Among a certain set, the Texas Legislature is known as the National Laboratory of Bad Ideas, a hothouse for legislative foolishness that often spreads across the country. But sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes the bad ideas come here from elsewhere, and sometimes even Massachusetts. On Friday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the famed vaccine skeptic and son of the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate, spoke at a dimly lit meeting hall deep in the Capitol extension at the invitation of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a right-leaning group that fights to loosen vaccine requirements and primaries Republicans who don’t take an anti-vaccine line.
Kennedy’s sudden appearance at the Legislature had a dreamlike quality to it. A few dozen mothers and their children chow down on an impressively sized Pok-e-Jo’s buffet in a bland conference room. State representatives Bill Zedler and Briscoe Cain of the Legislature’s furthest-right faction are sitting near the front, surrounded by children. Zedler has long been one of the foremost anti-vaxxers in the Legislature, one of several lawmakers advancing bills to make it easier to claim exemptions from vaccine mandates, or provide parents with information about the “dangers” of vaccines as part of the process of obtaining parental consent. And there is Kennedy, the jet-setting environmentalist and left-wing activist whose visage contains the ghost of his father, preparing to deliver a 45-minute presentation full of graphs and charts confirming the worst fears of everyone present.
Lights in half the conference hall go off as Kennedy fiddles with his projector screen—in other words, his speech plunges the room into darkness. He begins by addressing recent measles outbreaks across the country. Doctors say the outbreaks are caused by parents refusing to vaccinate their children for the disease, largely because of a now-debunked study that ties the MMR vaccine to autism. “The drop in measles occured before the vaccine was introduced,” Kennedy says, pointing to a blurry chart. “The thing that cured measles was nutrition and clean water, not the vaccine.” Tuberculosis and scurvy had been largely eradicated through similar methods without vaccines, so why was the MMR vaccine necessary? Heads nodded.
Many vaccines are for illnesses that simply aren’t a problem anymore, Kennedy explains in a croaking voice that results from spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary spasms of the larynx. “I didn’t grow up with the terror of rotavirus. I had never heard of it,” he says. “It’s basically mild diarrhea.” In fact, Kennedy declares, it’s vaccines that are responsible for the rise in just about every condition you could think of—asthma, SIDS, encephalopathy, Bell’s palsy, autism. Big Pharma had faked safety studies by putting poison in placebos during clinical studies, ensuring that they had negative effects too.
“They’re trying to get at your baby,” Kennedy declared, mildly. “And force him to take their vaccines. And give him a lifetime dependency” that Big Pharma would then treat. “The last thing left is the mom. And that’s what these laws are about, getting rid of the mom. To get right to the baby,” he says. “I will be with you to the end of time. We are going to beat these guys, and we are going to win.” He receives a lengthy standing ovation.
It’s all sort of funny, except, of course, the anti-vaccine movement would end up hurting a lot of kids if they got their way. For people who talk so earnestly about the well-being of babies, there’s a lot of unintended callousness in the movement’s rhetoric. Rotavirus, which Kennedy jokes about, can kill infants and toddlers through severe dehydration—it’s fine if you catch it in time, but sometimes people don’t, and across the world hundreds of thousands of children die from it every year.
It’s easy to understand where vaccine panic comes from: the idea of the government putting something in your body is unsettling. Vaccine panic has effectively taken the place of the long-running Cold War panic over the use of fluoride in tap water, which hit some of the same buttons. The vaccine refusers and hesitaters—the polite, academic term for anti-vaxxers—are right that Big Pharma has a pernicious effect on the American healthcare system, and that government isn’t very good about overseeing it. They’re just not right about the main thing they want to be right about. Vaccines are great. Your parent or grandparent might have contracted polio and lived in an iron lung and never had you, but then Jonas Salk came along and they didn’t.
There’s another deep-set fear that vaccine panic taps into: on some level, all of us are aware that we’re being poisoned in some way or another. Humans are defined in part by our willingness to poison ourselves for material gain. The last few generations have have been exposed to things that no previous incarnation of the species has: the strontium-90 deposited in human bones from nuclear tests, all the plastics that leach into food and water, and even the Day-Glo yellow mac & cheese and blackened, fatty brisket made from antibiotic-infused beef in the Pok-e-Jo’s buffet.
You can’t think about this chemical miasma we live within for too long, so most of us shrug and go about our lives. Vaccine panic says: here’s the man who’s wielding the poison, which comes in a sharp little syringe. His name is Mr. Pharma, and the government is in his pocket and so is the media, and your doctor too, maybe, and all that’s left to protect your infant is you, so fight the good fight. It’s a great story, and it’s easy to understand why it fits so easily into the portfolio of issues favored by the the right-wing coalition in the Lege. The real story—the question of what’s causing chronic conditions and seemingly new ailments like the ones that concern the membership of Texans for Vaccine Choice—is probably a lot more complicated, and we won’t know it for many years to come. Try the brisket, though, it’s pretty good.
This article has been updated to explain that Kennedy’s unusual voice is a result of a neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia.