Vaccination and the Poisoned Commons

In his 2004 article “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Bruno Latour observes that the tools of critical thinking have fallen into the hands of the enemy. Once it was “us” that debunked facts by pointing to their social construction, and “us” that debunked beliefs by pointing to their ideological construction. Now it’s “them”: climate change deniers speak about the uncertainty of scientific facts, and 9/11 conspiracy theorists point to dark corridors of power and capital that produce factitious truths. If Latour had written the piece in 2015, he might have added, now anti-vaccination activists use a watered-down version of Marxist dicta, telling us to “follow the money” of the pharmaceutical companies, to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion to conventional medicine. Or, in the words of Gob Bluth, “I heard the jury’s still out on science.”

Since the outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland in December, there’s been a lot of “us” and “them” rhetoric around vaccination. Anti-vaxxers, my friends say, are dangerous idiots. They put people’s lives at risk because of an elaborate shared fantasy of toxins and autism and threatened purity. We are furious because their irrational decisions put others in harm’s way. I feel furious too, especially when I read things like Tim Jacks’s open letter “To the Parent of the Unvaccinated Child Who Exposed My Family to Measles.” Jacks puts a face on those who have the most to lose from declining vaccination rates: children like his daughter Maggie, who has leukemia and can’t be vaccinated during her treatments.

Although I am 100% pro-vaccination and co-sign Jamelle Bouie’s argument that where rational persuasion doesn’t work, mandatory vaccination laws do, I’m nevertheless troubled by the “us versus them” mentality of the debate. It feels so good to hate anti-vaxxers, and that gives me pause. The funhouse-mirror version of critical thinking that I see in the anti-vaccination movement gives me pause, too. I think of the history of medicine, of the women diagnosed with hysteria in the nineteenth century, the women sterilized without consent in the twentieth century, the men suffering from untreated syphilis in the Tuskegee experiments. Of all the reasons to distrust the institutions of medicine. And then I think that the anti-vaxxers aren’t so different from me. In another life, I might have been one of them.

Eula Biss’s On Immunity pauses to ask these kinds of questions too. Biss understands that people’s fears about vaccination are neither caused nor soothed by scientific data. They emerge from a much more complicated morass of stories and history. Stories like Dracula, which give voice to fears about contamination and foreign bodies; stories like Silent Spring, in which silent killers move invisibly through the landscape of modernity; and psychology’s stories about mothers who, through coddling or coldness, are responsible for their children’s sicknesses. Biss defends vaccination with compassion and cultural acuity, looking to understand why immunity and disease are so emotionally charged and why fears about vaccination seem impervious to rational argument.

When CNN asked anti-vaccine doctor Jack Wolfson about the measles outbreak and whether parents have a responsibility to vaccinate their children, he said no. “My child is pure,” he told them. My child is pure. A utopian belief that is by no means limited to the anti-vaccination movement. My child is pure because she was breastfed. My child is pure because he doesn’t eat things with high fructose corn syrup. My child is pure because I buy only BPA-free household products. My child is pure because she’s never been exposed to the toxins in those vaccines.

Anti-vaccination beliefs may not be the province of either the political right or the left, as Bouie argues. But I think they are part and parcel of a kind of political quietism common among educated, left-leaning people: virtuous consumerism. There are so many real biochemical dangers to worry about: antibiotic-resistant bacteria, poisoned water, lead exposure, environmental carcinogens. And in the US, we have come to tacitly accept that this is the way of the world; short-term economic concerns must come first, and corporate interests must be allowed to continue polluting the commons. For the meat industry, the petroleum industry, and countless others, the motto is clear: socialize risk, privatize profit.

It’s not at all surprising to me that in this political landscape, fearful parents might feel that the only way to protect their children is through individual action—buying the “natural,” “organic,” or “chemical-free” products, opting out of the others. It’s a scary world, and virtuous consumerism becomes a way to feel in control. Maybe you can’t get Congress to pass any kind of meaningful carbon bill, but at least you can make sure your kid isn’t eating Red 40 food coloring. And, if you’ve been told that vaccines are full of dangerous chemicals, at least you can make sure your own baby isn’t exposed to them.

Except you can’t. As Biss points out, there are aluminum and DDT residues in breast milk. There are pesticides on fruits and vegetables. There is mercury in fish, and formaldehyde everywhere. None of us are closed systems; none of us are pure. Like the environment itself, our bodies are open systems. They do not play by the laws of private property or by the codes of individualism. And virtuous consumerism will not protect them from the impurities of the world.

In the case of anti-vaccination, the sad irony is that the efforts to “protect” children make them more vulnerable, not less—vulnerable to the dangerous microbes that cause measles, whooping cough, and other preventable illnesses. Jack Wolfson responded to Tim Jacks by saying, “People die. I’m not going to put my child at risk to save another child.” Parents who refuse vaccination try to emulate the corporate mentality by privatizing the purity of the “uncontaminated” child while socializing the risk of disease. But they end up inviting the greatest risk into their own homes.

Biss offers another way of thinking about immunization: as an act of love for others, an act of community. She immunizes her son not just to protect him, but to protect others. She calls on us to view vaccination not just as a pragmatic act, but also a socially meaningful one. Like donating blood, vaccination is an attempt to shield each other from harm. “We are each other’s environment,” Biss concludes. “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

So let us tend it together. Let us move from the solipsistic individualism of virtuous consumption to collective political action. Let us work to make the environment safer for everybody, not just our own children. If anti-vaccination beliefs are a symptom of a general feeling of helplessness about our poisoned environment and our treacherous political and commercial institutions, as I think they are, then denouncing anti-vaxxers isn’t enough. Individual virtue on either side of the debate isn’t enough. What we need is a collective will to build better institutions, to care more for our neighbors, and to protect the commons.

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