At anti-vax medicine show, plenty of hokum, grift and conspiracy mongering

September 28, 2021 3:33 am

From left, state Sen. Mike Thompson, attorney general candidate Kris Kobach and state Sen. Mark Steffen were on hand at the the Freedom Revival in the Heartland event, a kind of modern medicine show. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, background image from Library of Congress collection)

The same day that US. deaths from COVID-19 passed the toll of the Spanish flu pandemic, a modern-day medicine show rolled into Lenexa.

Like the entertainments of old, this medicine show boasted cure-alls, rousing oratory, and shameless self promotion. Unlike those showcases, it didn’t sell high-octane patent medicine to get you drunk or high. Speakers proffered a new generation of cures: ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, the Republican Party. Don’t forget the grift: The “Freedom Revival in the Heartland” charged concert ticket prices of $89 per person.

The Sept. 20 confab wasn’t just about fictitious vaccine dangers, though. Oh, no. That would be too focused for a medicine show, then or now. The day’s event was also about government overreach, the redeeming power of religion and Black Lives Matter protesters. Disjointed, perhaps. Hard to follow, absolutely. That was the point of the exercise — keeping the audience terrified, ready to both buy and believe. At least they had raffles and food trucks.

Let’s listen to a few raised voices from the days entertainment, ably captured by the Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter. (You can watch the event here, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so without a bottle of Scotch nearby.)

  • Lee Merritt, orthopedic surgeon from Iowa: “If you think we’re fighting a virus, you’re going to be a victim. If you understand that we’re fighting a war, then you have a chance at survival.”
  • Kansas state Sen. Mike Thompson, Johnson County Republican: “They don’t want to hear the facts. It is purely about control. It is purely about money. I’m sick and tired of it.”
  • Del Bigtree, from the CBS show “The Doctors”: “They could still only push this virus to a death rate of less than a quarter of 1%. This was a Nothingburger.”
  • Karladine Graves, family medicine physician in Kansas City, Missouri: “We are on a quest to save humanity. Don’t let them take your reasoning. Don’t be intimidated by the enemy.”
  • Doug Billings, host of “The Right Side” podcast: “You have a generation of people who will burn and topple cities and statues and try to crucify Jesus in the public square.”

I don’t know how a rational person could respond to some of these statements, let alone figure out how they connect to the pandemic. I do know that lifesaving, free vaccines have a lot less to do with power and control than these speakers imagine. For that matter, the COVID death rate in the United States works out to be 1.6%. But facts aren’t the point.

What unites these speakers is a queasy combination of gumption and nihilism, of big talk mixed with denial, of chest thumping shot through with apocalyptic visions of a woke future. Meanwhile, they ignore the fact that modern medicine and health care have built the foundations of our society.

None of the speakers, regardless of hyperbole, is rushing to give that up.

When the original medicine shows were popular, let’s say 1890, the average U.S. life expectancy was 44 years. Diseases struck children and adults down in their prime, with doctors helpless to intervene. Prayer and booze were all they had.

– Clay Wirestone

When the original medicine shows were popular, let’s say 1890, the average U.S. life expectancy was 44 years. Diseases struck children and adults down in their prime, with doctors helpless to intervene. Prayer and booze were all they had.

In the 130 years since, our life expectancy has shot up to nearly 79 years. Once-fatal diseases have been all but eliminated — thanks to vaccinations and other treatments — and we enjoy a standard of living our forebears could only dream about.

Which brings us one high-profile guest of this medicine show. In 1890, he might have been called the “professor,” the storyteller who knit the whole evening together.

Today, we simply call him Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and current candidate for attorney general. Defeated in runs for governor and U.S. Senate, Kobach knows all about failing upward, about taking a losing situation and making it sound preordained. Like the professors of old, he gets the grift.

He understands a crowd eager to be exploited.

“There’s also an inner freedom fighter in so many politicians, and in so many people, and the people in this room,” Kobach said, hyping up the crowd with a term suggesting insurgency against oppressors. “Because many people who never would have gone to a rally, never would have done anything remotely political, (want) to stand up and show up and fight for themselves and their family and their friends and neighbors.”

Kobach said the U.S. Constitution defended against vaccine mandates (it doesn’t — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue more than a century ago) and implied that he was among the virtuous unvaccinated who packed the church.

That’s concerning. Kobach is a type 1 diabetic and only alive and healthy today because of breakthroughs in medicine. Given his diagnosis, which puts him at higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes, I certainly hope his talk of “us unvaccinated” was gentle fibbing. His family deserves to have their husband and father present and healthy.

Kobach was key, though, the man who united the flimflam of the past with the pretensions of the present. He’s more than willing to benefit from medical technology while exploiting partisan divides and disinformation for personal gain. Like him, the folks behind this modern-day medicine show pandered to a room full of scared people while enjoying the lives that science, medicine and technology have made possible.

They may think they’re doing good, or at least not promoting harm. But the grim total reached that Monday — more than 675,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 — proved otherwise.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.