A year or so before I signed on in Fort Wayne, the News-Sentinel ran a long investigation of a religious group called the Faith Assembly. They were a cult, I guess, with one charismatic leader, Hobart Freeman. They were at their peak in the early/mid-’80s.
Their weird kink was, they rejected medicine. All of it, from an aspirin to insulin, and even eyeglasses. It was all evil. Just pray harder! they believed, and if someone died, it was God’s will.
And they did die, a lot of them, something like 52 preventable deaths among the congregation. The diabetics went first, of course, followed by the heart patients. Indiana authorities decided hey, you can believe whatever you want, folks, enjoy the other side. Unfortunately, adherents applied these beliefs to young children, and they died, too, often of very painful illnesses like meningitis or pneumonia. That’s when the prosecutors said Enough, and began taking parents to court and charging them with negligent homicide. The trials had started by the time I joined the paper, and it seemed a week didn’t go by without a photo on Page One of crying white parents hugging one another in court one last time before being taken away to separate prisons.
After a while, Freeman died, of a preventable illness if I recall correctly. Ah, yes, here it is, and thanks Wikipedia: “Freeman died at his Shoe Lake home of bronchial pneumonia and congestive heart failure complicated by an ulcerated gangrenous leg, which in the weeks preceding had forced him to preach sitting down. He had refused all medical help, even to the removal of the bandages so his leg could be cleaned.” He was 64.
Gross. Imagine what that guy smelled like at the end.
I’d read that story before I joined the paper, months before. In a weird twist, I was working night cops on a Friday and making the rounds of the police station, which was still wide open for the most part. I walked into the juvenile division to check the reports and overheard a detective talking to a judge on the phone. They’d received a call from a woman who had just given birth at home to twins, prematurely. One was dead and the other struggling, and she wanted to know if it was legal to bury the dead one in a shoebox in the back yard. The police wanted an emergency order to take the other one to a hospital. The couple was in an Ohio offshoot of the Faith Assembly, with a different leader, but the same beliefs.
Anyway, I was reading the New York Times magazine story about the anti-vaccination movement, which has snowballed since Covid. It did not make me feel better:
Although it is convenient to refer to anti-vaccine efforts as a “movement,” there really is no single movement. Rather, disparate interests are converging on a single issue. Many reject the “anti-vaccine” label altogether, claiming instead to be “pro-vaccine choice,” “pro-safe vaccine” or “vaccine skeptical.” For some, there may be a way to make money by pushing the notion that vaccines are dangerous. For politicians and commentators, the “tyranny” of vaccine mandates can offer a political rallying cry. For states like Russia, which has disseminated both pro- and anti-vaccine messages on social media in other countries, vaccines are another target for informational warfare. For conspiracy-minded private citizens, vaccine misinformation can be a way to make sense of the world, even if the explanations they arrive at are often nightmarish and bizarre.
There was a long section on Robert F. Kennedy Jr., of course:
Kennedy’s current position has moved away from scientific claims toward an even more unsettling assertion. Vaccine mandates and government efforts to manage the pandemic, he argues, are a form of totalitarian oppression. “We have witnessed over the past 20 months,” he said in a recent speech, “a coup d’état against democracy and the demolition, the controlled demolition, of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
…“What we’re seeing today is what I call turnkey totalitarianism,” he told his audience. “They are putting into place all these technological mechanisms for control that we’ve never seen before.” He continued: “Even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” But no longer, he suggested: “The mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so that none of us can run and none of us can hide.”
And the movement’s skill with manipulating social-media platforms:
California-based anti-vaccine groups had long used the hashtag #cdcwhistleblower on Twitter, a reference to the spurious claims of C.D.C. malfeasance that would be central to Wakefield’s conspiratorial documentary “Vaxxed.” But the hashtag only occasionally traveled beyond the confines of the anti-vaccine crowd. So different hashtags with broader appeal — #TCOT (top conservatives on Twitter), #2A (Second Amendment) and even #blm (Black Lives Matter) — were included in tweets. The tactic paid off. According to an analysis by DiResta and Gilad Lotan, a data scientist, there had not been much overlap between what they call “Tea Party conservative” and “antivax” Twitter before 2015. But around this time, a new space emerged between the two realms, a domain they labeled “vaccine choice” Twitter. Its participants were obsessed with the ideas of freedom and government overreach.
These online groups, quite small in number, proved to be very adept at leveraging the viral potential of social media to make themselves seem large. Although surveys have repeatedly indicated that the great majority of parents support vaccination, these activists fostered, DiResta says, “a perception among the public that everyone was opposed to this policy.” To her dismay, some California Republican politicians adopted this new rhetoric of “parental choice,” despite the fact that SB277 had several Republican co-sponsors. They seemed to have sensed a wedge issue, she says, “an opportunity to differentiate themselves from Democrats,” who held a majority in the Legislature. “It was pure cynicism.” Many of their own children were vaccinated, she points out. But the rhetoric galvanized people in a way that previous anti-vaccine messaging hadn’t.
And I thought: We’re there, aren’t we? The Faith Assembly is no longer a lunatic church in Nowhere, Indiana. It’s everywhere. From Hobart Freeman’s gangrenous leg a thousand poison blossoms bloomed, and wave among us. I think of this bag of meat lying in intensive care for seven weeks before dying, and am awed by the patience of those who had to care for her. As I write this, four candidates for governor are on Mackinac Island, preparing for a “debate.” All oppose vaccine mandates of any kind (but all support making abortion illegal, in all cases).
It’s stuff like this that makes me want to just give up on this stupid fucking country. Instead, I intend to meet a couple of friends for dinner tonight, and de-stress a little. It’s almost Friday. And I don’t belong to the Faith Assembly.
Have a great weekend, all. Keep your sunny side up.