A niece of mine is an anti-vaxxer.
Prior to the pandemic, her older daughter received one of the basic vaccinations required for children, and she developed – apparently in reaction – a case of the hives. This didn’t last long and did no long-term damage. But it obviously traumatized my niece, so that she, her husband and their two daughters won’t seek vaccination for the coronavirus or any other disease.
This is troubling, especially since she lives in Michigan which has seen a recent large increase in infections and the new variant popping up.
And it’s also puzzling because her parents are long-time drug researchers, and her sister-in-law is an anesthesiologist treating COVID-19 patients. They and other members of our family have pointed her to the science that says the chances of being harmed by one of the anti-viral vaccines is tiny – actually statistically minute — compared to their chances of being infected by the virus and experiencing a whole lot of things much worse than a case of the hives.
So we are all extremely concerned and find this decision among the topics we have come to avoid.
But my niece is only one of millions of Americans who have rejected what science says is the best protection against the virus, that not vaccinating is in clear opposition to one’s own best interests.
One explanation for the anti-vaxxing phenomenon has been provided by a host of social/psychological research that says human beings are often not particularly rational – not stupid or ignorant, but often making decisions based on emotions, first impressions, simple wishful thinking, or even what can be called “magical thinking.”
Thus, we see people gathering in bunches, unmasked, un-distanced from one another, probably not yet vaccinated – shown on TV fearlessly partying or simply walking the beaches. They seem to feel protected – like with Harry Potter’s “cloak of invisibility” – by a magical “cloak of immunity.” They appear unconcerned for themselves or for the infection they could pass on to others, families, friends, neighbors, or anyone they come in contact with.
Unhappily, the past few months have produced all too many examples of such magical thinking in this country, decision-making untethered to any rationality or scientific certainty.
The most obvious example: with the first appearance of the virus in the United States, then-president Trump said it would “just go away,” disappear. And when it didn’t, could be cured with various untested oddball treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine, UV light or the injection of bleach.
And then, after losing the presidency, he claimed that millions of votes for him had gone missing – like rabbits stuffed back into the hat – and even asked Georgia election officials to magically pull out of that hat, and “find,” more than 11,000 votes to give him the win.
Add to this the proliferation of crazy conspiracy theories. Most prominently – and most unhinged – the delusions of QAnon, which has alleged child-trafficking and cannibalism by a cabal of Democrats, and their belief that Trump may be “Q,” that he will magically unseat Biden as president, the most recent prediction for this happening sometime in late August.
Then we have the undermining of the Constitution via the legislative magic currently being deployed by Republicans with their seeming belief that the dozens of bills they’ve filed for voter suppression will win them more elections and revive their brand, rather than painting them as what they are: anti-conservative and shamelessly un-American.
They apparently believe that this kind of sorcery will attract more to their side and return them to power, though it is much more likely to create a massive backlash – both by Republicans feeling betrayed by a corrupted conservatism and by Democrats likely to launch even more aggressive pro-voting initiatives.
And then there is the magical thinking shown by the January 6th rioters who attacked the Capitol — and that of Derek Chauvin who knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him. In both cases, they were perfectly aware they were being recorded by video and apparently believed they could do this without any risk of punishment.
One possible explanation is that both the Capitol rioters and Chauvin felt they were protected by a powerful racial magic – that a mostly white mob could invade, destroy and steal federal property with impunity, and that a white officer would face no consequences for doing anything he wanted to do against someone Black.
Of course, irrational thinking always runs up against a certain amount of reality: the reality that viruses kill and that power, especially power sought for its own sake, corrupts. But this is the country where magical thinking takes root and even thrives, whatever the facts deployed against it.
And unfortunately, yet to be challenged in the American court system — and by the frequently unpredictable decisions of juries — is the white magic power protecting Capitol rioters and a murderous cop.