The most important question in America
I recently got into a friendly argument on Twitter about whether mass vaccinations could have the unintended consequence of accelerating the emergence of vaccine-resistant Covid strains. Or rather, the argument was ostensibly about that. I don’t have the scientific training to have an informed debate on such a highly technical subject, and the person I was arguing with didn’t seem to either. So, as is often the case on Twitter, what we were really having an argument about was not what we were literally having an argument about. What we were actually arguing about was which ideas were ok to take seriously and which were heretical, which sources were legitimate to invoke and which were tainted by blasphemy.
The details aren’t particularly important, but basically, my position is that I think it’s reasonable to speculate about the possibility that by vaccinating a ton of people while the virus is still tearing through a population like wildfire, you could be creating a condition in which a mutation that gets around the vaccine has an evolutionary advantage over other strains, and thus spreads more rapidly and widely than it would have in the absence of the vaccine. We’ve seen it before, after all, with antibiotics. It’s an idea that’s been floated by others, and dismissed by others still as bullshit. On its surface, it seems logical. Then again, I’m not a scientist, so what do I know?
Joe Rogan, obviously, is a divisive figure. I happen to respect him and enjoy his podcast. That doesn’t mean I think he’s right about everything, or even informed about everything. Contrary to what his haters suspect, nobody who actually listens to his show would ever think of him as some kind of intellectual guru. That’s literally the opposite of his appeal.
Nonetheless, Joe Rogan has an absurdly popular podcast. What he says matters, just based on his reach alone. And what he said, in this case, was, to a distinct class of people, vaguely heretical. And the way people reacted to his comment says a lot about how we’re all processing information these days, including scientific information that our health depends on.
As everyone knows, the country is presently sorting itself into two opposing camps, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. On the surface, it’s just an update of the two opposing camps we’ve had for the last twenty years — red and blue America — and which have defined our country since 2016 in particular, when the era of ultra-hyper-polarization began. The picture is, in fact, more complicated when you look at the actual demographics; for instance, black Americans are the least likely to be vaccinated, and they hardly belong to the tribe generally associated with MAGA. But as far as the media narrative is concerned (which is increasingly the only version of reality that matters), it’s the same culture war we’ve been fighting for years: deplorables vs. PMCs, or patriots vs. coastal elites, or whatever shorthand you’re most comfortable with.
I’ve written here before about Émile Durkheim. Durkheim studied “primitive” religions in an attempt to understand what enables a multitude of isolated individuals to cohere into a society. He believed that in societies with complex divisions of labor (which includes almost all societies today), there is an immanent (his word was “organic”) force of cohesion, because people depend on each other, materially, to live their day-to-day lives. In earlier societies, in which families existed more or less self-sufficiently, there was no such material interdependence, so there was a need for something else to bring them together. That something was religion, which was, fundamentally, individuals coming together and worshipping themselves as a collective — as a society — and calling it “god.”
I’m obviously not doing justice to his theory in the span of a single paragraph, but I don’t need to for present purposes, because this is all just prelude to citing one detail of Durkheim’s thinking: all religions, everywhere on earth, depend on a dichotomous division between two realms, the sacred and the profane.
The sacred, obviously, is the realm of the holy. The “profane” is everything else. In Durkheim’s view, every religion holds beliefs and practices rites that draw a stark division between the two. In Christianity it’s everywhere: dipping your fingers in holy water and crossing yourself before stepping out of the secular world and into the sacred realm of the church, for instance. But even New Age religions mimic this ritual, by burning sage or putting crystals on your head or whatever to purify yourself before engaging in religious ritual. The purpose in every instance is the same: to draw a bright line between your prosaic existence as an individual human being, and the transcendental existence as a member of a greater collective that you’re about to enter when you step into a sanctified physical space or partake in a spiritual practice. These rites affirm your membership within that collective, and in so doing, reify the collective itself.
In one sense, that’s a beautiful thing. People who are isolated from one another come together into a collective, feel a sense of togetherness, and subordinate their own narrow self-interests to the greater existence of the community. In another sense, it’s quite ugly, because in order to create that collective, you need to draw stark boundaries, separating those that constitute “us” from those that constitute “them.” The rites that establish the sacred unify the congregation, or the ummah, or the tribe, but only by separating them from those who lie outside of it.
Today, we live in a sophisticated world with a complex division of labor. From Durkheim’s perspective, we don’t need religion anymore; our social cohesion is found in our material dependence on one another. But evidently, that isn’t enough. Religion, obviously, still persists, even if it’s waning, even in the United States. But also in secular contexts, the sectarian impulse that Durkheim described seems more alive than ever. Despite our material interdependence, most of us have never felt so divided from other Americans as we do today; and at the same time, I would bet that more Americans than ever before feel closely connected to the subset of their compatriots who share their political worldview, wherever they happen to live (now that we all live on the internet, geographical proximity is a no longer a necessary condition for forming communities). We’re all in our foxholes, bonding with our brothers-in-arms while shooting at each other. That’s polarization. That’s tribalism, which was what Durkheim viewed as the atomic level of social formation.
This Substack article by Charles Eisenstein has been making the rounds. It’s an interesting essay. It’s about our base, collective need to create scapegoats, and how the unvaccinated are currently filling that role. At one point in it, he describes “the cooties,” that imagined social contagion from the days of recess. It’s a term some colleagues and I have been using, too, for some time now, about the way that people engage in politics these days. It’s a useful concept, especially now, in this age of digital tribalism.
Sanctity, like cooties, is highly contagious. The totem animal is sacred, but so is the tree he lives in, the seeds he drops while eating, the mask of his likeness, and, temporarily, the person who wears it in religious ritual. The sacredness flows from one object to the next. Think of Jesus: not only was he, himself, sacred, but he imparted his sanctity onto his apostles, the words he uttered and everything he touched (the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, etc.).
But as Durkheim goes out of his way to point out, “sacred,” is not synonymous with “good.” In the realm of the sacred there are also demons. They, too, can transmit their sacred properties through proximity or taboo. The destructive or mischievous spirit of the badger can transfer to the hunter who traps him. The demonic influence of temptation can corrupt a soul through forbidden actions or even thoughts, which can be purified only through ritual confession and atonement. In some contexts, the supernatural powers of the divine can purify and empower those who receive them. In others, they can corrupt and debilitate.
These are the cooties. (My word, not Durkheim’s.)
The unvaccinated have cooties. They don’t even have to catch Covid-19 to get them. They’ve been touched by the contagion of impure belief.
As we all recall from the schoolyard, physical proximity (or, these days, its digital equivalent) is the easiest way to catch cooties. Chelsea Manning learned in 2018 that the same rules govern in adulthood. So have Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova of Red Scare, the difference being that they don’t give a shit.
We’re already physically cordoning ourselves off from the unvaccinated, through vaccine mandates and social ostracism. But cooties can be transmitted through mental telepathy, too. All you have to do is share some Bad Opinions with the infected, and you’ll be scratching your own skin rashes in no time.
And the unvaccinated have no shortage of Bad Opinions.
Some of these opinions are obviously insane (5G, microchips). But those are notions that are held by a negligible number of people. More common among the vaccine-hesitant are fears of unknown long-term side effects and doubts in the vaccines’ efficacy. These are ideas that may meet the diagnostic threshold for Bad Opinions, but they aren’t crazy. You might choose to dismiss the possibility of long-term adverse side effects, but the existence of that possibility is simply a fact. You might have unquestioning faith in the efficacy of the vaccines, but given what we know about viral load and incidence of breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, that isn’t necessarily the “scientific” position. In my opinion, the most evidence-based view of the vaccine is one that’s highly unsatisfying to zealots on both sides: the vaccine is not very effective at preventing you from contracting Covid; it’s extremely effective at preventing infections from becoming serious once contracted; it’s somewhat but not entirely effective at preventing you from spreading it; it has minimal short term side effects and unknown long term consequences. But among some who pride themselves on “following the science,” that less-than-full-throated endorsement of the vaccine would be enough to earn me the label of “anti-vaxxer.” This isn’t a rational debate.
Declaring which facts you believe about Covid has become akin to asserting your religious convictions. Do you “believe in science”? Do you “believe” in the vaccines? Do you trust the CDC? Is Anthony Fauci a hero or a villain? Does masking work? These are no longer empirical questions, or even political ones. They are statements of one’s tribal allegiances, and as such, they’re fighting words.
You can see it every time you bring it up online. There shouldn’t be anything particularly emotional about the question of whether a vaccine-resistant virus can be selectively favored in an environment of high inoculation, or whether Ivermectin is an effective prophylactic or not. There shouldn’t be anything particularly triggering about the possibility that SARS Cov-2 emerged from a dropped beaker in a Chinese lab rather than from a pangolin bit by a bat and sold at a Wuhan wet market. These are straightforward questions of fact. But that’s not how they’re received. Where you land on these questions marks you as an ally to some and an enemy to others. By merely asking these questions you can find yourself grouped in with a political tribe that, on every other issue on earth, you may have nothing to do with. By having the same opinions or even asking the same questions as the heathens, you become a heathen yourself.
This is how grown-ass adults are now navigating their ways through complicated questions with life and death ramifications. The Bad Orange Man said the virus came from a Chinese lab. Therefore anyone who takes this hypothesis seriously is a MAGA chud. Joe Rogan suggested that SARS Cov-2 may be mutating into more virulent strains as a result of vaccinations. Joe Rogan has had a dozen or so Bad People as guests in close to 1700 episodes of his show. Ergo Joe Rogan is a Bad Person, his opinions are Bad and anyone who takes an opinion of his seriously must be a Bad Person, too. This is the logic of the playground.
It’s also the logic of our most fundamental social impulse: the will to clique up. Logic, forensics, and the scientific method are the most powerful tools humanity has ever contrived for the task of revealing the objective truth. But they’re of little use in satisfying our basic predilection for finding like-minded people, forging them into social groups, and going to war with the other clans in the vicinity. For this, we need religion, or, for the godless among us, dogma, or something approaching it.
That’s what’s now driving the public debate over Covid-19, which has quickly morphed from a scientific debate to a political spat to tribal warfare. It’s not meta-analyses of the efficacies of different treatment regimes, or studies of the evolutionary adaptations of viruses in inoculated populations, or philosophical debates over the proper balance between individual freedoms and the common good that guide our thinking, but the most important question of all: are the people you’re referencing and consorting with grody poo poo kaka heads?