A Country Divided, A Country Addicted

America is, and has always been fueled by human sacrifice

This week, we had more homicidal violence, both by police upon unarmed black men, and upon unarmed protesters by a violent murderer who dreamed of joining, them (the police) one day. As did Ed Kemper and Ted Bundy, which is a damning indictment of an organization. It’s like discovering that Hitler wanted to be a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but was turned away. I mean, good for them, but, if I were a member of that religion, I’d want to examine what made it so attractive to a genocidal maniac. Similarly, we need to hit the pause button on a profession that gets sidearms and ask why it’s so attractive to people who like to kill people.

In this particular case, America needs to understand that we’ve always had an unhealthy — even fatal — obsession with cops that leads to death. But, more to the point; the police, in America, represent what the KGB did in the USSR, what the French Foreign Legion did in Algeria, and what the Gestapo did in th Third Reich — namely, the state’s lethal monopoly on lethal force, and its readiness to unleash that force upon anyone who stands in the way of the state’s sponsors.

All of this takes place as a pandemic is killing hundreds — if not thousands — of Americans a day, two hurricanes are barreling down upon Texas and Louisiana, the Western US is on fire — literally so — the economy is still in decline, and we haven’t gone a full week without police murdering someone. Meanwhile, the RNC chugs along with gleeful disregard to the duties incumbent upon a governing party, with the theme “Land of Heroes.” This upset me probably as much as it upsets you, reader, until I realized; we are a nation founded upon bloodshed, built on a macabre foundation of human bones, and mortared together with flesh and blood. Yes, all of that is outlandish and exaggerated, but, again, in times of extremes, normal language is almost profane and normalizing the situation serves only to exacerbate it.

To paraphrase the travel writer Chuck Thompson, “Part of the appeal of international travel is that other governments treat their citizens as adults.” Sorry, Chuck, we sort-of elected a man whose only qualification for office was he was sort-of regionally famous and almost-rich. And that wasn’t just a one-off in 1980, it happened again in 2016. Of course our government doesn’t treat its citizenry like adults; we don’t behave like adults. Maybe my childhood didn’t prepare me for the harsh realities of life, but I’m fairly certain that actual grown-ups don’t drive 30 miles to shoot unarmed people, as the Kenosha Killer, Kyle Rittenhouse, did (to be fair, he’s only 17, and I’m sure that year before 18 would’ve been a real maturation point that would have scrubbed the sociopath of his murderous tendencies and readied him for the ballot box). Real grown-ups are mostly self-regulating, and don’t need a caste of professional vice-principals to enforce the dress code, which is mostly what the police in America do. Real grown-ups don’t pretend that everything is fine in their neighborhood just because their own house isn’t on fire at this moment. Real grown-ups are capable of abstract empathy, and maybe wearing a damned mask during day-light hours.

Again, this would be upsetting, until you remember that America was a golden land of opportunity and wealth for all with a dream, until white people found it and fucked up the party, which actually happened once or twice before white people with smallpox found the country (sorry to everyone else on the planet and any lost Martian tribes; the minute white folks show up, the game’s over). The very simple story of humanity, removing the chafe and extraneous details is; one person murders or incapacitates another person, then steals their stuff. The reason why I’m focusing on this “premeditated murder and robbery” angle is because we’ve ignored it for most of recorded human history and focused on how amazing we are. Innocence — or even the self-perception of it — is a luxury that we can not afford in the face of our challenges. We need to admit that we’re living on stolen land, in an economic system based on wage theft, property theft, gambling, and de facto slavery, and our petty ambitions and cruelties are quickly poisoning the planet and ourselves. The first step in any sobriety program is admitting to a problem, and we have an existential threat facing us: ourselves, and our addiction to a violent, dangerous status quo. One of the problems I noticed on Planet Cancer, early on, is that most of the isolation there is largely artificial and self-imposed. I was extraordinarily lucky in that my educational background, slot in a clinical trial, and phenomenally skilled oncologists meant that my medical team saw me, heard what I said, and took it all seriously. I’ve since learned that’s not a common thread on Planet Cancer, even though it should be. Researchers disregard clinicians who disregard patients who disregard nurses and PAs. The minute two or more of those groups put down the paperwork and actually listen to one another, the system literally starts breaking down (most clinicians average less than 20 minutes per patient; I can’t even break my medical history into anything less than 30 minutes).

I’m not going to go full kumbaya and suggest that all the horror the world faces could be solved by active listening and empathy; but we could start there. We’ve tried violence, negligence, repression, and brutality for, let me check… tens of thousands of years (probably much longer, but the records for anything prior to the late Pleistocene are nigh-nonexistent). If more police, more law and order, more naked greed and exploitation, and more guns worked, we would not face the crises we currently face. Remember, violence is, ultimately, a tool to force an opponent to submit to your will (Dan Carlin originally made that point, but he was paraphrasing someone else). The state has always been a tool of the powerful to enrich themselves and diminish everyone else’s voice, and their ability to use violence to those ends has always worked. Right up until it doesn’t; and that seems to be the hinge point in history that we’re facing, that violence is now obsolete. The one benefit of a status quo wherein people are dying drowning in their fluids or starving to death, or being forced out of their homes is that the fear of death is significantly lessened. Americans are learning about our own mortality, nationally, and, as I’ve seen in successful cancer survivors, there’s a weird flip that comes with the knowledge of mortality, you’re no longer quite as terrified as death. Don’t get me wrong, everyone you know, on Planet Cancer or on planet Earth, isn’t eager to join the ranks of the millions who came before us, but you do want to make those final months matter.

America the beautiful is terminal and unsustainable. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, but the country we all know is on life-support, and it’s time to start treating our country with the same care every terminal patient with the ability to do so crafts their last months; with patience, kindness, and unflappable calmness. And, a little tip from planet cancer; if we play our cards as if our existence depended upon it, we might get a little more time.

To all of my white/majority friends, this means acknowledging that, while you, personally, may not own slaves or have massacred any members of the Cree Nation, you live on stolen land and still benefit from those first acts of violence. I know it may not seem that way, you probably have worked for everything you have, but, take it from someone who lost a big chunk of that privilege, you have it. Ignorance of privilege is not a glitch, it’s a feature. If you talk to BIPOC or LGBTQ+ folk or any other 21st century lepers, you’ll find that their experience in America is drastically different than your own. Please, just listen without becoming defensive, angry, or judgmental and just pretend it’s your children’s life on the line, because, whether you know it or not, those are now the stakes you, and everyone in the country, are playing for.

To all of my minority friends, understand that true power is only held by those with money. You’re going to lose and continue to lose until you repeatedly demonstrate your ability to hurt the bottom line. Please, continue to protest, disrupt the economic system, and generally make life as unbearable for the investor caste as they’ve made society in general for you. And then continue to be disruptive. As in apartheid South Africa, the goal should not be a seat at the bargaining table, it should be the power to walk out of negotiations at any minute, for any reason, and effectively halt the country. Don’t settle for a seat at the table, bring the vast majority of workers and unquantified political-economic power that the table rests upon with you.

And, in all cases, as ever, get a ballot guide, cast a ballot, and then start writing letters to your representatives in Congress. One of the key aspects of my success on Planet Cancer was knowing that I could, at any time, for any reason, call the whole thing off and either go off and die quietly or get a second opinion. We need to remember, and remind, our various officials at all levels that they serve at our pleasure. And right now, we are angry.

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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