Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the collision between the value of rugged individualism and the need for universal vaccination in the moment of a pandemic.
*Interview conducted March 22, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Vaccines really touch on or show by population experiments, natural experiments, the outcomes of American values. When I look at them, I am seeing distinct lines drawn between humanistic values and American values. American values around a lot longer within American discourse; humanist values in the American form grew out of that American context. So, the hemisphere is “be an individual person plus social responsibility.” So, there’s a sense that the interpersonal is secondary, the collective is tertiary, but the individual is primary. But those are all connected, and you can’t make them separate in any way. In American values, the exceptional American individual can be separated in that ideology.
And it has certain outcomes in terms of how some political or social philosophies play out. I think this is playing out in real-time in the vaccine context throughout the country in different ways to different degrees in different states. In New York, what’s your experience with regards to this value dichotomy? How is it worsening the situation or the well-being of Americans?
Jonathan Engel: It seems to me that we’re going to reach an interesting tipping point probably in a couple of months. Because right now the United States is doing a lot of vaccinations. Over the weekend, I think it was nearly three million a day. I myself have gotten my first vaccination and I need to go back to get my second. I’ve got the Pfizer at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, which is this huge building. They’ve been doing about 10,000 shots a day there. They say that they’re ready to ramp up as more vaccines become available for 20,000 shots a day. We’re still in the stage right now where not everybody can get it. There are still eligibility requirements in the state of New York. You have to be over 60 or have a specific pre-existing condition or have a specific job that you do, like a medical worker or teacher that puts you at the front of the line.
So, I still know people who are trying to get vaccinated who haven’t been able to yet. Then, of course, there are people like my sons, who are 32 and 28, and who have no particular condition and they’re not even eligible yet. But eventually, of course, they’re doing lots of shots. Eventually, you’re going to get to a situation where everybody who agrees to be vaccinated and wants to be vaccinated has it, then comes the question, “What do you do with everybody else?” Because we have to get to about 80% to 90% vaccinated to get herd immunity. What happens with the people who don’t?
And you’re right, this country does not have a great history of collective action. It’s something that is really more “every man for himself.” Although, here in the United States, we like to refer to that as Rugged Individualism. It doesn’t sound quite so selfish, but it is. In my view, that viewpoint has been escalating. It’s almost been on steroids for several decades at least, or maybe as long as I’ve been alive. I think, maybe, I’m just viewing this nostalgically. But I think that there used to be a little bit more of a concept of the common good in this country. But that’s gone. It seems to have gotten lost. This individual thing has become more like, “I can do whatever I want. Who are you to tell me what to do? Who are you to tell me to wear a mask? Who are you to tell me to get vaccinated?”
There are people in this country who don’t want to get vaccinated, not even that so much as a medical thing; although, I don’t even know what the medical excuse would be to not get vaccinated. But just to say, “Hey, if you’re telling me to get vaccinated, I won’t get vaccinated because I don’t like people telling me what to do.” The problem, of course, is that that kind of selfishness is hard to counter. That kind of belief that “I can do what I want” is hard to counter. You try countering it with logic as a humanist. That’s what I would try to do. But it’s not easy. You can say to people, “Hey, you’ve been in resort towns in the summertime. That sign that says, ‘No shirt, no shoes and no service.’ Well, you obey, right? You accept it. So, if it says, ‘No mask,’ why not the same acceptance?”
Of course, there’s the possibility that certain public institutions or certain things are open to the public. If you think about flights or airlines, they are going to say, “You have to get vaccinated in order to get on our plane and show proof of vaccination.” I hope they will. But there’s a strong attitude against that kind of thing, so from a humanist perspective. Where we look at that, we have to consider the needs and well-being of the people we share this planet with. That is a very frightening thing. It’s a real challenge to us to try to get people to understand that we need to all get vaccinated for this to work or a large proportion of us to get vaccinated in order for this to work.
And again, you try to use logic and say, “Hey, you say you don’t want to wear a mask. You say you want to get together with your buddies. You say that you want to go to bars and restaurants and movies and all the rest of that stuff. Well… this is the way we can achieve it if we all get vaccinated.” So, that’s the interesting counter. On the one hand, these people say, “Well, I don’t want to, so, why should I have to?” And the answer is: Because if you want to get back to that, this is what it requires and it’s going to take a huge public relations push. I honestly don’t know how, in the end, it’s going to work. I don’t know if it’s going to, if we’re going to be able to do it or not. It’s very frustrating to think that we have the technology, we have the science, and we are producing huge amounts of vaccines.
We’re getting it out there. We will have the ability to get everybody vaccinated before the fall comes. We could do that in the United States. But whether people will agree to it or not is something that’s kind of up in the air, again, it really is; I don’t know how things are going to go. I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don’t. I don’t know if we’re going to get this really under control, so that we can have a semblance of normalcy or we’re going to slide back. There’s always the possibility of sliding back to things like forced closures, etc., if we don’t take care of it when we can.
Jacobsen: Jon, thank you as always.
Engel: Ok, thank you, Scott. Listen, take care of yourself.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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