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On Vaccine, Between Persuasion and Coercion
The news seems to be sinking into even some traditionally thick and numb Republican skulls: We need to have more people vaccinated against COVID-19. How to go about getting that done? Somewhere between persuasion and coercion lies the middle way.
Kay Ivey is the Republican governor of Alabama, one of the states with the lowest vaccination rates. As COVID-19 infections creep up around the country, Governor Ivey observed: “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
Exemplary right-wing radio dope Phil Valentine, who, like most right-wing radio dopes, had played some pretty enthusiastic footsie with anti-vaccine activism and related conspiracy kookery, later found himself on oxygen in a critical-care unit with a bad case of COVID-19, and now has dipped a toe into the pool of regret. His brother relayed: “Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently pro-vaccine.” That is, with apologies to the afflicted, bullsh**. It isn’t true that Valentine was never an anti-vaxxer — anti-vaxxers rarely describe themselves that way, but he had pointedly refused the vaccine himself and argued that others should do the same if they did not have conditions likely to put them at risk of dying from COVID-19, because, as he wrote, “you’re probably safer not getting it.” That claim is — and this still matters! — not true.
It is strange and unpredictable what will get Americans’ libertarian hackles up. The Right, which has embraced theatrical self-harm as a kind of weird performative political ritual, is the political home of most (but by no means all) vaccine skeptics (and mask skeptics, and hydroxychloroquine quackery, etc.) and its tribunes worry about vaccine mandates of different kinds. Steve Holt, a Republican state legislator in Iowa, speaks for many when he calls so-called vaccine passports “un-American,” “unconstitutional,” and “unacceptable.” But I am not sure that is quite right.
Conservatives, including many libertarian-leaning conservatives, traditionally have been comfortable with such measures as registering young men for possible military conscription and placing limits on certain kinds of business transactions or travel during emergencies or out of concern for national security. During World War I, the United States drafted three men for every two volunteers, and the generals sent 116,516 Americans to their deaths in the service of interests that were quite remote from our own national interest. We drafted 10 million for World War II and 2.2 million for Vietnam. It is a peculiar libertarian principle that accepts marching tens of thousands of Americans to their deaths at Meuse–Argonne but balks at seeking to encourage wider vaccination by taking some active measure — presumably some measure short of the prison sentences given to draft resisters.
But the libertarian principle here is very subtle indeed. Representative Holt is a vocal supporter of a new Iowa law that forbids private businesses to require customers to prove that they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Some businesses, as you may have noticed, have put up signs asking that non-vaccinated people continue to follow such protocols as wearing masks and observing physical distancing. But there is no practical way to enforce that. Perhaps there are other businesses that wish to limit their clientele to those who have been vaccinated, though I am unable to find any serious or widespread effort at that. Such businesses may be operating from an excess of caution — or they may simply be marketing themselves to the more cautious among us. Who knows?
But haven’t conservatives traditionally believed that a business has the right to manage such affairs on its own terms? Conservatives made such arguments against, to take one very prominent example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How is it that the libertarian principle that bucks at requiring restaurants and hotels to serve African Americans somehow necessitates requiring the same businesses to serve people who, for whatever reason, fail to get themselves vaccinated?
It is unlikely that the United States would have much luck implementing something like the Israelis have tried (with limited success) with the recently reinstated “green pass” program. The green pass showing that someone is COVID-immune (from vaccination or prior infection, or confirmed by a recent negative test) is used to control admission to such venues as gyms and restaurants. This is technologically feasible in the United States but culturally impossible for our increasingly ungovernable people.
Americans’ lack of faith in the government and other institutions is a real problem — and the worse problem is that this lack of faith is not entirely unjustified. We have seen the weaponization of the IRS and other federal agencies along with grotesque abuses of prosecutorial power by, among others, the former California attorney general who is today the vice president. We have seen elected officials in New York, to take one example, abuse their powers and lean on financial-services companies in order to try to ruin political enemies such as the National Rifle Association. We have Democrats right now threatening to pack the federal courts, expanding the bench until enough Democratic partisans can be seated for Democrats to be confident in getting their way. We have seen Democratic operatives and progressive activists line up behind the multi-billion-dollar extortion attempt directed at Chevron. This isn’t conspiracy-theory stuff — this is stuff that holds up in court.
I sympathize with Michael Brendan Dougherty’s plea for a more respectful and charitable dialogue on the subject of vaccines. But I also believe that while it is true that you will attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, you’ll attract even more with manure — and we should identify bovine byproduct as such when we encounter it. And a lot of the anti-vaccine discourse has been that very stuff in refined form.
With that in mind, of course businesses — and employers — ought to be free to make their own arrangements as they see fit when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. The federal government probably ought to apply some pressure, too, for example by requiring proof of vaccination for people entering the United States, whether they are foreign nationals or American citizens. The federal government should use public-health spending to encourage laggard states and municipalities to pursue more active vaccination programs. Colleges and universities would be entirely within their rights to require vaccination against COVID-19, just as kindergartens and elementary schools require vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, etc. Churches, surely, must be free to approach this on their own terms.
Of course, we’d be better off if vaccination were the overwhelmingly prevalent norm, in much the same way that we’d be better off if having health insurance were the overwhelmingly prevalent norm. And there’s the thing. We tried to fix the health-insurance system by copying aspects of the Swiss system, including the “individual mandate,” the rule that people take the initiative to sign themselves up for insurance. The Swiss have something like 99.7 percent compliance with their mandate — because they enforce it, aggressively. Our mandate was such a joke that we ended up abandoning the idea entirely. We could pass a vaccine mandate tomorrow, but getting Americans to comply with it is another thing entirely.
But we should make an effort to persuade the persuadable, imposing inconveniences and both informal and formal sanctions. Un-American? George Washington ordered his troops to be inoculated against smallpox during the Revolution.
But the Spirit of ’76 is, in our time, somewhat attenuated.
The way this whole thing has unfolded has been both head-clutchingly stupid and deeply unpatriotic. The COVID-19 epidemic was received as a political gift by Democrats, who saw in it their best chance for getting rid of Donald Trump back when the unemployment rate was under 4 percent and wage growth was strong. President Trump, ever incapable of thinking more than one step ahead, obliged his critics by treating COVID-19 as a political liability for himself and trying to wish it away, thus setting up the minimization-maximization dialogue that still dominates our COVID politics. It did not have to be this way. But democracy apparently must mean that 500,000 dead Americans got the leadership they deserved.
Words About Words
A monster, you say?
In what sense?
We use monster to mean something unnatural or disturbing: a werewolf or a zombie or Godzilla. But the older sense of monster — a warning or an omen — remains both useful and at times apt. In that sense, all monsters are ahead of the curve.
Monster comes from the same Latin root as monstrance (that windowed receptacle in which Catholics display the Host), demonstrate, monitor, admonish, etc.: monere, meaning to show, remind, or warn. We have demonstrate, remonstrate. If you are the sort of person who is familiar with the monstrance, you may have encountered Premonstratensian, a religious order whose members take their name from a French placename that also is derived from monere — but the pre there, despite appearances, is not the familiar prefix meaning beforehand, as in premonitory. So the Premonstratensians are preachers and ministers rather than prophets with premonitions, as the name might seem to suggest.
The goddess Juno has moneta as one of her epithets, which classical sources took also to be derived from the Latin monere, though many modern scholars think that is an error. In any case, the association of the temple of Juno Moneta with coinage gives us both the English money and mint.
So we can think of Godzilla as a monster in both the common modern sense and the older sense: a fantastical creature but also an omen of the troubles to come in the Atomic Age.
Q. E. more or less D.
In American English, we give someone something, we don’t gift someone something — even if that someone is gifted. Using gift to mean give has been a thing in English for several centuries, but it was until recently uncommon. No one really knows what gift-as-a-verb took off, but one theory is that Seinfeld is to blame by popularizing the words regifting and degifting. If that is true, then gift-as-a-verb probably will outlast the American Express “black card” as Jerry Seinfeld’s most enduring gift to culture.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
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In Other News . . .
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power contains some really interesting history about Nazi economic policy that will be of interest to many readers of this newsletter.
I’m going to go with: a society that is economically and culturally dynamic enough that there exists such a thing as the public life and career of J. D. Vance. That and a reasonable tax rate on book royalties.
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