Nazi Science: Coronavirus Edition

Noted flim-flam artists and doctors of low repute — including Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil — have recently been trotted out by right-wing media outlets to bemoan Coronavirus social distancing directives as “worse than the disease.”

Likewise, small groups of radical, right-wing extremists — funded by the same astroturf groups that quietly funded the Tea Party protests in 2010 and organized by right-wing extremist groups like those that organized the “Unite the Right” hate parade in Charlottesville in 2017 — have exercised their inalienable right to gather in close proximity and whip out their unambiguously-phallic assault rifles, their Confederate flags, and their MAGA hats. Among other things, they’ve called for the jailing (or killing) of Democratic politicians, advocated the firing of the nation’s foremost health experts, and blocked hospital entrances in the name of protesting social distancing.

All the while, right-wing politicians and media personalities have gleefully egged them on with inflammatory tweets, radio programs, and press conferences that undermine the guidance of the country’s top medical experts (in some cases while said experts are standing next to them on the dais).

Reactions from people basically everywhere else on the political spectrum have ranged from anger to astonishment to confusion. Recent polling (e.g., here and here) indicates that people across the political spectrum oppose the protests and are more concerned about lifting restrictions too early than they are about letting them carry on too long.

In a recent editorial, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, called anti-lockdown arguments tendentious, perverse, and sneering. The Louisville Courier Journal Editorial Board dubbed one Kentucky protest “a pro-coronavirus rally.” In his popular politics and gay rights blog, Joe.My.God, Joe Jervis has taken to calling people who defy social distancing guidelines “Branch Covidians.” And in the New York Times, Charlie Warzel called the protests “a march for the freedom to be infected.”

Warzel makes the argument that these rallies are the logical — if extreme — conclusion of the right-wing’s “perverted liberty ideology.” Radically anti-government and anti-authority (but ironically pro-authoritarian), Warzel contends that this political ideology represents a “wholesale rejection of collective thinking.”

This wholesale rejection of collective thinking is puzzling and concerning for most Americans, and it’s worth asking where it comes from.

The answer is not “the Nazis,” but as it happens, the Nazis do shed some useful light on the line of thinking that says “re-opening the economy” (which is a ridiculous phrase, by the way) is more important than saving people’s lives.

In his 1978 biography, Hitler: A Study in Personality and Politics, historian William Carr outlines some of the major intellectual currents that influenced Hitler and the Nazis. Foremost among them was Social Darwinism.

As Carr notes, Social Darwinism is the “notion that life is in essence a ruthless struggle for existence, bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all).” Social Darwinism is a fundamental distortion of Charles Darwin’s biological theories, which, as Carr argues, “led, in some quarters at least, to the emergence of a highly pessimistic view of man, no longer a moral being infused with a divine spark, but a simple biological organism and an expendable unit in a collective entity” (113).

Hitler’s views on Social Darwinism have been very well-catalogued over the years. He believed, in essence, that the races were in a great, cosmic battle for survival, and that it was not only natural, but imminently moral, for the strong to ruthlessly crush the weak. Social Darwinism deeply influenced his politics, as well as his views on racial science and eugenics. What Hitler and the Nazis did was take Social Darwinism to a logical, but radical, extreme.

According to Carr, however, the notion of “a war of all against all” was commonplace in late-19th/early-20th century Europe, and it revolved around the idea that civilization unnaturally constraints human nature.

The restraints civilization had placed on human rapacity were dismissed by extreme Social Darwinists as a perversion of the evolutionary processes which decreed that the fittest and the strongest should survive at the expense of the unfit. Humanitarian efforts to protect the weak, the sick, and the old distorted the balance of nature. (113)

It’s not too far a leap to get from this notion of “a war of all against all” to Dr. Oz’s affable remark on Sean Hannity’s show that, “opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but…that might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

If your view of nature in general, and human nature in particular, is that the weak should be sacrificed to strengthen the strong, then what’s 2–3% of school-aged children, right?

If you’re convinced that protecting the weak, the sick, and the old is a perversion of natural evolutionary processes, then enforcing social distancing to protect the weak, the sick, and the old — that is, the people most likely affected by Coronavirus — is in fact a gross distortion of the balance of nature.

Let Grandma and Grandpa sacrifice themselves for the economy. It promotes the growth of strong and healthy elements! (After I posted this story, Dan Patrick reiterated his support for the economy over human life.)

There is no reason, necessarily, to believe that Dr. Oz, the Pro-Coronavirus protestors, or Alex Jones know that they’re invested in the ideology of Social Darwinism (though some of them surely do). But it’s not for nothing that radical right-wing extremism in 21st century America is a direct descendant of radical right-wing extremism in 20th century Germany. And, more to the point, Branch Covidians’ behavior relative to the Coronavirus shutdown (and frankly, relative to all their social and political beliefs) suggests that they readily accept the basic premise of Social Darwinism, and equally, that they think they will win in “a war of all against all.” Hence all the guns.

Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter if they know their ideological ancestors. What matters is they’re putting people lives at risk, and they’re doing it on purpose. Because, ultimately, they don’t see the loss of “social undesirables” — that is, people who are weak, sick, old, or otherwise “tainted” — as a loss at all. They see it as a renewal of natural selection and a revival of their “right” to be strong.

Initially posted at Medium:

Published by Ryan Skinnell

Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Department of English & Comparative Literature, San José State University, San Jose, CA

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