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A Political History

Keith Wailoo

Publication Year: 2014

In this history of American political culture, Keith Wailoo examines why and how pain and compassionate relief has been a battleground for defining the line between society's liberal trends and conservative tendencies. Tracing the development of pain theories in politics, medicine, law, and society, and battles over the morality and economics of relief, Wailoo points to a tension at the heart of the conservative-liberal divide. Beginning with the post–World War II rise of a pain relief economy in response to concerns about recovering soldiers, Wailoo explores the 1960s rise of an expansive liberal pain standard, along with the emerging conviction that subjective pain was real, disabling, and compensable. These concepts were attacked during the Reagan era of the 1980s, when a conservative political backlash led to decreasing disability aid and the growing role of the courts as arbiters in the liberal-conservative struggle to define pain. Wailoo goes on to identify how, in the 1990s, new fronts in pain politics opened in states like Oregon and Michigan where advocates for death with dignity insisted that end-of-life pain warranted full relief. And, in the 2006 arrest of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh for doctor shopping for painkillers, Wailoo finds a cautionary tale about deregulation, which spawned an unmanageable market in pain relief products as well as gaps between the overmedicated and the undertreated. Today's debates over who is in pain, who feels another's pain, and what relief they deserve are new chapters of this enduring battle between liberal relief and conservative care. People in chronic pain have always sought relief—and have always been judged—but who decides whether someone is truly in pain? The story of pain in politics is more than rhetoric; it is a story of ailing bodies, broken lives, illness, and disability that has vexed government agencies and politicians from the World War II era to the present.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Introduction. Between Liberal Relief and Conservative Care

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pp. 1-12

In the 1990s, talk- radio stars like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger— the brash and arrogant voices of American con servatism— rose to fame by rejecting presidential candidate and later president Bill Clinton’s liberalism. Like many tough- talking conservatives...

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1. The Trojan Horse of Pain

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pp. 13-56

For Lieutenant Colonel Henry Beecher, soldiers’ pain was a paradox. Treating men gravely wounded on the Italian war fronts in the mid- 1940s and at the Anzio beachhead, Beecher, a medic who later became a renowned pain specialist, marveled at how “strong emotion can block...

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2. Opening the Gates of Relief

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pp. 57-97

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the new disability law (SSDI) in July 1956, he opened a gateway to relief for Texas resident Rosie Page and thousands of others. A middle- aged mother, Page had entered the workforce during the World War like thousands of other...

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3. The Conservative Case against Learned Helplessness

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pp. 98-130

Barely two months after Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in January 1981, his secretary for Health and Human Services, Richard Schweiker, began purging the Social Security disability rolls of people claiming pain as their disability. Reagan waged his promised...

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4. Divided States of Analgesia

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pp. 131-167

When Sherry Miller turned to Michigan pathologist Jack Kevorkian for relief in 1992 she was in severe pain and living a life of horrible desperation. Like the other people who turned to Kevorkian for help, Miller had a well- documented trail of suffering and physical...

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5. OxyContin Unleashed

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pp. 168-201

The revelation in 2003 that conservative provocateur Rush Limbaugh had maintained a secret addiction to the painkiller OxyContin carried a deep political irony. This arch critic of liberalism, social indulgence, and big government’s coddling, a man who extended...

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Conclusion. Theaters of Compassion

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pp. 202-214

People in pain have been stock figures in American political theater. As the scholar Javier Moscoso has noted, “The uses of pain have nothing to do with truth, but rather with drama.”1 Illustrating the point, the 1966 American film The Fortune Cookie placed actor Jack...

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pp. 215-218

I owe a great debt to many people who have provided challenging encouragement over the years and to many institutions supporting the research behind this work. The project was first conceptualized during my days on the faculty in social medicine at the School of Medicine and in...


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pp. 219-274


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pp. 275-284

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413662
E-ISBN-10: 1421413663
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413655
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413655

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 11 halftones, 4 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014