Thursday, September 23, 2021

Unclear on the concept: Public health vs. personal choice

Eoin Higgins's essay at The Atlantic--unfortunately titled "Not Getting Vaccinated to Own Your Fellow Libs"*--about liberals who are vaccine hesitant [pay walled, probably] raises some real concerns. But seems clueless about some of the stakes.

Speaking of the liberal, but vaccine hesitant, Higgins asks [bold added by me],

Do they remain on the left, even as the politics around the conspiracy theories they embrace lead them out of their ideological comfort zones? Or do they dispense with progressivism in favor of a view of the world that holds that public health is subordinate to personal choice?

Well....if we live in a polity that respects individual rights, then we need to recognize that there is always a tension between public health and personal choice. I also think we need to recognize that sometimes personal choice does indeed trump public health, at least sometimes.

Look: I'm in favor of covid vaccines (and other vaccines). I'm also in favor of government imposed mandates to require people to get those vaccines. But to say, as Higgins seems to, that one cannot be liberal without sometimes questioning whether public health should override personal choice is part of the problem.

I'm using "liberal" where Higgins uses "progressive." If Higgins is likening the current Democratic party coalition to the (subset of) people who were called "progressives" in the early 20th century, then I confess that he's onto something. As a historian, I'm skeptical there was really such a thing as the "progressive movement" in the early 1900s U.S., but there were a number of people who have since been called "progressives" who showed almost no respect for individual rights when it came to public health concerns. Recall Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s statement from Buck v. Bell: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." 

I don't think that's what Higgins intends. Or I hope he doesn't intend it. A more charitable reading is that he's using loaded terminology and unfortunate turns of phrase to critique non-conservative vaccine hesitancy. But he shouldn't be surprised if non-members of the choir don't listen to the sermon.

*I'm critical of that title. The liberals whom Higgins discusses don't seem to intend to "own" liberals the way that non-liberals do. In fact one of his arguments is that those liberals don't see any contradiction and are somehow ignorant that non-liberals are also vaccine hesitant. I strongly suspect Higgins is either misinterpreting his interviewees' lack of public awareness, or is way over-emphasizing the point. But as far as the title goes: I understand authors don't necessarily get to choose the titles that magazines assign to their articles. So we can give Higgins a pass on that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Covid vaccine (and mask) mandates are political

In case you don't want to read my recent (and long!) blog post None Dare Call It Politics, here's the gist of my argument. Vaccine mandates, and mask mandates, and quarantines, and lock downs--they're all political despite the countless assertions to the contrary you'll hear from some of their proponents.

They're political in two senses.

The first sense is that they've become an important partisan issue. That's unfortunate, but it's true. People who say mandates aren't "political" in that sense are actually saying mandates shouldn't be political. 

The second sense is that mandates are an imposition on others. They're a form of compulsion to convince, cajole, and coerce others to do something they otherwise wouldn't choose to do. The reason mandates are instituted in the first place is that others' decisions not to get vaccinated, not to wear masks, and not to be careful--those decisions affect still others. They're not wholly individual choices. Third parties are affected by others' actions. That fact puts mandates into play.

No, they're not all government-imposed. So to the extent they're not, I suppose they don't meet that definition of "political." But we have a third-party interest affected in an indirect but very important way by the actions of others. That in my view is the essence of "political."

That's all separate from the claim about whether mandates are unfair or whether they're justified. It's possible for something to be "political" and yet worthy of doing. It's possible for some measure to be coercive and yet necessary.

If you ask me, our current mandate regime is probably too mild. The mandates that I've personally seen operate mostly as suggestions or polite requests. Some of them are becoming stricter. I think that's a good thing, on balance, as long as we keep our eyes on the goal of public safety and the effectiveness of the mandates and not on punishment for the sake of punishment.

I'm not rehashing anti-vaccination talking points for the sake of rehashing anti-vaccination talking points. If anything, I'm pointing out a way to strengthen the pro-vaccination, pro-mandate argument. Don't deny what everyone on some level knows. Saying mandates are political (in the second sense) is actually a justification for mandates. They're necessary because they are political.

Mandates are political. Accept it. Own it. Embrace it. Above all, justify it. Demonstrate why they're necessary. Refusing to do so makes your support for mandates seem like a dishonest power grab.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Content of their character: nobody gets an A

[UPDATE, August 13, 2021: I made minor stylistic changes and some content changes.]

You are probably familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and in particular this portion: 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This is one of those enduring, iconic statements. It's also controversial, especially when it's used by people to criticize what today passes for anti-racism. The ways people use that statement and react to people who use it merit criticism. And the statement itself needs to be looked at more critically, too. In the process, nobody gets an A, but some at least get passing marks.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

A thought experiment about covid vaccnie hesitancy

I suggest that fear is a reason why some people hesitate to take the covid vaccine. It's not the only reason, and even those who fear may have additional reasons or incentives for hesitating. But in this blog post, I focus on fear. I suggest that those of us who are not vaccine hesitant might be able to understand, or come close to understanding, those who are hesitant.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Compassion for the covid vaccine hesitant

My workplace will soon require all employees to get a covid vaccination, unless they can obtain a medical or religious exemption. The main point that remains unclear is whether declining a vaccine (and not getting an exemption) means a worker will lose their job.

One of my inclinations is to say, "fire the bastards." When I'm feeling more thoughtful, I'm inclined to say the worker should be suspended without pay until the covid crisis is over or until they opt for vaccination.

Either way, my impulse is to be punitive. I accept the logic that says, the fewer people who are vaccinated, the more often the virus will mutate, and the more dangerous it may become, possibly so much as to make the vaccines ineffective altogether. And frankly, vaccine hesitancy, along with resistance to simple and non-invasive public health measures like mask wearing, has fostered untold suffering.People die alone in hospitals. Some survivors (apparently) experience long-term health problems. Many, many of us live in fear.

Yet even so, my emotional reaction ("fire the bastards") gives me pause. You see, my reaction is not only instrumental. It's not only focused on obtaining a desired and desirable public health outcome.

My reaction is also fueled by a certain resentment. I might even call it malice and a wish for revenge against the hesitant. Worse, I carry that resentment against the people who belong to certain populations that are stereotypically assumed to be hesitant. It would be inconsiderate to describe this more vicious sentiment in any detail. So I won't. But I will say I find it difficult to separate the rational calculation from the strange combination of tribal identity and instinct for survival that informs my darker thoughts.

How often have people identified a real enemy or real potential for harm and then responded with merciless force far beyond the actual danger? Even if the response is commensurate to the danger, or as commensurate as any response reasonably can be--even in that case, how often have we define the non-compliant as in some ways subhuman? 

There for the grace of god go any of us. The trend seems now to favor mandates. Maybe someday those of us who are not vaccine hesitant will ourselves on the other side of a great and urgent question and have to face consequences for taking an unpopular stand.

Even if that never happens to us, what type of people do we become when we identify enemies? Or more precisely, what type of people are we tempted to become?

It starts with casual jokes about those crazy "anti-vaxxers" and devolves into hatred of entire people presumed to be "anti-vaxxers." It devolves into mobocracy. It escalates into endorsing a public health security state where much, much can be done to almost anyone as long as it's justified for the greater good of public health.

Hyperbole? Maybe. We're at least several steps removed from whatever dystopia I'm imagining. And the situation is so urgent, the mandates and likely penalties for non-compliance are so mild (perhaps too mild), and our civil society is so strong, that my worries are probably mostly theoretical.

And maybe all coercive measures, no matter how reasonable, justified, or instrumental to a greater good--maybe they all must of necessity occasion the stronger and more vile emotions. Maybe the best  of those measures operate in part to check those sentiments. And each of us is nuanced moral agent. Maybe we can check those sentiments and be better than our principles. Maybe we can keep our eyes on the prize, which in this case is taming coronavirus disease.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Reflections on leadership: introduction

A few months ago, I finished a two-year stint on the board of directors for a small, not for profit organization. During the second of those two years, I served as president. Those experiences have given me the chance to reflect on leadership. I'd like to share some of those reflections with you. It would take too long to put all the reflections in one post, so I'll try to do it in the occasional post, as the mood strikes me.

I was originally going to title this series "Lessons in leadership." But I believe these are better described as "reflections" rather than "lessons." Much of what I supposedly learned, I already on some level knew or believed before I "learned" it. More important, my "reflections" are just as often opinions about leadership that are contestable. To call those opinions "lessons" is to make them seem stronger and less assailable than they probably are. A lesson usually connotes "something true that is learned" while my opinions are conclusions that are debatable even when informed by thought and experience.

This post is an introduction to the series. And like all "series" I write (e.g., "advice to DEI trainers"), I'll engage the series when I feel like it and am moved to. So I can't promise how often I'll do it.

Necessary disclosures

Before I go further, I should alert you of a few things.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

None dare call it politics

When it comes to addressing Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy, public health campaigns fall down on the job. 

I'll focus on one example. It's an article published at the University of Michigan Health website, titled "Who has the right to ask if you're vaccinated?" (url at <>, accessed May 9, 2021). It sets out to expose what it calls the "false controversy" about "covid passports." Covid passports refer to the idea that businesses and certain government services, such as schools, should have the authority to require their patrons and charges to prove they have have been vaccinated against covid-19. Presumably, one way to facilitate that would be to issue documents, or "passports," that the vaccinated can show to gain entry.

The arguments the article makes seem designed to convince no one. They make a caricature of the objections that people may have about covid passports and about the covid vaccines generally. In doing so, they represent the way that public health campaigns often fail to promote public health.