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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Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone! Even to my Russian trolls since this year Easter falls on the same day in both the Western and Eastern churches. XB!

(Ilan Assayag / Haaretz)

Note: I got the idea for this post from a piece by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post, which in turn was inspired by United Flight 3411:

JERUSALEM, Apr 14 – (APS) – Police here said on Friday they had arrested the leader of a separatist Jewish cult. The arrest took place in nearby Gethsemane Thursday night, leading to a violent altercation in which one man sustained injuries.

The suspect, a 33-year-old male of Middle Eastern origin, has been identified as Yeshua bar Yosef of Nazareth, 104 km north of Jerusalem. The suspected terrorist had plans to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem according to several witnesses. Earlier this week Bar Yosef evaded arrest after disrupting businesses there, a temple police spokesman said.

Bar Yosef has been convicted of insurrection. His public execution is set for 9:00 am Friday at Golgotha, just north-west of the city.

Bar Yosef is the cousin of Yohannon the baptizer, who was executed three years ago.

Late Thursday night after his arrest, Bar Yosef was brought before the Sanhedrin, a Jewish council consisting of 70 high priests. Bar Yosef refused to answer any of the charges brought against him, while witnesses gave conflicting testimony. When finally asked if he was the son of Jehovah, a Jewish god, a claim witnesses have heard him make, Bar Yosef said, “I am and all of you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” That was enough to convict him of blasphemy under Jewish law. The Sanhedrin unanimously voted for the death penalty.

Early Friday, Bar Yosef was brought before Governor Pontius Pilate. When the governor asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, Bar Yosef answered, “You have said it.” Jewish leaders then listed the charges against him. Governor Pilate asked, “Are you not answering anything? Look how many things they are accusing you of!” Bar Yosef remained silent.

Governor Pilate by custom releases one prisoner during the Jewish holiday of Passover. When he presented Bar Yosef and Bar Abbas, a terrorist convicted of murder, before the crowd, the crowd repeatedly demanded the death of Bar Yosef.

Authorities had been slow to move against Bar Yosef for fear of civil disturbances. But, in a surprise twist, his supporters, who number in the thousands, have all deserted him. One top disciple, Simon Peter, denies knowing him. Another top disciple, Judas Iscariot, was the police informant who helped to arrest him.

Over the past few years Bar Yosef had drawn huge crowds, promising regime change with a “Kingdom of God” after an apocalyptic end of days. He claims to be the son of a Jewish god and the descendant of a Jewish king. His supporters said he performed miracles, such as faith healing and walking on water. He had strong popular support in the Galilee Sea region except in his own town of Nazareth.

(Reporting by St Mark and St Matthew; Editing by Julian Abagond)

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: Washington Post (2017), Reuters (2017), Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009), especially Mark 14:43 to 15:20.

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style guide: journalese

Journalese (1893- ) is that strange sort of English news reporters use. No ordinary person talks like that, but you see it all the time in news articles. It started in 1890s and became common by the 1930s. It is best avoided, even (or especially) if you write the news.


  • 11th-hour deal – not one of those 8th-hour deals.
  • ailing president
  • assailed
  • brouhaha
  • bullets – when silver or magic.
  • charm offensive
  • coffers
  • countries – when troubled, war-torn or oil-rich.
  • crisis
  • debates – when heated, bitter or stirred.
  • decisions – when ground-breaking, landmark or watershed.
  • decry
  • dictators – when brutal, ruthless or tinpot.
  • heralds
  • high-profile case
  • imbroglio
  • key – sounds more important than “important”.
  • knifed – because “stab” is so 1800s.
  • lambasted
  • major
  • major players
  • manicured lawns
  • marathon session
  • mayhem
  • mysteries – when they surround or deepen.
  • not a panacea 
  • only one thing is certain
  • perceptions
  • perfect storm
  • potentially fatal
  • prestigious
  • set to
  • sharp rise
  • significant development – because this is not one of those insignificant developments that we report too.
  • slayed – instead of “killed” or “murdered”.
  • sporadic gunfire
  • the bottom line
  • the likes of
  • thumbs up
  • too close to call – because no election is merely “close”.
  • transparency
  • uneasy peace
  • well-placed insider – as opposed to the not-so-well-placed insiders.
  • wily political operator – as opposed to the unwily kind.
  • window of opportunity – not the back door of opportunity.

Headline language: favours

  • short words (bid, leak, probe, axe, hike, quiz, swap, slash, cash, pact, slam, aid, ban, cut, push, wed, etc),
  • stacked-up nouns (“Baby heart swap drama”),
  • the word “to” to show future tense (“Premier to defy unions”).

Words like “the”, “be”, “was”, etc, are dropped where possible (“Cook Manuscript Stolen”).

Copspeak: Some journalese is in fact copspeak, picked up from the police:

  • altercation
  • declined to
  • discharged his weapon
  • exited
  • extracted
  • fled at a high rate of speed
  • fled on foot
  • fled the scene
  • involved in
  • locate
  • officer-involved shooting
  • stationed
  • sustained (injuries),
  • tag (for licence plate),
  • transported

US propaganda terms abound, at least in the US press:

  • alt-right – White nationalists.
  • bulk collection – mass surveillance.
  • collateral damage – civilian deaths.
  • Department of Defence – fights imperialistic wars.
  • enhanced interrogation – torture.
  • free press – capitalist press.
  • human rights abuses – never seem to take place in the US.
  • international law – never seems to be broken by the US.
  • populism – White nationalism.
  • quantitative easing – printing money.
  • regime – a government disliked by the US.
  • regime change – ovethrowing a government disliked by the US.
  • retired general – mouthpiece for the military industrial complex. Unlike NASCAR drivers, they do not wear the labels of their sponsors.
  • surgical strike – a bombing in which up to 25 innocent people might be killed (make that more than 25 under President Trump).
  • terrorists – non-state actors whose violence the US sees as threatening, especially those who kill White people. Otherwise they are called freedom fighters, rebels, shooters, lone wolves, etc.
  • values voters – those who vote against their class interests.
  • War on Drugs – War on Black people.
  • War on Terror – War of Terror.
  • White Evangelical Protestants – racist White Southerners.

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: Makia Freeman (2016), New York Times (2015), The Telegraph (2013), the English usage guides of Oxford (2008), Cambridge (2004) and Fowler’s (1998), and the style guide for The Economist (2017).

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