Nothing to Fear but… Foreign Stuff We Refuse to Understand

With the welcome word out of New York that the U.S. is currently Ebola free, and with ISIS largely now a footnote in the daily news cycle, it is clear that the actual outbreak within our borders these last few months was a contagious ignorance and irrational panic over foreign threats.


I am not downplaying the fact that Ebola and ISIS represent very real crises for West Africa and the Middle East respectively. Rather, I am highlighting the problem that neither issue became (or will remain) major stories in the U.S. until a handful of Americans were affected. And, in both cases, that’s when we started unreasonably losing our shit, particularly when it came to Ebola.

With the presence of one Ebola case…then two…then three, news outlets trained their cameras on every movement of each patient – here in this ambulance, there in that plane, from this hospital to that hospital. Politicians and pundits, against the advice of virtually all public health experts, clamored for travel bans and sealed borders.


Far right conservatives, who have spent the last few years carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and flipping out when the government so much as suggests their children eat healthier foods, now practically begged the government to tread on the free movement of people to and from affected countries and of returning health workers. Some governors obliged by forcing some of those health workers into medically unnecessary quarantines, just in case they got sick.


Source: RYOT News

The targets of fear haven’t been merely those who have treated Ebola patients, or even those who have traveled to affected countries. In just one of many examples of unwarranted, if not uninformed fear, a Kentucky school asked that a teacher take a paid 21-day leave of absence after she returned from Kenya, a country that is over 3,000 miles away from the West African outbreak and has yet to have a single reported case.

Some Republican lawmakers creatively expanded the hot zone, with remarkable geography gymnastics, wondering if ISIS might send Ebola-sickened suicide bombers across our border. Even CNN got in on the silliness, airing discussion of the question: “Ebola: ‘The ISIS of Biological Agents?’”


But there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for us yet, ironically showing itself at Fox News of all places. A month ago, Shepard Smith, an occasional light within that heart of cable news darkness, made an impassioned case for perspective and a calm, reasoned assessment of the facts over Ebola. This, I think was his most important point:

“[This panic is] not productive…and we all need to stop it, because someday there may be a real panic. Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re going to have to do? We’re going to have to relax, and listen to leaders. We’re not going to panic when we’re supposed to, and we’re certainly not going to panic now. We have to stop it.”

Thus far, with regard to Ebola in the U.S., leaders who called for calm have been validated. All but one of the few Ebola patients treated in the U.S. have survived the virus. The two who were infected inside the country contracted the virus by treating a very sick patient, and, as it now stands, none of those infected has spread it to the general population.

Yet, I don’t expect we’ll heed Shepard Smith’s advice for very long. It has been said that government has “lurched from crisis to crisis” during the Obama era (of course, those have tended to be crises of our own making). The same can be said for the news media, which feeds off quickly produced (and quickly tossed aside) conflict, controversy, and fear, much of which is nurtured by the constant howls of partisan media.

You would expect Ebola-terrorism fever dreams or wondering if any given problem is “Obama’s Katrina” from conservative talk radio. But when CNN hosts are doing the same thing, something has gone terribly awry. We are increasingly in an everyday wolf-crying or Chicken Little environment that does not bode well for our ability to properly assess and respond to problems in ways that are measured to their true scale and to their true location.

Like Shepard Smith said, “We have to stop it.”


Hobby Lobby Lobs Law Bomb


Ever since we first heard tales of wedding vendors asserting a religious right to refuse service to gay couples, I’ve wondered: where would such broad religious exemptions end? If granted, what’s to prevent business owners of any religion from demanding exemptions from laws – especially anti-discrimination laws – over any religious conviction, particularly when it is supposedly not the place of government or the courts to question the validity of such beliefs?

And so it is with the Supreme Court decision in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. After deciding that, yes, closely held (at least), for-profit corporations can invoke religious freedom rights under RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), the Court’s majority then accepted the assertion of the companies’ owners that the so-called contraception mandate posed a substantial burden on their practice of religion.

Why does providing employee health insurance plans that cover all 20 required forms of birth control (Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties only objected to 4 of those 20) – which female employees, who may or may not share the owners’ faith, and may or may not choose to procure and use for a wide variety of health reasons – substantially burden these companies. I guess because the owners say it does.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Alito states:

The Hahns and Greens and their companies sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our “narrow function . . in this context is to determine” whether the line drawn reflects “an honest conviction”…

Never mind Hobby Lobby’s suspect ad hoc arguments in this case; e.g., The Green Family holds that, A) it is their sincere religious belief that 4 of the required forms of birth control can cause abortions (as they define them), B) therefore, it is there sincere religious belief that providing access to or facilitating use of these contraceptives in any way would violate their faith, and C) they cannot simply choose to quit providing health insurance and pay a tax instead, because they also have religious reasons for providing health insurance.

How perfectly convenient. Even so, surely, the Court should not be in the business of picking and choosing which ‘sincere’ religious beliefs are valid or reasonable. But, surely, neither should the Court automatically accept substantial burden claims for any conceivable “honest conviction” a corporation or individual may hold against a neutral, generally applicable law, even despite the indirect nature of the alleged burden (so indirect in this case that the Greens didn’t realize their company was providing two of the forms of contraception they now object to until they decided to file suit).

The Hobby Lobby ruling, if applied consistently, presents an unworkable standard. What’s more, the fact that it likely won’t be applied consistently, as implied by Alito’s suggestion that similar religious objections to other medical treatments might fail, could potentially be seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

As Justice Ginsburg writes in her dissent:

There is an overriding interest, I believe, in keeping the courts ‘out of the business of evaluating the relative merits of differing religious claims,’…or the sincerity with which an asserted religious belief is held. Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’  The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield …”

Beyond the troubling precedent this case sets, what’s equally concerning is the majority’s failure to adequately consider the burden put upon the female employees of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and other such companies, as their health choices now become subject to the religious views of their employer. The majority briskly dodged this issue by pointing to “less restrictive” ways to achieve full contraceptive coverage, particularly the accommodation the government has already made for non-profit religious organizations.


What the Court failed to mention, however, is that many such non-profit organizations are also challenging that accommodation in the courts, on the grounds that merely signing a form to shift provision of the coverage to third parties is also a substantial burden on religious practice!

Further, it is not yet clear just how workable, and to what limits, this third party accommodation is. And even if it proves workable, the far too overlooked fact remains that women working for such companies will have first been denied full coverage that they were legally entitled to as part of their earned compensation package.

One last note here: this case, of course, surrounds the Hahn and Green families’ moral objection to abortion, their belief that life begins at fertilization, and their belief that the 4 types of contraception in question can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, and thus, in their view, cause an abortion.

And this provides an excellent example of why we are in such a bad way politically. We are not just polarized over difficult issues like abortion, as science and medicine define them. We are now often more hung up over chosen, intractable beliefs which actually work against what could otherwise be areas for common ground and shared goals. While pragmatists speak of focusing on what we agree on – e.g., decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies – this case is a stark reminder that we don’t even all agree on achieving such sensible goals.

Most maddening: it is many in the “pro-life” and conservative Christian camp, i.e., those who are the most adamantly opposed to abortion, who stand in the way of the most effective and sensible ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and thereby prevent abortions, such as full and easier access to contraception (that is to say nothing of the broader health issue in this case, which has largely been derailed by those who apparently would rather shame women for having sex).


Drowning in Doubt


Let’s talk about some of the predictable excuses for inaction given by climate change denialists. Well, it’s not just climate change; it’s any number of issues about which one group wants absolutely nothing done. Be it climate change / global warming, gun violence, health care, etc., there inevitably seems to be a repackaging of this triad of denial and doubt:

  1. The problem isn’t real, but merely a phony pretext for a big government agenda.
  2. The problem is exaggerated / overblown, and its cause / source is misattributed.
  3. The problem may be real, but the proposed solutions will not help, and will probably only cause harm.

Ahead of a new national report documenting the effects already being felt by climate change, Rush Limbaugh, in typically pig-headed fashion, offered up this version of #1 above:

[Climate change is] the way they will ensure that you vote Democrat.  That’s the way they will insure that you end up supporting bigger government.

There isn’t any man-made disaster occurring out there.  It can’t be proved. … There is no empirical data of climate change. It’s all computer model prediction, folks.  There isn’t any empirical evidence of it.

And shortly thereafter, Republican Senator Marco Rubio provided this nifty combo of #2 and #3:

“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it … and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.”

One wonders (besides what happened to his noun-pronoun agreement), on what does Rubio base his belief that “these scientists” are wrong? He doesn’t say. But this is the same guy who didn’t think he was qualified to answer a question about the age of the Earth because, in his words, “I’m not a scientist, man.”

But I’m sure Rubio’s counter-evidence will be forthcoming any day now. Just as Limbaugh will provide convincing evidence that the empirical evidence of climate change is all bogus…

Spoiler alert: those things won’t happen. Here is the unsurprising reality: What Rubio and Limbaugh express is not based on actual scientific inquiry and skepticism, but on ideology, prejudice, and political pandering. In order to paper over that fact and even the score, many in their camp project those very attitudes onto the scientific community.


In some ways, this gives such denialists a superficial advantage among the public. They can, and do, claim that pointing to scientific consensus on man-made global warming is simply appealing to unquestioned authority; and that the consensus has been very wrong before; or, if they’re feeling particularly daring, even suggest they walk in the footsteps of Galileo and other great dissenters vindicated by history.

Let’s face it, that’s kind of clever, because there is seemingly historical precedent. But alone, without a full assessment of the evidence (and the production of convincing counter evidence), it is insufficient. What is important is not necessarily the presence of consensus, but why and on what basis that consensus has formed.

Geocentrism held sway for centuries, resting upon primitive observations and intuition, as well as stubborn adherence to ancient physics and philosophical conjecture that melded with religious dogma. The shift to heliocentrism, also centuries in the making, only came with better and better evidence, resting on better instruments and eventually better explanations of the observed universe (hint, hint climate change skeptics).

That all seems pretty elementary to us now, having been taught it (by consensus!) all of our lives, but the fact of a sun-centered solar system and an earth that moved was not intuitive, nor easily proved, and wide acceptance was stubbornly slow.


In the grand scheme of the things, the theory of anthropogenic global warming is relatively new. The idea only goes back about a century, and the great majority of climate scientists have only become convinced by the growing evidence over the last few decades. But the broader public lags behind in uncertainty (often by design) and polarization.

Thus, despite the evidence-driven consensus, it is climate science that finds the cultural and political odds stacked against it, as doubt merchants and politicians push back against acceptance of the evidence and even legislative acknowledgement of the issue.

It is these doubters and denialists that are caught up in their own anti-Copernican moment, refusing to adjust their intuitive preconceptions to the evidence. And they have powerful economic, ideological, and identity reasons for this resistance. As Maria Konnikova writes,

“When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.”


Mother Jones

It is no more comforting to accept the full ramifications of the science on global warming than it once was to accept that the Earth is, in fact, not the special center of all creation. The fact that many in the climate change denial camp even now also deny, for dogmatic religious reasons, the Big Bang, evolution, and, in some cases, the accepted age of the Universe / Earth, suggests we still have a long way to go.

Thankfully, the Universe is indifferent to how we think it got started and when, and maybe the Earth is even a little flattered when a creationist says it doesn’t look a year over 10,000. And life will evolve as it will, despite what we think, and the planets have long happily revolved in their orbits no matter where we placed them in our model.

But now is different. Whereas we once doubted that we were actually passengers on a moving planet, traveling around the sun just like its neighbors, we are now doubting that we have become a driver of this planet’s delicate climate system. If the assessments of climate science are correct, the Earth is not at all indifferent to who is sitting behind the wheel.