COVID-1984? Examining Accusations of Authoritarianism in Pandemic Safety Measures

Black Lives Matters protestors marching in Pleasanton, CA in June of 2020. All are wearing face-masks—are all sheeple to a new Big Brother? Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo

“You fucking Nazi,” the young man said to me.

He was about my height, skinny, and wore a backwards billed cap over his shoulder-length hair. In another world, maybe we could have been friends—but not now, not at this moment in history. For, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the young man had gone against my store’s policy and refused to properly wear his mask.

To his credit, he did at least cover his mouth, but (as was not acceptable) he had left it just beneath his nose, exposing two-thirds of the orifices necessary for the transmission of a virus that had at this time killed over half-a-million Americans. He was in line for my register when one of my coworkers, an older woman with too much to risk in any serious confrontation, had told him to pull up the mask. He refused, and when he did my coworker made sure I was aware of it, and that I would take care of the situation.

I had asked him nicely and again, he refused. Foolishly I went off-script (I was a new hire at the time), and things fell into a shouting match. He was on his way out the door when he made the Nazi comparison, and having the history that I do of failing to be the bigger person, I turned to him, made the gesture of tears coming out of my eyes, and said:

“Oh yeah, sure, dude. Boo-hoo. I’m a fucking Nazi because you won’t just wear a mask.”

His eyes narrowed, no doubt thrown-off a bit by my remark. He responded in kind:

“Why are you so butthurt, faggot?” and strolled out the door.

This was weeks ago, maybe even months at this point, and while I would like to think that maybe the young man, in calling me both a Nazi and a faggot, was trying to make some commentary on the link between the attraction to fascism among individuals with repressed sexual urges, it is more than likely that he was just a homophobic asshole. 

I have become obsessed with our encounter, playing it out in my head every day-after-day ever since. I spend showers, bike rides, and even other shifts at work thinking of top-notch comebacks that will likely go undelivered forever (the young man seemed like an out-of-towner, but even if not I doubt he’ll come back anytime soon). I have holstered in my head, should I ever see him again, a whole magazine of silver-tongued bullets that when fired would disable his ignorance upon impact, leaving an exit-wound that could only properly heal with critical introspection and a very very hard sociopolitical pivot.

I know this is wishful thinking, and it would be wrong of me to not admit that there is another reason why my episode with this young man has stuck with me as much as it has: there is some part of me that is worried that he is right—that I, in order to curb what I am convinced is a great existential danger to humanity, belong to the wrong side of history, and that my methods have gone too far.

Before and still during this pandemic, I had and still do think of myself as a sincere proponent of personal liberties. I believe in free speech, the open and free expression of an individual’s sexual and gender identities, and would readily agree to the legalization of several Schedule I controlled substances. At the height of my libertarian inclinations, when in high school I rebelled from my left-leaning background, I would have even supported a cake shop owner’s right to refuse customers, and one of my favorite mantras at the time was that famous quote by Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

So, is it then not entirely hypocritical of me to support COVID safety measures? How can I, for the sake of security (curbing the infection and death rate of the virus) forsake the liberty (the right to wear or not wear a mask, to congregate en masse) of myself and others without at all undergoing some great inner turmoil in holding these ostensibly contradictory positions?

The answer is that I don’t; I don’t ignore the dissonance. I am fully aware of just how at-odds my beliefs are, and it is something that I have had to grapple with on a now-daily basis since this pandemic began.

Maybe you are like me. Maybe you also recognize this slippery slope that we are teetering over, us self-proclaimed lovers of liberty who may be letting the government have too much influence over their lives. If you are like me, then hopefully you recognize that this slippery slope is one carved in fallacy. But merely acknowledging that fallacy and dismissing it outright would itself be an action based in fallacy (the fallacy fallacy). So, then, allow me to refute at-length the ridiculous comparisons made between those who follow COVID protocols, and the most reprehensible of authoritarians.

Let me begin by addressing that young man’s initial insult: that I, in asking that my store’s policy be enforced, was (or acting like) a Nazi. Note that I am emphasizing the role that a superior authority held in this exchange, in this case the store at which I work. Whether or not I supported the young man not properly wearing his mask (I did not) is irrelevant; by asking him to put up his mask, to do so like all others, I was simply doing my job.

My position then eerily rested upon something comparable to the “Nuremberg defense,” a type of court plea exemplified in its use by literal Nazis on trial for war crimes. Paraphrasing from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the defense would look something like: “I don’t hold anything personal against Jews, I was simply doing my job.”

So, I was just doing my job, and Nazis were just doing theirs. Therefore I am a Nazi. Right?

Wrong. This is a false analogy, itself a form of fallacious thinking where there is some similarity between one thing and another, and based on that one similarity we (wrongly) infer that there are additional similarities. So, while I did literally share the same mindset of a Nazi, it cannot be ignored that there is a moral gulf between what I am contributing towards and what the Nazis were able to accomplish. 

But these sorts of arguments are probably a bit more conceptual than what the young man likely had in mind. There is a far more tangible and tokenable comparison to be made between the COVID-cautious and Nazism: that of mask mandates and the implementation of yellow star badges.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) recently described a grocery store’s decision to identify its vaccinated employees as akin to the Nazi instrumentation of yellow star badges. It was a thoughtless remark, oblivious to historical context, gravity, and reality itself. The Auschwitz Museum condemned Greene’s comments as a symptom of societal “intellectual decline.”

Though since Medieval times Jews were ordered by various higher authorities to wear distinguishing articles of clothing, this practice is most famously exemplified by the use of yellow star badges throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. This forced dress code placed upon the Jewish people was just one factor in a robust social machine that the Nazis engineered to dehumanize their victims.

Undoubtedly grossly simplified, the analogy between mask mandates and yellow star ordinances is quite clear: both are “forced” measures, requiring citizens to don articles of clothing that they otherwise wouldn’t wear. Comply, or be denied certain freedoms. Mask-wearing is immoral for the same reason the yellow badge was immoral.

This comparison falls apart when we consider the breadth of these measures. Mask-wearing, at least in theory, was meant to be an indiscriminate practice. When the young man complained to me about wearing his mask, I was not in some asymmetric position of privilege against him—I was also wearing mine, my coworkers and the other customers theirs.

The yellow star badge, however, was always and in its inception a tool to alienate and ostracize. It was a target, not a shield, meant to pinpoint not protect. 

Of course this defense can now easily be thrown into question given recent CDC announcements that the fully vaccinated can forgo such precautions like mask-wearing. Now, suddenly, there is a divide. Is this a part of some grand government conspiracy to dehumanize the unvaccinated and obstinate?

Likely not, and even with these new differences in the guidances for those vaccinated and unvaccinated, it is foolish to compare the latter to the Jews of Nazi Europe. And that is because those still unvaccinated have a choice. If they would like to stop wearing masks (which, speaking practically, I have no doubt that scores of them already have), then they can go and get vaccinated. For free. It is up to them should they not want to feel forced into anything any longer, but Jews living under Nazism could never escape their heritage.

So far I’ve dealt with the young man’s calling me a “Nazi” quite literally, and that is perhaps a bit uncharitable of me. “Nazi,” after all, is something of a poster-child term for all general instances of fascism, and unfair and unjust exercises of authority. And while actual Nazi transgressions are easily identifiable, the fascism of today sustains itself on its insidiousness.

Any Nazi who is actually serious about meeting their ends would not be so transparent. These are modern times, and to point at the actions of those from decades (almost a century) past, is in a way seriously obtuse. These are modern times, and are thus worthy of far more modern paradigms.

Enter the PATRIOT Act; or Five Eyes; or Five Eyes Plus Three Against Russia and China; or Nine; or Fourteen; or ANY NUMBER of the ever-enumerating broad-scope government surveillance programs both domestic and international. They are the best representation in our times of the often egregious measures, both feared and realized, that a sovereign authority will take against the common people.

And the comparison between these symbols of gross government infringement and COVID restrictions is quite obvious: both are designed to confront an oftentimes invisible enemy, one that hides among the masses until it strikes, when it may very well be too late to stop it. Defeating this ubiquitous menace might then require some of us to forsake our privacy; our choices; our liberty.

Some. The operative word here is some, and my counterpoint against this comparison remains the same as to one I made previously: there is an aspect of asymmetry at work here in these spy networks. The wiretaps, the meta data sweeps—these tools used on the unprivileged are not reciprocated against the very government officials who approve them. There is an imbalance in this dynamic, much unlike the aforementioned indiscriminate span of COVID safety protocols; it is asymmetry that is at the root of all abuse of power, not umbrella mandates.

Writing on this topic as much as I have now, I realize why the young man’s comments have stuck with me as long as they have: they were just so… reductive in nature. They didn’t involve any serious examinations of their propositions, and now in his absence I’ve done all of the young man’s critical thinking for him (and maybe for some of you, too).

I can’t stand reductivism. It’s too close a cousin to ignorance, and that will kill us all long before COVID gets the chance.

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