No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

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Is Green Party Candidate Jill Stein ‘Anti-Vaccine’? (snopes.com)

One of the more troubling aspects of recent federal budget negotiations has been congressional Republicans’ insistence on prolonging a ban on using federal funds for research into the effects of gun violence. I’m very strongly opposed to this ban, but my opposition has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with research. It wouldn’t matter what was being targeted by the research funding ban; I believe that banning funding into any kind of research is counterproductive to the goals of any society that wants to improve conditions for its people.

More than just stifling progress, though, I think that trying to undermine research into a given topic comes off as a sign of weakness. If you truly believe in something, no matter what the topic, then you should be open (if not eager) to having your beliefs be researched and found to be true. Trying to stop that research, or even trying to silence questions about that topic, makes you look like you aren’t as confident in your belief as you should be. It’s understandable why people don’t want to be proven wrong, because on a purely visceral level it’s usually quite a blow to the ego when it happens (as I know from more personal experience than I care to recount right now), but matters of ego and personal pride should be the last thing on people’s minds when they’re trying to work for the public good, as politicians are supposed to do by the very definition of their job title.

When I first saw posts on social media decrying the Green Party’s presumptive candidate for president this year, Dr. Jill Stein, for allegedly being against vaccinations, I read through the Stein quotes that were causing such a hubbub and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why people were saying that Stein had condemned vaccinations, Indeed, Stein has since clarified several times on her Twitter account that she supports vaccinations, and Snopes even decided to weigh in on the whole kerfuffle, but it hasn’t stopped the anti-Stein pieces from being churned out by various media outlets, many of which have implicitly or explicitly endorsed Stein’s Democratic rival for president, Hillary Clinton.

The point that most of these anti-Stein articles keep returning to is that Stein pointing out how some people mistrust the Centers for Disease Control due to corporate influence on the CDC is similar to arguments made by anti-vaccination groups, leading the authors to conclude that Stein is, if not “really” against vaccinations, then at least pandering to those who are. First of all, this is somewhat akin to arguing that vegetarianism is bad because Hitler was a vegetarian (except he wasn’t); even if you accept the premise that people who are against vaccinations are all loony, that doesn’t mean that they can’t make some good arguments in support of a bad conclusion. Heck, take a close enough look at each of the presidential candidates and you’ll find that you agree with all of them on at least a couple of matters. More importantly, though, questioning corporate influence in government matters is kind of one of the defining features of the Green Party, so why should the CDC get a free pass? You can question corporate influence on the CDC and still be supportive of vaccines, as Stein has clearly shown this past week.

This is not some abstract concept for me; as an English teacher, one of the things I’m expected to teach my students is how to evaluate the sources of the information that they research for their papers. (This is something that really needs to be taught much earlier than at the college level, particularly given the large number of Americans who never set foot in a college classroom and are still expected to critically evaluate candidates for public office whenever they vote.) This is a skill that I emphasize in my classes, because the ability to critically question and evaluate opinions (to say nothing of “facts” that have been cherry-picked and/or drastically skewed out of all intelligible context) isn’t just something that they need for their academic careers, but will also serve them well in their “real lives” outside of academia. More to the point, I explicitly tell my students at the start of every semester that I, myself, am one of those sources who they should question, because none of us, whether as individuals or in groupings like corporations, should ever be above question. I’m not perfect, and when I mess up then I want to know that I’ve messed up so I can do a better job (teaching or otherwise) in the future.

This isn’t an invitation to simply reject any information that comes from a source you don’t like, or reaches a conclusion that’s unsatisfactory to you. There’s a huge difference between that kind of questioning and the kind of intelligent, reasoned questioning that isn’t being done nearly enough in today’s hectic, who-has-time-to-think culture where we  crave simple and easy answers because so many of us have too much on our minds to deal with at any given moment. Especially when it comes to the real important stuff in life, answers are very rarely easy or painless, and those who try to sell easy and painless answers to difficult problems are often those whose answers will do the most damage to everyone else while they profit from others’ misfortune. (Like, say, the Republicans’ presidential candidate this year.)

The Democrats’ attacks on Stein would be troubling on their own, but they’re happening the midst of the biggest attack on the Green Party since the 2004 elections. Democratic Party-aligned websites are actively stifling discussion of all possible alternatives to a Hillary Clinton presidency, and today’s advocates for Stein are finding themselves the targets of smear and harassment campaigns just like Bernie Sanders supporters were during the Democratic primary. (Yes, me and my tiny little blog have already become targets, which is probably a sign that this campaign is very far-reaching.) It’s not enough for these people simply to promote Hillary Clinton as the candidate they perceive to be the one who will make the best  president (which they can, and should, be doing as loudly as they want); they want Stein and the Green Party, and all their supporters, to shut up and surrender to the whims of the Democratic Party and their presidential candidate.

Just like with Stein’s comments about vaccinations, the fact that these Hillary-aligned groups and media outlets aren’t even allowing Stein and the Green Party to question Democratic Party/Hillary orthodoxy, whether through overt or covert means, indicates to me a weakness on Democrats’ part, a sign that they aren’t willing to debate the Green Party and its supporters on the merits of the many substantive issues that divide us (e.g. the ongoing wars in the Middle East, support for the Palestinian people and their country, single-payer healthcare, use of military drones, wage floors, fair trade). When Stein announced her runningmate on Monday, she brought up the fact that she’d approached Nina Turner about the vice-presidential nomination after Turner was mistreated at the Democratic National Convention by Hillary loyalists, but Turner opted instead to continue trying to reform the Democratic Party from within. Stein, like a reasonable human being, wished Turner the best in her efforts. Had Turner instead switched parties and become Stein’s runningmate, it’s hard to imagine how the modern-day Democratic Party wouldn’t have launched a major smear campaign against Turner, calling her a traitor and accusing her (as many of them are currently accusing Stein) of being a secretive operative of the Republican presidential candidate who was working to get him elected instead of Hillary (or, you know, Stein). Those kinds of smear campaigns are unacceptable when they happen to Hillary, and they should be just as unacceptable when they happen to Stein or anyone else running for public office.

What’s most infuriating about the current wave of attacks on Stein is that if Democrats want to argue that anyone should drop out of the presidential race right now, the Republican candidate just served them up one hell of a reason for them to argue why he should withdraw from the race. Even by his standards, the attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan are far beyond the pale, and in any intelligent society he’d be shamed into surrendering his presidential aspirations immediately. He shouldn’t even be a serious candidate for office, but he was running neck-and-neck with Hillary in the polls that were run before this controversy hit because Hillary Clinton is a very flawed candidate who’d be the most disliked presidential candidate of all time were it not for this year’s Republican candidate. Again, though, too many Democrats and Hillary supporters are trying to create an atmosphere where criticism of Hillary is simply verboten, which is not only counterproductive to the basic tenets of our democracy but also, in a word, un-American.

Even with as many strong disagreements as I have with the Republican candidate, though, I don’t think he should be strong-armed into abandoning his presidential campaign. He has as much of a right to run as Hillary, and Stein, and Gary Johnson, and all the other presidential candidates out there. I’d like to think that him continuing his campaign will do more to prove the fundamental problems underlying the modern-day American conservative movement, but as we’ve seen in recent years, that could be problematic when Americans are so devoid of basic historical knowledge and critical thinking skills (in large part due to Democrats supporting conservative efforts to gut public education; again, tell me why this party deserves my vote) that they can’t contextualize the Republican candidate and his rhetoric.

It’s bad enough that the lasting damage the right-wing media machine has done to this country has made it impossible to have intelligent political debate with so many rank-and-file conservatives in this country, but too many Democrats are seemingly competing with conservatives when it comes to obstinately refusing to debate anyone to their left. Even at a time when so many Americans are dissatisfied with politics as usual, and especially both major parties and their presidential candidates, liberal Americans are still being expected to follow Democratic marching orders to the letter, and anyone who dares to question those orders, let alone oppose the party, is being targeted with far more fervor and energy than the other major party that the Democrats are supposedly fighting. Either the Democratic Party has got to become willing to accept criticism and debate from the Green Party and others to their left, or this country is going to be nearly as screwed as it’ll be if the Republican presidential candidate wins in November.

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