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.