Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN


July 23, 2012

Harter: The body politic

Greensburg — The human body does so many things such as breathing without our conscious direction.

It goes about its business without much direct oversight. Occasionally, because of conscious choices we do make, it has to adapt. Run up a flight of stairs, and your breathing increases in intensity on its own.

Sometimes, the body has to protect itself from choices you make. Put enough friction over time on the soles of your feet, and it will callous over. Cut yourself with a sharp knife, and the wound will scab. Consume the wrong substance, and the digestive system will suddenly expel it out one end or the other.

Previously, I speculated that some cancers might be attempts by cells in the body to ignore central command and simply react independently, growing despite the long term impact on the rest of the system, maybe even going into protective mode, as with skin cancer that creates a hard shell over the skin because you didn't have enough sense to use sunscreen. (Cells don't actually think, so all they can do is what they do.)

We see something similar with mental health. It is not unheard of that a patient will have developed symptoms as a way of coping Ð a flawed effort to regain health. Football legend Hershel Walker, for instance, created multiple personalities to shield him from abuse and physical pain. Maybe some of our pathologies are misguided attempts to restore equilibrium and keep the body safe.

In this column, I would stretch the analogy. Is it possible that communities are resilient precisely to the extent they can repair themselves and adapt? As one part falters, another compensates. As jobs decline, crime increases. As property values shrink, buyers pick up bargains. Looking at communities as large organisms, therefore, maybe we can see what constitutes civic health.

Take this example. People need to eat. Their food can be homegrown or shipped in for distribution. Then, at the other end, people need to dispose of waste. Processes exist to maintain this never-ending flow of groceries in and sewage out. But what happens if the flow becomes disrupted? The community has to adapt or die. So, by a thousand little adjustments we try to keep moving forward.

Politicians would be right to remember that the community, like the body, can make most of these adjustments automatically, without central controls. Occasionally, the only reason a community survives is that it functions despite its leadership. One thinks for example of Chicago, which must continuously compensate for its leadership.

The analogy continues when you think about a cell creating more problems than it solves, as for example when it drains resources without providing any services or (worse) when it deviates into crime and starts to consume the surrounding neighborhood. What then? The central system might need to get involved and put a stop to things Ñ or even remove the threat.

The American system as a whole is astoundingly resilient. It can absorb decades of abuse. But there does come a time when the system screams to the conscious center that something has to be done. Whether we are talking about the occupy movement or the tea party, maybe we are seeing evidence of a system under strain Ð not from some external threat, however, but from central control itself, the government. What then?

When I abuse my body and neglect its long-term health, the individual parts will not only scream back in the form of pain, but eventually they can shut down or switch over to become part of the problem. Run despite injury, and the rest of the body will become distorted and start to become susceptible to injury as well. But if the brain can't hear it or thinks it knows best, what else can you do?

Well, unlike being stuck with a foolish or drugged up brain, we in politics can simply vote the fools out of office, rather than continue the ordeal. I will be taking the position this election year that as voters we should do such a thing. The body politic has to recuperate.


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