Thursday, September 9, 2010

The New McCarthyism

The original McCarthyism was a poorly-executed reaction to a legitimate problem. There absolutely were communist agents attempting to overthrow the American way of life in the 1940s and 50s. But we became our own worst enemies by giving in to fear and allowing a pogrom against people based only on suspicion and innuendo, rather than actual evidence. We were scared, so we ruined people's lives based on the mere suspicion that they might be Soviet sympathizers.

The new McCarthyism is an equally ill-advised reaction to a different legitimate problem. I've named the movement for Playboy Playmate turned sort-of actress Jenny McCarthy, one of its more vocal leaders. The problem is autism, which has seen a dramatic rise in the last twenty years. The reaction of McCarthy and others, sadly, has been to fly off the deep end, pointing the finger of blame at immunizations (or some of the ingredients in the vaccines) despite a chorus of voices in the medical and scientific community who insisted for years that there simply was not and could not be a causal relationship there. Now, Jenny McCarthy is a little nuts anyway, as evidenced by her claims to be an "Indigo Mom" with a "Crystal Child" several years back. The nuttyness of this claim is, in my mind, clarified by the fact that all of the "indigo mom" websites I could find on a Google search are defunct and inactive. I'm not entirely clear on what crazy crap she'd bought into with that, but I'm thinking it didn't pan out any better than the "vaccines cause autism" business.

Which, incidentally, has now been thoroughly debunked. Even, well, more thoroughly than it had been before, I suppose. I mean, everybody seemed to know it was bunk except McCarthy and the poor parents who bought into the crap she was ignorantly spewing. The original scientists who fueled the madness have recanted - one's even had his medical credentials removed. But not before McCarthy climbed up on her bully pulpit and swore to the world that she had the answer to autism.The results of her efforts? A marked decrease in nationwide immunizations and the deaths of numerous small children to entirely preventable diseases. As bad as the old McCarthyism was, and it was indeed terrible, "Tail-Gunner Joe" never got any little kids killed. The new McCarthyism was just as misguided, just as sinister, just as well-meaning and just as wrong as the old one. And in our media-heavy age, it's all too easy.

In fact, McCarthy (the Playmate, not the Senator) was given an award by noted skeptic James Randi - the Pigasus award. It's presented to the 'Performer Who Has Fooled The Greatest Number of People with The Least Amount of Effort'. And it's that effortlessness that makes modern McCarthyism (of any stripe) so dangerous. It no longer takes rumor, supposition, innuendo and misinformation more than a fraction of a minute to travel around the world. Every time you receive some urban legend in your email box, you can see modern McCarthyism at work. Every time some talking head on TV, like Jenny McCarthy, is allowed to spout nonsense without credible voices to offer opposing viewpoints, McCarthyism is at work. In the 50s, people's lives were ruined by accusations without adequate evidence. Today, children's lives have been ruined, even ended, by similar accusations that not only didn't help prevent autism, they surely distracted people from efforts that might have been more fruitful. I feel for McCarthy and her autistic son. I feel for anyone who has to deal with the challenges of autism or any other severe mental or physical condition in their child. But wanting an answer and actually having an answer simply are not the same thing, no matter how badly you want them to be. Spewing fantasy as medical or political reality has consequences, and listening to those who do so may bring those consequences right home to you.