An Epidemic of Hostility
Vaccination, Public Health, and Antielitism in a Pandemic
I’m a historian. Not a virologist. Not an epidemiologist. We don’t have any such experts, or any public health professionals, on our staff at the AHA. We therefore defer to medical experts on decisions relating to COVID-19 conditions. Perspectives on History editor Ashley E. Bowen’s column this month discusses our plans for returning to our office in September; these plans rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington, DC, health authorities. This issue also contains information about our annual meeting, to be held January 6–9, 2022, in New Orleans. Right now, we are planning to meet in person, but if or how we do so could evolve according to the CDC and local health authorities.
I have no problems deferring in this way. I respect the expertise of our colleagues in the health sciences. Especially in a public health emergency, the public good trumps the rights of individuals to do what they think is best for themselves as individuals. Everything has a history, including vaccine hesitancy, as my colleagues in the history of medicine remind me.
Today, for many in the United States, deference to experts represents a form of elitism, a trust in the judgment of institutions and individuals by dint of professional credentials and reputation. I am impatient with those who so readily refuse that deference, whether in the AHA’s Washington, DC, home; the city of New Orleans; or the state of Louisiana. As I write this in early August, 54.1 percent of Washington, DC, residents have taken the advice of medical professionals and been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In Orleans Parish, the figure is 59.7 percent; in the state of Louisiana, a dismal 36.9 percent. Not surprisingly, we have had inquiries from members regarding the dangers of traveling to a state where many residents act as though they know more about a deadly virus than medical professionals. One Shreveport resident made it very clear to state health authorities at a city council meeting: “We should refuse to be tracked, discriminated against, bribed, controlled, threatened, shamed, or coerced into compliance.” She basked in the applause from her neighbors.
To a considerable extent, this is the result of the effective politicization of deeply rooted hostilities toward expertise and the education that produces it. Demonizing elites has a long and sordid tradition in politics; so do medical conspiracy theories. Here, COVID-19 and the attendant masking protocols, vaccines, and legitimately controversial school closures have been joined to partisan rhetoric about teachers indoctrinating white students to hate not only America but themselves and their families, along with a host of other conspiracy theories ranging from a supposedly stolen election to the absurdities of QAnon. In all these cases, experts from various ideological perspectives have pointed to professional consensus, whether among public health experts and virologists, historians of racism, or election referees.
Demonizing elites has a long and sordid tradition in politics; so do medical conspiracy theories.
We are looking at an epidemic of hostility toward expertise itself, drawing on a cynical language of antielitism to undermine public trust in the value and values of education, knowledge, and expertise as they apply to public culture and policy.
Legislators in more than half the states act as though they know more than historians who have devoted decades to research and teaching relating to the impact of racism on American institutions and culture. The AHA has had its share of “elitism” accusations for joining three other leading education organizations in opposing “legislative efforts [that] seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators.” Yes, we do believe that “educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.” We expect the same respect that we offer to our colleagues in virology and epidemiology.
The AHA cannot force our neighbors at home or our hosts in Louisiana to follow the advice of medical experts and get vaccinated. But we will continue to track public health conditions in New Orleans and update our members as conditions evolve. Currently, conditions in New Orleans and CDC guidance are encouraging; in the state of Louisiana, not so much. We therefore have sent the following letter to Governor John Bel Edwards, legislative leaders, public health officials, city government, and business organizations. The AHA is relying on the data and advice of public health experts, and we are asking Louisiana’s leadership to do the same.
July 26, 2021
Dear Governor Edwards and Louisiana Leaders:
The American Historical Association, the largest professional association in the world for all historians, will hold its annual meeting in New Orleans in January 2022. Nearly 4,000 historians from the United States and abroad will attend, bringing millions of dollars in revenue and booking over 8,000 room nights in New Orleans hotels. Our conference will bring educational as well as business benefits to the state. In addition to sessions, tours, and talks focused on the history of New Orleans and the region, we will offer free conference registration to public school teachers from Orleans Parish to enable them to take advantage of professional development opportunities at the conference. We are excited to return to in-person meetings after cancelling our 2021 meeting due to the pandemic and to invite our members to join us in a city rich in history and culture.
We want to make our meeting as safe as possible for all to attend. We have been impressed by the clear policies, benchmarks, and data analytics established by New Orleans public health officials to ensure a safe return to business, including for large gatherings like our annual meeting. The Association has been encouraged by the city’s progress in ensuring that its citizens are vaccinated, which enabled the New Orleans Health Department to ease restrictions on indoor gatherings. We are optimistic that the city will open conferences at full capacity in time for our meeting.
However, we note with alarm that vaccination rates in the state of Louisiana remain well below the national average and that the state is one of seven listed at high risk for an outbreak on the Centers for Disease Control COVID Tracker website. One popular consumer publication has listed Louisiana dead last in its rankings of “Safest States during COVID-19.” Poor vaccine distribution and infection control at the state level affects risk at the city level; as of this writing, the COVID-19 New Orleans Dashboard reports that Orleans Parish is at risk of an outbreak.
Our members read this readily available information. They email us; they are worried about whether it is safe to attend, safe to travel to Louisiana.
We know that city and state officials are eager to see business travel resume and travel industry jobs and revenue rebound, and we trust that you will mount a vigorous public health effort to increase vaccination rates and prevent a renewed surge of COVID cases, which would necessitate the reimposition of restrictions on conferences and business travel.
We appreciate the state’s efforts to plan for a safe return to business and expect that you will continue to work to encourage vaccination so that it will be safe for us to meet in New Orleans.
James R. Grossman
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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