Since the pandemic hit two years ago, I’ve been documenting increasing commonalities between antivaxxers of your (i.e., before and during the pandemic) and antimaskers, admittedly, a catch-all term that describes those opposed to masks and mask mandates, as well as pretty much every other nonpharmacological intervention (NPI) to slow the spread of COVID-19, particularly in terms of rhetoric. A while back, I was perusing the website of the Brownstone Institute, the right wing libertarian “free market” institute that its founder Jeffery Tucker described as the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), that famous document from fall 2020 that, in essence, advocated a “let ‘er rip” strategy for COVID-19 among “low risk” young and healthy people, all in order to achieve what it viewed as the “inevitable”—”natural herd immunity”—more rapidly, while advocating a vaguely defined “focused protection” to prevent mass death among the elderly and those vulnerable to severe disease and death. Given that the GBD was published before there were safe and effective vaccines available and that as a practical matter it’s impossible to protect such a large portion of the population from a respiratory virus that’s spreading unchecked through the rest of the population, it was a dangerous proposition.
I’ve argued before that one reason that an alliance between antimaskers and antivaxxers formed so early in the pandemic has been because both groups are not just against one intervention (or, in the case of antimaskers, one general kind of intervention) against COVID-19, but because they are in general opposed to collective action by governments and society for public health, preferring instead to rely on gauzy concepts of “personal responsibility,” all with an attitude towards those who die of COVID-19 not too much different from that of a certain Russian boxer in a certain 1980s movie. Moreover, as I’ve documented, the rhetoric of “freedom vs. tyranny” is old rhetoric that the antivaccine movement has long used to portray vaccine mandates as an unacceptable assault on “freedom.” It’s rhetoric that has been quickly applied to masks. Antivaxxers have long compared vaccines and especially vaccine mandates to fascism, slavery, religion, and magical thinking. So it shouldn’t be surprising that those who detest masks as much as antivaxxers detest vaccines would adopt similar language.
As I perused the Brownstone Institution website, particularly its section on masks, these parallels became clearer and clearer to me; so I thought I’d discuss them a bit. Before I do, I will point out that, like COVID-19 vaccines, masks work, contrary to what antivaxxers and antimaskers claim about them. However, dichotomous thinking in the form of the Nirvana fallacy is a powerful obstacle in human nature to overcome. Our brains tend to think in terms of dichotomies like “works/doesn’t work” and “is/isn’t harmful,” rather than in the more real world and realistic manner of considering relative probabilities. Through this fallacy, an intervention that is not 100% effective is portrayed as “not working” and an intervention that is not 100% safe all the time is portrayed as downright dangerous. Thus, when, for example, the first “breakthrough cases” of COVID-19 after vaccination started appearing, antivaxxers pointed to them (and continue to do so) as evidence that the vaccines “don’t work,” even though even a 95% effective vaccine would be expected to result in a lot of breakthrough cases in the middle of a pandemic in which millions are being exposed to a virus. Antivaxxers have, of course, been doing this since time immemorial about many vaccines, particularly pertussis and measles vaccines.
Let’s take a look at one example, an article by Roberto Strongman, Associate Professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, entitled The Mask of Your Enslavement: The Image, History, and Meaning of Escrava Anastácia. Of course, I’ve long pointed to how antivaxxers like to compare vaccine mandates to slavery and themselves to abolitionists (and how seeing very rich elderly white rockers like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison liken vaccines and masks to slavery is beyond risible), but this was one of the more explicit uses of the analogy that I’ve seen for masks, cleverly couched as an analysis of the co-optation of a specific mask by antimaskers to use as way of representing masking as “slavery”:
The image of Escrava Anastácia has been making many appearances in several recent anti-lockdown protests around the world. The way in which the likeness of this muzzled female Brazilian slave has been used to illustrate the various forms of pandemic population restrictions, particularly the mandatory wearing of face masks, has been criticized by various media outlets for its perceived cultural appropriation and irreverence to the historical suffering of black people.
This article represents an opportunity to address this claim of cooptation and to explain the merits of illuminating the current health-driven limitations as indeed a form of enslavement.
In case you doubt whether Strongman is down with the imagery of masks as “slavery,” he “co-opts” a Brazilian prayer to Anastácia, a folk saint (i.e., never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church but nonetheless venerated as a saint by many Brazilian Catholics, particularly Blacks, as well as by members of the Umbanda religion) to recast it as an antimask prayer about being “muzzled” for opposing masks:
Blessed Anastácia, How do free speech and academic freedom protect me from institutional retaliation as a result of questioning the mask mandates? You who come swiftly to the aid of all who speak courageously in the face of censorship and silencing, cover me!
Blessed Anastácia, my co-workers, faculty and staff have reported me to the department Chair for sighting me in the building’s common areas without wearing a mask! Yeah, being good Pavlik Molozovs (Catriona 2005)! I haven’t experienced such a snitch culture since communist Cuba! Their concern for the “the lives of others”(Henckel 2006) is just too reminiscent of Eastern Bloc techniques of social control for me to continue to interact with them. You who were turned in by an informant at the plantation, have mercy on us!
You get the idea. In addition to being like slavery, apparently masks are also like Communism, which echoes another Brownstone article risibly likening public health interventions against COVID-19 to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Or is it fascism? Antivaxxers and antimaskers can never seem to make up their minds!) In any event, there are a number of stories about Anastácia and her martyrdom, but Strongman emphasizes the commonality in all the stories:
In all of these narratives the muzzling seeks to silence her cries against injustice and a voice that leads to liberation. As a form of public shaming, it serves as a deterrent for those slaves in the plantation who could be inspired by Anastásia. Her martyrdom comes about either through starvation or from the tetanus produced by the metal as it rusted in her mouth. Her ability to perform miracles, even while muzzled, included healing her oppressors.
This presents an idealized martyrdom, an admirable resilience as well as a moral impermeability to and an ultimate victory over the downpressure of slavery. Her compassion towards her persecutors as well as her alleged mixed-race background is seen by many devotees as a hopeful sign of racial reconciliation in Brazil and in all lands affected by the slave trade.
Lest you miss the point, Strongman makes it inescapable:
The apparition of Anastásia at anti-lockdown rallies represents an opportunity to understand the current medical tyranny as a form of enslavement and to forge links of solidarity between communities whose freedom is threatened across all racial groups. The claim of cooptation deserves to be unpacked for a valid claim of cultural usurpation could easily work towards severing important alliances in a divide-and-conquer model.
While there are clear specificities between the suffering of Africans under the system of chattel slavery and the deprivation of civil liberties endured by most citizens around the world during the current pandemic panic, Anastásia reminds us of certain transhistorical constants in the process of dehumanization and subjugation of populations through the gagging and muzzling of their bodies to quell their protestations.
In particular, I like the part where Strongman states that “it is outside the scope of this piece to discuss in detail the effectiveness of masks to prevent infection by airborne pathogens.” I can’t help but note that being “beyond the scope of this piece” doesn’t stop Strongman from listing a bunch of bullet points against masks, including the false claim that they “deprive us of oxygen.” He also lists a number of historical features of mask use for purposes other than to slow the spread of disease that I will get to later in the context of another article. More annoyingly, he dismisses criticism of cultural appropriation, in which images of the muzzled Anastácia have been used in Brazil primarily by white antimaskers, antivaxxers, and anti-“lockdown” protesters thusly:
For articles that claim to care deeply about the misuses of Afro-diasporic lives, these omissions are nothing short of problematic. Instead of using these instances to probe into the curious appearance of images of Brazilian folk Catholicism in the industrialized world and to inquire into the various forms that slavery might take, the authors essentialistically present the protesters as racists in order to avoid making the obvious correspondences between chattel slavery punishments and lockdown sanctions manifest.
Shouldn’t those who see the analogy as hyperbolic at the very least concede that the strategies of silencing in these two systems of oppression are uncannily similar? In order to circumvent the inconvenient presentation of the current medical tyranny as a revisitation of earlier generally condemned systems of control and to steer clear of the unflattering reflection of ourselves as slaves under this new system, the articles resort to a curious rhetorical strategy: they use an ad hominem attack that discredits the source of the argument by focusing on the ethnicity of the protester while at the same time never confronting the core of the argument presented.
Contrary to refuting the criticism of cultural appropriation, Strongman seems in the passage above to have rather effectively argued that they are cultural appropriation but that he’s OK with it as long as the cultural appropriation is in the service of advancing a narrative that mask mandates are akin to slavery. He even goes on from there to portray those in favor of mask mandates and other public health interventions to a religion, using the favorite term “covidian”—note the play on the Branch Davidian cult headed by David Koresh that got into a violent fight with federal agents after a famous standoff in Waco, TX in 1993—that has become a favorite term among antivaxxers and antimaskers to liken COVID-19 public health interventions to a cult, as Brownstoners Martin Kuldorff and Jay Bhattacharya did when they likened Anthony Fauci and public health officials to a “covidian high priesthood.”
After recounting an incident in which a female protester apologized for co-opting Anastácia and saying that “pressure experienced by the protester to apologize is analogous to the mandate to wear the covid mask and the slave muzzle,” Strongman makes the point explicit:
Indeed, there is a “Covidian Cult” (Hopkins 2020). I would like to add to the conversation instantiated by his provocative phrase by questioning the presumed negativity associated with this kind of religiosity. Within the study of religion, “cults” have been euphemistically rebranded “new religions” in order to be more relativistic and less judgmental, bowing perhaps to the exigencies of political correctness.
Regardless of the term we choose to use, the role of ritual, dogma and the inquisitions and pillorying of those who, questioning covid orthodoxies, commit the sin of blasphemy, all display a drive that is concomitant with the most brutal aspects of religions across the centuries. Yet, realizing the power of religious discourse, could we harness it to productive ends? Could we employ our judgement to become more cognizant of our own uses and abilities to deploy religious iconography towards the ideal of freedom?
Can the cult of Anastásia overcome the Covidian cult?
This has long been, of course, a common tactic of antivaxxers, to use similes and metaphors in which vaccination and vaccine mandates are a religion or cult and thereby elevate their ideas to being rational alternatives to “religious control.” I could recount many, many examples, but I’ll stick with one, the time when Ginger Taylor noted how antivaxxer Kim Stagliano had coined the term “Vaccinianity” to refer to vaccines, defining it thusly:
Vaccinianity – (Vax.e.an.eh.te) n. The worship of Vaccination. The belief that Vaccine is inherently Good and therefore cannot cause damage. If damage does occur, it is not because Vaccine was bad, but because the injured party was a poor receptacle for the inherently Good Vaccine. (ie. hanna poling was hurt when she came into contact with Vaccine, not because the Vaccine was harmful, but because her DNA was not to par or because her mitochondrial disorder was to blame.) Vaccine is presumed to have rights that supersede the rights of the individual, while the human person’s rights must defer to Vaccine.
I left Taylor with some friendly advice about how bad this term looks, based on some other even more disreputable denialists who like to coin terms like this based on fusing part of the word “Christianity” to the term whose science or evidence they deny. Even so, Staglian seemed very pleased with the term, saying “Yanno, I toiled to dream up that word. Vaccinapalians didn’t seem write (sic). Vaccinists was too simple. Church of the Shattered Young Saints, Vaccinaism. Whatever you call it, Paul Offit is waging jihad on parents.” Meanwhile, another Brownstone contributor, Laura Rosen Cohen, mines the same vein, falsely accusing advocates of masks in schools of “sadism towards children” with masks as “the evil talisman of the Religion of Covid” that “must be destroyed,” adding that the “masking of children must be recognized for the pureness of its evil, and defeated by all civilized persons.”
How’s that for “nuanced” discussion?
There’s another Brownstone contributor named Rachel Fulton Brown. She’s an Associate Professor of History at the institution where I did my fellowship, the University of Chicago, and she’s very much antimask as well. (This depressed me to learn, given that Brown is also a scholar and huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’ve been a major fan of Tolkien’s work since I was around 12 or 13.) Somehow, I came across her personal blog and a post from December entitled Mask Addiction, in which, as antivaxxers do with vaccines, tries to portray masks as a form of addiction and magical thinking:
Admit it. You never want to take it off. Sure, sure, you have thought about it logically. You’ve read all the studies about how ineffective masks are at preventing the spread of COVID (and anything else). You have even read some studies about how masks are positively harmful (yes, it’s the same link—go, look; I’ll wait). You have had headaches for over a year; you notice that you can’t remember things as well as you (think you) used to—it’s hard to tell, memory being what it is. You’ve noticed yourself falling asleep from lack of oxygen, and you have a cough that you just can’t shake. Your friends call it “long COVID,” but you never got COVID, as far as you know.
You have, however, had a bacterial infection that left festering sores around your mouth, but that wasn’t COVID; just think how bad things might have been if you had gotten COVID, too! You notice that you have a hard time interacting with people in public—everyone seems so distant and confused—but, again, it’s logical. They are afraid of getting sick; of course they can’t take time to read each other’s facial expressions from behind a mask. There was that time you nearly got into a car accident when a driver in front of you passed out and swerved into ongoing traffic, but that was just one incident, nothing to be concerned about.
Much worse was that other time you caught a glimpse of someone not wearing a mask! The recklessness! Much better never to see a human mouth again than to be caught maskless and—gasp!—breathing! Or even worse—eating! Plus, you have come to like the way you look in a mask, not to mention having them in so many colors. The Unelected President—sorry, His Healthiness Dr. Anthony Fauci—could declare the pandemic over today, and you would keep wearing your mask simply to be stylish. See? Masks are not just for hygiene; they are a fashion accessory. Particularly the rainbow ones.
I can’t help but be reminded of an article by antivaxxer Kent Heckenlively dating back to early in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines that tried to liken reactions to getting vaccinated to orgasms and religion. Heckenlively even coined a ridiculous term for it, “v-gasm.” Let’s just look at a brief excerpt:
That’s why I’ve coined this new expression, “the v-gasm.”
It’s like your traditional orgasm and also involves a prick entering your body, but it’s not the pleasurable kind. And yet, it is the sacred sacrament of the church of science.
And yet, they’re all now scheduled to get their shot this week and experience the inevitable “v-gasm,” which comes when you believe that you’ve been saved as if the Big Pharma gods are Jesus Christ, Himself.
I noted at the time a rather dark undertone to this analogy and asked: Could it be that, the “v-gasm” analogy in which a “v-gasm” in response to the COVID-19 vaccine is like an orgasm, only “not the pleasurable kind,” is a not-so-subtle metaphor likening COVID-19 vaccination to rape? In retrospect, I think that the answer is yes (which shouldn’t be surprising given that likening vaccine mandates and vaccines to rape has long been a common theme in antivaccine rhetoric), and that it’s an analogy made all the more creepy by likening Pfizer, Moderna, and other companies making COVID-19 vaccines to “gods” and ” Jesus Christ, Himself.”
Brown goes on to liken masks to magical thinking akin to religion, invoking New Age thinking, complete with nonsense about “vibrations”and “energy”:
You feel so beautiful and empowered wearing your rainbow, as if the whole energy of the universe were flowing through you. It is a small thing not being able to breathe when you are vibrating with the frequency of every color in the electromagnetic spectrum. You have started dying your hair to match the colors of your mask; you have even found yourself dressing in more vibrant colors so as to resonate more fully with the spectrum. You feel energized, even as you feel drained; empowered by your absorption into the waves.
How to explain this new energy? It feels like becoming one with the universe. As if you have ascended to a new level of understanding by wearing your rainbow mask. You sit in lotus now for hours on end—it’s easier, not being able to breathe much—and feel your consciousness lifted up into the aether. (You have been reading about aether—it is the medium for carrying the electromagnetic waves.) Whereas previously you felt yourself cut off and alone, now it is as if you have joined in the harmony of the cosmos. You feel “with it” in a way you have not felt since you danced the Time Warp in the movie theater and sang along with Dr. Frank-n-Furter in anticipation! How could people be against masks, when they channel such erotic and empowering energy?!
I’m kidding, of course. Except I’m not, either. Masks, as I have been saying for ages, long before everyone masked up out of fear, are powerful magic, not to be taken lightly. They are trance-inducing, meaning-making, self-defining—and self-eradicating—magic. They are powerful vehicles of transformation, which is why they are used in both theater and BDSM. They make of their wearers both gods—and slaves. They can also make human beings into animals. Or worse. Demons.
Notice how Brown snuck references to sex and pain in her analogy, just as Heckenlively did with his analogy to the “v-gasm.” I did. She even goes on to blame our susceptibility to masks on social media and the light of the smartphone, because people supposedly “were so willing to put on the masks in spring 2020 because they have spent the past decade-plus staring into the light of their smartphones” and because everything “in our human nature is geared toward mirroring what we see in those rectangles of light, so much so that we experience physical symptoms of withdrawal if we look away for any length of time.” There’s the addiction angle again. As we are “addicted” to our phones, Brown claims, similarly we continue to wear masks because we are “addicted” to them.
It is, of course, true that humans have used masks for purposes of religion, ritual, group identification, muzzling, and any number of purposes other than slowing the spread of a respiratory virus, all going back as far into history as you would care to go (and probably as far back as you would care to go into human prehistory as well). That’s what makes it easier for antimaskers to deny the public health uses of masks in favor of portraying them primarily as tools of control—slavery, even—as well as of religion, ritual, and magic than it was for antivaxxers to do the same with vaccines. Not that that stopped antivaxxers, whom I documented years ago referring to the “occult archetype called vaccination,” casting vaccination as a “rite of passage through danger, into the tribe and village, conferring a moral righteousness, presided over by a shaman” in which “viruses which might be harmful are transmuted into protective spirits in the body,” adding:
The psychological and occult and archetypal impact of vaccination is key: modern parents are given the opportunity to feel, on a subconscious level, a return to older times, when life was more bracing and immediate and vital. That is the mythology. Modern life, for basic consumers, has fewer dimensions—but vaccination awakens sleeping memories of an age when ritual and ceremony were essential to the future of the group. No one would defect from these moments. Refusal was unthinkable. Survival was All. The mandate was powerful. On a deep level, parents today can experience that power. It is satisfying.
As you can see, the analogy with vaccines is more strained than the analogy with masks, but both are deceptions designed to frame public health interventions not as science, but rather as tools of societal control—at the extreme, slavery—and cohesion and/or of religion and magical thinking. It just goes to show that it is the rhetorical techniques that are red flags for denialism more than anything else. Just as all science denialism is conspiracy theory, all science denialism also tends to use similar rhetorical devices, such as minimizing science and evidence by likening them to religion and magical thinking and portraying science-based conclusions as mechanisms of “control.” I could go on and on and find many similar examples from a common form of denialism other than the public health science denial, but I rather suspect that Strongman and Brown would not like that very much at all.