Joel Stein is an asshole

When Matt was a toddler, he got a bit of peanut butter on his face. That side of his face swelled up, closing his eye. We have a funny picture of it that my wife took, which we’ll probably show his girlfriends when he’s a teenager. It was our introduction to peanut allergies.

A few years later, Matt came home from playing at a neighbor’s acting a little weird. Lethargic. We were getting him ready for his bath when we saw a rash all over his chest and back. It was getting redder and bumpier as we pulled off the rest of his clothes for closer inspection. And he was starting to have trouble breathing. I stabbed my little boy in the thigh with an EpiPen and we took him to the emergency room. The doctors chided us for not calling an ambulance to get him in earlier. I’ve felt like a bad parent many times in my life, but, oddly enough, not then—I knew the ambulance wouldn’t have taken Matt to the hospital faster than I did.

When Matt has gone to the allergist to have his skin tattooed with tiny droplets of allergens, his reaction to nuts is so severe the doctor has had to dose him with Benadryl immediately. This fall, the allergist decided to prescribe an adult EpiPen for Matt instead of the EpiPen Jr. that kids are usually prescribed. The pharmacist wouldn’t fill the prescription until he’d checked directly with the allergist; kids Matt’s size just don’t get the adult EpiPen.

These brief reminiscences lead to my main thesis, which is that Joel Stein is an asshole:

Your kid doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special. Your kid also spends recess running and screaming, “No! Stop! Don’t rub my head with peanut butter!”

I’ll send you that picture, Dr. Stein.

Now it’s true that in Stein’s second paragraph, he allows that there really are peanut allergies, but he’s just thrown that in to defend himself against the angry reactions (like this one) to the column that are sure to come. What he really wants to say is that Matt’s eye swelling shut and the rash that covered his torso were just figments of my lefty Yuppie imagination.

I don’t know Stein’s motivation for the column. Perhaps he really thinks he’s taking a bold and controversial stand. If so, he’s mistaken. It’s my experience that most people believe that peanut allergies are bullshit, that it’s just hysterical parents. My wife has been in many conversations with other moms when the subject has turned to the food restrictions the school district has imposed for classroom parties. Inevitably, some of the moms complain about the restrictions and start dumping on the parents of the kids with allergies. Soon, someone remembers who they’re with. “Oh, but you’re not like them,” they say by way of apology. “Of course, there are kids who really do have allergies. But you know what I mean.”

The sad fact is that we do know what they mean. There are parents who overdramatize their children’s allergies. There are even parents who, as Stein points out, believe their kids have food allergies when they don’t. My wife is something of a lightning rod for these people; they seek her out to commiserate when they learn of Matt’s allergies. Actually, commiserate is the wrong word; they’re looking to tell their stories, not to hear yours. My wife’s favorite example is the woman who, under polite but purposeful questioning, said her children had “suspected” nut allergies. Here’s a hint: if you’re talking to a woman who’s seen the concerned look on the allergist’s face when her son’s skin flared up during testing, don’t expect to get much sympathy for a “suspected” allergy.

Stein would no doubt claim that it’s these low level Munchausen by proxy types who are the real target of his column. But the column isn’t going to hurt them—they’re living in a dream world, unaffected by reality or the LA Times—it’s going to hurt parents whose kids really do have nut allergies and who are already working against the presumption that they’re overprotective and hysterical.

(I think my wife and I have avoided the hysterical label among the people in our neighborhood because we don’t make a big deal out of checking Matt’s food for nuts. Also, it’s well known that he’s our third child and that neither of our older kids have food allergies. Fortunately for us, by the time Matt came along, we were pretty experienced parents, in our late 30s and no longer given to fretting about childhood problems. We may not have been so calm if our first child had had nut allergies.)

Most likely, Stein knows he’s not really being bold and controversial, that he’s just saying publicly what lots of people say privately and hoping to get some sort of credit for it. If so, that’s even worse. Nixon used to do that—say that he was taking an unpopular but principled position, when he knew all along he was just playing to the prejudices of middle America. And Stein ticks off cultural hot buttons in a way that would make Tom Delay proud: Yuppie, lefty, rich. “I would like to see a study that measures one’s increased likelihood of peanut allergies if you’re an American kid named Oliver, Aidan, Spencer or Finn.”

The cultural resentment thing boils down to this: Nobody worried about peanut allergies when I was a kid, and we got along just fine. It’s an attractive argument—most people think they got along just fine—but stupid. As societies advance and solve important health and safety problems, they move on to worry about other problems that used to be less important or even unknown. All our cars now have airbags; when I was a kid they weren’t even required to have seatbelts. Our grandparents didn’t worry about their cholesterol. Antisepsis in surgery wasn’t common until the Victorian age. And so on. It isn’t something to be scorned, it’s progress. Would it be better if parents were still worried about polio?

So, Dr. Stein, if you feel the need to write another bold and controversial column, I suggest you take the same approach to AIDS. Nobody worried about AIDS when I was a kid, and we got along just fine. You asshole.