Introduction to The Baffler number 26, published in October 2014.
Hello from HQ, where we are happy/sad to present number 26, Sickness and Pelf, on the culture of medicine and certain undiagnosed psychopathologies of everyday life in America. The operative method, wielded with a scalpel throughout this body of salvos, stories, poems, put-downs, and fake advice, keeps the illness distinct from the treatment.
In the legal system, after all, the punishment does not fit the crime so much as it manufactures reasons to acquiesce to it; likewise, in medicine, “treatment options” that reach out of the wound are someone else’s ideas about the nature of the illness.
To get into the diagnostic frame of mind, just call up a few gauzy scenes from your last visit to a U.S. hospital. Or consider that, next to prisons, barracks, and churches, hospitals are the institutions most prone to enforce our submission to absolute authority. All those masks, Latinate insignia, and robes—they front a veritable epidemic of errors, unnecessary surgeries, addictive medications, failing devices, and, oh yes, infections. Falling mentally ill is itself virtually a crime now, judging from the condition of our country’s incarcerated persons.
Of course everyone is keen to make our health care system more efficient, affordable, and enlightened. That may not make us feel better, however, since innovative thinking about health policy seems to gravitate mainly to the profitable end of the equation.
As the deadline for this issue bore down on us, for example, we turned up one thought leader in Forbes magazine brandishing a striking portfolio of “market-based healthcare solutions.” Cutting-edge research, we learned, has proven that placebos elicit the same responses from patients as real medicines do. “My solution: substitute placebos and placebo surgeries. They’re cheaper.” For the false positive that is “business civilization,” you really can’t do better.
Is bringing treatment back home safer than submitting ourselves, body and soul, to medical authorities? Lord knows, this country has never run short of black-market curatives, diets, exercises, vitamins, or mental adjustments to encourage us to partake of our body’s natural wisdom, intuition, and harmony. You can beat cancer by maintaining a “positive attitude.” (No, you can’t.) You shouldn’t get your children vaccinated. (Yes, you must.) At this late stage of culture collapse, “holistic” treatment alternatives may seem attractive next to the life-science capitalism awaiting us in our Potemkin village hospitals and turnkey clinics. But if the choice is between mainstream and alternative medicine, a neither-nor attitude will do for us just fine.
Sickness and Pelf features the perspectives of those stuck in the waiting-forever room of medical culture, dogged by symptoms unassimilable to diagnostic manuals or public policy prescriptions. Read here of an uxorious young father who receives paternity leave, only to turn this gift of time into alcoholism. Follow an ordinary woman as she’s induced to swallow handfuls of hip new painkillers like clockwork—mainly to blunt the stress of dealing with the men who prescribe them.
Stumble along with a clerk through a lifetime of therapy for chronic depression. Marvel at the man who opens a medical encyclopedia and catches hypochondria, or the vanguard of acronym-drunk disability-rights activists who sport the latest stylings in class privilege. They’re all, to one degree or another, the stigmata of the beleaguered self, cut down and in retreat, living out a minimal existence in a society running rampant with narcissism.
As for undigested collective traumas, both those America has inflicted and those it has suffered, we have them covered too. Here’s a field report on occupational health and safety among workers at New York University’s campus in the United Arab Emirates, and another on the long littleness of life in Bhopal, India. The worst industrial disaster in the history of the world struck a pesticide factory there thirty years ago this December.
But patriotic Americans in Ohio, Maryland, and Indiana have more important anniversaries to celebrate, like the bicentennial of the final, pointless battles of the War of 1812. Even new traumas visited on our collective self can’t escape the souvenirs of cynicism. The “9 /11 Memorial Museum Store” printed on pages 20 and 21 was inspired by the real-life attempt to commemorate that particular massacre on a cream-colored cheese platter in the shape of the continental United States.
How we wish we could pull a prescription pad from our back pocket to help our country come out of its coma, but our therapy license has been revoked for demonstrating persistent negativity. Apart from recommending a course of self-medicating, we can offer some nonexpert advice: don’t get sick, if you can help it.