Political Agendas in the Anti-Vaccination Discourse

by Jalees Rehman

Vaccines exemplify the success of modern medicine: Scientific insights into the inner workings of the immune system were leveraged to develop vaccines which have been administered to billions of humans world-wide and resulted in the eradication or near-eradication of many life-threatening diseases. Most vaccinations have minimal side effects, are cost-effective and there is a strong consensus among healthcare providers all over the world about the importance of routine vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and diphtheria. Despite these extraordinary successes of global vaccination policies, there is a still a strong anti-vaccination movement which has gained more traction in recent years by using online platforms. To scientists and physicians, the resilience of the anti-vaccination movement often comes as a surprise because their claims are routinely debunked by research. The infamous study which attempted to link the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism was retracted by the medical journal Lancet in 2010. The claim that healthcare providers promote administration of vaccines as a means of generating profits for their clinical practices have also been disproven because the reimbursements for vaccinations by health insurances are lower than the actual costs of administering the vaccines, i.e. healthcare providers in the United States may be losing money on vaccinations.

If the efficacy and safety data on vaccinations are so robust and if many of the anti-vaccination claims have been disproven by research, why do so many people continue to oppose it? One approach to analyze and interpret the beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement is to place it into the context of social and political movements because the opposition to vaccination may not be primarily based on an analysis of scientific data but instead represents an ideological stance. Read more »

The Moral Logic of Nationalism

by Jalees Rehman

Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally in 2017, Anthony Crider, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do people endorse political violence such as military attacks even if such violence is detrimental to their own self-interests? The US-led war against Iraq was supported by more than 70% of Americans within days of the invasion in March 2003, and even though the support dwindled over the course of subsequent months and years as it became obvious that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and had not posed a major threat to the US. One could surmise that the US public had simply been misled by its government about Iraq’s weapons program and the support was thus based on a rational self-interest calculation. The fear of being eviscerated by the supposed Iraqi WMDs convinced US citizens do approve of the war. The Iraq war came at a tremendous cost: It is estimated that at least two hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, with even more deaths attributed to the subsequent humanitarian and political crises precipitated by the war. The war also resulted in the deaths of several thousand American soldiers and a far greater number of American soldiers were wounded. From an economic perspective, it is estimated that at least one trillion dollars has been added to the national debt because of the war. This war was clearly against the self-interest of the American people, especially once it became obvious that Iraq did not possess WMDs. It is therefore all the more surprising that 40% of American adults continue to believe the military invasion of Iraq was the correct decision.  Is this large segment of American society acting irrationally?

The psychologist Jeremy Ginges at the New School for Social Research in New York has been researching the reasoning behind political violence for more than a decade and recently summarized his work in the paper The Moral Logic of Political Violence. He has carried out psychological experiments enrolling Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers as well as participants from countries across the world such as Nigeria and the United States, with remarkably similar results. Read more »

Colorado’s Blue Tsunami: Taking it Nationwide

by Joan Harvey

Photo by Dave Russell; buffaloheartimages.com

Colorado has been a purple state so long that the last time the Democrats had all down ballot State offices, the State House, and State Senate was in 1936. We’re a cowboy state. On the map we’re a sea of red with a tiny blue area to the east of the Continental Divide, plus the tiny population of Aspen. But those small urban and suburban areas have more and more people, and increasingly those people have a voice. And this time that voice has brought us a gay Jewish Democrat as governor, as well as a Democratic attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer. Democrats will control the State House and State Senate. We’re so damn Blue we’re almost cobalt.

How did we do it? Can it be duplicated on a national level? It’s national news that we elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. But we also elected Colorado’s first African American congressman and he’s only 34. We elected the first transgender state rep. We elected more Latinxs to the state legislature. We elected the first Democratic woman to the position of secretary of state and she beat the incumbent in a seat that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since the Eisenhower years. All five of the female candidates in competitive districts for State Senate won handily. And for Congress, Democrat Jason Crow aced the previously unbeatable Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, who had won the previous five terms. Trump blamed Coffman for not embracing him, but in actuality it was Crow’s ability to tie Coffman to Trump that helped Crow win.

Maybe it’s marijuana. Coloradans are so relaxed they just couldn’t work up a rage against a small raggedy caravan of women and children hundreds of miles away. But clearly, the real reason for the great Blue success is Trump. Read more »

Help Citizens with Disabilities Participate in the Political Process

by Jalees Rehman

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over a billion people live with some form of disability, expressed as impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.  Disabilities are often manifestations of health conditions and as such, people suffering from disabilities not only require general medical care such as immunizations and preventive screenings but also need additional care to address the underlying health conditions. According to the WHO, people with disabilities are far more likely to suffer catastrophic health expenditures and receive inadequate medical care than people without disabilities. In addition to the medical and financial challenges, people with disabilities are often isolated and marginalized in society. The lack of political participation by people with disabilities in politics is especially concerning because it sets in motion a vicious cycle of marginalization. If the voices of people with disabilities are not adequately represented in the political arena, then it becomes less likely that governmental measures are taken to ensure adequate medical care and social integration of people with disabilities.

The researchers Lisa Schur and Meera Adya recently studied the political participation of people with disabilities in the United States in their article Sidelined or Mainstreamed? Political Participation and Attitudes of People with Disabilities in the United States. They used data from four US surveys: the 2008 and 2010 Current Population Surveys (CPS), the 2006 General Social Survey (GSS), and the 2007 Maxwell Poll on Citizenship and Inequality. The surveys ask respondents whether they suffer from distinct forms of impairment such as visual, hearing, mental-cognitive or mobility. There were 12,027 people in the 2008 CPS and 12,064 people in the 2010 who answered yes to at least one of the disability questions. The large sample size of CPS and the inclusion of a “voting supplement” in the CPS during even-numbered years allowed the researchers to study the extent of political participation by people with disabilities. Read more »

Liberal politics and the contingency of history

by Emrys Westacott

UnknownIt is hard at present to think about anything other than the recent election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This is a cataclysmic and potentially catastrophic event for both America and the world. Severe narcissism and immense power are a volatile combination that usually ends badly. And with the Republicans controlling all branches of government, the hard right are in an unprecedentedly strong position to implement much of their agenda, from scrapping efforts to combat climate change to passing massive tax cuts for the wealthy

Already, much ink has been spilled on what Hilary Clinton, the Democrats, the liberal elite, the media, the intelligentsia, and anyone else who opposed Trump, got wrong. But the first lesson to be drawn from the election is that history is radically contingent.

Reading post mortems on the election reminded me of listening to soccer pundits explaining the result of a close game. In the game itself, the losing team may have hit the post twice, had a goal disallowed for an incorrect offside call, and been denied a clear penalty; the winning team perhaps scored once following an untypical defensive slip. Yet the pundits will explain the result as due to the losing team's inability to cope with their opponent's midfield diamond, along with their failure to spread the play wide. Their explanations are invariably blamings. In truth, though, the result could easily have been, and four times out of five would have been, different; in which case the talk would have been all about the ineffectiveness of the midfield diamond….etc.

Exactly the same sort of thing can be seen in political punditry. The contest between Clinton and Trump was extremely close. Clinton won the popular vote–with counting still going on she has a lead of close to 1.5 million votes–but Trump won the electoral college: which means, given the peculiar and outmoded system, that Trump won. Explanations are legion. Clinton was a hopelessly flawed candidate. The Democrats took their base for granted. The Democrats ignored the plight of the working class. The coastal elites are out of touch with the heartland….etc.

But as Nate Silver and many others have pointed out, a small shift—one vote in a hundred or less—in three of the swing states and Clinton would have won. In that case, the hot political topic today would be the crisis in the Republican party, the gulf between its established leadership and the Trumpistas, the impossibility of a Republican winning the white house so long as the party continues to alienate minorities and millennials…. etc.

Given the dire outcome of the election for the Democrats and for liberal causes generally, it is natural and sensible for liberals to ask what went wrong. But it is important in doing so, to not exaggerate problematic factors, and to keep hold of what was right.

Three areas are especially subject to scrutiny: the candidate; the platform; and the strategy.

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Cynicism and Argument

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Presidential_Debate-00985In the wake of the first Presidential Debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, two assessments have come to be widely accepted. The first is that Mitt Romney handily won the debate. The second is that Mitt Romney’s key claims in the debate were demonstrably inaccurate. Neither assessment taken on its own looks particularly noteworthy. But when they are affirmed together, they sound dissonant.

Here’s why. Debates are argumentative settings where one’s performance should be assessed on the basis of the relative quality of the arguments one presents. The quality of an argument depends on the truth of the information presented as premises and the relevance of that information to its conclusion. So if we know that an arguer is employing premises containing important inaccuracies, we should not judge his or her arguments as successful. Therefore we should not think he or she did well in the debate. Yet this is precisely what the conjunction of the two prevalent assessments of the Presidential Debate contends: Romney won the debate, but his central arguments were failures. There’s the dissonance.

We can anticipate what our critics will say: What Pollyannas these guys are! They may then continue: Academics are so naïve! Political debates aren’t about arguments, but rather cutting a striking pose, displaying one’s personality, connecting with an audience, and making one’s opponents look dumb. The critics might then raise the example of the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960, where Nixon was considered the winner by those listening on the radio, but Kennedy won with those who watched on TV. Nixon looked tired, but Kennedy looked, well, like a Kennedy. This leads our imagined critics to conclude: Winning over an audience, looking “presidential,” taking a commanding tone — that’s what political debate is really about. Everything else is just Ivory Tower chatter. And so goes a popular interpretation of democracy’s deliberative moments. This is a resolutely cynical stance concerning democracy, and in fact it takes its cynicism to be a kind of virtue. Let’s call it “just is” cynicism.

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In The Name Of The Holy Cow…Yet Again…

by Gautam Pemmaraju

On January 7th news publications ran reports of a young Muslim cattle trader being harassed by members of the Hindu right-wing Bajrang Dal in Madhya Pradesh. A group stopped 25-year-old Anish Aslam Kureishi, son of a cattle trader of Chhindwara district, on December 31st, who was ferrying cattle. The men demanded money from him and on his refusal, they damaged his pick-up truck, dragged him to a village close by, beat him up, shaved part of his head off, as well as one eyebrow and half his moustache, and left him there tied to a pole. While the group claimed that the cattle were headed to an illegal slaughterhouse, the father of the waylaid man stated that they were meant for sale at a nearby market, and his younger brother said that they often paid off the Bajrang Dal to escape harassment. There have been subsequent reports quoting the police and administration that the entire family has been involved in illegal cattle transport. Holy-cow

This incident followed a widely reported amendment to the state’s cow protection laws that received presidential sanction on December 22nd. The amendment, as several commentators have pointed out, extends the scope of the already stringent anti-cow slaughter laws, which expressly prohibits the killing of cows, by increasing the jail term for those caught killing cows, transporting or selling beef, to up to 7 years. In addition, the BJP led government, by way of this amendment, also invests public officials with extraordinary powers to enter, search premises on suspicion of cow slaughter and beef storage, as well as to make arrests. The burden of proof is also transferred to the accused, making this law not only dangerously harsh, but also of dubious constitutional character. The Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s ‘dream’ has come true, according to the state’s Culture & PR Minister, who further added that the administration was keen to enforce the provisions of the Act ‘in letter and spirit’.

Several commentators have been quick to attack the draconian provisions of this already pernicious Act, pointing out that they mimic those of anti-terror laws. The BJP led central government has in the past also attempted ‘more robust application’ (read here and here) by attempting to amend law to bring detention under the ambit of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was repealed by the Congress led UPA government in 2004.

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The Industrious God

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Temple-balaji-7The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.

A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.

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The Immensity Of Killing Bin Laden vs. The Banality Of Language

By Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Obl-nypost

There are events so shocking, untoward or thrilling, they are bigger than language. Beyond words.

In my lifetime, such events have included the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy, as well as 9/11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Being a South African-American, I'd add the 1976 Soweto Uprising and Mandela's release from jail.

What sets these events apart from all others? They scorch the collective cerebellum. They rip away the veil we construct between us and reality to such a degree that, for at least a minute, and sometimes for days, we look straight into the heart of the raw what-is. The realness of the Real upends our world and blows our minds. We find ourselves staring into an approximation of Kant's Ding an sich. Language becomes inadequate. Eloquence cannot meet the moment. The event is too original for any rhetoric to be appropriate. As Adorno famously observed about the greatest crime in history, “Poetry isn't possible after the Holocaust.”

Listen to a mother talking about what happened when she and her husband heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Maureen and Alexander Santora lost their firefighter son on 9/11, and this is from an interview on May 5th at Ground Zero. Mrs. Santora is talking.

“Well, Al was out watching TV and I was on the computer and he yelled out, come out right away, and I came out to the TV and on the bottom was, you know, Osama bin Laden is dead. And then they kept, you know, delaying the President coming out to speak. And we thought initially the President would say, we thought it was him, but it was a mistake. And when he came out and he said he's actually dead, we just sat there for 20 minutes and didn't move. We were just motionless. And then we were just filled with joy. We just were filled with joy. We were just elated at the realization that this had actually happened.”

Zapped by reality for 20 minutes. As if there were too much reality to absorb. And then filled with a wordless joy.

But that's not where it ends. After the merciless intrusion of the real, something happens that robs us of that moment, that wrenches us away from the unmediated experience of the raw what-is, the actual Actual.

That something is language. Inevitably, a consensus language emerges. An official narrative spins the event out of our original grasp — or nongrasp — into the pastiche of consolation or celebration.

It's like a couple ready to claw each other's clothes off, but trapped in a wedding that goes on forever. The wedding is beautiful, but it allows no room for the raw, wet desire that drew them together in the first place.

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Passion Play: Local history, poor governance and divisive politics

by Gautam Pemmaraju

MtCarmelProtest As the picture here suggests, the local parish of Mt Carmel’s on Chapel Road in the western suburb of Bandra in Mumbai, is exhorting upon the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State to exert his efforts elsewhere. Recently, in a most controversial and aggressively conducted manner, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), the city’s main civic authority, went on a drive of demolishing ‘illegal’ religious structures, mostly ‘plague crosses’, around Mumbai – from the centre of the city in Mazagaon and Byculla, to the historic Portuguese Catholic suburb of Bandra. The local community, caught off guard and distraught by this unilateral action, has mobilized itself and is vigorously protesting the civic authority’s drive. Various newspapers as well as a few television channels have reported the events, speculating on a variety of issues – the legality of the structures, the timing of the civic body’s actions, official stances, the historical issues and community sentiments. The archbishop of Mumbai, Msgr Oswald Gracias has termed the action ‘unjust’ and ‘illegal’ and in contravention of existing policy wherein structures before 1964 are deemed to be of legal status. In 2009, a Supreme Court bench, while hearing a petition against a Gujarat High Court order instructing state municipalities to take action against illegal religious structures, issued an interim order to all states of the union, to review the status of existing structures that are constructed along roadsides and which obstruct traffic. In compliance of this Supreme Court order, the state government issued a regulation last October to all municipal bodies to take action against ‘illegal structures’. Following this government regulation, various municipal officials of the different wards began to post notices on numerous crosses and other structures (two temples) over the last two weeks to meet a February 28th deadline – there are 749 illegal structures in the city according to official figures. In the central district of Byculla, the officials posted a notice on a Saturday afternoon informing the residents of an impending demolition on Monday, leaving them no time to appeal the action. Subsequently, a cross in Hathi Baug, Love Lane, in the central district of Mazagaon, was removed and its plaque, dated 1936, was damaged. 1

In 2003 this matter had come before the state High Court and the civic body had then been instructed to take action against illegal structures. Members of the Catholic community had then submitted documentation to the civic body regarding individual structures in support of their historical value and legality. Now community members are accusing the municipality of disregarding this documentation and acting illegally.

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To Spend or Not To Spend: The Austerity vs. Stimulus Debate

Greek unions protest

Public sector austerity has come back to the West in a big way. Governments throughout the European Union are wrestling against striking civil servants, a stagnant private sector, and an entrenched public welfare system to drastically reduce spending. The budget cuts are broad, and they run deep. Under pressure from global financial markets and the European Central Bank to reduce public deficits, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece have issued “austere” budgets for the coming year that simultaneously raise taxes and slash government spending. David Cameron’s new Conservative government has violated its campaign pledge to spare Britain’s generous middle class subsidies in an attempt to close a budget gap that is among the world’s largest, at 11 percent of GDP. Supposedly confirming the wisdom of austerity, the financial press has trumpeted the re-election of Latvia’s center-right government, which passed an IMF-endorsed budget with austerity reductions equal to 6.2 percent of GDP. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis won his “increased mandate” – “an inspiration for his colleagues in the EU” – against a backdrop of 20 percent unemployment and a cumulative economic contraction of 25 percent in 2008 and 2009, the most severe collapse in the world.

Latvian electoral politics notwithstanding, austerity has been a tough sell worldwide. Both the protests that broke out across Europe at the end of September and the general strikes mounted against Socialist governments in Portugal, Spain, and Greece attest to the resistance all governments face in cutting public spending. And opposition has not been confined to the streets. At a G20 summit in Washington DC on April 23, the finance ministers and central bank governors of the world’s 20 largest economies agreed that extraordinary levels of public spending should be maintained until “the recovery is firmly driven by the private sector and becomes more entrenched.” Indeed, Larry Summers, the departing Director of the White House National Economic Council, still argues that the United States must continue its policy of economic stimulus in the form of deficit spending on infrastructure rather than pull back public resources, lest it cede the small gains of the nascent recovery.

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