A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

Health

3 August 2007 · 3 Comments

In his comment on my recent post, jimc offered the observation that obesity is more widespread among the lower classes than among the wealthy. He further offers his son’s opinion as to the reason for this—that fattening foods are the ones most available to the relatively poor. The observation he makes about obesity he might likewise make about smoking, in particular smoking cigarettes. Now the reason can’t be entirely the same, especially in view of the recent tendency to tax tobacco ruinously—a tax that falls more heavily on the poor. One could argue that poor people can’t easily afford ten-dollar cigars, which is the one kind of smoking that remains anything close to fashionable, but that is hardly explanation enough. There is something beyond mere material factors at work.

About twelve or fifteen years ago, I read an article—I think it was in First Things—that mentioned a study that revealed a difference between the bourgeoisie and the working class, if I may use such terms, in their attitude toward the body. I wish I could recall the exact language, but it was something along the lines that the bourgeoisie regarded the body as a machine that could, and should, be kept in perfect working order. I don’t remember how it characterized the working class’s attitude, but it was different. In some way, the proletariat do not see their bodies as something to be cultivated and protected at all costs. [If any of my select group of readers can point me to this research, I would appreciate it.]

This bourgeois attitude is what is behind the growth in what might be called a moral view of health. I read a letter to the editor in National Geographic recently that spoke of a “duty to be healthy.” The writer appeared to be mainly differing with the view that the burden of health falls on doctors, but the language is telling. Being ill is not a misfortune, as but a delinquency, and only two things can excuse it: genetics or misconduct on someone else’s part. Douglas and Wildavsky, in Risk and Culture, compare the latter to the pattern of cultures where witchcraft beliefs are strong: if there is any kind of misfortune, the thing to do is to find the witch. In our bourgeois culture, the rule is: if someone is sick, find someone to blame. “Was it this man or his parents who sinned..?” Or rather “Did he do it to himself or did someone do it to him?”

A further corollary of the bourgeois attitude toward health is that should anyone become ill, for whatever reason, it is necessary to deploy all possible resources to make the person well, or at least to keep him from dying. Medicine ultimately exists to defeat death; if it has not done so yet, it is because it has not reached its full potential. Treatments that earlier in my lifetime were impossible, such as organ transplants, are routine and therefore obligatory; or the patient requires some complicated procedure or obscure drug, which a few years ago did not exist.

All this is expensive, which is the root of the health care crisis we are hearing so much about. Health care is getting more expensive, not because doctors are getting any richer, but because the definition of health care keeps expanding. The endless quest to defeat death, the ancient crone not even Thor could wrestle down, demands more and more of the living. It is not only money it claims, but liberty as well. The supreme commandment of health will brook no argument.

In a way the health care establishment occupies the place in society the Church occupied in the Middle Ages. If you study a medieval city, you bump into a Church-related person or institution at every turn—not merely the clergy or houses of religious orders, but courts, tithe collectors, and a host of miscellanous employees. Consider the Canterbury Tales: not only is there a parson and a prioress, but a clerk of Oxenford, a summoner, and a pardoner, all of them part of the Church’s establishment. Likewise the Church provided a set of values and moral standards, which, while not always followed, were more or less universally recognized. In modern America, you can live your life without running into the Church, but you can’t avoid the health care establishment. There are doctors and nurses and hospitals; there are also the related bureaucracies, insurance companies, and firms that supply the health care system in ways great and small. As the Church collected tithes on all sorts of property, so health care takes its toll from every company’s revenue and every worker’s paycheck. And the religion of health provides the set of moral standards that are unanswerable.

It is ironic that the exponents of this religion also claim to be believers in Darwinian evolution, even though their program is the opposite of the principles by which natural selection is supposed to work. Darwinism posits that organisms will have more offspring than can survive; those that do are those most suited to their environment. They will then be the parents of the next generation, who will repeat the process. While Darwinists talk about “evolutionary strategies,” the organisms themselves are without any intention or plan. All they want to do—if you can call anything they do wanting—is to reproduce. What will be good for their genes is to have as many babies as possible. Selection occurs through death. Advocates of health want to limit the number of births, and then keep all those lucky enough to be born alive as long as possible. The goal appears to be either to bring evolution to a halt, or else to take over the role of controlling it, a role which could only be occupied by God. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again—there’s no telling what they will do.

Tags: Politics and society

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TS // 9 Aug 2007 at 8:01 am

    Good to see you post! I agree with much of this. I keep telling my wife that “first they go over the smokers…then they go after fast food eaters…then they’ll come for us!”. (Since we eat fast food, they’ll come for us sooner rather than later.)

    I’m always interested in the cause of health care spikes and I think the expansion of health care is a huge part of it. But also I recall Daniel Patrick Moynihan saying the reason both education and health care costs are rising is because both can’t be mechanized or computerized or robotized. Education and health care rely on educated people (i.e. doctors and professors) and human capital is comparatively expensive given most manufactured goods have become so much cheaper due to robots and/or cheap Mexican/Chinese labor.

    The Darwinistic irony is priceless indeed. Reminds me of how Margaret Sanger intended contraception to stop the “inferior” from reproducing, not the jet set. Instead it’s worked exactly the opposite in practice.

    The way health has turned into an idol is so true. I’ll span-the-globe with that comparison with medieval society.

    Health care has expanded greatly even for pets! To use a personal example, I think my cat may have diabetes. I don’t notice any great thirst for water in him but he’s lost weight. Twenty years ago we would’ve put our cat to sleep when he began suffering. But now the rules have changed. I’m expected to give Sam two shots daily from $1 non-resuable needles, buy $40 special cat food…and that’s not counting the cost of initial diagnosis. Crazy! Ignorance is bliss, since I don’t *know* he has diabetes, so I’m just hoping Sam will make it with his new low-carb diet…

  • 2 jimc // 10 Aug 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Henry, you’ve got a good point about the “moral view of health,” the “duty to be healthy.” Being ill is viewed as “misconduct” since presumably it would not have occurred had not the individual sinned by neglecting his or her health or by indulging some vice.

    I see this phenomenon all the time in some Christian circles where illness is thought to be a symptom of sin, resentment, or lack of faith. The ill person is told that he will become well if he repents of some sin, forgives old hurts, or has sufficient faith. In other words, “If you don’t get well it’s your own fault for not repenting, forgiving, and believing.”

    Job’s friends offered exactly this diagnosis to him. They were completely wrong. It turned out that Job’s misfortunes and then his own illnesses were actually for the glory of God. In the end it was for Job’s benefit too. He came to a direct encounter with God and to a deeper wisdom and peace. Had Job been able to avail himself of modern medicine to cure his ills and modern anti-depressants to soothe his psyche, would he have been better off? Not from God’s perspective.

    And what about St. Paul’s radical and dumbfounding revelation that “all things work together for good for those who love God?” Illness? Obesity? Poverty? These work out for good?! If that’s true, what the heck are we doing medicating away our suffering?

    So what does the quest for holiness demand? A moral duty to be healthy? Or a moral duty to embrace suffering, as did Job and Paul? I think the law of love (of God and of our neighbor) trumps all. If we live and prudently use medicine to stay well it is for service to Christ and our neighbor. If we suffer illness because there is no cure or we lack access to the cure for whatever reason, it for the glory of God and the good he will bring to our soul. If we die from our illness it is gain beyond measure for it brings us face to face with God. Or, as St. Paul put it, “For me to live is Christ but to die is gain…If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”

    For a Christian, if there is a duty to be healthy, it is not for the sake of bourgeois approval but for a fruitful labor of love toward others. But this duty to be healthy does not trump all. It is subordinate to weightier matters of love, mercy, and holiness.

  • 3 Roz // 11 Aug 2007 at 5:22 pm

    But this duty to be healthy does not trump all. It is subordinate to weightier matters of love, mercy, and holiness.

    I thought this wrap-up of Jim’s comment deserved to be highlighted. It’s food for thought and probably generalizable to other issues.

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