Mourning the Loss of The Aliens

DNA in space
“Life in Space”

Fairly recently some of our better known big shot thinkers like Elon Musk have begun to give voice to the growing idea that we should STOP looking for aliens in space.

The underrepresented public segment in the space and sci-fi communities read this sort of commentary in the esoteric scientific and sci-fi (there is less and less difference nowadays?) media in order to have an intellectual sort of escapism reading to be cognitively relieved of the relentless deluge of Trump-related news and vitriol from all sides of our so-called body politic. Other social demographically classified persons read of this burning issue such as space geeks, diehard Star Trek fans and their contentious Star Wars upstarts, and not to forget NASA government types who battle for funds for those oversized space radio receivers we tend to place in areas needing beer joints and economic development such as God-forsaken spaces in New Mexico and Australia.

The organizing idea seems to be that something called the “Fermi Paradox” has taken over space and alien related discussion sites, is that there is an increasing likelihood that there is likely no life OUT THERE. Other than us. And I thought this Fermi Paradox was all about the A-Bomb development in the Manhattan Project, that it was thought in those days, atomic power was nice and socially helpful and lo and behold turned out to be just another Defense Department awesomely scary military weapon.

Putting aside all the statistical and other abstract bases for the theorizing that there is no alien life virtually anywhere, I found myself mulling over the socio-cultural repercussions of this not quite cataclysmic news. This may not be as trivial as one might at first surmise. After all, why could the declaration of the NON-existence of something that has never been manifest in our world be such a Big Deal? It is akin to saying that purple bears do not exist in the unexplored areas of the Amazon. Or that Stanley no longer needs to search for Livingston’s never born twin. I mean, saying that something that has not existed does not need any further searching is not earth-shattering news.

I found myself further considering that this whole seemingly waste of time and billions of dollars of research, was not a waste but a “good thing,” because what if the great classical discoverers of modern times had decided there was “no sich-a thang as ‘lectricity” and not tried to shock themselves with lightning bolts or ignored getting shocked after scooting across a wool rug. We would be still locked in the ages of campfires and polluting coal furnaces in every room and have no egad, computers or tv!! We would have been spared bad movies about listening to outer space and watching Jodie Foster try to make a bad flick entertaining…At least we won’t spend billions looking for purple Russian bears I suppose.

There are though definite quarters for whom this apparently issue now deemed without importance is important. For instance, just to name a few, all the NASA scientifist and alien searching agenices and their funding, tin foil hat types, Area 51 devotees (now reclassified in the category of ‘there is no there there;), alien genre movie scriptwriters and so on. Some of those sectors command huge budgets. Those folks may lose jobs. And they and their families might be destitute. I can see the new class of highway handout folks now, “Space Scientist Willing to Tutor New Math Homework to Your School Child.”

The cinematic industry will take a huge hit. A category that previously sucked in scare seeking teenagers wishing to sneak a hug in the dark protective anti-chaperone theaters will disappear. Summer alien mongering movie revenues will dip. Democratic political office seekers will have to reduce by a corresponding percentage the L.A. based PAC donations they count on every two years.

Back to Elon Musk for a moment. This public figure is drumming up support for funding from the government, meaning US, for his idea to Colonize Far Reaches of Space. His argument is that we are trashing the Earth so badly that we have to move to a new Cosmic Neighborhood that has better water and air.

But he has an inherent conflict of interest. He is plugging his Space X venture. He is generataing free publicity so that us Earth Bound Rubes will sign up for trips and generate revenue. Sir Richard Branson is doing much the same thing, though he does not rail so much about pollution and play upon our fears of survival. He is just a business man whereas Musk is a visionary! I concluded long ago that “visionaries” were all hucksters like P. T. Barnum and much more dangerous. I think that Musk would be better served if his publicity campaign for space travel and colonization went like this.

‘You Don’t Have to Worry About Aliens’ like the ones that nearly ate Sigourney Weaver in all those signature “Alien” movies. There are no more giant lizard like aliens out there with flesh eating heads inside of heads! The only tongue sucking beings you will have to worry about will be deep French kissing hotties. Without their bubble headed space helmets of course.

And the NRA will be able to save years of any new PR campaign inveighing against home invasion by aliens from space.

And homeowners can stop paying for sky directed anti-burglary nightlights to scare off aliens sneaking into their backyards from the sky.

And I can stop writing whimsical blog posts on rampaging aliens and get back to truly boring, mind numbing psychiatric articles…



Is It Beyond Our Power to Prevent School Shootings?

Just yesterday at the time of this writing, the article, “The Futility of Trying to Prevent More School Shootings in America,” by Barbara Bradley Haggerty was published in the national magazine The Atlantic. The article makes for somber reading. It starts off with the stage setting sentence: “As long as there is easy access to guns, there’s no way parents, teachers, and other specialists can thwart every violent teenager.”

So much for instant solutions, easy reassurance that we all wish we could hear, hang on to and quell our personal and national unease over this issue that is turning into the fearful acknowledgment something is really profoundly wrong in our land of gun culture.

Any of us who are old enough to have been of a sentient and aware age before 1999 and the Columbine massacre in Colorado, know that “it wasn’t always like this” at all. How did we get here? How could this kind of deadly, terrible social contagion have taken over the lives of students in schools?

My last child, a graduating high school son, told me yesterday that it was just this past week that he realized “this was not normal.” He meant in his 17 years he had come as a teenager to think and take for granted that school shootings have always been with us. As much as he and I have conversed about this in the last two years or so, I had not realized this was his basic abiding view of the phenomenon. I was quietly floored.

My writing style in my blogs’ post is to try to have an outside reference for the reader. Sometimes this reflects the stimulus for that post. But always it offers the reader a more authoritative source than my humble opinions, thoughts or analyses. The article referenced above is so comprehensive, informative and well done, that I cannot offer much to add to it.

I will add the comment that this article is what has long been needed in the public discussion, often bordering on political hysteria that has dominated the discourse on school shootings, gun rights, the gun culture, the Second Amendment debates, all of which I have viewed as not only not productive but masking the complexity of social cancer that faces us now. Like the problem of cancer, there will no one cure, no one cause, no simple approach, no quick resolution. Many more will die from this social cancer before this phenomenon begins to lessen. And like cancer, there will be myriads of contributory causes from all conceivable quarters ranging from commerce (the sale of guns), strongly held personal beliefs (I have to defend mine from ever-present lurking threats that have a minuscule chance of accosting me), social customs and legends (the American Cowboy, soldier etc. with their lever action carbine, AR-15) and on and on.

Years ago, problems had simple unitary causes. A car’s carburation was simple and easily fixed by any shade tree home mechanic. Then electronic fuel injection arrived and everything became complex with so many possible sites of error that simplicity was lost forever.

The intelligentsia has long accepted the principle of the complexity of causes. The more educated one was, the easier it was to cognitively juggle and work with staggering multiplicities of causes and effects. A straight line from cause to effect with all its reassuring predictability became a thing of history. The “elites,” the pointy-headed intellectuals” of Spiro Agnew’s hate filled nomenclature could see the realities of social conditions, historical tides over decades or centuries resulting in vast populaces incorporating deleterious social impediments. The social conservatives persisted in seeing simply effects as personal faults and shortcomings. The poor were lazy, stupid and their station was their curse and their own fault.

We see the mythology of simple, fault driven causation still driving the discussion regarding the riddle of school shootings. Causes that are casually, angrily and dogmatically thrown around again include: violent video games, Ritalin, abortion, not attending church and being “unchurched,” radical politics, abortion, the rise of women’s rights, the erosion of the family farm, not enough guns, too many guns, abolition of prayer in schools, too much free speech, television cartoons, declining reverence for authority, left wing politics, right wing politics, the constant 24 hour news bombardment, social media of all forms, the ubiquity of cell phones, decline of reading, too much sex in public media, AIDS, creeping socialism, erosion of parental authority, kids having too much money and on and on.

The concept of the easily identified villain has taken yet another large hit in the world of analysis of the school shooter. Most of the shooters are not psychotic, though a few indeed have been and make up a category of these individuals. They are not terrorists. They do not look so weird that they can be easily identified ahead of the commission of their deadly rampages. Mostly they are teens with the usual wrenching travails of that awful developmental period of life known as adolescence.

Some plan their deeds far ahead of time. They keep their intentions secret from even their families. They spiral into attitudes that are so far removed from social reality that they become trapped by them. Others act very impulsively. Some are triggered by the buffetings of being a teenager such as being jilter, being bullied, failing at academics. Some are socially lonely and more or less isolated. Other shooters are socially gregarious and have full relationships at school and in the community.

Nothing serves to facilitate reliable “early identification.” No single behavioral, social, emotional, psychiatric, or academic trait serves as a reliable marker or diagnostic indicator.

One productive avenue of intervention has been highlighted again, and that is the school-based mental health clinic. One excellent such example was just recently publicized, and ironically, it is in Texas. The article, “After Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott sees a West Texas mental health program as a statewide model,” by Marissa Evans,publishedd May 19, 201,8 in the Texas Tribune describes a well done example of what is needed.

This is not a novel concept. I had a community child psychiatry training experience some 45 years ago (!) in a school mental health clinic as a child psychiatric fellow. I went once a week for a half day. I interviewed middle school students and performed evaluations, I consulted with the school-based mental staff of psychiatric social workers, certified counselors and a Ph.D. school psychologist. We worked as a team. Referrals were made if treatment called for more intensive work than the school-based personnel could deliver. We consulted with parents at every step of the process.

But with the rising tide of cutting services and taxes and revenues, the suspicion of “social services,” that overtook this country largely beginning in the 1980’s, these services were lost nationwide. And where I trained and participated in this enlightened state of service delivery, the climate was extremely receptive and supportive of such services. But school-based clinics came to be seen as an invasion of families’ rights, purveyors of birth control and the sexual revolution.  The paranoia about vaccines also became intertwined with the abolition of school-based mental health services.

So this is my analysis of the school shooting mess. We removed an incredibly valuable resource that could have helped on a preventive and healthy interventional basis with this current social infection in the site of generation and operation of this infection, the schools.

This is the one area in which resources can be mobilized in a concerted effort nationally. This perhaps more than any other current measure, can be expected to help. All the hysterical debate then could start to subside as the incidence of these events would hopefully come down with time. Troubled youth could be helped, their peers would be more socially prepared to identify them, much as impaired professionals started to be identified when their peers realized that keeping quiet was harmful.

In closing, if one wishes to focus reparative efforts in a quarter that likely could help more than any of the current nonsensical discourse from all sides, the need for school-based clinics with adequate staffing, appears to this humble blowhard to be our current best bet for productive change.


Are Racists Mentally Ill?

This writer and now ‘aging’ psychiatrist finds this debate overdone and not very useful. In the last few years we of course as anyone would acknowledge, have had an epidemic it would seem, of mass shootings of all kinds. Many stories from many different viewpoints have tried to protect the mentally ill from the unavoidable but troubling intrusion into our views of our rapidly changing social matrices in this country, from being tagged almost reflexively and automatically with the reputation of being the single most associated group of persons responsible for mass shootings.

Story after story based on replicated and widely accepted research over the last few decades repeatedly shows that the chronically mentally ill are far more likely to be VICTIMS of crimes and violence than the perpetrators.

But it is equally if not increasingly hard to escape the avalanche of media stories the last few years reporting to us the mental states of more mass shooters that sound for all the world as disturbed in some manner or other. The two adolescents who perhaps are viewed by many in Aurora CO who shot up their own Columbine High School killing over a dozen persons certainly had some form of haywire thinking and disturbed dynamics. Truman Capote’s book that riveted this nation decades ago as he wrote of the pair who killed almost randomly for sport innocent persons, a family, in the Midwest comes to my mind as perhaps unwittingly having something to teach us about the two Columbine mass shooters. One in each pair was dominant and one was the follower. One of the Columbine pair has been called disturbed with various diagnostic attributions such narcissistic, paranoid, etc. Some historical and behavioral data had emerged in the months after their shooting of being loners, angry, odd, dressing in almost Goth black raincoat type clothing and such, but in many views, we really have not had enough reliable information to say much more than descriptive explanations.

An example of a very likely true, clearly psychotic mass shooter was Mr. Ferguson who shot and killed several people on I believe the Long Island RR line a number of years ago. There was great debate over his mental state as he tried to act as his own defense, was bizarre in the courtroom. His shooting act was chilling as he walked purposefully through the commuter train car or cars calmly methodically shooting persons with his pistol. He was still convicted and given multiple life sentences and likely was another example of a mentally ill person who committed such an egregiously horrific crime that the jury could not bring themselves to find him not guilty by reason of insanity and leave uncertain his lifetime fate, meaning leaving open the possibility that he would be able to released someday if he improved etc. It is still not appreciated by the public at large that NGRI persons are incredibly rarely EVER released as parole board members everywhere almost always never grant a release for fear of another heinous act occurring. One of “Manson’s girls,” who was terminally ill with brain cancer several years ago was denied parole in spite of her terminal condition and even John Hinckley who shot President Reagan outside the Washington DC Sheraton has not been parole (yet and it is not clear he will be) even though he has been granted passes outside the hospital with his long attentive parents.

Now with the recent tragic incident in Charlottesville earlier in this month of August 2017 at the protest rallies over the Confederate statue issues with Neo Nazis-white supremacists etc., and then the “Alt. Left” groups and other anti-Confederate/Nazi protest groups, the conversation may be starting to include the politically or “sociologically” motivated purveyors of violence as witnessed by the article, “Alt. Right Racists Mentally Ill? Some Psychiatrists Say Yes.” This is not a new line of conversation or speculation. We have been theorizing upon and trying to understand the motives of the new forms of mass violence and their practitioners, such as the self-immolation of the Tibetan monks protesting “Red China’s” forceful annexing of Tibet in the 1950’sthe waves of airplane bombings and mass killings and airjackings by the PLO in the 1970’s. Since those times, there have been many new forms of mass violence that were or felt new to us: an often forgotten phenomenon was the fedayeen who regularly tried to cross into Israel from surrounding then enemy Arab countries during the “Intifada.” This was collectively the three waves over nearly two decades of the uprisings of politically moivated Arab unaffiliated “soldiers” of the struggle agains the then labeled in the then current political jargon “Zionist occupiers” of Palestine, e.g., Israelis on the borders of the country.

Since then we have had other forms of mass violence and shootings, largely overshadowed in current times by the almost weekly incidents of bombing, well organized shootings in both unsettled and failed states such as Syria and Iraq, and western countries in Europe and our own 9/11 super tragedy 16 years ago with the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers of New York City killing over 3,000 persons.

For instance, we had a very few isolated school ambush shootings by young students outside of their schools who shot students with rifles they purloined from home. These early teen boys always operated solo. Most were tried and juveniles and some as adults some under questionable criteria as far as age. Adam Lansky shot up dozens at the Sandy Hook elementary school was portrayed as an alienated loner,and speculation has included a number of possibly psychiatric diagnoses for him including Asperger’s Syndrome (formerly covering and meaning mild autistic spectrum disorder as it is semantically labelled now with the Fifth Edtion of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the longstanding compendium of American psychiatric diagnoses since the 1950’s; Europe, Britain and most other countries use the “ICD-10” compendium of diagnoses which also includes all diagnoses of the rest of all of the medical world of labels and not just psychiatric ones as the “DSM” does.

Another mass shooting phenomenon was the rash of post office shootings that took largely in the 1980’s in this country. The typical scenario was a postal worker would bring a rifle to work, enter the workplace and start shooting, though often trying to target resented supervisors and bosses. There were many social and labor law issues involved in many of those cases as post incident investigations revealed, or put more simply, on the job grudges and resentments, or, anger over being fired. Those adult readers old enough will remember the then current phrase applied to these incidents, “going postal.” Psychiatric issues and diagnoses were not trotted out much at all in those days.

There is yet another category of mass shootings which is still with us today and accounts for a sizeable number of smaller mass shootings nonetheless if three or four or more persons are killed (3 and 4 being the minimum numbers of fatalities required for a shooting to be defined as a mass shooting in the two schools of thought on the subject currently). This category is as good an example as any of the scientific differences of opinions that have appropriately occupied authorities of whether the shooters are mentally ill in the usual sense or not. These are the (almost always) male shooters who stalk, follow, seek out and eventually kill their estranged wives in public places which sadly takes the lives of others in the rampage. These men usually are found to fit the often very specific and eerily similar profiles of severely insecure, massively physically and emotionally abusive husbands, who stalk their wives, monitor their car mileage, often forbid them to work or function much at all outside the home, have independent friends even female but especially male, follow them even when the wives are on innocent errands such as shopping for groceries at the store and a myriad of other bizarre suspicious acts of over control. Some will examine their wives’ underwear, and nowadays for several years plant listening devices in their own homes or the wives’ cars, or install GPS devices to track their wives’ travels in the family or wife’s car. And even without ANY sign of infidelity at all, these men are usually so “delusional” (a symptomatic and even diagnostic term opening the door for the mentally ill debate) constantly accuse them of having affairs.

One of my now favored examples of the dilemmas of debating this mental illness issue with regard to someone showing kooky social behavior but with a gun and actively shooting and endangering lives, is the North Carolina man who some months ago travelled to Washington DC to spray a favored pizza place with bullets with an automatic military like rifle because he subscribed to the then “fake news” Internet circulated falsehood that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of this long established pizza place favored by federal government workers. He received recently a prison sentence of around 4 years and apparently did express remorse and difference with his driving beliefs at the time of sentencing. Was he mentally ill at the time of the commission of his act or not? Was he treated before trial and regain his proper sense of reality. I do not know.

On a broader front, are all jihadists mentally ill? I doubt it. But they are committed to their beliefs for the most part. Some may be not so bright shills recruited by savvy terrorist operatives who know how to spot such individuals who are vulnerable. This is not a radical concept; pimps regularly know in the big city bus stations, for instance, how to spot naive girls to recruit into prostitution or so the social commentary has alleged backed up by law enforcement scholars who study such phenomena. And then there is the complicated touchy issues of strongly held religious beliefs. Are any such beliefs manifestations of types of widespread social mental illnesses? Were the rallying recruiting speeches of the Crusaders working up knights and serfs in Europe in the Middle Ages to march to the Holy Land and slaughter the Arab and Muslim peoples who lived there mentally ill? Are present day radical, minority Islamic beliefs of 72 virgins awaiting any male jihadist suicide bomber psychotic or just social belief systems?

Then we have our own oddball, weird and at times very bizarre religious cults who engage in mass murder or mass suicide that occasionally still manifest themselves, though this behavior seems to have decreased dramatically since James Jones’ mass preaching poisoning of hundreds of his followers in their isolated colony of Guyana a few decades ago. Were the Symbionese Liberation Army who provoked their deaths in their irrational suicidal standoff with the police in the 1970’s all psychotic. Were Charles Manson’s followers, especially the four women, all psychotic. We do know that Manson has been psychotic almost all his adult life but at least some of his followers were the typical, in a sense, weak followers, with no set identities or internal guiding principles of their own making them massively vulnerable to psychotic charismatic leaders like Manson.

Closer in our own social history as examples of hard to classify violent, aberrant “hate” groups of the past would be the anarchists of the early 1900’s, the Ku Klux Klan since its start in the years of Reconstruction in the South in the 1870’s by Nathan Bedford Forest the former Confederate, the American Nazi Party of the pre World War II years in this country, the very atypical religious or social isolationist groups such as the extreme fringe group of the two towns of polygamist non mainstream Mormons towns on the Arizona and Utah, Colorado City etc., Those groups have long been a question mark and in the last two decades as some women have left or escaped those colonies, it became clear the polygamy at least by the leader Warren Jetts was a stalking horse for sexual addiction and abuse of young women, even teenagers, for which he was convicted several years back. Are those folks all mentally ill in some ways that facilitate their adopting lifestyles so different and in some ways harmful to themselves and their children?

In any case, my point that I have belabored perhaps too much is that one can easily cite group and group, individual after individual who does “crazy” things and we cannot easily or cleanly decide if he/she/they are mentally ill or not.

The article cited above makes for interesting reading. It largely focuses on the question of whether ‘racists’ are mentally ill, more paranoid than anything else, and on the decades of controversy that has accompanied this kind of question. The author Jessica Firger from Newsweek magazine focuses well and appropriately on one of the leading authorities a black psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Poussant of Harvard and his views, his experiences and lines of reasoning on this question. I will hasten to add that a white racist supremacist, hearing that Dr. Poussant is black, would immediately react, regard all this as black propaganda or worse and dismiss any of the issues that Dr. Poiussant and many others have raised since the 1960’s.

If I were to take the position that full mental illness that is biologically based brain disease and as such could be easily agreed upon by most as the “real thing,” then all these other categories are more social than biologically based. AT least insofar as the limits of our knowledge of these behavioral patterns and mental belief patterns permit us to diagnostically joust with them.

I am prepared to state that part of me would not be surprised at all that in decades to come, our brain research efforts find that the so similar wife abusing murdering husbands have a brain disorder. The behaviors appear at the time to be so similar, so predictable from one individual to another, that I feel it is very possible that this type of such similar behavior is brain disordered driven in a complicated biological manner we do not understand yet. If this was the case in a subset of such individuals, we theoretically in the footsteps of well mapped out and reliable paths of scientific investigation  we have been so well served by for the last 200 years or so, identify the mechanisms of operation of aberrant brain processes, say involving one or more “rage centers” of the brain such as the amygdala and construct a blocking treatment that would act at the site of cellular or brain system dysfunction. But I really doubt even if this scenario were to be established and confirmed that it would account for more than a subset of such individuals. Many other developmental [“growing up” experiential] factors could easily account for and lay the groundwork for such malignant behaviors. Social factors, free will, making choices and all the other elements of personal governance of one’s emotions and behaviors in one’s everyday personal life, could count just as much if not more. Personal choice and responsibility still do and will count for something’ we are not brain-driven automatons. It will always be a complex mixture. Human nature I expect will always defy reductionism.

In closing, My other main thought is that much pathology is social. We seem to have forgotten this concept in the accelerating seductive world of biologically explained psychiatry and mental health sciences. Social diagnoses are tricky quagmires, with squishy, uncertain data as their underpinnings. Much of their analysis will likely have to remain as the level of social epidemiological quantification, counting how prevalent such and such condition of a pattern of behavior and what social factors, economics, widespread stressors, accelerated change and a myriad of other factors will have to comprise the meat of the measurement of these conditions. This is the area that Big Data, once it is understood better how to apply such new mathematical analysis to such multiply layered bodies of information, can be of help. This could help structure social policy of applied in a non-totalitarian manner, and perhaps lend some degree of social predictably. But more than that, I doubt may be possible. Much of it will be most successful as we already experience today, in the area of social behavior, measuring our ‘click through rates,’ on the Internet and helping to shape our human nature drive consumerism.


Alt. Right Racists Mentally Ill? Some Psychiatrists Say Yes

Yahoo News

Jessica Firger
Newsweek19 August 2017

The scores of people carrying flaming torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, bore the message of the “alt-right,” the name given to the white supremacist movement dedicated to eradicating religious and ethnic minorities from America. This racist uprising will be followed by at least nine rallies this weekend—ostensibly dedicated to free speech but sure to broadcast messages of hate—across the U.S., held by members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other groups.


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The ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA, where white supremacists march with tiki torchs through the University of Virginia campus. Getty Images/Zach D. Roberts

Many find the sight of hundreds of racists chanting their intentions for a so-called “ethno-state” and the forceful removal from America of anyone who isn’t white horrific. But others—namely, some psychiatrists—see these individuals as mentally ill. Which leads to a disturbing question: Are we seeing the emergence of a nationalist movement fueled by prejudice or a widespread personality disorder that requires psychiatric care? Answering that dredges up long-held notions about racism in America.

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In the 1960s, Alvin Poussaint, now a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, was providing medical and psychological care to civil rights activists in Jackson, Mississippi. As a black psychiatrist in the South, he often feared for his life. He witnessed many acts of violence, cared for victims of racist acts and had frequent run-ins with state troopers. Once, when he told an aggressive police officer that he was a doctor, the officer continued to call him “boy” with a hand on the gun in his holster.  “I saw the malignancy of the racism much more clearly, and the genocidal element of the extreme racism where they wanted to kill you,” Poussaint tells Newsweek.

He wondered if that hatred was an actual sickness that could be diagnosed and potentially treated. When he was in his early 30s, and a prominent psychiatrist at Tufts Medical School, Poussaint and several other black psychiatrists approached the American Psychiatric Association (APA) with the idea that extreme racism wasn’t just a social problem or a cultural issue. To these professionals, extreme racism—the kind that leads to violence—was a mental illness.

Poussaint and his colleagues wanted the APA to include extreme racism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a “delusional disorder.” The DSM is the definitive guideline used by mental health clinicians to diagnose patients.

The DSM is not infallible. Over the years, it has provided insights into the country’s ever-changing values and belief systems. Homosexuality, for example, wasn’t completely omitted from the DSM until the late 1980s. The last time the APA revised the DSM (in 2013) they declined the request by a group of psychiatrists to add pornography and sex addiction to the index. For psychiatrists updating the guide—a process that can take more than a decade—doing so means wrestling with the very nature of humanity, what is normal and abnormal when it comes to behavior and beliefs.

Poussaint wasn’t arguing about the relatively milder beliefs that cause a person to stereotype and classify groups of people negatively. Rather, he and the other psychiatrists were addressing the kind of racism that leads to violent behavior, like killing and injuring people by driving a car into a crowd, as happened in Charlottesville. That extreme form of racism, said Poussaint, could reasonably be classified as paranoid and delusional.


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In July 2017, Ku Klux Klan protests planned removal of General Lee statue from park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chet Strange/Getty Images

The APA was unreceptive. “There was a lot of resistance to the idea,” he says. The problem, Poussaint explains, was that those in charge saw racism as too ubiquitous to diagnose. “They felt racism was so embedded in culture, that it was almost normative, that you had to deal with all the cultural factors that lead to this behavior,”

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Members of the APA also argued that the extreme racism is a mental illness claim lacked hard science. That objection was weak, says Poussaint, because many mental health diagnoses  listed in the DSM don’t have a solid scientific premise, including personality disorders. Some APA members said classifying extreme racism as an illness would excuse terrible beliefs and reprehensible behavior.

But Poussaint wasn’t interested in excusing or stigmatizing behavior; he wanted to help people he believed were sick. Inclusion in the DSM, he insisted, could allow individuals suffering from extreme racism to access services such as state-mandated psychiatric counseling, and therefore benefit society because, “it could protect people they might otherwise attack.”

Poussaint still believes extreme racism is a form of paranoia and should be treated that way. In therapy, a psychiatrist would help the patient understand the origins of their racism. “Like any psychotherapy or treatment you would try to tie it all together,” he says. “Other psychiatrists have testified and acknowledged such individuals may improve from treatment when they come to understand these beliefs and why they are projecting them onto other people and acting out.”

Racism as a Symptom

The question of whether extreme racism is a mental illness still haunts psychiatry. About 15 years ago, Carl Bell, a psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital Family Medicine Clinic and professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Medicine, resurrected Poussaint’s attempt to convince the APA to classify racism as a mental disorder. But Bell tried a different tack from Poussaint. He viewed extreme racism as a type of pathological bias that signaled an underlying personality disorder.

Bell proposed adding pathological bias to the DSM as a trait of personality disorder. With that addition, extreme bigotry would be a major criterion for the diagnosis. The broad term could also apply to individuals who direct violence and hatred toward other groups, such as gays or women.

But again, the APA said no. “When I raised this issue for the personality disorders working group they shut me down,” says Bell, “they were like, ‘Hell, no.’” As in decades past, the APA justified their objection on the grounds that racism is and always has been entrenched in society.

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“The difficulty is that if you are in a racist society, how do you tease that out from biology or personality?” says Bell, who could not even convince the APA to study why racist thoughts and action manifest in some people during manic episodes.

The Association did finally issue a statement in 2006 acknowledging that some psychiatric factors cause a person to become racist, although “further research would be needed to explore this hypothesis.” The group also noted that racist beliefs and behavior often cause depression and psychiatric illness in people who are subject to them. In a statement provided to Newsweek about its approach to prejudice-based violence, Saul Levin, CEO and Medical Director of the APA, said, “The APA has a longstanding policy noting the negative impact of racism and mental health. APA policy supports public education efforts and research on racism and its adverse impact on mental health.”

Bell and other experts continue to view some instances of racism as a symptom of other disorders. Racist thoughts and actions are often a manifestation of some other established and diagnosable mental disorder, says Bell. People with narcissistic personality disorder—a mental condition many experts have claimed Trump has —often have fixed values rooted in racism. Dylann Roof, the teen white supremacist convicted of killing nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, had been diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder. People with conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often experience extreme paranoia related to race or ethnicity, though not always violence.


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Outside the court hearing for James Alex Fields, the suspect who drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, Matthew Heinbach, of the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party, shouts at journalists. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There is also evidence that most of us harbor prejudices, leading some experts to believe we are hardwired to discriminate in some fashion (though not specifically against others). The Implicit Association test (IAT), a tool used to understand the roots and extent of bias, measures impulses of subconscious racism—for example, whether we associate certain types of people with negative or positive feelings. The test, which was developed by social psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington more than two decades ago, has been taken by more than 17 million people. The results show that at least 90 percent of Americans are at least slightly biased against people unlike themselves. Psychologists remain split on where to draw the line, though. Some say discrimination requires a diagnosis when thoughts become actions. But others doubt whether acting on racist beliefs warrants a label of its own.

This Is Not Normal

The fact that many people who act on extreme racist beliefs lead high-functioning lives may also stand in the way of labeling this demographic as mentally ill. In the early 1960s, Jewish author and journalist Hannah Arendt covered the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. She was shocked that “half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as ‘normal,’” despite the fact that he orchestrated the mass murder of millions of Jews. One psychiatrist described his familial relationships as not just normal but desirable.

In the decades following the Holocaust, the idea that someone who commits crimes against racial and ethnic minorities could still be considered sane by psychiatrists was unsettling, says James M. Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi. “Many people turned to the explanation that there must be something wrong with the German psyche to have allowed this to happen.”

Social scientists knew that creating a clinical definition was critical. They understood that stigmatizing extreme racism could help society wake up to the abnormality of this pathology, and possibly prevent other genocidal acts. Three psychologists devised the California F-scale —F stands for fascist—a test used to evaluate a person for “authoritarian personality type.” They thought  understanding how people were seduced by Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric could help prevent future such movements. Although the F-scale fell out of favor, it enabled psychologists to identify common traits of people who cling to dangerous ideologies. They included an inflexible outlook, strong allegiance to leadership, a tendency to scapegoat others and a willingness to lash out in anger and violence.


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In Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8, 2017, members of the Ku Klux Klan gesture during a rally calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Sander Gilman, who teaches psychiatry at Emory University, and co-authored with Thomas the book Are Racists Crazy?, agrees that dangerous racists leading seemingly normal lives are hard to identify. “Racists, sadly, cope quite well with daily life,” says Gilman. “They have a take on the way the world should be, and that take functions in the world they live.”

Gilman does not favor a standalone diagnosis of extreme racism, and believes that attempts to categorize such people as mentally ill masks the greater problem of society allowing them to commit vengeful acts. “Those people are evil. They’ve made bad choices, but they’re not choices you can then attribute to mental illness,” says Gilman. “The minute you do that you let people off the hook.”


streetshark Politifact Aug 28 2017
Mythical shark from fake urban legend photo  from Politifact

Spoiler Alert: This is NOT a serious, intellectual, profound, or thought provoking blog post. This is a piece of time wasting humorous, time wasting, hopefully, enjoyable fluff. My justification would be my altered version of the old saw, “All work and no play….etc.” is “All heavy journalistic posts make Poncho more embarrassing than ever to his/my offspring.”

I have a few close relatives in Houston which is getting pounded by Harvey, awaiting The Donald’s Visit, while my sister’s sports hero Jose Altuve the shortest Major League Baseball player who plays second base for the Houston Astros, can’t play in home games for the foreseeable future, and while her husband “J.D.” ( a real Texas name if there ever was one) helps in his ‘john boat’ in the neighborhood. So I am avidly interested in what is transpiring there is my father’s side of the family’s home area of East Texas, Harris County etc.

And wouldn’t you know it. A delightful Hollywood phenomenon, America’s version of the slew of Godzilla movies series of Japan, the Sharkanado movie series of the USA has struck Houston, helping to inject a little humor into the awful tragedy of Harvey and Houston.

A shark was again supposedly swimming in one of the flooded canals of dips in one of the Interstate highways or spillways and has made the news. Houston is not like certain areas of the world like supposedly New Zealand or Ireland (the latter thanks to St. Patrick) which have no snakes, does have snakes and lots of rattlers mostly. To lend perhaps indirect support to the Houston Shark swimming freely and menacingly through the floodways, I myself have seen dozens of snakes in and especially around the outskirts of Houston, especially ‘up Tom Ball way,’ a ‘real Texas town (like my all time favorite, ‘Cut ‘n Shoot’, Texas). But those are more populous as one proceeds west and northwest and southwest into those regions of Texas, my mother’s places of origin, i.e., El Paso and so on, where the landscape is even hotter, drier and true scrub desert. They even have ‘sidewinders’ out in those regions, a species of rattlesnake that crawls sideways in undulating ripples. These is the breed that was made part of our western cowboy lexicon in the movies and western television shows of 50 years ago when the name was applied to “bad guys,”, thieves, rustlers, cheats, and traitors. To call someone a “sidewinder” was a clear signal that one’s honor had been most atrociously impugned and besmirched and demanded a gunfight in the saloon or out on Main Street which seemed always to be ready for a bullet ricocheting gunfight since all the horses were tied up and the streets seemed always to be deserted in a state of readiness.

So it is with great humor busting regret I must perform my “fact check” and set the record straight: there is no shark swimming freely in the flooded waters of urban Houston. What a pity. This could have spawned (no pun intended) a host, another series of ‘Sharkanado” movies to protect Houstonians, the Astros, beef brisket places, those wonderful sidewalk genuine Latino made taco stands, the great Houston February Rodeo, the Alamo (whoops, sorry that is located in San Antonio) and of course our essential oil refineries. And my personal favorite, some of the best western boot stores in the Southwest.

I was so hopeful when the Net informed me there was a story about The Houston Shark. But when the website formed on my monitor, my heart sank as its title sank in: “There are no sharks swimming in the streets of Houston or anywhere else .” But it makes a great urban legend which reportedly has been around for some years.

And it makes a certain sort of sense. Houston is on the Gulf of Mexico. There ARE sharks out there somewhere I am sure. There have in years past been very rare shark attacks in the swimming waters especially in crowded tourist areas, but in all honesty, nothing compared to the Great Barrier Reef of northern Australia or the eastern shores of Florida in the last couple of years.

Australia is having its worst influenza season finishing up now, and this is no joke. I would rather have a real or imagined Sharkanado invasion than the flu season they have had there that readers will be hearing about in just weeks as we prepare for our own flu season.

And I hope the floods of Texas do not push out the rattlers and copperheads into swimming around roads and neighborhoods which sometimes happens in these vast storm born floods that cover wide swaths of land. No one needs that either. At least they call out the Army for the sharkanado deluges but for snakes, the first responders are not so vast and mostly are the animal (“vermin” in Texanese) control agents and they really do a good job but I don’t think there are 12,000 of them like in the Texas National Guard.

I am so sorry Texas that you are having the storm of this century it appears and I hope our country’s and citizens’ relief responses through the Red Cross remains widespread and long sustained. I know we personally are donating a carload of essentials and I expect we will be doing as part of our monthly budget for months to come. And I hope many others take the same approach.


The Crowded Eclipse in Western North Carolina

Today is the fabled eclipse day we have been awaiting for months. This is the first total eclipse to migrate across the United States coast to coast since 1918. To put this in human terms, my late father who fought in World War II was one year old when the 1918 eclipse made its appearance short after the start of the previous century.

Solar Moon Eclipse courtesy of Pixababy
Solar Eclipse courtesy of Pixababy

I and my family are located in the eastern edge of western North Carolina. To give that location some visual anchoring, we are about 60 miles or so west of Asheville. School has not yet started yet here in NC, opening this coming Monday August 28th. Bored school children and their poor frazzled parents who made it this far have something to celebrate the end of the summer and mark of the start of school, “The Path of Totality,” of the Eclipse. My wife and teen son along with a couple of other teen boys will head off this morning as soon as possible, stocking the car with outdoor chairs, solar sunglasses plenty of bottled fluids, and of course sun protective goop.

One thing the reader unfamiliar with this part of the country is that North Carolina going went on the roads narrows down to a funnel ending in the Murphy area, where 21 years ago the 1996 Olympics bomber in Atlanta hid out in the hills, woods and mountains surrounding Murphy for more than 2 years eluding the hundreds of FBI agents saturating the tourist motels in Murphy, never catching him and finally leaving and abandoning the search, only to have Eric Rudolph the bomber being apprehended by a new deputy behind a small Sears outlet order store, dumpster diving and eventually collecting the $25,000 reward.

A massive caravan has been heading toward all of western North Carolina from approximately two days ago, increasing almost hourly in volume through today. There are several towns in the path of the partial (not quite total) eclipse: Murphy at the western tip of the state, coming east a very small town of Andrews that has a smaill hospital that has been closed for going on 10 years, the Nantahalla Gorge where the Olympic kayaking was held in 1996, then Sylva where Wester Carolina University is, Cherokee and the Qualla Bourndary Reservation is located if you take a left, then Waynesville, a somewhat small city, then Asheville.

In these areas people “from all over,” as we say in the South, are stuffing hotel only in Asheville),  and motels, parks, ball fields of all schools (where there are fewer trees obscuring the view) tops of concrete parting structures, camping groups, public parks, sides of highways and roads and so on. Estimates on the news media and from law enforcement task forces (“The Path to Totality Task Force?”) range from 60,000 to more than a million. The merchants want more so they can sell whatever they have from food to tee shirts, while locals everywhere are renting out their yard space to overnight campers (with use of the hose and/or the inside home bathroom.

But “my money” is on the Port-A-John folks, that’s where the money is going to be. City councils in western North Carolina have been very lucky. There are no big athletic events yet, the festivals are taking a break because of school opening next week, so the entire area’s complement of portable houses of necessity will be available and in service over the entire western fifth of the state preserving public areas and offering needed relief to all who wish to witness this event that will not happen again until 2045.

But you can bet that the middle and high school students, in all their science  courses, will be required to write papers and reports on the eclipse as their first assignment, but don’t tell them yet. It is better to let them enjoy the event without realizing its coming educational demand on their writing and observational skills next week.

Eclipse on Vacation
Eclipse with sunglasses Courtesy of Pixababy