Sunday, November 8, 2009

American Exceptionalism: Epidemic Edition

As Eli, notes, the US is certainly exceptional, but not in any way we would consider positive:
Epidemic one - People going bankrupt and killing themselves, their families, or, as in yesterday's case, their ex-coworkers.
Epidemic two - People with medical expenses they can't possible pay, having to resort to inviting their friends to fund-raising events to help them pay. To quote a variant of the old bumper sticker, "What if the government funded health care and the military had to hold bake sales?"
With regard to the second epidemic, what can I say other than I see too much of it for comfort. I'll chip in a buck or two if I can (my paycheck is already spoken for the moment it reaches my bank account, so that's usually a pretty big if), but I can't help but view such efforts - valiant though they may be - as doomed to failure. Those who put on the fundraisers or who manage to chip in a few nickels feel momentarily all warm and fuzzy inside, but they barely make a dent in terms of paying all those damned medical bills nor do they address the fundamental flaws of our health "care" system. That system will only be effectively addressed on a structural level rather than at an individual level.

As far as the first epidemic, I mentioned a year ago about losing an acquaintance to suicide, whose living was made in real estate. Here was my reaction at the time:
A few weeks ago, a neighbor of my in-laws killed himself. He was a real estate agent. I'm guessing that given the market in SoCal, he was no longer making the commissions that had enabled him to live a suburban middle class existence, and perhaps saw no hope in that changing for the foreseeable future. We'd chatted during my last visit to the area, just weeks before his suicide. Seemed like a nice person. When I got the news, even though he was at most a casual acquaintance, I silently mourned his loss.

I thought of the spike in suicides in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, or of the drastic increase in suicide rate in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed and Yeltsin's regime imposed neoliberal "shock therapy" on the nation's economy, leading to a massive influx of displaced, unemployed workers who could not find a way to make a living. I also thought of the increase in suicides among subsistence farmers in India, who have become increasingly displaced as corporate conglomerates have driven them off their land. What these folks have in common is the rather profound stress of no longer being able to live productively, to the extent that identities tend to get tied at least partially to our vocations. Even for those of us who have steady, and likely stable, work situations, there has been a confluence of factors that have squeezed us financially. Although nominally a professional person, my salary on a good month barely pays for basics, and when energy costs spiked over the last year, even that ability was stretched to and finally beyond the breaking point. Let's just say that I'm facing the prospect of making difficult decisions between paying for food and paying utilities. Given my own cultural makeup, no matter how radical I may be, I have never been able to shake off the basic southern white mindset of the male as provider, and the inability to be able to provide on an increasingly regular basis quite frankly gets to me. I can easily empathize with those who've taken their lives in the wake of lost income, foreclosures, and the like (in research on stress, those tend to fall under the rubric of "major life events" - the more profound of the stressors), if for no other reason than I've stared into the same abyss. My saving grace is the knowledge that next year's tax refund will provide some breathing room, so if we can just ride out the winter somehow.
In discussing another murder-suicide early this year, I tried to put together a few puzzle pieces that I considered (and still consider) highly relevant:
...some sort of hyper-individualism, an illusion of freedom, and depersonalization. I'd add a hierarchical social structure that thrives on competition, violence at all levels (from interpersonal to structural), and which instructs its residents to attach personal meaning to the attainment of ephemeral "wealth". Somehow, the way the pieces of this particular society fit together to invite a sort of narcisissm (a fancy way of saying extremely high but extremely unstable self-esteem), which itself is a marker of aggressive and violent behavior (I'd add not only at the individual interpersonal and intrapersonal levels, where most social psychologists seem to leave it, but also at the organizational and structural levels as exemplified by certain policies adopted by ruling elites). The stressors inherent in our current economic and political climate are those that would invite behaviors that would be arguably unthinkable in another context.

The kids who committed the murder-suicide in Littleton about a decade ago were written off as pathological, as have those belonging to religious cults - e.g., The People's Temple, and I'm sure the couple in the story that began this particular dispatch, but I would offer that those exemplars rather than being "bad apples" are actually merely visible symptoms of a society that lives and potentially dies by the threat of murder-suicide: US foreign policy since WWII has been predicated on the concept of murder-suicide from the "good old days" of Mutually Assured Destruction to the present "War on Terra"; economic policy is based on the exploitation and depletion of nonrenewable resources with no consideration for the future (If we can't have it now, we'll make sure that NO ONE will have it later).
The last sentence captures part of the essence of our society: nihilism. It is so pervasive that it practically oozes out of our pores and yet few notice. Yes, there is an epidemic or two going on right now. The flu epidemic is in some fundamental way the lesser of our worries (though please, do not read into that a lack of concern about the flu - H1N1 has already hit my household). I'm not sure what cure or cures would even be available at this late date. However, if the US is to survive in some more or less meaningful fashion, or if what rises from the ashes is to be relatively nontoxic, here are a couple core principles that should guide those wishing to shape or reshape the society:
1. Children should not be [separated] from their limbs on purpose.
2. Profit should not be made on human suffering.

Start with those, and work from there. Oh, and as the writer expressing those principles admonishes, don't get tangled up in debates over impossible occurrences.

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