Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cause and Effect

A week or so ago, I had the late news on TV while I was doing some household chores, and I heard a teaser for what was coming up that caught my interest. They were announcing a breakthrough in research offering new hope to people who suffer from migraines. I have several friends who suffer from severe migraines, so I ran back into the living room to be sure not to miss the item. Guess what the breakthrough was? Turns out that the main cause of migraines is … drum roll please … you guessed it, obesity! Since the two people I was hoping to be able to tell that their days of suffering are over are both painfully thin, I turned off the TV in disgust.

A week later, a news headline in the elevator at work – those of you who read my last blog are going to suggest I stop reading those headlines – announced that the common thread linking people who had died from the H1N1 virus is – da da da da – yup! obesity again! More specifically, “stomach obesity,” leading to the headline, “Fight The Flab To Fend Off Swine Flu.” Okay, I admit, I’m not an epidemiologist, but I found it really hard to believe that among Mexican college students, New York schoolkids, Argentine workers and Indian computer programmers, everyone who was fat got H1N1 and died from it and no one who wasn’t obese did. Of course, my skepticism turns out to be right – the obesity-swine flu-linkage data are only for the U.S., the samples are small, most of the research was on mice, and the people doing it were, not surprisingly, obesity researchers.

Last week it was hot dogs. Apparently the hot dogs they sell at ballparks cause colon cancer – at least, that’s how they reported it on the news. Cause for concern, even panic. I thanked my stars that I’ve never eaten a hot dog at a ball park, and haven’t eaten a hot dog period in over 35 years. But wait. If eating hot dogs caused colon cancer, then at least 10% of the population would have colon cancer, because surely at least that percentage of people have gone to a ball game and eaten a hot dog there. So maybe that’s not quite what they mean. Presumably what they meant to say is that eating hot dogs increases your risk for colon cancer. In fact, the spokesperson from the group suing to get warning labels on hot dogs says, “Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer,” so he sort of splits the baby, implying cause-and-effect without quite asserting it.

I learned about causation and risk factors years ago in the AIDS movement. The issue of whether the HIV virus causes AIDS is one that has been rumbled about in activist and scientific circles for years. In general, the scientific community put it to rest in 1993, by modifying the definition of AIDS to include the presence of HIV. But before that, most of us accepted that HIV, along with other risk factors, does cause AIDS, while a small but vocal group who became known as “AIDS deniers” insisted that HIV was a harmless virus that happened to be present in people who had a collection of unrelated illnesses with no known cause. In between there were some scientists who generally accepted the HIV-AIDS linkage but were troubled by the existence of a few people who had HIV but never developed AIDS and a few cases in which people seemed to have the symptoms and other markers of AIDS but no HIV. The AIDS deniers seized on this data to point out, correctly, that in order for something to be the “cause” of something else, it needs to be present in every case.

A friend from the AIDS movement, who had been homeless for many years and is a housing rights activist, used to get furious when people suggested that drug use and alcoholism “cause” homelessness. She would point out that if that were true, then Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford and Ted Kennedy, among many others, would be homeless. I got her point, but also felt that in making it she seemed to want to deny that there was any connection between alcoholism or drugs and homelessness. I’ve definitely known people who were housed when they weren’t using drugs or alcohol, and homeless when they were. It’s true that their homelessness was also caused by poverty, because when their friends/roommates/girlfriends threw them out, they had no alternative to the streets, while if they’d been rich, they could have gone to hotels or rented apartments. But if our definition of “cause” and “effect” is that there has to be a one-to-one relationship, then poverty is also not a “cause” of homelessness because plenty of poor people are not homeless. We can’t say that capitalism or greedy landlords or even our general lack of compassion as a society causes homelessness, because most of the people who live in this wretched capitalist uncompassionate society still have homes, however tenuously they’re clinging to them.

Once I started thinking about these contradictions, they kept popping up everywhere. Most recently, they appeared in my reflections on the controversy over today’s showing of the film “Rachel” at the Jewish Film Festival.

The Zionists constantly claim that Hamas is the cause of Israeli violence, and in fact, that Arab intransigence is the cause of the entire conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and its neighbors. And I wonder how anyone can make that claim, when Hamas never existed until 20 years into the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 40 years after Israel conquered most of the land that had been allocated by the U.N. for a Palestinian state. It seems quite clear to me that the root of the problem is Zionist aggression and insistence on having a Jewish state in land that other people had been living on for generations. But to them, that is a mere outgrowth of the underlying problem, of which Hamas and the Palestinians and Iran are a symptom, which is the irrational, inevitable and omnipresent hatred of the Jews.

Inevitably this line of thinking leads me to the desire to be rid of my association with this group of crazy fanatics who call themselves the “Jewish community.” As I went from the Women In Black vigil outside the movie, “Rachel,” about the death of Rachel Corrie, to a huge rally in solidarity with the people of Iran (where, according to an Iranian friend, many people were carrying monarchist flags – yuk!), I told myself, “These people cannot make me hate being a Jew. They are not fomenting all this hatred and attempting to censor everyone who disagrees with them because they’re Jews.” But how can I say that, when they insist that they are doing it because they’re Jews? How can I say that their Jewishness is not the cause of their viciousness, if they say that it is? Just because I’m not like them and I’m a Jew, my friends from Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network aren’t like them, isn’t that just like saying, but there are poor people and alcoholics who aren’t homeless?

Does it matter which is the chicken and which is the egg? Does it matter if eggs or chickens are more likely to cause obesity? Isn’t the thing that really matters that both the chickens and the eggs be able to enjoy their chickenness or their eggity? Has anyone studied the negative health impact on “obese” people of constant haranguing about the health risks of their weight? Probably not, because what obesity researcher wants to know that, but a recently released Harvard study found that “only women gain weight when stressed about strained family relationships, while men gained weight when stressed about their lack of decision authority and their ability to learn new skills at work.” As if that told us something we didn’t know, or needed to know.

I decided some day, if I get rich enough to fund studies (you’re holding your breath on that one, I know), I’m going to commission a study on the health advantages of political activism, because I’m pretty sure that’s what accounts for my having fewer health problems than most people I know, despite my love of fried things and ice cream.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Do You Do When It's Not Your Moment?

I was leaving work and they have these headlines in the elevator. Sometimes they’re news – I know things are bad when I realize I’m getting most of my news that way – and sometimes they’re entertainment or the Word of the Day (today’s was “lamster”), and they also have opinion polls. So tonight when I was leaving, the inspirational factoid they had decided to share was “60% believe obese people should have to buy a second seat on airplanes.”

I was stunned. First, I thought, “God, people are mean!” Then I thought, “What are they doing asking people that question?” It’s like asking if people think women should have the right to vote, or if gay babies should be euthenized. A lot of people think a lot of stupid things; who cares? So when I got home, I went online to see if I could find out why they were even talking about this. I didn’t exactly figure that out, because it didn’t seem like anything had happened in the last few days that makes it particularly relevant, but I did find out that back in April, United announced a new corporate policy requiring “obese” people to buy a second seat. Continental, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest also have such policies (Southwest has had it since 2002). Air Canada did but the Canadian Supreme Court, which is doubtless more enlightened than ours will turn out to be, struck it down.

So now I’m asking, “Why haven’t people been up in arms about this?” The articles I found online quoted people from NAAFA and even a woman from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University saying that the policies are discriminatory, but I didn’t find anything about a boycott or picket line against United or any of the others. Incidentally, I also learned that the standard for seat width, 17 inches from armrest to armrest, dates from 1954, when the average U.S. woman weighed 140 and the average man 160. Those numbers themselves surprised me, because 20 years later, I was told unequivocally that a woman who was 5’4”, which I think was the average height for women at that time, couldn’t weigh more than 120. So even then, before Kate Moss, we were basically being sold an impossible standard.

This small-ish (though in fact, it’s really not that small; national health data consider 32% of us “obese” so theoretically, one-third of our population could be double-charged because airlines are too cheap to provide enough space) incident got me thinking about something that I’ve been hovering around for the last few days: What can you do when you realize the moment you’re living in is not the one that you wish it were?

Sounds like kind of a duh moment, but it’s not really. My whole life, I have secretly believed that things were going to change for the better. I think most of the left cherishes some kind of hope that a different way of organizing society is somehow just around the corner, or at least that it might be, or that if we just work hard enough, form the right coalitions, craft the right strategy, cover enough butcher paper with the right power analyses – that we can push neoliberalism out the door and usher in a compassionate green society.

It started when I was watching the news and they announced that California legislators are close to an agreement with the governator on the budget. I thought, “Is that good or bad?” It’s good because people have been getting IOUs instead of checks, and no one will cash the IOUs or accept them as payment, so people are being thrown out of their SROs (another time when “How can people be so mean?” comes to mind), and not being able to buy food. But it’s bad, because the gov has made it clear that the only deal he’s willing to consider is one that slashes every social service while preserving tax breaks for the rich, so if a deal goes through, people might be able to eat today but a lot more are going to be starving tomorrow. And no matter how long it drags out, it’s not going to get any better because the people making these decisions will never have to choose between putting food in their kids’ mouths and putting shoes on their feet, and they determinedly have no compassion for the people who are making that choice every day.

I know people who are working on “reforming” Proposition 13, which is one reason we’re in this mess, and some people are talking about an initiative to repeal the two-thirds majority required for a budget which is another reason. And both of those would be good things to do, but I don’t have real hope that either of them is going to pass any time soon. And if they did, they would help but would they help enough? Because isn’t the real problem that people don’t believe everyone has a right to eat, be housed, have medical care and enjoy their life?

The health care debate is another thing that drives me crazy. 72% of the voters support single payer, which is pretty amazing given how steadfastly the media has refused to even mention it. Lot of credit to Michael Moore and the National Nurses’ Organizing Committee. But we’re not going to get it. We’re not even going to get a good “public option” plan. Why not? Because somehow, the people in Congress don’t have to do what the voters want, and we can talk about voting them out, but who else are you going to vote for? What seems most likely is what happened in 1994, that the Republicans are going to take back Congress because the Democrats didn’t deliver on anything they promised. And I know people who will say that that won’t make any difference, but as unlikely as it sounds, I know it will. Things are terrible now but they will be worse if the right wing sweeps back in with a mandate to scrap whatever’s left of the social welfare state.

I do know that if there were Million Voter Marches for Single Payer in every major city, or even in Washington DC and a few other places, that would be our best chance to actually get it. But I haven’t heard any of the activist groups organizing for single payer propose that. Instead, they’re mounting endless internet petitions and sending a few people to Washington to disrupt hearings (which is great), standing in for the rest of us. It’s like they’re trying to bore people into voting for it. But wait ‑ Cleve Jones is planning a Million Gay March for marriage, which is just kind of insulting. They keep saying the reason they want marriage is for health care, so why not call for a huge health care march and then you can have a marriage contingent – but of course, if we really had universal health care, we would not need marriage so they don’t want to join forces lest people notice that they’re asking for first-and-a-half class citizenship for some rather than equal rights for all.

Why can’t what is happening in Iran happen here? Two elections were stolen outright, and a third was by public relations, and still people won’t go out into the streets. Everything right now is about symbolism. Sonia Sotomayor is about symbolism and Obama is about symbolism and marriage is about symbolism, Guantanamo is a symbol and Afghanistan is too. It seems like symbols are somehow satisfying people, even people who can see that their real lives are getting worse and worse. And it’s not only here. I watch Charles Taylor in the Hague, denying that he committed war crimes, and think why is he up there and not Bush? Why are the same people who put Milosevic on trial shaking hands with Tony Blair? Why is Europe so stirred up about Muslim overpopulation that an Egytpian woman in Germany is killed for covering her head?

It doesn’t make sense to me to keep trying to chip away at the crust of cruelty that is covering everything. I mean, maybe I will, because I’m an activist at my core, but I know know know that it won’t make any difference. We need to strip away, not chip away; we need a revolution in our core values, so that people value an equitable society, or at least one in which people have their basic needs met, more than they value the opportunity to feel better than someone else. I don’t know what it is going to take to bring that change about, but I know it’s not in our control.

So what should you do, when you realize it’s just not your moment?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts on creativity and judgment

On BART last night I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be writing a blog or journal. I couldn’t help reading what was on her screen, which I realized was incredibly rude on one hand, but on the other, I feel like if you’re going to type on your computer on BART, you can’t necessarily make any special claim to privacy. The thing was that this woman was not a fabulous writer, or better to say that her writing was not that polished, but she was very engrossed in it, spending a lot of time getting it right, and I found the subject matter compelling in a certain way, and I kept sneaking peeks to see if she had written any more.

This experience made me really think about what it means to write “well.” What makes me hunger for this woman’s next rough-hewn sentence, while something much more finely crafted can leave me cold? If I want to know what comes next, isn’t that the most important thing, more important than whether the adjectives are perfectly chosen or the metaphors scintillating?

Earlier today, I was trying to break down, in writing, what I found disappointing in someone’s radio piece. It didn’t challenge me, I said. It raised important issues but didn’t give particular insight into them, or suggest ways of looking at them that listeners might not have thought of themselves. The commentator reported that someone could not find “appropriate” clothing for his daughter, but didn’t delve into what would be appropriate.

I don’t know if the person I gave that feedback to found it at all helpful, but it was helpful to me, to have to get really concrete and specific about what makes a piece work for me. At the same time, I realize how subjective this standard is. Is there such a thing as writing which is objectively “bad” or “good”, or is there only writing one person likes or doesn’t like? This is hardly a new question, but it’s one that’s very much on my mind because I am once again knuckling down to the process of sending out my novel, this time to small feminist or lesbian publishers. As I steel myself for the inevitable flurry of “Thanks, but not right for our list” replies, I can’t help wondering, how many rejections does it take to tell you your book is no good? I know all the stories about John Grisham getting rejected however many times, “Star Wars” getting turned down by every studio, Jane Austen recently being rejected by every agent in Britain. But the fact is, Grisham’s writing is actually pretty bad, though some of his stories are engaging. Really, he could use some better editing. Jane Austen was a genius at capturing the ironies of her time, but despite the obsession with remaking movies based on her novels, it’s not very surprising that in 2009, novels written in that style get a pass.

If I can’t score a publisher, and end up self-publishing online, am I a failed writer? How many people have to read your self-published work before you get to climb out of that particular category? Or is the only failed writer one who stops writing? I know that’s the established answer, but I always get this nagging feeling that writing that is not read by anyone but one’s close friends is fairly useless in the world, that if no one wants to read what I’m writing, my time is better spent doing things people do want – whether it’s making money to give to charities or organizing demonstrations or giving parents a break from their kids.

Okay, but maybe this woman sitting next to me on BART thinks no one wants to read her writing. Yet it’s obviously not true, because I wanted to read it. Maybe she will never post it on a blog or send it to a publisher, because she assumes it’s not good enough. Maybe she will read it at a writing group, and people will gently suggest that it’s not quite there yet; maybe she will send it out and get polite letters from publishers saying it’s not right for them. And maybe she’ll put it away and decide that no one wants to read her writing, so she should spend her time seeing more clients or getting another degree. And the world will be poorer for lack of her writing.

My friend Steve wrote last week that his goal is to write something that approaches the best things he has read. So what if he never gets there? Not to say he won’t, but that’s a high standard. If his writing is only okay, but people who read his book enjoy it – which I did – did he succeed or fail? What if he never tries to publish it because he never thinks it’s ready? A guy I used to work with worked on a novel for something like 25 years, from when he got out of college, or even longer. And he kept revising and refining it, and finally he sent out a few chapters, didn’t get any responses, and then a few years ago, he died. And I swore that wouldn’t be my life, but how can I say that his effort was more wasted than that of someone like James Patterson, who has a factory grinding out a dozen formulaic best sellers a year under his name?

If I spend three hours writing a flier and no one who gets it takes any action, did I waste my time, as well as the people who spent time handing it out? If we hold a vigil to stop U.S. Aid to Israel or shut down Guantanamo, and no one converts to our cause, did we waste our time? For some reason, I can see the usefulness of things like those, despite the objective evidence of their futility, while I can't seem to value my own creative expression independent of other people's judgments. I don't usually make those same judgments about other people's efforts, though sometimes I might seem to. Certainly I feel that Tom, the guy who worked on the same novel for his whole adult life, spent his time better than some of my current coworkers, who spend all their non-working time (and most of their work time) being depressed and wishing they could get it together to write a novel. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like people who garden are using their time better than any of us, but if I published my novel - even if it wasn't any better than the ones people didn't publish - I would not feel that way.

Okay, enough of this not-so-scintillating brooding.