“Mocking anti-vaxxers’ deaths is ghoulish, yes — but may be necessary,” declared Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik earlier this week. Those who have “deliberately flouted sober medical advice” by refusing vaccination should, in Hiltzik’s view, “be viewed as receiving their just deserts” if they then die after contracting Covid-19.
Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate, or at least does so on the basis of age and health conditions rather than politics. Why, then, have views on how we should manage it — and particularly how we should treat vaccination — become so heartless, judgemental and politically tribal?
We have a milder case of it in Britain than some countries. But there’s a correlation between (broadly Remain-affiliated) liberal urbanites and the new hygiene-authoritarianism. This has been emerging for a while: back in 2020 the research group UK In A Changing Europe noted that while “it’s not the case that all Leavers are lockdown sceptics” nonetheless “it’s pretty much the case that all lockdown sceptics are Leavers”. More recently, 99 Tories voted against Covid passes before Christmas, compared to 22 in Labour.
In the US, analogous (and angrier) patterns emerge. Free-wheeling, mask-optional Republican Florida is pitted against Democrat California, which mandates indoor mask-wearing, including for all children over the age of two, and announced in October that vaccination would become mandatory for in-person school attendance. Vaccination is already mandatory for employment in the police force and healthcare on public-health grounds.
More interesting than arguing for either one side or the other, though, is what the arguments reveal about our ongoing political realignment. In particular, it sounds the death-knell for a relatively mild-mannered twentieth-century version of progressivism characterised by a desire to ensure the world is fair, and to avoid harming others.
What’s emerging to replace it is more bellicose, more ruthless — and increasingly religious. So-called “secular liberalism” has, in other words, stopped pretending to be secular. It’s been received opinion since the end of World War II that authoritarian religiosity was exclusive to the Right. Theodor Adorno’s 1950 The Authoritarian Personality cited batteries of research to argue that fascism, and the Holocaust, could be explained by the prevalence of an ‘Authoritarian Personality Type’. This ‘personality type’, he argued, was characterised by blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong, respect for submission to acknowledged authority, and a tendency to project one’s own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group.
In turn, Adorno’s conviction that these behaviours are characteristic of the Right crops up again in a far more recent, but also influential book: Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 The Righteous Mind. Here, Haidt argued that the reason ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ routinely misunderstand one another is that there exist five ‘moral foundations’ on which we all base our political views: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Haidt argues that liberals are only interested in care/harm and fairness/cheating, while the Right is attuned to all five foundations.
Does this apply in the Covid debate? Certainly at the surface, calls for coercive measures tend to start off with arguments about protecting people. For example, Scottish public health adviser Jason Leitch told BBC Good Morning Scotland that the aim of Covid passes was “to allow people to attend events and environments safely”.
At the core of this argument is the not unreasonable point that when it comes to physical wellbeing, we can’t be wholly individualistic. The moment you get ill or injure yourself as a consequence of having taken some risk (for example after breaking your leg skiing), you need care and are thus, by definition, no longer taking sole responsibility for your wellbeing.
Does this mean vaxx authoritarians have a point? Hiltzik points out that mandates have long existed on other health grounds where risk-taking imposes costs on wider society, such as seatbelt-wearing, smoking, or drink-driving. Insisting on the individual right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated therefore “places a perverse conception of individual “freedom” in opposition to the communal interest”.
We might simply shrug, and say this is just another data point for that 2021 study which showed that contra Adorno, there is abundant evidence for authoritarianism among left-liberals. Certainly, calls from self-identified progressives to “crush the resistance” to vaccines by making the lives of the unvaccinated a “total misery” might challenge the idea that the ‘authoritarian personality’ can only flourish on the Right.
But it’s the character and chosen terrain of the emerging progressive authoritarianism that’s distinctive. For it’s not merely a matter of progressives waking up to the possibility that they, too, may use coercive measures to pursue their chosen ends. It’s also the nature of those ends. Consider, for example, the fact that in 2020 fentanyl killed more Californians than Covid. But unlike Covid, the drug epidemic inspired few coercive measures — only safe injection sites, billboards encouraging users to take drugs with friends or programmes that pay them not to use.
If avoiding harm justified coercive interventions, surely we’d have seen more of them in Californian drug policy. But their absence in the case of drug abuse, and fervent application in the case of virus control, suggests there’s a different motive at work than the prevention of harm.
In an Evening Standard piece last week, former editor Emily Sheffield argued that our capital city’s unvaccinated residents should “pay with their freedoms, not ours”. And on social media, we saw the same punitive ferocity recently when one American mother reported that when her son tested positive she didn’t just quarantine him but also “took the X-Box”, a measure more consistent with chastisement than infection control. The only reason she didn’t also confiscate the phone, she says, “is so he can text for food and water”.
Recently, we’ve had news that Omicron appears to be more infectious but milder, and research that indicates vaccination does very little to prevent transmission of the virus. So rationally, none of these vengeful attitudes make much sense. What’s going on?
The recent furore over the entry into Australia of (unvaccinated) tennis superstar Novak Djokovic offers a clue. One Melbourne journalist tweeted about how, since he was allowed into the country, fans “won’t want to come” to the tennis matches. Objectively, one single unvaccinated tennis player would make a negligible difference to someone’s risk of catching Covid; the only possible reason someone might skip the Australian Open because of Djokovic’s presence is if the fear was of a subtler, more metaphysical contagion.
In the Bay of Kells, in Ireland’s County Kerry, there’s a small secret graveyard that until recently was overgrown with brambles and largely forgotten. It was a place where grieving parents buried babies who died before they could be baptised — for the unbaptised were spiritually unclean, and therefore not permitted burial on a churchyard’s consecrated ground.
In Eugenics and Other Evils (1922), GK Chesterton observed that “it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism”. Today the prescience of Chesterton’s remark is clear, as is the convergence in terms of social meaning between vaccination and baptism.
The growing tendency for ‘the vaccinated’ to treat ‘the unvaccinated’ as other or impure recalls the willingness of an earlier age to deny others simple forms of inclusion on the basis of baptism. Never mind what studies say about the efficacy of Covid vaccination in protecting us from severe illness (which evidence strongly suggests it does) or mitigating further infection (perhaps more debatable). Increasingly, vaccination carries a social meaning as well as a medical one. It’s a ritual infusion — albeit via injection, not anointment — of sacred liquid, whose application confers freedom from spiritual taint.
Perhaps it’s just that the correlation between left-liberalism and secularism in both Britain and America has left progressives especially hungry for something to fill the God-shaped hole, and the yearning for measures that speak to the fundamental moral instinct Haidt calls ‘sanctity/degradation’. This might help account for the ongoing, fruitless, rationally debunked but nonetheless persistent obsession Tom Chivers recently noted, with disinfecting surfaces ‘because of Covid’ despite mounting evidence that the virus is airborne.
An increasingly post-Christian West, then, finds itself grabbing gratefully onto Covid hygiene theatre, in pursuit of a purity more metaphysical than bacterial. And as we’ve now spent two years clapping for carers, sharing dancing nurse videos, and creating window iconography and even altar-cloths to venerate medical professionals, it’s probably a bit late to rein this blossoming spiritualisation of hygiene.
For to imagine we can do so would be to say we still live in a world of reasoned debate. And when ‘experts’ offer ‘evidence’ to counter rumours of Covid propagandising, only to be met with derisive accusations of using fact-checking to propagandise, we might as well abandon ‘reasoned debate’ altogether and, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, stick two pencils up our noses and wear underpants on our heads.
Or, alternatively, start praying. Progressives spent half of the twentieth century telling us that this was pointless: the search for metaphysical purity was low-status, ‘authoritarian’ or simply obsolete, and reason replaced all that. Their children, though, have discovered that purification rituals don’t have to be confined to the individualistic realm of ‘juice cleanses’ or ‘clean eating’, but can be imposed on entire societies.
We can expect them to go on chasing that high. And meanwhile, it seems enough of the rest of us like having something to worship, and a suitable group of sinners to despise. If you don’t already pray, you might as well start; we all once again live in a religious world.