Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lunatics with Guns; Experts with Hubris; The Silence of the Lambs

Lunatic Giteau


President for 6 Months 

In 1881, President James A. Garfield arrived at the railroad station in Washington, D.C., accompanied by a friend, but no retinue of Secret Service Agents clearing a path. Presidents of the United States walked about Washington like normal mortals then. Garfield was in high spirits, on his way to his Williams College reunion. He had been a general in the Union Army, and now he was only a few months into his first term as President. 

Charles Giteau, who wanted to be Ambassador to France, or possibly thought he was King of France, raised a pistol and fired several shots into the President from a few feet behind him, hitting him in the arm and sending one through his back into or near his pancreas. 

Giteau was tackled and quickly removed to jail, where he expected General W.T. Sherman would send a company of troops to protect him and to thank him for his great deed.  Garfield was carried to the White House where a team of surgeons, headed by an imperious and famous physician of the day, proceeded to kill him, by stages, by the probing of his wounds with bacteria ladened fingers and instruments.

Although the idea of antisepsis was well known in America in those days--Lister had presented their ideas to American doctors--the prevailing thinking in American medicine was that pus was a good thing and surgical instruments dropped on the floor were simply picked up and used, and not cleaned between cases. 

In her lovely account of this dreary sequence of events, Candice Millard details the folly of the imperious doctor who ensured Garfield's fate, turning what could have been a serious but non lethal wound into a fatal blow.

There are lessons in history.  We remember things in ways which are useful to us today.  Of course, the obvious parallel between a maniac with a gun and the shootings at Newtown and Aurora is obvious. We have never been able to protect the innocent from the deranged very well, mainly because the nature of derangement is unpredictability. The lethally inclined maniac always has the element of surprise and often has planned to evade defenses. 

For the denouement, the long road to sepsis for President Garfield, there are more lessons. The respect accorded experts was misplaced, should have been questioned and the authoritarian physician, had he been questioned more ruthlessly could have been prevented from doing more harm. 

Alexander Graham Bell tried to quickly fabricate a metal detector to allow the localization of the bullet--there were no X rays then. But the doctors actually thwarted his efforts by refusing to move the President from his metal bed and Bell's metal detector could not distinguish one metal from another.

That Bell was famous was the only reason he was allowed in the President's room.

Fame, exposure, in America, has always been a substitute for real quality. Dr. Oz is listened to and believed because he is on T.V.  David Stockman can get on the front page of the Sunday Review in the New York Times because he was famous once, even though his thoughts are manifestly stupid. Paul Krugman, a few days later, demolished Stockman's recycled version of Andrew Mellon and Herbert Hoover with only faintly dimmed contempt, as well he should have.

In American resumes, "Appeared on Ophra" or "As seen on TV" is proudly displayed as a badge of authority. I have been heard by millions: I must be smart.

Shakespeare said, "Speech is logic," which meant, if you say something, especially if you dress it up with elocution and a good suit, people will believe it; it is persuasive if only because you have said it. 

The great failing of American education is not enough children are taught to doubt, to question to separate what is being said from the aura of the person who says it.  When a local politician says that building a motorway, two lanes from Hampton to Portsmouth, will reduce idling time on Route One and thereby reduce air pollution better than creating a bicycle path in that same space,  and the Portsmouth Herald publishes that without comment, speech is logic.  Discourse on the seacoast is brought down to the lowest common denominator, to below that.

Our local papers, and even some national papers routinely fail to ask the obvious follow up question, to challenge authority, to seek a rebuttal. 

David Brooks writes today that American universities should teach people how to disagree pleasantly.  Mad Dog disagrees. Where people disagree politely, in the South, things do not change. The most outrageous things can be said and people say, "Well, I understand where you are coming from and you make some good points, although I cannot agree with your conclusion," when what they should said is: That is a mean, nasty and misguided sentiment and is not worthy of discussion and you should think twice before you say such things in public. To say Blacks should not be allowed to swim in swimming pools with Whites is not an opinion to be entertained over tea and biscuits with pleasant smiles.

Stringer Bell, who is running a meeting according to Robert's Rules of Order,  explodes and cuts off an impertinent questioner with the explosion, "This nigga's too ignorant to have the floor. I will punk your ass, say such things!"

A little more Stringer Bell and a lot less David Brooks would do New Hampshire a great service now and then.


  1. Mad Dog,
    I agree, on important subjects stating clearly and strongly what you mean instead of pussy footing around is a good thing. As for the press, they continue to print both valid and crazy positions on the same subject, with no follow-up, apparently in an effort to appear unbiased. Luckily, there are letter to the editor pages where some have been able to counter the absurd in a frank (and amusing) manner....

    Your blog on weapons at the state house was pretty good-I really do think you should run for office so you can experience the thrill of arriving in Concord turned out as a gladiator-- you could also make a little game of arriving each day with a different concealed weapon, nunchucks one day, poison darts the're right it would be worth it....You've probably already watched the you tube video by Jim Carrey that has Fox all riled up-if not, you have to at with Jim Carrey....

  2. Maud,

    I will go directly to youtube.
    Yes, the letters to the editor in the Portsmouth Herald are nearly as good as the Police Log.

    Mad Dog