Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The New England Journal of Medicine Meets Radical Chic

The New England Journal of Medicine rarely prints obituaries. Before this week, its last published obituary was of Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA. During the second half of 2004, the deaths of Sune Bergstrom (1982 Nobel Prize in Medicine for research on prostaglandins), Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine for development of CT scanning), Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying), and Edward Lewis (1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine for research on genes controlling development) went unnoticed.
This week, that is, on February 24, however, the Journal published a page-long obituary of the writer Susan Sontag.
Susan Sontag did write about illness, notably in two books, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. However, she was not obviously a central figure in medicine, health care or biomedical research, certainly not on the order of Francis Crick.
She was, on the other hand, intensely political, an extreme, polarizing figure, revered by the "new left," and despised by the right. This was just barely hinted in Rita Charon's obituary: "her provocative positions on national and international policy and on public health debates polarized - and sharpened - the discourse, leading others, if not necessarily to agree with her, certainly to understand more clearly what they themselves sought."
In fact, Sontag has been denounced as an indefatigable anti-American and an admirer of tyranny.
She called American culture "inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian," "a cancerous society," and "a criminal, sinister country - swollen with priggishness, numbed by affluence, bemused by the monstrous conceit that it has the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world" in the 1960's. During the same era, she called the white race "the cancer of human history."
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she asked "where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity'or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" Furthermore, "whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." On the other hand, she later decried the "jihadist mentality" of the Bust administration.
She discussed "the right way" for Americans "to love the Cuban revolution." She declared "the Cuban revolution is remarkably free of repression and bureaucratization," and that "no Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or failing to get his work published."
She denounced "American aggression" in the Viet Nam war. On the other hand, she applauded North Viet Nam for its treatment of American prisoners of war, "they genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots." Furthermore, she enthused she found "North Vietnam to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized."
Recognition of Susan Sontag, after so many Nobel prize winners went unnoticed, suggests that the New England Journal of Medicine, once the premier American medical journal, and generally consider non-partisan, has been politicized, taken a far-left stance, and jumped head-first into the culture wars.
To use a metaphor from Sontag's hey-day, "I see a bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way."

No comments: