The crisis: a massive new surge of COVID-19, a surge almost entirely among the unvaccinated and centered in states and communities where leaders have continued to stoke contempt for the safety recommendations of pandemic experts.
The hot new cultural take: think pieces about whether or not Americans deserve to be angry at fellow Americans who, through their own behavior, turned what looked to be a major victory against the pandemic into a new surge unlike any of the others, one disproportionately targeting young children, featuring a new variant that has now evaded our spring and summer attempts to end the pandemic through vaccine-based herd immunity.
The context here, of course, is that exasperated Americans who have taken the pandemic seriously throughout have begun saying Very Rude Things on social media about the class of Americans who have not done that. This has generally been dumbed-down into "vaccinated Americans are saying hateful things about unvaccinated Americans," which is a much easier story to tell, and off we go on the latest culture war stories about stuck-up coastal science believers belittling good decent conservative Americans who just want the random vaccine anecdotes they heard from their hair salons or small town diners to be given the same weight as that of the government-backed scientists tearing their remaining hair out attempting to stop a deadly emergent virus from morphing into something that wipes out a double-digit percentage of the world population.
CDC experts: This delta variant is something worrisome. Get vaccinated right away, and even if you're vaccinated, you might want to wear masks in public a little while longer.
Guy who heard from his wife who heard from a friend who heard from a Facebook post that said the vaccine makes metal spoons stick to you and if you wear a mask then the fairies of good health and fortune can't get into your lungs to hang the tiny horseshoes that keep ghosts away: I'm not doing either of those things until somebody personally comes to my house to argue about these and every other theory anybody in my family has ever mentioned because GUBBERMINT is not the boss of me.
Yeah, okay, whatever. You're going to have to bear with me on this one, as I am not in the right mood to pretend that this new version of a familiar debate is worth anything, anything at all, except as a stump on which every professional centrist can step onto to wag their fingers at America for not respecting coherence and incoherence in precisely equal amounts. Hospitals in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere are filling up, we're back to governors begging the federal government for more ventilators, and whether or not mask-averse Americans feel upset that their obnoxious public negligence is resulting in minor public scoldings is so far down the priority list that we'll be needing diving bells to go looking for it.
Anyway, here's a taste of the newest culture war.
Unvaccinated American vacationers are upset that their travel options may be limited without vaccination cards, reports CNBC. And while vaccination records may not technically be required in many of those instances, travelers might still be asked to take COVID-19 tests or practice extra safety measures, which is upsetting. During a worldwide pandemic. One that's filling up hospitals again and has already caused 600,000 American deaths.
Yeah, I can see how that would be ... mildly inconvenient. Imagine having enough money and freedom to be able to travel during a worldwide pandemic that has caused so much chaos but still having it be inconvenient. What's the point of living at all, in a world like that? Might as well just lie down on the Peloton and die.
From the ever-on-the-pulse-of-America Wall Street Journal we get the purest distillation of the safety-measures-as-culture-war meme. Americans are picking sides, the Journal reports. Did you know that even within extended families, vaccinated Americans, Americans with unvaccinated children, and those with health conditions that could make a COVID-19 infection especially dangerous are asking unvaccinated family members to stay away from them? Did you? Did you?
Of course you did. You're not stupid. You haven't been living in a damn cave. It's been that way through the entire pandemic. But here we are in yet another surge, a half a million deaths or so after the first of these stories was written, and unvaccinated family members feel slighted by those decisions and their vaccinated family members have to walk on eggshells about the whole thing and by God all the rest of us are going to hear about it. Again. Still.
From USA Today, we learn that frustrated vaccinated people have been calling unvaccinated Americans a whole metric buttload of mean names, and health experts would like you to know that such social rudeness may be "unproductive" because the group of unvaccinated Americans isn't one cohesive group, and not all of them are the selfish arrogant conspiracy-addled cheesebrained buttheads that random people on the internets have presumed them to be.
Which we do still know, because the vaccines have been available for some time and we know who's getting it and who's not. There are people who will never get the vaccine because they believe crackpot conspiracy theories; those are the irrational skeptics. There are more people who haven't gotten the vaccine yet because they don't trust new technology and are, bluntly, waiting to see whether the rest of us drop dead before getting the injection themselves; we’ll group them together as sensible skeptics.
A larger segment of Americans still aren't vaccine skeptics at all, but are normal, working Americans who have lost all faith in the American health care system and don't actually believe that they can get the vaccine for "free" in a system that can drive people to bankruptcy for falling off a bicycle. Or, even worse, they are essential workers. In this nation, "essential workers" is a term used to denote people who are vital to the nation's food supply and other day-to-day operations and who therefore are given poverty-level wages and threatened with immediate firing if they miss a day's work.
A side effect of the vaccine that we don't like to talk about but which a very large portion of the vaccinated individually grump about is that it may very well make you feel like room-temperature dog food from 24-48 hours after you've taken it. It’s meant to generate an immune response. That’s the whole point.
Some of us can work around that brief period of not feeling great by lightening our workload or taking a sick day if we really, really need to. Many of the people not engaging in these conversations right now simply can't. If we really wanted to reach herd immunity, we wouldn't be handing out $100 per shot or tossing people into lottery pools for participating. (Both approaches have, however, boosted vaccination rates after their announcement.) If we could guarantee every American a paid day off and no employer retributions for getting the vaccine, we might already be there.
Then there's the unwillingly unvaccinated. Most of them are better known as "children," and our steadfast national determination to just ignore that group under some variation of Jesus-take-the-wheel continues to be impressive. The vaccine is not yet available for children under 12, and children are the ones increasingly ending up in intensive care units in screw-the-pandemic Republican-led states like Florida and Texas. None of those children are doing a damn thing wrong. The vast majority of them got the virus because someone who could have been vaccinated at this point was not.
A New York Times editorial goes through a bit of this important nuance, though not without again elevating random Twitter attacks by random angry people who have been lumping all unvaccinated Americans together as "spreadnecks" or "bumpkins" to make the case of omnipresent social rudeness.
But that's not really what's going on. We can bet good money that even the most vitriolic social media attacks on unvaccinated Americans being irresponsible, selfish, or uninformed are not, in fact, lumping children, the working poor, or others into that description. They may not be putting the proper footnotes in to explain all of that, but c'mon. Nobody is calling an immunocompromised American who can't get the vaccine or whose body does not respond to the vaccine a "spreadneck." There are vanishingly few angry diatribes about these irresponsible 4-year-olds these days, with their too-colorful television shows and insufficient focus on mask wearing.
The focus of each small diatribe blasting other Americans as irresponsible, selfish, or ignorant during a nationwide pandemic surge is on the Americans who are quite explicitly being irresponsible, ignorant, or selfish. The willing public spreaders, the Americans who are belligerent at everyone else in their insistence that they will not be a damn thing to slow the pandemic and you’re a communist for asking them to.
Those are the people that the rest of America is getting frustrated with. If we want to make a case that nobody should be calling these people child-killing assholes because the fragile emotional state of America's various child-killing assholes will only make their opinions louder and worse, sure, that's a valid case to be made. But they are assholes.
Who should Americans be angry at? Can we narrow it down? Sure.
If you are one of the 700,000 Americans who traveled to Sturgis for a motorcycle rally and you are neither vaccinated nor willing to wear a mask while you're there, you are an asshole. You are a horrible, selfish human being who is willing to kill other Americans for your own pleasure. You can wear a motorcycle helmet, but not a mask? Piss off. Anyone who has enough cash and freedom to go to a major public event but is unwilling to take steps to make sure they don't spread a deadly virus upon their return home during a massive deadly pandemic wave that threatens to overtop regional health systems for f—ks sake is just a rotten, self-absorbed human being. It doesn't matter if it's Sturgis or a movie theater or a school play, either.
If you're one of the Americans who get angry when you see a vaccinated American still wearing a mask even though you, personally, don't think they ought to, then you have way, way too much time on your hands and should be doing volunteer work or taking up knitting or something. Being a public scold about other people's extra pandemic precautions is just pathetic. These people are upset at other people wearing masks for political or cultural reasons, because to them enforcing those political or cultural arguments is more important than keeping the next 100,000 Americans from dying. Jeebus McCrackers, I wish I had half as much energy as it must take to be irritated with people for being too diligent in their attempts to stop pandemic spread. If you are a pundit or other person of influence who spent the time between pandemic surges grumbling and bumbling about the implications of "too many" masks on public streets I don't even know what to tell you. I didn't realize puddles could be that shallow, I always figured surface tension would set a lower bound.
If you are a governor, public official, radio host, conservative influencer, or other American who spit in the face of public health officials repeatedly even as your state and community climbs to record levels of hospitalizations and death, you are a monster. Possibly a literal monster. You are willing to spread literal death for the sole sake of elevating your own personal culture war. It's a completely pointless act. "Don't Fauci my Florida" is a political slogan pulled from a sociopathic baboon's inflamed anus. Public demands that towns, schools, and industries not require public safety measures during a global pandemic so that you can be an Influencer tickling the sensitive netherparts of your cultural allies is horrific, it should be treated as horrific, and anyone who doesn't think it is horrific is themselves horrific. In other countries government officials get executed for incompetence that kills as many people as Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott have. In this nation we get interminable op-ed whines about how calling these two psychopaths rude names over what they've done is evidence of societal rot.
If you are an everyday American who could be vaccinated right now, and who could be wearing a mask in the grocery store right now, and has no financial difficulty preventing either, and who owns your own car or can otherwise easily get a ride to the free vaccination center, and can social distance in most situations, and are both not willing to get the vaccine now and not willing to wear a mask while indoors in a high-spread pandemic state with overwhelmed hospitals? Fuck you. You are the reason the current surge exists. You, personally, are the reason Americans are dying in hospital beds. You.
This is a surge among the unvaccinated, but it doesn't mean the unvaccinated as undifferentiated group are at fault. The Americans who could have brought us closer to herd immunity—not even by getting vaccinated, but simply by practicing the social distancing asked of them—are at fault. This is the first surge to happen in the United States after free vaccines became widespread and masks provably became an effective, cheap means of blocking community spread, the first to happen after all the people who could have taken precautions were given all the tools needed to finally do so.
This is the Selfish Surge. It's a surge that's been incubated by the self-centered and the partisan. If conservatives had been as willing to take safety precautions equivalent to the ones nonconservative Americans were willing to take, it would not currently exist. If Republican politicians, public anti-vax influencers, and random flag-waving hucksters had not vigorously belittled pandemic safety measures for months on end, Americans who listened to their words would not be riding the front of a new record number of deaths. If Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and other hoax-promoting pundits had decided that no, getting vaccinated against a new disease was not in fact a conspiracy against them, conservative regions of America would not now be in crisis.
Those are the Americans that vaccinated Americans are mad at. We have all sacrificed for, at this point, a year-and-a-half in order to beat back an illness that we knew we could win against if everyone participated. Most of us know people who have died in the pandemic. Some of us know many people who have died. Americans have lost their jobs, their businesses, their homes, and their family members, all while other Americans mount flags to their trucks, strap guns to their waists, and have glorious public shit-fits over the indignity of having to wear a scrap of cloth that blocks their spittle during a pandemic that cost 600,000 other Americans their lives.
We're all turning the lights off as the bombers fly overhead—except for these assholes, who are mounting Christmas lights on their homes and bellowing about how it's their God-given right to mount floodlights on their chimneys.
We're all being asked to collect scrap metal to help the war effort, and these gristled meatchunks are declaring that Actually what true patriots should be doing is throwing it all into Lake Superior so that the fish don’t get too uppity.
We're on the verge of conquering smallpox—of literally wiping it off the face of the planet—and there are radio hosts telling their listeners that screw that, nobody ever died of smallpox and smallpox was always a hoax to begin with.
Should we be mad at those people? We should be livid with them. People are dying because of them. We should be much, much madder at the people who refuse to wear masks than the people who refuse to be vaccinated, but somehow the culture war take revolves around the unvaccinated as undifferentiated chunk, not the anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-public-closures, anti-safety-anything crowd that has relentlessly used itself as petri dish for the virus the rest of us have been trying to kill off.
Nobody is blaming the children. Nobody is blaming the working poor. Nobody is blaming the people who get sick from COVID-19 through no fault of their own. Nobody is blaming the "essential workers" who aren't allowed to take an afternoon off work to get the vaccine because their employers are exploitative greedmonsters.
It's the people who have publicly been demanding we do not take basic safety measures that are being targeted with public rage now, because that is the group of "culture warriors" responsible for spreading disinformation and fraudulent claims to Americans who could have been protected, if they had not been convinced to refuse it.
I don't think you'll find many health officials urging Americans to be patient with gun-toting anti-mask militants because aw shucks, they've just misunderstood things. Ron DeSantis doesn't get to whine about public disapprobation as he signs bills, writes orders, and demands lawsuits against American cities, schools, and businesses trying to follow proven-effective safety measures so that they do not themselves become epicenters of new community surges.
I realize we are all very tired and we all have our columns to fill, but the supposed war on the unvaccinated being waged by the vaccinated has a lot more nuance, even in its most vitriolic forms, than the "culture war" takes are trying to semi-manipulatively smush it into. Yes, there are individual Americans who say very rude things: Welcome, ye travelers, to the internet. Yes, there are a great many tweets that aim their rage at the "unvaccinated" while presuming that the surrounding context makes it clear which subset of the "unvaccinated" they are actually addressing: It turns out that one-sentence opinions on Twitter may leave out subtexts that ye greatest opinion havers, in their own 400 words or so, would like to have seen in the liner notes.
None of this is indicative of anything except the general tide of pandemic frustration on all sides. Among the responsible, there is fury over the actions of the irresponsible. Among the irresponsible, there is fury over still being asked to be responsible even after they've made it very clear they don't want to be. In the press, there is fury over having to pigeonhole every last g--damn story into a neutral analysis pitting two and exactly two defined groups against each other with a blanket declaration that they're both probably equally right, or mostly so, and that the real problem here is that people are being rude about it.
People are allowed to be angry. This is the Selfish Surge, the one that didn't have to happen. Pinning blame is not just a reasonable response, but is absolutely essential if there's not going to be a dozen more surges after this one. Rather than telling people not to be angry, tell them who to be angry at—and why.