Data and Distrust: American Indians in Genetic Research

Sometimes one of the hardest things for scientists like myself to do is to step back and realize that, in addition to engaging in an empirical and systematic way of answering questions about the world, I am part of a community of scientists. This community might not always represent what I believe, and it can be insular. To those of us who immerse ourselves entirely in the sciences, it simply takes a little extra thought to step back and be self-critical or at least self-conscious. When people disagree with a scientific consensus we are more likely to call them names than to try to engage with them. I agree, many anti-vaxers, many flat-earthers, many climate change deniers, are totally beyond where you can reach them. They are 100% ideologue and 0% data. However, there is a significant portion of that population which we can absolutely reach out to, understand their point of view, and present our data in an accessible way. For example, although it is easy to just brazenly declare that all climate change deniers don’t think the earth is warming, we might be surprised to find that many of them agree that the earth is warming, agree that a portion of it is man-made, and simply disagree on what percent of climate change is due to human activities. That’s way closer to scientific consensus than I would have previously believed. It got me to thinking that this useless put-down game of insulting the intelligence of people who disagree with us is another iteration of “If you didn’t vote like me you support racism and hate”, and we all know where that got us in November. Unless we can bridge this gap and understand the underlying distrust of science that comes from many communities, we are destined to struggle not only against our western blots, our mouse experiments, our chemical reactions or microscopy, but we must also struggle against our fellow man. For many of us, the whole reason we entered science was to help other people, to make a difference. That difference begins with understanding. Today I am sharing with you a small microcosm of this complex societal relationship between science, scientists, and the public. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN peoples) are some of the most marginalized and perhaps mistreated groups in American history. Readers will know I’m not one to just willy nilly say anyone who isn’t in gender/sexual orientation/skin color group A is oppressed or in danger, that’s ridiculous, and almost deliberately oversimplified. Still, let’s be real: when it comes to native populations, we done fucked up a few times. 

American Indians and Alaska Natives number 5.4 million in the United States, representing almost 2% of the overall population [1] and growing at a rate which positions them to be an even larger percentage of the population by the next Census in 2020 [2]. In order to better care for this growing demographic, it is important to understand important genetic and medical histories of the population. In order to do this, members of the community must first be enrolled in studies. For many people, contributing their time or samples to genetic research feels like their chance to help out in some small way. Perhaps they feel as though donating to research is their “good deed” for the week, perhaps they know someone with a specific disorder, or else this is a disorder they might be predisposed to and they want to know more about their risk. In their 2011 paper, Michie et al. identify the potential for donated samples to help countless individuals in the future, the not-insignificant emotional rewards of donating time or tissue, and the possibility of learning about something which will affect them directly as major motivations for participating in genetic studies [3]. While all of these motivators likely apply to members of the American Indian community, their history with medical research is complex and often colored by injustices or mistreatment. As a result, native people are often highly suspicious or distrustful of scientific researchers and medical research as a whole. In order to better serve the healthcare needs of American Indian communities and in order for researchers to find a more respectful and collaborative approach to accessing these communities, it is necessary to first understand the numerous cultural and historical barriers, and ethical points which contribute to the issue at hand.

One of the hurdles to involving American Indians in genetic research studies is that two of the aforementioned primary motivators: possibility of research helping you and possibility of research helping others, are tainted by distrust and a perception that there is very little benefit to the donation of genetic information [4]. The concern on behalf of American Indians that interactions between the native population and the general American population (such as genetic research), will be inherently exploitative is not entirely unjustified. In one case which took place between 2003 and 2010, members of a small American Indian tribe, the Havasupai, donated DNA samples to researchers at Arizona State University with the expressed goal of understanding the debilitating rate of diabetes in their population. However, after donating their samples it came to light that their samples had also been used to study a vast array of conditions, including some highly culturally sensitive topics, such as mental illness, consanguinity, and other hereditary traits [5]. This presents the cultural/ethical issue. In explaining that they would use the samples to study a real health issue in the community (a perceived benefit), they failed to also indicate that the samples would be used to study other things which might not be perceived as beneficial to the Havasupai, or might even be perceived as exploitative or negative. On the other end, the geneticist who had performed the studies, Therese Markow, defends her studies saying that the broad consent form and verbal consent indicated the research was going to “study the causes of behavioral/medical disorders”. In her view and perhaps outright, the American Indians had indeed consented to have their blood studied for these purposes.

This case raises the question of where the ethical limit is for how extensively researchers need to assure that their subjects understand what it is they are consenting to. In genetic research, especially research which focuses on sensitive subpopulations, the informed part of informed consent is of vital importance. According to Nanibaa’ Garrison, a member of the Navajo Nation and professor of bioethics at Seattle Children’s Hospital “What really went wrong was a lack of communication and transparency.” [6]. The official settlement which followed this case reinforces this point. Arizona State University agreed to pay out a total of $700,000 divided amongst several affected members of the tribe, which some legal experts say established a precedent that the rights of subjects are violated if they are not fully informed of the uses of their DNA.

The poor relationship of American Indians with genetic research is not just limited to the fallout of unethically conducted science, either. The complicated and sometimes exploitative nature of American Indian relations with the general US population is steeped in a long and bloody history of biological warfare, genocide, westward expansion, and unfair legal treatment [7]. For a people with a long and rich cultural legacy, Indian removal policies, the trail of tears, and smallpox blankets are fresh memories with real modern-day impact. In an interview with Genome, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta Kim Tallbear says “Native people always serve as the same kind of object…genomic research, building a pipeline, doing resource development like timber, minerals, oil, and natural gas, we are always an object of curiosity and a place to extract resources.” [6]. This continued perception of exploitation by the US contributes to a sense of “othering” which may be at the root of another issue with genomic research in American Indians. It was previously mentioned that the chance for your samples to help others in the future was a major reason for people to participate in genetic studies. If American Indian populations feel as though they are separate, othered, or just don’t have much in common with the US population, then the possibility to help other people in the country starts to look more like the possibility to be used for another group’s gain and not your own. It is clear that Tallbear, along with many other representatives of native people, think of their genetic information in terms of a resource. In the same interview, Tallbear goes on to say “The last biological resource they want is our DNA. We are the resources upon which the US state is built. Nothing has really changed for us, while our cultures and sovereignty are not considered.” In this statement, she underscores an “us and them” mentality and reveals a clear correlation between genetic information and the more tangible natural resources which helped to build the United States. The question, then, is how researchers can underscore the potential benefits of genetic research not only to the “general population” but specifically to American Indians and to their tribe specifically. While it may be necessary to go to greater lengths in order to convince American Indians of the benefit of their genetic donation, ethically, it can be unclear where convincing ends and overselling begins. Part of informed consent and the ethical conduct of genetic research is being realistic about the benefits which might come to the participant or their community. If researchers oversell or make promises about data or information they can’t necessarily deliver on, it will only sew more seeds of distrust. That being said, there is a great deal of room for American Indians to benefit from genetic and overall medical research. Amongst these communities, the death rate is nearly 50% higher than that of white Americans, and epidemiologically they tend to have higher rates of diabetes [8], obesity [9], liver disease [10], and other conditions with potential genetic roots. Perhaps better communication of these issues and the potential for benefit to native populations can help to improve American Indian – research relations. The benefits of research can also be extended past a possibly esoteric or ambiguous benefit of future knowledge gained. Norton and Manson suggest that studies may employ local community members to help run studies, translate or communicate, and meet with tribal representatives to see how best the study results can be implemented or used to help the American Indian community directly [4]. Researchers may also present results to tribal leaders or a representative group following the study, in order to explain the benefits in a clear and understandable way, as well as to increase transparency, which we recall was identified by Garrison as an important point of contention in the Havasupai case.

American Indians are a people whose culture has been historically systematically suppressed through forcing American Indian children into boarding schools [11], appropriation of cultural knowledge [12], and theft of significant cultural artifacts [13]. As a result, releasing their genetic data, a biochemical stand in for their cultural and ethnic history, may represent a much more significant sacrifice than it does to other study participants. It is already evident that some American Indians consider their DNA and the information encoded within to be a biological resource. For insular communities like many American Indian tribes, genetic information isn’t just their story but also, in part, the story of their tribe. In a 2002 paper, Sharp and Foster argue that, in the case of genetic studies, the results not only affect the consenting participant, but everyone in that community who likely share similar genetic predispositions [14]. They highlight the higher frequency of specific mutations in the now-infamous “breast cancer genes” BRCA1 and BRCA2 in Ashkenazi Jews [15] as having implications for insurance and broader societal impressions. If it is known that Ashkenazi Jews have significantly higher rates of breast cancer, can Ashkenazi women be asked to pay higher insurance premiums? What about the broader stigma associated if a study should find that many American Indians are predisposed to alcoholism [16]? Clearly, this particular issue is not unique to American Indians, but fear of what might be discovered in genetic histories is a common concern. For example, what if a study discovers that you are going to develop Huntington’s, a fatal condition with no known cure when you are 40? What if you had passed it to your children? For American Indians, the concern of stigmatization is accompanied by a secondary threat, something which researchers from outside the community might not think is very important or unethical. In the case of the Havasupai tribe, in addition to the use of blood for studies of genetic disorders, one of the big concerns was that genetic research into the tribe’s geographical origins may contradict their traditional stories of how their tribe came to be, or from whom they descended [5]. Research into the peopling of the Americas thousands of years ago can often be at odds with tribal stories and lineages, and current genetic research may reveal information about family histories which individuals or tribes may not wish to know. In a recent letter to Nature, Reich et al. perform extensive genetic studies on 52 American Indian tribes, revealing potentially sensitive information about migration patterns. Their data reveal significant admixing between three waves of migration from Asia through the Bering Strait (Beringia) [17]. These data and information like it may threaten the identities and cultural beliefs of American Indians. Herein lies another potential ethical conundrum for researchers. In this case, a few volunteers from a large number of tribes have agreed to something which in the end affects aspects of a much larger community of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Some experts suggest that de-identifying the tribes which are used in research studies may be a workable solution [18]. However, the identity of the tribes, their geographic locations, and previous genetic studies on a given group may be important to the study at hand, especially one of a genetic nature. Furthermore, even attempts to de-identify tribes may not be successful. Many American Indian tribes number under 1000 members, with the notable exclusions of the Navajo and Cherokee, and are confined to very specific geographical regions. These two facts alone may make it difficult to anonymize study data. This is a potential issue which researchers must be cognizant of when working with American Indian populations.

American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from elevated rates of many health conditions with genetic underpinnings such as obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. Simultaneously, there exists a long history of exploitation and abuse of native peoples, reflected in distrust and suspicion of genetic research by these populations. Several cultural and ethical barriers such as low perceived benefits of genetic studies, othering from the greater US population, and worries about genetic challenges to traditional stories and identities exist, separating researchers from valuable data, and native populations from the benefits of genetic research. In order to bridge this gap, proper communication, transparency, and a more sensitive cultural understanding on the part of the researchers are necessary such that genetic studies may ethically incorporate this and other vulnerable populations.

 

References

  1. Norris, T., P. Vines, and E. Hoeffel, The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs, 2012.
  2. Colby, S. and J. Ortman, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Current Population Reports, 2015.
  3. Michie, M., et al., “If I could in a small way help”: motivations for and beliefs about sample donation for genetic research. J Empir Res Hum Res Ethics, 2011. 6(2): p. 57-70.
  4. Norton, I.M. and S.M. Manson, Research in American Indian and Alaska Native communities: navigating the cultural universe of values and process. J Consult Clin Psychol, 1996. 64(5): p. 856-60.
  5. Harmon, A., Indian Tribe Wins Fight to Limit Research of Its DNA, in The New York Times. 2010: New York.
  6. Salamon, M., Turning the Tide: A legacy of abuse has caused many American Indians to distrust genomic studies, leading scientists to forge a new, more collaborative path forward. Genome, 2017. 4(1): p. 30-34.
  7. Henderson, D.A., et al., Smallpox as a biological weapon: medical and public health management. Working Group on Civilian Biodefense. JAMA, 1999. 281(22): p. 2127-37.
  8. Cho, P., et al., Diabetes-related mortality among American Indians and Alaska Natives, 1990-2009. Am J Public Health, 2014. 104 Suppl 3: p. S496-503.
  9. Schell, L.M. and M.V. Gallo, Overweight and obesity among North American Indian infants, children, and youth. Am J Hum Biol, 2012. 24(3): p. 302-13.
  10. Suryaprasad, A., et al., Mortality caused by chronic liver disease among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, 1999-2009. Am J Public Health, 2014. 104 Suppl 3: p. S350-8.
  11. Archuleta, M., B. Child, and K. Lomawaima, Away from Home: The Indian Boarding School Experience, T.H. Museum, Editor. 2000: Phoenix, AZ.
  12. Brush, S. and D. Stabinsky, Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous Peoples and Intellectual Property Rights. 1996, Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
  13. Thomas, D.H., Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. 2000, New York: Basic Books.
  14. Sharp, R.R. and M.W. Foster, Community involvement in the ethical review of genetic research: lessons from American Indian and Alaska Native populations. Environ Health Perspect, 2002. 110 Suppl 2: p. 145-8.
  15. Struewing, J.P., et al., The risk of cancer associated with specific mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 among Ashkenazi Jews. N Engl J Med, 1997. 336(20): p. 1401-8.
  16. Long, J.C., et al., Evidence for genetic linkage to alcohol dependence on chromosomes 4 and 11 from an autosome-wide scan in an American Indian population. Am J Med Genet, 1998. 81(3): p. 216-21.
  17. Reich, D., et al., Reconstructing Native American population history. Nature, 2012. 488(7411): p. 370-4.
  18. Bowekaty, M.B. and D.S. Davis, Cultural issues in genetic research with American Indian and Alaskan Native people. IRB, 2003. 25(4): p. 12-5.

 

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2nd Amendment Rhetoric

When dealing with the second amendment, which guarantees the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms”, there’s a lot of emotion involved, and a lot of rhetoric. There are some awesome videos circulating which debunk a lot of commonly held beliefs about the second amendment. However, some of them can be a little condescending or otherwise just a lot of information and change for someone who doesn’t have experience with firearms. I want to keep this post tight and succinct, so we’re going to talk about one of the most common arguments we see circulating around social media: the argument that the second amendment was written several hundred years ago and therefore doesn’t apply to firearms invented after 1789 (88-91 depending on where you draw the line). Some of you might correctly identify this as a subset of the argument against an originalist reading of the constitution. The argument, at its core, is that when the second amendment was written, common “Arms” were muskets and swords. Since technology has advanced and created new and more lethal firearms, it’s necessary to write legislation to fill this gap. You can see this argument shared almost verbatim from a common progressive facebook page below.Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 11.58.13 AM

Although we know that “views” on a facebook video are a bit inflated, 60million is still a pretty high number. This isn’t some fringe viewpoint or argument, the page has over 4.5 million likes.

We’ll ignore  the fact that a short argument such as this doesn’t specify what kinds of new gun laws we need because of the limitations of making a quick, simplified, statement over the internet. However, if we accept this way of looking at the bill of rights and the constitution at large, a few comical (in a terrifying way) observations can be made.

Let’s start with the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Parallel argument: This is what press looked like when the first amendment was written *image of printing press*. This is why we need new freedom of press laws. Since the internet and computers were not invented in 1789, the founding fathers had no way of knowing how vast and powerful our sharing tools would become. We need new laws on the book to regulate what people can publish online. When the founding fathers wrote the constitution, how could they have possibly anticipated that televisions, blogs, radio or microphones would be invented? These tools give you the capability to speak freely to 1000 people per second! We need to regulate what citizens can say on these media. When they said free speech they meant in the town square, to as many people as you could yell.

Other things not protected under the first amendment: google hangouts, youtube videos, video chatting, text messaging, phone calls, megaphones, email.

The third amendment is kind of a boring one for this parallelism. I guess one could say that houses now are way bigger and have features the founding fathers couldn’t have imagined so if your house uses any post 1789 features like a two car garage? That’s not protected bro, congress can make a law saying you have to quarter 4 army dudes in your garage forever.

The fourth amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Parallel argument: The founding fathers say “houses and papers”, but they didn’t say anything about your smart phone! You are not protected from seizure of your phone records, internet history, photos, documents, spreadsheets, usage data, text messages, emails, online shopping record or any form of digital communication or storage of information at all. Really anything that was invented after 1789 which can be searched, they don’t need a warrant for.

What about the fifth and sixth amendments? Sure it was reasonable to have a fair trial in front of a jury when the population of the newly-minted country was ~2.5 million people. There’s no way they could have anticipated that the population was going to grow to 320 million. Besides there are way more laws now, laws they didn’t know about. It makes it SUCH a burden to give everyone a fair trial in front of a jury of their peers.

As we can see, making an argument based on the limited foresight of the founding fathers leads to a whole lot of relativism. The bill of rights is written as a document which expressly prohibits the government from infringing on basic rights of American citizens. You can argue that you don’t want the right to bare Arms to be a basic right guaranteed to Americans, but you should be clear that that is what you are arguing for, the removal of rights currently guaranteed by the bill of rights. Just because the founding fathers didn’t know about new technology isn’t a sufficient argument for our basic rights as Americans not applying to those things. Just because the framers didn’t know that someone was going to invent an AR15 or your standard semi-automatic handgun doesn’t mean that those aren’t protected by the constitution.

 

 

There is Goodness in the World

It is a common axiom that intelligent people are often less happy. Many historical geniuses or great inventors were notoriously depressed, loners, or removed from normal healthy interactions in some way or another. Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life following the Manhattan Project deeply upset with the idea that something as terrible and destructive as the atomic bomb existed, and that he had created it. For Oppenheimer, the root of his unhappiness resulted directly from the fruits of his impressive intellect and likely the tangible destruction it had wrought. When asked about the first time the Manhattan Project team saw the A-bomb tested, Oppenheimer famously said

“A few people laughed, a few people cried, most were silent…I remembered a line from the Hindu scripture…bhagavad gita…Vishnu takes on his multi-armed form and says ‘now I am become death, destroyer of worlds’ I think we all felt that. One way or another.”

This is one of his most famous quotes, and for good reason. Although the recording adds a certain humanity and emotion to the words, even the text alone belies a deep, existential and metaphysical dread. Some might say that it wasn’t necessarily his genius that was intertwined with his unhappiness, but rather the child of his intellect, the bomb. To that I might ask you if there is a difference between the two. Nonetheless, a perhaps less intellectually flippant answer would be to refer to a lesser-known quote from Oppenheimer. In a 1929 letter to his brother, Oppenheimer wrote:

“I can’t think that it would be terrible of me to say — and it is occasionally true — that I need physics more than friends”

Robert Oppenheimer was not unique in his woes. Vincent Van Gogh was reportedly unhappy all his life, with frequent depressive spells and other mental illness plaguing one of the most influential geniuses in western art history. This eventually lead to him taking his own life before age 40. He is credited as having created his own unique style, and is arguably the most prolific and ingenious Belgian artist of all time. However, he died poor and alone, having painted most of his 2100+ pieces in the two years prior to shooting himself in the chest.

Yet another example, the great Ernest Hemingway, who suffered a deep depression, once said:

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

A few years and several failed electroshock therapy treatments later, Hemingway himself ate a bullet from his favorite gun.

These geniuses represent peaks in human brilliance and talent, but the trend also holds in a general sense. People who have gone through a long period of schooling relative to the general population are some of the least happy people I know. Some of you might be thinking that level of schooling isn’t a very good proxy for intellect. I agree.  You might say that the reason that unhappiness and schooling don’t anecdotally correlate better than they already do is because there are lots of people who are well educated but otherwise rather unintelligent. 

Having acknowledged the limitations of using schooling as representative of intellect, I have noticed a peculiar something about the ivory-tower social justice which of late innervates more and more aspects of university life and learning, especially in the United States. As the now infamous clip of the pop-culture feminist icon, Anita Sarkeesian, proclaims 

“When you start learning about systems, everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time”

I often hear the argument that treating everything as prejudiced is either hyperbolic, or is an extremist view. But  the millions of people making up the general readership of several common news outlets seem pretty okay with this “extremism”. According to Salon, voting for Donald Trump is a sexist reaction to women’s rights. According to Slate, craft brewing has a sexism problem. Here, the New York Post reminds us that calling a pantsuit a pantsuit is extremely problematic. University of Wisconsin recently offered a post-doctoral position in feminist biology because science is sexist too!

Thank god we have some pop culture icons to guide us in the right direction as well, I hope they make a condescending video telling me who to vote for and what to think! Who wouldn’t want to get their political viewpoints secondhand from Barbara Streisand who told the Hollywood Reporter that sexism extends to lab animals? Babs unironically spouts off the fact that only male mice are used in labs because the female mice’s hormones are more complex. She goes on to explain that this is true about human females too. Only one problem: as someone who works in a mouse lab, she’s utterly incorrect. Where do you think we get new mice of the same genetic lineage you dense motherfucker? Indeed standard scientific protocol dictates that mice be gender balanced and age matched within an experiment.

The Telegraph reports, admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek, that air conditioning is now sexist because the work clothes women wear are lighter and often don’t cover as much of their body so they end up cold in the office. To this I would suggest that they switch over to a pantsuit but it’s sexist to say that word. My bad.

I could go on for hours like this, but at risk of losing the spirit of this piece, I digress satisfied that I’ve challenged the “vocal minority” talking point.

“Hold on, did he just compare Anita Sarkeesian to Van Gogh?”

In the sense that underscoring contrast is a comparison, yes.

Perhaps in order for my meaning to be understood, I need to explain what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. A few days ago I was watching a video compiled by a friend with whom I studied abroad. We were involved in an ecology and wildlife management program in east Africa. Studying in Tanzania was one of the best, most memorable, and formative experiences of my life. However, as I was watching the video, which featured short clips of wildlife, everyday life in the village, classes, and safaris we had been on, the smile that was plastered over my face began to taste sour. I was watching a clip of myself and a few students sitting around with one of the organizers of the base camp. Yohanna, an Tanzanian man, was full of such ebullient life and happiness that it was impossible not to feel a little happier around him. He was just that kind of guy. He had a very characteristic greeting that would often announce his presence before you even saw who was speaking. “Allllooo” (ah-low) he would say in a sing-song kind of voice. In this particular clip we were trying to get him to give his signature greeting so that we could document it. As I was watching it I cringed a little “Were we teasing him for having an accent when he already speaks 4 times as many languages as most of us? Was he just putting up with us because of our class and skin color? Was the pleasantness of our interaction merely a function of privilege?” It was an insidious thought, something terrible that I couldn’t shake at first. Something deep down told me this wasn’t the case. Yohanna is a good man. The experiences that we shared, the cultural exchanges, were good and real. Talking to people around the village, making food with the Maasai mamas, building thorny enclosures with poor farmers, experiencing another culture and world. So long as these actions don’t come from a “white savior” position, so long as you recognize the fortune which put you in that position, why should I let the ideology of my freshman seminar class govern the way I experienced the world? Indeed, this mentality which purports to be respectful of cultural differences was very clearly getting in the way of a real cultural exchange!

And therein was the answer to the dilemma I was grappling with. The ideology that was being proclaimed by academia, which I was a part of, told me that everything was problematic. Due to the systems in place there was nothing good about interactions between any people except those who fill the same gender, racial, sexual, ability, and class roles. But this isn’t just true of ivory tower social justice. How many times have you seen a buzzfeed or HuffPo article or your friend’s status (okay this might just be because I have a lot of social justice warrior friends…) about how hard it is to be “woke” because you see sexism and inequality in every movie or TV show, in all media, everywhere in the world? 

When the great geniuses and intellectuals of history are faced with beauty and truth, those truths may not be good ones. They may not be happy. Indeed, perhaps Van Gogh couldn’t have been a true artistic genius without access to the dread and darkness that came with his depression. My point is they didn’t seek it out. On the other hand, seeing every interaction as potentially problematic based on skin color or gender identity does not represent intellectualism or truth. Expecting prejudice of all media and interpersonal interactions we see is an ideology, and ideologies are where truth develops Stockholm syndrome. Seeing everything through one lens is not intellectualism, it is laziness. It ignores the countless beautiful and difficult and complex dimensions of humanity. Sometimes the more we “learn” the less we think about things. There is a famous Zen saying from the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki…

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the master’s mind there are few”

While he was likely referring to the notion that someone who is naive about a topic might think about problems in a unique way, that a master would not consider based on his experience, I think it applies here as well. Indeed, in the mind of someone embedded deep in the ideology of academia, there is only the truth that interactions between humans almost always involve some power differential. Are there interactions which are problematic? Yes. Of course. However, it would seem to this writer, that seeing problems in the place of goodness and truth is the greater threat to understanding this beautiful and terrible world. 

The experiences I shared with Yohanna and all my other east African friends were real and good. Looking back on something as simple as sharing a cold ginger beer on a hot night or working together to set up a tent or monitor a group of animals reminds me of how, despite how my education might have postured me to be unhappy , there is goodness in this world.

Acknowledge that which is wrong in the world, and fight it tirelessly, but do not inject poisonous hate and negativity into memories or falsely apply them to experiences. We are complex systems interacting with complex systems within complex systems. It is not Socratic sadness that leaves us questioning a simple conversation, a hug, a gesture, but the blindness of an ideologue. While the nature of truth and genius and intellect may dictate that they often carry with them sadness, we must not confuse the perception of negativity with truth and genius and intellect.

A year ago I learned that Yohanna had died in a motor-bike accident near the Kenya-Tanzania border. It was deeply upsetting. I knew that people died in accidents with motor bikes fairly often in that region of Africa, but Yohanna was young, it didn’t feel like his time. The world had lost someone so full of life and whose presence was a blessing to others. The true sadness was not that my experiences with Yohanna had been tainted by privilege or systems of oppression. The true sadness was knowing how much good had left the world with that cheerful, 5’4″ Tanzanian man.

Heil PewDiePie

For those of you who don’t have your pulse on the drama of youtube personalities (and really, what decent person does?), there has recently been a scandal involving perhaps the most prominent Youtuber ever, PewDiePie. With over 3K videos and over 50 Million subscribers, it’s impossible to deny that PewDiePie is a powerful cultural force. Of late, the wall street journal, an otherwise reputable newspaper, reported that PewDiePie had ties to nazism. For most people, accusing someone of being a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer is an extremely serious accusation. However, for the mainstream media, it seems like this is just another day.

Around the vlogosphere, youtubers and commentators alike have been launching videos and blogs almost unanimously in support of PewDiePie. The basics of the situation are, PewDiePie makes regular jokes about the Nazis and Hitler in his videos. Are these jokes in good taste? That’s up to the listener. Are they neo-nazi propaganda? Fucking no. Jesus. Fucking no. For decades, Hitler has been the edgelord off-limits joke subject that many comedians fall back on for the guaranteed shock value. However, based on some particularly racy videos released by PewDiePie and also based on his endorsements and YoutubeRed series (both of which he has lost in the wake of this scandal), PewDiePie apparently need edit his jokes otherwise it is apparently fair to decry him as a Nazi.

I don’t want to get into a whole rant about this because to be honest, I don’t know a ton about the heart of the issue. I am not intimately knowledgable about what happened. From what I understand, some dude who jokes about Nazis sometimes was targeted and called out as a Nazi, which he clearly isn’t. My stake in this issue is that issues like this are unbelievably deleterious to the credibility of the MSM. When we watch news outlets continue to point the finger at people and call them racist, nazis, sexist, etc., especially when that person has literally almost as many subscribers as President Trump had voters, people are going to realize they are full of shit. Buzzwords and click bait titles involving racism or Nazism are surefire short-term ways to gain clicks or views, but in the end I can’t help but think this is incredibly damaging to mainstream journalism. Writers for the numerous outlets (not just WSJ) who picked up this story and ran with it should honestly be ashamed of themselves. It would take an unbelievably short amount of time to do the investigative journalism required to clearly debunk the claim the PewDiePie is a Nazi sympathizer. The fact that the story has gained any traction is a damning look at the mainstream media and journalistic standards.

Indeed, it is stories just like this one which drive more and more people away from cable news or establishment journalism and more towards alternative media and more uncensored, unfiltered sources for their political news. Naturally I encourage my readership to diversify the types of alternative media they consume. However, it seems with this latest scandal and countless other “fake news” stories circulated by outlets of both/all political slants, it becomes truly difficult to continue to trust anything reported by the MSM without independent verifications.

I have long railed against the entertainment news paradigm, and with this latest election and what I believe to be America and the world’s departure from the values of truth and data, it becomes almost necessary to expand one’s reading and watching to get the whole picture. Unfortunately, for most people, it isn’t plausible to gain this broad insight. In the wake of PewDiePie-Gate, are we seeing a shift in the overall attitude toward the MSM? What would happen if this smear campaign had been orchestrated against someone with a smaller viewership, who didn’t have the voice to speak out? These types of accusations are serious and can ruin lives. Will this scandal be doomed to echo around the halls of the broader youtube viewership, or is that viewership a large enough percentage of the population that this leaks into our collective psyche?

Nishio 2 – Lemaitre feat. Giraffage

About a year ago, the Norwegian indie electronic duo Lemaitre (from french: the master) released a collaboration with one of my favorite glitch/dream pop artists of this past year, Giraffage. Giraffage (nee Charlie Yin), called Nishio 2. Throughout 2016 this song wormed its way into my consciousness in several, week-long intervals, eventually becoming one of my most listened to tracks of the year. The recent turn of the year has given me a chance to look back on this eventful year. The past year has been at once a successful, joyful, deeply upsetting, and depressing one. Perhaps then, it is fitting that this track featured so heavily. (Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?)

The track starts off with a light scale resembling chimes or bells, and is quickly supported by a low synth drum which lends it a beaty vibe popular in several genres of electronic music in the past few years. The overall vibe of the song is very reminiscent of Giraffage’s recent collaborations with artists like Slow Magic, ethereal, dreamy, and ambient in a way that refuses to be ambiance. We soon hear a female vocalist sing some of the only lyrics to the song “I’m so happy”. In a standard glitch style, samples of these vocals repeat as though skipping or glitching. 

Lots of electronic music uses the device of repetition, and while it can be indicative of a lack of creativity or simply used to force something to be catchy for radio play, it does have its place as an artistic tool. I encounter this issue often when discussing or reviewing gospel music. Despite being near the opposite end of the musical spectrum, gospel too has from early on understood the importance and the grandeur in simplicity that comes with repeating a line over and over. If the artist and the performers are talented enough, each time the line is repeated, new emotions and thoughts can be brought forward in an attentive audience (us, the listeners!).

However, while the overall lyrics of Nishio 2 do repeat, the first half “I’m so happy” repeats only once before the second half of the lyrics are added “I’m so happy I never met you. Our time together would be too short and sad.” After this second half of the lyrics comes in, the female vocals are slowly distorted, and it sounds almost like a children’s chorus is singing behind her. Then, at the 2:14 mark the lyrics are repeated again, but the woman’s voice is bent into a higher tone, which sounds to me like a younger girl’s voice before the track goes quiet for a second. The music comes back in suddenly with a burst of the joyful melody, which throughout the track juxtaposes with the rather sad lyrics in a melancholy song which can be at times emotionally unsettling.

My favorite part about the bare-bones lyrics is how open it leaves the song for interpretation and for reliability or at least sympathy. Is the woman dying too young and singing to the soul mate she never had? Is she singing to a star-crossed lover and using “met” as a proxy for getting to know someone deeply? When I first heard the song it broke my heart. Although I have never lost a child, it immediately made me think of a couple who have lost a complicated pregnancy to miscarriage. The woman is happy that her child didn’t have to live a life of suffering from perhaps some serious birth defect, but she is also selfishly joyful because the pain of knowing her child before he/she inevitably died would have been even greater. Further evidence for this interpretation comes in near the end of the song. I spoke earlier about the bending of the woman’s voice to make it sound higher, like a little girl’s. Later in the song, the lyrics are distorted several times throughout the same phrase. The “so happy” sounds like the voice of a young boy, the “never met” and “time together” sounds like a young girl, and the “you” drops down into a deeper sounding male voice (perhaps the father). The rest of the lyrics in the phrase seem to return to the normal female voice. This may, in a devastating sense, represent the couple’s dreams of a family they could have had. To this listener, Nishio 2 is a beautiful and emotional song about losing a child, but taken at face value, I think it represents the beauty in losing something, which is a difficult concept to grapple with.

Listen to the track below.

 

tw: cannibalism

In the time since god-emperor tangerine has assumed the mantle of president-elect I have (much to my displeasure) been trying to keep as close a pulse on the way that my radical leftist (and even some more adult) Facebook friends have reacted. At first I knew there would be issues, grief, irrational behavior. Of course, people invested a lot in this election because some of them (although they were the minority) believed one candidate was much better a choice than the other. Then, after several days passed, it was time to see what form the true reaction to this loss would be on the side of the left. Would they learn from their mistakes (condescension, boy-who-cried-wolf, liberal bubble, etc) or would the left eat itself alive? As you can probably tell from the title of this post, it was the latter.

The first thing I want to talk about is the reactions or overall behavior of leftist celebrities. Being that the two are almost part and parcel, it follows logically that celebrities would largely support Clinton during the election. Let me just say thank God we had ultra-wealthy Hills-dwellers who travel the globe and spend an entire family’s annual income on a handbag to tell us about what’s best for poor working class families. I am eternally grateful to hear the political acumen of professional line readers hired for their genetic good fortune. If you can’t tell I’m being a bit sarcastic about this. If you decide who to vote for based on a 1min 30second video of people who don’t give a shit about you wearing unmarked expensive clothing and reading cue-cards under a black-and-white filter then you should stay home on Election Day because you are not an educated voter and indeed you may never be an educated anything. That being said, the way that celebrities react is a good indicator and often a causative agent in the general public’s reaction.

Celebrities have had mixed reactions following the initial aftershocks. Unfortunately for the state of comedy in America, Amy Schumer is not actually going to be moving to Canada despite vowing that she would. Apparently this vow joins the barren wasteland of other utterly bland and unfunny Amy Schumer jokes. Jon Stewart had a fairly balanced reaction to both sides which he delivered in an interview recently (forgive me if I can’t remember which news show was speaking to him). Of course Jon Stewart is a different type of celebrity to the morally superior Hills-dwellers, and his commentary reflects an intelligent if not left-leaning insight into politics in America. Then of course you have my main man Bill Burr. He went on Conan (a late night host willing to bring someone not entirely amicable to their political viewpoint on the show) because they are both soul-deficient gingers. Bill was pretty much against both candidates from day one but his perspective is as crass and unfiltered as usual, one aspect of Bill I find ultimately refreshing. In the end it’s difficult to pin down one clear direction for the celebrity reaction, although many of the more leftist-friendly celebs have followed the swan song of the radical left in general.

In contrast to the diverse reactions throughout the world of the rich and famous, my feed (rich, just not famous) has been rampant with the funeral dirge of the social justice movement. In a comedic lack of self-awareness, the left has continued to double-down on its identity politics. It is my personal belief that a big reason that the left lost this election is because they cried wolf (racist/sexist/misogynist/supremacist) way too many times. A few nights ago Ben Shapiro was on CNN (or Fox, one of the big networks) and touched on this issue as well. As many of you will have seen in the news, VP Mike Pence went to see Hamilton a few days ago. As he was leaving the theater the cast asked him to wait and that people record them as they delivered a short message. I honestly think their actions were a little childish but certainly not inappropriate for the discourse we’ve been having in this country over the past several months. Naturally, because nobody has taken Donald’s phone away from him yet, the Don had to take to twitter to make some dumb comments and indicate that the cast of Hamilton should apologize. When the left saw this they literally all had synchronized aneurysms and dialed the criticisms and rhetoric up to 11. Am I saying what Donald did was right, or appropriate? Of course not, the man is an out-of-control child. However, if you react with the same vitriol and fervor to Trump’s domestic policy as you do to a tweet about a play, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. People already recognize that the left calls everyone who disagrees some sort of bigot, so this type of reaction just makes people tired. Nobody wants to listen to their rich white friend who took three sociology courses and now understands the world way better than you tell them about how Donald Trump’s tweeting is somehow indicative of deep-seated vices and hatred all of which naturally make them scared for their literal physical safety. Once again, the people who didn’t have the privilege to stand in righteous judgment of people who didn’t hold their political views just don’t respect that kind of drama. If you make a big deal of everything, nobody is going to listen when an actual big deal comes along. Literally every single person who has been rumored or confirmed as part of Donald’s administration has been smeared as white supremacist, sexist, hateful, etc., which is a shame because some of those people really are bad, and many of them aren’t. If your message is that every one of them is a literal nazi then you’ll probably get a few likes or more than a few likes in your liberal bubble on facebook. Meanwhile anyone else reading your comments is thinking about how insane you sound. I’m being hyperbolic here, or at least using some extreme examples, but this problem exists in more subtle interactions too. I’ve seen people post articles decrying with anger how some Trump advisor believes that Islam is responsible for issues in the middle east. They just state this, and then assume everyone else is as outraged as them. As the election should have taught them, they don’t speak for very many people! I’m not going to argue here about the complex underlying causes of America’s current policy situations in the middle east. Suffice it to say, these leftist are totally ignorant to the fact that tons and tons of Americans, none of whom hate Muslims as a rule, would generally agree with the statement they are so outraged by. Now, there’s nothing wrong with them being outraged over something many people find normal and agree with. There is something wrong with assuming there are no rational people who disagree, or that they can disregard anyone who disagrees with the statement. Articles circulate calling out Trump voters “Are you regretting it yet!”  “Look what came of your vote.”. These are hilarious as well. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of Trump voters are actually really happy with the way things have turned out. The leftist freakout is indescribably satisfying to a large subset of Trump voters.

If one good thing has come of the leftist meltdown which has its hot, goey core in the middle of the social justice movement, it is a breath of fresh air in comedy. It’s as if, simply by winning the election, Donald J. Trump has broken a spell cast by the politically correct left. Where issues like the leftist echo chamber, political correctness, and even liberal hypocrisy, are finally stepping into the sunlight. Comics and commentators are much more freely discussing issues that otherwise they would have tiptoed around. Jimmy Kimmel is making fun of the unduly politically correct, SNL is mocking young white liberals, Dave Chappelle is calling out crybabies. And they aren’t being crucified for it. And that is a very good change.

 

 

 

Post-Election Reflection

Ever since the tide started to turn toward a Trump presidency last night my mind has been buzzing with so many different angles and thoughts that could become entire articles on their own. Right now I think the most salient and certainly the most emotionally present topic to talk about is the reaction of many of my white, liberal friends who attended a four year college and have successful parents who support them. This entire election, Bernie Sanders was the closest I had ever come to supporting a candidate for president. Period. As many of you know I’m a “little l” libertarian, so this might seem a little insane, given Bernie’s policies. That’s a topic for another post. When Clinton rigged the primary election against him and publicly stole an election, I watched people on my facebook, twitter and in my own life start to just accept it. I really lost hope in this entire race. To those who are calling anyone out who didn’t vote for Clinton: After you showed your support for the fundamental removal of your fellow citizens voice in who governs them, you don’t get to sling epithets, not without looking foolish.

I was upset and depressed to watch as all of these pro-Hillary messages came through. My friends did not care about democracy, as long as their team “won”. In truth I don’t really know many Trump supporters, but the ones I did see on my social media were slightly racist old white ladies. I am none of those things. At the point when it became a Trump V Clinton race, I knew that the nation was split into camps of people, none of whom had my interests in mind or shared my political philosophies. I was a man without a camp, and don’t you dare say “what about Gary Johnson”. What about Mr. I don’t know where Aleppo is? What about Mr. I can’t name another world leader? What about Mr. Don’t worry about climate change because eventually the Sun will explode?

In any case, I know it’s kind of spiteful, but watching the wreckage on social media has had a tinge of schadenfreude associated with it for me. Through the past few months Clinton supporters have been so smug, so condescending, so utterly hateful toward anyone who didn’t immediately fall in line and vote Clinton. As one of my favorite news show hosts, Dave Rubin, put it:

“It’s almost as if you endlessly call people bigots and racists they’ll eventually get fed up and turn on you”

The Clinton campaign (and I was sad to see, my otherwise kind and reasonable friends) has been incredibly derisive toward anyone who supported Trump, and before that, to anyone who supported Bernie. In other words “anyone who doesn’t vote for me is a bigot and racist”. And that shame tactic has worked for social justice in the past, but I think this election was an inflection point. I think people started to realize and think for themselves I know I’m not a racist. If you call everything racist and everything misogynistic and everything sexist, then honestly people get desensitized. People don’t care if you call them these things anymore. Or they do, but you’re driving them to secretly vote for the candidate that doesn’t think they are literally all deplorable. How could anyone think Hillary Clinton would be a president for everyone? Best case scenario she is a president for half the nation, leaving hundreds of millions of people disenfranchise. Worst case scenario, she’s a president for Hillary Clinton and the donating elites. (Of course, you might ask how could Trump be a president for everyone when he has openly expressed anti-muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes, and overall behaved like an ass for a year straight in the national spotlight? The answer: he won’t be. He is going to be terrible, a terrible awful president. My hopes are higher that he will at least be a president for more than one person, unlike his opponent.)

It was honestly refreshing to see people who have been so smug and unfair and hateful to their fellow Americans have their candidate defeated. I didn’t vote for Trump because my position has been, for a long time, that both options are horrible people to their core, people who I could not ethically and in good conscience state my support for.

I sometimes genuinely believe that my Facebook feed is full of people who just don’t know that the world around them exists. I saw a status today from one of my fellow grad students that actually described this exact illusion. Directly, she said

“I’ve never felt so confused or disconnected from my country. My news feed tells me nearly everyone feels like I do, but if this were true, the election would not have turned out this way.”

These people have become so buried in their safe spaces, spirited away from the (now evident) wave of dissent that vehemently disagreed with their political opinions. Facebook and media outlets show us what we like to hear because we are more likely to continue to engage for longer. A HUGE portion of the country has forced white liberals to come to terms with the idea that they actually don’t have the mandate of the country. They are not representing as many people as they think. When it comes down to it I think the scariest part for these privileged Hillary voters is this: When it’s just a dozen people on a CNN video of a Trump rally, it’s easy to say “those are just some bigoted hillbillies”. When you see over 60 million people vote for Trump, this becomes a more difficult moral calculus. You can, technically, choose to say “wow, I had no idea there were 60 million racists and bigots in America. Or, once you become less emotional, you can say “I had no idea this many people were frustrated, fed up, and not feeling represented by our current status quo.” If we are being honest, nobody chose not to vote for Hillary solely because she has a vagina. Let it go. Trump is the one doing the pussy grabbing. People chose not to vote for Hillary because she is corrupt, because she represents in every way the status quo, because they don’t feel that she cares about their struggles at all. These are poor people, some extremely poor. My father is a working-class immigrant, and while he is a lifetime democrat, his struggle brings into context the struggles of many other working-class people. These are heroes who are working sometimes 7-days a week to support a family and to make a good life for them and their loved ones. To expect them to prioritize your feelings, or even your safety and livelihood over theirs is idiotic. Yet I have still heard people sitting in the same classroom as me, at a private university, who are white, who wear nice clothes and drive nice cars and have little trouble making rent each month, come out and shame these poor working class people for being “privileged enough not to have to worry about the social issues”. Seriously. Listen to yourself. I’ve seen stories describing this as a “white lash” of White people lashing out against…what? a Black president? A woman…? Diversity? Why is it that when poor white working class people voice their political opinions, and vote with what they believe is their best interest in mind, they are different than anyone else in their same socioeconomic class? Are they not struggling to put food on the table as much as anyone else? Are they not worrying what to tell their kids at night? Are they not having trouble making rent?

It is ultimately difficult to re-humanize a group of people who you have made into racist animals, but this is 100% vital to our progress as a nation.

We must be gracious in victory and dignified in defeat.

That being said, dehumanize Trump as much as you like. He’s a shitty person. But don’t assume that anyone who didn’t share your doomsday prophecy about a Trump presidency is some awful monster. They are people, and you are a person.