Jul 19

How Seattle Voted to Tax the Rich

Photo by breakmake | CC BY 2.0

By ADAM ZIEMKOWSKI AND REBEKAH LIEBERMANN

Reposted by permission from CounterPunch

Seattle further cemented its reputation as one of the most progressive cities in the U.S. last week, when its City Council passed a law to tax the rich, sponsored by socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant along with Councilmember Lisa Herbold. The law places a 2.25% tax on individual incomes over $250,000 and $500,000 for married couples. It’s expected to raise as much as $175 million to fund affordable housing, education, transit, human services, and other critical needs.

Recognizing the significance of Seattle’s new tax on the rich, the Los Angeles Times reported, “a number of cities have adopted local income taxes, but no other city has solely targeted high earners and few have adopted so high a tax rate. The measure has opened the door to political warfare in the state.” Shortly before the vote, former Microsoft CEO and Seattle billionaire, Steve Ballmer, warned city officials, most of whose campaigns are financed by big business and wealthy individuals, that a tax on the rich would “drive up wages here and cause [company executives] to think about moving jobs elsewhere. That will certainly happen.”

Despite this, the City Council unanimously passed the tax on the rich and a chorus of Democratic establishment politicians sung its praises. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared, “Our goal is to replace our regressive tax system with a new formula for fairness, while ensuring Seattle stands up to President Trump’s austere budget that cuts transportation, affordable housing, healthcare, and social services.”

As activists in an organization, Socialist Alternative, that have been fighting to tax the rich since the Occupy movement, and which ran campaigns for Kshama Sawant in 2012, 2013, and 2015, and Jess Spear in 2014, with “tax the rich” as a central demand, this is a welcome change of tune. These are many of the same establishment politicians who voted against Sawant’s City Council proposal to fund transit through a progressive tax on business. They also rejected another Sawant initiative to reduce energy rates for working people by making big businesses like Boeing and NuCor Steel at least pay the same rate as individuals.

Those of us in the movement should be crystal clear on how this came about. We didn’t win this because Seattle’s Democratic establishment suddenly began to care about the crushing impact that decades of budget cuts and regressive taxes have had on working people and people of color in our city.

It was the growing might of our social movements that led to this major victory. The establishment may have ultimately voted ‘yes,’ but not because they genuinely support taxing the rich. Mayor Murray and establishment Councilmembers like Tim Burgess and Lorena Gonzalez voted for it because we built a powerful movement over a number of years which made their continued opposition politically unviable. During our election campaigns, Socialist Alternative members spoke with hundreds of thousands of voters at the door and on the phone, held dozens of rallies, and raised a record-breaking half a million dollars from ordinary people with the bold and unambiguous demand to “tax the rich.” It was a pillar of our 2015 campaign and we made it clear to everyone we talked to that we wanted to make big business and the wealthy elite pay to fund public needs.

Once elected to Seattle City Council, Sawant worked with activists from the Transit Riders Union on the proposal to remove a regressive sales tax and instead fund Seattle’s Metro bus system with a tax on business and a commercial parking fee increase. We lost that vote, but over the past months the Transit Riders Union, led by Katie Wilson, spearheaded the Trump Proof Seattle coalition along with the Economic Opportunity Institute, led by John Burbank. The Trump Proof Seattle coalition, of which Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant were a part, played the leading role in this year’s fight to win Seattle’s tax on the rich.

Our movement brought together transit and neighborhood advocates, climate justice and affordable housing activists, socialists, retirees, teachers, and unions into a coalition. It met regularly to discuss and decide on the legislation and build a campaign to win it. The coalition organized Town Halls in each district, dragging along Councilmembers and forcing them to take a position with the community watching. In Sawant’s district, she and Trump Proof Seattle held a standing-room-only rally with people clamoring to tax the rich and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to win it.

Critically, even as our movement picked up steam and corporate politicians started hopping on the tax-the-rich bandwagon, we resisted the siren song of an “easier path” to victory through collaboration with the establishment, rather than class struggle. Our movement maintained an unrelenting political independence and our activist base stubbornly refused to take establishment politicians at their word. Coalition members flooded City Council offices with emails and phone calls and packed City Hall for every discussion and vote, to demand Councilmembers’ support and to warn them not to oppose or water down the legislation. This approach effectively beat back the conservative wing of the Council, which scandalously put out a push poll to test the viability of replacing the tax-the-rich ordinance with a highly regressive “flat tax” proposal.

This model of staking out a bold demand, building a movement independent of the city establishment, and relying on our own strength to win came pretty naturally this time around. That’s not surprising. It’s the same model our movement in Seattle has used to win the Fight for 15, defeat 400% increases on low-income tenants, replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, defeat a $160 million police precinct proposal, win $29 million of public money for affordable housing, and divest $3 billion dollars from Wells Fargo in solidarity with no NoDAPL, all in just the last few years.

Yet, Seattle’s tax-the-rich and other trailblazing victories aren’t being won in a vacuum. Ever since the economy collapsed and the banks got bailed out, ordinary people have been searching for a way to beat back attacks on their living standards and win gains to improve their lives. The Occupy movement revealed how broad and deep the anger was. Bernie Sanders showed that tens of millions were ready to rally behind a “democratic socialist” campaign taking no money from big business and calling for a national $15 minimum wage, free college education, and a political revolution against the billionaire class.

Donald Trump’s election upped the ante, and in the months after his election, millions took to the streets to defend the basic rights of immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims, unions, and workers. Ordinary people are flooding into activist organizations like Trump Proof Seattle and the Neighborhood Action Councils. Socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative are also seeing a rapid increase in membership.

Many of these new activists are grappling with the question of how we can defeat Donald Trump and win victories in the face of constant attacks. Do we fight Trump and make change by accommodating ourselves to what’s acceptable to the Democratic establishment and big business? Or do we build movements that fight for bold demands and are prepared to use radical tactics, including civil disobedience?

The victories in Seattle – from the Fight for 15 to tax the rich – provide activists with clear answers to these questions. Building determined movements alongside having a voice in City Hall, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, is a powerful combination. While we will work in unity with broader forces, including Democrats like those who ultimately voted unanimously for the tax the rich proposal, we do not put our trust in corporate politicians or limit our demands to what they or their big business backers are prepared to accept. As thousands swell the ranks of activist and socialist organizations, the Seattle model has a potential to expand and win gains around the country, if the right strategies and tactics are applied.

In Seattle, the tax-the-rich fight is far from over. The right wing Freedom Foundation has already filed a lawsuit saying the tax violates a Washington state law barring cities from taxing net income. State Republican Party Chairperson, Susan Hutchison, in a press conference where she was surrounded by red “tax the rich” placards, called for “civil disobedience” and to “forcefully resist the tax.” Tax Foundation executive Joseph Henchman complained, “If it was just about the law, it couldn’t survive, but my worry is the judges will think about other considerations.” Henchman is correct that the courts are also subject to the power and pressures of social movements, as shown over and over in U.S. history, and recently with the victory on marriage equality in the Supreme Court. Without a doubt, our movement in Seattle is ready to take our fight into the courthouses as well as back onto the streets.

In the meantime, we are not resting on our laurels. We are channelling the energy that won a tax on the rich into a bold campaign for affordable housing and rent control, and knocking on thousands of doors in neighborhoods around the city. Given our track record, the Seattle real estate lobby and political establishment are already on high alert.

Jul 12

Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn’t listening

In Iceland, teenage smoking, drinking and drug use have been radically cut in the past 20 years. Emma Young finds out how they did it, and why other countries won’t follow suit.

Listen to or download an audiobook of this story on SoundCloud and iTunes.

It’s a little before three on a sunny Friday afternoon and Laugardalur Park, near central Reykjavik, looks practically deserted. There’s an occasional adult with a pushchair, but the park’s surrounded by apartment blocks and houses, and school’s out – so where are all the kids?

Walking with me are Gudberg Jónsson, a local psychologist, and Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” adds Milkman. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”

We approach a large building. “And here we have the indoor skating,” says Gudberg.

A couple of minutes ago, we passed two halls dedicated to badminton and ping pong. Here in the park, there’s also an athletics track, a geothermally heated swimming pool and – at last – some visible kids, excitedly playing football on an artificial pitch.

Young people aren’t hanging out in the park right now, Gudberg explains, because they’re in after-school classes in these facilities, or in clubs for music, dance or art. Or they might be on outings with their parents.

Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.

The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”

If it was adopted in other countries, Milkman argues, the Icelandic model could benefit the general psychological and physical wellbeing of millions of kids, not to mention the coffers of healthcare agencies and broader society. It’s a big if.

“I was in the eye of the storm of the drug revolution,” Milkman explains over tea in his apartment in Reykjavik. In the early 1970s, when he was doing an internship at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City, “LSD was already in, and a lot of people were smoking marijuana. And there was a lot of interest in why people took certain drugs.”

Milkman’s doctoral dissertation concluded that people would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they liked to deal with stress. Heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it. After this work was published, he was among a group of researchers drafted by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse to answer questions such as: why do people start using drugs? Why do they continue? When do they reach a threshold to abuse? When do they stop? And when do they relapse?

“Any college kid could say: why do they start? Well, there’s availability, they’re risk-takers, alienation, maybe some depression,” he says. “But why do they continue? So I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on – that’s when I had my version of the ‘aha’ experience: they could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing.”

At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Milkman was instrumental in developing the idea that people were getting addicted to changes in brain chemistry. Kids who were “active confronters” were after a rush – they’d get it by stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs. Alcohol also alters brain chemistry, of course. It’s a sedative but it sedates the brain’s control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.

“People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever,” says Milkman. “The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark.”

This idea spawned another: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?”

By 1992, his team in Denver had won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime. They got referrals from teachers, school nurses and counsellors, taking in kids from the age of 14 who didn’t see themselves as needing treatment but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.

At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month programme. Some stayed five years.

In 1991, Milkman was invited to Iceland to talk about this work, his findings and ideas. He became a consultant to the first residential drug treatment centre for adolescents in Iceland, in a town called Tindar. “It was designed around the idea of giving kids better things to do,” he explains. It was here that he met Gudberg, who was then a psychology undergraduate and a volunteer at Tindar. They have been close friends ever since.

Milkman started coming regularly to Iceland and giving talks. These talks, and Tindar, attracted the attention of a young researcher at the University of Iceland, called Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir. She wondered: what if you could use healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol as part of a programme not to treat kids with problems, but to stop kids drinking or taking drugs in the first place?

Have you ever tried alcohol? If so, when did you last have a drink? Have you ever been drunk? Have you tried cigarettes? If so, how often do you smoke? How much time do you spend with your parents? Do you have a close relationship with your parents? What kind of activities do you take part in?

In 1992, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in every school in Iceland filled in a questionnaire with these kinds of questions. This process was then repeated in 1995 and 1997.

The results of these surveys were alarming. Nationally, almost 25 per cent were smoking every day, over 40 per cent had got drunk in the past month. But when the team drilled right down into the data, they could identify precisely which schools had the worst problems – and which had the least. Their analysis revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs, and those who didn’t. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organised activities – especially sport – three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.

“At that time, there had been all kinds of substance prevention efforts and programmes,” says Inga Dóra, who was a research assistant on the surveys. “Mostly they were built on education.” Kids were being warned about the dangers of drink and drugs, but, as Milkman had observed in the US, these programmes were not working. “We wanted to come up with a different approach.”

The mayor of Reykjavik, too, was interested in trying something new, and many parents felt the same, adds Jón Sigfússon, Inga Dóra’s colleague and brother. Jón had young daughters at the time and joined her new Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis when it was set up in 1999. “The situation was bad,” he says. “It was obvious something had to be done.”

Using the survey data and insights from research including Milkman’s, a new national plan was gradually introduced. It was called Youth in Iceland.

Laws were changed. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings.

A law was also passed prohibiting children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10pm in winter and midnight in summer. It’s still in effect today.

Home and School, the national umbrella body for parental organisations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organisations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.

These agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home, argues Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of Home and School. “Then it becomes harder to use the oldest excuse in the book: ‘But everybody else can!’”

State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities.

Crucially, the surveys have continued. Each year, almost every child in Iceland completes one. This means up-to-date, reliable data is always available.

Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled – from 23 per cent to 46 per cent – and the percentage who participated in organised sports at least four times a week increased from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted.

“Although this cannot be shown in the form of a causal relationship – which is a good example of why primary prevention methods are sometimes hard to sell to scientists – the trend is very clear,” notes Álfgeir Kristjánsson, who worked on the data and is now at the West Virginia University School of Public Health in the US. “Protective factors have gone up, risk factors down, and substance use has gone down – and more consistently in Iceland than in any other European country.”

§

Jón Sigfússon apologies for being just a couple of minutes late. “I was on a crisis call!” He prefers not to say precisely to where, but it was to one of the cities elsewhere in the world that has now adopted, in part, the Youth in Iceland ideas.

Youth in Europe, which Jón heads, began in 2006 after the already-remarkable Icelandic data was presented at a European Cities Against Drugs meeting and, he recalls, “People asked: what are you doing?”

Participation in Youth in Europe is at a municipal level rather than being led by national governments. In the first year, there were eight municipalities. To date, 35 have taken part, across 17 countries, varying from some areas where just a few schools take part to Tarragona in Spain, where 4,200 15-year-olds are involved. The method is always the same: Jón and his team talk to local officials and devise a questionnaire with the same core questions as those used in Iceland plus any locally tailored extras. For example, online gambling has recently emerged as a big problem in a few areas, and local officials want to know if it’s linked to other risky behaviour.

Just two months after the questionnaires are returned to Iceland, the team sends back an initial report with the results, plus information on how they compare with other participating regions. “We always say that, like vegetables, information has to be fresh,” says Jón. “If you bring these findings a year later, people would say, Oh, this was a long time ago and maybe things have changed…” As well as fresh, it has to be local so that schools, parents and officials can see exactly what problems exist in which areas.

The team has analysed 99,000 questionnaires from places as far afield as the Faroe Islands, Malta and Romania – as well as South Korea and, very recently, Nairobi and Guinea-Bissau. Broadly, the results show that when it comes to teen substance use, the same protective and risk factors identified in Iceland apply everywhere. There are some differences: in one location (in a country “on the Baltic Sea”), participation in organised sport actually emerged as a risk factor. Further investigation revealed that this was because young ex-military men who were keen on muscle-building drugs, drinking and smoking were running the clubs. Here, then, was a well-defined, immediate, local problem that could be addressed.

While Jón and his team offer advice and information on what has been found to work in Iceland, it’s up to individual communities to decide what to do in the light of their results. Occasionally, they do nothing. One predominantly Muslim country, which he prefers not to identify, rejected the data because it revealed an unpalatable level of alcohol consumption. In other cities – such as the origin of Jón’s “crisis call” – there is an openness to the data and there is money, but he has observed that it can be much more difficult to secure and maintain funding for health prevention strategies than for treatments.

No other country has made changes on the scale seen in Iceland. When asked if anyone has copied the laws to keep children indoors in the evening, Jón smiles. “Even Sweden laughs and calls it the child curfew!”

Across Europe, rates of teen alcohol and drug use have generally improved over the past 20 years, though nowhere as dramatically as in Iceland, and the reasons for improvements are not necessarily linked to strategies that foster teen wellbeing. In the UK, for example, the fact that teens are now spending more time at home interacting online rather than in person could be one of the major reasons for the drop in alcohol consumption.

But Kaunas, in Lithuania, is one example of what can happen through active intervention. Since 2006, the city has administered the questionnaires five times, and schools, parents, healthcare organisations, churches, the police and social services have come together to try to improve kids’ wellbeing and curb substance use. For instance, parents get eight or nine free parenting sessions each year, and a new programme provides extra funding for public institutions and NGOs working in mental health promotion and stress management. In 2015, the city started offering free sports activities on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and there are plans to introduce a free ride service for low-income families, to help kids who don’t live close to the facilities to attend.

Between 2006 and 2014, the number of 15- and 16-year-olds in Kaunas who reported getting drunk in the past 30 days fell by about a quarter, and daily smoking fell by more than 30 per cent.

At the moment, participation in Youth in Europe is a haphazard affair, and the team in Iceland is small. Jón would like to see a centralised body with its own dedicated funding to focus on the expansion of Youth in Europe. “Even though we have been doing this for ten years, it is not our full, main job. We would like somebody to copy this and maintain it all over Europe,” he says. “And why only Europe?”

§

After our walk through Laugardalur Park, Gudberg Jónsson invites us back to his home. Outside, in the garden, his two elder sons, Jón Konrád, who’s 21, and Birgir Ísar, who’s 15, talk to me about drinking and smoking. Jón does drink alcohol, but Birgir says he doesn’t know anyone at his school who smokes or drinks. We also talk about football training: Birgir trains five or six times a week; Jón, who is in his first year of a business degree at the University of Iceland, trains five times a week. They both started regular after-school training when they were six years old.

“We have all these instruments at home,” their father told me earlier. “We tried to get them into music. We used to have a horse. My wife is really into horse riding. But it didn’t happen. In the end, soccer was their selection.”

Did it ever feel like too much? Was there pressure to train when they’d rather have been doing something else? “No, we just had fun playing football,” says Birgir. Jón adds, “We tried it and got used to it, and so we kept on doing it.”

It’s not all they do. While Gudberg and his wife Thórunn don’t consciously plan for a certain number of hours each week with their three sons, they do try to take them regularly to the movies, the theatre, restaurants, hiking, fishing and, when Iceland’s sheep are brought down from the highlands each September, even on family sheep-herding outings.

Jón and Birgir may be exceptionally keen on football, and talented (Jón has been offered a soccer scholarship to the Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a few weeks after we meet, Birgir is selected to play for the under-17 national team). But could the significant rise in the percentage of kids who take part in organised sport four or more times a week be bringing benefits beyond raising healthier children?

Could it, for instance, have anything to do with Iceland’s crushing defeat of England in the Euro 2016 football championship? When asked, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, who was voted Woman of the Year in Iceland in 2016, smiles: “There is also the success in music, like Of Monsters and Men [an indie folk-pop group from Reykjavik]. These are young people who have been pushed into organised work. Some people have thanked me,” she says, with a wink.

Elsewhere, cities that have joined Youth in Europe are reporting other benefits. In Bucharest, for example, the rate of teen suicides is dropping alongside use of drink and drugs. In Kaunas, the number of children committing crimes dropped by a third between 2014 and 2015.

As Inga Dóra says: “We learned through the studies that we need to create circumstances in which kids can lead healthy lives, and they do not need to use substances, because life is fun, and they have plenty to do – and they are supported by parents who will spend time with them.”

When it comes down to it, the messages – if not necessarily the methods – are straightforward. And when he looks at the results, Harvey Milkman thinks of his own country, the US. Could the Youth in Iceland model work there, too?

§

Three hundred and twenty-five million people versus 330,000. Thirty-three thousand gangs versus virtually none. Around 1.3 million homeless young people versus a handful.

Clearly, the US has challenges that Iceland does not. But the data from other parts of Europe, including cities such as Bucharest with major social problems and relative poverty, shows that the Icelandic model can work in very different cultures, Milkman argues. And the need in the US is high: underage drinking accounts for about 11 per cent of all alcohol consumed nationwide, and excessive drinking causes more than 4,300 deaths among under-21 year olds every year.

A national programme along the lines of Youth in Iceland is unlikely to be introduced in the US, however. One major obstacle is that while in Iceland there is long-term commitment to the national project, community health programmes in the US are usually funded by short-term grants.

Milkman has learned the hard way that even widely applauded, gold-standard youth programmes aren’t always expanded, or even sustained. “With Project Self-Discovery, it seemed like we had the best programme in the world,” he says. “I was invited to the White House twice. It won national awards. I was thinking: this will be replicated in every town and village. But it wasn’t.”

He thinks that is because you can’t prescribe a generic model to every community because they don’t all have the same resources. Any move towards giving kids in the US the opportunities to participate in the kinds of activities now common in Iceland, and so helping them to stay away from alcohol and other drugs, will depend on building on what already exists. “You have to rely on the resources of the community,” he says.

His colleague Álfgeir Kristjánsson is introducing the Icelandic ideas to the state of West Virginia. Surveys are being given to kids at several middle and high schools in the state, and a community coordinator will help get the results out to parents and anyone else who could use them to help local kids. But it might be difficult to achieve the kinds of results seen in Iceland, he concedes.

Short-termism also impedes effective prevention strategies in the UK, says Michael O’Toole, CEO of Mentor, a charity that works to reduce alcohol and drug misuse in children and young people. Here, too, there is no national coordinated alcohol and drug prevention programme. It’s generally left to local authorities or to schools, which can often mean kids are simply given information about the dangers of drugs and alcohol – a strategy that, he agrees, evidence shows does not work.

O’Toole fully endorses the Icelandic focus on parents, school and the community all coming together to help support kids, and on parents or carers being engaged in young people’s lives. Improving support for kids could help in so many ways, he stresses. Even when it comes just to alcohol and smoking, there is plenty of data to show that the older a child is when they have their first drink or cigarette, the healthier they will be over the course of their life.

But not all the strategies would be acceptable in the UK – the child curfews being one, parental walks around neighbourhoods to identify children breaking the rules perhaps another. And a trial run by Mentor in Brighton that involved inviting parents into schools for workshops found that it was difficult to get them engaged.

Public wariness and an unwillingness to engage will be challenges wherever the Icelandic methods are proposed, thinks Milkman, and go to the heart of the balance of responsibility between states and citizens. “How much control do you want the government to have over what happens with your kids? Is this too much of the government meddling in how people live their lives?”

In Iceland, the relationship between people and the state has allowed an effective national programme to cut the rates of teenagers smoking and drinking to excess – and, in the process, brought families closer and helped kids to become healthier in all kinds of ways. Will no other country decide these benefits are worth the costs?

Listen to or download an audiobook of this story on SoundCloud and iTunes.

 

It’s a little before three on a sunny Friday afternoon and Laugardalur Park, near central Reykjavik, looks practically deserted. There’s an occasional adult with a pushchair, but the park’s surrounded by apartment blocks and houses, and school’s out – so where are all the kids?

Walking with me are Gudberg Jónsson, a local psychologist, and Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University. Twenty years ago, says Gudberg, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” adds Milkman. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”

We approach a large building. “And here we have the indoor skating,” says Gudberg.

A couple of minutes ago, we passed two halls dedicated to badminton and ping pong. Here in the park, there’s also an athletics track, a geothermally heated swimming pool and – at last – some visible kids, excitedly playing football on an artificial pitch.

Young people aren’t hanging out in the park right now, Gudberg explains, because they’re in after-school classes in these facilities, or in clubs for music, dance or art. Or they might be on outings with their parents.

Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.

The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”

If it was adopted in other countries, Milkman argues, the Icelandic model could benefit the general psychological and physical wellbeing of millions of kids, not to mention the coffers of healthcare agencies and broader society. It’s a big if.

“I was in the eye of the storm of the drug revolution,” Milkman explains over tea in his apartment in Reykjavik. In the early 1970s, when he was doing an internship at the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City, “LSD was already in, and a lot of people were smoking marijuana. And there was a lot of interest in why people took certain drugs.”

Milkman’s doctoral dissertation concluded that people would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they liked to deal with stress. Heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it. After this work was published, he was among a group of researchers drafted by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse to answer questions such as: why do people start using drugs? Why do they continue? When do they reach a threshold to abuse? When do they stop? And when do they relapse?

“Any college kid could say: why do they start? Well, there’s availability, they’re risk-takers, alienation, maybe some depression,” he says. “But why do they continue? So I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on – that’s when I had my version of the ‘aha’ experience: they could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing.”

At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Milkman was instrumental in developing the idea that people were getting addicted to changes in brain chemistry. Kids who were “active confronters” were after a rush – they’d get it by stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs. Alcohol also alters brain chemistry, of course. It’s a sedative but it sedates the brain’s control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.

“People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever,” says Milkman. “The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark.”

This idea spawned another: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?”

By 1992, his team in Denver had won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project Self-Discovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime. They got referrals from teachers, school nurses and counsellors, taking in kids from the age of 14 who didn’t see themselves as needing treatment but who had problems with drugs or petty crime.

“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.

At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month programme. Some stayed five years.

In 1991, Milkman was invited to Iceland to talk about this work, his findings and ideas. He became a consultant to the first residential drug treatment centre for adolescents in Iceland, in a town called Tindar. “It was designed around the idea of giving kids better things to do,” he explains. It was here that he met Gudberg, who was then a psychology undergraduate and a volunteer at Tindar. They have been close friends ever since.

Milkman started coming regularly to Iceland and giving talks. These talks, and Tindar, attracted the attention of a young researcher at the University of Iceland, called Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir. She wondered: what if you could use healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol as part of a programme not to treat kids with problems, but to stop kids drinking or taking drugs in the first place?

Have you ever tried alcohol? If so, when did you last have a drink? Have you ever been drunk? Have you tried cigarettes? If so, how often do you smoke? How much time do you spend with your parents? Do you have a close relationship with your parents? What kind of activities do you take part in?

In 1992, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in every school in Iceland filled in a questionnaire with these kinds of questions. This process was then repeated in 1995 and 1997.

The results of these surveys were alarming. Nationally, almost 25 per cent were smoking every day, over 40 per cent had got drunk in the past month. But when the team drilled right down into the data, they could identify precisely which schools had the worst problems – and which had the least. Their analysis revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and other drugs, and those who didn’t. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organised activities – especially sport – three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.

“At that time, there had been all kinds of substance prevention efforts and programmes,” says Inga Dóra, who was a research assistant on the surveys. “Mostly they were built on education.” Kids were being warned about the dangers of drink and drugs, but, as Milkman had observed in the US, these programmes were not working. “We wanted to come up with a different approach.”

The mayor of Reykjavik, too, was interested in trying something new, and many parents felt the same, adds Jón Sigfússon, Inga Dóra’s colleague and brother. Jón had young daughters at the time and joined her new Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis when it was set up in 1999. “The situation was bad,” he says. “It was obvious something had to be done.”

Using the survey data and insights from research including Milkman’s, a new national plan was gradually introduced. It was called Youth in Iceland.

Laws were changed. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings.

A law was also passed prohibiting children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10pm in winter and midnight in summer. It’s still in effect today.

Home and School, the national umbrella body for parental organisations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organisations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.

These agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home, argues Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of Home and School. “Then it becomes harder to use the oldest excuse in the book: ‘But everybody else can!’”

State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities.

Crucially, the surveys have continued. Each year, almost every child in Iceland completes one. This means up-to-date, reliable data is always available.

Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled – from 23 per cent to 46 per cent – and the percentage who participated in organised sports at least four times a week increased from 24 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted.

“Although this cannot be shown in the form of a causal relationship – which is a good example of why primary prevention methods are sometimes hard to sell to scientists – the trend is very clear,” notes Álfgeir Kristjánsson, who worked on the data and is now at the West Virginia University School of Public Health in the US. “Protective factors have gone up, risk factors down, and substance use has gone down – and more consistently in Iceland than in any other European country.”

§

Jón Sigfússon apologies for being just a couple of minutes late. “I was on a crisis call!” He prefers not to say precisely to where, but it was to one of the cities elsewhere in the world that has now adopted, in part, the Youth in Iceland ideas.

Youth in Europe, which Jón heads, began in 2006 after the already-remarkable Icelandic data was presented at a European Cities Against Drugs meeting and, he recalls, “People asked: what are you doing?”

Participation in Youth in Europe is at a municipal level rather than being led by national governments. In the first year, there were eight municipalities. To date, 35 have taken part, across 17 countries, varying from some areas where just a few schools take part to Tarragona in Spain, where 4,200 15-year-olds are involved. The method is always the same: Jón and his team talk to local officials and devise a questionnaire with the same core questions as those used in Iceland plus any locally tailored extras. For example, online gambling has recently emerged as a big problem in a few areas, and local officials want to know if it’s linked to other risky behaviour.

Just two months after the questionnaires are returned to Iceland, the team sends back an initial report with the results, plus information on how they compare with other participating regions. “We always say that, like vegetables, information has to be fresh,” says Jón. “If you bring these findings a year later, people would say, Oh, this was a long time ago and maybe things have changed…” As well as fresh, it has to be local so that schools, parents and officials can see exactly what problems exist in which areas.

The team has analysed 99,000 questionnaires from places as far afield as the Faroe Islands, Malta and Romania – as well as South Korea and, very recently, Nairobi and Guinea-Bissau. Broadly, the results show that when it comes to teen substance use, the same protective and risk factors identified in Iceland apply everywhere. There are some differences: in one location (in a country “on the Baltic Sea”), participation in organised sport actually emerged as a risk factor. Further investigation revealed that this was because young ex-military men who were keen on muscle-building drugs, drinking and smoking were running the clubs. Here, then, was a well-defined, immediate, local problem that could be addressed.

While Jón and his team offer advice and information on what has been found to work in Iceland, it’s up to individual communities to decide what to do in the light of their results. Occasionally, they do nothing. One predominantly Muslim country, which he prefers not to identify, rejected the data because it revealed an unpalatable level of alcohol consumption. In other cities – such as the origin of Jón’s “crisis call” – there is an openness to the data and there is money, but he has observed that it can be much more difficult to secure and maintain funding for health prevention strategies than for treatments.

No other country has made changes on the scale seen in Iceland. When asked if anyone has copied the laws to keep children indoors in the evening, Jón smiles. “Even Sweden laughs and calls it the child curfew!”

Across Europe, rates of teen alcohol and drug use have generally improved over the past 20 years, though nowhere as dramatically as in Iceland, and the reasons for improvements are not necessarily linked to strategies that foster teen wellbeing. In the UK, for example, the fact that teens are now spending more time at home interacting online rather than in person could be one of the major reasons for the drop in alcohol consumption.

But Kaunas, in Lithuania, is one example of what can happen through active intervention. Since 2006, the city has administered the questionnaires five times, and schools, parents, healthcare organisations, churches, the police and social services have come together to try to improve kids’ wellbeing and curb substance use. For instance, parents get eight or nine free parenting sessions each year, and a new programme provides extra funding for public institutions and NGOs working in mental health promotion and stress management. In 2015, the city started offering free sports activities on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and there are plans to introduce a free ride service for low-income families, to help kids who don’t live close to the facilities to attend.

Between 2006 and 2014, the number of 15- and 16-year-olds in Kaunas who reported getting drunk in the past 30 days fell by about a quarter, and daily smoking fell by more than 30 per cent.

At the moment, participation in Youth in Europe is a haphazard affair, and the team in Iceland is small. Jón would like to see a centralised body with its own dedicated funding to focus on the expansion of Youth in Europe. “Even though we have been doing this for ten years, it is not our full, main job. We would like somebody to copy this and maintain it all over Europe,” he says. “And why only Europe?”

§

After our walk through Laugardalur Park, Gudberg Jónsson invites us back to his home. Outside, in the garden, his two elder sons, Jón Konrád, who’s 21, and Birgir Ísar, who’s 15, talk to me about drinking and smoking. Jón does drink alcohol, but Birgir says he doesn’t know anyone at his school who smokes or drinks. We also talk about football training: Birgir trains five or six times a week; Jón, who is in his first year of a business degree at the University of Iceland, trains five times a week. They both started regular after-school training when they were six years old.

“We have all these instruments at home,” their father told me earlier. “We tried to get them into music. We used to have a horse. My wife is really into horse riding. But it didn’t happen. In the end, soccer was their selection.”

Did it ever feel like too much? Was there pressure to train when they’d rather have been doing something else? “No, we just had fun playing football,” says Birgir. Jón adds, “We tried it and got used to it, and so we kept on doing it.”

It’s not all they do. While Gudberg and his wife Thórunn don’t consciously plan for a certain number of hours each week with their three sons, they do try to take them regularly to the movies, the theatre, restaurants, hiking, fishing and, when Iceland’s sheep are brought down from the highlands each September, even on family sheep-herding outings.

Jón and Birgir may be exceptionally keen on football, and talented (Jón has been offered a soccer scholarship to the Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a few weeks after we meet, Birgir is selected to play for the under-17 national team). But could the significant rise in the percentage of kids who take part in organised sport four or more times a week be bringing benefits beyond raising healthier children?

Could it, for instance, have anything to do with Iceland’s crushing defeat of England in the Euro 2016 football championship? When asked, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, who was voted Woman of the Year in Iceland in 2016, smiles: “There is also the success in music, like Of Monsters and Men [an indie folk-pop group from Reykjavik]. These are young people who have been pushed into organised work. Some people have thanked me,” she says, with a wink.

Elsewhere, cities that have joined Youth in Europe are reporting other benefits. In Bucharest, for example, the rate of teen suicides is dropping alongside use of drink and drugs. In Kaunas, the number of children committing crimes dropped by a third between 2014 and 2015.

As Inga Dóra says: “We learned through the studies that we need to create circumstances in which kids can lead healthy lives, and they do not need to use substances, because life is fun, and they have plenty to do – and they are supported by parents who will spend time with them.”

When it comes down to it, the messages – if not necessarily the methods – are straightforward. And when he looks at the results, Harvey Milkman thinks of his own country, the US. Could the Youth in Iceland model work there, too?

§

Three hundred and twenty-five million people versus 330,000. Thirty-three thousand gangs versus virtually none. Around 1.3 million homeless young people versus a handful.

Clearly, the US has challenges that Iceland does not. But the data from other parts of Europe, including cities such as Bucharest with major social problems and relative poverty, shows that the Icelandic model can work in very different cultures, Milkman argues. And the need in the US is high: underage drinking accounts for about 11 per cent of all alcohol consumed nationwide, and excessive drinking causes more than 4,300 deaths among under-21 year olds every year.

A national programme along the lines of Youth in Iceland is unlikely to be introduced in the US, however. One major obstacle is that while in Iceland there is long-term commitment to the national project, community health programmes in the US are usually funded by short-term grants.

Milkman has learned the hard way that even widely applauded, gold-standard youth programmes aren’t always expanded, or even sustained. “With Project Self-Discovery, it seemed like we had the best programme in the world,” he says. “I was invited to the White House twice. It won national awards. I was thinking: this will be replicated in every town and village. But it wasn’t.”

He thinks that is because you can’t prescribe a generic model to every community because they don’t all have the same resources. Any move towards giving kids in the US the opportunities to participate in the kinds of activities now common in Iceland, and so helping them to stay away from alcohol and other drugs, will depend on building on what already exists. “You have to rely on the resources of the community,” he says.

His colleague Álfgeir Kristjánsson is introducing the Icelandic ideas to the state of West Virginia. Surveys are being given to kids at several middle and high schools in the state, and a community coordinator will help get the results out to parents and anyone else who could use them to help local kids. But it might be difficult to achieve the kinds of results seen in Iceland, he concedes.

Short-termism also impedes effective prevention strategies in the UK, says Michael O’Toole, CEO of Mentor, a charity that works to reduce alcohol and drug misuse in children and young people. Here, too, there is no national coordinated alcohol and drug prevention programme. It’s generally left to local authorities or to schools, which can often mean kids are simply given information about the dangers of drugs and alcohol – a strategy that, he agrees, evidence shows does not work.

O’Toole fully endorses the Icelandic focus on parents, school and the community all coming together to help support kids, and on parents or carers being engaged in young people’s lives. Improving support for kids could help in so many ways, he stresses. Even when it comes just to alcohol and smoking, there is plenty of data to show that the older a child is when they have their first drink or cigarette, the healthier they will be over the course of their life.

But not all the strategies would be acceptable in the UK – the child curfews being one, parental walks around neighbourhoods to identify children breaking the rules perhaps another. And a trial run by Mentor in Brighton that involved inviting parents into schools for workshops found that it was difficult to get them engaged.

Public wariness and an unwillingness to engage will be challenges wherever the Icelandic methods are proposed, thinks Milkman, and go to the heart of the balance of responsibility between states and citizens. “How much control do you want the government to have over what happens with your kids? Is this too much of the government meddling in how people live their lives?”

In Iceland, the relationship between people and the state has allowed an effective national programme to cut the rates of teenagers smoking and drinking to excess – and, in the process, brought families closer and helped kids to become healthier in all kinds of ways. Will no other country decide these benefits are worth the costs?

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.  Thanks to Dave Fletcher for the link.

Jul 04

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

Born into slavery around 1818, Frederick Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movement. On July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, he gave one of his most famous speeches, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” He was addressing the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. This is actor James Earl Jones reading the speech during a performance of historian Howard Zinn’s acclaimed book, “Voices of a People’s History of the United States.” He was introduced by Howard Zinn.

Transcript

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [read by James Earl Jones] Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

AMY GOODMAN: James Earl Jones, reading Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 Independence Day address in Rochester, New York. It was part of a performance of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Published on Tuesday, July 04, 2017 by Democracy Now!  Reposted by permission.

© 2016 Democracy Now!

See also: The Counter-Revolution of 1776

May 22

Palestine/Israel History 101

After savoring the obscenity of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia — a country truly after Trump’s own heart — and the deep pile of lies on both sides during his visit to Israel, I feel compelled to post this short video produced by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).  Maybe it won’t make everyone happy but it’s a much truthier edition than the official BS. Thanks to JVP for making it available.

May 21

Howard Zinn: Against Discouragement

By Howard Zinn
At Spelman College, May 15, 2005

I am deeply honored to be invited back to Spelman after forty-two years. I would like to thank the faculty and trustees who voted to invite me, and especially your president, Dr. Beverly Tatum. And it is a special privilege to be here with Diahann Carroll and Virginia Davis Floyd.

But this is your day — the students graduating today. It’s a happy day for you and your families. I know you have your own hopes for the future, so it may be a little presumptuous for me to tell you what hopes I have for you, but they are exactly the same ones that I have for my grandchildren.

My first hope is that you will not be too discouraged by the way the world looks at this moment. It is easy to be discouraged, because our nation is at war — still another war, war after war — and our government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. There is poverty in this country, and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded classrooms, but our government, which has trillions of dollars to spend, is spending its wealth on war. There are a billion people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East who need clean water and medicine to deal with malaria and tuberculosis and AIDS, but our government, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, is experimenting with even more deadly nuclear weapons. Yes, it is easy to be discouraged by all that.

But let me tell you why, in spite of what I have just described, you must not be discouraged. I want to remind you that, fifty years ago, racial segregation here in the South was entrenched as tightly as was apartheid in South Africa. The national government, even with liberal presidents like Kennedy and Johnson in office, was looking the other way while black people were beaten and killed and denied the opportunity to vote. So black people in the South decided they had to do something by themselves. They boycotted and sat in and picketed and demonstrated, and were beaten and jailed, and some were killed, but their cries for freedom were soon heard all over the nation and around the world, and the President and Congress finally did what they had previously failed to do — enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Many people had said: The South will never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up. That’s when democracy came alive.

I want to remind you also that when the war in Vietnam was going on, and young Americans were dying and coming home paralyzed, and our government was bombing the villages of Vietnam — bombing schools and hospitals and killing ordinary people in huge numbers — it looked hopeless to try to stop the war. But just as in the Southern movement, people began to protest and soon it caught on. It was a national movement. Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing to join the military, and the war had to end.

The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies. I know you have practical things to do — to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.

Remember Tolstoy’s story, “The Death of Ivan Illych.” A man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he has done everything right, obeyed the rules, become a judge, married, had children, and is looked upon as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wonders why he feels a failure. After becoming a famous novelist, Tolstoy himself had decided that this was not enough, that he must speak out against the treatment of the Russian peasants, that he must write against war and militarism.

My hope is that whatever you do to make a good life for yourself — whether you become a teacher, or social worker, or business person, or lawyer, or poet, or scientist — you will devote part of your life to making this a better world for your children, for all children. My hope is that your generation will demand an end to war, that your generation will do something that has not yet been done in history and wipe out the national boundaries that separate us from other human beings on this earth.

Recently I saw a photo on the front page of the New York Times which I cannot get out of my mind. It showed ordinary Americans sitting on chairs on the southern border of Arizona, facing Mexico. They were holding guns and they were looking for Mexicans who might be trying to cross the border into the United States. This was horrifying to me — the realization that, in this twenty-first century of what we call “civilization,” we have carved up what we claim is one world into two hundred artificially created entities we call “nations” and are ready to kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary, so fierce it leads to murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking, cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on, have been useful to those in power, deadly for those out of power.

Here in the United States, we are brought up to believe that our nation is different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral; that we expand into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. But if you know some history you know that’s not true. If you know some history, you know we massacred Indians on this continent, invaded Mexico, sent armies into Cuba, and the Philippines. We killed huge numbers of people, and we did not bring them democracy or liberty. We did not go into Vietnam to bring democracy; we did not invade Panama to stop the drug trade; we did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq to stop terrorism. Our aims were the aims of all the other empires of world history — more profit for corporations, more power for politicians.

The poets and artists among us seem to have a clearer understanding of the disease of nationalism. Perhaps the black poets especially are less enthralled with the virtues of American “liberty” and “democracy,” their people having enjoyed so little of it. The great African-American poet Langston Hughes addressed his country as follows:

You really haven’t been a virgin for so long.
It’s ludicrous to keep up the pretext

You’ve slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you’ve taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows

Being one of the world’s big vampires,
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.

I am a veteran of the Second World War. That was considered a “good war,” but I have come to the conclusion that war solves no fundamental problems and only leads to more wars. War poisons the minds of soldiers, leads them to kill and torture, and poisons the soul of the nation.

My hope is that your generation will demand that your children be brought up in a world without war. If we want a world in which the people of all countries are brothers and sisters, if the children all over the world are considered as our children, then war — in which children are always the greatest casualties — cannot be accepted as a way of solving problems.

I was on the faculty of Spelman College for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. It was a heartwarming time, because the friends we made in those years have remained our friends all these years. My wife Roslyn and I and our two children lived on campus. Sometimes when we went into town, white people would ask: How is it to be living in the black community? It was hard to explain. But we knew this — that in downtown Atlanta, we felt as if we were in alien territory, and when we came back to the Spelman campus, we felt that we were at home.

Those years at Spelman were the most exciting of my life, the most educational certainly. I learned more from my students than they learned from me. Those were the years of the great movement in the South against racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta, in Albany, Georgia, in Selma, Alabama, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Greenwood and Itta Bena and Jackson. I learned something about democracy: that it does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice. I learned about race. I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point — that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornel West has written), it only matters because certain people want it to matter, just as nationalism is something artificial. I learned that what really matters is that all of us — of whatever so-called race and so-called nationality — are human beings and should cherish one another.

I was lucky to be at Spelman at a time when I could watch a marvelous transformation in my students, who were so polite, so quiet, and then suddenly they were leaving the campus and going into town, and sitting in, and being arrested, and then coming out of jail full of fire and rebellion. You can read all about that in Harry Lefever’s book Undaunted by the Fight. One day Marian Wright (now Marian Wright Edelman), who was my student at Spelman, and was one of the first arrested in the Atlanta sit-ins, came to our house on campus to show us a petition she was about to put on the bulletin board of her dormitory. The heading on the petition epitomized the transformation taking place at Spelman College. Marian had written on top of the petition: “Young Ladies Who Can Picket, Please Sign Below.”

My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way that our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you. There are wonderful people, black and white, who are models. I don’t mean African- Americans like Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell, or Clarence Thomas, who have become servants of the rich and powerful. I mean W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and good white folk, too, who defied the Establishment to work for peace and justice.

Another of my students at Spelman, Alice Walker, who, like Marian, has remained our friend all these years, came from a tenant farmer’s family in Eatonton, Georgia, and became a famous writer. In one of her first published poems, she wrote:

It is true–
I’ve always loved
the daring
ones
Like the black young
man
Who tried
to crash
All barriers
at once,
wanted to
swim
At a white
beach (in Alabama)
Nude.

I am not suggesting you go that far, but you can help to break down barriers, of race certainly, but also of nationalism; that you do what you can — you don’t have to do something heroic, just something, to join with millions of others who will just do something, because all of those somethings, at certain points in history, come together, and make the world better.

That marvelous African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wouldn’t do what white people wanted her to do, who wouldn’t do what black people wanted her to do, who insisted on being herself, said that her mother advised her: Leap for the sun — you may not reach it, but at least you will get off the ground.

By being here today, you are already standing on your toes, ready to leap. My hope for you is a good life.

Apr 25

Do Genes Make People Crazy?

The invention of the telescope in the early 1600s led to discoveries that soon disrupted and crashed centuries of belief about the earth, the sun, and the planets.  Something similar is happening in genetics, and in particular the genetics of psychological and psychiatric disorders. The new telescope is genome sequencing. For the first time, genome sequencing technology lets researchers look at the actual genetic makeup, the DNA, of an individual. The technology has become so inexpensive in the past decade that scientists can now read and compare the DNA of many thousands of individuals.

For well over a hundred and fifty years, scientists and the lay public have held as a core belief that the cause of major behavioral disorders, such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, and much else, lay in the affected individual’s genes. When genome sequencing became available early in this century, government and private labs set out with high hopes that “the alcoholism gene” and “the schizophrenia gene” and “the [whatever] gene” would soon be discovered. Once “the gene” was isolated, pharmacology would design a drug to target it and, presto, the disorder would be cured.

It hasn’t turned out that way. What the studies have found, instead, is that an individual’s genetic makeup has next to nothing to do with it.  In my recent book, Empowering Your Sober Self, I outlined how genomics research has wrecked traditional beliefs in “the alcoholism gene.”  Comparing the DNA of tens of thousands of diagnosed alcoholics with tens of thousands of normal people has turned up no significant genetic differences.

A similar disruption is roiling the neighbor fields of psychiatric studies, notably in schizophrenia. A report in the current (May 2017) issue of Scientific American covers the story. Some media headlines had trumpeted discovery of “the schizophrenia gene,” but careful reading of the actual research results showed nothing there.  Schizophrenia turns out to be extremely “polygenetic,” meaning that the DNA of people with that diagnosis shows a wide variety and large number of different genes, all of which are also present in great variety and large numbers in people without. None of the genetic variations rises to statistical significance.

The SciAm review, by Michael Balter, almost reads like a rewrite of my chapter on genetics from Empowering Your Sober Self with “schizophrenia” put in place of “alcoholism.”  It’s a human interest story, in its way, not only about the sufferers from these disorders, and their families and caregivers, but about the scientists in the field. Ironically, the new telescope is mostly in the hands of tradition-steeped researchers deeply invested in the belief that your genes make you crazy, drunk, criminal, stupid, whatever. Some of these scientists are shaken up by the negative messages their new toy is sending.  There’s fifty shades of denial. But, bottom line, the “schizophrenia gene” theory is a bust.

Meanwhile, pay dirt is showing up in research on environmental factors.  People who have psychotic symptoms are three times more likely to have suffered childhood adversity, such as emotional or physical trauma, migration, urban stress, and early cannabis use. Not everyone diagnosed with schizophrenia has a history of childhood trauma, and not all victims of childhood trauma become schizophrenic, but the correlation is strong enough — and much stronger than anything revealed by genome studies — to warrant attention to giving children better childhoods.

And there’s the rub. The theory that your genes make you crazy leads to a neatly packaged result pleasing to the pharmaceutical industry. There’s big money in that approach, even if it only helps with symptoms and is not a cure. By contrast, the insight that bad things in your environment are to blame suggests that the fix lies in ending wars, minimizing income inequality, providing health care for everyone, having universal preschool, ending  traumatic injustices, and stuff like that.  There’s no money in it.

Scientific American has done a good job here in bringing the ongoing disruption in psychiatric theory to a wider audience.

Apr 11

To Yosemite and Back in Chevy’s Bolt EV

Bridalveil Fall

“Let’s go to Yosemite!” said Sheila, my wife, pointing to a San Francisco Chronicle photo of raging waterfalls in the fabled valley.  We checked our calendars. We had the time for a quick visit, two nights, allowing one full day of hiking. There was only one problem. We had just become a one-car family, and that car was Chevrolet’s new all-electric vehicle, the Bolt. Bolt with a B, not the hybrid Volt with a V.

The Bolt has an advertised range of 238 miles on a full charge. Yosemite Valley, according to Google Maps, is 204 miles from our Berkeley home by the fastest route. That should be within the Bolt’s range, theoretically. But after three years’ experience with our all-electric Nissan Leaf we knew that highway speeds and uphill stretches could dramatically reduce the actual distance yield.  We weren’t ready to take a chance on sitting stranded with a drained battery on some desolate upslope in the Sierra foothills.

Moreover, once we arrived, we’d need a full charge to get back home again. That charge would have to come from a Level 2 charger, minimum, which can refill the Bolt’s battery pack overnight.  Going to the Plugshare app on the web, I found two  possible stations in the valley with that capacity.  One is located on the wall of a little shed in the parking lot for the Yosemite Village store.  Another is in the back of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the former Ahwahnee.  Two other stations in the valley offered only 120-volt Level 1 charging, which might be good for golf carts but is useless for modern electric vehicles.

Neither the Village store nor the hotel charging site showed recent user check-ins.  That’s a bad sign suggesting that the stations may not be working or accessible. Thoughtless drivers of gas engine cars sometimes block electric charging stations.  Site management sometimes doesn’t maintain the equipment. Bottom line: we decided to look for lodging outside the Valley.

A lodge and resort with reasonable room rates located along the Merced River on Highway 140 seemed like a good deal, but its website mentioned nothing about electric vehicle charging, and it had no entry on the Plugshare app. But perhaps they had an accessible 220-volt outlet where we could plug in our portable charger? A phone call to the front desk reached a desk clerk who knew nothing about the topic, but suggested I call the manager later in the afternoon.  I asked to leave my number and have the manager call me back.  No, the manager doesn’t do phone calls.  Forget that place.

Tenaya Lodge now has eight Tesla superchargers, but that’s no help for the Bolt

Tenaya Lodge, in Fish Camp, is a longer drive to the Valley floor, but much more hospitable to the electric visitor. Late last year, the Lodge installed no fewer than eight Tesla charging stations. That shows a strong commitment to electric travel, but it didn’t help us because the Chevy Bolt can’t feed at Tesla chargers. The electric charging market is still fragmented between three incompatible plug formats: Tesla, ChaDeMo, and CCS. (There’s a potential niche market here for an adapter maker.)  The Bolt requires CCS.  However, Tenaya Lodge also has a combo Level 2 ChaDeMo/CCS charger, and Plugshare showed recent positive reviews.

A phone call to the lodge met with a friendly and cooperative staff member, who forwarded me to the head of the valet service. Yes, the CCS charger was working. There would be no charge for charging. I should tell the front desk when I checked in and they would handle it from there.

That was all the reassurance I needed. We booked two nights at Tenaya Lodge, at a rate not much higher than the electrically dead place on Highway 140.

But we still had the problem of getting there.  After considerable hunting on Plugshare and similar sites, I planned a pit stop in Madera, 158 miles out.  Madera is a bit of a detour but looked the safest bet for recharging. The Save Mart on Howard Road in Madera had a pair of Level 3 Fast Chargers with CCS connectors. Level 3 chargers can top up a Bolt in about the time it takes to have lunch. Recent check-ins gave assurance that the chargers were working.

The Bolt is smooth and comfortable on the freeway. We ran at the speed of traffic – mostly seventy or a bit more — on Highways 580/205/5 out to Manteca, and then south on the four-lane 99, passing endless lines of trucks. We found the Save Mart in Madera with no trouble.  The big fast chargers stood empty in front of the “Bakery – Deli” sign to the left of the storefront. The Bolt’s dashboard showed 59 miles left in the battery.

At the twin Level 3 chargers in front of the Save Mart in Madera

Moments after we pulled in, a Nissan Leaf pulled up next to us. A couple a bit younger than our retired selves got out and ogled the Bolt. They had seen us on the road and followed us in. They had tried to buy a Bolt, they said, but no dealer in this inland area carried them.  Their other car is a Tesla. They asked a dozen questions about the Bolt and we invited them to sit in it and check it out.  As I was plugging the Bolt into the charger, the man pulled out his Leaf charging card and activated the charge. Nissan, he explained (as I knew), offered free charging for two years for Leaf owners.  He was happy to pass the freebie along to us.  Chevy, are you listening?  Great idea!

After chatting more with our new friends, we headed into the Save Mart and bought some lunch. The market is similar to the larger markets here in the East Bay, offering a wide range of deli and prepared food items.  It only lacked a picnic table out front to enjoy them, but we made do.

At the Level 2 overnight charger at Tenaya Lodge

Forty minutes later the Bolt’s dashboard showed 145  miles on the battery. That should be plenty.  We unplugged and headed toward Highway 41 northbound for the last 56 miles.

Madera sits at 272 feet above sea level.  Fish Camp at 5,062 feet.  When we arrived at Tenaya Lodge, the Bolt’s battery showed 44 miles left.  In other words, on this uphill stretch of nearly five thousand feet, the car used about 100 miles of battery charge to go an actual 50-odd miles, or roughly two battery miles for each road mile.  Without the pit stop in Madera, we would not have made it.

Recharging at Tenaya Lodge turned out to be easier than advertised.  We did not even have to go to the front desk and ask.  As we unloaded our bags from the car, a valet noticed that we only had 44 miles left on the battery, and volunteered to take the car and plug it in for us.  Why not?  Valet service is included in the room price.  The next morning, another man brought the car back.  For some reason, it only showed 194 miles on the meter, instead of the full 238, but we didn’t care, that was plenty to get into and around the Valley.

Sheila and I at Tunnel View vista point

The drive through the South Entrance of the Park into the valley floor is 35 miles of winding forest road at 35 mph.  Because of its low center of gravity, the Bolt is a dream to drive on curvy roads. No leaning. Tracks like a railroad.  In between glances at the scenery, I kept an eye on the battery meter.  When the road climbed, the charge level dropped at one point to 174 miles. When we went downhill, the battery filled up again.  Yosemite Valley lies at 4,000 feet, a net drop of about a thousand feet from the Lodge.  When we arrived on the valley floor near the Merced River, the meter showed 205 miles in the “tank” – more than we started with.  Try that in a gas engine car!

It felt good to cruise the valley in an all-electric vehicle. No tailpipe emissions.  Absolutely silent except for tire noise.  It would be a blessing for this much-abused valley if more visitors could move electrically and fewer relied on internal combustion of petroleum products.

Hiking on the Valley floor

We had picked a magnificent day. We could see snow in the higher elevations.  Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls came thundering down at full throttle, as described in the Chronicle, sending up clouds of almost icy mist as they hit bottom.  The loop trail, on which we walked half a dozen miles, had some muddy spots but was otherwise in excellent condition.  We felt uplifted and humbled by the valley’s magnificence.  At hike’s end we drove back to Tenaya Lodge with 161 miles showing on the dashboard.

Yosemite Falls

Valet service brought our car back the next morning charged to 210 miles.  Because our return trip was mostly downhill and because the East Bay suburbs have an adequate supply of fast charging stations should we need one, we did not plan for a pit stop.  We did not need one.

We normally drive the Bolt in “L” mode, and we did so on this trip.  The L stands for low gear in a gas engine car, but not in the Bolt. Like other electrics, the Bolt uses no gears, and “L” here doesn’t mean “Low.”  The engineers at Chevy just haven’t figured out a better one-letter label.  In L mode, the Bolt recharges its battery so aggressively when decelerating that it actually brings the car to a stop. L  mode enables “single-pedal driving,” where you accelerate by pressing down on the accelerator, in the usual way, and you slow down and stop by letting up on the same pedal.  You only need the brake pedal for unexpected sudden stops.

As we descended from Fish Camp in L mode, the battery charge meter kept climbing.  It soon hit 238 miles, the car’s nominal full range, and kept rising.  When we coasted into Oakhurst, the first town outside the National Forest, at 2,200 feet elevation, the charge meter showed 261 miles.  I wondered whether we might be doing the battery some harm by overcharging, but no alarm bells went off.  The only change I noted is that when I took my foot off the accelerator, the expected  deceleration was almost absent and I had to touch the brake. We got all the way to Merced, elevation 171 feet, a distance of almost 80 miles,  before the charge meter dropped to 200 miles.  Cruising on the freeways at the speed of traffic, we made it home to Berkeley with 65 miles left in the “tank.”

El Capitan seen from the Valley loop trail

The Bolt has greatly extended our travel range, compared to the Leaf with its 80-mile range. Our Leaf carried us reliably to and from Pt. Reyes National Seashore, with a recharging stop in the town of Point Reyes Station.  But Yosemite was out of its reach.  Still, even with the Bolt, a fast trip to a mountain destination like Yosemite required careful advance planning for a pit stop with a Level 3 fast charging station.

Yosemite National Park has gone through a change of management recently. Hopefully the new crew will take measures to enable more electric visitors. A new electronic firm on the market, Evrus, is advertising an express charger that can charge a Bolt from zero to 238 miles in less than 25 minutes. A bank of those in the Valley could bring much-needed relief to this majestic valley’s environment.

An unexpected sequel to our return trip is what seems to be an expansion of the car’s battery capacity. When we plugged in overnight upon reaching home, the next day the range meter read 240 miles.  We drove about 150 miles around town in the next week.  Last night I plugged it in again, and this morning the range indicator said 265 miles.  A short drive mostly downhill toward the Berkeley Marina brought it up to 266 miles. The car’s dashboard also estimates minimum and maximum range, depending on driving style and environment.  With 266 miles as the average, the estimated maximum was 313 miles.  Apparently the long downhill trip back from Yosemite has somehow stretched the battery.

I’m thinking that if we took local roads, kept the speed at about 50 instead of 75, and headed straight for the Valley floor, we might be able to reach Yosemite without a pit stop.  Next time.

Bolt battery range meter a week after Yosemite trip shows 266 miles average, 313 miles maximum.