“Suddenly, I felt a need to see beneath the mask. I wanted to know the face of the voice, and, with a movement I was utterly unable to control, swiftly my fingers tore away the mask. Oh, horror, horror, horror.”
Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera (1911)
There were, perhaps, twenty people at yesterday’s faculty meeting, not counting the fakers who were dozing behind their profile pictures on Zoom. Masked men and women were in the majority by a ratio of nine to one, this again not counting those hidden by digital prophylaxis. At the same time, daily positive covid tests in this county are running at a ratio of seven positives to a population of 100,000.
The CDC tells us that the actual infection rate is about four times the rate of positive tests, so I will raise this to twenty-eight and then round it to thirty. A resident of this county who rises from bed a healthy man would therefore seem to have a 0.03 percent chance of lying down that night with covid coursing through his veins. We are testing the outer limits of my statistical knowledge, but I believe that his odds for a day are the same as his odds for a week, or a month, or a year. And this 0.03 percent chance assumes he is not more particular than the next fellow about personal health and hygiene.
Now the average age of the masked men and women in yesterday’s meeting is about forty. They appear reasonably healthy, are not grossly overweight, and likely enjoy whatever protection the vaccine affords. So, the chance that covid will send them to the hospital or graveyard is substantially lower than the county average. But even if we peg their risk at the county average, the chance they will be sent to the hospital and or graveyard by something other than covid is presently ten times greater than the chance they will be sent to one or both of these places by the virulent virus from Hell.
And yet they wear the mask.
All of these people are, I should add, far better statisticians than I. But even so, if my calculation is even close to being correct, why don’t they clutch their hair and cry, like Shakespeare’s Philip the Bastard,
“I am amaz’d, methinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world.”*
* * * * *
I suspect that the answer is that the more-or-less useless cloth facemask has become a shibboleth; that its persistent wearers are today’s men of Gilead; and that we who have cast off our masks are today’s Ephraimites crossing the Jordan and trying to get home. Well, we all know how it went for the Ephraimites.
“If he said ‘Sibboleth,’ because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.”
An Ephraimite tongue could not pronounce the word shibboleth, and the Ephraimite lisp therefore outed the Ephraimites when the Sons of Gilead demanded that they say this treacherous word. It is said that when Americans fought the Japanese, their passwords included the letter l because it instantly outed all enemies who spoke with a Japanese tongue.
In a culture war, the enemy is not outed with a shibboleth he cannot perform, but with a shibboleth he will not perform because it is, in the twisted worldview of the enemy, impious, immoral, or degrading. It was said that the Baron D’Holbach outed Christians by asking that all visitors to his salon to “trample on the cross,”** and Christians of course had dozens of shibboleths with which to flush out secret Jews. Here a Jewish historian describes the torments Jews endured to slip out of the traps of Christian shibboleths.
“They imitated the ways and speech of their Christian neighbors; they took part in religious ceremonies which they hated; they ate food which they detested; they sprinkled themselves with holy water which made them feel inwardly defiled. To the vigilance of the Inquisition they opposed their cunning.”***
No doubt many covid realist are today gasping like stranded fish behind their masks, whether because they are cunning or they are cowards; but my impression is that the shibboleth of the mask has worked to draw a bright line between the modern sons of Gilead and the modern Ephraimites.
* * * * *
A mask normally serves to hide identity, but when the mask mandates were lifted the covid mask became a means of revelation. While the mandates were in place, some went barefaced in an act of civil disobedience or antisocial defiance, but removal of the mandates has made persistent mask-wearing a badge of Gilead. Those who would feel degraded if they wore this badge, and who are too proud or stupid to oppose the Gileadite inquisition with cunning, thus necessarily reveal themselves as Ephraimites.
It is hard not to notice that we are taking sides in a visible and ominous way.
A shibboleth is properly a means to flush out the enemy and make him show his true colors, but a shibboleth almost invariably becomes, in addition, a source of pride and group solidarity. This is because it also flushes out one’s friends and becomes one of the “true colors” of one’s own side. As such, a shibboleth becomes what is better described as a slogan. Although fixed in most people’s minds as a term of advertising, the word slogan was at first the name for the battle-cries of tribes on the border of Scotland. In the words of one of the most famous Scotts,
“His bugle Watt of Harden blew;
Pensils and pennons wide were flung,
To heaven the Border slogan rung,
‘St. Mary for the young Buccleuch!’”†
* * * * *
The mask has become a shibboleth and slogan of Gilead, a badge and battle-cry. But this is not its whole meaning because Gileadites are in a deeper sense people of the mask. They don’t blow bugles and their pensils and pennons are false flags. Like Christine in my epigraph, we Ephraimites wish to tear this mask away. We wish “to know the face of the voice” behind the mask. And when we succeed:
“Oh, horror, horror, horror.”
*) Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John (1623)
**) Abbé Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, 3 vols. (1798), vol. 1.
***) Jack M. Myers, The Story of the Jewish People, 3 vols (1922-1925), vol. 3.
†) Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), 4, 27.