Too Close for Comfort: The Familiarity of Anti-Mask Rhetoric

Haejoo Kim //

Last summer, a friend was accosted by a woman as he was walking down the street to my house in Syracuse, NY. The woman was not wearing a mask and wanted him to take off his mask as well. “Look up Andrew Kaufman, MD,” she yelled, “you will learn everything you need to know about Covid.”

So we did. Andrew Kaufman was an MD based in Syracuse, but upon more digging, we soon realized that his fame traveled well beyond Upstate New York. In his YouTube video, we saw viewers from Ireland, Austria, and Brazil commenting in the chat box in praise of “the doctor who does not believe in Covid-19,” an epithet that seemed to have made him moderately famous in online anti-mask communities. His biggest schtick was that he was an MD who did not believe in germ theory. There are only five causes of illness, he claimed, and they are malnutrition, toxicity, psychological shock, physical trauma, and genetic anomaly. Microorganisms can help you heal, but they do not cause diseases, he continued in the same video, so the idea of contagion itself is false. When someone asked why they were having herpes symptoms after being intimate with someone with herpes, he explained that the herpes breakouts were just the body’s natural effort to purge toxins through the skin.

Kaufman’s rhetoric sounded very familiar to me. I work on alternative health practices in nineteenth-century Britain, where there were anti-vaccinators just as there are now—but for smallpox rather than MMR or flu vaccines—and they did not believe in germ theory either. Instead, they liked to circulate a quote from one of their favorite medical authorities, Florence Nightingale: “Diseases are not individuals arranged in classes, like cats and dogs, but conditions growing out of one another.”[1] By focusing on overall conditions (an unsanitary environment, for example) rather than specific infection by germs (like contracting the flu from someone in an otherwise clean environment), late-nineteenth-century anti-vaccinators could feel like they were in control—and as long as they kept up with healthy habits, they were invincible. Moreover, this sense of control was unmediated by someone else’s scientific expertise. Filth in the environment was easy to detect with the bare eye and nose, when detecting germs involved scientific equipment (a microscope, for example) and special expertise to decipher them. The period’s anti-vaccinators believed that mandatory smallpox vaccination was “medical tyranny” conspired by the state and the medical profession, so this sense of unmediated control was crucial for them. Sound familiar?

Here we are, entrapped by the same rhetoric after almost a hundred and fifty years, this time disseminated over YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Parler instead of pamphlets and periodicals printed by small, independent presses. Today’s anti-maskers also see themselves as battling for their “freedom” against the conspiring doctors and the “deep state,” and the virus-detecting PCR test still stands in for the suspicious technology that scientists wield to deceive the lay public. One might want to point out how preposterous it is for people to doubt germ theory after antiseptics and antibiotics have saved so many lives. After all, denying germ theory in the nineteenth century is one thing (it became an orthodox view only in the 1880s), but denying it in the twenty-first century is another.[2] What really fascinates me, however, is the plainness of the language used in that preposterous denial. “We’re not taught about critical thinking and reasoning and having our own opinions and how we find information on our own, and instead we’re spoon-fed information that’s highly censored and designed,” says Dr. Kaufman in another video. These words sound surprisingly commonsensical. Most people agree with the value of “critical thinking”—in fact, many of us say that that is the goal of humanistic education. We certainly want people to be able to judge for themselves and form their “own opinions,” instead of being “spoon-fed” information from authorities. In the early days of the pandemic, the liberal Western media shared the same rhetoric, reporting their concerns about how “draconian” measures of Chinese lockdown and invasive contact-tracing in South Korea trampled down their citizens’ rights to bodily autonomy.[3]

It is easy to write off anti-maskers as alt-right extremists and crazy lunatics. It is harder to admit that their core values, or at least the logic behind their core values, are not far off from how American society at large, Left or Right, envisions political agency. The anti-mask desire for unmediated individual agency, including its innate racism (“natural purity” as cure for everything) and ableism (“healthy habits” also a panacea), still undergirds how we think about virtue and empowerment in America. Maybe this bitter realization is the place to start: to start a better conversation about how to newly imagine different models of health, through which we can embrace the interdependence of our bodies—as the pandemic has shown us the hard way.

Special thanks to Dylan Caskie, Daniel Olson-Bang, and Mary Kim for their help in writing this article.


[1] Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not (London: Harrison, 59, Pall Mall, 1859), 19.

[2] Lorenzo Servitje and Kari Nixon, “The Making of a Modern Endemic: An Introduction,” in Endemic: Essays in Contagion Theory, eds. Servitje and Nixon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 10.

[3] For example, see Siobhán O’Grady, “China’s Coronavirus Lockdown—Brought to You by Authoritarianism,” Washington Post, Jan. 27, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/01/27/chinas-coronavirus-lockdown-brought-you-by-authoritarianism/); Emma Graham-Harrison and Lily Kuo, “China Coronavirus Lockdown Strategy: Brutal but Effective,” Guardian, Mar. 19, 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/chinas-coronavirus-lockdown-strategy-brutal-but-effective); Helen Davidson, “China’s Coronavirus Health Code Apps Raise Concerns over Privacy,” Guardian, Apr. 1, 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/01/chinas-coronavirus-health-code-apps-raise-concerns-over-privacy); Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun, “As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets,” New York Times, Apr. 17, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-surveillance-tracking-privacy.html).

Photo credit: Francis Mariani (https://www.flickr.com/photos/designwallah/50697252322/)

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