An Anonymous Anti-Masker, Deep in the Vermont Woods – The New Yorker

Posted By on September 21, 2020

Sometimes, when I talk to people about my work on climate change, theyll ask, How do you keep from being depressed all the time? I usually offer some variation of I live in the woods, and so I go for a hike most days, and that helps. Which is more or less true: I do live in the woods, and I do go for hikes, and it does often help. At the very least, it keeps me off the Internet for a time, which may be a reasonable approximation to mental hygiene in the twenty-first century.

Last week, I set off, with my dog, for a two-hour hike up a trail Ive taken a hundred times before. It rises steeply through the woods until it connects to the Long Trail, a north-south hiking path that stretches the length of Vermont. I was meandering along, admiring the first hints of fall color on the maples, when my eye was caught by what looked like a handful of little yellow labels tacked to the smooth skin of a young beech tree. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were tags of the sort youd see at the bottom of a flyer posted outside a shop, except that, instead of offering dog-walking services or enrollment in a trial of a new medicine, they bore the words Facemask Exemptions Facemask Science and the URL for a video featuring a doctor.

Im not going to tell you the doctors name or link to his video, but its No. 708 (!) in a series that also includes anti-vax messages. It posits that face-mask laws are the result of letting people with no educational requirements whatsoeverbureaucrats, legislators, governors, etc. make the rules. In the past, the doctor says, when there have been actual outbreaks of true infectious diseases, you quarantined the diseased, not the entire population. This attack on the worlds healthy population shows how docile we have all becomeeven in Las Vegas, where he had just sojourned for a week, and where, he claimed, even though there was no mandate (there is), thirty per cent of the people were still walking around with their masks on. He expresses outrage that the lowliest bag clerk in the grocery store has now been elevated to the rank of junior G-man.... Minimum wage and I get to join Youth for Hitler. And so on, for twenty-nine minutes and forty-nine seconds. If only everyone would ignore the mask mandate, think how much better our lives would be today, he concludes, before urging viewers to catch his next video, about the evils of contact tracing.

Material like this does real damagethe flyer sent me to watch the video on a service called BitChute, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have described as a locus of racist, anti-Semitic content. (Its where Alex Jones and InfoWars retreated to when YouTube had finally had enough.) Such videos also serve as a transmission mechanism for massive quantities of scientific disinformation. Millions of people have used the site to view Plandemic, a documentary that insists that Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could sell you the vaccine.

But I confess that I was disturbed less by the content of the video than by the fact that someone had taken the time to post ads for it along a lightly used trail through a federally designated wilderness in backwoods Vermont. Every few hundred yards, I found another little cluster of the tags tacked to another treetheyd only been there a day or two, because the last rainfall hadnt touched them. I did my best to collect all of them, but I bet I missed some; in any event, my hike was not the restful escape from the worlds cares that Id been counting on. Instead, I was right back in the world. It reminded me of the plans that resurface from time to time to beam ads onto the surface of the moon, making them visible to half the residents of the Earth at any given moment. (If that ever happens, Im moving underground.)

And it made me reflect anew on just how incredibly hard it is for anything useful to happen in our country right now. Between the President tweeting (sometimes a hundred times a day), Fox News shouting nightly, and Facebook serving as a right-wing echo chamber, its no wonder that weve become confused about basic facts. Do masks help? In the right-wing world, they didnt, until the President said that they did. Are vaccines a useful addition to the modern world? The President used to have his doubts, but now he seems to be pinning his relection on one. Government agencies have become founts of misinformationeven the C.D.C. has apparently knuckled under, granting the White House the right to review information that it sends to health professionals.

This is not, of course, new. Weve delayed action on the climate crisis for decades as a result of campaigns of organized lying. But in that case there was a profit motive: the goal was to keep the business model of the oil industry alive for a few more decades, even at the cost of breaking the planet. This other kind of freelance falsehood is more baffling. And its not entirely confined to the right. In Vermont, outbreaks of measles in past years tended to center on small, independent schools favored by people who would count themselves as environmentalists and progressives but dont trust doctors about vaccines. (The Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics asked me to make a video a few years ago, trying to convince such people thatwell, that science is good. I was happy to do it, but I did feel as if Id been called to explain that gravity meant that if you leaned forward far enough youd fall on your face.)

It takes lots of patient, careful labor to make a society of any kind work. Ive written about Vermonts success in containing the coronavirus, at least compared with other areas of the country. Part of that success is attributable to high levels of public trust, which have made mask-wearing almost ubiquitous, even without a government mandateprecisely the kind of social solidarity that the wilderness pamphleteer was attempting to undercut. Weve let our governor and his bureaucrats do their jobs, and followed their advice, and its gone pretty wellat the moment, theres no one in the state hospitalized for Covid-19.

That same kind of hard work seems to be paying off in our colleges, which have not become the coronavirus hot spots that weve seen elsewhere in the nation. Middlebury College, where I work, sits down the hill from the trail where I found the flyers. It has managed to welcome back more than two thousand students, from all fifty states, with only two testing positive for COVID-19 so far; both were immediately quarantined and have now recovered. Administrators have worked for months with public-health officials to establish tight protocols; theyve had to send a few students home for disobeying the carefully worked-out rules, but for the most part the students have been champs, understanding that normal college life isnt in the cards right now. Our local public schools have begun to open without incident, though with lots of masks. Expertise actually matters; coperation in a joint task is still possible. We can do thisor, we could, if there werent constantly people insisting that somewhere there lurks a conspiracy, or the Gestapo, or George Soros.

An Anonymous Anti-Masker, Deep in the Vermont Woods - The New Yorker

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