The Huffington Post reports that Glen Beck and other conservative media personalities are blaming undocumented immigrants from Mexico for the spread of swine flu into the United States. Given that the true vector — tourists returning from Mexican vacations — has been widely publicized, there’s no way to read this other than as racism and jingoism.
It’s easy to laugh off Glen Beck tearfully portraying flu-weakened residents of Mexico City rushing to cross a border hundreds of miles away, but the potential repercussions are not so funny. What if people in the U.S. do start dying of swine flu and Glen Beck fans swarm out to beat up Mexicans in retaliation?
Here’s another problem: As long as people are fired up about allegedly infectious “illegal immigrants,” they’re not looking at the true source of the problem: factory farming.
This is an example of what feminist scholars call the “intersection of oppressions.” When different kinds of oppression intersect, they tend to compound and fortify each other, sometimes leading to hybrid forms of oppression, just as different strains of flu virus can comingle and mutate to create a more virulent and intractable disease.
In this case, racism and national chauvinism are shields for speciesism and environmental despoliation. Even if this particular pandemic panic fizzles out, the problem of virus mutation on factory farms will remain. Many virologists and public health experts believe it’s a matter of “not if but when” an influenza pandemic will strike. By not looking at factory farms, we not only leave literally billions of animals in anguish but also neglect a public health crisis that, when it hits, will fall most heavily on people living in poverty. Which, because people of color represent a disproportionate share of people living in poverty, brings us back to racism.
See how it works?
We’ve seen this before with disease, most notably with HIV/AIDS. First, prejudice against low-income injection drug users kept public health officials from investigating the epidemic of “junkie pneumonia” in the 1970s. As I wrote back in 1992:
Here’s how I imagine things would have been different if such an investigation had occurred back in the 1970s: (1) researchers would have discovered the HIV virus and its routes of transmission many years before they did, and (2) this earlier discovery would have saved many lives now lost; (3) no one would have wasted energy on inane and homophobic concepts such as GRID (Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency – the first name given to the syndrome now called AIDS); (4) otherwise rational researchers would not have investigated “the gay lifestyle” as a potential causal factor; (5) the media would not have been able to label AIDS as “the gay disease;” and (6) increased anti-gay violence would not have resulted.
And, of course, besides inhibiting scientific research and sparking gay-bashing, the homophobic designation of AIDS as a “gay disease” made straight people, including the sexual partners of injection drug users, initially resistant to AIDS-prevention education. While HIV transmission rates declined among gay men, they shot up among people living in poverty and especially among heterosexual women of color.
See how it works? Gay men of all races were hurt by the racism that led doctors to ignore junkie pneumonia. Then straight women of color were hurt by the homophobia that branded AIDS as a “gay disease.”
It gets deeper. We now know that HIV (human immodeficiency virus) evolved from SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) in much the same way that the flu virus now sickening people evolved from swine and bird viruses, initially making the jump to people in Africa. But, given the same kind of invective we’re seeing now about swine flu, anti-racist activists were understandably skeptical of and justifiably worried about the repercussions of an African origin of AIDS. Thus racism made the quest to understand the evolution of a virus a political powder keg.
It gets deeper. Stereotyped associations of Africans and monkeys combined with the taint of sexual perversity attached to AIDS by virtue of its imagined association with homosexuality, leading to truly sick racist depictions of AIDS originating in bestiality. This made many of us even more unwilling to even consider the possibility that HIV evolved from SIV in Africa. I’ll admit that, at the time, I was one of the ones arguing that we ought to just quit trying to figure out where HIV came from and concentrate on arresting its spread.
Let’s break it down. In fact, what happened was that SIV got into human bloodstreams easily and regularly because people who hunt and butcher primates for what’s known as “bush meat” get scratched and cut in the process. The blood of the butchered animal gets into the cuts and scratches, setting the stage for the comingling of viruses. This is just one more instance of animal diseases making the jump to people because of our penchant for killing and eating members of other species. But we couldn’t see that because of the psychedelic kaleidescope of racist-speciesist and homophobic imagery swirling around HIV/AIDS.
Sweep that away, and we could look, perhaps productively, at how the exploitation of animals always turns back to bite us. We could look not only at zoonoses (animal-based diseases) but also at how the construction of the category “animal” as an inferior creature without rights creates the circumstances that allow us to “dehumanize” people in order to exploit them. We could look, perhaps productively, at the poverty and environmental despoliation that lead people to go into the bush looking for chimps to butcher for meat.
To solve big problems, we have to be able to look dispassionately at all of the facts. But intersecting oppressions makes it difficult to look at some connections.
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