Thursday, February 10, 2005

An Apology for “Tumbling Woman”

With plans for the 9-11 site moving forward, I would like to make a suggestion for a centerpiece in the memorial section. One thing I wanted to happen to the site is already in the works: I felt the only proper response to the terrorist attacks was to build a new building that was even bigger than the twin towers – bigger than any building in the world. The 1776 foot (what a poetic height) tower designed to replace the twin towers fits the bill beautifully. The second thing I felt we needed to do was to have some sort of work of art that would forever remind us of what happened there. That has already been made – in 2002.
I have only seen Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman" statue on T.V., but I was astonished by it nonetheless. It is one of the most beautiful, moving, and appropriate works of art one could make in tribute to the victims of the twin towers. It is beautiful, moving, and appropriate because it is tragic. And tragic art is the only form of art that is appropriate in dealing with what happened on September 11th.
We Americans are used to thinking that good necessarily leads to good, and bad necessarily leads to bad. The good guy always wins, because he is good and does good. The villain always loses because he is evil and does evil. But what happens when good deeds, intentions, ideas, or decisions lead to bad consequences? Or what if you are not presented with a good decision at all? What happens when good people have to, due to the circumstances, make bad choices? We get tragedy. Such was the decision of those who jumped from the Trade Center towers. Faced with burning to death or falling to their deaths, many chose to fall. "Tumbling Woman" is a tribute to that terrible choice too many were forced to make.
The main objection people have made about the sculpture is that it is upsetting, that it disturbs those who see it. Good. That, after all, is what tragic art is supposed to do. It is meant to make us live (or, in this case, relive) strong emotions in a safe place so, in the future, should we be faced with such strong emotions (again), we will have learned how to more properly and appropriately deal with them. Tragedy is one of the strongest ways art can help us develop ourselves emotionally. By being exposed to this sculpture, we could be reminded of those emotions we felt when we saw the attacks and their aftermath unfolding, in a safe and healthy manner. It provides us with an emotional education, which will make us react to such emotions in the future in a more healthy manner. It will make us better people, stronger and healthier people. More heroic even than many were in the midst of the attacks. We cannot make what happened go away by getting rid of or hiding this sculpture. By even wanting to do so, we are in open denial. We are trying to suppress these feelings that we should feel, and that is unhealthy. We are trying to forget, and we should not.
I understand why people are upset over this sculpture. You should be. Actually, it should not be the sculpture that you should be upset at, but everything it manages to so beautifully represent. You should be upset at people being forced to choose between burning to death in an inferno caused by bad men flying planes into our tallest buildings, and jumping to their deaths. But denying those emotions is unhealthy. What "Tumbling Woman" manages to do, using the beauty and magnificence of tragedy, is allow us to deal with these emotions in an open, healthy manner. If it were possible, everyone should see it, gaze at it, contemplate it. Perhaps the 9-11 Memorial at the former World Trade Center site would be a good home for it. That way, we could all take it into our hearts and souls and learn, through it, the life lessons it can teach us, that tragedy alone can teach us about the world.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Cure For AIDS

There are two reasons why we will not be finding a cure for AIDS anytime in the near future. And one of them is not the fact that we have never developed a cure for any virus before. We have vaccinated against viruses before (polio and smallpox being the most famously wiped out by vaccination – but why has it been so long since we had at minimum a vaccination cure?), but we have never developed a cure for one. Yet this is not the reason I am pessimistic.
I am fully confident that we will have the technological ability to wipe out AIDS. HIV has some features that make it one of the best candidates for being the first virus to be cured – even if it has other features that make a vaccine of it impossible. But technology is not the problem here. The problem is inherent in the social-political system. Nobody who could cure AIDS wants to.
This is not as insidious as it sounds. We are merely talking about incentives here. As comedian Chris Rock once said, they will never cure AIDS – the money’s not in the cure, it’s in the treatment. The money’s in the comeback. And he’s right. If a pharmaceutical company can keep you alive with AIDS for 50 years, they will. That’s 50 years of profits from treating you. This is in their best interests as a company. If they came up with a cure, there would be a short-term profit from selling it to everyone (assuming the government did not figure out a way to nationalize the cure, in the "best interest" of mankind), and then that would be the end of it. Once everyone was cured of AIDS, there would be no more HIV infections, and the cure would be useless. No company CEO in his right mind would want a product that eliminated its own need to be used.
The second reason why we will not be finding a cure for AIDS anytime in the near future is because of the way we fund AIDS research. There are university labs out there who are actively looking for a cure for AIDS – they are not tied into the company profit motive, so one could argue that they are more likely to find a cure. However, we have a similar problem here was we have with the companies. These labs get grants to look for a cure for AIDS. Please note my wording here: they get money to LOOK for a cure, not to FIND one. IF you know that so long as you are looking for something, you will continue to get millions of dollars, wouldn’t you continue to look, without bothering to find what you are looking for? Again, I don’t think this is a conscious choice. But the fact of the matter is that there are labs across the U.S. that would cease to get money year after year if a cure for AIDS were found. Thus, it is not in these labs’ best interest to find a cure – only to continue looking for one.
I’m sure there are a few people out there who sincerely want to find a cure for AIDS. Unfortunately, they are not numerous enough to increase the odds of actually finding a cure. We need to change the incentive structure. We need to stop paying people to look for a cure for AIDS, and instead pay them to find one. What this means is that we should at the very least create an award – perhaps a combination of government and private funding – for the person who finds a cure for AIDS. Various governments from around the world could contribute to it, as well as private individuals. And people could continue contributing to it over time. I would think that the award should be at least in the billions of dollars. It should be such a big award that any incentive not to find a cure is wiped out. And this award should be in addition to the money made from the cure itself being used.
We need to stop being romantic about somebody coming up with a cure out of the goodness of their hearts. A cure will only come about when a sufficiently large carrot is dangled in front of those who have the ability to develop a cure. None of this nonsense about what people "should" be doing, that they "should" find a cure because it’s the "right thing to do." If we want actual results (and the people who speak such nonsense do not want actual results, only to feel good about themselves having judged others for doing things for the "wrong" reasons), we have to change the structure of our incentives. This is the only way we will actually ever find a cure for AIDS. And once this works, we can move on to cancer and any of a number of other diseases. Cures will come only when we reward the finding of cures rather than the looking for them.