Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor by Dr. Paul Farmer is one of the most intellectually difficult books I’ve ever read and yet it is the book that gave me vocabulary for conditions I’d observed in my criminal justice work; explained truth at its most essential; and provided language to describe my beliefs and values.
Paul Farmer is a physician and a medical anthropologist. Through the lens of health care around the world, he teaches us how the world’s power structure ensures that the rich get richer, the poor suffer more and that the way to change is through hard work. He acknowledges the difficulty of social justice and yet gives actual examples of ways he has helped make real progress in places where expectations are so low as to be almost non-existent.
The book is part academic analysis and part storytelling with a purpose — just enough of the academic analysis to push you to stretch your brain cells to understand, but (luckily!) enough storytelling to keep you interested and willing to look up words you don’t know and think about ideas that you’ve never thought about before.
Farmer takes you to villages on the high plateau of Haiti and prisons in northern Russia and clinics in Boston — all with his perspective of believing that the Bible and all human morals dictate a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Farmer lives that preferential option and shows that even mere mortals can make choices that promote treating all people as truly equal. Through the organization he started, Partners in Health, Farmer does just that.
As importantly, Farmer explains structural violence and how systemic racism dictate health outcomes unless it is disruptive with and through concrete action. He provides not a road-map for success but an orientation of mind, a philosophy that can be lived to interrupt the pathologies of power and ensure that every human is valued equally and that preferential option becomes a reality. It is impossible for me to recommend this book more highly. It is simply without any peer I’ve ever found (and I first read it more than a dozen years ago, after first reading Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, which is a much easier read, about, rather than by, Dr. Farmer.)