Anti-vax rhetoric

Chuck Idelson
Tuesday, Sep 14, 2021

If those protesting mandatory vaccination and masking have a familiar sounding message, it’s probably because as what Carmen Miranda brands as ‘toxic individualism’ and the misleading rants about ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, have long roots in the US dating back to the first footprints of English settlers on this continents.

Whether in the Jamestown or Plymouth colonies, the ‘freedom’ they espoused was premised on land expropriated from the indigenous people, and, especially in the Virginia environs, by “defining it against the bondage of the Africans among them,” as Heather McGhee writes in her recent book ‘The Sum of Us’.

Miranda also traces the linkage of liberty and individualism to “the cultural legacy of Manifest Destiny and the settlement of the West: the myth of the up-by-the-bootstraps pioneer who helped tame the uninhabited West in the name of the United States,” again on land seized from its original occupants.

What later became labeled the ‘frontier thesis’, held that the suddenly available land spurred national development and the expansion of US-style democracy through self-centered actions of settlers claiming land and resources for themselves freed from the intrusion of governing institutions or regulators as those in Europe who were viewed as constraining their liberty.

Never mind that, as Miranda points out, the “nation building was not the work of rugged individuals working alone but a lot of people working in tandem,” with substantial support from the US government through land grants, tax favors, and support of the military.

By 1928, this concept had another name, ‘rugged individualism’, defined in a campaign speech by Republican Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover as “a form of self-government and social system which is peculiarly our own” that “differs from all others in the world”. Not the first framing of ‘American exceptionalism’. At its heart, said Hoover, was self-reliance, a “choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines of paternalism and state socialism”.

Hoover, of course, had the misfortune of becoming President just in time for an epic collapse of the free-market system he touted that was only rescued during the Depression by massive government intervention.

However, the ideological mix of rugged individualism, freedom, and liberty had become deeply embedded among a large swath of Americans, further poisoned by centuries of structural racism that persists today.

In response to the Civil Rights movement, for example, the branding of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, led to resistance to equality that has undermined a public good that benefits everyone, as in how in ‘massive resistance’ to court ordered integration Virginia closed public schools, and Montgomery, Ala closed its entire public parks system, including a zoo, and drained a crown jewel public pool.

In a September 2020 study for the National Bureau of Economic Researchers, researchers Samual Bazzi, Martin Fizbein and Mesay Gebresilass assert that the combination of frontier culture, rugged individualism, and opposition to government have “undermined collective action against Covid-19” by encouraging resistance to pandemic safety measures, including social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home orders, and distrust of science, which sabotages “collective action in the face of a public health emergency.”

McGhee similarly cites multiple examples of how large numbers of white Americans oppose many ‘race neutral’ government programs that benefit them too, like expanding healthcare, worker's rights, climate action, and public health initiatives as “taking something away from white people”.

The idea of a ‘commons’ – that resources, such as public land, clean air and water, food safety, and public health programs, should be accessible to all members of a society for the common interest, is trampled by corrupted concepts of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, and ‘individualism’, in the hands of those who always put their self-interest ahead of others – even when it puts them and their own families in jeopardy.

Excerpted: ‘Anti-Vax, Anti-Mask Rhetoric Has Long Roots in US History’