Category Archives: politics

Sorting Medical Fact from Fiction, Part IV: Vaccination, Variolation, and What Doctors Do Tell You

encased in plastic bubbles

Will we see more of this?

I wrote most of this on 10/27, and the HHS update I’m referring to below happened on that date. By a couple of days later things looked massively worse, with a record one-day case count of 1082 and a real threat to our health care system and its exhausted workers. We knew fall was likely to be difficult, and it is, here and in so many places.

As I write on this scariest 10/31, I’m thinking of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert earlier today. The full orchestra was on stage together for the first time in all these months; they had been using smaller ensembles only. More amazingly, the seats were packed with audience members, whereas last week they had been separated by empty seats in between. I was boggled and a bit jealous that they had managed this. Weren’t things a lot worse in Germany too? Then came the announcement at the end of the show telling us that the orchestra’s hall would be closed Nov. 2-30. It was fun while it lasted….

Last time I talked about the epic stupidity of the Great Barrington Declaration.  Then, a couple of days ago, I saw that someone I had long admired and followed, Lynne McTaggart, had endorsed it and was telling people to sign it.  I guess I should have expected that, but I was still in shock.

The reason I should have expected it is that Lynne’s long-term brand is What Doctors Don’t Tell You.  So when Doctors Do Tell You and what they say is actually true, if you have the point of view that doctors are always trying to deceive you, you can’t hear them.

I’m trying to come to terms with this and with the gigantic number of people who STILL, despite the catastrophic spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, refuse to understand that they need to change their behavior if we are ever to get through this.  It’s gotten to where we seem to be unintentionally running the experiment the Great Barrington people were advocating. And it’s not going well.

Something occurred to me this morning: Maybe the deniers and anti-maskers and open-everythingers are unwilling to believe the virus is really so bad because the truth is just too painful and hard to face.* I mean, every day at least once I experience a moment of shock when it hits me again that this is really happening. It’s been like a bad dream all along. Do you have that feeling, too, that you’re going to wake up any minute now, but then you never do?

If someone has that persistent feeling of unreality, and then they are bombarded with messages that the pandemic isn’t real, perhaps they can be forgiven— just a little— for trying to find refuge in the belief that it’s all a hoax, or at least the danger has been overblown, so that there’s no problem with their usual habits. Nothing having a beer with their friends in a crowded bar can’t solve.

Today [10/27] I attended the weekly web update from Dr. David Scrase, the head of the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Scrase manages to inject some gentle humor into the march of facts, even when the numbers are looking as dire as they have lately, and he always speaks with compassion as well as honesty. I get to these meetings most Tuesdays, and whenever possible I also hang out with a bunch of infectious disease and public health experts on Mondays at a UNM ECHO session. These are good people, doing their best to navigate rough and uncharted seas. They are Doctors Who Do Tell Us— to the extent that anyone knows anything for sure.

I hope HHS won’t mind that I’ve grabbed a couple of today’s slides to show you. This one illustrates the dizzying rise in cases in the past couple of weeks. What I’d like you to look at here is the sharp upward swoop of the purple line, the one that shows cases in people ages 35-64. The green line showing those 18-34 is less dramatic, but it’s pretty substantial. And you can see that cases are also notably up in kids and teens as well. If you’re still thinking that only older people are vulnerable to this disease, well, you are wrong.

In some parts of the country the virus is considered to be out of control, including places like the Dakotas who hardly had it at all for so long. I hope New Mexico’s case counts don’t reach that level. I hope they haven’t already. But getting back to a better situation requires a population that is united in doing all the right things, and we aren’t seeing that.

Now for another denier contention, the idea that if you do get COVID you’ll just get over it and everything will be fine, no big deal. Uh-uh. The following slide makes it clear that long-term symptoms are not just happening to an unlucky few, but are actually very common even in “mild” cases.

Here’s more about the brain damage that can accompany all this unpleasantness:
https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-brains-int/covids-cognitive-costs-some-patients-brains-may-age-10-years-idUSKBN27C1RN

Deniers also like to believe that if against all odds they somehow come down with the illness, it will be like the president told them, they’ll get the latest greatest treatments, which are miraculously effective. While I hope every patient will get the best possible treatments at the earliest possible time, the more patients need them at once, the less likely that becomes. The main limiting factor at this point is not so much hospital beds as skilled personnel to staff them. And one of the limitations on health care professionals being available is that some of them are getting COVID themselves.

Dr. Scrase told us that the health care personnel who get sick are usually not getting infected at work, but rather at social gatherings in the community— the same way that most of the laypeople are getting infected. The people who should know better are apparently doing the same dumb things as the rest.

At this point please imagine that I am shaking you and screaming that you don’t need to have a birthday party and invite 50 of your closest friends!

But pretty soon there is going to be a vaccine, you say, and we’re all going to be able to live our lives any way we want to again. Yes, in the next few months there is likely to be at least one vaccine that will be available to at least a few people, most likely front-line health care workers to begin with. That will start to help a little. But as you’ve probably heard, even in a best-case scenario of a very effective vaccine, it’s going to take ages to get shots to everybody who wants them. Not to mention the fact that many people will not want them. No matter how this goes, all that masking and distancing stuff that we hate is likely to be necessary for a very long time.

Now we’re going to look at how good a vaccine has to be in order to be useful, and how we can tell whether a vaccine candidate will meet that standard. What percentage of the time does a vaccine have to work in order to be considered effective? What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to create herd immunity (which is purely a vaccine-related concept, by the way)? There are formulas that can inform these decisions.

The following article is a month old, and that’s ages in COVID time. I’m including it because it gives a layperson-friendly explanation of how researchers decide whether a vaccine is working and whether it’s ready to be given to the public at large. Pfizer was supposed to have big news about its trial around the end of October, but that hasn’t happened as yet. Whether Pfizer’s effort pans out or not, this clarifies how to think about the process and what it all means.
https://www.propublica.org/article/a-real-vaccine-before-the-election-itd-take-a-miracle

I was surprised to see how few cases these momentous decisions may be based on. Especially with this unprecedentedly rushed research program, it’s hard to feel confident that we’re seeing real effectiveness, and even harder to feel confident about safety. About the same time that I read the ProPublica piece, I came across a September interview of Dr. Paul Offit by Dr. Eric Topol on Medscape, in which he expressed his own doubts. That really caught my eye. Dr. Offit has been a huge cheerleader of vaccines in general, very publicly gung-ho about them. If he is feeling cautious about COVID vaccines, I thought, there must really be something to be cautious about. He expressed some skepticism about both the drug companies’ promises and the politically compromised FDA.

“So you have this difficult-to-characterize, elusive virus that you are now about to meet with a handful of vaccine strategies for which you have no commercial experience,” he said. “I think you can assume that there may be a learning curve here.”

There are so many important points I wanted to quote in this interview that I have to ask you to go and read it for yourself. Honestly, you should. It’s a little unnerving, but it should also leave you with the feeling that there are some reasonable safeguards in place. Since it’s necessary to sign up with the Medscape site to read articles (although it is a free service), for your convenience I’ve parked a copy where you can get it easily:
https://app.box.com/s/rpammbltgrp4fbi9tmon1dzn1p6yhte0
‘Paul Offit’s Biggest Concern About COVID Vaccines’

If you don’t feel like going over to Box to grab that copy, this excerpt will give you some of the main points:

“[Offit:] We have two ways of stopping this virus: One is hygienic measures — face masks, social distancing, hand-washing — and the other is the vaccine. With those two, we will be able to bring this virus under control. But it will take both. What worries me is that if you had to pick which is the stronger of the two, I would go with hygienic measures. I mean, if I wear a mask and stand 6 feet away from you, and you wear a mask and stand 6 feet away from me, the chances that I’m going to get the virus from you or you from me is about zero. You have two things going for you. One, you have a mask, which is going to prohibit the virus’ small droplets from traveling very far. And two, even if I didn’t wear a mask and stand 6 feet away, the odds are also that you wouldn’t get it.

Topol: And by the way, if you do get it, you get a lower dose of virus, which is important.

Offit: That’s right. You might get more mild disease. On the other hand, if we have a vaccine and it’s 75% effective against moderate to severe disease, that means 1 out of every 4 people can still get sick, including very sick. It also means probably a larger percentage than that 25% could get mild infection, or asymptomatic infection, which they could still shed, even to the point of contagiousness. We’ve been asking these trials to look not only at whether they’re protecting against moderate to severe disease, but to what extent they are protecting against shed. I think that is important to know.
But people have such an unrealistic expectation of these vaccines that they see it as the panacea, as the magic bullet to make it all go away. [emphasis mine] If people have unrealistic expectations, such that they think “I’ve gotten the vaccine, I’m good. I don’t need to wear a mask. I don’t need to social distance. I can engage in high-risk activities,” then we’ve lost one of the important arms to bring this virus under control, arguably a more important arm. If, when we bring the vaccine up in terms of users, we move social distancing and masking down, we could end up having a sort of break-even effect.

Topol: Well, you’re bringing up a critical point and that is, the vaccine effect could actually increase the number of people who are asymptomatic carriers. Because they basically have protection from beyond their mucosa. But they still have the virus in their nose and their upper respiratory tract to spread. And that’s why this coupling of continued hygiene— masks, distance, and these other measures — is going to be important all the way through until we get a very dense immunity of the population, right?

Offit: There is a formula for this, actually. If you have a 75% effective vaccine against significant shedding, then you would need to immunize about two thirds of the American population to get the R0 to less than 1, meaning to stop spread, which is what you want.”

It may well be that a vaccine with 50% effectiveness will be the best we can do. It may be that there will be multiple vaccines available, with some being best for people of one age group or health status and others for other categories. Right now we don’t know much, so again I ask that everyone keep an open mind. No knee-jerk reactions, please! Whether you take every shot available or scrupulously avoid vaccinations, at this point you don’t have enough data to weigh risks against benefits. We have to have data, and we have to have clear messaging about it from the people in charge. That might be a tougher challenge than creating a vaccine to begin with.

In other sobering news this week, more evidence came in to show that immunity to COVID-19 does not appear to last very long— another blow against the Great Barrington mindset.
https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-britain-antibody-idUSKBN27C005
‘Antibodies against the novel coronavirus declined rapidly in the British population during the summer, a study found on Tuesday, suggesting protection after infection may not be long lasting and raising the prospect of waning immunity in the community.’

But all is not lost. Antibodies are not the entirety of the immune response. And with masking and distancing, those of us who don’t get sick may still be getting small doses of the virus as we go about our business, enough to teach the body how to recognize this pathogen and fight it to at least some degree. There is evidence that people who are exposed in this way tend to get infections that stay asymptomatic. Even if no really robust long-term immunity exists, some memory will develop in their immune systems, and they should be better off than they would be without any exposure. The author likens this to variolation, the strategy used to prevent smallpox before the vaccine was invented. The key would be small doses of the virus, not the uncontrolled onslaught of a big group event with no masks.
https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2026913
‘Facial Masking for Covid-19 — Potential for “Variolation” as We Await a Vaccine’

So even if we have an effective vaccine, we’ll still need to do all this other stuff that we’re getting so tired of, and there’s no end to it in the near term. I’m sorry. I would like to be able to give you better news. We just have to keep muddling along as best we can. I implore you not to make the situation any worse! Don’t travel. Don’t get together with a bunch of people indoors, and be careful outdoors. No big Thanksgiving dinner with family from far and near. Wear the damn mask. Just do it. The more effort we make now, the sooner we can be done with all this.

I can’t remember where I saw this:
COMMUNITY
IMMUNITY
I’M UNITY

Unity. Let’s try it.

************************************************************************

* Later I came across this:
 ‘Left to their own devices, people chart their paths based on their personality, how they see the world, and how they relate to risk. According to Geller, many people presented with a barrage of contradictory instructions just grow tired and give up. Others become hypervigilant, their behavior calcifying against new information that might let them ease up and enjoy life a little more. Still others simply choose optimism, no matter how dangerously misguided—such as the belief that “herd immunity” is near, or the assumption that catching the virus will have no long-term consequences for them. “People will gravitate to the positive message because it’s convenient, and it’s not scary, it’s not fearful,” Geller said.’


https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/10/pandemic-safety-america/616858/

And still later, an interview update came from Dr. Offit, in which he discusses what may happen with an emergency use authorization, and what distribution of a vaccine may look like:
https://edhub.ama-assn.org/jn-learning/video-player/18555773
He also demolishes the Great Barrington argument:
 ‘So now suddenly herd immunity induced by natural infection has become the plan, right? But the premise is wrong. The premise is that a virus could can affect enough people in the population, that would provide immunity such that that essentially the virus would put itself out of business. That’s never happened. That’s never happened for any virus. So historically there’s no support for it. Secondly, if you had to pick the perfect virus for which it would happen, it would be measles. I mean, measles is 10 times more contagious then this virus and SARS-COVID-2. It has an [inaudible], you know contagiousness index of close to 20, where this is less than two. Two, measles induces lifelong sterilizing immunity. You are protected against all manner of infection, including asymptomatic infection, that’s not going to be this virus. And nonetheless, despite that, before there was a measles vaccine every year there would be about one to two million cases of measles. There would be 50,000 hospitalizations, and there’d be 500 deaths from measles. So there’s no such thing as this Great Barrington declaration. Plus, about 30% to 40% of the population is really at high risk.’


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Filed under health and healing, politics, psychology

Sorting Medical Fact from Fiction, Part III: Give Me Liberty AND Give Me Death

Patients have been asking me about “herd mentality,” which they then quickly correct to “herd immunity.” Herd mentality we’ve got plenty of. Herd immunity, not so much. In fact, it’s unclear whether widespread, lasting natural immunity to COVID-19 is even a biological possibility. It may turn out to be only a mirage.

But as the pandemic drags on and we are all getting weary, some of us are worn down enough to entertain some pretty crazy notions– or to take cynical advantage of our weariness.

The Great Barrington Declaration came out on October 4, made a splash, and is still being talked about. This is a letter which calls for letting the virus essentially run wild among the younger and healthier members of the population, in order to bring about a theoretical herd immunity, while in some way protecting those who are at high risk. It’s named for Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where it was written, not because it is actually great in any way.

This declaration amounts to magical thinking. It has irresponsibly injected more confusion into an already uncertain situation. It has made the already impossible jobs of public health workers and health care providers that much harder. And yet, some people have been taken in, even some in my own profession.

Although I wouldn’t usually use Wikipedia as a reference, in this case they have an excellent overview of the document, the responses to it, and the issues involved.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Barrington_Declaration

If that’s TL;DR, here’s a simpler summary:
https://news.yahoo.com/white-house-backed-great-barrington-142700156.html?guccounter=1

The declaration is such utter balderdash (insert less polite term here) in so many ways that it’s amazing it’s gotten as far as it has. You can read all about the objections to it if you wish. I’ll give you a sketch to save you some time:
— Many younger people are immune-compromised or have conditions like asthma, diabetes or obesity, putting them at higher risk of severe COVID-19. With moderate overweight now added to the list of underlying conditions that matter, it’s been estimated that about 72% of Americans fall into the high-risk category!

— It is unrealistic at best, and likely impossible, to try to separate younger and older people. Even in nursing homes, the staff is largely composed of younger workers, and obviously they must go home to their families and come back. More generally, a great many people live in multigenerational extended families. The latest figures I’ve found, from 2018, put the number at over 20% of the US population, and growing.

— Even if we have sufficient hospital beds to manage out-of-control numbers of cases, we don’t have enough skilled staff to provide care. The avalanche of cases that would be likely to result from the Great Barrington non-strategy would be impossible to care for.

If these points haven’t convinced you, listen to a group of virologists, starting here at about 50 minutes in:

https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IjXzadiNaA&feature=emb_logo

As I write this, New Mexico is reeling from an unprecedented surge in cases, bigger than anything seen last spring at what we thought was the height of the pandemic. Much of the world is in far worse shape than a month ago. No one is sure why this has happened, when only a few short weeks before we seemed well on the way toward beating this thing.

The doctor who was interviewed in the TWiV segment above expressed the theory that having schools open encouraged a premature feeling that everything could go back to normal. He described an 80-year-old woman in his hospital who had caught the virus at her grandson’s birthday party. It was bad enough that 20 kids and their parents got together at all, but then it rained heavily and everyone crowded inside. Without masks.

To the Great Barrington people, that birthday party would have been fine. They wouldn’t have invited Grandma, I suppose, but they would have let the kids and parents infect each other freely. One might wonder what the motivation would be for such shortsighted idiocy. It turns out that the declaration came from a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers. But even if one sympathizes with the libertarian objection to any kind of government control, ending current restrictions makes no practical sense. The longer people go around spreading infection, the longer it will be till the virus is damped down and we can get back to our lives and livelihoods. Which is what libertarians and everyone else would seem to want.

But political philosophies will be moot if it turns out that lasting natural immunity doesn’t happen, and it’s looking like that is the case. Back in the spring, I was thinking more like the libertarians, that it might be ideal to catch a mild case, become immune, and move on. That was before anyone realized the potential for long-term damage— and before we started getting reports of reinfections.

While there are not many known cases so far, there are definitely people who have had COVID-19, recovered, and later been infected with a different strain. We know this because the genomes of various strains have been sequenced, so they can easily be distinguished from each other. Worse, some of the patients became more severely ill the second time, and one died. The previous infection appeared to offer no protection. We don’t know what factors influenced any of this. We aren’t yet sure of the role of innate immunity (not mediated by antibodies). We can’t yet predict how long antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 last. We’re pretty sure it’s not more than a matter of months, though.

This is terrible, vexing news, but it’s not unexpected. The common cold coronaviruses can return to torment us again and again. The same goes for flu. And those are diseases that our bodies already know how to recognize, not a new one that’s hit us out of the blue.

That leaves us in need of a vaccine.

I’m not thrilled to say that, since all vaccines entail some level of risk, and not all are very effective— and a vaccine, even if it’s an especially good one, is not going to solve all our pandemic problems. But I would like to ask you to think clearly about where we are in terms of a potential vaccine and what we are likely to get.

In our current low-trust environment, it’s understandable that a lot of people are leery of accepting a new vaccine that may have God knows what side effects. I don’t want to be among the first to try any kind of medication, myself; I’d rather let some time go by and see if problems crop up. But some people in my profession have been insisting that they aren’t going to take any COVID vaccine, no way no how. Although I’m not gung-ho about vaccines, I don’t see the logic in deciding for or against taking something before one has any information about it. A great many vaccines are in development. They have different characteristics. Some will no doubt prove to be safer than others, and some more effective than others.

More on that next time.

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Filed under health and healing, history, politics

Sorting Medical Fact from Fiction, Part II: We Need Therapy

About the time I began writing this, at the annual meeting of our New Mexico Society for Acupuncture and Asian Medicine, we heard a presentation from David Riley, MD about how to write case reports for publication in medical journals. That brought home to me how much goes into each published study that we read and how slow and incremental the scientific process can be.

At the same meeting, one of my senior colleagues went into a passionate rant about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus was engineered as a bioweapon and we are at war, hydroxychloroquine was great, we should all go to Fox News and Newsmax to get The Truth, and most stunning of all, that President Trump was the highest order of doctor because he saved the lives of the people of America by instituting a travel ban.

The rest of us sat there and gazed bemusedly at our Zoom screens. It was deeply disturbing to find one of us, a highly educated and intelligent man of mature years, spouting poisonous bilge like that. In fact, it was almost physically painful.

Then, just a few days later, we got the news that the conspiracizer-in-chief himself had come down with COVID-19. Immediately more conspiracy theories began to fly from both left and right. He was given treatments that sounded reasonable, including an experimental antibody preparation. (I don’t know why they were not adding vitamin C to the vitamin D and zinc.) That is, the treatments sounded reasonable, if we can actually believe what we were being told about them— and we are in the habit of not believing much of anything anymore. The Old Man Who Cried Wolf has trained us that way.

Dexamethasone, a common steroid that is often given in severe cases of COVID, was part of the president’s regimen. Since getting out of the hospital, he’s been even more impulsive, erratic, and incomprehensible, and many observers are assuming he’s still dexamethazoned.

Conspicuously, he was NOT treated with his famously favored hydroxychloroquine. Isn’t that interesting.

I originally started writing this post because there are people I respect, people who are influential writers and teachers, who are still touting hydroxychloroquine and insisting that it is being kept from patients by nefarious forces, just like my colleague. They still believe the persistent myth that HCQ, either by itself or with azithromycin, is a terrific treatment for COVID-19 and can be used for prevention too, but is being suppressed by Big Pharma, the FDA, The Government, etc. in order to market more expensive drugs and/or force everyone to accept a vaccine, take your pick.

Let’s try applying some logic to this. (I know, I know, nobody does that anymore.)

In order for this contention to be valid, first, there would have to BE an expensive and effective drug to market instead, either one already in existence or one being developed. As far as I know there is no such thing. Remdesivir might be what they have in mind, as it has shown itself to be useful and costs over $3000 per course, but it isn’t a “cure” and it doesn’t help with prevention. In fact, it’s still unclear whether it really helps much at all.

“J. Randall Curtis gives remdesivir to his seriously ill coronavirus patients based on statistics, not his own experience. From the bedside, he said, benefits of the drug are undetectable.
“It’s hard when you’re on the front line, knowing whether it makes a difference. People are not jumping out of bed and saying, ‘Thanks, you saved my life,’ ” said Curtis, a doctor at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. “We are continuing to use it, because if you look at all the data in total, there probably is some benefit.”

Second, some very inexpensive drugs and substances have come to the forefront. They are still not “cures,” but they are helping quite a lot. Dexamethasone is one. It only helps in advanced cases where a person needs help to breathe, but in those cases dexamethasone and other well-known steroids can damp down the inflammatory reactions that kill people. These are familiar medications, basic medical workhorses with wide applications, being repurposed for the present situation. There’s no new drama to be found in this story— steroids are being used to combat inflammation just like always— and there are no prominent politicians hyping it at rallies, so no one seems to be making up myths about it. Yet it’s one of the more important discoveries that’s been made about treating COVID-19.

A few months ago there was excitement about another cheap and widely available drug, famotidine (Pepcid), because people who had been taking it for heartburn and then got COVID did better than COVID patients who had not been taking it. As far as I know there is still research going on with famotidine, but I couldn’t find any very recent references to studies about it. I did hear that it was given to the president— but he hasn’t even mentioned it.

https://www.healio.com/news/gastroenterology/20200817/famotidine-linked-to-improved-outcomes-in-covid19

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/coronavirus-covid-19-heartburn-medicine-pepcid-does-not-work-antiviral

The concept is that famotidine and other histamine blockers may be able to block the cytokine storms (catastrophically overwhelming immune system reactions) that contribute to deaths from COVID. An intriguing study combined famotidine with the antihistamine cetirizine (Zyrtec):
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1094553920301462

Anticoagulants, including the old standby heparin, are important in countering the widespread clotting that often occurs with COVID-19 and can cause strokes and heart attacks. Here is one of many reports about that:
https://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2020/08/26/12/45/anticoagulants-associated-with-better-survival-lower-risk-of-intubation-in-covid-19-patients

Azithromycin, very often given for sinus infections as a “Z-Pack,” was famously given along with HCQ, and is being studied in other contexts. Since antibiotics in general don’t kill viruses, why is this happening? It seems that azithromycin may actually have a role in fighting certain viral infections.
“Azithromycin is known to have immunomodulating and antiviral properties. In vitro studies have demonstrated the capacity of azithromycin in reducing production of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-8, IL-6, TNF alpha, reduce oxidative stress, and modulate T-helper functions. At the same time there are multiple clinical evidences of the role of azithromycin in acute respiratory distress syndrome and against Middle East Respiratory syndrome (MERS).”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924857920302235

(Unfortunately, this article adds, “Furthermore, there are some concerns regarding the association of azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine because of potential QT prolongation. In fact, both drugs have this as a potential side effect and evidence regarding the safe use of this combination is controversial.”)

Are any of these drugs being “suppressed”? No. Are right-wing politicians yelling about them? Not that I know of. Maybe they should be, as the public would probably like to know more about them. But they’ve already invented their conspiracy theory, and I guess they don’t need another one.

Not that hydroxychloroquine is useless by any means. I have patients with autoimmune conditions who depend on it. But I also know of someone who died when his employer required him to take it as supposed prevention for COVID. The fact that it isn’t being widely used to combat this pandemic is NOT, I repeat NOT, a sign of a conspiracy to suppress it. It just hasn’t panned out as hoped. Nothing I have found from any credible source has said that it helped a majority of COVID patients. Some, it appeared to make worse. 

You don’t have to take my word for it. Even the most cursory search brings up multiple studies and articles.
https://www.statnews.com/2020/07/16/new-covid-19-study-despite-flaws-adds-to-case-against-hydroxychloroquine/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/21/anti-malarial-drug-trump-touted-is-linked-higher-rates-death-va-coronavirus-patients-study-says/

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2019014

https://bgr.com/2020/05/22/coronavirus-drug-hydroxychloroquine-harmfull-side-effects-death-covid-19/

I note that one study that appeared to show benefit from HCQ used it in conjunction with steroids, which may have been the part that actually worked.
https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/health-news/study-finds-hydroxychloroquine-helped-coronavirus-patients-survive-better/ar-BB16hifu

There are still sources I consider very respectable who are recommending hydrochloroquine, such as the following. As far as I can tell, such sources are quoting studies from a number of months ago, which is a lifetime in terms of COVID-19 research. More recent studies are not looking favorable, and those are the ones I’m paying the most attention to.
https://chriswoollamshealthwatch.com/your-illness/general-health/potential-covid-19-treatment-chloroquine/

Has HCQ helped anybody recover from COVID-19? Possibly. People are all biochemically different from each other. A given person might respond to a given treatment that didn’t work for most others. In the search for treatments that help the broadest population of patients, though, HCQ has appeared to be a dead end.

You have to realize that health care professionals, especially those who work in hospitals, have every reason to want effective medications for COVID. They are the ones most directly in the line of fire. If something is seen to work, even the least altruistic doctor one can imagine is going to want to have it available. If hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ plus azithromycin and/or zinc, really knocked down COVID-19 infections, and did it safely, I can’t think of any downside to distributing it everywhere. Who could possibly object? We’d all be a lot closer to resuming our regularly-scheduled lives by now.

It’s reprehensible that this has become a matter of politics. We can’t afford for it to be political.

My impression is that people often think medical authorities or pharma companies have far more information at hand than they really do, and that they must be hiding it from the rest of us. The reality is that we are all figuring this pandemic out as we go along. By the time you read this, there may have been some truly game-changing discovery— one can hope. More likely, we’ll just keep incrementally adding to our understanding. Science is a slow process, one that’s supposed to be careful and rigorous. No one is supposed to make claims before they have solid evidence, and evidence takes time to accumulate. I’ve spent many hours in virtual meetings and webinars with local infectious disease experts and public health workers, and what I see is a bunch of sincere, intelligent people doing their best to make sense of a situation that no one completely understands yet.

There has also been a persistent charge that the authorities must be dishonest because they have changed their recommendations at times. Science, as well as plain common sense, changes our understanding as new information comes in. Holding to the same opinions no matter what facts come along is more like religious belief, and that sort of bullheaded unwillingness to think has no place in a public health crisis, where we must all be willing to adapt to constantly changing knowledge and circumstances.

 

ICAM, vitamin C, and other supplements

What about vitamin C? To the best of my knowledge and googling skills, research on the use of IV vitamin C in hospitalized COVID-19 patients is ongoing and we don’t yet have study results. This summary comes from the Linus Pauling Institute:
https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/COVID19/IV-VitaminC-virus

My colleague Daniel Cobb, DOM wrote this extremely intriguing article which postulates that advanced cases of COVID-19 result in a form of scurvy. The idea is that fighting the virus uses up so much of the body’s store of vitamin C that collagen fibers can’t be replaced, leading to breakdown of tissues in the lungs and blood vessels, with fluid in the lungs and bleeding plus clotting in the vascular system. This can help explain why a patient may appear to be recovering, then suddenly crash.
https://www.faim.org/covid-19-is-really-two-diseases-to-treat-the-second-one-you-have-to-name-it-correctly

If I were hospitalized with COVID-19 or any severe pneumonia or similar illness, I would want to be given IV vitamin C. The evidence looks strong enough to me, and harm looks relatively unlikely.

Vitamin C is a major part of a strategy developed in Florida called ICAM.
https://bgr.com/2020/09/26/coronavirus-cure-icam-protocol-florida/
“ICAM isn’t a new drug, it’s an acronym for a combination of existing medications used simultaneously on patients. It uses Immunosupport drugs (Vitamin C and Zinc), Corticosteroids against inflammation, Anticoagulants against blood clots, and Macrolides to help fight infection.”
“…Norwood-Williams continued, ‘What we found out was that ICAM works as a strategy for super defense for the body. It doesn’t kill coronavirus, but it doesn’t need to. Viruses are self-limiting anyway. They have a very short life cycle. What kills people are the consequences of coronavirus in multiple ways.’”

(Macrolides are a class of antibiotics that includes azithromycin.)

A role has also been suggested for B vitamins in preventing deadly cytokine storms.
https://www.maturitas.org/article/S0378-5122(20)30348-0/fulltext#%20

Of course vitamin D is also important in any problem involving the immune system. It has been shown that low vitamin D levels make people more vulnerable to infection. What hasn’t been shown as yet is that giving vitamin D to a person who is already ill makes a difference. The most important thing we know regarding vitamins is that it’s best to keep your internal shelves well stocked with them at all times.

What should you take away from all that? If you were my patient, I would definitely recommend continuing supplements of C and D as well as a good-quality multivitamin. In general, keep your nutritional status as high as you can, eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and fish, as tolerated. I would say that under any circumstances, but it’s truer than ever now.

The Linus Pauling Institute has a good summary of general nutrition for immunity too:
https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/COVID19/nutritional-strategies-immune-system

 

Chinese herbs, in China and in the US

It would be easy for us practitioners of herbal medicine to fall into paranoia when thinking about the lack of use of antiviral and other herbs for COVID-19 in the US. Have Chinese herbs been suppressed as a treatment? Well, sort of, because of the way our US regulatory system works. I just don’t think it’s a Nefarious Plot.

Chinese doctors already had experience developing herb formulas to treat SARS in the early 2000s, as well as for epidemics over the centuries. When COVID hit, they had a place to start. They quickly put together herbal strategies that could treat the range of symptoms they were seeing, and the published literature on those looks quite positive. They also ramped up the use of venerable formulas for prevention.

John and Tina Chen at Evergreen Herbs/Lotus Institute have done a great service by translating materials from China about specific herbs and formulas that have been used against COVID. A lot of this is layperson-friendly, and all of it is free to access.
https://www.elotus.org/articles

Herbal pharmacology is a well-established science, and many herbs have been shown to inhibit the reproduction of viruses, prevent them from entering cells, break up thick phlegm, act as anticoagulants, or do other things that are relevant to this disease. John Chen has given webinars that explicated specific mechanisms by which components of herbs can accomplish their actions against coronaviruses, some of which are the same as those of antiviral drugs. It’s fascinating.

I’ve stocked up my clinic’s pharmacy with all the herbs I can get from the Chinese protocols. Since I have not needed to treat any patients with current cases of COVID, thankfully, I haven’t used the formulas for the acute disease, but if I or my family members get sick, we can start treating immediately, and if patients do report symptoms, I can deliver herbs to them. We have been making use of time-honored preventive formulas over the months.

However, in this country, we are not even allowed to say that we can treat COVID with any means outside mainstream medicine. (Note that I am telling you only that certain protocols have been shown to help in China and that certain herbs have been shown objectively to have relevant actions, not claiming that any specific herbs treat or cure the disease.) Colleagues across the country have used herbs successfully against this virus nonetheless. I have yapped as loud as I could about this to any medical person who would listen.

There hasn’t been a big result. Does this mean that They are trying to suppress the use of herbs? Not necessarily. In the US, herbs are regulated more like food and less like drugs; another regulatory category for traditional medicine is clearly needed but has not been created as yet (long story, won’t go into it here). That means that making claims that an herbal product treats a disease is fraught with difficulties.

In China, herbs are prescribed in hospitals, often cooked as water decoctions in the traditional manner. Here there is no way to accomplish that in a hospital. If doctors in American hospitals wanted to give already-prepared herb formulas in pills, I suppose they could, but then there would be no insurance reimbursement, nor pharmacists who knew what to do with those medications. Our system just isn’t set up to use natural substances in hospital settings, or to make them affordable to patients who can’t pay out of pocket. My impression from trying to get the information from China in front of MDs is that they are often very much open to it, but they’re not sure how to make use of it. In practical terms, that means it all falls by the wayside.

In addition, there is some prejudice here about studies done in other countries, very much including China. American regulators and doctors typically want to see evidence from studies done here, or at least done exactly the way they would be done here, whether that makes sense in a given case or not.

I have the most intense hope that medicinal herbs will be employed far more than they have been so far, and that we can tap into the wealth of Asian medical experience to improve our own situation. On a small scale, I’m sure we can. Unfortunately, the same kinds of holes in our healthcare “system” that plague us on other levels make it unlikely that this will happen in a widespread way anytime soon.

Despite all that, we should be making more use of herbs, and I would like to see forces within my own profession advocating more strongly for them. We don’t have a lot of options. MDs complain that we don’t have enough tools in our toolbox, but most of them don’t even know about these important tools that we’ve had for many years.

 

One definite upside to this year of medical horror is that we are being forced to learn so much, knowledge that will help us to cope not only with this pandemic but with the next one and the next.

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Sorting Medical Fact from Fiction, Part I: The Two Earths

No, not the Silurians.

A couple of decades ago, a friend introduced me to the work of a person who was then known as Anna Hayes. Supposedly her teachings were “downloaded” (not channeled, she said) from a galactic council of aliens who were trying to be helpful to humanity and fight other aliens, including that perennial mainstay the reptilians, who were working to keep us confused and divided. Following her and doing the practices she taught was supposed to raise people’s vibratory states and allow them to rise above these malevolent influences and create a better reality.

Some of her practices appeared to be worthwhile for one’s health. Some of the very, very dense verbiage involved was obviously crap. And a lot was so hard to understand that one might not be quite sure. There was one contention she had that keeps coming up in my mind, though: a prediction that in the not too distant future, the earth would split into two planets— not physically, but energetically— and the two would go their separate ways, with no communication between them.

And metaphorically speaking, that is exactly what has happened. Strikingly, stunningly so.

This teaching was not meant to be taken metaphorically, though. The idea was that the people of higher vibrations would go one way, and those who hadn’t bothered to enlighten and advance themselves would go the other. The unenlightened ones would be under the tyranny of forces that wanted to use them for their own purposes.

Again, bingo. (Not that I’m being judgmental….)

Anna Hayes— not her original name— became Ashayana Deane, and now is known as E-Ashayana, which certainly sounds more exotic. Her writings are full of what appear to be made-up words, along with a sprinkling of terms that have been used in esoteric contexts for centuries. Her “alien” language makes her stories far more difficult to decipher, let alone analyze, criticize or argue against.

Sometimes, though, you can be sure you’re being given a load of sh*t. For example, the claims of another “spiritual teacher,” Teal Swan, are earth-based and relatively easy to debunk. She claims to have been horribly abused as a child by satanist— Mormon satanist!— cult members. One of her assertions is that at the age of 8 she was sewn inside the dead body of an adult. This is not physically possible.  Such deceptions unfortunately contaminate whatever may be of real value in her teachings.

I have compassion for people who are having trouble sorting everything out (all of us), because it usually isn’t so simple. To muddle matters further, I personally know people who perceive entities rather like the ones E-Ashayana postulates, and their understanding is that these beings are indeed attempting to manipulate us for their own ends. I don’t perceive such beings myself, so I’m agnostic. However, most entities I’ve encountered appear to be trying to help, and my psychic friends see those too.  I prefer to think that most beings, human or otherwise, want to work for good.  Even the farthest-out conspiracy theorists appear to have altruistic motives and believe they are battling evil, no matter how twisted their efforts may become.

But human brains are easily confused.  I suspect that for many people, the languages of science and medicine may seem nearly as unintelligible as E-Ashayana’s “alien” vocabulary. When the true story is complex and unfamiliar, it’s easy to swallow a competing story that sounds plausible on the surface. And of course if the story reinforces our preconceived notions, we’re sitting ducks for it.  Add the constant, overwhelming bombardment of messages from all sources, and how is a person supposed to keep their head on straight?

The meta-story of how a powerful They are constantly suppressing The Truth in order to control downtrodden Us never seems to get old. Of course it’s not a big stretch to believe in it. Heaven knows we’ve heard enough proven examples of deceit from large corporations, such as Exxon insisting climate change was bunk when they knew very well what a problem it was. We know of government agencies exposing citizens to nuclear tests or injecting soldiers with LSD. It’s not hard to accept the notion that powerful forces or beings, human or otherwise, might be trying to keep us in the dark. We have little reason to trust the good intentions of our corporate overlords, who appear to worship profit above all, nor certain politicians who have made it very clear that power is their sole motivation.

The two ladies I’ve mentioned also turn huge profits at the expense of their followers, and whatever they may claim about their motives, they have certainly gained power over them as well.  Since I am not personally acquainted with either one, I will say no more.  You can probably find examples of similar business models without much trouble.

Here’s where pop-culture gurus and more mainstream sources are in general agreement: We’re often told that if we stay centered and calm, keep our minds on our spiritual values and on love rather than fear, and consume a solid information diet instead of mental junk food, we are a lot harder to manipulate. That seems like an objective truth to me.

I would also like to submit that science and scholarship are real.  Science too can go astray, and can be manipulated for the sake of money or power, but the scientific process tends to right itself eventually.  Forces who want to manipulate us typically work to limit education and defund and muzzle science.  That’s one way you can recognize them. Isaac Asimov, who was very much concerned with finding truth and explaining it in a way people could understand, had this to say: ‘There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”’

No, ignorance isn’t good, ever.

Next: Ways to think clearly about touted treatments for COVID-19.

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Filed under history, mythology and metaphor, politics, psychology

“White wealth surges; black wealth stagnates”

While working on this post, I found myself struggling to explain to an elderly white friend that a certain young black right-wing icon is either an idiot or a con artist, and that she really did say that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and that it actually does. (She also says that global warming doesn’t exist.) He wasn’t having any of the facts I put in front of him. The conversation was quite a shock, as he is educated and intelligent, and I had not heard this sort of thing from him before. I wonder if he is consuming questionable news sources that he didn’t in the past.

Old white people, and everyone else, systemic racism is just not in question. It’s not abstract and it’s not theoretical. It’s right there in front of your face if you would only dare to look. And if you think only the South is the problem, I have two words for you: sundown towns.*

Americans are tragically ignorant about history. And if it’s history that makes us uncomfortable or asks us to do something differently, forget it. I mean we literally forget it.

I am asking you to remember a few things.

A very daunting recent article explained that the wealth disparity between white and black American families has not gotten any better over the course of more than 40 years. Not any better. We all know that economic inequality has gotten worse in our country, but we white folks may not realize how much harder our black neighbors have been hit. I hope the paywall doesn’t make it impossible for you to see it, because its 14 charts will hit you square between the eyes.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/economic-divide-black-households/

Here is what I particularly want you to look at:
 “In 1968, a typical middle-class black household had $6,674 in wealth compared with $70,786 for the typical middle-class white household, according to data from the historical Survey of Consumer Finances that has been adjusted for inflation. In 2016, the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household, an even larger gap in percentage terms.”

My own family’s economic path

You can skip this next section and all its details if you like. I’m going to outline how things have gone for my own family’s finances over the past century. My point is that we have had the benefit of some built-in advantages as well as a good deal of dumb luck and a few smart decisions. Many of these advantages have been denied to black families.

My mother was born in 1924. Her parents were both immigrants from Slovakia with little education. My grandfather worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine. After his death, during the Depression, my grandmother worked as a live-in domestic, leaving her eldest daughter to take care of the other children. They didn’t have much. Most people didn’t.

My mother was the valedictorian of her high school class. To the best of my knowledge, her siblings did not finish high school. Her brother, like many teenage boys at the time, left home to wander and find work, so that he would not be a burden on the family. He ended up as a Navy pilot.

During WWII, my mother got a job at US Steel in the Youngstown, Ohio area. Due to a severe allergic reaction to the tiny bits of steel that flew around in the air in the mill, she was moved into an office job. This was a lucky fluke that let her keep her job when the men returned from the war and most of the women were laid off.

At that time, it was common to find a good middle-class job with benefits with no more than a high school education. My mother became an accountant, training on the job, and worked in that capacity at US Steel for 37 years, until the mid-1970s when the plant closed. She had enough years in to retire early with a pension, something that is no longer common. It wasn’t very much, but it made a huge difference to the rest of her life.

For many years, US Steel routinely paid women less than men for similar jobs, but the union negotiated equal pay, which as the sole breadwinner my mother needed badly.  The union also provided a scholarship which covered almost all of my bachelor’s degree.

As a single mother, she needed child care. My grandmother moved in with us, which was another crucial factor for our survival. Gram was not particularly warm and fuzzy, but she did take her job of caring for me seriously, and I was kept safe and well fed. Working a reasonable schedule and having this help, my mother was able to pay attention to reading to me and taking me on outings and trips.

In 1962 or thereabouts, my mother bought a house for about $10,000. That house went for only $13,000 when she sold it in 1987, the area was so depressed, but that gave her a little something to work with when she moved to Albuquerque to be near my husband and me and our soon-to-be-born daughter. She eventually bought a house here. Through some rather complex circumstances, I inherited it, and the tenant who lived there at the time of her death is still there. He can’t pay the full market rate, but the house is paid off and it works out.

You see where I’m going with this— the sums of money are small, but they accumulate and build financial stability and family wealth.

My husband’s parents were also second-generation Americans whose parents had a similar background to my mother’s. My father-in-law worked in the mill, and my mother-in-law had worked at a china factory for a while. Most people we knew were like that, working in manufacturing, usually at the same company for decades, ending up with decent pensions.

Now, to the next generation. Despite two degrees, I never had a reasonable income till I was in my 40s and had established my acupuncture practice; before that, I was a starving teacher of private music lessons. My husband taught school most of his working life. At first he was a band director, but the music programs kept being cut, and he ended up doing special ed. We were lower middle class for the majority of that time, I would say.

We left the extremely depressed Youngstown area, where my husband first band director job had been destroyed by cuts to school budgets, and moved to Albuquerque in 1984. We had almost nothing, but we were both able to get low-paid jobs in a music store and that got us started. That company went out of business due to extremely poor investment decisions on the part of the owner, again leaving us bereft. By that time we had enough private students and gigs to tide us over. Eventually my husband was able to get another job as a band director.

These jobs remained shaky. When our daughter was born in 1988, my husband had only a half-time position. We were trying to buy the house we had been renting, and the owners were willing, but the bank that held the underlying mortgage wouldn’t even return our phone calls, and loans were not easy to come by. Parents to the rescue! My in-laws, who had long since paid off their own modest house, gave us the $18,000 needed to pay off that mortgage so that the owners could then take back a real-estate contract and sell the house to us. That $18,000 doesn’t sound like much today, but back then it was a fortune equal to a year of our gross income. And it was another absolutely crucial step.

We lived in that house till 2002, at which time we moved into our present house, with my mother following a few months later. We rented our old house out, and she sold hers to a friend, also on an REC. That deal came to a bad end, and as I said, I inherited the house.

Late last year the tenants at our old house had to move— the same tenants all that time, who we were so fortunate to have— and we sold the house this spring. We put a lot into it over the years, but still came out well ahead.

Another stroke of good fortune was that my mother never needed to go into a long-term care facility. My husband was retired by the time she began to need serious care, and he was a wonderful help to her until she passed in early 2017. She had told us that she didn’t have much in the way of assets, but somehow, amazingly, she had managed to save about 4 times the annual sum of her meager pension and Social Security. (She had done some part-time accounting work into her late 70s, so had a bit of extra income, but even so, this was quite impressive.) I think she expected to need that money for medical costs and/or a nursing home, so she didn’t count it as disposable and was careful not to touch it. Between Medicare and the health insurance she still had after all those years from her US Steel job, most everything was covered, and we had no financial worries in wrapping up her estate.

The result of all this, thus far, is that although none of us ever had high incomes, we are living in a state of relative wealth and financial stability and are able to help others a bit. A major illness or other disaster could change all that, but we do have a cushion. 

In contrast, we’re all told that the majority of American families could not cover a $400 emergency expense. There are all sorts of factors that could be involved, but let’s think about some specific things that might have happened to a black family over time that would prevent them from accumulating wealth.

Social Security

Did you know that the Social Security program left out huge swaths of the population when it was originally designed? Social Security was not extended to some of the people who needed it the most, domestic and agricultural workers. It has often been written that this was intentionally done to exclude people of color.
https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1409&context=csd_research

https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html
This second article argues that the decision to exclude such workers was not racially motivated, since self-employed and government workers, as well as employees of churches and nonprofits, were also excluded. Perhaps, but whatever was in the minds of the designers, the effect was still to deny this income to a great many black and brown families, while most white families could receive it.

Domestic and agricultural workers are now covered, at least in theory, but for decades their families were further impoverished by the exclusion, over and above the fact that their incomes were low to begin with.

Home ownership

Home ownership is the main way families in the US build wealth. Black families have been consistently and systematically hampered in their ability to buy and keep houses and to choose where they want to live.

In case you are not convinced of that, here is a quick summary of the history of redlining, predatory loans and other ways African-Americans have been prevented from getting in on that vaunted American Dream:
https://www.zillow.com/blog/zillow-group-report/african-americans-homeownership/
The report states, “If white wealth remained stagnant, it would still take black families 228 years and Latino families 84 years to gain parity.”

https://www.epi.org/press/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission-black-americans-are-not-economically-equal/
“‘Black Americans have clearly put a tremendous amount of personal effort into improving their social and economic standing, but that effort only goes so far when you’re working within structures that were never intended to give equal outcomes,’ said economist Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.”

But what if, against the odds, you did build up some wealth? Say you’ve managed to put together a nice place to live, along with your family and friends. Then someone comes and simply tears it all down.
https://timeline.com/black-village-destroyed-central-park-6356723113fa

Or, as happened in the Tulsa massacre we’ve been reminded of this week, white people who resent your success can come and kill you and burn everything.

This is long enough already, so for now I’ll leave out other factors like health disparities, mass incarceration, and the effects of the so-called War on Drugs, which has been more like a war on poor people.

In many ways the ladder to success in this country has gotten slipperier and tougher to scale, and some of the rungs that used to exist have been broken. Insane health care costs, unaffordable higher education, the gig economy, and jobs without benefits, predictable schedules or sufficient hours to get by— all that hurts everyone except those at the very top (and if they thought more about it they’d realize it’s not great for them either). It’s not like any racial or ethnic group has it easy these days. It’s just that anything that whacks the population as a whole, like COVID-19, tends to whack black Americans harder.

We’re so used to this that it all seems normal and inevitable. It’s not, and it never was. If you can step outside your unconscious expectations for a moment, maybe you can begin to see the craziness. Imagine that you are visiting from Alpha Centauri, planning to have a look at the Grand Canyon. Someone tells you that an Earth person’s chances of living a decent life in many parts of the planet depend on the amount of pigment in the outer covering of their body. You say, “Get outta here! You’re kidding, right?” You can’t imagine that happening on your own planet (where everything sensibly depends on the number of tentacles on one’s head). You make a mental note to avoid this bizarre place for future vacations.

Humans take any excuse to look down on other humans. It seems to be ingrained. I suppose that at some time very, very long ago it was good for our survival and so the trait stuck. It is exceedingly bad for our survival now. We’ve got to stop it, and we’ve got to do that first within ourselves. But even while we’re struggling with that challenge, we can create systems that are more equitable and increase opportunity.

 

*And one more word: Levittown.
 “As well as a symbol of the American Dream, Levittown would also become a symbol of racial segregation in the United States, due to Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement signed by the first residents of Levittown, who had an option to buy their homes. This “restrictive covenant” stated in capital letters and bold type that the house could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”[10]

“Such discriminatory housing standards were consistent with government policies of the time.[11] The Federal Housing Administration allowed developers to justify segregation within public housing. The FHA only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments which discouraged developers from creating racially integrated housing.[12] Before the sale of Levittown homes began, the sales agents were aware that no applications from black families would be accepted. As a result, American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were black.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levittown,_New_York

 

More resources:

2017: https://www.zillow.com/blog/millennials-diversity-housing-209688/

2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/get-there/wp/2018/04/05/black-homeownership-is-as-low-as-it-was-when-housing-discrimination-was-legal/

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Filed under history, human rights, politics

Taking the Hill for Human Rights

At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths*, and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. —Fr Richard Rohr

 

Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote in a recent post: “Whatever hill is worth dying on for you in this life, take it now.”
https://johnpavlovitz.com/2018/07/03/pick-a-hill-worth-dying-on-america/

I realized right away that I knew which “hill” that was for me. Despite the progress of the past decade, the ability of LGBTQ+ people to work, to buy ordinary products and services, to adopt children, to live in a particular building or neighborhood, even just to live at all has been under heavy attack of late.

A couple of weeks ago I watched Hannah Gadsby’s high-impact one-woman show Nanette, which you absolutely should check out. In her native Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997!!!! I was 37 then, for freak’s sake! That was a sobering reminder of how fragile our situation is. In my relatively open community, it’s easy to forget how difficult things can be in so many parts of the world.

And of course that includes much of the US. The vice-president, may he soon be enlightened, is trying to establish a “religious liberty” office to make sure that anyone whose religion tells them to discriminate against those who are different in their sexual or gender identity can do so with complete freedom, the Constitution and legal precedent be damned. As Cornel West has said, “The fundamentalist Christians want to be fundamental about everything except Love Thy Neighbor!”

I often find myself imagining something like this:

Incredibly, because Americans insist on continuing to use the death penalty and it seemed to be under threat, last fall the US voted AGAINST a UN “resolution condemning the use of the death penalty as punishment for consensual gay relations.” The resolution passed anyway, but the US had sided with a group of countries known for human-rights abuses and against all of Europe and almost all of the rest of the Americas. We could have abstained. We did not.
https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/05/opinions/un-death-penalty-resolution-usa-lgbt-ghitis-opinion/index.html

This feels more and more like a crisis, one building inexorably, one that can’t be ignored. “If you aren’t finding your voice right now, don’t bother worrying about it again,” Pavlovitz wrote. “You won’t have one much longer.” So I am continuing to make whatever sounds I can.

The event that got me started thinking about writing this post was the death of Jeremy Reynalds, who founded the local help for the homeless organization Joy Junction. Friends commented about something I had forgotten: that Reynalds not only forbade LGBTQ+ folk from staying at his shelter, but even refused to take donations from such people. Wow. I wasn’t good enough for him to help me if I needed it, and even my money wasn’t good enough for him. I had a seriously hard time with this. It bugged me for days. It even contributed to some physical symptoms.

But later, I read that Reynalds had changed, which is a great relief and source of hope.  ‘“I’m much less judgmental than I used to be, and that’s made me a much happier person,” Reynalds said in 2016. “My mantra for the last eight or nine years is ‘Let God do the judging, and I will do the loving.’”
https://www.abqjournal.com/1197802/reynalds-leaves-legacy-of-helping-the-less-fortunate.html

Understanding why certain religious people are so set in their anti-LGBTQ stance runs one directly down the infinitely dark rabbit hole of biblical literalism. In researching background for this post, I came across the word “bibliolatry,” which refers to worshiping the written word above all else including real, living people and even the living traditions of one’s faith– not to mention the living Christ in whom one supposedly believes. To that, another kind of Christian might reply:

I understand that we all cherry-pick whatever agrees with our preconceived notions. However— something that has been said so many times, but it bears repeating since they Just Don’t Seem to Get It— if these people are going to insist that same-sex relationships are sinful because of their interpretation of a few words in Leviticus, why is it that they feel free to eat shellfish and wear polyester/cotton clothing and trim their beards?

I haven’t had any recent opportunities to ask this directly of an evangelical. Typical answers might be that this was written a very long time ago and that society has changed a great deal, and/or that Jesus superseded the Old Testament laws with the greater law of “Love one another.” One article, in explaining why we no longer execute disobedient children, simply stated, “The Old Testament Law is not in force today.”** Well, that was easy, wasn’t it.  Except that they’re saying it is.

In addition to this convenient inconsistency, they seem to have decided that the way God constructed nature and humanity is not OK, because they insist that biology is something quite different from what it really is. It probably won’t help to tell a person who believes the Earth is only 6000 years old to objectively observe the natural world, but even a cursory survey would quickly show that sexuality and gender are not binary, but exist along continua. Now, for religious people to question nature and find it lacking is to question and criticize the workings of the mind of God. Isn’t that blasphemy? How can that be acceptable to them?

Well, that’s why it’s so crucial for them to believe that sexual orientation is a choice. If homosexuality does NOT inherently exist in nature, but rather is invented by depraved or confused human minds, then there is no conflict with their chosen biblical interpretation. Likewise, if there is no such thing as an intersex or transgender child and the kids are only imagining it all, there is no need to revise rigidly prescribed gender roles. There are powerful incentives for them to wish reality away.

Somehow I have felt compelled to follow the rabbit downward and better understand the origins of this way of thinking. I hadn’t realized how recent a phenomenon biblical literalism is. Fundamentalists might like to think of themselves as part of an ancient tradition, part of the bedrock of Christianity, as the name implies, but this is not the case. Certainly it is not how most of us brought up in mainstream forms of Christianity were taught to think about the bible. We were taught in Catholic school that biblical stories such as the Adam and Eve myth were to be understood as allegories, and there is nothing at all modern or “liberal” about such an attitude. Very early authorities such as Philo of Alexandria and Origen*** wrote about just that way of understanding scripture, and their teaching was accepted for most of the past two millennia.

Dr. Kevin Lewis went so far as to describe literalism as heresy: ’The heresy of literalism as such is a modern, post-scientific phenomenon. Its beginnings can be traced in seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy, but it bloomed with twentieth-century Fundamentalism, when the modern world fully embraced the dynamic power of natural science. Scientific method crucially altered the Western mind. After Descartes we became principled skeptics, doubting in order to find out the truth. The notion stole into the religious mind that biblical narratives make proposals that only appear to compete with testable scientific findings (to test our faith) while ultimately, if miraculously, conforming to scientific truth.’

‘So rose up in history a reactionary Christian mind, panicked and defensive, straining to assert scientific proof (thereby establishing absolute certainty) for its Scripture and the articles of belief it wished to communicate. Thus did literalism teach the “letter” to drive out the “spirit” of the biblical writings, effectively misusing the text in order to promote a corrupted theological agenda. The effect is a rigid constriction of the inspiring Word.’
http://people.cas.sc.edu/lewiske/heresy.html

I have often said that if someone wishes to take scripture literally, they had better be able to read and write the ancient languages involved, fluently, and understand exactly how the words were used at the time those passages were written. Only then can they expect to have any idea what it is that they are taking literally. Some scholars try to do that.

A rather arcane article, “The Secret History of Leviticus” by Idan Dershowitz, showed up in the New York Times, interestingly enough. Dershowitz analyzed the text in detail to elucidate likely changes over the long period of time that probably elapsed as the book was rewritten into its present form. He points out that there were generally no known prohibitions against sex between men in earlier times, and that the prohibitions appear to have been absent in the earliest version of Leviticus as well, and to have been added later in the book’s history. 
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/bible-prohibit-gay-sex.html?action=click&module=Trending&pgtype=Article&region=Footer&contentCollection=Trending

An interesting case is a website written by Rick Brentlinger, who identifies himself as a gay Christian and an independent Baptist preacher. (I’m a little sorry to identify him by name, since I am about to harshly criticize him.)  I found it while looking for the meaning of the passages about homosexuality in the original languages. He has a rather different take on Leviticus, and on Paul, asserting that in both cases the prohibition is really against temple prostitution rather than same-sex relations in general. I can’t say whether or not he is accurate in his analysis, but it is an interesting perspective. One statement of his with which I wholeheartedly agree: ”Scripture cannot mean NOW/ What it did not mean THEN.”

Unfortunately, Brentlinger goes on to toe the literalist line, even stating in so many words that Adam was a real man and the first human. He rails against common practices like contemplative prayer and meditation, saying that only reading or hearing scripture is acceptable prayer. (It amazes me— how is one supposed to listen to God with all those words chattering in one’s mind all the time?) Yet he even slams Lectio Divina, in which one reads scripture in a mystical manner, intending to let its meaning manifest in a nonverbal awareness. Even the way other people read the Bible is not good enough for him! It seems to me that he is playing along with the game plan of the very people who oppress him and his. I can empathize a little, though. Otherwise he would have to separate entirely from his faith community and his home culture, I suppose, and that might be too much to contemplate. It seems that he is finding a way to be part of the groupthink and be himself at the same time.

At any rate, there is nothing at all that literalists can quote from Jesus’ preaching on homosexuality or other matters of sexual orientation or gender identity, because nothing is there, neither prohibitions nor permissions. There is that one story that can be interpreted as being tolerant of same-sex relationships, the one about the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant/companion and shows absolute faith that he can do it. Brentlinger does interpret it that way.

I wonder what the literalists think about the apocryphal books such as the Gospel of Thomas, and how they deal with the idea that some gospels were written through divine inspiration and some weren’t, when it is clear that ordinary humans chose which books to include in the canon. Some of those books were of inferior quality, but others were discarded because they didn’t fit the political power needs of the men who were in charge. And they were all men, of course. In the early days of Christianity, many individuals were preaching and transmitting their own revelations and insights, and some of the most famous were women. The powers that were felt the need to squelch all that, making us all poorer in the process. Some of the early writings have come to light in the past century, of course, and now we have a broader perspective that makes biblical literalism appear all the more ludicrous.

It was decided by some of those august Church Fathers, trying to hold their young organization together, that revelation had stopped at the death of the last apostle, and no one else was going to hear anything worthwhile from God! This connects with the suspicious attitude toward contemplative prayer and meditation— one must simply accept what has already been written, and heaven forbid that one might connect with the divine on one’s own. (Everything there is authoritarian at its core. And that, dear reader, has a lot to do with the love of fundamentalists for our current administration.)

I’ll end by bringing you back to John Pavlovitz, who had to broaden his thinking when he was exposed to people who were different from those he’d been brought up with— and then his brother came out as gay. ‘”It was a gradual deconstruction of my faith,” he says. “You look at one isolated area of the Bible, for example, then realize, Well, if that doesn’t mean what I was taught it meant, what other areas of my spiritual journey was I taking for granted? So you start digging into it, and you find yourself exploring all areas of your belief system.”’

And he claims some of that personal revelation, which doesn’t go over well with the kind of church he moved away from:
‘Some simply know in their gut, he says, that a religion of in-groups and out-groups isn’t what Jesus was preaching.’
https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/how-raleighs-john-pavlovitz-went-from-fired-megachurch-pastor-to-rising-star-of-the-religious-left/Content?oid=9664688

You know, if you’ve been reading my stuff, where I stand with regard to personal revelation. And so here I am, on my hill, where I intend to stay until it’s no longer necessary.

 

*Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 36-37.
http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

**https://www.gotquestions.org/stone-rebellious-children.html

*** https://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/rescuing-the-bible-from-literalism

This article also takes up archeological questions about the origin of the people of Israel, the supposed conquest of Canaan, and the exodus from Egypt. These are fascinating matters which also feed into our current political situation, but I’ll take them up at another time.

 

 

 

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“Captain, I’m afraid I don’t know where we are.”

If your threat ganglia pop out, there’s usually a good reason.

That line keeps repeating in my head.

As all good science-fiction should do, Star Trek: Discovery used fantastical but relatable metaphors to comment on our situation here and now.  The conceit of the Mirror Universe, the place Saru didn’t recognize when he made the statement above, was as good as any to explore the deep and pervasive sense of disorientation so many of us continue to feel.  (For those who missed it, the Mirror Universe– the one where, you might remember, Spock had a beard– was populated by the same beings as our own but was a twisted place where humans ran a cruel, xenophobic, racist empire based on war.)

Much of the first season of Discovery was deeply dark and very 2017-18.  It appeared that even Starfleet captains had renounced virtue in favor of expediency.  Of course it turned out that the brilliant but ruthless Captain Lorca was really a denizen of the evil universe’s Terran Empire, and had never been meant to represent Federation values at all.  But then, in desperation to survive against the Klingon onslaught, which was threatening the existence of Earth itself, Starfleet came to the brink of committing genocide, leading to this exchange:

Admiral Cornwell: “We do not have the luxury of principles!”
Michael Burnham: “That is all we have, Admiral!”*

In the face of destruction of our entire planet– a situation we DO face in real life– and against threats not only to any chance of democracy but to truth itself, is this valid?  Do we have any room to maneuver at all?  Can we survive without compromising our values?

The wide-eyed optimism of Star Trek, which has never died, says that there is always a better way.  To choose compassion over fear.  To choose the Federation values of peace, fairness, inclusiveness, and respect for those who are different. When trapped between unacceptable alternatives, to find a third path.

In Gene Roddenberry’s cosmology, things got a whole lot worse before they got better.  I remember some adults talking that way when I was a kid, around the time of Classic Trek, explicitly expecting that there would be an era of horrendous upheavals and destruction to live through, somewhere about now.  I don’t know what made them think that way, but they seem to have been correct.  One can hope that the calm really will come through after the storm, and that somehow it will all make sense.  Personally, my threat ganglia are still out and waving.

**************************************************************

About a week ago I wrote this, in response to people asking me for my thoughts about the current primary season.  Non-New Mexicans probably won’t care:

I’ve been wanting to write something about my choice of candidates for the gubernatorial and congressional primaries, in part to explain my thinking to myself. I am helping two campaigns, to the small extent that I have energy to do so. People I’ve spoken with are expressing a lot of confusion, because we have the blessing or curse of multiple decent human beings running. So let’s think a few aspects of the races through. I’m interested in the thoughts of others who may have come to a different set of conclusions.

I was a little bit concerned that I might be basing my choices on emotional reactions to my favorite candidates, so I have spent time thinking through the matter as dispassionately as possible.  [My Vulcan ancestry at work again.]  Yet, I have to say that my two candidates are nice, pleasant people to be around, and that is a big part of my support for them. At the same time, they’re tough and they don’t knuckle under. I think they’ve got the right combination of the two.

There’s no confusion with the governor’s race for me. I’ve been a fan of Michelle Lujan Grisham for years, and every time I have the opportunity to speak with her in person, I like her all the better. The last time I saw her was at the annual meeting of the Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign on April 28. I had the good fortune to be getting out of my car at the same time she was getting out of hers, and we had a bit of a walk to get into the building, around two sides of a block, so I had her to myself for a few minutes. We discussed health insurers and some maddening issues for health care providers like me. Michelle has the health care wonk thing going on, having run the state health department, and that’s important for me. I know from previous discussions that she would try to get the superintendent of insurance to work more for the people and less for the insurers, and that she has some specific ideas about that.

The fact that she showed up for our meeting at all was big, of course. But this was bigger: When I asked her how an ordinary person could go about contacting her on a specific issue like the one we were talking about, she replied, “I work for you. Call me.” OK, that might not really happen very easily in practice. But the sentiment seemed real. I do believe that Michelle acts out of a spirit of service and that she does not put herself above her constituents.

One of the first things our representative did when she got to Congress was to try living on a food budget equal to that of a food stamp recipient, to see how real people can manage it. She reported on how difficult it was. This was when I first took real notice of her, and I immediately developed respect for her. In the past she’s done hands-on investigations like going undercover at a nursing home to expose abuse. She doesn’t take the easiest paths and sometimes she upsets those who are in charge. She is exceedingly tenacious, maybe to the point where she annoys some people; that’s a big reason why we finally got the cleanup of the Kirtland jet fuel spill going after so much dithering around. She knows how to build a coalition; that’s how a bipartisan group of female lawmakers broke the logjam on VAWA.

Jeff Apodaca did not show up at the Health Security meeting himself, but he did send two representatives, his wife and former candidate Peter DiBenedittis, who now works for him. Apodaca stated forcefully in the debate televised today that he would put a single-payer system in place in the state. That’s quite commendable, but he seemed to think he could do that all by himself, making me wonder if he really has much of an idea how state government works.

Apodaca has expressed a number of ideas that strike me as interesting, fresh, and utterly unrealistic. Yes, it would be totally great if we could pipe water from areas that often have flooding to those that have drought. (He suggested that if water were piped to Texas, the Texans wouldn’t need to take water from NM!) Maybe someday that could even be done. Is it a real-world, near-term solution for our desiccated state? Um, no. My impression is that he may not even realize that what he’s saying comes off more like science fiction than policy. Perhaps I’m being a stick in the mud (the long-dried mud, that is), and I should be more welcoming toward way-out-of-the-box possibilities, but I’d rather we would start with something we could actually get done, and soon.

There is something that disturbs me more about Apodaca, though, and that’s what I perceive as negativity and anger. His speech at the Progressive Summit in January struck me as one of the nastiest and most venomous presentations I’d ever heard from a candidate. I can’t remember the specifics of what he talked about, but he belittled others rather than lifting everyone up. He lost any chance at my vote there and then. That unpleasantness was on display in today’s debate, as well.

Joe Cervantes is more of a conundrum for the progressive Democrat trying to choose a governor. His TV ads include endorsements from people I really respect, Jerry Ortiz y Pino and my own beloved state senator, Mimi Stewart. He comported himself quite well in the debate this evening, and the fact that he represents Sunland Park, right on the southern border, makes his perspective especially useful in the present climate. I still have to go with Michelle, though, because of my personal experience with her and more importantly her broad experience in both state and federal government.

What we can’t lose perspective on: The candidate we pick will go up against Steve Pearce in the fall. If you’re bothering to read this, you probably realize how dangerous Pearce would be as governor— a man who, among all his other alarming qualities, believes that his wife should obey him because that’s biblical!

In 2014, we ended up with an incredibly weak Democratic candidate, Gary King, and Susana Martinez wiped the floor with him. Those who had any idea what was going on repudiated King at the party convention, but he was able to gather enough extra signatures to get on the ballot anyway. Name-recognition and fondness for his dad put him on top in the primary, but there wasn’t enough enthusiasm to take him through the general election. We can’t let this happen again. King is universally hailed as a nice guy, but niceness isn’t necessarily a great thing when it’s wishy-washy.

I can’t help remembering how it was in 2010, when then-lieutenant governor Diane Denish wrote out pages and pages of specific and actionable policy ideas while running for governor. She had plans up the wazoo. Her opponent, Susana, said practically nothing and appeared to have little idea what she was getting herself into. But she represented law and order, and Denish was tainted by the corruption into which Bill Richardson had sunk the governor’s office. We all know how that worked out.

Now we have to pull ourselves out of a different sort of morass. I agree with Mayor Tim Keller, who made the point many times during his own campaign that we have to do our own lifting and can’t rely on help to swoop in from somewhere else. But there are better and worse mechanisms we can use to get it done, and more and less knowledgeable and energetic people to lead as we do it.

****************************************************************

Rep. Lujan Grisham, when asked why she was giving up her seat in Congress to run for governor, said that with Washington so dysfunctional, the state and local levels are where things can get done. (Mayor Keller said something similar when he left his job as state auditor.) Yet, we still have to have someone warming those seats at the Capitol and at least attempting to do something positive. My choice for NM CD1 is Deb Haaland.

I’m not being a great help to any campaign, but I did get out and knock on doors in the past couple of days to get out the vote for Deb, my first experience of canvassing. Most people weren’t home, or at least didn’t answer— no surprise there. I had the privilege of walking a really lovely neighborhood, and even got to see one of the “spaceship” houses close up and talk with its very friendly owner. (If you’re a local, you know the two houses I mean.) The most heartening interaction today was with a guy who told me, “Oh, I’m a Republican. My wife’s the Democrat. But we still live with each other.”

Of course I had to explain why I was bothering to walk around with a Deb yard sign and why I had picked her out of the crowded primary field. Everyone knows by now that she’d be the first Native American woman elected to Congress. That is a major matter, since Indians have practically no representation in DC at all, and women are still quite underrepresented. Especially in this time of environmental peril, I do think it’s well worthwhile, even crucial, to include a Native point of view, and we need far more than this one individual to express it. But people want to know what else there is about Deb.

I could go on about renewable energy being a critical necessity for the state’s economy and the world, and her championing of it, or her support for universal health coverage. I could add that she’s had a broad range of experiences, rather than, for example, being a lawyer for her entire adult life. She’s known for working hard for progressive causes and candidates over the years, for always showing up. She showed up at Standing Rock with the water protectors, too. Growing up in a military family, although she did not go into an armed service herself, will give her perspective when the present administration pushes for war. 

But what originally attracted me to Deb was something very simple, a small gesture that made a lasting impression. I was at a gathering hosted by Equality New Mexico a couple of years ago, where I met her and also Santa Fe’s new mayor, Alan Webber. The room was crowded, and I was trying unsuccessfully to slip between bodies and furniture to get a glass of water. Deb saw this, filled a glass and brought it to me. She was the chair of the state Democratic party at the time, but she so didn’t make a big deal of herself. She was real and down to earth. She saw a need and literally filled it. That graciousness and warmth has characterized every interaction I’ve had with her.

In addition, Deb is my age and has been a small-business owner, so I see her as a woman like me. As a single mother of one daughter, she is like my own mother. Her daughter is an LGBTQ person (a different one of the letters from me) and I know Deb will always do whatever she can to protect us from discrimination and worse.

Having said all that, I’d be happy if we could hire all the primary candidates as a team (with one possible exception), because they all have considerable strengths.

It’s a little bit painful not to be able to support my city councilor, Pat Davis, in this primary. I have great respect for Pat and his work with Progress Now, and as with Deb and Michelle, he is always a delight to meet in person. He can articulate his position on issues with great clarity, and I’d say he won the debate that was televised a few days ago, though other viewers might disagree. However, whichever Democrat we elect in the primary has got to be able to win the general election in November, and I’m afraid Pat is too polarizing a figure to manage that. The unopposed Republican, Janice Arnold-Jones, is non-loony and also very articulate, and it’s possible that she could come off looking like the voice of reason, a comfortable and non-threatening choice.

It’s a burning question for all the Democratic candidates this year, at least the leftier ones— should we push as hard as we can for our progressive values, or try to be palatable to a broader swath of the electorate? I honestly don’t know. It’s looking, from elections that have already taken place, like strong progressives are doing quite well. Pat Davis decided to go for it with his “Fuck the NRA” ad, which was, shall we say, a bit surprising to the viewing audience. A former cop who has been shot himself, he concluded that being nice and polite was getting us nowhere, and I can’t fault him for trying to push the gun conversation in a more useful direction. He did get national attention. However, it’s possible that he committed suicide as a candidate, and that the audacious ad caused some people to stop listening to his usual far more measured and reasonable arguments. We’ll see more as this continues to play out.

I was very unhappy with Davis when he voted for the ART project, although he said he had come around to it reluctantly, and he did fight to get a stop put in my neighborhood, which was going to be left out. Worse, every day when I drive to my office, I curse his decision to make Zuni one lane. He pushed for the re-striping of the road in order to stop pedestrians from getting killed, and no one could argue with that as a reason, but with traffic getting backed up for blocks, cars using the bike lane for turns, and still no clear places for pedestrians to cross, I question whether Zuni really is safer for anyone. Early on, one of my patients was involved in a car accident, when another driver hit her while failing to merge where the road goes from two lanes to one at San Mateo, a poorly-designed area if you ask me. And this redesign was done while the ART construction was at its height and Central was virtually unusable. Zuni was never meant to be a major artery to begin with, as my former councilor Rey Garduno once told me— yet the ART proponents blithely assumed it could take on the extra traffic from Central, while reduced to one lane. Yeah, right. Pat Davis stands by his decision, since it was meant to save lives, but it seems to me that the Zuni situation is an example of not quite thinking things through. (End of Zuni rant.)

Damon Martinez’s enthusiasm about the ATF sting that was supposed to get the “worst of the worst” of local criminals and instead netted low-level guys, most of them black, entrapping and victimizing at least one harmless person and costing millions in the process, was enough to lose any chance at my vote.

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez is probably a fine choice for this office, and she is supported by a lot of people I respect. My husband and I think that Deb’s range of experiences will be more useful.

I don’t know much about Damian Lara. As an immigration lawyer, no doubt he does excellent work. He too may seem relatively extreme to the general electorate— though again, maybe that could be a good thing.

Paul Moya speaks well and seems to have good ideas, but he’s very young and could use more experience for this national-level job.
*************************************************************************
I had a terrible time deciding about the lieutenant governor and land commissioner candidates. Both Rick Miera and Howie Morales would likely make fantastic lieutenant governors. I voted for Miera on the basis of his support for us Doctors of Oriental Medicine and our patients, as well as for the Health Security Act.  All the land commissioner hopefuls have useful experience and excellent ideas, though Garrett VeneKlasen gives the most detail about his plans.

So we have a wealth of strong, qualified, apparently sincere and decent candidates, but it’s a little hard to feel confident about the future of US government in general this year. I can only hope that we’re accomplishing something more than rearranging the Titanic’s furniture.

In any case, GO VOTE!

 

* The fates of the Klingons and the Federation are decided largely by a quartet of seriously badass women.  We have strong women on both sides in NM as well.  May the Burnhams among us prevail!

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The Authoritarian Personality and the National Divide

‘In talking to right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) — in any situation — the first and greatest challenge is to reduce the level of fear and increase the level of trust. They cannot hear or see you at all until this happens.’ — Sara Robinson

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Americans are completely boggled that so many of our fellow citizens are willing to believe so much crazy crap that is so utterly disconnected from reality. Just saying that they’re nuts is not helpful. Strangely enough, there is actual research to help explain why and how they are able to continue living in their alternative reality and steadfastly fend off any facts that might attempt to intrude. And it’s been around since before the last period of far-right fantasy hegemony.

I came across a very useful set of posts by Sara Robinson, who was raised fundamentalist and closed-minded but was able to transcend her upbringing, and who has a lot of understanding about how to communicate with those who are still inside the “Wall” of insulated post-factual unreality. So much became clearer for me. (Scroll down for links.)

Robinson was summarizing the work of John Dean— yes, that John Dean, from Watergate— who wrote Conservatives Without Conscience, which is based on the work of social psychologist Robert Altemeyer.  Although Robinson’s posts pertain to right-wing Americans, certain evangelical Christians in particular, the dynamics of authoritarianism are the same across cultures and religions.

“Research into ‘authoritarian personalities’ began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram’s famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use.”

The bully leads

The description of authoritarians who are on the leader side of the equation sounds eerily familiar in our present environment:
“High-SDO [social dominance orientation] people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:
“Typically men
Intimidating and bullying
Faintly hedonistic
Vengeful
Pitiless
Exploitative
Manipulative
Dishonest
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Mean-spirited
Militant
Nationalistic
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of ‘suckers’
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican”

“Dean notes: ‘Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, they are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge.’ In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.”

But these leaders wouldn’t get very far unless there were legions of authoritarian personalities on the follower side, and unfortunately there are. It seems that there are all too many people who want to be told what to think and what to do.  Robinson postulates that while the bullying leader types may be beyond the possibility of redemption, a lot of followers may have some openness to communicating across the divide.

I can easily sympathize with the desire to be given simple answers and clear directions. The world is so overwhelmingly complex nowadays, and our path forward seems so uncertain. Sadly, I expect that fundamentalism and authoritarianism will continue their ascent in the near future as climate change and population growth create even more conflict and pressures for water and other resources. They may even provide some sort of genuine protection against chaos, at least temporarily and in limited areas. However, this kind of mindset works against the innovative drive and mental agility that is needed most under fast-changing and stressful conditions.

Dedicated to the cause


“RWAs are sadly accustomed to subordinating their own needs to those of their superiors; in fact, one of the struggles we often see in recovering fundies is a complete inability to even acknowledge that they have needs of their own, let alone identify them, let alone act to meet them. They simply don’t know where to begin. Also, because their own authorities use guilt and shame to control them, they’ve seldom been allowed to see themselves as truly good and moral people.
“Giving an RWA permission to recognize, give voice to, and take action to satisfy his or her own needs is a powerful act. In affirming that they are not just allowed, but entitled (in the name of fairness) to feel their own emotions, own their own goodness, indulge a few harmless appetites, enjoy themselves, assert their boundaries, or stand up and say ‘no’ to overweening authority, you are being an enlightened witness to their true self — something many of them have seldom if ever had. In the process, you are also giving them a direct view over the wall. Often, it’s a view that they never forget, and will keep coming back to until they’re persuaded to go over it for good.”

Red Family, Blue Family

“The best writing on this I’ve seen comes from Unitarian writer Doug Muder, who has taken George Lakoff’s model of ‘strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parent’ politics one step further, and uses it to explain precisely how the right wing came to believe this preposterous notion…. Muder asserts that, while Lakoff’s right that family models are the right frame, the real dialectic is between families of ‘inherited obligation’ versus those based on ‘negotiated commitment.’ Go read the article, then come on back. We’ll be here.”

Here’s the article: “Red Family, Blue Family” https://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/209.html
I strongly recommend that you read this. In fact, I implore you to read it. Lights will go on for you. For example:
 “The Inherited Obligation model, on the other hand, is ambivalent about the social safety net. On the one hand, it is good that people don’t just die when they have no one to take care of them. But on the other hand, the safety net weakens the network of familial obligations. A young adult who moves to the big city to seek his fortune doesn’t come home when he fails, he draws unemployment. Social Security and Medicare may provide an excuse not to take care of aging parents.
“…The Inherited Obligation model is likewise ambivalent about freedom. Freedom to fulfill your obligations according to your best judgment is a good thing. But the kind of freedom that releases people from their obligations is not. In the Negotiated Commitment model, a life without commitments is empty, and there can be no commitment without freedom.”
“Their demonic liberal is a person with no moral depth or seriousness. Convenience is his only true value. Words that we revere, such as freedom and choice, rebound against us: We like these words because we want to be free of our obligations and choose the easy way out.
“Just as married people sometimes imagine the single life as far more licentious and libidinous than it ever actually is, so people born into life-defining obligations imagine a life free from such obligations. The truth about liberals – that we more often than not choose to commit ourselves to marriage, children, church, and most of the other things conservatives feel obligated to, and that we stick by those commitments every bit as faithfully, if not more so – easily gets lost.”

Sometimes those on the left are accused of attempting to control and tyrannize others in the same way that the right does. That isn’t really characteristic of liberals, with their tendency toward fluidity and emphasis on choice:
  “As a final point: Dean’s book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of ‘liberal fundamentalists’ and ‘liberal authoritarians.’ Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other ‘left-wing’ totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create ‘Communist’ political orders, they’re classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.
“Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world’s first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation’s best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.”

(Note that standing up strongly for principles, such as equality of opportunity in jobs and housing, does not constitute tyranny.)

“Alt” authoritarians

Then there are those who reject established authority but believe in “alt” authorities without question. It’s easy and seductive to see oneself as part of a persecuted minority, a group that’s in the know and smarter than all those “sheeple.” Robinson’s “A Short Detour” section is about them:
“I’ve known way more than my share of these guys, since Silicon Valley is one of their primary native habitats. And my take is that they’re at least as driven by their burning desire to fit in as any other RWA. In fact, their feelings of victimization may be rooted in the belief that they were promised an acceptance in liberal intellectual circles that they intensely wanted but never really found. The most extreme ones were frighteningly bright and well-read, and usually also from very religious family backgrounds. Those two qualities alone guaranteed that it was going to be hard to find a niche among the better-rounded, more secular big city liberals. So they decided that, if they were going to be outcasts anyway, they could at least claim moral superiority. I may be a nerd, but I am RIGHT — the possessor of Ultimate Truth! — and that’s what really matters in the end.”

Why so many of them?

I’ve wondered why the authoritarian-follower trait has been so persistent in the human population, being that it involves so much unwillingness to face facts and thus to deal with real and immediate threats. There must be some advantage, or it wouldn’t exist. Authoritarians do know how to organize and come to agreement, for good or ill, and perhaps that confers an ability to respond more quickly to danger than a dithering, contentious group could, despite their propensity to live inside their imaginary constructions. (Even more than the rest of us, I mean.) Black and white thinking is faster and easier than taking all the grey into account. Perhaps group cohesion has been historically favored over innovation under adverse circumstances?

(Since to be a Christian is to see everyone as your neighbor, and to love your neighbor as yourself, it’s particularly perplexing to me to see that right-wing fundamentalists are so invested in being part of an in-group and demonizing everyone else.)

The most depressing thing about all of this is that Robinson wrote it back in 2006, so hopefully, but nothing seems to have changed, except to get worse. At least, that’s how it looks. I would love to see evidence to the contrary. Please tell me if you’ve got some.

 

Sara Robinson’s posts:

Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-i-defining.html

Cracks In The Wall, Part II: Listening to the Leavers
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-ii-listening-to.html

Cracks in the Wall, Part III: Escape Ladders
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/cracks-in-wall-part-iii-escape-ladders.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part I: Divide and Conquer
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-i-divide-and.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-ii-nothing-to.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/08/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iii-bigger.html

Tunnels and Bridges, Part IV: Landing Zones
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-part-iv-landing.html

Tunnels and Bridges: A Short Detour
http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2006/09/tunnels-and-bridges-short-detour.html

 

 

 

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Filed under history, human rights, politics, psychology

Some Strong Words about Strong Words

effin-sale

One can hardly blame the folks at this store in Osaka who thought these signs were in perfect contemporary English.

Have you noticed that we need a whole new set of cuss words? The old ones have been neutered by constant exposure and are now pretty much useless.

In particular I speak of the venerable F-word, now so completely defanged that one may use it in front of one’s grandmother without even noticing. (Though the grandmother is likely to notice still.) It’s so ubiquitous that at times I wonder if anyone remembers how to use any other words at all.

I’ve noticed, in some internet interactions that were both amusing and annoying, that if someone complains about being constantly effed on, they are instantly jumped all over and told to eff off because they have failed to understand the subtle and subversive meaning that is intended, and they’ve totally missed the point. Whereas they may simply have found the writing ugly. I’ve certainly had that reaction. There’s not much of a subversive effect left anyway.

I was just visiting the fun pop-science website www.iflscience.com.  The full name, used on their Facebook page, is “I fucking love science,” which makes me feel a little bit embarrassed when I share their posts.  I noticed that their Twitter handle is @IFeakingLoveScience, though, and the section of their site where they sell things is the “I Love Science Store.”  So I suppose they are not entirely comfortable with That Word, either?  (I was unable to find any rules on Twitter that say you can’t use the F-word in your name, but perhaps that’s the case?)

The amount of effing on John Oliver’s show mystifies me. Oliver and the Last Week Tonight writers are surely persons of wide vocabulary. They don’t need to repeat the same word over and over; they have plenty more to choose from. Yet it seems like almost the only adjective used on the show is “fucking.” It gets old. I don’t understand why such a clever, insightful, educated bunch of people must use such monotone speech.

And that is my main complaint. I’m not making a moral judgment. I would like to preserve the ability of the strongest words to add seasoning to our language. Cuss words are known as “salty” language, right? Well, constant effing is like having every meal drenched in the hottest chile. There’s no variety, and one becomes numb.

Where can one go, these days, to add emphasis, outrage, or shock value? When the most shocking word can no longer shock, what is left? Do you have any candidates for a possible next Very Most Shocking Word?

And why is the very “worst” word one that signifies one of the very best things?

What do you think?
*******************************************************

I wrote the above a while back, and then Pussygate* occurred. Apparently the capacity to be shocked still exists. The term usually shows up only as p***y or the like in print, and now seems to be a contender for the top Shocking Word. Of course, this was not merely a matter of the word used— the word was a description of a heinous and criminal action that had been done to real women. (The objective meaning of the noun itself, again, is something quite positive.)

Even a small child can easily figure out that this is not the way to speak or act.  Colin Farrell, the actor, reported on his 7-year-old son’s sadly hilarious reaction: “Now he can’t stand Trump because I had to explain to him why [he] keeps on being mean to kittens. He just keeps grabbing those kittens.” It seems that Henry can’t understand why people are being so mean to other people, either. He knows it doesn’t have to be that way.

In a powerful speech last week, Michelle Obama mentioned another little boy who took exception to the use of coarse language by a certain candidate. She quoted the boy as saying (as nearly as I remember it), “He called someone a piggy. You can’t be president if you call someone a piggy.”

I suppose these young men will become jaded and contaminated in the not too distant future, but at least for now they are wise, and they give me hope. Let’s remember what we all learned in kindergarten. Surely we can bring the level of our public discourse up at least a couple of notches from the deep trench it’s fallen into. I am fucking determined to try.

 

* For those reading in the future when this wretched election season is mercifully forgotten, Donald Trump was revealed to have spoken enthusiastically about assaulting women, using the P-word in a particularly disgraceful way.

 

http://www.japansubculture.com/its-no-ordinary-sale-its-a-fuckin-sale/

https://www.yahoo.com/news/colin-farrells-7-year-old-son-dislikes-donald-trump-because-he-keeps-grabbing-those-kittens-173035282.html

http://www.rolereboot.org/family/details/2016-07-im-not-going-stop-swearing-front-daughter/

http://the-toast.net/2014/12/09/linguist-explains-syntax-f-word/
https://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/on-the-origin-of-fuck/

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Filed under politics

Another Human Being’s Identity Is Not Yours to Dictate

(Rant Advisory! I am as upset about this as if it pertained to my own child, or to me.)

So very often I am reminded of the old song that goes “None of us are free if one of us is chained.” It adds, “And if we don’t say it’s wrong then that says it’s right.”

Sometimes the chains are kept locked by those who think of themselves as far beyond bigotry or intolerance.

In the past week I have encountered two attacks against transgender people that appeared on the surface to have some higher intention. Both were warmed-over versions of old arguments.  One came in the form of a supposedly spiritual look at gender identity through the lens of reincarnation, and the other purported to be a principled defense of the rights of women by a feminist group.

GIVE. ME. A. BREAK.

I could call out the “spiritual” thinker by name, but I’m not going to, because his presentation is not just his own but represents a turn of thought that is all too common. It’s been used against gay people, too. The idea is that if you are not comfortable twisting yourself to fit into a gender-binary, heteronormative life, it’s because you were a different gender in a previous life, and either through confusion or through willful stubbornness, you are still clinging to identification with that gender. If you persist, you are stupid and bad. You should just get over it and move on, and then you’ll be fine.

This is the exact same paternalistic crap promulgated by religious groups who insist that God made you either male or female and that’s that. God doesn’t make mistakes, and so if you don’t feel right in your body, you are going against God, and therefore you are sinful and bad.

I’ll get to the so-called feminists later. First, I want to take a look at exactly what God/nature/biology did make. Because we do have some actual facts to work with.

While it would be nice to have human reproductive biology all wrapped up in a neat, understandable package, the more we learn, the more we see that things are complex and fuzzy. “Male” and “female” are not definite categories with hard edges. I’m sorry if someone dislikes this, but it’s reality. Some easily accessible sources of information follow.

http://www.isna.org/faq/ten_myths/rare
According to this, about 1 in 2000 humans are intersex. Another source estimated 1.7% of births. That’s a lot of people. Some may never realize they are anything but typical male or female, or may only find out late in life. One person I’ve read about was a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man with a bunch of kids, who had an abdominal surgery and was found to have a uterus in addition to his full set of male reproductive parts.

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001669.htm
There are a variety of possible intersex conditions, with varying appearances and health considerations, briefly summarized in this article.

If that’s not enough, take a look at the fascinating case of the guevedoces. A few weeks ago I learned about them in an excellent PBS program, Nine Months that Made You. In the Dominican Republic, about one in 90 boys have this condition, which has also been found in Papua New Guinea. They have XY genotypes like “regular” boys, but they lack an enzyme that is needed to develop male genitalia in the womb, so their parents think they are girls and raise them that way. At puberty, they have the usual surge in testosterone and become obviously male all of a sudden. Of course, they were biologically male all along.
http://www.pbs.org/show/9-months-made-you/
http://www.newsweek.com/rare-condition-causes-girls-become-boys-puberty-374934

So are we clear now that external genital configuration does not equal gender? Likely we’re not clear at all and I’m still going to get a big argument from those who insist on a binary world, but in that case, they’re going to have to register their objections with God, because this is the way nature is put together. A religious and/or spiritual viewpoint, it seems to me, would have to say that there must be a good reason for things to be this way. A purely materialist viewpoint would say the same— that nature has shaped human bodies and brains in a dazzlingly diverse variety because it’s been helpful to our survival.

Some might then point out that transgender people are not the same as intersex people, and that most probably have clear male or female genotypes or phenotypes. But there appear to be differences from cisgender folk in those cases too, albeit subtler ones. As far as we can tell, transgender people have brains that function more like the gender they say they are rather than the one indicated by their genital apparatus— though this too is complex and a bit fuzzy.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-there-something-unique-about-the-transgender-brain/

Here is a link to another useful PBS program.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/growing-up-trans/
What struck me most about it was that the kids decidedly look like the gender they say they are. That’s not a hard scientific fact, but to me, it reinforces the concept that there is a physical basis for being transgender.

I don’t pretend to understand much about these aspects of our biology, nor how they fit with how we become who we become when we enter a new life on this planet, or what choices we have or don’t have about our embodiment. My conjecture is that gender exists as a spectrum so that we can experience every permutation of it, but that’s not fact. What I know for sure is that it makes no sense to tell others how they feel inside themselves— either how they do feel or how they should feel. It’s illogical and it’s just plain mean. And when it’s coupled with a holier-than-thou or more-enlightened-than-thou message, it’s positively sickening.

Now, to the lawsuit filed by the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF. It’s the bathroom thing again, same as the extreme right’s fearmongering, strangely enough. They are insisting that “men” in women’s restrooms are a threat to women’s safety. I’m not going to rehash the reasons why trans women are no threat to cis women in this context (or anywhere else, really). You can find those all over. I’m only going to point out that trans women are not men. In their brains, the part of the human body that matters most, they are women. So denying ordinary human rights to those women cannot be feminism. Not in any way I can recognize it.

The latest post on WoLF’s Facebook page, in reference to the rule allowing kids to use school facilities consistent with their gender, states: “Girls’ rights to personal privacy and freedom from male sexual harassment, forced exposure to male nudity, and voyeurism have been eliminated with the stroke of a pen.” This makes my stomach churn. I am of course not a trans girl trying to navigate high school (which is hard enough for the rest of us), but reading this, I can viscerally relate to what they experience. It is terrifying. To be just a kid and know that others assume you are a sexual predator, when all you want to do is attend PE class and not get beaten up… to be hated and censured by “righteous” people one has never met… it boggles the mind and even more the heart. Imagine being, say, a second grader, too young even to have a concept of voyeurism or anything like it, having no idea why people are saying these terrible things about you.

(Please note that I don’t mean to ignore trans boys.  It’s just that WoLF seems to be targeting trans girls and women specifically.)

WoLF’s lawsuit clearly contradicts two of their main stated goals, and they seem to have no clue that this is the case. The home page of their website says: “WoLF is a radical feminist organization dedicated to the total liberation of women. We fight to end male violence, regain reproductive sovereignty, and ultimately dismantle the gender-caste system.” The total liberation of women has to include ALL women, not just the ones who look a certain way. Dismantling the gender-caste system (a laudable goal) has to mean completely dismantling, so that no gender is discriminated against.

Why should we settle for anything less?

 

It’s a great song:
http://www.altheaknight.com/None-of-us-is-free-if-one-of-us-is-chained
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC2mmeA9CA8

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Filed under health and healing, human rights, nature, politics, sexuality