The origins of anti-intellectualism in the United States can be found in the distant past and in the modern present. In Puritan societies established in the 17th century, fear of intellectuals was baked into the societies established in New England. Ministers in the Puritan church decried intellectuals as individuals who promoted the ideas of “Satan” and equated intellectuals, scientists, economists, philosophers and other scholars, as potential threats to Puritan society. John Cotton, a member of the Puritan clergy in Massachusetts Bay colony, was considered a scholar of the church until, in later life, he decried the transformation of the Puritan church in the colony and lashed out at those he saw as a threat to the community. These people, often referred to as “learned individuals”, were part of a conspiracy to undermine the Puritan church. He claimed, “the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee…” His anti-intellectualism represents a movement in American society and continues to impact society today.
Fast forward to 2021 and Cotton’s antipathy toward intellectualism and, in this case, science is widespread. Distrust of current vaccinations for COVID-19 represent modern examples of the fear of and perceived threat of intellectuals. Logic, reason, and research have been turned on their head as people claim secret cures and alternative treatments for prevention of and cure of COVID.
A casual visit to a grocery store last winter is testimony to this strange approach to research and reason. I entered the store, masked, following the requirements of both the community and the store. The store limited the number of people who could enter, and I quickly walked through the eisles grabbing what I needed. As I went to check out, a family of six were unmasked, an adult woman coughing loudly as she scanned items at the self-checkout. Around her, people stared and one person spoke up, “put on a mask to protect us all, please.” This request promoted a tirade, “DO YOUR RESEARCH! I’ve had COVID and I’m immune as are my family! We are not a threat to you!” The phrase “Do Your Research” is often shouted by supporters of groups like QANON as a kind of threat to those of us who might question their approach. Of course, the research and data always reveal their particular delusion. As I listened, I heard the rage and the undercurrent of fear that comes with not knowing what is going on in the world and how to navigate it. I walked away wondering at the complexity of talking to folks who are driven by these kinds of emotions and decisions.
The truth is, we are all subject to some form of delusion and folks driven to avoid vaccination are subject to pseudo-science passed off as factual information. As many folks are aware, that false narrative and false information is nothing short of delusion.
The most recent examples of such delusions are the use of off-label prescription drugs to help fight off a COVID infection. The fascinating thing is that fear of a vaccine is trumped by acceptance of unusual and bizarre claims that some drug or chemical is equally effective.
The use of Ivermectin, an animal dewormer and anti-parasitic drug, represents one of the more extreme and strange currents. It’s easy to find people hawking these so-called “cures” and this acceptance of “alternative therapies” speaks to the long tradition of people making money off of another person’s misery. Snake oil salesmen at the turn of the 20th century were a common sight in towns and villages. My own great grandfather was one such vendor, claiming that his particular solution combining alcohol and cinnamon was a cure all. In fact, all he seemed to do is invent Fireball, a whiskey drink in modern American society.
I’m raising these issues and this topic on this page because it has become clear to me that many people are living in fear. COVID is a terrible virus and as new variants take hold, they worry people who might, in another situation, make a more rational choice (like taking a vaccination as opposed to chomping on a Horse Dewormer drug). Compassion for those individuals who seek out these alternative therapies is one key to overcoming anti-intellectualism. Some people are trapped in their own delusions and the only thing we can do is offer our support and suggest actions that are based in rational thought.
This bit of analysis and perspective leads me to reflect on the words of Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. He has said, repeatedly, that compassion cannot stop with just those people who makes us feel accepted, welcome, or proud. Compassion must extend to those individuals who challenge our perceptions. He famously said that we have to extend our compassion to people like Donald Trump even though many folks find the man offensive. Similarly, reaching out to those refusing to aid in the end of the pandemic is a huge challenge and a worthy cause. Recognizing that all beings are deserving of our compassion is one way to unlock the fear that many of us experience.
So, when you find someone taking horse dewormer, ask them to explain the reasons for their actions. Listen carefully without applying our own perspectives. Simply put, reach out to those in need. That approach remains my goal in combating anti-intellectualism in COVIDland.
May you be happy, May you be well.