Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists, and Jean Baudrillard’s “Perfect Crime”
We live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear
For more of my critiques of conspiracy theory in Medium:
Note: This article was cited in the New York Times (July 22, 2018) as an intellectual counter to the emerging religion of “Ancient Aliens.”
In the book The Perfect Crime, philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote that media and technology had murdered “reality” and gotten away with it in “the perfect crime.” Baudrillard wrote, “So the prophecy has been fulfilled: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance.” Of course, no crime is truly perfect, for the penalty for perfection is always simulation—the planetary realm of media and its reproductions and replications of the world, endless electronic traces glowing on our screens.
We don’t have to take Baudrillard’s “perfect crime” metaphor literally to see how much truth there is to the metaphor, especially with the proliferation of anti-vaxxer and conspiracy worldviews. After all, isn’t that what is happening in much of America with the COVID pandemic? The denial of medical facts in favor of mediated myths has enabled the mass death of real people. So far, more than 650,000 Americans have died from COVID (as of this writing). Should we be surprised given that science has long been overshadowed by anti-science, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory in endless TV shows and Hollywood movies.
Simulacra of “Freedom” and “Strength”
Let’s be very clear. The political and moral issues at stake are not “freedom” versus tyranny or patriotic “strength” versus political weakness. What we see with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists—and their political leaders and celebrity cheerleaders—are proliferating signs and symbols of freedom and strength, precisely masking their absence, especially mental strength. If they are “free,” it is as simulacra, copies liberated from any traces of empirical reality, copies that replace the original or authentic, which are no longer desirable or bearable. It’s a cult of faux patriots and rebel reproductions, the simulacra of strength, expressing a freedom literally unhinged from the empirical world they claim to know. That’s why the real issues are delusion versus reality and madness versus sanity.
Our 24/7 Hyperreality
For Jean Baudrillard, media technologies do not merely reflect reality, they also generate a “reality” to mask the absence or reproduction of the empirically real. Baudrillard termed this reality as a “hyperreality” that stands above the world, a superior reproduction of the world to soothe our inherent dissatisfaction with the empirical world we inhabit. We live in a 24/7 mediated and hyperreal world of memes and myths, images and icons, signs and symbols, clones and copies, fakes and facades, reproductions and replications, celebs and influencers, anti-science and pseudoscience, creationism and conspiracy, and talking heads and internet tough guys. Billions upon billions of screens, all networked together on a planetary scale, as the screens overtake and replace the underlying reality. Another way to think about it is that the maps (media) have overtaken the territories (empirical reality) they claim to represent. In effect, the map is the territory.
Of course, it’s often hard to discern what is true and false in our mediated hyperreality. Yet it is also not that hard, once you grasp the role of simulation and hyperreality, especially when paired with some basic scientific knowledge and clear critical thinking skills. Nevertheless, this system of hyperreality has mostly overwhelmed our educational systems.
Driving Without Headlights … With Eyes Glued to Google Maps
Throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one hundred million Americans chose to deny the science of vaccines and mask-wearing in the name of “freedom” and “strength” — no matter that they could pose a serious risk to the health of nearby family, neighbors, business owners and their customers, and the rest of their fellow American citizens, not to mention themselves. The argument was that being required to wear a mask in public settings was a violation of their constitutional rights and a sign of “weakness.”
What about diners being required to wear shoes and shirts in restaurants? What about motorists being required to drive with headlights on at night? Are these requirements signs of “weakness” and a violation of constitutional rights? Or are they just common sense measures to ensure cleaner restaurants and safe driving for everyone? Imagine everyone driving at night with no headlights, such that it is almost impossible to see cars coming and going. How is this different from not wearing a mask, when no one knows who has COVID-19 among the people coming and going? Endless car crashes and COVID spreading are to be expected.
These Americans repeatedly shouted to the world that their anti-vaccine and mask-free stances showed they were being strong and patriotic, bent upon saving America from demise, with the superpowers to see through the alleged conspiracies surrounding the development of the vaccines. Perhaps they are patriots and internet tough guys in their Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and YouTube videos, but they are not strong in the actual, empirical, and underlying scientific reality they inhabit with the rest of humanity.
Hyperreality permits weaknesses to be presented as strengths, precisely because it presents an artificial map as the territory, replacing the actual reality. Not getting a vaccine or not wearing a mask shows how the signs and symbols of “strength” replace actually being strong — the map overtaking and generating the territory it claims to represent. It’s like driving your car without headlights at night, yet your eyes glued to the glowing screen of Google Maps on your phone or dashboard. A major crash is coming …
Only in a hyperreal culture of endless Twitter feeds and YouTube videos can “not getting a vaccine” or “not wearing a mask” be signs of strength, precisely because it is the simulation of strength in its very absence. Additionally, it assumes the YouTube vloggers, politicians, and celebs know more than the world’s scientists, doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, who are supposedly part of a global hoax involving millions of people with careers dedicated to science and medicine.
One factor in being strong is facing reality, the actual empirical reality of the world and the universe around us — as it is, not as we wish it was (especially in our childish, immature, and narcissistic fantasies). That means accepting and embracing the realities of evolution and NASA’s cosmic discoveries, realities that challenge and refute our worldviews, and even realities that are a hassle, inconvenient, and simply not fun. Wearing a mask (properly fitted, with an N95 level of protection for the user and those nearby) is a hassle and not fun. Getting a vaccine is not fun, especially if you do not like needles.
No one in their right mind wants restaurants, retail stores, and various businesses to close down because of the pandemic. That’s why wearing masks and social distancing were essential. Wearing masks and properly social distancing would have significantly reduced the severity, duration, and economic effects of the closures and “lockdowns.” Going mask-free amplified the economic problems it claimed to be opposing, as does the anti-vaxx stance. Patriotism has its simulacra, and the cult of faux patriots are proliferating across America (and the world). That’s hyperreality!
For the Dead, Their Freedom Has Been Taken
These beliefs and worldviews helped wreck the economy and had deadly consequences. As of this writing (August 28), more than 650,000 Americans have died horrible, lonely deaths, suffocating from within because of COVID-19. For the dead, their freedom was indeed taken away, with their freedom of speech canceled forever. In their pretense to strength, the antivaxxers and antimaskers display a staggering indifference to helping prevent human suffering, even their own when they catch COVID, are hospitalized, and even die from COVID. And their political leaders (local, state, and national) still fight to prevent mask and vaccination mandates to protect themselves, their families, and the rest of society.
As of this writing, America has 4 percent of the world’s population, yet almost 15 percent of the deaths from COVID. At the website for the Centers for Disease Control, the average number of flu deaths over the past decade is about 37,000 per year — that’s with almost no one wearing masks during flu outbreaks in America. Imagine how many would have died from COVID-19 if no one had worn masks since the outbreak. Or if there was no vaccine. 650,000 are dead already.
No political leader has been penalized in any way. None. Nada. Zero. Apparently, nothing gets in the way of the myths, not even mass death. That’s not freedom or strength, that’s madness.
Welcome to Baudrillard’s perfect crime.
2] Passages of this essay are from my forthcoming anthology, Media Environments (4th ed.), published by Cognella Academic Press (San Diego, 2022).