Just when I thought the midterm election character assassinations couldn't sink any lower, along comes the drummed-up "controversy" over Michael J. Fox's ads promoting stem cell research and the candidates who support it, which prompted no less a medical luminary than Rush Limbaugh to pronounce that Fox is "exaggerating" his Parkinson's disease symptoms. (I guess he went to the same diagnosis-by-video medical school as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.) I don't expect any better of Limbaugh, but do the television networks have to repeat the charge, even to the point of grilling Fox, as if it had any basis in fact? No, on second thought, I don't expect any better of them, either.
The insinuations that Fox has been faking his own degenerative disorder remind me of another famous case of blaming the victim, the many attempts to twist the fatwa against Salman Rushdie around until it was Rushdie's fault. In his essay collection Step Across This Line, Rushdie documents the efforts of right-wing journalists, radical British Muslims, conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and leftier-than-thou radicals like Alexander Cockburn to whip up some cheap moral indignation by accusing him of creating his own problems, stirring up controversy, being insufficiently dedicated to free expression (Cockburn, naturally), or costing the British government too much to protect him. Rushdie sums up these criticisms:
In the rest of the free world, the "Rushdie case" is about freedom of expression and state terrorism. In Britain, it seems to be about a man who has to be saved from the consequences of his own actions. Elsewhere, people know that the outrage has been committed not by me but against me. In certain quarters of my own country, people take a contrary view.
Or, as he says in a lighter context (the frothed-up furor over his selection of ten "Best Young British Novelists" in 1993), "Apparently I am the only person not allowed to make fatwa cracks."
And apparently Michael J. Fox is the only person not allowed to talk about Parkinson's disease and stem cell research. In a saner world, Fox's ads are about the importance of using a science that neither creates nor destroys life to help people suffering from horrible disorders; the only controversy would be about a conservative movement that's dominated by religious fanatics who value embryos above human beings, and by "moral" voices who will smear anyone else's character in their last, desperate bids to hold power. But in the American media, the controversy is a he-said/she-said debate where Limbaugh can question Fox's medical condition and his ethics with no evidence whatsoever, where a newly respectable Katie Couric treats the fabrication like it's a valid possibility, and where Michael J. Fox is the shameless liar.
Yes, I realize nobody is placing a bounty on Michael J. Fox's head. (The preceding sentence is the kind of obvious disclaimer nobody should have to issue, except to forestall other people from pointing out the obvious differences between the situations as if they invalidated the galling similarities. Also, that sentence is kind of fun to type.) But both men have been criticized for speaking out on issue that affect them more than anyone else--literally life-or-death situations. At least nobody accused Salman Rushdie of faking the fatwa.
So the Republican solution to neurological disease is to blame the victim. This is nothing new, but it reinforces the need to drive their anti-science, anti-medicine candidates out of office. Because in a world run by conservatives, if you have a genetic or idiopathic disease it's your fault and you're the only person who can't talk about it.
Michael Steele, the Republican Senate candidate here in Maryland, is a conservative party insider who's running as a political moderate and a Washington outsider because he knows most of the state opposes his hardcore conservative views. While he quietly takes millions of dollars from national Republicans, his public campaign has been virtually content-free: the major policy statement in his first ad was "I love puppies."
He may love puppies, but he doesn't seem to care about his fellow human beings: he not only opposes embryonic stem cell research, he compared it to slavery and the Holocaust. Michael J. Fox has endorsed his opponent, Ben Cardin. I wasn't too enthusiastic about voting for Cardin before that.
I am now.