Star Trek: Discovery—The latest incarnation of the popular science fiction series

By Tom Hall
18 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh series in the long-running Star Trek television and movie franchise, premiered September 24 on CBS.

Set in the far future, in the mid-23rd century, shortly before the events of the original series released in 1966, Discovery follows the exploits of Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a female Starfleet officer serving aboard first the USS Shenzhou and later the USS Discovery in the midst of a war between the United Federation of Planets and the nefarious Klingon Empire.

When we first meet commander Burnham she is on a humanitarian mission with her mentor, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the captain of the Shenzhou. Burnham’s promising career, however, is nearly ruined in the course of an encounter between the Shenzhou and the Klingons, with whom Starfleet has had no significant contact for generations.

The Klingons turn out to be a group of religious fanatics dedicated to uniting their long-fragmented empire through a religious war against the Federation. Meanwhile, Burnham, who was raised on planet Vulcan by the diplomat Sarek (James Frain), becomes convinced after consulting her stepfather that the only way to gain the Klingons’ respect and avoid an all-out war is to fire unprovoked on the Klingon vessel. Burnham attempts unsuccessfully to take control of the ship and fire on the Klingons herself and is arrested as a mutineer.

Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery

Several months later, with the Federation embroiled in an all-out war with the Klingons, Burnham is on board a prison transport that breaks down and gets rescued by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) of the USS Discovery, which is conducting top-secret military research. Burnham is dragooned into working on the project, whose ultimate aim is kept hidden from her.

She eventually deduces that Lorca is developing a banned biological weapon to use against the Klingons. However, when Lorca explains its purposes, including significant civilian applications, Burnham overcomes her initial hesitations and joins the crew of Discovery. The rest of the series deals with her trials and tribulations while fighting the Klingons.

The writing, acting and directing on Star Trek: Discovery is, to put it bluntly, poor. None of the actions the characters take that set into motion the key events of the series make much sense. Why would the Klingons, for instance, who have been supposedly consumed by infighting for decades, decide suddenly to band together against the Federation after a five-minute conversation with a cult leader? How exactly is firing on the Klingons supposed to keep the peace, and why would Burnham or anyone else find this to be plausible?

The dialogue is stilted and clichéd. “I forgot who said statues are crystallized spirituality,” Burnham says to no one in particular after encountering decorative sculptures on the Klingon vessel. An anonymous crewman wanders into Shenzhou’s brig during the climactic battle and asks Burnham, unprompted, “Why are we fighting? We’re explorers.”

The tone of the show is relentlessly grim, from the darkly lit corridors on the various spaceships and the goblin-like Klingons who grunt their lines (delivered in “Klingon” and interpreted for the viewer by subtitles), to the gratuitous violence and furrowed brows and grimaces on everyone’s faces intended to demonstrate the seriousness of the proceedings. The unnaturally cheerful cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who would be irritating under ordinary circumstances, provides some welcome and desperately needed levity.

Star Trek: Discovery

The show’s premise amounts to a pro-war science fiction parable that parrots all the lies with which Washington has sought to justify numerous imperialist crimes over the past quarter century. The Klingons, a warrior society modeled by the writers of previous shows on feudal Japan, and who had gained a certain psychological complexity in their depiction by the premiere of Deep Space 9 in 1993, are here reduced to sub-human religious fanatics, portrayed in a similar fashion to Islamic terrorists in numerous Hollywood blockbusters.

Burnham’s actions in the first two episodes in particular are effectively an explicit endorsement of the doctrine of pre-emptive war, i.e., there is no use negotiating with our enemies, because violence is the only language they understand.

Since first premiering in 1966, Star Trek has become something of a mass phenomenon, with tens of millions of fans throughout the world. Appearances by the former stars of the various Star Trek shows at annual conventions continue to attract significant audiences.

The principal reason for this enduring popularity has been the franchise’s optimistic view of the future and its willingness to grapple with serious human problems. By the 23rd century, in the show’s future history, all of the basic problems of contemporary society, including war, poverty and racial and national divisions, have long since been overcome. The international cooperation among the crew members of the Enterprise suggested that the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, far from representing the essential rottenness of humanity, as has become almost an article of faith in certain artistic circles, would eventually be discarded in the further social and technological development of human civilization.

Originally produced in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek also became the first TV show to cast a black woman, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, in a leading role. Martin Luther King, according to Nichols, was a fan of the show and urged her to continue on the show when she was thinking about quitting.

Star Trek could always be wildly uneven, even campy, but at its best, the show was capable of fairly pointed social commentary, or of exploring difficult ethical or philosophical questions. The conceit of a number of episodes was that 20th century problems, because they were grappled with by culturally more developed 23rd and 24th century humans, could be dealt with at a higher and more clarified level than could be expected in the present.

None of this finds expression thus far in Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, at times that outlook seems more or less consciously repudiated as naive by the goings-on in the show. At one point, a Starfleet admiral declares his commitment to peace only moments before he is incinerated by the Klingons. “Starfleet doesn’t fire first,” Georgiou reminds Burnham, to which the latter replies, “We have to!”

Star Trek: Discovery

In a panel discussion at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, co-creator Alex Kurtzman explained that the “defining factor of [ Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision is the optimistic view of the future. He envisioned a world where all species, all races came together to not only make our world better, but to make every world better.”

Kurtzman went on, “That being said … we live in very troubled times. … Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected and right now … the question is how do you preserve and protect what Starfleet is [“national security”!] in the weight of a challenge like war and the things that have to be done in war is a very interesting and dramatic problem. And it feels like a very topical one given the world where we live now.”

Star Trek: Discovery seems to have struck a chord among certain layers. They are particularly enthusiastic that the show’s bloody goings-on center around a black woman in a position of authority. It’s “beautiful,” Daily Beast reviewer Ira Madison III writes, “watching two women of color, black and Asian, navigate a realm that traditionally hasn’t included them.”

On one level, given the history of the Star Trek franchise, and indeed the science fiction genre in general, this is simply absurd. On another level, however, this expresses the essential social outlook of identity politics—an indifference to larger social issues, and support for war, together with a ferocious conflict over the spoils.

WSWS

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Behind the opioid crisis: Republicans and Obama cleared the way for corporate murder

By Patrick Martin
16 October 2017

Leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress and top Obama administration officials collaborated to shut down efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to stem the flow of prescription opioids that have killed 200,000 Americans over the past two decades, according to a devastating exposure published Sunday by the Washington Post and broadcast Sunday night on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.”

The joint investigation by the Post and “60 Minutes” made use of extensive whistleblower revelations by former officials of the DEA, which has the main responsibility for halting the flow of illegal narcotics, including prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone diverted into the black market.

Three major companies, all in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 and hugely profitable, dominate the distribution of these opioids: McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, with combined revenues of more than $450 billion. McKesson chairman and CEO John Hammergren has the largest pension fund of any US corporate boss, a $160 million personal nest egg.

These gigantic revenues and huge personal fortunes were accumulated by means of what can only be termed a massive social crime: the flooding of impoverished working-class neighborhoods with high volumes of opioids, narcotics that were being prescribed in vast quantities by doctors and pharmacists and illegal “pain centers” and “pill mills” that were a constant presence in the affected areas.

The consequences have been felt in a historic reversal in the long-term rise of life expectancy in the United States. For middle-aged whites, particularly those living in rural areas, life expectancy is declining and death rates soaring, in large part because of the impact of opioid abuse and addiction.

Appalachia is a center of the opioid crisis. The figures presented in the Post/”60 Minutes” report are staggering—and damning. To Mingo County, West Virginia, an impoverished former mining area on the state border with Kentucky, population 25,000, the mid-sized Ohio-based drug distributor Miami-Luken shipped 11 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone in a five-year period: enough to give two pills a week to every man, woman and child in the county.

In the county seat, Williamson, population 2,938, Miami-Luken shipped 258,000 hydrocodone pills in one month to a single pharmacy. The city of Williamson has filed suit against the company and other drug distributors, charging them with deliberately flooding the city with pain pills to supply the black market. A document filed in the suit charges, “Like sharks circling their prey, multi-billion dollar companies descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy.”

Post reporters Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein and “Sixty Minutes” reporter Bill Whitaker conducted dozens of interviews for their exposé, but the principal whistleblower is Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who headed the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control for a decade until he was forced out in 2015.

The Office of Diversion Control oversees the flow of prescription drugs produced by the major US pharmaceutical companies and shipped to hospitals and pharmacies and other prescribers by distributors, including the big three. By targeting unusually large and unexplained sales—for example, several Walgreen’s pharmacies in Florida sold more than one million opioid pills in a year, compared to a nationwide average of 74,000—the DEA unit could force companies to pay substantial fines.

These big three and smaller distributors paid more than $400 million in fines over the last decade as the result of the DEA, but this is a pittance compared to their gross revenues during that same period, well over $5 trillion. One former DEA official told the Post this sum simply represented “a cost of doing business.”

A more serious problem for the industry was the issuance of “freeze” orders, in which the DEA could use its authority to order a distributor to halt a shipment if there is “imminent danger” to the community. According to Rannazzisi, there was increasing resistance from top-level DEA officials, from 2011 on, to approving such “freeze” orders against opioid distributors. During this period, the drug distributors hired 46 DEA officials either directly or through law firms or lobbying groups representing them.

In 2014, industry lobbyists produced a bill, written by a former DEA lawyer, and introduced by Republican Representative Tom Marino, that substantially raised the threshold of proof for a DEA order to halt a shipment. Instead of “imminent danger,” such an order required proof of “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a standard so strict that, once adopted, there were no further DEA orders to halt drug distribution.

Marino’s bill was initially blocked by DEA opposition, but it was reintroduced with Democratic cosponsors and passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote, without opposition, in April 2015. In October 2015, Rannazzisi was pushed into retirement at the DEA, after previously being removed as head of the Office of Diversion Control by means of heavy pressure from congressional Republicans on the Obama Justice Department. In March 2016, the Senate passed a modified version of the Marino bill, and the House accepted the changes the following month. The DEA was now handcuffed, and the drug distributors could proceed without any concern about federal oversight.

As Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes”: “The drug industry—the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores—have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before. And these people came in with their influence and their money and got a whole statute changed because they didn’t like it.”

The protection of the giant drug distribution companies—amid a nationwide epidemic of drug overdose deaths caused by the products they were distributing—was a bipartisan affair. Congressional Democrats cosponsored the legislation, and a former top Clinton administration official, Jamie Gorelick, was a lead attorney and lobbyist for the distributors. Attorney General Loretta Lynch approved the legislation, and President Obama signed it into law, with the White House issuing a one-page press release to mark the occasion.

None of those involved, including Lynch and Obama, would comment to the Post or “60 Minutes.” According to the Post, “The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and ‘60 Minutes’ under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter,” indicating that the Trump administration is continuing the stonewalling tactics begun under Obama.

When a “60 Minutes” camera crew came to Marino’s office, his aides called Capitol Hill police to have them removed.

Trump has rewarded the darling of the drug distributors, Representative Marino, by nominating him last month to become the next White House “drug czar,” in charge of coordinating federal efforts against the opioid crisis. Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the main cosponsor of the bill, is now favored to be the Republican nominee for US Senate in Tennessee in 2018. Both representatives come from districts ravaged by the opioid crisis. According to the Post account, 106 people have died in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, the largest in Marino’s district, since he first introduced his anti-enforcement legislation.

The following exchange from the “60 Minutes” program sums up the reality of corporate domination of American life, and the catastrophic impact on working people:

BILL WHITAKER: You know the implication of what you’re saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people.

JOE RANNAZZISI: That’s not an implication, that’s a fact. That’s exactly what they did.

… These weren’t kids slinging crack on the corner. These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/16/drug-o16.html

Capitalism: The Nightmare

TD ORIGINALS
A worker in a costume representing world capitalism during a 2017 May Day rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara / AP)

The neoliberal, arch-capitalist era we inhabit is chock-full of statistics and stories that ought to send chills down the spines of any caring, morally sentient human. Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of the world’s population is poor, living on $10 a day or less, and 11 percent (767 million people, including 385 million children) live in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (less than a $1.90 a day). Meanwhile, Oxfam reliably reports that, surreal as it sounds, the world’s eight richest people possess among themselves as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire human race.

The United States, self-described homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy, is no exception to the harshly unequal global reality. Six of the world’s eight most absurdly rich people are U.S. citizens: Bill Gates (whose net worth of $426 billion equals the wealth of 3.6 billion people), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Michael Bloomberg (former mayor of New York City). As Bernie Sanders said repeatedly on the campaign trail in 2016, the top 10th of the upper 1 percent in the U.S. has nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. Seven heirs of the Walton family’s Walmart fortune have among them a net worth equal to that of the nation’s poorest 40 percent. Half the U.S. population is poor or near-poor, and half lacks any savings.

Just over a fifth of the nation’s children, including more than a third of black and Native American children, live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, while parasitic financiers and other capitalist overlords enjoy unimaginable hyper-opulence. One in seven U.S. citizens relies on food banks in “the world’s richest country.” Many of them are in families with full-time wage-earners—a reflection of the fact that wages have stagnated even as U.S. labor productivity consistently has risen for more than four decades.

Failure by Design

These savage inequalities reflect government policy on behalf of “the 1 percent” (better, perhaps, to say “the 0.1 percent”). U.S. economic growth since the late 1970s has been unequally distributed, thanks to regressive policy choices that have served the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary working people. As Joshua Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute showed in his important 2011 study, “Failure by Design,” the following interrelated, bipartisan and not-so-public policies across the long neoliberal era have brought us to a level of inequality that rivals the Gilded Age of the late 19th-century robber barons era. These policies include:

● Letting the value of the minimum wage be eroded by inflation.
● Slashing labor standards for overtime, safety and health.
● Tilting the laws governing union organizing and collective bargaining strongly in favor of employers.
● Weakening the social safety net.
● Privatizing public services.
● Accelerating the integration of the U.S. economy with the world economy without adequately protecting workers from global competition.
● Shredding government oversight of international trade, currency, investment and lending.
● Deregulating the financial sector and financial markets.
● Valuing low inflation over full employment and abandoning the latter as a worthy goal of fiscal and economic policy.

These policies increased poverty and suppressed wages at the bottom and concentrated wealth at the top. They culminated in the 2007-09 Great Recession, sparked by the bursting of a housing bubble that resulted from the deregulation of the financial sector and the reliance of millions of Americans on artificially inflated real estate values and soaring household debt to compensate for poor earnings.

After the crash, the government under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama bailed out the very financial predators who pushed the economy over the cliff. The Obama administration, populated by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup operatives, left the rest of us to wonder “Where’s our bailout?” as 95 percent of the nation’s new income went to the top 1 percent during his first term.

Ordinary Citizens Have No Influence Over Their Government

All of this and much more is contrary to technically irrelevant American public opinion. But so what? You don’t have to be a leftist to know that the United States’ political order is a corporate and financial plutocracy. Three years ago, liberal political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University determined that the U.S. political system has functioned as an oligarchy over the past three-plus decades, in which wealthy elites and their corporations rule. As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo, “Ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Shock Profits

Most of this results from the normal, business-rule-as-usual operation of the American political process. Sometimes—as during “natural disasters” such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma—crisis moments allow wealthy interests to rack up huge profits almost overnight while much of the population is too shocked and distracted to respond. As Susan Zakin notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Handing out billions for hurricane reconstruction will shore up [Donald] Trump’s faltering support on Wall Street and among major corporations profiting from a bonanza expected to top $100 billion.” Katrina provided precisely such a business opportunity to corporate America. So did the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

‘Isn’t It Beautiful?’

At the same time, Houston, for instance, is a much bigger scene of devastation than it would be but for business-rule-as-usual. The city was recklessly built up by and for elite financial and real estate interests and their governmental tools without the slightest concern for environmental sustainability and resilience. As Zakin notes:

[W]ithout a zoning code, [Houston is] a case study in urban sprawl. Houston was built on a dry (read: low-lying) lakebed that’s laced with bayous. The bayous are lined with concrete, steel and sheet metal, which is functional when it rains a little, but a contender for the luge event when it rains a lot, even in posh neighborhoods like River Oaks. Doing what it takes to prevent flooding, widening bayou channels, managing growth, putting in green space, might impede the only truly important flow: money. Houston’s city fathers have resisted any effort to plan for climate change, because, well, it doesn’t exist. As if that weren’t enough, parts of Houston are sinking, some as much as 2.2 inches a year.

It’s an epitome of the deadly “free market” chaos favored by arch-capitalist political actors such as the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and his friend, the “libertarian” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. In his recent, widely read book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” Flake writes with fondness about the time he met the eminent neoliberal University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman:

We picked him up at the airport, and while we were driving to a suburb of Phoenix we went through what could only be described as suburban sprawl. Someone in the car with us, remarking on this landscape, said, ‘Man, it looks like there was no planning at all.’ Friedman just nodded his head and said, ‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful?’ … [I]t wasn’t government coercion that had brought it into being. It was the invisible hand of the free market. Planning requires control, control empowers government, and empowered government = disempowered individuals.

Houston is the “petro-metro,” a major capital of the petrochemical industry and home to numerous toxic waste sites. As a result, the city’s floodwaters are loaded with hazardous materials.

How beautiful.

The “free market” madness rolls on. Like the melting polar ice, which opens up new business opportunities for oil drilling and ship travel even as it reduces earth’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space, the devastation resulting from extreme weather is both a consequence of the rule of big corporations (the real masters of the “free market” since the early 20th century in the U.S.) and a perverse opportunity for quick corporate profits.

On Aug. 15, 10 days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Donald Trump, himself a global real estate baron, wiped out an Obama-era executive ordermandating that federal reconstruction grants take account of sea-level rise and related aspects of climate change.

Capitalist Climate-astrophe

Meanwhile, speaking of climate change, anthropogenic—really, capitalogenic—global warming threatens to turn the venerable popular struggle for a more equal distribution of wealth into a fight over the slicing up of a poisoned pie. The signs of climate catastrophe are unmistakable. Record-setting wildfires raged on the nation’s West Coast, and a devastating drought plagued much of the nation’s northern Great Plains as Houston was sunk in epic, chemically polluted flooding and Irma bore down on Florida. Like Hurricane Sandy (which filled New York City subway tunnels with storm surge on the eve of the 2012 elections), the Indian and Pakistani heat waves of 2015, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Alberta, Canada, wildfires of 2016 and numerous other recent, lethal, meteorological episodes, this extreme weather is intensified by the spiking balminess of the planet.

The warming is fueled by capital-captive humanity’s excessive release of carbon dioxide resulting from the profit system’s rapacious extraction and burning of fossil fuels and its reliance on animal agriculture. Carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, trapping heat and melting the world’s glaciers and permafrost, which holds vast reserves of carbon-rich methane. As the ice caps retreat, less sunlight gets reflected back into space and more of it heats the planet toward a point where it becomes uninhabitable.

Extreme weather is just the tip of the melting iceberg. If not reversed, global warming will destroy the human species through famine, dehydration, overheating, disease and resource wars. It has us on the path to hell.

‘A Death Knell for the Species’

Trump has taken advantage of the nation’s plutocratic political dysfunction to become a kind of one-man ecological apocalypse. The fossil-fueled hurricanes, drought and wildfires of 2017 have hit the U.S. at a time when the White House is occupied by an openly ecocidal billionaire whose election rang what Noam Chomsky called an environmental “death knell for the species.” Trump has pulled the United States out of the moderate Paris climate accord. He has removed all references to climate change from federal websites and chose a fellow petro-capitalist climate change denier dedicated to crippling the Environmental Protection Agency to lead that department. Trump’s secretary of state is the former longtime CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., history’s most powerful fossil fuel corporation—a company that buried and then organized propaganda against its own scientists’ warnings on carbon’s impact on the climate. Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 16 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors all things climate- and weather-related.

This is ecocidal petro-capitalist madness on steroids.

After Harvey nailed Houston and before Irma hit Florida, Trump held a chilling ecocidal rally in front of an oil refinery in North Dakota. He boasted of how he had exited the “job-killing” Paris agreement (“It was so bad”) and approved the planet-cooking and supposedly job-creating Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

“I also did Keystone,” Trump said. “You know about Keystone. Another other one, big one—big. First couple of days in office, those two—48,000 jobs.”

Trump said the White House was going to make North Dakota’s current terrible drought vanish because “we’re working hard on it and it’ll disappear. It will all go away.”

The president also asserted that the thousands of Americans who protested the Dakota Access pipeline within and beyond the Standing Rock Indian Reservation last year had no idea why they were against it.

It may have been his most absurd speech yet.

The System Is Working

Like so much else in U.S. government policy, Trump’s anti-environmental actions are contrary to majority-progressive public opinion. Who cares? It’s one more in a long line of examples showing that “We the People” are not sovereign in the failed, arch-plutocratic and militantly capitalist state that is the 21st century United States.

Many Americans find this difficult to process because they have been taught to foolishly conflate popular self-governance with capitalism—what the George W. Bush White House called “a single sustainable model for national success.”

This is a great lie. My old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

This definition does not mention any of the things routinely and inaccurately identified with capitalism in the dominant U.S. political and intellectual discourse: democracy, freedom, trade, job creation, growth and/or a “free market” that is characterized by widespread competition and/or little or no government interference. Capitalism is about profit for the owners of capital—period. They attain this through any number of means. The most damaging include:

● Seizing others’ land and materials.
● Slavery (the leading source of capital accumulation in the United States before it was outlawed in 1863–65).
● Firing workers or replacing them with technology.
● Undermining the value and power of labor by “de-skilling” workers by reducing the amount of knowledge and experience they need to do their jobs.
● Abject authoritarian tyranny in the workplace, where Marxist economist Richard Wolff reminds us that most working-age adults spend the majority of their waking hours.
● Outsourcing work to sections of the world economy with the lowest wages and the worst working conditions.
● Hiring and exploiting unprotected migrant workers.
● Slashing wages and benefits, or cheating workers out of them.
● Purely speculative investment.
● Forming monopolies and using them to raise prices.
● Dismantling competing firms, sectors and industries.
● Deadly pollution and perversion of the natural environment.
● Appropriating public assets.
● Military contracting and war production.
● Working to shape political and intellectual culture and policy in capital’s favor by funding political campaigns, hiring lobbyists, buying and controlling the media, manipulating public relations and propaganda, investing in the educational system, offering lucrative employment and other economic opportunities to policymakers and their families, holding key policymaking positions, and threatening to withdraw investment from places that don’t submit to capital’s rules while promising to invest in places that do.

When capitalism is understood for what it is really and only about—investor profit—there is nothing paradoxical about its failure to serve working people and the common good, much less the cause of democracy. If corporate and financial sector profits are high, the system is working for its architects and intended beneficiaries: capitalists. Its great corporations (now granted the legal protection of artificial personhood) are working precisely as they are supposed to under U.S. common law, which holds that (as Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company in 1919), corporate “managers have a legal duty to put shareholders’ interests above all others and no legal authority to serve any other interests.”

The Growth Ideology

Environmental ruin lies at the heart of the system, intimately related back to class rule. As Le Monde’s former ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled 2007 book, “How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth,” the oligarchy sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.”

“Growth,” Kempf explained, is meant to “allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

Trump was channeling this deadly “growth ideology” in North Dakota. Sadly, growth on the current carbon-fueled capitalist model has put humanity—not to mention thousands of other sentient beings on earth—on the path to near-term (historically speaking) extinction. We are currently at 410 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere—60 ppm beyond what scientists identified as a hazardous point years ago. We are on pace for 500 ppm—a level that will destroy life on earth—by 2050, if not sooner.

‘Inclusive Capitalism’

“Capitalist democracy” is an oxymoron and a mirage. So is the curious notion of “inclusive capitalism”—a term taken up by the corporate right wing of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton’s closest economic advisers, in 2015. This is the Orwellian name of a global “coalition” set up in 2014 by Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild for super-wealthy elites to advance a “caring capitalism” that “works better for the broad base of society.” Lady Rothschild’s Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism started with what former Rep. Cynthia McKinney described as “a Working Group comprised of such luminaries of social justice as Sir Evelyn de Rothschild of E.L. Rothschild [a financial firm owned by a family worth an estimated $2 trillion], Dominic Barton from McKinsey and Company [$1.3 billion], Ann Cairns [annual salary of $5 million] of MasterCard, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles of HSBC, Paul Polman [paid 10 million euros in 2014] of Unilever, along with CEOs of various pension plans and philanthropic foundations, like the eponymous Ford and Rockefeller foundations.”

According to one British media report, the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism’s opening conference boasted a “guest-list … estimated to hold one-third of the world’s investable assets, around £18tr [nearly $25 trillion].”

One of the coalition’s leading speakers and champions is the great arch-neoliberal, former U.S. President Bill Clinton (with a net worth of $80 million)—a right-wing Democrat who did every bit as much to advance the Wall Street “free market” and globalist agenda as Ronald Reagan.

‘We Must Make Our Choice’

One does not have to be a Marxist or other variety of radical to acknowledge basic differences and conflicts between capitalism and democracy. D and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s. “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.”

More than being compatible with slavery and incompatible with democracy, U.S. capitalism arose largely on the basis of black slavery in the cotton-growing states (as historian Edward Baptist has shown in his prize-winning study, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”) and is, in fact, quite militantly opposed to democracy.

“We must make our choice,” the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement was unintentionally but fundamentally anti-capitalist. Consistent with the dictionary definition presented above, the brilliant, liberal, French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled like gravity toward the concentration of wealth into ever-fewer hands. In the U.S., as across the Western world, the tendency was briefly and partially reversed by the Great Depression and World War II, producing the long “middle class” Golden Age of 1945-1973. But that was an anomalous era, a consequence of epic economic collapse and two global wars. Capitalism has returned to its longue durée inegalitarian norm over the last four-plus decades.

And even before the onset of the neoliberal period, capitalism at its comparatively egalitarian and high-growth, post-WWII Keynesian best had already pushed livable ecology into crisis. It tipped the world into what leading earth scientists have designated a new geological era: The Anthropocene—a period when “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita … a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” The not-so-Golden Agebrought what sociology professor John Bellamy Foster called “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness.” If this ecological destructiveness isn’t tamed very soon, nothing that progressives and the left care about is going to matter much: Who wants to turn a poisoned world upside down?

Can environmental catastrophe be averted under capitalism? Not likely. Shifting from fossil fuel reliance and other unsound environmental societal habits and practices—built-in obsolescence, mass consumerism and the endless pursuit of quantitative economic growth, accumulation and “cheap nature” resource appropriation—requires a level of coordinated social and public intervention so extreme that it is incompatible with continued capitalist control of the means of production, investment and distribution. It requires an empowerment of ordinary people and a radical rehabilitation of the concept of the natural and social commons—things that very likely cannot be attained under the continued rule of capital. Stark as American activist Joel Kovel’s formulation may sound, I suspect he is right: “The future will be eco-socialist, because without eco-socialism there will be no future.”

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…

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.

The legacy of the Cassini spacecraft

By Don Barrett
16 September 2017

The Cassini spacecraft has been one of the most productive, versatile and inspiring astronomical platforms ever made. Launched on October 15, 1997, this spacecraft, simply by its own exploits, stands as a triumph for a generation of scientists across the globe, and testament to humanity’s vast capacity for exploration far beyond Earth. Friday morning, after nearly 20 years of operation, including 13 years in the system of Saturn, its rings, and its icy moons, Cassini’s journey ended.

Sunlight illuminates the hexagon-shaped jet stream around Saturn’s north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Cassini’s demise was as meticulously prepared as its life. As part of the planning for the spacecraft’s final mission extension in 2010, its controllers debated what to do when Cassini finally ran out of fuel. Two propellant systems were available to perform maneuvers at Saturn, but the bulk of the steering was accomplished by gently nudging the spacecraft towards various moons. Using minuscule adjustments in position, Cassini used a succession of gravity assists to change its orbit, allowing it to conserve its fuel and last more than three times its initial mission specifications.

But even with careful management, the fuel reserves would eventually be exhausted. Rather than leave an uncontrollable spacecraft in orbit and potentially contaminate one of the nearby moons biologically, it was decided that Cassini would end its mission by performing a risky series of 22 dives into Saturn’s rings, taking the spacecraft closer to the planet than it had ever been. On its final orbit, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, taking one last series of atmospheric measurements before becoming a part of the planet it had studied since 2004.

The spacecraft’s first major achievement upon reaching Saturn was the successful landingof the Huygens probe onto Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, the only soft landing ever conducted beyond the inner Solar System. The data provided by Huygens provided humanity’s first glimpse into a world shrouded by a dense nitrogen, methane and hydrogen atmosphere.

Near-Infrared Cassini image of Titan, showing hydrocarbon seas. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Titan was also studied extensively in 127 targeted encounters by Cassini, its infrared cameras and radar capable of piercing the thick clouds encircling the moon. The portrait that emerged was incredibly rich: Titan was revealed as the only body in the solar system supporting surface liquid, with active streams, rivers, and lakes punctuating the landscape, some of which have changed over the duration of the mission.

Cassini also discovered geyser-like plumes jetting from the moon Enceladus. Its dust analyzer found these plumes produced salt crystals with an “ocean-like” composition, suggesting a water origin. The last close flyby, in 2015, was targeted to pass directly through a plume, the risky maneuver that found molecular hydrogen, further evidence of a subsurface ocean with hydrothermal vents potentially capable of supporting life.

Enhanced Cassini image of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The moon Iapetus, known for centuries to have a bright side and a dark side, was imaged in great detail by Cassini. Images showed even the smallest craters puncturing the dark hemisphere, revealing underlying bright ice. Together with Earth-based observations, a consistent picture emerged of Iapetus accumulating spots of dark debris on its leading hemisphere billions of years ago, leading to a feedback mechanism where this darker area warmed and sublimated underlying ice, which accumulated in the now brilliant areas elsewhere on the moon.

Saturn’s rings, previously studied by the Pioneer and Voyager flybys, proved to have dynamics even richer than expected when imaged constantly over many years. Cassini discovered complex waves rippling through the ring systems and found new shepherding moons responsible for them. The “gap” in Saturn’s rings named after Cassini’s namesake was found to be littered with mile-sized boulders. A concentration of material in Saturn’s A ring, which may birth a new moon, was discovered in 2014, and final images of this region were recorded in Cassini’s last days.

Cassini images large moonlets stacked up at the edge of the B ring, casting shadows on the smooth interior of the ring. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Cassini even performed myriad experiments on its way to Saturn. It carried out studies of Venus, Earth, the Moon, asteroid 2685 Masursky and Jupiter. When Earth and Cassini were on opposite sides of the Sun, radio waves sent between mission control and the spacecraft were used to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity by measuring the effect of the Sun’s gravity. Cassini’s measurements agreed with general relativity to one part in 51,000.

Even with the vast amounts of data collected by Cassini, many questions remain unanswered about Saturn and many new ones were raised by Cassini itself. The elementary length of a “day” at Saturn, based on rotation of its core, remains inexact. And the age and exact mass of the rings remains undetermined.

The technical challenges posed by an extended mission to Saturn needed 15 years of pre-launch planning and the combined resources of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, 17 countries and thousands of scientific personnel to solve. Scientists at NASA who have spent their entire working lives on the mission—the initial work began in 1982—were visibly emotional on the final day of what one called “the perfect spacecraft.”

Cassini required mastery of technologies built over many decades to produce electrical power from radioactively-heated thermionic generators, to operate autonomously because of the two-hour delays in round-trip radio communications, to allow recovery, far beyond the reach of direct human intervention, from unexpected spacecraft anomalies, all the while serving as a stable platform from which its suite of complex scientific instruments could be pointed and the data collected relayed back to Earth.

Cassini images salt-water geysers at the limb of Enceladus, emerging from cracks in the ice atop a subsurface ocean that may contain life. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The Huygens lander represented a different set of challenges, not only to survive its high-speed deceleration to a soft landing on Titan, but to do so supported primarily by measurements made by Cassini itself, which had the additional duty of storing and relaying Huygens’ weak signal to Earth.

Despite Cassini’s success, no other major missions to the outer Solar System are being planned, nor are simpler missions to Saturn under active development. Only one other mission with comparable budget, the Mars rover Curiosity, has been launched in the last two decades. Cassini represents the last echoes of an epoch in which flagship-class missions of exploration beyond Mars were funded and launched.

And yet the technology available to enable such missions has vastly improved since Cassini was constructed. Moreover, the spacecraft has shown us just how much there is still to be learned in our stellar neighborhood. Mission concepts for exploration of the ice and potentially even the oceans lying under the surfaces of Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa exist. They await an epoch in which the scientific aspirations of humankind can be fully given the material resources required to realize them.

WSWS

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.

These Corporations Have the Biggest Influence on Climate Policy

ENVIRONMENT
Follow the money.

Photo Credit: InfluenceMap via EcoWatch screenshot

For better or worse, corporations have a major influence on climate change policy. Just look at Koch Industries, a multinational conglomerate owned by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch that has contributed hundreds of millions to federal candidates and lobbying over the last 25 years.

The “Corporate Carbon Policy Footprint,” a new analysis from U.K. nonprofit InfluenceMap, now ranks Koch Industries as the company with the strongest opposition to the Paris climate agreement and most intensely lobbies against policies in line with the landmark global accord.

The InfluenceMap scoring system does not measure a company’s actual greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it measures “the extent to which a corporation is supporting or obstructing the climate policy process.”

For the InfluenceMap report, researchers analyzed more than “30,000 pieces of evidence” on 250 global companies and 50 major trade associations on their lobbying records, advertising, public relations and sponsored research, according to Bloomberg.

The research group gave the Wichita-based company an “F” grade for its anti-climate actions:

“Koch Industries appears to be actively opposing almost all areas of climate legislation. In 2014 in the US, they were reportedly active in their opposition to a carbon tax, funding politicians and campaigns to oppose the tax. Similarly, in 2014 they appear to have opposed the U.S. EPA Clean Power Plan in consultation and through direct engagement with policy makers, and boasted about their success in blocking the US Cap and Trade Scheme in 2010. Additionally, they appear to be opposing measures to transition to a low carbon economy, advocating against renewable energy subsidies, and funding groups that have opposed energy efficiency standards, the repeal of fossil fuel subsidies and the need for action on climate change. They seem to be exceptionally active in opposing renewable energy standards across the U.S. Both the organization and its CEO, Charles Koch, appear to have questioned climate change science, and have reportedly funded climate denial. Senior executives are active in both the National Association of Manufacturers and ALEC, which also appear to be resisting climate change related regulations and policies.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Silicon Valley tech giant Apple was ranked highest on the list and has an A+ for its support of climate change action and its positive engagement with a number of climate change policy areas.

Here are the report’s key findings:

  • 35 of the 50 most influential are actively lobbying against climate policy. They include companies in the fossil fuel value chain (ExxonMobil, Valero Energy, Chevron), energy intensive companies (BASF, ArcelorMittal, Bayer, Dow Chemical and Solvay) and electric utilities with large amounts of coal generating capacity (Southern Company, Duke Energy and American Electric Power).
  • Also in this group of 35 influential companies holding back climate policy are four powerful automotive manufacturers (Fiat Chrysler, Ford, BMW and Daimler). The research found the companies lobbying to delay or dilute efficiency and CO2 emissions standards and procedures both in Europe and North America. Depending on region, passenger vehicle emissions account for 12% or more of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • On the other side, 15 of the 50 most influential are pushing for an ambitious climate policy agenda, favoring renewable power and electric vehicles. They include signatories to the RE100 initiative committing to buying 100% renewable power (Apple, Ikea, Unilever, Coca Cola and Nestle) as well as power sector companies (SSE, Enel, EDF, Iberdrola and National Grid) who are shifting their business models towards low carbon electricity generation.

“The data shows the climate policy agenda, in terms of corporate influencing, is being driven by a small number of massive global corporations,” Dylan Tanner, InfluenceMap executive director, said in a statement. “It also shows a group of powerful of companies in the tech, consumer goods and utilities sectors increasingly pushing for policy to implement the Paris Agreement.”

InfluenceMap also ranked “influencers” or powerful trade associations that actively lobby against climate policies. A number of trade associations received an “F” grade, but here are the bottom five: U.S. Chamber of Commerce; American Petroleum Institute; American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity; National Mining Association; and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Check out the full list here.

 

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