Siddhartha Mukherjee: an innovator in the race?

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, which Judt called “social democracy.”

Dr. Mukherjee wrote the enthralling “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which won the Pulitzer for non-fiction last year. So he is a big-picture diagnostician who looks first to the history of a disease and its treatment to frame his understanding. I think of him first as Tony Judt’s alter-ego in the oncology lab.

But then it turns up in a footnote that Siddhartha Mukherjee knew Tony Judt well for most of 20 years. Indian-born, American trained and twenty years younger than Judt, he was a Judt favorite in a running series of seminars on the full spectrum of medical, social and cultural maladies. They became close friends. “Benign skepticism” in the face of received wisdom was their common working principle. One of their shared methods was a process of sifting through wrong ideas of the problem. They had some persistent differences, too.

You see, Tony is a great eliminator. He arrives at his theory by the process of eliminating nonsense. He finds, as you know, that the answer already exists. You need to reset the clock. The answer existed in our past,” which for Tony Judt embraced the free education and robust public services he grew up on in 1960’s and ’70’s London. Tony’s thought was we could find those mechanisms again. “I thought Tony was spot-on about the malaise in our society, about a collapse in the public conversation… I differ in the sense that I believe less in elimination, more in innovation. I think that the answer does not exist… and in fact the solution is to innovate our way into the answer. Unfortunately I believe that if the country is facing perhaps a moral crisis in the political realm, I think we’re facing an innovation crisis in the scientific realm. And by that I mean that we don’t even know how to train minds — or we’re beginning to forget how to train minds to solve our way out of the problem. That’s what worries me.

So my question is: How would Siddhartha Mukherjee apply his “innovative, oppositionist, disruptive” repairs to the confusion and fear that shadow the public stage in 2012?

We have to innovate our way out of that, too. A good example of this is what I think of as a kind of ‘psychic innovation.’ Take, for instance, the immigration crisis. I think that is a reminder of the need for psychic innovation of that crisis. This is — historically — a nation founded on immigration. The fact that in 2012 that founding force is a crisis in Arizona, say, is a peculiar twist of human history. There must be an innovative way, an entrepreneurial way, to think about immigration and restore the kind of spirit that made it such a positive force in the 18th and 19th Centuries… There must be a political solution that allows this force of young minds desperately trying to get into this country and to convert that torpor that you and I are talking about. It’s an innovation problem. I came here as an outsider, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of social innovation. This country made society plastic. You know, elastic. Why is it that we’re now having a debate about whether we’re suffering from some kind of torpor, when in history you took society and molded it in a different image?

He leaves me with a different puzzle: what would a real innovator sound like in presidential politics? “Everything else is largely irrelevant,” Mukherjee declares. “There are many problems and the solution is to have an incredible engine of innovation. How do we silence all the distractions, and put all our energy into social innovation around health care, around debt, around the economy, so that the conversations become real?”

Photo by Rene + Radka.

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  • My book group is reading the Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
    I am loving it and learning a great deal. Want to come to our meeting?

  • chris

    What continent are you meeting on, Gay?

  • Sean McElroy

    I very much like the idea of picking our political leaders by evaluating their ability to lead through innovation. Innovation is going to happen anyway eventually, why buck it? I wonder if it is not our political system itself that is the source of so much torpor. To wit: when I Iisten I hear “Romney the innovator” but when I look, I see “Obama the innovator.”

    Let’s make no mistake about it though, many, if not most, innovations die on the vine. And the grand scheme of politics doesn’t allow us to field test too many different grapes before finding the one juicy bit. It’s far easier to talk the story of innovation, girding the troops so to speak toward a bright future on St. Crispian’s Day, than to actually turn out something that is in fact innovative (never mind useful.)

    Our system is not one which blithely suffers defeat. Americans have trouble with the idea that they are not the world’s most heroic warriors or that their soldiers have not fought harder and died braver than everyone else’s. Tony Judt, “Thinking the Twentieth Century”, p 276. He was talking about the wildly over-exaggerated US liberation of France given the price the French themselves paid during WWII. But this points to a serious moral defect, not just one of an over-blown ego, but one which is unable to accept failure as part and parcel of innovation.

  • Innovation is admirable, of course, but I wonder if we are done a disservice by some of our reverence for innovation. Because the most obvious benefits of living today are a product of innovation, and because our most obvious heroes are innovators, we neglect the maintenance of institutions that are only capable of less grand innovation. Much of the language of innovation also seems to focus on finding and enabling (a less generous description might be “rewarding”) innovators that already exist, rather than developing them.

    A related concern: The US has been very lucky in its ability to attract many people of great ability, but the US can not rely on this forever. The US’s share of international tourism has dropped dramatically since the beginning of the millennium, and if it is not already, the same will be true for the US’s share of brilliant international students, scientists, engineers, and artists. India and China (and many others) will increasingly be an attractive place to study and work for both their native populations and people around the world. The US will lose a big advantage over other countries, and I’m not sure anything is ready to compensate for it.

  • Potter

    For sure I thought that we would have licked cancer by now. When I was 12 I watched my dear uncle fade away with stomach cancer. Such suffering. We comforted a friend to her end with brain cancer. We collectively have had to stretch ourselves to deal with it scientifically, emotionally, morally-religiously-philosophically.

    Maybe eliminating and innovating are not opposed. History is incredibly relevant to the process. Both are part of arriving at solutions (the creative process). I have heard this before- that the answers already exist; one has to (have the mind to) find them.

    The moral problem in the political realm puts a drag (I would guess) on innovation. A smart social democracy would give everyone, especially young minds, including those trying to get here, as clear a path as possible to fulfill their potential here. That means access to education , healthcare. The solution to problems can come from anywhere or everywhere if people’s basic needs are taken care of. So access to “the conversation” seems to me to be very important.

    We are having this debate about our suffering because there are forces working against this equality of opportunity.

    I may have misunderstood but Judt and Mukherjee do not seem to be in opposition as to the way forward.

  • this is the book for you. the in depth study of the nature of cancer and its treatment methods is really something. it is what ever a doctor could tell a patient about cancer… including the helplessness he feels when the end is imminent. read it if understanding cancer is what you want to do. the writing is gripping as well and does not become pedantic at any point. so once you begin, you will keep reading till the end