On the History of Suicidal Righteousness in the Anti-Vaccine Movement
Covid-19, we must admit, has been great for conspiracy theorists and their critics. This whole locked-inside past year has devolved society into a perversion of the anti-tolerance fanatics most of us had already been before we started wearing masks. Our world became a CAPS LOCK scream-fest, where angry people would spout their malicious, confident insanity, demanding that we listen to their gospels. Those who denounced all rational thinking, frenzied by terror infecting the world, where suddenly walking outside your house could get you killed, these became the experts on how we should be living.
One of the interesting dialogues throughout this horribleness is the shouting over whether to wear a mask, or do I have to, and why don’t I care? This first ridiculous selfishness, refusing to care about anyone outside your immediate circle, is an exaggeratedly brutal grievance. I mean:
For those denouncing today as a time of cowardice and weakness, believing in the more righteous American Dream of 80 years ago (honestly, all of them white people), there’s this:
Section 361 of the PHSA, titled “Control communicable diseases,” appears under Part G (“Quarantine and Inspection”) of Title III of the PHSA, which sets forth the general powers and duties of the Public Health Service (PHS). 43 Section 361 has five subsections, (a) through (e). Section 361(a) provides:
The Surgeon General, with the approval of the Secretary, is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.
That’s some late WWII legislation, an enforcement of getting rid of those fucking germs just like we did the Nazis. Fuck your home, fuck your life, children are not going to die from smallpox or be crippled by polio because you don’t give a shit about life. The diseases — look at the provisions! — they come from “outside.” Are you a traitor bowing down to follow the enemy’s lead? This is a glare of the totalitarian well-thinking that gets people to believe in kings.
Look at the language; see the closed chambers scribble of some clerk, summarizing a harsh new law in the polite, militarized language of “for the public good.” “For the public good” we must take or destroy anything we perceive as a threat. No wonder panicked people get paranoid. Some of this shit, at least on paper, some of these radicalized demands might help all of us survive.
That’s what this law is, this fumigation doctrine, and I have no doubt that there were the same anti-mask/vaccine arguments, the same decrees of oppression on every side. They were the same bitterly hopeless bunch, people so jealous of their very wrong impressions of what people leading a different life believe; such an impotent, petty, over-the-hill ideology looking forward to death.
That’s from 1930, a blaring attack on perceived ignorance, and on the threat other people cause by choosing to refuse adjustment. The four guys’ sashes, the blindfold; the other three are wearing presumably blind men’s glasses. They are, upon the edge of misinformation, walking into the swamp called smallpox. They are holding hands, blind-folded Mr. Banker refusing a vaccine, leading the sightless follower business tycoon, the indifferent gangster, and dress-wearing anti-Lincoln to their doom.
So these goons, they were pissed. They were gonna strike back:
Goddamn doctors . . .
“Under the United States’ federalist system, states and the federal government share regulatory authority over public health matters, with states traditionally exercising the bulk of the authority in this area pursuant to their general police power. This power authorizes states, within constitutional limits, to enact laws “to provide for the public health, safety, and morals” of the states’ inhabitants. In contrast to this general power, the federal government’s power is confined to those powers enumerated in the Constitution.”
During the Spanish Flu pandemic, the United States enforced restrictions with outrage and threats over saying anything. They closed schools and churches; hang-outs, community centers, bars (Prohibition was only a year away). No new movies, or plays; books with too much time and not enough interest to read; a new radio broadcasting only static.
Forget the department stores, or getting your hair done. There were limited gatherings, enforced social distancing under threat of a fine, and limited seating to a percentage where many were driven out of business.
This was 1918, the last year of The Great War
and the numbers from the disease were staggering.
People were warned:
And the exhausted public, having spent five years in complete wartorn panic, feared the absolute worst.
By now all the theories had expanded well beyond merely public well-being, or life and death. It was all politics. It was an attempt to organize behavior. It was about people demanding that you do something either pro- or con-. It was about someone trying to control your freedom, either to live or refuse to take whatever chemical demand being force ingested. This divide led to both the rise of Communism,
Saying “no” to vaccines was a freedom, an essential one to keep the clanging nightmare of disease from coming anywhere close to touching your mind. “If it isn’t real, then . . .”
Medical science, of course, has plenty of shameful history.
What are these shadowy masked figures, in their spacesuits and gloves, what are they doing? What’re they mixing up?
Are they just testing something on people without their knowing about it? Promised a cure, but what’s in it?
And if we do this to people, the terrified public might think, imagine what they’d do to animals:
The anti-vaccine radicals during the smallpox pandemic of the late-19th to mid-20th century offer a vicious, cynical survivalist tone that waves away estimates claiming that at least 300 million people died of it from the 1920s through the 1950s. Smallpox still snarls today, suppressed.
According to the CDC the most important achievement of 20th century medicine was:
Number four on their top ten list is
- Control of Infectious disease
There was thus an argument over the freedom to not care about other people’s lives or well-being. It was a greedy time, just after World War I, and just before the stock-market crash helped usher in The Great Depression. The future was wide open, if only the virus would get out of the way.
Smallpox is, and always was, something to behold:
It still exists today, pharmaceutical greed overwhelming the medical do-gooders who want to save even the most desperate people on earth. The sick are bad for business. The feeble, the poor, there is no loss to the bottom line if they die.
In 1796 Dr. Edward Jenner
first developed his idea for the smallpox vaccine. He noticed that farmers and milkmaids who had developed cowpox,
in its own right a dreadful disease, none of them — all the infected — were able to catch smallpox. This led to the curious and revolutionary idea that by sticking some of the active antigens into the body, there might be protection against the disease ravaging the world. They were unsure if cowpox would be passed onto the unknowing test subject, or even if something worse might happen — mutation, soul-stealing, demonic possession, death. But it was believed by most in the medical community to be well worth the risk.
In 1801 Jenner published his findings as a medical document that we might as well declare scientific scripture.
It was this archaic study, combined with the woes of history, with the recognition of plague, and with the paralysis of the public over such apocalyptic fates, that fanaticism entered the realm of otherwise robotic laboratory invention.
The smallpox vaccine was heralded as both divine intervention, and as a mind-control plot perpetrated by Catholics and Jews and Freemasons and witches and the Irish and devils and anti-monarchists and blacks and browns and yellows and Indians and queers and all other drastically different views of normal presumably with something to gain by trying to prevent disease. This was publicly stated by far more than one high holy one:
- The cure is worse than the disease!
The anti-vaccine movement had a history going back well before Edward Jenner’s discovery.
Such sermons were common, despite wave after wave of disease rolling up on shore and wiping out entire populations. The following numbers are vastly under-counted pandemic deaths from the 18th century:
Bubonic Plague: 3,500,000+
Yellow Fever: 150,000+
Dengue Fever: 100,000+
These are of course estimates, and there are plenty of those epidemic viruses not mentioned, but the actual numbers certainly much higher than the five million or so scribbled into the records. Plenty of people died mercilessly at home or in alleys without ever being diagnosed, without being cared for or about, and the name given to their illness was more often than not something religious, some sacred title of judgment; a plague out of the bible.
Of course people today might cynically look at these numbers and wonder what all the uproar was about? That number seems pretty low (doesn’t it?) compared to all those who die in auto-accidents or gunshot wounds or drug overdoses or suicide, right? Five million people . . .
There were maybe 800,000,000 people in the world at the time of the American Revolution. In those years there were epidemics of influenza, dengue fever, and smallpox in particular, rampaging through all nations and on the battlefield. In New Wales Australian more than half the population succumbed to smallpox, leaving in the wreckage scarred, surviving children being darkly oppressed by a losing United Kingdom ragefully trying to hold onto their remaining far colonies. The world, for all the glory we like to celebrate about notions of freedom and the founding of a new political faith, there was very little that actually changed in the day-to-day world other than the slogans.
When the vaccine movement exploded, offering promises of cures to all the ills devastating humanity, of course plenty of people bought into them (and yes, many people died by ingesting the quackery knock-offs of medicine men,
selling brandy and opium as a cure-all, or suggesting a red veil over the face in the sun would restore one to health, needles be damned!
Opponents of vaccines, terrified, misanthropic people, demand their right to freedom from considering the well-being of others and their nation. The excuses and mockery of science, and the “cowardly lemmings turning their hands from God and giving their souls to Dr. Lucifer,” should not seem too distant for the modern day skeptic.
The pro-vaccine side had arguments too, taking the same evangelical tone and warning of “The Great Reset,” which was the apocalyptic “Great Flood” for modern times, destroying mankind for its wickedness.
Both arguments, hysterical in their corporate policies, served to divide the world on issues of public health, shattering trust in medicine (as yet still more primitive alchemy), and fueling an anti-vaccine movement that has caused harrowing results, terrifying parents about the dangers to their young ones, and then refusing the blame when many of those children died in pox ravaged agony.
Of course medical science has evolved remarkably since such seemingly ancient times. We have vaccines for smallpox, cures for measles and mumps and rubella and the hated, deadly flu.
One tends to forget the sheer devastation of the 1918 Spanish flu. As many as fifty million people died among the half billion infected worldwide. The impact on the world, on the economy, on everything to do with living, was terminal. Yet there remained sneering cynics, perhaps even watching their parents or spouses or children die with a high fever and no more will to live; there remained these arrogant know-it-alls who declared “more people die of the plague every year,” (or cholera, meningitis, polio, some disease rumored to be devouring the people of any other nation) “than from this fake disease. They are trying to control us, trying to take away our freedom.”
The above picture is from 1919, the same year that the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series for just enough money to survive the off-season. It was the second year of the Spanish flu epidemic. Games looked like this:
Oh, and you’d better wear a mask when coming to or playing those games, or going anywhere! If not, you would be arrested.
Restrictions were notable. Those refusing to comply with the orders were called “Slackers.”
They took their cause very seriously:
It was all over the press, of course, a virulence stomping out the final days of The Great War.
And the medical community (as well as designers and purveyors seeing an inexpensive way to make huge profits)
offered public service announcements daily.
Of course there were more influential skeptics, politicians and zillionaires, those interested in personal profit above human life. They mocked the doctors and the worried public,
and spread their gospel of an exaggerated threat, telling the strong young men that they didn’t have to worry. They were in the prime of their lives.
The University of Michigan Wolverines, 1918. They were terrific, the best team, perhaps, in all of sports. It had been six years since they’d lost a game.
A number of new players on the team had recently returned from the war and were now both shell shocked, and vehement about the chance for any sort of future. They were far more aggressive than they’d been than when they’d left, making the team, and all sports played everywhere, much more brutal. Football, for one, was going to show the world the toughest of the tough.
Ignoring public warnings, many colleges forced their schedules through, making deals with opposing schools and organizing committees, offering shared profits of what would no doubt be heavily attended events considering so much else was permanently closed.
The crowd size was diminished, but still bouyant. Newspapers were selling more than ever.
Disease Not Feared Here Due To Good Conditions, read the circulars and headlines promoting the season. Student Body Free From Influenza was promised, despite the fact that twelve undergraduates were already suffering in quarantine infirmaries on campus.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going.
Michigan destroyed the very nervous Case Medical College in the first game of the season 33–0, Case never closer to the end zone than where the ball landed after punting. The future doctors seemed afraid to get near the other players. They were roundly laughed at by shouting and coughing students bunched together in the stands.
Within a week 52 more cases of influenza had spread around campus, and the first few started to die. By the end of the following week more than 100 students and faculty were infected and there were 14 reported deaths. The school released a statement: Influenza Cases Well In Hand Now.
When three members of the campus army corps were diagnosed, the college reluctantly suspended the football season. According to head coach Fielding Yost
this had nothing to do with “my boys unwillingness to play,” but with the fact that “no one wants to play us.”
The following week it was reported that Influenza Numbers are Way Down Nationwide in the partisan Michigan Daily, and that Only Five Dead of Influenza at UM, which was disingenuously referring to the campus deaths that week.
The frustration swirled for a while, violent young men with no on field outlet turning to fighting and bullying and rape to pass the time, finally relieved by a resumption of the games in the middle of November.
Michigan’s final record that year was 5–0. They allowed six points the whole season to be scored against them, both field goals by their rival Michigan State. They went on to win the national championship game over Ohio State 14–0. Only two players on the team died.
Most people complied with the new laws and regulations out of a sense of pride for their nation and a concern for the well-being of its people.
Which brings us back to today.
How this evolved so shrilly from the similarly anxious refusals of the past is a longer story in its own right, and could (and no doubt will) take up many books chronicling the impatient radicalism of today. For our purposes let us lay a great deal of its blame on the internet.
Stories — misguided, often outright invented — tell of the potential horrors the addition of a foreign substance might have on your body, and on the development of your children. All sorts of theories about brain disorders are smeared upon the wonders of medical science because people cannot accept that maybe, sadly, it is the misfortune of their own genetics which caused the trouble with their child. Perhaps it was a bad diet while pregnant. Maybe they smoked or drank. Did they shoot heroin? Snort bath salts? Maybe panic and anxiety and euphoria overwhelmed their nervous system and interfered with the proper development of an unborn child — are any of these less likely than a vaccination as the cause? Several are certainly more.
Yes, the internet has poisoned every notion of confidence we might once have had in doctors.
An example of this shift is perfectly articulated by WebMD.com, a scurrilous site where nervous people are given the option to self-diagnose and decide between a menu offered on which illness you might have. I did an experiment:
After keying in my age and gender, I put in the following symptoms: headache at the back of head, ear ache, and runny nose. The headache is the worst, right? I’ve got a cold I figure — maybe a migraine. According to WebMD I might also have a cerebellar hemorrhage. I might be having an aneurysm. Ahhhh! What should I do?
It all finally comes back to our constant need to blame something outside ourselves, to refuse the discomfort or the aggravation of safety, and going out being forced not to look your best. You look stupid in a mask, don’t you?
Some people are so outraged by the very idea of protecting others that they call out people for wearing masks themselves, threatening them.
And the confused righteousness required to protest safety, of conflating wearing a mask in public with somehow having your voice silenced makes no sense at all. Muffled? Perhaps. But silenced? What do they mean by believing this?
Yes, COVID-19 is nowhere near as bad as smallpox or bubonic plague or AIDS or yellow fever. It is far less of a threat than Ebola, which having mostly not come to The United States allows Americans to ask “What’s the big deal?”
Know why things are better regardless of how horrible this virus is? Medicine. It is because we have studied the causes, the impacts, and the ways we can fight against any number of plagues. It is the same great wonder of human genius, our capacity to learn, that has helped us all stay alive as long as we have. And yet there still remains, even after all this time and all we have discovered, there still remains
There still remains this suicidal righteousness, a willingness to die for the cause of opposing everything.