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Genetic Testing Penalties, American Individualism and Political Nihilism

Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on the medical check-up tour.  I visited my general practitioner’s office, my gynecologist, my eye doctor and my dermatologist.  I’ve given my family medical history many times.  In the last visit, at the dermatologist, I realized when I had to check none of the boxes they were concerned with, that family-wise, I was in pretty good health standing.  On the contemporary view of American politics, this situation should make me shrug my shoulders at H.B. 1313, which passed out of committee late last week, which would allow employers to penalize employees who decline genetic testing.  While such testing might lead to higher insurance rates for employees who have certain genetic dispositions for illness, people like me might have little reason to refuse such testing (except that it’s a gross invasion of privacy).

American individualism devolves responsibility and concern for political life down to the individual.  The problem is not just that American individualism holds individuals responsible for wherever they end up in life–the myth of meritocracy–but also, that American individualism, coupled with political nihilism, encourages Americans to care only about that which directly affects them.  This feature of our contemporary politics is evident in the cynicism people express in political debate, that others support certain views only because it will help them.  The Atlantic Monthly excerpted a series of letters concerned with this political nihilism where nothing matters but power in a post-election piece online.

The political nihilism in shrugging one’s shoulders at genetic testing when one stands confident of her own genetic prescriptions is that there is no larger meaning, that nothing matters so each of us should just pursue our own advantage.  We see this in our political television shows.  Scandal is the best example.  No one on Scandal seems interested in public service.  No one seems interested in actually changing the world.  Maybe Frankie Vargas, the assassinated President-elect, was interested.  But he was just as pawn in the political aspirations of Cyrus Bean.  Maybe Huck is interested in what matters beyond himself.  But the list is short.  Scandal seems invested in perpetuating the political story that no one is in it for anything beyond themselves.  Maybe even no one should be in it for anything beyond themselves.

I think this kind of political nihilism is what prevents the building of coalitions and solidarity.  It is what makes people think that striking is a privilege and not something that can be done on the behalf of those who cannot strike.  When people say a feminism that cannot be intersectional is no feminism at all, they are arguing that political feminism cannot be nihilistic, for if it is, the changes it will achieve will not serve women well.  Importantly, I don’t want to make a political nihilistic argument for resisting political nihilism.  Do not care for what affects others because one day they will come for you and you want to have built your coalition of who will support you.  Do not care for what affects others because it could be you– I think this is the logic behind the “invisible veil” approach to policy making.  What would you want the policy to be if you were in the most precarious situation?  I appreciate the question for its efforts to develop empathy.  But I think it draws on this political nihilism that says you can only be invested in the position of the other if in some way or another, it’s really about you.

The argument that we have to find some way to motivate people to care assumes that everyone seeks only their own advantage and need  to be coerced to care for the well-being of others.  This is political nihilism.  Instead of such nihilism, we should care and advocate for justice for all because it is the right thing to do.  The right thing to do is not to make those who have a genetic disposition toward health more financially responsible for their health.  We’re all in it together.  Only a politics that rejects political nihilism can find solidarity and justice.


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