Thursday, February 11, 2016

What Whites with Broken Hearts can Learn from the Crow Indians

I’m looking at the old white woman with a “Make America Great Again” hat looking into the newspaper photographer’s camera.

She doesn’t smile at the camera.

She looks like she could work in a diner or a supermarket. She looks tired, but also proud.

She is one of millions of older white people – mostly older men who never finished high school – who have found an outlet for their long simmering anger and frustration in the media savvy real estate merchant Donald Trump.

This is probably the first time she has been to a political meeting. It’s also likely that this is the first time she has seen a candidate live who is not a politician; a man who speaks her language, who speaks plainly and is not afraid of telling it like it is. At least that’s how she feels about it.

Her hat says that the world she thought she knew it is gone. Everything is changing and it is getting worse. She has a job, but her husband lost his when his company moved to Mexico. And her brother drank himself to death after he lost his job. It was just recently that she began to pay attention to politics. It was not the Tea Party and it was not the white furor over the fact that America elected a black president and then re-elected him.

No, it was Donald Trump that woke her up from her political slumber. He came right out and said it the way it was. It was the Mexicans and the Muslims and the Blacks. It was them. Trump gave her hope. He was rich, but he spoke to her and didn’t sound one bit like a politician.

In her mind, white folks like her are hard working, church going and know their place. But there are too many people who don’t and that is something she doesn’t like. It is as if nobody fears God anymore.

On January 31, 2016, Bill Clinton spoke in Des Moines, Iowa. He referred to an article in The New York Times about middle-aged white Americans. They were dying of suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses. In another article, the newspaper reported that the number of young white adults who die from drug abuse is exploding, while death rates for young blacks and Hispanics are falling.

“The Times analyzed nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 2014. It found death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening for all the adult age groups under 65 — a trend that was particularly pronounced in women — even as medical advances sharply reduce deaths from traditional killers like heart disease. Death rates for blacks and most Hispanic groups continued to fall. The analysis shows that the rise in white mortality extends well beyond the 45- to 54-year-old age group documented by a pair of Princeton economists in a research paper that startled policy makers and politicians two months ago.” (Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites, New York Times, January 17, 2016)
Worst affected are young whites without a high school education. Their death rate rose by 23 percent for the five years leading up to 2014 compared to 4 percent for those with at least college education. 
"The drug overdose numbers were stark. In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs.” 
“No one has a clear answer, but researchers repeatedly speculate that the nation is seeing a cohort of whites who are isolated and left out of the economy and society and who have gotten ready access to cheap heroin and to prescription narcotic drugs.
‘There are large numbers of people who never get established in the economy, who live outside family relationships and are on the edge of poverty,’ Dr. Hayward said. Many end up taking prescription narcotics, he added.
‘Poverty and stress, for example, are risk factors for misuse of prescription narcotics,’ Dr. Hayward said.
Eileen Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said the causes of death in these younger people were largely social — ‘violence and drinking and taking drugs.’ Her research shows that social problems are concentrated in the lower education group.
‘For too many, and especially for too many women,’ she said, ‘they are not in stable relationships, they don’t have jobs, they have children they can’t feed and clothe, and they have no support network.’
‘It’s not medical care, it’s life,’ she said. ‘There are people whose lives are so hard they break.’”
These are conditions one would normally associate with Indian reservations and inner city slums, but the newspaper is talking about white people, people who according to Bill Clinton are dying of “broken hearts”. He didn’t compare with the fate of the Native Americans, but it seems obvious that whites with broken hearts suffer feelings similar to those the American Indians felt when their world was destroyed and the things they held closest to their hearts lost their meaning.

Jonathan Lear, a psychoanalyst and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago describes this process in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006) The book tells the story of how the Crow Indians faced and dealt with the existential loss under pressure from rival tribes like the Sioux, cholera and smallpox, the white man who killed the buffaloes, then their horses, stole most of their land, only to force them into reservations where traditional life became impossible.

Lear learned much of how the Crow Indians felt and responded to their crisis from the interviews that the Crow Nation’s greatest chief, Plenty Coups, gave his friend Frank B. Linderman a short time before he died. However, the story ended when the Crow people were forced to live on a reservation:
Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. “I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides, “he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.” (Frank B. Linderman, Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962, p 311 quoted from Lear, p 2.) 
It may be hard to understand the meaning of his statement about the buffalo – “after this nothing happened” – but maybe not if we allow it to sink in. The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor reviewed Lear’s book nine years ago for the New York Review of Books and compared the fate of the Crow Indians to that of people left behind by the market system today:
“On the contrary, we make a virtue of the kind of ‘flexibility’ that enables people to change jobs, professions, skills. The development of the modern capitalist economy has long been imposing less drastic versions of this kind of culture death on mining villages in Wales and West Virginia, on formerly large and stable workforces of companies that manufacture objects that become obsolete or can be made more cheaply elsewhere, and on many communities in the developing world. The message to younger people today is: don’t become totally invested in one set of skills, you’re bound to have to change your line of work, perhaps many times in the course of your career.” (A Different Kind of Courage, New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007, p 4) 
When the Crow elders discussed what to do, they reached back and interpreted two dreams that Plenty Coups had had at age 9 and 10. These dreams offered an alternative to Sitting Bull’s – the great Sioux chief – brave, but ultimately futile attempt to fight off the white intruders. Sitting Bull would later scorn Plenty Coups as a collaborator and a loser, but Plenty Coups would lead his people through the devastation and allow them to survive by modifying their culture, sacrificing key signifiers of pride, while leveraging traditions such as the belief in the wisdom of the Chickadee bird to show a path that involved acquiring the white man’s learning as a way to move forward. Sitting Bull on the other hand could not find a path forward and grasped for mysticism and dreams of a new messiah while dancing the Ghost Dance, which many Indians believed would bring the buffalo back and restore the world they had known and lost to the white man. Lear writes that “…Sitting Bull used a dream-vision to short-circuit reality rather than engage with it.” (Lear, 2006, p 150.)

It didn’t work, and on December 15, 1890, the great Sioux warrior was killed by the police, who were trying to suppress the Ghost Dance movement.

Life would never be the same for the Crow Nation or any other Indian Nation faced by the destruction brought on by the European immigrants and invaders. But Plenty Coups found a way forward where a Crow could still be a proud Crow, even while working in the new and strange world wrought by the white man.

Today millions of white working class men and women are pinning their hope to a White Knight while dancing a 21st Century version of the Ghost Dance. It is easy to feel their pain, but their mystic-laden and nostalgic dreams and the hope they are investing in this new and odd Messiah will never “Make America Great Again.” They would do better by learning from Plenty Coups and to listen to the Chickadee bird, who probably would tell them to start taking classes at the nearest community college.

Read more:

Charles M. Blow: White America's 'Broken Heart' (New York Times, Feb 4, 2016)

Thomas B. Edsall: Donald Trump's Appeal (New York Times, Dec 2, 2015)

Jonathan Lear: Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Beautiful Report by Karl Ove Knausgaard on Awake Craniotomy in Albania

I'm not a big fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I hated his two-part introspective travelogue for the New York Times Sunday Magazine in March 2015, but I loved his reportage in today's Magazine. He follows the British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh to Albania, where he performs two "awake craniotomies" - brain surgery performed while the patient is awake - that saves the lives of two patients. Knausgaard can be a wonderful writer when he forgets about himself for a moment and allows himself to focus on the world, which he does in this piece. He can of course not completely resist the temptation to (over)step into the story, but he treads lightly enough and his presence mostly helps us understand and connect to the events he is covering.

Here is an example:

"The silence was total. The single focus of attention was a head clamped in a vise in the middle of the room. The upper part of the skull had been removed, and the exposed edge covered in layer after layer of gauze, completely saturated with blood, forming a funnel down into the interior of the cranium. The brain was gently pulsating within. It resembled a small animal in a grotto. Or the meat of an open mussel. Two doctors were bending over the head, each of them moving long, narrow instruments back and forth inside the opening. One nurse was assisting them, another was standing a few yards away, watching. A whispery slurping sound issued from one of the instruments, like the sound produced by the tool a dentist uses to suck away saliva from a patient’s mouth. Next to us was a monitor showing an enlarged image of the brain. In the middle, a pit had been scooped out. In the center of the pit was a white substance, shaped like a cube. The white cube, which appeared to be made of firmer stuff, was rubbery and looked like octopus flesh. I realized that it must be the tumor."
(Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery,
New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jan 3, 2016) 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Yuletide Phishing and other Seasonal and Unseasonal Scams

I got an email from Amazon, which happens a lot in the weeks before Christmas. This one looked very much like a normal Amazon mail, but it was from Amazon.UK.

"We thought you'd like to know that we've dispatched your item(s). Your gift order is on the way."

The gift is a £68.93 ($103) "Garmin Forerunner 10 GPS Running Watch." And it was "Paid by gift card."

As I did not recognize the item and could not imagine that anybody in my family would buy or want a GPS Watch I mailed my wife who answered that "we've been scammed!"

I opened my Amazon account, but not through the email, and changed my password and removed my credit cards that were linked to the account.

Then I checked out the email purporting to be from Amazon.UK., but it was actually linked to a URL with "goodtogreatgolf" as its centerpiece.

The scam was clever on several levels, but that URL pops the bubble. Many who get an email from Amazon that looks real, but tells them that they have bought something strange will probably be upset and want to log in immediately to find out what's going on. If they do, they will give the crooks their login information, and then the next email about something they "bought" may be matched with real charges on their credit cards.

I reported the phishing expedition to Amazon and deleted the email.

An hour later we get a phone call:

"Hello, this is the technical department of Windows," says the guy calling from Bangalore or wherever. Not the first time. This must be one of the more stupid scams out there.

Computerworld wrote about this type of scams in May 2014:
Aggressive, persistent Windows tech support scammers continue to stalk consumers

I've gotten similar calls before, sometimes claiming to come from "the Windows operating system."
“I am calling you from Windows”: A tech support scammer dials Ars Technica

Knock, knock...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Populism in Europe, Russia and America - Berlusconi, Putin and Trump

, a brilliant and very knowledgeable columnist for the New York Times had a column in today's paper where he compared American populists with their European siblings.
Here are a couple of quotes from his article:


Long before the destruction and death in France last week, Trump’s presidential campaign was following the path of right-wing working class parties in Europe. Over the past decade, these parties have capitalized on animosity to immigration and the perceived threat it presents to Europe’s autonomy, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” its “postwar economic model,” and its Christian identity.” 
Further down, he writes:
In an effort to place Trump in an international perspective, I asked Herbert Kitschelt, a professor of international relations at Duke, for a more encompassing view of Trump:
A populist leader ventures to establish a personal, intimate relationship with his followers, unmediated by political organizations. Populists have an aversion against organizations and are conspiracy theorists. Consider when Trump invokes that he is in “no one’s pocket” financially. His aversion against the Republican Party establishment. This idiom of the little guys against the machines, with a heroic leader coming to the rescue of the powerless underdogs, is a procedural template in politics that has, of course, inspired many political movements, particularly in times of crisis and economic decline: Think of Latin American populism (especially Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s), but also European fascism (Hitler, Mussolini), to Hugo Chávez in the 1990s and 2000s.
Kitschelt added, however, that he associated Trump most closely with Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy:
You have there the same swagger of the self-made billionaire, even if they are not self-made, the womanizer suggesting unlimited sexual prowess and appetite, the slayer of organizational dragons, the Manichean contrast of good and evil, as well as the substantive programmatic vacuity.
Right behind Berlusconi, “I probably would nominate Vladimir Putin,” Kitschelt said.
For an interesting take on Trump and how he attracts low-educated white racist and fascist supporters, read Evan Osnos' article The Fearful and the Frustrated in The New Yorker,
On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

Hannah Arendt would have recognized what's going on. Highly frustrated people with little knowledge and little political experience are starting to listen to charismatic protofascist demagogues who plays the game as it almost always is played. Attack minority groups. Promise a return to the "good old days" when only white lives mattered, and not even all of those.

Read more about Arendt here:

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

No, I'm not comparing Donald Trump to Hitler or his supporters to the Nazi movement, but there are similarities between the social forces that drive the popularity of yesterday's demagogic and charismatic leaders and today's political clowns like Trump (who has quite a few things in common with Mussolini, but even more with Berlusconi.) Below is a long quote from a classic analysis of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Read and reflect.

"It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.

The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been "spoiled" by the party system.

Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular.

The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one's own or somebody else's party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority.

The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.

Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions.

It has frequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy . . . "

(Hannah ArendtThe Origin of Totalitarianism, 1951)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Synopsis for the novel "InterRail '73"

This is story about Johan, a young man from Sweden, who in the summer of 1973 sets out on a month-long journey across Western Europe. He had finished high school the year before and his mandatory military service in the spring. Like many young people then, his mind was formed by 1968, the Vietnam War and the pop culture, but unlike today’s youth, he had never heard of the world wide web, AirBnB, smartphones, WiFi, MP3-players or even Walkman cassette players, for the simple reason that they didn’t exist. Books and newspapers were printed on paper and reservations were mostly made in person.

His 7,000 mile-long journey was made possible by the InterRail Pass, which had been introduced in 1972 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Railway Union. For less than 50 U.S. dollars, the card allowed youth under 21 to jump on any train in 21 countries. Five thousand youngsters bought the card that first year, a number that grew to 85,000 in 1973 when Johan began his journey. He left with little money and no fixed plans. He carried a heavy backpack, a sleeping bag and kept his travelers checks and five twenty dollar bills in a nylon pouch under his t-shirt (very few people owned or had even heard of credit cards.)

He traveled alone, but he was never lonely since every train, train station, youth hostel and camp ground was full of InterRailers. Over the next thirty days he visited Paris, London and Rome twice, struggled with demons at the Coliseum, met with Soviet refugees in Venice, traveled with three Norwegian girls to Pescara and Carsoli, before returning to Rome where he debated religion and society with a Jesuit priest in the Vatican. He saw the seedy side of Genoa and then began a 30-hour ride to Bordeaux, only to continue on to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast where he took the ferry to Île de Ré.

He went there to meet the girl who had dumped him half a year earlier, but he never found her. Instead he became friends with several members of a German chamber orchestra and one of them invited him to dine with his family. He went there to meet the girl who had dumped him half a year earlier, but he never found her. Instead he became friends with several members of a German chamber orchestra and one of them invited him to dine with his family.

From France he traveled to Great Britain, but as he couldn’t afford to stay in London so he took a night train to Edinburgh. After a couple of days in Aberdeen, Inverness and Garve in the Scottish Highlands, he stopped in Manchester where he spent an evening with a friendly bum who hated immigrants (Irish and others). Then south to Cardiff in Wales, on to Oxford where he fought with left-wing students before returning to London where he was saved from having to spend the night on the floor at Victoria Station by a black professional who offered him his couch in southwestern London. In Amsterdam he smelled the ever-present hashish while discussing the cause of the youth rebellion with a professor from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Back in his parents’ summer home on an island in the Baltic Sea, he measured the distance traveled and added up the numbers. It was not quite Around the World in Eighty Days, but he had certainly spent more time on trains than Phileas Fogg since the latter had spent most of his time on steam boats. Neither was he accompanied by a valet who folded his shirts and served him breakfast in the mornings and booked his tickets. He wasn’t rich like Mr. Fogg and there was no big prize to win, just an expiration date on his InterRail card.

It’s a story about a young man who wants to change the world, but also a young man adrift on life’s ocean. He embraces the world, wins new friends, travels without fear and overcomes all obstacles. Many in his generation were as confused and rebellious as they are portrayed in James Michener’s 1971 novel The Drifters, but Johan was not rudderless even if his compass direction was distorted by a Marxism that had been revitalized by the revolutions of 1968, the Vietnam War and China’s Cultural Revolution, which many young rebels saw as an alternative to the petrified Soviet bureaucracy. It was his radicalism that helped him stay away from drugs, but it did not offer much help in navigating his search for, or maybe one should say, his yearning for love.

InterRail was a break from everyday life, a postponement of adulthood, which most kids his age ignored like a dark cloud by the horizon. The journey was in many ways an escape, but it was also a chance to encounter people from all over Europe, both young and old. It was also the thing to do for his generation; to jump on a train and ride it wherever it went, maybe to the end of the line. It was a romantic idea that he shared with most of the young people he met during this trip and it allowed for instant bonding and instant dissolution of the same bonds.

The trip also helped Johan recover the self-confidence he had lost when the girl he had loved broke off with him. He had set out on his journey alone, but he didn’t shy away from the challenge and he had a great time, finding new friends and girls that he normally would not have dared to approach. He returned feeling free and empowered and the hole in his heart felt a lot smaller. But returning home also made it clear that as comfortable as home was, the cloud at the horizon was much closer now, and he had to move on.

His life was waiting and the world needed him.

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water."

I was already thinking of reading Elena Ferrante when the latest issue of The Nation arrived with William Deresiewicz's essay about Ferrante's Neapolitan suite. It's brilliant and made me move Ferrante to the top of my reading list now that I have finished re-reading James Michener's novel about the 1960s - The Drifters (which as one can expect from Michener is exhaustively long, complex and highly analytical, but often woody and laden with stereotypes).

Then, in the third paragraph, he delivers this terrific comparison between Ferrante and Knausgaard:

The obvious comparison is to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of My Struggle, another multivolume first-person epic that has burst upon the literary scene in recent years. Knausgaard assures us, in prose of aggressive banality, that every word is accurate to his experience. Ferrante, in The Paris Review, offers a direct (and perhaps deliberate) rejoinder. “It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths.” Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

On the InterRail Way of Travel

The InterRail Pass was introduced in 1972 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Railway Union (Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer). Youth under 21 years old were offered to travel for one month in 21 member countries at a very low cost, less than 30 British pounds or about 50 U.S. dollars.

  Watch a 2012 documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of the InterRail Pass. 

About 5,000 young people bought the InterRail Pass in 1972, and it was so popular that it was repeated in 1973, when about 85,000 young travelers bought the card. Over the years, the InterRail Pass had expanded its reach to more and more countries, while the travel offers has become more varied and even includes First Class travel. Outside Europe the card is known as the Eurail Pass.

For most young people traveling with the InterRail Card/Pass in 1973 was very, very different from how you travel today. Most kids traveled without credit cards, cellphones, Internet, Web, Facebook, WiFi, guidebooks and with very little money. If you couldn't find a campground or a bed in a youth hostel, you had to sleep on a night train, on a beach, with a friend, on a railway station or wherever you found a place to rest your head. It was not always safe, but kids who had come of age in 1968 didn't worry much about safety. They were naive and willing to take risks. And most of them made it home alright.

Hubble Telescope Images