How To Die

I have stolen the title of this blog from an op-ed piece in the New York Times that deals with the contrast between the attitude toward dying in this country and the attitude in England. The piece focuses on the case of a man in the East of London who had been told he has a number of inoperable tumors and was subsequently taken off life-support at his own request and moved to a quiet room elsewhere in the hospital to spend his last moments with his family.

. . .  the hospital that treated him offers a protocol called the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient, which was conceived in the 90s at a Liverpool cancer facility as a more humane alternative to the frantic end-of-life assault of desperate measures. “The Hippocratic oath just drives clinicians toward constantly treating the patient, right until the moment they die,” said Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, who was until recently the chief executive of the center where the protocol was designed. English doctors, he said, tell a joke about this imperative: “Why in Ireland do they put screws in coffins? To keep the doctors out.”

The article does give one pause. We don’t like to talk about death and we are committed as a culture to the notion that life in and of itself is of value. We don’t ask whether or not the quality of life may be the central issue, as it assuredly is, we simply insist that no one should have to die.

Further there is a great deal of talk about the “right to life” which tends to focus on an unborn fetus while at the same time tending to ignore the lives of those who have been accused of capital crimes they may not have committed. It also tends to side-step such issues as war and the population explosion which is already overwhelming a planet stressed out from massive and relentless exploitation. But we don’t talk about death or the right to death. We simply assume that prolonging human life is the highest of values. But why do we think this? What about other animal species? And when it comes to humans, why shouldn’t a person be allowed to die if and when he or she has determined that the pain is no longer tolerable, the doctors have done all they can, and the cost to their families will be prohibitive?

The editorial goes on to mention that end-of-life treatment in England was not without its critics but it also addresses the question whether the attitudes about death in this country are likely to change and whether we might take steps toward a more enlightened approach to the subject. The author thinks not and responds as follows:

The obvious reason, of course, is that advocates of such programs have been demonized. They have been criticized by the Catholic Church in the name of “life,” and vilified by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the pursuit of cheap political gain. “Anything that looks like an official protocol, or guideline — you’re going to get death-paneled,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the bioethicist and expert on end-of-life care who has been a target of the rabble-rousers. . . . Humane end-of-life practices have quietly found their way into cancer treatment, but other specialties lag behind.

Though Mary Tyler Moore tried years ago to teach us how to laugh at death (when appropriate) it does seem that certain topics are taboo and that we shy away from asking pertinent questions and opening doors that might have important answers hidden behind them; we have knee-jerk reactions to certain topics and cultural biases that tie our hands and blind our eyes to unpleasantness. We simply don’t like to talk about death and dying even though they are facts of life.

Political Denial

While it appears that 74% of the Republicans in Congress publicly deny global warming, the insurance industry does not. The insurance industry trusts scientific research; many in Congress reject it. A recent story in the Bloomberg News is worth quoting at length.

Hurricane Irene’s residue is likely to include a confusing debate over whether insurers or property owners are responsible for storm-caused water damage. There’s no lack of clarity, however, over whether the insurance industry believes in climate change and its ties to lethal weather: It does.

As Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 5 issue, the industry has absorbed many lessons from Sept. 11 about anticipating risk. One is that the recent spate of weather extremes is likely to continue — and the insurance market must reflect that.

Interestingly, this puts the industry at odds with a number of Republican candidates who have made questioning climate change a not-insignificant part of their campaign strategy. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann dispute whether global warming is man-made. Perry suggests that climate is affected by many variables, which scientists can manipulate “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Mitt Romney is on the fence. Only Jon Huntsman Jr. has declared definitively that he trusts scientists on global warming.

Politicians have been known to dissemble about risk because voters generally don’t like to hear bad news. The insurance industry makes its money telling it to you straight — how long you’ll probably live, what price your home will fetch, whether to repair or trade in your car.

For this reason, it’s worth noting that insurers already factor climate change into their models for measuring, pricing and distributing risk. Insurers have no incentive to lie. If they are more scared than they should be in pricing risk, shareholders will punish them. If they aren’t scared enough, nature will do the job.

No one can say for certain that any single weather event flows from the warmer air caused by carbon emissions, which in turn lead to more rainfall, floods and snowfall over some parts of the planet, and more drought in other parts. But last year was the hottest on record. Arctic ice is at record low levels. Regardless of what politicians say, insurers must factor all this into premiums.

[Rick Perry’s comment is especially interesting. Apparently he thinks scientists doctor the facts so they can increase funding for their pet projects. The man has a lively imagination. I always wondered what motive reactionary politicians attributed to scientists for their dire predictions.  I know what motives to attribute to the corporations and politicians for denying the obvious — it’s all about votes and ultimately profits. This helps clarify things for me.]

But in the end, as Diane Keaton said, “Climate change, like gravity, doesn’t give a damn whether you ‘believe’ in it or not. It’s happening regardless. While we sit around and debate its existence, it’s taking full advantage of the situation and using the time we’re giving it to make life miserable.” Indeed so.

Conflicting Beliefs

I wonder of there is any hatred and distrust as deep and pervasive as that between or among various religious sects. It has been said that human history is the history of wars and a great many of them — far too many — are religious wars. The Christians hate the Muslims and the Muslims hate the Christians and — as Tom Lehrer so cleverly pointed out — everyone hates the Jews.

The latest story out of the Middle East is disquieting, to say the least. Religious extremists have attacked the American embassy in Cairo and In Libya the American Ambassador and three diplomats were killed by extremists — all over a movie funded by Morris Sadek, an American Christian, that seeks to show the depth of prejudice in Egypt toward the Christians by the Muslims who dominate the culture in that region of the world. As a recent Yahoo News article points out

 “Protesters in Egypt chanted Sadek’s name because of his support for the film, which presented the Prophet as a bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake, among other characterizations that deeply offended many Muslims who consider any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous.

Now I am not an expert in foreign policy, but common sense tells me that a movie depicting the leader of one of the world’s major religions as a “bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake” is certain to stir up anger and hatred — especially in a region of the world where “America” is something of a dirty word. Of course, that is hard for us to fathom, because we are blinded by our pride and don’t see this country from the perspective of the rest of the world. But it is certainly the case that in the Middle East, at the very least, this country is the embodiment of evil. Obama’s presidency has helped, but as one wag recently pointed out, it will take more than a few speeches to mend the broken fences between this country and the Muslim countries. And Michele Bachmann’s recent crusade against the Muslim Brotherhood certainly won’t help matters a bit.

In any event, the incident in Libya has become a political football as Mitt Romney has leveled untimely criticism at Obama’s foreign policy in the region and the Democrats point out that Romney has a tendency to put his foreign policy foot in his mouth and is not the man to deal with such a volatile situation. Neither side wants to yield as each points fingers and accuses the other of incompetence and inexperience. And while the bodies in Libya are still warm newsmen debate in public which political candidate most “benefits” from the upheaval in the Middle East. Does anyone wonder why this country is held in low esteem by so many people around the world?

In any event, whether it is a political football or merely another chapter in the history of humankind that exhibits our inability to get along with one another, much less to tolerate religious differences, recent events in the Middle East raise red flags and should make us all aware that whichever man is elected to the Presidency in this country, he had better be able to present a formidable front while at the same time showing that he can mend fences and admit that while we don’t do things the way other people do things, they may be right and we may be wrong. That’s something it is difficult for Americans to admit.

Witch Hunt

Some time back when I was younger and wars were Cold a Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy had the country in a panic because he was convinced that Communists and Russian spies were infiltrating not only the government but also the entertainment and news industries around the country. Rumor has it that he got the number 57 from a ketchup bottle and insisted that there were 57 known Communists in the government (later adding to that number as whim dictated). The witch hunt began, giving birth to the word “McCarthyism” and involving daily coverage on TV; it took months before things were restored to normal and it was determined that it was a tempest in a teapot. McCarthy was censured by the Senate though in the meantime careers were destroyed and hatred and fear were prevalent in the country.

Apparently McCarthy is back in the person of Michele Bachmann, a Representative from Minnesota, who is trying to rouse the rabble over the notion that the Muslims are taking over our government. The Huffington Report recently noted that Rep. Michele Bachmann says the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamist movement that recently came to power in Egypt, has made “deep penetration” within the U.S. government, and she wants an investigation of its influence within five federal agencies.

Bachmann’s charges were included in a letter signed by three other Republicans and sent to federal defense, diplomatic, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies calling for an investigation into this Muslim Brotherhood. There is no talk about what, precisely, the nature of the threat from this group happens to be though the group which recently came to power in Egypt is reputed to seek to unite traditional Islam with modern democracy. Wikipedia tells us, further, that the group is a “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.. . .The movement has been criticized by al-Qaeda for its support for democratic elections rather than armed jihad.” One would think these qualities suggest a group this country would seek to befriend, not fear.

Bachmann’s alarm appears to be the rantings of a hysterical women at a particularly difficult time in the history of this country. We face serious and complex problems that need to be addressed by our government. Suspicion and distrust already run deep, as does the chasm between the political parties. It is poor timing, at the very least, to call for an investigation at this time. It’s not clear that there ever is a good time for a witch hunt, but these  are definitely not the times. The country is in debt and the economy is in a recession that some might call a depression (especially those who cannot find any work). An investigation would take time, money, and attention away from real problems in order to conduct a search for a group of people who may or may not pose a threat to this country.

Bachmann was a recent candidate for the Republican nomination, as you will recall. Perhaps she merely wants to call attention to herself once again. It must be difficult after all to be relegated to the shadows after being in the bright lights even for a brief moment. One hardly knows what her motivation might be. But I suspect she is exhibiting a knee-jerk reaction to the word “Muslim,” a religious group that in itself is peace-loving and deeply religious and has no desire to “take down” this country — though there are elements within the group that most assuredly do. We might begin by trying to understand the groups better and see how they differ from one another.

One could say, looking at things from another perspective, that there are Americans who want to turn the rest of the world into a mirror-image of themselves, arm themselves to the teeth, and are willing to resort to any means to achieve that end. I expect we can seem frightening to people in other parts of the world. Much depends on one’s point of view. And we need clarity and dispassionate thought, not emotional rantings. Instead of a witch hunt let’s try to understand one another. How about that, Michele?

In the end, this is sheer hysteria and the call for a witch hunt is not only something we should have learned in the 1950s can tear the country to pieces, it is something that no civilized people should even contemplate.