Attempting to successfully perform the plays of Shakespeare at an all-black high school was challenging, to say the least. In the spring of 1985, I starred in Merchant of Venice to a week’s worth of empty houses. I’d wanted to do Richard III, because my own real-life form of villainy (bitterness over physical inadequacy and a general sense of murderous hatred toward all humankind) finds a better avatar in Richard than in Shylock the pious penny-pincher.
But, you know…Jew. So, Shylock I was.
Following one evening’s sold-not performance, a castmate asked me a question about the play’s pivotal courtroom scene: “Why’d they make that Shylock mutherfucker convert to Christianity when that ain’t what he believe?” I explained that although Shakespeare’s intent regarding the forced conversion has been interpreted many ways over the centuries, in real life, forcing a person to agree to and repeat something they know to be false (granted, religion is a matter of faith, but from Shylock’s perspective, he “knew” Christianity to be false) is one of the primary ways in which the ruthless and power-hungry flex their muscles. Almost every religion has done it. Every king and emperor has done it. The Nazis did it when they demanded that the Poles acknowledge the “doctrine of divine law” of German racial superiority, and the communists—the 20th-century grand champions of forced conversions—demanded that their subjects accept all aspects of communist doctrine as, shall we say, “settled science.”
It has often been said that the Soviet Union corrupted the sciences in service of its brutal enforcement of state orthodoxy. I would argue that the Soviets didn’t corrupt anyone, but rather, a certain number of people in the physical, medical, and behavioral sciences who were already predisposed to using their skills in the service of the state put themselves at the Kremlin’s disposal. I think you’ll find those kinds of “scientists” in any society at any given time—credentialed professionals who are willing to partner with the state in the service of enforcing an ideological or political orthodoxy.
Like forcing people to agree that a man who is biologically a man but who thinks he’s a woman “on the inside” is as much a woman as one who is, you know, an actual woman. But let’s take a look at an even more damning, if not as widely known (yet), example. The March 2016 edition of Pediatrics, the official, international peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, contained a paper that has, so far, gone surprisingly unnoticed by the right. But before we get to the content of the paper, let’s meet the authors. Anne Barnhill, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Jessica Martucci, PhD, is a fellow in the same department at UPenn. Martucci is the Lewis to Barnhill’s Martin. Whereas Barnhill likes to come off as a serious, objective scholar, Martucci describes herself as a “feminist historian of sci/tech/med” and a “twitterstorian.” She’s the social-media-crazy ideologue to Barnhill’s reserved academic.
Together, these two titans of deep thought authored a paper titled “Unintended Consequences of Invoking the ‘Natural’ in Breastfeeding Promotion.” The abstract? Health professionals must dissuade the general public from referring to breastfeeding as “natural,” because if lice-infested nose-picking lowlife commoners begin to associate “natural” with “beneficial,” they might be tempted to entertain such forbidden notions as vaccination skepticism. Therefore, even though the authors concede that breastfeeding is natural, their mission is to get doctors and public health officials to stop telling patients that it is.
The paper in its entirety can be found here, and it’s not a long read, so I recommend clicking over. Here are a few excerpts:
Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier. This may ultimately challenge public health’s aims in other contexts, particularly childhood vaccination…. Coupling nature with motherhood, however, can inadvertently support biologically deterministic arguments about the roles of men and women in the family (for example, that women should be the primary caretakers of children). Referencing the “natural” in breastfeeding promotion, then, may inadvertently endorse a controversial set of values about family life and gender roles, which would be ethically inappropriate…. Whatever the ethics of appealing to the natural in breastfeeding promotion, it raises practical concerns. The “natural” option does not align consistently with public health goals.
Before I go any further, I’ll pause to point out that I am not an “anti-vaxxer,” and the world of “alternative medicine” is as alien to me as a dinner of tofu and lentils. In general, I despise all manner of New Age vegan anti-science hippie liberal nonsense. My dad was the doctor who killed Elvis with Demerol; respect for pharmaceuticals is in my genes. But I also know that the minute you’re told that a lie is necessary because the ends justify the means, you need to resist, because you’re in the presence of a charlatan, regardless of that person’s credentials.
The Pediatrics paper was dutifully championed by writers at CNN, Slate, New York magazine, Vocativ, and PhillyVoice. More important, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, featured it on its website. Professional “skeptics,” rather than criticizing the fact that the paper calls for doctors to lie by omission, preferred to focus on the hurty words hurled at the authors by anti-vaxxers (who, unlike conservatives, picked up on the paper immediately).
For her part, Jessica Martucci, the paper’s co-author, decided that the only reason her position was getting flak was because of (wait for it) “misogyny,” writing on Twitter, “Honestly, what I’ve learned from all this is just how misogynistic public discourse really is. Speaking publicly is still a radical act.” No, advocating that doctors stop using an appropriate and factually correct term when speaking with patients is a radical act, and not in the good way. How typical—a “feminist” says something ridiculous, and when she’s called out on it, she accuses her detractors of being angry merely because a woman dared to speak publicly. It’s a get-out-of-trouble-for-spouting-nonsense card—“You’re just criticizing me because I’m a woman who spoke.”
Frankly, I wasn’t that interested in contacting Dr. Martucci, because I felt I already had a decent enough column without doing so. But then I learned a fascinating detail. In 2015, Martucci wrote a book titled—get this—Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America. Wait…hold the phone. This is the person who advocates that doctors and public health officials stop using the term “natural” in relation to breastfeeding. WTF? She used it in the title of her own damn book!
Okay, now I was too curious not to reach out.
Dear Dr. Martucci,
In the paper, you (and your co-author) explore the risks of coupling the word “natural” with breastfeeding and motherhood. Yet your own book is titled ‘Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America.’ Have your views on using the word “natural” in conjunction with breastfeeding and motherhood changed since you wrote your book? If given the opportunity to craft a new title, would you drop the word “natural”?
In our paper, my co-author and I critique the use of “natural” by health authorities, but do not critique individuals for using the word “natural” to describe breastfeeding or motherhood…. The point of our ‘Pediatrics’ paper was to critique the role of public health campaigns in relying too heavily on a particular ideological construction of breastfeeding as natural in order to put pressure on mothers, pressure that we feel is unethical given the lack of support for mothers in the U.S., the physical and emotional burdens that breastfeeding can impose for some women. In our paper, we do not challenge or question the choices of individuals or even lay groups to promote breastfeeding as natural, instead our critique was very narrowly focused on physicians, other clinicians and public health authorities who promote breastfeeding using this ideologically-loaded language.
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