I grew up with strict grandparents and parents. There were plenty of things that us kids could make fun of. We could make fun how other people looked. We could make fun of how other people spoke. We could make fun of each other for doing dumb things. But there was one thing that my elders absolutely did not tolerate: Making fun of other people’s suffering or making fun of someone else’s death, even if the death itself was a joke. Any kind of joking around about that and we were in for a world of hurt.
If you think about it, this is kind of a good rule for society. If we were to all the time put those mourning a death through the anguish of listening to joked about their recently departed, we would collectively be no better than the Westboro Baptist not-a-Church. Similarly, if we were to continuously wish for the death of people we disliked, and joked about their death, we would crumble as a society. A person’s death is a serious thing, and making light of it does absolutely nothing to advance us as a society.
It probably shouldn’t surprise you that there are those in the anti-vaccine camp who are particularly vicious in their attacks of people with whom they disagree. For example, you know about the weirdo’s obsession with Prof. Dorit Reiss. You’ve probably come across the kid’s ramblings about “pharma this” and “pharma that”. They can be vicious attacks filled with misinformation and, many times, outright lies. The comments sections of such blogs are no better. Although anti-vaccine blogs claim that they have “strict” moderation rules, you can see time and again that they are quite open to allow certain vicious comments:
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That’s right. Someone who read’s Robert Schecter’s “The Vaccine Machine” blog was happy and could only hope that our friend Ren were dead. Why? What would Ren’s death bring to the world? The story there is that someone with Ren’s exact first, middle, and last names committed suicide in front of dozens of people when he was cornered by police in west Texas. Of course, it wasn’t our friend. Nevertheless, why celebrate such a thing? What kind of mind operates like that?
Comments on Facebook pages don’t get any better. Even without the full ability to hide behind pseudonyms, people will still write some awful things. And they will go after the one man they absolutely despise. I’m talking about Dr. Paul Offit, pediatrician, vaccine developer, and all-around good guy. Like me, he has seen children die of vaccine-preventable diseases. Like anyone with a heart, he became passionate about preventing such deaths and went to work on dispelling myths about vaccines and fighting exemptions from vaccination mandates. And the anti-vaxxers hate him for it.
A few days ago, Reasonable Hank published a blog post where the comment’s section of the National Vaccine (mis)Information Center’s (NVIC) Facebook page were inundated with nothing but threats against Dr. Offit and his family. It turns my stomach to read those comments because these people want to see a man of science suffer and die for saving the lives of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of children.
Yesterday, on April Fool’s Day, it happened again. It was meant as an April Fool’s joke when “The Refusers”, an anti-vaccine organization, decided to publish a fake news story about Dr. Offit dying. The comment’s on Facebook were hideous (click on them to enlarge):
On the blog itself, Australia’s top anti-vaccine activist showed up and was just as lovely as ever:
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And so on and so forth. They really came out of the woodwork, and they really said some things that would have gotten then taken out to the shed and beaten with a stick by my grandparents… All four of them.
There are some things in life that you just don’t joke about because it holds all of us back from moving forward as a society. People get mad when they’re told that something is not funny or when they are forced to apologize for making light of things like rape and child abuse. Yes, we all have the right to free speech, but none of us have the right to be free from the consequences of our speech. Sometimes those consequences affect all of us.
But it seems to be par for the course for the frontman and others in “The Refusers” to make light of some very serious things, like children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. The frontman of the group is one Michael Belkin, a well-to-do man from Washington State:
“[A] self-employed financial analyst, he’s got a home office and flexible hours. In his kitchen, he greets his wife Lorna, a willowy portrait painter and stay-at-home mom who’s preparing a crustless quiche for a staff lunch at their kids’ private school, which encourages every child to fulfill his or her “unique destiny.” Belkin rustles around and produces the health-conscious items he gives to his 10-year-old son, Sebastian, and 7-year-old daughter, Viola: fish oil, probiotic supplements, and so-called “perfect food,” made up of grasses and algae. Then he heads downstairs to a daylight basement that allows him to indulge his own creative side. Fifty-seven years old, with a spiky haircut and chunky dark glasses that give him the look of an older Ira Glass, Belkin spent 10 years in Los Angeles trying to make it as a guitarist and songwriter before heading to Wall Street, where he worked for a time at the investment bank Salomon Brothers. Over the past year, he’s built a professional-quality recording studio, with top-notch digital equipment, foam insulation, and a vocal booth, on a little patio outside. From here, he’s been producing a CD by a band he’s put together, in which his son plays drums. His completely unvaccinated son, it should be mentioned. Because the thing that makes Belkin unusual—although far less so than public-health officials would like—is that this suburban dad is a nationally known advocate for what he terms vaccine “choice” and what most others call the anti-vaccine movement.”
Why is he anti-vaccine?
“The reason Belkin is so passionate on the subject can be discerned from yet another song, “Stole My Baby Away.” It’s about his infant daughter, Lyla, who died a day after receiving the Hepatitis B vaccine shot 13 years ago.”
But there are some holes in that story:
“Like many stories in the anti-vaccine movement, though, Belkin’s is murkier than it may seem to true believers—and he doesn’t make it easy to verify crucial details. For that matter, the movement as a whole is based upon theories that are not only unproven but, in key respects, directly contradicted by the past decade of scientific research.”
What? Read on…
“Talking with Belkin in his Bainbridge Island home, it’s apparent that he doesn’t like to be questioned about his account. Easygoing and welcoming when he picks a visitor up from the ferry, he turns irritable when asked for a fuller version of events. “Going into details is very painful,” he says. Yet it soon becomes even more apparent that there are a lot of unanswered questions about his portrayal of Lyla’s death and its aftermath. Asked, for instance, if he is sure that the medical examiner talked to Merck before switching her assessment of Lyla’s death, he says: “I think so. I told her to.” In other words, Belkin’s allegation is based on nothing more than his own suggestion to the examiner, prompted by his suspicions about the vaccine. He’s also not sure, now that he’s asked about it, whether it was the examiner or, as seems more likely, the police who came to his apartment looking for evidence of child abuse. “I don’t know . . . somebody . . . don’t ask me,” he says. Most crucially of all, Belkin says he doesn’t know where the pediatrician’s notes are that prove that the examiner initially determined that Lyla had a swollen brain. “You have to take my word for it,” he says. Later, asked whether he would consent to having the case file from the examiner’s office released to Seattle Weekly, he declines. “To me, it’s a very invasive and intrusive request,” he says, questioning the Weekly’s “fixation” with Lyla’s death. “To me, it’s not the story.” Back in his home, Belkin is more keen to talk about a series of encounters he had after Lyla died that cemented his belief in a pro-vaccine conspiracy.”
Again, par for the course for anti-vaccine activists. Evidence is something that needs to be put aside, and intuition and feelings and conspiracies and theories are all that matter. And, hey, if you have to wish someone dead or make fun of their loss, that’s just one of those things, right?
Can you imagine if I made fun of Belkin’s daughter’s death? If I made up some fake news story that her pediatrician’s notes had been found and that she was confirmed to not have been killed by the vaccine but, rather, that something more sinister had happened to her? If I ever did something like that, I hope you all stop reading this blog and those of you who know me personally drag me out to a shed and beat me senseless with a baseball bat covered in barbed wire. Because it’s not funny to make fun of the death (real or imagined) of another person. It doesn’t move any discussion along. It doesn’t make us better as human beings. It doesn’t save lives or promote freedom or justice or any of that stuff. And it is particularly telling of how much of a psychopath you may be if you make fun of the death of a child.
Then again, we’re not dealing with people who play by the rules or live by the rules. They cannot be reasoned or bargained with. They have only one thing in their minds, and they lock into that with a passion rivaled only by members of hate groups. These people just, seemingly, want to watch the world burn.