The appalling privilege and bad taste of the well-off rears its ugly head again. Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, took the time to pen an op-ed to shame cancer victims who speak too militantly of their disease. In particular, he singles out Lisa Bonchek Adams, a cancer patient who blogs and tweets and writes poetry about her disease and treatment, as somehow…unseemly. He contrasts her public battle with the resignation of his father-in-law.
In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.
I can respect that choice; everyone should have the freedom to die with dignity. But where Keller becomes an obnoxious ass is in his implication that a
calm death is an ideal for everyone, and that
there is something enviable about going gently, and then he dares to question whether Adams’
campaign has been a public service. Guess what, Bill Keller? You don’t get to question how a cancer patient gets to live. I appreciate what Adams writes, and what Jay Lake writes, and what every person who wrestles with this terrible disease chooses to say or not say. It is their choice.
Keller knows he’s treading on shaky ground here, since his wife apparently wrote something similar for the Guardian (I can’t read it because the Guardian yanked it) asking,
What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?. I’d rather ask, what are the ethics of telling someone with a terminal illness that it is unethical to talk about it? So for backup he asked Steven Goodman of Stanford Medical School for an opinion.
“I’m the last person to second-guess what she did,” Goodman told me, after perusing Adams’s blog. “I’m sure it has brought meaning, a deserved sense of accomplishment. But it shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”
Oh, so the problem is that a cancer patient is being “unduly praised”? Where? How? What is an inappropriate level of praise, and is it being given here? If someone compliments Adams on her writing or her courage, is Dr Goodman or Mr Keller going to tut-tut them and ask them to be more reserved? Or is the finger-wagging going to be restricted to cancer patients who lack the decorum to be “calm” and “go gently” into death?
What Goodman should have said in response to that request for an opinion is, “Who the fuck are you, Bill, to stand in judgment over how a cancer patient deals with their disease?” And then somebody should have slapped him with the ethics of airing his distaste for a person who chooses to not go gentle into that good night on the pages of the New York Times. The ugly spectacle is all Keller’s.