Archive for October, 2017

Reports from the heartland

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I’ve read several exceptional investigative reports of late on some of the calamities that have hit working and lower class white people in the United States. They’re must-reads, journalism at its best, which I will simply link to here sans commentaire. One is from the June 5 & 12 issue of The New Yorker, “The addicts next door,” by NYer staff writer Margaret Talbot, on how opioid addiction has ravaged rural West Virginia. This passage is noteworthy

“The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States,” a 2014 study led by Theodore Cicero, of Washington University in St. Louis, looked at some three thousand heroin addicts in substance-abuse programs. Half of those who began using heroin before 1980 were white; nearly ninety per cent of those who began using in the past decade were white. This demographic shift may be connected to prescribing patterns. A 2012 study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher found that black patients were thirty-four per cent less likely than white patients to be prescribed opioids for such chronic conditions as back pain and migraines, and fourteen per cent less likely to receive such prescriptions after surgery or traumatic injury.

But a larger factor, it seems, was the despair of white people in struggling small towns. Judith Feinberg, a professor at West Virginia University who studies drug addiction, described opioids as “the ultimate escape drugs.” She told me, “Boredom and a sense of uselessness and inadequacy—these are human failings that lead you to just want to withdraw. On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world. It’s an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away. Much more so than coke or meth, where you want to run around and do things—you get aggressive, razzed and jazzed.”

Peter Callahan, a psychotherapist in Martinsburg, said that heroin “is a very tough drug to get off of, because, while it was meant to numb physical pain, it numbs emotional pain as well—quickly and intensely.” In tight-knit Appalachian towns, heroin has become a social contagion. Nearly everyone I met in Martinsburg has ties to someone—a child, a sibling, a girlfriend, an in-law, an old high-school coach—who has struggled with opioids. As Callahan put it, “If the lady next door is using, and so are other neighbors, and people in your family are, too, the odds are good that you’re going to join in.”

And this

The Eastern Panhandle is one of the wealthier parts of a poor state. (The most destitute counties depend on coal mining.) Berkeley County is close enough to D.C. and Baltimore that many residents commute for work. Nevertheless, Martinsburg feels isolated. Several people I met there expressed surprise, or sympathy, when I told them that I live in D.C., or politely said that they’d like to visit the capital one of these days. Like every other county in West Virginia, Berkeley County voted for Donald Trump.

Martinsburg is some 80 miles from Washington DC but, for many of the locals, had might as well be 800. As for voting for Trump, but of course.

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin. Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose. I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs. “In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.” There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.” He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

On a major culprit behind the opioid scourge, see the lengthy report by New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe in the October 30 issue, “The family that built an empire of pain.” The lede: “The Sackler dynasty’s ruthless marketing of painkillers has generated billions of dollars—and millions of addicts.”

One learns, entre autres, that the Sacklers—whose privately held company, Purdue Pharma, patented the opioid OxyContin—”are now one of America’s richest families, with a collective net worth of thirteen billion dollars—more than the Rockefellers or the Mellons.”

Another first-rate report, this on the functioning of finance capitalism in our era, is in The New York Times, dated October 14, by reporter Farah Stockman, “Becoming a steelworker liberated her. Then her job moved to Mexico.” The lede: “Workers like Shannon Mulcahy took pride in their jobs at the Rexnord factory in Indianapolis. The bearings they made were top-notch. In the end, it didn’t matter.”

One comprehends why many workers in industry were seduced by Trump’s rhetoric against NAFTA and free trade agreements. Not that Trump will make good on it—whether or not he should is another matter—or that even if he does, it will change a thing for these workers. It’s 21st century capitalism, stupid.

The Democrats obviously need to craft a credible economic message—and backed by grassroots organizing—that can win over at least some of these working class citizens who went for Trump or don’t bother to vote. Can this happen in the absence of a robust labor movement? I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE: Vox’s Sean Illing has an interview (March 13, 2018) with Robert Wuthnow, “[a] Princeton sociologist [who] spent 8 years asking rural Americans why they’re so pissed off. Hint: it’s not about the economy.”

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Adam Shatz—contributing editor at the London Review of Books and dear personal friend—did a two-hour podcast interview with Olivier Roy, the well-known political Islam specialist, earlier this month, the first part of which is up on the LRB website. The podcast coincides with the publication of the English translation of Roy’s 2014 En quête de l’Orient perdu: entretiens avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, which is an interview-memoir about his life and career. In the first part of the podcast, Roy talks about his soixante-huitard youth, 1970s engagement with the Parisian extreme left, and his years of field work, as it were, in the 1980s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Très intéressant. I’ll post the second part of the interview in an update when it goes up this week.

UPDATE: The second part of the podcast is up on the LRB website. I find it even more interesting than the first. Roy talks, entre autres, about his knock-down-drag-out Parisian academic brawl with the Islamologist Gilles Kepel (for the uninitiated, see here, here, and here). The two really don’t like one another. For the anecdote, I received an invitation from a high-profile US-based foreign policy-oriented journal/webzine to write an article about the brawl when it was in full swing last year but politely declined. I didn’t want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole (as, entre autres, I had already published an essay some two decades prior rubbishing Kepel, which he neither forgot nor forgave). Though I lean toward Roy in the brawl, I don’t think their respective arguments—Islamization of radicalism vs. radicalization of Islam—are mutually exclusive. Both their approaches—and what they bring to the table generally—are interesting and can be synthesized. As an American political science MENA specialist friend—who is friends with Kepel but stayed clear of his conflict with Roy—wrote on social media last year: “The level of analysis and debate [on Islam, radicalization, and terrorism] is so far ahead [in France] of what we have in the US it’s almost embarrassing.”

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The Las Vegas massacre

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There is nothing to say about it—after the ritualistic expressions of horror—except that (a) America will witness more such massacres—this is, as James Fallows asserts in The Atlantic, a certainty—and (b) nothing will be done about it, as former congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) writes in the NYT. Which is to say, Congress will do nothing, as it is controlled by the Republican Party, which is, so I wrote the other day, over the extreme right-wing edge on a whole range of issues, including that of guns. And the Republicans in Congress will do nothing despite the fact that, as we learn, the shooter Stephen Paddock had a veritable arsenal in his hotel room, of at least 23 rifles, all legally acquired expect maybe the automatic one. Insofar as the massacre happened because a private citizen was able to legally procure such an arsenal—as a consequence of the Republican Party refusing to make this legally difficult or impossible—then we may say that the Republican Party is ultimately responsible for what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night. The Republican Party has blood on its hands. There, I said it.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik invariably has the most incisive, powerful commentaries after such atrocities à l’américaine and does not disappoint with his one on this, “In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, there can be no truce with the Second Amendment.”

On this American exception, The Nation’s Joan Walsh says that “The American impulse to equate guns with freedom and masculinity with violence is killing us.”

Vox has several pieces on this uniquely American problem among developed countries, with two by Zack Beauchamp, one reminding us that “America doesn’t have more crime than other rich countries, it just has more guns“—and thus homicides, suicides, and massacres—and another on how “Australia confiscated 650,000 guns, [after which] murders and suicides plummeted.” German Lopez explains “Gun violence in America…in 17 maps and charts,” and Jennifer Williams correctly calls “White American men…a bigger domestic terrorist threat than Muslim foreigners.”

On the iniquity of the Republicans and the NRA, see the report in Mother Jones on the “gun lobby’s quiet push [in Congress] to deregulate silencers.”

Just crazy.

UPDATE: New York magazine’s Eric Levitz informs us that “If only non–gun owners voted, Clinton would have won 48 states” in the 2016 election—and that if only gun-owners voted, Trump would have won with a 49 state blowout—demonstrating, not for the first time, that the cleavage over guns is the deepest in American politics.

Haaretz has posted the must-watch 5½ minute video of President Obama explaining, at a PBS town hall in June 2016, “why do mass shootings keep happening in the U.S.” Excellent. Boy, how we miss having such a smart, thoughtful, well-spoken president.

2nd UPDATE: Thomas Friedman nails it in his first post-Las Vegas column, “If only Stephen Paddock were a Muslim.”

3rd UPDATE: See Matt Taibbi’s latest, “The gun lobby is down to its last, unconvincing excuse.” Terrific.

4th UPDATE: Scientific American has an article in its October 2017 issue by science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer, “More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows.” The lede: “More firearms do not keep people safe, hard numbers show. Why do so many Americans believe the opposite?” This has long been obvious but it’s still good to have the hard data to back it up.

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The Catalonia referendum

Credit here

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Everyone, or so it seems, was appalled by the behavior of the Spanish police in Catalonia yesterday, not to mention by the attitude of PM Mariano Rajoy. Now I personally deplore the notion of Catalan independence, as I am vigorously opposed to all secessionist movements in advanced democracies (Scotland, Quebec, Flanders). I don’t see why multinational states can’t work when cultural and language rights are recognized and upheld, and there is no discrimination against or barriers to advancement—in the political system and other domains—of members of the constituent nations. But if I were a Catalan opposed to independence, I don’t know what I would think after what happened yesterday. If PM Rajoy in Madrid is going to start acting like Slobodan Milošević, then that’s a problem—and could ultimately lead to the breakup of Spain, which would be disastrous, for Spain and for Europe.

I am not an expert on Spain, loin s’en faut, so am trying to inform myself like all other non-specialists. In lieu of sounding off with my personal opinions, I will link to good analyses by specialists and other knowledgeable persons that I’ve come across in the past two or three days.

One that is particularly good is by two researchers, Nafees Hamid and Clara Petrus, at the social scientific research organization Artis International, who have a piece in The Atlantic, “How Spain misunderstood the Catalan independence movement.” The lede: “Rather than resisting the vote, it could have supported it and demonstrated its faith in democracy.” Indeed.

Also in The Atlantic is an explanation by senior editor Krishnadev Calamur explaining “The Spanish court decision that sparked the modern Catalan independence movement.” The lede: “The community has a long history of autonomy—but one incident in particular helped set the stage for Sunday’s referendum.”

Isaac Chotiner of Slate has an informative interview with Sebastiaan Faber, who teaches Hispanic studies at Oberlin College, “What happened in Catalonia? Why the independence referendum turned violent.” Faber is the author of a worthy-looking forthcoming book, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography.

David Mathieson, a Madrid-based historian and founder of Spanish Sites—whose historical tours of Madrid and environs look very cool—asserts in the New Statesman that “Like Brexit, the Catalan independence vote isn’t quite as democratic as it seems.” The lede: “The regional government isn’t blameless for the chaos ahead of Sunday’s referendum.”

Omar G. Encarnación,who teaches politics at Bard College, explains in Foreign Affairs “Why Catalan independence won’t happen anytime soon.”

NYT Spain correspondent Raphael Minder has a good NYT op-ed/news analysis, “The fight for Catalonia, whatever that means.”

In a tribune in Le Monde, writer Javier Cercas, who teaches Spanish literature at the University of Girona—a Catalan nationalist stronghold—submits that “L’indépendantisme catalan est un populisme.”

Also in Le Monde is a tribune by  University of Perpignan public law professor Jacobo Rios-Rodriguez, who insists that “Le droit international n’autorise pas l’indépendance de la Catalogne.”

Bernard Guetta’s Géopolitique commentary on France Inter this morning, “La catastrophe barcelonnaise,” was pretty good.

For background—and from a pro-independence standpoint—I found in my archives an article in Foreign Affairs from September 2014 by Princeton University political scientist Carles Boix and J.C. Major, founder of the Col·lectiu Emma/Explaining Catalonia website, “The view from Catalonia: The ins and outs of the independence movement.”

Finally, read Yascha Mounk’s latest column in Slate, “History returns in Catalonia.” The lede: “The weekend’s scenes in Barcelona send a troubling message about the future of liberal democracy.”

UPDATE: Barcelona-based reporter Stephen Burgen has a rather interesting report in The Guardian, “In Catalonia’s ‘red belt’ leftwing veterans distrust the separatists.” The lede: “Nationalism is not the answer to Spain’s problems, say an older generation who fought against General Franco.”

2nd UPDATE: This is worth reading: “El País analyzes 10 claims commonly made by separatists to support their cause.” Some of it is a little over the top but it’s convincing on the whole.

3rd UPDATE: Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín, of Oberlin College and Johns Hopkins University respectively, have a commentary (October 4th) in The Nation, “The Spanish government just energized Catalonia’s independence movement.”

4th UPDATE: Le Monde has a dispatch, datelined October 7th, “Le réveil de la ‘majorité silencieuse’ catalane: Les opposants à l’autodétermination de tous bords politiques devaient se retrouver dimanche, à Barcelone.” À propos, Le Monde had a noteworthy article, datelined September 29th, “En Catalogne, la grande angoisse de la majorité silencieuse opposée à l’indépendance,” in which the reader learns that “[l]a population hostile au référendum essuie pressions et insultes.” To put it in simple English, persons opposed to Catalan secession—more numerous before the referendum than those for it, according to polls—were being showered with insults and shunned by the pro-independence camp, including by friends and family. Reminds one of the social media treatment meted out to Hillary Clinton supporters by the Bernie Bros. If partisans of Catalan independence resemble the latter in their (in)tolerance for the opposing viewpoint—and this looks to be the case—then my opposition to independence and support for Spanish unity, malgré Rajoy, is further reinforced.

While one is at it, also see the interview in Le Monde, datelined September 29th, with Barbara Loyer, who is a specialist of Spain and director of the Institut Français de Géopolitique at the Université Paris-VIII, “‘La Catalogne est depuis longtemps le maillon faible de l’Espagne’.”

5th UPDATE: Bard College’s Omar G. Encarnación has another informative article, this in Foreign Policy (October 5th), “The ghost of Franco still haunts Catalonia.” The lede: “Mariano Rajoy’s use of violence against separatists wasn’t an aberration. It was an authentic expression of Spanish conservatism.”

6th UPDATE: Netflix released a two-hour documentary on September 28th 2018, Two Catalonias (Dos Cataluñas), by filmmakers Álvaro Longoria and Gerardo Olivares, on Catalonian politics and the independence movement.

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