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Step 28: Our Malady (Lessons in Liberty)

Health is tied to freedom, and sickness opens the path for authoritarianism.

One of my favorite authors, Timothy Snyder, wrote “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a hospital diary.” The beginning links health to freedom, and the loss of health presages a loss of security that opens a path for a politics of pain and tyranny.

“We are ill in a way that costs us our freedom, and unfree in a way that costs us our health.” 

Timothy Snyder

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Timothy Snyder
Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary [2020] [link]

Read Along

If you wish to read along with us for STEP 29, here are the two texts we are covering.

William James, Pragmatism [link]

William James, Pluralistic Universe [link]

PART I :
Rage

Snyder brings up feeling “rage” … lonely rage while lying in a hospital bed. Before COVID hit, he was in 3 hospitals and each one misdiagnosed him, or flat out ignored his desperate efforts to show them paperwork for previous hospital visits.

A bit about Snyder:  Snyder is a historian at Yale specializing in Russia, Germany, and Eastern Europe, and he has a brilliant way of spotting the patterns that lead to authoritarian, facist movements, and breaking them down into clear lessons. 

A book you should buy right now is “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century.” My intro to him was “The Road to Unfreedom.”  He shows how the anti-communist, nationalist, fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyn set up a playbook for how to take over the government and disassociate the populace from “truth” and relieve them of their freedoms. It is what Trump tried to do in America.

“Our politics are too much about the curse of pain and too little about the blessings of liberty.” 

Timothy Snyder

Snyder predicted the Trump coup attempt in October. How? He has studied this stuff and the signs were there. But he asserts it isn’t that history repeats itself, because that sounds like a “politics of inevitability” and we know people can change, but patterns emerge, and if we see them they can be counteracted.

Snyder talks of the motivating quality of rage, and he makes this insightful point: RAGE, while allowing you to see yourself and to motivate you, should not lead you, but as Aristotle says, “one should only take it to be a comrade in arms.”

Health, to be healthy, is in many ways a matter of being together. Moving from the “solidarity” of friends and family, back into “solitude”… but from that solidarity, you can return to a solitude of tranquility. From here he moved from “rage” into “empathy.”

PART II
HEALTHCARE as a HUMAN RIGHT

“The virus is not human, but a measure of humanity.”

The COVID pandemic…  Snyder says it was “dealing out pain and death rather than security and health” and it granted “profit for a few rather than prosperity for many.” What is alarming is that smaller, poorer countries handled the pandemic better than us.

We, the USofA, repeatedly fail in our “measure of humanity”.  Consider our other problems:  opioid deaths, prisons, suicides, newborn deaths, and now mass graves for the elderly. Once again, other smaller, poorer countries do better than us. 

Here, in the “land of the free” we are increasingly unable to pursue our values or desires. While our government, along with commercial medicine and insurance, tout “freedom” and “choice” what we find is that our choice is very limited, and the costs exorbitant. 

Snyder warns, this is the path where Democracy becomes oligarchy. 

“When money becomes the only goal, values disappear.” 

There is a condition that has been created, where a President can lie about a virus and because we are isolated (we have outsourced our news to major, distant networks) and have nowhere to turn (no local news or doctors we can trust), we are confused when presented with lies from the highest positions acting out of self-interest. Without access to truth, or at least consistent facts, we become powerless, not knowing how to react or to whom we can rely. In our isolated, vulnerable state, we are also unfree. 

If we look at the history of tyrants and unfreedom, we see that RIGHTS are dismissed from citizens and hoarded for the ruling class. Snyder says, To maintain a Right, it must be FORCED upon the ruling class to validate it. 

The slide into unfreedom starts with a lack of truth. And, suddenly, the professed truth of “all men are created equal” is not legitimate, and we look for the real values that drive change: money and prestige. Knowing our lives may depend on status and wealth, because preferential treatment is the only way to get good care, this leads us to feel anxious and disenfranchised, precarious, and of course, it makes racism very dangerous.

This has turned health (and health care) in our country a privilege

PART III
The SYSTEM

“We pay a huge premium for the privilege of dying younger.” 

While Snyder points out several flaws of doctors and nurses, he doesn’t necessarily blame them. They are caught in a system, a machine of protocols getting between the patient and the doctor. This is because health care is competitive.

The doctors and nurses seem to hate the logic of the corporate system too, but to push back, just like in any corporate job, is to risk your own survival.  It is an unfortunate system of employees caring, while getting over worked and gagged by red tape. 

Henri Bergeson came up with the notion of “the mechanical encrusted up on the living” to explain humor or laughter, but I would also apply it at dark scales to rage: To no longer be recognized as human, to be reduced to a cog, is the darkest humor: it is beyond tragedy.

The solution?
Snyder offers anecdotes of Austrian healthcare, where doctors are attentive and holistic, and probably too chatty and prying, because they are treating a person as much as a symptom. To return to smaller systems of doctors and caretakers, where it is a calling instead of a churning bureaucracy hamstringing medical workers from exercising their own judgment… it would provide relief for both doctors and patients. 

PART IV:
Politics and Society

Snyder brings up that America, after WWII, helped Japan and Germany establish Health as a protected Right… and now their citizens are healthy than ours.

In America, we seem to have a death wish. As a culture We work through the pain, we deny solidarity in order to be a “self-made man” who “stands on his own 2 feet.” To admit Weakness somehow makes you lesser, which leads to a silent epidemic of opioid addiction. 

Opioids cloud our mind, not letting us properly connect w others, isolating us and reducing our empathy. This manifests politically: the best predictor for Trump votes comes from the degree to which the community is wracked by opioid abuse. Paired with Sandel’s stats on the undereducated voting for trump, we find Trump garnered “votes of desperation” easily relatable to “deaths of despair.” 

Snyder speaks of the small town farmers, and the demolishing of the American dream, saying “The welfare state, meant to compliment the solitude of ambition with the solidarity of support, has been taken apart.”

“The downward spiral from pain to desperation, and from pride to resentment, is something politicians like Mr. Trump understand and accelerate.” 

Timothy Snyder

When we are sick, undereducated, unemployed… we don’t see a future, and “in the land of opportunity” where all you have to do is “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”… it is hard to see how you fit in society or are valued at all. From this dark place along comes a politician peddling pain and feeding your rage. This politician extends a hand of faux-solidarity: “you are one of us, hate with us, break with us, your pain is useful.” 

And this works on the right and left. 

To combat it, we need the stability of health, so that people know they can make decisions from virtues beyond rage, fear, hopelessness, and survival. And we must push for truth in all things. 

“Since the truth sets you free, the people who oppress you resist the truth.”

Timothy Snyder

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If you enjoyed the content, please help offset the costs of production.

REFERENCES / RESOURCES

NPR: The Anatomy of Autocracy: Timothy Snyder [link]

Timothy Snyder (website) [link]

Timothy Snyder: “Our Malady” [link]

Timothy Snyder, “On tyranny” [link]

Timothy Snyder, “The Road to Unfreedom” [link]

Peter Sloterdjik “Rage and Time” [link]

Billionaire Wealth [link]

News source bias

MOVIES

Medical Police [link]

300 (Sparta) [link]

MUSIC

Radiohead “Fitter Happier” from OK Computer



By Ryder Richards

Ryder is an artist based in Texas who happens to do other things, like reading, writing, and woodworking.

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