Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration

From the beginning of the country, there has been an American fear of moral and mental decline that was always rooted in the physical, involving issues of vitality of land and health of the body, and built on an ancient divide between the urban and rural. Over time, it grew into a fever pitch of moral panic about degeneration and degradation of the WASP culture, the white race, and maybe civilization itself. Some saw the end was near, maybe being able to hold out for another few generations before finally succumbing to disease and weakness. The need for revitalization and rebirth became a collective project (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation), which sadly fed into ethno-nationalist bigotry and imperialistic war-mongering — Make America Great Again!

A major point of crisis, of course, was the the Civil War. Racial ideology became predominant, not only because of slavery but maybe moreso because of mass immigration, the latter being the main reason the North won. Racial tensions merged with the developing scientific mindset of Darwinism and out of this mix came eugenics. For all we can now dismiss this kind of simplistic ignorance and with hindsight see the danger it led to, the underlying anxieties were real. Urbanization and industrialization were having an obvious impact on public health that was observed by many, and it wasn’t limited to mere physical ailments. “Cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization,” noted Stanislas Tanchou, a mid-19th century French physician.

The diseases of civilization, including mental sickness, have been spreading for centuries (millennia, actually, considering the ‘modern’ chronic health conditions were first detected in the mummies of the agricultural Egyptians). Consider how talk of depression suddenly showed up in written accounts with the ending of feudalism (Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Street). That era included the enclosure movement that forced millions of then landless serfs into the desperate conditions of crowded cities and colonies where they faced stress, hunger, malnutrition, and disease. The loss of rural life hit Europe much earlier than America, but it eventually came here as well. The majority of white Americans were urban by the beginning of the 20th century and the majority of black Americans were urban by the 1970s. There has been a consistent pattern of mass problems following urbanization, everywhere it happens. It still is happening. The younger generation, more urbanized than any generation before, are seeing rising rates of psychosis that is specifically concentrated in the most urbanized areas.

In the United States, it was the last decades of the 19th century that was the turning point, the period of the first truly big cities. Into this milieu, Weston A. Price was born (1870) in a small rural village in Canada. As an adult, he became a dentist and sought work in Cleveland, Ohio (1893). Initially, most of his patients probably had, like him, grown up in rural areas. But over the decades, he increasingly was exposed to the younger generations having spent their entire lives in the city. Lierre Keith puts Price’s early observations in context, after pointing out that he started his career in 1893: “This date is important, as he entered the field just prior to the glut of industrial food. Over the course of the next thirty years, he watched children’s dentition — and indeed their overall health deteriorate. There was suddenly children whose teeth didn’t fit in their mouths, children with foreshortened jaws, children with lots of cavities. Not only were their dental arches too small, but he noticed their nasal passages were also too narrow, and they had poor health overall; asthma, allergies, behavioral problems” (The Vegetarian Myth, p. 187). This was at the time when the industrialization of farming and food had reached a new level, far beyond the limited availability of canned foods that in the mid-to-late 1800s when most Americans still relied on a heavy amount of wild-sourced meat, fish, nuts, etc. Even city-dwellers in early America had ready access to wild game because of the abundance of surrounding wilderness areas. In fact, in the 19th century, the average American ate more meat (mostly hunted) than bread.

We are once again coming back to the ever recurrent moral panic about the civilizational project. The same fears given voice in the late 19th to early 20th century are being repeated again. For example, Dr. Leonard Sax alerts us to how girls are sexually maturing early (1% of female infants showing signs of puberty), whereas boys are maturing later. As a comparison, hunter-gatherers don’t have such a large gender disparity of puberty nor do they experience puberty so early for girls, instead both genders typically coming to puberty around 18 years old with sex, pregnancy, and marriage happening more or less simultaneously. Dr. Sax, along with others, speculates about a number of reasons. Common causes that are held responsible include health factors, from diet to chemicals. Beyond altered puberty, many other examples could be added: heart disease, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, autism, ADHD, etc; all of them increasing and worsening with each generation (e.g., type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult onset diabetes but now is regularly diagnosed in young children; the youngest victim recorded recently was three years old when diagnosed).

In the past, Americans responded to moral panic with genocide of Native Americans, Prohibition targeting ethnic (hyphenated) Americans and the poor, and immigrant restrictions to keep the bad sort out; the spread of racism and vigilantism such as KKK and Jim Crow and sundown towns and redlining, forced assimilation such as English only laws and public schools, and internment camps for not only Japanese-Americans but also German-Americans and Italian-Americans; implementation of citizen-making projects like national park systems, Boy Scouts, WPA, and CCC; promotion of eugenics, war on poverty (i.e., war on the poor), imperial expansionism, neo-colonial exploitation, and world wars; et cetera. The cure sought was often something to be forced onto the population by a paternalistic elite, that is to say rich white males, most specifically WASPs of the capitalist class.

Eugenics was, of course, one of the main focuses as it carried the stamp of science (or rather scientism). Yet at the same time, there were those challenging biological determinism and race realism, as views shifted toward environmental explanations. The anthropologists were at the front lines of this battle, but there were also Social Christians who changed their minds after having seen poverty firsthand. Weston A. Price, however, didn’t come to this from a consciously ideological position or religious motivation. He was simply a dentist who couldn’t ignore the severe health issues of his patients. So, he decided to travel the world in order to find healthy populations to study, in the hope of explaining why the change had occurred (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration).

Although familiar with eugenics literature, what Price observed in ‘primitive’ communities (including isolated villages in Europe) did not conform to eugenicist thought. It didn’t matter which population he looked at. Those who ate traditional diets were healthy and those who ate an industrialized Western diet were not. And it was a broad pattern that he saw everywhere he went, not only physical health but also neurocognitive health as indicated by happiness, low anxiety, and moral character. Instead of blaming individuals or races, he saw the common explanation as nutrition and he made a strong case by scientifically analyzing the nutrition of available foods.

In reading about traditional foods, paleo diet/lifestyle and functional medicine, Price’s work comes up quite often. He took many photographs that compared people from healthy and unhealthy populations. The contrast is stark. But what really stands out is how few people in the modern world look close to as healthy as those from the healthiest societies of the past. I live in a fairly wealthy college and medical town where there is a far above average concern for health along with access to healthcare. Even so, I now can’t help noticing how many people around me show signs of stunted or perturbed development of the exact kind Price observed in great detail: thin bone structure, sunken chests, sloping shoulders, narrow facial features, asymmetry, etc. That is even with modern healthcare correcting some of the worst conditions: cavities, underbites, pigeon-toes, etc. My fellow residents in this town are among the most privileged people in the world and, nonetheless, their state of health is a sad state of affairs in what it says about humanity at present.

It makes me wonder, as it made Price wonder, what consequences this has on neurocognitive health for individuals and the moral health of society. Taken alone, it isn’t enough to get excited about. But put in a larger context of looming catastrophes and it does become concerning. It’s not clear that our health will be up to the task of the problems we need to solve. We are a sickly population, far more sickly than when moral panic took hold in past generations.

As important, there is the personal component. I’m at a point where I’m not going to worry too much about decline and maybe collapse of civilization. I’m kind of hoping the American Empire will meet its demise. Still, that leaves us with many who suffer, no matter what happens to society as a whole. I take that personally, as one who has struggled with physical and mental health issues. And I’ve come around to Price’s view of nutrition as being key. I see these problems in other members of my family and it saddens me to watch as health conditions seem to get worse from one generation to the next.

It’s far from being a new problem, the central point I’m trying to make here. Talking to my mother, she has a clear sense of the differences on the two sides of her family. Her mother’s family came from rural areas and, even after moving to a larger city for work, they continued to hunt on a daily basis as there were nearby fields and woods that made that possible. They were a healthy, happy, and hard-working lot. They got along well as a family. Her father’s side of the family was far different. They had been living in towns and cities for several generations by the time she was born. They didn’t hunt at all. They were known for being surly, holding grudges, and being mean drunks. They also had underbites (i.e., underdeveloped jaw structure) and seemed to have had learning disabilities, though no one was diagnosing such conditions back then. Related to this difference, my mother’s father raised rabbits whereas my mother’s mother’s family hunted rabbits (and other wild game). This makes a big difference in terms of nutrition, as wild game has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, all of which are key to optimal health and development.

What my mother observed in her family is basically the same as what Price observed in hundreds of communities in multiple countries on every continent. And I now observe the same pattern repeating. I grew up with an underbite. My brothers and I all required orthodontic work, as do so many now. I was diagnosed with a learning disability when young. Maybe not a learning disability, but behavioral issues were apparent when my oldest brother was young, likely related to his mildew allergies and probably an underlying autoimmune condition. I know I had food allergies as a child, as I think my other brother did as well. All of us have had neurocognitive and psychological issues of a fair diversity, besides learning disabilities: stuttering, depression, anxiety, and maybe some Asperger’s.

Now another generation is coming along with increasing rates of major physical and mental health issues. My nieces and nephews are sick all the time. They don’t eat well and are probably malnourished. During a medical checkup for my nephew, my mother asked the doctor about his extremely unhealthy diet, consisting mostly of white bread and sugar. The doctor bizarrely dismissed it as ‘normal’ in that, as she claimed, no kid eats healthy. If that is the new normal, maybe we should be in a moral panic.

* * *

Violent Behavior: A Solution in Plain Sight
by Sylvia Onusic

Nutrition and Mental Development
by Sally Fallon Morell

You Are What You Eat: The Research and Legacy of Dr. Weston Andrew Price
by John Larabell

While practicing in his Cleveland office, Dr. Price noticed an increase in dental problems among the younger generations. These issues included the obvious dental caries (cavities) as well as improper jaw development leading to crowded, crooked teeth. In fact, the relatively new orthodontics industry was at that time beginning to gain popularity. Perplexed by these modern problems that seemed to be affecting a greater and greater portion of the population, Dr. Price set about to research the issue by examining people who did not display such problems. He suspected (correctly, as he would later find) that many of the dental problems, as well as other degenerative health problems, that were plaguing modern society were the result of inadequate nutrition owing to the increasing use of refined, processed foods.

Nasty, Brutish and Short?
by Sally Fallon Morell

It seems as if the twentieth century will exit with a crescendo of disease. Things were not so bad back in the 1930’s, but the situation was already serious enough to cause one Cleveland, Ohio dentist to be concerned. Dr. Weston Price was reluctant to accept the conditions exhibited by his patients as normal. Rarely did an examination of an adult patient reveal anything but rampant decay, often accompanied by serious problems elsewhere in the body, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, intestinal complaints and chronic fatigue. (They called it neurasthenia in Price’s day.) But it was the dentition of younger patients that alarmed him most. Price observed that crowded, crooked teeth were becoming more and more common, along with what he called “facial deformities”-overbites, narrowed faces, underdevelopment of the nose, lack of well-defined cheekbones and pinched nostrils. Such children invariably suffered from one or more complaints that sound all too familiar to mothers of the 1990’s: frequent infections, allergies, anemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of coordination, fatigue and behavioral problems. Price did not believe that such “physical degeneration” was God’s plan for mankind. He was rather inclined to believe that the Creator intended physical perfection for all human beings, and that children should grow up free of ailments.

Is it Mental or is it Dental?
by Raymond Silkman

The widely held model of orthodontics, which considers developmental problems in the jaws and head to be genetic in origin, never made sense to me. Since they are wedded to the genetic model, orthodontists dealing with crowded teeth end up treating the condition with tooth extraction in a majority of the cases. Even though I did not resort to pulling teeth in my practice, and I was using appliances to widen the jaws and getting the craniums to look as they should, I still could not come up with the answer as to why my patients looked the way they did. I couldn’t believe that the Creator had given them a terrible blueprint –it just did not make sense. In four years of college education, four years of dental school education and almost three years of post-graduate orthodontic training, students never hear a mention of Dr. Price, so they never learn the true reasons for these malformations. I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of very knowledgeable doctors in various fields of allopathic and alternative healthcare who still do not know about Dr. Price and his critical findings.

These knowledgeable doctors have not stared in awe at the beautiful facial development that Price captured in the photographs he took of primitive peoples throughout the globe and in so doing was able to answer this most important question: What do humans look like in health? And how have humans been able to carry on throughout history and populate such varied geographical and physical environments on the earth without our modern machines and tools?

The answer that Dr. Price was able to illuminate came through his photographs of beautiful, healthy human beings with magnificent physical form and mental development, living in harmony with their environments. […]

People who are not well oxygenated and who have poor posture often suffer from fatigue and fibromyalgia symptoms, they snore and have sleep apnea, they have sinusitis and frequent ear infections. Life becomes psychologically and physically challenging for them and they end up with long-term dependence on medications—and all of that just from the seemingly simple condition of crowded teeth.

In other words, people with poor facial development are not going to live very happily. […]

While very few people have heard of the work of Weston Price these days, we haven’t lost our ability to recognize proper facial form. To make it in today’s society, you must have good facial development. You’re not going to see a general or a president with a weak chin, you’re not going to see coaches with weak chins, you’re not going to see a lot of well-to-do personalities in the media with underdeveloped faces and chins. You don’t see athletes and newscasters with narrow palates and crooked teeth.

Weston A. Price: An Unorthodox Dentist
by Nourishing Israel

Price discovered that the native foods eaten by the isolated populations were far more nutrient dense than the modern foods. In the first generation that changed their diet there was noticeable tooth decay; in subsequent generations the dental and facial bone structure changed, as well as other changes that were seen in American and European families and previously considered to be the result of interracial marriage.

By studying the different routes that the same populations had taken – traditional versus modern diet – he saw that the health of the children is directly related to the health of the parents and the germ plasms that they provide, and are as important to the child’s makeup as the health of the mother before and during pregnancy.

Price also found that primitive populations were very conscious of the importance of the mothers’ health and many populations made sure that girls were given a special diet for several months before they were allowed to marry.

Another interesting finding was that although genetic makeup was important, it did not have as great a degree of influence on a person’s development and health as was thought, but that a lot of individual characteristics, including brain development and brain function, where due to environmental influence, what he called “intercepted heredity”.

The origin of personality and character appear in the light of the newer date to be biologic products and to a much less degree than usually considered pure hereditary traits. Since these various factors are biologic, being directly related to both the nutrition of the parents and to the nutritional environment of the individuals in the formative and growth period any common contributing factor such as food deficiencies due to soil depletion will be seen to produce degeneration of the masses of people due to a common cause. Mass behavior therefore, in this new light becomes the result of natural forces, the expression of which may not be modified by propaganda but will require correction at the source. [1] …

It will be easy for the reader to be prejudiced since many of the applications suggested are not orthodox. I suggest that conclusions be deferred until the new approach has been used to survey the physical and mental status of the reader’s own family, of his brothers and sisters, of associated families, and finally, of the mass of people met in business and on the street. Almost everyone who studies the matter will be surprised that such clear-cut evidence of a decline in modern reproductive efficiency could be all about us and not have been previously noted and reviewed.[2]

From Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price

Food Freedom – Nourishing Raw Milk
by Lisa Virtue

In 1931 Price visited the people of the Loetschental Valley in the Swiss Alps. Their diet consisted of rye bread, milk, cheese and butter, including meat once a week (Price, 25). The milk was collected from pastured cows, and was consumed raw: unpasteurized, unhomogenized (Schmid, 9).

Price described these people as having “stalwart physical development and high moral character…superior types of manhood, womanhood and childhood that Nature has been able to produce from a suitable diet and…environment” (Price, 29). At this time, Tuberculosis had taken more lives in Switzerland than any other disease. The Swiss government ordered an inspection of the valley, revealing not a single case. No deaths had been recorded from Tuberculosis in the history of the Loetschental people (Shmid, 8). Upon return home, Price had dairy samples from the valley sent to him throughout the year. These samples were higher in minerals and vitamins than samples from commercial (thus pasteurized) dairy products in America and the rest of Europe. The Loetschental milk was particularly high in fat soluble vitamin D (Schmid, 9).

The daily intake of calcium and phosphorous, as well as fat soluble vitamins would have been higher than average North American children. These children were strong and sturdy, playing barefoot in the glacial waters into the late chilly evenings. Of all the children in the valley eating primitive foods, cavities were detected at an average of 0.3 per child (Price, 25). This without visiting a dentist or physician, for the valley had none, seeing as there was no need (Price, 23). To offer some perspective, the rate of cavities per child between the ages of 6-19 in the United States has been recorded to be 3.25, over 10 times the rate seen in Loetschental (Nagel).

Price offers some perspective on a society subsisting mainly on raw dairy products: “One immediately wonders if there is not something in the life-giving vitamins and minerals of the food that builds not only great physical structures within which their souls reside, but builds minds and hearts capable of a higher type of manhood…” (Price, 26).

100 Years Before Weston Price
by Nancy Henderson

Like Price, Catlin was struck by the beauty, strength and demeanor of the Native Americans. “The several tribes of Indians inhabiting the regions of the Upper Missouri. . . are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped, and most beautifully costumed of any on the Continent.” Writing of the Blackfoot and Crow, tribes who hunted buffalo on the rich glaciated soils of the American plains, “They are the happiest races of Indian I have met—picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description.”

“The very use of the word savage,” wrote Catlin, “as it is applied in its general sense, I am inclined to believe is an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied.” […]

As did Weston A. Price one hundred years later, Catlin noted the fact that moral and physical degeneration came together with the advent of civilized society. In his late 1830s portrait of “Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington” Catlin painted him corrupted with “gifts of the great white father” upon his return to his native homeland. Those gifts including two bottles of whiskey in his pockets. […]

Like Price, Catlin discusses the issue of heredity versus environment. “No diseases are natural,” he writes, “and deformities, mental and physical, are neither hereditary nor natural, but purely the result of accidents or habits.”

So wrote Dr. Price: “Neither heredity nor environment alone cause our juvenile delinquents and mental defectives. They are cripples, physically, mentally and morally, which could have and should have been prevented by adequate education and by adequate parental nutrition. Their protoplasm was not normally organized.”

The Right Price
by Weston A. Price Foundation

Many commentators have criticized Price for attributing “decline in moral character” to malnutrition. But it is important to realize that the subject of “moral character” was very much on the minds of commentators of his day. As with changes in facial structure, observers in the first half of the 20th century blamed “badness” in people to race mixing, or to genetic defects. Price quotes A.C. Jacobson, author of a 1926 publication entitled Genius (Some Revaluations),35 who stated that “The Jekyll-Hydes of our common life are ethnic hybrids.” Said Jacobson, “Aside from the effects of environment, it may safely be assumed that when two strains of blood will not mix well a kind of ‘molecular insult’ occurs which the biologists may some day be able to detect beforehand, just as blood is now tested and matched for transfusion.” The implied conclusion to this assertion is that “degenerates” can be identified through genetic testing and “weeded out” by sterilizing the unfit–something that was imposed on many women during the period and endorsed by powerful individuals, including Oliver Wendell Holmes.

It is greatly to Price’s credit that he objected to this arrogant point of view: “Most current interpretations are fatalistic and leave practically no escape from our succession of modern physical, mental and moral cripples. . . If our modern degeneration were largely the result of incompatible racial stocks as indicated by these premises, the outlook would be gloomy in the extreme.”36 Price argued that nutritional deficiencies affecting the physical structure of the body can also affect the brain and nervous system; and that while “bad” character may be the result of many influences–poverty, upbringing, displacement, etc.–good nutrition also plays a role in creating a society of cheerful, compassionate individuals.36

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 7-9

By the late nineteenth century, dreams of rebirth were acquiring new meanings. Republican moralists going back to Jefferson’s time had long fretted about “overcivilization,” but the word took on sharper meaning among the middle and upper classes in the later decades of the nineteenth century. During the postwar decades, “overcivilization” became not merely a social but an individual condition, with a psychiatric diagnosis. In American Nervousness (1880), the neurologist George Miller Beard identified “neurasthenia,” or “lack of nerve force,” as the disease of the age. Neurasthenia encompassed a bewildering variety of symptoms (dyspepsia, insomnia, nocturnal emissions, tooth decay, “fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears, fear of contamination, fear of everything, deficient mental control, lack of decision in trifling matters, hopelessness”), but they all pointed to a single overriding effect: a paralysis of the will.

The malady identified by Beard was an extreme version of a broader cultural malaise—a growing sense that the Protestant ethic of disciplined achievement had reached the end of its tether, had become entangled in the structures of an increasingly organized capitalist society. Ralph Waldo Emerson unwittingly predicted the fin de siècle situation. “Every spirit makes its house,” he wrote in “Fate” (1851), “but afterwards the house confines the spirit.” The statement presciently summarized the history of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, on both sides of the Atlantic.

By 1904, the German sociologist Max Weber could put Emerson’s proposition more precisely. The Protestant ethic of disciplined work for godly ends had created an “iron cage” of organizations dedicated to the mass production and distribution of worldly goods, Weber argued. The individual striver was caught in a trap of his own making. The movement from farm to factory and office, and from physical labor outdoors to sedentary work indoors, meant that more Europeans and North Americans were insulated from primary processes of making and growing. They were also caught up in subtle cultural changes—the softening of Protestantism into platitudes; the growing suspicion that familiar moral prescriptions had become mere desiccated, arbitrary social conventions. With the decline of Christianity, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “it will seem for a time as though all things had become weightless.”

Alarmists saw these tendencies as symptoms of moral degeneration. But a more common reaction was a diffuse but powerful feeling among the middle and upper classes—a sense that they had somehow lost contact with the palpitating actuality of “real life.” The phrase acquired unprecedented emotional freight during the years around the turn of the century, when reality became something to be pursued rather than simply experienced. This was another key moment in the history of longing, a swerve toward the secular. Longings for this-worldly regeneration intensified when people with Protestant habits of mind (if not Protestant beliefs) confronted a novel cultural situation: a sense that their way of life was being stifled by its own success.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the drive to recapture “real life” took myriad cultural forms. It animated popular psychotherapy and municipal reform as well as avant-garde art and literature, but its chief institutional expression was regeneration through military force. As J. A. Hobson observed in Imperialism (1902), the vicarious identification with war energized jingoism and militarism. By the early twentieth century, in many minds, war (or the fantasy of it) had become the way to keep men morally and physically fit. The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle. This was the desperate anxiety, the yearning for rebirth, that lay behind official ideologies of romantic nationalism, imperial progress, and civilizing mission—and that led to the trenches of the Western Front.

Americans were immersed in this turmoil in peculiarly American ways. As the historian Richard Slotkin has brilliantly shown, since the early colonial era a faith in regeneration through violence underlay the mythos of the American frontier. With the closing of the frontier (announced by the U.S. census in 1890), violence turned outward, toward empire. But there was more going on than the refashioning of frontier mythology. American longings for renewal continued to be shaped by persistent evangelical traditions, and overshadowed by the shattering experience of the Civil War. American seekers merged Protestant dreams of spiritual rebirth with secular projects of purification—cleansing the body politic of secessionist treason during the war and political corruption afterward, reasserting elite power against restive farmers and workers, taming capital in the name of the public good, reviving individual and national vitality by banning the use of alcohol, granting women the right to vote, disenfranchising African-Americans, restricting the flow of immigrants, and acquiring an overseas empire.

Of course not all these goals were compatible. Advocates of various versions of rebirth—bodybuilders and Prohibitionists, Populists and Progressives, Social Christians and Imperialists—all laid claims to legitimacy. Their crusades met various ends, but overall they relieved the disease of the fin de siècle by injecting some visceral vitality into a modern culture that had seemed brittle and about to collapse. Yearning for intense experience, many seekers celebrated Force and Energy as ends in themselves. Such celebrations could reinforce militarist fantasies but could also lead in more interesting directions—toward new pathways in literature and the arts and sciences. Knowledge could be revitalized, too. William James, as well as Houdini and Roosevelt, was a symbol of the age.

The most popular forms of regeneration had a moral dimension.

pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.

pp. 63-71

NOT MANY AMERICAN men, even among the comparatively prosperous classes, were as able as Carnegie and Rockefeller to master the tensions at the core of their culture. Success manuals acknowledged the persistent problem of indiscipline, the need to channel passion to productive ends. Often the language of advice literature was sexually charged. In The Imperial Highway (1881), Jerome Bates advised:

[K]eep cool, have your resources well in hand, and reserve your strength until the proper time arrives to exert it. There is hardly any trait of character or faculty of intellect more valuable than the power of self-possession, or presence of mind. The man who is always “going off” unexpectedly, like an old rusty firearm, who is easily fluttered and discomposed at the appearance of some unforeseen emergency; who has no control over himself or his powers, is just the one who is always in trouble and is never successful or happy.

The assumptions behind this language are fascinating and important to an understanding of middle-and upper-class Americans in the Gilded Age. Like many other purveyors of conventional wisdom—ministers, physicians, journalists, health reformers—authors of self-help books assumed a psychic economy of scarcity. For men, this broad consensus of popular psychology had sexual implications: the scarce resource in question was seminal fluid, and one had best not be diddling it away in masturbation or even nocturnal emissions. This was easier said than done, of course, as Bates indicated, since men were constantly addled by insatiable urges, always on the verge of losing self-control—the struggle to keep it was an endless battle with one’s own darker self. Spiritual, psychic, and physical health converged. What Freud called “‘civilized’ sexual morality” fed directly into the “precious bodily fluids” school of health management. The man who was always “‘going off’ unexpectedly, like an old rusty firearm,” would probably be sickly as well as unsuccessful—sallow, sunken-chested, afflicted by languorous indecision (which was how Victorian health literature depicted the typical victim of what was called “self-abuse”).

But as this profile of the chronic masturbator suggests, scarcity psychology had implications beyond familiar admonitions to sexual restraint. Sexual scarcity was part of a broader psychology of scarcity; the need to conserve semen was only the most insistently physical part of a much more capacious need to conserve psychic energy. As Bates advised, the cultivation of “self-possession” allowed you to “keep your resources well in hand, and reserve your strength until the proper time arrives to exert it.” The implication was that there was only so much strength available to meet demanding circumstances and achieve success in life. The rhetoric of “self-possession” had financial as well as sexual connotations. To preserve a cool, unruffled presence of mind (to emulate Rockefeller, in effect) was one way to stay afloat on the storm surges of the business cycle.

The object of this exercise, at least for men, was personal autonomy—the ownership of one’s self. […]

It was one thing to lament excessive wants among the working class, who were supposed to be cultivating contentment with their lot, and quite another to find the same fault among the middle class, who were supposed to be improving themselves. The critique of middle-class desire posed potentially subversive questions about the dynamic of dissatisfaction at the core of market culture, about the very possibility of sustaining a stable sense of self in a society given over to perpetual jostling for personal advantage. The ruinous results of status-striving led advocates of economic thrift to advocate psychic thrift as well.

By the 1880s, the need to conserve scarce psychic resources was a commonly voiced priority among the educated and affluent. Beard’s American Nervousness had identified “the chief and primary cause” of neurasthenia as “modern civilization,” which placed unprecedented demands on limited emotional energy. “Neurasthenia” and “nervous prostration” became catchall terms for a constellation of symptoms that today would be characterized as signs of chronic depression—anxiety, irritability, nameless fears, listlessness, loss of will. In a Protestant culture, where effective exercise of will was the key to individual selfhood, the neurasthenic was a kind of anti-self—at best a walking shadow, at worst a bedridden invalid unable to make the most trivial choices or decisions. Beard and his colleagues—neurologists, psychiatrists, and self-help writers in the popular press—all agreed that nervous prostration was the price of progress, a signal that the psychic circuitry of “brain workers” was overloaded by the demands of “modern civilization.”

While some diagnoses of this disease deployed electrical metaphors, the more common idiom was economic. Popular psychology, like popular economics, was based on assumptions of scarcity: there was only so much emotional energy (and only so much money) to go around. The most prudent strategy was the husbanding of one’s resources as a hedge against bankruptcy and breakdown. […]

Being reborn through a self-allowed regime of lassitude was idiosyncratic, though important as a limiting case. Few Americans had the leisure or the inclination to engage in this kind of Wordsworthian retreat. Most considered neurasthenia at best a temporary respite, at worst an ordeal. They strained, if ambivalently, to be back in harness.

The manic-depressive psychology of the business class mimicked the lurching ups and downs of the business cycle. In both cases, assumptions of scarcity underwrote a pervasive defensiveness, a circle-the-wagons mentality. This was the attitude that lay behind the “rest cure” devised by the psychiatrist Silas Weir Mitchell, who proposed to “fatten” and “redden” the (usually female) patient by isolating her from all mental and social stimulation. (This nearly drove the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman crazy, and inspired her story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”) It was also the attitude that lay behind the fiscal conservatism of the “sound-money men” on Wall Street and in Washington—the bankers and bondholders who wanted to restrict the money supply by tying it to the gold standard. Among the middle and upper classes, psyche and economy alike were haunted by the common specter of scarcity. But there were many Americans for whom scarcity was a more palpable threat.

AT THE BOTTOM of the heap were the urban poor. To middle-class observers they seemed little more than a squalid mass jammed into tenements that were festering hives of “relapsing fever,” a strange malady that left its survivors depleted of strength and unable to work. The disease was “the most efficient recruiting officer pauperism ever had,” said a journalist investigating tenement life in the 1870s. Studies of “the nether side of New York” had been appearing for decades, but—in the young United States at least—never before the Gilded Age had the story of Dives and Lazarus been so dramatically played out, never before had wealth been so flagrant, or poverty been so widespread and so unavoidably appalling. The army of thin young “sewing-girls” trooping off in the icy dawn to sweatshops all over Manhattan, the legions of skilled mechanics forced by high New York rents to huddle with their families amid a crowd of lowlifes, left without even a pretense of privacy in noisome tenements that made a mockery of the Victorian cult of home—these populations began to weigh on the bourgeois imagination, creating concrete images of the worthy, working poor.

pp. 99-110

Racial animosities flared in an atmosphere of multicultural fluidity, economic scarcity, and sexual rivalry. Attitudes arising from visceral hostility acquired a veneer of scientific objectivity. Race theory was nothing new, but in the late nineteenth century it mutated into multiple forms, many of them characterized by manic urgency, sexual hysteria, and biological determinism. Taxonomists had been trying to arrange various peoples in accordance with skull shape and brain size for decades; popularized notions of natural selection accelerated the taxonomic project, investing it more deeply in anatomical details. The superiority of the Anglo-Saxon—according to John Fiske, the leading pop-evolutionary thinker—arose not only from the huge size of his brain, but also from the depth of its furrows and the plenitude of its creases. The most exalted mental events had humble somatic origins. Mind was embedded in body, and both could be passed on to the next generation.

The year 1877 marked a crucial development in this hereditarian synthesis: in that year, Richard Dugdale published the results of his investigation into the Juke family, a dull-witted crew that had produced more than its share of criminals and mental defectives. While he allowed for the influence of environment, Dugdale emphasized the importance of inherited traits in the Juke family. If mental and emotional traits could be inherited along with physical ones, then why couldn’t superior people be bred like superior dogs or horses? The dream of creating a science of eugenics, dedicated to improving and eventually even perfecting human beings, fired the reform imagination for decades. Eugenics was a kind of secular millennialism, a vision of a society where biological engineering complemented social engineering to create a managerial utopia. The intellectual respectability of eugenics, which lasted until the 1930s, when it became associated with Nazism, underscores the centrality of racialist thinking among Americans who considered themselves enlightened and progressive. Here as elsewhere, racism and modernity were twinned.

Consciousness of race increasingly pervaded American culture in the Gilded Age. Even a worldview as supple as Henry James’s revealed its moorings in conventional racial categories when, in The American (1877), James presented his protagonist, Christopher Newman, as a quintessential Anglo-Saxon but with echoes of the noble Red Man, with the same classical posture and physiognomy. There was an emerging kinship between these two groups of claimants to the title “first Americans.” The iconic American, from this view, was a blend of Anglo-Saxon refinement and native vigor. While James only hints at this, in less than a generation such younger novelists as Frank Norris and Jack London would openly celebrate the rude vitality of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon, proud descendant of the “white savages” who subdued a continent. It should come as no surprise that their heroes were always emphatically male. The rhetoric of race merged with a broader agenda of masculine revitalization.[…]

By the 1880s, muscular Christians were sweeping across the land, seeking to meld spiritual and physical renewal, establishing institutions like the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA provided prayer meetings and Bible study to earnest young men with spiritual seekers’ yearnings, gyms and swimming pools to pasty young men with office workers’ midriffs. Sometimes they were the same young men. More than any other organization, the YMCA aimed to promote the symmetry of character embodied in the phrase “body, mind, spirit”—which a Y executive named Luther Gulick plucked from Deuteronomy and made the motto of the organization. The key to the Y’s appeal, a Harper’s contributor wrote in 1882, was the “overmastering conviction” of its members: “The world always respects manliness, even when it is not convinced [by theological argument]; and if the organizations did not sponsor that quality in young men, they would be entitled to no respect.” In the YMCA, manliness was officially joined to a larger agenda.

For many American Protestants, the pursuit of physical fitness merged with an encompassing vision of moral and cultural revitalization—one based on the reassertion of Protestant self-control against the threats posed to it by immigrant masses and mass-marketed temptation. […]

Science and religion seemed to point in the same direction: Progress and Providence were one.

Yet the synthesis remained precarious. Physical prowess, the basis of national supremacy, could not be taken for granted. Strong acknowledged in passing that Anglo-Saxons could be “devitalized by alcohol and tobacco.” Racial superiority could be undone by degenerate habits. Even the most triumphalist tracts contained an undercurrent of anxiety, rooted in the fear of flab. The new stress on the physical basis of identity began subtly to undermine the Protestant synthesis, to reinforce the suspicion that religion was a refuge for effeminate weaklings. The question inevitably arose, in some men’s minds: What if the YMCA and muscular Christianity were not enough to revitalize tired businessmen and college boys?

Under pressure from proliferating ideas of racial “fitness,” models of manhood became more secular. Despite the efforts of muscular Christians to reunite body and soul, the ideal man emerging among all classes by the 1890s was tougher and less introspective than his mid-Victorian predecessors. He was also less religious. Among advocates of revitalization, words like “Energy” and “Force” began to dominate discussion—often capitalized, often uncoupled from any larger frameworks of moral or spiritual meaning, and often combined with racist assumptions. […]

The emerging worship of force raised disturbing issues. Conventional morality took a backseat to the celebration of savage strength. After 1900, in the work of a pop-Nietzschean like Jack London, even criminality became a sign of racial vitality: as one of his characters says, “We whites have been land-robbers and sea-robbers from remotest time. It is in our blood, I guess, and we can’t get away from it.” This reversal of norms did not directly challenge racial hierarchies, but the assumptions behind it led toward disturbing questions. If physical prowess was the mark of racial superiority, what was one to make of the magnificent specimens of manhood produced by allegedly inferior races? Could it be that desk-bound Anglo-Saxons required an infusion of barbarian blood (or at least the “barbarian virtues” recommended by Theodore Roosevelt)? Behind these questions lay a primitivist model of regeneration, to be accomplished by incorporating the vitality of the vanquished, dark-skinned other. The question was how to do that and maintain racial purity.

pp. 135-138

Yet to emphasize the gap between country and the city was not simply an evasive exercise: dreams of bucolic stillness or urban energy stemmed from motives more complex than mere escapist sentiment. City and country were mother lodes of metaphor, sources for making sense of the urban-industrial revolution that was transforming the American countryside and creating a deep sense of discontinuity in many Americans’ lives during the decades after the Civil War. If the city epitomized the attraction of the future, the country embodied the pull of the past. For all those who had moved to town in search of excitement or opportunity, rural life was ineluctably associated with childhood and memory. The contrast between country and city was about personal experience as well as political economy. […]

REVERENCE FOR THE man of the soil was rooted in the republican tradition. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson articulated the antithesis that became central to agrarian politics (and to the producerist worldview in general)—the contrast between rural producers and urban parasites. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” he announced. “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.” Small wonder, from this view, that urban centers of commerce seemed to menace the public good. “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson concluded, “add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Jefferson’s invidious distinctions echoed through the nineteenth century, fueling the moral passion of agrarian rebels. Watson, among many, considered himself a Jeffersonian.

There were fundamental contradictions embedded in Jefferson’s conceptions of an independent yeomanry. Outside certain remote areas in New England, most American farmers were not self-sufficient in the nineteenth century—nor did they want to be. Many were eager participants in the agricultural market economy, animated by a restless, entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, Jefferson’s own expansionist policies, especially the Louisiana Purchase, encouraged centrifugal movement as much as permanent settlement. “What developed in America,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not to the land but to land values.” The figure of the independent yeoman, furnishing enough food for himself and his family, participating in the public life of a secure community—this icon embodied longings for stability amid a maelstrom of migration.

Often the longings were tinged with a melancholy sense of loss. […] For those with Jeffersonian sympathies, abandoned farms were disturbing evidence of cultural decline. As a North American Review contributor wrote in 1888: “Once let the human race be cut off from personal contact with the soil, once let the conventionalities and artificial restrictions of so-called civilization interfere with the healthful simplicity of nature, and decay is certain.” Romantic nature-worship had flourished fitfully among intellectuals since Emerson had become a transparent eye-ball on the Concord common and Whitman had loafed among leaves of grass. By the post–Civil War decades, romantic sentiment combined with republican tradition to foster forebodings. Migration from country to city, from this view, was a symptom of disease in the body politic. Yet the migration continued. Indeed, nostalgia for rural roots was itself a product of rootlessness. A restless spirit, born of necessity and desire, spun Americans off in many directions—but mainly westward. The vision of a stable yeomanry was undercut by the prevalence of the westering pioneer.

pp. 246-247

Whether energy came from within or without, it was as limitless as electricity apparently was. The obstacles to access were not material—class barriers or economic deprivation were never mentioned by devotees of abundance psychology—they were mental and emotional. The most debilitating emotion was fear, which cropped up constantly as the core problem in diagnoses of neurasthenia. The preoccupation with freeing oneself from internal constraints undermined the older, static ideal of economic self-control at its psychological base. As one observer noted in 1902: “The root cause of thrift, which we all admire and preach because it is so convenient to the community, is fear, fear of future want; and that fear, we are convinced, when indulged overmuch by pessimist minds is the most frequent cause of miserliness….” Freedom from fear meant freedom to consume.

And consumption began at the dinner table. Woods Hutchinson claimed in 1913 that the new enthusiasm for calories was entirely appropriate to a mobile, democratic society. The old “stagnation” theory of diet merely sought to maintain the level of health and vigor; it was a diet for slaves or serfs, for people who were not supposed to rise above their station. “The new diet theory is based on the idea of progress, of continuous improvement, of never resting satisfied with things as they are,” Hutchinson wrote. “No diet is too liberal or expensive that will…yield good returns on the investment.” Economic metaphors for health began to focus on growth and process rather than stability, on consumption and investment rather than savings.

As abundance psychology spread, a new atmosphere of dynamism enveloped old prescriptions for success. After the turn of the century, money was less often seen as an inert commodity, to be gradually accumulated and tended to steady growth; and more often seen as a fluid and dynamic force. To Americans enraptured by the strenuous life, energy became an end itself—and money was a kind of energy. Success mythology reflected this subtle change. In the magazine hagiographies of business titans—as well as in the fiction of writers like Dreiser and Norris—the key to success frequently became a mastery of Force (as those novelists always capitalized it), of raw power. Norris’s The Pit (1903) was a paean to the furious economic energies concentrated in Chicago. “It was Empire, the restless subjugation of all this central world of the lakes and prairies. Here, mid-most in the land, beat the Heart of the nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here of all her cities, throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America: gigantic, crude, with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires.” This was the vitalist vision at its most breathless and jejune, the literary equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt’s adolescent antics.

The new emphasis on capital as Force translated the psychology of abundance into economic terms. The economist who did the most to popularize this translation was Simon Nelson Patten, whose The New Basis of Civilization (1907) argued that the United States had passed from an “era of scarcity” to an “era of abundance” characterized by the unprecedented availability of mass-produced goods. His argument was based on the confident assumption that human beings had learned to control the weather. “The Secretary of Agriculture recently declared that serious crop failures will occur no more,” Patten wrote. “Stable, progressive farming controls the terror, disorder, and devastation of earlier times. A new agriculture means a new civilization.” Visions of perpetual growth were in the air, promising both stability and dynamism.

The economist Edward Atkinson pointed the way to a new synthesis with a hymn to “mental energy” in the Popular Science Monthly. Like other forms of energy, it was limitless. “If…there is no conceivable limit to the power of mind over matter or to the number of conversions of force that can be developed,” he wrote, “it follows that pauperism is due to want of mental energy, not of material resources.” Redistribution of wealth was not on the agenda; positive thinking was.

pp. 282-283

TR’s policies were primarily designed to protect American corporations’ access to raw materials, investment opportunities, and sometimes markets. The timing was appropriate. In the wake of the merger wave of 1897–1903, Wall Street generated new pools of capital, while Washington provided new places to invest it. Speculative excitement seized many among the middle and upper classes who began buying stocks for the first time. Prosperity spread even among the working classes, leading Simon Nelson Patten to detect a seismic shift from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. For him, a well-paid working population committed to ever-expanding consumption would create what he called The New Basis of Civilization (1907).

Patten understood that the mountains of newly available goods were in part the spoils of empire, but he dissolved imperial power relations in a rhetoric of technological determinism. The new abundance, he argued, depended not only on the conquest of weather but also on the annihilation of time and space—a fast, efficient distribution system that provided Americans with the most varied diet in the world, transforming what had once been luxuries into staples of even the working man’s diet. “Rapid distribution of food carries civilization with it, and the prosperity that gives us a Panama canal with which to reach untouched tropic riches is a distinctive laborer’s resource, ranking with refrigerated express and quick freight carriage.” The specific moves that led to the seizure of the Canal Zone evaporated in the abstract “prosperity that gives us a Panama Canal,” which in turn became as much a boon to the workingman as innovative transportation. Empire was everywhere, in Patten’s formulation, and yet nowhere in sight.

What Patten implied (rather than stated overtly) was that imperialism underwrote expanding mass consumption, raising standards of living for ordinary folk. “Tropic riches” became cheap foods for the masses. The once-exotic banana was now sold from pushcarts for 6 cents a dozen, “a permanent addition to the laborer’s fund of goods.” The same was true of “sugar, which years ago was too expensive to be lavishly consumed by the well-to-do,” but “now freely gives its heat to the workingman,” as Patten wrote. “The demand that will follow the developing taste for it can be met by the vast quantities latent in Porto Rico and Cuba, and beyond them by the teeming lands of South America, and beyond them by the virgin tropics of another hemisphere.” From this view, the relation between empire and consumption was reciprocal: if imperial policies helped stimulate consumer demand, consumer demand in turn promoted imperial expansion. A society committed to ever-higher levels of mass-produced abundance required empire to be a way of life.

A Fun Experiment

I’ve written a lot about diet lately, but let me get personal about it. I’ve had lifelong issues with diet, not that I thought about it that way when younger. I ate a crappy diet and it was the only diet I knew, as everyone else around me was likewise eating the same basic crappy diet. Even my childhood sugar addiction didn’t stand out as all that unique. Though I didn’t know it at the time, looking back at it now, I’m sure an unhealthy diet with nutrient-deficiencies and food additives (maybe along with environmental toxins or other external factors) was likely contributing factors to my learning disability and word finding difficulties (WFD) — see previous posts: Aspergers and Chunking; and Specific Language Impairment. As early as elementary school, there were also signs of what would later be diagnosed as depression. I knew something was wrong with me, but felt at a loss in that there was no way to explain it. I was just broken, inferior and inadequate. I didn’t even understand that I was depressed during my youth, although my high school art teacher once asked me if I was depressed and, in my ignorance, I said I wasn’t. Being depressed was all I knew and so it just felt normal.

I didn’t have the insight to connect my neurocognitive and psychological struggles to physical health. The crappiness of my diet only became apparent to me in adulthood, although I’m not sure when I started thinking about it. I grew up in churches where people were more health-conscious and my mother tried to do what she thought was healthy, even as good info was lacking back then. Still, a basic mentality of healthfulness was instilled in me, not that it initially did me much good. It took a while for it to lead to anything more concrete than doing what was the height of “healthy eating” in those day, which was skim milk poured over bran cereal and an occasional salad with low-fat dressing. That simply would’ve made my depression and learning disabilities worse as it surely was fucking up my neurocognition precisely as my brain was developing, but mainstream advice asserted that this USDA-approved way of eating would cure all that ails you. Fat was the enemy and fiber was a health tonic. Few at the time realized that fat-soluble vitamins were key to health nor that a high-fiber diet can block nutrient absorption.

Everything fell apart after high school. I despised life and wanted to escape the world. I dropped out of college and seriously considered becoming a hermit, but the prospect was too lonely and after moving out to Arizona I felt homesick. Then in going back to college, I attempted suicide. I failed at that as well and earned myself a vacation in a psychiatric ward. I was bad off, but having been raised in New Thought Christianity I was always looking for answers in self-help books and similar things. It would’ve been maybe in my early to mid 20s when I first read books that were explicitly about diet, nutrition, and health. I do recall, for instance, a book I picked up on low-carb diets and it wasn’t about the Atkins diet — it might have been an old copy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Not By Bread Alone or it could have been something else entirely. Around that time, there was a minor incident that comes to mind. I told my friend that fast food was unhealthy and he didn’t believe me. It sounds odd now, but this was back in the 1990s. His mother was a nurse and regularly bought him fast food as a child. So how could it be bad? Many people at the time didn’t have much sense of what made food healthy or not, but obviously something had got me thinking about it. I knew that some foods were not healthy, even as what a healthy diet should look like was a bit hazy in my mind, beyond the nostrum of eating more fruits and veggies.

I lacked knowledge and there weren’t many sources of knowledge prior to my getting internet. Still, based on what limited info I could glean, I did start experimenting during that period. I began trying supplements to deal with my depression with the related low energy and low motivation, as therapy and medications had failed to put a dent in it. Around 1998, four years after graduating high school and a couple years after the suicide attempt, I tried vegetarianism for a time, maybe for a year or so, but it mainly involved eating as a regular meal a mix of Ramen noodles, eggs, and frozen vegetables cooked in the microwave — it was a poverty diet as I was living in poverty. I probably also was eating plenty of junk food as well, considering most cheap processed foods are vegetarian. Avoiding meat certainly doesn’t guarantee health — it didn’t fill me with joy and vitality. A bit later on I did finally try a low-carb diet, but it mainly consisted of eating processed meat because I was too depressed to cook. Even then, I might not have been getting many fat-soluble vitamins, as I didn’t understand nutrient-density. I wasn’t procuring pasture-raised meat, much less emphasizing organ meats, bone broth, wild-caught fish, etc.

My experiments weren’t well-informed and so weren’t done under optimal conditions. There was no one around to offer me guidance and so it didn’t work out all that well. I don’t give up easy, though. I went looking for guidance from dozens of psychiatrists, therapists, energy healers, body workers, and even a shaman. In my desperation, I’d try anything. Then I went to massage school where I learned Shiatsu massage and traditional Chinese theory, along with some other modalities. Even that didn’t change anything. My massage teachers were alternative health practitioners, one being a naturopath, but it seemed like no one understood what was wrong with me and so nothing could make a difference. My depression was an incomprehensible mystery. Rather than something being wrong with me, I was the problem in being inherently defective, so it seemed in my lingering dark mood.

The only thing that made much of a difference was exercise. I found that I could keep the worst symptoms of depression at bay through jogging, if only temporarily. At some point, I learned to jog before eating anything in the morning and I found that my hunger and cravings were less for the rest of the day. I had accidentally discovered ketosis and didn’t know what it was. It didn’t make sense that physical exertion minus food would lead to such results — rather counterintuitive. I was also occasionally fasting around then which also would’ve contributed to ketosis. That isn’t to say ketosis while in nutrient deficiency is a good thing. I’d have been better off in having avoided ketosis entirely and, instead, having filled up on nutrient-dense fatty animal foods. I needed healing and only high dosage of nutrition was going to accomplish that. I had been too malnourished for far too long at that point. Ketosis would’ve been great after a period of deep nourishment, but I didn’t understand either the significance of key nutrients nor how to implement ketosis in a more beneficial way.

At some point, I read Sally Fallon Morrell’s Nourishing Traditions (1995) where I was introduced to nutrient-density and fat-soluble viatmins along with traditional food preparation, but I was too depressed and too isolated to fully and successfully implement what I was learning. Depression is a real kick in the ass. Still, I was slowly accruing basic knowledge and making small changes when and where I felt able. I was limiting some of the worst problematic foods. In particular, I began cutting back on junk food, especially candy. And I replaced sugar with such things as stevia. Simultaneously, I increased healthier foods like probiotics and Ezekiel bread, although I’m not sure that the latter really is all that healthy (it has vital gluten added to it and it mostly starchy carbs). I tried to limit my sugar intake to foods that were relatively better, such as yogurt and kefir. I still was experimenting a bit with supplements, but wasn’t getting any clear results. My depression persisted and I see now that, even with these changes, I continued to lack nutrient-density. It just wasn’t clicking together for me. Maybe my depression had moderated ever so slightly, to the degree that I was a functional depressive and not in the total gloom and doom of my late teens to early twenties. I figured that was as good as it was going to get. I had survived that far and figured I’d be depressed for the rest of my life. Let me put this in perspective. This slightly lessened depression was, nonetheless, chronic and severe. For example, suicidal ideation persisted — maybe more as a background noise to my thoughts, but there, always there. I had this suspicion that eventually depression would catch up with me and then that would be the end of me. Suicide remained a real possibility in my mind, a persistent thought. It was hard for me imagine myself surviving into old age.

I carried on like this. I managed my life at a bare minimal level. I held down a job, I sort of kept my apartment clean, I fed my cats and sometimes changed their litter, and I more or less paid my bills on time. But depression had kept me working minimal hours and barely staying above poverty. There wasn’t only the depression for, over the decades, a crippling sense of shame had accumulated. I felt worthless, a failure. I wasn’t taking care of myself or at least wasn’t doing it well. Everything felt like a struggle while nothing I did seemed to make a difference. It was shitty and I knew life was just going to get worse as I aged and thinking about that made me feel more hopeless. To add to that general anxiety and despair, as I drifted through my thirties, I began gaining weight. I had always thought of myself as athletic. I played soccer from 1st grade to 11th grade and was always slim and trim, although I remember at one point after high school having been so inactive for a number of years that I felt winded just by walking up a hill — that was a strange experience for me because I had never been out of shape before that time. That was why I came to focus so much on exercise. Yet with age, mere exercise wouldn’t stop the weight gain, much less help with weight loss… nor any of the other symptoms of declining health. I was jogging multiple times a week for long periods, sometimes while wearing a heavy backpack as I hoofed it out to my parent’s place on the far edge of town. Still, the excess fat remained. That was rather dispiriting. Yet from a conventional viewpoint, my diet was balanced and my lifestyle was generally healthy, at least by American standards. I was doing everything right, as I understood it. Just the expected results of aging, most doctors would likely have told me.

I realize now that insulin resistance probably had set in quite a while back. I was probably prediabetic at that point, maybe even in the early stages of diabetes (I sweated a lot, in the way my grandmother did before her diabetes was managed with insulin shots). I know that I no longer handled sugar well, which helped keep my sugar addiction in check. About a decade ago, my friend and I visited a nearby donut shop and I got several fine specimens. Upon eating them, I felt sick with a slight headache. No more donuts for me. Sugar or not, my diet was still fairly high-carb, but I wasn’t yet fully aware of how starches and sugars sneak into everything. Then last year I randomly came across the paleo documentary The Magic Pill and watched it without any expectation. I suppose it was just basic curiosity, as is my habit. Something about it resonated with me. I showed it to my parents and they too found it inspiring. So, we all set about changing our diets — having mutual support from family was surely an important factor for motivation. The diet portrayed is standard paleo with a combination of low-carb and nutrient-density. What made the documentary compelling was how a wide variety of people were followed as they tried the paleo diet: a woman living alone with various health problems, a family with a young daughter with severe autism, and an Australian Aboriginal community that had lost their traditional way of life. It demonstrated the significant changes that could occur through diet. The transformation of the autistic girl was particularly impressive. The entire documentary was motivational. After that, I looked for some other documentaries to watch with my parents: The Perfect Human Diet, Carb Loaded, etc. Learning more reinforced this new view and brought together all that I had learned over the decades. I finally had a broader framework of understanding.

It was this low-carb paleo diet that was the starting point for me, although my mother never was quite on board with it. After looking online, she was drawn to the FODMAP diet in hoping it could help with her gut issues, specifically GERD and belching, but also osteoporosis (and indeed it did seem to work for her, as her former high-fiber diet apparently was the source of her problems), although her diet had some overlap with paleo. Going into my typical obsessive-compulsive mode, I gathered dozens of books on the subject, voraciously took in all the info I could find online, and began following various people on social media. I quickly figured out the basics and what was most essential while determining the points of disagreement and uncertainty. What I liked about the paleo and low-carb community was the attitude of curiosity, of exploration and experimentation. Try something and see what happens. And if it doesn’t work, try something else. There was no failure, a much more positive attitude about health. Within three months of implementing the paleo diet, I had lost 60 pounds of fat and I did it without starving myself. I simply figured out how to tap into the body’s natural mechanisms for fat-burning and hunger signalling. As I switched from general low-carb to ketogenic, my experience improved even further. It finally dawned on me that my depression had gone away, simply and utterly disappeared, decades of depression along with a lifetime of sugar addiction no longer an issue. I didn’t need to struggle against it. I wasn’t even trying to cure my depression, not that I realized this even was a possibility. It was a complete surprise.

It’s been a little over a year now. I’m still coming to terms with this new state of being. It’s strange. Depression had become part of my identity, as had sugar addiction and the roller coaster hangriness of insulin resistance. I now simply wake up in the morning feeling perfectly fine. It’s not that I go around feeling ecstatic, but the extreme low moods and funks no longer happen. I feel more balanced and relaxed. I used to fall into long periods of apathy and despair where all I could do was isolate myself until it passed, sometimes requiring days or weeks before I could rejoin humanity. How I functioned at all in such a state is kind of amazing, but not nearly as amazing as the miracle of its drama-free disappearance. Depression was there and then it wasn’t. I didn’t really notice it going away, until after it was gone. This leaves me in a strange position, as the decades of depressive thought and behavioral patterns remain. It’s hard for me to know how to not be a depressed person. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. I don’t remember the last time I had any suicidal tendencies or fantasies. Yet the decades of damage to my body also remains as a reminder.

That hasn’t stopped me from getting back in shape and beyond. In fact, I’m in better shape now as I move toward middle age than ever before in my life. It’s not simply that I’ve been working out but that I enjoy working out. It feels good to me and I enjoy doing physical activity, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. Unsurprisingly, I’m looking better. People notice and tell me. This sometimes makes me uncomfortable, as I’m not used to getting compliments. Just today I went to a picnic with a large crowd, some people I knew and some I didn’t. I met a friendly young woman and she was obviously flirting with me as we talked. It was a nice day and, having been out in a kayak, I had my shirt off. She told me that I looked “gorgeous” — the exact word she chose.* I’ll be blunt about this. No one has ever said anything like that to me in my entire life. I had never been a buff guy before and now I actually have muscles. It changes how I carry myself, how I feel.

It makes me realize why some fat people, after losing a bunch of weight, will sometimes gain their weight back just to feel normal again. The person I am now is not the person I’ve known myself for as long as I can remember. And I don’t know what to do with people relating to me differently. I’m sure people treat me differently not only because I look different but probably because I’m putting off a different vibe. I’m less sullen and dissociated than I used to be. An easygoing friendliness comes more naturally to me now. I don’t feel so crappy in no longer being on a crappy diet, but I’m not sure what it might mean to be healthy and happy. That is an odd concept to my mind. What if I could really be different? I take this seriously. In the past, I didn’t feel capable of being different, but all of that has changed. I don’t feel so irritable, frustrated, and angry. In place of that, I find myself wanting to be kinder and more forgiving. I want to be a good person. I realize that, in the past, how I could be an asshole and I was often open in admitting this basic fact of my former state, sometimes apologizing for my antagonistic moods. My life didn’t always feel like a net gain for the world and I’m sure some people might have agreed with that assessment. I could be harshly critical at times and that doesn’t make others feel better — I seriously harmed a number of relationships.

Now here I am. It’s a bit late in my life, but I have a second chance to try to do things differently. It will take some further experimentation beyond diet to find better ways of relating to others and to myself. That said, I’ll go on tinkering with my diet and lifestyle. It’s an ongoing experiment, all of it. Most importantly, it’s a fun experiment. The idea that I can try various things and discover what works is new to me. I’m more used to failure, but now I’m starting to see ‘failure’ as simply part of the experiment. There is no failure. Life doesn’t have to be hard. And I’m realizing that I’m not alone in this, as I’ve come across hundreds of stories just like mine. Sometimes simple changes can have profound effects.


* I must admit that it was a disconcerting experience. A young beautiful woman telling me in no uncertain words that I’m attractive. That is not the kind of thing I’ve grown accustomed to. I handled the situation as well as I could. It was kind of an amusing scenario. She was with her family. Along with her parents, she was visiting from Tunisia in order to see her sister who now works at the local university.

So, this young woman wasn’t going to be around long. Developing a romantic relationship didn’t seem to be in the cards, even if I had wanted it, but I feel ambivalent about romantic relationships these days. I’ve become comfortable in my bachelorhood with its lack of complications. Even so, I played along with the flirtation. As I sat near her with her family at the picnic table, she kept wanting to feed me. And how I could I decline food offered by a beautiful woman, even when she offered me carbs. That is my new plan for carb cycling — I’ll eat carbs every time a beautiful woman feeds them directly to me.

Anyway, combined with introversion and shyness, the lifetime of depression has made me reticent. I’m not confident around the opposite sex, but I’ve had long years of training in hiding any anxieties. Still, I didn’t know what purpose there was in flirting with this nice-looking person who would soon be gone. She said she might be back to visit again in a few years and that seems like a long time when you just met someone. I convinced myself there was no point and didn’t give her my contact info or ask for hers. But now I feel some regret.

I was acting according to my old self, the one who was ruled by his depression. Maybe it was irrelevant that I might not see her again. I should have left the door open for the possibility. These are the kinds of habits I need to learn.

Physical Health, Mental Health

There is a growing field focused on the relationship between diet, nutrition, neurocognition, and psychiatry. I’ve written about this previously (The Agricultural Mind; Ketogenic Diet and Neurocognitive Health; & Fasting, Calorie Restriction, and Ketosis). But there aren’t many well known experts in this area.

One of the better known figures in this convergence of fields is Dr. Georgia Ede, a psychiatrist with a medical degree and a B.A. in Biology. She has completed a graduate course in nutrition at Harvard where she also completed her residency. Besides psychiatry, her employment includes as laboratory research assistant, psychopharmacologist, and nutrition consultant. Her writings regularly appear in Psychology Today.

Another major expert is Dr. Ann Childers. She is a psychiatric physician for children and adults. Besides being a lecturer and podcaster, she has written chapters for textbooks. She is a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the Nutrition and Metabolism Society, Obesity Medicine Association, and Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

There is another authority in this area, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. She holds a degree in Medicine and Postgraduate degrees in both Neurology and Human Nutrition. After years working as a neurologist and neurosurgeon, she now practices as a nutritionist and used to run the Cambridge Nutrition Clinic. She is the founder of the widely used Gut and Psychology (GAPS) Diet.

I’ll mention some other names. Carol Simontacchi was a certified clinical nutritionist and hosted a nationally syndicated radio show. She was also a writer, including a book on this topic, Crazy Makers. Last but not least, there is L. Amber O’Hearn. By education, she is a data scientist. In dealing with her own physical and mental health issues, she tried a ketogenic diet and then a carnivore diet. She is a major figure and speaker in the low-carb community.

An up-and-comer is Dr. Paul Saladino, a convert to the carnivore diet and emphasizes the importance of nutrition. He has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Master of Health Science and Physician Assistant degree. He worked as a PA in cardiology, but got frustrated with the inadequacies of conventional medicine. He went back to school to get his MD with a focus on integrative and functional medicine, during which time he studied under the famous Dr. Andrew Weil. At this time, he also got certified as a functional medicine practitioner. He recently completed his residency in psychiatry and has had a private practice for a while.

Anther psychiatrist is Dr. Chris Palmer. He “received his medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine. His internship and psychiatry residency were at McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. He’s currently the director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital. In addition he is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.” He does many talks and interviews. In a discussion with Dr. Saladino, they explored the connection of metabolic health and mental psychiatric conditions (Paradigm shiftng treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar with Ketogenic diets. Chris Palmer, MD). Along with published papers, he writes for Psychology Today.

Heck, while I’m at it, I’ll also give honorable mention to some others: registered dietitian nutritionist Vicky Newman and clinical psychologist Julia Rucklidge. Both support their views with scientific evidence. Newman basically recommends a low-carb diet without ever explicitly calling it that. She also takes a fairly holistic approach with more knowledge that is common in alternative health, such as the importance of pastured and grassfed livestock.

Rucklidge is more conventional in her recommending a Mediterranean diet. From what I can tell, she is unaware of functional medicine, traditional foods, paleo, low-carb, keto, carnivore, etc. On the other hand, she gets extra credit points for talking about how good nutrition improves the psychological and behavioral outcomes among depressives, autistic children, ADHD adults, trauma patients, prisoners, etc.

For good measure, let me also recommend Dr. Eric Berg, a chiropractor. He has no particular specialty in psychology, psychiatry, or anything similar. But he is is one of the best presenters on useful knowledge for diet and health. His talks are always clear and concise and he occasionally focuses on neurocognitive health.

* * *

Ketogenic Diets for Mental Health: A Guide to Resources
by Georgia Ede

Your Brain on Plants: Micronutrients and Mental Health
by Georgia Ede

Affects of Diet and Mental Health
by Georgia Ede

Schizophrenia, Depression, and the Little-Known “Mental Heatlh”/DietaryLink
interview with Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride

A Carnivore Diet for Physical and Mental Health
interview with L. Amber O’Hearn

The World Around Us

What does it mean to be in the world? This world, this society, what kind is it? And how does that affect us? Let me begin with the personal and put it in the context of family. Then I’ll broaden out from there.

I’ve often talked about my own set of related issues. In childhood, I was diagnosed with learning disability. I’ve also suspected I might be on the autistic spectrum which could relate to the learning disability, but that kind of thing wasn’t being diagnosed much when I was in school. Another label to throw out is specific language impairment, something I only recently read about — it maybe better fits my way of thinking than autistic spectrum disorder. After high school, specifically after a suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with depression and thought disorder, although my memory of the latter label is hazy and I’m not sure exactly what was the diagnosis. With all of this in mind, I’ve thought that some of it could have been caused by simple brain damage, since I played soccer since early childhood. Research has found that children regularly head-butting soccer balls causes repeated micro-concussions and micro-tears which leads to brain inflammation and permanent brain damage, such as lower IQ (and could be a factor in depression as well). On the other hand, there is a clear possibility of genetic and/or epigenetic factors, or else some other kind of shared environmental conditions. There are simply too many overlapping issues in my family. It’s far from being limited to me.

My mother had difficulty learning when younger. One of her brothers had even more difficulty, probably with a learning disability as I have. My grandfather dropped out of school, not that such an action was too uncommon at the time. My mother’s side of the family has a ton of mood disorders and some alcoholism. In my immediate family, my oldest brother also seems like he could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum and, like our grandfather, has been drawn toward alcoholism. My other brother began stuttering in childhood and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and interestingly I stuttered for a time as well but in my case it was blamed on my learning disability involving word recall. There is also a lot of depression in the family, both immediate and extended. Much of it has been undiagnosed and untreated, specifically in the older generations. But besides myself, both of my brothers have been on antidepressants along with my father and an uncle. Now, my young niece and nephew are on anti-depressants, that same niece is diagnosed with Asperger’s, the other even younger niece is probably also autistic and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is only what I know about.

I bring up these ailments among the next generation following my own as it indicates something serious going on in the family or else in society as a whole. I do wonder what gets epigenetically passed on with each generation worsening and, even though my generation was the first to show the strongest symptoms, it may continue to get far worse before it gets better. And it may not have anything specifically to do with my family or our immediate environment, as many of these conditions are increasing among people all across this country and in many other countries as well. The point relevant here is that, whatever else may be going on in society, there definitely were factors specifically impacting my family that seemed to hit my brothers and I around the same time. I can understand my niece and nephew going on antidepressants after their parents divorced, but there was no obvious triggering condition for my brothers and I, well besides moving into a different house in a different community.

Growing up and going into adulthood, my own issues always seemed worse, though, or maybe just more obvious. Everyone who has known me knows that I’ve struggled for decades with depression, and my learning disability adds to this. Neither of my brothers loved school, but neither of them struggled as I did, neither of them had delayed reading or went to a special education teacher. Certainly, neither of them nearly flunked out of a grade, something that would’ve happened to me in 7th grade if my family hadn’t moved. My brothers’ conditions were less severe or at least the outward signs of it were easier to hide — or maybe they are simply more talented at acting normal and conforming to social norms (unlike me, they both finished college, got married, had kids, bought houses, and got respectable professional jobs; basically the American Dream). My brother with the anxiety and stuttering learned how to manage it fairly early on, and it never seemed have a particularly negative affect on his social life, other than making him slightly less confident and much more conflict-avoidant, sometimes passive-aggressive. I’m the only one in the family who attempted suicide and was put in a psychiatric ward for my effort, the only one to spend years in severe depressive funks of dysfunction.

This caused me to think about my own problems as different, but in recent years I’ve increasingly looked at the commonalities. It occurs to me that there is an extremely odd coincidence that brings together all of these conditions, at least for my immediate family. My father developed depression in combination with anxiety during a stressful period of his life, after we moved because he got a new job. He began having moments of rapid heartbeat and it worried him. My dad isn’t an overly psychologically-oriented person, though not lacking in self-awareness, and so it is unsurprising that it took a physical symptom to get his attention. It was a mid-life crisis. Added to his stress were all the problems developing in his children. It felt like everything was going wrong.

Here is the strange part. Almost all of this started happening specifically when we moved into that new house, my second childhood home. It was a normal house, not that old. The only thing that stood out, as my father told me, was that the electricity usage was much higher than it was at the previous house, and no explanation for this was ever discovered. Both that house and the one we lived in before were in the Lower Midwest and so there were no obvious environmental differences. It only now struck me, in talking to my father again about it, that all of the family’s major neurocognitive and psychological issues began or worsened while living in that house.

About my oldest brother, he was having immense behavioral issues from childhood onward: refused to do what he was told, wouldn’t complete homework, and became passive-aggressive. He was irritable, angry, and sullen. Also, he was sick all the time, had a constant runny nose, and was tired. It turned out he had allergies that went undiagnosed for a long time, but once treated the worst symptoms went away. The thing about allergies is that it is an immune condition where the body is attacking itself. During childhood, allergies can have a profound impact on human biology, including neurocognitive and psychological development, often leaving the individual with a condition of emotional sensitivity for the rest of their lives, as if the body is stuck in permanent defensive mode. This was a traumatic time for my brother and he has never recovered from it — still seething with unresolved anger and still blaming my parents for what happened almost a half century ago.

One of his allergies was determined to be mold, which makes sense considering the house was on a shady lot. This reminds me of how some molds can produce mycotoxins. When mold is growing in a house, it can create a toxic environment with numerous symptoms for the inhabitants that can be challenging to understand and connect. Unsurprisingly, research does show that air quality is important for health and cognitive functioning. Doctors aren’t trained in diagnosing environmental risk factors and that was even more true of doctors decades ago. It’s possible that something about that house was behind all of what was going on in my family. It could have been mold or it could have been some odd electromagnetic issue or else it could have been a combination of factors. This is what is called sick building syndrome.

Beyond buildings themselves, it can also involve something brought into a building. In one fascinating example, a scientific laboratory was known to have a spooky feeling that put people at unease. After turning off a fan, this strange atmosphere went away. It was determined the fan was vibrating at a level that was affecting the human nervous system or brain. There has been research into how vibrations and electromagnetic energy can cause stressful and disturbing symptoms (the human body is so sensitive that the brain can detect the weak magnetic field of the earth, something that earlier was thought to be impossible). Wind turbines, for example, can cause the eyeball to resonate in a way to cause people to see glimpses of things that aren’t there (i.e., hallucinations). So, it isn’t always limited to something directly in a building itself but can include what is in the nearby environment. I discuss all of this in an earlier post: Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms.

This goes along with the moral panic about violent crime in the early part of my life during the last several decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t an unfounded moral panic, not mere mass hysteria. There really was a major spike in the rate of homicides (not to mention suicides, child abuse, bullying, gang activity, etc). All across society, people were acting more aggressive (heck, aggression became idealized, as symbolized by the ruthless Wall Street broker who wins success through social Darwinian battle of egoic will and no-holds-barred daring). Many of the perpetrators and victims of violence were in my generation. We were a bad generation, a new Lost Generation. It was the period when the Cold War was winding down and then finally ended. There was a sense of ennui in the air, as our collective purpose in fighting a shared enemy seemed less relevant and eventually disappeared altogether. But that was in the background and largely unacknowledged. Similar to the present mood, there was a vague sense of something being terribly wrong with society. Those caught up in the moral panic blamed it on all kinds of things: video games, mass media, moral decline, societal breakdown, loss of strict parenting, unsupervised latchkey kids, gangs, drugs, and on and on. With so many causes, many solutions were sought, not only in different cities and states across the United States but also around the world: increased incarceration or increased rehabilitation programs, drug wars or drug decriminalization, stop and frisk or gun control, broken window policies or improved community relations, etc. No matter what was done or not done, violent crime went down over the decades in almost every population around the planet.

It turned out the strongest correlation was also one of the simplest. Lead toxicity drastically went up in the run up to those violent decades and, depending on how quickly environmental regulations for lead control were implemented, lead toxicity dropped back down again. Decline of violent crime followed with a twenty year lag in every society (twenty years is the time for a new generation to reach adulthood). Even to this day, in any violent population from poor communities to prisons, you’ll regularly find higher lead toxicity rates. It was environmental all along and yet it’s so hard for us to grasp environmental conditions like this because they can’t be directly felt or seen. Most people still don’t know about lead toxicity, despite it being one of the most thoroughly researched areas of public health. So, there is not only sick building syndrome for entire societies can become sick. When my own family was going bonkers, it was right in the middle of this lead toxicity epidemic and we were living right outside of industrial Chicago and, prior to that, we were living in a factory town. I have wondered about lead exposure, since my generation saw the highest lead exposure rate in the 20th century and probably one of the highest since the Roman Empire started using lead water pipes, what some consider to have been the cause of its decline and fall.

There are other examples of this environmental impact. Parasite load in a population is correlated to culture of distrust and violence (parasites-stress theory of values, culture, and sociality; involving the behavioral immune system), among other problems — parasite load is connected to diverse things, both individually and collectively: low extraversion, higher conscientiousnessauthoritarianism (conformity, obedience), in-group loyalty (in situations of lower life expectancy and among populations with faster life histories)collectivism, income inequality, female oppressionconservatism, low openness to experience, support for barriers between social groups, adherence to local norms, traditionalism, religiosity, strength of family ties, in-group assortative sociality, perceived ‘ugliness’ of bodily abnormalityhomicide, child abuse, etc. Specific parasites like toxoplasmosis gondii have been proven to alter mood, personality, and behavior — this can be measured across entire populations, maybe altering the culture itself of entire regions where infection is common.

Or consider high inequality that can cause widespread bizarre and aggressive behavior, as it mimics the fear and anxiety of poverty even among those who aren’t poor. Other social conditions have various kinds of effects, in some cases with repercussions that last for centuries. But in any of these examples, the actual cause is rarely understood by many people. The corporate media and politicians are generally uninterested in reporting on what scientists have discovered, assuming scientists can get the funding to do the needed research. Large problems requiring probing thought and careful analysis don’t sell advertising nor do they sell political campaigns, and the corporations behind both would rather distract the public from public problems that would require public solutions, such as corporate regulations and higher taxation.

In our society, almost everything gets reduced to the individual. And so it is the individual who is blamed or treated or isolated, which is highly effective for social control. Put them in prison, give them a drug, scapegoat them in the media, or whatever. Anything so long as we don’t have to think about the larger conditions that shape individuals. The reality is that psychological conditions are never merely psychological. In fact, there is no psychology as separate and distinct from all else. The same is true for many physical diseases as well, such as autoimmune disorders. Most mental and physical health concerns are simply sets of loosely associated symptoms with thousands of possible causal and contributing factors. Our categorizing diseases by which drugs treat them is simply a convenience for the drug companies. But if you look deeply enough, you’ll typically find basic things that are implicated: gut dysbiosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, etc —- inflammation, for example, is found in numerous conditions, from depression and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and arthritis — the kinds of conditions that have been rapidly spreading over the past century (also, look at psychosis). Much of it is often dietary related, since in this society we are all part of the same food system and so we are all hit by the same nutrient-deficient foods, the same macronutrient ratios, the same harmful hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils/margarine, the same food additives, the same farm chemicals, the same plastic-originated hormone mimics, the same environmental toxins, etc. I’ve noticed the significant changes in my own mood, energy, and focus since turning to a low-carb, high-fat diet based mostly on whole foods and traditional foods that are pasture-fed, organic, non-GMO, local, and in season — lessening the physiological stress load. It is yet another factor that I see as related to my childhood difficulties, as diverse research has shown how powerful is diet in every aspect of health, especially neurocognitive health.

This makes it difficult for individuals in a hyper-individualistic society. We each feel isolated in trying to solve our supposedly separate problems, an impossible task, one might call it a Sisyphean task. And we rarely appreciate how much childhood development shapes us for the rest of our lives and how much environmental factors continue to influence us. We inherit so much from the world around us and the larger society we are thrown into, from our parents and the many generations before them. A society is built up slowly with the relationship between causes and consequences often not easily seen and, even when noticed, rarely appreciated. We are born and we grow up in conditions that we simply take for granted as our reality. But those conditions don’t have to be taken as fatalistic for, if we seek to understand them and embrace that understanding, we can change the very conditions that change us. This will require us first to get past our culture of blame and shame.

We shouldn’t personally identify with our health problems and struggles. We aren’t alone nor isolated. The world is continuously affecting us, as we affect others. The world is built on relationships, not just between humans and other species but involving everything around us — what some describe as embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended (we are hypersubjects among hyperobjects). The world that we inhabit, that world inhabits us, our bodies and minds. There is no world “out there” for there is no possible way for us to be outside the world. Everything going on around us shapes who we are, how we think and feel, and what we do — most importantly, shapes us as members of a society and as parts of a living biosphere, a system of systems all the way down. The personal is always the public, the individual always the collective, the human always the more than human.

* * *

When writing pieces like this, I should try to be more balanced. I focused solely on the harm that is caused by external factors. That is a rather lopsided assessment. But there is the other side of the equation implied in everything I wrote.

As higher inequality causes massive dysfunction and misery, greater equality brings immense benefit to society as a whole and each member within it. All you have to do in order to understand this is to look to cultures of trust such as the well functioning social democracies, with the Nordic countries being the most famous examples (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Or consider how, no matter your intelligence, you are better off being in an on average high IQ society than to be the smartest person in an on average low IQ society. Other people’s intelligence has greater impact on your well being and socioeconomic situation than does your own intelligence (see Hive Mind by Garett Jones).

This other side was partly pointed to in what I already wrote in the first section, even if not emphasized. For example, I pointed out how something so simple as regulating lead pollution could cause violent crime rates around the world to drop like a rock. And that was only looking at a small part of the picture. Besides impulsive behavior and aggression that can lead to violent crime, lead by itself is known to cause a wide array of problems: lowered IQ, ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc; and also general health issues, from asthma to cardiovascular disease. Lead is only one among many such serious toxins, with others including cadmium and mercury. The latter is strange. Mercury can actually increase IQ, even as it causes severe dysfunction in other ways. Toxoplasmosis also can do the same for the IQ of women, even as the opposite pattern is seen in men.

The point is that solving or even lessening major public health concerns can potentially benefit the entire society, maybe even transform society. We act fatalistic about these collective conditions, as if there is nothing to be done about inequality, whether the inequality of wealth, resources, and opportunities or the inequality of healthy food, clean water, and clean air. We created these problems and we can reverse them. It often doesn’t require much effort and the costs in taking action are far less than the costs of allowing these societal wounds to fester. It’s not as if Americans lack the ability to tackle difficult challenges. Our history is filled with examples of public projects and programs with vast improvements being made. Consider the sewer socialists who were the first to offer clean water to all citizens in their cities, something that once demonstrated as successful was adopted by every other city in the United States (more or less adopted, if we ignore the continuing lead toxicity crisis).

There is no reason to give up in hopelessness, not quite yet. Let’s try to do some basic improvements first and see what happens. We can wait for environmental collapse, if and when it comes, before we resign ourselves to fatalism. It’s not a matter if we can absolutely save all of civilization from all suffering. Even if all we could accomplish is reducing some of the worst harm (e.g., aiming for less than half of the world’s population falling victim to environmental sickness and mortality), I’d call it a wild success. Those whose lives were made better would consider it worthwhile. And who knows, maybe you or your children and grandchildren will be among those who benefit.

Stress and Shittiness

What causes heart disease – Part 63
by Malcolm Kendrick

To keep this simple, and stripping terminology down things down to basics, the concept I am trying to capture, and the word that I am going to use, here to describe the factor that can affect entire populations is ‘psychosocial stress’. By which I mean an environment where there is breakdown of community and support structures, often poverty, with physical threats and suchlike. A place where you would not really want to walk down the road unaccompanied.

This can be a zip code in the US, known as postcode in the UK. It can be a bigger physical area than that, such as a county, a town, or whole community – which could be split across different parts of a country. Such as native Americans living in areas that are called reservations.

On the largest scale it is fully possible for many countries to suffer from major psychosocial stress at the same time. […] Wherever you look, you can see that populations that have been exposed to significant social dislocation, and major psychosocial stressors, have extremely high rate of coronary heart disease/cardiovascular disease.

The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’
by Will Hutton

Britain and America are in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis. They are experiencing not merely a slowdown in life expectancy, which in many other rich countries is continuing to lengthen, but the start of an alarming increase in death rates across all our populations, men and women alike. We are needlessly allowing our people to die early.

In Britain, life expectancy, which increased steadily for a century, slowed dramatically between 2010 and 2016. The rate of increase dropped by 90% for women and 76% for men, to 82.8 years and 79.1 years respectively. Now, death rates among older people have so much increased over the last two years – with expectations that this will continue – that two major insurance companies, Aviva and Legal and General, are releasing hundreds of millions of pounds they had been holding as reserves to pay annuities to pay to shareholders instead. Society, once again, affecting the citadels of high finance.

Trends in the US are more serious and foretell what is likely to happen in Britain without an urgent change in course. Death rates of people in midlife(between 25 and 64) are increasing across the racial and ethnic divide. It has long been known that the mortality rates of midlife American black and Hispanic people have been worse than the non-Hispanic white population, but last week the British Medical Journal published an important study re-examining the trends for all racial groups between 1999 and 2016 .

The malaises that have plagued the black population are extending to the non-Hispanic, midlife white population. As the report states: “All cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Why? “Drug overdoses were the leading cause of increased mortality in midlife, but mortality also increased for alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).

US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.

The UK is not just suffering shit-life syndrome. We’re also suffering shit-politician syndrome.
by Richard Murphy

Will Hutton has an article in the Guardian in which he argues that the recent decline in the growth of life expectancy in the UK (and its decline in some parts) is down to what he describes as ‘shit-life syndrome’. This is the state where life is reduced to an exercise in mere survival as a result of the economic and social oppression lined up against those suffering the condition. And, as he points out, those suffering are not just those on the economic and social margins of society. In the UK, as in the US, the syndrome is spreading.

The reasons for this can be debated. I engaged in such argument in my book The Courageous State. In that book I argued that we live in a world where those with power do now, when they identify a problem, run as far as they might from it and say the market will find a solution. The market won’t do that. It is designed not to do so. Those suffering shit-life syndrome have, by default, little impact on the market. That’s one of the reasons why they are suffering the syndrome in the first place. That is why so much of current politics has turned a blind eye to this issue.

And they get away with it. That’s because the world of make belief advertising which drives the myths that underpin the media, and in turn out politics, simply pretends such a syndrome does not exist whilst at the same time perpetually reinforcing the sense of dissatisfaction that is at its core.

With Brexit, It’s the Geography, Stupid
by Dawn Foster

One of the major irritations of public discourse after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the complete poverty of analysis on the reasons behind different demographics’ voting preferences. Endless time, energy, and media attention has been afforded to squabbling over the spending of each campaign for and against continued European Union membership — and now more on the role social media played in influencing the vote — mirroring the arguments in the United States that those who voted to Leave were, like Trump voters, unduly influenced by shady political actors, with little transparency behind political ads and social media tactics.

It’s a handy distraction from the root causes in the UK: widening inequality, but also an increasingly entrenched economic system that is geographically specific, meaning your place of birth and rearing has far more influence over how limited your life is than anything within your control: work, education and life choices.

Across Britain, territorial injustice is growing: for decades, London has boomed in comparison to the rest of the country, with more and more wealth being sucked towards the southeast and other regions being starved of resources, jobs and infrastructure as a result. A lack of secure and well-remunerated work doesn’t just determine whether you can get by each month without relying on social security to make ends meet, but also all aspects of your health, and the health of your children. A recent report by researchers at Cambridge University examined the disproportionate effect of central government cuts on local authorities and services: inner city areas with high rates of poverty, and former industrial areas were hardest hit. Mia Gray, one of the authors of the Cambridge report said: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate. We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.”

Life expectancy is perhaps the starkest example. In many other rich countries, life expectancy continues to grow. In the United Kingdom it is not only stalling, but in certain regions falling. The gap between the north and south of England reveals the starkest gap in deaths among young people: in 2015, 29.3 percent more 25-34-year-olds died in the north of England than the south. For those aged 35-44, the number of deaths in the north was 50 percent higher than the south.

In areas left behind economically, such as the ex-mining towns in the Welsh valleys, the post-industrial north of England, and former seaside holiday destinations that have been abandoned as people plump for cheap European breaks, doctors informally describe the myriad tangle of health, social and economic problems besieging people as “Shit Life Syndrome”. The term, brought to public attention by the Financial Times, sounds flippant, but it attempts to tease out the cumulative impact of strict and diminished life chances, poor health worsened by economic circumstances, and the effects of low paid work and unemployment on mental health, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise, factors worsened by a lack of agency in the lives of people in the most deprived areas. Similar to “deaths of despair” in the United States, Shit Life Syndrome leads to stark upticks in avoidable deaths due to suicide, accidents, and overdoses: several former classmates who remained in the depressed Welsh city I grew up in have taken their own lives, overdosed, or died as a result of accidents caused by alcohol or drugs. Their lives prior to death were predictably unhappy, but the opportunity to turn things around simply didn’t exist. To move away, you need money and therefore a job. The only vacancies that appear pay minimum wage, and usually you’re turned away without interview.

Simply put, it’s a waste of lives on an industrial scale, but few people notice or care. One of the effects of austerity is the death of public spaces people can gather without being forced to spend money. Youth clubs no longer exist, and public health officials blame their demise on the rise in teenagers becoming involved in gangs and drug dealing in inner cities. Libraries are closing at a rate of knots, despite the government requiring all benefits claims to be submitted via computers. More and more public spaces and playgrounds are being sold off to land-hungry developers, forcing more and more people to shoulder their misery alone, depriving them of spaces and opportunities to meet people and socialise. Shame is key in perpetuating the sense that poverty is deserved, but isolation and loneliness help exacerbate the self-hatred that stops you fighting back against your circumstances.

“Shit-Life Syndrome” (Oxycontin Blues)
by Curtis Price

In narrowing drug use to a legal or public health problem, as many genuinely concerned about the legal and social consequences of addiction will argue, I believe a larger politics and political critique gets lost (This myopia is not confined to drug issues. From what I’ve seen, much of the “social justice” perspective in the professional care industry is deeply conservative; what gets argued for amounts to little more than increased funding for their own services and endless expansion of non-profits). Drug use, broadly speaking, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It is a thermometer for social misery and the more social misery, the greater the use. In other words, it’s not just a matter of the properties of the drug or the psychological states of the individual user, but also of the social context in which such actions play out.

If we accept this as a yardstick, then it’s no accident then that the loss of the 1984-1985 U.K. Miners’ Strike, with the follow-on closure of the pits and destruction of pit communities’ tight-knit ways of life, triggered widespread heroin use (2). What followed the defeat of the Miners’ Strike only telescoped into a few years the same social processes that in much of the U.S. were drawn out, more prolonged, insidious, and harder to detect. Until, that is, the mortality rates – that canary in the epidemiological coalmine -sharply rose to everyone’s shock.

US doctors have coined a phrase for the underlying condition of which drug use and alcoholism is just part: “shit-life syndrome.” As Will Hutton in the Guardian describes it,

“Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighborhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer”(3).

This accurately sums up “shit-life syndrome.” So, by all means, end locking up non-violent drug offenders and increase drug treatment options. But as worthwhile as these steps may be, they will do nothing to alter “shit-life syndrome.” “Shit-life syndrome” is just one more expression of the never-ending cruelty of capitalism, an underlying cruelty inherent in the way the system operates, that can’t be reformed out, and won’t disappear until new ways of living and social organization come into place.

The Human Kind, A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart Of Medicine
Peter Dorward
p. 155-157

It’s not like this for all kinds of illness, of course. Illness, by and large, is as solid and real as the chair I’m sitting on: and nothing I say or believe about it will change its nature. That’s what people mean when they describe an illness as ‘real’. You can see it and touch it, and if you can’t do that, then at least you can measure it. You can weigh a tumour; you can see on the screen the ragged outline of the plaque of atheroma in your coronary artery which is occluded and crushing the life out of you, and you would be mad to question the legitimacy of this condition that prompts the wiry cardiologist to feed the catheter down the long forks and bends of your clogged arterial tree in order to feed an expanding metal stent into the blocked artery and save you.

No one questions the reality and medical legitimacy of those things in the world that can be seen, felt, weighed, touched. That creates a deep bias in the patient; it creates a profound preference among us, the healers.

But a person is interactive . Minds can’t exist independently of other minds: that’s the nature of our kind. The names we have for things in the world and the way that we choose to talk about them affect how we experience them. Our minds are made of language, and grammar, intentions, emotions, perceptions and memory. We can only experience the world through the agency of our minds, and how our minds interact with others. Science is a great tool for talking about the external world: the world that is indifferent to what we think. Science doesn’t begin to touch the other, inner, social stuff. And that’s a challenge in medicine. You need other tools for that.

‘Shit-life syndrome,’ offers Becky, whose skin is so pale it looks translucent, who wears white blouses with little ruffs buttoned to the top and her blonde hair in plaits, whose voice is vicarage English and in whose mouth shit life sounds anomalous. Medicine can have this coarsening effect. ‘Shit-life syndrome provides the raw material. We doctors do all the rest.’

‘Go on…’

‘That’s all I ever seem to see in GP. People whose lives are non-specifically crap. Women single parenting too many children, doing three jobs which they hate, with kids on Ritalin, heads wrecked by smartphone and tablet parenting. Women who hate their bodies and have a new diagnosis of diabetes because they’re too fat. No wonder they want a better diagnosis! What am I meant to do?’

I like to keep this tutorial upbeat. I don’t like it to become a moan-fest, which is pointless and damaging. Yet, I don’t want to censor.

‘… Sometimes I feel like a big stone, dropped into a river of pain. I create a few eddies around me, the odd wave or ripple, but the torrent just goes on…’

‘… I see it different. It’s worse! I think half the time we actually cause the problems. Or at least we create our own little side channels in the torrent. Build dams. Deep pools of misery of our own creation!’

That’s Nadja. She’s my trainee. And I recognise something familiar in what she is saying – the echo of something that I have said to her. It’s flattering, and depressing.

‘For example, take the issuing of sick notes. They’re the worst. We have all of these people who say they’re depressed, or addicted, or stressed, who stay awake all night because they can’t sleep for worry, and sleep all day so they can’t work, and they say they’re depressed or anxious, or have backache or work-related stress, and we drug them up and sign them off, but what they’re really suffering from are the symptoms of chronic unemployment and the misery of poverty, which are the worst illnesses that there are! And every time I sign one of these sick notes, I feel another little flake chipped off my integrity. You’re asking about vectors for social illness? Sick notes! It’s like we’re … shitting in the river, and worrying about the cholera!’

Strong words. I need to speak to Nadja about her intemperate opinions…

‘At least, that’s what he keeps saying,’ says Nadja, nodding at me.

Nadja’s father was a Croatian doctor, who fled the war there. Brought up as she was, at her father’s knee, on his stories of war and torture, of driving his motorbike between Kiseljac and Sarajevo and all the villages in between with his medical bag perched on the back to do his house calls, she can never quite believe the sorts of things that pass for ‘suffering’ here. It doesn’t make Nadja a more compassionate doctor. She sips her coffee, with a smile.

Aly, the one training to be an anaesthetist-traumatologist, says, ‘We shouldn’t do it. Simple as that. It’s just not medicine. We should confine ourselves to the physical, and send the rest to a social worker, or a counsellor or a priest. No more sick notes, no more doing the dirty work of governments. If society has a problem with unemployment, that’s society’s problem, not mine. No more convincing people that they’re sick. No more prescriptions for crap drugs that don’t work. If you can’t see it or measure it, it isn’t real. We’re encouraging all this pseudo-­illness with our sick notes and our crap drugs. What’s our first duty? Do no harm! End of.’

She’ll be a great trauma doctor, no doubt about it.

* * *

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Rate And Duration of Despair
Trauma, Embodied and Extended
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Society and Dysfunction
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
To Grow Up Fast
Individualism and Isolation
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
On Conflict and Stupidity
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Morality-Punishment Link

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

On Staying Sane in a Suicidal Culture
by Dahr Jamail

Our situation so often feels hopeless. So much has spun out of control, and pathology surrounds us. At least one in five Americans are taking psychiatric medications, and the number of children taking adult psychiatric drugs is soaring.

From the perspective of Macy’s teachings, it seems hard to argue that this isn’t, at least in part, active denial of what is happening to the world and how challenging it is for both adults and children to deal with it emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

These disturbing trends, which are increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

What does depression feel like? Trust me – you really don’t want to know
by Tim Lott

Admittedly, severely depressed people can connect only tenuously with reality, but repeated studies have shown that mild to moderate depressives have a more realistic take on life than most “normal” people, a phenomenon known as “depressive realism”. As Neel Burton, author of The Meaning of Madness, put it, this is “the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating”. In a goal-driven, work-oriented culture, this is deeply threatening.

This viewpoint can have a paralysing grip on depressives, sometimes to a psychotic extent – but perhaps it haunts everyone. And therefore the bulk of the unafflicted population may never really understand depression. Not only because they (understandably) lack the imagination, and (unforgivably) fail to trust in the experience of the sufferer – but because, when push comes to shove, they don’t want to understand. It’s just too … well, depressing.

The Mental Disease of Late-Stage Capitalism
by Joe Brewer

A great irony of this deeply corrupt system of wealth hoarding is that the “weapon of choice” is how we feel about ourselves as we interact with our friends. The elites don’t have to silence us. We do that ourselves by refusing to talk about what is happening to us. Fake it until you make it. That’s the advice we are given by the already successful who have pigeon-holed themselves into the tiny number of real opportunities society had to offer. Hold yourself accountable for the crushing political system that was designed to divide us against ourselves.

This great lie that we whisper to ourselves is how they control us. Our fear that other impoverished people (which is most of us now) will look down on us for being impoverished too. This is how we give them the power to keep humiliating us.

I say no more of this emotional racket. If I am going to be responsible for my fate in life, let it be because I chose to stand up and fight — that I helped dismantle the global architecture of wealth extraction that created this systemic corruption of our economic and political systems.

Now more than ever, we need spiritual healing. As this capitalist system destroys itself, we can step aside and find healing by living honestly and without fear. They don’t get to tell us how to live. We can share our pain with family and friends. We can post it on social media. Shout it from the rooftops if we feel like it. The pain we feel is capitalism dying. It hurts us because we are still in it.

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems
by George Monbiot

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us
by Paul Verhaeghe

We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.

What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society
by Paul Verhaeghe
Kindle Locations 2357-2428

Hypotheses such as these, however plausible, are not scientific. If we want to demonstrate the link between a neo-liberal society and, say, mental disorders, we need two things. First, we need a yardstick that indicates the extent to which a society is neo-liberal. Second, we need to develop criteria to measure the increase or decrease of psychosocial wellbeing in society. Combine these two, and you would indeed be able to see whether such a connection existed. And by that I don’t mean a causal connection, but a striking pattern; a rise in one being reflected in the other, or vice versa.

This was exactly the approach used by Richard Wilkinson, a British social epidemiologist, in two pioneering studies (the second carried out with Kate Pickett). The gauge they used was eminently quantifiable: the extent of income inequality within individual countries. This is indeed a good yardstick, as neo-liberal policy is known to cause a spectacular rise in such inequality. Their findings were unequivocal: an increase of this kind has far-reaching consequences for nearly all health criteria. Its impact on mental health (and consequently also mental disorders) is by no means an isolated phenomenon. This finding is just as significant as the discovery that mental disorders are increasing.

As social epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett studied the connection between society and health in the broad sense of the word. Stress proves to be a key factor here. Research has revealed its impact, both on our immune systems and our cardiovascular systems. Tracing the causes of stress is difficult, though, especially given that we live in the prosperous and peaceful West. If we take a somewhat broader view, most academics agree on the five factors that determine our health: early childhood; the fears and cares we experience; the quality of our social relationships; the extent to which we have control over our lives; and, finally, our social status. The worse you score in these areas, the worse your health and the shorter your life expectancy are likely to be.

In his first book, The Impact of Inequality: how to make sick societies healthier, Wilkinson scrutinises the various factors involved, rapidly coming to what would be the central theme of his second book — that is, income inequality. A very striking conclusion is that in a country, or even a city, with high income inequality, the quality of social relationships is noticeably diminished: there is more aggression, less trust, more fear, and less participation in the life of the community. As a psychoanalyst, I was particularly interested in his quest for the factors that play a role at individual level. Low social status proves to have a determining effect on health. Lack of control over one’s work is a prominent stress factor. A low sense of control is associated with poor relationships with colleagues and greater anger and hostility — a phenomenon that Richard Sennett had already described (the infantilisation of adult workers). Wilkinson discovered that this all has a clear impact on health, and even on life expectancy. Which in turn ties in with a classic finding of clinical psychology: powerlessness and helplessness are among the most toxic emotions.

Too much inequality is bad for your health

A number of conclusions are forced upon us. In a prosperous part of the world like Western Europe, it isn’t the quality of health care (the number of doctors and hospitals) that determines the health of the population, but the nature of social and economic life. The better social relationships are, the better the level of health. Excessive inequality is more injurious to health than any other factor, though this is not simply a question of differences between social classes. If anything, it seems to be more of a problem within groups that are presumed to be equal (for example, civil servants and academics). This finding conflicts with the general assumption that income inequality only hurts the underclass — the losers — while those higher up the social ladder invariably benefit. That’s not the case: its negative effects are statistically visible in all sectors of the population, hence the subtitle of Wilkinson’s second work: why more equal societies almost always do better.

In that book, Wilkinson and Pickett adopt a fairly simple approach. Using official statistics, they analyse the connection between income inequality and a host of other criteria. The conclusions are astounding, almost leaping off the page in table after table: the greater the level of inequality in a country or even region, the more mental disorders, teenage pregnancies, child mortality, domestic and street violence, crime, drug abuse, and medication. And the greater the inequality is, the worse physical health and educational performance are, the more social mobility declines, along with feelings of security, and the unhappier people are.

Both books, especially the latter, provoked quite a response in the Anglo-Saxon world. Many saw in them proof of what they already suspected. Many others were more negative, questioning everything from the collation of data to the statistical methods used to reach conclusions. Both authors refuted the bulk of the criticism — which, given the quality of their work, was not a very difficult task. Much of it targeted what was not in the books: the authors were not urging a return to some kind of ‘all animals are equal’ Eastern-bloc state. What critics tended to forget was that their analysis was of relative differences in income, with negative effects becoming most manifest in the case of extreme inequality. Moreover, it is not income inequality itself that produces these effects, but the stress factors associated with it.

Roughly the same inferences can be drawn from Sennett’s study, though it is more theoretical and less underpinned with figures. His conclusion is fairly simple, and can be summed up in the title of what I regard as his best book: Respect in a World of Inequality. Too much inequality leads to a loss of respect, including self-respect — and, in psychosocial terms, this is about the worst thing that can happen to anyone.

This emerges very powerfully from a single study of the social determinants of health, which is still in progress. Nineteen eighty-six saw the start of the second ‘Whitehall Study’ that systematically monitored over 10,000 British civil servants, to establish whether there was a link between their health and their work situations. At first sight, this would seem to be a relatively homogenous group, and one that definitely did not fall in the lowest social class. The study’s most striking finding is that the lower the rank and status of someone within that group, the lower their life expectancy, even when taking account of such factors as smoking, diet, and physical exercise. The most obvious explanation is that the lowest-ranked people experienced the most stress. Medical studies confirm this: individuals in this category have higher cortisol levels (increased stress) and more coagulation-factor deficiencies (and thus are at greater risk of heart attacks).

My initial question was, ‘Is there a demonstrable connection between today’s society and the huge rise in mental disorders?’ As all these studies show, the answer is yes. Even more important is the finding that this link goes beyond mental health. The same studies show highly negative effects on other health parameters. As so often is the case, a parallel can be found in fiction — in this instance, in Alan Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis. During an interview, the author posed the following rhetorical question: ‘Who, experiencing for years the daily toll of intense corporate pressure, could truly escape severe anxiety?’* (I think it may justifiably be called rhetorical, when you think how many have had to find out its answer for themselves.)

A study by a research group at Heidelberg University very recently came to similar conclusions, finding that people’s brains respond differently to stress according to whether they have had an urban or rural upbringing. 3 What’s more, people in the former category prove more susceptible to phobias and even schizophrenia. So our brains are differently shaped by the environment in which we grow up, making us potentially more susceptible to mental disorders. Another interesting finding emerged from the way the researchers elicited stress. While the subjects of the experiment were wrestling with the complex calculations they had been asked to solve, some of them were told (falsely) that their scores were lagging behind those of the others, and asked to hurry up because the experiments were expensive. All the neo-liberal factors were in place: emphasis on productivity, evaluation, competition, and cost reduction.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
by Mark Fisher
pp. 19-22

Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high. […]

By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. While French students can still be found on the streets protesting against neoliberalism, British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, seem resigned to their fate. But this, I want to argue, is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reflexive impotence amounts to an unstated worldview amongst the British young, and it has its correlate in widespread pathologies. Many of the teenagers I worked with had mental health problems or learning difficulties. Depression is endemic. It is the condition most dealt with by the National Health Service, and is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages. The number of students who have some variant of dyslexia is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness. This pathologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing these problems – treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/ or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.

Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle. In large part this is a consequence of students’ ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services. In his crucial essay ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’, Deleuze distinguishes between the disciplinary societies described by Foucault, which were organized around the enclosed spaces of the factory, the school and the prison, and the new control societies, in which all institutions are embedded in a dispersed corporation.

pp. 32-38

The ethos espoused by McCauley is the one which Richard Sennett examines in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, a landmark study of the affective changes that the post-Fordist reorganization of work has brought about. The slogan which sums up the new conditions is ‘no long term’. Where formerly workers could acquire a single set of skills and expect to progress upwards through a rigid organizational hierarchy, now they are required to periodically re-skill as they move from institution to institution, from role to role. As the organization of work is decentralized, with lateral networks replacing pyramidal hierarchies, a premium is put on ‘flexibility’. Echoing McCauley’s mockery of Hanna in Heat (‘ How do you expect to keep a marriage?’), Sennett emphasizes the intolerable stresses that these conditions of permanent instability put on family life. The values that family life depends upon – obligation, trustworthiness, commitment – are precisely those which are held to be obsolete in the new capitalism. Yet, with the public sphere under attack and the safety nets that a ‘Nanny State’ used to provide being dismantled, the family becomes an increasingly important place of respite from the pressures of a world in which instability is a constant. The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other). […]

The psychological conflict raging within individuals cannot but have casualties. Marazzi is researching the link between the increase in bi-polar disorder and post-Fordism and, if, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism, then bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism. With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.

It seems that with post-Fordism, the ‘invisible plague’ of psychiatric and affective disorders that has spread, silently and stealthily, since around 1750 (i.e. the very onset of industrial capitalism) has reached a new level of acuteness. Here, Oliver James’s work is important. In The Selfish Capitalist, James points to significant rises in the rates of ‘mental distress’ over the last 25 years. ‘By most criteria’, James reports,

rates of distress almost doubled between people born in 1946 (aged thirty-six in 1982) and 1970 (aged thirty in 2000). For example, 16 per cent of thirty-six-year-old women in 1982 reported having ‘trouble with nerves, feeling low, depressed or sad’, whereas 29 per cent of thirty year-olds reported this in 2000 (for men it was 8 per cent in 1982, 13 per cent in 2000).

Another British study James cites compared levels of psychiatric morbidity (which includes neurotic symptoms, phobias and depression) in samples of people in 1977 and 1985. ‘Whereas 22 per cent of the 1977 sample reported psychiatric morbidity, this had risen to almost a third of the population (31 per cent) by 1986’. Since these rates are much higher in countries that have implemented what James calls ‘selfish’ capitalism than in other capitalist nations, James hypothesizes that it is selfish (i.e. neoliberalized) capitalist policies and culture that are to blame. […]

James’s conjectures about aspirations, expectations and fantasy fit with my own observations of what I have called ‘hedonic depression’ in British youth.

It is telling, in this context of rising rates of mental illness, that New Labour committed itself, early in its third term in government, to removing people from Incapacity Benefit, implying that many, if not most, claimants are malingerers. In contrast with this assumption, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that most of the people claiming Incapacity Benefit – and there are well in excess of two million of them – are casualties of Capital. A significant proportion of claimants, for instance, are people psychologically damaged as a consequence of the capitalist realist insistence that industries such as mining are no longer economically viable. (Even considered in brute economic terms, though, the arguments about ‘viability’ seem rather less than convincing, especially once you factor in the cost to taxpayers of incapacity and other benefits.) Many have simply buckled under the terrifyingly unstable conditions of post-Fordism.

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.

It does not seem fanciful to see parallels between the rising incidence of mental distress and new patterns of assessing workers’ performance. We will now take a closer look at this ‘new bureaucracy’.

The Opposite of Addiction is Connection
by Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S

Not for Alexander. He was bothered by the fact that the cages in which the rats were isolated were small, with no potential for stimulation beyond the heroin. Alexander thought: Of course they all got high. What else were they supposed to do? In response to this perceived shortcoming, Alexander created what we now call “the rat park,” a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cage, with Hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters.[ii] And he put not one rat, but 20 rats (of both genders) into the cage. Then, and only then, did he mirror the old experiments, offering one bottle of pure water and one bottle of heroin water. And guess what? The rats ignored the heroin. They were much more interested in typical communal rat activities such as playing, fighting, eating, and mating. Essentially, with a little bit of social stimulation and connection, addiction disappeared. Heck, even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to the rat park.

The Human Rat Park

One of the reasons that rats are routinely used in psychological experiments is that they are social creatures in many of the same ways that humans are social creatures. They need stimulation, company, play, drama, sex, and interaction to stay happy. Humans, however, add an extra layer to this equation. We need to be able to trust and to emotionally attach.

This human need for trust and attachment was initially studied and developed as a psychological construct in the 1950s, when John Bowlby tracked the reactions of small children when they were separated from their parents.[iii] In a nutshell, he found that infants, toddlers, and young children have an extensive need for safe and reliable caregivers. If children have that, they tend to be happy in childhood and well-adjusted (emotionally healthy) later in life. If children don’t have that, it’s a very different story. In other words, it is clear from Bowlby’s work and the work of later researchers that the level and caliber of trust and connection experienced in early childhood carries forth into adulthood. Those who experience secure attachment as infants, toddlers, and small children nearly always carry that with them into adulthood, and they are naturally able to trust and connect in healthy ways. Meanwhile, those who don’t experience secure early-life attachment tend to struggle with trust and connection later in life. In other words, securely attached individuals tend to feel comfortable in and to enjoy the human rat park, while insecurely attached people typically struggle to fit in and connect.

The Opposite Of Addiction is Connection
By Jonathan Davis

If connection is the opposite of addiction, then an examination of the neuroscience of human connection is in order. Published in 2000, A General Theory Of Love is a collaboration between three professors of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. A General Theory Of Love reveals that humans require social connection for optimal brain development, and that babies cared for in a loving environment are psychological and neurologically ‘immunised’ by love. When things get difficult in adult life, the neural wiring developed from a love-filled childhood leads to increased emotional resilience in adult life. Conversely, those who grow up in an environment where loving care is unstable or absent are less likely to be resilient in the face of emotional distress.

How does this relate to addiction? Gabor Maté observes an extremely high rate of childhood trauma in the addicts he works with and trauma is the extreme opposite of growing up in a consistently safe and loving environment. He asserts that it is extremely common for people with addictions to have a reduced capacity for dealing with emotional distress, hence an increased risk of drug-dependence.

How Our Ability To Connect Is Impaired By Trauma

Trauma is well-known to cause interruption to healthy neural wiring, in both the developing and mature brain. A deeper issue here is that people who have suffered trauma, particularly children, can be left with an underlying sense that the world is no longer safe, or that people can no longer be trusted. This erosion (or complete destruction) of a sense of trust, that our family, community and society will keep us safe, results in isolation – leading to the very lack of connection Johann Harri suggests is the opposite of addiction. People who use drugs compulsively do so to avoid the pain of past trauma and to replace the absence of connection in their life.

Social Solutions To Addiction

The solution to the problem of addiction on a societal level is both simple and fairly easy to implement. If a person is born into a life that is lacking in love and support on a family level, or if due to some other trauma they have become isolated and suffer from addiction, there must be a cultural response to make sure that person knows that they are valued by their society (even if they don’t feel valued by their family). Portugal has demonstrated this with a 50% drop in addiction thanks to programs that are specifically designed to re-create connection between the addict and their community.

The real cause of addiction has been discovered – and it’s not what you think
by Johann Hari

This has huge implications for the one hundred year old war on drugs. This massive war – which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool – is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction – if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction – then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction: for example, I went to a prison in Arizona – ‘Tent City’ – where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (“The Hole”) for weeks and weeks on end, to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record – guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them – to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs – so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira – the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass – and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

This isn’t only relevant to addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s: “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live–constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander, the creator of Rat Park, told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Society and Dysfunction

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

The Desperate Acting Desperately

To Grow Up Fast

Morality-Punishment Link

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A paradigm change has been happening. The shift began long ago, but it’s starting to gain traction in the mainstream. Here is one recent example, an article from Psychology Today—Anxiety and Depression Are Symptoms, Not Diseases by Gregg Henriques Ph.D.:

“Depression is a way the emotional system signals that things are not working and that one is not getting one’s relational needs met. If you are low on relational value in the key domains of family, friends, lovers, group and self, feeling depressed in this context is EXACTLY like feeling pain from a broken arm, feeling cold being outside in the cold, and feeling hungry after going 24 hours without food.

“It is worth noting that, given the current structure of society, depression often serves not to help reboot the system and enlist social support, but instead contributes to the further isolation of the individual, which creates a nasty, vicious spiral of shutting down, doing less, feeling more isolated, turning against the self, and thus getting even more depressed. As such, depressive symptoms often do contribute to the problem, and folks do suffer from Negative Affect Syndromes, where extreme negative moods are definitely part of the problem.

“BUT, everyone should be clear, first and foremost, that anxiety and depression are symptoms of psychosocial needs and threats. They should NOT be, first and foremost, considered alien feelings that need to be eliminated or fixed, any more than we would treat pain from a broken arm, coldness and hunger primarily with pills that takes away the feelings, as opposed to fixing the arm, getting warmer or feeding the hungry individual.”

It’s a pretty good article. The focus on symptoms seems like the right way to frame it. This touch upon larger issues. I’d widen the scope even further. Once we consider the symptoms, it opens up a whole slew of possibilities.

There is the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. The author discusses the rat park research, showing that addiction isn’t an individual disease but a social problem. Change the conditions and the results change. Basically, people are healthier, happier, and more well-adjusted in environments that are conducive to satisfying basic needs.

Then there is James Gilligan’s Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, an even more hard-hitting book. It shows (among other things) suicide rates go up when Republicans are elected. As I recall, other data shows that suicide rates go up in other societies as well, when conservatives are elected.

There are other factors that are directly correlated to depression rates and other mental health issues.

Some are purely physical. Toxoplasmosis is an example of that, and its related parasitic load that stunts brain development. Many examples could be added, from malnutrition to lack of healthcare.

Plus, there are problems that involve both the physical environment and social environment. Lead toxicity causes mental health problems, including depression. The rates of lead toxicity depend on how strong and effective are regulations, which in turn depends on the type of government and who is in power.

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism is one of the drains around which my mind slowly revolves. My mind revolves around it for that stinky dark hole is the center of our society. I poke and pick at the detritus clogging up the works until whatever lay hidden oozes out.

You get the picture. It’s a fun game I like to play. Join me, if you will.

Let me begin with obesity. We Americans are fat and lazy. I almost feel stupid to state such an obvious fact. Everyone knows this simple truth. It’s no big secret, pardon my pun. 

It’s a good thing we have a morally superior elite to tell us what to do (and to sell us the products to help us cover up our failures and lessen our inadequacies). And we know they are morally superior because they aren’t fat like all us poor schmucks. The elite may consume more than everyone else, but they go to the gym regularly to work it all off. The poor could work it all off too, if they weren’t lazy and morally inferior.

To continue with the obvious, we Americans are a hungry people ready to devour all of the world at the first chance we get. Our military and our consumerism is an endless gaping maw, ever hungry and waiting to be fed. We are the Borg… blah, blah, blah… assimilate… blah. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s the natural order for the lean and mean to prey upon the fat losers.

To put it in more prosaic terms, here is a sampling of an article that lists all the excuses for being obese (i.e., ugly, disgusting and generally worthless):

The obesity era
As the American people got fatter, so did marmosets, vervet monkeys and mice. The problem may be bigger than any of us
By David Berreby
Aeon Magazine

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

[ . . . ]

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

To put it in proper context, next up is a passage from the book where I first learned of Capitalist Realism. Reading this book has misled me from the true path of profit. I think I may have been brainwashed into socialism. Read the following at your peril!

Capitalist Realism:
Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher
pp. 18-20

At this point, it is perhaps worth introducing an elementary theoretical distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis which Žižek has done so much to give contemporary currency: the difference between the Real and reality. As Alenka Zupancic explains, psychoanalysis’s positing of a reality principle invites us to be suspicious of any reality that presents itself as natural. ‘The reality principle’, Zupancic writes,

is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real( s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.

Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market (In the end, Wall-E presents a version of this fantasy – the idea that the infinite expansion of capital is possible, that capital can proliferate without labor – on the off world ship, Axiom, all labor is performed by robots; that the burning up of Earth’s resources is only a temporary glitch, and that, after a suitable period of recovery, capital can terraform the planet and recolonize it). Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

In part, I have chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becoming increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalist realism: education.

Ah, education. I was just discussing that earlier today. In that post, I labeled it as a Dangerous Pragmatism.

Everything must be measured by profit and transformed into capital. To blame the individual, society must create the individual. Education in capitalism, first and foremost, is about manufacturing this product of individuality. In Capitalist Realism, individualism is defined by freedom, both the freedom to accept the system and the freedoms denied by the system. We are free when, where and how we are told to be free. You are completely free within the reality tunnel, just as long as you play within the boundaries and draw within the lines.

A bit further on in the book (pp. 73-74):

There’s no doubt that late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programs like You Are What You Eat, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the ‘consentimental’ regime.

Freedom to seek pleasure. It is in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

We have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, endlessly pursue it. Some might say it is our civic duty to never stop pursuing happiness, like the man lost in the desert following a mirage in the distance. But sometimes it isn’t even about the happiness or even the pretense of seeking it. As Dubya famously said, 

“Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

Happiness is just the selling point. The real purpose, though, is what is being sold. It’s not just a product being sold. The entire system of capitalism must be sold to the American people… hook, line and sinker. We the People must buy into Capitalist Realism or the American Dream will die and the Terrorists or Commies will win.

When you buy, you are bought. You buy to consume and you buy to solve all the problems of consumerism. The only thing that can’t be bought is your humanity, but it can be sold very cheaply.

To learn more of my deep insight and profound analysis, explore the wonders of my previous blogging about Capitalist Realism:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-unimagined-capitalism-and-crappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/pkd-vs-the-american-mythos/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/symbolic-conflation-empathic-imagination/

Re: Time to turn against cannabis!

Keith E Rice’s blog post titled Time to turn against cannabis!

My comments:

I hadn’t heard of this research. I love research because it can disprove commonly accepted ‘facts’, but I’m always suspicious of how research gets interpreted. The obvious question that arises in my mind is whether people with certain personlity and/or genetic predispositions are more likely to smoke marijuana. Maybe people who have a predisposition to schizophrenia also have a predisposition to experimenting with drugs and so the correlation may or may not be causation.

For example, Ernest Hartmann has written about the relationship between dreams and schizophrenia in terms of thin boundary types. One trait that thin boundary types have is an openness to experience and so they’re more likely to experiment in general.

The question is how many people who become schizophrenic after cannabis use would’ve become schizophrenic whether or not they’d used cannabis? Does the cannabis cause or contribute to schizophrenia? That question still hasn’t been answered. More careful research is required.

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I must admit that I don’t have that strong opinion about marijuana per se.  I just have a negative reaction to the lies and propaganda I was spoon-fed growing up.  It’s hard to know what is true when you were never given the truth.  For example, this meta-analysis had an obvious bias.  The data was being interpeted to a specific ideological conclusion.  I say just give me the data and don’t tell me what it means.  I’m fine with presenting me with the various ways of interpreting it.  I do think there is a decent chance that it might contribute to schizophrenia and so the authorities should say that in an honest way.  It’s possible to simplify information so as to effectively communicate without turning it into lies and propaganda.

Yeah, marijuana has risks but so do lots of legal substances which have dangerous side effects when misused or not supervised carefully by a doctor.  Marijuana also has medical benefits.  That is why you legalize it so that people using it for medical purposes get medical supervision. Sure, people will still use it incorrectly, but that is true for every other legal medication.  Every substance that is prescribed by a doctor can also be bought on the street.  In fact, some legally prescribed drugs are very popular in college and highschool.  Kids illegally sell their legal prescriptions all of the time.  You can’t stop illegal distribution of drugs (whether or not the drugs are legal), but you can decrease the dangers by not lying to people.  Making generalizations that are simplified truths are fine.  Lying is never acceptable.

I don’t think everyone can handle everything.  For one, that is why you legalize it in order to put it in the realm of public knowledge and accountability.  Many people do listen to their doctors and other authority figures, but people lose trust in authorities when they’re lied to.  Drugs bought on the street are even more dangerous because you don’t necessarily know what you’re buying.  As far as I know, there is no evidence that legalizing marijuana increases its use.  You simply decrease the number of people being in prison.  Prohibition proved the truth of this.

I understand your general argument, but it’s a slippery slope.  Why stop with cannabis?  People do all kinds of things that are immensely unhealthy (physically and mentally).  The most unhealthy addictive drug man has ever invented is refined sugar which kills massive numbers of people and leads even more to miserable lives of a wide variety of diseases and disabilities.  Fast food is probably a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol combined.  People make bad decisions all of the time that quickly or slowly destory their lives.  I’d be fine with illegalizing all unhealthy and dangerous activities if it actually stopped those activities, but it doesn’t.  Marijuana is illegal and yet people keep using it.

By the time of college, around half of people report having tried marijuana and about half of those report being current users.  However, I don’t know if this takes into account the massive under-reporting.  According to under-reporting estimates, 41 million Americans use marijuana annually.  The drug war has failed.  Lies and propaganda have failed.  Why not try a different approach?

So, I say prove to me that illegalization and scare tactics work because all evidence seems to be to the contrary.  The government has already tried for several decades of “lurid front page headlines about the dangers of using cannabis” and they failed.  Cannabis use increased during that time of endless propaganda.  I saw that kind of propaganda growing up.  It didn’t stop me and it didn’t stop most of my peers.  I’m for whatever works, whatever helps people.  I’m just against ideology.  It’s similar to people who promote abstinence programs even though they increase the number of pregnancies and STDs.  Personally, I believe results are more important than ideology.  Show me the results.  It’s not about what people can handle.  It’s about what works.

There actually is an argument for propaganda.  It does work when all avenues of information are controlled.  For example, China has been very successful with propaganda because it tightly controls all media.  The problem is such control isn’t possible in a democracy.  Propaganda also works during times of extreme fear such as war, but it’s almost impossible to uphold a constant state of fear and probably isn’t desirable.  The thing is that kids these days are media saavy.  They don’t just accept what they’re told.  If you tell them one thing, they’ll search for opposing viewpoints and they’ll ask their friends.  If they learn they’ve been lied to or been told partial truths, then the propaganda will have an opposite effect than was intended.  Propaganda is a hard thing to do well.

Why do you think marijuana use increased during the largest anti-drug propaganda program the US government has ever implemented?  It wasn’t for a lack of trying nor was it for a lack of good intentions.

 – – –

You said something that caught my attention.

“So simplifications/generalisations/lies-based-on-truth can work. I think there will be whole load of factors which give us the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.”

Attitudes can be changed, but I’m not sure exactly what changes them.

Why has the attitude about cigarettes changed so quickly?  It’s really hard to explain.  How does something switch from being socially acceptable to being socially unacceptable in such a short period of time?  Second-hand smoke is bad, but so are many things such as second-hand car exhaust… the latter being far worse for one’s health.  Why do cities build large parking ramps in the middle of town to encourage the concentration of car exhaust in the very concentration of the human population.  Why don’t they instead build parking ramps far away from populated areas and encourage public transporation?  I don’t own a car and so aren’t my rights being infringed in the way a non-smokers rights are being infringed sitting next to a smoker?

There are all kinds of things that are far worse than second-hand smoke.  Maybe the lies-founded-on-truth of the anti-tobacco lobbies worked because of effective campaigning that had nothing directly to do with facts.  They touched upon people’s emotions and other psychological motivations which are largely unconscious.  They made it uncool, but the facts were secondary.  If you know what you’re doing, people can be easy to manipulate sometimes (there is a lot of research studying this).  That is what advertising is about.  If companies couldn’t influence people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, then there’d be no advertising.  Campaigning, like advertising, actually works best when you bypass people’s rational response.  If you present facts, they’re only a facade to hide the true mechanisms of manipulation.  However, if the campaign lies about the facts and gets caught, then the manipulation will backfire.

Sadly, humans aren’t primarily rational and the change in public opinion isn’t rational either.  As I metioned, I think fastfood and junkfood are the biggest killer of any substances in the world.  If we were worried about public health, it would be illegal to buy fastfood and junkfood for kids.  But peole cherish their freedoms (and their habits and addictions) and will fight if you try to take them away.  The worst health hazards never get changed because they involve too many people.  If you can get the majority of people addicted to your substance such as sugar or if you can get the majority to use it on a regular basis such as alcohol, then you can ensure it will never be made illegal or that it won’t remain illegal for long because of public demand.

“As regards, alcohol, while it is still the most popular drug of all, certainly amongst the late teens/early twenties I meet either through family or school networks are very strongly anti-drink driving and they almost unanimously assure me their friends and acquaintances are of a similar mind. Drink-driving just isn’t cool! And now I see it starting to spread quite strongly amongst my own age group (45-50), often considered in the UK previously the most hard-to-shift group.”

This might be where it’s important to consider how generational cohorts play a part in change in attitudes.  But it’s important to keep in mind that generational shifts in attitude don’t always last beyond a specific generation.  There has been a campaign against drunk driving and it’s been effective.  The reason it’s worked is probably because it didn’t use lies and misinformation like was done with the anti-drug campaign.  It also touched upon the power of peer pressure.  Nobody wants to be uncool or to be judged.  This is particularly true for kids of the Millenial Generation which seem to put greater emphasis on peer influence than some previous generations.

I should add that I work in a parking ramp near bars where college kids congregate.  It may be true that drunk driving is less cool than it used to be, but trust me there are still a lot of drunk drivers.  It’s surprising that I see so many drunk drivers on a regular basis considering the legal ramifications of getting caught.  I’d be curious about the statistics about how much drunk driving has actually decreased.