Saturday, June 29, 2013

Waleed Hammad goes undercover as a woman in Egypt

“I can’t imagine living my life like that every single day.”

Egyptian journalist Waleed Hammad dressed as a woman and went out into the world, followed by hidden cameras, to get a sense of what women experience.

Good grief, James McWilliams.

Is there some sort of secret manual distributed to white male writers advising them on how to respond to criticism from feminists in the most petulant, self-pitying, and defensive manner possible? I’ve been amazed at the similarities across so many of these reactions.

I just posted a few days ago about what I thought was a productive and civil discussion of sexism and objectification in the animal rights movement at James McWilliams’ blog Eating Plants. I’ve been reading his frequent and thoughtful posts for a while now, and generally make a point to read the comments, both because they’re intelligent and informative and because McWilliams typically replies with openness even to those who disagree. I thought the thread was a great example of feminists and allies within a movement discussing sexism and objectification, and explicitly contrasted it to the vicious campaigns of abuse and harassment with which feminists have been met in the atheist-skeptic-freethought community. Later, I read a post at Vegan Feminist Agitator expanding on her disappointment with some of McWilliams’ remarks.

Rather than responding to any of this, McWilliams zeroes in on a single tweet:
“James McWilliams represents the male leadership in Animal Rights; he is protecting misogyny & legitimating sexism”

The message above eased into the big slipstream of social media yesterday. The writer then posted a comment on my blog promoting her recent scholarship. I haven’t missed a day of blogging this year. Almost all of it has been original content. I’m a history professor with a full teaching load and long commute. Readers: this has been a labor of love. And I’m tired of the heat.
McWilliams hasn’t spared any harsh criticisms for organizations or people himself, and he’s never been subjected to any heat above and beyond the usual. If he wants to see heat, he should see here or here or here or here.

The person who tweeted that is Corey Wrenn (I have no idea why he doesn’t refer to her by name). She did link in his comment thread to a recent post and journal article, I assume not for the purpose of self-promotion but because they’re directly relevant to the issues he raised in his post (providing the sort of critical perspective he should have sought out before he posted). She also, like VFA, posted a response at her own blog. I wasn’t familiar with Wrenn or her work prior to this episode, and haven’t yet formed a general opinion of its quality or of her online activism. And I’m not going to make this about her general approach, much less about the kindness or fairness of that particular tweet. The point is that McWilliams, rather than responding to the comments from various people in the thread, to the articles Wrenn linked to, to Wrenn’s blog post, or to the post at VFA, churlishly focuses on one tweet.

[I’m not claiming that every charge that some words or behavior support sexism (or racism, or homophobia,…) is entirely correct, or that the response in every case must be an apology or admission of wrongdoing. In this case, we saw – as he notes – some prominent colleagues in the movement, as well as a host of regular commenters, making similar arguments in a measured and civil tone, and one more strongly worded tweet which is pretty standard in political discourse. He’s chosen not to engage with them at all.]
This “McWilliams the sexist” claim is only bound to intensify before it diminishes and, as long as I’m part of this “movement,” I fear it’ll never go away. So it’s time for a change. I’m taking a permanent break from Eating Plants in order to pursue other (less obvious) approaches to animal advocacy, ones that are, I hope, less prone to the name calling that characterizes the animal right movement.
So criticisms from feminists are irrational labels and petty name-calling. One harsh tweet and he starts to challenge the idea that there is even a movement and the value of the very forms of advocacy in which he’s long been involved.

I’d noticed that in the thread I posted about there was little participation from McWilliams, which was unusual. I assumed he was reading the comments fairly and planning to continue to think about the matter or to post a respectful response. That was a reasonable assumption based on his past behavior, but probably overly optimistic in light of the reactions of so many men to feminist criticism that I've seen over the past few years. He’d rather scornfully dismiss their remarks and close down his blog than engage meaningfully with their criticisms. I had a serious problem with some of his remarks in the post in question, but didn’t see him as being fundamentally disrespectful to women or feminists. This, however, is truly contemptuous.
I adore blogging more than anything I’ve ever done in my professional career as a writer. This labor of love has become integral to my life. But I can already feel myself getting swept up in a sordid controversy that I find truly anathema to what I stand for as a human being, a father, and an intellectual. And knowing what I know about this movement, I’m aware that the stain will never fade. Movements don’t forget.
The feminazi witch hunt with its sordid controversies claims another victim.
The charge of sexism may very well be of my own doing (however inadvertently my words justified the charge). Nevertheless, when a prominent animal rights academic decrees that I’m “protecting misogyny & legitimating sexism,” it drives me to seriously reconsider the nature of my advocacy.
Somehow, amazingly enough, it doesn’t drive him to seriously consider whether he might be protecting misogyny or legitimating sexism. It doesn’t lead him to question the person who tweeted that or challenge them to explain or defend it. It doesn’t cause him to think about how women have to live with objectification and can’t abstract ourselves from it through academic speculations. It doesn’t lead him to consider how engaging meaningfully with the arguments of feminists in the movement and learning from them might make him a better activist, might help him the better appreciate the interlocking nature of various oppressions, and might enlighten him about himself. It merely makes him question whether he has to continue to engage with those tiresome angry feminists.
This comment was made not through personal e-mail contact, but via a tweet. It comes on the heels of another animal rights activist condemning me for me more or less the same thing, although (decently enough) she did not do so publicly.
So typical. The potential accuracy of the comments and criticisms is raised and then quickly dismissed and ignored in favor of focusing on their manner of delivery. His public criticisms of people’s words and actions have been numerous, and I doubt it occurred to him to email them privately instead. Even when men make public statements that could affect women’s lives, women aren’t supposed to criticize or challenge them publicly. That’s indecent! Of course there’s nothing at all indecent about his discussing these communications publicly without revealing their content.
It’s becoming clear to me that my skin is not quite thick enough to be an animal rights activist who thinks out loud under the public eye.
Well, one who thinks out loud about sexism in the movement, and then listens little.
It may also be the case that I just don’t have the demeanor for blogging aggressively about issues that are conventionally central to the movement. I’ve always admired my readers whose activism was more quiet and probably a lot more effective than mine, and I look forward to pursuing strategies that are more anonymous and hopefully less prone to the scrutiny of my many imperfections.
If this is the case, I saw no indication of it prior to this incident in which the criticism was coming from feminists. Funny how that works.

(And note that this is another scornful allusion to feminism specifically. I wish the connection of speciesism to sexism or the criticism of sexism within the movement were really “obvious,” “traditional,” or “conventionally central” to animal rights activism.)
I know very little. But this I can say for sure: every word I have written from the platform of this blog has come from my heart. Directly, without a filter. I have chosen not to edit myself for how I might be perceived. Every word has also been in the interest of helping animals, something I will continue to do with great passion.
His work has been and will continue to be appreciated. But the idea that putting your words through a filter of understanding how they might harm other humans (and how this might in turn harm nonhuman animals) is some sort of unreasonable expectation is pretty surprising coming from someone so guided by empathy.
I have absorbed, and come to appreciate, a considerable amount of criticism. It has not only made me a better thinker and writer, but a better person. But being charged via tweet in such a public fashion for “legitimating sexism” and “protecting misogyny” drives me into the ground, or at least into the sanctuary of a more private sphere.
And you might want to ask yourself why this is. Why do you not owe women feminists in the movement the same respect you’ve shown to others who’ve criticized your words?
I’m not saying the charge of sexism is wrong. I’m not saying I’m free of all sexism.
Then engage with the responses to your post.
I’m just saying it’s too much for me to deal with as a public matter while remaining an open-minded thinker unburdened by what people might think about what I have to say.
That’s disrespectful. And frankly, it’s not all about you or your ego.
Plus, to be honest, I’d rather not have my daughter grow up hearing that her dad is an animal rights activist prone to “legitimating sexism.”
Then engage with the criticisms in the comment thread and blog posts.
For the record, here’s the phrase I wrote that got me dragged to the woodshed:
Sigh. (And for the record, the problem was more than that phrase.)
“Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.” I’m just barely smart and media savvy enough to know that any attempt to excuse/defend/rationalize/qualify the remark will only send me further into the snarled narcissism of differences that condemns this movement to fight with itself forever. I’m too old to dig deeper holes for myself.
Again – this fear of the “snarled narcissism of differences that condemns this movement to fight with itself forever” never came up in his past criticisms or responses to criticisms. It seems wholly specific to debates about women and sexism.

And the pouty fatalism that attends this paragraph is really just too much. “Nothing will ever satisfy these feminist scolds!” It simply amazes me that such an otherwise engaged person, so interested in learning, has simply decided that he has nothing to learn from feminist animal rights activists.
I also know that, more than anything else, I must think my thoughts authentically.
No one has asked him not to think or write his thoughts authentically.
I’d rather commit all my ideas to the privacy of a journal or speak them to the dried paint on a wall than write about hot button issues for a large audience as a person with a permanent sexist taint. Point being: this foul die has been cast. Even if others forget, I won’t.
This is simply ridiculous.
I can find better ways to work for the cause of animals than as a daily blogger ever on the defensive against sexist charges.
Right, because no one could ever legitimate sexism in any realm of the movement other than as a blogger. How astonishing that it’s all about the danger of “sexist charges” rather than the danger of acting in a sexist way. McWilliams can switch to another line of activism because he can’t face the possibility of public criticism of sexism (gasp!). Women in the movement can’t quit being women because they can’t face the possibility of sexism.
I realize that this might seem overly sensitive. It is. But it’s how I feel. And how I feel influences how I write.
The issue isn’t sensitivity. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were talking about a general sensitivity. In that case, I would simply agree that he shouldn’t be a blogger. It isn’t about that. It’s specifically about his response to feminist critics who’ve argued that some of his actions perpetuate sexism in ways that harm women within and outside of the movement as well as the animals – especially the female animals – he’s trying to help. I can’t understand why he can’t just engage with those criticisms, especially as his first post made similar arguments and even cited Carol Adams, and he’s posted quite recently challenging sexist notions behind the celebration of animal killing (doesn't seem to have considered sending those involved a private email).

When the response specifically to feminist criticisms is so uncharacteristic and extreme, it distracts from their content and creates the impression that they can’t be addressed reasonably. This does more to perpetuate sexism than any statement in the original post.
I very much hope you will stay tuned. I have a lot to say about a lot of things and I will say them. Eating Plants will be reinvented/ revived/ reformed/ renovated in one form or another. But it won’t be the same deal. Not even close. So, for the immediate future, it’s farewell to Eating Plants as we know it and hello to a future that awaits, one that will likely involve longer but less frequent thought pieces that cede the general territory of “conventional animal rights” to other writers and thinkers. After 601 posts, 9,232 comments, and 276, 382 views, it’s a reluctant farewell made with deep and sincere gratitude to those who made this project a magical experience that I never expected would succeed as well it did.

To quitting while (just barely) ahead, I say: cheers. To charting new territory, I say: onwards.


James McWilliams
If McWilliams wants to explore other avenues, that’s great. I think everyone should choose the means of advocacy most suited to them. But he’s better than this response. I realize he felt stung by the critical responses, but I would urge him to try to get past that reaction and read and engage with what they’re saying. Nothing could better show his daughter an example of a man who respects women not just in some abstract sense but as colleagues and allies in a shared movement than a real attempt to understand and rise above this initial defensiveness.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Grass-fed butter

The latest manufactured food fad (this one seems especially creepy - I reached the reference to "bio-hacking" and decided that was enough information for me) involves adding butter to your morning coffee:
A mixture of unsalted grass-fed butter with his trademark Bulletproof Upgraded Coffee — a blend of low-toxin beans, which his site claims to be "cleaner" than Starbucks coffee. Grass-fed butter, according to [David Asprey, founder of Bulletproof Coffee], boosts health benefits, "optimizing" your cholesterol levels instead of worsening them. On his website, he claims that starting your day with the Bulletproof-Butter brew will "give you lots of energy and it will give your body healthy fats that it will use to make cell walls and hormones."

Additionally, Asprey praises the "boundless energy" and "focus" you will feel following a cup....
What's struck me about the "reports" on this marketing ploy have been the casual references to "grass-fed butter." Of course, I've heard of "grass-fed beef" and the like, but the fact that "beef" refers to the animals' flesh means some trace of them remains. This is the absent referent gone wild. Cows exploited for their breast milk are erased entirely.

I do think this use of language to make animals invisible, like the language that renders the millions of victims of a government's foreign policy invisible, is less a tool to distract people from the suffering to which they contribute than a means of psychological evasion that they actively embrace. This isn't to say people do so fully consciously, but it's not plausible that they really forget that butter can't be fed. The absent referent is always there in our consciousness, and that's why language that conceals it is appreciated.

Well over 20 million human beings in the last 50 years, mostly civilians

From Fred Branfman's "World's Most Evil And Lawless Institution? The Executive Branch Of The U.S. Government":
All told, U.S. Executive Branch leaders – Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals - have killed wounded and made homeless well over 20 million human beings in the last 50 years, mostly civilians.

U.S. leaders have never acknowledged their responsibility for ruining so many lives, let alone apologized or made proper amends to the survivors. Those responsible have not been punished, but rewarded. The memory of it has been erased from national consciousness, as U.S. leaders endlessly declare their nation’s, and their own, goodness. Millions of civilian lives swept under the rug, forgotten, as if this mass murder and maiming, the destruction of countless homes and villages, this epic violation of basic human decency—and laws protecting civilians in time of war which U.S. leaders have promised to observe—never happened.

...[T]he practical part of ourselves, the part that needs to make a living and maintain emotional equilibrium, leads us to ignore the mass evil our leaders engage in. It is so much easier. For accepting this truth means accepting that our leaders are not good and decent people; that JSOC commandos are not "heroes" but rather lawless assassins whose very existence shames us all; that we are not being protected, but endangered by leaders who are turning hundreds of millions of Muslims against us; that we must assume that Executive officials are right now secretly engaging in a wide variety of illegal and immoral activities that would shock and disgust us if they were revealed; and that we cannot believe a word they say when these abuses are revealed as they so regularly engage in secrecy and stonewalling, lying when discovered, covering up when the lie is revealed, and claiming it was an aberration and/or blaming it on a subordinate when the coverup fails.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Biopsychiatry, neo-eugenics, and prison reform

The biologization/medicalization of psychological distress, as I’ve discussed, serves to depoliticize these experiences. It enhances corporate power and the political authority of drug companies and psychiatrists. It impedes the development of a (post-)humanistic approach to human suffering.

But there are two other complementary aspects of medicalization tying it to conservative politics that don’t receive as much attention. The first is that, in practice, the biologization of psychiatry has tended toward geneticization and then toward eugenics. The second is that it's subverted social justice efforts, turning a genuine wish to help into support for oppression and collusion with authoritarian systems.

A comment in a recent thread alerted me to this 2012 piece by Robert Whitaker, “The Taint of Eugenics in NIMH-funded Research Today.” Whitaker argues that the “Top 10 Research Advances in 2011” celebrated by NIMH head Thomas Insel have, in fact, no real connection to positive therapeutic interventions. He challenges the reader:
See if you can find even one item that tells of research designed to help living, breathing human beings get well and stay well. See if you can find anything that tells of research designed to identify the strengths that can be found in people struggling with their minds, and all the ways that, in fact, such struggles can be an ordinary part of human experience.
He suggests that the original biological-genetic commitment of the NIMH and the organizations involved with psychiatry hasn’t just led to an impoverishment of understanding - of the roots of suffering, of human potential, of possible therapies (of which it’s led to none1). It’s also fostered dangerous assumptions about people labeled “mentally ill” and the social transmission of “mental illness”:
Insel’s list tells of a research enterprise devoted to identifying what is genetically wrong with the “mentally ill.” As the history of eugenics reminds us, that is a pursuit, unless it is handled with great care, that can engender bad social policy and a great deal of harm.
Echoes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seem especially clear when it comes to the reception of the Smoller et al. study recently published in the Lancet, which, it’s claimed, finds a genetic link among five different “disorders”: autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia.2 Used by Insel as part of the rationale for a renewed focus on the genetic roots of “mental illness,” it has the potential to lead to a renewed fear of “neuropathic” individuals and families, which can negatively affect policy. When a web site with the seal of the Department of Health and Human Services declares that “No one is sure what causes schizophrenia, but your genetic makeup and brain chemistry probably play a role,” it’s not a statement that should be passed over lightly.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that future discoveries are actually going to turn up evidence of the genetic causes of psychological problems and lead to genuinely effective interventions which might have some negative political consequences. It’s a nonzero possibility, of course, but given the extant evidence I’d say it’s pretty damned close to zero. No, the danger lies in the cultural power of the genetic model itself, how it gives a fake scientific sheen to stigmatization and marginalization and how this shapes the treatment of people diagnosed as mentally ill. In other words, the problem isn’t that it’s true; it’s that so many people are convinced that it’s true. (Similarly, as an atheist, I don’t fear a vengeful god. I am, though, concerned about the consequences of millions of people, including those in positions of power, believing one exists.)

It’s easier to see, with the benefit of hindsight, and especially with the knowledge of the extremes to which some of the pseudoscientific notions of a century ago led, a) that they were pseudoscience and b) that they served authoritarian, bigoted ends. But the passage of time has obscured important aspects, like how mainstream and respected many of the people and institutions promoting these ideas were at the time and how many of them regarded the programs based on these notions as politically progressive and helpful.

What makes biopsychiatry palatable and even alluring to many, including many on the left, is precisely that it’s presented not as a means of authoritarian social control but as a therapeutic mission dedicated to combating illness. (This has changed over time: when it was a matter of psychiatrists talking amongst themselves, they could be more open about viewing drugs as tools for better controlling and managing people. As they began to market the drugs to the public, the rhetoric changed to one claiming they’re therapeutic agents, although the language of social control is still very much around in certain contexts, including when speaking of children and adults in various institutional settings and of people deemed criminally violent.)

A huge number of people in mental health professions and government, as well as political activists, believe the model is valid and thus see psychopharmacology in terms of care. It’s presented to the public in humanitarian language. When Thomas Insel writes “Our patients deserve better,” he’s appealing to an ethos of care. He’s also appealing to a paternalistic impulse that is in no way alien to social justice activists.3

Due to the widespread acceptance of the brain-disease-drug model, those who oppose systems which deny people care of any sort and treat them disrespectfully and cruelly tend to join in the chorus calling for better care in the form of improved “accessibility” to psychiatric “services,” including drugs. So entrenched are these beliefs that the unavailability of drugs is seen as a violation of human rights.

I saw this play out recently in an article by Andrew Cohen, “One of the Darkest Periods in the History of American Prisons.” Cohen discusses recent disclosures about the horrendous conditions in US prisons, including a report from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department [!] documenting widespread abuses of human rights in violation of the Constitution. All of the reports, as Cohen describes, emphasize the indifferent and brutal treatment of “the mentally ill” – prisoners experiencing extreme psychic distress:
On May 30th, the ACLU filed a long-awaited federal lawsuit against state officials for the atrocious conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. "The lawsuit filed today," the lawyers wrote, "describes a facility where [mentally ill] prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners' beds, and some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates."
EMCF's solitary confinement zones house dozens of seriously mentally ill prisoners who are locked down in filthy cells for days, weeks, or even years at a time. . . It is commonplace for cells to lack working lights, leaving prisoners with barely enough light to see during the day and in total darkness at night. . . Correctional officers seldom appear on the housing zones and prisoners are left to fend for themselves, sealed behind solid-front doors.
In addition to finding that Cresson routinely resorts to locking prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for months or even years at a time, the department also found that Cresson often denies these prisoners basic necessities and subjects them to harsh and punitive conditions, including excessive uses of force. The department concluded that Cresson's misuse of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness leads to serious harms, including mental decompensation, clinical depression, psychosis, self-mutilation, and suicide.
Examples of mistreatment range from not providing any care at all to punitive responses to distressed behavior. A problem, though, emerges in the descriptions of the problem in the reports themselves and in Cohen’s article:
Prison officials have failed to provide a constitutional level of care in virtually every respect, from providing medication and treatment to protecting the men from committing suicide.
the Jail routinely fails to provide appropriate medications to prisoners with mental illness
missed and inadequate diagnoses
Among the hundreds of mentally ill prisoners at EMCF are many whose untreated illnesses lead to extreme behaviors such as screaming, babbling, throwing excrement and starting fires.
At Cresson, there is not enough staff, not enough medicine, and not enough accountability.
inadequate intake procedures, to negligent supervision of mentally ill prisoners, to inappropriate delivery of medicine and therapy, to the indifference and lack of accountability displayed by prison staff,… [my emphases]
Any decent person will agree that, as we fight the system of mass imprisonment itself, major reforms are urgently needed within that system itself – the conditions described in these reports have to end. But in characterizing denial of “access” to proper psychiatric diagnosis and medication as a major problem, writers like Cohen make themselves complicit with authoritarian and pseudoscientific institutions.

Prisoners are among the most vulnerable people in society, and to assume that “access” to psychiatric diagnosis and drugs is the same as access to medical care is to provide a justification for coercive or forced labeling and drugging. There can be little doubt, given existing laws that allow for forced interventions for people in the general US population, that greater access to “medications” for people in prison would mean in practice the increasing use of drugs to change and control, and even to punish, rebellious or disruptive prisoners. At a time when the US is being challenged on human rights grounds for allowing forced psychiatric interventions, it’s ethically and politically reckless to call for improved “access” to psychiatric “medications” for prisoners.

People on the left readily scoff at attempts to couch imposed austerity programs and the destruction of government protection and support in the language of “access” to markets and freedom, rightly recognizing that this is a cover for exploitation – “access” to the plunder of neoliberal capitalism. But belief in biopsychiatry leads many of the same people to promote similar “access” to coercive biopsychiatry with a clear conscience and the firm belief that they’re helping.

A good part of the problem, in addition of course to inadequate skepticism about the biopsychiatric model, is, I think, a failure to consult people currently or formerly in prison about the reforms they want to see – an inattention to what imprisoned people themselves are demanding. Given the centrality of the problem of forced drugging to the psych rights movement generally, it’s pretty much impossible to believe that people in prisons are clamoring for more access to psychiatric diagnoses and drugs.

To be sure, it’s an enormously complicated and difficult problem. The current regime of violent, punitive responses has to end, of course. The problems transcend the immediate environment, and won’t be resolved through any sort of individual-level or prison-based interventions; at the same time, individual-level and prison-based interventions of some sort are necessary. But these should not be based on a model that further stigmatizes, marginalizes, and disempowers people in prison while empowering those who want to intervene by force to “treat” them.

1 Whitaker’s concern about a lack of any therapeutic value is echoed by Brett Deacon in response to Insel’s 2012 propaganda list. As he suggests:
NIMH director Insel's zeal for the biomedical model is reflected in his list of the “Top Ten Research Advances of 2012” (Insel, 2013). The advances concern topics such as epigenomics, neurodevelopmental genomics, “optogenetics and oscillations in the brain,” “mapping the human brain at the molecular level,” and “mapping the human connectome.” Each of these is regarded by Insel as potentially leading to innovation by suggesting “new vistas for biology that will almost certainly change the way we understand serious mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders.” None of Insel's “Top Ten Research Advances” concern an actual improvement in the assessment, prevention, or treatment of any mental disorder.
This means that the money thrown into this gargantuan effort is being wasted, diverted from more promising avenues. At the end of his article, Deacon asks: “If decades of biomedical research have not resulted in the development of clinically useful biological tests, innovative psychotropic medications, or improved mental health outcomes, should billions of dollars of taxpayer money continue to be preferentially allocated to biomedical research? Should zealous advocates of the biomedical model continue to head governmental agencies that determine national research and policy agendas?” I agree that these are important questions.

2 Coincidentally, this study is mentioned in a talk I listened to recently by Ian Hacking, “Making Up Autism” (which I didn’t think was very good overall). When he brings up this research, he explicitly suggests that he sees in it “a curious throwback to the 19th century” origins of eugenics. He mentions Jean-Martin Charcot’s arguments about “degeneracy” and how its appearance varied across different individuals and generations of families, taking the form of antisocial deviancy, dipsomania, idiocy. (Whitaker discusses Aaron Rosanoff and his pseudoscientific search for the insanity gene.)

I won’t say much about this – single, unreplicated - study here, but I do find it bizarre. If you’re acknowledging that these aren’t “diseases” or “disorders,” that these diagnoses aren’t valid - as Insel surely is now since he’s citing this study as one factor in the NIMH’s decision to stop using them and explicitly remarked on their invalidity – then you’re admitting that what you’re talking about are shifting constructs and not biomarkers. So you’re looking for a genetic basis for a construct. Grouping these constructs together or dividing them up in new ways doesn’t address the basic problem that they’re constructs.

You might wonder why these five disorders were included. Thinking it wouldn’t make sense for them to include PTSD? Think again.

3 Anarchists have always been relatively more immune to this tendency - if not always to the underlying ideas, at least to the implementation of programs based on them. This has been due to a rejection of coercive authority even in its progressive and therapeutic guise and to a recognition of the political nature of human science.

Species Pride

I’ve been writing with increasing frequency about how our language and culture are saturated with speciesism. There are examples everywhere, but once in a while one jumps out at me for its sheer refusal to try to cover its self-congratulation with even the thinnest veil of argumentation or intellectual rigor.

Such was the case with an article a few days ago in The Atlantic, “How Reading Makes Us More Human.” The subheading reads, “A debate has erupted over whether reading fiction makes human beings more moral. But what if its real value consists in something even more fundamental?” The writer of the piece, Karen Swallow Prior, is intervening, as the subheading suggests, in a “battle” in some corporate media outlets over the question of whether reading (not just reading, but reading fiction, and more specifically Great Literature) makes people more moral.

This seems a rather silly and self-serving debate to begin with – select an activity enjoyed by members of your class, remove its context and content, and flatter yourselves by talking about how it in particular contributes to making people better in some way (bonus narcissism points for using yourself as an illustration or for implying that this pursuit is a necessary or exclusive means of improvement).1

Prior’s would be just another tired intervention in another such pointless discussion if she didn’t go beyond its terms – or, possibly, make them more explicit! – by writing an article with almost no content other than speciesism. What does “more human” even mean? How could it have any meaning at all?

It’s not only the emphasis on trying to be human, or “more human,” that reveals the article’s speciesism, but the repeated and explicit contrast of The Human with The Animal. Of course, there’s the obligatory reference to the fact that only humans read:
Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual -- however one understands that word -- about the human ability, and impulse, to read.2
This is perfectly condensed speciesist rhetoric: this activity sets us apart from other animals (our deep connections to other animals are ignored, as is the fact that the basic capacities that enable us to read are evolved), it isn’t “natural,” it transcends the merely and meaninglessly biological, and humanness is to be defined – and really only defined – in contrast to alleged animal qualities. The line “Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom” is highlighted in bold alongside the text for emphasis. The reader evidently isn’t supposed to question how this point about distinctiveness contributes to an intervention in a debate about the relationship between reading and morality. We’re expected to understand: reading defines us as human and that’s what’s important.3

It goes further. While she suggests that reading is somehow spiritual (“however one understands that word”) by virtue of being distinctively human, Prior also refers to the supposedly crucial distinction made by Frank Kermode and echoed by Annie Murphy Paul, one of the participants in the Great Literature-Morality Debate of 2013, between “carnal reading” (“the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet”) and “spiritual reading” ( “reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth”):
It is "spiritual reading" -- not merely decoding -- that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read.
So not only is reading itself a pursuit exclusively of humans, but a certain kind of human reading – evidently having little to do with our bodies, though it would seem to be difficult without our carnal brains - is required for true connection and enlightenment.

And there’s more. Not just any lowlife can practice spiritual reading. Learning to transcend our carnal, material, animal – read: immoral - nature requires time and study. “Our” superiority is also an achievement – to be better we have to work and to submit.4 This is an achievement of the few.5

In the end,
The power of "spiritual reading" is its ability to transcend the immediacy of the material, the moment, or even the moral choice at hand…. [S]uch reading doesn't make us better so much as it makes us human.
It’s all about being human. Human even trumps better, despite the fact that it has and can have no meaning whatsoever. The “real value” of reading lies in its humanness, which is “even more fundamental” than morality, including concrete moral choices. The fact that “spiritual” and “soul” and “human” have no meaning in the piece and that “more human” makes no sense is necessary to these sorts of articles. “Human/spiritual” works the same way as – and is in fact at the foundation of – “masculine/manly” or “civilized.” It’s a celebration of the dominant category and its (alleged) capacities. Human is simply understood to be something wonderfully special to be, an identity that in itself confers greatness. It’s not necessary to elaborate on any practical effects; since the value is inherent in the category, its spirit magically suffuses all associated activities and capabilities.

Here we’ve moved far from any useful discussion of morality, especially in the context of evolution, or of the complexity of human capacities and activities in contributing to or obstructing moral choice. There’s no sense of the ambiguous moral effects of our capacity to create and respond to abstract and symbolic works, or of the other forms of “reading” that are foreclosed or diminished when that capacity is developed or emphasized. There’s no serious questioning of the nature of practical ethics – of better or worse actions - in an indifferent and uncertain universe. Morality is simply defined in terms of certain inherent and realizable capacities of our kind.

Of course, the Human can't justify itself. Our humanness enables us to be more human, which is human and therefore good – this would just go around in circles. The Human needs external, superior validation. As the references to the “spiritual” scattered throughout the article show, Prior’s image of human superiority rests not on itself but on a connection to God: “What good literature can do and does do -- far greater than any importation of morality -- is touch the human soul.” Prior is, I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn, a professor at Liberty University and a faithhead. Reading is valuable in her view because “more human” means for her more godly. She explicitly compares “spiritual reading” to religious observation: “In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.”

The unabashed starkness of Prior’s speciesism makes the article a useful tool for recognizing some important features of speciesist thought. Serving as almost an ideal type, it alerts us to the characteristics of speciesism found elsewhere in less blatantly self-aggrandizing forms. In arguments shaped by speciesism,

• what is argued to be Human is presented as, or simply assumed to be, inherently valuable, with a correspondent devaluing of what is presented as Animal;
• qualities or activities alleged to be characteristic of or exclusive to humans are in turn circularly seen to raise the value of humanness;
• it’s assumed implicitly or explicitly that “human” is not a designation but a direction of movement or a stage in development: human isn’t just something better, but a movement toward something higher – God or some equivalent transcendence.

These features, including an implicit assumption of a higher, more godlike state, are preserved in many secular humanist writings, including many which don’t use religious terminology. Without some form of the element of godliness, in fact, the assumptions about inherent human superiority and transcendence would be revealed as nonsensical. It would be an interesting exercise to remove all of the elements based on these assumptions from humanistic writings, religious and secular, and see what’s left. In this extreme case, there’s nothing. Nothing but a fearful and vapid species pride.

1 This also works for race, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. It’s especially effective if subordinate groups aren’t able to engage in the activity through forcible exclusion or force of circumstance.

2 The claim that there’s a human impulse to read is questionable, to say the least.

3 This contrast is one the last few that can be expressed plainly in Good Liberal circles. You won’t read articles in these publications contrasting some exclusively Christian pursuit with Jewish materialism or carnality, for example. You’ll occasionally read one contrasting some “Western” activity with “primitive” material existence. But you’ll often see the unquestioned assumption that what is human (regardless of whether the specific capacity really is exclusively human, although in the case of reading books it is6) is therefore defining and valuable and unquestionably good. “They don’t do it so doing it must make us better” is relatively unquestioned when “they” are nonhuman animals and “we” are human animals. (Actually, the only other contrast that seems to be acceptable to make in this context, and it builds on the human/animal contrast, is between religious people and atheists.)

4 Earlier, I discussed this tension between what we supposedly are and what we’re supposed to strive to be.

5 This carries the implication, naturally, that cultures that practice writing and reading are “more human” than, and therefore superior to, those that don’t.

6 Although Prior runs into trouble when she argues that
In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to "read" means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of "interpreting" in the sense of "reading" a person or situation.
“Reading” a person or a situation in this sense, as she admits, doesn’t require symbols – much less Great Literature - and is arguably a capacity of many nonhuman animals. So her claim that “To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities” falls apart.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A refreshingly good discussion of speciesism and objectification

James McWilliams wrote recently about PETA's "sexiest vegan" campaign. He has a follow-up post questioning his original position, which has spawned a lively and thoughtful comment thread.

It led me to despair (again) of how the atmosphere in the atheist/skeptic/freethought community has been poisoned by a colony of sexists and misogynists.

Victory for cats!

I wrote back in early May about the efforts, led by Bob Barker, to get Washington University in St. Louis to stop using cats in its PALS training. I did a search for updates and...they're stopping!

I hope this victory will lead people to view similar rationales for the exploitation of animals in other research and educational settings with more skepticism.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Book of Woe on Book TV

Gary Greenberg discusses The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry on Book TV. I haven't read it, and don't know if I agree with all of his arguments, but he's an enthusiastic and entertaining speaker.

Friday, June 14, 2013

“I want the girls to have this sense of submissiveness.”

This was Vegas Week on So You Think You Can Dance. Dancers auditioning in cities across the country try to win a ticket to Las Vegas to compete in this round, which determines who makes the final twenty. It follows the same formula as Hollywood Week in American Idol: the dancers do solos before a panel of judges, develop a performance with a small group and an assigned piece of music, and have to learn and perform choreographed routines in various styles (hip hop, contemporary, and so on).

The jazz round this week was choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, whose work I’ve long enjoyed and who always seemed fairly respectful of the young dancers. So I was surprised that in this instance she appeared to treat them like young children (not the way anyone should be treating young children, either, in any event). She seemed hostile and disrespectful towards these dancers, who didn’t seem to be behaving unprofessionally.

I would have been bothered by this alone, but it was the larger context that made her bullying behavior intolerable. As the viewing audience is being shown the dancers learning the choreography, she explains that she wants the guys to be “really strong” and trustworthy partners, and the “girls” to have “this sense of submissiveness” as they rely on their partners in a routine involving intricate partner work. She tells the dancers, “You should not have one doubt in your partner, even if you just met them.”

Keep in mind - these are young dancers coming from a variety of dance backgrounds, many of whom have never done any sort of partner work, let alone at this high level. Further, she instructs them (with an eyerollingly melodramatic rendition of Debbie Allen’s Fame speech) to stay up all night practicing on their own around the hotel – “When you feel that fatigue, pass through the fatigue. Your body can handle more than your mind thinks it can.”

So this is a situation in which women are expected to trust inexperienced, sleep-deprived, nervous men with their safety. If a man fails at the task, he’ll feel guilty and possibly be eliminated from the competition. The potential consequences for women are disproportionately extreme – they risk serious, even life-threatening, injuries that could end their career in dance, let alone the competition. And it’s demanded that they do so submissively – that they don’t question decisions with potentially serious consequences, that they don’t voice their concerns, and that they don’t show any lack of trust during the performance itself.

As anyone could have predicted, during the night at least one dancer was dropped directly on her head by her partner (he’s actually a ballroom dancer, but seemed more focused on his cell phone than on mastering the choreography), sending her to the hospital where they kept her for several hours to monitor her for a concussion. This was all milked for maximum drama.

Here’s what happened the next morning: The droppee, despite her relative lack of practice, having been dropped on her head on a concrete floor, and spending the night in the hospital, had to perform the routine with the dude who’d dropped her on her head on a concrete floor. (“I’m trying to have as much trust as I can,” she says nervously before she goes on.) The dropper was given a stern lecture, but not eliminated from the competition at that point. The droppee was also put through to the next round, and roundly praised for not giving any indication of what had happened – “That’s what dancers do,” a judge informs.

This sends a terrible message to dancers, women dancers, and women generally. Sure, dancers at a top level are expected to take some risks (of their choice) with their bodies, and to dance through pain and not show it. There are also occasions in which choreography requires that a dancer - by no means should it always be women - take on a submissive character for the performance.

But dance itself should not require submissiveness from women or anyone else. Demanding that women set aside the usual and very reasonable rules of trust – that you trust people who’ve given you reason to trust them, and don’t trust them if they haven’t, especially if they’ve given you reason not to – when it comes to their comfort, their bodies, and their dreams is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to demand that a contestant dance with the dude who hours earlier dropped her on her head on a concrete floor, and to judge her on how well she conceals her fear. Think about the message this sends to women, especially those who want to become dancers.

This was just the most egregious example of what seems to me an undercurrent on the show of late. It portrays the world of dance not as a collaborative artistic effort of professionals, but as an authoritarian structure to which dancers are expected to meekly submit, even at the expense of their personality and judgment. In the auditions in one city, the judges attempted a show of power toward a dancer they’d previously deemed insufficiently deferential by demanding that he go through an extra round of auditions. I think his decision to leave the competition rather than submit to this exercise was supposed to show his arrogance and intransigence, but I agreed that he was right not to put up with it.

It also wasn’t the only problematic message to women on the show, or even in this episode. Towards the end, a pair of dancers is eliminated. Neither of them danced especially well, but in the post-elimination interview the man keeps apologizing for having let the woman down while groping her and telling her how beautiful she is. Already upset about her elimination, she tries to placate him and extricate herself, but as she walks off he’s shown chasing after her, literally licking his lips lasciviously. This seems to be played for laughs, as was a past contestant’s repeated inappropriate behavior towards the Emmy-nominated host Cat Deeley.

This can be fixed. At Vegas Week, they should have a talk with everyone at the very beginning about respect – from everyone, including the judges, for everyone. Of course, people might flirt and hook up, but it should be understood that they’re there as dancers and competitors, and no one should have to put up with unwanted attention in order to participate or pursue their dream. In routines in which people are partnering with others, unnecessary risks should be avoided by avoiding more dangerous moves in the beginning and by proper training over time, and no woman should be expected to entrust her safety or future in dance to anyone who hasn’t shown they warrant that trust. No one should be expected to “submit” other than in very specific senses related to choreography. And the show should not be making light of the disrespecting of women’s boundaries. I suppose it would be too much to hope that dancers have more of a voice in the artistic process…?

They come after your family, too

I’ve been writing about authoritarian regimes and how they make use of the institutions of civil society and people’s love for their family and friends in their efforts to terrorize and dominate the citizenry. I’ve mentioned Corey Robin’s general argument and the specific case of Pussy Riot. Here’s another example of courage in the face of such systems – Honduran journalist Dina Meza:
Far from ending with those bullets [that killed her friend and colleague on his way to a meeting with her], the harassment quickly turned its focus on her and has rarely ceased since.

First it was the most unsubtle of verbal threats. The owner of a security firm she was investigating phoned her saying: “Stop your work or I will destroy your organisation.” She had the call taped and passed it on to the Attorney General, who did nothing.

Then an employee of the security company phoned to tell her what a “lovely looking daughter she had”. It was clearly meant, she claims, in a sexually threatening way towards the 13 year old. The caller made it clear that her children were being followed at school and college.

Instead of keeping quiet, she tracked the man down to confront him. But he was shameless, telling her to her face: “Watch out, or I can’t be held responsible for what might happen to your daughter.”

Since February of last year she received phone calls and text messages with disgustingly graphic sexual threats against her. Her harassers phoned her landline at home repeatedly in the middle of the night. “It would click and go dead, click and go dead. Eventually I stopped picking up,” she says, chuckling again. “So they would call my mobile and play funeral music, or make more horrible threats of a sexual nature against me.”

She has no idea which of the organisations her journalism is exposing is making the threats at any one time: the police, security firms, abusive employers. Although she passes on her suspicions to the police, along with the phone numbers of the abusive callers, nothing is ever done about it, she claims.

She recalls a host of other threats and abuses – too many to document here – always accompanying her tales with a laugh or a joke. But when I ask about the harassment of her children, her exuberant voice quietens markedly and breaks with emotion. Children, spouses, friends, are all seen as fair game by those seeking to silence journalists in her country.

…The lives of her daughter and two sons, 22, 19 and 13 respectively, have been badly affected by the constant danger of having such a high profile campaigning mother. They can never travel alone, never go to public places or live a normal private life. They have to keep in constant mobile phone contact with their mother in case of kidnap.

…I ask her whether, for all that she and her family have been through over the decades, she would ever consider just giving up. Living a quiet life.

That laugh comes again: “Never! The worst thing I could possibly do is nothing. We are going to keep struggling.”

“I could not look into my children´s eyes and tell them I can do nothing about the situation, because to do nothing would be far worse than the threats, beatings or bullets of the police and militaries”.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Adjunct organizing – the “metro strategy”

The casualization of academic labor in the US has reached extreme proportions. Adjuncts now constitute around 3/4 of teachers. The situation for the adjuncts themselves is of course bad: bad obviously for their ability to make a living and plan a life, bad for their health, bad for their psychological well-being and dignity (and that’s leaving aside the stress from the burden of student loans), bad for their work as teachers and mentors to their students, bad for their capacity to engage in scholarship, bad for their relationships in academe,… It’s also bad for students, of course. And bad for academic freedom and the future of scholars in politics.

Fortunately, a new organizing strategy by the SEIU might prove effective. These two articles describe adjuncts’ working conditions and the “metro strategy” of organizing adjuncts – otherwise isolated in temporary positions across various campuses – in entire urban areas:

“Adjunct Faculty, Now in the Majority, Organize Citywide”

“Mad Professors”

Promising news at long last.

Existentialism and “figures of alterity”

I’m reading Jonathan Judaken’s Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question: Anti-Semitism and the Politics of the French Intellectual (2007)

and enjoying it. In addition to its interesting arguments, it makes the political context, especially the anti-Semitic movements of the era, really vivid. I recently read Nancy Bauer’s 2001 Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism

which is an insightful if not a great book.* I like that both address the way that existentialism (and this is true of the secular humanist tradition generally) has been positively constituted, distorted, and challenged to develop by “figures of alterity” – women, Jewish people, colonized people, gay people, etc. My primary interest is in animals as the quintessential figure of alterity, but it all comes together in fascinating ways.

**Its major fault is that, in a work ostensibly about Beauvoir, it spends far too much time talking about Hegel and Sartre. I remember being at least 2/3 of the way through and thinking “She’s running out of time! When’s she going to focus on Beauvoir?!”

Supreme Court rules human genes can't be patented

Good news.

Pussy Riot, patriarchy, and fear

Notwithstanding this embarrassingly dumb and condescending review in the Guardian,*the new documentary showing on HBO, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, is well worth watching.

The most powerful aspects to me were, first, the statements made by the representatives and supporters of the Orthodox Church, who casually discuss how centuries ago these defiant “witches” and “demons” would have been hanged or burned at the stake, while today the men show more forgiveness and “punish them through the law.” You really couldn’t invent such perfect embodiments of patriarchal extremism: they wear t-shirts that read “Orthodoxy or Death,” and one of them explains that the word “pussy” means “deranged vagina.” They’re horrifying to watch, and they have real political power.

Second, the three members of Pussy Riot on trial are articulate and inspiring. Maria Alyokhina’s** statement prior to the reading of the verdict was a rousing work of art, leading those in the courtroom to break out in applause (after which they were scoldingly reminded by the court, in a moment of supreme irony, that the courtroom was “not a theater”).

Alyokhina’s concern for her son and the demands from the representatives of authority that these women accept their role in traditional hierarchical institutions reminded me of a piece I mentioned just yesterday over at Mano Singham’s, in which Corey Robin counters the claim that modern authoritarian terror and control rely on atomized individuals by showing that they really work through these authoritarian institutions and through threats to people’s loved ones. (This is a summary of the major thesis of his book, Fear, which I recommend.) I was appalled that Catherine Shoard at the Guardian would write “Difficult questions – about the young children of two of the three – are skirted around,” as though this were about irresponsible mothers rather than the reality of authoritarian regimes. This sort of presentation works to naturalize and depoliticize authoritarianism. The government threatened to turn her child over to social services after she participated in a political protest. That’s what shouldn’t be skirted around.

With the recent news about the passage of an anti-gay law in Russia, the situation appears even more dire.

* I think I’ve enjoyed comments by “Truculent Sheep” in the past.

** I learned at WP that Alyokhina is also a vegan. The problems vegans face in prison should be a subject of great concern.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Maybe the Daily Show people are reading my blog!

OK, probably not. :) But I was suggesting a little while ago that they wouldn’t feature a statement from Tennessee state representative Andy Holt, comparing the investigation of animal cruelty with human trafficking and rape. When I predicted that, I had in mind not just Holt’s statement specifically, but the entire issue of ag gag laws. I truly didn’t think they’d take it on. So I was thrilled last night when I saw this piece with Al Madrigal, featuring corporate spokesliar Emily Meredith.

It’s really not bad at all.

Monday, June 10, 2013



Bury it again.
Not nearly enough time underground:
you can still see the forest in the file -
make out a trunk, a root,
the pattern on a wing,
a vagrant allele,
a sylvan word
(silvery like a stolen Torah bell)…

Who’s served by this premature excavation?
No, bury it again.
Subcontract the job to
the microbes, the heat, the think tanks.
They know how to purify and petrify
an archive, put it to work.
They’ll turn out fuel, steaks, artifacts, samples, metals, myths –
cheap and fit for human consumption.

* The poem was inspired by this story about the Figueiredo report in Brazil.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The language of distress

One of the hurdles critics of biopsychiatry constantly face is the argument that they deny or discount human experience and suffering. People describe their own experiences or those of their relatives and friends in elaborate detail, and demand to know how we could be so cruel as to claim that their “illnesses” aren’t “real.” Not only are the suffering and the experiences tangible, but equally evident is how they seem so clearly to fit with the current diagnostic categories. How can we fail to accept the reality of these illnesses?

I’ve pointed out several times that unless people read more extensively in the critical literature, they won’t understand the perspective of the critics and our repeated assertions that we don’t deny human suffering will sound hollow. Reading this recent article, I was immediately reminded of Ethan Watters’ book Crazy Like Us, which I’d earlier included in my list of readings in psychiatry and social justice.* Scrolling up, I discovered that this is because the article’s written by Watters. In the book (in greater depth, of course) and the article, he draws attention to the cultural-political shaping of psychological “symptoms.” “Viewed over history,” he argues,
mental health symptoms begin to look less like immutable biological facts and more like a kind of language. Someone in need of communicating his or her inchoate psychological pain has a limited vocabulary of symptoms to choose from. From a distance, we can see how the flawed certainties of Victorian-era healers created a sense of inevitability around the symptoms of hysteria. There is no reason to believe that the same isn’t happening today. Healers have theories about how the mind functions and then discover the symptoms that conform to those theories. Because patients usually seek help when they are in need of guidance about the workings of their minds, they are uniquely susceptible to being influenced by the psychiatric certainties of the moment. There is really no getting around this dynamic. Even Insel’s supposedly objective laboratory scientists would, no doubt, inadvertently define which symptoms our troubled minds gravitate toward. The human unconscious is adept at speaking the language of distress that will be understood. [my emphasis]
Since we’re cultural animals, our sociocultural environment affects not only the existence of distress but the particular ways in which it’s experienced and expressed. I’ve been interested to read people’s descriptions of their experiences with psychic distress in which these experiences are characterized in precisely the current “clinical” terms of biopsychiatry. One account I came across recently described a person’s feeling that her brain chemicals were obstructing her ability to be happy. While the chemical imbalance notion is scientifically unsound and there’s no evidence of a brain disorder of depression, I don’t doubt that this was an honest description of her sense of what she’s experiencing. The point is that culture runs very deep, below the level of labeling experience and into the formation of experience itself.

*As I’ve said before, none of these books is perfect, and citing Watters’ book – or his article, for that matter – doesn’t constitute an endorsement of every single argument he makes (or an agreement with the use of the language of “healers” and “patients”).

Friday, June 7, 2013

Vegan food! Women artists! Fish x-rays! More!

Had a delightful visit to Philadelphia recently. I was surprised at how much we were able to pack into a short stay. A few highlights:

Vedge. This is a place I’d read about in magazines and seen included in lists of top vegan restaurants. It had also been highly recommended by a local, and I was trying to keep my expectations in check so as to avoid disappointment. But there was no need, as the food was every bit as delicious as the rave reviews had led me to believe. The spring pea crêpe was one of the best single plates of food I’ve ever eaten (and I don’t even like peas!). An enjoyable experience in every way – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. Coincidentally, I saw The Art of the Steal recently

and so wasn’t keen on visiting the Barnes Collection or the big art museum (which would have been crowded and rushed for the amount of time we had anyway). PAFA is less heavily promoted, but it’s a real gem. The building itself is striking, and the collection of American art (including many works by former students and faculty) is a manageable size and well organized. My favorite galleries were the two at the far end, one featuring landscapes – the seascapes were of course the best – and the other dedicated to women artists. Apparently the Academy has been progressive in women’s art education, and I was happy to see such talent on display. I particularly liked the paintings by Susan Macdowell Eakins and Violet Oakley, and especially Eakins’ Girl in a Plaid Shawl (ca. 1880-85), which looks almost like a film still.

I often find the temporary contemporary exhibits at more traditional museums tedious, but I was impressed by Bill Viola’s Ocean Without a Shore.

“X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out.” We also stopped into this exhibit at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. They’re beautiful x-ray photos of ocean animals from the Smithsonian’s Collection of Fishes (a wonderfully and tragically poetic name*). Unfortunately, the exhibit ends today.

I’ll probably post about a few other sites in Philadelphia, including my new favorite fountain – the cat fountain outside Betsy Ross’s house.

* I did worry about the practices of "collection" and x-raying....

US government's seal of approval for biopsychiatry – it’s political

The White House has set up a mental health information and help site, and it’s terrible. It contains all of biopsychiatry’s debunked myths, and determinedly pushes drugs.
• “Depression is a serious medical illness that involves the brain.”

• “Depression is a disorder of the brain.”

• “There are effective treatments for depression, including antidepressants…”

• “Schizophrenia is a severe, lifelong brain disorder.”

• “No one is sure what causes schizophrenia, but your genetic makeup and brain chemistry probably play a role. Medicines can relieve many of the symptoms, but it can take several tries before you find the right drug. You can reduce relapses by staying on your medicine for as long as your doctor recommends. With treatment, many people improve enough to lead satisfying lives.”

• “Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness.”

• “Researchers think brain circuits may not work properly in people who have OCD.* It tends to run in families.”

• “If not treated, bipolar disorder can lead to damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. However, there are effective treatments to control symptoms: medicine and talk therapy.”

• “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real illness.”

• “Medicines can help you feel less afraid and tense. It might take a few weeks for them to work.”
So the White House is interested in serving the needs of the APA and the drug companies rather than helping struggling people through science-based policy.

The timing is interesting. The site looks sort of thrown together, like it was created in response to the crisis occasioned by the launch of the DSM-5 and the NIMH announcement. The site lists the NIMH as a source, but the biopsychiatric claims made are exactly what the NIMH has recently publicly stated lack scientific validity.** It looks suspiciously like the White House is using this site to lend biopsychiatry its authority. That’s all biopsychiatry has at this point: political and media institutions lending their voice of authority to a model that can’t be supported by science.

It’s embarrassing and frustrating. But more important, it’s political. We have the government pushing lies – lies that its own agencies have publicly declared to be such – to convince people that their distress is caused by their malfunctioning brains. This has the effect of depoliticizing suffering and rebellion. It gives a political meaning to suffering, and that meaning is that it has little to do with political experiences or policy. Racism, patriarchy, our alienation from and destruction of other animals and the rest of the natural world, our country’s wars, foreclosures, unemployment, economic insecurity, personal debt, massive and growing inequality, the corporate subversion of democracy, austerity measures, the constant stream of propaganda urging us to consume, a hypercompetitive and status-based culture, authoritarian work environments, authoritarian welfare programs, government agencies spying on us,… - these are of little importance in understanding mental well-being, evidence be damned.

In this presentation, corporations aren’t part of the problem, they’re part of the solution. Like the government, they’re offering help, in the form of medications. In fact, the brain-disease-drug model provides a way for corporations and governments to exercise power and to profit in the name of providing care. To understand the political implications, imagine that the site wasn’t put up by the US government but by the East German government during the Cold War. Various forms of psychic distress and maladjustment are described, against all evidence, as disorders of people’s brains. Drugs from Russia are promoted as useful medications, sometimes to be coercively or forcibly administered, as they are to children on a wide scale.

As I’ve said, this can’t continue for long. People will increasingly come to realize that the model they’ve been sold all these years is false. The “authoritative” propaganda of powerful institutions notwithstanding, the crisis of biopsychiatry is just beginning. But going forward, it’s essential to recognize this as a fundamentally political matter.

* The bit about malfunctioning “brain circuits” being the suspected cause of “OCD” is telling. This brain circuit business has been Insel’s preferred form of biopsychiatric propaganda for a while now, despite the fact that he’s not even able to define a brain circuit and can’t produce any evidence for the claim.

** Just as a reminder: Thomas Insel wrote last month that “The weakness [of the DSM] is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.” In his response, APA head David Kupfer admitted that after several decades they’re “still waiting” for biomarkers.