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Mind Equal Status With Matter

[ 18 ] November 27, 2015 |

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I endorse every word of George Makari’s New York Times op-ed, written in response to reporting on a trial of integrated care for first-episode psychosis. Integrated care included personalized medication management, family education; resilience-focused individual therapy (I am not 100% sure what “resilience-focused” means specifically), and support for vocational rehabilitation. The study found substantial benefits to the integrated care program over community care that were visible not just to clinicians, but to patients and families, especially for patients with shorter duration of untreated psychosis before they entered the study. Its primary outcome was a measure of overall quality of life, and it also included a symptom severity measure as a secondary outcome; both measures showed strong effects.

This finding attracted a degree of popular attention that read as surprise, presumably because for schizophrenia, and perhaps for no mental illness more than schizophrenia, in the popular imagination its causes are genetic and immutable, or amenable to change only by a compulsory medication regimen. The only part of that it is necessarily true is that its causes are partly genetic. But these ideas about cause, course, and treatment reflect decades of efforts by psychiatry, and increasingly, psychology, to call mental illness a “brain disease.” As Makari says:

After the emergence of Prozac and the newer antipsychotic drugs like Risperidone some two decades ago, there was a sustained effort by academic research leaders in American psychiatry to promote these successes, and to fight the stigmatization of the mentally ill by forgoing the complexities of the biopsychosocial model for a simpler, more authoritative claim: Mental illness is a brain disease.

Inherent to this proposition is the implication that psychological and social events somehow are not also brain events. Acknowledgment of any nonexplicitly neural factors is seen as opening the door to those who dismiss mental illness as metaphysical, fake or the result of a moral failing. By these lights, meaningful interventions for those struggling with mental illness must be biochemical or anatomical.

If I were to quibble with any part of the op-ed, I might say that much as I shared his chagrin at the directive that every study that received NIMH funding must include a biological measure of some sort, I’m not sure that it would in practice prevent a large-scale study from occurring, it would just force the grant-seekers to cobble together some BS biomarker. A fully sequenced genome isn’t even that expensive at this point, and someone out there would probably take that data of their hands and analyze it. It was still a wasteful and wrongheaded message from NIMH, and that message isn’t even good for biologically-based research. For instance, there is plenty of brain imaging research that would benefit from clearer understanding of how people behave, what psychology and neuroscience experiments are actually measuring, and how our words and categories map on to people’s behavior and experience. The ambiguity between motivation and capacity to perform a task is just one example of the many circumstances in which an observed behavior might not mean what it seems to at first glance, and behavioral neuroscientists need psychologists to do programmatic work to put their house in order in this and many other ways. It is unfortunate that NIMH decided to tell psychologists it wasn’t interested in that work.

Regarding the idea that mental illness is “a brain disease,” no lens on mental illness is objective. They are all human ways of conceptualizing human variation, and this variation can only be understood as illness because it is violating social norms. For that reason every lens should be evaluated for its utility (I first wrote “for people who suffer from mental illness,” but I dislike the construction of categories in which “the mentally ill” are a separate group from anyone else). The “brain disease” lens has been powerful and helpful in many ways, not least by providing psychotropic drugs to those who need them, but it also fails at some of the things it’s supposed to offer. First of all, as Makari notes, it can suck resources and attention from researching an integrated approach to care (or trying to understand how further upstream, weaknesses in family or community lead to illness). Part of its promise was that it might reduce stigma, but in fact, there’s reason to believe the opposite is true — that people see a “brain disease” as more permanent than a condition arising from psychological and social causes.

A framing in which a mental illness is a relationship between a person and their environment, a contortion in the adaptation process that can be as much about the environment as the person, allows for the possibility of the world and the person moving into more harmonious agreement. Because it’s a little easier to change a person than everything around them, that will usually mean the person changing, but it also helps to maintain in our language the idea that the world could change, and we could ask it to. Much of the reporting on the Kane et al. study has emphasized therapy, but another way to look at integrative care is as a fusion of medical care and community support. It is creating a functioning community around a vulnerable individual (whose illness may have been in part due to weaknesses in the community in the first place; stress increases the risk for developing psychosis). Our way of thinking about mental illness has the possibility to teach us that the person is more likely to get and stay well when their network is well, and we all share responsibility as a part of that network. Or it has the possibility to teach us that mental illness is just an individual’s disease, enclosed within a skull, or maybe generously inside a sack of skin. I know which one I choose.


Randall Kennedy on race and racism at Harvard Law School (and elsewhere)

[ 141 ] November 27, 2015 |


HLS professor Randall Kennedy has an excellent piece on the current controversies at Harvard and elsewhere (A few days ago, some unknown person(s) for unknown reasons put strips of black tape, across the portraits of tenured black professors that are displayed, along with the portraits of all tenured HLS professors, in one of the school’s buildings). I don’t like to excerpt it, since it seems to me a model of balance and good sense that really should be read in its entirety, but here is part of his argument:

Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.

They believe that the defacement is but an outcropping of shrouded, denied, but pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice. The aggrievement felt by substantial numbers of smart, knowledgeable and capable students is evident. Their accusations warrant close examination and may well justify further reforms. There are exceedingly few, if any, major institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.

Activists who are demanding that universities do more to advance racial justice ought to be encouraged by what has transpired in recent weeks. On account of their interventions, difficult but earnest and probing conversations have blossomed. At Harvard, the dozen or so strips of black tape that prompted the crisis have been replaced by hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.

Around the country, any administrator in higher education who neglects to take seriously plausible accusations of racism proceeds at his or her peril. Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. . .

While some of [the activists’] complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.

One reaction to this kind of an argument is that it plays into the hands of right-wingers, who are categorizing the various protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, Harvard, etc., as nothing more than the manifestations of a combination of illiberal “political correctness” and hyper-sensitive whining by over-privileged children of the helicopter parent generation. Another reaction is that the former reaction itself plays into the hands of those who want to wrongly minimize the continuing salience of race and racism in American society, by refusing to consider making distinctions between valid, less valid, and spurious complaints.

These are difficult and important questions, and Kennedy’s willingness to engage with them in a nuanced way is admirable.

Why Would You Make Turkey Any Other Way?

[ 42 ] November 27, 2015 |

The other day  my mother in law messaged me saying she’d had some turkey breast braised in apple cider; she said it was tender and delicious. Knowing I was not going to be cooking for an army I thought that sounded like something I might want to try. Here’s how I made my Thanksgiving Cider-Braised Turkey Breast:


  • 1 split turkey breast (mine was 2.34 pounds)
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 2-3 cups good quality apple cider (mine was the kind with apple bits floating around in it)
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh sage (dried would certainly work, too–just use less)


  1. Generously salt and pepper the breast. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a big dutch oven.
  2. When it’s rippling add the breast and brown the skin. Remove the breast to a plate.
  3. Sauté the shallots and sage in the drippings and oil ’til shallots are slightly softened, adding a bit of salt and pepper. Add the cider.
  4. Put the breast in the braising liquid, skin side down.
  5. Put the cover on the dutch oven and put in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.
  6. Remove cover and turn the breast skin side up. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes.
  7. Remove breast to a plate and let rest for a few minutes. Pour braising liquid over the breast and slice to serve.

It couldn’t be simpler. And it was, without a doubt, some of the most tender, flavorful turkey I’ve ever had.

NOTE: This fed 4 people (one who filled up on ham) and there were leftovers. For more than 4 people, to be safe I would double this recipe.

Black Friday

[ 48 ] November 27, 2015 |

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. If you’re voluntarily taking part in the Black Friday Shoppernalia remember that biting, scratching and hitting below the belt are strictly forbidden.

If you’re an involuntary participant (i.e. you have to work in some retail house o’ horrors) then it’s whatever you can get away with, so far as I’m concerned. Been there, done that, think cattle prods and coshes should be part of every retail workers’ ensemble.

If you’re not working or shopping, my favorite cash drain has some ideas for how you can spend the day.

Related – Never been to a state park? Have a household of humans who need to burn off the excess energy from a breakfast of pumpecapple piecake? Parks in several states say ‘Come on up and see me.’ (Maryland, you disappoint me.)

Or, you could go back to sleep.

Underdeveloped Nations and the Left

[ 137 ] November 26, 2015 |


Above: Gamal Abdel Nassar

I’ve long thought Jacobin is at its best when it is moving the conversation on what it means to be a leftist ahead in the post-Soviet era, as opposed to commenting on the issues of the day. It’s certainly my long-standing contention that the way to a viable left in the 21st century is not romanticizing the left of the 20th century and instead figuring out what they did wrong, either adjusting or rejecting those mistakes entirely, and rethinking what a more egalitarian and democratic future might look like. Only when that happens can an articulate, meaningful, powerful, and long-standing challenge to capitalism can exist.

I was reminded of this when reading Bhaskar Sunkara’s excellent interview with sociologist Vivek Chibber, much of which had to do with two fundamental mistakes on the left in the late 20th century and today. The first was the widespread belief that newly developed states would ally with local capitalists. The problem of course was that Brazilian and Indian and Mexican capitalists are as evil as those of the United States and Britain and France. Capitalists exist strictly to profit. In other words, the idea of the globally brown nations uniting against the globally white nations failed because it did not take into account the fact that class would trump race. The second is the belief in top-down national development as the ultimate solution in a post-imperialist world. The problem with this of course is that these frequently abused the power, engaged in wholesale corruption, and otherwise did not do much if anything to improve the lives of the population as a whole. An excerpt:

Q: This calls for a project driven by workers — something radically different than many of the postcolonial projects of the twentieth century. And yet, there is this kind of nostalgia of academics like Vijay Prashad and others who pose that those newly independent nations, the “darker nations,” formed a new bloc with some sort of emancipatory potential.

A: I think that’s a distorted view of the era. There’s something to it in that there was something called a Non-Aligned Movement, and they did try to rest some degree of autonomy for developing countries in the global economy. Nevertheless, we have to be careful about calling it a “project” as Prashad does.

The implication there is that things like the Bandung Conference had some kind of mass support, and there was a vision that differed in some important way from the vision of its domestic ruling classes, and that description, I think, is wrong.

First of all, this Non-Aligned Movement, the effort to bring together developing countries through things like the Bandung Conference, was essentially an elite project. It was really something that catered to particular designs that local industrialists had and went down to some parts of the intelligentsia and the middle classes. It wasn’t something that resonated with most workers and peasants, so to characterize it as a movement is misleading.

Secondly, because of its narrow base, it was something that was entirely servant to, and constrained by the visions of, the domestic elites. And so it was right from the start very limited in its ability to project an alternative project to what postwar capitalism globally was representing.

I think it rests on a very romanticized view of the national bourgeoisie. It attributes to it a broader vision and progressive intention that it didn’t have. What it was trying to do was to carve out a bigger space for its interests in the global economy, not anything that we might call national interests, much less the interests of working people.

Q: There are others who seem to even resist the idea that Brazilian capitalists can be just as bad as American capitalists and Indian capitalists just as bad as Canadian ones.

A: I think the problem goes even deeper. On the intellectual left, in the United States over the past fifteen years, there’s a very pronounced discomfort in thinking in class terms at all. And this kind of romanticism about the Third World and the Third World nations is actually not the first time we’ve seen it.

It actually was first around in the 1970s in a certain part of the Left, and it was called Third Worldism. At the time, the critics of Third Worldism were mostly Marxists.

Q: Though much of this Third Worldism had Maoist roots.

A: Sure, it came out of Maoism, but the critics of that were also Marxists. Why is it resurfacing now? Certainly not because Maoists have suddenly become dominant on the Left. It’s part of an inclination, a desire, to think of the world in racial terms and national terms rather than in class terms.

And that’s why it makes it easy to think in terms of nations of darker people in the South versus the white North, rather than acknowledging and recognizing that those nations themselves are racked with class divisions where their ruling classes are as vicious as the ones in the North.

Q: And that’s why you get narratives where people like Nehru are champions of progress.

A: Yes, I’ve seen Nehru and Nasser represented as visionaries of social justice and national self-determination. Nehru, under whom India unfolded one of the longest military occupations of the postwar era, in the northeast states of India; Nehru who went back on every promise he made to the Kashmiris for local autonomy, and whose daughter and grandson imposed a brutal military occupation there; Nasser, who was virulently and unrelentingly anti-communist and hostile to the Left, and had expansionist plans of his own in the Middle East.

These are basically representatives of local ruling classes who had some progressive thrusts, not because they had a different vision, but because in all these countries, workers and peasants had some real strength, which created a more forward-looking ethos within the ruling classes for a brief period, which was reflected, and had echoes, in conferences like Bandung.

But we must understand that the agenda of people like these leaders was to contain and to roll back the power of the laboring classes, not to represent them in some way. And nostalgia towards that is, I think, entirely misplaced.

Forgive the length of the excerpt, but I thought it highly instructive and valuable. Read the whole thing if you are avoiding family and watching the Eagles-Lions. Now back to tending my roasted vegetables.

Trump, Rubio and Cruz (an unlimited liability partnership)

[ 73 ] November 26, 2015 |

cruz coloring book

Ezra Klein interviews political scientist Alan Abramowitz:

I certainly don’t think [Trump is] a strong favorite, but there’s no way of really coming up with an accurate prediction of these things. Forecasting nomination contests is a fool’s game, I think. I saw what Nate Silver posted on FiveThirtyEight, and what he’s saying is reasonable based on the history of these presidential nominations, but there are a couple things I think are different this year.

Silver makes the case that the polls at this point don’t necessarily mean much, and you can get big swings in voter preferences in relatively short periods of time. And that’s true. What I think is different is Republicans are tuned in to a much greater degree than they were at this point in previous nomination contests. You can see that in polling when you ask whether voters are paying attention, and you can see that in ratings for the debates. The idea that voters aren’t tuned in yet and won’t make up their minds till January or later may not prove as true as it has in the past.

Because of the higher level of interest and attention this year, these early polls may be more predictive of what’s likely to happen.

The second point is Trump isn’t only leading in national polling. He’s leading in every state poll I’ve seen. He seems to be ahead in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, Nevada.

Voters say he’s a strong leader who will shake up Washington, and that’s what they want. He’s the leader on big issues like immigration, terrorism, the economy. And the Washington Post/ABC News poll found a plurality — even more voters than actually support him — think he’s the candidate with the best chance of winning in November.

If Trump does start to fade out, the good news, from the standpoint of Republican leaders and strategists, is that Ben Carson seems to be beginning to fade in support. The bad news is that the guy who is really well-positioned to pick up Carson and even Trump supporters is Ted Cruz. And Cruz right now is right on Trump’s heels in Iowa. He has a very strong organization there, and it’s an electorate he could do very well with.

So, to me right now, it looks like there are three potential Republican nominees, and that would be Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Klein acknowledges that a lot of pundits, including himself, “have a sort of Underpants Gnomes theory of Marco Rubio’s chances. Step one is Rubio is the only acceptable nominee to Republican elites. Step two is … something. And step three is Rubio wins the nomination.”

The impending conclusion of the Ben Carson Griftathon has cemented Cruz as the other anti-establishment alternative to Rubio, thereby complicating things further. Right now I’d say it’s difficult to predict which of these three candidates will win, but I think it’s fair to say that all three have a very real shot, including Der Donald.

Look Around, Look Around, at How Lucky We Are to Be Alive Right Now…

[ 137 ] November 26, 2015 |

3056979Even more Thanksgiving Day links, for your reading pleasure:

The problem here is that the Turks are not asserting that any armed attack took place or, for that matter, that any armed attack was even being contemplated by the Russians. Instead, in a letter to the U.N., the Turks only claimed that the Russians had “violated their national airspace to a depth of 1.36 to 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds.” They also say that the Russians were warned “10 times” (something the Russians dispute) and that the Turkish jets fired upon them in accordance with the Turks’ “rules of engagement.” Of course, national rules of engagement cannot trump the requirements of international law. Moreover, international law also requires any force in self-defense be proportional to the threat addressed.

Thus, the legal question is this: Is a mere 17-second border incursion of such significance and scale as to justify as “proportional” the use of deadly force as the only recourse — particularly where there is no indication that the Russians were going to actually attack anything on Turkish soil?

This Day in Labor History: November 26, 1910

[ 7 ] November 26, 2015 |

On November 26, 1910, a factory building in Newark, New Jersey caught on fire, killing 25 textile workers. This should have been a call to arms for workplace safety reform, but because it was in Newark and wealthy people did not see the people making their clothing die, nothing happened. The situation would be very different after those wealthy people did see workers die precisely four months later in New York during the Triangle Fire.

The working conditions of the Gilded Age were extremely dangerous. The 1842 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation established the doctrine of workplace risk, by which workers were said to have agreed to labor in unsafe conditions when they took the job and thus had no legal recourse to compensation if they were hurt or killed. This was one of a series of 19th century court decisions that allowed companies to do whatever they wanted in the name of progress, whether it was kill workers or decimate ecosystems. Workplace deaths became commonplace. Particularly in mining, workplace disasters that killed 100-200 workers, but more often, a dozen or more, would be all too common. Other industries would often kill workers one by one, through production that designs that threw a single worker into a sawblade every other day but would not kill the dozens needed to gain national headlines. By 1910, discontent with this systems had manifested itself that some judges and juries were beginning to find for dead and injured workers in court cases, scaring companies about their potential financial liability and pushing them toward recommending weak workers compensation laws to protect their interests. The first of these would pass in 1911.

The Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, which made nightgowns, occupied part of a four-story building in Newark. On November 26, 1910, at about 9:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the factory. Owned by a New York woman named Barbara Glass, this was a circa 1860 factory building that lacked any fire extinguishing technology. There were several different factory operations in the building. The first floor was a box factory and a machinist shop. On the second was another box factory while the third floor was a light bulb manufacturer. There were a total of about 200 workers in the building as a whole, of which 75 percent were women. The fire actually started in the light bulb factory. The description of this process makes you wonder why there weren’t more fires. Basically, to carbonize filaments for electric light bulbs, the workers connected the filaments to two poles in vulcanized cork placed in the mouth of a small metal can. An iron pipe connected this can to a can of gasoline used to carbonize the filaments with an electric current shooting through the gas-filled can for the carbonization. Someone would manually fill the gas cans with a big barrel of gasoline sitting outside the factory. Gasoline spilled on the floor and somehow, possibly because smoking was not uncommon in factories, the gas caught on fire. The workers immediately threw sand on the fire and it seemed to kill it, but in fact it was still smoldering and a few minutes later it exploded anew, jumping to the ceiling. There was a firehouse directly across the street from the factory, but even so there was nothing the firefighters could do to extinguish in flames. In fact, several firefighters were injured rescuing workers.

The workers on the bottom floors escaped, but not on the fourth floor. Six of the workers burned to death while 19 jumped. Forty more were injured while escaping. Most of these women were young. The oldest was 59-year old Catherine Weber while the youngest was Mildred Wolters, age 16. Three sisters by name of Millie, Tillie, and Dora Gottlieb all died. They were 19, 21, and 29 years old respectively.

As was not uncommon with these Gilded Age disasters, the fire got a lot of publicity, with national news stories covering it. But it did not lead to any broader calls for workplace safety reforms. The Progressive reformers trying to improve the lives of workers did act. The Women’s Trade Union League assigned Ida Taub to investigate the fire and testify before the relevant bodies. She sent a letter to the coroner’s jury, asking to be heard at the January hearings. They said yes, but almost immediately dismissed her as soon as she started. The foreman stated, “unless you have a complaint of criminal negligence on the part of an official, you had better take your stories to the Corporation Counsel and have him prosecute for violations.” The coroner’s jury decided, “They died from misadventure and accident.” And thus nothing was done. In the end, the Gilded Age doctrine of workplace risk still held sway, with most juries, even as late as 1910, finding in favor of widespread corporate murder of their employees.


The mayor set up a relief fund for the families of the deceased and contributed $100. There were some other contributions. And that was it. There was no meaningful compensation for survivors or the families. The fire did worry officials concerned with a similar situation in their city. The New York fire chief said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.” And indeed it would.

Ultimately this story and the story of Triangle are key to understanding not only the awful working conditions of the Gilded Age but how change occurs. As many scholars have pointed out, most workplace safety legislation in the United States only passes after a horrible disaster galvanizes attention. Often even that is not enough, as we see from the Newark fire. It wasn’t until Triangle, with the physical connection between workers and consumers becoming disturbingly manifest, that meaningful change took place. Today, that physical connection is largely impossible. At best, when workers die at the Kader factory or Rana Plaza, the best we can hope for is enough media attention that it stays in the news for a cycle. It took over 1100 deaths to move European companies to do anything about the terrible conditions of labor in modern sweatshops. For American companies, that was not enough. With us unable to even find Bangladesh on a map, there is certainly no Triangle-like pressure for force corporate reforms. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have worse workplace safety conditions than other nations…. Only workers’ lives we are talking about here.

So little has been written on the Newark fire, except in the context of mentioning it for Triangle, that I had to go hunt up old insurance industry journals from the time to write this post. The March 29, 1911 issue of The Insurance Press provided most of the details about the fire itself and what was happening in that factory building.

This is the 161th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Thanksgiving Links

[ 54 ] November 26, 2015 |

Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy your spaghetti carbonara!

Setsuko Hara, RIP

[ 15 ] November 25, 2015 |

Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actors in film historym has died. Hara worked with most of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, but her finest work was in the wonderful films of Yasujiro Ozu, including the transcendent Tokyo Story, where she plays the widowed daughter-in-law who cares more about her aging in-laws than any of their surviving children. Not a lot happens in Ozu films except talking but given that he largely shot the films with the actors speaking directly to the camera, the personal power of these family stories transcend postwar Japan and created some of the finest films ever made. Her performances radiated a powerful independent grace in a transitioning Japanese society. She disappeared from the public eye in the early 1960s and I didn’t even know she was still alive. In fact, she died in early September at the age of 95 and it was never reported until today.

What? My House is Next to a Former Smelter?

[ 21 ] November 25, 2015 |


When you bought your house (this is strictly theoretical in my case since I doubt I will ever be able to buy a house), did your real estate agent tell you what toxic industries have historically been located near your new house? I’m guessing not. And if you are a homeowner near the old ASARCO smelter in Tacoma, Washington, the answer is definitely not.

Tacoma’s industrial history confronted Alex Stillman on a late spring morning while she was up to her wrists in front-yard dirt.

A neighbor saw the 27-year-old school nurse, part of the city’s influx of new homeowners, digging to plant a hedge outside her North 40th Street house and walked over to share some friendly insight about the neighborhood. The conversation sent Stillman inside to start learning things no real-estate agent or inspector had explained to Alex or her husband, Bryce, when they bought the place in fall 2014.

It fell to Google to tell her about the long-gone Asarco copper smelter that operated less than a mile from where her tidy 1940s bungalow stands, and that the lead and arsenic emitted from its 571-foot-tall smokestack for several decades had polluted her yard and thousands of others with agents linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

“How many people my age would even know what a smelter is?” asked Alex Stillman, who grew up in Snohomish.

In a deindustrialized age with very few of the unionized but dirty working class jobs of the not so distant past, probably not very many would in fact know. Not surprisingly, the history of this smelter is highly contested within Tacoma, with many of the old-time residents still blaming environmentalists for its closure (really it was about copper import prices) and holding on to that smelter identity that defines a lot of dirty industry towns that have died, or drastically changed in the case of Tacoma. With such a huge smokestack, the impact of this smelter pollution is spread over a much wider area than most dirty industries. There isn’t nearly enough testing of the long-term impact of this smelter on health but we do know the soil contains significant poisons. How this affects Tacoma property values will be interesting with so many people now moving there to escape Seattle housing prices.

Everybody’s in show biz

[ 54 ] November 25, 2015 |


I’ve spent much of the last two decades “doing” both conventional academic work and freelance journalism, and over that time I’ve come to appreciate that academia and journalism share some similar problems. The one that interests me the most at the moment is the practical problem of producing what in many ways is or ought to be a public good, while at the same time needing to sell this good in or on the market.

In academia, this is reflected by the corporatization of the university, which comes down to giving students, conceptualized increasingly as just another species of customer, what they want, or think they want, as opposed to what they need. It’s an axiom of the market that the customer is always right, but that axiom is by definition inimical to the very idea of education, which is based on the idea that students are persons in need of edification, rather than conduits for the delivery of ever-more profitable forms of consumer satisfaction.

Journalism faces a similar conundrum, summed up nicely by Matt Taibbi:

What we call right-wing and liberal media in this country are really just two different strategies of the same kind of nihilistic lizard-brain sensationalism. The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well, while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist. Both companies offer the same service, it’s just that the Fox version is a little kinkier.

When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.

And who shops for products he or she doesn’t want? That’s why the consumer news business was always destined to hit this kind of impasse. You can get by for a long time by carefully selecting the facts you know your audiences will like, and calling that news. But eventually there will be a truth that displeases your customers. What do you do then?

Although there’s always a danger of romanticizing the past, there was a time not that long ago when most of higher education in America was primarily about something other than making money (although of course it always had to be about that too). I don’t know nearly as much about the history of American journalism, although I know enough to realize that the likes of William Randolph Hearst ruled much of that world many decades before Rupert Murdoch washed ashore. But that history also includes the likes of Edward Murrow, who apparently worked at a news division that was expected to lose money, since the bills were being paid by the entertainment side of the business, and it was understood by the William Paleys of the world that reporting the news had to be about something more than making a buck, or it wouldn’t be real reporting for long.

For a generation now, America has been bombarded by the message that the market is the proper measure of all things, and that pretty much everything ought to be sold to the highest bidder. The result is the disgusting spectacle of Trump campaign, which probably started out as a shameless publicity stunt, but is now getting such great ratings that there’s a non-trivial chance he could become president of the United States.

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