Beheading The Snake
Updated: Mar 8
I decided I wasn't going to keep wearing my mask. The librarians called the police on me. This essay tells the story.
Usually, going to the library is something that is very enjoyable. Those tidy rows of books always have a quiet, studious air about them that invites a person to settle down for a while and read some brilliant piece of literature. Of course, nowadays, with various tangled sets of Covid restrictions and mandates in place, one never knows if a particular library will be strict in its enforcement of the absurd rules. It is an unfortunate irony that such repositories of knowledge would be so subject to the whims of a pseudoscientific charade. Nevertheless, such is the world in which we find ourselves.
In this particular library, the librarians were more likely to enforce the mask mandates than others, given their location in the liberal part of town. It was still worth an attempt, however. I walked in not wearing a mask, keeping it in my pocket.
Sure enough, the librarian at the front insisted I wear it. I begrudgingly put it on, hanging below my nose in protest. She further instructed that the mask must be covering my nose. I disregarded this last demand with a disgusted wave of the hand, dismissing myself from the conversation. Going up the stairs, I asked myself why they should be allowed to force me to do such a thing. After all, it is a publicly funded service, and not private property. Reaching the second floor of the library, I took my mask off, resolving not to put it on again.
Shortly after this resolution, a librarian from another desk quickly approached and told me that masks were a requirement on the premises, with a tone that was both condescending and mechanical. I refused, and she walked away, miffed. I was now thoroughly stirred up and determined not to give them any ground. What was the worst they could do? Revoke my library card? Give me a nasty look? I marched on towards the section that contained the book I sought.
I was looking for a book by Mark Twain, and scanned through the neatly cataloged shelves, searching for the appropriate Dewey decimal. It was near certain that another librarian would soon waylay me to avenge her comrade’s curt dismissal, and I considered the impending confrontation, resolving to remain calm and level-headed. Scanning through the alphabetically arranged titles of Thompson, Twain, and Thoreau, I happened to see a collection of essays that included the latter author’s famous “Civil Disobedience.” It was a coincidental find, and quite ironic. I picked it up, simply for the purpose of making a point if a cantankerous librarian were to come my way.
Soon enough, two of them approached. Both were short, middle-aged women with faces tucked uniformly behind colorfully printed masks. They insisted I put a mask on, since it was their policy. I told them I didn’t care about their policy. Their leader told me I would have to leave for the day. I asked what would happen if I refused. She simply told me it was their policy, falsely assuming that such an ironclad argument would be enough to compel me from the premises by sheer force of its existence.
“It’s a publicly funded library,” I reminded her.
“That’s correct,” she said.
“So, this isn’t private property,” I pressed.
“That’s correct,” she said again.
“So, I’m staying here,” I concluded. She was not impressed with this approach.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said with a sigh.
“It’s your move,” I countered. “I’m staying here until I’m done with what I came here to do.” With that, I turned to peruse the shelves with an attempted indifference.
They both marched back to their desk, where they picked up the landline phone and dialed three digits with great enthusiasm. I heard them describe me to the person on the other line, and then the conversation ended.
It was probable that they were calling the police. This was cause for indignation, and some trepidation. Images of Canadian pastor Artur Pawlowski being handcuffed as he knelt on the wet highway came to mind, and I imagined being in his place. But these thoughts were dismissed upon consideration. I thought of the possible consequences of being in the area when the police eventually made their way through the doors. Most likely, it would result in nothing worse than being barred from the library. Hardly comparable to Pawlowski’s arrest and subsequent public outcry. I decided to stay as long as I needed to get my books, but not delay unnecessarily to interact with the police. Escaping that conversation would greatly annoy the librarians who had dutifully summoned them, anyway.
It took about fifteen minutes to gather up the books, including Thoreau’s work, which was placed on top of the stack for the waiting librarian’s edification. It was a younger woman who checked out my books for me, who was also hidden behind a mask. She tried to get me to put mine on, but I told her that I had already spoken to the librarians upstairs and we had established an understanding. Our interaction was polite but concluded with the librarian sternly telling me that next time, I would be obliged to wear a mask. I told her that it was not intended as a slight against her, but that was simply not going to happen.
At the vestibule of the library, just inside the door, stood two police officers, thumbs tucked behind their blue vests, faces covered obediently. Beside them stood the librarian, who looked very small in contrast. All three watched me stroll past, books under my arm. I raised a hand and nodded to acknowledge them but walked on without stopping. They stared after me but didn’t say anything. Outside, their two patrol cars were parked on the street. I walked to my own car and left, and saw the officers do the same shortly afterwards.
Later that afternoon, I decided to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that I had picked up a few hours earlier, since it had been quite a while since I’d had the opportunity. Obtaining it had not been the goal of the morning’s trip, but it had nevertheless been a helpful visual aid for my message. In it, I found relevant commentary on the day’s earlier misadventure. It is a short read, and well worth the time.
After reading it, I reflected that it is an unfortunate fact that most of our fellow-citizens are unfamiliar with displays of conviction and conscience, such as was made by Thoreau. They apparently believe that all our present difficulties will be resolved by the usual political methods, and that doing anything more than holding a quiet opinion is an unforgivable disturbance of the peace. They are sure that their patience will be rewarded, as long as they cooperate in the meantime. After all, they ask, is it such a big thing to wear a mask?
Thoreau addresses this fallacy in his essay, by asking us what satisfaction there is in holding an opinion that we have been wronged if we do nothing about it. If we were to be cheated by our neighbors of a single dollar, would we be content to merely point out that we had been cheated, and do nothing more? On the contrary, Thoreau states that a reasonable person would reclaim his dollar, and then ensure that such a theft could not happen again. If this step is not taken, what will prevent larger robberies in the future? We would not dismiss the thievery because it is small, but would confront it because our principles condemn such a misdeed.
Writes Thoreau, “action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary... It not only divides States and churches, it divides families… it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."
Using this approach, we realize that we do not resist wearing a mask because it is something particularly atrocious, but because it is not right that strangers demand we do it. If we give our silent assent to this mistreatment, it will continue, and we bow to the diabolical cowardice within us. However, by following our higher obligation to conscience and moral good, we rebuke that evil instinct. Thoreau elaborates on the justification for this idea, reminding us that “we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." Of course, not every moment is best suited for dramatic contrarianism. Sometimes direct disobedience is not effective or helpful. But other times, it is. The times and places for that kind of thing are determined by an individual’s precise context. But too many people place their estimation of the proper time far off in the distant future when imaginary dictators announce an immediate age of oppression, as if any government will transition overnight from a free republic to an empire so hyperbolically evil it erases all hesitation.
The unfortunate thing about this overly simplistic idea is that it completely misses the relationship between a little bit of tyranny and a lot of it. Really, they are the same thing, just existing at different stages of development. Today’s petty and annoying mandates are mere contractions in the labor of something more sinister. In reality, we are observing the birth of a snake, whose parents are every notorious regime in history. Whether we believe this process is intentional or unwitting on the part of its agents is irrelevant. In either case, both history and biology testify that snakes beget snakes.
If we are going to do our small part to repair the wrongs that have been done recently, we must take every opportunity to resist them, and challenge the supposition that we are obligated to conform in all circumstances. After all, a person has only as much power as we give them. I suppose that if everyone allowed it, a simple librarian could rule the world, until a few people came to their senses.
By taking simple actions to resist, you will act as a powerful abrasive against their system. A single dissenter may not single-handedly reverse political policy, but they may inspire more dissenters to act. Applying this idea to the case of the library, how many times do you think those city employees will be willing to call the police on maskless patrons? Will they be willing to do it twice a day for more than a month? What about three times a day? It is probable that such a strain will force them to reconsider their strict policy. Somewhere behind a closed door, an exasperated administrator will instruct the librarians to stop their drastic actions, since they have not been effective. He will say that, if someone comes in without a mask, they should be left alone.
I am inclined to believe that no more than a dozen people who do such a thing for a few weeks could overthrow the rule. Such a casual revolt would then allow the more cautious dissenters to follow their own convictions, unaccosted and unaware of the previous controversy. Imagine this duplicated one thousand times over in schools, concerts, and businesses, and you have grasped the concept of a bloodless revolution. This is how we behead the snake.