A mean conservative Newt Gingrich argues: “we need a new federal resolve to truly defeat Alzheimer’s. As America’s largest generation ages, we have no time to lose.” On the empathic left Ezekial Emanuel (brother of the gentle soul, Emanual): “Conversely, services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.”
Now, as my friends complain, I’m not the most pro-life person around. I see abortion as a tragic choice, but one that is (rarely perhaps) the lesser of two evils. Then, there’s what my family has long called the “Edmondson syndrome” – it’s probably Alzheimer’s; without an ability to speak and think rationally, what I consider me is so far gone I’d like my body to accompany it. Still, my friends’ respect for life seems the better position than any that demean it. Choosing life seems to always be the logical default. Take Alzheimer’s – the greatest solution – a cure – is not the inevitable result of nationalized health care (we notice few cures from nationalized systems) but probably the inevitable one in a society that values life, sees the individual, and sees this tragedy in both personal terms as tragic and public ones as a great loss of productivity.
That strange category, “a culture of death,” best describes the values of many in our times. Certainly, Bill Ayers’ quite rational if quite evil belief that tens of millions would have to be sacrificed to bring his idea of a perfect society into being is a culture of death. And a certain percentage of post war art can only be described as an aesthetic of death. Then, in literary criticism we find, for instance, critics who believe a character better defines herself by suicide than loving. This may not be surprising when the most influential critic of the eighties and nineties found frequenting gay bathhouses after he knew he had AIDS an interesting adventure.
We aren’t gods – we probably won’t find ways to live forever. But some play with a nihilistic pride that defines control by negation. In any traditional and certainly any religious scheme, we would have thought that was prideful. And I suspect we were right. This is the dangerous pride our religions as well as our literature has so often warned us against – our arrogant desire to spoil what we can not have, to destroy beauty because we can neither feel it nor own it. We are reminded of Claggart’s great sorrow – that he can never be the person who has not felt the bite of jealousy, tht he can never be as content, as blissful, as Billy Budd. Ah, he says, I’ll make him feel that pang – I’ll destroy him, one way or another. And looking out at people who need convincing that nihilism is the final end, they start the convincing.
Others accept the big boundaries, but not the little one – recognizing their limitations, they celebrate the life they can create within this inevitable rise and fall. They roll up their sleeves and go to work: that is the work of the life force and that is the work of love. Pragmatism is enough of an answer for some. And it is part of the answer for others. Curing Alzheimer’s is not only the humane and indeed the human thing to do, it is also remarkably cost-effective. Enabling people who have had a lifetime’s experience to share that experience is productive as well as pleasant. Scholars (and there are many) who’ve been writing for half a century and are looking over proofs of a book coming out next year – they have much to teach us. So do auto mechanics who have seen cars change beneath their wrenches from Studebakers to Kias, of retailers who have seen skirt lines rise and lower and rise and lower through the decades, of great grandfathers who remember the ways of those who are their children but are another’s grandparent.
Fatalism isn’t helpful; humility before the inevitable and pride in our ability to create – these can go hand in hand. As Helen points out, historians don’t learn from history when they deny it. One would think we’d remember where the roads diverged in the sixties, and which was the path to nowhere and which the path to life: Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, which began “the battle to feed all of humanity is over. . . . hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” But, then, instead of the ‘Great Die-Off”, Borlaug (and people like him) combined sympathy and ingenuity to pull off the Green Revolution.
I am grateful to the kind of medicine that Obama repeatedly describes as a failure and the people – doctors, pharmacists, even insurers – as morally inferior to those who don’t make profits. I didn’t expect any of my kids to die young. And they didn’t. The graveyards took numbers of my grandparents’ siblings. My parents didn’t expect my three siblings and me to die – and we didn’t. But we played with a brother and sister down the street who died within 24 hours of each other when we were four or five. They had polio. My father was in a coma in an army hospital in Hawaii and, experimenting with penicillin, the army doctors revived him and the four of us were born after the war.
I know far more cancer survivors than I’ve gone to the funerals of those who have died from it. Every time someone goes to M.D. Anderson, down the road from us, they come back with stories of new treatments, new procedures, new medicines. And we are all heartened. America, despite the tragedy of the youth of those who suffered, did not have a disproportionate number of AIDS victims; we did invent a disproportionate number of AIDS medicines, which we gave with an open hand. I am sure the system needs some overhauling; I doubt that we need to spend as much on medicine as we do. But I suspect the medical Nobel Prize Winners are more worthy than Paul Krugman – and that group, heavily weighted to Americans, has benefited our economy – and the world’s. On the other hand, Rachel Carson, non-profit oriented altruist that she may have been, has done more to destroy happiness and productivity in Africa than can be easily repaired by the Borlaugs and Salks of the world.