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Combating Epidemic Ignorance

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, April 30, 2009

In the turbulent imagination of the hard-core conservative, American foreign policy should be about telling off the rest of the planet. According to the right-wing mind-set, a manly foreign policy would curtail any effort at seeking influence abroad, cut off assistance to developing countries, forget about improving our global image and, above all, withdraw from the existing international organizations, especially the United Nations, which is nothing more than a gargantuan waste of money and a hive of parasitic bureaucrats. Only if we brusquely and even violently dismiss the obnoxious foreigners who annoy us can we vindicate our political and moral superiority.

Then there is the real world, where we regularly encounter threats like swine flu -- and where we must depend on the other people who live in this world to help protect our nation and our families. Certainly that is the outlook of America's new presidency, confirmed with profound urgency after 100 days by the sudden prospect of pandemic disease.

Every day, reactionary bluster is exploited for theatrical purposes by radio and television personalities, rustic politicians, frothing bloggers and all the other clownish extremists who regale us with parodies of conservatism. For simple minds, that's entertainment. But for the past several years, powerful officials in the United States applied the right's bombastic prescriptions to policy, most disastrously on matters of war and peace and international cooperation. The last administration actually sent an ambassador to the United Nations who had publicly disparaged its existence.

So it is unsurprising that the open mind and extended hand of Barack Obama would infuriate the same figures who once applauded John Bolton and cheered for war with mouths full of "freedom fries." They cannot comprehend why the new president would take immediate steps toward repairing our reputation and our alliances. They would rather look for scapegoats than solutions.

In the case of swine flu, that means attempting to blame immigrants from Mexico, who conveniently symbolize right-wing fears of a global future. At the first news of the flu outbreak, all of the usual loudmouths on Fox News Channel and the Internet immediately started to spread panic and blame -- including rumors that this illness could represent a bioterror attack launched from across the border. "Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico?" asked one of the more demented radio yakkers. One well-known blogger, an offspring of immigrants, seized the opportunity to warn of "the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration."

As these commentators ought to know, the vector of swine flu into the United States had nothing to do with immigrants from any country, who so far have shown no sign of illness, and everything to do with ordinary travel and commerce. A group of high-school students from New York City went to CancĂșn on spring vacation and on their return carried home the virus -- which has traveled as far as Spain, Scotland, Israel and New Zealand via similar pathways.

At moments of actual peril, such as now, it is important to remember that the World Health Organization (WHO) is humanity's bulwark against catastrophe. Many Americans may not even be aware that the WHO, which has succeeded in protecting us, eradicating disease and reducing suffering for more than six decades, is an agency of the United Nations. As the worldwide coordinator for public health officials in every country when a pandemic looms, the agency plays an essential role -- analogous to the Centers for Disease Control in the United States -- that simply would not be performed otherwise. Without the WHO, this planet would be far sicker, poorer and more dangerous.

The same cannot be said of the demagogues who inhabit so much of the airwaves and cyberspace. On a planet where human survival will demand cooperation, tolerance, honesty and generosity, their persistent idiocy is not just embarrassing but potentially lethal.

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