The Left’s Complex Relationship with Medicine
People no longer merely have illnesses; they identify as ill.
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When my transgender ex-husband Jamie and I were still married, we were friends with an unshaven, soy-eating vegan couple who decried factory farming, the institution of marriage and other bastions of “capitalist patriarchy.” A frugal couple, they grew their own food and made their own lotion, disparagingly referring to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck” and Starbucks as “Sixbucks.” Willow eschewed makeup and spun her own wool for knitting. Red “so distrusted the ‘medical-industrial complex,’” as I document in my memoir, that “he never saw a dentist about the front teeth he lost in a bicycle accident twenty years ago.”
As a Gen-X’er, these are the sort of lefties I grew up around. They searched for healing in alternative and traditional medicine. They brought us natural childbirth, meditation and aromatherapy. They warned against “pathologizing” normal sexual variance and got homosexuality removed from the DSM in 1973. They worried about unnecessary Caesarean sections and campaigned against the circumcision of baby boys.
They also brought us the myth of the enlightened psychotic. In “The Prophet's Song” released in 1975, Queen front man Freddie Mercury uses the words “wise man,” “seer,” and “madman” interchangeably, admonishing the listener to “heed” his wisdom. “Hey there Mister Madman,” asks the classic rock band Kansas the following year, “whatcha know that I don't know?” This seventies trope, probably inspired by Nietzsche’s famous prophetizer of the death of God (if informed more by fashion than by philosophical depth) was also found throughout outlaw country, science fiction, and popular culture.
Modern medicine doesn’t know what’s up, was the message. It was one that Ken Kesey, revered by hippies and beatniks, had primed the populace for. His novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” delivered a deserved critique of the lobotomy and of psychiatry in general. As an aficionado of hallucinogens, and a grifter who once faked a suicide to evade an arrest, Kesey’s own life may have helped shape such mythology.
Liberals value progress and change, while conservatives value tradition and safety. It’s useful to consider the personality traits that tend to lead to each of these positions. Liberals are high in the personality trait “openness,” so we’re more likely to experiment with sex and drugs and to forgive others who do. We are also high in agreeableness. One component of agreeableness is compassion (the other is politeness). Those who are both open and compassionate care about the downtrodden, the poor, minorities and gays. Now add to this the liberal suspicion of traditional institutions, which underpin the status quo, inhibiting progress and change. It’s liberals who decry patriarchy and the “systemic” bigotry thought to be baked into traditional institutions, who want to “defund the police,” who are drawn to anarchy, who consider the postmodern call to “burn it all down.”
Thus, we can make sense of Red’s position, as a liberal. The “medical-industrial complex” is indeed a large, old, moneyed institution, in bed with government and motivated by capitalism. Its intrusion into the affairs of pregnant women, gays, and the familiar delinquent with the heart of gold—like Kesey’s fighting, gambling protagonist McMurphy, who is kept sedated, we’re to understand, simply because he doesn’t fit the mold—is unwarranted and unwanted.
“Fat is not the problem,” asserts an opinion writer in a recent Scientific American article. “Fat stigma is.” The article warns against “medicalizing” obesity, a term that is itself now considered offensive. This view was inevitable for the old-school liberal driven by compassion, this time for the differently-sized, and suspicious of Big Medicine’s fat-shaming diet pills and optional bariatric surgeries.
I grew up in a time of gender neutral clothing and gender neutral toys. Free to Be You and Me taught us that gender stereotypes were bogus—boys could play with dolls and girls could skip marriage to travel the world. When Barbie said “math class is tough” we pushed back. We didn’t want to pathologize personalities, and certainly not gender nonconformity. But then transgenderism arrived, and we did just that. What happened?
It started because we care about the gays, and trans seemed gay. Because the average normie doesn’t really understand the LGB, much less the T. Because the first transsexuals we knew were gay men and drag queens. Because we think a femme man is a femme man. Because trans people said they were adjacent to gays, even if many of them don’t seem to be.
And then we learned that trans people now want medicalization. A conflict arose between our disdain for the medical industry and our compassion for the underdog. That left us primed to accept whatever solution fell onto our newsfeeds and timelines, even if such placement was the result of astroturfing. The language of medicalization has changed for this topic, too. Though trans medicine is clearly intended to “fix” children who fall outside the norm, transgender activists frame it as self-actualization. That makes this particular pursuit look more like progress than like reliance on an institution, in line with “progressive” interests such as transhumanism, fertility technologies and eugenics.
But change was already underway by then. I remember my surprise when a critique of Big Pharma on a liberal message board took an unexpected turn. Someone had posted the opinion that anti-depressants were overprescribed. Someone else, apparently a consumer of such medication, called the original poster “ableist.”
Prior to that point, it had been possible to wonder if overzealous doctors sometimes give antidepressants to people experiencing normal and temporary grief, such as after a divorce or death. Or if frazzled parents sometimes subdue naturally energetic children with inappropriate ADHD treatments. Or if the advent of Asperger’s as a diagnosis represents the pathologizing of a normal personality type. Or if painkiller prescriptions lead to addiction and the use of illicit drugs. Suddenly it was no longer okay to question any medical regimen, lest you offend someone who finds solace in it. Identity politics seem to be the culprit here. People no longer merely have illnesses, permanent or temporary; they identify as ill. This phenomenon has culminated in a trend of teens diagnosing themselves with dissociative identity disorder and other illnesses.
Now liberals, once worried about government intrusion into our bodies and bedrooms, lead the support for Covid vaccines and mandates. Is that because mRNA feels like a progressive technology? Is it a commitment to class consciousness over individualism? Is it because we can no longer tease out when and why we support medical advancements? It’s no longer clear.
In the months following my divorce, Red left Willow and came out as a woman named Anastasia. I describe the transformation in my book:
“Sometimes you have to cut toxic people out of your life,” Anastasia explains in a videotaped makeup tutorial, applying gloss to lips clenched tightly over those still-missing incisors. This is the Red who denounced shaving as patriarchal and store-bought shampoo as a consumerist excess. The critic of the “industrial-medical complex,” now injecting hormones. The minimalist, now collecting eye brighteners and a SiliSponge. I’m not allowed to notice Red’s two selves—or to wonder which is the true, authentic one.
Technology changes constantly. It takes careful thought to evaluate what’s progress and what’s degradation. What’s advancing the betterment of humankind and what’s making someone a quick buck. To get to compassionate solutions to complex problems, we need to be able to talk about things, openly and honestly. We can no longer treat our political parties as vending machines designed to dispense our opinions for us.
Shannon Thrace is a creative nonfiction writer and IT professional who’s passionate about philosophy, ethics, unplugging and seeing the world. Her memoir 18 Months, on the unraveling of her fifteen-year relationship when her husband came out as transgender, is now available on Amazon.
Follow Shannon’s writing on her Substack, Speaking the Ineffable.
Thanks. There's much food for thought here.
I've been pondering the origins of 'transgenderism' as a socially / politically influential lobby and that was a very useful essay. In a couple of paragraphs you've managed to focus my thinking.
It's the 'marketisation' of rebellion, the 'profitisation' of progress, the capitalisation of change. Of course it's inevitable, companies and market sectors spend significant resource looking for the next potential money maker and then marketing and exploiting it. But why should the 'liberals' / 'left' fall so heavily for it when it's so obvious that it's capitalism and 'the patriarchy' writ large? The fact that it's so destructive (both individually and socially) is a feature not a bug for the purveyors - every rebuild / repair / revision is a new opportunity.
So many of us have been ranting for years about how regressive this supposedly progressive movement is, you've helped me think more about why.
Brilliant piece. I am a boomer on the younger side, but all the points made connect to us lefties and liberals pre-GenX. The entire last paragraph is SUCH a critical message in this moment. Maybe someone who tweets could put this out there with the article? If you remove the (fantastic) final sentence, it's under 280 and still makes the point.
"Technology changes constantly. It takes careful thought to evaluate what’s progress and what’s degradation. What’s advancing the betterment of humankind and what’s making someone a quick buck. To get to compassionate solutions to complex problems, we need to be able to talk about things, openly and honestly. We can no longer treat our political parties as vending machines designed to dispense our opinions for us."