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Saturday, October 12, 2019

BAD SCIENCE AND THE CLIMATE CRISIS

THE GENI(US) IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE

also known as

THE HUMPTY DUMPTY PRINCIPLE

exemplified by

THE CLIMATE CRISIS


One of the more bizarre contradictions in our lifetime is that climate-crisis-deniers call into question what reputable climate scientists predict, namely doom and gloom if the world’s population does not immediately stop CO2 emissions, plastic pollution and a raft of other man-made products that have the effect of shooting ourselves in the foot – and soon in the head. Who is to blame? The corporations that make and sell the stuff (like petrol and gas), or the consumers who buy the stuff? Since the climate-crisis- deniers are known to be anti-science, i.e. deprived of rational thought, one can easily dismiss them, or can we? 

Nobody in his right (sic) mind can deny that SCIENCE has brought humankind all the progress we now live by. All the great scientific discoveries have in the first instance enriched our KNOWLEDGE of how nature works, from gravity (Newton) to relativity (Einstein), to name but the greatest of the great. It seems, however, that often the scientific GENIUS is not only driven by gaining new knowledge but by applying this knowledge in a way that will benefit such a genius, moving into APPLIED SCIENCE, registering a patent or two and making a fortune, or, if not astute enough, making someone else a fortune. Probably the best known such applied scientist genius was Edison, who as an INVENTOR changed the world for better or worse. ENGINEERING geniuses like Daimler, Benz and Ford definitely made the world a worse place to live, deriving kinetic energy from fossil fuels and leaving behind toxic CO2 emissions. The Frankenstein chemists that spawned the plastics industries all had good intentions. The pharmaceutical industries that caused the current opioid epidemic are no different from when British traders pushed opium in China. The mad scientists that developed atomic bombs are said to have had good intentions: to guarantee peace on earth, sort of.

As the saying goes ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, one cannot help wondering why SCIENCE has not been able to prevent its worst outcomes, like the present CLIMATE CRISIS. Why on earth is the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry given to scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries, when any rational being can figure out that the manufacture and disposal of vast amounts of toxic lithium-ion batteries will pollute the world like never before. Who is to blame? Bad science? Can good science fix the problems caused by bad science?

So, here comes the rub: bad science is like the genie that escaped from the bottle and no one can put genie back. Bad science conforms to the Humpty Dumpty Principle in that what is badly broken cannot be put back together again. So, how can we stop bad science in the first place, since we cannot remedy the outcomes of bad science (and subsequently the corporatization of applied science and engineering)?

So-called pure science disavows any application, good or bad, presumably in the knowledge that the consequences of any scientific discovery – in the sense of understanding our natural world – can subsequently be used for purposes that damage our natural world. On the other hand, ever since year dot, those who live by nefarious and criminal purposes – like the military complex – will employ so-called pure scientists in the hope that they will discover something/anything that will lead to the development of better and more efficient killing machines (see my blog on the weaponization of AI). The ideas of a gentle scientist sitting in the attic of the ivory tower, with tea stains on his shabby suit, straining his formidable brain to the point of a scientific breakthrough on paper, have long disappeared – if they ever existed. Nowadays science is a vast money-go-round that by definition prohibits ‘pure’ science from taking place. A positive cost-benefit analysis of any science project is the first requirement. Sure, sometimes the ‘benefits’ are a bit nebulous, like space missions to the Moon and to Mars and to god-knows-where but as long as they advance the commercial satellite applications closer to earth, so be it – and anyway such projects are largely paid for by the tax-payers and therefore largely risk-free. 

So, the point is that good science is in retreat while bad science is marching along the tunes played by military bands  - he who pays the piper … -. A bad omen, one might say. 

So, when the Guardian columnist George Monbiot blames the evil fossil fuel corporations for the climate crisis, the many comments from the readers either congratulate him for his insights or else rubbish them by arguing that the end consumer is at fault. Sure, the fossil fuel corporations are evil like all other corporations and businesses that make huge profits from selling products that (often knowingly) cause the degradation of the natural world – innocent humans included – but then again the whole history of what is called civilisation (with its associated curse of nation and empire building) is premised on the freedom (entrenched in law) to advance one’s obscene wealth to the detriment of the 99.9% left behind. If such (criminal) activity is rewarded, why not make a fast buck and to hell with what and who comes next. Instant (legal) gratification is very addictive and engages the mind of many a brilliant entrepreneur. Take the cum-ex scandal, which is the tip of an enormous iceberg (made of taxing the working classes) on which the idle rich dine out to their hearts’ delight (the valuable crumbs that fall from the tables are given to scientists at Ivy League universities so that they can figure out how to better apply Pavlov’s Dog behaviourism to the working classes). 

So, what is the ordinary punter supposed to do? Driving home from work in his dirty diesel, getting a take-away meal all packaged in plastic, then at home consuming a bit of electricity provided by a coal-fired power plant, having a gas-fired shower, and having a sleep in his bed made from unsustainable timber and synthetic foam … and the rain is pelting down as never before, with a leak developing above the ranch slider that opens to the tiny balcony, is this a climate crisis or what? Who cares! Have to do it all again tomorrow. No time to think. Having saved for three years for an overseas holiday on the Gold Coast of Australia, he is happy in economy class drinking cheap red wine from plastic cups, dreaming of golden beaches and tropical sunshine, all the way increasing his carbon footprint in this rattling tin can called a Dreamliner, burning toxic kerosene. When he gets there, there is a hurricane in progress and the Gold Coast is a disaster. Bad luck or what? After two weeks of bad weather he has to fly home again. He has no choice but to get back to work, 9 to 5 + a two hour commute. 5 days a week, on a zero hours contract. As a construction worker he earns about double what a street cleaner gets in his city. Life is as good as it gets. He lives by metaphors he has learned off by heart. He failed science at school. He remembers his science teacher as an absolute idiot. He has no idea why these scientists get a Nobel Prize for inventing lithium-ion batteries, even though his smart phone, and a few other gadgets, are powered by them. Imagine getting one of these battery-powered cars they have these days. They cost triple of a good old diesel. He read somewhere that, one day, even the Dreamliners will run on batteries. Where the hell are they going to put all these batteries when they’re spent? He has to recharge his ‘smart’ phone twice a day because the bloody battery is no good anymore, and his phone is a cheap one, for which one cannot replace the battery. Bloody climate crisis, alright!

Scientists are a different species, somehow disconnected from ordinary mortals. They exist, as the joke goes, in their heads and use their bodies as a form of transport to get to the next conference. They publish incomprehensible articles in science journals, and yet, every now and then, they hit the jackpot, like finally figuring out how to make a functioning quantum computer chip that can compute in 3 minutes what the most advanced computer today could only achieve in 10,000 years. Imagine the implications for securing the patent. Imagine having a weapon with such advanced AI capability, and you’d be the master of the universe. Dystopian, Orwellian future, all round. Thanks to bad science and those who apply it. The few good scientists who warn us about the consequences of bad science are but a cosmic joke.

So, we cannot just turn around now and follow good old Rousseau and his Back to Nature calls, or join the Amish, or live like the Flintstones. Bad science has brought us here and there is no way back. Like lemmings we have no choice but to jump over the cliff when the time comes. Sad but true. At least there will be no more difference between rich lemmings and poor lemmings. And as Russell famously wrote: peace will return to earth. And the climate will slowly but surely find its natural balance again. 

So, please don’t worry, this is only a cautionary tale, a fairytale that only nobodies, like me and you, write and read. A story, like many others they tell you on your social media. And as Nietzsche famously wrote: science tells stories just like all the other stories are told, especially the ones with an unhappy ending. Nobody really knows what is fact or fiction, when in fact everything is fiction. Maybe we need to start a new history of science and life in general, a new story beyond good and bad, where all man-made crises have ceased to exist. CHEERS!









Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A REVIEW OF INSURRECTO (2018) BY GINA APOSTOL

A REVIEW OF INSURRECTO (2018) BY GINA APOSTOL


There is a line, I like, in the Moody Blues song Lovely to see you:

            Tells us what you've seen in faraway forgotten lands
Where empires have turned back to sand

Will the American empire turn back to sand? What about a precursor, like the Spanish one, who colonized The Philippines and then handed them over to the Americans? The linguistic consequences of transitioning from Austronesian to Spanish and finally to (American) English are beginning to play out on the English literary scene, no doubt ending in a Booker Prize or what have you. Is the Filipina writer the next big thing, out-writing the English-English/American-American (the latter is a bit more complex), as done by the likes of Arundhati Roy (her being the ultimate author who writes in English without ever having lived/worked in the core countries where English is the native – excuse the pun - tongue). Gina Apostol looks like to be an example of that one step before: the expatriate making a career in writing, sitting uncomfortably on the fence (or Trump’s wall) that divides the first world from the second (or even third, more likely). Just like the English-speaking expatriates from Africa, the West-Indies and the Indian subcontinent flock to the UK, the English educated Filipinos migrate to the USA, the home of their last colonizer. Moving from the tropical heat of Tacloban to the miserable chills of New York but, anyhow (as Gina Apostol is fond of saying), never mind the weather, who would be as stupid as not wanting to live in the Big Apple (it’s great for shopping)? Americans are crazy people, mostly, but they have the power and the money, mostly. Or as Gina is fond of mimicking Filipino English, “usually”, so let’s substitute my ‘mostly’ with ‘usually’. 

Caveat:  I commiserate with Gina Apostol in that I, too, am an expatriate who writes in English (but usually I do not mimic German English).

Since many a colonizer subdued the natives by way of military violence followed by missionary forgiveness, it comes as no surprise that in 1901 American occupation forces slaughtered some 30,000 Filipinos (historians disagree about exact numbers, ranging from 2,000 to 50,000) in retaliation for 45 killed of their own.

Having already been missionized by the Spanish conquistadores, the Americans as good Christians slaughtered the good Christians of Samar. Of course one cannot blame the Americans as they were attacked first, or can one? On researching this history, one comes across photographs taken at the time, of the massacre – the photographer having been an American society woman who nevertheless testified – or so the story goes – against the American army. These stereographic photographs fascinate Gina Apostol. How haunting is it to see your ancestors in ditches, mass graves, like the Nazis dug for the Jews? The advent of photography, and later film, is to history what Henry Ford was to the industrial revolution: the facts of the matter, as captured by the camera, they don’t lie. History as a moving documentary has arrived. No need to write about it. Just watch it again and again.

When I was in high school in Germany in the late 60s, our history teacher claimed to know nothing about the Holocaust. Some of us rebellious students wrote to the Wiesenthal Center and they sent us a package with photographs taken at the concentration camps. We showed them to our history teacher. He went to the Principal and complained that we were harassing him. The Principal was as guilty as the history teacher. He too knew nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing.

Still, you cannot really deny history when it stares you in the eyes. Of course, now in 2019, one can argue that photographs are as fake as any digital snapshot, with an App that inserted your face into/onto the one of a porn star in action, sexted to all and sundry in a post-modern Twitter world that in the USA and The Philippines has given rise to best mates, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Anyhow, (to mimic Gina) let’s turn this whole quagmire, from 1901 to 2018 into a novel entitled Insurrecto. Let us use photography and film as a vehicle to tell the story, and what a story it is!

Let us do the literary Russian Doll thing – perhaps as taught in the Creative Writing class Gina attended in Iowa but mocked in her novel – namely that the two main contemporary characters are connected to a film maker who wanted to make a film about the 1901 massacre, kind of turning the stereographic photographs into moving pictures, connecting all the protagonists to each other through time. It gets a bit convoluted at times, what with cinematic flashbacks and voiceover, and the author thinly disguised as the contemporary Filipina revisiting her homeland. 

Mixing up history and fiction is of course a common literary contrivance. Letting fictional characters discuss famous and not so famous writers, artists, philosophers and their works, adds to the bewilderment of the reader, not knowing who is and who isn’t the real McCoy. If the English reader is not familiar with what happened in 1901 in Samar, it gets quite difficult to figure out who is real and who is not in this novel but maybe that isn’t the point anyhow. Gina Apostol never mentions Duterte by name, only by the moniker ‘the dictator’, maybe as an insurance policy against being hounded by Duterte’s mad dogs when she visits her homeland and gets awarded literary prizes. Nor does she mention Trump by name but there are other American presidents that are named: McKinley and Roosevelt. One could Google all the names of the Americans and Filipinos that pop up, especially as she seems to be an aficionado of the Internet, both inside and outside the novel. She has her own website dedicated to her novel, with links to her other novels, etc., something one has to do as an aspiring writer these online days. So, never mind if all the American soldiers’ names are real or not, or if the Filipinos’ names are in the history books or not: the novelist has license to mix and match as she pleases. She does a very good job of bringing to life those who died and letting the contemporaries wander in and out of the scripts (there are supposed to be two competing ones but they are not really well developed), concocting a rich tapestry of sorts, cinematic in scope, tragic in its subject matter. 

Her language – she calls it witchcraft – is very post-modern, very writerly at times, sometimes unnecessarily upfront with sex (fuck, fuck – in literature I prefer Ovid’s clever innuendo), showing off obscure English vocabulary, interspersed with Tagalog (and other indigenous languages) and Filipino-Spanish, creating a rich linguistic tapestry that befits the tropical heat in Manila and Samar. Excursions and allusions to the rest of the world, from New York to Venice to Hong Kong, promote the image of an author who is world-wise and world-weary, nothing like the cliché of the Filipino hospitality workers and nurses that are exploited as cheap labour all around the world. As such I am not sure why she exploits the cliché of The Thrilla in Manilla as much as the purported love for Elvis’ songs amongst her relatives in The Philippines. Sure, Ali was a great boxer and social activist but why Elvis? When in the last chapter Chiara and Magsalin sing and dance to an Elvis tune, it looks like bad taste to me. She mentions that her Elvis-mad uncles voted for the dictator (Duterte): how can the intellectually enlightened if not revolutionary Magsalin stay and dance and sing with them? If any of my German relatives now voted for the reactionary AfD, I would disown them (some of the dead ones may well have voted for Hitler). 

The main point of Insurrecto, as I understand it, is to point to the indomitable revolutionary spirit of the many Filipino people who have fought the Spanish and the Americans for their freedom, and are now engaged in a fight against Duterte’s dictatorship, like Marcos’ before. Filipino expatriates like Gina Apostol can play an important role in this fight for a socialist future, as perhaps envisaged by the likes of Casiana Nacionales. It is interesting that in an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer of September 28, 2018, Nacionales gets treated as a ‘pious heroine and freedom fighter of Balangiga’ and as a woman of ‘uncommon courage and patriotism’ which makes her out as being politically naïve, apolitical – a stance favoured by the mainstream press in the Philippines as much as in the USA when it comes to acknowledging former freedom fighters. At least Apostol raises the stakes by portraying Nacionales’ brother as a ‘communist rebel’ – the likes of whom ‘bedevil’ the current dictator who equates the Filipino communists with Islamist terrorists who lay waste to the Philippines and need to be exterminated by ‘patriots’ like Duterte and Trump. 

Having travelled in The Philippines myself a little bit, one cannot help but notice the vast differences between the haves and have-nots, what with luxury resorts dotted along the many beautiful beaches, frequented by old American/European men with very young Filipinas in tow.

The Philippines will soon catch up with Thailand as a retirement haven for Western pensioners and sex tourists who want to live out their last hurrahs as colonial masters of the universe. 

When I was an adolescent in Germany, the celebrity magazines were full of the German playboy Gunter Sachs doing his thing with Brigitte Bardot in Manila and environs, alerting the German readers to the fact that high society flourishes best – especially for Paparazzi – in the far-away tropics. Today, as a resident of New Zealand, The Philippines are practically a neighboring country, and indeed there is a big influx of Filipinos in New Zealand, either as temporary workers or as intellectual and political exiles from Duterte’s brutal war on his opponents. New Zealand may not be the first choice for such migrants – presumably the USA is still number one – but at least here they experience a bit less of the anti-migrant terror that currently exists in many other Western countries - notwithstanding the recent Christchurch massacre of mainly Muslim migrants. 

Sooner or later a Filipino-New Zealander will hit the literary scene, like Gina Apostol perhaps, and write that novel that will be an instant sensation, and then a Filipina who has never left The Philippines, like ‘Geronima’ Nacionales, will set literature alight, starting a revolution for the readers of English. In the meantime I have come across only one other NZ-Filipino author, namely J.R. Nakao, whose Fire Dragon (2017) is a real political action thriller, set mainly in The Philippines. Compared to Insurrecto it is like chalk to cheese but then again who is to say which genres make the cut and which don’t. Anyhow, Gina Apostolo is the one to watch and read now!






Friday, July 26, 2019

POLITICS AS CHEAP ENTERTAINMENT

POLITICS AS CHEAP ENTERTAINMENT

Now we have two hairstylists as political ‘world’ leaders, what with any number of fading stars from sports, movies and social media as supporting actors – all ‘elected’ by people who think the joke is not on them. This theatre of the absurd is financed and manipulated by a few rich listers who know how to ‘influence’ the ‘influencers’. Maybe it has always been like that but then again, planet earth used to be able to contain this madness – not anymore. With vast stretches of the earth becoming uninhabitable for billions of people, such a political merry-go-round only hastens the demise of humankind, all in the name of a vast fortune to be made in the next five minutes. The toxic by-products like pollution, disease, abject poverty and modern slavery are all swept under the red carpet on which celebrities dance the night away. The middle classes – and lower classes with false ambition – lap it all up as great entertainment, for what else could they possibly do? Reading and watching the daily news is a fantastic diversion from the drudgery of work, delighting in the latest gaffes from buffoons like Trump and Johnson. It’s like an ancient Greek tragic comedy, only that the real consequences are not confined to the amphitheater anymore but to the world at large. Proxy wars are started at the drop of a hat, vicious oppression by absolutist rulers goes unanswered, and the high and mighty taunt each other until ‘the laughter grows too loud’. Career politicians of the sort seen in Germany and New Zealand eagerly follow suit, making sure that any meaningful politics is derided as mad and bad socialism or greenie claptrap. Even then there is any number of politicians in the making, riding any bandwagon as long as it furthers their ambitions. If it suits to be ‘green’ so be it. If it suits to advocate for the ‘poor’, so be it. All talk, no action. 

When even mainstream commentators like the Guardian’s George Monbiot decry the current state of affairs, echoing sentiments expressed by the more enlightened voices of Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, we have to assume the worst. The slippery slide down the hill may go unnoticed by the population at large, occupied as they are, by the daily grind of work and consumption. The human capacity for suffering is such, that just about any oppressive power can move in and decimate those who show the slightest signs of dissent. Popular uprisings are squashed without mercy, with an obedient armed force that relishes brutality and destruction. A Nazi mentality is being fostered and made ready for deployment. Red-baiting moderate conservatives will have the desired effect, as it did in Germany: when the center gives way, the fascist hordes move in and take over. History will repeat, sadly for the last time: there will be delirious joy amongst the followers as they shoot themselves, first in the foot, then in the head. 

Can all this still be prevented? Perhaps, but the time bomb is ticking away. The point of no return is ever getting closer. Can anybody turn the ship around? Can the crew throw the captain overboard or is the captain part of the crew? We seem to know what the problems are but nobody seems to know what the solution is. Is our fate as writers, as Arundhati Roy suggests, to simply document all this as a fait accompli? To leave a story to tell for a post-modern world, with nobody to listen? There is an eerie silence already: when so-called revolutionaries like Michael Albert take to podcasts, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, they acknowledge that they have no idea who they are talking to. Well, let me tell you: in New Zealand, the joke is that the only government department listening to the people, is the secret service. All these social media are obviously just a Big Brother plot to keep tabs on Michael Albert, who in his idealism somehow hopes, hope against hope, that someone is actually listening to him and understands what he is saying. Like me, here I am talking to myself, which by the way is not so bad, because it helps me to translate my thoughts into written language. So, if by a remote chance you are reading this, I can recommend such a mental exercise, that might even lead to some sort of communication, that beats cheap politics as entertainment. If, on the other hand, you are an AI algorithm to keep me silent: good luck, because you will need it when the chips are down.








Thursday, June 27, 2019

AN EXTENSIVE AND PERSONAL REVIEW OF LOST CONNECTIONS BY JOHANN HARI (2018)

AN EXTENSIVE AND PERSONAL REVIEW OF LOST CONNECTIONS BY JOHANN HARI (2018)


Since the subtitle cover page reads ‘why you’re depressed and how to find hope’, addressing the reader, one is immediately drawn to the cruel joke of ‘if you cannot read this sign, join a reading class’, the tragic point being, that if you are depressed, you are unlikely to read this book, especially if you come from a socio-economic class that has left you educationally challenged, i.e. not being literate enough to help yourself this way. 

As such the book is of profound importance for those literate enough – and commonsensical enough – to come to understand that depression is essentially a social and political phenomenon. So-called mental health professionals and their funders and employers all have varying conflicts of interests, from the adherents of the savage bio-pharmacological model down to the noble ‘better world’ model advocated by Johann (I adopt his endearing habit of calling people by their first name – as opposed to academic treatises where surnames rule the roost). 

The current neo-liberal government of New Zealand (in the guise of a coalition of Laborites, Greens and weird populists of the NZ First Party) has just released a ‘well-being’ budget that allocates billions of dollars to ‘mental health’, in a move to reduce the dreadful toll those conditions like ‘depression’ imposes on the overall health budget and economy at large. 

The government had commissioned a report – as a convenient way to disavow all responsibility – that came out in November of last year (2018) entitled He Ara Oranga and subtitled Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.  It is considered ‘progressive’ to use the indigenous Maori language as a token while in actual fact the underlying message is that Maori suffer more under ‘mental health conditions’ than any other ethnic community in New Zealand, thus in a perverse way indicating to the WASPish upper classes of NZ, that all is well. 

As usual in such commissioned government reports, the people so commissioned are the usual suspects, like senior academics, doctors, community leaders (Sirs and Dames) and the token ‘consumer’ representative. A mental health nurse at the coalface critiqued the report in a Nursing Journal as ‘liberal fascism’ in a brave attempt to provide a counterpoint, no doubt doomed to oblivion (much as Johann’s attempt, I dare say). In support of my wife who is also a mental health nurse, I wrote a letter to said Nursing Journal supporting the critique, and predicting that the writers of the report will have their number one recommendation actioned, namely to establish a Mental Health Commission to which the senior members of the report writers will no doubt be appointed – so far the government has indeed announced that such a Commission will be established. One can only guess at what cost, given the fat honoraria these people get! 

The report itself does, of course, note the underlying causes of NZ’s dire mental health crisis (p.42):  

People saw poor mental health and addiction as symptoms of poverty, social exclusion, trauma, and disconnection.

Well, doesn’t this look like something out of the contents list of Johann’s book, namely Part II: Disconnection: Nine Causes of Depression and Anxiety? So shouldn’t we congratulate the report writers for their insights? This always reminds me of education reports (I am a teacher) whereby the statistics are always the same: the deprived socio-economic classes lack in educational attainment. Shame, shame! But what this really says, is that those who are not so burdened with poverty and social exclusion are doing really well. Congratulations! If poverty would NOT cause crime and mental health disorders, one would have to worry, lest these poor people get the wrong idea and start organizing themselves and start a revolution. 

The only problem for the upper classes is that these poor people are an economic burden, using up taxpayer money that could be much better spent on supporting entrepreneurs who ensure growth in GDP and prosperity for ‘the nation’. It is therefore paramount that government solves this problem so that poor people fulfill the role destiny provides for them: fodder for the labour market. 

Johann’s Cause One: Disconnection from Meaningful Work is echoed by David Graeber’s recent book entitled Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (which I have also reviewed on my blog). David’s many case studies sound suspiciously similar to those cited by Johann – by this I do not mean that Johann is plagiarizing David, and even if he did I would not hold it against him like some do because I do believe that ‘plagiarism’ is yet another myth dreamt up by clever capitalists (see also my blog entry on the Language Paradox), the point being, that David and Johann are on the same wavelength. What Johann does, however, in addition to his commonsense observations, is to provide scientific evidence of sorts. I am not sure what the purpose always is, especially if the research cited only confirms what every sensible person should have known in the first place. Johann often portrays such scientists and academics as somewhat misguided characters who are surprised by their own data, like the guy who researched the Whitehall civil servants, expecting to find that the top of the heap will be most stressed (and possibly depressed) because they carry all the responsibility and pay to make them go insane with worry (like how to spend their salaries and bonuses). As every normal person would have known, this is not the case, and it is the many civil servants (in the true meaning of the word) who are at the bottom of the hierarchy, being subjected to what is known as ‘wage slavery’, and thus suffering from depression and anxiety. 

What is more problematic then are Johann’s Causes Three and Five, which essentially deal with the upper classes, the well-off materialists and consumers who are said to be very unhappy with their lot. The presidential alpha-male is always anxiously on the lookout for his competitors while the baboon on the lowest rung bows his head in defeat, being bullied by everyone along the way, as various biologists (e.g. Lorenz who advocated ‘aggression’ as normal) have described - and as repeated by Johann as if this is an insight of great importance. Animal behaviour is, of course, a convenient metaphor, none better than Pavlov’s Dog that spawned the evil notion of how to manipulate human behaviour. Along that line, Johann is of course quite correct in pointing to the vast advertising industry that compels everyone to consume and consume, needing the money earned from bullshit jobs. Chomsky saved linguistics from this bullshit behaviourism that otherwise took over economics (marketing and advertising) giving rise ultimately to fascist manipulation of politics - in its worst manifestation by the Nazis, as so well described in Wilhelm Reich’s Mass psychology of Fascism but finding contemporary expression in many parts of the world, as pointed out by Arundhati Roy in a recent speech:

As the ice caps melt, as oceans heat up, and water tables plunge, as we rip through the delicate web of interdependence that sustains life on earth, as our formidable intelligence leads us to breach the boundaries between humans and machines, and our even more formidable hubris undermines our ability to connect the survival of our planet to our survival as a species, as we replace art with algorithms and stare into a future in which most human beings may not be needed to participate in (or be remunerated for) economic activity – at just such a time we have the steady hands of white supremacists in the White House, new imperialists in China, neo-Nazis once again massing on the streets of Europe, Hindu nationalists in India, and a host of butcher-princes and lesser dictators in other countries to guide us into the Unknown.

Some might wish that these miserable people (the 1%) alluded to are in fact very unhappy and so depressed that they will all commit suicide – as a pacifist I actually wish death on no one. Not sure if anyone has done any research on the mental and emotional states of the 1% but lets face it, the following quote attributed to Genghis Khan (who BTW is classed amongst the above together with Hitler, by Bertrand Russell), says it all:

The Greatest Happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you. To see his cities reduced to ashes. To see those who love him shrouded and in tears. And to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.

To attain the highest status as a dictator, or just one rung above someone else on the ladder, are the ambitions of many, be they low class or high class. Of course, the latter has much better chances to achieve their goal. I have long argued that such purported disconnections from status and respect – as elaborated by Johann – lead to what I call neo-feudalism, a primitive, Machiavellian scramble up the ladder and down the ladder, heads off, if it must be, off to retirement (ála Theresa May) if willing, being voted in by rigging the system with clever algorithms, and whatever means justify the end. These people, as brilliantly portrayed by Heathcote Williams in his Royal Babylon for the Brits, enjoy their golden toilets (sorry, thrones) as much as the peasant having a good crap. Prince Charles who wants to be a tampon no doubt enjoys deviant sex. President Trump likes to grab pussies. These people are NOT unhappy or depressed! They enjoy their untold privileges with such depraved gusto that the 99% of onlookers get even more depressed – or else get ever more determined to climb to the top whatever the cost, so as to be able to join in the fun.  

What I am trying to say to Johann, is that the capitalist system has not followed Marx’ recommendation that it will hang by its own rope – far from it. The allure of the 1% versus the 99% is too great in the face of even a mild egalitarian (socialist) system of society. Be it Bernie Sanders or Jacinda Adern, or the fine people endorsing your book (like Hillary Clinton and Elton John), they are all wedded to the capitalist system. Yes, they will tinker around the edges, tricking us with empty advertising slogans like putting a human face on capitalism but they will never have to do an honest day of work, enjoying endless holidays in the sun, visiting the Queen or hanging out with Richard Branson on his private island (as does our friend Barack Obama). My guess is that only when we have totally regressed to neo-feudalism, will we see a renewed vigor amongst the precariat, ready for that last revolution that will not eat its children and bring us all that true liberté, égalité and fraternité that the French Revolution never delivered.

As Noam (Chomsky) keeps pointing out, the immediate threats in this scenario are a nuclear war and the climate crisis; twin causes to make even the most optimistic people depressed. Johann’s Cause Six: Disconnection from the natural world, unfortunately, does not come to grips with this. He merely trudges along on a mountain path and listens to scientific evidence that nature cures depression, something that animals in captivity acquire. He cites a somewhat bizarre scientific ‘discovery’ that in this context is ridiculous, if not tragic: prison inmates that had cells that looked out onto fields and meadows were less likely to be depressed than those looking onto brick walls. Zoos these days create mini-environments for their captive animals and they still get depressed. Never mind the animal evidence, let's all go ‘forest bathing’, a fashionable trend noted in the Guardian with the headline ‘Getting back to nature: how forest bathing can make us feel better’, explaining as if we did not know the Japanese connection:

Once a month Li spends three days in forests near Tokyo, using all five senses to connect with the environment and clear his mind. This practice of shinrin-yoku – literally, forest bath – has the power to counter illnesses including cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety and stress, he says. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and aids sleep. And soon it could be prescribed by British doctors.

In New Zealand, the land of ‘100% pristine nature’ (= fake advertising), Aucklanders trudging off into the last remaining Kauri forests near Auckland have caused what has become known as ‘Kauri dieback disease’, by way of carrying spores (on their shoes) into the forests. Now various city agencies want to ban access to these forests. When we lived in Malaysia thousands of city dwellers would escape to the ‘nature parks’ over the weekend and leave behind the most disgusting rubbish piles known to mankind. The trail up to Mt Everest – foolishly first climbed by a New Zealander by the name of Edmund Hilary – is now a garbage dump (corpses included). Doesn’t science tell us that humans have impacted on nature to such a degree that ‘mother nature’ cannot sustain, and will in all likelihood die a miserable death? So, as Johann keeps citing Isabel the biological evolutionist: “Fuck captivity” let me cite Bertrand (Russell) for Isabel:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.

Aldous Huxley in Brave New World foresaw this scenario, at least in part, when he describes ‘savage reservations’ that are human hippie zoos, the AI city dwellers can visit for a laugh. So why are we so disconnected from Nature? Because we exploit Mother Nature like some whore? Because idiot scientists and engineers have invented the combustion engine, polluting the world with CO2and other toxins? Because Monsanto kills weeds and bees and aquatic life with a man-made chemical called glyphosate? Don’t lead me up to the mountain and down the garden path, Isabel and Johann, to show me nature that has already disappeared from the scenery, and yes, Johann, reduced to a screen saver. This is the main cause of human depression from which no one will ever recover!

Fittingly perhaps, Johann’s next chapter Cause Seven: Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future begins with the story of a native American Indian who sort of says that history for him ended when the colonizers forced his folk to live on ‘reservations’ which obviously have no future, hence no history. Given the endless contradictions in the human condition, one might point to the reverse idea of ‘history having come to an end’ (via the right-wing philosopher Fukuyama) because the world with its great American idealism cannot get any better – i.e. we have arrived at perfection. While this is obvious nonsense, it just goes to show that for every genuine expression of distress there is one perversely opposite one. Johann’s next anecdote comes straight out of Bullshit Jobs (David, ibid.), demonstrating that a hopeless job at a call center will drive you insane. BTW there is a better way to look at this ‘future’ business: while time is a complicated scientific concept (e.g. Einstein’s 4-dimensional time & space warp), there is not just one way in terms of folk-science, i.e. the progression from past and present to future – popularized by the insurance industry that wants us to ‘insure against the future’. Polynesians, for example, used to have a different concept: you are walking backward into the future (since nobody knows what will happen tomorrow) and what opens in front of you is the vista of your past. In that sense, for me, as an old geezer, my future (whatever it might be) is getting shorter and shorter while my glorious past is expanding. If, as for the poor American Indian, the past is the story of living on a reservation, the past is as forgettable as much as the future might bring. 

The last chapter of Part II combines two causes: The real role of genes and brain changes, which is really one and the same topic, namely discussing (again) the purported biological causes of depression and anxiety, and refuting for once and for all that depression is purely a disease of the brain. So, after much ado about nothing, Johann asks why any of these conclusions should have been ‘controversial or new to anyone’. Exactly! And when asking yet another ‘leading’ psychiatrist why the more common-sense bio-psycho-social model hasn’t got any traction, the answer is equally uncontroversial: because it is ‘more politically challenging’. Well, who would have known! In our fine neo-liberal societies the pharmaceutical companies push the purely biological model because it earns untold profits. My wife, who works as a ‘psychiatric’ nurse in ED, where the most severe cases end up – and upon reading Johann’s book – she can now ask the psychiatrists in attendance if they would take the anti-depressants they prescribe, and they might say 'no'. But NOT to prescribe such medication at the bottom of the cliff would be ‘politically challenging’. As the police bring in more patients – it is illegal to try to commit suicide – the single nurse has to triage, decide what to do, write notes, find resources, and be told by the ED Charge Nurse to get moving because these patients are clogging up the system. When the psychiatric registrar arrives there is no time for therapeutic talk about social and psychological causes: take this pill and be gone. This is ‘really disturbing’ says the head of the department of social psychiatry at McGill University. It bloody well is, and what is he going to do about it? Draw his huge salary (compared to the nurse) and take a holiday? At my wife’s ED there is a shared office with ‘hot desks’ over which the nurses and ancillary staff compete for computers to write up their notes, while the psychiatric registrars and consultants have their spacious offices all to themselves, with a window to their own car park, where they can admire their Porsches. As Krishnamurti would say, they are ‘well-adjusted to a sick society’. I am not saying that all psychiatrists are hypocrites – there are no doubt some good guys amongst the multitudes of the bad variety, and maybe even the bad guys are innocent because it is the ‘system’ that made them, or at least allowed them to behave in this way. As Noam (Chomsky) famously said, if he were elected president of the USA, the first thing he would do is to send himself to jail – because it is the office of president itself that is criminal. So, maybe the position of a psychiatric consultant is criminal too, for it allows him (rarely her) to treat people with depression as a sickness in the head – CAUSE unknown or at least irrelevant. 

After high school in Germany, I wanted to become a psychiatrist. I had good matriculation grades and was admitted to LMU to first study psychology (and medicine later). My motivation was partially based on having read Freud, Jung, Hesse and lately people like Fritz Perls (of Gestalt psychology and the Esalen Institute in California) and Timothy Leary, and partially on sorting out my love life, and generally engaging in the anarchistic student movement of 1969. Not that I expected the professors of the LMU to be leaders of the new wave but, boy oh boy, I did not expect to be taught US-style behaviourism. After one semester I left for India and became a sort of Sadhu. Not that India had all the answers either: my travel mate was into TM and desired to meet the Maharishi at his Rishikesh Ashram. Unfortunately, his holiness was not there, possibly being on tour with the Beatles and the Beach Boys, so we were welcomed by his deputy, a German. This was a bit of letdown but then again what’s wrong with a German guru? What I noticed, however, at the ashram, was that the white-robed Brahmins were served yummy rice dishes while the workers, mainly dark-skinned and skinny Tamils, were left the leftovers. The German guru did not want to discuss socialism, and I was turned out. My German friend became quite depressed about it all – we parted ways and I ended up in New Zealand many years later. I tried again at Otago University to do pre-med (with the renewed aim to become a psychiatrist) but I did not manage to get one of the 25 places on offer for medical school – out of the 300 students competing. I became a linguist instead but always with an eye on psychiatry. In fact, I had nearly become a psychiatric nurse instead – before my Otago University adventure. While in Auckland and having failed to become a bus driver (I kept driving over the curb) I applied for a trainee psychiatric nurse position at the main city lunatic asylum. To my surprise, they took me on – given that I had studied psychology for one semester at LMU – and all I had to get was an all-white uniform (shoes, socks, shorts, shirt) and report to work in a male geriatric unit. The main task was to hand out cigarettes and to hose down the patients when they soiled themselves. After a while, I was also told to help with administering ECT. This barbaric treatment was well and alive in those days (and it making a come-back, I understand), so I volunteered to do a bit of research on ECT – the ancient Victorian consultant psychiatrist encouraging me to do so, presumably in the expectation that as a German fascist I would find all the evidence that ECT is a valuable weapon against mental disorders and any other ailment in the heads of the old patients – despite me sporting a ponytail (in those days a give-away as a radical hippie). I was given access to all the medical records and the statistics were incredible: some 80% of ECT ‘treatments’ were for ‘depression’ including mention of ‘uncooperative behaviour’. In other words, ECT was used as punishment for ‘difficult’ patients. Nobody paid any attention to my write-up and I left the profession soon after, running after my future wife who had gone on her OE to Paris (and after a few years ended up in Berlin – one of Johann’s main features in his Part III).

So, in Part III we are promised seven solutions – as opposed to nine causes of depression. By simple mathematics, this looks like a losing game. A well-known Maori scholar, Bruce Biggs, wrote a famous (in NZ) article entitled The Humpty-Dumpty Principle, pointing out that the Treaty of Waitangi documents, written in Maori and in English, were so different, that any attempts to somehow reconcile them was impossible, i.e. the egg is broken and all the King’s men cannot put it back together again. Take the climate crisis: some scientists maintain that we have already passed the point of no return. In that vein, Bertrand Russell’s dire prediction may well be to the point too. Maybe our planet is so screwed up that nothing can save it. That’s a very depressing thought. My grandson and I recently attended a presentation by Brian Cox (the rock star of British science) where he pointed out that the universe is now in a ‘structural’ phase (the first phase being after the Big Bang, i.e. one of great homogeneity) and that we then move into the last phase, which is one of chaos. While this plays out billions of years for the universe, maybe we can borrow the metaphor for human evolution: are we entering the last phase? Brian’s sidekick the comedian Robin Ince kept talking about his son and how their adventures in a forest (was that a case of forest bathing?) opened their eyes to beautiful nature, resulting in otherworldly happiness. Presumably, his point was, that as long as we humans are still here, there is still beauty, serenity, joy and ‘connections’ to be had. Maybe we can work it all out, just like the guys in Kotti (short for the Kreuzberg district in Berlin). 

When I, and my girlfriend, traveled in the Caribbean in 1977, she became pregnant, so the question was where to have the child. Having exhausted all our travel funds, we were basically broke, so we hit on the idea to go to West-Berlin, because you get all sorts of cash benefits having a child there, i.e. West-Berlin was desperate to stop the drain of young families – I mean, who wants to live in a divided city with one half situated in a foreign country? In addition, West-German draft evaders (I was one of them) were not prosecuted in West Berlin, so ironically, many of the young people left in West-Berlin were left-wing radicals. We arrived in freezing temperatures (-21C) and set about to prepare for family life. We managed to rent a small flat in a tenement building in Wedding, and I got a job in a miserable factory. This was the time of the Bader-Meinhoff (RAF) hysteria, and on my way to work every morning, I was confronted by cops with sub-machine guns, given my suspicious looks. We did not know any RAF, so we just kept to ourselves, practicing for delivery of the baby. What with my pregnant girlfriend not being German, we experienced the kind of treatment dished out to the Turkish migrants when having to deal with the West-Berlin bureaucrats, who administered the supposedly ‘family-friendly’ benefits system. Having to fill out millions of forms, being stamped by alcoholics in dark offices was not exactly our dream come true. Still, all the medical pre- and postnatal services were for free and delivery at the famous Virchow hospital was in the style of an assembly-line, what with many birthing cubicles in line, Turkish women howling and German obstetricians issuing orders “push harder”. I duly fainted and recovered consciousness when our baby daughter had arrived. Out tenement block was mainly occupied by grumpy, old Berliners, who did not like babies. Only a young couple on the floor below us did invite us for dinner once or twice. Baby and us went for long walks in the nearby Humboldt Park and waited for the day we could escape to London and then further afield to New Zealand. All this was financed with the cash payment received for having a baby in West Berlin. I have been back to Berlin after it was reunited: a surreal experience, as the conference I attended was in the former East Berlin, still showing the scars from World War II. In fact I had been to East-Berlin once before too: as a high school kid from West-Germany doing a school trip to West-Berlin, which included a day trip to East-Berlin, where our class saw a Berthold Brecht theatre piece in the then famous Berliner Ensemble, namely the The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui). For most of us Westerners this did not make much sense but a few of us saw the deep irony if not tragedy involved (especially now in retrospect): Brecht was taught in West-German high schools as the master of progressive theatre but why did Brecht himself return to the DDR (East-Germany) when the DDR was vilified in West-Germany as an evil, communist state under the control of cold war arch-enemy, the Soviet Union? 

Anyway, I am glad that Johann found part of his salvation in Berlin – after all this is the city where Rosa Luxemburg advocated participatory democracy, something that surely appeals to Johann. Thankfully, Johann also added an afterthought to his solution of ‘Reconnection One: Other People’, namely the Amish community in the US which on the surface of it seem to have found a solution by living in the past. However, their oppressive theology and abusive, collective system negate all that. Reconnecting to ‘other people’ in my view only works if it is in the context of proletarian struggle, as witnessed on a small scale by Johann in Kotti. 

Johann’s second solution ‘Social Prescribing’ is, unfortunately, immediately subverted, as reported in the Guardian:

Doctors and nurses should routinely tell patients to take part in sports and social activities rather than prescribing them drugs, the new health secretary has recommended. Matt Hancock backed a dramatic expansion of “social prescribing” as a way of relieving the pressure on the NHS as well as improving patients’ chances of recovering from their illness.


The sub-text seems to be that a third-rate NHS can further be demoted by cutting funding for expensive drugs, by substituting them with ‘sports and social activities’, that cost the NHS nothing. In NZ the state controls prescription drugs through a specialized agency that ascertains ‘cost-effectiveness’ before such drugs can be prescribed more or less freely for patients, who doctors believe need them. If the statistics show that a drug only saves 1 in a 100, the 1 in 100 will have to pay for it himself. One might think then that anti-depressants should not be funded because they do not work but of course far from it. Why? As Johann and many other critics point out, the pharmaceutical corporations that make these sort of drugs ensure that the statistics are skewed in their favour. What Matt Hancock above is advocating is that, for example, expensive cancer drugs – anti-depressants are very cheap in comparison because they are made from freely available materials – are not cost-effective for a labour force that relies on the NHS, i.e. let them join a table tennis club instead, and as we know, cheap labour in England is plentiful. Such an analysis might sound overly cynical but then again look at all the documented consequences of the austerity politics pursued by many governments around the world, growing the gap between the 1% and the 99% as if this wasn’t yet good enough (like selling cheap rubbish food and drugs to the poor is good business that must be pursued to the bitter end).
Johann’s take on ‘social prescribing’ is of course the exemplification of what it is supposed to be: people are driven to despair – like the mental health nurse – reconnect with people in similar situations and together they get out of their despair, depression and anxieties, all with the help of enlightened doctors who organize the recovery. The social activity so prominently prescribed is, of course, one of the most archetypal activities known to mankind: gardening. We too have a friend who has been on anti-depressants for years and years and his only out-door activity is working in a communal garden project. It keeps him alive. The mental health facility where my wife works has a dedicated garden for patients. I am a keen gardener too. Now consider the recent ‘social housing’ projects promoted by the current government in NZ: ‘affordable’ semi-detached homes are being built on 300 sqm sections, boasting concrete driveways and lots of fencing so you cannot see the neighbours. In the 1950s a somewhat better Labour government had the idea to build social housing on quarter-acre sections, so that a family occupying the house could have a garden around it, with a few fruit trees, growing vegetables, and some pretty flowers. This became known as the Kiwi Pavlova Paradise. Soon real estate companies ‘realized’ that quarter-acre properties should be sub-divided and many local councils introduced new building permits, so as to allow for a more ‘efficient’ use of the land. No more Paradise now! Of course, if you are well connected with the affluent classes you can still get your ‘real estate’ with landscaped garden and swimming pool, possibly with a gardener who ála D.H. Lawrence will provide some earthy delights for the lady of the stately house. The upper classes have always been obsessed with gardens, lately eschewing the Versailles models with Japanese Zen gardens, so no wonder the lords and ladies only fake their depressions so as to convince the poor that they too suffer from such illnesses. 

The restoration of ‘human nature’ as advocated by Johann’s exemplary good doctors is, of course, predicated on the idea that humans are part of nature and should act accordingly. Unfortunately, anyone wanting to make a fast buck will inevitably act against nature, to subdue nature or to elevate it as a status symbol. It is all quite depressing but perhaps, like Johann’ I am trying to get over it by writing about it, in the forlorn hope that a kindred soul will agree with me and thereby make a first step to the revolution that is required, in order to reconnect to nature and the Garden of Eden, that mythical place from which a cruel God banished us (or thanks to the stupid story that Eve is to blame). BTW another reason that run-of-the-mill GPs will not ‘talk’ to their patients, is the way they get paid: they can claim their ‘fees’ per patient after a 15-minute consultation, so why would they waste their money on ‘talking’ beyond the 15 minutes? Extended psychotherapy sessions could easily be delivered by ordinary doctors (which takes time and some dedication, as described by Johann) but would the NHS pay for it? No way!

Johann’s next solution ‘Reconnecting to meaningful work’ is again as elusive as can be, even though it should be obvious to everyone: ‘elect your boss’ says Johann. I currently work as a teacher in a Polytechnic Institute – a ‘public’ education facility – and there is a merry-go-round of ‘senior management’ with appointment procedures that are as secretive and elitist as can be. No wonder Oxford University some years ago selected a New Zealand university vice-chancellor, John Hood, who tried his best to ‘modernize’ Oxford by way of doing away with the archaic tradition whereby ordinary university academics ‘elect’ their senior management. To his credit, he more or less failed to make Oxford even more elitist. The democratization of the workplace, as advocated by Johann, and as exemplified by his Baltimore Bicycle Works, is a noble aim. Sure, there are isolated workplaces where workers own and run the company, some more prominent than others. The Brazilian Ricardo Semler achieved fame with his workers’ participation scheme but look where Brazil is today: with an autocratic ‘leader’ of the worst kind, there is no hope that Brazil will lead the way in terms of democratic workplaces. The by now ancient cry of ‘Workers Unite’ is now as vilified as any workers union, be it in the West or in ‘communist’ China. It wasn’t always so, as Noam (Chomsky) keeps reminding us: in the US in the 19thand early 20thcentury, labour unions and workers cooperatives were influential in everyday life in the US until a vicious, corporate model of capitalism first marginalized and then silenced workers and workers’ rights, leading to today’s system of wage slavery and denial of ‘meaningful work’. As mentioned before, my wife’s workplace is in an ED department, where doctors and nurses operate at the bottom of the cliff, publicly funded, and yet managed by a cabal of corporate mercenaries who screw the workers until they wince and submit. Voting for the boss? It is well known that the oppressed will vote for the oppressor. This is really depressing!

So, can I save myself by reconnecting to ‘meaningful values’ (chapter 19)? Johann again trots out the well-worn adage that advertising is ‘mental pollution’ and that we should find ways to detoxify ourselves. As I mentioned before, the advertising industry is the corporate version of behaviourism, which Noam long ago characterized as a neo-fascist enterprise. This is getting worse, not better. Through data mining and subsequent application of algorithms targeted advertising now taps into your individual preferences and desires, hitting you with that rhythm stick, until you surrender and buy that garden shed you have looked at on the Internet trading site with mild interest. Sure, if you select a group of people for a social science experiment, i.e. engaging them about their consumer values over a period of time, they will change their values for the better, at least for the time being. As the saying goes, people lack the information to make informed choices. We also know that the ordinary punter is excluded from any such useful information, again as explained by Hermann & Chomsky in their seminal Manufacturing Consent. And again, this is getting worse, not better: the social media avalanche manufactured by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google and what have you, relies on content that encourages mindless consumerism, fake news, bigotry, and misinformation. Sure, if we could only peel away these layers of fake values and ‘reconnect’ to what in Johann’s story a 14-year old pronounced as ‘love’? Some people argue that in the 1960s and early 70s there was a brief window, where youth culture nearly succeeded in a revolution based on ‘all we need is love’, and I as a product of that time, can attest to a certain euphoria that still occupies parts of my brain. As this threat to the establishment escalated, the empire struck back with what Johann has written about himself: the war on drugs. The most terrifying thought for the establishment was not drugs per se (as there was already a booming business with ‘legal’ drugs) but the realization that these counter-culture youngsters grow their own drugs, cutting out the businessman. Ironically, in recent years the corporate world finally succeeded in commercializing all those drugs for which you were busted in the 1960s, and now you can buy them over the counter in Canada and various states in the US. In fact, I have just sunk all my savings in buying shares for a proposed Cannabis company in New Zealand, in anticipation that in 2020 a referendum will legalize recreational cannabis, and I will ride the boom and finally become a rich old man. If ‘love’ were to make a comeback, I am sure that sooner or later it will be commercialized and sold in plastic bottles. Still, I totally agree: make love, not war! And BTW, there is no better anti-war song than Country Joe & Fish’s Vietnam Song! I miss the 1960s!

So we are counting down now: only three ‘reconnections’ to go. Number Five is really all about meditation and psilocybin, as part of a psychic reconnection to nature and human nature. There is no doubt that meditation in its many forms can be a beneficial method to do just that. As I mentioned before, I went to Rishikesh with my friend who was into TM, hoping to meet the Yogi Maharishi himself. To meditate on a given mantra, like ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, or to meditate on a Zen koan, or to meditate on Arundhati Roy’s latest novel (see my review on this blog, entitled ‘A meditation on ….’), all such exercises of the mind do, however, need extensive background knowledge, so as to be able to derive the correct values. Johann also mentions CBT as having some potential (CBT is popular in the NZ Mental Health community). I do have some problems with that: in the first place, this is a misnomer because ‘cognition’ and ‘behaviour’ are quite unrelated (but of course heavily promoted in the behavioural sciences, including ‘advertising’). Cognition refers to the ability to think (cogito, ergo sum, the Cartesian pronouncement – I think, therefore I am – that Noam likes as a Cartesian linguist) while behaviour is how we act. We all know the parental phrase of ‘think of what you have done’ when we acted badly and bullied the kid next door. You hardly ever hear this in a positive context, like ‘think what you have done’ when you have made someone happy. So, since depression and anxiety lead to negative behaviour, like self-harm and committing suicide, we teach these people via CBT to ‘think’ about the consequences of their bad behaviour and hope they will change. Such behaviour manipulation can be quite dangerous, as Noam has pointed out in his example of the concentration camp guard: this guy may have been quite a normal person before, but given the legal opportunity to torture and kill people, who he was told by the authorities are not really human – he will do it. Fascists also have problems with gay people, so they advocate ‘conversion therapy’ because being gay is just bad behaviour. 

So returning to harmless meditation and now psilocybin (and a bit of LSD), Johann gives a lengthy description of Mark, who underwent a course of psilocybin under clinical supervision. It changed his life for the better. Having taken LSD and psilocybin myself in my younger years, I can attest to both good and bad (but not terrible) trips, of course, all done without any supervision or guidance (but never alone). I can attest to this awakening of being one with the universe, to lose one’s ego, to be enveloped in love and affection for all and sundry, to listen to Pink Floyd and Deep Purple and the like (but, alas not to Elton John who so enthusiastically endorses Johann on his book cover) and sail away across the soundscape of the cosmic web, the Moody Blues elevating Timothy Leary, and so on. A bad trip I remember with psilocybin, was in the Himalayas, me clinging onto the grass on a beautiful meadow, being convinced I would float away if I let go. Another one was in Bali in 1970 (where we had ‘magic mushrooms’ as a dinner option) when my travelling companion freaked out about the mangy dogs that were all around, kicking them, throwing things at them as if they were the devil incarnate – which was a very uncool thing to do in an illustrious circle of super-cool, spaced-out dudes and chicks, who then looked at me in disgust, as if I was in some way responsible for my traveling mate’s weird behaviour (mangy dogs are after all God Head’s creation too, so be cool, man). I tried very hard to become invisible but it didn’t work. Sure, I mean in India, the Jains are said to sweep the ground before they walk on, lest they kill any living creature on it. I am a pacifist but when I see a cockroach in my house, I will kill it. I try to be a vegetarian but I do not condemn people who eat meat – what about all the beautiful predators like lions and tigers, weren’t they also created by the God Head (remember those really cool dudes in the 60s were called ‘heads’)? So, it is no surprise that some people who come out of psychedelic drug use are more confused than enlightened. Johann’s point is, that psychedelics are a very promising treatment for depression and anxiety disorders, of course under ‘controlled’ conditions whatever that might mean. I think the best way for a positive psychedelic experience, is to have lots of information in your head before you do so: e.g. before I ever took any drugs I had read all the works about Zen-Buddhism, read Baudelaire, Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Leary and a dozen more, so I was more than ready to try the real thing. As Johann’s medical pals point out, psychedelics do not offer an ‘experience’ as much as a ‘lesson’ from which one can learn or not. I certainly learned a lot but now in old age, I think I don’t have to learn anymore. What amazes me though, is how fast commerce jumps onto any bandwagon just in case there is a fast buck to be made, as indicated by this Guardian headline:

'It makes me enjoy playing with the kids': is microdosing mushrooms going mainstream?

Singing along with Mick Jagger to the tunes of ‘…I went down to the Chelsea drugstore to get your prescription filled …’ and ‘… mother’s little helper …’.

Another caveat for psychedelics is that they seem overly associated with ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ as if there were something to be discovered beyond the physical world, like gods and angels and fairies that live down the garden path. If pursued as a rational means to gain a better understanding of what love, life, and the universe are all about, then go for it. 

The next chapter is about childhood trauma. This should have been a really crucial topic that deserves much more space than what Johann provides (a mere four pages). This goes back to Freud’s assertion that suppressed memories of traumatic childhood events have a significant and detrimental effect on adult life, such as depression and anxiety. Talking about it, especially via psychotherapy, can release the shame associated with it, and such trauma can be worked through and some resolution can be achieved. Johann’s expert in this field, unfortunately, compares this to ‘confession’ in the Catholic Church, when everybody knows that the Catholic Church is the main contributor to childhood trauma, what with priests abusing children, and the church authorities putting a blind eye to it. Sexual abuse of children is one of the darkest places in the human condition, and yet it is never talked about in terms of prevention or bringing it into the light. Perpetrators – sexual predators – go unpunished because they rely on the shame children feel, and even if they confide (‘confess’ seems a very odd term here) in an adult, more often than not, they are not believed or their ordeal is belittled and swept under the carpet. When American presidents voice their misogynistic diatribes and get applauded for it, is there any wonder that men (and some women) feel free to abuse the most vulnerable, children, in the knowledge that they have no voice and no one to speak for them? The statistics are horrendous: one in three women say they have experienced some form of sexual abuse. We don’t need scientific evidence: we need action to confront this fascistic behaviour. Wilhelm Reich in his Mass Psychology of Fascismnotes sexual oppression as a dominant factor that gives rise to abuse of power against women and children, perpetrated by institutions of the state, church, and media. 

Johann is brave enough to tell his readers that he too was a victim of abuse as a child. One feels a terrible rage when such abuse comes to light: one cannot forgive the unforgivable (says Derrida)! Criminal statues tell us perpetrators cannot be prosecuted after so many years: it’s all part of the denial that abuse of children happens every day of the week. Child abuse is often associated with family violence – the statistics in NZ are horrible – which in turn is associated with all the biological, social and psychological ills that Johann chronicles in his book. When reported (as Boris Johnson’s neighbours apparently did) the police take the offender(s) to ED (in Johnson’s case they obviously do nothing of the sort) where my wife as a mental health nurse has to deal with the situation, what with the offender threatening suicide because he feels wrongly accused. He has to wait for hours for a psychiatric triage and then wait many hours again for a psychiatrist to turn up to make a decision about what to do next. The chemical solution plus application of the Mental Health Act are the preferred options. Child and youth services are contacted to look into the children’s situation at the home of the offender. It can take weeks and the children suffer, in silence. When society is broken to such an extent, it is very hard to show any signs of optimism, and move on to Johann’s last solution: Restoring the future.

The first discovery noted by yet another of Johann’s scientists was, that poverty correlates with depression and anxiety. Really? Isn’t that obvious? In the German news magazine Der Spiegel there was a recent article that cited ‘research’ that poor pensioners died up to 15 years earlier than rich pensioners. Really? Isn’t that obvious? A recent Guardian article noted that the difference in life expectancy between the poorest part of Chicago and the richest part is some 30 years. Really? Isn’t that obvious? Why is this presented as amazing news? It allows everybody who is not poor to say, oh how amazing, well that’s what happens when you are poor. Then comes Johann with the solution to alleviate poverty: UBI. Finland’s latest trial in that matter was abandoned after two years. The so-called liberal UK media organization, The Guardian, had earlier posed the question:

Money for nothing: is Finland's universal basic income trial too good to be true?

Yes, what a joke! ‘Money for nothing, chicks for free’ as Dire Straits (sic) intoned. OMG, it’s immoral, giving poor people money just like that. Why did Obama advocate for some form of UBI ‘late in his presidency’? Because this way he wouldn’t actually have to do it. Johann’s expert in these matters, Rutger Bregman – who since has achieved fame through his disruptive talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos – advocates for UBI in a much more convincing way than Obama ever did, and I kind of agree as an interim solution to fight poverty. Ultimately, UBI is like a band-aid, treating the symptoms rather than the root cause of poverty, namely the vicious fight for private property, along the lines of extreme capitalist greed, where the winner takes all (there is no point in coming second, as the American corporate mantra says). 

The simple solution has been known forever: a socialist society without private property. So, let’s be optimistic, as is Johann in his evocation that change for a better world is possible, citing gay marriage as a result of a campaign started by an individual, Andrew Sullivan, a campaign that at its inception in the 1990s seemed an impossible dream. Recently Taiwan became the first Asian country to allow gay marriage. A better world is possible, say many people, including the great social activist and novelist, Arundhati Roy, but the obstacles, she says, are immense. The Communist Party USA recently held its 100thAnniversary Convention, to prove it has not yet died, repeating Marx’ prediction that Capitalism will manufacture the rope to hang itself with. While I don’t like the metaphor, I do believe that the future will merge with a socialist utopia, a ‘better world’ we can only imagine now. Noam, the eternal optimist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, also believes in the notion that progress is possible, and while at the moment we may be taking one step forward, and two steps backward, humans as social beings will co-operate and organize to make the world a much better place than it is now. I am more circumspect, evoking the paradox of the human condition, that Noam also acknowledges by juxtaposing what he calls Plato’s versus Orwell’s problem (and which I will slightly change to suit ‘my problem’): Plato: how come we know so much but have achieved so little for the wellbeing of humankind? Orwell: How come we know so little but have achieved so much that we can land a space probe on a small comet and take a picture of a black hole?

Johann’s post-script, as it were, is entitled ‘homecoming’. It is a summary of all he has talked/written about. It is what he would say to himself as a teenager, when he first was prescribed anti-depressants. Imagine you were the kid who is brought to ED by police because you stood on a bridge, and a passerby thought you might jump, and alerted the police. You have to wait for four hours to be seen by the psychiatric nurse, who has recently read Johann’s book, and is now determined to at least take time out to talk to the kid. What’s wrong in your life, and in the world, that makes you feel so down? He says his parents say he is a troublemaker, and don’t want him back. He says he dropped out of school when he was 15. He says he never had a job, living on social security money, buying drugs and shit. The kid is surprised that the nurse is interested in the story of his life. Miss, he says, how come you want to know about me, nobody else is interested? I thought you are giving me some pills? Nurse says, no, but I’ll make an appointment for you with Youthtown, where they will help you. Been there, Miss, they are assholes. Well, kid, do you want to see a doctor then? Nah, Miss, I just want to go home. Where is home? There are some bros who live in a garage and they let me sleep there. Well, that’s at least something. But, Miss, I have no money to get back. I’ll try to get you a taxi chit. Nurse walks off to the charge nurse and asks for a taxi chit. Sorry, no more taxi chits. Why, not, it’s an emergency? Then call the police. What, the police brought the kid here, do you think they will take him back, of course not. Sorry, it’s a management directive received yesterday, I can email you the text. Thanks. Nurse tells kid to go home. She gives him five dollars from her own pocket. As an afterthought, she tells him to read Johann’s book. Kid smiles, can’t read, Miss.

Well, at least the kid is not on anti-depressants. Had he seen a psychiatrist, he would be. Johann says this is an insult that needs to be thrown back at the face of the psychiatrist. Sure, next time nurse sees the psychiatrist, she will tell him that he is insulting his patients. Nurse will lose her job and become very depressed. To break this cycle of pain and suffering we need collective action, says Johann. Sure we do! We even know what to do – just ask the doctor in Vietnam!

So, I want to end with a silly little line that somehow sticks in my mind from a silly TED Talk I have to use to teach ESOL, namely some Canadian guy who lived in Bali, selling jewelry to tourists, and one day saw Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and decided then and there to build a ‘green school’ in Bali, to save Bali and perhaps the rest of the world. So his bye-line was: thank you Mr. Gore, you have ruined my life but you have given me a great future. My wife says the same about Johann’s book. So, thank you, Mr. Hari.


Some links I have used: