Commentary

…Are condemned to repeat it

Antivaxxers and lawmakers have plenty in common

March 11, 2021 5:47 am

“War of the Copper Kings” by C.B. Glasscock (book cover)

Pop quiz, folks: In what way are some Montana lawmakers like anti-vaxxers?

OK, besides that whole science thing.

Both suffer from a lack of historical perspective that could keep them from making mistakes that hurt residents.

You see, when the anti-vaxxing craze (and that’s what it is, crazy) heated up several decades ago, and parents were opting not to have their kids vaccinated, social scientists were surprised, wondering: How did this happen? Why did vaccines, with decades of scientifically proven reliability, suddenly become controversial?

Suddenly, cases of infections rarely if ever seen in recent U.S. history started popping up — measles, mumps — a grab-bag of retro diseases.

As researchers tried to understand this cultural phenomenon, the results surprised them. Anti-vaxxers weren’t poorly educated; they weren’t predominantly one political group or another. In fact, the only defining factor was their age. They were young — and young in a particular age.

Finally, researchers figured it out: The anti-vaxxers were largely younger parents who themselves had been vaccinated but had never lived through a pandemic. In other words, they had no idea what disease, premature death and the disfiguring disabilities that came along with surviving illness look like.

For the record: I am fully vaccinated, but can remember a few iron lungs, those hulking contraptions with a person’s head popping out. It looked scary, medieval. Whatever would keep me out of those things, I fully supported. Ma, sign me up for a couple of them polio shots.

I can also understand — even if I disagree — how someone who never saw an iron lung could only comprehend the issue abstractly.

The same applies to Montana lawmakers. So as they rush to refashion the state’s judiciary by trying to introduce partisan judicial elections, or districting the state’s Supreme Court, or even dissolving the state’s judicial nomination commission in favor of the governor, it seems to be like a bunch of people who never lived during the good old days of the Anaconda Copper Company, when the state was run by moneyed interests that saw buying the courts as just another cost of doing business.

And so that saying about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it keeps coming to mind. Any politician who tells you it’s going to be different this time because there is no Anaconda or Amalgamated or Rockefeller is making the mistake of hubris and misunderstands human behavior. As long as the courts are subject to political pressure and money, history can and will repeat itself.

It’s instructive to know Montana’s new constitution in 1972 was a direct response to years of political corruption and abuse. The mothers and fathers of that new compact had witnessed what happens when the courts went to the highest bidder, and they intentionally put them out of the reach of partisan politics and beyond the political appointments of a governor.

If this same cohort of current legislators wants to invoke the sanctity of the constitution, which they are sworn to uphold, there’s absolutely no way a historical reading of that document will support the kind of naked partisan overhaul they propose.

The problem is that many of them weren’t around to see those good-old-boy courts in action. They didn’t see how the judges were incapacitated — in their own legal iron lungs — because of the politics. The irony, of course, is that because our courts have been so strong, generally free of the corrupting influence of politics that these same lawmakers believe the system can change without any negative impacts.

They never saw what happened when copper king F. Augustus Heinze bought the Butte courts and brought the entire state to a stand-still. In response and retaliation to Heinze’s outrageous legal “victories,” the largest employer in the state decided the courts were so corrupt, so bad they could not operate here. The Amalgamated Company ordered all mines, mills and smelters to shut down immediately.

“Twenty-thousand men employed in Butte, Anaconda, Great Falls and in the lumber concessions of Montana were thrown out of employment by that order. They constituted perhaps four-fifths of the wage earners in the state. Starvation threatened, almost overnight,” recounted C.B. Glasscock in his classic history of Butte, “The War of the Copper Kings.”

Standard Oil and its Amalgamated Copper were using citizens and their hungry stomachs and cold houses as leverage in their fight, just as Heinze had used the courts.

It’s easy to relive this well-known tale of Montana history and see it as a battle of copper titans. What is equally to blame is the role corrupted courts played, aiding these corporations while Montanans literally starved.

But the names of Heinze or Henry H. Rogers don’t exactly roll of the tongues of our lawmakers today as they would have a century ago. And that’s the problem: We can be lulled into a false sense of certainty that our courts would somehow avoid the same pitfalls that originally corrupted them. No one except for a few historians remember Judge Clancy, right?

And so we see that the pitfalls of anti-vaxxing are the same as the dangers of reshaping our courts.

As the anti-vaxxers insisted that they weren’t going to succumb to the government’s overreach, it was their children who suffered, contracting diseases like measles or even whooping cough. And just like those who are trying to make the judiciary more partisan, it won’t be the lawmakers who will suffer the consequences of their historically-ignorant vision, it will be the same workers and residents who were literally left out in the cold a century ago.

And it’s already been terribly chilly this winter.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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