Saturday, November 23, 2013

Batkid and the Cancer in Society

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Enlightened]

I complained about the recent batkid extravaganza in San Francisco to a good friend.

Here's what I wrote to him:
When Rome was about to burn, the people were apparently distracted by the ruling elite with bread and circuses. 
Is this Batkid story part of the circus these days here?

Instead of questioning why kids are getting cancer and why the overall incidence of cancer is now 1 in 3 and rising, we're celebrating Batkid!

He responded so (quoting with his permission):

Make a wish foundation is doing something very noble for this kid. I agree with you we should look at why there is a higher incidence of cancer, but we should keep that discussion separate from making some poor kid's dream come true. The batkid story is very heartwarming and I'm very proud to live near a city that makes a very sick kid's wish come true. I think we should cherish these acts of kindness and if I was here on Friday, I would have been cheering for batkid too.
And my response to my friend:
Fair enough. You are lucky to be able to see these issues are separate and distinct. I'm not able to anymore. I see interconnectedness everywhere. To me, it's the same culture that ignores one thing and celebrates another. And this way of looking at things is quite distressing which is why I think you're fortunate in a sense.
What's going on here? Why do I feel about this differently from my friend? And why do I feel distressed?

I spoke to another friend, a kindred spirit, about this and he said:

Regarding the BatKid stuff, I'm totally with you, what a distraction and waste of resources. And it's totally taboo to say anything negative about it, lest you come across as being against a poor boy with cancer. One Sf Supervisor, Eric Mar, actually tweeted something like "wouldn't it be nice if we helped all disadvantaged kids instead of just one?" and got totally scolded by the media and public. People just love the Disneyesque heart warmer, but then just go on to doing nothing about the systemic problems we face.

Eric Mar, a city supervisor stepped into hot water when he raised a concern over the resources being spent on the event (it cost the city over $100,000).

 Here's what Mar said and what was said of him:

What's going on here? Why are a handful of people looking at this event so differently from so many others? What are they missing? How are the 12,000 people who showed up to cheer for Batkid and the Millions of others who watched it on TV and read about it on the Internet different from Eric Mar, or my friend who told me about Eric Mar, or me?

I thought perhaps it's a matter of perspective. After a phone call to my first friend and an honest chat later, it was clear that we were indeed taking different perspectives.

The way he saw it was by putting himself into the child's shoes. Leukemia is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, much less a 5-year-old. My friend felt sorry for the kid. He felt a sense of gratitude that he didn't suffer in his own childhood what the batkid is going through. Supporting the kid in making his wish come true was an expression of this gratitude. The event, as he said, was heartwarming. The child, through no fault of his, was dealt a bad deal in life. It was through genetics and no one has control over genetics. Anyone could have been that child. Perhaps, most of the people who showed up to cheer the kid felt the same way. They were expressing their support for him as he battled this deadly disease.

Later, I learned that the batkid event was talked about on TV and social networks for days before it happened. It appears, that's how thousands of people learned of it and ultimately showed up to participate and support it. Of course, I missed the publicity. My friend was quite articulate and after talking with him, I could see the whole event the way he saw it. This was a different perspective than the one I took. I now invite you to take my perspective, which is admittedly the minority perspective. All this is timely because my next post will be about why I write this blog and this post is a good lead-in and demonstrates a different way of looking at and experiencing the world.

I have never been a participant in popular culture. I have generally ignored it but sometimes observed it as an outsider. Star Wars and Star Trek might as well be the same thing because I don't know anything about either. I don't know much about Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings. I haven't read either and don't intend to. I don't use any products made by Apple because I don't need them. I have a smartphone only because my previous employer gave me one as a holiday gift. I have no use for a tablet computer. I don't play video games. I rarely log into Facebook. I don't tweet. I don't instagram. I don't use GPS navigation. I don't watch TV. I don't go to sporting events. For the longest time, I didn't know and didn't care if Super Bowl was about baseball or football. I never cared much about Batman and other similar icons. In short, I might as well be an alien that happens to live on planet Earth!

I don't take much interest about what's popular these days, what's trending, what's making waves, what others are watching and what others are doing as a crowd. If I do, it's because I'm curious. And I've grown a lot more curious lately. I tend to observe but not participate in the goings-on. From this perspective, I see our society differently. From this perspective, our culture appears confused. The batkid event is an example of this confusion.

It is then, unlike my many friends', an outsider's perspective that I take when I complain about the batkid event. I see a crowd of adults some of who are perhaps reliving part of their childhood through the kid, vicariously. I see them having a thoroughly enjoyable day in a city decked out as Gotham City. It was set up as a real life game show that was publicized by the major media outlets complete with streaming updates on the kid's heroics on twitter hashtags. I have a feeling the adults, batkid or not, would have come out and enjoyed Gotham City all by themselves.

I'm unable to separate a media that bats for batkid from the media that suppresses important facts about causes of cancer. I'm unable to separate a media that devotes days of coverage to this event from a media that doesn't ask why we have increasing rates of cancer in the first place and why children are increasingly susceptible to cancer these days. I can't see the media as independent from the corporate machinery. A vast machinery that feeds on us all. I can't see Big Pharma as separate from this machinery as it feeds on cancer patients. I can't separate a public that buys thousands of batkid T-shirts from a public that doesn't ask what's in the food they eat and what's in the water they drink and what's in the air they breathe. I can't separate a society that mobilizes 12,000 members for this media spectacle from a society that gives a free pass to their elected representatives and press on accountability. To me, it's the same culture that celebrates batkid that celebrates consumerism, lining up for the newest technological toys on opening day.

When I try and put myself in the shoes of one of the 12,000 fans who showed up for the batkid event, or in my good friend's shoes, I see their point of view. It's indeed heartwarming to see a cancer survivor, a 5-yr-old child, get to live out his fantasy for a day. Many have said that this event has restored their faith in humanity. The way I see it, though, is we could be living in a world where one wouldn't need these events to restore our faith in ourselves. We need to question why we need these events. No child should suffer from cancer and the truth is cancer is not a result of genetics alone, but epigenetics, the close relationship between the environment and our genes. It's the environment that causes various genes to express themselves. Our genes haven't changed much over the millennia but our environment has. In just the last hundred years, a small group of humans have created a hundred thousand new chemicals and poured them out by the ton into our environment. They're in everything we eat, drink, breathe, smell, wear, sit on, wash with, bathe with and are all the more dangerous to a young child's developing body. No long term tests have ever been conducted before these toxins were released into the environment. Add to this the many industrial pollutants, synthetic hormones, artificial colors and flavors and all manner of genetically modified foods. How many of us ask what's in the processed foods and sugar-filled soft drinks we feed children these days? Is it any wonder that childhood obesity, juvenile diabetes and cancer are afflicting younger and younger people? Why don't the many cancer non-profits ever mention the real causes of cancer? Why do medical doctors not get a single course in nutrition in all of their extensive training? Why is the medical establishment more geared toward "management" rather than cure?

What does a child's life look like these days anyway? Several hours of TV programming, thousands of corporate messages aimed squarely at them turning them into future consumers, absence of free play and a hectic calendar full of competitive activities aimed at giving each one an advantage in the dog-eat-dog world they will soon find themselves in, neck deep in student loan debts, unable to find jobs and losing all self-esteem in the process. This is the perspective of an observer, standing outside popular culture.

Someone said injustice for one is injustice for all. The injustice done by our species to batkid and a million other kids like him seems to go unnoticed by modern society. Instead, we've somehow come to believe that justice for one is justice for all. The "Make a wish" foundation seems to uphold this way of looking at the world. In an age where we live vicariously by eating up every little detail of the lives of Hollywood's popular icons and Silicon Valley's billionaire capitalists, this way makes sense. Batkid makes sense. An event like it fits right in.

This is the perspective of a spectator. An outsider to modern culture. A critic of popular culture. Someone who's curious about the way the world works. Someone who sees the gross injustice being perpetrated by a small minority on a large majority that's distracted by a million things. A majority that's too busy to notice as it goes about its daily routine. A majority that can't take the long view. A majority that stopped asking questions. A majority that is easily lead into foreign wars. A majority that falls for propaganda. A majority that gives up its freedoms to both the state and the corporations. A majority that frequently votes against its own interests. A majority that has forgotten that they could be living in a much better world. A better world not just for one kid, but for all. Not just for one day, but for a long time.

Eric Mar issued this statement in the wake of the furor his tweet caused:

A wise man was once asked, "if we see a homeless man on the street, should we give him some food or should we go home and work on eradicating homelessness?" The wise man said, "do both. Take care of the immediate concern of the man in front of you, then go home and think about the broader problem". Perhaps the generosity shown to batkid has its place in our lives. And perhaps it's time we asked larger questions too, and work on the systemic problems we face, the cancer in society. It starts with examining ourselves without bias, free from the trappings of modern culture, from the outside, as a space alien would!


  1. Thanks for your post. I resonate with how you concluded: "Take care of the immediate concern of the man in front of you, then go home and think about the broader problem." I think for some people the broader problem is too overwhelming and abstract so it's easier to focus on helping a specific individual. At the same time, we really need people working to make systemic change.

    I guess the good news is that both types of people want to help, they're just doing it at different levels. - Sonya

  2. You raise a key point, Sonya… that the broader problem is so overwhelming and abstract for some people. And for many others, even if the problem is clear, it's not something they can do anything about.

    But why is the broader problem so complex? Is it really that complex or does it appear so? What tools would one need to make sense of it?

    Isn't it ironic that in the modern information era, in the age of Google and smartphones, we're that much farther away from understanding our collective problem? Or are we actually getting closer to getting it all figured out? And it's only a matter of time? If it's the latter, why are so many problems getting so much worse?

    These questions keep me up at night. Any insight is appreciated :) In the meantime, I will continue to write and try my best to clear the fog a bit. For myself and for others. Thanks for reading!

  3. I think even though our technology is evolving rapidly and information is spreading at the speed of light, our emotional intelligence hasn't evolved as rapidly - just look at the rising rates of depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. People are feeling more disconnected and sad and don't have the capacity to think about complex challenges. Maybe this is why many problems seem to be getting much worse. - S

  4. Great post Kuku Mon, just the kind of dialog and discussion we simply don't have enough of in these times of tweets and soundbites. Thanks for sharing your background too, the idea of being an alien in the world of pop culture really resonated. I agree with the conclusion that in the case of BatKid, the best way to approach it is to cheer on Miles and all the people who brought so much joy to him, but also take the lesson to look at the bigger picture you so eloquently describe. Unfortunately, besides Eric Mar, yourself and a handful of others I haven't seen anyone taking it further and deeper, which leads me to believe that it was indeed primarily meant as a spectacle. Which brings me to French philosopher Guy Debord's 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle.

    "The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."

    Check it out:

  5. Yes, Sonya... It reminds me of a comedy movie from a few years back called "Idiocracy". It's set in the future, 500 years from now, and depicts human beings who are incapable of understanding the technological society that they have created around themselves.

    I believe technology has much to do with the way things are going. And by technology, I mean something quite specific: the ability to control nature or the ability to control one's own circumstances. Perhaps I should use a different term to keep all the images of fancy gadgets, freeways and facebook from flooding our minds whenever I use "technology" in this sense. The way technology, or man's inclination to control his circumstances, seems to work is that such control is not one-sided. The more we try and control our circumstances (by controlling our environment, the nature we're part of and even fellow human beings), the more circumstances end up controlling us. The more we treat nature as a machine amenable to modification, the more we're treated as machines. Today, we find ourselves at a point where the most prized and valuable members of our society, the bankers, computer scientists, business men, politicians, bureaucrats, and other leaders are also the same people who are more machine-like. Some of them are machine-like in the sense that they are rational, logical and scientific and some in the sense that they don't have much of a conscience.

    What seems to be happening is we're less emotionally resilient at both the individual and collective level. At the individual level, dependence on technology makes it difficult to be fully human and causes much suffering and at the collective level, technology is leading us into enormous global problems that are so intractable all the more because the individuals comprising the collective are already occupied with the suffering they're going through.

    But it need not be this way. Once we understand what's going on, we might be able to do something about it.

  6. Thanks, Sven! I need to get this book you recommend. I just got "The Ohlone Way", BTW :) I see it the same way, that social relationships are increasingly becoming indirect and mediated by images. Images and perhaps other sensory perceptions that then replace the direct human element. Technology has much to do with it.

    What's a video game if not a collection of images? And what's it if not a spectacle?

  7. Hi S,

    AH told me to check out your post abt Batkid bc I had reacted to it w/ similarly cynical comments (which I shared only w/ those closest to me bc I knew the general public would think I was a terrible human being). I think it's wonderful that an organization created such a special experience for a child who's been through so much. But I also think it was wastefully extravagant -- they could have used those resources on other children as well... I thought it was for marketing purposes. Apparently many people signed up to volunteer after that; perhaps it was worth it then? I'm not sure though if people signed up bc they thought every wish was going to be just as ridiculously fun... I hope they signed up for the right reasons. I guess you can learn to care abt the right things w/ exposure though...

    Anyway, just some rambling thoughts, to let you know you're not the only alien -- SY