Saturday, November 15, 2008

If I had a nickel

for every time someone said of a suspected violent criminal (including those implicated in hate crimes) "he is not a bad kid," I'd be a rich man.

Talk about Jutzpah!

You know, it strikes me as fairly straightforward that those who voted in favor of Prop. 8 and/or who donated money to the organizations spearheading its passage are responsible for actively promoting the reimposition of structural violence. I've spent some time on defining and providing examples of structural violence in recent years, and won't go into the minutia, but it can be simply enough defined as harm suffered by a particular group of people who do not have access to the same services and benefits as the rest of society. To the extent that Prop. 8's passage takes away access to services and benefits (including spousal access to health insurance, etc.) that were enjoyed by same-sex couples who had married in California since June, there really should be no surprise that the targets of such structural violence are none too appreciative. What is absolutely stunning (and would be hilarious if one has a sufficiently dark sense of humor), is that those on the side of oppression seem to demand precisely the tolerance from those whom they target that they themselves are unwilling to practice. Sorry, the "poor me" routine falls flat in this case. Under the circumstances, I'd offer that protests and boycotts are quite mild, civil responses.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


John Cole essentially says, "wait for Obama to actual do something before you start dissing it." Y'all know me - I'm going to be critical no matter what, but I think his advice is well-taken. I don't expect to like many of Obama's cabinet choices, nor do I expect to be particularly thrilled with whatever direction he decides to take the War on Terra (I'm simply opposed to any approach that entails bombing families into oblivion, or continues maintaining 700 plus military bases across the globe). That's just a given. I'm hoping that he'll keep his word to close Gitmo and to cease the Bu$hco policies regarding torture and renditions. Simply put, I'm just going to wait and do my best to ignore the various doomsday prophesies coming from any and all political angles. Who knows - maybe I'll even be pleasantly surprised from time to time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A novel look at mental disorders

I'll be curious to read how this line of research develops:
Two scientists, drawing on their own powers of observation and a creative reading of recent genetic findings, have published a sweeping theory of brain development that would change the way mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia are understood.

The theory emerged in part from thinking about events other than mutations that can change gene behavior. And it suggests entirely new avenues of research, which, even if they prove the theory to be flawed, are likely to provide new insights into the biology of mental disease.

At a time when the search for the genetic glitches behind brain disorders has become mired in uncertain and complex findings, the new idea provides psychiatry with perhaps its grandest working theory since Freud, and one that is grounded in work at the forefront of science. The two researchers — Bernard Crespi, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, who are both outsiders to the field of behavior genetics — have spelled out their theory in a series of recent journal articles.


Their idea is, in broad outline, straightforward. Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatry’s many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.

“The empirical implications are absolutely huge,” Dr. Crespi said in a phone interview. “If you get a gene linked to autism, for instance, you’d want to look at that same gene for schizophrenia; if it’s a social brain gene, then it would be expected to have opposite effects on these disorders, whether gene expression was turned up or turned down.”

The theory leans heavily on the work of David Haig of Harvard. It was Dr. Haig who argued in the 1990s that pregnancy was in part a biological struggle for resources between the mother and unborn child. On one side, natural selection should favor mothers who limit the nutritional costs of pregnancy and have more offspring; on the other, it should also favor fathers whose offspring maximize the nutrients they receive during gestation, setting up a direct conflict.

The evidence that this struggle is being waged at the level of individual genes is accumulating, if mostly circumstantial. For example, the fetus inherits from both parents a gene called IGF2, which promotes growth. But too much growth taxes the mother, and in normal development her IGF2 gene is chemically marked, or “imprinted,” and biologically silenced. If her gene is active, it causes a disorder of overgrowth, in which the fetus’s birth weight swells, on average, to 50 percent above normal.

Biologists call this gene imprinting an epigenetic, or “on-genetic,” effect, meaning that it changes the behavior of the gene without altering its chemical composition. It is not a matter of turning a gene on or off, which cells do in the course of normal development. Instead it is a matter of muffling a gene, for instance, with a chemical marker that makes it hard for the cell to read the genetic code; or altering the shape of the DNA molecule, or what happens to the proteins it produces. To illustrate how such genetic reshaping can give rise to behavioral opposites — the yin and yang that their theory proposes — Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock point to a remarkable group of children who are just that: opposites, as different temperamentally as Snoopy and Charlie Brown, as a lively Gaugin and a brooding Goya.

Those with the genetic disorder called Angelman, or “happy puppet,” syndrome practically dance through the day, have difficulty communicating and are demanding of caregivers. Those born with a genetic problem known as Prader-Willi syndrome are placid, compliant and as youngsters low maintenance.

Yet these two disorders, which turn up in about one of 10,000 newborns, stem from disruptions of the same genetic region on chromosome 15. If the father’s genes dominate in this location, the child develops Angelman syndrome; if the mother’s do, the result is Prader-Willi syndrome, as Dr. Haig and others have noted. The former is associated with autism, and the latter with mood problems and psychosis — just as the new theory predicts.

Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, seen through this lens, appear on Mom’s side of the teeter-totter, with schizophrenia, while Asperger’s syndrome and other social deficits are on Dad’s.

It was Dr. Badcock who noticed that some problems associated with autism, like a failure to meet another’s gaze, are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia, who often believe they are being watched. Where children with autism appear blind to others’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere, in their delusions. The idea expands on the “extreme male brain” theory of autism proposed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge.

“Think of the grandiosity in schizophrenia, how some people think that they are Jesus, or Napoleon, or omnipotent,” Dr. Crespi said, “and then contrast this with the underdeveloped sense of self in autism. Autistic kids often talk about themselves in the third person.”

h/t NYCO at Marisacat's place.

A follow-up to "Interesting Electoral Maps

I mentioned some of the interesting data that had come from this last election a few days ago. If you'll recall, I noted among other things that:
One thing that jumps out is the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, which experienced a massive ethnic cleansing in the wake of the 2005 hurricane season. Not surprisingly, those areas went substantially more "red". We might also note how much more "red" parts of the Southeast US became, including northeast Texas, eastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, northeast Mississippi, northern Alabama, the Florida panhandle, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky became. These areas are largely rural, mountainous (Appalachian and Ozark regions) parts of the old Confederacy - with the exception of Oklahoma, whose eastern portions are culturally very similar to the South.


Did race play a role in the results in the southeastern regions that reddened? I wouldn't be surprised, given what I know about a few of these areas (in particular, northeastern Texas and eastern Oklahoma). I'm reasonably sure that McCain and Palin were banking on the Southern Strategy. If nothing else, some the rhetoric of that particular campaign and its surrogates fanned a few flames. The culture warriors are making their last stand in this region.


I'm sure that one thing that will come out of the electoral fallout is the question about whether the GOP is still a national party, or if it is increasingly a regional party whose base is to be found in the Ozarks and Appalachian Mountains.
Well, here's another NYT article that seems to add some more to the discussion - For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics:
VERNON, Ala. — Fear of the politician with the unusual name and look did not end with last Tuesday’s vote in this rural red swatch where buck heads and rifles hang on the wall. This corner of the Deep South still resonates with negative feelings about the race of President-elect Barack Obama.

What may have ended on Election Day, though, is the centrality of the South to national politics. By voting so emphatically for Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama — supporting him in some areas in even greater numbers than they did President Bush — voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come, political experts say.

The region’s absence from Mr. Obama’s winning formula means it “is becoming distinctly less important,” said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.”

One reason for that is that the South is no longer a solid voting bloc. Along the Atlantic Coast, parts of the “suburban South,” notably Virginia and North Carolina, made history last week in breaking from their Confederate past and supporting Mr. Obama. Those states have experienced an influx of better educated and more prosperous voters in recent years, pointing them in a different political direction than states farther west, like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Appalachian sections of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and whiter, a statistical analysis by The New York Times shows. Mr. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of 410 counties that runs from New York to Mississippi. Many of those counties, rural and isolated, have been less exposed to the diversity, educational achievement and economic progress experienced by more prosperous areas.

The increased turnout in the South’s so-called Black Belt, or old plantation-country counties, was visible in the results, but it generally could not make up for the solid white support for Mr. McCain. Alabama, for example, experienced a heavy black turnout and voted slightly more Democratic than in 2004, but the state over all gave 60 percent of its vote to Mr. McCain. (Arkansas, however, doubled the margin of victory it gave to the Republican over 2004.)

Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.

That could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues. And the Southernization of American politics — which reached its apogee in the 1990s when many Congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton were from the South — appears to have ended.

“I think that’s absolutely over,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist who argued prophetically that the Democrats could win national elections without the South.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have “become a Southernized party,” said Mr. Schaller, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They have completely marginalized themselves to a mostly regional party,” he said, pointing out that nearly half of the current Republican House delegation is now Southern.

Merle Black, an expert on the region’s politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said the Republican Party went too far in appealing to the South, alienating voters elsewhere.

“They’ve maxed out on the South,” he said, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.”


In Arkansas, which had among the nation’s largest concentration of counties increasing their support for the Republican candidate over the 2004 vote, “there’s a clear indication that racial conservatism was a component of that shift away from the Democrat,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist in the state.

Race was a strong subtext in post-election conversations across the socioeconomic spectrum here in Vernon, the small, struggling seat of Lamar County on the Mississippi border.

One white woman said she feared that blacks would now become more “aggressive,” while another volunteered that she was bothered by the idea of a black man “over me” in the White House.

Mr. McCain won 76 percent of the county’s vote, about five percentage points more than Mr. Bush did, because “a lot more people came out, hoping to keep Obama out,” Joey Franks, a construction worker, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save.

Mr. Franks, who voted for Mr. McCain, said he believed that “over 50 percent voted against Obama for racial reasons,” adding that in his own case race mattered “a little bit. That’s in my mind.”

Many people made it clear that they were deeply apprehensive about Mr. Obama, though some said they were hoping for the best.

“I think any time you have someone elected president of the United States with a Muslim name, whether they are white or black, there are some very unsettling things,” George W. Newman, a director at a local bank and the former owner of a trucking business, said over lunch at Yellow Creek Fish and Steak.

Don Dollar, the administrative assistant at City Hall, said bitterly that anyone not upset with Mr. Obama’s victory should seek religious forgiveness.

“This is a community that’s supposed to be filled with a bunch of Christian folks,” he said. “If they’re not disappointed, they need to be at the altar.”

Customers of Bill Pennington, a barber whose downtown shop is decorated with hunting and fishing trophies, were “scared because they heard he had a Muslim background,” Mr. Pennington said over the country music on the radio. “Over and over again I heard that.”

Mr. Obama remains an unknown quantity in this corner of the South, and there are deep worries about the changes he will bring.

“I am concerned,” Gail McDaniel, who owns a cosmetics business, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save. “The abortion thing bothers me. Same-sex marriage.”

“I think there are going to be outbreaks from blacks,” she added. “From where I’m from, this is going to give them the right to be more aggressive.”
One thing that immediately jumped out was the apparent outright belief in the various urban legends that had been spread regarding the Obamas. I've written about the willful ignorance and eliminationist rhetoric (and action) that has been on display often enough that it need not be repeated in depth at this point. Much of the above article seems to be confirming my hunch at this point that the Ozark and Appalachian region will be the last stand for the right-wing cultural warriors. Much of what seems to be driving these folks is fear, largely unfounded, but treated as real by those caught up in it. The contention that voting for Obama or at bare minimum not voting for McCain (as some of us in the election boycott camp would say) is somehow tantamount to earning a one-way ticket to Hell seems to have been a theme pounded into a good number of church congregations in the region and perhaps elsewhere in the US (even in my region, it appears that plenty of folks got the message at recent church sermons that Obama was the Antichrist among other bits of misinformation). In many ways, I'm relieved at the prospect of less Southern influence on the nation's political culture.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Not quite

I've read a fair amount of scuttlebutt in recent days, now that the O-man is prez, that the US is a center-right nation politically. I'll have a few words on that in the upcoming days and weeks, but I'll just give y'all the bullet points for now. The short version looks like this:

1. When it comes to the US' ruling political parties, their philosophies and policies, when viewed in a more global context, a good case can be made that indeed the Dems and Repubs are easily center-right (in the GOP case, a goodly number of its political players are arguably far-right). In that context, Obama ran what in much of the rest of the world would get labeled center-right. Oddly enough, until November 5th, Obama was characterized by many conservative pundits as a radical leftist - but that can be chalked up to the extremely quirky perspective adopted by the ruling elites and their various pundits.

2. However, when one looks at opinions of Americans on a variety of issues, from economics to cultural, there is a considerable disconnect between the ruling class and the rest of us. Let's just say that once one gets away from the Ozarks and Appalachians (where a center-right perspective probably is viewed as communist), much of the American populace is center-left. What that disconnect tells us about the state of the nation is certainly a story worth telling. I have my own hunches (hint: the term "failing state" should spring to mind).

To be continued...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Neoliberalism with a happy face

I'm not sure that's quite what the pwogs had in mind (although, then again, as long as the credit flows loosen up to allow them to keep purchasing those X-Boxes, they probably couldn't care less), but as predicted, here's the "change" you can expect apparently from the O-Man: holdovers from the Clinton regime, who were true believers in the Washington Consensus (a fancy way of saying disaster capitalism), which was, and still is, a disaster for anyone who happens to get in the way. Here's a bit about one of the potential new members of the upcoming Obama regime, Larry Summers:
Lots of people screaming outside may strengthen the people who apparently oppose him inside:
Barack Obama has been close to naming Larry Summers as the next Secretary of the Treasury, but the appointment is being held up by opposition to the brilliant but controversial economist...

The discrepancy here suggests that behind the scenes, there is a powerful argument going on as to who is best for this job. Summers is brash and blunt, and he has quite a few detractors.

Meanwhile, Dean Baker describes Summers' contribution to our current catastrophe, and asks:

Given this record of failure, the question is how can Larry Summers still be considered for the top economic position in the Obama administration? This would be like appointing the arsonist who burned down the city as the new fire commissioner. We like to tell our children that success is rewarded and that failure is punished. But if Larry Summers ends up as Treasury secretary, what are we supposed to tell the children?

Finally, here's another reason to dislike Larry Summers. This one is only for connoisseurs.

In 2000, when Summers was Treasury Secretary, he made a very specific claim: that from 1980-2000, developing countries had "moved to the market and seen rapid growth in income."

The problem is this simply wasn't true. The countries that had most "moved to the market" had had far worse income growth from 1980-2000 compared to 1960-1980. Soon afterward Summers was asked about this at a think tank event, and he used all his brilliance to tap dance around for five minutes without answering the question.

The relevant excerpt is below, and the entire transcript of the exchange is here.

Q: My question has two parts. First of all, I want to--in the New York Times you were quoted as saying, "When history books are written 200 years from now, the last two decades of the 20th century, I am convinced that the end of the Cold War will be the second story. The first story will be about the appearance of emerging markets and about the fact that developing countries, where more than 3 billion live, have moved to the market and seen rapid growth in income."

First, were you quoted correctly? And if so, what exactly did you mean by this?

According to the World Bank, Latin America grew between 1960 and '80--it grew 73 percent before the Washington Consensus. After 1980, during the period that you say it saw rapid growth, it was 5.6 percent.

Moreover, in Africa, per capita income grew at 34.3 percent from '60 to '80. Since '80, per capita income in Africa has fallen by 23 percent.

Some emerging markets, such as China and South Korea, have grown rapidly over the past 20 years, but then they did this in the previous 20 years as well and in the case have largely disregarded the Washington Consensus. Could you reconcile these statistics?

Sec. Summers: Thank you for your question. I was quoted correctly, and we'll only know 200 years from know whether I was exactly right in what I said about the history books 200 years from now.

But I think it's important for us all to recognize as we think about the global development effort, and as we think about the events of the past few days, that with all of the problems, with all of the disappointments, with all of the things that can be improved--and I'll say something about them in a moment, and I am choosing my words carefully now--the last two decades have seen more progress in improving the human condition globally than any two-decade period in human history. That that is there in the most concrete manifestations of the things that are most important to people: the fraction of their children who die before the age of five, the fraction of their children who learn to read, the fraction of children who lose their mother due to dread disease, the fraction of young girls around the world who are forced into child prostitution. The societies have been transformed in ways that people thought almost inconceivable two decades ago.

This room was, in the late 1970s, the site of more than one discussion of the--what was seen by many of those who participated--as the near-certainty of mass famine throughout Asia and the developing world during the 1990s. That did not happen. That progress is a reflection of many, many things; surely, the most important is the success of the countries themselves in pursuing economic policies that liberated the economic energy of their people and allowed growth to take place, but it is also a success of the movements towards greater global integration that have taken place during this period and it is a success of the global institutions that have been a part of all of that.

Does growth in developing countries need to be more equitable, more human-centered, more focused on health and education? Absolutely, it does. Do the institutions need to be much more transparent and accountable? Absolutely, they do. Do their programs need to be more sensitive to the people who live in villages and involve greater degrees of popular participation? Absolutely.

But let us all remember that there has been no substantial success in raising people's incomes and living standards without contact and resources from the rest of the world and that that is something that requires revenues from exports or foreign investment, or international foreign assistance, and that, if we are going to have progress, we have to find a way to have those things and to make it work for people. I hope I have addressed the concerns that were reflected in your question.

—Jonathan Schwarz

For the elite establishment types, folks like Summers should be staunchly defended. Not to worry, we'll keep neoliberalism at home as well.

Obviously, I just never got caught up in the "movement." Yes, I understood, and to a degree could empathize with, the notion that a rational manager of empire might be preferable to one who's likely to continue the Junior Caligula approach to foreign and economic affairs at home and abroad, with plenty of cultural warmonger to keep those of us who are different in "our place". I can even take some comfort in knowing that the base of the GOP is continuing to shrink and that at least the millennial generation seems to have avoided the movement conservative kool-aid, and to even have some notion of where much of the aforementioned GOP base is located (if for no other reason than to know to avoid some of these places like the plague). If I have any hope at all, it is merely that those who got caught up in the movement stay active when the Obama regime turns out to be a repeat of the DLC nonsense that dominated the Clinton years.