The Biden administration fired a stern warning to five states on  Monday afternoon, warning them that forcing all students to wear masks every day might violate the students’ civil rights.

Just kidding! That’s what would happen in a country with health policies that weren’t stupid. In America, we have Anthony Fauci. Too bad.

No, the Biden administration’s letter to state officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah is health policy as a bureaucratic Matruschka doll: the administration seeks to ban states from banning school districts from banning unmasked faces.

Now, masking schoolchildren may or may not be good health policy (it’s not, but indulge Cockburn in the hypothetical for a moment). But isn’t it just that, a health policy? ‘Civil rights’ issues usually pertain to matters of equal treatment under the law, or whether you’re being treated in accordance with the Constitution. How does not forcibly masking a child raise such concerns?

Well, the Biden administration has a very clever argument: some children with disabilities are, maybe, more vulnerable to ‘severe illness’ from COVID-19, and some parents will, maybe, not want to send their children to school due to that vulnerability, so not allowing a mask mandate is actually discrimination against disabled children. Got that?

Now, this might have inspired a few questions from Cockburn’s readers. If not masking students violates civil rights, then wouldn’t that require a nationwide mask mandate for all schools? Why isn’t the Biden administration demanding that? You know the answer as well as Cockburn does: because such a mandate would be cataclysmically unpopular, and this ‘civil rights’ argument is a sham.

The Biden administration is trying to reassure its most hysterical coalition members: high-income, high-neuroticism moms who stayed inside for six months straight last year and are still sterilizing their mail. It’s placating them by winning them the ‘right’ to impose masks in their local school districts. If millions of other children have to chafe under a policy that even Britain finds too authoritarian, then so be it.

But this stunt reveals something else about American governance in the 21st century: the all-encompassing, all-consuming power of the ‘civil rights’ label. Say something is being done for ‘civil rights’ and, apparently, any policy can be imposed, and the federal government’s power is absolute. Traditionally, both public health and school administration have been primarily state concerns, but now with a flimsy ‘civil rights’ justification, the federal government claims the authority to micromanage individual schools.

This isn’t the first time. A decade ago, during the first Obama term, the Department of Education ordered almost every college in the country to create kangaroo courts for adjudicating sexual assault allegations at a much lower standard of evidence than those used in the nation’s criminal courts. To not do so, the Department said, would violate women’s ‘civil rights’. Within five years, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis was being hauled before a Title IX tribunal simply for criticizing that policy. Her written opinions, you see, threatened students’ ‘civil rights’.

Similarly, rather than trying to pass new laws at the state or federal level to govern US police practices, the Obama administration simply took the approach of arguing that any practices it disliked were illegal all along. Once again, the cudgel was civil rights. With sympathetic local politicians holding office in blue cities, the Obama DoJ concluded consent decrees with police departments, forcing them to implement progressive wishlists for police practices. When crime surged in Seattle, Chicago, and Baltimore, officials had to throw up their hands. Sorry! Civil rights!

Want to control what textbooks your state’s schools use? Bam! Civil rights violation!

Dollar General wants to do criminal background checks on potential employees? Bam! Civil rights violation!

‘Civil rights’ has become an instant shortcut to have a court declare that the policy of the moment was in fact mandated by laws that were often passed decades ago. It has, in effect, become the skeleton key for all policies, and the Biden administration seems eager to use this key as much as possible.

What could be next? Who knows! In Texas, state Democrats tried (and failed…for now) to argue that forcing them to attend legislative sessions violated civil rights. In Nevada, a federal judge just ruled that criminalizing illegal reentry into the United States violates civil rights. Perhaps next year, she’ll rule that denying illegal immigrants the vote is a violation too.

That’s the beauty of it all. ‘Civil rights’ is only two simple words, but done right, you can use them to get whatever you want. No laws, and no elections, required.