Monday, October 7, 2013


My mother, Elsie Weathers (left), and her friend Phyllis McGuire at Biggs Hospital c. 1943.

I believe the U.S. government should cover the health expenses of every American citizen. Some call this “Medicare for everyone.” Some call it a “single-payer system,” the single payer being the federal government. Some call it the European or Canadian system. Some call it “socialized medicine,” thinking that term is pejorative, although I find it neither pejorative nor accurate. (Most of those who throw around the word “socialist” have no idea what it means.)

Whatever you call it, I believe that if a person gets sick, he or she should be able to go to a doctor or a hospital, receive treatment and medicine, and have to pay nothing.

The Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, is not what I would prefer; it still leaves people vulnerable to large medical costs. It is nevertheless better than the system we have had until now. Obamacare is, of course, much in the news today, but it is not my subject here.

My subject is universal, free health care. I believe it should be the law of the land in any country that, like ours, can afford it. My stake in this is personal: Without free, government-sponsored health care, I would never have been born.

My father, Terry Weathers (left), and his friend Ed Miller at Biggs Memorial Hospital c. 1939

Sometime around 1940, my mother, then in her early twenties, a girl from a hardscrabble upstate New York farm, contracted tuberculosis. Shortly before that, my father, almost as young, a boy from a small town in Kentucky, had contracted tuberculosis while working in New York City. They did not know each other when they got sick. They met after they had both been admitted to Biggs Memorial Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium overlooking Cayuga Lake, near Ithaca, New York.

For nearly four years, my mother was in the hospital, taking the “rest cure.” In fact, she had little rest, enduring operation after agonizing operation. Periodically, long needles were inserted into her lung cavity, through her back. The last operation she had resulted in her right lung being shut down forever. My father, too, went under the knife, though not quite so drastically. He was in the hospital for about three years.

My father and mother fell in love in the hospital and married after they were finally released, in 1945. I was born in 1946. I was an “accident” that was a bit dangerous for my still-weak mother, but we both came out of it okay.

Without socialized medicine, this scene would never have occurred. That's my father, my mother, and me in the middle.

My father lived to be 84. My mother lived to be 93. I never saw either of my parents in a bathing suit; they were too embarrassed by the scars on their backs. And yet, until the day they died, they spoke of their time at Biggs Memorial in—surprise—the most affectionate, almost reverent terms. They spoke of the kind and beautiful nurses (and, yes, of the occasional sadistic nurse) and of the warm, caring, and competent doctors (and, yes, of the occasional cold-hearted doctor). Most of all, they spoke of the fellowship of the sick who made up the patient population. Friends they loved died in that hospital, and they were some of the dearest friends my parents ever had. Those who lived remained their dear friends for years after.

For my parents, their time at Biggs was a time of prolonged physical pain made bearable by the balm of human kindness.

Now to the point: For more than three years of hospital care, innumerable operations, and hundreds of medications, my mother paid exactly nothing. Not a dime. Nor did my father ever pay a cent for his care at Biggs. New York State paid for it all, on the assumption that tuberculosis was societally too dangerous to be left untreated and its victims too contagious to remain in the general population. The taxpayers of New York paid for my parents’ care.

That’s why my parents became lifelong supporters of universal, free health care—go ahead, call it socialized medicine—and why I feel the same way today.

Thanks to those years of free medical care, my father and mother went on to live enormously productive, generous lives. I can assure you that New York State earned back all the money it invested in their care—and much, much more.

Whenever one of my conservative friends complains about “socialized medicine,” I tell them this story. It doesn’t shut them up, but it should.

Paul Robeson was a great athlete, actor, singer, and early civil-rights activist. In November 1942, he gave a free concert at Biggs Memorial Hospital, where my father took this photo. During the communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Robeson was blacklisted because of his political activism. My parents never forgot his performance at Biggs and always spoke of him with reverence. They despised McCarthy and his kind of right-wing politics for all of their lives.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Big Brother
This post is an act of civil protest. Do not respond to it or repost it lest you be put on an NSA watch list. I’m not kidding.

If you believe, as I do, that a government that spies on its own citizens is no longer a democracy, then let’s do something about it.

If you believe, as I do, that your emails, Internet searches, personal social-media posts, and phone calls should not be monitored by federal agents, then let’s do something about it.

If you believe, as I do, that the right to privacy is sacrosanct and protected by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, and that that right extends to our personal Internet activities and cellphone calls, then let’s do something about it.

I believe that the federal government’s recently revealed NSA, CIA, and FBI programs to collect and examine the email, Internet, and phone data of innocent American citizens are undemocratic and immoral. If you believe as I do, then let’s do something about it.

What can we do? We can gum up the spyworks. We can flood the data mine.
We can overwhelm the NSA/CIA/FBI computers with emails, Internet searches, and Web posts full of red-flag words and phrases. If hundreds of thousands of us do it, we can slow down the spy machine. If millions of us do it, the machine may grind to a halt.

It is unclear what, exactly, the NSA and its fellow intelligence agencies are doing with all the information about our emails, Internet searches, and personal posts that they have coerced from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and the like. I suspect that they have their computers scan our emails, searches, and posts looking for red-flag words and groups of words like these: C4 plastic explosive, ammonium nitrate, LSD, Golden Gate, upstate New York City reservoir, Oak Ridge, Allah, Abd al-Hamid al-Masli, Islamic Maghreb, November 22, 2013, jihad. If I create an email or a post with those words in it (as I just have), I suspect it will draw the attention of the NSA’s computers and then of the NSA’s human spies. If millions of us create millions of such emails, it may gum up the NSA domestic spying system—or at least distract and frustrate the NSA’s human functionaries, many of whom are not even in the government but are private, government-paid spy contractors. If we cannot rid ourselves of those who are spying on us and end their spying, we can at least make their undemocratic work more difficult.

Before I go on, let me make one thing clear: I would prefer that the U.S. Congress simply defund the NSA/FBI/CIA domestic spying programs and pass a law making it illegal for any government agent, agency, or contractor to gather information about an individual American without either a) that American’s knowledge and permission or b) a warrant issued by a publicly chosen court, said warrant being based on probable cause that that American has committed or is likely to commit a crime and such court’s decisions being subject to public scrutiny at some appropriate, not-too-distant date.

I would also prefer that the federal government simply dismantle the NSA’s new 1.5 million-square-foot data-mining center in Utah, where your emails, web searches and posts—and mine—will almost certainly be scanned, and where our cellphone metadata (locations, phone numbers, times) will no doubt be logged. 

The NSA's Utah Data-Mining Center

Defund. Dismantle. Delegitimize. That’s what I’d prefer. But the data mine will not be dismantled, defunded, or made illegal. Congress will, in the name of fighting terrorism, give the NSA, CIA, and FBI free, secret rein to spy on us as they wish. The data-mining center will mine more and more of our private data.

President Obama, a man I admire and for whose election I have worked hard, twice (and would again), insists the NSA, CIA, and FBI are not “abusing” these domestic spying programs. The President disappoints me in this. The fact that our government is gathering information—any information—about individual innocent Americans without their knowledge or permission is in itself a form of abuse. And I fear the President is being naïve if he believes that no government-paid domestic spies are looking deeper into our private communications than they claim. The basis of my fear can be summed up in one name: J. Edgar Hoover. (Need I explain?)

J. Edgar Hoover
Gen. James Clapper

Representatives of the intelligence community claim that they are not reading the emails or listening to the phone calls of innocent Americans without court permission. They are probably lying. They are, after all, known liars. We know this because when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the man overseeing these programs, was asked earlier this year, in testimony before Congress, whether the NSA collects data on millions of Americans, he answered, unequivocally, “No, sir.” That was a lie. Later, when caught in this lie, Clapper claimed he was merely giving the “least untruthful” answer he could. And this is the intelligence community that asks for our trust?

We must not trust the NSA. We must not trust the CIA. We must not trust the FBI. No healthy democracy ever trusts secret government spy agencies. That way lies the Stasi.

In the spirit of distrust, then, I offer a simple, perfectly legal way to gum up the intelligence cabal’s domestic spyworks and flood its data mine. Here are three things we can do:

1)   We can send emails that contain red-flag words that will attract the attention of the spy programs’ computers.
2)   We can do daily Internet searches into subjects that will catch the attention of the spy programs’ computers.
3)   We can create blog and social-media posts (like this one) that will attract the attention of the spy programs’ computers.

With respect to emails, we can simply add, at the end of every email, following our sign-off, a list of hot-button words. I recommend a list that contains the name of one famous terrorist, one potential U.S. target, one potential terrorist weapon, and one significant date, like this: Ibrahim al Asiri, Gateway Arch, nitroglycerin, November 5, 2013.

Ibrahim al Asiri

If the mere listing of words like this makes your palms sweat, it is testimony to the paranoia at work in this country, thanks to our overreaction to imagined terrorist threats. If such a list seems, to you, to imply a threat (although it clearly does not, being no more than what an outline of a bad thriller would contain), then, instead, include your hot-button words in simple, clearly nonthreatening sentences, like this:

Ibrahim al Asiri is a terrorist bomb-maker.
The Gateway Arch is in St. Louis.
Nitroglycerin is an explosive.
November 5, 2013 is Guy Fawkes Day.

Guy Fawkes
Do not send such hot-button-word emails to people whom they would upset. As an experiment, I recently sent such emails to a group of friends on a political email list I frequent. Two recipients became seriously alarmed. Both, curiously, had a history of working for the U.S. intelligence community. One claimed that by sending him emails with such word lists, I was “putting [him] in the line of fire” and “endangering [his] security.”

As for Internet searches, blog posts, and social-media posts, do more or less the same thing: Every day do at least five searches into topics that the NSA’s computers will red flag. Frequently create blog posts and Facebook posts that use the same kinds of words. Again, the names of terrorists, potential targets, and weapons will probably do the trick.
North London Central Mosque

(Hot-button phone calls are a trickier area. We could make millions of innocent phone calls to numbers that might be on the NSA’s list of suspicious places and people. Examples: North London Central Mosque, in England; Amsterdam Tawheed mosque, the Netherlands; Iranian Embassy, Damascus, Syria. But calling those places is a discourtesy to those receiving the call, and expensive. I do not recommend doing that.)

The NSA, CIA, and FBI insist that they are not listening to our phone calls, reading our emails, trolling through our web searches, or examining the content of our private Facebook posts. They claim that they are doing no more than gathering “metadata” about us—not examining the specific content of our communications. I don’t believe them. But if they are telling the truth, then my call to flood the data mine will do their work no harm.

On the other hand, if they are lying, as I believe they are, then if we flood the data mine and gum up the spyworks, then perhaps we can lessen the harm they are doing to individual Americans and to our democracy in general. As for me, I suspect I may soon be on their watch list. Fine. Let them be distracted by me, a harmless old retired English teacher. It means they’ll have that much less time to spy on my fellow citizens.

#   #   #

Perhaps I'm tilting at windmills. But some windmills really are ogres.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

GUILT RIDDANCE: How to Live without a Conscience

Notice that the conscience has already been removed in this illustration.

     When I was five, my parents took me to the hospital, where the doctors dispatched me with ether, opened my mouth, reached into the center of my head, and removed a few things. My mother, carefully explaining the word “vestigial,” had promised me that the offending items, called “tonsils,” served no good purpose, that in fact without them I would suffer fewer of the sore throats that are (I have since decided) the proper lot of five-year-olds.
    I had my suspicions about the entire enterprise. Most of the other stuff Mother Nature had given me—teeth, spit, nostrils—seemed pretty useful, I thought, and on the whole it wasn’t like Her to stick in merely-decorative extras. But then I considered earlobes, navels, and toe hair, and on balance I decided to leave my trust in Mother Weathers.
     The instant I woke up after the operation, I knew I had been bamboozled. I was in a strange bed in a dark room full of whining little bodies. My throat screamed unceasingly with a condensed lifetime of pain. I quickly ran out of Kleenex to cough blood into. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
     Within the limits imposed by uvular agony, I began to bawl, and after an eternity a giant nurse materialized by my bed, white and ghostlike, whispering coldly, “Hush. Brave boys don’t cry. Sssh. Don’t be a sissy. Quiet! You’ll wake up the other children!” At any time earlier in my life, her appeals would have worked at once. But the operation had changed me. Instead of meekly shutting up, I looked her defiantly in the eye, pointed to the empty Kleenex box, and demanded, as loudly as I could, “UH!”
     I was never the same thereafter. It was clear to me that when the doctors reached into my head, they had removed more than my tonsils. Later, surrounded by still-cold Popsicle sticks in my bed at home, I hounded my mother about it, and she finally admitted that, yes, the doctors had in fact also removed something called my “adenoids.” That sounded ominous. “Adenoids,” my mother explained, were lodged behind your nose and made you talk like a kazoo.
     So she said. Today, sixty-umph years later, I know that when the doctors excised my adenoids, they were actually after, gasp, my conscience. Apparently they got it. I haven’t heard from that adenoidal Jiminy Cricket of a naysayer since, and even today I am unable to secrete the master hormone called . . . Guilt.

Jiminy Cricket plays no role in my psyche.

     Yes, I am the only guilt-free man of the Post-Freudian Age. It is a strange thing, and a mixed blessing, to go through life without tonsils, adenoids, or guilt. While those around me writhe in creative agonies of conscience (“Mea culpa! I don’t love my father enough!” they moan, proceeding to write chapter twenty of their third novel; “Oy, the sins I commit in the dark!” they wail, finishing the fourth movement of their Sixth Symphony), I lollygag through life burbling, “Hey, what’s the big deal?” and swing on the hammock of worthlessness.
     But if guilt is the juice of creation, it is also, from what I can see, the hemlock of despair. I’m just as happy to be without it, thank you, even if it means I’ll never win a Pulitzer.
     At this point I need to make a distinction. While I don’t feel guilt, I do, of course, feel shame. I am, after all, only human. Shame tells me, “You are foolish, weak, a dud.” I have, naturally, all sorts of things to be ashamed of. I once invented a joke about a New Delhi swain who, attempting to seduce a well-wrapped young thing, uses the line, “But, Indira, love means never having to stay your sari!” That’s something to be ashamed of. The way I look without a shirt is a shame. My forgetfulness for names is something to be seriously ashamed of. The amount of time I spend in front of the tv is monstrously shameful. And so, infinitely, on.

Love means never having to stay your sari.

     But one cannot help one’s afflictions, even as one is ashamed of them. A withered wit, a sunken chest, a gripless memory, even a limp character—one doesn’t feel guilty about them because one did not intend them.
     For guilt is about intent. More specifically, it is about malice—the intent to do harm. The way I figure it, if I never intend to do harm—and I never do—I have nothing to feel guilty about. When I had it, therefore, my conscience was indeed a vestigial organ, and it is just as well they took it out with my adenoids.
     Oh, I’ll admit that there have been times since the age of five when I thought that maybe the doctors had botched the operation, leaving behind just a piece of a conscience, a slip of pathogenic tissue hanging invisibly behind my septum. In the fourth grade once, for example, as we were passing our papers forward after a spelling test, I noticed as Bobby Zambri’s paper reached me that he had spelled the word “dangerous” with an “e” in it; that looked more inspired than my version, so while pretending to shuffle the papers around, I sneaked an “e” into mine. And later, for a period of about five years starting when I was 13, I regularly did things to my sweet older brother George that resulted in his enduring various forms of physical and emotional pain, not to mention teeth marks, knowing that because he was bigger he wasn’t allowed to retaliate in kind. And still later, when I was 19, I managed, with all the delicacy of a beanball, to bruise the feelings of a nice girl named J---. Fleetingly, I felt something almost like guilt in each case. But nah, I decided, it was just the nature of youth, for which no one—least of all myself—could blame me. And so I bubbled blithely—and guiltlessly—on.

This is how I once treated the feelings of a nice girl.

     Since then I have been negligent, stupid, ignorant, insensitive, dim, petty, ornery, and disgusting—but, hey, what’s the big deal? I never try to hurt anybody.
     Nevertheless, my absence of guilt has been infuriating for many of those who have touched my life, especially wives, children, parents, lovers, bosses, psychiatrists, giant nurses, and others with a stake in emotional manipulation. “Ach, how you hurt me!” and “Sssh! You’ll wake the kids!” never work on me. I am not to be moved by appeals to an organ I no longer possess. And that, as any giant nurse will tell you, makes me a dangrous man.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in July 1986.)