On Manhood and Vaccines

One of the most common justifications for Southern secession was “states rights,” but it was not the real cause of the American Civil War.  Southerners loved the Federal Government so long as they controlled it.  The most intrusive Federal statute against the states was the Fugitive Slave Law, and it was passed with Southern votes and it intruded on the rights of Northern states.1  There is a similar disconnect between the assumed and the real motivations of the anti-vaccination mentality of the populist right.

Beyond misinformation, the real reason for opposing the vaccinations is simple defiance to the wishes of people and institutions that anti-vaxxers don’t like.  It is intransigence based on an intuitive version of Napoleon’s Maxim XVI: “never do what the enemy wishes you to do for this reason alone, that he desires it.”2  In this petty, internalized form, it is also related to the resentful slave morality outlined by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals and the idea of not giving others the satisfaction of complying with their desires, even when they are right.  In psychology, the doubling-down on being wrong in this way is known as cognitive dissonance.3  Those who still do not realize that they are wrong are the victims of a mass propaganda-driven cult-like phenomenon. The fact that so many people would accept Internet rumors over medical science is shocking but not surprising.

But the implied justification for resisting vaccination is moral staunchness and physical toughness, and when manifested in a man, it harkens back to older notions of manhood and manliness.  To those of us who accept vaccines as safe and effective products of modern science, the anti-vaccine mindset appears to be a widespread instance of noisy and occasionally violent yahooism, and a kind of physical and moral cowardice—the opposite of manliness.  It is the virtues of honorable manhood honored in the breach.  It is dumb braggadocio. Courage must have a higher purpose than just courting personal risk and the anti-vaxxers mistake recklessness for valor. And their external bluster appears to mask squeamishness about needles and well-tested medicine.

In the nineteenth-century, martial courage was defined as fearlessness—unwavering, unconditional, “heroic action taken without fear.”4  The increasing power of modern weaponry and the emerging horrors of the modern battlefield chipped away at this unrealistic standard during the Civil War and destroyed it completely during the First World War.  As one French observer of the Battle of Verdun noted “Three men and a machinegun can stop a battalion of heroes.”5  By World War II, the more sensitive participants came to a more realistic understanding of courage.6

But notions of manliness persisted.  In civil life there was the notion of honor reflected in correct public behavior emerging from a noble and high-minded form of masculine courage.  Justice Holmes might have given the best characterization of manliness when he described fellow officer in the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Henry Livermore Abbott, in the following terms “I observed in him every kind of duty, and never in all the time that I knew him did I see him fail to choose that alternative of conduct which was most disagreeable to him.”7  The idea of manliness embodies doing the right thing even when it is unpleasant and the categorical putting of others before self.  As expressed in West Point’s Cadet Prayer, it is “the harder right over the easier wrong.”

At the turn of the twentieth-century this manliness was embodied in combat and in civil life by Theodore Roosevelt and later in the “grace under pressure” of the Hemingway Code.8   In the mid-twentieth century, manliness was a key element of the solid, working class Outer Borough ethos characterized by the late Pete Hamill:

“Where I came from, the rules were relatively simple.  Work. Put food on the table.  Always pay your debts.  Never cross a picket line.  Don’t look for trouble, because in New York you can always find it.  But don’t back off either.  Make certain that the old and weak are never in danger.  Vote the straight ticket.” 9

“Make certain that the old and weak are never in danger”…hmm.  The danger from a pandemic that to date has to date killed more than 800,000 Americans, for instance? The anti-vaxxers clearly fail the Hamill test.

So what then is the higher purpose behind the behavior of those who oppose receiving vaccinations?  One hears a lot about rights and exercising one’s freedom—what could be more patriotic, more American, than that?

Is there a “right” to not get vaccinated?  Are people entitled to exercise their “freedom” by potentially violating the freedom of others not to be infected by the thoughtless or cowardly (and the cowardly imposition of oneself on the weak and vulnerable is the very definition of a bully)? Your freedom and rights famously end where the freedom and rights of others begin.  If you don’t think so, consider that no less an authority on freedom and rights than George Washington had an entire volunteer army (one that was fighting for freedom and rights) inoculated—a much more dangerous procedure than receiving a modern vaccine—during the small pox epidemic of 1775-1782.10  And of course, there is the inconvenient seven-to-two Supreme Court decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts.11

I realize that many of our citizens have real complaints about how the two-party system and the Globalized economy have let them down.  But this does not justify embracing delusion and stupidity in matters of common sense.  As the adage goes, “if your hair catches fire, don’t put it out with a hammer.”  Not getting a safe and widely-available free vaccine during a pandemic look less like selfless manhood and more like a flirtation with self-inflicted individual selection.  So, if you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet because of pride or principle, be a man, suck it up, and get the damned shot.


1. This observation was made to me by James McPherson in a reply to a letter I had sent him when I was a doctoral student in American History.  McPherson wrote a magnificent book on the reasons soldiers in the Civil War fought called For Cause and Comrades.  The reasons obviously include the obligations of manhood.
2. David G. Chandler, ed., The Military Maxims of Napoleon, (New York: Macmillan, 1987 [1901]) 61, 128-129.
3. See generally Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
4. Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage, the Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Macmillan, 1987) 17.
5. Margaret MacMillan, War, How Conflict Shaped Us (New York: Random House, 2020) 97.
6. Paul Fussell, who served as a combat infantry lieutenant in France during the Second World War, speaks of the waning of courage over time as a creeping, incremental fatalism. He describes the lost of courage in the language of diminishing returns: “We came to understand what more have known than spoken of, that each man begins with a certain full reservoir, or bank account, of bravery, but that each time it’s called upon, some is expended, never to be regained. After several months, it has all been expended, and it’s time for your breakdown.” Of course there are a certain percentage of people who enjoy war and who may not be subject to the diminishment of courage about which Fussell and others write.  See Paul Fussell, Doing Battle, the Making of a Skeptic (Boston: Little, Brown and Company 1996) 137-38. See also Fussell’s Wartime (Oxford University Press 1989) 282. For a more abstract post-WWII discussion of courage, see Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be.
7. See Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Memorial Day,” reprinted in The Essential Holmes, Richard A. Posner, ed. (University of Chicago Press 1992) 80-99. Regarding Holmes’s friend and fellow Union officer, Henry L. Abbott, see generally Robert Garth Scott, Fallen Leaves, the Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott (Kent State University Press 1991).
8. Regarding Theodore Roosevelt, see “The Journey on the Ridge Crest” (1904), and “The Great Adventure.”  Both reprinted in The Man in the Arena, John Allen Gable, ed. (New York: Jostens Printing and Publication Division, 1987) 43-49, 142-147. Hemingway’s definition of “guts” as “grace under pressure” appears in Dorothy Parker’s profile titled “The Artist’s Reward” that appeared in the November 11, 1929 number of The New Yorker.
9. Pete Hamill, Downtown, My Manhattan, (New York: Little, Brown and Company 2004) 277-78.
10. See generally Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001).
11. 197 U.S. 11 (1905).

Michael F. Duggan blogs at  realismandpolicy.com.