As We See It

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Could aggressively ignorant rhetoric reset America’s heart?

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Photo:
Stacy J. Willis

Stormtroopers marched on downtown Henderson Saturday. A few Jedi came along next, then some people dressed as purple grapes behind a mini Statue of Liberty holding a wine glass. On their heels was a legion of dachshunds, some wearing green tutus, scampering along to keep up with their kilt-wearing people. There were clowns in clown cars, and a lowrider tricked out with hydraulics, and I’m pretty sure but not entirely sure the Flintstones went by in their Flintstones car.

We were on Water Street at Henderson’s 50th Anniversary St. Patrick’s Day Parade to celebrate the Christian missionary Saint Patrick, who, among other legendary feats, drove the snakes out of Ireland. In honoring him, we hoisted a morning Guinness to a pirate ship and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

Nothing about this was shocking, of course; it was a parade. And it’s tough to shock anybody today anyway—we’re a richly diverse culture, abundantly evident here, or so I was joyfully thinking when a flatbed truck passed by bearing a sign that said, “The silent majority stands with Trump.” In a happy Irish fiesta full of dachshunds and vino, Trump’s isolationist tongue-wagging seemed misfit.

I heard some onlookers talking about the angry, puerile political climate: “How did we get here?” one man said. I recalled the early days of shock culture, when media grandstanders who said whatever bombast was on their minds were referred to as shock jocks, not thought leaders. Most people understood that characters like Howard Stern and Don Imus were media personalities who would say whatever was provocative, offensive and irreverent simply to get attention, not because they were discerning or civic-minded. Now that attention-getting, in and of itself, is the most prized skill-set in America—indeed, the dominant currency, more powerful in the national dialogue than education or well-considered ideas or empathy—we find ourselves parsing “schlong” rhetoric in a presidential election.

It’s shocking, or it should be. And I wonder whether it’s shocking enough to cause a cultural reset.

*****

A few years ago I was standing inside UMC’s Emergency Room when a man experiencing cardiac arrest was rushed in on a gurney. He’d been sitting at a poker table when his heart’s normal rhythm suddenly became chaotic, and he stopped breathing. The medical team applied defibrillator paddles to the poker player’s chest to shock his heart, hoping to reset it.

The human heart has a cluster of cells, the sinus node, that generates electrical impulses to stimulate the muscles to contract and pump blood. Sometimes, the impulses randomly go awry and cause the muscles to quiver, or do nothing at all, and that brings on sudden cardiac arrest. Shock can fix that.

It’s worth noting that Americans first used shock to kill people rather than revive them. It goes back to the late 1880s, when the first streetlights were being installed in the U.S. and electric-company linemen were frequently being killed by accidental high-voltage shocks. Experimentation with new uses of electricity was ongoing, and such accidental deaths prompted one dentist to think electric shock might be a more humane way to execute people than hangings. He developed the electric chair using a modified version of the dental chair, and in 1890, the first execution by electric chair was performed on an ax murderer. (Some remarked that an ax would’ve been more humane.)

It wasn’t until 1930 that an engineer invented the defibrillator, which was first used to save a human life in 1947. So, it took 57 years to go from shocking people to death to shocking them to life. Today, use of a defibrillator to reset the heart can increase the odds of survival by as much as 70 percent, but you’ve got to act fast. In the case of the poker player, it was too late.

*****

I realized before the parade that I’d gone many years without knowing much about St. Patrick, settling instead for vague associations of green stuff, shamrocks and beer. It’s the way we experience a lot of our lives, absorbing the loudest message without ever delving into details.

So it turns out that while drinking beer at a parade in suburban Las Vegas, I was actually celebrating the death date of the patron saint of Ireland, who was born in Roman Britain in the 4th Century, kidnapped at 16 and taken to Ireland, where he was made a slave, worked as a shepherd, found God, escaped and returned much later to convert Irish pagans to Christianity. Some of those pagans, it seems, became metaphors for snakes. Thus, the story of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland—which, due to its geography, wasn’t home to any actual snakes.

I was shocked—shocked!—to learn that the Stormtroopers had nothing to do with it. I was disappointed that the dachshunds weren’t mentioned anywhere. And I was especially bummed that the Flintstones weren’t involved. It’s almost as if I was willfully, ferociously, ridiculously ignorant.

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