On Sunday morning, 28 August, National Radio had an interesting interview with Dr Evelin Lindner, who is a specialist on humiliation studies. She believes that the corrosive effect of humiliation is the cause of much of humanity’s troubles. Dr Lindner is in New Zealand to take part in the network’s annual conference at the New Zealand National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, at the University of Otago. Dr Evelin Lindner is the founding president of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network, which aims to end violence and advance human dignity on all levels – from the personal to the political. In this interview with Chris Laidlaw, she spoke on her assertion, that all of humanity is one family on a tiny planet, and we need to co-operate with each other. Dr Lindner thinks that we now need to think about human dignity, and how loss of dignity leads to humiliation. Apartheid is a humiliation of a people, put into a system. Hitler feared the Jews, fearing that in the future their success might lead to German humiliation. In Rwanda, ethnic cleansing arose to prevent a feared future and Hutu’s were encouraged to kill Tutsi neighbours. She admires Mandela who did not take the path of terrorism in dismantling apartheid, and thinks the white South African population have been very lucky. The task of our time is, to learn how to live with unity in diversity. So much of our history has been to look for uniformity without diversity. While all is well with us, when we are in a win/win situation we function differently from when we are in a win/lose situation. In a win/lose situation we are forced into building a WARRIOR culture! Dr Lindner thinks it is not in our nature to fight but it is our response to a situation. There is a window of opportunity NOW, to learn to sit together and cooperate instead of fighting. (We can change, this is my hope of Humanism, Gaylene.)
September monthly meeting: Monday 5 September Hitchens & Fry Debate the Catholics
Who gets the upper hand?
The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World
See Hitchens and Fry in Action as they debate Onaiyekan and Widdecombe
Speaking for the proposition are John Onaiyekan, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, and Ann Widdecombe MP, former UK Conservative Government Minister.
Against are Christopher Hitchens, Author and columnist Vanity Fair and Stephen Fry, Actor and Writer.
Venue for meeting: Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm
· Last month’s meeting:
Those present enjoyed seeing and listening to some of the 2010 Atheist Convention speakers, seeing and hearing some of the Australian participants and particularly Taslima Nasrin who spoke on her “struggle for Secularism, Human Rights, Freedom of Expression and for Women’s Freedom”.
A DVD, approximately 6 hours 30 minutes long, has been produced with selected extracts from the presentations – the conference itself had some 16.5 hours of speakers and entertainment.
The selection on the DVD includes: Richard Dawkins: On gratitude for Evolution and the Evolution of Gratitude; AC Grayling: Professor of Philosophy at University of London, Atheism, Secularism, Humanism. Three Zones of Argument; Taslima Nasrin: exiled Bangladeshi doctor and author, My Struggle for Secularism, Human Rights, Freedom of Expression and for Women’s Freedom; PZ Myers: US biology professor, zoologist and long time critic of Creationism, The inescapable Conflict between Science and Religion; Peter Singer: Australian philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Ethics without Religion. Purchase the DVD from www.sirenvisual.com.au for AUS$29.95 and shipping (Air Mail Zone B-Asia Pacific ) is AUS$13.40 giving a total cost of AUS$43.35.
The 2010 Atheist Convention itself was very enjoyable. Register now for the 2012 Convention – see next item below.
· “The Four Horsemen” at the 2012 Atheist Convention:
“The Four Horsemen” at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne 13-15 April 2012 – see www.atheistconvention.org.au .
Ticket sales will open on Thursday 1 September.
· Radio Access:
Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 17 September, 15 October, 12 November, 10 December.
In a recent broadcast, Jeff Hunt gave us some moving memories of three past Humanist members. John Offenberger whose name now graces a new building on the Massey University Campus in Wellington, Eileen Bone who we remember with the Eileen Bone Scholarship for Naenae College, and Rosalie Carey who became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in April 2010, and died in April this year.
Humanist Outlook is broadcast at 10:30 am on Access Radio, Wellington, 783 kHz, every fourth Saturday.
If you are outside the Wellington area, go to www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.
· New Zealand Humanist magazine:
Issue 160, August 2011, has now been posted to members. This issue contains a range of interesting articles that include: “Atheism”; “Humanism in New Zealand”; “Living without religion”; “Prayers in Council meetings”; “The state of Humanism in Nepal” and “Superstitious and religious phenomena in Nepal”; “The four horsemen of the new enlightenment – Sagan, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett”; “Humanism and ethics”; and “Children’s ethics course”.
We were very sorry to that Eric Bell from Matakana, Auckland has died recently. Until the last few years Eric would travel to Wellington to attend our annual seminar. Eric also came to the yearly Summer Gatherings that were held over a weekend. Our condolences go to his family and his very good friend Rita.
· 2011 AGM and Seminar:
The 2011 AGM and seminar will be held Sunday 30 October. The AGM will be held at 10am at Turnbull House, refreshments and a light lunch will be provided. The Seminar will be between 1.30pm and 4.00pm in the Mezzanine Floor meeting room at Wellington Central Library. Dr Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) will talk to us about Vaccination. In the late 18th Century Jenner discovered that milk maids who developed cowpox from contact with cows did not sicken with smallpox. He developed a method to inoculate people with cowpox that protected them against smallpox. The term vaccination did not come into use until 80 years later with the work of Louis Pasteur. Jenner’s discovery had such a stunning impact on the health of those inoculated that in 1805 Napoleon ordered that all troops who had not had smallpox were to be treated with Jenner’s inoculation. A year later he ordered the inoculation of all French citizens. Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger sister, who lived in Sienna, Italy, paved the way for Jenner’s new treatment by personally inoculating her own children. .After the seminar we will conclude the day with an early evening meal together. The October newsletter will have more details. Please contact us if you are interested in joining us on our Council – nominations are now open.
· Are Unbelievers More Resilient?
In the Aug/Sept 2011 issue of Free Inquiry, editor Tom Flynn, has the first part of an article following up the work of Phil Zuckerman who wrote Society Without God (NYU Press,2008), and applying it to America. As mentioned in the August 2011 newsletter Peter Clemerson gave us a monthly meeting discussion on this book and a subsequent article by Peter was included in our recent NZ Humanist magazine. I would like to include a small excerpt which I think will spark recognition and a wee chuckle. “It’s well attested that non-religious people tend to have fewer deep social connections (starting with the fact that most of us go to one fewer church than many members of the general population). Our community is top-heavy with “loners” and “non-joiners”-the “cats” about whose herding atheist and humanist activists so frequently despair.”
Pox: An American History, by Michael Willrich
(New York: Penguin Press, 2011, ISBN 9781594202865) 400 pp. Cloth, $27.95.
The Story of Smallpox Vaccines and its Lessons for Today
During the first years of the twentieth century, smallpox, that most feared of scourges, became known as the “fool killer.” One simply had no excuse for catching it anymore. Any physician worth his salt knew the clinical progression of the disease and the efficacy of vaccination in warding against it. But if the history of vaccination teaches us anything, it’s that some people, fools or otherwise, require more than an expert’s say-so.
At that time, people actually had good reasons to avoid public health officials’ vaccination lancets. The smallpox vaccine was notorious for causing “sore arm,” which could debilitate a worker for a full week. In an era with only inchoate social safety nets and job security, such a loss in pay didn’t always seem worth it. Moreover, many average Americans doubted the science behind vaccination, with germ theory only having recently emerged in the preceding decades. And there was grounds for suspicion about the safety of vaccines themselves, following a few highly publicized reports of doses being tainted with tetanus or syphilis by unregulated and unscrupulous manufacturers.
In his exhaustively researched Pox: An American History, Brandeis University historian Michael Willrich tells of the last wave of smallpox epidemics to sweep through the United States, between 1898 and 1903, and of medical experts’ struggles to defuse them. This was the start of the Progressive era, when critical reforms in workers’ rights and the rights of women and children were changing the face of society. Willrich also describes the time as including “the advent of the modern expert, when university-trained professionals in medicine, the sciences, and law acquired a new authority in American life.”
Willrich richly describes the struggles these experts and a nascent public health force faced with stymieing what should have been a highly preventable disease. When Dr. Charles P. Wertenbaker of the elite corps of Marine-Hospital Service’s traveling surgeons was dispatched to Middleboro, Kentucky, he arrived to find a smallpox epidemic that had been allowed to run amok due to petty squabbling between municipal and county officials over who would fund the effort to fight it. Add in a population of marauding day laborers inherently skeptical of vaccination, and one witnesses how a cut-and-dry public health case can turn soggy. Officials often carried out compulsory vaccination campaigns with the local police force in tow. Opposition was met with fines and arrests; on some rare occasions, vaccinations were even administered at gunpoint.
Willrich argues convincingly that the federal government’s push for universal vaccination during the Progressive era was a defining, vanguard moment for much of what now comprises the modern, centralized American bureaucracy. Of Wertenbaker he writes that, “for a growing number of people across America and many other parts of the world, a medical man in a navy suit was the first representative of the U.S. government they ever encountered.”
Something Wertenbaker and his colleagues encountered in return were indignant and sometimes cunning saboteurs. Beyond the millions of minority and poor working-class individuals who were simply skeptical or inconvenienced by vaccination were those in the educated middle class who further encouraged those groups to resist it: the activist antivaccination movement. Seizing on themes of the day, such as antimonopoly sentiment, child protection, and originalist notions of individual liberty in the new context of urban-industrial society, the antivaccinationists launched a movement that continues today. In fact, some of their talking points are still in use. An apparent favorite asserts: “Compulsory vaccination ranks with human slavery and religious persecution as one of the most flagrant outrages upon the rights of the human race.”
The antivaccinationists’ medical arguments that smallpox could be avoided with simple sanitation carried no water, and they were met with vituperation from public health officials, the likes of which make even today’s most heated debates appear civil. According to one New York doctor, “To call [the antivaccinationist] an ass is to disparage donkeys in general.” The chairman of the Boston Board of Health, Dr. Samuel H. Durgin, went so far as to offer any “leading members of the antivaccinationists” the “opportunity to show the people their sincerity in what they profess” by willingly exposing themselves to smallpox, sans vaccination. (One unorthodox, crankish physician, Dr. Immanuel Pfeiffer, actually took Durgin up on the offer, only to disappear and later be found convalescing from a full-blown case of smallpox. He was discovered in the care of a fully vaccinated household.)
“… If the history of vaccination teaches us anything, it’s that some people, fools or otherwise, require more than an expert’s say-so.”
Despite the more obvious cases of chicanery, Willrich warns against painting this crowd merely as outre‚ cranks of an antediluvian outlook. Though they were wrong on the facts, their efforts fortuitously led to what he argues were the first successes in civil liberties law, which were taken up in earnest a decade later during the World War I government crackdowns on dissent and later still during the civil rights movement. When the antivaccinationists managed to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, they lost their argument that compulsory vaccination was unconstitutional. But the ruling did uphold (to a degree) their arguments for due process (the state could not vaccinate at gunpoint); equal protection (the state could not single out one immigrant group to vaccinate); and harm avoidance (someone with documented, legitimate health issues who could suffer adverse effects to vaccination must be exempted).
All told, Willrich’s history is dense and edifying. His previous award-winning book, City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Chicago, cogently explored the Dostoyevskian question of whether crime is rooted in the individual or in the larger society itself. In exploring the precarious dichotomy between public health and the rights of the individual during the Progressive era, Pox maintains his previously set standard.
However, although one mustn’t blame an author for not achieving that which he did not attempt, I wish that Willrich had done a tad more to situate his subject in the larger context of antivaccination movements in Western society, especially given the current antivaccinationist incarnation that insinuates a link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders. The legitimacy of some aversions to vaccination in the smallpox era are simply lacking in the rhetoric today (though there are of course striking analogues as well, such as the consistent falsity of the public’s intuitive toxicology). Again and again, independent authorities from the Vaccine Court to the Center for Disease Control to countless peer-reviewed medical journals have put to rest the canard that Andrew Wakefield’s “elaborate fraud” brought into the mainstream in recent years past. But it still persists. The major measles outbreak that struck France between January and March of this year was, according to the United Nations’ health agency, a direct result of vaccine abstinence.
Nevertheless, though the author does not explicitly extrapolate his findings to the current imbroglio, Pox has embedded insights into the abiding human embrace of bunk, especially as it relates to public health. Willrich writes that public health officials came to “[realize] that a community’s understanding of disease depended on something more personal than a public health circular or a family doctor’s advice. Medical beliefs rested upon the shared experience and memory. On this score, smallpox posed a special problem. Outside the urban centers and port cities . . . most communities had not seen smallpox in a generation.”
The same can be said of countless diseases today. For most, the utter maliciousness of diphtheria is a moot if not entirely unknown factor in considering health risks; fewer and fewer people know what it’s like to fear polio; and as for smallpox, the last two known samples may soon finally be destroyed. But just because a danger has passed from memory does not mean it isn’t dangerous. This is one reason the public so consistently misjudges risks and why an understanding of heuristics (mental tricks whereby the mind aligns its thoughts with what one wants to believe) is so vital to public health policy. A public whose reasoning is blighted by countless cognitive biases, sensationalist media, and a web culture that facilitates social information amplification and group polarization like never before cannot always be trusted to make health decisions on its own.
Another excellent new book on the subject gives the real-life account of what happens when individuals take public health concerns into their own hands. In The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, journalist Seth Mnookin tells the tragic story of unvaccinated Gabrielle (Brie) Romaguera, who at four weeks old caught pertussis (whooping cough). After undergoing risky surgeries and being sustained by numerous machines, Brie eventually died. As Mnookin writes, her infection in 2003 coincided perfectly with the latest resurgence of vaccination fears.
Pox is a history of compulsory vaccination efforts in Progressive America. But it is also an encapsulated history of modern industrial-urban society itself. Admittedly, one can allegorize that latter narrative in countless ways, but not least among ready options would be to say that it is a tragedy of paradox: as our freedom has allowed for collective progress, that progress has created an exponentially more complex, wrangling society, wherein we are obliged to submit to new forms of power, authority, and expertise. This reliance on expertise is often painted in a bad light?and sometimes for good reason, as the financial crisis of 2008 showed?but there are plenty of countervailing lessons to warn against throwing the modern “expert” out with the bathwater. FI
Stuart Whatley is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C.
Reproduced from: FREE INQUIRY AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2011 secularhumanism.org