Review: Far from the Tree

Before reading Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree, I had read one of his prior books, The Noonday Demon. While I enjoyed the latter, a long work about depression, Far from the Tree was, frankly, beyond disappointing. As a person with a severe physical disability, I found it insulting.

As the title suggests, in Far from the Tree Solomon explores the relationship between children and parents when those children have a horizontal identity. In other words, Solomon looks at families in which a child has a disability or some other identity which its parents do not share. Specifically, Solomon looks at parents affected by deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, prodigy, rape, and crime. He lauds himself for interviewing “more than three hundred families for [the] book, some briefly and some in depth, producing nearly forty thousand pages of interview transcripts.”

Interestingly – and frustratingly – Solomon appears much more interested in speaking with parents than with the children, themselves. This is especially clear when it comes to disabled subjects. Despite his attempts to appear neutral and present multiple perspectives, Solomon’s true feelings of disdain are apparent:

Disability activists often referred to Ashley’s loss of dignity, but having seen a number of similarly disabled people lifted up in pulleys with chains to be removed from bed, put in metal standers to preserve muscle tone, conveyed on rope systems into showers, I cannot see much dignity there. (Solomon at 389.)

This statement produced a visceral reaction from this reader. First, for those who don’t know about Ashley, do a quick Google search on “the Ashley treatment” and “the pillow angel.” Ashley’s parents were worried they would not be able to care for her if she grew into an adult, and asked physicians to perform a total hysterectomy on her, remove her breast buds, and provide hormonal therapy to keep her small. This kind of rights violation would be absolutely unthinkable if Ashley was not disabled.

That Solomon thinks the mutilation of a child preserves dignity while use a Hoyer lift does not is inconceivable. Perhaps that’s because I use a lift myself when toileting and showering. I’m a lawyer. I’m a taxpayer. I’m a friend. I consider myself pretty darn dignified.

Don’t read this book. Find something more interesting. Something that actually considers the disability perspective.

Review: The Poverty Industry

One of my clients recently recommended that I read Professor Daniel Hatcher‘s The Poverty Industry. So I did. Now I understand why my client was so adamant that I read the book, and with the same urgency, I recommend that you do the same.

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Hatcher addresses the “poverty industry,” akin to the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned. But it’s worse than that:

In 2011, the defense industry spent in excess of $134 million on government lobbying efforts. Impressive. But the healthcare industry spent almost four times that amount – more than half a billion dollars, including a significant focus on lobbying related to government healthcare problems for the poor. The defense industry also spent almost $24 million in 2011 on campaign contributions, but the healthcare industry multiplied that amount by almost eleven. In fact, campaign contributions made only on behalf of hospitals and nursing homes were about equal to all the campaign contributions made on behalf of the entire defense industry.

Not many Americans are aware of the extent to which private interests are intimately involved in healthcare aspects of what Hatcher refers to as “fiscal federalism.” Most of us believe that the federal government provides money to states, and permits states to deliver those funds to vulnerable populations in a manner most meaningful to the particular circumstances of those populations. But private contractors are interjected into this relationship, creating the iron triangle and the worrisome statistics noted above.

Contractors like MAXIMUS and PCG (the Public Consulting Group) operate internationally, helping governments’ take advantage of financial opportunities. What opportunities that we talking about? Taking Social Security benefits from children in the foster care system.  Taking Medicaid payments for nursing home care, and applying them to state general fund coffers or other projects that have absolutely no linkage to care of the elderly. (By the way, such contractors are often also hired by the federal government for audit activities, creating a scenario in which they are responsible for checking off on their own behavior.)

One of the examples Hatcher shares in the book hits close to home. The Marion County Health & Hospital Corporation in Indianapolis began buying for-profit nursing homes throughout Indiana. It then contracted with American Senior Communities to manage them. Owning the nursing homes permitted the claiming of more federal dollars, which would presumably be used to increase the quality of care nursing home residents were receiving. (Note that Indiana rates abysmally in regard to the quality of care experienced by nursing home residents.) In fact, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that would require any additional federal dollars to be spent on nursing homes. However, Governor Frank O’Bannon vetoed the bill, allowing the federal dollars to be routed elsewhere. Ultimately, they were used to fund Eskenazi Hospital. Quality of care in Indiana’s nursing homes is still deplorable.

The Poverty Industry describes numerous other examples of private companies – often with shareholders to keep in mind – working with the government to take advantage of those to whom the money was intended. It is a great eye-opener, and is likely to disturb you like no other non-fiction book on the market. I strongly recommend that everyone read this and then look into how their own state manages public benefits coming from the federal government.

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: The Vanishing American Adult

I didn’t read Senator Ben Sasse‘s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance when it initially came out because I was put off by the title. Do we really need another anti-millennial book? And is anyone truly self-reliant in contemporary culture? Moreover, I was reluctant to read yet another politician dictating policy solutions when he has little grasp on those upon whom he is prescribing policy. Indeed, I only picked up the book at the recommendation of my friend, T.K. Small. I’m glad T.K. recommended the book and have since learned not to judge a book by its title (or it’s author’s profession)!

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What first impressed me about Sasse was his writing itself. I was not expecting syntax and diction that were pleasant to read; I suppose a stereotype Nebraskans as boring farmers, but Sasse’s style is entertaining. Moreover, it is based in fact; he uses a fine balance of academic literature and personal anecdote to convey information in a well-paced manner.

And, although the beginning of the book does discuss how millennial Americans fail to meet many of the standards of their forbearers, Sasse does not blame millennials for these shortcomings. Rather, he takes the reader through an interesting history of the American education system and the goals of social reformers like John Dewey. As immigrants arrived from various backgrounds and jobs became harder to get, school was a good place to stick new arrivals and provide a standardized baseline. However, education transitioned from the classical toward the pragmatic. More time was continually devoted to the classroom, taking students away from family, the community, and jobs. Learning became a passive endeavor.

Dewey’s student ultimately has no soul. The only thing that matters, in the end, is man’s relation to his society. The societal here and now is the all in all. The goal is expressly not the full flowering of the individual, but rather ‘all education preceded by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.’

Certainly, other factors contribute to the lack of well-roundedness with which today’s young adults must grapple, but the mere fact that so much of one’s youth is spent in the classroom contributes significantly to the problem.

In the second, and largest, part of the book, Sasse offers concrete ideas for helping youth grow into adulthood. Importantly, none of the five proposals is a policy idea, but instead direct action that parents can take to enrich the lives of their children. He proposes: ensuring that young people spend time with those of a range of ages and experiences; arranging for youth to work; diminishing consumption of material goods; traveling; and sharing great works of literature with young people. Sasse uses his own family’s practices as examples for instituting the above ideas, but also recognizes that implementation will look different for every family. For example, he notes that one need not travel far in order to try one’s hand at navigating, managing a new environment, and participating in new experiences.

I’ve already noted that I was impressed with the book, and believe others would learn from its pages. In particular, I would recommend this book to parents and those who have children in their lives, including aunts, uncles, and mentors.

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.

 

Review: Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West isn’t a new book, but it’s one that I’m glad I picked up. In fact, the 2010 tome sheds important light on why Britons Brexited and Donald Trump is the United States’ next president.

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Caldwell suggests that when European nations began guest worker programs in the post-World War II era, they situated themselves, unknowingly, to become “a continent of migrants.” At the time of its writing, the book claims that of 375 million residents of Western Europe, approximately 40 million non-natives are domiciled in the region. Many of these migrants come from Islamic cultures. This is notable, in that “the Islamic and the Christian worlds have opposed one another, violently at times,” for more than a millennium. The book considers whether Europeans and Islamic immigrants can live together peacefully in the years to come, as well as contemporary socio-political circumstances.

According to Caldwell, less than one-fifth of Europeans believe immigration has had positive results for their nations. Before the reader write Caldwell and his fellow Europeans off as racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, it is enlightening to objectively consider immigration’s net effects. Caldwell’s book offers that objective analysis.

Indeed, civil liberties have been restricted for all Europeans in the wake of mass immigration. As authorities have placed radical mosques under surveillance, governing bodies have rolled back privacy rights for all Europeans so as not to viewed as singling out those of a particular religion. (Again, no one wants to be considered a “hater” or “Islamophobe.”) To keep from being overwhelmed by the outcome of family reunification programs (noting that practitioners of the Islamic faith traditionally have far, far higher birth rates than those of generally-secular Europeans), Denmark made it increasingly difficult to gain Danish citizenship, making it tough for even for a native Dane to get citizenship for a foreign spouse.

Although some – Caldwell cites European elites, and I’d cite Hillary Clinton in her latest attempt at becoming president – argue that immigrants bring benefits, particularly in economic form, to their home countries, this has been questionable – at least in Europe’s case. Caldwell writes: “Instead of using their benefits to pay for say, food, [immigrants] may use them to pay for, say, Islam. Two-thirds of French imams are on welfare.” Eventually, Europeans determined that immigrants were threatening the sustainability of their welfare economies.

The result was that elites began couching immigration in terms of moral imperatives. We hear something similar in the United States when people claim we have a moral obligation to admit Syrian refugees. The trouble with arguing that the admission of refugees is a moral imperative means that one cannot pick and choose among those asylum-seekers with the best credentials; one is morally obligated to accept all in need, or at least those in the greatest need (i.e., those worst off). It also means that many of the refugees admitted into Western countries are Islamic. “For Europe, the biggest nearby humanitarian catastrophes and the bloodiest nearby wars were either in the Muslim world (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Eastern Turkey) or on its borders (the former Yugoslavia).” Further, these people are moving to their new land not to do, but to be. This dynamic has created a situation in which immigrants are coming in great numbers – in entire communities. Rather than assimilation, these many communities coexist within their own subculture.

The next two sections of the book – which I won’t spoil for you here – address Islamic and Western culture. Caldwell tackles difficult questions that make Westerners squeamish, including: Is Islam a peaceful religion? Is tolerance beneficial for its practitioners? Is Western culture in decline? Is Islam more sustainable and attractive than Western culture? I found Caldwell’s analysis truly helpful and balanced. Given that “the clash of cultures” is likely to be a hot topic in 2017, I highly recommend this book!