Long Weekend Open Thread: “The New American Sadism”


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Hey, it’s a long weekend — let’s break out the Open Thread early!

I keep some articles around to use in an Open Thread when space allows.  This one is from April 2, 2013, authored by Charles Simic for the New York Review of Books.  It’s called “The New American Sadism.”  (No, it’s not about S&M.  Don’t even bother to unwrap those jokes.)

It starts out with health care policy and it ends up in Hell.  Click the link and read the whole thing (and the TIME article).  I can justify printing only two paragraphs from the beginning and two more from the end.  (Personally, I’d add “only” before “profit” in the epigram below, but it’s probably not a good idea to re-edit Confucius.)

North by Northwest Mt Rushmore scene with observer using jetpack

Recent political culture: Cary Grant hanging desperately from Mr. Rushmore. Current political culture: add someone up there with a jetpack, jeering at him.

Here’s Charles Simic:

The good man understands what is right,
the bad man understands profit.

—Confucius

You may have already read or heard about Steven Brill’s excellent, long article in Time magazine, called “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.” If you think it doesn’t concern you, don’t be so sure. Brill documents how a trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion can exceed the cost of a semester of college, how simple lab work done during a few days in a hospital can be more expensive than a new car, and how a drug that requires $300 to make and that the manufacturer sells to a hospital for $3,000–3,500, can cost the patient to whom it is prescribed $13,702. He looks closely at the outrageous prices on itemized hospital bills and finds that individual services listed on them have been priced at double and triple what those same services cost separately—for reasons neither the patient understands nor the hospital can explain. And he recounts the horror stories of people reduced to penury after a brief hospital stay, even though they had some health insurance, money in the bank, and suffered from only minor ailments.

Put simply, Brill says, these bills tell us there’s no free market in our healthcare system, that hospitals set their rates knowing that someone in pain or in fear for his or her life is not going to ask to see the price list first before agreeing to some test or treatment. It’s no wonder that 60 percent of our fellow Americans who file for personal bankruptcy each year do so because of medical costs.

OK, fine — another health care article, it seems.  But then, by the end, Simic has pulled out all the stops for a more sweeping and incisive (and yes, I’ll grant, a bit hyperbolic, but valuable even so) critique of our contemporary political culture.  It’s about the emotional substrate behind the “fleece everyone you can” ethos that we see too often in politics — especially, I suspect, in our dear county.

In the past, even the most venal among our politicians would now and then show that they have hearts. No more. Now that money rules politics more than ever before and those for whom private gain outweighs public good every time fill the coffers of both political parties, any mention of the plight of the sick, the homeless, and the old borders on political suicide. Polls show that most Americans do not quite share the callousness of our political class to the suffering of the less fortunate members of our society. But some do. We all remember, I hope, the cheers that went up in the audience during the GOP’s presidential debate last spring in Tampa when Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate and former doctor, stated that he would let an uninsured man lying in a coma die without lifting a finger. “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk,” he said. “This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…” at which point, a few members of the audience shouted “Yeah,” cutting off the congressman in mid-sentence.

This is the new face of American sadism: the unconcealed burst of joy at the thought that pain is going to be inflicted on someone weak and helpless. Its viciousness, I believe, is symptomatic of the way our society is changing. Everything from the healthcare industry, payday loans, and for-profit prisons to the trading in so-called derivatives, privatization of public education, outsourcing of jobs, war profiteering, and hundreds of other ongoing rackets all have that same predatory quality. It’s as if this were not their own country, but some place they’ve invaded in order to loot its wealth and fleece its population without caring what happens to that population tomorrow. The only interest these profit-seekers have in us is as cheap labor, cannon fodder for wars, and suckers to be parted with our money. If we ever have a police state here, I’ve been thinking, it won’t be because we’ve become fascists overnight, but because rounding up people and locking them up will be seen as just another way to get rich. If the hell that Jonathan Edwards and other Puritan divines described in such gruesome and graphic detail is still up and running, I hope that’s where many of them are headed for.

If those are the new rules, I’ll take “political suicide,” please.  Happily, it’s not usually fatal.

This is your (Long) Weekend Open Thread.  Talk about the above, or anything else you’d like, within broad bounds of decency and decorum.


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.