America’s Health Illiteracy: How Easy It Is to Buy into Health Myths

PERSONAL HEALTH
Survey shows some of the medical facts that are far from true.

Photo Credit: Spot Us / Flickr

Ask any American for some medical advice and you’re sure to get an earful. Everybody, it seems, has a surefire cure for the common cold, hangover or sore throat. But how much can you trust that advice? Maybe not so much. In a world where, according to one survey by the Pew Health Group, almost half of the respondents thought antibiotics were effective against the common cold or flu (the answer to that is a big fat no, in case you were wondering), one should be exceedingly careful about the source of one’s medical information.

The truth is that Americans are not so smart about medicine, which makes us exceedingly vulnerable to hucksters peddling remedies. We don’t know much about heart disease despite the fact that it kills 1 out of 4 of us. We don’t even know the appropriate place to go for medical help. Only 18% of Americans are proficient in health literacy. An equal number of us have below basic health literacy and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Women fare a bit better than men, with 22% being proficient, while youth aged 18 to 24 fare the worst, with a third of them below basic health literacy.

Not every medical belief amounts to a life-or-death scenario (although our ignorance does add to the nation’s rising medical costs), but it is interesting to take a snapshot of some medical myths and dissect them to see who believes them, and why. That is exactly what the online insurance quote company, Insurancequotes.com, did, surveying over 2,000 people to see where they stand on a few widespread medical myths.

Below are seven of the most commonly believed medical myths.

1. Probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

In the survey, heading the list, over 83% of respondents thought that probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

While probiotics can help alleviate certain conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, childhood diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, most healthy people won’t experience any digestive benefits from consuming them.

People of all ethnicities buy into the probiotic hype. In the survey, Caucasians and Asian Americans tied at 84%, and African Americans and Hispanics tied at 80%.

2. Creativity is controlled on the right half of the brain, logic on the left.

Almost 68% of respondents bought into this myth, but it isn’t true. It originated in the 1960s, when epileptic patients had surgical procedures on their brains that effectively walled off one side of the brain from the other. Researchers then found which sides of the brain were involved with language, math, drawing, and other functions. Pop gurus extrapolated from this information that one side of the brain was creative and one logical.

Studies since then debunk that notion. In fact, one recent study from the University of Utah of over 1,000 brains found no evidence that people are left-brained or right-brained.

3. Carrots give you better eyesight.

Nope, although over 68% believe otherwise.

Unless you have a severe shortage of vitamin A, eating a lot of carrots might turn you a bit orange (maybe our president likes carrots), but it won’t do anything for your eyesight.

4. When women live together, their periods become synchronized.

The myth that women in close proximity to one another for long periods of time begin experiencing their periods at the same time had its origin in an early 1970s study. Although subsequent studies seemed to bear this out, more recent studies say it is not true.

Still, more than 62% buy into the myth. Here’s a surprise: more men (44.6%) than women (29.8%) knew this myth was false.

5. Sitting close to the television set will cause poor eyesight.

Almost 61% of the respondents believed this to be true, but it is not. Although it could cause eyestrain, sitting close to the TV won’t cause any permanent damage to your eyes.

6. Myth: Women who are menstruating can’t get pregnant.

Women knew this one was false by a large margin, 72.7% to 57.6% for wishful thinking men.

Interestingly, Asian Americans believed this myth more than any other racial group, at 38%, followed closely by African Americans at 36% and Caucasians at 35%. Hispanics aren’t buying it, though, with only 30% believing this.

7. Myth: Vaccines are not effective at helping the body ward off disease.

Belief in the efficacy of vaccines (they are overwhelmingly safe and effective) has taken a hit in the past few years thanks to the misguided anti-vaxxer movement, which claims vaccines can cause autism (they don’t).

A sizable chunk of people (though, thankfully, still a minority) believe that vaccines are not effective, with 33% of African Americans believing this dangerous myth, followed by 22% of Hispanics, 20% of Asian Americans, and 13% of Caucasians.

Sources of health information

Based on the survey, it is clear where medical information is coming from. By far, the source of health information (or misinformation) is the internet. Seventy-one percent of Asian Americans report they get their health information online, followed by 59% for Caucasians, and 58% for both African Americans and Hispanics.

Given the fact that almost anyone can create a “health” website, including those with a business or political agenda, this may be a cause for concern.

Other health info sources include family and friends, and doctors. Asian Americans are least likely to get their information from a physician (18%), while Hispanics are most likely (35%). African Americans are most likely to follow the medical advice of family or friends (14%), while Hispanics are least likely (7%).

Health knowledge by profession and education level

Some professions, it would seem, are more easily taken in by myths than others. People in the marketing and advertising industry are the least likely to correctly identify medical myths, with only 52% accurately calling them out. They were tied with broadcasting and journalism, which should give us pause (FAKE NEWS!).

The military professions were most able to identify myths, at 62%. Somewhat shockingly, they beat out the scientific professions, who came in at 59%, barely ahead of homemakers at 58%, who disconcertingly in turn beat out the medical profession at 57% (apparently working in the field does not assure protection from incorrect medical information).

People with professional degrees led the pack in being able to accurately identify medical myths, at 61%. Overall, college degrees beat out those with only a high school degree or GED equivalent (who came in at 54%). The surprise here was that PhDs just barely beat out the high school crowd at 55%.

See the entire survey results.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I didn’t expect the books I taught for 30 years to define how I coped

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 
(Credit: Shutterstock/Penguin/Salon)

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I was determined to not let the disease define me. With the exception of one fundraiser, I declined offers to give talks, blog, or even write a narrative essay about my struggles with the debilitating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS). While I held to my promise, I hadn’t expected that the classic literature I’d been teaching for 30 years would define how I coped with my illness.

I was diagnosed with ALS in August 2015 — on the Friday before school was to resume. I slipped into my classroom that weekend and filled a box with mementos, leaving behind my personal copies of literary masterpieces and cabinets filled with curricula — at least I thought I was abandoning a lifetime of literature.

At first, my only thoughts of school were met with relief. Relief that I had left my job before greeting 150-plus new students, taking them on a journey of uncertainty and loss; at 17, they had plenty else to worry about.

As the months passed, however, my physical strength waned, and unlike the industrious doer I’d been my whole life, I became dependent upon others. After losing the use of my hands, it became difficult to find meaningful ways to spend my time. I despaired having no control over my life. I strove to focus on the moments of the day when I was warmed by a kind word or an image of natural beauty. When I did pause to appreciate these instances, I’d hear the words “This one is warmed . . .”

At first I was at a loss for the source of the line. I was certain it was from a Toni Morrison novel, but when I consulted Google, I was reminded that the phrase harkened from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Near the conclusion of her lecture, she tells a brief story about a wagon filled with slaves journeying to a plantation where their lives will end. The driver stops at an inn for a meal, leaving the slaves shivering in the back of the wagon. Two children tend to the slaves, giving them food and sips of warm cider. Morrison sums up this respite from pain and impending hopelessness: “The next stop would be their last, but this one was warmed.” I too was nearly at my last stop — death — but pausing to appreciate the moments that were warmed by small gestures and glimpses of natural beauty dulled the pangs of despair, and I had Morrison to thank for expressing the ineffable emotions that I may have missed had it not been for her words echoing in my mind.

With my mobility limited and my voice diminished, I would often lie in bed and find myself bothered by ridiculous things: a shriveled leaf on a house plant or a crooked lampshade. When someone entered the room to visit, I would seek a way to ask them to correct the irritant. But if they plucked the wrong leaf or didn’t understand me at all, I would usually realize the foolishness of wasting energy on getting my way and somewhere from the recesses of my memory be reminded, “Do not seek to be master of all . . . ”

At first I assumed those words harkened from the New Testament or possibly the humanist Shakespeare, but when Google insisted that Sophocles quilled those lines, I found myself sharing the tragic stage with Oedipus as his brother-in-law Creon admonishes him for failing to learn that fate cannot be circumvented. Oedipus and I both had to learn acceptance. Although acceptance sounds like a passive stance, it would become the hardest work of my life.

Acquiescing to my fate and allowing others to do what they deemed best for my unfamiliar and uncooperative body took patience. But when my confinement to a wheelchair required dismantling my office into a bedroom, replacing my desk with a ramp and my bookcase with a portable commode, I balked. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who awakened to find himself a giant cockroach, I felt alien in appearance and among unfamiliar surroundings. In an attempt to make me more comfortable, my family, like Gregor’s, had replaced my furniture — my identity — with utility. I slept in a motorized bed with bars and awoke alone, with a green button to summon my husband to untangle my limp legs from the blankets. Despite the love and care I was receiving, nothing except the occasional dream let me pretend that I was myself.

Eventually all my inner turmoil will have to give way to complete surrender. I’m not quite there yet. But I do hear one of Hamlet’s less-famous lines spoken after most of the chaos in the play subsidies: “Let be.” Resonating in those two words is Hamlet’s acceptance: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I pray that I may soon die accepting this lesson that’s taken a lifetime to learn.

Lynette Williamson taught high school English and coached debate for 30 years in Sonoma County, California, where she and her husband Don raised two children who had better keep their promise to their mother and produce grandchildren one day. 

The new American economy is literally putting us in mortal danger

Right-to-work laws and the gig economy are hurting Americans

The new American economy is literally putting us in mortal danger

(Credit: AP/Duane Burleson/Getty/Mike Coppola)

President Donald Trump has campaigned on the sentiment of “bringing back jobs” to America. He mentioned factories specifically in his inauguration speech, stating, “the jobs left and the factories closed . . . that all changes starting right here, right now.”

But the price of such jobs, particularly at auto parts plants in the south “epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom,” Bloomberg writes:

Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.

Common injuries at these factories include crushed and severed limbs, burning flesh and bodily contact with acid. So even if Trump does bring jobs back to this country, without a serious adjustment of the conditions that workers are expected to produce in or a priority for safety and humanity over end-of-day numbers and profits, auto industry workers will continue to be in danger.

But what about going the non-employment route and entering instead into the “gig economy?” Surely the promise of flexibility will make it easier for the American workforce? That idea isn’t working out too well either.

What Lyft intended to be a charming story about an employee’s commitment to the company — the pre-labor tale of nine-month pregnant Mary, who picked up a rider en route to the hospital to deliver her baby — looked more like a scene out of a horror film.

“Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication . . . Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor,” the New Yorker wrote.

“At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.”

For low-income workers across this country desperate work, the choices are whether deal with horrific conditions in nonunion shops in the south or the horrors of freelance labor everywhere else.

The famous union slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” seems quite prescient here.

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/03/23/the-new-american-economy-is-literally-putting-us-in-mortal-danger/?source=newsletter

Rising death rate for middle-aged US workers driven by “deaths of despair”

By Niles Niemuth
24 March 2017

The latest research on rising mortality rates by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, shines new light on the depth of the social crisis which has devastated the American working class since the year 2000.

Building off their initial 2015 study which documented a sharp rise in the mortality rate for white, middle-aged working-class Americans, Case and Deaton conclude that the rising death rate is being driven by what they define as “deaths of despair,” those due to drug overdoses, complications from alcohol and suicide. The mortality rate for these causes grew by half a percent annually between 1999 and 2013.

During the course of the 20th century, the annual mortality rate for all middle-aged whites fell from 1,400 per 100,000 to 400 per 100,000. The US experienced a 100-year period of almost uninterrupted improvements in death rates and life expectancy. In this context Case and Deaton identify the recent rise in middle-aged mortality as “extraordinary and unanticipated.”

Midlife deaths of despair across countries

The epidemic of deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide was initially seen in the American Southwest in the year 2000 but soon spread to the Appalachian region and Florida and is now nationwide, affecting rural and urban areas alike.

While every region of the US has seen an increase in the rate of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged whites over the last 15 years, the hardest-hit states are in the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi). Large urban and suburban areas have been the least affected, rural areas the most.

The mortality rate for working-class whites was also pushed up by a slowing and then stagnation of the decline in deaths from heart disease for white Americans between 2009 and 2015. On top of this the decline in mortality from lung cancer, caused by smoking and occupational hazards, slowed for white men 45-54 between 2000 and 2014, while mortality actually increased for white women 45-49 between 2000 and 2010.

Case and Deaton found that midlife mortality for middle-aged, working-class, white Americans surpassed the midlife mortality for all African Americans for the first time in 2008, and by 2015 mortality for working-class whites was 30 percent higher than for blacks. More significantly, their data shows that the gap in mortality between whites and blacks in the working class has all but disappeared. This is the outcome of a general decline in mortality for blacks and a rapid increase for whites over the last decade-and-a-half, though in recent years the mortality rate for working-class blacks has begun rising along with that of whites.

Case and Deaton’s report is supported by the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data concerning suicides and overdoses.

The CDC found that after declining between 1986 and 1999 the US suicide rate rose gradually between 2000 and 2015, with the rate growing most rapidly in smaller cities and rural areas after the 2007-2008 economic collapse. Whites and Native Americans had the highest suicide rates, with both groups seeing noticeable increases. All told there were 600,000 suicides in the US between 1999 and 2015—the equivalent of the loss of a major city, more than the total estimated deaths in the Syrian civil war.

Another recent CDC report found that overdoses from all drugs has more than doubled since 1999, with middle-aged Americans having the highest rate of overdoses. The overdose rate for whites has more than tripled since 1999 and is now more than double the rate for blacks and Hispanics combined. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses alone in 2015, more than four times the number of deaths recorded in 2010.

Midlife mortality by all causes in the US

The data collected and analyzed by Case and Deaton reflects a deeply sick society, the outcome of a social counterrevolution which has accelerated since the 2008 crash.

Their research makes clear that the American working class, regardless of race, is being made to pay the price for the failure of capitalism, exposing the lie repeated by pseudo-left groups and the practitioners of identity politics about the “privileged white working class.”

In the period reviewed by Case and Deaton, the Democratic Party completed its repudiation of a political program which in any way addressed the needs or interests of the working class, in favor of middle-class identity politics. This found its culmination in the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, who funneled trillions of dollars into Wall Street and expanded the wars in the Middle East. In the last year of his presidency, which had seen such catastrophes as the lead poisoning of Flint and the BP oil spill, and seven years of wage stagnation, Obama asserted that things were “pretty darn great” in America.

The immiseration of the American working class has also been made possible by betrayals of the trade unions which over the last four decades have collaborated with and integrated themselves ever more closely with the corporations in order to shutter factories, eliminate jobs and enforce wage and benefit cuts.

The period in which the American working class has been subjected to unrelenting attacks has seen the growth of historically unprecedented levels of social inequality. The resources of society and the wealth created by the working class have been plundered and funneled into the hands of an ever wealthier financial aristocracy. This process will only accelerate under Trump.

While it is claimed there is “no money” to pay for decent wages or social services in the US, the country claims eight of the world’s 10 wealthiest billionaires and spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military. The health care overhaul and budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration are guaranteed to accelerate the social counterrevolution.

In this regard it is striking to note the overlap between the areas of the country particularly devastated by “deaths of despair” in the period examined by Case and Deaton and those with a large vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The anti-working class policies pursued in the Obama years paved the way for Trump.

The residents of these areas, either rural or devastated by years of factory closures, voted for Trump not out of racial animus—an assertion often made by the mainstream media and pseudo-left—but as a cry of desperation, incipient anger and complete disgust with the political establishment.

These people have been at the frontlines of the onslaught against the working class, facilitated by Democrats and Republicans alike. As far as Trump identified himself as an outsider, opposed to the political establishment which facilitated the plunder of the working class, he drew significant support. These same working people are quickly being disabused of any illusions they may have held in the billionaire businessman.

The fundamental question raised by Case and Deaton’s research is the struggle of the working class against the capitalist system and for socialism. Social inequality has never been higher and the rich have never been richer. The working class is the only force which can reverse this counterrevolution. Workers must turn to socialism and fight to build a mass independent movement which will fight for political power and take control of the wealth plundered from them, putting it to use for the common good.

 

WSWS

The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America

Posted on Mar 22, 2017

By Henry A. Giroux / Truthout

For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs. One consequence has been the emergence of a culture of cruelty in which the financial elite produce inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt, relegating them to zones of social abandonment and forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering. Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times—a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.

While there is much talk about the United States tipping over into authoritarianism under the Trump administration, there are few analyses that examine how a culture of cruelty has accompanied this political transition, and the role that culture plays in legitimating a massive degree of powerlessness and human suffering. The culture of cruelty has a long tradition in this country, mostly inhabiting a ghostly presence that is often denied or downplayed in historical accounts. What is new since the 1980s—and especially evident under Donald Trump’s presidency—is that the culture of cruelty has taken on a sharper edge as it has moved to the center of political power, adopting an unapologetic embrace of nativism, xenophobia and white nationalist ideology, as well as an in-your-face form of racist demagoguery. Evidence of such cruelty has long been visible in earlier calls by Republicans to force poor children who get free school lunches to work for their meals. Such policies are particularly cruel at a time when nearly “half of all children live near close to the poverty line.” Other instances include moving people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and the cutting of children’s food stamp benefits for 16 million children in 2014.  Another recent example of this culture of cruelty was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeting his support for Geert Wilders, a notorious white supremacist and Islamophobic Dutch politician.

Focusing on a culture of cruelty as one register of authoritarianism allows us to more deeply understand how bodies and minds are violated and human lives destroyed. It helps us to acknowledge that violence is not an abstraction, but is visceral and, as Brad Evans observes, “should never be studied in an objective and unimpassioned way. It points to a politics of the visceral that cannot be divorced from our ethical and political concerns.” For instance, it highlights how Trump’s proposed budget cuts would reduce funding for programs that provide education, legal assistance and training for thousands of workers in high-hazard industries. As Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator [at the National Employment Law Project] points out, these cuts would result in “more illness, injury and death on the job.”

Rather than provide a display of moral outrage, interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. Politically, it highlights how structures of domination bear down on individual bodies, needs, emotions and self-esteem, and how such constraints function to keep people in a state of existential crisis, if not outright despair. Ethically the concept makes visible how unjust a society has become. It helps us think through how life and death converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine the act of living—if not simply surviving—in a society that has lost its moral bearing and sense of social responsibility. Within the last 40 years, a harsh market fundamentalism has deregulated financial capital, imposed misery and humiliation on the poor through welfare cuts, and ushered in a new style of authoritarianism that preys upon and punishes the most vulnerable Americans.

The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. The disintegration of democratic commitments offers a perverse index of a country governed by the rich, big corporations and rapacious banks through a consolidating regime of punishment. It also reinforces the workings of a corporate-driven culture whose airwaves are filled with hate, endless spectacles of violence and an ongoing media assault on young people, the poor, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. In the current climate, violence seeps into everyday life while engulfing a carceral system that embraces the death penalty and produces conditions of incarceration that house many prisoners in solitary confinement—a practice medical professionals consider one of the worse forms of torture.

In addition, Americans live in a distinctive historical moment in which the most vital safety nets, social provisions, welfare policies and health care reforms are being undermined or are under threat of elimination by right-wing ideologues in the Trump administration. For instance, Trump’s 2017 budgetary proposals, many of which were drafted by the hyperconservative Heritage Foundation, will create a degree of imposed hardship and misery that defies any sense of human decency and moral responsibility.

Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” Reich writes:

His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor—imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even “meals on wheels.” These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including 1 in 5 children. Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 7 biggest military budgets put together. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026. Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history.

This is a demolition budget that would inflict unprecedented cruelty, misery and hardship on millions of citizens and residents. Trump’s populist rhetoric collapses under the weight of his efforts to make life even worse for the rural poor, who would have $2.6 billion cut from infrastructure investments largely used for water and sewage improvements as well as federal funds used to provide assistance so they can heat their homes. Roughly $6 billion would be cut from a housing budget that benefits 4.5 million low-income households. Other programs on the cutting block include funds to support Habitat for Humanity, the homeless, energy assistance to the poor, legal aid and a number of antipoverty programs. Trump’s mode of governance is no longer modeled on “The Apprentice.” It now takes its cues from “The Walking Dead.”

If Congress embraces Trump’s proposal, poor students would be budgeted out of access to higher education as a result of a $3.9 billion cut from the federal Pell grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low-income students entering college. Federal funds for public schools would be redistributed to privately run charter schools, while vouchers would be available for religious schools. Medical research would suffer and people would die because of the proposed $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health.

Trump has also called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, making clear that his contempt for education, science and the arts is part of an aggressive project to eliminate those institutions and public spheres that extend the capacity of people to be imaginative, think critically and be well-informed.

The $54 billion that Trump seeks to remove from the budgets of 19 agencies designed to help the poor, students, public education, academic research and the arts would instead be used to increase the military budget and build a wall along the Mexican border. The culture of cruelty is on full display here as millions would suffer for the lack of loans, federal aid and basic resources. The winners would be the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the private prison industry and the institutions and personnel needed to expand the police state. What Trump has provided in this budget proposal is a blueprint for eliminating the remnants of the welfare state while transforming American society into a “war-obsessed, survival-of-the fittest dystopia.”

The United States is now on a war footing and has launched a war against undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of color, young people, the elderly, public education, science, democracy and the planet itself, to say nothing of the provocations unfolding on the world stage.  The moral obscenity and reactionary politics that inform Trump’s budget were summed up by Bernie Sanders: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when 43 million Americans are living in poverty and half of older Americans have no retirement savings, we should not slash programs that senior citizens, children and working people rely on in order to provide a massive increase in spending to the military industrial complex. Trump’s priorities are exactly the opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”

As more and more people find themselves living in a society in which the quality of life is measured through market-based metrics, such as cost-benefit analyses, it becomes difficult for the public to acknowledge or even understand the cost in human misery and everyday hardship that an increasing number of people have to endure.

A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. This society has robbed them of a decent life, dignity and hope. I want to pose the crucial question of what a culture of cruelty looks like under a neofascist regime, and in doing so, highlight what I believe are some of its most crucial elements, all of which must be recognized if they are to be open to both criticism and resistance.

First, language is emptied of any sense of ethics and responsibility and begins to operate in the service of violence. This becomes evident as social provisions are cut for programs that help poor people, elderly people, impoverished children and people living with disabilities. This is also evident in the Trump administration’s call to scale back Medicaid and affordable, quality health insurance for millions of Americans.

Second, a survival-of-the-fittest discourse provides a breeding ground for the production of hypermasculine behaviors and hypercompetitiveness, both of which function to create a predatory culture that replaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the other. Under such circumstances, unbridled individualism and competition work to weaken democracy.

Third, references to truth and real consequences are dismissed, and facts give way to “alternative realities” where the distinction between informed assertions and falsehoods disappears. This politics of fabrication is on full display as the Trump administration narrates itself and its relationship to others and the larger world through a fog of misrepresentations and willful ignorance. Even worse, the act of state-sanctioned lying is coupled with the assertion that any critical media outlets and journalists who attempt to hold power accountable are producing “fake news.” Official lying is part of the administration’s infrastructure: The more authority figures lie the less they have to be taken seriously.

Fourth, in a culture of cruelty, the discourse of disposability extends to an increasing number of groups that are considered superfluous, redundant, excess or dangerous. In this discourse, some lives are valued and others are not. In the current moment, undocumented immigrants, Muslim refugees and Black people are targeted as potential criminals, terrorists or racial “others” who threaten the notion of a white Christian nation. Underlying the discourse of disposability is the reemerging prominence of overt white supremacy, as evidenced by an administration that has appointed white nationalists to the highest levers of power in the government and has issued a racist appeal to “law and order.” The ongoing rise of hate crimes should be no surprise in a society that has been unabashedly subjected by Trump and his cohorts to the language of hate, anti-Semitism, sexism and racism. Cultures of cruelty slip easily into both the discourse of racial cleansing and the politics of disposability.

Fifth, ignorance becomes glamorized, enforced through the use of the language of emotion, humiliation and eventually through the machinery of government deception. For example, Donald Trump once stated that he loved “uneducated people.” This did not indicate, of course, a commitment to serve people without a college education—a group that will be particularly disadvantaged under his administration. Instead, it signaled a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and a fear of critical thought itself, as well as the institutions that promote it. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.

Sixth, any form of dependency in the interest of justice and care for the “other” is viewed as a form of weakness, and becomes the object of scorn and disdain. In a culture of cruelty, it is crucial to replace shared values and bonds of trust with the bonds of fear. For the caste of warriors that make up the Trump administration, politics embraces what might be called neoliberalism on steroids, one in which the bonds of solidarity rooted in compassion and underlying the welfare state are assumed to weaken national character by draining resources away from national security and placing too large a tax burden on the rich. In this logic, solidarity equates with dependency, a weak moral character, and is dismissed as anaemic, unreliable and a poor substitute for living in a society that celebrates untrammeled competition, individual responsibility and an all-embracing individualism.

Seventh, cruelty thrives on the language of borders and walls. It replaces the discourse of bridges, generosity and compassion with a politics of divisiveness, alienation, inadequacy and fear. Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border, his endless disparaging of individuals and groups on the basis of their gender, race, religion and ethnicity, and his view of a world composed of the deadly binary of “friends” and “enemies” echo the culture of a past that lost its ethical and political moorings and ended up combining the metrics of efficiency with the building of concentration camps.

Eighth, all cultures of cruelty view violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and mediating relationships; hence, the criminalization of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, surviving domestic violence, reproductive choice and more.  The centrality of oppressive violence in the United States is not new, of course; it is entrenched in the country’s origins. Under Trump this violence has been embraced, openly and without apology, as an organizing principle of society. This acceleration of the reality and spectacle of violence under the Trump administration is evident, in part, in his call for increasing an already-inflated military budget by $54 billion. It is also evident in his efforts to create multiple zones of social abandonment and social death for the most vulnerable in society.

Ninth, cultures of cruelty despise democracy and work incessantly to make the word disappear from officially mandated state language. One example of this took place when Trump opted not to utter the word democracy in either his inaugural address or in his first speech to Congress. Trump’s hatred of democracy and the formative cultures that sustain it was on full display when he and his top aides referred to the critical media as the enemy of the American people and as an “opposition party.” A free press is fundamental to a society that takes seriously the idea that no democracy can exist without informed citizens. Trump has turned this rule on its head, displaying a disdain not only for a press willing to pursue the truth and hold politicians and corporations accountable, but also for those public spheres and institutions that make such a press possible. Under these circumstances, it is important to remember Hannah Arendt’s warning: “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed … and a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge.”

Tenth, all fascist regimes disparage, dismantle and destroy institutions, such as public and higher education and other public spheres where people can learn how to think critically and act responsibly. Evidence of an act of war against public spheres that are critical, self-reflective and concerned with the social good is visible in the appointment of billionaires, generals and ideological fundamentalists to cabinet positions running public agencies that many of them have vowed to destroy. What does it mean when an individual, such as Betsy DeVos, is picked to head the Department of Education even though she has worked endlessly in the past to destroy public education? How else to explain Trump appointing Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, even though he does not believe that climate change is affected by human-produced carbon dioxide emissions and has spent most of his career actively opposing the authority of the EPA? At stake here is more than a culture of incompetency. This is a willful assault on public goods and the common good.

Eleventh, cultures of cruelty thrive when shared fears replace shared responsibilities. Under such conditions, an ever-expanding number of people are reduced to the status of a potential “terrorist” or “criminal,” watched constantly, and humiliated under the watchful eye of a surveillance state that inhabits practically every public and private space.

Twelfth, cultures of cruelty dispose of all vestiges of the welfare state, forcing millions to fend for themselves. Loneliness, powerlessness and uncertainty—fueled by the collapse of the public into the private—create the conditions for viewing those who receive much needed social provisions as cheaters, moochers or much worse. Under the Republican Party extremists in power, the welfare state is the enemy of the free market and is viewed as a drain on the coffers of the rich. There are no public rights in this discourse, only entitlements for the privileged, and rhetoric that promotes the moral superiority and unimpeachable character of the wealthy. The viciousness of these attacks is driven by the absolute idolatry of power of wealth, strength and unaccountable military might.

Thirteenth, massive inequalities in power, wealth and income mean time will become a burden for most Americans, who will be struggling merely to make ends meet and survive. Cruelty thrives in a society in which there seem to be only individual problems, as opposed to socially-produced problems, and it is hard to do the work of uniting against socially-produced problems under oppressive time constraints. Under such circumstances, solidarity is difficult to practice, which makes it easier for the ruling elite to use their power to engage in the relentless process of asset-stripping and the stripping of human dignity. Authoritarian regimes feed off the loyalty of those who benefit from the concentration of wealth, power and income as well as those who live in stultifying ignorance of their own oppression. Under global capitalism, the ultrarich are celebrated as the new heroes of late modernity, while their wealth and power are showcased as a measure of their innate skills, knowledge and superiority. Such spectacles function to infantilize both the general public and politics itself.

Fourteenth, under the Trump administration, the exercise of cruelty is emboldened through the stultifying vocabulary of ultranationalism, militarism and American exceptionalism that will be used to fuel further wars abroad and at home. Militarism and exceptionalism constitute the petri dish for a kind of punishment creep, in which “law and order” becomes code for the continued rise of the punishing state and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. It also serves to legitimate a war culture that surrounds the world with military bases and promotes “democracy” through a war machine. It turns already-oppressive local police departments into SWAT teams and impoverished cities into war zones. In such a culture of cruelty, language is emptied of any meaning, freedom evaporates, human misery proliferates, and the distinction between the truth and lies disappears and the governance collapses into a sordid species of lawlessness, emboldening random acts of vigilantism and violence.

Fifteenth, mainstream media outlets are now a subsidiary of corporate control. Almost all of the dominant cultural apparatuses extending from print, audio and screen cultures are controlled by a handful of corporations. The concentration of the mainstream media in few hands constitutes a disimagination machine that wages a pedagogical war on almost any critical notion of politics that seeks to produce the conditions needed to enable more people to think and act critically. The overriding purpose of the corporate-controlled media is to drive audiences to advertisers, increase ratings and profits, legitimate the toxic spectacles and values of casino capitalism, and reproduce a toxic pedagogical fog that depoliticizes and infantilizes. Lost here are those public spaces in which the civic and radical imagination enables individuals to identify the larger historical, social, political and economic forces that bear down on their lives. The rules of commerce now dictate the meaning of what it means to be educated. Yet, spaces that promote a social imaginary and civic literacy are fundamental to a democracy if the young and old alike are to develop the knowledge, skills and values central to democratic forms of education, engagement and agency.

Underlying this form of neoliberal authoritarianism and its attendant culture of cruelty is a powerfully oppressive ideology that insists that the only unit of agency that matters is the isolated individual. Hence, mutual trust and shared visions of equality, freedom and justice give way to fears and self-blame reinforced by the neoliberal notion that individuals are solely responsible for their political, economic and social misfortunes. Consequently, a hardening of the culture is buttressed by the force of state-sanctioned cultural apparatuses that enshrine privatization in the discourse of self-reliance, unchecked self-interest, untrammeled individualism and deep distrust of anything remotely called the common good. Once again, freedom of choice becomes code for defining responsibility solely as an individual task, reinforced by a shameful appeal to character.

Many liberal critics and progressives argue that choice absent constraints feeds the rise of Ayn Rand’s ideology of rabid individualism and unchecked greed. But they are only partly right. What they miss in this neofascist moment is that the systemic cruelty and moral irresponsibility at the heart of neoliberalism make Ayn Rand’s vicious framework look tame. Rand’s world has been surpassed by a ruling class of financial elites that embody not the old-style greed of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, but the inhumane and destructive avarice of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The notion that saving money by reducing the taxes of the rich justifies eliminating health care for 24 million people is just one example of how this culture of cruelty and hardening of the culture will play out.

Under the Trump administration, a growing element of scorn is developing toward the increasing number of human beings caught in the web of oppression, marginalization, misfortune, suffering and deprivation. This scorn is fueled by a right-wing spin machine that endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which all Muslims are defined as “jihadists;” the homeless are cast as “lazy” rather than as victims of oppressive structures, failed institutions and misfortune; Black people are cast as “criminals” and subjected en masse to the destructive criminal punishment system; and the public sphere is portrayed as largely for white people.

The culture of hardness and cruelty is not new to American society, but the current administration aims to deploy it in ways that sap the strength of social relations, moral compassion and collective action, offering in their place a mode of governance that promotes a pageant of suffering and violence. There will, no doubt, be an acceleration of acts of violence under the Trump administration, and the conditions for eliminating this new stage of state violence will mean not only understanding the roots of neofascism in the United States, but also eliminating the economic, political and cultural forces that have produced it. Addressing those forces means more than getting rid of Trump. We must eliminate a more pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated with unbridled capitalism—a system driven almost exclusively by financial interests and beholden to two political parties that are hardwired to produce and reproduce neoliberal violence.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_culture_of_cruelty_in_trumps_america_20170322

A Last Chance for Resistance

Posted on Mar 19, 2017

By Chris Hedges

  President Trump exits Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, following a weekend trip to Florida. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The crawl toward despotism within a failed democracy is always incremental. No regime planning to utterly extinguish civil liberties advertises its intentions in advance. It pays lip service to liberty and justice while obliterating the institutions and laws that make them possible. Its opponents, including those within the establishment, make sporadic attempts to resist, but week by week, month by month, the despot and his reactionary allies methodically consolidate power. Those inside the machinery of government and the courts who assert the rule of law are purged. Critics, including the press, are attacked, ridiculed and silenced. The state is reconfigured until the edifice of tyranny is unassailable.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago” noted that the consolidation of Soviet tyranny “was stretched out over many years because it was of primary importance that it be stealthy and unnoticed.” He called the process “a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now.”

Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” also chronicles the incremental expansion of tyranny, noting that it steadily progresses until intellectuals are not only forced to repeat the regime’s self-praising slogans but to advance its absurdist dogmas. Few ever see the tyranny coming. Those who do and speak out are treated by the authorities, and often the wider society, as alarmists or traitors.

The current administration’s budget proposes to give the war industry, the domestic policing agencies, the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, billionaires and the national security and surveillance agencies more than they could have imagined possible before the election. These forces, as in all fascist states, will be the pillars of the Trump regime. They will tolerate Donald Trump’s idiocy, ineptitude and unbridled narcissism in exchange for increased profits and power. Despots are often buffoons. Appealing to their vanity and ego is an effective form of manipulation. Skilled sycophants can play despots like musical instruments for personal advancement.

Trump, like all despots, has no real ideology. His crusade against Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs, and the billionaire class during the presidential election campaign vanished the moment he took office. He has appointed five former Goldman Sachs employees to high posts in his administration. His budget will bleed the poor, the working class and the middle class and swell the bank accounts of the oligarchs. He is calling for abolishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and the cutting of programs that provide legal service to low-income people and grants to libraries and museums. If Trump’s budget is approved by Congress, there will not even be a pretense of civil society. Trump and his family will profit from his presidency. Corporations will profit from his presidency. Wall Street will profit from his presidency. And the people will be made to pay.

Despots demand absolute loyalty. This is why they place family members in the inner circles. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose vanity rivaled that of Trump, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein filled their governments with their children, siblings, nephews, nieces and in-laws and rounded out their inner courts with racists, opportunists and thugs of the kind that now populate the White House.

“President Trump’s point man on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is a longtime Trump Organization lawyer with no government or diplomatic experience,” reads the opening paragraph of a New York Times article headlined “Prerequisite for Key White House Posts: Loyalty, Not Experience.” “His liaison to African-American leaders is a former reality-TV villain with a penchant for résumé inflation. And his Oval Office gatekeeper is a bullet-headed former New York City cop best known for smacking a protester on the head.”

Despots distrust diplomats. Diplomats, often multilingual and conversant with other cultures and societies, deal in nuances and ambiguities that are beyond the grasp of the despot. Diplomats understand that other nations have legitimate national interests that inevitably clash with the interests of one’s own country. They do not embrace force as the primary language of communication. They are trained to carry out negotiations, even with the enemy, and engage in compromise. Despots, however, live in a binary universe of their own creation. They rapidly dismantle the diplomatic corps when they take power for the same reason they attack intellectuals and artists.

Trump’s proposed cut of nearly 29 percent to the State Department’s budget, potentially eliminating thousands of jobs, is part of the shift away from diplomacy to an exclusive reliance on violence or the threat of violence. The militarization of the diplomatic corps, with the Central Intelligence Agency and military intelligence operatives often taking over embassies, especially in conflict zones, began long before Trump took office. But Trump will deal the coup de grâce to the diplomatic corps. Despots replace diplomats with sycophants with no diplomatic experience, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who promise to impose the despot’s will on the rest of the world.

The dismantling of a diplomatic corps has dangerous consequences. It leaves a country blind and prone to wars and conflicts that could be avoided. Leon Trotsky called Josef Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated the disastrous 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact that left the Soviet Union unprepared for German invasion, “mediocrity personified.” The other signatory of the pact, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a former champagne salesman. Ribbentrop, as Molotov did with Stalin, parroted back to Adolf Hitler the leader’s conspiratorial worldview. Ribbentrop, again like Molotov with Stalin, knew that Hitler always favored the most extreme option. Molotov and Ribbentrop unfailingly advocated radical and violent solutions to any problem, endearing themselves to their bosses as men of unflinching resolve. This is what makes Steve Bannon so appealing to Trump—he will always call for Armageddon.

There are three institutions tasked in a functioning democracy with protecting the truth and keeping national discourse rooted in verifiable fact—the courts, the press and universities. Despots must control these three to prevent them from exposing their lies and restricting their power. Trump has not only attacked the courts but has also begun purges of the judiciary with his mass firing of U.S. attorneys. The Trump White House plans to fill 124 judgeships—including 19 vacancies on federal appeals courts—with corporatist lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch who are endorsed by the reactionary Federalist Society. By the time Trump’s four-year term is up, Federalist Society judges could be in as many as half of the country’s appellate seats.

Trump has continued to attempt to discredit the press. During his rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, he told the crowd, “Some of the fake news said I don’t think Donald Trump wants to build the wall. Can you imagine if I said we’re not going to build a wall? Fake news. Fake, fake news. Fake news, folks. A lot of fake.” He went on to say in an apparent reference to the reporters covering the rally, “They’re bad people.”

The attacks on universities, which will be accelerated, are on display in the budget proposal. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Education, the Commerce Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs all give grants and research money to universities. Colorado State University, for example, gets about 70 percent, or $232 million, of its research budget from federal sources. In February, Trump suggested he might attempt to cut federal funding for universities such as UC Berkeley. His comment was made after a riot at the California school forced the cancellation of a speech there by the far-right ideologue Milo Yiannopoulos, who has called Trump “Daddy.” A university will of course be able to get corporate funding for research if it casts doubt on the importance of climate change or does research that can be used to swell corporate profits or promote other business interests. Scientific study into our ecocide and the dangers from chemicals, toxins and pollutants released by corporations into the atmosphere will be thwarted. And the withering of humanities programs, already suffering in many universities, will worsen.

It will be increasingly difficult to carry out mass protests and civil disobedience. Repression will become steadily more overt and severe. Dissent will be equated with terrorism. We must use the space before it is shut. This is a race against time. The forces of despotism seek to keep us complacent and pacified with the false hope that mechanisms within the system will moderate Trump or remove him through impeachment, or that the looming tyranny will never be actualized. There is an emotional incapacity among any population being herded toward despotism or war to grasp what is happening. The victims cannot believe that the descent into barbarity is real, that the relative security and sanity of the past are about to be obliterated. They fail to see that once rights become privileges, once any segment of a society is excluded from the law, rights can instantly be revoked for everyone.

There is a hierarchy to oppression. It begins with the most vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, poor people of color. It works upward. It is a long row of candles that one by one are extinguished. If we wait to resist, as the poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, the “dark line gets longer” and “the snuffed-out candles proliferate.”

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_last_chance_for_resistance_20170319

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare: While the GOP celebrates its found money, the poor will get sicker and die

With the AHCA, the Republicans have put a price tag on the lives of America’s working class: $300 billion

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare: While the GOP celebrates its found money, the poor will get sicker and die
(Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

Trumpcare, Ryancare, Trashcare — whatever you want to call it, the American Health Care Act is nothing more than a cheap stab at Barack Obama, a petty attempt on the part of grudge-holding Republicans, including President Donald Trump, to try to diminish Obama’s legacy. They can try, but that will be impossible — Trump’s follow-up act has been so bad so far that he’s making George W. Bush look practically Lincoln-esque. But let’s set legacies and agendas aside for now and focus on health care.

“We have come up with a solution that’s really, really, I think, very good,” Donald Trump has said. “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

I’m not a president or a billionaire. I could never afford the kind of routine checkups that Trump has access to from award-winning physicians with platinum stethoscopes and solid gold scalpels — or even a state-of-the-art Viking fridge stocked with spare teenage hearts and kidneys, all plump and ready to be inserted when Trump’s conk out. He’ll probably live to be 360 years old as a result. Most of us don’t have that experience, and the president, just like the congresspeople and senators who are aimlessly playing with the lives of their constituents by threatening to kill Obamacare, is taken care of. They have amazing health care coverage that we, the taxpayers, fund. Strangely, that never makes it into the conversation.

Is Obamacare perfect? Absolutely not. But it has already saved the lives of millions of people. People who would have never voted for Obama are calling him a hero, even as some die-hard right-wingers praise the Affordable Care Act for saving their loved ones, not realizing that it’s the same as Obamacare.

Trump loves his catchphrase, “Make America great again.” Obviously he doesn’t understand that “great” is a process that we must constantly work toward. Greatness is edited, nurtured and achieved after recognizing what works and what doesn’t. Scrapping Obamacare and replacing it with a trash plan that will leave millions of people who were born without the luxury of being Trump-level rich uninsured is not making anything great. It’s evil. According to the CBO analysis, the AHCA would “reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the coming decade and increase the number of people who are uninsured by 24 million in 2026 relative to current law.” And every Republican is running to the cable news networks, bragging about saving $300 billion. What does that mean to the person the Wall Street Journal described, a 62-year-old person who makes $18,000 a year who will now face premiums of up to $20,000?

Imagine a sickly elderly woman running home from work to her family to share with pride that the government just saved $300 billion. There is nothing more important than that to the government, even if it means that you’re broke, your granddaughter is pregnant because she couldn’t get birth control, and your grandson overdosed and died because he couldn’t be treated for his prescription drug addiction, which he developed to self-medicate his depression over the factory jobs that Trump promised never coming. We should all celebrate because the government saved $300 billion? That’s $300 billion that regular people will never touch.

People will not be treated for their illnesses. Many will suffer, and some will die. But at least the GOP beat Obama!

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir.”