David Brooks, based in the United States, wrote in the progressive Mexican La Jornada newspaper. “There are weeks,” he wrote in February, “when one cannot report from the United States rationally about what frequently is, objectively, a mosaic of craziness. If one does so, there is the suspicion is that it’s only because one has ended up as another inmate in the madhouse.”

He had examples:

·       Congressional leaders are refusing to ban assault weapons, ostensibly because public support for prohibition had fallen from 52 to 43 percent. Public approval for Congress remains steady at 12 percent.

·       In an interview, James Goodale, New York Times lawyer in 1971 when the Pentagon Papers were released, opined that press freedoms are now “antediluvian, conservative, retrograde – worse than under Nixon.”

·       A new report indicated that Halliburton Corporation, once headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, benefited from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the tune of $39.5 billion.

·       The Obama administration appointed nuclear scientist Ernest Morits as Secretary of Energy. Big energy corporations financed his research. He was their consultant and served on their boards of directors.

·       Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that 80 Chicago public schools would be closed because of a municipal budget deficit. Yet, as in other cities closing schools, ample funds are available for establishing new charter schools.

·       “In this climate of austerity, there are also funds to build more prisons.” The U.S. penitentiary system costs $70 billion in public funds annually.  “States spend almost as much on prisons as on universities,” Brooks observed.

He concluded: “All this and much more are reported as if it were more or less normal. Craziness has been turned into something normal. But surely such information is classified as secret for the good of all of us inside the madhouse.”

Brooks may gain points for the picturesque way he characterizes political turmoil. Certainly the business at hand is serious enough, however, to warrant exploration into why things go wrong and what to do to fix them. Instead he invokes a relic of medical history, the “madhouse,” to dramatize catastrophe that is mysterious and without a ready cure.

But a famous scientist long ago succeeded in explaining and offering a solution for another dangerous medical scenario as mysterious as the one Brooks puts forth. That his solution was political suggests rational political analysis may still be possible, even now.

At the request of the Prussian government in 1848, pathologist and cell biologist Rudolf Virchow submitted a report on a typhus epidemic then ravaging the half a million people living in Prussian – occupied Upper Silesia, many of them miners and weavers. The death toll was comparable to the calamitous 1848 famine in Ireland. In one district 10 percent of the population had died from typhus or starvation in one year.

Little else was certain. The idea that microbes caused human illness was not well established, and antibiotic treatment was a century away. Nevertheless Virchow, looking at demographic and sociologic data, found that cause and cure lay in the political realm. Adverse social conditions were to blame, particularly extreme poverty, worker oppression, social stratification, and isolation.  He recommended “full and unlimited democracy.”

According to a scholar, Virchow “outlined a revolutionary program of social reconstruction, including full employment, higher wages, agricultural cooperatives, universal education, and the disestablishment of the Catholic Church,” He demanded that Upper Silesians be allowed to speak in their native Polish language.

In his report Virchow observed that, “The interests of the human race are not served when, by an absurd concentration of capital and landed property in the hands of single individuals, production is directed into channels that always guide back the flow of profits into the same hands.” Prussian officials were unhappy at Virchow’s foray into politics.  He told them, “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale.”

Scientists like Dr. Virchow learn by focusing primarily on things rather than on abstractions, things as they are and were. They separate things into their parts, the better to know them. They  study data and correlations handed down by scientific forbearers. This is the methodology of choice, we suggest, for anyone in our own era wanting to avoid the intellectual dead end where Mr. Brooks abandoned his readers.  

Another famous scientist, a compatriot and contemporary of Virchow, was similarly adept at basing his political conclusions on down to earth realities. Dr. Karl Marx utilized the scientific method in his studies of history, economic, and the daily lives of oppressed people.   


The problems Brooks finds with charter schools, prisons, U. S. war-making, the nuclear industry, and gun sales could have been attributed at least in part to profit-taking. The concept of surplus value, a notable discovery of Marx, does clarify the profit phenomenon, but these days, even among the general public, the fact of profiteering by the few is well known. Dr. Marx’ approach of first identifying how things happen and then prescribing is perhaps more to the point as regards Mr. Brooks’ “madhouse.”  


Marx would say that victims in Brooks’ version of events have much in common with each other. As beleaguered individuals, insecure in one way or another, they come together as a large class of people – workers and their allies.


It’s a class long at odds with another class–based conglomeration of interests notorious for monopolizing resources and manipulating the state to its advantage. And, says Marx, confrontation between oppressed groups and the rich and powerful will continue.


And for the sake of change, it must continue. Notions of banning assault weapons, cutting off war contractors, slowing down prison construction, protecting public schools are moral, fair, and reasonable ideas. The point is, however, that qualifications of an idea are not enough for it to take root in real life.


Instead, aggrieved peoples must come together and fight for ideas. People’s power is what works, not the virtue of good ideas. Marx, the agitator, might have observed too that fighting over gun control separates potential allies and impedes their joining  together.

The method of these two scientists is not complicated and obviously not new, yet it remains elusive. The turmoil so vividly depicted by the Jornada correspondent morphs into a laboratory

May 10, 2013