I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Just "evolution in action"

(updated below - updated again)

Glenn Reynolds points to this article from The Independent which reports that a "leading Islamic doctor is urging British Muslims not to vaccinate their children against diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella because they contain substances making them unlawful for Muslims to take." Reynolds' response:


I don't think there is any evolutionary theory that celebrates or finds purpose in the death of children as a result of stupid actions taken by their parents. This just seems instead like a good excuse for pointing out how primitive Muslims are and how they deserve death (what else does it mean to say "Just think of it as evolution in action"?).

And it would be one thing if the people at risk of death were the adults who refused vaccines for themselves on religious grounds, but what kind of person has this reaction to reading a story about the lives of children being endangered as a result of a denial by their parents of necessary medical precautions? "Evolution in action"? That's just deranged.

But beyond that, one does not need to go searching for isolated British Muslim doctors in order to find examples of the lives of children being endangered due to the religious beliefs of adults. Merck, among other pharmaceutical companies, developed a highly effective vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) -- by far the leading cause of cervical cancer in women -- but an entire American political movement called "social conservatism" has been desperately trying to prevent its widespread approval -- or at least persuade parents not to have their daughters vaccinated -- because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease and they therefore believe that a vaccine will be seen as an endorsement of premartal sex:

A new vaccine that protects against cervical cancer has set up a clash between health advocates who want to use the shots aggressively to prevent thousands of malignancies and social conservatives who say immunizing teen-agers could encourage sexual activity. . . .

Groups working to reduce the toll of the cancer are eagerly awaiting the vaccine and want it to become part of the standard roster of shots that children, especially girls, receive just before puberty.

Because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted virus, many conservatives oppose making it mandatory, citing fears that it could send a subtle message condoning sexual activity before marriage. Several leading groups that promote abstinence are meeting this week to formulate official policies on the vaccine. . . .

The vaccine appears to be virtually 100 percent effective against two of the most common cancer-causing HPV strains.

And those opposing these vaccines are not isolated or fringe groups. Instead, they are the groups that lay at the core of the Republican Party, and have thus received high-level and influential appointments by President Bush, including positions that give them great power over health policy:

The jockeying reflects the growing influence social conservatives, who had long felt overlooked by Washington, have gained on a broad spectrum of policy issues under the Bush administration. In this case, a former member of the conservative group Focus on the Family serves on the federal panel that is playing a pivotal role in deciding how the vaccine is used.

"What the Bush administration has done has taken this coterie of people and put them into very influential positions in Washington," said James Morone Jr., a professor of political science at Brown University. "And it's having an effect in debates like this."

This is what one of James Dobson's doctors said in explaining opposition to the vaccine:

"Some people have raised the issue of whether this vaccine may be sending an overall message to teen-agers that, 'We expect you to be sexually active,' " said Reginald Finger, a doctor trained in public health who served as a medical analyst for Focus on the Family before being appointed to the ACIP in 2003.

And the Family Research Council had this to say:

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

Though the FDA finally approved the vaccine, social conservative groups continue to lobby for the right of parents to refuse the vaccine for their daughters and to advocate against the HPV vaccine, insisting that abstinence is the preferred course.

So, when American Christian girls die of cervical cancer in their teens and early 20s because James Dobson and the rest of the "social conservative" movement convinced their parents that giving them the HPV vaccine would turn them into sex-crazed whores -- and that it's therefore preferable to leave them vulnerable to a cancer-causing viral agent -- should we "just think of that as evolution in action" also?

And that's to say nothing of the unwanted pregnancies and cases of HIV transmission due to vigorous religious-based opposition to health programs designed to promote condom usage. When teenagers of Christian parents in the U.S. with no access to condoms have premarital sex and end up with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, should we "just think of it as evolution in action"?

What is really at play here is not hard to discern. If the deaths of children of devout Muslims should be considered nothing more than "evolution in action" -- something that is warranted, even deserved -- then we can start bombing them a lot more indiscriminately without much regret. That's just "evolution in action." Both the intensity and frequency of rhetoric like this directed towards Muslims -- whereby all sorts of theories are offered to justify their deaths -- are increasing rapidly.

UPDATE: As always, the point here is not Reynolds himself (who, like any specific blogger discussed here, is only illustrative). The important point is that Muslim-dehumanizing rhetoric of this type is becoming much more commonplace (that is the point, I believe, of the recent mini-controversy over Marty Peretz's blog of bigotry), and what that rhetoric is intended to justify is obvious. In that regard, one should compare Reynolds' commentary on this story to his notorious post from November, when he cited a reader e-mail and then added his own comments (emphasis added):

READER: The ball is in the Iraqis' court. We took away the obstacle to their freedom. If they choose to embrace death, corruption, incompetence, lethal religious mania, and stone-age tribalism, then at least we'll finally know the limitations of the people in that part of the world. The experiment had to be made.

REYNOLDS: . . . it's also true that if democracy can't work in Iraq, then we should probably adopt a "more rubble, less trouble" approach to other countries in the region that threaten us. If a comparatively wealthy and secular Arab country can't make it as a democratic republic, then what hope is there for places that are less wealthy, or less secular?

This is now an an emerging theme among war supporters looking for someone to blame for their disastrous war -- "we did everything we could for those people, but alas, they're too primitive and savage to take advantage of it, so it's time to start bombing them ("more rubble") with a clear conscience, knowing they brought it on themselves." If we do that, just think of it as evolution in action.

Some commenters have pointed out that, strictly speaking, the actions of a parent that result in the death of a child are part of evolution. Fair enough. But the point is that there are all sorts of comparable acts by American Christians and other religionists (including those above). Reynolds would never link to a story reporting on the death of a 19-year-old Christian girl who died of cervical cancer because James Dobson persuaded her parents to prohibit her from obtaining an HPV vaccine, and then say: "Just think of it as evolution in action." Reynolds' post reveals a way of thinking and speaking about Muslims that is, in equal parts, despicable and dangerous.

UPDATE II: Via Henry Farrell, this is about the most cogent explanation I have seen in awhile for what is going on with the anti-Muslim rhetoric arising out of the ash heap we created in Iraq. From Anatol Lieven's review in London Review of Books (sub. req'd):

One important aspect of Westad’s book is the complex connection he makes between the US and Soviet modernising projects and racism. While both regimes insisted on their right to dictate values and solutions to the benighted peoples of the Third World, both also claimed that those peoples were capable of adopting them, doing so rapidly, and thereby joining the ‘socialist community’ or the ‘free world’.

But because, in classic missionary style, both sides saw their truths as self-evident, their programmes as beneficial, and their own benevolence as beyond question, they often had no rational explanation to offer when their projects failed and their clients turned against them. In these cases, there was often an astonishingly rapid swing towards racist explanations. Currently, the neo-cons in America alternate between arguing that all Arab societies are capable of making rapid progress towards democracy (and that anyone who denies this is racist) and asserting that ‘Arabs understand only force.’"

That about sums up one of the most hopeless contradictions that lies at the heart of our neoconservative, warmongering missions -- the same people who want to convince us that they are doing nothing more than bringing peace, love, joy and freedom to the world with all of their bombings and invasions are also the first to insist that the people in the parts of the world we are invading are brute savages who get what they deserve.

That is how Reynolds went from piously accusing war opponents in 2003 of being "racist" for doubting whether we could export democracy to Iraq, to citing in 2006 the so-called "limitations of the people in that part of the world" as proof that the savages in Iraq are incapable of democracy and so it's time instead to start bombing. And when we do, we should just think of it as evolution in action.

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