Review: The Smear

I’ve read a bunch of books since my last review, but none of them lent themselves to a review on this website. This afternoon, I finished reading Sharyl Attkisson’s The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote. (Yes, long title, long book. But one worth reading.) Anyone who is concerned with the declining state of American media – which should, presumably, be everyone – should read this book for a behind-the-scenes account of transactional journalism, super PACs, and the smear.

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Attkisson is an Emmy award-winning journalist, frustrated with how the media has become a unit of propaganda. One day, a couple of congressional staffers approached  her with dirt on their opponent. Attkisson was a disgusted:

I let the thought swirl around in my head. These men are being paid tax dollars to supposedly serve the public interest working for a member of Congress. Instead, they are using time on the clock to smear political enemies.

But this is the status quo in contemporary Washington, D.C.

Working with friendly journalists isn’t the only tactic used by those wanting to discredit an enemy.  The Internet is also a powerful propaganda tool. Attkisson describes a tactic known as “astroturfing,” which allows PR firms, nonprofits, and anyone else to sway public opinion anonymously online. Entities can create hundreds of anonymous online profiles to make it appear that there is grassroots support when none truly exists.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Attkisson documents how Democrats attempted an astroturfing campaign against “fake news.” At the time, Media Matters and President Obama were proclaiming citizens were deeply concerned about the onslaught of fake news, and that something must be done about it. Both Obama and Media Matters trainees called for websites, including Google and Facebook, to curate news. The problems? The American public is not calling out for the First Amendment to be restricted; surveys do not support that fake news is one of the biggest concerns of the American electorate. Media matters and Obama are overselling the threat of fake media, as perceived by Americans at large. The second concern is that, to solve the “threat” of fake media, Obama and Media Matters are calling upon Google, Facebook, and other companies to curate news. Such a “solution” leads to serious concerns about censorship and protection of the First Amendment. (Although Democrats’ plans fizzled when Trump co-opted the term “fake media,” it is still deeply worrisome that Google and Facebook may curate news to the advantage of a singular ideology.)

My biggest critique of this book is that it focuses almost exclusively on the 2016 election. I realize Attkisson is a political reporter, but it would be interesting to see how the smear affects those outside of politics, if at all.Anyway, if you are a propagandist in the making, are a journalist, or have an interest in learning about how the powerful are trying to manipulate you, check out The Smear.

Review: Devil’s Bargain

Not long ago, I quickly finished Joshua Green‘s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. I actually read it after Bannon left the White House; I never really understood the controversy over his entry or exit in the Trump Administration, and bought the book in order to provide insight. To an extent, the book was helpful, but only insofar as providing the typical left-of-center perspective dished out via the mainstream media.

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Green’s initial description of Bannon is “as a colorful version of a recognizable Washington character type: the political grifter seeking to profit from the latest trend.” He is also repeatedly portrayed as slovenly, apparently having only recently decided to “swap[] the cargo shorts for cargo pants and toss[] a blazer over his many layers of shirting.” His motto? “Honey badger don’t give a shit.”

Much more interesting than Green’s perspectives on Bannon are those regarding Trump. Reportedly, Trump is incredibly superstitious, going so far as to throw salt over his shoulder during meals. Apparently Corey Lewandowski and Trump had a falling out as Lewandowski believed that, because Trump treated him as a son, he could act like one. Not the case. Green also writes that Governor Chris Christie also irked Trump, repeatedly attempting to ingratiate himself with the family and refusing to respect Trump’s personal space.

Gossip about individual quirks aside (and Green does make a point of noting that his writing is extensively sourced), the book speculates that Trump became serious about running for president after he was humiliated at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner by President Obama and Seth Meyers. He did run, and when Paul Manafort’s efforts to mold Trump into a more conventional candidate began tanking the campaign, the Mercer family encouraged Trump to bring Bannon on board.

The book discusses Bannon’s background, both personally and professionally, but never really explains why he is so incredibly disliked, aside from his efforts to have the Clintons discredited. Although Green appears to dislike populism, in general, he never offers policy arguments to illustrate why Bannon’s platforms are wrong or inappropriate. While I did learn gossipy tidbits mentioned above, Devil’s Bargain falls flat when it comes to anything more than that.

Review: An American Sickness

You know by now that I love reading and sharing information that I learn from a good book. Elisabeth Rosenthal‘s An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back is truly one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year! Especially now, as Senators discuss repealing and/or amending the Affordable Care Act, read this book!!!

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Rosenthal, a former journalist and physician, begins by thoroughly describing how the medical-industrial complex takes advantage of patients and legal loopholes. She devotes a chapter each to the ills of insurers, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, ancillary service providers, billing and coding contractors, medical researchers, conglomerations, and patient complacency. The facts presented are fascinating: for example, “[t]he average hospital cost per day in the United States was $4,300 in 2013,” more than triple “the cost in Australia and about ten times the cost in Spain”!

The concept that irked me the most is “venture philanthropy.” Of it, Rosenthal writes:

The problem is that many charitable foundations no longer see themselves as funders of research for knowledge propelled by donor dollars to cure a disease, but instead as inventors in new treatments.

When insulin was developed in the 1920s, researchers did not stand by patent protection to reap income, but instead shared their knowledge with the community. When the March of Dimes helped fund vaccination research, it did not bill children or their families for inoculation. Now, medical charities are investing money in research. Because any successful discovery will likely result in royalties to the charity shareholder, the charity has no financial incentive to advocate for the cost of that discovery to be accessible to those served by the charity. Talk about conflict of interest!

Rosenthal devotes the second portion of the book to offering both systemic reform, as well as individualized, methods to save money on medical treatment. Again, this section was disturbing, given that neither Republicans nor Democrats are proposing many of the reforms proposed by Rosenthal. Although concepts like tort reform have been initiated in states like Indiana, contemporary federal reform efforts appear completely off the mark.

Last, but most certainly not least, the end of the book contains multiple appendices patients can use to arm themselves in price negotiation. Although options for comparison shopping for medical procedures are limited, Rosenthal provides links to those options that are available. She also includes template letters patients can use when objecting to healthcare charges.

This book contains good stuff, all around. I’ve been bugging my coworkers about it all week long, eager to share stories about how we are all getting ripped off. This book, however, is not a ripoff, but a real gem for the bookshelf!

Review: Rising Star

Earlier this week I finally finished David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. I say finally for a few reasons. The book is so long – my e-book, in regular typeface, was about 2,000 pages – and so detailed that it reminded me of War and Peace. In fact, the first chapter opens with 1970s Chicago, well before Obama ever set foot there. And it contains so many different characters that it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. Nonetheless, Garrow effectively shows the inner war and peace Obama encountered on his path to the presidency.

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Those who read Obama’s Dreams From My Father are familiar with the gist of Obama’s background. His mother is a white American and his father was a black Kenyan.  Neither parent was physically present for the majority of Obama’s childhood, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents after living with his mother and stepfather for several years in Indonesia. Obama describes himself, in his autobiography, as someone searching for identity and place.

Garrow unravels the vignettes written by Obama, and digs much deeper into Obama’s past.  While many of Obama’s Hawaiian friends from childhood remembered him as a smart and laid-back individual, Obama’s book doesn’t necessarily portray the same, but instead describes racial conflict. Garrow, instead, posits that Obama actually became more aware of racial conflict and identity while at Occidental College.  It was then that Obama ceased allowing friends to call him “Barry,” and became “Barack.” It was then that he chose his identity as black (rather than someone of multiple ethnicities.)

Another fascinating portion of the book follows Obama’s relationship with Sheila Jager. Garrow suggests that Obama ultimately broke up with Jager because Obama believed that he could not successfully run for higher political office unless he developed ties in the African-American community by marrying a woman from the same. Michelle Robinson filled that role perfectly. (And Michelle Obama did all that she could to keep her husband from running for office, believing politics was beneath his talents.)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about President Obama, Chicago politics, or campaigning. While the book focuses on both the personal and the political, the personal accounts, gleaned through interviews Obama’s friends and relations, were the most interesting. They provide insight into the motivations of a man that led America for eight years.

Review: The Death of Expertise

Yesterday I finished Tom Nichols’ quick read, The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell:

Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.

Immediately coming to mind after reading that excerpt was images of Sean Hannity and other commentators  railing against “snowflakes,” a pejorative term for millennials that demand “safe spaces” and recognition of their value. In fact, Nichols devotes an entire chapter to higher education, noting that students are increasingly rude to professors, increasingly less deferential now that education has become a business and the customer is always right – even when the customer is clearly, factually, and undeniably incorrect. Most institutions of higher learning now give out As and Bs to 80% of the students in any given class.

Although conservatives are usually quick to point out the disturbing consequences of this failure of higher education, an area dominated by liberal thinkers, Nichols ideologically balanced in his arguments against anti-intellectualism. He blames talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh for only featuring single viewpoints, and even screening callers to ensure that there will be no on-air debating. Nichols also targets President Trump, who has promoted misconceptions about vaccination and President Obama’s birth place.

Regardless of who is to blame for the tension between intellectual elites and the larger populace, the mutual contempt could spell disaster for the American republic, which relies on an informed citizenry.  Although Nichols fears that an economic collapse or natural disaster may be necessary to bring these warring groups together, he does provide a roadmap for going forward. Nichols implores the general citizenry to take the time to consider expert opinions, for example, and directs experts not to withdraw into their proverbial ivory towers.

Given that every American bears responsibility to the republic, this book is worth a read.

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Review: A Really Good Day

Yesterday I finished Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Waldman, a former public defender, acquires a bottle of diluted LSD and studies its effect on her life. More rigorously, she provides daily updates in regard to influences – or a suspected influences – upon her mood, relationships, irritability, sleeplessness, productivity, and pain.

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Waldman’s research is brave, in that LSD was categorized as a Schedule I drug by Congress and President Nixon in 1970. The Controlled Substances Act clamped down on legal access to the drug. It wasn’t until 1994 that the FDA gave approval for human testing regarding psychedelic drugs again. Yet, many are still reluctant to experiment with LSD, even if authorized to do so by the federal government and internal review boards.

The War on Drugs’ propaganda regarding LSD and other psychedelics is noted throughout the book, as is unfortunate consequences. Waldman considers, for example, that MDMA was regularly used by psychiatrists in the 1990s with very positive results. In one experiment, 83% of research subjects that obtained MDMA and talk therapy to resolve PTSD were cured after two sessions. The cure rate for those receiving a placebo? Only 25%. Importantly, the effects lasted long after MDMA was flushed from the subjects’ systems. Presumably, MDMA could be helpful to other PTSD sufferers, including veterans.

Certainly, Waldman notes that drugs are not without negatives. Although LSD has a remarkably low toxicity level, it occasionally led to sleeplessness and agitation. MDMA can indirectly lead to death, if people fail to take proper precautions. Nevertheless, Waldman astutely recognizes that even SSRIs (prescribed to approximately 10% of those in the United States) are not without risks. But not for the law, why not experiment in order to learn more about whether certain Schedule I drugs may offer benefits that outweigh the risks – and the alternatives?

Aside from being uncomfortable about appearing to endorse Waldman’s illegal activity, I found the book fascinating, and even encouraging. No, I would not personally take illicit drugs, nor would I advise anyone to do so. Yet, I would ask that the federal government and researchers be more forthcoming regarding the positives of certain chemical substances and determine whether they could be used for the benefit of those who suffer.

 

EEOC’s New Affirmative Action Rule

Today the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on Affirmative Action for Individuals with Disabilities in Federal Employment. It becomes effective 60 days from publication, and its provisions are applicable beginning January 3, 2018. Indeed, federal employees with disabilities – and federal job seekers with disabilities – have some great things to look forward to!

Most importantly, the rule adds two significant requirements to the administration of the Rehabilitation Act. First, those federal employees with targeted disabilities requiring personal assistance (PA) services for work and work-related travel can receive them from their employing agency as a reasonable accommodation. This is huge! People with significant mobility disabilities may now be able to use the restroom at work, eat lunch, and have someone put their coat on before they leave for the day. Importantly, the EEOC expects federal agencies to even provide PA services outside of the agency’s infrastructure for those individuals telecommuting.

I would feel a bit strange about my employer being involved in my toileting routine. Fortunately, the EEOC specifically notes that when hiring a PA service provider, the agency shall “give primary consideration to the individual’s preferences to the extent permitted by law.” This means, for example, that if a female employee with a targeted disability only feels comfortable with the assistance of another female, the agency must consider this request. I am grateful to those submitting comments to the EEOC regarding the intimacy of the relationship between a PA service provider and the recipient of those services.

Second, the EEOC is requiring federal agencies to take specifically-designated steps toward hiring more people with disabilities, and particularly those with severe disabilities. (It should be noted that the EEOC specifically refrained from using the word “severe,” after a commentor indicated the lack of political correctness. You’ll get no political correctness from this crip; consider my succinctness a reasonable accommodation for exhausted vocal muscles.) Specifically, the final rule mandates that the following steps be taken to increase the hiring advancement of those with disabilities:

  • Programs and resources should be used to identify applicants with disabilities;
  • Contracting with disability organizations, including vocational rehabilitation programs, centers for independent living, and employment networks;
  • Ensured availability of sufficient personnel to answer disability-related questions;
  • Creating a plan of action to ensure that disable employees have opportunities for advancement, including information about training opportunities and/or a mentoring program;
  • Inclusion of disability within the agency’s anti-harassment policy and training materials;
  • Adoption of easy-to-understand and easily-available reasonable accommodation policies and rights to accessible technology;
  • Guarantee that the agency evaluate its entire budget when determining whether a reasonable accommodation would constitute an undue hardship; and
  • Provide applicants or employees with a written notice (in an accessible format) of why a reasonable accommodation was denied, along with instructions on how to file a discrimination complaint and appeal.

How’s that for being a model employer?! Any guesses on when we can expect the private sector to get on board?