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Sims City


Sims City

THE NEW CRITERION, September 2018

Sims City

On the ignominious removal of a Central Park monument.

Like something out of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, a black sign now appears in place of a statue that had stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street for over eighty years.

By order of Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Parks has relocated the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried. Plans are being developed to commission a new monument on this site.

So a statue is gone from Manhattan, its online record wiped clean. James who? Doctor of what? Few noticed its presence; fewer now may notice its absence. The handful who wanted it gone—“by order of”—were louder than the many who did not care whether or not it stayed. And most are fine to leave the story there. But in an era out to prove its revolutionary impermanence, a case should be made for the history of a forgotten figure and the permanence of his small monument. The past deserves its say.

In defense of a statue—

The Central Park monument to J. Marion Sims was, until recently, one of a string of statues and plaques that adorns the park’s outer wall. Like the Ninety-first Street memorial to William T. Stead, a journalist who distinguished himself for bravery by sacrificing his life during the sinking of the Titanic, and the 101st Street monument to Arthur Brisbane, the “editor and Patriot,” the Sims statue existed in the civic background, largely overlooked, if not entirely forgotten, by the city that hosted it.

That changed on April 17, 2018. In a public event organized by the Mayor of the City of New York, as protesters, surrounded by a ring of media trucks, chanted “Marion Sims is not our hero,” a forklift raised the bronze statue from its base and deposited it on the back of a Parks Department pickup. With its head covered by a blue tarp, a yellow cable wrapped around its neck, the statue rode off to the shouts of the crowd and the clicking of the cameras. The statue has not been seen since.

Following the deadly August 2017 conflagration in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a national reckoning with monuments to the Confederacy, few might have predicted that Dr. Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” would be the New Yorker ultimately destined for ignominious denouement. But such are the capricious politics of our modern iconoclasm and the unexpected opportunities it presents for displays of scolding and shame. Following a widening pattern of censorship, one that has quickly moved beyond Confederate memorials, a fever call for “social justice” has sought to redress history through public acts of effacement. Born out of a toxic relationship with the past, this frenzy should be alarming to anyone concerned with the intricacies of history and its record in material culture. In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.

Surgeon and philanthropist. Founder of the Woman’s Hospital State of New York. His brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery throughout the entire world.”

The inscription, carved into a roundel, is still in evidence beneath the cut bolts of what remains of Sims’s monument. It speaks to the historical sentiment behind his memorialization. Created by Ferdinand Freiherr von Miller in 1892, the bronze statue of Sims was first erected in Bryant Park. In 1934, the statue moved uptown to a new base facing the New York Academy of Medicine, which has occupied its current six-story building across Fifth Avenue since 1926.

In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.

That Sims was a pioneering surgeon in the area of women’s health is beyond dispute. His innovative surgeries became the basis for curing what were thought to be irreparable reproductive injuries, paving the way for the modern therapeutic practices and instruments that today benefit women worldwide. “In recognition of his services in the cause of science & mankind,” as a second roundel still reads, “awarded highest honors by his countrymen & decorations from the governments of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain & Portugal.”

The challenge for Sims has been our interpretation of his early research work around his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental surgeries to repair the vesicovaginal fistulae of twelve enslaved women, three of whom we know from Sims’s records by first name: Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. This surgery was conducted without anesthesia on a population for whom the law did not compel personal consent. In recent decades, medical historians have cast these actions as unethical, if not abhorrent. With a record of experimentation on slaves, without anesthetic, Sims can easily come across as a Dr. Mengele of the antebellum South, and therefore ripe for condemnation.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1993, Durrenda Ojanuga Onolemhemhen calls Sims’s surgeries on “powerless Black women” a “classic example of the evils of slavery and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.” In particular, Sims has been labeled an “anesthetic racist” for not practicing proper pain management on his enslaved patients, even as he performed multiple unsuccessful surgeries before perfecting his operating procedures.

When New York mayor Bill de Blasio convened a special commission last year to review “city art, monuments, and markers,” the panel arrived at similar conclusions. Arguing that “there is no question about the abuse of the women he experimented upon,” the commission wrote that Sims “has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame.”

The commission’s recommendation to remove the statue from a neighborhood that “largely consists of communities of color, predominantly Latinx [sic] and Black” was met with the forklift a day later—a record turnaround for city work. The panel had served its political purpose—giving the mayor a pass on similarly controversial yet much more popular city monuments, including those of Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt, by targeting a lesser-known work.

While protest groups, including an organization called the “Black Youth Project 100,” had been staging graphic spectacles in front of Sims—young women have appeared wearing hospital gowns soaked in fake blood—“no person or group wrote or testified to request that the Sims monument remain in its current location.” By this, the commission therefore showed that the removal of Sims (unlike the Italian Columbus) would not upset a large bloc of city voters.

Yet, there are researchers who have long proposed a counter-narrative to the condemnation of Sims. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2006, L. Lewis Wall, a doctor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, one who has been honored for his work on behalf of African women with vesicovaginal fistulae, offers a different understanding of Sims’s achievements. Dr. Wall notes the horrific long-term effects of vesicovaginal fistula, a tragic condition that results from crushing complications of labor and fetal death, and leaves a woman with a permanent hole between bladder and vagina, resulting in a loss of urinary and often fecal control and a befouling of the reproductive organs.

Records maintain that Sims did, in fact, gain patient consent for his procedures, argues Wall. Moreover, the sensitive nature of the surgery would have required a patient’s willingness to proceed. The surgeries also had a known therapeutic outcome—curing, for the first time, a horrific long-term affliction. As for the charge of “anesthetic racism,” it should be noted that the use of anesthetic ether was not first demonstrated until October 16, 1846, in Boston, a year after Sims began his operations in Alabama. Even then, its adoption was not immediately universal, and it carried its own complications; surgeons trained before its advancement often continued to practice without it, as Sims did later on both his black and white patients.

Taken as a whole, such an interpretation portrays Sims not as a monster, profiting off of sadistic experiments on “the Black body,” but as a surgeon who championed corrective intervention for a disregarded and, indeed, powerless population suffering from severe injury. We may never know what truly happened in his operating theater, but given the ultimately therapeutic outcomes Sims achieved for Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey, and the other women he cured, it may very well be that the only subject in this story operated upon unjustly and without consent is the statue of J. Marion Sims.

Such a fate reminds me of the story of “The Burghers of Calais,” here turned into postmodern farce. Besieged by the English in 1346, so the legend goes in its telling by the medieval writer Jean Froissart, the city of Calais was spared by Edward III for giving up six of its leading citizens—“burghers,” or bourgeois—presumably destined for execution. Headed by the first volunteer, Eustache de Saint Pierre, these local leaders sacrificed themselves to save their city during the Hundred Years’ War.

Through a commission from the French port, Auguste Rodin famously immortalized these men in his sculpture of 1889, portraying the local leaders not as divine heroes composed on pedestals but as ordinary, downtrodden, and, indeed, besieged figures. Their clothes are torn and their bodies are bound as they carry out the keys, and their duty, for the salvation of the town.

Today, such sacrifice is not immortalized in bronze. Rather, it is bronze that must be immortalized in sacrifice. Pushed from the gates of Manhattan, the statue of J. Marion Sims was besieged, and finally sacrificed, for New York’s supposed racial salvation. Such symbolic destruction may serve to connote a phantom catharsis. But, ultimately, the only real-world change is the destruction of the symbol itself through a spectacle that may only perpetuate historical injustice. Unlike those burghers of Calais, the mayors, governors, and institutional leaders of today will eagerly wrong the symbols of the dead, along with the complexities of history, to protect, and enhance, their own righteous living.


North Korea can host the Hunger Games


North Korea can host the Hunger Games

SPECTATOR USA, September 23, 2018

North Korea can host the Hunger Games

The modern Olympics give fool’s gold to despots and dictators

By offering to pursue a joint bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2032, the two Koreas hope to right a historical wrong: no doubt, the exclusion of Dennis Rodman from the 1992 Dream Team.

But just as the retired Piston rebounder and peninsular hero would be a fool to pursue today’s Olympic Gold, let’s stop fooling ourselves about the Olympic Games. Through the Koreas’ absurd suggestion, the time has come to question the fool’s gold of the modern games and its longstanding currency among the world’s murderers, despots, and thieves.

The ancient Olympics were a religious rite and a celebration of free people. According to myth, inaugurated by Heracles and consecrated to Zeus, the first recorded games began in Olympia in 776 BC. The games took place every four years, a unit of time known as the Olympiad, and continued for nearly a thousand years. Here the Greek city-states sent their best to compete in running, pentathlon, boxing, wrestling, horse racing, and an ultimate fighting game called the pankration. Koroibos, a cook from Elis, became the first laureled Olympian by winning the stadion race. Like a box of Wheaties — you could not go anywhere in the Hellenic world without seeing this champion of track and field on some black-figure amphora.

The modern games began in a similar spirit. The Olympic Movement arose from the Greek Uprising of the 1820s and Greece’s liberation from the shackles of the Ottoman Empire. After fits and starts, the International Olympic Committee organised its first modern games in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in 1896.

Citius, Altius, Fortius — Faster, Higher, Stronger — has been the guiding spirit of the modern games. It’s a motto first proposed by Olympic founder and IOC president Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. Yet it did not take long for this showcase of amateur competition to descend from these noble aspirations.

The 1936 Berlin games were a travesty of the Olympic spirit by providing a false cover for the Nazis’ murderous regime. The famous torch relay, which takes its flame from the sunlight of Olympia focused by a parabolic mirror, was another Nazi invention and furthered the false narrative of connecting Aryan ‘supermen’ with the athletes of the ancient world. Fortunately, real mensch Jesse Owens sent those Nazi blondes home in an Uber.

We might consider 1936 to be an unfortunate exception to a great Olympic tradition. But in fact, as we see one despotic regime after another winning the rights to host the modern Olympics, the Nazi games have become the rule reflecting the rot at the core of the IOC. Just consider: The Soviet Union in 1980; China in 2008; Russia in 2016; China again in 2022. Even the games that take place in the free West have been sullied by repeated instances of bribery and doping, among countless other crimes.

By bringing out the best of athleticism, the modern Olympics seem to bring out the worst of humanity. Its participants are drugged. Its officials are bribed. Its builders are worked to death. And its pageantry is pure propaganda. Back in 1988, when South Korea first hosted the summer Olympics, the autocratic regime rounded up the homeless of Seoul and sent them to slave labour camps to be beaten, raped, and murdered.

So, sure. Why not let the descendants of the Hermit Kingdom join hands and ring in the 2032 Olympics in Pyongyang. There’s nothing like a nuclear arms race to heat up competition. The Hunger Games will make for classic Olympic sport.


Culture of Denial


Culture of Denial

CITY JOURNAL, March 30, 2018

Culture of Denial

DJ Jaffe’s harrowing account of the half-century-long breakdown of America’s treatment of the mentally ill. A review of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill (Prometheus Books, 363 pp., $25)

“We heard it after Sandy Hook. You heard it after Aurora. You heard it after Arizona. You heard it after Parkland. That these mass shootings are the result of somebody suffering with mental illness and the only thing we can do is address this as a mental illness problem. So let’s get the facts straight right away.” So begins a video spot by Congressman Joe Kennedy III, produced by “NowThis” for Facebook and watched by millions of viewers, that discounts the relationship between mental illness and mass violence. The voices of American liberalism have long refused to acknowledge the slightest connection between the two.

“The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Yet in his next sentence, Gopnik concedes: “Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given.”

Such atrocities should warrant an examination of root causes and their implications. And, yes, such shooters are often crazy. Kennedy states that “only 22 percent” of mass shootings were “conducted by somebody suffering from mental illness.” The actual numbers may be much higher. The shooters in at least three of the four examples that Kennedy cites displayed symptoms of mental illness. But shouldn’t even a rate of 22 percent suggest further review? And shouldn’t the call for further gun control go hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of our treatment of the mentally ill?  

But, in fact, a culture of denial has long surrounded the half-century-long breakdown of America’s treatment of its mentally ill. As it happens, the Kennedys themselves have long been at the center of this rollback in care for those suffering from extreme mental illness due. In 1941, 23-year-old Rosemary Kennedy, Congressman Kennedy’s great aunt, underwent what was then a widely used treatment—the transorbital, or “ice-pick,” lobotomy. Rosemary’s father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the autocratic family scion, believed that the procedure would calm her mood swings, which had become a family embarrassment. Unfortunately, the botched procedure left Rosemary severely mentally disabled. Partly as a consequence, the Kennedy family has embarked on a multi-generational crusade against institutionalization and invasive treatment. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy proposed replacing dedicated institutions for the mentally ill with decentralized Community Mental Health Centers (CMHCs). As I described for City Journal in “A New Moral Treatment,” the result not only led to the shuttering of the asylums but also to a near-ban on committing patients for treatment against their will and to prevent them from harming themselves and others.

The madness of this present system of care is the subject of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, DJ Jaffe’s harrowing, personal, and all-too-timely account of how a system that now prioritizes “mental health” does little to treat true mental illness. Like many advocates for the severely mentally ill, Jaffe, a self-described “aging hippie” and the founder of the Mental Illness Policy Org, came to his cause through personal experience. In the 1980s, his wife’s sister, Lynn, developed schizophrenia. The diagnosis was bad enough, but the mental health system’s inability to help her, and to help her family help her, proved disastrous. Doctors refused to share findings about her condition. “Lynn returned home to us,” writes Jaffe, “and stopped taking the antipsychotic medications we didn’t even know she’d been prescribed.” Jaffe (an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute) came to realize that the law “prevents parents from helping psychotic or delusional loved ones who refuse treatment until after they become a danger. As ludicrous as it sounds, rather than preventing violence, the law requires it. That realization led me on a thirty-year journey to try to find out what is wrong with the mental health system and what can be done to fix it.”

As Jaffe makes clear, the headline-making cases involving gun violence and mass murder are only the most atrocious symptoms of a much greater systemic failure, one that leads to the expense of billions a year on mental health yet leaves hundreds of thousands of mentally ill Americans to the cruelties of the streets, the “trans-institutionalization” of the prisons, and the life-threatening dangers of their own diseases.

One problem is “anosognosia,” the clinical term for the lack of understanding of one’s own mental fitness. Anosognosia is “present in up to 50 percent of those with untreated schizophrenia and 40 percent of those with untreated bipolar disorder,” writes Jaffe. In a system that relies on patients serving as their own health-care agents and that no longer permits consultation on treatment with parents or loved ones, the consequences of anosognosia mean that the severely mentally ill often go untreated or undertreated. The result: “there are ten times more people with mental illness incarcerated as hospitalized.” Those are just the ones who make it to jail. Thousands die each year by their own hand or are shot by police committing crimes that shouldn’t have happened.

“We should move away from a system that requires tragedy before treatment to one that offers treatment before tragedy,” writes Jaffe. Insane Consequences details the “catch and release attitude” of today’s mental health system and the Kafkaesque trials that concerned family members often endure to protect their loved ones from themselves.

The implications extend far beyond gun violence, to harm of any kind. Consider the subway pusher Andrew Goldstein, whose lack of treatment for schizophrenia led to the death of Kendra Webdale in 1999; a law written in her name now permits at least limited involuntary treatment of the mentally ill. Or Richard Rojas, a driver high on PCP with known psychological issues who rammed his car into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017, injuring 20 and killing 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman.  

Jaffe could go further in advancing the argument for new institutions for those mentally ill who pose such a danger to themselves or others that they should not be integrated into society—a measure with real relevance to the gun debate, for example. Federal law already bans the sale of firearms to people who have been involuntarily committed. Written into existing policy, institutionalization therefore remains a proven path to reducing gun deaths, if only such intervention were still readily available to the severely mentally ill.  

“A lot of kids threw jokes around like that, saying that he’s the one to shoot up the school,” said Eddie Bonilla, a former classmate of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter. “But it turns out everyone predicted it. It’s crazy.”

Crazy, it is.