Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No Future?

On the heels of watching Silkwood, and then reading about MOOCs and all the other ways my industry is being destroyed, I came across this blog post with its clip of The Sex Pistols singing "God Save the Queen."  A few hours earlier, my friend said, "I worry about what's ahead for the younger generation."

I said, "I worry about my generation."  But I really worry about us all.

I find old punk music to be oddly comforting.  We've thought we were doomed before--watch The Sex Pistols sing it:  "No future, no future, no future for you."  Reread Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way to remember just how bad the social conditions were that spawned the punk movement.

Maybe we'll get some vibrant music out of these hard times.  Maybe some unlikely heroes will emerge.

I've been immersed in the 80's, so it was strange to wake up this morning to hear that C. Everett Koop had died.

There are very few members of the Reagan administration whom I respected much, although time has softened my outlook.  I tend to believe that people are doing the best job that they can do, which doesn't stop them from being horribly uninformed or working under outdated paradigms or feeling the beginning effects of diseases which dull the judgment.

But I still find Koop's story inspiring.  I remember him as being the only Reagan administration official who would even talk about AIDS--and then he did it so openly and matter-of-factly that I thought we might survive the plague after all.

Now in an age when so many people view AIDS as a manageable disease, we forget how terrifying it was in its early days.  I'm convinced that it was a more virulent disease then--watch those documentaries that have footage from the early days of the disease and notice how quickly those AIDS victims were turned into walking corpses--and then dead corpses.

Could more people have been saved if we'd just been honest from the beginning and had a frank discussion about body fluids, clean needles, and condoms?  Maybe.  In the intervening years, I've been amazed at the poor decisions of all sorts that people make as they gamble that the ill effects won't catch up with them or that reality doesn't apply to them.

I remember cheering for Koop, who steadfastly acted like a scientist and the nation's doctor, not like a moralist.  He showed us all how to behave like grown ups.

Today I read this article in The Washington Post about Koop's life.  I knew about his accomplishments during my lifetime, but I didn't realize how much he had done in the field of pediatric medicine, particularly surgery.  Not only do we have a generation or two who came of age in the early days of AIDS alive because of Koop's actions, but countless babies too.

I love that Koop was 64 and retired when he was tapped to be surgeon general.  I'm collecting these stories of people who go on to accomplish important events when they're at midlife or beyond.  They make me feel hopeful.

Koop also had no training in public health--but look at what he was able to accomplish.  Yesterday I talked about Silkwood, and being amazed at the depiction of the constant smoking in that movie.  People smoked at work, in restaurants, everywhere--but we don't do that anymore, and Koop deserves a chunk of credit for changing our habits.  He was just as blunt about the effects of tobacco as he was about AIDS and unprotected sex.

I want to watch the movie How to Survive a Plague, and it's cheap enough and sounds inspiring enough that I'll probably buy a copy.  It's about those early days of the AIDS crisis, and how people came together to demand social justice.  It's good to remember what can be accomplished.

Koop's life reminds us how much one human life can make a difference too, and how we may not fully know what we'll be called upon to do.  In the days when it feels like I'm a victim of events I can't control (the economy, which still feels wretched to me, the changes coming to higher ed, the changes coming to my own school), it's good to remember that ordinary humans can live in the face of extraordinary changes and make the world better.

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