What I learned from an unlikely friendship with an anti-masker – The Guardian
Frank’s views were disturbing, a brazen assertion of white privilege. But with our fates more clearly tied together than ever, I needed to understand him
Last modified on Tue 24 Aug 2021 17.34 BST
On 11 March 2021, I took a selfie at the Baltimore Convention Center and pressed send. I’d just received my first dose of a Covid vaccine. “Feels pretty momentous,” I texted an acquaintance. “It was exactly one year ago that our university shut down.” Frank wrote back immediately from his small town in southern Michigan. “Momentous, yes. But not for the reasons you subscribe to,” he wrote.
Frank and I met in 2017 when I began pursuing fieldwork, as an anthropologist, in American conservative circles. I’ve been to his town in Michigan, he’s visited me in Baltimore, we’ve exchanged hundreds of texts – both reflective and combative – over the years.
For me, the vaccine promised freedom from worry, a way to avoid endangering myself and everyone I encountered. For Frank, it meant something else: “compliance, control and capitulation”. He singled out the face mask in the photo I sent. “I truly detest pictures with face diapers on. At your age, are you seriously that scared of this?”
He mocked the idea of vaccination (“Why would I get a vaccine for a cold that I’m 99.9% sure to survive?”), and told me about a recent gathering in his town: “Lots and lots of people, hugging, shaking hands, everyone mingling. Almost like a real free America … almost.”
Throughout the pandemic, Frank and I have sent each other glimpses of our respective lives. His cheery videos last year of unmasked people clustered closely indoors looked like nihilism to me. Meanwhile, when looking at pictures of my masked life in Baltimore, he saw a heedless slide into a totalitarian culture.
We face each other across the chasm of polarization, the growing tendency to disparage those across the political aisle as enemies and villains. The distrust is corrosive, the temptation to turn away all too inviting. But as the latest surge of Covid cases attests, our fates remain hitched together, even when we can’t stand talking to each other. Whether Covid, the climate crisis, or the future of democracy, our very survival depends on nurturing a sense of common fate.
Vaccines and face masks have been turned into highly partisan commitments, making it hard to see those who choose otherwise as anything but senseless and unhinged. In my line of work, I have learned it takes patience and imagination to unravel what people truly care about. Anthropologists try to meet people with as much empathy and understanding as we can muster, even in the face of profound disagreement.
This is why I began traveling around the US after the 2016 election. I was alarmed by the menacing tone that conservative politics had taken, and I wanted to understand why this mood appealed so widely. Frank and I first crossed paths this way – but little did I know at the time, how much would hang on the simple question of whether we could get along.
Frank and I met at FreedomFest, an annual libertarian conference and conservative cultural festival in Las Vegas. It quickly became obvious that we hardly agreed on anything. I was disturbed by speakers who ridiculed a livable minimum wage. He talked about the high school kids who worked for him in southern Michigan, and high wages as a ticket to inertia.
Over drinks one evening, I asked a bartender for a drink without a straw, explaining I was concerned about disposable plastic. “I love plastic,” Frank responded with a mischievous smile.
Frank had been a wrestler in high school, and clearly both he and I enjoyed the verbal jousting. We kept in touch. Later that summer, I visited his town for a few days, and learned more about his life. Frank’s father had been a tool and die maker at an auto plant. Unable to afford college, Frank floated around for a few years, working oilfields in North Dakota, selling vacuum cleaners in Texas, keeping bees with a friend. A restaurant he started finally took off; now, he is still opening new places in his 50s, and putting his earnings into new properties.
“I’ve got shit everywhere,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh as he drove me around his town. “I think it comes from being poor. It’s like Monopoly – you just want to collect what you can before you lose it all.”
Frank and I are each committed to ways of living that the other finds reckless. He prides himself on being an American capitalist, and scoffs at the idea our economy might propel climate change, rightwing political violence or impossible degrees of inequality.
I, meanwhile, no doubt fit his stereotype of the oblivious college professor, lecturing privileged kids about utopian futures while freedoms crumble around us. He has chided me for this. “You are elite. You had a much better shot at the American dream than I ever did. Yet you give in to the totalitarians.”
“Why do you bother writing, if folks like me feel like such a problem to you?” I asked.
“Just clutching at straws,” he replied. “Trying to open up eyes, mostly to no avail.”
I’ve heard many a tirade from Frank about “handouts” and the welfare state, but he is also generous in his way. He’s flown out from Michigan at the drop of a hat to help distribute food to hurricane victims, or to stack sandbags against an impending flood. He dismisses the risks of a coronavirus infection, but he’s also donated thousands of dollars to small restaurants ailing under lockdown.
So much seems to depend on the lines we draw, what we feel we owe to others within and beyond those boundaries. “I’m good with dividing the country,” Frank declares. “One side gets the west and one side gets the east. We are self-sufficient. Your side is not.”
“Whether it’s capital or labor, land, air or water, we’re stuck together, left and right,” I reply. “We do in fact need each other.”
This has become, for us, a familiar impasse. He tends to distinguish between those worthy and unworthy of concern. I worry about what falls into the crevices of such divides.
As the pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, my Facebook feed grew dense with confusion and alarm. Frank’s did too, but for different reasons. I anxiously tracked the development of an international crisis; Frank pieced together evidence of an unfolding “plandemic”. I noticed this only by taking a deliberate look at what he was sharing online. Social media platforms feed each of us what we’re most likely to want, deepening the tension between rival viewpoints.
Frank was especially furious about the restrictions imposed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in his home state of Michigan. That April, he drove into Lansing with thousands of others, jamming the streets around the capitol for hours. One of the first anti-lockdown protests in the US, “Operation Gridlock” foreshadowed more violent events to come: an armed occupation of the statehouse, and even an alleged foiled plot to kidnap the governor.
“It was the worst traffic I’ve ever seen,” Frank chuckled on the phone, two days later.
His business had shifted to takeout sales, but others were folding, and he foresaw an economic disaster. “I’m good with 200,000 people dying,” Frank told me flatly that day, insisting that a depression would bring more pain.
Over the next few months, we argued regularly by text.
I tried to convince him the virus was serious, that masks were meant to protect others more than oneself. I showed him the sign my family had put up in front of our house for Halloween: “No Masks, No Candy.”
“That’s sad, perpetuating the fear,” Frank replied, sending a different image my way: a sketch of an enslaved 18th-century Afro-Brazilian woman named Anastacia, mask over her mouth and a collar around her neck, an offensive image that has circulated widely as an anti-masking meme. “That’s what we did to slaves to show who controlled whom.”
A middle-aged white man, Frank often used such language to decry mask mandates: being shackled, muzzled. “Your side enslaved me and my family.”
“It’s hardly the same,” I had to say. I wrote to him about the history of racism in the United States, describing things that even my own Indian American immigrant family had endured. “Slavery is not a metaphor, it was a historical fact with effects that echo today.”
“You know exactly what I mean,” Frank replied. “It is humiliating. It is emasculating. And it’s all based on a lie.”
I found what he said preposterous and disturbing, a brazen assertion of white privilege. But his claims were anchored in a steady stream of rightwing media pronouncements that lent them legitimacy. Conservative politicians had even turned George Floyd’s dying words – “I can’t breathe” – into an anti-masking gibe.
Floyd’s harrowing last words catalyzed one of the biggest solidarity movements in the history of the US. But elsewhere, social media was working to inoculate people like Frank against the power of these words, sowing indifference instead of concern: an inability to register the experience of others unlike oneself.
“I need the boot off my neck,” he kept telling me.
Those whom I’ve met on the American right through my research have taken different paths over the last five years. Some have broken in disgust with Trump and the Republican party. Others, like Frank, have dug in for the fight.
Soon after the lockdowns began, Frank got a yellow rattlesnake tattoo, along with that familiar rallying cry, “Don’t Tread on Me.” His social media posts grew angrier than I’d ever seen them. He was convinced the panic over the virus was manufactured to perpetrate political fraud and steal the presidential election.
Frank and a friend drove to DC for Trump’s “Stop The Steal” rally on 6 January. “I will never stand at a Fourth of July parade and pretend to be free again,” he wrote me on the way.
The next morning, he joined thousands of others at the rally, which he described as “massive and peaceful”. Instead of marching to the Capitol, he headed back to Michigan.
We’d been glued to a screen at home, watching what unfolded with horror. “This is the seat of government. It looks like an insurrection at the capital,” I texted.
“Maybe an insurrection is what it’s gonna take,” he shot back.
Frank wouldn’t condone the violence at the Capitol. But he also wanted me to understand why people were so angry. “Treat me like a child, you expect me not to be pissed?!
“Every day is a punch in the face with you guys. From fucking straws, to sodas, to not smoking in my own restaurant, to seatbelts, to threatening my guns, to forcing me to wear a mask … Every fucking day, it’s something else with you guys.”
His polemic took me aback. Frank was a libertarian, and I could see how such restrictions could grate. Still, I struggled to connect the dots to the assault on the Capitol.
For Frank, the storming of the Capitol was retaliation: the outburst of a populace long under siege, struggling against a power constantly wielded in the name of care. “We just want to live our fucking lives and be left alone,” he told me.
Who did Frank have in mind when he used that word, we? How broad was that community? How many Americans were willing to fight for this right, this indifference to the needs of others elsewhere?
For many, the pandemic has revealed the porous nature of our bodies and lives: the invisible ties between one and another, the need to do well by others. For others, it has affirmed the value of keeping apart, entrenching the deep histories of property, segregation and isolation that secure white wellbeing in the US.
I tell Frank that we need to learn how to live together, that the country and planet need this.
“I’m over this,” he retorts. “I’m going to build my little hamlet.”
But life apart remains a fantasy more than anything else. Frank lives in a county with one of the lowest Covid vaccination rates in the state of Michigan, with a little more than 40% of eligible people fully vaccinated; the virus will harbor in such places.
Two weeks after the Capitol invasion, Frank sent me a video message from a small town in northern Indiana: dozens of men and women packed indoors at the sports bar, not a mask in sight.
I felt a pang at this glimpse of their easy laughter. One of my father’s closest friends had just died of Covid in another small town not far from there. He’d served that community for 40 years as a cardiologist, and had almost certainly contracted the disease from one of his patients, who were often reluctant to wear face masks.
When I shared the story, Frank was undeterred. “People die. I’ve never been afraid of it. I know it’s coming.”
I was feeling hurt and a little combative myself, and I started throwing facts and statistics back at him. “People are playing Russian roulette with the lives of their own neighbors, in the name of freedom, and the numbers show the price,” I shot back.
Frank remained defiant. “Freedom is more important to me.”
So many of the battles we face depend on confronting the wider consequences of individual lives, nurturing a sense of mutual wellbeing. Herd immunity proves this, essayist Eula Biss observes: “Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.”
In the face of this difficult lesson, walls of retreat are a timeworn choice. Like many Americans on the right, Frank has lately given up trusting anything but conservative media. At his request, I’ve given him a pseudonym here. But he’s mostly given up on people like me. He faults me for failing to defend our liberties, and for being unwilling to leave my own “cocoon”, to see first-hand his unmasked pandemic life.
I wish I could have done this. But I have my own family to care for and worry about.
Now and then on social media, I run across memes Frank posts about the vaccine. Amid the daunting new surge of Covid cases this summer, he shared a simple way to protect yourself from the spread of the Delta variant: just plug your ears to block out the news. Like many others, Frank remains steadfast in his refusal to wear a mask or take the vaccine. He says he’s probably had Covid and overcome it already, tough like the former president he reveres.
I hope Frank stays well. For masks and vaccines acknowledge something he won’t: the truth of our vulnerability, our capacity to wound and be wounded by others. I don’t know when Frank and I will talk again. But we remain exposed to each other’s whims and disdains. One way or another, we’ll have to figure out what to do with each other’s company.