Ebola, ignorance, and the marketing of fear

     An ambulance transporting Nancy Writebol, an American missionary stricken with Ebola, is shown arriving at Emory University Hospital, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    An ambulance transporting Nancy Writebol, an American missionary stricken with Ebola, is shown arriving at Emory University Hospital, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    It takes a special kind of jerk to market fear and exploit public ignorance in the midst of a health emergency – and, sure enough, members of this repellent American subspecies are already flapping their yaps.

    It’s horrible that the latest outbreak of Ebola – “the largest, most severe, most complex outbreak,” according to the World Health Organization – has infected 1,800 people and killed nearly 1,000 in West Africa. But after listening to the right-wing purveyors of panic (I did it, so you wouldn’t have to), I’d swear that the Grim Reaper is poised to lay waste to everyone who treads the greenswards of suburbia.

    The fear-mongers are particularly upset that several infected health care workers have been flown to Atlanta for treatment. Take a wild guess who they blame for that. Take a guess who they think is plotting to use Ebola for crass and tyrannical political gain.

    Rather than hold you in suspense, let’s hear from Rush Limbaugh as he feeds the disease through his fact-free ideological filter:

    “President Obama has done something that’s never been done before. President Obama has ordered the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to bring Americans suffering from the Ebola virus into America…If there’s going to be a crisis, it may as well be here so that Obama and the Democrat party can lead the compassion train.”

    I know it’s a waste of space to indulge Rush – he said the disease was brought here “so Obama can strut his stuff” – but sometimes liars with big megaphones need to be refuted with facts. Fact is, Obama didn’t “order” anything. Nor did the CDC or the military. Two Christian medical missionary groups, Samaritan’s Purse and Serving in Mission USA, brought the two workers to Atlanta by private chartered jet, and made their own arrangements with specialists at Emory University. We can certainly debate whether the Christian groups acted wisely, but, sorry Rush, this was not about Obama “advancing a Democrat party agenda.”

    Actually, Rush seems moderate when you compare him to radio and Internet star Alex Jones, one of our more ubiquitous conspiracy freaks. On YouTube the other day, he laid out Obama’s purported plan to use Ebola as an excuse to augment his authoritarian rule:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a cy-op to create terror and to fear-monger and to bring a greater medical tyranny…This is all about a power grab to set up the medical tyranny state.”

    Jones said that Ebola is an “airborne” disease, so now Obama has an excuse to jail anybody he wants, simply by claiming that he’s trying to prevent the disease from spreading. And how does Alex know all this? Because, in his words, “Obama signed an executive order to ‘disappear’ Americans if you even have a cough…to basically lock you in a prison.”

    Jones was referring to an executive order that Obama signed on July 31, but clearly he needs to take a course in remedial reading. Obama’s order merely updates an ’03 order signed by George W. Bush, authorizing the Department of Health and Human Services to issue isolation or quarantine directives, in the event of “severe acute respiratory syndromes.” It doesn’t mandate the detention of people with severe respiratory symptoms. And Ebola isn’t a respiratory disease. And contrary to Jones’ rant, Ebola isn’t an “airborne” disease – unless a sick soul coughs his blood or saliva directly on you.

    By now, you could probably use some comic relief. Enter Rick Wiles, a radio evangelist who last week engineered a gymnastic flip-flop.

    First he said that Obama would exploit Ebola by tyrannically mandating “that every human being in the United States be vaccinated…and nobody knows what is in the vaccine.” Then, a day later, he conjured the notion that Obama bringing Ebola stateswide was actually a good thing, because it would clean God’s slate: “It may be the great attitude adjustment…Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion.”

    It may be the great attitude adjustment that I believe is coming,” he said. “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography and abortion.” – See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/rick-wiles-ebola-could-solve-americas-problems-atheism-and-homosexuality#sthash.IENLsjuj.dpuf

    Meanwhile, the fever swamp has been pulsing with reports – excuse me, “reports” – that Ebola-infected illegal immigrants are crossing our southern border. It was inevitable that Ebola and the immigration issue would be seamlessly merged.

    For instance, the right-wing Breitbart website says that 71 “individuals from nations currently suffering from the world’s largest Ebola outbreak” have been caught trying to breach the border. (Naturally, Fox News picked up the story.) But note the sleight of hand. The story never actually says, much less documents, that those people have the disease. And a federal Customs and Border Patrol official later said, “Those are NOT Ebola numbers.”

    Elsewhere, congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia wrote a letter last month to the CDC, lamenting that such “reports” of Ebola-infected immigrants are “particularly concerning.” It turned out, under close inspection, that Gingrey’s staffers had simply trolled a phony story posted by one Alex Jones’ websites. And when later questioned by NBC News, Gingrey folded like a cheap suit: “I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were.”

    I will now yield the floor to Michael Gerson, a former top aide to George W. Bush. In a commentary piece, he castigates the conservatives who are engaged in “the opportunistic incitement of fear.” He says that their “fantastical and malicious” arguments are being “manufactured for political reasons.” He bemoans the fact that “right-wing populism inclines to turn against scientific elites. This is positively dangerous.”

    True that, sir. In the midst of a medical crisis, the marketing of fear and the exploitation of ignorance are diseases we can ill afford.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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