What is wrong with us?
Once, when we faced a menacing illness like polio, we went to war against it. We developed a vaccine. We organized a massive public health campaign, including public information programs and vaccine distribution programs. For boomers, getting your polio vaccine in a sugar cube is a cherished childhood memory; we actually looked forward to getting it. The consequence? Polio is virtually non-existent in the U.S.. And no one should mourn its absence. It is a terrible illness that condemns those who contract it to a lifetime of physical pain and personal limitations, both of which can be unbearable, and in some cases it can even be fatal. I have a degree of personal experience with this; one of my very best theater friends contracted polio as a child and, despite the physical hell that he endured, he managed to have a life, including a life in the performing arts. And yet I am sure that he always wondered what his life might have been like without it.
The COVID-19 virus, like the polio virus, can have terrible consequences for those who contract it. Like the polio virus, it can lead to either disability or death. It can spread across a population rapidly, with little or no warning. It is a threat to the human race, and certainly to the ability of humans to live in and enjoy the fruits of what we call civilization. Amazingly, in record time, medical science has developed a series of vaccines that have been statistically shown to prevent humans from being seriously infected. In fact, as President Biden said this past week, the only pandemic that we have at this point is among the unvaccinated. True, getting "jabbed" twice isn't as much fun as swallowing a sugar cube. On the other hand, it involves a lot less suffering than being hooked up to an ventilator and dying even with medical personnel fighting for your life.
If the man whose tragic death led to this story in the Kansas City Star could still talk, it's painfully clear that this is the message he would want every unvaccinated person to heed. Reading the article makes it painfully clear that this is the message that those who tried to save his life would want every unvaccinated person to heed. They would want you to know that the people who are spreading toxic lies about both the virus and the vaccine don't care about personal choice, or personal health, or anything other than their personal power and wealth. They would want you to know that getting vaccinated is the best choice to make when it comes to not only saving your own life, but also the lives of those around you, including and especially the people you care about the most.
But that's the problem. The lies and the liars who spread them are winning. And, as a result, the virus is winning. And, as a result of that, thousands of people are needlessly getting infected--and dying.
I will be on Medicare at the beginning of next month. I have spent the lion's share of my adult life, beginning with the misbegotten birth of the so-called "Reagan Revolution," watching the slow-motion destruction of our national identity as a free and unified people systematically turned into an us-versus-them horrors show by people who understand that it's easier to make money off of creating and manipulating chaos than it is off of creating value. I have been optimistic at various times that we were coming to our senses, and getting back to the consensus-oriented politics that allowed us to create and support programs like Medicare in the first place. Now, I find myself grateful for getting in under the wire, before the politics of chaos managed to destroy it. They may yet succeed in doing it, but it now seems less likely to hurt me. Then again, who knows?
In any case, throughout all of this time, and long before the pandemic hit, I would have bet real money that a public health crisis would have been the one thing guaranteed to snap us out of our national sleepwalk towards the precipice and remind us that those who gave us our system of government believed in the concept of the common good, and expected us to use their creation to advance it. Public health is one of the oldest, and most basic, of all public responsibilities. One cannot expect a society, and certainly not a nation, to long endure if those who belong to it are systemically dying.
And no one should make any mistake: the resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine is as systemic as anything can possibly be. Erin Burnett of CNN is no one's idea of a knee-jerk liberal, but even she is (as she and all of us should be) outraged by the systemic nonsense and deceit that conservative politicians and media outlets are spreading about both the vaccine and the efforts to increase the number of vaccinated Americans. Burnett uses a somewhat saltier term to describe this effort than "nonsense" or "deceit" but, given the grotesque nature of the phenomenon in question, I think she should be forgiven. And one thing's for sure: she's not wrong.
Nor should anyone pretend that this resistance is based on some sort of non-partisan, principled stance. It's based on a belief that not getting vaccinated, and discouraging others from doing so, constitutes some sort of political victory, that somehow the "libs" will be successfully owned by the willingness of the Trump troops to spend the last moments of their lives on a ventilator that's effectively being denied to someone who is sick (whether with COVID or not) to a person whose hospitalization is not a glorious libertarian act of "choice." Doubt me? Take a look at this, and then tell me if you still doubt me. Let me be clear: any COVID death is a tragedy, but I think it's important to recognize that the choice one makes about being vaccinated is a choice that impacts, often fatally, the ability of others to make their own choices.
Are you comfortable with doing that? Especially if the "others" are children, whether your own or someone else's? Well, if you're not, I recommend not going to Tennessee, where the effort to own the libs has now extended to willingly exposing the lives of children to a virus that may stop them from fulfilling their own dreams and choices. Yep, anything to own those libs. What they're doing in Tennessee is as systemic as systemic can be; the state has even gone so far as to fire its vaccine manager, which will no doubt make it much harder for anyone in the Volunteer State to make a choice in favor of getting the vaccine. As it turns out, in Tennessee, the only thing you can really volunteer when it comes to COVID is suicide. All "choices" are not created equal.
And yet, for the vaccine deniers, "choice" is little more than an exercise in rhetoric. This is demonstrated by their appropriation of pro-choice rhetoric from the abortion rights movement to justify their willingness to spread a fatal disease. A woman's pregnancy isn't a threat to the lives of those around her; a person who has made a "choice" to get infected and become a potential superspreader is. I shouldn't be surprised by the hypocrisy on display in the process of the deniers' willingness to steal the "my body, my choice" language of those who care more about public health than they do. Hypocrisy is a run-of-the-mill feature of conservative politics.
So, to borrow a bit of therapy-speak, what's really bothering these people? If this is not really about the principle of "choice," what is it really about?
I think that we actually get a bit closer to the truth of the matter when we get to the most outrageous expression of anti-vaccination sentiment. I'm talking about the Newsmax commentator who made the case recently that vaccines are against the natural order of things, that there is some sort of moral superiority in simply letting nature take its course, even if taking its course means the needless deaths of literally millions of people. Again, don't take my word for it; you can read all about it here. As you can see, this assertion was egregious enough that even Newsmax, a right-wing outlet that makes Fox News seem tame, felt obliged to walk it back. Then again, consider the fact that one of its employees felt comfortable about making it in the first place. Call this what it is: a reflection of the true nature of the anti-vaccination ideology--a revolt against science.
Does that seem surprising to you? Look at it this way. For well over a century, perhaps closer to two centuries, science has enabled us to create a level of civilization and material comfort that, in earlier ages, would have been dismissed as the wildest of fantasies. The downside to that, however--the inevitable one, perhaps, given the pendulum-swinging nature of popular opinion--is that science defines our existence to a degree that geologies have proposed calling the present epoch the Anthropocene, given the extent to which humanity has acquired dominion over all aspects of not only human living, but the planet itself. And that makes science an easy target when things start to go wrong in the world around us.
This is not even a particularly new phenomenon in this century; in the previous one, H.G. Wells both saw and understood this, and incorporated it into his cinematic vision of the coming 100 years, "Things to Come," by having a petty tyrant who gained power through a devastating world war object to a group of scientist who want to build a new world order. "Science?" he asks, and then answers: "It's the enemy of everything that's natural in life."
Taking into account the fundamentally anti-intellectual bent in American life, the emergence of a rebellion against science, and hence against vaccines, shouldn't be all that surprising. Many Americans have a congenital fear of people with brains and education, seeing them as comprising a kind of natural aristocracy that threatens to outthink them into submission to its wishes. After all, anyone can acquire money or guns, but whether or not you are smart is determined at birth. From that moment on, you are what you are. And, if you are not among the intellectual elite, you fear those that are.
So, where does that leave us?
I don't have a comforting or even pat answer to that question. I wish that I did. For a lot of reasons, requiring every person to be vaccinated legally is not really an option, although scientifically it would be the best one. The only way forward that I can see is for all sectors of society--government included--to provide as much honest information and as many positive incentives as possible in an effort to get the maximum number of people vaccinated. And pray that, in the process, most if not all of the skeptical can be persuaded to embrace science as the only means out of the problems that science has undeniably had a hand in creating.
Pray really, really hard.