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 50th anniversary 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 family almost, 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

Wednesday, November 6, 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 of not 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

Monday, November 4, 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. 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.
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