The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mental Health, Mass Murder, and the Madness of National Debate

Yet another mass shooting yields yet another call for keeping firearms "out of the hands of the mentally ill."

This is foolish for a variety of reasons, and it entirely misses the point. It's scapegoating an increasingly large segment of the population for the sake of maintaining widespread access to military-style guns, but most important, it's using bigotry to try to avoid a larger cultural issue. 

The first problem is even defining who "the mentally ill" in fact are. It's not as easy as saying that it's anyone who might fit any given definition in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. That would include millions of people who pose no real threat, a number that currently stands at a quarter of the population. Any other call to arms--or rather rallying point--for restriction of rights that would impact 25% of everybody in the nation would cause a widespread freakout, but we can always justify discrimination against "the mentally ill."

And with each new iteration of the DSM, the net spreads wider. The latest edition, after all, does away with the grief exception, so anyone still grieving the loss of a loved one as few as two weeks after their death may be subject to diagnosis and, if those who wish to further restrict firearms to "the mentally ill" have their way, legal sanction, by a psychiatrist. Each edition of the DSM, furthermore, increases the number of diagnoses, essentially putting no upper limit on who could be considered "the mentally ill" going forward.

And these diagnoses never go away, even if you end up feeling better. One way in which psychiatry parts company with the rest of those supporting the psychologically distressed is that to a psychiatrist you never recover; psychiatric orthodoxy will allow for remission, but not recovery, and few, if any, psychiatrists will ever remove a diagnosis from your chart. So the number of people restricted from owning firearms, if based on diagnostic criteria, would steadily increase over time, creating both social backlash and logistical nightmares. 

Furthermore, psychiatric diagnosis doesn't track with mass murder. There are lots of things that can qualify you, but propensity to commit mass murder isn't really one of them. The best predictors of violence of this sort are being young, white, male, and having a history of violence, but since that also defines one of the main demographics for gun ownership, don't expect it to be the subject of gun restrictions anytime soon.

And even if we did live in this idealized world in which mental health professionals had access to anyone and everyone all the time, according to recent work by Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish in a piece entitled "Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms," mental health professionals aren't actually that much better than anyone else at predicting violence. So we'd be bothering, and perhaps sanctioning, millions of people needlessly should mental health professionals become even more deeply involved.

And then there's the "if you see something, say something" idea, which, while no worse at predicting violence than if mental health professionals did it, creates the spectre of an Orwellian nightmare in which everyone rats everyone else out. Not even considering the degree to which gaslighting and simple bad faith could be involved in this sort of thing, do you really want to live in a world in which you have to carefully monitor your every mood lest a well-meaning acquaintance report you to the mental health cops?

But even if stricter mental health provisions do become law, gun nuts aren't dumb: while millions of people who do seek professional help who would never become violent would never be able to own a gun again, the truly dangerous folks would simply not seek help, knowing full well what that would mean for them.

So what can we do?

I think there are both practical, technical things we can do and larger, harder, cultural ones.    

First are reasonable and consistent qualifications for gun ownership and use. As has been said before, you have to go through a lot more training to drive a car than to buy a gun. Gun training and licensure should involve both safety training and training on mood management, self-soothing, and assessment of violent situations. Since the best single predictor of future violence is past violence, anyone with a conviction that involves violence should have their guns confiscated. Again, gun nuts aren't stupid, and that sort of thing would have them reconsidering how they organize and how they support one another.

The best idea I've heard so far, though, is, as we do with cars, making people who own guns carry insurance. This coverage could then be taxed to provide better (not just more) no fault, no consequence, no diagnosis, confidential support for people who might be feeling violent to themselves or others and it would make impulse buys of high-capacity firearms even more difficult. Plus, it would help make liability issues more clear. There's nothing like the intercession of an actuary to spoil all our "fun."       

And those who think we can't constitutionally restrict the sale of guns capable of mass killing simply don't know what "well-regulated" means and, if they have read the 2nd amendment, have chosen to ignore that part of it or have a very loose grasp on basic English syntax.

But none of these practical efforts are any guarantee. After all, there are already enough guns to arm every man, woman, and child in the US. Getting a gun, no matter the restrictions, is relatively easy.

To address that, we need culture change. As has been often noted, nations with gun ownership rates roughly close to ours generally have many fewer mass shootings.

The founding myths of the US are almost all predicated on gun violence--from the "shot heard 'round the world" of the Revolutionary War to "how the West was won," we believe deeply that guns make us powerful, that guns solve problems, that guns make us heroes. Gun violence is a deep-seated part of who we are.  
Take a few moments to spin through the channels during prime time. How long will it be before you see a gun? Take any given Hollywood blockbuster. What's the body count? How many die from gunfire?

The process here isn't linear. The fact that our screens are loaded (all puns intended) with guns is as much because we are obsessed with watching this stuff as that we are impacted by it. The process is called "reification," and it is a process of reinforcing an idea through a variety of cultural channels. The more we love it, the more exposed we are to it and the more those who gain by our loving it give it to us, making us love it even more.

It should be no surprise, then, that disaffected, dismayed, and traumatized young men in the US should imprint upon the gun as the means to relieve their toxic levels of stress. (Many of the men and boys who have been involved in mass shooting have well documented and rather high ACE scores, and many of them were on or coming off of high doses of medications linked with violence, especially in the young, such as SSRIs and benzodiazepines. Another argument against the mental health status quo being the sole answer to this problem is that it still relies on these meds as the main, and often the only, treatment.)   

We fight this sort of thing by promoting and creating countervailing cultural forces: realistic depictions of the consequences of gun violence, promotion of great works in which the conflicts are not about violence and are not solved through violence, heroes who use means other than guns to solve problems.

And the fact that many of you are rolling your eyes right now and going "boring!" just further makes my case: if you can't be entertained without a bunch of gunplay, what does that say about the degree to which you buy into the culture of violence itself?

The contexts in which violence plays out in products of our culture are also incredibly important to how we view it in the real world. Note that many classic works of literature and even many great films have their share of gun violence. But note the ways in which they are depicted. There's a good deal of war in War and Peace, but it doesn't reinforce the idea that shooting French soldiers really is a gas--even though several of its characters experience that sensation.

We also can't dismiss the degree to which prominent social critique is necessary. The success of the #MeToo movement shows that dedicated and widespread outrage can crate change. But unless and until both Hollywood screenwriters and Wayne LaPierre are rethinking how they approach the subject, unless guys with guns in every drawer in their houses are impacted by this movement, expect nothing much to change.      

Even more powerful than all that is the genuine and widespread discussion of what guns mean. This needs to happen teacher to student, parent to child, pulpit to congregation. It needs to happen between people of goodwill. It needs to happen over the long term.

About that I am even less optimistic, as we can't even have an honest discussion about the president's Twitter feed, much less something as dear as a deep-seated national value. 

--Lael Ewy

Monday, January 1, 2018

Dispatches . . .

The primary source of violence in human affairs is when one’s existence comes up against another’s set of purposes.

The culture of stupidity of our leaders has been very carefully cultivated by their benefactors.

Be open to everything language has to offer.

We have more invested in the reiteration of our own sanctimony than in alleviating the suffering of other people.

As useful as it is, research can also be a form of numbing.

We try to keep the facts on our side, as if that will protect us, somehow, from all the deep hurt.

The facts are inadequate for our purposes however vital they may be for our self-confidence.

The fundamental problem of human progress is and always has been that those who already have the power to change society owe that power to the status quo.

The truth is that there is no end state, no outcome, only the temporary cessation of a task, the momentary manifestation of a phase.

The internet and the worship hall have this in common: they are where we go to have our assumptions reinforced.

When your sense of hope relies on another’s despair, you’re doing it wrong.

Education isn’t learning facts about things; it’s using ideas in order to learn what to do with facts about things.

A tradition is a bad idea that refuses to die.

You develop a taste for ideas the same way you do for art, music, literature, fine food. This taste can—and should—be cultivated as a matter of becoming an educated person. If not, you’re not really engaging in your education, formal or otherwise, no matter what you may call it.

Character isn’t about always doing the right thing; it’s about having the humility to learn and change from having done things wrong.

There is a certain type of professional who always takes care to move the experiences of those he serves out of the equation in order to make room for his own ego.

One reason we don’t change is that, while failure can garner sympathy, change can threaten identity.

Businesses are fine, and we may even need them. But they’re not enough. The main business of a democracy must always be equity.

Framing government as a business and the taxpayer as a customer is misleading: in order to achieve “the general welfare,” we must see government as a means to create a common good, and our duties as citizens as contributions to a society worth living in.

We’ve been taught that tears are punishment for being sad. They’re really what we’ve earned for the privilege of being human.

It’s possible that the idea of a comprehensible universe is an artifact of the human mind, a necessary folly, a reassuring delusion masking fretful, cosmological chaos.

Poetry is primary research into what’s most basic and irreducible about being alive.

Privilege is the power to give your personal fears the force of law.

Our very systems of sorting and ordering data create both insights and cognitive impairments. We tend to forget the filter is there and take to assuming the world really does align with the tools we use to study it.

We’ll recover from the lies, but we’ll never fully recover from all the lying.

It’s a strange quirk of Western thought that the past is seen as the child of the present and the future as the father of now. A more accurate picture would reverse this order. The past, rather than being “primitive” or “innocent,” creates the world we’re emerging into, frames what discovery means for us, and is the very vehicle of all our current explorations.

The thing is the thing; the system is cognitive.

Good literature makes you think and feel; great literature changes the manner in which you think and feel.

For the competitors, the purpose of competition within a market is not to innovate or create efficiencies—still less is it to create jobs. The purpose is to win market share. In other words, the purpose of competition, no matter its means, is to reduce competition by reducing the number of competitors.

There are two ways to experience change: go somewhere or stay put.

Maintaining an identity is more important than addressing an injustice that does us harm.

A successful system of hierarchical power succeeds by rendering evil banal.

I often hear people excuse not reading poetry by claiming that they do not understand it. Do they really think they’ll understand it better by not reading it?

Problematic are not the questions you can’t answer but the ones you can’t ask.

We should first admit that we can’t possibly understand another person’s pain. But then we should do all we can to make space for it.

It’s funny with madness: the sane will ask “why” not because they want to know but because they want to be seen as the sort of people who ask “why.” The mad ask expecting an answer.

Contemporary conservatism: society exists to produce goods for an economy. Classical liberalism: an economy exists to produce goods for a society.

An irony: we feel safe within our own spheres of fear.

The expert, the businessman, th evaluator, the executive are motivated by what they know. The scholar, the artist, the scientist, the philosopher are motivated by what they do not know. This is why our current rush toward business models and toward reliance on existing evidence bases is so pernicious to the university, to creativity, and to science. We have subjugated scholarship to service delivery, artistry to marketing, science to research and evaluation.

Analytical spellbinding: the idea that a clever analysis equates with a complete understanding.

Analytical hegemony: the projection of an analysis or analytical framework into the world as an intervention or the solution to a problem.

The point of ambition is power, but art is impossible without humbling oneself to the task at hand.

Our assumptions form the main barriers to our understanding. 

--Lael Ewy

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Unprintable, 1.0


We each are loved
according to our own aphasia:
the global disutility of Wernicke,
the deep emptiness of dasein,
the stuttering joy of Broca,
a dynastic legacy of neural
missed connection, a toolkit
of malaproposition, a jangling
orgy of wrong.


It’s all accident of touch--
a probe, slipped, a skull scissored
by the privilege of a pale ghost
whose every brutal oops
morphs easily into discovery:
your tragedy is my
glorious contribution
to science. Now shut up
and eat your peas.

--Lael Ewy

Sunday, December 24, 2017

On Ward C

Fiction by Doug G.

Again the click-clack and the doors open.

Voices down the hall and it don’t smell like pee.

It don’t smell so bad here as you might think, though sometimes it smells real bad.

Sometimes, I think I smell it—blood, dirt, gunpowder, what-have-you.

I can smell the bad coffee now, and my stomach goes whooom it wants it so bad, but a few more doors need to click-clack open before all that can happen.

A couple guys got a puzzle going, and maybe I’ll help them after breakfast and group. They got ladies here, too, and I see them sometimes when we do classes, like we have one on anger management and there’s some in there.

One day, the girl with the green hair was wearing a space kitten t-shirt—like it had on it a kitten in space with Saturns and stuff and glitter on it that I guess they let her keep.

Cracked me up, for sure, but I knew I had to raise my hand to say anything—them are the rules—and I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I hushed up.

Later on I had a laugh.

Sometimes, I think about Greengrass and how we used to have horses there we could keep and pet. The work wasn’t all that bad—I don’t mind working, like I keep sayin’—and the horses were always right there, waiting for us.

I turned a hitch at Greengrass, then on the street. Then here.

John, he’s my therapist, is not so bad as everyone says he is. And the psychiatrist sees me once a month or so and adjust my meds.

Which I guess I’m doing better now.

Once, they brought in some people from the outside for a class. All the people they brought said they were like us, but they didn’t look too much like it.

There was an older gentleman who didn’t say much, and a bigger lady with a pretty face and a black lady, and they talked about how they rebuilt their lives. And the old man said he was better now that he got his correct diagnosis and the black lady started to cry when the topic of hope came up.

And it hurt to see that. She seemed so nice.

She had nice clothes—real put together—and good hair and a badge on. Not just the visitor badge, but one from where she worked outside. I bet she smelled good too.

It’s the smells I miss: nice perfumes from the business ladies downtown or good coffee or even the street smells like the exhaust smells for the parking garage where I used to flop or the asphalt or bricks.

See, I got my hitch, and it’s time I got to to do, then John says involuntary for a while and then, John says, “Well, we’ll see.”

He says that a lot—doesn’t want to promise anything—and sometimes that gets under my skin a little and sometimes not.

Once, when we were all still kids—there were five of us kids—and we were living in that trailer outside Wamego, and we find a hole full of baby bunnies,and we pulled them out. We was just playing around with them, not hurting nothing. We was just kids, but I remember the little rabbits and how they felt just struggling against my hand and how soft.

Then Big Mike came out the back door and yelled at us and the bunnies just start jumping everywhere and we all ran back inside.

Next day, the hole was empty. The bunnies were gone, and Sam said they were dead or got eaten by coyotes ‘cause they smelled like people now, not bunnies, and their momma would never take them back.

Sam was a liar. A natural-born liar.

But he might of been right about that.

Next day, Big Mike was gone, too, and Catherine, too, but I could see she’d busted up her compact and dropped her lipstick in the toilet because if Big Mike was going to have her all to hisself, he was going to have her “warts and all.” Which is how she described herself when she was in curlers and her bathrobe in the IGA and had been crying all night.

I didn’t hear her say it that night, but I knew she would. I didn’t see she ever had any warts, neither, but she always tried real hard with us kids.

She left a note and everything, with the social services number on it, and I bet Big Mike beat her bad for that too, but it was all she could do, and I knew she wouldn’t just up and leave us and not do it.

We lost the note, but I hung on to the Bic pen laid next to that note for a long, long time.

John says I got PTSD, and he wants to do some eye thing with me, but the psych says I’m schizo, and he won’t ever budge.

Once I met a guy in here got TD real bad, been on Haldol so long he could barely talk, but he could tell you every Top 40 hit for every week from, I swear, 1956 to 2104, when he says his radio broke and nobody to fix it.

He could sing some of ‘em, too, but ‘cause of the TD, he’d sing it real bad. But, thing of it is, nobody here made fun of him. It’s like that in here, since we all know that in a few years, who knows? That could be us.

The other day, I heard one of the ladies had a baby in here. They had to rush her over to the clinic as if they couldn’t see it coming. But then, she wasn’t due for a long time yet, I guess, and they had her so wacked out on Risperdal that she couldn’t tell them she was havin’ contractions, then her water broke, and all hell broke loose.

She’d just cry anyway when anybody asked her anything at all.

So they rush her over, and a OBGYN from town rushes in in the middle of the night, and he gets in past security faster than anything, is what I heard.

But I never heard what happened to the kid.

What could happen to you when you’re born and your mom’s in a place like this?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Freud, Fantasy, and the Art of Human Survival

Freud was maybe right (enough) about this: what ails us is an inability to square our lives with our deepest, most fugitive impulses.

We’re drawn to places like this: water flowing, calm, swift, predictable; trees we imagine wild; an outcropping of rock. We’re drawn here if, for no other reason, than the need to identify with something not shamed into being, not associated with the need to express gratitude for a box in a glass and steel cage, a new screen to stare at, the ever-nagging buzz of not-quite-enough.

Humans live lives of compelling fantasies, and our cultures provide the polish on these fantasies. Schools teach new ones every day, with the best of them merely providing more chances to live the most desirable of them out. We plunge into tee-vee and the internet and into our social media feeds for new ones.

I don’t discount the power: art comments constantly on the nature of these fantasies and often finds itself pulled into their service with the jingoistic, the predictable, the sentimental—dutiful soldiers of paint and pen.

We’ve survived in the short term in no small part by their ever-increasing sophistication. Faced with almost certain annihilation, we fail to freak out mainly because we’re too busy tweeting.

But fantasies they remain, and they won’t help us later, when the crops begin to fail.

The need to believe in wild places, and the human capacity to follow the irritations of wild hairs, remind us of the overpowering nature of that which is indifferent to us and our petty concerns.

The angst over what is or is not holy, pure, “politically correct” comes from this need, but it’s already entrapped in its own snare, bound by its own terminology into self-defeating pointlessness. What’s wild about us also isn’t “us”; it’s tapped deep into something we can’t so easily sum up with a few odd phrases.

Art treads here as well, wisely afraid, yet steadily reaching.    

--Lael Ewy

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On Free Speech and Responsibility in Troubled Times

by Lael Ewy

It seems that at this point in our nation’s history we’re bargaining one group’s right to free speech against many other groups’ right to simply exist.

The issues typically get boiled down to “tolerance” or “intolerance,” and they’re talked about primarily by people like me: white, middle-class folks who, after all, have nothing to lose in the matter and have the privilege of discussing such matters amongst themselves.

I can’t guarantee that I won’t do more of the same here. My purposes, for what they’re worth, are to reframe the ideas at play, and, by so doing, to perhaps bring some clarity, barring the possibility of actual resolution.

I’m working from a few basic ideas here. The first is that all speech has consequences. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. You may be talking to yourself just to make yourself feel better or to keep yourself company, but those are desired consequences. Thus when a white supremacist takes part in a rally, he is foolish if he thinks that expressing such an extreme point of view won’t be met with extreme reactions. This is not to say that the person who lashes out violently at the white supremacist should be exonerated for her actions, but it does mean we should acknowledge a possible—in this case probable—response.

Speech, rather than being entirely counter to action, is itself also an action. In this way, speech can be seen as inter-related to other actions and reactions. The white supremacist cited above would think himself a failure if no counter-demonstration or media showed up to his rally. And while he is also foolish if he thinks his speech will lead a white homeland to be bestowed upon him the following morning, a white homeland is, among other things, one of the stated goals of his speech.

Speech, being an action, requires responsibility. A whole lot of ink has been spilt trying to put forth the idea that free speech is somehow rendered outside the normative realm of social responsibility. “It’s just an opinion,” or “Those who disagree are being politically correct,” or “I was only joking” are ways people try to duck responsibility for what they say or to avoid criticism. If you speak, particularly in a public forum, you must be prepared for reaction and criticism, hardened to it, able to meet it emotionally and intellectually. Of all of the things I’m going to say here, this cleaves most closely to the “it goes for both sides” idea.

Silence in the proper places can be powerful, but it can also be someone acting with discretion. Depending on the context, it might not be acquiescence to evil at all but refusing to take the bait. At any rate, speaking is not a way to avoid responsibility; it’s another situation that requires it. Criticism, in the case of free speech, is another word for accountability.

Choosing to act in a way that defies the law also has consequences, and it can also be a form of speech. As Dr. King put it, those involved in nonviolent direct action chose to break the law “openly” and “lovingly.” They did this in order to bring attention to laws that were unjust. And they willingly suffered the consequences of breaking the law. While an Antifa activist may not be trying to tell the world that laws against assault are unjust, she is trying to draw attention to the fact that fascism is an injustice. However, she would also be foolish to think that punching a fascist shouldn’t be met with legal sanction. If she does it, she should do it openly and with a willingness to suffer the legal consequences in order to make her point: violent force is worthwhile against fascists.

The white supremacist, of course, wishes to make injustice law, and therefore must be countered first by legal means, with speech acts, political resistance, and nonviolent direct action. And then, should his ideas become law, with open and expressive violations of those laws, and with a willingness to suffer the consequences.

I’m rationalist enough to believe that if we enter into troubled times with clarity of thought, we will spare ourselves the worst of troubles. But I’m realist enough to know that fascists and white supremacists won’t be defeated by our clarity of thought alone.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Hacking Life Hacking: Five Life Hacks, Hacked

by Mary Chino Cherry

5. Take more time for yourself, by going to a park or taking in a movie. In other words, pamper yourself by going to hectic places full of other people taking time for themselves and annoying you with their chatter, body stank, thoughtlessness, and intrusive questions about why you’re here and not at work.

4. Eat well. Save time and money by spending two hours commuting to Whole Foods so you can spend all your money on three mediocre, but certified organic, Peruvian bananas.

3. Be spontaneous! Embrace an attitude of radical fun by evincing career-ending erratic behavior and relationship-destroying unreliability!

2. De-stress by enrolling in a time-eating and hyper-competitive yoga class. Or try meditating instead of making dinner for your children. I’m sure Child Protective Services will forgive a little malnutrition when they see the Brand New You!

1. Live for the moment. Nothing says “winning at life” quite like a complete lack of planning and a total disregard for anything beyond your current state of mind. You’ll be shocked at how much your co-workers appreciate how you keep showing up totally unprepared! 

Photo: "Yoga" by Matt Madd