WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2020
Encouraging people to die: Today, we make an admission. Our admission goes like this:
Ever since it appeared in last Thursday's Washington Post, we've been thinking about this column by Michele Norris.
Why have we been thinking about that column? Admittedly, we've been thinking about it because it started like this, headline included:
NORRIS (12/10/20): Black people are justifiably wary of a vaccine. Their trust must be earned.
Trust is earned. We all know that. But if a national vaccine campaign is to succeed, we must quickly figure out how to earn the confidence and cooperation of African Americans who are justifiably wary of a coronavirus vaccine.
"Black people are justifiably wary of a vaccine?" Here in Our Town, are we sure we want to be publishing headlines like that?
We're not saying that anyone should be criticized for being "wary of a vaccine." But are we sure we want to feature the idea that those people we think of as black are justified in their "vaccine hesitancy?"
We ask for this reason:
Ever since the spring, observers have been noting the (substantially) higher death rate from Covid among the people we think of as black. With that in mind, are we sure we want to be publishing headlines in which we say that black vaccine reluctance is some version of "justified?"
People, we're just asking! But do we love our storylines so much that we're willing to let people die for them? Are we willing to let people die so we can keep telling our stories?
As you can see, Norris says, in her opening paragraph, that we should be encouraging African Americans to get vaccinated. Presumably, she feels that there's no medical reason why anyone should avoid these emerging vaccines.
That said, she spends enormous chunks of her column rattling off the horrors, past and allegedly present, which explain why black people are "justifiably" wary. Along came an editor, who propelled that into the headline.
Last Thursday, we cited an egregious howler emitted by Norris as she proceeds down this beloved, standardized path. Today, we'll show you something else we decided to fact-check.
As she proceeds, Norris rattles a standard list of horribles concerning past medical practices. In her formulation, these practices explain why black people are justifiably wary about accepting the vaccine today.
Norris goes on and on in this vein; she's telling one of the favorite stories currently told in Our Town. Needless to say, the Tuskegee experiment is cited. At one point, she also cites this:
NORRIS (12/10/20): You must know names such as J. Marion Sims, who is known as the “father of gynecology” and lauded until 2018 with a statue in Central Park in New York. Sims performed reproductive experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. One of those women, Anarcha Westcott, underwent 30 painful gynecological surgeries without any form of sedation. Sims later opened a hospital where he conducted his perfected technique on White women, who were of course anesthetized.
Really? To understand black vaccine hesitancy, we "must know names such as J. Marion Sims?"
Since we didn't know that particular name, we decided to look it up. We couldn't help noticing that Norris included a date for the statue removal, but not for the years in which Sims engaged in the practices she describes (though the word "enslaved" does appear).
So who the heck was J. Marion Sims? The leading authority on the topic starts by telling us this:
James Marion Sims (January 25, 1813–November 13, 1883) was an American physician in the field of surgery, both known as the "father of modern gynaecology" and as a controversial figure for the ethical questions raised in developing his techniques...
The information proceeds from there. We couldn't help noting that Sims was born in 1813 (sic).
J. Marion Sims was born in 1813! Our question would be this:
Why should anything this man ever did affect anyone's attitude toward today's Covid vaccines? More particularly, how much do we love our horror stories that we're dragging ancient history like this into modern-day issues of life and death?
Here in our unimpressive town, we love our tribal stories. For the past several years, after decades of benign neglect, we all began pretending that it's still 1955 when it comes to matters of race.
(That benign neglect continues in all sorts of areas. When have you ever seen your favorite cable stars discuss the schools black kids attend?)
We've been pretending that it's still 1955. Are we now pretending that it's still 1813 too? More specifically, why should anyone concerned about black life and death be talking about J. Marion Sims (born in 1813) in this current life-and-death context?
Here in Our Town, we tend to be deeply self-impressed. Beyond that, we love to tell our favorites tales, just like everyone else.
We'll add one final point:
Norris' error about (present-day) white medical students was, especially in this life-and-death context, an egregious, inexcusable howler. The problem began with the professor whose slippery work Norris cited, but there's no excuse for the endless bullshit which litters the streets of Our Town.
At some point, we'll force ourselves to walk you through the slippery work which led Norris to commit that pitiful howler. We're sorry to tell you that Our Town's professors (and journalists) very much tend to be like that.
For today, we'll close with this