The New Red Scare

We had our first Red Scare in 1918 and that lasted about two years. The Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917 had freaked us out. That might happen here, and if it did, so much for Church and home and marriage and civility and the American way of Life. Say goodbye to all that.

We were spooked. When the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) backed labor strikes in 1916 and 1917, those became “radical threats to American society” – inspired by foreign agents, of course. Capitalism was threatened by slyly imported communism, and there were bombings. One of them badly damaged the official residence of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in the spring of 1919. Other bomb plots were uncovered. Joe Hill, the union man, was executed. There was also that Sedition Act of 1918 – to protect wartime morale by deporting folks who had the wrong view of things. Free speech on political matters could get you gone. That led to the Palmer Raids from 1919 to 1921 – but the press was fine with those and told the public to be fine with those, so the public was fine with those. Felix Frankfurter, who would later be a Supreme Court Justice, wasn’t, and he wasn’t alone, but no one listened to him – and then everyone forgot about it all. The war was long over, our guys had come home, the Roaring Twenties were roaring and everyone suddenly got rich, at least on paper, and there were flappers and bathtub gin and that new thing, national commercial radio, and the first elaborate movies with the first big stars, even if both were silent. Good stuff was happening and Bolsheviks weren’t dangerous; they were boring, and kind of pathetic. They turned out to be irrelevant. The Red Scare was over.

The second Red Scare started in 1947 and is now called McCarthyism – Senator Joseph McCarthy insisted there was a communist under every bed, or at least they were in top positions in our government. They weren’t, and McCarthy turned out to be a drunk who knew nothing, but through the middle of the fifties, he and his cohorts got America pretty riled up. Out here in Hollywood, the studios blacklisted anyone in the industry who was a little too outspoken about working folks or social justice. Many lost their careers, partly because the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, Ronald Reagan, told Joe McCarthy, and the folks on that the House Un-American Activities Committee too, under oath, that Hollywood was full of communist traitors. That started Reagan’s political career, and ended his Hollywood career.

Joe McCarthy was on a roll, but on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow on his show “See It Now” ran lots of clips of McCarthy ripping into some pretty decent men, with no proof of anything, and concluded his broadcast with this:

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.

That was the beginning of the end of that Red Scare. Only Ann Coulter still defends McCarthy, who she says was right about everything – but most people find the whole thing shameful. They’re glad that crap is over, and McCarthy died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957, at the age of forty-eight. His liver gave out. His wild conspiracy theories had been fueled by gin and bourbon and scotch. He had been no more than an angry drunk, and two years later, Jack Kennedy was our president. Kennedy was too cool for that nonsense, and in 1980, when Ronald Reagan became our president, finally, he never mentioned Joe McCarthy, back in the day. Some things are best forgotten.

There won’t be a third Red Scare. There are no more Reds, no more Bolsheviks – the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, because communism just didn’t work very well. Russia, while still dangerous, has a mixed economy, with capitalism for a few hundred “special” people and not much central planning for everyone else – and its economy is in shambles. They ain’t gonna take over the world. China might, but it too is developing the same sort of mixed economy. It’s more likely they’ll turn more like us, and buy a lot of our goods, and sell us lots of theirs. Pure communism was kind of a neat idea. So were flying cars for everyone.

That doesn’t mean the dynamic has gone away. We can still panic about our freedoms being lost to the horrible notion of central planning by some government, or our own government – except the battles get smaller, if not sillier. That might explain the current red scare:

CAMBRIDGE, England – Amid an outbreak of measles that has spread across 14 states, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Monday said that parents “need to have some measure of choice” about vaccinating their children against the virus, breaking with President Obama and much of the medical profession.

In remarks here, Mr. Christie at first stopped short of recommending that parents immunize their children against measles, or any other illness, calling for “balance” and “choice.” But his remarks quickly set off an outcry, prompting the governor to modify his position about an hour later and declare, through a spokesman, that “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”

Sure, but should the government force them to get vaccinated? That’s communism, isn’t it? Christie worries about that:

Mr. Christie, when asked about the connection between the new measles cases and parents who object to the long-recommended vaccine against it, said that he and his wife had vaccinated their four children. He called that “the best expression I can give you of my opinion.”

But he added: “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

Having choice in things is sweet freedom. The government has to decide when there should be no choice, and that’s tricky – and he’s not going to touch that. He said he’s no scientist, after all, but of course he wants to be president one day, and another who wants the same thing, sensed weakness and pounced:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) doubled down on his position that most vaccines should be voluntary, suggesting Monday that mandated immunization is an example of government overreach.

“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said in an interview with CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” “Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health.”

The state doesn’t own your children – that’s communism, and communism is really scary, so we’ll have none of that:

The Kentucky senator and potential 2016 hopeful received attention earlier in the day for his comment that people should be able to pick which immunizations to give their children.

He wants to be clear:

In a heated interview with CNBC host Kelly Evans, Paul expressed support for vaccination but bristled at the idea that it should be mandatory.

“I guess being for freedom would be really unusual,” he said sarcastically at the start of the exchange.

Paul also acknowledged hearing about cases in which healthy kids were left with “profound mental disorders” after being vaccinated.

There is, however, that New York Times video that looks at the birth of the belief that vaccinations can cause autism in young children:

It turns on a seminal moment in anti-vaccination resistance. This was an announcement in 1998 by a British doctor who said he had found a relationship between the MMR vaccine – measles, mumps, rubella – and the onset of autism.

Typically, the MMR shot is given to infants at about 12 months and again at age 5 or 6. This doctor, Andrew Wakefield, wrote that his study of 12 children showed that the three vaccines taken together could alter immune systems, causing intestinal woes that then reach, and damage, the brain. In fairly short order, his findings were widely rejected as – not to put too fine a point on it – bunk. Dozens of epidemiological studies found no merit to his work, which was based on a tiny sample. The British Medical Journal went so far as to call his research “fraudulent.” The British journal Lancet, which originally published Dr. Wakefield’s paper, retracted it. The British medical authorities stripped him of his license.

Nonetheless, despite his being held in disgrace, the vaccine-autism link has continued to be accepted on faith by some. Among the more prominently outspoken is Jenny McCarthy, a former television host and Playboy Playmate, who has linked her son’s autism to his vaccination: He got the shot, and then he was not okay. Post hoc, etc.

Kevin Drum comments:

This is, of course, even crazier than it sounds. It’s one thing to be skeptical of the scientific community and its debunking of the Wakefield study. But it’s now 2015. MMR vaccines that contain thimerosal – the supposed cause of autism – have been off the market for well over a decade. Not one single child has gotten a dose of thimerosal since about 2002. And yet, autism rates haven’t gone down. They’ve gone up. You don’t need to trust scientists to see that, very plainly, thimerosal simply never played any role in autism. And there’s never been any reason to think that any other vaccine does either.

And yet, there’s apparently nothing that will convince certain parents of this. At least, if there is, no one has figured it out yet. Sigh.

That means this won’t work:

In an interview with NBC News that aired Monday, President Obama said the science behind vaccines is “pretty indisputable” and that “there is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also urging parents to follow normal immunization standards, with agency director Tom Frieden arguing Monday that unvaccinated children can endanger others.

That would explain this:

The Democratic National Committee on Monday attacked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and told him to “sit down and shut up” after comments Christie made about vaccinations.

DNC communications director Mo Elleithee made the remarks in an email statement titled “Christie dons his tinfoil hat on vaccinations” that accused the governor of going after the “anti-vaccination vote.”

“Chris Christie isn’t a scientist. He isn’t a doctor. And he sure as heck isn’t a leader. If his campaign is going to be about kissing up to the radical, conspiracy theory base that’s wagging the dog of today’s Republican Party, that’s up to him and his cracker-jack team,” Elleithee wrote. …

“But if he wants to actually be a leader, then he should stop bowing to junk science and take a cue from President Obama by showing leadership that promotes facts and keeps our children and our nation safe,” Elleithee wrote. “He may be trying to walk back his latest comments on vaccinations, but it’s not the first time he’s courted the anti-vaccination vote. It may cause his press office headaches, but his loud mouth isn’t charming. He ought to take his own advice – sit down and shut up, before people actually get hurt.”

Then there was this exchange on Fox News:

Retired four-star General Jack Keane pointed out that the measles was not a problem in the military because vaccines were mandatory.

“We even mandate a flu shot, much less measles,” he explained. “And if you don’t have the measles vaccination, we’re going to give it to you. Because our Army would fall apart if we had infectious diseases.”

Fox News host Jedidiah Bila said that she understood that parents were worried about their children becoming infected at school.

“But I’m very worried about a government that can start telling you, regular citizens, that you have to get a flu shot, that you have to do this, or you have to get 35 vaccines before they hit 36 months,” Bila remarked. “That concerns me. And what comes next?”

Communism comes next, of course. This is the third Red Scare, and that calls for a rant about this nonsense, like this one from Zandar at Balloon Juice:

When people say “You know, Obama should come out in support of breathing just to see Republicans turn blue and pass out” as a joke, and then hours after Obama says “Vaccinate your kids to keep them from getting awful shit like measles” (one of the most infectious diseases out there, people) we have Chris Christie saying “Well, the government should respect parents not wanting to vaccinate your kids” and it makes me want to research experimental tectonic weaponry so that I can rend huge swaths of the planet’s crust asunder and drown millions in flaming magma-based melty death.

And these are the same exact people who screamed in October that Obama’s government wasn’t doing enough to protect the country against Ebola.

I mean these assholes have spent the last 25 years sowing so much distrust of government and then breaking the parts of it that actually worked, like the part where we’ve effectively eradicated measles in the US, that now we have to collectively deal with a goddamn outbreak of goddamn MEASLES in the year TWO THOUSAND FIFTEEN, when we have self-driving cars and internet on our wristwatches and airplanes and we have 27 flavors of Oreo cookies and dudes working on high-speed tube travel and computers a billion times more powerful than when my dad was born and oh yeah HE GOT VACCINATED FOR MEASLES IN THE SIXTIES AND THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT because he didn’t get the frigging MEASLES…

This fellow should calm down, but some things need to be said:

We’ve dumbed down the country and made such an enemy out of science and critical thinking and civic responsibility that we’re all like “Well, you know the responsible thing to do is we should let parents decide if America should be covered in an entirely preventable and horrible infectious disease that will infect 90% of the people who aren’t vaccinated who come in contact with it because I read on Twitter how the vaccine might cause a one in a million chance of autism.” Because there is a 999,999 out of a million chance that you are a colossal idiot.

There is a large subset of Americans who would rather give kids measles than listen to Obama at this point, and at least one 2016 GOP hopeful who now wishes to cater to that subset and is trying to equate vaccination programs to government tyranny, and I want to hurl heavy objects and I am now very sad.

This fellow can’t calm down, but Paul Thornton in the Los Angeles Times can be more measured:

“Choice” is a great word – it has a universal, empowering appeal, and it’s useful for winning a debate. Women’s rights activists were smart decades ago to call their side of the abortion debate “pro-choice,” asking us to ignore our feelings on the procedure itself and trust women enough to make their own medical decisions.

So it’s no surprise that vaccine skeptics have now changed the subject from their rightly ridiculed nonscientific claims on autism to the freedom to parent as they wish in other words, to make their own choices. And it appears they’ve convinced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (or maybe not), who says that even though vaccinating children is crucial and that his own kids got their shots, choice is great too, and parents deserve to have some when it comes to stopping the spread of communicable illness.

Yes, we can note the irony of this being the same governor who recently locked a nurse in a tent to protect New Jersey from an Ebola virus this woman wasn’t carrying, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that Christie’s statement (you might even call it gaffe) represents the latest strategy for the vaccine skeptics: They’re trying to win apologists for their cause, not an argument on the efficacy of vaccines. Whether you agree with them doesn’t matter — you could even ridicule their efforts to pass off fraud as science in linking vaccination to autism.

But freedom is a core American value, and everyone deserves to make his or her own choices, especially when it comes to parenting. This is Christie’s logic.

And that logic works wonders:

In response an editorial last week calling for an end to California’s personal-belief exemption for parents who would rather not vaccinate their children, a small handful of readers hyperbolically accused The Times’ editorial board of favoring totalitarianism (one said, “Sorry, but we don’t live in Nazi Germany”). Previously, a reader from Nevada whose letter was published – much to the dismay of at least a dozen others who sent us their own responses to their letter – wrote that “freedom means choice. Plain and simple. Without choice, we are not a democracy.”

He continued: “It is my choice whether or not I want to be vaccinated. It is your choice whether or not to wash your hands or take basic public health precautions. It is an individual’s choice whether he or she wants to gamble with their child’s life. It is not your place to say what they have to do.”

Thornton doesn’t buy it:

This isn’t about choice, and vaccine skeptics’ use of freedom instead of autism as their new cri de coeur exposes the joyful self-centeredness of their obstinacy. Any pediatrician (well, perhaps not all pediatricians) will tell you a parent’s decision to vaccinate is as much about other children as their own. Parents who vaccinate their children not only protect their own kids as well as pick up some of the slack for the mothers and fathers who refused vaccination – they also help to protect those who cannot get immunized.

It’s sad for anyone to come down with a preventable disease, but lost in our focus lately on the children of vaccine-skeptical parents who have come down with measles are those who rely on the rest of us who can choose to immunize to make the right choice. These people – organ transplant recipients, cancer survivors and infants, among others – might not have the choice that Christie and others champion.

Thornton doesn’t want to hurl heavy objects, but he is as sad as that Zandar person. Sometimes the government can require this and that for the good of all, and it may not be communism, just common sense – but this is our current Red Scare, minus the Bolsheviks, unless Obama and the folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are Bolsheviks.

Actually nothing much has changed:

Water fluoridation has frequently been the subject of conspiracy theories. During the “Red Scare” in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s, and to a lesser extent in the 1960s, activists on the far right of American politics routinely asserted that fluoridation was part of a far-reaching plot to impose a socialist or communist regime. These opponents believed it was “another aspect of President Truman’s drive to socialize medicine.” They also opposed other public health programs, notably mass vaccination and mental health services. Their views were influenced by opposition to a number of major social and political changes that had happened in recent years: the growth of internationalism, particularly the UN and its programs; the introduction of social welfare provisions, particularly the various programs established by the New Deal; and government efforts to reduce perceived inequalities in the social structure of the United States.

Others asserted the existence of “a Communist plot to deplete the brainpower and sap the strength of a generation of American children”. Dr. Charles Bett, a prominent anti-fluoridationist, charged that fluoridation was “better than using the atom bomb because the atom bomb has to be made, has to be transported to the place it is to be set off while poisonous fluorine has been placed right beside the water supplies by the Americans themselves ready to be dumped into the water mains whenever a Communist desires!” Similarly, a right-wing newsletter, the American Capsule News, claimed that “the Soviet General Staff is very happy about it. Anytime they get ready to strike, and their 5th column takes over, there are tons and tons of this poison “standing by” municipal and military water systems ready to be poured in within 15 minutes.”

This controversy had a direct impact on local program during the 1950s and 1960s, where referendums on introducing fluoridation were defeated in over a thousand Florida communities. It was not until as late as the 1990s that fluoridated water was consumed by the majority of the population of the United States.

And the incidence of pediatric tooth decay plummeted, and there were then no Bolsheviks everywhere after all. We do have these scares periodically – somehow the government, our own government, will turn into some sort of oppressive communist sort of thing and tell us what we have to do and there’ll be central-planning and all of our freedom will be gone forever – and then we get over these scares, because some things are good for everyone. We’ll get over this one. A number of children will die, but we’ll get over this one.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to The New Red Scare

  1. Rick says:

    This not-quite-thought-through argument seems to be contagious and spreading amongst unvaccinated parents:

    “It is my choice whether or not I want to be vaccinated. It is your choice whether or not to wash your hands or take basic public health precautions. It is an individual’s choice whether he or she wants to gamble with their child’s life. It is not your place to say what they have to do.”

    And along those same lines, there’s this similarly specious argument from Senator Rand Paul:

    “The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said in an interview with CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” “Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health.”

    First, very quickly, there’s that question of whether we are allowed to “own” other human beings, even our “own” children: We aren’t. People can’t own other people, they’re only allowed to own themselves.

    Secondly, there’s that question of what say the “government” has in the upbringing of your children. Although, by law, it can’t — at least in this country — require that you bring them up as, say, 7th Day Adventists, it can require that you provide them with some minimal standard of schooling. Lots of parents kick up a fuss about this, but most give in to it with the understanding that, if they don’t like public schools, they can always homeschool.

    But just because they’re “your” kids doesn’t mean you can beat them to death, nor can you starve them to death. Try that and the government will get involved. And if it turns out you don’t inoculate your kids against some disease that they later die from, the government might just treat that the same as if you starved them to death. And government could, I suppose, get involved if your refusal to vaccinate your kid results in the death of somebody else.

    I suppose, to be fair to Chris Christie, what he said — that he and his wife vaccinated their kids, but he can understand why other parents want the freedom to decide for themselves — sounds reasonable and really didn’t technically deserve the response it got him, especially since he immediately walked it back.

    On the other hand, it’s hard to muster any sympathy for him. After all, he’s been a fucking bully and he’s been asking for it. If he runs around telling people to “Shut up and sit down!”, he can expect someone to shout it at him. If you don’t play nice with others, you can’t expect them to play nice with you.


  2. Alan, you’re making this all about partisan politics. I understand why, given the news about conflicting statements by the U.S. Democratic president and a couple of Republican wannabees. But polls show that resistance to vaccination is evenly distributed between those two parties, and in fact not much different from the views of Independents. Not everything has to be about political parties.

    Nor does parental resistance to vaccination have to be about autism.

    Some religious groups resist vaccines for reasons of their own.

    Anthroposophical doctors present their own take on the issue — that vaccines stimulate the body’s external immune system but possibly weaken the inherent (cellular) immune system. The anthroposophists posit that experiencing childhood illnesses such as chicken pox, rubella and rubeola actually strengthen a child’s health and vitality. Many kids in Waldorf schools are selectively vaccinated for these reasons. Although the Waldorf schools in North America do not take an official anti-vaccine stance, there is plenty of community discussion guided by medically trained professionals.

    The pro-vaccine argument is seldom presented factually and objectively. Vaccine injuries do occur and are documented, although probably underreported. Mistakes happen. If the CDC and vaccine promoters would simply be honest and straightforward about the risks and benefits of various vaccines, and confess that much is not known about genetic variability, then intelligent and well educated parents would give them more credence.

  3. ELIZABETH says:

    I don’t own my children just as my parents did not own me. However as a child is unable to make mature logical decisions the parents are held responsible, if the parents cannot make mature logical decisions based on the good of the whole, then it should be legally mandated. I liked an earlier comment stating ‘THAT IS NOT COMMUNISM, IT IS COMMON SENSE’

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