The Breakfast Table

The American Way of Death

Dear August:

You better believe you’ve seen the future!  When I was in L.A. this summer, I noticed a bottle of wine with Marilyn’s body on it labeled “Marilyn Merlot”. It made me laugh. I’m not laughing today at the photo in the Guardian of two European wines being poured in Rome–one called “Mussolini” with Il Duce’s strong chin on the label and the other–I’m not kidding–with Hitler’s face on the bottle. This one’s called “Fuhrerwein”. The Guardian is floating the notion of Italian nostalgia for headier, stronger times. Maybe in these winded times it’s a longing to imbibe the memory of barbarity–or the myth of it–which is a lot of what Western culture now has to sell. Even the English royals have gotten into the game. The Queen, the richest women in the world, I think–has hustled the ice cream and sausage manufacturer to sponsor the Golden Jubilee; McDonalds is sponsoring the Labor Party Conference; and Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles have sold their privacy–for charity of course–to Vanity Fair.

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I’m suspicious about the statistics of malpractice you mention. I wonder if, like violence in previous centuries, we experience things as worse because the media coverage is so omnipresent now, which tends to intensify our sense of outrage and impotence. I’m sure the instances of egregious malpractice were far worse in the past. The increasing literacy of the public and the special American notion of individualism has something to do with the rise of law suits. In England, the news is always filled with stories of gross malpractice; but it seems harder to win settlements. Also, it’s my guess that the English as a society aren’t as litigious, both because of the costs and because they don’t value life in quite the same way as Americans. The French, they say, think death is inevitable; the English think it’s imminent; and the Americans think it’s optional.

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I wonder if you saw news of the collapse of the Human Genome Diversity Project, which was reported in the Independent today. This comes after a decade of trying to set up a sort of genetic museum to store the DNA codes of the nearly seven thousand indigenous groups and so preserve, the story says, “the wealth of information on the diversity of the human race.” The project foundered on claims of racism. (“To study differences is not racist,” said Kenneth Kidd, a Yale geneticist and one of the founders of the diversity project. “Racists don’t need to study differences, they are doing just fine as they are.”) The project is being halted because the indigenous people do not want to be part of the academic dream, which hoped to shed light on the evolutionary past and open new avenues to treat many of the most intractable diseases. “You want to preserve our genes” was the typical refrain, “but you don’t want to preserve us.” I find myself siding with the indigenous people. Am I wrong?

I know you don’t go to the movies much; but I want to tell you about a great one–Iris–I saw at a screening yesterday. My wife is yelling for me to get to bed. It’s one a.m. in London. So it’ll have to wait until our next exchange.

Till tomorrow then–
John

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