They Lurk Among Us

The anti-vaxxers in our midst

Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, Brisbane (1919).

Since leaving Los Angeles and coming to Europe in the 1980s, I have been very active working in the music business as a lyricist, librettist and songwriter. Working often in the studio as a lyricist in the late 80s and 90s with heavy metal bands, I discovered that these guys (and girls BTW), who let it all hang out on stage and through their music, are really for the most part extremely polite and excellently trained musicians. On a visit to the home of one of the guitarists I saw his classical guitars and Bach sheet music in a corner. “Oh yes,” he said, “I practice Bach and the classics all the time. It’s how I stay fit with my fingers.”

Over time I have gathered respect for musicians and composers because most all of them that I have met and worked with were people you could talk with about all sorts of interesting things, not just music. So when I started working remotely (because of the pandemic and lockdown) with the composer whose name I will not mention, I had no reason at all not to believe he was also one of the OK people. He gave me no cause to think otherwise. Actually, because the project we were working on had a positive message for the world, I thought he belonged more to the category of the good guys than anything else. And the work was fine. I did my job well, there was no friction. The usual give-and-take between composer and words-man took place, and my work was praised and recognized, so all that was good.

The pandemic kept rolling along and I and my family and my friends here in Hamburg all got vaccinated, and though life hasn’t really returned to normal again, it is taking on a semblance of normality. We show our vaccination certificates when we enter a restaurant – masked-up – and we still step aside when people approach us on the sidewalk out of respect for their space and ours. All these common courtesies are becoming normal now. And I thought they were normal most everywhere.

The American Soldiers in Presence of Gas during World War I (1918).

News began filtering through about anti-vaxxers in Berlin going into the streets and people being arrested at big events where they mingled without masks and without vaccinations. At first I thought: “Well, idiots are everywhere.” Then I read about how the right-wing was joining the demonstrations and in many cases actually driving the demonstrations and I started putting two and two together. The warning lights started flashing in my brain. In the US the Trumpistas were amping up their messaging, the uproar was spreading through their Red State strongholds and even the normally passive mainstream media was sounding (somewhat muted) alarm bells, which always had a codicil of false equivalence between the violent gun-toters on the right and the unarmed antifascist protesters on the left.

Then I got invited to visit the composer because our project was now going public and I should be there to claim my 30-seconds of fame. So I traveled for 7 hours by train – masked-up all the way – and on the next day met the guy and his wife. The first thing he told me was that in the area where he lived not many people were strict about wearing masks and that he and his family had not been vaccinated.

And then the grooming started.

Being a tolerant type of person, I let him talk. The more he talked, the more I retreated into myself and began to observe. He wasn’t just explaining his own point of view to me, he was subtly trying to convince me that his beliefs were founded in fact, founded in science, and that because he was such a brilliant person and had studied chemistry for a semester in college that he was qualified to judge the overwhelmingly positive results of vaccination as bogus and as the hideous manipulation of Bill Gates and his billionaire cronies who own all the governments around the world and want us to be digital slaves to their empire.

Now I am not a Bill Gates fan or an apologist for billionaires or Big Pharma. My personal opinion is that, like Jonas Salk once did with the polio vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccines should be patent-free and be distributed where needed for the actual low cost of their production, or just distributed for free to the people that need it. Why not? It’s not as if the Big Pharma companies are going to go bankrupt because of it. They screw people (especially in the USA) out of billions each year with the jacked-up prices they charge for drugs that were developed with government subsidies in university settings and then sucked up by pharmaceutical companies for private profit-making.

These are no doubt greedy and nasty people, but Bill Gates and his cronies are not putting nanobots into your bloodstream so that you can be tracked and given commands to obey their wishes. That’s completely unnecessary. Public relations, aka. advertising, as developed by Edward Louis Bernays and the Madison Avenue crew has been changing people’s minds very effectively since before the first World War.

It came as a shock to me when I realized the guy was an anti-vaxxer. Then he started spouting other conspiracy theories and I began to get really angry. Angry at him. Angry at myself. How could I have misjudged him so terribly? Why didn’t I see this coming? And then, with more reflection came more clarity. I had missed the telltale signs that had been there all the time. He might as well have told me directly soon after I came into contact with him; maybe he was telling me in his own surreptitious way. I remembered the bits and pieces he told me about his childhood, his studies, his activism. I realized he had always been on that unsteady fringe of people who see chimera in events that are not paranormal at all. And, after meeting him and spending some real time with him, I got the impression that maybe he is not just a wrong-thinking nut-job, maybe he is actually a very calculating manipulator who wants to get as many people into his net as possible so that he can push them into doing what in the end will lead to his own self-aggrandizement.

I can’t be 100% sure, but now I suspect he was fabulizing when he told me that in high school he took up a cause: to save a forest in his district. He went to a meeting of the local administration and, according to him, harangued them for 3 hours with facts and figures and other material in an attempt to convince them to reverse certain decisions that they had already made. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that no group of administrators anywhere in the world would sit patiently for 3 hours and listen to a high school kid spout facts and figures about anything.

So why did he tell me this story? Was he building a myth about himself, about his supernatural ability to get things done? His indefatigable work on our project was an example of his willpower and stamina. He raised money through crowdfunding, he organized online support, he got people from the USA to come on board, he was able to get newspapers to write favorable reviews, to get the project into the public sphere so that it is recognized as a worthy event. And my name was mentioned of course – fleetingly – but mentioned, so I was not being denied as a contributor. But he did fail in one major part of his campaign, and that was his attempt to get himself recognized and become allied with a group of people who belong to a major internationally supported movement. They turned him down flat. Wanted nothing to do with him. And now I wonder: What do they know that I don’t know?

In our most recent telephone conversation he expanded his anti-vaxxer stance to now include a radical political stance. He joined the new dieBasis, a German political party peppered with Querdenker (lateral-thinkers), Reichsbürger (almost identical with Sovereign Citizens in the USA), former aficionados of the proto-fascist AfD, and even some who would consider themselves on the Left of the political spectrum. Why would he do this? Because, he said, he wants to help get rid of the illegitimate government that rules his German state. Like the federal government, his state government needs to change the way it governs and allow people to not be vaccinated, not have to participate in lockdowns, and to not follow any rules that limit his own personal freedom.

Das Weib (De Sfinx) (1899) by Edvard Munch.

This is of course allied with the same talking points that are popular with the international right-wing racist and anti-Semitic elements: bailouts for the Jewish bankers, refugees being let in to dilute the racial dominance of the tribe that has lived here longest, licentiousness tolerated through gay marriage and support for transgender people… The same war cry heard from the governments of Hungary and now Poland. And of course it has been amplified by the right-wing echo chamber in the USA.

My last, and what proved to be futile interaction with him was when I sent him a link from a very interesting piece in the Intercept on how right wing pharma companies are cashing in hundreds of millions by getting their deluded minions to buy what they tout as cures for Covid. The article mentioned a group called Frontline Doctors who shill for the pharma companies. I thought that if, as he told me, he is interested in finding out some truth about it all, this article would open the door for him.

He wrote to me and said: “The article you sent me doesn’t really fit to what I do know about Ivermectin.” So, instead of giving him an opportunity to gain knowledge about how he and millions of others were being exploited, he actually tried to find the right-wing Frontline Doctors and strengthen his confirmation bias with their propaganda. “The website of the frontline doctors first seemed to be blocked, so it was difficult to get to know what the frontline doctors think about themselves, but finally I managed to read it.”

This experience has taught me a few important lessons:

#1. Just because someone has a skill set that you respect, it doesn’t mean they have an open mind.

#2. The pretzel logic these people are entangled in is nothing new, it has always been here, it’s just that we are inundated with its visibility due to the social media landscape that has come to dominate our lives.

#3. Getting angry and verbally abusive – which I did not do – only strengthens their confirmation bias.

#4. Laughing out loud at some of the ridiculous ideas that he proposed – which I did do to his face – didn’t faze him at all.

My conclusion is that in the best case scenario I am dealing with a deluded guy who is just trying to get people to like him and so he joins these groups that have weird ideas because they are all like him. The worst case scenario is that he is a manipulative psychopath who is using various popular movements to grab attention and fame and power to himself so that he can stand above the crowd and be admired as a mythical hero, no matter how twisted his motives and means of getting to the top.

Actually, the more I think of my time spent in his company, the more I am relieved that I was able to escape unscathed and get back home without any lasting damage. And yes, I’m done communicating with him on this subject. I don’t want to alienate him completely because of the project, which I pray will have a positive effect on people, but you can bet that I will be very careful in how I interact with him in the future. It will be strictly limited to business and the project.

After all: No use throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (1918).

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