Peter Chow: The Herman Cain Awards

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Way back in 1993, at what now seems like the dawn of the Internet, a website known as the Darwin Awards provided ghoulish entertainment by recounting the spectacular, surreal and often deeply ridiculous manner in which real people (usually young males) around the world had allegedly met their deaths.

The site declared on its homepage:

“In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives.

Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves from the gene pool in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.”

The site’s black comic tales of absurd accidental deaths was turned into a popular series of books in 2000 and it is still online today, recording fatal blunders in an amused style some readers might find rather callous.

But in 2021, a more specific and much darker alternative exists on Reddit, r/HermanCainAward, dedicated to chronicling the deaths of those who have publicly declared their opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, mask rules and lockdowns on social media, often in aggressively belligerent and politically-charged fashion, only to subsequently fall ill and pass away at the hands of the Coronavirus themselves, their fate carrying with it an air of grim inevitability.

Reddit is an online social news aggregation, web content rating, and discussion website.

Reddit is a network of communities where people can dive into their interests, hobbies and passions.

There’s a community for whatever you’re interested in.

Registered members submit content to the site such as links, text posts, images, and videos, which are then voted up or down by other members.

HermanCainAward is one of the fastest-growing subreddits on Reddit.com.

The subreddit (online community dedicated to a particular topic), founded in October 2020 and attracting 339,000 followers at the time of writing, is named after the late Herman Cain, an American fast food company executive who ran as a Republican presidential candidate in 2012 before being forced to abort his campaign in response to sexual misconduct allegations that he denied.

He remained active in right-wing US politics thereafter and was considered for a position on the board of the Federal Reserve by Donald Trump, for whom he remained a vocal cheerleader throughout his presidency, only  to meet his end when he attended Trump’s disastrous rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the height of the pandemic on 20 June 2020, unmasked and unrepentant.

Cain, 74, duly contracted the virus among the crowd in Tulsa and passed away on 30 July, 2020 after spending a month in a coma.

While Herman Cain was hardly the first Covid refusenik to die from the disease, he became synonymous with the grandstanding hubris of the MAGA movement when his staff and family continued to use his personal Twitter account to downplay the Coronavirus long after his funeral had taken place.

But Cain’s most meaningful posthumous online legacy could be the r/HermanCainAward, a corner of the internet in which people congregate to post Facebook screenshots of antivaxxer, anti-mask and anti-lockdown pronouncements from the conspiracy-minded who are subsequently hospitalised and often killed by the same deadly virus they had sought to debunk or insist had been invented by “globalists” to bring the world’s population under the control of a sinister elite.

The Herman Cain Award concept is simple and ugly.

A single entry to the subreddit consists of screenshots of a social media profile (usually Facebook, with last names scrubbed out) belonging to someone who died after aggressively rejecting precautions that could have protected them and others.

The idea is to track the individual’s journey from COVID theory, so to speak, to COVID practice: what a person posted or commented about masks or shots, or those who advocated for either before getting sick, and how they and their community narrated their disease once they were ill.

As the forum has grown, entries have started following a fairly standard format:

The first few screenshots typically feature the individual in question deploying a remarkably consistent set (there are 30 or so) of memes.

Some vilify Dr. Anthony Fauci or champion the right (of the Right) to be unvaccinated.

Others warn vaccinated people they’re experimental rats.

Some deride masked liberals as “sheep” and the unvaccinated as proud free lions or refer to immigrants as vectors of disease or compare vaccination requirements to the Holocaust.

Most of them treat the Pandemic as a joke and frame ignoring it as brave or clever or both.

The final few screenshots typically announce the disease, its progress, and the eventual death announcement, frequently followed by a GoFundMe for the family.

If someone is merely hospitalized, the flair on that entry reads “Nominated.”

When they die, it changes to “Awarded.”

It is cruel, a site for heartless and unrepentant Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is a German word, meaning the “malicious joy or entertainment from the suffering of another.”

This is a place where deaths are celebrated, and it is not the only one.

While endless ink has been spilled on the anger of Trump voters and Fox News viewers and QAnon adherents, there are other angers that haven’t been nearly as well explored.

The exhaustion and fury doctors and nurses feel, for example, as they deal yet again with ICUs overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients.

Instead of being hailed as heroes, this time around they’re risking their lives to serve while walking through anti-vaxx protesters and being called murderers or worse by misled family members demanding or indeed suing for sick unvaccinated relatives on ventilators to be dosed with Ivermectin or Hydroxychloroquine or Vitamin C.

There is the anger of family members of those without COVID who are dying or sicker than they should be because medical treatment was delayed or denied to them at dozens of hospitals that had no beds available.

There’s the frustration of parents trying to keep their children safe, the constant, destabilizing calculations and adaptations people are forced into when, for instance, the governor of Texas prohibits schools from taking safety measures and then two teachers at a single school die, forcing closures once again.

There’s the run-of-the-mill anger of those weary of living under Pandemic conditions and demoralized—in the most literal sense—by the selfishness of their compatriots.

Subscriptions to the HermanCainAward subreddit are increasing exponentially, from 2,000 subscribers on July 4 to 5,000 at the beginning of August to more than 100,000 on Sept. 1 to 243,000 Friday to 339,000 today.

If that rate is any indication, rage is growing toward anti-vaxxers deliberately prolonging the pandemic out of an anti-social and deadly misunderstanding of their rights.

The increasingly popular r/HermanCainAward subreddit on Reddit.com is a distressingly predictable sign of our conflict-filled times.

 

The subreddit, which now has upwards of 339,000 followers, “celebrates” those “who have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views,” only to die from Covid-19 or Covid-related complications.

With many regions in Canada and the United States still struggling to control this plague, attention has not surprisingly focused on the minority of citizens who have, for various reasons, refused to get vaccinated.

A dark and sardonic corner of the internet, the r/HermanCainAward subreddit captures the rage and outrage of vaccinated, mask-wearing individuals, many of whom have  have watched friends and family become ill — and even die.

Psychology has a name for the phenomenon that occurs when we see any single person or group of people as all good or all bad.

It’s called Splitting, and it is often an attempt to make ourselves feel less vulnerable.

“If I’m good, and you’re bad,” the thinking goes, “then I’m the one who’s in the right, and I’ll be fine.”

But Splitting doesn’t take into account the reality that we all have both good and bad qualities; that we all hurt and are hurt by one another.

Couples, for instance, often use Splitting to protect themselves during conflict.

“He did this” and “she always does that” is code for “I’m good and he/she’s bad.”

One of the first things couples’ therapists often try to do is to help each partner verbalize their own pain, while simultaneously recognizing their counterpart’s pain as well.

So if the goal of these commenters is to express fury or get revenge, they seem to be succeeding — at least if the subreddit’s popularity is any indication.

But if the goal is to change behavior, they need to do go back to the drawing board.

Some of the anti-vaxxers are, of course, simply misinformed, frightened or both.

Much worse, however, are the ones who are old-fashioned bullies.

Bullies operate by making their victims feel alone and powerless.

The Herman Cain Award is a way of connecting with a larger group, and providing a sense of well-being and power in the face of animosity.

The trick is to remain polite and professional while still setting your limits firmly.

Don’t let the bully get under your skin — that’s what he wants.

Indeed, one big problem with responses like the Herman Cain Award is that they actually reinforce the Splitting phenomenon.

Now we’re either the angry, mean, and ugly ones, or we’re the perpetual victims.


There has to be a better way to stand up to anti-vaxxers.

Ultimately, the Herman Cain Award fulfills a primal wish to say, “I told you so.”

And it is a foreseeable Internet response to feeling powerless in the face of a dangerous, vocal minority.

But dehumanizing one another will not heal the split between anti-vaxxers and mask-wearers, or between the political right and left.

Many of the stories on Reddit describe the sadness, confusion and pain of individuals who realized they were dying.

Turning them into demons who “got what they deserved” could reinforce the hatred that is already dividing families, communities and really our entire country.

And that divide could ultimately turn us all into soldiers, fighting a War that we will all lose.

But the very existence of the forum poses a challenging question about how exactly we should handle the memory of people who actively spread misinformation and baseless anti-science paranoia about a free vaccine intended to safeguard the health of their fellow citizens, potentially endangering the lives of others by their actions.

Antivaxxers, however much one might disapprove of their political positions, are nevertheless people too and leave behind them bereaved families and friends and a trail of grief no less meaningful than that of those killed despite following the guidelines, getting vaccinated and attempting to stay safe.

That they might not live to learn the error of their ways is surely punishment enough.

While a majority will feel the temptation to mock the sceptic dead should be resisted in the name of good taste and sensitivity, others might argue that the subreddit actually serves as a valuable cautionary tale, that the stories it recounts providing a blunt warning that all readers would be well-advised to heed.

“I’m not anti-vax,” one commenter wrote on its pages, “I was just afraid and confused by all the misinformation out there.”

“Genuinely frightened and confused.  Taking a quick 5 minute look at this subreddit brought me back down to earth.  I’ll be getting my first round of the Pfizer vaccine early next week. Thank you for existing.”

Reporting on the r/HermanCainAward, one journalist recently remarked on how chastening it was to “see the suffering” contained in its posts recording antivaxxers being taken ill, noting the graphic photos of the victims taken and uploaded by worried families members.

“How could pro-social impulses get coarsened to the point where advocates for lifesaving measures like vaccines—people who think of themselves as the good guys—are literally celebrating deaths?”

“Despite reading loads of statistics and case histories and news articles about the pandemic, the r/HermanCainAward became my most thorough source on what it’s like for a person to die from Covid,” the journalist said.

“I understand the disease more deeply because I have read so many viciously curated ‘stories’ in which ordinary people blathering about politics end up narrating their decline from it – with help from their families – as optimistically as they can.”

They are younger than COVID patients used to be.

Trying to put a positive spin on things.

Soliciting prayers.

Generally avoiding conversions.

They do not expect to die.

It’s relentless reading.

And it keeps ending up the same way.

Only health care workers have seen this many people decline and die.

These individual stories do not produce conversions.

These aren’t situations where anti-vaxxers learn their lesson, get vaccinated, and save themselves.

Sure, there’s the occasional “Redemption” tag, awarded when a patient or relative regrets opposing vaccination and urges their friends to do what they can to avoid a similar fate.

But those are rare.

What this massive record of human suffering really illustrates (in all its startling, repetitive sameness) is how seamlessly anti-vax communities reconcile themselves to the deaths their convictions will perpetuate.

The posts about individual liberty and self-sufficiency devolve into abjectly dependent appeals.

A call to “prayer warriors” is almost a required feature at this point in a r/HermanCainAward entry.

When someone dies, the grief is gentle and generic:

He was a good guy, he got his angel wings today, it was his time, God called him home.

And yet: Chilling as it is to see how this subreddit can rejoice at a death, it is no less chilling to see how easily the bereaved normalize their losses.

A 35-year-old man with three young children and a free vaccine available should not be dead.

There is astonishingly little recognition of this.

Nothing about the r/HermanCainAward, a dark record of a dark, dark time, is decent or kind or particularly fair.

Maybe a more effective response would be to create a site that presented the stories of people who have died because they didn’t get vaccinated or wear masks alongside the stories of people who took precautions but became seriously ill (or died) anyway.

Such a site, which could also promote appropriate measures for survival and care, would not get as much traffic.

But thinking optimistically, it might help change the minds of those who truly don’t mean to cause suffering to others, and who are not maliciously motivated.

And it would also be a way of expressing multiple aspects of a difficult, complex, and dangerous situation.

For those whose intentions are more hate-filled, government intervention and regulations could, of course, make a difference.

Vaccine mandates seem to be working so far.

But barring that, many local communities are taking a stand.

Those of us who continue to wear masks, even when ridiculed, are also quietly fighting bullies.

It’s not as dramatic a strategy as the Herman Cain Award, but it might be more successful at promoting change.

No one could argue that a place where people gather to mock the dead is “moral.”

 

It is an anti-persuasive venue, a place that dispenses with rational appeals for people to behave better in favor of something much more primal and horrifying.

 

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