The Great Barrington Declaration was published in October 2020 by three scientists brought together by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), an antimask, anti-“lockdown,” anti-(vaccine) mandate “free market” libertarian “think tank.” AIER is but one of many such astroturf groups that have been sowing doubt about collective public health interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the Great Barrington Declaration was among the most successful efforts by any of them, at least when it comes to influencing the policies of major governments. At the time, I characterized the Declaration as eugenics (or at least eugenics-adjacent), given that, in a time before vaccines against COVID-19, it proposed, in essence, a “let ‘er rip” strategy for the coronavirus, at least to let it rip through the “healthy” population (in order to prevent economic damage) while using “focused protection” to keep those at highest risk of severe disease and death safe. Never mind that, as I pointed out, it’s impossible to keep the vulnerable safe when a deadly virus is spreading unchecked through the rest of the population, and, unsurprisingly, public health experts were very much opposed to this strategy. Such a strategy was thus nothing more than a big “screw you” to those at the highest risk from the pandemic. Last year, AIER begat the “spiritual child” of the Great Barrington Declaration, a new think tank named the Brownstone Institute founded by former AIER Editorial Director Jeffery Tucker, who bragged about being in the “room where it happened” as the Great Barrington Declaration was drafted.
You might recall that AIER and the original trio signatories to the Great Barrington Declaration, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard Medical School, Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University have been enormously influential. It’s been documented how Great Barrington Declaration aficionados had access to the highest levels of government in 2020, meeting with officials in the Trump administration in the US and with Boris Johnson’s government in the UK for example, and how those contacts influenced pandemic policy. More recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed a fringe physician, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, as Florida’s new Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health. Dr. Ladapo, who was also a member of a group of COVID-19 quacks pushing hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin (America’s Frontline Doctors) and an admirer of the Great Barrington Declaration, promptly went about doing his damnedest to dismantle the few remaining public health interventions against the pandemic in Florida.
So, as I said, AIER begat the Brownstone Institute, which, if anything, is even more extreme in its messaging that AIER was. Indeed, as I’ve checked in with the Brownstone Institute every now and then over the last several months, I’ve noted its drift from just being antimask and anti-“lockdown” to rhetoric that is arguably more and more explicitly antivaccine. True, as antivaxxers did for a long time before the pandemic as they pr0tested against school vaccine mandates, Brownstone’s writers usually couch their rhetoric as “anti-mandate”—or, as I like to refer to it, “anti-(vaccine) mandate,” the better to point out that 99% of the time if you scratch an anti-(vaccine) mandate maven you’ll find an antivaxxer)—but a couple of days ago they went beyond that in the form of an article by an Jared McBrady, and assistant professor of history(!) at SUNY Cortland entitled, Othering Unvaccinated Persons.
Before I get into the Brownstone Institute’s latest line about how we’re supposedly “othering” the unvaccinated, I can’t help but bet that regular readers will immediately recognize this particular trope, as will those of us who have been following and trying to counter the antivaccine movement for a long time. Whether McBrady and Brownstone realize it or not, this is an antivaccine talking point that I recall first seeing many years ago and that takes various forms. When it comes to vaccine mandates, above all, antivaxxers hate facing consequences for their choices not to vaccinate themselves or their children. Before the pandemic, they hated that their child couldn’t attend school or go to daycare without being up-to-date on their vaccines or having a valid medical exemption. These days, they hate the idea that they might be excluded from restaurants, air travel (or international travel), concerts, and even their jobs if they are not vaccinated. That we are in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed north of 800,000 in the US alone matters not one whit to them. All that matters to them are their “freedom” and fear of vaccines based on pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. In brief, if antivaxxers face real life consequences for their own choices, they view it as “persecution.”
Traditionally, the first (and most common) form that the charge of “othering” the unvaccinated takes has been the misappropriation of the Nazi persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, representing the unvaccinated as the “new Jews.” (And, yes, Brownstone’s new history flack McBrady does go there, among other favorite antivax faux persecution haunts, as you will see.) Indeed, in the more innocent times before the pandemic, antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. got caught likening “vaccine-induced” autism to the “Holocaust,” after having tried to shut down a report by an antivaccine blog about him doing the same thing two years earlier. (He even explicitly invoked the death camps, and was forced to “apologize,” although, true to his form, it was a classic “notpology.”) It was not a new trope, as I’ve found evidence of its use as far back as 2001, and, no doubt, its use goes back much further. These days, RFK Jr. has dropped even his shame at having co-opted the Nazi genocide of European Jews for his antivaccine message and in his most recent book referred to the “final solution” and disingenuously refused to acknowledge what he meant or apologize for it.
Essentially, antivaxxers sure do love their persecution complex. Love it! Over the years, in addition to the Holocaust I’ve seen them liken vaccines and vaccine mandates to slavery (even likening pre-pandemic laws on vaccine mandates to the Fugitive Slave Act), rape, segregation and Jim Crow, human trafficking and sex slavery, and child grooming. To further their message as victims, antivaxxers have co-opted holidays (e.g., Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery) and symbols (e.g., the Yellow Star of David used by Nazis to identify Jews in Germany and their conquered territories), as well as claimed that they are the “new civil rights movement.” More recently, in response to criticism of the Great Barrington Declaration, AIER likened COVID-19 “resisters” to abolitionists (again, with “lockdowns” and vaccine mandates being “slavery”).
With that background in mind, McBrady’s Brownstone piece is obviously of a piece with longstanding antivaccine rhetoric. He begins by describing how he teaches budding high school history teachers through mock lessons that illustrate the conditions that can give rise to authoritarianism, referring to a textbook that he uses and then going on:
One passage from the lesson’s textbook concerned me the most: “Totalitarian leaders often create ‘enemies of the state’ to blame for things that go wrong. Frequently these enemies are members of religious or ethnic groups. Often these groups are easily identified and are subjected to campaigns of terror and violence. They may be forced to live in certain areas or are subjected to rules that apply only to them” (pg. 876).
Creating an enemy of the state requires othering: a process of dehumanizing through marginalizing a group of humans as something different, less than, and other. Such othered groups become an easy target to scapegoat, unfairly bearing the blame for a society’s ills.
I bet you can see where this is going in the context of past rhetoric from antivaxxers about vaccine mandates. If McBrady had been smart, he would have restrained himself and stuck to a more general concept of “othering” to decry vaccine mandates, he might have made his parroting of antivaccine rhetoric and persecution complexes less blatantly obvious. However, whether he’s antivaccine or not (I couldn’t find anything to indicate one way or the other his views on vaccines), McBrady can’t help but “go there,” and go there he does:
History is replete with examples of othering. The Ancient Greeks othered based on language, labeling those who did not speak Greek barbarians. In the United States, chattel slavery and segregation were sustained through othering based on skin color. In Nazi Germany, Hitler othered based on religion, casting Jewish people as enemies of the state.
Othering frequently plays on people’s stereotypes and fears. In the United States, for example, black men have been othered as “thugs,” playing on fears about violence and criminality. In another example, public health officials in Nazi-occupied Poland played on the primal human fear of disease. Propaganda posters proclaimed “Jews Are Lice: They Cause Typhus.”
McBrady should know, as an ostensible historian, that to radical antisemites like the Nazis Jews were a race, not just a group of people who follow a particular religion that they didn’t like. Why I emphasize this aspect of Nazi antisemitism that led to their attempt to exterminate European Jewry will become apparent in a moment. In the meantime, let me just quote one of the articles cited by McBrady for Brownstone, specifically this one, which defines “othering” thusly:
We define “othering” as a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.13 Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone. Although the axes of difference that undergird these expressions of othering vary considerably and are deeply contextual, they contain a similar set of underlying dynamics.
Can you tell the difference between “othering” defined this way and being subject to consequences for refusing to be vaccinated? The difference should be rather obvious. In nearly all cases of true “othering,” those suffering discrimination and persecution cannot leave the “othered” group easily—or at all! “Othering” is generally based on human characteristics that are, if not immutable, not really changeable, such as race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification, and the like. In contrast, being unvaccinated is very, very easy to change. Just get vaccinated! Of course, this whole concept promoted by McBrady is just old antivax rhetoric in a somewhat gussied up form. Instead of portraying the unvaccinated as Jews under Nazi rule directly, McBrady refers to it as “othering.” Then, as Dr. Vinay Prasad did when he falsely argued that public health interventions against COVID-19 could become a slippery slope to Nazi-style fascism, McBrady argues that the unvaccinated are “othered” and that’s a slippery slope to Nazi-style fascism, or at least to horrific persecution, referring to President Joe Biden’s expression of exasperation with antivaxxers when he announced federal vaccine mandates, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s characterization of the hard core antivaccine movement not believing “in science/progress” and “very often misogynistic and racist” (both of which are true), and French President Emmanuel Macron’s wanting to “piss off” the unvaccinated in order to goad them to finally getting vaccinated.
While one can question how far it is wise to go in criticizing the unvaccinated, who are not a monolith, it’s fairly clear in context that Trudeau was referring to the tiny minority of hardcore antivaxxers who drive vaccine hesitancy and that Macron was talking about making life more inconvenient for the unvaccinated to goad them into getting vaccinated:
So, he said, “we have to tell them: from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.”
Macron added: “When my freedoms threaten those of others, I become someone irresponsible. Someone irresponsible is not a citizen.”
I also can’t help but note that McBrady failed to quote Macron’s further statements that he was “not going to jail [the unvaccinated], or forcibly vaccinate them.” (Of course, antivaxxers view any negative societal consequence whatsoever of not being vaccinated as “forced vaccination,” having long referred to mere school vaccine mandates as such, even though we’ve had such mandates for over 100 years.) Again, it’s very easy for the “othered” to cease to be so by just getting vaccinated.
None of this stops McBrady from further “going there” for Brownstone:
My hope is that this will all amount to nothing more than ignored political rhetoric – empty bluster these politicians hope will score a few popularity points with their electoral base. My fear is that it will not. Either way, this dangerous othering language must be recognized and condemned.
Historians study causality: contexts, conditions, events and their outcomes. We have examined the conditions that yielded chattel slavery, the gulag, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, Rwanda. This is not an attempt to equate current pandemic policies with these past tragedies.
Rather, this is a warning call. We have seen these conditions before, and we have seen where they lead. Turn back now – that way leads to darkness.
Rwanda? I don’t call antivaxxers having invoked Rwanda before? Oh wait, I had! I had just forgotten this gem from the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, published in 2008 and entitled Promoting Vaccination, Fear, Hate & Discrimination:
The discrimination begins, always, with the majority in a society pointing the finger at a minority for somehow endangering the public health and welfare. Individuals in the minority group are singled out as different – ethnically, biologically, spiritually, morally – from the majority. The human impulse to fear, judge, marginalize or eliminate those different from the rest has left a blood soaked trail winding throughout the entire history of man from the Great Inquisition to the Holocaust; from the killing fields of Cambodia to Rwanda, Serbia and Tibet; while the persecution of those with leprosy, TB, AIDS, mental illness, and handicaps continues in every society.
Obviously, McBrady has hit the same high points that antivaxxers have been hitting for years and years to liken the unvaccinated to various persecuted groups from history, but if he wants to keep up with his appropriation of old antivaccine rhetoric, he really does need to up his game and add the Inquisition, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the killings in Serbia and Tibet to his repertoire of examples from history. Perhaps in a future Brownstone Institute contribution, he will remedy that oversight and add the genocidal campaign by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Maybe he could even start quoting Elie Wiesel, as Loe Fisher did those many years ago:
The doctors in charge at the CDC and AAP have refused, for more than a quarter century, to acknowledge the existence of a growing number of vaccine injured children and so they have refused to identify and screen out children biologically vulnerable to vaccine-induced brain and immune system dysfunction. One-size-fits-all vaccine policies and state laws have become a de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice. It is a very small step from that kind of societal thinking to the prisons, concentration camps and killing fields that stand as chilling testimony to the human impulse to dehumanize others in order to control, exploit or eliminate them.
Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel has said “When you take an idea or a concept and turn it into an abstraction, that opens the way to take human beings and turn them, also, into abstractions.”
Individuals harmed by vaccines are not abstractions. They are human beings who deserve to be spared a lifetime of suffering rather than being thrown under the bus to prop up forced mass vaccination policies that fail to acknowledge biodiversity within the family of man.
Come on, Prof. McBrady, you can do it! You can go even further into classic antivaccine rhetoric and repurpose a passage like Loe Fisher’s to mandated COVID-19 vaccine mandates, masking, and “lockdowns” to your comparison of vaccine mandates that don’t let the unvaccinated go to a restaurant or concert as “othering”! I know you can! If you can’t, I’m sure that the Brownstone Institute will find someone who can.