That headline, of course, quotes the cover to the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: "Don't Panic." This week, it seems like timely advice, as the news media and American politicians go into full-blown panic mode over one death and two illnesses within the United States.
We'll get to all that in a bit, since we will be pre-empting our talking points this week for my own "Don't panic!" rant (which, for science-fiction fans who were already thrilled with this week's title, will also quote the learned philosopher Ellen Ripley). But first let's quickly run through some other political news, before we get to the idiocy of the "travel ban fever" running rampant among American politicians.
The biggest news from any of the myriad state-level candidate debates held in the past week came out of Florida, where Governor Rick Scott refused to appear (for seven agonizingly long minutes) on stage with Charlie Crist's fan. No, really. "Fangate" became a thing this week.
Late-night comic Craig Ferguson, tried to helpfully explain the political theater to his audience by quipping (this is from memory, I should mention, and not a transcript): "There's a difference, of course, between a politician and a fan. One oscillates back and forth and blows a steady stream of hot air in your face... and the other is a fan."
Late-night humor aside, the ad wars are getting fierce, in the home stretch of the 2014 campaign, including one Republican virtual clone of the infamous Willie Horton ad, now running in Nebraska. Outside of the ad wars, Republicans are showing they know how to charm the lady voters, once again, as state lawmaker Steve Vaillancourt of New Hampshire offered his thoughts on a House race in his state: "Let's be honest. Does anyone not believe that Congressman Annie Kuster is as ugly as sin? And I hope I haven't offended sin." He also compared her to a "drag queen." This provoked one of the best responses I've ever heard in politics, from Jess McIntosh of EMILY's List: "This is a lawmaker? Like, a person who makes laws? This person has no business anywhere near laws that affect women or other human beings." Well said!
In other crazy and offensive things said by Republicans (always a fertile field, it seems), President Obama is either secretly leading Africa instead of the United States, or just plain crazy (according to that noted expert on sanity, Donald Trump). And an elected Republican official in Missouri is trying to talk the American military into launching a coup against Obama. No, really. She responded to the uproar her comments caused by stating: "Something innocent and simple got twisted into a disaster because it's an election." Um, no. In fact, a disaster got elected to an innocent and simple job because of a previous election. She's up for re-election this year, too (so get out and vote, non-seditious people of Jefferson County, Missouri!).
Federal judge and wife-beater Mark Fuller has still inexplicably not been impeached.
A candidate for Senate died, and the mainstream media largely yawned and ignored it. Doug Butzier was the Libertarian candidate in a race that could be decided by a razor-thin margin in Iowa, so you'd think more people would be analyzing the possible effect, but sadly, this has not happened.
It's a new week, so Marco Rubio has a brand-new ISIS-fighting strategy! Which completely contradicts all his other positions on the issue, but hey, who's counting?
John McCain called for Obama to appoint a "Ebola czar," which he promptly did. Wonder how long it'll be before McCain and other Republicans start complaining about all of Obama's czars again? Here's McCain, tweeting from 2009: "Obama has more czars than the Romanovs - who ruled Russia for 3 centuries. Romanovs 18, cyberczar makes 20." How quickly we all forget, eh?
Sam Stein of the Huffington Post has been doing an exemplary job reporting on how we got to where we are now on public health and Ebola, first getting a stunning interview with the head of the National Institutes of Health. You'd think a statement like: "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine [for Ebola] in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready," would have raised some interest in other parts of the media, but not so much. Stein followed this scoop up with a deeper dive into why we were so unprepared for Ebola, which is also a heck of a lot better journalism than anything you see on television these days.
And finally, just to end on a light note (don't panic!), President Obama's credit card just got declined. Don't you hate it when that happens?
Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania deserves at least an Honorable Mention this week, for focusing in on actually doing something productive which might wind up doing some good in the midst of the Ebola panic. Rather than beating the "travel ban" drums, Casey instead called for more money for the "Hospital Preparedness Program," which as you can see (from the chart) has had its budget slashed in recent years. Bravo to Senator Casey for being just about the only person in Washington who has proposed something useful that might actually be quite proactive in the future, instead of demagoguing and scapegoating along with the rest of the political world.
But the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to Charlie Crist and his campaign team. After "Fangate," the Florida Democratic Party wasted not a second of time in getting a hilarious ad up on the air. The ad ends with quite possibly the funniest thing we've yet heard in the 2014 election cycle: "Next debate airs Tuesday. It's going to be cool." Crist's campaign is also now going to send donors a hand-held fan if they donate at least five bucks.
Now that's the way to immediately take advantage of your opponent shooting himself in the foot, folks! The Florida Democratic Party, for their lighting-quick ad (and for their "cool" sense of humor), has more than earned this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week.
[Congratulate the Florida Democratic Party on their web page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]
Occasionally, however, Democratic candidates want to run edgy ads and just go too far. We have two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards this week, the first for Wendy Davis and her "wheelchair" ad in the Texas gubernatorial race, and the second for Alison Lundergan Grimes for her "amnesty" ad in the Kentucky Senate race, where she attempted to get to the right of Mitch McConnell on immigration.
Both these ads were roundly criticized, for good reason. The Grimes ad, in particular, drew condemnation from such progressive groups as MoveOn and Democracy For America. Without bothering to list the reasons why these ads are more than a little bit disappointing (follow those links if you haven't heard the stories yet), we hereby award both Wendy Davis and Alison Lundergan Grimes the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. There is such a thing as "too far" in campaign ads, and both crossed that line, we feel.
[For legal reasons, we do not link to current campaign websites, so you'll have to search out contact information for Wendy Davis and Alison Lundergan Grimes yourself, to let them know what you think of their campaign tactics.]
Volume 324 (10/17/14)
I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for a good rant.
I've already posted one rant this week, on the Ebolapalooza idiocy of the news media in their recent "reporting." This was inspired by an on-air rant over at (of all places) Fox News, by Shepard Smith, which is well worth watching. The only other mainstream media rant I saw which tried to counter the chorus of Ebola fearmongering came from David Ignatius at the Washington Post, who also quoted Smith's rant.
As an unrelated side note, the Post also ran a most excellent rant this week which dared to ask the question "Is Sex Only For Rich People?" which I highly recommend for its original thinking (a quality in short supply in the news media, at times). Here is the heart of the argument, made by Catherine Rampell:
Our country apparently doesn't want low-income Americans to have free access to birth control, either by compelling all insurance plans to offer it or by adequately funding public reproductive health programs. In many schools -- predominantly located in low-income, high-teen-pregnancy areas -- we don't even teach kids how contraception works. We also don't want them to have easy access to abortions when they inevitably get pregnant because they're not using birth control, with states such as Texas and Mississippi trying to shutter their few remaining abortion clinics.
Then we don't help them very much after they birth those unplanned kids, instead publicly chastising irresponsible single mothers for having babies they can't afford and offering little assistance in the form of child care, education or cash. Dumping unwanted children onto the child welfare system isn't exactly celebrated, either.
This breath of fresh thinking aside, however (again, read the article, it's well worth your time), I have to offer up this week in place of our regular talking points a rant on all the various "travel ban" proposals floating around out there. Now, I am fully aware that none of these are in the least way serious -- they are all designed purely for political gain. If any of these were actually serious, then Congress would right now be reconvening, instead of spending the next week or so out on the campaign trail. The quick question to ask anyone proposing such a ban would be (for any enterprising journalist to ask a politician making the proposal): "So are you demanding that John Boehner and Harry Reid reconvene Congress tomorrow to enact such a critical defense of this country?" Here's a great guide to whether such a proposal is serious or just political blathering: if the answer to that question is "No," then they're just playing politics.
Anyway, here's my rant against travel bans, because I just know this is going to be a big subject on this weekend's political chatfests on Sunday morning.
The stupidity of all the "travel ban" proposals
The political panic over the Ebola virus is reaching epidemic proportions, it seems. The entire exercise, to date, seems nothing more than a textbook example of what political scientists often call "do-somethingism" -- if only someone would just do something, we could all be safe and life would be wonderful.
The problem, of course, is that just doing something for the sake of doing something -- or, even worse, just to score political points over your rivals -- is rarely effective, often counterproductive, and usually nothing more than a gigantic waste of time and money. Which is exactly how all the proposals yet offered for a "travel ban" should be classified, as nothing more than sheer "do-somethingism" that will, in reality, do nothing (or make things worse).
The only way to be absolutely certain that Ebola cannot escape the West African countries and spread to the rest of the world would be to institute a complete quarantine of the affected countries. This is not what anyone is currently calling for, though, and even if they were it would be virtually impossible to police in any meaningful way. Locking down every West African country affected would cost an insane amount of money (assuming it could even be achieved), and would essentially cut the people within those countries off from the rest of the planet, leaving them to their fate. It would be a real-life version of Albert Camus's novel The Plague, in fact -- only on a much larger scale (since Camus only wrote about one North African city being forcibly quarantined). The cold-heartedness of this reality is likely why nobody's proposed it. Yet.
This might be a conceivable proposition if the affected area were on a planet of its own, and we were talking about interstellar space flights instead of airplanes. That's really about the only way it could work. After all, the only way to get off a planet is by spaceship -- you can't swim a river or drive across a border to get to a new planet, after all. In the movie Aliens (the second in the Alien franchise), Ellen Ripley argues for an absolute travel ban on the planet she narrowly escaped from, because that would be a permanent solution to the problem of the nasty aliens -- an effective and complete quarantine. When she is turned down, she poignantly asks: "Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?"
This is ironic, since those now advocating for a West African travel ban are now showing their own ignorance of the feasibility of what they are suggesting. The most prominent example this week was a Republican House member from Florida, who insisted that direct flights from these countries currently fly to America, stating "I believe there are some flights." When a reporter informed him: "There are no flights. There are no direct flights that come to the United States from West Africa," this mental giant responded: "It will not solve the problem. It is a step in the right direction." This has got to be the most convincing poster-child example of do-somethingism yet displayed in this debate, but it will certainly not be the last one. I should mention that some Democrats (especially those in tight election races right now) are jumping on this bandwagon too, in political fear.
Oh, sure, I don't doubt that Congress would have a whole lot of fun (and make stacks and stacks of political hay) by voting for a travel ban, but the hard cold fact is that it will not work. Period. It just won't. There are multiple reasons why this is true, in fact. Let's just run down the biggest and most prominent reasons why this do-somethingism is doomed to abject failure in achieving its supposed goals.
The first glaring problem a travel ban would have is that, so far, every single proposal I've seen would only cover "non-citizens." Because of course everyone knows that Americans are protected by a magical force field and do not contract diseases no matter where they tread. The first Ebola patients on American soil were, in fact, Americans. They were health workers who had been fighting the disease and caught it themselves. Their magic American force field didn't work, in other words. All the proposed travel bans would still have let them in. So what good would such a travel ban have done in their cases? A true travel ban would cover everyone, no matter what passport they carried. This is not considered an option by the politicians, though. And it's worth noting that nobody got infected from these people after they arrived, because they were properly cared for.
The second enormous problem is that air travel is not the only way to get around. There are many other ways to get from West Africa to the rest of the world, including by land and by sea. How are we going to address travel that doesn't go through an airport, or only goes through an airport in a country not affected by the ban? None of the proposals I've heard even begins to address this rather large loophole.
The third gigantic problem is deciding where to ban travel from. As mentioned, there are zero commercial flights between the affected countries and American airports. None. Nada. What this means is that everyone travelling from these countries to America has to go through another airport somewhere. So which countries are we going to actually ban travel from? Those who haven't instituted their own travel bans? Well, currently, aside from some African countries, that covers pretty much the entire globe. Maybe we could just ban those making travel connections in Europe -- the most common place to lay over while traveling from West Africa to America.
Which European airports are we going to ban travel from? All of them? Those with connections between America and West Africa? What about countries that have already taken in their own Ebola patients, like Spain? Should we ban all travel from Spain? No American politician has seriously proposed any such thing. European/American trade would collapse if we indeed were stupid enough to try such a wide ban on travel.
This brings up a related question that -- again -- no American politician has even touched with a ten-foot pole. Since the only place in America where Ebola was actually transmitted from one patient to another is Texas, why not institute a travel ban on Texas? Shut its borders, and don't allow any Texans to travel to the other 49 states -- after all, we have to "do something," right? Since Texas is the only hotspot for Ebola, let's just quarantine it (using the same logic the travel banners are now deploying). Surely Rick Perry, who is in favor of travel bans in general, would support such a thing, right? Once again, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for an American politician to suggest such a thing.
Since people are traveling from West Africa to other places before they fly to America, why not just check their passports? Anyone with any sort of stamp from any affected country would then be banned from travelling here. Wouldn't that work? Well, no. No, it wouldn't. President Obama tried to explain why the other night:
If we institute a travel ban instead of the protocols that we've put in place now, history shows that there is a likelihood of increased avoidance. People do not readily disclose their information. They may engage in something called broken travel -- essentially breaking up their trip so they can hide the fact that they have been to one of these countries where there is a disease in place. As a result, we may end up getting less information about who has the disease, they are less likely to get treated properly, screened properly, quarantined properly and as a consequence we could end up having more cases rather than less.
The more harsh barricades to entry people face, the bigger and bigger their incentive to lie, in other words. We are now relying on voluntary statements from travelers, who know that if they answer "yes" to any of the questions, they will not be denied entry to the country and will not be forcibly quarantined. If either of those were true, people would lie. Not just people, either, but whole countries might then join in the efforts to evade the restrictions (West African countries might just stop stamping entry passports, to give just one easy example).
Slamming America's borders shut to the rest of the world would be the only way to be sure no more Ebola-infected people enter the country. It would have to be an absolute ban. Fortress America. Texas would have to be sealed off from the other 49 states, as well. International travel to and from the country would have to entirely cease. This is not going to happen, for a multitude of reasons (the accompanying apocalyptic collapse of the world's economy would likely be reason number one in this list).
I admit, it feels good to "do something," for both politicians and the public alike. "Why won't somebody do something?" is always an agonizing question to pose. But easy answers to a disease transmission do not actually exist. This is not a partisan statement, either. Former Health and Human Services Secretary (and Republican) Mike Leavitt, who was in charge of bird flu preparedness under George W. Bush recently said that they had intensely studied a travel ban but concluded it would not work. And that was for a disease that was much more virulent than Ebola, because it was an airborne virus -- which Ebola is not.
The protocols and voluntary screening in place are working, however. This is the news that is getting lost in the "do something" panic attack. Health officials have screened 36,000 people leaving West Africa over the past two months. Of all these people, 77 had flu-like symptoms. Out of the possible sick people, guess how many had Ebola? None. Zero. At American airports, screening has just begun. Once again, no cases have been identified yet. When such cases are detected, proper precautions can be taken -- because the screening is working. If a travel ban were in place, how many of these people would lie about where they've been? How many would then just disappear into the populace without being monitored?
The proposals for a travel ban which are currently being discussed would indeed "do something." They would make the problem worse. We would all be in the midst of patting ourselves on the back for "doing something" while people began sneaking under the "do something" radar.
It would be nice if Congress could pass a law requiring virus molecules to all carry their own passports. In this Utopian dream world, we could screen for these passports at the border, by waving a magic wand. "Oh, sorry, while your human passport checks out, some molecules in your blood appear to have travelled through West Africa, so I'm very sorry but you can't come in." This is a nice fantasy for someone exhibiting the mental skills of an 11-year-old, but it is not and will never become reality.
Passing any of the proposed travel bans -- most especially the ones that don't even address American citizens' travel -- would make all concerned feel better. Call it "feel-goodism" or "do-somethingism" or just plain old "magical thinking," it would indeed raise spirits. But it would do absolutely nothing to stop Ebola from entering America, and in fact it might even make it easier. Sometimes the answer isn't to do something, but rather to continue doing what has so far been working well.
Ebola will be beaten (if humanity is ultimately successful in fighting this outbreak) in West Africa itself. To beat it, health workers from the rest of the world have to have access. A travel ban would interrupt this access, and allow the virus to spread further in the hot zone. By making the problem worse in West Africa, the problem for the rest of the world also gets worse. A travel ban would be completely counterproductive, and would in fact help the Ebola virus itself.
Take a deep breath, everyone, and try not to give in to the fearmongers. Or, to put it another way: "Don't panic."
-- Chris Weigant