Friday, June 18

Cheap Shots at Cheap Shots

skepticCarly Fiorina has about as much chance of being elected President as I do. I admit I say that with mild irritation, because, of the two of us, I am probably the more qualified. (Which is not saying much: I have the same reaction to Sarah Palin, and compared to Palin, Fiorina is Margaret Thatcher.) So, in terms of electoral politics, the recent mini-kerfuffle that ensued when Fiorina dipped her toe into the roiling waters of the vax / anti-vax debate is of no consequence. But the incident, though trivial from the standpoint of retail politics, does illustrate the sad state of how Americans misconceive the nature and extent of individual rights in relation to the legitimate prerogatives of the state, and how the Republican Party has emasculated itself in terms of its ability to deal with the conflict. The misconception is very easy to articulate: in any conflict between the rights of the individual and those of the state, the latter must always give way. In short, and paraphrasing Dred Scott, the state has no rights that individual citizens are bound to respect. The ongoing controversy about vaccinations vividly illustrates the consequences of such an ordering of priorities, especially when aided and abetted by what has become a knee-jerk suspicion of science.


Any discussion of rights always amounts to a balancing act between competing and conflicting rights by competing and conflicting parties. In a society not in need of remedial civics lessons, i.e., not our society, this would be so obvious as to be embarrassing to even state. Yes, the Westboro Baptist people do have a right to spew their vile slogans about God hating gay people and about God celebrating the deaths of fallen American soldiers. But the families of the fallen have an equal and correlative right to freely exercise their religious convictions by attending the soldiers’ funerals in peace and quiet. Likewise, business owners whose religious convictions motivate them to oppose same-sex weddings have a right to express these sentiments, but not to the point of "balkanizing" the economy and thereby inhibiting commerce by refusing to deal with LGBTQ clients. Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. Furthermore – and, again, if the American political culture had not forgotten the civics lessons it learned in the 7th grade, this would not need stating – one of the parties whose rights must be respected is the state itself. Now, the word “state” is one of those buzz words that is virtually guaranteed to cause the underwear of conservatives, especially doctrinaire libertarians, to tie in knots.

When I use the term “state”, I intend it in the sense of basically “All the rest of us”. Individuals and various interest groups in society do have undisputed rights. But so do “all the rest of us”. Granted, demonstrators have a right to march and speak and even to engage in peaceful civil disobedience. But “all the rest of us” have an equal and correlative right to the free and unobstructed use of public sidewalks and freeways. So the rights of the “state” – those of us not participating in the demonstration, i.e., “all the rest of us” -- have to be balanced against the rights of demonstrators to exercise their equally undisputed “abridgement”-clause liberties. Hence all the regulations, limitations, and requirements as to “time, place, and manner” that exist to reconcile the rights of both parties. In totalitarian societies this conflict does not exist, because “state” is not synonymous with “all the rest of us”. In such societies – think North Korea – the state is the looming and fearsome apparatus of internal security, secret police, and government surveillance that coercively “resolves” issues of conflicting individual rights by simply annihilating same. (Try getting a parade permit to hold a march in downtown Pyongyang to protest some policy, any policy, of Kim Jong Eun. Observe the results. Or be smarter by just remembering Tienanmin Square.) Likewise, in a libertarian utopia, there is no conflict between the rights of the state and those of individuals because the former do not exist, or are so minimal – remember Robert Nozick’s “minimal state” in Anarchy, State, and Utopia – as to be negligible, anyway. But the innovation of the American system is that ultimate sovereignty is vested in the People – not the President, not the Congress (or the Parliament, in the case of the UK), not the courts, but the People. And, yes, I am aware that decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon and the encroaching sovereignty of money threaten this principle. I contemplate that with grave seriousness. But – call me a babe-in-the-woods naif if you will – I believe enough of this foundational principle is intact to justify going to the barricades, literally or figuratively, to preserve what is left.


In any case, what does all the above have to do with Carly Fiorina’s awkward rhetorical pirouette around the issue of vaccinations? Only everything. In fact, two "Everythings". First of all, Fiorina is a candidate whose campaign for the Presidency is embedded in a Republican Party organization that increasingly seems to believe that the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment – Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion] – simply trumps any and all other priorities and any and all other social and political considerations. Prior to her encounter with the vax / anti-vax controversy, this over-the-top assertion of the absolute sovereignty of religious liberty was displayed in the overwhelming Republican support for State-level RFRA laws exempting business owners from compliance with even State laws requiring that businesses serve their clientele impartially. Now both Fiorina and her Party are encountering people whose religious convictions -- remember:  we are talking rural Iowa here -- forbid them to allow their children to be vaccinated. Her response was a marvel of being all things to all people by dodging what should have been the central issue (hint:  it ain't where the kids go to school) (boldface added):

"When in doubt, it is always the parents' choice," Fiorina told a rural Iowa audience Thursday evening. Later that night, she added that, "when you have highly communicable diseases where we have a vaccine that's proven, like measles or mumps, then I think a parent can make that choice … So a parent has to make that trade-off

Note what is characteristically absent from her response to the issue: any consideration of the rights of the state – “the rest of us” – to our equal and correlative right to not be exposed, and to not have our kids exposed, to communicable infectious disease as a result of other parents’ religiously motivated decision to refrain from vaccinating their kids. The only other relevant issue, in Fiorina-land, is whether school systems can refuse admission to unvaccinated kids. In Fiorina-land, there is no conflict between competing and conflicting rights. Nevertheless, what of the rights of “the rest of us”? And of our kids? The answer is hidden in plain sight: because the anti-vax parents are acting in compliance with their “sincere religious convictions”, no one else’s conflicting rights merit any consideration or discussion. There is no attempt to balance off the rights of kids whose parents have no such religious objection to vaccination: see the “always” in the first quoted sentence. Instead, “free exercise” simply bulldozes away all other competing issues and priorities. There is not so much as a hint that any reconciliation of conflicting rights is needed.  Instead, the magic words "religious convictions" confer upon the anti-vax parents a sovereign right to force "the rest of us" -- the state -- to run the risk of contracting an infectious communicable disease. "Free exercise" run amok.

As for the second "Everything", this assertion is all the more absurd within the context of the well-known and by-now-characteristic Republican antipathy to science. There is nowhere near enough space to reprise and to document it here, but an exhaustive and conclusive refutation of the allegations concerning vaccines as a causal factor in autism can be found in Seth Mnookin's book The Panic Virus. As I read the book recently, I was struck repeatedly by the eerie similarity between the anti-vax movement and its sociological and epistemological similarity to the genesis and growth of fundamentalist religious cults:  the tendency to selectively elide evidence that conflicts with anti-vaxers' predetermined conclusions (the anti-vax version of creationism / intelligent design); gathering in groups to tell each other what, and only what, they want to hear (the anti-vax fundamentalist church); the view of themselves as a faithful but embattled remnant confronting a mendacious Elders-of-Zion-like conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies (the anti-vax Tribulation) ... even the persistent belief in the veracity and professional integrity of long-ago-discredited Andrew Wakefield, The Lancet's complete retraction of his infamous paper notwithstanding (the anti-vax Resurrection). Consequently,. neither Fiorina nor any other Republican candidate, given their Party's skepticism on a whole host of scientific issues -- climate change, the genetics of homosexuality, evolution, etc. -- is in any position to address the vaccination issue, even with those who have non-religious objections.

Andrew Wakefield

So -- per impossibile --  what should Fiorina have said?  I would propose something like the following:

Those of you who have religious objections to vaccination have a perfect First Amendment right to believe and speak as you wish. But because you live in a society with others who disagree with you, those rights do not extend to increasing the risk of exposing them and their children to contracting an infectious disease. So for the greater good of the society as a whole -- which includes you and your children -- on this particular issue, your "free exercise" rights are superseded by the rights of the community to not run that risk. For those of you who have questions about the science behind vaccines, the evidence is overwhelming that, except in those rare cases where people have genetically based adverse reactions, vaccines work to inoculate the recipient against disease. Conversely, where vaccination rates have gone down, the incidence of previously rare infectious disease has increased. My recommendation:  get your kids vaccinated. It's good for you.  It's good for them.  It's good for everyone.

But of course, this is the Republican Party, the Party of the "omni-sovereign" "free exercise" clause, the 10,000-year-old earth, and "legitimate rape". So none of that italicized paragraph is going to happen.

James R. Cowles

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