McCarthyism and the Anti-vaccination Movement. What?

10 Feb

real enemiesA conspiracy of circumstances (how appropriate) lead me to the topic for this post. This week, I’ll be teaching undergraduates about the Second Red Scare in the United States. I’ve also been reading about the recent Disneyland Measles Outbreak in the United States. How are the two connected? Please, bear with me on this.

As part of my prep for classes, I’ve been re-reading Kathy Olmsted’s marvellous 2009 book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War 1 to 9/11. Olmsted persuasively traces the rise of conspiracy theory and mistrust in the US government. The twentieth century, Olmsted argues, saw a turn from a belief that alien enemies were out to destroy the Republic to a belief that the government itself was the main conspirator.[1]

During the Second Red Scare – even though the threat was posed as the alien communism – both right and left wing voices posited conspiracies centred in the institutions of government. On the right, it was about dastardly communists within government seeking to bring down the Republic. On the left, there were visions of conservative political institutions (including the FBI, Congress, and the “military-industrial complex”) operating within the system of government that were seeking to silence and destroy progressive political voices.[2]

What, you may well ask, does this have to do with the anti-vaccination movement in the United States? I would argue that Olmsted’s analysis of increasing mistrust in government into the twenty-first century maps perfectly on to the anti-vaccination movement. Anti-vaxxers (to use the common terminology) openly rail against government institutions: the FDA, the CDC, and so on.[3] The government, doctors, and those supporting vaccination are all in the pocket of shadowy “big pharma” or are simply out to hide – for various nefarious reasons – the true consequences of the MMR vaccine.[4] No matter that the “father” of the entire MMR scare – Andrew Wakefield – has been debunked and discredited.

The anti-vaccination movement should not be seen as a modern phenomena, but rather one with deep historical roots. It’s part of a trend going back to conspiracy theories about the US government and World War 1. You could even take it further back (in a somewhat Hofstadterian manner) and argue it follows an ignoble tradition of conspiratorial fear that found expression in the anti-masonic and anti-Catholic concerns of the nineteenth century.[5]

Governments, institutions, and industry are not innocent in all of this. By engaging in actual cover-ups, they give creedance to the idea of other, more fantastical cover-ups. The anti-vaccination movement is but the latest in a long line of official and public conspiracies and conspiracy theories prevalent in American society. Unlike many other conspiracy theories, however, this one risks the lives of thousands of people all around the world.


[1] Kathryn S. Olmsted, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War 1 to 9/11 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid, 109-110

[3] The linked article about the CDC is, I would suggest, a perfect example of the conspiratorial mindset. And, the website which the article is from is almost painfully mis-named: Child Health Safety.

[4] Not that the pharmaceutical industry is an innocent party, as campaigning medical doctor Ben Goldacre has pointed out in his book Bad Pharma. The cover-ups conducted by the industry – an “official conspiracy” as Olmsted would call it – only serve to give seeming weight to the arguments of the anti-vaxxers, just as the existence of the Operation Northwoods files give supposed weight to the paranoid utterances of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

[5] You didn’t honestly think I could write a post like this and not mention him, did you? Not a great research historian, but a great thinker. If you’ve not read it, you owe it to yourself to read Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

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