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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