We have been treated over the last few days to the spectacle of an ordinary nurse facing down two state Governors on the national stage over whether scientific facts or the politics of fear should determine the treatment of courageous healthcare workers returning home after treating Ebola victims in Africa. So far Nurse Kaci Hickox has been able to more than hold her on with the combative Chris Christi and now with Governor Paul LePage of Maine. However, one might ask why these two conservative Republicans Governors put themselves in this situation?
The easy answer is that the public’s fears play into the hands of conservatives. Whether it is fear of terrorists, some deadly disease, or some other real or imagined threat, when individuals feel or imagine that they and/or members of their family are personally threatened, they often cease being rational beings and become susceptible to supporting draconian measures if they believe those measures will make them safer. Conservative office holders often use fear as an excuse to institute protective measures which sacrifice individual freedoms in the name of safety and which may not even be necessary. An example is the Bush administration throwing all of our nation’s cherished principles out the window to torture prisoners in the name of greater public safety.
While the politics of fear are plainly at play in the quarantine issue, it also apparent that conservatives just don’t trust scientific knowledge when it interferes with what they want to do. In this case while nearly every Ebola expert in the world agrees that the quarantine of returning health care workers is “neither necessary nor recommended”, conservative Governors in several states have established policies requiring strict quarantines. In this they join the ranks of conservatives who though history have learned that they have good reason distrust science.
The reason for conservatives often distrust science is because it sometimes interferes with their basic conservatives impulses. It is the very nature of conservatives to cling to power and influence by attempting to maintain the status quo. Anything that challenges the status quo is not only suspect, it also challenges conservatives personally. All too often throughout history new discoveries in science turned the status quo on its head and conservatives always reacted predictably.
When the thinking of Copernicus and the observations of Michelangelo threatened to challenge a key teaching of the Church which featured the earth, and by extension man, as the center of the universe, conservative leaders ridiculed their discovers, forced Michelangelo to recant, and then kept him under house arrest for the rest of his life. When Charles Darwin challenged the bible’s version of creation and the notion of man being God’s greatest creation, he threaten the power of conservatives over the general population and they fought back. Even today, when Darwin’s theories are considered proven by most reputable scientists, conservatives still try to ban or subvert the teaching of evolution in our schools. Of course the discovery of global warming also threatens the status quo and the ability of businesses to continue to put profits ahead of the health of the planet and its people. That’s why conservatives continue to deny, deny, deny.
So through out history science has unearthed “inconvenient truths” which have chalanged the status quo and interfered with the ability of conservatives to continue to exercise their power in a manner that profits themselves and others of their ilk. The power struggle in New Jersey and now Maine is just a continuation of a long line of such struggles where scientific facts hinder the continued exercise of power by conservatives. When you combine that mistrust of science with the tendency of conservatives to indulge in the politics of fear, you will understand why two powerful Governors have stooped to do battle with a nurse who may yet cause them to regret their actions.