DYSENTERY: Swimming Upstream

By: Steve Thames, Esq.

As co-editor of The Blunt 48 (!) years ago, I picked this title for its satire of The Point editor’s regular “Commentary” column and for both its homophonic and scatological double entendre. In the interest of full disclosure, the intervening half-century hasn’t entirely erased my affinity for scatological humor.

“Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.” — W. C. Fields

We probably didn’t recognize it at the time, but most of us “Bluntniks” (as I prefer to be known — see “Top Ten Reasons…” herein) were blessed (cursed?) with that gene compelling us to “swim upstream” against authority, consensus and both macro and micro-culture — even when, at times, it meant our salmon-like demise. In the spring quarter of my sophomore year that meant publishing a second edition of The Blunt, after President Shelburne Brown graciously met us for lunch and somehow developed the (mis)understanding we would NOT go to print again (we never promised this).

All of us soon received letters from the college effectively kicking us out by asking us to “reapply for admission.”

My co-editor Calvin Slater and I weren’t about to be “salmoned” so we jumped the Point Loma pond — Calvin to the University of Southern California, and I to the University of California (UC), Davis, where we quickly went from brave little radical salmon to ocean-going guppies swept along — and largely ignored — by the tide (oddly, we both ended up attending the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, where you could say we learned a few skills to aid “swimming upstream”). Gone were the rants against sexist dorm rules that turned women’s dorms (yes, completely separate buildings separated from the men by the entire campus) into impregnable (sorry poor adjective) “convents” while the men could spend a weekend in Tijuana, Mexico for all anyone knew.

By contrast, “in loco parentis” was long gone from the UC system, and nobody knew or cared where you were unless it was your roommate hoping you were out for the weekend so they could bring their date up for the night. “Swimming upstream” clearly didn’t look like it did at Point Loma. I was beginning to learn that “swimming upstream” — challenging authority or consensus — is highly contextualized.

Is it really a gene (or genetic defect) that compels so many of us to challenge consensus, to live in a state of tension? Nah. If it’s a gene, we all have it; just look at the average five-year-old. But many of us forgot to keep asking “Why?” after kindergarten. “Why?,” you ask (see there, I got you!). The esteemed Greek Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras in “Faith as an Ecclesial Experience” offers at least a partial answer: he posits that, unlike both pre- and post-Christian classical culture where truth and its investigation were an absolute priority, our present culture prioritizes utility over truth.

In other words, in our culture the ideals of truth, reality, wisdom and justice that I believe are imprinted in our DNA have taken a back seat to what works, what sells and yes, what one can get away with.

In the nearly half-century since I entered “Point Loma College: An Institution of the Church of the Nazarene,” we have witnessed this prioritization to Orwellian proportions such that, in service of utility, narrative and politics, truth’s value by society has atrophied.

Sometimes it is turned on its head by using language to distort, like the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” which addressed climate change, corporate tax and negotiation of drug prices but had little if anything to do with factors most economists would regard as affecting inflation. 

Sometimes it’s simply ignored (or lied about) like the “weapons of mass destruction” that everyone from President George W. Bush to the New York Times cheerleads despite the appalling lack of evidence to justify an invasion that killed 100,000 people and cost $2 trillion. 

Sometimes truth is sabotaged by deceptive scientific data, such as when agencies and big-pharma interests publish fraudulent studies and construct “tests” designed to fail to keep doctors from prescribing uber-safe, cheap and effective early treatments in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sometimes truth is simply blocked by captured media who fail to investigate or report facts against their self-interest. For example, during the pandemic, stories even questioning vaccine efficacy and safety or supporting inexpensive alternative drug treatments were simply nowhere to be found on network TV.

And no wonder: in 2021 alone network TV received nearly $12 billion — about 10% of its advertising revenue — from pharma/healthcare companies. Likewise, our drug “oversight” agency, the FDA, which fought together with Pfizer in court to keep its vaccine test data secret from the public for 70 years, now receives 45% of its budget from the pharmaceutical industry. 

And finally, the quest for truth is at times squelched by good old-fashioned bullying, often in the form of name-calling (e.g., the dreaded “conspiracy theorist!”) and “cancel-culture” designed to ostracize the critic. At best, such tactics silence or scare off the skeptic when the crowd attacks.  More often, specious attacks by modern-day professional mobs cause serious personal damage to career, reputation and economic security.

One such victim I work with, Dr. Paul Marik, is the second most published intensivist/researcher in the world, with an “h-index” (measuring a scientist’s professional impact via the number of citations his/her research receives in other publications) well over 100, while Nobel Prize winners average an h-index in the 20s. He pioneered the use of corticosteroids to cure hospitalized COVID patients — initially ridiculed, but then later adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the recommended treatment.

But when, as chief of his hospital’s ICU, he refused to watch his patients die when hospital leadership prohibited additional protocols that had reduced his patient mortality rate by 50%, “leadership” responded with a sham peer review that forced him out of his position and sullied his reputation.

Turns out that “swimming upstream” can be more costly than just having to change colleges.

A final observation: because “swimming upstream” has as its objective universal ideals, it is not beholden to the facile and increasingly mercurial labels of “left,” “right,” “liberal” or “conservative.”

Two examples can be gleaned just from my lifetime. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, while employed by a government-affiliated think-tank, leaked the top-secret “Pentagon Papers” revealing U.S. Vietnam War decision-making including alleged lies by the White House. Charged by the conservative establishment with violation of the Espionage Act, Ellsberg was championed by the then-thoroughly anti-war left for his brave exposure of government misconduct. 

Flash forward 42 years, however, to National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden’s leak of highly classified information in 2013 disclosing the NSA’s massive illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Then, and to this day, the rank-and-file left seems unconcerned, and Snowden has watched from exile, charged with violation of the Espionage Act, his passport revoked, while the Democrat Obama administration proceeded to prosecute government whistleblowers at an unprecedented rate. Meantime, the current Republican frontrunner for President, Donald Trump, talks like he may pardon Snowden if he regains the Presidency. Go figure.

The prophet Isaiah “nailed it” millennia ago in Isaiah 53:14-15: Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.  Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.” So, there can be no justice apart from truth; and no truth apart from those who diligently seek it — sometimes at great personal cost.

The times, the culture, the political winds and even the known facts can, and do, change. The Truth doesn’t. Neither should your God-given desire to seek it.  Choose to be that “live” fish. Keep swimming upstream (and don’t worry about whether it branches “left” or “right”).

 Note From Author on President Shelburne Brown: 

Brown then, and even more to me in retrospect, was a brilliant, humanitarian person and leader who should be congratulated for navigating both the move from Pasadena and the treacherous passage between academia, the trustees and the constituents.  Scylla and Charybdis come to mind.