Two powerful op-ed pieces in today’s New York Times help me to clarify my disquiet with the Obama presidency.
The first by Amy Wilentz, explains the origins of the concept of the “Zombie.” The life of the slave in Haiti was so brutal and unbearable that the slaves often preferred suicide, which was imagined as a return to Africa (lan guinée), a phrase that in Creole even today means heaven. Against this threat, the masters devised and played on the idea of the Zombie, a species of living dead, who would never be able to return to Africa and instead would perform slave labor forever.
The second piece by Ben Mattlin opposes the Massachusetts assisted suicide law, to be voted on next week. Mattlin was born with spinal muscular atrophy. He has never stood, or walked, or had much use of his hands. Roughly half the infants born with this condition die by the age of two, but Mattlin is nearly fifty and, as he writes, “a husband, father, journalist and author.” Living his whole life so close to death he recounts the many times well-meaning doctors and relatives wanted to “spare” him, and the state. No one chooses suicide in a vacuum he notes.
The two stories make the same point: the priority of the human spirit over the body. Mattlin writes so beautifully that it is hard to imagine the wracked body from which his words emanate. It is in good part to affirm the beauty of the human spirit– in other words, of freedom– that most Americans, and citizens of other countries, gladly spend so much money on keeping the very ill, and the very old, alive. Wilentz’s story teaches the same lesson from the opposite point of view. Without a spirit, without freedom, the body is worthless. If we give up our understanding of the priority of the spirit over the body we tend to become zombies ourselves.
That is why the entire neo-liberal mentality, which reduces human beings to their “cash value” is so deeply pernicious. Neo-liberalism is the triumph of the quantitative, the superficial, the merely external over the inner, the spiritual, the realm of freedom. And that is why Obama lost me with the following exchange in the New York Times, April 9, 2009:
Reporter: “It’s going to be hard for people who don’t have the option of paying for it.”
Obama: “So that’s where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that’s also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.”
As to how to deal with the problem, Obama urged “some independent group that can give you guidance.”
I recognize that Obama’s point of view is superior to Romney’s castigation of the 47% but at the level of values, this is not a choice I am happy about making.