The Masque

Lincoln E. Steed July/August 2020

Last time I was in Venice the water stains in St. Mark’s Square were still visible, though months after the last flooding tide. Some of the steps onto the canal looked suspiciously slimy, but by and large it was easy to forget the predicted Atlantean future. The most unavoidable reminder was one grand and ancient building held up by a complicated piling system and cocooned by an outer frame of scaffolding, designed not to give building access but to hold things up and together.

And in the narrow streets, people jostled and moved in a crowded procession scarcely imaginable in these days of COVID social distancing. Many of them wore masks—it seemed a festival time, and the stores were brimming with the artisanal and often expensive masks for the masques: those reminders of medieval entertainments and vehicle for often profane and politically dangerous talk behind the painted grotesqueries.

I cannot shake the feeling of a surreal parallel to the Days of Covid Abnormality. On the face of it, this situation is big; but bigness aside, a necessary mass quarantine to minimize infection. But intended or not, the whole experience seems to have thrust us into the theater of the absurd and dangers way beyond the flulike depredations.

It should be obvious even to the most amateur psychologist that social distancing and the mandatory masks (now that they have belatedly appeared even on supermarket shelves; as has toilet paper) have changed our social psyche. It might not be so obvious, except to those who muse on other places and other times, that this was ever a necessary condition for crowd control and state dominance of the individual. It is the ultimate antidote to democracy and freedom.

Some, in spite ofthe stupefying magic of these moments of disorientation, have spoken aloud about the ease with which individual rights no longer matter so much; how religion, once dismissed as the opiate of the masses by a hated ideologue, now takes a weirdly confirming sleepy back seat to a simplistic either/or scenario of public safety.Yes, it is true that any religion or other personal habit that places others at risk of life and limb needs to be held back. But without broad (or any, in most cases) testing, the restriction of religion, even of the drive-by kind favored by elites and pharisees, makes no sense to me. “Essential services” have at times seemed an oxymoron.

We must (yes, why not) spare a little charity for the position ofcommunity leaders faced with an unknown horror and rapid contagion. But did they panic, or just react in a way conditioned by a worldview? Three trillion, and counting, Weimar dollars have been given away: a small fraction of that could have paid for masks (hazmat suits!) and rapid testingfor all. Then pockets of infection would have been known and those infected or directly in contact quarantined—saving the greater freedoms from their possible demise in the new Darwinian Big Brother Solution. But that is What Might Have Been! Well, actually, there are a few countries in the world that have taken negativeadvantage to further restrict civil and religious liberties as part of their ongoing agenda. We have not quite gone that way in the West generally and in the USA specifically; yet.

As I write these lines, several weeks before the cover date of the magazine, there is rioting/demontrations in cities all across the nation. Not yet food riots from a 1929 redux financial pandemic: No! Proximate cause today is the shockingly public killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd by a police officer kneeling on his neck and insensible to his cries of “I can’t breathe.” But this is a play whose curtain goes up with such regularity that it has become as characteristic of American law enforcement as the usually unarmed London Bobby is “over there.” And as shocking as many find the president’s guttural call for military law and order, it is of a piece with the reverse engineering of social distancing.

This issue of Liberty has a special feature on Congressman John Lewis, a surviving memorial of the civil rights movement. I am moved to read his remembrance of the day in 1965 when he and MLK and assorted idealists, who were not content with “who we were,” linked arms and walked into the swinging billy club, the whip, and the released attack dogs. “We were ready to die” is his remembrance. I wish this issue were not readying for the press as the dogs again are seen loosed on demonstrators and horses wade into crowds and even children are struck by riot police.

I remember that time all too well, as a teenager recently arrived in the United States from my birthplace of Australia. The background hiss was the noise of a seemingly endless war in Vietnam. I remember my draft number; high enough that with my grades in school it mattered little to me whether my draft board records had been burnt in riots or not. But I remember the thousands of young men fleeing to Canada. I remember friends coming back from Vietnam minus limbs and with what post-Gulf War we now call PTSD. I also remember friends in the Whitecoats telling of guinea-pigging for who knows what chemical horrors. Like now, it was a surreal time.

The year 1968 comes to mind most. It was a presidential election year. The Democratic Party held its convention in Chicago, whose mayor in the most nonpartisan way determined to keep law and order in spite of all the provocateurs, draft dodgers, and anarchists. A nation was shocked at how violently the Chicago police dealt with them.

That was the year presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot. A tough understudy to his slain brother, he may not have been as liberal as his followers hoped, but he was in a fine line of slain public figures in a tough political neighborhood.

That was the year Martin Luther King was slain. He was an activist who had already transcended personhood: which is why his death seemed to many the end of a dream for a new and better world. Cities all over the country erupted in violence and destruction. I still remember Washington, D.C., burning and the tens of thousands of national guardsmen and police vehicles with tape on the windows to neutralize rocks.

And in the middle of it all, the Tet Offensive, which showed that French folly and 500,000 American college boys lacked the resolve of an ever-strengthening enemy!

But that was then. We and our democracy survived; somehow. When I look back on it, I think it was because of “high hopes,” and a rallying of people of good spiritual inclination—and not immaterial that the Jesus movement emerged from the mist of the flower power movement. Or to put it in more analytical terms: people renewed the social contract. I hope that is the “again” that this administration aims at.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."