With the possible exception of cafeteria pizza on Fridays, nothing feels, to me, more “late 20th century public school” than reading and discussing Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story, “The Lottery.” I think, in my own education, we may have been assigned it twice, and I think it even morphed, as metaphor, into other branches of learning—civics, history, current events. I can remember not actually understanding what was going on the first time I read it: a small town was getting ready to commit human sacrifice—something they did once a year. They were about to draw papers from a black box. The family who drew the black dot would draw again, and one of them would be singled out to be finished off quickly, so that the town could “get back to work.”
I grew up in a sunny little spot called Arcadia, California and I can remember feeling annoyed by the very content, and even the moral character of the teachers who saw some value in considering this story as an assignment. Did they really imagine any little hamlet on the great plains of America so dark, so cruel, so given over to superstition and blood sacrifice? Moreover, the story’s bald assertion that ritual killings of this sort were a matter of cherished tradition across the country seemed particularly at odds with the cheerful station wagon commercials of the era. “See the USA, in your Chevrolet” (where you just might get to witness some farm housewife being stoned to death).
Since then, I’ve become a little more generous with the liberties we afford writers of fiction. They are, after all, allowed to create worlds at odds with our own, even at odds with our sense of what is credible. They are allowed to tell lies so as to arrive at some other truth that feels undeniable in the way the story concludes. They are in search of the “surprising but inevitable.” Shirley Jackson’s villagers, we hope, are not reacting credibly to the events of the day. Or are they? Would you submit to a yearly town ritual knowing that one of your own children might be the object of sacrifice? Would you encourage a young man to assume the responsibilities of manhood, drawing the potential death card for his family, with a “good fellow, Jack?” This only becomes credible if Jackson’s people are the product of intergenerational assumptions about the need to sacrifice human life to the agricultural cycle. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
Jackson, whether she knew it or not, was describing a post-Christian or a pre-Christian world, a world that simply assumes—as virtually all pre-Christian cultures do—that babies need to be sacrificed to Moloch, that you move up in caste by strangling your child at the death of a chief, that Aztec candy, made of human blood, was simply the norm. On the post-Christian front, Planned Parenthood and Mao probably represent the “non-superstitious” version of mass murder. Without Christ, we descend into utter savagery.
Were my public school teachers warning me, or had they already surrendered to that post-Christian world?
This season’s vaccine hysteria and particularly the call for a “village-wide” mandate should make all of you a little uncomfortable in how utterly close this all is to Jackson’s human-sacrifice village.
The mandatory concession in these discussions (which is a tad strange when you think about it) runs as follows: “I’m not an anti-vaxxer.” Concession made: I’m not. I took a shingles vaccine two years ago. As a child, I’m sure I benefited from vaccines against polio, measles and the like. Like one of my heroes, John Adams (who took a decidedly more crude vaccination against smallpox), I’m not allergic to scientific progress.
But these vaccines have produced some abject horror stories that only the most cruel “Jackson villager” could ignore. Myocarditis. Paralysis. Miscarriage. Death. A teenage girl who can’t be touched because she is blanketed in needling pain all the time and is now confined to a wheelchair. Depending on who you believe, between 3,544 and 45,000 people have died as a result of the vaccine. Even the folks who lobby hard for mandatory vaccination admit there are risks with assurances of this sort: “These reports are rare, given the hundreds of millions of vaccine doses administered.”
This calculus, and the alleged deceit surrounding the vaccine, have an institutional dimension I find shocking. Dr. Robert Malone—the inventor of mRNA technology and a critic of this season’s COVID vaccines—contends that federal policy allows the federal government to hide data in order to reduce “vaccine hesitancy.” If that is true, they know pharmaceutical companies can’t be sued, and are allowed to suppress negative information for the greater good, so that everyone will get the jab. “A few people will die and endure great pain in order to preserve everyone else.”
What is that, really, but a slightly more clinical version of Shirley Jackson’s lottery? “You need to do this because it’s good for the village, even though it might kill you.”
I’ve often argued that life itself is a risk equation. We pray when our children get their driver’s licenses. We order an extra gin and tonic before boarding the 737. But those are individual choices. We live with the risk we think we can handle. Even though I believe folks should study, very hard, both the laboratory origin of this virus, and reconsider their trust in the academic “discipline” of virology, I believe most people will likely survive this vaccine without major problems. But is it really anyone’s right to demand everyone take that risk so that the village will feel a little safer? Have we really become so callous as to conclude the village does this every year and someone dies, so deal with it?
If you invite me to that lottery, I’ll pass.