America’s cultural zeitgeist and the emerging Don Corleone of public health

This has been one of the wildest weeks exposing the extremes of America’s cultural zeitgeist I can remember. What could be more American than gay marriage moving to the mainstream of American life and semi-automatic weapons readily available at a Walmart  near you, right?

Need a weapon of war to feel safe? Just drive to the nearest Walmart near you and select from their popular product lines.

Need a weapon of war to feel safe? Just drive to the nearest Walmart near you and select from their popular product lines.

On one hand, you have the U.S. Supreme Court hearing two landmarks cases, one on the legality of a voter approved ban on same sex marriage and another on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which aligns hundreds of federal benefits to promote that only a man can legally marry a woman.

Meanwhile, a full-court press was taking place in Congress to advance legislation that would require criminal background checks on all gun purchases and that would close the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows for up to 40% of all firearms sales to evade any scrutiny at all. However, efforts to include Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to restrict the sale of semiautomatic, military style assault rifles —the kind used to slaughter 26 civilians at Newtown—were dashed when Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on March 20, pulled it from the current gun legislation in the U.S. Senate. GOP members of Congress are already promising to filibuster the bill.

Will Ferrell, actor, comedian, and cultural clairvoyant, seemed to sum up the obvious best.

Will Ferrell, actor, comedian, and cultural clairvoyant, seemed to sum up the obvious best.

Will Ferrell’s now much repeated tweet seemed to put the pulse of the nation best: “I feel so blessed that the government protects my wife and me from the dangers of gay marriage so we can safely go buy some assault weapons.”

And, as we have so often seen in our country, sometimes tasteless, but also very popular, comedians can best summarize the seemingly craziness of political reality, where serious-minded commentators fall flat. Perhaps only through comedy can we see the absolutely surreality of our current reality.

Bloomberg takes on the NRA: no quarter asked, and none given

This week also saw the launch of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $12 million campaign in 10 states to promote federal gun legislation, through his national coalition of big city mayors called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “I don’t think there’s ever been an issue where the public has spoken so clearly, where Congress hasn’t eventually understood and done the right thing,” said the multi-billionaire leader of a national political movement to restrict the proliferation of weapons that claim more than 31,000 lives annually.

Bloomberg’s newly created super PAC, Independence USA PAC, infused millions in the last federal election cycle, helping elect four of seven candidates who promoted legislation to reduce gun violence in the United States, a major public health threat that only now is getting the attention of public health  officials nationally after years of self-imposed silence.

Wayne LaPierre went head to head with Michael Bloomberg on the talk shows.

Wayne LaPierre went head to head with Michael Bloomberg on the talk shows.

Likely fearing the emergence of a national political movement, the National Rifle association (NRA) launched a counter-strike against Bloomberg’s media campaign. NRA head Wayne LaPierre sparred with Bloomberg on Meet the Press on March 24, framing Bloomberg as a plutocratic, public health-minded uber-nanny who threatened America’s freedoms, including the alleged right to own guns and the right to eat unhealthy food:

“And he can’t spend enough of his $27 billion to try to impose his will on the American public,” said LaPierre, the national face for the most powerful gun industry lobby.”They don’t want him in their restaurants, they don’t want him in their homes. They don’t want him telling them what food to eat; they sure don’t want him telling them what self-defense firearms to own. And he can’t buy America.”

Which multi-billionaire do you want to champion public health, Gates or Bloomberg?

Bloomberg’s efforts to limit the size of sugary drinks in New York City was recently struck down by the courts. But Bloomberg remains determined to preserve his emerging national status as the Don Corleone of public health.

From pushing upstream interventions to tackle obesity to funding multiple efforts to reframe the national dialogue on guns and America, Bloomberg appears to be everywhere at once these days. In many ways, the bolder, tougher, more confrontational face for public health and the national voice for legislative action on clear public health threats is the 71-year-old Boston native.

By force of will and deep pockets, Bloomberg is emerging as a rival brand for plutocratic public health warrior to reigning champion Bill Gates, whose Microsoft-based wealth helped fund the biggest non-governmental player in public health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With $34 billion in assets it is the largest openly run private foundation on the planet.

Which Don Corleone do you want to promote public health, Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg?

Which Don Corleone do you want to promote public health, Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg?

Multi-billionaire Gates carefully has chosen non-confrontational public health initiatives that many limited-government and conservative minded leaders can champion, such as poverty reduction programs, education programs, and promoting technological efforts such as genetically modified crops.  Bloomberg’s approach is a much more in-your-face, New York style. He has proven very effective on the bully pulpit by staking out public positions and articulating views that few in the field of public health or even elected office have championed since the assault weapons ban was passed in 1994 as part of a major cops bill under the Clinton White House.

One thing is clear. Leadership, in the wake of repeated gun-fueled tragedies, like the Sandyhook Elementary School mass murders, is making a difference. And for a change, it appears that the NRA’s seeming unshakable momentum to promote the ever-expanding sales of firearms and legislation that allows for the deadly use of force has been called into check.

This also has rippled down to the public health departments, which are now showing greater resolve and passing measures calling firearms-related deaths a threat to public health and totally preventable. Maybe Bloomberg’s moxie is rubbing off. Such symbolic efforts by public health departments clearly are not a true fix, but they are a long-awaited and long-overdue baby step forward.

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