Thursday, April 30, 2009

Was Joe Biden's Remark Stupid?

The answer is "yes." An unambiguous, unqualified "yes." In fact, the Vice President's remark was really stupid. So stupid, in fact, that--although I am now responsible for the rearing of young children and am attempting to put on respectable airs given my age and station in life, so I try more often now to avoid vulgarities, but for this situation it fits--his remark deserves an intensifier: it was really fucking stupid.

Why such a big deal?

Well, first we need to review the Veep's reputation with regard to "gaffes." As in: he has a reputation for making them. My personal favorite was his description of then junior Senator Barack Obama, at the time a very very longshot to be the next President of the United States, as "the first mainstream African-American [in national politics] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." During the campaign, he also looked a little silly when noting that FDR "got on television" after the stock market crash in 1929 to rally the country. A long trail of such howlers have followed him throughout his career. (Although I think he does get a little credit for what was probably the best line of the Presidential primary campaigns, on either side, by having noted in one of the debates that "there's only three things Rudy Giuliani mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11.")

But these are gaffes. That is, they're awkward and tactless, but in theory they are to be overlooked because, in the grand scheme of things, they don't reveal a great deal about the man's principles and thoughts on the role of government. (Obviously an African-American might find his patronizing and more-than-faintly-racist description of Obama revealing, but if so that's only a reflection on the patronizing views of the socially liberal wing of the Democratic party rather than something specifically damning about Biden himself.) George H.W. Bush and his Vice President, Dan Quayle, were also hounded by the media for similar slip-ups, malapropisms and overall mangling of the English language in ways that, I am certain, caused a high degree of embarrassment for the behind-the-scenes PR folk. Again, though, these were seen more as evidence of goofiness rather than profound stupidity. Admittedly, in Quayle's case this could be debated, but you get the point.

However, Biden's remark today doesn't really fall under the category of gaffe. It was, in fact, quite an articulate statement about actions that he would take in response to the perceived risk of acquisition of the H1N1 variant that has put world public health authorities on their heels (and no doubt has caused the depletion of vast quantities of alcohol in Geneva, for the folks at the World Health Organization must be calming their nerves with scotch late at night as the numbers keep rolling in). He said, in clear terms, that he would not put himself in a situation where he was in an enclosed space with many people, telling the Today show's Matt Lauer that clearly he would not advise any member of his family to take an airplane or a subway for fear of exposing them to the virus.

And this is the crux of the matter, for Biden's statement obliterates all the very careful tip-toeing that the Obama administration, in conjunction with federal US health officials, have been trying to do with respect to the influenza outbreak. The Obama team has gone to great pains to have the public understand that what is going on is cause for concern and may require some dramatic changes in behavior should the worst-case scenarios prove true, but that people shouldn't panic as this could cause all sorts of secondary problems for a viral outbreak whose lethality and susceptibility we have yet to fully understand. Biden's advocacy of essentially abandoning the most important forms of public transportation amounted to calling for panic. Really fucking stupid.

What the Veep appears not to understand is that he is engaging in a risk calculation and has vastly overstated the current risk. Meaning: isn't he really right that avoiding subways and airplanes will reduce one's risk of acquiring this influenza strain? Well, the answer to that is "yes." But that doesn't mean that it's still a good choice. People unconsciously engage in risk calculations every day and still go about their daily activities. We get in our cars fully aware that a very, very small percentage of us, every single day across the US, will never come home in that car because we will be killed in an auto accident; we go to work with others who might be sick of any number of diseases (including psychiatric diseases that lead people to bring in shotguns to kill scores of co-workers) but don't let that trouble us; we mow the lawn but understand that we could get our foot cut off if we catch a piece of rock or wood under the mower. The list of things that could do us lethal bodily harm is endless. I will never forget one quip of an ER doc when I was in medical school, when he said, "Guys, believe me...if you knew all the different ways you could end up dead, you'd sit in the corner of your bedroom with the blankets over your eyes, and you'd never come out for anything." But we don't do that because the likelihood of one of those gruesome outcomes is so low that it doesn't justify the fear.

And, so far anyway, the risk of both acquiring and dying from the new H1N1 influenza by taking public transportation is vanishingly small. That may change; I am not saying that we might not have to take such measures here in the US. These draconian measures are precisely what they are doing in Mexico, and the government there should be praised for its response. Yet the situation in Mexico is far more dire, and so far there's not enough evidence to justify those kinds of actions here. Keep in mind that these aren't trivial decisions--there will be a huge economic impact if we have to take the kinds of steps that they have taken in Mexico, shutting down schools and businesses for days on end. The best we can do is go about our regular business, pay very careful attention to the news and follow the pronouncements of public health officials. But not such a good idea to advise people to let civilization grind to a halt. This is why Joe Biden should be searching his soul in the coming days.

PS--I did want to add some further meditations on my aunt's passing but the flu has occupied my thoughts with respect to this blog. I will have some more to write about hospice care and family involvement with the dying in the coming days, but I did make one unforgivable error in my last entry. In describing the family situation surrounding my dying aunt, I incorrectly described my Aunt Kathy as being a pediatric ICU nurse. As a professional, and one who has long known this fact, it pains me to say that I got that description wrong, for she is a neonatal ICU nurse. This is not a trivial distinction, and she has my deepest apologies.

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