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Dave Skoloda: 1944 mask controversy recalled

Dave Skoloda: 1944 mask controversy recalled

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A nearly forgotten book written in 1944 furnishes a fresh way of thinking about the controversy of mask wearing as well as a yardstick for measuring how our democracy is performing self governance.

I was reminded of it recently in a phone call with our son Jeff.

We talked about the discord in his small Colorado mountain town over requirements for wearing masks. And he remarked on the high rate of infections in La Crosse. I admitted we are having problems here with mask wearing compliance as well.

Then he said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you this. Remember that book that you gave me on my 15th birthday?” I had to think a moment; that was more than 30 years ago, after all.

“Yes,” I responded. ‘Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life.’”

He asked if I recalled the paragraph I had underlined and referred to in an accompanying letter to him urging him to become a good citizen. He has memorized it, he said, and found himself quoting the author in conversations about freedom and mask wearing.

I confessed I didn’t remember the quote so he sent it in a text.

The book was written by Carl L. Becker, a Cornell University history professor, near the end of World War II. It was part of the reading requirement in one of my political philosophy classes at the University of Minnesota in the early 1960s, and it was an important influence on my understanding of democracy so that I wanted to pass it along to the next generation as a reminder that freedom comes with responsibilities.

Here’s part of that quote on democracy from Becker, which Jeff sent to me in a text: “Whatever the form of government may be, it is not self-government unless the people are mostly intelligent enough and honest enough to do of their own accord what is right and necessary with a minimum of legal compulsion and restraint.”

Becker, whose book consists of five lectures delivered at the University of Michigan in December 1944, thus gave us a concise means of grading our self-government performance in the case of COVID 19 — an F.

I have since purchased a used copy of Becker’s book online and reading it again has been like a visit with an old friend; the writing is as relevant today as it was after the great war when he wrote, after referring to the divisions of the Civil War, “we are now living in another critical period of our history. The house is again in the way of being divided. The division is not now between people living in different sections of the country, but between people living on different social levels in respect to possessions and opportunities.” And so it still is today.

He wrote of the need for modifying the Constitution to make the government more accountable to the people for needed action — then when the divided government was slow to plan for the post-war period and applicable now to the lack of action on pandemic relief and other needs.

He wrote: “I doubt very much whether, in a world loaded with social dynamite, we can go on forever muddling through with a system of government so admirably adapted for passing the buck and debasing the business of governing to the level of personal squabbles and party intrigue.” And we’re still at risk as we head for an election that will test Becker’s faith in majority rule and the honesty and intelligence of people to do the right thing of their own accord to solve the problem of the pandemic.

Becker’s words come as shouts across the decades for us to accept the responsibilities of freedom as in this paragraph near the one I recommended to Jeff: “In so far as the intelligent and informed systematically employ freedom of speech and of the press for personal and antisocial ends, in so far as the mass of the people are so ignorant and ill-informed as to be capable of being fooled all of the time, freedom of speech and of the press loses its chief virtue and self-government is undermined.”

Chilling words in a time of social media disinformation.

“Whatever the form of government may be, it is not self-government unless the people are mostly intelligent enough and honest enough to do of their own accord what is right and necessary with a minimum of legal compulsion and restraint.” Carl L. Becker, a Cornell University history professor, in 1944 book

"Whatever the form of government may be, it is not self-government unless the people are mostly intelligent enough and honest enough to do of their own accord what is right and necessary with a minimum of legal compulsion and restraint."

Carl L. Becker, a Cornell University history professor, in 1944 book

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