Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Eula Biss: On Immunity

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Eula Biss has written a beautiful small book about the currently hot topic of vaccines without actually writing about current events. Instead, she takes a broad view, as her title says, and looks at immunity- what is behind the new fear of vaccinations? What is behind vaccinations and the concept of immunity? This isn't just a medical book, though, it also deals with literature and Biss's personal narrative as a mother and a scholar. "On Immunity" is an odd book, for sure, but a beautiful and thought provoking one.

At the outset of the book, when Biss is first placing her journey to understand the questions of inoculations and immunity in context, she discusses the idea of trust. At the time of writing, trust in the government was (is) at a low due to ongoing ludicrous wars and corporations seem no better: foreclosures and layoffs were (are) at all time highs. Biss was repeatedly urged to trust herself as a mother and to have "consumer confidence." She was disturbed by the constant refrain among other new mothers; the "worldview they suggested: nobody can be trusted." She contrasts this to her thoughts about trust: "Even now," she writes, "years after my son's birth, I remain interested in the precise meaning of trust, particularly in legal and financial terms. A trust- in the sense of a valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong- captures, more or less, my understanding of what it is to have a child." What does it mean to be a mother, to have the trust of bringing someone into the world placed upon one of us, but not be able to trust anyone else? Further, do we have responsibilities to others undertaking this process? Or are we only concerned about our own bodies, our own children, when we're talking thinking about who to trust?

Biss makes an important historical comparison: Debates over vaccination are often couched in the language of slavery and are discussion of power. I recently walked by a protest outside of Berkeley City Hall where a small group of white people was protesting with signs about the Tyranny of Mandatory Vaccination. Historically, this has also been the case: in the 1850s, anti-vaccinators drew on the "political, emotive, or rhetorical value of the slave, of the colonized African." But when push came to shove, this constituency was really concerned with white English citizens. Are modern anti-vaccinators now truly concerned with the concept of tyranny? Do they worry about dictatorships or slavery? Are they also concerned about the dangers that they, unvaccinated, pose to others? As Biss puts it, "It might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be 'threatened,' but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. Even the little bodies of children, which our time encourages us to imagine as absolutely vulnerable, are dangerous in their ability to spread disease." She describes an unvaccinated child who spread measles to 11 other children, 3 of whom were infants too young to be vaccinated. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bodies are not merely innocent receptacles under the yoke of a terrible, untrustworthy government.
This is a radical inversion of the historical application of vaccination, which was once just another form of bodily servitude extracted from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally, through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.
If we are going to put trust in things, it means imagining ourselves as part of the larger whole. It means that our bodies aren't independent beings; Biss's sister points out that independence is an illusion. It is a distinct disconnect how down-to-earth communities like Berkeley with such understandings of the relationships between all living things, of ecosystems, of the necessity of recycling and have such a disconnect about the fact that we, as human beings, need to work together as embodied beings towards public health.

There's a lot of great stuff in here- I could go on. Without getting hysterical (and in fact, while getting poetic), Biss refutes arguments that you might not even know are arguments against vaccinating. Did you know that people really think that medical companies are getting rich on vaccinations? They're not. There is also a TON of misinformation about a) what's in vaccines and b) if it's really bad for you. People in places like Berkeley and Marin have a lot of time to worry about this: "Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford."

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Michelle Tea: How to Grow Up

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Michelle Tea has written a lot of memoirs, which is interesting since she's in her 40s. Many people write one memoir of their childhood, or one late in life of their whole life. Somehow for Tea, this works, though. For awhile I read everything Tea put out, but slowly fell out of touch. I'm not sure what inspired me to read "How to Grow Up," but I'm glad I did. While not the best book ever, "How to Grow Up" hit home. Watch out, personal(ish) post coming up!

Tea is honest (and has been honest) about her crappy, rebellious childhood and her decades of substance use and abuse. "How to Grow Up" is about the rest of it- when she realized she liked life as a sober, self-loving adult. I'm not Michelle Tea- I didn't have a crappy, rebellious childhood (at least, not like that!) and I don't have decades of hard living under my belt. But I felt like Tea was speaking to me on page two: "I have spent the past decades alternately fighting off adulthood with the gusto of a pack of Lost Boys forever partying down in Neverland, and timidly, awkwardly, earnestly stumbling toward the life of a grown-ass woman: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable." It took Tea finding bugs IN the fridge to realize that she was ready; it took my remaining two grandparents dying (and me surviving the grief) to realize that I had arrived. I feel warmth towards Tea again on page 3: "I type to you from a marginally clean home-  no longer do roaches scamper under cover of darkness!" See, I've achieved that! I even have laundry going, such an adult Sunday evening activity, along with writing book reports! Tea doesn't really define exactly what being a grown up is, but I like this: "Through repeat failures and moments of bruised revelation, I have mastered the art of doing things differently and getting different results." A poke at the "stupidity is doing the same things over and over and getting different results," us grown ups (yes, me!) learn from our mistakes (except that I *did go to that Safeway again today and no, they STILL did not have everything I wanted to buy and yes, the line was still longer than it should have been. I don't think she meant ALL of our mistakes.) "At the end of it all," she writes, making me feel better, "we're all just kids playing dress-up in our lives, some a little more convincingly than others."

Right before Tea realizes she can't put her Thanksgiving dish in a fridge with bugs (they were IN the fridge!!), she realizes something: "sometimes you're so caught in old ideas about yourself, it takes another person to show you who you actually are today. And the person you are today is a lot more grown-up than last time you checked." Has this happened to you? It has happened to me. This line is in the chapter titled "You Deserve This," and though I don't quite find myself saying that too often yet, I have been checked a lot lately- I find that things I was CERTAIN I knew about myself are outdated, or that rules that I needed to get through life aren't really necessary and have to be rethought or let go of. Maybe I'll need a new set of rules: Tea has come up with her own rules like "Beware of Sex" and other rules for love- no, this book report isn't going there- but it's a poignant chapter where Tea walks through how her addictive personality intersected with the wild world of single-ness and sex. And even better, she's got some great tips on how to break up! None of these tips are meant to be read as an instruction manual: Tea is explaining how, as she became a grownup, she had to devise new rules for herself. This rings true.

I can't recommend this book for everyone. It's not that amazing, and through her many memoirs, it becomes a little voyeuristic to look so closely at Tea's life. But if, like me, you're going through or have recently gone through, a growth spurt (so to speak), this is really great.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recent Reads



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Before I read this book, I thought I read everything I could on immigration, but obviously, I just read everything I can on the Mexican border. The conversation in the United States, or at least on the West Coast, is so focused on the border, the wall and Mexicans, that the dialogue often ignores the other people trying to enter the country and the discrimination that they face. Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of Chinese immigration through the Golden Venture- a ship bearing hundreds of Chinese immigrants that crashed (intentionally) on the shores of Queens in 1993. (You can read the New Yorker article that became the book here.) He explains the history of why the Chinese people were on the boat in the first place and where they went afterwards. And tells the story of the mastermind behind much of the illegal immigration at the time- a female "snakehead" (like a coyote) named Sister Ping.

One of the interesting things about this book is that, while the conditions aboard the Golden Venture and other ships like it were deplorable, the people aboard chose to come and, in fact, paid hefty sums ($13,000+). Sister Ping was a well known "human smuggler" and had many tricks to get people from her home province of Fujian to the United States. Often, I think, we conflate human smuggling and human trafficking, though these two are not the same. Further, although Sister Ping was certainly getting rich through her smuggling business, she seems to have truly believed that she was doing something for her people- helping them get reunited with family, for example, or helping them earn a living. For the most part, Keefe portrays this complexity, but when Sister Ping appears to have gone off the rails a bit during her trial at the end of the book, he loses some of the empathetic view point and just depicts a crazy lady, lost in delusions that allow her to do anything for money. At its best, this book allows us to see not just a vicious woman trying to steal from poor, naive immigrants, but a complex picture of people trying to get from one place to another for economic and personal reasons, stymied by circumstances created by two world powers making policies who could care less about the individuals they are affecting. At its best, this is the story of immigration that I knew nothing about. At its weakest, this is an overlong New Yorker article about a boat.

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Talk about overlong. Michael Brandow has written a book (A Matter of Breeding) that has been hashed and rehashed on dog forums, among shelter works, among dog fanciers and the general public alike, but, as far as I know, has not had been written about in a published, non-scientific form. Breeds- are they real? Are they for good or evil? What should we do about them? I'll tell you one thing- if we should write books about them (and I think we should- I've thought about it myself), we should not write this book. Sorry, Mr Brandow, but this isn't it. The subtitle of this book is "A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and the How the Quest for Status has Harmed Man's Best Friend." Awesome, the reader might think, a book that deals with how we've fucked up dogs into biting monsters by making them look like something, that also has a sense of humor. As far as I could tell by reading the first 150+ pages of this book, the "biting" is an excuse for Brandow to be snide and sarcastic and homophobic. Brandow thinks he can get away with making fun of muscular gay men with an overbred frenchie (he exaggerates both the muscular gay men and the frenchie's weaknesses to the point of stereotypical lack of credulity) because he's a gay dog walker. It just comes across as crude. He goes over how breeds came to be, which might be news to someone without my background or interest in dogs, but somehow I doubt that anyone who picks up this book will lack that basic information. There is some interesting material in here about the relationships of dog shows to colonial America and Britain and about the class relationship between the two that I didn't know, but it's all shot a little bit by his (mis)use of the term "bulldog" without explaining which exact bulldog he means. I *think he's referring to the dog that eventually became the pit bull, but the average person doesn't understand that breed history, and since he repeats ad naseum that breed histories are all fantasies anyway, his insistence on the bulldog's import while conflating various bulldogs is a bit... maddening. And if you're going to write about breeds, let's call a wheaten terrier a wheaten terrier: it is NOT a Wheaton.

The other maddening part (besides repeating himself chapter after chapter) is the PETA-esque nature of the book. We get it: Brandow doesn't like the history of purebred dogs. Many of us feel the same way. Mutts are better (though, unless he gets to it later, he seems to subscribe to the theory of hybrid vigor, which is quite controversial, even contested by UCDavis), breeding is bad, people who want a purebred are boneheaded, knuckleheaded snobs. We all start there or go there at one point in our ideological animal welfare careers. Then we learn to see grey. Hopefully before we write books.

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"It's Not News, It's Fark" falls under the "good idea, poor execution" category. Fark is a word Drew Curtis made up in the 1990s to embody the concept of "news that is not really news." To get a sense of this, check out the website. Or don't even check out the website- pull up any local news website or newspaper and look for any story that might fall under one of these categories: Media fear mongering, Unpaid placement masquerading as actual article, Headline contradicted by actual article, The out-of-context celebrity comment, Seasonal article, Media fatigue or some other type of Lesser media space filler. Curtis divides up the ridiculous stories that make up this highlights of Fark book into these chapters- it turns out the book really is a best-of book combined with a media criticism book, which is probably why it doesn't really work. And the stories are really ridiculous, and they are really exactly the stories you read in the news every day, if you bother to read the news, or see on twitter if you follow any news outlet, or can't help hearing if you live in the world. The only interesting and meaningful bits are the two pages at the end of each chapter telling you WHY it's important and awful that media focuses on these things. For example, at the end of a few articles demonstrating how media gives "Equal Time for Nutjobs," Curtis explains that in theory, this is harmless. "The problem is that a Mass Media mention gives them instant credibility. The media audience automatically assumes that Mass Media wouldn't give coverage to anything they knew was patently false." So when media gives coverage to people who think they found Noah's ark or saw aliens or anti-vaxxers, even if they then disprove the "science," they've given credibility to the patently false things they disprove. And, as Curtis shows in other places in the book, most Mass Media is lazy: once it's printed one place, it's going to printed elsewhere, without an iota of fact checking. He goes on: "Equal Time for Nutjobs is exceptionally dangerous because ... the vast majority of people read only headlines. People have a reasonable expectation that Mass Media won't run wildly inaccurate headlines like 'Discovery Could Rock Archaeology.' The headline implies that the discovery actually WILL rock archaeology, ... Mass Media likes to throw up its hands and pretend that people know better. They don't."

Since reading this book, several stories of this sort have taken over the news: Laughing While Black, Jared from Subway is a child molester, and some crap about Pumpkin Spice M&Ms."It's not News" would work if it had given one or two examples and then delved into this kind of work: Curtis clearly has gone through thousands of articles more than anyone else over the last 15 years and knows what he's talking about. Instead, he bludgeons the reader with Fark that we don't want to read, comments from Fark-reading commenters and his own crude language and stereotypes (ala Brandow above).  Skip it.

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I've found my new Thomas Hardy in Alexandre Dumas. "Georges" is a fascinating read- both ahead of its time and a sign of its time. The title character is a mulatto from the island of Mauritius during colonial times. Similar to the Count of Monte Cristo, he is dissatisfied with himself and spends 14 years away from the island turning himself into a man he believes can get rid of the prejudice that rules the island.

I haven't read about Dumas- I don't know where he stood on colonialism or slavery or really anything, but I do know that he makes his characters who fight prejudice much more likable than those that don't: Georges's childhood (and adult) enemy Henri is an icky, unlikable momma's boy who "needed no further education; he already knew the most important thing: Colored men, all colored men, were born to respect him, and to obey." While the reader is following Georges self-improvement and heroism, it's hard to like Henri and his pompous ways. On the other hand, Georges's father, also a mulatto, is a slave owner, and there is clearly a difference in Dumas' attitude towards "real" black people and mulattoes. Georges's father is described as a wonderful, generous master whose slaves are thrilled to be owned by him: "They were well fed, well clothed, and fairly treated, and they adored Pierre Munier as the best mulatto in the colony; a man who was humble with the whites and never cruel to the blacks." When Georges arrives and gives them a little speech about how their conditions will improve even further now that he is back, he essentially says, you won't want to run away because you're so happy here, but does not grant them their freedom till later until in the book. Dumas notes of the small concessions that Georges grants the slaves that "It will doubtless appear quite alien to those sixty million Europeans whose happy fortune it is to live in constitutional freedom, but it was the first charter of its kind ever bestowed in that colony." We are to be grateful for the small favors that the mulatto grants his Negroes.

To make matters even more complicated, Georges's brother is a slave trader! So here is the noble mulatto, son of the humble mulatto, enraged at his brother who is complicit with the system and feels like it doesn't matter because he's earning a sweet living. As Dumas says, "By a strange coincidence, Fate had reunited the family made up of a man who had spent his entire life suffering from prejudice against color, a man who had made his living by exploiting it, and a man who was ready to die fighting it." Georges falls in love with a white woman (guess what- she's betrothed to the white enemy mentioned above), leads a slave rebellion, escapes a certain death and goes on to lead us through a romping entertainment. This could be a very dull book, if not for the intriguing way that Dumas has laid out the racial aspects of the tale. Written in 1843, "Georges" is a fascinating look back at colonial times through the lens of an author who does, in fact, seemed to be trying to make sense of colonialism, slavery and race through literature.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What's the Deal with Virginia Woolf?

 One of the days that I was at jury duty last week, we were given a 3 hour break. I was downtown, so of course I went to the main library. Who wouldn't spend all morning at the library? I found one of the books on my list that has about 108847 holds on it at the Berkeley Public Library and read about half of it at the library. I also found a book on the new books that I didn't have on my list, which is funny- serendipity brought me to the book- and the book is about serendipitiously finding books. The books have nothing in common except that randomly, about half way through, they both spend a chapter dwelling on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I get it- this is an important book. Seminal, probably. It's one of those classics that I haven't read and probably should. There are entire courses taught about her, plays and movies asking who's afraid of her, and like, I don't know, gazillions of women inspired by her. But the two books are NOT about Virginia Woolf, and it's like the authors needed somewhere to publish their thoughts on Virginia Woolf or they wouldn't be able to sleep at night, so their editors humored them. Let me tell you something: it doesn't make me want to read anything else by Virginia Woolf, if that's what they were going for. It just made me skim those parts.

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I am not a huge Rebecca Solnit fan. (She did just go up greatly in my esteem, however, when I went to her site and noted that amazon is not one of the places linked to purchase her books.) I remember reading one of her books many years ago- maybe Savage Dreams- and really liking it, and then being steadily more disappointed every time I picked something up. Sorry, it's true. However, Solnit was a speaker at the recent Berkeley Book Festival, and Men Explain Things to Me was prominently displayed at the author's books tables. I didn't buy it- it's a tiny volume and I felt like it was a risk that I wouldn't like it- but I added it to my list- who DOESN'T want to read about mansplaining? (Oh, men.)

It's a fabulous book. Rebecca Solnit? I take it back. You're amazing. In 2008, before the coining of the term "mansplaining," Solnit wrote an essay for TomDispatch (which I had never heard of) with the eponymous title. You don't have to read the book, but do read the essay here. With humor, but also with persuasive fortitude, she explains what it's like to be a woman, even a successful, accomplished woman:
"Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath."
She makes links between this silencing and violence- the seeing of women as less-than-human and the ability to destroy them and not think twice. It's a valuable and empowering (for women) argument. Hopefully it's a valuable and humbling argument for men. Hopefully they read this book.

I have two main arguments and a quibble with this book. First is the aforementioned Virginia Woolf chapter. Um, what's it doing there, Solnit? We're friends now, in my mind, so I feel I can ask that. It doesn't fit, I want it gone. Second, there are these nice images at the beginning of each chapter by an artist who then gets a chapter that also doesn't fit- Ana Teresa Fernandez. The literary criticism and the art theory are nice, but maybe belong in another book. The quibble- the feminism here is brilliant. Sometimes Solnit backtracks though, apologizes. Says things like "I'm not talking about all men," or "men are making good strides as allies" (my paraphrases). Yes! Absolutely! But in doing this, she's been silenced again. I recommend this book, even if you read just a few of the essays. Read the essay on how marriage equality threatens the . Read the essay on colonialism. Or read the whole thing and tell me what I missed in that Virginia Woolf essay.

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I found The Shelf on the "New" books shelf near the front of the library. I think Phyllis Rose would have liked this- she closes her book with the hope that her book "sends [people] onto the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem." As someone who visits the library at least once every two weeks and sometimes more, and who conquered #onlineschool because she believes the same thing, I have a kindred spirit here. (Oh, and she was a professor at my alma mater. The in-person one.)

The premise of The Shelf is a sweet one: Rose decided to pick a shelf of fiction at random and read all of the books on it. She came up with some arbitrary rules for herself and landed on the LEQ-LES shelf at the New York Society Library- a small, members-only library. She didn't end up reading *all of the books on the shelf, but a set number by each author. The shelf is as much a story of a year of reading and literary criticism as it isa story of the authors and their works. I ended up adding only one of the books to my list but may go back and add another.

Rose was an English Professor. She is a literary critic. She also just loves to read. She is both non-sentimental (she reads on a Kindle!!) and sentimental- she checked out a couple books on the shelf knowing that meant that they wouldn't be weeded for a couple of years, even though she didn't really plan on reading them. Saved- the books were saved! I really liked this book, and I liked Rose's commitment to the project that she had set for herself. I never did finish my project to finish all the books that I haven't read on my shelf, though I've been MUCH better about not buying them. I also liked Rose's honesty- she's an honest literary critic: "There is no way to read a text putting aside who one is and what one has experienced. In this sense, as many twentieth century literary critics came to understand, every reading of a book is the creation of a new book. Every reading is a misreading." That might be a little pomo for you, but when you read The Shelf, it makes sense. Rose even reads one book (that she doesn't like very much) a few times in a few translations, and at the end, reads it again, realizing that she's a new person.

Like Solnit, Rose grapples with the issue of male privilege, this time in the realm of literature. In the chapter "Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege," she takes on the question of what it means to be a "woman writer," or a woman reader, or to be taken seriously be Readers- whether easy going readers or by Readers of import. She cites a study done in England- "Between [the ages of] 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere." And yet, or because of this, literature by women which deals with this kind of material is considered trivial. And women who write about this are looked down on- they must be privileged- they have time and money to do write about that- isn't there something more important? More manly, perhaps? Well, maybe. As Rose writes, "many of us- male and female- learned to read men's novels as though they were larger and deeper than novels by women." Though Rose's book is pretty much nothing like Solnit's, reading them back to back led me to do a lot of head nodding and comparison drawing. As she says, we can't take the reading out of our lives.

There was a lot more about this book that I liked. Not everyone will like this book. I think readers will like this book, but not all readers will like it- Extra Serious readers might not, and readers who don't want to think about what they read certainly will not. But I liked it- it was both funny and serious, poignant and sharp. And Phyllis, if you're out there, this Common Reader thinks you're swell.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jill Leovy: Ghettoside

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This is the book of my reading year, and the one I think everyone should read. I loved Love, Nina, and it's a great read, but it's not a MUST read. Thank You for Your Service was last year. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: this year, must read. It's short and readable, so you have no excuse, really. The only fault I found, really, is that the writing is a tad uneven, which is a strange thing for a book that's so hard to put down. It's almost like a couple of times I felt like I was reading something I had already read in different words a few pages before. This doesn't happen very often, and maybe it was just me. I read the book in under 24 hours.

Jill Leovy is a reporter from Los Angeles. She reported on crime in the Seventy-seventh Street Division which includes Watts and the famous "South Central" areas for about 10 years, including years of time when she was actually given a desk in the station with the detectives. She knows what she's talking about. For awhile, she had a blog called "The Homicide Report" on the LA Times website that had a daily accounting of every homicide that occurred in LA. She did three things (and probably more): she kept data on the killings, and she learned about the police who solved (or didn't solve) the cases) and she met the people involved in the murders- the victims, the suspects, the doers, the families, the witnesses, etc. And what she learned, and what is so important and clear in this book is that one of the main ways that our system is broken is by not catching people who kill other people.

It is not polite, she says, to discuss black on black crime. (Read my twitter feed right now, and you'll see that this is true- black twitter, rightly, is pushing back on white people on twitter who are dismissing discussion as "oh, black people kill black people.") But Leovy wants to talk about this more. While there are certainly people and police offers who think that black people in the ghetto killing other black people in the ghetto is [insert offensive/ridiculous/not worth retyping thing that signifies okay/appropriate/etc.], Levoy says that this attitude, this failure to catch the doers of violence, "the state's inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence... perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American lie. The system's failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap." She goes on: "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." Basically, it is true, she says: black people in poor black areas like Watts ARE killing each other at a terrifying rate. She's not going to argue with the numbers; she's even tracked and created her own numbers over ten years of reporting. But what she is going to argue with is any concept that this is a black-people-problem. It is a systemic problem, and that problem is that the state isn't doing it's job. 

#blacklivesmatter has mostly focused on police violence towards black people. It is a huge and hugely important topic. Leovy's book came out in 2015, but the way publishing works, I'm sure that the hashtag wasn't as prominent when she was writing it. I think reading this book importantly expands the concept without saying it: she quotes Weber's concept of the "state monopoly on violence": "the government's exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. A monopoly provides citizens with legal autonomy, the liberating knowledge that the government will pursue anyone who violates their personal safety." That monopoly is broken where people don't believe that the government will protect their personal safety. Places like Watts, East and West Oakland, etc. Places where black people have routinely been treated like property or chattel by the police, places where the police routinely shoot when they could arrest, etc. As Leovy notes, police have routinely been busy using strategies of "control, prevention, and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence." Then the courts punish black people at different rates for the same crimes- heavier for black on white than for black on black. The media takes more notice of "awful" or "heinous" or "unusual" crimes: crimes where white people are the victims. Black lives don't matter. 

Again, Leovy points out that this is a difficult argument to make: most people know that the penal system is unfair to minorities, specifically black men. But what she's saying is that the two issues go hand in hand: the police don't want to solve the serious crimes, or to take back control of the state monopoly on violence, so they bring in black man after black man on trumped up drug charges, then cycle them through a shitty prison system. What they don't do is "fail to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." You don't have to believe this incredibly short and inadequate summary of Leovy's amazing book- take three hours and read it yourself.

Oh, also, there's a plot, so you won't be bogged down in this kind of theoretical stuff. Following the plot, you will learn and believe this way better than I could ever explain. Leovy has some protagonists from both the LAPD and from the troubled, boiling streets of Watts. A long time LAPD officer's son is killed- they live in Watts and many other LAPD officers feel like it had only been a matter of time. The detectives in the area are flawed but serious characters that you can't help but liking- they don't care who the victim of a crime is, they believe that they deserve justice, and that the killer needs to be found. Witnesses and family members- they all have stories and opinions and lives, just like us. Like, they're human beings, too. I read this book right before I was called to jury duty for a murder charge, which I may write about later. I wondered about the police officers that caught the subject. I wondered if they really cared about the victims (who were not black) or about the accused (who is black). I wonder about the #blacklivesmatter movement and if it can step out to make the unpopular argument that black on black violence is a thing, and that that doesn't mean that black people as a whole are responsible. I wonder if society can hear that argument without resorting to our old, tired, antebellum notions of inferior black people. I wonder if society can think complicated thoughts about policing. A book that makes you think this many things is absolutely a must read.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Irving Kirsch: The Emperor's New Drugs

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Irving Kirsch believes that antidepressants don't work and that we are doing society a giant disservice by selling the public a line (and a lot of drugs) that depression is a chemical imbalance and that medicine is the way to fix it. His argument is well thought out and backed up by a lot of science, but it's a hard one to swallow (yes, I did that on purpose). He knows that, and he has taken his lumps (of sugar pills) from the scientific community. The lay reader (like me) has a hard, if not impossible, time though, knowing what to believe since it's kind of a crazy argument- or, at least one that goes counter to everything we've been told for decades- and, as he said, no one in the scientific community agrees with him, either. So is "The Emperor's New Drugs" the well-written screed of a lunatic/agitator/fringe guy or is it the beginning of a new and accurate trend in how we think about mental health/illness?

I have no idea what the answer is to that question. What I do know is that Kirsch has laid out his case very clearly and knows what he is up against. He gets off to a good start as the first piece of his analysis was done in the mid-90s when he and a colleague did a meta-analysis of the placebo effect in the treatment of depression. He was roundly criticized, pretty much from every side. Not only did people not believe him, they also didn't believe that meta-analysis was a thing. Now meta-analysis is very much a thing and the main argument left is that there's no way that the placebo effect could be what's causing people to get better in these clinical trials of anti-depressants. Only, according to Kirsch's analysis of the data (and his analyses of the analyses), the placebo effect is almost as strong as that of the anti-depressants, and so close that you can't disregard it. And, importantly, he did a Freedom of Information act for the many, many unpublished studies, as only the published studies were the ones that most doctors were basing their opinions on. The published studies still didn't show much difference between the real pills and the sugar pills- the unpublished studies showed even less. But the practitioners, scientists and academics aren't having it.

Placebos work because on depression because we want them to work, he says. And so do anti-depressants. We join clinical trials on treating depression because we're depressed, but also because we kind of want to get better. When we're in a clinical trial, there is a hope- an expectation- that we CAN get better through the treatment. And when we're in a blind trial (neither the patient or the clinician know what the patient is getting), anti-depressants have more likelihood of success for one main reason: they have side effects. We may try not to guess whether we are getting the placebo or not, but when we start to have headaches, nausea and sexual dysfunction, we're going to be pretty sure that we're getting the Real Thing, at which point we are going to get pretty excited- maybe this is it- the treatment is right for us! And this, to Kirsch, is the only thing that accounts for the difference in effectiveness between medically active pills and sugar pills. I am not going to go through all of the reasons and studies, but it's pretty convincing stuff. And pretty scary stuff that makes your mind want to go "nope, no sir," like all of his critics have.

I will say that the one thing that made me think, "oh, maybe they're right" is his emphasis on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Kirsch has a string of ideas on thinking past the chemical imbalance theory and using anti-depressants for the treatment of depression, but they rest heavily on the wide availability of CBT. I don't know much about this treatment, but what I have heard about it isn't particularly positive. I don't think I've ever done this before, but I'll send you right to the wikipedia section on criticisms of CBT. There are lots of them, and they are varied. Say what you will about talk therapy, but this isn't what Kirsch is about. He's not really about getting at the root of the problem, but about fixing things. Again, his idea is radical and would involve rethinking our current understandings of how depression works, so I'm not sure that he's wrong, but I got a little wary at this point in his conclusion.

This is a fascinating book by a man who has been ripped to shreds by his scholarly community and lived to tell the tale. He's not apologetic and wants us to understand where he's coming from. The book is certainly mind-opening, if not mind-changing, at least for me.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Some Book Reports

Couldn't Read:
David Halperin: How to Be Gay. This is a really awesome project and I really wanted to like it, which is why I kept reading and reading and reading and then finally stopped. About 10 or 15 years ago Haperin taught a class at the University of Michigan (I think, I forget now) with this title and there was general uproar. He wasn't, in fact, teaching students how to be gay (obviously), but discussing what it means to be gay. He writes "That distinctively gay way of being [italics in original- he does this a lot and it's kind of annoying], moreover, appears to be rooted in a particular queer way of feeling. And that queer way of feeling- that queer subjectivity- expresses itself through a peculiar, dissident way of relating [see what I mean?] to cultural objects ... and cultural forms in general..."  The class and the book "set out to explore gay men's characteristic relation to mainstream culture for what it might reveal about certain structures of feeling distinctive to gay men." I think this is kind of cool and awesome. He basically outlines how even when gay men weren't allowed to be outwardly gay, there were things that they (and others) identified with and as queer- musicals, for example. And when, post-Stonewall, it was more okay to be queer, these things stuck. Then, in the 80s, when it was about respectable identity, cultural idiosyncrasies were downplayed or even denied. But when he polled his students, or even just talked to them, some things were still obviously relevant to them as gay males, and not just the literature by and about queer men. What's that about? That's the project. The book, however, is way too repetitive and high-faluting and not enough camp, if you will, not IN the material but about what the material might be. Lit crit gone wrong. Skip it. Good title, poor execution.

Niles Eldredge: Why We Do it. You can also file this one under "don't fall for the title." Although I knew this one was about the science behind sex, I didn't realize exactly what the subtitle "Rethinking sex and the selfish gene" was about. This entire book is basically a refutation of Richard Dawkins selfish gene theory, which I haven't read. (If you want, you can read the whole thing here.) The selfish gene theory is very influential, but honestly, I am not a science person and don't really care. So I *really don't care about a guy who REALLY cares about it enough to write a book-length rebuttal. Damn.

Now for the surprises- I recently discovered that I really like Alexandre Dumas! Who knew? My education largely skipped the classics, especially those by dead white men (which may be all of the classics, who knows. I read the Count of Monte Cristo- one of the abridged (translated obviously) versions and man, I really liked that thing! I fell into the romance of it and the cruelty of it, and what's not to like (except the fact that this purist was reading a translated and abridged version...) and I liked it so much that I then read the Black Tulip and I loved that, too! Like Thomas Hardy, there's something addictive and sweetly nostalgic about these old books that are still resonant today.