Reader e-mail: Why are you picking on Jenny McCarthy over vaccines and autism?

Last night, I received an e-mail from a fairly well-known atheist (no, it wasn’t Richard Dawkins, although that would have been totally cool) criticizing me for my post about Bill Maher’s complete unsuitability for the Richard Dawkins Award. I’m not going to reprint my response to that part, because, well, his criticisms were pretty much a boilerplate of other blowback I’ve received from the post. What caught my attention more was that he noticed a couple of posts of mine about Jenny McCarthy.

I’ll paraphrase, because I don’t have this person’s permission to post his e-mail. Not that that would necessarily stop me, as my e-mail policy clearly says that I retain the right to post any blog-related e-mail solely at my discretion. However, in this particular case I thought that would be totally uncool; I usually only invoke that policy for abusive or insulting e-mails. In any case, specifically he was unhappy over the “harshness” of my tone, pointing out that she was a mother of an autistic child, motivated by good intentions, and all the usual defenses I hear. He said that, even though he agrees with me my nastiness made him unlikely to want to read any further. As I responded, my e-mail got longer and longer, to the point where I thought: Why waste this? This is good stuff, man. It should go on the blog. I’m also really busy working on a grant this weekend; so wasting all that brilliance on one person seemed….well, wrong.

So I decided to post an edited version of my response that leaves out my defense of my post about Bill Maher and addresses only the Jenny McCarthy issue. I do this mainly because the Bill Maher part might reveal more than I want to about who wrote to me:

Dear Reader,

Your knowledge of my blog is indeed superficial, but I won’t hold that against you. I get newbies all the time making the same sorts of complaints. Hang around, and you’ll soon see the error of your initial impression. Seriously. For example:

There’s a lot more to Respectful Insolence other than insolence, be it respectful or not-so-respectful.

End of shameless self-promotion.

I was most interested in your defense of Jenny McCarthy. Sorry, but when it comes to Jenny McCarthy, I make no apologies. Indeed, your criticism (1) strikes me as concern trolling and (2) shows me that you have no experience dealing with the lunacy of the anti-vaccine movement, of which McCarthy is currently the celebrity face. Suffice it to say, I’ve been following the anti-vaccine movement for a long time now (and, yes, Jenny McCarthy is definitely anti-vaccine, her protestations otherwise notwithstanding). One thing I’ve learned is that she is not an autism advocate. She is an advocate for quackery for autistic children, and she is an anti-vaccine advocate. It is a view of autistic children that dehumanizes them. They are portrayed as “toxic,” “damaged,” poisoned,” and “lost,” among other things, with stories of the “light going out of their eyes” after a vaccination. To “recover” their “true” child, these parents will subject their children to all manner of quackery, including chelation (from which at least one child has died), massive doses of supplements, hyperbaric oxygen (just like Michael Jackson!), and various other nonsense. One parent that I’m aware of even took his autistic daughter down to Costa Rica for “stem cell” treatment. I highly doubt there were any actual stem cells in whatever concoction they injected into her, but whatever it was they injected these “stem cells” into the girls’ cerebrospinal fluid by lumbar puncture (a.k.a. spinal tap). This guy also blogs for Age of Autism, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Generation Rescue, which is now “Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity.” Add to that all the autistic children who have been subjected to unnecessary colonoscopies thanks to Andrew Wakefield, and there is real harm being done. Moreover, Jenny McCarthy has been corrected many times; it doesn’t take. Truly she is the primary example of hubris the arrogance of ignorance.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to real parents of children with autism:

I could produce many more such posts.

And Jenny McCarthy is ignorantly promoting it all, quackery, the image of autistics as “damaged” and “poisoned,” the whole toxic mess. No, she’s enthusiastically promoting it all, and happily being used by the quacks. Of course, at the risk of compounding the nastiness you perceive in me, she’s also resurrected her career in the process. Do you honestly think Oprah would have given her her own show if it weren’t for her “autism” books in which she blames vaccines for her son’s autism and describes her experimentation with different forms of quackery to “cure” him.

I’m sorry. I’ve said it before, and I realize that McCarthy probably thinks she’s doing good. However, to borrow a religious phrase, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. How bad do someone’s actions have to be before the “good intentions” and “mother warrior” excuses no longer excuse them? IMHO, McCarthy’s actions long ago passed that point, particularly after she led that antivaccine march on Washington in June 2008. She also waves her new “warrior mom” persona in front of her like a talisman to deflect criticism. Once, when it was pointed out that her activities are contributing to the lowering of the vaccination rate, this is what she said in an interview with TIME Magazine:

TIME: Your collaborator recommends that parents accept only the haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) and tetanus vaccine for newborns and then think about the rest. Not polio? What about the polio clusters in unvaccinated communities like the Amish in the U.S.? What about the 2004 outbreak that swept across Africa and Southeast Asia after a single province in northern Nigeria banned vaccines?

JM: I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

I’m sorry if you were offended by my being ever so mean to Jenny McCarthy, but think of it this way. You signed off by saying “respectfully shitting on all gods, divine or divined.” Surely you know that the religious are just as motivated by doing good as you say Jenny McCarthy is, and shitting on their god is really, really mean. When Richard Dawkins says that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse, that’s really, really mean. When Bill Maher mocks the religious in a major motion picture, that’s really, really mean.

When I mock the cultish religious beliefs of the anti-vaccine movement (which one parent of a child with autism has referred to as “McCarthygeddon“) I guess I’m really mean too. Make no mistake about it, though. Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine beliefs are every bit as cultish and immune to reason as any religion, and they are harmful. Vaccine-preventable diseases are making a comeback.

I’m sorry if you don’t like my tone, but I think I know a bit more about this than you do, and nice just doesn’t work. Indeed, the anti-vaccine movement thrives on nice, because it gives the false impression that their views are in the same universe when it comes to science. Besides, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…”

Respectfully insolently yours,

Orac