Archive for the ‘stuff’ Category

Go Set a Watchman

“Go Set a Watchman” (2015) by US writer Harper Lee is her first novel to appear since “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). It has the same characters but takes place in the 1950s, 20 years later.

Disclaimer: I have never read “To Kill a Mockingbird” – I could never get into it – but I saw the movie starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch.

Our story: In “Watchman”, Scout, Atticus Finch’s daughter, is now better known by her grown-up name, Jean Louise Finch. She is 26 and works in New York. Twice a year she goes back home, to the Jim Crow South, to visit her father, now in his 70s. On one such visit, presumably in the summer of 1954, the scales fall from her eyes and she sees how racist her home town is. And it is not just the town, it is her boyfriend, her aunt, her uncle, people she knows from high school, and even her own father, Atticus Finch himself, who back in the 1930s defended a Black man accused of raping a White woman – because he believes in justice for all.

She wonders if something is wrong with her, but no, even people who never said the N-word before are saying it now. Calpurnia, the Black servant who brought her up from the age of two, is now overly polite with her. Her father has joined a White citizens’ council, defending Jim Crow. She finds out he used to be in the Klan too. Go along to get along, it seems.

Spoiler warning: I am about to give away the ending.

The book builds towards a showdown with her father, which comes in chapter 17, by far the best part. She calls out his hypocrisy. Despite all his fine words, he believes Blacks are subhuman. She calls him all kinds of names. It was glorious.

But then, a chapter later, she caves. Ugh. While she is packing her bags to leave town for good, her uncle hits her, almost knocks her out, saying, “I am trying to attract your attention.” According to him, she is the true bigot, someone with fixed, unbending ideas. She lacks the maturity and humility needed to live in the South. Oh, is that what it is? She needs to ease up on her father and the other (White) people in town. They are only human, with human hearts and human failings. Her father is not the tin god she made him into as a girl. Grow up! Then he makes a triple literary allusion. She falls for it.

She accepts her father as a mere human. They make up. The End.

What a cheap ending! And one that seems to write off racism as a mere human failing.

Not to worry: Her publisher back in 1957 did not like it either. They had her rewrite it, hanging it on the rape trial in the 1930s, making Atticus Finch into a White Saviour fantasy figure. Oh, and they changed the title: “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Programming note #32

I am going on an RT news diet. This coming week, from Sunday April 23rd to Saturday April 29th 2017, I will be getting all my news from RT, a news outlet funded by the Russian government, a sort of Russian BBC. I will stay off of YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter and any other sort of feed. No cable news (other than RT America) or newspapers or news magazines either, of course. If I get a New York Times newsflash on my phone, I will not read it. If a commenter provides a link to a non-RT news outlet, I will not follow it.

I will avoid doing posts on anything in the news. If I do, it will be completely based on RT, with a disclaimer to that effect.

After the week is over, I will record my experiences and later do a post on RT itself.

– Abagond, 2017.

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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, her children, how her cells changed science, and how medical ethics and the law have failed to keep up.

The book won awards, was named Book of the Year by many, and has been made into a film by Oprah and HBO, which premieres tonight.

Note: This post is not about the film – I do not get HBO – nor about Henrietta Lacks – I did a post on her yesterday – but about the book.

Skloot tells the story well, which is amazing considering all the moving parts – not just the large cast of characters, but all the science and case law too.

The only confusing, boring part came at the very end where she talks about the current state of medical ethics and the law.

A huge thing that is missing, though, is the story of medicine and race. While she does not sugar-coat the part that race played, it stands in the background almost the whole time. For example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and medical testing on Black prisoners are brought up only in passing, while Dr J. Marion Sims is not brought up at all. Skloot talks plenty about the law and medical ethics, but there is little sense of how they are applied unequally according to race.

Faith in doctors: In her book, doctors are keeping people in the dark all the time. They are cold-blooded, treating people like specimens, even sometimes like in a UFO movie. And yet Skloot seems to find it unbelievable that they would straight-up lie to patients! For example, when the Lackses tell her that Johns Hopkins asked them for blood samples in the 1970s because they wanted to test for cancer, she does not believe them: there were no cancer tests back then. She thinks it is more likely they were confused.

The most annoying part is the eye dialect. In her book, only Black people, and maybe a few Whites out in the country, drop their g’s (growin, sellin, keepin), or say an’ instead of and, or em instead of them. Well-to-do Whites might say gonna instead of going to, but that is about as far as they go. I find that hard to believe. If you are going to quote Blacks in eye dialect, then please do the same for Whites.

The most horrifying and heartbreaking part by far was chapter 33: “The Hospital for the Negro Insane.” That is where Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest daughter, went. She was epileptic and never learned to talk. After Henrietta died no one came to visit her. She was almost certainly used in gruesome medical experiments, like drilling holes in her head to drain out the brain fluid so that doctors could get clearer X-ray pictures of her brain. In the last known picture of her she is in terrible shape – too terrible for the book to print – with white manicured hands around her neck.

– Abagond, 2017.

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Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), mother of five, was a Black woman from the US whose cells, called HeLa cells, are used worldwide in medical research. They have helped to give us vaccines, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, and a far better understanding of cancer, disease, and, most of all, cells, the building blocks that every living creature is made out of.

In 1951, after giving birth to her fifth child, she noticed a “knot” in her womb. Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the nearest hospital that would take Black patients. Whites knew it as a top research hospital. Blacks knew it for doing medical experiments on unwilling Black subjects. As her daughter-in-law would later say of growing up in East Baltimore:

“When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps or Hopkins might get us.”

The knot in Lacks’s womb was cancer. And it was spreading quickly. The pain was too much even for the morphine. In all that pain, the doctor leaned over and told her on her death bed, “Your cells will make you immortal”, saving countless lives. She smiled and said she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.

HeLa cells. (Zeiss Merlin HR-SEM)

HeLa cells: That doctor, Dr George Gey, had studied the cancer cells that were killing her. They were unlike any human cells ever seen before: they grew easily outside of the body and lived forever, not just for a few days. That made HeLa cells (named after her) way easier to study and to use in tests for new medicines. The polio vaccine was just its first success.

Her family knew none of this till 1973, over 20 years later. While her cells gave rise to a biotech industry worth billions, her own family could not always afford a doctor.

Her son Zakariyya in 2000:

“The doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever selling them cells – they get rich off our mother and we got nothing.”

Taking Johns Hopkins to court is of little use: they broke no laws of the time and, since they gave away her cells for free for the good of science, they made no money from them. That was done later by other companies.

In 2013, though, her family did get some control over her genome, her genetic code. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US government agency that oversees medical research, will not give out her genome to researchers without the family’s knowledge and permission. There is no money in that, but for the first time they are no longer being kept in the dark.

– Abagond, 2017.

Source: mainly “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by Rebecca Skloot; BBC (2013).

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Bill O’Reilly

Bill O’Reilly (1949- ) was a racist blowhard who had appeared on Fox News on US television night after night for the past 21 years, from 1996 to 2017.

O’Reilly had four million viewers, the most for any US cable news show – at least till the last month or so when Rachel Maddow on MSNBC started pushing the Russiagate story hard.

An O’Reilly Racism Sampler:

On Sylvia’s in Harlem:

“all the people up there are tremendously respectful … I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.”

On why Trump will not be able to bring down Black unemployment:

“Many of them are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads and I hate to be generalized about it, but it’s true.”

On Trayvon Martin’s death:

“it wasn’t based on skin color … he was wearing a hoodie and he looked a certain way. And that way is how ‘gangstas’ look. And, therefore, he got attention.”

His advice to Martin Luther King III, son of a famous civil rights leader:

“Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African-American community should have on their T-shirts.”

On the slaves who built the White House:

“Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government”

When talking about the border patrol:

“We’d save lives because Mexican wetbacks, whatever you want to call them, the coyotes, they’re not going to do what they’re doing now, so people aren’t going to die in the desert.”

On his use of the slur “wetback”:

“It was not meant to disparage people in any way.”

On immigration, speaking to John McCain:

“Do you understand what the New York Times wants, and the far left want? They want to break down the white, Christian, male power structure – of which you’re part, and so am I. And they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have. In that regard, Pat Buchanan is right. So I say that you’ve got to cap it with a number.”

On the nature of Asian Americans:

“Asian people are not liberal, you know, by nature. They’re usually more industrious and hard-working.”

On his and Fox News’s racism:

“I don’t know any racists. I don’t know anybody, on either black or white people, who don’t like, like our staff here is integrated, and my assistant is black, she’s been with me for 25 years. I just never see this.”

Tropes: He was big on Black pathologies and the Black-on-Black crime argument.

Advertisers were fine with this stuff. It was not till the past few weeks when sexual harassment allegations came out that advertisers pulled their ads, advertisers like Advil, Reddi Whip, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jenny Craig, Ancestry.com, Liberty Mutual, Allstate and dozens of others. He was fired April 19th 2017.

Advertisers who have pulled their ads now number over 50.

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: mainly Media Matters, Raw Story, Salon, Axios.

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The March on the Pentagon, Washington DC, October 21st 1967. Left to right: ??, Marcus Raskin, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Sidney Lens, Dagmar Wilson, ??, Dr Benjamin Spock.

“The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (February 23rd 1967) is an essay Noam Chomsky wrote 50 years ago at the height of the Vietnam War. It is the essay that made him a public intellectual in the US and not just an MIT linguist. It laid out the course of action he has followed ever since, speaking out against US imperialism.


“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

In particular:

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

Most citizens do not have the time or training to do it:

“The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government’s propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.”

But US thinkers were not speaking truth to power. Instead they became the handmaidens of imperialism, people like Henry Kissinger, Arthur Schlesinger, and Irving Kristol.

They dismissed those who spoke out against the war as “hysterical”, “emotional”, “sentimental”, as not being “responsible”, as being out of touch with the highest circles of government thinking – the very thinking that led to ideas like “free bombing zones” where the US military gave itself permission to kill anything that moved.

US intellectuals prided themselves on being realistic, on knowing how the world works, and yet seem to believe stuff like:

  • US innocence: US motives are pure, unlike every other powerful country in recorded history.
  • US paternalism: The US knows best, so much so that it is all right for it to use force to get its way, even if it means destroying countries.

This hypocritical moralism goes back to at least the 1840s when Christian missionaries saw the destruction of China in the Opium Wars as an act of mercy by their god.

Chomsky on US innocence:

“No one would be disturbed by an analysis of the political behavior of the Russians, French, or Tanzanians questioning their motives and interpreting their actions by the long-range interests concealed behind their official rhetoric. But it is an article of faith that American motives are pure, and not subject to analysis.”

“The long tradition of naiveté and self-righteousness that disfigures our intellectual history, however, must serve as a warning to the third world, if such a warning is needed, as to how our protestations of sincerity and benign intent are to be interpreted.”

– Abagond, 2017.

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Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) is one of the most famous baseball players in the US. He was #42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956. On April 15th 1947 he became the first Black person to play in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1885.

Milestone: It was not just milestone for baseball and team sports in general in the US, it was a milestone for US society as a whole, a dry run of desegregation, the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. When Robinson played his first major league game, it was a year before President Truman ordered the racial desegregation of the military (Blacks and Whites had served in separate units). It was seven years before the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools.

Major league baseball in the 1940s was the biggest sport in the US, played in all parts of the country, north and south, east and west. It also had largely objective measures of who was better than who, like batting averages. That made it a perfect field for Blacks to prove that they were just as good as Whites, helping to undermine racism.

Stereotypes: Jackie Robinson did not completely destroy racism, of course. In fact, many Whites simply added “good at sports”, along with “good at dancing” and “good at music”, to their “positive” stereotypes about Black people. Just as they would later preserve their anti-Asian racism with the stereotype of Asians being “good at science” and “good at mathematics”.

Jackie Robinson was a great player in his own right. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, when he led the league with a batting average of 0.342 and 37 bases stolen. As a Dodger he would steal home base 19 times! He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

But he had to be more than just a good baseball player: he had to put up with death threats, the N-word, White players hurting him “by accident” – all of it without getting into a fight. He had to be the picture of character and grace if other Blacks were to get into the major leagues.

Negro league baseball: By 1959, all the major league teams had Black players. Like him, they were the best players of the Negro leagues, people like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige. In 1960 the last of the Negro leagues died.

Politics: Robinson was a liberal Republican of the Nelson Rockefeller sort, supporting Nixon against Kennedy in 1960. He raised money for civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC. He would not stand and sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” or salute the flag. He knew that “money is America’s God” and that he was a “black man in a white world.”

He died at 53, his hair already white, his heart and pancreas failing. Some say that all the hell they put him through drove him to an early grave.

In 1997 all the major league baseball teams, not just the Dodgers, retired his number, 42.

– Abagond, 2017.

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