Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh – a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) – his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety – something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 – six years after the completion of The Origin of Species – a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children – a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian’s Darwin: A Graphic Biography

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades – during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/08/28/darwin-anxiety/

US government-funded database created to track “subversive propaganda” online

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By Matthew MacEgan
30 August 2014

The creation of the Truthy database by Indiana University researchers has drawn sharp criticism from free-speech advocates and others concerned over government censorship of political expression.

According to the award abstract accompanying the funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Truthy project aims to demonstrate “why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten.” In order to answer this and other questions, the resulting database will actively “[collect] and [analyze] massive streams of public microblogging data.”

Once the database is up and running, anyone can use its “service” to monitor “trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.” Several of the researchers suggested that the public will be able to discover the use of “shady machinery” by election campaigners who push faulty information to social media users to manipulate them politically.

As a seeming afterthought, the abstract concludes that this open-source project “could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

This last statement provoked widespread criticism as troubling and even Orwellian. Right-wing media outlets Fox News and the Washington Times attacked the reference to “hate speech,” in which they specialize, without highlighting the reference to “subversive propaganda,” a term of abuse usually reserved for left-wing criticism of American government and society.

While the leaders of this government-funded operation have sought to fend off attacks with the explanation that this database is merely designed to study the diffusion of information on social media networks, there is no mistaking the repressive overtones of the project.

Filippo Menczer, the project’s principal investigator and a professor at Indiana University, has responded to allegations by issuing a statement through the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, explaining that Truthy is not “a political watchdog, a government probe of social media,” or “an attempt to suppress free speech.” He states that Truthy is incapable of determining whether a particular scrap of data constitutes “misinformation,” and reiterates the notion that “target” is the mere study of “patterns of information diffusion.”

However, within the same statement, Menczer also echoes the abstract’s final conclusion, stating that “an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.” This seems to contradict the claim that the database is focused only on how information is diffused, rather than its content.

Results of the project have already been widely published in peer-reviewed journals and have been presented at several conferences around the world. One of these studies shows how the researchers, including Menczer, studied the growth of Occupy Wall Street over a 15-month period. This was done by identifying Occupy-related content on Twitter and creating a dataset that “contained approximately 1.82 million tweets produced by 447,241 distinct accounts.”

In addition, the researchers also selected 25,000 of these users at random and monitored their behavior in order to study how these users may have changed over time. This effort included the compilation of the hashtags used by each user, their engagement with foreign social movements, and the extent to which these users interacted with one another.

In other words, while the creators of Truthy have presented their service as a means for the public to expose elected officials who inject misleading information into news feeds for electoral propaganda purposes, one of the primary uses is to track and keep tabs on individuals who engage in political discussions deemed “subversive” by US authorities. A previous report has already shown that local police departments were engaged in similar coordinated efforts to spy on Occupy protesters throughout the same 15-month period.

The revelations of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have shown the extent of domestic spying of national governments on their own citizens and the erosion of Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Despite Menczer’s claim that the system was not “designed” to be a government watchdog program, there is no assurance that this project will not be used for that purpose.

The 25,000 Twitter users who were studied and tracked by the project’s developers certainly did not give permission to have their behaviors and tweets recorded and studied. Truthy will enable anyone, including federal officials, to similarly track and follow the actions of groups and individuals deemed to be “diffusing” ideas labeled as “misleading.” The fact that the United States government has already contributed more than $900,000 to this project only exacerbates this fear.

Obama administration launches new attack on teachers

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By Isabelle Belanger
29 August 2014

This summer, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, standing alongside American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, announced the Excellent Educators for All initiative, marking a new stage in the Obama administration’s assault on teachers and dismantling of public education.

The proposal is an adaptation of a long-ignored component of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), implemented under the Republican administration of George W. Bush, requiring that states provide students of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds equal access to “highly qualified” teachers.

From the beginning, this stipulation was for window dressing only, since one school district after another carried out budget cuts, mass layoffs and school closings and experienced teachers were replaced with lower-paid, inexperienced instructors. This process has accelerated under the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, under the terms of NCLB, “highly qualified” was defined as a teacher having a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and possessing state certification in the subject area he or she is hired to teach. The ostensible goal of the proposal was to “ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”

The new initiative by the Obama administration, however, switches the focus from “highly qualified” teachers to those who are said to be “highly effective,” ie., teachers whose students perform satisfactorily on standardized tests.

This seemingly minor change in wording means that the once objective means of gauging teacher quality by subject-area degree and certification area has been altered to one that is almost entirely subjective, based as it is on the singular focus on standardized test scores.

Such a focus ignores a host of other measures of effectiveness such as students’ scores on teacher-created tests, projects and other assignments, the ability to instill an understanding and appreciation of the subject matter in students, and many other less tangible measures of successful teaching.

Rather than provide the necessary resources to overcome poverty and reverse the decades-long financial starvation of the public schools, the Obama administration, with the help of the teachers unions, is seeking to paint the picture that impoverished school districts lack—not the elemental necessities for a decent educational environment—but teachers who are determined and dedicated enough to overcome these problems! This is an utter fraud.

While feigning concern over the plight of poor and minority students Obama has spearheaded an unprecedented attack on highly qualified teachers and the children they teach. Since taking office, more than 300,000 teachers and other school employees have lost their jobs, thousands of public schools have been shut in Chicago, Detroit and other cities, and the administration has provided incentives for corporations and other business hucksters to open charter schools employing the most inexperienced instructors.

Aspects of the new initiative were present in Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 education budget with its latest rendition of the notorious Race To The Top (RTTT) program, this time called RTTT-Equity and Opportunity. The budget includes $300 million in grants to states and districts to create data systems that track teacher and principal “effectiveness,” as well as student achievement at the nation’s poorest schools.

The Excellent Educators for All plan will force senior educators out of schools where students perform adequately on standardized tests (primarily due to the better financial circumstances of students attending such schools) and place them into the districts’ poorest performing schools, which largely serve students mired in poverty and suffering from related problems of hunger, illness, utility shut-offs, crime and other social ills.

There are three main components to the Excellent Educators program:

1. By April 2015, states will be required to submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” that describe how they will place “effective educators” in the classrooms of poor and minority students. By October 2015, states will have to prove that these students are not being disproportionately taught by “ineffective” teachers.

2. The Department of Education (DOE) will spend $4.2 million on an “Education Equity Support Network” whose purpose will be to help states write the comprehensive educator equity plans. According to a DOE press release, the network will also “work to develop model plans, share promising packages, provide communities of practice for educators to discuss challenges and share lessons learned with each other, and create a network of support for educators working in high-need schools.”

The provision of such a paltry sum to supposedly provide support for educators working with some of the nation’s most deprived children is utterly reprehensible. It is an affront to those teachers whose careers will be in jeopardy once they are placed in schools where low test scores are primarily the result of poverty, and have little to do with teacher quality.

3. The DOE will publish “Educator Equity profiles” which “will help states identify gaps in access to quality teaching for low-income and minority students…. States will be able to conduct detailed analyses of the data to inform their discussions about local inequities and design strategies for improving those inequities.”

Much like the publishing of the standardized test scores of teachers’ students, the publishing of districts’ Educator Equity profiles will be used to promote public anger with school districts, which will be presented as purposely staffing low-performing schools with ineffective teachers. Likewise, district officials and the media will impugn teachers as self-serving for wanting to work in high-performing schools rather than with the poorest achieving students.

In the past, teachers were offered higher salaries to work in the nations’ highest need areas, it being difficult to attract teachers to work in schools that are generally understaffed, in disrepair and having inadequate resources, and where learning and behavior problems are a daily occurrence. However, the offer of better pay did help to attract and keep capable teachers in these struggling schools.

Now, with most states basing a large portion of teacher evaluations on students’ standardized test scores, such financial incentives are of little consequence. As for all workers, a higher salary means little if there is no guarantee that the job will exist in a year’s time. The best teachers—including those currently working in poorer districts—will likely accept a lower salary in a more resourced school district, due to the knowledge that students’ test scores will likely be adequate to allow them to receive acceptable evaluations year after year, and therefore keep their jobs.

Significantly, the DOE has not yet developed a definition for what constitutes teacher “effectiveness.” One can assume the definition, once made, will be based almost exclusively on standardized test scores, as has been the mechanism for funding schools and making decisions over school closures and privatizations under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

In an address before teachers, President Obama asked, “what are they [the states] doing in order to train and promote and place teachers in some of the toughest environments for children….the kids who probably need less help get the most….” Obama stands reality on its head, since his administration has condemned millions of youth to live in the “toughest environments” by slashing food stamps, long-term unemployment benefits and essential programs, while overseeing the greatest transfer of wealth to the rich in history.

In the book Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (2011), which is comprised of a series of groundbreaking studies on the effects of inequality on educational attainment, the concluding sentence asks: “If poverty places students at risk of educational failure …, would not intervening in poverty directly contribute to educational improvement?” The terrible circumstances facing millions of American children, however, are not of concern to the Obama administration; rather, it is teachers who are blamed for the problems created by the decayed capitalist order.

Predictably the trade union executives who run the AFT and NEA have joined in this continued effort to scapegoat teachers and destroy their job protections, seeking only to maintain a “seat at the table” while public education is dismantled.

Following Duncan’s announcement of the initiative, AFT President Randi Weingarten stated, “The Excellent Educators for All project…is necessary and important…. Secretary Duncan offer[s] an approach that does something for children by empowering teachers, not stripping them of their rights. We look forward to working with the secretary….”

The National Education Association is also on board with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel saying the union “fully supported the new plan.”

Ohio charter schools seek to strip public education of constitutional protection

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By Nancy Hanover
28 August 2014

In a statewide effort with national implications, for-profit charter schools and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are attempting to amend the Ohio State Constitution. Those positioned to cash in financially are seeking to eliminate the requirement for a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

The constitutional provision, adopted in 1851, provided the strongest possible mandate for the development of uniform public schools throughout the state. Eleven other US states have similar constitutional requirements to make “thorough and efficient” provisions for public schools, with eight others requiring a “general and uniform” system of schools.

Leading the effort to legally renounce Ohio’s current commitment to public education is Chad Readler, chairman of both the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the education committee of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission (OCMC), created by the state’s legislature in 2012. The Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools, created in 2006, is composed of 200 charter schools and was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

In response, public school advocates have emphasized that since US federal law does not enshrine education as a fundamental right, weakening or eliminating state constitutional strictures is a core attack. One of the chief effects of the constitutional change would be to block the use of the courts to enforce public rights or to provide oversight of educational standards, of particular importance in the state of Ohio.

The OCMC’s proposed changes to Article VI, Section 2 remove the passage stating “The General Assembly shall make such provision, by taxation, or otherwise … [as] will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” and substitutes “The General Assembly shall provide for the organization, administration and control of the public school system of the state supported by public funds …”

This Orwellian “modernization” serves the profit interests of charter operators in two ways: by eliminating the requirement of a system of public schools throughout the state and by discarding the thorough and efficient” standard.

Bill Phillis, longtime executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, said the change would virtually eliminate public accountability for school funding. “The ‘thorough and efficient’ standard has held the legislature’s feet to the fire for 160 years. Without a standard, public education could be diminished markedly and citizens would have no viable recourse via the courts,” he said.

In fact, historically the courts have relied upon the Ohio Constitution’s “thorough and efficient” language to require significant funding increases and other improvements for Ohio’s poorest school districts. A series of decisions, known as DeRolph, began in 1991 and were battled out in the courts for 12 years.

The stage was set when, in 1994, Perry County Court Judge Linton Lewis, Jr. ruled that “public education is a fundamental right in the state of Ohio” and that the state legislature had to provide a better and more equitable means of financing education.

Attorney Nick Pittner, who argued the DeRolph case for 500 poorer districts, pointed to children in the Appalachian-area of Vinton County, where the school had no cafeteria and they therefore had to cross a busy highway to eat at a diner, and to another school, where scaffolding was erected to prevent children from being hit by bricks falling from the walls.

In the 1997 DeRolph I ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court returned to the constitutional issues, stating “ …The delegates to the 1850-1851 Constitutional Convention … were concerned that the education to be provided to our youth not be mediocre but be as perfect as could humanly be devised. These debates reveal the delegates’ strong belief that it is the state’s obligation, through the General Assembly, to provide for the full education of all children within the state.” He summed up, stating, “The facts documented in the record lead to one inescapable conclusion — Ohio’s elementary and secondary public schools are neither thorough nor efficient.”

In fact, DeRolph did lead to billions of additional state funding dollars for education in the form of building construction and renovation for over 1,000 school buildings for kindergarten through 12th grade. These new buildings “wouldn’t be there without ‘thorough and efficient,’” Phillis pointed out.

Three subsequent high court rulings in 2000, 2001 and 2002 affirmed the unconstitutionality of Ohio’s school-funding system due to inequality across districts. Eventually the court backed down, stating that Ohio had made a “good faith effort,” thus reversing the earlier rulings.

Nevertheless, the court rulings and above all the constitutional mandate remain a thorn in the side to those forces attempting to institute market-driven education throughout the state. The deliberate and systematic defunding of public education and the parallel rise of charter chain schools have dramatically intensified education inequality in the state.

Presently, 45% of the state’s school children receive free or reduced school lunches (often used as a poverty benchmark), and in seven counties (Champaign, Coshocton, Crawford, Defiance, Greene, Miami and Medina) the child poverty rate has increased 90% or more in the last decade.

Heavily hit by deindustrialization and the 2008 crash, state funding for education in Ohio has been systematically cut. The state model forces school districts to make up the difference through their own tax levies. While business taxes have been cut, the burden of school funding has been shifted to homeowners, rising from 46% of the total in 1991 to a whopping 70% today.

Who are the heavyweight drivers and potential beneficiaries of the constitutional rewrite? They are the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Ohio’s wildly profitable charter school chains. A notorious corporate “reform” group (also spearheading the national assault on public workers’ pensions), ALEC seeks to “replace” public schools with “private market-driven education thrift stores.” Education historian Diane Ravitch observed, in an apt phrase, ALEC “owns the Ohio legislature,” providing statistics on the number of Ohio legislators who are members of ALEC, on ALEC “scholarships,” or attending ALEC conferences.

Among the charter operators, the key players in Ohio are William Lager and David Brennan, as well as the publicly-traded national online charter K12. The biggest charter in the state is Lager’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a cyber or online-only charter that enrolls 14,486 students statewide, netting about $64 million annually. ECOT schools are rated academically near the very bottom of 613 districts in the state. Lager has contributed $1 million to state politicians since 2001, according to Ravitch.

David Brennan’s White Hat Management operates 30 schools in Ohio and is the largest chain school, collecting about $100 million annually from state coffers for his for-profit charter empire.

Brennan and his family have donated millions of dollars to state politicians including Governor John Kasich. White Hat lobbyists have played significant roles in directly writing charter legislation. Brennan’s cyber charter, Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, graduates a scandalous 35.9% of its students. His Alternative Education Academy had a 22.8% graduation rate.

The Ohio charter industry has also been characterized by outright criminality. In June, 11 FBI agents raided Horizon Science Academy charter school in Cincinnati as part of a federal investigation into sexual misconduct and test tampering at the 19 schools managed by Concept Schools. The Dayton location of the chain has also been accused of discriminating against black students, falsifying attendance records and hiding sexual misconduct. 6,700 Ohio students attend the various Concept Schools academies.

Not surprisingly, given the role of ALEC and charter school operators in crafting state legislation, Ohio’s lax regulations hold the state’s 391 charter schools to lower performance standards than traditional public schools. Despite these diminished expectations, the state has closed 157 charters for lack of academic achievement since 2000.

The threat to eliminate state constitutional protection of public schools signals the fact that profit interests are already dismantling large swathes of public education in this country, if not its entire edifice, in the interests of monetizing education. Public education—like the right to municipal water, utilities or health care—is no longer considered by the ruling elite to be necessary for the masses of people, particularly if it can instead be packaged and sold at a profit.

Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

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Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

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AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

TPM Interview: Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

The researches note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month’s ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy