Thursday, March 02, 2006

Autoimmune diseases

I could be accused of blurring the distinction between individuals and the various levels of community of which those individuals are part or to which they have some affiliation or connection. I also think much of the plague of organized mistrtust, hatred and militarized response that threatens to swallow humanity can be laid to a common tendency, much exploited by politicians, to view the world through a false form of that distinction: a divorce of the personal well being from that of the layers and levels of community.

Wars have been with us for as long as there has been any social unit the size of a tribe or greater. They must, in spite of all the protest songs and pacifistic sermons, seem somehow natural or inevitable to the minorities that lead them and the majorities that support them. They would not have to be seen as anything but good business to explain the participation of some corporations in these sick paroxysms of history.

This may be too weak a metaphore to lend itself to any redress of this mess but I find in this behavior of bodies politic an analogue to a mechanism of our physical bodies: overzealous immune reactions. Doctors categorize quite a few types of disease that we might lump under the heading "overzealous immune reaction", but that describes a number of ways in which the cellular and systemic mechanisms that are supposed to ward off infection can do more harm than good by going awry. Under my general category I would put anaphylactic shock, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, arthritis, MS and others. One of the categories that medical science sets apart is hypersenstitivities. I, like many, suffer awfully from poison ivy, a type IV hypersensitivity:

Type IV reactions are not abnormal. Rather, they serve a very important purpose, which is to defend the body against bacteria and fungi that live within cells (e.g., Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Pneumocystis carinii). Unlike viruses, these intracellular pathogens do not use a cell’s machinery to manufacture their proteins. These bugs have everything that they need to replicate on their own; they are just using the cell as a cozy place in which to hide from the immune system. Therefore, the cell’s quality control mechanism does not sample pieces of proteins from these invaders and display them on the cell surface. As a consequence, T cytotoxic cells are not signaled that these cells are infected, as they would be if the invader were a virus. The only way that the body knows that these intracellular pathogens are present is when they are released from an infected cell to spread to new host cells. At this point, T lymphocytes that recognize antigens from these bugs are activated. These specialized T cells begin to secrete factors that call macrophages into the area. The macrophages, in turn, secrete toxic factors that kill the surrounding cells. Since the macrophages have no way of knowing precisely which cells are infected, they just destroy everything in the area indiscriminately. Think of the macrophages as bombardiers, destroying everything in a village in the hopes of routing out the unseen enemy. T cytotoxic cells, on the other hand, are sharpshooters that can pick off an enemy soldier when they spy a glimpse of him in a window. Delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions can be drastic and destructive, but it is the only way that the body can deal with microorganisms that shield themselves from attack by hiding in the body’s own cells.

What cruel mind fashioned such a defense? Why wouldn't something as pointlessly unpleasant as that fade away under the pressures that select the fitest? The answer is that my personal agonies mean nothing, and I don't die of poison ivy. In fact I probably live because my immune system is so damn vigilant.

The body's complex system of cell types and their many interactions rivals the complexity of human societies and maps on to the specialized division of labor that characterize even social units as small as the family. There being things that would like to make a meal of us, specialization for defense is needed. The imbalanced or mistargeted action of some functions within the body or the body politic leads to disease and dysfunction. Cells have no choice but to execute their programs however miswired. But we should not use emotion or trust instinct: relying on behavior evolved in simple times is a way to be eliminated as unfit in complex times. The balance is too hard, maybe impossible, to evolve to perfection because the range of environments from hostile scarcity to peaceful abundance is too variable for one adaptation. Only the flexible adaptation we call intelligence could potentially save us from cycles of over reaction and retaliation...but we, as crowds or states, seldom avail ourselves of that.

I find this overzealousness in the body politic too. Some minds are disposed to sense threat and buy all hints or claims that we are under attack. That sort of zeal is usually bull. Turning against your own fellow citizens when you are of that mind and they are not is common in the worst moments of history and is a mechanism quite analgous to the sloppy slaughtering by T lymphocytes.

If the greatest democracy in history is morphing into a fascist state with all the parallels to the worst dictatorship in history, why should I not look for what common influence might be at work in both of these cases? I need look no farther than human nature. Get well soon america


Deep Thought said...

"Morphing into a fascist state"? Is that why all those Code Pink people who disrupted the RNC are still in prison? Is that why annual protests against the School of the Americas are met with dogs and teargas every time? Perhaps that is why you can post this very and know that it can be seen by virtually anyone with internet acces via - government-controlled networks?

I've been to monarchies and totalitarian states. You need to get a grip. After all, virtually every item on your little "checklist of fascism" applies to Kennedy or LBJ, too, doesn't it? Or howabout Huey Long, the closest thing to a fascist this nation has ever had? Of course, ol' Huey was a very progressive Democrat that gained power through his advocation of a social safety net.... Just like Hitler.

Anonymous said...

Don't be an idiot. He said it's becoming a fascist state, not that it already is one. Or did you think that Germany went from democracy to Hitler all in one night?

-MH, Austin, TX

surrogate said...

deep thought sport of missed the point I think. Well written... I liked the metaphor.

GreenSmile said...

LBJ did some good [head start programs] and plenty of bad [viet nam] all without bankrupting the nation. The funny thing about LBJ is that the nation learned nothing from the decades of dysfunctional defense that you get when defeat can't be called defeat because the lies that got you into the war couldn't be called lies...we are going around that dreary circle one more time now. Kennedy didn't get to finish anything. Huey long is long gone but I have always heard his name associated with crooked politics.

Why do you name these people? They are not my gods or even my friends. If we have to get into an argument about whether calling them fascist is less exagerated than my saying the trend of american politics since 2000 has been toward fascism, we will be here a while. I linked to the fascism comparisons because I consider them to have some merit. I would rather see you refute them with any kind of example or evidence than just dismiss them...if it is so "little", you should be able to make short work of it. The extent to which those 14 characteristics do apply is more damning for being something that we as voters are tolerating than for being an indictment of the politicians who take advantage of america's sickened zeitgeist to further their own delusions of empire.

If this country turns back from its embrace of war profiteers, feckless warmaking and influence peddling, if this country rebalances its concern for corporations that now outweighs its concern for any persons not already organized as unquestioning bloks of assent, if this country ceases doing and spending more for fear's sake than for fairness' sake, voices like mine, Code Pink and damn near anyone in the Progressive Blogging Alliance will be far more the cause than voices like yours, deep thought.

MH: Thank you for that emphasis. I think deep thought ought to visit the Holocaust museum in DC and take the full day to take in all the exhibits in took over a decade for a well educated highly cultured society to decay into the sickest killing machine in history ...I certainly didn't mean we are already there but I am just as certain that such decay begins with a first step and then a second...