Half-Pint Heroes

I am away at a medical conference, and so have reposted an older essay, which you will hopefully enjoy. Back soon.

 
subwayThis week’s news brought the remarkable story of Wesley Autrey, a 50 year-old Vietnam veteran who jumped in front of a subway train to save a man who had fallen onto the tracks while having a seizure.

18-year-old Cameron Hollowpeter suffered a seizure while Autrey, accompanied by his two daughters, was waiting on the platform for the subway. Hollowpeter fell to the tracks after losing his balance, as an incoming train approached the platform. Autrey jumped down to save him — as his daughters looked on — initially attempting to pull him out, but realizing with split-second judgment that there was insufficient time to extract the still-seizing man from the tracks. He threw himself over Hollowpeter, wrapping him in his body to protect his flailing arms, in the shallow ditch between the electrified rails. The train screeched to a halt after passing overhead with but inches to spare, miraculously leaving both men without serious injury.

True acts of heroism are of course newsworthy, and at once both extraordinary and sobering (would you or I have done what Wes Autrey did?) — and draw a sharp and unflattering contrast with what often passes for heroism in our modern culture.

We hear of heroes daily in the papers and on TV: the fireman who rescues a child from a burning building; the policeman shot in the line of duty; the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his buddies. Such acts are heroism indeed, comprised of its core virtue: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life or well-being for another. We say this although we expect such things of these men and women, for this is their chosen calling and career, one which by its nature places them in harm’s way for the benefit of others.

Cheap heroism seeps deeply into our culture like some toxic effluent, poisoning even simple principled acts with a pretension of greatness.

Yet there is increasingly a class of acts now painted as “heroism” which deserves no such depiction. Such cheap heroes — the civic equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace Christians — seem to grow in number daily. They make no sacrifices, take no risks, suffer no losses when their “heroic” deeds are done. In a society increasing bereft of moral standards and the simplest traits of noble character and integrity, we paint a heroic stamp of approval on increasingly pathetic gestures, gilding our self-serving deeds with a thin gloss of glory.
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The Law of Rules

This is a repost of an essay from 2004.
 

In contemporary political discourse, we often discuss the Rule of Law, especially in our postmodern culture where bad behavior is often justified (and excused) by situation, upbringing, or historical injustice. But no one ever talks about the Law of Rules.

Today in the office I reviewed one of Medicare’s bulletins, clarifying (at least in intent, if not in practice) their regulations in some arcane area of reimbursement for surgical procedures. Few outside of the health care field have any idea of the complexity of regulations governing medicine. When last I checked several years ago, Medicare had about 150,000 pages of regulations in the Federal Register, approximately 3 times of the volume of the IRS tax code. American medicine is more highly regulated than Soviet state industry ever was, and getting more so by the day.

Without launching into a diatribe on the evils of government-funded and regulated medicine (perhaps another time), it strikes me that the explosive growth of rules, laws, and regulations in society as a whole is a reflection of an underlying shift in our culture, values, and individual moral integrity.
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The Children Whom Reason Scorns

You Also Bear the BurdenIn the years following the Great War, a sense of doom and panic settled over Germany. Long concerned about a declining birth rate, the country faced the loss of 2 million of its fine young men in the war, the crushing burden of an economy devastated by war and the Great Depression, further compounded by the economic body blow of reparations and the loss of the German colonies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Many worried that the Nordic race itself was threatened with extinction.

The burgeoning new sciences of psychology, genetics, and medicine provided a glimmer of hope in this darkness. An intense fascination developed with strengthening and improving the nation through Volksgesundheit–public health. Many physicians and scientists promoted “racial hygiene” – better known today as eugenics. The Germans were hardly alone in this interest – 26 states in the U.S. had forced sterilization laws for criminals and the mentally ill during this period; Ohio debated legalized euthanasia in the 20’s; and even Oliver Wendall Holmes, in Buck v. Bell, famously upheld forced sterilization with the quote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” But Germany’s dire circumstances and its robust scientific and university resources proved a most fertile ground for this philosophy.

These novel ideas percolated rapidly through the social and educational systems steeped in Hegelian deterministic philosophy and social Darwinism. Long lines formed to view exhibits on heredity and genetics, and scientific research, conferences, and publication on topics of race and eugenics were legion. The emphasis was often on the great burden which the chronically ill and mentally and physically deformed placed on a struggling society striving to achieve its historical destiny. In a high school biology textbook – pictured above – a muscular German youth bears two such societal misfits on a barbell, with the exhortation, “You Are Sharing the Load!–a hereditarily-ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks by the time they reach 60.” Math textbooks tested students on how many new housing units could be built with the money saved by elimination of long-term care needs. Parents often chose euthanasia for their disabled offspring, rather than face the societal scorn and ostracization of raising a mentally or physically impaired child. This widespread public endorsement and pseudo-scientific support for eugenics set the stage for its wholesale adoption — with horrific consequences — when the Nazi party took power.
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