Sunday, December 15, 2013

War or Peace

This week being the first anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, I thought it a good time to try to write something about that age-old debate: are we humans by nature warlike killers, or are we peacemakers who are driven to pursue happiness?  A book and a video and an article have each added fuel to one side or the other of this argument: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s recent memoir, Noble Savages, about his more than 30 years studying the Yanomamo of the Venezuelan/Brazilian rainforest; the documentary shown recently on PBS called “Happy”; and a piece from Think Progress, “Five Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.” Though they seem to be at odds, taken together they may add up to a reasonable view of just what we, as humans, are and have been and may be evolving to be.
Chagnon has a fairly simple, though not uncontroversial theory. Based on his years living with the Yanomamo—an essentially stone-age people living in small villages where, until recently, they hunted, fished, gathered local crops, and farmed some of the staples like bananas and manioc that sustain them—Chagnon concluded something radical: their frequent fights and wars with their neighbors were not about gaining better territory or increasing their hold on material goods. Rather, their raids were almost always about capturing women. The headman of a group would almost usually initiate such raids, as he was the one who almost always came away with an additional wife or wives (the Yanomamo practice polygyny, where the most powerful men have more than one wife.) This in turn meant, according to Chagnon, that the Yanomamo, like most other biological organisms, compete for reproductive access and success: whoever has the most wives has the most offspring, and therefore the most allies to count on whenever a conflict comes up. Those within a given village do cooperate with others (villagers are mostly related), but inter-village rivalry is intense and often leads to ‘wars’ where many warriors get killed. These wars, in turn, most often result from the attempt to avenge a previous raid where women were abducted. This accords with Chagnon’s research which shows that most Yanomamo villages have a shortage of women, first because of preferential treatment of male offspring (who are helpful in wars), and second because of polygyny: even were the number of males and females in a village roughly equal, the fact that powerful men take several wives means that there are not enough females for all the males who want one.
Many anthropologists dispute Chagnon (and also Jared Diamond whose recent books have emphasized this same extreme warlike tendency among tribal peoples in New Guinea, who always consider a stranger a dangerous enemy) about both the warlike nature of primal humans and the reasons for their wars. This is why Chagnon subtitles his book: “My life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.” According to him, conventional anthropologists insist on a materialist view of human culture. That is, conflict is believed to arise over access to good land for growing crops, over power in the most material sense of ownership of the most valued goods or means of production, but not over access to females. Chagnon, by contrast, is persuasive in his argument that the access to fertile females really is the key to conflict. In his view, humans are like all other organisms, wherein individual males fight with other males to gain access to females and reproductive success; and where females tend to select the most powerful males (and their genes) so as to give their offspring the best chance to survive. Everything then flows from this: the constant wars, the tendency of males to be killed in such wars (thus producing even more imbalance between men and women), and the constant rituals and games training males for combat. And if we look at some of the early documents in human history, such as the Iliad of Homer, we can see that though the Mycenean Greeks had a very advanced culture compared to the Yanomamo, the root cause of their legendary war was the abduction of a choice female—in this case the abduction of Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, by Paris, which led directly to the tragedy: the siege of Paris’ city by the allies of Menelaus and the destruction of that home, Troy, along with all the Trojans save a few who managed to escape. Not coincidentally, those few, according to legend, founded the next great city-state, Rome, where, according to another legend, there followed the abduction or rape of the Sabine women from the indigenous people so that they, the mostly male followers of Rome’s mythic founder Romulus, could have wives and many offspring. Up to the present day, most literature relies for its drama on this same male conflict over females—in a sublimated form, to be sure, but with the same essential roots.
Chagnon’s research uncovered one more contributing fact to this thesis. The male warriors who have killed at least one enemy in their battles are known as unokais. Chagnon has a chart in his book showing the relation of unokais to the number of offspring. The summary is clear: unokais have almost three times as many offspring as those men who have not killed anyone. That is, the unokais had, on average, 4.91 children compared to the same-age non-unokais, who average only 1.59 offspring each. Among the yanomamo, at least, it pays to be a killer.
I should make clear at this point that I am mainly a pacifist with an abhorrence of war and fighting, so these conclusions do not please me. I would prefer a view that accords with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea that humans in a state of nature, without the corruptions attendant to civilization, would have been innocent and playful and loving and peaceful—noble savages. But I also have a commitment to the truth, and the truth seems to be that in the earliest human groups, killing of rivals was routine, and that killing, as with all other animals, most often occurred in the conflict that erupted over access to females. Those who were most successful in battle were most often the ones whose genes were passed on through reproduction. It is not hard to see, even today, the indelible marks of that pattern in our cultural preoccupations, in our sports, in our wars, in our very brains.
The video entitled simply “Happy,” takes another view entirely. Like many others today, it emphasizes the benefit of cooperation, of helping others, of being involved in community. We are shown several “happy” communities: the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where the nation’s output is measured as “gross national happiness;” Okinawa, which boasts more 100-year-olds per capita than any other place on earth; several people being trained to meditate focusing on compassion for others, whose brains are literally said to change for the better as a result; the San Bushmen of Namibia, who testify to their complete interdependence, and therefore their happy outlook; and a co-housing community in Denmark (said to be the happiest industrial nation on earth) where about twenty families live together while working at normal jobs but are happy due to the sharing of cooking, childcaring and other chores. We are also shown the rat-race in Japan, and one family in particular whose male head worked such long, intense hours for Toyota that he simply dropped dead from overwork. Modern industrial Japan is said to be the most unhappy nation on earth.
The documentary also presents us with scientific validation of its message. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson shows us how Buddhist monk Ricard Matthieu is put into an MRI contraption, and measured while he does compassion meditation. His left prefrontal cortex lights up—indicating that not only is this part of his brain activated to make him more happy, but also that focusing on compassion changes the brains of those who engage in it. That is to say, training the brain to focus on compassion for others, and in fact, actually helping others, re-wires the brain for more happiness. We are told in the very beginning, in fact, that it is not material wealth that leads to happiness since, after a certain level of comfort via possessions, acquiring more wealth simply has no effect. Rather, what leads to ‘positive’ brain states and the release of ‘happiness’ brain neurotransmitters like dopamine, are positive acts and thoughts: compassion, cooperation, and relationships with others. P. Read Montague, PhD says this specifically: cooperation, working with others, actually produces dopamine in the brain, in effect being just as good in this regard as taking drugs. Added to the testimony of old women in Okinawa smiling and dancing, and one single mother in the Denmark co-housing community brightly telling us how well cared for she and her children have become since living there—with the children even taking part, once a month, in cooking for the whole community—this becomes a powerful argument for changing the way most modern humans behave (looking out for number one) and how modern industrial communities (commit any act to increase profit) are structured.
It also challenges the post-Darwinian view that humans are naturally prone to conflict and war due to the evolutionary demand to augment, in whatever way possible, the number of offspring one has. Human nature, in this view, is simply a variant of most animal nature: a no-holds-barred competition to survive and out-reproduce all rivals. Rather, according to “Happy,” human nature must be seen to include the positive effects of selflessness and cooperation and a supportive community. To be sure, these emotions have always been available, even to warrior societies. The difference here is the idea that compassion for all—not just one’s immediate family or neighbors or nation—leads to even more positive effects. We see Andy Wimmer, for example, who trained and worked as a banker, until one day he decided there must be more. He signed up to work in Mother Theresa’s home in India caring for the sick and dying. According to his testimony, and despite having to wash and feed dying, suffering humans, he has never felt more fulfilled, happier. The same testimony is given by a woman hospice worker who deals with terminally ill people all day every day. She is bright, cheerful, and apparently unaffected by the dire circumstances that surround her. And it is obvious that those whom she treats and encourages adore her.
Finally, the article by Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress, reprinted on Nation of Change ( offers 5 reasons why 2013 was ‘the best year in human history.’ The reasons are: 1) Fewer People are Dying Young, which shows that as recently as 1950, global life expectancy was 47 years, while today it is 70 years. In other words, averaged globally, most people live twice as long today as they did in 1950. This is due both to medical technology and a growing interest in the welfare of foreigners—as indicated by the assistance given to poor countries in fighting diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and HIV. 2) Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, with its corollary, a happier world. Just since 1981, the percent of the population that lives on less than $1.25 a day has dropped, globally, from 40% in 1981 to 14% in 2010. Even in low income countries, the percentage has dipped from 63% in 1981 to 44% in 2010. 3) War is becoming rarer and less deadly. According to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, both war and related forms of violence, including the death penalty, are on a clear decline, especially in the last fifty years. From nearly 300 war-related deaths per 100,000 world population during World War II, the rate has declined to less than 1 death per 100,000 in the 21st Century. Even the death rate in civil wars has declined. Among the factors contributing to the decline are the spread of democracies worldwide, and the invention of U.N. and other peacekeeping operations. 4. Murder rates and other violent crimes are in free-fall. Even in the U.S., violent crime has declined from its peak of 750 crimes per 100,000 Americans in the 1990s to less than 450 in 2009. The same decline is seen in other countries. Among the major reasons—including better lives from improved economies—is one surprising one: the decline in leaded gasoline. With lead banned in 175 countries, the decline in blood levels of lead has reached 90%, and this decline tracks the decline in violent crimes. The reason: lead exposure damages the brain, specifically the parts that inhibit people’s aggressive impulses. With the decline in lead comes more control and less violent crime. And finally, 5) There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world. This is not to say that racism is dead. Far from it. But there is also no denying that greater tolerance is demonstrable everywhere. Look only at the disabling of white minority rule in South Africa, or the fact that much of the United States, where discrimination was once openly defended, now operates under a national consensus about the ideal of racial equality and integration—not always honored in every situation or locality, but increasingly prevalent, especially among younger populations who will soon be the majority. And when it comes to marriage equality for all, regardless of gender preference, the trend is clearly towards greater tolerance: in 2003, there were no states with marriage equality laws; today there are so many that 38% of Americans live in states with such laws.
What, then, are we to conclude about the nature of human nature? Are we humans, by nature, xenophobic, paranoid killers of anyone who is a stranger or a rival? Or are we cooperative creatures disposed to tolerate each other regardless of outward appearances or origin, cooperate with each other beyond familial or national borders, compassionate creatures who, in helping those who need it, become more and more happy with ourselves?
Perhaps the best we can say is that the truth seems to be both. There is no doubting that evolution has shaped us to be violent, aggressive creatures who fight with little provocation and who routinely kill those who threaten either our well-being or our ability to reproduce. But there can also be little doubt that our brains—particularly the more recently developed parts of our brains: the neocortex and especially the left prefrontal cortex involved in compassion—may well be evolving (spurred by the example of culture heroes like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama) towards less aggressive, more compassionate patterns. Otherwise, why would acting compassionately, placing the welfare of others over our own, and living in cooperative and communal ways deliver the good feeling we now know to be the product of dopamine release? This is not to say that dopamine release was “designed” to make humans cooperate (it was designed to provide a powerful reward for whatever enhanced our survival). Rather, it is to say that human development seems to be employing the available neurotransmitters to a greater extent in ways that foster the expansion of cooperative, communal, helping behavior. Whether this trend will continue is anyone’s guess. Life has a way of confounding our fondest hopes and expectations. But if what some of the evidence shows is true, then human development, as Abraham Maslow long ago suggested, is moving towards an optimum functioning marked by greater tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness towards not only our fellow nationals or even fellow humans but the entire planetary population. The only remaining question is, will it come soon enough to head off the residual disasters—nuclear weapons, global warming, the die-off of species—that our older operating kit has brought to critical mass.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Kennedy Effect

On Monday November 11 and Tuesday November 12, PBS’s American Experience series aired a two-part documentary on John F. Kennedy titled simply, “JFK.” It was apparently meant to help mark the 50thanniversary of his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. What I’m interested in is not re-hashing the well-worn material on Kennedy’s life,  presidency and assassination, but rather thinking about the overall effect he and his public persona had on American culture. So though I was deeply moved—especially by the final episode in this 4-hour documentary, where the most beautiful couple in American presidential history debark from their gleaming plane in Dallas and lead their motorcade through jam-packed Dallas streets filled with adoring well-wishers as a simple drone music builds in the background to the horror we know and fear is coming but don’t see; and then watch that noble cortege with its black horses moving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington—it is, I think, important to step back a bit and gauge what has been wrought. In brief, I believe that JFK’s most enduring contribution to American political life was not any one policy or legislative achievement (he had almost none), but his grasp of the importance of images, particularly television images, and how those images played in public, not least in this documentary itself.
Especially as he matured, JFK was perfectly equipped to project an image. He was movie-star handsome, and when paired with his equally classic wife Jacqueline, almost royal in his impact. And the media loved him. It is a commonplace to note that he won the presidency based on his TV debate performance with a haggard looking Richard Nixon. After that, national magazines featured his and Jackie’s beautiful faces almost monthly. When the two children, John-John and Caroline came along, they only added charm and warmth to the family picture, both of them outfitted in classic English clothes and stylish haircuts to make them almost icons of American childhood. When Caroline hugged her father or leaned a tired head on his shoulder, or John-John peered out from beneath his presidential desk, it was enough to make you weep. Indeed, when John-John saluted his father’s funeral cortege, all America did weep.
To its credit, the documentary allows us to see, or at least hear, that not all was as it seemed. For one, Kennedy suffered from debilitating diseases (Addison’s Disease, which he denied in his campaign for the presidency) and back problems throughout his life, sometimes to the point where he could barely stand. It was probably only his father’s wealth that allowed him to get the best treatment possible (including multiple daily injections of pain killers and amphetamines), usually outside the public eye, to allow him to continue, and, most of the time, fool the world into seeing him as the epitome of youthful energy. The same is true about the idyllic family, with mutually loving parents, that was projected. JFK was a notorious womanizer and we are told that it didn’t stop with marriage. He carried on when in the White House, on trips, and everywhere else he could. Marilyn Monroe was only the most famous of his sexual partners. But in public, he always managed to maintain that ease and charm to which he’d been both bred and trained, again thanks to his father’s almost endless supply of money. As to the source of that fortune, the documentary is silent about that, but earlier investigations have suggested that old Joseph Kennedy got his start either in bootlegging in the 20s, or insider trading on the stock-market thereafter, or both. By the time Jack comes along, though, the money has pretty much been laundered and put into more acceptable income-generating sources (Joe bought the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for a song in 1945, where his real fortune was made) and all we see are American mandarins whose position is tainted, if only slightly, by their Roman Catholicism.
Nonetheless, though he never got major legislation through the southern-dominated Congress, John F. Kennedy did have the courage to stand firm against all of his major advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was truly his historic moment—when the world really could have slipped into nuclear Armageddon. Had it not been for JFK’s cool under fire, fending off such war-mongers as General Curtis LeMay who wanted to bomb the hell out of Cuba as usual, it well might have. Of course, it could also be argued that the crisis arose from America’s arrogance and determination to overwhelm the Soviet Union with nuclear might in the first place, but that’s another story. What the documentary does tell us is that a secret back-channel communication from JFK to Russian premier Khrushchev brought the two nations back from the brink. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s promise to (secretly so as to avoid antagonizing the congressional hawks) remove the U.S. missiles that had recently been placed in Turkey. As it turns out, Kennedy never did honor that promise. It also seems to be the case that a Russian submarine commander, under attack from American depth charges, thought the war had begun and was about to launch his missiles—refraining only at the last minute. So it was really the Russians, as much as JFK, who exhibited prudence and humanity when faced with Armageddon. What Kennedy did, though, was to promote the story not of his cool head under fire, not of his reluctance to murder 300 million people in a nuclear exchange to save face, but his ability to face down the Russian leader and force him to remove his missiles from “our” hemisphere. In other words, JFK remained the master of image, and of public relations. And as always, it worked. His popularity soared, his presidency was secured, and he was well on his way to a second term. With his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall, the image of the leader with the proper ‘cojones’ assumed global proportions.
Finally, Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights movement, then reaching combustible levels in Alabama, is the other legacy that endures. The documentary is fairly honest about that, making it clear that Kennedy felt harried by a growing movement that continually threatened to usurp his energy and divert it from what he saw as the major international crisis— containing communism (JFK really was a ‘cold warrior’ determined to thwart communist expansion). He bridled at the ‘impatience’ of black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the young radicals who refused to buckle beneath the threat of snarling dogs and fire hoses. And though the documentary inexplicably leaves it out, he also expressed both fear and annoyance when King insisted on going through with the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Left out or not, it was probably that event which finally pushed him to make his courageous speech introducing the Civil Rights Act to the nation. As a result, Kennedy finally emerged from his cautious attitude towards the civil rights movement and made inevitable the legislative promise that even Lyndon Johnson could not ignore, and was finally able to fulfill in 1964—after JFK was killed. Most commentators have opined that Kennedy himself would never have been able to get the bill through a southern-dominated Congress. They are probably right. Unlike pubic opinion, Congress is not fully amenable to image. Particularly where race is concerned, it must be cajoled and pushed and browbeaten and bribed, and Johnson, unlike Kennedy, was the master of these tactics.
Still, it was JFK who put civil rights on the agenda. It was also JFK who put a nuclear arms reduction treaty on the agenda. So we must credit him for that.
His lasting achievement, however (if we can call it an achievement, since the effects are not always and everywhere positive), was in the arena of image. Politics has never been the same since John F. Kennedy. His looks and his style, including the epitome of style embodied by Jackie and the children, especially as they were captured by both television and still camera, transformed politics. One can hardly find a politician these days who does not somehow “look” like JFK—with the glaring exception of Lyndon Johnson, who made his political bones the old way, and whose looks became his Achilles heel when Vietnam protests exploded on his watch. More than that, perhaps, is the use of private money to mount campaigns outside the normal party apparatus. JFK was the first to use the primary system (and his father’s unlimited money) to build so much momentum that he overwhelmed the party bosses’ normal way of conducting a convention. The procedure for choosing a presidential candidate has never looked back. And perhaps the most prominent example of his pre-eminence in the arena of image is the documentary, JFK, itself. Though I tried to resist, though I tried to remember how it was back in 1960 and during the momentous events of his presidency, and though I tried to inure myself to the charm of that royal family cavorting on Hyannisport and exhibiting that noble ease that only comes with great wealth and privilege, I was unable to resist finally. So that when that insistent music accompanied the open car as it made its way through the Dallas streets, I was filled with dread. My president, my nation, my familyalmost, was about to be gunned down. Was gunned down. And as my eyes filled with tears watching once again that funeral cortege, I remembered where I was when I first heard that staggering news on the radio—our president has been shot, America has been shot—and then watched transfixed for days in front of a TV set with an entire nation as the rest of that unforgettable drama unfolded.
Those images will never leave those of us who saw them. The images of this president, of the nation itself, of all of us looking inward, were thereby transformed. Innocence. All America seemed, in retrospect, innocent; as innocent as John-John, in spite of what we knew. And now, with murder, two murders on our screens, innocence had left, never to return; in its place dark corridors with hatted gunmen and subterfuge and back-room deals and the gritty often dirty business of governing. That’s what this documentary, with its indelible images of that innocence, left me with. And the wonder about how such images implant themselves, and whether we’re better for them or worse, whether they’re authentic or not, and whether this nation is better for having been treated to those JFK images, or not. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Comfort of Ignorance

It appears that the initiative, 522, to require food purveyors in Washington state to put GMO labeling on food products is going down to defeat. Like California’s similar Proposition 37 that was defeated last year, Initiative 522 is losing by a 55% NO vote, with 1 million votes counted. Supporters have refused to throw in the towel, insisting that mail-in ballots won’t be counted for another few days, but the conclusion seems clear: once again, big money from outside the state (over $22 million spent on the NO campaign, only $500 or so from within the state) spent on misleading ads has duped enough voters to secure victory for the bigs. These include the usual suspects: Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta and “food” purveyors like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle, as well as the many contributors to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Their big money has once again turned what appeared to be a 3 to 1 favorable opinion for GMO labeling in September to 55% against in November. The power of corporate money to shape public opinion has never been greater.
As with last year’s vote, I continue to be mystified by who could possibly be among those 55% NO voters. Who, that is, could oppose knowing what’s in the food you eat, especially if it contains genetic alterations, some of whose toxic effects—such as the modified genes in Roundup Ready corn or soybeans that allow corporate farmers to spray so much Roundup (glyphosate) on the crops that it can interfere with human biology in deadly ways—are already known. Who could be in favor of playing toxic roulette in this way?
This question haunts me even if Initiative 522 should eventually pass. Because there’s still that 50 or so percent who vote with the monsters. What impels such people? Are they simply stupid? So opposed to “organic leftists” that they choose to vote against whatever these godless ones propose? Certainly these explanations pertain to some. But I think the motivations go much deeper.
I think, that is, that it has to do with the ‘comfort of ignorance.’ But isn’t that the same as simple stupidity? you may ask. I think not. I am talking about ignorance in its sense of not knowing. Its sense ofnot wanting to know, fearing to know. I am talking about the same syndrome that pertains when it comes to global warming, or the dying of the oceans, or the propaganda about terrorists. People, masses of people, simply do not want to have to face such facts. They are more comfortable in their ignorance. Because if you admit that human activity is causing global warming—which it is—then you might have to take some responsibility for it. You might have to subject your life to examination regarding how much of that carbon pollution you yourself are contributing to. You might have to admit that your nation, the United States of America, is the chief contributor to greenhouse gases, or has been for the last hundred or so years. And that your American lifestyle, precisely, is what is causing the earth to get warmer and hotter, and to stumble into uncharted territory when it comes to rising oceans, bigger storms, and ecological catastrophe. With regard to GMO foods, you might have to take it upon yourself to understand what is happening to food, how major corporations are buying up the rights, via patents, to all seeds (developed over centuries by individual farmers) and to profit from the hunger, the absolute necessity that they anticipate will drive the sale of those seeds. You might have to take more responsibility—already huge—to find out which foods are healthful and which ones are not and to read labels and food science and it’s all such an additional burden and bother that it’s simply easier and more comfortable to cede your decision to the big guys, kick back and drink another beer.
Nor do I mean to imply that it’s just slovenly beer guzzlers who are subject to this. We all know the syndrome. All of us, in some area or other of our lives, prefer ignorance to knowledge. How many times have you had a pain in some body part, a serious one, and refrained from going to the doctor? Isn’t it common to dismiss it as of no account when the real reason is: I’d rather not know. It is for me. Sometimes, it’s just too much to know another thing. It’s too much to know how many scams there are in the world, what your partner is doing with whom, how much graft and corruption pertains in our political system, how pervasive are the ripoffs from the banks and the phone company and the computer makers and on and on. Better off not to know. Better off to have a beer. And when it comes to the really big one, the one that Tolstoy refers to as the “It” that most people do everything in their power to cover up with useless activity, i.e., the fact not only of our inevitable death but that we will still have no idea why we’re here or what our frantic activity has been worth in any case—then nearly all of us indulge in the comfort of ignorance. Moreover, we are urged to indulge in this by those who arrogate to themselves the giving of advice on how to live. Don’t worry. Be happy. Smell the roses. Sniff the coffee. Stay on the sunny side. Dwelling on the negative leads to unhappiness, to illness, to cancer, to depression even for your neighbors.
And it’s true. Ignorance is bliss. Worrying too much about what cannot be helped does lead to unnecessary suffering. So doing what you can to focus on what you have, your good fortune in even being here, is good advice. But—there’s always a “but”—what GMO labeling is about is one of those things that CAN be helped. We, the people who have to eat the genetically modified corn and soybeans and potatoes and the 60 or 70 percent of all American foods that are already tainted with GMO products in some form or other, we have to have a say in what we eat. It’s not in the constitution, but it should be: the right to eat food that is not contaminated with pesticides; the right to eat food that is not contaminated with unknown genes; the right—and this is the most fundamental right of all—the right to know if the food we’re being urged to buy is contaminated with unknown genes and poisons or not. If that isn’t a right, I don’t know what is.
So, for me, in this area, comfort be damned. The comfort of ignorance be damned. I want to be made uncomfortable. I want to be discomfited by what I know, I demand the right to be discomfited by what I know. And sooner or later, everyone in this nation, in this world, is going to have to demand that right. And the place it has to start is in the minds of those people—and they must know who they are—who have ceded that right to corporate giants. In my opinion, such ceding of critical rights to critical information is a fundamental breach of the contract implied in being human. And somehow, despite the propaganda and the pressure and the fear mongering indulged in by the corporations, people have got to realize that that breach, in the many forms in which it manifests, is one of the major false gods of our time—a god that must be toppled and stomped on and run out of town on a rail, along with the fake corporate priesthood that keeps it going. Comfort be damned.

Lawrence DiStasi


Tuesday, November 05, 2013


I am thinking today of the wonders that exist all around us and that usually either don’t get our attention, or are not available until someone points them out. The fact that we even exist is, of course, the first one. How does it happen that in a universe unimaginably large and cold, and with objects—whatever they are—so far apart that most cannot even be perceived without special equipment (not to mention the wholly imperceptible ‘dark matter’ that makes up most of the universe), how on an undistinguished rock 93 million miles from its parent star, does matter suddenly take on attributes that allow it to reproduce itself, and eventually, move where it wishes, direct its intelligence to solving problems, and produce theories about what it is, why it is here, and where it comes from? For that matter, how does it happen that there is matter in the first place? No one knows. And yet we are here, we are alive, we have minds that can ask such questions, and we take most of it for granted. We shouldn’t.

At the other extreme, we humans tend to have an exaggerated opinion of ourselves compared to other life forms. We shouldn’t do that either. We shouldn’t imagine, that is, that we’re somehow so exalted that we have no contact or common investment with other life forms, or anything in common with them either. Because even the humblest of the manifestations of what we call life, especially animal life, exhibit commonalities with us that are wonders both in themselves and in the intelligence they display. Consider slime molds. Molds and slime are normally things we consider with revulsion. In fact, the colloquial name of one species is “dog vomit slime mold,” because that’s exactly what it looks like (see photo). But these little buggers are truly amazing, both in their ability to “think,” and in their causal transformations. According to Robert Burton in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (2013), the individual cells in a slime mold communicate through release of a chemical called adenosine monophosphate (AMP). These cells live conventional lives when there’s enough food around. But when food gets scarce, the individuals (I’m not sure we can think of them as ‘individuals’ in our sense, but that’s what Burton calls them) gather together with their relatives and form giant amoeba-like aggregations that conform to our usual image of slime molds. More important, they become incredibly efficient at finding food. This ability has been tested in the laboratory and the tests show that slime molds can find their way through complex mazes to reach food. They do it by sending out networks of tube-like legs, each of which explores alternate routes until it finds the best path to the favored food. Then all consolidates into a single blob, which takes the shortest route to the food. The experimenters used oat flakes (one of this slime mold’s favorites) placed on a map of England to attract the slime molds, with the starting oat flake placed where London would be. What the experimenters found, to their astonishment, was that the solution to finding other oat flakes (placed where different cities would be) exactly duplicated the British intercity network of highways. In other words, this “mindless” creature, using pseudopodia (the tube-like legs acting as scouts) to feel its way towards food, duplicated the same routes that had required trained highway engineers long years to figure out. Japanese researchers found the same thing, this time with the slime molds exactly duplicating intercity rail routes from Tokyo. Now, I know what you’re thinking: given the stupidities evinced by highway engineers in recent years, especially in setting up the San Francisco Bay Area’s highway routes after the 1989 earthquake, it’s no wonder slime molds can do as well or better. But the wonder still stands: nature has somehow equipped one of its humblest and apparently simplest creatures with the kind of intelligence that we might have thought was limited only to us, or at least to mammals more or less like us in having a brain. Nothing of the kind. Intelligence seems to be a feature of nature at its simplest levels.


Illus: dog-vomit slime mold.

Here’s another example Burton provides. Locusts are familiar to most of us from the bible stories about “plagues of locusts” that overwhelmed ancient communities when they swarmed and ate everything in sight. But the precursors to locust swarming remind us of that same intelligence seen in slime molds. Like slime molds, individual locusts are normally solitary creatures—when the supply of food is sufficient for them. But when droughts occur, locusts begin to crowd together, usually in areas that still have some vegetation. It is this close contact from crowding that triggers remarkable changes in locusts. They begin marching together, seeking always to increase their numbers, and soon they are eating everything in sight, including each other. How does this happen? Australian researchers found what appears to be the tipping point. At densities of around thirty individuals, amazing physiological changes take place: the locusts change color, from brown to yellow-and-black. More “Hulk-like,” their leg muscles enlarge and seem to automatically begin marching movements. Their brains increase in size by some thirty percent, and reorganize, with areas normally devoted to visual processing for solitary food-finding minimized, and areas providing higher-level visual processing for group foraging growing larger. All these changes, in turn, were found by the researchers to be the product of rubbing each other’s hind-leg leg hairs (itself the product of the greater density of individuals). This rubbing of leg hairs triggers an outpouring of the neurochemical serotonin, which is known to regulate moods such as anger, aggression, and appetite. And voila, nature’s solution to drought for locusts is an aggregation impulse that leads them to become the fearsome consumers of everything in sight needed for their survival.

One other wonder, though this one’s from the dark side. As noted in the recent Frontline Documentary, Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, some 2 million people get antibiotic resistant infections each year, many from the very hospitals where they go to get treated. Some are particularly hair-raising, such as the one that infected a pre-teen girl with something that started with strange sores and would not respond to any treatment. The infection finally got to her lungs, and, with no antibiotics to treat it, she had to have a lung replacement to save her life. The infection is still not gone, and her chances are only so-so, her life by now having been turned upside down. A young man got a similar resistant infection on his leg, and finally had to have the leg amputated. Again, the infection is still there. What is happening is that bacteria, one of the oldest and most ubiquitous life forms on this planet, are evolving resistance faster than we can create new antibiotics to fight them. Part of the problem, of course, is overuse of the antibiotics we have had, not just in fighting human infections, but also in our farm animals: their keepers does them with large quantities of antibiotics to keep them alive in the horrific conditions they’re raised in. Some researchers say that we are entering a new age—rapidly reverting to the time when we had no antibiotics at all. And the worst part is that drug companies have pretty much given up on costly research to find new antibiotics because these drugs get used only once for a few days; what they like to develop are drugs for heart disease—that have to be used for a lifetime. More profit, you know. But aside from the ignorance in entrusting our health to profit-making corporations, what we have to take note of is the amazing intelligence at work in our sometime adversaries, the bacteria. They have not only evolved new genes to protect them against our antibiotics, but have even learned how to pass the resistant genes on to other bacteria! The result is that more and more infectious bacterial species are becoming resistant to our increasingly vain efforts to control them.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about the subtle mechanisms at work in our fellow creatures—all without primate brains, or writing, or labs or computers—simply leaves me wonder-struck. It makes me want to bow before the inconceivable wonder we’re all engaged in, but also to wonder how anyone could, as billions of us now do, dismiss with such arrogance all other wonders besides our own. And it reminds me that though we may, through our arrogance and ignorance, finally do ourselves in via global warming or chemical poisoning or nuclear armaggedon, we won’t do in nature or our planet. It will go on, merrily giving birth to new and better adaptations that in some future eon may come up with a little wiser, humbler, and even happier organism than Homo sapiens sapiens.

Lawrence DiStasi

Global Warming's Big Three Numbers

Recent news stories and photos of air pollution in Harbin, a northern Chinese city of 11 million, no doubt shocked and nauseated most Americans. They showed air pollution so bad that some people compared it to a snowstorm, with the “snow” being particulate matter from coal-burning plants that provide Harbin with heat—the heat just having been turned on for the winter by the Chinese authorities. The air pollution level was 30 or 40 times what is considered tolerable, with 25 parts per million the acceptable level and Harbin’s at over 600 parts per million, and in some places 1,000 ppm!

            But we should neither be shocked—global warming, after all, means global—nor comforted that it’s ‘only China.’ Because, again, carbon in the air knows no boundaries. A recent reading of Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (Holt: 2013), reinforces that realization in several ways. First is his account of the civil disobedience battle he led (and still leads) against the Keystone Pipeline. Second is his account of his latest initiative, to induce colleges across the country to divest their endowments of any financial earnings from fossil fuel companies. The third, and what I’ll focus on here, are his elucidation of three key numbers in the fight against global warming. McKibben likes using numbers as symbols, as his major organization <>  makes clear— the number 350 standing for 350 ppm of carbon in our air, a level which is high, but which most breathing beings can probably live with. Of course, earth has already overshot that mark, our current level being around 400 ppm—a number the 350 highlights nicely.

            McKibben’s other three numbers, though, are even more significant. The first is: 2, for 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the maximum rise in temperature that most scientists agree is the upper limit of temperature rise that humans can survive with. Most would prefer a lower number, 1.5 degrees or less, but 2 degrees is the limit. We’ve already raised the temperature 0.8 degrees, but anything over 2 degrees and it’s “game over.” The second number is 565. That stands for 565 gigatons of carbon in the air—the maximum amount, by midcentury, we can put in the air and still have a reasonable chance to keep the temperature rise at or below that limit of 2 degrees Celsius. The third number and the scariest is 2,795 gigatons—“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil fuel companies” (146). As McKibben notes, this represents the carbon load of the fossil fuel we’re on target to burn. If you compare 565, the maximum, with 2,795, the amount we’re on target to burn, you realize that those who control fossil fuels are planning to add five (5) times as much carbon as the earth can take and remain viable for the kind of life humans have led for the past several thousand years. The point is simple: these are proven reserves (and the number could be far higher) still in the ground, but since the reserves are what companies use to establish their worth, borrow money, and budget around (and what stock prices are based on), there is no doubt that these fossil fuel companies plan to use all they’ve got. As McKibben points out,

“These are their assets, the holdings that give their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or to frack the Appalachians—the value of ExxonMobil is, more or less, the value of those reserves. If you told ExxonMobil that they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of the company would plummet…” (148).
It’s also, of course, why these companies have spent so much to cast doubt on the idea that carbon burning by humans causes global warming. So if you told the CEOs of any of these companies—the Koch Brothers, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, British Petroleum, not to mention Saudi Arabia—that they should keep about 80% of their proven reserves in the ground, and write off trillions of their assets, they would laugh at you. Capitalism simply doesn’t work that way.

            This is why McKibben and those who have joined him in jail have decided that a new way of fighting global warming is necessary. If we continue to rely on the so-called market to keep us from burning 5 times as much fossil fuel as the planet can withstand, it’s really “game over” for the planet we once knew. So McKibben and his cohorts have, in their latest initiative to save the planet, targeted the companies themselves with their divestment campaign.

            One other element has come up in recent days to add to the plausibility of what McKibben writes in Oil and Honey. Last week, Al Gore made headlines when he said publicly that the next “bubble” slated to collapse is the one in the fossil fuel industry. Gore, basing his prognostication on the same figures McKibben uses, claimed that these fossil fuel companies are heavily overvalued. Why? Because there is no way they can make use of what they count as their assets, since to do so would push the world into catastrophe from global warming. In other words, to burn the reserves producing that 2,795 gigatons would push us over the brink into a global warming nightmare—rising sea levels, changes in plant and animal life, immense changes in weather and storms like Hurricane Sandy. Therefore, they will have to refrain from using their reserves, and hence are worth far less than what their current stock value, based on using those reserves, indicates. The fossil fuel bubble will have to burst—or the planet will.

            And to give us an idea of what is already happening in one little corner of the ecosystem, McKibben tells us of the effect of our already-warming temperatures on the lives of that most wondrous animal, the moose. Moose are perfectly adapted to the climate they normally inhabit, their heavy coats able to keep them warm in sub-zero temperatures. However, if the temperature gets above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has recently in places like Minnesota, the moose are in trouble. It’s not that they faint from the heat. It’s that warmer temperatures allow ticks to proliferate (deep cold used to kill them off), and the proliferating ticks drive the moose crazy. One moose could normally tolerate about 10,000 ticks, but with proliferation, moose now harbor as many as 70,000 ticks! This makes them so crazy that they scratch incessantly and tear away most of their fur. But fur is their protection against cold, so when a cold snap occurs, moose devoid of fur tend to freeze to death. The result is that the moose population in Minnesota has dropped by about half. Nor has tick proliferation stopped in Minnesota. In McKibben’s home state of Vermont, ticks have now begun to proliferate as well, leading to alarming increases in Lyme disease. Vermonters who used to love their woods are now reluctant to venture there for fear of ticks and Lyme disease—which has become almost pandemic.

            This is only one example of a subtle ecological change caused by warming temperatures that has deep and lasting consequences. It makes you wonder what is going through the minds of those who would continue to support denialists, and continue plans they know will plunge the earth into an unknown, and preventable transformation. One clue, though, comes from the aforementioned pollution crisis in China. A report I saw noted that many in China have begun to buy air purifiers. And which class is doing this most? You guessed it: the ruling classes who run the Chinese government, as well as the newly wealthy who can afford them. It appears that these neo-mandarins, like many of our own oligarchs, think they can ride out the global warming catastrophe they’re bringing about by buying safe havens for themselves and their families and purifying the rare air they breathe. This is the same kind of cruel indifference, rigidity and blindness that has led to civilizational collapses in the past. All that remains to be seen is whether the pattern will hold in our ‘more enlightened’ time as well. One thing is for sure, though: none of us can afford to stay on the sidelines hoping that recycling our cans or driving a prius will solve the problem; or that this time, because we’re all such nice, well-meaning people, things will be different.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Essentials for Our Republic

Our republic is a democracy
Afloat on a sea of hypocrisy
With holes through the beam
That cause us to scream
While the listing to starboard worsens
A hostile crew debates our fate
We passengers vocally curse them
As we feel the lies and the hate
Swirling around to drown us
No matter how much we fuss
These rebels care not for our health
And surely not for our wealth
So join and set our nation free
From the tyranny of their tea

We have again witnessed the smallness of humanity in the name of protecting freedom.  The Tea Party RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) who are anarchists at best and possibly deliberate destroyers of democracy have modernized sedition.  Yes, the GOP must shed this cancer or die, but we will all be hurt by the continuing tactics of people organized to overthrow our form of government.  Republicans seem to be at a loss to deal with usurpers who have cowed their leadership.  You may see this as a good thing as a Democrat and are simply tired of trickle down economics and stigmatizing the disenfranchised among us, but think more deeply on this travail.  This, by any other name, is an overt attempt to overthrow our democracy and our capitalistic economic system.  The sick irony of all this is that the Tea Party is claiming to fight for your freedom not to be covered by healthcare or job protection or the safety net that keeps you and your children from starvation or homelessness.  They want to cut the nation’s deficit. The same deficit that VP Cheney famously was quoted saying “Deficits don’t matter.”  Senator Cruz:  Please tell me how starving enhances our freedom.  Could you show me instead?  Please Senator Cruz.

Modest estimates are that the recent shutdown of our government by the House of Representatives cost us $24 Billion that will never be recovered.  Others say that the cost is far higher because we are no longer a trusted nation and that our industry, commerce and international good will is permanently damaged.  Few peer into the damage done to the small entrepreneurs and the poor among us who live from paycheck to paycheck or depend upon meager handouts from government or churches or myriad charities.  This points to some nettlesome symptoms of the disease, but the fundamental problems go much deeper.  Democracies, and especially this democratic republic, depend upon two fundamental elements to survive. Representative democracies require compromise as an integral part of our political process to work, otherwise a small minority can bring the business of state to a grinding halt.  If the democracy were absolute with all citizens voting on all issues, then we could be calmed by knowing that the majority would prevail.  Unfortunately, but obviously, the logistics of having about 250 million votes counted on national issues is unworkable.  We are facing well financed sedition by a minority of citizens who understand the mechanics of politics but whose motives are suspect.  Sedition is essentially defined as inciting resistance to authority without overt acts of violence.  This definition and the recent threats by the Tea Party call us to question how we can endure as a nation.  We cannot become like them and yet we need to protect our political process.  The second essential item is that we depend upon a modified capitalistic economic system that works based upon the good name and faith the entire world places in our ability to make good on our debts.  Our monetary system is the primary monetary system of the world and without full faith in our promises, the system collapses into a wild crap shoot of speculation that will drive up interest rates for everybody and reduce the consumption that drives our American economy as well as dry up labor that secures a portion of the largess for each of us.

Let us glance at the tactics of the Tea Party.  As an organized force, they have been well financed by conservatives such as the Koch brothers and the Heritage Foundation (that originally designed Romneycare that they liked until they disliked it and called it Obamacare).  Their stated goal is to promote conservative issues with an $80 million budget straight out of Washington.  That sounds innocuous enough until you learn that they have challenged and defeated conservative Republicans whom they felt were simply not radical enough.  They defeat Republicans in primaries that might compromise on legislation.  This has increasingly radicalized Congress to where willingness to compromise is now equated with defeat at the polls, especially the primaries where Republicans have traditionally held seats.  Given that our political process demands compromise in order to function, there is no wonder why gridlock has increased and that there appears that personal hatred has replaced professional political poise.  Ironically, if you do not review Tea Party practices in any depth, you may accept their mantra that they cannot compromise their principles and that any compromise attacks their principles.  Why would any group that truly supports the good of the nation as a whole take the Confederate flag as their standard?  Why would any group eschew compromise and punish GOP elected officials who may use it to advance legislation?  Why would any group that supports our nation actively destroy the good faith of our economic system by demanding default on our debts and shutting down government to obtain its political goals?  Success means destruction of our government.

I have discussed two essentials of our fabric of democracy:  1) Compromise as a political practice and 2) consistent support of our economic system.  Neither can be diminished without harm to our republic.  Grievous breaches cause grievous harm.  There is a corollary issue equally important to our success as a nation and that lies in the concept of commonwealth; that whatever we do should be done for the good of the people as a whole and not merely a few of the rich and powerful.  While that has sometimes been diminished, it is unconscionable that any lawmaker deliberately hurt the majority of the people for selfish goals of a person or group as we recently witnessed in the Tea Party shutdown of our government. 

Using rigid no-compromise tactics combined with threats to harm our economic system amount to sedition when combined with hyperbolic rhetoric, use of hate symbols such as the Confederate flag and falsely blaming the Executive Branch for closing the government and physically going to sites such as national monuments to stir up hate against our government such as Senator Cruz did after he led the effort to close the government and its offices including its parks.  We have even seen calls for extreme measures such as secession to extort concessions and the hypocrisy simply astounds.  As an example, Greg Collett, a Tea Party two time candidate for state office in Idaho is quoted: “I don’t think the government should be involved in my healthcare or health insurance.”  He has ten children on Medicaid and defends his position as consistent.  Rhetoric aside; What are these crazies thinking?  Governor Perry of Texas has mentioned secession from the union as an option as though that state was being abused.  This is not ordinary talk or criticism, but clearly seditious when he does it before crowds of rabid conservatives who are clearly looking to force their will on the rest of the nation.

I have waited for the government to reopen and for cooler heads to prevail to write on this topic, but we will face this condition again in a matter of only a few months.  Has America given up on majority rule?  Does gerrymandering bring a new legitimacy to elimination to the concept of 1 man/woman = 1 vote?  Does force and the threat to use it bring legitimacy to internal tyrants?  We cannot continue to say that we need to compromise when rules for compromise have been destroyed by one small minority.  There are parallels in history.  Each is ugly and ends badly.  Let us hope that Boehner or his replacement can muster the courage to control the uprising before it destroys the fabric of our system for the coming decades.   Let us hope that Cruz learns that hunger hurts and hurts children most.  Speak out and finance Tea Party opponents in coming elections.  Remember, money is free speech despite costs.

George Giacoppe
20 Oct 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

Are You Ready for Some Brain Damage

I have to be honest: I watch football on TV—a sport made for the screen. I watch the NFL games, especially if the San Francisco 49ers are playing, often watch Sunday Night Football (the successor to Monday Night Football and the allusion in my title) and I sometimes even watch college games. And when I was young and agile, I used to play a lot of sandlot football in our neighborhood. We played tackle without helmets or shoulder pads, and no one I knew ever got hurt because we were careful and friends and mostly not very fast or powerful. In high school, Friday night football games were the highlight: they were played in the cool, sometimes cold fall weather and all the girls I liked would huddle together with us in the stands and sometimes, after cherry cokes and fries in the local malt shoppe, let me drive them home with a stop at the park. So I’ve always liked the game. I like the skill displayed by the pros, the almost unbelievably balletic catches of today’s receivers and the stunning accuracy of today’s passers. I even like the bone-crunching hits on runners or wide receivers, when they’re clean.

            After watching “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline two nights ago, though, I’m ready to swear off the whole thing. Actually, I and most people I knew swore off pro football once before—during the Vietnam War protests—when football was so tightly allied with the flag wavers that it became nauseating to watch. And in truth, that connection still reigns today, because the ethic of dominating your opponent stands as a perfect symbol of the imperial attitude America imposes on the rest of the world. We are the one superpower, what we say goes, we are the USA and are trained from cradle to grave in the indomitable will to win, to persevere through injuries and pain, to gut it out, whatever the cost.

            What League of Denial showed was just what the cost really is, and has always been. Based on the book of the same name by brothers Steve and Mark Fainaru, the documentary focuses on the growing body of evidence proving that it is not just exceptional injuries that damage players’ brains; it is the routine slamming of heads together, in every game, and in practice, thousands of times in a season, with a force of 20 Gs (like hitting a wall at 35 mph), that eventually leads to CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a disease that was once thought to plague mainly professional boxers, the vivid case being Muhammad Ali in his later, painful-to-watch years. But as League of Denial demonstrates, it is football players who are being affected more and more. Part of this stems, ironically, from the helmets players use to protect their heads from injury. The problem is—and when we played without helmets, we knew this instinctively, and so were careful—the helmet provides not only a false sense of security; it also gives defensive players a weapon. And so, the ideal for a lineman—these guys carry 350 pounds, these days, on 6’5” to 6’8” frames—or a linebacker or even a defensive back is to drive with full speed and power into whoever is carrying or trying to catch the ball. The aim is to rock the ball-carrier’s world to the extent that he won’t be able to concentrate on the ball so much next time. Players call the resultant disorientation from one of these head hits “getting your bell rung.” If a player like a quarterback gets blindsided, his spine can be crumpled by the blow. Both Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 49ers sustained such hits, the one on Young portrayed in the documentary giving him his 7th concussion, his last. Despite his love of the game, Young never played again.

            The type case in League of Denial, though, is Mike Webster, the all-star defensive center for the great Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s. Watching it is enough to make you wretch. This giant of a man, with a will of steel, died at age 50, looking like a 70-year-old. He had seventy herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs, and teeth he maintained in his head with super-glue. His marriage fell apart when he could no longer remember what he was saying from one minute to the next and had outbursts of unexplainable rage. In 1997, broke and living in his car, Webster tried to get disability compensation from the NFL Retirement Board. The NFL fought Webster’s claim with everything it had—knowing that to admit that football causes brain damage could cost them millions—but finally granted Webster disability payments in 2000. Sadly, the great center had only two more years to live. That might have been the end of it, but a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennett Omalu, asked to examine Webster’s brain. Being Nigerian-born, Omalu didn’t quite understand what a hornet’s nest he would be opening. Long story short, Omalu found unmistakable signs of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain.

            Even this, though, was no match for the public relations power of the National Football League—an industry worth billions. Omalu’s results were ridiculed, his background was belittled, and the medical “doctors” running the league’s so-called investigations into concussions produced their own “studies” proving that no linkage between football and CTE could be established. It should be said that even today—with all the pretend precautions that are now taken: penalties established for “head hits” and players forced to rest after anything resembling a head hit, and including funds for retired players to help them in their disabilities—the National Football League still refuses to accept the direct connection between football and severe brain injury, CTE. The really sad part is that some of the major researchers now working on the problem—Dr. Ann McKee, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher at Boston University medical center who was asked if she’d like to examine the brains of football players; and Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard player and author of Head Games, now a leading advocate finding the brains of dead players for Dr. McKee to examine—are convinced that it is not just professional football players who are at risk. Literally all football players are at risk. McKee herself has examined 46 ex-players and found 45 with CTE! Two high-school players were among them. And what Nowinski says is that even kids in the little leagues that dot America are risking brain damage in later life if they continue to play the game as it is now played.

            This gets to the real point for me. Football can be played as a game. But in the United States these days, football has become a killer sport. Coaches teach players to “hit” their opponents with maximum force. To knock them out of the game. Which is to say, to cripple them. They belittle those who don’t like to do this. They reward those who do. Recently, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for tolerating his defensive coach’s offering his players a “bounty”—extra money—for knocking key opponents out of the game. This kind of vicious attitude filters all the way down to the pee wee leagues. And when players wear these helmets that serve as weapons, as battering rams, and delight in and are made heroes for blindsiding an opponent, the inevitable result is constant blows to the head, and eventual brain damage. For many, this is just the price to be paid for playing a “contact” sport. I profoundly disagree, and I’m hoping lots of people watch the Frontline documentary (, and lots of parents get horrified enough to keep their kids from playing the game in any organized fashion.

            I also hope that some, at least, begin to see that there is a dangerous connection here to our culture at large. The emphasis on winning at all costs, the insanity of encouraging young men to hit and cripple their opponents in that effort to win, reminds me of both the same attitude drilled into our military—the language of football is decidedly military: “blitzing” a quarterback, for example, harks back to the Nazis—and into the masters of corporate America. The trouble is, crippling opponents is accompanied by the inevitable “blowback.” Those who spend years using their heads as battering rams end up with brain damage. Those who spend their lives abiding by the ethic of anything goes in order to make a profit end up crippling the very planet that makes their blind quest to be “number one” possible. Sometimes, in fact, I think our entire culture, including the yahoos now holding our government ransom, is suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Lawrence DiStasi