Antivaxxers love claiming the mantle of being “oppressed.” Indeed, they love it arguably as much as they love conspiracy theories demonizing vaccines as deadly. The most recent example that’s been in the news is the despicable manner in which they have been co-opting the Yellow Star of David, the cloth badge that the Nazis forced Jews to wear in Nazi-occupied territory in order to identify them and enforce their “otherness,” a tendency that I recently referred to as a form of Holocaust denial. So it should be no surprise that, with the approach of Juneteenth this Saturday, antivaxxers are trying to co-opt this long-running commemoration among Blacks that came into more prominence last year after the murder of George Floyd in order to promote the message that, like the Blacks whose slavery finally ended on Juneteenth in 1865, they are enslaved.
I kid you not.
Before I recount just how much antivaxxers love to claim the mantle of “oppression” and to what despicable and sometimes ridiculous lengths they’ll go to do it, let’s take a look at this event and its headliner, Naomi Wolf.
Naomi Wolf vs. Juneteenth
Naomi Wolf is headlining an antivaccine and COVID-19 antimask and anti-“lockdown” event on Juneteenth designed to promote “liberation” from COVID-19 mandates:
Here’s the promotional poster:
And here the event is, as reported in Salon.com by Nicole Karlis:
After promoting conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about the COVID-19 vaccines on social media, Naomi Wolf’s Twitter account was suspended. Once admired and embraced by third-wave feminists after publishing her first book, “The Beauty Myth,” Wolf has deviated over the years into a conspiracy theorist and a COVID truther. From repeatedly pushing the false claim that a vaccinated woman’s menstrual cycle can throw off an unvaccinated woman’s cycle to more recently suggesting that the sewage of vaccinated people needed to be separated from those who are unvaccinated, Wolf’s divergence exemplifies an ongoing trend in which the fringe left unites with the fringe right under the anti-vaccine umbrella.
This year, on Juneteenth — or June 19th, also known as Freedom Day — the latest variation of the anti-vaccine movement will be in peak form as it co-opts a celebration meant to commemorate the emancipation of those who were enslaved in the United States.
According to an event listing being promoted by the “medical freedom for all” organization Do We Need This, and first reported by Eoin Higgins in his newsletter, Wolf is headlining a fundraiser that day titled “Liberate Our Five Freedoms,” which will cost $25 at the door (cash only). The event, which will take place in a small town in Columbia County in upstate New York, seeks to appropriate a holiday honoring the end of slavery by focusing on the “five freedoms” that anti-vaxxers claim have been taken away from them. Mask mandates and vaccine passports are among the policies that they say have infringed on their “freedoms.”
The event is going to be held on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the US. Event organizer Kathryn Levin told me that in her view, it’s appropriate.
“The 19th is a day of emancipation, and it’s a day when we claim our freedom,” said Levin. “It’s when we see that we are not slaves to mandate. It’s when we take our power back.”
I asked Levin how she analogized American chattel slavery—where slaves were whipped, beaten, raped, and murdered by their white masters for centuries—to the temporary restrictions over the last 15 months due to the pandemic.
“We have been enslaved by our government,” she replied.
Because, as I like to say, being required to wear a mask and being urged to be vaccinated against a deadly disease are just like being enslaved. The only appropriate reaction to such a comparison is:
But what about Naomi Wolf? How did she end up at such an event?
Whatever happened to Naomi Wolf?
I haven’t written about Naomi Wolf on this blog before, as hard as that is for me to believe given how far off the deep end she’s gone in terms of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. It’s also true. Before news of this Juneteenth event started spreading, Wolf had recently been suspended from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 and antivaccine disinformation. My only regret is that I never took screenshots of the more wild examples. Fortunately for me, though, others did.
This was perhaps the most hilarious example, although I sort of hoped that it was true. I’ve always wanted to time travel:
As you can see, Wolf was not just an antivax, COVID-19 conspiracy mongering crank, but rather an all-purpose crank. Unfortunately, she was a primary promoter of the false claims that COVID-19 vaccines lead to the “shedding” of spike protein, which then sickens the unvaccinated and causes miscarriages, infertility, and menstrual abnormalities in women. Worse, she posted innumerable Tweets promoting this disinformation over many, many months. Those of us who’ve combatted antivaccine disinformation for a long time were not amazed that Twitter finally suspended her account. Rather, we were amazed that it took so damned long for Twitter to do it.
Actually, on second thought, this is the most hilarious example of Naomi Wolf’s crank stylings:
You saw it! Someone tricked Wolf into Tweeting a meme featuring a picture of a porn star dressed as a doctor and a fake quote questioning COVID-19 vaccines as though he were a real doctor providing a real quote. At that point, I almost felt sorry for Wolf for being so clueless. Almost. Unfortunately, she’s beyond shame, and, as a fellow of the right American Institute of Economic Research (AIER), she’s helped to promote what the eugenics-adjacent Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated just letting COVID-19 rip through the young and healthy population and use “focused protection” to protect the elderly and those vulnerable due to chronic health conditions. Unfortunately, she fit right in with her whole “freedom” schtick.
The emergence of Naomi Wolf during the pandemic as one of the foremost purveyors of COVID-19 and antivaccine conspiracy theories and disinformation surprised a lot of people. Indeed, as her antivaccine stylings became loonier and loonier, there were more and more articles like this one by Ian Burrell in Business Insider entitled Naomi Wolf’s slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the ‘conspiracist whirlpool’:
Many old friends and admirers of Naomi Wolf are horrified. The great figurehead of 1990s “third wave” feminism, who bestrode the highest pinnacles of literature and politics to become an inspiration to a generation of young women, has morphed into something other than the Naomi they thought they knew.
Wolf was the author of The Beauty Myth, a classic text that seemed to define the dichotomies of late 20th Century womanhood, and which became the first of her eight New York Times best-sellers. The book’s global popularity was enhanced by the dazzle of the author’s own persona as a product of Yale and Oxford who seemed to feel the pain of other women, in spite of her own obvious privileges.
With her apparently impeccable Democratic credentials she stood at the shoulders of Bill Clinton and Al Gore during their respective presidential campaigns, imparting her counsel as a trusted adviser. It was a time when great significance was discerned by many in every word that Wolf wrote or uttered. “The Beauty Myth was a really big deal and it was really smart, it did land her a lot of fame and a lot of plaudits” says Rosie Boycott, feminist pioneer, member of Britain’s House of Lords and co-founder of Virago, Wolf’s publisher. “She was clever and a good speaker and very competent and she rode a big wave.”
Just like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Naomi Wolf is a good example for liberals on why we shouldn’t be too smug. Although right here, right now, the loudest and most influential COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and antivaxxers are on the right, people on the political left are prone to the same sorts of belief in conspiracy theories. Indeed, it’s been pointed out how easily Naomi Wolf became a fellow of the right-wing, climate science-denying AIER, a group that has likened its antimask, anti-“lockdown,” antivaccine, and anti-public health stances as akin to abolitionists fighting slavery. Her willingness to hold one of her “Five Freedoms” events on Juneteenth in order to help antivaxxers co-opt the day is one example of why.
She might have been clever and a good speaker, but it turns out that her pivot to conspiracy mongering Twitter crank should not have been as unexpected as it was to so many. Indeed, her seminal book The Beauty Myth was so full of the misuse and misstatement of statistics on anorexia that Caspar Shoemaker of the Trimbos Institute published an article in Eating Disorders in 2004 entitled A critical appraisal of the anorexia statistics in The Beauty Myth: introducing Wolf’s Overdo and Lie Factor (WOLF), concluding:
When compared to the relevant epidemiological reviews, however, 18 of the 23 statistics are inaccurate and overdone. On average, a statistic on anorexia by Naomi Wolf should be divided by eight to get close to the real figure.
More recently, Wolf published a book about the criminalization of same-sex relationships in the Victorian era that was so inaccurate and presented such wildly implausible claims for “dozens” of executions for homosexual relationships that her US publisher canceled its publication because of concerns about its accuracy. There are many other examples, but enough about Naomi Wolf. Let’s move on to how this Juneteenth event is very much emblematic of antivaxxers being antivaxxers.
Juneteenth: Another example of antivaxxers donning a fake mantle of oppression
One of the most prominent characteristics of antivaxxers (besides their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories) is their intense need to view themselves as victims. Along the way, they have likened “forced vaccination” to all manner of evils, including slavery (including its modern incarnation, human trafficking), the Holocaust, rape, pedophilia (don’t ask),Nazi-ism. I can’t list them all, but I’ve written about many of them right here.
This tendency leads them to do some truly despicable things by co-opting the history of people who really were persecuted, even to the point of genocidal persecution. Indeed, it was just two weeks ago that I referred to the longstanding tendency of antivaxxers to don replicas of the Yellow Star of David altered to read “unvaccinated” or something similar instead of “Juden.” I referred to this misappropriation of the Yellow Star as a form of Holocaust denial, and so it is, given the way that it likens something that is not persecution (school and other vaccine mandates) to the genocidal persecution of European Jews by the Nazis.
That was nowhere near the first time I had seen antivaxxers co-opt the Yellow Star. I first noticed them using the Yellow Star this way dating back at least to 2015. However, it hasn’t just been misuse of the Yellow Star. Before they stumbled on that particular form of misappropriation of Holocaust symbolism, antivaxxers loved to compare vaccines and vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and governments requiring vaccine mandates to Hitler and the Nazis. I went into more detail about the history of this particularly odious tactic by antivaxxers in this post, but I’ll nonetheless list a couple of examples here, such as when “Dr. Bob” Sears went full Godwin over vaccine mandates and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. described the “vaccine-induced autism epidemic” as a “Holocaust.”
Another favorite variation of this particular gambit is to describe vaccine mandates as somehow being a violation the Nuremberg Code, the ethical rules for the protection of human research subjects laid down after the Nazi Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg. The implication, of course, is that the vaccines required by such mandates are somehow “experimental” and being forced upon children without the informed consent of their parents. It’s a neat trick rendered utterly deceptive by the simple fact that school vaccine requirements are not experimental. Unfortunately, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, with COVID-19 vaccines having been distributed under emergency use authorizations (EUAs) in the US, it’s been easier to portray COVID-19 vaccines as “experimental.” This conflates legal with scientific definitions. These vaccines went through the same clinical trials that any FDA-approved vaccine goes through, with phase 1, 2, and 3 trials, the last of which involved tens of thousands of subjects. Since then, they’ve been administered to hundreds of millions of people with a generally excellent safety record. While legally they might still be considered “investigational,” from a scientific standpoint they are not. Not any more. Soon, given that Moderna and Pfizer are applying for full FDA licensure, they won’t even be “investigational” from a legal standpoint.
Antivaxxers don’t just co-opt analogies related to the Nazi persecution and extermination of Jews, though. More recently, they’ve hit on the strategy of falsely portraying themselves as the “new civil rights movement.” However, that was just a new wrinkle. Antivaxxers have long portrayed vaccine mandates as “slavery.” For example, let’s go back to an antivaccine march on Washington, DC from four years ago. Back then, antivaxxers likened the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which created the Vaccine Court and the primary method of compensating people who suffer legitimate vaccine injury, to the Dredd Scott decision and made children “property, not people.” (I kid you not!) They were even likening antivaxxers to the “new abolitionists.” Does that sound familiar? It should? Last fall, the AIER likened public health interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19, including mask mandates and “lockdowns,” to slavery and its efforts to resist them to the slavery abolitionist movement.
Let me quote RFK Jr., when he spoke to an antimask, anti-“lockdown” rally in Berlin:
They are doing what they’re told. These government agencies are orchestrating obedience, and it is not democratic; it’s not the product of democracy.
It’s the product of a pharmaceutical driven, biosecurity agenda that will enslave the entire human race and plunge us into a dystopian nightmare where the apocalyptical forces of ignorance and greed will be running our lives and ruining our children and destroying all the dreams and dignity that we hope to give to our children.
Aging rock star Eric Clapton likes to compare mask mandates and vaccines to slavery as well, you know, because mask mandates and vaccines to slow the spread of a deadly disease are just like slavery for hundreds of years. Let’s just put it this way. If you’ve convinced yourself that vaccine mandates and the potential of “vaccine passports” are “slavery” and that you are being “persecuted” for your beliefs, then it’s a short hop to using Juneteenth to spread your message.
The hypocrisy is particularly rich, too. Let’s go back to 2019, when I first noticed antivaxxers likening themselves to the “new civil rights movement.” At the time they were protesting at the California State Capitol Building a bill being considered to eliminate certain loopholes in SB 277, the law that had eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates.
As I discussed at the time:
As I said at the time, “all lives matter” is a phrase based on a misunderstanding of “Black Lives Matter,” whose purpose as a retort is to dismiss the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement and take the focus away from the concerns of Blacks and police violence against them. That’s not what I considered (or consider) the “new civil rights movement.” The irony was that, when it comes to infectious disease, all lives do matter, but antivaxxers apparently didn’t (and still don’t) think the lives of those who need legitimate medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates matter, given how they don’t care if they degrade herd immunity and make the likelihood of outbreaks higher. Similarly, they don’t seem to care now whether those refusing COVID-19 vaccines facilitate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Basically, antivaxers chanting “All lives matter” was both racist, an indication of their obliviousness, and ironic in the worst way possible when it came to infectious disease.
Similarly, antivaxxers have shown a history of anti-Asian racism, as demonstrated by images of this sort that proliferated on social media even before the pandemic. Let’s just say that comparing Asian-American legislators who favored strong vaccine mandates to Chairman Mao was a favorite theme:
By then (again, months before the pandemic hit the US), antivaxxers were consorting with and allying themselves with far right wing militias, such as the California State Militia:
Now here’s something about that day that resonates in a very disturbing way. Antivaxxers came very close to storming the California State Capitol Building:
They even occupied the Senate chamber:
Meanwhile, their anti-Asian bigotry continued to be aimed at Senator Richard Pan:
Doesn’t this sound eerily like a dress rehearsal for the January 6 uprising that occurred in Washington, DC?
Be that as it may, before they started considering themselves to be the “new civil rights movement,” antivaxxers were furiously trying to recruit Blacks and other minorities to their cause, complete with numerous references to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the history of poor treatment (or at best unequal) treatment of Blacks by the medical system. For example, Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield went to Compton to try to win Blacks there to antivaccine conspiracy theories using the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory in their then-new antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary, VAXXED. (Remember, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory at the center of VAXXED was that the CDC had “covered up” scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine increased the risk of autism by four-fold in Black boys. In another example, RFK, Jr. went to Harlem to do the same thing, using more than just one conspiracy theory. (Fortunately, it was a fiasco.) Before that they were trying to convince the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota that vaccines cause autism, and more recently they descended on Samoa in the middle of a deadly measles outbreak to try to convince Samoans that the MMR caused the outbreak, even as they denied that measles can kill.
Given their long history of conspiracy theories and their love of luxuriating under the mantle of fake victimhood, coupled with preponderance of whiteness and privilege among the antivaccine movement, it should come as no surprise that someone like Naomi Wolf would co-opt a holiday like Juneteenth. After all, they regularly co-opt the Holocaust and the Yellow Star of David and traffic in imagery of vaccines as “slavery.” The only reason they haven’t co-opted Juneteenth before is likely because they hadn’t known about it. The murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movement changed that last year, leading everyone to know the significance of Juneteenth, which had been a holiday primarily observed by African-Americans.
It’s a good thing that Juneteenth is now much more widely celebrated. The only bad thing is that antivaxxers learned of another symbol of injustice that they could try to claim for their own.We should all honor Juneteenth as the anniversary of the end of a great evil, but we should do it the right way and for the right reasons. That is not at all what antivaxxers are about. They do not celebrate Juneteenth. They dishonor it.