Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bloomberg and the Semblance of Health

In the fourth century BCE, in his Gorgias, Plato distinguishes health from its mere semblance. Among other things, health is described by Socrates as the source of beauty. The mere appearance of beauty, on the other hand, is said to be fabricated by cosmetics.

While there is no lack of cosmetics in the shops one comes across in today's world, the things which provide a mere semblance of health are by no means restricted to cosmetics. Of the things that come to mind most readily are the prevalence of tanning salons and gymnasiums, the proliferation of anti-depressants such as prozac and zoloft, as well as recycling programs, among other things. Of course, tanning salons and gymnasiums/health clubs are distinct entities. Whereas it is difficult to imagine the health benefits of tanning, working out in a gym does provide significant physical exercise which, relevantly, is good for one's health. However, it is important to note that even if the person working out in the gym is not some vain sort merely interested in superficial health, or worse, some compulsive exerciser, working out alone is not enough for health. Beyond a healthy diet, health requires a variety of things that industrial and post-industrial societies systematically and vigorously preclude.

Beyond living in a world in which the air, the water, the land and the food are persistently polluted, most people suffer from stresses that seriously undermine health. In addition to the stresses attending just running around to pay the rent and the bills, to name just a few, and the stresses of noise - which are being found more and more to weaken peoples' immune systems - most people live their lives in perpetual states of sleep-deprivation. Without the resources and supports necessary to resist these and other pressures people fall inexorably into disease. To be sure, it is no surprise that rates of cancer have been at epidemic levels in this country for decades.

All of these stresses take their toll, and alter peoples' bodies chemistry - just as hunger alters body chemistry. And while some people are afflicted by chronic depression that demands serious medical attention, instances of doctors prescribing medications such as prozac to "correct" chemical imbalances that are often attributable to environmental factors is not very different from applying makeup to a face ravaged by lack of sleep. Relatedly, it is a tragic irony that more and more children are being pathologized and medicated because their natural energies and health resist a social order demanding ceaseless work and conformity. Their resistance must be recognized for what it is. On another level, the epidemic levels of cancer afflicting society is not only the failure of physiological and immunological resistances, it is the failure of political resistance as well.

All of this is to say that there are deep, structural and institutional forces that interfere with our collective health. Air pollution from industrial and commercial sources that burn fuels, and motor vehicle exhaust, to name just a few sources of harms, lead not only to widespread cardio-pulmonary diseases, cancer, and asthma, but to disorders as varied as near-sightedness, reduced mental alertness, impaired fetal development, and are suspected of contributing significantly to rates of autism, among other disorders.

Among other things, compared to those whose immune systems are less stressed, those who experience more stress - the so-called 99% - are more susceptible to contracting illnesses. For instance, someone less worried about paying the bills has more energy to resist the physiological harms attending ingestion of significant amounts of sugar, or tobacco, or particulate matter, than will his or her more stressed-out counterpart.

So while, for example, cigarettes are undeniably bad for one's health, and lead to an estimated 430,000 deaths per year in the United States, and sugary soft drinks are harmful as well, to focus simply on the harms caused by a few consumer products in particular, as opposed to the harms caused by 'consumer society' in general is ultimately to focus on the wholly superficial.

Michael Bloomberg's so-called health initiatives, therefore, rather than promoting social health in a meaningful manner are merely, like cosmetics, semblances of health. Rather than promoting actual health, which is a variety of liberation from a dis-easing system, Bloomberg's policies perpetuate relations of domination. This position of his is consistent with his use of 'public health' as a pretext for shutting down the Occupy camp at Zuccotti Park in November of last year. For while it was by no means in possession of a homogeneous message, the so-called Occupy movement at the very least sought to transform the world into a more healthy one. Against a transformational, meaningful health, Bloomberg reacted with great force to implement his superficial, cosmetic health, which is not really health at all.

The meaningful promotion of actual social (and individual) health requires not a few campaigns against relatively superficial consumer products, but a radical transformation of the institutions of 'consumer society' altogether. Until not only power and stresses, but resources like land and water, are equitably distributed and cared for in a manner in accord with the actual general health, we will inhabit at best a semblance of health - which is, in actuality, to live in a world of disease.

If the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto -  the health of the people is the supreme law - is in effect (as jurists constantly tell us) those conditions hostile to peoples' health are in conflict with the supreme law. Accordingly, those conditions of disease mentioned above, among others, need to be halted, and the conditions of health need to be created. Justice demands no less.

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