The anti-vax right brought human sacrifice to America

It was a graph I saw in the fall that startled me into taking the mass-human-sacrifice idea seriously. The Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy’s granular analysis plotted the number of deaths and degree of Republicanism in each of America’s 3,000 counties, then divided the counties into 10 groups from reddest to bluest, each containing a 10th of the U.S. population. In the reddest counties—those where 70 percent or more voted for Trump—the COVID death rates from last June through November were five or six times the death rates in places at the other end of the political scale. And step by step up the blue-to-red scale, the statistical correlation is amazingly consistent—the more Republican your county, the more likely you are to die of COVID…

The pandemic will eventually finish its course, and the supply of sacrifice victims will run out. But the people who politicized and badly exacerbated this current mass-fatality event must now realize, if only unconsciously, that large-scale human sacrifice can be a useful modern political tool for a party ideologically committed to extreme inequality. What might be the next public-health crisis they can exploit? After all, for 40 years now they’ve proved their righteous power by sacrificing thousands of lives each year to the quasi-religious American fetish for guns.

But some emerging anthropology scholarship offers a glimmer of hope. Those 93 Austronesian societies in Asia and the Pacific where ritual sacrifice and inequality were strongly correlated all had populations of under a million. An ongoing cross-cultural study, based on a different, wider-ranging historical database called Seshat, has found an inverse correlation between human sacrifice and population: Organized, state-sanctioned sacrifice typically becomes unsustainable in larger societies. As Laura Spinney explained in The Atlantic in 2018, the Seshat data corpus “includes ‘mega-empires’ whose subjects numbered in the tens of millions,” and thus “tracks social complexity closer to modern levels.” Over time, the essentially parasitic nature of human sacrifice becomes more generally acknowledged. This “particularly pernicious form of inequality,” concludes the Oxford University anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, one of Seshat’s founders, eventually disappears in very big societies “because they cannot survive with that level of injustice.”

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