Part of the problem with the Internet age is that it’s difficult to have anything approaching a nuanced discussion anymore. This is especially true when virtually everyone, regardless of their intellect, expertise, or judgment, has access to a repository of perfectly reasonable-sounding people who will say anything. If you type “are vaccines safe” into your preferred Internet search engine, you will find that there are articles which will confirm whatever your preconceived notions regarding the safety of vaccines are. Definitely, the ones saying vaccines are safe tend to come from places like “cdc.gov” and “mayoclinic.org” whereas the ones saying they are not safe tend to come from less… shall we say, “official sounding” domains, but if you are the sort of person who is inclined to disbelieve authority in the first place (and thus have an anti-vaccine bias) then this will be a feature, not a bug.

The truth is that vaccination is not a binary issue and neither is the characterization of vaccines as “mandatory.” During the fight to eradicate smallpox, government inspectors would literally conduct “vaccination raids” where they would send health officials into tenements where immigrant communities (who were hostile to vaccination) were known to live and literally rip babies from mothers’ arms and forcibly vaccinate them. This was probably the last truly mandatory vaccination program in the country. The current debate, which is almost entirely a media creation, is over whether the standard MMR vaccine ought to be “mandatory” – by which it is meant that people cannot send their kids to free public school without it. No one is suggesting that the same measures that were taken to eradicate smallpox be used with MMR, but rather whether the current policy is a good fit to the evil that it is attempting to address. Similarly, the Texas Gardisil vaccination program was described as “mandatory” by certain hyperventilating pundits in spite of the fact that parents could opt out by checking a box on a form with literally no consequence at all.

This discussion, by and large, is proceeding under erroneous premises wherein the people involved are largely talking past each other without even bothering to define the terms they use. As a strong supporter of vaccination, I would personally never send a child of mine to a day care that did not require all children to be current on their vaccination, or to any school that did not do the same. But I recognize that there is some room for disagreement about the particulars of the policy and I recognize in particular that parents are entitled to strong opinions and substantial deference in the raising of their children. I do find that pretty much all of the complaining that the anti-vaxxers have about the fact that parents with vaccinated kids are “mean” to them is completely without merit – part of the strongest reason that the MMR vaccine isn’t legally mandatory in the sense that the smallpox vaccine was is that we count on social shaming to fill the gaps where we believe the law would be excessively intrusive. If you don’t want your child physically removed from you and vaccinated in the name of the government, be prepared to accept some hairy eyeballs from people who believe in the last 100 years of scientific progress. That’s the way freedom works. And yet still I recognize it is a thorny thing to criticize the way anyone is raising their own kid.

Thankfully, I think we can all agree that [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ]’s comments on this matter (as reported by the Washington Free Beacon) are facially insane and beyond the pale of reasonable debate.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/RD-7TudYoIo[/youtube]

To summarize (for those who don’t want to watch the whole video), Paul says (in the course of appearing on the show of one Alex Jones, avowed 9/11 truther and certified insane person who preaches daily to other similarly insane people) that the concept of vaccines being mandatory is a precursor to “martial law.” I don’t know if [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] understands what the term “martial law” means but what he is suggesting here is that if we allow “mandatory” vaccinations then literally the military will take over the rule of this country. I’m not even sure what the logical chain of causation might be in this circumstance, and it seems that this theory has been proven conclusively false since the smallpox vaccination raids I mentioned earlier took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the generals aren’t really any closer to running things now than they were then.

Furthermore, the entire point about this being a matter of “individual health care” is a complete non sequitur. This isn’t about deciding the direction of your own personal medical treatment, it’s about preventing the spread of infectious disease which is of necessity a matter of public concern. This is not an area in which we are engaging in nearly as much guesswork as Paul surmises. In the early days of the smallpox vaccine, the vaccine was extraordinarily dangerous by modern standards, killing approximately 2% of the vaccinated population. However, systematic studies discovered that 14% of the non-vaccinated population was dying of smallpox. The question then became whether your right to not to risk 2% chance of death outweighed society’s interest in not having a 14% chance of dying of smallpox. The math, as they say, is not close. Understandably, everyone believes at some level that they are the protagonist of the entire universe but generally speaking none of us has the legal right to make choices in the course of our own self-determination that will lead to the deaths of seven other innocent people.

Thing is, I think that [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] is really actually smart enough to not believe this nonsense that he is spewing. And that is part of what I find distasteful (and frankly despicable) about his entire appeal. He understands better than his father that he needs the support of reasonable and non-hysterical people to win the nomination. But he can’t quite bring himself to break from the paranoid delusionacs who constitute the base of his father’s support. In fact, not only does he not break from them but he actively seeks out opportunities to give them a wink and a nod and let them know that, even though he appears respectable, he is still “one of them.” He can’t just stop at “parents should be free to raise their kids however they want,” he has to go the extra mile to “the military is coming to take us all over unless I, your hero, puts a stop to this.”

It’s sickening and offensive to me that he does this kind of stuff all the time but even more so that it works because conservatives who know better do not call him out on it. In a fair world, [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] would be entitled to no more respect in conservative circles than Alex Jones, whose show he regularly appears on. But too many are afraid to call this charlatan what he is because doing so will be perceived to alienate young, libertarian voters.

I refuse to believe that [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] is the only answer to our outreach to these groups. Surely we have enough self respect as a movement to hold this man to account for deliberate, ignorance-based fearmongering and pandering to the lowest common denominator just the same as we would any other Republican politician who uttered something similarly embarrassing, in the full faith that libertarians exist who can get elected and who are not crazy. And if we don’t have such faith, we ought to ask ourselves whether pandering to this particular crowd is worth the cost.