The one thing that you get tired of — very quickly — when you have cancer, are the platitudes about being brave. “You’re so brave,” “I could never do what you’re doing,” and so on. One of the benefits of being a survivor with a background in molecular biology is, I’m keenly aware that everyone out there is just a missed-sunblock application away from me. Eventually, my ominous reply to that became, “Oh, you will be, too.” Not because I’m particularly menacing, but because, once you understand the mechanisms behind cancer, you know that they’re unavoidable. We’re all just sitting, biological time bombs.
That’s not common knowledge, however; so, in addition to experiencing the full 31 flavors of fear in yourself; you do get good at spotting other people succumbing to it. I was in an infusion waiting room when one survivor started shouting, as his name was called, “Cancer is a blessing, not a curse!” Denial is definitely one way to handle fear. But, eventually, you learn to operate at some level of functionality while your own horror is turned down to a low-level buzz.
I’m bringing this up because, based on the creepy, surreal nature of Bunker Boy’s address yesterday, we are a nation gripped by fear. And, as in cancer, you’ll meet people who unintentionally stoke fear (that would be any number of GOP boot-licking responses)(in cancer, that’s always the, “My aunt had cancer. She died” story), play upon your fear, etc. It’s part of the disease process. The disease this country faces is centuries of untalked-of hatred, injustice, oppression, and slavery. And Bunker Boy, right now, is whispering that essential oils and yoga are just what we need; hang talks of systemic reform or some sort of tangible reparations (or radiation, in my metaphor).
Another benefit of having an advanced degree is knowing that, if cancer could be cured with dietary modification and exercise; it would not be a dangerous disease that’s been around since Hippocrates. Similarly, if more police action, more guns in the hands of law enforcement, and longer leashes worked to solve social problems, there would be no social problems. Saying that what we need is more law and order after centuries of brilliant legal scholars saying, “We need more law and order,” would be akin to me, on Day 1 of treatment saying, “I’m really quite happy with the 30–50% five-year survival rate “lucky” ATRX mutants like me enjoy with standard care, let’s go with that.”
When I see Bunker Boy promising more law and order, when I see cops kneeling with protesters and then immediately turning around and gassing them once the cameras moved on (yes, that happened several times)(https://truthout.org/articles/police-attacked-protesters-after-kneeling-for-solidarity-photo-op-activists-say/), as a cancer survivor, I know what I’m seeing; those are the desperate actions of someone who’s just found out they have 24 months left. And they’re going through the exact same stages, starting with that one we all know so well, denial. If I seem ominous or threatening in this piece; that’s not my intention (even though that was clearly Fearless Leader’s intention), it’s to reframe everyone’s thinking from that, dangerous “If I do X, maybe I can — “ thinking that trips up survivors and is currently decimating the nation (“If we have more cops on the streets, perhaps we can bottle up COVID and — “), to, “My life, as I know it, will be at an end in 24 months. The critical clause is, “as I know it,” so maybe I have figure out how to focus on those all-important first two words.” I need to be ominous and a little horrifying because, in the depths of fear, only complete panic can get your attention, and Fearless Leader is masterful at driving companies, groups, and nations to the brink of destruction, and then reframing everyone’s thinking at the last second by bringing an even more-horrifying situation into play to minimize that initial problem.
As a country, we have to somehow make that transition from, “Maybe if X, then something awful won’t happen” to, “Crippling tragedy is unavoidable, if I play my hand well, it might not be the end.” The military-industrial complex, the police, etc. have reached the limits of their usefulness to society, and will be discarded, or so dramatically reformed as to be unrecognizable. This is going to happen regardless of your views or investment in the matter; the critical decisions in front of us are how to do all of that in a way that minimizes suffering and tragedy and distributes the greatest amount of justice and equity for the greatest number of people. We’ve gone from the halcyon days of March when the bizarro trolley problem (a classic philosophical/ethics hypothetical) was, “How do we save the trolley, even if we have to run over everyone” to, “We’re locked together, on a trolley that’s speeding out of control, and the driver’s asleep at the wheel.” Between Trump cowering in the bunker on Sunday, to his ominous threats to attack Americans using the American military, we’re utterly alone in this. Help is not coming.
This is the hardest, cruelest fear of all the ones experienced in cancer — to realize how utterly alone and nearly-powerless you are against the disease. We saw that yesterday when Former President Trump basically abdicated his position to all local police authorities, and said, “Best of luck, folks.” The horrible truth of cancer is, you don’t get any choice in the matter. You can’t flee from your own body, even when it’s trying to kill you. And our nation can’t flee from 4 centuries of history. We’re all going to have to dig in and find something like courage to get through the next few months without any leadership. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret; when the option is, “Be brave or die,” you become remarkably bold. Obviously, courage alone isn’t going to see us through the current crisis; we’re going to need some sort of workable solutions, even if they’re only temporary. Even though I’d argue that the current crisis sits atop a mountain of solutions that were initially intended to be temporary, we need to drop the “all or nothing” approach that currently holds the political process hostage, and admit that there is no way we could possibly foresee any and all potential racial problems that might arise even twenty years from now. Another cancer survivor pro-tip for the nation: When you abandon planning post-24 months, you can find some amazingly effective solutions to make it through this week, and, sometimes, that has to be enough. We’ve been traumatized and abandoned by our leadership, we’re going to have to reframe our goals — for the moment, anyway — as to how all of us make it to July, in the face of incompetent, sociopathic leadership that’s fleeing the country for their bunkers, horrific police brutality, and a poorly-understood disease. Those are the challenges. The stakes are our lives. Not our livelihoods or private property (worrying about those are like AYA survivors worrying about pensions — we have bigger, more pressing problems).
I don’t have any good solutions to any of this, but, in the spirit of Jane Elliot’s remarkable point about race relations — “If you white folks want to be treated, in society, the way black people are treated, please stand. Nobody’s standing. That says, to me, very plainly, that you’re aware of what’s happening, and you don’t want it for yourselves. My question to you is; if you don’t want it for yourselves, why are you allowing it to happen to others?” — I do have some proposals designed to make you cringe a bit, and, hopefully, confront your inner racism and classism. Let’s start police reform in this country by firing every single police officer. They had a corrupt, lousy run of it; they can go the way of the American industrial worker (another cancer survivor pro-tip: whether you want to or not, you’re going to learn about intersectionality if you want to make it past the 24 month mark). From this day forward, only ethnic minorities will be eligible to hold law enforcement jobs. Only women will be eligible for executive-level jobs in law enforcement. If the thought of having officers Harris and Garcia show up at your house after some horrific incident (God forbid), or of having AGA Chen be the one deciding whether to proceed with an indictment scares you; I have to wonder, why? And, if it scares you, why are you fine with racial minorities being policed under similar conditions?
From this day forward, private housing will be abolished. Even though I’m all for private apartments, they’re going to be in a public housing complex. If the thought of being surrounded and exposed to every facet and social caste of your community at all hours frightens you, again, why? Maybe you should go back to where you came from.
From this day forward, all private pensions will be abolished. You get to look forward to social security, like the vast majority of seniors. It’s good enough for most peoples’ grandmothers; it should be good enough for you.
From this day forward, there will be no able-bodied physicians. Again, they’re all good people, I love ’em; they haven’t made enough of an impact on healthcare to justify the expense they generate by requiring stairs, doors, and standard desks that only they can use. All physicians must have some sort of demonstrable chronic illness or disability. Again, if you’re asking why I’d be that exclusionary and anti-able-bodied; as a cancer survivor, I want to know why I have to suck it up, hang in there, and be brave for all of my physicians and nurses, who haven’t felt an infusion going up their arm? Needless to say, no one will be allowed to have a physician of the same gender, so men can experience the awkwardness of any woman who meets a male OB/GYN for the first time.
From this day forward, all professional politicians are abolished. All legislative positions will be determined exclusively by lottery, for a single term. They’ll make a six-figure sum and get a life-long stipend for their 2–6 years in service. If the thought of being governed by a random American, chosen by lottery fills you with dread, again, I have to ask, why? Are you concerned they aren’t properly educated for the job? Perhaps they don’t share your values. Perhaps you’re already over-invested in a hyper-rigid, hyper-hierarchical political-economic structure, and you want all of this to magically vanish without any discussion of the underlying problems. If that’s true, you’ve just made my argument for improving education, educational standards, and schools. If you’re worried some random American won’t have your religious values, that’s either an argument against religious power in politics, or to expand your values and beliefs to include more people, and make them more attractive to more people.
The point of all of this isn’t necessarily to advocate for the wholesale upending of society — again, that’s happening right now, with or without our willing participation or advocate for communism (I’m more of a social democracy kind of guy, although recent events are making me decidedly more Marxist) — it’s a “What would you do if the shoe was on the other foot” exercise. Now, to understand why black people are very justifiably upset and enraged over the current state of affairs, take that hypothetical congressional lottery winner from the previous paragraph. Give him a badge and a gun, and let him know that he can — for whatever largely-fictional reason he’d like — come into your house, pull your vehicle over, abduct you, etc. and the most-likely worst punishment he will face is losing his job, and he knows it; it’s an advertised perk. If that doesn’t make you feel safe and warm, why should we expect racial minorities not to be filled with rage and fear at yet another headline about a white cop killing a non-violent, restrained black person, for the third time in as many weeks?
I have no specific solutions or insight, just some broad-level ideas. If we make sure every single American, regardless of race, color, or creed, has access to decent housing, education, healthcare, and opportunities, it won’t make the current crisis completely evaporate, but it will do a hell of a lot to ease the underlying issues. And, in those previous hypothetical scenarios, I’d like you to bear in mind something I saw recently online (I’m paraphrasing), “It’s telling that, whenever white men are asked why they fear women or minorities in power, they describe the exact same system they participate in and uphold, just with different people in charge.” If that’s your biggest fear about minorities being in charge of the system, might I suggest, for everyone’s sake, you change the system immediately.
For everyone out there literally fighting for their life, fighting just to breathe (believe it or not, thanks to a bad reaction to the drug cocktail they put me on after my first neurosurgery, I actually have had that experience, and the physical sensation of drowning in your own body is so far beyond frightening and terrible that I can’t begin to describe it, except to say that, even during the worst parts of a grueling, year-long chemo regimen, I could say, “Well, it beats having to be reminded to breathe every few minutes.”), I’d offer you this encouragement. As horrible as things are now, and as brutal and horrifically inhumane as our species can be; our human story is, ultimately, one of growing acceptance, love, and hope. Within my grandmother’s lifetime (she’s in her 90s), in certain places in this country, lynchings were not uncommon. Within my parents’ lives, not only was homosexuality decriminalised, but same-sex unions are widely accepted. Within my own lifetime, diseases that were considered immediate death sentences (HIV, most forms of cancer, even brain cancer) and heavily-stigmatized, have become chronic (albeit still quite dangerous) conditions. We even have support groups. Over a long enough period, our story is learning to recognize ourselves in others’ eyes, and make room for them at the camp fire. You just have to hang in there a little longer, and know that, even though some of us will never meet; some of us are still deeply invested in your survival and well-being.