Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Society's Cancer

Cancer strikes over a million people in the United States every year. Approximately half a million people die from it every year. While cancer rates have been dropping steadily for some time, the number of people contracting it in its many varieties is still very high. Efforts to get people to quit smoking, avoid tanning (or use sunscreen), and have regular exams have led to the drop, but there are so many other factors that we still do not understand. And the multitude and variety of cancers is such that common knowledge of one type of cancer does not necessarily translate to another. It continues to be the scourge of our nation, and the world, right along with AIDS, Hepatitis, and so many other pathogens and diseases.

So when I turn on the television, what do I see? Commercials for erectile dysfunction medications, in a profusion and abundance that makes it seem as if there is an epidemic of ED and it's only a matter of time before I am struck down.

The reason is pretty simple: money. While not cheap, compared to the billions spent yearly on cancer research over the last 40 years or so, finding a pill to allow a man to have an erection is cheap and easy. And hey, if you don't have ED, but want to be able to act as if you are God's gift to women, you can take it recreationally.

Nobody does chemotherapy or uses AZT recreationally.

I suppose part of the problem really is that we, as individuals, don't see the cost of cancer to society as a whole. With no universal health coverage, and with the health insurance available fraught with beauracracy, obfuscation, and skulduggery, we don't see the cost of medical care rising as treatments for cancer become more extensive and expensive, in the hopes of staving it off or eliminating it. We fail to notice that by not making precautionary medical visits readily available, we often are forced into lavish and expensive procedures to fight cancer, after it has invaded someone's body. It escapes our notice that the cost of a man being unable to have sex is minimal by comparison.

It's far easier, apparently, to empathize with a man who can't get it up, rather than a child, forced at an early age to undergo painful radiation treatments and chemotherapy to attempt to drive out childhood cancer. We feel for the guy who can't be as sexual a he'd like, as opposed to the woman who is forced into a mastectomy or historectomy because cancer is wracking her body and jeopardizing her very life. Apparently the ability for a man to have sex is of more paramount value than keeping him from contracting almost-certainly-fatal pancreatic cancer.

I know, I know, the pharmaceutical industry makes hundreds of medications to treat every manner of debilitating disease or condition: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. Many of those medications are, however, old news, hardly profitable, only still around because so many people are dependent on them. I also realize they are publically-traded companies, beholden to shareholders who demand a return on their investment. Isn't it about time, though, that the investment was not looked on in wholly monetary terms? Is it just possible we could look past the need for personal profit and instead address the need for social profit?

Medicine requires its practitioners to do no harm, to use their talents to help others live longer by preventing disease, or dealing with it where it cannot be prevented. They have a covenant with their patients that is sacrosanct; the same cannot be said of the pharmaceutical industry. The desire for profit allows businessmen to convince themselves that the decisions they make are somehow the best for all concerned. The "greater good" does not enter into their equation. While there is profit in a man's loss of sexual prowess or a woman's vanity, big pharma will do all it can to feed such things.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Art Of The Lie

If there is one troubling aspect to popular culture in this new age, it is spin, or as I so fondly call it, the "art of the lie." Now, spin is not a new concept; it is as old as recorded history. It is the victors who write the history books, and the victors will always cast themselves in the most positive light. Manifest destiny, superiority of talent or morality, divine intervention -- the reasons for their victory are always of the highest order.

Mind you, the vanquished often find a way to have their say, in one fashion or another, especially when they turn the tables on the original victors and are themselves victorious. They then proceed to drag the newly vanquished through the mud while expounding upon their own virtues in the very same tones. And so this dance continues its endless cycle, the truth being trampled beneath heedless feet. It is very rare that anyone can stand aside from the maelstrom and pick out the roots of the truth, but every so often a historian gives us a critical look at events to the best of their ability, and perhaps we learn something of it.

My implication is not that honesty is dead. If it were, civilization would have broken down completely by now. No, it is not dead, but it may not be feeling well and is no doubt desirous of a trip to the nearest medical facility for a check-up. The dance of spin has ground upon it for so long that the truth's bones are beginning to ache.

There is no incentive in telling the truth. If the truth you have to tell is painful, no one wants to hear it. If the truth is damaging to your reputation, you wish to minimize the effect. If the truth is embarrassing, you wish to avoid anyone finding out, lest they use it for their own purposes. If the truth brands you a criminal, you would rather hide behind lies and hope you can tell enough of them sincerely enough that people will believe you.

Part of that is our own fault. Whatever the aroused and enraged mob may want us to believe, their cries of "Tell us the truth!" ring hollow, for they do not actually want to hear it. The truth, far from setting them free, would imprison them in cages of their own guilt, forged by their own hands and actions. They would be forced to confront the stain upon their own souls and admit that they are less than the people they claim to be. How can we be fine, upstanding citizens, if we are not fine, upstanding citizens?

Of course, that's the point: honesty is its own reward. It is the lever the raises one above the crowd, setting you slightly higher. If you are honest, if you accept the blame that is yours, if your apology comes from the heart, then whatever the transgression, you sink far less into the mire of iniquity than if you seek to protect yourself and your reputation at all costs. It is more laudable to commit an unsavory act and stand up to be counted, than to do so and hide behind a web of lies.

And yet, in the news right now, there are unrepentant transgressors who, rather than making quick, clean work of their obvious mistakes, seek to minimize them, to claim that all is not as it appears, that others had a hand in it, that they were merely foolish or stupid. If they lack sincerity, it is because they have sought the counsel of those who make a living of taking the truth out back, roughing it up, painting it a different color, and pretending it is out of town. They ask others to come in and shape the truth for them, crafting something which sounds a lot like the truth, a lot like an apology, but lacks for substance and for coherence. They stage-manage their "truth," to put it in the best possible light, then dole it out to the teeming throng and walk away satisfied that they have quelled suspicion.

And yet... the taste of spin is such that this pre-packaged and processed version of the truth is unpalatable and hard to swallow. For some, it won't be touched, or if touched, will be vomited back up, marked as the hypocrisy it is. The vast majority will choke it down. It will sit within them and cause unsettling pain, but they will keep it down and eventually the pain will pass and so will their discomfort.

Sadly, for a great many people, spin is getting easier to swallow.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why The Problem With Equality?

All things being equal...

That's an interesting turn of phrase, because in most cases, we apply the maxim that all things are not equal in the first place. What does it mean, precisely, for two or more items to be equal? If we turn to mathematics as our guide, then equivalence is stated as the values on both sides of an equation carrying the same value, e.g. 3 + 2 = 5, because both sides are equivalent to 5. I know, that's a simplification, but for purposes of illustration, it's all we need.

For in mathematics, equality is a given. Though the numbers on both sides of the equal sign are different, their intrinsic value (after operations) is the same. And one 3 or 2 is as good as any other 3 or 2, and can even be broken down further. You can make both sides of an equation as complex as you like, and in the end, if the value each equation reduces to is the same, they are equivalent.

People are not numbers, nor are they quantifiable as such. The complexity of mind and body is not reducible in the way arithmetic equations are. You cannot be summed up as a single value, though many people will try (credit agencies, MENSA, numerologists). Furthermore, logic dictates that you cannot be compared to someone else on the basis of a single value if one does not exist.

The logic may be irrefutable, but that has not stopped people for eons untold from attempting to paint others with just that kind of singular, and myopic, stroke of the brush. Take any current aspect of humanity, whether it be the obvious (skin color) or the subtle (religious faith), and an inordinate amount of effort is spent trying to quantify, and thereby catalog, those differences in such a way as to give one group a higher value than another. White trumps Black. Man trumps Woman. Catholic trumps Jew trumps Muslim.

That is not to say that there are no differences between individuals -- far from it. As is so often written, we are no more alike than snowflakes, given where we live, from whom we descended, how our genes were expressed, and under what conditions we were raised. More than six billion of us, and we are bundles of minute variations, and yet those variations, at the heart of it, are controlled by physical and chemical processes that operate on a universal scale. We are built of the same types of atoms, using the same chemicals and their reactions, controlled by the same system, DNA. We are all the same under the hood.

It is the superficiality of our differences and the essence of our humanity, that makes the constant striving against equality between people an enigma. If we can be trained to see other people as different from us in some way, we can also be trained to see them as exactly the same. This does not necessitate disposing of the differences between us, only disposing of the acceptance of these differences as some absolute, some quantity that forever holds each of us in a certain place in the natural order. Unlike the elements of the Periodic Table, we are not so easily pigeon-holed, nor should we be. It is not enough to identify ourselves as belonging to some group, unless we also admit to the fact that we are part of a greater group: humanity. If we can train ourselves to look past the glassy surface to the cool, deep waters beneath, we will see more than water, but life. If we can accept that our differences separate us in name only, but not in common fellowship, perhaps we can learn to live and work together towards the betterment of all humanity.

A human can dream, can't he?