Thursday, September 27, 2007

Learning from MASH

I learnt a rather curious fact by watching, of all things, an episode of the TV comedy show MASH.

The episode, The Red/White Blues, first screened in 1981. The plot is that the malaria season is about to descend on the MASH unit (during the Korean War, sometime between 1950 and 1953).

There are no stocks available of the usual anti-malaria drug, so the unit is sent a case of primaquine, a malaria suppressant. Colonel Potter isn't happy, and asks "What about the negroes?"

It turns out that those of black African descent can't be given primaquine, as it was known to give them hemolytic anemia. Everyone else is given the medicine, but Corporal Klinger (of Lebanese ancestry) and several others become sick. He is thought to be malingering, but is later diagnosed to be suffering from hemolytic anemia. We're told at the end of the episode that by the late 1950s it was also recognised that people of Mediterranean descent were unable to tolerate primaquine.

Why is this significant? As I mentioned in my last post on whiteness studies, modern liberals often deny the real, biological existence of race. Instead they prefer to view race as a social construct.

One of the arguments often made against the 'social construct' view of race is that modern medical science is finding that there are drugs which work effectively with some races but not others. Therefore, the real, biological existence of race is being accepted (and put to scientific use) by medical researchers at the very time it is denied by certain liberal academics.

What the MASH episode reveals is that knowledge of the biological differences between the races has been known to medical researchers since at least the early 1950s. It's not new knowledge after all. The reality of such differences was accepted in an uncomplicated way by the liberal scriptwriters of MASH as late as the early 1980s.

Race denial is an expression of how latter-day liberals would like things to be; it tells us something about ideological preferences rather than the larger developments within medical science.


  1. Sure, race exists, but in terms of Western civilisation, is it the most important factor? There is an interesting debate on View from the Right on this very topic: Lawrence Auster, 'Is it Wrong of Me to Talk About Race?' View from the Right (25 September 2007).

  2. Race might not be the most important factor. But the liberal desire to pretend it doesn't exist (except when it's a socially constructed conspiracy by "whites") is, given liberalisms dominant role in our political culture, extremely problematic.

    It doesn't bother me though; although I'm physically white I'm socially constructed as a Samoan.

  3. Indeed, race is a social construct. Genes, however, are real, and determine particular characteristics even among large groups of people, like Asians, for example. But what happens after a few generations of extending the gene pool, of intermarriage, that is, among geographically disparate populations? In the case of the t.v. show example you cite, what happens after Corporal Klinger's family has started marrying and reproducing with the local Polish or Swedish decendants, who themselves would likely have similarly integrated with the Anglos, being multigenerationally removed from their original immigrant status, unlike the Lebanese Klinger? Would Klinger's decendants better tolerate the drug? Seems probable, doesn't it?

    I think you just want to be white. I mean right.

  4. The presence of a disease doesn't automatically indicate a different race. Race/breed/subspecies is a mental construct used to describe biological phenomenon whereby various phenotypic frequencies can be commonly found within a population. One disease alone is rather meaningless as an indicator, just as someone having systic fibrosis is not automatically of a different race.

    These presense of genetic differences which are localised to certain populations are often incorrectly used as proof of a racial cline. The mediterannean region has a climate which is condusive to the spread of malaria, whereas northern europe does not. This difference alone has lead to genetic adaptations in mediteranean people to give them some resistance against malaria. This resistance ironically means sensetivity to anti-malaria drugs.

  5. I'm sorry to be commenting on this so late, but I just found it. A couple of things:

    (1) Unless I can't read Australian English, and heaven knows I watched Steve Irwin long enough, you seem to have missed the real point of that MASH episode: That it's potentially dangerous to base medical decisions on whatever "race" you think patients might belong to.

    (2) If as Borax Man writes "races" are defined by "various phenotypic frequencies," then "races" cannot be real things in the world. Statistical constructs are conevenient fictions, maybe, but they aren't real. In fact, most biologists - the reality-based ones, anyway - reject the reality of anything below the species.

    The "race" concept is an outdated and dysfunctional way of describing and explaining human (and other) biological variation, which is actually far more interesting when "races" are tossed out.

    Ron Kephart
    University of North Florida
    Unapologetic Leftist

  6. I like MASH but perhaps you shouldn't base your education from it