September 22, 2008

1. Movies

I saw a great movie: Joyeux Noel. It’s about World War I, and it’s based on real events. It gives you a sense of what it was like to be a World War I soldier. It achieves what Henry James said literature should achieve: it lifts up the heart.

I read a movie review by John Podhoretz. “The only arguably great film made in France in the past three decades,” Podhoretz writes, “is Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette from 1986, a magnificent epic on a small scale about a disputed water hole in Provence.”1 This movie (and its sequel, Manon of the Spring) has long been a favorite of mine, so I was glad to find that Podhoretz was impressed with it, too.

2. Palin

Sarah Palin has taken the country by storm. When I first saw her (when McCain announced her as his running-mate), I was bowled over by this fresh face, this energy, this spirit. She made an even stronger impression at her second appearance — her convention speech. McCain’s choice of Palin may turn out to be the decisive event of the campaign; she may attract enough voters to put McCain “over the top.”

When was the last time that a newcomer made such an impact on American politics? In 2004, when Obama spoke at the Democratic convention.

One pundit called Palin “a genius pick.” Another pundit said that Palin was Bill Kristol’s idea. (Does this mean that Kristol is a genius? If I were to name two geniuses on the American political scene, it would be Kristol and Kissinger.) About a year ago, Kristol went to Alaska and spent some time with Palin. Soon he began touting her for Vice President. Kristol and McCain seem to be on friendly terms. When McCain was asked if Palin was Kristol’s idea, he seemed to confirm that she was: “even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while,” McCain said.

Six months ago, on March 10, Kristol wrote thus in the New York Times:

Perhaps the most obvious way McCain could upend the normal dynamics of this year’s election would be a bold vice presidential choice. He could pick a hawkish and principled Democrat like Joe Lieberman. He could reach beyond the usual bevy of elected officials by tapping either David Petraeus or Raymond Odierno — the two generals who together, in an amazing demonstration of leadership and competence, turned the war in Iraq around last year. He could persuade the most impressive conservative in American public life, Clarence Thomas, to join the ticket. There are other unorthodox possibilities.

But whomever he picks, and whatever issues he emphasizes, McCain should keep following Danton’s injunction: “Il faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.”

Notice that phrase, “There are other unorthodox possibilities.” Was Kristol already thinking of Palin, but didn’t want to say so? Did he want to keep silent about Palin in order to maximize “the element of surprise,” maximize her effect? Certainly the Palin pick was consistent with Kristol’s advice: be audacious. (I thought that quote was from Frederick the Great, not Danton. Didn’t Frederick say something similar?)

This wouldn’t be the first time that Kristol has rocked American politics. He and Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the House in ’94. (Was the phrase “Contract With America” coined by Kristol?) This stunning success only lasted a few minutes, though; no sooner did Gringrich reach the top of the mountain than he became big-headed, and started descending. Is Palin, too, going to be spoiled by success? Will she be able to resist the juicy book deals that seduced Gingrich?

Kristol’s influence hasn’t always helped Republicans. Perhaps more than anyone else, he persuaded the Bushies to invade Iraq, which has turned out to be a Republican albatross. Kristol still believes, though, that the situation in Iraq can be salvaged, and it seems that Republican fortunes can be salvaged, too.

Perhaps one thing that attracted Kristol to Palin is that she, like himself, is an athlete (a former basketball star). In an earlier issue, I noted the link between politics and sports, but I didn’t realize that this link applied to women as well as men. I listed some people who were involved in both sports and politics: Bush père, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Gerald Ford. Palin can be added to this list. Others can also be added: Lincoln (an outstanding wrestler), Fidel Castro (an outstanding baseball player), Bill Bradley (a basketball star at Princeton), Jack Kemp (a pro football player), J. C. Watts (a football star at Oklahoma), etc.

One of Palin’s critics is, oddly enough, Kristol’s former associate at the Weekly Standard, David Brooks. Brooks thinks that Palin is too much like Bush (George W. Bush) — too decisive, too bold, too inexperienced, too imprudent, too unscholarly.

Let’s assume that Kristol is a genius. Does he make good use of his genius? Certainly he has an effect on American society. But everything he writes is for a contemporary audience, he never writes for posterity; he writes journalism, not literature. Is this characteristic of modern culture? We’ve lost sight of posterity, we fall short of literature.

Kristol’s Weekly Standard recently carried an article called “Obama’s Faith-Based Politics: Or rather, his political religion.”2 The article said that some of the phrases from Obama’s convention speech were echoes of the Bible, but Obama used the phrases in a political rather than a spiritual sense.

Obama himself has said that as a result of attending Trinity United Church of Christ (when Jeremiah Wright was senior pastor) he came “to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active palpable agent in the world.” An active, palpable agent that can carry you around the bend to “that better place,” which is in this world and not to be confused with the next.

Early this year Joseph Knippenberg reviewed all that Obama had written or said about his faith. He concluded: “Obama’s religion seems to be emphatically political and only secondarily spiritual.... [His] view of the role of church elides the difference between religion and politics. [It] is a political religion, calling us not only to charitable action in civil society, but to political activism.”

Many of the atrocities of the 20th century were committed by people who made politics their religion. Isn’t this the common thread that runs through Communism, Nationalism, and Fascism — making politics a religion? Obama is a very impressive speaker — even Bill Kristol was impressed by his convention speech. Can political rhetoric soar without being religious? Can people be idealistic about both politics and religion — without making their politics religious, or their religion political? Is this an either/or, are you either idealistic about politics or religion, but not both?

3. The Human Body, etc.

Wanting to learn about the human body, I looked at J. Z. Young’s Introduction to the Study of Man. Young is highly respected in the field of biology; his textbooks on vertebrates and mammals won high praise from Colin Tudge. But Young’s Introduction to the Study of Man doesn’t focus on the human body, and didn’t interest me much.

So I began looking for a good book about the body. I discovered a writer named Sherwin Nuland, who has written several acclaimed books about the body, medical science, etc. Nuland is the father-in-law of Robert Kagan, whom I discussed in the last issue. In addition to writing about the body, Nuland also wrote studies of Maimonides and Leonardo. In an interview, Nuland says that Maimonides tried to make knowledge accessible; Nuland calls Maimonides “a Cliff Notes writer.” I’ve tried to do much the same thing, I’ve tried to make the classics accessible, philosophy and literature accessible.

The Maimonides book is part of a series of books dealing with Jewish culture. Another book in the series is Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. It’s by Rebecca Goldstein, who felt that she “betrayed” Spinoza by connecting his thought to his life, instead of treating his thought as the product of impersonal reason. The rational nature of Spinoza’s philosophy is unattractive to me, but I like his idea that nature and God are one and the same. I also like Spinoza’s idea that people should try to transcend their community, their religion, their nation — that we’re individuals first and foremost, and members of a group second (if at all).

Sherwin Nuland is one of the prominent intellectuals featured in TED Talks, a lecture series that can be seen on the Internet. A friend sent me a link to another TED Talk, a talk by a brain scientist named Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a brain injury, and was able to observe the dramatic changes in her functioning, her mental capacity. She talks about the difference between the right and left sides of the brain — a common topic in contemporary culture, but one that I never studied, perhaps because I was preoccupied with older books. The left side of the brain is what I call rational, logical, while the right side is Zennish — aware of the present moment, merged with the All, etc.

4. Selling Philosophy

A month or two ago, when the printer sent me about 50 copies of my new book (or perhaps I should say, the new version of my old book), I sent books to numerous people — prominent intellectuals, neighbors, relatives. Out of the 10 or 15 prominent intellectuals to whom I sent the book, not a single one even acknowledged receiving it. Though I had better luck with less prominent people, still not a single person (as far as I know) read the whole book with interest and enjoyment; most people said, “I plan to read it this summer,” or “I dipped into it several times.” The best response was from a neighbor, who said that he read several chapters, and liked them.

So if you’re an aspiring philosopher, don’t expect people to be eager to read your book — even if you give it away for free, even if you work on it for decades, even if you’re convinced of its merit, even if you’re sure people would like it if they took the trouble to read it.

One person said, “it’s just your personal view, your subjective view.” To which I would respond, “it’s no more subjective than Nietzsche’s works, or Thoreau’s, or Montaigne’s.” This is the challenge for an aspiring philosopher: How do you get people to approach your work as they approach the work of a dead philosopher?

I haven’t given up hope. I think I can bring my work to public attention, though I’m not sure how or when. China still has some interest in publishing my new version. As for my “other” book, my sketch of Western literature, I recently revised and expanded it, and put the new version on my website. If I can find a publisher for one of my books, perhaps I’ll be able to publish the other one, too.

5. Not 51

A. Chemo Testing: Weisenthal, etc.

My wife and I had our first conversation with the Oregon herbalists. They began by saying that we should have spoken sooner, we should have spoken before surgery. If we had, we might have been able to send some cancer tissue to a lab for “chemo testing”. Chemo testing (also called “ex vivo testing”) means treating live cancer tissue with 20-30 types of chemo, to see which chemo works and which doesn’t. Chemo testing is controversial; the oncology establishment insists that it doesn’t work. They prefer to treat everyone with the same chemo; they call this approach “standard care.”

The Oregon herbalists insist that the establishment has a “mental block” with respect to chemo testing; they insist that oncologists reject it without trying it (as the Shakespeare establishment dismisses the Oxford Theory without looking at its arguments). Chemo testing was tried in the 1950s, and didn’t work; it was tried again in the 1970s, and didn’t work. In recent decades, however, it has been refined. Its opponents remember its failures, and don’t bother to study its recent history. In 1999, Scientific American had an article about chemo testing’s recent successes.

I think the herbalists deserve credit for touting chemo testing, rather than touting their own products. They seem to regard chemo testing as the best arrow in their quiver. They recommend a chemo tester named Larry Weisenthal, who has worked in the field for many years.

One difficulty with chemo testing is that, because it’s controversial, it may not be covered by insurance. Furthermore, your oncologist may not be willing to cooperate. You may say to your oncologist, “I had live tissue tested by Weisenthal, and he says we shouldn’t use x, we should use y.” To which your oncologist might respond, “I don’t put any stock in chemo testing, I’m not going to follow Weisenthal’s recommendations.” I find chemo testing attractive for the same reason that I find the herbal approach attractive: it might allow us to improve our odds. The establishment’s “standard care” doesn’t offer us satisfactory odds.

Weisenthal has spent decades arguing with the establishment. I’ve also spent decades arguing with the establishment (regarding the occult, the Oxford Theory, etc.), so I see Weisenthal as a kindred spirit. Weisenthal and I both have a “contrarian edge,” we both take a dim view of the establishment. In my book of aphorisms, I questioned the practice of “peer review,” arguing that it blocked revolutionary ideas, ideas that the “peers” were hostile to. Weisenthal also questions peer review.3

Though we missed our first opportunity for chemo testing, another opportunity may arise in the future, if we do surgery again. It’s also possible to test dead cancer tissue; that seems to be less controversial, and less effective.4 One might call this sort of testing “tumor testing” rather than “chemo testing.” The herbalists recommend dead-tissue testing (though not as enthusiastically as they recommend live-tissue testing), but it doesn’t seem to be routine, and we haven’t been able to arrange it.

We considered several different oncologists. We spoke to an oncologist at DanaFarber, but he was determined not to be involved with chemo testing, and Yafei felt that DanaFarber was more interested in research studies than in treating individuals. Also, DanaFarber is a long drive for us (it’s in Boston, next to Brigham & Women’s Hospital, where we had surgery). We found an oncologist closer to home, who says she’ll “try anything”, including chemo testing.

When we met with the DanaFarber oncologist, I was too well prepared. I had read one of his essays on colon cancer, plus other essays; I had taken notes, prepared speeches in my mind, etc. Careful preparation can be dangerous; once you prepare speeches, you want to deliver them, whether the audience is receptive or not. I often had this experience when I ran a book group.

The establishment will only use remedies that are proven, supported by evidence, and the only evidence they respect is clinical trials. But they won’t conduct a clinical trial with chemo testing or with herbalism. So the system of clinical trials blocks innovation — prevents paradigm-busting ideas from getting a hearing.

The herbalists told us that standard chemo takes a toll on the body, and may not work. We asked if it’s possible to use the herbal approach in lieu of chemo. They said that a no-chemo approach would be easier if the tumor hadn’t been removed; once the tumor is removed, the cancer seems to work harder to spread (to “metastasize”).

They didn’t try to dissuade us from using chemo. If they did dissuade us from using chemo, they would shoulder the responsibility for Yafei’s life, and who would want that much responsibility?

Does cancer have a mind of its own? The establishment would say no; they limit the purview of mind. On the contrary, I’m inclined to extend the purview of mind, to say that everything has a mind of its own — people, animals, plants, even subatomic particles. So I’m naturally receptive to the view that cancer has a mind of its own, and that it spreads more aggressively if the primary tumor is removed.

What I don’t understand is, Why does cancer destroy the host organism? After all, if the host organism dies, the cancer dies, too. Why would cancer do something that eventually results in its own death?

Perhaps I shouldn’t view cancer as a separate organism, as an organism-within-an-organism, as an “enemy within”. Perhaps I should view it as part of the host organism — a part that is malfunctioning. Perhaps I should view it as cells that are malfunctioning, but still trying to live.

If the herbalists don’t try to dissuade us from chemo, then what are they doing? If they’re just supplementing chemo, why do we bother with them? We think they strengthen the body, and help it to cope with chemo. We think they enable people to survive longer, and perhaps be around when the “Big Cure” is discovered. Once the Big Cure is discovered, we can give up fruits and vegetables, go back to our beloved junk food, stop exercising, etc.

After our talk with the herbalists, they sent us a “protocol” — that is, a list of herbs and supplements that Yafei should take. The protocol is daunting. Don’t be surprised if you pay $600 for herbal medicines, and then can’t take them (because of side effects), or don’t want to take them, or decide to take only part of the protocol. In addition to this protocol, each of Yafei’s friends had diet suggestions — one suggested a magic pill, another a magic drink, a third a magic vegetable, etc.

B. Alternative Medicine vs. Establishment Medicine

Ten minutes after I started reading about medicine, I realized that there was a rift in the medical world, the same rift that exists in philosophy/psychology: a rift between establishment medicine, which I call chemical-rationalism, and alternative medicine, which tends to believe in mind-over-matter, and is interested in Eastern approaches, traditional approaches. The alternative guys say that stress is a factor in cancer — mind and matter are connected, inter-related. One of the alternative-medicine gurus, a Canadian named Gabor Maté, wrote a book called When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Another alternative-medicine guru is the American Andrew Weil.

One alternative guy, David Williams, puts a quote from Ben Franklin at the top of his newsletter: “You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known, and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on.” (This quote is taken from a letter that Franklin wrote in 1786 about lead poisoning. He says that he has been aware for many decades of the harmful effects of lead. Nonetheless, people still handle lead, and still become sick. In fact, lead paint was used until recently, and made people sick.) The alternative guys have been saying for years that plastic bottles were unsafe; now the establishment has decided that Type 3 and Type 7 plastic are indeed unsafe (they may contain a chemical called BPA).

The herbalists agree with Maté that stress is a factor in cancer. They argue that we should live healthy lives — physically and mentally healthy — in order to prevent cancer from gaining a foothold. Cancer crops up where cells are weak, as weeds crop up where grass is weak.

Our Western diet conduces to colon cancer; in India, where people eat less meat and more spices, colon cancer is unknown. India is predominantly Hindu, cows are sacred, and vegetarianism is common.

The herbalists say that the oncology establishment, instead of strengthening the body with natural remedies, poisons the body with chemo. The Roman historian Tacitus puts a speech into the mouth of a British chieftain, a speech excoriating the Romans for their lust to conquer. The chieftain says that the Romans make a desert, and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant5). This is what the herbalists say about the oncologists: they kill all the cells in your body with chemotherapy, and then say, “we’ve killed the cancer cells.”

The alternative guys have some passionate critics, just as students of the occult have passionate critics. There are websites devoted to debunking alternative medicine, such as www.ncahf.org and www.quackwatch.org.

An article from the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine takes aim at alternative medicine6:

Mainstream medicine should continue to be open to the testing of selected unconventional treatments. In keeping an open mind, however, the medical establishment in this country must not lose its scientific compass or weaken its commitment to rational thought and the rule of evidence.

The implication is that alternative medicine is unscientific, irrational, and unsupported by evidence. This is the sort of criticism to which the occult is often subjected. Indeed, the author of this article notes that the rift in the medical world is part of a larger rift in the intellectual world:

As defined by Weil, and by most of the other gurus of alternative medicine, alternative and mainstream medicine are not simply different methods of treating illness. They are basically incompatible views of reality and how the material world works.

The author says that Weil champions

systems of healing that are based on irrational or non-existent theories and are supported by no credible empirical evidence. But Weil wants to do more than to defend and to advocate the use of alternative healing. He wants to reform the medical establishment. His goal, he says, is to change the “paradigm” of medicine by integrating alternative methods and modes of thought into the teachings and practice of mainstream medicine. [The alternative approach is sometimes called “integrative medicine.”] That is his declared mission at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

The author sees his fight as part of a larger fight:

The authority of allopathic medicine [i.e., conventional medicine, as opposed to homeopathic medicine] is... being challenged by a swelling current of mysticism and anti-scientism that runs deep through our culture. Even as the number and the complexity of urgent technological and scientific issues facing contemporary society increase, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the scientific outlook and a reawakening of interest in mysticism and spiritualism.... All this obscurantism has given powerful impetus to the alternative medicine movement, with its emphasis on the power of mind over matter.

There’s optimism among some cancer scientists, and there are some promising new approaches. One is The Genetic Approach, which analyzes the genetic character of cancer cells, then forges a customized weapon. The Genetic Approach is already effecting some cures, and seems to have a bright future. Another new approach is The Filter Approach: draw some blood from the patient, run it through a new type of filter that collects cancer cells, see how the cancer is changing, then choose a remedy based on your findings (cancer seems to change form, and become resistant to the chemo that worked previously, hence the same patient may require different types of chemo at different times). The Filter Approach reminds me of the much-derided “chemo testing”.

In the last issue, I said you should have a colonoscopy at 50, not 51. Many people resist having a colonoscopy, but there’s a new screening test that’s easier: an x-ray colonoscopy (or “virtual colonoscopy”) that doesn’t require entering the body. So there are improved methods of detection, as well as improved methods of treatment.

C. An Herbalist’s Essay

One of the Oregon herbalists (one member of Donald Yance’s team), Jonathan Treasure, wrote an essay on herbal medicine and cancer. He says there were many herbalists in the U.S. in 1900, but they were hounded into the shadows by an alliance of conventional medicine and drug companies. “By 1934, there was not a single remaining botanical medical school in the U.S.” Herbalists risk prosecution: “herbalists who diagnose and treat medical conditions are vulnerable to the felony charge of practicing medicine without a license.”

Treasure says that leading hospitals have departments of “integrative medicine” but this is just “a cosmetic exercise in response to patient pressure and prospective-student demand.” When we were at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, we found a department of integrative medicine, but they had little interest in working with a cancer patient. It did indeed seem like a “cosmetic exercise.”

The herbalists say that food and medicine are connected. Treasure quotes Hippocrates: “let food be your medicine and medicine your food.” Our Western diet results in a high incidence of cancer:

Population studies have shown that people in South East Asian countries have far lower risks of developing most cancers compared to those in North America, and it is considered that the consumption of foods such as garlic, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, soy and cruciferous vegetables play a key role in this “chemoprevention.”

If a healthy diet can be described as medicine, an unhealthy diet can be described as poison:

much of what is sold as “food” can arguably be categorized as poison in terms of its industrial processing, synthetic additives, colorings and preservatives, pesticide residues, and a nutrient composition emphasizing “bad” fats and simple sugars and lacking in beneficial minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients.

If Western “food” is, according to Treasure, often poison, so too Western medicine is often poison. Treasure teaches cancer patients that “everything they eat from now on must be medicine in order to reverse the progression of their disease.”

© L. James Hammond 2008
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Footnotes
1. “Le Film Mediocre” by John Podhoretz, Weekly Standard, 9/1/2008, Volume 13, Issue 47 back
2. by Terry Eastland, 8/29/2008 back
3. Weisenthal quotes an article from a prestigious medical journal (Horrobin, D.F. The philosophical basis of peer review and the suppression of innovation. JAMA 263(10):1438-41): “Peer review can be performed successfully only if those involved have a clear idea as to its fundamental purpose. Most authors of articles on the subject assume that the purpose of peer review is quality control. This is an inadequate answer.... Peer review must therefore aim to facilitate the introduction into medicine of improved ways of curing, relieving, and comforting patients. The fulfillment of this aim requires both quality control and the encouragement of innovation. If an appropriate balance between the two is lost, then peer review will fail to fulfill its purpose.” back
4. Dead cancer tissue is tested by several labs, such as Oncotech, which was founded by Weisenthal. back
5. Agricola, 30 back
6. I found the article here. The author, Arnold Relman, is a doctor affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The article was originally published in the December 14, 1998, issue of The New Republic. back