Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Contemplating the Passage of Time
Someone asked me whether I remembered when I was in Kampala this weekend. I didn't know how he knew I was there at all, but I've since realized I once spoke about it in small-talk with a gastroenterologist - he must have spread this news. It's funny that the first thing I told him was that I remembered monkeys in the trees - I was between 8 months old and 2-1/2 when I was in Kampala and I don't remember much. But I do remember this and I also remember being inside an automobile going down a rough dirt road and watching the passing trees as I drifted in and out of sleep. I remember some dreams about Africa also. It is peculiar to think that I actually lived in Africa at one time in my life. My father was a surgeon working for a British hospital there - he describes doing C-sections on tribe-women in such huge numbers that it was like working on an assembly line. At some point he had his fill of this type of work and we all came back home.

In fact those earliest of memories stand out for me and seem to be time standing still stretching backwards infinitely. It's like the cliche of time accelerating as we age. My life does seem to be leaping by in large chunks of weeks nowadays. I'm sure time will be humming past in monthly blocks for me within the next score of years.

What struck me about being asked about Africa was that I had recently been reading about how hopeless this continent seems to be in Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, the tome detailing the litany of diseases which have struck and is yet to strike mankind over the past hundred or so years. It describes more than Africa but the most interesting parts of the story is about the "Andromeda Strain"-like viruses endemic to this region particularly. Nowhere else has viruses like the Marburg or Ebola killed so many thousands of people. It makes it seem so inevitable that in the long view, we will be wiped out by a final incarnation of an aerosolized zoonoses developed from a rodent or ape. Last week I read Philip Ziegler's Black Death which is an old 1960s book about the Bubonic plagues which swept through Europe in the mid 1300s wiping out about 33% of the European population - tens of millions of people. It is so interesting how mankind can at one moment be so shocked and outraged over a single murder by a husband of his wife (as with the cases going on in Utah and California currently in the news), yet in another time and space, mankind can become so inured to hundreds of dead bodies littering the streets of his own neighborhood. Philip Gourevitch's haunting description of the events surrounding the Hutu-Tutsi genocides in Rwanda in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: is a perfect example. Not that Africa owns a monopoly on genocide - we all know about the Nazis, and Stalin, maybe we need to talk more about the KimIlSung-KimJongIl regime. Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang recounts the horrors of the current regime's silent genocide. I think it was Stalin who said when you kill one person, it is murder, when you kill thousands, it is a statistic.

6 years ago I applied to work overseas for Medecins Sans Frontieres, an organization which I thought at the time was admirable. I was promptly rejected for lacking foreign language skills required and they urged me to seek further training and re-apply. Since then, my family life has interrupted this mode of behavior. When I was in college I was quite a liberal - I put up posters for Amnesty International. I voted for Dukakis, then Clinton twice. Over the past decade I've taken a More Thomas Hobbesian view of civilization, Maybe a touch of Adam Smith. Was it Turgot who described first the principles of laissez faire? Maybe I've got all my political philosophers all mixed up. In any case, the World's problems seem both more hopeless and less important to me at the same time. Voltaire keeps repeating the phrase "you must cultivate your own garden" in his Candide - I'm coming around to this way of thinking more and more. I think this is why I voted for GW Bush the last election - the first time I voted Republican. As unadmirable as GW is, you have to admit he provides the requested benefits for his constituents. When all the world is falling apart, it can be comforting to pick lint out of your bellybutton. And so I'm now thoroughly domesticated, tending to my suburban bourgeoisie Capitalist life here in NC. Last week while emptying out our safe deposit box, I came across my passport which showed it had recently been renewed. When trying to recall why I had so recently renewed, my wife reminded me in an offended tone that I had planned to skip out on the family by going over to serve with Medecins - it was a jolt to realize that I had actually intended to abandon my way of living in that way so recently. In fact, I was probably under a lot of stress and was looking for an escape hatch; I was probably too apathetic and lazy even then to actually go into a warzone.

When you think about the mass death of humans in the various parts of the world at this time, you must balance this fact with the problems of global warming, global over-population, and the overall inexorable destruction of the Earth from the by-products of human industry (as described perfectly in the film Koyaanisqatsi).

If you believe Adam Smith, there is a guiding hand in all this, but this is magical thinking. I tend to favor a Darwinian view over all this so I don't think humans are any more favored to survive than the Dinosaurs. If you'll detach yourself emotiaonally from it all, it's almost an artistic denouement to imagine that the "cradle of mankind" is where the seeds of mankind's destruction may spring from - this is assuming Garrett's fears outlined in her Coming Plague comes to fruition. With the super-resistant species-jumping superviruses boiling over in Africa and Asia, why do we continue to prescribe antibiotics, anti-virals, and anti-fungals to hopeless vegetative patients in nursing homes to deflect lawsuits or to persistently irritable children to allay whiny parents, or to hordes of animals in stockyards in order to maximize meat profits? But then again, we will lose the war against disease in the end anyway won't we?