Treating the Symptoms
One of my favorite writers was actually a fictional character, Kilgore Trout. He was the creation of another favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He explained that Trout’s stories are mostly about tragic failures to communicate, but I think they’re also examples of treating the symptoms, rather than their cause. One of Trout’s stories was about people living on some island, and the wealthiest people eventually owned all the land, so there was nowhere for the poor to even stand. The government’s solution was to issue all the poor people hot air balloons.
This particular syndrome isn’t exclusively American, it’s just that we seem to excel at it. Nowhere can it be seen more clearly than in the field of medicine. Of all the developed nations, we are the only one whose primary health care system is “pay or die.” It’s all about profit. There’s no profit in cures, but obscene piles of money are being made in endless treatment of disease. This is a two-edged sword, because not only are the profits made by the health care industry and Big Pharma, they’re also peddling treatments in the form of prescription drugs, with all sorts of nasty side effects. I don’t doubt that doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals genuinely wish to alleviate suffering, but they’re caught up in a rigged game. A hundred years ago, cancer was rare; now it’s estimated that as many as one of three of us will get it in our lifetimes. Scientists will keep trying to find the magic bullet. But until they get at its real cause — poisons in our air, water, and food — cancer will continue to afflict us, and they’ll just be treating the symptoms.
The right-wingers on my local radio and TV keep going about the homeless and tent cities. There are too many tent cities, and no one wants them in their neighborhood. Those people are dirty, creepy, and prone to crime. But homelessness is a symptom of a deeply dysfunctional society. The questions should be not only why is there homelessness but why it’s increasing. A local city library has installed boulders all over its lawn, so they can’t sleep there. Bumps are being put on park benches for the same reason. I know, maybe they should just give them all hot air balloons.
Baltimore and Ferguson, MO have become the latest scenes of police violence against the black population. Prisons are overcrowded, and black inmates are incarcerated in numbers wildly disproportional to their percentage of the population. These are symptoms of a deeply imbedded, institutional racism of which most whites are completely unaware. This view is reflected in the brutal police culture and its treatment of minorities. When we look at the places where crime is highest, like the inner cities, we see the poverty numbers are also high. These were once thriving manufacturing centers that have been hollowed out. Since 2001 over 60,000 factories have closed, and millions of jobs lost. The people are still there, but there are no opportunities or hope for a better future. Failing schools are also symptomatic, being the result of a decimated tax base. Until we look at the causes, we’ll just keep treating the symptoms, and it will go on and on.
We’re presently engaged in the so-called war on terror, against radicalized Muslim extremists. We send aid and armaments to those we suppose to be opposed to them, conduct air attacks and drone strikes, and perhaps intercept their cyber communications. We are treating the symptoms caused by a hundred years of white European (and later American) imperialism and colonialism. After World War I the Middle East was carved up by the European powers. New national borders were created basically by invaders with no understanding of the cultures of these indigenous peoples. The example that comes to mind is Kurdistan, which is now part of modern Turkey, Northern Syria, and Northern Iraq, the borders of which run smack through this ancient tribal area. The same can be seen near the arbitrary border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as the “tribal areas,” because they don’t recognize the legitimacy of that border. Radical Islam is a classic example of reaping what you’ve sown. And now we’re reaping the whirlwind.
It’s getting more difficult to deny the reality of global climate change. The symptoms — increased intensity and duration of storms, droughts, massive species die outs — are all around us every day, but there are none so blind as those who will not see, as they say. Technology rides to the rescue (the same technology that got us in this mess). We’ll just introduce sulphuric acid droplets into the atmosphere, that’s called geo-engineering. Then there’s the trans-humanist movement, which proposes to genetically engineer humans to withstand the coming “new normal.” Scientists are even working on replacing bees and other insects with tiny drones that will be indistinguishable from the real thing. Kilgore Trout would just love this.
There is a common thread running through the causes behind all these symptoms — unregulated, predatory capitalism. It used to be known as laissez-faire capitalism, and is the same doctrine libertarians call free enterprise. It can be boiled down to a single word: greed. That’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, as I recall. Until we change that fundamental mentality, if we even can, we’ll have no alternative but to keep treating its many symptoms.