Via Wesley J. Smith we learn of this article by Dudley Clendinen, a former Times correspondent, who has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease). He is planning his own suicide (unless he happens to die of pneumonia first). But Smith is actually writing about this highly approving load of utterly confused malarky from Times columnist David Brooks on end-of-life issues and on how we can save money by magically making people with Alzheimer's Disease conveniently disappear. Here's how this goes:
If you want to, I'll let you read Clendinen's column for yourself, instead of quoting it. Clendinen is pretty unequivocal: He's planning his suicide. He says he's found a calm and peaceful way (not shooting himself, which he contemplates at the beginning of the column) if it should be "necessary," before he gets to a point he considers too undignified.
Or you can just take my word for it on that point.
Then we come to Brooks. The bottom line is that Brooks doesn't know what he's talking about. He's picked up a few phrases, dreamt up a few more, and mish-mashed them together. He can't even hear himself, realize how illogical and uninformed he is, or face the implications of what he's saying, much less realize how offensive his language about the disabled is. Yet he thinks he's being profound about life and death and a helpful little amateur economist at the same time. A twofer.
Or maybe not.
Let's start with the fact that Brooks doesn't admit that Clendinen is planning to commit suicide, yet Brooks approves of Clendinen's plans, partly quoting him:
Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life’s “most absorbing thrills and challenges.” He concludes: “When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over. It’s time to be gone.”
Right from the outset this introduces into Brooks's column an ambiguity among various "options" like refusing extraordinary care, refusing ordinary care, and actively killing oneself.
Then we get this bit of pseudo-profundity. David Brooks on the meaning of life:
Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.
Why, thanks, Mr. Brooks. Should I ever be in danger of ending up as merely a "self-enclosed skin bag," I'll be sure to keep that in mind. Right. Got it. Under those circumstances, I'm not really living. That's not living. In fact, if I'm just one of those "self-enclosed skin bags," I might as well be dead. Thanks for driving that home. Perhaps you should go preach on that loving text at the local nursing home: "Hey, all you self-enclosed skin bags! Don't you get it? This isn't life! Life is doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do."
And then there's the strange attempt to drag God into it somehow, without naming Him, of course. (I owe this point to one of Smith's readers.) See, we were "put on earth" to do activities with others. You know. Meaningful activities. Activities like the ones Dudley Clendinen won't be able to do anymore in the later stages of ALS. By golly, if we can't do those activities, we aren't fulfilling the purpose for which we were put on earth. In fact, one might conclude that under those circumstances, we don't even have value to Whoever It Might Be who "put" us here on earth. So, once again boys and girls, repeat after me: Under those circumstances we might as well be dead.
But Brooks isn't done. He's been doing some figgering on the back of an envelope and positively leaps from his musings on the meaning of life into the economic arena:
But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
Actually, Clendinen himself mentioned years of life if he took medications and accepted other medical interventions, and of course didn't kill himself actively. But hey--months, years, what's the difference?
Brooks then quotes the following claim from someone else:
[O]ur main achievements today consist of devising ways to marginally extend the lives of the very sick.
Followed by this, which would be humorous if it weren't so scary:
Others disagree with this pessimistic view of medical progress. But that phrase, “marginally extend the lives of the very sick,” should ring in the ears.
Did you see that? Did you catch that? The statement he just quoted and thinks so important may be false. In fact, there is apparently sufficient evidence against it that Brooks felt himself bound to throw in the disclaimer that others disagree with this "pessimistic view." Nonetheless, who cares whether it's true or not, it's a great phrase, so it should "ring in the ears." Talk about thinking in sound bites! Don't bother me with the facts! This phrase should "ring in the ears."
Then we get to Brooks's next masterpiece of illogic and terrifying ignorance--the attempt to connect the money issue, and the issue of "accepting" death, to people with Alzheimer's:
The fiscal implications are all around. A large share of our health care spending is devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life. This sort of spending is growing fast. Americans spent $91 billion caring for Alzheimer’s patients in 2005. By 2015, according to Callahan and Nuland, the cost of Alzheimer’s will rise to $189 billion and by 2050 it is projected to rise to $1 trillion annually — double what Medicare costs right now.
Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.
Let's tear this one into tiny little bits, which is more than it deserves. First: A great many Alzheimer's patients are not actively dying. Referring to them as being in "the last phases of life" is highly misleading. They need care because they can't care for themselves. So what in the world is Brooks talking about when he talks about how important it is for Alzheimer's patients to "confront death"? No doubt, Brooks himself doesn't know. He hasn't thought about the matter in such clear terms at all. Hmm, let's see. What exactly do you recommend, David? Suppose Dad has Alzheimer's and is otherwise physically healthy but can't remember things and needs constant care, which is expensive. How, precisely, do you suggest that we (on his behalf, since he can't do so) "confront death"? Is Brooks perhaps under the ignorant assumption that all of that care for Alzheimer's patients is being spent on ventilators or something else that most people would consider "extraordinary care"? Let's face the facts here. It is these patients' lives that are expensive, not their deaths. They require care. Care costs money. They are not dying. So they need to be cared for. Deal with it.
But let's see what else is here. What about that bizarre phrase, "their obligations to the living"? Excuse me, Mr. Brooks, um...Aren't people with Alzheimer's living, too? Oh, you mean the other people who are living? Are you suggesting an obligation to die? Oh, wait a minute: They aren't living (see above), not really living, if they aren't able to do "the activities with others they were put on earth to do." I remember now. So maybe we should just define them as "dead," then. That would be convenient. Then we could leave them out on the hillside after all.
And then, one more: You want Alzheimer's patients and their families to do what Clendinen is doing, right? But Clendinen is planning to commit suicide. So that presumably means that Alzheimer's patients and their families should...Oh, you didn't mean that? So you just weren't thinking, right? So what exactly did you mean?
Ignorant, bigoted, mish-mash.
But there are a couple more little bits to add to the confusion: Brooks approvingly cites Daniel Callahan, who, he says, emphasizes "the social solidarity model — in which death is accepted as a normal part of the human condition and caring is emphasized as much as curing." But, wait a minute: Just a paragraph ago, Brooks was telling us (here, let's find the exact words) that a real budget-breaker is the cost of "caring for Alzheimer’s patients" (emphasis added). Caring for them. Not trying to cure them. Just caring for them. So how, again, does this fit with the approval of a model that emphasizes the importance of "caring"? Brooks doesn't know. He doesn't think.
And finally, at the end of his article, Brooks has the gall to drag in the names of Richard John Neuhaus, Leon Kass, and Gilbert Meilaender (!!) to try to gild his decidedly non-lily heap of nonsensical pseudo-ethics with the gloss of their humane credentials--implying that all he's saying is something these three men have said or would approve of. One can hope that all three of them (Fr. Neuhaus from heaven) would see through Brooks instantly. If it's possible to speak meaningfully of "seeing through" someone whose head is so muddled that he doesn't know the difference between suicide and refusal of extraordinary care, who is ignorant enough to think of all Alzheimer's patients as dying, and who can't see how incredibly bigoted it is to refer to disabled human beings as "self-enclosed skin-bags" who aren't doing "what they were put on earth to do" and should start thinking about the U.S. budget and their obligations to the (really) living.
Brooks's column is a warning: People are muddle-headed, and muddle-headedness is catching. I won't be surprised if there are some people who read my post here, read Brooks's column, and try to tell me that I've misrepresented him, misunderstood him. All anyone is saying here, I may be told, is that there comes a point where we have to accept death, etc., etc. Move along, folks, nothing to see here.
I'm willing to grant, at least on the basis of this column alone, that Brooks doesn't have active ill-will. Brooks's problem is that he is a fool. And that sort of foolishness will be deadly--for many, many helpless people.