Psychologist Elaine Aron has pioneered the study of a category of human personality that is generating considerable buzz both in the media and in the scientific community: the highly sensitive person (HSP). People in this group look the same as everyone else, but they don’t respond to the world the same. The way they think, work, feel, and even love is distinctive. Tendencies like acute awareness of emotions, heightened response to loud noises and other stimuli, and the deep processing of information are all things that set HSPs apart.
Want to know if you’re an HSP? Take this online test developed by Aron and her husband, a fellow psychologist. Aron reckons that up to 20 percent of humans on the planet are highly sensitive, a trait that is found in animals, too. I spoke to Aron about what science has to say about HSPs, and how understanding how their brains are encoded may help society to better accommodate these people and make use of their considerable gifts.
Lynn Parramore: Research suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to high sensitivity. What scientific methods have been used to investigate?
Elaine Aron: There are two studies. One used was the more common method of looking for an association between a genetic variation and a personality trait. That is to take one candidate gene that we think is important for the personality variable; in this case, sensitivity. The candidate gene was a variation in the serotonin transporter gene, what is called the short-short variation, which refers to two short alleles, as opposed to one short and one long, or two longs. The short-short variation had been inconsistently associated with depression and other problems. It was seen as creating vulnerability. But many people with this genetic variation are not depressed, so researchers began to question their understanding of it, and found in numerous studies that it actually bestows many advantages. It only caused trouble when carriers had had a stressful or unsupportive childhood, or else, in some cases, were immersed in stressful life events.
This led, along with some other studies, to the whole subject of what is called differential susceptibility. People with this gene, or with certain behaviors, such as cautiousness or physical or emotional reactivity —all signs of sensitivity — do better than others in good environments and worse than others in bad ones. That’s an important concept for us. It’s mostly been studied in children, and if they have grown up in a supportive environment or there’s an intervention to help their parents raise them, they actually turn out better than other children in social competence, academic performance, health — all kinds of variables have been looked at. It’s becoming a very popular thing to study. If children don’t have that supportive environment, then there’s depression, anxiety, and shyness and all of that. So sensitivity does not lead to vulnerability. It leads to differential susceptibility.
In the meantime, in China, some researchers were looking at sensitivity that other way, by looking at many genes at once to see which ones if any are associated with the variable of interest, in this case sensitivity. They chose high sensitivity because until then studies were finding unexpectedly low associations between genes and personality traits, such as introversion or neuroticism. That was surprising, because we know that a large percentage of personality overall is contributed by genes. We know that from comparing fraternal and identical twins. But we didn’t have a name for what those traits were that were encoded in the genes.
So these people in China looked at my Highly Sensitive Person scale and said, well, this seems to be deeply rooted in the nervous system. So they did the entire genome mapping of anything to do with dopamine. There are quite a few different dopamine genes, and they boiled it down to seven. And these gave a result more like what one would expect, given that we think personality is partly encoded in the genes. So what we are describing as high sensitivity is probably close to describing something that is actually genetically coded, in this case in seven variations of genes affecting the creation and transportation of dopamine.
We don’t know yet how those dopamine genes affect behavior. They’ve never come up before as being important for personality. These genes may reduce dopamine, or use it in a particular way that’s unusual. So the point is sensitivity is probably created by a number of genes, perhaps tending to be inherited together as a group. Or it may be that sensitivity has evolved along different routes, because if it’s a survival strategy — and it’s been found in over 100 species and probably exists in more —it may have landed in our species through several routes. Or there may be slightly different kinds of sensitivity, but not so different that the HSP scale [the test developed by Aron and her husband] doesn’t tap it.
LP: What evolutionary benefits might be associated with having this trait?
EA: Max Wolf, a scientist in Europe, did a computer simulation that did a very nice job of explaining why sensitivity had an evolutionary advantage. We knew that it had to because it’s found in such a large minority of people, 20 percent. It would have been eliminated long ago, or it would have been found in only a very small percentage of people, if it had no advantage.
Wolf did a computer simulation, kind of like a game, in which you had the choice of either noticing everything in every situation you encounter and using that information in the next situation you encounter, or basically assuming that your next encounter will be nothing like this one and not bothering to notice anything at all. In many situations, the next situation has nothing to do with the previous one at all. Other times there is a relationship. The simulation also assumes, rightly, that there’s a certain cost to having the more complicated nervous system of a sensitive person or a cost to using energy for paying attention to things.
So there has to be a payoff at the other end. Manipulating the payoffs and the costs in various ways demonstrated that it didn’t require much to make it pay to be highly sensitive.
But Wolf also made the interesting observation that the game doesn’t work if everyone is sensitive. His analogy is if there’s a patch of good grass, and every animal noticed it or smelled it or however they find it, then it wouldn’t be any advantage to any individual to carry this genetic variation. I joke that if I’m in a traffic jam and I notice a shortcut, it’s only useful to me as long as nobody else takes it. If all the other cars notice me turning and they follow me, then there’s no advantage to my noticing another way. There is now just as much traffic on my route as the other routes. The point is that we [HSPs] are invisible for a reason. All of us aren’t skinny. All of us don’t have curly hair or we’re not all left-handed or something that would make it easier to identify us.
Many people have thought about how it’s helpful to a particular species to have this trait. I think it’s kind of obvious in humans that some people spend more time reflecting — I use the term DOES: these people exhibit depth of processing (D), they are easily overstimulated (O), emotionally reactive and empathic (E), and sensitive to subtle stimuli (S). The only disadvantage is being overstimulated, which is the cost to us of being highly sensitive. But the rest of it has benefits. Yes, being emotionally reactive can be difficult, but it actually helps to motivate a person to think more!
LP: What implications does the science have for people who are highly sensitive?
EA: In the short run, HSPs need to see the research in order to believe the trait is real. Believing it is real can be difficult, because it is invisible and because the majority don’t have it, so we often grow up thinking, well, I should be behaving like everybody else. Or I shouldn’t be overstimulated right now. No one else is. I don’t know why I’m so tired. Why do I notice these things that other people don’t? Gee, I really have this great idea but nobody else really gets it. I’m pretty sure we should do this but nobody else seems to see why. Should I insist? No, I won’t, because I don’t want to make people mad. Now it turned out to be a mistake, and I knew it would be a mistake. So all of that self-talk makes us squash our sensitivity, especially men (there are equal numbers of highly sensitive men and women), and maybe not even think we have the trait.
Then when you also look at the research on the brain functioning, where we find that sensitive people have more activity in the neurons that have to do with empathy and just general consciousness, then we say, oh well, that’s not a bad thing to have.
The research also helps in a larger way, to help the rest of the world appreciate that the trait is real and has value. Most HSPs really do blend in, but a few with more problems—depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, health issues—are often the ones others notice, so that they think this is all there is to sensitivity. In fact, the majority is doing very well. I’m hoping that the research empowers sensitive people to be more themselves so that everyone can benefit from that — employers, spouses — everyone.
I’m also hoping that the research will help parents and teachers and pediatricians and also employers and policy-makers to create conditions that bring out the best in sensitive people because we see their differential susceptibility and we see how unusually well they can function in a good environment, and not so well in a bad one.
LP: What further research is needed for scientists to understand more about highly sensitive people?
EA: Well, with the children there has been considerable physiological research, but less of that has been done with adults. It might be interesting to see how sensitive people react in certain situations. Certainly we want to study the kinds of interventions that work for best for them. If they’ve had an unsupportive childhood, how can we alter the effects of that — in adolescence or whenever we can apply an intervention?
In terms of the brain studies, anatomical studies aren’t that helpful — looking at whether HSPs’ brains look different. What brain researchers look for is how do brains look different when they are doing a particular task. So we’ve given sensitive people and non-sensitive people a few tasks while having a brain scan (this is called functional magnetic imaging), but there are quite a few more that we could do.
Another interesting study would be would be to look at rejection or shame. We know the part of the brain that reacts to rejection or shame. We know that it’s the same part of the brain that reacts to pain. When we say someone has “hurt” feelings, we are literally talking about how it hurts in the brain. I’d like to see if that area is more easily stimulated in sensitive people, by subtle indicators. That would probably be helpful for seeing that this is normal for HSPs. Because when we do studies like this, we control for negative affect like depression or anxiety. So even if a person had a bad childhood, we’re sort of saying, OK, we’re going to take that piece out of your scoring on the test and then the brain scan and we’re going to see if you’re still that way in spite of taking that piece out.
If all sensitive people are more easily shamed than others, and I think they are, it would make evolutionary sense. We wouldn’t bother to study for a test if we weren’t afraid of being shamed for failing. So shame is another motivator. I want to do it right so that I’m not embarrassed or I don’t look stupid. Again, it makes sense that for a person to think deeply or notice subtleties, they would have to have emotional motivation of some kind to process things more carefully.
There are many other studies that could be done. I think it would be interesting to explore more how sensitivity is viewed in different cultures and different subcultures. Some has been done about this for men, but in general. The possibilities are vast, because this trait seems to affect almost all aspects of behavior in some way. I even did a survey study of HSPs and non-HSP regarding their sexuality, and of course there were differences in what they liked and didn’t like, what life experiences they had had in this realm. The trait affects every sort of attitude and behavior.Related Stories
Much like hosting the Oscars or being a designated driver, taking a final bow on a late night talk show is a thankless task. The show will inevitably differ from the format that viewers know and love, so the last one has to be indelible. And how do you do that without cloying emotion or pandering to nostalgia? You do it like Stephen Colbert, on his final episode of The Colbert Report, which aired on Thursday night.
The other problem for most hosts, like Johnny Carson or Jay Leno (both times), is that this is their final moment on the public stage. They’re saying goodbye to their careers on the way to retirement. However, we all know that Colbert will be taking over CBS’s The Late Show when David Letterman steps down in May next year. Colbert is going to have a platform again, so how should he go out? Well, with a whole lot of weird, apparently.
Maybe he was just getting it out before submitting to the constraints of network television, but Colbert’s final sketch was a kind of death scene for his alter ego, the egocentric blowhard “Stephen Colbert”. First we see him murder Grimmy, the Grim Reaper, and declare himself an immortal god. With his new-found powers (and taking a page from Chelsea Handler’s farewell) he assembled a group of stars and former guests so massive it was barely contained in the studio, all singing We’ll Meet Again. The gathering included Colbert’s most frequent guest Andrew Sullivan, Jon Stewart (duh), Michael Stipe, Arianna Huffington, Gloria Steinem, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tom Brokaw, James Franco, Katie Couric, and Big Bird and a host of other muppets (including Cyndi Lauper and Barry Manilow). Mostly it was a bunch of old white dudes, but just imagine how old and white Bill O’Reilly’s sendoff is going to be.It’s what came next that was really odd. Stephen Colbert, now immortal, got into Santa’s sleigh with Abraham Lincoln (our country’s first Unicorn-American president, apparently) and Alex Trebek and rode off into the great beyond. It’s as if he were dying and going to heaven, someone outside of the realm of the living now that he achieved immortality.
That’s the funny thing about Colbert, though. For all his bluster, standing on the roof with a sword and Captain America’s shield, you know he didn’t really feel that way about himself or his show. Yes, it was grandiose and bizarre, but the earlier segments showed how he really felt.
He started the show with a quip: “If this is your first time tuning into The Colbert Report, I have some terrible news.” He never assumes that everyone knows who he is, or that they should be aware of this finale, no matter how big it might seem. His final segment of The Word – which introduced us to “truthiness”on his first episode in October 2005 – was about the word “same”. He doesn’t cop to changing the world, as many people in his position would like to. He joked that all was still the same in the world. “When this show started, I promised you a revolution, and I delivered,” he said. “Technically, a revolution is 360 degrees, right back to where we were.“
That joke is the quintessence of Colbert, taking credit for something as huge as a revolution but simultaneously admitting that he accomplished little more than making people laugh at the end of a hard day. He revisited his accomplishments on the show – raising money for his Super Pac, getting a mascot named after him, running for president – but said he owed all that to his fans who donated the money, voted in the polls, and signed the petitions. “You, the nation, did that. I just got paid for it,” he said.
What has always made Colbert stand out from other political comedians is that he is a master at blending irony and sincerity. He never champions a point of view or a system of belief. He never claims that anyone is right or wrong (except his character, of course, who is hilariously infallible), instead presenting a case and letting the audience peek at the truth. But you feel his heart, how he brings the best out in every guest, how he seems more concerned about showing the public a good time than taking the acclaim for himself, how he sometimes lets the real man under the American flag pin shine through.
That’s what Stephen Colbert has always delivered on the show and, as he promised, we got more of the same during its swansong. It was the perfect way to say goodbye, with his narcissistic character riding off into the great beyond, to live forever in the minds and actions of his fans. Rather than beating us over the head with what his legacy should be, he let us come to the right conclusion on our own. Yes, bidding adieu is hard, but just a few blocks away from his studio, CBS is hoping that he’s going to bring more of the same to them very soon.
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Vladimir Putin's macho act has been admired by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Rudy Giuliani. “That is what you call a leader,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, said after Putin invaded the Ukraine, unilaterally and without any public debate.
Alas, "swaggering strongman" Putin is hitting a bit of a snag, writes Paul Krugman in his column today. "Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger," Krugman says. "Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime."
The ruble started sliding in August when Putin sent troops to Ukraine and has started downright plunging in recent weeks, Krugman points out. "And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession."
The global plunge in oil prices has not helped, but it does not explain the bottom dropping out of the ruble. So what's going on?
Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.
In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.
Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices.
The question is, where did the money go?
The money left the country, and took lavish trips abroad. It went to the most expensive neighborhoods in London and New York, where Russian oligarchs purchased luxury real estate trophies that they seldom inhabit. Krugman explains how they got the money: "Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits."
The usual solution to this mess would include loans from the International Monetary Fund and demands for reform, but Putin won't go for that and will make his country muddle through on its own, "among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone."
How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own,
It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.
By now, most people who aren’t avid Bill O’Reilly fans know that the “war on Christmas” is nothing but the paranoid fantasy of conservatives and that most (though not all!) atheists and other assorted non-believers are perfectly happy with the continuing existence of Christmas. Sure, we may say “happy holidays,” to reflect the fact that this is an entire season with multiple holidays in it. We may object to using the holiday as an excuse to push overtly religious songs and prayers on kids in public schools. But the Christmas holiday, despite its religious origins, is accepted by most atheists as a secular holiday and many of us enjoy it as much as the Christians do. In fact, I’d argue there are many advantages to being an atheist, when it comes to celebrating the holidays. So much so that you can have them here, in checking-it-twice form.
1. Travel flexibility. If the religious significance of the holiday matters to you, being with your family on Christmas Day itself is paramount. In our modern era where families move all over the country, however, that means travel, often by plane. The problem is that everyone else is traveling when you are, too—and usually during the first seriously bad weather of the winter, no less. Flight delays, tears, tearing your hair out, wondering if you’re going to make it on time are pretty much guaranteed.
Thing is, for non-believers, the exact day itself feels kind of arbitrary, so it becomes a lot easier to blow off the entire struggle to be with family on December 25 and just do Christmas at home. I visit my family the next month, when it’s easier and cheaper. Sure, you miss out on a little of the holiday magic by staying put, but the tradeoff of not having to endure the holiday stress is often worth it. And for little kids whose parents are divorced, being able to have “Christmas” on December 26 or 27 or 31 takes a lot of stress out of figuring out your holiday visitation schedule.
2. No Christmas mass. Christmas Eve is a wonderful time for drinking eggnog and playing cards and opening just one present before bed. Having to spend that precious time kneeling and standing and sitting and singing and listening to a priest drone on about Jesus’ birth is a travesty. Luckily, we atheists feel zero obligation to show up for a semi-annual reminder to give a crap about our faith, as we don't have a faith to begin with.
3. Sex.“Is it a sin to have sex on Christmas day?” asked this poor fellow on Yahoo Answers. It’s a concern many people have, it appears. This concern doesn’t even occur to non-believers, though some of us do worry, if we did make it back home to visit the parents, about getting caught doing it in our childhood beds.
4. Creative decorating. People who reject religion tend to be skeptical of the whole concept of “tradition.” When it comes to choosing how to adorn your home for the holidays, that can free you up quite a bit from the standard Nativity scene + angel/star on the tree business. Atheists are not the sort to get bent out of shape when someone suggests replacing old white man Santa with a penguin. Why not do your house up as an ode to Star Wars or Game of Thrones? Or honor the Satanists who get holiday displays up at state capitols by doing a devil-themed Christmas tree? Or perhaps one topped by the Flying Spaghetti Monster? How about creating a Nativity scene with superhero action figures? No need to worry that it’s blasphemy. In fact, the more blasphemous, the better.
5. Wrapping paper.An atheist friend of mine had holiday presents wrapped at the store recently. “Christmas or Hanukkah paper?” the cashier asked. “How about one of each,” my friend replied. “They don’t believe in either, so both are fine by me.” A small pleasure, but a satisfying one.
6. Give me the loot! While it’s faded some as conservative Christianity becomes increasingly beholden to capitalism, there is still a lot of anxiety in Christian circles that the holiday has become commercialized and has drifted away from its religious origins. This can make the question of how much to give at Christmas fraught: Will too many presents distract kids from Jesus? How many is too many? For atheists, it’s clear that buying a bunch of crap and laying around eating all day is the reason for the season, so these kinds of emotional crises about priorities don’t really factor. Sure, atheists may decide to put a budget on the gift-buying because showing love through material objects can spiral out of control. But if you want to give yourself a day just to be materialist and gluttonous, go for it. You’re not going to hurt Jesus’ feelings, as you don’t even believe in him.
7. No praying before the meal. Even in Christian families that don’t pray before every meal, there’s a tendency to feel you have to revive this tradition on the holidays. Worse, the duty is often handed off to the biggest blowhard in the bunch. And so there you are, your neck getting sore as you keep it politely bowed while your relative thanks God for everyone’s promotions, marriages and babies and for the football team’s winning streak. But when atheists are in charge of the meal, you sit down and get to eating, no preliminaries necessary.
8. “Happy holidays!”Once it was a completely non-controversial way to express a general feeling of goodwill to all during this time of year. Now this phrase has turned into a litmus test to see if the person hearing it is a frothing-at-the-mouth right-wing nut who hates atheists (and any non-Christians). It definitely helps you trim down your list of people you feel obligated to be nice to.
9. Better music. No need to worry about working some of those dull, religious songs into the mix this Christmas. You can fully admit that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey is the best Christmas song, full stop, without feeling it’s somehow a slight to Jesus to elevate a cheesy pop song about romance to #1 status. Of course, if you don’t like Christmas music at all and the sound of sleigh bells annoys you, who cares? Open your presents to Motörhead, if you like. When the holiday is about people, putting what makes people happy first becomes much easier.
10. Better movies. Skipped out on rewatching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 8 millionth time a couple years ago (though I do like that movie) and went to see Django Unchained on Christmas Day instead. That was a memorable holiday.
The one big downside of being an atheist on Christmas: The eternal Santa debate.Most atheists have no intention of bringing their kids up to believe in God, but as many of them celebrate Christmas anyway, they don’t know what to do about Santa. Some atheists worry that teaching kids about a magical elf who flies around the world bringing presents to well-behaved children is wrong for the same reason they believe teaching about God is wrong: There’s no evidence it’s true. Others reasonably point out that since part of the Santa tradition is the great debunking, it’s a useful way to teach kids not to believe everything people tell them, even their parents. Which can perhaps inoculate them against religious claims. Everyone makes good points and there’s no research settling the question, so it just gets debated over and over again every year, with no real resolution.
Clearly, the answer is to go ahead and enjoy hoodwinking your kids about Santa, but if they don’t figure it out by around age 5 or 6, tell them so they’re not embarrassed by being the last kid in the class to know the truth. Sadly, knowing atheists, odds are low that no one will care a verdict has been rendered and the debate will rage on anyway.Related Stories
Even as U.S. officials appeared to confirm longstanding rumors that North Korea was behind the hack on Sony Entertainment and even subsequent terrorist threats against movie theaters showing its new film The Interview, pundits have argued whether the action constitutes an act of war or not, and how America should respond if at all.
The question is more profound than it at first seems. Those who dismiss this incident as an overblown kerfuffle over a low-brow Hollywood comedy mistake the seriousness of the precedent being set. If North Korea was indeed behind both the hack itself and the terrorist threats, it will mean that a nation-state has taken an action against a multinational corporation that would certainly be deemed an act of war if it were perpetrated against another nation-state. That sovereign nation will also have engaged in terroristic threats not just against a single enemy nation, but against all private companies anywhere in the world that sell a specific creative work produced by Sony, with chilling implications on free speech for people of all nationalities around the world.
It's an unprecedented situation, but one that will become increasingly common as the world grows more connected digitally, as multinational corporations continue to grow in power over nation-states, and as actions in any one corner of the globe have increasingly strong reverberations everywhere. Cyberattacks themselves are not new: the United States launched arguably the first major cyberattack with the Stuxnet virus, which was simply a new, digital version of the sort of sabotage that sovereign nations have commited against one another for centuries--and it can easily be argued that the United States had moral and legal legitimacy in hobbling Iran's nuclear program. Still, the escape of the Stuxnet virus and the economic damage it caused worldwide demonstrates again how digital conflicts between two parties can have disastrous implications globally. The alleged North Korean hack on Sony only increases the stakes.
How concerned should we be over this latest incident? Certainly, the world did not trivialize the threats made by the government of Iran against Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses. That The Interview is perhaps not of the same caliber of art is a matter of taste: ethically, the world's reaction should be same. Moreover, the perpetrators did not only threaten violence in an attempt to quell free speech--they also exposed the private information of thousands of Sony employees, including social security numbers and other sensitive information, in an attack that will likely cause hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damage.
Even so, many people will find the idea of rattling sabers over a Seth Rogen comedy to be absurd on its face. But consider a similar scenario with slightly higher stakes: a hacker group sponsored with plausible deniability by a former Soviet republic hacks the satellite of a private Russian corporate cell phone company, and threatens to collide it with a private French corporation's communications satellite, to get revenge on a Putin crony oligarch. If the satellites collide, it would create such a mess of space junk that it would seriously threaten global communications and GPS systems dependent on other satellites in orbit. Would that be an act of war? Against whom? It would a global threat, but the theoretical hack would be on a private Russian corporation. What level of responsibility would the government of the former Soviet republic have? How would NATO deal with it? How would Russia and China deal with it? Right now the United States official policy is that we would literally threaten the hypothetical offending nation-state with a nuclear attack in response. If that sounds like overreach, it's worth considering what the official response should be, not only from the United States but also the rest of the world. The North Korean case isn't actually that different from the above scenario--only a matter of degree, not of kind.
The global community must have an institutionalized way of dealing with this sort of situation that is both credible and effective. The limitations of our existing sovereignty-based legal structures have already been laid bare for years by the international "War on Terror." The United States has asserted that because Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups do not fight under a sovereign banner, they don't qualify for protection under the Geneva Convention and other international codes of conduct. Petty dictatorships have used the American example to justify a variety of horrors in the name of "fighting terror." But despite over a decade of legal wrangling and disagreements, there is still no accepted international protocol for dealing with non-state combatants. There is even less international protocol for nation-states that commit acts of war against multinational corporations with global implications for digital and free speech rights.
Ultimately, no individual nation-state or alliances alone can cope with these disturbing new geopolitical realities. Terrorism is not the only issue for which 20th century Westphalian structures are failing. Climate change is a clear and present danger to human civilization itself--but sovereign nations appear unable to muster the political will to take the necessary steps to combat it, either due to corruption from corporate fossil-fuel interests or fears that other nations might not keep up their end of the sustainability bargain. Rising wealth and income inequality is also a global phenomenon that developed democracies seem increasingly unable to keep in check regardless of their social safety nets or progressive tax structures due to the power of global wealth mobility that allows rich individuals and corporations to play nations off one another in search of tax advantages. The wealth mobility problem is so great that Thomas Piketty in his groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century advocated for the seemingly radical step of a global wealth tax to prevent international cherry-picking by the jet-setting elite. Other global challenges also abound, including mass extinction crises, nuclear proliferation, water shortages, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and even eventual potential threats to the concept of employment itself due to artificial intelligence, 3D printing and mechanization of production. The convergence of all these issues points to the need for a much more potent international organization capable of dealing with global crises that fall beyond the reach or power of any one nation-state to rectify.
Obviously, that seems somewhat far-fetched given the comparative ineffectiveness of the United Nations. But history suggests that human beings do eventually adapt their political structures to meet the challenges of their day, and invent new ones if necessary. Civilization collapse is the only alternative. Our legal and economic systems are straining under the weight of outdated assumptions about power and the entities that wield it. International corporations now fight in the same weight class as sovereign nations, small non-state actors can deliver punches that can bring both of them to their knees, fights between competitors now invariably spill out of the ring and threaten everyone in the arena, and global challenges make the idea of pitting two combatants against one another almost an archaic sport.
Most of our non-dystopian science fiction about the future of our planet assumes some sort of supranational global federation, loosely based or otherwise. It only makes sense as the next step on the path of human political complexification, particularly once mankind begins to colonize other worlds.
Recent events show that it may be that for our own survival's sake, we may need to advance toward that reality faster than some had thought. When the history is finally written, children could one day learn that the world's reaction to North Korea's seemingly silly threat against the creators of an innocuous comedy helped precipitate significant advances in how we think about international law and political organization.Related Stories
Jon Stewart invited his little friend "Gitmo" on his show last night to discuss the prospect of normalization of relations with Cuba.
Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have been vocal in their opposition to the move.
“Surely, you must take solace in Senator Rubio and Cruz’s discussion of American values,” Stewart said to Gitmo.
“Sure, as long as the moral relativism of their position is sincere, and not a pander to a powerful ex-pat Cuban community in an intent to gain an edge on Florida’s 29 swing-state electoral votes,” Gitmo responded.
Surely not. That would be so cynical! Stewart replied.
Stewart did have to remind Gitmo that Guantanamo is not actually in Cuba, but a U.S. facility.
Gitmo was sorry.
“Brain get cloudy after 10 years,” Gitmo admitted. “What was Gitmo charged with, again?”
“Charged with?” Stewart said, backpedaling. “Funny story — we haven’t actually gotten around to it. It could be worse; some of our other offshore detainees got food tubes in their rectums.”
“Gitmo dream of food tube in rectum,” Gitmo lamented. “Has to be better than man’s arm.”
Lots more. Watch:
Delaware’s Indian River School District (IRSD) is prepared to vote on new health textbooks this month. And if board member Shaun Fink gets his way, the books will exclude any mention of LGBT individuals. He’s also proposed excluding lessons on HIV/AIDS and contraception in favor of promoting an abstinence-only approach to sex education.
Fink, who pastors the Millsboro Bible Church, hasn’t bothered to present a secular argument for his campaign. “I live a life where every day my attempt is to honor God,” he told DelmarvaNow, a local news website. “Part of honoring God is maintaining his precepts and scripture, and I cannot justify teaching our children we should accept, condone or consider normal, things that God says are not normal, things that God says are an abomination.”
Public schools, of course, cannot teach children what Shaun Fink thinks God says. In a letter submitted to the school board, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) reminded officials they’re required to uphold the Constitution.
“To deny students such information because of anyone’s religious or other personal belief-based objections would raise serious First Amendment concerns and, in turn, compromise our public education system and potentially expose students to unnecessary and significant health risks,” NCAC wrote.
Fink didn’t take it well. “I think it’s a little bit ironic that the National Coalition Against Censorship is choosing to censor me,” he said, and accused the NCAC of “censoring anybody who has a faith-based perspective and a Christian worldview.”
The good reverend should perhaps look up the definition of “ironic.” Censorship is exactly what he’s attempting to promote via his elected office. It is not “ironic” for the NCAC to remind that that office also carries specific legal responsibilities that [Fink] has chosen to abdicate in the name of dogma.
The NCAC’s letter, which Americans United also signed on to, notes there’s mainstream scientific consensus that LGBT orientations are not abnormal or unhealthy. There’s also consensus that ignorance about LGBT people leads directly to bullying – a key factor behind the community’s high suicide rates. The CDC reports that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide; another study of transgender youth found that a full quarter had also tried to end their lives.
But Fink isn’t moved by those stats. “It's not my fault there is a high suicide rate amongst young gay people,” he said.
The facts spell trouble for the rest of his agenda, too. There’s plenty of evidence, for example, that abstinence-only sex education actually correlates to higher rates of teen pregnancy. It’s obvious that leaving teenagers ignorant on the subject of human sexuality creates, rather than resolves, public health crises.
He face opposition in the community as well. Students and local residents slammed Fink’s proposals at a recent public hearing. Al Snyder, who is gay, lost his U.S. Marine son in Iraq – only to watch Westboro Baptist Church picket the funeral with anti-gay messages.
“I've come across people like you in my life," he told Fink. “It's got to stop. My son died for this country, my partner and I raised him and he died for you and this country. It's an insult to hear your words.”
Others noted that Fink’s exclusions could violate the First Amendment. Don Peterson, who represented the Unitarian Universalists of Southern Delaware, said, “Public education must not be designed to support a particular religious belief.”
“LGBT students are here in your schools now. To omit any references to them from the curriculum deliberately diminishes and disrespects them as human beings. Surely that is not an acceptable role of public education,” he added.
Peterson is correct. If IRSD officials vote to approve Fink’s proposals, they’d find themselves on untenable legal footing. Legal precedent is clear: Public schools are religiously neutral zones. Fink is attempting to violate that principle, and he shouldn’t be allowed to succeed.
P.S. Americans United has had problems with this school district before. Be assured that we’ll be keeping a close watch on things.
Special K is not just a breakfast cereal and party drug.
Also known as ketamine, it has long been used as an anesthetic in short term diagnostic and surgical procedures. But Special K is now driving a significant debate in mental health circles because a growing number of psychiatrists in the United States and elsewhere are using it to combat depression.
According to Andrew Pollack in the New York Times, “it is either the most exciting new treatment in years” or it’s a “hallucinogenic drug that is wrongly being dispensed to desperate patients.”
There is still a decided lack of data necessary for any rational, evidence-based decision. At this stage, the jury isn’t even out. Yet, leading medical centers, including the National Institute of Health, Yale, and Oxford are proposing that low-dose ketamine for major depression has tremendous potential. It has become, according to Scientific American, a rising star in the world of depression research.
Patrick Cameron, from Toronto, would agree. In 2013-2014, he traveled to New York City on various occasions to visit private clinics for doses of ketamine, all in an effort to relieve his suffering from intractable depression. “This is the only thing that’s worked,” he noted. “I might have finally found the answer.”
However, the question of ketamine’s efficacy remains controversial and, as a result, it constitutes not only another drug in a long line of contested medicines for depression, but a further example of the struggle recreational drugs face in traversing the blurry line of stigmatization and legitimacy.
A 1960s Drug for a Predominant Problem
Originally synthesized in the 1960s, ketamine acted as an alternative to phencyclidine (PCP or “angel dust”) and users often found it produced altered physical, spatial, and temporal states. It grew as a recreational drug and, along with MDMA (Ecstasy) was bound up in rave culture.
By 2006, the National Institute of Mental Health had initiated the first controlled study of ketamine for treating depression. A virtual tidal wave of studies followed, many of which were promising. In the U.K., the lead researcher of an Oxford-based study of 28 people was effusive. “It really is dramatic for some people,” said Dr. Rupert McShane, “it’s the sort of thing that really makes it worth doing psychiatry.”
At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry has demonstrated interest in bringing ketamine products to the medical marketplace. AstraZeneca tried, and then dropped developing a drug, whereas Johnson & Johnson is in the midst of trials for a nasal spray containing esketamine, a ketamine derivative. There are other companies currently seeking to cash in on ketamine.
Yet, psychiatrists in the U.S. are waiting for neither the scientific community nor the pharmaceutical industry to act. Rather, some have begun to establish clinics. With the ability to use ketamine off-label, some American doctors are charging patients like Patrick Cameron $3,000 for six IV infusions of the drug.
With ketamine not yet available in Canada, Cameron, who has opted not to undergo Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), is stuck for options. Canada may have adopted a universal healthcare model, but physicians – without a license from Health Canada – are restricted from offering ketamine as an alternative. So, when Zoloft or Lexapro fail and Canadian citizens choose to skip the electroshock route, they are forced elsewhere.
Much like HIV/AIDS activists in the 1980s, such as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, these Canadians have hard, very personal, and sometimes expensive choices to make as health consumers in the medical marketplace.
For Stanford’s Alan F. Schatzberg, it is crucial to be wise about ketamine. “Until we know more,” he cautions, “clinicians should be wary about embarking on a slippery ketamine slope.”
More specifically, the warnings about ketamine clinic usually take three paths. First, severely depressed patients have trouble weighing the risks and rewards associated with experimental therapies. Second, many clinics are run by anesthesiologists, who offer limited psychiatric treatment. Third, the rise of ketamine has detracted from the well-understood Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which has, in many psychiatrist’s view, a proven track-record of success.
These criticisms, of course, have their merits and faults. But in a larger sense, the discussion about ketamine crystallizes how the public, scientific community, and regulatory bodies in the U.S., Canada, and beyond struggle to negotiate the line separating licit and illicit drugs.
Ketamine is not the same as medical marijuana, or LSD, or heroin as a treatment for addiction. Indeed, Special K does not come with all the baggage as these other drugs and, as an anesthetic, has actually been a valuable tool within mainstream medicine.
As Scientific American wrote earlier this year, “new thinking is desperately needed to aid the estimated 14 million American adults who suffer from severe mental illness.” The approach to ketamine in the United States and Canada is a useful place to start developing that fresh thought.
The Granville Depths? The Shaughnessy Peninsula? The Wet End?
Seattle-based map-maker and urban planner Jeffrey Linn has released a series of city maps including one for Vancouver, showing how rising sea levels might drastically change coastal living. Read more ...
This is a big time for celebration in Cuba. Three of the five men known in Cuba as heroes fighting United States terrorism were released from prison and returned to their families. To understand the true significance of their release means exploring the history of U.S.-backed terrorism against Cuba, a history widely unknown within the United States. President Obama and mainstream media have not only failed to mention this history, but have perpetuated the narrative of the Cuban five as spies, a necessary narrative for undermining the five men’s work in combatting U.S.-sponsored terrorism both in Cuba and within the U.S. This narrative frames Cuba as responsible for the 50-plus years of failed relations between the island and the U.S., serving to justify the United States’ aggressive and inhumane policies against Cuba (e.g. the economic blockade).
After a 1998 arrest during which no weapons or plans against the U.S. were found, the FBI told the five men—Gerardo Hernández, Nordelo, Ramón Labañino Salazar, René González Sehwerert, Fernando González Llort and Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez—that if they admitted to “conspiring” against the U.S., they would receive less harsh prison sentences. The men refused, and as a result were placed in solitary confinement for 17 months. They then faced a trial in Miami, the most anti-Castro city in the U.S., which was accompanied by a government-orchestrated media campaign that sought to portray the Cuban five as terrorists and spies. Conviction was a foregone conclusion.
To understand the Cuban five’s mission means looking at the history of U.S. government and CIA plots to destroy, subvert and overthrow the revolutionary Cuban government. U.S. business interests suffered great economic losses in the wake of a revolution that nationalized banks and limited the acre-size of farms. Prior to the revolution, U.S. business owned 80% of services, 40% of the sugar industry and 50% of railroad transport in Cuba. Cuba was an American neo-colony. The revolutionary government undertook measures to increase the quality of life and salaries for the majority of Cubans after a brutal Batista dictatorship (backed by the U.S.) that left poor people and people of color without jobs and a means of survival. Starting with the signing of the Agrarian Reform Act of 1959, the U.S. government decided that the Cuban government had to be replaced. The motive was to prevent these revolutionary ideas from spreading to other Latin American countries where U.S. business interests could not afford to be threatened.
After the humiliating defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion, known in Cuba as the first imperialist defeat in the Americas, President Kennedy increased attacks against Cuba. Prior to Bay of Pigs, the CIA led the attacks; now they were to be integrated into U.S. policy. On Nov. 3, 1961 Kennedy approved Operation Mongoose led by General Edward Landsdale. Lansdale openly declared that the objective of Mongoose was to impede the ability of the Cuban government to provide for its people, and thus to encourage the Cuban people to resent their government.
There is a long list of U.S. state-sponsored and CIA-led terrorism against Cuba. Some of the most notable attacks include:
- In 1961 the CIA opens a new station in Miami. With $50 million a year funding, 300 American officials oversee thousands of Cuban exiles working toward subverting the Cuban government through propaganda.
- In 1976, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, two Cuban exiles, bomb a civilian aircraft. The explosion kills all 73 people on the plane, including the entire teenage Cuban national fencing team. The men worked for CORU, a Cuban-exile organization trained by, and given weapons and explosives by the CIA. Posada continues to work on attacks both within Cuba and the U.S. The U.S. refuses to extradite either of the men, and Luis Posada Carriles continues to live in Miami to this day.
- 1981: A Cuban-exile group under CIA leadership introduces Type II dengue into Cuba. Since then, the potentially fatal illness has affected more than 344,000 people. In 1984 a member of Omega 7, another exile group under CIA leadership, says the intention was to sicken as many people as possible.
- Between 1959 and 2001 there were 634 documented attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
- In 1997, CIA-funded Cuban exile groups bomb several Havana hotels in an effort to disrupt Cuba’s growing tourist industry.
The propaganda within the U.S. must be seen in the context of this terrorism. Continuing to call the Cuban five “spies,” failing to acknowledge the history of U.S. terrorism against Cuba and continuing to frame Cuba as a communist dictatorship serves to perpetuate a false narrative rooted in imperialist ideology.
Since the day the revolution triumphed in 1959, Cuba has had to be on the defensive against the richest, most powerful country in the world. Cuba is an anti-imperialist nation at its core, and will not give up its values and identity, despite all the propaganda, U.S. attacks and demands for “good relations.” Cuba’s insistence on ending the blockade and refusing to move forward under Washington’s conditions should be seen as part of the larger, continuing struggle against imperialism. The liberation of the Cuban five, despite all the work that still needs to be done, represents a victory for people and communities all around the world fighting for justice and liberation.Related Stories
John Mellencamp first heard his 2003, antiwar, anti-Bush song on the radio while driving around his home state of Indiana with one of his sons. The DJ played “To Washington,” his update of the Woody Guthrie protest anthem, and asked listeners to call the station to report their reaction. One angry caller captured the mood: “I don’t know who I hate more, Osama bin Laden or John Mellencamp.” Mellencamp’s son asked his dad how he felt about having a freshly painted bull’s-eye on his back for right-wing venom, and he dispensed some fatherly wisdom, “Sometimes when you stick your neck out, your head gets cut off.”
For the first couple of days after the publication of my essay criticizing military worship, “You Don’t Protect My Freedom,” I certainly felt like my head was resting in the guillotine. On the day of publication I woke up to check my email and found thousands of messages, ranging from the mild (“I hope you die and burn in hell”) to the touching (“If I ever see you on the street, I will kill you.”)
My Twitter account, which I had updated once in five years, exploded with counterarguments of similar erudition and insight. A scroll through my feed took me through a tour of the cyberschoolyard. Mockery of my hairstyle, and invective like “loser,” “punk and the retrograde “hippie” substituted for real argument. The Twitter campaign found its fearless leader in Montel “Bounce Any Checks Lately?” Williams, who after calling me a “POS” (an acronym for “piece of shit,” I assume), challenged me to a debate 140 characters at a time. He then unleashed his public relations team on me, and together, they started tweeting at all the cable news networks, seemingly jockeying for a segment on television, in which the payday-loan pitchman could pose as defender of the sanctity of the military against my “vile” attack.
Feeling no obligation to give Montel and his minions a venue to insult me, I deleted my Twitter account. Two days later, while the emails were still overwhelming my inbox, a well-meaning weirdo created a Twitter feed using my name and likeness, and began to tweet sophomoric replies to the right-wing mob. I filed a complaint with Twitter, and after scanning and sending them an image of my driver’s license to verify that I am the real David Masciotra, they removed the page. Michelle Malkin, whose claim to fame is defending the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, followed all of the action closely and provided her fans with updates on Twitchy – a conservative Us Weekly without the charm – and contributed to the conversation about war, peace and militarism by calling me a “jack ass” and “douche bag.”
For the rest of the week, I let the delinquent children play with their paste and crayons. Watching from afar in Indiana, in the company of my loving girlfriend and cats, I rejected several invitations to appear on Fox News and conservative talk radio. I reread my essay, thought about the arguments I made and the conversation I hoped to provoke, and reflected on my confrontation with contemporary right-wing culture and my visit to the intellectual sewer of social media.
First, I considered my own errors. I firmly believe that every point I argued in my essay is correct, and I do not repudiate any of my criticism of America’s gratuitous glorification of the military. The language I used to express some of my points, however, lacked the sensitivity necessary for acknowledging the loss many families suffer when their loved ones enlist. When any politician or pundit discusses the military, thousands of Americans do not approach the issue as a political, philosophical or cultural abstraction, even if it does have important implications in all three areas of analysis. They simply think of their child, spouse or sibling. They worry for his safety or mourn his death.
By dealing with the topic as merely the source of an intellectual inquiry, I ignored the pain and trepidation many families feel on a daily basis when they confront headlines or news reports of a bombing in Afghanistan. If I could rewrite the original essay, I would better account for the burden that military families silently and steadily carry, because the American government has committed itself to eternally validating the conclusion of United States Marine Corps’ Smedley Butler: “War is a racket.”
I should have included the story of my own grandfather, a veteran in World War II who was the sole survivor of an Army plane crash. He hated war more than anyone I’ve ever met, and he found mawkish tributes and parades for veterans both cheap and corrosive to a critical perspective necessary to prevent future deaths of young men who take their final breaths among the carnage of plane debris, broken bones and bloody faces.
I should have written about my own father, who was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, and began suffering from severe heart disease in his 40s, even needing open heart surgery, despite having a healthy BMI, and never even taking a puff off a cigarette. It is likely that his heart problems are the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. The VA invited any Vietnam vet who showed symptoms of heart disease under the age of 50 to file for compensatory benefits, but they subjected my father to the typical treatment of endless delays until he finally surrendered.
I also should have written about my former student, Daniel, who is an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He told me the word “hero” embarrasses him, and that whenever he hears the phrase “thank you for your service,” he remembers participating in a raid based on faulty intelligence. When he and his fellow soldiers violently burst into the home of a “suspected terrorist,” all they found was an elderly man so shocked by the upheaval that he immediately entered cardiac arrest and died. Daniel speculated that if the elderly man’s son or grandson was not a terrorist before the American raid induced that heart attack, he “probably is now.”
The inclusion of my own personal experiences with veterans, and the testimony of their own heartbreak over the costs of carrying out the orders of Empire, would have humanized my argument. But I wonder if it would have made any measure of difference. The overwhelming majority of readers who reacted with rage to my article showed no evidence of actually reading it. Had the people who accused me of “hating the troops” or “supporting terrorism” given the essay even a cursory look, they would have seen that I twice stated that some of the troops are heroes, but that many are not. They would have also learned that, unlike many of the political pawns of the Pentagon who can’t cry enough tears for our “heroes,” I support providing all veterans with the best possible healthcare and psychiatric services. My antiwar advocacy and resistance to militarism is, partially, motivated by solidarity with the military – a term I used in the original essay. Fewer soldiers fighting fewer wars translates into fewer funerals, and less waste and betrayal of the bravery that active duty military personnel do display on the battlefield. In the words of historian Thaddeus Russell, “calling soldiers heroes gets more soldiers killed.”
Fewer soldiers fighting fewer wars also minimizes what theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who I quoted in my article as instructing pastors to discourage young congregants from enlistment, calls the “moral loss” of having to accept the duty to kill. Even if the killing occurs in self-defense, it strikes a blow to the killer’s psyche and sense of ethics.
It is supportive of troops and veterans to demand aggressive action to protect women from rape while serving in the military. The nearly universal refusal to acknowledge the evidence that sexual assault is rampant in all branches of the military demonstrates how little the bodies and lives of women matter in American culture. Writers, activists and documentary filmmakers invest their energy into emphasizing the gruesome reality that, according to the Department of Defense’s own study, one-third of women in the military become victims of sexual assault while wearing the uniform, and the mainstream media, along with the political establishment, continue to ignore it. No one in the media who vilified me for my perspective made any attempt to counter the statistical data I cited on the sexual assault epidemic in the military. No one even mentioned it, with the exception of the characteristically sophisticated Rush Limbaugh who claimed it is “childlike” to “pretend all of this is happening.”
An apparently “childlike” woman who spent years in the Air Force emailed me, thankful for my article, and wrote that she had twice been sexually assaulted. An active duty soldier, who also works as a paralegal with military justice, objected to some of the terminology and rhetoric in my essay, but told me that he sees the sexual assault epidemic up close in his legalistic role, and that clearly, rapists, even those in uniform, are not heroes.
The cultural narrative that all troops and veterans are heroes will not allow for the acknowledgment that some are rapists. But by ignoring the stories of thousands of women who battle the real “rape culture” of the barracks and the Pentagon, who are the defenders of the sanctity of the military really protecting? They are enhancing and extending the vicious violation of women who suffer the violence and degradation of rape, and they are providing a cover story for the rapists and the military administrators who would rather bury the story than deal with embarrassing headlines. Given the priorities of American culture, the popular bumper sticker should actually read, “Support the troops unless they are raped by other troops.”
Just as observing the indifference toward rape in the military exposes the depth and breadth of American sexism, any engagement with right-wing media and culture confirms all the worst suspicions anyone could have about its leaders and followers.
There is not only an acceptance of ignorance, but from Fox News, an encouragement of it. On “Fox and Friends,” “The Five” and Fox Business News’ “The Independents,” the respective hosts of the programs vilified and demonized me as someone who hates everyone in the military. “Fox and Friends” posted my photo, over the ominous tones of their hosts condemning my words – almost none of which they quoted – as if it was a mug shot, and then told readers, “Go tell him what you think of this.” The language of the command exposes the poison of their propaganda. They did not tell viewers to go online and read the article, evaluate it according to their own analysis, and decide for themselves what they believe. They ordered their viewers to believe a certain way, without acquiring any information, and target me with their hatred and hostility. Judging from my inbox, thousands of viewers marched along like wooden soldiers, eager to behave as if they just received a lobotomy from the skilled surgeons of Fox.
The pattern of ad hominem attacks, without any engagement of the evidence or acknowledgment of the argumentation of my article, demonstrated the thoughtlessness that defines political activism on much of the right wing, but also the racism, homophobia and prejudicial scorn and fear of Islam. Clearly, the worst thing much of the right can think to call someone is “gay.” Nearly every email I received contained some accusation of homosexuality. When one homophobic crackpot suggested that I’ve had sex with John Mellencamp, Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, because I’ve written favorably about all four men, I emailed a bisexual friend and said, “I’m not gay, but if I was, I guess I’d have some impressive and accomplished partners.” My friend wrote back, “I’d be in awe.”
My previous writing on Jesse Jackson seemed to cause the right-wing psycho meter to go off the charts. Many of my correspondents resorted to ugly racial slurs that, out of respect for Rev. Jackson, I won’t repeat. The rhetoric about Islam, always accompanied by an insinuation that I’m actually a Muslim, was equally vicious and vulgar.
Kennedy, host of “The Independents,” offered the insightful rebuttal to my essay by positing I had a “miserable childhood,” and then proceeded with her guest, a representative of Concerned Veterans for America, to concede one of my major points – the elementary truth that not all soldiers and veterans are heroes. Then, they gave revelatory insight into the strange and sick mind-set of libertarian ideology. In my article, I argued that much better ways to offer “support for the troops” than contrived hero worship and garish displays of nationalism is to grant all veterans the best healthcare and psychiatric services available, and to oppose wars that turn soldiers into victims by wasting their lives for the advancement of unnecessary and unjust military adventurism.
Kennedy and her guest laughed off the healthcare argument, apparently operating under the assumption that a 20-year-old in a wheelchair doesn’t really need medication, physical therapy and handicap accommodations in his home, but will settle for ribbons around trees and stickers on cars. Then, they denied that any veterans are victims. The right wing is especially resistant to the categorization of any group of people as victims. They decry black Americans for embracing “victimology,” and they disparage women for “playing the victim,” whenever anyone identifies incidents or patterns of racial or sexual injustice. It is of crucial importance to the right-wing project of constructing a society of solipsism to sketch a victimless world of capitalistic purity. If there are no victims, institutions are irrelevant, and there are no victimizers. If there are no victimizers, there is no need for external agitation from democratic organization or government enforcement of fair and consistent standards under the law.
It is why, as Jesse Jackson once told me, “Anyone who even gestures toward justice is on their [the right-wing] out list.”
The prevention of wars of aggression and corruption is central to any culture not just gesturing, but marching toward justice. Maintaining faith in the fidelity of the American government to causes of freedom, and expressing that faith in the ritualistic prayer of thanking “heroes” for “protecting our freedom” is sacramental and essential. Religious language clarifies the dogmatic approach to American exceptionalism and militarism, because as historian Morris Berman correctly explains, “The real religion of America is America.”
Spiritual devotion to the purity of America, preached by fundamentalists such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and even by moderate believers like Barack Obama, explains why for all their whining about “political correctness,” the right wing is far more sensitive and emotionally fragile than liberals. Many liberals do have a problem with overreacting to gaffes and jokes, but the real p.c. enforcement comes from the flag-saluting conservative crowd, with “p.c.” standing not for “political correctness,” but “patriotic commandments.”
At the top of the tablet is the Patriotic Commandment, “Thou shalt not criticize the military.”
Besides a couple of mildly stressful days, when the emails would not stop, I did not suffer because of my article. Many right-wingers promised to make my life a “living hell,” but after a few days the emails dropped down to zero, and they had moved onto their next target for hatred. Coincidentally, it was Bruce Springsteen for performing “Fortunate Son,” a classic song with antiwar themes, at the Concert for Valor.
The salient question is not how badly the right-wing army failed at making my life unpleasant, but how terribly they succeed in making American democracy duller and smaller. With cooperation from much of the moderate media, and the American political establishment, they exercise the removal of certain topics and arguments from the discourse, and in doing so, narrow the conversation about American power. The myth of universal heroism in the military and pure benevolence of American foreign policy functions as a force field around the status quo. It protects the “masters of war,” Bob Dylan famously indicted, and it shields American eyes from the dead or disfigured children in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places on the other side of the planet, barely in the consciousness of the average citizen of the United States.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain …There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
The abstraction of “thanking heroes for our freedom” not only distracts from the bodies and hearts that break in the wake of war, but contributes to the continuation of war. One man who cannot forget the concrete names of dead soldiers in the ground is Fred John Boenig, a radio host in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Boenig spent his three hours on the air, the morning after the publication of my article, defending my arguments against another radio broadcaster, Chris Salcedo in Houston, who was denouncing me on his show as a traitor. Boenig reads the names of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan each morning on this show — all the names of the fallen who died on that particular day of the year, from 2001 to present. He invited me to come on the air, and after I declined, he asked if we could speak privately on the phone.
Boenig is a gold-star father with three children currently in the military. His oldest son died in Afghanistan, and it was over the phone on the morning of Veterans Day that he humbled me by sharing his story.
Austin Gates Benson, Fred’s son, at the age of 19, enlisted in the United States Air Force, because one of his goals in life was to help bring Osama bin Laden to justice for orchestrating the murder of thousands of Americans. Benson’s brilliance in computer engineering and programming ensured that he would not contribute to the cause of the U.S. military in a combat role, but rather as a computer specialist in Afghanistan. Always a precocious boy, at the age of 18 he was reading and writing at the high collegiate level, and at the age of 7, he was an extra in the Julia Roberts movie “Stepmom.”
Fred speaks of his son with the words and tone of a proud father. Austin was not only talented, but brave and compassionate. His potential to contribute and serve was without limit, and it was something that Col. Wesley L. Rehorn saw and affirmed. Rehorn cradled Benson as a protégé, even developing a personal friendship as he would invite him to smoke expensive cigars on base. Benson wrote home and explained how much he was enjoying his bond with Rehorn, and that all seemed well in Afghanistan.
For his work, he would receive high military honors (a Firewall 5) normally not given to young A1Cs. He was able to repair the Joint Special Operations Command computer for monitoring drone strikes. When his improvements were complete, the military sharply escalated its drone strike program in 2010. The strikes in Pakistan, for example, increased from 25 to 150 a month, after Benson’s reworking of the computer. He wrote home explaining how he loved the leadership and wanted to extend his tour.
Communications stopped for two weeks in April 2010. Benson’s mother, Joie Gates, emailed Austin, saying, “No news is good news, but what’s up?” Austin wrote, “We have been real busy with this roll up. I’ll call today.” When the call came, Joie had just seen a report on the BBC about a drone strike in Pakistan that killed 79 innocent civilians. She asked her son if the report was accurate. Benson said that he could not discuss it because it was classified, but whispered, “Funny they are only reporting one.” Many civilians had died in drone strikes. The firsthand knowledge and experience of Benson reinforces the New York University Law School and Stanford Law School joint study finding that in Pakistan, drone strikes have ended the lives of 471 to 881 civilians, including 176 children.
Benson said goodbye to his mother, and that afternoon his parents received an email from him stating, “Due to recent events, including those that kept me from communicating with you, I have cemented my decision, I will not spend one second in Afghanistan longer than I have to. Don’t worry I’ll be home on time.” Two weeks later, he shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, he wrote that he “felt like a monster only a mother could love.”
Fred Boenig and Joie Gates, while still mourning the loss of their son, have petitioned President Obama to address the growing number of suicides in the military, have become antiwar advocates, and have called for reevaluation of the drone strike program. Boenig has also started the Daily Ripple, a news site focusing on the American movement for peace and social justice.
Through his work, Boenig is able to give his son a voice, and he tells me that he often has to remind people, “My son didn’t feel like a hero. He cared about what he was doing, which he did with great expertise, but he felt very badly for the Afghan people caught in the middle. He wasn’t fighting for our freedom. The only freedom we lost after 9/11 was because of the Patriot Act.”
Boenig told me that he wears the gold star and three blue stars on his lapel whenever he knows he will share a room with a politician. He uses it to get their attention, and when he has it, he explains what it’s like to pick a son up at Dover Air Force Base and live with the constant fear of losing his other children who are currently serving. “No boots on the ground,” he tells them. “I don’t ever want to pick up another kid in a flag-covered box.”
Fred Boenig isn’t a flag waver, using the patriotic banner to shield his eyes from the real cost of war. He reminds people as they so bravely say from the comfort of their home, “We should kick their ass,” that it likely won’t be their child going, but it will be his. Then he asks them, “Do you know how many we have lost so far?”
When they often fail to give even an approximate estimate, he replies, “I guess if you aren’t concerned with the ones we already lost, what’s a few more?” The numbers are real to Boenig and he reads them every day on the air because on both ends of the barrel, every casualty is someone’s son or daughter. He understands, learning in the worst imaginable way, how war devastates the human spirit. With an average of 22 vets a day, dying by suicide, he wishes America would find a better way to use talented and brave children than sending them to fight over something few if any understand.
One year to the day of his son’s death, JSOC sent SEAL Team 6 to get Osama bin Laden, a bittersweet anniversary for Boenig, knowing the role his son had in it.
The story of Austin Gates Benson not only exposes the hollow center at the core of America’s militaristic culture, but it also demonstrates and dramatizes the wisdom of Asha Bandele, who in her novel “Daughter” illumines the absurdity of apologetics for violence. Bird, a character of the story who is a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, tells his young lover, “The United States likes to act as though it honors their dead. But if it did, there’d be a whole lot more people alive.”
It was December 6, 2019, three years into a sagging Clinton presidency and a bitterly divided Congress. That day, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long fought-over, much-delayed, heavily redacted report on the secret CIA drone wars and other American air campaigns in the 18-year-long war on terror was finally released. That day, committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) took to the Senate floor, amid the warnings of his Republican colleagues that its release might “inflame” America’s enemies leading to violence across the Greater Middle East, and said:
“Over the past couple of weeks, I have gone through a great deal of introspection about whether to delay the release of this report to a later time. We are clearly in a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, that's going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not. There may never be the 'right' time to release it. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely. The simple fact is that the drone and air campaigns we have launched and pursued these last 18 years have proven to be a stain on our values and on our history.”
Though it was a Friday afternoon, normally a dead zone for media attention, the response was instant and stunning. As had happened five years earlier with the committee’s similarly fought-over report on torture, it became a 24/7 media event. The “revelations” from the report poured out to a stunned nation. There were the CIA’s own figures on the hundreds of children in the backlands of Pakistan and Yemen killed by drone strikes against “terrorists” and “militants.” There were the “double-tap strikes” in which drones returned after initial attacks to go after rescuers of those buried in rubble or to take out the funerals of those previously slain. There were the CIA’s own statistics on the stunning numbers of unknown villagers killed for every significant and known figure targeted and finally taken out (1,147 dead in Pakistan for 41 men specifically targeted). There were the unexpected internal Agency discussions of the imprecision of the robotic weapons always publicly hailed as “surgically precise” (and also of the weakness of much of the intelligence that led them to their targets). There was the joking and commonplace use of dehumanizing language (“bug splat” for those killed) by the teams directing the drones. There were the “signature strikes,” or the targeting of groups of young men of military age about whom nothing specifically was known, and of course there was the raging argument that ensued in the media over the “effectiveness” of it all (including various emails from CIA officials admitting that drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen had proven to be mechanisms not so much for destroying terrorists as for creating new ones).
There were the new tidbits of information on the workings of the president’s “kill list” and the convening of “terror Tuesday” briefings to target specific individuals around the world. There were the insider discussions of ongoing decisions to target American citizens abroad for assassination by drone without due process of law and the revealing emails in which participants up to presidential advisers discussed how exactly to craft the exculpatory “legal” documents for those acts at the Department of Justice.
Above all, to an unsuspecting nation, there was the shocking revelation that American air power had, in the course of those years, destroyed in whole or in part at least nine wedding parties, including brides, grooms, family members, and revelers, involving the deaths of hundreds of wedding goers in at least three countries of the Greater Middle East. This revelation shocked the nation, resulting in headlines ranging from the Washington Post’s sober “Wedding Tally Revealed” to the New York Post’s “Bride and Boom!”
But while all of that created headlines, the main debate was over the “effectiveness” of the White House’s and CIA’s drone campaigns. As Senator Wyden insisted that day in his speech:
“If you read the many case studies in the executive summary of our report, it will be unmistakable not only how ineffective American air power has been over these years, but how, for every ‘bad guy’ taken out, the air strikes were, in the end, a mechanism for the mass creation of terrorists and a continuing, powerful recruitment tool for jihadist and al-Qaeda-linked organizations across the Greater Middle East and Africa. If you doubt me, just count the jihadis in our world on September 10, 2001, and today in the areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia where our major drone campaigns have taken place, as well, of course, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then tell me with a straight face that they ‘worked.’”
As with the 2014 torture report, so the responses of those deeply implicated in the drone assassination campaigns and the loosing of American air power more generally in the backlands of the planet put on display the full strength of the American national security state. It was no surprise, of course, when CIA Director David Petraeus (on his second tour of duty at the Agency) held the usual Langley, Virginia, news conference—an unknown event until then-Director John Brennan first held one in December 2014 to dispute the Senate torture report. There, as the New York Times described it, Petraeus criticized the latest report for being “‘flawed,’ ‘partisan,’ and ‘frustrating,’ and pointed out numerous disagreements that he had with its damning conclusions about the CIA’s drone program.”
The real brunt of the attack, however, came from prominent former CIA officials, including former directors George Tenet (“You know, the image that’s been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, ‘Oh boy, now we get to assassinate people.’ We don’t assassinate people. Let me say that again to you, we don’t assassinate people. O.K.?”); Mike Hayden (“If the world had acted as American air power has done in these years, many people who shouldn’t have gotten married wouldn’t have gotten married and the world would be a saner place for marriage.”); and Brennan himself (“Whatever your views are on our drone program, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during a difficult time to keep this country strong and secure and you should be thanking them, not undermining them.”). Hayden, Brennan, and national security, intelligence, and Pentagon officials also blanketed the news and the Sunday morning talk shows. Former CIA Director of Public Affairs Bill Harlow, who had set up the website ciasavedlives.com to defend the patriotic honor of the Agency at the time of the release of the Senate torture report, repeated the process five years later with the website dontdronethecia.com.
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated his classic statement of 2009, insisting to a range of media interviewers that the drone campaign was not just “effective,” but still “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” Former President Barack Obama did an interview with NBC News from his new presidential library, still under construction in Chicago, saying in part, “We assassinated some folks, but those who did so were American patriots working in a time of great stress and fear. Assassination may have been necessary and understandable in the moment, but it is not who we are.” And 78-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on Fox News from his Wyoming ranch, insisted that the new Senate report, like the old one, was a “gob of unpatriotic hooey.” President Hillary Clinton, interviewed by BuzzFeed, said of the report, "One of the things that sets us apart from other countries is that when we make mistakes, we admit them." She did not, however, go on to admit that the still ongoing drone program or even the wedding air strikes were “mistakes.”
On December 11, as everyone knows, the mass junior high school shootings in Wisconsin occurred and media attention quite understandably shifted there, 24/7. On December 13, Reuters reported that a drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, which was “suspected” of killing seven “militants,” including possibly an al-Qaeda sub-commander—local residents reported that two children and a 70-year-old elder had been among the dead—was the thousandth drone strike in the CIA’s secret wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Running a Criminal Enterprise in Washington
It’s not 2019, of course. We don’t know whether Hillary Clinton will be elected president or Ron Wyden reelected to the Senate, no less whether he’ll become the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a body once again controlled by Democrats, or whether there will ever be a torture-report-style investigation of the “secret” drone assassination campaigns the White House, the CIA, and the U.S. military have been running across the backlands of the planet.
Still, count me among the surprised if, in 2019, some part or parts of the U.S. national security state and the White House aren’t still running drone campaigns that cross national borders with impunity, kill whomever those in Washington choose in “terror Tuesday” meetings or target in “signature strikes,” take out American citizens if it pleases the White House to do so, and generally continue to run what has proven to be a global war for (not ‘on’) terror.
When it comes to all of this “secret” but remarkably well-publicized behavior, as with the CIA’s torture program, the United States has been making up the future rules of the road for the rest of the world. It has created a gold standard for assassination and torture by green-lighting “rectal rehydration” (a euphemism for anal rape) and other grim acts. In the process, it has cooked up self-serving explanations and justifications for actions that would outrage official Washington and the public generally if any other country committed them.
This piece, of course, is not really about the future, but the past and what we should already know about it. What’s most remarkable about the Senate torture report is that—except for the odd, grim detail like “rectal rehydration”—we should never have needed it. Black sites, torture techniques, the abusing of innocents—the essential information about the nightmarish Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush administration set up after 9/11 has been publicly available, in many instances for years.
Those “2019” revelations about drone assassination campaigns and other grim aspects of the loosing of American air power in the Greater Middle East have been on the public record for years, too. In truth, we shouldn’t be in any doubt about much of what’s billed as “secret” in our American world. And the lessons to be drawn from those secret acts should be obvious enough without spending another $40 million and studying yet more millions of classified documents for years.
Here are three conclusions that should now be obvious enough when it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror and the growth of the national security state.
1. Whatever grim actions are the focus of debate at the moment, take it for granted that they don’t “work” because nothing connected to the war on terror has worked: The coverage of the Senate torture report has been focused on arguments over whether those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, “worked” in the years after 9/11 (as in 2019, the coverage would undoubtedly focus on whether drone assassination campaigns had worked). The executive summary of the Senate report has already offered numerous cases where information gained through torture practices did not produce actionable intelligence or stop terror plots or save lives, though misinformation from them might have helped embolden the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq.
Bush administration officials, former CIA directors, and the intelligence “community” in general have vociferously insisted on the opposite. Six former top CIA officials, including three former directors, publicly claimed that those torture techniques “saved thousands of lives.” The truth, however, is that we shouldn’t even be having a serious discussion of this issue. We know the answer. We knew it long before the redacted executive summary of the Senate report was released. Torture didn’t work, because 13 years of the war on terror has offered a simple enough lesson: nothing worked.
You name it and it failed. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about invasions, occupations, interventions, small conflicts, raids, bombing runs, secret operations, offshore “black sites,” or god knows what else—none of it came close to succeeding by even the most minimal standards set in Washington. In this period, many grim things were done and most of them blew back, creating more enemies, new Islamic extremist movements, and even a jihadist mini-state in the heart of the Middle East that, fittingly enough, was essentially founded at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq. Let me repeat that: If Washington did it any time in the last 13 years, whatever it was, it didn’t work. Period.
2. In national security and war terms, only one thing has “worked” in these years and that’s the national security state itself: Every blunder, every disaster, every extreme act that proved a horror in the world also perversely strengthened the national security state. In other words, the crew that couldn’t shoot straight could do no wrong when it came to their own agencies and careers.
No matter how poorly or badly or stupidly or immorally or criminally agents, operatives, war fighters, private contractors, and high officials acted or what they ordered done, each disaster in this period was like a dose of further career enhancement, like manna from heaven, for a structure that ate taxpayer dollars for lunch and grew in unprecedented ways, despite a world that lacked all significant enemies. In these years, the national security state entrenched itself and its methods in Washington for the long run. The Department of Homeland Security expanded; the 17 interlocked intelligence agencies that made up the U.S. intelligence community exploded; the Pentagon grew endlessly; the corporate “complexes” that surrounded and meshed with an increasingly privatized national security apparatus had a field day. And the various officials who oversaw every botched operation and sally into the world, including the torture regime the Bush administration created, were almost to a man promoted, as well as honored in various ways and, in retirement, found themselves further honored and enriched. The single lesson from all of this for any official was: Whatever you do, however rash, extreme, or dumb beyond imagining, whatever you don’t accomplish, whomever you hurt, you are enriching the national security state—and that’s a good thing.
3. Nothing Washington did could ever qualify as a “war crime” or even a straightforward crime because, in national security terms, our wartime capital has become a crime-free zone:Again, this is an obvious fact of our era. There can be no accountability (hence all the promotions) and especially no criminal accountability inside the national security state. While the rest of us are still in legal America, its officials are in what I’ve long called “post-legal” America and in that state, neither torture (to the point of death), nor kidnapping and assassination, nor destroying evidence of criminal activity, perjury, or the setting up of an extralegal prison system are crimes. The only possible crime in national security Washington is whistleblowing. On this, too, the evidence is in and the results speak for themselves. The post-9/11 moment has proven to be an eternal “get out of jail free card” for the officials of two administrations and the national security state.
Unfortunately, the obvious points, the simple conclusions that might be drawn from the last 13 years go unnoticed in a Washington where nothing, it seems, can be learned. As a result, for all the sound and fury of this torture moment, the national security state will only grow stronger, more organized, more aggressively ready to defend itself, while ridding itself of the last vestiges of democratic oversight and control.
There is only one winner in the war on terror and it’s the national security state itself. So let’s be clear, despite its supporters who regularly hail the "patriotism" of such officials, and despite an increasingly grim world filled with bad guys, they are not the good guys and they are running what, by any normal standards, should be considered a criminal enterprise.
See you in 2019.
[Note on weddings: On the issue of wedding parties obliterated by American air power, a subject TomDispatch has been covering for years, I had counted news reports on seven of them by the time an eighth, a Yemeni wedding party, was blown away in December 2013. Since then, a correspondent has pointed out to me a report that a ninth wedding party, the second in Iraq, may have been hit by U.S. air power on October 8, 2004, in the city of Fallujah, with the groom dying and the bride wounded.]
2014 was an unjust year to say the least. From corporations pursuing control of the Internet to cops getting away with murder, the last 12 months were certainly filled with oppression. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t fight back. There was plenty of resistance from activists across the country pushing for change.
Here is a countdown of the top five groundbreaking movements that rocked the boat this year.
5. The fight for net neutrality rages on. In January 2014, a court decision ruled in favor of Verizon, which had challenged the Federal Communication Commission’s ability to enforce net neutrality. The decision has sparked a yearlong fight to demand an Internet that is open and equal for all. Protesters set up camp outside FCC headquarters and followed up months later with actions in multiple cities after word got out that the FCC was considering a shoddy solution.
But the most effective use of people power was illustrated by citizens’ responses to the commission. The FCC website even crashed at one point following a hilarious plea by John Oliver to flood the site with comments. In the end, the FCC received a record of 3.7 million responses. In an analysis of the first 800,000, only one percent were against net neutrality. The FCC will likely make a decision on net neutrality at the beginning of 2015.
4. The year of minimum wage victories. The federal minimum wage remains a measly $7.25—a 25 percent decrease in worth since it peaked in 1968. Workers have had enough. People across the nation came together to make 2014 an historic year for minimum wage victories. Both Seattle and San Francisco passed the country’s highest minimum wage bills that will phase in $15. The Chicago City Council voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13, and voters in Oakland passed a November ballot initiative raising the wage to $12.25. Four red states also passed minimum wage increases during the midterm elections. Early in the year, President Obama raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for all 2 million federally contracted workers.
Low-wage workers are playing a crucial role in sparking a national conversation around fair pay and labor practices. Fast-food workers continued strikes throughout the year, holding their largest action this December with workers in 190 cities participating. Walmart workers also took to the streets for various direct actions, including their third and largest Black Friday strike to date. (Walmart CEO announced plans to raise workers' wages so that no worker makes the federal minimum wage.) And federally contracted workers walked off their jobs, insisting that $10.10 is not enough.
3. The struggle for ending deportations sees success. Dubbed by some as the “deporter-in-chief,” Obama has deported 2 million undocumented immigrants during his time in office, more than any other president in history. For years, organizers have called for an end to deportations, and their actions certainly didn’t slow down this year. Instead, organizers with Not1More, one of the most influential campaigns in the immigrant rights movement, held sit-ins, stopped deportation buses and went on hunger strikes.
Locally, immigrant rights groups nationwide worked on ending the Secure Communities program, in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement works together with local law enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants. More than 140 local jurisdictions have passed ordinances or executive orders stating that they will no longer comply with the program. In November, Obama announced plans to shield about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, a huge success for the movement. The movement plans to continue its fight to end deportations for all.
2. The world erupts in support of Palestinians. After Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in July, the global community erupted in support of Palestinians facing terror. Images of dead Palestinians, bombed hospitals and schools, and a city demolished outraged people worldwide. Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in a few short weeks, including 519 children. About 50,000 people rallied in South Africa, 20,000 rallied in London, and hundreds in Paris defied a protest ban to demonstrate. In the U.S., thousands took to the streets in New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco and other major cities. Jewish activists against the war on Gaza, like one group that organized a sit-in at the NYC office of the Friends of Israel Defense Forces, were also very vocal. In Palestine, tens of thousands in the West Bank marched to Jerusalem in protest.
Activists on the West Coast held one of the most powerful protests in defiance of Israel’s occupation of Palestine when they successfully blocked an Israeli ship from docking on the coast. These “Block the Boat” actions were part of a larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to hit Israel where it economically hurts. Organizers in Oakland, CA, continued these actions, including one in October, when a ship was forced to sail all the way to Russia to unload.
1. Police killings spark Black Lives Matter movement. After Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August, the town exploded, spurring a global call for racial justice. The young black protesters in Ferguson sustained actions for weeks on end, forcing Americans to confront the racism and injustice that plague our country. They also exposed the world to the ruthless results of police militarization in the U.S., as they faced tanks, tear gas and rubber bullets.
After the grand jury investigating the case decided not to indict Wilson in November, huge protests broke out nationwide again, with actions in more than 150 cities. A week later, a grand jury similarly decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner, despite the fact that Pantaleo’s use of a banned chokehold was caught on tape. From NYC to Tokyo, people across the world held actions calling for justice and supporting the message that black lives matter.
As well as taking over the streets, young black activists are experimenting with different tactics to stop “business as usual.” Nationwide, they have interrupted speeches, shut down public transportation systems and major highways, interrupted holiday shoppers, and shut down a police department. Activists have also incited national conversations on the meaning of violence as well as how non-black allies can show solidarity with the movement. They are forming groups focused on long-term organizing to be sure the world will be hearing from them for years to come. The Black Lives Matter movement has defined 2014 as the beginning of a political moment that could truly transform America’s lethal combination of deeply rooted racism and police violence.
The war on drugs seems to be reaching its endgame, thanks to shifting public opinion, rapidly changing laws and a political class finally tiring of throwing good money after bad. But prohibition, criminalization and stigmatization were still common and unnecessary ways to ruin lives in 2014—adding greatly to those harms that can be directly attributed to drugs or addiction. The rich and famous provide some cases in point, so Substance.com casts a jaundiced eye over this year’s most shocking, silly or plain sad celebrity drug stories.
1 One Direction Smoke a Joint
In May a single joint caused Twitter to explode, which in itself tells us how far we have yet to come on this issue. The joint in question was being smoked by Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction, hours before the pop idols performed a sold-out show in Lima, Peru.
The Daily Mail got hold of a video of the two getting stoned and ran an article exposing “the dark side” of the “squeaky clean boy band.” Winding itself into paroxysms of self-righteous anger, the Mail added that the video is “likely to shock the parents of their many millions of young fans,” with a warning that it could “damage the plans of Simon Cowell to build on their huge American success and grow the band to superstar status—with the two members caught on film now facing the possibility of being barred from entering the US.”
Just to clarify, Peru’s drug laws are much more relaxed than those in the US or UK. According to Article 299 of the Peruvian penal code, the possession of any of the following for personal use carries no legal penalties: up to two grams of cocaine; 5g of cocaine paste; 8g of marijuana; 1g of opium latex or 200 milligrams of opium derivatives; 250mg of MDMA, MDA or meth.
But then, “Two Grown Men Ingest Substance in Accordance With the Law” makes for a much less exciting headline, doesn’t it?
2 David Brockie of GWAR Overdoses
You’ve gotta love GWAR. The theatrical metal band, whose trashy anthems include “Bring Back The Bomb,” “Saddam A Go-Go” and “I’m In Love (With a Dead Dog),” thrilled audiences for decades with their monster outfits, spurting fake blood and onstage mutilations of Ronald Reagan and Lady GaGa effigies.
But heavy metal’s court jesters were devastated when lead singer David Brockie—better known by his alter ego, Oderus Urungus—was found dead in March of an accidental heroin overdose. He was 50.
Thanks to prohibition and the vagaries of the black market it has created, it is near-impossible to know the strength of the dope you’re buying. More enlightened policies, like those enacted in Switzerland and, just recently, Vancouver, reduce the risks by treating addiction as a health issue, instead of a criminal one.
While Brockie had a low-key funeral, his stage persona was given a traditional Norse send-off: The Urungus costume was put onto a boat loaded with offerings, pushed into the water and set ablaze with a flaming arrow. The eulogy was delivered by Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, who said: “Dave is the only motherfucker I know who has to get put away twice. He’s too big for one fucking funeral.”
3 Jaycee Chan Arrested for Marijuana Possession
Jaycee Chan, son of international action star Jackie Chan, was arrested in August as part of a crackdown on drug-using celebrities in China. Cops raided Jaycee’s house, where a party was taking place, and reportedly confiscated 110g of marijuana.
China has some of the harshest drug laws on the planet, and executes thousands of people per year for drugs offenses. Yet despite this super-draconian approach, prohibition has still failed—as Chinese human rights activist Shen Tingting detailed forSubstance.com, drug use is widespread, millions of people are addicted and HIV/AIDS is a major cause of death.
Jackie Chan later issued a statement: “As a public figure, I am very ashamed, and as a father, I am very distressed. His mother especially is heartbroken. I hope teenagers will learn a lesson from Jaycee and stay far away from the violation of drugs… Lastly, I also have to bear responsibility for being unable to educate my son, so on Jaycee’s behalf, I deeply bow and apologize to society and to the public.”
A world where marijuana use, of all things, can be a source of such shame is a crazy world indeed.
4 Trey Radel Resigns
The up-and-coming Republican congressman was one of those compassionate folks who voted in favor of drug testing welfare applicants. This obnoxious law—later ruled unconstitutional by a federal court—would funnily enough not have extended to drug testing politicians, who are also paid from the public purse. Yet Congressman Radel was apparently quite a fan of cocaine.
His career began to unravel in October of last year, when he bought 3.5g of cocaine from an undercover officer in Washington. Still, the Tea Party favorite vowed to fight on, despite pressure from the GOP to quit. He went public, explaining that he had “struggled with alcoholism off and on for years,” and claiming he’d only used cocaine on a handful of occasions. However, by January of this year—with an investigation by the House Ethics Committee hanging over his head—Radel resigned.
One important question remains: Just how much coke was Trey Radel on when he wrote this Buzzfeed essay dubbing Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” a conservative anthem?
5 Wiz Khalifa Arrested for Weed
Musicians getting arrested for having pot on their tour bus has been trending in recent years, with the likes of Willie Nelson, Justin Beiber and now rapper Wiz Khalifa taking a (metaphorical) hit. In November the “Black and Yellow” rapper—who hardly smokes incognito, with his own brand of rolling papers and a marijuana strain named after him—was arrested in Greenville, North Carolinaafter playing a sold-out show at East Carolina University.
Campus cops claimed that they smelled marijuana smoke backstage and coming from the tour bus; they found 60g and arrested Khalifa along with nine members of his entourage. Khalifa has been charged with a felony count of trafficking in marijuana, a felony count of maintaining a dwelling/vehicle/place for sale or storage of marijuana and one misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. He was eventually released on a staggering $300,000 bail. The cost to the taxpayer of the police investigation and legal proceedings relating to these heinous crimes has not been disclosed.
Upon making bail, the rapper tweeted: “waken…baken…wrist still achin. thnx for tha love and support.” We’d recommend that he play the University of Colorado Denver next time.
6 Kevin McEnroe Gets Busted and Burned
The son of temperamental tennis ace John McEnroe and troubled actress Tatum O’Neal, Kevin McEnroe, 28, got popped buying drugs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in July. Cops swooped in after seeing him make a suspicious transaction near the corner of Avenue A and 4th, catching him with six glassine envelopes of cocaine, 20 Oxys and 10 morphine pills.
As a New York resident, my first reaction to this was shock that there were any street drug dealers left on the Lower East Side: I thought they were a thing of Manhattans past, like squeegie men and decent dive bars.
McEnroe managed to dodge jail by enrolling in a drug treatment program. Whether he actually needed one, or was simply a moderate cocaine user, we don’t know—announcing an addiction problem-under-treatment is a standard way for busted celebrities to repair their image. (Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who was discharged from the Navy in February following a cocaine bust, was an exception, as Substance.com’s Stanton Peele deconstructs here.)
The biggest revelation of McEnroe’s court appearance was that none of the glassine envelopes contained actual cocaine—the poor bastard had been sold baking powder instead. Well, that’s what you get when you don’t use a phone connect…
7 Peaches Geldof Dies of an Overdose
Peaches Geldof was the daughter of Live Aid and Boomtown Rats luminary Bob Geldof and the late, hard-partying TV personality Paula Yates. Although Peaches had a widely reported “wild child” period, during which she was often pictured out with the likes of Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse looking blitzed, she had in recent years settled into motherhood and rebranded herself as a TV personality, with little public indication of any problems.
So when she died in April of a heroin overdose it came as a shock. “We are beyond pain,” said her father after her death. Shame and fear of the social, legal and professional fallout from going public with a drug problem may well have motivated Peaches’ fatal decision to use alone.
Peaches Geldof’s final tweet was a photograph, captioned, “Me and my Mum.” Paula Yates also died of a heroin overdose in 2000, aged 41. Peaches was 25.
8 Indio Downey Arrested for Cocaine Possession
In June the tabloids wound themselves up into a veritable feeding frenzy when Indio Downey—son of Robert Downey Jr.—was arrested in West Hollywood for cocaine possession. “Unfortunately there’s a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it,” said Robert Downey Jr. following his son’s arrest.
As well as any genetic element, there’s no doubt that childhood trauma can be a huge factor in whether someone has addiction issues later in life: Enter more consequences of prohibition. Indio, according to a 2000 Vanity Fair article, asked his mother, “Is daddy a bad man?” upon seeing his father being led into court in handcuffs after his own drug arrest.
9 Jason Draizin Practically Begs to Be Arrested
Sometimes people try so hard to get busted, you have to wonder if they just like prison food. Take Jason Draizin, CEO of Long Island-based MarijuanaDoctors.com, a company that links up NY patients with out-of-state marijuana doctors. All very admirable.
Draizin was well known in these parts thanks to his habit of driving around town in a van emblazoned with the Marijuana Doctors logo, along with a giant color photograph of some enticing-looking buds. However, thanks to an apparently stunning lack of self awareness, Drazin got himself arrested in August transporting drugs—and not just pot—inside this highly conspicuous van.
Cops stopped Draizin on the Long Island Expressway after he supposedly made an improper lane switch. Inside they found marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. Draizin was on his way to Atlantic City for a medical marijuana seminar, but now faces felony drug charges.
Not a smart move. But another senseless arrest, all the same.
10 Philip Seymour Hoffman Dies
Some deaths you can see coming. Others are so shocking, you think it’s a sick joke. Philip Seymour Hoffman was definitely in the latter category, mainly because he kept the addicted side of his personality so well hidden. He was found dead in his New York apartment in February, with a fatal mixture of heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and benzos in his system. Mixing drugs like this is highly dangerous, and many deaths attributed to heroin or opioid painkillers also involve alcohol or other drugs.
Hoffman was undoubtedly one of the best actors of his generation. He could make you cringe, as inHappiness, where he played sad-sack obscene phone-caller Allen. He could break your heart, as in Boogie Nights, where he played Scotty J., whose unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler was funny and moving at the same time. Even in big-budget dreck like Mission Impossible 3, Hoffman was a hypnotic presence.
For as long as prohibition drives drug use and addiction underground, people like Hoffman will be more likely to use alone (although secrecy is by no means the only reason for doing so) and out of the reach of help, including naloxone, and therefore more likely to die.
Every preventable death is a tragedy, but it seems unlikely that 2015 will usher in a new era of enlightenment and tolerance. Still, we live in hope.
An Indiana church that saw a large number of congregants walk out in January after forcing its gay choir director to resign, will close at the end of this year.
David Mantor, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Alexandria, said attendance and donations had been spiraling downward for 30 years.
“This is a problem that’s going on everywhere, and that’s why we’re closing,” Mantor said.
He insisted the Dec. 31 closure had nothing to do with Adam Fraley, who had attended the church for six years with his partner and was hired by the congregation to lead the choir.
Congregants said Mantor was hired at the same time with the stipulation that he accept Fraley as a colleague, but they said he reneged after he took over as minister.
David Steele, a former lay leader for the church, said Mantor asked him to resign, as well, after asking the minister to reconsider his position on Fraley.
Steele, who has not been back to the church he attended for 60 years since stepping down in January, said about 80 percent of the congregation had left the church following the ousters.
Steele’s daughter, Danielle, said donations had plummeted because congregants left the church over Mantor’s anti-LGBT stance.
“This church is closing precisely because of David Mantor, precisely because of the issues surrounding gay rights in the church,” Danielle Steele told The Raw Story.
United Methodist Church law allows LGBT people to attend church services but says “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.”
A spokesperson for the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church said LGBT people were prohibited from being ordained as ministers, but church leadership were authorized to make decisions on other roles.
Steele said the church’s congregation included up to 700 people when his father, Clayton Steele, was minister.
The church was founded in the late 1800s, and its current location was built in 1901 and renovated in 2002.
Updated Dec. 18 at 9:16 a.m.: Clarified details about Fraley’s removal as choir director and added comments from Danielle Steele.Related Stories
Listen carefully to the Republican leaders and presidential hopefuls roaring with outrage over President Barack Obama's courageous decision to normalize relations with Cuba; listen very carefully, because no matter how long or how closely you listen to them, there is one thing you will surely never hear.
You will never hear a new idea -- or any idea -- about bringing liberty, democracy and prosperity to the suffering Cuban people.
Instead, the furious denunciations of the president's initiative from his adversaries reveal only an intellectual void on Capitol Hill, where the imperatives remain partisan and cynical. Everyone paying attention has known for decades that the frozen relationship between the United States and Cuba has accomplished nothing -- except possibly the prolongation of the Castro regime, which has long considered the embargo a plausible excuse for its own economic failures and viewed the United States as a politically convenient enemy.
Anyone who has visited the island knows that the Cubans wish nothing more than to see the embargo lifted because they know it has done nothing to advance their liberty or prosperity -- just the opposite.
As Bill Clinton likes to say, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. (He wanted to normalize relations as president, but the Cuban government clearly didn't.) The U.S. government has been doing the same thing in Cuba for nearly 54 years, yet the Republicans still don't think that's been long enough. They haven't explained how or why -- or when -- their policy will achieve a different result.
Opponents of change have also failed to justify why we've treated Cuba so differently than we treat other -- and, in various respects, worse -- authoritarian regimes with which we maintain not only vigorous diplomatic relations but massive trading partnerships and even military cooperation. The conduct of those governments is arguably more repressive in important ways; there is, for instance, less religious freedom in China and Saudi Arabia than Pope Francis found in Cuba.
To browse human rights findings from the State Department's annual reports or the online files maintained by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is to find at least a dozen countries with atrocious human rights records, from Chad to Turkmenistan. But the United States maintains diplomatic and trade relations with all of them.
Indeed, Republican leaders and businessmen -- notably including members of the Bush family -- have profited handsomely from investment in countries such as China and Saudi Arabia for many years, with scarcely a peep about human rights violations in those places. It is impossible to forget how the first President Bush toasted the Chinese regime immediately after the massacre in Tiananmen Square -- and how his opportunistic family members showed up in Beijing and Shanghai looking for a deal.
With the liberation of more than 50 political prisoners -- along with American aid worker Alan Gross and an unnamed American spy -- the Cubans have suddenly improved their human rights performance, while the Chinese continue to inflict horrendous repression and even torture on Tibetans, Uighurs and Han Chinese who dare to dissent. (Many of our leading Republicans don't object to torture, of course, unless it is perpetrated in foreign countries. Sometimes.)
House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of making "another mindless concession to a dictatorship." What seems truly mindless, however, is his insistence that we dare not abandon an unworkable and destructive strategy. No trade and diplomatic boycott observed and enforced by one country alone -- even a powerful country such as ours -- is ever going to prevail.
That is among the reasons international human rights organizations, always the most consistent and implacable critics of the Castros' abuses, have long advocated engagement rather than embargo. As Human Rights Watch notes on Web pages devoted to detailing those abuses, U.S. policy has imposed "indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people" since 1961 "and has done nothing to improve the country's human rights."
And not long after the president concluded his historic speech -- among the most lucid, logical and inspiring delivered since he was re-elected -- a spokeswoman for Amnesty International called his new approach "the best opportunity in (a) half-century for human rights change in Cuba."
Designed to quarantine the Cuban government, the policy that has failed for five decades has only succeeded in isolating the United States from the rest of the world. Its end is long overdue.