The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Obama’s Best Speech Never: What the President Should Have Said

Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric.  Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic ( says:
“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”
And yes, it’s a moving speech (, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents.  For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim:  to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.
And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.
So I offer below an alternative speech:  the speech Obama should have given.
* * *
We come together filled with sorrow for the fourteen souls that we have lost; with gratitude for the lives that they led; and with a determination to honor them — not by carrying on their work, but by setting it aside.
America has been at war almost continuously since its birth, even though it has not been attacked by military arms for fifty years, and no foreign soldier has set foot on this land for two hundred years.  Still, these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, in the heartland of the American community, on American soil — soil bought dearly with the blood of American Indians.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that war sometimes manages to follow us home.  But for those who believe in American greatness and beneficence, the fact that they died in America’s heartland makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible.
Today I am called to soothe that pain and give meaning to that meaninglessness.  But I will not do so.
For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that has been left. You knew these men and women as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.
But what is their true legacy?  Here is what you must also know: their life’s work is the freedom that America’s rich and powerful too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town far from the field of battle; every night that predator drones rain fire on innocent marriage parties; every dawn that a flag is unfurled over a conquered land; every moment that a rich, powerful American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that is their legacy.
Neither this empire – nor the capitalist values that it is founded upon – could exist without men and women like these fourteen Americans. And that is why we must pay tribute to their stories.
It is traditional, in times like these, to speak of the dead in as if they were called to a great sacrifice, as if America’s freedom were some vengeful goddess that demands the blood of our sons and daughters.  I could speak, for example, of Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow, who joined the Army right after high school, married his high school sweetheart, and had served as a light wheeled mechanic and Satellite Communications Operator. I could say that he was known as an optimist, a mentor, and a loving husband and father.  Speaking of him in this way would hide the fact that he only joined up because he was poor and had few other options; that he and his wife dreamed of retiring from the military and teaching children to ride horses; that he had sought medical discharge due to difficulty sleeping; and he was only there at Fort Hood because his paperwork was tied up in a bureaucratic snarl.
Lincoln said, of the drafted soldiers lying in the bloody mud of Gettysburg, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”, even though they had been drafted and had no choice.  And he said, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” even though the United States was never in any danger of being conquered by the South.  Lincoln drafted them to his cause in death, even as he did so in life.
I will not do this.  I will not stand here today and enlist the dead, who cannot speak in their own defense, who cannot tell their own stories.
But I will speak of the fourteenth man, Major Nidal Hasan, who joined the military right after high school.  Though his body lives, I will honor him here as one of the fallen.  His spirit was battered by the strain of prejudice against his Muslim background.  His heart was strained by the stress of trying to give psychological help to soldiers returning from battle, to help them deal with the murders they had witnessed and committed, to reload them and return them to kill again.  He tried to leave the military; he tried to escape our “volunteer” army, as his conscience called him to do; but he could not get discharged — he was little more than a slave to the American military.  At some point his spirit broke, and he committed a horrible act of violence.  His body lives, but the state of his soul is unknown.
For those who believe that America is a force for good in the world, it may be hard to comprehend the simple logic that led to this tragedy. But the blame lies squarely upon our military.  And nothing justifies our murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what we have done, we know that we will be met with justice – in this world, and the next.
These are expansive times for our military. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we continue to prop up our commercial interests, while endangering innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. In Iraq, we still have not ended a war that is beneficial for our oil companies, and we continue to deny the Iraqi people the independence that they have sacrificed so much for.
Some would say that the stories of those at Fort Hood reaffirm the core values that we are fighting for.  We claim that our military is a call of service, responsibility, and duty.  But they were not answering a call of service; they were driven to the military by propaganda, fear, social pressure, or poverty.  They do not embody responsibility.  They do not call us to come together.  They were simply people, trying to live as well as they knew how, killed as a side effect of our imperial greed.
We claim to be a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it. But our nation endures simply because we are not under attack.  It is the military, the empire, which needs defending.
We claim to be a nation of laws — but the laws do not apply equally to all.  We will treat a gunman and give him due process, and we will see that he pays for his crimes.  But the warmongers and capitalists who ground down his soul and would not let him live a life of peace — these live by a private law, and they will recieve no due process, and give no payment.
We claim to be a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We claim to see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today. Yet who among them was a rich man?  Who among them were executives, lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians?  We claim to be on the side of liberty and equality, while our military engages in slavery and prejudice. That is who we are as a people.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, marking the end of the War to End All Wars, and marking the beginning of all the wars that came after. Our military takes this day to pause, and to pay lip service – for students to learn of the wars and aggression that preceded them; for families to mourn the military murders of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the blood that we have spilled in the name of “a more perfect union”.
Our empire’s official history is filled with heroes. We are asked to remember the stories of a grandfather who marched across Europe, but not remember the firebombs that killed so many German children.  We are asked to remember an uncle who fought in Vietnam, but not the innocent people killed by our bombers and chemicals.  We are asked to remember a sister who served in the Gulf, but not the craven greed of our oil companies.
Are we to honor this generation, too?  This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen are are part of the deadliest fighting force that the world has ever known. They have killed again and again in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch over our business interests in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and stations – all people our military has duped, cajoled, bribed, and herded together to protect our standard of living, while denying others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.
Here, at Fort Hood, we pay tribute to fourteen men and women who were not able to escape the horror of our wars, even in the comfort of home.
Let us not honor them by claiming that one day the fighting will be finished.  Let us not gild their memory by saying that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; or that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, or that they stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples.  For they persevered despite their better judgement, and often against their will.  They paid the price and bore the burden to secure nothing more than our business interests.  They turned against the values that live in the hearts of all peoples — peace, freedom, justice.
Instead, as we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity, let us set aside this mindless pursuit of war.  In their names, let us call home all our troops.  In the name of honor and justice, let us disband and disarm.  In the name of peace and friendship, let us turn away from violence.  In the name of God, let us stand down.  And may God bless us all.

Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric.  Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic says:

“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”

And yes, it’s a moving speech, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents.  For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim:  to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.

And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.

So I offer below an alternative speech:  the speech Obama should have given.

Continue reading “Obama’s Best Speech Never: What the President Should Have Said”

Barack Obama: A Reading

On November 4th, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and the stars noticed.

astrologyAncientAndModernOn that very day, the Earth was placed directly between Saturn and Uranus, creating an apparent opposition between the two planets. Astrologically, this planetary opposition indicated a conflict between an established authority and the forces of necessary change and upheaval. That was definitely a theme of the election. But this drama isn’t over yet: Earth will slide back between these planets four more times — on February 5th and September 15th of 2009, and then again on April 26 and July 26 of 2010. (Then it won’t happen again for 40 years.) Mark your calendars!

Actually, as an aside, this is part of a 20 year cycle of disruption. Twenty years ago, when Saturn and Uranus were conjoined, communism collapsed. Twenty years before that, when Saturn and Uranus were in opposition, it was 1968, an infamous year of assassinations, escalating war worldwide, etc. Twenty years before that, when Saturn and Uranus were conjoined, fascism came to an end; and twenty years before that was the beginning of the great worldwide depression…

So Obama will be president in very interesting times, and since time and custom and ambitious men have endowed the office of the presidency with powers far beyond what any one person can wield easily, it’s worthwhile looking at Obama’s name and astrological chart. What manner of man is he, and will he be up to the task?

Continue reading “Barack Obama: A Reading”

We The People

Immediately before the day of the 2008 US federal election, I posted this article in which I said I wouldn’t be voting, and listed three major problems with the Constitution.  The gist of the problems were these:

1.  Majority rule leads to tyranny of the majority over minorities.
2.  Government should be by the consent of the governed — but I am not allowed to withdraw my consent.
3.  The Constitution violates basic tenets of almost every religion — for example, the War Powers clause blatantly violates injunctions against murder.

Slavery by the Consent of the Enslaved

positivelovingkindnessThese flaws were literally on parade during the Civil War.  The Constitution did nothing at all to help those who were bound to servitude, forced to live, eat, and work by the whim of the master; whose families were broken; who were abused, physically and emotionally, and packed on trains or forced to march hundreds of miles away, and told they were doing all this for the good of the country, and then lined up and shot.  If they were lucky, they died quickly; if not, they were frequently captured and sent to prisons that would make Guantanamo Bay look like Club Med.

Yes, I’m talking about the draft, too.  There are many kinds of slavery.

Continue reading “We The People”

How I’m Voting II: Cracks in the Constitution

In the previous post in this series, I discussed the Catch-22 we face in the 2008 US presidential race — two candidates that, in the overwhelmingly essential foreign policy arena, differ only in which kind of innocent people they feel it necessary to slaughter. It is possible to choose some other candidate entirely, and that would make it a lot easier to sleep at night. Unfortunately, because of the way the Constitution is set up, if everyone voted for the candidate they really believed in, the president would not be chosen by the people, but by the House of Representatives. That would be at least as horrible as the present system. In this article, I’ll point up some other difficulties with the US Constitution, and what it means for this voting season.

Continue reading “How I’m Voting II: Cracks in the Constitution”

How I’m Voting I: No Lesser Evil

Let’s assume you’re a US citizen, and let’s assume you care about the country.  And let’s assume you plan to vote for the president this year — either because you think your vote might affect the outcome, or because you think it’s your civic duty as a citizen of a democracy.

Who should you vote for?

42Well, the original field of 10,000 candidates has been winnowed down to just two that have any realistic hope of winning:  Barack Obama and John McCain.  Since one of the two will win, it should be simple enough to figure out which one would be better.

But in fact it’s not that simple.

Continue reading “How I’m Voting I: No Lesser Evil”

A Crime in Our Names: Iran

“You may say this to Théoden son of Thengel: open war lies before him… None may live now as they have lived, and few shall keep what they call their own.”— Aragorn, speaking to Éomer on the eve of the War of the Ring; from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers

A month ago, my wife attended a town meeting here in Hadley, Massachusetts, concerning prevention of war with Iran. The meeting was sponsored by a number of local organizations, including the Order of the White Oak. Given the events in the last few weeks, which appear to be bringing us closer and closer to war, we felt it essential to distribute this information as widely as possible.

These are the notes my wife took at the meeting.

Continue reading “A Crime in Our Names: Iran”

Vaster than Empires and More Slow

This post is going to be rather more controversial than most. I’ll be getting deep into politics. But this is at the forefront in my mind and conscience, and the shape of government and society is a spiritual issue for me.

The Fall of the Empire

trustyourfeelingsThe name of America tells a tale. Phonosemantically, the sounds in America seem to parallel the history of the United States. The first syllable, “a”, is pronounced “uh” and indicates both freedom and thoughtfulness, and is appropriate for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. Its primary syllable, “mer”, is similar to the Middle English mere of mermaid, and Latin mare of maritime  — the sea“ — and suggests a manifestation of strength and power, appropriate for the military and economic strength of the United States as it extended its domain across the continent. The next syllable, “ric”, is similar to rich, reach, and Reich, and indicates solidification and containment of power, appropriate to America’s imperial ambitions. The final syllable, “a”, is pronounced “ah”, and indicates a return to Source energy. This corresponds to nothing in America’s history so far. We can only hope.

Furthermore, each phase of America’s history above corresponds to about one hundred years. The short “a” syllable pairs up with the end of the 1700’s; “mer” is the 1800’s, and “ric” is the 1900’s. Now we’re at the beginning of the final “a”, which means the American Empire — by which I mean our dominance in the economic and geopolitical sphere, despite the fact that our borders haven’t changed much since the 1800’s — should be ending.

And it is — though this may not be obvious.

Continue reading “Vaster than Empires and More Slow”