Politics

Anti-Vaxxers Only Have Two Historical Reference Points, Apparently

A new twist on Godwin’s law has been born.

Three people outside the Massachusetts State House carry anti-vaccine signs, including one on which syringes form the shape of a swastika.
Angry people in Boston on Friday. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

What is going on here?

• “Kansas paper published by Republican posts cartoon likening masks order to Holocaust” (The Guardian, July 4, 2020)

• “Anti-mask politician compares herself to civil rights icon Rosa Parks” (Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2021)

• “Rep. Greene apologizes for comparing face masks to Holocaust, but stands by comparison of Democrats to Nazi party” (Washington Post, June 14, 2021)

• “Oklahoma GOP leader compares vaccine mandates to the Holocaust” (Washington Post, Aug. 2, 2021)

• “Maine lawmaker compares vaccine mandate to Nazi death camp doctor” (AP, Aug. 30, 2021)

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• “Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie compared vaccine mandates to Holocaust in now-deleted tweet” (Courier Journal, Aug. 26)

• “Franklin commissioner compares himself to Rosa Parks in protesting WA mask mandate” (Tri-City Herald, Sept. 1)

• “A GOP senator likened COVID vaccines to the Holocaust, tweeted a swastika and told a Jewish group who complained to ‘learn your history’” (AZ Mirror, Sept. 13)

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Then there is this week’s trending COVID news out of Newberg, Oregon: “Newberg school staffer shows up in blackface, placed on leave.” What does that have to do with the novel coronavirus, you might ask? Newberg Graphic reporter Ryan Clarke’s article explains: “A staff member at Mabel Rush elementary school in Newberg showed up to work in Blackface on Friday, allegedly saying she was dressed as Rosa Parks and protesting a vaccine mandate for teachers.” Ah.

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So it seems we have a new twist on Godwin’s law on our hands: The longer any discussion of mask and vaccine mandates wears on, the more likely it is that some knucklehead will compare themselves to a Holocaust victim or Rosa Parks, possibly while physically pinning a yellow star to their chest or wearing blackface. None of this is totally surprising, since crackpots with persecution complexes are always prone to histrionic and ridiculous historical analogies. That’s why Godwin’s law is a thing in the first place.

That said, this emerging pattern is especially noteworthy, and a bit ironic, in light of the right wing’s concurrent campaign against “critical race theory,” a specific area of academic study whose definition has been intentionally broadened by conservative activists and pundits to encompass any history lesson in which the United States is depicted as having, or even once had, structural biases that favored white people over others. The argument against such teaching is typically associated with claims that American students should primarily learn about, and take pride in, the positive accomplishments of Founding Fathers–type national figures (who just happen to be white).

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Here, though, we see that when the situation calls for a reference that signifies unfair treatment, conservatives reach reflexively for the Jews of 1930s Europe and the Black Americans of the 1950s South, who were targeted for discrimination and violence by literal white supremacists. In addition to making an inadvertent point about the benefits of collective mobilization and compulsory regulation, this is an implicit admission that both mainstream liberals and actual CRT-espousing academics are correct when they say that oppression is an unavoidable fact of modern history, and that its victims and antagonists should have a central place in academic curriculums. For all the conservative talk about how important white people were in the creation of American-style freedom, no one is getting suspended for arriving at their workplace dressed as Jeffersonian agrarianism or James K. Polk.

Anyway: Half of modern conservatism now consists of showing up at a school board meeting about “critical race theory” to say that the United States never oppressed anyone. The other half is comparing yourself to Rosa Parks later in the same meeting because you had to wear a mask.

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