How to deal with vaccine resisters

Look, I get it. I do.

After months of a medical miracle being rolled out across the nation, after months of incentives and public and private encouragement, and while the specter of death still haunts the land and a new and even nastier variant threatens to take us back to the horrors of last year, there are still some among us who still refuse to get vaccinated. Everything we've seen, everything we've suffered—and they still cannot be convinced to do something that's fundamentally in their best interest.

It's OK to be angry and frustrated and fresh out of patience. Vaccine refusers put their own lives at risk as well as the lives of many others. It's not smart. It's not fair. It's wrong. Worse yet, it's often driven by politics more than anything. At least some of them are thumbing their nose at the very idea of public health, because their guy failed. It's as offensive as it is perverse. So if you're not interested in ever hearing from such people again, much less listening to them with empathy, no one can blame you. Certainly, there is no reason to bear with toxic personalities, if doing so will harm you.

And yet, I am going to suggest that most of us shouldn't write vaccine refusers off entirely. Not everyone has to engage with them all the time, but there are reasons, good reasons, to at least consider the perspective, as wrongheaded as it might seem.

The first is practical, or if you want to be fancy about it, teleological: Doing the right thing to get a desired result. Doctors establish judgment-free zones in talking about vaccines not because they're not appalled. They do it because it works. It might not work all the time, or even often. Humans are wild, irrational bipeds who make wrong choices all the time. But listening with an open mind is the only thing that works at all. Throwing the cold water of judgment is only a way to increase resistance.

That's an important consideration when you remember that not everyone who talks tough about not getting a vaccine will see that refusal through. In a just-released poll, Public Religion Research Institute found that 13 percent of Americans are hard no's on vaccination, about the same number as in March. But the number taking a "wait-and-see" stance, or who say they will get a vaccine if required, has shrunk from 28 percent to 15 percent. Some people can be convinced. That hard kernel of resistors is likely to shrink, too, as the delta variant sweeps through more unvaccinated areas.

Vaccination is not a physician's only concern. Sometimes a respectful exchange about vaccines doesn't result in a patient getting the shot—but it does wind up with them following medical advice on another issue. Doctors listen patiently for a reason.

We also have to ask at a certain point the question of character ethics. Do we really want to be the kind of people who just turn our backs on others and say "Let 'em die"

I asked my wife that question. "Sometimes," she said. Fair enough. It gets old, she said, being the ones understanding entitled blowhards, not the other way around. But I think most of us would recognize that after some reflection, a stone-cold shrug in the face of mass death cuts against the morality of citizenship we hold dear. Democracies cannot survive when some lives are worth caring about, others not. That makes for unpleasant business, surely, but nobody ever said democracy was for the weak-willed.

It is important to remain in conversation even with terrible ideas to some extent. That's the liberal American character. The minute we start thinking that certain positions, and certain people who hold them, are not worthy of consideration, we become not a liberal democracy, but a nation of authoritarians leaning left and right. I'm confident that most of us would prefer to think of our mental and moral characteristics somewhat differently—that we're more open or compassionate, I mean.

If anything can be described as holy in liberalism, it's listening with empathy, free of judgment, even as we disagree. It is an act of imagination that is sacred. It forces us to develop new ideas about the people we hear out, rather than concentrate on the rightness of our own position. What drives people whose idea of liberty or bodily purity are so important from our own that they value them above their faith, lives and children? What cognitive choices and emotional affiliations must they make to get to such a place? The answer is surely dark and rotten, just the kind of soil from which a generation of politics will grow. Liberals and leftists and radicals will have to come up with creative responses to what is taking ever-deeper root in the conservative movement, and that begins with understanding what's going on in their heads.

So be angry. Be frustrated. Yell at the clouds. I do all three every time Ron Johnson opens his mouth about covid. But don't ever stop listening to the vaccine refusers entirely, even if you have to block Uncle Jim Bob on Facebook. Because they've got something to say, and however unpleasant it might be, you need to hear it.1

Rev. Daniel Schultz is an activist, minister and writer in Wisconsin. Follow him @pastordan.

The only thing keeping Republicans from electoral oblivion

United States Rep. Glenn Grothman was kind enough to send his thoughts on DC statehood in an e-newsletter last weekend, as he does for his constituents. If you haven't had the fortune to know the congressman from Wisconsin's Sixth, well, bless you. I first encountered him at a pancake breakfast, where he was picking fights with constituents. He has a long history of making ill-informed, inflammatory statements as a state senator and now as a member of the United States Congress.

Recently, Grothman found himself embroiled in controversy when he accused Black Lives Matter of disliking "the old-fashioned family." He defended that statement on-camera while wearing a jaunty hat he'd worn in a local St. Patrick's Day parade.

More recently, Grothman garnered negative attention by speaking on the House floor about Cardi B's performance at the Grammys. He said his state office received numerous complaints about the show, and he scolded the FCC for, in his view, not doing its job: "The moral decline of America is partly due to your utter complacency."

If you're guessing by now that Grothman's views on DC's bid to become the 51st state are not exactly advanced, you're right. They're as terrible as you'd expect.

In the interest of space, I'll skip the errors of logic and fact. His anti-statehood argument can be summarized in three points: first, the government is a corrupt force to be kept in check, and its city-seat is not made up of good decent farmers, factory workers, and quarry operators like us. Yes, he really argues that DC is undeserving, because it has only "minimal agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources."

Second, not only is the seat of government a city, it's a city run by greedy incompetent people who'd be satisfied living off the government's teat. Let's break this one down a bit. On the one hand, Grothman says DC is filled with rich, entitled government workers (only about 25 percent of residents work for the feds). On the other hand, he's saying DC is run by Black people, who are therefore terrible at governing. The proof, Grothman says, are negative aspects associated with big cities and their minority populations: failing schools, budget mismanagement, homelessness and crime.

Grothman conveniently omits DC's unique challenges. It's deprived of a tax base due to having government and nonprofit buildings. It's hamstrung by Congressional interference and disinterest in investment. It's divided sharply by race lines with a privileged elite in the Northwest and a ghettoized underclass in the Southeast. But, of course, Grothman is playing to the stands here, allowing his mostly rural audience to indulge their fixed ideas about the evils of big cities. (Grothman himself lives in the hamlet of Glenbeulah. There are 463 residents, 98.7 percent of whom are white.)

Third, again according to Grothman, making a majority Black and brown city the 51st state is a political decision, whereas making states out of small majority white and rural areas like Wyoming or Vermont is a matter of natural law. Never mind that each of these states has fewer residents than Washington, or that Wyoming, like several other states, was admitted in a rushed process in order to give 19th-century Republicans more votes in the Senate. What matters, evidently, is they have abundant agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources, and coincidentally, they're overwhelmingly white.

Grothman is far from the only Republican making such nonsense arguments. United States Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas noted that Wyoming has "three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing."

"In other words," Tom Cotton said, "Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state." United States Representative Mondaire Jones of New York later responded dryly, "I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word "white.'"

It's trendy for Republicans to cling ever tighter to their aging, rural and white base, and to their desire to bake-in as much electoral advantage that that base's wide-ranging geography allows. If you split Los Angeles County into states equal in population to Wyoming, for example, you'd bring 17 states into the union and 34 Senators into Congress, most of which would be Democrats. Fetishizing the virtuous rural dweller over and against the profligate and depraved urbanites isn't just to the Republican advantage—it's the only thing keeping them from electoral oblivion.

The newest battle lines in America's ongoing culture war are increasingly drawn around race, education and residence. But like any conflict, culture wars only work when people fight them. No one is obliged to read Grothman. No one is obliged to listen to Cotton's nativism. Neither offers anything resembling serious thought. So no one is obliged to wage a cultural war with them by dismissing the country folk as somehow less deserving of representation than their cousins in the city. We're all Americans, like it or not, though I suspect the "not" is getting bigger by the day.

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