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Works and Days

The Good—Part III

March 30th, 2009 - 9:18 am

Ok—after those depressing six “bad” and “ugly” trends, here are three things that bring at least some optimism in otherwise trying times. 

The Good

1) Technology. For all the dangers and destruction inherent in access to instant electronic information and communication (cf. the subprime mortgage bundles and computer programs that accelerated  innate human idiocy), there often can be much good in such a radically egalitarian enterprise. Today’s peasant in Guatemala with a cell phone or a stop at an Internet café, has more knowledge of market futures at his hands than had aristocratic grandees of the 1940s.

I used to tote books and magazines on trips to do research and write contemporary commentary. Now? I can confirm in 10 seconds on the Internet that once again Sen. Dodd is not telling the truth or reread the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides in Greek, or learn what Sun Maid paid on free tonnage for raisins in 1982—whether in rural Fresno County or in a dingy hotel in Mexico. In a debate once, an audience member with his laptop in the first row was able to correct the record instantaneously during the question and answer period. In some sense, the many have gained an enormous amount of power, and, for good or evil, the old hierarchies are crumbling (Who cares whether the debater has a MD or law degree if he is stating things that can instantly be proven inaccurate?)

Most of us would be long dead without Westernized/globalized medicine—something we seem to forget in the near hysterical demonization of the US health care system. In 1979 an emergency operation and antibiotics saved me from a severed ureter cut by a staghorn calculus; in 2006 the degree to which Libyans had access to Flagyl, Augmentin and Cipro, and Westernized notions of surgical protocoal, saved my life after an operation for a ruptured appendix. Urocit-K (potassium citrate) alone provided relief from nearly weekly kidney stones.

All of us have similar stories of our own possibly short, unpleasant lives had it not been for brilliantly-trained doctors, courageous nurses, wonder drugs, and high-tech instrumentation. Unfettered reason, free speech, rationalism protected from zealotry and tribalism, and free-market capitalism have given us years of physical comfort and relief that premodern man could only dream of. Thousands of Western-trained doctors, researchers, and scientists daily provide us with breakthroughs that are making our lives far less nasty, solitary, poor, brutish and short.

I won’t deny that modern medicine—especially from my experience with lost family members undergoing failed regimens of chemotherapy—can be insensitive, misleading, and often excruciating painful. But by and large, American medicine has improved the lives of billions on the planet.

We forget how life has been transformed just from the 1960s alone. As a student, I used to drive a beat up car with spare points, plugs, an old alternator and starter replacement in the trunk. The clutch went out frequently—so I ended up at the side of rural highways quite often. In 1969 it was common to see California freeways littered with broken down cars; now it is a rare occurrence. I grew up with a father taking apart our dryer, washer, vacuum cleaner, and refrigerators almost monthly; today, they seem to run on autopilot.

In often insidious ways, technology is making daily life ever easier—and providing a much needed counterpoint to a culture and politics that get worse, as popular civility and wisdom vanish. (Wait! Some of you object: ease of life, affluence and leisure brought on by technology explain the end of the old cherished culture. It is not exactly so simple.)

2) Competent people. There is an entire nation of brilliant hardworking and uniquely gifted people within the United States like none other in the world—of all politics and beliefs. Critics of America fault our crime rate, growing illiteracy, and dismal education system (as I pointed out last time). But much of that pathology arises from America’s ambitious plans to educate, house, and take care of 300 million souls at levels found nowhere else in the world, amid all sorts of endemic poverty, the arrival of nearly 1 million illegal aliens per year (12-20 million already here), and millions more who have arrived legally in the last three decades abjectly poor from Asia, Africa, and South America. We notice our failures to ensure a massive equality of result in a generation, never the magnitude of the undertaking.

The fact is that one out of five Americans—an enormously large hidden nation of, say, some 60 million—is better educated, more innovative and optimistic than anyone else abroad. This meritocracy of the hyper-hard-working and talented—of all races, both genders, of varying ages, and no set religion—by and large, commits very little crime, follow the law, and pay their taxes without cheating. They’re either highly educated or magnificently trained by family and vocational schools in the various trades.

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