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BY Stan Goff
Hardly part of our daily discourse, is it? But all of us have given and received the popular wisdom, â€œStop worrying. Youâ€™re going to give yourself ulcers.â€ Even though Australian pathologists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren have just won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery (20 years ago!) that ulcers are not caused by stress at all, but by a bacterium with the Latinate name at the beginning of this commentary.
Not only does the popular belief persist that ulcers are brought about by â€œstress,â€ the medical community itself resisted this discovery for years. Entire medical protocols, as well as entire lines of symptom-amelioration pharmaceuticals and commercialized stress-management schemes, had been developed and deployed based on this false belief. The stress ulcer proved to be no more valid than the Medieval European certainty about â€œhumorsâ€ or the persistent New Age confidence in astrology.
The Helicobacter discovery process is interesting because it was an accident. Marshall was tired before Easter weekend in 1982. He forgot to wash out a Petri dish at the lab. When he came back, a colony of Helicobacter pylori had grown out. Marshall and Warren gazed at the critter long enough to imprint its microscopic morphology into their own neural pathways, and then noticed that the same curly creature was present every time they studied inflamed gastric tissue.
Two morals to this story are (1) that our most treasured and erroneous beliefs are often based on unexamined and widely-accepted premises and (2) that the law of unintended consequences can be our friend if we retain a healthy skepticism about our premises and prepare to follow-up on new information.
For me, the most significant lesson here is that we need new language if we are to think about things in new ways. The categories, symbols, and meanings extolled in our usual chatter donâ€™t just structure what we DO know. They structure what we CAN know.
So a blissful monk might fight off this little bacterium without a momentâ€™s inconvenience, but the most beleaguered anxiety patient (say, Robert MacNamaraâ€™s wife) will not get an ulcer without it. Stress management cannot treat ulcers effectively. That didnâ€™t stop anyone from treating ulcers ineffectively for decades.
The reverberations from Hurricane Katrina (and Rita in its wake) are too numerous to know or name. Identifying some of the illusions about this so-called aftermath, however, and applying unfamiliar ways of understanding it, will put us on ground high enough to see over the puerile nonsense we hear from the oral formulaic news models of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.
Ulcers are better understood when we learn to say Helicobacter pylori. The Aftermath is better understood when we learn to say â€œexterminism.â€
I live in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is not a constant. Raleigh is a transient political boundary. So is North Carolina. Three years ago, I lived inside another political boundary â€“ Wake County, but outside Raleigh. I did not move inside the boundary of Raleigh; it moved over me. We were â€œannexed.â€
Seven years ago, when I first moved to where I live now, I lived in a neighborhood surrounded by a deciduous forest. My oldest son and I used to walk in the woods past our cul-de-sac, and there was a stream there. One day, we sat quietly long enough for a beaver and two of her kittens to come paddling up that stream, whereupon they disappeared into a den that we hadnâ€™t noticed before. Throughout the woods, there were orange plastic ribbons tied onto the trees. They marked future streets for future subdivisions and for commercial lots.
Raleigh needs to increase tax revenue to promote â€œgrowth,â€ and it has to â€œgrowâ€ to increase tax revenue. The annexation happened on schedule. The trees were toppled, the soil graded into flat terraces by giant diesel-powered machines, and last year I was driving down a new road near the stream, where I saw a dead beaver â€“ run over by a car.
Now we have an industrial park, a monster strip mall, a Super Wal-Mart, and hundreds of new Masonite houses with vegetation purchased from the Lowes’ and Home Depotâ€™s Garden Departments. There are orange plastic ribbons tied to the trees that remain in the shrinking ribbons of forest that were bypassed by the bulldozers.
When I first moved here, I saw another curious thing. A worm die-off. For several weeks one late Spring, as I strolled on the asphalt walking trail in my neighborhood and along the concrete sidewalks, thousands and thousands of earthworms emerged after each rain and crawled out onto the sidewalks in writhing masses, where they would be picked off by gluttonous robins or left to shrivel and harden into curly fries under the next sun. Rain frequently drives worms aboveground for the robins, but the scale of this was different. I suspect a landscaping chemical, but I canâ€™t know for sure.
Just weeks ago, my younger son, Jeremy, observed a hit and run that knocked a young doe off the road. He called me on his cell phone, distressed because the deer was alive with two obviously broken legs, lying in a ditch completely conscious and terrified. I drove out to where he was and put his and the deerâ€™s minds at ease the only way I knew how â€“ I shot her in the head with a .22 target pistol. She died instantly. The shot must have nicked the spinal cord because her neck momentarily convulsed around as if she were trying to reach up into a thicket for a morsel before she convulsed and lay still.
Compared to those who drowned in their own homes during Hurricane Katrina, this little doe actually had a merciful death. The shock of the car hitting her, fifteen minutes of pain and fear, then the relief of death. We donâ€™t have the willingness to think about what it is like to die slowly, trapped in a sweltering attic with putrid floodwaters climbing at us. We donâ€™t know how to think about this misery and terrorâ€¦ times millions. But such is the world.
Katrina exposed us to images of misery and fear â€“ unique to us, just as 9-11 was â€“ that are experienced by millions, by hundreds of millions of people every day. Much of the world routinely lives in conditions as dire as Katrinaâ€™s deadly wake.
Internalities and Externalities
â€œProgress,â€ or â€œgrowthâ€ chews threw the world like a feral pig â€“ just as it chewed through the forest around my house. No one intentionally killed the deer or the beaver. Their deaths were simply a by-productâ€¦ a statistical probabilityâ€¦ the collateral damage of a social system reproducing itself.
Exterminism is this process writ large â€“ writ worldwide. Exterminism is the final stage of imperialism.
We cannot know the true meanings of Katrina in the familiar language…