Reality, but make it fashun

I’ve only got five minutes to write today but last night my kid was harassing me about climate change, and some of the pretty scary science that describes it. And it is scary, to be sure, but there’s also the issue of doomerism, uncertainty and the very real fact that we’re aware of the impact of burning fossil fuels and gradually, in a half-arsed, we’re cocking it up, shambling, bitching pissing and moaning kind of way, doing something about it.

It will always be too little, and will it always be too late to return us to what went before, but that’s extremism talking. And extremism, where we must have the absolute answer, the absolute solution, the absolute position to the exclusion of all others, is very much the vibe of the moment. And it’s a product of manipulation. It is how we are being taught to think about problems.

I’m increasingly seeing the media’s portrayal of all issues as either reality-driven or anti reality. We’ve been coddled into this. Ten years of inspirational Instagram tiles telling us to, ‘make our own truth’ and ‘be who we want to be’, to ‘manifest our destiny’. People who think this New Age fuckspeak is without consequences are foolish in the extreme. And it’s not a modern phenomenon either. In the 80s I remember all those books and movies about how the winsome protagonist made his dreams happen because he believed in himself. It’s the lynchpin of shifting the focus from the macro (large organisations, corporates, governments) to the micro (individuals). And now we’ve cultivated the individual so much so that we think we can bend reality. I distinctly remember going to a friend’s place to watch Live Aid, on the tele, interspersed with footage all those poor wee kids with their swollen tummies who had failed to believe in themselves.

A friend’s social media post yesterday alerted me to the newest Covid fad – the Event 401. ‘Look it up! It’s all right there, people just can’t be bothered to even look, they’re such sheep!’

Event 401 was a tabletop exercise run by Johns Hopkins in 2019, aimed at hypothetically testing global preparedness for a SARS-like pandemic.

If you recall, SARS (and MERS) were a bit of a bugger. The global response was broadly effective, albeit in the usual shambling kind of way. And then, when it all died down, everyone got together and went,

‘Phew, that was ugly, thank goodness it will never, ever happen again!’

Oh, hang on. No, that’s not quite right.

In actual fact, they got together and said, ‘Given what we know about the conditions under which SARS and MERS emerged, we should expect another zoonotic to human pandemic within the next 20 years. Let’s prepare for it (including the development of potential vaccines)’.

If Event 401 is supposed to prove that Covid19 is a hoax then I can’t wait to see these idiots discover earthquakes.

But this is where we’re at. We are at the point where completely predictable, observable reality is positioned as proof of a hoax.

“See that? It’s rain! it’s raining!”

“Yes, it is”

“Toldya. Sheep”

I’m now watching my friends argue on instagram about the participation of permaculture activists in the Melbourne protests.

‘You’re protesting with Nazis! And you’re being manipulated by Clive Palmer!’

It perfectly encapsulates the two characteristics of modern thinking about these problems; You have a tribe, and the price of allegiance is to forsake all others. If you’re anti vaccine mandate, therefore you march with Nazis. Therefore, you are a Nazi. Or, if you believe in permaculture, you don’t believe in science. All these positions, from Nazism to permaculture to anti vax assume one thing – a puritanistic supremacy of the individual to force their truth on to reality.

It’s much more nuanced than that. I can understand the position of the permaculture people on vaccines – to see humans as sitting within a web of life, rather than outside of it, and to focus on the web rather than the individual. We are ‘cheating’ nature with vaccines. Nature would have us die. Indeed, nature would have killed somewhere between 15 to 40% of the people at the protests, before they had reached 60. That’s reality.

I’ve personally been saved by modern medicine no less than 8 times in my life, maybe more. And that’s just the direct impact of medicine. And that’s before plumbing.

It’s no good being a puritan about this shit unless you’re willing to accept the endpoint – natural death. But puritan individuality is what we are constantly trained to think about. Because projecting our sense of individual power over our circumstances plays into the biggest fleecing of all – that climate change requires individual rather than systemic change. This cult of the individual is nothing more than fashionable politics. It is adorning oneself with something that makes you feel good, endlessly reinventing yourself in an empowering but ultimately innocuous and futile way. The irony is that it’s often the permaculture/wholeness/wellness people who’re most involved in their own personal identity brands.

We are personalising the political. And it will be the buggering of us.

Once again….

I haven’t written anything on this blog, or anywhere else, for months. I’m busy I suppose, but also side-lined, bright-lined and maligned by the endless task of interpreting statistics about disease and the lack thereof. Shifting paradigms.

Increasingly I’m drawn to two orthogonal poles. The first we might broadly refer to as ‘science’ – the shambling, iterative, dirty net curtain of rationality and causality. The second is more sociological or cultural – the idea that there are patterns, fashions, if you like, that characterise different intellectual epochs. These are slippery and developed in concert with their constituent technology. The best example of course, is the current one, our kind of technocratic rationalism, running on the fumes of utilitarianism with the inferred certainty of a kind of social Carnot cycle. In this model, we take scientific rationalism and apply it, writ large, to social problems.

As a fashion, we’ve been subject to this model for quite some time. Bureaucrats carefully but assuredly ‘pulling levers’, feebly adjusting the fuel mix of the economy in the vain hope that it will overcome its chaotic wobbliness. I suppose this is neoliberalism – the promise of certainty, stability in the face of an economic rationalism that perpetually threatens to end it all.

The model is anywhere and everywhere, the language of rational management, the bloodless accounting of society’s ups and downs. Consider the enormous and still flourishing network of ‘mental health’. An institution is sanctified and legitimised once it reaches a certain size and begins to upholster its processes with the baubles of ‘wellbeing’. One is ‘at risk’, then ‘assessed’ then, ‘assessed for risk of immediate harm’ then assessed for one’s ability to ‘engage with processes that might engender a meaningful shifts in outlook’ and then, and then and then. Of course, to those experiencing the pointy end of whatever institutional shafting the Random Shafting Generator has selected for them on any given day, this window-dressing is offensive. And that’s the point. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. It shifts blame to the victim, while assiduously ossifying the power of those who seek to create a seamless integration of professional and personal. The shiny-bummed carpet baggers.

Your personal is your political, and your political better get the fuck on board.

Examples abound. Just two days ago, the NSW state government declared a massive increase in funding for Headspace. This is a service that ‘deals with’ mental health issues amongst young people. Only, of course, it doesn’t. Being well acquainted with a former manager of Headspace, I can unsurprisingly inform you, Dear Reader, that Headspace does absolutely nothing for the mental health of those who seek its services. Because it provides nothing. That’s the point. It sits there telling young people who are distressed because they feel alienated from their lives, their families, their nature and their culture, that they have mental health problems. Young people who’re expected to find their way in the world, stumbling along on a diet of chicken salt and Fortnite.

Of course, for those who do, in fact, have mental health problems, like schizophrenia, no help exists at all. It was ever thus. The ex Headspace manager mused about the amount of money that could have been spent on young people with schizophrenia, were it not all being soaked up by the dangly-earring set, feeding teenagers a quaintly June Daly Watkins/Margaret Thatcher habitus.

I’ve digressed. Because this, ‘mental health’, was only meant to be an example of the broader style, or fashion, of thinking and talking, in which we are training ourselves. The technocratic rationality. At times is becomes visible for all – the anti vax debate is a particularly current example. On the one hand, the simple, modernist and muscular public health logic dictates the best outcome for the most people. On the other, a supreme adherence to individualism, fostered by what is now 30 years of neoliberalism, and cosseted by the rude good health guaranteed by previous public health measures based on the aggregated self, now illustrates the extent to which people grapple with the invisibility of government and their own (in)significance.

It feels clumsy to lump this way of thinking into BN (Before Neoliberalism) and after, but it is easy to delineate some key differences, through the prism of public health. We imagine the state is invisible, imagine our lives as governed by our own hard work and good fortune. Of course, this is sheer folly. The average Filipino works just as hard, if not harder, than the average Australian. Our Australian cards sit on the top of the economic deck because of our position in the ‘first world’, or ‘global north’. These benefits are almost entirely due to our government’s ability to consolidate influence within the global financial markets, either to create wealth from wealth, or to capitalise on wealth we ‘produce’ (commodities). At no point is there a direct linear relationship in which we can compare the output of an Indian, Filipino or Nepalese worker and an Australian in the same position.

I’m not going to get into a long-winded account of global currency markets, but it’s enough to say that our government’s role in our welfare and wellbeing is mostly ‘international’ rather than domestic. And yet it is the domestic politics with which we are the most familiar. This is how our governance is presented to us. Hot Mess Gladys and the endless handwringing over the intergenerational inequities in the housing market.

Public health is also invisible, unless there’s a crisis. Our wellbeing, the security of our nation in terms of ‘burden of disease’ is only relevant in broad terms.

I remember, many years ago, reading about risk and public health, from Nikolas Rose, who, ironically, is a biologist. What occurs (and this is because I can’t recall if it’s his idea, or perhaps my own that was generated through interaction with his work – suspect the former) is that risk helps us to imagine ourselves in the aggregate – it is a tool through which we might be controlled. Talking about our bodies through a prism of risk is something Foucault got hot and bothered about too. We can think of ourselves as entities disseminated through multiple strategies of risk. We’re all familiar with this way of talking and thinking about ourselves.

‘Smokers have a 50% chance of dying from a smoking related illness’

In this way, we might imagine ourselves as a collective, constantly shifting the levels on the risk amplifier we share with everyone else. Certainly, this was an element of neoliberalism – the utilitarian model applied to bodies as a means to control and moderate them, and to perfectly integrate them within a model of ‘productivity’.

And this is where fashion comes in. Because I am now old enough to recognise when this went out of favour, with the rise of identity politics. It happened with fatness. Partly, this was to do with over-reach. The model was overfitted. Risk was attributed everywhere, to everyone. The model got lazy. I remember the first debunking of the ‘Obesity Epidemic‘. Supposedly, obesity was causing high rates of diabetes and other poorly defined problems. The pendulum swung back, people began to question lazy data science. And, most importantly, there was a growing focus on the social consequences of ‘epidemics’. Who is affected and why? Who gets categorised, and what does that mean for them? What are the implications of being labelled fat?

We witnessed a shift in thinking, away from the rational, bio-deterministic models of social control, partly due to sloppy science, and partly due to the rise of the individual. Identity emerged; we began to hear terms like ‘fat shaming’ and the reclamation of physical attributes as identity (reclaiming the term ‘fat’ for instance). This is an interesting shift, a revocation and refusal of the bio medical model that sees humans as barely functioning meat-sacks on the fritz.

And then, we can trace the rise of the ‘victim’ narrative, salvation through identity. The rise of the virtuous disability, as yet another way to claim power.

Underneath it all, to me, these modes of thinking all retain one thing in common; they serve the same power that they always did.

That’s enough crapping on for one morning.

Addendum, By the way, I note that Nikolas Rose has shifted his interests to the ‘psy-disciplines’ and is, unsurprisingly, friendly with Foucault.

Choose your own apocalypse: COVID and bushfires.

As many others have noted, the coronavirus pandemic is illustrating the peculiarities of our relationships to one another as individuals within a society. Indeed, most historians would argue that communicable diseases initiated the modern state as we know it. In short, there’s death and taxes but the buck stops at plumbing.

I used to live in California, and my friends give an interesting and troubling insight into daily life in the age of the pandemic. Most of my contemporaries have children, all are educated and financially secure, and all have been self isolating to various degrees since about February. I should say, I haven’t lived there for years so I can only make statements on what I see from my friends and in the news.

School goes back in California this month and Governor Newsom has declared that children will return to online learning only. For my contemporaries this means they continue to live in isolation whilst working from home. In some ways our lives are similar – I’m working from home, although I could go into the office and be relatively safe. I would be temperature checked, logged in and there would be a limit on the number of people I could be in a room with. However, in other ways I’m realising that we’re on quite different trajectories.

For us in NSW, schools closed for 6 weeks early on in the pandemic (about March). Despite some local cases, schools have remained open with some restrictions around adults on campus, hand hygiene and group gatherings. Mostly though, school is back to normal.

I can go walk down the street in my local town and see maybe only one or two people wearing a mask. I can go shopping more or less as normal. I can visit friends for a cup of tea. e’d probably sit outside. Many councils are now relaxing rules on outdoor seating so cafes can close their indoor spaces.

In areas where social distancing is not possible, people are asked to wear masks, and almost entirely comply. In short, the government has explained the risk and the conditions under which masks are appropriate, and by and large, most people follow the guidelines. Our local supermarket is sometimes quite busy and has asked all patrons to wear masks. Everyone does. It’s not ‘required’ and no-one will be thrown out of the shop, but so far I’ve not seen anyone without a mask. Other smaller shops, the butcher for instance, have limits on customer numbers. People wait outside until they can go in. It makes sense – you’re just waiting anyway.

Mostly though, people aren’t wearing masks unless they’re asked to (the chemist for instance, asks people to do so, and people do). Aside from a bit less social interaction, our lives are more or less unchanged.

For my friends in California, life seems to me to be more restricted. People appear to be consciously living in ‘bubbles’, children largely remain within their family ‘bubble’ and food/supplies is managed either through online ordering or strategised procurement.

A friend’s online posts on show her hiking in the wilderness with a friend, for miles in solitary wilderness, both of them wearing cloth masks. I wonder if the cloth masks (rather than N95 masks) are to protect others – it seems to be the case, signalling inclusion in a community of likeminded people who care about one another and have a sense of social solidarity. When venturing out of this community, however, they will encounter much larger groups of people who’re not wearing masks – generally poorer people who’re performing essential work (like delivering groceries) and will likely get the virus soon if they haven’t already.

And this is the point: In essence, my friends are waiting in virtual gated communities for the virus to reach some level of herd immunity in the surrounding population. In other words, at a certain point, rumoured to be around Christmas, the virus will reach a tipping point between susceptible and infected in the population at large.

Let me tell you about birds.

Last month a flock of black cockatoos stripped every nut off our huge macadamia tree, screeching and dropping the shells onto the driveway. We’ve always had black cockies in the trees out the back but this is the first time they’ve been hungry enough to have a crack at the tree.

They’re here because we live in a small patch of unburned bush, not more than about 20 square kilometres in size. The fires that ripped through our area on New Year’s Eve and then twice more in the coming weeks were stopped by the river, a natural firebreak, on our northern boundary.

This small oasis of bush, which is now a refuge, groaning with hungry birds and animals, is now considered ‘safe’ – because it’s been effectively back-burned. Screen Shot 2020-08-19 at 10.59.08 am.png

I can’t help thinking of my friends in California, living in small, largely COVID-free havens where people work hard to reduce both their personal risk and the risk to others in their small, likeminded community, waiting for the surrounding population to backburn an ‘asset protection zone’ around them and effectively reduce the risk to zero.

Of course, you can’t account for a random lightning strike.

In Australia, we’re all more or less susceptible to COVID19.  The numbers of cases in Victoria are shocking for us, but they’re actually comparatively small. In NSW for instance (my state) we’ve recorded 3 new cases today, all linked to existing clusters. The numbers are declining daily. We may get to ‘effective elimination’ where we assume the disease is still around, but in very low numbers. There’s an enormous, continuous testing effort, and an elaborate contact tracing and testing program. We are unburned forest. Our ‘asset protection zone’ is the ocean. It’s no surprise that so much focus is on Australia’s borders. New Zealand is in a similar situation.

In a way, California seems more like a tale of two cities – a small, relatively wealthy community of people living amongst a much, much larger service class. This itself isn’t new –  California’s economy is often described as suffering from a form of Dutch disease – there’s a huge discrepancy between the small, high income elite and the much poorer, much larger majority who’re participating solely in a domestic economy (both working and consuming in the service and retail sectors).

Will these ‘two countries’, one ‘letting it rip’, the other ‘waiting it out’ make it to the Christmas herd immunity, with a small non immune population surrounded and protected by a much larger immune population?

In Australia we’re all sitting it out, waiting while the rest of the world ‘burns’, only our borders between the two groups is physical, whereas in California, it’s simply money and fragile networks of separation.

Interesting times.

When ‘both sides’ are faces of the same coin.

Increasingly, the management of COVID19 has become politicised. With that comes the usual ‘both sides’ arguments. In some countries and contexts, it’s impossible to have a ‘both sides’ discussion. For instance, if you’re in the US, one side might claim that the disease is caused by God or pixies or lizard people or something. With a population of over 300 million you’re going to suffer the effects of critical mass pretty smartly. It’s not a situation given to nuance.

In Australia and other nominally secular, science leaning nations, COVID19 has been managed by the technocrats. Broadly, the politicians listen to the scientists and follow their recommendations – even when they might seem extreme or draconian. In these contexts, ‘both sides’ are generally engaging with one another on similar terms, to the exclusion of lizard people.

Unsurprisingly the argument ends up over over the details. To what extent should states ‘lockdown’, and to what end?

I like to think I’m not hide-bound by dogmatic thinking. This means, necessarily, that I read widely on topics. The one thing that occurs me about my reading on COVID19 is that generally, there’s little debate about the numbers themselves. What differs is their interpretation.

For instance, this Swedish ER doctor has written about his experience in a large hospital in Stockholm. His post is widely circulated on what might be called ‘contrarian’ sites, that is, people who think various governments’ reactions to COVID19 have overreached. Lockdowns, they generally argue, cause more deaths, through medical neglect (failure to treat patients with other problems) and economic decline.

Dr Rushworth argues that his hospital saw an initial spike in cases and deaths, followed by a steady decline. Dr Rushworth suspects that although antibody tests show that only relatively small number of people have had the virus, more than 50% of people have T cell immunity, which is much harder to test for. Broadly, he surmises, Sweden has reached a type of herd immunity (although this is not strictly the definition of herd immunity).

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 9.55.51 am

Dr Rushworth cites around 6k deaths from COVID19 in Sweden, a number he expects to top out at around 7k, as the (short) tail comes to an end.

His numbers and logic work out, and are not in dispute. Here’s the bit that struck me:

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 10.00.11 am

Let’s repeat that. Sweden has around 700 deaths from the flu, every year. Sure, if you average out COVID19 over a year, now that it’s run its course through an immunologically naive population, it ends up with a similar CFR. But what happens before you get there?

And here’s the rub. Australia has just over twice the population of Sweden. This death rate would translate, pro rata, to around 12k in just a few months. That’s twelve thousand dead people by now. And that’s assuming that our hospital and health system would cope and we’d still be able to treat all the other people who staggered in through our hospital doors.

It also assumes one other thing: a relatively healthy population. In New York city, where the virus ‘let rip’ initially, the death rate is almost three times that of Sweden’s. Three times. 

88% of Americans have metabolic disease, a significant risk factor for COVID19 morbidity. Swedes are much healthier. It’s worth noting that the majority of younger deaths in Stockholm were concentrated amongst its (large) immigrant population, many of whom have worse health in general that Swedish born Swedes.

What does all this tell me? Where you sit determines where you stand. Your country’s basic level of health and healthcare should determine how you deal with COVID19.

Currently Victoria is undergoing a serious and wide ranging lockdown to reduce the case numbers. This is predominantly because Australians are shocked by the large numbers of deaths as the virus moves through aged care facilities. Dr Rushworth is more cavalier – many of these people would have died within the year anyway. This ‘harvesting effect’ certainly does account for some of the deaths, but not all. In Britain, for instance, where the general level of health is far below that of the average Swede, fatalities are losing many years from their lives.

I think, from what’s emerging now, Dr Rushworth is possibly right about T cell immunity. COVID19 is hugely infectious, and even with Sweden’s low level of restrictions it should be assumed that infections have reached 50% in Stockholm.

In my state of NSW that’s not the goal we’re aiming for.

It seems the aim is to allow for a small amount of community transmission and to limit the virus’s access to aged care homes especially until effective treatments are found. This does require borders to be closed for another year or two, at least, but there’s simply no way to ‘let it rip’ in Australia that doesn’t result in unpalatable political casualties. Australia will remain largely immunologically naive probably until a vaccine is developed, which could be a while. There will be ‘spot fires’ and some deaths. Australians will accept that.

The US, on the other hand, has a completely different scenario on its hands. Having lived in the US what’s striking is the general level of ill health. If there’s one country where a total lockdown could be justified, it’s probably the US. And yet, it’s the least likely to get one.

I’ve got no insights into the ‘rights or wrongs’ of lockdowns. I personally agree with NSW’s epidemiology informed approach at the moment, and its commitment to changing things according to the level of risk.

My point is that there’s little doubt now in my mind about the actual dynamics and pathology of the disease, because both the public health hawks and bulls seem to be using the same numbers.

The economics of movement

I have a family member currently visiting in Rotorua. His updates are interesting, including that their hotel room had not been cleaned when they arrived in the evening and that it’s a bit hard to get a meal. He’s staying in a pretty fancy hotel, so this must seem a bit weird.

Where are the staff?

Rotorua does tourism in bulk. Yes, the numbers of tourist have declined, but so too have the numbers of short term migrants to clean their rooms. To be clear, New Zealand’s economy loves visitors who spend money, especially if they bring other visitors who pay tax and work for very low wages, without the kind of protections we might think of as acceptable for domestic employees.

This happens everywhere, obviously. I’m sure there are people in NZ right now moaning about people ‘sitting on welfare’ or whatever the coronavirus support is called, rather than cleaning hotel rooms, as if they were cleaning hotel rooms right up till about April.

Well, someone was cleaning them, until they went back to the Phillipines.

There isn’t an army of hotel cleaners sitting at home in Rotorua.

I think if Covid19 has done anything, it’s made some of the most odious elements of economic rationalism visible in a ways we can’t ignore.

The same thing is taking place in Melbourne right now, with a developing scandal over hotel quarantine. It’s a perfect example of asymmetries in the state’s economy. Victoria has an incredible capacity for medical research, so the outbreak has been ‘mapped’ – the genomic sequencing of every positive case of the virus. And, shock horror, this extraordinarily expensive exercise has revealed that Victoria’s current outbreak disaster is directly attributable to quarantine failures. It turns out that the other end of Victoria’s economy, the poor, casualised labour end, is run by a loosely incorporated cabal of security sub-contractors otherwise known as ‘My Cousin’.

This end of the labour market is doing what all small businesses try to do – maximise profits, by employee the cheapest, most casual labour they can get their hands on. On its own, this may not have spelled disaster. Combined, however, with protocols that isolated Covid19 positive individuals instead of their entire households, it was an omni-shambles in the making. It’s worth remembering, for all the veiled, nasty suggestions that people who tested positive attended family events (and it seems they did), that the authorities did not suggest to these people that their children stop attending school, for instance. It’s pretty easy to see why you wouldn’t think it’s that serious if you’ve been told not to go out, but it’s OK to keep sending your three or four kids to high school.

Today’s Covid19 numbers suggest to me that the entire state will be in some kind of lockdown again, within a week. Simply, the numbers have reached the point at which test and isolate is no longer viable. I can imagine that NSW’s Dr Chant reached the same conclusion yesterday. As has been said multiple times, it’s primary school maths.


Mental health and other fables

I drive a lot. And when I drive I listen to podcasts. I’ve been listening to ABC’s The Health Report for a very long time. It’s always good, and often covers things that I wouldn’t encounter elsewhere.

Yesterday as I drove through the gathering dusk of a rainy Tuesday evening, I heard Norman Swan interview a woman called Christine Morgan. 

Christine Morgan has found herself, quite willingly, at the intersection of a multi-faceted political shit-storm. Bushfires and now Covid-19 are, quite predictably wreaking economic havoc on regional communities, many of which are already the poorest areas in Australia.

Quite naturally, the usual cabal of self interest carpet baggers have rolled up with their grab-bag of expected demands – MORE FUNDING FOR MENTAL HEALTH. Apparently we’re on the precipice of a suicide crisis.

Public health funding for interventions is so hard to come by, and usually requires robust proof of efficacy. In mental health though, evidence is often optional.

And yet, in light of no evidence of efficacy, the government announced 19 million dollars for some kind of regional mental health thingo. I say that, because, under sustained, direct questioning from Norman Swan, a medical practitioner who, no doubt, is acutely aware of the punishing requirements of funding, Ms Morgan could not tell him what the plan would actually do.

Morgan emitted some garbled fuck-speak about connectedness and resilience and intersectional community based oriented interpersonal directed tailored appropriate interventions. 

‘Social determinants’ got wedged in there, but as an afterthought.

She was pressed again, and again, spent five minutes wittering on about the same key jargon terms above.

Swan was magnanimous in defeat.

I live in post-bushfire regional Australia. It’s obvious that the mental health that Morgan is talking about is actually social ‘health’ – insecure housing, no money and poor physical health. 

Solving that problem is very expensive. So instead, people like Morgan label people mentally unwell, eagerly ‘treated’ by an ever increasing number of graduating psychologists who talk about ‘connectedness’. Connected to what? A job? Enough money to live on? A course of ivermectin for scabies so everyone can get some sleep? A trip to the dentist to treat an abscess?

No. It connects them to a psychologist. Economists call this ‘supply side market manipulation’. If you ask a psychologist if you need government funded psychological help, what are they going to say? No thanks, we hate money?

Every morning I take my dog to the beach, early. We park in the carpark and walk the track to the beach. About a month after the fires I pulled up and saw a guy getting out of his car, with some difficulty. His leg was in a full cast, up to the thigh. He managed to manoevre himself out of the car, across the carpark and down to the toilet block. He was sleeping in his car, with a broken leg.

I saw him most mornings for about a month. Then there was another guy with a clapped out green Hyundai. He usually put the bonnet up during the day so people wouldn’t call the Council. Then there was another guy in an old Mazda Astina. He gave me a fright, because his face was pressed up against the window as he slept. In the dim dawn light he looked as if he was dead.

These are the ‘traumatised people’ that these mental health practitioners are ‘helping’. They meet with them in a warm office and offer them instant coffee and biscuits. They make suggestions and ‘develop strategies’. They ‘put them in touch with local services’ – as Christine Morgan outlined for us. These local services are organisations like Campbell Page, a company that exists to operationalise the punitive end of the Centrelink system.

Does this assist their mental health? Of course it doesn’t.

So how is it that people like Christine Morgan manage to extract literally millions of dollars out of the public purse to employ an ever increasing cohort of graduate psychologists? Who wins?

Well, obviously the psychologists. After all, this is corporate welfare, no different than the ‘Employment Agencies’ who also happen to be generous donors to the Liberal Party.

The big winner though is the government.

Convincing people their problems are caused by mental illness, rather than social inequality individualises the blame & undermines their sense of personal strength. It tells them, ‘Your misery is your fault. It’s because you’re mentally unwell’. It enfeebles and depoliticises them. In individualises them and makes them feel like they’re unusual.

‘Mental health’ is an effective strategy for defusing real social change. 

And who are the losers in this game? Well, obviously those who’re suffering from real social disadvantage, those who could do with secure tenure in a rental property and a trip to the dentist.

But there’s another set of losers, those with real mental health issues. We never hear about these people until it all goes wrong – the young man who murdered Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne, for instance.

Reallocating finding into ‘lifestyle’ mental health instead of ‘real’ mental health services for people who have illnesses like schizophrenia and bi-polar is bloody criminal. And yet these are the people who’re least able to advocate for themselves. Psychologists won’t advocate for them because these people actually need real help, and that’s not something they’re in the business of providing. Once again, it falls upon real medical professionals to try to secure funding for a pressing and serious group of illnesses.

The mental health gravy train is also an artefact of middle class, professional psychologists, who’ve seldom experienced real, grinding poverty. For them, it’s inconceivable that a person might find their circumstances so bleak that they would consider suicide as an ‘out’. For these psychologists, suicide is, by definition, a mental health issue.

It’s not.

We could halve the suicide rate in Australia in six months. We would ensure people’s social health. We would give them secure housing, healthcare, dentistry, access to work, education, good food. We could stop denigrating and humiliating them through the Centrelink/workfare model. We could address homelessness. Some suicides are undoubtedly caused by very real mental health problems, but most are caused by social problems. This is indisputable and reflected in the real rise of suicides with every economic reversal.

We should stop lining the pockets of career carpet-baggers whose mandate is little more than;

– Convince this person they’re mentally unwell so they don’t feel like they can organise collectively against the conditions they find themselves in

– Potentially help them adjust emotionally to being homeless and completely without hope of an improvement in their circumstances.

This new government initiative is meant to be rolled out to address ‘poor mental health’ in regional Australia. It’s insulting. Imagine you lose your job and your home in the pandemic shutdowns.

Is the nice lady with the dangley earrings going to buy you a new house? Or even help you find and pay for a rental? Nope.

But she can try to make you feel happier about being at the pointy end of nature’s climate change catastrophe, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a couple of Wagon Wheels.



Wooly thinking part two

Does autism correlate with high IQ?

Or is this simply a form of reverse stigma?

I’ve mused about the apparent paradoxes in the diagnoses of autism before but I’ve yet to find anything that’s making me think that most people with autism are bloody geniuses.

There is a study which suggests that many of the genes implicated in autism are also those implicated in high IQ, but, as anyone who knows anything about genetics will tell you, it’s very difficult to identify ‘a gene for X’. Basically, this is the equivalent of searching for The Bachelorette gene.

I particularly enjoyed this article that told me that people with ASD are brainy because compared to the general population,

Nearly half of children (46 percent) who have been diagnosed with ASD have an above average intellectual ability, however, it differs from person-to-person.

That’s right, almost fifty percent of those with ASD fall above the average! Which I guess means that 54% fall below the average. Which tells me nothing except that as a population people with ASD are slightly dumber than those without ASD. It depends, I suppose, on how they define ‘average’ – for me, I take a pretty straight up mean/median approach, (the sample was 10 000) but maybe they decided that the top of the curve was actually a table top.

I see you, kurtosis, and I place a plate and some chips on top of you!

How good is science reporting? I mean, really. This shit is top drawer.

What’s racist today?

When protectionism is racist;

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 8.17.39 AM.png

Here, the Australian left-wing media hangs New Zealand’s Prime Minister elect Jacinda Ardern out to dry because she’s at once too socialist and not socialist enough.

To be clear, there is a difference between social socialism and economic socialism.

Economic socialism views housing as more than a commodity and claims that the free market trade in goods and services (such as houses) must be regulated to prevent the concentration and consolidation of power*.  Ardern has stripes in version of economic socialism**. Economic socialism also does not view people as commodities, to be imported and exported depending on the GDP per capita that quarter.

Social socialism (probably what the vapid, swaying lampreys in the right wing media call ‘cultural Marxism’) means not being a cunt to the Indians living next-door. It means making sure that people who live in your country do not experience prejudice and have the same opportunities as others. Ardern also has stripes in this department.

We see this paradox emerge in the US all the time – Republicans are economically liberal but socially conservative. That was, of course, until Trump, when the socially conservative finally realised that they were economically conservative too – coming clean about the protectionism that engenders their economic strength. They’re still economically liberal with health care though – you limping losers brought that on yourselves.

Which brings me to my final point;

The more astute of you may have guessed that my reference to ‘limping losers’ was a statement whereby I take the position of an anti-healthcare advocate. It is an attempt at positioning both them and me – I believe in publicly funded health and disability care, many Americans do not. If I were a politician, this statement, along with many others I have made online would be enough to get me fired in a fit of internet outrage, no doubt after a Guardian revelation that I’d called disabled people limping losers. Let’s make this easy;

Senator XXX Suspended After Calling Disabled; ‘Limping Losers’. (The Guardian, March 2039)

Tagline; Senator XXX has been relieved of her duties after it was revealed that she once referred to disabled people as ‘limping losers’ in an online blog post in October 2017. 

Let’s have a look at one the BBC prepared earlier;

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Yep, this MAN called women ‘sexy little slags’ in an online review of an Arctic Monkeys something-or-other in 2002 (14 years ago for those playing at home). He also apparently called someone he’d an some kind of sexual relationship an ‘ugly bitch’ during a discussion with her (he denies this).

Conservative MP Mims Davies, chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament, said it was “right” that Mr O’Mara had been suspended over his “vile” comments.

But she added: “Why on earth has it taken so long?”

Ummm, let me think about that one….

Firstly, maybe no-one gives a fuck? I am a woman and I couldn’t give a fuck if some bloke calls women ‘sexy little slags’ – and that’s without knowing the context of it. Maybe he was trying to be funny, he is a ginger after all.

Second, no-one is going to call out this behaviour because it opens the Giant Box of Hypocrite. How long till we see ancient online comments from Conservative MPs claiming poor people are best sliced thinly and served with a light vinaigrette?

I’m less interested in the hyper-vigilant confected outrage du jour and more interested in how it is used. It’s like a tractor beam, ever ready to be pointed at the next person to go. Outrage does not ‘do’ complicated political intrigue – no-one’s got the attention span for that. No, it cuts straight to the chase; he called me X. Let’s get rid of him/her.

Politicians are constantly on the knife-edge of inferior wokeness, endlessly surveilled by a foaming media pack ever-ready for salacious, one-line mis-steps in the morass of shrill identity politics.

Who benefits from this hyper-vigilance? The right wing media, who claim that we all live in fear of saying anything at all. Right wing ideologues like Andrew Bolt are increasingly recruiting ‘ordinary Australians’ as the distance between political speak and regular speak grows.


*Houses in Auckland (because that’s where this debate begins and ends) are sometimes bought by overseas investors (often Chinese – thus the Asian racism angle). However, it’s worth noting that although 70% of Auckland’s entry level housing is purchased by investors only 3% is purchased by overseas buyers. Middle aged kiwis are finding Auckland’s housing market almost impossible to access because of Glenys and Murray, not Mr and Mrs Tan. Even though 3% is a small amount, it’s testament to the disquiet about houses being traded as commodities quite so blatantly. After all, even if Glenys and Murray are using their property investment to make money they’re still spending it in NZ – it’s an interesting type of commodification.

**Also worth noting that this reflects a peculiarly Australian viewpoint of racism, focused on anti-Asian sentiment when actually, a good deal of the disquiet about overseas investors isn’t about Asians at all, it’s about the (tiny but high profile) trend of very wealthy global/Americans (Peter Thiel et al.,.) buying large properties within ‘iconic’ New Zealand landscapes. New Zealanders fear their rural and ‘natural’ landscapes becoming an increasingly gated community that they are locked out of. Maori have seen this movie before of course….


Depression and anxiety; The new racism

It’s been a hell of a few weeks. Clearly I am suffering from stress. It could lead to depression, or perhaps anxiety.

Or perhaps I’m just busy and under pressure. Perhaps I’ll just harden the fuck up for a bit and see if that helps.

First; a warning. This is just some out-loud thinking. Sorry if it doesn’t make any sense. I’m stressed etc.,.

Yesterday I heard Frank Furedi speaking about freedom of speech on Radio National. I’ve not heard of Furedi since I was an undergrad student, about 20 years ago. I liked his work then, but have shifted in other (leftward) directions since.

Yesterday, I listened to him argue that Western universities are increasingly self-censorious. This is because, under a neo-liberal consumerist model, they’re competing for students. There are prizes for the least confronting course content, according to him.

Education has become commodified, of course, but it’s happened in weird ways. University is no longer an adult stage, it is a continuation of a cosseted larval form, where endlessly fretting parents shuffle continuously build a fuzzy little ‘happy bubble’ around their children.

Every year the numbers of university students applying for special consideration on the basis of ‘stress’ or ‘depression and anxiety’ increases, as students pathologise the normal pressures of life in the adult world into an ever-expanding rubric of ‘wellness’.

Furedi often writes about this cultural turn. Furedi seems to focus on the personal elements of this; the pedestrian dog-whistle that all young people are feeble minded snowflakes. I’m unmoved by this, as it’s basically just same-old inter generational cruelty. What’s more interesting are the structural dimensions – how did we get to the point where these frailties became such an integral part of identity?

In the period of late capitalism, we are encouraged to focus our attention on ourselves so as to avoid looking at the structural inequities and problems that may affect our ‘wellbeing’. This is one of the key ways that neo-liberalism works – it is the cult of the individual; If you can’t make life work, it’s because you’ve got something wrong with you. You have an illness. I’ve moaned about how this insidious cult of wellness operates before.

There are many orthogonal structural considerations here. For just one example; all capitalist systems require a certain degree of labour market elasticity. This is what the NAIRU (Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) refers to. It is simply the rate of unemployment that can be sustained before inflation rises.

In the old days, the easiest way to secure churn at the bottom of the labour market was simply racism – you brought people in to your country and then stigmatised them so they would remain at the bottom. I’m over simplifying, but we can recognise this pattern in the Australian context, and in other places too. It’s hardly a radical observation. The decline in Empires (something that really only happened with the recession in the second half of the 1970s) has made flat-out racism more unpalatable (but still very much alive make no mistake) and immigration much harder to manage. But the market still needs a bunch of people who will buy things but can’t work all the time. I find it fascinating to see how ‘anxiety’ plays out, the structures around it, and most importantly, the intersection with the labour market. Those with ‘mental health’ (we’ve dropped the ‘problems’) are frequently cycled in and out of the labour market, and enfeebled by a coterie of ‘experts’ who convince them of their lack of self worth. It is unsurprising to me that this predominantly affects women, and has risen in lock step with the expansion of the service sector, with its zero hours contracts and predominantly women’s participation.

There’s another dimension to Furedi’s comments about education and feeble-mindedness, however. The commodification of a university education under a neo-liberal model has seen a dramatic increase in university enrolments. I’ve written about this in the Australian context before. My point is, universities are now accepting students who are completely unprepared for a university education.

One of the one hand, it’s predatory lending – inviting students to buy a mediocre education where they barely scrape through a general degree, with the help of multiple concessions to ‘stress’ or ‘depression’, is of questionable benefit. Many emerge with little more than a more finely honed sense of their acute and personal failings. There are graphs around that demonstrate the rise in ‘support services’ within the tertiary sector.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I left school very young, with no qualifications, convinced by my family and teachers that I was so hopelessly stupid that if providence smiled upon me I’d end up in a medium security prison. It was through a series of accidents that I found myself at university in my early 20s, entering through a special dispensation – ‘you can have a crack and if you pass everything, you can stay’.

So I’m cautious about Furedi and suggesting that university entry requirements should be tightened as it may exclude those who might genuinely benefit, but it doesn’t prevent a clear eyed discussion of what the actual benefits are, or what role university education might play in a person’s life.

I’ll leave that there. Apologies for lack of coherent thought.

500 words; Risk, autism and wooly thinking

None of this makes much sense, it’s really just me mapping out questions rather than answers.

Recently a friend claimed that everyone at MIT (where she studied) was on the spectrum. The assumption that intelligence corresponds with autism is well known – here’s a primer on the idea that certain alleles crossover for both.

Basically, the argument runs that autism is like a concentrator – some bits of the brain get gooderer, while others get badderer. The article I’ve cited talks about this from an evolutionary perspective, including ‘assortative mating’ – like mates like.

Here’s my question – everything I’ve read about the ‘stratospheric rise’ in autism suggests that it has something to do with rapid changes in the environment (in an evolutionary sense), especially pre and immediately post-natally. In other words, the food we eat and behaviours we engage in, especially stressful ones, positively correlate with a diagnosis of autism.

I don’t know if I believe in a ‘rise’ in autism – seems like the diagnostic criteria is tremendously malleable, you can see this in the discrepancies across social categories too.

I guess I’m musing on an apparent paradox;

The rise in autism is supposedly caused by poor environment – high maternal sugar intake, high post natal stress/cortisol etc.,. and yet autism would seem to correspond with high ‘innate’ IQ – that is, ability to think about difficult topics logically (expressing this is a different story).

Does this lead to the conclusion that the rise in Lifestyles of the Poor and Ignominious have resulted in higher levels of IQ – albeit alongside autism?

Doesn’t stack up for me.

I’m wary of labelling everyone smart with being ‘on the spectrum’. As a child I was diagnosed as 100% NutBar – with many troubling behavioural and learning issues (I’m NOT labelling being on the spectrum with being a nutbar – I am claiming my own experience not speaking for anyone else’s here).

My life was very stressful but we lived in an affluent area where social problems are far more likely to be pathologised as medical ones.  Then at 13 I moved schools and started living in a hostel. Suddenly (almost) every problem I’d ever had with learning and behaviour magically evaporated. I’m not suggesting that I am completely ‘not nutbar’ – I am a bit odd, and that’s good. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being on the spectrum – as long as the consequences are good rather than negative (stigma etc.,.) but that’s another set of issues. But, I am suggesting we should be realistic about the range of human variability, and realistic about what that means. Diagnosing epidemics of this and that makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not suggesting autism doesn’t exist, or making claims about causality or anything else, I’m just very interested in what appears to be a paradox described above.

I guess another way of saying this would be – if we define IQ as the type of stuff people with autism are good at (the type of thinking defined in the article I cited above) then is there now more of it? And is this due to shitty western lifestyles?