Future historians seeking to understand the decline of Western Civilization will want to pay close attention to what happened in public schools in southeast Michigan last week.
Spurred by a delta variant that has proved more virulent and dangerous than anyone foresaw last spring, public health authorities in more than a dozen of the state’s largest counties have decreed that students who returned to school this week should wear masks.
But some students aren’t having it – and some of their parents are encouraging them to defy the mask mandate, even if it means being herded into quarantined spaces with other spoiled brats drunk on their own solipsism.
I’m a journalist, and I was once a teenager, so I’m more than sympathetic the idea that governments (and grown-ups in general) sometimes abuse their authority. That’s why we’ve given courts the authority to review the conduct of school districts, state legislatures and even presidents, and to intercede when they exceed their legal authority.
Mask up? Who’s gonna make me?
But the mask-less students and parents who bullied their way into Washtenaw County schools haven’t challenged the county health department’s statutory authority. Perhaps competent lawyers have explained how little traction such a challenge would find in any state or federal courtroom.
Instead, anti-maskers are taking advantage of the reality that most school districts lack the resources to enforce the rules in the face of parents and students determined to defy them.
This is a practical limitation on the “rule of law” Americans like to pretend is sacrosanct in our country. As Bridget McCormack, the chief justice of Michigan’s highest court, likes to remind us, most laws are little more than agreements among the governed. Unless you live in a police state, compliance depends more on self-regulation than external enforcement.
Usually, this works out pretty well. Most of us don’t pilfer groceries or drive 100 mph, even when we’re reasonably confident no one is around to stop us.
But the parents and students defying school mask mandates have taken a different position: If schools don’t have the will or the resources to enforce compliance, they figure, the mandates should be regarded as mere recommendations that any dissenting student is entitled to ignore.
The triumph of selfishness
I’m not that mad at those recalcitrant kids. Their prefrontal lobes are still developing, and some will grow up to become fully functioning adults, providing they move away from their parental enablers in time.
The parents who encourage their misguided civil disobedience are more problematic. It’s too late to neuter them, and impractical to quarantine them. Even if they were confined to their own houses, many of them would persist in their delusion that they are fighting a noble and quintessentially American fight to preserve their children’s individual liberty in the face of authoritarian oppression.
But it’s selfishness they’re celebrating, not self-actualization. Defying the overwhelming scientific consensus that masking is an effective means of slowing COVID-19 transmission, these parents have simply decided to subordinate the safety of teachers and other people’s children to the personal convenience of their own.
And there’s nothing principled, or even particularly American, about that.
If your kids attend or attended public school, you’ve run into parents like this before. They’re the ones who complain when one student’s life-threatening allergy compels a teacher to proscribe peanut butter in the classroom, or throw a fit when the high school coach pulls their kid to give playing time to a less-talented teammate. In defending their precious progeny’s personal prerogatives, they risk burdening society with young adults who don’t recognize when the safety and welfare of others trumps their own selfish druthers.
It matters little how brilliant, athletically talented or artistically gifted such children turn out to be. If they graduate from high school without appreciating how their personal conduct enhances or jeopardizes the well-being of their classmates, neighbors and fellow citizens, they will grow up to be jerks.
And the world needs no more of those.