On a calm and sunny autumn Monday, the old pirate awoke in his berth on his anchored derelict vessel with the usual fierce rum-induced hangover. He rowed himself ashore in his little dink, pirated a spot for it at a private dock, took the bus downtown to the Social Security office, hobbled up to the counter on his peg leg, thrust forward his arm-hook, glared at the clerk with his remaining eyeball, and said: "Arr! I want my disability compensation!"
To which you might say, "What?! Why should we devote scarce public resources to the support of, of all people, a pirate? Sure, he lacks stereoscopic vision and is missing the odd appendage, but he could still sober up long enough to do some pillaging, and, with the help of a certain blue pill, even some raping. Even if that proves to be too much for him, he can still stuff ships into bottles for the tourist souvenir shops."
Traditionally, mutinous dogs who espouse such notions would be lashed to the mainmast and given fifty strokes with the cat o' nine tails. However, in the prevailing sadomasochistic political climate, neither the physical pain nor the public humiliation of corporal punishment can be guaranteed to have the expected salutary effect on morale. In fact, the scurvy perverts might find the experience enriching, blogging about it, posting tantalizingly fuzzy cell phone videos of their flogging on YouTube, and auctioning their bloodied shirts on Ebay. No, they would have to be made to walk the plank, or, if the sea is calm, swing from the yard-arm, thus saving a bullet.
The pirate's claim for disability compensation rests on a clinical diagnosis of chronic pain. The idea of honest work can be observed to make his phantom limbs twitch. Also, he suffers from a possibly false but nevertheless emotionally distressing memory of being sexually assaulted by his parrot. The Social Security check would be helpful, of course, but, beyond that, he craves recognition. He would like to regularly see a neurologist, a psychiatrist and an acupuncturist. He feels that there must be a popular syndrome that accounts his unique condition perfectly. He has correctly surmised that pain and suffering are this society's most important form of social capital, more important than wealth or achievement.
When Bill Clinton, in 1992, spoke the words "People are hurting all over this country. You can see the pain in their faces, the hurt in their voices," which he later synthesized into the memorable and mantra-like "I feel your pain," he tapped into something rather powerful that had been gestating in the popular subconscious for some time. In effect, he put into circulation a new coin of the realm. It is wonderful to have a leader who feels your pain! Of course, you had to have pain for him to feel, so you went out and got yourself some. How you got it didn't much matter. Hard work and heroic self-sacrifice were the best, but in the end it didn't matter whether it was through overwork, overexercise, substance abuse, overeating, self-abuse - almost any sort of abuse gained you admission to a nationwide orgy of shameless public blubbering about one's pain.
Beyond a superficial sense of physical well-being, how we feel about ourselves and the world is mediated and conditioned by our culture. In the richer cultures, the feelings are highly refined, and their expressions are couched in complex, culturally specific terms. This creates a problem for an inclusive, multicultural society, because refined feelings, between two mutually unintelligible cultures, seem idiosyncratic and subjective, and serve to alienate rather than to create common ground. So why not leave the complex feelings of love, sympathy, pride, respect, honor and shame and so forth behind, as so much cultural baggage, and standardize on the simpler feeling of pain? Unlike these other feelings, pain can be made objective, because it is subject to pharmacological effects.
At the National Cathedral of Pain, you confess to pain, you are absolved, and you receive communion in pill form. And so we have a nation that gobbles painkillers. The hardest workers have the biggest bottles of Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen displayed proudly on their desks, and may be abusing oxycodone in private. People as disparate as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Jackson share a predilection for painkillers. The rich have access to prescription medications, while the poor self-medicate with illegal drugs and alcohol.
The interesting thing about pain is that it is not objective it all. There is a fine line between pain and pleasure, and it seems to have a lot to do with whether we sense that physical harm is being caused. That is, pain is really not so bad provided you know that there is nothing wrong with you. On the other hand, if you think that you have caused yourself irreparable harm, then your brain will furnish you with undeniable symptoms of it. For instance, a herniated disk is often benign physically (like a bit of toothpaste pushing against a garden hose), but if you disagree with that, then your brain will cut the blood flow to the surrounding tissues, giving you chronic pain (but still no physiological damage). It is often sufficient to convince yourself that there is nothing physically wrong with you for the pain to subside. This psychological mechanism could very well be behind the strangely increased incidence of chronic back pain in a society that does less back-breaking work than ever before.
A good question to ask, then, is whether people who suffer pain because of their need to be recognized for their suffering, and to feel included, should be compensated for it financially. Perhaps they should be. Doing so might cause us all some additional financial pain. But then Dr. Geithner at the US Treasury Clinic seems perfectly happy to oblige with a script for financial morphine whenever anyone asks for one, and Pharm. D. Bernanke at the Federal Reserve Pharmacy always fills Mr. Geithner's scripts no questions asked. Nobody knows how much financial morphine Dr. Bernanke has left in stock, but let's not ask him any questions about that either. For an economy in hospice care, that is far too painful a question to even think about.
And now for the really hard question: Are you ready and willing to do the backbreaking work that's needed to bring this country around? To make it easier, let's make it multiple-choice: A. Yes; B. No; C. Ouch!