Antidepressants not a cure for lost connections

April 23, 2018

Journalist Johann Hari said in his new book that people who are depressed are not victims of bad brain chemistry.  They are depressed because they are disconnected from things that make life worth living.

They are disconnected from meaningful work, meaningful values and meaningful relationships with other people, from status and respect, the natural world and a secure or hopeful future.

In LOST CONNECTIONS: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions (2018), Hari walks the reader through the scientific research that shows how people suffer when they are disconnected from the things they need, and how they can heal when they recover those connections.

Depression and anxiety are big problems.  Hari said psychiatric drugs are being taken by one in five American adults, one in three French adults and an even higher proportion in the UK.

The death rate in the United States is actually increasing, driven by “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-caused liver disease.   The World Health Organization reported in 2010 that depression is the world’s second leading cause of disability.

Hari said therapists can help, and gave examples.  He said there are ways people can help themselves, and gave examples.  Medication has its place, although often ineffective.  Hari deeply regrets the 13 years of his own life that he spent taking antidepressants.

But feelings of depression and anxiety are not the problem, according to Hari.   Pain, whether mental or physical, is a message that lets you know something is seriously wrong.   The rising rate of depression is a message telling us that something is wrong with our society.

∞∞∞

In organizations, you might think that the managers and decision makers would be under the most stress, while those with less responsibility would be the least stressed.  A study of the British civil service, among others, showed that the opposite is true.  The lower your rank, the higher the stress.

What causes stress is lack of control, Hari reported.   Employees are stressed when they have to produce results without being able to use their best judgment as to how to produce these results.

They are stressed when they don’t know the meaning or purpose of their work.  They are stressed when nobody notices whether they are doing a good job or not.  They are stressed when they’re on call even after the work day ends.   They are stressed when they don’t know whether they are going to have a job next week or next year.  Lost Connections gives examples of workers dealing with all these things.

Stressful working conditions are on the increase.  We the people were told that technological advances would result in all the routine work being done by machines, and more fulfilling, higher-level tasks being done by humans.  I believe such a path is possible, but it has not been the path chosen.

Instead we got Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, factory automation and computer numerically-controlled machines.  The purpose of these innovations was not to make workers more skilled.  It was to make them more replaceable.

High tech executives continue to push to eliminate the human factor from work, even when there is no need or demand for it, such as self-driving cars, and even when the public hates it, such as elimination of human interaction from customer service.

Workers do not suffer from a chemical imbalance, Hari wrote; they suffer from a power imbalance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dems sue Russia, Wikileaks, Trump campaign

April 21, 2018

The Democratic National Committee is suing Wikileaks, along with the government of Russia, the Trump campaign and various Russians and Trump supporters, over the leaks of DNC e-mails during the 2016 election campaign.

They charge that, among other things, the leaks of the DNC e-mails violate laws protecting copyright and trade secrets.  If this was upheld, it would basically make a great deal of investigative reporting illegal—including much of the reporting on the Russiagate investigations.

The real crime of Wikileaks, now as in the past, has been to reveal inconvenient truths.

The Democratic party suing WikiLeaks for costing them the election is like an armed robbery convict suing a security camera company for getting him arrested.  The emails it published are 100 percent authentic and entirely undisputed, and they consist of nothing other than Democratic party big wigs talking to one another.

The documents published by WikiLeaks in 2016 showed an unquestionable violation of the DNC’s Impartiality Clause in the “us vs them” tone of the conversations in the more egregious DNC leaks, the Podesta emails showing that the DNC and the Clinton camp were colluding as early as 2014 to schedule debates and primaries in a way that favored her, and then-DNC Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile acting as a mole against the Sanders campaign and passing Clinton questions in advance to prep her for debates with Sanders.

It also revealed more broadly incriminating facts about the Democratic party in general, including the Clintons taking bribes from Qatar and Morocco and knowingly accepting funds from political bodies that arm ISIS, an email showing how a CitiGroup executive was responsible for selecting Obama’s acceptable cabinet picks, and Clinton’s infamous “public position and a private position” statement.

Source: Caitlin Johnstone

Trying to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election is futile.  Democratic leaders would do better to concentrate on winning this year’s state and congressional elections, while meanwhile trying to curb President Trump’s unconstitutional use of executive power.

LINKS

Democratic Party sues Russia, WikiLeaks and Trump over election disruption by Sabrina Siddiqui for The Guardian.

Dems Sue WikiLeaks for Telling the Truth by Caitlin Johnstone.

The DNC’s Lawsuit Against Wikileaks Poses a Serious Threat to Press Freedom by Glenn Greenwald and Trevor Timm for The Intercept.  [Added Later]

Democratic National Committee’s Lawsuit Against Russia, WikiLeaks and Various Trump Associates Full of Legally Nutty Arguments by Mike Masnick for Techdirt.

Cure Worse Than Disease: Bill to Restrict Trump’s War Powers Actually “Endorse a Worldwide War on Terror” by Jon Schwarz for The Intercept.  [Added Later]

Senators Offer Up Unprecedented War Powers to President by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos for The American Conservative.

Four More Years: the Trump reelection nightmare and how we can stop it by Thomas Frank for Harper’s Magazine.

10 things teachers didn’t face 10 years ago

April 18, 2018

A California high school teacher named Jeremy S. Adams listed 10 things that teachers face now that they didn’t have to face 10 years ago:

#1: The Inability to Punish Students: This is a story in modern education that is big and is about to get much bigger. A hodge-podge of policies and euphemisms—restorative justice, social-emotional learning, banning punitive actions for defiant and vulgar students—has resulted in a toxic situation where many teachers feel they are no longer in control of their own classrooms and schools.  While many of these policies are instituted with just and well-meaning motivations such as trying to end the tragedy of the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon and ensuring poor students are not disproportionately disciplined, as is often the case, the consequence has been a loss of control on many campuses across the country.  While suspension and expulsion should never be the first or even second option for discipline, there absolutely must be consequences to destructive student behaviors if for no better reason than to protect the vast majority of students who are well-behaved and want to learn.

#2: Cell Phone Addiction: The constant need for “dopamine baths,” to quote Andrew Sullivan, has produced a generation of endorphin junkies populating the modern American classroom.  The statistics are jarring by any account: teens are on their phones, on average, for nine hours a day and the heaviest cell phone addicts swipe, touch, or use their phones up to 5,427 times a day.  The correlation between cell phone addiction and youth levels of depression, isolation, anxiety and low academic performance is beyond question.

#3: Online Bullying: When I was a child, weekends and nighttime served as reprieves from the school bully and the general drama of school itself.  Nowadays there is no escape and the effects are daunting.  One in three children have been threatened online and most distressing of all, half of all children who are bullied fail to tell any adults about it.  It is not hyperbole or embellishment to state that young people live much of their lives in a cyberspace unregulated by adults.  We would never let our children play and wander in unfamiliar parts of town and yet that is precisely what they do when they engage in a cyberspace that is foreign to their own parents.  We cannot protect children if we do not know where they are being harmed.

#4: Pep Rallies for Standardized Testing: The era of high-stakes testing has done very little to improve student performance.  It has spawned cuts in the arts, less recess time for elementary school children, more rote memorization, and perpetuated the illusion that test-taking prowess is synonymous with academic achievement, not to mention the long-term effect of discouraging the brightest and most ambitious young people from entering the education profession.  On a deeper level, schools are told they must be held accountable, which requires analysis of student performance, which perpetuates an endless stream of gimmicks, cynical incentives, and activities to motivate students to do well on standardized tests.  Schools who do pep rallies are not at fault—the policies that make such activities necessary and even beneficial are the culprits of this new feature of the teaching landscape.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jordan Peterson and the dominant lobster

April 17, 2018

I forgot to mention the most striking metaphor in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life—the struggle for dominance among lobsters.

Hierarchy is a law of nature, Peterson wrote; it is hard-wired in our brains by the evolutionary process.  It manifests itself not only as top dogs and pecking orders, but the struggle for dominance of our distant ancestor, the humble lobster.

Lobsters, it seems, compete for the best nesting places where they can be safe when they are shedding their shells.  The winners are lobsters with the biggest claws and a level of confidence produced by a substance called serotonin.   Sub-dominant lobsters not only fail to get good nesting places, but their level of serotonin drops so they can adjust to their lowly status.  Not only that, lobsters respond to Prozac.

So don’t be a loser lobster, Peterson says; stand up for yourself.

Illustration from 12 Rules for Life

It’s true, as he says, that human beings compete for dominance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Everybody can see this.  I’ll never again observe a certain type of (usually) male behavior without forming a picture in my mind of a giant humanoid cartoon lobster, waving its claws.

And it’s also true that the human body produces serotonin.  But current thinking is that serotonin has little to do with mental states.  In human beings, its main function is to aid digestion.   Also, even though lobsters respond to Prozac, there is no evidence that it makes them happier.  Also, the lobster species is not the ancestor of the human species.

Peterson, to his credit, does not advocate being at the top of a dominance hierarcy as a life goal.   That way lies fascism by way of social Darwinism.  What he says is that life is tough and you need to be able to stand up for yourself.

What he goes wrong is to claim dominance and hierarchy in the animal kingdom have any relevance to current arguments about economic inequality.

It is true that, within any group, there will be one or more persons who are more competent and confident than the others, and they will emerge as leaders.

But that has nothing to do with questions of the power of money in politics, the abuse of power by government or the growth of income inequality.  The current distribution of wealth and power in the USA and other countries does not reflect constants of human nature; it is the result of governmental and corporate policies during the past 35 years.

12 Rules for Life is inspirational, and Peterson mostly speaks good sense when he is dealing with matters of which he has personal experience or has studied deeply.   But on issues of economics and politics, he seems not to know what he doesn’t know.

LINKS

Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain human hierarchies – do they? by Leonor Gonçalves for The Conversation.

Three More Reasons for Wealth-Deprived Americans to Take to the Streets by Paul Buchheit for AlterNet.  The real issues in the inequality debate.

 

Jordan Peterson’s antidote to chaos

April 17, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s new best-selling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos is different from most self-help books.   The author doesn’t promise happiness or success.  It is a manual for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world.

He teaches that suffering is inevitable, happiness is not a worthwhile goal, and the path of least resistance in life leads to failure, addiction, depression and hatred of oneself and ultimately of the human race.  But he says it also is possible to pull yourself together, listen to your best moral intuitions and live a life of meaning and integrity.

Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and also had a clinical psychology practice, which means that he had an opportunity to test his theories in practice.

He has been in the news for his opposition to his opposition to the revolution in thinking about gender and his defense of academic freedom.

12 Rules made a strong impression on me.  Peterson is the kind of writer with whom I hold imaginary conversations in my mind.  I think he has blind spots, which I will get to, but none that negate the value of the book.

Here are Peterson’s rules.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2. Treat yourself like someone you were responsible for helping.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else was today.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
8. Tell the truth—or at least, don’t lie.
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10. Be precise in your speech.
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The key fact about life is that it is suffering, Peterson wrote.  Even the most fortunate can expect to experience either serious illness or the illness of loved ones during our lifetimes and then old age and death.

Be grateful for whatever happiness and joy come your way, he says but make your life a quest for something meaningful, not for happiness.

Face with world standing straight with your shoulders back, he says, which is almost word-for-word something my mother told me when I was a boy.  This body language braces you to face the world and its challenges.  (A good breakfast also helps).

Making yourself strong isn’t everything, but it is the first step to anything.  Being weak and agreeable only sets you up to be a victim.

Look at what you do that hurts you.  Look at what you don’t do that you need to do.  If you are honest with yourself, you know what these things are.

Start with some improvement in your life that you know is within your power to make.  Don’t feel embarrassed if it seems trivial.  Just do it.  And then reward yourself for doing it.

Minor improvement day after day is like compound interest, Peterson wrote.  You’d be surprised how much you can change your life over time with tiny incremental changes.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to unsubscribe from Amazon

April 13, 2018

Tucker Carlson’s case against war in Syria

April 11, 2018

I don’t watch network television any more and, when I did, I hardly ever watched Fox News.  But in this clip, Tucker Carlson says almost everything that needs to be said about why going to war in Syria is a mistake.

The United States has no vital interests in Syria, the war has created terrible suffering to the Syrian people, and, while President Assad is a ruthless dictator, the radical jihadist fanatics being back by the U.S. would be worse, especially for the Christian minority in Syria.

The excuse for attacking Syria is the regime’s alleged use of poison gas against civilians, but there’s no proof of this, and, even if true, it would be no worse than atrocities by U.S. allies that the U.S. government ignores.

The only thing Carlson leaves out is the possibility of a clash with Russian forces in Syria, leading to a U.S-Russian war.   Invading small countries that do not endanger the U.S. is morally wrong as well as counterproductive.  Fighting a country with the power to bring about mutual assured destruction is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Congress should invoke the War Powers Act.  If President Trump starts a war without authorization by Congress, that would be grounds for impeachment.

LINKS

We All Need to Unite Against War in Syria, Regardless of Ideology by Caitlin Johnstone.

This Is How Russia and America Could Go to War in Syria by Dave Majundar for The National Interest.

With Latest Syria Threats, Trump Continues to be More Confrontational Towards Russia Than Obama Was by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani for The Intercept.  [Added 4/12/2018]

The US Empire Has Been Trying to Regime Change Syria Since Long Before 2011 by Caitlin Johnstone [Added 4/12/2018]

Tucker Carlson: The Populist Paladin of Primetime by Alan Pell Crawford for The American Conservative.

Blogging vs. TV and newspaper commentary

April 10, 2018

An old friend of mine made this comment on a previous blog post—

I have a question for regular readers of this blog. Do you have any theories about why we can’t get commentary like Phil’s on TV, or in the New York Times–let alone on Fox News? Respectfully, Steve Badrich, San Antonio, Texas.

To begin with, my friend gives me much too much credit.  Unlike when I worked on a newspaper, I do very little original reporting.

Most of what I write is based on facts and ideas I find on other, better blogs and on-line news sites. The best thing about many of my posts is my links to those blogs and news sites.  Go far enough upstream from those blogs and news sites, and you find the ultimate sources are in traditional journalism.

Blogging is very different from reporting, or even writing a newspaper column or appearing as a guest commentator on TV, which I have done.  As a reporter, I was accountable to an editor for being fair and accurate.   Editors were accountable to a publisher for producing a product that would appeal to readers and bring in advertising.

This discipline improved the quality of what I wrote, but it also made me think twice about going against conventional opinion.  When I wrote something, for example, that reflected favorable on Eastman Kodak Co., my community’s largest employer, it was accepted without question.  When I wrote something that Kodak executives didn’t like, I was usually called in to justify myself.

I usually was able to justify myself.  I was fortunate to have editors that stood behind reporters when they were right.  But the further my writing went deviated accepted opinion or the wishes of the powers that be (which was never very far), the higher the bar for justifying myself.  I was surrounded not by a barrier, but by a hill whose steepness increased the further I went.

As a blogger, I am not accountable to anyone except myself.   I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards of fairness and accuracy except my own.  No gatekeeper asks me to justify my conclusion, whether orthodox or unorthodox.

I am as free as anybody gets to be in 21st century America.  I am retired, and I’m not in the job market.  I have good medical insurance and a sufficient income for my needs and desires, which many people don’t.  I don’t belong to any organizations, associations or cliques that would kick me out because of my opinions.

If these things didn’t apply, I wouldn’t feel free to post under my own name, and I’d be more cautious about what I did say.

Since, in practice, I enjoy a greater amount of freedom of expression than many people do, I have a right and responsibility to exercise it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Happy cows jump for joy at spring’s arrival

April 8, 2018

Source: thefunkyfarmer.

This is pretty much the way I feel.

The fault lies not in Russia, but in ourselves

April 7, 2018

If I habitually leave my car with the doors unlocked and the car keys in the ignition, somebody is going to steal it.

That doesn’t mean that the person who steals it is any less a thief, or that the car thief does not deserve to be apprehended and punished.  It does mean that I am a fool if I look to law enforcement to give me total security against theft without taking action myself.

If electronic voting machines are vulnerable to tampering, somebody is going to tamper with them.   If you want a guarantee of an honest vote count, then have paper ballots that are hand-counted in public.

If the confidential files of political parties are vulnerable to hacking, somebody is going to hack them.   If you want to be safe from hacking, then you need good computer security.

If election campaigns can be swayed by social media using personal information to manipulate people psychologically, then someone is going to manipulate public opinion.   If you want to overcome this, then based your political campaign on supporters going door-to-door and talking to people face to face.

I think the American election process is vulnerable to manipulation by foreign powers, but even more so by special interests and political operatives on the home front.   I think the idea that you can safeguard the process by threatening Russia—even if Russians turn out to be guilty of everything they’re accused of—is as foolish as the idea that you can solve the U.S. drug addiction problem by threatening Mexico or Colombia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Truth, guesswork and Russiagate

April 7, 2018

The United States government claims we are under attack from Russia.  That is the justification for military buildup in Syria and along Russia’s borders, for waging economic war against Russia and sanctions against Russian individuals, and for a diplomatic campaign against Russia.

Before we blunder into a nuclear war, which would mean the end of the United States, the Russian Federation and much of the rest of humanity, we need to look at the basis for these claims.  Specifically, we need to assess the evidence for three claims: –

Ideally, I would advocate reserving judgement until the results of the Mueller investigation are in.  But official Washington, including the press corps and the top leaders of the Democratic Party, are acting as if the results are already in.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that newspaper articles should be classified as truths, probabilities, possibilities and falsehoods.

Here is how I see the balance of truths, probabilities, possibilities and falsehoods:

∞∞∞

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin stated several times in 2016 that he would be pleased if Donald Trump was elected, because Trump advocated better relations with Russia.

Why would he not?  Russia in 2016 was hard-pressed by U.S.-led economic sanctions and a U.S. military buildup.   Hillary Clinton was and is an extreme war hawk.

Putin is a ruthless operator with few scruples.   There is credible circumstantial evidence that Russian intelligence sources engineered a false flag terror attack in order to rally public sentiment against the rebel province of Chechnya.  There is strong evidence that Russian intelligence services murdered the dissident and human rights advocate Alexander Litvinenko.

So it is possible that the Russian government penetrated the Democratic National Committee computer files and published e-mails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton, or that individual Russian hackers did so with the knowledge and encouragement of the Russian government.

The reasons I have doubts this happened are (1) the FBI has never conducted its own examination of the DNC computers and (2) the FBI has never interviewed Julian Assange about his claim that he received the information from a whistleblower.   Why would they not do this?  Were they afraid of what they might find out?

Maybe the DNC was hacked by more than one person or group, acting independently of each other.

In any case, the result of the DNC e-mail hacks was to disseminate truthful information, which is not an act of war.

It also is possible that Russians used social media to try to influence the election.  But I don’t see how the 13 Russians who were accused of distributing social media ads under fake names could have had any impact.  If they were Russian intelligence agents, they were decoys to divert attention from a secret real campaign that so far as not been discovered.

If Vladimir Putin did try to engineer Donald Trump’s election, he must feel buyer’s remorse.  President Trump has approved weapons shipments to Ukraine, which goes beyond what President Obama ever did.  He wants to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely to undermine Russia’s ally, Syria.  He is continuing the nuclear arms race against Russia.

Like President Obama, Trump talks about improving relations with Russia.   But like Obama, he so far has done nothing to make this happen.  Putin, with all his ruthlessness, is a defender of the status quo.  It is the U.S. government that seeks regime change in targeted countries, and that seeks military dominance in every important region of the world.

∞∞∞

Donald Trump, like other authoritarian nationalists, has long expressed an affinity for the authoritarian nationalist Vladimir Putin.   He also made a lot of money in business dealings with Russian oligarchs and organized crime figures in the New York real estate market.

Read the rest of this entry »

Privilege and ‘white privilege’

April 4, 2018

All other things being equal, any white person in the USA is better off than if they were black.

That’s certainly true of me.  Nobody ever questioned me about a possible criminal record when I applied for a job.  Black acquaintances tell me that is routine for them.

And even if I did have a criminal record, testers have found that I would have a better chance of getting a job than a black person with a clear record.

I have never feared for my life when stopped by a police officer.  In fact, I have no complaints whatever about my interactions with law enforcement over my whole life.   That wouldn’t be true if I were black.

I can understand why black people feel angry.

It is true that, here and there, black people get something they’re not strictly entitled to through affirmative action or diversity programs.   But I don’t think that even the white people who are most indignant about such programs would really want to change places with blacks.

This used to be called “racial discrimination” or “racial prejudice” or “racial injustice”.   Now it is called “white privilege.”  I think the change is a mistake.

A privilege is something you have to which you’re not entitled.  The implication of the word “white privilege” is that the problem is not that black people are denied justice, but that white people are not.

White privilege” is part of a vocabulary intended to change the behavior of white people through shaming.  One problem with that is that the only white people who will be influenced by such words are those who are well-disposed toward black people to begin with.   Others will simply be angered and alienated.

It is also a way for educated, well-off white people to stigmatize poor and rural white people—to tell them that their struggles and problems don’t count because they enjoy “white privilege”.

Read the rest of this entry »

The language of white shaming

April 2, 2018

The word “racism” originally meant an ideology based on the claim that there were genetic differences between races, that justified domination by the supposedly superior race.

The phrase “white supremacy” originally meant the rule of white people over non-white people, as formerly in the U.S. Old South, apartheid South Africa and British, German and Dutch colonies with “color bar”.

The phrase “white privilege” meant legal rights that were granted to white people that were denied to black people—for example, the right to attend law school in Mississippi.

Now these words are being redefined so as to stigmatize well-meaning liberal white people for their  blind spots and unconscious prejudices.

Being made aware of my blind spots and unconscious prejudices is a good thing, not a bad thing.   But I do not accept being labeled by the same words that are used to describe the Ku Klux Klan.

Such use of language provides cover to the real racists.   It can be a recruiting tool for the real racists.  And it is used by affluent, urban white people as an excuse to ignore the interests of working America and rural America.

You can only get so far by using white guilt as a lever to change behavior.  Guilt is like everything else in the world.   Some people have much too much of it, some too little and those who need it most don’t have any at all.   The only people who can be influenced by manipulation of guilt are those who are on your side already.

Read the rest of this entry »

My life history as a story of race

March 29, 2018

My previous two posts were about my reactions to Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.  As I stop and think about it, I have been entwined with race and racism my whole life.

My parents

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the little town of Williamsport, Md., are of my mother and father arguing about white guilt.  My mother would go on about how badly black people and native people were treated.  Finally my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Negro.”

My mother would resume talking about how Negroes were denied basic rights and forced to ride in the backs of buses.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “I’d never let anybody treat me that way.”

Or my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Indian.”  My mother would resume talking about how whites stole the Indians’ lands and forced them to live on reservations.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “If the Indians had what it takes, we would be the ones living on reservations.”

My father was not, in fact, unfriendly or unjust to black people or anyone else.   He was friendly and at ease talking to anyone, whether an African-American janitor or the Governor of Maryland.   He was not impressed by wealth or social status, and he did not look down on anyone.

I think this ability stemmed from a genuine liking for people, and interest in them, but also from a self-confidence based on knowledge of his own strength and competence.  He would not let anybody take advantage of him.

My mother was kind to everyone, but she had genteel standards of behavior, which included good table manners, correct grammar, no cursing and swearing, no dirty jokes and no racist epithets or remarks.

My mother was the daughter of a lawyer who’d fallen on hard times.  My father was the son of a poor farmer whose life consisted of unending physical labor.  My maternal grandfather died in bed.  My father’s father was found dead in his barn one day where he’d gone to do the morning milking.

Both my mother and my father were respected members of their community.  My mother was a school teacher all her working life, and lived to see the children and grandchildren of her first pupils pulling strings to get their own children into Mrs. Ebersole’s class.

My father was part of the first generation of his family to attend college, which is where he met my mother.  He had a varied career; at the time I was born, he was a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).    He ended up as a civil servant in the Maryland State Employment Service, which administered unemployment compensation benefits and a job referral service for the unemployed.

When he reached retirement age, he chose not to retire, which was contrary to the plans of his superiors.  They sent someone—who happened to be a black man—to take over the duties of his office, while my father sat on the sidelines.  He understood what was going on, and decided to retire after all.

He had no resentment of the black man who replaced him.  On the contrary, he praised him.  He said the man had the quality he most respected—”quiet competence”

∞∞∞

Boyhood

Both my parents taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless and until I had a good reason not to.  My mother in addition taught me to think of racism as both unjust and low-class.

In those days Maryland schools were still segregated.  I had a black playmate named Jim Tyler when I was a small boy.  He was a member of the Tim Mix Ralston Straightshooters club I organized, which was based on living up to the ideals of Tom Mix, the hero of a radio serial, and eating Shredded Ralston breakfast cereal.   As I grew older, I lost touch with him and never thought about him.

I was bookish, precocious and opinionated, and included to argue with my elders about matters of race and other things, mostly to their amusement.

“Be honest, Phil,” they would say.  “Would you be willing to have one of them marry your sister?”

I would answer that I didn’t have a sister, but if I did have a sister, in the highly unlikely event that she wanted to marry a black man, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but, if she really loved him, I could accept it.

The attitude of my elders was that I would give up my foolish theories when I became a mature adult.  Neither of these things happened.

∞∞∞

College Days

At the age of 15, I won a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.   This scholarship enabled boys to go from the 10th grade of high school directly to college, on the theory that they could complete their college educations before becoming eligible to go fight in the Korean Conflict.   I learned later I got the scholarship based on a form of affirmative action.

Prof. Herbert Howe, who administered the scholarship program for the University of Wisconsin, initially decided to award the scholarship based on test scores and the letter of application.

What happened was that all the applicants with the highest test scores were from two high schools in New York City, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.   In the interests of diversity, Prof. Howe decided to restrict students of those high schools to 50 percent of the scholarships, and to set aside 10 percent for Wisconsin residents.

He told me later that my own test scores were little better than average.   He decided to take a chance on me because I was an interesting outlier—someone who chose to be tested in history and English rather than the sciences, and someone from a rural high school in the South (he thought of Maryland as the South) rather than a big city.

My college grades were all right, but below the Ford average.  My subsequent career was all right, but not as distinguished as my college classmates.  All the arguments against affirmative action applied to me.

I don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about having taken advantage of an opportunity that was offered to me.  I don’t criticize anybody for taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered to them.

During the time I was in the program, I knew of no black Ford scholar.  Maybe there was one later or at a different college.  I never thought about this at the time.

My student days were the first I ever had a serious conversation with a black person or a Jewish person.   One of my favorite professors was a Dr. Cornelius A. Golightly, a teacher of philosophy.  He was a brilliant man, and kind to me.  I heard that he didn’t get tenure, supposedly because he was a pragmatist, and the philosophy department only wanted logical positivists.

As a student, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal.  I was a champion of academic freedom, an opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy and an opponent of fraternity charters that excluded black members.

∞∞∞

Military Service

After graduating from college in 1956, I volunteered for military service, including two years active duty.  This was in peacetime, and military service can be a good experience in peacetime.

The U.S. armed forces were probably the most diverse and multicultural institution in American society, and still are.   I met people from even more varied backgrounds than I did in college.  I encountered more black people then in positions of authority than I did for a long time afterward.

Now is as good a place as any to say that I never had any problem taking orders from black people, I never had any fear of black people and I never, so far as I know, was ever harmed by a black person.

∞∞∞

Journalism in Hagerstown, Md.

I worked for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., from 1958 through 1974.   I made a special effort to write about racial discrimination, civil rights and Hagerstown’s tiny black community, although I was often blundering and naive in the way I went about this.

My friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, married Georgiana Bell, who was black, and I attended their wedding.  The Chief of Police had a detective park in a police cruiser outside and take note of every wedding guest.  That night he phoned my publisher to let him know that I was the kind of person who’d attend an interracial wedding.  I never thought my job was in danger, but this shows the predominant attitude in those days.

The story I’m proudest of having written was about a black riot when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came to town during his 1972 presidential campaign.   The Wallace staff had a policy had a policy of having campaign appearances on National Guard armories, and the armory in Hagerstown was on the outskirts of the black community.

In the middle of Wallace’s speech, a group of young black men started to interrupt Wallace’s speech by chanting.  Their leader was named Ken Mason.  He happened to be the son of Bill Mason, the chief sheriff’s deputy, whose appointment was resented by white racist rank-and-file deputies.     A group of deputies grabbed Mason and started beating him, while a city detective blocked me from getting close enough to see what was going on.

I was later able to quote eyewitnesses, including the chair of the local Wallace for President committee, as to what happened.  He was willing to speak to me because I had always reported on the Wallace people fairly.

Anyhow, I ran over to the nearby county jail, which was besieged by angry black people.  They went on a rampage all that night, but only within their own neighborhood, which, however, was on a main through street.  Bill Mason pleaded in vain to do the obvious thing, which was to set up roadblocks to divert traffic.

None of the heavily armed deputies or police ventured into the riot area.  Only I walked through it—admittedly walking very quickly.

After the bars closed, many drove their cars through the area.  One driver—a recently-discharged combat veteran of Vietnam—was killed by a brick thrown through his windshield.  Ken Mason was later tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, and given a suspended sentence.

I was able to write a fair and accurate article as a result of having previously written fair and accurate articles about all concerned.  I am proud that people who wouldn’t talk to each other would talk to me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Finding myself in the story of race

March 22, 2018

As a young newspaper reporter just starting out in the early 1960s, I once found myself covering the same event as a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American.

He remarked to me that he was a member of the “black press” and I was a member of the “white press.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought he was mistaken.  He served the black community of Baltimore; I served the entire community around Hagerstown, Md.

But then, as I thought about it, I recalled that not one black person was employed in my newsroom, and probably never had been.  In fact, not one black person worked in the entire building, and that was true for the entire time I worked there.

Having achieved this insight, I promptly forgot it.   It never occurred to me to raise the issue.

I wrote in favor of civil rights and against racial discrimination whenever the opportunity arose during my 40 years on newspapers.

But there were weeks, maybe months, at a time when I never thought about race or myself being white.   If I weren’t white, I wouldn’t be able to do that.   Awareness of racial attitudes would be a survival skill that I wouldn’t be able to do without.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, a liberal white women from Massachusetts whose aim is to make other white people more self-aware.

Her accounts of her limitations and misunderstandings have been “cringe-worthy” by reviewers, but as I look back on my own life, I think my well-meaning blunders were as cringe-worthy as hers.

∞∞∞

Debby Irving wrote that the cultural values of middle-class white people make us unable to understand poor people or black people.

I learned the truth of this 15 or so years ago when I undertook to be a chauffeur for Bernice Cook, a poor black member of my church.  She lacked a car and so depended in public transportation to go shopping or keep medical appointments.   Things that I could do in an hour with a car took her the best part of a day without one.

We got to know each other fairly well.  I experienced culture shock the first time Bernice asked me for money.  I was taught as a boy that the one thing you must never, ever do is to ask people for money, except maybe for blood relatives and then only in the direst emergency.

The reason I felt I had no moral right to ask anyone for money is that I recognized no moral obligation to give money to others in need.  My assumption was that everybody ought to be able to look out for themselves.

Bernice’s day-to-day life was a continuing series of emergencies.   She was poor and she did not hoard resources.  She was willing to share everything she had with others in crisis, and so she had a moral right to ask for help from others.

Actually, she lived by the ethic of the Gospels, which is to give to those in need and take no thought of the morrow.  Many poor people are like that.   Come to think of it, the pagan Romans sneered at Christianity as a religion of slaves, poor people and women.

Living by the teachings of Jesus is not feasible for me as a middle-class person.  I could not do it and continue to be middle-class.  The best I can do is to live by the ethic of the Stoics—do my duty, keep my promises, tell the truth (or at least refrain from lying) and not whine about it.

Read the rest of this entry »

What well-meaning white liberals don’t see

March 21, 2018

I was brought up to judge people by their individual qualities, and not by their race, religion, nationality, level of income or level of schooling.  I can honestly say I have made a good faith effort to do that throughout my lie.

But this is not enough.

Ignoring race, or poverty, makes me blind to the things that black people or poor people have to struggle with that I don’t.

And if I judge people, I judge them by my own criteria, which are conditioned in ways I don’t think about by my race, religion and all the rest.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (2014), which is about her coming to understand how her attitudes were formed by the fact that she’s white.

She worked as an arts administrator in the Boston area, then taught in the public schools when her own children enrolled in school.  She was always bothered by the fact that, despite her good will, she never was quite able to reach the black community in her arts promotion or black students as a teacher.

This changed in 2009, when she took a course called “Racial and Cultural Identity” at Wheelock College and woke up to the reality of white privilege..

Since then she’s been on a quest to deepen her new understanding of race and share her understanding with others.   Her book is full of honest admissions of failure to understand the viewpoints of black people.

She thought nothing of going to a school principal and asking her children be assigned to a particular teacher, and never wondered why so few black parents did this.  But when she mentioned this to black parents, she found that the majority of them were unaware that this was even something you could do.

A little Haitian girl in her class frequently left her seat to help other students in their work.  Irving at first perceived this as cheating and only later came to realize that in the Haitian culture, unlike in the white American culture, children are taught to help others and not to compete.

She said the main barriers to honest black-white communication are:

  1.  Unawareness by white people of their white identity and how it shapes their values and assumptions.
  2.  The assumption by white people that overt racism and racial discrimination are a thing of the past, and that whites and blacks are now on a level playing field.
  3.   Unwillingness of “nice” white people to speak their minds frankly, for fear of giving offense or seeming foolish.
  4.   Fear of black people of bad consequences if they fail to conform to the expectations of white people.
  5.   The assumption by educated white people that they have the right, responsibility and knowledge to solve the problems of black people.
  6.   White middle-class belief in individualism, self-sufficiency and competitiveness, which leads us to disrespect those whose primary values are solidarity, community and mutual aid.

To break through these barriers, liberal white people need more humility and willingness to listen, we need to be more honest with ourselves and other people, and we need to have the courage to make fools of ourselves and admit mistakes.   The last part of her book has useful tips for white people on things to say and things not to say.

Read the rest of this entry »

Did leaked Facebook data swing the 2016 vote?

March 18, 2018

[Last updated 3/22/2018]

Video added 3/19/2018

The Guardian published an article about how a company called Cambridge Analytica used unauthorized data obtained from Facebook to help swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

The Facebook “likes” and other data were used to draw psychological profiles of individual voters, who were then targeted with messages based on those profiles.

A year or so ago, I made a post, based on an earlier article in The Guardian and an expose by the Real News Network, about how Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica to identify idealistic liberals, young women and African-Americans in key states, and feed them information to discourage them from voting for Hillary Clinton.

Many people question whether such manipulation was possible on a significant scale.  I am not qualified to say.

The thing is, targeted messages don’t have to work every time, or even most of the time—just enough times to tip the balance.   And the technology is being constantly improved, so even if they didn’t make a difference in 2016, they may affect the next election and the one after that.

I don’t have good ideas as to what to do about this.   It is not unethical to send accurate information to someone you think will respond to it.  Does it become unethical when the information and its target are chosen by an artificial intelligence program?  At the very least, we the people ought to be able to know where the messages come from.

Afterthought [3/20/2018]

After thinking this over for a couple of days,  I’m of two minds about Cambridge Analytica and similar companies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Happiness on Vimeo

March 17, 2018

I came across this while looking for something else.

Russiagate, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats

March 14, 2018

Russia Collusion: Hillary Clinton, DNC & FBI are the real stars by Michael Doran for National Review.  [Added 3/15/2018]  A plausible account of how Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson created and sold the Russiagate story.  Long but interesting.

Christopher Steele as Seen by the New Yorker by Philip Giraldi for The Unz Review.  [Added 3/15/2018]

Russia Didn’t Abuse Facebook—It Used It Exactly As Intended by Joshua Geltzer for Wired.  [Added 3/15/2018]

Is Trump the New Clinton? by Musha al-Gharbi for The Baffler.  [Added 3/15/2018]

It’s okay to negotiate with North Korea

March 13, 2018

It isn’t wrong to negotiate with tyrants and terrorists.  It is wrong to prop them up with money and weapons, but it isn’t wrong to negotiate with them when the alternative is mutually destructive war.

But if you have no plan to get rid of them or if there’s no assurance that their successors will be any better than they are, then sooner or later you have to deal.

President Nixon negotiated with Mao Zedong and ended the Cold War with China.   President Reagan negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev and ended the Cold War with the USSR.

President Trump’s willingness to negotiate with Kim Jong-un is a good thing, not a bad thing.  I think the odds are against success, but you never know.

Donald Trump

The reason I think the odds are against success is that the U.S. goal is for North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, and, if I were Kim, I never would agree to that.

Kim in the past has said his government would never give up nuclear weapons so long as the United States refused to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean Conflict of 1950-1953 or to guarantee it would not attack North Korea.

The implication is that if a peace treaty was signed, and if the U.S. government renounced the use of force against North Korea, Kim would consider giving up nuclear weapons.

But without nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, there is no way North Korea can deter an attack by the United States, except maybe by the threat of a massive attack with conventional weapons on Seoul, which is just across the border.

Would negotiations with the United States even by on the table if North Korea didn’t already have nuclear weapons?

President Trump is talking about renouncing the U.S. nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.  How could Kim be sure he wouldn’t renounce an agreement with North Korea?

Maybe Kim would agree to give up nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee against attack by China and/or Russia.  Is this something the U.S. government would want?

Read the rest of this entry »

Cats watching over human babies

March 10, 2018

Modernization and an angry world

March 8, 2018

These are notes for a presentation to the Bertrand Russell Forum of Rochester, NY, at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

There’s no denying that world is full of angry people.

There are angry blood-and-soil nationalists, for whom love of country is like a religion, demanding their supreme loyalty. They are angry because they think their nations are under attack.

There are angry religious fanatics, for whom loyalty to a creed is a form of nationalism, defined by opposition to other creeds. They are angry because they think their religions are under attack.

There are angry and violent individuals, whose free-floating anger doesn’t appear to be linked to any larger movement or cause.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in Age of Anger: a History of the Present that most of this anger has a common cause—disappointment with the promise of modernity.

The promise of modernity is that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, if you embrace science, reason and commerce, if you leave home, get an education and join a wider world, you will not only prosper, but you will be free to choose the course of your life..

The anger, Mishra wrote, comes from those for whom this promise was not kept, or who didn’t believe it in the first place.

The angry men—almost all of them are men—are not people clinging to a traditional way of life. They are men who long for something they lack.

This goes back a long time. It was felt by millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who were uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

The promise of an improved material standard of living was kept for some of us—educated middle class people in North America and Western Europe, and, during the 20th century, great masses of working people.

But it is not humanly possible that the majority of the people in China and India, let alone Africa and the rest of the world, will ever be able to consume as much of the world’s resources as prosperous Americans and Europeans do. And even if they could, that might not compensate for what they have lost.

Read the rest of this entry »

The heroic teachers’ strike in West Virginia

March 7, 2018

The USA in many ways has reverted to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, in which the economic and political systems are operated for the benefit of big business and a tiny group of rich people.

The striking West Virginia teachers are in the same boat as workers in the 1890s.  Their strike is illegal.  They are outside the protection of the National Labor Relations Act.   Anytime they strike, their whole futures are at risk

All they have going for them are their own solidarity and courage, and the support of public opinion and other workers.   But they have forced the Governor of West Virginia to agree to their 5 percent pay raise.   They still haven’t won a rollback in health insurance increases.

There is a lot to be learned in the way the West Virginia teachers organized their movement.   They organized all the public school employees, not just the teaching staff.   They reached out to parents and students, to make sure no student would go hungry for lack of a school lunch.

I have long believed that things in the USA cannot go on as they are forever, and I have long looked for signs of change—the Wisconsin public employees’ demonstrations, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

All these movements, in their different ways, represented working people striving for something better.  All were beaten back.   Is the West Virginia teachers’ strike the breakthrough?  We’ll see.

LINKS

The Lesson From West Virginia Teachers: If You Want to Win, Go on Strike by Miles Kampf-Lassin for In These Times.

 Notes on the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike of 2018 by Lambert Strether for naked capitalism.

Lessons, Successes, Failures of the West Virginia Teachers Strike by Bruce A. Dixon for Black Agenda Report [Added 3/8/2018]

Democrats allow Trump a dictator’s power

March 6, 2018

Lee Camp, writing for Truthdig, pointed out that Democrats in Congress have no qualms about giving President Donald Trump the powers of a dictator.  Instead of standing up for the American people, he said, corporate-owned Democrats have strengthened the president.

The Democrats have helped, voted for, and often argued in favor of all of the following:

  1. Giving Trump unlimited war powers.
  2. Giving Trump unlimited trade negotiation powers.
  3. Giving Trump unlimited surveillance powers.
  4. Giving Trump the power to lock someone up indefinitely without a trial or charges under the National Defense Authorization Act.
  5. Giving Trump the power to assassinate American citizens without a trial or charges.
  6. Giving Trump’s administration full control of our election system infrastructure.

If this is considered “resistance,” then I don’t want to be a part of it. I’d rather spend my time resisting the “Resistance” and thereby taking this dictator’s toolkit away from Donald Trump.

Source: Truthdig

Most of my Democratic friends are obsessed with Trump.  Every discussion of politics veers to the most recent foolish thing Trump has said or done.

They hope and expect that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will prove that Trump is in league with the Russian government and provide grounds for impeachment.

Even if that works out, which I doubt, they’re then faced with President Mike Pence, who from a liberal Democratic standpoint is just as bad as Trump on matters of policy, but more effective.

On matters of policy, there’s little difference between Trump and the dominant faction in the Republican Party.

On fundamental questions of war and peace, Constitutional rights and economic policy, there is no fundamental difference between Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.

That’s why some Democrats in Congress would rather allow Trump the powers of a dictator than to set limits on the power of a future Democratic President.

It’s true that, out of the six items, only the war powers and the surveillance powers were voted on during the Trump administration.

That doesn’t matter.  When you vote to remove restraints on Presidential power, you have empowered all Presidents, present and future—not just to the one you happen to like.

LINKS

Six Ways the ‘Resistance’ Gave Trump a Dictator’s Toolkit by Lee Camp for TruthDig.

Russiagate, Trump, Putin, Mueller and Targeting Dissent by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Trade war tactics and strategy

March 5, 2018

Reuters reported that the European Union is considering applying 25 percent tariffs on American motorcycles, bourbon and blue jeans, if President Trump imposes new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Motorcycles, bourbon and blue jeans?  Kevin Drum of Mother Jones explained the significance.

Hmmm.  Harley-Davidsons are made in—what?  Wisconsin, right?  In Menomonee Falls, actually, about 50 miles from Janesville, where Paul Ryan lives.  The Jim Beam bourbon distillery is in Clermont, Kentucky, about 20 miles from Mitch McConnell’s house in Louisville.  Levi’s is headquartered in San Francisco, about two miles from Nancy Pelosi’s house.

I think that’s a pretty funny example of trade war tactics.