The Constitution of Knowledge | Jonathan Rauch – National Affairs

Jonathan Rauch

Fall 2018

“Long before Donald Trump began his political career, he explained his attitude toward truth with characteristic brazenness. In a 2004 television interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, he marveled at the Republicans’ successful attacks on the wartime heroism of Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “[I]t’s almost coming out that [George W.] Bush is a war hero and Kerry isn’t,” Trump said, admiringly. “I think that could be the greatest spin I’ve ever seen.” Matthews then asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s insinuations that Kerry’s election would lead to a devastating attack on the United States. “Well,” replied Trump, “it’s a terrible statement unless he gets away with it.” With that extraordinary declaration, Trump showed himself to be an attentive student of disinformation and its operative principle: Reality is what you can get away with.

Trump’s command of the basic concept of disinformation offers some insight into how he approaches the truth as president. The fact is that President Trump lies not only prolifically and shamelessly, but in a different way than previous presidents and national politicians. They may spin the truth, bend it, or break it, but they pay homage to it and regard it as a boundary. Trump’s approach is entirely different. It was no coincidence that one of his first actions after taking the oath of office was to force his press secretary to tell a preposterous lie about the size of the inaugural crowd. The intention was not to deceive anyone on the particular question of crowd size. The president sought to put the press and public on notice that he intended to bully his staff, bully the media, and bully the truth.

In case anyone missed the point, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, made it clear a few weeks later when he announced favorable employment statistics. In the Obama years, Trump had been fond of describing monthly jobs reports as “phony” and “totally fiction.” But now? “I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly,” Spicer said. “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” The president was not saying that the Bureau of Labor Statistics had improved its methodology. He was asserting that truth and falsehood were subject to his will.

Since then, such lies have only multiplied. Fact checkers say that, if anything, the rate has increased. For the president and his enablers, the lying reflects a strategy, not merely a character flaw or pathology.

America has faced many challenges to its political culture, but this is the first time we have seen a national-level epistemic attack: a systematic attack, emanating from the very highest reaches of power, on our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. “These are truly uncharted waters for the country,” wrote Michael Hayden, former CIA director, in the Washington Post in April. “We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” To make the point another way: Trump and his troll armies seek to undermine the constitution of knowledge.”    . . . .

Source: The Constitution of Knowledge | National Affairs

Think You Have ‘Normal’ Blood Pressure? Think Again – By Jane E. Brody – The New York Times

“So you think your blood pressure is normal? Think again.

The latest iteration of an “ideal” blood pressure — a level of 120 millimeters of mercury for systolic pressure, the top number — that Americans are urged to achieve and maintain has been called into question by a long-term multiethnic study of otherwise healthy adults.

The study, published in June in JAMA Cardiology, found that as systolic blood pressure rose above 90 mm, the risk of damage to coronary arteries rose along with it. Systolic blood pressure represents the pressure within arteries when the heart pumps (as opposed to diastolic blood pressure, the lower smaller number, when the heart rests).

The new findings suggest a need to look more carefully at why, despite considerable overall improvements in risk factors for heart disease in recent decades, it remains the nation’s leading killer.

Starting in the 1940s, cardiovascular researchers have unveiled evidence that Americans live in a society that all but guarantees a disproportionately high risk of developing and dying of heart disease. Since my first weeks writing for this newspaper in the early 1960s, I’ve publicized their advice urging people to curb preventable risks to their hearts and blood vessels.”

Opinion | Could the Amazon Save Your Life? – By Mark J. Plotkin – The New York Times

By 

Dr. Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who has spent more than three decades working in the Amazon.

This article is part of the Opinion series The Amazon Has Seen Our Future, about how the people of the region are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s problems.

“Western medicine is the most successful system of healing ever devised and is becoming more so as technology improves and synthetic medicines proliferate. But Mother Nature has been synthesizing weird and wonderful medicinal chemicals for over three billion years, many of which chemists could not predict or devise in their wildest dreams.

They should go to the Amazon.

Over more than three decades, I’ve worked, collaborated and lived with the forest’s shamans as I learned some of their secrets. In the dreamscape of Amazonia flourishes an abundance of astounding species of plants and animals that have provided society with a pharmacopoeia of medicines of astonishing range, from contraceptives to treatments for high blood pressure and malaria, a dental analgesic and surgical muscle relaxants and chemicals that expand the mind.

The region is so vast and impenetrable that much within it remains undiscovered. No wonder the richness of the landscape and the impressive medicinal knowledge of the Indigenous peoples inspired bewilderment and wonder in early visitors from Europe.

As early as the 1600s, the Dutch physician Willem Piso observed several “very effective” local treatments in Brazil, writing, “These Indigenous people, in spite of their total lack of scientific training, have passed on many noble, secret antidotes and medicines unknown to classic science to the next generation.”

Opinion | Those Biden ‘Gaffes’? Some Key Voters Actually Like Them – The New York Times

By Stephanie Muravchik and 

Ms. Muravchik and Mr. Shields are the authors of the forthcoming “Trump’s Democrats.”

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

“If Joe Biden is going to rebuild the Democrats’ “blue wall” and win states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and claim the White House, he will need to appeal to the working-class Democratic communities that put Donald Trump over the top in 2016. They include more than 200 counties that supported Barack Obama twice before voting for Mr. Trump.

Many of these places had long records of unbroken support for Democratic presidential candidates, some even stretching back to before the New Deal.

Mr. Biden needs to tune in to their cultural sensibilities if he’s going to bring at least some of these pivotal blue strongholds back into the Democratic fold. He is one of the few Democrats, as a child of working-class Scranton, Pa., capable of doing so.

We spent the past few years hanging out in bars, churches and town council meetings with these voters — whom we call “Trump’s Democrats.” We interviewed nearly 100 people in three formerly blue strongholds that voted for Mr. Trump: Johnston, R.I., a suburb of Providence; Ottumwa, Iowa, a small industrial city and an inspiration for the setting of the Roseanne Barr show; and Elliott County, a tiny Appalachian community in northeastern Kentucky.

Despite their geographic diversity, these places have much in common with one another and with the many Democratic communities that swung for Mr. Trump in critical Midwest battleground states. They are overwhelmingly white and working class. They care about patriotism and serving their country and are especially attached to the places they live, with strong, place-based loyalties.

Their honor culture is common throughout the world and in many American communities that are not dominated by the professional managerial class.

As part of that, they share what we would call a Trumpian political culture.

In the communities we visited, some of their most beloved Democratic politicians have a Trumpian sensibility: They are macho, quick to engage in political conflict and relentless counterpunchers. One is Ottumwa’s Jerry Parker, a former mayor and a current county supervisor. He supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries; during one local primary meeting, he threatened to take a conflict with a Bernie Sanders supporter “outside.” “

Opinion | Who Can Win America’s Politics of Humiliation? – By Thomas L. Friedman – The New York Times

By 

Opinion Columnist

Joe Biden at a community meeting in Kenosha, Wis., last week.
Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

About four years ago, without asking anybody, I changed my job description. It used to be “New York Times foreign affairs columnist.” Instead, I started calling myself the “New York Times humiliation and dignity columnist.” I even included it on my business card.

It had become so obvious to me that so much of what I’d been doing since I became a journalist in 1978 was reporting or opining about people, leaders, refugees, terrorists and nation-states acting out on their feelings of humiliation and questing for dignity — the two most powerful human emotions.

I raise this now because the success of Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump may ride on his ability to speak to the sense of humiliation and quest for dignity of many Trump supporters, which Hillary Clinton failed to do.

It has been obvious ever since Trump first ran for president that many of his core supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump, more than they care about Trump or any particular action he takes, no matter how awful.

Opinion | Feeling Hopeless? Embrace It. – by Eric Utne – The New York Times

“. . .  The eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has described what she calls “despair and empowerment work”: “Just as grief work is a process by which bereaved persons unblock their numbed energies by acknowledging and grieving the loss of a loved one, so do we all need to unblock our feelings of despair about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.”

The hippie back-to-the-land movement, combined with grass roots political organizing, really was the way to go. We need to regroup. We need a hyperlocal Green New Deal. We need to come together in diverse, intimate, place-based communities. And we need to segue now from the techno-industrial market economy to its sequel — much smaller-scale, less energy-intensive, more localized communities that prize food growing, knowledge sharing, inclusiveness and convivial neighborliness. We need to learn from cultures around the world that are still living as stewards of the larger, biotic community. This is the only kind of a society that might survive the rocky climacteric that already is upon us.

Do I have hope now? If hope means the expectation that someone (a new president) or something (geoengineering or some other techno-fix) is going to save us, then no. I’m hopeless, or rather “hope-free.”

Instead I subscribe to Vaclav Havel’s version of hope: “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Opinion | The First Invasion of America – By David Brooks – The New York Times

By 

Opinion Columnist

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

“I was an American history major in college, back in the 1980s.

I’ll be honest with you. I thrilled to the way the American story was told back then. To immigrate to America was to join the luckiest and greatest nation in history. “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America, and every American knew it,” Henry Steele Commager wrote in his 1950 book, “The American Mind.”

To be born American was to be born to a glorious destiny. We were the nation of the future, the vanguard of justice, the last best hope of mankind. “Have the elder races halted?” Walt Whitman asked, “Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal.”

To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, “Self-Reliance.”

To be born American was to bow down to no one, to say: I’m no better than anyone else, but nobody’s better than me. Tocqueville wrote about the equality of condition he found in America; no one putting on airs over anyone else. In 1981, Samuel Huntington wrote that American creed was built around a suspicion of authority and a fervent rejection of hierarchy: “The essence of egalitarianism is rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another.”
I found it all so energizing. Being an American was not just a citizenship. It was a vocation, a call to serve a grand national mission.

Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide.

But here’s what has struck me forcefully, especially during the pandemic: That whole version of the American creed was all based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.”

Brooks ends with, “Something lovely is being lost. America’s old idea of itself unleashed a torrent of energy. But the American identity that grows up in the shadow of the plague can have the humanity of shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with an understanding of the precariousness of life and a fierce solidarity that emerges during a long struggle against an invading force.”

Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain – medicalxpress.com

“As we grow older we suffer a decline in mental and physical fitness, which can be made worse by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that older people who routinely partake in physical exercise can reverse the signs of aging in the brain, and dancing has the most profound effect.

“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting  in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany. “In this study, we show that two different types of physical  (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that led to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”

Elderly volunteers, with an average age of 68, were recruited to the study and assigned either an eighteen-month weekly course of learning dance routines, or endurance and flexibility training. Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain. This is important because this area can be prone to age-related  and is affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance.

While previous research has shown that  can combat age-related brain decline, it is not known if one type of exercise can be better than another. To assess this, the exercise routines given to the volunteers differed. The traditional fitness training program conducted mainly repetitive exercises, such as cycling or Nordic walking, but the dance group were challenged with something new each week.”

Source: Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain

More weekend NYT highlights, chosen by David Lindsay

More weekend NYT highlights,  chosen by David Lindsay

Eliza Blue took my breath away with her piece, Our Unstable Industrialized Food Chain. She wrote:

“Smithfield is near the end of the food supply chain; we are where it begins. On our drought-prone side of the state, where ruminants outnumber humans, there are no processing plants, just grass — vast, luminous expanses of grass — with intricate root structures that grow thick and deep.

There are still custom butcher shops scattered across the hundreds of miles of open pasture, small mom-and-pop operations, remnants of a system that used to connect rural economies to the food they were producing. Now nearly all animals raised here are shipped elsewhere — to feedlots to be grain-fattened, and then to gargantuan facilities like Smithfield to be slaughtered.

I know some ranchers who are working to change this system, but many more lack the financial or political clout to innovate beyond the scope of their own operations. We are part of an industrialized system that treats animals and their caretakers as columns on spreadsheets geared toward achieving maximum profit. These columns ignore the physical realities of labor in animal husbandry, as well the dignity of the animals we husband, while saddling us with debt and draining resources from our rural communities.” Eliza Blue  prayed for a more humane animal husbandry. https://nyti.ms/3d4PRvV

 

Gina Kolata writes in One Way Back to Normal Life,  “The researchers, Dr. Mette Kalager and Dr. Michael Bretthauer, a husband-and-wife team at the University of Oslo, do not suggest randomizing individuals, as is done in studies of experimental drugs, but rather randomizing regions like similar school districts in adjacent towns.

To test whether it was safe to open schools, they envision what is called rapid-cycle randomization, in which measures are quickly evaluated and adjusted as data emerge.

In the first cycle, schools in one district would remain closed while those in another would reopen carefully with, for example, half the usual number of students and with six-foot social distancing in place. Students and teachers in both districts would be tested for the coronavirus at the start and end of the cycle. Each cycle could last between 10 days and two weeks, accounting for a viral incubation period of four to five days.

If the careful reopening did not result in increased transmission of the virus, the study would advance to the second stage: Schools in one district would open with half the normal number of students and six-foot social distancing while those in the other would have three-quarters of the normal number of students and maintain just three feet of social distancing.

If there were no increased transmission, the third phase would compare that less restrictive setting with a full, unrestricted reopening.

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In the best-case scenario — no increased transmission — all schools could open after three to six weeks.” https://nyti.ms/3fg6dDJ

 

Brett McGurk’s haunting piece, The Father I Never Forgave,  made me pause, and I wrote the following note to myself: “I should write the story of my life and the stormy relationship with my father.”  My father was a great man in the law and politics, but also an alcoholic and a dead beat dad. I was blessed to have a marvelous reconciliation with him shortly before he died prematurely of cancer.  https://nyti.ms/2SxioCC

 

Last but not least, Nicholas Kristof writes, A Young Doctor, Fighting For His Life:

“Dr. Andres Maldonado normally bounded into the Emergency Department, fit and vigorous, but this time he had to be escorted in, pale and fighting for breath, with a patient bracelet on his right wrist. A nurse, seeing her colleague struggle, burst into tears.

Maldonado was 27, a third-year resident physician with no underlying medical conditions. When he came down with a fever on March 23, he called in sick. Soon he developed a tightness in his chest and tested positive for the coronavirus.

At first he resisted the idea of seeking treatment. He was by nature stoical; in youth soccer games, other boys had crumpled when injured, but Maldonado always got up and limped through his pain. Now as a doctor — a badass emergency doctor, he jokingly called himself — he was humiliated by the thought of becoming a patient.

But on March 31, so out of breath he could barely get to the bathroom, he called his older brother, Nestor, also an emergency physician, who remembers panic in Andres’s voice.

“It hurts to breathe,” Andres told his brother. “My body aches all over. I’ve been having really bad fevers, and I’m getting, like, dizzy.”

“Yo,” his brother ordered him, “get your butt to the E.R.”

Maldonado called his parents to say that he was going to the hospital. His dad, Jose Maldonado, was a refugee from the civil war in El Salvador who started life over as a dishwasher in New York. His mom, Cecilia Aguilar-Maldonado, came from Ecuador, and both were undocumented for a time — yet they sent both sons through medical school. The parents were the first of many to be devastated by their son’s sickness. https://nyti.ms/3f9cr8F

Social Distancing for Coronavirus Has a History – By Eric Lipton and Jennifer Steinhauer – The New York Times

“WASHINGTON — Fourteen years ago, two federal government doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, met with a colleague at a burger joint in suburban Washington for a final review of a proposal they knew would be treated like a piñata: telling Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.

When they presented their plan not long after, it was met with skepticism and a degree of ridicule by senior officials, who like others in the United States had grown accustomed to relying on the pharmaceutical industry, with its ever-growing array of new treatments, to confront evolving health challenges.

Drs. Hatchett and Mecher were proposing instead that Americans in some places might have to turn back to an approach, self-isolation, first widely employed in the Middle Ages.

How that idea — born out of a request by President George W. Bush to ensure the nation was better prepared for the next contagious disease outbreak — became the heart of the national playbook for responding to a pandemic is one of the untold stories of the coronavirus crisis.:

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT comment:
Magnificent article. It really felt good to learn this fine story. You see children, as I said before, the Republicans weren’t always bad, creepy, science denying, suck ups to the rich and racists.

 

Joan commented 2 hours ago

Joan
NJ   

I admit, I was never a fan of GWBush. However, as more facts emerge about his healthcare initiatives in both Africa in 2003 AIDS crisis and now in this report, my respect has grown for him. History will probably judge him more kindly based on this information. He has a soul and humanity, which is in stark contrast to DJT. Time to speak up President Bush.

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