Thursday, April 29, 2010

19th Century Medicine

Last month I did research on 19th century medicine. I was reading a diary of a minor historical figure working on the Underground Railroad. Edmund Howe died at the age of 19, probably from malaria, in 1849. Malaria was rampant in America in the 19th century. Although this disease wasn’t indigenous to the continent, it was another little gift brought by European invaders, probably the Spanish. Once it gets into a population, it is spread by mosquitoes. In the first part of the 19th century, medicine was practiced very much as it was for a thousand years in Europe. Diagnosis was based on “humors” or “tensions.” The cure for any ailment was opium and, more often, blood-letting. It’s a wonder that anyone lived. It didn’t help to drain the blood of people who were already weak.

In the 1840’s, medicine was not a well-respected profession. There was little that doctors could do. Surgeons removed broken or septic limbs and some external sores, but they never washed their hands, and there was no anesthesia. Surgeons were prized only for their strength and their speed. The American Medical Association came into being in the late 1840’s. Orthodox physicians wanted to distinguish themselves from non-traditional practitioners. Some doctors even noticed the obvious, namely that blood-letting didn’t help. The A.M.A. conducted modern trials of blood-letting in the 1850’s, and eventually, later in the 19th century, the practice was discontinued.

There was a lot of what we would today call alternative medicine in the 19th century. It’s not clear why some doctors wanted to distinguish themselves from others. Some alternative medicine may have actually been more effective than traditional medicine. In the late 18th century, an American doctor named Thomson developed a system that was eventually named after him: Thomsonian medicine. Thomson told people not to go to doctors, but to cure themselves with the help of plants and herbs. Some Thomsonian medicine helped. Thomson had a system of natural herbs that he told people to take for illness. He said his cures came from watching native people’s use of medicinal plants.

Homeopathy began to be practiced in the 19th century as well. It is still practiced today. The theory is that by giving people a small amount of something, they will build a resistance.

Two other courses of alternative medicine were used by Edmund Howe and others in the 19th century. Howe went to a spa where he took hydrotherapy, or water cure. Patients were given steam baths and cold plunges alternately. Howe was awakened every morning at 4:00 by an attendant who helped him up, and then poured cold water on him. After that, he was wrapped in hot towels, and left to sweat for an hour.

One of the more unusual medical theories was Grahamism. Like homeopathy, some aspects of it are still practiced today. Rev. Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who taught that the way to health was vegetarianism, whole wheat flour, and frequent bathing. It sounds reasonable, but Graham wanted people to be vegetarians because he thought meat inflamed passion. Graham feared that even dairy products would cause people to masturbate, and he taught that masturbation led to insanity. He invented the Graham cracker. Few people who eat them today consider the cracker an anti-masturbatory victual. Americans bathe more frequently than anyone else in the world, another legacy of Reverend Graham. Grahamism fell out of favor in the 1850’s, since Graham himself died relatively young. Vegetarianism, sexual abstinence and frequent baths didn’t guarantee him a long life, as he taught.

In the 1880’s, germs were discovered, almost independently in America, England, and France, with the invention of the microscope. It was much later when viruses were discovered. Antibiotics weren’t discovered till the late 1930’s, although the sulfa drugs became available after 1920. The early sulfa drugs had the side effect of turning people red.

With the discovery of germs, hygiene and sanitation became important to people. By 1900, doctors began wearing gloves before surgery. Ether was discovered, and this put people to sleep--- sometimes permanently. Eventually better anesthetics were developed. Sewers were becoming the norm even in small towns. London was the first Western city to get them, in the 1860’s. Before that, waste flowed down a trench in the middle of the street. Concepts like public health were developed, and this gradually became the task of the state.

Healthcare reform in America is not very progressive, and it’s hard to know what the fuss is over. The new system, when and if it takes effect, offers little cost containment, and isn’t as good as the worst European model. But it’s a start. Considering where we’ve come from in the last century and a half, it’s pretty good.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Republican Gomorrah

At the end of another newsy week, I wonder who will be able to repair their reputation first: Toyota, Ratzinger, or Massey Energy. Of one thing I am sure, none of these criminals will go to jail. If you or I were to murder workers, kill unsuspecting drivers, or abuse children, we’d be in the klink. If we were African American or Latino and did one of those things, we’d be on death row. But as someone once said, the opposite of rich isn’t poor, it’s justice. The rich rarely see too much justice.

Enough of that screed. Last week a friend lent me “Republican Gomorrah,” by Max Blumenthal. It was a great read. Blumenthal is a good writer, and his research is flawless. He documents the infiltration of the Republican party by the religious right. It’s chilling. Like Jane Mayer’s excellent “The Dark Side,” the subject matter is nauseating, but it’s so well-written you can’t put it down. It’s like seeing a car accident—you want to turn your head, but you can’t quite.

“Republican Gomorrah” is published by the Nation. Whether or not you agree with the Nation’s politics---I usually do—their writers and researchers are among the best. Blumenthal weaves primary sources, interviews, and social theory into a terrifying tale with implications for us all. He uses Erich Fromm’s “Escape From Freedom” to explain the behavior of authoritarian types. Fromm maintains that those attracted to fascism, in its many manifestations, display clear sadomasochistic tendencies. Through allegiance to a strong leader such people hope to find a “magic helper” because of their own “inability to stand alone and to fully express [their] own individual potentialities.” Often these sadomasochists have been abused as children.

One of the main villains of the books is James Dobson. Dobson advocates severe corporal punishment of children--- and dogs. Dobson is the creep with the soft sing-song voice I tend to confuse with Pat Robertson. The only way I know to tell them apart is that Dobson most often advocates violence, and has less of a southern twang. The not-very-Reverend Dobson once interviewed the serial killer, Ted Bundy. Bundy was a psychologist and assistant director of the Washington state Republican party, something rarely discussed. Dobson later did an interview with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam Killer. That interview is still for sale on Dobson’s web site. While Dobson advocates the death penalty for most people, he wanted those two serial killers spared because of the born again experience they claimed to have. As Blumenthal notes, few things are more important to a serial killer than publicity, which Dobson gladly gave them. Yet when a female serial killer wouldn’t get born-again, Dobson wanted her fried. For Dobson, as for the religious right in general, saying the magic words about being born again is more important than deeds.

Blumenthal does a great job of detailing the many, many, sexual perverts, both gay and straight, in the Republican party. Typically, it’s the born-again who are into the kinkiest sex. But if they say the magic words, and “repent” all is forgiven. Talk about cheap grace. Blumenthal discusses the right’s strange love of W, and W’s peculiar pathology. Un-recovered addicts and alcoholics are drawn to born again right wing religion. Robert Minor, a U of Kansas scholar of the subject, notes, “The convert maintains the same addictive thinking as before…There’s a similar level of intensity in their dependence upon religion as in their dependence upon the previous addiction.”

“Republican Gomorrah” was published in 2009, and ends, fittingly, with Palin. Palin is a “third Wave Pentecostal,” something I don’t understand. According to Blumenthal, this cult maintains that Eve had sex with the serpent, and that’s how Cain was born. Whatever. Blumenthal couldn’t foresee Palin quitting her job and becoming a media whore. He certainly saw the hateful rhetoric she bandied carelessly about. I understand people who don’t like to discuss her or the drug addled gas bag or crazy Glen. But in all 20th century genocide, hate talk on the radio and television has condoned violence and cruelty. As Daniel Goldhagen notes, whether it’s in Rwanda, Guatemala, Bosnia or Nazi Germany, hate talk in the media has been with the murderers every step of the way. That’s something we all need to be aware of. Blumenthal has done the patriotic thing by documenting the rise of the religious right in the Republican party. America, be very careful.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should We Waterboard All Christians?

Yesterday I got an e-mail FW from a Republican friend of mine. Yes, I do have Republican friends. I even have a few Republican relatives. Normally they know better than to send me their political schlock, but the flesh is weak, and it’s sometimes tempting to do what is unwise. The only way I know to maintain cordial relations with Republicans is to never, ever, discuss politics. It doesn’t end well. But he was weak, and in a moment of weakness, I bothered to reply. Oh, it was the same nonsense we’ve been hearing, nothing new. Obama is taking away our rights, he hates Christians, etc. For eight years I was angry at my government, it is comforting to see the shoe on the other foot. The right wing is having conniptions. Obama is clever: even though he is Kenyan, he managed to place a birth announcement in the Honolulu newspaper. That was good planning. And he’s a sly one: all those years he went to a Christian church, even though he was secretly Muslim. Oh, he’s a cagey one, that Barack HUSSEIN Obama. Reverend Wright was a Muslim imam.

At this sacred time of year, I have a few thoughts on Christianity. I’m not referring to Easter or Passover, the first of April is a holy day in my book, and so, considering Christians are in the news, I have an idea. What with the Hutaree Christian militia, and the crimes of the Vatican, I think the time has come to employ the wisdom of the Bush administration. In Bushworld, if there are a few extremists, it means the whole lot is guilty. A few nutty Muslims attacked the World Trade Center, so we invaded two Muslim countries, one of which had nothing to do with the hijackers. It’s time for us to waterboard all Christians. What with the pedophiles and the militia, all Christians are guilty, and I’m sure they are conspiring. John Yoo told us that water torture isn’t torture, so there’s no problem with waterboarding people. Never mind that our government prosecuted Japanese soldiers who used water torture on us. When we do it, it’s OK. And didn’t Rummy say waterboarding was just a little dunking? Christians already baptize, is water torture so very different? Maybe we can use the baptismal fonts in churches and convert them to waterboarding facilities.

I confess, I have ties with the Presbyterian church, even though it’s a love/hate relationship. I will have to stop tithing, since churches are terrorist organizations, right? I prefer not to be waterboarded, but anything for my country. Probably, like a lot of people, I will end up confessing to all kinds of things, especially if I am waterboarded 150 times. I am no doubt guilty. The important thing to remember is that the Hutarees and Bishop Ratzinger aren’t just a few bad apples. If one is guilty, then all are. It’s the prime principle of Bush world. And at a time like this, we need W’s wisdom. Bishop Ratzinger has a lot to answer for, in my humble opinion. Maybe it’s not a good idea to keep promoting someone who was a member of a Hitler youth group. When our soldiers invade the Vatican, there may be some looting. There was when we invaded Iraq. But when the Iraq national museum was vandalized, and the history of Western civilization and the earliest forms of writing were lost, Rumsfeld said that when people are free, they sometimes do bad things. That Rummy. Such a way with words. Like when he told the soldier you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.

I hope no one thinks this is an extreme reaction, to hold all Christians guilty for the crimes of a few. Rove told us that we are no longer living in the reality based world. If my suggestion to waterboard all Christians seems surreal, well, just go with the flow---- so to say. The Hutaree are dangerous, and that can only mean that all Christians are dangerous. There are criminal priests, so all clergy are criminal, right? As Rude Pundit suggests, if the child abuse scandal had occurred in the Muslim community, we would invade every single Muslim country and burn all the mosques in America.

There’s a poetic circularity in taking waterboarding back to the Vatican. They are the ones who perfected water torture for the Inquisition. Bush taught us that we don’t need trials: thankfully he dispensed with Habeas Corpus. Round’em up now, charge and try ‘em later. It’s a good thing we didn’t close Guantanamo. It won’t be large enough to hold all the guilty Christians, but we have a lot of prisons here. Maybe we can convert some of the tax payer funded ball parks to detention camps.

I deplore sarcasm and humor of any kind. I hope no one thinks I'm writing this in jest. This will be a good time for me to return to my Jewish roots. We know that Jews have never committed any crimes, and anyway, they’ve been punished enough.