Friday, April 20, 2007

COLUMN -- Fine, Imus the bigot is gone. What about Imus the activist?

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:05 AM |  

Friday, April 20, 2007

I have to admit mixed emotions over the firing of Don Imus. On one hand, Imus' banishment from medialand is vindication of the value of free speech. Speech may be free, but it has consequences. Offend people's sensibilities, and you pay the price. The tribe has spoken. I'm not going to miss the race-baiting shock jock.

But I am going to miss the activist who took on issues others in the media backed off from - specifically, Imus' championing of the hypothesis that mercury in childhood vaccines is connected to rising autism rates - now one case in 150 live births. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2005, David Schulman noted the mercury issue locked most of the media in an awkward position.

The hypothesis that the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, commonly used in childhood vaccines before 2000 and still found in flu and a few other vaccines, plausibly contributed to the alarming increase in the incidence of autism was, frankly, heresy. The scientific, medical and government health establishments denied any vaccine-autism link. Moreover, they viewed those supporting the theory as crackpots, conspiracy theorists or fanatical parents looking for someone to blame for their children's fate.

So who was the media to believe? "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents Vs. Research," declared the New York Times. Attempting to portray the mercury-vaccine connection as an ongoing scientific controversy, some reporters, discovered Schulman, were discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. In general, the media were reluctant to buck the establishment. They mostly still are.

Not Imus. In 2005, he was among the first to interview David Kirby, a Brooklyn-based writer whose book "Evidence of Harm" makes a strong case for the plausibility of a connection between thimerosal and autism. Imus was on the line two years before autism became safe enough for a recent one-touch by Oprah.

In a column on the Huffington Post, Kirby gives Imus and his wife, Deirdre, much of the credit for the passing of the Combating Autism Act, which allocates funds for autism research. But, notes Kirby, an April 17 Senate hearing on specific funding was scheduled without input from organizations that support the mercury hypothesis, and the groups will not be allowed to testify.

"Imus would have gone ballistic at that injustice," writes Kirby. "But now he is gone, and he can't."

There is a teachable moment here.

Yes, Imus made a personal, racist attack on a group of young African-American women who didn't warrant the insult. He's paying the price. But are we as a country better off? Are African-Americans better off? Are we willing to talk about that?

Imus intends a crack about a college basketball team and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come riding out of the hills hell-bent on shooting the wounded in hopes of maintaining a semblance of relevance. Their shtick is premised on America being a racist nation. Imus confirms that, they imply. Banishing Imus from the airwaves doesn't change that, but it does reinforce the notion that people of color are still victims needing organized outrage and preferential care.

Last legislative session, I sat at the Capitol and listened to a Minnesota-nice white woman speak against school vouchers because "inner-city" parents weren't equipped to make good choices about where and how their children should be educated.
Forgive me. While not excusing Imus, I find the woman's condescending liberalism far more sinister and indicative of racism than an off-the-cuff comment of a shock jock. Confronting the attitude that people of color can't possible succeed without beneficent white help would do more for African-Americans than booting Imus off the island.

Imus the bigot is gone, and the world is safe for female African-American basketball players, if not quite so welcoming for families of color who would like a choice of where they send their kids to school. But who's going to replace Imus the activist? Who's going to speak for the family facing odds of 1 in 150 of having an autistic child? Imus may have been grotesque and incomprehensible, but perhaps we really did need him to break down a few walls. Just a thought.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

COLUMN -- Head-shaking won't do it; engaging in market-principled government might

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:18 PM |  

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

It was a week where the Minnesota DFL taxed even our patience with proposals for tax increases on just about everything else. The time seems right for a good old-fashioned rant on the arrogance, self-serving politics and downright socialist propensity of the DFL (motto: "Willing to force someone else to pay for a better Minnesota").

Although such a rant would be indeed cathartic, it has little value. Two cardinal rules of life: 1) never bluff a dumb poker player and 2) never try to embarrass someone who has no shame.

A shameless DFL has gone wild exposing the nanny-state metaphors. But the blame for that irresponsible behavior, I contend, rests with the GOP. The GOP ran a bluff and lost its stake in the Legislature by playing a DFL-lite hand. Now it's a little late for the governor and the party to go all-in on conservative principles. Nobody's buying that ruse.

The DFL has exposed the GOP "tell" - the GOP shakes its head "no" whenever the DFL ups the ante. The GOP is chasing control of state government like a dog running after a bus; it doesn't know what to do with it when it catches it. Lacking faith that conservative principles can win elections, Republicans mimic the DFL tax and spend dance. Unfortunately, they don't know the steps very well and their metaphors are smaller.

In case the GOP (and my good friend Jason Lewis) missed it, David Brooks' New York Times column published in the Pioneer Press ("The folly of looking backward to Goldwater and Reagan," March 30) implies that while government is not THE solution to problems, by the very nature of its extent, government today must be a PART of the solution.

Brooks' premise is simple: Conservatism rose to prominence in the 1970s when people were right to think their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state. The active paradigm was "liberty vs. power" - the idea that big government meant less liberty.

That was then. Today non-ideological Joe and Jane, facing large amorphous threats like having their jobs outsourced, rising energy prices, loss of health insurance and deteriorating schools for their kids, don't see their own government as the No. 1 threat to their personal freedom.

Brooks writes: "People with secure health care can switch jobs more easily. People who feel free from terror can live their lives more loosely. People who come from stable, secure homes and pass through engaged schools are free to choose from a wider range of opportunities."

The "liberty vs. power" paradigm has been replaced with a "security leads to freedom" model. That switch doesn't end debate between right and left, says Brooks, it just engages it on a different ground.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota GOP doesn't get that, or, if it does, it hasn't figured out how to engage the DFL in the new paradigm. That's why the DFL can run wild with economy-killing tax proposals, stomp on charter schools and vouchers to "save" the status quo education system, and create the illusion that government-provided universal health care coverage is the same as being able to see a doctor when you need to.

But Joe and Jane aren't listening to the conservatives on these issues because their head-shaking "no" strategy offers neither security nor freedom. Joe and Jane aren't responding to GOP moderates because they aren't offering as much as the DFL.
In today's world, the GOP can't portray government as the enemy when its goal is controlling the government. The challenge for the GOP is creating conservative policy that meshes with the "security leads to freedom" paradigm. The GOP needs a Ronald Reagan with a message for this time and this place that resonates with today's voters - someone who understands that even in the guise of a government program, market mechanisms work.

Government is no longer the only problem, or even our biggest problem. Neither is government the only solution or the best solution. But government is definitely part of most approaches to the challenges facing Minnesota.

The GOP must not slight individual and economic liberty (as the DFL and GOP moderates do), but it must stop its whining about DFL policy and lamenting the ignorance of voters (as conservatives do). The GOP needs to put aside its fear of government and consider how to replace the DFL tax-and-spend model with a market-mechanism approach to limited government programs. "Trust but verify" also makes for good domestic policy.

Labels: ,