Immunology as Foreign Policy

We all have a framework with which we interpret events in our lives and around the world. Any significant event must be given meaning, and we do this by fitting it into a pattern that makes sense to us. What we rarely question is how we got the pattern recognition system that we employ. We don’t question that system because we don’t realize that it is an artificial (socially conditioned) framework for making meaning and because our society does not give us the tools to deconstruct, let alone re-construct, our worldview.

We can all rock along happily in our naiveté until we have to figure out a collective response to something like the US 9/11 blowback or the most recent Paris reprisals. We should not merely accept the cheap, shallow response of a Charlie Hebdo magazine cover in which France is full of holes draining out its wine and claiming that “we have the wine and they have the guns—and we win.” Not exactly! Their intended message that our “civilization” is superior resonates with most Northern cultures and so does its corollary that the cultures of the global south are primitive, violent and jealous. They hate us for our freedoms, said King George after our 9/11. Then he went to war to put even more holes in “them.” France is now doing the same. We need more than magazine covers and TV talking heads to inform our thinking and especially our foreign policy responses.

Way back in 1935 a physician and science historian, Ludwik Fleck, offered the world a look at itself through the lens of immunology in general and STD’s in particular. The parallels between our thinking and responses to disease and so-called “terrorists” are remarkable. The history of how our immunology has changed might give us some insight into improved ways of approaching the global south’s response to our northern hegemony and exploitation of their resources over many centuries…without question our part in the breeding of today’s so-called terrorist. How little we have evolved beyond very primitive thinking in our foreign policy as immunology.

Before there was a scientific framework to question disease, Fleck records a wonderful explanation of the pre-modern diagnosis of Syphilis as fate by a doctor in 1484. The doctor’s notes read, “most authors assume that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter under the sign of Scorpio and the House of Mars was the cause of the carnal scourge (of Syphilis). Benign Jupiter was vanquished by the evil planets, Saturn and Mars. The sign of Scorpio, which rules the genitals explains why the genitals were the first place to be attacked by the new disease….” Fleck concludes that a “stigma of fatefulness, sinfulness and divine punishment was imprinted on syphilis.” And it still carries that stigma to this day!

Fortunately, the scientific understanding of immunology did advance over the next few centuries driven largely by the Black Death. During the plague, Sir Isaac Newton published his great work on gravity and cosmology. Science historian and philosopher, David Berlinski, notes that at the birth of Newton the streets of London were crowded with astrologers, and at his death in 1698, emptied. The “science” of astrology had run its course like a river into the desert sand. In the place of the stars governing the fate of mankind, Newton placed another set of external forces—God and His angels or the Devil and his demons. Material stuff was dead, inert, Newton believed. To move, it had to be animated. There had to be a “cause.” God was the first cause, the prime mover, of course, but then how could a good God produce or allow a devil or evil to emerge? Newton had an answer, especially for explaining disease and death.

Newton thought of the created, material world and humans in it as a billiard table. The balls just sit there until they are struck. God is the prime mover and His aim is inerrant—the ball He hits with the cue goes directly to its intended pocket. But, argued Newton, in the course of accomplishing His will, the #6 ball might accidentally hit the #3 and set it in motion--divine collateral damage. This was not necessarily bad for the #3 ball, but, being in motion and not in the direct will of God, it was subject to demonic attack and control. The #3 ball might end up in all manner of sin, sickness and evil. Conversely when you are filled with the “holy” spirit, sin and evil are less likely to invade or take control. Sickness in the believer was not a sign of demon possession, but it was pain that God had allowed to “teach” (read punish) believers for sin.

The demon attack model of immunology quickly took center stage from astrology. No longer was disease merely fate, it was punishment by God or intentional interference to thwart God by an outside evil force. The new idea was that the flesh and the body politic must be kept pure and protected from outside contamination. Immunology in this model requires strong boundaries and the maintenance of internal health by a diet that assures the purity of the blood and physical strength. Read the Bible, pray, go to church defined the parallel religious “diet” for defeating the devil.

Nazism gave the world an extreme example of such immunology in politics. The Jews were impure, polluting pure Arian blood. The Arabs castrated African slaves to prevent any contamination of their pure blood. Countries now want to seal their borders to keep “out” any contamination or pollution of their purity by those alien “others.”

Immunology under the demon attack model encouraged not only strong boundaries but the use of extremely toxic substances to destroy the enemy once it gained access. Doses of mercury, arsenic, even bleeding, were the best practices. The parallel in foreign policy is stark. We drop bombs and chemical weapons. We even used nuclear weapons once and now its surgical drones. The technology has improved but not the model of immunology! Our first strike doctrine also fits this model well. Disinfect yourself and your environs to prevent disease translates into kill them over there before they kill us here. Fighter jets and rockets are the chlorox we apply to wipe out the pathogens that threaten our way of life. Ask the Israelis how well that model of immunology is working right now?

So it would seem that we need an update to our immunology as it informs our foreign policy. And, not surprising, before Fleck died in 1956, he suggested one.

We can, said Fleck, begin to improve our immunological model by changing our idea of what constitutes an individual organism. An organism can no longer be construed as a discreet, self-contained, independent unit with fixed boundaries—as is still taught according to the theory of materialism and Kantian morality which basically argues that all human individuals have a built in knowledge of right and wrong no matter how debased it might be. Fleck offers another view.

“An organism is really a harmonious life unit characterized by the notion that the activities of the various parts (constituents/symbionts) and their activities are mutually complementary, mutually dependent upon each other, and form a viable whole through their cooperation.” In the light of this concept, a human being appears to be a complex to whose harmonious well-being many bacteria are absolutely essential. A tiny lichen, on the other hand, is a simple but harmonious unit composed of an alga and a fungus, which are completely different structures not viable outside their harmonious life unit.

How then do we construe disease or allergy in Fleck’s latest model? No “demon attack” theory makes sense in this context since a completely foreign organism could find no receptors capable of reaction and thus could not generate a biological process of response. It is more helpful to think of illness or allergies as dramatic change or response within the complex life unit rather than an invasion of it.

Think what that means for foreign policy! Especially for the war on terror! Terror becomes not a foreign demon attack from outside but something arising from within. The idea disagrees with us because we are part of its etiology. Terrorism in New York and Paris began when the West installed dictators in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and all of Latin America. The list is endless. We armed them, taught them to torture and, ironically, when ordinary people rose up against our chosen dictators, embargoed and bombed those people in order to keep control of our essential resources. Democracy and peace (to say nothing of prosperity) never had a chance, even though that’s how we “sell” our violence. We find endless enemies to keep our “immune system” on high alert and our therapeutic “weapons” constantly evolving to meet some newly minted threat.

If you erase all our modern borders for a moment and see the world as one place occupied by one people, then what we in the “civilized” G-20 countries fear is exactly what we are doing to the rest of the world. The violence “infection” was introduced by the civilized nations. The others manifest the reaction. Our foreign policy immunology then determines our response to their response.

The current bombing of Syria or Raqqa, let alone Iran, simply betrays our un-reconstructed immunology--our flawed foreign policy framework. The fact is that the ones with holes in them are the global refugees, not the French. And that’s blood, not wine pouring out of those bullet holes. The world body is sick. But it doesn’t help to explain such suffering as either punishment by some deity or some blueprinted catastrophe scripted in the stars or the devil’s playbook. We all play a role in this disaster, and shifting the blame, not taking responsibility for our part, simply compounds and prolongs the confusion and suffering.

We must look within ourselves as planetary people and change our “immunology” to discover a way in which the parts of our world-body that are in serious pain (full of holes that we made) are relieved of their terror, healed, and fitted back into the harmonious living unit of our species on this tiny planet. The problem is not some unseen demon or some foreign disease or terrorist attacking us. We meet the enemy again, and it is still us!

We are ONE body, wounded, fractured, and not yet understood as a harmonious living unit, but I can hope for healing beginning with a more realistic diagnosis.

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