The pandemic is making scapegoats of those that only yesterday we called fellow citizens and neighbours
AMERICAN WRITER Lance Morrow recently identified our current moment as the golden age of stupidity.
No evidence exists that the author of America: A Rediscovery and Second Drafts of History was peeping across the border watching the 2021 Canadian federal election when he made the claim.
That’s probably a good thing. Morrow’s language might have been even more colourful and caustic had he witnessed last week’s utter obloquy of protestors tossing gravel at Prime Minister Trudeau during a campaign stop, with the PM responding with what can only be called electoral schoolyard insults.
Managing to out-foolish that would have been the antics of anti-vaxx activists reportedly showing up at schools in Montreal trying to discourage students from getting their COVID shots. Their antics have brought an avalanche of political and community condemnation and calls for police action. Blocking hospital entrances and harassing medical staff wasn’t enough. Now kids are also apparently fair game.
If such shenanigans don’t mark the historic pit of boneheadedness, they must surely approach the acme of True North dumb and dumber. They are Stupid decked out in the Mad Hatter’s chapeau. They match Morrow’s succinct summary in his end of summer Wall Street Journal column: “(Stupidity) is everywhere. Stupidity is as stupidity does or, in the case of vaccination, as it doesn’t do. Stupidity and irresponsibility are evil twins.”
That said, it’s intriguing to see vaccine hesitancy – or outright refusal – on Morrow’s manifest of legendary idiocies. He places such resistance alongside the 18th-century clangers of King George III that cost England her American colonies, obdurate Renaissance papal refusal to take Martin Luther seriously, and the Trojans’ eager acceptance of a large wooden horse swollen with sniggering Greeks.
It’s quite the historic company to keep. As I’ve written, I never saw any reason to avoid the first two doses of vaccination. When the time comes, I will roll up my sleeve for my booster shot as I would for the annual flu jab. That said, I’d say we must carefully consider the implications of sticking a “Hi, I’m Irredeemably Obtuse” name tag on all who protest, object to, or thoughtfully refuse state-mandated vaccinations and vaccine passports.
After less than a year of public use, the vaccines themselves remain novel medical technology whose long-term effects are necessarily unknown. They simply haven’t been used on a mass basis long enough to get a definitive long-range read on what they might do. That can be unquestionably scary for some. At the same time, it isn’t a necessary and sufficient argument for outright rejection.
Squaring the circle, the assessment of essayist Charles Eisenstein seems to me entirely apropos. In a four-part essay series released over the summer, Eisenstein goes beyond the emerging risks of public stupidity and warns of the already-here dangers of darkness in the human soul.
His point is worth consideration by every serious person. Eisenstein makes no argument for or against the ever-expanding protocols of COVIDism. He does express a belief, tempered by his Yale degrees in both philosophy and mathematics, that: “The vaccines are much more dangerous, less effective, and less necessary than we are told.”
But there’s a but. And it’s a big but.
“They also seem not as dangerous, at least in the short term, as some fear. People are not dropping dead in the streets or turning into zombies. Most of my vaccinated friends seem to be just fine. It is hard to know. The science on the issue is so clouded by financial incentives and systemic bias that it is impossible to rely on it to light a way through the murk.”
A similarity between Morrow and Eisenstein is that both see the road we’re on clogged with the madness of crowds. For Morrow, however, there’s still the opportunity to detour. He traces sources of our current stumblebummery to the “subversion of manners and authority” in the 1960s, which prompts him to posit a Unified Field Theory of Stupidity whose empirical underpinnings are the rise of Big Tech, the death of privacy, and the divinity of the individual.
“The death of manners and privacy, I argue, are profoundly political facts that, combined with other facts, lead, eventually to an entire civilization of stupidity. It’s a short ride from stupidity to madness,” Morrow writes.
His warning does leave time for course correction, although not much. Things are moving fast along the Boulevard of Bonehead Dreams. But if civilization is millennia old and only a generation deep, there is still time to reset the social GPS misdirecting us to idiocy.
Eisenstein, for all his essay’s even-handedness about vaccines and vaccination, seems to think the problem is less about the road now travelled than a return to a path we’ve trod for millennia. In Mob Morality and the Unvaxxed, he writes that what is re-emerging among us is much more than a consequence of failed manners or respect for authority. It’s a dark and primal human impulse: the reflex (reflux?) to scapegoat in times of crisis and confusion.
He identifies the language directed specifically at vaccine doubters and dissenters as speaking beyond the politics of the moment to provoke a deep and ancient – possibly ontological – response in the human psyche and soul. Following the thought of the late French philosopher of anthropology and literature Rene Girard, he sees the dehumanizing of COVID protocol skeptics as a sign they are the “new scapegoat class, the heretics of our time” and so in line with those who’ve been sacrificed for the sake of social unity from time immemorial.
“Scapegoats need not be guilty but they must be marginal, outcasts, heretics, taboo-breakers or infidels of one kind or another,” Eisenstein writes. “Their guilt is irrelevant to the project of restoring order. As a readily identifiable subpopulation, they are ideal candidates for scapegoating.”
Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, lockdown refuseniks and other COVID protocol critics – even those who mock the purification ritual of constant hand sanitizing long after we learned the virus is not transmitted by contact – are not suffering the horrific violence inflicted on their scapegoat antecedents. They are at no risk, to be blunt, of being burned alive as the Jews of medieval Western Europe were for “poisoning wells” during the Black Death.
Yet Eisenstein notes that for merely taking a stand in a matter of their personal health, they are routinely disparaged on social media as “filth,” “death eaters,” “a**holes,” “raging narcissists,” “white supremacists,” and even “vile spreaders of Russian disinformation.” Worse, he writes, is the cancellation or deletion of many who propose alternative explanations and approaches across various media.
“The public’s ready acceptance of such blatant censorship cannot be explained solely in terms of its believing the pretext of ‘controlling misinformation.’ Unconsciously, the public recognizes and conforms to the age-old program of investing a pariah subclass with the symbology of pollution,” he writes.
Eisenstein makes the point that the science supporting such symbology is far from sound. In a similar way to what we are seeing with accumulating reports of doubly-vaccinated “breakthrough cases,” it’s feasible that the vaccinated “are more likely to drive” mutant variants.
“Just as antibiotics result in higher mutation rates and adaptive evolution in bacteria … so may vaccines push viruses to mutate. Hence the prospect of endless ‘boosters’ against endless new variants.”
Identifying a prospect is not the proclamation of a proof, of course. It is, as Eisenstein says, hard to know. He is explicit that he is not arguing the scientific case either way. He is less concerned with raising questions about the COVID response than with warning what happens to our capacity to respond effectively when the “collective id” is bedevilled by the demonization reflex of scapegoating.
“My point is that those in the scientific and medical community who dissent from the demonization of the unvaxxed contend not only with opposing scientific views, but with ancient, powerful psycho-social forces. They can debate the science all they want, but they are up against something much bigger,” he says.
A major complication they face is habitual abuse of language that makes the entire pandemic response a fit study for future students of propaganda. I would never say the mainstream media have collectively been revealed as a series of clickbait crack houses getting rich off addiction to spikes of cheap and easy COVID fear. But, even after decades as a journalist, if someone were to make such an allegation I’d need time to come up with an effective rebuttal. I grind my teeth, for example, about the rapid spread of the neologism “breakthrough cases” to describe COVID infection of those fully vaccinated. They’re not “breakthrough cases” at all. They’re vaccine failures.
The vaccines fail to protect some of those they were supposed to protect. We’ve known all along that some degree of failure was built into the vaccination process. So why not just say so? Why deploy and repeat a prophylactic euphemism except to serve propaganda needs? What would such a need be? How about protecting the political proclamation of vaccination as a panacea to manoeuvre doubters and dissenters into taking their shots?
The bewildering part is that such verbal game playing – and truth avoidance – continues 18 months into the pandemic’s massive disruptions of our lives. The refusal of political and bureaucratic power wielders to speak clearly, plainly, and above all accountably, only deepens the mire of our zaniness.
As the great Wall Street Journal writer Holman W. Jenkins Jr. pointed out in a September 10 column, constant imprecations to “follow the science” are little short of laughable when politics and science are stuck to each other in a clown car with the former at the wheel.
“In such circumstances, ‘follow the science’ is a political statement containing multitudes of ironies,” Jenkins Jr. writes. “Even major news outlets have become realistic about the politicization of booster shots inside the Biden administration. The same is true of masking as a back-to-school solution.
The “elitist conformist” website Axios, Jenkins Jr. notes, now recognizes vaccine mandates as part of a strategic effort by the U.S. president to reverse declining polling numbers through “shifting frustrations about climbing Delta variant cases onto the millions who’ve either actively or passively rejected the shot and other precautions.”
Eisenstein identifies a similar purpose in the deliberate confusion of politics and science resulting from official doublespeak that has overwhelmed us since the winter of 2020. “Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred,” he quotes Joseph Goebbels at the outset of the essay.
To be clear, he is not claiming we are becoming Nazis. He is reminding us that the Nazis were always us: fallen creatures infested with fear and vengeance, sometimes stretched to the very limits of evil. COVID, he argues, is an ideal ground for the release of those primal responses because it is driven by literal contagion that is at the heart of scapegoating and social cleansing.
“Unconsciously, the public recognizes and conforms to the age-old program of investing a pariah subclass with the symbology of pollution. This program is well underway toward the COVID-unvaxxed, who are being portrayed as walking cesspools of germs (that) might contaminate the Sanctified Brethren (the vaccinated),” he writes.
Even those who defend the prerogative of the unvaccinated to make a conscientious choice about the state using its monopoly on force to inject toxins into their bodies run the risk, he warns, of infection not from COVID but from the “contagion of disrepute” that comes with standing up for scapegoats and pariahs.
Even failing “to show sufficient enthusiasm in attacking them marks one with suspicion; the result of self-censorship and discretion, contributing all the more to the illusion of unanimity” within science, medicine, journalism, politics and daily life.
“Those who voice dissent publicly become radioactive.”
A retort, of course, is that those who refuse vaccination must live the consequences of their choice for the sake of the common good, and if that means wearing the name of shame, well, tant pis, as the French say. But Eisenstein isn’t rushing to the defence of the unvaccinated or declaring them right rather than wrong. He’s holding up a mirror to us as social beings so that we might look at our own faces, our own hearts, to witness what we are becoming.
“My point is not that the anti-vaxxers are right and being unjustly persecuted. It is that their persecution enacts a pattern that has little to do with whether they are right or wrong, innocent or guilty (or, as he says elsewhere in the essay, left or right). The unreliability of the science underscores that point and suggests we take a hard look at the deadly social impulses the science cloaks.”
It’s one thing to be caught in the permanent spin cycle of reductio ad absurdum as a way of life. It is something else again to be flung from the Commonwealth of Fear, where we’ve lived since March 2020, to end up in the Republic of Shame, where the once bright, proud promise of vaccination threatens to have us all primitively flinging mud – and worse – at each other’s faces.
Stupid is as stupid does, Lance Morrow aptly says, though the same might be said of fear, vengeance, ostracism and dehumanization. And if “stupidity and irresponsibility are evil twins,” we might ask what kind of dark beasts now prowl our borders when a pandemic can make scapegoats of those that only yesterday we called fellow citizens and neighbours?
Peter Stockland is Senior Writer with Cardus and Editor of Convivium.