It's entirely possible not everyone in the world (or in the U.S.) shares my near-obsession with the "debate" about vaccination that has suddenly emerged from some dark undercurrents of American culture to become a real political thing. I'm interested in this topic because it illustrates so clearly, I think, a fatal propensity of many Americans across party, ideological, and regional lines to fetishize "liberty" in a way that's dangerous to the well-being of all of us, and of the whole planet. I tried so say some of this several weeks ago as we were discussing the Charlie Hebdo massacres and freedom of speech, and got the same kind of fierce pushback I get anytime I mention guns here — pushback against my insistence that no freedom of any kind is an absolute value, and that in a sane society, liberties must always be measured against the common good to be meaningful.
In the anti-vax movement, we see a confluence between this radical, socially destructive understanding of individual choice and strains of anti-intellectual distrust of science combined with quasi-religious infatuation with pseudo-science and magical-mystical medical disinformation, all of this crossing ideological, party, and regional boundary lines. Because it's quintessentially American in the worst dark-underbelly sense of that term.
Here's commentary on the recent political kerfuffle about vaccination that I have found especially valuable:
Charles Pierce explains the deep game behind the sudden choice of key GOP operatives to go anti-vax:
The Republicans will use this as a wedge to split the Democratic party along the Nervous Parent fault-line that is rivening it. This fault line may well crack open between classes, as the wealthier left seems more inclined toward using Internet quackery to protect their little snowflake babies. And it might well crack open along age lines, as younger voters -- the ones who grew up in a country without measles, and without polio, and without whooping cough, and without freaking smallpox, because of vaccination protocols -- seem less inclined toward herd immunity than the older members of the herd.
Josh Marshall points to research that verifies Charles Pierce's claim (above) that younger Americans (who do not remember the horrific endemic diseases that mandatory vaccination has eradicated) are leaning anti-vax. To my mind, the attitudes of millennials about vaccination illustrate the success that the political right has had from Reagan forward, with its relentless assault on the notion of government itself. This relentless assault has succeeded in convincing many otherwise intelligent people that government is bad. We are reaping and we will reap more and horrific consequences from this lazy, self-centered, and ultimately very stupid way of thinking.
As Elias Isquith notes, deeply embedded in the American worldview is the assumption that "American society isn’t a single community so much as a massive collection of individual families, and that these millions of families owe nothing to one another beyond the bare minimum, expressed in the pseudo-legal language of 'responsibility'' . . . . And focusing narrowly on the inane statements of a Rand Paul or a Chris Christie about inoculation causes us to overlook the deeper problem here:
All of the attention devoted to these two politicians’ missteps distracted us from what still remains one of the most important political development of our time — the pervasiveness of a crude, anti-social understanding of American individualism.
Rachel Maddow asks (video link) Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, why the choice to vaccinate children shouldn't be an entirely individual one, left to each parent: he replies,
First of all, it's for the protection of the child, the individual child. But also we have a communal and societal responsibility to protect society. And when you do vaccines in which certain members of society can't get vaccinated (such as babies who are less than 12 months old, children who have underlying conditions like leukemia, people on chemotherapy with suppressed [immune systems]), they can't get vaccinated. So in our mind as a public official and infectious disease physician, I believe we have a responsibility as a s"First of all, it's for the protection of the child, the individual child. But also we have a communal and societal responsibility to protect society. And when you do vaccines in which certain members of society can't get vaccinated (such as babies who are less than 12 months old, children who have underlying conditions like leukemia, people on chemotherapy with suppressed [immune systems]), they can't get vaccinated. So in our mind as a public official and infectious disease physician, I believe we have a responsibility as a sociey to protect those children by assuring we don't have outbreaks.
Jessica Valenti on how your "individual" choice is not really your choice at all, when the well-being of children who belong to some other parent are placed at risk:
Risking other children’s lives, and other parents’ pain, is exactly what you’re doing when you don’t vaccinate your child: you’re not just making decisions about your children’s health, but the health and safety of the children around them.
Valenti's analysis is echoed by Sanjeev K. Sriram:
Getting vaccinated involves an element of social responsibility. The strength of our public health is reliant on a web of mutuality. When we drive sober and at the speed limit, or when we ban smoking in public places, we are doing the basic but important work of keeping each other safe and healthy. Vaccinations are an integral part of that process, and no one should have to suffer from preventable diseases. As much as anti-vaxxers may think they are exercising their right to choose, they do not have the right to put others at risk.
Jon Green on why the position taken by Rand Paul et al. in the name of "libertarianism" isn't really libertarian at all:
Libertarianism, at its core, is the idea that society functions best when people can do what they want, keeping as many of their liberties as possible. But what separates libertarianism from straight-up anarchy is the idea that your freedom isn’t totally unlimited. Your right to move your fist does eventually end, and it ends at the edge of my nose. As long as you’re not hurting anyone you can have all the liberty you want; governments are necessary only to ensure that your actions don’t harm your fellow citizens.
A must-read essay for this discussion: writer Roald Dahl's painful 1988 letter about the death of his 7-year-old daughter Olivia from measles in 1962. Dahl notes that in 1962, America had virtually eradicated measles by compulsory vaccination, whiile in Britain, some parents still refused out of obstinacy, fear, or ignorance, to have their children vaccinated. And so Britain still had 100,000 cases of measles a year, among which 20 children each year still died from complications of measles.
As Charles Pierce notes, what's so maddening about the attempt now to turn this into a debatable issue in which there are two valid "sides" is that we had eradicated measles (a point echoed by Lindsay Abrams in commentary on Chris Christie):
If the voices in your head and the clamor of your own ambition can drown out the simple fact that we had measles defeated in this country in 2000, and now, after a long stretch of know-nothing propaganda, measles are back with a vengeance, then you can quite simply use politics to defeat public health in the lives of us all.
Katherine Brooks reminds us of how long belief in pseudo-science and magical-mystical cures, combined with a deep-seated fear of government and with the nutty religious quackery to which we're prone in the nation with the soul of a church, has been with us in American culture. It's part of the strain that Richard Hofstadter called the anti-intellectual strain of American culture:
|From a 1930 cartoon booklet titled "Health in Pictures."|
Michelle Goldberg on how vaccine denial, whether from the left or the right, fits into the "craziness gap" that always has ample space in American political life:
It is grotesque that, in the midst of the current measles outbreak, some leading Republicans are humoring vaccine denialists, but it is not surprising. It is, rather, a near-perfect illustration of the craziness gap in American politics. Vaccine skepticism is one of those issues, like 9/11 Trutherism, where parts of the fringe right and fringe left, each driven by their own distinct fears about authority, curve around and meet each other. Yet only the fringe right finds indulgence among mainstream politicians.
Coming after Chris Christie's similar comments over the weekend, it is now incumbent upon us to ask whether the anti-vaccination theories are on their way to becoming one of those conservative conjuring words, like "Keystone XL pipeline" or "school choice." This is especially true since both Christie and Paul have framed their remarks with boilerplate conservative defenses of parental rights and personal freedoms. So is the measles virus the new handgun? Will dozens of sick kids in California join dozens of dead kids in Connecticut as the price we have to pay for our freedoms?
Zach Beauchamp on how Rand Paul's endorsement of anti-vax disinformation exposes his greatest weakness, his propensity to jump the shark on issue after issue, because "liberty" (see David Badash's similar commentary on Paul):
Despite zero credible evidence that vaccines cause autism, Paul said that he'd heard of "many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." Then, on Tuesday, tape surfaced of Rand Paul linking vaccines to the rise of martial law in the US during a 2009 interview with conspiracy theory site InfoWars: "the first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates, and they're talking about making [the flu vaccine] mandatory."
Igor Bobic on how Paul's "medical" statements are flatly wrong:
For the record, the scientific community overwhelmingly supports childhood vaccinations, and there is virtually no evidence that the measles vaccine is unsafe.
Nigerian satirist Elnathan John cleverly tweaks the nose of the American public after its Ebola hysteria last fall (and now measles, right here, our own homegrown epidemic in the making):
Our thoughts are also with the measles-ravaged country America. I hope we are screening them before they come to Africa.
— Elnathan John (@elnathan) February 1, 2015
Jon Stewart sends up (video link) the "mindful stupidity" of liberal, affluent people who constitute one solid contingent of the anti-vax community.
Julia Belluz and Catherine Thompson both offer valuable run-downs of Catherine Thompson's brief timeline of how we got to this point, of how people were duped by disinformation about vaccination and its purported dangers.
Rebecca Kaplan explains why the CDC is so concerned about what's happening with measles right now.
Kara Lowentheil notes the interesting interplay between the "because freedom" rhetoric about vaccination and the "because freedom" rhetoric about "faith-based" discrimination against women (e.g., with contraceptive coverage) or gay folks.
The graphic: Clay Bennett's commentary at Truthdig.