Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How Do We Talk About COVID Anti-Vaxxers and Deniers When They Die of COVID?

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik argues that when COVID deniers die, we must not sugarcoat the harm they did when they were alive.

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist at the Los Angeles Times. His latest book is Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and The Making of Modern America. He attracted controversy for a recent column and tweets arguing that the COVID-19 deaths of anti-vaxxers should be publicly mocked. He recently joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson on an episode of the Current Affairs podcast to defend his stance. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

You are a business columnist, but you’ve written a lot about COVID. And before we get to the column that I wanted to ask you most about, which is causing a lot of controversy on social media, I want to first ask you about the COVID public discourse. We know that the media has been full of nonsense about COVID and that the public discourse is frustrating. People believe a lot of things that aren’t true. We need a more sane national conversation about this virus and its effect on society. So I want to start by asking you, What are the main things that you want to convey with your writing that are important for the public to understand? And what would a more sane and reasonable discourse about COVID look like?

Hiltzik

Thanks, it’s good to be with you. That’s a good question. This fits into a phenomenon that I’ve observed over the years as I’ve written about or covered complex situations and policies. Unfortunately, a lot of my fellow journalists don’t really see the need to put in the effort that’s necessary to educate themselves to the maximum degree possible about these policies or programs. I’ve written a lot about Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, and now COVID. And I see this phenomenon in covering all those issues. In some ways, it has been worse with COVID. And that may be normal since a pandemic is a moving target. But, unfortunately, over the last year and a half or so, we’ve all been working together through the confusion. That’s natural when we’re dealing with something that’s novel. But one of the problems with American journalism is that we tend to see things and report things through a partisan political prism. That might be because the center of gravity of American journalism is in New York and D.C., where everything is viewed as whether it’s good or bad for the incumbent party, for the opposition party, or this or that candidate. And I think that really works against public understanding when we’re talking about this pandemic. The virus knows no politics, and it knows no geographic or political boundaries. It’s just there. And scientists are dealing with it. So I’ve written a lot about vaccine rollout and vaccine acceptance. But I’ve also written a lot about the theories of where the virus came from, particularly the theory that it came from a lab leak in China. As I’ve written, that theory has been conclusively debunked by experts in virology and epidemiology. And yet it still gets put out not only by the right-wing press, which has an interest in excusing the way the Trump administration dealt with this, but also the mainstream press, which has an interest in trying to portray everything as though there’s some middle ground. So in the last year, maybe the lab leak has gotten more credibility. Last year there was a standard line by the press, which made a mistake in downplaying the lab leak theory because it was promoted by the Trump administration. And now that Biden is in office, the press is being more responsible and treating it as a serious possibility. And my take was always exactly the opposite: that we were right to disdain this theory in 2020 because it was being promoted by people we knew were liars. And we were wrong to accept it in the last year, because there was no evidence for it ever. So that’s an artifact of this whole situation. It’s a complicated issue. Complexities on this scale are really not within much of the press’s wheelhouse. That being said, there have been journalists who’ve been very, very good at navigating all this confusion. Those of us who follow the field know who they are.

Robinson

Well, I don’t want to dive into the debate on the origins of COVID right now. I want to talk about your latest COVID column, which has gotten a lot of people quite upset, at least in social media. I’m sure you’ve received some emails.

Hiltzik

More than a few.

Robinson

Well, the headline at least on Twitter is “mocking anti-vaxxers’ deaths is ghoulish, yes, but necessary.” I think the article itself says “maybe necessary.” My reaction was quite negative to that. It strikes me as very cruel. I’m not quite sure that it’s helpful. I’d like to give you an opportunity to lay out your argument for what seems like a very, very extreme statement.

Hiltzik

Well, the argument itself is not as extreme as it may look just from the headline. The question I was raising—which I raised in the very first paragraphs of the column—was about how we should think of the deaths of people who have not merely been unvaccinated—we’ll get into the distinction around vaccination status here in a moment—but people who spent their recent lives crusading against sensible public policies in a way that really undermined communal interests and public health. And we’re talking about people who were politicians and other activists and advocates who campaigned against mask mandates, and especially against vaccines, vaccinations, and vaccine mandates. My starting point is that these were reckless and dangerous positions to take. They have no medical or scientific basis. They’re basically just expressions of a partisan ideological interest. So, based on that, how do we understand it when somebody who’s been engaging in that sort of campaign actually contracts COVID and lands in the hospital, and/or dies? The problem that we confront is that our normal way of dealing with deaths is basically to be solicitous about them, to emphasize the good qualities of the deceased person. You know, they were a family person, a faithful spouse, mother, father, what have you. And the point I raised is: Is that really appropriate when in the last year or two or even longer, they’ve been engaged in this dangerous and really evil kind of political posturing? And basically, it comes down to the point that the deaths of those people are teachable moments if we take care to teach them. And what we have been doing thus far has not been effective. For example, Kelly Ernby was a local Southern California political Republican functionary who had run for office and campaigned in opposition to vaccination and vaccine mandates. She contracted COVID and died. And when we treat her as just another statistic of COVID deaths, we’re erasing the dangerous position that she was taking and promoting. She was filling listeners with misinformation and disinformation. And I don’t think it’s appropriate to erase that. This is an opportunity to remind people of how dangerous her position was, and the positions of others of her ilk. And there have obviously been very many people taking that same position. She would belittle the pandemic, she’d belittle the virus, she’d belittle the efficacy of vaccines. And she paid the ultimate price. But what’s the argument in favor of minimizing that and treating that behavior with any sort of solicitude? So that’s basically the context. And at the very end of it, I said, When nothing else has worked, maybe mockery of the sort—you know, the Herman Cain award—isn’t entirely inappropriate.

Robinson

I agree with the idea that we can’t set aside the fact that people have done harm through the spreading of misinformation. I agree with that. But that’s a separate point from laughing at their death. I think that’s where it slips for me into something that fundamentally abandons basic human empathy. I see these cases as tragedies, like when someone smokes and dies of lung cancer. You use the phrase “just deserts” in the article, and I don’t think of it as “just deserts.” I think of it as a horrible human tragedy. I don’t think we have to erase the harm they did. But laughing when families are in mourning seems to be another level of cruelty from just noting the important fact that these people did die of the thing that they caused other people to die of.

Hiltzik

Well, I understand your position. In many ways, it’s well taken. I want to point out that in my column, and in my thinking, I made an explicit distinction among the categories of victims of this pandemic who were unvaccinated. As I pointed out, you have people who succumb to COVID and were unvaccinated. Some people had legitimate reasons to avoid vaccination. They were very young children who couldn’t be vaccinated at this point. We have, I think, a fairly small population who have genuine medical contraindications to vaccines. Then you have, I think, a fairly large cadre of people who were essentially duped. They were duped into refusing the vaccine. Their heads were filled with misinformation and disinformation. And in some communities, there was such pressure against being vaccinated that if you wanted to be vaccinated, you did it in secret. We heard from doctors and nurses who treated some of these people who said, Can I get the vaccine now? And they were told, regrettably, that it was too late. But then there is this third category, which I think is a special category of people who really deserve special attention. These are people who counseled others to take this very dangerous position. They promoted it and did it not for scientific or medical justification, but essentially for partisan gain for themselves. These are people who are in a special situation. I didn’t really advocate laughing at them. Well, I said at the very end of the column that mockery may not be inappropriate, but I also acknowledged that some of the websites where their photos and stories are posted for mockery are basically heartless, and maybe inappropriate. For example, talking about the Herman Cain award on Reddit, and there’s sorryantivaxxer.com. But it still leaves a question of how do we make sure that we understand that they are paying the ultimate price for their own actions? And I’d also say this is not like smokers who die of lung cancer or obese people who don’t control their health. Those are not communicable diseases. And you don’t see smokers going out there saying that everybody should smoke and that it’s wrong to be a nonsmoker. That’s not what we’re talking about. But you do see people saying, You shouldn’t take the vaccine, you shouldn’t wear masks, you shouldn’t socially distance yourself, because the virus is no big deal. And then when they succumb to the virus, they find out that it’s a really big deal. That’s what requires us to think about their deaths and their policies in a new way.

Robinson

The distinctions that you draw are important. Ordinary people who believe the things they’ve read on social media and build their understanding of vaccines on that basis—I really do think that’s a tragedy of the media ecosystem we live in. I would never laugh at those people. I consider them victims. But let’s take Donald Trump. I thought it was very funny the day Donald Trump announced he had COVID. I really did, because Donald Trump had spent the last year aggressively flouting COVID restrictions and pushing misinformation. And that did feel to me like a bit of satisfying comeuppance. I didn’t want him to die. I wouldn’t have taken glee in his death, because I do find that, as you say, ghoulish. One of my problems here is that you don’t actually believe the thing that the tweet says. The tweet that got people angry says “mocking anti-vaxxers’ death is ghoulish but necessary.” Your column is behind a paywall, so a lot of people don’t see what you really argued. But your column is not defending the idea that mocking anti-vaxxers’ death is ghoulish but necessary; it’s defending what you’ve defended to me here, which is that there’s a category of anti-vaxxers who it’s defensible to mock, and those are the people with power who have used that power in a way that is harmful to others. I don’t know if the Los Angeles Times chose this headline, but this is a tweet that came out from your account that feels to me like it’s making a lot of people angry with a position that you are not going to actually defend.

Hiltzik

I don’t know that I’m not defending it. I tweeted it. The paper’s social media people tweeted it. The tweet was based on the headline. I don’t mind acknowledging that, in the course of the editing process, and even after the column was posted, I did a little bit of tweaking of the headline to moderate it a little bit. The original headline was “ghoulish, yes, but necessary.” And I changed it to “ghoulish, yes, but maybe necessary.” And there’s been some discussion that maybe we might want to tweak it a little bit further, just so that it’s not quite as blunt. You see the piece is behind the paywall, but our paywall is fairly porous, and I think people coming to the LA Times for the first time can see the column. But I can tell you that the responses that have come into my email come from people who are not really interested in engaging in a discussion or engaging the issue. They are just venting. I mean, these are people whose vocabulary consists of five words, none of which is suitable for a family podcast like this one, or you know…

Robinson

You could use words…

Hiltzik

You can just imagine. The vilest sort of invectives. Antisemitic. Obscene. Profane.

Robinson

Yeah.

Hiltzik

That’s what I’m getting at. And it’s not even clear in many of these emails whether what people are objecting to is that, you know, I’m not honoring the notion that you should not speak ill of the dead, or, I mean, a lot of them seem to misunderstand that I’m not talking about people who are unvaccinated but kept it to themselves or didn’t go out and campaign about it, that I’m very specifically talking about people with platforms.

Robinson

But that’s not a distinction made in the tweet.

Hiltzik

But a tweet is a tweet. I think I have a right to expect, as a journalist and columnist, that people will read more than eight words of a headline before deciding to send me an email seeking my own death, you know?

Robinson

Yeah. I think my problem with it is that it seems to be phrased in the most provocative, misleading way, which is offensive to people. I saw some people say, if you’ve heard how someone who’s vaccinated feels when their relative who’s unvaccinated dies, you wouldn’t be saying to mock the deaths of the unvaccinated. I think it invites that kind of reaction. I’m just not sure it’s instructive for the discourse.

Hiltzik

Fair enough. I can’t put the entire column in a tweet, but I can post the link to the column, which is what I did. Every tweet that I put out, or that the paper puts up, has a link to the column, and people are free to read it. I got more reactions to this column than to any other column I’ve ever written.

Robinson

I’m not surprised.

Hiltzik

And it’s certainly a more negative reaction, but it’s also a less thoughtful reaction to any column I’ve ever written because nobody is actually writing any sort of cogent argument against what I wrote. In fact, nobody came back with much of a cogent argument against even the headline. So basically what we’re seeing is a relatively small but vocal group venting in the least thoughtful way imaginable.

Robinson

Well, let me put to you what I think is the argument. When you say “necessary,” you imply “useful,” and I think there is a distinction there. I understand the people who take glee in the deaths of the unvaccinated. I don’t do it myself because I find those deaths tragic. But there is a question as to whether it is useful. We had an author on the podcast recently, Lee McIntyre, author of a book called How to Talk to a Science Denier, and it was about the productive ways to talk to people who are really fixed in irrational positions. Mocking people they know who died was not on the list. It was all about building relationships and deep empathy and trying to understand where they’re coming from, trying not to antagonize them unnecessarily, or give them a sense that you didn’t feel their pain or that you are contemptuous of them. It’s about being very open and listening. The argument that would be made is that it is not only not necessary, even if it can be defended, but that it is, in fact, counterproductive. It hardens people in their positions. It makes them less likely to want to listen to your actual arguments, and more likely to just get really mad at you for what they perceive as insensitivity.

Hiltzik

Well, I don’t know Lee McIntyre’s work. I take how you described it as read. But a lot of what I have seen over the years by people who’ve tried to examine how to talk to anti-vaxxers or others who are set in anti-science ways is that even when you try to sit them down and talk to them, rationally and soberly and judiciously, you often just cement them in their thoughts, and you don’t move them. And part of what I was writing about is that none of these other techniques has worked, and certainly erasing the facts of these anti-vaccine positions is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to be useful. It’s never been useful. I don’t think their positions should be erased. And I want to expand a little on this idea that death is a tragedy. Very early in my career—it may even have been when I was in journalism school—the question came up of how to write an obituary. There’s a tendency in obit writing to sugarcoat somebody’s life. But you can’t do that in every case. And what I was told is, look, if somebody is a jerk, or an asshole, or a villain in life, they didn’t change because they died. In responsible journalism, you paint the decedent, warts and all, and often the warts are the dominant characteristic. We’re journalists, not social workers or sociologists or hospice nurses. We’re journalists. We need to make these deaths teachable moments, and nothing thus far has helped.

Robinson

This is what frustrates me. I agree. There are a lot of very defensible and valid points in what you say. There’s a question of civility, the idea that being polite is always necessary and that we can’t be honest because it would be rude. You make a very good point in the column that that keeps us from telling the truth. The same thing, as you’ve just said, about obituary writing. I completely agree with that. I think it’s a really damaging tendency to not speak ill of the dead. We have to tell the truth. We have to understand what actually happened. We have to face reality honestly. I have enjoyed a lot of your columns. My frustration with the situation is that by making so many people angry with a tweet that misleads people about your actual position—because it covers the non powerful people who died horribly because they believed in misinformation, or appears to—you make it easier for people to then go, Oh, I’m not going to listen to him. He’s the guy who said that we should mock unvaccinated people when they die. As we talked about at the beginning, we should try to work to advance rationality in the discourse. Yet you’re more easily dismissed as the guy who believes that mocking people who die is fun.

Hiltzik

Well, let me make a couple of points there. First of all, you’re right that in the column, I took on this notion of civility. I was armed to do that because I’ve written probably three or four columns over the last few years about this sort of civility meme. The way I described it in the column—because I’ve described it this way in the past with chapter and verse—is that the pleas for civility are typically just a fraud. They’re wielded as tools by hypocrites, and they’re designed, essentially, to distract people from what is being said, civilly or uncivilly. And as you pointed out to me, in our email exchange setting this up, your magazine published a very good piece that really talked about the value or the history of vulgarity in political discourse and, I think, defended it fairly eloquently. We saw that in the Trump administration when people were trying to deal with an administration of surpassing cruelty and inhumanity. Well, should you be civil? This is one of the most uncivil regimes in American memory, maybe even history. Also, when you talk about how people are reacting, it kind of depends on the metric that you want to look at. This column has been basically at or near the number one ranked item on latimes.com for five days. It went online on Monday, and for three days it was the number one read piece. It’s still in the top 10 or so. And our statistics show that it’s being read fairly thoroughly. We can tell by how long people spend on that particular column that most people accessing it are reading it through. That suggests that they’re absorbing the argument. I’ve gotten some emails saying, “You express what I’ve thought to myself, thanks for expressing it.” Another metric is that I’ve gained around 200-250 new followers on Twitter in the days since the column came out. In my experience, followers are not opponents or critics. They tend to be reasonably like-minded followers who sign on as followers to my account, from my timeline, because they want to hear more of what I have to say and are generally in agreement. And that may not be universally true, but I think it’s more true than not. So, contrast that with the responses that I’m getting from email. My email is public and open to anyone. And the emails are of limited vocabulary, foul words, no cogent discussion. I’ve had maybe two cogent discussions—this makes the third—where people raise the question of the right way to think about these particular deaths. Michael Cohen, who works for the Boston Globe, disagreed with me and we had an exchange in which I tried to defend my position. I don’t think I convinced him, but that’s all right. We did have a serious conversation. You’re not going to have a serious conversation with people who get as far as a tweet and then hit send. They are not readers. They are not our readers. They are trolls, essentially. And they’re venting. They’re not really giving any thought to it. As I’ve said, for the most part, they don’t even make very clear what it is they’re objecting to, whether they’re objecting to callousness about the death of anybody—which, as I said, I don’t really think is the proper approach in life—or callousness about this one particular person or disagreement that vaccines are safe and efficacious. It’s like they just want to say, essentially—pardon my French—fuck you. I hope you die. I will piss on your grave. And then they’re gone. They’re not looking for engagement, and I don’t engage them.

Robinson

Yeah. I wonder, though, if there is a category of people who would be open to a number of the defensible claims—important and valid arguments that are made within the column with all of its many caveats to the headline—but who you’re turning off by framing it in this way that says, you know, “mocking deaths is ghoulish but necessary,” which, when I hear it, I just get a visceral unpleasantness. It just feels like such a deeply unpleasant thing to say. It’s just it gives me the creeps.

Hiltzik

Yeah, but you reached out. I responded. Here’s my take. I had a conversation with my editors, when we were getting ready to post the piece, about what the headline should say. And my original headline was actually even more blunt.

Robinson

Well, the URL is “why shouldn’t we dance on the graves of the unvaccinated?” That’s the URL of the page.

Hiltzik

That was one of my original thoughts. I played with that. And then one of my editors came back with other suggestions and we collaborated. There was a collaborationist approach, and we ended up with this one. And as I said, I weakened it a little bit. And there have been further discussions about whether it can be weakened more, but I don’t think anybody really has a very good idea as to what we could change it to that would still draw people to read it and that wouldn’t be essentially sugarcoating stuff. I mean, I don’t really apologize that it’s provocative. I’ve written provocative things in the past and provocative headlines. I don’t think the headline is really inaccurate as a description of what’s in the column. You can’t put the whole column in eight words. This is a choice. From the tenor of the emails that I’ve gotten, I don’t think there was any way to address this issue without riling up these particular types of people because they’re not demonstrating that they’ve given it any thought. They’ve been basically sent over by Breitbart or some other right-wing source, and they’re not even reading the tweets. They’re reading the description of the column that they’ve been fed. So, to a certain extent, it comes with the territory. But, you know, I don’t mind acknowledging that the response to this has been more vicious, more bilious, and less thoughtful than other columns I’ve written that have taken on topics of controversy and taken a stand that many others have disagreed with. And in the past, I’ve gotten emails from people—and I can make a judgment that this particular critic or that person is open to a discussion, and some might still correspond with me and I have done so for years. We don’t necessarily come to an agreement, but we can meet at some intellectual level. That’s not happening here. And I think that reflects not necessarily or entirely the headline of the column but the poisonous ideology that’s infected the pandemic response from the get go. We know who to blame for that. It’s Donald Trump and his minions, and that’s what these people are responding to. They’re basically associating themselves with very cruel, nasty positions and bragging about it and showing that they’re part of a club that I really think thoughtful people don’t want to be part of.

Robinson

You don’t think that advocating the mocking of dead people further contributes to the toxicity and cruelty of the discourse?

Hiltzik

Well, I try to be as judicious about that as I can. The word mockery appears in the headline, but not until the very last paragraph of the column. I write long columns. And I write about the damage that Kelly Ernby and others of her ilk have done to the public health infrastructure and to the communal fight against COVID. I mean, in her county, nine hospitals have had to basically open specialized wards and ambulance responses have been slowed down. Now she has died. As I understand it, she died at home. But others like her died in hospitals, which means they took up hospital beds that were needed for people with COVID and other conditions. This has contributed to this incredible level of burnout among our doctors and nurses and public health officials. And it’s disgusting. Essentially they’re engaged in what I think is a crime against humanity, and they shouldn’t get a pass.

Robinson

I agree with that completely. One of my frustrations is that that is the very important point that I would like the discourse to be about. Because I do think you’re right. There is something very evil about spreading misinformation that will get people killed, about those who oppose the kinds of public health measures that are necessary to save lives, and pretend that it’s about freedom. They ignore people’s freedom not to die of a horrible, horrible virus. I really do agree that the people who have done that and then get COVID and themselves suffer—I don’t want to relish or take pleasure, and I think it’s the impression of schadenfreude that causes a lot of anger and then distracts from the fact that there is a really important need to expose just how damaging these peoples’ actions have been.

Hiltzik

The question of schadenfreude is one I took on in the column. I quoted Lili Loofbourow of Slate, who wrote a pretty good piece about the Herman Cain award on Reddit. She called it basically a site for heartless and unrepentant schadenfreude, and I didn’t disagree with that. But it’s a case where the evil that these men and women did lives after them. We are all grappling with how to deal with that. What should our response be? When this first began to happen, and we first began to see anti-vaccine or anti-social distancing campaigners falling ill and dying, I wrote a couple of tweets in which I said, the COVID gods don’t have a sense of humor. Or, they have a sense of irony or what have you. Treating them judiciously, treating them non mockingly, hasn’t had any impact on their influence. I’m not even talking about some of them who counsel vaccine refusal but have been vaccinated themselves. Kelly Ernby was unvaccinated.

Robinson

She practiced what she preached.

Hiltzik

Exactly. She drank her own Kool-Aid, I guess. But, you know, she was at this for years before the pandemic. She was out there, as a political candidate, militating against the tightening of vaccine rules for school children here in California, which was tantamount to basically advocating that school children be exposed to measles and polio and whooping cough and truly dangerous and potentially lethal childhood diseases. She wasn’t doing that because there was some sort of medical or scientific basis for refusing those vaccines. She was doing it for ideological purposes. And after all, in California, as in many other states, she said, Well, vaccine mandates are wrong, they don’t work well. In this state, for K through 12 education, you’re basically required to have up to 20 doses of six vaccines. And then that keeps people, children and their families, and everyone that comes into contact with them safe. To crusade against vaccines is, to me, just not humane.

Robinson

Well, I agree. I do think that’s an incredibly important point. And I lament the fact that the framing of this has caused a lot of people to hate you.

Hiltzik

They don’t know me, so I don’t know that they hate me, you know.

Robinson

Okay.

Hiltzik

They certainly have expressed displeasure in the strongest terms.

Robinson

I think we have a serious disagreement about whether the particular statement is productive, but I do encourage people to read the column. There is more nuance in the column. There is a discussion about how we should respond to the deaths of those who have themselves caused harm. If we incorporate a distinction between punching up and punching down, mocking those who are victims themselves versus those who are victimizers, I think with that distinction and that caveat, I’m okay with a little dark humor.

Hiltzik

Well, as you know, the headline itself referred to anti-vaxxers, not to the unvaccinated. So we are talking about people who took a proactive, aggressive position that was dangerous to themselves and their communities.

Robinson

Well, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, thank you very much for joining me. I appreciate your willingness to undergo critical scrutiny over this provocative piece.

Hiltzik

Well, I don’t mind telling you that this is exactly the sort of discussion that I hoped deep down the column would inspire. It’s one of the few that I’ve had, so I appreciate it and am absolutely glad to have participated.

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Our magnificent March-April edition. Featuring articles on the costs of the drone war, predatory developers in Florida, the leftism of Charlie Chaplin's movies, the bullshit of Yuval Noah Harari, awful new right-wing children's books, and more!

The Latest From Current Affairs