Reflecting Allowed

Why New Amsterdam Isn’t Democratic Caring

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 26 seconds

Recently, my collaborator on equity/care, Mia Zamora, left me a message on how Equity is an outcome, while care is a process. This was a useful insight in the midst of our work on what happens when they work together versus when they don’t. I mentioned this in a keynote today and it resonated with folks. So I thought it deserved to be written somewhere and clearly attributed to her. It also relates to this quote which Mia and I use in a forthcoming paper: “justice needs care because justice requires the empathy of care in order to generate its principles” (White & Tronto, 2004, p. 427, citing Okin 1990).

Next, I wanted to reflect on something that’s annoying me about the TV Series New Amsterdam, and how it relates to the work of Joan C. Tronto, whose work on ethics of care and justice is my biggest influence these days. I’m reading her work on democratic caring and caring democracy. And I realized that New Amsterdam (esp season 3) is problematic because:

A. The main character, white male doctor who is medical director of New Amsterdam public hospital in New York, Max Goodwin (I mean, even the name, “Goodwin”) is idealistic and is trying to single-handedly solve all problems by himself. As Leigh-Anne Perryman has pointed out on Twitter, simply the individualistic nature of this is a problematic message.

B. My original tweet critiquing the show was about the white savior complex of the show. The show is chock full of people of color and characters that are LGBTQi and neurodivergent and all the politically correct things you could barely see in ER a decade or so ago. And yet Max Goodwin is the idealistic one who solves all problems. The show tackles all sorts of truly important problems, from Black Lives Matter, to systemic racism, to continuing violence against Indigenous people in the US, and even global warming… and yet the only person trying to solve these problems is Max Goodwin. Idealist that he is, he is going around trying to fix these problems on his own, thinking in his own head, suggesting solutions, that usually turn out to be HORRIBLE because he is such a bad listener (which is a realistic outcome) but then eventually he figures something out and everything is cool. WHAT??? REALLY? This person who never ever knew that black women were poorly treated in maternity wards, that Indigenous land and peoples were abused by the system, this clueless white guy, singlehandedly figures out, in a like a 40 minute episode (spanning what , 2 days? 3?) systemic solutions to equity problems just because he CARES? UHHH

C. This is where Tronto comes in, because of her emphasis on democratic caring. More than anything, I think Tronto’s main message is that any care, especially systemic care, that does not involve the caregiver in the decisions of how they wish to be cared-for is problematic and that we should strive for democratic caring, especially at the institutional level. This intersects wit but expands to a great extent what Nel Noddings says, that we should do unto others as THEY would have done unto themselves. Because Tronto unpacks all the ways in which care work can reproduce inequalities and exacerbate them even. She also unpacks how care receivers can be considered as less than competent, less than independent, and in doing so, they are not included in decisions about their own care. This happens in personal relationships and families, but is particularly problematic in institutional care… like government care institutions… like healthcare!!! Health professionals often believe they know what’s best for the patient. There may be laws to stop them overriding a patient’s will… but we see in life and in practice that for the most part, medical care is not the most democratic form of caring. What is really bad in Max Goodwin’s case in New Amsterdam, is that he doesn’t even involve his fellow doctors in his thinking processes to solve problems. He barely listens when people tell him he is going about it the wrong way. He just looks at them and us with and confused gorgeous blue eyes and does this cute neck move that is reminiscent of George Clooney (how can we not think of ER?) and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. No epsitemic listening. He doesn’t listen to the fellow doctors he says he respects and trusts. He doesn’t listen to the patients. He just decides each day what his battle is going to be, and he rushes headlong into solutionism without truly discussing it with anyone else, often seeming to have looked up some meaningless statistics he keeps spouting out without contextualizing them – to justify his erratic behavior.

In the book: Who Cares? Tronto writes (I’m quoting/extracting and cutting off small parts from ch 4 to make these bullets concise):

  1. “…democratic care requires pluralism” p. 34
  2. “democratic care requires switching perspectives and not just thinking about what we want. We need also to look at care from the standpoint of care-receivers, who will have different ideas about what kind of care they want or need to receive” (like Noddings earlier). “In a “caring-with” democracy, we can set a goal of structuring institutions and practices so that each person’s individual preferences can be honored.” p. 34
  3. “we need to recognize the diversity and ubiquity of different caring needs.” (p. 34). The emphasis here is on needs, and the ways in which discourses and framing can make out people who “need” care (really all of us to varying degrees in different contexts and times) as less independent and therefore less able to act as full citizens – and this is something we should avoid.
  4. “we need to recognize that care is complex and that we aren’t always the heroic caregiver in all the care stories we tell” (p. 35). And this is exactly Max Goodwin, emphasis mine.

Actually, this quote from Tronto, though really talking about something completely different, applies well to Max Goodwin:

“with great power comes privileged irresponsibility.” (Tronto, p. 29).

Thanks to interactions with Autumm Caines, Leigh-Anne Perryman, Sanaa Khabbar and Mia Zamora for inspiring this blogpost, as well as my interactions today during my Ryerson keynote. I will write more about Tronto for sure inshallah because I’ve been dipping in and out of several book chapters by her, thanks to the work of Laura Czerniewicz and Daniela Gachago that first introduced me to her work.

Featured image: Image of hijabi juggler on the beach from Pixabay:

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