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Vaccines and “freedom”

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There’s no doubt that the key word in the right wing lexicon in America is “freedom,” followed closely by its slightly more abstract and intellectual-sounding cousin “liberty.”

The problem with these words is that in terms of political discourse they’re by nature almost completely vacuous terms. (A similar problem exists on the left with the key term “equality.”). That vacuousness is captured well by the most famous definition of freedom in the English language, Mill’s in On Liberty:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. 

This sounds great in theory, but if you think about it for ten seconds it should be evident that in practical terms it tells you exactly nothing, since in any society what will be considered “harm to others” will be, shall we say, open to varying interpretations. Does expressing heretical opinions on truths proclaimed by the magisterium of the Church cause harm to others? Does consuming pornography cause harm to others? Does living on the interest from your capital without doing any productive labor cause harm to others? And so forth.

Liberals love to point out that the right wing belief in “freedom” is hypocritical, given that right wingers oppose the freedom to do X, Y, and Z — but the right wing celebration of “freedom” is not so much hypocritical as it is simply incoherent. Nobody believes in freedom in some absolute sense, since anything other than a very limited and necessarily controversial definition of the concept is oxymoronic in even the most rudimentary society, let alone in the modern world. (Mill’s definition quoted above is so popular precisely because it avoids this problem by being completely empty).

Which of course brings us to Fox News:

The push for coronavirus vaccinations at the U.S. Military Academy began once the first shots became available back in January – but even as the inoculation rate rises and deaths and new cases both fall, the families of unvaccinated cadets say they are facing increasing pressure, coercion, and even threats to get the jab.

West Point does not have a vaccine mandate, nor does the military as a whole.

Still, there are only about three dozen unvaccinated cadets at West Point, which accommodates more than 4,500 students.

This is Hannity, so who knows if this statistic has any basis in reality, but if it does this is fantastic news. West Point cadets have a 99% vaccination rate? That, if true, is an example of how intense social pressure in a tight-knit community can produce really excellent results. (Note that the military can’t legally compel service members to take the vaccine yet, because it’s still being distributed under emergency approval). Of course the biggest megaphone in the right wing noise machine doesn’t exactly see it that way:

The unvaccinated few, many of whom say they have gained natural immunity from catching the virus earlier, face stricter quarantines and other restrictions now than at the height of the pandemic, according to multiple sources. The new limits include a seven-day quarantine for unvaccinated cadets in the break before summer training. That requirement took a full week away from their time off.

“It’s like solitary confinement – for a disease we don’t have,” said one cadet, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Elita Perusek, whose son is in his final year at West Point, is a 1994 graduate of the academy herself.

She told “Hannity” Thursday evening that her son declined the vaccine but has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies on post – meaning school medical staffers were aware of his natural immunity.

“He was counseled before he left West Point by his tactical office who told him that because he chose to exercise his right to not take the vaccine that he would be called ‘susceptible status’…and that he would have to submit to restriction of movement throughout the summer,” she said. “Which meant that he would have to give up some of his leave.”

This new seven-day isolation quarantine is stricter than the previous restriction of motion (ROM) requirement that was in place when coming back from other breaks, such as the winter holiday, where cadets were still permitted out for activities including going to the mess hall. 

Cadets were required to show a negative COVID-19 test and adhere to the ROM following breaks over the winter and last summer when cases were rising and there was no option for a vaccine.

Because of the ramped-up restrictions and the mandatory seven-day quarantine, several unvaccinated students with tight schedules won’t even be allowed to leave campus for the rest of the summer, while their vaccinated classmates can, sources explained.

Who knew that the Army of all places would take away a young person’s Constitutionally and Biblically sanctioned right to spread disease in the community?

Also, too, the NFL is taking away Freedom:

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, in a challenge to the National Football League’s new Covid-19 training camp and preseason protocols, tweeted that he’d rather retire than get a vaccine.”Everyone — Hi, I’m Cole Beasley and I’m not vaccinated!,” he wrote in a post Friday that he called a “Public Service Announcement.””I will be outside doing what I do,” Beasley added. “I’ll be out in the public. If your scared of me then steer clear, or get vaccinated. Point. Blank. Period. I may die of covid, but I’d rather die actually living.”The defiant tweet comes on the same week the NFL sent teams a memo highlighting different protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated. . .

Beasley tweeted: “I’m not going to take meds for a leg that isn’t broken. I’d rather take my chances with Covid and build up my immunity that way. Eat better. Drink water. Exercise and do what I think is necessary to be a healthy individual. That is MY CHOICE based on MY experiences and what I think is best.””If I’m forced into retirement,” he added, “so be it.”

Future historians will have much to puzzle over, when they contemplate the enormous number of people who flatly refused to receive — for free — an almost completely innocuous and almost completely effective vaccine against a deadly disease, because of a combination of their fetishization of some incoherent babble of beliefs about “freedom,” and their embrace of the anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific nonsense that is flourishing in America today, in no small part because that’s how movement conservatives have always made their money.

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