Sunday, January 31, 2010

Note to the Reader

Comments on my blog are now open to all readers without delay, if I got the settings right. That they have not been open was just uncomprehending oversight when I started nearly one year ago.

Our National Catastrophe by James Farmer

This book has shown that fundamental disconnects between and among government agencies, between the bureaucracies within the agencies and also between the different agencies and the national leadership had existed throughout the five year struggle against al Qaeda. These disconnects beset every agency of government charged with adapting to the new threat: the FBI; the CIA; the State Department; the Department of Defense; the Department of Transportation. In each case, agencies were able to identify the threat but were thoroughly incapable of changing they way they were configured, in order to respond to it. Emblematic of these failures is the ultimate Whiskey Tango Foxtrot* moment to emerge from the 9./11 Commission's investigation: the image of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger hiding documents in his socks, so desperate to prevent the public from seeing certain papers that he sneaked out of the National Archives and hid the documents at a nearby construction site so that he could shred them later. The desire to inhibit the discovery of historical truth, it turns out, is truly bipartisan, and- as the revelation that the CIA destroyed the tapes of its interrogation of detainees reveals- is not limited by government agency; it is endemic to the modern way of government.

Taken as a whole, the government's response to the emerging threat of terrorist attack was a stunning collapse of competence; 9/11 was its trailing consequence. The response on 9/11 replicated in compressed time the mis-communications, the garbled signals, the years of bureaucratic frustration that had preceded it. It was the product of a government that doesn't work, and the false story put forward about the event of that morning allowed the government to avoid the kind of searching reexamination that was appropriate to the situation. Thus, years later, Richard Clarke could still believe that his high-level videoconference had been the nerve center of the nation's response; no one had done the thoroughgoing analysis that would have exposed the reality that national leadership was irrelevant during those critical moments. As a consequence, no one had acted to ensure that similar disconnects would not recur in a future.

Instead, the principal response to the failure of bureaucracy was not an attempt to redefine government itself, but the creation of more government, more bureaucracy [ while continuing to blame government and bureaucracy per se]. Thus, in 2002, Congress and the Bush Administration [ blackmailed by their own lies] collaborated in forming a new federal department whose principal aim was to provide "homeland security." A loose conglomeration of disparate agencies, such as Immigration, Transportation Security, Secret Service, FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which had some relation to homeland security, the department would face its first stern test in September 2005, when a long-anticipated threat approached the homeland. This threat came not in a human form but in the form of a natural disaster. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the bureaucratic failures that resulted in 9/11 would be replicated, in every respect, in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:

One of my staff members on the 9/11 Commission was Kevin Shaeffer, a rising star in the Navy before 9/11 who had, by chance, been standing behind a pillar when American 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Everyone in his vicinity was killed. Kevin suffered severe burns over most of his body, and flatlined twice in the course of his recovery. His injuries forced him to retire from the military at the age of thirty. He brought to our work a dedication and intense desire to know the truth of what had occurred that inspired all of us.

I walked past Kevin's work space one afternoon late in the summer of 2003 and heard him muttering, under his breath, "whiskey tango foxtrot, man. Whiskey tango foxtrot." What's that?" I asked. Kevin and Miles Kara (a Vietnam veteran) laughed and explained: a military euphemism for "What the fuck!",.

I don't recall today the particular discrepancy between the official version of what happened on 9/11 and what we were discovering that prompted Kevin's utterance; there were so many that "Whiskey tango foxtrot" became a regular refrain from the members of me team.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley

Monk's refusal to play and his reluctance to leave his room were regarded by virtually everyone close to him as symptomatic of his mental illness. But as Nica said, his mind worked; he was alert, alive and still incredibly witty. In March of 1976, Thelonious happened to be listening to a special broadcast by Columbia University's radio station, WKCR, dedicated to his music. A guest expert began droning on about how Monk created extraordinary music, in spite of "playing the wrong notes on the piano." Perturbed, Monk dialed the Columbia switchboard and left a message to "tell the guy on the air, ' The piano ain't got no wrong notes.'

So to label Monk's reclusive behavior as evidence of deep depression is a little too simple, especially since his mental and physical health improved dramatically during this period. So why did he stop playing? Having spent the better part of fourteen years tracing Monk's every step, I am not surprised by his decision. In fact, I wonder why he didn't retire earlier. Consider the final years of his working career: his record label dropped him, he could barely sustain a working band, the money was inadequate, he was practically reduced to opening for rock and R&B bands, he endured unremitting criticism for playing the same music, he lost all inspiration to compose, the lithium treatments deadened his senses and slowed his creative drive, and his ongoing battle with an enlarged prostate made performing an ordeal. And his old friends kept dying. So why should he feel like playing? His siblings were among the few loved ones who understood and accepted his decision. During one of his many visits, Thomas asked, "Brother, what should I tell everybody? They want to know why you don't play anymore? You want me to tell them you retired?' And he said, 'Yes, tell them I retired.'" Marion would come over every so often and take walks with Thelonious. He made it clear to her that "he didn't feel like playing or appearing in front of the public.."

Today the music world accepts Thelonious Monk as an American master. He has been the subject of award-winning documentaries, scholarly studies, prime-time television tributes, and in 2006 was awarded a posthumous Pultizer Prize for his contribution to jazz. His compositions constitute the core of jazz repertory and are performed by artists from many different genres. "Round Midnight", "Straight, No Chaser," "Well, You Needn't,", "Ruby, My Dear, " among others, have become bona-fide jazz standards; no self-respecting jazz musician today can get a job or participate in a jam session without knowing these tunes.

Yet, for all the accolades and formal recognition, for all the efforts to canonize Monk and place his bust on the mantel alongside Bach and Beethoven, we must remember that Monk was essentially a rebel. To know the man and his music requires digging Monk- out of the golden dustbins of posterity, out of the protected cells of museums,- and restoring him to a tradition of sonic disturbance that forced the entire world to take notice. He broke the rules and created a body of work and a sound no one has been able to duplicate.

If I have learned anything from this fourteen year adventure, it is that duplicating Monk's sound has never been the point. "Play yourself!" he'd say. "Play yourself" lay at the core of Monk's philosophy; he understood it as art's universal injunction. He demanded originality in others and he embodied it in everything he did- in his piano technique, in his dress, in his language, his humor, in the way he danced, in the way he loved his family and raised his children, and above all in his compositions. Original did not mean being different for the hell of it. For Monk, to be original meant reaching higher than one's limits, striving for the startling and memorable, and never being afraid to make mistakes. Original is not always mastery, nor does it always yield success. But it is very hard work.

'Melodius Thunk' in the News by Robin D.G. Kelley

The Monk story came entirely through Barry Farrell's initiative. Recently hired as Time magazine's music writer, the editors wanted him to write a cover story featuring George Szell of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which Farrell wasn't keen to do. He negotiated: he would write it in exchange for a major cover story on a jazz musician. The editors initially proposed Ray Charles and the Miles Davis, but nixed Charles because of his drug problems and Miles Davis was just too incorrigible. To Farrell's great pleasure, they settled on Thelonious Monk- always his first choice.

Farrell was one of the regulars at the Five Spot, and had just penned a piece in Time casting a critical eye on the folks who populated the "Home of Thelonious Monk". He noted rather disdainfully how Monk "will spend the whole night horsing around on his piano while his side men accompany him with all the enthusiasm of cops frisking drunks. On other nights he plays brilliantly and the sidemen follow with insight and devotion- but the applause is just the same, Monk's audience is far too devoted to him to worry about his music."

Once his managing editor gave him the green light, Farrell approached Monk every chance he got, "mostly walking around outside the Five Spot...or sitting in some dark bar at 2 a.m." In time Thelonious and Nellie came to trust Farrell. He visited Monk's home a couple of times and learned that he and Thelonious shared some things in common besides a sense of style and devotion to music. Farrell loved basketball, had visited Japan, and enjoyed a hit of reefer every so often. And the man was hip- twenty-eight, handsome, strawberry blond hair, he smoked Gauloise cigarettes and, like his subject, dressed stylishly. "Women loved him," proclaimed writer John Gregory Dunne. "He was that rare writer who looked the way a writer should look." For the next two or three months, he would become Monk's shadow.

Farrell had finished conducting some thirty interviews by early fall and as he spent the next few weeks distilling his observations into a 5,000 word essay, Thelonious had to take time out to sit for his cover portrait. The artist, Russian painter Boris Chaliapin, grew frustrated with Monk because during the course of four sittings he always fell asleep. Chaliapin called it strange; I would call in exhaustion. At the time Monk was preparing his big band for an appearance at Lincoln Center's newly completed Philharmonic Hall, one of the year's most anticipated events in the jazz world.

Farrell's Time cover story was slated to run on November 29, 1963, as was Monk's appearance at the Philharmonic but on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas, sending shock waves throughout the nation and world. The concert and the story on Monk was pushed back and Time substituted a color portrait of the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Baines Johnson, reportedly destroying three million copies they had already printed bearing Chaliapin's portrait of Monk.

The story on Monk ran on February 28, 1964. Farrell describes a strange, reclusive genius, with an eccentric taste for hats, little connection to reality, a childlike demeanor, who depends on women to care for him (his wife Nellie and Nica-Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter), and, often, in the same breath, portrays a family man, honest and pure, deserving of his long waited recognition. The writing was eloquent but somewhat schizophrenic. He quoted Monk vehemently protesting the "mad genius" label, and then he went on to reproduce it by recounting incidents in which he had been confined to mental institutions or speculating on his drug use. If Thelonious, Nellie, and his manager Harry Colomby had hoped the article would help mainstream Monk's image, they were disappointed. In one particularly damaging passage, Farrell wrote: "every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations."

By the end of the piece, Farrell took an interesting turn, suggesting that Monk isn't so colorful or controversial at all, especially compared to the brooding Miles Davids, the mystical Sonny Rollins, or the volatile Charles Mingus. Here he hit on one of the main points of the piece: Monk is a good guy because he is not caught up in the "racial woes at the heart of much bad behavior in jazz." Farrell was referring to a recent Time editorial on "Crow Jim" in jazz, and black artists who criticized whites like Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton for exploiting "their music", and who employed jazz as a vehicle for black protest. Like most white liberals uncomfortable with rising black militancy, Farrell felt betrayed by the strident racial politics of Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite or the "angry" sounds of the "New Thing". Monk, much to Farrell's relief, was above the fray.

In some respects, Farrell had little new to say. What is different from most stories about Monk dating back to the late 1940s is that he pushed racial politics to the foreground. Monk's story isn't just about Monk. For some he was a symbol of black genius; for others he was the last bastion of color-blindness in an increasingly polarized world. One reader, self-identified as "an aspiring young Negro artist raised in the ghetto", praised the article for its "authenticity" and for illuminating the "forces that shape the Monk-type personality." Another reader challenged the article's characterization of Monk's stage behavior, arguing that it is "vital to the dignity, humor and discipline of his music." Still others read it as classic racial stereotyping. Critic Ralph J. Gleason called the piece "revolting" and "libelous to jazz," and castigated Time for turning Monk into "the symbol of the native genius...sweaty and bizarre, so as not to ruffle the preconceptions of Time-thought. While praising Farrell for writing "an accurate, well-rounded portrait in depth of a complex personality," Leonard Feather nevertheless concluded that the essay might actually harm jazz and race relations. To middle America, the Negro jazz musician comes across as both drug-addicted and a clownish buffoon donning a funny hat. "Not too long ago such verbs as shuffle and grin were part of the Southern whites' primitive concept of the Negro. Are we to return to that also?". Feather implicitly placed some of the blame on Monk for the way he behaved in public, suggesting that more deserving musicians were overlooked because they have "never enjoyed what is presumably Time's idea of a rich, full, adventurous, newsworthy life. [Art] Tatum and [Jack] Teagarden never wore funny hats; [Errol] Garner, [Count] Basie, and [Oscar] Peterson do not get up and dance in the middle of their performances*; Gillespie does not arrive every day at a brand-new pharmaceutical discovery."

To black nationalists and other radicals, the Time article constituted an attack on one of their heroes. Writer Theodore Pontiflet published a sharply worded salvo in the Harlem-based Liberator magazine criticizing what he considered Farrell's obsession with Monk's relationship with the baroness. The implications of the Time piece, he argued, not only rendered black women to "the background reduced to the domestic chores" but "warns white America that in these days of talking integration and on the fatal eve of passing a watered-down civil rights bill, they should remember that it could mean more of their daughter will be bringing home the occasional black genius." Pontiflet suggested that Monk was unaware of his own exploitation , thus unwittingly reinforcing the dominant image of him as naive and child-like. Throughout the entire ordeal- he writes, "Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie remain pure as honey. The patron baroness. She was part of the deal- a bitter part of the sweet."

Ironically, the left-wing Pontiflet shared much in common with the right-wing National Review critic Ralph de Toledano. They both treated Monk as a kind of idiot savant, unaware of the world around him, and they both believed he embodied their political position. De Tokledano praised Monk for not confusing music with politics. "Like most of the best jazzmen... he doesn't believe that he must make is art a sledge hammer to pound away at political themes." And yet, in spite de Toledano's plea for color-blindness in jazz, he nonetheless embraced a racialized construction of jazz as more physical and emotional than cerebral. He chided Monk for being too cerebral, for not tapping into his "soul", and for removing any sense of "dance" from his music! In other words, while Monk is not too black politically, musically de Toledano finds he's not black enough.

And what about Monk? What did he think about Farrell's story? According to Ben Riley, the article "made Thelonious feel very good about himself because I think finally he understood that there were a number of people very interested in what he was playing and what he was doing." But he did have complaints and used the occasion of another major profile, by Lewis Lapham for the Saturday Evening Post, to challenge Farrell and other journalists who had painted him as a crazy eccentric. "That's a drag picture they're paintin' of me, man," he told Lapham just a couple of weeks after the Time story appeared. "A lot of people still think I'm nuts or somethin'...but I dig it, man; I can feel the draft. He even hinted that his sudden fame may have more to do with his image than his music. "I was playing the same stuff twenty years ago, man...and nobody was painting any portrait."

Harry Colomby also used the occasion to do some damage control. Besides emphasizing the fact that Monk wasn't one of those angry musicians who hated whitey, he portrayed his client as a hardworking musician who went straight home to Nellie every night and cared for his family. Colomby told Lapham, "He's so straight, it makes you nervous." Lapham himself took a swipe at Farrell, insisting that Monk was neither crazy nor eccentric but rather "an honest man in a not-so-honest world... Monk never learned to tell the convenient lies or make customary compromises. That he should have been proclaimed the complete and perfect hipster is an absurd irony." And yet, for all his defense of Monk's sanity, Lapham fell for the oldest myth of all: "An emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child's vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, walks or dances as the spirit moves him."

For a so-called "child", Monk was tactful and shrewd enough to keep his criticisms of Time oblique. He understood the importance of publicity and did not want to burn any bridges. He did have a complaint about the piece that he was willing to share with the public: he insisted that Nellie never called him "Melodius Thunk". "That's a lie, man. I never heard my wife call me that. It's those reporters, man, you can't trust them."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Beginning of P.C. in America by Robin Kelley

In late 1958, after Thelonious Monk's bust for crossing the color line to get a glass of water at a hotel in Delaware and the inevitable revocation of his cabaret license by the N.Y.C Police Department, he had to wonder if his moment in the sun was over. If so, his fears were quickly allayed when his manager Harry Colomby ( a high school teacher in Queens) called with the news that the CBS television show The Twentieth Century wanted to film Monk's band at the Five Spot. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, The Twentieth Century was a prime-time half hour documentary program that aired on Sunday nights. Relying mostly on archival footage, the program was designed to examine important historical events but twice a year it aired a one-hour special meant to examine contemporary issues. These one-hour specials were produced by Stephen Fleischman, a former Communist still sympathetic to the Left who somehow dodged the worst of McCarthyism. Fleischman had already produced a couple of controversial episodes, including an expose of prison conditions in America. Now he set out to explore the culture and attitudes of college students- the generation narrator Walter Cronkite labeled "the most baffling in our history". Calling it "Generation Without a Cause," the bulk of the segment was devoted to interviews with white students at Rutgers University who described themselves as conformists concerned about marriage, family, home ownership, and obtaining a good job. Fleischman then wanted to juxtapose the "typical" college student with the "Beat Generation", young people whose posture was one of political detachment but engagement with matters of art and culture. Jazz was their music and the Five Spot their hangout.

Monk must have found the filming itself rather baffling. CBS bused in about eighty-odd students from Rutgers who filed into the Five Spot around 8:00 a.m. They were almost entirely white and very preppy- indeed, when the camera pans the room the first time all we see is white faces. As Harry Colomby put it, "They looked like an advertising agent put them together. All white. They politely applauded. It was like the beginning of political correctness." Although the students sat attentively, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, nodding their heads silently to Monk's "Rhythym-a-ning", they did not look like the usual Five Spot crowd. Missing was the clubs famous diversity of race, age, and status. The band looked exhausted if not uninterested, probably because they had been up all night. At one point, the director had a young man come on the bandstand and read some bad poetry ("Sometimes, I'm really convinced/we are sterile dishes/ watching with ever beginning patience/ germs/ to see if they will grow") while Monk played a rather somber rendition of "Pannonica".

As Thelonious and his band wailed away in the opening clip of the documentary, Walter Cronkite described the current generation of youth as "silent, tranquil, beat." For the next fifteen minutes, they listened to academic experts and students describe the new generation as materialistic and selfish, before returning to the Five Spot to meet the "Beats" and hear Monk. (Unless one noticed the sign over the bar, the un-hip would not have known who was playing since Monk's name is never mentioned.) The scene was surreal; the camera pans from the bandstand to the bar where we "eavesdrop" on a conversation between a young woman defending modern jazz and a young man criticizing it: "I think it's going too far. I enjoy something like Turk Murphy, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Johnny Smith Quartet- something I can relax and enjoy." They asked the poet who had just performed what he thought jazz meant for his generation. "To me it means something interesting, a a different kind of sound." And then the camera cuts to Monk jamming away, arms crossed, lips pursed, and intensely focused. The next shot pans the Five Spot, capturing a sea of white faces and their expressions as they contemplate the music. Walter Cronkite concludes: "Nowhere have we found any indication of this generation having a new movement or cause of its own." Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas has the last word, criticizing youth for "conformity, self-centeredness, and complacency."

Now Thelonious was neither a news hound nor an activist, but as he and is wife Nellie watched the show they were well aware of the changing world around them. They knew, for example, that young people in Fulbright's own state faced mobs in order to integrate Little Rock's Central High School, and that the distinguished Senator had opposed Brown v. Board of Education and participated in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And most African-Americans were aware of the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C.....There was, indeed, a generation with a cause; they just didn't look like the kids CBS portrayed at the Five Spot.


*Regulars at the Five Spot included painters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Jack Tworkov, Mike Goldberg, Roy Newell, Howard Kanovitz, and writers Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Amiri Baraka ( when he was still Leroy Jones.) Ted Joans- poet, painter, sometimes jazz vocalist and trumpeter- was probably the first black Five Spot regular. While he found the Five Spot friendly and hospitable, the neighborhood was not. "It was dangerous. The Italians did not want any 'spades' in their territory, so we had to be careful. Don't let them catch you with a white woman! I used to carry a blackjack and a napkin filled with hot pepper to throw in their eyes in case I was attacked. Baraka took to carrying" a lead pipe in a manila envelope, the envelop under my arm like a good messenger, not intimidating but never-the-less ready." While most working class residents were hostile to all bohemian artists, "the general resentment the locals felt toward white bohemians", mused Jones, "was quadrupled at the sight of the black species."

Paradoxes — Compel us to think by Sandy Szwarc

We may know, intellectually, that correlations can never show causation, but when a correlation seems to confirm a reason we believe, it’s very easy to find ourselves falling for the fallacy, anyway, and to not even consider other explanations. We may call our belief “common sense” or what “everyone knows,” without realizing that we’ve come to believe it simply because it’s all we ever hear. It may never even occur to us to question an axiom — especially if we never hear about the evidence which contradicts or disproves it. The obesity paradox wouldn’t be a paradox at all, for example, if the public had been hearing objective reports of medical research all along.

The next four posts will share with you four recently published studies in peer-reviewed medical journals that the media ignored. Like countless other studies that the public never hears about, these articles probably didn’t come with press releases because there was nothing to sell you or to promote. In JFS’s objective to help you get a fuller story and to encourage all of us to think critically and for ourselves*, we’ll share these studies. They could be said to be about the obesity paradox, healthy lifestyle paradox and figure flaw-paradox…

Anymore, epidemiology has become a vehicle to find associations[1] between every aspect of our everyday lives or our physical features and risks for some feared disease. And it’s being misused[2] to convince us that our diets and lifestyles or appearances are the cause of ill-health. Blame, guilt and fear are the bread and butter of health marketing. That’s why carefully controlled epidemiological studies that find no link — those null studies that rarely get reported — are especially valuable. If there’s not even a strong link between two variables, then a variable can’t possibly have a causal role. Null studies tell credible scientists, and should tell us, to move on and stop worrying about that.

It can often be difficult for the public to understand what makes some epidemiological studies stronger than others — such as dredging through data compiled from self-reported questionnaires versus actual measurements from medical exams. Epidemiological studies have reported contradictory[3)]correlations between fatness and mortality risk among mature adults and it’s often suggested that it’s because cardiovascular fitness hadn’t been considered and could be an independent confounding factor.

Fat and fitness

Researchers, led by Dr. Paul McAuley with the Department of Human Performance and Sport Sciences at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, set to test the hypothesis that high cardiovascular fitness and high BMI were associated with a lower risk for death among healthy older men. As they noted, most studies, and the strongest ones, point to an inverse relationship between BMI among mature adults and mortality, with obesity having a protective role[4]. Obesity’s survival advantage among patients with a wide range of diseases and health problems has also been especially well documented in the medical literature. Could being fat be associated with lower risk for premature death among healthy adults, and is fitness an independent risk factor?

Method. The researchers examined the data of 2,469 men consecutively enrolled in the Veterans Exercise Testing Study who had completed a full physical medical exam and maximal exercise testing at one of two university-affiliated Veterans Affairs medical centers during 1987-2004. The men were age 65 years and older. Mortality data was gathered from the Social Security Death Index and the California Death Registry. They restricted their study to healthy men to rule-out those who might be underweight or physically inactive because of health problems. Their results were published[5] in the Journal of Gerontology A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Findings. Among 981 healthy older men, 208 died during 6.9 years of follow-up. Compared to the reference ideal of a “healthy” BMI (20-24.9), men who were overweight were associated with a 34% lower risk for all-cause mortality, while the obese men (regardless of the degree of obesity) were associated with a 44% lower risk. In contrast, men with BMIs under 20 had more than a two-fold higher risk for premature death. When cardiovascular fitness was controlled for (as measured by MET = 3.5 mL/kg/min oxygen uptake on exercise tests), the slim men with BMIs below 20 were associated with an even higher 2.5 fold higher risk for premature death. Meanwhile, the most obese men had the lowest risk for all-cause mortality of all, at less than half (HR= 0.44) the “normal” weight men. As the authors noted, none of these correlations were significant. However, they do help to dispel popular beliefs about the deadliness of being fat as we age.

The researchers attempted to parse out these relationships by looking at obesity and physical fitness as they relate to risks for all-cause mortality. They eliminated all of the underweight men with BMIs below 20. Still, the overweight men had a lower risk for death than the “normal” weight men, and the obese men had the lowest risks of all (about half that of “normal” weight men), at every level of fitness.

In fact, the men who were the most obese and sedentary had a similar risk for all-cause mortality (HR=0.56) as the “normal” weight men who were the most physically fit (HR=0.49). This finding certainly didn’t make the headlines. Beliefs among the general public about both the benefits of exercise and the dangers of obesity as people age appear beyond what the evidence supports.

These results are consistent with the largest Aerobic Center Longitudinal Study (ACLS) at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas, on younger adults which had focused on fitness and reported it attenuates the risks associated with obesity. The ACLS had clinically followed more than 25,000 civilian men for over ten years and the data actually found a small, consistent survival advantage the heavier the men were. The Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research has performed similar studies on more than 113,000 women.

Lessons lost

Not surprisingly, the media largely ignored this latest study. While it’s an epidemiological study and not evidence of causation, its value as a null study was lost. The public also didn’t hear another point the authors made: that cardiovascular fitness is influenced by many factors, which includes age and heredity.

Yet the popular condemnation of people without high fitness levels is rarely recognized as a form of discrimination. Fitness and lifestyle preventive medicine [6] have become such big business, and bigger politics, many people have come to believe that everyone must engage in similar types and intensities of activity (i.e. exercise) to live longer and be healthy. Those who don’t follow leisure-time exercise regimens [7] are labeled[8] as having sedentary lifestyles and blamed for putting themselves at risk for premature death, even when they're active all day in their work.

Besides wordsmith plays on definitions, correlations between exercise and lifespan can mislead us when we fail to remember that leisure-time exercise and sports activities are largely markers for youth and socioeconomic status — yet older age, and lower class and poverty, are two of the biggest risk factors for chronic diseases of aging and death. Fitness, body type, physical abilities and strength also have strong hereditary components [9]. Yet a correlation between people who don’t have athletic physiques and their lower participation in sports activities is often mistaken for reverse causation.

Today’s beliefs in exercise can also mean we fail to explore other potential links that are equally, if not more, important to people’s overall health and well being. The most careful exercise intervention studies show that inappropriate conclusions[10] about causes and effects have overlooked more significant social and productive activities.

Beliefs can also mean we fail to weigh the risks for harm of imposing our beliefs that everyone needs to have the same lifestyles and follow one-size-fits-all exercise prescriptions, in order to be healthy. What may be healthful for some 20-year olds, for example, may not be for a growing child or older adult or senior.

Babyboomers, the first generation to grow up exercising, have led to what’s known among medical professionals as boomeritis [12]. Sports and exercise injuries have become the number two [13] reason for doctor’s visits, behind the common cold, according to the CDC’s National Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys. Athletic activities among middle-aged adults were the source of 488 million work day restrictions in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the Consumer Product Safety Commission documented that by 1998, sports-related injuries among boomers were responsible for $18.7 Billion in medical costs. The AHRQ's [14] Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) found that injury-related medical care accounted for about 57 percent of all payments made by Worker's Compensation programs in 2002. The medical literature continues to bring reports [15] of similar risks for injuries among children [16].

Scientists understand the importance of testing hypotheses about causes and effects — and balancing overall benefits over risks — using carefully designed randomized, controlled clinical trials and measuring hard clinical outcomes. Yet, every randomized, controlled clinical trial of “healthy lifestyles,” as popularly defined, has failed[17] to significantly reduce premature deaths from all causes or to prevent chronic diseases of old age.

As the recent review in the Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out, this is what separates science from ideology.

© 2009 Sandy Szwarc. All rights reserved.


* Social media marketing is sadly helping to train us not to think. It’s more comfortable to see what everyone else says and what’s popular, such as on online forums, before deciding what we will believe.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

In God We Trust by Caroline Alexander

From the peak on Mount Ida overlooking the plain of Troy, Zeus, the father of gods and men, sat in splendid isolation, rejoicing in the pride of his strength, watching the flash of bronze, and men killing and men killed. The harsh injunction that Zeus laid upon the other gods to keep clear of the battle is still in force: "any one attempting to go among the Trojans and help them, or among the Danaans, he shall go whipped against his dignity back to Olympos." The momentum of the war, now in its tenth year, continues in favor of the Trojans, as Zeus intends.

The Achaeans and the Trojans square off like two lines of reapers facing each other, driving their course down a field of wheat or barley. Although hard pressed, the Achaean lines stand firm, like the scales which the widow holds, the balanced beam to weigh her wool evenly, working to win a pitiful wage for her children. Pierced by a spear, a warrior's heart still panted and beat to shake its butt end. An arrow driven into his bladder, a fallen warrior gasped out his life then lay like a worm extended along the ground.

Behold Agamemnon and his splendid shield with its ten circles of bronze, studded with pale tin and dark cobalt, with the blank-face of the Gorgon with her stare of horror, fear and terror inscribed upon it. He comes on in a fury, stabbing his sharp spear straight at the face of his enemy, passing through his bronze-edge helmet and bone, spattering forth his inward brain, as a lion seizes the innocent young of the running deer and easily crunches and breaks those caught in its strong teeth, ripping out their hearts, cutting away their arms and legs. Briefly, the Trojans are routed and flee towards their city while Agamemnon follows screaming, his invincible hands spattered with bloody filth.

At length, Agamemnon's bloody rant is ended by a wound to his arm, pain breaks upon the son of Atreus like the sharp pain of sorrow descends on a woman in labor, the bitterness that the hard spirits of childbirth bring on. One by one, the Achaeans' best warriors limp off the field and it is now the Trojan warriors who shine. They arrive at the very gates of the Achaeans' camp. Beneath the high walls of the palisade that shelters the beached Achaean ships, Hektor heaves up a massive stone and hurls it a the gates which groan and give way under the impact. Hektor bursts in, with a dark face like sudden night shining with the ghastly glitter of bronze, his eyes flashing like fire.

But Zeus has become bored with events on the Trojan plain. His attention drifts; there are other mortals to watch, the Mysians, for example, who, it seems, are also fighters, or the Hippomologi, the nomadic Scythian mare-milkers. Other Gods are watching, however. From his own lookout on a forested summit on the island of Somothrace, Poseidon- Zeus's younger brother- lord of the sea and shaker of the earth, regards the plight of the Achaeans with pity and he sees that Zeus's attention has turned elsewhere. Seizing the moment in impulsive defiance, Poseidon descends to his golden, glittering house beneath the sea, harnesses his wing-footed, bronze-shod horses and flies to the field of battle. In disguise, Poseidon whirls through the demoralized Achaeans- weeping with weariness, mutilated and dying- inspiring them with hope and renewed strength.

The goddess Hera- wife of Zeus- has also seen that her hated husband's attention has drifted and observed that Poseidon has managed to deploy himself among the Achaeans. She decides to help his efforts with a scheme of her own to beguile the brain of Zeus.

"And to her mind this thing appeared to be the best counsel, to array herself in loveliness, and go down to Ida and perhaps he might be taken with desire to lie in love with her next her skin and she might be able to drift an innocent warm sleep across his eyelids, and seal his crafty perceptions. She went into her chamber and closed the leaves in the door-posts snugly with a secret door-bar, so no other god could open it. First from her adorable body she washed away all stains with ambrosia, and next anointed herself with ambrosial sweet olive oil, which stood there in a fragrance beside her, and from which, stirred in the house of Zeus by the golden pavement, a fragrance was shaken forever forth, on earth and in heaven. When with this she had anointed her delicate body and combed her hair, next with her hands she arranged the shining and lovely and ambrosial curls along her immortal head, and dressed in an ambrosial robe that Athene had made her carefully, smooth, and with many figures upon it, and pinned it across her breast with a golden brooch, and circled her waist about with a zone that floated a hundred tassels, and in the lobes of her carefully pierced ears she put rings with triple drops in mulberry clusters, radiant with beauty, and, lovely among the goddesses, she veiled her head downward with a fresh veil that glimmered pale like the sunlight. Underneath her shining feet she bound on the fair sandals."

Armed like a warrior, Hera set forth to conquer her hated adversary. And like a strategizing general, she solicited allies. For her plan to succeed, she needs both the seductive charms of Aphrodite and the complicity of Sleep. Hera spins her story with false lying purpose. From Aphrodite she extracts the loan of the goddess's charm, an amulet on which are figured all beguilements and loveliness, the passion of sex and the whispered endearments that steal the heart away even from the thoughtful. From Sleep Hera extracts a pledge to descend upon Zeus after she has seduced him.

Zeus who gathers the clouds saw and when he saw her desire was a mist about his close heart and, as planned, he suggested they lie together. Hera protested that they cannot do so on the peaks of Ida in the open where everything can be seen. Then in turn Zeus answered her:

"Hera, do not fear that any mortal or any god will see, so close shall be the golden cloud that I gather about us. Not even Helios can look at us through it, although beyond all others his light has the sharpest vision. So speaking, the son of Kronos caught his wife in his arms. There underneath them the divine earth broke into young, fresh grass, and into dewy clover, crocus and hyacinth so thick and soft it held the hard ground deep away from them. There they lay down together and drew about them a golden, wonderful cloud, and from it the glimmering dew descended. So the father slept unshaken on the peak of Gargaron with his wife in his arms, when sleep and passion had stilled him."

When Zeus finally awakens, he opens his eyes to see Hektor, who had been almost killed by a boulder hurled by Aias, lying in pain, his companions sitting around him, dazed at the heart, breathing painfully and vomiting blood. Men are fighting for their lives, suffering mutilating wounds and dying but Zeus the father, distracted, is heedless of them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The End of Ceausescu

Lasko Tokes had a history of conflict with Romania's Reformed (Calvinist) Church authorities as well as with the political authorities; that's how the pastor had ended up in Timisoara. At previous postings in Brasov and Dej, both in Transylvania, Tokes had spoken against the the leadership of the Reformed Church, whose congregation in Romania was entirely ethnic Hungarian, and the condition of Romania's Hungarians. This had provoked his relocation to Cluj and then, in 1986, to Timisoara, a predominantly Romanian Orthodox yet cosmopolitan city of about 350,000. What major trouble could the Hungarian pastor possibly cause there?

He allowed students to recite poetry, which was expressly forbidden, and spoke out against Ceausescu's unpopular "systematization" (destruction) of villages and their Orthodox churches. The Timisoara authorities, faced with the prospect of organized dissent, pressured the Reform Church bishop to remove Tokes, which he did in March 1989. On that ground the authorities set eviction proceedings in motion. Tokes appealed, every window in the pastors flat was smashed. In November, Tokes was slashed with a knife by thugs during a break-in, the police posted to keep him under house arrest did nothing. Finally, losing his official appeals, Tokes invited his parishioners at Sunday Mass to witness his scheduled eviction on the coming Friday, December 15. That's right: the authorities had informed the pastor of the precise date.

Around forty parishioners, mostly elderly, formed a human chain outside the pastor's residence, defying the conspicuous Securitate. When the Securitate did not, however, disperse the small crowd, more people beyond the pastor's supporters joined, including ethnic Romanians, Germans, Serbs, Greeks and, some have said, a few Gypsies. Some who joined were from other Protestant denominations, such as Baptists and Pentecostals, religious minorities who were similarly harassed. Others came from an adjacent stop for the tram that ferried workers to the city's outlying industrial plants and students to the big local universities. The tram also facilitated the spread of information about the confrontation throughout the town.

Timasoara's inhabitants that winter, as previously, had no electricity for most of the day and often for much of the evening, including during the interval from 6:00 until 9:00 P.M., when people needed it most. Elevators where avoided, since the blackouts, coming without warning, trapped people in them. The strongest light bulbs sold were only forty watts. The temperature inside homes was no more than 55 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and hot water usually came in once a week. People in Timisoara, as elsewhere in Romania, were given coupons to buy a few kilos of meat and fifty grams of butter- a month. They queued for hours, and sometimes even the meager allotments their coupons permitted ran out. The town also had large local bread factories and other major food production facilities. But much of this locally produced food, like everything else, was being exported for hard currency. The furious townsfolk, spending years shoulder to shoulder in queues, were united in their desperation. But they could call on no forms of social organization other than their churches, which were under Securitate surveillance.

On December 16, Timasoara's mayor, summoned to intervene by the Securitate, arrived at the Reformed Church and requested that Tokes instruct the crowd to disperse. In order to avoid bloodshed, the pastor agreed. But the crowd, by then much beyond his congregation, was in no mood to go home. Tokes discovered himself a "prisoner" of the people's anger. "In that street", recalled one eyewitness, "was a tension and a feeling of power you could almost touch." Both joyous and apprehensive, the gathering crowd began to relocate to the city center and began singing the 1848 Romanian national anthem "Awake Romania". Shop windows were smashed- the regimes blackout enabled some people to hurl rocks without being seen- and some chanted "Down with Ceausescu!" "Down with tyranny!" "Freedom!" This lightning escalation- precisely what the mayor has sought to preempt- had transpired in a single day. It was the beginning of a political bank run.

The next day Tokes was brutally beaten and removed to an isolated village, as if he was still the root cause of the protest. But even without the Pastor some two thousand people faced down mounted bayonets and marched in columns, many carrying the banners of their factories. Drenched by cold water from a fire truck, the infuriated crowd rushed the vehicle, broke it apart and drowned it in the river. Then they ransacked the party building, tossing the books by Ceausescu onto a bonfire. They also captured five tanks loaded with a few hundred shells. This was duly reported to Bucharest.

The reaction was ferocious. That afternoon, at a conclave of the regime's Political Executive Committee, Ceausescu railed at a conspiracy involving West and East (Moscow), voiced suspicions of his own Securitate, demanded the restoration of order, and threatened anyone who failed to use the requisite force. "I've given orders to shoot," said the Conducator, according to an official transcript.

That very afternoon, December 17, The Army Chief of Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister Major General Stefan Gusa, under the watchful eye of a party hardliner, arrived in Timisoara, as did armored and motorized columns. Gusa claimed he found hundreds of shops damaged, looting, wild shooting and rumors of possible assaults on munitions depots. He set about recapturing the city. Several score civilians were massacred, and several hundred were wounded and arrested. On the 19th he was called to rescue the city party secretary at the Electrobanat light factory, which had a predominantly female workforce, but was greeted with shouts of "Criminals, you murdered our children!" Before fleeing the confusion, the local party boss had recorded the irate women's demands: "We want heat...We want chocolate for our children..socks, underwear, cocoa and cotton."

Timisorians were withdrawing their fear. General Gusa asserted that close up, he belatedly discovered that the protesters he had been violently suppressing were not hooligans but people. Perhaps, but on December 20 the Conducator returned from a trip to Iran ( negotiating arms for oil) and appeared on state television, pugnaciously denouncing the demonstrators as "hooligans", "fascists" and "foreign agents". He thereby confirmed- for the first time in official media- the fact of much-rumored protests. However, while work stoppages in Timisoara were developing into a general strike , General Gusa blinked. He ordered his troops to withdraw from around the Electrobanat plant and the city center, where a least forty thousand people were massed on Opera Square. Protesters began embracing soldiers and chanting "The army is with us!"

On the balcony of the opera house, loudspeakers were set up for the prime minister, who was expected to arrive that day. Instead, at 2:00 a forty-one year old professor from the Technical University, Lorin Fortuna, announced himself. He delivered a speech proclaiming the formation of a "Romanian Democratic Front". Suddenly, local authorities started looking to the professor to negotiate on behalf of "the opposition."

The central regime, however, was in no mind to capitulate. The Bucharest authorities ordered in workers with clubs and "patriotic guard" uniforms from other regions to Timisoara by train..they arrived in the city on December 21 but they were not met at the station or given directions. They went home. Others turned around on route. For the same day Ceausescu ordered a mass rally in Bucharest to support the regime against "foreign interference".

The run on the bank was broadcast to the entire nation. As Ceausescu spoke, some people apparently sought to penetrate the cordon around the official rally; their was jostling and a thud, perhaps from a falling lamppost. Tear gas grenades were fired, which sowed greater confusion. Some members of the crowd shouted "Timisoara! Timisoara!". Soon TV viewers, including Security forces around the nation who had been ordered to watch, began hearing "Ceausescu the dictator!". Before censors cut the live broadcast- it took three minutes to do so- Romanians saw a startled, frightened tyrant, angrily flailing his hands and heard pathetic cries of "What?" and "Shut up"!

That evening security forces assaulted the crowd but in the morning of the following day hundreds of thousands of people lined the capital and reassembled in front of the Central Committee fortress. At 11:30 A.M. Ceausescu again stepped onto the Central Committee balcony. The crowd jeered him with the slogan "The army is with us". Shoes, stones, and other projectiles were hurled and the dictator hustle inside. The crowd began storming the party sanctuary. From the roof, an overloaded French built helicopter staggered off, making Ceausescu a fugitive. But the fugitives were captured and held by the police, then by the military.

On December 25, ten days after the demonstration of forty elderly parishioners began at the grimy, three story apartment building of a minister of the Reformed Church, a kangaroo court was hastily convened at a provincial garrison. Ceausescu and his wife were convicted of genocide and sentenced to death. So many members of the garrison wanted to be in the firing squad that lots had to be drawn. In the end, all eighty were allowed to take part and pumped the deposed couple with more than a hundred bullets. "The Antichrist has been executed on Christmas Day" exulted the announcer on State radio. The shock at what many came to call Romania's "miracle of December" was incalculable.

Violence and rioting continued into 1990, as workers armed with clubs and crowbars- Ceausescu's hoped for shock troops- materialized belatedly, bused in to bash protesters who opposed the new regime for its conspicuous surfeit of former Communist party members. Ceausescu and his wife were among the very few prosecuted for what happened during the Communist era. But the violence and accusations about neo-communism obscured the fact that the planned economy had been terminated, though a liberal state cannot be taken for granted.

Stephen Kotkin in "Uncivil Society"

Bank Run on Communism by Stephen Kotkin

Back in the 70s, most commentators thought that the capitalist West, not communism, was nearing collapse, and even in the second half of the 1980s, communist systems seemed not doomed but uncertain. Unexpectedly, however, 1989 turned out to be annus mirabilis, producing revolutions in Eastern Europe that sparked repercussions around the globe, from apartheid South Africa to one-party Mexico. The Romanian case, like the East German one, indicates that much of the interpretive challenge consists in analyzing how East European Communist regimes fell in the absence of organized oppositions. This requires a different understanding of social process from the usual invocation of something called "civil society".

The later slogan has proved to be catnip to scholars, pundits, and foreign aid donors. After "modernization theory" (the hugely influential 1950s-1970s developmental theory") had morphed by the 1980s into "democracy promotion," the notion of "civil society" became the conceptual equivalent of the "bourgeoisie" or "middle class"-that is a vague, seemingly all purpose collective social actor. It was claptrap. Several hundred (sometimes just several dozen) members of an opposition- with a handful of harassed illegal associations and underground self-publications (samizdat)- were somehow a "civil society"? Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of party and state officials, political police operatives, army officers- who often went to school, worked, and even lived together, controlled all (state) property, public spaces, communications networks, and institutions, and had their own clubs, resorts and shops- were somehow not a society?

Such widespread misapprehension transpires when normative thinking- imagining how things ought to be- gets the better of analysis. Needless to say, in 1989 "civil society" could not have shattered Soviet-style socialism for the simple reason that civil society in Eastern Europe did not then actually exist. The mostly small groups of dissidents, however important morally, could not have constituted any kind of society. On the contrary, it was the establishment- the "uncivil society" that brought down its own system. Each establishment did so by misruling and then, when Mikhail Gorbachev's Kremlin radically shifted the geo-political rules, by capitulating- or by refusing to capitulate and thus making themselves susceptible to political bank runs. Suddenly, decades of bravery by disparate dissidents- the moral thunderbolts, the "anti-politics", the "living in dignity"- were swamped by a cascade of activism on the part of formerly inert masses and by elite opportunism. Would-be totalitarian states, which aspired to total control and total mobilization, by the same token proved to be totally vulnerable.

Incompetence in Communist systems was structural. To remove any possible threats of being unseated, and to increase the bonds of dependency, officials preferred appointing the less able to be their direct subordinates. Even insiders lamented that those who rose up in the system were narrow-minded and submissive. Although members of "uncivil society" were better educated than most of their compatriots, that education equipped them with a cliche-ridden vocabulary and crimped world view. Minimal experience of travel or foreign languages was combined with maximal experience of administering structures and circumstances, always created by someone else's power. And though intriguing and prevaricating required certain gifts, the party-state fostered a kind of "negative selection"- rewarding loyalty and punishing all else. What Vilfredo Pareto had at the turn of the twentieth century bitingly noted about elites generally- that classes dirigeantes (ruling classes) turn into classes digerantes ( digesting classes), fixated on consumption and self-preservation- in Communist systems proved inimical to correction.

The regimes' stubborn denials of the existence of any social conflict made elementary conflict into an existential threat. It was not just not that Soviet-style socialism stoked working-class consciousness through proletarian rhetoric and ritual, then blatantly functioned as a system of elite perquisites, producing ubiquitous grumbling. It was the near-complete absence of outlets or safety valves for basic popular grievances, beyond petitioning and letter writing to officials or to the media. Having imposed one-party rule and a centrally managed economy, having abolished independent labor unions and voluntary associations, having forced outward conformity through informer networks, uncivil society found itself unable to handle spontaneous social life. Even the mere indication of a desire for privacy, a mere inaction, could constitute- in view of its total claim on people's lives- a challenge to such a regime. Each protest action, each conflict, contained within it the equivalent of a near system crisis. If people could not strike without risking being killed or tortured, if a play's production could not be suspended without hundreds of students risking expulsion from university and incarceration, and if price increased could not be implemented without putting the jobs of high officials in jeopardy, the system was at latent risk of upheaval even in the absence of society-wide organized opposition. Repression provided no lasting solution to social problems.

Party conservatives were properly wary of Gorbachev's 1980s revival of socialism with a human face. But their alternative, conservative modernization- meaning a further tightening of the "discipline" as well as profligate investments in technological panaceas- failed to re-energize the systems. This just left muddling through, which held out great appeal. After all, the system raised up the members of society, and they hoped the system would somehow save them, especially if capitalism finally descended into the second great depression that the Communists had long predicted for it. But someone forgot to tell the post-World War II capitalist world to go into a death spiral. Instead, the competition in living standards all but bankrupted the Communist systems economically. Consciously or not, borrowing from the West amounted to a substitute for conceding the "uncivil society's" monopoly on power, but the bill came due.

After the world price of oil tumbled precipitously in 1985-86, the Soviet Union- which itself could not itself beg for more money- eventually became contaminated with the "Polish disease", too, borrowing from capitalists to satisfy consumer desires in a socialist country. Even the dim-witted began to comprehend the depth of the trap: If socialism was merely aiming to placate consumers just like capitalism, only not as well, was socialism's existence even justified? To put the matter in its starkest terms, how long could the muddling through continue if Western bankers refused to roll over the loans?

What to do? Communist rulers in China- who endure as of this writing- discovered the solution: a police state market economy. On June 4, 1989, when multi-candidate elections took place in Poland that would culminate in the formation of a Solidarity-led government, the tanks rolled into China's Tiananmen Square. It was a coincidence, but an extraordinary one: one Communist uncivil society capitulated, the other stood firm. But after bloodying its people who were demonstrating for political openness, the leadership of China also ended up deepening the country's turn toward economic openness. Who would have guessed it would be Chinese Communism rather than the East Europeans, who would embrace the market and global integration?...In sum, the uncivil societies of Eastern Europe, whether conservative or reformist, remained largely bound by the ideology, unlike the Leninist-type copycat single party in non-Communist Taiwan or the recovering post-Mao Communist party on mainland China.

What happened to the Eastern European establishment in 1989? What did they do or not do and why? This is the point explored in this book. "The fundamental question," Hungarian intellectual Gyorgy Konrad had written in 1984, "is, can an ossified, conservative elite absorb ideas that are foreign to it. Can it distribute and devolve power so as to exercise it more skillfully, so that the danger of collapse will no longer threaten it? Our not altogether reassuring experience has been that communism will break before it will bend." In fact, the uncivil societies set themselves up for the equivalent of political bank runs.

It may seem a depressing tale, yet perhaps it is not as disheartening as that of ruinous elites in a market economy. In the 1990s and 2000s, American elites in a market economy colluded in the United States' descent into a sinkhole of debt to foreign lenders, enabling besotted consumers to indulge in profligate consumption of imported goods. America's unwitting policy emulation of irresponsible uncivil societies was facilitated by communism's implosion in Eastern Europe, which opened the bloc economies to global integration, and by the savings-rich Asia. It was in such an environment that the spectacular incomprehension, lucrative recklessness, and not infrequent fraud of elites- bankers, fund managers, enabling politicians- booby-trapped the entire world's financial system. After the meltdown that commenced in the fall 2008, we can only hope that the market and democracy prove their resiliency and good governance and accountability return. In the meantime, if Eastern Europe's experience is any guide, those responsible will largely escape any reckoning.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns

Thirty years gone and now the drug corner is the center of its own culture....In the end, we'll blame them. We always do. And why the hell not?... If it was us, if it was our lonesome ass shuffling past the corner of Monroe and Fayette every day, we'd get out, wouldn't we? We'd endure. Succeed. Thrive. No matter what, no matter how, we'd find a fucking exit.

If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we'd pull ourselves past it. We'd raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in the universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we'd rise above that too. We'd shuffle up the stairs past nodding friends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn off the television, and do our homework. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police raids. And if there was no food on the table, we're certain we could deal with that. We'd lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change-an- hour, walking every day past the corner where friends are making our daily wage in ten minutes.

No matter. We'd persevere, wouldn't we? We'd work that job by night and go to class by day, by some miracle squeezing a quality education from the disaster which is the Baltimore school system. We'd do all the work, we'd pay whatever the price...Come pay day, we wouldn't blow that minimum-wage check on Nikes, or Fila sweat suits, or Friday night movies at Harbor Park with the neighborhood girls. No fucking way, brother, because we pulled self-esteem out of a dark hole somewhere and damned if our every desire isn't absolutely in check. We don't need to buy any status; no, we can save every last dollar, or invest it, maybe. And in the end, we know, we'll head off to our college years shining like a new dime, swearing never to set foot on West Lafayette Street again.

That's the myth of it, the required lie that allows us to render our judgment. Parasites, criminals, dope fiends, dope peddlers, whores- when we can ride past them at Fayette and Monroe, car doors locked, our field of vision cautiously restricted to the road ahead, then the long journey to darkness is underway. Pale-skinned hillbillies and hard-faced yos, toothless white trash and gold-front gangsters- when we can glide on and feel only fear, we're well on our way. And if, after a time, we can glimpse the spectacle of the corner and manage nothing beyond loathing and contempt, then we've arrived at last at that naked place where a man finally sees the sense in stretching razor wire and building barracks and directing cattle cars into the compound.'

Poor Math by Stephen Pimpare

Official data will not get us far in evaluating or understanding the lived experience of poverty of poor Americans, which is why I have not chosen to privilege these measures in this book. The 'poverty line' is at best a rough estimate and was, at any rate, originally formulated in the 1960s by the Social Security Administration as a 'research tool that would inevitably understate poverty', 'not designed to be applied directly to an individual family with a specific problem' and based on the Department of Agriculture's estimate of a survival-level food budget designed for short-term emergencies.* The actual experience of poverty is best understood in relative terms which even Adam Smith recognized in Wealth of Nations and about which John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society:

" People are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency [ a linen shirt in Adam Smith's example], and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment that they are indecent. They are degraded for, in the literal sense, they live outside the grades or categories which the community regards as acceptable."

The 1986 National Conference of Catholic Bishops made the same point in the report entitled "Economic Justice for All" which defined poverty not in terms of absolute money income but as the "denial of full participation in the economic, social and political life of society and an inability to influence decisions that affect one's life."

The effects of inequality are particularly pernicious: as British sociologist T.H. Marshall asked, "How can equality of citizenship coexist with capitalism, a system based on social class inequality?" Furthermore, one recent study of 129 countries found that economic inequality increases corruption ( the use of public power used for private gain)- it both legitimizes it and makes it easier to achieve- and that corruption, in turn exacerbates inequality. This dynamic is especially true in democratic societies and makes it clear that without economic equality, political inequality is in jeopardy." Similarly, as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis write:

"Economic inequality- particularly when overlaid with racial, ethnic, language and other differences- increases social distance, which in turn undermines the motivational basis for reaching out to those in need. Indeed, survey's consistently reveal that the support for those in need is stronger in societies whose before- tax and-transfer incomes are more equal."

Using measures that go beyond "the poverty line" established by Federal policy- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example- The National Economics and Social Rights Initiative goes so far as to identify an American "human rights crisis". While income inequality in America is higher than in any other advanced nation:

' Civil, political, social and cultural rights have all been attacked and undermined in the courts, legislatures, workplaces and streets. Economic and social rights in particular are virtually unrecognized in the United States. It has the highest rate of child poverty among industrialized nations, over 45 million people are without health insurance, over 36 million people suffer food insecurity, there is a shortfall of 5 million affordable housing units, 14% of households have critical housing needs, 20% of the population are functionally illiterate and its people work the longest hours in the industrialized world. Basic rights , "a standard of living adequate for health and well-being" , strictures that "no one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" and that children "shall be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment", for example, are routinely ignored in the United States.'

Even by the standards established by the Social Security Administration, poverty in America is widespread. And it is particularly useful in this regard to asked how many Americans were ever poor. Researchers Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl have done just that, and their findings strike at the heart of the claim that poverty is a state confined to a minority of Americans. By the time they reach the age of seventy-five 58.5 per cent of Americans will have been officially poor at least once, with an income at or below 100 per cent of the poverty line. Some 68 percent of Americans will survive on 125 per cent of the official standard, and fully three-quarters will have incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line. Worse, by age seventy- five, almost one third of Americans will be very poor, with incomes at only half the official poverty line. And, lest we conclude that these are isolated incidents of one-time hardship, some 30 percent of those who are poor at least once are poor for five years or more. For the majority poverty is an event, and for nearly a third, it's a durable condition.

Still, we misdiagnose the problem, for these are data about the entire population, and it's worse for particular groups of Americans. By the time they reach age seventy-five, for example, over 90 percent of African Americans can expect to have experienced poverty; for people with less than a high school education, it is over 75 percent. One third of our children can expect to live in poverty at some point. But if they are black, the number is 69.5 percent. If they are raised by a single mom with less than a high school diploma, 99.4 percent will be poor. And while we might make much, and rightly so, of the advances that Social Security has brought us, between age sixty and ninety over 40 percent of Americans will still be poor- by the official measures- at least once.

Hardships are part of our national experience, and poverty is not the exception, but the rule; it is not an anomaly confined to some marginal and marginalized population. In America, poverty is endemic.

*There have been significant structural changes in poverty since "the line" was established in the 60s. Housing and transportation costs have increased. Although the cost of food has declined, a lot of it is of dubious nutritional value** and in many areas for some commodities like fresh or even frozen fruit and vegetables, only conveniently available at small local markets at premium prices. Adequate time for food preparation is often difficult to come by etc. In addition, as the author points out and which may seem like an over obvious point, home ownership is not a sure indication that someone is not poor because it often amounts to a mountain of debt which consumes large proportions of one's income and, in the every expanding speculative markets driven by the profits to be gleaned by such instruments of investment as mortgage derivatives and credit default swaps, an insecure form of equity upon which to sustain a lifestyle above the poverty line.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Different Curve from Dr. Alfred Sommer

Dr. Sommer and Professor Alcabes agree on a number of public health Issues. Both are highly critical of both the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and support the sort universal health care that is common in all other developed, industrial nations. Their approaches to the epidemiological issues are, however, quite distinct. Dr. Sommers accepts studies of the Body-Mass Index as indicative of a dangerous and costly 'epidemic' of obesity whereas professor Alcabes questions its direct correlation with increased incidence of diabetes or heart disease. Dr. Sommers praises Mayor Bloomberg's expensive anti-smoking crusade in N.Y.C whereas Prof. Alcabes questions whether the tax funds couldn't be spent on more useful measures with more lasting public health benefits like ready-access to routine medical care and better clinical practice. Dr. Sommers accepts findings about the deleterious effects of second-hand smoke which prof. Alcabes regards as dubious. Dr. Sommers goes out of his way to warn diners that rich carrot cake is not a healthy substitute for chocolate cream tortes, an admonishment which Prof. Alcabes would consider tantamount to "Please, folks, do not enjoy yourself and feel as fearful and guilty as possible when you do." Dr. Sommers is a big fan of Dr Frieden, current director of the Center for Disease Control (and a former colleague) whereas Prof. Alcabes puts him down. Although Dr. Sommer's discussion of the genetic component of disease disposition seems rather race-based and out of sync with the views of both Prof Alcabes and the notable Harvard-based evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin- it is sufficiently obtuse, tangled and hedged to be only mildly offensive. All this confirms my view of Philip Alcabes as the Samuel R. Delany of the epidemiology crowd.

Dr. Sommers, however, does provide a lot of useful information. For example, the great decline in the common epidemic diseases which use to kill millions of people every year occurred before the vaccines now deployed to prevent them were put into widespread use. Improvements in standards of living- public sanitation, diet, housing and better working conditions- did the bulk of the work, at least in the developed world. He also points out the absurdity of spending 10's of billions of dollars researching new drugs and other prospective hybrid therapies but only a tiny fraction of that to find out which of them works most effectively in routine clinical settlings.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

El Dorado by David Grann

Heckenberger knew the story of Fawcett well and and even tried to conduct his own inquiry into his fate. "I'm fascinated by him and what he did in that time period (1908-27)," Heckenberger said. "He was one of those larger than-life-figures. Anyone that would jump into a canoe or march in here at a time when you know some of the Indians are going to try to -" He stopped in mid-sentence, as if contemplating the consequences.

He said that Fawcett was easy to dismiss as "a crank"; he lacked the tools and the discipline of a modern archeologist, and he never questioned the the shibboleth that any lost city in the Amazon had to have European origins. But even though Fawcett was an amateur, he went on, he was able to see things more clearly than many professional scholars.

"I want to show you something" Heckenberger said at one point.

Holding his machete in front of him, he led Paolo, Afukaki, and me into the forest, cutting away tendrils from the trees, which shot upward, fighting for the glow of the sun. After walking a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberber pointed to the ground with his machete. "See how the land dips?", he asked...

"It's a moat."

"What do you mean, a moat?"

"A moat. A defensive ditch, from nearly nine hundred years ago."

None of it seemed to make sense. Why would anyone build a moat and a stockade wall in the middle of the wilderness? "There's nothing here", I said.

Heckenberger didn't respond; instead, he bent down and rooted through the dirt, picking up a piece of hardened clay with grooves along the edges. He held it up to the light. "Broken pottery," he said. "It's everywhere."

As I looked at other shards on the ground, I thought of how Fawcett had insisted that on certain high areas in the Amazon "very little scratching will produce an abundance" of ancient pottery.

Heckenberger said that we were standing in the middle of a vast settlement.

"Poor Fawcett- he was so close," Paolo said. The settlement was in the very region where Fawcett believed it would be.

Hockenberger began walking once more through the forest, pointing out what were, clearly, the remains of a massive man-made landscape. There was not one moat but three, arranged in concentric circles. There was a giant circular plaza where the vegetation had a different character, because it had been once swept clean. And there had been a sprawling neighborhood of dwellings, as evidenced by even denser black soil, which had been enriched by decomposed garbage and human waste. Roads. Causeways. Canals. "We even found a place where the road ends at one side of the river in a kind of ascending ramp and then continues on the other side with a descending ramp: there must have been some kind of wooden bridge connecting them, over an area that was a half a mile long."

Altogether, he had uncovered twenty pre-Columbian settlements in Xingu, which had been occupied roughly between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1600. The settlements were about two to three miles apart and were connected by roads. More astonishing, the plazas were laid out along cardinal points, from east to west, and the roads were positioned at the same geometric angles. Heckenberger said that before Western diseases devastated the population, each cluster of settlements contained anywhere from two thousand to five thousand people, which means that the larger communities were the size of many medieval cities. "These people had a cultural aesthetic of monumentality", he said. "They liked to have beautiful roads and plazas and bridges. Their monuments were not pyramids, which is why they were so hard to find; they were horizontal features. But they're no less extraordinary."

Heckenberger told me that he had just published his research, in a book called The Ecology of Power. He has helped to upend the view of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise that could never sustain what the explorer Percy Harrison Fawsett had envisioned: a prosperous, glorious civilization. Other scientists are contributing to this revolution in archeology, which challenges virtually everything that was once believed about the Americas before Columbus. The are aided by ground-penetrating radar, satellite imagery and remote sensors that can detect magnetic fields in soil to pinpoint buried artifacts. Anna Roosevelt, an archeologist at the University of Illinois, has excavated a cave near Santarem, in the Brazilian Amazon, that was filled with rock paintings- renditions of animal and human figures similar to those that Fawcett had described seeing in various parts of the Amazon and that had bolstered his theory of Z. Buried in the cave were remains of a settlement at least ten thousand years old, casting doubt on the long-held theory of how the Americas were first populated.

Scientists have uncovered so much terra preta do Indio- Indian black earth- soil that has been enriched with organic human waste and charcoal from fires, from ancient settlements in the Amazon that they now believe the rain forest may have sustained millions of people. And for the first time scholars are reevaluating the El Dorado chronicles that Fawcett used to piece together his theory of Z. What the Spaniard Carvajal described was without question "no mirage." Scientists have not found evidence of the fantastical gold that the conquistadores had dreamed of. But the anthropologist Neil Whitehead says, "With some caveats, El Dorado really did exist."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Inglorious Bastards"

Eric Hamburg:

I was a Jewish boy fighting against an enemy I knew, an enemy that was responsible for arresting, deporting and killing my people. Refugee soldiers who were drafted or volunteered fought against the Nazis with fervor, because they were our hated enemy and were responsible for us losing our friends and relatives in concentration camps, through terror and beatings long before the ovens came. I still had vivid memories of Kristallnacht a few years earlier in 1938 and the pleasure most Germans got out of burning synagogues and businesses, dragging Jews through the streets. Fighting the Germans was very deep for me; I wasn't going to give an inch ...

But one story that is not so pleasant for me to tell occurred when we were attached to an outfit comprising some real fuck-ups. One night two Germans came out of nowhere with their hands up and surrendered to me. I was on guard duty at the time and couldn't leave my post. So GIs from this unit said, "Hey, you got two 'Heines' there? Don't worry, we'll take them back for you." So, they took them back under guard, but five minutes later I heard two shoots and saw the same GIs walking back toward me with smiles on their faces. "Sorry, they tried to escape and we had to kill 'em". That really bothered me.

Karl Goldsmith:

Once when we were all the way at the Mosel River facing a very tough SS outfit, my IPW was attached to Patton's Third Army. We were at division HQ when Patton had a meeting of his noncoms. He stood on top of a tank, and among other things, he said to pep the guys up over there: "and as far as those damn interrogators are concerned, don't take prisoners! Shoot the bastards!" I'll never forget that. It was typical Patton.

For the most part, prisoners were in shock. One moment they were surrounded by their buddies, the next moment, they would be hit in the head, or stabbed, or a bullet would strike them in the leg and they'd fall down. Now what?

One story that never leaves me is when I knelt down to a POW who had a piece of shrapnel in his partially shattered leg. It must have been horrendously painful for him, and he muttered a few words to me: "Comerade, gib mir Deine Hand" (Give me your hand, Comrade). I gave him my hand, he did his best to muster a grin and I could just feel that by holding his hand I had helped. And that was wonderful in itself. He did his duty. He tried to fight for Adolf Hitler, and it didn't quite work out.

For the most part I was gratified to see captured Germans. I've always said there is no one who rules as harshly and no one who crawls so low as the Germans in victory and defeat. But I didn't have rage. I just felt that they had stolen my country away from me, they had forced my father to go to some crazy place called Palestine, and I knew we couldn't let these people run the world, that's for damn sure....

One day, we were expecting a truck load of about fifty POWS from Lieutenant Michael's group. More than an hour later, there was no truck and no prisoners. I took one of the CIC fellows with me in the jeep to trace the route. About halfway, two hundred or so feet from the road, I saw an awful sight- fifteen dead POWs obviously all shot with machine guns. Some of them were even stray civilians. That happened sometimes when soldiers rounded up POWs an suspected that certain young types had thrown away their uniforms and picked up civilian cloths. Unless we cleared them, they were treated as prisoners But what on earth had happened here?

Apparently a bunch of new soldiers who had never seen combat were to guard the POWs on their route from the collection point to our camp. Apparently they "borrowed" the submachine guns from our three guys down there and just decided to kill these Germans. In a pocket of one of the dead men, I found a letter to his wife about how happy he was that this mess was over and soon he would be home. My God, what a horror that was. That was not war, it was murder. We decided that something should be done. We had the names of the soldiers who did it and the guns, and we forwarded a full report. In short, the judgment came through as case dismissed because of insufficient evidence. What they were really saying was that the 13th Armored Division was ready to go home and this would unnecessarily delay their departure.

Harold Baum:

...The 88s were terrifying German weapons because they were used point blank on us, instead of on airplanes. Seeing a kids next to you fall, wounded, or killed was a terrifying experience. I cannot begin to explain the rage I had when seeing German soldiers come out with white flags after an ambush. Needless to say, there were times when we did not take prisoners...

I had a unique experience in Solingen where a German lady came to our command post and told us that a German general was hiding out. The captain said," Lieutenant Winsam, Sergeant Miller, Baum, go and get him." We surrounded the house. There was this middle-aged man, and I started questioning him. In an almost defiant, arrogant manner, without getting up, he said "Ich bin General Gustav von Zongen."

Without delay I told him, "Hand Hoch", pointed my rifle at the son of a bitch, and he turned ashen white. Then I told him, "Ich bin ein Deutcher Jude." ( I'm a German Jew), and this man was in an absolute state of terror. He could not believe that one little yid should get him out of five million GIs. A rifle pointed at an arrogant officer becomes a powerful persuader. It was a good feeling...

After the completion of the Ruhr campaign, we were sent to southern Germany and started moving in the direction of Czechoslovakia. We encountered a concentration camp called Flossenberg and liberated one of the smaller camps of that facility. We saw scores of dying, starving prisoners. It was terrible, and the stench and odor of death, I will never forget.

There were also well-fed prisoners who had on the same inmate uniforms. I unsuccessfully tried to communicate with them in German; one kid in my company spoke Russian and Polish to them and they did not understand that either. We could not figure it out. My captain decided to strip them down and discovered that they had their blood type tattooed under their arm, which was customary practice among SS troops. They went into the mass graves and helped dispose of all the corpses, but they did not last to face a war criminal trial. The justification for their demise was that they switched uniforms, which under the Geneva Convention is a punishable offense. They remained in the pits with the corpses.

Fred Fields:

It felt damn good to interrogate Nazis, especially when we had a pistol (usually one of their Lugers) in a holster on us. We knew that the average German soldier just followed orders, so getting information out of them wasn't difficult. Name, rank and serial number didn't mean much to them, so if we could put them at ease, it usually worked to our advantage. With SS and officers, however, it was drastically different; we had to be rough with them, psychologically (and sometimes physically) and threaten them with everything under the sun. One more than one occasion we would say, "If you don't talk, we are going to put a bullet in your head." With one guy, we had him dig his own grave, measure it, and then made him lie in it before bringing him back to the interrogation table. During one interrogation, I let my anger fly when I knocked a Sturmhauptfuhrer's teeth out. I was stupid for not wearing a glove, because I hurt my hand.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Philip Alcabes New Year's Wishes for Public Health

Philip Alcabes' New Year’s Wishes for Public Health

May 2010 be the year when health officials return to the business of alleviating suffering and stop promoting panic.

May CDC become a force for real public health, not an advocate for the risk-avoidance canard. May the new director, Dr. Frieden, stop favoring pharmaceutical companies’ profit making through expansion of immunization. And may he direct the agency to begin to address legitimate public needs, like sound answers about vaccines and autism, and clear communication about what is — and isn’t — dangerous about obesity.

May WHO officials stop playing with the pandemic threat barometer. May WHO begin demanding that the world’s wealthy countries devote at least the same resources to stopping diarrheal diseases, malaria, and TB as they do to dealing with high-news-value problems like new strains of flu. Diarrheal illness kills as many children in Africa and Asia in any given week as the 2009 swine flu killed Americans in eight months. So does malaria. Direct policy, and money, toward sanitation, pure water free of parasites, adequate treatment of TB, mosquito control, and prevention of other causes of heavy mortality in the developing world — not just flu strains that threaten North America, Europe, and Japan.

May public health professionals lose their obsessions with bad habits. May the public health profession return to the problem of ensuring basic rights — access to sufficient food, clean water, decent housing, good education, a livable wage, and adequate child care — and ease up on its moralistic obsessions with nicotine and overeating.

May science be what Joanne Manaster does at her incomparable website: looking at the world with wonder, asking without dogmatic preconceptions how it works, and accepting that its irrepressible quirkiness makes it impossible to know the world perfectly. May science not be the crystal-ball-gazing thing whose so-called “scientific” forecasts are really doomsday scenes worthy of the medieval Church — predictions of liquefied icecaps and rising seas, hundreds of millions of deaths in a flu pandemic, or catastrophic plagues sparked by people with engineered smallpox virus. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about both the environment and disease outbreaks based on sound here-and-now observations; leave the forecasts of Apocalypse to the clergy, who know how to handle dread.

A new year’s wish (from the valedictory exhortation in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America): “More life!”

By Philip Alcabes | January 4th, 2010 | Categories: Behavior, Disease, Health Professions, Myths, News, Outbreaks, Risk, epidemics, obesity, public health | Tags: CDC, epidemics, germs, healthcare, healthcare reform, housing policy, immunization, obesity, pandemic, plague, preparedness, smoking, swine flu, tuberculosis.