So Who Asked You?

Besides our Chaos President, does anyone think Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA, is qualified to judge the scientific data, and to reject the opinions of the vast majority of climatologists?  Last week he said that carbon emissions are not a primary cause of global warming, despite much evidence to the contrary.  How did he reach that conclusion?  He is an administrator, not a scientist.  He is a lawyer who was Attorney General of Oklahoma, and as such, spent years defending the interests of oil companies and businesses with the potential to increase carbon pollution.  Now he plans to roll back limits on vehicle tailpipe emissions, which will certainly please the auto industry while worsening the air that we breathe.  The extent to which CO2 and other heat-trapping products of fossil fuel consumption (e.g. by power companies, car/truck manufacturers, and other human activities) contribute to climate change is determined by scientific research, not by the financial interests of those companies.  Or so one would think.

Imagine if a lawyer from a tobacco-producing southern state who has spent his career promoting the tobacco industry suddenly became the Secretary of Health and Human Services.  This administrator, who has no knowledge of epidemiology and public health, then declares that the mountain of evidence linking cigarette smoke to cancer is insufficient, unconvincing, and invalid.  Henceforth warning labels would be removed, age limits on cigarette purchases rolled back, smoking in restaurants and public spaces allowed.  Imagine the howls of protest and accusations of corruption that would ensue!

Career researchers and consultants for the EPA must feel a bit like Commander Peter Annenkov, who, in this excerpt, has just been issued orders by a civilian on board his ship, in my sci-fi novel Fourth World:

There were a dozen men in plain black uniforms, some standing at attention while others faced control panels.  An irate-looking blond man with a sharp face and small mustache, dressed in a gray uniform with red stars on his shoulders, sat in a dominant position raised two steps above the surrounding modules.  This was certainly a warship, and Benn was looking at it through another person’s eyes.

“Carefully, now, Comrade Peter.  Use a slow approach,” Benn heard himself saying in a tone usually reserved for small children.  The ship’s commander, the blond man named Peter (last name Annenkov, gleaned from the mind Benn was occupying) glared at Benn- or rather at the speaker- making no effort to disguise his simmering anger.  He was master of one of the fastest and deadliest ships serving the PWE, and here was a mere civilian bureaucrat, pulling back on the reins of his charger, urging a slow approach?  This corrupt health official, this creature of the pharmaceutical industry!  Giving orders in front of Peter’s crew.  Intruder!  Pirate!  With each of these thoughts, Peter’s red aura issued a small eruption, like a solar flare.




A Day Without Women

It’s International Women’s Day, and across the US, there will be numerous Day Without a Woman protests and strikes, bringing attention to violence against women, pay inequality, hostile work environments and other issues.  As with the Women’s Marches in January, focus will be important in getting the message across, as opposed to stretching the umbrella to cover too many causes (see my earlier post on this blog, Hope Marches On).  Of course life is much more complicated now than when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata:  the women in that play “only” demanded the end of the Peloponnesian War, but a battle of the sexes predictably ensued.  I think men nowadays are not only more supportive, they are active participants in the protest.

It’s a theme that occasionally inspires literature.  On the very first page of the sequel to Fourth World, Dr. Carla Patel, Director of the Dept. of Wellness, suddenly goes missing, and all hell breaks loose.  Let’s hope today’s demonstrations are even more disruptive.


Bringing True Art to Medicine

Doctors shouldn’t forget to tap their inner artist with each patient encounter- it does help!  Everyone knows that medicine is an art as well as a science:  that speaks to the unexplained diagnostic insights, or sudden hunches based on gestalt, that we hope will supplement the objective data, as well as the individual tailoring of approaches to treatment.  But what about traditional arts, in the form of painting, sculpture, music and literature?

The most recent issue of the alumni magazine Yale Medicine addresses this aspect of the medical school, including the Program for Humanities in Medicine (begun in 1983, alas, two years after I graduated), the med school symphony and theater group, writing programs for students and medicine residents, literary salons, and visual arts at Yale.  The richness that humanities bring to the lives of med students enriches, in turn, those doctors’ encounters with their future patients.  That is, if they don’t forget to tap their inner artist, when faced with busy schedules and sometimes difficult personalities.

In Fourth World of 2196, Benn Marr fights a feeling of being irrelevant, as he prepares for medical school.  Here’s an excerpt:

The medical field essentially consisted of tailoring and applying these peptides in clinical situations.  Diagnostics had long ago been relegated to machines, which scanned, analyzed, and diagnosed the patient.  They even prescribed the appropriate therapeutic plan.  Frankly, the production of theragenomic peptides could also easily have been taken over by- and, in fact, seemed particularly suited to- the medical computers.  What remained were the sensitive tasks- acknowledged haltingly by the most advanced teaching hospitals- of deciphering patients’ wishes and guiding them through the pitfalls of treatment.

“Wishes” meant the patients’ attitudes toward both disease and treatment, resulting from a global summation of their personalities, prejudices, neuroses, education, religious beliefs, family dynamics, and a host of other factors not amenable to analysis by computers.  After all, physicians had to balance the purely technical or algorithm-driven approach with personalization of care.  Didn’t they?  Wasn’t the admirable desire to do something for the patient best complemented by a healthy skepticism and sensitivity to the patient’s wishes?  In Benn’s application essay, “The Vanishing Role of Humans in Medical Practice,” he had pointed out that technology did not supply social awareness, creativity, or idealism.  Wasn’t the physician also a humanist? he had asked.  A historian, digging out, interpreting and telling individual stories?

The Day After Mardi Gras

The President’s address to a joint session of Congress last night was like a parade of floats on Main Street America:  the Desperate Infrastructure Float, the Tax Code Float (diverted to Wall Street), the spectacle of the Imploding Obamacare Disaster, the gigantic Defense Budget carried on the shoulders of foreign aid workers and the Environmental Protection Agency, social safety networks, National Endowment for the Arts, etc.  Although appearing more “presidential” as he stuck to the teleprompter speech, the President remains very much a showman.  Misleading statements, statistics taken out of context, and claims of credit for processes begun in the previous Administration were no different from his campaign speeches, adding further confusion to the lack of details:  how would he pay for the floats (besides the vague “growing economy”), who exactly would benefit the most, how much pollution to our air and water would he tolerate, what immediate steps would improve the ongoing immigrant crisis?  And how would he repair the rift with the media and the First Amendment?  Fat Tuesday is over, and now the hangover begins.

Here’s a preview of the sequel to Fourth World (the second in a trilogy), which I have tentatively called Fourth World Nation, as the Mars colonies prepare to rebel against the world government.  Leader Chou Xia-Yu addresses the masses, on the 101st anniversary of the Pan-World Electorate:

To Leader Chou, it wasn’t so much the sheer numbers, staggering though they might be, but the quality of the show that mattered.  If he was slightly anxious, it had to do with the powerful symbolism embedded in every minute detail of the Festival:  the synchrony of waving flags and banners, the spotless neighborhoods on display (even gray earthen walls in the few remaining Hutong Exhibits had somehow been polished to a shine), the flawless complexions of happy, uplifted faces magnified two-thousand-fold on giant screens to his right and left.  Yes, billions were watching closely for any sign of disharmony or failure of leadership, any technological glitch or stumble.  A child throwing a tantrum on-screen, perhaps.  Or an outbreak of food poisoning.  Censors couldn’t possibly suppress every human interest story or news item, which would instantaneously feed the so-called free press and the voracious social media.  More  antisocial than social media, the way the tiniest bit of trivia would be blown out of all reasonable proportion, noted Leader Chou, who thought of the media collectively as a great shrieking voice.  And what if some rebel’s explosive were set off in the middle of Tienanmen Square today?  What would the great shrieking voice make of that?

Show Me Your Papers, Old Man

With the recent Homeland Security memos broadening deportation priorities to include being charged with a crimeeven a minor infraction, even without being convicted of a crime, and even without due process– it is up to the individual ICE agent to use his or her judgment as to whether to arrest (hello again, racial profiling) and immediately deport a person who may pose some undefined threat to our supposedly embattled country.  That person may leave for work in the morning and never come home again.  The widespread fear and anxiety among individuals and families over these developments are probably worse than after Trump’s first executive order on immigration.

And he wants to hire 15,000 new agents to carry out his orders:  is this what he meant by job creation?  Maybe issue them brown-shirt uniforms, to create more jobs in the garment industry?

Of course we haven’t yet reached the red line, the Anne Frank level, but the one word that comes to mind is Sanctuary.  Cities like San Francisco and New York have declared themselves sanctuary cities, refusing- at the risk of losing federal funds- to allow their police departments to help ICE round up undocumented immigrants.  The stated goal is to maintain a fragile trust relationship with the immigrant community, which makes sense:  but what about really providing sanctuary, when the raids begin, when ICE agents swarm into factories, farms, restaurants, hotels and construction sites?  How to confront these agents in a nonviolent manner?  How to avoid sheltering real criminals, along with the innocent?

At the very least, discussions should begin in earnest; there are logistical problems and serious risks involved.  Who can provide physical shelter:  churches and synagogues (regrettably, mosques may want to remain circumspect here)?  Universities?  Community centers?  When I was a rheumatology fellow at the University of Southern California, most of our patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma were Hispanic, and no-one paid any attention at all to their immigration status.  Should hospitals provide care as a form of sanctuary, perhaps funded by philanthropies?  Can irreversible damage be held off until, one day, the pendulum swings back and there is finally a reckoning?

We should get involved.  March in protest.  Write congressmen or newspapers.  Express outrage at the lack of compassion, the decline in our society.  But we should also think about providing sanctuary for vulnerable people, with real faces, facing real fear of deportation.


Beisbol for the People

The World Baseball Classic (#4) is not far away, and the headline in today’s paper referring to the “Fourth World Baseball Classic” caught my eye.  Buster Posey will be a star in WBC#4, but in my sci-fi novel Fourth World, Benn Marr is the main feature:  you remember, he’s the Hydra Giants shortstop who helped defeat the Meteor Dodgers in the Tharsis league championship game with an amazing 6-4-6-3 double play!  There’s a surprising amount of baseball in Fourth World, which I started writing when my son was playing in Little League (see my earlier post, “How True is Fiction?”).

Here’s an excerpt from a New York Yanquis playoff game Benn attends with his med school friends from New Haven:

After the Great War of Unification, the stadium and team had passed from the ownership of despised capitalist exploiters into the hands of El Mercado, a Mexican District conglomerate.  And the new owners had promptly renamed the team, much to the delight of New York Metropol’s dominant ethnic group, and to the resentment of everyone else.  The “House that Ruth Built” became “Casa al Mercado”.  More universally well-received in New York was the Yanquis’ continued domination of the World Series, a contest more aptly named in recent times:  a round-robin tournament in which teams from all over the world competed for the championship.  The team closest to the Yanquis, in terms of their daunting winning record year after year, their image of invincibility, was the Caribbean District Fidels.  Although this was only a first-round playoff game in which the two rival teams, like wolves circling warily before a fight, would each test the other’s skills, the tension in the air was as heady and dense as the aromatic smoke billowing upwards from dozens of hot dog stands into the hazy blue October sky.

The number of visits that Sool had paid to the nearest of these stands was all the more remarkable because the game had only reached the bottom of the fourth inning.  The Yanquis had men on first and third, with two outs, and their cleanup hitter, Max Quintero, was at bat.  Benn asked, “Hey Program.  What’s the count?”

“One ball, two strikes,” replied the program in a hearty male voice.  The pitcher, who had “great stuff,” according to the program, nodded to his catcher, then took a quick look at first base.  From the stretch, he threw a breaking ball which Benn’s program later said “hung just a mite too long over the plate.”  CRACK!  The sound of the ball embarking on its towering journey out of Yanqui Stadium sent Benn instinctively to his feet, as though he might sprint to the outfield and attempt a leaping catch at the wall.  A program somewhere in the next row down excitedly announced, “He hits it hard… he hits it deep… it is outta here!  Adios Pelota!”

(With a nod to Kruk, Kuip and JM).

You Shall Be Overcome

Just got back from Washington DC, where the mood among friends and family is decidedly gloomy these days.  The cold wind blowing past the White House, through the Mall and up to the Capitol Building seemed more like a metaphor than a weather phenomenon.

We were on our way to the National Musem of African-American History and Culture, which turned out to be truly extraordinary.  The average time spent there is apparently two hours, but in that span we were unable to view all of the History portion below ground, let alone the Culture section in the floors above.  The history of slavery in America is worth exploring, no matter how much you think you already know about it:  the displays were eye-opening, from a human, moral/spiritual and economic perspective.  It goes without saying that colonialism’s exploitations left deep scars in the Middle East, Asia, South America and Africa, where regional conflicts persist in a post-colonial world.  And all the European nations with empires and colonies participated in slavery, which might be seen as a sort of imported colonialism, where the exploited masses were forcibly removed from their home countries.

You’ve probably heard this benighted argument:  slavery in America ended 150 years ago, so how can the problems faced by African-Americans today still be blamed on slavery?  Just move on, get over it, right?  Wow.  Of course slavery’s effects didn’t end with emancipation:  Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, economic discrimination and the myriad forms of racism did not magically go away in 1865.  For example, laws made it easier to arrest and imprison blacks than whites in the South, and the prisoners could be leased as labor, the profits going to the state.  That sounds like slavery didn’t vanish at all!  The Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education, the Selma marches (in which my personal hero, William Sloane Coffin, participated), the Civil Rights movement, Black Panthers and so much else, all appeared side-by-side, giving me a brand-new perspective on current events, for example, Black Lives Matter.  The glib response, “All lives matter,” seems all the more hollow and callous in this context.

Then seeing it through the eyes of so many African-Americans (schoolchildren as well as the elderly who may well have marched with Martin Luther King) in the museum made this history more real and more powerful than all my previous reading could ever do.

In my novel Fourth World, and especially in the sequel (almost finished!), colonialism is harsh and cruel.  But this is real:  don’t miss this museum!