Last month, Senator Rand Paul said a few confusing things about vaccines, leading some to ask: Is he or is he not an anti-vaxxer? In an interview with CNBC’s Kelly Evans, the senator from Kentucky stated that he had heard of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Then a recording surfaced of an earlier 2009 conversation, where Paul engaged in the kind of wild linkages that libertarians have become famous for: Social Security leads to serfdom and flu shots put us on the death march to the gulag. “The first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates,” Paul said, “and they’re talking about making [the flu vaccine] mandatory.”
But Paul also said something in that Evans interview that didn’t get much attention, which I found curious (especially coming from a libertarian who had trouble explaining why his brand of individual supremacy isn’t really just white supremacy or in what way it is different from his dad’s out-and-out racism). Paul said: “I’m a big fan and a great fan of the history of the development of the smallpox vaccine, for example. But you know, for most of our history, they have been voluntary.”
An unexceptional statement. Senator Paul is a history buff. And as an ophthalmologist, he’s interested in the history of science. Except that anyone who actually knows the history of the smallpox vaccine knows that it was anything but voluntary, at least for the many African and African-American slaves the vaccine was experimented on (including by Thomas Jefferson) and whose blood streams served as the best and cheapest way to transport the vaccine across the Americas.
I have no idea whether Paul knows this history, despite being its big and great fan. But it’s not just for rhetorical effect that conservatives and libertarians like Paul and Sarah Palin “invoke slavery for all sorts of things that,” as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart points out, “don’t come anywhere close to matching the evil it represented.” The “right to health care,” Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.” That sounds like a ludicrous statement, except that there’s a reason he, along with other likeminded individualists, can’t stop talking about slavery.