09 January 2006

Sharon: Do we have the right to know?

When leaders are ailing, how much do we need to know? Cybershrink investigates this in the light of Prime Minister Sharon's strokes.

The international news in the last week has been dominated by the medical problems of some leading political leaders. Although politicians like to talk about principles and policies, their actions are always determined primarily by personal ambitions and desires. Because they are mostly public figures who seek, use and exploit personal publicity and public opinion, they have to accept public interest and comment, favourable and unfavourable.

And when their personal problems intrude on their work, and could adversely affect the lives of the people they supposedly serve, we surely have a right to know what's going wrong with them, and what the potential implications are for the rest of us. The decisions they take can have critical importance in the lives of so many people, that anything that may affect their decision-making and problem-solving abilities, are of direct public interest. When they retire, their health problems are and should be, private and personal.

Different strokes ....
In Israel, Sharon's stroke will undoubtedly have a significant impact on Middle Eastern politics. The course of this illness has had an interesting public impact. There was a minor, apparently thrombotic stroke, which was a warning, but his rapid recovery from that appears to have been reassuring to the public. Then the sudden very severe haemorrhagic stroke caused notable shock and concern - but then the long-lasting crisis, in which he has been kept necessarily unconscious for days, has given people more time to become used to the news, to see how he might be replaced, and to be less shocked and with less grief.

There can still be some lasting concerns, such as worries about why his persistently unhealthy diet resisted intervention, though it must have substantially raised his risk of just such a catastrophic illness. A major risk to any political life is the extent to which they become surrounded by an insulating crowd of attendants who obscure reality for them, encourage them to do as they please, and try to protect them from public scrutiny and criticism, even when such criticism might be life-saving.

There may be disagreements about how his initial stroke was handled (could the anticoagulants he was reported to have been receiving, have helped to precipitate the disastrous bleeding in his brain?) and even the decision to return him to the medical centre by slow ambulance rather than by faster helicopter.

Knowing when to go ...
Even more relevant to Cybershrink, though, has been the implosion of the British politician Charles Kennedy, related to his alcoholism. One wonders whether politicians, already generally so addicted to power, might be more vulnerable to develop other dependencies.

One of the rarest sights on earth, is a politician who knows when to retire with grace and dignity, rather than to wait until assassinated, deposed, or pushed out awkwardly or in disgrace. Our own Nelson Mandela was uniquely gifted in that respect, among so many others. So many insist on remaining in office, long after they have ceased to be effective, until they become a caricature of themselves, and have permanently blemished what might otherwise have been an excellent record.

Kennedy was one who insisted on being pushed out, allowing severe denial of the precariousness of his position to undermine his political judgement. Denial is a major problem in alcoholics in regard to admitting and dealing with their illness, and may extend to other aspects of their life. Some have praised him for "courage" in so belatedly admitting his alcoholism, but he only did so when he knew that it was about to be exposed on Television news.

Prejudice or public's right?
Maybe we should not blame the media for helping eventually to bring him down, but, rather, to ask why they helped to prop him up for so long by ignoring his drink problems - in contrast to their eagerness to expose the foolish but surely less serious misconduct of David Blunkett, who became I think the only politician to have to resign twice in one year.

Some commentators said it was unfair to expect Kennedy to resign, as this "showed prejudice against someone for merely having a medical condition". This, of course, is dangerous nonsense. Anyone in private life has a large entitlement to privacy, and Kennedy was and is deserving of sympathetic encouragement to tackle his illness and to collaborate with competent experts in its treatment, and to get it under control.

But we are surely entitled to know, as we board a plane or bus, that the pilot or driver is not an uncontrolled alcoholic, or a diabetic or epileptic with poor control of their illness. We're entitled to know if a prospective Minister of Defence or U.S. President is an untreated schizophrenic who believes sincerely that earth is currently being attacked by Martians.

In denial
The political leader Kennedy seems to have ignored a serious handicapping condition which had long been seen by many others to significantly impair his performance. He chose to deny these facts until he no longer had any such choice. And even then he minimised the seriousness of his condition and sought to continue by regaining office.

That would not have benefited his Party or his nation, but was intended to soothe his ruffled Ego. It was not "courageous" or worthy of credit, to have made either of the decisions he made this week when he no longer had any realistic choice in the matter. It is no service to him for some of his supporters to grumble that he was betrayed in his ousting - he destroyed his political career himself, by his own repeated choices and actions.

The impression we get is that he used up large amounts of tolerance and support along the way, and he cannot have realistically expected that to be unending or unconditional. Facing the inevitable is an exercise in which we all need to become skilled.

And so it appears that he will leave his party with a new leader apparently named after Chinese porcelain, Ming Campbell. – Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24' Cybershrink, January 2006

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Drunken politicians – is it any of our business?
Learning from the Kennedy debacle


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