Steven Miles and Arthur Caplan are my new heroes. They should be yours, too — if you hold the radical opinion that facts matter.
Dr. Miles, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, offered $1,000 to charity if Michele Bachmann can prove a link she suggested between vaccinations for human papillomavirus and intellectual disability. Dr. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, upped the ante on Miles’ offer, adding $10,000 of his own.
Bachmann, the frequently facts-challenged Minnesota congresswoman who wants to be president, wandered into this thicket during a recent GOP debate in Tampa. She attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for an executive order requiring girls in that state to be vaccinated for HPV or, as Bachmann put it, to receive “a government injection.”
It was an obvious attempt to tap that rich seam of anti-government ferment that runs through the body politic. Later, in interviews with Fox “News” and The Today Show, she spoke of a woman who came up to her crying after the debate.
“She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She said her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”
And how difficult is it to imagine a scenario where that irresponsible remark pays off in tragedy? HPV causes cervical cancer. If some child now dies of that disease because her parents were made paranoid of “government injections,” much of the blame will lie with Bachmann.
When she found herself pilloried by doctors, pundits and even her own ideological soul mates, Bachmann responded that she wasn’t speaking as a doctor or scientist, but only as a mother. It’s a remarkably disingenuous excuse, reminiscent of a statement from Sen. Jon Kyl’s office in April that an outlandish claim he made about Planned Parenthood “was not intended to be a factual statement.”
Still, it beat the usual strategy of doubling down on stupid, seeking some loophole through which the incorrect can be proven correct. You saw this when Bachmann was hammered on her ludicrous claim that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly” to end slavery.
As proof, she trotted out John Quincy Adams who did, indeed, work to abolish slavery. Too bad he was all of eight years old when the nation began. He was a Founding Child, perhaps, but a Founding Father? No.
But the fact is, facts don’t matter much to Bachmann. She is the avatar of a slimy ethos newly prominent in American politics and life. It is the elevation of end over means, the binding of conscience and the gagging of integrity. It is permission to say whatever outrageous thing will give you advantage, to lie your natural backside off if it will win the argument.
Facts? True believers don’t need no stinking facts.
Or, as Stephen Colbert famously observed, it is no longer necessary that a thing be true. It is enough that it be “truthy.”
Except that it really isn’t enough. Facts don’t stop being facts just because you ignore them. So we are indebted to Miles and Caplan for putting their money where Bachmann’s mouth is, requiring her to put up or shut up. In failing to respond to their challenge, she has effectively chosen the latter.
And she says more by her silence than ever she did with words.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.