The anti-vaccine movement shows just how low it can go

I debated whether or not to blog about this. The reason is that I suspect that gathering a lot of attention and controversy is exactly what Generation Rescue wanted when it posted what I’m about to blog about. On the other hand, no matter how low my opinion is of the principals who run Generation Rescue‘s anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, there were limits below which they wouldn’t go. Oh, sure, AoA has launched at least three broadsides at me over the last year and a half, all penned by the ever-offensive blowhard J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue who’s allowed himself to be displaced by a brainless D-list actress and her equally dim but, alas, very popular A-list comedian boyfriend. Indeed, I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost predict when such a broadside is coming, and when it does I know I’ve scored big points.

This time, though, the broadside wasn’t directed at me.

Look, I get it. I get why J.B. Handley likes to launch a full frontal assault on me periodically. I’m not all warm and cuddly and accommodationist. When I see pseudoscience, stupidity, and nastiness on the part of the anti-vaccine movement I don’t mince words about it. I call stupidity stupidity and despicable behavior despicable behavior. Sometimes it it causes me some mild trouble. But, attacks by cranks aside, I’ve never seen anything like what AoA posted the other day. It was so over-the-top that even bloggers who don’t normally pay that much attention to the anti-vaccine movement, bloggers like Rebecca “Skepchick” Watson took notice before even I did. Basically, whatever nastiness the anti-vaccine movement has thrown my way, it’s never done to me what it’s just done to a friend (Steve Novella), a scientist I admire (Paul Offit), and two journalists (Amy Wallace and Trine Tsouderos) who’ve earned my respect for having written hard-hitting, science-based exposes of the anti-vaccine movement and the anti-vaccine autism “biomed” movement, as well as others who clearly don’t deserve this degree of hate and abuse.

It’s never portrayed me as eating babies as part of a Thanksgiving feast. That’s right. AoA thinks its a load of yucks to paint its enemies as cannibals eating babies.

Even as someone who has become as jaded as I have when it comes to the behavior of the anti-vaccine movement, I was amazed by just how vile this latest post from Generation Rescue is. I realized that the anti-vaccine movement hates us defenders of science-based medicine, but I hadn’t realized the depth of the hatred, but it flowed out in torrents in the comments after this post. Misogyny, hatred, anger, and pseudoscience, all mixed together in a toxic brew, and I plan on pointing out some examples. No doubt AoA expected me and others to be outraged, but what I am, more than anything else, is depressed. That human beings can think such things based on so little evidence is truly depressing–and saddening.

First, there’s Kim Stagliano, a.k.a. “Stagmom,” leaping in very early with a comment that Rebecca also took her to task for, a comment that was so misogynistic and tasteless that apparently she took it down. Good thing I saved it, as did Rebecca Watson, the better to rub her face in it:

Dr. Nancy is under the table servicing Dr. Offit’s RotaDick. Wait, can you hear her? “Fere If doh bontrobersy!!” Someone should tell her it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full.

She’s referring to Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical editor and a defender of vaccines against the myths promulgated by the likes of Kimmy.

Then there’s Autismdaddy crowing:

Love it. Pharma-whore house looks like to me!

But the commenters at AoA were just getting warmed up. No attack on an an ideological enemy would be complete without one element, one technique of demonization, a favorite these days of right-wing enemies of President Obama and formerly a favorite of left-wing anti-war protestors against President Bush. It’s the all-purpose demonization that keeps giving, so much so that I created my own literary “device” to mock it, a device I kept going back to until recently the sorts of analogies I used to have so much fun mocking became so commonplace that I could if I so desire run a blog that is nothing but such attempts at parody. That’s right, I’m talking about letting your brains be chomped by the Hitler Zombie, just as a commenter going by the ‘nym of benmyson did:

It’s a horrible image. So are the images of boxcar loads of men, women and children going to Dachau, or the image of the napalm scorched Vietnamese girl running down the road. Obviously reality is horrifying. Sins of omission do just as much damage.

A five year old girl as sold, traded, bartered into sexual slavery in North Carolina recently. This child ended up strangled to death and tossed off the side of the road into a pile of rotting deer carcusses. The mother of this child, a prostitute herself, may have rationalized that the child she gave away would have no worse of a life than most children. She may have even rationalized that sacrificing her daughter would enable her to save her unborn child and her son. Much the same way the Chinese did by killing the newborn baby girls.

People can rationalize all kinds of things, blowing up 100,000 people by dropping two atomic bombs in Japan may have saved the world from who knows what, but tell that to the family and the survivors.

Yes it is a cruel and horrifying image but so is turning a blind eye to the truth. And the truth is they know better.

Because the image of children being vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases is just like the Holocaust.

Benmyson is apparently unaware that Dachau was a concentration camp, not a death camp. Boxcar loads of men, women, and children were generally not taken there to be gassed, but either punished or worked to death. Political prisoners, Jews, Communists, Christian religious resisters to Nazi rule, and, later, Soviet prisoners of war, were imprisoned there under bad conditions that steadily deteriorated as the war continued and the Nazis became more brutal. But, hey, why ruin a good rant with a little history?

Be that as it may, where have we heard this sort of apocalyptic imagery before? Many are the crank movements that devolve into comparing their enemies to Hitler and Stalin and claiming that they’ve slaughtered on par with them or Pol Pot. I will admit, however, that I’ve never heard anyone likening defending science-based medicine against pseudoscience–any pseudoscience–to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not even PETA, a group that is not shy about invoking the Holocaust for its own purposes, hasn’t done that. Speaking of the Holocaust and Nazis, it didn’t escape my notice that the image of the perceived0 enemies of GR and AoA preparing to eat a baby for a holiday feast is more than a little reminiscent of the blood libel against the Jews, in which anti-Semites claim that Jews kidnap Gentile babies in order to perform ritual murder and use their blood to make their Passover matzah. I wonder how many Jewish parents of autistic children noticed that.

The sad thing, the thing that really depresses me, is that this his how a lot of the anti-vaccine movement really does think. Seriously. In fact, if you have any doubt that the movement behind AoA is anti-vaccine to the core, check out this comment by Kristina:

The horrifying truth about these people is that if they replaced their current, real life actions that injure and kill thousands of children per year, with a tradition of killing just one baby per year for Thanksgiving, the world would be a better place. That is why the cartoon, while sickening, is not inappropriate.

Kristina apparently really does believe that vaccines kill thousands of people a year and that it would be better to kill one baby a year to be eaten than to keep vaccinating babies and have thousands die. Words fail me in trying to convey to you the enormity of the hatred and ignorance embodied in these beliefs. The rhetoric is starting to resemble that of the radical anti-abortion movement, both in its invocations of the Holocaust, its apocalyptic comparisons, and the accusations of murdering children. From there it’s only a short hop to accusing your foes of being capable of eating babies (all neatly cloaked under a flimsy blanket of lame than lame “parody”). From there it’s not a very long leap to thinking that something has to be done about these people who have been painted as enemies of humanity and killers (and eaters) of babies. The history of the anti-vaccine movement is starting to look disturbingly like the history of the anti-abortion movement. Accusing your enemies of killing and eating babies, even in jest, is a step in the direction to dehumanizing defenders of science-based medicine in such a manner that could make it easier to justify violence.

In all fairness, however, so over-the-top was AoA’s latest antic that several of its readers, even some who are usually totally down with the pseudoscience behind autism “biomed” quackery and the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism, reacted with appropriate revulsion. A sampling:

This is disgraceful. Who do you think you are to do something like that? If somebody would picture myself like this i would be more then offended. This is below all standard. Shame on you. (George)

Sorry all, I loved AOA till tonite. This baby on the table is just going too far. I dont know where American civilization is headed. Our distinguished jurist, Justice Clarence Thomas , said it years ago. Americans are losing CIVILITY ! Half a century ago, would anyone have portrayed Hitler and his top brass sitting at a fine dining table with you know what on it? Of course not- Thats because people were taught civility and respect in those days. (Cherry Sperlin Misra)

It is unfortunate to hear that the editors at AoA do not see the harm in posting garbage like this.

I visit this blog daily and it has become one my best sources for autism news. The quality of information and research on real autism matters is unsurpassed.

Having said that, how can anyone expect to be painted as anything but extremists with imagery like this. I understand the anger, I understand the frustration. What I don’t understand is how this advances our cause to advocate for our children.

How can I pass information from this site on to anyone in an effort to convince them of the need for vaccine/environmental research for autism. AoA cannot be taken seriously when stuff like this is posted. (Tom K)

This really helps a lot in the discussion of vaccines and safety doesn’t it? It fails on two levels:
– it is a personal attack on individuals, not on their policies or beliefs
– it shows the offensive nature of your site and the people who support it. This merely labels you as extremists and will ultimately lose you credibility and respect.

Quite shameful…(Antro)

Quite shameful indeed. He’s also nailed a key difference between how I criticize and how AoA attacks. I tend to try to attack beliefs and statements. When I say, “The stupid, it burns!” I’m usually referring to the stupidity of the statement I’m mocking, not to the person who made it. AoA goes for the ad hominem attack first. What else can it do? It can’t argue the science. It can’t argue from logic. All that’s left is to slime those whom it perceives as its enemies. As a consequence, henceforth, whenever I want to show someone just how loony, how utterly without scruples, how out of touch with reality the anti-vaccine movement is, I’ll just show him this post on AoA. Let’s put it this way. When even Craig Willoughby, who went from seemingly at least semi-rational to full-out hate-filled ranting (particularly about me), doesn’t think this is appropriate, AoA has a real problem, and trying to claim that this disgusting picture was “inspired” by Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” looks desperate at best and pathetic at worst.

So how did the “leaders” of AoA react? Well, we already know how Kim Stagliano reacted; she cheerfully made a blowjob joke about it. Later she joked about loving puppies. True, she removed the “BJ” comment, which is a little bit to her credit. A very little bit. Clearly she does have a sense of shame. J.B. Handley, on the other hand and not surprisingly, thought the picture “hilarious.” Meanwhile, AoA’s resident self-proclaimed “scientist” who isn’t a scientist in any sense of the word (Mark Blaxill) appeared disturbed by the picture but decided to defend the picture by opining that “we’re a BLOG” and that “it’s our job to be edgy.” (Clearly, Blaxill has a different definition of the word “edgy” than most people do.)

Conspicuous by their absence are David Kirby, Dan Olmsted, and Kent Heckenlively. Certainly, Kirby, for all his skill at verbal prestidigitation and twisting science into a pretzel of pseudoscience and misdirection, is no dummy when it comes to PR. My guess is that he’s appalled by this. Ditto Dan “I see nothing” Olmsted. Kent Heckenlively, as scientifically clueless as he is and as appalled as I’ve been by his subjecting his daughter to quackery, strikes me as a genuinely nice man. I wonder what he thinks of being associated with the likes of Adriana Gamondes, who Photoshopped this picture.

I want to finish this post by echoing a sentiment expressed by Sullivan over at Autism Blog. Although Generation Rescue wants them to think so, Paul Offit, Steve Novella, Amy Wallace, Trine Tsouderos, Paul Insel, and Alison Singer are not the enemies of parents with autistic children, not even parents who are utterly convinced that vaccines caused their child’s autism. Neither am I, as hard as Generation Rescue (and particularly J.B. Handley) would like parents to believe otherwise. It is not we who are standing in the way of Generation Rescue, Andrew Wakefield, Barbara Loe Fisher, and the rest. It really isn’t.

Science is, or, more specifically, the lack of good science supporting their beliefs.

That’s right. Unfortunately for Generation Rescue, its former dogmatic insistence that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning,” and its later insistence that it’s “too many too soon” or the “toxins” in the vaccines causing an “epidemic of autism,” the science just hasn’t fallen into line with its beliefs. It shows no sign of doing so. Worse, the more science goes against it, the more the anti-vaccine movement moves into sheer crankery and hatred. Rather than re-examining their beliefs in light of new evidence and readjusting them, exactly as I would do if there were a series of well-designed large studies showing strong evidence that vaccines are linked with autism, the anti-vaccine movement as epitomized by Generation Rescue and its propaganda blog Age of Autism retreats further and further into pseudoscience, lashing out at anyone who dares to stand up and tell it that there’s no convincing scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism or that “biomedical” woo reverses it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It would actually not necessarily be a bad thing if these things were found to be true, because we would then not only have identified a major cause of autism but would have highly effective treatments for it.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t that simple, and, instead of realigning its beliefs to conform to reality, the anti-vaccine movement lashes out at those who point out that there’s no science supporting them. Worse, if there were any doubt that Age of Autism is profoundly anti-vaccine to its very core, that doubt was removed when AoA decided to liken those who stand up against anti-vaccine misinformation to baby killers and hordes of commenters descended to say that such a comparison was appropriate because they really believe that vaccines are a Holocaust, a Hiroshima, a Nagasaki, a Stalin, Chinese women sold into slavery, and the killers of thousands of children every year. Autistic children pay the price of its irrational fear of vaccines and belief in “biomed” treatments that are, in my opinion, the rankest quackery. If sanity doesn’t prevail, ultimately all children will pay the price in the form of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases that will kill and maim thousands of them.


And the comments just keep rolling in! First, there’s Twyla:

I do hear those who are saying that it is important to elevate the level of discourse and avoid personal attacks. But to me, this picture is very expressive in an intelligent way.

Expressive and intelligent? Well, “expressive” I’ll give you, but intelligent? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Then there’s this not-so-dynamic duo of comments. First, we have Mike opining:

What is “sick” to me is how anyone would not want to put an end to this EPIDEMIC that is causing so much pain for our children. The only change I would have made to the picture was to put Satan himself at the head seat.

Well, isn’t that special? With Hitler being mentioned so prominently, the only way to up the ante would be to go to Satan, although I think the crank ceiling has been reached as far as hyperpbolic analogies. Still, I bet you know what’s coming next. Certainly I did, and here it comes, courtesy of Jessica:

I think if someone could obtain a picture of ORAC…there would be your perfect Satan.

Love right back atcha, Jessica.