Sunday, March 3, 2024

Ill Communications: How Anti-Vaxxers are Co-Opting Racism for Their Own Agenda


Rhetoric from anti-vaxxers now involves claims of racism and oppression, but they’re the ones encouraging discriminatory vaccine distribution in the first place.

Zach Bush doesn’t believe in germs. 

Well, that’s not exactly true, but as is the habit of Dr. Bush—a “physician specializing in internal medicine, endocrinology and hospice care”—transforming a general sentiment into a declarative statement is on-brand. For example, Bush believes mitochondria are “responsible for all” diseases, a distortion of the fact that this organelle has been associated with many diseases. 

The distance between causation and correlation is a hard terrain for many conspiritualists to cross. That’s the painstakingly nuanced territory of science, and for men like Bush, research that confirms pre-existing beliefs seems to be the only type worth paying attention to. 

Speaking of terrain, let’s get a little more specific: Bush doesn’t believe germs cause diseases. He declares Antoine Béchamp’s disproven terrain theory to be the root of all ailments—and Béchamp was canceled according to his fans, just as wellness disinformation specialists are being canceled today. 

Image courtesy Melissa Jeanty on Unsplash

Like Bush, Béchamp wasn’t out of his mind. The environment—the “terrain,” or microzymian theory—plays an underappreciated role in our health. How could it not? Decades of research have shown the damaging effects of noise, light, chemicals, foodstuffs, and much more on our bodies. 

But germs still matter. 

Problem is, that’s not marketable if you’re Zach Bush. You can’t sell a host of unproven treatments at your clinic if germ theory is true. Among Bush’s M Clinic offerings: Emotion Code, a “non-invasive approach to clearing trapped and suppressed emotions”; evaluating the “human energy field” with electrophonic imaging; hydration respiration, one of the more outlandish water treatments around; and Phase Angle measurement, which is—nevermind. 

Whatever training Bush lacks as a doctor he exceeds as an orator, which has helped him swell a social media following into the hundreds of thousands. Many are hypnotized by his poetic musings, a skill that McGill University’s Jonathan Jarry sums up best when calling him the “droning preacher of mitochondrial ecstasy.” 

The galvanic effects of “droning” have precedent. Late medieval English prose was based on a rhetorical style called amplificatio, an oratorical form that Robert Graves calls “the embroidering of a simple statement to the point where it almost ceased to make sense” in his introduction to Le Morte D’Arthur. The story is secondary to the hypnotic trance the listener is captured by; the medium is the message. 

Bush’s appeal largely comes down to the stupor you find yourself in after being assaulted by his grandiose prose, spoken in rapid-fire bursts that boil down to: “they’re” lying to you and I’ve discovered the truth, which I’m more than happy to sell to you. And, of course, the dog whistle dominating many of his recent speeches: Don’t. Take. The. Vaccine.

Rage Against the Vaccine

A number of disturbing trends have emerged in the modern incarnation of the anti-vax movement—protests date back to Edward Jenner’s confirmation of the efficacy of vaccinations in 1796. While the concept of vaccines goes all the way back to a 4th-century Chinese text (and likely further; written records do not comprise the totality of history), Jenner’s experiments helped Louis Pasteur develop the germ theory of disease, the final nail in Béchamp’s ideological coffin. 

Bush’s rage against the vaccine is part of a larger agenda, one that is both laudable in its criticism of agricultural and pharmaceutical giants and laughable in its scientific deception. The man has proven to have no limits when blasting Gabriel’s horn, using whatever means necessary—bringing us to Malcolm X.

Fear of a Vaxxed Planet

On its face, Bush’s X posts are about media censorship, an intriguing ploy by a man with 280k Instagram followers, 118k Facebook followers, and 53k YouTube followers. Tally podcast appearances and Bush’s reach is well into the millions. Unfortunately, this tactic is effective: yell “censorship” even as you maintain more of a reach than many of the media outlets you decry. 

Anti-vaxxers spreading fake statistics and confusing correlation for causation are not new techniques, though the recent wading into culture war issues puts a spotlight on their limitless propaganda efforts. I recently wrote about their sharing of Antisemitic memes, suggesting the vaccinated are preparing to throw the unvaccinated into camps and strip them of civil liberties. Bush is only one of a crowded field using a similar tactic: aligning anti-vax sentiment with the plight of Black Americans. 

In his Malcolm X posts, Bush is in part referencing the deplatforming of disinformation activists and what he perceives as the media’s refusal to discuss the “real story,” which for him is communing with the millions of viruses that live in the dirt that ultimately grant us perfect immunity. Anything produced in a laboratory is antithetical to nature’s harmony, a sermon he often delivers with religious fervor.

Just as Austin’s right-wing comedian, JP Sears, recently appropriated a Martin Luther King Jr speech in an anti-CRT, anti-trans rant, Bush features X on a feed filled with misinformation while suggesting he’s part of a targeted censorship campaign. A common anti-vax trope: cosplay the oppressed when you have no idea what actual oppression entails. 

Sadly, it works. 

The fear is much deeper than a vaccine. As the latest census shows, the population of whites in America is shrinking for the first time in centuries. Instead of celebrating the long-espoused dream of becoming a melting pot, white Americans declare their civil liberties are being infringed upon—ironically, the same set of tactics that have made them the richest and most powerful sect in this country. Privilege is often blind, however, and so any perceived sleight is treated as an inevitable slide toward oppression or autocracy or whatever Orwell paragraph pulled from a book they didn’t actually read and certainly don’t understand. 

This trend of cosplaying the oppressed has been especially apparent in the predominantly white wellness sector. As Matthew Remski recently noticed, pseudoscience profiteer Sayer Ji shared images featuring a Black Lives Matter logo and quoting anti-racist scholar Ibram X Kendi while portraying young Black Americans unable to buy groceries because of “vaccine discrimination.” The post states that “only 30% of Blacks are vaccinated.” While this low number is factually correct, Ji makes no attempt to address the systemic conditions in America that led to their medical mistrust. Instead, he feeds the fire of actual discrimination: Black Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. 

As with many insidious propaganda efforts, anti-vax rhetoric featuring racist imagery has at least one point of origin: 4Chan.

Ill Communications

The BLM, Anti-Defamation League, and Human Rights Campaign logos on these images are meant to invoke false solidarity with these movements and organizations. Besides, real-world examples confirm what happens when anti-vax efforts infiltrate Black communities, such as a group of Somali parents in Minneapolis. 

In 2010-11, the disgraced and disbarred former physician, Andrew Wakefield—the grifter who attempted to link vaccines and autism, sparking the current incarnation of anti-vax activists—began traveling to Minnesota to visit the Somali parents of autistic children. Between 2004-14, the rate of Somali American vaccination rates plummeted to 42%, leading to a measles outbreak in their community. While it wasn’t the only outbreak during this time, the link to Wakefield’s influence is irrefutable.  

The return of an eradicated disease was only an appetizer for the current crop of COVID disinformation campaigns. Whereas Wakefield has a habit of “warning” communities he perceives to be open to his disinformation, white wellness influencers are stealing a page from his manual by playing the oppressed, unconcerned with the damage they cause. 

Image courtesy Hakan Nural on Unsplash

To be clear, much has been written about how vaccine passports could discriminate against under-vaccinated populations. Because vaccination rates are lower in Black and Latino communities, they will be disproportionately affected if mandates are enforced. That’s not the point here.

Despite playing both the oppressed and the warrior hero sounding an alarm, conspiritualists are helping ensure that vaccination rates remain low in Black communities, then using those low rates to claim that vaccine policies are inherently racist. The feedback loop of discrimination continues with wellness influencers doing the damage they claim to be undoing. 

For as much credit as Zach Bush gives to the terrain, his understanding of the social environment is woefully inadequate. Perhaps he should stop musing while walking barefoot on the sand and step into an actual city, where most of the American population actually lives. 

Oppression and censorship are chronic problems in America. The tragedy is that these conspiritualists don’t realize what side they’re playing on—or worse, they don’t care.


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