Ecstacy drug reborn as medicine

How MDMA is being used to treat trauma

Ecstacy isn’t just for fun anymore: the FDA says it provides real hope for treating PTSD

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On Nov. 30 the FDA approved a Phase III clinical trial to confirm the effectiveness of treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with MDMA, also known as Ecstasy.

This news appeared in headlines throughout the world, as it represents an important – yet somewhat unorthodox – advance in PTSD treatment.

However, the media have largely been referring to Ecstasy – the street name for this drug – as the treatment in this trial, rather than MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine). This can lead to misunderstanding, as recreational Ecstasy use is a highly stigmatized behavior. Using this terminology may further misconceptions about the study drug and its uses.

While Ecstasy is in fact a common street name for MDMA, what we call Ecstasy has changed dramatically since it became a prevalent recreational drug. Ecstasy now has a very different meaning – socially and pharmacologically.


Ecstasy tablets.
Drug Enforcement Agency Media Library

Social misunderstanding

It is understandable why the media have referred to this drug as Ecstasy rather than MDMA. Not only has much of the public at least heard of Ecstasy (and would not recognize MDMA), but this also increases shock value and readership.

But referring to a therapeutic drug by its street name (such as Ecstasy) is misleading – especially since MDMA is known to be among the most popular illicit drugs used at nightclubs and dance festivals. This leads some to assume that street drugs are being promoted and provided to patients, perhaps in a reckless manner.

About 80-85 percent of high school seniors and young adults disapprove of someone even trying Ecstasy once or twice. But stigmatizing attitudes tend to be much harsher than mere disapproval.

I investigated stigma toward Ecstasy users, and among young adults (age 18-25) who reported no lifetime use of the drug, many reported strong negative feelings toward those who use Ecstasy.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/RZJvg/3/

“Ecstasy” is in fact often used to refer to MDMA, but a lot of Ecstasy in the U.S. often contains little to no MDMA. While many assume the term Ecstasy means or at least implies MDMA, others believe (or know) that Ecstasy tends to be an adulterated drug when purchased “on the street.”

Pharmacological misunderstanding: A brief history of drug purity

When Ecstasy boomed in popularity in the early 1980s, it tended to consist of pure MDMA, or sometimes its chemical sister MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine). But after MDMA became illegal in the U.S. in 1985, purity began to decrease.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, drugs such as cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine were common adulterants in Ecstasy.

As a party drug, many people didn’t know or even care that ecstasy was supposed to be MDMA, but others specifically sought pure MDMA, rather than adulterated products. Demand grew. While pills said to be pure MDMA were certainly marketed and sold throughout the 1990s, more expensive Ecstasy in powder form (sold in capsules) slowly grew in demand. Within a few years this exploded into what we know now as “Molly.”

Molly is commonly marketed as being pure MDMA. But in recent years we have found that Molly is often the furthest thing from pure MDMA. Synthetic cathinones, also known as “bath salts,” appear to be the most common adulterants or outright replacements.

Ecstasy-related deaths

Deaths related to Ecstasy use appear to have increased in recent years, but many of these deaths appear to have been largely dependent on environmental conditions. MDMA can raise blood pressure and interfere with regulation of body temperature, which can certainly make it dangerous, especially in large doses and to those with preexisting conditions.

But what we often fail to consider is that Ecstasy-related deaths have tended to occur after hours of dancing – often in very hot conditions (such as crowded nightclubs or at festivals in 85 degree Fahrenheit or higher temperature), without adequate rest or proper hydration, or both.

Would these deaths have occurred without Ecstasy? Probably not. But most of these outcomes were very much dependent on extreme environmental conditions.

Many deaths in the U.S. related to Ecstasy or Molly use have also involved co-use of drugs such as alcohol, or unintentional use of “bath salts” or other adulterants, or a combination. In Europe, however, deaths have been increasing due to use of very high-potency pills (over 200 mg).

Extreme environmental conditions, adulterants, use of high-potency Ecstasy products, and ignorance about drug effects are all potential recipes for disaster when Ecstasy is used, especially when harm reduction techniques are not applied.

Is it really appropriate, then, to compare the therapeutic use of MDMA in this study to individuals using illegal, adulterated, or high-potency ecstasy, and dancing for hours in the heat?

The researchers are using pure MDMA, and in low doses. The drug is also used under medical supervision in a safe office, and patients receive medical clearance before entering the trial.

Misconceptions continue

MDMA is by no means a new drug, but misconceptions have continued for decades. MDMA was discovered over a century ago, and the drug’s effects have been researched and documented for decades.

Knowledge about the drug’s potential therapeutic value is nothing new, either. We have known this since the 1970s, but have largely lacked the formal research supporting its efficacy. The drug was administered by thousands of therapists in the early 1980s before it hit the nightclub scene and was made illegal in 1985. Many therapists and advocates fought to keep MDMA legal when it was banned, and some of these fighters – primarily Rick Doblin and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), have continued to fight for decades, to gain approval for clinical trials of MDMA to be conducted.

It’s easy to view MDMA as just a dangerous party drug, but it was used for therapeutic purposes way before it exploded into nightlife. All our lives we’ve been taught illicit drugs are bad, but so few of us know the history of these drugs prior to their criminalization.

We also tend to focus on the negative publicized effects, and many individuals still believe misinformation such that MDMA use puts holes in the brain, drains spinal fluid, or causes Parkinson’s disease.
As drugs like MDMA and psilocybin move back into the spotlight as having therapeutic value, we must understand that while we may see various drugs as having “bad” uses, this doesn’t mean they are “bad” substances. Some of these drugs appear to be very useful in medical or therapeutic contexts.We also often forget to consider that these same stigmatized drugs may also have important medical value. For example, amphetamine has been a drug of abuse since the 1930s, but it is efficacious in treating ADHD under the trade name Adderall. And despite increasing abuse of opioids in the U.S., these pills are still highly efficacious in treating pain. Like opioids and amphetamine, MDMA appears to have its place in medicine.

The Conversation

Joseph Palamar, Assistant Professor of Population Health, New York University Langone Medical Center

Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could Be Wrong

WORLD
Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned skepticism.

Emergency responders following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces in the Al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 6, 2014

The Iraqi army, backed by US-led airstrikes, is trying to capture east Mosul at the same time as the Syrian army and its Shia paramilitary allies are fighting their way into east Aleppo. An estimated 300 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by government artillery and bombing in the last fortnight, and in Mosul there are reportedly some 600 civilian dead over a month.

Despite these similarities, the reporting by the international media of these two sieges is radically different.

In Mosul, civilian loss of life is blamed on Isis, with its indiscriminate use of mortars and suicide bombers, while the Iraqi army and their air support are largely given a free pass. Isis is accused of preventing civilians from leaving the city so they can be used as human shields.

Contrast this with Western media descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians regardless of whether they stay or try to flee. The UN chief of humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, suggested this week that the rebels in east Aleppo were stopping civilians departing – but unlike Mosul, the issue gets little coverage.

One factor making the sieges of east Aleppo and east Mosul so similar, and different, from past sieges in the Middle East, such as the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 or of Gaza in 2014, is that there are no independent foreign journalists present. They are not there for the very good reason that Isis imprisons and beheads foreigners while Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is only a shade less bloodthirsty and generally holds them for ransom.

These are the two groups that dominate the armed opposition in Syria as a whole. In Aleppo, though only about 20 per cent of the 10,000 fighters are Nusra, it is they – along with their allies in Ahrar al-Sham – who are leading the resistance.

Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists covering developments in east Aleppo and rebel-held areas of Syria overwhelmingly do so from Lebanon or Turkey. A number of intrepid correspondents who tried to do eyewitness reporting from rebel-held areas swiftly found themselves tipped into the boots of cars or otherwise incarcerated.

Experience shows that foreign reporters are quite right not to trust their lives even to the most moderate of the armed opposition inside Syria. But, strangely enough, the same media organisations continue to put their trust in the veracity of information coming out of areas under the control of these same potential kidnappers and hostage takers. They would probably defend themselves by saying they rely on non-partisan activists, but all the evidence is that these can only operate in east Aleppo under license from the al-Qaeda-type groups.

It is inevitable that an opposition movement fighting for its life in wartime will only produce, or allow to be produced by others, information that is essentially propaganda for its own side. The fault lies not with them but a media that allows itself to be spoon-fed with dubious or one-sided stories.

For instance, the film coming out of east Aleppo in recent weeks focuses almost exclusively on heartrending scenes of human tragedy such as the death or maiming of civilians. One seldom sees shots of the 10,000 fighters, whether they are wounded or alive and well.

None of this is new. The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.

The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.

It is always a weakness of journalists that they pretend to excavate the truth when in fact they are the conduit rather than the originator of information produced by others in their own interests. Reporters learn early that people tell them things because they are promoting some cause which might be their own career or related to bureaucratic infighting or, just possibly, hatred of lies and injustice.

A word here in defense of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.

Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned skepticism. They should keep in mind the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria. Speaking after he had resigned in frustration in 2014, he said that “everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all”.

The quote comes from The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which is one of the best informed and non-partisan accounts of the Syrian tragedy yet published. He judiciously weighs the evidence for rival explanations for what happened and why. He understands the degree to which the agenda and pace events in Syria were determined externally by the intervention of foreign powers pursuing their own interests.

Overall, government experts did better than journalists, who bought into simple-minded explanations of developments, convinced that Assad was always on the verge of being overthrown.

Phillips records that at a high point of the popular uprising in July 2011, when the media was assuming that Assad was finished, that the long-serving British ambassador in Damascus, Simon Collis, wrote that “Assad can still probably count on the support of 30-40 per cent of the population.”

The French ambassador Eric Chevallier was similarly cautious, only to receive a classic rebuke from his masters in Paris who said: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East Correspondent for the Independent. He has written four books on Iraq’s recent history—The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the Sunni Revolution, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, The Occupation, and Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn)—as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. 

http://www.alternet.org/world/why-everything-youve-read-about-syria-and-iraq-could-be-wrong?akid=14961.265072.IftxtM&rd=1&src=newsletter1068352&t=16

City Attorney Spraying Anti-Trump Graffiti While Drinking Wine Is All We Have Left

For the liberal elites, it’s come to this. We’ve been reduced to this. We are all Duncan Lloyd, an assistant city solicitor in Philadelphia. Lloyd was busted by surveillance cameras videoing a buddy spraying “Fuck Trump” on the side of a newly opened Fresh Grocer. Lloyd is pictured below in his civil disobedience uniform.

duncan-lloyd

Yes. That’s a man, wearing an ascot, holding a glass of wine, who tagged an upscale supermarket.

This is our life now, hyper-educated coastal elites. We’re not going to stock up on guns and insta-waffles. We’re not going to hop in a Prius and ethanol-roll motorists we disagree with. We’re not going to burn an American flag, because we don’t own an American flag, because what kind of jingoistic prick can find space for a freaking flag in a one-bedroom apartment?

All we can do is turn up our noses, drown ourselves in an earthy vintage, and tastefully vandalize what establishments we pass. We are a broken, beaten people. It’s just like high school. We’ve got our books and our vastly superior reservoirs of knowledge and empathy, they’ve got a viselike grip on our underpants. “F**k Trump” isn’t a protest, it’s a prayer, only we’re too smart to really believe that there’s an invisible sky judge who is listening.

Republicans are all too happy to pounce on our weakness and despair:

“If the image of an upper-middle-class city attorney clad in a blazer and sipping wine while vandalizing an upscale grocery store with an anti-Trump message strikes you as perhaps the most bourgeois sight imaginable, that’s because it is,” said Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party.

I bet Joe DeFelice doesn’t know how to recognize or pronounce “ascot,” or suspects his supporters are too stupid to know what one is, so he chose to snark Lloyd’s blazer:

“Nothing can better represent the hysterical pearl-clutching of the ‘progressive’ elite in response to this earth-shattering election, when residents of Chestnut Hill and similar neighborhoods across the country discovered – gasp – that other people have a voice too.”

It’s not the discovery of their voice that has us clutching our pearls. It’s the waking nightmare of having to listen to it. We already gave these people the History Channel, and they turned it into 24 straight hours of men with visible ass-crack fishing, chopping, and fighting over trash left behind in a storage locker. WHAT WILL THEY DO WITH C-SPAN? I cannot abide live coverage of Tom Cotton buying guns and meat at Walmart.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says Lloyd can keep his job he hasn’t made a final decision about Lloyd’s job. Unquestionably, that’s a double-standard. If a Trump supporter had written “Go Trump” on the side of a synagogue, or a library, or really anything of intellectual value, he’d be out on his ass.

But that’s because these Trump people are actually frightening. They ran on a campaign of white supremacy. When they vandalize your city, the action is but part of a larger campaign of hate crimes and intimidation.

When Duncan Lloyd vandalizes your city, it’s part of his larger campaign of finding a way to crawl out from under his covers in the morning. Look at him. LOOK AT HIM. He’s not out here trying to send the children of Trump supporters back to Mexico. He’s not trying to destroy the climate so Jesus can Rapture him to Graceland. He just wants to be able to look his cats in the eye without feeling ineffectual and ashamed. “I made a statement today, Odysseus and Penelope. I’m not going to let this be normalized.”

So, laugh at Duncan Lloyd. Laugh at all of us. Cackle away! But remember, it’s people like Lloyd who are at least trying to deal with reality. It’s all you Trump voters who will be looking the other way while he pulls your pants down and takes what coins you’ve scraped together. The con man is going to screw you guys the hardest.

One day, you’ll be asking to borrow Lloyd’s spray paint.

UPDATE (12/2/16: 12:00): The mayor’s office says that it has not decided on a course of action yet. Kenney’s office says: “We’re waiting to hear the full story, and we’re waiting to see if any charges are filed. The Mayor and Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante will make a decision on [Lloyd’s] employment based on that information.”

Kenney: Anti-Trump vandalism involving city attorney ‘dumb mistake’ [Philly.com]
Philly GOP to city: Fire ascot-clad wine-sipping ‘F–k Trump’ graffiti lawyer [Billy Penn]


Elie Mystal is an editor of Above the Law and the Legal Editor for More Perfect. He can be reached @ElieNYC on Twitter, or at elie@abovethelaw.com. He will resist.

History of the alt-right

The movement isn’t just Breitbart and white nationalists — it’s worse

The alt-right is likely to grow, gaining a firmer foothold in American politics

History of the alt-right: The movement isn't just Breitbart and white nationalists — it's worse

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

In recent months, far-right activists — which some have labeled the “alt-right” — have gone from being an obscure, largely online subculture to a player at the very center of American politics.

Long relegated to the cultural and political fringe, alt-right activists were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump. Earlier this year, Breitbart executive Steve Bannon declared the website “the platform for the alt-right.” By August, Bannon was appointed the CEO of the Trump campaign. In the wake of Trump’s victory, he’ll be joining Trump in the White House as a senior advisor.

I’ve spent years extensively researching the American far right, and the movement seems more energized than ever. To its critics, the alt-right is just a code term for white nationalism, a much-maligned ideology associated with neo-Nazis and Klansmen. The movement, however, is more nuanced, encompassing a much broader spectrum of right-wing activists and intellectuals.

How did the movement gain traction in recent years? And now that Trump has won, could the alt-right change the American political landscape?

Mainstreaming a movement

The alt-right includes white nationalists, but it also includes those who believe in libertarianism, men’s rights, cultural conservatism and populism.

Nonetheless, its origins can be traced to various American white nationalist movements that have endured for decades. These groups have historically been highly marginalized, with virtually no influence on the mainstream culture and certainly not over public policy. Some of the most radical elements have long advocated a revolutionary program.

Groups such as the Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator have preached racial revolution against ZOG, or the “Zionist Occupation Government.” Many were inspired by the late William L. Pierce’s “Turner Diaries,” a novel about a race war that consumes America. (Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, had pages from the book in his possession when he was captured.)

But these exhortations didn’t resonate with most people. What’s more, after 9/11, many of the revolutionary right’s leading representatives were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism statutes and sent to prison. By the mid-2000s, the far right appeared to have reached its nadir.

Into this void stepped Richard Spencer and a new group of far-right intellectuals.

In 2008, conservative political philosopher Paul Gottfried was the first to use the term “alternative right,” describing it as a dissident far-right ideology that rejected mainstream conservatism. (Gottfried had previously coined the term “paleoconservative” in an effort to distance himself and like-minded intellectuals from neoconservatives, who had become the dominant force in the Republican Party.)

William Regnery II, a wealthy and reclusive, founded the National Policy Institute as a white nationalist think tank. A young and rising star of the far right, Spencer assumed leadership in 2011. A year earlier, he launched the website “Alternative Right” and became recognized as one of the most important, expressive leaders of the alt-right movement.

Around this time, Spencer popularized the term “cuckservative,” which has gained currency in the alt-right vernacular. In essence, a cuckservative is a conservative sellout who is first and foremost concerned about abstract principles such as the U.S. Constitution, free market economics and individual liberty.

The alt-right, on the other hand, is more concerned about concepts such as nation, race, civilization and culture. Spencer has worked hard to rebrand white nationalism as a legitimate political movement. Explicitly rejecting the notion of racial supremacy, Spencer calls for the creation of separate, racially exclusive homelands for white people.

Different factions

The primary issue for American white nationalists is immigration. They claim that high fertility rates for third-world immigrants and low fertility rates for white women will — if left unchecked — threaten the very existence of whites as a distinct race.

But even on the issue of demographic displacement, there’s disagreement in the white nationalist movement. The more genteel representatives of the white nationalism argue that these trends developed over time because whites have lost the temerity necessary to defend their racial group interests.

By contrast, the more conspiratorial segment of the movement implicates a deliberate Jewish-led plot to reduce whites to minority status. By doing so, Jews would render their historically most formidable “enemy” weak and minuscule — just another minority among many.

Emblematic of the latter view is Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor at the California State University at Long Beach. In a trilogy of books released in the mid- to late 1990s, he advanced an evolutionary theory to explain both Jewish and antisemitic collective behavior.

According to MacDonald, anti-Semitism emerged not so much out of perceived fantasies of Jewish malfeasance but because of genuine conflicts of interests between Jews and Gentiles. He’s argued that Jewish intellectuals, activists and leaders have sought to fragment Gentile societies along the lines of race, ethnicity and gender. Over the past decade and a half, his research has been circulated and celebrated in white nationalist online forums.

A growing media and internet presence

Cyberspace became one area where white nationalists could exercise some limited influence on the broader culture. The subversive, underground edges of the internet — which include forums like 4chan and 8chan — have allowed young white nationalists to anonymously share and post comments and images. Even on mainstream news sites such as USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times, white nationalists can troll the comments sections.

More important, new media outlets emerged online that began to challenge their mainstream competitors: Drudge Report, Infowars and, most notably, Breitbart News.

Founded by Andrew Breitbart in 2007, Breitbart News has sought to be a conservative outlet that influences both politics and culture. For Breitbart, conservatives didn’t adequately prioritize winning the culture wars — conceding on issues like immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness — which ultimately enabled the political left to dominate the public discourse on these topics.

As he noted in 2011, “politics really is downstream from culture.”

The candidacy of Donald Trump enabled a disparate collection of groups — which included white nationalists — to coalesce around one candidate. But given the movement’s ideological diversity, it would be a serious mischaracterization to label the alt-right as exclusively white nationalist.

Yes, Breitbart News has become popular with white nationalists. But the site has also unapologetically backed Israel. Since its inception, Jews — including Andrew Breitbart, Larry Solov, Alexander Marlow, Joel Pollak, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos — have held leading positions in the organization. In fact, in recent months, Yiannopoulos, a self-described “half Jew” and practicing Catholic — who’s also a flamboyant homosexual with a penchant for black boyfriends — has emerged as the movement’s leading spokesman on college campuses (though he denies the alt-right characterization).

Furthermore, the issues that animate the movement — consternation over immigration, national economic decline and political correctness — existed long before Trump announced his candidacy. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama opined, the real question is not why this brand of populism emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to manifest.

Mobilized for the future?

The success of the Trump campaign demonstrated the potential influence of the alt-right in the coming years. At first blush, Trump’s victory in the Electoral College seems substantial. But his margin of victory in several key states was quite slim. For that reason, support from every quarter he received — including the alt-right — was vitally important.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that they were among his most avid foot soldiers in getting out the vote in both the primaries and general election. Moreover, the Trump campaign provided the opportunity for members of this movement to meet face to face.

Shortly after the election, Richard Spencer said that Trump’s victory was “the first step, the first stage towards identity politics for white people.” To some observers, Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist confirms fears that the far-right fringe has penetrated the White House.

But if Trump fails to deliver on his most emphatic campaign promises — such as building the wall — the alt-right might become disillusioned with him, just like the progressives who chastised Barack Obama for continuing to prosecute wars in the Middle East.

Unlike old-school white nationalist movements, the alt-right has endeavored to create a self-sustaining counterculture, which includes a distinct vernacular, memes, symbols and a number of blogs and alternative media outlets.

Now that it has been mobilized and demonstrated its relevance (just look at the number of articles written about the movement, which further publicizes it), the alt-right is likely to grow, gaining a firmer foothold in American politics.

The Conversation

George Michael is a professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University.

http://www.salon.com/2016/11/24/history-of-the-alt-right-the-movement-is-not-just-breitbart-and-white-nationalists-it-is-worse_partner/?source=newsletter

Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.

Preoccupations
By CAL NEWPORT

I’m a millennial computer scientist who also writes books and runs a blog. Demographically speaking I should be a heavy social media user, but that is not the case. I’ve never had a social media account.

At the moment, this makes me an outlier, but I think many more people should follow my lead and quit these services. There are many issues with social media, from its corrosion of civic life to its cultural shallowness, but the argument I want to make here is more pragmatic: You should quit social media because it can hurt your career.

This claim, of course, runs counter to our current understanding of social media’s role in the professional sphere. We’ve been told that it’s important to tend to your so-called social media brand, as this provides you access to opportunities you might otherwise miss and supports the diverse contact network you need to get ahead. Many people in my generation fear that without a social media presence, they would be invisible to the job market.

In a recent New York magazine essay, Andrew Sullivan recalled when he started to feel obligated to update his blog every half-hour or so. It seemed as if everyone with a Facebook account and a smartphone now felt pressured to run their own high-stress, one-person media operation, and “the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone,” he wrote.

I think this behavior is misguided. In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.

A common response to my social media skepticism is the idea that using these services “can’t hurt.” In addition to honing skills and producing things that are valuable, my critics note, why not also expose yourself to the opportunities and connections that social media can generate? I have two objections to this line of thinking.

First, interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim. In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle. I currently have filters on my website aimed at reducing, not increasing, the number of offers and introductions I receive.

My research on successful professionals underscores that this experience is common: As you become more valuable to the marketplace, good things will find you. To be clear, I’m not arguing that new opportunities and connections are unimportant. I’m instead arguing that you don’t need social media’s help to attract them.

My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate — the skill on which I make my living.

The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter.

Perhaps more important, however, than my specific objections to the idea that social media is a harmless lift to your career, is my general unease with the mind-set this belief fosters. A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive, especially for many members of my generation who were raised on this message, but it can be disastrously counterproductive.

Most social media is best described as a collection of somewhat trivial entertainment services that are currently having a good run. These networks are fun, but you’re deluding yourself if you think that Twitter messages, posts and likes are a productive use of your time.

If you’re serious about making an impact in the world, power down your smartphone, close your browser tabs, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

American Irrationalism

Posted on Oct 30, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  The false values of reality TV have been carried over into the current presidential race. Shown here, Donald Trump on “The Apprentice.” (NBC)

There is no shortage of signs of impending environmental catastrophe, including the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise of atmospheric carbon to above 400 parts per million. The earth’s sixth mass extinction is underway. It is not taking place because of planetary forces. Homo sapiens is orchestrating it. Americans are at the same time bankrupting themselves by waging endless and unwinnable wars. We have allowed our elites to push more than half the U.S. population into poverty through deindustrialization. We do nothing to halt the waves of nihilistic violence by enraged citizens who carry out periodic mass shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters and other public places. The political and financial elites flaunt their greed and corruption. Donald Trump appears to pay no federal income taxes. Hillary and Bill Clinton use their foundation as a tool for legalized bribery. Our largest corporations have orchestrated a legal tax boycott. The judicial system is a subsidiary of the corporate state. Militarized police conduct public executions of unarmed people of color. Our infrastructure, including our schools, roads and bridges, along with our deindustrialized cities, are in ruins. Decay and rot—physical and moral—are pervasive.

We are blinded to our depressing reality by the avalanche of images disseminated by mass media. Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth. Highly paid pundits who parrot back the official narrative, corporate advertisers, inane talk shows, violent or sexually explicit entertainment and gossip-fueled news have contaminated cultural life. “Reality” television, as contrived as every other form of mass entertainment, has produced a “reality” presidential candidate.

Mass culture, because it speaks to us in easily digestible clichés and stereotypes, reinforces ignorance, bigotry and racism. It promotes our individual and collective self-glorification. It sanctifies nonexistent national virtues. It takes from us the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to separate illusion from truth. It is all show business all the time.

There are hundreds of millions of Americans who know that something is terribly wrong. A light has gone out. They see this in their own suffering and hopelessness and the suffering and hopelessness of their neighbors. But they lack, because of the contamination of our political, cultural and intellectual discourse, the words and ideas to make sense of what is happening around them. They are bereft of a vision. Austerity, globalization, unfettered capitalism, an expansion of the extraction of fossil fuels, and war are not the prices to be paid for progress and the advance of civilization. They are part of the savage and deadly exploitation by corporate capitalism and imperialism. They serve a neoliberal ideology. The elites dare not speak this truth. It is toxic. They peddle the seductive illusions that saturate the airwaves. We are left to strike out at shadows. We are led to succumb to the racism, allure of white supremacy and bigotry that always accompany a culture in dissolution.

We cannot, for this reason, discount the possibility that Trump will be elected president. The election outcome will be decided by whatever emotion Americans feel when they cast their ballots.

Celebrity narratives, manufactured pseudo-drama, sex scandals, natural disasters, insults and invective, mass shootings and war flash before us in a constant jumble of images on ubiquitous screens. The sensory assault obliterates reality. A former congressman who sends a picture of himself in underwear to a woman is a national news story. Sober examinations of our economic, foreign, judicial and environmental policies are dismissed as too complicated and boring. They do not produce engaging images. The electronic media’s sole goal is to attract viewers and advertising dollars. It has conditioned us to demand a nonstop vaudeville act.

Because of this mass indoctrination, we have become infected by what Daniel Boorstin in “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” calls “social narcissism.” The bottomless narcissism of Trump and the Clintons caters to this social narcissism. They reflect back to us our desperate longing for, as well as celebration of, entertainment, celebrity, wealth, power and self-aggrandizement. It is not only advertising and public relations, as Boorstin pointed out, that carry out the incessant manufacturing of illusions that feed social narcissism. Journalists, book publishers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, positive psychologists, self-help gurus, the Christian right and talk show hosts all feed the mania for illusion. They all chant the insane mantra that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. We can have anything we want if we work hard, get an education, believe in ourselves, grasp that we are exceptional and see the impossible as always possible. It is magical thinking. And magical thinking is the only real commodity the elites have left offer to us. Make American Great Again. Or American already is great. Take your pick of idiotic clichés.

“We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world,” Boorstin wrote. “We demand that everyone who talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the peoples of foreign countries. We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid.”

The incessant search for instant gratification and the most appealing image, including the image of ourselves we manufacture for others on social media, has robbed us of the ability to examine ourselves and our society. It has extinguished the truth. The terminal decline of the American empire, the utter inability our elites to manage anything important, the climate crisis, widespread poverty and despair do not fit with the illusion. So these realities are blotted from public consciousness. The poor are rendered invisible. The foreign policy debacles will be fixed with more bombs. Only the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, along with the medieval Catholic Church, controlled thought as effectively.

Candidates Trump and Clinton have no plans to halt our slide to oblivion. They are part of the circus. They, like all of the other elites, profit from the system that is destroying us. They lack the incentive and probably the capacity to challenge the structures and assumptions that define corporate capitalism. They function as high priests. They peddle the illusions. They laud our ingenuity and strength. They preach the inevitability of human progress and American exceptionalism. They tell us what we want to hear. They appeal to our emotions, as does all of mass culture. They do not acknowledge reality. That would spoil the show.

We vote for slogans, manufactured personalities, perceived sincerity, personal attractiveness and the crafted personal narratives peddled by candidates. Office seekers create the illusion of intimacy established between celebrities and their audiences. We see ourselves in them; admirers of the “winner” Trump see themselves as becoming him. No politician succeeds without such artifice. Today’s politics is just one more product of a diseased culture. Our political leaders are much like the celebrities who, in Boorstin’s words, “are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.”

The incoherent absurdities mouthed for our amusement induce a state of permanent amnesia. Life is lived in an eternal present. How we got here, where we came from, what shaped us as a society, in short the continuum of history that gives us an identity, are eradicated.

The quest for identity through mass culture is self-defeating. We can never achieve what these illusions tell us we can achieve. We can never be who we want to be. It is a ceaseless chase from one chimera to the next. And this is why at the end we fall into despair and rage. It is why huge parts of the country no longer hold genuine political ideas. It is why people vote according to how they feel. It is why hatred and fear are a potent political platform. It is why we are sleepwalking into oblivion.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/american_irrationalism_201610305

The young victims of America’s gun culture

An American slaughter: 

A new book explores the violence that comes with America’s gun culture, and the young casualties that come with it

An American slaughter: The young victims of America’s gun culture
(Credit: Apple/Salon)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Every day, on average, seven kids and teens are shot dead in America. Election 2016 will undoubtedly prove consequential in many ways, but lowering that death count won’t be one of them. To grapple with fatalities on that scale — 2,500 dead children annually — a candidate would need a thoroughgoing plan for dealing with America’s gun culture that goes well beyond background checks. In addition, he or she would need to engage with the inequality, segregation, poverty, and lack of mental health resources that add up to the environment in which this level of violence becomes possible.  Think of it as the huge pile of dry tinder for which the easy availability of firearms is the combustible spark. In America in 2016, to advocate for anything like the kind of policies that might engage with such issues would instantly render a candidacy implausible, if not inconceivable — not least with the wealthy folks who now fund elections.

So the kids keep dying and, in the absence of any serious political or legislative attempt to tackle the causes of their deaths, the media and the political class move on to excuses. From claims of bad parenting to lack of personal responsibility, they regularly shift the blame from the societal to the individual level. Only one organized group at present takes the blame for such deaths.  The problem, it is suggested, isn’t American culture, but gang culture.

Researching my new book, Another Day in the Death of America, about all the children and teens shot dead on a single random Saturday in 2013, it became clear how often the presence of gangs in neighborhoods where so many of these kids die is used as a way to dismiss serious thinking about why this is happening. If a shooting can be described as “gang related,” then it can also be discounted as part of the “pathology” of urban life, particularly for people of color. In reality, the main cause, pathologically speaking, is a legislative system that refuses to control the distribution of firearms, making America the only country in the world in which such a book would have been possible.

“Gang Related”

The obsession with whether a shooting is “gang related” and the ignorance the term exposes brings to mind an interview I did 10 years ago with septuagenarian Buford Posey in rural Mississippi. He had lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, around the time that three civil rights activists — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were murdered. As I spoke to him about that era and the people living in that town (some of whom, like him, were still alive), I would bring up a name and he would instantly interject, “Well, he was in the Klan,” or “Well, his Daddy was in the Klan,” or sometimes he would just say “Klan” and leave it at that.

After a while I had to stop him and ask for confirmation. “Hang on,” I said, “I can’t just let you say that about these people without some proof or corroboration. How do you know they were in the Klan?”

“Hell,” he responded matter-of-factly, “I was in the Klan. Near everybody around here was in the Klan around that time. Being in the Klan was no big deal.”

Our allegiances and affiliations are, of course, our choice. Neither Posey nor any of the other white men in Philadelphia had to join the Klan, and clearly some were more enthusiastic participants than others. (Posey himself would go on to support the civil rights movement.)

It’s no less true that context shapes such choices. If Posey had grown up in Vermont, it’s unlikely that he’d ever have joined the Klan. If a white Vermonter had been born and raised in Mississippi in those years, the likelihood is that he’d have had a pressed white sheet in the closet for special occasions.

At the time, for white men in Philadelphia the Klan was the social mixing place du jour. It was what you did if you had any hope of advancing locally, did not want to be left out of things, or simply preferred to swim with the tide. Since pretty much everyone you knew was involved in one way or another, to be white and live in Philadelphia then was to be, in some way, “Klan related.” That doesn’t mean being in the Klan should give anyone a pass, but it does mean that if you wanted to understand how it operated, why it had the reach it did, and ultimately how to defeat it rather than just condemn it, you first had to understand its appeal in that moment.

The same is true of gangs today in urban America. On the random day I picked for my book, 10 children and teens died by gun. Not all of their assailants have been caught and probably they never will be. Depending on how you define the term, however, it would be possible to argue that eight of those killings were gang related.  Either the assailant or the victim was (or was likely to have been) part of a group that could be called a gang.  Only two were clearly not gang related — either the victim and the shooter were not in a gang or membership in a gang had nothing to do with the shooting. But all 10 deaths did have one clear thing in common: they were all gun-related.

The emphasis on gang membership has always seemed to me like a way of filtering child deaths into two categories: deserving and undeserving. If a shooting was gang related then it’s assumed that the kid had it coming and was, in some way, responsible for his or her own death. Only those not gang related were innocents and so they alone were worthy of our sympathy.

Making a “Blacklist”

The more I spoke to families and people on the ground, the more it became clear how unhelpful the term “gang related” is in understanding who is getting shot and why.  As a term, it’s most often used not to describe but to dismiss.

Take Edwin Rajo, 16, who was shot dead in Houston, Texas, at about 8 p.m. on that November 23rd. He lived in Bellaire Gardens, a low-rise apartment complex on a busy road of commercial and residential properties in an area called Gulfton in southwest Houston. It sat between a store selling bridal wear and highly flammable-looking dresses for quinceañera — the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday — and the back of a Fiesta supermarket, part of a Texas-based, Hispanic-oriented chain with garish neon lighting that makes you feel as though you’re shopping for groceries in Las Vegas. Opposite it was a pawnshop, a beauty salon, a Mexican taqueria, and a Salvadorean restaurant.

The Southwest Cholos ran this neighborhood, complex by complex. There was no avoiding them. “They start them really, really young,” one of Edwin’s teachers told me. “In elementary. Third grade, fourth grade. And that’s just how it is for kids… You join for protection. Even if you’re not cliqued in, so long as you’re associated with them, you’re good. You have to claim a clique to be safe. If you’re not, if you’re by yourself, you’re gonna get jumped.”

In other words, if you grow up in Bellaire Gardens you are a gang member in the same way that Soviet citizens were members of the Communist Party and Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party.  There is precious little choice, which means that, in and of itself, gang affiliation doesn’t tell you much.

Edwin, a playful and slightly immature teenager, was not, in fact, an active member of the Cholos, though he identified with them.  Indeed, you get the impression that they considered him something of a liability. “They accepted him,” said his teacher.  “He hung with them. But he wasn’t in yet.” His best friend in the complex, Camilla (not her real name), was in the gang, as allegedly was her mother. She sported the Cholo-style dress and had a gang name. After several altercations with someone from a rival gang, who threatened them and took a shot at Camilla’s brother, she decided to get a gun.

“We were thinking like little kids,” Camilla told me. “I didn’t really know anything about guns. I just know you shoot with it and that’s it.”

Sure enough, Edwin was at Camilla’s apartment that night and suggested they play with the gun. In the process, she shot him, not realizing that, even though the clip was out, one bullet was still in the chamber. So was that shooting gang related? After all, the shooter was in a gang. She had been threatened by someone from a rival gang and Edwin may indeed have had aspirations to be in her gang.

Or was it an accidental shooting in which two kids who knew nothing about guns acquired one and one of them got killed while they were messing around?

In an environment in which gangs run everything, most things most people do are in some way going to be “gang related.” But defining all affiliation as a kind of complicity in violence not only means writing off children in entire communities for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, but criminalizing them in the process.

For one thing, the criteria for gang membership couldn’t be more subjective and loose. Gang leaders don’t exactly hand out membership cards. Sometimes it’s just a matter of young people hanging out. Take Stanley Taylor, who was shot dead in the early hours of that November morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. He spent a lot of his time on Beatties Ford Road with his friends. “I ain’t gonna say it was a gang,” says his buddy Trey. “But it was a neighborhood thing. Beatties Ford. We got our own little clique. We on the West Side. North Side is a whole different neighborhood you don’t even fool with. Everybody was together. This my brother, this my brother. We all in the same clique. We got each other’s back. I’m not going to let nobody else touch you. If you hit him, I’m gonna hit you. Cos I’m his brother.”

Stanley was shot at a gas station in the wake of an altercation with Demontre Rice, who was from the North Side, after Rice allegedly almost ran him over as he pulled in. It’s not obvious that either man knew where the other was from and yet if Rice were in a gang (something I can’t even confirm), that would, of course, make his killing gang related.

Sometimes gangs do have actual rites of initiation. Since, however, gang affiliation can be a guide to criminal activity, authorities are constantly trying to come up with more definite ways of identifying gang members. Almost inevitably, such attempts quickly fall back on stereotypes. A 1999 article inColorlines, for instance, typically pointed out that in “at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the ‘gang member’ definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas sneakers are sufficient.” In suburban Aurora, Colorado, local police decided that any two of the following constituted gang membership: “slang,” “clothing of a particular color,” “pagers,” “hairstyles,” “jewelry.”

Black people made up 11% of Aurora’s population and 80% of its gang database. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, “They might as well call it a blacklist.”

Under the Gun

Gangs are neither new nor racially specific. From the Irish, Polish, Jewish, and Puerto Rican gangs of New York to the Mafia, various types of informal gatherings of mostly, but not exclusively, young men have long been part of Western life. They often connect the social, violent, entrepreneurial, and criminal.

None of this should in any way diminish the damaging, often lethal effects organized gangs have on the young. One of the boys who died that day, 18-year-old Tyshon Anderson from Chicago, was by all accounts a gang member. His godmother, Regina, had long expected his life to come to an early end. “He did burglary, sold drugs, he killed people. He had power in the street. He really did. Especially for such a young kid. He had power. A lot of people were intimidated by him and they were scared of him. I know he had bodies under his belt. I seen him grow up and I loved him and I know he could be a good kid. But there ain’t no point in sugarcoating it. He was a bad kid, too.” If I’d chosen another day that year, I could well have been reporting on one of Tyshon’s victims.

And although gangs involve a relatively small minority of young people, they still add up to significant numbers. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, in 2012 in the United States there were around 30,000 gangs and more than 800,000 gang members — roughly the population of Amsterdam.

What’s new in all this isn’t the gangs themselves, but how much deadlier they’ve become in recent years. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, between 2007 and 2012, gang membership rose by 8%, but gang-related homicides leapt by 20%. It seems that the principal reason why gang activity has become so much more deadly is the increasingly easy availability of guns — and of ever deadlier versions of such weaponry as well. Studies of Los Angeles County between 1979 and 1994 revealed that the proportion of gang incidents involving guns that ended in homicide leapt from 71% to 95%. “The contrast with the present is striking,” argues sociologist Malcolm Klein, after reaching a similar conclusion in Philadelphia and East Los Angeles. “Firearms are now standard. They are easily purchased or borrowed and are more readily available than in the past.”

This raises the stakes immeasurably when it comes to parents and caregivers trying to protect their adolescent children from bad company or poor choices (as parents of all classes and races tend to do). Identifying with a gang and doing something as seemingly harmless as wearing clothing of a certain color or befriending the wrong person can result in an early death.  As a result, Gustin Hinnant’s father in Goldsboro, North Carolina, used to burn his red clothes if he saw him wearing them too often.  Gustin died anyway, hit in the head by a stray bullet meant for another boy who was in a gang. Pedro Cortez’s grandmother in San Jose, California, used to similarly hide his red shirts — the color identified with the local Nortenos gang — just in case. Yet on that same November 23rd, Pedro, who was legally blind, was shot dead while walking in a park. He was dressed in black, but a friend who was with him was indeed wearing red.

Gangs are hardly unique to America, nor do Americans make worse parents than those elsewhere in the world, nor are their kids worse. There is, however, an unavoidable difference between the United States and all other western nations, or the book I wrote would have been inconceivable. This is the only place where, in addition to the tinder of poverty, inequality, and segregation, among other challenges, you have to include the combustible presence of guns — guns everywhere, guns so available that they are essentially unavoidable.

As long as Americans refuse to engage with that straightforward fact of their social landscape, the kinds of deaths I recorded in my book will keep happening with gruesome predictability.  In fact, I could have chosen almost any Saturday from at least the past two decades and produced the same work.

Dismissing such fatalities as “gang related” — as, that is, victims to be dumped in some morally inferior category — is a way of not facing an American reality. It sets the white noise of daily death sufficiently low to allow the country to go about its business undisturbed.  It ensures a confluence of culture, politics, and economics guaranteeing that an average of seven children will wake up but not go to bed every day of the year, while much of the rest of the country sleeps soundly.

http://www.salon.com/2016/10/27/an-american-slaughter-the-young-victims-of-americas-gun-culture/?source=newsletter