The latest public outbreak of antagonism towards masks and vaccinations isn’t just a biomedical issue and it’s certainly not confined to health care settings or schools. It’s starting to creep into everyday life in a way that suggests a broader, more deeply embedded culture war that will not go away soon.

We got a sense of that the other day when a sub-contractor for our basement build-out up showed up without mask and made a point of refusing to wear one. It led to quite the verbal scuffle; one I worried might escalate into something worse. It embarrassed our normal, all-purpose genius home repair and improvement guy, our version of Eldin from the 1990s TV series “Murphy Brown,” who witnessed most of the scene and who later apologized for it – though it was not his fault and he had nothing to apologize for.

Turns out we needed sheet rock installed in what will eventually become my new downstairs office. Getting quality workers these days is tough in every construction or landscape trade, but the sub-contractor who was called has a good reputation for his work – or did, anyway.

The sub-contractor showed up early, without a mask, and while we don’t expect workers in the basement to wear a mask while they are down there, since access is closed off from the rest of the house and there’s venting through an open door, I did tell him that if he needed to use the bathroom he’d have to put one on. That’s when he went off on a tirade about “we still have our rights” and “you can’t tell me what to wear.” At which point I said well, then you can’t use the bathroom. To which he answered (and I paraphrase), “well, in that case I’ll just take a piss in the woods or take a dump back there.”

He left to get some stuff out of the truck, and I went in, thinking I was actually going to be helpful, and got a roll of toilet paper and a plastic bag to leave for him in case he was going to use the great outdoors. By this time, our regular contractor arrived on scene, and he watched as the subcontractor, who just then spotted me with the bag and toilet paper off, erupted. “We still have our #%^&@^$ rights . .  until you Communists take over.” He quickly transitioned into an assault on vaccines, liberals, and the government in general. 

It was an ugly invective, infused with a rage and aggression that seemed (to me, anyway) to bear no relation to the incident. I tried to tell him we could work this out, there was no need to escalate the tension, but he wasn’t listening. In fact I could have worked out an alternative path, through the garage, to a small bathroom near the laundry that could get ventilated easily enough and is pretty much cut off from the main part of the house. But in the middle of a raging verbal scene like that it is hard to think clearly.

What I did manage to tell him was that I wasn’t telling him what to do; I was pointing out that if he is going to exercise his freedom he also had to accept the consequences of it when it came into conflict with the rights I had as a homeowner. How much of this came out coherently on my part I’m not sure, but he certainly was not of a temperament to hear it. And I was more concerned to defuse things lest he reach for a gun.

Eventually, we managed to quiet down long enough for him to say he’d just get the work done and “hold on” long enough until he left for lunch. And in fact that’s what he did, and upon returning he finished off the work perfectly well. Though the whole incident scared the hell out of me because he had gone from zero to 60 in a flash rage that seems to have been seething inside of him just waiting to explode.

All I could think about was if this is what we are in for in the next few years. I also reviewed in my head if I could have handled it better, thinking about alternative steps that I might have offered that were more workable than the one I had proposed. But the anger that raged within him and that erupted so suddenly, so (verbally) violently, is the same kind of anger that we see at school board meetings, and that we saw on Jan. 6 at the Capitol Building. It’s not the kind of anger that can be countered in discussion

Rage unfurled like that cannot be engaged directly, but it does merit close examination symptomatically. It’s the same kind we are seeing at airport counters and at any place where the rights of individuals come face-to-face with the safety of others.

Our whole language of rights and privacy has come into question because of the pandemic. Maybe it’s a discussion we should have been having all along, Without that honest conversation and fundamental re-examination of what we owe each other as citizens and as persons we are going to be in trouble. Without it, we are going to see more seething anger and frustration break out into violence.

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This article has 8 comments

  1. Gary Klein Reply

    I think that you drywall sub-contractor might be in need of a different brand of toilet paper –> one which is less abrasive against his sensibilities.

    Or you could drop off a Snickers candy bar as a peace offering to the office of the drywaller (“You are not you when you are hungry”).

  2. Jeff Neuman Reply

    It’s a curious interpretation of one’s rights to assert that you’re violating them based on what you asked him to do IN YOUR HOME. If the Constitution is about anything, it’s property rights.

  3. Scott Nelson Reply

    This is one of your most poignant, memorable blog posts, Brad. And you mange to get humor into a story about rage to boot. And there’s more, you nicely capture the fact that ‘in the heat of the moment’ it’s hard to think clearly, and to think about the context. That comes later, with reflection. It’s a very challenging moment for so very many. The struggles of flight attendants came to mind in reading this. You had to face this one sub-contractor, but imagine being faced with this every day, all day long, on airplanes . . .

  4. Beth Cone Reply

    Thank you for sharing. This virulent, toxic, entitled, unfettered rage is among the most disturbing effects of Trump and his despotic wannabe crew. “You can’t make me” tantrums. I don’t know what the answer is, a time out?

  5. Bob Lerner Reply

    Another excellent piece Brad. You need to get your comments read more widely. Just wondering if your contractor is willing to forego hospitalization if his non-masking doesn’t work out as he plans. Or how he’s planning on compensating you should he get you sick, or worse.

  6. BobC Reply

    It’s all so shocking and unfathomable. Libertarianism has morphed into a crude sort of contrarian. Maybe it was there all along just behind the curtain.

  7. Larry Gavrich Reply

    Brad, I don’t recall any such “anger,” even by smokers, when the science on second-hand smoke led to city and restaurant bans on smoking indoors. Two things differentiate then and now — Donald Trump and the fascism of most conservative news outlets. Both appeal to those who lack the self-esteem to understand that their situation in life is not someone else’s (or some other group’s) fault. Call me a snob, but those of poor breeding and/or limited intellect are susceptible to the likes of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. There is no way to have an “honest” conversation with them. As a new grandfather twice over in the last three months, I despair for my children’s and grandchildren’s future. Larry

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