Tuesday, March 31, 2009

America Anonymous; Eight Addicts In Search of A Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Alcohol and drugs (including steroids), eating, shoplifting, gambling and sex.

Usually people aren't recognized nor recognize themselves as addicts until feeding their habit brings them to a very low point in their lives: near death, in jail, bankrupt, homeless, unloved or a combination of all these conditions. .

It's not easy to finger the cause of addiction which admits an easy or reliable treatment, much less a cure. There may be some individual genetic predispositions to addiction but it is well nigh impossible to disentangle them from the effect of experience. Neurobiologists have detected certain patterns of activity in the brain associated with the 'feel-good' hormone dopomine common to most forms of addiction (stress-related craving- or as Nora Volkow*, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls it in her stump speech: 'free will gone awry'). Pharmaceutical companies are thus very excited about developing drugs that can effectively and consistently block or transform these biological processes into the form of a readily patentable pill. It is not difficult to bring their discoveries to the market but so far none have proved consistently effective, not subject to abuse or really even met the gold standards of clinical study.

Interestingly, just about every institution or self-help group involved in the treatment of addiction uses one variation or another of Alcoholic Anonymous's Twelve Steps.The author suggests that the spiritual component of this kind of program is undeniable and essential to its success, however far that concept of 'success' might be from ' a cure'. The Twelve Step program has, never-the-less, helped millions of people overcome the most debilitating effects of all forms of addictions.

This seems to be the tragedy (scourge) of addiction. Getting out from under the claws of addiction- having a life- most often requires a lifetime of dilgence, attention and effort to avoid or mollify "stess-triggers" to compulsive consumption- often to the exclusion of enterprises or interactions which may otherwise have been quite self-fulfilling. But addiction is also self-limiting. Perhaps it would be better to speak of this problem as one of stress management or cognitive flexibility and recognize various degrees of disability. The subjects of the author's journalistic investigations are representatives of the more extreme forms of addiction so portrayals in this work are grim.

In 1981 Bruce Alexander and his team of psychological researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver set out to study the role of environment in addictive behavior in a new way.

"Until then, most scientists studying addiction had simply put rats in small individual cages and watched as they eagerly guzzled drug-laced solutions and ignored water and food, sometimes dying in the process. This phenomena was regarded- first by researchers, then drug czars, then parents trying to keep their kids off drugs- as proof of the inherently addictive quality of drugs and of the inevitable addiction of any human who used them repeatedly (This was false, of course. Most people who try drugs don't become addicted to them)."

"So, what made those lab rats lose their minds? Bruce and his team had a simple hypothesis: The rats had awful lives. They were stressed, lonely, bored, and looking to self-medicate. To prove it Alexander created a lab rat dream house he called "Rat Park Heaven". The two-hundred-square-foot residence featured bright balls and tin cans to play with, painted creeks and trees to look at, and plenty of room for mating and socializing."

He put sixteen rats into the Park and offered them water or a sweet, morphine- based cocktail. He offered the same drinks to sixteen rats in isolated cages. The Rat-Parkers hardly touched the morphine solutions no matter how sweet Alexander and his colleagues made them. The isolated rats eagerly got high.

Although not mentioned by the author other studies confirm analogous results. In experiments where rabbits and monkeys are placed in isolation or in subordinate positions, or they are put under stress, their blood pressures and levels of bad cholesterol tend to increase. Epidemiological studies show that death and sickness rates from cancer, heart disease, and other major illnesses in the U.S are higher in states where participation in civic life is low, racial prejudice is high, or a large gap exists between the incomes of the rich and poor and of women and men. ( "Social Epidemiology" by Ichiro Kawachi and Lisa Berkman, cited in The Gospel Of Food; Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong by Barry Glassner).

Of course, we cannot expect a "cultural renaissance" along the lines of Rat-Park Heaven in America anytime soon, certainly not for addressing public health issues such as addiction, heart disease or cancer. Rescuing banks and fighting evil-doers in Afghanistan comes first!

* Nora Volkow, the great grand-daughter of Leon Trotsky, who grew up in the house where he was murdered.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tallyrand's Letter To Danton (eternal)

I have at last learned that true primacy, the only useful and reasonable kind, the sole primacy that befits free and enlightened men, is to be master in one's own house and never to entertain the absurd notion of being master in another's. I have learned, a little late no doubt, that for states as well as individuals real wealth consists not in seizing or invading the lands of another but in increasing the worth of one's own. I have learned that all territorial expansion, all usurpation by force and guile- those things by which our old and illustrious prejudices have measured rank, primacy, strength and superiority among countries- are merely cruel games of political unreason, false calculations of power that end by increasing government costs and problems and diminishing the happiness and security of the governed."


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Story by Walter Benjamin

In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter's bench; and so everyone spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left.

Reluctantly and hesitatingly he answered the question. "I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep , I wouldn't have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests by day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish."

The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. "And what good would this wish have done you?" someone asked. "I'd have a shirt" was the answer."

On Ecclesiastes by John Calvin

All future events being uncertain to us, seem in suspense as if ready to take either direction. Still, however, the impression remains seated in our hearts, that nothing will happen which the Lord has not provided. In this sense the term event is repeatedly used in Ecclesiastes, because, at first glance, men do not penetrate to the primary causes which lies concealed. And yet, what is taught in Scripture of the secret providence of God was never so completely effaced from the human heart, as that some sparks did not always shine in the darkness.

To charge the intellect with perpetual blindness, so as to leave it no intelligence of any description whatever, is repugnant not only to the Word of God, but to common experience. We see that there has been implanted in the human mind a certain desire of investigating truth, to which it would never aspire unless some relish for truth antecedently existed.

There is, therefore, now, in the human mind, discernment to this extent, that it is naturally influenced by the love of truth, the neglect of which in lower animals is proof of their gross and irrational nature. Still it is true that this love of truth fails before it reaches the goal, forthwith falling away into vanity.

As the human mind is unable, from dullness, to pursue the right path of investigation, and, after various wanderings, stumbling every now and then like one groping in the darkness, at length gets completely bewildered, so its whole procedure proves how unfit it is to search the truth and find it. Then it labors under another serious defect, in that it frequently fails to discern what the knowledge is which it should study to acquire. Hence, under the influence of a vain curiousity, it torments itself with superfluous and useless discussions, either not adverting at all to the things necessary to be known, or casting only a cursory and contemtuous glance at them. At all events it scarcely ever studies them in sober earnest.

Profane writers are constantly complaining of this perverse procedure, and yet almost all of them are found pursuing it. Hence Solomon, throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes, after enumerating all the studies in which men think they attain the highest wisdom, pronounces them vain and frivolous.

Still, however, man's efforts are not always so utterly fruitless as not to lead to some result, especially when his direction is directed to inferior objects. Nay, even with regard to superior objects, though he is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress. Here, however, his ability is more limited, and he is never more sensible of his weakness than when he attempts to soar above the sphere of the present life...

Grant that man recieved at his creation a power of acquiring life or death; what, then, if we, on the other hand, can reply that he has lost it? Assuredly, I have no intention to contradict Solomon, who assserts that "God has made man upright;" that "they have sought out many inventions" but since man, by degenerating, has made a shipwreck of himself and all his blessings, it certainly does not follow, that everything attributed to his nature, as originally constituted, applies to it now when vitiated and degenerate.

Therefore, not only to my opponents, but to the author of Ecclestiasticus himself (whoever he may have been) this is my answer:

If you mean to tell man that in himself there is a power of acquiring salvation, your authority with us is not so great as, in the least degree, to prejudice the undoubted word of God; but if wishing only to curb the malignity of the fleshy which by transferring the blame of its own wickedness to God, is wont to catch at a vain defense, you say that rectitude was given to man, in order to make it apparent he was the cause of his own destruction, I willingly assent.

Only agree with me in this, that it is by his own fault he is stript of the ornaments in which the Lord first attired him, and then let us unite in acknowledging that what he now wants is a physician, and not a defender.

- Institutes of the Christian Religion-

"the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to the men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all"- Ecclesiastes 9/11

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Friday, March 27, 2009

"Unbreakable Wonder"by Anwar F. Accawi

My Grandma used to say, 'Look here, son of my firstborn son, when you pray to God, keep it short because He does not listen to anything that takes more than ten words to say, twelve at the most." She explained that God was very busy and He was also very smart. That was why He had a very short attention span. There was no need to bore him with long, drawn out prayers.

I was confused by what she told me and said, "But Grandma, the psalms of David that you recite towards the Mountains of Joun at sunup every morning are long." Grandma grunted and said, "Well, even David talked too much. All he had to say was, "Lord, I am a screw-up, but you are amazing and I love you. Bless me and destroy my enemies."

Grandma said even Jesus didn't need to say as much as He did when He taught the disciples the Lord's prayer. She said there were a lot of dummies hanging around the Lord, and he had to use too many words to make them understand what he was talking about.

On "The Last Witch of Langenburg; Murder in a German Village" by Thomas Robisheaux

This book recounts a witch trial in Germany during the the later part of the 17th century. Records of the trial were meticulously preserved in the archives of the ancient regime of the Counts of Hohenlohe and are now (since 1988) often included in museum exhibits related to the regional history and folklore of the Swabian- Franconian borderlands.

To paraphrase the author, the accused witch Anne Schieg has been is portrayed in novels, plays and poems through subsequent history in a variety of guises: from the innocent (even saintly) victim of a blind and cruel legal system in a sobering lesson about what happens when prejudice and zeal take over the machinery of the State, to a scary figure from Grimms fairy tales; sometimes a wise woman and healer repressed by male physicians or as a symbol of resistance against Christianity or misogeny; sometimes full of malice, other times simply as funny, rebellious or witty-an archetype of non-conformity.

But Mr. Robisheaux shows that Anne Schieg was a simple, illiterate woman immersed in the externalities of her social relationships which were governed in large degree by a code of honor which required a high degree of combativeness in the agonistic atmosphere of everyday affairs of Langenburg. Like the others in her small village she had to fight for the respect of her neighbors, not accepting any slights, disregard or insult no matter how casual.

She had to defend whatever material advantages she and her husband obtained against the constant suspicions and resentments of her neighbors and as a miller's wife in a predominantly agricultural community this was especially difficult. She also had to deflect blame from herself for whatever misfortunes came her way, and there were many.

By the time she reached her forties - under the burden of large debts, the need to arrange marriage settlements for her wayward children and difficulties procuring security for her advancing old age- Anne had developed a rather troublesome reputation as being specially combative, given to cursing, petty physical assaults, with a tendency to mutter obscurely in poignant frustration.

She was accused of murdering a neighboring woman with a poisoned cake and, therefore, of being a witch.

The university educated Magistrates and Ministers who examined and "confessed' her were what might be called proto-Freudian in their outlook , they tried to uncover "the core of her person in the inner self " where they believed the cosmic struggle between God and Satan is waged. On the one hand, the pure love, faith and conformity to Christ. On the other hand, pure evil enmity and loyalty to Satan.

At the time, this gruesome sort of examination (which probed the entirety of her life) was only a recent innovation in the Lutheran Church which , reacting against the practices of the Roman Church, previously only required their parishioners to make general confessions of their sins. As Anne noted on several occasions in the early parts of her trial , actually paraphrasing Luther himself: "it would take a lifetime to confess all the sins that you are asking me to".

Anne's religion was of much simpler kind than those of her inquisitors. She had attended church as a social obligation, to affirm her membership in the local community and remembered only a few of the simple prayers and hymns she had learned as a child. In the end she could no longer resist the brainwashing to which she was subjected, confessed to a myriad of crimes and went quietly to her doom seemingly convinced that through penitence she had obtained eternal salvation.