Protesters attacked the governor and stay-at-home restrictions.
Protesters in downtown San Diego on April 19. Photo by Chris Stone

Absent a vaccine or a reliable treatment for COVID-19, our only defenses are social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Effective as these have been in flattening the curve and saving lives, neither fits into the popular narrative about medicine and, equally importantly, with the model of manhood embraced by many American males, such as those who recently stood with assault rifles outside a number of state legislatures demanding the end to government orders designed to fight the coronavirus.

It has been a long time since the majority of American men were blue collar workers and even longer since they were farmers. Fewer than 1% of Americans are farmers now, and a tiny minority of them run the mythical family farm.

Anyone who has brought a car in to be serviced in the past 15 years has encountered more white-coated personnel with computer print outs than grease monkeys. As part of the high-tech just-in-time delivery systems that stretch around the world, the nation’s 3.5 million truckers are something less than latter-day versions of Smokey and the Bandit. More than 50% of male workers are managers, professional or technical workers, or salesmen.

And yet, the image of the American worker trotted out by President Donald Trump is of men with extremely dirty hands. It didn’t matter that no one believed the billionaire real estate mogul had ever done more than hold a ceremonial shovel; in the coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania he made hay of the slogan “Trump Digs Coal.”

The proverb “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and Benjamin Franklin’s teaching to “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloth or habitation” aside, American men have long viewed cleanliness not just with suspicion but as the first step to being unmanned. Take Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for instance. While Huck’s recognition of “Nigger Jim’s” humanity and Huck’s decision to aid him in escaping from slavery would have appalled the heavily armed men who waved Confederate flags in Michigan last week, their rejection of the civility embodied in social distancing — and by extension hand washing — show them to be among Huck’s great-grandchildren.

Early in the book that Ernest Hemingway claimed charted the path for all American literature (and, thus, the notion of American manliness he embraced), the early teen Huck complains that the Widow Douglas was trying to “sivilize” him. Twain’s use of the “s,” giving the word something of a snake’s hiss, underscores Huck’s derision at having to “wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up.”

Famously, Huck’s putative autobiography ends with him avoiding another woman’s (Aunt Sally’s) attempt to “sivilize” him by his “lit[ing] out for the Territory.” Though Twain knew the lives of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett had been mythified, Huck didn’t. The men (and, it was only men) who peopled his idea of the West smelled of bear grease and were permanently disheveled. Their hands were smudged by gun powder.

More recently, innumerable films repeat this trope. In westerns, dandified, effeminate, “sivilized” male characters, such as bankers or school teachers, comb their hair and have clean hands: John Wayne’s many avatars don’t. The trope can even be found in urban comedies such as Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. The cigar-chomping sportswriter Oscar Madison is a slob while his roommate, the photographer Felix Unger, is a clean fussbudget and neat freak, of whom one never doubts he’d recently showered.

The heavily armed men who refuse to wash their hands and crowded together, with at least one saying on the legislative steps, “I’m not scared of a wimpy virus,” sneer at expert advice as being just one more example of “sivilization,” the markers of which are undeniably feminine, threatening their view of American manhood and its barely contained violence.

However effective and practical Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice is, it fails to measure up to what Americans have come to expect from doctors and, indeed, seems to jar with what the media is telling us about how a cure or treatment will be found. Since at least television’s Dr. Kildare, Americans have thrilled to watching the heroic doctor. Even as they stood on the shoulders of the giants of medical history such as Jonas Salk, the developer of the first polio vaccine, there is more of a whiff about them of Wyatt Earp, the lone gunfighter, who vanquishes danger single handedly.

Unlike the discovery of penicillin, which followed from Sir Alexander Fleming’s noticing how a bit of mould killed the Staphylococci in a petri dish, a vaccine for COVID-19 will come from a team of researchers working in institutes equipped with electronic microscopes and the like. On the surface this seems to jibe well with American’s credo that technology will solve all problems.

The clash between this faith and the fact that, unlike in a television show, a vaccine or treatment is many months away has not resulted in a new realism, born of the media’s explanation of the stop-and-go nature of the scientific method, which, sadly, is not taught in many of America’s schools. Rather, it has produced, especially in many, such as the men armed with assault rifles, a profound disappointment that has engendered something approaching nihilism.

Those protesting the shelter-at-home orders and the hectoring to wash your hands might speak of the need to open the economy and use the rhetoric of the American revolutionaries (urged on by President Trump’s tweet to “liberate” the states governed by Democrats), but in reality their rejection of Dr. Fauci’s recommendations are rooted in a rejection of the social contract combined with a profound misunderstanding of how quickly science can deliver the goods.

As they stand on the steps of the capitols, if they look to the West, they just might glimpse a teenaged boy who, in a fit of pique, lit out for the territory.

Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.