In “Active Fatalism” Mr. Cohen says we We have heroism all wrong. He thinks we should consider Sisyphus happy: He has a task and it is his own. In “How to Defeat Ebola” Mr. Kristof says to protect America from Ebola, we should ignore the hysteria and focus on stopping the outbreak at its source. Ms. Collins, in “What Women Want,” says from personhood to motherhood, women’s issues dominate 2014 campaigns. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
A core problem with the modern world is that we have heroism all wrong. It is not just the conflation of heroes with celebrities as role models, giving rise to the endless magazine lists of ways to be more like Beyoncé. The more serious issue is how, in the rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts, we forget the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day. I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and the soldier-hero (not to mention the hedge-fund honchos and other quick-killing merchants thrust into the contemporary pantheon) than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.
A few weeks back I was listening to remarks by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The minister was the target of an assassination attempt in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own.”
The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.
Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” In besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 the freest people in the encircled city were those who, every day, dressed impeccably, went to work and did their jobs, thereby demonstrating “inat,” or scorn, for the barbaric gunners in the hills. It was absurd to work, just as the existence of a European city cut off and surrounded by a dirt trench was absurd, but in the everyday duty fulfilled lay liberation of sorts. Similarly, the labor of Sisyphus may be the embodiment of the absurd, which is the human condition, but he is freed by his lucid knowledge and acceptance of his task. He keeps pushing even if the pushing appears to lead nowhere. Camus’ conclusion is that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one. Rieux suddenly speaks his mind:
“I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.
“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”
The next day, Rambert calls the doctor and says he wants to work with him in the emergency teams battling the plague. Later in the novel, Rieux says, “I feel more solidarity with the defeated than with saints. I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”
These are almost forgotten ideas in an age much taken, on the one hand, with a kind of sentimental or gimmicky “heroism,” and, on the other, with the revealed truth of religion that is held to resolve the absurdity of life, subsuming the individual into some greater pattern of meaning that brings salvation. I prefer the approach to life summed up by Camus as active fatalism. The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads. I am with Rieux when he says, “Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go that far. What interests me is man’s health, his health first of all.”
I have my heroes. We all do. They are the nameless ones.
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.
In New Jersey, two students from Rwanda, which has had no Ebola cases and is 2,800 miles from the affected countries in West Africa, are being kept home. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria, initially stating that it would not accept students from countries with Ebola cases — a bit problematic because that would mean no longer accepting Americans.
The former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, suggested (perhaps satirically) one way to control the disease: All people who tested positive for the Ebola virus could be “humanely put down.”
Many Republicans and some Democrats have been calling for a ban on flights from the Ebola-affected West African countries. A Reuters poll indicated that almost three-quarters of Americans favored such a ban on flights.
It’s a superficially attractive idea, but also a reflection of our mixed-up notions of how to protect ourselves. The truth is that Ebola is both less serious and far more serious than we think.
It’s less serious here because, in the end, the United States and other countries with advanced health systems can suppress Ebola outbreaks. Granted, the Dallas hospital bungled its response. Still, if Nigeria and Senegal can manage Ebola successfully, so can the United States. We won’t have an epidemic here.
Yet Ebola is more serious because there is a significant risk that it will become endemic in West Africa and spin off to other countries in the region or to India, Bangladesh or China. Ebola in India would be a catastrophe.
Oxfam rightly warns that more resources are needed to prevent Ebola from becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation.” And if the virus lingers or spreads among poor countries, it will periodically travel to America. In a globalized world, Ebola anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.
There are also security risks. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group, tried to collect Ebola samples in Congo in 1992 for bioterror weapons but failed. Today, it would be easy to collect the virus, and a few suicide operatives could deliberately contract Ebola and then travel to the United States to spread the virus. (However, if the aim is mass murder, it would be simpler and probably more effective just to set off bombs.)
In any case, the point is that global health is not just a warm and fuzzy kind of aid. It’s also self-interest. It’s also national security. The best way to protect ourselves is to eradicate Ebola at its source.
A flight ban would hamper that effort by making it more difficult to get health workers and supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Dr. Peter Piot, who helped identify Ebola in 1976, tells me that flight bans would be counterproductive because they would “make aid really more difficult and expensive.”
Likewise, Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, tells me bluntly: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours — and worsen the epidemic.”
Even airport screenings may be a feel-good distraction. An editorial in BMJ, a medical journal, noted that Canada used questionnaires and thermal scanners to screen hundreds of thousands of people for SARS, spent $15 million, and didn’t find a single case. The editorial suggests that airport screening “will have no meaningful effect” and that resources would be better used fighting Ebola in West Africa.
For all the fuss about our own borders, not nearly enough is being done where it counts most: in West Africa. Bravo to President Obama for pledging up to 4,000 troops to fight the disease there, but the United States and other countries must do far more — and quickly! — if Ebola is to be defeated.
The number of Ebola cases is still doubling every two to four weeks, and these countries can’t defeat the outbreak on their own. Liberia is said to have only 50 practicing doctors, according to Reuters, and there appear to be more Liberian doctors practicing in the United States than in Liberia. That brain drain means that Liberia, in effect, is providing medical foreign aid to the United States.
These are lovely countries with friendly people and some heroic health workers, but roads, electricity and other infrastructure are desperately weak. All of Liberia can produce less than one-third as much electricity as the Dallas Cowboys football stadium consumes at peak times.
That’s why the American military’s help in West Africa is crucial, and why it’s a disgrace that less than half of a Sept. 16 United Nations target for Ebola response funds has been raised.
Our values and interests coincide here. So let’s calm down and get to work protecting America from Ebola by stopping this disaster at its source.
And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:
Women are big this election season. No group is more courted. It’s great! The issues are important. Plus, we all enjoy the occasional pander.
Candidates are re-interpreting their old arguments in a new, woman-centric way. In Michigan, the Democratic Senate candidate defines his opponent’s opposition to Obamacare as a plan to “cut women’s access to … mammograms.” In Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell has female surrogates claiming that his opponent, Alison Grimes, is trying to convince women that they “can’t graduate from college without raising your taxes.” This appears to be an oblique reference to Grimes’s call for reduced rates on student loans.
The College Republican National Committee has been investing heavily in online ads aimed at fans of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress,” in which the dresses are named after gubernatorial candidates. If you are in, say, Florida, you’ll see a happy young woman trying on wedding gowns, twirling around and announcing that “The Rick Scott is perfect,” while her irritating mother demands that she take the Charlie Crist dress, even though it’s unflattering and costs more money. As a writer in Jezebel noted, it seems to have been made by people who felt the best way to communicate with female voters is “to explain things in terms of bridal wear.”
In Colorado, some commentators have given Democrat Mark Udall the nickname “Mark Uterus” because Udall has run so hard on women’s reproductive rights. It is definitely true that Udall has devoted a prodigious amount of ad-time to the fact that his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, is a longtime supporter of the personhood movement, which declares all fertilized eggs are human beings. Voters find this idea so unnerving that a personhood amendment to the Constitution was soundly defeated in Mississippi. As well as Colorado, twice. Where it is on the ballot in November, yet again.
Gardner said he had changed his mind about the state constitutional amendment after it was overwhelmingly rejected in 2010 and he suddenly realized that it would have an effect on contraceptives. He is still a co-sponsor of a federal personhood bill, which he claims is merely “a statement that I support life.” Personally, I can see why Udall might feel that this matter deserves more inquiry.
To rise to the level of hard-core pandering, a candidate has to float free of issues and waft into the ether of personal feelings. Consider Michigan, where Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for Senate, has been running as a person who’s been victimized for being a mother.
The issue here is that Land has developed a tendency to deflect questions by mentioning that she’s a parent. Local columnists have begun to make jokes about it, and there were suggestions that the mom-mentions might make a good drinking game. A spokesperson for Land’s opponent, Gary Peters, said that being a mom was a good thing, but a strange point to bring up when the issue at hand was, say, ISIS.
“Well, I’m a mom, and I tell you, moms look at things from their perspective,” said Land in a comment that her staff mass-mailed under the headline “ ‘Well, I’m a Mom,’ Terri Lynn Land Fires Back.” Soon, prominent female Republicans were dropping hints that Michelle Obama might want to intervene on behalf of motherhood.
What do you think? How much mom-mentioning is too much? Here in New York, we have a candidate for Congress who’s running under the slogan “Doctor. Mother. Neighbor.” Does that sound a little … vague?
One thing we know: male candidates who get in trouble over issues of sexism are not allowed to get out of it by marshaling all the women in their family to pose for a campaign ad. Really, that’s just one step short of dragging your wife into the press conference where you announce you’re resigning due to those sexting charges.
We are thinking here about Representative Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who sent out invitations to a male-only campaign event that suggested his guests “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”
Southerland is running against Democrat Gwen Graham, and doing such a swell job of it that in a year that House Republicans are expecting a big sweep, he’s in trouble. Possibly more endangered than the guy in Staten Island who was indicted for perjury and tax fraud shortly after threatening to throw a TV reporter over a Capitol balcony.
When The Tampa Bay Times asked him about the male-only event, Southerland laughed and said: “I live with five women. That’s all I’m saying. I live with five women. Listen: Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?”
Now he’s up with a new ad in which he stands surrounded by his sister, mother, daughters and his wife, who announces: “Steve’s heart is in the right place.”
But his brain (which I wonder if he has) is right up his ass.