The Rise Of The New Know-Nothingism
By Lorin Swinehart
“DO YOU BELIEVE THAT! DO YOU BELIEVE THAT!” Growled the huge man standing in line behind me in a North Carolina supermarket. He was overflowing with bellicosity and ignorance in response to a young clerk’s reminder that he maintain a six-foot distance between himself and others during what was the most dangerous period of the recent COVID pandemic. I could not help but think to myself, “Big, dumb, and menacing.”
The anti-vac and anti-mask crowd are representative of a long tradition of know-nothingism that has characterized significant sectors of US society from the beginning, an attitude composed of anti-education, anti-science, anti-logic, anti-reason and on not a few occasions bigotry and racism. In the interest of accuracy, it needs to be said that know-nothingism as such emerged as a primarily anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political movement in the US during the 1850s. Over the years since, the term has come to have wider application. The purpose of education is the liquidation of ignorance, an exhausting challenge in an era when so many are proud of their ignorance.
The know-nothings have always been with us. Not too many years ago, they attempted to convince us that such engineering feats as the launch of the Space Shuttle was changing our weather. And yet, the same sorts today will energetically, even vehemently, deny the very real menaces posed by global warming and rising ocean levels. More frightening, they now rant and rave against the immunizations that are saving countless lives.
Vaccination has been a lifesaving procedure for decades, preceded by inoculation. Most of us take vaccination for granted. In the course of my own life, I have been immunized against diphtheria, hepatitis A, pertussis, smallpox, rotavirus, pneumococcal, pneumonia, rubella, polio, shingles and COVID, as well as tetanus on more than one occasion and influenza on an annual basis. The vaccines came along too late to spare me the miseries of measles, mumps, and chickenpox.
I had a good friend who spent his life on crutches because he had contracted polio in his early teens. Recently, it was reported that a man named Paul Alexander contracted polio in 1952 and has been in an iron lung for seventy years. I remember news reels showing a room lined with patients encapsulated in iron lungs, the stuff of nightmares for anyone at all claustrophobic. Some children in our neighborhood contracted polio. I wonder now if whenever my sister or I complained of a sore throat, a headache, a fever, particularly in the summertime, our parents didn’t inwardly panic.
When Dr. Jonas Salk announced on March 3, 1953, that he had created a polio vaccine, we rushed to share in the lifesaving discovery. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine, making immunization even easier. Thanks to vaccinations, a life inside an iron lung was no longer a threat.
On February 5, 1777, General George Washington ordered all members of the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox, the first mass immunization in American history. Such early leaders as Washington and Franklin were products of the Enlightenment and accepted the discoveries and procedures of the science of their day. Much earlier, in 1721, the Reverend Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boyston introduced inoculation to America during a smallpox epidemic in Boston.
In its day, smallpox was as fearful a scourge as polio was in the 1950s or, more recently, the COVID pandemic. It was characterized by high fever, vomiting, and mouth and skin lesions. Eventually, fluid filled bumps would appear all over the skin. It was spread, as so many of the maladies that torment us do, by droplets from the noses and mouths of infected persons. Smallpox once killed an estimated 400,000 persons each year and caused blindness and other lasting debilitations in many others.
For years, some had learned a few things about smallpox simply through observation. It had been widely known that farmers who worked closely with cattle never caught smallpox. Those who became infected with cow pox, a disease common among cattle, appeared to acquire immunity to the more deadly human variety. Benjamin Jesty, an English farmer, scratched the arms of his own wife and children with needles that had pierced cowpox pustules. While his neighbors raged against him, no one in his family caught smallpox.
It may have been Lady Mary Montagu, who brought smallpox inoculation to Europe. While her husband was serving as Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lady Montagu learned that the Turks used the procedure to prevent the dread disease. She had her children vaccinated sometime around 1717. The Turkish technique was to create immunity by inserting pus from an infected person into the vein of a healthy person.
When Dr. Edward Jenner announced that smallpox could be prevented by injecting healthy people with cowpox pus from infected bovines, the reception was not universally favorable. Some clergy argued that inoculating people with pus from deceased animals was ungodly. The lure of profit underlies much of human misbehavior, and there were physicians who feared loss of revenue if smallpox was completely eliminated. On at least one occasion, demonstrators erupted into the streets, some wearing cow horns, burning Jenner in effigy. One newspaper argued that Jenner’s procedure would cause people to grow horns and give birth to calves. To prove his point, Jenner inoculated a milkmaid named Sara Helmes with pus from an infected cow named Blossom. Ms. Helmes never caught smallpox.
One person who had little doubt regarding the dire consequences of smallpox was British commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst during the Seven Years War, 1756-1763. Lord Jeffery initiated one of the earliest forms of biological warfare by distributing as gifts to Pontiac’s people, his Native American adversaries, blankets that had been slept on by smallpox patients. In a 1763 letter to Col. Henry Bouquet, Amherst suggested, “Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians. We must on occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”
In a later communique, he further ordered, “We must try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Over the subsequent winter, 3/4 of the people of the Ohio Valley succumbed to the pox. Today, Amherstberg, Ontario, and Canada’s Amherst College are named in Lord Jeffrey’s “honor.”
In 1989, the World Health Organization announced that the scourge of smallpox had been eliminated. A disease that had once wiped out entire populations in the Americas and across the islands of the Pacific is no more because of the availability of vaccinations.
There have been epidemics, even pandemics, in the past. The Black Death of the Middle Ages and the 1918 influenza scourge come readily to mind, as do incidents of malaria and yellow fever. In those cases, medical science had not yet reached the sophistication of today, and most people lacked educational resources necessary for the comprehension of the causes and treatments for disease. In those cases, they cannot be blamed for falling back on folk medicine and even superstition. Those who compose today’s lumpen proletariat, however, more closely approximate the determined mindlessness of the snake oil advocates and witch burners of days of yore. Lacking the mental discipline or acumen to seriously attempt to learn much of anything of consequence, they fall back upon the rumblings of political or religious hacks and the pacifiers offered by pulp publications.
Not unlike those villagers who attacked Jenner are those troglodytic individuals who today refuse to be vaccinated or to take reasonable precautions, such as mask wearing, in the face of the COVID pandemic, who turn to vaccine misinformation and attempt in their mulish way to refute irrefutable science. The current strain of know-nothingism exists at the end of a long line stretching backward in time into the very darkest corners of the human story. While there may be reasons why some who suffer from rare medical conditions should not receive vaccinations, others simply prefer to risk their lives and the lives of others in their stubborn refusal to behave as responsible members of civil society. But perhaps that is the computer chip injected into my arm by the kindly nurse who administered my vaccination talking.
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