Today, the topic I’m already ironic about by putting in quotation marks is synonymous with the polarity that makes every attempt to accomplish anything important in the Western world futile:

the left versus the right.

America is at the slowing and falling end of its trajectory, and China, I guess, is metaphorically just at its muzzle velocity. The locked-in struggle that obsesses America lets serious and career political, government, and military people ignore the impossible-to-accept fact that their culture isn’t going to be dominant forever. These people use blame to protect them from… failure. The worst thing in the world. They can’t see that failure is as inevitable as death. It has to be somebody’s fault. Somebody else’s fault.

There are lots of inescapable mutually exclusive truths in human affairs. My favorite relatively trivial one (which I see it every day in healthcare) is access to information versus protection of privacy. We have to give people who need it access to information so they can be effective at doing good things for all of us, but we’ve also got to protect privacy. Too bad we can’t have both running at 100%, and we also can’t have either of them without the other, because both of them are terribly important. But they oppose one another. There are fundamentalists on both sides of that polarity: How can the doctor save me when I am bleeding to death in the emergency room if she can’t immediately find out about my bleeding disorder, belief in the evil of transfusions,  history of heart disease? I don’t really care so much that the doctor might see that I am gay, have a sexually transmitted disease, or have been convicted of child abuse? And: Don’t ever let anyone get my secret personal information, or they will steal my identity, tell my wife, arrest me for sedition, send me to jail. I drive safely, so the chances of somebody needing details of my health history are pretty slim.

Sorry: there has to be a compromise.

Other examples of this kind of thing would be safety versus freedom, truth-telling versus kindness… but what’s killing America and the rest of the west is the granddaddy: the primacy of the individual versus the primacy of the group. That’s how I see the fundamental values of the right and the left respectively.

When I ask a friend whose heart is on the left what the left and the right mean, he says it’s rule by the few versus rule by the many. My right-wing friends say it’s individual freedom versus enforced conformity: political correctness. The evil? Greed (the left), and Laziness (the right).

We are fools. Of course there is no right answer to impossible-to-answer questions, but believing there is is as seductive as sex in a dream. The only way to deal with impossible-to-resolve issues is the boring, ungratifying, and hard work of compromise. We can justify turning away from having to do that if we can find or conjure a like-minded group. We join hands with them and dance around in a circle, locking ourselves into our ideology and throwing away the key through the conviction that the other side isn’t playing fair.

Certain as we are that they are wrong and we are right, we feel we must play just as unfair as they do, or evil will prevail. Although our perception of their dirty tricks is false, or at least exaggerated (as is theirs of ours) we both get lured into bad behavior toward one another. We hate one another, dynamite each other’s churches, shoot one another’s leaders, and tell lies about the hideous things the other side does, all the time.

It’s human nature. Greed is just the need to be as certain as possible that we and our babies have what we need to survive. Laziness is just conservation of energy, which we will certainly need when we have to defend ourselves or achieve a kill so our little ones won’t starve. The other side is the enemy because they compete for needed sustenance. They are wrong, just as surely as the suffering, starvation, and death of our people is wrong.

What to do? One voice (I really don’t run into many, if any, people who see things the way I do) trying to stop America’s schizophrenic blaming destruction is like a housefly hoping to turn back Hurricane Katrina. I can only hope I have wings, strength, and good luck enough to stay out of harm’s way.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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