Monthly Archives: April 2014

Learning how to spot what’s wrong with this picture

What’s wrong with the big picture? Well, pretty much everything, but just in case you’re a new student, we’ll start with a little piece of it.

Take the “The Financial Page” in the current New Yorker Magazine. Subtitled “Biotech’s Hard Bargain,” it tells us the good news that the “biotech giant” Gilead’s developed a “revolutionary new” drug that can cure 90% of patients suffering from Hepatitis C – a disease hard to treat before this from which 3.2 million Americans (including a friend of mine) suffer. The bad news is that the drug costs $80,000 for a 12-week course of treatment – at a thousand dollars a dose.

Beginning to glimpse the blotch on this snapshot of our current health care system? (Or the world’s…the drug costs only 30% less in Britain.) James Surowiecki, the author of the article implies that this kind of greed on the part of the pharmaceutical companies may lead to government regulation “somewhere down the line,” but says the drug companies, knowing this, may make drugs even more expensive in the meantime. “And that’s what you call a serious side effect.”

A serious side effect? Continued unnecessary suffering for millions of people and earlier deaths for many, so these creeps can get even richer than they already are? Put down the capitalist Kool-Aid, James, and walk away from the table…Capitalism, the root of almost all current evils, in my opinion. Why should medical care, including needed medicine; food; shelter; education; and security have a price tag on it/only be available to the privileged few?

I can hear some of you now…Well, it’s the only system we have…It’s better than communism…etc. No. That’s not good enough. If you can’t explain yourself better than that – if you can’t explain it so that an intelligent, kindly four-year-old can understand and accept it, then you need to snap out of your capitalist-Kool-Aid-induced trance, get together with the rest of us, and come up with something better.

Try asking the four-year-old. She knows that you wait your turn, keep your hands to yourself, use your words, work together till the job’s done, and share the cupcakes equally all around. It’s easy, as long as no one tries to make themselves any more special or important than anyone else.

So, what’s the reward for doing research on life-saving drugs? Give up? Ask the four-year-old…I’ll give you a hint: I already said it…Saving lives. Doing the job you’re good at and/or the job that needs to be done. Having the satisfaction of making a contribution to the welfare of your community.

Where we are now

The reading I did yesterday – a beautiful, sunlit, Oregon-late-spring-day that also included my sister’s even more beautiful wedding – describes various aspects of where we are now, if “we” is taken variously and loosely. It consisted of Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy (2014), a non-fiction book that read like fiction, and “Box Sets,” a New Yorker short story by Roddy Doyle.

The short story describes the life of a young, unemployed Irishman and his loving, employed girlfriend. A lot of their free time is spent with friends arguing about which reality series from the Golden Age of Television is better – “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” “The Wire” or “The Bridge.” Our hero is trying to catch up on some of these, and feels behind the curve. The friends are also semi-elitist, even though they’re not rich, in that they buy cookbooks about the street food of various embattled cities and cook and serve it to each other. The story, in other words, describes the safe, at-least-one-step-removed-from-reality (or the reality of many) I said I felt I was living in my last post. I was mourning the lack of face-to-face, real community in the digital age; “Box Sets” shows how television and certain kinds of cookbooks allow the American and European middle-class to experience the current reality of crime and war from the safety of their realtively privileged homes.

Demon Camp, a non-fiction book, is the result of many hours the fiction-writer author spent with a veteran of the American wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Machine gunner Caleb Daniels was a member of the Special Operations helicopter team sent to rescue survivors of a 2005 Seal team mission gone wrong in Afghanistan: Operation Red Wings in which 11 SEALs and eight soldiers died, depicted in the recent film “Lone Survivor.” Caleb wasn’t on the rescue mission, which also ended in disaster, with all its members killed by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired directly into their helicopter. This was just by chance, but he suffers from severe survivor guilt, having, as so commonly happens, bonded more deeply with his fellow soldiers than with anyone else he’s ever known. He’s regularly visited by their ghosts, which doesn’t bother him so much, but he’s also haunted by an evil presence he calls “the Black Thing” or “the Destroyer” that seems to want to kill him or get him to kill himself. Believing that this is some kind of supernatural demon, he seeks “deliverance” at a Christian exorcism camp.

As the book jacket says, “Percy spends time with these soldiers and exorcists and their followers. Finding their beliefs both repellent and magnetic, she enters a world of fanaticism that is alternately terrifying and welcoming.” Then she smacks the reader in the face with it, with no filtering or analysis. All you can tell about her thinking or personal reaction is that there’s no mention of Caleb Daniels in the acknowledgements section – no “thank you” for all the hours he spent with her – but the book is partially dedicated to Caleb’s buddy, Kip Jacoby, who died in the fire-bombed helicopter. Percy seems to be saying that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which Caleb claims not to have, takes many forms. A reviewer of the book also suggests that America as a whole suffers from PTSD.

Poor Caleb; poor America. What about the PTSD in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries America gratuitously and illegally invaded in 2001 and 2003, destroying one and furthering the destruction (if that were possible) in the other? Afghans have been engulfed in war as a result of foreign invasions for 35 years, since the Soviets began trying to use force to alter their politics in 1979. Yet any time Caleb Daniels refers to Iraqis or Afghans it’s as evil, enemy “others” out to get him. He joined the military at 17 to try to escape an unhappy family and love life and a boring hometown with no economic future. His society failed him in many ways, in other words, then sent him overseas to harm others. The Seal mission his team was trying to rescue had been sent to assassinate a Taliban leader. What was the purpose of this? The Taliban had nothing to do with 9-11; it’s an entirely Afghan – in fact, almost entirely Pashto – movement that has nothing to do with the United States, except that it wants US forces and drones out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These young American men aren’t fighting for the “rights” or welfare of the American civilians they often despise for not doing that work themselves. They’re fighting for the monetary profit the greedy American and international elite hope (or hoped) to make from Iraqi oil and a proposed natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. They may also be fighting because war may be the only thing keeping the American economy afloat, and weapons manufacturers have powerful lobbies in Washington. These horrible wars have nothing to do with politics or any noble ideals, and the monstrous lie that they do is killing what’s left of our sick national soul.

Caleb Daniels and others like him know this on some level – that they’ve committed murders and crimes and suffered death and horrendous physical and mental wounds for no good reason. No wonder Black Things follow them around. Yes, in some ways they were innocent (how can a 17-year-old make a moral decision this weighty?) and heavily propagandized. But ultimately we’re all responsible for our actions, and there are actions that can’t be lived with.

The sickness starts here, in the lies eating away the American heart and heartland. And more lies, more insanity, more negativity, like Christian “exorcisms” are only going to make things worse. Veterans and other survivors have kids, too. Caleb’s 5-year-old son Isaac said he wanted to go to Iraq. He packed himself into a cardboard box with newspaper and waited patiently when Caleb told him that’s the only way he’d get there.

You can almost compare Caleb and his cohorts to the young men who go into their high schools or former elementary schools and kill and injure a lot of innocent people before killing themselves, or saying they wish they were dead. They’re also spreading a Black Thing. If that’s how bad it is, and you can’t get help from people who aren’t sick themselves – which in most cases, I believe, you can, if you try, and if you’re honest about what’s happening inside you – then go ahead: kill yourself. Don’t take other people, especially little kids, down with you. This shit has to stop somewhere.

P.S. We’ll have to help our veterans ourselves; the Veterans’ Administration keeps them on waiting lists and gives them drugs that make their problems worse. In many instances vets only trust other vets, but they can train us. Check out Iraq Veterans Against the War at, or just Google “veterans against war,” if you want to get involved or make a contribution.



The Great Disruption?

I just finished reading a book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding (2011), and want to share my thoughts on it.

First of all, the title — seems a bit frivolous, right? Well, if you read the book, that feeling will stay with you.

Gilding has it right that we’re headed for the biggest crisis, on many fronts, ever to face humanity, driven by climate change, peak oil, etc. His optimism about our responding to it with some degree of success appears to be founded on nothing more than wishful thinking, however (“we’ll make it because we have to”). Gilding thinks our collective denial about the cliff we’re approaching will be dispelled all at once and once and for all by one or more global disasters (we won’t be the frog that gets cooked), and then we’ll all roll up our sleeves and use the very tools that got us into the soup in the first place – corporate capitalism, our supposed democracy, and our oh-so-powerful lifestyle choices – to makes things as right as we can by then.

I don’t think so. Some good things may happen that we didn’t think would – Gildings’ current favorite is electric cars stealing the transportation market while oil companies are crowing about shale oil – but, absent revolutionary changes in our views about politics, economics, society, and, yes, even spirituality, because that’s what underpins everything – we’re going over that cliff. Things could get really ugly really soon; in fact, they already are: we are the frog in the pot. (I know I’m mixing metaphors with pots and cliffs, but things are bad enough that we really are frogs boiling alive going over a cliff.)

I think the following facts say it all: Gilding is pals with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, someone I can’t read without ranting and raving in response; he believes we live in a democracy and can affect these kinds of outcomes by who we vote for; and he dismisses Marx in one sentence by bringing up the history of the Soviet Union. He does think we should do something about the growing economic inequality in our country and around the world, but he doesn’t explain exactly what or how (it seems to be voluntary), and he doesn’t think actual equality, or anything close to it, would be a good idea for the same old tiresome reason – that we need monetary rewards to do good things.

I’d only be in total despair about all this if I thought everyone was buying these simplistic ideas. I think a lot of us have read and are reading the writing on the wall correctly. We just need to get together and start making systemic changes (lifestyle doesn’t cut it) on whatever levels we can. The current system, which rewards those running it handsomely, will resist us, violently if necessary, but what’s the alternative? Just lying down and letting all the worst happen? There won’t be a good explanation for the grandchildren, if we and they survive to be asked what we “did in the war.” One of the first steps (to be done briefly) is pointing out the flaws in system optimism like Gilding’s.

One interesting quote from the book: “Food price rises in 2007 and 2008 drove countries concerned about security of supply to invest in agricultural land in other countries. While foreign investment in agriculture isn’t new, what’s different this time is an emphasis by some states on controlling land and growing food exclusively for export to the investing country. One study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and international NGOs found that in the five African countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, and Sudan, 2.5 million hectares of agricultural land were acquired by foreign investors between 2004 and 2009. This staggering figure represents almost half the arable land in the United Kingdom – but only a fraction of the land involved internationally. One estimate by the International Food Policy Research Institute put the total figure at 30 million hectares in 2009. Another estimate by the Oakland Institute puts the total at 50 million hectares, an area equivalent to all the arable land in China. Prominent examples include an attempt by China to secure 3 million hectares for palm oil production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a signed deal for a South Korean company to grow wheat on 690,000 hectares in Sudan, and a large Saudi fund focused on buying up or long-term leasing foreign agricultural land. When food runs low, the foreign power has control over the land and the rights to its produce – media reports already indicate that Pakistan plans to deploy 100,000 troops to defend foreign-owned farms.”

Of course, this is insane – Ethiopia and Sudan are well-known areas of recurrent widespread famine due to drought, which will only become worse with climate change. But it’s a logical outgrowth of our current insane system in which people starve to death every day not because there isn’t enough food, but because they don’t have the money to buy it. When our little children find out that this is the case, they’re incredulous, say it’s wrong, and want to change it. But somehow as we get older, most of us lose that inherent, “idealistic” sense of right and wrong. We become acculturated into the current insane-but-not-inevitable way of thinking and addicted to its material “rewards.”

I enjoy being able to watch TV shows and movies on my laptop computer, for example. But I’d much rather be sitting around a fire with my tribe. I do that once in a while by special arrangement with likeminded friends and family. But in another kind of society I could be doing it every day and night. The real versus the virtual…