Of Paranoia and Patriotism

When I was stationed in Germany in the 1980s, the armor battalions on our kaserne kept live ammunition on their M1A1 Abrams tanks 24/7, including 120mm depleted uranium rounds, the better to roll out speedily should Ivan come across the Intra-German Border. For that reason, their nightly guard shift also carried live ammo in their sidearms, initially the venerable Colt .45, and later, the Beretta 9mm. 

One cold Hessian night, a despondent young private on guard duty in that lonely tank park pulled his pistol, pressed it against his chest, and pulled the trigger, committing suicide.

The next morning, the Armor battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, held a formation and told his assembled troops that he didn’t give a fuck about a solder who wanted to kill himself.

I had a lot of respect for that colonel otherwise, but it goes without saying he was flat-out wrong with that callous attitude, which was colossally un-PC even in the far less enlightened US Army of the Eighties. Many of our soldiers were young men right out of high school (we had no women in combat arms in those days), deployed to a remote part of an allied­ but sometimes still hostile foreign country, and their mental health was of great concern to the unit leadership, or should have been, with suicide in the ranks a serious problem across USAREUR. Today that commander’s opinion would be a career-ender, for any officer foolish enough to voice it.

But without endorsing LTC Not-His-Real-Name’s coldblooded attitude, that incident has been on my mind as I contemplate the current state of the pandemic.

If, for whatever bizarre reason, tens of millions of my fellow Americans don’t want to take a free, safe, readily available, government-provided vaccine that will protect them and their loved ones from a lethal pandemic, then I wish them well. It is literally their funeral.  

The problem is, by so doing—unlike that poor tanker private in Germany—they are also putting the rest of us at risk, prolonging that pandemic, and preventing us as a nation from getting a fucking handle on it.

THE REV. JIM JONES WOULD BE PROUD

From whence springs such self-destructive contrarianism? I’ll tell you.

I don’t know.

But I do know that this strain goes way back in our national psyche. It is the famous “paranoid style” of which Richard Hofstadter wrote some 59 years ago, the very month of Kennedy’s assassination, as it happened, a watershed moment in the history of tinfoil hats. It is the mentality of Strangelove’s “precious bodily fluids” (fictional, but prescient), and of the John Birch Society, once considered a lunatic fringe by mainstream conservatives, but now the dominant strain in the Republican Party. It’s not uniquely American, but we are definitely a global leader in it, pre-dating even the founding of our country, with roots in the religious zealots who first settled here and seized the place from its indigenous inhabitants.

It’s also a mindset that is hard to eradicate with an appeal to reason and those pesky things we like to call “facts,” given that its very core is not reason-based at all, but rather, defiantly anti-rational.

It doesn’t help that a segment of the population that is already skeptical of any kind of book-learnin’ and highly susceptible to conspiracy theory has been ruthlessly exploited by a ruling class that benefits from its ignorance and belligerence toward common sense.

I’m all for questioning authority, Joe Strummer style. But we’re not talking about critical, open-minded, free-thinking here….we’re talking about knee-jerk reactionaryism, weaponized by the very plutocratic elites whose gated mansions the alienated hoi polloi ought to be storming.

In a piece for The Atlantic called “The Anti-Vaccine Right Brought Human Sacrifice to America,” Kurt Andersen writes:

(M)illions of Americans have been persuaded by the right to promote death, and potentially to sacrifice themselves and others, ostensibly for the sake of personal liberty but definitely as a means of increasing their tribal solidarity and inclination to vote Republican.

And the price?

Unvaccinated people from 65 to 79 are now 21 times as likely to die of COVID as the  to be hospitalized than the vaccinated and boosted.

The median age of Fox News viewers is 65.

Yet in the same way that Trump’s pre-Election Day claims that the vote would be rigged self-destructively robbed him and other Republicans of votes, the GOP anti-vax effort is killing more Republican voters than anyone else.

87% of US adults are at least partially vaccinated, but Republicans and Republican-leaning independents comprise the vast majority of that remaining unvaccinated 13%. (Put another way, three out of five of unvaccinated Americans are Republicans.) Andersen reports that 17 of the least-vaccinated states are ones that Trump carried in 2020, and a whopping 27% of Republicans are adamantly opposed to getting the vaccine for any reason, compared to only 9% of Democrats.

Put simply, nationwide, “the more Republican your county, the more likely you are to die of COVID.”

Because of that right wing resistance, the number of fully vaccinated adults in the US is somewhere between 64 to 66%, the worst among fifteen major industrialized nations, except—fittingly—Russia.

It goes without saying that this willingness of the GOP’s to spread lethal disinformation for partisan gain is despicable beyond belief. The contempt that willingness shows for the party’s own followers—to the point of killing them—speaks for itself. But that is the nature of a death cult.

Andersen goes on to detail the ways that ambitious Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in the early days of the pandemic supported common sense public health measures like masks and social distancing, now understand that their future in GOP politics depends on a competition in crazy. Hence their performative attempts to outdo each other in banning mask mandates and vaccine requirements, offering unemployment benefits to workers fired for refusing to get the jab, and even declining to reveal their own booster status. (Spoiler: They’re boosted. They’re evil, not stupid.)

But, as Andersen says, this is hardly the first public-health crisis the American right has exploited, and it is unlikely to be the last. “After all, for 40 years now they’ve proved their righteous power by sacrificing thousands of lives each year to the quasi-religious American fetish for guns.”

ALTERNATIVE FACTS

Near my dad’s house in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania there is a guy with a big sign in his yard that reads FAKE PANDEMIC / REAL TYRANNY. I am puzzled every time I drive by. So Biden’s a tyrant exploiting a fake pandemic, even though the fake pandemic was ginned up on Trump’s watch? So far I have resisted the urge to knock on the guy’s door and ask, because I turned in my Kevlar vest when I got out of the Army. 

Such partisan absurdism is part of why the virus has ravaged the US longer than it had to, and was able to mutate into newer and deadlier forms. But as it finally begins to recede, there is more than a little irony in the point at which we now find ourselves.

From the very start of the pandemic, the right wing downplayed its severity, insisting it was no worse than the flu and that we could just live with it. They had no reason to believe that other than wishful thinking, the aforementioned contrariness, and the usual hostility toward authority, academia, and the scientific method in particular. But that’s what they claimed.

Now, ironically, it is the rational, mainstream segment of the public, the ones who understood the historic threat that the novel coronavirus posed and dutifully took the necessary measures to combat it— that is to say, largely Democrats, independents, and reasonable conservatives (both of them)—who are coming to view COVID-19 as a manageable illness that we can live with, like the seasonal flu.

It only took nearly a million dead Americans to get here, right?

This is not to say that the right wing crazies were correct. Quite the contrary. COVID-19 is only becoming a manageable illness of that sort after wreaking havoc in a way not seen in a hundred years, and then only because the majority of earthlings took those measures to contain it, and because a miraculous series of vaccines was developed thanks to an unprecedented, government-backed, moonshot-like scientific effort.

Of course, that “manageability” also depends in part on our ability to get control of a separate but related threat, the ongoing global climate emergency, to which the rise of species-jumping viruses like COVID-19 is related. You won’t be shocked to learn that the climate emergency is yet another thing that the reactionary community is desperate to disbelieve, lie about, and deny.

One can easily imagine a counterfactual alternative history in which the Trump administration took the opposite tack, embracing the lethality of the coronavirus, and using it as cover to institute draconian governmental interventions that would advance its autocratic agenda. Indeed, that was a scenario that’s been used by other despotic regimes, and one that quite a few pundits predicted would happen here as well. For Team Trump, it actually would have been a lot strategically smarter in numerous ways. 

Yes, it would have run contrary to that General Jack D. Ripper paranoia that is endemic in the American right. But that would have likely been balanced by the Frommian impulse for submission to father figure authority and the fetish for law & order that is equally endemic there. It would also have offered the bonus, ahem, of containing the virus and preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Just by the by.

But there was also Trump’s laziness to take into account, and his lifelong belief—constantly reinforced—that he could just bend reality to whatever he wished. And he wished COVID would just go the hell away.

In this alternative history, it’s the left that is skeptical of government information about the virus, and critical of invasive measures the administration takes to extend and expand its authority. It’s easy to picture articles in The Nation and The New Republic suspicious about how fast the vaccine was created and approved, and raising natural medicine objections to it, and full of conspiracy theories about the shot as a way for the Trump regime to tag and track us.

What it comes down to is who you trust. With its history of malevolence and mendacity, if it was the Trump administration telling us how deadly the virus was and taking those kinds of extreme measures, we would have rightly been wary.

And yet, it WAS the Trump administration instituting those strict restrictions, lockdowns, and so forth, grudgingly, on the advice of non-partisan public health experts. But the left did not freak out, or even complain. We listened to the credible scientific officials attesting to the lethality and communicability of the virus, even while under the heavy thumb of the Trump White House, and adjudged their recommendations correct and prudent, despite the potential for abuse by those in power at the time. It was that corrupt administration itself and their mouthbreathing followers who had to be dragged along. It was right wing vigilantes, not left wing ones, armed with semiautomatic weapons and waving “Don’t Tread On Me” and Confederate battle flags, who gathered in maskless, pathogen-friendly mobs in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, howling about government “tyranny” and demanding the right to die and to put others’ lives at risk along the way. And somehow, like my dad’s neighbor, it was Democrats they were furious with—not their own party, which was in power at the national level. Trump, born bombthrower that he is, tweeted encouragement as they protested his own policies.

Like I said before: not reason-based.

Almost two years later, it was pretty astonishing last week to see Trump in Arizona at a rally for his 2024 presidential campaign (yes, that’s what it was) telling the crowd that the US government is withholding the COVID vaccine from white people. Needless to say, it was a shameless, race-baiting lie. But what a weird one! What possessed The Former Guy to tell this particular whopper to a crowd of people who are largely against getting the vaccine anyway, and many of whom believe that COVID-19 is a hoax is in the first place?

The month before, appearing with Bill O’Reilly in Dallas, Trump was actually booed by the crowd when he told them he’d had the booster, suggesting that the Salem-like hysteria he unleashed with his COVID denialism in the spring of 2020 now threatens to devour even its pumpkin-tinged creator.

It was a fascinating moment. Heretofore the distinguishing feature of Trumpism has been the headspinning willingness of his cult to do a 180 on a dime when his whims reverse, as they frequently do. And Trump is such a supreme narcissist that he obviously thinks he can say and do things that even defy the orthodoxy of his own movement—yet another ego-serving demonstration of the tyrant’s unchallenged alpha dog dominance. But with COVID denialism, he may find he is at last pressing up against a mindless, mule-headed, and unyielding force even stronger than MAGA Nation’s fealty to him.

After all, from the start the members of that cult embraced him largely because he was the perfect vessel through which they could vent their free-floating resentment and anger. That may change if he ceases to facilitate their bile, creating an opening for a new avatar of hate. (Tucker Carlson, anyone?) Then again, we know that this audience is not swayed by “the facts,” so there’s no reason they can’t believe that COVID is a hoax and at the same time be furious that the government is—allegedly—denying the vaccine to them.

CELEBRITY SKIN

One of the few good things COVID-19 did was expose the crybabiness of many of our professional athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities. Like nothing before, the egalitarian demands of the pandemic brought out the fragility of this pampered segment of the polis, who are generally exempted from the indignities of everyday life with which we mere mortals must daily contend. From Clapton to Van Morrison to Meat Loaf to Aaron Rodgers to Kirk Cousins to Kyrie Irving to Novak Djokovic, the megalomania and sense of entitlement has been beyond beyond. (Say what you will about Australia, though, they really know how to return a Serb.)

Some are worse than others, of course. Kyrie and Cousins at least owned their positions, while Rodgers tried to have it both ways. Unfortunately for him, the 49ers pass rush was too much, even at Lambeau in freezing temperatures. (As one tweet put it, “Congratulations to Jimmy Garoppolo on replacing Dr. Fauci as Aaron Rodgers’ least favorite Italian.”)

But even a civil approach to vaccine resistance is, ultimately, irresponsible, no matter how much one tries to frame it as a matter of “liberty” and “personal choice.” 

Last September, Indianapolis Colt quarterback Carson Wentz, a devout Christian, said the following about being unvaccinated:

I’m not going to go into depth on why but I will say it’s a personal decision for me and my family. I respect everybody else’s decision and I just ask that everybody does the same for me. I know that’s not the world we live in, not everyone is going to equally view things the same but yeah, no one really knows what’s going on in someone else’s household and how things are being handled. It’s a personal decision.

At first blush, that might pass for pretty reasonable. After all, it was full of phrases like “personal decision” (twice), “me and my family,” “respect everybody else’s decision,” and so on. As far as that goes, it easily beats Rodgers’s deceptive semantics about being “immunized” and his snotty claims on sports talk radio to have done his own research, and his whiny complaints about “the woke mob.” (But I’ll stop picking on Aaron. He hates being needled.)

But really, let’s think about what Carson is saying. He’s saying, “Hey, I’m gonna do this thing that puts not only my own health at risk, but also the health and even the very lives of my teammates, the coaching staff, the fans, and everyone around me, and it’s none of your business why.”

Really? Imagine a chef saying, “Hey, I’m not gonna wash my hands after I take a shit in the employee bathroom, and that’s just my personal choice, so screw you, Department of Health.” Or a parent saying, “I’m not gonna have my kid vaccinated against smallpox because it goes against my belief in the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, so see you at the next PTA meeting….I’ll bring the brownies!”

It also goes without saying that that same part of the political spectrum that is suddenly keen on “my body, my choice,” and ferociously opposed to governmental intrusion in private decisions about medical procedures, has historically sung a very different aria over a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. But if American women are unhappy about that, I guess maybe they should have thought of that before they recklessly decided to be born with uteruses.

It’s not hard to parse the source of this position for these celebrities: “I’m special.” It’s what psychiatrists call Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN), seen in individuals who have spent their entire lives receiving non-stop cues that relentlessly tell them that they are in fact special. Indeed, it would be irrational for them to conclude otherwise.

With issues of medicine and health, the phenomenon is especially acute for professional athletes, whose bodies are their instruments. Ask 104-year-old Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady, owner of a record seven Super Bowl rings—not a vaccine denier, I hasten to note—when he next emerges from the hyperbaric chamber where he sleeps, connected to an IV drip of Komodo dragon bone marrow.

Speaking of which, congrats to Tom on his retirement, which will allow him to spend more time breeding a new race of über-human offspring with his Brazilian supermodel wife. (I kid, Tom. #TheGOAT.) The good news is, his retirement will allow Joe Biden to name the Buccaneers’ new quarterback.

But I don’t mean to pick on athletes and entertainers. Lots of other Americans seem to feel they too are exempt from participation in the community.

Neil Gorsuch seemed to be signaling that with his refusal to wear a mask in the Supreme Court, while a notoriously right wing federal judge recently ruled that a bunch of Navy SEALs could claim a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine, even though none of them had previously expressed objections, religious or otherwise, to the multitude of other immunizations the Navy had required of them in their military careers.

But Supreme Court justices and SEALs are still very much in the realm of the elite. What about Joe Six Pack? Oh, you better believe he thinks he’s special too.

Last weekend, several thousand anti-vax demonstrators gathered on the National Mallin Washington DC to shriek for their right to die, decry the vaccine as “Satan’s syrup” (as the Florida-based right wing evangelical preacher Rick Wiles calls it), wave Trump flags, and call for things like the imprisonment of Dr. Fauci. The only good news? Any hostile extraterrestrials conducting a reconnaissance of Earth ahead of a potential invasion may have viewed that rally and decided it’s not worth it.

School boards have become battlezones where parents now insist that they, not public health experts, know best about, er, public health (when not railing, Scopes Monkey Trial-style, against letting our kids know—gasp—that there’s racism in America). As a Republican strategist in Virginia opined after Youngkin’s gubernatorial win, “If they opened up the schools in the fall of 2020, Terry McAuliffe wins.”

(The New York Times podcast “The Daily” recently had a great two-part episode on that very topic, coincidentally, also set in Bucks County.)

But this too is a juvenile response, however understandable. You don’t have to tell me that parents are exhausted; I’m the father of a fifth grader who has had all or part of three school years ravaged by COVID. But to threaten the lives of school board members because you think a mask policy is tantamount to the Gestapo knocking on your door at 3 a.m. is a special kind of crazy all its own.

THE NOT-SO-GREATEST GENERATION

A perfect confluence of these two reactionary strains is to be found in right wing provocateur and Birthright cautionary tale Bari Weiss, formerly of the New York Times, last seen fearmongering about wokeism in our schools. 

Weiss recently went on Bill Maher’s show to whine that “she’s done with COVID.”Specifically, her complaint was that she did all the right things and yet the virus is still with us. To be fair, a lot of people feel that way, and with justification. But most are smart enough—or insufficiently famous enough—not to go on national TV and sound like a spoiled brat about it.

Grow up,” was the succinct reply of Dr. Jonathan Reiner of the George Washington University med school.

All of this whinging is hard on America’s heroic and self-flattering vision of itself as “the greatest country on earth.” (Sorry, Andorra!) A nation that never ceases crowing over its shared sacrifice in World War II and how tout le monde would all be speaking German if not for the Greatest Generation is now one in which millions will not even wear a paper mask in the interest of the national good….which is to say, to stop a historic pandemic that has claimed nearly a million of their countrymen. (And these same folks are keen to compare mask and vaccine mandates to the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.) Perspective seems to be in rather short supply.  

The most bitter irony of all is that the anti-mask, anti-vax, COVID-denying movement fancies itself great patriots and “real” Americans, defending “freedom” or at least their twisted vision of it. But of course, these are the same self-styled “patriots” whose god-emperor regularly shits on the Constitution they claim to hold sacred, who have been known to beat police officers with flagpoles while insisting that they “Back the Blue,” and who are somehow fine with doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin, who after all, is just defending white Christian values and seems like a really cool guy, ya know?

The most generous interpretation is that they merely have a different definition of America than the rest of us. (Merely.) No doubt about that. It’s a vision that’s retrograde, paranoid, and overwhelmingly blanco, one that looks backward to a time when men were—allegedly—men, and didn’t have to worry about what a bunch of broads, immigrants, fags, and colored people had to say. 

When it comes to the pandemic, that twisted “patriotism” and sense of privilege, coupled with a Know Nothing resentment of intellectualism, science, and knowledge full stop, has brought on a toxic insistence that they ought to be able to do whatever the hell they want and the rest of America can fuck off and die. Ironically, they’re mainly the ones doing the dying, as we’ve seen, but in the process they’re prolonging a pandemic that affects everyone.

To quote one of the right’s own favorite maxims, freedom isn’t free. A democracy confers on its participants the benefits of liberty, but also entails duties to the commonwealth. These types are fond of shouting, “I know my rights!” You never hear: “I know my responsibilities!”

So dear crybabies: Pull up your big boy-and-girl pants, put your alleged patriotism—and simple humanity—where your mouth is, and do the absolute least you can do for the common good. If that’s not too much trouble for you.

MISSES AND DISSES

We all know that dangerous misinformation is rife in America today, from global warming denialism to the Big Lie that Trump wuz robbed to COVID conspiracy theory.

After Meat Loaf died, I saw a comment on a friend’s Facebook thread that said something to the effect of, “Oh well, seems like it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not. I know both kinds of people, and some got it and died and some were fine.”

I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to write and say, with all due respect, that that simply was not true. The woman replied: “I don’t want to argue with you, just stating my opinion!”

I responded, again with all due respect, that that was not an opinion but an outright falsehood and it was dangerous to spread. She repeated her assertion that she had a right to her opinion.

How did we get to this point where not only has a distorted concept of “freedom” morphed into reckless disregard for personal responsibility toward the broader community, but arbitrary personal opinion has been elevated to the same level as empirical fact?

Again, I’ll tell you.

I don’t know. But it doesn’t bode well for the future.

In truth, the two impulses are conjoined. I can do whatever I want because “freedom,” and I can justify it because part of that freedom is my god-given right to my own facts. Which I am under no obligation to back up with, like, proof.

There’s a fella on my own Facebook feed who is an anti-vaxxer and regularly asserts, without evidence, that “millions” have died from the vaccine. “Do your research,” he routinely sneers at those unfortunate souls who unsuspectingly stumble into arguments with him. 

I decided to follow that advice. So I went back to college, got a second bachelor’s degree in human biology, went to med school and got an MD, specialized in infectious diseases, passed my boards, did a four-year residency and then a three-year fellowship, got a PhD in epidemiology along the way, worked at the CDC and NIH and WHO, traveled abroad to study epidemics and pandemics firsthand, published a bunch of papers and a few books, and now hold a tenure track teaching position at a prestigious university.  

Well, I was gonna do that, but then someone told me “do your research” just meant listening to a podcast from a UFC commentator who used to host “Fear Factor.” Huge time-saver.

Just to be clear: our hospitals are not full of people who are sick from the vaccine, nor our morgues with people who died from it. Those hospitals are, however, full of people who are sick because they didn’t take the vaccine. Thus have we entered what is being called “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” And the GOP is abetting it. 

Not all anti-vaxxers are cretins by any means. In my extended family I have a vaccine “skeptic” who has not had the shot. This is a lovely person, well-educated, living in a major metropolitan area, and married to a doctor. I can’t speculate about why they feel that way, and it’s awkward to discuss. But it’s tremendously sad and unfortunate ….for them above all, but for the rest of us as well. 

No such kindness is in order for the cynics, opportunists, and political partisans who know better, but have encouraged and exploited this deadly mentality for their own political gain, at the cost of human lives. Because misinformation is one thing. Disinformation—outright lies, deliberately spread—is another. And that is what the Republican Party is engaged in.

STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES

To use the legal term of art, what Republicans are displaying—even worse now than in the early months of the pandemic, while the political contours were still shaking out—is a depraved indifference to human life. The goal is simple and two-fold: to energize their deluded followers, and to pin the blame on Biden for our inability to get a handle on COVID.

But as the Bari Weisses of the world, and others—especially on the right—whinge about the persistence of the virus, and the alleged inability of the current administration to end it, I can’t believe I rarely see anyone stating the patently obvious rejoinder:

That the American right—beginning with the previous administration—has done everything within its power to keep this pandemic going, from denying the severity of the novel coronavirus in the first place, to violently opposing mask mandates and other common sense public health measures, to refusing to take a free, safe, highly effective vaccine, to spreading lethal disinformation that is costing human lives, and then squealing hysterically that the Biden administration hasn’t fixed the problem.

The Biden administration has had its ups and downs with the virus, which is to be expected when dealing with such a fluid situation, and most recently, with a fast-moving and unknown variant like Omicron. But I have absolutely no patience for the flagrantly hypocritical criticism of Biden from the Republican Party and its fellow travelers after their own infinitely worse, openly malevolent, utterly incompetent response to the pandemic, which put us in this position in the first place. And it is not nearly a matter of the past tense either, as they continue actively and maliciously to obstruct efforts to get this pandemic under control.

Just in case you thought the GOP had already reached rock bottom. This just in: They’ve begun to dig.

What will future generations say when they look back on the country so stupid and stubborn and self-destructive that it would not take common sense medical precautions against a deadly pandemic even when those precautions were free, painless, and readily available? Worse, what will they say about the subset of that populace that preyed on their fellow countrymen to make matters even worse?

I guess the same thing they will say about a country that survived a near coup d’état and blithely let the perpetrators go free to try it again.

They’ll say we were dumbasses who deserved what we got.

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