an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Palestine 2: more recent ancient history

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The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Jacinta: So the so-called Kingdom of Judah, from archaeological evidence, was not a particularly developed region, from a modern perspective. Jerusalem, always regarded as its most significant city, and central to all Zionist aspirations, came into being as a small village between 5000 and 4500 years ago. From about 4000 years ago, it seems to have been a vassal state of the Egyptian empire, but there’s scant archaeological evidence from the period, though there was clearly an increase of building construction under Ramesses II a little over 3200 years ago. Some 2700 years ago, the region became a part of the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians conquered the region only a century or so after that, largely destroying Jerusalem.

Canto: Right, and the Babylonians brought about a diaspora of sorts, which was soon reversed when Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple. Now this temple was a symbol of Judaism, and its destruction by the Babylonians struck at the heart of their religion, suggesting that it was well established 2600 years ago…

Jacinta: Yes, we’ll get back to the actual population of the region and their religion shortly. Persia remained in control of Judea until the time of Alexander the Great 2350 years ago (we’re avoiding the BC/AD designations) and remained under the control of his Seleucid successors until a local revolt led by Judas Maccabeus gave it semi-independence for a time under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. The Romans by this time were the great power, and Judea became a client state, but when the population rose in revolt 1950 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, and, after another revolt 70 years later, the troublesome province became an increasing target of Roman authorities, leading to a major diaspora that wasn’t reversed until the 20th century.

Canto: And that’s when our story really hots up, but getting back to that temple – you know it was built on this supposedly triple-holy site called the Temple Mount, current home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are very holy of holy to Islam. Of course it’s no accident that Moslems built this dome about 1320 years ago just where the second Jewish Temple had stood…

Jacinta: Which, by the way, is the very place where, so says fundamentalist Judaism, their god created Adam, haha.

Canto: Yes yes and where he created the World as well, for old Adam to stretch his legs in. I mean it’s typical for a new religion to set its base camp on the ruins of an older one – just as the Christians did at ‘pagan’ sites when the Roman Empire turned Christian. But let’s look briefly at the history of the temple itself, since its first construction might be said to mark the beginning of Judaism as an organised religion. It has been called Solomon’s Temple, and there’s much bullshit in the Old Testament about Solomon being the ruler of a mighty empire, but absolutely no evidence has been found of his existence outside of those texts. My uneducated guess was that he was a local chieftain grossly exaggerated in his power by Old Testament propaganda. He supposedly lived around 2900 years ago, so believers assume the temple was built around that time. It’s noteworthy that the Israelis haven’t allowed any archaeological research to be done at the site for decades. But let’s be generous and assume from their own stories that Judaism is about 3000 years old.

Jacinta: And it seems that one of the tenets of Zionism is return to an ancient homeland. But a homeland isn’t a nation, quite. Australia’s Aborigines have had a homeland here for up to 60,000 years, but they didn’t have a nation in the modern sense of a state with institutions of government etc. Some Zionists, especially the religious ones, would use their holy books to argue for having an ancient nation-state under David and Solomon etc but that doesn’t sort with any evidence. Other Zionists though would argue that the region was overwhelmingly Jewish before the diaspora caused by Roman repression. That would be the basis of their demand for the creation of Israel as a nation, right?

Canto: That and their claim to be a uniquely oppressed people in their adopted countries, which was made more cogent after the Holocaust. The problem of course is that the region, one of the oldest humanly inhabited regions in the world, has never been exclusively Jewish, or Israelite or whatever you want to call it. Was it overwhelmingly Jewish during early Roman times? Perhaps so – I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I’m not sure what that counts for. The British Isles 2000 years ago, when Romanisation began there, was predominantly made up of Celtic tribes, migrants from Europe. The USA at that time was settled by a number of highly developed regional cultures, that tend now to be grouped under the heading ‘native American culture’. The Celts don’t have a nation, nor do the native Americans, or the Kurds, the Catalans, the Rohingyas…

Jacinta: But some of them have put forward cogent arguments for their own nation-state.

Canto: Yes, but the Zionist movement and its arguments were different – not necessarily more cogent – for a number of reasons. Zionism had a more international feel, due to the diaspora. It was locally active and felt in many parts of the world, unlike say, the Catalan movement. Also, It was a call to ‘return’ of a profoundly oppressed people – and this was before the rise of Nazism, after which it was able to take advantage of western guilt big-time. And for the religious Jews there was the whole thing about Jerusalem and the temple…

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to switch to the modern situation, but before that let’s look to the distinction made between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewishness. Ashkenazi Jews currently represent around three quarters of the Jewish population. The Sephardim are descended from those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the diaspora – Roman times – but were then infamously expelled from the region under the Alhambra Decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and a similar decree by the Portuguese monarchy in 1496.

Canto: Not to mention the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England under Eddie I. They all appeared to say ‘Go East, young Jew, or we’ll have your guts for garters’, or words to that effect.

beating up on Jews in 13th century England – the design on the central figures’ robes represent the twin tablets brought down by Moses – 5 commandments on each?

Jacinta: The Jews descended from those who remained in the Levant and the Middle East during the diaspora are called Mizrahi Jews. The Ashkenazim’s descent is complicated. Actually the whole story is really effing complicated. For example the Ashkenazim were also pushed eastward during the late Middle Ages due to persecution. By the early Middle Ages they had settled in Northern and Central Europe, for example in settlements along the Rhine, where they developed the Yiddish language, from German mixed with Aramaic, Hebrew and other Eastern elements.

Canto: Yes, and they were pushed eastward, but also pushed into being more integrated into local cultures. This led to a kind of modernising movement, a Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah, which revived Hebrew as a literary language.

Jacinta: But the point is that the Ashkenazim were, according to some observers, at the greatest remove from the Jews of the old spiritual homeland, due to their European integration and their Enlightenment values. On the other hand, it was above all the Ashkenazim who suffered under the Holocaust. So there was this post-Holocaust tension in the west between relieving itself of its guilt by acceding to the, largely Ashkenazi, push for occupation of the Southern Levant, there to recreate the nation of Israel, and questioning the bona-fides of their claim to this land.

Canto: Yes, and as a sidebar to all that, Paul Heywood-Smith claims in The Case for Palestine that there’s ‘considerable evidence’ that the Ashkenazim are ‘substantially derived from the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or about 805 CE’. He goes on:

The Khazars were Turkish nomads who occupied that land between the Black and Caspian seas (called the Caucasus today), including parts of eastern Turkey, north-west Iran and Georgia. Khazaria seems the likely source of the Jewish influx into Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Eastern Europe – and from there, into Western Europe.

But the authors of the Wikipedia article ‘Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry’ claim there is ‘meagre evidence’ for the hypothesis. In any case, the controversy is an indication of how fraught the Zionist issue is. You could say the Jewish claim to the Palestinian lands is stronger than the British claim to Australia ever was, but then the eighteenth century was a lot more lawless about such things than the twentieth, and a lot more contemptuous of native claims to their own land, insofar as they ever even considered the matter. In today’s more human rights oriented world, the fact that there were non-Jewish Palestinian people living in Palestine for centuries before the Zionists started making their claims in the late nineteenth century makes what has happened in recent history to create and maintain the state of Israel a source of concern to many of us. After all, we could have been one of those Palestinian people.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazar_hypothesis_of_Ashkenazi_ancestry

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haskalah

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Judah

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazi_Jews

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephardi_Jews

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizrahi_Jews

Paul-Heywood-Smith, The Case for Palestine, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Palestine, an introductory dialogue, trying to sort out some ancient history

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Ancient Palestine/Canaan

Canto: Currently I’m reading stuff about Palestine, and wondering why it is that the Palestinian people and their plight appears to be so ignored in the west, at least by governments, and certainly by the Australian government, whether conservative or liberal. We seem to follow the USA rather religiously on this matter.

Jacinta: Yes, I believe the USA is nowadays firmly captured by the Jewish lobby, a far cry from the days when anti-semites like Henry Ford and Charles Coughlin were feted as American heroes.

Canto: Well I think you mean a certain kind of Jewish lobby – maybe better to say the Zionist lobby. But we’ll explore such terms as zionism and anti-semitism in the course of these dialogues, which given the complexity of this issue, and its rich but sad history, will probably cover several if not scores of blog posts…

Jacinta: My god.

Canto: Well I don’t know about your god but certainly the Jewish god will play his role, along with the Arabic god, but hopefully not too big a role since they’re arguably the same person, which would just confuse everyone.

Jacinta: So is Palestine considered a nation? I believe Australia is playing Palestine in the Asian Cup tonight, so doesn’t that prove that Palestine is a nation?

Canto: Maybe it proves that FIFA thinks Palestine’s a nation, so good on them for that, but certainly Israel doesn’t recognise Palestine’s nationhood. The fact is that a clear majority of UN member countries recognise Palestine as an independent state – essentially, a nation – but the situation on the ground is that this ‘state’ is broken into two unequal bits, the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast to the south, and the much larger West Bank region, which sort of includes the highly contested city of Jerusalem. The West Bank is more or less completely occupied by Israel, apparently against international law, and Jewish settlements are continually being built there, again illegally, but with the clear consent of the Israeli government. The Gaza Strip is under Israeli blockade, so the people there don’t seem to be regular members of any kind of independent state that’s worthy of the name.

Jacinta: Yes, and, looking at a map of the nations that recognise Palestine, Sweden and Iceland appear to be the only Western European nations that do so. Western Europe, along with other nations with a European history such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, are siding with Israel in opposing Palestinian nationhood. Interesting, because those are the nations that seemed most invested in setting up Israel after WW2, the nations with sizeable Jewish populations, right?

Canto: Yes, though the case of Russia is interesting. It has, or had, a large Jewish population, but anti-semitism, or anti-Jewish sentiment, to be euphemistic, has long been a feature of Russia (now officially known as Putinland). So it’s hardly surprising that Putinland supports Palestine.

Jacinta: Of course Putinland’s official policy would simply be ‘take the opposite side from the USA in all foreign affairs issues’.

Canto: That’s true too. But we need to understand the history of the Levantine region, and something of the history of the Jews, and the history of European colonialism – the tendency of powerful and ambitious nations, some of them not so ancient themselves, to draw up the boundaries of new nations – Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel etc – for more or less self-serving reasons, in order to understand what’s at stake in this conflict.

Jacinta: So the Jews go back a long way and are traditionally associated with this region, right?

Canto: Yes, but you have to try and dissociate the story the Jewish people tell about themselves, specifically in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, and what we know of history, objectively speaking. After all, this is all about land, and who it belongs to.

Jacinta: Well, we’re both evidence junkies, so it’ll be interesting to see where the evidence takes us. But I must say that my own possibly naive take on land questions is that land in general, constantly changing over the millions of years that tectonics have operated on it, belongs to nobody but itself. We’re nowadays obsessed with private property, and land first and foremost. But in a million years who will own the land that people spill their guts over today?

Canto: Yes, but that’s taking a rather long view of things, and we humans aren’t much into that. So let’s take a slightly shorter view and go back a few thousand years. The region currently in dispute was then known as Canaan. Now of course there were no defined boundaries to this region, and it wasn’t anything like an organised state, so the term Canaanites referred to an agglomeration of peoples with a variety of gods, beliefs and practices. Generally, though, they spoke a Semitic language…

Jacinta: Right, and this is interesting, in relation to the term ‘anti-semitism’. Hebrew is a Semitic language, but so is Arabic, which is much more widely spoken today, so to call Arabic people ‘anti-semitic’ doesn’t make much sense in the proper understanding of the term, though of course many Arabic people are anti-Jewish. But the term semitic is quite recent, first coined by German historians in the late 18th century, based on the Koine Greek pronunciation of Noah’s son Shem. It’s based on the proto-alphabetic scripts used by these languages – among the oldest written languages in the world.

Canto: So the Canaanites were polytheistic, and only a few of their gods are remembered today – Baal, Moloch and El, for example. The latter was a supreme god and might have been the model for Judaic monotheism, but I don’t want to get into that. The real point is that a diverse lot of people lived in the region of the southern Levant, or ancient Canaan. So let’s start the story some 3,400 years ago when various powerful empires or civilisations converged in terms of their interest in this region – the Egyptians of north Africa, the Hittites of Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Assyrians of Mesopotamia and the Mittani of the northern Levant and southern Anatolia. Now, we can get bogged down for ages in exploring the cultures, lifestyles and languages of these Canaanites…

Jacinta: Yes, let’s do so – I want to be thorough.

Canto: Well, however intrinsically interesting it all is, I’m not sure if it helps us to understand the current disaster in the region.

Jacinta: I’m sure it will – it’s just that understanding might not solve the situation. The people with the power today don’t much care about understanding. Anyway, you’ve started at 3400 years ago, and of course the land had been inhabited for thousands of years before that. Judaism presumably didn’t exist at that time?

Canto: No, it’s generally believed to have emerged later. The Torah, the first-written of its essential texts, was written between 2600 and 2400 years ago according to most scholars, presumably based on stories handed down about Jewish history – but many of those stories, such as that the Jews were once the captives of the Egyptians and escaped to the ‘promised land’ where they proceeded to slaughter its inhabitants, aren’t backed up by much in the way of archaeological evidence.

Jacinta: I suppose what I’m trying to get at is – when, if ever, did the region known as Canaan become something like ancient Israel, or Judaea, with a population that professed Judaism, predominantly?

Canto: Well, it’s very confusing. The land of Canaan, which we might call the Levant, was more or less the same as the region called Phoenicia by the Greeks, as far back as Homer, and we’re not sure when, or whether, Homer existed. But the Greeks also used the term ‘Palestine’, at least from the time of Herodotus 2500 years ago. These different names probably derived from different local languages. The Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament – doesn’t mention Phoenicia, which appears to be more a reference to the northern Levant – perhaps modern-day Lebanon. However, it has to be remembered that the Old Testament may be a guide but can’t be relied upon as serious history.

Jacinta: So how can we test the Zionist claim that this region is their natural homeland?

Canto: Well I’m trying to get to that, but the difficulty is that Zionism tends to be an exclusivist, nationalist movement, sometimes with religious overtones, and we’re inclusivist, transnational humanist types, so I’m struggling against my biases to give a fair rendering of the history. So let’s look at Judea, or Judah – and even that is confusing because Judea is a modern or revived term for a part of southern Palestine, and Judea is a Graeco-Roman adaptation of the term Judah, which refers to a territory of one of the Israelite tribes, later called the Kingdom of Judah, associated with such names as David and Solomon. However, insofar as the Kingdom of Judah existed, it was a small, sparsely populated mountain region of the southern Levant between Samaria in the north, the Dead Sea in the east, and the ‘Phillistine States’ in the west. I should point out that the Samaritans, a tiny ethnic group still in existence today, have their own religion distinct from Judaism, though they like to think it’s the true Judaism, as is the way with religious disputes between neighbouring tribes. The Phillistines were supposedly an Aegean people who settled in the region now more or less covered by the Gaza strip a little over 3000 years ago. According to the Hebrew Bible they were constantly doing battle with the Israelites, so you could say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just a continuation of a tradition.

Jacinta: Haha that’s not funny. I can’t wait to hear more next time…

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2019 at 11:48 am

Posted in Canaan, history, judaism, Palestine

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women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitoun_incident

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

why the US has one of the worst political systems in the democratic world, and why they’re unlikely to change it

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I think this may be the longest title of any blog piece I’ve written, but that’s not the only reason why few will read it. After all, most of my readers are from the USA, and they’ll be put off by the title for other reasons. Anyway, here goes.

Of course I’m not really qualified to rank all the democratic political systems out there – I’m no expert on the German, French or Spanish systems, or those of the Scandinavian countries – but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that few if any other other democratic states would accord as much power to one person as the USA does.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the US system, but of course there’s plenty I still don’t know about. I live under a variant of the Westminster system here in Australia, and that’s the system I’m most familiar with, and as a British/Australian duel citizen, and a sometime student of British history, I know a fair amount about the origins of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The Westminster system of course, has other variants in New Zealand, Canada and other countries formerly under the British Empire, including India, Pakistan and South Africa, but my focus here will be on Australia as fairly typical of democracy at least in the English-speaking countries other than the US. And don’t forget I’m no expert generally, being an autodidact/dilettante, but I like to think I’m a keen observer, and don’t we all?

This my view: I’ve learned enough about the US political system – the Presidential system in particular – in the past 12 months to drop my jaw to the floor and keep it there for most of that period. It really is a shocker.

I’ll summarise, then expand. The US directly elects its President – a really bad idea. There’s no vetting of Presidential candidates: Americans like to boast that anyone can become Prez. Do you really want just anyone to be given that responsibility? Once elected, nominally as a representative of one of the two major parties, the President sets up office completely separately from the Congress/Parliament in which the two major parties, together with smaller parties and independents, battle it out to run the government to their liking, ideologically speaking. Or is it the President who runs the government? It’s confusing. The President, in his separate, isolated sphere, has veto powers, pardoning powers, special executive powers, emergency powers, power to shut down the government, power to appoint members of the judiciary, power to appoint a host of unelected and very powerful officials and to hire and fire at will, with limited oversight. The President is, apparently, not legally required to announce conflicts of interest, or present any account of his finances, and is at liberty, or certainly appears to be at liberty, to enrich himself and his family by virtue of holding the office of President. The President, by virtue of his office, is immune from prosecution, during his time in office, for any crime committed before, during, or in order to obtain, his Presidency – or such is the view held by a substantial proportion of the legal profession.

And yet the vast majority of American citizens don’t believe they’re living in a Banana Republic. On the contrary, they believe they’re living in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the Greatest Nation on Earth, the Leader of the Free World, the Shining Light on the Hill, etc, etc, etc – and of course it’s this jingoism, this lack of self-critical insight (with many, but not enough, honourable exceptions) that will make it so hard to effect change when Trump is dumped..

So, let’s start with direct election. It doesn’t happen under the Westminster system. In Australia we have general elections every three years. We vote for a local member in our electorate (in the US they’re called districts) as well as for the party of our choice federally. That’s to say, our general elections are the equivalent of the US mid-terms, only more important, as we don’t have a Presidential election. So, if the US had a similar system to us, their recent election would be the general election, the Democrats would have won government from the Republicans in a landslide, and the new Prime Minister, the leader of the Dems in the House, would be Nancy Pelosi, taking over from the retiring PM, Paul Ryan. Chuck Schumer, the leader in the Senate, would probably take up the position of Deputy PM, and the positions of Treasurer, Attorney-General, Foreign Minister etc, would have already been decided before the election, as they would have been the opposition spokespersons for those positions (aka shadow Attorney-General, shadow Treasurer, etc). The Prime Minister would have the power to swap those positions around and introduce new blood (called a Cabinet reshuffle), but of course all of these persons would have won their local electorates in the elections. Most would be experienced in the parliamentary system.

Under the US Presidential system, the whole nation is asked to choose between two candidates, usually a leftist or a rightist. There are of course caucuses and primaries, which basically ‘weed out’ the less popular candidates until only two are left standing. But this system is so separate from Congress that it’s possible for anyone to run, and to win, regardless of political experience, historical knowledge or any other sort of nous – though having a lot of money, or a lot of rich backers, is virtually essential to success. In the case of Trump, his relentless branding of himself as a successful businessman and super-smart outsider was enough to fool many of the least thoughtful and most disadvantaged Americans, as well as to convince many of the crooked rich that he might prove a useful tool. And so Trump, in spite of being super-incompetent, ethically moribund and a total financial fraud, won the election… or, rather, won the electoral college, probably with the assistance of foreign agents.

The major flaw of this kind of direct democracy was pointed out almost 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. They’d seen how ‘the mob’ could be swayed by windy orators who promised to fix problems and to bring great success and richesse at little cost. One of them, Creon, persuaded the Athenians to embark on a disastrous campaign against the city-state of Syracuse, which so depleted Athenian resources that they were overrun by the Spartans, which ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian ascendancy once and for all.

Trump won’t do that kind of damage to the USA, but he’s already damaged America’s reputation for decades to come, as well as selling out his base, endangering the lives of immigrants, massively neglecting the business of running his country in all its essential minutiae, and filling the swamp to overflowing.

So what’s the solution to this direct election process? It doesn’t need to be jettisoned, but it can be improved (though I’m for ditching the Presidential system entirely). You can replace the electoral college with a first past the post (or winner takes all) system. Of course, if that system were in place in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be President. More importantly, though, the electoral college system is easier for interfering agents to manipulate, by focusing attention on ‘purple’ electorates, as was done in 2016. A more centralised system would be easier to keep ‘clean’ , and would require a very sophisticated, equally centralised hacking and propaganda campaign to manipulate. Besides that, it is obviously fairer. The person who wins most votes nationwide should surely be the nation’s President.

Then there is vetting. Here’s where I display my elitism. Every candidate for President should have to submit to testing, regarding the nation’s politico-judicial system, its constitution, its history, its network of foreign and trade relations, and, a hobby-horse of mine, its science and technology sector (since achievements in this sector have changed lives far far more than any political achievements). You don’t want an ignoramus to be your President ever again.

Of course there’s also financial and legal vetting. The Emoluments Clause appears to lack claws. This should be turned into solid, unequivocal law.

The legal position of the President should also be clarified. As the Chief Law Officer of the nation he should never be considered above the law. Having said that, the Attorney-General should be the first law officer, not the President. Other powers of the President need to be reassessed in a root-and-branch fashion – pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers and so-called emergency powers. Clearly, to accord vast and manifold powers to one person, and then to consider him immune from prosecution because of the powers so accorded, is a recipe for dictatorship. I mean – duh!

But there’s another reason why this Presidential system is seriously flawed. Under the Westminster system, if the Prime Minister is found to have engaged in criminal activities, such as serious campaign finance violations, conspiracy with foreign powers to influence their own election, obstruction of justice, directing foreign policy on the basis of self-enrichment, and other egregious antics, s/he would be charged and forced to stand down. The party in power would then vote on a new leader – who may or may not be the Deputy PM. This would of course be somewhat traumatic for the body politic, but certainly not fatal. Changing Prime Ministers between elections is quite common, and has happened recently in Britain and Australia. Not so in the USA, where the Vice President, a personal choice of the now discredited Prez, is necessarily the next in line. Think of Mike Pence as President – or think of Sarah Palin taking over from John McCain. Why should the electorate have to suffer being presided over by the bad choice of a bad (or good) President? This is a question Americans will be asking themselves quite shortly, I reckon.

So why is the system unlikely to change? I’ve mentioned American jingoism. Even those media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, that spend much of their time exposing Trump’s lies and poor decisions and general worthlessness, seem never to question the system that allowed him to gain a position so entirely unsuited to him. It just astonishes me that the idea that a person in his position might be immune from prosecution can be taken seriously by anyone with an adult mind. The fourth estate should be hammering this obvious point home on a daily, if not hourly basis. Trump should now be in custody. His ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, is currently on bail for campaign finance felonies, among other things. He will serve three years in jail. Trump was the Mr Big in those campaign finance felonies, and should serve more time than Cohen, as a matter of basic logic. Why has he not been charged? There is absolutely no excuse. And he shouldn’t be allowed out on bail, due to his known habit of obstructing justice and witness tampering. How can anyone respect a justice system that hasn’t acted on this? The world is watching incredulously.

As I see it, the Presidential system is a kind of sop to American individualism. The USA is a hotbed of libertarians, who see ‘universal’ education and health-care systems as ‘socialism’, while the rest of the western world just calls it government. Many of their worst movies feature one machismo guy – male or female – sorting out the bad guys and setting the country to rights. That’s another reason why they won’t want to muzzle their Presidents – after all, if they had much of this concentrated power removed from them, why have a President at all? Why indeed. The Westminster system is more distributed in terms of power. The Prime Minister is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, the captain of the team. S/he can always be replaced if injured or out of form or is no longer representing the team adequately, for whatever reason. The team, though, is the thing. Us, rather than me. But the USA is full of screaming mes. And now they have a screaming me as their President. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilment. I watch from afar with guilty fascination, not unmixed with schadenfreude – but with a particular interest in what will happen post-Trump. My bet is that there will be some changes, but nowhere near enough – they’re too wedded to romantic and adventure-laden fantasies of individualism. So the USA with its wild-west hangover of a Presidential system will always be worth watching, but never worth emulating.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2019 at 10:28 am

women and warfare, part 1: humans, chimpanzees and patriarchy

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Recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve only just started to read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we have progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident.

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ have so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2018 at 9:18 pm

downtown, uptown, upstate, downstate, qu-est-ce que c’est?

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photo taken in uptown Port Pirie, South Australia

A spot of holiday writing. The other day I was stopped in Adelaide by a foreign fellow with kids in tow, who asked ‘excuse me can you tell please where is downtown from here?’ I was momentarily discombobulated, but after translating the question, answered, ‘ahh, the city centre is thataway’, pointing towards Rundle Mall.

The point is, ‘downtown’ and its derivatives have never been a part of my vocab, because I’ve never really understood the terms, though as a kid I sang along to ‘Downtown’, a 1964 number one hit sung by Petula Clark and written by Tony Hatch. Both Clark and Hatch are English, which is interesting as I’ve long considered ‘downtown’ etc to be Americanisms. Another popular reference of course is Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’. But is there a downtown and uptown in, say, Adelaide? And if there are uptown girls (or boys) are there also downtown peoples? The terms carry no coherent meaning for me, which is why I don’t use them. I think in terms of inner city and, maybe, outer city, and certainly inner suburbs and outer suburbs. So I think in circles rather than ups and downs.

A few months ago, after listening to an American commentator talking about ‘upstate New York’, I had another head-scratching moment, powerful enough to send me to Dr Google for enlightenment. I mean, why does nobody mention downstate New York? And isn’t New York a city? I’ve always been a little confused by US geography, but now I realise that New York is a state and that New York City is down the bottom. Upstate New York represents virtually the whole of the state apart from NYC.

A little research tells me I’m not the only one who’s confused. It seems that downtown and uptown regions vary in placement from city to city, though ‘downtown’ generally refers to the CBD and also the shopping precinct, though interestingly the “Downtown” song refers to the lights being much brighter there, and listening to the music, so I tended to imagine it as a nightclubbing spot. Uptown girls, at any rate, are supposed to be sophisticates with expensive tastes so that would suggest that ‘downtown girls’ are a little more – down to earth? But there’s no such term.

It’s argued by some that these terms are as ancient as cities themselves, and that they first meant the geographical peaks and valleys. The patricians of the city lived in the heights, both for safety, so that they could look out over the threatening mob, the hoi polloi, the canaille, the low-bornand of course to symbolise their Olympian status. And in a recent conversation I was referred to Nob Hill, a mansion-strewn suburb of San Francisco, with its double entendre of a different kind, reminding us that the very term ‘nob’ means someone in a socially high position.

Of course there are other ways of distinguishing parts of cities, which always have class elements. I’ve mentioned inner and outer. The more ‘inner’ you are, the closer you are to the ‘core’, the action, the power etc. In Adelaide, and far more so in Sydney, there is eastern and western (I’ve actually met Adelaide people who shudder at the thought of venturing into our western badlands). In London they have eastenders and westenders, though I can’t remember, if I ever knew, which are the goodies and which are the baddies (the west, though, has a general tendency to be wild). And nowadays the crooked or otherwise rich like to live in gated communities, which I suspect are mostly on the rises. So, with all these ups and downs, it seems we’re all still a little obsessed with status, though with some ambiguity, as we like to get down and get with it and we don’t like to be up ourselves too much. And which is better, to be stood up, or stood down? Ca dépend…

Written by stewart henderson

December 24, 2018 at 10:52 am

Posted in cities, class, history, language

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Deep brain stimulation, depression and ways of thinking

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I read in a recent New Scientist that some progress has been made in using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to find associations between electrical brain activity and ‘mood’ or mood changes. This appears to mean that there’s an electrical ‘signal’ for happiness, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and any other emotion we can give a name to. And to paraphrase Karl Marx, the point is not to understand the brain, but to change it – at least for those who suffer depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and a host of other debilitating disorders. So that we can all be happy clapping productive people…

So what is DBS and where is it heading? Apparently, electrodes can be implanted in specific brain regions to monitor, and in some cases actually change, ‘negative’ electrical activity. I use scare quotes here not to indicate opposition, but to highlight the obvious, that one person’s negativity may not be another’s, and that eliminating the negative also means eliminating the positive, as one means nothing without the other. Similar to the point that loving everyone means loving no-one. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself with these ethical matters. Here’s a simple overview of DBS from the Mayo Clinic:

Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses. Or, the electrical impulses can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.
The amount of stimulation in deep brain stimulation is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your upper chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects this device to the electrodes in your brain.

The most recent research translated neural signals into the mood variations of seven epilepsy sufferers who were fitted with implanted electrodes. The participants filled out periodic questionnaires about their mood, and clear matches were supposedly found between those self-reports and patterns of brain signals. Based on this knowledge, a decoder was built that would recognise particular signal patterns related to particular moods. It was successful in detecting mood 75% of the time. Brain patterns varied between participants, but were confined mainly to the limbic system, a network essential to triggering swings of emotion. 

I’m not sure if I should be overly impressed with a sample size of seven and a 75% success rate, but I do think that this research is on the right track, and there will be increasingly successful pinpointing of brain activity in relation to mood in the future, as well as other improvements, for example in the use of electrodes. Currently there’s an issue around the damaging long-term effects of implants, and non-invasive systems are being developed that can stimulate the brain from outside the skull. And of course there’s that next step, modulating those mood swings to ‘fix’ them, or to head them off at the pass.

All of this raises vital questions in relation to causes and treatments. If we focus on that most difficult but pervasive condition, depression, which so many people I know are medicating themselves against, it would seem that a brain-stimulation ‘cure’ would be less damaging than any course of anti-depressants, but it completely bypasses the question of why so many people are apparently suffering from this condition these days. Johann Hari has written a bestseller on depression, Lost Connections, which I haven’t read though I’ve just obtained a copy, and I’ve heard his long-form interview on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. So I’ll probably revisit this issue more than once.

The medical establishment is more interested in treatment than in causes, and generally investigates causes only so as to refine treatments, but severe depression has proved difficult to treat other than with drugs which may have severe side-effects when used long-term. Clinicians have used terms such as treatment-resistant depression (TRD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) to characterise these conditions, which are on the rise worldwide, particularly in the more affluent nations. 

DBS first came to prominence as a promising treatment for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia (which causes muscles to contract uncontrollably). It has since been used for more psycho-neurological ailments such as OCD, Tourette syndrome and severe, treatment-resistant addiction, with modest but statistically significant benefits. It has even shown promise in the treatment of some forms of dementia. Side-effects have been mostly confined to surgical procedures.

Clearly this type of treatment will improve with better targeting and increased knowledge of brain regions and their interactions, and in the case of MDD, which can be overwhelmingly debilitating, it offers much hope of a better life. But the question remains – why is depression increasing, and why in those countries that appear to offer a richer and more stimulating environment for their citizens? 

Hari’s title, Lost Connections, more than hints at his view of this, and in a recent conversation it was suggested to me that, in more subsistence societies, most people are too busy struggling to survive and keep their families alive and well to have the time to be depressed. This might seem a slap in the face to MDD sufferers (and I might add that the person making that suggestion is on anti-depressants), but surely there’s a grain of truth to it. I’ve often had travellers say to me ‘you should visit x, the people there have so little, yet they’re so happy and relaxed’. Is this a matter of ignorance being bliss? I recall, as a fifteen-year-old in one of the world’s most affluent and educated countries, wagging school and reading one of my brother’s economics textbooks – he was at university – and trying to get my head around the laws of supply and demand. It occurred to me that this might take years – but what about the other subjects that gripped me when I read about them? Astronomy, physics, ancient history, music, subjects that often had little to do with each other but which you could spend your whole lifetime immersed in. Not to mention other childhood ambitions that hadn’t been let go, to be a great sport star, or rock star, or latter-day Casanova…

This sense, cultivated in advanced societies, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, can easily overwhelm when you’re faced with so many choices, and so many gaps in skill and knowledge between what you are and what you’d like to be, that it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll feel flat, crushed by the weight of your own delirious hopes and expectations. This might be called a mood-swing, a symptom of depression, or even of bipolar disorder. All effort to climb that mighty mountain seems fruitless. The very thought of it sends you back to bed.

Such moods have overtaken me many times, but I’ve never called myself depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, and never sought medical advice or taken anti-depressant medication. I’ve occasionally been pressured to do so, because misery likes company, but I have a kind of basic stoicism which knows these moods will pass and that I should ‘rise above myself and grasp the world’ – a quote said to be from Archimedes, which is the new subtitle of my blog. 

The point here is that I think I have a sense of where all this depression is coming from, and it’s not just about a lack of connection. Nor is it, surely, all about low serotonin levels, or receptor malfunctions or other purely chemical causes. It’s so much more complicated than that. That’s to say it’s about all of these things but also about failure, the gap between the ideal and the real, the gap – in advanced countries – between the privileged rich and the disadvantaged poor, disillusionment, stress, grief, selfishness, the hope deferred that makes the heart sick…

So – back to DBS. Presumably this and other treatments have the same measure of success, which might be described as ‘improved functionality within the wider world’. Being able to hold down a job, hold a conversation, hold on to your partner, hold a baby without dropping it, etc. Of course, this is a worthwhile aim of any treatment, but what is actually happening to the brain under such a treatment? Neurologists might one day be able to describe this effectively in terms of dopamine levels and electrical activity, and the stimulation or becalming of regions of the nucleus accumbens and so forth, but on the level of thinking, dreaming, wondering, all those terms studiously avoided, or just ignored, by neurology (all for understandable reasons), what is happening? We don’t know. Treatment seems essentially a matter of dealing with functionality in the external world, and letting that inner world take care of itself. Is that the right approach? Something gained, but something lost? I really don’t know. 

Written by stewart henderson

December 18, 2018 at 2:27 pm