1— “And that’s the way it is.”
A totally emo hedge-fund manager, a dead Syrian boy and the Pope walk into a bar… I wish there was some obvious punch line or humor that could be drawn from these seemingly unrelated topics, but I fail to see any at this point. But, maybe that is the humor of this classic joke formula — its about finding the unseen familiarity between things perceived as unrelated or in opposition. And, even if you think the subjects of the joke are unrelated, or if the punch line does not grant any semblance of connectivity, remember the underlining premise of the joke— they’re all in the same bar! It begins with the assertion that they are connected in their casual activities of life, in the friends they keep and so on. After a long day of whatever the Pope does all day and whatever Rabbi’s do all day, they can clock-out of their respective dogmatisms and unwind together with a beer and a round of table shuffle-board— and, by the way, I would totally go to this bar! Years ago a colleague and I had the privilege of working with Walter Cronkite for a debate forum on prayer in school and after the debate Cronkite rambled on about how he hates participating in these types of events — namely, debates with religious leaders — because, as he stated, the best thing to do after a rousing discussion is to go to a bar and get drunk and these religious folks never wanna get drunk with Walter. I wish I had a real life antidotal joke that begins with: a theist, an atheist and Walter Cronkite walk into a bar, but, to my dismay, I do not. And this failed joke reenactment does not imply that they have nothing in common, but, on the contrary they have plenty in common (as we all do) and their resistance to slum with Walter in a bar comes from a deep resistance to admit that there is a common thread, that we are all the same. But, enough about that, let’s discuss this Emo kid and some cartoons.
The American Internet seems to be in an uproar over the recent “overnight” rise in price of the Daraprim drug after it was purchased by Turing Pharmaceuticals, which is owned by former hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli. Meanwhile the European Internet is all up in arms over two provocative satirical comics by the weekly French publication Charlie Hebdo depicting a dead Syrian boy. Even in the Facebook philosophy group I am in the Martin Shkreli issue was not framed as debating the rising drug price, but rather it was inquiry into the ethics regarding killing Mr. Shkreli. In other words, he is officially the Internets asshole-of-the-day and Charlie Hebdo has officially gone too far— I mean a child? Seriously. That’s not cool. I am not going to defend Shkreli’s actions or say he is not worthy of his fifteen-minutes of shame, but I will posit that there is a kernel of insight to be gained from this and the comic and this insight comes from the response more than it does their actions.
2 — The creepy Emo kid comes to family fun night…
Imagine we are all involved in some gigantic super complex game of Monopoly that we have all been playing for decades — if not longer — and over the years the game has steadily and persistently increased both the competitiveness and the stakes for winning and losing. We have all tacitly agreed to the rules by the mere act of playing and accepting the economics of the game and even as the rules have become discordant and perhaps even entirely irrational — we keep playing. Turn after turn, we roll the dice, accept our fate, collect our $200 and cross-our-fingers in hopes of winning a beauty pageant or collecting on a bank error. Then at some point — seemingly out of the fucking blue — a player decides to up-the-rent of his properties by 5500% and although he did not break any rules of the game (as it has been played for years), all the players slam their hands in rage and blurt out a cacophony of obscenities at this power-seeking-power-player. Yes this player is an asshole and if this was a literal game of monopoly he probably wouldn’t get invited back, or at least better show up with cases of beer in both hands. But in our metaphorical game, the game does not end until you eventually lose and everybody, eventually, loses. And as quick as #trending_news stories fade into the background of internet relevancy — about two hours — the obscenities will get old and the next player will reluctantly grab the dice and take their turn. He is still an asshole, but we are still playing.
- Bruce Broussard of Humana makes $8.8 million a year
- Stephen Hemsley of United Health makes $12.1 million per year
- David Cordani of Cigna makes $13.5 million a year
- Michael Neidorff of Centene makes $14.5 million per year
- Joseph Swedish of WellPoint makes $17 million per year
- Mark Bertolini of Aetna makes $30.7 million per year.
These six white males are also power players, they are also assholes and they are also merely playing by the rules of the game that we all passively accepted. Shkreli may be exploiting HIV patients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and notwithstanding this indignant act of utter greed that has no wherewithal for the sick and suffering, but it is, really, just one drug. The aforementioned millionaires are the reason why our health insurance is so high, the reason why we pay more per capita than all industrialized nations for healthcare, but still have sub-par quality services. The reason the rules are what they are is because of men like this. They buy and sell political power like paltry little plastic green houses and use this power to slowly and persistently bend the rules in their favor. Creating conditions so they always win and we always lose. I am not saying these men in particular are doing anything in particular, as they don’t do anything directly. They hide behind the spirit of the game in a veil of clouded philosophy that purports and equivocates a concept of freedom. Namely, those six assholes and Mr. Hedge-fund manager are all free to be assholes and that is, as they’d argue, their path to freedom — copied and pasted from the logical predilections of Milton Friedman himself. This logic functions under the basic premise that we are all equally endowed by our creator with the capacity, if we so choose, to be the asshole. If I chose to lose, this is because I chose not to win. If I chose to be poor, it is because I chose not to be rich. If I chose not to be successful, it is because I chose not to pick up my bootstraps and proceed to stomp poor people in the fucking face.
The brass tacks of this currently trending internet whipping-boy is that in a few days the story will be done and we will go on with our lives and continue with our regularly scheduled program — namely, implicitly giving political credence to xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny by following the mind-numbing quasi-political publicity stunts of Donald Trump and as we all watch with car accident’esque fetishized amusement and slowly realize what exists in the crossroads of a Black Mirror episode and a train wreck in slow motion — HIV patients will continue to be exploited. Perhaps democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will, if elected president, follow through on her distasteful remarks about the bio-tech industry, or, conversely, maybe she will exploit the short attention span of the internet and further exploit the sick and suffering by using their misfortune as a means to give her polling numbers a tiny little push. And even if she is completely sincere in her comments, by the time she is actually in office — meaning in the year 2017 — this issue will be so far behind all of us that nobody will bring it up, nobody will care and HIV patients will still be exploited, and the suffering will continue to suffer. But, as I said earlier, this is just ONE drug and only one incident. One random asshole, doing some random asshole things to one particular exploited demographic. This sick and twisted winner-take all and fuck the rest, kill or be killed game we are all playing will keep on going and everyday you pick up the dice and roll again and again and again, you implicitly say: Yes, I agree to the rules. Yes, I will keep playing. And now and then some asshole will exploit the game to make a few bucks and then a short-lived belligerence will ensue and then end — ad, fucking, infinitum.
If the actions of Martin Shkreli upset you and if you think his actions are ethically impermissible, then please do not blame him. Blame yourself, blame me, blame your parents, blame Ronald Reagan, George H/W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Point your fingers in every direction because, to be frank, we are swimming in guilt and regarding the bitter ramifications of the game we play, the world we live and the reality we reinforce, champion and propagate through every living action — we are all wholly culpable for the implicit and explicit tragedies of our capitalist mecca. From the tragically high child poverty levels to the worlds highest prison population. From the stagnant wages of the middle class to the outright refusal to raise minimum wage from below the poverty line. And for all of this, we are all to blame. Martin Shkreli may be the current poster-boy of the woes of predatory capitalism and perhaps this evil personification helps us absolve ourselves from any responsibility and maybe this feels good and maybe I will sleep better tonight knowing its all his fault. But what is that worth? There is great wisdom to be inferred by Søren Kierkegaard, as he speaks to the true power of religion: the notion that some outwardly and objectified humanoid par excellence can either be the container for our sins (Jesus) or the container for the sins we are too cowardly to accept as our own (Satan) and through the whims and ease of our defense mechanisms we can project this onto any personified agent we wish — insofar as they are objectified into non-subjects, to ensure empathy doesn’t wedge it’s way into the scene. The Internet, in all its objectified glory, is a haven for such things. Who’s really to blame?
3 — Have you heard the joke about the dead Syrian boy….?
You may have read what I have written thus far and can already see where I am going with this, and I will reward such great foresight with a joke — since I left you hanging earlier:
A guy takes his wife to have an operation and then talks after the operation to the doctor. First the good news, the doctor says, your wife will survive and she will even live longer than you. Then, what’s the bad news? The doctor says, the bad news is, you know, there are some problems. As the result of the operation, she will no longer be able to control her anal muscles so there will be excrement dripping all the time. And there will be some strange fluid escaping from her vagina, so no sex. Of course, the guy gets more and more into a panic. My God. You know what the doctor does then?
He taps the guy on the shoulder and says, oh no, this was just a joke, everything is okay…she died during the operation. (Zizek)
This rather unsavory joke of Zizek’s illustrates the idea of narrowing in and focusing on the wrong part of the problem. The doctor rightly presumes that the husband would consider his wife alive but incapable of sex as being significantly worse than if she actually died and this gross disparity in perspective is the husband prioritizing his two bad options in purely a temporal way— a dead wife will cause suffering and grief that could last years, but, conversely, a wife with shit leaking out of her ass and no more sex will last a lifetime. Would I rather suffer a lot temporarily or a little forever?
The satirical point Charlie Hebdo is making with these two comics is, to be blunt, Europeans — specifically European Christians — are hypocrites. Starting with the comic on the left the cartoon depicts a Jesus-like character walking on water, while a young Syrian refugee is seemingly dead-in-the-water— highlighting that the “proof that Europeans are Christians” is evident in their superiority over the Muslims. We, European Christians, metaphorically walk on water, while the meek little Syrian children run to us for help and die drowning in the process. You see, we are better. The irony and power of the piece is the moral infraction of implicitly self-crowning themselves as ontologically superior while watching children suffer and die. The dead Syrian boy is proof of both Christian superiority and inferiority in the same moment of poetic interpellation — or in Hegelian parlance the negation of the negation. And then the comic on the right highlights the teleology of the the second head of Western Civilizations pervasive two-headed ideological beast — capitalism qua consumerism. Come to Europe, migrate here, buy our crap, spend your money— CONSUME! Oh wait, you’re dead? But we have an AMAZING HOT! sale going on… buy one child meal and get one free… two children exploited for the price of one!! Isn’t this the reason you came to Europe in the first place— for our economic opportunities? To lavish, instead of famish? Dead children are a useless consumer/commodity anyway. #Old_news Perhaps if you would have accepted our religion and economics earlier — apathetically assimilated into western culture — none of this would have happened.
Many people on the Internet have expressed outrage towards this comic and feel it was insensitive to depict a dead Syrian boy, but just like the Zizekian joke their outrage is from myopically and compulsively focusing on the wrong part of the cartoon. In sum, they completely missed the point. The Syrian refugee crisis, as tragic as it is, is relatively temporary — meaning, it will have an end. And it is easier to be gravely upset over the temporary travesties of the Syrian refugee crisis — as depicted through the dead Syrian boy — as it is to accept the notion that the real problem is the metaphorical two-headed beast of Western ideology that happens to have a leaky asshole and can no longer grant us any pleasure — even simple pleasure — and this problem is permanent. I rather suffer a lot temporarily than a little forever.
As I stated in the introduction the insight to be gained from this cartoon comes from the analysis of the response rather than the cartoon itself. The cartoon itself is a clever satire that pokes fun at Eurocentrism, but the response speaks in depth to the real problem, which is, ironically so, that they don’t think there is a problem in the first place. If you see the satirical cartoon and all you see is the dead child, beyond just missing the humor, you are failing to acknowledge the possibility that European (and western civilization in whole) economic imperialism holds a large burden of responsibility for the tragedies of the global south and the undeveloped world. If seeing cartoons of dead children offends you, well, this is — I hate to be the one to tell you — how, as they say, the sausage is made. And, by sausage, I mean your way of life. Your smart phone, your cars, your homes, your internet and all of your perceived freedoms. Education, security and even modern sanitation. All of this modern luxury has a price and many real children paid for your material life, with their real life. This cartoon should make you angry and enraged, but — as you get the behind-the-scenes tour of the capitalism factory and see what really goes into your cup of Starbucks — focus that anger internally at yourself, and not at the tour guide— and especially not at Charlie Hebdo.
4 — Hostis Humani Generis
And now we move on to the third and final part of our joke — the Pope. Considering that many members of the GOP and their propaganda machine (FOX news) were explicitly requesting that the Pope not enter the United States, it seems rather self-evident to apply my previous argument to their tactful childishness. However, I think it’d be better to move on to something positive and conclude on some notes that help move forward and show what can learn from the Pope, rather than continue to highlight political insolence.
I am not a Catholic and I am not one to stand up and defend Catholicism in any context, nor do I think the Pope (and by extension the Catholic church) is wholly exemplary of my political disposition. That is not to say that the Pope is unaligned with my politics or partially aligned, but it is only to say that in whole I cant say I agree with him on every issue (sociopolitically speaking). The republican party seemed to be slightly annoyed (and bordering on perplexed) why the Catholics high-priest was not completely aligned with their right-winged ideology and this was underscored when the Pope rejected offers by congressional leaders to have lunch — the Pope had a previous engagement to help feed the homeless in Washington D.C..
In the United States the GOP has done a masterful job at weaving a moral narrative that strategically aligns the values of the Grand ol’ Party with the values of Christian populism; to create the tacit ideological connection that a vote for a republican is akin to supporting the church and a vote for a non-republican is equal to a vote against the church. This categorical alignment of two different ideological systems took decades to solidify and this is exactly what the separation of church and state was designed to protect against. The Pope, ironically as he is a religious leader, does not align political power as being equal to religious power, nor does he even see religious power as a thing to be used viciously as a means to an end.
The Pope see’s poverty, oppression, exploitation and, regarding climate change, man-made disasters on our horizon. He is apolitical. He is non-capitalistic. Does making money matter to him — no. Does it matter to him if green-tech creates less jobs than fossil fuels — no. The Pope was not making a request for political action or to pass specific laws regarding any of the aforementioned concerns, although he most likely would not be opposed to such action. What he was asking for when he spoke to a joint meeting of congress was that America lead by example. That we show leadership, but not in our economic and military prowess, but in the depth of our character and breadth of our humanity. The Pope wants us to look at Martin Shkreli and not see some asshole that needs to be punished or have his personal information stamped all over the internet by hackers, but rather, I argue, he’d perceive Shkreli as a reflection of the society we built, or when we look at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons we should not ask why is their a dead boy or should we let in the refugees, but rather ask — why would we not? This reminds me of a famous and commonly cited quote from Winston Churchill — when he was asked about cutting art funding to free up capital for the war effort Churchill responded with, “then what are we fighting for?” To apply Churchill’s wisdom to the current problems of modernity I redundantly ask, what are we fighting for? This is not a political question, but rather a philosophical one. What kind of humans do we want to be? What kind of children do we want to raise? When our society is looked upon from the outside, from an apolitical spiritual leader what qualities do we wish that they see? Do we want the outside world to perceive Americans as good humans? Or just rich. Or powerful. Or a county who’s number one export is the creation of assholes? I don’t think the solution lies in something as simple as the axiom: be the change you wish to see in the world, as that expression only holds resolve for the individual and it allows people to ignore what others do if they perceive their actions to be aligned with the better world they envision. Alas we should say: fight for the change you wish to see in the world. In the end I do not blame Martin Shkreli or Charlie Hebdo or even Donald Trump — this is all a reflection of our own flagrant complacency and as the Pope would most likely agree: our humanity should not be measured by the strength of our sword as it’s wielded by the mightiest of our swordsmen; but rather, our humanity, our dignity, as an ends in-itself just shouldn’t be measured at all.
Je suis Martin Shkreli and so are you.
Kierkegaard, S. Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957. Print.