I’m fascinated by small changes that happen gradually and are accepted as entirely normal at every step of their evolution.
Dogs are allowed in restaurants if they can be called “service animals.” Cigarette smoking has gradually become taboo, though – head-scratchingly – marijuana has become more mainstream. Car alarms make noise, and, even in areas of noise abatement, few people complain about them. Hemlines go up and nobody gives much thought to what might once have looked unseemly.
So, one of the things to have appeared on the scene that we never saw before is the fully masked man. At one time a feature of burglars and bank robbers, it’s now routine apparel of French and German anti-terror police. Other law-enforcement officials in many countries also sport this garb. My hunch is that it originated with Palestinian militants who, wanting to remain anonymous, wrapped their faces in their scarves. Wherever it came from, it’s here to stay for a while.
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The police will say they’re masked for a reason: They need to be unrecognizable to terrorists. Well, sure, there’s always a reason. But I think the style change came first, and then a reason for it was given. In the same way, fashion is often explained by way of “comfort.”
But far more disturbing than the mask’s use for police is its popularity with protesters. Usually, the masked people are violent “anarchists” accompanying peaceful protesters. At the recent riots at UC Berkeley, these self-described anarchists, their pockets full of rocks and bricks, smashed plate-glass windows on campus and in downtown Berkeley. Their vandalism was intense and made worldwide news.
This so-clad “black bloc” has, of course, all kinds of explanations for its attire, though I suppose the desire to blend in with seriously demonstrating students is paramount. But, as said before, first the style, then the reason for it: this is the new garb of window smashers.
Evidently, dressing up as Batman is legal. But consider this: wearing a burkini on a French beach was for a while not legal. The super-logical French tried to get women out of their burkinis and into skimpy bikinis. Vive la France!
And even stranger, the movement in France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands, to outlaw the burka, allegedly to allow for facial recognition, is gaining ground at the same time the mask is becoming part of official law-enforcement dress.
Burkas are said to be against our Western way of life, a symbol of women’s degradation, and on the whole detrimental to wearer and onlooker alike.
Probably so. But how Western is it for a man to go out in public wearing a mask?
Living with contradictions is of a course humanity’s fate. But the failure to notice them is what makes homo sapiens a little less “sapient.”
Manfred Wolf is a retired English professor from San Francisco State University and author of “Survival in Paradise: Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curacao.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.