When Bad Things Happen to Bad People
Dear The Sophist,
As I'm sure you're aware, the New York Times' resident theocrat boy genius, Ross Douthat, has progressed into middle age, and started to feel the slings and arrows of a body that won't quite work the way it used to. Ross is, of course, too much of a Very Special Boy to grapple with these changes by buying a Porsche, or leaving his wife for his research assistant. Instead, he has decided to launch an assault on the concept of medical science.
The reviews so far have been sober and serious, praising the precision and beauty of his prose while carefully dancing around the whole is-this-thing-even-real issue. This is a problem for me because what I crave, though I know I shouldn't, is a properly scorching no-holds-barred takedown. Facts, as they say, don't care about your feelings.
I know, I know, it's not very nice to make fun of someone else's health problems. But not only is Douthat a public figure, he's a particularly detestable one. He made his career arguing that people like me and my friends shouldn't be allowed to marry, buy commercial real estate in Lower Manhattan, or live in the country at all. Can't I take pleasure in the image of him hunched over the toilet, desperately popping antibiotics with one hand while feverishly holding a ray-gun machine with the other?
What I want is a proper helping of ice-cold schadenfreude, as the man who sweatily described a college student as a "chunky Reese Witherspoon" and mocked people who do yoga and watch what they eat as obsessed with "ritual purity," finds his body breaking down on him. Is that so bad? Why won't the content-industrial complex give it to me?
There are two major reasons why nobody, at least nobody in major media, is jumping up to point and laugh at Ross Douthat's new memoir, which describes his long-running struggles against a brutal but objectively unreal-sounding case of chronic Lyme disease. The first is simply tact. Douthat is a known figure, embedded in major social and professional networks, and his sudden turn from mannered reactionary reasonableness into open misery and irrationalism is awkward to address.
The second is that, while in some ways making himself vulnerable with this project, he has attached himself to a community of people no one wants to get in a fight with. Chronic Lyme is much bigger than Douthat's own story, and people who suffer from ongoing, medically elusive disorders are—quite rightly!—sensitive about having their problems dismissed. To challenge the validity of Douthat's experience would be to challenge a lot of other people in a way they would find insulting.
(The third reason, which is the No. 1 reason why The Sophist isn't going to deliver you the book review you dream of, is: who wants to read the whole book? It's too much work to write a fair and well-informed takedown of something that goes on for tens of thousands of words. Why spend that much time in the company of a writer you dislike?)
Still, there are enough excerpts out there, and there's enough of a body of previous Douthatiana, to do a reading of the situation and the person, if not the memoir proper. It's important, though, to think about what really bothers you about the whole thing.
Part of what's striking to The Sophist is that, after years of being coyly in the wrong, Douthat is now recklessly a little bit…in the right? Yes, the details of his challenges to medical science are empirically ridiculous, as he himself keeps admitting in his book excerpts: after describing his initial engagement with symptoms that sounded real to a friend of The Sophist with genuine firsthand Lyme experience, he carries on into a battle that sounds less and less like any conceivable material showdown between a bacterial infection and known methods of treatment. Antibiotics leave their spirochete-killing function behind to become some sort of all-purpose long-term healing potion, like patent medicine or blessed water; eventually he is zapping himself with frequency-tuned energy vibrations to get the same effect.
But all of this is a reminder that medical science is a bunch of sprites and goblins wrapped up inside a lab coat. The body is a treacherous thing, and the mind-body connection is a game of snakes and ladders. The Sophist has personally felt week-long squeezing, insistent chest pain melt away during the walk from the exam table to the office door, as soon as the doctor had been shown a tender spot by the sternum, poked at it himself, and agreed the symptoms exactly fit the description of a cartilage strain. The injured tissue was still injured, but now it didn't matter, so now it didn't hurt.
Likewise how much trouble The Sophist has with middle-aged lower-back soreness correlates much more closely with things like how badly The Sophist's workplace is being run, or how little sleep The Sophist is getting, than it does with whether The Sophist has been lifting the wrong things the wrong way. Unless The Sophist sits and thinks about whether the lower back hurts, in which case it can start to.
Pain is the body trying to understand its place in the world. To say that Ross Douthat's chronic Lyme experience is somehow fake, then, would be to give him undue credit for self-awareness—to deny the reality of his unresolved contradictions.
Where you are correct about all this, Tick, is in that, so far, no one has given Douthat’s story the reading it deserves. It is not necessary to like someone to find their pain interesting and meaningful. If anything, mistrusting the patient's character may make their story more intelligible. CIA operatives, at the spearpoint of America's covert interference in everyone else's affairs, find themselves in agony from the effects of being secretly attacked by apparently nonexistent Russian ray-gun technology. Police officers keel over at the thought of having accidentally touched a molecule of fentanyl—declaring, as Patrick Blanchfield has pointed out, that "they can't breathe."
Douthat's narrative, as excerpted in the Times, is one of a person coming apart under heavy strain. He notes, but largely moves on from, the fact he and his wife were uprooting themselves from Washington D.C. to Connecticut after buying a bit too much house for a bit too much money, and that in the course of his ailment they went from having two small children to having four. An early attack of chest pain strikes him as he's somehow driving the family on a road trip to visit his wife's relatives in Pittsburgh, in the middle of preparing for their actual interstate move and while still recovering from being treated for acute, initial Lyme disease. The Sophist gets a little short of breath merely imagining it!
And that's before we even get to the partisan and ideological etiology. Douthat writes: "(That was the summer when Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator and politics became a fever dream as well.)"—parentheses very much his own. For someone whose professional life has been devoted to arguing that right-wing American politics contains the potential for virtue and righteousness, this seems like much, much more than a side note! How was a clever, delicately moralizing Catholic Republican supposed to absorb the total annihilation of conservative political pretensions to Christian goodness, at the hands of a godless degenerate vulgarian?
Here was where a lifetime of deflection and evasion had taken Douthat—from his baptism into the conservative intellectual movement via a late-night all-male nude swim off William F. Buckley's yacht, through his Harvard-credentialed memoir about despising Harvard, to the New York Times, where he can twit the readership about liberal closed-mindedness from one of the opinion section's protected affirmative-action seats for conservatives. He has been an heir of the WASP ruling class claiming the oppressed status of an outsider Catholic; he has been a critic of overweening progressive sanctimony who stays cagey about what political morality he would impose in its place if he could. He has been a man of faith sharing the pope's dismay at the hollowness and cruelty of secular 21st century life, right up until the pope starts talking about unchecked capitalism.
And then he had to watch the whole idea of respectable religious conservatism tear itself apart. Establishment right-wing Catholic figures like Bill Barr wallowed in the moral hog pen of Trumpworld, rationalizing and then advocating for corruption and abuse. The would-be intellectual corps of the right descended into raving neo-Bircherism. Politely nativist "immigration skeptics" found open Nazis rallying to their banner, while the Border Patrol kidnapped babies from their mothers' arms. All his soft life he had longed to see liberals challenged by a vigorous right wing, and now he'd gotten his wish.
At this point, he found his body betrayed by an uncontrollable infection—"something inside my veins and muscles that wasn’t supposed to be there," he writes. It kept flaring up in defiance of logic and science; his known model of the world was inadequate to contain it. Why mock Douthat for this experience? The Sophist encourages you to join in hoping that, in every sense of the phrase, he finds a way to get better.
Tuck in your socks,