What we do better without other people around

The power of lonely

(Tim Gabor for The Boston Globe)
By Leon Neyfakh

March 6, 2011

You hear it all the time: We humans are social animals. We need to spend time together to be happy and functional, and we extract a vast array of benefits from maintaining intimate relationships and associating with groups. Collaborating on projects at work makes us smarter and more creative. Hanging out with friends makes us more emotionally mature and better able to deal with grief and stress.

Spending time alone, by contrast, can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.

“There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University whose book “Alone in America,” in which he argues for a reevaluation of solitude, will be published next year. “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But what actually happens to people’s minds when they are alone? As much as it’s been exalted, our understanding of how solitude actually works has remained rather abstract, and modern psychology — where you might expect the answers to lie — has tended to treat aloneness more as a problem than a solution. That was what Christopher Long found back in 1999, when as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves.

With his graduate adviser and a researcher from the Forest Service at his side, Long identified a number of different ways a person might experience solitude and undertook a series of studies to measure how common they were and how much people valued them. A 2003 survey of 320 UMass undergraduates led Long and his coauthors to conclude that people felt good about being alone more often than they felt bad about it, and that psychology’s conventional approach to solitude — an “almost exclusive emphasis on loneliness” — represented an artificially narrow view of what being alone was all about.

“Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad,” Long said by phone recently from Ouachita Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor. “There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Today other researchers are eagerly diving into that gap. Robert Coplan of Carleton University, who studies children who play alone, is so bullish on the emergence of solitude studies that he’s hoping to collect the best contemporary research into a book. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually.

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary, are now part of a paper on “the coexperiencing mind” that was recently presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. In the paper, Burum offers two possible theories to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-known concept from social psychology called “social loafing,” which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.

Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.

Teenagers, especially, whose personalities have not yet fully formed, have been shown to benefit from time spent apart from others, in part because it allows for a kind of introspection — and freedom from self-consciousness — that strengthens their sense of identity. Reed Larson, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois, conducted a study in the 1990s in which adolescents outfitted with beepers were prompted at irregular intervals to write down answers to questions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that when the teens in his sample were alone, they reported feeling a lot less self-conscious. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people,” he said.

The teenagers weren’t necessarily happier when they were alone; adolescence, after all, can be a particularly tough time to be separated from the group. But Larson found something interesting: On average, the kids in his sample felt better after they spent some time alone than they did before. Furthermore, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.

“The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state,” Larson said. “But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine.”

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Overextended parents might not need any encouragement to see time alone as a desirable luxury; the question for them is only how to build it into their frenzied lives. But for the millions of people living by themselves, making time spent alone time productive may require a different kind of effort. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues in her new book, “Alone, Together,” that people should be mindfully setting aside chunks of every day when they are not engaged in so-called social snacking activities like texting, g-chatting, and talking on the phone. For teenagers, it may help to understand that feeling a little lonely at times may simply be the price of forging a clearer identity.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department, one of Cacioppo’s former students, recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

by

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

‘Tree of virtues’ by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from ‘The Book of Trees.’ Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from ‘Waterloo & Trafalgar.’ Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

 

 

New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Aging, Illness, and Death

by

Making sense of the human journey with wit, wisdom, and disarming vulnerability.

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

But besides appreciating Chast’s treatment of such grand human themes as death, duty, and “the moving sidewalk of life,” I was struck by how much her parents resembled my own — her father, just like mine, a “kind and sensitive” man of above-average awkwardness, “the spindly type,” inept at even the basics of taking care of himself domestically, with a genius for languages; her mother, just like mine, a dominant and hard-headed perfectionist “built like a fire hydrant,” with vanquished dreams of becoming a professional pianist, an unpredictable volcano of anger. (“Where my father was tentative and gentle,” Chast writes, “she was critical and uncompromising.” And: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter.”)

Chast, like myself, was an only child and her parents, like mine, had a hard time understanding how their daughter made her living given she didn’t run in the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of working for the man. There were also the shared family food issues, the childhood loneliness, the discomfort about money that stems from having grown up without it.

The point here, of course, isn’t to dance to the drum of solipsism. (Though we only children seem particularly attuned to its beat.) It’s to appreciate the elegance and bold vulnerability with which Chast weaves out of her own story a narrative at once so universally human yet so relatable in its kaleidoscope of particularities that any reader is bound to find a piece of him- or herself in it, to laugh and weep with the bittersweet relief of suddenly feeling less alone in the most lonesome-making of human struggles, to find some compassion for even the most tragicomic of our faults.

From reluctantly visiting her parents in the neighborhood where she grew up (“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made — and bought — $8 chocolate bars [but] DEEP Brooklyn”) as their decline began, to accepting just as reluctantly the basic facts of life (“Old age didn’t change their basic personalities. If anything, it intensified what was already there.”), to witnessing her father’s mental dwindling (“One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again. On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory.”), to the self-loathing brought on by the clash between the aspiration of a loving daughter and the financial strain of elder care (“I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money.”), Chast treks with extraordinary candor and vulnerability through the maze of her own psyche, mapping out our own in the process.

Chast also explores, with extraordinary sensitivity and self-awareness, the warping of identity that happens when the cycle of life and its uncompromising realities toss us into roles we always knew were part of the human journey but somehow thought we, we alone, would be spared. She writes:

It’s really easy to be patient and sympathetic with someone when it’s theoretical, or only for a little while. It’s a lot harder to deal with someone’s craziness when it’s constant, and that person is your dad, the one who’s supposed to be taking care of YOU.

But despite her enormous capacity for wit and humor even in so harrowing an experience, Chast doesn’t stray too far from its backbone of deep, complicated love and paralyzing grief. The book ends with Chast’s raw, unfiltered sketches from the final weeks she spent in the hospice ward where her mother took her last breath. A crystalline realization suddenly emerges that Chast’s cartooning isn’t some gimmicky ploy for quick laughs but her most direct access point to her own experience, her best sensemaking mechanism for understanding the world, life and, inevitably, death.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is an absolutely astounding read in its entirety — the kind that enters your soul through the backdoor, lightly, and touches more parts of it and more heavinesses than you ever thought you’d allow. You’re left, simply, grateful.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury © Roz Chast; thanks, Wendy

My adventures in Hemingway

How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world

As a young man in Europe, I immersed myself in the work of a master. What I learned changed me forever

My adventures in Hemingway: How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world
Ernest Hemingway attends a bullfight in Madrid, Spain, November 1960. (Credit: AP)

At first, they died in the bullring, but the book that made them famous had swelled the crowds. By mid-century, the lack of space made it harder to outrun the bulls, so they began to die much earlier in the route, beyond Hotel La Perla, and most just before the bulls made their 90-degree turn onto Calle Estafeta.

I was there in Pamplona, standing on the balcony of the piso near this precarious juncture. It was 8 a.m.; the stone streets were shiny with rain. There was a wood barricade, like an outfield wall, that unnaturally ended Calle Mercaderes and forced the route right onto Estafeta. This is where I saw the first bulls slip, losing their footing at the turn, their bulk hitting the stones, their tonnage pounding into the barricade, the runners fleeing to the sidewalks, some, in fetal curls, waiting for death.

This was how the last American was killed in Pamplona, along this narrow corridor that offers no escape from the charging bulls. That morning, his killer, “Castellano,” had begun to run the 826 meters from the Cuesta de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Toros at an unusually torrid pace, which frightened the runners and sent them scurrying. One of them fell.

Castellano plunged his horns into the limp American on the ground, goring his stomach and piercing through to his aortic vein. He began to crawl. But there were still more bulls in the stampede, and by the time the Red Cross unit got to Matthew Tassio, most of the blood had already drained from his body. He was dead just eight minutes after he finally reached the hospital.

Tassio’s was the 14th death in the recorded history of San Fermín — the festival most famous for hosting the annual “Running of the Bulls” — and the last American to die there. One other has perished since, in 2003, and many others have been badly damaged by the bulls, but perhaps none have died as gruesomely as the American did in 1995. I wasn’t in attendance for that run, thankfully.

In a year in which there would be no deaths, I came to Pamplona for the second time by bus from Madrid, passing through the sunflowers of Basque country. I had been invited by the correspondents of the Associated Press, with whom Dow Jones Newswire, my former employer, shared its local outpost to witness the Running of the Bulls from their prized perch.

That morning’s encierra would be the first of the new millennium. It was very wet and, even from the balcony, you could see the unevenness in the cobblestones. The only place to witness the run was from the balconies of the apartments along the route. When the bulls began to stampede, the runners, many still drunk and wearing all white save for a red pañuelico around their necks, filled all of the space in the corridors. It was a jogging gait until they saw the bulls. Most of them ran well ahead of the danger, but some were eventually chased down by the bulls.



I remember an American student who slipped nearly died on the curb by the cigarette shop on Estafeta, trampled, blood maroon in the grooves of the cobblestones, a small crowd coagulating around him to watch for death.

I remember the dense crowds, the public drunkenness, the street drink that kept you drunk and alert made from equal parts Coca-Cola and red wine. And, of course, I remember the monumental visage of Ernest Hemingway that hung down the side of the Hotel La Perla, where he set the novel that first recorded this mad dash from mortality.

* * *

It is not an overstatement to claim that Ernest Hemingway introduced Pamplona to the world. Until he first wrote about it in 1923 in an article for The Toronto Star Weekly, the San Fermín festival had been a regional affair: “As far as I know we were the only English speaking people in Pamplona during the Feria of last year,” writes Hemingway. “We landed at Pamplona at night. The streets were solid with people dancing. Music was pounding and throbbing. Fireworks were being set off from the big public square. All the carnivals I had ever seen paled down in comparison.”

This Toronto Star sketch of Pamplona comes from the appendix of new edition of “The Sun Also Rises,” released last week by Scribner’s to commemorate the 90th anniversary of its publication. The “updated” version will titillate Hemingway aficionados: unpublished early drafts, excised scenes and two deleted opening chapters. This “new” material provides a rare glimpse into the evolution and creative process of one of the great masters of American literature.

Drafted over six weeks across Spain (mostly in Valencia and Madrid) in the summer of 1925, set in Jazz Age Paris amid the psychic ruins of the Great War, “The Sun Also Rises” endures as one of the finest first novels ever written. Its itinerant narrative of Spain and France (they were largely unknowns to the American traveling public in 1925, but more on that later), depictions of café life and drinking, bullfighting and affairs with matadors, were all new to novels of the time. “No amount of analysis can convey the quality of ‘The Sun Also Rises,’” went the original review of the book in The New York Times in 1926. “It is a truly gripping story, told in lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”

Hemingway chose to evoke disillusionment through Jack Barnes, an expatriated American foreign correspondent living in Paris, and his married paramour, Lady Brett Ashley. Their romance is complicated, to say the least: Jake’s manhood was marred in the war and he cannot procreate (in his famous interview with The Paris Review in the 1950s, Hemingway was adamant that Jake was not a eunuch). The war injury was a crucial detail in the text, and an emblematic signature of the Hemingway code that ran through his subsequent work. His male characters bore physical or psychic wounds (sometimes both). Jake’s injury was an outward symptom of an interior crisis suffered in the wake of WWI.

Hemingway’s genius was present in Jake and Lady Brett as protagonists and antagonists. We inflict our own wounds, Hemingway seems to say, an insight that bears out even today: Contemporary disillusionment is concerned with the surprising, man-made ironies of modernity — a dwindling sense of freedom, both existential and civil; the West’s waning hegemony even amid unparalleled wealth and technology; a diminished middle class and shrinking American dream; and an ever present sense of looming doom (an attack of some kind, perhaps) by forces beyond our control. The Lost Generation time of “The Sun” was infected with its own disillusionment, owing to man-made origins from the tragic period of 1914–1918. This disillusion plays out in “The Sun” almost nihilistically; by the novel’s end, both characters are badly damaged by the preceding events, degraded, alienated.

* * *

The two opening chapters, cut by Hemingway but offered to readers in the new edition, were fortunate omissions. The original opening lines of “The Sun” sound an awkward, conversational, and Victorian tone, inconsistent with the remainder of the novel:

This is a story about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins she is living in Paris and it is Spring. That should be a good setting for a romantic but highly moral story.

Yet, in the rest of the deleted chapter, and elsewhere in the early passages, the Hemingway voice is undeniably present. That voice has drawn veneration and ridicule. The essayist E.B. White, hardly the type for big-game hunting and encierros, penned a famous parody of Hemingway in The New Yorker in 1950, deriding his so-called declarative prose style. Yet much of Hemingway’s best writing strains this easy stereotype. He is far less aphoristic and quotable than, say, Don DeLillo (a veritable one-man factory of sound bites), and you would find it difficult to locate a pithy tweet among the prose of “The Sun Also Rises.”

By the 1930s, Hemingway’s writing style had grown more intricate. “Green Hills of Africa” contains a  buffalo of a sentence, 497 words spanning five pages, reminiscent of Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez. That magical realist, in fact, had lionized Hemingway. Writing for the New York Times about a fleeting, chance encounter with Hemingway on Paris’s Boulevard St. Michel, Márquez declares that “[Hemingway's] instantaneously inspired short stories are unassailable” and calls him “one of the most brilliant goldsmiths in the history of letters.”

For better or for worse, that unmistakably declarative, taut, gritty Hemingway music can overpower the substance of his stories, somewhat ironically drawing the attention back onto himself. Over the decades since his death in 1961, the Hemingway legend has bloomed and rebloomed many times over, until now there is a preoccupation with the Hemingway lifestyle, the man himself, in a way, morphing posthumously into a tourist destination, a literary Jimmy Buffet.

Those places in “The Sun” – Pamplona, Madrid, Paris – remain open for tourists, poet manqués, backpackers and the traveling gentility. But the tourism and concomitant commercialism have rendered quite a few of their landmarks ersatz. At the Closerie des Lilas in Paris’ Montparnasse district, where Hemingway set many scenes from his books (including my favorite, “A Moveable Feast”), practically the entire bar menu is a monument to Hemingway: daiquiris and mojitos, all made from Cuban rum, all named after Papa. After its much celebrated renovation, the Hotel Ritz saw fit to refurbish itself with a Hemingway-themed restaurant, L’Espadon (“The Swordfish”), in homage to Papa’s love of fishing, along with a Hemingway-inspired bar, which, no doubt, mixes up fanciful permutations of mojitos and daiquiris named after… you guessed it. The Spanish may have even more flagrantly exceeded the French in their quest to annex the Hemingway legend into their geography. Calle de Hemingway in Pamplona leads directly into the bullring. Placards outside restaurants on the Calle Cuchilleros in Madrid proclaim, rather declaratively, that “Hemingway ate here.” The website of Madrid staple Botin’s, the world’s oldest restaurant and where Hemingway set the final scene of “The Sun,” devotes cyber text to Papa, even directly quoting the final chapter.

A question worth considering: Were he alive today, could Hemingway have written a novel as great as “The Sun”? So much of its wonder derives from his keen eye for the undiscovered, heretofore unknown traditions. Ours, though, is a world of uber-awareness, search-engine omniscience. Those with wanderlust possess all manner of means to beam into a faraway place, efficiently and affordably, even instantaneously. One afternoon, in writing this essay, I called up Google Earth to view the squares and streets where I had been 14 years ago, astounded by the clarity of the street-level views. For the next few minutes, I flitted to and fro around the globe, a Peter Pan visiting Anthony Bourdain places.

* * *

I had first read “The Sun” in high school and was unaffected by it. Not until I had decided to move abroad after college and take up residence in Spain did I take up the text again. This time I clung to it, savoring every word about where to travel and where to eat and how to live like a good, knowledgeable expatriate.

Barcelona in July was a late-summer swamp. Soon, I missed the cool weather and took an overnight train north to the Basque country. In San Sebastian, I walked at dusk along the promenade that curled around the bay past the stalls that sold tiny, rare mollusks you picked like popcorn out of a cone of rolled newspaper. I saw some school kids perform the ancient Basque Riau-Riau dances and walked around the complicatedly arranged streets, names clotted with diphthongs, that smelled of the Atlantic, looking for Hemingway experiences.

That did not come until Pamplona.

It was late afternoon in August and very hot when I arrived. In my bag was a journal from my mother, some unremarkable reading, dirty clothes, a few measly legs left of a Eurorail pass I had purchased in Harvard Square the month before.

I had not thought the city would be so different after San Fermín, but I had come too late: the city was half-full. I roved for much of that afternoon, dodging in and out of curio shops and whatever else was open out of season. When it was dinnertime, I studied the menus of the restaurants off the Plaza Castillo until I found somewhere with a menu written only in Basque. I befriended a fellow traveler, Ryan, who was also from Massachusetts, and we made up plans to go drinking at a café in the Plaza Castillo afterwards.

By our third bottle of Estrella, an American couple approached to ask if they could join our table.

“We live in Paris and I am so tired of Paris that we have to leave. All I want to do is go back to Chicago but he won’t go,” she said.

“But Paris is so special,” I said. “Don’t you enjoy any part of it?”

“I despise it. They hate all Americans and you can smell the cheese in the cheese shops even from the street.”

She was menacingly beautiful and skeletal in that model way. Mark was a photographer, a little stout and balding, his shirt unbuttoned a touch salaciously. They had eloped some years ago and were living in an attic flat on the Île de St. Louis. When she began to flirt openly with Ryan, he would not look at her. When the couple began to quarrel, she kept saying she wished to return to America.

It was nearly midnight now and we were the only ones left in café in the colonnade of the plaza. Across the way, the lights were all out at the Hotel La Perla. There was only moonlight in the great square. When she finally began to kiss him, her husband placed his bottle on the table, stood, and shook his head at me. She was giggling the entire time.

 

 

Israel’s Control of Palestinian Lives


My pet cat here in Gaza has more freedom than the Palestinians, such is the subhuman treatment meted out to them.

An Israeli army armoured personnel carrier (APC) moves along Israel’s border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on July 25, 2014
Photo Credit: AFP

As Israeli air force bombs fell over Gaza City one recent evening, Snowy, the white cat that has charmed me into hosting him in my garden, ducked down in shock, as I did. Snowy is one of a growing population of cats in the Gaza Strip that help deter rodents in residential areas. Israel‘s grip on what is allowed in or out of Gaza includes restrictions on equipment and supplies essential for municipal hygiene services. Gaza has become a heaven for rats.

If Snowy understood human speech, I would have responded to his angry yowls of shock at the bombing by reminding him of the silver lining for him in Gaza. For years now, he has been unwittingly upgraded compared to the subhuman treatment of the people. Snowy may have to scavenge for food, but Israel has been rationing Gaza’s supplies – and its aspirations for a dignified future – for years. As the cat freely roams around the neighbourhood, my movement in and out of Gaza is heavily restricted, when it exists at all.

The simmering cauldron that is Gaza has now boiled over, with horrifying consequences. But this is not a war of equals, as some suggest. Israel remains an occupying force that controls Palestinian lives against their will. Palestinians who do not enjoy the same opportunities, dignity and conveniences of civilian life as people in Israel cannot suddenly be considered as equals in a disproportionate conflict.

This is the third war on Gaza, and arguably the most vicious, in less than six years. When friends and family call from all over the world, including Israelis and Jewish friends of other nationalities, I am embarrassed to utter a single word of distress next to the tragedies that are unfolding all around us. I cannot forget footage of a young boy who whispered for water as he was perhaps dying on a stretcher with his abdomen torn open. Significant parts of the Gaza Strip have been for days out of water and electricity.

The proportion of children among civilian deaths remains at around 20% since the beginning of this war. This is surely an indicator of the lack of Israeli remorse or reconsideration of its military tactics for the past three weeks.

For years, Israel has not only shunned Gaza politically but has painted its people as aliens with whom no one outside could relate to any more. Israel’s governments have unfairly indoctrinated their public that Gaza is a hostile place full of hostile people. It became permissible to level any degree of punishment on Gaza. While no unanimity prevails in Gaza on the firing of rockets towards Israel, a great deal of consensus exists that Gaza has been pushed too far, to a point where such actions are seen by more and more as a measure of last resort. Gaza got tired of being suffocated and pushed around without any hope for a better future.

Now, Israel is crushing Gaza in what it calls self-defence, but which feels to people here like an Israeli attempt to discipline us never to make the mistake that we are worthy of a decent and peaceful life. The mostly timid international community has been blinded to the cumulative effects of Israel’s policy and has inadequately challenged its alienation and incarceration of Gaza. This failure to appreciate how explosive the underlying causes are sows the seeds for another round of violence.

The international community should be commended for either supporting recent Palestinian reconciliation or, at least, not standing in its way. However, it can no longer view itself as a spectator as the new Palestinian government of national consensus struggles to fend off Israeli threats and actions. Europe and the US are urged to be active participants in helping Palestinians succeed in advancing a government that aims, at least in part, to devise a political programme that builds bridges with the world.

In preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections, the Palestinian Authority is urged to add a prominent item to its ballot sheet. It is whether voters in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, support peaceful resolution with Israel. The results will only reiterate the obvious: Palestinians are not seekers of violence, but are aggressively and methodically pushed and cornered into it.

 

A struggle to save Europe’s soul from privatization

by Jerome Roos on July 26, 2014

Post image for A struggle to save Europe’s soul from privatizationAs the EU sells its soul by pushing Greece to privatize its natural and cultural heritage, ordinary citizens are mobilizing to save their common wealth.

Image: the historic Stoa of Attalos, recently rented out for a private event.

When news of the Greek debt crisis first broke in 2010, a number of German tabloids called on the country to pawn its cultural and natural heritage to pay off its debts. “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks!” ran a headline of the ever tasteless Bild. “And sell the Acropolis too!” With the bailout of May 2010 in the making, the populist editors of the right-wing magazine, apparently oblivious to the historical sensitivities around the German annexation of foreign territories, stubbornly insisted: “We give you cash, you give us Corfu.”

Today, more than four years since the signing of the first memorandum of understanding, it seems that Germany’s nationalist media — along with the European investor class and the oligarchic Greek elite — are finally getting their way. Greece’s subservient government is now pushing hard to open up new frontiers for privatization, with some 77.000 state assets slated for sale, including a host of historic marinas and idyllic islands, a number of ancient palaces, and large stretches of the country’s spectacular and unspoilt coastline.

Pawning Greece’s Heritage

Earlier this year, the government announced that it would move ahead with its plans to sell off a number of beautiful buildings of great historic value at the foot of the Acropolis. The Guardian reported that “among the properties are refugee tenement blocks built to put up Greeks fleeing the Asia Minor disaster in 1922 and culture ministry offices housed in neo-classical buildings in the picturesque Plaka district … that were erected shortly after the establishment of the modern Greek state. Both are widely viewed as architectural gems.”

The announcement came on the heels of a controversial decision to rent out two of the most important archeological sites in Athens — the Stoa of Attalos, which sits in the ancient agora, and the Panathenaic Stadium — to companies for private events. Earlier, similar plans had been mooted by leading politicians of the ruling conservative party to lease out the Acropolis for photoshoots and other commercial and promotional activities.

Then, in May, the government upped the ante by proposing a bill that would effectively overturn decades-old constitutional protections of the country’s coastline that restrict development and guarantee open access to the beach. The Greek privatization fund TAIPED subsequently marked 110 beaches for privatization, including such gems as Elafonisos, home to the valuable marine archeological site Pavlopetri. Under the coastal bill, ownership of the seashore — along with any architectural structures and the surrounding natural environment — will fall exclusively unto the buyer, who will be able to “develop” their property and restrict access to non-owners.

The consequences of this privatization drive would be disastrous and largely irreversible. Thanks to its constitutional protections, the Greek coastline has so far managed to avoid the kind of mass development that has befallen the Spanish coastline — leaving it intact as one of Europe’s last-remaining unspoilt seashores. As The Press Project points out, however, the proposed coastal bill “would make it possible for even large beaches in Greece to be carpeted from end to end with umbrellas and beach bars,” while the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned of a Spanish-style construction boom of holiday apartments that could cover the Greek coastline in concrete.

Needless to say, the privatization drive goes hand-in-hand with the strangulation of Greece’s public sector — under direct orders of the Troika of foreign lenders — which renders the crisis of the country’s archeological heritage all the more acute. The budget of the Culture Ministry has been slashed by a savage 52% since 2010, putting at risk some of Europe’s most valuable cultural treasures by greatly reducing the available funds to maintain and protect archeological sites and run public museums. Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has overtly shifted its attention from preserving the country’s natural heritage to opening up new spaces for oil exploration.

A Scandalous Logic of Dispossession

While the sheer size of the privatization program and the aggressiveness with which it is being pursued are unprecedented in European history — eclipsing even the disastrous fire-sale privatizations in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union — the moves follow a well-established ideological script that has long been tested and perfected in the developing world, under the guise of the infamous Washington Consensus. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik put it, in the 1980s and 1990s, “‘stabilize, privatize, and liberalize’ became the mantra of a generation of technocrats who cut their teeth in the developing world and of the political leaders they counseled.”

The script is not merely ideological, however: it has long since become the very modus operandi of the neoliberal state and the globalized world economy. The influential Marxist geographer David Harvey has referred to these processes as “accumulation by dispossession,” emphasizing how the “primitive” practices of enclosure that expropriated smallholder farmers and commodified the commons of pre-industrial England do not only continue today but constitute the very logic of the system. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein furthermore showed how economic and political elites often strategically exploit the temporary paralysis wrought by natural disasters and economic crises in order to privatize public property and common wealth that would otherwise be impossible to expropriate.

With the brutalities of disaster capitalism on full display in Greece today, and with the European Union and the IMF resorting to outright expropriation in order to claw back their own irresponsible loans to the Greek state, it is perhaps no surprise that the privatization process itself has been marred by scandals throughout. It recently emerged that the government secretly granted total tax exemption to the consortium that bought up the rights to exploit the old Hellenikon airport, one of the most valuable pieces of land in the Mediterranean. Even as a Kafkaesque array of fees and taxes is being imposed on ordinary Greeks surviving off less than 500 euros per month, the owners of Lamda Development, as sole bidder for the site, “shall be exempt from any tax, duty or fee, including income tax in respect of any form of income derived from its business, of transfer tax for any reason, [or] capital accumulation tax.”

To make matters worse, it soon emerged that Lamda Development, which is owned by the Latsis family of shipping and banking tycoons, paid a mere $1.2 billion for the old airport, even though independent pre-crisis valuations estimated it to be worth at least $6.8 billion. Calculations by the Greek newspaper To Vima furthermore show that the state will have to make at least another $3.4 billion in administrative and infrastructural expenses before it can deliver the property to its new owner — thus effectively subsidizing the multi-billionnaire Latsis family for its “purchase.” In the process, the public debt accumulates even further.

In fact, the corruption of public officials and the collusion between state and capital is so extreme and so deeply entrenched that it has inevitably infected the top echelons of both government and business. Last year, Stelios Stavridis, head of the TAIPED privatization fund, himself a former construction mogul who made a fortune building swimming pools for Greece’s tax-evading business elite, was fired after a newspaper revealed that he had been offered a trip to the island of Kefalonia on the private jet of the infamous Greek oligarch and shipowner Dimitris Melissanidis, to whom he had — just hours before — sold a 33% share of the recently privatized state gambling monopoly OPAP. Stavridis was the second TAIPED head to be dismissed on allegations of improper conduct within a year. Of course, the deals themselves have not been in the least affected by any of these scandals. Whatever the cost, the fire-sale must go on.

Europe, Selling its Soul

Ultimately, however, we need to face up to the real powers behind these endless scandals — the ones who have so far managed to keep their hands clean of any overt cases of corruption but who are nevertheless ultimately responsible for the expropriation and exploitation of Greece’s immense natural and cultural wealth, not to mention the unspeakable humanitarian tragedy that has been inflicted upon its ailing society in the past four years.

It should be clear by now that the privatization process, in all its scandalous ugliness, is little more than an attempt to enclose the commons and extract as much value as possible from a country whose population has already been sucked dry by the European banking elite amidst a catastrophic four-year-old depression. Completing the privatizations is a prerequisite for the release of Greece’s bailout funds, and it is common knowledge that Troika officials have been playing a leading role in drafting up many of the plans in great detail. This, also, is no surprise, as European investors stand to benefit lavishly from future sell-offs, with the Germans already eying the waste disposal industry and the healthcare sector (which their austerity measures have already reduced to shambles), and the French set on Greece’s public water utilities.

It is safe to say, then, that Europe has now fallen to the lowest of lows: having already abolished Greek democracy (insofar as such a thing could still be said to exist), European leaders and EU institutions are now selling off Greece’s invaluable natural and cultural heritage at cutthroat prices in order to “reduce” the country’s debt, which only ends up growing in the process. If Greece is indeed the cradle of European civilization, as the EU’s Hellenophile leaders — European Commision President Jean-Claude Juncker first among them — still like to maintain, then Europe obviously stands accused of selling its own soul, for a nickel and dime, to redeem a debt that everyone knows cannot be repaid.

The Resistance Builds Up

Still, if recent years have shown anything, it is that wherever there is great injustice and indignity, there will be resistance — and even the paralysis wrought by the neoliberal shock doctrine cannot last forever. In fact, the social and political opposition to the Troika’s privatization drive has been so fierce that the Greek government has already had to scale back its projected proceeds from 50 billion euros by 2015 to a “mere” 11 billion euros by 2016. While this hardly constitutes a victory, it does reveal the hostile social and political terrain on which the Troika and the Greek government currently have to navigate.

In fact, some early signs of hope are already starting to emerge. In recent months, the grassroots campaign against the privatization of the public water utilities in Athens and Thessaloniki, spearheaded by veteran activists from the 2011 Movement of the Squares, has made major strides in rousing public opinion. In late May, the movement was aided by a favorable court ruling that blocked the privatization of the Athens water utility. The ruling marks the first significant victory in a collective push-back — operating on multiple fronts, both institutional and extra-institutional — that may yet set a precedent and make the EU/IMF-enforced privatization drive come undone at the seams.

Meanwhile, as the government prepares to relaunch its deeply unpopular coastal bill — which had been briefly shelved ahead of the European elections in late May and which it now hopes to push through during summer recess, when only 100 out of 300 MPs will be in session — the resistance to the enclosure of Greece’s ecological commons is also taking off anew. While the outcome of this struggle remains uncertain, it is clear that the government’s room for maneuver is rapidly closing down. SYRIZA, the left opposition party which actively resists the bill and openly commits itself to re-nationalizing all privatized assets, now leads the polls — further increasing pressure on the last-remaining “Socialist” MPs of PASOK to defect from the government in future privatization votes.

At the same time, it is clear that simply re-nationalizing privatized state assets and returning to the status quo ante will not suffice. With the direct democratic legacy of 2011 still freshly in mind, ordinary citizens are increasingly pushing for Greece’s immense natural and cultural wealth to be democratically self-managed and held in common. Beyond a sclerotic and capitalist-controlled state apparatus and a thoroughly polarized and depressed economy, Greece’s dynamic grassroots movements provide a vision of what a truly radicalized society could look like — reclaiming the common from the rapacious claws of an elite gone mad and helping Europe redeem its privatized soul in the process.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his weekly column for TeleSUR English.

From the Food Babe to Dr. Oz, these four are the media’s biggest fear-mongers and snake-oil peddlers.



4 of the Biggest Quacks Plaguing America with False Claims About Science

Photo Credit: indiamos/Flickr

It may be easy to draw a caricature of a “quack” as a cross between the ShamWow pitchman and an alchemist, but they’re really not so easy to spot. Modern-day quacks often cherry-pick science and use what suits them as semantic backdrop to fool unsuspecting consumers. Quacks may dazzle people with fanciful research studies or scare them with intimidating warnings before trying to peddle products that make unreasonable promises. And those who use these alternative, unproven products may forego treatments that would be more likely to help them.

In short, quackery is dangerous. It promotes fear, devalues legitimate science and can destroy lives. Here are the four biggest quacks giving dubious health advice in the media and some samples of their detrimental advice.

1. Dr. (of Osteopathy) Joseph Mercola. Mercola is not a strict medical doctor, but an osteopath who practiced in suburban Chicago (according to Chicago magazine, he gave up his practice in 2006 to focus on Internet marketing). Mercola has also written several books on health that have become bestsellers.

Mercola operates one of the Internet’s largest and most trafficked health and consumer information sites. With an estimated 15.5 million unique monthly visitors, Merola.com dwarfs even ConsumerReports.org and HealthCentral.com. The site vigorously promotes and sells dietary supplements, many of which bear Dr. Mercola’s name.

A typical article on Mercola’s site touts the wonders of yet another miracle cure or supplement. Some recent articles include “13 Amazing Health Benefits of Himalayan Crystal Salt” and “Your Flu Shot Contains a Dangerous Neurotoxin.” His site has also touted Vitamin D as “The Silver Bullet for Cancer.”

Many of Mercola’s musings clash — sometimes bitterly — with conventional medical wisdom. Mercola advises against immunization, water fluoridation, mammography, and the routine administration of vitamin K shots for newborns.

The medical community says Mercola is dangerous, and that he steers patients away from proven medical treatments in favor of unproven therapies and supplements.

“The information he’s putting out to the public is extremely misleading and potentially very dangerous,” says Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the medical watchdog site Quackwatch.org. “He exaggerates the risks and potential dangers of legitimate science-based medical care, and he promotes a lot of unsubstantiated ideas and sells [certain] products with claims that are misleading.”

Mercola has been the subject of a number of Food and Drug Administration warning letters about his activities, including marketing products as providing “exceptional countermeasures” against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. He also has marketed coconut oil to treat heart disease, Crohn’s disease, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Mercola.com also sold an infrared camera to be used as a cancer screening tool.

Some of Dr. Mercola’s wildest claims include:

  • HIV may not be the cause of AIDS. Mercola believes that the manifestations of AIDS (including opportunistic infections and death) could result from “psychological stress” brought on by the belief that HIV is harmful. Mercola.com has also featured positive presentations of the claims of AIDS truthers who deny the existence of AIDS or the role HIV has in the disease.

  • Mercola has said that microwave ovens emit dangerous radiation and that microwaving food alters its chemistry.

  • Commercial sunscreens increase the likelihood of skin cancer, instead of protecting from it. Of course, he sells his own natural sunscreens on his website.

2. The “Health Ranger,” Mike Adams. Adams runs a website called Natural News that is dedicated to supporting alternative medicine techniques and various conspiracy theories about chemtrails, the link between vaccinations and autism, and the dangers of fluoridated drinking water. Dr. Mercola is a frequent guest blogger on his site.

Natural News, which gets an estimated 7 million unique visitors a month, primarily promotes alternative medicine, raw foods, and holistic nutrition. Adams claims he began the site after curing himself of Type II diabetes by using natural remedies.

Adams seems to revel in going against the grain. He likes to tell readers on his website that if they just exercise, eat the right foods and take the right supplements (he markets supplements on his site) infectious disease cannot harm them. Like Mercola, he is an AIDS denialist, and claims flu vaccines are totally ineffective.

Dr. David Gorski of the Science-Based Medicine website calls Natural News “a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general.”

Adams also considers himself a scientific researcher, but some of his claims are dubious. He has even bought himself a mass spectrometer which he uses to test various products for toxicity. He recently used this device to show that a flu vaccine containing thiomersal registered 51 parts per million of mercury. But that’s not the news in his findings: Adams went on to insist that his critics must be brain-damaged (or perhaps brainwashed) by mercury:

The only people who argue with this are those who are already mercury poisoned and thus incapable of rational thought. Mercury damages brain function, you see, which is exactly what causes some people to be tricked into thinking vaccines are safe and effective.

Science-Based Medicine blogger Dr. Steven Novella describes Adams’ site as “a crank alt-med site that promotes every sort of medical nonsense imaginable. If it is unscientific, antiscientific, conspiracy-mongering, or downright silly, Mike Adams appears to be all for it —whatever sells the ‘natural’ products he hawks on his site.”

What makes Adams unique is that he likes to mix far-right vitriol and conspiracy theories with his alternative medicine advice. He has come out as a climate-change denialist, 9/11 Truther, and a Birther.

Here’s some more quackery from Adams and Natural News:

3. The “Food Babe,” Vani Hari. She doesn’t have a degree in nutrition, chemistry or medicine, and her work background is as a management consultant. Yet without any serious credentials, Hari—the “Food Babe”—bills herself as a voice of consumer protection on the Internet. In just a few years, she’s assembled an army of followers who have joined her on her quest to get hard-to-pronounce ingredients banned from foods.

Hari’s acolytes see her as a muckraking reporter, saving us from nefarious chemicals, GMOs and unappetizing ingredients like beaver anus, yoga mat and fish bladder. The public and the media love her; a “food safety” campaign by the Food Babe can get thousands of signatures, countless media mentions and guest appearances on television shows such as Dr. Oz and The Doctors.

But Hari is really more of a fear-mongerer and conspiracy theorist than a safe-food advocate. Her campaigns are born of misinformation and anxiety. Recently, she published a petition on her website demanding that the top beer companies come clean about the ingredients in their beer. Citing a long list of creepy, chemical-sounding ingredients that are allowed in beer, she implied that the industry was flying under the radar and obscuring the additives it puts in its products.​ It turned out that the beer companies were actually using very few of the ingredients on her list, and some were only used in the production process and were not part of the finished product. When we looked further into it, we found that many of the nefarious ingredients and techniques she described were either misrepresented or entirely misunderstood by her.​

However, at Hari’s request, the top two breweries in the U.S. acquiesced and listed their ingredients on their websites, and none of the ingredients would come as a real shock to beer drinkers. Still, Hari continued to insist that GMO corn and other bad ingredients were integral ingredients in beer.

In response to critics who say Hari is not qualified to make hard judgments on food ingredients, Hari says, “I don’t think you need to have those degrees to be intellectually honest, to be able to research, to be able to present ideas.”

Dr. David Gorski, a cancer surgeon who writes for the website Science-Based Medicine takes offense to Hari’s food campaigns:

“Her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective,” wrote Gorski. “Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names.”​

Gorski says since companies live and die by public perception, it’s far easier to “give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public.”​

Some of Vani Hari’s more specious ideas about food are:

  • Microwaves kill food and remove its nutrients. Also, microwaves change the chemical properties of water. She persists with this theory although it has been persistently debunked by science.

  • Water, when exposed to the words “Hitler” and “Satan” changes its physical properties.

  • Flu shots contain “a bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer [sic] disease over time.” Actually, flu shots are made up mostly of proteins and preservatives that give no indication of being harmful, despite plenty of medical research.

Hari has not provided any scientific evidence to back her claims as of yet.

4. Dr. Mehmet Oz. What do Vani Hari, Dr. Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams have in common? They’re all guest experts appearing on the Dr. Oz Show.

Dr. Oz is a media darling and cardiothoracic surgeon who first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. In 2009, Oprah produced Oz’s namesake show focusing on medical issues and personal health.

But before we label Oz a quack, it’s only fair that we also should note he’s a professor at the Department of Surgery at Columbia University, directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, has authored more than 400 medical research papers and holds several patents.

But unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know Dr. Oz has been exposed as a daytime-television snake oil peddler, while being shamed during testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last month.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, took Oz to task over false claims he’s made for over-the-counter weight loss cures. For example, Oz proclaims that worthless supplements such as green coffee beans have “miracle” properties.

The Missouri senator made it clear that she thinks Oz abuses his great influence. Products he endorses on his show are almost guaranteed to fly off the shelves.

“People want to believe they can take an itty-bitty pill to push fat out of their body,” McCaskill chided the celebrity doctor. “I know you know how much power you have.”

Oz acknowledged to the subcommittee that while there’s no such thing as a “miracle” supplement, and many he touts wouldn’t pass scientific muster, he insisted he was comfortable recommending them to his fans.

“My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” Oz says. ”And when they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look and I do look everywhere, including alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”

As McCaskill then pointed out, Oz was giving people false hope. Isn’t that what quacks do?

Oz often uses his show as a soapbox for the likes of Hari, Mercola and Adams. And when they’re guests on his show, they’re handled with kid gloves. Oz even describes Adams as an “activist researcher,” a “whistleblower” and a “food safety activist.” Viewers then open their wallets to Adams, who is there to promote his website. A similar scenario plays out when Mercola, a frequent guest, joins Oz. Hari, for her part, does not market miracle products on her site. She does, however, seem to make money from affiliate advertising.

Oz’s great sin is that he uses his show to promote all types of modern shamanism. Critics find it mystifying that he, a medical doctor, would host and promote people on his show who are anathema to science. It’s Oz’s instant access to millions and his medical degrees and peer-reviewed research papers that have given him credibility, but critics say he loses all of it when he promotes guests who explicitly reject the tenets of reason. So, can Oz still be considered a serious scientist?

Unlike the other three quacks mentioned in this article, Oz is more a ringmaster than a snake-oil salesman. However, he’s not without his list of dubious stances:

  • In November 2012, Dr. Oz invited Julie Hamilton, a representative of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, who claimed that she could heal homosexuality with gay reparative therapy. Although the show did include guests who condemned reparative therapy, Dr. Oz never weighed in on the subject, and the audience was led to believe that there were valid arguments on both sides of this issue.

  • His proclamation on Oprah that resveratrol is an effective anti-aging supplement sparked a resveratrol marketing craze. Numerous fly-by-night online peddlers used his name and likeness (along with the likenesses of age-defying actresses Jennifer Aniston and Marisa Tomei) to peddle the so-called miracle supplement. But it’s anyone’s guess what was in those pills.

  • Oz has invited a medium on his show who told selected audience members that she was communicating with their lost loved ones.

  • Oz once invited a faith healer, Issam Nemeh, to “heal” sick audience members on his show. On his website, Oz bragged about the “Oz Effect”: “Dr. Nemeh has received an overwhelming response from the viewers of the Dr. Oz show. Medical office appointments with Dr. Nemeh are already filled for the next four months.”

Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.

 

 

A Silicon Valley scheme to “disrupt” America’s education system would hurt the people who need it the most

The plot to destroy education: Why technology could ruin American classrooms — by trying to fix them

The plot to destroy education: Why technology could ruin American classrooms — by trying to fix them
(Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Pgiam via iStock/Salon)

How does Silicon Valley feel about college? Here’s a taste: Seven words in a tweet provoked by a conversation about education started by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreeseen.

Arrogance? Check. Supreme confidence? Check. Oblivious to the value actually provided by a college education? Check.

The $400 billion a year that Americans pay for education after high school is being wasted on an archaic brick-and-mortar irrelevance. We can do better! 

But how? The question becomes more pertinent every day — and it’s one that Silicon Valley would dearly like to answer.

The robots are coming for our jobs, relentlessly working their way up the value chain. Anything that can be automated will be automated. The obvious — and perhaps the only — answer to this threat is a vastly improved educational system. We’ve got to leverage our human intelligence to stay ahead of robotic A.I.! And right now, everyone agrees, the system is not meeting the challenge. The cost of a traditional four-year college education has far outpaced inflation. Student loan debt is a national tragedy. Actually achieving a college degree still bequeaths better job prospects than the alternative, but for many students, the cost-benefit ratio is completely out of whack.

No problem, says the tech industry. Like a snake eating its own tail, Silicon Valley has the perfect solution for the social inequities caused by technologically induced “disruption.” More disruption!

Universities are a hopelessly obsolete way to go about getting an education when we’ve got the Internet, the argument goes. Just as Airbnb is disemboweling the hotel industry and Uber is annihilating the taxi industry, companies such as Coursera and Udacity will leverage technology and access to venture capital in order to crush the incumbent education industry, supposedly offering high-quality educational opportunities for a fraction of the cost of a four-year college.



There is an elegant logic to this argument. We’ll use the Internet to stay ahead of the Internet. Awesome tools are at our disposal. In MOOCs — “Massive Open Online Courses” — hundreds of thousands of students will imbibe the wisdom of Ivy League “superprofessors” via pre-recorded lectures piped down to your smartphone. No need even for overworked graduate student teaching assistants. Intelligent software will take care of the grading. (That’s right — we’ll use robots to meet the robot threat!) The market, in other words, will provide the solution to the problem that the market has caused. It’s a wonderful libertarian dream.

But there’s a flaw in the logic. Early returns on MOOCs have confirmed what just about any teacher could have told you before Silicon Valley started believing it could “fix” education. Real human interaction and engagement are hugely important to delivering a quality education. Most crucially, hands-on interaction with teachers is vital for the students who are in most desperate need for an education — those with the least financial resources and the most challenging backgrounds.

Of course, it costs money to provide greater human interaction. You need bodies — ideally, bodies with some mastery of the subject material. But when you raise costs, you destroy the primary attraction of Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” model. The big tech success stories are all about avoiding the costs faced by the incumbents. Airbnb owns no hotels. Uber owns no taxis. The selling point of Coursera and Udacity is that they need own no universities.

But education is different than running a hotel. There’s a reason why governments have historically considered providing education a public good. When you start throwing bodies into the fray to teach people who can’t afford a traditional private education you end up disastrously chipping away at the profits that the venture capitalists backing Coursera and Udacity demand.

And that’s a tail that the snake can’t swallow.

* * *

The New York Times famously dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” Coursera and Udacity (both started by Stanford professors) and an MIT-Harvard collaboration called EdX exploded into the popular imagination. But the hype ebbed almost as quickly as it had flowed. In 2013, after a disastrous pilot experiment in which Udacity and San Jose State collaborated to deliver three courses, MOOCs were promptly declared dead — with the harshest schadenfreude coming from academics who saw the rush to MOOCs as an educational travesty.

At the end of 2013, the New York Times had changed its tune: “After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought.”

But MOOC supporters have never wavered. In May, Clayton Christensen, the high priest of “disruption” theory, scoffed at the unbelievers: ”[T]heir potential to disrupt — on price, technology, even pedagogy — in a long-stagnant industry,” wrote Christensen, ” is only just beginning to be seen.”

At the end of June, the Economist followed suit with a package of stories touting the inevitable “creative destruction” threatened by MOOCs: “[A] revolution has begun thanks to three forces: rising costs, changing demand and disruptive technology. The result will be the reinvention of the university …” It’s 2012 all over again!

Sure, there have been speed bumps along the way. But as Christensen explained, the same is true for any would-be disruptive start-up. Failures are bound to happen. What makes Silicon Valley so special is its ability to learn from mistakes, tweak its biz model and try something new. It’s called “iteration.”

There is, of course, great merit to the iterative process. And it would be foolish to claim that new technology won’t have an impact on the educational process. If there’s one thing that the Internet and smartphones are insanely good at, it is providing access to information. A teenager with a phone in Uganda has opportunities for learning that most of the world never had through the entire course of human history. That’s great.

But there’s a crucial difference between “access to information” and “education” that explains why the university isn’t about to become obsolete, and why we can’t depend — as Marc Andreessen tells us — on the magic elixir of innovation plus the free market to solve our education quandary.

Nothing better illustrates this point than a closer look at the Udacity-San Jose State collaboration.

* * *

When Gov. Jerry Brown announced the collaboration between Udacity, founded by the Stanford computer science Sebastian Thrun and San Jose State, a publicly funded university in the heart of Silicon Valley, in January 2013, the match seemed perfect. Where else would you want to test out the future of education? The plan was to focus on three courses: elementary statistics, remedial math and college algebra. The target student demographic was notoriously ill-served by the university system: “Students were drawn from a lower-income high school and the underperforming ranks of SJSU’s student body,” reported Fast Company.

The results of the pilot, conducted in the spring of 2013, were a disaster, reported Fast Company:

Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25 percent passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52 percent more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag–roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition–seem like something less than a bargain.

A second attempt during the summer achieved better results, but with a much less disadvantaged student body; and, even more crucially, with considerably greater resources put into human interaction and oversight. For example, San Jose State reported that the summer courses were improved by “checking in with students more often.”

But the prime takeaway was stark. Inside Higher Education reported that a research report conducted by San Jose State on the experiment concluded that “it may be difficult for the university to deliver online education in this format to the students who need it most.”

In an iterative world, San Jose State and Udacity would have learned from their mistakes. The next version of their collaboration would have incorporated the increased human resources necessary to make it work, to be sure that students didn’t fall through the cracks. But the lesson that Udacity learned from the collaboration turned out be something different: There isn’t going to be much profit to be made attempting to apply the principles of MOOCs to students from a disadvantaged background.

Thrun set off a firestorm of commentary when he told Fast Company’s Max Chafkin this:

“These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit….”

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial… But the data was at odds with this idea.”

Henceforth, Udacity would “pivot” to focusing on vocational training funded by direct corporate support.

Thrun later claimed that his comments were misinterpreted by Fast Company. And in his May Op-Ed Christensen argued that Udacity’s pivot was a boon!

Udacity, for its part, should be applauded for not burning through all of its money in pursuit of the wrong strategy. The company realized — and publicly acknowledged — that its future lay on a different path than it had originally anticipated. Indeed, Udacity’s pivot may have even prevented a MOOC bubble from bursting.

Educating the disadvantaged via MOOCs is the wrong strategy? That’s not a pivot — it’s an abject surrender.

The Economist, meanwhile, brushed off the San Jose State episode by noting that “online learning has its pitfalls.” But the Economist also published a revealing observation: “In some ways MOOCs will reinforce inequality … among students (the talented will be much more comfortable than the weaker outside the structured university environment) …”

But isn’t that exactly the the problem? No one can deny that the access to information facilitated by the Internet is a fantastic thing for talented students — and particularly so for those with secure economic backgrounds and fast Internet connections. But such people are most likely to succeed in a world full of smart robots anyway. The challenge posed by technological transformation and disruption is that the jobs that are being automated away first are the ones that are most suited to the less talented or advantaged. In other words, the population that MOOCs are least suited to serving is the population that technology is putting in the most vulnerable position.

Innovation and the free market aren’t going to fix this problem, for the very simple reason that there is no money in it. There’s no profit to be mined in educating people who not only can’t pay for an education, but also require greater human resources to be educated.

This is why we have public education in the first place.

“College is a public good,” says Jonathan Rees, a professor at Colorado State University who has been critical of MOOCs. “It’s what industrialized democratic society should be providing for students.”

Andrew Leonard Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomy

by Ali Bektaş on July 24, 2014

Post image for Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomyThousands of Kurds seek to break down the Turkish-Syrian border to join their comrades in defending the autonomous Kurdish enclave of Rojova from ISIS.

Photo: Kurdish resistance fighters mobilize against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, from archive (November 2012).

The struggle to abolish borders which separate peoples from each other, is commonly represented by certain well known and extreme examples. The militarized wall between the US and Mexico is one clear case in the consciousness of the Western left. Another disgusting manifestation is the stranglehold of Israel’s apartheid wall around the West Bank. Less well known, despite a hundred years of fierce struggle, are the borders that separate the 40 million Kurdish peoples from each other and which span across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The Kurdish aspiration to destroy these borders is reaching its peak today on the boundary that separates Turkey and Syria. As a result of decades of resistance to these nation states, the radical Kurds of Turkey and Syria are taking advantage of the geopolitical shake-up in the region and are declaring their regional autonomy. But before we examine the current situation, a brief sketch of the historical context is in order.

A History of Struggle

In the midst of the First World War, the semi-secret Skyes-Picot pact between Britain and France prefigured the borders which would define Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq for a hundred years to come. After a four year war under the helm of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern-day Turkey, the Turkish Republic was formed with the Lausanne Agreement in 1923. Turkey was not only a project resulting from an independence war but also from the creation of an artificial national identity. This Turkish identity began to erase all other ethnicities and cultures which it regarded as a threat, and the Kurdish people were at the top of this list. After being carved up and divided by the imperial powers of Europe, the Kurds now found themselves being erased by the budding Turkish nationalism.

The 20th century history of the Kurds within the borders of Turkey is ripe with rebellions and ensuing massacres such as the events of Dersim that started in 1938. This instance alone left more than 10,000 Kurds dead and at least as many forcefully removed from their homes. Without a doubt, the most resilient Kurdish resistance movement emerged with the formation of the the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, in 1978. Formed by Marxist-Leninist students and led by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK became a formidable enemy of the Turkish state as it waged a guerrilla war of independence, most aggressively in the late 1980s and 1990s.

At that time, the goal of the PKK was to create a unified Kurdistan along socialist principles. The PKK operated training camps across the border from Turkey in Iraq but more notably in Syria, especially in the Bekaa Valley near Lebanon. As a testament to its transborder aspirations, the PKK and its leader Öcalan left a deep mark on Kurds in Western Kurdistan, located in northern Syria. The 30 year civil war left more than 60,000 people dead within Turkish borders, the vast majority of them Kurds, members and sympathizers of the PKK, as well as 4,500 Kurdish villages evacuated and burnt by the Turkish military.

In 1999, Turkish special forces were able to capture Öcalan from exile in Rome (via Kenya), and the scope of the Kurdish struggle started to take a new form. From his extreme isolation in an island prison in the middle of the Marmara Sea, Öcalan began to make references to the Zapatistas and even to the relatively obscure social ecologist Murray Bookchin. The war for independence became transformed into one for autonomy, self-governance and expression of their identity such as using the Kurdish language, banned until very recently. More emphasis was placed upon the non-guerilla organizations of the Kurdish people, both their legal political parties but also on different modes of civil disobedience and the beginnings of an autonomous mode of federative governance.

The Kurds in Turkey had not been the only group under the yoke of a repressive nationalist Kemalism. Secularism, one of the pillars of the Turkish Republic, had been steadfastly preserved by its guardian — the Turkish Armed Forces — which targeted various stripes of Islamists vowing for power. But the tables turned at the turn of the century when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) put forth a program conjoining neoliberal development and Islam and swiftly rose to power. The AKP, with the rabid yet shrewd Erdoğan as its chief, became the first Turkish government to start a dialogue with PKK leadership in Oslo in 2008. Although mostly window-dressing, such interchange was unheard of until that moment.

In Kurdistan, the Sun Rises from the West

Today, the situation for the Kurds has taken a different turn with the dawn of the Arab Spring and its spread to Syria. The Syrian people were not able to bring a swift departure to their despotic leader Bashar Al-Assad as had been the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Instead, the country plunged into a still raging war against the last remaining Ba’athist dictatorship in the region. From this desperate mess emerged Rojova on July 19, 2012.

Rojova, meaning West in Kurdish, was the product of what is referred to as a Democratic People’s Revolution by those who took advantage of the weakening of the Ba’athist regime, namely the PYD (the Democratic Unity Party). Their territory is comprised of three cantons in northern Syria, Cizîr to the East, Efrîn to the West and Kobanê in the middle. Instead of forming a state, the PYD seek to implement democratic autonomy and self-governance with assemblies that extend down to the neighborhood level. In January of this year, their Democratic Autonomous Assembly passed a “social agreement” which guaranteed decentralization, free education in the native tongue, healthcare, housing and an end to child labor and any discrimination against women.

The radical Kurdish movement’s emphasis on women’s autonomy and empowerment must be underlined. There have been numerous PKK units and guerrilla camps which are only for women. Nearly all political organizations they form have two leaders, one a man and another a woman. Following in this tradition, on April 2, 2012 in Rojava, the autonomous force the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces) was formed within the YPG (the People’s Defense Forces). Both the YPG and YPJ have had to defend the revolution of Rojova nearly constantly from both the Ba’athist regime as well as the various stripes of Islamists who have turned Syria into the latest front of their jihad.

A Gang called ISIS

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, gradually matured into a full-fledged Salafist organization and expanded its operations to Syria, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Their form of jihad and power struggle led to their disavowal by Al Qaeda earlier this year, and ISIS quickly became the reigning address for Islamic extremists looking to join the holy war. ISIS stepped into the limelight of the Western media with its capture of Mosul in Iraq on June 10, 2014. But the autonomous regions of Rojova have also been under a fierce ISIS assault for more than a year.

Three weeks ago, on July 2, ISIS began a siege of Rojova’s central canton of Kobanê, using military equipment and munitions captured following their victory in Mosul. ISIS is trying to take Kobanê from the east, west and south and this ongoing siege constitutes the most serious threat that Rojova has come under thus far. The Kurdish movement in Turkey identifies deeply with Rojova since the PYD has been enormously influenced by the leadership of Öcalan. Therefore, a threat to the revolution in Rojova also constitutes a serious threat for the aspirations of regional autonomy for Kurds living within the borders of Turkey. In addition, many believe that the Turkish state is using ISIS for a proxy war against Kurdish autonomy by supplying them with arms and intelligence and free movement across its borders.

Following the ISIS siege of Kobanê, Kurdish and Leftist political actors in Turkey — namely the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) — mobilized to intervene in the situation. Starting on July 9, they set up four different encampments along the border in strategic locations to prevent regular ISIS movements in and out of Turkey so they could bring their wounded to Turkish hospitals and receive logistical support from the Turkish state. These encampments have also been used as staging grounds to cross the border en masse to join the YPG and YPJ forces in their defense of Kobanê. The current climate within the Kurdish movement in Turkey is one of a wartime mobilization with daily calls by party members for the youth to remove the borders and join the defense forces in Rojova.

One of the largest crossings in defiance of the border came on July 14, when approximately 300 youth crossed into Kobanê and were greeted by YPG members on the other side who would guide them across the minefield between the border and Kobanê. But this was only the prelude to what would be a historic celebration of the Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy, on the second anniversary of the revolution in Rojova.

Destroying the Border

All day and into the night on July 18, thousands of Kurds flooded into the encampment in the township of Pirsus (Suruç in Turkish). Tents had been set up near the village of Alizer, a village literally divided by the border between Turkey and Syria. People came from all over Kurdistan to celebrate the revolution in Rojova and to remove the border so as to join their compatriots on the other side in their war against ISIS.

The next day, on the 19th, the air was filled with the dry dust as the camp was set up in the middle of a fallow field under gusts of scorching winds. The sun shone hard at 45ºC, yet people kept coming and joining in the ongoing halay (a circular dance popular amongst Kurds). With more people came more and more tanks and armored personal carriers of the Turkish military as well as the water canons and other armored vehicles of the police.

The tanks and troops of the Turkish military arrived from a nearby base which has on its entrance the words “The border is honor” emblazoned on its entrance. Yet the Kurdish villagers and militant youth were not intimidated by the show of force and remained determined to destroy this border between them and their comrades under siege. On the other side of the border, thousands of Kurds from Kobanê arrived to embrace those separated from them by a flimsy barbed wire. As nighttime set in and the air became cooler, fireworks started to light the sky in a great celebration of the revolution. People were restless and the barbed wire lost any semblance of a deterrent it once represented. The stage was set for a spectacular confrontation.

And that confrontation came as promised. After the wires were clipped, a few hundred Kurdish youth crossed into Kobanê to be greeted by a delegation from the YPG. The police and military brutally attacked the celebration launching hundreds of teargas canisters into the area, as well as assaulting the crowd with batons and water cannons. The perseverance of the people was pure inspiration as everyone from the most bold and wild youth to old grannies joined the resistance against the forces of the Turkish state with rocks, molotov cocktails and fireworks. From the stage came directives for people to come and join those fighting or at least to come with their cars to help evacuate the wounded. After a two hour battle, the police and soldiers forced their way into the area with the tents and set fire to it all.

Five hours later, the military launched an operation at another encampment 30 kilometers away, near the village of Ziyaret, at the township of Birecik. The front lines of the siege of the Kobanê canton is visible from this point and this camp was strategically placed to sabotage ISIS movements and provide support and solidarity to the YPG. The people at that camp fought the military off and regained control of the camp only to have to endure another more vicious attack the following morning, on July 21, during which soldiers and police burned the tents and destroyed the cars of those there, arresting eight people after beating them.

Rojova for the Middle East

In the Western media, when one hears of Kurds or Kurdistan it is most often in reference to Mesud Barzani and the Kurdish territory under his control in Northern Iraq, which has also extended its sovereignty in the current context created by ISIS. It must be pointed out that this political formation has minimal affinity with the radical revolutionary one launched by the PYD in Rojova. In fact, both the PYD and PKK often find themselves in open conflict with Barzani’s vision for the Kurds. Occasionally doing the bidding of colonial states, Barzani is also a frequent visitor of Erdoğan. In fact, as recent as last week he flew to Ankara to meet with him and discuss the situation unfolding in the region.

The siege around Kobanê by ISIS is continuing but the YPG and YPJ are determined to thwart it and as of today have begun to take back territory from them. Meanwhile, their comrades on the Turkish side of the border have begun to rebuild the encampment at the village of Ziyaret and vow to stay there until ISIS is fought off. They see the defense of Kobanê as the crucial battle to keep the battle for Kurdish autonomy alive. Many compare this current mobilization to that which took place in defense of the Spanish Revolution against the fascists in the late 1930s. The crushing of the Spanish Revolution had global repercussions that are still being felt today. Similarly, the perseverance of the revolution in Rojova is the only remote hope for a different kind of Middle East, where peoples come together in solidarity with each other rather than at war under sectarianism stoked by colonial powers.

The author can be reached at ali@riseup.net.

 

The Israeli Pogrom of Gaza

 

 

Political Bestiality

 

 

by NORMAN POLLACK

 

Let’s start with terms: “bestiality,” bestial is marked by base or inhuman instincts or desires, brutal, to which bestiality adds, display or gratification of bestial traits or impulses; “pogrom,” an organized massacre of helpless people, specifically [and ironically], such a massacre of Jewish people. (Webster’s) Singly, and in combination, I believe we have an accurate description of Israel’s aggression in Gaza, the irony of course being that we see a replay of the barbarous treatment of the Jews practiced throughout history now instead being carried forward by Jews themselves in, yes, a massacre, as brutal as in Czarist times, of Gazans.

Before proceeding further, let’s throw in another phrase, emanating from Israeli and multiple Jewish sources, the charge, to be applied to fellow Jews for any criticism whatsoever of Israel, which makes one a “self-hating” Jew. I frankly don’t know whether to accept the designation (sans quotation marks), in which case I would be expressing my abhorrence to the war crimes committed by Israel, by convention, in world Jewry, THE representative of the Jewish people and religion, leading therefore to feelings of shame, alienation, and betrayal, that my religion, ancestral heritage, upbringing, could so distort the meaning of Judaism as I’ve known and loved it, necessitating, through the dictates of conscience (itself formerly a Jewish trait shared with world secular and religious thought), that I formally leave the Jewish faith until it purges itself of urges toward domination and, also yes, sadism. Or else, retain the quotation marks around “self-hating” Jew and come out fighting, throwing the vile epithet back in the face of those who use it to silence dissent and prevent exposure,, within the Jewish community, to recognition of what is being done in its name and to solidify its identity and devotion.

Obviously, I choose the latter, stating outright that Israel and world (especially American) Jewry blindly supporting it have contributed to the falsification, denigration, debasement of Judaism, a treacherous act of negation even Nazism with its gas chambers and concentration camps could not do, i.e., destroy the Jewish love of freedom and cosmopolitan outreach to all peoples in search of a humane, equitable social order. In fact, the phrase “self-hating” Jew is disguise, cover, defense mechanism, to hide what has become the tragic phenomenon resulting from the Holocaust. Rather than experience a burst of emancipation from that darkest of dark experiences, Jews have internalized it, introjected the behavior and values of their captors, murderers, assailants, replicating through application to others the crimes committed on themselves (ourselves, to bring it home). “Self-hating” Jew is in fact a reactive formation, possibly even a projection of what through intervening levels of the unconscious is the realization by the Jewish people of the true state of their current mindset and experience. I am speaking, then, of Jewish self-hatred, which is self-hating Jew stripped of the quotation marks, SELF-HATRED because the denial of all that made Judaism worthwhile as both a secular and religious experience in modern times—secular and religious being an almost empty distinction when one notes the unified Jewish response on behalf of the welfare of others, in America, blacks, the poor, radicals, militant labor, dissidents of every description—all washed away in the last half-century, first, gradually, then by the 1980s a growing tumult of, now the introversion of McCarthyism, of Reaction, an anticommunism of the spirit having nothing to do with communism but as code for opposition to antiwar, civil rights, whatever rocks-the-boat movements, most vociferously applied to the defense of Israel and the actions and tenets of US foreign policy.

Jewish self-hatred, out of unconscious recognition (not an oxymoron) that Judaism stands for power, force, militarism, occupation, conquest, the inferiority of blacks, Arabs, Muslims, a hodgepodge of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, deep-lying fears of real and imagined rejection, the element of self-hatred becoming prominent because in former times the opposite was true, Jewish identity having been the haven for intellectual freedom, forthright opposition to repression, gentle in its respect for tolerance and concern for the weak. Einstein would not bomb Gaza hospitals. The Rosenbergs would not, like Obama, flirt with nuclear annihilation. Schwerner and Goodman, with their comrade Chaney, would not murder small children, whether a Vietnam hamlet or in Shejaiya. But let’s get beyond the past. Shejaiya (I here and later anglicize it for Shujai’iya because of my earlier usage) provides sufficient indictment of the bestiality of the Israeli aggression.

***

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the invasion, the tone getting more militant as the brutality of the mission (to terrorize the Palestinian people and inflict as much damage and destruction as possible) widens and intensifies. 500 dead. Now 600 and more. The appetite of the beast is not sated. Israelis reveal a streak of uninhibited lust for blood seldom seen so publicly displayed, and not just in official circles. Consider two examples, reported in the Guardian. The first, perhaps not even Nazis could duplicate; rather than Eichmann-like bureaucratic methodical dealing in death, Israelis celebrating in a festive mood the death rained down on Gaza through airstrikes—more like a college fraternity drunken party than anything. I refer to Harriet Sherwood’s article, “Israelis gather on hillsides to watch and cheer as military drops bombs on Gaza,” (July 20), with the subheading, “People drink, snack and pose for selfies against a background of explosions as Palestinian death toll mounts in ongoing offensive.”

We read, “As the sun begins to sink over the Mediterranean, groups of Israelis gather each evening on hilltops close to the Gaza border to cheer, whoop and whistle as bombs rain down on people in a hellish warzone a few miles away.” Sherwood continues: “Old sofas, garden chairs, battered car seats and upturned crates provide seating for the spectators. On one hilltop, a swing has been attached to the branches of a pine tree, allowing its occupant to sway gently in the breeze. Some bring bottles of beer or soft drinks and snacks.” No “self-hating” Jews here, but should the despicable callousness ever break through, enough raw psychic material for Jewish self-hatred—the trouble being, breaking through appears near-impossible, how far gone, fortified behind towering psychological walls, these people are, as though even Jewish self-hatred, predicated on a modicum of awareness, is a step above and beyond the reach of who and what they are.

Her account, in Siderot, only gets worse, gruesome to the point of nausea (mine). “On Saturday [the 19th],” she writes, “a group of men huddle around a shisha pipe. Nearly all hold up smartphones to record the explosions or to pose grinning, perhaps with thumbs up, for selfies against a backdrop of black smoke.” Gazans know this, see the hatred at the check points and blockade even in “normal” times, the display of force everywhere, the sophisticated gadgetry of a supposedly superior society, the human depravity of “selfies against a backdrop of black smoke.” Siderot: “A house with a war view may even command a premium price these days.” “Anticipatory excitement grows as dusk falls,” because there will be more rockets after breaking the Ramadan fast, “and the Israeli military will respond with force.” Again, “The thud of shellfire, flash of an explosion and pall of smoke are greeted with exclamations of approval. ‘What a beauty,’ says one appreciative spectators.”

One wonders if Gazans are taking selfies against a background of dead children, rubble, further rubble? I have to say, no wonder the tunnels and rockets, a desperate attempt at self-respect (the opposite psychological dynamics of the Israelis’ self-hatred, mocking human life because unable to affirm it—or rather, confusing affirmation with a hedonistic, exhibitionist lifestyle, empty of regard for others but the self, driven to deface and exterminate those who are a reminder of what true affirmation is like), if not indeed survival. How hold the Occupation as a constant, and blame those suffering under it for rockets? Perhaps the Occupation is the unstated basis for Jewish self-hatred. One last reference to Sherwood’s article—a bit of touchiness on the Israelis’ part about their obvious inhumanity: “Given the dramatic views, media news are coming to the area to cover the fighting. On a nearby hilltop, an ugly scene develops as a group of Israeli men threaten a photographer, accusing him of being a ‘leftist’. We are warned against asking for interviews, as another cheer goes up.” To Israelis, and now world Jewry, to question a broad range of policy, in America and Israel alike, is to be a “leftist,” a term equated with the phrase “self-hating”.

The second Guardian article, also by Sherwood, “Israel uses flechette shells in Gaza,” (July 20), for me, an unknown, but not unexpected, development, given the seeding of antipersonnel devices earlier in Lebanon, bears the grisly, rightly so, subheading, “Palestinian human rights group accuses Israel military of using shells that spray out thousands of tiny and potentially lethal darts.” They’re illustrated in the piece. (This may help to explain the images seen of small children whose faces have been scarred by shrapnel.) She begins: “The Israeli military is using flechette shells, which spray out thousands of tiny and potentially lethal metal darts, in its military operations in Gaza,” as in the case of those “fired towards the village of Khuzaa, east of Khan Younis [of which we’ll hear more recently in the commission of Israeli atrocities], on 17 July…. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did not deny using the shells in the conflict.” Its explanation was classic—hiding behind law written by the conquerors: “As a rule, the IDF only employs weapons that have been determined lawful under international law, and in a manner which fully conforms with the laws of armed conflict.” And with the laws of human moral conscience, in light of their promiscuous (i.e., unrestricted, indiscriminate) use, scope, and lethality?

Flechette shells should be thought per se evil. Probably US use of napalm in Vietnam was cribbed from and justified by the same contrived explanation or cheat sheet. B’Tselem describes the shell as “an anti-personnel weapon that is generally fired from a tank. The shell explodes in the air and releases thousands of metal darts 37.5 mm in length, which disperse in a conical arch 300 metres long and about 90 metres wide.” (I can hear the cheering from the hillsides—just the knowledge of and celebration of its release, even when the tanks are out of sight.) B’Tselem also notes that whatever its status, “other rules of humanitarian law render their use in the Gaza Strip illegal. One of the most fundamental principles is the obligation to distinguish between those who are involved and those who are not involved in the fighting, and to avoid to the extent possible injury to those who are not involved. Deriving from this principle is the prohibition of the use of an imprecise weapon which is likely to result in civilian injuries.” Even B’Tselem waffles by not declaring for outright prohibition, on the ground that “avoid[ing] to the extent possible” plays into the hands of any despot, like Netanyahu, who stands up and cynically proclaims his sorrow at civilian casualties, even a single one. Flechettes accounted for Palestinian deaths in Gaza earlier, and “also killed and wounded dozens of civilians, including women and children, in conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

***

Finally from the Guardian, and moving forward in the Israeli onslaught, we have Sherwood, along with Peter Beaumont and Ian Black’s article, “More than 20 members of one family killed in Gaza strike,” (July 21), the subtitle of which graphically gives the lie to the Netanyahu-Obama sales pitch on the desire for moderation: “’We don’t want to see any more civilians killed,’ says Barack Obama as IDF attacks intensive care unit in day of bloodshed.” Roll out the propaganda machinery of damage control as what should be regarded as the sacredness of hospitals in the bombing or shelling of targets is ignored and disregarded, on the ground that they are storage depots for weapons (Israel’s lame excuse) or the destruction construed as part of an absolute right of self-defense (which Obama, not deploring these acts, uses to exonerate Israel of all war crimes). The first sentence says it all: “A hospital was shelled, killing and injuring staff and patients, and up to 28 members of one family died in an airstrike as Gaza endured another day of relentless bloodshed on Monday [the 21st].”

The international uproar over Shejaiya (I discussed the mass killings there in a previous article) required the flurry of Obama statements and Kerry’s diplomatic activities, the uproar itself however going largely unreported in the American media. The lead photo for the article, mother, child in her arms, older man, crouched on the floor, the caption, “Palestinian patients in the hospital after the building was shelled by the IDF,” is the ideal backdrop for Kerry’s amoral cynicism. Authorized by Obama to do “’everything he can to help facilitate a cessation of hostilities,’” Kerry now in Egypt blames Hamas for the violence and states that Israel, presumably including the hospital shelling, is making “an ‘appropriate and legitimate effort’ to defend itself but the consequences were of deep concern.” How deep the concern, this official Washington talking out of both sides of its mouth?

We learn further, “In Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, al-Aqsa hospital became the third to be struck in the 14-day conflict when three shells slammed into the intensive care unit, surgical and administrative areas. Five people were killed and 70 wounded, including about 30 medics…. Ambulances tried to evacuate patients but were forced to turn back by continued shelling. Israel has claimed that Hamas hides weapons in hospitals.” Therefore, blow them up? More still: “Further south, in Khan Younis, an extended family was wiped out in an air strike on a house. The number of dead was put at between 24 and 28. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said “another 10 people were killed in a single air strike in Rafah, including four young children and a baby.” And Save the Children estimates “that on average, seven had been killed every day during the conflict,” one of its spokesperson’s also reminding us, “’For many children, this is the third war in six years that they are going through.’” A second photo taken at a morgue is captioned, “Palestinians pray over the bodies of 17 members of the Abu Jamea family, killed by an air strike.”

Sherwood, et. al., in an article, “Israel hits hundreds of targets in Gaza as soldier is confirmed missing,” (July 22), point out that one hundred alone focused on Shejaiya, “the scene of the most intense fighting of the conflict.” In the larger picture, according to B’Tselem, the description worthy of an indictment of Israeli leadership, civil, political, military, before the International Criminal Court in the Hague: “Horrific developments in Gaza have reached intolerable heights; Israel is bombing houses with people in them, entire families have been buried under rubble, and streets lie in ruins. Hundreds have been killed so far, dozens in the last 24 hours only, many of them women and children. The number of refugees is rising: tens of thousands of people have nowhere to go and no safe haven.” 1939? No, July 22, 2014. Nor in any particular exaggerated. We have the reports, the photographs, the children’s deaths, the rubble—and the slickness of the Israeli reply.

***

Anne Barnard, in her New York Times article, “Questions About Tactics and Targets as Civilian Toll Climbs in Israeli Strikes,” (July 21), enables us to fill in important details, first, about what happened in Khan Younis: “The blast from the Israeli strike was so powerful that it threw an iron door clear over several neighboring houses. It came to rest along with a twisted laundry rack still laden on Monday with singed clothes and a child’s slipper.” This, in a densely populated urban area; carnage is the only word that will do: “When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of four family households—including 19 children—gathered to break the Ramadan fast together. Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target.”

Enough reason for the slaughter, or do we now see McCarthyism’s guilt-by-association principle raised to near-infinity, itself testimony to a mindset verging on a totalistic concept and practice of repression. “The attack,” Barnard writes, “was the latest in a series of Israeli strikes that have killed families in their homes, during an offensive that Israel says is meant to stop militant rocket fire that targets its civilians and destroys Hamas’s tunnel network.” The explanation is self-serving and hardly connects with, except as a terror-tactic, the civilian killings on a massive scale. Barnard appears to realize this perfectly well, whatever The Times’s editorial policy: “The Palestinian deaths—75 percent of them civilians, according to a United Nations count—have prompted a wave of international outrage, and are raising questions about Israel’s stated dedication to protecting civilians.”

Israel’s reply: All Hamas’s fault, “saying they have chosen to keep operating among civilians,” while the now familiar spokesman for the Israeli military, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said “he had not been able to confirm the circumstances of the attack here or who the target might have been.” Par-for-the-course stonewalling, nor would he “address questions about whether the target would have been considered worth so many additional deaths.” That is of course the question Israelis would not reply to; whatever the status of past surgical strikes (were they such? were they even then justified?), now, she continues, “there have been numerous instances of family homes being struck with residents inside.” Out of the mouths of babes, or even Times reporters, comes wisdom: “More and more Palestinians are accusing Israel of trying to inflict maximum suffering to demoralize Palestinians and weaken support for Hamas.” The tone of her writing seems to credit the observation.

How could it be otherwise, the facts now on the table, the war crimes not simply evident but becoming self-evident? More description of carnage, and then a fact which suggests ghoulishness beyond war crimes, to wit, encourage Gazans to seek safety in an area, then BOMB it: “On Monday night [the 21st], a strike hit an eight-story apartment building in downtown Gaza City—an area where Israeli officials had urged Gazans to take shelter. The building collapsed as rescue crews were inside, killing more people. The death toll, at least 13, was still being tallied.

Here one credits the Israelis for their frankness, as that of one senior military official who said that not all civilian casualties “come from strikes going astray; some take place when civilians are in places the military aims to hit.” What he meant was not terrorization as such, but a contrived picture of Hamas “holding people inside the apartments while shooting from there,” which comes down to the same thing (a license to kill). Barnard sees through this: “That did not appear to be the situation at the Abu Jameh home, where survivors said, the family was gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast, a ceremonial meal, a time when Israeli military officials would have known that people were likely to be home.” All of the dead were from that family, except for one Hamas member “who was visiting a member of the family.” Enough, no more for now. The picture is clear: “Of those who lived in the house, only four people survived, three men who had gone to pray, and Tawfik Abu Jameh’s toddler, shielded by the body of his mother. The children killed ranged in age from 4 months to 14 years, and included an adopted orphan whose father had been killed in an Israeli strike.”

“Self-hating” Jew, no, Jewish self-hatred, for the acts committed in the name of Judaism, and for the negation of the acts which had once distinguished Judaism as the vehicle and spirit of world humanism, peace, social justice, racial harmony, and individual self-creation and self-development, all the fruition of the struggle for freedom.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.