Paul Kingsnorth kind of lost me on his anti-vaxxer rant this week. Did George Washington’s troops complain this bitterly about authoritarianism when he had them inoculated for small pox upon entering the Continental Army? My guess is that they probably didn’t, because they were fighting to be freed from actual authoritarianism. They had stared raw state power in the face and knew what it looked like and it wasn’t getting a jab (not this kind, anyway).
Kingsnorth’s whole, long think piece is predicated on the assumption that getting the vaccine is about so much more than the vaccine itself. Going beyond the medical advice, which is hardly ever exactly perfect, and really getting at core divisions.
Often, in an argument, what people think they are arguing about is not the real subject of disagreement, which is deeper and often unspoken, if it is even understood. So it is here. The divisions that have opened up in society about the covid vaccines are not really about the covid vaccines at all: they are about what vaccination symbolises in this moment. What it means to be ‘vaxxed’ or ‘unvaxxed’, safe or dangerous, clean or dirty, sensible or irresponsible, compliant or independent: these are questions about what it means to be a good member of society, and what society even is, and they are detonating like depth charges beneath the surface of the culture.
Kingsnorth reveals he remains proudly unvaccinated. He works to layer meaning on top of meaning to get to his point about how dangerous a situation we are in (this article is labeled part 1, so there’s more coming). I have to wonder about this perspective, though. What if this isn’t encroaching authoritarianism (history of Austria and Germany aside)? What if it’s not even particularly egregious paternalism? What if it’s really just about getting a vaccination that gives you a better survival rate against a deadly disease? What if it’s just about coming together to mitigate a public health crisis in the best ways that we know how?