How come anti-vaxxers tend to be pro-Putin? A close friend made this astute, if interrogative, observation the other day.
That made me cast an eye over the people I know, either personally or vicariously, only to find that my friend was right yet again, to a large extent. The overlap between the two groups isn’t total: some anti-vaxxers are also anti-Putin and vice versa.
Yet such sentiments reside in the same breast often enough to rule out random coincidence. This brings me to Rand Paul, US senator from Kentucky, who is trying to sabotage the Lend-Lease bill designed to help the Ukraine and stop Putin’s aggression.
Whatever Dr Paul’s ostensible reasons, it’s possible he doesn’t like this bill, which enjoys a wide and rare bi-partisan support, precisely because it enjoys a wide bi-partisan support. Some people, both on the right and on the left, feel the urge to regard every received opinion as wrong because it’s received, not because it’s wrong.
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Dr Paul, but I knew his father when I lived in Texas. He was a congressman, most of whose views appealed to me at the time, even though even then I considered some of them as rather eccentric.
Paul père belonged to what I call the hermetic strain of American exceptionalism, which is sometimes called isolationism. The other, crusading, strain is best exemplified by the neoconservatives.
Both groups share the messianic view of America first enunciated by John Winthrop in 1630. Quoting Matthew 5:16, Winthrop informed his attentive listeners that it was the new country in the making that would become the city on the hill mentioned by the evangelist. America would shine her light on the world whether or not the world was in need of such illumination.
This self-image has since become widespread in the US, mostly among real or putative conservatives, paleo- or neo-. But that genus eventually bifurcated into two species: hermetic and crusading.
Exponents of the former believe America should enjoy her unmatched virtue within her own borders only. On the other hand, the crusaders are convinced America is duty-bound to export her virtue globally, by force if necessary.
Both groups, especially the former, make some good points and some bad ones. Most of the bad ones come from pushing a sound idea to ridiculous extremes, what rhetoricians call reductio ad absurdum. By way of illustration, drinking a lot of water is good for you. But drinking too much of it can kill you.
Paul père was a hermeticist on speed. His thunderous mantra was “No foreign aid!”
“How about millions of people starving to death?” I once asked him. “No foreign aid!” “How about the need to cultivate strategic allies?” “No foreign aid!” “How about our allies being attacked?” “No foreign aid!” “How about helping Mexico deal with the consequences of a major earthquake?” “No foreign aid!”
One got the distinct impression that, had Ron Paul been around in 1941, when the original Lend-Lease Act was debated in Congress, he would have told Roosevelt to stick his garden hose you know where.
(Trying to push the Act through, FDR came up with the metaphor of a neighbour’s house being on fire. You’d want to lend him your garden hose because, if you didn’t, the fire might spread to your own house).
At the time, I regarded Ron’s extreme isolationism as odd. Now I regard it as sometime vicious and always silly.
His son Rand is marginally saner. In fact, I’d happily sign my name to most of his ideas on the economy, medical care, abortion, immigration, homosexuality and other sexual perversions, crime – you name it. Yet he is still the apple to his father’s tree.
Rand Paul is a doctrinaire libertarian, and I oppose doctrinaire everything, even when I’m in sympathy with the original idea. It’s that ideology that he brought to bear on the Covid pandemic.
Dr Paul is a medical man, which I’m not. Hence, even though his speciality is ophthalmology, not immunology, his arguments against Covid vaccination should carry some weight.
Or rather they would do so, had he made them on the grounds of clinical efficacy. But he didn’t. Most of Dr Paul’s arguments came from the standpoint of doctrinaire libertarianism, which in this case is indefensible on various grounds, moral, legal and rational.
Contrary to his view, imposing mandatory vaccination in extreme circumstances isn’t dictatorship as such. It’s the government assuming dictatorial power in extreme circumstances, when millions of lives are at stake.
That’s what governments do, that’s what they’ve always done, and one could argue that’s what they are instituted to do. Yes, imposing things like mobilisation and blackouts at wartime or masks and vaccination at a time of a deadly pandemic is self-evidently tyrannical.
But this is a necessary and therefore acceptable tyranny – provided that a) the danger is real, b) the government’s measures can be expected to be effective and c) the government will relinquish its emergency powers once the emergency has passed.
I happily listen to arguments against a) and b) and I think extra vigilance is required to ensure c). I’m aware of my own limitations when it comes to discussing technical medical issues. Unlike so many of our hacks, I didn’t instantly become an expert epidemiologist when Covid struck.
Yet even an ignoramus like me could see that the benefits of vaccination far outweighed the risks. Dr Paul kept citing isolated instances of unpleasant side effects but, as a medical man, he ought to know that drugs that have no side effects have no effects either. Regulatory bodies approve a drug when convinced that it’ll do more good than harm – not that it’ll never cause any harm at all.
Dr Paul knows all this better than I do, but his argument was in essence ideological, not evidential. I suspect the same goes for his arguments against the current Lend-Lease bill.
He is blocking the bill giving the president the power to provide up to $40 billion in aid to the Ukraine. Dr Paul cites the need to create a special inspector general to oversee how the money is spent, and in general I share his commitment to fiscal responsibility.
But we aren’t dealing with a general situation. Staring us in the face is a bandit raid launched by a fascist state against an independent European nation. Moreover, the bandit doesn’t even hide the fact that he is at war with the West, not just the Ukraine.
As the driving force behind Nato, America is the lynchpin of European security. The garden hose metaphor works in this case too: if America does nothing to resist Putin’s aggression (we already know that the EU is totally impotent in this respect, as it is in all others), then it may well succeed in setting first Europe and then the world ablaze.
Hence the Lend-Lease bill reflects not only America’s commitment to abstract humanitarian values, but also her self-interest. Only those who refuse to see will fail to see this.
Dr Paul has form in supporting the Kremlin’s line. So much so that the late Sen. John McCain was forced to say that “the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.” That was a comment on Dr Paul’s fighting tooth and nail to block new admissions to Nato.
When Sen. McCain pointed out in 2017 that Putin was pouncing on his neighbours. Dr Paul just shrugged: “The countries that were attacked were part of the Soviet Union since the 1920s.”
I won’t dignify the underlying idea with a cogent argument (Danzig used to be part of Germany too, which didn’t justify Auschwitz). Let’s just say that my friend had a point: anti-vaxxers are often, if not always, Putinistas.
I only hope Dr Paul will only succeed in holding this bill up a few days, not in torpedoing it altogether. I wish him every possible failure.