Politics Opinion

An elegy to masks and why mine stays on

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Face masks are becoming less mandatory across Australia (image via YouTube)

Tom Tanuki on why he's keeping the mask on as COVID recedes. 

THIS WEEK, I passed a television airing breathless coverage about the removal of the last bastion of visual pandemic-era restrictions: no more masks on public transport. Masks over! Seemed to be a big fanfare about it. As I passed by that television screen in public, I had my mask on. I think, to be frank, that I’m not really interested in getting this particular memo. I’ve become a bit haphazard about wearing my mask from time to time, I admit, but on the whole: I will not, to quote my conspiracist pals, comply.

Now that we’ve given up on the thing we always got so damned wrong, I’m looking back at how poorly we grappled with the question of masks in Australia.

I lived in Japan for a while in the 2000s. During winter their trains are filled with people wearing masks. A Japanese friend explained the logic to me back then: “They’re mostly wearing them because they’re sick, or might be. They don’t want to infect everyone else".

That seemed intuitive enough. I was lucky to learn about masks in a culture that understood them and at a time that wasn’t broadly panicky and fear-inducing.

I feel bad for anyone who had to think about masks for the first time during March 2020, because we had a lot on our plate, to put it mildly. We were also learning about a global pandemic. The temporary shutdown of all trade, travel and traffic. "Flattening the curve". Intubation. Jobkeeper. Jobseeker. COVID toe. Tiger King. Cats and tigers contracting COVID. And, meanwhile, a pervasive sense of the inexorable march of death toward our door.

For many people the loudest lot reached them first: foghorns yammering about how masks are a communist compliance tool, or how they put CO2 inside of you! That kind of thing is folk wisdom: as in, it’s mostly rubbish, but feels just scary enough to worry about anyway. These exciting, scary lies about masks spread faster than plain information did.

The Australian conversation about masks never really progressed beyond how much magical protection they’d offer me, anyway. Just me, personally. We didn’t really want to imagine that we could be the sick one, doing everyone else a solid by wearing a mask. Never us. It’s that other guy. I always took this to mean that we are culturally more selfish. I’m a pessimist about the state of Australians, to be fair.

More cause for pessimism: we became a sickening snitch culture over COVID. People would record media of people not wearing masks in public situations, castigating them at the time or just uploading footage of their face to shame them. Anti-maskers adopted the same strategy as mandates waned. I still see conspiracists uploading footage of some poor mug in a shopping centre with a mask on. They’re "sheep". They still want to "comply". Everyone dobs each other to settle some score with their perceived political opponents.  That’s my lasting memory of Australians during the pandemic.

I went to an anti-lockdown rally in 2020 to record all the funny signs. I was quizzed about my facial cloth a lot. One lady asked me what the hell I was doing there wearing a mask. I told her: “I’m a political activist. I want to avoid the cameras being able to identify me. Masks do that. The government can’t identify your face so easily when you wear a mask.” A lightbulb moment changed her expression. (I bet one solid month of conspiracist Telegram rubbish cured her of her brief revelatory moment.)

The idea that I must explain to would-be activists that masks help you hide from cameras is a very COVID-era kind of brain rot. I come from an earlier generation of activist. I recall the Coburg rally of 2016, where anti-fascists fought in the street with ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. The tabloid media howled in indignation: “If you wear a mask you're a coward! If you really believed what you say you'd show your face". More folk wisdom.

Nobody at News Corp was telling people that anti-fascists also wear masks to protect themselves against being doxxed and stalked by lunatic Nazis. But it was more useful to have people believe this folk wisdom, because it raised peoples’ appetite for what VicPol did next: ban face masks. Many of us campaigned against that at the time; we were terrified of the consequences it would have for activists on the ground.

Now we’re in an ever-consolidating era of surveillance capitalism. An era of masks suddenly becoming normalised seemed, to the activist in me, like the rarest of blessings. Suddenly it’s fine for me to wear masks in public, and reduce scrutiny from passing-by cameras, political opponents and more? What, I can just get about my day in 2022 with an optional shred of privacy afforded to me? What a gift!

There almost – almost – existed a time when anti-lockdown movement might have had this realisation.  They used to have an anti-5G faction, which dwindled over time. That faction got stuck in a rabbit hole of organite crystals and EMF radiation detectors, but somewhere buried in the conspiracies was a legitimate concern over functional 5G networks: the potential for a significantly bolstered state surveillance apparatus.

In a 2020 conversation for my now-dormant political podcast, I spoke to Dr Kaz Ross about a shopping centre in China where a 5G promotional display showed shoppers their own ID on a large screen as they entered their name, date of birth, basic details. That’s a terrifying threat, to me. All it requires is that a state’s legislated surveillance power matches the technology on offer, as is the case in China.

But this never did occur to the "anti-government", "non-compliant" anti-lockdown movement. Instead, they made a sacred cow out of refusing the one item that might have helped many of them escape charges and additional police scrutiny. I spoke before about useful items of folk wisdom, that prepare the sheep to lead themselves to the slaughter. The anti-mask obsession was as useful as folk wisdom gets. It was possibly the stupidest decision of that movement, and they really did a lot of stupid stuff.

Now everyone’s taking their masks off. They’re exhausting perhaps the last opportunity they’ll ever get to meagrely defend against the surveillance capitalist panopticon. We rarely act in our own best interests.

I’m not taking mine off any time soon. It’s a helpful bit of cloth to wear when so many of you lot are sick.  And I myself could be sick, so I figure I’m doing you a solid. But I’m also not doing it because I don’t know who’s watching me. I like privacy. Celebrate your "end of the pandemic" how you like, but if you’re exposing yourself against your own best interests – which you are – you’ll be celebrating without me.

Tom Tanuki is a writer, satirist and anti-fascist activist. Tom does weekly videos on YouTube commenting on the Australian political fringe. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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