Sunday, December 23, 2018


Given that we are in the midst of our annual solstice celebrations (aka Christmas), and the yearly orgy of buying that they have become, perhaps some contemplation of the underside of all this is in order. Notwithstanding the fact that the mythologized idea of Christmas consists in the buying of gifts for others, it takes no great perception to see that the real idea, cemented in our minds from childhood, has become more about ourselves: how much we get; how much we have after the presents have been unwrapped and are stacked in ‘our’ personal pile. In that sense, Christmas in the modern world has become a truly American holiday—steeped in the American ethic of rating our individual worth by how much material we possess. This ‘worth’ is also gauged, often enough, by how much we can affordto have, how much our net worth allows us, or would allow us if we cared to exercise it, to buy. And it cannot evade our consideration that the man who heads the United States government at this moment, Donald Trump, emblazoning his name in gold on all his holdings, epitomizes this American mania of possession. 
            Well, you may say, what of it? Haven’t kings and princes and potentates of every kind always done this, conspicuously displaying their possessions in order to elicit awe in those whom they ruled, whose loyalty they required? Well in some senses, particularly in historical times, yes. From Persians to Greeks to Romans to Moghuls to Chinese Emperors to the Sun King to Russian czars to Victoria, all modern rulers have found it necessary to display their riches for the sake of rationalizing and emphasizing their right to power. The plantation owners in Mississippi and the robber barons with their mansions in Newport dutifully followed suit. All these ‘blessed of the earth’ seemed to take delight in the vivid contrast/gulf between the visual spectacle of their consumption and the meager possessions of those they ruled, indeed literally possessed. For that is the most exaggerated form of possession of which humans are capable: to literally own the body and soul of other human beings, to possess the very means of their survival, of their ability to be. Which is what the capitalist moguls of our time possess as well.
            But again, what of it? Isn’t that what everyone always wants, what humans have always wanted? To lord it over their fellow humans, if they possibly could, to work diligently and ceaselessly to get to that point? Well, not exactly. In the chiefdoms of the Northwest Coast of America, for example, riches conferred on the chief an opposite privilege: the privilege of giving it all away. The potlatch was a ceremony where Indian chieftains took pride in giving all that they had to their assembled tribesmen. And the measure of their success was precisely how much they could give away. Possession, therefore, was not for keepingwhat others couldn’t have; possession’s most conspicuous privilege lay in how easily and freely it could be dispensed with, given away. And of course, sociologists tell us that such gift giving served the very important function of circulating goods so that their use and worth was distributed and multiplied many times over. 
            It is not clear to me whether chiefs or their tribe members understood giving in this way, nor if they understood the dark side of possession (as, for example, many cultures do as expressed in the folkway of evil eye, where the display of goods is believed to inspire envious eyes and thereby evil), but it certainly seems possible. Be that as it may, some among us have always understood that life and possession may not always be fully compatible. Surely, the slaves in the American South must have known that being someone else’s possession—to be bought and sold on a whim—made it impossible for the possessed one to truly live. And we all, on some level, understand that, hence our American mania to be the one with enough wealth to possess rather than be possessed, to own rather than be owned. What some of our folk wisdom indicates, moreover, is that there’s even more to it than that. “‘Tis better to give than to receive:” almost everyone subscribes, at least nominally, to that idea. The same goes for other sayings, often found on our Christmas cards: “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving;” “For it is in giving that we receive;” and so on. So many and varied are these sayings that it is almost as if a shadow of guilt lies over our annual gifting season, the holiday that, more than anything else, serves to determine how well the economy of our nation is faring. For if Christmas buying is anemic, the entire economy braces for a downturn. No wonder we are all hustled by advertising and the entire panorama of false holiday cheer into buying and possessing far more than we can afford. 
            But there’s a deeper side to all of this, (deeper even than the fact that so many are the useless goods that Americans give and buy even when it’s not Christmas that we, and western culture in general, are literally drowning in our own waste) and it has to do with possession itself. Ironically, some of the most impressive thoughts about possession and its problems come from some of our American thinkers in the early days of our possession mania. It is as if early on, thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson were able to see more clearly than we can now how much possession, or even dispossession, animated the founding and early ethic of our nation. Consider just the early settlers, starting with Columbus, who were so anxious to plant symbols, i.e. claims, of possession in the new lands they ran into. Not only did they insist on ownership, using western concepts of property to swindle the indigenous people out of their lands, but they proved themselves eager to cement the case with the murder of as many aboriginal claimants to “their” lands as possible. As settlers moved west and “claimed” more and more of the Indian lands they brought under cultivation (this involved the concept of vacuum domicilium, which meant that ‘undeveloped’ lands—those without such improvements as fenced fields and permanent structures—could simply be occupied and possessed regardless of Indian claims and unwritten traditions), they buttressed their claims with legal cases, the most important of which was the 1823 Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. This case, stacked from the beginning due to the basic assumptions underlying it (Indians were “savage tribes” with inferior culture and primitive subsistence drawn from the forest),didinitially admit that Indians “were rightful occupants of the soil;” however, their actual sovereignty and right to dispose of their tradition-bound lands “was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” In other words, their dispossession was made legal by the “discovery” of their lands by Europeans. Steven Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, summarized this legal doctrine as follows:
“Based on this bizarre theory, our very existence as Indians is now assumed to be subordinate to, ruled by, and possessed as property by, the political and legal successor of the first Christian ‘discoverers,’ namely, the United States.” see

Thoreau was quite familiar with this dispossession, this theft of Indian land that lay at the heart of every American possession throughout the new nation, and so expressed again and again his problems with the very idea of possession, which goes deeper still. 
Consider that Thoreau’s deep problem with possession came from his understanding of his basic function, the function of the artist or poet. Thoreau, that is, meditated on the fact that the very material of his art consisted of the objects of the material world, and that to write about them meant in some sense to possess them. Though he did not have to ownsuch objects in the common sense, he did have to take possession of them, either by internalizing them, deeply understanding them or, as a poet, simply naming them. The problem, as he knew, was that whether incorporating or comprehending or naming, he was in some fundamental sense losing the thing itself. He was losing the innocent (Thoreau was obsessed with maintaining his ‘innocence’), the more or less primary apprehension of it in favor of a word or a concept. And that concept was really only shorthand for the freezing of the multiplicity of impressions that the living object actually was. The action of the taxidermist or the butterfly collector, who must kill his specimen in order to preserve it, perhaps conveys this sense best. Museum curators know this as well: once an object has entered a collection to be catalogued and mounted and preserved, it is like an animal caged in a zoo, in that it has lost its functional life. It becomes something named, circumscribed, identified, catalogued, and embalmed. Worse, we who view such things become, as voyeurs, embalmed as well. 
Here, then, is the deep problem with possession. To possess something—and this goes double for the possession of spouse that western and many other cultures gave to males in a marriage—is to establish it as an object, frozen in time as if to make it permanent. It is to circumscribe its always-changing life, its real being. It is to cripple its dynamic life in the most basic sense, to kill its freedom. This underlying demand is why so many murders are attributed to a male whose “possession,” his wife, has asserted her freedom one way or the other. “If you can’t be mine, then you can’t be anyone’s, and must die.” Nor is it just in the extreme case of spousal murder where this idea reigns. As noted above, simply naming things is truncating them, cutting them short of what they actually are—living, breathing, constantly-evolving entities. And so, when we know things by their names, it is an advance at first, as all shortcuts are; but after habituation, it becomes a loss. A reduction. We no longer see trees as dynamic always-changing life forms. We see treeas a concept. We see floweras a concept; skunkas a concept; ballet danceras a concept. And it usually takes artists to re-image such common objects to shake us out of our frozen and static conceptions. If we did not have this re-imagining, we would be embalmed in all our conceptions, blind to the world as it really is—which is, for most of us, the way we get through life. 
In many ways, we do the same with our selves. Though we recognize that we change over time, especially when we see photographs of our early selves, we still have frozen concepts of “self” deeply imbedded in our brains. We see our selves even in baby pictures. And so, when our physical characteristics or abilities change, we rebel: this can’t be happening; this isn’t the real me. Which is why the question about self is a basic one in wisdom traditions. Who are you? We think we know: I’m me. But which me? And for how long? And what of these other manifestations of me that I may not like or even know about? 
Getting back to possession, then, we can shape some conclusions that have to do with the basics of having and being. To possess means to take, to take possession. And this involves, at some level, the reduction or even destruction of that which we take possession of. What’s more, it also involves a reduction in ourselves. For if we focus, as many of us do and are encouraged to do in our culture, on getting and having, we not only lose the object—its ability to truly be—but ourselves as well—our ability to truly be. That is, by focusing exclusively on the havingof things—things as ourobjects that we keep and protect for ourselves—we remove ourselves from our true nature: directly feeling, or eating, or using; in short, being. We objectify, we concern ourselves with storing up for the future, we become preoccupied with securing for ourselves alone our “things,” and thus remove ourselves from the immediacy of living. Wherehavingbecomes paramount, being, in the sense of living life fully, becomes forgotten or delayed or put aside for a more convenient time. In this sense, we can say that in order to havesomething, we must diminish not only that which we possess, but ourselves as well—the true life of being we all yearn for. For Thoreau, this idea was implicit in almost everything he wrote. Specifically, he wrote in an early journal entry something that cast these ideas in the imagery of looking at Nature, which he did almost constantly:
Man cannot look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through her and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. (V45, Torry and Allen, eds, The Journals of Henry D. Thoreau, Boston: 1906.)

If we take Thoreau’s image of “looking at Nature directly” as a metaphor for ‘taking possession of,’ then we can see that the deadly result, for Thoreau, is that “it turns the man of science to stone.” In other words, scientists were those who separated Nature, who objectified Nature, and the result is that they became, metaphorically, stones: dumb, insentient beings. This is a kind of reversal of the cited myth from Greek mythology, where the Medusa’s glance turned men to stone. In Thoreau’s version, it is the men of science whose own reduction of Nature to objects— possessing them to study them—turns themto stone. 
            I think it is clear that Thoreau meant this to apply to most of his countrymen, to the American ethic of business and possession he inveighed against so often. ‘If you insist on possessing everything in sight, even or especially the natural world, you will end up turning yourselves to stone.’ It’s something we might want to think about in this mad season of getting, getting and more getting. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 17, 2018

Things Are Just Crazy Here

The above title comes from a quote by Gary Cohn, Trump’s first Director of the National Economic Council and a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in describing to presidential secretary Rob Porter his (Cohn’s) inclination to resign from the Oval Office. As described in Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House, Cohn’s remark comes after the President made his fatal remarks about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, when the president equated the victims with the neo-Nazi perpetrators: “There is blame on both sides…you also had people that were very fine people on both sides…” (246). As Woodward lays it out, this had Cohn threatening to resign right then, but he was persuaded by the president to remain and finish the crucial Republican tax bill. Cohn did remain, but the continuing chaos emanating from a president who never prepared or even read the briefing materials laboriously prepared by those like Cohn, had him disheartened. He conveys this to Rob Porter, Trump’s White House secretary: 

“I don’t know how much longer I can stay. Things are just crazy here. They’re so chaotic. He’s never going to change. It’s pointless to prepare a meaningful, substantive briefing for the president that’s organized, where you have a bunch of slides. Because you know he’s never going to listen…He’s going to get through the first 10 minutes and then he’s going to want to start talking about some other topic” (271). 

We then get a prime example of this when Trump, in an Oval Office meeting about the automobile industry, when he is shown Cohn-prepared charts proving that the auto industry was doing fine (though Detroit was producing 3.6 million fewer cars and light trucks since 1994, the rest of U.S. production, mostly in the Southeast, was up by the same 3.6 million). Unimpressed, the president insisted that the industry had to be fixed. Cohn then brought up the World Trade Organization document he’d put in Trump’s daily book, but which Trump clearly had not read: “The World Trade Organization is the worst organization ever created!” Trump said. “We lose more cases than anything.” Cohn then reiterated what was in the daily book, a document that showed that the United States “won 85.7 percent of its WTO cases, more than average.” Cohn added other wins at the WTO in disputes with China. 

            “This is bullshit,” Trump replied. “This is wrong.” 
“This is not wrong. This is data from the US trade representative. Call Lighthizer…”
“I’m not calling Lighthizer.”
“Well,” Cohn said, “I’ll call Lighthizer. This is factual data. There’s no one that’s going to disagree with this data.” Then he added, “Data is data” (276-7). 

But the president simply continued to argue against any data that did not fit his preconceptions and obsessions. 
            This pattern is repeated again and again in Woodward’s account. The president makes known his discontent, usually based on his obsessions, particularly his conviction that any arrangements with other countries should produce a profit for the United States. His shorthand for this was to usually blame generals or statesmen for not understanding ‘cost-benefit analysis.’ That was what should animate all deals, according to Trump: making money. When he saw agreements as costing the United States money—as in NATO, KORUS (the trade deal with South Korea), the WTO—then he wanted to trash the agreements and withdraw. For example, on August 25, 2017, the president decided he would make wide-ranging decisions concerning three ‘deals.’  “We’ve talked about this ad nauseam,” Trump said. “Just do it. Just do it. Get out of NAFTA. Get out of KORUS. And get out of the WTO. We’re withdrawing from all three” (264). Gary Kohn and General Kelly (now having replaced Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff) tried to explain how important the alliance with South Korea was in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, how KORUS was actually cheap as national defense. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and H.R. McMaster, National Security adviser all agreed that withdrawing would be insane. Trump finally agreed to put off the 180-day letter announcing the withdrawals to a later time. But only days later, on September 5, Rob Porter entered the Oval Office to see in Trump’s hands a draft letter of the 180-day notice withdrawing from KORUS. Porter (normally the one who would write the letter) hadn’t written it, but someone (he guessed it was probably Peter Navarro or Wilbur Ross, usually the ones pushing Trump in this insane direction) had. It played right into Trump’s insecurity: “Until I actually take some action to demonstrate my threats are real and need to be taken seriously,” Trump said, “then we’re going to have less leverage in these things.” When Gary Cohn realized what had been done, however, he (Cohn) actually stole the letter from Trump’s desk and hid it in a folder marked “KEEP.” So central to the whole Trump presidency did Woodward see this incident that he makes it the opening prologue of his entire book. As Woodward describes it, Cohn told an associate, “I stole it off his desk. I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country” (xviii-xix). Cohn and Porter and many other principals knew this strategy would work because the president simply forgot anything that wasn’t directly in his face (If it was out of sight, it was out of mind…Trump’s memory needed a trigger—something on his desk or something he…saw on television (158). So the hope was that this insane impulse to scuttle some of the nation’s most important agreements would simply disappear into the memory hole. Woodward ends his Prologue and defines his theme with these words:

The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world (xxii). 

            What strikes this reader is not only the fleshing out of this hair-raising scenario (until, of course, several of his “staff” either resigned or were fired: Priebus, Tillerson and Cohn being the most important), but also the recurring assessments that many of these highly-placed leaders of Team Trump registered about their boss. Steve Bannon offers some of the juiciest assessments of the man he once called a “political genius.” When Bannon was prepping McMaster for his interview for the National Security job, for example, he told the general: ‘Don’t lecture Trump. He doesn’t like professors. He doesn’t like intellectuals (he never went to class in college, never took a note (87). This same General McMaster said he believed that General Mattis and Rex Tillerson both had concluded the same thing: the president and the White House were crazy, so, as much as they could, they tried to implement foreign policy without him. After a particularly raucous meeting concerning the importance of world order and free trade, in which Trump publicly belittled his secretary of state, Gary Cohn asked Tillerson if he was ok. Tillerson’s now-famous reply: “He’s a fucking moron” (225). It was also at this point that one unnamed official summarized the meeting:

“It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views” (226).

Reince Priebus, Trump’s first Chief of Staff, offered his own summary of the president after he had been unceremoniously sacked by tweet (this after Trump had just assured him his announcement wouldn’t come until the weekend): “The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way” (235). As to the operation of the White House, where the rules of access were routinely violated by certain privileged ones who simply walked into the Oval Office when they felt like it (Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, and Bannon), Priebus compared it to a 'team of predators,' where discussion is 

“designed not to persuade, but, like their president, to win—to slay, crush and demean…If you have natural predators at the table,” Priebus said, “Things don’t move…Because when you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens” (237). 

            There are many more of these assessments throughout Woodward’s book. Most underline the initial impression of a White House (where planet-impacting decisions are made almost hourly), in which Trump’s favorite mode was insulting his inferiors (“He’s a globalist. He’s not loyal to the president”—about Gary Cohn, whose wife Trump also blamed for Cohn’s upset about the remarks after Charlottesville), while they bit their tongues and commented afterward—“The president’s unhinged” said Kelly. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (263); “This is no longer a White House,” Porter said. “It’s just all-out war now” (252). Perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the president came from Steve Bannon, Trump’s closest favorite in the early days, until he was fired. Here is how Woodward summarizes Bannon’s remarks:

Grievance was a big part of Trump’s core, very much like a 14-year-old boy who felt he was being picked on unfairly. You couldn’t talk to him in adult logic. Teenage logic was necessary (299). 

This comes very close to what Secretary of Defense Mattis said after the meeting in which Trump maintained that collective defense, as in NATO, was sucker play, and that he wanted to withdraw from all deals not of his own making. The president, Mattis said, acted like—and had the understanding of—“a fifth or sixth grader” (308). 
            In other words, friends, the mind of Donald Trump—the most powerful man in the world—is, according to those working most closely with him, the mind of a volatile, unread, emotionally unstable, desperately aggrieved and predatory teenager. 
            And that doesn’t even get to his character, his ethics or morals. For that, Woodward waits till the very end of his book, and puts the assessment into the mouth of the lawyer Trump chose to maintain his defense against the Mueller investigation. John Dowd joined Trump’s team of lawyers in May 2017. He had a reputation as one of the most successful defense lawyers of his time. He apparently believed that cooperating with Mueller would be the best strategy, and he did that for about a year. But he also believed that Mueller did not have a real case concerning Trump’s collusion with Russians, and therefore urged the president not to testify in person. He would take written questions and have Trump answer them with his lawyers’ help, but he would not allow the president to sit down for an interrogation with Mueller and his team. He believed that Mueller would “trick” the president into perjury. Trump, contrarily, believed that he had to agree to testify. Mainly, he believed he was superior to the lawyers who would question him. He was seconded in this position by his other lawyer, Ty Cobb, whom he urged to assert publicly that the president was ‘not afraid to testify.’ This was the nub of it for Trump: how he would look if he was seen to have ‘taken the fifth’ (i.e. taken refuge behind the Fifth Amendment’s stipulation that a person could not be forced to testify against himself). He was, after all, the president who had made a religion of the idea of toughness, of breaking down his opponents with threats, with fear. How could such a man’s man be afraid to testify to a bunch of bureaucrats? But Dowd was insistent, and when he couldn’t find the words, was in fact afraid to use the real words to convince the president that by testifying he would end up in jail, he resigned. And this is how Woodward ends his book, with a summary of John Dowd’s real reason for his insistence that the president not testify. It represents the book’s final assessment of Donald Trump, and succinctly and shockingly says it all:

But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying “Fake News,” the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: 
       “You’re a fucking liar.” (357). 

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Cooperation Makes the Forest

The really big takeaway from modern research on trees is simple: trees in an old-growth forest cooperate. Far from being individuals seeking only their own success, trees cooperate not only with others of their own species but with those of different species too, and also with the fungi that, though often feeding upon them and debilitating them, also cooperate with trees to the mutual success of both. In order to do this, of course, trees must communicate in some way that has long been invisible to us, but is now becoming more commonly known. This ‘secret life of trees’ forms the basis for two books I’ve read recently, one a novel: The Overstoryby Richard Powers, and the other a nonfiction account by a German forester, Peter Wohlleben, who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees. Together with the pioneering research of Suzanne Simard about plant-fungi communication (Simard writes a note to Wohlleben’s book and is the model for the fictional scientist, Patricia Westerford, Powell creates in The Overstory), these two books change one’s outlook on what a tree is, and why preserving old-growth forests is more important in more ways than we ever could have imagined. 
            To begin with The Overstory, Powers writes a novel dramatizing the awakening to the importance of trees by several characters, most of whom he brings together as activists committed to saving old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. These actions are based on the activism of well-known ‘tree-huggers’ like Julia Butterfly Hill and others, but Powers has them take even more radical action, perhaps based on the Weathermen—that is, setting fire to buildings. All of them stop this activity when one of their number is critically injured in a fire, but their commitment makes the point: humans are latecomers to life, owe much of their sustenance and even genes to trees, and with logging are destroying the very means of maintaining life on the planet. For me, the most compelling character in Powers’ fictionalized account was scientist Patricia Westerford, so much so that I was driven to search out the character upon whom she was based. That brought me to Dr. Suzanne Simard, who has several videos wherein she makes the case for her major research finding, tree communication. 
            Simard is a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. In her note at the end of Wohlleben’s book, she writes that her doctoral research led her, in 1992, to some amazing discoveries regarding the mutual relationship between paper birches, a deciduous tree, and their conifer neighbors. The birches seemed to be feeding the soil and helping Douglas firs nearby. Simard’s question was exactly how and why they were doing this. Here is what she writes:

            In pulling back the forest floor using microscopic and genetic tools, I discovered that the vast belowground mycelial network was a bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species. These fungi are mutualistic. They connect the trees with the soil in a market exchange of carbon and nutrients and link the roots of the paper birches and Douglas firs in a busy, cooperative Internet. When the interwoven birches and firs were spiked with stable and radioactive isotopes, I could see, using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, carbon being transmitted back and forth between the trees, like neurotransmitters firing in our own neural networks. The trees were communicating through the web! (Wohlleben, 248).

Simard went on to discover the dynamics of the synergy between the two tree species: “the firs were getting morephotosynthetic carbon from the birches than they were giving,” which meant that the birches were spurring the growth of the firs, as if they were caring for them; and the firs, in turn, were being “mothers” to the birches as well, depending on the season. There was, in short, a mutual exchange between two apparently rivalrous species, mediated by fungal mycelia, thus making a forest. In her paper describing this, published in Naturein 1997, the term “wood-wide web” was introduced. Many scholars have now built on Simard’s research about belowground communication between trees, mapping and monitoring the subtleties of communication that goes on in an ostensibly “silent” forest to the enhancement of the mutual health of all. As she puts it, “these discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system” (249).  
            This becomes the essence of what Peter Wohlleben describes for us in The Hidden Life of Trees. A forest is a community. That is, an intact forest that is allowed to grow on its own, without the interference of humans (who think they are helping forests by thinning them out but are really hindering them), seems to know what it is doing, and to act for the good of the whole. The deep humus soil, enriched constantly by dead and dying trees, and inhabited by an astonishing array of life forms (“There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet” (86), is really the lifeblood of this immense life-fostering system. When it is disturbed and compacted by huge logging machines and cleared by ignorant humans, it is crippled. This is why, for example, trees in urban neighborhoods topple over so easily in windstorms: the roots, which are the brains and anchor of the tree, are limited from growing by concrete and by compacted soil; without their normal extended root support, trees topple over in strong winds. What’s even more astonishing and sad is the fact that while trees in intact forests carry on an active conversation via several modes of communication, trees in monocultural plantations (which we are assured replaces all the old-growth trees we use for lumber) are spaced in such a way that communication is silenced. As Wohlleben puts it, “Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants (including trees planted for lumber) have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb” (11—emphasis added). 
            Wohlleben gives us many instances of exactly how and why trees communicate. First and foremost is to create the ecosystem of the forest, which “moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity” (4). In such an environment, trees are our elders, living, through cooperation, to be hundreds of years old and surviving even regular forest fires. Needless to say, when forests are cleared or ‘thinned,’ that ecosystem, and life itself, is interrupted. But if, on the other hand, trees are allowed to live and learn (yes, trees have been proven to learn from experience and store that learning, probably in their root systems), they can perform feats such as those found among the thorn acacias of Africa. Scientists discovered many years ago that somehow these acacias were able to discourage giraffes from feeding on them and their neighbors. Upon investigation, they discovered two things: first, as soon as the trees ‘felt’ giraffes munching on their leaves, they started to “pump toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores” (this ability of plants to create almost endless varieties of chemicals is a cause for wonder, not to mention gratitude) (7). But this was only the beginning; the acacias being eaten also “gave off a warning gas (specifically ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand,” and instantly the warned trees also pumped toxins into theirleaves to protect themselves! In short, while we used to think that only animals or birds could warn their relatives of coming danger (vocally), we now know that trees do the very same thing—only employing systems that escape our senses. 
            One reason for our insensitivity, of course, is that much of the communication between trees takes place below ground. Here is where that mycelial network comes in. Since they cannot photosynthesize as trees do, fungi bargain with their specific trees: the fungi spread their mycelia throughout the tree roots, greatly increasing the root surface to suck up more water and nutrients. As Wohlleben points out, scientists find “twice the amount of life-giving nitrogen and phosphorus in plants that cooperate with fungal partners than in plants using their roots alone” (50). In return, the fungi get the sugar and other carbohydrates they need (from the tree’s photosynthesis) by growing into the tree’s root hairs, so that up to a third of the tree’s total production comes to them. This is costly for a tree (and each tree seems to have its appropriate mycelium with which to cooperate), but it apparently pays off in better nutrients, in the communication mentioned above, and also in the trick the fungi have to filter out heavy metals (damaging to trees) and bacteria that would otherwise feast on the tree. In short, this is a kind of symbiosis that is widespread in nature but which many human societies (or parts of them such as robber barons and bankers) seem to have forgotten. 
            One other benefit of trees (among the hundreds cited by Wohlleben) deserves mention. Trees, especially coastal rainforests, play an important role in how rainfall is used and distributed on the land-locked portion of continents. Part of every rain is intercepted by the huge coastal forest canopy formed by the tree crowns. Wohlleben writes that “each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration” (106). This tree-created water vapor then actually forms new cloudsthat travel farther inland than the average of 400 miles for typical ocean-driven storms, to release their rain. In other words, coastal forests amplify the life-giving precipitation from oceans and spread it far into the interior flatlands—the lands that in North America chiefly depend on this rain for farming. When these coastal forests are destroyed or dry out due to clear-cutting or thinning (as is already happening in Brazil, and as lumber companies have been doing in the Pacific Northwest), this life-giving system falls apart. Because of their moisture-preserving capacity (coniferous forests in the Northern Hemisphere also give off terpenes—whose molecules, giving moisture a place to condense, create clouds that are twice as thick), such forests even play a part in slowing down climate change. Of course, this is of no interest to the lumber predators and climate deniers now holding sway, but very soon the real price of this ignorance will become all too apparent. And finally, trees actually disinfect their surroundings through the release of phytoncides, chemicals with antibiotic properties they release to fight off bacteria. This makes the air in pine forests almost germ-free, perhaps one reason people find being in such forests so refreshing. 
            In sum, as many of our primary myths and legends suggest, trees are our forebears, the source of much of our DNA, our cells, our rain, our communication systems, our structure, our nutrition. The next time you think to cut down a ‘dumb’ tree, therefore, or hear about idiot legislation to make it easier to ‘harvest’ what’s left of our national forests, you might want to think again. You might want to pay homage to your parent, and see if you can get others to do the same—that is, to cooperate both within and between species—before it’s really too late. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Silent Gutting of Government

Michael Lewis is by now a well-known journalist who manages to find scandals or unknown areas of chicanery to expose in a highly readable way. Previous books have focused on Wall Street (The Big Short), baseball (Moneyball), and football (The Blind Side). His latest book is titled The Fifth Risk, and what it exposes is the scandalous nature of the Trump Administration’s transition, or more precisely, lack of transition, when it took the reins of power in 2017. Normally, that is, an incoming administration will devote a whole team to preparing itself to take over the running of the major agencies of government: the State Department and the Justice Department most visibly, but then the agencies that reallymanage the nation—the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce (within which is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and so on. It will appoint a head of transition to oversee the thousands of details and massive learning it takes to successfully keep these huge departments of government running smoothly. And the Trump administration actually did try to appoint someone, ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie, to be the overseer. The problem that emerged almost immediately, however, was that Christie wanted to spend money on the transition, and the President expressed outrage at this alleged waste. Then the fact that Christie had been involved in a lawsuit against son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to have sealed his fate, and he was fired. The Trump administration from then on decided it could simply ‘wing it’ and that is where Lewis focuses his story and his outrage. For in the crucial early weeks and months of the Trump administration, Obama agency heads, prepared to brief their successors on critical details of agencies like The Department of Energy, found themselves waiting in vain. The new administration simply didn’t show up. “Across the Federal government, the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found,” writes Lewis. Indeed, the same Jared Kushner who got Christie fired was so na├»ve about how transitions transpire that he expressed surprise that so much of the White House staff was leaving. “It was like he thought it was a corporate acquisition or something,” says an Obama White House staffer. “He thought everyone just stayed” (p. 36). So all across Washington, heads of departments were waiting with voluminous reports on the major activities of their departments they figured the new people would need, and for months, they waited in vain. The Trump administration seemed deeply uninterested. 
            Lewis focuses much of his attention on the huge Department of Energy. This is the department that, among other things, monitors our very large and very dangerous nuclear arsenal. The DOE, which oversees 115,000 employees spread throughout the nation at national labs like Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia, operates all this with a multi-billion-dollar budget, but the CFO of this department, Joe Hezir, after waiting and waiting to brief someone about its workings, simply left. When a few young Trump apparatchiks finally did show up, “They were just looking for dirt, basically,” said one of the veterans who briefed them about national security. They had no idea that U.S. scientists no longer test nuclear weapons, but relies on simulated explosions carried out at the labs. Nor did they have any idea of—and still may not be interested in—the risks that DOE monitors and is responsible for. These include losing a nuclear weapon (this has actually happened), and “cleaning up all the unholy world-historic mess left behind by the manufacture of nuclear weapons” (54), and where to store the hazardous waste. These risks are as serious as anything in government gets (one glitch involved using organic kitty litter instead of inorganic litter to soak up nuclear waste, which caused an explosion), such as the “Broken Arrow” syndrome: this refers to a nuclear accident, like losing a weapon somewhere, that doesn’t lead to a nuclear war. It also includes keeping track of weapons to prevent them from being stolen and used by terrorists. But again, the Trump people were simply content to remain ignorant of all this. As Lewis concludes at one point, “Trump’s budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant” (p. 80). 
            The same pattern governed the transition at the huge United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is a department with over 100,000 employees and a budget of $151 billion. It runs food stamps, free school lunch for kids, food for pregnant women and their infants, and programs that literally finance the rural America that so loves Trump, and many others. And yet, no one from the new administration showed up for over a month. Then in came a gaggle of idiots with no relevant experience (a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country club cabana attendant, and the owner of a scented-candle company) who were mostly interested in rooting out any ‘subversives’ who had displayed an interest in climate change. The man chosen to head the transition team was Brian Klippenstein, also rumored at one time to be Trump’s pick to head the entire USDA (Trump eventually chose ex-Georgia governor Sonny Perdue). Klippenstein’s main bona fide was that he headed a group called Protect the Harvest, an organization rabidly opposed to the Humane Society of America, which it says intends to “put an end to animal ownership” (actually, its opposition likely stems from the Humane Society’s backing of legislation meant to end the brutal elements of factory farming, such as tight cages in egg and pork production). Protect the Harvest puts its mission more popularly, saying its purpose is “to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat, and own animals” (88). This is the guy Trump wanted to put in charge of the entire Department of Agriculture, but saner heads apparently prevailed. Not too sane, though, for the main effort of the new administration seemed to be a) to root out anyone with an interest in climate change (which will, in time, have a huge and possibly apocalyptic effect on American agriculture), and b) to eliminate those ‘radical’ Obama programs like the one to make school lunches actually nutritious instead of laced with junk food. Shortly after being confirmed by the Senate, therefore, Sonny Perdue announced that “USDA would no longer require schools to meet the whole-grain standard, or the new sodium standard (less salt), or ban fat in artificially-sweetened milk” (105). 
            There are similar outrages throughout this book. The bottom line is that Lewis asked John MacWilliams, the chief risk officer in the Department of Energy, what he opined the chief risks were if government agencies were run badly. The five risks were not surprising: 1) a nuclear weapons accident; 2) a potential conflict with North Korea; 3) a nuclear conflict with Iran (which is why the Iran Nuclear deal was so important); 4) a terrorist attack on the United States electrical grid. That left the fifth risk, which gives the book its title, and which I actually had to search for (my biggest criticism of the book). It turns out to be, according to MacWilliams, Project Management; or rather, Project Mismanagement. This is the kind of thing that can result from putting in charge of major government agencies people who have no interest in or qualifications for those jobs (or worse, whose interest, like NOAA nominee Barry Myers’, is in prohibiting the National Weather Service’s public forecasts so his private company, AccuWeather, can charge big bucks for the very information it gets from NWS). And the numbers of such people Trump has put in charge is terrifying. They all seem to have no interest in what government agencies actually do (and one of the takeaways from Lewis’ book is that these agencies actually keep immensely important operations humming, with dedicated bureaucrats, such as nuclear scientists, doing the major work). Their main interests are political—rooting out those who actually believe government does anything worthwhile (and many of the most experienced have indeed been driven out). This is the real legacy of the Reagan era—which insisted that “government IS the problem.” Government agencies, to this type of zealot, only muck things up with red tape and excessive regulation. Which, of course, became Trump’s mantra for what he planned to do: end regulations wherever possible. Which itself means ‘end regulation where such action can mean windfall profits for my contributors.’ 
            To bring this idea home, Lewis has many great portraits and interviews with pre-Trump bureaucrats. One of my favorites is Lillian Salerno, the Obama-appointed head of Rural Development Solutions (part of the Department of Agriculture). This agency makes $30 billion in loans and grants a year, often to rural banks that finance poor farmers who usually have difficulty getting loans elsewhere. But most of these farmers have no idea that the rural bank money actually comes from the government. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing” (122). Nonetheless, despite the fact that Rural Development Solutions helped the very people (rurals) who put Trump in office and keep him there, this critical government department was one of the first ones eliminated by Trump. 
Lillian Salerno’s comment on this gutting of the very agency that makes rural life possible is priceless: “At the end of the day, what do I think they are going to do?” she said. “Take all the money and give it to their banker friends. Do things like privatize water—so people in rural Florida will be paying $75 a month for it instead of $20” (125).  
That pretty much says all you need to know about Trump world and how it is ravaging the very elements of government designed to protect the masses of the American people—especially from the predatory nature of the corporate sector. Whether or not the nation can survive this onslaught remains to be determined. But one way or the other, the damage will be extensive and severe (just think what Scott Pruitt has already done to the EPA), and will require decades to recover from. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Enemy of the People

Though the last few days have produced several items suitable for “most captivating news story of the week” (the Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives in the mid-terms; Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with a so-called lawyer who has previously argued that a new AG could stop the Mueller investigation in its tracks by cutting its budget to the bone; some new nut case has murdered 12 or 13 people in a Country Music Bar in California), the news conference run by the President himself to comment on the mid-term election really takes the fascist prize. That is the one where the President’s racism emerged not once, but twice, hammering first his longtime nemesis Jim Acosta of CNN for even asking questions, and then the PBS Newshour’s Yamiche Alcindor for asking a question about his proud labeling of himself as a “nationalist.” 
            Let’s take Alcindor first. I have watched her on the Newshour for almost a year now, and she is careful, measured, and generally quite perceptive in her reports about this chaotic White House (though I must admit, her delivery is a bit too rapid for me). On Wednesday, she got up to ask Trump a question about his oft-repeated boast that he is a “nationalist.” She noted that many have interpreted this as emboldening “white nationalism,” and asked what he had to say about that. The President, so sensitive a creature, immediately took umbrage. “To say that what you said is very insulting to me,” the President responded, pointing his finger. “It’s a very terrible thing what you said.” Then he went into a completely unsupported rant about how he has “the highest poll numbers ever with African Americans,” and then repeated again that “That’s such a racist question.” And not content with having said it twice, he repeated it, “Honestly, I mean, I know you have it written down, and you’re going to tell me. Let me tell you: It’s a racist question.” He then explained that being a nationalist only means he loves our country. And then cut Alcindor off again to repeat how insulted he was: “Excuse me. But to say that—what you said is so insulting to me. It’s a very terrible thing that you said.” 
            One 'coincidence' deserves mention. On this very day, November 7, Patrick Casey, the leader of a white nationalist group called Identity Europa, posted pictures to Twitter of his visit to the White House, posing for selfies on the White House grounds. He said his visit was designed to “pay my respects,” and also added “Europa has landed at the White House!” 
            Among the important points to add about Trump’s berating of Alcindor is that she is an African American—a fact that made his ire about her question, about the “nerve” of someone like herasking him, the world’s great white leader, such a question, more fraught with meaning. What it suggested, in short, is that she, a person of color, ought to know her place; ought to know that asking a white President a question about racism was “insulting” and more, was itself “a racist question.” This is presumably because she, a black woman, had the temerity to ask a white man an impertinent question, and to do such a thing clearly—in the President’s eyes—revealed her own racism towards white people. 
            Of course, simply on its own, the President’s response to Alcindor was shocking (reverberating, as it does, with the ugly historical periods in the United States when such an ‘impertinence’ could have gotten a black person killed). But added to his response, the same day, to Jim Acosta of CNN, it comes to more than shock. It suggests that this President, if he could, would abrogate the entire First Amendment of the Constitution. That Amendment, the very first one, says: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

This is about as plain as the founders could make it: a free press is necessary to the functioning of any self-governing republic. That’s because the press is one of the main checks on unlimited executive power which the founders worried so much about. They had had experience with English kings; they knew about the excesses of monarchs throughout Europe, and throughout both modern and ancient history. And they knew that the first step that despots take in moving towards unlimited power is to muzzle or outlaw a free press that can criticize them. 
            We are now in a situation in this nation where the chief executive has indicated repeatedly that he sees such a free press as a threat to his power. He has consistently labeled as “fake news” what the major and most respected media organs in this country—the NY Times, the Washington PostCNN, etc.—report about him. He has gone even further with his contempt, calling the free press in this country (all except Fox News, his favorite, and a virtual propaganda arm of his administration), “the enemy of the people.” And in recent weeks, he has not only refused to censure the Saudi Arabian government for its blatant assassination and dismemberment of Washington Postcolumnist Jamal Kashoggi, he at first claimed that “nobody knows anything about it,” when evidence from Turkey about the murder seemed to be quite damning. He urged people and governments to wait and see what the Saudis could come up with in their investigation. As of this date, though he has claimed to be somewhat alarmed at the “bad stories” that are coming out, he has still not seen fit to condemn the Saudis for what was clearly a brazen, unapologetic and brutal assassination of a journalist who ‘didn’t know his place,’ didn’t show the proper deference to those in power. The outcome of all this might be seen in the bombs that were sent, recently, to not just major political figures like Barack Obama, but also to major news outlets like CNN—the very company Jim Acosta represents, and which Trump has attacked relentlessly for its critical reporting on him and his administration. In other words, the open attacks by the most powerful political figure in the world on journalists and their attempt to tell the truth about him—those attacks have real-world consequences. As, for example, the attack on the Capital Gazettein Annapolis MD, in which five people were shot dead (see Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Violence Aimed at Journalists in the United States,” NY Times, June 29, 2018.)
            So when the President of the United States, in a news conference which is traditionally a forum where journalists get to ask hard questions of a president, attacks a journalist like Jim Acosta personally, calling him a “rude terrible person” and repeatedly cutting him off, that is something to be alarmed about. So is the fact that one of the presidential interns, a woman, tried no less than four times to seize the microphone Acosta was using, until the president shouted something like “that’s enough” and she sat down. Acosta, by the way, was only asking a logical question: why had Trump labeled the migrant caravan from Central America as an “invasion of the country.” Trump refused to answer the question and kept ordering Acosta to sit down. The president tried to move on to another reporter but Acosta persisted, with another question about the Russia investigation, but Trump said he wasn’t worried because it was a “hoax.” When Acosta tried to continue, over Trump’s continued attempt to shut him up, “That’s enough. That’s enough,” the president insulted CNN: “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, then you are the enemy of the people.” With this, Acosta finally yielded and Trump asked questions of other journalists.
            But it wasn’t over for Acosta. He reported that night on Twitter that “I’ve just been denied entrance to the WH (white house). Secret Service just informed me I cannot enter the WH grounds for my 8pm hit.” This means that Acosta’s livelihood as a journalist has been deeply threatened (though CNN has stoutly defended him). It also means that Donald Trump believes he can suspend press freedom if he takes a dislike to a reporter’s ‘impertinent’ questions. Perhaps more ominously, in an attempt to justify the banning of Acosta, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary with whom Acosta has sparred often in the past, tweeted that Acosta had laid his hands on a White House intern, and that was the reason for his ban. She included what was apparently a doctored videoof Acosta’s encounter with the intern, speeded up by the right-wing site InfoWars, to make it appear that Acosta had karate-chopped the intern’s arm. But the slower running of the video clearly shows that it was the female intern, not Acosta, who was grabbing at Acosta, and his microphone. She did it no less than four times. CNN itself said the White House’s ban of its reporter was “unprecedented,” and based on “lies.” CNN added that “It was done in retaliation for his challenging questions at today’s press conference…This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better.”  
            The reaction on social media has been voluminous, many calling for the resignation of Sarah Sanders for her part in falsifying the video evidence. But the resignation, in this observers’ opinion, would be more appropriate coming from the president himself. The reaction of the people in this country to this kind of dictatorial behavior from the highest elected official of the United States—someone who has an obligation to those who elected him to publicly answer for his words and his behavior; otherwise, what is the meaning of government of, by, and for the people?—should be swift and meaningful. If we the people allow the most powerful man in the country to bully reporters, sully the reputation of journalists trying to do their jobs, and treat them like uppity second-class citizens whether or not they are people of color, then democracy in America has become a sad, sick, and dangerous joke. Then the people of this nation are allowing the real “enemy of the people” to lord it over them like any of the despots he so admires, and would obviously like to emulate if he could.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, October 29, 2018

Psychedelic Renewal

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit at the outset that I ingested “psychedelics” in the form of LSD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three or possibly four times (One effect that I remember well was the awe I felt from picking up from the dirt road we were walking on a common rock, and marveling at the deep, the cosmic significance of its striated structure.) But at that time, hardly anyone knew the full story of these drugs, how they were discovered (LSD-25 was first synthesized by a Swiss researcher named Albert Hofman in 1938), and how they have been used continually by researchers from then until now. This is the story that Michael Pollan tells us in his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Penguin: 2018. It is a fascinating tale that includes not only the history of the trials and experiments we knew nothing about, but also about Pollan’s own mind-changing experience with the three formal ‘trips’ he took, using different drugs each time: LSD, a psilocybin mushroom, and a strange drug (5-MeO-DMT) extracted from a desert toad. His descriptions of his own experiences are among the most fascinating in the book, partly because he had never used these drugs before, and partly because he was agnostic about the spiritual effects that he found. 
But back to first things, the term ‘psychedelics.’ According to Pollan, the name came about because of a correspondence between the literary giant, Aldous Huxley (whose book, The Doors of Perception, encouraged legions of the curious to try LSD), and a Canadian researcher named Humphrey Osmond looking into the potential of mescaline to cure mental ailments like schizophrenia and alcoholism. Osmond visited Los Angeles in 1953 to administer mescaline to Huxley. In their subsequent 1956 correspondence, Huxley in a poetic couplet proposed the term “phanerothyme” (from the Greek words meaning “spirit manifesting”) for this class of drugs. Osmond’s responding couplet proposed the word “psychedelic,” also using Greek words meaning “mind manifesting.” Despite Huxley’s greater reputation, Osmond’s term stuck. 
            Of course, both Osmond and Huxley were overshadowed in the subsequent proselytizing for LSD by Timothy Leary, and its adoption en masse by the 1960s counterculture (especially after Allen Ginsberg took his trip in December 1960 at Leary’s home in Newton, MA, and hilariously announced that he would march naked through the streets to preach his new gospel: “We’re going to teach people to stop hating, start a peace and love movement” (p. 193). So were the many other researchers who worked in controlled settings to see if the new drugs (mainly LSD and psilocybin) had the potential to cure ailments like alcohol and heroin addiction, depression, and so on. It is this nearly hidden history that Pollan resurrects, and it alone is worth the price of the book. For what it shows is that the hysteria that eventually led to the jailing of Timothy Leary and the legislation that made all research with these drugs illegal was simply that: hysteria. And it was this hysteria that prevented, until very recently, the serious research with psychedelics that is now ongoing, and that, according to Pollan, shows such great promise in fixing, or at least ameliorating many of the mental ills of modern civilization. In this regard, the transfixing accounts that Pollan records via interviews with many of the people who have taken ‘trips’ under controlled conditions provide permanent evidence that psychedelic drugs—usually operating on the same receptors as the neurotransmitter serotonin—lead most participants into something like a mystical experience, or at minimum, a kind of re-programming of the brain. 
            This gets to what is, for me, the central conflict highlighted by Pollan’s account. As noted above, Pollan started out as a materialist, an atheist who believed exclusively in what can be scientifically demonstrated. But the interviews and accounts he records suggest that the LSD/psilocybin experience leads those who take these drugs into something very much like the experiences of history’s famous mystics. These mystical experiences include not just the apparent dissolution of the normal ego, or self. They also include some form of consciousness or awareness that exists outside the confines of the ego, something, indeed, that survives the dissolution of the ego, and therefore something that provides heretofore unavailable solace to those with fear and trembling before the imminence of death. The anxiety regarding death that most cancer patients suffer, that is, seems to be dissipated or minimized by this experiential knowledge that something, at least, survives the death of the ego, and therefore, death itself. The work of Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center summarizes this idea. Richards suggests three conclusions of their research:
1) the experience of the sacred reported by mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real”—that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered.” 2) whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion. 3) consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains (pp. 55-56).

That last conclusion gets to the heart of the conflict, and it accords with the conclusion of numerous experiences that Pollan records. People who take high-dose ‘trips’ on LSD or psilocybin typically experience ego dissolution along with something like the survival of some observer awareness; and that convinces them of the existence and persistence of some form of consciousness outside of or beyond what the brain mediates. 
On the other hand, the most cogent neuroscientific theory that Pollan describes in his book comes from the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, working in the University of Bristol (England) lab of David Nutt, to investigate the effect of psilocybin on the brain by using fMRI images. To his surprise, Carhart-Harris saw, in people on psilocybin, not an increase but a decreasein blood flow to key brain centers, especially those that had earlier been categorized as the “default mode network,” or DMN. The DMN includes several brain areas that link key parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper and older brain structures involved in memory and emotion. Briefly, this DMN is thought to act as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” responsible for managing and “holding the whole system together” (p. 303). Of greatest importance here, the DMN is key in creating the self, or ego, and is thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, among other things. Therefore, in a 2012 paper, Carhart-Harris wrote that the steepest drops in DMN activity “correlated with his volunteers’ subjective experience of ‘ego dissolution.’” That is, the more the drop in blood flow and oxygen in the DMN, the more a psilocybin volunteer reported the loss of a sense of self (304-5). Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale studying the brains of experienced meditators, then concluded from his scans that “the transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the DMN” (305). In other words, meditation and psychedelics seem to have a similar effect on a brain, on the DMN. The conclusion, to put it over-simply, is that a brain can have too much order, and this can lead to rigidity, repression, and sometimes diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. About the effect of psychedelics, Carhart-Harris is quoted as saying, “Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizingbrain activity…It’s not that one system drops away, but that an older system emerges” (314). This older system is a more primary consciousness, one released when the normal ego looses its grip. 
Here, then, is the other pole of the conflict mentioned above. Pollan writes that Carhart-Harris is strictly opposed to the romantic view noted above—that consciousness is “transpersonal,” a property of the universe rather than the human brain. Rather, everything that happens, whether under drugs like psilocybin or via meditative or other ‘spiritual’ experiences, is simply due to brain activity. As Carhart-Harris explains, “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens” (316). But the awareness experienced is not outside the brain, he insists, but simply the activity of parts of the brain that are normally kept in check by the DMN. 
There is a great deal more to learn from this extraordinary piece of reporting, especially regarding statements like this from Katherine MacLean, a former Johns-Hopkins psychologist:

“A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice. You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process feels like dying.” And yet the experience brings the comforting news that there is somethingon the other side of that death…(346). 

Often, in what Pollan reports, this “something on the other side” consists of some sort of universal love. As one of the volunteers in an NYU Cancer Center study using psychedelics to ease cancer anxiety, Patrick Mettes, put it, “From here on, love was the only consideration…It was and is the only purpose” (342). Several other accounts that Pollan provides us come to a very similar conclusion. 
            Yet, in the end, Pollan seems both convinced of the truth of these reports, and agnostic on whether we should take them literally. He is also agnostic about whether or not the objective awareness that manifests on psychedelics takes place inside or outside the brain. So, I would guess, are most of us, even those of us who have had earlier experience with psychedelics or meditative practices. But one thing seems incontrovertible: the controlled experiments with psychedelics that now appear to be ongoing and apparently increasing are bound to provide us all with new and critical information about who we are, how our brains operate, what mystical experiences really consist of, and, ultimately, how we fit into a universe that keeps revealing new and more spectacular aspects of its still-unplumbed mysteries. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Corporate Hacking

Dr. Robert Lustig is probably best known for his books and activities warning about sugar and the damage it does to the human body, notably in his bestseller, Fat Chance. In his new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains (2017), he continues that warning, pointing out that refined sugar (refining sugar turns it from a food into a drug) is “the most expensive burden on society,” worse than either tobacco or alcohol. Refined sugar wastes some $1.8 trillion in health care spending in the United States alone by contributing to the diseases known as “metabolic syndrome”: heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, chronic liver disease, and cancer to name only the most prominent ones. But Lustig is not content with warring on sugar here; he adds several other addiction problems that are promoted by corporate America in its lust for profit, mainly alcohol, sex, processed food, shopping, and the technology that has given us the internet, computers, and the smartphone. What is really compelling about his book, though, is that Lustig makes use of his background in neuroscience to explain for us just how these “pleasurable activities” work in the brain to motivate us, reward us and often get us hooked. The major theme he propounds is that the corporate promotion of such activities intentionally confuses us about the difference between the reward system which gives us pleasure, and the happiness system which gives us contentment. That is, we are constantly shown via advertising that Coke, for instance, will make us happy, when what it really does is gives us a momentary pleasurable hit (and no food value) from sugar and caffeine. This is because the two systems at issue here— reward on the one hand and happiness on the other—are mediated by different brain systems. The reward/pleasure system is governed by the neurochemical dopamine, which provides motivation or drive, and the opioid peptides like endorphin, which provide us with the reward. Contrarily, the happiness/contentment system is the product of serotonin, which operates via two receptors, one of which provides contentment, the other of which often provides mystical experiences. What’s interesting is that “the same factors that increasedopamine (technology, lack of sleep, drugs, and bad diet) also decreaseserotonin” (p. 147 note). 
            What Lustig does is show us, first, how the dopamine system works, and the negative effects that happen when cells get overloaded, down-regulate (meaning we need more drug to get the same effect) and we get addicted. This is not necessarily due to weakness or moral failing. It is due largely to the fact that modern life (driven by the “corporate consumption complex”, i.e. the six industries that sell us tobacco, alcohol, processed food, guns, cars, and energy) loads us up with chronic stresses via easy access to addictive substances and activities. You might think it is exaggeration to include processed food in this list, but Lustig gives us a statistic that simply stuns us: where the annual profit margin for Big Pharma is 18% (pretty hefty), it is paltry compared to the processed food industry which grosses “$1.46 trillion per year, $657 billion of it gross profit, for a gross profit margin of 45%”(p. 87). So these hucksters have a very big incentive to get us hooked. 
But, you may ask, why are we so driven by dopamine in the first place? Because, Lustig points out, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that ensures the survival of the species. We need to be motivated so that we act to preserve ourselves and pass our genes on to the next generation (hence we are powerfully driven to eat and to reproduce.) To demonstrate this, Lustig tells us about an anti-obesity drug called rimonabant. It was approved in Europe as a drug to suppress obesity by blocking the CB1 receptor from access by our own brain compound, anandamide, which keeps us eating. Rimonabant actually worked quite well; people who used it stopped eating junk food and lost weight. But the problem was, they lost all pleasure in food and became anxious, depressed and even suicidal. In other words, to lose your motivation for reward (via dopamine) means you lose your motivation for life. 
            The problem comes in with our modern civilization (as Lustig puts it: “reward and stress are the hallmarks of modern civilization” p. 146). We are stressed by daily life, not just short term, which is what the cortisol system is for—to prepare us to fight or flee—but chronically, constantly, as in many modern occupations. In the face of chronic stress, we are encouraged, brain-washed really, to seek relief and happiness in the substances and procedures that seem to offer happiness, or at least distraction: sex (instead of love), smartphones, sugar, processed foods (loaded with sugar) and so on. And we are encouraged daily, hourly, every minute on platforms like Facebook, to buy our way out of stress; to see buying as happiness itself. As Lustig puts it, “Conflating pleasure and happiness is inherently biased and misleading” (p. 190). More simply put, it is propaganda. And the corporate purveyors of this propaganda have succeeded in finding ever-more accurate ways to target those most likely to seek happiness by buying their useless products. As part of this propaganda, we are told that having all these choices in products makes us “free.” Lustig begs to differ: “Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free. It chronically nudges us toward reward and drives us away from happiness and contentment” (p. 147). 
            Having cell phones, especially smartphones, is only the latest invention of such environmental engineering intended to work on our dopamine system. It takes very little to understand how addictive these devices can be. As Lustig points out, “for most people, the cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush” (192). Why is this? Because we have a need for surprise; it’s visceral, says Lustig: as humans we are always looking for something new. This, according to Lustig, “stokes our dopamine and our nucleus accumbens” (the brain area where dopamine registers), and “the frequent checking of cell phones, waiting for something to change, is linked to anxiety and depression” (193). This is key to understand. Sold as a way to keep us instantly gratified and thus make us happy, cell phones in many users seem to have the opposite effect: they make many of the most ardent users depressed. Lustig cites a study of 4,000 teenagers, where “total media use correlated with the prevalence of eventual depression, especially in boys” (197). He also cites a horrifying 2010 case from South Korea to demonstrate how addictive such technologies can be: a couple became so obsessed with raising their two “virtual children” online that they let their actual three-month old daughter starve to death (p. 194). He also cites studies by Sherry Turkle demonstrating that “there is a forty percent loss of empathy in college students as a result of possessing a smartphone” (p. 235). 
            Enough said. Lustig has recommendations for his readers, and they are astonishingly simple (though probably not simple to accomplish in our society). He calls them the Four C’s of Contentment: Connect, Contribute, Cope, and Cook. Connectsimply means develop face-to-face communication with a network of friends, as humans are meant to do. Contributepoints out that self-worth is enhanced by volunteering or otherwise working to enhance the well-being of others. This has been proven over and over. Coperefers to several things: getting enough sleep, which is vastly underrated in our culture, getting exercise (also underrated), and mindfulness, for instance, through some form of meditation. Simply slowing down, turning off one’s devices, can be vastly effective. Finally, Cook: do your own cooking with real ingredients. This should be the simplest one of all, but not for the “one-third of Americans who currently don’t know how to cook” (p. 279). This is simply mind-boggling to this writer, but apparently it’s true. And the fallback for all those non-cookers is one of the chief contributors to our health crisis, processed food. Loaded with sugar and fat and chemicals and made to survive almost forever, it is the chief culprit contributing to sicknesses that should never happen in the first place. 
            Lustig has some fascinating things to say about the serotonin side of things as well, not least the reminder that psychedelics, once criminalized, have been making a comeback among therapists and brain researchers. This is because their chemical structure is very similar to the structure of serotonin. So, compounds like LSD and psilocybin bind to both serotonin-1a and -2a receptors, meaning that they provide both contentment, and mystical experiences. Anti-depressants also work in these brain areas, blocking the reuptake of serotonin so that more is left to contribute to happiness rather than depression. But I will have more to say about these when I write about Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which investigates the new therapies and his own late-in-life psychedelics trips in depth. 
To sum things up for Lustig’s book, we could do worse than use his own coda: “the corporate consumption complex—technology, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, processed food—these are the killers of contentment and the drivers of desire, dependence, and depression” (p. 280). Find ways to rid your life of those, or at least keep them in check, and you can go a long way toward moving in the direction of that happiness whose pursuit is promised as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. 

Lawrence DiStasi