>Bad Taste: JB Handley and symbolic cannibalism By David N. Brown
By David N. Brown
This is a PUBLIC DOMAIN document (dated 12/2/09). It may be copied, forwarded, cited,
circulated or posted elsewhere. The author requests only that it not be altered from its current
Late last week AoA set off an instant cloud of indignation by posting “A Thanksgiving Nightmare”,
which consisted of a “photoshopped” image in which Paul Offit and others are shone at a Thanksgiving
meal with a baby as the main course. In an unparalleled display of good judgment, they have deleted
the post. Unfortunately, they did not do so fast enough to keep critics from copying and pasting it to
their own sites, where it could have the same unintended consequences as the video of Dukakis driving
a tank. Even more unfortunately, while AoA was working their way to the only sensible decision,
Handley stepped in with this comment to Respectful Insolence:
I’m exceptionally proud of the blog AoA has become. To characterize it, however, as an
initiative of Generation Rescue is simply untrue. In point of fact, AoA is far bigger than
Generation Rescue, and has dozens of contributors who have nothing at all to do with GR. For
what it’s worth, neither I nor anyone at GR plays an editorial role in AoA.
One of the many reasons AoA poses such a threat to people like you is that it represents the
views of a large and growing community, a view that challenges the status quo, and a view that
many more Americans each day are growing to share – partly due to the tireless efforts of AoA.
It’s also a view that, given your past inaccurate proclamations, you certainly pray is untrue: that
the prevalence of autism is growing, that the environment is playing a heavy role, and that
vaccines appear to be the #1 culprit.
The photo in question that you feign exasperation for is a comedic style known as “satire” that
also deals in metaphors. It may have gone over your head, I found it hilarious, if only I had
been clever enough to think of it myself.
So, Handley denies responsibility for this post. Fair enough. (But, it strains credulity for him to deny a
role in AoA’s choice of material: His group is an acknowledged sponsor of AoA, and he regularly
contributes articles.) He editorializes that his overall position is supported by fact and opinion. That is
altogether beside the point. Finally, he suggests to those who disapprove that the material “may have
gone over your head”, with the implication that this work is something of sophistication. I will take
him up on the final argument.
While some critics seem offended by the image alone, I have no serious problem with it. Cannibalism
is a significant theme in literature and media,which has been treated in artistically powerful and
socially meaningful ways. There is Dante’s portrayal of Ugolino and Ruggieri in Hell (above). There
is Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. There are George Romero’s “zombie” movies, especially Dawn of the
So, let us discuss the AoA post as satire and metaphor, and let us compare it to similar works of
udisputed merit, like the examples I have named. Use of resources? George Romero made Night of
the Living Dead for $114,000, less than some contemporary TV commercials. AoA, armed with
technology inconceivable in the 1960s, comes up with something that a child could do with scissors
and paste in 15 minutes. Characterization and insight into human nature? The damned of Inferno are
consistently vivid and often sympathetic characters. AoA’s collection of villains are nothing but faces
pasted on a collection of otherwise anonymous and interchangeable figures. Underlying messages?
Dante protested the practice of avenging one man’s wrongs by killing his children. Swift protested
indifference and abuse toward the poor. Romero took on targets as diverse as heavy-handed law
enforcement officers, “consumer” culture, and self-assured science. AoA compares telling parents that
they should provide their children with protection against deadly diseases to killing children
Then there is the issue of social class. Cannibalism, as a literary theme, is most prominent and
poignant as a symbol of the harm done by social inequality. Swift “proposes” that the aristocrats eat
the peasants. Romero’s proletarian undead rise (in every sense) against the symbols of law and order,
commerce and science. This post, and reactions to it, reveals significant tensions and contradictions in
the anti-vaccine movement’s sense of identity. They condemn those who defend vaccines for allegedly
becoming wealthy from vaccines. (In this, they flatly contradict easily established economic realities;
see “Profit? What Profit??”) Yet, they themselves are consistently middle or upper class. On top of
that, their favored pejorative (as seen in an obscene comment by Stagliano) is “prostitute”, which
historically and culturally is applied far more often to the poor by the rich than vice versa. (It also
presents a very convenient symbol for “new money”.) The common argument that sanitation and
nutrition are more valuable than vaccines in preventing disease also carries the baggage of social
stratification. Then (returning to the posts at hand) there is Handley’s condescending critique of critics.
He effectively proposes that those who approve of the image are socially and intellectually
sophisticated, while those who disapprove are not. Needless to say, one can hardly take this as
anything but elitism.
This is a complete reversal of the ideals which the likes of Dante and Swift stood for, and on a practical
level is a virtual abdication of social responsibility.. He tells anyone who will listen not to vaccinate
when they can buy supposedly better food and medical care. But, even if this were true in theory, it
would be of no help in practice to those who cannot afford such things. Instead, it makes those who are
already most vulnerable even more so through the deterioration of “herd immunity”. And, in the final
analysis, even the best defenses of the well-off have proven to be of little use when the rest of the
population is already engulfed by a pandemic. Ultimately, as illustrated by Romero, elitist conceit will
only bite you in the rear end.
David N. Brown is a semipro author, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult. Previous
works include the novels The Worlds of Naughtenny Moore, Walking Dead and Aliens Vs
Exotroopers, and the nonfiction ebook The Urban Legend of Vaccine-Caused Autism. This and
other articles related to autism are available free of charge at evilpossum.weebly.com.
Updated and reformatted.