Friday, June 16, 2017

Guns, politicians and anti-vaxxers

America is in such a state of denial it is hard to know where to begin, but I'll start with a little fray I had on facebook with an American friend living in Sweden over vaccines.  Like me, he is an expatriate, but has isolated himself in some remote part of the country, living the spiritual life he longed dreamed of.

He likes to post anti-vaccine memes on facebook.  One of his favorite news bites is of the Amish living just fine without vaccines and any other ties to the pernicious world around them.   Yet, the Amish aren't so secluded.  In fact, their children attend local schools, and many parents have their kids vaccinated.  However, the vaccination rate is low in some of these Amish counties, which is why there was a measles outbreak in Knox County, Ohio, in 2014. 

Back in 1996, Andrew Wakefield published an article in a medical journal linking the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella) to eight cases of autism.  The highly specious article was quickly debunked, but these types of stories have a long after-life, fueling more stories on the Internet, which have led many parents, not just Amish parents, to question vaccines and the MMR vaccine in particular.

The story probably would have died had not Donald Trump picked it up on the campaign trail.  Back in September, 2015, he linked vaccines to autism in a rambling answer to a question posed by Jake Tapper at an early Republican presidential debate.  However, my friend in Sweden is also an anti-Trumper, so it seems this issue cuts across political lines.  For some, it is part of a homeopathic need to do away with big Pharma all together, and vaccines are linked to Big Pharma.  Trump hasn't let the issue go, selecting none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head a "vaccine safety commission." 

When I pressed my friend on this, he said his biggest concern is the high mercury level in vaccines.  So, I did a little research and found that pharmaceutical companies use Thimerosal, which contains trace amounts of ethylmercury, as a preservative in vaccines.  They have been doing so for decades.  The CDC says that the level is so low that it is eliminated very quickly.  But, it has been ingrained in our heads that any level of mercury is too much, and so the mere thought of it being in a vaccine is enough to frighten parents.  As a result, the CDC recommended that Thimerosal be taken out of vaccines in 2001.  Those companies that kept it as a preservative were required to label their vaccines accordingly.

End of argument?  No.  Like so many questionable claims they persist, and it is hard to get them out of your head no matter how much information is presented to the contrary.  

The same can be said for the gun control debate.  No amount of information is going to convince "the second amendment people," as Trump referred to gun rights activists on the campaign trail, that there is a real danger in the country.  It isn't so much the amount of firearms in circulation that is the problem as it is the open-carry and stand-your-ground laws that have been passed in so many states.  Guns are now on full display, making it that much harder to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.

One would like to think that the Shootout in Alexandria might turn some people's heads, but conservatives are woe to admit guns are the issue here, but rather a man deluded by liberal ideology who took his anger out on Republican legislators at a softball practice game.  One of those shot was Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who is responsible for getting votes on House bills.  You, might remember that Frank Underwood started out as a Whip on House on Cards.

Surprisingly, no talk that Scalise's staunch defense of the American Health Care Act, which threatens to cut 23 million persons off health insurance might drive a 66-year old man over the edge.  Instead, everyone from Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama is being blamed for having inspired James Hodgkinson to "go postal."  

Conservatives rarely are willing to admit any culpability in such incidents, which is what makes it surprising that Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, said that Trump is partially to blame for the shooting because of the high level of hateful rhetoric that came out of his campaign.  One of the most hateful presences in Trump's campaign, Ted Nugent, has apparently took pause from the incident and says he is no longer going to incite hate.  This is a guy who once threatened to kill both Obama and Hillary Clinton at a rock concert.  

Like so-called Conservatives, so-called Liberals come in all stripes.  The interesting part to me is how the two ends of the spectrum seem to circle back on each other, making our political views a closed loop.  Some issues are harder to define politically than others.  Vaccines seem to be one.  By contrast, gun control appears to break along strong political lines.  Sadly, neither is very easy to resolve.

Many parents still insist on throwing caution to the wind by refusing vaccines for their children, committed in their belief that Big Pharma is putting all sorts of unhealthy things into them, or worse there is some X-Files conspiracy here.  With guns, it is more a misplaced sense of our historical right to bear arms that drives "the second amendment people," twisting the Bill of Rights into a personal issue.  Either way, politicians have learned to exploit these deeply emotional issues for their gain, until something like the shootout in Alexandria happens.

I suppose Republicans thought themselves immune from such violence, as previously it had been directed largely at Democrats, Gabby Giffords being the most high-profile case.  Fortunately, Scalise like Giffords will live.  Whether his views change remains to be seen, although unlikely.  The most frustrating part is how hard it is to have a rational conversation on such subjects without it devolving into bellicose rhetoric, which is why I don't expect Ted Nugent to hold his tongue as promised, or my American friend in Sweden for that matter.  It's just the way we are.


  1. The Washington Post is running a story today about how America's poor are still smoking like chimneys. One of the excuses offered is that this is one of the few pleasures the poor can afford. Afford? At $5 a pack I sure couldn't afford to support a two-pack-a-day habit without giving up some other significant "pleasures" like eating and putting gas in my tank.

    This is just one example of how people can convince themselves of virtually anything. Why? Because they want to.

  2. Maybe John Oliver peaked in on this blog,