Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In a Nutshell

Organizers have announced a march against Mulligan's child separation actions on Saturday, June 30, in Washington. I know it takes time to organize a large event, but that's 10 days from now and if something hasn't changed on this by then, I'm not sure what it will mean.

In some ways, my biggest fear is that they'll back off slightly on the family separations and many people will call it a victory, leaving the center on this issue moved violently to the right.

I'm not sure who made this illustration, but I saw it via the Twitter account of Carlyle Gordon.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Boomer Naivete

This concept has been in my head, but it was put into words by two other people on Twitter today. First Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) of Slate wrote:

I think we’re witnessing, with the Trump era, how many Americans explicitly understand citizenship and deservingness to be a function of whiteness.
And then Angus Johnston (@studentactivism), professor of history at CUNY, wrote in response:
What's striking and disheartening to me, as a historian raised in the seventies and eighties, is how brief the period of acceptable-opinion consensus to the contrary actually was.
As I've written before, it's odd to be part of a generation that grew up assuming the way things were is the way things are — that living wage jobs were possible without advanced education, for instance, or that debtors prisons were a thing of the past — only to realize it was a bubble. Some of the things I thought were a consensus (like civil rights for all or that the extreme income inequality of the Gilded Age or 1920s was inherently bad) probably weren't exactly a consensus, but they were at least the acceptable-opinion consensus, as Johnston puts it.

It has taken me years to accept that what I thought was reality was only a blip. But it's the reality I work to create.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

A few days ago, I saw this T-shirt at a vintage store:

It was amusing enough to photograph as a possible blog entry. Yes, that is a black wolf in white sheep's clothing. Ha ha ha.

But when I looked up that organization name, I found out it's a group of self-appointed welfare-fraud investigators. Yuck!

The only good news is that, from the looks of their website (to which I will not link), the group has not been very active for a few decades. It does appear to have an annual conference in October 2018, though the text on that page is mostly hidden by a photograph, so maybe it's a secret conference for all of the cop wannabes.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

RBG, a Real Tear-Jerker

I was busy being a new parent for much of the 1990s. I'm sure I was aware that Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, but I don't remember thinking about it much. I know for sure I couldn't have come up with her name, based on her work, until she was nominated.

So it's odd that I spent about half of the time in tears while I was watching the new documentary RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Ginsburg isn't exactly an unsung hero at this point, but she used to be. As one of the commentators in the film says, her work in the 1970s affected every American, especially women (but that affects everyone, of course). And I never knew it until relatively recently.

I have to confess, the first I knew of that work was from a 2017 RadioLab broadcast called Sex Appeal, which tells the story of the Craig v. Boren case RBG tried before the Supreme Court in 1976. I highly recommend it if you can't get to see the film, or even if you can.

Another reason the movie touched me so deeply is that Ginsburg is only a year younger than my mother. They were both smart young women attending college in small upstate New York cities at around the same time. While life took them along different paths, that similarity made me feel even closer to Ginsburg than I would just from her achievements.

Do yourself a favor and see this film. You may not cry as much as I did, but you'll still learn a lot.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Case You Didn't Hear

The cartoonist who created this image (among a number of others that were repressed by his editor) was just fired from his job:

Rob Rogers worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette until yesterday. He had been there for 25 years and has been a Pulitzer finalist. The paper's editorial director, appointed by its Trump-supporting publisher, said he

did not “suppress” Mr. Rogers’ cartoons but that Mr. Rogers was unwilling to “collaborate” with him about his work and ideas.
Collaborate? Is that what political cartoonists do, generally? Quoting from the same story (from the Post-Gazette):
Mr. Burris [the editorial director] began overseeing the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages in March after the paper’s owner, Block Communications, combined them with the editorial pages of its other newspaper, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. He was formerly the editorial page editor for The Blade and now splits his time between the two cities.

He acknowledged that he is “more conservative” than past editorial page editors and that even prior to Mr. Trump’s election in 2016, the owners of the newspaper had been trying “to right the ship” to reflect less liberal views.

Mr. Rogers said he began to feel “a lot more pushback” about his work after Mr. Trump announced his run for office in 2015.

But few of his cartoons were killed until Mr. Burris took over the editorial page, he said. Since March, nine cartoon ideas and 10 finished cartoons were killed, he said.
The First Amendment doesn't apply here, of course, since that's about government intervention. But this is still worth exclaiming over. Personally I can't get over the part where the editorial director complained that Rogers's cartoons weren't funny enough.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tiger Burning Bright

I picked up the book Tiger Burning Bright by Theodora DuBois at a used book sale recently. I succumbed partly because of the charming three-color cover illustration and partly because I remembered seeing it during my 1970s library days, even though I was pretty sure I had never read it.

Well, now I have read it and I'm certain it was the first time. Published in 1964 by an author who was then 74 years old, it's set in 1857 India and tells the fictional first-person story of an American teen-aged girl swept up in the violent Sepoy Rebellion. I had never heard of this revolt before (thank you, U.S. education system), but it's easy to analogize it to China's "Boxer Rebellion," which I did learn about in school from a Western perspective. As with Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel Boxers, this story of India could use a telling from an Indian point of view.

I knew going into my reading that the book was unlikely to be from the point of view of the colonized Indian people, and I was right. The author, I think, thought she was a progressive, but she carries her Western bias throughout. Before the book opens, for instance, she explains in a section called "A Few Facts about India" that the East India Company was in control of the country, backed up by the British military. However, it
by no means used [its powers] only for the enrichment of the English. Roads, aqueducts and irrigation systems were constructed throughout the country. Famine suffering was alleviated. Hospitals and schools were built.... Education was encouraged and missionaries came and began to spread Christianity.

Unhappily, many men of India misunderstood and resented the laws and innovations of the English (page x).
So...missionaries came to spread Christianity in a country with several other religions already in dominance, but the people "misunderstood" what the English were up to? Right.

The thing I was less ready for was the casual sexism from a woman author. Every one of the English adult women in the book is useless and horrible. They are the ones who express the worst anti-Indian racism; somehow, British men are all much more open-minded. The women all end up getting killed off one way or another, leaving our plucky American teen and another young Irish servant girl as the only non-child females in the story.

The book is especially hard on a woman called Mrs. Thompson, the mother of four young children, including a nursing infant. Her husband is murdered in front of her and the rest of the family (as well as the narrator and me, the reader). Mrs. T. can't snap out of it, though, and pitch in toward the survival of the group, darn her! As a reader, I was irritated with her, as the author intended me to be, of course. DuBois lays it on even thicker, making Mrs. T. irrational about maintaining English cultural mores in the midst of a life-or-death crisis and whining about needing more water. But stepping back, where is the allowance that this woman has recently given birth, could be in postpartum depression, and is, of course, nursing — which means she needs more water than everyone else? There isn't any, of course, from our teen-aged narrator. Mrs. T. finally dies of something after going mad. Her baby is left with no food source at that point.

Mrs. T's loss as a milk cow leads to an interesting combination of sexism and racism as the story nears its end, when the refugee party is saved from dying by the people of a Jat village, deep in the desert between Delhi and Multan. The Jat people are described as "very primitive and low caste, but kind." The narrator has enough presence of mind to acknowledge that "It's strange to think of oneself being the object of charity from a group of such half-naked, almost destitute" people.

Luckily, there is a young Jat mother with an infant of her own who can serve as a wet nurse to the orphaned baby, Peter. She herself is described as "a young ebony girl" who the protagonist actually thinks of as "dinner for our Peter."

This child-mother and her husband (who is described as a "not-very-bright but devoted individual") join the traveling party and are referred to for the rest of the book as "the Jats" — they are never given names, though one member of the refugee group can speak a common tongue with them, so they could easily have exchanged names.

In the end, after the English/Irish/American refugees reach Multan and the "safety" of English society once again, the Jat couple leaves for their village, taking the infant Peter with them. The English ladies of Multan decry this action ("he's been stolen by that dreadful wet-nurse, that Jat woman") and assume the couple will harm him or at least hold him for ransom. Our heroine knows better, saying the Jat mother is "not dreadful. She saved his life. She's kind and devoted. She took him because she was afraid he would die without her and she couldn't bear to give him up." But still, she makes sure the child is retrieved nonetheless. The retrieval is described this way by the character who brings the baby back:
We soon overtook them plodding along, the woman with both babies. I will say that she didn't want to give up ours. She screamed and kicked when I tried to take him from her and he howled and held onto her hair.... [laughs]... But an English officer had driven us and he gave the Jat man a gold piece. I saw the transaction. Even the woman was impressed and she finally relinquished the baby to Katie without too many tears.
That the Jat couple were okay with exchanging the baby for a gold piece may or may not be realistic, but it's written as if there could be no question that it was more than fair.

One final aspect of the book that left me shaking my head: our main character is 14 years old in the opening pages before she leaves for India with her parents, then 17 during the main action. There is a young man from her home town who was "at least 23" at the beginning and 26 for the main action as they struggle to reach safety. Our girl has had a crush on him for years, of course, but assumed he was not interested. At the end of the book, though, he suddenly declares his love for her and asks her to marry him, saying "I've had my eye on you since you were an infant!".

Well, ick, man. DuBois's husband was 10 years older than she, but they didn't meet until she was 27. The characters' age difference is a minor point in the book but it also seems to exist for no particular reason (why couldn't the narrator have been 20 or 22?), except to allow DuBois to sell the book as a juvenile instead of an adult novel, I suppose.

It was a final twist of distastefulness on top of all that had come before it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Professional Drone?

At first I had no idea what it was I was seeing. But then I pulled alongside it at a light:

(I only just now got the weak pun in the company name, though. It's a bit of a stretch.)

I am fond of saying that it's silly to ask young people what they want to do with their work lives. Who would have thought there would ever be something called a "drone professional"? Not me.

As seen on Snelling Avenue at University in Saint Paul.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How "We" Think of Disability

From the Twitter feed of Dolly Sen (@dozzyangel), who describes herself as a "professional mad person, writer, speaker, artist, and filmmaker":

Think about that for a while, if disability isn't something you (or someone you're close to) live with on a daily basis. I know I will.

Monday, June 11, 2018

ICE in Their Veins

Today we were told by Jeff Sessions that people fleeing domestic violence or gang death threats aren't considered asylum seekers, yet MS13 is a scourge worthy of upending all of our civil liberties.

Children are being stored in cages after being taken from their parents through trickery or even violence.

How much longer can this go on?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

I Fear This Possible Future

Much as I dislike cartoonist Lisa Benson's work and worldview, I have to admit I fear the possibility of her being right in this cartoon:

I disagree that the "tax cuts" are what's revving the economy, but it's an empirical fact that the economy continues to grow at a health rate, as it has been for the past eight or so years. And all too often, it seems, voters react to that and not to the many other important aspects of governance (like, oh, I don't know, separating children from their parents, fomenting climate change, or starting trade wars with our closest allies).

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Puzzle in Blue

I've posted a few puzzle pictures in the past (well, at least here and here). What do you make of this one? (Answer below.)















It's a weathered standpipe, one of those mysterious artifacts of modern cities. And it's also another example to include in my set of pareidolia images.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Lost Connections

Today seems like an apt day to finally write about Johann Hari’s recent book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions.

Like his earlier work, Chasing the Scream, the book had a big effect on me, and obviously on him as well. One thing I had wondered about in Chasing the Scream was that Hari seemed resistant to the idea that trauma contributes to self-medicating through illicit drug use.

In Lost Connections, I began to find out what may have motivated that one bit of illogic in his work. Hari himself lives with depression, and has taken medications for it over the years. In the book, he looks at his own attitudes about depression and medical treatments and talks to a range of scientists and psych researchers.

Medications are not the answer, he finds, though they can have real side effects. The idea that medical treatment is “restoring” the brain’s natural chemical balance is false and was created to manipulate our human weakness for naturalistic fallacies. Drug companies cooked the research “books” to meet standards:

All you have to do is produce two trials — anytime, anywhere in the world — that suggest some positive effect of the drug. If there are two, and there is some effect, that’s enough. [It could be that] 998 find the drug doesn’t work at all, and two find there is a tiny effect — and that means the drug will be making its way to your local pharmacy (page 31)
The placebo effect is real, though, and treatment with meds can appear to have a positive effect for a while, but it often tapers off. Then more or different meds are given, right?

So what does cause depression, if not a chemical imbalance? That’s the subject of the book. (Oh, and depression and anxiety are related disorders; Hari deals with both.)

“What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief — for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?” (page 44)

Researchers have found that people with depression are more than three times as likely than those without to have experienced a major negative event in the previous year. They were also three times times more likely to be facing serious long-term stressors in their lives. Having both these factors accelerated the likelihood, of course. Positive stabilizing factors reduced the chances of developing depression, too.

Harry lists seven causes of depression and anxiety, but what holds them together is that they are all forms of disconnection. We are cut off from something we need but have lost:
  1. Disconnection from meaningful work. Based on a particular case study, he quotes one man who has found most of the important conclusions about this cause: “you have to be challenged in a healthy way” and “you have to know your voice counts.” Another case study describes British civl service workers: those with a higher degree of control over their work were a lot less likely to become depressed than others at the same pay grade and status, and even in the same office. Having no discretion in how the work gets done, learning to be passive, was deadening. “Disempowerment is at the heart of poor health,” according to that researcher.
  2. Disconnection from other people. Loneliness = stress. “Feeling lonely [research finds] caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar — as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you…as stressful as experiencing a physical attack” (page 74). And it has been established as a causal relationship, not just a correlation. One researcher has a hypothesis to explain this, based in our evolution: it’s a signal to us to bet back to the group or we will be more likely to die. “…every human instinct is honed not for life on your own, but for life…in a tribe” (page 77). Loneliness is the opposite of shared meaning and reciprocity, no matter what that is based on. It is “the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else…. you need to have a sense of ‘mutual aid and protection’” (page 83). Multiplayer games fit into this need perfectly, and compulsive Internet use (whether Facebook or gaming) is a “dysfunctional attempt to try to solve the pain” (page 88).
  3. Disconnection from meaningful values. This chapter focuses on the work of psychologist Tim Kasser, author of the graphic explainer Hypercapitalism. His research has found that “materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, had much higher levels of depression and anxiety” (page 94). Meeting extrinsic goals in general caused no increase in happiness. One cool summary of this section: “What you really need are connections. But what you are told you need…is stuff and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals…depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet” (page 99). Kasser turned to the role of advertising, particularly to children, as a cause of message that permeates our culture. (Which reminds me of this recent Hidden Brain segment called This is Your Brain on Ads).
  4. Disconnection from childhood trauma. This chapter starts with a story about research on morbidly obese women who lost weight in a clinical trial. The trial found, however, that why they weighed what they did was not simple, but was often rooted in specific traumas they had experienced when young. That research led to the ACEs approach (Adverse Childhood Experiences, which I’ve mentioned once before). Answers to the 10 ACEs questions are highly predictive of depression. “If you had six categories of traumatic events in your childhood, you were five time more likely to become depressed…than somebody who didn’t have any. If you had seven…you were 3,100 percent [31 times] more likely to attempt…suicide as an adult” (page 111). And emotional abuse was the most likely to cause depression - more than physical abuse or sexual molestation.
  5. Disconnection from status and respect. This chapter starts with a primatologist studying baboons, who found that “our closest cousins are most stressed in two situations— when their status is threatened…and when their status is low” (page 119). The primatologist (Robert Sapolsky, who is also a neuroscientist) later found that depressed humans “are flooded with the same stress hormone that you find in low-ranking male baboons” (page 119). Hari says at this point he began to wonder if depression is partly “a response to the sense of humiliation the modern world inflicts on many of us” (page 120). And indeed, large-scale analyses of nations (and states within the U.S.) has found that more unequal places have significantly more mental illness than more equal societies, including depression.
  6. Disconnection from the natural world. Bonobos in the wild can be depressed, but ones in zoos sink significantly farther down into dysfunctional behaviors. Lots of other animals, too, which reminds me of the rat park, of course.
  7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future. “A sense of a positive future protects you. If life is bad today, you can think — this hurts, but it won’t hurt forever. But when it is taken away, it can feel like your pain will never go away” (page 138). Hari ties this disconnection in with a discussion of the precariat, and I have to add, what about living with climate change?
What are the solutions Hari proposes? He describes an amazing thing that happened in East Berlin after the Wall came down, in an area called Sudblock. This is a highly recommended chapter for anyone who despairs about people working together despite major differences. And it leads him to seven recommended forms of reconnection:
  1. Reconnection to other people. Evidence “suggests if we return to seeing our distress and our joy as something we share with a network of people all around us, we will feel different” (page 181). It’s not something you can do on your own, like taking a pill. The “desire for a solution that [is] private and personal… [is] in fact a symptom of the mindset” that causes depression and anxiety in the first place (page 183).
  2. Reconnection through social prescribing. A community garden plays a key role in the example here. And parties.
  3. Reconnection through meaningful work. In which we hear about worker co-ops (and I am reminded that I never wrote up the graphic explainer Parecomic about the work of Michael Alpert, some of which discusses what real worker co-ops would look like). Worker co-ops can count three soul-killing aspects of work: the feeling of being controlled, the knowledge that no one will notice anything you do, and the reality of being low in a hierarchy.
  4. Reconnection to meaningful values. In which we ban advertising to children (as they have Sweden and Greece). And that counter-programming can have an effect.
  5. Reconnection through sympathetic joy. This one involves meditation and a practice that’s literally called sympathetic joy (I will have to check that out) and the possibilities of psychedelics like psilocybin, which Michael Pollan has recently written about as well.
  6. Reconnection to our past to overcome childhood trauma. Just acknowledging that it happened can have an effect for some. Shame and humiliation play a big role in depression.
  7. Reconnection to a restored future. This chapter looks at research on the effects of universal basic income, and we learn about a Dutch economist who has published a book called Utopia for Realists.
In the final chapter, Hari puts it this way:
You are not suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain. You are suffering from a social and spiritual imbalance in how we live…. your biology may make your distress worse…but it’s not the cause (page 257).
I'll end with some particularly salient details I found along the way:
  • A telling stat from the section on disconnection from meaningful work: A 2012 Gallup poll of a million workers, internationally, found just 13 percent said they were engaged in their jobs; 61 percent said they were not engaged, and 24 percent were actively disengaged, “undermin[ing] what their engaged co-workers accomplish… [they] are more or less out to damage their company” (page 64) That’s 87 percent of the workforce that’s not engaged, and with twice as many people hating their jobs as loving them.
  • One sad stat from the “disconnection from other people” section: Brain scans show that lonely people spot potential threats in 150 milliseconds, while socially connected people take 300 milliseconds for the same threats. This hyper-vigilance leads to even more social disconnection (pages 81-82).
  • Why do children think they are to blame for abuse they experience? “When you’re a child, you have very little power to change your environment…. So you have two choices. You can admit to yourself that you are powerless…. or you can tell yourself it’s your fault. If you do that, you actually gain some power—at least in your own mind…. You can become the powerful one. If it’s your fault, it’s under your control…. But that comes at a cost. If you were responsible for being hurt, then at some level, you have to think you deserved it” (page 114).
  • One concept from the disconnection from nature section that seemed counterintuitive to me: “Faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concerns are very small, and the world is very big — and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size.” But since “Becoming depressed or anxious is a process of becoming a prisoner of your own ego,” that deflation can have a positive effect.
And really end with this as a motivator:

“I think we have many modern forms of captivity. Don’t be in captivity. Fuck captivity.” —Dr. Isabel Behncke, evolutionary biologist and bonobo researcher (page 131)