The Most Popular Drug in America Is an Antipsychotic and No One Really Knows How It Works
The Medicare open enrollment period in the US, which runs from October 15 through December 7, is the time when current Medicare recipients—including retirees and others over the age of 65—can change the plans through which they receive benefits.
Many, especially outside the US, may be under the misapprehension that, while the for-profit US health care system is a scandal that leaves millions uninsured and with inadequate medical care, at least retirees enjoy good coverage under the system that was denounced as “socialized medicine” when it was enacted in 1965.
That is definitely not the case, however. What began as a limited reform—although far from socialized medicine—has been increasingly undermined in recent decades. In particular, so-called Medicare Advantage plans, administered by private insurers, have led to the semi-privatization of original Medicare. These plans, now covering about 16 million of the 54 million Medicare beneficiaries, are supposedly regulated by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). In fact, the profit interests of such giant insurers as Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna and others often lead to problems for patients and their families.
Much attention has correctly been focused on cutbacks in Medicare spending that will especially affect future beneficiaries. At the same time, current recipients have also felt the impact of the continuing attempts to cut funding and privatize Medicare. Retirees face increasing difficulty in finding doctors who will treat Medicare patients. And many patients, even when they do find doctors, deal with indifference and inadequate care.
As the New York Times reported last month, federal officials have been forced to admit that many if not most of privatized Medicare plans were guilty of “noncompliance” with Medicare regulations. In more than half of audits recently conducted by the CMS, denials of coverage were not adequately or accurately explained. In 61 percent of the audits, prescription drug claims were incorrectly rejected.
Capital BlueCross, operating in Pennsylvania, was faulted for delays and denials in providing prescription drugs, as well as denials of payment for emergency services. CalOptima, in Orange County, California, was found to have committed numerous violations, in its case especially affecting poorer beneficiaries.
These were only some examples of the errors and malpractice found by auditors. At the same time, however, the civil penalties imposed on the billion dollar insurers were no more than a slap on the wrist. Aetna, for instance, received penalties of about $500,000, while Tufts Health Plan in Massachusetts, accused of eight “serious violations,” paid a penalty of $137,000. These and other insurers professed agreement with criticisms and said problems had been or were being corrected. Clearly penalties of even half a million dollars amount to no more than the cost of doing business for firms dealing with hundreds of thousands of Medicare recipients.
The first step for those turning 65 is to choose how they will receive their Medicare benefits. Monthly deductions, currently about $105, are taken from their Social Security benefits for Medicare Part B, covering medical as opposed to hospital insurance. Each year they are confronted with the decision of whether they will remain with their current plan or choose another. Some go online to compare various plans, others ask family or friends for recommendations, and some go to brokers licensed by the CMS for advice.
Medicare Advantage plans had their origin in the 1980s, and their role was significantly expanded after legislation in 1997. In addition, in 2003, during the Bush administration, bipartisan legislation led to prescription drug coverage, in what was another boondoggle for the private insurers and the massive pharmaceutical companies.
In the guise of providing expanded coverage for hard-pressed senior citizens, this new plan, Part D of the Medicare program, funneled millions of new customers to the big drug firms. This is typical of the kind of “public-private partnerships” that have come to dominate the health care system in the US, with public money going to enrich for-profit insurers, hospitals and pharmaceutical businesses.
The cost of prescription drugs, like that of other medical services under Medicare, is only partially covered. In most but not all cases working people are protected from financial catastrophe, but remain liable for hundreds if not thousands of dollars in bills in the form of co-payments and other costs.
Denials of coverage and delays in payments are only part of the story. As the end of the current calendar year approaches, and with it arrival of the open enrollment period for Medicare, beneficiaries are receiving phone calls and letters informing them of increased co-payments that will be due next year. In many cases one or more of a beneficiary’s doctors are being dropped from the approved network of providers in the HMO (health maintenance organization) plans, and drastic increases in the cost of prescription drugs, including generic drugs, are also being imposed.
In recent years, as certain drugs such as statins, used for the lowering of cholesterol, have lost patent protection, the prices of the generic alternatives have soared. In one example, for instance, a Medicare Advantage plan in New York announced it was increasing the cost to the patient of a 90-day supply of a popular generic drug for the treatment of peripheral neuropathy from $18 to $120. Many co-payments for generic drugs have doubled or tripled, at the very least.
Medicare recipients enroll in the various Advantage plans, which generally have low or in some cases zero monthly premiums in addition to the uniform Part B premium, because they seek protection from unforeseen bills, with Medicare covering on average only about 50 percent of medical charges. For additional protection they can consider various supplemental plans, but these will cost them an additional $2,000-$3,000 annually, if not more.
The task of wading through the various private Medicare plans and comparing costs and benefits can consume much of the time between mid-October and early December, the open enrollment period. Many retirees, living on fixed incomes and already having to cut spending even for necessities, find it difficult to navigate the book-length government Medicare handbook and other publications, as well as online sources.
Defenders of health care for profit, Democrat and Republican alike, often point to alleged bureaucratic waste and mismanagement in any government system. The reality is that the alleged magic of the market translates into far more waste. The private insurers send out a veritable blizzard of often repetitive and unnecessary monthly statements to beneficiaries.
Those who have already paid into the Medicare system are forced, in an effort to lower their out-of-pocket costs, to shop around among plans whose differences are often difficult to understand. Health care for older Americans is not treated as a basic social right. It has in effect already been divided into three or more tiers, with the wealthy of course bypassing the waits, inadequate treatment and various indignities of Medicare.
Along a lonely state highway on central Montana’s high plains, I approach what looks like a ranch entrance, complete with cattle guard. “The first ace in the hole,” reads a hand-etched cedar plank hanging from tall wooden posts. “In continuous operation for over 50 years.” I drive up the dirt road to a building surrounded by video cameras and a 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire-topped fence stenciled with a poker spade. “It is unlawful to enter this area,” notes a sign on the fence, whose small print cites the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, a law that once required communist organizations to register with the federal government. “Use of deadly force authorized.”
“Yeah, I am,” I say. “The signs don’t say that I can’t.”
“Well, we might have to confiscate your phone.”
Maybe he should. We’re steps away from the 10th Missile Squadron Alpha Missile Alert Facility, an underground bunker capable of launching several dozen nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a combined destructive force 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Another airman comes out of the ranch house and asks for my driver’s license. He’s followed by an older guy clad in sneakers, maroon gym shorts, and an air of authority. “I’m not here to cause trouble,” I say, picturing myself in a brig somewhere.
“Just you being here taking photos is causing trouble,” he snaps.
An alarm starts blaring from inside the building. One airman turns to the other. “Hey, there’s something going off in there.”
Six hours earlier, I was driving through Great Falls with a former captain in the Air Force’s 341st Missile Wing. Aaron, as I’ll call him, had recently completed a four-year stint at the Alpha facility. Had President Obama ordered an attack with ICBMs, Aaron could have received a coded message, authenticated it, and been expected to turn a launch key.
We kept passing unmarked blue pickup trucks with large tool chests—missile maintenance guys. The Air Force doesn’t like to draw attention to the 150 silos dotting the surrounding countryside, and neither does Great Falls. With about 4,000 residents and civilian workers and a $219 million annual payroll, Malmstrom Air Force Base drives the local economy, but you won’t see any missile-themed bars or restaurants. “We get some people that have no idea that there’s even an Air Force base here,” one active-duty missileer told me.
It’s not just Great Falls practicing selective amnesia. The days of duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and No Nukes protests are fading memories—nowhere more so than in the defense establishment. At a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC, Lt. General James Kowalski, who commands all of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, said a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was such “a remote possibility” that it was “hardly worth discussing.”
But then Kowalski sounded a disconcerting note that has a growing number of nuclear experts worried. The real nuclear threat for America today, he said, “is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”
“You can’t screw up once—and that’s the unique danger of these machines,” points out investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose recent book, Command and Control, details the Air Force’s stunning secret history of nuclear near-misses, from the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb that would have devastated North Carolina to a Carter-era computer glitch that falsely indicated a shower of incoming Soviet nukes. “In this business, you need a perfect safety record.”
And a perfect record, in a homeland arsenal made up of hundreds of missiles and countless electronic and mechanical systems that have to operate flawlessly—to say nothing of the men and women at the controls—is a very hard thing to achieve. Especially when the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. “The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is abysmal.
Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.
In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.
The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011, but three former missileers told me it was the norm at Malmstrom when they arrived there back in 2007, and that the practice was well established. (Blair told me that cheating was even common when he served at Malmstrom in the mid-1970s.) Missileers would check each other’s tests before turning them in and share codes indicating the correct proportion of multiple-choice answers on a given exam. If the nuclear program’s top brass, who all began their careers as missileers, weren’t aware of it, the men suggested, then they were willfully looking the other way. “You know in Casablanca, when that inspector was ‘absolutely shocked’ that there was gambling at Rick’s? It’s that,” one recently retired missileer told me. “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”
Cheating is just one symptom of what Lt. Colonel Jay Folds, then the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, called “rot” in the atomic force. Last November, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns obtained a RAND study commissioned by the Air Force. It concluded that the typical launch officer was exhausted, cynical, and distracted on the job. ICBM airmen also had high rates of sexual assault, suicide, and spousal and child abuse, and more than double the rates of courts-martial than Air Force personnel as a whole.
The morale problems were well known to Michael Carey, the two-star general who led the program at the time the cheating was revealed. Indeed, he pointed them out to other Americans during an official military cooperation trip to Moscow, before spending the rest of his three-day visit on a drunken bender, repeatedly insulting his Russian military hosts and partying into the wee hours with “suspect” foreign women, according to the Air Force’s inspector general. He later confessed to chatting for most of a night with the hotel’s cigar sales lady, who was asking questions “about physics and optics”—and thinking to himself: “Dude, this doesn’t normally happen.” Carey was stripped of his command in October 2013.
The embarrassments just keep coming. Last week, the Air Force fired two more nuclear commanders, including Col. Carl Jones, the No. 2 officer in the 90th Missile Wing at Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base, and disciplined a third, for a variety of leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates. In one instance, two missileers were sent to the hospital after exposure to noxious fumes at a control center—they had remained on duty for fear of retaliation by their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy “Keith” Brown. This week, the Pentagon is expected to release a comprehensive review of the nuclear program that details “serious problems that must be addressed urgently.”
Stung by the recent bad press, the Air Force has announced pay raises, changes to the proficiency tests, and nearly $400 million in additional spending to increase staffing and update equipment. In the long term, Congress and the administration are debating a trillion-dollar suite of upgrades to the nuclear program, which could include replacing the existing ICBMs and warheads with higher-tech versions.
But outside experts say none of the changes will address the core of the problem: obsolescence. “There is a morale issue,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, “that comes down to the fundamental question: How is the ICBM force essential? It’s hard to find that [answer] if you sit in the hole out there. Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”
Indeed, on my first night in town, over beer and bison burgers, Aaron had introduced me to “Brent,” another recently former missileer who looks more like a surfer now that his military crew cut is all grown out. Brent lost faith in his leaders early on, he told me, when he saw the way they tolerated, if not encouraged, a culture of cheating. He’d resisted the impulse, he said, and his imperfect test scores disqualified him for promotions. But the worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come. “Any TV marathon you can stumble upon is good,” Brent said. “Even if it’s something you hate. It’s just that ability to zone out and lose time.”
By Maggie Blanca and Jeremy Crowlesmith
The political and humanitarian crisis in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero marks a new low in a country marred by corruption and drug violence. More than a month after the disappearances of 43 students there is still no sign of them, while official government search efforts are laced by ambiguities to say the least.
At the same time the disappearances have stirred up a hornet’s nest that has taken the form of an unparalleled and broad social movement in all corners of Mexico.
Mexico, with Guerrero at its epicenter, seems torn between despair and hope. Despair from the horror of the atrocious events in Iguala, and hope from the structural change promised by the societal response. Which social and political processes have erupted, exactly, and what does this mean for the possibilities of social change in Mexico?
The entrance of the Rural Normal school in Ayotzinapa welcomes her students with murals of Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels, and Carlos Marx. The disappeared students come from a school with a history of left politics embedded in a special national education program set up to train primary school teachers. Started in 1920, this program has the express goal of social emancipation of the poor. The school has produced two of Guerrero’s most important guerrilla leaders in the seventies and, unsurprisingly, has gained the reputation of being a breeding ground for radical activism.
Contemporary students are the children of farmers and indigenous families living in the poorest and most marginalized areas of Mexico. The school’s position as a hotbed of activism has not gone unnoticed and has constantly forced students to face state repression in the form of chronic underfunding, police violence and criminalization.
On September 25, a group of Ayotzinapa students went to the nearby town of Iguala to organize transport to the remembrance protest of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. For lack of money, the students appropriated three buses on the fateful night; in response, the mayor of Iguala gave orders to stop the buses “no matter what.” Enforcing the orders, the local police opened fire on several buses, killing six students and bystanders and leaving 25 wounded. The night deteriorated into a head-hunt for the fleeing students, 43 of whom were eventually abducted in police vehicles never to be heard of since.
The response of the government was riddled with exceptional incompetence, as the following events reveal. The day after the drama, the responsible mayor of Iguala requested a leave of absence and went on the run. Meanwhile, the governor of Guerrero and the president of the republic have been involved in a ping-pong game of finger pointing to avoid responsibility. The respected human rights center Tlachinollan, located in Guerrero, has pointed out the serious deficiencies in the official investigation and the search for the students. Consequently, the parents of the disappeared students have announced to only trust the findings of a foreign team of investigators. Mexicans have lost all trust in the authorities to bring the crisis to a just end.
Spray paint on the wall in Mexico-City reading ‘narcoestado’, or drugs state
The Iguala events have irrefutably revealed ties between powerful drug cartels, the local police force and the responsible mayor. The interwoven nature of local governments with organized crime is no secret. But the revelations brought to light by the recent events have forced the government to break with their policy of official denial. As president Peña Nieto stated at a press conference, “the Iguala events have revealed the naked truth.”
Ayotzinapa has become the paragon of institutional ties with drug cartels and represents the sickness that has been ailing Mexican society in the form of corruption, extreme violence and impunity for years.
The movement that has risen in response to the Iguala events breaths a certain sense of relief. A family member of an Ayotzinapa student who disappeared a few years ago, relates how the movement has helped her: “Without Ayotzinapa our voices would still be shrouded in silence.”
Where people used to whisper, they now openly agitate against the narcogobierno [drugs government]. This sea change must not be underestimated in the context of the extreme violence and repression which would normally make a public expression of this nature a dangerous act. Ayotzinapa has finally laid bare this public secret.
Thousands protests in the streets of Acapulco on October 17
The disappearance of the students has mobilized and brought together diverse local groups from all social strata and regions of Mexican society. Committees of support have been set up in the most remote corners of Mexico, the Zapatistas have held a silent march in Chiapas and famous Mexican actors have declared their solidarity. However, the heart of the movement is located in Iguala, in the Asamblea Nacional Popular (ANP) headed by the parents and schoolmates of the disappeared students.
The strength of the Ayotzinapa movement is based in the coalition of student and teachers organizations. This coalition seems to be the recipe for a perfect storm. Both are at the forefront of the struggle and are flooding Mexican streets with staggering numbers, of which the 50.000 strong demonstration on October 22 in Mexico City has been the largest so far.
In Guerrero, epicenter of the struggle, highways are blockaded daily, government buildings are torched and radio stations occupied and taken over. Students and teachers of leading universities have called various strikes, and there is talk of a general strike to come. To top all this off, teachers associations have set themselves the goal of taking over all of Guerrero’s town halls. At the time of writing the count is set at 22 out of a total of 81.
In recent Mexican history, teachers and students have been the vanguard of social struggles, which has given them an important symbolic value. It also provides the current movement with the needed practical experience and organizational structures to build upon.
Mexican universities are well known for their militant and radical student movements. The latest revival took place in the form of a national movement called #YoSoy132 (#IAm132). The movement started during the presidential election campaigns of 2012 when the students agitated for the democratization of the media because of their their partial reporting, which favored erstwhile presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The movement is organized horizontally and made up of 130 local and autonomous assemblies spread all over Mexico, coordinating in its national Interuniversitaria, which has now taken up the cause of the Ayotzinapa students.
Just like #YoSoy132, the radical teachers organizations besmirched the start of the presidential term of Peña Nieto with large-scale protests when he announced controversial neoliberal reforms in education, energy and telecommunications. The democratic section of the national teachers union CNTE, well known for their role in the Oaxaca uprising of 2006, has led the protests against the attempt to privatize Mexican education.
In Guerrero, these militant protests were led by the teachers organization CETEG, which has united the forces of farmers, indigenous people, students and community police, thereby broadening the struggle against the entire neoliberal offensive of the new government. Besides the education reforms, they protested the privatization of the energy sector, destructive mining projects, repression of political activists and the lack of public security.
The Interuniversitaria, CNTE and CETEG are the motor of the current Ayotzinapa movement.
Banner reading “We are all Ayotzinapa”, “Don’t forgive, or forget”, “Punish those responsible”, “Alive they took them, alive we want them back”
“Alive they took them, alive we want them back.” Recurrent in all protests, this slogan expresses the most important demand of the movement: the unharmed return of the students and the punishment of all those responsible for their disappearance. Banners and social media also often show the hash-tag ‘#AyotzinapaSomosTodos’ [#WeAreAllAyotzinapa]. This sends the clear message that this ‘could have happened to anybody in Mexico’. This sad reality of the structural insecurity caused by the deep ties between the corrupt government and organized crime speaks to a diversity of Mexicans and is the glue that binds the Ayotzinapa movement.
A current in the movement articulates Ayotzinapa as a systemic problem. It is mainly the radical teachers organizations which are determined not to settle for the usual course of events in Mexican political crises, namely a reshuffling of the political cards and then back to business as usual. The protesters’ response to the resignation of Guerrero’s governor says it all. “It will not solve anything,” was the loud response after which the mobilization and protests continued with unrelenting zeal. Indeed, the appointment of an interim governor of Guerrero was answered immediately with the demand for his dismissal since he was not chosen by el pueblo, the people, but by the federal government. On their own terms, the Ayotzinapa movement demands the dissolution of the municipal, state and federal governments. As they say in Mexico, “The cob must be stripped of all its corn.”
The broad coalition that makes up the Ayotzinapa movement has its internal complexities and tensions. The issue of insecurity speaks just as well to people who want a properly functioning liberal democracy as to radical groups that would like to see far-reaching political change. This is evident from the following examples.
A few days after the disappearance of the students, shopkeepers and merchants of Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo joined the protest demanding the resignation of the governor. The extreme violence in the region has been seriously affecting commerce in Chilpancingo, leading to this groups’ participation. Under a similar pretext of insecurity, 200 striking police officers in Acapulco joined the struggle. While the middle classes focus on the issue of insecurity, a group of socialist students of the Ayotzinapa movement choose a more fundamental focus.
The students have decided to temporarily occupy two mega-stores in Chilpancingo to hand out food and basic supplies. Electronics and luxury items remain untouched, which makes it different from ordinary plundering, but rather sends a clear political statement that inequality is at the root of the problems in Mexico. This message also resonates in many of the highway blockades, where the Ayotzinapa movement gives civil vehicles free passage but denies it completely to the trucks of multinationals like Coca Cola and BIMBO, symbols of the inequality of the capitalist system.
The different currents that feed the Ayotzinapa movement are its strength because of the broad support. At the same time, the divergent currents carry with them the risk of fragmentation.
During the first month of protests, the government was surprisingly peaceful in its response. Even when more militant actions occurred, like setting fire to government buildings or occupations of town halls, the authorities did not intervene. The government seemed to be hoping for a fiery but short lived movement that would burn out by itself. Besides, this de-escalation strategy was at the time the only realistic course of action since a new victim of state violence would only have heightened the flames of discontent.
However, the government did employ its usual tactic of discrediting the students and teachers by labeling them as dangerous and radical vandals. More recently they have even stooped to the level of accusing the Ayotzinapa students of being allied to a drug cartel. Strikingly enough, these accusations have not had the sought-after effect on the people.
On October 29, more than a month into the protests, the first violent confrontation with the military police forces took place when teachers of CETEG attempted to occupy the Casa Guerrero, the White House of Guerrero. Meanwhile, the government is taking over control of the cities of Guerrero as well as twelve municipalities. A large-scale militarization of the region is taking place, denounced by the teachers organizations as an attempt to suppress the movement. Now that more and more anger is directed towards the president himself, the chances of a violent intervention are growing by the day.
The long-standing community police forces of Guerrero are an inspiration to the Ayotzinapa movement. When people speak of real solutions to rising insecurity, they are quick to refer to the self-organized community police, “where the people do it themselves.”
Indigenous communities, mostly, have organized their police groups based on their own culture and organizational structures. The police are directly responsive to the community which governs and controls their activities. The areas where the community police is active are seen as the safest places in Guerrero.
UPOEG is one of the community police organizations which has gained a lot of respect by immediately organizing search parties for the disappeared students, coordinating their efforts with the parents. As such, UPOEG is filling the void left by the government and shows the power and possibilities of self-organization. Besides its policing role, UPOEG is also putting forward a plan to create a ‘fourth level of government’ next to the existing federal, state and municipal structure of Mexico. This would take the shape of a ‘council of community leaders’ with the aim of pulling political power to the bottom of Mexican society: the communities.
Self-organization in Guerrero is referred to by the Ayotzinapa movement as an example of what another Mexico might look like.
Satirical version of Time Magazine cover depicting president Peña Nieto as Death, with the accompanying text “Slaying Mexico”
The fear that political instability will disrupt Mexican commercial interests makes the country highly susceptible to international pressure. This was apparent when the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 during the implementation of the NAFTA free trade agreement. The pressure exerted on Mexico as a response to the international solidarity movement was of crucial importance in the course of the Zapatista struggle.
The Mexican government does not want to lose her image as ‘stable’ and ‘open for business’. The protesters in Mexico are well aware of this fact. They have made a satirical version of the cover of the influential Time Magazine and spread it far and wide via social media. The image parodies an edition of Time with Peña Nieto ‘Saving Mexico’ on the front cover. The parody depicts the president as Death with a scythe in his hand, accompanied by the text “Slaying Mexico.” This is a firm call for international pressure.
International intellectuals supported the struggle with a critical open letter to president Peña Nieto signed by Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco and more than two-thousand other academics.
Once more, it is of crucial importance that the eyes of the world are turned to Mexico to restrain its government from using all-out repression against the Ayotzinapa movement. The course of struggle is unclear, and a burst of violence lurks in every corner, just like the possibility for social change. One thing is certain: a diverse group of Mexicans is envisioning Another Mexico, which now more than ever, is possible.
Maggie Blanca is an independent journalist and PhD student in Cultural Anthropology.
Jeremy Crowlesmith is an independent journalist based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, with a background in student organizing and independent media.
by Maria Popova
“Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy.”
In 1958, five years after his transcendent experience induced by taking four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, Aldous Huxley — legendary author of Brave New World, lesser-known but no less compelling writer of children’s books, modern prophet — penned an essay titled “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.” It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and eventually included in Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (public library) — a selection of Huxley’s fiction, essays, and letters titled after the Sanskrit word for “liberation.” In the essay, Huxley considers the gifts and limitations of our wakeful consciousness, our universal quest for transcendence, and the interplay of drugs and democracy.
Huxley begins by considering why religion is nothing more nor less than an attempt to codify through symbolism our longing for what Jack Kerouac called “the golden eternity” and what Alan Lightman described in his encounter with the ospreys — a sense of intimate connection with the universe, with something larger than ourselves:
Every fully developed religion exists simultaneously on several different levels. It exists as a set of abstract concepts about the world and its governance. It exists as a set of rites and sacraments, as a traditional method for manipulating the symbols, by means of which beliefs about the cosmic order are expressed. It exists as the feelings of love, fear and devotion evoked by this manipulation of symbols.
And finally it exists as a special kind of feeling or intuition — a sense of the oneness of all things in their divine principle, a realization (to use the language of Hindu theology) that “thou art That,” a mystical experience of what seems self-evidently to be union with God.
The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful and, on most occasions, an indispensable state of mind; but it is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best. Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.
The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.
He echoes Mark Twain’s lament about religion and human egotism, Huxley examines the self-consciousness at the heart of worship:
We love ourselves to the point of idolatry; but we also intensely dislike ourselves — we find ourselves unutterably boring. Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises and yoga — to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction.
Huxley then turns to how drugs have attempted to address this human urge and the interplay of those attempts with religion:
Modern pharmacology has given us a host of new synthetics, but in the field of the naturally occurring mind changers it has made no radical discoveries. All the botanical sedatives, stimulants, vision revealers, happiness promoters and cosmic-consciousness arousers were found out thousands of years ago, before the dawn of history.
In many societies at many levels of civilization attempts have been made to fuse drug intoxication with God-intoxication. In ancient Greece, for example, ethyl alcohol had its place in the established religion. Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was often called, was a true divinity. His worshipers addressed him as Lusios, “Liberator,” or as Theoinos, “Godwinc.” The latter name telescopes fermented grape juice and the supernatural into a single pentecostal experience. . . . Unfortunately they also receive harm. The blissful experience of self -transcendence which alcohol makes possible has to be paid for, and the price is exorbitantly high.
Huxley argues that while the intuitive solution seems to be to enforce complete prohibition of mind-altering substances, this tends to backfire and “create more evils than it cures,” while also admonishing to the diametric opposite of this black-and-white approach, the “complete toleration and unrestricted availability” of drugs. Peering into the future of biochemistry and pharmacology, he foresees the development of “powerful but nearly harmless drugs,” but also notes that even if these were invented, they’d raise important questions about use and abuse, about whether their availability would make human beings ultimately happier or more miserable. He finds reason for concern in medicine’s history of overprescription of new drugs and writes:
The history of medical fashions, it may be remarked, is at least as grotesque as the history of fashions in women’s hats — at least as grotesque and, since human lives are at stake, considerably more tragic. In the present case, millions of patients who had no real need of the tranquilizers have been given the pills by their doctors and have learned to resort to them in every predicament, however triflingly uncomfortable. This is very bad medicine and, from the pill taker’s point of
view, dubious morality and poor sense.
He then turns to how these psychopharmacological tendencies might be exploited in a political context:
The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced. The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights — namely, liberty.
Wondering whether it would even be possible to “produce superior individuals by biochemical means,” Huxley points to an experiment Soviet researchers embarked upon in 1956, a five-year plan to develop “pharmacological substances that normalize higher nervous activity and heighten human capacity for work” — in other words, psychic energizers. Rather ironically given the context of subsequent geopolitical history of despots, from Putin to Yanukovych, Huxley considers the fruits of these experiments an assurance against despotism:
Let us all fervently wish the Russians every success in their current pharmacological venture. The discovery of a drug capable of increasing the average individual’s psychic energy, and its wide distribution throughout the U.S.S.R., would probably mean the end of Russia’s present form of government. Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy. Even in the democratic West we could do with a bit of psychic energizing. Between them, education and pharmacology may do something to offset the effects of that deterioration of our biological material to which geneticists have frequently called attention.
Huxley ties this back to religion and the parallel artificiality of the transcendent experience:
Those who are offended by the idea that the swallowing of a pill may contribute to a genuinely religious experience should remember that all the standard mortifications — fasting, voluntary sleeplessness and self-torture — inflicted upon themselves by the ascetics of every religion for the purpose of acquiring merit, are also, like the mind-changing drugs, powerful devices for altering the chemistry of the body in general and the nervous system in particular. Or consider the procedures generally known as spiritual exercises. The breathing techniques taught by the yogi of India result in prolonged suspensions of respiration. These in turn result in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood; and the psychological consequence of this is a change in the quality of consciousness. Again, meditations involving long, intense concentration upon a single idea or image may also result — for neurological reasons which I do not profess to understand — in a slowing down of respiration and even in prolonged suspensions of breathing.
(Coincidentally, scientists have just begun to shed light on why meditators hallucinate — Huxley was, once more, ahead of his time.)
He concludes by reminding us of the deeper spiritual and psychoemotional roots of both drug-induced and religious experiences:
That men and women can, by physical and chemical means, transcend themselves in a genuinely spiritual way is something which, to the squeamish idealist, seems rather shocking. But, after all, the drug or the physical exercise is not the cause of the spiritual experience; it is only its occasion.
He once again peers into the future:
For most people, religion has always been a matter of traditional symbols and of their own emotional, intellectual and ethical response to those symbols. To men and women who have had direct experience of self-transcendence into the mind’s Other World of vision and union with the nature of things, a religion of mere symbols is not likely to be very satisfying. The perusal of a page from even the most beautifully written cookbook is no substitute for the eating of dinner. We are exhorted to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. . . . From being an activity mainly concerned with symbols, religion will be transformed into an activity concerned mainly with experience and intuition — an everyday mysticism underlying and giving significance to everyday rationality, everyday tasks and duties, everyday human relationships.
Whether one considers Huxley a madman or a prophet-genius, Moksha is a fascinating read and an unusual, dimensional lens on the human longing for transcendence. For a wholly different side of Huxley, see his only children’s book.
Photo Credit: Shots Studio / Shutterstock.com
Researchers studying the effects of psilocybin on the brain have found that the naturally occurring psychedelic compound frees the mind to make new connections by sprouting new links across previously disconnected regions. This may explain why people experience effects such as “seeing” numbers as colors after taking magic mushrooms, which contain the mind-altering compound.
The study, which was published by the Journal of the Royal Society, concluded that post-psilocybin “the homological structure of the brain’s functional patterns undergoes a dramatic change.”
Yahoo Finance reports: “When researchers compared the brains of people who had received IV injections of psilocybin with those of people given a placebo, they found that the drug changed how information was carried across the brain. (Subjects received 2 milligrams of psilocybin; the dose and concentration of the chemical in actual mushrooms — which are eaten, not injected — varies.) Typically, brain activity follows specific neural networks. But in the people given psilocybin injections, cross-brain activity seemed more erratic, as if freed from its normal framework.”
President Obama appeared Wednesday with a group of doctors and other healthcare volunteers just returned from working in the Ebola zone of West Africa, in a cynical effort to put a caring face on the aggressive militarism of his administration.
The White House event was blatantly stage-managed, only five days before the US congressional elections, to allow Obama to posture as an advocate of humanitarian intervention overseas, while taunting his political rivals in the Republican Party, who he suggested were “hiding under the covers” in the Ebola crisis.
There was a striking contrast between Obama’s strident American nationalism and the humane and modest posture of the man who introduced him at the event, Dr. Kent Brantly, the medical missionary who contracted Ebola in Liberia but survived because he was transported back to the US and treated at Emory University hospital.
Dr. Brantly made reference to the desperate need for more medical personnel in West Africa, then declared, “At this time, perhaps more than any other, we feel the impact of our position as citizens of not only the United States of America, but as citizens of the world. We must strive together for the good of all mankind to put an end to this disease.”
Obama, however, spoke not as a “citizen of the world” but as the commander-in-chief of American imperialism, waving the flag and declaring his belief in “American exceptionalism” and “American leadership.”
“The medical professionals and public health workers serving in Africa are a shining example of what America means to the world, of what is possible when America leads,” he said.
Actually, in terms of deploying medical personnel, Cuba and not America is the leader, both in the world and in West Africa. One third of all foreign medical professionals in the Ebola zone come from that small island, with 11 million people, one-thirtieth the population of the United States.
While 165 Cuban health care workers are currently in the Ebola zone — the first batch of a planned deployment of 461— Washington has deployed a total of 65 health officials to Liberia.
Obama referred to the visit of his UN ambassador, Samantha Power, to the Ebola zone, where she toured Ebola treatment facilities being built by US soldiers sent to Liberia last month at his orders. This deployment has far more to do with imperialist geo-politics than humanitarianism,
The immediate goal of the Liberia deployment is the Pentagon’s quest for a permanent location for the headquarters of its Africa Command (AFRICOM), which has been stranded in Germany since its formation because no African country would host it. Now that US troops have been introduced into Liberia in a “humanitarian” guise, Washington calculates that its political puppet, Liberia President Ellen Sirleaf, will extend an invitation for an indefinite stay.
West Africa and the offshore Gulf of Guinea is increasingly important to the United States, Britain and France as a source of oil, and the disease-fighting actions of the imperialist powers and former colonial masters are thus happily conjoined with more profitable concerns.
Besides promoting the national interests of American corporations and banks, Obama seized on the occasion to gain leverage on his political rivals. Republican candidates for the US Senate and Republican governors have added criticism of the administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis to their political campaigning for the November 4 election.
Over the last several days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, has deliberately postured as “tougher” on Ebola than the Obama administration, criticizing the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control on monitoring health care workers returning from the Ebola zone in West Africa.
Last Friday, Christie and his Democratic counterpart in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced a full-scale 21-day quarantine on all returning health workers, despite the unanimous consensus among public health experts that such a measure is unnecessary and even counter-productive, since it will discourage health care volunteers to go to West Africa, thus increasing the danger of a global Ebola outbreak.
For several days, representatives of the medical community have fought back publicly against Christie’s bullying, with a joint statement condemning the quarantine issued by the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association, and an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Journal said the quarantine “is not scientifically based, is unfair and unwise, and will impede essential efforts to stop these awful outbreaks of Ebola disease at their source, which is the only satisfactory goal.”
The media has put a sympathetic spotlight on Kaci Hickox, the Ebola nurse who was the first victim of the New Jersey quarantine, and who was allowed to travel to her home in Maine on Monday. In that state, another reactionary blowhard Republican governor, Paul LePage, ordered Hickox confined to a home quarantine and stationed state troopers outside the house in Ft. Kent, Maine to enforce it.
On Wednesday Hickox spoke out on the NBC “Today” program, denouncing the quarantine as “not scientifically nor constitutionally just.” She said she would adhere to the guidelines set by the CDC, for twice-daily temperature readings and daily in-person monitoring by a CDC representative, but she would not accept home confinement through November 10, as ordered by the governor.
“If these restrictions are not removed for me by tomorrow morning, Thursday morning, I will go to court to fight for my freedom,” she said. “I am not going to sit around and be bullied by politicians and forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public.”
Obama sought to associate himself with the medical consensus and the courageous stance taken by Hickox, without, as usual, actually taking a stand. He made no mention of either Hickox or Christie, only declaring that neither a travel ban nor a quarantine could stop Ebola in a world of easy global travel.
He then tacitly accused Christie and those like him of insufficient aggressiveness in maintaining the world position of American imperialism. “When I hear people talking about American leadership, and then promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction, hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated,” he said.
“It is how we help others around the world that is important. It is not just massive numbers of troops and equipment — deployments of troops and equipment, as proud as we are of that.”
There is not a shred of genuine concern for the health of the American people or that of the people of West Africa in the political posturing by Obama and the Republicans. Both big business parties have facilitated the Ebola crisis through cuts in public health funding in the United States, through support for the giant drug companies that have refused for decades to develop an Ebola vaccine because it wasn’t profitable, and through support for the continued imperialist oppression of the impoverished masses of West Africa.