Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Reply to Peter Sandman

In a terrific article on his website today, Peter Sandman discusses the paradox of coping with success, now that bird flu has become Mainstream News. It is a must read.

Along the way Peter gently chides us for being unwelcoming to the fold of bird flu believers, the Big Newbie George W., himself:
Some of us bird flu fanatics are likeliest to lose our tolerance for newbies when the newbie is the newly interested President of the United States, a newly appointed official of the World Health Organization, or even a newspaper reporter covering the pandemic story for the first time. Commentaries on bird flu media coverage and the public utterances of public officials have sometimes evinced a carping tone. One of the best flu sites is effectmeasure.blogspot.com, whose editors use the nom-de-web “Revere.” On September 30 Revere posted a commentary under the title “Braindead take notice,” noting what they called “belated signs of life among our braindead politicians who are dimly seeing that maybe bird flu is the next Katrina.”

This is a self-defeating tone for people whose goal is to spread the word. Worse, it’s a self-defeating attitude. As a fellow fanatic put it to me a few days ago: “The mainstream is finally starting to pay attention, and some of the flu geeks are getting upset. They haven’t quite figured out why. They just know they’re in a bad mood.” (The “fellow fanatic” is my wife, colleague, and frequent coauthor Jody Lanard. She can’t write any avian influenza columns with me right now, because she’s working temporarily as WHO’s Senior Advisor for Pandemic Communications in Geneva. I’m on my own.)
Peter and Jody are wise voices of reason. We would be foolish not to listen and consider carefully. And this caution has also been expressed by some of EM's most loyal and astute readers, so we guess there must be something to it. But before doing a too-quick mea culpa we want to take a stab at defending ourselves.

George W. is not just any "newbie" awakening to a threat. He is one of the chief causes for our public health officials playing lapdog instead of watchdog when the house is being ransacked. George W. doesn't read this blog (unless Laura reads it to him), so making him feel unwelcome in bird flu land isn't likely to be much of a turn-off. The same for other politicians we criticize. The real question, however, is whether such critiques of politicians are productive or counter-productive. We'll never know the answer to this, but we can at least explain our intentions.

One of the many things Bush refuses to do is be accountable. For anything. So we have to hold him accountable. And not just Bush. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been missing in action on this issue. The Democratic leadership response has been tardy, unimaginative and narrowly partisan in nature. They should also be held accountable.

"Public health" has the word public in it, a clear signal it is deeply political in nature. And Effect Measure has never made any bones about being a political site. We are not trying to convince people bird flu is a threat--we are not a bird flu site. We are a public health site. We provide a public health perspective about political matters and a politically progreessive perspective about public health matters. Just as the masthead says. We discuss bird flu a great deal because it is a metaphor for a failed leadership in public health. But we also discuss many other public health issues, including war and peace, religion (which affects public health), occupational health and much more. Some would prefer we didn't alienate readers with irrelevant matters such as these. But to us they are not only relevant, but central.

By calling attention to Bush's negligence, persistent tendency to manipulate crises to advance his own agenda, lack of compassion, competence and vision--a small mind thinking tiny--we are also working to undo a carefully constructed lie. And by calling attention to the failure of the Democratic leadership to take a principled stand when they saw no political advantage in it before now, we are also trying to strengthen the hand of the progressive wing of the party that has had to deal with the likes of Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh, politicians who sap the party's moral strength and energy.

We try very hard to be fair, accurate and informative. For that very reason we have never hidden our biases. We read Bill Safire on Language even though we find his politics odious. Likewise we respect our readers and believe they can decide for themselves what they want to take away from what they find here and what they want to leave where it is. We still think our description of brain dead politicians is apt. We said it for a reason.

Yes, they put us in a bad mood. But it isn't a bad mood newly borne of success, but an old one dismayed by failure and its life and death implications. We think there is a place and a need for information about flu that isn't political in nature, so along with two other bloggers we started the non-partisan Flu Wiki. But Effect Measure is strongly biased--biased against an attitude of everyone for themselves, biased in favor of public health and the welfare of the community in general, biased towards building a better, more compassionate, more nurturing society.

Not the best answer to Peter's criticism, maybe. But the only one we have.