Friday, May 01, 2009


I think the American reaction to the swine flu story has been a bit overwrought -- it was hard not to arrive at that conclusion when I learned that 300 schools had been closed in response to fewer than half as many actual reported cases -- but I think there's some reason for concern. I noticed yesterday that Robert Stacy McCain, American Spectator mainstay and wannabe provocateur, was pooh-poohing the whole thing and ascribing the news media's fixation on the story to (a) a wish to see Barack Obama do well and (b) silly, ignorable subgroups in our society: old people and women:

Health news is consumed mainly by women and the elderly. Healthy men in the prime of life tend to consider themselves invulnerable to disease. Every real guy learns at an early age that only wussie-boys fret over germs. Real guys instinctively loathe the neurasthenic wimp who explains his latest case of the sniffles by whining, "It's my allergies." Women, however, seem to have an inherent predisposition toward hypochondria. For example, women are the prime market for hand sanitizer; it's like they have a self-esteem issue about their immune systems. And old folks, of course, spend 80% of their waking hours worrying about their health, carefully monitoring themselves for "regularity" and visiting the doctor weekly to demand diagnoses and treatment for their various aches and pains. This is why Medicare is threatening to bankrupt America: Going to the doctor is actually a hobby for the elderly. Old folks love to collect things, and now they're collecting prescriptions at taxpayer expense. (Honestly: Go look at your Grandma's medicine cabinet.)

McCain writes these things hoping people like me will rise to the bait -- he sees himself as Andrew Dice Clay with a Club for Growth membership card -- and I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of responding with outrage.

I will say, though, that he's not the guy I'd want to have along with me in the midst of a cholera epidemic. ("Come on," I hear him saying, "it's just a little water with shit in it. What are you, a faggot? When I was in school all the pledge brothers had to drink from the toilet!")

And I'll add that it wasn't long ago that the main component of televised news was an endless series of tales of urban crime, which inspired men who lived far away from any conceivable contact with, say, crack-related murders to buy as many weapons as humanly possible, in anticipation of a mass gangsta invasion of the exurbs that -- funny thing -- never quite happened. If there are more guns in your closet than there have been murders in your hometown in the past half-century, I'd say that's very similar to "an inherent predisposition toward hypochondria."

And even though this was meant to be a comedy riff, it seems to me it's quintessential right-wing thinking in our time. We should shrug off swine flu completely because worrying about it doesn't feel normal to a real man! Really -- is there anything more to modern conservatism than unswerving fealty to whatever feels normal to "real men"?

Taxes -- gotta be lower! On everybody! Deficits don't matter! Um, until they do (which is when a Democrat is in charge)! Then -- we need to lower taxes again! On everybody! Repeat as necessary! Evildoers -- kill 'em all! They looked at us crosswise! What do you mean, they didn't have WMDs, and we just plunged their country into chaos! Oh, and if you can't kill evildoers, torture 'em! Torture has to work -- it wouldn't feel good if it didn't! Flag pins -- wear 'em! Patriotism! Democracy! Freedom! What do you mean, Hamas might get elected? Shut up! Democracy is good! Freedom is good!

Liberalism always has an uphill battle because so much of what we propose is counterintuitive. Spend in a deep recession. Talk (warily and conditionally) to dictators. Redistribute wealth (up to a point) to preserve the health of a capitalist economy. It's a kind of thinking that makes sense to people who know how the world works -- doctors sometimes induce unhealthy body-temperature extremes to fight disease; capitalism itself usually requires debt to generate revenue and profit -- but it doesn't feel right.

Experts can certainly be wrong, but if you choose your experts wisely, and get yourself well enough informed to subject their recommendations to the smell test, you can better advice from them than from crotch-scratching dumb louts. Or Republicans. But I repeat myself.

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