The Culture of Disease

August 6th, 2003

[Harvey] Fierstein’s poignant OPED column, (“The Culture of Disease“), is not just a compelling story about one segment of society being railroaded into the acceptance of serious illness and death as their “birthright”. This graphic portrait paints a larger societal picture in which Americans have come to accept chronic illness and pain as our heritage.

We shudder to recall the black death, which claimed a quarter of Europe’s population. Yet we ignore the statistics of the Census Bureau which tell us that one-fifth of American adults (16-64 years of age) suffer chronic illness/disability–a statistic which does not include the enormous numbers of institutionalized adults, disabled children, imilitary personnel and the elderly infirm. These additions raise that statistic to astronomical proportions for a “modern” society. The suffering of the multitudes is no longer heralded by a smell of smoke, the squealing of rats and cries to “Bring out your dead.” Instead, this photo’s caption is written on tickertape stemming from Wall Street’s acknowledgement of health care as our number growth industry.

We are simply not that weak a species and this explosion of cancers, autoimmune diseases, cardiac and respiratory ailments, chronic fatigue, allergies and central nervous system degeneration (e.g. Alzheimers) is recent in our history and not attributable to living longer. We simply live longer with our illnesses. Case after case of poisoned towns (e.g. Anniston, Love Canal, Woburn) indicate our race to make Forest Lawn our number one growth industry.

The reason for this is a decades-long, illicit affair between industry and government. Pharmaceutical companies provide the ads needed to whitewash the reputation of that union’s bastard child – preventable disease and disability. Numerous administrations told us we possessed a free market system which needs no regulation since capitalism is self-regulating: If the product is no good, no one will buy it.

This mistaken view of capitalism as practices in this country has actually destroyed our health and, subsequently, the economy. We turn a blind eye to the fact that nearly a third of our work force will experience disability PRIOR to reaching retirement age and yet still expect the GNP to recover. We also returned the spiritual outlook of a modern nation to a feudal acceptance of suffering as either a normal state of being or a by-product of a weak mind/soul which cannot purge itself of self-destructive tendencies. Stress must be the author of all ills.

Industries band together to lobby for the right to keep toxic ingredients off product labels under the guise of “trade secrets”. We are not allowed to know what is in our fragrances (e.g. toluene), pesticides (e.g. inert ingredients often more toxic than the active ones), foods (e.g. fish DNA in our tomatoes introduced by means of a viral carrier organism), building materials (e.g. formaldehyde in our wood products), fertilizer (e.g. containing a large percentage of industrial waste products permitted by law) and so forth. Industry refrains from competing to make the best product possible, opting instead for reducing competition by using similar quality of formulation and making up losses through government tax breaks, creative bookkeeping and slashing benefits for workers.

Conventional farming only continues by virtue of subsidies given the expenses of GMO production costs in patented seeds and expensive chemicals – not because “modern” farming is economical. Attempts to educate the consumer and produce unadulterated food yields harassment by the FDA and law suits by corporate giants. One must not advertise foods as being free of GMOs lest one suggest to the consumer that GMOs might be undesirable. Truth in labelling has become an actionable offense in our economy and the US seeks redress for this criminal truthfulness by the WTO in international arenas when Europe bans or labels their US imports to reflect their higher standards.

The EPA warns us that indoor air quality is now our worst enemy with 2 to 5 times the concentration of contaminants than outdoor air supplies. The pollutants are brought into our homes by ignorant consumers who assume the EPA would not let sources of these contaminants remain on the market to be brought into our homes. Denial becomes a way of life.

Genuine capitalism requires variety and true competition to create a “better mousetrap”. Then consumer choice supports the superior industries who can expand etc.. Capitalism was not intended to support a huge trough from which all manufacturers can feed. Happy and heathy consumers earning a decent wage are required to support the best industries in a “trickle up” model of economics. This country is losing its consumer base to poverty, illness and ignorance. A dwindling tax base will not cover the costs of medical benefits for those who cannot work and require housing vouchers, food stamps etc.

Social security/medicare was designed as a cushion for the elderly with inadequate means for a lengthy retirement and to sustain the disabled who lacked sufficient time to build up a retirement nest egg. It was not meant to sustain a society where a third of us cannot produce and another third has lowered productivity due to failing health on their way to disability or retirement. The remaining third is left to bear the burden of a country betrayed by empty promises of their right to pursue life, liberty and happiness while their pension funds are raided by CEOs who pay no taxes. Even Ayn Rand would be nauseated by what passes for a “free” market under this system.

What is done to one is done to all in the final analysis, a fact well known to the founding fathers. It is time to include the Bill of Rights in our litmus tests of legal issues to insure that disease and poisoning are recognized as impediments to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Barbara Rubin

Categories: NY Times

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