Archive for October, 2003

What’s the real importance?

Sometimes, you find your eyes opened up by the strangest things.

A couple days ago, I found out that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The news hit me like a freight train; I immediately began to think about all of the time I had spent with this wonderful woman and how that would probably never be the same again. Because Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease, I can be pretty sure that the next several years will be difficult, full of having to watch someone I love slowly retreat into a world of which I can only imagine.

All of this got me to thinking. Though I am aware that there isn’t much cause for hope right now, it’s not completely a lost cause. My grandmother is joining a clinical trial of a new drug, and while it’s likely that this isn’t going to be anything revolutionary, the truth can never really be known; there may be a cure right around the corner. If it weren’t for the miracle of medical breakthroughs through research, there would be no cure for polio, smallpox, measles, or influenza.

Which brings me to the greater topic at hand. The public at large claims that things like medical research and education are two of the most important things to its well being. I’m sure you’ve heard every politician talk about how important our youth is, and about how vital the educational system is to the future of our country and our world. And let’s face it: the public just eats that up. Everybody is concerned with education—during an election year. But when it actually comes time to vote for your district’s school budgets, all of a sudden that well of interest dries up. It never fails: nobody minds being political when it’s not their pocket that has to be dug into.

I find, not so surprisingly, that the same holds true for medical research. I have no doubts that if the same enthusiasm was put into researching diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV/AIDS, we would have seen far more impressive results by now. AIDS has been around for more than twenty years now, and we seem to be no closer to finding a cure than when we started. Let’s remember, folks, that this is a disease that has affected us more than any disease in history.

Because drug companies are private organizations whose main drive is, like any other private corporation, to drive up their profits, I have to ask myself how hard they’re really working for the cure of diseases like this. The amount of money spent on drugs like AZT and the other HIV cocktails is astronomical. The reason these drugs cost so much is that the research and development costs are so high, so the companies say. So I have to ask the question: how much more can a company make on the cost of a drug if their research and development phase lasts twice as long as it should? How long can they hold the prices up before they can no longer use “research and development” as a crutch for the high prices?

But above all, I have to ask if it’s really in a company’s best interest to find a cure for these diseases. After all, if they can make a ton of money by treating the so-called “incurable” diseases, why would they want to prevent that revenue from flowing in by releasing a drug that could cure the disease right out?

I’m obviously not saying that the drug manufacturers are deliberately trying to make more money by prolonging the suffering of their customers; such practices are so far below the decency of any human being that I couldn’t even imagine a company doing this. But as much as I approve of the idea of capitalism, I find myself questioning the true motivations behind companies like these. Wouldn’t we be far better off by subsidizing the costs of research and development by investing that which is of interest to all of us—the taxpayers’ monies—and would facilitate more rapid and driven motivation? The American government certainly could afford to earmark a not-so-small amount by taking some money away from other sources, like, I don’t know, the $87 billion reserved for rebuilding Iraq?

Or how about our over-inflated military spending budget? I once read in a teacher’s office a bumper sticker that said, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the teachers they need and the government will have to hold a bake sale to raise money for a fighter jet.” While I agree with the notion that it’s obviously absurd to think that way, it does raise an important point. After all, what’s the point of defending a country when the country has no valuable assets to defend? What are we if we can’t produce artists and philosophers, musicians and mathematicians? Or physicists? Doctors?

Maybe if we all start to think about what’s really important in our lives, we can start to focus on improving our way of life by doing what’s really possible, instead of by reinforcing a status quo. It’s a thought worth having.

Pride and Prejudice, Rights and Responsibilities

Please forgive the fact that I’m once again using television as my venue for this week’s topic, but until I can come up with some ideas to work with, I have to go on inspiration.

Again, I was watching “Boston Public” tonight and I was struck by the show’s theme. It was a theme that I have taken very seriously over the last two years, and it provided me with some new insight into the topic. One thing that this show is very good at is addressing current affairs and real-life situations, and this week’s topic was anti-Americanism. It turns out that one of the school’s Social Studies classes was holding a mock U.N. summit and discussing current events—namely, the United States’ war with Iraq.

One of the students, who was at the time representing the country of Canada, expressed his distate with the U.S.’s policies regarding the war, and of its suspicious beginnings. The student claimed that the war on terror was inspired by the events of September 11th, which Iraq had nothing to do with, which is true, as far as any of us knows. He exclaimed that the real reason for the war had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and instead had more to do with the fact that the U.S. couldn’t find Osama bin Laden and instead focused on the leader that it could go after—Saddam.

A couple of the other students—ironically, those representing the United States and Germany—felt that the student agreed with his own argument a little too much, and a fight broke out. After the teacher insisted that she would have order in her classroom and the two students accepted this, they cornered the student in a bathroom and beat him until he lay in a pool of blood on the floor.

What came next was a barrage of rhetoric and argument the likes of which I have never personally seen in a classroom or a school, although I can only wish that I had seen something of its like while I was in high school. The school district insisted that the “inflammatory” debate be toned down or removed from the classroom, and the parents of the district agreed with its decision. The teacher involved felt that there was no way she could teach if she was forced to censor herself and her students’ right to political free speech—which, by the way, is one of the few rights that is absolutely granted to a student in a high school—and I must say that I completely agree with her.

Too many people in this country have a problem with those who practice their own brand of Free Speech. I suppose that it’s the nature of a group mentality: if you disagree with the majority’s opinion, you are ostracized for it. I saw it when I was in school—those who dressed differently or expressed alternative points of view were deemed as nerds or freaks—and I see it today in the general public’s opinion of those who go against the grain. As was mentioned in the show, people lose their jobs over the fact that they express so-called anti-American opinions. Commentator and talk-show host Bill Maher immediately springs to mind, when he was forced out of his ABC show, ironically called “Politically Incorrect,” for saying that no matter how you sliced it, staying in the plane while it goes into the side of a building is courageous, and that lobbing bombs from afar has no courage in it whatsoever.

What has this country come to? Where do we get the idea that some ideas are better than others? At what point does it become okay to force a majority opinion on others simply for the reason that it is the majority opinion? This country was founded specifically on the grounds that we should be—and are—free to express ourselves despite the fact that others may disagree with that opinion. We feel that rights are some kind of thing granted to us because of who and what we are, but we fail to see the fact that with those rights come responsibilities. In the matter of Free Speech, the responsibility that comes with the right is that we all have to ensure that others have the right to express themselves as well.

After all, where do we draw the line? When I was in college, I was a member of the student newspaper, and we came under heavy fire from the school community, as well as the administration of the paper, for running a paid advertisement in which the advertiser wrote a rather incendiary political statement claiming that the Holocaust had never happened. Is he right? Probably not; we all know that in the 1940’s, millions of Jews disappeared from the face of the planet, so it’s safe to say that the man is incorrect in his belief. But does that give him any less a right to express that opinion? No, it doesn’t, and that is why we decided to print his ad. Because he had a right to make his voice heard in a public forum.

People are so interested in preserving their rights, but it seems to me that more and more they are unwilling to make any effort whatsoever to ensure that those rights are preserved for us and for posterity. We are a society of convenience, and as a result of this, we prefer that we give up some of those rights in the interest of that convenience. We allow our rights to be slowly chipped away in the hopes that we’ll be safe a little bit longer. With efforts on the part of our government to help curtail terrorist activity, we are reaching ever closer to the insidious “Thought Crime” which was outlined in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” We live in a world of the Patriot Act and of a herd mentality, and together those are far more dangerous than one could ever imagine. People are far more intent to be sheep and follow the crowd—something that has been instilled in them since they were young—and in a world like this I applaud those who strive to stand up and say that they won’t tolerate it anymore.

Today, while listening to the news in my car on the way home from work, I heard that California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger may or may not have said more than two decades ago that he admired Adolf Hitler’s ability to speak well in public, and for his rise to power despite his beginnings as a “little man with almost no formal education.” The news story then went on to detail opinions of certain people who responded to the news tidbit by saying things like “I wouldn’t want a person like that as my governor.” Say what you will, but those are things about Hitler that were admirable qualities. Nobody will deny that Hitler had many things wrong with him, but his leadership qualities were hardly part of that horrendous side. He was a very charismatic man who believed in what he was doing and got others to believe in that as well. That, no matter how you put it, is an admirable quality, whether it’s in a saint or a dictator. I almost feel bad for Schwarzenegger because he was politically forced to retract the statement, regardless of whether he said it or not.

Perhaps if we all respect the opinions of others and help each other to face the responsibilities that come with the rights we all accept as gospel, we’ll be able to move on into a country that once again stands for true freedom and respect for all. It’s a thought worth having.

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