Monday, May 31, 2010

The Style over Substance Problem in American Society

The doctor looked at us. “Sorry,” he said, “But I am not really qualified to deal with this. To me it looks like Asperger’s.”

“But they already ruled that out,” I protested, yet again. “Our pediatrician recommended that we take Will to the Autism Spectrum Disorder clinic in the city, and after two days of extensive testing, they ruled it out.”

He nodded. “On what grounds?”

I sighed. Sisyphus standing at the precipice. Here we go again. I leaned back on the couch, thrusting my hand out in the direction of the clinic’s report, lying on his lap. “It’s a processing issue. He’s processing things at a 7 year old level.”

Will was 10.

“And,” I continued, “they said he was virtually incapable of abstract thought.”

The doctor shifted in his chair, now attacking the problem from a different angle. “And the school? Why did the school turn him down for an IEP?” He glanced down at the report, opening the cream colored folder and flipping through the pages.

“He didn’t qualify. They did a battery of tests.”

Suddenly, he jumped out of his chair. “Maybe…” he reached up to the top of his bookshelf, “if I can find a DSM diagnosis, it would convince them to provide the services. Maybe they just need a clinical diagnosis.”

Despite having my reservations about the DSM’s efficacy (Didn’t they declare homosexuality a mental disorder not too long ago?), I feigned optimism. Maybe if he wrote a letter, the school would feel legally obligated to provide resource services to Will. Maybe, in this litigious society, they had to.

After five years of worry, chasing the tail of my son’s unspecified psychiatric/neurological disorder, I was starting to better understand why people hate our current healthcare system. But to me, an out-of-work middle school English teacher, Will’s case obviated the need for a symbiotic community of healthcare and education; each working separately to fulfill their goals, while routinely meeting to discuss areas in which their goals overlap, which are indeed many.

What struck me, after spending four years in a public school classroom, where students’ IEPs were neither strictly followed nor completely understood, is that education is a symptom of good health. When one is of sound mind, one is of sound body; and of sound mind I mean free of mental distress, the kind exacerbated by a deficiency of the mental tools necessary to alleviate it. When a country educates its citizens, the country is full of well-being. Conversely, when a country is repressive and hierarchical, as is the United States today, it foists its neuroses upon its citizens. We are not only sick in spirit, we are sick in mind and body as well; all of us, dependent on drugs for survival, held captive by our love of excess to the corporate machinations of greed and deceit.

The financial woes befalling our public schools are leaving education prey to the same malevolent forces, as charter schools become more popular and the current Secretary of Education enforces policies tantamount to wholesale privatization. What is education now but a money game, a place where lawyers lie in gluttonous wait, all too eager to strengthen their reputations while lining their pockets with a litany of litigation? My former superintendent began his inaugural speech to our district with the mantra, “No more lawsuits.”

What I began to better understand as I sat in the doctor’s office was that in 2010, America was suffering a catastrophic drought of substance the likes of which I had never seen in my lifetime (And I was born during Watergate!). The frolicking Ford years; Reagan’s shoot-em-up Western audacity; Clinton’s indiscretions, none of it compared to the complete lack of substance prevalent in American culture today. Is it just me, or do you get the sinking feeling that nobody really cares about anything? Or maybe people care. They just care about the wrong things. We pay lipservice to the environment; to human rights and the earthquake in Haiti; but what we really devote our energy to is vice. Vice is so prevalent in American society today that it forces even the most ardent among us to react to it. We are constantly having to defend ourselves, against what we say, who we say it to, lest we get sued. Doctors can’t make a diagnosis; teachers can’t advise; people can’t have an opinion, lest they get sued.

Civil rights in this country have faced a steady erosion since 9/11, turning what used to be an inalienable right (having an opinion) into a seditious thoughtcrime. Barack Obama’s friendship with Jeremiah Wright was considered a near fatal liability to him during the 2008 presidential campaign. Conservatives were quick to paint Obama, a former college professor and man of great intellect, as a “radical” who possessed nefarious ulterior motives for wanting to be president. Obama’s curiosity was never painted as a positive thing. Not once did any of the pundits, Democratic or Republican, put forth the view that a person interested in others’ opinions could actually be a good thing. What better way to deal with world leaders, some of whom do not share your views, than to be tolerant and hear them out? What could have been a seminal moment in American, and therefore, world history, was reduced to the familiar realm of fear-mongering and overhyped insecurity. Our golden moment was tarnished, and Obama has been encountering road blocks ever since.

The Democrats’ frustration over their squandering of a national mandate for change is embodied in the areas of healthcare and civil rights. Healthcare and education again find themselves coconspirators in an insidious plot to retain their funding while also placating the status quo. Along with their failed healthcare initiative comes an added blight: a one-year extension of the Patriot Act. It seems that Obama’s support of it was disregarded when he ran for office. He voted for it as a senator after all. So swept-up were Americans in an almost evangelical fervor during the 2008 election, that they let Mr. Obama’s positions on national security go unnoticed. Since taking office in 2009, Obama has advocated a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan, placating liberals by stating a timetable for Iraq. While Obama plays Whack-a-Mole with foreign policy, his Democratic allies in Congress, anemic and divisive as they are, lose seats along with supermajorities, what was sure to be the cornerstone of a resurgent revolution for change. The healthcare bill seems interminably stalled, and now, the Patriot Act has slipped through once again.

While the media becomes more bifurcated, engaging in increasingly partisan arguments, consumed by their verbal tennis match, the citizens become increasingly self-obsessed. Where else is this more evident than in the plethora of reality shows that have sprung up in the Clinton and Bush years? Americans are obsessed with fame, each of us intent on relishing our God-granted 15 minutes before settling back into the depressing obscurity of debt and greed, frustrated desires and low self-worth. We love the machine that controls us, but we see a way out, a fabricated way out to relieve us of our fears. Money. If only we were as rich as Paris Hilton, as driven as Oprah Winfrey, if only we could assume that, happy consumers one and all. And how does money control us? The same way it controls education: By promising instant gratification, an end to suffering.

The fascist strain is alive and well in America because it is the control by those who have the most resources. Moneyed interests target areas for “improvement” and then they begin their take-over, through lawsuits and bribes, threats and incentives. The status quo remains and the citizens blindly follow along, too assuming and consuming, too wrapped up in their own neuroses, to know or even care what havoc the moneyed powers have wrought.

Healthcare and education, both in dire need of transfusions, both abused and broken, but neither truly being fixed. Lawyers can gut the system all they want, for there will always be someone to sue, but true change will never come about until practitioners can again express their opinions. Change comes with dialogue. Otherwise it is dysfunction; otherwise it is a sham; otherwise it is nothing more than style over substance.

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