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3 April 2012

Paul Farmer’s executive priviledge & the peculiar nature of “a calling”

Awhile back I read Tracy Kidder’s excellent Mountains Beyond Mountains, an inspiring portrait of physician Paul Farmer’s work in the area of public health, specifically the pioneering work he’s done in Haiti. FYI, I was not inspired to read it by the Arcade Fire‘s charitable giving to the cause, though it’s easy to see, in this book, why they, in turn, were inspired to give so generously of their time, resources and fan attention.

This particularly beautiful passage gives an account of what it’s like to have what they call “a calling” to be driven by that peculiarly human kind of passion, in all of its illogic. When one has “a calling” how it is is, often, just how it has to be. And don’t let my use of the word “beautiful” give you the wrong ideas. The passage is actually rather dry, delivered in the matter-of-fact manner in which, I imagine, Dr. Farmer works & thinks. The beauty is in a person hovering above the mundane efficiencies of 20th century management thinking, who knows that the way to get things done is, sometimes, to just move inexorably toward a goal with a force & intensity that others are simply incapable of maintaining.

    [The former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Howard] Hiatt seemed to say, [Paul Farmer] should be solely engaged in the battle against those scourges, and at a level commensurate with their size. “The six months a year that Paul’s looking after patients one-on-one in Haiti, if that time were converted to a major program for treating prisoners with TB in Russia and other eastern European countries, or malaria around the world, or AIDS in southern Africa–it doesn’t matter where or what because you know he’ll do important things. Because look at what he’s done with only part of his time on MDR. Look what he’s done with his skills and his political acumen! I have been urging him to take the role of consultant in Haiti and spend most of his time on worldwide projects.”

    Farmer was forty now, and he had the credentials to operate in the way Hiatt envisioned, on a purely executive level. In academic circles his reputation had grown. He was about to become a tenured Harvard professor. He was near the head of the line for the big prizes in medical anthropology; some of his peers were now saying that he’d “redefined” the field. As for his standing in clinical medicine, he’d become one of the doctors whom medical schools, in Europe as well as in the United States, invite to their campuses to deliver the lectures known as grand rounds. At the Brigham the surgeons had recently asked that he lecture to them, a signal honor not often granted to a mere medical doctor. He also sat on a number of councils in international health, and he’d made his views heard. But he didn’t seem disposed to abandon any side of his work, including seeing patients one-on-one in Haiti.

    It wasn’t as though Farmer didn’t want to do all he could to cure the world of poverty and disease. He just had his own ideas on how to go about it. Actually, he seemed to be the only person who understood the plan fully. A young assistant of his once said to him, in exasperation, that he had no priorities. That wasn’t true, he replied. Patients came first, prisoners second, and students third. But you could see how the assistant might have felt lost in the details.

…and, for once, that’s all I have to say about that.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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21 April 2010

Antimodernity, M.I.A.’s viral marketing effort, a Wall Street Journal book review & a Spider-Man t-shirt on a kid from Southeast Asia: a short attention span essay on Authenticity aka “I have the pussy, so I make the rules”

We live in an era of blogs, tweets, aggregators, and Fox News. It’s quite easy to exist in an ideological/cultural/sociological/psychographic bubble of your own making–one that entirely reinforces your existing systems of belief. That’s why I start every morning with the Wall Street Journal. If you are on the liberal side of the spectrum like myself; if you cast a skeptical eye at capitalism; well, then Karl Rove’s columns will do a better job of waking you up in the morning than a cup of strong coffee and a smack in the face.

I was quite pleased, then, when I tripped across this most excellent review of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax by one Paul Beston who, if the internet is to be trusted, has affiliations with the conservative American Spectator and the foggier “individual responsibility” mandate of the Manhattan Institute. (In other words, he’s the kind of dude I wouldn’t seek out to add to my reading list.)

Here’s an extended excerpt–about half the review. It crystallizes a lot of the devil’s advocate notions I’ve developed while living here in Brooklyn (aka authenticity ground zero) the past several years, then advances them several yards down the ideological football field:

    …Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status seeking game.

    Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity,” by which the well-heeled embark on a “perpetual coolhunt,” whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the “natural building” movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

    But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination.” Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the facade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism or the hyper-nationalist authenticity of fascism. Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false — inauthentic, in other words — and who defend the world’s most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity.

    It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains that underlines the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn’t have the time or inclination to ask whether he had “sold out” for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the “authentic” life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was “a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person,” Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual’s own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.

    Mr. Potter anoints Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, as the godfather of the authenticity quest. His famous “state of nature” was a fantasy of authenticity, an idea of man’s existence before society. Mr. Potter argues that Rousseau used the state-of-nature concept as a “regulative ideal” by which to measure how far we had strayed from a lost harmony.

    Rousseau’s “antimodern tunnel vision,” Mr. Potter says, can be found in various modern forms: in the views of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the counterculture heroes of the 1960s, for instance; or in such gloomy social critics as Al Gore and Prince Charles and alarmists like James Howard Kunstler. [Don’t be intimidated, I had to look this one up too.-ed] These antimodern voices, and others, represent what Mr. Potter calls “the authenticity hoax in full throat: a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and a stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive.”

In other words, ouch, say the locavores.

I agree, though, the guy has a point. What’s authentic is a Cambodian child wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt because those are the cast offs sent from the west and available to be worn. Image via Osmosus.

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