To most observers, Marianne Williamson’s quirky presidential candidacy is a footnote. She’s running at around 1 percent in the polls. Few Americans know who she is, even though she’s written a few best-sellers and has managed to qualify for the 20-person Democratic debate squad next week.
But that may change thanks to Williamson’s anti-vaxxer statement last week that policies requiring children to get life-saving vaccines is “Orwellian” and “draconian” and that the issue is “no different than the abortion debate.”
Now she’s headline news—at least in the context of the noxious, moronic, false, and dangerous anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory, which now has a Democratic presidential candidate backing it. (Donald Trump, of course, has backed it for years.)
Williamson seemed to walk back her comments in a tweet last Friday morning, saying, “I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives,” and, “I recognize that there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines.”
But Williamson also noted, “I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma.”
In fact, if you read the tweet closely, and if you know about Williamson’s 30-year career in the New Age world, two things become clear: first, she hasn’t backed down at all, and second, she’s been anti-science, anti-medicine, and anti-rationality for decades.
Williamson was an anti-vaxxer before anti-vaxxers were anti-vaxxers.
First, notice what Williamson didn’t say in her apology tweet. By affirming that “many vaccines are important,” she implied that some conventional ones are not—most importantly the MMR (measles mumps rubella) vaccine, which has been found to be effective and safe by every single scientifically valid study ever conducted about it, but which was found to be unsafe by a single non-specialist whose medical license was subsequently revoked, who committed deliberate fraud, and whose completely invalid study was retracted by the journal that published it.
Second, Williamson blamed “Big Pharma,” conflating vaccines approved by (once again) every reputable scientific and medical organization on the planet with Purdue pharma’s latest opiate. This is straight out of the anti-vaxx conspiracy playbook.
Third, Williamson didn’t disclaim her ludicrous abortion analogy. This, once again, is pure left-wing anti-vaxx conspiracy nonsense: that just as we should respect a woman’s choice to have an abortion, so we should respect parents’ choice not to vaccinate their kids.
That is bullshit on so many levels that it’s hard to find a shovel big enough to dig through it. For one thing, no one else gets sick because a woman has, or does not have, an abortion. Whereas around 400 people used to die each year from measles, which can now be prevented with a simple shot, and cases have now been reported in 20 states due to anti-vaxx insanity.
Moreover, there’s no herd immunity for reproductive healthcare. That really is an individual decision. But non-vaccination is a communal threat, because once immunity rates drop below a certain level, it’s impossible to stop the spread of the disease. That’s why even states that allow parents to endanger their own kids’ lives by not getting them their shots keep those kids out of public spaces.
In fact, the real analogy should be to gun control, not abortion. Should society allow stupid, reckless, and easily-persuaded-by-nonsense people to carry lethal weapons in our schools? No; not when they are AR-15s. And not when unvaccinated kids can spread the disease to vulnerable classmates.
And it’s not just one tweet. On The View, Williamson said, “I do not trust the propaganda on either side,” equating thousands of hours of scientific research with conspiracy theories hatched by ignoramuses. In a statement to The Daily Beast, she said that “public safety must be carefully balanced with the right of individuals to make their own decisions,” yet again misconstruing the public health risk of unvaccinated citizens.
The main point is: None of this is new for Williamson. For 30 years, she’s been peddling dangerous, anti-scientific garbage: specifically, the warmed-over “New Thought” teaching that you can manifest your own reality by thinking it to be so.
You probably have an annoying spiritual friend who’s into this crap: “The Law of Attraction,” “The Secret,” “The Teachings of Abraham,” “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It’s all the same delusion, designed to give people the illusion of control over the messy, uncontrollable, and often miserable realities of human existence.
Usually, it’s just irritating and silly, like astrology. Sometimes it’s offensive; Did the people in the World Trade Center on 9/11 attract the planes with their negative thoughts? Is it your fault that you’ve got cancer? But in Williamson’s case—like those of her former fellow traveler Louise Hay, as well as the Kabbalah Centre, Scientology, and similar cons—it’s occasionally been deadly.
“The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God,” Williamson told a group of HIV positive disciples, according to a 1992 Los Angeles Times expose, written when Williamson was still in the early days of her fame.
For years, Williamson, Hay, and others told gay men that they could cure themselves if only they would properly visualize themselves getting well. Not just gay men, of course; people with cancer and other terminal illnesses, people struggling with obesity, people with chronic health conditions—to all of these, Williamson and her ilk said that they had the power to heal themselves, science be damned.
The results were predictable. Some people went off their medication, since taking medicine showed you didn’t really believe that you could cure yourself, and if you lack perfect faith, it’s not going to work. Some even died.
To be sure, Williamson also welcomed gay men at a time when some in the American mainstream wanted to quarantine us. She founded charities serving people with AIDS (although her well-known tendency to be “an egomaniac control freak,” in the words of one former follower, wrecked some of them as well—Williamson has called herself “a bitch for God”). David Geffen, David Hockney, and other A-List gay celebrities have all been supporters.
It’s also true that Williamson has said some very smart things on the campaign trail. She raised the subject of reparations for slavery before any other presidential candidate. She has been outspoken on issues of reproductive justice and feminism. She has linked progressive (even radical) economic policy with moral values better than any presidential candidate in memory.
Nor is the problem that Williamson is a spiritual teacher. Full disclosure: I am a spiritual teacher. I’ve taught meditation professionally for 15 years. (Congressman Tim Ryan, another second-tier Democratic presidential candidate, is also a practitioner.) I have seen firsthand that serious contemplative practice can be transformative both for individuals and for vulnerable communities. Mindfulness, in particular, has had scientifically validated impacts on prison populations, on veterans suffering from PTSD, on survivors of domestic violence, and on schoolkids in at-risk communities.
The problem isn’t that Marianne Williamson teaches spirituality. The problem is she’s giving spirituality a bad name.
She validates every lazy critique of spirituality by people who don’t really know what they’re talking about: that it’s selfish, deluded, and dumb. Her denigration of science is the exact opposite of mindfulness and other scientifically validated forms of contemplative fitness.
And to the extent she keeps preaching this “both sides” garbage on vaccines, apparently without doing even basic research into the science of vaccination, she’s undermining all of her potentially trenchant points on the linkage between personal and political, between spirituality and social justice, between the kind of people we are becoming in America and the kind of politics we are creating. It’s a crying shame.
But it’s also worse than that. She’s endangering people’s lives, just as she did in the 1990s. This isn’t a new trick for Marianne Williamson, but it has the potential to be a lot more deadly.