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Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The young Marx famously wrote, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."  To which I am inclined to respond, "Fine for you to talk, Mr. World-Historical, but what about us poor schlubs whose greatest efforts do not even register on the global needle?"  Day after day, I sit in my apartment yelling at the TV when political commentators say dead stupid things.  When I cannot stand it anymore, I retreat into elaborate fantasies of magical powers with which I redistribute wealth or reverse global warming or put a piece of adhesive tape over Chris Matthews' mouth.

My latest fit of TV-yelling was triggered by some nameless member of a panel of opinionaters on Hardball, Chris Matthews' MSNBC show.  At issue was the phony "scandal" created by some opponents of Planned Parenthood who cooked up photo-shopped videos that purport to reveal Planned Parenthood employees heartlessly bargaining for the body parts of aborted fetuses to be used in medical research.  Carly Fiorina, the failed Hewlett Packard CEO now making a run for the Republican presidential nomination, has made this the centerpiece of her right-wing lunge for the nomination.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," I shouted at my inoffensive TV set, as the idiot on the Hardball panel went on about how terrible it was that a woman in one of the videos should casually eat her lunch and sip wine while talking about fetal body parts.

So, here is what I would have said if, magically, I had been transported to the MSNBC set and had by the exercise of unimaginable powers forced Matthews to shut up for ten minutes.  Since this must all seem not only pathetic but also incomprehensible to my overseas readers, a few words of explanation are called for.

Planned Parenthood is a private non-profit organization, almost a century old now, that provides reproductive health services and associated medical services [cancer screenings, etc.] to women.  It has an annual budget of about one billion dollars, half of which comes, in one form or another, from federal and state governments.  Its important role in providing contraception to women and in performing abortions has made it the target of so-called "pro-life" forces in American politics.  Carly Fiorina is a businesswoman who worked first for the Lucent Corporation and then as CEO of Hewlett Packard, the IT giant.  As head of HP, she initiated the acquisition of Compaq, which turned out to be a disastrous mistake, causing the HP stock to lose half its value and bringing about her firing.

So much for background.  Here is what I would have liked to have the opportunity to say to that brain-dead member of the MSNBC panel ["brain-dead" does not, of course, uniquely identify her, but that is another matter.]

It is often said that in the first year of Medical School, the students must start to think of themselves as doctors, just as the first year of Law School is devoted to getting the students to think like lawyers.  Thinking of oneself as a doctor means, among many other things, adopting an utterly unnatural attitude toward the human body -- an objectifying, de-sensitizing attitude that enables the newly formed doctor to engage in such activities as physical examinations and invasive operations calmly, routinely, scientifically, and without gagging or throwing up.  One of the ways in  which medical schools accomplish this is by setting the student to work, right at the beginning of the very first semester, dissecting a cadaver.  If you can even allow yourself to think about it, there is something profoundly unnatural and unsettling about picking up a scalpel and cutting into a corpse.  Those first cuts are bad enough, even with the rest of your cadaver team there to cheer you on, but imagine what it feels like to dissect a liver, a penis, an eyeball, a brain.

Doctors steel themselves for these experiences by breathing deeply, gritting their teeth, making crude locker room or funeral parlor jokes, and in every way they can denying the appalling reality of what they are doing.  Years later, those who become surgeons routinely cut open living, breathing, bleeding people.  We need them to do this, we want them to do this, because our health and our very lives depend on their ability to do so calmly, deliberately, even casually.  So a surgeon who is up to her elbows in the chest cavity of a patient, blood flowing all around, will chat about the latest episode of NCIS or discuss what she had for dinner the previous night. 

It is a profound mistake, not to say a stupid mistake, to conclude that the surgeon is heartless, or amoral, or insensitive to the humanity of the patient.  This is, after all, a highly skilled woman who is prepared to work for thirty-six hours without rest to save the life of a desperately ill patient.

Which brings me to the woman having lunch while talking about salvaging for medical research the body parts of an aborted fetus.  It is medically extremely valuable to have those body parts available for research.  Countless life-saving medical advances have resulted from such research.  But the process of cutting open a dead fetus to preserve the appropriate organs is, viewed from a normal human perspective, appalling, revolting, unthinkable -- just as appalling, revolting, and unthinkable as it is to perform open heart surgery or to remove a brain tumor.  The only way one can engage in such activities is to grow an emotional carapace that protects you from your ordinary human responses.

So when that woman on the MSNBC panel went on about how horrid it was for a Planned Parenthood employee to sip her wine and eat her lunch while discussing the harvesting of fetal organs, all I could do was shout at the TV set, "Stupid!  Stupid!  Stupid!"

Fat lot of good that did.




Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff,

My comment here is entirely off topic, but I hope you will find it gratifying, nonetheless.

As I read my other books (with titles as apetising as "Macroeconomics" by Dornbusch & Fischer and "Algebra Lineal y algunas de sus aplicaciones" by Golovina; I simply have no stomach to read Robinson's "Economic Philosophy"), I've finally found time to starting reading Moneybags.

Frankly, I feel like I should bang my head against the wall for postponing it for so long. It's a great book: as full of insight as it is entertaining. Many thanks for writing it.

Matt Christopher said...

Like ruling a city-state, I suspect that the people best qualified to be TV pundits would never want the job ... unless you can find a few others to start a video podcast. :-)

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