality. She answered yes and yes, to which Macron replied that it was “the best answer to all the nonsense I hear all the time”.
Underlying the headscarf controversy is an age-old French belief that religion – its paraphernalia and costumes – has no place in the public square. France already bans the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. This law extends to headscarves, yarmulkes and large crosses.
I’m not totally unsympathetic. Religion should reside in the heart and soul and not be exploited for identity politics. Displaying one’s religious affiliation through clothing is a form of signalling. But this is where I part ways with the French: I think most signals should be legal. It is a form of free expression.
The debate over Muslim head coverings can get complicated. When is a scarf a radical message and when is a silk square that Audrey Hepburn would wear while sitting on the back of a scooter?
Face masks are a different conversation in that these nose and mouth coverings serve a public health function. At the start of the pandemic, effective vaccines were non-existent and treatments for severe cases of coronavirus were hard to come by. Face masks have become one of our only defenses against debilitating disease and death.
But then demagogues made them, and later vaccinations, emblems of coercion. Their arguments have degenerated, to borrow from Macron, into a form of stupidity, often with tragic consequences.
And so we have the recent death of DJ Kay Slay at age 55. The radio and rap star beamed with tenacity, saying things like, “Cats know it’s not forbidden with me.” The unvaccinated Slay may very well have thought “COVID won’t kill me fabulous.” But he did it after torturing him for several months on a hospital ventilator.
Back in the friendlier skies, passengers handed over their masks to attendants as part of a celebration. Okay, but let’s also salute the good citizens who wore them, rather than giving airline workers a hard time.
Historians can marvel at how masks and scarves became weapons for political warfare. We might have to live with it, but better manners might soften the edges.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To learn more about Froma Harrop and read articles from other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: 3773230 on Pixabay