Saturday, October 28, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Sycophant

What a travesty when the elected leader of our country shows no leadership.  Instead, his every action is determined by whether or how it will impact the support he receives from his core constituency.

Now to be fair, every president keeps his base very much in mind when considering actions to take.  It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise; the president is a politician.  

But I can think of no previous president who made all decisions in a way designed to throw red meat to his base and appease them.  Every president has had some issues he believed strongly in that were not supported by his base, or events happened that required taking action that his base disapproved.  That is the mark of a leader.  Once elected you act in the best interests of the country, you are the leader of all Americans, not just your core base of support.

Recently, it appeared that perhaps Trump was distancing himself somewhat from his base when he met with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and made a few deals.  Or when he supported a bi-partisan approach to shoring up Obamacare.  

But this was not a change of heart.  He did this not because it was in the best interests of the country, but because he desperately needed some legislative wins.  And so, except for the debt ceiling deal, he has reneged on the others as it became clear he was endangering the support from his Tea Party/alt-right base.

This administration can therefore be described as the tyranny of the minority.  The Tea Party and alt-right are a minority whether one looks at those voting, all eligible voters, or the entire population.  As a result, perhaps 20-25% of the country is at this point directing its destiny.  Our democracy has never been without its problems, but never has it been so failed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Heal the Racial and Other Divisions within Us

W. E. Du Bois, in his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.”  In the United States, that relationship and the resulting divisions between the groups has, despite all the civil rights laws and court decisions, not progressed to a circumstance of comfort, amity, and equality between the races.  

People of color are materially better off now than in the past, but the basic issues of prejudice and discrimination and their resulting status at the bottom rung of American society remain essentially unchanged.  This festering sore is always present and has a negative impact on the lives of individuals and our country in millions of instances every day.  That racial riots are not the norm does not mean that all is well.

But the problem of the color-line is not the only division that is rending the social fabric of the United States.  Historically there were major divisions between white Protestants and Roman Catholics, between Christians and Jews.  But those divisions have largely lapsed into dormancy.  The commonality of whiteness seems to have enabled age-old prejudices to become a relic, the appendix of society, but like the appendix capable of exploding causing much disruption given the right circumstances.

Over the past decade, however, a new division has emerged, most clearly identified by the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans.  This is not a mere political movement, a more radical conservatism.  The Tea Party represents a major new social division in our country.  Although Tim Burns connects this division with the one that took place during the Vietnam War between the “my country right or wrong” group and those protesting the war.

Why do I say that?  Because it marks a new demarcation of us v them.  Politicians, no matter how great their differences, have never viewed themselves as social antagonists, as us v them.  That is why they have always been able to form strong friendships and even loyalties outside of the halls of Congress.  (The one exception to this would be the Southern Democrats, who because of the race question did view the other side as us v them.)

The election of Donald Trump, the darling of the Tea Party, has spawned its equally rabid counterpart on the left, the Resistance, making matters even more difficult.  Both of these sides, who will brook no compromise with the other, are at least at this point in time a threat to our democracy.

How do we deal with these divisions, heal them, enabling it to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “rise up and live out the meaning of its creed, ‘that all men are created equal.’”  And in so doing, strengthen our country.  Is there a common thread that runs through these various divisions that would enable us, through wise government policy and education, to at last move us beyond these divisions?  I think there is.

One common thread running through many of these divisions is the lack of equal treatment, both in reality and in the eyes of the beholder.  People of color, especially blacks, have never been treated equally by government.  Whether one looks at segregated federal housing policy or unequal educational opportunity … never mind the blatant discrimination of southern state governments … people of color have suffered from direct and indirect government discrimination.  

On the other hand, many whites, especially middle and working class, viewed the federal government as bending over backwards to help people of color, spending billions of dollars. while not doing much of anything to help them.  They are not against big government in the form of social security and Medicare.  They are against big government programs that help the poor (predominantly people of color).  This is the basic position of the Tea Party.

This ties into the other major thread running through these division … the fear of economic competition, the loss of jobs, the loss of status.  If one looks at the South, certainly the enmity of whites towards blacks had everything to do with fear of the potential power of the black masses, their upending the social status of whites, and their retaliation against their white suppressors.  

Within the working class in the North and the unions, in the first half of the 20th century, employers often took advantage of or fomented anger and violence against blacks by pitting the two races against each other for jobs.  That resentment is seen today in the form of white opposition to affirmation action, both in the workplace and in upper education.  Similarly, immigration opponents routinely rouse their base by arguing that  hispanics and especially illegal aliens are taking away jobs from American workers who need them.

That this anger and violence is manufactured can be seen in the rare opposite case of Consolidation Coal Co. and its company town of Buxton, IA in the first warter of the 20th century.  Consolidation Coal made it their business to promote good relations among white and black workers and both were treated fairly.  The result was an unheard of utopia of integration and race relations.

How does this thread of fear relate to the Tea Party phenomenon?  It’s not so much that they fear economic dislocation by blacks or latinos, but that they fear their economic position has deteriorated, which is an indisputable fact, and that it will never recover because the jobs are gone due to government support of free trade deals and yet the government has done nothing to help them.  They fear the loss of their status.  They think that, as Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution, and so they want less government (except as noted above when it benefits them).

For the nativists within the Tea Party movement, their economic fear is clothed in the fear for the country’s identity.  Whether by flower children or immigrants, they feel the country is being attacked by people who don’t belong here, who don’t honor the country, and thus threaten it’s existence as a place hospitable them.  This criticism and dislike extends to liberals because they are not sufficiently pro-American and support those attacking the government.

Other factors often mentioned regarding our divisions, most prominently those people are different from us, all feed off these basic themes of a lack of equal treatment and the fear of economic or status loss.  If people were treated equally and if they didn’t have the fear of dislocation, the fact of differing cultures would have much less relevance and power.

So it comes down to two things.  First, people want to be treated equally.  Second, people want their economic status to be protected.  There is no question in my mind that if one were starting with a relatively clean slate that it would be possible to treat everyone equally and protect their status.  Despite the fact that politicians have pitted one set of interests against another, they are not inherently in conflict.

However, we are not starting with a clean slate.  We are starting at a point of great inequality, economically and otherwise, as well as great emotion.  And so where do you start the process of bringing our society to a state of equilibrium?

A possible starting point can be found in my post, “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves,”  11/13/15.  The points of that post cannot be neatly summarized in a few words.  Suffice it to say that it will require each of us to rethink our relationship to ourselves and to the world around us.  Not a minor undertaking!  But not impossible either.    I urge you to read it.

Only then will be open to accepting the steps and sacrifices necessary to bring our country to a point of equilibrium where we truly live out the words of the Declaration of Independence.  Where all people are treated equally, where all people have equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This is so important to both our own individual happiness as well as to the happiness and well-being of our country that we are mad if we do not at least make an effort to achieve a more humane, civilized society.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 4

It is beyond distressing that the President, the elected leader of our country, continues to provide more examples from his own words and actions of his amorality.  

In his rants against NFL players who bend the knee when the national anthem is played, he showed absolutely no understanding of the plight of most black Americans in this country: the ongoing experience of discrimination, the ongoing examples of prejudice that show many of their white fellow citizens consider them to be lesser beings, the poor schooling their children receive, the wretched conditions in which they live. As a result many have a lack of hope for any meaningful improvement in their or their children’s lives.

First black Americans had their hopes dashed after emancipation proved meaningless.  Then reconstruction failed.  Then the effort to be industrious workers and submit to their right-less status, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, failed.  Then the effort to gain respect through education failed.  Most recently, the effort to gain freedom through civil rights failed.

Every effort that has been put to black Americans to gain equality they have embraced with the hope of experiencing what Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his “I have a dream” speech:  “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”  Yet those efforts have left them with little.  Certainly black Americans are materially better off than ever before.  But regarding the elusive goal of equality in the eyes of their fellow citizens, after 150 years that day is still a long way off.  

W. E. Du Bois put it this way, “Emancipation was the key to a promised land.” But it proved to be but a “tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp.”  “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the door of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

For some, the door may not be closed as roughly as it once was, but it is still closed.  Even the most liberal of Americans have some racism under their skin, if they are truthful.  This country has never had the frank and brutal discussion of race relations that is needed to purge us all of any remnant of racism.

On another matter, the President has again had the opportunity in recent days to take the high road, this time regarding gun control.  But even in the face of the carnage in Las Vegas, he does not see the plight of his fellow Americans.  He mouths the words of commiseration, but he does not really feel what they, and so many before them, feel.  Because the man has no empathy.  If he did, he would pivot 180 degrees and lead the fight for reasonable, meaningful, gun control.

There is no question in my mind that Donald Trump suffered greatly as a child.  As a result he is a seriously insecure man and continues to suffer as an adult.  His over-the-top egotism, his paper-thin skin, his need for absolute loyalty, all are proof positive of the depths of his insecurity and suffering.

But as tortured as he may be, that does not absolve him of responsibility for what he doing to this country.  The only way to save our country is to remove him from office as quickly as possible by the legal means provided in the Constitution.

Monday, October 2, 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.’” 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.