In Which Elle Talks a Lot About Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers

(So just FYI this one got kinda babble-y. I think it’s still good, just a bit meandering. If I were a better writer, I would edit it down before presenting it to you. But I’m a part-time blogger who does this for cheap therapy and has very little self-respect, so I’m just shoving it out there as-is. I still hope you enjoy.)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing something that I normally don’t do; thinking a lot about Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers. And not just thinking about them, but actually trying to understand them. (I know, I know. Hear me out.)

When I’m working, I keep a steady background hum of familiar YouTube videos. Because I am the particular mix of nerdiness and eccentricity that I am, for me that means that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs, leftist Youtube talking heads, cinema criticism, and a capella songs are on a pretty steady rotation. So Philosophy Tube’s “Flat Earth OR Why Do People Reject Science?” and Hbomberguy’s “Flat Earth: A Measured Response” (both attempts to examine the philosophy and “science” of Flat Earth theorists) were trading spots with “Don’t Be a Lawyer.” I ventured over to Netflix when I finally got tired of nice British men explaining things to me (it took a while, I’ll admit) and found the documentary Behind the Curve, which follows a few of the top figures in the Flat Earth movement and attempts to humanize them (without condoning them). I also happened to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and saw online articles about how Facebook moderators start to believe conspiracy theories, and watched testimony of an 18-year-old who defied his Anti-Vax mother. (I promise this all combines and makes sense in a second.) With these media influences tumbling in my head, and a very long road trip where even my audio books could not fully entertain me, my brain started to make connections. In a word—woah.

For basically the first time, I felt like I understood these two movements. Note that I did not believe either of these two theories; Flat Earth seems to be a “gateway drug” to other, more pernicious conspiracies and beliefs, including many beliefs that are racist, misogynist, transphobic, and anti-Semitic, and I don’t know if I have the time or the patience to explain all of the problems I have with the incredibly harmful Anti-Vax movement. The fact that Jenny McCarthy is on a TV show where she tries to guess what celebrity is singing inside of a costume, instead of facing a class-action lawsuit for all the harm she’s done, fills me with a rage so strong that I can only describe it as “fire-hate.”

But I think it’s worth pointing out that emphasizing all of studies in the world proving that vaccinations are safe and…. well… the 2000 years of established science that prove that the Earth is round…. seems to amount to diddly-squared-by-squat when it comes to trying to convince someone who is in the Anti-Vax or Flat Earth movements. I also haven’t managed to solve anything by staring at these people with my eyebrows raised and just muttering “why?” under my breath repeatedly. So to borrow a technique from Contrapoints, I think it’s time for me to try to meet these people where they live, and figure out what led them to this point. The best defense is not offense, it is prevention. And if we can figure out why this happens, then maybe we can prevent it from happening.

Cause 1: A Not-Unreasonable Fear and Distrust of Authority

When I say the words “medical experimentation,” you probably think of Nazis, or science fiction. But you don’t have to go that far in order to find horrific cases of medical experimentation, non-consensual medical procedures, and even just medical mistreatment.

The story of Henrietta Lacks, and of her family, is basically a case study in Doctors Not Giving Two Shits About Patient Consent. Whether it involved the taking of Henrietta’s cells, the failure to inform her family of the theft, the continued sampling of Lacks relatives in order to test them without clearly explaining what was going on, a failure to inform the Lacks family before Henrietta’s identity was revealed to the world, a failure to allow the Lacks family to receive any compensation from the repeated sale of Henrietta’s cells, the mistreatment of Henrietta’s daughter Elsie in a government institution…. It’s just… all bad.

Just… Google the phrase “icepick lobotomy.” Then think about the fact that one of the youngest patients to undergo one was 12. Then try to stop shuddering.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study started in 1932. Penicillin was discovered to be an effective treatment for syphilis in 1947. The study ended in 1972. (That’s about five years before the first Star Wars movie came out.) The men involved in the study were never told they had syphilis, never given penicillin, and actively prevented from accessing treatment elsewhere. The experiment only ended after 40 years because of whistleblowers.

The “father of gynecology,” James Marion Sims, developed most of his techniques by experimenting on slave women without the benefit of anesthesia.

Canadian doctors were performing forced or coerced sterilization procedures on indigenous women up until the far-distant year of… 2017. (writer’s note: Are you effing kidding me?)

And that’s not even taking into account more modern problems with medical science, ranging from the fact that the opioid crisis was driven by an unethical drug company owned by a single, reclusive family, to the fact that the prices of life saving drugs are going up by as much as 4000 percent, to the fact that all women, even famous, wealthy women like Selma Blair and Serena Williams, face years of pain and even near death because medical professionals don’t take their pain or experiences seriously.

Long story short, there are a lot of very good reasons to doubt the healthcare industry’s beliefs and practices, and to lack faith in their good intentions. The history of medical advancement is also a history of victimization, and the close relationship between healthcare and profit means that pretty much every patient has reason to believe that their doctor is not always acting in their best interests. It’s not completely unreasonable for patients, especially women and people of color, to distrust what the medical establishment calls “common practice.”

This story of exploitation, secrecy, and self-interest can be copy-and-pasted onto basically any authority that Flat Earthers believe contributes to the giant scam that is the “conspiracy” of the round earth, from the government, to religions, to scientific institutions, to major corporations. And we do, in fact, live in a world where high-ranking people are out to get us—or at least out to get our money and our allegiance. Those of us who are in the US are living under the official or unofficial rule of oligarchs and autocrats. They may not always be actively malicious, but they also wouldn’t exert themselves to extinguish the flames if we were on fire.

Cause 2: They Were Taught to Question Everything…. And Not Really How to Stop

One of the most telling moments in the Behind the Curve documentary is when one of the filmmakers asks a Flat Earther what authority or evidence she is willing to believe. Her immediate answer is “Myself.” And that is it. (Though it’s also kind-of a lie, since about five minutes earlier in the film she was showing off her collection of Flat Earth theory books. See my dedication to truthiness? I let you know things even when it kinda spoils my point.) Basically every generation since the baby boomers has been told with increasing frequency that we should distrust the world around us, constantly question the motives of people giving us information, and “do our own research” to figure out what is what.

Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube explains that many Flat Earthers are practicing something similar to what’s known as Direct Realism—we perceive the world, and what we perceive is the best evidence of what the world is. Obviously this runs into problems, when our perceptions have limitations, are subject to illusions, or are even warped by our biases. But only trusting ourselves also doesn’t seem like the worst option in the current media climate. We have fake news and “fake news,” foreign countries interfering, memes and jokes turning into viral scares (if one of you shares that fucking Momo thing one more time, I swear to God…) one of our most trusted sources of information is a website that literally anyone can edit, the best news and information is hidden behind paywalls, pay-to-play journals will publish pretty much any nonsense, and Google makes it possible to find something that backs up your opinion, no matter what your opinion is. How, exactly, are we meant to find “objective” truth? Obviously I believe there is such a thing—climate change is real, herd immunity is important, the Earth IS in fact round—but I can see how someone would quickly become overwhelmed, and decide that only their own beliefs can be trusted. When you’re taught to doubt everything…. when exactly are you supposed to stop doubting?

Cause 3: Anti-Intellectualism Plus Anti-Authoritarianism Equals Ugh

Raise your hand if you’ve heard any of the following: Ivory tower. Drain the Swamp. Those who can’t, teach. You can’t teach common sense.

For some good reasons and some very not good reasons, we’ve kinda grown to hate smart people. They’re elitist, they’re out of touch, etc. etc. Yeah, Hillary Clinton has tons of foreign policy experience, but is she likeable? Yeah, that astrophysicist is really smart, but will they crack jokes with John Oliver? Probably the only person we hate more than an authority figure is an authority figure who is an egghead. So when the people who are best suited to disabuse you of your theories have “MD” or “PhD” after their name AND are part of “The Establishment,” most people don’t have very strong instincts to trust them, let alone get warm fuzzies to hear them talk.

Cause 4: We Lack Media Literacy and Science Literacy

Any teacher who has ever had to explain to a student why they can’t cite a random blog in a paper will tell you that we have a serious problem in the US with media literacy, partly as an extension of the problem described above. We don’t do a great job of teaching people to separate fact from fiction, and our media itself is not really helping matters. If Fox News is proclaiming itself “Fair and Balanced,” “native advertising” means that advertisements can resemble news, and news agencies themselves often can’t be bothered to fact check, then proponents of media literacy face an uphill battle.

The same is true for science literacy. Our education system is…. not great. We can’t even decide if we should be teaching evolution and sex ed, let alone talking about neurodiversity and explaining the physics of the Earth. Hell, a lot of people still think that Columbus “discovered” that the Earth was round, even though people had known for hundreds of years (or longer) that the Earth was round, and even Columbus knew the Earth wasn’t flat. (He had a lot of other weird ideas about the Earth, but flatness wasn’t one of them.) Arthur C. Clarke said that an advanced enough level of science would resemble magic, and between AIs and gene editing, we’re basically at that point. People are taught to think that science is “scary” and above them. And as humans, we’re pretty good at hating what we fear, and going “oh yeah? Well uh, fuck you!” to anything that is seen as above us. So if people are sifting through likely-incorrect information about stuff they don’t understand anyway, then the chances that they are going to come away with a false conclusion is pretty high.

This lack of science literacy also doubles as a lack of medical literacy. We have serious stigmas about people on the autism spectrum, to the point that in the hypothetical (and false) dichotomy between “autism” and “measles,” a lot of parents are leaning towards “measles.” And that’s partly because we don’t understand measles. Most of us haven’t seen them in person. Or tetanus, or meningitis, or any of the things that we have vaccines for. Name one person besides FDR that you know of who had polio. And if, as we discussed above, “my own personal experience and knowledge” is the only source that people trust, then vaccine-preventable diseases seem far away and unimportant.

Cause 5: On the Other Hand, They’re Not Actually Totally Ignoring Evidence

This one seems a little counter-intuitive. But one weird connection between Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers is that they are actually both heavily invested in the concept of science. They’re just not using it in ways that are entirely correct, or that we would approve of. Anti-Vaxxers tend to rely on anecdotal evidence—“true” stories of children that were hurt or killed by vaccines. Flat Earthers turn to YouTube videos and self-designed experiments that “prove” the Earth is flat.

You will meet few people who are more dedicated to “research” than an Anti-Vaxxer who is determined to prove that vaccines are dangerous. They’ll join multiple message boards, start Facebook groups, look up the chemicals inside of vaccines (true story, I know the amount of mercury in vaccines is not dangerous, but I also didn’t even know that some vaccines had mercury in them until Anti-Vaxxers became a thing). They collect reams of “evidence” that vaccines are harmful, and can spit arguments at you on command.

The most endearing-yet-sad figures from the Behind the Curve documentary are two men who do multiple experiments in an attempt to prove the Earth is flat. Their experiments are actually interesting and fairly well-reasoned. But since they’re performing a twisted form of the Scientific Method (starting with an answer and then looking for proof via experiments, rather than starting with a question and using experiments to find an answer) the experiments are also doomed to fail, for these men’s definition of fail. At least two of the experiments that they design do, in fact, show that the Earth is round. They then have to scramble to find ways to dismiss their own results, or to “prove” that their original experiments were actually performed incorrectly.

Cause 6: They’ve Found a Community, and Are Terrified to Leave It

So what could cause two grown men to become so nervous that they would rather argue that they are idiots than to argue that their experiments were correct? Why, the fear of social ostracization, of course!

By the time someone reaches the point that they are a hardcore Flat Earther or an Anti-Vaxxer, they have done a lot to alienate their pre-existing family and friends (or never really had a strong social safety net to start with). Behind the Curve emphasizes how most of the people in the Flat Earth community find companionship and acceptance in one another, and how little connection they still have to the outside world. Most of them have been rejected by family and friends, some of them have even had spouses leave them over their beliefs. And… well you can see why. I’m a pretty patient person (I’ve repeatedly stood at parties and nodded while repeating “uh huh” in a perky voice while a guy with worse grades than me tried to explain my major to me) but I’m pretty sure that if I had a close friend who was a Flat Earther, there would be a point that I could no longer bear to hang out with them because the conversation kept turning to a mysterious “they” who wanted us to think the Earth was flat for… reasons. And I just genuinely don’t think that I could hang out with an Anti-Vaxxer—I would be afraid of carrying an illness either to or from their unvaccinated child, and I would probably be constantly tempted to deliver lectures that heavily featured the words “immuno-compromised” and “fuck.”

So the Flat Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers, somewhat naturally, pull even closer to their own in-group. Their fellow conspiracy theorists are the only ones that “get” them. And the internet makes it possible to form close connections with people even if you never get to see them in person—you could be the only Flat‑Earther in Wyoming (I promise you there is more than one Flat-Earther in Wyoming) but as long as you had the internet, you could still reject your real-life social interactions in favor of the warm, weird embrace of online conspiracy theorists.

But if your entire social circle is made up of people whose major connecting thread is belief in the same fringe theory, it suddenly becomes very, very difficult to stop believing in the theory. It’s a lower-stakes version of what happens to people who leave the white nationalist movement. All of your white nationalist friends no longer want to associate with you, because you no longer believe that white people are The Best. But none of your pre-white nationalism friends want to spend time with you any more either because… well… you were a fucking Nazi for a while. And as anyone over the age of 20 who has moved to a new city can tell you, making new friends as an adult is HARD. The longer someone spends time embedded in these movements, the harder it becomes to leave them.

Cause 7. The World Is Scary, And We Want to Think We Can Explain It

The Laws of Thermodynamics dictate that the universe trends towards entropy. And that is a really, really difficult thing for our “chimpanzees on Four Loko” brains to handle. Our minds demand patterns, even when none exist. If the roulette wheel has stopped on red five times in a row, we’ll bet it all on black because it “has” to finally stop there, even though it still only has a 50/50 chance. We’re dismayed when our earphones are tangled as we pull them out of our pockets, even though there is only a 1 in (insert very high number that Elle did not look up because she is not getting paid for this stuff) chance that our headphones would emerge not tangled. We crave control. And in a weird way, conspiracy theories are all about control. Just not necessarily our control.

It’s helpful (for me at least) to compare most conspiracy theories to 9/11 conspiracy theories. I became an adult in the post-9/11 era, and a lot of people around me from my teenage years on would dabble in the occasional 9/11 theory, mostly revolving around the idea of a “false flag” attack where Bush and Cheney attacked their own people in order to pad the pockets of their corporate friends and bloat the military budget.

Under this theory of 9/11, the government is competent, cunning, ruthless, and coordinated, like an Ocean’s 35682 heist team. They’re capable of planting explosives in a building, hiring fake terrorists, hijacking planes, coordinating the response, framing foreign nationals, keeping a gigantic secret, etc. etc. And even though this version of our government is horrific, implying that they are capable of actively murdering planes and buildings-full of their own people (as opposed to the way that they normally passively kill their people by passing bills that deprive people of rights and resources) it’s also kinda…. comforting. Because it means that someone was in charge. Someone was pulling all the strings. Someone was keeping this from being random.

For a lot of people, the actually-horrifying option is the truth: that we were victims of a terrorist attack that we were woefully unprepared for. That our foreign policy has gained us enemies, that our attempts to mix liberty and security leave gigantic holes, that our leaders were a half-assed cowboy with Daddy Issues and a nasty troll man that my state is STILL apologizing for, and they were opportunists and capitalists and took advantage of the situation after tragedy had already occurred. The truth is that this happened because the world is chaotic and uncontrolled, and something on that scale can honestly probably happen again. Whenever. Wherever. Because seven point five billion people = chaos.

Flat Earthers have a hard time explaining WHY a shadow group of intellectuals and officials, an undisclosed “they,” would bother creating this elaborate myth that the Earth is round when it is really not. The best they usually manage is that this delusional belief is part of a vast web of conspiracies, and in its own way serves as a gateway drug to the sheeple—after all, what better way to test the gullibility of a populace than to mislead them about the shape of their home, the construction of their literal universe? But for many Flat Earthers, WHY someone would do this is not as important as the fact THAT someone is doing this. There is a shadow organization that is so powerful, it can mislead billions of people. It can dictate science, and education, and the space program, and our concepts of time and direction. It can mislead people about airline flights, photography, even gravity. Though they might have nefarious intentions, someone is behind the wheel of all of our major institutions.

You see the same thing with Anti-Vaxxers, who also have a hard time explaining why, exactly, anyone would be purposefully poisoning children with vaccines. (As opposed to purposefully poisoning children with lead-contaminated water…. Goddamnit we live in a pretty terrible society.) They usually point to a conspiracy involving Big Pharma and government control—Big Pharma actually wants us to get sick, so that we have to buy their medicine. The government wants children to “develop” neurodiversity because… something something, sheeple. And again, Anti-Vaxxers want this to happen because to them, the alternative is scarier: things can happen to their children that are outside of their control, and outside of their understanding. They see the commercials about the rates of autism going up, and think it is because autism itself is increasing, and not just our ability to correctly diagnose it. They would rather think that it is a new development than just something that has always been there but that we’ve been shitty about noticing. They see a timing link between vaccinations and the appearance of autism characteristics, and think that the vaccines cause autism, because they’d rather think doctors are purposefully altering children than to realize that their child is not necessarily going to grow into the type of child they always pictured (a neurotypical child) even though they’ve been keeping pace with their peers in their development to this point. They feel (wrongly) that they’ve been a victim of a bait-and-switch, that some evil entity pulled a “changeling” situation on them and left them with a child that is different from the one they had originally. They have a hard time accepting that no… this is just their kid, and their kid always had autism, and they shouldn’t love them any less. And also, maybe they should campaign to end stigmas against neurodiversity, instead of campaigns that let their kids get exposed to measles. You know. Just a thought.

So Uh…. Why Have You Babbled About All of This, Elle?

So. Wow. Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me thus far… well first of all you have far too much patience, but I appreciate you. Second of all, I promise this is all coming to a point. And the point is: I think we can fix this. Maybe not immediately (definitely not immediately) but we can address most of these causes with corresponding solutions.

Solution 1: Make Institutions… Suck Less?

So we’re starting out with one of the bigger and less-possible solutions right out of the gate. But one of the most obvious solutions is to make major organizations, especially the medical industry and the government, just… suck less. Make them less imposing, and less scary. Increase their transparency and their accountability. If we lived in a world where the medical community had a vested interest in us not being sick, as opposed to the current situation where “the longer we are sick the more money we will give them,” that would go a long way in disputing notions that pharmaceutical companies are getting us sick on purpose. If every branch of the medical community treated the Hippocratic Oath as if it were a law, instead of a wishy-washy guideline, more people would be able to believe in their good intentions.

If the scientific community was better at communicating and explaining things, instead of just dismissing anyone who can’t keep up with them, it would also help rehab their image. The same with the government—increased transparency about intentions, spending, etc. would dismiss a lot of fears that all of this was happening for murky reasons that involve fooling us.

Solution 2: While We’re at it, Increase Media Transparency

There should be consequences for knowingly spreading misinformation. There should be a strict division between “news” and “advertising.” There should be a sense of community responsibility to fund ethical, as-objective-as-possible journalism. Organizations and people that knowingly spread harmful misinformation should be de-platformed from social media and sites like YouTube. If we’re going to ask people to trust sources outside of themselves, we have to make sources outside of themselves trustworthy.

Solution 3: Make it Cool to be Smart, and Make Smart People Act Better

Why do we televise sports drafts, but we don’t televise university hires or research lab head hunting? Why aren’t there journalists breathlessly covering the action at the Modern Language Association conferences? Why do we act as if intelligence is purely inherent, instead of a developable skill like talent at painting or writing? Why do we make so many intelligent characters into alien-like assholes or chip-on-their-shoulder jerks? Why do we perpetuate the idea that academia is an ivory tower by making it an ivory tower. (True facts, I once saw Salman Rushdie get accused of living in an ivory tower and his pearl-clutching “Well I never!” response is what I think about whenever I hear some top-tier academic try to unconvincingly insist that that they are not disconnected from the common people.) We need to make intelligence accessible, interesting, and cool.

“The smartest guy in the room” trope is seen as negative because in most of our experiences, the smartest guy in the room will let you know, in excruciating detail, that he is the smartest guy in the room. We need to admire intelligence, but not idolize it. We need to share our knowledge, but not be paternalistic or condescending. Intelligence needs to be a tool, not a weapon. Anyone who has learned a cool fact and then excitedly shared it with a friend knows how good it feels to share knowledge in a helpful, enthusiastic way. Even when that knowledge is about bad stuff, sharing it with the intention to improve instead of destroy makes the act feel a lot less ill-intentioned. It may have made for a more boring show, but if Dr. House spent more time saying “You know that’s an interesting theory, let’s see how it compares against the data” instead of “You’re a moron,” then we probably would have gotten a better picture of the medical establishment.

Solution 4: Can We Please Fix Education for Goodness Sake?

No two ways about it, we need to do better with education. That means better funding (and not just redline-influenced property tax funding that ensures that white wealthy children get white wealthy schools, and children of color get textbooks that still say we have 48 states and call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.”) We need to have better, less-partisan control over what makes it into textbooks. We need to start teaching children how to research and parse data from an even earlier age. We need smaller class sizes, more teachers with less burnout, better funding, and better resources. We need to stop stigmatizing neurodiversity, stop making science seem scary, and stop relying on simplistic, incorrect understandings of the world and of history.

Solution 5: We Need to Stop Writing Off Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers as if They Are Lost Causes, and Convince Them to Use Their Powers for Good

Be honest—if someone tells you that you are wrong, even when you are wrong, how likely are you to take that in good faith and adjust your behavior? How long does it take you to unruffle your feathers? How likely are you to double down on your wrong beliefs, because fuck you that’s why? Why do we act as if Anti-Vaxxers or Flat Earthers are some magical other species that will respond differently?

None of us like to be made to feel ignorant, even if we are being ignorant. And none of us like to be dismissed. So even though it is painful, and unfair, we have to be open to the idea of taking these people seriously. Not taking their ideas seriously—we don’t need an Anti-Vaxxer on a panel with a doctor, or a Flat Earther on a panel with an astrophysicist the way that we have panels with climate scientists and total randos who think that climate change isn’t real because they can make a snowball—but taking them seriously, as people who are capable of growth and change. Talk to them about their fears and concerns. What led them to feel this way? What types of evidence would they need to change their minds? Find a point of common scientific belief (the sky is blue, cars burn fuel, whatever) and work backwards from there to show how the same process that can prove that belief can disprove their own beliefs. Tell them that you admire their dedication to discovering truth and that you acknowledge that there are problems in this world, but that you’d like to see their skills put to better use.

Solution 6: …..Um…..

I’ll admit, this one is hard for me. I think that being asked to stay friends with someone who is psychologically or physically harmful is asking someone to participate in abuse. On a purely herd-immunity level, I think that Anti-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated children shouldn’t really be around… well, anyone. But I can also see how leaving these groups of people in total isolation is not actually helping the situation, unless we are actively hoping that Ant-Vaxxers and their unvaccinated-but-innocent children actually die out, which is just too gruesome to bear thinking about.

I don’t really know what to do. I think that one option is to try, in the safest way possible, to let people in these groups know that you will be there for them if they manage to walk away from these beliefs. I don’t have any Anti-Vaxxer friends (I don’t think…) but if I did, and if they saw the error of their ways and wanted to be friends again, I like to think that I would easily, if a bit warily, accept them back into the fold.

Solution 7: Solve the Things We Can Actually Solve, Otherwise, Embrace the Suck

Hbomberguy points out that Flat Earthers are not wrong when they believe that things in the world are wrong. We’re in what’s commonly referred to as “late stage” capitalism, and the world is literally and metaphorically on fire. As I suggest in Solution 1, there are some things we can do to make this be less the case. But… well we can’t fix all of it. And to a certain point, we have to try to get to a point where we are okay with uncertainty. We can control a certain number of things to try and make things safer and more secure, but then we have to just keep existing in this world. Earphones are going to get tangled. The roulette wheel is going to land on red for a sixth time, and it’s going to seem really wrong. We have to find a way to accept that some things will be forever outside of our personal control, and even outside of our collective control. Not to say that we should stop fighting to make things better, but to say that sometimes we just have to acknowledge that entropy exists.

In Conclusion…

So…. This is what has been haunting my brain for the last couple of weeks. I guess now it can haunt yours. In a weird way, it has made me hopeful—up until this point, I admittedly thought that “reaching” Anti-Vaxxers and Flat Earthers was a pipe dream. As two of the groups who seem to most vehemently reject reality and science, I was afraid they were a lost cause. And now I know they are not.

That, at least, gives us a chance.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is six views of the Earth from space, taken from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flickr account. They’re in the public domain because our tax dollars paid for them.

Elle’s Guide to Surviving the Election Season (and Hopefully Electing a Democrat)

As of writing this, 12 Democrats, or Independents-running-as-Democrats, have filed to run for president or at least formed exploratory committees. More are expected to do so *cough* Joe Biden is expected to run *cough*. Bill Weld is exploring the possibility of taking part in a primary against Trump (I will pay money and buy popcorn to see this happen) and that Starbucks guy is… doing whatever that Starbucks guy is doing that will probably manage to hurt the Democratic party.

The election is over a year away. The election is almost two years away. And I am already very, very tired.

My Facebook feed is wild, and Twitter is basically on fire. Posts for and against candidates are everywhere, and pretty much all of my friends have already taken different corners. My two most liberal friends have nearly opposite opinions on Bernie Sanders. Posts for and against a candidate can be next to each other on my feed. Litmus tests are being established. Think pieces are being written.

I am thiiiiis close to trying to use cryogenics, or at least a good snow storm, to freeze myself and wake up in January, 2021. (Depending on what the world looks like when I wake up, I may decide to go back under.)

So for the sake of my sanity, and for (hopefully) an election that avoids some of the pitfalls of the last election, I put together this handy dandy guide/plea for my fellow leftists. Enjoy.

Don’t Do the Republicans’ Work for Them/Focus on Constructive Criticism

I remember a fair few elections, and I don’t remember any Democratic primary as vicious as the last one. This is a situation where there really were good and bad people on both sides, and both sides did their fair share of harm. Hillary and the DNC screwed the pooch by pretending the situation was set up fairly when it clearly wasn’t, Bernie made it clear he was only pretending to be a Democrat for the sake of the election, and neither side did a good job of reining in their followers or their attacks. I’ve never had to unfollow fellow Democrats before, but 2016 was weird. The Republicans barely had to do anything to tear us apart because we were already doing it to ourselves. Some things that the left gets criticism for, and that I think we are guilty of to an extent, are purity tests, call-out culture, and gatekeeping. If a candidate doesn’t check all of our boxes, we hate them. We’re going to decry anyone who doesn’t meet our standards. And woe betide the person who tries to join in that doesn’t fit the bill, because we’ll happily excommunicate anyone who we think has failed.

This isn’t all of us. I don’t even know if it is most of us. But I know it’s enough of us that we have serious trouble with candidate in-fighting, while any opponent with an R next to their name gets the Republican vote. We have the right to be idealistic, but we should also think about being pragmatic, and going for inclusion instead of exclusion.

That isn’t to say that we can’t, or shouldn’t, critique candidates. The purpose of a primary is to try and winnow things down to the best possible candidate, and that means taking a serious look at each candidate. But we need to critique politicians the same way a teacher critiques an essay—with the intention of improvement, rather than destruction. What could this candidate do to improve? What can we do to improve the candidate? What concerns do you have, and how can they be assuaged? What are our absolute lines in the sand, and how realistic are they?

Whenever we critique a candidate, we have to keep in the back of our mind, “This person could wind up being the candidate.” What would happen if we spent all of our time tearing a candidate down, and then they were the candidate going against Trump? How damaged will they already be from the primary? What portion of the electorate will abandon ship instead of voting for them, like that weird cross‑section of Bernie supporters who voted for The Orange One? Or the usually-Democrats who decided they hated Hillary more than they worried about the fact that Gary Johnson couldn’t name any foreign countries? We want the candidate that we wind up with to be the best of the best, not the last, shell-shocked survivor of the Hunger Games.

Try to Support the Candidate We End Up With/Remember the Stakes

Look, I know that it isn’t fair that we repeatedly get asked to pick the lesser of two evils. I’m aware. And there are certainly some lines in the sand that I would probably not be able to cross for a candidate. But life is not fair the vast majority of the time, and I’m doing my best to deal with that. And we have to ask ourselves how much holding tight to every single one of our principles will keep us warm when Hell is actually freezing over.

I still owe my dad a nickel, because after Trump won the primary I thought that we had won, and I bet my dad a nickel that Trump wouldn’t be elected. I was certain that Trump was too awful for anyone to actually elect. I thought that if even Ted Cruz didn’t like him, no one else in the Republican party would. But a lot of the Republicans held their noses (and probably their breath) and voted for someone they hated, because he was the Republican candidate. (And a lot of them were honestly just totally fine with a racist, ableist, misogynist sexual abuser. I mean, it takes all kinds.)

We have been through two years of hell. But now we have at least two sexual abusers on the Supreme Court, and poor RBG can’t hold out forever. Roe v. Wade teeters on the brink of being overturned. LGBTQ protections are being rolled back. Diseases that we thought we had eradicated are coming back. We can’t seem to go a month without a mass shooting. Our education system is under-funded, unbelievably segregated, and not actually really working. A good portion of US citizens couldn’t overcome a sudden emergency that requires a few hundred dollars. Disability rights activists are dying because their insurance won’t pay for certain medicines. We’re facing an opioid crisis that was brought about by the very same pharmaceutical industry that has immense lobbying power and keeps jacking up prices on life-saving medications. We are keeping children in cages, and sexually abusing them when we’re not letting them die of dehydration. We’re building a stupid fucking wall that is going to disrupt crucial animal habitats and drain funding from other parts of the government while simultaneously Not Doing the Thing it is Supposed to Do. We spend a small fortune on military equipment we don’t need. We’re rolling out the red carpet for Russia to overtake us as superpower. We’re alienating basically all of our allies. Wealth is being increasingly amassed by the 1%, and we’re forming super-monopolies. The internet is becoming more and more pay-to-play, and we’re censoring female sexuality and LGBTQ activism instead of, you know, the Nazis. Oh yeah, we have actual fucking Nazis. And that’s all bad enough, without the looming threat of irreversible climate change. We are literally and metaphorically on fire.

I will be honest—I would vote for a turnip before staying home from the polls or voting third party if it means defeating Trump. As it stands now, there are no Democratic candidates who are so violently against my principles that I couldn’t manage to vote for them. There are some I like better than others, and some whose policies I don’t entirely approve of, but all of them have this very fantastic quality of Not Being Goddamn Trump. I don’t expect everyone to be me, so again. I’m not going to tell you to do something that is absolutely against your conscience. But do give some serious thought to the stakes.

Do Your Part/Seriously Did You See the Part Where We’re On Fire?

I know you’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. But you know who aren’t as tired? The Republicans who have been riding the Bigotry Carousel for the last two years. They just can’t wait to take a ride on the Oligarchy Express between 2020 and 2024. Guess how tired we’ll be by 2024? So to the best of our abilities, we have to do what we can to make this happen.

Donate to campaigns. Volunteer for campaigns. Hold fundraisers. Write letters. Make phone calls. Write articles. Harass your friends and loved ones. Knock on doors. Make petitions. Help your neighbors register to vote.

Get engaged in local politics. The presidential race makes everything a lot more intense and gets most of the attention, but your local city council, county commissioner, House, and Senate all need good people in them, too. It’s really important to have a Democrat in the White House, but it’s also really important to have a Democrat on the school board so that we don’t bring abstinence-only education back. Think about running yourself—you can do it! We are the grownups now. I know, right? It’s fucking wild.

So… that’s my guide. Or my begging, whichever way you want to think about it. Most of all, what I’m going to beg you all to do is just this: be good to each other. We are all hanging on by a very fragile thread. We need to stay a community, and we need to keep looking out for each other. Because on top of all the upcoming election craziness, Trump is going to still be president. Think about how bad 2016 was, and then add “Trump actually being president” on top of that. Because he is going to be president during this. We have to stop praying for an impeachment, or a smoking gun, or anything else that is going to save us. We should have stopped doing any of that after the whole “the electoral college may rebel!” thing died a pathetic death. But we’re overly optimistic sometimes. Really, I think if we’ve learned nothing else from the Cohen hearing, we’ve learned that the currently-sitting Republicans are craven cowards who would rather stay in power than actually have a democracy. Diane Feinstein is negging children (and yes I saw the uncut video). Black Representatives are taking time out of hearings to reassure white racist Representatives that the white racists aren’t white racists. We can’t expect that anything resembling “doing the right thing” is going to come from most of the government right now. Not everyone can be AOC or Stacy Abrams. We have to buckle down, and we have to be there for each other. Please.

In the words of Spike Lee: let’s do the right thing.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is an 80s “laser text” meme reading “2020”.