Really? Measles outbreaks? In the United States of America, birthplace of countless world-changing innovations and inventions, in which the man who’d soon become its first president required variolation of his revolutionary troops, there’s a movement against the use of vaccines, even gaining steam within a national political party? Of all the advances of civilization, I’m pretty sure none have saved as many lives and prevented as much suffering as vaccinations; and yet, here we are, unrolling progress back to the Dark Ages. What’s wrong with us? Gullibility and ignorance, it seems, are on their way to becoming part of our national character.
I’ve been accused of being a one-note writer, criticizing only Republicans. It’s true, mostly. I’m far more disturbed by the specter of elected Republicans denying science, ignoring our infrastructure needs, defunding education and denigrating expertise, rationalizing selfishness by pushing the same fable about tax cuts magically increasing revenue, than I am by the occasional embarrassments coming from the mouths of certain predictable liberals. But, unlike climate change denial and voodoo economics, this anti-vax baloney crosses ideological lines, and I’ll readily admit that there are liberals on the bandwagon of vaccine rejection. I’ve even written to The Huffington Post, in hopes they’d stop featuring writers who extol the virtues of discredited “alternative” medicine, belief in which seems to be a liberal thing. It’s bizarre that the generally sensible PBS gives frequent voice to Deepak Chopra, that woo-meister who recently announced that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Lots of liberals love the guy.
Still, the leader of the Democratic Party, name of Obama, has clearly stated that people need to vaccinate their kids, and so has Hillary Clinton (candidate Obama’s 2008 comment implying skepticism has been, as usual, deliberately misconstrued); whereas a whole pride of Republican presidential hopefuls and their media icons are claiming that vaccinations are of questionable value and should be a matter of choice. Choice! Irony, anyone?
While some liberals — yes, Marin County and Hollywood liberals among them — still push the thoroughly debunked dangers of vaccines, I don’t know of any major players in the Democratic Party who do; yet in the past few days it’s becoming half a tidal wave among right-wing talking heads and some of their leaders. Who knows? Like those other aforementioned cognitive lacunae, it might become central to that party’s requirements for electability.
How has it happened that our country so quickly came to lead the civilized world in science rejection? Whence arises this distrust, this ready acceptance of the most ludicrous of conspiracy theories? Is there significance to the temporal relation with the steady trend toward theocracy, or just coincidence? What about the eyeball supremacy of the “news” outfit about which studies consistently show it to be the runaway leader in purveying false information, whose followers are repeatedly found to be the least well-informed subset of Americans? Is the popularity of Fox “news” cause or effect of our newfound preference for ignoring reality? Is the growing insertion of Biblical law into the public square the cause or effect of our growing predilection toward black and white answers to gray questions?
Climate change is hard. Finding a palatable budget that covers our future needs is hard. Reducing poverty, making health care accessible while controlling costs: hard. Believing they’re NOT problems, or that they’ll fix themselves free of cost and effort, is easy. Till now, it’s only Republicans and Libertarians who’ve been selling that brand of soap. Leave it to them to turn the vaccination issue, for which the science is absolutely clear-cut, into one of “teach the controversy” and “big government.” Can anyone imagine a Democratic senator suggesting, as U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, just did, that food handlers shouldn’t be required to wash their hands after using the restroom? Regulations: always bad! Even where public health is involved.
This bizarre circus is the perfect microcosm of the loosening of the bonds of reason that characterizes today’s Republican leaders, showcasing the sort of harm that arises from reflexive denialism. But I gotta say: That there are any liberals at all among the anti-vaxers worries me greatly, because if it spreads, and both parties become disconnected at the same time, there’ll truly be no hope.
Sid Schwab is a surgeon and Everett resident. He writes occasionally for The Herald. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.