Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 2: Charlottesville

I previously wrote in a post that Donald Trump will do and say anything he feels he needs to in order to get what he wants.  He has no morality or ethics.  It’s all transactional.  The end definitely justifies the means for him.

The New York Times pointed out several days ago that the one group that Trump cannot afford to lose the support of, the one group he cannot offend or criticize, is the alt-right, be they religious conservatives or white supremacists.  Because it is the only group that he can count on for unequivocal support … so long as he doesn’t go against them.  And so he bends over backwards to stroke them.

Thus we witnessed yesterday his disappointingly weak response to the white supremacists’ marching in Charlottesville, shouting neo-Nazi slogans, and the resulting violence between them and the counter protesters, including driving a truck into a group of protestors, killing one.  He said not ONE word against the vileness of the white supremacists.   He did not mentioned them at all.

Instead, he equated both sides by condemning the violence on both sides and saying that we must come together.  Even some Republicans could not stomach the President’s lack of leadership and morality one this one, calling the marchers’ words and action “evil” and “domestic terrorism.”

In my previous post, I said that the President’s words and actions bring to mind Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy hearings in the early 50s, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  

It is a sad day for our country.  We have had so many sad days since the inauguration.  Actually since his nomination.  I only pray and hope that masses of whites, people of all colors, will join together in public protest and say, “No, this hatred is not my America.  My America believes in the equality of all men.”  See

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Increase in Social Media and Autism - Coincidence or Causal?

Over the last 4 decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders has grown at an astonishing rate.  In the 1970s and 1980s, about one out of every 2,000 children was estimated to have autism.  In the year 2,000, with a broader definition and better diagnosis, the CDC estimated that one in 150 8-year-olds in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.  

Since that time, prevalence rates have increased 10 - 17% annually.  By 2012, the ASD estimate had risen to 1 in 68 8-year-olds.  “There is no established explanation for this increase.” 

Autism/ASD is mental disorder caused by variations in the brain’s development.  These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communications, and repetitive behaviors.  More specifically, children with autism demonstrate either “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors, and deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.”

I became interested in this issue because a close friend of mine has custody of a grandchild who has ASD.  Recently my friend asked me, because I had written the book, Raising a Happy Child, if I had any ideas on what might help his interactions with the child.  Knowing very little about the disorder, I did some quick research which uncovered the information conveyed above.

What do we know about the cause of autism/ASD?  Prior to the 70s, autism was thought to be caused by bad parenting, “unloving mothers.”  That theory has been thoroughly debunked. 

Instead, research has shown that a number of genes are connected with autism.  Further, a number of environmental factors before and during birth, that influence early brain development and thus increase the risk, have been identified.  They include advanced parental age, maternal illness, extreme prematurity, very low birth weight, and certain difficulties during birth involving periods of oxygen deprivation.  Also, mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may be at greater risk of having an autistic child.

Clearly, the factors identified by science to-date could not even begin to explain this rapid increase in the rate of autism/ASD.  In looking briefly at several recent symposia on the subject, no new ideas were identified.  There was just hope in identifying “modifiable risk factors” as we better understand why the prevalence of ASD has increased.

When I first read the definition of autism noted above, I had a “duh” moment.  The definition, with the possible exception of repetitive behaviors, almost exactly tracks what researchers are finding is the negative result of compulsive use of modern technology … the internet, computer games, smart phones, social media.  

We’ve all seen the phenomenon.   Whether on the subway, in the theater, on the street … people of all ages, not just the young but older Americans as well, seem unable or unwilling to be disconnected from their technology tool, their new umbilical cord, for an unnecessary moment.  It has become an addictive behavior. 

I knew from research I had done when writing my book that “stress in the womb can affect a baby's temperament and neurobehavioral development. ‘Who you are and what you’re like when you are pregnant will affect who that baby is,’ says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. ‘Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy – their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom.’” Source:  So it certainly seemed possible that an obsessive compulsive social media addiction would have an impact.

After I had done my initial research, I responded to my friend and indicated my hunch that the appearance of the new technology and its compulsive use during pregnancy probably has a strong correlation with the increase in ASD prevalence.  He responded by telling me that, interestingly, the ASD boy’s mother had been a compulsive computer gamer, including during pregnancy, and also didn’t take very good care of herself.  The boy is also a compulsive gamer.

With that single confirmation, I decided to delve deeper into the existing research.  The new definition and diagnostic criteria for ASD was developed in the early 1990s.  It’s probably reasonable to assume that the difference between the estimated prevalence prior to the broadened criteria for ASD diagnosis and post are mostly due to the new criteria as well as greater awareness.

However, in the period since ASD was defined, the criteria has been constant and the awareness consistently high.  So what accounts for the rapid increase since that time?

If one looks more closely at the CDC prevalence estimates, one sees a pretty stable figure prior to 1996 births, 1 in 150.  This finding is almost identical with a British study done during the early 90s.  Between 1996 and 2004 births, however, the prevalence increased to 1 in 68 children.  

More recent CDC data are not available (the report on 8-year-olds in 2012, thus born in 2004, was issued in 2016).  However a report from a 2015 government survey of parents found that 1 in 45 children, age 3  - 17, have been diagnosed with ASD.  Since the source of the data is different, though, one can’t conclude that the prevalence has increased further.  It may indicate an increase or it may indicate that the CDC data source is not as accurate and that the earlier prevalence rates were actually higher.  Either way, it’s not good.

During this period of rapid ASD prevalence growth, commercial internet and social media use took off (in the late 1990s) and grew exponentially.  A Pew Research study found that between 2005 and 2013, the use of social media by adults increased from 7% to 62%.  Since then the increase has leveled off and the last reading was 65% in 2015.  This survey, however, did not measure frequency or duration of use, which from observation appears to have increased significantly.

While the Pew data start where the CDC data leave off, we nevertheless know from it that between the late 1990s when social media started to 2005, the usage rose from 0 - 7%.  A huge percentage increase.  If I’m on the right track, the scary question is what the set of CDC data will look like from children born after 2010.

And there’s one more point.  The current research assumes that all factors impacting ASD development cease the moment one is born.  It considers no post-birth environmental factors.  Yet research has shown that a child’s brain continues significant structural development at least until age 3, with further development continuing until adolescence.  

It’s a very common sight these days to see even 2-3 year-olds staring at their little screens, watching a program or game while in their strollers, accompanying their parents at a restaurant, or elsewhere.  It’s becoming the new pacifier.  I cannot but think that it will have an impact on autism prevalence.

I cannot go any further with this line of reasoning from the available data.  However, I think that the connection, being both evident and sufficiently strong, points to the need for the CDC, or other appropriate federal agency, to gather information on the computer/social media habits of mothers during pregnancy.  And that data needs to include not just how many sites she visits (as was the case with the Pew data), but the frequency and duration of her visits.  Since it does not appear that such data would be able to be retrieved through the CDC’s ADDM data gathering system, a survey would most likely have to be employed.  Data on toddlers’/young children’s exposure to computer games/programs also need to be gathered.

Testing my hypothesis is of upmost importance.  I would even say urgent, given the ubiquitous nature of obsessive social media use prevalent today in our society.  If indeed more children are being born with ASD due to this risk factor, then every pregnant woman needs to be given a health advisory to stay off social media during her pregnancy.  This should be treated no differently than advice given to pregnant women to avoid other harmful behavior, whether it’s smoking, taking drugs, or eating fish from contaminated rivers.  And the use of devices by toddlers should be restricted.

If my hypothesis is correct but left unaddressed, this development could have more impact on the future health and vitality of our country than almost any problem we are currently facing.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Senator Murkowski as Role Model

Last week, after being harangued and bashed by President Trump, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) said what all Republican Senators should say and what should govern their actions. “With all due respect, Mr. President,” she reportedly told him, “I didn’t come here to represent the Republican Party. I am representing my constituents and the state of Alaska.”

This is the duty that all Congressmen and Senators have … to represent the best interests of their constituents and state.  That is their responsibility as elected officials.  If those interests go against the desires of Party leadership, so be it. 

We would not be in the partisan predicament we’ve been witnessing in Congress if all members acted on that responsibility of office.  Sure, some are truly far-right conservatives and know that’s why they were elected.  But many who have toed the line of Senate majority-leader McConnell on numerous issues are not hard-line conservatives.  Their fealty to the Party is misplaced and goes against the best interests of their constituents.

Some Republicans might try to argue that their sworn oath “to support the constitution” overrides the interests of constituents.  That may be true when a matter truly contravenes the constitution in letter or principle, but the types of things that Congress has been debating, and regarding which Senator McConnell has repeatedly enforced party discipline, do not rise to that level of import. 

Which raises the question.  Who are the “constituents” when that phrase is used?  Is it the people who voted for President Trump or a particular Representative or Senator?  Or is it all the people in their respective jurisdictions?

Presidents often say in their inaugural speech that they promise to be the President for all Americans.  Even Trump made such a statement.  He said he would restore the promise of America "for all our people. " And that is indeed as it should be.  The President is not elected just to promote the interests of those who voted for him.  He is the President of the entire country.  Yes, he campaigned on certain themes and made certain promises, and he should live up to those, in general.  But once elected, those campaign themes need to be tempered by the best interests of the country as a whole.

Such tempering is not an example of a President selling out, any more than is the change in tone and position from the primaries, when the combat is between members of the same party and the audience are members of that party, to that of the general election when the audience is the entire country.  The same change can be often be seen in those who are appointed to the Supreme Court.  Many a President has been dismayed that the person they appointed because of his politics, legal and otherwise, has turned out once on the bench to change his respective because of the role he has assumed.  Perhaps the most famous example of this was Justice Earl Warren.

Each and every Representative and Senator should keep Senator Murkowski’s words before them when they debate a matter and feel pressure from Party leadership to vote in a way which is contrary to the interests of their constituents.  Often that pressure is nothing short of blackmail, as it was when Senator Murkowski was threatened with Alaska’s losing a variety of significant benefits from the Federal government.  She still stood her ground, as was her duty.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Why I’m Quiet on the Trump Front

I have not written anything regarding the President since June 8.  Obviously, things occur almost daily that deserve comment.  

While it is important that his daily transgressions be put before the public, he must be held accountable, I would say that at this point my comments, and indeed most comments, are mostly wasted breath in the sense that they are unlikely to change anything, to improve the situation.  They will not change the President’s mind or anyone in his circle.  They will not change the mind of his supporters.  They will not change the mind of Republican politicians who are not ardent Trump supporters but want him to sign their legislation, should they ever manage to pass any.  

They also unfortunately are unlikely to encourage the masses of politically unengaged people in the country, who would tend to vote Democratic, to become engaged and thus greatly alter the dynamic of the 2018 election.  That will only happen through a combination of good Democratic policy development and the grass roots involvement of organizations who can reach these people.

The only real reason to continue to comment on things like his latest snap decision to ban transgender people from the military is to continue the protest against both the substance of his policy decisions and the manner in which they are made.  But there are ample commentators and organizations doing that.  My voice doesn’t add anything.

The same is true for his and the Congressional Republicans’ actions on health care.  The process and substance are beyond belief.  They show a total disdain both for the historic processes and procedures of Congress as well as the American public.  

Unfortunately, what else is new!  What’s more, this administration has shown a disdain for the very institutions that form the framework of our democracy.  His Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a poorly disguised attack on the voting rights of the poor and immigrants, is just one example.

Commentators have to write because that is their job.  I on the other hand only write when there is something that warrants a new post, when I feel that my voice adds something to the public discourse.

Rest assured, I will be heard from again on this topic.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Curse of Specialness

We have created a culture in which almost everyone is deeply dissatisfied with their lives in one way or another.  I’ve written in the past that we all suffer from a deep insecurity which impacts how we feel about ourselves and everything around us.  

Part of that derives from our early childhood experiences within the family.  Part of it comes from the culture we live in.  The images we receive both through marketing and the general media of what “happy,” “successful” people look like and what they possess are images that few of us can see in ourselves, and so the culture both feeds off our insecurity and adds to it.

There is yet another way our culture has created a dysfunctional world and disturbed our lives.  Our culture has institutionalized the need for everyone to be special, and I’m not using that word in a spiritual sense.

From the time we are children, we learn very quickly that those who are valued, who are rewarded and get ahead, are those that excel.  Whether it’s at sports, classes, or personality, the people who are valued and rewarded … often even within the family …  are those who excel or at least are perceived as excelling. 

And so each of us, virtually every moment of every day, has this knowledge hanging over our head like a dagger or guillotine.  We know that if we don’t “measure up,” we will suffer the ignominy of being viewed as “just” normal, average.  And in our society, that is viewed as a terrible fate; there is no respect in it.  And so it feeds our insecurity.

To say that this contributes to the high levels of stress felt by Americans as well as the high levels of depression is an understatement.  The felt need to be special or else plays a significant role with how we view ourselves and our place in the world.  

Even if one does feel special, it’s a no-win situation for two reasons.  It sets up expectations about what we deserve, and when we inevitably don’t get what we think we deserve we are frustrated and angry.  Also, we know that if for any reason we slip or someone supersedes us, our downfall will be quick and merciless, which feeds our insecurity.

Another negative impact is the way those who feel special often treat others.  They tend to look down on those whom they consider as not being special and often express their disdain.  This creates unpleasant and damaging human interactions, whether it’s the school bully or mean girls or the imperious diva or corporate head.

Why has this culture developed as it has?  I can’t really answer that question, but I can say that somehow the assumption developed a long time ago that people will only produce at their top ability if they are rewarded for it through their pay or status.  Even religions use heaven to encourage good behavior and hell to discourage bad … indeed that may be where this dynamic was institutionalized.  

This assumption has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Virtually no one these days does their best just for the satisfaction, the good feeling of doing their best.  Instead there needs to be a prospect of them being rewarded and acknowledged; that’s what makes them feel good, not the fact that they have done their best.  And if they have done their best and are not rewarded they either resent those who can’t see the value of what they produce or feel that they’ve been a fool or question whether what they’ve done is truly good.

For this reason, as well as a host of others, we need to return to a more spiritual society where people do good work because they take pride in what they do, irrespective of what anyone thinks of it.  And for that to occur, people must have a sense of self-esteem and security that allows them to be independent of these external influences.  And for that to happen, everyone must be and feel valued, not just those who are special.  A complex chain of events I’ve written about previously.  (See my post, “The Root of All Abuse and Violence -  Insecurity.”)

I know this seems like an impossible effort.  How can one change the world we live in even if man has created it?  

The answer is that we can change it one person at a time.  The world can go on being as crazy as it will, but you have the opportunity, both for yourself and your children, to change your relationship with yourself and the world around you.  That is indeed the only thing one truly has control over.  Not that it’s easy exercising that control, but it is possible.  (See my book, Raising a Happy Child.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Leaks - When Warranted, When Not

The subject of leaks is very hot at the moment.   It’s easy to say that Republicans are infuriated about recent leaks because they are embarrassing and hamper their ability to govern.  But there is a larger question here.  When are leaks warranted, and when are they not?

But first, what is a “leak.”  My definition of leak is an unauthorized release of information that is not public, often it is classified.  Various dictionary definitions define it as the release of secret information or just the clandestine release of information; the point of these definitions is that the information is not public.  For a leak to be a criminal offense, it must be the unauthorized release of classified government information.

The release of the Pentagon Papers was a leak in the narrower criminal sense.  The Wikileaks release was part classified, but mostly not.  It most certainly was private.

Most of the leaks that have been talked about the past few weeks are of private information.  It has not been classified.

But does that make a difference to the question of when is a leak warranted?  I would answer, no.

A leak, whether of classified or merely non-public information, is warranted only when the public good requires that it be released.  And when does the public good require this? When the information being withheld from the public is needed for it to judge current events, often because the public has either been lied to or not told the whole truth.   If the information is classified, the bar of the public’s need to know is set much higher; it must be of critical importance.

So with that as a guideline, let’s look at recent leaks.  There have been numerous leaks about the process of the Russian investigation, most regarding specific actions by the General Counsel’s office, one regarding a memo from the Trump transition team.   

Regardless of the public interest in such information, in letting them have a feel for what is happening, such leaks are not warranted.  They should stop.  They do not move justice forward.  They do nothing but feed the public’s and cable TV’s desire for a constant flow of information.  It makes the actual investigation almost anti-climatic, which I don’t think is a healthy thing.

Many will disagree with me.  They feel that the President’s constant misstatement, if not conscious lying, about things is so outrageous that it is imperative to counter those lies with the truth.  It’s fact checking.  

While I totally agree with that, I think the information used should be public information, and there generally is plenty of that available to dispute the President, even his own statements.  But even if not, the point here is that this is all so much blather; no one is making any decisions or judgments based on this chatter.

Now, if someone with knowledge of an investigation feels that important information is being ignored because its truth is inconvenient, then I think the leak of the information is warranted.  Because it does move justice forward; the information now cannot be ignored by those leading the investigation.

What about Comey’s release of the contents of his memo to the press through a friend.  That clearly is not a leak because the release was authorized by the writer of the memo.  While it is true that the memo summarized a conversation with the President, which was privileged communication, and that the President did not authorize the memo’s release, the memo clearly is Comey’s memory of the conversation.  If it were a verbatim transcript of the conversation, that would be different and it would be a leak.

Given the polarized nature of our society, and the suspicion that many people have of mainstream media, it is of critical importance that the media not be drawn into an informational tit for tat.  That they remain scrupulously neutral until the facts are in, at which time they can editorialize.

Ah, but what about the fact that we now have countless “news” media on cable and the internet, and they do get involved in the tit for tat.  Does that leave mainstream organizations like  The New York Times seemingly irrelevant if they don’t join in the fray?  Aren’t these leaks scoops that they must also cover?

That’s a hard question that only they can answer.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Democrats' Bad Strategy

Contrary to what The New York Times stated, if Democrats are demoralized about their loss in the Georgia special election it is their own fault.  To think that this district might possibly be in play was pure illusion.  Yes, Trump did not do particularly well there.  But to anticipate that a solidly Republican district would turn on the President in a very visible election is wishful thinking.  Plus the Democratic candidate was somewhat of a light-weight.  

Thus to make the stakes so high was not in the Democrats’ best interest.  The Party would do well to not follow the demands of the most rabid elements of its base and not seriously challenge every Republican seat.  

There will be many opportunities to pick up seats in 2018 and regain control of the House, but the districts and the candidates must be chosen very carefully.  And the Party must have a clear and cohesive vision for how it would govern, what it would do for the American people.  And that vision must be articulated in a way that the people get.  See my post, "The Perennial Search for the Democrats' Mission."

Running a good campaign isn't just about raising tons of money and having a good get-out-the-vote effort.  Running a winning campaign requires having a positive message that resonates with people beyond the Democratic base.