Original sin, or some such

By Michael J. Smith on Monday May 14, 2012 07:41 PM

I know a person who's seriously ill with an epidemic illness -- an illness which has been known for a long time but used to be quite rare. Now it's quite common. The particulars, I think, don't much matter for the purposes of this particular Rambler essay.

I was discussing my sick friend's predicament with yet another friend tonight. Let's call the sick friend A, and the interlocutor B.

I was musing, as I talked to B, about how people tend to blame the mother, or the father, or the self, for these illnesses. Oh, if I weren't such a bad person, with such bad habits, I would never have fallen ill, the patient says. Meanwhile the mom and dad are asking themselves -- and if they're divorced, asking each other, in fairly acrimonious terms -- what did we, or I, or you do to make this happen?

Of course my own inclination is to discourage a sense of personal responsibility as much as possible. So I asked B whether the patient and the parents shouldn't maybe let themselves, and each other, off the hook a bit, and seek a more contextual explanation? (Recall that this is an illness that used to be rare and is now common. 'Why' seems like a reasonable question.)

B's response surprised me. What about consumption, and hysteria, and ergotism, and the Spanish Inquisition? he asked. It's always something.

I was puzzled a bit by B's response, but then the penny dropped. B heard my comments as an exercise as social criticism. B thinks our society is not so bad, comparatively speaking, and B has a case.

But really, who cares about the comparisons with the Spanish Inquisition, or Auschwitz, or the Bataan Death March? Undoubtedly we live better than other people elsewhere and othertime, and even better than we might (and better than we will tomorrow, I'd add).

The Bataan death march is over. The Inquisition is no more. Auschwitz was shut down some time ago. The few remaining hysterics in the world write well-remunerated copy for Fox News and the New York Times. Truly we live in an age of miracle and wonder; I suppose this is the sort of thing people mean when they talk airily about 'progress'. Perhaps it's what B was thinking of too.

I take the opposite tack. I think the only useful and constructive comparisons of our own world with elsewhere and elsewhen are the ones that make us look bad. I don't care how awful the Spanish Inquisition was. All I care about is how bad my friend's insurance is; and what makes it so bad; and what it is in our world -- not Torquemada's -- that made her, and all the others like her, sick in the first place.

Comments (10)

Great post, MJS.

michael yates:

I couldn't agree more. The question is, why aren't we doing better, given what we have and what we know. I can't stand those who say, yes, but look at all of the great things we have and what people didn't have then. These people are really saying, don't even think about taking my gadgets from me. I want to consume and consume and consume. And when you say that maybe those gatherers and hunters were on to something, they say with a sneer, do you want to go back to that? This is a sick fucking country. Yes, there is beauty here, yes, there are good people here. But, well, why go on.


A public service message your friend B might appreciate. In the era of chattel slavery, this same person would have enjoyed a brisk trade dealing in pieties such as as steady as she goes, slow but sure, all in good time, with a contrarian or two in the woods providing hardly any competition:

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.


our generation had its interval of hubris
while young 65-74

we saw a massive
century long
civil injustice "rectified"

an imperial war "reputiated"

and an evil potus "ousted"

...or so we thought at any rate

of course we tried to press beyond
those limits that emerged
and a few of us
like father S
seem to have found
some well hammered humility
in our ultimate compromises

our tale has a pretty irony to its curl... no?

a light weight irony

what strikes me as tragic

no not soap operatic ...not this


a generation born to its majority
living in gloom and the self ravagings
of acedia

and of course the deepest sting

my generation
"produced "
this mirror dead
6 feet deep oceanic world

and we'll leave them here
alone at heart
treading neck deep
in this nasty flood time

like so many
hopelessly over worked
sump pumps


viva OWS !!


Viva OWS, indeed. One is tempted to say: they have nothing to lose but their chains, and they understand the fact.

michael yates:

MJS, I hope your friend recovers soon.


I don't care how awful the Spanish Inquisition was. All I care about is how bad my friend's insurance is; and what makes it so bad; and what it is in our world -- not Torquemada's -- that made her, and all the others like her, sick in the first place.

Suppose that, in such an interconnected world, your friend became ill from a dozen factors converging, or from a chain of a dozen consecutive events: how could our society be made to envision this? What industries, if any, would be held accountable? What organizations would undertake to deal with it? As it is, we can barely remedy direct injustices and indict unmistakable culprits. What happens as our problems become more "faceless," less foreseeable in terms of cause-and-effect? We'd be at risk of sounding like a much-despised president who shrugged and talked of national malaise.

If we were to say that the deadliest pandemics of the past could return and rare diseases become commonplace, would people believe it? But it could easily happen from overexposure to antibiotics.

I used to think that we could only learn from disaster. Now I think that even this is optimistic. The reaction to disaster is as likely to be pogroms and hysteria. Does catastrophe do more to unite or to isolate?

It's increasingly hard to imagine what will bring people together. OWS is a good start. It's said that whoever defines the terms of a debate will already be the winner. Not that most debates are worth winning. Nearly all the standard explanations of our troubles have been made by those who profit the most from them. The pundits, the libertarian Panglosses will blandly opine that your friend must be ill of her own ill-doing (not that they know or care); or how her sickness, however unfortunate, should not become a social burden. OWS, at any rate, resists these definitions. It repudiates the explanations. It rejects the pretended solutions. It's a start, but I wonder how much worse must happen before things change. And what becomes of your friend in the mean time? It's maddening that good people, who have made us happier by their very existence, should be thrown on the heap by a craven society as soon as they start to falter, to malfunction.

Sorry to be such a downer. People talk as if we're united by our hopes. That's clergy talk as far as I'm concerned. I think that hopes are mostly private daydreams. Perhaps unity is only possible when people confess their despair and others reply "Your problems sound a lot like mine."

If there had been progress, then comparing "now" to "then" could be instructive with regard how things had gotten better, however slightly. Aside from flush toilets, surgical techniques, more powerful explosives, and a few more goodies, though, things are worse, which makes the comparison useful. The essence of your point, though, is ftw.


There may be hope yet.

Arise, Lounge Lizards of Las Vegas!


I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

We live in a sick culture that produces a lot of sickness, of all sorts both mental and physical, in the people who have to live in it.

It sucks.

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