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Dan Olmsted On Why Progressives Don't Get Autism

Posted Nov 12 2010 12:00am

Enablers By Dan Olmsted

The midterm elections have ushered in a period of reflection and reckoning for the nation’s liberal-left movement that today usually describes itself as “progressive.” As The Huffington Post bluntly put it, “Progressive Heroes Go Down to Defeat.” Especially given health care reform’s big role in the election debate, this reckoning ought to include the biggest health problem facing the next generation and hence the nation: Autism.

But first, progressives have got to come to grips with their abject failure to “get” the autism issue.

Progressivism, the idea that government can and should intervene to improve the lives of its citizens, arose early in the last century in response to the Darwinian excesses of Industrial Revolution, laissez-faire capitalism – child labor, abject poverty in the elderly, untaxed corporate profits that went right back into the pockets of the richest. It peaked during the New Deal, then plummeted during Reagan – “Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem,” he famously said.

While this political philosophy waxes and wanes, as it should, I would argue that the word has a wider meaning now – that our country, great as it is and has been, faces challenges and problems that can be addressed by doing something, by making progress, sometimes but not necessarily led or funded by government. So it’s not so much a left-right issue as one of the static status quo versus the impulse to improve on it.

One key part of the progressive agenda of the last century has been improving health – and especially children’s health – through mass vaccination against deadly diseases.  And now come a new group of people, autism parents, who allegedly want to roll back all this progress so long in the making. And how do they want to accomplish this nefarious (and nebulous) goal? By questioning the consensus that genes cause autism, and by claiming that the environment – and plausibly some aspect of the very same mass vaccination campaign -- is implicated in autism’s epidemic rise. Cleverly labeling these concerns “anti-vaccine” and, implicitly, anti-progress, makes it easy to ignore a fundamental truth -- that every ideology including progressivism can go too far, get hijacked by forces that should be its natural enemies, and fail to understand what is required at a particular historical moment.

At THIS moment, what’s required of progressives is a willingness to listen to literally thousands of these parents, and hundreds of scientists and doctors, who are trying to tell the medical industry – trade organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, government public health officials at the FDA, the CDC and NIMH, pharmaceutical companies – that something is badly amiss. The message is pretty simple, really: In creating an undeniable public good, those responsible for taking care of children’s health inadvertently unleashed a monster – epidemic levels of developmental and chronic illnesses in this generation of children.

Not surprisingly, they don’t want to hear it. But while all elements of the medical industry – the medical-industrial complex that develops, regulates, administers and protects the recommended national immunization schedule – are equally accountable, the leadership needs to come from the government. It alone is directly responsive to individuals – citizens, voters – and it alone has the authority to make, not just ask for, changes. Government is not here to make a profit but to protect and serve the citizens who elected it. Its shareholders are the people.

This – a truly progressive response to a national health crisis, a response that can only be mounted by a government responsive to the concerns of citizens -- is what needs to happen now. Government needs to untangle itself from the interests and involvements with private industry and technological development that have tied it down like Gulliver, and take back control of science and policy. It needs to get past the gerberding of government, in which revolving regulators like CDC director Julie Gerberding went from recommending vaccines one day to running the vaccine division at Merck 365 days later.

Mainstream journalism is another example of this abject failure. While not necessarily biased toward big government or liberal candidates, journalism itself is inescapably progressive. None of us got into the business to make sure nothing changes for the better; rather, it’s about comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable and using the extraordinary freedom granted by the First Amendment to look for power gone mad – and get it back under the people’s control. At least, that’s what the Framers intended.  Newspapers that print lengthy investigations are elated when they can follow up with reports of government action -- that “federal prosecutors have opened an investigation…” or “congressional leaders vowed to take swift steps against …”

So please, don’t paint me with the anti-science, anti-progress, know-nothing brush that too many progressives love to wield whenever this issue comes ‘round to the undeniable implications of autism’s recency and rapid rise. Mark Blaxill and I have just written a 300-plus page book with 700-plus footnotes, laying out the history of the disorder and its roots in the commercialization of a new mercury compound in the 1930s (“The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic”). Just because, starting in the 1930s, unregulated businesses decided to use that toxin in vaccines as well as in agriculture products doesn’t make us anti-vaccine or anti-science, any more than it makes us anti-fungicide. (The government had the good progressive sense to ban mercury in agriculture in the 1970s. It’s still in the flu-shot at your favorite grocery store, though. At least in 1930 they didn’t know any better; today, government abets and enables this disaster.)

It’s doubly disappointing to see traditionally progressive outlets – from Salon to Daily Kos to The Atlantic to National Public Radio and PBS – ignore the evidence presented in our book and so many other places, twist the facts they can’t deny, belittle those who believe otherwise including beleaguered autism parents, and glibly trumpet tired reassurances that the concern over vaccines has been “asked and answered,” that “study after study” has refuted any relation, and that continuing to point out disturbing patterns of evidence to the contrary endangers children and infants.

What really endangers children and infants is sloppy and self-interested thinking by those who should know better, based on second-hand assurances that all is well – that there is no problem, nothing to fix, no need for a progressive response. The implication is that the State and the Corporations will take care of it on their own, no oversight required because, after all, they are “the experts,” the power elites – hardly a point of view that political progressives or serious journalists have adopted in the past. The Obama administration – already responsible for a totally wasted opportunity to implement the Combating Autism Act as Congress intended – went over to the Dark Side when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius told Reader’s Digest her agency “reached out” to media outlets to discourage them from even giving the other side of the issue.

We’ve seen this Big Brother approach ourselves in real time. When we appeared on The Leonard Lopate Show on public radio in New York City, we were told the New York health department had called the day before to warn them our message –a careful, five-year historical investigation of five centuries of mercury poisoning that suggests mercury is a cause of the autism epidemic – was discredited and dangerous.

The irony could not be richer. In our book, we describe how the first widespread use of mercury in vaccines came in 1931 with the diphtheria vaccination campaign in New York City and state (the first case of autism was born the same year). For the time, that was truly progressive: Universal preventive health care for what was called “childhood’s deadly scourge.” The impulse was exactly right; but the commercial implementation, using a preservative made with ethyl mercury in the form of thimerosal to permit manufacturing and shipment of multi-dose vials, was tragic.

Progressives ought to be able to make this distinction, to tease out the fundamental public good from an inadvertent and ongoing disaster and the long failure to confront and fix it. If for no other reason, they should do this because when public action fails due to mismanagement, it plays into the idea that the public sector can’t run anything as well as  private business, and the progressive movement inadvertently validates the conservative critique. Instead, public health officials are now trying ever harder to stifle the debate, preserve the status quo and their own careers and credibility; in doing so, they betray not only the children they are charged with protecting, but the progressive values that led to mass vaccination in the first place.

It’s time for a reset, as the pundits say. The way forward is not complicated: Progressives need to pay attention to their own first principles and to primary sources and patterns of evidence and evasion  – parents who describe regression, federal agencies that quietly compensate vaccine-autism cases while denying that’s what they’re doing, media outlets too timid, too tied to Big Pharma and too cozy with Big Government to dig up the truth for themselves. They need to take the side of consumer safety not producer profits. And then they need to act.

One reason they need to do so is simple political expediency – recent polls show very high numbers of Americans concerned about autism, its possible relationship to vaccines, and the need for more vaccine safety research. This genie is way out of the bottle despite the best efforts at suppression.

And the debate will get even louder. As traditional media outlets shrink and become more beholden to dwindling advertisers and less likely to investigate for themselves, the emerging multiplicity of platforms works in our favor. We’ve gotten excellent coverage from The Washington Examiner, which wasn’t around a few years ago to counter the Washington Post’s vacant approach to the issue; from Deirdre Imus at Huffington Post, the leading progressive outlet that will give this issue a fair hearing, and from James Grundvig of The Epoch Times, an internationally circulated print and online outlet that, again, is relatively new. Grundvig captured the progressive point perfectly:

“Where has the government been in all of this? Protecting the vaccine makers, chirping the frivolous claim that ‘autism has always been there, just its definition has broadened.’ If all the skeptics were persuaded to read this book, perhaps they will finally admit that not all forms, practices, and medicines developed by empirical science through the ages have done no harm, when it’s clear that they have left a long, painful debris trail on human history.”

The best major-media reporting recently on this issue has come from conservative Fox News, which has taken to running almost weekly reports. The network seems to have been prompted by the government’s strange concession in Vaccine Court – that autism was not “caused” by vaccines but autistic symptoms “resulted” from the vaccinations – which a reporter called “fishy legal language.”

Is that really what progressives and mainstream journalists want? To watch the most important health problem of our time covered best by the most conservative news outlet in the country? Indeed, the progressive agenda of the past few years – perhaps misspent on bailing out huge financial firms, bottomless funding of giant “defense” contractors (Halliburton, call your Oval Office), and an enormous patchwork healthcare reform bill that almost no one seems to like – may have shifted to the Tea Party, which captures the populist and trust-busting impulses of progressivism.

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor positioning himself to run for president, said on TV the other day that “there’s a coalition of bigness that needs to be busted up.” That sounds like the iconic progressive himself, Teddy Roosevelt, and it applies 100 percent to what’s wrong with children’s health policy today and how to start fixing it. Progressives could begin grabbing this energy back by embracing autism as an issue in which consumers have been betrayed by an unholy alliance of pharma giants and a captured government doing their bidding. Bust ‘em! Put the people back in charge!

Several million Americans touched by the age of autism would eagerly vote today for anyone willing to do that, whatever their party or philosophy is called.

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Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.

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