“As Naomi Wolf points out, the goal of face masks is to handicap real life interactions by covering up empathic emotional expression in the physical dimension & to channel it through the digital version only, so that interactions are monetized online through data mining & ads.” Robin Monotti
“There can be no security for man on this earth, and the need for security, beyond a certain limit, is a dangerous illusion that distorts everything and makes minds dull, superficial, and stupidly satisfied.” – Simone Weil (1939)
“We’re both afraid to say we’re just too far away/ From being close together from the start/ We tried to talk it over but the words got in the way/ We’re lost inside this lonely game we play” “This Masquerade” George Benson
I went to an anti-lockdown protest and rally in my state last week. Although I’m sure the media will paint all of these as “right wing extremist” events, the reality is that the rally was far more diverse than the average masked-up neighborhood in the “woke” sections of my town. Latino, black, white, Asian, Indigenous. Many, many families with kids. People hugged, stood close together, talked, made contacts, kids played(!); and probably hundreds of cars honked in approval (car culture) as they drove past. Yes, there were provocateurs, but they couldn’t get any traction and left pretty fast. And this happened all over the world. See Tessa Lena and Alison McDowell for articles on the NYC rally in Union Square.
No one wore a mask. It is difficult to explain how this made me feel without turning maudlin on you—but there is something mysterious and necessary about face to face interaction. Something that is way more than the sum of its “parts”. Something that has to do with a door opening suddenly, when you thought you’d been locked into a room to die.
There’s an old fairy tale about a prince, so spoiled and conceited and nasty that his father, the king, despairs of him ever turning into a wise and just ruler. Leave aside for a minute the ruling class-monarchical tenor of the tale for a moment, and let it unfold. The king asks an old wise woman, a witch of course, for help. The woman says: “Give me your son for a month. During that month, do not look for him, do not ask for him. During that month you must act as if he is dead.” The king, desperate, agrees.
The old woman takes the boy—Prince Harweeda is his name—to a house in the forest. The house is large, sumptuous, richly furnished. The walls are covered with wide mirrors in golden frames—which the boy loves, because he’s in love with himself and his reflection. Windows alternate with the mirrors, but he hardly notices the windows, which look out onto the dark forest. The old woman tells him all his needs will be taken care of, and leaves him there.
And it is true. Every day, fresh, delicious food appears, wonderful clothing to try on in front of the mirrors, jewels to drape himself with, toys of all kinds. There is even a canary in a golden cage, who sings for him, morning and evening. The boy is so excited by all this new stuff that he doesn’t notice he can’t leave the house. He doesn’t even try to.
Every day the boy wakes up, eats a little but wastes most of the food, then spends his time preening before the mirrors. He doesn’t notice that the mirrors, each day, are a bit wider and the windows a bit narrower. He doesn’t notice that each day the light from the windows seems a little bit dimmer. He notices that he looks more handsome in the fading light., which pleases him. As long as he can see himself, as long as delicious food appears every day, as long as wonderful clothing sewn with purple and gold thread shows up on his dresser every morning, the Prince is fine. Maybe a little bored. But every time he gets bored, there’s a new vest or jacket to try on, a new golden toy to beguile him–as if his every desire is known and taken care of, without the bother of asking.
This goes on for a day, a week, two, three. The light gets dimmer and dimmer. “This is the life!” the boy thinks, “free from my idiot father’s preoccupations, free from the idiot servants looking at me with their stupid reproachful eyes.”
Free from bother, free from anything but his own reflection and his toys. And the beautiful house, which seems built purely to make him glad. Day after day. Dimmer and darker, but the boy doesn’t notice–except to note that the colors of each day’s new clothes seem less sumptuous, somehow. Grayer. It’s slightly frustrating, but quickly forgotten.
Then, one day, the boy wakes up and can’t see anything. He can’t see the mirrors, the food, the clothing. Nothing. It is completely dark in the house.
“Hey!” he calls out. “Get me some lights.” No one answers.
“Hey!” He gets out of bed and stumbles, falling to the floor. It is so dark he can’t even see the floor he’s on, or the walls that surround him. He crawls, feeling his way to the table where the food appears. His hand lands in a plate, but the food is too soft, as if rotten, and falls apart at his touch. “Hey!” he yells. “Get me some lights! And some food! You can’t expect me to eat this stuff!” No one answers.
The boy makes his way to the wall where the windows were, wondering why they don’t let in any light. But the wall feels smooth, as if it is nothing but mirror. He bangs on it, thinking if he breaks it, someone will have to come. But it doesn’t break. The boy yells again and bangs the mirrored wall, sure that someone will come. He’s so used to having all his needs met without having to ask, that he can only think of the horrific punishments he’s going to order his father to mete out to the idiots who neglected his breakfast and took away the lights.
No one comes. The boy bangs and screams. And he feels something new: fear. He screams louder, bangs until he’s exhausted. He starts to cry real tears, not tears of anger, but tears of fear and sadness. The fear turns to terror, desperation. He hits the wall and screams and cries until his voice fails, until he falls to the floor, unable to move. He lies there for a very long time, shuddering. Alone.
Except, he’s not alone. After a long time, he hears a tiny sound. A very weak chirp.
The canary. He’s forgotten the canary! She must be hungry, trapped in the cage! The canary must be frightened and sad! The boy struggles to his feet. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “just tell me where you are…”
It seems that something pierces the dark, just a little. There’s a little bit of gray light, or maybe he’s imagining it. He feels his way to where the cage was, and, yes, he can even see it. He can see the pale little bird, lying on the bottom of the cage. He opens the cage and takes her into his hand.
Holding the bird close to his heart, the boy gropes to the table where the food used to appear. He finds a pitcher and pours water into a saucer, gives it to the canary. The canary drinks, slowly. The boy finds some fruit, rotten, yes, but it’s what he has. He breaks off a piece for the canary. At first she doesn’t take it. “Please,” he whispers, “please eat.” Finally, she takes a bit. The boy begins to cry with happiness..
There’s more light. Or is he imagining it? He can see the canary take the piece of fruit, he can see her open her wings a little. he can even see the color of the fruit. He takes a bit himself. To his surprise, it tastes good—better than anything he’s ever had. He looks around. He can see the walls. The windows are narrow, but big enough for a canary. He doesn’t even notice the mirrors.
“You can go free, even if I can’t,” he tells the bird. “This is for strength.” He gives her more fruit and water. Then he carries her over to one of the windows. Is it wider than it was before, or is he imagining it? He can see the whole room now, new clothes laid out on his divan, dim sparkle in the light from the windows. But he’s not interested in the clothes. He carries the canary to the window. She’s stronger and stronger, hopping along his hand, up his arm. She begins to sing. The boy pauses, because he’s never heard such music. But that can’t be right, didn’t she used to sing before everything went dark?
The boy struggles with the window latch, it seems rusted in places, as if it hasn’t been opened in generations. But it finally gives.
Trees, grass, sky, flowers, birds singing. Had they been here all along and he’d never seen them? Never noticed where he was? He wipes his eyes again—why cry over all this beauty? Beauty that has nothing to do with fine clothes and dishes and golden furniture?
“Go,” he says to the canary. “Go find someone to sing to, someone who won’t put you in a cage.” The little bird hops down his arm, pauses on the windowsill, then flies; disappears into green and gold and blue. The boy begins to sob. Crying, he falls to his knees. “She’s free!” he cries. “She’s happy!”
And at that moment, the windows and door fly open, light floods the room. The boy can see that it’s nothing but a poor peasant’s cabin: rough walls, dirt floor, a humble cot with straw mattress. Who cares, it is beautiful. The canary is free. The forest is wondrous, full of the hum of insects, the calls of bird and beast, the secret humor of trees and plants.
For me, that’s where the tale should end.
But of course there’s the obligatory happy ever after. The old woman comes and tells the king to go and find the boy–that he’s now a good, compassionate, person. The king is overjoyed, brings Prince Harweeda back to the castle, Harweeda eventually turns into a just and bountiful ruler, remembering always the first moments when he cared for someone other than himself. And so on and so forth.
But the real point, the real opening, is the prince’s first feeling of compassion for the bird. And the second is that he lets the bird go free, even when he doesn’t think he’ll ever go free.
That’s how it felt to me to see people going without masks, gathering peacefully and without fear, after a year of brutal psy-ops and shaming and fear mongering. Like a window opened in a dark stuffy room. After a year in which the poor and working class have grown poorer, have suffered disproportionately, and the rich have gotten richer—Walmart, Amazon, Target, Facebook, etc. A year in which the oligarchs and the compliant media have intensified the divisive rhetoric, dividing us into two camps: the Zoomers (upper-middle class mostly) who buy into the need to keep masked up and locked down and looking into their Zoom mirrors in the name of “protecting” people, (thus enabling the oligarchs to destroy small businesses and put more and more people at risk of the dire consequences, health very much included, of poverty); and the poor and working class stuck in their cages, or thrust into the streets, starving to death.
Poverty kills. Poverty and its effects kill more people each year than any particular illness, and certainly more than Covid-19, which has a survival rate of 99.8% in most people. Poverty also replicates itself, so that, in the capitalist USA especially, once you fall into it, it is very very hard, almost impossible, for you, your children, or their children to escape it. Lockdowns kill. Even the WHO and the UN have recognized that the lockdowns in the name of “stopping the spread” are unprecedented and unwarranted, and do more harm than good. The numbers show they don’t work—places, like Florida, Sweden and Nicaragua, who didn’t really lock down, have the same covid case numbers, or LESS, than places with heavy lockdowns. But the media tells us—don’t look at that, because even looking at those numbers means you are a heartless deplorable. No, if you are “responsible” you must keep staring at the screen mirror and don’t question it. Stay on zoom, while the canaries starve. At least they’re “safe” from covid while they starve to death. And of course, wear a mask, and, more importantly, shame others into wearing one—especially children.
That way you can’t see their desperation.
And you can’t see your own indifference to any suffering that is not media sanctioned, not fed to you via a screen.
And you can’t see the coming darkness.
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. . . what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak in you, the heavenly growth will die away in you. Then you will be indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, “Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zossima”.