Hartmann: Faisal Khan's Well-Aimed Middle Finger

Dr. Faisal Khan is St. Louis County's acting director of public health.
Dr. Faisal Khan is St. Louis County's acting director of public health. COURTESY ST. LOUIS COUNTY

In normal times, flipping off the citizenry is not regarded as a best practice among public health officials.

Certainly, it’s a course of action that has been contemplated thousands of times by beleaguered medical experts accosted by imbeciles while attempting to explain science. And that’s just Dr. Anthony Fauci. In the last month. In Congress.

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But you don’t see it every day. It’s rare enough that it garnered St. Louis national news attention when the county’s acting health director, Dr. Faisal Khan, gave the middle finger to a crowd of mouth-breathers who were abusing him about mask breathing.

That now-famous punctuation mark on a St. Louis County Council meeting dominated by the issue of mask mandates wasn’t on many Bingo cards. County Executive Sam Page’s order to impose the controversial mandates was the hot item of the night, and the council would vote 5-2 to reject it.

That was the uninteresting part and resolved nothing. Page’s mandate was just a strong suggestion since it seemed accompanied by no enforcement mechanism. And no one quite knows what the rejection of a non-enforceable thing translates to in real life.

But Khan’s piece of the story was both interesting and important. He wrote a letter the next day to council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days complaining about xenophobia, as well as the racial and physical abuse he said he experienced during the meeting and as he left it. His story was aired widely across national media.

Khan’s health department had recommended the mask order to Page, and he was there to defend it. To the surprise of no one, Khan had been booed lustily by an overflow crowd of angry county residents that bore a striking resemblance to a frenzied MAGA crowd.

Khan, who became an American citizen in 2013, complained understandably about references at the meeting to his status that certainly created an appearance of xenophobia. And there was this:

"Several audience members started mocking my accent while I was presenting to the Council,” Khan wrote. “I heard people doing their impersonation of Apu, a caricature character from The Simpsons television show that mocks people from South Asia such as myself."

Khan said things got worse on the way out.

"After my presentation was completed, I tried to leave the chamber but was confronted by several people who were in the aisle,” Khan wrote. “On more than one occasion, I was shoulder-bumped and pushed.

“As I approached the exit and immediately outside the chambers, I became surrounded by the crowd in close quarters, where members of the crowd yelled at me, calling me a ‘fat brown cunt’ and a ‘brown bastard.’ After being physically assaulted, called racist slurs, and surrounded by an angry mob, I expressed my displeasure by using my middle finger toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs."

Some of the facts regarding what Khan endured are in dispute. Days and Councilman Tim Fitch, who was called out specifically by Khan, both deny that Khan was treated unfairly. They say a reference to Khan not being licensed as a doctor in the U.S. (he is in his native Pakistan) was a subject openly discussed by Khan at an earlier meeting regarding his qualifications for the post and his legal ability to issue health orders.

That may be, but the subject had no place being discussed at this emotional hearing, especially not in front of this nasty crowd. And as to other pushback about the accuracy of Khan’s account, Khan should be taken at his word that raging anti-maskers stepped far over the line in hurling racial insults at him.

In other words, good for Khan that he flipped off some folks. It was a form of what’s commonly described in the public-health world as meeting the people where they are.

Khan essentially met rage with rage, which doesn’t happen enough from rational people in the nation’s culture war. The hundreds of emotional residents who showed up mask-less at the council chambers — to the delight of the COVID-19 delta variant — do not speak for most of us who live in the county.

It’s a generalization, but a safe one, that most people are rational enough to understand that a mask mandate is an annoying-but-necessary evil in a resurging and deadly pandemic. There’s no reason for them to show up screaming back at irrational fools in MAGA gear.

Even setting aside that the stupefying scene at the council meeting was a potential super-spreader event, there was no upside for the enlightened to confront the unenlightened there. So, whether there were hundreds of loud people at the meeting Tuesday, or thousands, they do not speak for county residents, not even a little bit.

Page and Khan are correct. The pandemic is real and worsening again. Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces is a matter of common sense, not the abrogation of some fabricated human right to endanger the health of others.

The council members who voted against the mandate — including Democrats Days and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb — couched their opposition to what has become Page’s customary disregard for the council’s very existence. Both say people should wear masks, and Fitch doesn’t appear to disagree on that point.

So, the hot-button issue was diluted to a process issue. Why didn’t Page approach the council before he approached TV cameras with Mayor Tishaura Jones to announce his action? And what’s the point of having a mandate that’s really a suggestion, especially if it’s going to prompt unhinged people to bay at the moon?

Those are reasonable enough objections, but at the end of the day Page and Khan occupy the higher ground. The anti-mask hysteria is itself a virus attacking too many brain cells across America. It can be traced to a certain twice-impeached cult leader’s psychotic narcissism, but that’s beside the point now. What matters going forward is that reasonable people informed by experts such as Khan need to start fighting back with as much passion as the reality-deniers. A counter-narrative cries out for forceful airing.

As was noted from the beginning of the pandemic, masks are a metaphor for selflessness: They protect other people more than the mask-wearers. As such, during a pandemic they should be a symbol of community and national sense of duty, much like rationing was at the outbreak of World War II for the Greatest Generation.

It’s time for a forceful, positive emphasis on the life-saving importance of masks, not some prim-and-proper defensiveness against unhinged rants about tyranny. On this subject, public-health officials need to meet irrational people in their dark place.

Flipping them off is a fine place to start.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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