As I’ve watched Black Lives Matter grow and evolve, I’ve wondered if it was or could be the next evolution of the protest model used by the civil rights movement from 1958 to 1968. For two reasons, I’d say it isn’t.
First, the civil rights movement won major, tangible victories that benefit all of us to this day. By my lights, BLM hasn’t won anything, primarily because its tactics were not properly aligned with its moment. One of the ironies of successes such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and the election of the first black president is that black political priorities now have higher thresholds for winning and more challenging victory conditions than those of other groups, causes, and movements. In a post titled “Kanye West And The Double Hustle,” I refer to this predicament as one of non-commensurate victory conditions.
Simply put, for a number of reasons (the success of the civil rights movement in particular), past sociopolitical innovations in the pursuit of justice and equality have made current innovation more challenging for blacks than for other marginalized groups. Compared to the struggle for legalized gay marriage, which won because of relatively sudden cultural shifts and financial pressure applied to politicians by major donors, the struggle against police violence and mass incarceration is really a struggle against a diffuse system of social control that’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. In this regard, while Black Lives Matter tactics were novel, they haven’t been innovative.
Second, the civil rights movement also transformed the political imagination of millions of Americans while it also overcame criticisms from those who were deeply antagonistic towards its goals. Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, failed to do this because of fatally flawed messaging. The lesson of “All lives matter” is that an effective movement never crafts a message that contains within it the possibility of its own negation. More bluntly, there’s a reason why no one ever said “Think the same” or “Coke isn’t it.”
In times as psychotic as ours, there’s another protest movement afoot that, perversely, is trying to pick up where the civil rights movement left off:
“In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies.
But the civil rights claim shocked lawmakers, especially those representing minority communities that have suffered generations of racism and economic injustice. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Los Angeles) called it “borderline racist” and said vaccine protesters need to revisit their history books.
“This is misappropriation of a movement that really is not over and proves to be challenging to overcome,” said Kamlager-Dove, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.””
“Anti-Vaccine Protesters Are Likening Themselves to Civil Rights Activists” | Politico | Mackenzie Mays
If bad messaging is a cardinal reason why Black Lives Matter isn’t the next evolution of the civil rights movement, then there’s no way the anti-vaccination movement could ever be. Anti-vaxxers who wrap themselves in the cloak of the civil rights movement are as ridiculous as anti-abortion activists likening the status of a fetus to that of Dred Scott.
People died in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans. Civil rights activists fought the good fight while facing humiliation, riot police, dogs, water hoses, bombings, and murder. Anti-vaxxers have encountered nothing that remotely compares to the struggles and threats faced by the civil rights movement. Thus, anti-vaxxer “civil rights” messaging is nothing more than propaganda based on false equivalences and an intentional misreading of American history. Furthermore, to assume that a movement whose goals could actually cost lives rather than make lives better is nothing more than moral bankruptcy.
Still, there’s something deeper about anti-vaxxer propaganda that needs exploring. Though not at all comparable in terms of size, scope, success, or influence, the civil rights movement and the anti-vax movement are intriguing examples of how various American protest movements have framed themselves in terms of different notions of “freedom.”
The goal of the civil rights movement was equal access to political rights under the law for everyone—black people in particular. The kind of freedom that would encompass freedom from discrimination, segregation, and violence is often thought of as “freedom from.”
Anti-vaxxers want to raise their children as they see fit without government interference or intrusion. This kind of freedom is often thought of as “freedom to.“ (Isaiah Berlin, one of the most influential political philosophers of the last century, referred to these different kinds of freedoms as negative and positive liberty, respectively.) The distinction is critical.
A “freedom from” discourse, anti-vaxxers’ civil rights rhetoric is at odds with their true goal—the freedom to raise unvaccinated children. One discourse is about being left alone by the state, while a counter-discourse is about gaining special accommodations from the state. It should be difficult and disingenuous to affirm both. Indeed, the former (the “freedom from” discourse) obscures the latter (the “freedom to” discourse) in an attempt to make it more acceptable, despite the general consensus on the importance and effectiveness of vaccines.
Thus, the structure of the anti-vaxxer claim that its movement is comparable to the civil rights struggle has significant elements (namely, dueling discourses that obscure the truth) of an influence operation and not a virtuous political position. I don’t know who came up with this strategy, but I seriously doubt it was an anti-vaxxer.
Image Source: Center for Jewish History, NYC [Public domain]