C.S. Lewis on True Friendship

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“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?

In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.

In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”

Lewis writes:

Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.

[...]

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.

 

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/08/c-s-lewis-four-loves-friendship/

data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.

 

Life on $2 a Day

US Extreme Poverty on the Rise
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by DADY CHERY and GILBERT MERCIER

A fast-growing group of people in the United States, households with children, are living on $2.00 or less per person per day. This shocking condition in a wealthy country such as the US is formally labeled “extreme poverty” by a World Bank metric that gauges poverty “based on the standards of the world’s poorest countries.” Since poor Americans live in a rich country, they have traditionally been excluded from this official estimate of dire poverty in the world.

In a study for the National Poverty Center, H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard University applied the World Bank metric to the US for the first time to show that in mid-2011 and based on cash income, about 1.65 million households, with 3.5 million children, lived in extreme poverty. Since the official poverty level is considered to be $17.00 per person per day, this extent of extreme poverty implies that millions of Americans are subsisting on less than 12 percent of the poverty-line income. Contrary to popular perceptions, the authors further found, based on a measure of cash income, that about one half of the extremely poor heads of households were white and almost one half were married. Children have suffered most: between 1996 and 2011, their numbers in extreme poverty increased by 156 percent.

How did the social safety nets in the US shrink to allow such a catastrophe? The authors single out two main factors: the Clinton administration’s welfare reform of 1996, combined with the Great Recession of 2008. The 1996 welfare reform ended the only cash entitlement program for poor families with children and replaced it with a program that provides only time-limited cash assistance, with a requirement that “able bodied” recipients promptly rejoin the work force. Specifically, the need-based program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced by a restrictive federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Consequently, cash assistance fell from 12 million recipient families per month in 1996 to 4.5 million families by December 2011.  Meanwhile the 2008 recession led the government to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) from around 25 million recipients per month in 1996 to 47 million in October 2012. In effect, the working poor were assisted, while those who had become chronically unemployed and desperate were left to fend for themselves. It is astonishing that nearly 50 million Americans — mostly children — currently depend on food stamps to survive.

The poor and the rich experienced differently the collapse of the labor, housing, and stock markets that started in 2007. For example, the stock markets and housing markets are currently undergoing a boom; but this deceptively bubble-like recovery mostly benefits the super-rich as corporations sit on trillions of dollars and hire as few people as possible.

Wealth inequality has long been part of life in the US, but it has never been as great as it is today. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, wealth inequality increased, with the sharpest rise occurring during the birth of capitalism in the mid-19th century and the massive industrial revolution in the early 20th century. The concentration of wealth, or share of it owned by the wealthiest one percent, rose sharply over this period to peak at about 40 percent of the total wealth right before the crash of 1929 and onset of the Great Depression. Thereafter, wealth inequality gradually decreased until the late 1970s, but it began to increase again in the 1980s. For example, between 1983 and 1989, the share of wealth held by the wealthiest one percent grew from 33 to about 38 percent. The most pronounced increase in US wealth inequality occurred between 2001 and 2007 when the wealthiest one percent managed to take a phenomenal 43 percent of the country’s total wealth. In 2013, only seven percent of the wealth is left to the bottom 80 percent. The middle class have become poor, and the poor are now destitute.

Current conditions in the US are worse than they were immediately before the Great Depression, but gone are the days of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when a US President was not merely a front for corporate interests, and he could persuade his own class to put a brake on its excesses so as to prevent a worker’s revolt. Unconcerned that about 16 percent of all Americans require food stamps to keep from starving, the US House of Representatives proposed, as part of the Farm Bill deliberations, to reduce SNAP by $40 billion so as to provide subsidies such as free crop insurance mostly to rich farmers. In February 2014, US President Barack Obama signed into law a Farm Bill (H.R. 2642) that reduced SNAP by $8.6 billion. Yet more families will sink into extreme poverty. Millions more children will go to bed hungry as US politicians run their campaigns around the issues of family values and sanctity of life.

Disaster global corporatism has turned many nations into beggars, but a third-world country is rapidly growing at the heart of the empire. When will the Revolution come? How can a nation function with wealth that is so concentrated and misery that is so widespread?  How long will we allow the rich to worm their way through the core of the country even as they present it to the world as an appetizing shiny red apple?

Dady Chery is the co-Editor in Chief at News Junkie PostGilbert Mercier is the Editor in Chief of News Junkie Post.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/09/09/life-on-2-a-day/

 

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/

Cancer, Politics and Capitalism

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by LOUIS PROYECT

After working for a series of unsavory financial institutions for 15 years, I accepted a position as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in 1983 with an eager sense of anticipation. Finally I would be doing something professionally that was more in sync with my political values. Instead of using my skills to keep track of pension trust portfolios, I would be creating a data infrastructure for patient care.

For more than a year I worked on developing a data model based on “normalized” relationships that sought to eliminate redundancies and provide a reliable foundation for applications development. A few months after I presented the model to management, I learned that all my work was in vain. The hospital had decided to buy a package from SMS, inc. that was considered nonpareil when it came to debt collection. As happened too often, a loved one would check into the hospital for a couple of months of very expensive and painful treatments that came to an end with the patient’s death. Since the survivors often had a tendency to ignore the astronomical bills that went along with such an exercise in futility, the hospital decided to purchase a system that was very good at dunning if nothing else. That decision left me feeling deflated. Once again money ruled.

When I received an invitation to review “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering”, a documentary described as “the remarkable true story of a young science-writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who risked everything by blowing the whistle on a massive cover-up involving a promising cancer therapy”, I knew that this was one I could not miss. (The film opens at Cinema Village in NYC on August 29, and at Laemmle Music Hall in LA on September 5. A national release will follow.)

Directed by Eric Merola, the film is made up primarily of Ralph W. Moss, the aforementioned young science-writer now 71, describing the events that took place when he was working at MSKCC in the mid-70s filled with the same sense of idealism I brought with me 8 years later. Like me, Moss was soon disillusioned but for another set of reasons.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my first encounter with Moss was when I worked at MSKCC, through the intermediary of a book he wrote titled “The Cancer Industry”. As I noted in a May 2012 article about MSKCC’s purchase of the SMS software, Moss’s book was a good introduction to the slimy realities of cancer care under capitalism:

When I was working at Sloan-Kettering, I read a terrific book titled “The Cancer Industry” that along with “The Cancer Wars” is essential reading for those with a class analysis. To this day, I remember what the book said about Hubert Humphrey’s stay at Sloan-Kettering. I don’t have the book handy but these paragraphs from a 1990 review should suffice:

Among the horrors stories in The Cancer Industry is the case history of Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was operated on by a team of surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering on October 6, 1976. His surgeon appeared before the press and television cameras to announce that the senator was cured by the operation, but as a preventive measure, to “wipe out any microscopic colonies of cancer cells that may be hidden in the body, treatment would begin with experimental drugs.” Moss describes the aftermath:

“Within about a year, Senator Humphrey was dead. In that short time he had withered from a vigorous middle-aged man to an old, balding and feeble cancer victim. Humphrey himself blamed chemotherapy … calling it `bottled death’ and refusing in the end to return to Memorial Hospital for drug treatment.”

Hired to work in the PR department for his writing ability and enthusiasm, Moss had an unsettling introduction. On the very week he started, he was shocked to discover that one of the hospital’s top researchers had been caught perpetrating a major fraud. After announcing to the world that he had completed an experiment that successfully transplanted skin from a black mouse to a white mouse, William Summerlin became an MSKCC super-star. Since the mice were of different species and the transplant had not been rejected, this could lead to major breakthroughs in human organ transplants. When a lab assistant discovered quite by accident that Summerlin had simply used a black magic marker to draw a patch on a white mouse’s back, the hospital looked incompetent. Lewis Thomas, the hospital’s director, explained the incident as one caused by Summerlin’s “severe emotional disturbance”. I would have called it greed.

(I should add that Lewis Thomas is not one of my favorite people. He is the author of an essay titled “The Iks” that makes the case that this hunting and gathering society living in the Ugandan wilderness were “an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless.” Remembering Thomas’s essay from high school, filmmaker Cevin Soling traveled to Ikland to find out for himself whether this was true. Suffice it to say that Thomas’s essay was a bogus as Summerlin’s painted mouse.)

Around the same time, a more serious experiment was taking place at MSKCC. An octogenarian Japanese scientist named Kanematsu Sugiura, who had published 250 papers in a distinguished career, had begun treating mice with laetrile. The substance, also called amygdalin, was extracted from apricot pits. His findings: the mice that received laetrile benefited from injections. They were not cured of cancer but were able to live longer than non-treated animals. Most importantly, the tumors did not metastasize in the treated mice. Trained to be cautious, Sugiura thought the drug had palliative value. The implication, needless to say, was that further research was needed.

As word of Sugiura’s experiments filtered up to the MSKCC brass, they assigned Moss to cover them from a PR angle but just as much to snoop on the senior researcher. Not only did Moss fail to detect any irregularities, he became upset when he learned that the hospital had become convinced that Sugiura’s experiments were flawed and that research should be abandoned.

Convinced that he needed outside help to make the case for Sugiura’s experiments, Moss hooked up with Science for the People, a radical group that came out of the 1960s student movement. Working with a physician-activist named Alec Pruchnicki and without the knowledge of his superiors, Moss began publishing a newsletter called Second Opinion that was distributed outside of MSKCC just like most agitprop was in pre-Internet days. The newsletter soon became a sounding board for every kind of grievance at the hospital, including working conditions and patient treatment.

When the hospital called a press conference to disassociate itself from laetrile, Sugiura said that he stood by the hospital’s decision as well as his own findings. When asked by reporters how he could hold mutually opposed positions, he handled himself gracefully while standing his ground.

In a fascinating Science magazine article from December 23, 1977, Nicholas Wade—the NY Times reporter whose recent book on genetic inheritance most critics regard as a painted mouse—was loath to get on the anti-laetrile bandwagon despite the newspaper’s strong agreement with the top brass’s dismissal of Sugiura’s findings. Wade quotes Robert Good, the top immunologist at MSKCC: “If we had published those early positive data, it would have caused all kinds of havoc. The natural processes of science are just not possible in this kind of pressure cooker.”

In a phone conversation with Ralph Moss shortly after I viewed the film, I was struck by his unwillingness to assume the stance of a pro-laetrile activist even though he was obviously convinced that Sugiura’s experiments were valid. The film is making the case for considering alternatives to costly and often toxic medications that are making big pharma rich. He mentioned Avastin, a drug that generated $2.11 billion in sales in 2011. That, he added, was more than the GDP of many third world countries. The spirit of Science for the People continues in the work of Ralph W. Moss. See this film for a riveting account of the conflicts between corporate power and the public good.

Several weeks before I watched “Second Opinion”, I made a point of reading George Johnson’s recently published The Cancer Chronicles in order to get up to speed on current thinking about the disease. As I mentioned above, when I worked at MSKCC, I read Samuel Epstein’s “The Politics of Cancer”, a book that ties what was perceived at the time as a cancer epidemic to environmental toxins, especially pesticides. It was very much in the spirit of Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” and amenable to my Marxist opposition to corporate indifference to our health and safety.

About ten years after reading “The Politics of Cancer”, I read Robert Proctor’s “The Cancer Wars” that backtracked from Epstein’s findings. Although very much a man of the left, Proctor warned his readers that finding a direct correlation between pollutants and cancer is very difficult.

With Proctor’s warnings in the back of my mind, I was not completely surprised by Johnson’s treatment of the environmental question. In chapter seven, titled “Where Cancer Really Comes From”, Johnson amasses some statistics of the sort that pro-industry hacks might repeat. For example, epidemiology studies conclude that cancer cases in the immediate vicinity of Love Canal were no greater than that in the rest of New York State even though there was a spike in birth defects.

In referring to cancer clusters, such as the supposed breast cancer epidemic in Long Island, Johnson concludes that they are “statistical illusions”. It is not so much that Johnson denies that there is a connection between cancer and the environment; it is that they are exceedingly difficult to prove.

Since I have like most people on the left become convinced that there is a connection between carcinogens in the water, soil and air and the incidence of cancer, I emailed Johnson with my concerns and referred him to a study of cancer clusters near heavily polluted rivers in China. Showing a grace uncommon to most well-established journalists, Johnson took the trouble to write back:

Thanks very much for your email. I appreciate the kind words about my book. I hadn’t seen that particular study and will make a point of reading it. Of course many industrial chemicals are carcinogenic, and it seems very possible that concentrations have been high and chronic enough in China’s water to expose the general population to levels known to cause cancer in the workplace. Nailing that down is very tricky though, especially in developing countries where epidemiological studies are just getting underway. Most of the research in China seems to concentrate on air pollution and lung cancer. Since the focus of my book was on cancer in the developed world, I may write a column in the future comparing the situation with China, India, etc.

Making the case about pollution—a negative indicator—is difficult but just as much so with positive indicators. Nutritionists are always urging us to eat fruits and vegetables, especially those with anti-oxidant properties such as blueberries and cabbage but there has never been a rigorous study of diet and cancer. This has a lot to do with the near impossibility of conducting a demographically representative study of the effects of eating “good” food and bad. Since cancer can take many decades to show up, tracking its roots and development is a near impossible task.

“The Cancer Chronicles” was motivated in part by his wife’s illness. Showing the difficulty of establishing a unilinear connection between diet and the disease, Nancy Johnson was something of a health nut given to daily exercise and a large intake of the very anti-oxidant fruits and vegetables nutritionists advise. Chapter four begins:

She always ate her vegetables. Obsessively, it sometimes seemed. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, throughout the day she would keep mental count. Never mind if it was 10:30 p.m., halfway through a Simpsons episode or a DVD. If she hadn’t consumed two or three servings of vegetables (some green, some yellow) and three or four servings of fruits, nuts, grains—whatever the food pyramidologists were recommending—she would slice up an apple or open a bag of carrots.

Confronted by the sheer anomaly of a person with such a lifestyle being susceptible to cancer, Johnson sets out on a trek that takes him to conferences and labs all around the USA when he is not accompanying his wife on her frequent chemotherapy sessions. His goal was to understand the basic biology of humanity’s oldest disease.

Indeed, it is not just ours. The dinosaurs suffered from cancer as well. In a trip to western Colorado, Johnson visits the site where six tons of Brontosaurus bones were discovered in 1901, including one that was the oldest one known to have contained a tumor. Using prose that has been polished over a long and distinguished career in science journalism, he reports on what he saw:

Viewed head-on, the fossil measured 6.5 by 9.5 inches. Lodged inside its core was an intrusion, now crystallized, that had grown so large it had encroached into the outer bone. Bunge [a museum curator] suspected osteosarcoma—he had seen the damage the cancer can do to human skeletons, particularly those of children. Oval in shape and the size of a slightly squashed softball, the tumor had been converted over the millennia into agate.

Johnson’s book is one of the finest on science that I have read in a very long time, perhaps in my life. As I told Marxmail subscribers, if I had run into such a book when I was in high school, I probably would have majored in biology at Bard College rather than religion (don’t try to get me to explain that choice.)

Johnson’s book ranges from medicine to physics, and from physics to philosophy without missing a beat. At the risk of sounding like one of those people who write the blurbs on book jackets, I would describe “The Cancer Chronicles” as a powerful examination of the biology of the human cell, including those that mutate into the most dreaded disease we face.

Between 2008 and 2012, three men died of cancer all within just about two years of each other. The first to go was Peter Camejo, who was responsible for helping me to understand what went wrong with the Socialist Workers Party. Peter, who succumbed to lymphoma, attributed his illness to pollutants he had been exposed to over a lifetime.

Next to go was Harvey Pekar, the comic book author who persuaded me to work on a memoir with him. Peter Camejo was a character in the memoir, as well as number of other colorful characters I got to know over a lifetime in politics and the bohemian underground. Like Peter, Harvey died from lymphoma or at least a system weakened by the disease.

Finally, two years later, I learned of Alexander Cockburn’s death. Alexander was a kind of bookend to Peter. When I quit the Trotskyist movement in 1979, I intended to put politics behind me and return to the bohemia of my youth. In an attempt to keep up with the NYC underground, I began reading the Village Voice. But the only writing that made any kind of impression on me was Alexander Cockburn’s weekly columns that lacerated the high and mighty. It was his writing that moved me to return to politics, the only damned thing I am good at.

The more our lives become entwined with the Internet, and social media in particular, the closer we become to people even if we never meet in person. Over the past few years, I have been at the virtual bedside of two people who I have enormous respect for. Using Facebook for both support and ventilation, Ed Douglas and Kristin Kolb have kept their friends abreast on their encounters with life-threatening illnesses. Additionally both were able to raise funds through the Internet, a necessity given the lack of adequate health care in the USA. Ed, a founding member of New York Film Critics Online—the group I have been part of for 15 years, developed an acute case of leukemia some years ago that ultimately required a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately he is in remission now and doing well. Kristin, a CounterPunch contributor of great distinction, is going through the final stages of chemotherapy for breast cancer. We who contribute to and read CounterPunch offer our support for her getting past this ordeal.

If the origins of cancer and its ultimate cure are shrouded in mystery, the same cannot be said about the need for adequate and affordable care. If it were not for the generosity of Ed and Kristin’s friends and admirers, their road would have been a lot more difficult.

Mike Marqusee, another long-time CounterPunch contributor, made the wise choice to relocate to Britain in 1971 where health care is free.

Around the time I started reading Johnson’s “The Cancer Chronicles”, I learned that Marqusee has been dealing with multiple myeloma for a number of years. He wrote a book recently that touches on his illness as well as Britain’s socialized medicine. Available from OR Books, “The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer” is both a personal history as well as a sharp-eyed analysis of the benefits of socialized medicine—as one would expect from a long-time Marxist.

You will notice that just above I refer to Marqusee “dealing” with cancer rather than the hackneyed term “battling”. As might be expected from an antiwar activist (Marqusee was on the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain), Marqusee has little use for military metaphors. He writes:

Obituaries routinely inform us that so-and-so has died “after a brave battle against cancer.” Of course, we will never read that so-and-so has died “after a pathetically feeble battle against cancer.” But one thing that I have come to appreciate since being diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the blood) two years ago is how unreal both notions are. It’s just not like that.

The emphasis on cancer patients’ “bravery” and “courage” implies that if you can’t “conquer” your cancer, there’s something wrong with you, some weakness or flaw. If your cancer progresses rapidly, is it your fault? Does it reflect some failure of will-power?

Like one of the characters in Michael Moore’s “Sicko” who lives a country not befouled by big pharma and the insurance industry, Marqusee describes a system that is geared to human need rather than private profit. For all the years he has been receiving treatment at Barts, the nickname for St. Bartholomew’s, a London hospital founded in 1123 (!), he has never had to pay a penny. Despite the fact that it is free, the treatment has been equal to some of the premiere hospitals in the USA.

But the same forces that have imposed Obamacare on us are conspiring to privatize and/or reduce the level of treatment in Britain. Showing the same sense of worker and patient solidarity that Ralph Moss’s newsletter sought to imbue at MSKCC nearly 40 years ago, Marqusee writes and we conclude:

I hope staff at Barts resist this attack on their jobs, and on the essential, life-sustaining services they provide. It’s often seemed to me that Barts survives on their good will alone. They’ve already been hammered by a steady fall in real wages, and there is a sad fatalism among most, not helped by the patchiness of the union presence across the Trust. What’s vital is that they understand that what’s happening now is not about failings at Barts; it’s a manifestation of the general crisis in the NHS, a crisis brought about by cuts, fragmentation, and privatisation, and one that can only be addressed through a mass movement that forces a radical redirection in government policy.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/08/29/cancer-politics-and-capitalism/

One-third of the US population has no retirement savings

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By Jake Dean

22 August 2014

A new survey from Bankrate.com, accompanied by Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International, underlines the deplorable economic conditions facing millions of Americans. More than one-third (36 percent) of the US population has no savings for retirement.

The Financial Security Index breaks down the retirement savings for the different age groups. For ages between 19 to 29, at the start of their working lives, it might be expected that a higher percentage, in this case 69 percent, have no retirement saving. From ages 30 to 49, however, 33 percent have no savings, and for ages 50 to 64, 26 percent still have no savings. The findings are most disturbing for adults aged 65 and older, where 14 percent have no retirement savings at all.

The survey measures how Americans feel about their personal finances in comparison from one year ago. Below are some of the significant findings highlighted in the report:

· 31 percent of parents said they are less comfortable with debt compared to 21 percent of nonparents who are comfortable

· 32 percent say they feel less comfortable with their savings compared to 16 percent who assert that they are comfortable

· College graduates are more than twice as likely to say that they are comfortable with their savings than those who never attended college

· Individuals between the ages of 18 to 29 years old are twice as likely to feel secure than seniors 65 years and older

· Part-time workers are twice as likely compared to full-time workers to have no savings plan

· Individuals living in suburban and rural areas feel twice as less likely to be financially secure than those living in urban areas

While the report notes that the younger generation may feel more secure than those nearing retirement, it is also true that the youth have been told they have no worries along this line. As part of the protracted social counterrevolution, bound up with the cult of competition, youth have been led to believe that any meager full-time job represents financial success, and hence financial security. Although the survey notes that college graduates may feel more secure than those who never attended college, it never addresses the issue of financial or job security, as companies slash wages and hire more part-time workers.

The survey, involving 1,003 participants, exposes the fictitious character of the economic “recovery” that is being hailed by bourgeois media and the Obama administration. The reality is that the economic recovery has only been a recovery for the financial and corporate elite.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, told USA Today “These numbers are very troubling because the burden for retirement savings is increasingly on us as individuals with each passing day.”

“‘Well, I’ll just work forever,’ is not a viable retirement savings strategy, because you don’t control your own destiny on that. When we look at long-term unemployment, it’s concentrated on adults over age 50,” states McBride.

These findings are indeed very revealing. The survey essentially reports that 65 is no longer seen as the threshold age for retirement, but the new norm is work till you die or until you are physically unable to do so.

While the solution proposed by McBride is to “Save more and save it now,” what exactly is there to save? Several reports within the past year have confirmed the daunting reality of Bankrate’s report that workers are unable to save anything for retirement, as there is nothing they can save.

A report released earlier this year from the Federal Reserve, the US central bank, entitled Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2013, has revealed that a typical American household cannot raise $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions.

According to the report, nearly two-thirds of those under 45 are unable to set aside funds to cover their expenses for a three-month period. Seventy percent of the respondents in the survey have stated that they were no better off than they were in 2008, when the financial crisis first began.

When the survey examined the population that attended college, one quarter of the respondents held student loan debt averaging $27,840, with 56 percent of the respondents stating that they “believe that the costs of the education outweighed any financial benefits they received from the education.”

Of the two-thirds of households that have any form of savings in 2008, a quarter reported that they used of “some” or “nearly all” of their saving “to pay for bills and expenses.”

Other surveys have confirmed the abysmal conditions facing vast numbers of working people. A nonprofit institute, Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), and Greenwald & Associates found in a survey of 1,000 individuals that 36 percent of the respondents have less than $1,000 in savings and investments that could possibly be used for retirement, and that 60 percent of workers have less than $25,000.

In a separate survey conducted by EBRI, only 18 percent of workers feel that they are confident that they will have enough money to live a comfortable life during retirement, forcing thousands to work longer and longer.

Despite the drumbeat of propaganda that seek to convince the unemployed or the indebted that their problems are simply their fault, the facts show otherwise. Jack VanDerhei, EBRI’s research director, said that the two primary factors in the creation of such conditions were the cost of living and day-to-day expenses. That such expenses are unable to allow individuals to keep a meager $1,000 in savings is an indictment of the capitalist system.

The participants in these surveys and findings are part of a broader social layer that is unable to meet even its most basic needs, much less to be able to prepare for the future or retirement.

Report after report all point to the same conclusion: the precarious state of the majority of US households, who risk poverty or bankruptcy in the event of an unforeseen accident or loss of job. What is happening in the US is the deliberate polices of the Obama administration, which has shoveled trillions of dollars to the financial sector with no strings attached or to hold anyone responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, while encouraging companies to slash wages and benefits.

 

New report details depth of hunger crisis in the United States

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By Shannon Jones
19 August 2014

A new study by the non-profit agency Feeding America reveals the extent and depth of the hunger crisis in the United States.

According to the report, “Hunger in America 2014,” about one in seven in the US, 46 million people, rely on food banks in order to feed themselves and their families. The number includes 12 million children and 7 million senior citizens. The findings are based on responses from a survey of 60,000 recipients of food aid from the 200 food banks that are affiliated with Feeding America.

The survey was conducted between April and August 2013 and thus does not reflect the impact of more recent cuts carried out by the Obama administration to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. In February Obama signed legislation slashing $8.7 billion over ten years from the federal food stamp program. It followed cuts in November that slashed food assistance by $319 per year for a typical family of three.

Last year the US government reported that a record number of Americans, more than 47 million, were relying on food stamp benefits. According to Feeding America only 55 percent of those receiving aid through its affiliated food banks are also enrolled in the SNAP program.

The persistence of high levels of food insecurity, more than five years after the economic crash of 2008-2009, demonstrates that talk of an economic recovery is a fraud. In fact hardship is growing among wide layers of the population, including those who are working and attending school.

The numbers presented by the survey suggest that the problem of hunger in America is broader than suggested by the numbers for food stamp enrollment alone, and could embrace as much as 20 percent of the US population.

The Feeding America survey revealed a number of startling facts. According to the report 69 percent of respondents said they have to choose between food and paying utility bills, and 66 percent said they have to choose between food and medical care. Another 31 percent said they had to choose between food and education.

Among those who are having difficulty getting enough food to eat, one of the most common coping strategies is to purchase less healthy, cheaper foods in order to stretch dollars. Such foods, which often contain high levels of sugar and sodium, can contribute to a multitude of health problems including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The survey noted the high incidence of individuals with health problems among those seeking food assistance. Nearly 47 percent of those responding said they had fair or poor health. It found that 58 percent of households had a member with high blood pressure and 38 percent had a member with diabetes. Some 29 percent of households reported that no member had access to health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid.

According to the survey 39 percent of respondent households include at least one child, a higher rate than the general population (32 percent). Six percent reported both children and seniors living in the same household.

Significantly, the study found that 54 percent of households had a least one member who was employed in the past year. The rate is even higher for households with children, 71 percent. In addition, many households reported members with education beyond high school, including some with two- and four-year college degrees. About 21 percent reported attending or graduating from college.

Some 43 percent of Feeding American clients are white. Twenty-six percent are African American and 20 percent Latino. Nearly 15 percent of client households are multi-racial.

Requests for food assistance are up even for those serving in the US military, the employer of last resort for many working-class youth. The study found that almost 620,000 households enrolled in Feeding America programs had at least one family member currently in the US military. That figure amounts to 25 percent of all US military households.

Another striking statistic contained in the report relates to the large numbers of college students seeking food assistance. According to report, 10 percent of adult aid recipients are students, including two million full-time and one million part-time students. About two million Feeding America clients are students attending school full-time.

Burdened with crushing loads of student debt and unable to find decent paying work, many college students are turning to food pantries. In fact more and more colleges and universities have opened food pantries in response to growing problem of food insecurity among students.

Hunger inhibits learning in many ways, by reducing concentration and inhibiting the ability to retain material. Some students even have to forego purchasing course textbooks in order to pay for food.

According to researchers at Oregon State University, 59 percent of the students at Western Oregon University, a liberal arts college located in Monmouth, Oregon, are food insecure. A 2011 survey at the City University of New York found that 39.2 percent of the system’s 250,000 undergraduates had experienced food insecurity at some time in the past year.

Between 2007 and 2011 the number of food stamp recipients holding doctoral degrees tripled, according to a report in the 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education. At Michigan State University the on-campus food pantry reports that more than 50 percent of its clients are graduate students.