Today, these crunchy anti-vaxxers are coalescing into a loose political group that is targeting COVID health measures and restrictions as indicative of governmental overreach and medical tyranny. They’re also, predictably, falling down far-right rabbit holes. For more science-minded people who have roots in the region, seeing old friends turn to outlandish, anti-science conspiracy theories can be disheartening, Melissa Pourpak, who grew up in the area and has a doctorate in genetics and molecular biology, told me. “It is shocking and saddening to me that such illogical statements are often heard in a place that used to be known for being a whole lot smarter than that,” Pourpak said. “Did all the progressives leave?”
The progressives didn’t all leave, of course. But some have found themselves drawn to ideas that the national media tend to associate with conservatives. Enid Futterman, a local journalist and Bernie Sanders supporter whom I know through Facebook, is one example. She told me she finds the idea that COVID is caused by 5G cellphone towers more believable than person-to-person transmission. “I’ve read both sides, and that’s what makes sense,” Futterman said. “I’m not saying I’m right; I’m just saying that’s what makes sense to me.”
I’ve cut off contact with several other people from the area, with whom I once spoke at least semi-regularly, because of their views on vaccines. One former friend, who now lives in California, fully embraced the anti-vax narrative more than a year ago, after more than a decade of falling for ever more unbelievable, thinly sourced conspiracy theories. Today he posts on social media incessantly about “studies,” never peer-reviewed, that he contends prove his conspiracist beliefs correct. Other people I grew up with have drifted to the far-right, with anti-vax rhetoric a common thread to their ravings. Even one of my oldest friends is anti-vax, reasoning that the antibodies he got from contracting COVID-19 earlier this year will protect him better than a vaccine (I haven’t cut off contact with him).