Not in the stars, but in ourselves

Whatever else Susan Sontag did, she gets a ticket into heaven for Illness as Metaphor (link to isbn.nu).

For those who haven’t read this invaluable little book, here’s a thumbnail: She looks at medical conditions are treated as moral problems instead of as diseases. Her examples are tuberculosis and cancer, and in a later supplement, AIDS.

The telling point she makes is this: If an illness is both threatening and mysterious, so that it can kill or disable at any time but is not understood or curable, its cause will be assigned to something socially determined. TB was thought to result from too passionate and expressive a personality, and sufferers were told to lie down and stop reading poetry and having romances. Later, cancer was ascribed to holding in , and patients were blamed for not expressing themselves.

In both of these cases an inexplicable affliction was linked to a social prejudice, and without evidence this was accepted. And in both cases the patient’s behavior was blamed. It’s easy to see why AIDS was added in her supplement. Another mysterious and threatening ailment was entirely blamed on moral and social problems, so that the actual biological problems were poorly investigated and patients were blamed and ostracized.

Since cancer and AIDS are still deadly and mysterious in affluent societies, the problem remains. Any theory that presents a moral enemy as the cause of these diseases will be accepted by the appropriate group. If your group dislikes pharmaceutical companies, governments, synthetic chemicals, homosexuals, meat, science itself, or any other socially contentious force, then moral certainty will be applied to medical uncertainty.

Some of these fears may be accurate. Cancers can be caused by trace amounts of metals or chemicals, or by radiation. Birth defects and crippling illnesses result from exposure to toxins and infectious agents in pregnancy. People did get AIDS because governments and medical agencies chose not to screen transfused blood, and people died of AIDS because of malign neglect by the same authorities.

But the problem remains technical at its heart, and not moral. Sassafras oil is a natural herbal carcinogen. Deadly nuclear radiation can cure cancer. AIDS doesn’t care if your behavior is socially approved; it justs kills you. Magical thinking will sometimes solve your problem, but it’s more likely to make things worse for yourself and others.

A post today by ofmonsters reminded me of some of the current villains in the alt-culture world: vaccination, cow’s milk, refined sugar, white flour, processed foods, the Western diet, gluten, “toxins,” etc.

Some of the things in this list are bad news for people with particular medical problems. Other things in this list are worthy of investigation for basic personal health: too much processed food and dairy and a diet rich in meat will in general make people less healthy, for example. And some of them are meaningless. “Toxins,” for example, always refers to some nebulous and poorly defined environmental evil that must be cleansed, rather than to actual known toxic substances, all of which are different from each other. White flour has less fiber in it, but is not otherwise evil. Refined white sugar and brown sugar and honey and rice syrup have different flavors but provide the same dangerous blast of calories.

The vaccination fear is paranoiac. Vaccination is a symbol of government power, scientific arrogance, and threats to children. In a state of ignorance it’s understandable that someone would fear this. Without vaccination we have piles of dead children and later piles of dead adults. It’s not negotiable. Tagging vaccines with autism (another poorly understood and incurable affliction) gave the whole counterculture a perfect condensed symbol for their dislike of white coats, compulsory medical treatment, and the medical-industrial complex. But they’re wrong, and being wrong about vaccination threatens everyone.

What I have to say to these fearful people is this.

1) Read Sontag, or at least work at understanding the concepts she talks about. Watch out for moral certainty when you’re solving medical problems.

2) Your fears of government, pharmaceutical companies, toxic substances, radiation, bad diets, dangerous assumptions built into Western culture, and the centralized corporate meat-centric incompetent business of Big Food are all completely legitimate. There are deadly problems and bad people and very poorly organized institutions.

So we do have big problems, and the problems are similar in kind to the ones you’re seeing. The problems, however, do not result from science. They result from bad engineering and wickedness. The scientific method is how we know these things went wrong. That’s why we know that heavy metals in our food are bad, and that factory farming kills, and that it’s better to cut down on the cow’s milk and eat more fiber, and that cancer can result from contamination of food and water.

The scientific method is also why we know that vaccination is a good idea, that sassafras is a carcinogen even though it’s natural, that “toxins” means many different things and not one, that chelation is a dangerous treatment for specific situations, and that white sugar and honey will give a diabetic the same dangerous load of concentrated calories. It’s also how we found out that stomach ulcers were often caused by an infection and not by “stress.”

The antidote to unreasoned panic is not less science, but more. The scientific method is, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst way of interpreting illness except for all of the other methods tried. This includes the method Sontag clearly outlines. If someone says that the illness is due to “stress” or “toxins” or “Western diet” or “gay lifestyle” or “the government,” stop and watch closely.

Choosing an attractive moral or social cause for your terrifying unexplained problem may feel satisfying. Don’t take the bait.

Meaning Well: Anti Irony #1

One of the worst things you can call someone now is “well-meaning.”

A well-meaning person is always doing the wrong thing. The phrase encompasses many sins. The well-meaning person is presumed to be ignorant of the world’s harsh ways, naive, gullible, and full of an unwarranted optimism especially about human nature. Arrogance or at least hubris is implied too, in that well-meaning people have an exaggerated view of their own ability to improve things.

One thing is certain: well-meaning people always make things worse. They’re always trying to feed babies when the real problem is that parents won’t work. Or getting in the way of a war because of the horrors thereof when the real problem can only be solved by winning the war. Or providing shelter for the poor when the real problem is the oppressive system that keeps them poor. Well-meaning people always seem to have band-aid solutions and don’t see the picture. Their attempts to make things better always result in disaster because of something called the Law of Unintended Consequences which says that every time you do something that seems to mean well it will mean more trouble later on, in the larger scheme of things.

The answer to the problem of the well-meaning is to accept that the world is a harsh place and embrace that harshness. In fact, one is supposed to embody the world’s hard ways. If someone misbehaves, punishment and force must be used. If there is a problem between governments, then it will inevitably result in war and it’s best to prosecute the war as soon as possible. If there is a social disaster like a famine or an economic crisis, it’s important that this “run its course”; mere half-measures like handing out food or shoes will only drag out the problem.

If a problem resists solution by bombing or jailing or some other harsh measures, then it is considered to be insoluble and part of the human condition. To say otherwise is, once again, to be “well-meaning.” Tough-minded hard-nosed adults understand how unforgiving and full of suffering things are and don’t try to change it. Only the very young and the fatally naive believe that things can be improved.

This is a place where Social Darwinism, Marxism, and Malthusian pessimism meet after having been thoroughly dumbed down into one idea: don’t try to be good. The task is impossible and will make you into a victim yourself. Worse still, it will obstruct the natural way of things which eventually resolves conflicts. The Tao of this worldview is cruelty, and you must flow with it.

This attitude is everywhere in my country. The admirable person is said to be hard-nosed, realistic, rational, sober, and tough. His opponents are softies, Pollyannas, illogical, giddy, and weak. It’s as though the Churchill-Chamberlain dichotomy was applied to every part of life: politics, religion, law, medicine, the arts, everything. You’re either a heroic bulldog war fighter or an umbrella-waving idiot appeaser.

The word “aggressive” is entirely positive in all contexts. It has come to mean “effective,” and anything labeled “passive” is by definition a failure. One roots out crime aggressively, and also treats disease aggressively, and even an aggressive prose style is given the seal of approval.

I urge you to resist this. Mean well.

Feed babies. Use band-aids on wounds. Give poor people 20 dollar bills and places to stay. Solve arguments without violence. Oppose cruelty and war. Be passive rather than aggressive. I urge you, in fact, to be a complete weenie and wussy, who can’t see that what’s needed is a short sharp shock. I urge you to think of criminals and drug addicts as salvageable improvable humans. I urge you to lose an argument more often and to resist an opportunity to destroy an enemy.

It’s true that our conscience doesn’t know how to manage a central bank or create a national water policy or stop the warmongering of dictators. And our conscience is naive about realpolitik and the tragedy of the commons and the necessity of breaking eggs to make metaphorical omelettes.

“Well-meaning” is our attitude when we listen to conscience. I am not ashamed.

Windbag alert and attention conservation notice

I have developed a manifesto-sized idea and am about to blog it out. You have been warned. Long essays making a large cultural point can’t be sold and published conventionally unless the author is a respected and eminent intellectual or a rock ‘n’ roll star. Those who can, do; those who aren’t, blog.

This may fizzle or may be several essays; I’m not sure where I’m going to pinch off the blog yet. Because of TL;DR in this post-literate medium I present some bullet points below for those who aren’t going to plow through the thing.

  • Irony is worse than dead, it’s suicidal.
  • Stop celebrating bad art, bad food, and evil. There’s a place for enjoying things that are so bad they’re good. It isn’t the place called “the entire culture.” Giving up on quality of any kind has more serious consequences than we might think.
  • Phony postmodernism kills. Take the risk of being well-meaning and sincere. A couple of poorly understood Cultural Studies classes does not confer the privilege of detached Godhood.
  • Permanent adolescence is no improvement over permanent childhood. Living our lives fully and meaningfully is a duty to others and not just to ourselves.
  • Subcultures, fandoms, and gaming worlds are eating a generation of privileged and educated people alive when we could and should be doing well and doing good. Come out of the couch fort and live.
  • Cheap fatalism is a crime of privilege. Admitting defeat in advance hurts many, many people less fortunate than we are before it touches us.

I freely admit in advance that I will be didactic, pretentious, and annoyingly prescriptive. It’s likely that I’ll also be irrelevant and that I will make a fool of myself. I have no formal training in philosophy or sociology and will probably reinvent various wheels poorly.

But sometimes an idea just arrives and possesses me. This one has sat on me for years, and is at the root of a troublesome fiction project that won’t budge. Tormenting my small audience with an unsaleable vanity-press think piece is the best I can do with it right now.

Further material in this series will be tagged “ironyproject.”

My Orwellian Day

Nick and I talked for about an hour about Orwell and specifically 1984. People use the word “Orwellian” a lot or say “That’s so 1984“, but it’s a lot more than just totalitarianism and the abuse of language. 1984 is rich in detail and just about every single little detail is accurate almost to the degree of prophecy. If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in the last decade, go read.

Later I saw a regular whose name I didn’t know reading Orwell from a magazine reprint. I buttonholed him and said “Orwell! Good stuff!” and we had a big talk. He’s a high school teacher and was preparing lessons. I told him about the big fat cheap Orwell essays book. He said “Animal Farm is the book I recommend for my friends who don’t read, because it’s so easy and short and so full of huge ideas.” I really liked him. I also pointed him towards Politics and the English Language, about which he had forgotten.

Then I went to Mother’s and bought groceries and the cost was $19.84. At one point I was on a screen at the checkout that said “19.84: YES OR NO?” and to get my food I had to click YES. I clicked it. They fed me. I loved Big Mother.

In unrelated news I found out that the-silent-one has a GUN hanging in her DOGHOUSE. You’ve been warned.