How Renaissance Painting Smoldered with a Little Known Hallucinogen

Forrest Muelrath

Looking at depictions of St. Anthony in the paintings of Renaissance masters, the influence of the disease of ergotism on the history of art starts to become clear.

Follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (c. 1550/1575), oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress collection

A fungal infection known as ergotism influenced Northern Renaissance painting to an extent that a majority of art institutions have yet to grapple with. During the Renaissance ergotism was colloquially known as St. Anthony’s Fire, named for the third-century desert Father who had hallucinatory bouts with the devil.

In 1938 the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally synthesized the psychedelic drug LSD-25 for the first time from ergot fungi — the same fungus that causes the disease ergotism — while researching pharmaceuticals for postpartum bleeding. Some of the symptoms of ergotism closely resemble the effects of LSD, which makes sense given that the same or similar alkaloids are present in both the fungus that causes illness and the drug. Looking at depictions of St. Anthony in the paintings of Renaissance masters, the influence of the disease on the history of art starts to become clear.

During the time of the Renaissance, ergotism was a phantasmagoric event with an onset that was difficult to distinguish from the bubonic plague: it came on first as nausea and insomnia, then developed into sensations of being engulfed in flames while hallucinating over several days, and often ended with the amputation of one or more limbs due to gangrene, or ended in death. In some locations, the symptoms associated with ergotism were considered to be the first step towards hell.

Ergot growing on rye (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

The illness is contracted by ingesting ergot fungus, which appears on cereal grains when the growing conditions are right — most commonly on rye. The last known severe outbreak occurred in the French village of Pont-Saint-Espirit in 1951. The outbreak was documented in the British Medical Journal, which describes symptoms such as nausea, depression, agitation, insomnia, a delirium that includes feelings of self-accusation or mysticism, and hallucinations that commonly include animals and fire. A non-fiction book about the 1951 outbreak, written by American author John G. Fuller, titled, The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire, describes specific ergot-related psychotic episodes. For example, there is the afflicted man who thought he was an airplane and jumped out the asylum’s second floor window with outstretched arms expecting to fly, telescoped both his legs upon landing, and then ran 50 meters at full speed on shattered bones before being wrestled to the ground by eight other men.  All in all, the accounts of symptoms from the 1951 outbreak resemble both acid causality tales hyperbolized as anti-drug propaganda, and descriptions from the LSD how-to manual coauthored by Timothy LearyRalph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, titled The Psychedelic Experience.

Some art historians, such as Bosch scholar Laurinda S. Dixon, have proffered for decades that the symptoms of ergotism influenced painters like Jheronimus (aka Hieronymus) Bosch and Matthias Grünewald. In looking further at depictions of Saint Anthony — from medieval folk art, a plethora of Renaissance work, to a series of paintings by surrealist artists, such as Max Ernst’s 1945, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” — a pattern begins to develop in which a mimesis of visual hallucinations associated with ergotism is clearly presentFor instance, Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, contains not only hallucinatory imagery congruent with the effects of ergot alkaloids, but also contains in the opening passage of the novel a clear symbol of a known cause of ergot poisoning: a description of a loaf of black bread inside the hermit saint’s cabin.

The Isenheim altarpiece closed (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

So why is St. Anthony associated with ergot? The devout will often look towards the legend of Anthony’s temptations when faced with mental or emotional anguish. This is because the devil is said to have tempted Anthony with mirages of jewels, and dressed up as seductive women to deter the hermit from his asceticism. As the devil was tormenting Anthony, the saint was said to be wandering through the Egyptian wilderness. The events of Anthony’s story as recounted by his original hagiographer, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also read as hallucinatory, with a blend of imagery, ecstasy and madness. From Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius:

For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand.

The notion that the harmful hallucinations will cease if the subject is fortified beforehand, is a reoccurring theme not only in Life of Saint Anthony, but also in the instructions for tripping on LSD given in The Psychedelic Experience: 

At this time you may see visions of mating couples. You are convinced that an orgy is about to take place. Desire and anticipation seize you, You wonder what sexual performance is expected of you. When these visions occur, Remember to withhold yourself from action or attachment. Humbly exercise your faith. Float with the stream. Trust the process with great fervency. Meditation and trust in the unity of life are the keys.

This simple comparison between the texts of a third-century hermit and the megalomaniacal ‘60s drop-out prototype, Timothy Leary, is not enough to clearly demonstrate a correlation between Anthony and psychedelia. What this investigation does make clear is why the hagiography became important to those in the 17th century suffering from symptoms similar to LSD effects in the time before modern medicine first discovered the cause of ergotism.

Aside from the instructions for how to cope with hallucinations, Athanasius’s text also uses imagery that appeared in Renaissance painting, and finds a kinship with symptoms of ergot as described in the British Medical Journal and The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire. According to John G. Fuller, Zoopsie — from the French word meaning hallucinatory visions of animals — was rampant among the afflicted in Pont-Saint-Espirit, who experienced tormenting visions of serpents, tigers, giant spiders, etc. Anthony was tormented by similar visions over and over again, according to St. Athanasius:

the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves…”

The Isenheim altarpiece outer wings opened (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Bosch provides the most fertile ground for art lovers wanting to believe that hallucinogenic fungi may have a significant place in art history. This is partially because the painter has a special connection to Anthony, depicting the saint over twenty times throughout his life — one of his most famous paintings being the Anthony triptych. In the town where Bosch grew up, there was a church dedicated to the saint, which the artist almost certainly attended with his family when he was young. The painter lived at a time when knowledge of ergotism would have been near its peak before the cause of the disease was discovered. By the early 16th century (he died in 1516), there would have been at least forty major outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire across Northern Europe since the 9th century, with one 1418 outbreak in Paris killing as many as 50,000 by some estimates.

Laurinda S. Dixon presents some of the most convincing evidence to date that Bosch’s imagery was directly influenced by Saint Anthony’s Fire. In a (1984) essay titled “Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych — An Apothecary’s Apotheosis,” the author finds a common ingredient in medieval medicine used to treat ergot — mandrake root — and the distillation furnaces used to make that medicine. Examining the Bosch painting with the use of high resolution photos available on boschproject.org, Dixon argues that the bulbous buildings, often depicted with a stream of smoke coming out of the top, are nearly identical to the shapes found in contemporaneous schematics of apothecary furnaces.

Other notable imagery in the Anthony Triptych includes the fire raging in the background — fire is found in many Bosch paintings, and is common in other painters’ depictions of Saint Anthony as well. A pair of magi in the center panel are serving musicians a concoction made from berries and herbs — one of the magi with wide-eyes and perhaps intentionally dilated pupils. Anthony is depicted in all three panels, recognized in Bosch paintings by his blue robe and a tau cross either painted on the robe or dangling as jewelry. It’s amusing that in the center panel, Anthony has the look of a strung-out Dead Head at the end of two-day acid trip, with his raised index and middle finger looking simultaneously like a Christian hand gesture and a hippie peace sign. Just below the Grateful Dead Anthony in the center panel, there is another symbol of ergotism — an amputated foot clearly laid on a rag.

Moving on from Bosch, there are scores of paintings that contain depictions of Anthony with many of the same symbols that imply ergotism. A painting attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows Anthony in his hermit cabin, as well as flying through the sky on winged beasts. There is a common rumor that ergot alkaloids cause those under their influence to believe they can fly, both in accounts of the disease and in anti-drug propaganda. Again, as in Bosch’s triptych, we see the apothecary furnace on the left side of the painting, this time with a scared looking face peaking out the top — and of course the two fires raging in the distance.

Flemish Painter Jan Mandijn’s vision of Anthony contains a similar set of ergot indicia:  apothecary tools, fire, the saint flying through the air, gangrene. Add to this an odd grass bursting through the roof of the hermit’s cabin, with dark tips that look similar to images of the fungus growing on rye.

Jan Mandijn, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (circa 1550) oil on panel, height: 61.5 cm (24.2 in). Width: 83.5 cm (32.9 in). (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Moving from the Flemish region to what was then Western Germany, sculpture and woodworker Nikolaus Hagenauer (aka Nikolaus von Hagenau) is surrounded by perhaps the most solid historical evidence that Anthony was a symbol of ergot poisoning for Northern Renaissance artists. Hagenauer’s sculpture of Anthony, carved with virtuosic dexterity in the round from a walnut log, displays subject matter that is congruent with the earliest legends of Anthony — the saint struggling with a single demon underfoot. However, when the artist’s masterwork is taken into consideration — the Isenheim altarpiece which Hagenauer was commissioned to create with painter Mathias Grünewald — the ergot narrative takes flight.

Around the year 1070 C.E., Saint Anthony’s purported remains were moved to La-Motte-Saint-Didier, a commune in southeastern France. The relics of the saint were said to have healing properties that could cure Saint Anthony’s Fire, and in 1095 the Hospital of the Brothers of Anthony was founded with the primary objective of treating those afflicted with ergot poisoning. Four centuries later, Grünewald and Hagenauer were commissioned to paint an altarpiece in nearby Isenheim for a monastery run by the Brothers of Anthony.

The Isenheim altarpiece is in an unusual position for a work of art, in that it was made with the direct intention of soothing physical ailments, as well as symptoms of psychosis. Each of the altarpiece’s nine paintings and its woodcarvings relate to an element of recovery from the symptoms of ergotism. Art historian Horst Ziermann wrote that “it is conceivable that miraculous cures or the relief of symptoms did, in fact, occur at the alter.” Critic David Levi Strauss labeled the work “therapeutic realism.” According to Ziermann, the afflicted would recite prayers in front of the altarpiece that would have been similar to the following: “Anthony, venerable Shepherd, who renders holy those who undergo horrible torments, who suffer the greatest maladies, who burn with hellfire: oh merciful Father, pray to God for us.”

The Isenheim altarpiece inner wings opened (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

In its original setting the altarpiece would have been illuminated by candles or sunlight through stained glass windows. Unfolding theatrically in three distinct sets of paintings, the wooden frame connected with hinges, each of the three views like an act in a play — or like the three bardos of Timothy Leary’s manual. The monastery where the altarpiece was kept was a place of concentrated prayer for the suffering. The monks would have had little means to treat patients, aside maybe from offering a place to lie that was more comfortable than the street, some warm food, and ointments to sooth the burning of open wounds. The primary tool for healing from ergot related ailments would have been prayer, and relief from the worries of facing hell in the afterlife was redemption through Christ — all which are reflected in the altarpiece.

The alternating horror and mystical ecstasy found between the second and third views of the altarpiece align with accounts of ergot-related mania and psychic anguish, as they do with descriptions found in The Psychedelic

Nikolaus von Hagenau, “Untitled” (ca. 1500) made in Strasbourg, Alsace, present-day France; walnut; 44 1/4 × 17 1/4 × 10 3/4 in., 66 lb. (112.4 × 43.8 × 27.3 cm) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Experience. The vivacious colors in the second panel recall descriptions of the most ecstatic of those poisoned in Pont-Saint-Espirit, while also sharing elements of the brighter elements of Bosch. The third view returns to Anthony, who is as tormented as ever in the right wing. Most telling is the gangrenous person looking up at the besieged saint from below — his green skin covered in boils that ooze puss and blood, and his belly bloated due to starvation.

The counterculture use of ergot alkaloids proved to be a threat to the dominant mainstream US culture of the 1950s, causing their prohibition. Could the same have happened during the first half of the second millennium, in respect to Christian culture and ergot? Albert Hofmann contributed to an essay titled “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” which proposes that ergot alkaloids may have been present during the ancient Greek religious festival known as the Eleusinian mysteries.

Whether appearing as a drug or disease, the visual language of the Northern Renaissance was clearly influenced by the ergot fungus. Further research into this historical intersection will offer a better understanding of the way artists have responded to forces of temptation and torment with visual representation and might do so in the present day.

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Harvard psychiatrist Lance Dodes: Donald Trump is a “sociopath” and “a very sick individual”

Harvard professor and psychoanalyst on the “antiquated” Goldwater rule and our president’s “serious mental illness”

The president of the United States is a global celebrity whose every action is endlessly commented upon and dissected for meaning by the news media, foreign powers (both friends and foes alike) and the public.

In the age of television and now the internet, there are hundreds of thousands of hours of video and audio footage of every president widely available. There are also rumors and leaks from within the White House and other branches of government that can help paint a picture of a given president’s moods, desires, thoughts and other behavior. What is to be done if this evidence collectively suggests that the president of the United States is mentally ill?

Unfortunately, with Donald Trump this is not the stuff of a political thriller. It is painfully plausible and all too real. The evidence suggesting that Donald Trump may have serious mental health problems is overwhelming.

He is a compulsive liar who creates his own fantasy world. Trump is also extremely moody and impulsive. Trump’s advisers have to satisfy his extreme narcissism and nurture his detachment from reality by presenting him — on a twice-daily basis — with a file folder full of good news.” Fellow Republicans have been recorded on a hot mike suggesting that Trump may be “crazy.” The American news media, as well as commentators from other countries, have voiced serious concerns about Trump’s mental health and the threat it poses to global security.

Why are so many psychiatrists and other clinicians afraid to comment about Donald Trump’s mental health? What is the role of the “Goldwater rule” — which holds that mental health professionals should not attempt to diagnose public figures they have not personally treated — in their relative silence? Is Donald Trump suffering from symptoms of mental illness? If so, what type of disorder does he exhibit, and what are the consequences for America and the world?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Dr. Lance Dodes. He is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (retired) and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

Dodes is a signatory to the much-discussed February 2017 open letter to The New York Times that sought to warn the public about the dangers posed by Donald Trump’s mental health. He is also a contributing writer for the new book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

The concerns about Donald Trump’s mental health are obvious. But how does the so-called Goldwater rule complicate public discussions of Trump’s mental health by psychiatrists and other clinicians?      

The Goldwater rule is from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). However, the APA’s version of the Goldwater rule is not subscribed to by any of the other major mental health agencies, including my own, the American Psychoanalytic Association. It is also not subscribed to by the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers, among others. The APA’s view as expressed in the so-called Goldwater rule is unconstitutional because it prohibits free speech. It is also nonsensical and unethical to have the rule as is. The concerns that the APA is expressing about things like confidentiality and getting the permission of the person before you talk about them simply do not apply unless the person is your patient.

Donald Trump is not anyone’s patient, so there is no confidentiality rule. In fact, no other branch of medicine has this rule. If your favorite linebacker goes down with a tear to his ACL in a football game, the next thing you will see is an orthopedist on television talking about the prognosis and the injury. Every other medical specialty feels free — and they should feel free — to speak out about public figures because it is a public service. In the field of psychiatry, we call this “duty to warn.” When you gag the people who actually know the best about these things, then you leave the public with uninformed lay opinions.

The APA defends the Goldwater rule with claims such as [that] to talk about mental health and politicians “would be insulting to people who have mental problems.” This is ridiculous. Nobody is mixing up somebody who is a sociopath like Donald Trump with somebody who has anxiety or depression or even a known illness like schizophrenia. No one is going to make that mistake.

The APA is doing a great disservice by trying to gag people.

Is the Goldwater rule obsolete in the sense that Trump is a public figure and there are thousands of hours of footage of him as well as a multitude of other evidence about his behavior? 

It is antiquated. The APA itself has a diagnostic manual, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5). If you look in that manual, the way they diagnose conditions is on two bases: one, behavior and two, speech. There is no inference about the causality or about the emotional determents or about the specific inner issues and conflicts in people. To know that it’s true, you have to interview them and you have to get to know them.

To go to your point, anybody, trained or not, can observe speech and behavior. It is good to be a professional in the field because then you can take the next step with confidence and say, “People with this kind of speech and behavior have this kind of problem.” That is completely fair, and that is exactly where the APA diagnoses things. If you consider, for example, the diagnosis “antisocial personality,” that is a diagnosis in the DSM-5 and you can look it up.

So anybody can read that and then look at Donald Trump and, as you say, the thousands of hours of interviews and evidence that we have about him, and see whether he either meets this criteria for speech and behavior or he does not. The fact is, he does.

Clinically, if we were to look at the checklist for sociopathy, what are some of the indicators that Trump is presenting?

It is people who lie and cheat. Everybody lies some of the time, but in this instance we mean people who lie as a way of being in the world, to manage relationships and also to manage your feelings about yourself. People who cheat and steal from others. People who lack empathy . . . the lack of empathy is a critical aspect of it. People who are narcissistic.

Trump’s case of narcissism is particularly severe because he also is out of touch with reality whenever he becomes upset. When he says, “I had the largest crowd at an inauguration in history,” it does not matter that you can tell him that it is not true, he still insists on it. Well, that is very troublesome because what it means is that he needs to believe it. He is able to give up reality in exchange for his wished-for belief. Sometimes we call that a delusion. We have not used that word much with Donald Trump because that does get confused with people who think that they are Napoleon. But Trump has a fluid sense of reality, which is a sign of a very sick individual.

Sociopathy itself is a sign of a very sick individual, someone with a lying, cheating and emotional disorder. The intersection of those two occurs in sociopathy. It is not just bad behavior that people have to lie and cheat the way he does, it is an incapacity to treat other people as full human beings. That is why his focus is on humiliating others to aggrandize himself, as he did in the Republican primaries when he was debating and calling people names. The same thing applies to Hispanic immigrants and separating the children from their parents. That is a very, very serious mental and emotional problem. Normal people have normal empathy. It is part of being a human being. Lying and cheating and humiliating others and grinding them into dust in order to triumph is not just bad behavior. It is a serious mental illness.

I don’t think Trump’s cruelty is coincidental to his appeal. His bigotry, his racism, his meanness — that is why people like him. I think that is the core of his appeal for a certain part of the public.

I agree. Hitler had a lot of followers too. Some people look for strong leaders. Others are suspicious of strong leaders. A lot of people seek out strong leaders because it is part of our shared human experience. As children, we all want to believe that our parents are good and strong and great and will protect us forever. So if you have someone who comes along say, “I am good and strong and great and I will protect you forever,” a certain number of people will follow that person.

If they are skilled at it the way Trump is, or the way that Mussolini or Hitler was, then they speak to the concerns of those people. Not that they really have any care about them. Trump does not. He could care less about these people. What they want from him is somebody who will finally be strong and speak up for them, except that it is a one-sided bargain. They just do not know it is because he is a liar.

There is a condition I have been reading about called “oppositional defiance disorder.” It seems to fit Trump perfectly. But it usually applies to children. If this is an accurate diagnosis, what does it mean for the country and world?

“Oppositional defiance disorder” is not a disorder. It is behavior, so you have to look beneath it. I’m not crazy about the term, but I take your point. The adult version of that behavior is “antisocial personality disorder,” which I think Trump meets.

The reason that people are reluctant to make a single diagnosis, including me, is because the terms in our field are not wonderful. Because they are trying to capture something that is exceptionally complex and individual, so no term is ever exact. That is why clinicians often use multiple terms to describe people. Then the critics say, “Oh, you are just throwing around names.” Well no, it is not that, it is just that we are trying to describe something that is complicated.

The best diagnosis for Trump is that he is a malignant narcissist. It contains the narcissistic part, which is no big deal alone — lots of people are narcissistic — but the malignant part is the sociopathy dimension. These terms suggest that Trump is a very primitive man. He is also a man who has a fundamental, deep psychological defect. It is expressed in his inability to empathize with others and his lack of genuine loyalty to anyone. You will notice that Trump wants everyone to be loyal to him, but he is loyal to nobody.

It is a one-way street. Trump appears to have no sense of social obligation or reciprocity.

Yeah, that is right. He has no sense of that because it is all about him. That is narcissistic, but it is much worse than the ordinary person with narcissistic personality. You know, I have known lots of people like that, and none of them are as evil or dangerous as Donald Trump because they do not have the sociopathy part. They may be oriented towards themselves, they may be self-centered, they may care mostly about themselves. But when it comes right down to it, they have some compassion; they have a conscience. But not Donald Trump. That is the malignant part. So yes, you want to say he is narcissistic personality, yes. Malignant narcissism? Yes. Sociopathy? Yes. Antisocial personality? Yes. Paranoia? Absolutely. He is quite paranoid, but again, if you look at it from underneath, it all fits together.

Why is he paranoid? He’s paranoid because . . . he needs to defend himself, his self-esteem, by saying that other people are bad. “You are the bad guy, not me. You are the one attacking me, I have no wish to attack.” He is extremely paranoid, and it edges into delusion. He does not really know what the truth is, at least at those moments. All these descriptive labels are true. If you put them all together, you have got a picture of Donald Trump.

If you understand the man, you understand what you are dealing with, and I don’t think he is at all different from these tyrants in the past. I don’t know that he is any different from the people he admires.

What do you think will happen with Trump’s presidency?

I think one of two things will happen and maybe both. First of all, the greatest risk to us right now is that there will be another “Reichstag fire”-type event.

Timothy Snyder has been warning the public about that possibility for months.

The more desperate Trump becomes, the more he needs to have a crisis so the country will rally around him. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say he is going to start bombing North Korea. Unfortunately, the North Korean leader is just as sick as Trump. The two of them are like little boys on a playground but much worse, because little boys are not evil, they are just aggressive. The second thing is — and this is the Republican calculation — at what point do I need to abandon Donald Trump in order to preserve my political career? I think that is exactly what is going through the minds of the Republican Party leadership right now. They have to wait for a shift in public opinion and it is coming. Charlottesville was one major event, and there will be others. Then I think they will go to Trump and say, “We are going to impeach you or we are going to apply the 25th Amendment.”

But in the end he will simply cut bait. He will leave other people to clean up the mess. Trump will resign and say, “I am still the best and the only savior, and these evil people and their evil media have forced me out.” He will keep his constituency; he’ll leave with honor in his own mind and by the way, keep his businesses.

How can someone with these types of disorders be so “successful”? In reality, I think his success is his inherited money — Trump has actually failed at almost everything in life. But some would make the counter-argument, “Well, if Trump has all these problems, how could he be such a successful businessman?” Is it just blind luck? Are these bad behaviors rewarded in business?

If rising to the top is a sign of anything positive, then you have to put Adolf Hitler in that group. Trump is successful in business for the last of your reasons. Because if you are willing to trample on other people, you have a great chance of rising to the top. If he is willing to lie, for example, and cheat people and use that to his personal advantage no matter what the consequences are for them, well, one of two things happens to people like that. If they fail enough, they are in jail. These are the sociopaths who end up as chronic criminals. But if they have the gift of gathering people around them like a cult leader and demagogue, then they rise to the top. It is not that unusual at all. It happens throughout history. Trump does not care.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

The Story: Life, the World, Now, You, and Me

Hi. I’m Umair. I want to tell you a little story about life, death, meaning, purpose, happiness, you, me, the world, and why I founded Eudaimonia & Co.

A couple of years ago, right at the peak of it all, jetting around the globe, writing books, giving speeches, invulnerable as a rock, I got sick. Keeling-over-losing-fifty-pounds-in-a-month-sick. The doctors told me I had months to live. And after the heart-stopping panic subsided, a funny thing happened: I was happy, thinking and writing about the meaning of it all, in a way I’d never really been discussing economics, leadership, and society.

Dying young — or at least thinking you’re going to — is like climbing the Mount Everest of inner clarity. You think about life. Not in a mournful way. Maybe you haven’t lived enough for that yet. Just in an appreciative one. Life is a funny thing. Unique, singular, strange. Camus famously called it absurd. It’s the only thing in a lonely, clockwork universe that struggles. Rivers flow, clouds dissipate, oceans ebb. But only life undertakes an improbable, uncertain, difficult quest for self-realization. A tree stretches into the sun. A little bird builds a nest. You strive mightily all your days long for happiness, meaning, purpose, grace, defiance, rebellion, truth, knowledge, beauty, love. That quest is what makes life so strikingly different from dust, fire, mud, air.

Only today our quest for self-realization doesn’t seem to be going so well. If I asked you, “how do you think the world’s doing?”, I’d bet your reply would be on the spectrum between not-so-well and dire, not pretty good and fantastic. Which is just as I’d had to warn of, and that’s why writing about economics always made me unhappy. Maybe the fate of the world wasn’t my cross to bear. Maybe it isn’t any of ours. But I didn’t know that then. And yet. The world seems suddenly different now, doesn’t it? The headlines now are an almost comically absurd smorgasbord of catastrophe: nuclear war, Nazis, natural disaster, societies fracturing, impotent frustration at it all.

It’s a head-spinning, anxiety-inducing time. It’s even scarier to admit it, so let’s do it together. Climate change. Stagnation. Inequality. Extremism. They feel different, more threatening. Bigger and badder than yesterday’s problems. They are. These are Massive Existential Problems. To societies, cities, democracy. To you and I and our kids. To the entire planet. Why are they all happening at once? How are we to solve them? Can we? If we don’t, problems only create more problems. Climate change creates refugees, famine, starvation. Stagnation creates authoritarianism. Inequality and extremism create war. A vicious circle, a savage feedback loop of problems. We’re at cruising altitude — but the engines are stalling. A nose dive of human possibility looms.

How did we get here? Every age has a paradigm of human organization. A set of defining principles and beliefs about what life is for. In the past, you can think of things like tribalism, feudalism, mercantilism, and so on. What’s our paradigm? Why isn’t it working?

Every paradigm’s end, purpose, defines it. We organize — whether countries, companies, societies, days, projects, investments — for just one sole end: maximizing income. Whether it’s called GDP, profits, shareholder value, all are more or less different words for the same imperative: the most income over the smallest increment of time an organization can produce. This overarching social goal of maximizing income trickles down into maximizing incomes for corporations and firms and banks and households so on.

Today’s paradigm of human organization — which is a relic of the industrial age — is economic. Our lives — in fact, all life on the planet, in fact, all life in the universe, because life on this planet is the only life that we know of anywhere in existence — are thus oriented around the pursuit of a single end: maximizing short-term income. Maximizing immediate financial income is the sole purpose of all the life that we know of, which all the life that there is.

Here’s the problem.

In the economic paradigm, well-being, the fullness of life’s quest for self-realization — whether or not lives are growing, flourishing, becoming, developing, to what degree, extent, duration, quality, whether it’s your life, my life, our grandkids’ lives, or the planet’s life — is nonexistent. It’s not conceptualized, represented, counted, measured, quite literally valued. Not in GDP, corporate reports, profits, markets, theories, models, prices, costs, benefits, anywhere. Not even in the smallest way — quantitatively, functionally, arithmetically — and so certainly not in the truest way: qualitatively, conceptually, substantively. And so because well-being, life itself, isn’t represented or valued, it’s not worth anything according to the calculus of this paradigm.

What do you with stuff that’s free? Well, you take it. So the economic paradigm uses up, drains, exhausts all the many kinds of well-being above to attain it’s sole end, how much immediate income it can produce. Let me give you two examples. If we break each others’ legs, GDP will go up, not down. We’ll have to take taxis to work, and pay for more medical care, which are counted as “gains”. Does that example strike you as absurd? It is, but it’s very real: in the extreme case, you get a society where an economy is growing, but life expectancy is falling — modern day America.

Life itself — in it’s truest sense, as a quest for self-realization — is systemically undervalued, underrepresented, and under-understood by the economic paradigm of human organization. Let me put that a little more bluntly. The economic paradigm of human organization doesn’t care. About life. Yours, mine, our grandkids, our planet’s. In any of it’s three aspects: not it’s potential, nor it’s possibility, nor it’s reality — life a beautiful and universal quest for self-realization. It’s sole end is maximizing immediate income. It doesn’t care if you’re happy or miserable, if you’re fulfilled or hollow, if you’re humane and gentle and wise or cruel and brutish and spiteful, if you flourish or wither as a human being, if the oceans dry up and die or teem joyously, if the skies turn to ash, if if you, me, our grandkids, or the planet, dies young or old, or if any of us live or die at all, in fact. It just doesn’t care. It wasn’t designed to. Thus, all that possibility, all that potential, is never realized: it’s used up to maximize immediate income. More and more, maximizing immediate income minimizes life’s potential.

And that’s the hidden thread that connects today’s four Massive Existential Problems. Climate change happens when the planet’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Stagnation happens when people’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Inequality happens when a society’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. And extremism is a result of all that ripping yesterday’s stable and prosperous social contracts to shreds. Today’s great global problems are just surface manifestations of the same underlying breakdown — a badly, fatally, irreparably broken paradigm of human organization.

The paradigm is the problem. A solely, paradigmatically, one-dimensional economic approach to human organization. That old, rusting, busted, industrial-age, economic paradigm is what’s created the Massive Existential Threats the world faces today. The single-minded pursuit of maximizing short-term income (versus, for example, optimizing long-run well-being) is what’s ignited inequality, stagnation, climate change, and extremism — and the later problems that are likely to stem from them.

And so — it’s no coincidence — here we are. Desperately clutching the controls in a nose dive of human possibility. But the controls don’t seem to work anymore, do they?

Every age has a challenge. Here’s today’s. Crafting a new — perhaps a radically new — paradigm of human organization, that values, represents, respects, celebrates, elevates, and expands life. Life is an impossibly big word, because it is such a strange and striking and impossible thing. Yet when you and I say “life”, we don’t mean some kind of actuarial probability table, the one-dimensional way the economic paradigm values things, but life in all its fragility, messiness, emergence, contradiction, complexity. Life in that sense, as self-realization, is more and more what’s minimized by the economic paradigm of human organization, so that it can maximize income. That’s what a broken paradigm means, and because it is the problem inside all the problems, that is what needs to be fixed, reversed, upended, turned around, with a better one. So how can we —

“Wait”, you cry. “Why should I care?” I see extreme capitalism has trained you well, young Darth. I sympathize. I didn’t want to either, remember? I just wanted to die happily. And yet. We — you and I — are going to have to care for a very simple reason. No matter how glorious your startup, moneyed your giant corporation or investment fund, mighty your city or country — today’s Massive Existential Problems are going to take you down too. Think your company can function without working societies? Your startup without a planet? Your country while its cities drown? Think again. Sure, you can ignore it all, but you’re only kidding yourself. The world feels broken because it is, and none of us are mighty enough to keep on escaping its expanding catastrophes by a thinner hair’s breadth of victory on our own little treadmill. The precise opposite is true: it’s up to us to make it better, and not just some of us, but each and every one of us. Sorry. Welcome to reality. Here’s a little consolation. Even tiny ways will do, which, in their gentleness and grace, are often greater than big ways.

So. How can we begin crafting that better paradigm?

I call it moving from an economic paradigm to a eudaimonic paradigm of human organization. It has new ends for organizations: five new goals that elevate and expand life, versus blindly maximizing income. And it has new means: design principles with which to build organizations that can accomplish those ends. Together, those ends and means make up a little framework that I call “eudaimonics”. It’s meant to help us build organizations that are better at creating wealth, well-being, and human possibility, not just maximizing income, because life itself is the true measure of the success any and every organization, from a family to a company to a city to a country to the world itself.

What does such a eudaimonic organization look like? Whether it’s a company, country, or city, it’s different in vision: it has a concrete, overarching goals to To do it, it’s different in structure: it probably has a Chief Eudaimonia Officer or the like. It’s different in strategy: it doesn’t just launch products and services, but focuses on the human outcomes those have, whether lives are flourishing and growing or not. And it’s different in management: it doesn’t just report, track, manage, identify, optimize profit against loss, economic indicators, but eudaimonic ones, that are about how much life it’s really giving back to you, me, our grandkids, and the planet.

Here’s another example of eudaimonics, at macro scale. The objectives and strategies and policies and values and and roles and titles and numbers and metrics and measures and reports and the rest of it — all of the software of human organization, from “profit” to “GDP” to “markets” to “value” to “wealth” to “vision” to “mission” to “work” to “jobs“ — that power our countries, cities, companies, corporations is going to have to be updated and rewritten to realize life.

So. A brief summary. Human organizations have become treadmills. But they should be gardens. In which lives flourish, grow, fruit, and flower. The great challenge of this age isn’t single-mindedly maximizing one-dimensional income as the sole end and purpose of human existence, but elevating and expanding life’s possibility. Whether mine, yours, our grandkids’ or our planet’s. That noble, beautiful, improbable quest for self-realization — eudaimonia — is the reason we’re all here, each and every one.

Remember me? There I was, happily dying. And then the fates did what fates do. Pulled the rug out from under me. I didn’t die. The old world did. And the new world isn’t yet born. We’re going to have to create it, give painful birth to it, drag it out of ourselves, kicking and screaming, with love and grace. Even those of us, like me, who thought they’d be content watching the sun set.

Hence, this little organization. You can think of it as a lab, consultancy, thinktank — what it really is is an invitation. So if you’d like to join me on this quest, consider all this yours.

Umair


(Here are three brief footnotes for nerds. I emphatically don’t mean “economics is bad!”. It’s not. It has a great deal to teach us. The problem is that it’s used backwards. Abstractions of reality are meant only to provide academic insight and theoretical validation. But we use economic ideas — theories and models — not to validate theories, as real world levers to fulfill them. See the difference? That’s like taking a bunch of monkeys who’ve survived the clinical trials of a wonder drug and…putting them in charge of a nation’s healthcare. Inquiry has been turned around to become a method of human organization. Thus, the economic paradigm of human organization shouldn’t be one at all — economics should be just one tiny way, among many, to see, explain, think about human behavior, not a mode of organizing it, especially not the only mode.

In a similar vein, there’s often a refrain of “things are getting better! They’re not that bad!”, meaning that extreme global poverty has been reduced. That’s true, but. Those gains have been concentrated in India and China, and while the old paradigm might have raised median incomes there from $1K to $5k, it can’t raise them from $5k to $50k. Not just because the planet doesn’t have the resources, though it doesn’t — but because those societies already face the same tensions the old paradigm has produced: inequality, extremism, dissatisfaction, and so on. In other words, the old paradigm is out of steam. Technically, we’d say that the social, civic, and human externalities of the economic paradigm are too high for the world to bear.

That also means paradigm change isn’t just about going from capitalism to socialism. Both those — and all the “isms” surrounding them — still often share exactly the same paradigmatic goal, the same sole end — maximizing immediate income, trickling down from bigger to smaller organizations. As a simple example, China’s nominally socialist — but it’s overarching social objective, is precisely the same as America’s — to maximize GDP. So paradigmatic change doesn’t just mean “capitalism versus socialism”. It doesn’t mean any ism, in fact. Not liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, leftism. None of it. Paradigmatic change means something truer, deeper, more radical — changing the means and ends of human organization, the purposes to which our days, moment, ideas, relationships, careers, ambitions, dreams are devoted.)

Our freedoms—especially the Fourth Amendment—are being choked out.

What Country is This?

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

“The Fourth Amendment was designed to stand between us and arbitrary governmental authority. For all practical purposes, that shield has been shattered, leaving our liberty and personal integrity subject to the whim of every cop on the beat, trooper on the highway and jail official.”

—Herman Schwartz, The Nation

Our freedoms—especially the Fourth Amendment—are being choked out by a prevailing view among government bureaucrats that they have the right to search, seize, strip, scan, shoot, spy on, probe, pat down, taser, and arrest any individual at any time and for the slightest provocation.

Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies, forced blood draws, forced breath-alcohol tests, forced DNA extractions, forced eye scans, forced inclusion in biometric databases: these are just a few ways in which Americans are being forced to accept that we have no control over our bodies, our lives and our property, especially when it comes to interactions with the government.

Worse, on a daily basis, Americans are being made to relinquish the most intimate details of who we are—our biological makeup, our genetic blueprints, and our biometrics (facial characteristics and structure, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.)—in order to clear the nearly insurmountable hurdle that increasingly defines life in the United States: we are now guilty until proven innocent.

Such is life in America today that individuals are being threatened with arrest and carted off to jail for the least hint of noncompliance, homes are being raided by police under the slightest pretext, property is being seized on the slightest hint of suspicious activity, and roadside police stops have devolved into government-sanctioned exercises in humiliation and degradation with a complete disregard for privacy and human dignity.

Consider, for example, what happened to Utah nurse Alex Wubbels after a police detective demanded to take blood from a badly injured, unconscious patient without a warrant.

Wubbels refused, citing hospital policy that requires police to either have a warrant or permission from the patient in order to draw blood. The detective had neither. Irate, the detective threatened to have Wubbels arrested if she didn’t comply. Backed up by her supervisors, Wubbels respectfully stood her ground only to be roughly grabbed, shoved out of the hospital, handcuffed and forced into an unmarked car while hospital police looked on and failed to intervene (take a look at the police body camera footage, which has gone viral, and see for yourself).

Michael Chorosky didn’t have an advocate like Wubbels to stand guard over his Fourth Amendment rights. Chorosky was surrounded by police, strapped to a gurney and then had his blood forcibly drawn after refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. “What country is this? What country is this?” cried Chorosky during the forced blood draw.

What country is this indeed?

Unfortunately, forced blood draws are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the indignities and abuses being heaped on Americans in the so-called name of “national security.”

Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies and forced roadside strip searches are also becoming par for the course in an age in which police are taught to have no respect for the citizenry’s bodily integrity whether or not a person has done anything wrong.

For example, 21-year-old Charnesia Corley was allegedly being pulled over by Texas police in 2015 for “rolling” through a stop sign. Claiming they smelled marijuana, police handcuffed Corley, placed her in the back of the police cruiser, and then searched her car for almost an hour. No drugs were found in the car.

As the Houston Chronicle reported:

Returning to his car where Corley was held, the deputy again said he smelled marijuana and called in a female deputy to conduct a cavity search. When the female deputy arrived, she told Corley to pull her pants down, but Corley protested because she was cuffed and had no underwear on. The deputy ordered Corley to bend over, pulled down her pants and began to search her. Then…Corley stood up and protested, so the deputy threw her to the ground and restrained her while another female was called in to assist. When backup arrived, each deputy held one of Corley’s legs apart to conduct the probe.

The cavity search lasted 11 minutes. This practice is referred to as “rape by cop.”

Although Corley was charged with resisting arrest and with possession of 0.2 grams of marijuana, those charges were subsequently dropped.

David Eckert was forced to undergo an anal cavity search, three enemas, and a colonoscopy after allegedly failing to yield to a stop sign at a Wal-Mart parking lot. Cops justified the searches on the grounds that they suspected Eckert was carrying drugs because his “posture [was] erect” and “he kept his legs together.” No drugs were found.

During a routine traffic stop, Leila Tarantino was subjected to two roadside strip searches in plain view of passing traffic, while her two children—ages 1 and 4—waited inside her car. During the second strip search, presumably in an effort to ferret out drugs, a female officer “forcibly removed” a tampon from Tarantino. No contraband or anything illegal was found.

Thirty-eight-year-old Angel Dobbs and her 24-year-old niece, Ashley, were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window. Insisting that he smelled marijuana, the trooper proceeded to interrogate them and search the car. Despite the fact that both women denied smoking or possessing any marijuana, the police officer then called in a female trooper, who carried out a roadside cavity search, sticking her fingers into the older woman’s anus and vagina, then performing the same procedure on the younger woman, wearing the same pair of gloves. No marijuana was found.

Sixty-nine-year-old Gerald Dickson was handcuffed and taken into custody (although not arrested or charged with any crime) after giving a ride to a neighbor’s son, whom police suspected of being a drug dealer. Despite Dickson’s insistence that the bulge under his shirt was the result of a botched hernia surgery, police ordered Dickson to “strip off his clothes, bend over and expose all of his private parts. No drugs or contraband were found.”

Meanwhile, four Milwaukee police officers were charged with carrying out rectal searches of suspects on the street and in police district stations over the course of several years. One of the officers was accused of conducting searches of men’s anal and scrotal areas, often inserting his fingers into their rectums and leaving some of his victims with bleeding rectums.

It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even have to be suspected of possessing drugs to be subjected to a strip search.

A North Carolina public school allegedly strip-searched a 10-year-old boy in search of a $20 bill lost by another student, despite the fact that the boy, J.C., twice told school officials he did not have the missing money. The assistant principal reportedly ordered the fifth grader to disrobe down to his underwear and subjected him to an aggressive strip-search that included rimming the edge of his underwear. The missing money was later found in the school cafeteria.

Suspecting that Georgia Tech alum Mary Clayton might have been attempting to smuggle a Chick-Fil-A sandwich into the football stadium, a Georgia Tech police officer allegedly subjected the season ticket-holder to a strip search that included a close examination of her underwear and bra. No contraband chicken was found.

What these incidents show is that while forced searches may span a broad spectrum of methods and scenarios, the common denominator remains the same: a complete disregard for the rights of the citizenry.

In fact, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Florence v. Burlison, any person who is arrested and processed at a jail house, regardless of the severity of his or her offense (i.e., they can be guilty of nothing more than a minor traffic offense), can be subjected to a strip search by police or jail officials without reasonable suspicion that the arrestee is carrying a weapon or contraband.

Examples of minor infractions which have resulted in strip searches include: individuals arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, driving with an inoperable headlight, failing to use a turn signal, riding a bicycle without an audible bell, making an improper left turn, and engaging in an antiwar demonstration (the individual searched was a nun, a Sister of Divine Providence for 50 years).

Police have also carried out strip searches for passing a bad check, dog leash violations, filing a false police report, failing to produce a driver’s license after making an illegal left turn, having outstanding parking tickets, and public intoxication. A failure to pay child support can also result in a strip search.

As technology advances, these searches are becoming more invasive on a cellular level, as well.

For instance, close to 600 motorists leaving Penn State University one Friday night were stopped by police and, without their knowledge or consent, subjected to a breathalyzer test using flashlights that can detect the presence of alcohol on a person’s breath. These passive alcohol sensors are being hailed as a new weapon in the fight against DUIs. (Those who refuse to knowingly submit to a breathalyzer test are being subjected to forced blood draws. Thirty states presently allow police to do forced blood draws on drivers as part of a nationwide “No Refusal” initiative funded by the federal government. Not even court rulings declaring such practices to be unconstitutional in the absence of a warrant have slowed down the process. Now police simply keep a magistrate on call to rubber stamp the procedure over the phone.)

The National Highway Safety Administration, the same government agency that funds the “No Refusal” DUI checkpoints and forcible blood draws, is also funding nationwide roadblocks aimed at getting drivers to “voluntarily” provide police with DNA derived from saliva and blood samples, reportedly to study inebriation patterns. In at least 28 states, there’s nothing voluntary about having one’s DNA collected by police in instances where you’ve been arrested, whether or not you’re actually convicted of a crime. All of this DNA data is being fed to the federal government.

Airline passengers, already subjected to virtual strip searches, are now being scrutinized even more closely, with the Customs and Border Protection agency tasking airport officials with monitoring the bowel movements of passengerssuspected of ingesting drugs. They even have a special hi-tech toilet designed to filter through a person’s fecal waste.

Iris scans, an essential part of the U.S. military’s boots-on-the-ground approach to keeping track of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, are becoming a de facto method of building the government’s already mammoth biometrics database. Funded by the Dept. of Justice, along with other federal agencies, the iris scan technology is being incorporated into police precincts, jails, immigration checkpoints, airports and even schools. School officials—from elementary to college—have begun using iris scans in place of traditional ID cards. In some parts of the country, parents wanting to pick their kids up from school have to first submit to an iris scan.

As for those endless pictures everyone so cheerfully uploads to Facebook (which has the largest facial recognition database in the world) or anywhere else on the internet, they’re all being accessed by the police, filtered with facial recognition software, uploaded into the government’s mammoth biometrics database and cross-checked against its criminal files. With good reason, civil libertarians fear these databases could “someday be used for monitoring political rallies, sporting events or even busy downtown areas.”

While the Fourth Amendment was created to prevent government officials from searching an individual’s person or property without a warrant and probable cause—evidence that some kind of criminal activity was afoot—the founders could scarcely have imagined a world in which we needed protection against widespread government breaches of our privacy, including on a cellular level.

Yet that’s exactly what we are lacking and what we so desperately need.

Unfortunately, the indignities being heaped upon us by the architects and agents of the American police state—whether or not we’ve done anything wrong—are just a foretaste of what is to come.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: the War on the American People, the government doesn’t need to tie you to a gurney and forcibly take your blood or strip you naked by the side of the road in order to render you helpless. It has other methods—less subtle perhaps but equally humiliating, devastating and mind-altering—of stripping you of your independence, robbing you of your dignity, and undermining your rights.

With every court ruling that allows the government to operate above the rule of law, every piece of legislation that limits our freedoms, and every act of government wrongdoing that goes unpunished, we’re slowly being conditioned to a society in which we have little real control over our bodies or our lives.

John W. Whitehead is the president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/07/what-country-is-this/

Touching Grace: A Little Closer to the Point of it All

If I could sum up this age in word, it’d be “hostility”. Wherever we go, whatever do, there it is. Petty nastiness over even the smallest differences. Hostility on social media, on TV, in the news, hostility between left to right, fringe and center, young and old, poor and fortunate, hostility, enmity, oppositionality, polarity, all day, every moment, endlessly. How does it make you feel?

I want to tell you a little story.

When I was ten or so, at school, they asked me: “what do you want most in life?” Imagine asking little children that question for a moment, which implies that life is about the pursuit of desire, not the price of love. They were training us to be little warriors, you see. So the little ones dutifully replied “money!” “cars!” “a mansion!”, and so on. Until they got to me. I frowned, thought very hard in my tiny mind, and said, “I think what I want most is peace.”

“Peace?”, the teacher replied, puzzled. “Like…world peace?”

“No,” little me said. “Just peace in me.”

The kids tittered, as kids do, the teacher frowned in disapproval, as teachers do, and never again was that awkward moment mentioned. Peace. What does a child know? What does a child not know? The child in me already knew something, just a little something, of the battles raging in me, and already wanted respite from them. Me against the world. Me against everyone else. Me against life. Battle. That’s what they teach us life is, isn’t it? Not how to really be ourselves, but how to make these wars, in this truest and most deadly of ways.

Fast forward a few decades. I’m a good warrior. I’ve won all my battles. My books have been published, I’ve won some tiny degree of fame, money, respect, and so on. There’s just one catch, one price, one problem. Everyone’s also an enemy when all you are is the world’s greatest warrior. So my life is one long, endless, wearying war, in which relationships, happiness, meaning, truth, people are all expendable. Casualties. Friendly fire. And slowly, though I’m young, war, which is death, is asking its price: me. In a true and real way. Of my possibility to love, to know, to feel. I’m becoming dead relationally, mentally, physically, socially, to love, to life, to grace. War. The most deadly of ways. The battles raging in me. They are also the battles raging in you, too.

What I wanted was peace, yet all I’d really earned, in this adversarial way of life I’d been taught, was the opposite. Rage, turmoil, fury, becoming the storm, and do you know what those really are? They are forms of hopelessness, powerlessness, numbness, despair. They are prisons of the human soul, because every instant you live them is an instant you are not (by definition) happy, self-aware, capable of appreciating or enacting beauty or truth or wonder or mercy, even upon and within yourself. That series of little wars that I’d been taught was the one true way to live, to be, to achieve, to have, hadn’t gotten me any closer to fully living. Only, somehow, an endless distance away from it. It’s a terrible price I’m paying. But I don’t know any other currency to use than hostility in this little life.

And then I get sick. I don’t know it yet, but I’m fighting the one war I can never win. The sun is killing me. Can a man fight the sun? What will he use? A mountain to block the sky? A net made of comets? Such hubris, such folly, is what tragedies are made of. So there I am, fighting and fighting. It’s all I know. My teachers have taught me well. And yet the harder, the more desperately I fight, the idea, the truth, the terrible knowledge, that I am sick, and maybe I will never get well again, that maybe this is it, goodbye, the end, the more I can hear fate laughing at me. This is the one war you can never win.

One day, into a long and painful illness, I’m just watching people. Bam. Something is different. Really different. Not in them, in me. I can’t see them as enemies, adversaries, rivals, opponents, in a great and endless series of contests for all the pleasures people tempt each other with. Can’t. Which is what I’ve done all my life, because it’s what we are taught to do. I just see them. Their suffering and beauty and pain. Their fear and hurt and love. I’m as transfixed as I am transfigured. It’s not some kind of miraculous superpower. It’s right there, on every face. Don’t you know? A little dog does, a child does, the stars do. They see us as we truly are. So why don’t you? Why didn’t I? My teachers taught me well. But they didn’t teach me much at all.

Then, at last, there was peace. From where? Just from nothing but perspective. Nothing between me and people had changed. I hadn’t suddenly gained it by having more money, fans, friends, dates, things, wishes, small mercies, charity, or even kindness. Only now I had a sense of grace, which means just seeing, accepting, knowing, holding everyone as they are. Just as they are. Then you become the sky that holds every storm, and transforms it into the rain that waters the soil of the garden.

So peace comes to us through grace. And grace comes to us not from winning wars. Not wars to be wanted, desired, respected, admired, nor even wars of kindness, mercy. It comes to us only through the wars we can’t win. The wars we can’t win teach us what is really universal, constant, necessary, worthy, beautiful, true, in life. Suffering is always with us. But so is love. Love is greater than suffering, because one can undo the other, but the other cannot undo the one. And so the wars we can’t win teach us that life is not really a war at all. It is just a way home, a crossing to the other shore, a return.

We are always coming home to love, in this way, in every instant and moment, every thought and action, every feeling and perception, and in that return to the garden is grace, and in grace is the perfect stillness of the human heart. A river flows, but is still. A heart beats, and it is still. Then we are home. There is nothing wrong with life, there is nothing right with life, there is just life. But now life is greater than us, and yet, it is the same life. Just lived in countless ways, to express all the infinite names of love. The wars we can’t win teach us all that.

So. I don’t think that you or I can heal this broken world’s hostility. We are not here to do that, are we? That is another war, too. Just to become the sky, instead of only the storm. To plant some little part of us in the garden. To let our rivers flow. Just one of those is enough for a life, any life, every life. Then we are touching grace.

Umair
August

https://umairhaque.com/touching-grace-35e2c0b270a

Trump’s “trans ban” is an attack on health care

 — and an especially cruel one

Marginalizing health care for trans people is nonsense. It’s also unnecessary and needlessly hurtful

On Tuesday, a rash of extremely misleading headlines, from the New York Times to the Washington Post to ABC News, reported that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had “frozen” Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. This was misleading to the point of being a flat-out lie. As Mark Joseph Stern of Slate wrote:

This framing is an extreme mischaracterization of the facts. Mattis did not “freeze” the trans ban, and he is not “buy[ing] time” in some potentially insubordinate effort to buck Trump. In reality, the secretary is doing exactly what Trump directed him to do in a recent memo.

Mattis’ claim that the issue needs more study is a lie designed to make a decision based in raw bigotry look more thoughtful than it is. The reason we know this is that the military has already studied this issue extensively, releasing a 2016 report that found “allowing transgender personnel to serve openly” would have “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.”

The excuse that Trump used when he first announced this ban on Twitter, and the excuse he will almost certainly continue to use, is that medical care for trans people, such as hormone therapy or gender confirmation surgery, is too expensive. Not only is this another lie — it was widely reported that the military spends five times as much on Viagra as it expects to spend on gender confirmation treatments — but this excuse is in itself a form of bigotry, a way to demonize transgender people by stigmatizing the health care they need.

“The only reason we’re even having this conversation is because the president and others don’t actually consider health care for trans people to be real health care,” Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project, explained to Salon. “It’s only because we stigmatize this care and we don’t understand trans people that part of the conversation even comes up, because all of the evidence shows that the costs are negligible in a budget that’s billions and billions of dollars.”

Strangio, who helped Chelsea Manning with legal issues during her time in a military prison, is working on a suit that the ACLU filed against Trump and the Department of Defense on behalf of five active service members. The ban would not only bar trans people from enlisting and threaten the status of those currently serving, it would also forbid them from having equal access to health care.

“From a medical aspect, transgender care is regular health care,” explained Dr. Jenn Conti, an ob-gyn who has helped trans men with their gender confirmation care and who is an advocate for Physicians for Reproductive Health. Trump’s “statements and his tweets are truly not founded in medical science,” she continued. “It’s a political issue, and it’s something that’s happening at the expense of an already stigmatized and underserved population.”

What Conti and Strangio both emphasized repeatedly is that there is no reason, morally or medically, to single out trans health care as any different from any other kind of medically necessary care.

“There are enormous medical and psychological consequences that stem from being forced to live in the wrong body,” Conti explained. She has provided gender confirmation surgeries for trans men, including some veterans, and reports, “The relief they feel afterwards is indescribable.”

It’s frustrating to even have to write about this, because people’s right to private medical care that makes them healthy and whole should not be up for debate. Unfortunately, however, trans care — like contraception and abortion care — has been politicized by forces that wish to exploit these private health issues in interests of marginalizing entire classes of people.

“In all contexts, the data shows that not providing health care that’s necessary is more costly than providing it,” Strangio said. He contrasted the $8 million the Pentagon estimates they will spend on trans medical care versus the $960 million bath that the military will take by trying to implement a ban on trans troops.

Beyond the money, however, there is a human cost involved in marginalizing trans health care from any system, military or otherwise. Conti has firsthand knowledge, because she’s worked with patients who get health care through the Veterans Administration, which currently does not cover gender confirmation surgery or related trans medical treatments.

“These people, in addition to feeling really stigmatized, are tasked with this additional stressor of getting creative” in their pursuit of  health care, Conti said. Some of her patients have been forced to claim “that they need these procedures for other indications, like abnormal uterine bleeding or heavy bleeding.”

As far as Conti is concerned, any uterine bleeding is abnormal in a trans man, because they “aren’t meant to have a uterus.” However, the more humane and simpler solution is to simply treat health care for trans people as part of a regular health care system.

Banning trans service members adds another burden to the military medical care system by encouraging trans troops to hide their identity, Strangio added. Once inside the system, there are a number of situations, such as when getting sexual health or mental health care, that a closeted trans person may need to disclose his or her status to a doctor to get proper treatment. But doing so risks a discharged, creating an impossible and stressful choice that does no good for the patient, the doctor or the military.

Strangio expressed confidence that the ACLU’s case against Trump and the Department of Defense would be successful. Pentagon-financed research backs the inclusion of trans troops and coverage of their health care needs. There’s also “significant evidence,” Strangio added, that the president’s alleged concerns “are pretextual for animus that is driving the policy.” Even if the plaintiffs win, he hastened to note, Trump’s actions have done a tremendous amount of needless damage.

“Surgeries have been cancelled. People have been emboldened to act out their individual biases,” he said. The president has sent a message, in Strangio’s judgment that “the government doesn’t value our participation in public life, doesn’t take seriously our health needs.”

Unfair and unbalanced: Media defined Trump by his key issues — and Hillary Clinton by her phony scandals

Trump got his scary message out to voters, while Clinton’s issues got buried under an avalanche of email stories

Steve Bannon and his fellow travelers in right-wing media played us all for fools. While that’s never directly stated in a recent study of the role of media in the 2016 election, conducted by researchers from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, it’s the unavoidable conclusion after examining the results. The right-wing media ecosystem, epitomized by Bannon’s no-longer-former site Breitbart News, was not only able to colonize Republican voters’ minds but also to direct the focus of the mainstream media. The result was that Donald Trump got his political message out with great success, while Hillary Clinton was largely silenced, and defined for the public largely in terms of hysterical right-wing attacks.

In the mainstream media, “the coverage was negative for both candidates,” Yochai Benkler, one of the study authors, explained to Salon. “What became clear was that the conversation in the broader public sphere reflected the agenda that was set by the right,” he continued, “rather than an agenda that was set by Hillary Clinton.”

Simply by dint of being a loud-mouthed boor, Trump was able to dominate the media coverage so thoroughly that it’s a miracle that Clinton even got through, the researchers found.

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Even though most of the Trump coverage, like most of the Clinton coverage, was negative in tone, Trump was able to leverage the negativity to get his message in front of the voters. Even more important, his candidacy was largely defined by his primary issues, such as his hostility to immigration.

“When you say Trump makes a statement about a Muslim ban, that’s a statement about immigration,” Benkler said. That may get negative coverage, he argued, but it also helped educate voters who follow the mainstream media about his positions and views on the issue.

Coverage of Clinton, on the other hand, was largely substance-free and focused on overblown “scandals,” such as stories about leaked emails or stories highlighting donors to the Clinton Foundation. Her campaign’s efforts at creating a robust, progressive political platform were largely wasted on a mainstream media that was almost entirely uninterested in educating the public on her policy views.

The end result was that Trump’s policy positions on nearly all issues got more media attention than Clinton’s, even though the latter put time and effort into developing substantive views, while her opponent’s “policies” were mostly the result of him riffing off something he heard on Fox News.

 

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A number of Clinton’s critics argue, as Columbia professor Mark Lilla did in my recent interview with him for “Salon Talks,” that the Democrats in 2016 failed to “articulate a vision.” This arguments frustrates many Clinton supporters, who could point to the reams of policy ideas and political ideals she spent the campaign promoting. But it’s easy to see why some people might believe Clinton didn’t articulate or discuss a vision, when her efforts to do so were studiously ignored by mainstream media sources that were more interested in breathlessly covering the non-story about her private email server.

The extent to which Clinton was defined by these pseudo-scandals, while Trump was defined by his views, is illustrated by perhaps the most disheartening chart that the Harvard researchers created from their data.

Fig01

The gap between coverage of the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation is a crystalline example of how distorted the 2016 campaign coverage was. No one has ever found any evidence of Clinton misusing her powers as secretary of state to do favors for Clinton Foundation donors. In contrast, David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post found extensive evidence, including an admission on a tax form, that Trump used his foundation for dubious and possibly illegal self-dealing. Fahrenthold found that Trump used his foundation to buy personal items or to settle legal disputes, rather than for charitable purposes, which is the only legitimate use of foundation funds.

Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of the Trump Foundation, but somehow the rumors and insinuations around the Clinton Foundation got far more coverage. This contrast reveals how well right-wing media was able to control and direct the public conversation about the 2016 campaign.

On one hand, conservative media “provides a shared internal narrative for Trump supporters that keeps them comfortable with the choice and gets them mobilized,” Benkler said. “On the other, it produces a steady flow of stories that end up sometimes — often enough, it seems — setting the agenda for mainstream coverage. It’s this dual effect, on one hand stabilizing and insulating your base from the mainstream, and on the other nudging the mainstream coverage to cover your issues, that was so successful.”

The Clinton Foundation stories largely stemmed from a book called “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” written by then-Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer, who also co-founded a right-wing think tank called the Government Accountability Institute, with funding from hedge fund billionaire and Trump enthusiast Robert Mercer. Even though Schweizer had no real proof of corruption, he was able to get his insinuations about the Clinton Foundation covered heavily by The New York Times. After that, the story spread far and wide, from mainstream media to left-leaning sources read by Bernie Sanders supporters.

The Harvard report offers a much more thorough retelling, but the larger lesson here is chilling: Right-wing propaganda forces were able to define Clinton in the public eye, concealing what was without question a substantive policy agenda under a pile of nonsense about her emails and other supposed scandals. Trump, despite his deep and demonstrable corruption, was still able to get his message out — virtually everyone in the country knew what he stood for, whether they found it repulsive or refreshing.

As recent days have shown, many of the mainstream outlets worked as conduits for right wing propaganda, highlighting Trump’s policy message while burying Clinton’s, refuse to take responsibility for what happened. The first step in recovery is recognizing you have a problem. It’s hard to imagine how mainstream media journalists will do better the next time around if they can’t accept that their failures helped put Trump in the White House.