Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

Among the Thugs

The Book of the Week is “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford, published in 1992. The author describes how the herd mentality in humans can start a riot.

Buford provides the example of European football supporters (who would be called soccer fans in the United States). Most of them work at blue-collar jobs during the week, and on the weekend– attend a pro football game at the stadium. Prior to and during the game, they drink a vast quantity of alcohol. The situation often turns violent after the game. Most people do not conceive of themselves as susceptible to the herd mentality– it is those hot-tempered people who cause all the trouble.

Read the book to see how people who are usually rational can get emotionally pulled into exhibiting extreme behavior, becoming a danger to themselves and others.

Fateful Harvest

The Book of the Week is “Fateful Harvest” by Duff Wilson, published in 2002. Here is yet another book that describes one of the countless ways humans are destroying the earth and themselves.

Wilson, a journalist, revealed an environmental problem (and by natural extension, health hazard) perpetrated by large corporations on people in a small town in Washington State. It is unknown how many people elsewhere are affected, since it is extremely difficult to prove proximate cause when it comes to cancer in people who have had unmeasured exposure to countless carcinogens throughout their lives. The story was reminiscent of the book and movie “A Civil Action.” However, in Quincy, Washington, there has yet to be a class action suit.

In recent decades, companies have found a way to save millions of dollars disposing of toxic wastes they generate. In the 1990’s, they paid $50-$100 a ton to have fertilizer companies use those wastes in fertilizer, which was then sold to farmers. They would have paid $200 or $300 a ton to dump the wastes in a landfill instead. The fertilizer companies take advantage of a loophole in the law, which regulates “wastes,” not “products.” Fertilizer is a “product” even when it contains fly ash, contaminated phosphoric acid, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and other toxins from automakers, zinc smelters, copper recycling plants and steel mills.

Food becomes contaminated when grown in contaminated fertilizer. The farmers grow the potatoes, corn and beans, etc., sold to food processing plants that make and sell French fries and other edible products.

Read the book to learn how this serious environmental threat was discovered, and the various reasons why outspoken farmers, a horse breeder and the mayor, among other adversely affected Quincy residents, could not acquire sufficient power and influence to close the loophole in the law.

Coronary

The Book of the Week is “Coronary, A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry” by Stephen Klaidman, published in 2007. This book recounts what happens when people are afflicted by certain aspects of human nature:  greed, power-hunger and fear. It is a sensational story, the kind even tabloids could not fabricate.

In the 1990’s and single-digit 2000’s, there was a cardiac surgeon, one Dr. Moon, who exhibited the first two aspects in spades– instilling dire panic in impressionable patients, telling them that their clogged arteries could kill them at any second, and therefore, they had to be scheduled for triple or quadruple bypass surgery within the week. Those patients underwent the rigorous, dangerous, and worst of all– in the vast majority of cases– unnecessary procedure, taking weeks to recover, getting saddled with medical bills.

Dr. Moon loved the control he had over people, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. His reputation was sterling, due to word-of-mouth and great public relations (people truly believed he saved their lives). The hospital where he committed his medical malpractice was one owned by the then-disreputable holding company, National Medical Enterprises (which later changed its name to Tenet Healthcare).

Wait, there’s more! There were other greedy parties involved in the story. Three people saw what was really happening, and found a way to capitalize on the situation. They brought a Qui Tam lawsuit against the doctor and his accomplices. This means they accused him of bilking Medicaid and Medicare out of big bucks by billing the federal government for unnecessary surgeries. They were expecting to reap a large reward for reporting the errant doctor.

Read the book to learn the sordid details and outcome of this extreme saga.

Weekends At Bellvue

The Book of the Week is “Weekends at Bellvue” by Julie Holland, published in 2009. This is a personal account of a psychiatrist who, for nine years, managed weekend admissions to Bellvue, the New York City mental hospital.

Prior to Bellvue, Dr. Holland did her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1992. On her first day, she was put in charge of a patient who believed he was God. Later, she joked to her mother, “…I am starting my medical career at the very top… I am God’s doctor!”

She describes the office politics at Bellvue, why she admitted or released all kinds of patients, including criminals, crime victims, the homeless, addicts, malingerers and people truly in need of help. Colorful vignettes are alternated with details of her personal life. She discusses the growth of her personal relationships– with a close colleague, and with her own psychiatrist, with her eventual life partner, and children. She also relates her fears of being the victim of retaliation by a former employee, and dangerous patients.

There were some extreme stories. At the occurrence of the World Trade Center disaster, a manic Iowa man rode a bus all the way to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort. There, he was somehow able to get inside and operate a backhoe. He told Dr. Holland, “They need my help.”

Dr. Holland realized she was frustrated that she was able to help patients only temporarily. Bellvue is a revolving door of sorts. Some patients return again and again, because they lack a support system to lift them permanently out of their bad situations, such as addiction, homelessness, or their going off their medication. If Dr. Holland judged that their situations warranted admission to Bellvue, they might get detoxed or restarted on their medication, and/or a comfortable place to sleep in the short term, but once released, would return to the same situation again.

In the end, Dr. Holland left Bellvue because she felt she could be of more assistance to patients in private practice in that she could establish a one-on-one long-term treatment program with them.

The Deserter’s Tale

The Book of the Week is “The Deserter’s Tale” by Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, published in 2007. This is the intense story of Joshua Key, who was assigned to an outfit of the U.S. Army that he claims committed war crimes in Iraq.

Finding himself in a financially desperate situation with a growing family, Key decided to join the army. A promise was made to him that he would stay stateside. Instead, after training, he was sent to Iraq early on in the Second Gulf War. When posted in Ramadi, his unit was ordered to raid homes of civilians to search for contraband, weapons and signs of terrorists or terrorist activity, but never found any. He writes that all Iraqi males five feet or taller, regardless of age, were detained by his fellow soldiers. He was never told by his commanding officer where they were taken or what happened to them. The females were terrorized by the unnecessarily rough treatment of the males at the hands of the American soldiers. Not only did the soldiers use scare tactics, but they arbitrarily looted and then trashed the civilians’ residences.

Key says he participated in the attacks, but did the minimal damage he could, while still obeying orders. He writes, “My own moral judgement was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq. We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy… Because we were fearful, sleep-deprived, and jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and testosterone, and because our officers constantly reminded us that all Iraqis were our enemies, civilians included, it was tempting to steal, no big deal to punch, and easy to kill… I witnessed numerous incidents of needless brutality and murders of civilians.”

Read the book to learn what transpired when the situation became intolerable for Key.

Savages

The Book of the Week is “Savages” by Joe Kane, published in 1996.  The author describes his encounter with the Huaorani tribe– people living in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador.

The author recounts an interesting episode in which the natives take a jaunt in a food store– a place they had never visited before, and comments on their strange eating habits. He also writes about the health problems contracted by non-natives in the rain forest.

The bottom line of the book though, is that in the early 1980’s, the Ecuadorian government colluded with American oil companies to keep the natives politically powerless. The country was burdened by staggering international debt and was dependent on oil-related business for half of its revenue. It therefore felt disinclined to share approximately $2 billion in oil revenue with the Huaorani. The author details how the Americans destroyed the land and consequently, the tribe’s ability to survive.

The Seeing Glass

The Book of the Week is “The Seeing Glass” by Jacquelin Gorman, published in 1998. This is the personal account of a woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The major symptom she experienced was blindness. This generated an amusing anecdote.

When Gorman was admitted to a hospital in New York City for which she served as an attorney, she found the legalese in the documents she was required to sign, familiar (her husband read them aloud to her). She was the one who had written that legalese, irony of ironies.

Gorman also discusses her family members; most memorable among them, her uncle Ogden Nash, and autistic brother.