We Live in A Sick Society

W.J. Astore

I have a brother who’s mentally ill.  When you deal with mental illness in your family, you come to realize that local, state, and federal resources are limited.  Funding is iffy.  Expertise is dodgy.  Facilities are often disappointing.  And systems and bureaucracies can seem heartless.

I take nothing away from the dedicated doctors, nurses, and other staff I’ve met who’ve helped care for my brother.  Considering the resources available to them, they often do a fantastic job.

It soon appears my brother will be assigned to a nursing home, though he does not yet require that level of care.  The system, however, has virtually no other options available between a halfway-house-like setting, where a nurse isn’t available 24/7, and a nursing home, which does have nurses 24/7.

My brother was in a smaller group home where he had his own room, but a series of minor medical issues caused him to be “re-leveled” beyond the care provided by that home.  He was rather unceremoniously dumped into a private, for-profit, nursing home, where he remains as he awaits a much-delayed court date.  Indeed, his “temporary” assignment to the nursing home expired last December, with various agencies finger-pointing and blaming each other for the delay in reviewing my brother’s case.

Mental illness is such a devastating thing.  It can be far worse than physical illness.  When my brother had his first serious breakdown in 1973, we certainly didn’t understand what was happening.  Back then, there was far more stigma attached to mental illness, and few people talked about it.  It’s a shattering experience, and my brother had the worst of it, including ECT or electroshock treatments and powerful drugs like Stelazine and similar anti-psychotic drugs.

I was writing to a sympathetic attorney about my brother’s case today, and I thought maybe I’d share a little of what I wrote.  My brother’s situation, I wrote,

speaks to a larger point about how our government cares for the mentally ill, the lack of funding and so forth, something that’s not going to be fixed by an email by me.

Still, it’s a system that tends to see my brother as just another client, just another case file, just another court date, even just another billable moment.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have asylums in the true sense of that word for those among us who needed them?  But our government chooses to fund more F-35 jet fighters, more nuclear missiles, more police forces, and so forth.

The poor and mentally ill have no power because they have no lobbyists and very few advocates.

It’s a sign of the sickness of our society that we care so little for the sick.

That poor attorney got more than she bargained for.  But I truly believe a society can be judged by how it treats the poor, the sick, the unhoused, the desperate.  Our society tends to treat them like dirt, like losers, like a nuisance, even as the government gushes money for more police, more weapons, and more wars, whether internally or externally.

This is ultimately why our society is so sick.  Because we care so little for the neediest among us.

I’m sorry this is so depressing, and I plead guilty as well for not caring enough, for not acting instead of just blogging away about it.

Jesus healed the sick and dying and attracted society’s outcasts.  He praised the poor and railed against the rich.  Is it any wonder He was crucified?  So, we Americans invented our own Jesus, one who showers money on his believers, one who rewards them with happiness and health, a Santa Claus Jesus who gives out gifts to good little girls and boys.

And if you’re not “good”?  I guess you get to be homeless or dumped in a nursing home.  Next time, pray harder, loser.

We live in a sick society.

SCOTUS Overturns Roe v Wade

W.J. Astore

So much for the idea of “settled law” and judicial precedent. The Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) has overturned Roe v Wade by a 6-3 majority vote. For nearly 50 years, abortion was legal in America if not always cheap or readily accessible. Now roughly half the states in America are poised to make it illegal, a major setback for women’s rights and bodily autonomy.

Many things will be written about this decision, and in fact I’ve already written about it. But one thing is glaringly obvious: this is a thoroughly politicized court of justices, several of whom perjured themselves before the Senate during their confirmation hearings.

Oh sure, they all talked carefully, saying neither “yes” nor “no” when it came to Roe v Wade. But the new justices all made noises about respecting previous court decisions, like Roe v Wade, suggesting that they wouldn’t reach a sweeping decision to overturn it. Of course, it was all BS, and many people knew it at the time. Speaking of “grooming,” recent SCOTUS justices have been groomed for decades to ensure they are against abortion and for business and corporations.

We now have a thoroughly partisan and mean-spirited court majority that will always side with business and corporations against the individual and who apparently believe that guns have far more rights to privacy and autonomy than women do.

A 6-3 majority court that embraces and advances gun rights while denying privacy and bodily autonomy to women is truly an American court.

A small coda: Shame on the Democrats for not codifying Roe v Wade into law. Even when Obama had a super-majority and promised abortion rights would be his first priority, he waffled because he just didn’t care. Now Democrats will cynically use this SCOTUS decision to raise funds. It’s just my opinion, but they’ve proved by their gutless inaction that they deserve none of your money.

The clock is spinning backwards, America. Will it stop in the 1950s — or the 1850s? And don’t forget that the 1850s were both bloody and led directly into the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

Another small coda: I hate the calculated cowardice of these decisions that are announced on Fridays as a way of trying to limit controversy and outrage, as people’s attention is distracted by weekend plans. Dropping the bad news late on a Friday — it’s a tired approach by cowardly institutions.

One final saying: I think an anonymous female taxi driver had it right: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

America’s Twin Pandemics of Covid and Agency Panic

M. Davout

Agency and autonomy are fundamental to democracy. Panic is fundamental to fear and chaos.  Preserving personal agency while avoiding panicked reactions is one of the great challenges ahead of us. While the Covid pandemic will burn itself out, America’s pandemic of panic–manifested in the rise of wild and often evidence-free conspiracies–continues to accelerate. How much misinformation and mistrust can America tolerate before democracy itself crashes around us? Our very own M. Davout, who teaches political science, introduces the concept of “agency panic” and challenges us to take the red pill of uncomfortable truths.  W.J. Astore

America’s Twin Pandemics of Covid and Agency Panic

M. Davout

America is awash in conspiracy thinking and it is doing terrible damage to the country. However, the solution is not to dismiss conspiracy thinking altogether but to distinguish fake conspiracies from real ones.

Consider the many theories afloat about Covid-19.  Scrolling through the Facebook posts of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers curated on the Herman Cain Award subreddit, one is struck by the sheer quantity of conspiratorial memes circulating among networks of likeminded Facebook friends. The Covid pandemic is variously presented as the product of a nefarious plot enacted by the Chinese government or by the US government or by the Centers for Disease Control or…the list goes on. Public health measures that have been recommended or mandated at the federal, state or local levels such as quarantining, masking, and vaccinating are similarly condemned as elements of the conspiratorial machinations of Anthony Fauci or Bill Gates (or both of them working in cahoots), of profiteering Big Pharma, of collectivizing communists, of Medicare-For-All socialists, and so on.

As Richard Hofstadter demonstrated in his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the United States has from very early in its history provided fertile ground for the organized circulation of political rhetoric warning in shrill tones about the impending takeover of the political system. Alleged nefarious groups named in these conspiracy theories included the Illuminati, the Freemasons, papists, Jesuits, anarchists, Jews, international financiers, and communists. 

While the anti-mask and anti-vax conspiracies circulating on Facebook today manifest the characteristics of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” which Hofstadter identified as typical of the paranoid style, the sense of what is at stake has changed. It is no longer just constitutional government that seems to be at risk. When you read the conspiratorial warnings available across the ideological spectrum—from QAnon enthusiasts or Trumpist dead-enders or health purists or anti-corporate populists, among others—you get the sense that people feel their very identities to be under threat. Has a threshold been passed that separates the conspiracy-mongers of today from their anti-papist, anti-Masonic forebearers?   

In his book, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (2000), Timothy Melley argued that conspiracy thinking fundamentally changed after World War II with the rise of the “information age.” Consumers of electronic mass media became susceptible to what he characterized as a state of “agency panic,” an “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control” in the face of pernicious systems of social control acting with a singular will. Notions of secret plots hatched by bands of conspirators aiming at the conquest of political power were increasingly replaced by visions of “whole populations being openly manipulated without their knowledge” through the effects of advertising, schooling, fluoridation, and so on. The USA was ground zero for this new form of conspiratorial thinking because the American embrace of the idea of rugged individualism was so at odds with the reality of an increasingly interdependent society in which self-sufficient farmers were a dying breed.

Empire of Conspiracy was published at the dawn of the surveillance economy ushered in by Google and Facebook. This economy has at the same time systematically perfected the relentless tracking of individual activities and facilitated the exchange of conspiratorial memes and messages lamenting the threats to individual integrity and freedom. Paranoid messages that are likely to attract eyes are moved algorithmically to the top of search results or share lists. The Covid pandemic has only supercharged these developments by boosting mass dependence on the internet and amplifying mass grievance against infringements on individual freedoms. 

The easy response to this internet-fueled conspiratorial dynamic would be to dismiss conspiracy thinking as the paranoid raving of the uneducated and ignorant if it weren’t for the fact that real conspiracies are continually afoot in our political system. One has only to take note of the ever-accelerating revolving door between public officialdom and the lobbying-industrial complex or to monitor the ever-greater lobbying and campaign expenditures of major industries such as Big Pharma or Big Coal or Big Tech to know that well-paid influencers are working diligently with corrupted politicians to poach the common good.

Yet the rising tide of agency panic-driven conspiratorial thinking continually diverts Americans from the true causes of their collective misery into attacks on those few public measures that are in our collective interest. 

It truly is a choice between taking the red pill or the blue pill, as The Matrix meme circulated by so many of the Covid conspiracy Facebook posters suggests. But, against their expectation, taking the red pill would lead to a clear-eyed understanding of how corporate influence peddling diminishes our lives rather than to a revelation that supposed college roommates Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci hatched a conspiracy against our freedoms fifty years ago.

M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science at the collegiate level.

The Herman Cain Award Subreddit and What It Says about America’s Political Crisis

Deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. recently passed 800,000 with no signs of abating. The blame game is also not abating. Are corrupt elites exacerbating and exploiting a crisis for their own interests? Are “irrational” elements at lower levels exhibiting mass resentments at being bossed around? Why does everything seem polarized in America, even “common sense” steps to save lives during a raging pandemic? M. Davout uses the lens of the “Herman Cain Award” to take a closer look at America’s Covid dilemma. He reaches a conclusion that will challenge many. W.J. Astore

Learning from the Herman Cain Award

M. Davout

As America undergoes a series of overlapping domestic political crises—notably among them, determined attacks on democratic election processes, fierce resistance to public health responses during a deadly pandemic, reckless brinkmanship over federal government budgeting and debt payment—commentators often resort to the notion of political polarization as an explanation of our problems. A recent case in point is the disapproving mainstream media response to the Herman Cain Award (HCA) subreddit, which is devoted to showcasing the social media posts of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who get sick with Covid-19 and end up in hospital ICUs in need of breathing assistance.

Herman Cain, you might remember, was a failed candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.  He attended a Trump reelection campaign rally in Tulsa, posted a photo of himself and his entourage at the rally unmasked while belittling concerns about Covid, and then died of the disease six weeks later.

Herman Cain

For any given recipient of the Herman Cain Award, the presentation of captured social media posts follows a typical arc. The early posts feature memes and images disparaging Fauci, Biden, the medical establishment, mRNA vaccines, and masked and vaccinated Americans (“sheep”), intermixed with memes and images exalting Trump, the healing powers of Jesus, the adequacy of their own unvaccinated immune systems, and their independent and courageous selves (“lions”). Then comes a series of posts notifying followers of their falling ill with Covid and their shock at the severity of the symptoms, their eventual hospitalization and need for prayers. Finally, posting duties fall to a relative or friend of the afflicted, who reports on the increasingly more radical medical procedures undergone, the almost inevitable decline in organ health, and eventual death. GoFundMe appeals for donations to cover the obscenely high medical expenses round out many of the HCA posts.

Many of the comment threads for each post could fairly be characterized as largely (though not exclusively) being exercises in schadenfreude. Some posters belittle the pleas for aid from “prayer warriors” and the all-caps invocations of divine intervention to heal failing organs. Self-proclaimed liberal commentators sarcastically express their “dismay” at being “owned” by conservatives who have scored ideological points at the cost of their lives. Accusations are often lodged against rightwing media celebrities and GOP politicians who amplify the conspiratorial memes which appear again and again on the social media accounts of the HCA recipients.

Occasional critical reference is made to the facilitating roles played by foreign disinformation campaigns in broadcasting lies and to Big Tech in channeling lies to those most susceptible to believing them. But, by and large, the commentators are unrelentingly hostile to the HCA recipients themselves for “shitposting” the lies to their family, friends, and other social media followers, and leaving family members bereft and financially devastated when they die.  

In a recent New York Times article, an academic psychologist is paraphrased as arguing that “these websites are an outgrowth of the nation’s extreme polarization.”

To my mind, application of the notion of polarization to a political crisis or conflict encourages one to withhold judgment about the truth claims and reasonability of each of the two sides to a dispute. Particularly in the case of the HCA, polarization is too simplistic a way of understanding the fierceness of the social media pushback against vaccine denial and the avoidable deaths such denial causes. For me, the HCA posts are better understood in the context of a perennial question in my academic field about political dysfunction: is political crisis more a product of the pursuit of unaccountable power by corrupt elites or is it more a product of mass resentments which often find expression in campaigns of scapegoating and demonizing people?

Political theorist Michael Rogin usefully framed this issue within a longstanding debate between “realist” scholars who frame historical episodes of political dysfunction (e.g., McCarthyism) as products of elite-driven programs of political repression serving the interests of capitalism, the state apparatus or other powerful institutions, and “symbolist” scholars, who emphasize the dangers of popular indulgence in conspiratorial thinking and paranoid fears of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural “others.”

In response to the needless prolongation of the Covid pandemic, many of the HCA commentators seem to have taken the symbolist position, blaming rightwing members of the polity for indulging and promoting paranoia (e.g., drawing parallels between public health measures against Covid and Nazi genocide) and conspiratorial thinking (e.g., the offer of free vaccines as a Trojan horse for socialized medicine). To be sure, there are voices among them that take the realist position of blaming rightwing political and media elites for instrumentalizing populist anxieties for their own power interests.

So rather than characterize HCA commentary simply as “cruel sentiment,” I see much of that commentary as lodging symbolist (and, in some cases, realist) critiques of a deadly form of political dysfunction afflicting our public life, namely the perverse resistance of an irrational minority to reasonable and time-tested public health measures aimed at protecting all of us from exposure to a disease that kills far too many and disables many more.

M. Davout is a professor of political science and an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

Abortion in America

W.J. Astore

I truly believe that if men got pregnant, abortion would be free, legal, and readily available across the United States.

But men don’t get pregnant, so the idea of carrying an unwanted baby to term is mainly theoretical for them. How easy it is, then, to outlaw abortion while claiming to be pro-life.

Having been raised Catholic, I was taught abortion is murder. It’s that blunt. As the Church was teaching me that, it was allowing predatory priests to molest children. There was even a predatory priest assigned to my parish when I was young. So I’m not too keen on the moral authority and teachings of the Church here. Again, if priests got pregnant, I truly believe abortion would be accepted within the Church. Perhaps it would be justified by arguing that priests, first and foremost, have to serve God and the Church and therefore shouldn’t be encumbered by children.

The U.S. Supreme Court seems ready to overturn Roe v Wade by next summer, which is not surprising. So much for respecting judicial precedent. Even as it does so, we’ll hear arguments about how the Court isn’t partisan or political or influenced by religious beliefs, which is absurd. So-called pro-life Republicans have won the battle of placing partisan justices on the Court, and soon they’ll reap their reward.

Establishment Democrats are not as unhappy as you might think. I’ve already received urgent requests to donate money in the cause of abortion rights. Abortion is a “hot-button” issue and a real money-maker for partisans on both sides. Sorry, Democrats, this is your mess too, and you won’t see a penny from me.

Why do I claim Democrats are responsible too? President Obama could have appointed a justice to the Supreme Court when Mitch McConnell refused to do his job. It may have touched off a Constitutional crisis, but it was a fight worth having. But Obama figured Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose to Trump, so he did nothing. Meanwhile, Hillary ran a horrible campaign and lost to a failed casino owner and C-list celebrity apprentice. Because of that, we got three new justices who were all picked in large part because of their opposition to Roe v Wade. (That, and the fact they’re all pro-business.)

We will soon take a giant step backwards in America. Roughly half of American states will outlaw abortion; the other half will likely allow it under various conditions. Of course, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, rich women, no matter where they live, will be able to get abortions. Women of lesser means will struggle and suffer. The pro-life movement will applaud that there are fewer abortions even as they cut benefits to the mothers who are forced to have these babies. They will do this with no pangs of conscience and in the name of loving the unborn — until they’re born to the “wrong” kind of mother.

And so it goes in America.

Being “pro-life” shouldn’t end when the baby is born. Jesus helped the poor, the lame, and the sick. He didn’t tell them to get a job while cutting their benefits. Image from a prayer card sent to me by my local bishop.

A Coda (12/5/21)

I welcome all comments on this difficult issue.

Instead of Cui bono, or who benefits, I think of who suffers if Roe v Wade is overturned. Not men. Not women of means, who will find a way to secure a safe abortion irrespective of the law in their particular state. It will be poor and desperate women who suffer, especially those who’ve been raped or who’ve been the victims of incest. Imagine being raped and then being forced to carry the fetus to term — it’s unimaginable to me.

I should note as well the burden placed on women — always women. What about the man who got her pregnant? Why may a woman be forced to give birth to an unwanted child while the father walks away freely in virtually all cases? People often discuss abortion as if women got pregnant by immaculate conception. As if men hold no responsibility whatsoever. Believe me, if men got pregnant too, abortion would be freely available.

So it’s likely that next summer, five men and one very conservative woman aligned with a fringe group in the Catholic Church will rule to compromise the bodily autonomy of women across the country; they’ll be opposed by two women and one man who seek to uphold a less-than-perfect precedent but one that has served to reduce state and patriarchal domination in the US of A for half a century.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will obviously be revealed for what it is: a partisan hack shop in which the law is for sale or otherwise open to manipulation by the well-connected for unsavory purposes.

Tell me how this is a good thing.

Coda 2 (12/6/21)

As a (lapsed) Catholic, I realize people have religious reasons why they oppose abortion.

To these people I say: If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have one. But don’t seek to impose your religious beliefs on everyone else.

A decision on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. It’s a private decision. You have no say. Your religious beliefs don’t matter.

Against abortion? Don’t have one — simple as that. And MYOB.

Our National Health Care Plan

W.J. Astore

Fifteen years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a colleague’s car:

Our National Health Care Plan — Don’t Get Sick.

That’s about as succinct an expression of U.S. health care as you can make. We have no national health care plan. Your only hope is not to get sick, or, if you do get a serious (read: expensive) illness, to die quickly before you and yours are bankrupted.

I often joke that health care is really wealth care in America, and an anecdote shared by a friend this morning confirmed it. He recently had a bad case of the flu, but he confirmed it wasn’t Covid-19 through home test kits. Since he travels to Germany, he bought several home test kits there that were on sale for the equivalent of roughly one dollar. Compare that to Covid home test kits at CVS here in America (assuming you can find one), which retail for $30.00. As my friend noted, “Your profit-driven health care industry at work!”

Profiting from sickness is truly an “exceptional” feature of American capitalism. Isn’t it wonderful that you have the “freedom” to purchase private, for-profit, health insurance that costs you hundreds of dollars a month, with deductibles of $5000 or $10,000 or higher, with co-pays and various other costs and restrictions? Truly, freedom isn’t free!

A reminder: Joe Biden ran against Medicare for all and said he’d veto it if it ever reached his desk, which it obviously won’t. But he did promise a public (government-provided) option for health care, a promise he has failed to keep, just as Barack Obama failed to keep his promise for a public option in 2008-09. And the Democrats wonder why so many people either don’t vote or vote for an even more pro-business party.

The latest betrayal is the Democratic Party’s capitulation to Big Pharma. Instead of allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for all prescription drugs, the Democrats have decided to allow negotiation for only 10 drugs, the new prices of which won’t become effective until 2025. One of these drugs is insulin. So if your insulin costs too much and you need to ration it, thereby imperiling your health, never fear: maybe in four years it’ll be affordable again. Or maybe not.

And if you’re sick and you need an expensive drug that’s not one of the magical ten, well, too bad for you. Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten sick. Or maybe you should have gotten a job with better health care benefits. It’s most certainly your fault, not the government’s and certainly not that of the profit-driven health care industry.

Clint Eastwood, in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” said that “Dying ain’t much of a living.” That may have been true about bounty hunting, but it turns out that many indeed are making a living, indeed a killing, off of health care in America. Hooray capitalism!

Before #MeToo – The Price of Silence

What would America be like if men got pregnant instead of women? It seems a silly question, but I’d argue it isn’t. My guess is that abortion would not only be legal under all conditions but that it would be readily available to all (men). The same for contraception: cheap and readily available. I was raised Catholic; consider if the Catholic clergy, all male of course, got pregnant, had to carry babies to term, and then had to care for them. Somehow I think that church teachings on abortion and contraception would be different.

But men don’t get pregnant. And men have full control over their bodies. It’s far different for women in America (and across most of the globe). Women are not only victims of sexual violence: they are increasingly being told they have no other option than to carry a baby to term, even if they were victims of rape or incest. The legislatures making these decisions (no surprise) are predominantly male, and they love to pose as pro-life.

In her memoir, Meredith Keller reminds us of the high price women have paid in America when laws are made by men for men, where women are often an afterthought, if that, and when so-called religious teachings are elevated above empathy and compassion and understanding. W.J. Astore

Before #MeToo – The Price of Silence

Meredith Keller

Now in retirement, I am anticipating a quiet afternoon in my art studio when I check mail in my rural box. Roosters are crowing. I hear clanking sounds of tractors discing and smell the musty soil being turned. I sort through the junk mail when my eye lands on a hand addressed letter. I tear it open to find the shocking words:

I think you might be my grandmother.

My body goes rigid as the thought of reliving a shattering period of my past sends waves of shock reverberating through my body. All those feelings of shame long buried were about to boil up again. If I answered the letter, all would be revealed.

Would I dare? Did I want to go down that path and relive the scenes of a rape and resulting pregnancy, opening the scars of a long buried episode that began on a college campus in 1962? Would this young writer, my granddaughter, be able to comprehend how the moral arbiters of society held us in their grip?

Sexual harassment, rape and intimidation have shadowed and haunted women through the ages. Where were their stories? Buried, like mine, in shame, layered under decades of angst. In my day single women with unintended pregnancies were forced into hiding. From the end of WWII until the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, unmarried pregnant women and their families faced shame and insufferable choices.

The alternatives were dismal. One solution was to visit abortionists, in many cases unqualified, who, to protect their own identities, blindfolded women during the procedure.  In 1962, sixteen hundred women, forced into illegal terminations, were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City due to botched or incomplete abortions. Society had women, especially poor women, in a vise.

Others had no choice but to carry a child to term. They quietly disappeared, spirited away while the stigma of “illegitimacy” hung over them. Shrouded in secrecy, with their identities erased, they were groomed to hand over their babies for adoption and return to society as though nothing had happened. It was known as the Baby Scoop Era when the dominant view was that unmarried women were unfit mothers and needed to acknowledge their guilt and shame and give up their babies for adoption. From 1945 to 1973 it is estimated that four million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption. Four million sad stories like mine went undocumented.

The Unraveling – The Price of Silence, my memoir, puts a spotlight on what it was like to have to weather the paralyzing trauma of rape and then go through the devastating severance of handing a child over to adoption. No one can imagine the gravity and deep sadness of that moment you give away your own child. It caused a quake deep in my soul. Is this what our legislators wish to return to when they not only write restrictive abortion laws, but also deny women health coverage for contraception under the guise of “freedom of religion”?

Feel what it was like to struggle through those times before Roe as I dredge up shattering memories that haunted me for 52 years. I fiercely fought for the dignity that was swiftly erased one night on a college campus. I had to jump hurdles to re-define myself, bury the past and muster the grit to have a successful career beginning as Food Editor of a leading restaurant magazine at age 23.  

The scars from my early life remained and memories lingered until that letter arrived in my mailbox. What would I respond? How could I adequately explain an era long forgotten? That granddaughter had not lived through those restrictive times of shame and humiliation. I unraveled my story for her and all young women so they can feel what it was like when women’s reproductive rights were emphatically denied. It is a struggle we are facing yet again. And yet, there was one champion in our corner, a little known lawyer at the time, and she had this to say:

The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Keller’s memoir, The Unraveling, is available in paperback, hardback, and electronically from popular outlets such as Amazon and Powell’s. The book’s cover art, reproduced above, is her original work.

This story was first posted at The Contrary Perspective.

Medicare for All: Force the Vote

It’s time! Commonwealth for the common health. Medicare for All!

W.J. Astore

The comedian and activist Jimmy Dore has inspired a movement for a vote in the House on Medicare for All early in January 2021. (Here’s Jimmy Dore talking to Cornel West on this issue.) Go to forcethevote.org and sign the petition to put pressure on Progressive Democrats to withhold their vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker unless she brings Medicare for All (M4A) to the floor of the House for a vote. If not now, during a global pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and caused nearly 15 million Americans to lose their employer-based health insurance, when are we going to consider M4A?

I rarely sign petitions. But my wife and I instantly signed this one. Americans supposedly live in the richest country in the world, yet we allegedly can’t afford to fund health care for everyone. It’s absurd. Not only that, it’s a crime against our common humanity. Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you sick and asking for help, would seek to profit off this? Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you seeking a diagnostic test to see if that lump was possibly cancerous, would seek to deny such a test as “not needed” or “not covered”?

It’s obscene that America’s health care system is based on the profit motive and the exploitation of the sick and dying. That it drives families into bankruptcy. That people sometimes die because they’re afraid to go to a doctor or the emergency room because it will cost too much.

Progressives say they want Medicare for All. A majority of registered Republicans and nearly 90% of registered Democrats say they want M4A. Why can’t Nancy Pelosi hold a vote on it? She claims to represent the people. That she even “feeds” them. Why isn’t she working to give the American people health care during a deadly pandemic that may cost as many as 600,000 Americans their lives? Is it because she doesn’t really represent us?

It’s not just about holding a “performative” vote on M4A. It’s about forcing the hand of Congress and seeing who the phonies are. Who wants to deny Americans M4A at this awful time? I’d like to know. I’m sure all Americans would like to know. And if Joe Biden is willing to veto M4A, as he’s said he will, I’d like to see that veto and his rationale for denying Americans the health care they so desperately need.

Again, if not now, when? If Progressives aren’t willing to force a vote on M4A during a deadly pandemic, when there’s deep suffering in America, when will they be willing to act?

We need to force them to act. Sign the petition, call your Member of Congress, and spread the word.

Update (12/26/20): In the comments section below, JPA made a strong argument for institutionalized corruption within America’s privatized medical system. With his permission, I’ve added his comment here so that more people will see it:

When people lump “doctors” into a homogeneous group that is a mistake because “doctors” are no more homogeneous than “cops” or “blacks” or “gays”. Most doctors want to deliver good patient care. Most of these hate the [American medical for-profit] system. However, a significant minority of doctors is quite happy with the current system and oppresses doctors who speak out against it. I work with a lot of healthcare professionals who are driven to depression or suicidal despair because they are trapped in a system which abuses them and their patients.

It is very likely that the tests ordered by the doctors who treated Maine’s brother were mandated to do so by the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR). EHR’s are mandated by law in large healthcare organizations ostensibly to improve patient care. In reality these make patient care more difficult and their real purpose is to run algorithms to determine the way to maximize the billed charges.

Doctors who work in hospitals are employees who are pressured to admit patients, do procedures, and run tests. If they don’t they can be fired, and their contracts usually contain non-compete clauses that prohibit them from working in the area. When someone has a family, and large student loan payments, then one is at the mercy of the employer. Very few people have the courage to stand up to that kind of pressure. Those who do often risk bankruptcy or divorce when the spouse realizes that they are not going to have the lifestyle they planned upon.

Or the hospital labels the physician as “disruptive” and other physicians who act as stooges for the hospital fabricate complaints that get the “disruptive” physician in trouble with their state medical board.

Here are the main things I hear from healthcare providers:

  • It is not possible to practice good medicine in the current environment
  • The pressure to meet corporate demands for revenue generation is contrary to good medical practice
  • Clinical guidelines are set by people/organizations with conflicts of interest
  • Upcoding, excessive testing, unnecessary procedures/screening/testing are expected and demanded
  • For-profit medicine does not work

Individual corruption occurs when a person behaves unethically. That is not the problem in American medicine. The problem in American medicine is institutional corruption.

1) Institutional corruption occurs when the laws, policies, and guidelines of a system are structured to enforce a set of values that is antithetical to the values the system is ethically obligated to express and uphold.

2) Health care professionals are obligated to place a higher value on patient care than on making profit.

3) The laws, policies, and guidelines of the American healthcare system are set up to prioritize making profit over providing patient care.

4) From 1, 2, and 3 above, the American medical system is institutionally corrupt.

This system is supported and maintained by a corrupt system of government. For further reading on this I recommend On Corruption in America by Sarah Cheyes.

Nature Cannot Be Fooled — Nor Conned

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.

Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.

Here’s what I wrote back in March:

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

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Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Wear the Mask! Wear the Mask!

 

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Why was this so much easier in 1918? (Georgia Tech game, 1918, courtesy of Andy McNeil)

W.J. Astore

I keep seeing headlines like this one from Alternet today: Trump ‘patriots’ ready to die for freedom shout down county commissioners because they don’t want to wear face masks.

How do you convince such “patriots” that wearing a face mask is not an assault on their freedom?

Perhaps by telling them that the Covid virus is much like those bad people invading us from the south.  You know: those “rapists” and “killers” and other viral elements poring through our border, as Trump warned us about in his first speech as a candidate in 2015.  A “threat” we can stop with a chant: “Build the wall!  Build the wall!”

Think of all those Covid viral droplets as unwanted and dangerous invaders — but we can stop them before they ruin America.  How?  Wear the mask!  Wear the mask!

Just think of the mask as a wall between you and the bad people out to ruin America.  There — don’t you feel like a patriot now, wearing your “wall” mask?  You can even get masks with American flags on them.  Wear with pride!