When You Can’t Laugh With Them, Laugh at Them


I don’t watch Bill Maher on TV; I don’t follow his tweets, and I don’t much care for his brand of humor. I don’t pay a whole of attention to him. But last month, driving aimlessly around Wellfleet, I tuned the radio to one of those breathy readers on NPR having a chat with a physician about some dust-up Maher’d created about the swine flu (and, no, I am not going to use the clarifying “H1N1” in parenthesis) vaccine. Apparently he’s of the body-heal-thyself school or perhaps the tiny-transmitter-in-the-injection school when it comes to preventative medicine, I don’t know, but he’s been counseling folks to skip the swine flu jab.

Even though I don’t pay no never-mind to Bill Maher, evidently many others do, so much so that Maher has chosen to explain his views on medical care in his Huffington Post blog. If you are capable of overlooking his numerous faulty pronoun references and other grammatical homicides, then you can focus your attention on the shambles that are his logic and argument. Fair warning: it’ll be tough to force yourself not to count the number of times he misuses gerunds, but give it a try. Here’s a typical excerpt; the emphasis is added:

“Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services what she thought about the fact that ‘Bill Maher told his viewers anyone who gets a flu shot is an idiot.’

“Well, not quite. It was twittered, which I guess doesn’t make a huge difference, but as 60 Minutes is the last bastion of TV journalism, accuracy is appreciated. And I see that counts for Twitter, too — my bad — so yes, some people are not idiotic to get a flu shot. They’re idiotic if they don’t investigate the pros and cons of getting a flu shot. But, come on — it was a twitter from a comedian, not a treatise in the New England Journal of Medicine, that’s not what I do.

I’m just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country, I’m not telling a specific pregnant lady what to do.”

So, within the space between two paragraphs, two sentences if you want precision, Maher morphs from a comedian to a medical reporter. What a Renaissance man!

His blog continues, “Is it worth it to get vaccines for every bug that goes around? Injecting something into my bloodstream? I’d like to reserve that for emergencies. This is the flu, and there’s always a flu. I’ve said it before, America is a panicky country. It’s like we look for things to panic about. The reports from Australia, where they’re over their flu season, is that its [sic!] not a terribly virulent flu. The worldwide numbers support that. But you’d never get that impression from the media in this country.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with a paragraph so rife with errors. First of all, a smart guy like Bill Maher who we know is well-informed because, as he says, he “read Microbe Hunters when I was eight, I have a basic idea how vaccines work,” is surely aware that the vast majority of bugs that go around do not, in fact, have vaccines that prevent them. Norovirus, anyone? Rhinovirus? Vaccines tend to get developed for lethal or life-limiting diseases, or those illnesses that can exacerbate existing conditions or open a door of vulnerability to more lethal strains of microbes. The flu fits into at least two of those categories.

Then Maher goes on to attack what I assume is a favorite topic, the common sense of average Americans: “I’ve said it before, America is a panicky country.” And the evidence he cites in support of this claim? Why, the swine flu is not “terribly virulent….But you’d never get that impression from the media in this country.” So, this time without even the caesura of a paragraph divide to separate his contradictory assertions, Americans are working themselves into a frenzy because the media (in bed with Big Pharma, of course) is whipping up unnecessary fears.

How about we try another explanation. I’ve not noticed any panic where I live, and I live in a college-university town, the kind of ground zero for human-to-human transmission of disease, where all manner of germy things are spread by all manner of careless adolescents. What I have heard, and read, are mainly questions from mothers of school-aged kids or mothers-to-be asking when the vaccine will be available. Maher ought not to confuse the slight disappointment in the tones of these mothers, who after all were assured earlier this year that plenty of vaccine would be available come fall, with panic.

Besides, if America were truly a “panicky country” shrinks from coast to coast would have waiting lines out the door and around the corner. We’ve got plenty to panic about; Maher’s myopic focus on bugs just eliminates his ability to see the big picture.

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