Personally, I haven’t noticed very many people wearing face masks in public lately. At the end of June, however, a Pew Research Center survey found that over 65% of Americans claimed that they wore face masks when visiting stores or other businesses. About 16% of adults, however, say they hardly ever or never wear face masks. Like most people who wear them, I’m not crazy about my face mask. It’s hot, uncomfortable and it’s difficult to be heard when wearing one.
Today, many people see face mask use as a highly partisan and divisive issue. This may be changing, however, since last Saturday President Trump was seen wearing a face mask in public for the first time, on a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Up until now women, older adults, people of color, and college graduates were among those people most likely to wear a facial covering.
Aside from the political implications of face mask use, Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick says, “There is an obsession with being seen and recognized that feels quintessentially American, even in situations of life and death.” She points out that historically, laws have banned the wearing of face masks in public, since they were usually employed as disguises “by mobs who wanted to do violence unrecognized.”
Lydia Denworth a contributing editor at Scientific American, believes that before COVID-19, face mask wearing never caught on in the United States as it did in many Asian countries, because most Americans simply do not “think collectively about disease.” Face masks are not intended just to protect the wearer, they are employed to protect others as well. Thinking about infection in a communal manner may be consistent with the cultural norms of other parts of the world, but it does not fit well with traditional American ideals of individualism.
Social scientist David Abrams from New York University believes that people who don’t wear face masks see it as a way of “making a stand against authority,” while those people who wear such masks see it as “a way of helping each other out.” Face mask-wearing has become a polarizing issue that brings the basic American values of individualism and altruism into direct conflict.
Historians can point to a couple of key events that helped shape the American identity as we now know it. First, the American Revolution, itself, set a precedent for rebelling against anything that smacks of the capricious exercise of unlawful authority. Then westward expansion and the development of the mythos of the American Cowboy was extremely influential. The solitary, self-reliant, and independent cowboy began to typify Americanism. In a nation ultimately built upon diversity, such individualism became the thread that bound the country together.
California attorney and writer Nicco Capozzi says that in their relatively new nation, Americans needed a homegrown champion to admire and quickly fell in love with the idea of the cowboy. The cowboy archetype embodies most aspects of the traditional “American Dream.” Capozzi says, “He is individualistic, opportunistic, a hard-worker, and a dreamer. In essence, he is the symbol of the core American values.”
In the Old West bandannas were commonly worn by most cowboys. According to Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official historian, a bandanna was “one of the most utilitarian articles” a cowboy could possess. Its primary use was “as a mask to filter the dust when riding drag behind the cattle herd.” It also could be used as a sling or as a tourniquet to control bleeding. It was the cowpoke’s wash rag and water filter, and it kept them warm on the range and protected them from the sun. Trimble also notes that “… if you got tired of working for wages, you could use one to mask your face while robbing a train or bank.”
A team of researchers from Florida Atlantic University recently studied the effectiveness of various kinds of facial coverings in stopping droplets like those generated by sneezes and coughs. They found that a single-layer bandana offers the least protection of all of the methods tested. They didn’t determine how well they worked in stampedes.
The first stereotypical presentation of the American cowboy was portrayed in Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, “The Virginian.” Widely-read dime novels further popularized the iconic cowboy through characters such Prentiss Ingraham’s larger than life, all-American hero, Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys.
From the very beginning the cowboy assumed a romantic image built on rugged individualism and competence. The strong, silent-type “Cowboy” is the second most often used title word in Harlequin romance novels, after “Doctor.” How did “Doctor” get top billing? It may have something to do with the fact that, according to ZipRecruiter, in 2020 physicians earned an average annual salary of $209,440 compared to $39,078 for cowboys. Evolutionary psychology would predict that greater resources also mean increased attractiveness.
The taming of America’s Wild West involved two major conflicts. The first was the confrontation between nature and encroaching civilization and the second involved the natural tension between freedom and social constraint. The closing of the West and the arrival of law and order left little space for the self-reliant and independent cowboy. The 1940s Cole Porter song “Don’t Fence Me In” was recognized as one of the all-time top western songs and served as the cowboys’ natural anthem.
My wife Diane and I watched the 1962 John Ford western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” just a couple of months ago. This classic film portrays the conflict quite explicitly. In many ways the movie doesn’t hold up all that well today. Jimmy Stewart wasn’t very credible as a 54-year-old fledgling law school graduate and Lee Marvin chewed up the scenery as the villainous Liberty Valence. John Wayne was, well, John Wayne. In a ham-fisted manner, Stewart represented the taming of the West and the coming rule of law, while Wayne typified the tough and self-reliant cowboy, who is a law unto himself. If I had to guess, I would bet that Jimmy Stewart would probably wear a face mask today and John Wayne wouldn’t — except on cattle drives.