'Santorum of Pennsylvania': 14th century public health hero

Theodoric of York
Steve Martin as Theodoric of York (NBCUniversal Media, LLC)

Remember Theodoric of York, the fictional Saturday Night Live 14th century barber and man of medicine who mistakenly believed that the root of illness was “an imbalance from bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf”? Well, equally straining credulity, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, rising presidential candidate and public health expert, believes that many of the public health and moral crises of our times are caused by contraception, sexual freedom, homosexuality, women working outside the home, and, yes, Satan.

And as if Satan weren’t threatening enough, Santorum also believes that the 1969 Woodstock music festival, that iconic countercultural rock concert starring, among others, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and even Sha-Na-Na, is one of the roots of our degradation, particularly for Democrats. “Woodstock is the great American orgy,” Santorum of Pennsylvania said in 2008. “They [the Democrats] have become the party of Woodstock. The prey upon our most basic primal lusts, and that’s sex. And the whole abortion culture, it’s not about life. It’s about sexual freedom.” I am not sure exactly what that means, but I think Santorum of Pennsylvania is blaming abortions on Woodstock.

Now it’s true that nobody could really hear the music, mud was an awful problem, and yes, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll were rampant (so I’ve heard; I was still in diapers). But to connect this concert, whose message was peace, openness, and cultural expression (and a little acid, too) with our failing moral and health challenges today makes Santorum our very own Theodoric of York, a charlatan making claims outside his pay grade and selling snake oil to the vulnerable, dispossessed, and foolish.

Santorum of Pennsylvania, a man this state voted out of the U.S. Senate by more than a 17 percent margin precisely because of his medieval views on just about everything, is seizing the national spotlight as the current “not-Mitt,” and he may very well capture the GOP presidential nomination.

So let’s look at some other of Santorum of Pennsylvania’s ideas about the connections between morality and public health, and his cures for what ails us.

Last December, in the lead up to the Iowa Caucuses, Santorum of Pennsylvania proclaimed that he would reduce federal funding for food stamps if elected president. Why, might you wonder, would Santorum do this during a time when more out of work and struggling Americans are depending upon the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? Because, as Santorum asks rhetorically, “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” That’s right, poor people are fat so they don’t need our assistance, ignoring mounds of public health science (here and here) that show that poverty and obesity are directly related because of poor nutrition, among other factors.

Then there’s climate change, our developing planetary emergency that, according to broad scientific consensus, is likely to radically alter our environment, leading to changes in the incidence, frequency and distribution of infectious diseases and an increase in flooding, wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, and pollution—all with significant public health impact. Santorum of Pennsylvania’s take on climate change: “I for one never bought the hoax,” he said, suggesting that the so-called scientific consensus on climate change is “an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life.”

Of course, there’s also Santorum of Pennsylvania’s obsession with sex and anything having to do with sex—contraception, homosexuality, abortion, anything but the missionary position—subjects that seem to set Santorum’s mind and mouth atwitter. Showing that he is at the forefront of sexual health and education, Santorum believes that sex “is supposed to be within marriage. It’s supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal …but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen.”

He also believes that contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Like how? Like consenting adults actually and safely having fun together? “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country,” Santorum said, pledging to repeal all federal funding for contraception, and with it, setting back decades public and sexual health. Contraception protects against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, and has forever altered historical gender imbalances, giving women, as blogger Sara Robinson writes, “economic and social control over our bodies, our labor, our affections, and our futures.”

Unlike SNL’s Theodoric of York, who at least tried to help people, even as he prescribed bleeding, leeching, worming, boar’s vomit, the Caladrius bird, and hanging one upside down from a gibbet to fight illness, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania only has proscriptions for what ails us, proscriptions that threaten to return us to the unscientific and uncaring days of yore when science and medicine were based on superstition. Questioning his cures, Theodoric of York— who fictionally lived in the century before the European Renaissance (and popped up in Steve Martin skits in the 1970s) — wondered whether we should test our “assumptions analytically through experimentation and the scientific method.”

Theodoric of York decided that we shouldn’t. Santorum of Pennsylvania apparently agrees. Who needs science when, after all, you are living in the 14th century?

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