Oh, crap. Bobo is back, and he hasn’t changed. He has a question in “The Stem and the Flower:” How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in everyday life? He doesn’t want us to worry our pretty little heads about boring stuff like gummint… Mr. Nocera has decided to tell us all about “The Asbestos Scam.” He howls that Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, a lifelong smoker, joins a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing former asbestos companies. Mr. Bruni considers “The Families We Invent” and says well outside the usual definition of kin are bonds with as much meaning, magic and stamina. Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:
In an act of amazing public service, I have not written a column in three months. In the course of that time, I’ve stepped back from politics, a bit, and thought about other things. That naturally raises the question: How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?
Let’s use one of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical devices and frame the issue with the two extremes.
On the one hand, there are those who are completely cynical about politics. But, as the columnist Michael Gerson has put it, this sort of cynicism is the luxury of privileged people. If you live in a functioning society, you can say politicians are just a bunch of crooks. But, if you live in a place without rule of law, where a walk down a nighttime street can be terrifying, where tribalism leads to murder, you know that politics is a vital concern.
On the other hand, there are those who form their identity around politics and look to it to complete their natures. These overpoliticized people come in two forms: the aspirational and the tribal. The aspirational hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning. They were inspired by the lofty rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. The possibilities, he argued, were limitless: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”
The problem with this lofty rhetoric is that politics can rarely deliver, so there is a cynical backlash when the limited realities of government reassert themselves. This inevitable letdown is happening to a lot of President Obama’s supporters right now.
Then there are those who look to politics for identity. They treat their partisan affiliation as a form of ethnicity. These people drive a lot of talk radio and television. Not long ago, most intelligent television talk was not about politics. Shows would put interesting people together, like Woody Allen with Billy Graham (check it out on YouTube), and they’d discuss anything under the sun.
Now most TV and radio talk is minute political analysis, while talk of culture has shriveled. This change is driven by people who, absent other attachments, have fallen upon partisanship to give them a sense of righteousness and belonging.
This emotional addiction can lead to auto-hysteria.
So if politics should not be nothing in life, but not everything, what should it be? We should start by acknowledging that except for a few rare occasions — the Civil War, the Depression — government is a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks.
Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.
Government is the hard work of creating a background order, but it is not the main substance of life. As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.
It is just too balky an instrument. As we’re seeing even with the Obamacare implementation, government is good at check-writing, like Social Security, but it is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down. It’s hard to use economic incentives to get people moving in one direction. Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.
So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing. Government is essential, but, to switch metaphors ridiculously, it’s the stem of the flower, not the bloom. The best government is boring, gradual and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.
I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun. I wish our talk-show culture reflected that balance, and that the emotional register around politics were more in keeping with its low but steady nature.
Well, at least he seems aware that he did perform a public service by shutting the eff up for three months… Here’s Mr. Nocera:
In May, Carolyn McCarthy, a nine-term congresswoman from Long Island, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her treatment began almost immediately, causing her to take a lengthy absence from her office while she fought the disease. At the same time, McCarthy, 69, ended a pack-a-day cigarette habit that she’d had for most of her life, presumably because she understood the link between cigarette-smoking and lung cancer. Scientists estimate that smoking plays a role in 90 percent of lung cancer deaths.
“Since my diagnosis with lung cancer,” she wrote in a recent legal filing, “I have had mental and emotional distress and inconvenience. I am fearful of death.” She added, “My asbestos-related condition has disrupted my life, limiting me in my everyday activities and interfering with living a normal life.”
Yes, that’s right. It’s hard these days for smokers to sue tobacco companies because everyone knows the dangers of cigarettes. Instead, McCarthy has become part of a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing companies that once used asbestos.
With asbestos litigation well into its fourth decade — the longest-running mass tort in American history — you’d think the plaintiffs’ bar would have run out of asbestos companies to sue. After all, asbestos lawsuits have bankrupted more than 100 companies. Yet McCarthy has found more than 70 additional companies to sue, including General Electric and Pfizer. Asbestos litigation, says Lester Brickman, a professor at Yeshiva University and perhaps the most vocal critic of asbestos lawsuits, “is a constant search for viable defendants.” Because asbestos was once such a ubiquitous product, there is always somebody else to sue.
Let me stipulate right here that exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The worst illness it causes is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that essentially suffocates its victims to death. If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue. That’s how the tort system is supposed to work.
But, over the years, plaintiffs’ lawyers have brought tens of thousands of bogus cases. They took doctors on their payroll to industrial sites, where all the employees would be screened for signs of an asbestos-related disease. They found some real cases, of course — along with many that could never have stood up in court. Nonetheless, by bundling real cases with phony ones — and filing giant lawsuits — they took down one company after another.
The bankrupt company would then put money aside in a trust that would parcel out payments to asbestos victims. The trusts have billions of dollars to disburse and are largely controlled by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. It is a compensation system that runs alongside the tort system.
Eventually, the judiciary got tired of dealing with all the “nonmalignant” cases, as they are called, relegating them to the trusts. At that point, the lawyers mainly handled mesothelioma cases, of which there were some 2,500 a year, and which could generate large payments — usually between $500,000 to $5 million.
But, soon enough, the asbestos lawyers came up with a new tactic: finding lung cancer victims who had some exposure to asbestos. All of a sudden, lung cancer cases exploded in volume. “There is nothing new in the science to suggest an upsurge in cases,” says Peter Kelso, an asbestos expert with Bates White Economic Consulting. “It is just basically due to economic incentives.” That is, by bundling lung cancer cases with other cases, the plaintiffs’ lawyers could bring a new set of companies to heel. For many companies, it is cheaper to settle than fight.
Which brings us back to Congresswoman McCarthy. Her claim for “asbestos exposure” is that when she was young, her father and her brother worked as boiler makers, and she came into contact with asbestos dust because they all lived under the same roof. Plus, she says in her legal filing, she “visited and picked up my father and brother at the various work sites, including Navy Yards, Bridges, Hospitals, Schools, Powerhouses, and other sites where I breathed the asbestos dust.”
Her lawyer at Weitz & Luxenberg — which has feasted for decades on asbestos lawsuits — told The New York Post that “it has been conclusively proven that cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure act synergistically to cause lung cancer.” Actually, it hasn’t been: There are plenty of studies saying there is no synergy at all. At best, the science is muddled.
Not that that matters. No doubt McCarthy’s lawsuit will be bundled by her law firm with other cases to force a company that had nothing to do with her disease to pay up. I hope McCarthy wins her battle with lung cancer. It is an awful disease. But the right thing for her to do is drop this lawsuit. All it has really accomplished is showing how asbestos litigation is a giant scam.
Of course one data point is everything… Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
When they were 11 years old, Kylee and Starr split a stolen Coors and made a wordless pact, pricking their fingers with a cactus needle to let their blood run together. The gesture symbolized the girls’ hope — their determination — that their lives would always be joined just as closely.
“You had this idea that I’ll never forget,” Kylee told Starr much later on. “People move places and change careers for their spouses. And you said to me, ‘Why can’t we do that for our friendship?’ ”
“We didn’t get reinforcement for that idea,” Starr said. “We got a lot of pats on the head and ‘Oh, that’s a nice idea, girls, but life happens.’ ”
It does. And often the only people who go the turbulent distance with you, there at almost every critical juncture, are the ones who wear tags like mother or father, sister or brother, husband or wife. They have more motivation and more of an obligation to stick.
But sometimes it works out differently. Kylee and Starr each went on to marry and have kids, but more than 25 years after their pact, when they sat down in 2007 to speak about it, they were living on the same street, sharing the burdens that needed sharing and no more able to envision separate existences than they had been when they drank that illicit beer. If that’s not family — real family — please tell me what is.
I read about them in a new book, “Ties That Bind,” which showcases conversations like theirs from the StoryCorps project, an evolving oral history that records pairs of individuals talking about the sacrifices each has made for the other, the favors bestowed, the forgiveness granted. Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, culled about 40 of these encounters for the book, which coincides with the project’s 10th anniversary.
A slight majority of the pairs in the book are linked by DNA, marriage or such. They’re kin in the conventional sense. But what struck me most forcefully was how many others had found extraordinary, enduring intimacy outside of that context, stretching the definition of family, making clear that it’s not just or even chiefly about common genes, common beds.
It’s about common needs, common generosity. It’s an act of will as much as an accident of birth. That’s worth remembering during this merrymaking, reunion-heavy season, when “family” is usually invoked in terms too narrowly traditional. They fail to recognize that former schoolmates, fellow churchgoers, neighbors or other friends can mean every bit as much to you as any actual relatives do. They fail to acknowledge how many people have been let down by those relatives, and have forged a family of their own invention.
That’s true of Chelda, who was 24 in 2009, when she and her best friend, Georgia, two years older, recorded the conversation that appears in “Ties That Bind.”
“I remember growing up and picturing this fairy-tale life,” Chelda said, mentioning two of television’s happiest tribes, the Brady bunch and the Huxtables. “But I didn’t have the family network that I wanted.” She decided that Georgia would fill the gap. She clung to her. And when she got pregnant unexpectedly during graduate school, it was Georgia who rushed to her side and stayed there.
As good as we humans are at division, we’re better still at connection. “Ties That Bind” shows this again and again, even presenting the astonishing story of a woman in constant contact with the man who killed her only son and served 17 years behind bars for his crime. At the time of their recorded conversation in 2011, he was out of prison and living next door to her. She was calling him “son.” And he was professing his love for her and helping to fill the very hole in her life that he, with a bullet, had created.
“Our relationship is beyond belief,” she said.
It certainly didn’t follow any predictable script, and neither did the relationship that Tim, a former nurse, has with Barbara, whose husband, a quadriplegic, he once tended to, bringing the couple a crucial comfort. When Tim later developed AIDS, Barbara assumed the role of caregiver and moved him into her home. She spoon-fed him six times a day. They, too, are like mother and child.
In the book there are teachers and students whose closeness transcended and outlasted the classroom. There’s a mentally challenged woman, Janice, who has lived for more than a decade with Sadie, the friend who essentially rescued her from a family that used her as an unpaid housekeeper, seldom let her out into the world and went so far as to have her sterilized. The tenderness between the two women is palpable and breathtaking.
“Your house is the White House to me,” Janice told Sadie last year, when their conversation was recorded.
“We’re not biologically tied,” Sadie said. “We are spiritually tied.” Lucky for them, lucky for all of us, that twine can be as thick as blood.