A Mindful Stupidity

So I’m giving this another go-round, and I intend to make a habit of it. I’ll be asking all my friends who used to read these posts to start doing so again, and maybe a few new ones as well. This one’s fairly serious, but I promise the next one will have lots of fart jokes.

Measles. Take a look at this clip from last night’s episode of The Daily Show:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/5t2dw1/les-measlesrables

I post serious and snarky stuff on vaccinations all the time, so you’re probably pretty aware of where I stand on the whole thing, but for the sake of clarity, get your kids vaccinated. It baffles me that any responsible parent, from any background, would not take advantage of a scientifically validated and time-tested method of protecting not just children but all of us from deadly diseases.

But it’s the interview with the mom in Marin County that I really want to focus right now. Or rather, the interview and Stewart’s response to it. He says, in response to her comment on her community of thoughtful, well-educated people, “This is Marin County. We’re not rednecks. We’re not ignorant. We practice a mindful stupidity.”

And I think this is at the heart of the problem with the whole anti-vaccination crusade in America, and in fact, with several epidemics in this county not related to disease – prejudice, corruption, etc. We think we’re doing the right thing. With some glaring exceptions, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to protect their children and give them the best possible environment and life in which to grow and live. But we’re Americans, and we live with blinders on, most of us. Even members of the middle and lower classes in this country suffer from the disease of affluenza, specifically American affluenza – that, simply because we live in the greatest country on Earth, nothing can touch us. We can do whatever we want, ’cause we’re Americans, dammit.

Right.

It has been (and continues to be) a trademark of the American personality that we are loud, proud, opinionated, and emotional, and these terms are still being generous. A large chunk of the world would characterize us as arrogant, boastful, and superior. We think we’re above the bad things in the world simply by virtue of being born in this country. Time and time again, this has proven not to be the case, and when it does happen, we respond in a reactionary way with ignorance and fear. We respond like children. We pull the blanket up over our heads. We cover our eyes and ears and say, “No! No! No!” as loud as we can, hoping it will drive the bogeyman away. We lash out and hit things and people. We look for someone to blame.

But we constantly ignore facts because we get so worked up about things. We sacrifice reason and logic because we’re too terrified to look at the bogeyman and see how we might actually beat him.

Only a few hundred years ago, people had no idea what diseases actually were. They believed disease was caused by demons, and they refused to take baths because they believed that the only way to drive off the demons was with a good honest stink. Just today, I saw a news story where New Jersey governor Chris Christie stated that he didn’t believe that restaurant employees should have to wash their hands so much.

So think about this: Scientific evidence supports, I would go so far as to say irrefutably, that disease-causing germs can be transmitted through human contact with raw meats, fecal matter, and dirty water and other contaminated materials. The simple act of washing hands can prevent the spread of many of these germs. Food service workers come into contact with raw meats of all kinds all day long. Then, like most of us do several times a day, they go to the restroom to relieve themselves. So Christie believes that they shouldn’t have to wash their hands after they take a dump and then come back to touch your food? You can see the path of the germ right there, and now we have a prominent politician saying that there’s no good reason to wash your hands if you work in a restaurant. Why?

Because American believe, above all else, in liberty. The ability to choose the things you do and do not do. It’s my right as an American not to wash my hands after I wipe.

Then (and this is in the Daily Show clip as well), Christie has also quarantined an Ebola worker who had NO signs of the disease on the ground that the government should be able to do what is necessary to protect its citizens. Why? Because we’re afraid of Ebola.

You know why we’re afraid of Ebola and not the measles? Because the measles were effectively eradicated in this country over sixty years ago thanks to the widespread use of the measles vaccine. Ebola is a potentially life-threatening virus that we know about mainly because of its highly infectious nature and prevalence in Africa. no, we do NOT want Ebola in the US, nor do we want it anywhere. But we know about it because it’s still around, and very visible. Measles, on the other hand, exist only in a dream, a story we were told in school. It’s almost a fairy tale to us now. How appropriate that it should suddenly spawn an outbreak in Disneyland, where fantasies are the currency of the realm.

We’re not scared of measles because we thought we beat it, and it can’t possibly hurt us anymore. We’re about to be slapped in the face with how wrong we are.

Now here’s the OTHER side of this: once we decide to take on something like this, we often go too far in the other direction. Refer again to Ebola, and the panic that ensued when a handful of cases were reported in the US. Hysteria due to the fact that a well-known and potentially life-threatening disease that we thought could not touch us had now found its way to our soil. The xenophobes among us went on red alert, decreeing that anyone who could possibly have been infected should be quarantined immediately. Well, some of this did happen, and in some cases this action may have helped. But since there are proven procedures that can used to protect from Ebola infection, it went away fairly quickly, and there were only, I believe, one or two fatalities. The predicted pandemic never happened, and it’s because we stopped it with scientific knowledge and diligence.

But measles? Ah, screw it. I’m not vaccinating my kid. It can’t touch me. I live in Marin County, where my money and privilege will no doubt protect me from a microscopic germ. Unless I don’t have to wash my hands. Or my kid goes to a preschool where kids jam lots of toys into their mouths, play in the same dirt and mud, and grab each other all the time. But my sheer American privilege will serve to armor me against the worst of it.

We ignore facts in favor of our emotional responses, and it can often bite us in the ass. The only reason we are now the dominant species on the planet is because we evolved these giant brains to solve problems, oftentimes without using violence, and our big brains have allowed us to climb so far to the top of the heap that we somehow believe we don’t need to use them anymore.

The bogeyman eventually goes away. We grow older, and we realize that we don’t have to be afraid of the dark, that by acknowledging that we KNOW there is nothing there, we’re safe from it. Also, we have parents that, if they’re doing their job, will come into the room and help us banish the bogeyman from the closet or under the bed. We inoculate ourselves against the imaginary fear of something invisible that wants to hurt us. Much the way a vaccine works. It teaches our bodies how to defend themselves against microscopic intruders. But the truth is that the virus never goes away. We’ve just learned how to defend against it. Vaccines are the blanket we pull up over our heads that makes the bogeyman go away. And it works. But only if we use it. If we don’t, we lay there in terror, imagining what will happen to us whenever the bogeyman finally decides to stop teasing us and crawl all the way out of the crack in our closet.

There’s the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are times when this is true. We know the measles vaccine works, and we know it works better than NOT taking it. The study, refuted for many years now, that vaccines cause autism, scared the bejeesus out of us. We were told that materials in the vaccine could cause brain damage resulting in autism. You know what else causes brain damage? Measles. In children, the disease can progress into measles encephalitis, swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage. Logically, which chance would you rather take? The evidence bears out that vaccines prevent the spread of communicable disease and have no relationship to autism. That’s what we see with our own eyes. But we don’t have to vaccinate our kids if we don’t want to. Because “Murica”.

For millennia people have performed numerous actions to ward off bad luck. Horseshoe over the door, sign of the cross, forking the fingers to ward off the evil eye, not bathing. No one ever really tried to measure whether or not those things worked, and, let’s face it, the Black Death didn’t seem to care much about the horseshoe. Why should measles? Or Ebola? Now, we have something that we can SEE working, and we just shrug it off. It boggles the mind.

And YET, we somehow attempt to raise our kids in a sterile, germ-free environment by constantly telling them to wash their hands, take a bath every day, and Don’t. Get. Dirty. See that grocery cart over there? Wipe it down with that antimicrobial napkin before you even pull it out of the queue. Or Else. It’s absurd to think that we can eliminate ALL germs from our lives, yet we try every second of every day to live like we’re in an operating room. Our immune systems must be confused as hell. Antibacterial soaps have been proven to be no more effective than plain soap and water, and they could possibly be killing off some of the good gut flora we NEED to stay healthy. We can’t seem to get our priorities straight.

And I realize that, in an earlier paragraph, I ranted about washing your hands, but I mentioned a specific TIME to wash your hands: after a bowel movement. Yes, that’s an EXCELLENT time to scrub ’em down, because you wouldn’t want to put that hand in your mouth right now, wouldja? I think that’s a good rule of thumb – if you wouldn’t eat with it right now, wash it. And, I just read an article where doctors believe you shouldn’t give your kids a bath every single day, either, and this ALSO makes sense. Newborn babies aren’t supposed to get baths every day because their delicate skins can’t take it, and let’s face it, they never break a sweat. Bathing them too much can cause rashes, irritating dry patches, and –  in rare cases – infection. My son is five now, and he gets a bath pretty much every three days or so, depending on how active he’s been and how much he reeks. I take a bath every day, but on a daily basis I smell MUCH worse than he ever does. So figure out what works for you and run with that.

I’m not advocating never giving your kids baths. That’s just as ridiculous. But we seem to live in a time of extremes, and it’s gonna catch up with us.

I think that, as always, there is a comfortable middle ground where we can use logic to make rational decisions to emotionally charged questions. But right now we’re so scared of the bogeyman that we just try to ignore it. Measles ain’t the only instance in America of this happening, obviously, but I’m not getting into that right now. But instead of approaching things with an open mind, we trust our own arrogance and remain blissfully ignorant, often with the best of intentions. Because we can.

Not every germ will kill you. It’s okay to get dirty. Wash your crotch on a regular basis, because it gets funky. Vaccinate your kids, because we’ve done a pretty good job of figuring out which germs WILL kill you, and we can stop a lot of them from doing so. Above all, use some common sense, people. It’s something this country has been encouraged not to do lately, and it needs to stop. I wish there was a vaccine for that.

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