Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Politics Of The Self

I'm a political junky, but I try to handle my addiction with as much class as I can manage. In my college years, I was a bit like the clammy, unkempt junky who shoots up in public and ends up passed out on a park bench. Today I'm a somewhat less clammy, somewhat less unkempt junky with a professional life, so I've learned to indulge my habit more discreetly, as is fitting for secret vices.

Still, a part of me has always resented having to hide my lifestyle from others. It grates on me when people say politics is a private or personal thing. What could be less private than the business of the polis ("the city") or the res publica ("the republic," literally "the public thing")? Nena Eliasoph's fascinating book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life goes a long way toward explaining how this came to be, and how we junkies came to be second-class citizens. Specifically, she notes an inversion of the public and private areas of discourse in recent decades. At the same time when politics has become a hush-hush topic, matters that used to be more private (e.g. sex, relationships, diseases, neuroses) have become mainstays of casual conversation. If you've ever been at a party and found your mind wandering while your hostess entertained the rest of the group with that droll anecdote about the time she accidentally sharted at work, you know what I'm talking about. And you might be a redneck...but I digress.

The question remains, why this inversion? A documentary film I saw recently, Adam Curtis' The Century of the Self, may provide a clue. It deals with the work of Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, who applied Freud's theories to marketing and advertising in the United States throughout most of the last century. The same theories were also applied to political campaigns since at least the late 1970s. In sum, American corporations and politicians systematically trained the public to base their political thinking on deeply rooted, and deeply personal, fears and desires. Most of these emotions are so profound that the individual isn't even consciously aware of them. That's why they're so powerful and at the same time so manipulable. Regardless of what one thinks of Freud as a philosopher or healer, the film does show some evidence that his theories worked as applied by Bernays.

I wonder whether the phenomenon described by Eliasoph in her book could be a side-effect of this conditioning, a consequence of redefining the political and the personal at an unconscious level. If politics is the business of the polis, then idio-tics can only be the business of the idios, that is, the self ("idiot," in Greek, being defined as "the private person, the layman, the ignorant"). No one wants to hear others go on about what are, after all, just their own idiosyncrasies. And it's all the more offensive, far more in fact, when they start questioning mine. Would this explain why people feel the need to guard their opinions like shameful secrets? Might it also explain why civilized disagreement and rational, productive debate seem to be less and less common?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Scariest Thing About American Health Care

Last night I heard a story about a 57-year-old man who was visiting a relative at a local hospital and unfortunately had a heart attack while he was there. It happened around 11:00 PM while he was standing on the sidewalk just outside the door of the emergency room. Of course no one wants to have a heart attack, but if you're going to have one, this is probably one of the better places you could choose.

Or maybe not. When an employee discovered the man passed out in the bushes on her way in to work, she called the emergency room, identified herself, and asked for someone to bring out a wheelchair (she didn't try to move him herself because it's against hospital policy). After the receptionist lazily asked questions for several minutes (from 30 feet away) in order to assure herself that it wasn't a hoax, the employee was finally allowed in. There followed still more questions, an eventual call to the night watchman, and some confused haggling over who should find and haul out the wheelchair. After more than ten minutes, the ER staff at last made their weary way outside to pick up the patient...who was now dead.

Since I only heard this story because I know someone who was there, I have to wonder how often things like this happen. It reminded me of the excellent article "How American Health Care Killed My Father," in which the author, David Goldhill, talks about some of the built-in disincentives to excellence that exist in our health care industry. But as I talked to my friend who saw the whole thing, I also thought about another factor that's much simpler and more disturbing, at least for me. The whole half-assed endeavor was really just another example of the ubiquitous phenomenon that I've called post-modern capitalism--an economy based on goods (or services, in this case) that are designed for appearance rather than function. No doubt the hospital staff went home in the morning with their McGriddles and coffee feeling that they'd done their jobs. A life may not have been saved, but they had in fact staffed a hospital. What more do you want?

For me then, the scariest thing about American health care is that it's run by us Americans--the same people who run the DMV, the cable company, the fast food chain, and every other establishment where the employees treat you like a menace to their God-given sense of entitlement. Despite all the ideological battles over the merits of private vs. public enterprise, this is one thing they will always have in common. Some blame the government for our faults, some blame the capitalists, and some blame a lack of religious faith. I don't know all the answers. Everyone's probably right to some extent. The question is, how do you reform a system in which we all seem trained to think like cattle, going from the milker to the pasture and back again, with no sense of purpose and no concern for anything that may fall in our way?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Twelve Days Of Christmas

I'm finding it a little sad that while it's only the tenth day of Christmas, decorations have already disappeared and there are no more parties to go to. So, in honor of my favorite season, I offer a new version of the beloved holiday song, rewritten for a more modern, more fiercely productive age.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas, we all went back to work.

The End.

Somehow it just doesn't have the same ring to it. But post-holiday blues for me just yet, and I hope not for you, either. Merry Christmas, all!