The Disease Without a Name

Words are the bugles of social change,” [i] wrote London Business School professor Charles Handy.

Whatever symptoms you might experience, there’s a word somebody has created to capture the essence of what seems to be ailing you. If a friend says they have symptoms like fever, the chills, nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach and headache for example, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? “You’ve come down with the flu!”

It seems as if the ability to name a disease is dependent upon identifying a certain set of symptoms that alert ourselves and our physicians to the distinct possibility that we are unhealthy. When the sheer numbers of people afflicted become large enough, somebody, somewhere seems to step up and begin looking for a cure. Epidemics have a tendency to get people’s attention. Where do these breakthroughs come from?

Take the New York born (October 28, 1914) son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, for example. The first in his family to go to college, he enrolled at the medical school of New York University, researching influenza. The existence of the flu virus had recently been documented by others. This young student was eager to determine if the virus could be deprived of its ability to infect, while preserving the basis for immunity to the illness. He succeeded in this effort, continuing his research endeavors over the next decade. On April 12, 1955, the discovery of the polio vaccine was announced to the world. Dr. Jonas Salk became a household name. Salk never patented the vaccine nor had any desire to profit from its deployment.

Throughout history, cultures develop symptoms that evidence broader, societal ills.  Yes, countries can become afflicted with maladies just like individuals unfortunate enough to contract the flu or polio. Who typically alerts the broader public to these sorts of social ills and the need for their eradication? Madleine L’Engle suggests, The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary. Artists are dangerous people because they are called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul.”[ii]

On June 24, 1901 a boy was born in a town in eastern Poland. He arrived in the United States on April 18, 1941 as a Jewish, immigrant-refugee. Raphael Lemkin has been characterized as one who belonged to a virtual community of frustrated, grief-stricken witnesses.[iii]

Lemkin’s distress was attributable to the evil he observed evolving in Europe. He focused on developing a readily recognizable term that captured the essence of the malady. He studied semantic theory and linguistics. He discarded terms like barbarism and mass murder. In November 1944, Columbia University Press released his book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The word that he created to populate the discourse about the reality of Hitler’s horrors was unleashed. ‘Genocide,the crime without a name had been born. Shortly after his death on August 28, 1959, approximately 70 countries had ratified a treaty criminalizing genocide. His funeral was attended by seven people.

Daniel Malaan became Prime Minister of South Africa in May 1948. He mis-diagnosed the ills of South Africa and was a central architect in the deployment of the prescribed treatment: apartheid. According to the dictionary, apartheid is defined as, the policy or practice of political, legal, economic, or social discrimination, as against the members of a minority group. The apartheid prescription developed by South Africa included the molecular components for the preservation of white supremacy, separation of the races and a retribalization of Africans. By 1991, a period of forty-three years, the final vestiges of apartheid legislation were repealed and free elections were held in 1994. Making a poor diagnosis and prescribing the wrong treatment can eviscerate the soul of a nation.

Today in the United States, we are not immune to the insidious maladies that come to infect the souls of our people and the heart of our nation. The symptoms are evident, the malady is pervasive, and the integrity of our country is at stake. There are a myriad of diagnostic opinions, yet no congressional consensus and federal approval for the components of the cure. This disease has no name.


There will be no magic pill we can swallow, no miraculous antibiotic we can inject, no patch we can affix to our epidermis, no secret lotion we can apply. When the heart of a nation becomes afflicted with cardiovascular infarction, we’ve all come down with the malady, whether we recognize it individually or not. Today, the U.S. has become infected with the disease of immipartheid. To prepare yourself to ingest what I’m about to say, gird yourself with the counter-intuitive curiosity of Salk, the compassionate persistence of Lemkin, and the distinct potential for living the consequences from disastrous errors in judgment embraced by the nation of South Africa. Let me explain.

Apartheid has been diagnosed as possessing the following elements:

  1. A policy of racial segregation involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites.
  2. A principle or practice of separating or setting apart groups of people.
  3. The legal circumstance of being separated from others; segregation.

According to the U.S. census[iv] in 1860, the population of the U.S. was 31,443,321. Of that total, 3,953,760 were identified as non-white slaves. In 2007, the estimates range from 10 to 30 million undocumented, resident immigrants living in the U.S., the vast majority of which are non-white and of Hispanic descent. The percentages of non-white slaves in this nation 150 years ago and undocumented immigrant residing among us today are comparable. The parallels continue.

The non-white South Africans subjected to apartheid, former non-white slaves in the U.S. and present day undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S., have the following in common:

  1. Voting rights were restricted or non-existent.
  2. Access to public services such as education and medical care were restricted and often of inferior quality vs. those afforded their white counterparts.
  3. Forms of identification emerged that designated the person as a member of a segregated class. ( consular cards, discussion about the implementation of a national ID card).
  4. Movement within the country was restricted. (try getting on an airplane today without a valid ID).
  5. Permits authorizing one to labor in certain occupations and/or certain geographic areas emerged. Oftentimes, these permits did not include the spouse or other members of one’s own family.
  6. The legal ownership of land was tightly regulated, precluding segregated persons from participation.

The parallels are clear: A disenfranchised class of people, numbering in the millions, was formed and sustained in South Africa. Of course, in the case of U.S. slaves and non-whites in South Africa, the creation and maintenance of this social structure of legalized oppression was intentional. Allow me to politely characterize the genesis of the situation of resident, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today as inadvertent. Yet, the reality of the situation we find ourselves in here in the U.S. is clearly a mutant form of apartheid. We’ve contracted immipartheid; a condition that possesses a distinctly similar syndrome of outcomes for the afflicted as apartheid.

You may contract disease either inadvertently or intentionally.  The intentionality of willingly, or deliberately infecting another person with an infectious disease, shocks the global human conscience (take for example, knowingly transferring an HIV infection to another person). In fact, in some cultures, this act is criminal. No matter how one contracts an infection, you must desire to return to a state of health. It requires treatment. The unwillingness to admit that one is ill, or agree upon the proper course of treatment, serves only to advance the seriousness of one’s condition. This is the state of the patient today in U.S. society: unwilling to admit we are soul-sick, and loath to muster the courage to immerse ourselves in the essential therapeutic milieu, we maintain the immipartheid infection, spreading it to others, allowing it to grow in complexity, advance in seriousness, posing an ever greater threat to the present health and welfare of our entire nation, our prospects for a full recovery, and a healthy, vibrant future.

This is not the first time in U.S. history we have succumbed to the insufferable angst of determining what to do with ourselves in a predicament like this. In the collected essays of America’s revered James Baldwin, Baldwin recorded and characterized the plight the American Negro (to use his words), as he wrestled with the issues of democracy, race and the American identity. The parallels to our current quandary are obvious:

“This is why his history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease – cancer, perhaps, or even tuberculosis – which must be checked even though it cannot be cured. In this arena, the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has in life. We do not know what to do with him in life….Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for the annulment of his.”[v]

The immunity we thought we had developed to being susceptible to this form of societal malady appears to have broken through again – or did we ever really have immunity?

Triggering the Immune Response

Most diseases are contracted inadvertently. When you become ill, you don’t go around looking for the source of the bug do you? Yet, in the case of immipartheid, we, once again, focus our attention on identifying a scapegoat; someone to blame. No issue (other than abortion) seems to lance the American under-belly like the issue of U.S. immigration reform. The venom and puss that ooze out of this polarized tirade about the appropriate treatment for our malady are toxic, shameful, and a stench to those around us. Our vitriolic stubbornness and closed-mindedness serve only to forestall the development and implementation of the required consensus for initiating the treatment regimen. Our outbursts ricochet around the planet, causing the global community to pause and reassess their view of the American identity.  In the United States today, we need a new dose of reality, as characterized by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

“I regret that we have fostered a political culture that rewards the extremes, a culture in which dogmatic belief is deemed a virtue and open-mindedness a weakness, and sarcasm and slanderous attacks frequently drown out intelligent discussion. Haven’t we had enough of this? We need a dose of unity.”[vi]

In his inauguration speech on January 10, 2001 President George W. Bush proclaimed to the Nation: America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault. Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love.[vii]

Perhaps Albright’s prescription for a dose of unity and Bush’s measure of love are just what the doctor ordered. It just might be the place to start. Yet, these elements seem foreign to the vast majority of the diagnoses being bantered about today.

Triggering the essential immune system response is fundamental to developing a vaccine to effectively address the immipartheid outbreak. However, it’s counter-intuitive. Salk essentially killed the poliovirus, yet kept it intact just enough to activate the necessary immune response. An immune response is basically the way our body recognizes and defends itself against bacteria, viruses, and substances that appear foreign and harmful to the body. Essentially, the vaccine is literally sourced from the virus that is ailing you. However, you need to be able to accurately establish the identity of the virus or you run the disastrous risks of creating the horrific consequences of a misdiagnosis as Malaan and his cohorts did in South Africa.

The testing of the hypotheses based upon shouting slogans, slurring others, scalping scapegoats, and fear-mongering are in: they do not trigger the desired immune response. It’s time to develop and test new hypotheses, using true and time-tested methods. Perhaps it’s time to reach deeply into our souls and emerge with the perseverance of Lemkin.

Maybe, a simple word might galvanize unity, guided by a love for the past, present and future of this nation-patient.

Heralding Healing:

Like any other malady, the contraction of the disease of immipartheid has been a process. One theologian suggests; “The use of others begins slowly and then, over time, becomes the habit that not only dehumanizes the other, it dehumanizes ourselves as well.”[viii] Resolving the U.S. immipartheid epidemic contains the genetic code essential to begin restoring a fundamental dimension of our national integrity. The matter of the destructive duplicity exposed by the infection of immipartheid provides us with the opportunity to begin prioritizing our actions above hollow, time-honored, well-worn slogans. There is pertinent wisdom in the following: “We can’t change what we are known for unless we change how we live.”[ix]

What does that look like? Maybe it contains an element of a new tone that guides our political deliberations today, as the essence of the following has characterized our more lucid moments for national public policy development, since the birth of this nation:

“A new political message is therefore called for. It must begin with the age-old assumption that we are only as strong as our weakest link. It asserts that the judgment of a society will depend not on how it treats its most powerful, privileged, and wealthy, but rather on how it treats its most vulnerable.”[x]

Perhaps, the genetic code of the immipartheid virus contains important strains of a moral configuration that we are just now beginning to explore and unravel. My sense is that this is the arena where we must now re-focus our efforts.  Maybe it’s the simple, time-tested, fundamental truths that we must learn to return to, in times as rapidly changing and complex as ours. Allow the simplicity of the following to speak to your senses.

“We gain something profound when we stand up for our beliefs, just as part of us dies when we know something is wrong, yet do nothing. We would call this radical dignity – if we remain silent in the face of cruelty, injustice and oppression, we sacrifice part of our soul.”[xi]

My prayer is that the soul of the body politic and the citizenry of the U.S. will begin to appreciate the term immipartheid for what it really is. I hope that this appreciation may birth a new posture that requires a reorientation in our attitudes, discussion and actions that respect the lessons of our Nation’s history. Just as we have identified anti-semitism and other racially-based slurs as a scourge, my hope is that we will apply this same fervor to the elimination of anti-immitism. The history of this nation reveals that we are capable of rising up and exterminating the social diseases we have somehow contracted. Our zeal to heal the infirmities of the world is presently hampered by our untreated condition here at home. Listen to the following:

“America is unlikely to play a different role in the world until it is a different America — until it finds ways once again realize the values of equality, liberty, democracy, and, one day, perhaps even of community in our own land. Efforts to alter the excesses of America’s international stance and to persuade the United States to respond more humanely to global problems are both essential and laudable. If we Americans truly hope to help others around the world, however, we have much hard work to do, first and foremost, here at home (emphasis is mine).”[xii]

Let’s not overlook the riveting insights of Baldwin, the counter-intuitive curiosity of Salk, the passionate persistence of Lemkin, as we prepare to assume a new posture, kneeling before the words, the language, of those who have gone before us. May we be reminded that we are the one’s called to work with human clay, with the heart and the soul.[xiii] Hearts that beat. Souls that hope. People just like us.

“When our language changes, behavior will not be far behind.”[xiv] I certainly hope so.

It’s the immoral part of our dilemma we cannot hide.

Somebody call 911.

About The Author:

Bill is a freelance writer. Bill is published in numerous professional publications, magazines, websites, journals, newspapers and newsletters. You can enjoy Bill’s writing on his website at For reprint permission, Contact Bill at wsdahl(at)bendbroadband(dot)com. All Rights Reserved.


[i] Handy, Charles The Age of UNREASON Harvard Business School Press © 1994 p. 17.

[ii] L’Engle,Madeleine – Compiled by Carole F. Chase –  Herself – Reflections on a Writing Life, ShawBooks, An imprint of WaterBrook Press, Copyright © 2001 by Crosswicks Ltd. P. 15.

[iii] Power, Samantha A Problem From Hell – America and the Age of Genocide, Perrennial, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc. NY.NY. Copyright © 2002 by Samantha Power, p. 31.

[iv] :

[v] Baldwin, James  James Balwin – Collected Essays – Edited by Toni Morrison – Published by The Library of America, Copyright © 1998 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. NY,NY excerpt from Notes of a Native Son pp. 19.

[vi] Albright, Madeleine The Mighty and the Almighty – Reflections on America, God and World Affairs, HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc. NY,NY Copyright © 2006 by Madeline Albright, Pp. 89-90


[viii] Chittister, Joan The Ten Commandments – Laws of the Heart, Orbis Books Maryknoll, New York Copyright © 2006 by Joan Chittister p. 118.

[ix] Kinnaman, David and Lyons, Gabe UNChristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters, Baker Books – Grand Rapids, Michigan, Copyright © 2007 by David Kinnaman and The Fermi Project, p.   P. 231.

[x] Rank, Mark Robert One Nation Underprivileged, Oxford University Press Oxford, U.K. and NY,NY Copyright © 2004 by Mark Robert Rank p. 251.

[xi] Rogat Loeb, Paul The Impossible Will Take A While – A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, Basic Books – A Member of the Perseus Books Group NY,NY Copyright © 2004 by Paul Rogat Loeb, p. 12

[xii] Alperovitz, Gar America Beyond Capitalism – Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Society and Our Democracy John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ Copyright © 2005 by Gar Alperovitz P. 239.

[xiii] L’Engle,Madeleine – Compiled by Carole F. Chase –  Herself – Reflections on a Writing Life, ShawBooks, An imprint of WaterBrook Press, Copyright © 2001 by Crosswicks Ltd. P. 15.

[xiv] Handy, Charles The Age of UNREASON Harvard Business School Press © 1994 p. 17.

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