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10/28/2003 Archived Entry: "Helplessness"

HELPLESSNESS. Yesterday I met a warm young man who works as a nurse on an Indian reservation. He told me some of the advantages of working in the federal medical system (you don't get sent home or laid off, even if there's nothing for you to do; and there often is nothing for him to do) and some of the disadvantages.

One problem that most distressed him was the number of amputations performed in the Indian medical service. His patients have high rates of diabetes, which in turn leads to circulatory problems in their limbs. In his view, government doctors were simply saying, "Off with the foot -- whack!" whenever a problem didn't instantly respond to standard medical techniques.

Because these Indians have traditions that require the body to be intact for the journey into the afterlife, losing a limb is more shattering to them than to most European-hyphen-Americans. This very idealistic nurse believed that a more slow and thoughtful treatment, combining modern medicine and traditional Indian ways, could save many limbs and a lot of suffering. He'd seen it work (and certainly plenty of research points to the curative power of "the placebo effect" and of belief). But caught in the government health-care bureaucracy, and tied to outdated treatments, he was powerless to try alternative methods.

For some reason, I found myself responding with a long and not entirely coherent rant about tracking consumers via RFID chips, the Clinton-Bush anti-privacy "medical privacy regulations," and similar stuff. Even as I was going on, I was thinking, "This guy's going to think I'm either nuts or not listening to him, since all this has nothing to do with what he just said."

But it did have to do with it, and even though we couldn't make the connection in a linear way, everybody in the conversation groked that these things were connected. The connection is that the powers that be disregard the individual for the sake of "convenience" or "efficiency" or "collecting aggregate data" or whatever. The individual becomes nothing but a data point, a case study, a unit. And "units" have no rights. Units don't have feelings or hopes or desires -- certainly not any that need to be acknowledged by planners of "efficient" systems. Or so the systemizers appear to believe.

This is where things begin to break down. The system evolves to serve the individual. Then it evolves to where the individual serves the system. That's where we're going now (and where we already are in many terrifying ways). But it can't last. You can manipulate people so far -- incredibly far. You can use and abuse them to a shocking degree. But in the end a system that disregards the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual -- and above all, highly individual -- nature of the individuals within it ... cannot hold.

With apologies for the slam against good old anarchism, I keep hearing the words of William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Posted by Claire @ 09:51 AM CST

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