Anyone who has been alive and on the internet for the past few months knows that there's been a recent rash of outbreaks of measles and pertussis in this country due to a small number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children, and that a great many people are rather upset about this. As one of the more recent outbreaks was in my home state, I admit to being a bit put out myself.
Now, there's a lot of reputable scientific literature floating around on the net about the thoroughly debunked relationship between vaccines and autism. I'm not here to talk about that. Nor am I here to talk about the futility of trying to keep all "toxins" out of one's child's--or one's own--body, and how there's more mercury in most of the delicious, healthful fish we love to eat than in all the vaccines you're likely to get over the course of a lifetime (plus, the mercury in fish is not the same kind as that found--in negligible amounts--in vaccines). Plenty of people are already talking about the bizarre beliefs, questionable tactics, and the social consequences of the anti-vaxxer movement too, so I won't touch on that subject any more than I have to for the purposes of this post.
Instead, I'd like to tackle the subject from a somewhat different point of view.
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Let's take a look at the proponents of vaccine denial. First off, they tend to be white, affluent, and well-educated. While there are folks who distrust or shun vaccines on both sides of the USA's partisan divide, they do seem to tend toward one end of the political spectrum. And at the heart of their "movement" is a terror of some sinister external enemy closing in to harm and corrupt their children. Along with a fervent, almost religious zeal to do anything in their power to shield their children from corruption.
Now, where have we seen this dynamic before?
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Flash back to the late 1970's.
The divorce rate has seen a dramatic rise--from 33% at the beginning of the decade to 52% just five years later. Economic woes are putting stress on families, causing them to break apart or forcing them to take measures that aren't very attractive to them to get by. More mothers--divorced or otherwise--have to take jobs to support their families, leaving their children in day care while they work. The result is a widespread anxiety, a feeling that society is losing its way and that parents have lost control.
There's another factor at play as well. People are becoming more aware of child abuse. Of course children have been abused before the 70's, but as Malcolm McGrath, author of Demons of the Modern World, points out, "public concern over child abuse that began with the Battered Child Syndrome in the sixties and feminist consciousness raising over sexual assault had emerged into a new heightened public concern over the sexual abuse of children. At the same time as awareness over these public issues was growing, a new generation of 1960s idealists was leaving college and moving into the workforce, many of them taking their ideals into the public health system."
So we have a heightened awareness of the existence and horrors of child molestation, timed perfectly to coincide with a time when many parents were leaving their children "with strangers" while they worked, and often struggling with anxiety and guilt over it.
This will turn out to be a fertile breeding ground for wild fantasies of strangers abducting children for nefarious purposes. The rumor mill will blow stories of malevolent kidnappers out of proportion, lumping them together into a vast secret society of child-murderers. One whose uniform is the familiar black robe of the pop-culture Satanist.
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Fast forward to the late 90's.
Diagnoses of autism in children have seen a dramatic rise; 1 in 500 children is now affected, up from 1 in 2500 in 1995.
Many of these diagnoses can probably be accounted for by better diagnostic practices, and a broader understanding of autism as a spectrum of conditions rather than a single, static disorder. Still, the sudden uptick in numbers made parents everywhere uneasy, and parents of affected children quite understandably wanted to know what caused this, and what could be done about it. And the scientific community at the time seemed to have not terribly many answers. None that were neat and simple, anyway.
In retrospect, I'm not surprised that some of the more desperate among these parents latched on to the first person who could give them a clear-cut explanation for their child's condition, as well as something to blame for it. And when that person's explanations were exposed as complete fabrications, I'm not surprised these people kept clinging to them anyway. Hope--and the need to maintain the illusion of control, of the world being fair and of there being, somewhere out there, a remedy for every ill--springs eternal.
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In his excellent book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Urban Legend, Jeffrey S. Victor examines the structure of the kind of kidnapping rumors you'd be likely to hear when the Ritual Abuse Moral Panic was in full-swing.
"Why," he asks, "do these particular kidnapping stories feature a blond, blue-eyed virgin, rather than, for example, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty...?" His assertion is that the answer lies in traditional European symbolism. Blond hair and blue eyes do, after all, commonly serve as shorthand for purity and innocence in much of our folklore.
I think there's another, deeper element to it as well. In the same book, Victor describes the kind of person most likely to buy into the Satanic Panic: "They are...those people who have held most uncritically to traditional American cultural values, such as the ideal of hard work, the ideal of unquestioning patriotism, the ideal of religion as a force for morality in society, and the ideal of the family as the central source of stability in life." These are recognizably the values of the American middle class.
Which was, and is, predominantly white.
Not many people of color seem to have bought into the Satanic Panic. Balancing childcare and work tended not to be such a novel idea to them, and anyway I would think that systemic racism makes for a much more immediate, dangerous and exhausting enemy to fight than some nebulous group of "Satanists" maybe kidnapping children somewhere "out there."
In the end, the imaginary child-murdering Satanists were almost exclusively the boogeymen of white middle class Christians. It was their cultural background the mythology sprung from, and they were the ones with the time and the money to spend crusading and "raising awareness" against this perceived evil. The main proponents of the panic were almost all white people who appealed to other white people.
Although the white cheerleaders of the Satanic Panic weren't--and still aren't--adverse to appropriating mythology and iconography from other people's religions and using it to their own ends.
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A certain congressperson recently asserted that measles and other diseases are brought into the country and spread by unvaccinated illegal immigrants.
His claim is untrue. And blatantly offensive at that.
Immigrant populations in the US have a high vaccination rate. For heaven's sake, up-to-date vaccines are a requirement of getting a green card!
People who don't vaccinate are overwhelmingly white. They're the ones who have enough wealth, privilege, and social clout to opt their children out. They are, unfortunately, also the demographic least likely to have experienced deadly childhood diseases first hand.
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The Satanic Panic was largely the province of religiously conservative Christian suburb- and small-town-dwellers. As mentioned above, though, a few liberal feminists whose goal was to draw (much needed) attention to the problem of child sexual abuse were also proponents. Kee MacFarlane, who interviewed alleged child victims for the disastrous and extravagantly expensive McMartin Preschool trial, seems to have come from this background. Tipper Gore, founder of the Parents Music Resource Center and tireless crusader against "degenerate" influences in popular culture, was the wife of a Democratic senator.
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Meanwhile, Rand Paul rails against the evils of autism-causing vaccines and Chris Christie says vaccination should be a "choice" parents make for their kids. Now, these men haven't a prayer of squeezing any votes out of the Santa Monica crowd no matter how hard they pander, but the idea of vaccines being a "choice" must be quite appealing to certain libertarians. And when any social movement has supporters and followers on both sides of the divide, that gives it a certain illusion of legitimacy. Even if said movement is nothing more than a shoddy, flimsy patchwork of junk science and urban legend.
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So what will happen, ultimately, to the anti-vaxxer movement?
We don't yet know. We do, however, know what happened to the Satanic Panic.
It fizzled out because people realized it was bullshit and wasting a lot of resources that could be put to better use. It left a lot of collateral damage in its wake, but it's gone. You still encounter the odd holdout here and there, but the majority of people find it embarrassing that we ever believed any of that nonsense in the first place.
I rather believe that vaccine denial will follow the same trajectory. And I hope that it does so sooner rather than later.
After all, the Satanic Panic landed innocent people in jail and probably prevented legitimately mentally ill people from getting the help they needed in favor of bogus "recovered memory therapy." But at least most of those victims still have their lives.
I'm afraid, however, that for vaccine denial to finally go away, children will actually have to die from or be maimed by childhood diseases that we've had the power to prevent for nearly half a century. Diseases that had been all but eradicated in the US until some quack told concerned parents that the vaccine would give their children a neurological disorder.
And that's abuse far, far worse than anything any dagger-wielding cultist could inflict.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Whew! Thanks for bearing with me, everyone--I had to get that off my chest. We'll return to our regularly scheduled Music Video Monday post next week.
In the meantime, please enjoy this short video of what Jenny McCarthy probably thinks vaccines are like: