Death Is That Man Taking Names: Intersections of American Medicine, Law, and Culture
University of California Press, 2002 M11 12 - 232 pages
The American culture of death changed radically in the 1970s. For terminal illnesses, hidden decisions by physicians were rejected in favor of rational self-control by patients asserting their "right to die"—initially by refusing medical treatment and more recently by physician-assisted suicide. This new claim rested on two seemingly irrefutable propositions: first, that death can be a positive good for individuals whose suffering has become intolerable; and second, that death is an inevitable and therefore morally neutral biological event. Death Is That Man Taking Names suggests, however, that a contrary attitude persists in our culture—that death is inherently evil, not just in practical but also in moral terms. The new ethos of rational self-control cannot refute but can only unsuccessfully try to suppress this contrary attitude. The inevitable failure of this suppressive effort provokes ambivalence and clouds rational judgment in many people's minds and paradoxically leads to inflictions of terrible suffering on terminally ill people.
Judicial reforms in the 1970s of abortion and capital punishment were driven by similarly high valuations of rationality and public decision-making—rejecting physician control over abortion in favor of individual self-control by pregnant women and subjecting unsupervised jury decisions for capital punishment to supposed rationally guided supervision by judges. These reforms also attempt to suppress persistently ambivalent attitudes toward death, and are therefore prone to inflicting unjustified suffering on pregnant women and death-sentenced prisoners.
In this profound and subtle account of psychological and social forces underlying American cultural attitudes toward death, Robert A. Burt maintains that unacknowledged ambivalence is likely to undermine the beneficent goals of post-1970s reforms and harm the very people these changes were intended to help.
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Page 52 - Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Page 51 - Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
Page 42 - I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.
Page 198 - We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
Page 184 - I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Page 194 - Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor, lest he be killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow. And all this, as before said, may be among honest men only. But this is not all. Every foul bird comes abroad, and every dirty reptile rises up. These add crime to confusion.
Page 77 - For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
Page 8 - ... the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad?
Page 44 - It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Page 8 - It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psycho-analytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.