Fever

24 10 2014

As is not-unexpected, New York has its first case of Ebola.

Am I worried? Nope, not even a little—at least, not for myself. For the doc who got it, on the other hand. . . .

My students have asked me, a not-MD, about Ebola, and I have been vigilant in cutting down any fears about the disease. I even went after a colleague who said she was hesitant to fly due to Ebola.

It’s not airborne! I barked at her. You’re not going to get it.

And that is the crucial piece for those of us who a) do not live in Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, and b) are neither health care nor mortuary workers—i.e., those of us who are unlikely to come into contact with the bodily fluids of infected persons.

Those who are likely to so come into contact are at great risk: the virus is highly infectious, so tremendous caution must be taken to avoid contact with any fluid. But, again, for the rest of us—something else will get us before Ebola does.

Laurie Garrett introduced me (personally!) to Ebola in her terrific book, The Coming Plague. The cases she discussed had a very high kill rate—over 90 percent—which was both terrifying and, oddly, a kind of insurance against its spread: it killed people so quickly it could sweep through an isolated population before anyone had a chance to travel and transmit it elsewhere.

That kind of virulence-insurance would crumble once it reached more densely populated areas, which of course, it has. The death rate in some cases has fallen to “only” 50-60 percent, which is still appallingly high, and this microbe will kill thousands more people before health officials get ahead of it. That these outbreaks have occurred, and that the world health community (WHO, CDC, pharma, health ministries & depts, etc.)—with the exception of MSF—have, shall we say, underperformed in response to initial reports of its spread, is appalling in its own way, but there does seem to be a fair amount of confidence that the spread can be halted.

Or, to put it another way, Ebola may terrify us for its fast-moving virulence, but those old standbys HIV and malariaand flu—will likely kill far more people this year and next than Ebola.

This could change, of course: as Ebola spreads, it’s changing (as infectious microbes are wont to do), and epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has written of his fears that, via combination with other microbes, it could—could—become airborne.

Now, it’s possible that any mutations which lead to Ebola becoming a respiratory illness might also mean it becomes less virulent, but it’s also possible that it could join its mighty virulence to easy transmissibility to become a super-bug, much like the (misnamed) Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

If that happens, then, yep, I’ll be afraid.

But until then, I’ll be more worried that the kid sitting next to me or the guy standing in front of me on train will give me the regular old flu (due to my egg allergy, my doc advises against a flu shot) than a deadly hemorrhagic fever.





Everybody knows the deal is rotten

21 10 2014

Work don’t get no respect.

That sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Don’t we goodstrongproud Americans value hard work and honest living? An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and all that?

Yeah, no.

Work, like every other goddamned thing in this country, has become tribalized: tell me how you vote and I’ll tell you what you think about what counts as work and how much it’s worth.

It’s not quite that simple, of course, not least because this late tribalization a) has a long history; and b) is laid over all other kinds of fights, presuppositions, prejudices, and disorientations. And, to be fair, there are folks on all sides of the political spectrum who are uneasy with the disappearance of decent working-class jobs.

Still, there used to be at least a veneer of agreement that wage-work, at least, should be respected, and that a person was performing something of value even in low-wage work. The problem that Ronald Reagan had with so-called welfare queens, for example, wasn’t that they worked at McDonald’s, but that they didn’t work at all. Only when they (and it was always “they”, never “we”) worked, it was argued, would they learn the habits required for achieving a decent life.

Yes, there was a lot of bullshit packed into this argument, but I mention it to highlight how the long push for welfare reform hinged on the presumption that all (paid) work, even low-wage work, was worthwhile both to the worker and to society at large.

Now, however, low-wage work is a problem, and not in the way that you’d think, i.e., the “low-wage” part. No, to a dismaying number of political and economic elites, the problem is with the work itself, and thus also with the worker.

Exhibit A: Brad Schimel, the Republican candidate for Wisconsin’s Attorney General:

“I want every one of our neighbors to have a job again, a well-paid job, so we don’t have to argue about minimum wage for someone working at Burger King,” he said. “Let’s get them a real job.”

Precisely so, because busting your ass to get cheap food fast to hungry people is fake-work.

Exhibit B: That lovable lug, Governor Chris Christie!

I gotta tell you the truth, I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage, I really am,” Christie said during an event at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, according to a recording of his remarks by the liberal opposition research group American Bridge.

“I don’t think there’s a mother or father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, ‘You know honey, if my son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized,” he added. “Is that what parents aspire to for their children?”

The governor went on to say that parents aspire to an America where their children can make more money and achieve greater success, according to The Hill. He said those aspirations weren’t about a “higher minimum wage.”

It’s true, I wouldn’t want my imaginary children to work for minimal wages, but I damned sure would want the work they do perform pay them well enough to live a decent life.  And if my kid were only capable of flipping burgers, that s/he were not able to perform more highly-skilled labor wouldn’t make flipping burgers somehow not-labor.

Work is work, and deserves compensation.

Exhibit C: My favorite governor, the union-buster Scott Walker, who doesn’t see the point of the minimum wage nor, apparently, of the jobs which pay minimum wage:

“Well I’m not going to repeal it but I don’t think it serves a purpose because we’re debating then about what the lowest levels are at,” Walker said during a televised interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I want people to make — like I said the other night — two or three times that.”

Walker went on to say that the policies his administration has been pushing are meant to raise Wisconsinites above the minimum wage level.

“The jobs I have focused on, the training we’ve put in place, the programs we’ve put in place is not for people to get minimum wage jobs,” Walker continued. “It’s the training whether it’s in apprenticeships, whether it’s in our tech colleges, or our UW system —it’s to try and apply the training, the skills, the talents, the expertise people need to create careers that pay many many times over.”

Again, the idea of increasing education and training is a fine one, and I think both the federal and state governments should do more to provide free life-long training opportunities to all workers.

But, again, the idea that because some work doesn’t pay well that work isn’t worthy, may not be real work (as per Christie) at all, attacks the notion that work qua work has any value at all—and thus not even deserving a mandated minimum wage.

It’s a nice tautology: Real work pays real (i.e., high) wages, so any work performed for a low wage isn’t work at all.

And you can add another loop to this vicious, vicious circle when those low-wage workers require food stamps or other forms of public assistance to make it through the month: they’re moochers who, because they need assistance, clearly don’t deserve to make more money for the not-work they do.

As a Marxisch, I should perhaps welcome this open hostility to work as capitalism finally showing its true face, such that what matters is not the work, but the wage, always the wage—and the higher the wage, and the greater the accumulation of wealth, the more the person matters.

But I am not orthodox, and while a part of me is glad that some elites are abandoning useless paeans to the “inherent dignity of work”, a part of me knows this abandonment will only increase the burden on those who do labor for little, and further degrade what dignity they deserve to have as human beings.

After all, if you don’t respect the work, you ain’t gonna respect the worker.





Autumnsongs: Joni Mitchell

12 10 2014

Young Joni Mitchell is late spring, early summer.

That high, high voice streaming up clear like water from a bubbler, so pure your heart stills as your breath is pulled out of you. If you’re not given to tears you close your eyes to keep them in, but that voice, that high, high voice steals them from you anyway, the song carrying them away.

It took Prince to make me appreciate Joni Mitchell. I was a horrible music snob when younger, and by horrible I mean: I missed so much good music because the artist did not fit into what seemed to me ought to matter. I wasn’t quite sure about Prince, either, but when that small, strange genius said that Blue was one of his favorite albums, I thought, Well.

And oh, is Blue a genius album. I generally favor low voices, but Joni was one of the exceptions.

Was is the operative word, here: time and cigarettes have sunk her soprano into the sand, and instead of singing the clear blue sky she sounds like forests and falling leaves and a retiring sun.

She sounds like October.

I was reminded of this as I listed to a Tierney Sutton rendition of “Woodstock”—which is lovely, but I wanted to find a late edition Joni, to hear her sing herself back to a song that was wistful even in her youth.

If you are no longer so interested in keeping the tears in, this version of “Both Sides Now,” from 2000, is for you.

I’m still in my summer, perhaps my late-summer, years. And all this regret and wisdom and that voice, that incredible charcoal voice, makes me yearn for all I didn’t learn in my spring, and all that autumn will bring.





If you decide to make the sky fall

9 10 2014

I am not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

I am not Hindu, or Buddhist, or Jain, Taoist, Bahá’í, Wiccan, Yazidi, Shinto, Zoroastrian, Sikh, or any sort of pagan or animist.

I am not spiritual, and believe in neither demons nor angels nor supernatural vibes of any sort.

I am agnostic, which means I lack knowledge, along with faith and belief. I do not know if none, one, some, or all of the above traditions holds any or the entirety of truth. I do not know if some other tradition holds any portion of truth.

And I’m all right with that. I call myself a “doubter”, and that doubt works for me.

I’m also all right with others who have do have faith in some tradition or another, and, contra Hitchens, do not believe that “religion poisons everything”.

Or should I say, that religion uniquely poisons everything. I think religion is a powerful human invention and thus, like any powerful human invention, may poison its adherents or the course of events, but not that it necessarily or always does so.

It is also possible that religion (l.a.p.h.i.), may serve as an antidote to other invented poisons.

All of which is a rather long prologue to a rather convoluted post on the rather convoluted topic of the role of Islam in the world today, viz., is it uniquely bad in its effects on co-religionists and non-co’s alike?

There is today far more violence among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims than there is in other world religions*. This doesn’t discount other intra- and inter-religious violence or aggression, nor other less-deadly forms of intolerance, but given conflicts across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it’s pretty clear that there are. . . issues in Islam.

Are these issues unique to Islam? A little trip through history points to “no”, and had pundits existed in the 16th century, they may have raised similar questions about the aggressiveness and intolerance of Christianity.

Are these issues endemic to Islam? Whatever the violent history of Christianity, it’s mostly not violent today*, which leads some to note that aggression is therefore not an essential part of Christianity. Can Islam work its violence out of its system as Christianity has, or is supremacism and aggression so interwoven in its scripture and traditions that it cannot transform itself as Christianity has?

Trick questions!

Christianity is a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation which has sometimes been violent, sometime intolerant, sometimes triumphalist, and other times, not. That Christianity is currently not at the center of strife in the world* does not mean that its aggressiveness has been bred out of its system. It’s sidelined, but extirpated? Eh.

Islam is also a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation, and thus like Christianity, can find within that complex support for both aggression and tolerance. It is thus difficult to determine whether any one strand within is always and forever at the center of what it needs to be Muslim.

So, why trick questions? Because what counts as essential has been and is contested in history, and what must be interpreted in this way today may be interpreted in that way tomorrow. That is the condition of all human inventions.

None of this is to shield Islam or any other tradition (or human invention) from criticism, and that there may exist no absolute and eternal standards of how to treat one another doesn’t mean one can’t construct and apply our own provisional and worldly standards.

Which is a rather convoluted way to say: of course Islam may be criticized, as should be those who find in Islam justification for horrid acts.

That Muslims are not unique in their religious—or ideological—justifications is also no barrier to criticism: your mom probably pointed out to you long ago that “everyone else is doing it!” is no excuse for your own bad behavior.

One last turn around: If you’re going to go after an entire religious belief system and its effects on adherents and non-adherents alike, then fer-cryin’-out-loud, look at the entire belief system, not just at what you don’t like.

Is there poison in Islam? Yes. But that doesn’t mean Islam is all and only poison.

Or maybe it is. It’s possibly that after thorough study one might conclude nothing good has ever or will ever come from Islam—or any religion.

But I kinda doubt it.

~~~

*Crucial caveat: people living in countries having bombs recently dropped on them by Christians might contest this notion of Christianity as not-aggressive.

h/t for link to Sullivan, and this entire damned post was set off by the Maher-Harris-Affleck kerfuffle





Better stop sobbing now

8 10 2014

I know I’ve been lax about blogging lately, but tonight I have an Actual Excuse™—two, even!

The tendon in my wrist is vibrating from my index finger to my elbow, and I sweartogod that there is a pebble in my eye that refuses all entreaties (read: eye drops) to dislodge itself.

My life is so, so hard.

 





Stories for boys

7 10 2014

Why is gay marriage gaining and abortion rights losing?

Paul Constant at the Stranger suggests its down to men: they don’t get abortions, so they can fill their own minds with their own views of the slutty whores who irresponsibly seek to evade responsibility for their whorish slutty irresponsible sex.

Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, have fought and marched and partied and litigated (and, unfortunately, died) their way into public consciousness as human beings deserving of the same rights as all other human beings.

There’s something to this. ‘Coming out’ is not just a personal affirmation, but a political statement, as is the chant we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it. Visibility matters in politics, especially visibility without compromise: as Arendt and Biko and Malcolm X noted, the oppressed must demand recognition as they are—Jewish or black or queer—and not merely ask to be allowed to assimilate.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

That attitude underlay even the most anodyne of marriage equality ads, the ones featuring couples who’d been together for decades, who are raising children and puppies, who want only to love and care for their beloveds, til death do they part.  These ads were oft-accompanied by gentle music and soft focus, but the insistence remained: we are human beings who want to be treated as human beings.

That’s a tough message for the anti-same-sex-marriage folks to counter, which they themselves knew. It’s not enough to talk about stories or the nice couple next door, they said, we have to talk about principles! and preserving marriage! and the children! don’t forget the children! and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The fear of gay marriage worked only so long as homosexuality was a threat; once straight people got to know actual homosexual people, however, the abstraction couldn’t hold. The human story won.

Abortion rights don’t lend themselves so easily to such humanizing stories, however, and don’t end in thrown bouquets and candlelit dances. There are plenty of abortion stories to tell, which are being told, but they don’t follow the same arc as that toward marriage-equality.

There are all kinds of reasons for that difference, but a big one involves sex: marriage-equality folks rightly focused on love and commitment and fairness, on romance and weddings and families, and most definitely not on same-sex sex.

(Again, this is completely understandable: queer folk, especially queer men, have long sought to be seen as more than just sex machines, and as folks who just want what everyone else has. It thus made sense to omit from the ads & campaign speeches that a big thing most everyone has is sex.)

But ain’t no way to talk about abortion without talking about sex, and, unlike marriage, abortion isn’t seen as containing or domesticating sex, but the opposite; it is often seen, even among some who call themselves pro-choice, as enabling irresponsible sex.

By women, I mean. Of course, it is women who have irresponsible sex.

And so abortion gets caught up in all of our weirdness about women and sex and what counts as responsible and what should be the consequences and who should be the judge and wouldn’t you know it, none of that is as happy as the story of Caroline and Anita getting married after 50 years together or Jamal and Keith’s five kids dancing at their wedding.

I get what Constant is saying about the necessity of stories, but on abortion, I gotta side with the SSM opponents: “putting a face on the issue” isn’t enough.





Everybody talking to their pockets, 10

29 09 2014

Monopolies don’t care about you, and damned near every corporation aspires to be a monopoly—precisely because it wouldn’t have to care about you.

Facebook is, in the US, a monopoly (you don’t really think Google+ is a competitor, do you?), and thus indifferent to its users.

It doesn’t have to care if its consumers don’t like its privacy or transparency policies, nor does it pay much mind to journalists or bloggers who are outraged—OUTRAGED!—at yet another change which inconveniences the end-user.

That’s because the end-user doesn’t matter, or at least not in the way she thinks she matters.

We in the US are used to hearing the customer is always right, which in addition to not being even remotely true, only works as a check on corporate behavior when the customer has other options.

When the corporation is a monopolist, it has all of the options, which can vary from ignoring the complaints, issuing anodyne statements about the complaints while doing nothing, or inviting its customers to go elsewhere—all the while knowing there is no place else to go.

It may also, of course, take account of those complaints and make changes in a way pleasing to its customers, but it will only do so if those changes are in its own interests (profit, market reach). “Pleasing its customers” is a mere pleasant and unnecessary side effect to its real aims.

And thus back to the customer and the end-user: The customer believes that the product is for her use, that she is the reason for the product’s existence. But she’s not the end, but the means to the end, because the real end-user is the corporation itself. The customer exists to serve the corporation.

If the corporation is not a monopolist, it might respond to customer complaints as a way to gain competitive advantage, which may help to explain why Google+ dropped its real-names policy. It’s not at all clear that this change did help Google+, however, precisely because it is operating as a competitor in a monopolized field, i.e., one in which there is no competition.

Albert O. Hirschman noted that customers, workers, and citizens have three options in expressing their dissatisfaction with a product, employer, or government, exit, voice, and loyalty. These options are thin in the case of monopoly, Hirschman noted, but he also assumed the monopolist in competitive economy would not be “tight” but “flabby” or “lazy”, such that non-responsiveness would lead to the rise of competitors.

If the monopolist is tight, however, then Hirschman’s optimism is unwarranted: in the case of a tight monopoly, they could simply use the voice option—feedback—to further their monopoly. As the monopoly is extended, options for exit decrease, and in any case, present little threat to the monopolist, largely because those who exit don’t defect to a competitor (because there is none) but drop out of the market altogether. At worst, they remain marginalized by the monopolist; at best, they could join the monopoly service later, that is, they serve as a kind of customer-reserve potential.

None of this is to say that monopolies are forever, especially when it comes to cyberspace. This whole area of the economy is too new to determine  how dynamics which apply to the material sphere work over the long-term in the cyber-sphere, and whether traffic in data is different from traffic in, say, refrigerators.

And, of course, the possibility of mass exit remains, which can cripple a monopoly. Facebook could come up with a policy which so offends such a large mass of its users, and which they persist on implementing, that that large mass quits. They might then alter the offensive policy in order to woo the customers back, but if they take too long or their behavior is seen as too boorish to forgive, the monopoly crumples.

Absent such mass action, however, Facebook or any other monopolist can do what they want. They can handle a few dropouts here and there if the benefits of the policy change outweighs the costs of those few dropouts. Furthermore, by monitoring social media complaints—which Facebook almost certainly does—they can compare the number of the complaints to the number of dropouts.

And I’d bet dollars to donuts that far more complain than do anything about it—which only reinforces Facebook’s ability to do anything its wants.

In this way, even the complainers are serving Facebook’s needs.








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