Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 694, October 28, 2012

"Libertarianism must, for the foreseeable
future, be a strategy for conservatives"

Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

In recent weeks, I have been undergoing repairs to the damage to my teeth that is a result of having been diabetic for a quarter of a century.

The work—and recovery process—have been remarkably painful, although, with the help of prescription medicines, I have been trying to work in spite of the pain. I don't know how well I've done. I most regret having "suddenly" fallen out correspondence with several good people. I do know that when the pain was gone, and I could stop taking the narcotics, I slept around the clock for pretty much two days in a row.

I would never have gone into all this, except that it started me thinking about the effect that pain must undoubtedly have had on history.

For example, a documentary on King Tutankhamon told of a recent discovery that for most of his short life, Tut suffered horrifying dental abcesses. They didn't kill him—he fell off his chariot while hunting—but they must have made existence miserable, and severely affected his judgment. Tut was probably the most powerful individual on the planet at the time, but there wasn't a thing he could do about it.

Although traces of cocaine—a new world product—appear to have been found in Egyptian mummies, indicating, not for the first time, that we know less about travel, trade, and communications in antiquity than we thought we knew, I'm unaware of any such in Tut's remains.

But as usual, I have digressed.

Another great decision-maker with famously terrible dental health was George Washington, whose false teeth were not made from wood, as legend would have it, but a variety of materials, including elephant ivory, hippopotamus teeth, and metal springs. According to Wikipedia, George was in pain for most of his life, and pretty much stayed zonked on laudanum, a sovereign remedy consisting of raw opium dissolved in alcohol.

Amateur historians often claim that this is why he looks so grim in most of his portraits. The artists must have caught him between doses. I wonder more about the effect pain and drug use must have had on his abilities as a leader. Certainly, given his fondness and respect for Alexander Hamilton, it didn't help him much as a judge of character.

According to that splendid little book Pox: Genius, Madness, And The Mysteries Of Syphilis by Deborah Hayden [] [Barnes &] , history has been influenced on more than one occasion by the pain and insanity of that venereal disease which, more than any other, deserves the name "Montezuma's Revenge". History can trace its appearance in Europe to the returning crews from Christopher Columbus' first expedition to America.

In her book, Hayden makes some shrewd guesses about which of history's figures were afflicted with the disease: Beethoven, Manet, Van Gogh, his brother Theo, Randolph Chuchill, Hitler, and so on. One she doesn't have to guess about is Abraham Lincoln, who told his law partner (and first biographer) exactly who he got it from, when, and where.

To most historians, and nearly everybody else, Lincoln is almost a god. A magazine I remember in the 60s portrayed him on its cover hanging from a cross as "the American Christ". But to libertarians, he was a megalomaniac and mass-murderer who didn't cavil at the slaughter of 620,000 of his countrymen to preserve a mere political construct, and who searched implacably for the aspiring war-criminals—Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and others—to help him with that task.

Accustomed as we are to the even greater outrages of the 20th century—100 million war dead, another hundred million in government acts unrelated to war—it's difficult to imagine the horror that would send us reeling if we could look at the War Between the States with fresh eyes or an unjaded moral outlook. One academic historian I know personally and admire greatly would rather not discuss Lincoln's syphilitic madness, out of fear, I suspect, of overlooking the evil of Lincoln's bloody-handed work. But Lincoln, whether driven by disease or evil was no god, nor any kind of hero, but a harbinger of worse to come.

In our times, Vladimir Putin wages his lopsided war against Chechen independence, employing Abraham Lincoln as a justifying precedent.

Unknown to most folks at the time, John F. Kennedy was in constant and severe back pain, supposedly from injuries suffered in World War II, and spent most of the day gobbling pills by the handful. The fact that he could carry on affairs with gangsters' girlfriends and Marilyn Monroe, despite the pain, is fairly amazing, but when you think about events that he presided over—the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile standoff, and the beginnings of the war in Vietnam—you have to shudder, wondering whether he'd have acted differently without the pain and drugs. We're all lucky that they didn't drive him to push the Button.

Synchronistically, CBS television anchorman Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" at the time, suffered from crippling back pain, as well, and reportedly had to be strapped into his chair before his nightly news broadcasts. One wonders whether the ailments they suffered in common motivated Cronkite to give Kennedy some extra slack when it came to reporting on his many deficiencies as a man and as a President.

One of the many secrets Barack Obama keeps, in violation of law and custom, is the state of his health. Traditionally, a President releases his medical records, at least in part, when he becomes a candidate, and regular reports are issued with reference to his wellbeing.

This began, I believe, when Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack as a sitting President. Franklin Roosevelt had been secretive about his health, and the captive media had helped him conceal the degree to which he'd been crippled by polio. Eisenhower was unwilling to do the same.

Given the fact that pain can profoundly alter our view of the world, as well as the ways in which we react to it, as long as we are stuck with things like presidents and their unsavory ilk, Eisenhower's policy is a commendable one, and should be followed by future Chief Executives.

A Commander-in-Chief with a toothache is a bad thing to keep around.

L. Neil Smith is the Publisher and Senior Columnist of L. Neil Smith's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE, as well as the author of 33 freedom-oriented books, the most recent of which is DOWN WITH POWER: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis:
[ dead tree]
[ Kindle]
[ dead tree and Nook]
DOWN WITH POWER was selected as the Freedom Book Club Book-of-the-Month for August 2012

Was that worth reading?
Then why not:

payment type


Big Head Press