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In a previous essay, I outlined how society might take advantage of our dire pandemic predicament by exploring, consolidating and streamlining certain environmental ideas which would have been regarded as too edgy just a scant few months ago. Though it may seem difficult, it is incumbent on us to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis, and assuming the world goes back to some semblance of normality, society must transform itself not just environmentally but politically and socially as well. Though pandemics may vary in type, duration and mortality, they frequently tend to be “game changers,” and so, as Coronavirus exacts a greater social and economic toll, it may be helpful to reflect on some previous history.
During the Black Death, disease killed so many people that the pandemic wound up hastening the ultimate demise of feudalism. With labor in short supply, peasants were able to bargain for higher wages and lower rents, and the standard of living as well as social mobility increased. Simultaneously, wealth inequality plummeted as workers began to eat and drink better than before, while acquiring fancy clothes. Moreover, landlords saw their incomes shrink due to lower rents, and lords and knights began to disappear within the social hierarchy. What’s more, the plague shattered public confidence towards authority as people flagrantly disregarded the law, a development which needless to say perturbed the wealthy.
Similarly, the Spanish flu of 1918 served as a kind of “clarifying moment” highlighting class and social differences. By exacerbating the supply of goods, flu prompted uprisings, strikes and anti-imperialist protest across the globe, while leading many to become disenchanted with capitalism and colonialism. In many countries, governments were pressured to phase in the welfare state and improve public health measures. In the U.S., meanwhile, women left farms and entered the workforce as a result of the death of so many men, which in turn accelerated the drive towards the women’s vote. In India, flu killed an estimated 18 million, fanning anger against British authorities which had neglected healthcare and uniting militants behind Gandhi and the independence movement.
False Choice: Nationalism or Globalization?
While society finds itself in a bleak predicament, we must try to find a silver lining to this crisis or alternatively descend into a dystopian future in which democratic regimes falter while authoritarian governments become more assertive. In France, Italy and Britain, political leaders enjoyed an initial surge in popularity, but as patience has worn thin with the Coronavirus response, the public has begun to turn on politicians. With the West distracted, Xi Jinping has cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators and sought to intimidate Taiwan while providing aid to countries struggling to contain Coronavirus. In Hungary, meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has assumed emergency powers while sidelining parliament, even as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and India’s Narendra Modi clamp down on civil rights.
If nationalists become emboldened, the pandemic may force elites to re-evaluate “globalization,” a trend referring to the globalized flow of goods, people and capital. Even before Coronavirus hit, right-wing nationalists had railed against globalization to further their own political agendas, and that trend is likely to continue as the world comes to terms with pathogens spreading at an alarming rate via air travel. Already, there is talk of reforming globalization, or promoting a drive toward “national developmentalism.” Indeed, some nationalists have seized on Coronavirus as an additional reason to seal off borders and bring factories home, while railing against China for spreading the virus.
And yet, throughout this crisis, other progressive voices have been largely absent from the debate, perhaps out of concern that criticizing China might feed into a nationalist critique. This in turn has allowed rightists to monopolize the entire discussion, an ironic development in light of the earlier anti-globalization movement which brought together organized labor and environmentalists. If anything, Coronavirus should prompt a reconsideration of such previous struggles, which sought to protect local economies from subversion of transnational capital while erecting tariffs to protect farmers and conducting an activist trade policy designed to sustain national economies, rather than disrupting the latter via cheap commodities and supply chains run by large corporations.
On a certain level, it seems logical that if globalization takes a hit as a result of Coronavirus, then the central state will become a direct beneficiary. In the short-term, at least, the pandemic has strengthened the hand of nativists intent on dismantling international supply chains and repatriating production to the domestic United States, and the crisis may encourage experimentation with state capitalism. In the long-run, however, authorities failure to address public health emergencies may conversely bolster calls for greater state socialism. In that model, officials would nationalize hospitals and workers would not be regarded as a force to protect markets but rather as a means of protecting life itself. In this scenario, the government would step in to ensure food production, energy and housing.
Class Conflict and Pandemics
Though state socialism would certainly be an improvement over the status quo, it’s not as if socialist Spain, for example, has stood out for its stellar handling of Coronavirus. As a result, it’s possible that some countries could become even more radicalized by the end of this crisis and class conflict will be sharpened. In the absence of a coordinated state response, we have seen the emergence of so-called “mutual aid” networks which have stepped in to provide essential services. Originally a term coined by nineteenth century anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid” is currently enjoying a revival, from neighbors helping each other to community support networks to providing grocery shopping to meal preparation.
In the U.S., Coronavirus has highlighted class fissures in stark relief. The economically disadvantaged and racial minorities have been more prone to disease, and Coronavirus has laid bare class divides in terms of access to health care, education, living space and the like. Indeed, “a kind of pandemic caste system” has developed, with the rich ensconced in their vacation homes, the middle class stuck at home with children and the working class forced to work on the front lines. Internationally, too, the disease has revealed class fissures: in China, for example, the rich can afford home delivery of meals, but food delivery drivers have been forced to work. In India, social distancing seems like an unrealistic pipe dream in the midst of crowded shantytowns.
Needless to say, inequalities have sparked class conflict and led to improvised political organizing. In the U.S., Amazon workers incensed over lack of safety walked off the job, while workers at Whole Foods staged a “sick out.” Meanwhile, healthcare workers have protested lack of protective equipment, tenants are organizing rent strikes, and housing activists have occupied vacant buildings. In Detroit, transport workers went on strike over concerns that vehicles had not been properly disinfected. Laborers abroad have followed suit, with port workers in France walking off the job due to unsafe conditions.
Challenge to State Authority
On the face of it, Coronavirus has created “boom times for centralized state bureaucracies,” accompanied by an extraordinary level of state intervention in citizens’ lives and a blow to globalization with clamp downs on international borders and travel. Meanwhile, the concept of multilateralism, from the European Union to the United Nations to the World Health Organization, has suffered a crisis of confidence.
And yet, in certain parts of the world, it’s not central states which have taken the lead but other institutions, suggesting that “rather than a world of strengthened states contained within ever more impermeable borders, the pandemic could leave behind a much more complicated and messier political world, where power is contested in new ways—or perhaps in very old ones.” In Brazil and Mexico, state and regional governments have stepped in to fill the vacuum in central planning, while in France local authorities have defied Paris by overseeing more extensive public health measures.
Perhaps, we could see the emergence of “hyper-regionalism,” in which mega-cities become more dominant and step in to provide resilient services. Already, northeastern U.S. states have formed a pact to try and figure out a common Coronavirus strategy, with western states including California, Oregon and Washington following suit, not to mention a group of Midwestern states. Governors have even named public health and economic officials to assist with joint plans.
Though such moves are certainly innovative, states could move even further by establishing “interstate compacts,” which are similar to treaty arrangements, and thereby bypass federal control. In an eye-opening statement, California governor Gavin Newsom recently remarked that he would “use the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state” to acquire needed medical supplies. Though Newsom is a Democrat, such pushback from states has been lauded by no less than the libertarian right as a necessary corrective to federal failure.
World-Wide Rebellion and Pandemics
Meanwhile, the pandemic most certainly will fan the flames of revolt which had broken out even prior to the pandemic, from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong and beyond. Indeed, 2019 had already come to be known as “the year of street protest.” Sparked by corruption, political repression, the rising cost of living and simmering inequality, such revolts unfortunately failed to articulate a coherent radical vision, let alone a consistent set of environmental principles. For now, Coronavirus has predictably enough exerted a chilling effect on unrest.
Nevertheless, the pandemic hasn’t entirely stamped out the spirit of revolt. From hungry migrant laborers protesting in the streets, to starving others demanding the right to work, to prison riots, to demonstrators calling for their governments to do more to confront the virus to citizens banging on pots and pans, people across the globe have come up with creative forms of dissent. Some activists have even taken to online protest, though unfortunately such demonstrations have failed to cause the same level of disruption as earlier street protest.
Hardly a bastion of progressive thought, Bloomberg media itself has remarked, “the immediate effect of Covid-19 is to dampen most forms of unrest, as both democratic and authoritarian governments force their populations into lockdowns, which keep people from taking to the streets or gathering in groups. But behind the doors of quarantined households, in the lengthening lines of soup kitchens, in prisons and slums and refugee camps — wherever people were hungry, sick and worried even before the outbreak — tragedy and trauma are building up. One way or another, these pressures will erupt.”
Sweeping Aside the Ancien Régime
Conventional pundits have claimed that Coronavirus will shore up authoritarian governments. But even in China, where Xi Jinping has seemingly weathered the political storm, unrest seethes below the surface. As Financial Times notes, it would be a mistake “to misread [authoritarian] power-grabs as evidence that the pandemic naturally entrenches illiberal regimes.” Indeed, if anything, Coronavirus has exposed Beijing’s fragility as evidenced by angry public protest over the authorities’ initial handling of the pandemic. Such protest overlapped with months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. In Russia, meanwhile, Coronavirus has exacted a heavy economic and political toll on Vladimir Putin.
Ultimately, however, “with the street revolts’ underlying causes largely unaddressed, those surviving remnants could eventually swell once more.” Whether protests break out within western democracies or authoritarian states, Bloomberg notes that “it would be naive to think that, once this medical emergency is over, either individual countries or the world can carry on as before. Anger and bitterness will find new outlets. In time, these passions could become new populist or radical movements, intent on sweeping aside whatever ancien regimes they define as the enemy.”
It was difficult enough to sort through and make sense of the earlier diffuse wave of 2019 world-wide protest, which in time might seem positively quaint in comparison to what lies in store. Having failed to link up with such earlier struggles, perhaps environmentalists might seize on our present predicament to rethink and re-tool their message. Just like previous public health “game-changers,” Coronavirus will no doubt galvanize and crystallize class and social divisions, but if future rebellions are to succeed and not merely slip into chaos, they must think shrewdly about how the pandemic is likely to reconfigure, or even revolutionize, politics as we know it.
Who’s been worse when it comes to handling Coronavirus, the federal government or the media? Though the Trump administration has been laughably incompetent and ill-prepared for the pandemic, cable news has been no less derelict in its reporting. Just like the politicians in Washington, the media has been caught flat-footed, having previously failed to inform the public about the true origins of Coronavirus, let alone other diseases which are linked to our disruptions of the natural world. Having botched the environmental discussion about pandemics, the media’s reporting on Coronavirus has been decidedly short-term, thus making it all the more unlikely that society will make the necessary adjustments to avoid future crises, that is if we even manage to emerge from this one.
For me, Coronavirus carries a slight sense of déjà vu. Ten years ago, I warned about the deadly cocktail of environmental destruction and proliferation of tropical diseases in my book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet. As I wrote at the time, climate change, intense El Niño-driven drought and fires in the Amazon have resulted in a boomerang-type effect. When pasture land dries up, water becomes stagnant, which in turn results in greater numbers of malaria-driven mosquitoes. Under such conditions, tropical diseases like dengue flourish, and huge percentages of indigenous people in local villages wind up contracting malaria. The increasingly more intense El Niño cycle is also linked to cholera, since warming ocean currents encourage the growth and spread of bacteria. This in turn has led to outbreaks of cholera in Peru, a country fond of ceviche, a favorite dish comprised of marinated raw fish.
Complex Interplay of Forces
As I wrote at the time, perhaps prophetically, “every time South Americans are hit with a powerful El Niño and a cholera or dengue outbreak, they wonder what it’s going to take for the Global North to spring into action.” Apparently, in light of recent events, the only way the public will wake up to the threat of disease is when a pandemic emerges in more affluent countries, and even then, the media will perpetuate a narrow-minded perspective which fails to address systemic and underlying environmental problems.
To be sure, Coronavirus differs from other tropical diseases, yet environmental campaigner Chandra Bhushan argues that a warming planet tends to encourage the spread of further illness, as rising temperatures and humidity assist in the breeding of pathogens. Writing in Financial Express, Bhushan points out that while there’s no “smoking gun” linking climate change to Coronavirus, let alone concrete evidence that global warming activated the virus to jump from animals to humans in the first place, nevertheless it’s possible that our immune systems have become compromised due to changes in the environment, thus making us more vulnerable to novel superbugs.
Normally, he remarks, we produce antibodies which neutralize bacteria and viruses, but now, in the era of global warming, pathogens are surviving at higher temperatures outside the human body. As a result, these pathogens have become more adept at withstanding heat inside the body as well, thus suggesting an indirect link to climate change. Ultimately, however, it’s too simplistic to merely blame global warming for the rise of pandemics such as Coronavirus, since much more complex forces are at play. Experts point out that Coronavirus is considered to be a “zoonotic” disease, meaning that it originated in an animal species and then moved to humans. If anything, the rise of Coronavirus forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that we have done a poor job at “staying in our own lane,” which has in turn disrupted the natural order.
Search for Smoking Gun
Though no bats were discovered at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China where the Coronavirus outbreak occurred, studies have concluded that the disease may have originated with them. Because they harbor a higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than mammals, and can fly across vast distances as they transport disease, bats are ideal hosts. What’s more, bats can pass along viruses in their feces, for example by defecating on a piece of fruit. If another animal consumes the fruit, that creature in turn can become a carrier. Some studies have shown that a bat-borne virus lacks the ability to attach itself to human cell receptors, which has led others to suggest that an intermediate host may have spread the disease.
Scientific teams have reportedly uncovered SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)-like coronaviruses in pangolins, endangered animals which were seized by Chinese authorities in the south of the country. Pangolins, scaly animals which have been physically compared to an artichoke, or a cross between “an anteater, an armadillo and a pinecone,” are considered to be the most smuggled mammal in the world. Last year alone, 100,000 pangolins were killed, and as a result they are threatened with extinction. Highly prized for their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, pangolins are also sought after for their meat which is regarded by some as a delicacy.
Perhaps, a bat and pangolin virus may have traded their genetics before spreading to humans, though such theories have yet to be proven definitively. Some have suggested it wasn’t a pangolin which spread the virus, but rather some other mammal species, perhaps belonging to the badger family. Others have pointed out that while pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal, they are rarely found in wildlife markets as they are generally killed and their scales removed for medicinal use beforehand, and “a dead scale off the surface of an animal is unlikely to spread a virus.”
Reassessing Relationship to Wildlife
While the consensus among researchers is that Coronavirus originated in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold meat from other wild animals, there are still lingering questions. One possibility is that the virus emerged earlier, since some of the first victims had no link to the market. Under this theory, the virus may have originated elsewhere and later made its way to the market, which served as a kind of “amplifier,” or, alternatively, the virus was somehow able to thrive in the market and then jump from human to animal and back again. Such speculation, however, doesn’t resolve the central question of when the original “spillover” event occurred. Perhaps, Malayan pangolins contracted the virus in their native habitat or from bats along their trafficking route, though all available evidence suggests the outbreak occurred in China itself.
Whatever the case, Coronavirus forces us to reconsider our underlying relationship to wildlife. To be sure, some animals carry dangerous pathogens but it’s our closer proximity to wildlife, coupled with globalized travel, which is creating greater risk. When a pandemic arises, people might be tempted to exterminate bats, though that would be a colossal mistake. As scientists point out, it’s not the animals themselves which are creating the problem: in fact, bats consume tons of insects, thus reducing the spread of other human diseases such as malaria and dengue. Bats also help to promote bio-diversity and the overall health of their respective ecosystems by pollinating plants and spreading seeds. Similarly, even though it’s not the pangolin’s fault that Coronavirus has spread, conservationists are concerned that people may be prompted to kill even more of the creatures in the wake of recent news reports concerning the pandemic.
All things being equal, if people simply did a better job of “staying in their lane” and kept their distance from wildlife, then perhaps we wouldn’t be facing a pandemic. The risk, however, is that when bats and pangolins are sold in so-called “wet markets,” viruses may leap from one species to another. The Wuhan market, for example, seems to have served as a “perfect viral melting pot,” since it had a wild animal section in which both live and slaughtered species were put on sale, while hawkers displayed gruesome body parts of camels, koalas and birds.
Reportedly, the ground in such markets is “slick with water and blood,” and “the animals that have not yet been dispatched by the butcher’s knife make desperate bids to escape by climbing on top of each other and flopping or jumping out of their containers.” On the other hand, “at least in the wet areas, the animals don’t make a sound,” whereas “the screams from mammals and fowl are unbearable and heartbreaking.”
From a hygienic perspective, bringing animals together from different countries, different habitats and different lifestyles is a perfect storm asking for trouble. Experts warn that when such animals become stressed due to displacement or confinement, they are more prone to disease. That is to say, the animals become “immunocompromised” and this leads creatures to shed more virus, thus leading in turn to a potential “spillover effect.” Meanwhile, hawkers who handle or butcher animals are susceptible to viruses through cuts in their skin, while secretions of infected snakes can be “aerosolized” and breathed in by both workers and shoppers alike.
Wildlife and Wider Society
The issue of wildlife markets as incubators of disease forces us to consider pandemics in wider perspective, since the problem touches on many underlying trends ranging from changing social tastes and morés of an increasingly affluent globalized elite to special political protections emanating from the very top. Though turtle and boar meat can be spotted in Chinese restaurants from time to time, other types of rare game meats from civet to cats and snakes and pangolins are rare and regarded as specialties only within certain regions.
“Their consumption,” writes the New York Times, “is driven as much by the desire to flaunt wealth as by a mix of superstition and belief about the health benefits of wildlife.” Though China’s tasted for wildlife is somewhat new, and has been spurred on by economic growth, many on social media have expressed anger that the country’s nouveau riche has endangered the lives of others through their relentless appetite for exotic species.
Over the years, meanwhile, Chinese wildlife agencies have “practically become a spokesperson for wildlife business interests,” while wildlife “protections laws” have become a catch-22 by protecting business interests as opposed to the animals themselves. The wildlife trade has become so symbiotically fused with the government, that businesses have promoted their own aims as reflecting the national interest, with tiger and rhino farms going so far as to claim they are euphemistically furthering “conservation,” and bear farm owners claiming they are promoting “public health.”
Belatedly, the authorities shuttered the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the pandemic spread. Officials have also temporarily banned the wildlife trade, and they may even outlaw it altogether. Beijing was no doubt stirred to act after users on Weibo, a social media platform, denounced the sale of wildlife under the hashtag #rejectgamemeat (the trending category attracted 45 million views). In the long-run, some hope the emergence of Coronavirus may lead to a “domino-like effect” which will prompt further steps against wildlife trafficking throughout China and Southeast Asia.
“The just-issued trade ban should not be a temporary measure,” argues South China Morning Post, adding “it should be made a lasting policy. China has to choose between the narrow interests of wildlife businesses and the national interest of public health. It cannot allow a minority of wildlife traders and exotic food lovers to hijack the public interest of the entire nation.”
While it’s unclear whether the temporary wildlife ban may become permanent, many are asking why it has taken Beijing this long to act. If anything, the warning signs were already on the wall back in 2002-4 during the SARS epidemic, which probably started in a wet market. That disease was traced back to a coronavirus that jumped from bats to Asian palm civets, a small weasel-type mammal related to the mongoose. Civets are considered a delicacy in southern China, and can also be found for sale in wildlife markets.
From civets, the virus jumped to humans engaged in the wildlife trade in Guangdong. In a frenzy, authorities then drowned or electrocuted thousands of civets as a means of cutting off the source of the SARS virus. Reportedly, authorities ignored appeals from the World Health Organization — which feared the killings might destroy vital clues about the source of SARS — and Hong Kong animal activists, who condemned the slaughter. CBS news reported that civets were burned, while photos showed health workers dressed in white protective suits drowning the animals.
Officials subsequently removed all references to “yewei” (meaning “wild taste,” a Chinese term for wild animals used as food) from shop signs in Guangdong. They also prohibited the sale of civets, but after a mere few months the ban was reversed and the trade ramped up just like before. More recently, many have wondered why Beijing did so little to regulate the sale of wildlife since the outbreak of SARS: indeed, top Chinese scientists have been urging the government to adopt a lasting ban on wildlife sales for years.
From Deforestation to Ebola
But just for the sake of argument, would banning the sale of wildlife at unhygienic markets actually halt the spread of pandemics? While such measures would undoubtedly help, there are still wider forces at play which could undermine efforts to halt the spread of disease. Take, for example, deforestation which puts humans into closer contact with wildlife. An important driver of climate change in and of itself, deforestation is subjecting stressed animals to habitat loss and exacerbating disease. One ominous harbinger of change was the Malaysian Nipah virus of 1998-99: in that case, researchers concluded the disease had been spread by fruit bats which had in turn been dislodged by forest fires and an El Niño-related drought. Once the bats started to feed on fruit trees grown on the same farms as pigs, this allowed the virus to migrate from bats to pigs and then on to farmers.
Just as deforestation in the Amazon is thought to be driving up the spread of malaria, destruction of rainforest in West Africa may have played a role in the spread of Ebola, yet another zoonotic disease. Like Coronavirus, Ebola is thought to have originated in bats and then jumped to humans, though other animals such as antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees may also be culprits. At the time of the epidemic, researchers connected deforestation in West Africa to Ebola, noting that habitat destruction had brought wildlife into closer contact with people. But in addition to deforestation, virtually any form of climate change, including droughts and even increased rainfall, will inevitably increase the risk of Ebola outbreaks since warming temperatures drive bats and other animals into new areas.
In 2014, again somewhat presciently, I wrote about how China, in yet another instance of reckless economic expansion, had pursued a harmful environmental role in West Africa. By building roads and infrastructure, which Beijing hoped would complement its mining investments, China may have facilitated the spread of Ebola. In another line conjuring up an eerie sense of déjà vu, I noted that “while China has been intimately caught up in West Africa’s economic spoils for some time, the Asian tiger’s role has been obscured in the midst of the media’s sensationalist coverage of the Ebola crisis.”
The Factory Farm-Pandemic Link
As if the media’s short-term coverage could sink no further, the issue of factory farms, pandemics and climate change has also slipped through the cracks. Take, for example, the H5N1 virus: as I noted some time ago, migratory ducks, geese and herons can carry the H5N1 avian influenza, also known as bird flu, and pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens. Because they are capable of flying long distances, water fowl can spread many different types of influenza viruses. When the waterfowl come into contact with chickens on factory farms, packed conditions offer an environment in which microbes can quickly turn into deadly pathogens.
In 1997, an H5N1 outbreak which in turn made the jump to human beings led the authorities in Hong Kong to destroy 1.3 million chickens. As with the Coronavirus, it is thought that bird flu may have originated in a local market. In that case, getting rid of the chickens seemed to work in the short-term, but such efforts unfortunately failed to contain subsequent outbreaks of H5N1 surfacing in dozens of countries. In 2014, yet another strain of H5N1 hit North America, which led to the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.
And it’s not only chickens which pose a worrying link in the food supply chain, but pigs as well. The fact that pigs and humans share a similar immune system, which makes it easy for viruses to jump between both species, worries scientists. In 2009, another influenza virus called H1N1 spread from pigs to humans and spread around the world within weeks, causing a pandemic. And just a few years ago, 25,000 pigs living on Guangdong farms died from swine acute diarrhea syndrome or SADS, a virus which was nearly identical to a coronavirus found in bats.
Climate Change, Diet and Factory Farms
Not surprisingly, climate change threatens to introduce yet another wildcard into the already volatile mix of factory farms. Scientists say it’s possible that migratory birds might alter their wintering sites in response to global warming, which stands to affect the distribution or risk of further H5N1 outbreaks. It’s conceivable, for example, that Europe eventually might be prone to more risk from H5N1 than Southeast Asia. “Industrial livestock production means that it’s not just a farm family that may be sickened by pathogens from a pig or cow,” notes Slate, “but potentially hundreds or thousands who consume meat or other products from those animals.”
The by now “routine viral assaults on food security,” adds Wired magazine, “demonstrate that regardless of the precise route of zoonotic transmission of the current Covid-19 outbreak, our reliance on massive-scale animal farming is neither prudent nor pragmatic in the best of times or the worst of times. It’s time to admit that we, as a civilization, have outgrown the dated notion of using animals to produce meat. Hunting and animal farming served their purpose for millennia of human population growth. But in 2020, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. We can’t keep doing this. The current system is broken. It is inefficient, insecure, unsustainable, and extremely unsafe.”
On the other hand, removing animals from the food system has become more viable as of late, as demonstrated by tremendous innovation in both “plant-based” and cultivated meats grown in a lab, both of which avoid the risk of zoonotic disease. “There’s no time to waste in pushing forward solutions for what is likely the underlying cause of this pandemic, and what has been at the root of dozens of prior zoonotic events,” adds Wired. “We can’t afford not to have the same level of urgency in directing funding, effort, and talent into accelerating the development and deployment of safer, modern meat production methods. It is past time to move away from animal-derived meat altogether.”
Lack of Public Discussion
Given their tremendous scope and complexity, what are the chances that the world will come to grips with such problems? While portions of the U.S. public have only very belatedly started to take climate change seriously, society as a whole is blissfully ignorant of deforestation, except briefly, perhaps, when forest fires in the Amazon make their way into international headlines. Given the necessity of “staying in our lane,” so to speak, averting further deforestation and exposure to wild animals and pathogens is of paramount importance. And yet, as I explained in my book on the Amazon, addressing deforestation is a colossal economic, social and even political endeavor at the international level which barely represents a blip on the media landscape.
What’s more, if deforestation has remained overlooked, the notion of tackling factory farms and the food system, which will undoubtedly contribute to the spread of further disease, has been completely absent from public discussion and politicians rarely mention diet which is considered to be up to personal choice. During the 2020 campaign, the only Democratic candidate to mention the issue of diet on the debate stage was Marianne Williamson, largely derided as a new-age lightweight who never attracted much of a following. At another point, when offered an opportunity to discuss his choice of a vegan diet during a presidential debate, Democratic candidate Cory Booker declined to elaborate, perhaps fearing he would be perceived as judgmental or elitist.
If Bernie Sanders has been aware of the links between pandemics, wildlife and climate change, his own campaign web site makes little mention, though to be sure the Vermont Senator has come up with many positive recommendations to confront the scourge of Coronavirus, and the candidate has also been outspoken about the need for a Green New Deal as a whole. On the other hand, during a one-on-one debate between Sanders and Joe Biden, neither candidate answered a question about public health and climate change directly, thus suggesting that politicians, even when they are on the progressive side, share the media’s penchant for “short-termism,” for lack of a better way of putting it.
Finding a “Silver Lining”?
As horrible as the Coronavirus epidemic has been, it is incumbent on environmentalists to try and salvage something from this humanitarian crisis. “There’s nothing good about the novel coronavirus,” remarks noted environmental campaigner and writer Bill McKibben. “It’s killing many people, and shutting millions more inside, with fear as their main companion. However, if we’re fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it.”
Already, people are avoiding flying, prompting Wired magazine to write that “if you’re reading this at home—isolated because your company has mandated that everyone work remotely, lest you all spread the novel coronavirus—know that your loneliness may be good for the planet.” In the long-run, the deadly virus could bring about much-needed changes in behavior if people continue to avoid flying or boarding cruise ships, while opting instead for remote working and video conferences.
“Most of us learned as children what it meant to be grounded,” notes Philip Warburg, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Perhaps we should give that term a new, non-punitive meaning,” he adds. “What in our local communities have we come to overlook as we scout out our next faraway travel prospect?…If we traveled less, we also might make more time for the activities that give us a sense of civic purpose and human connection here at home….For climate stability and personal health, it may be time to ground ourselves and give localism a chance.”
Though it’s extremely discordant to even talk about “silver linings,” one unintended consequence of the pandemic has been a fall in carbon emissions from China and beyond. In Hubei province alone, improvements in air quality may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under five years old and 73,000 adults over seventy, that is to say such improvements have saved more people than Coronavirus has killed. In the U.S., meanwhile, people are working from home and, as a result, they are driving less. What’s more, with fewer vehicles on the road, New York has seen sizable declines in carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane emissions. In Europe, traffic is down in some of the continent’s dirtiest cities which had previously failed to adhere to EU air quality limits. In Italy, reductions in nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane emissions, all of which can affect climate, were apparent to such a degree that they could be observed from space.
If they are shrewd, environmentalists will be able to capitalize on such developments and hopefully prevent a full-scale return to polluting “normalcy,” provided that the Coronavirus epidemic abates over time. Even before the pandemic, activists with international environmental group Extinction Rebellion held street blockades in order to halt traffic and congestion. Ironically, local authorities in New York have now closed off some streets in order to prevent large social gatherings, suggesting a possible opening for further activism. In addition, environmentalists may find the public is more supportive of reining in the airlines, which are not only polluting but also serve as a conduit for accelerating epidemic disease. Perhaps, recent events will even pressure airlines to quicken the pace of technological and environmental change.
Moving Beyond “Climate Change Activism”
But while environmentalists should try to prevent a return to polluting business as usual, they must also evolve as a movement. If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic forces not only a tactical but also a philosophical rethink, since public health, wildlife and climate change have become so intertwined that it’s a little difficult to distinguish one issue from the next. Perhaps it’s even time to drop the term “climate change activism” and start talking about “anti-pandemic activism,” a term which might prove more accessible to many. As Columbia University’s Earth Institute has noted, “depictions of the ‘climate apocalypse’ often fixate on the temperature changes, sea level rise and proliferation of natural disasters wrought by climate change. Epidemics are an often overlooked outcome that belongs to that future.”
It would seem environmentalists have been caught just as flat-footed as the politicians when it comes to Coronavirus. Having been deprived of street protest, one of their most powerful tools for raising public consciousness, activists have embraced social media messaging and digital strikes. Young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, has urged supporters to “take it online.” Recent developments have also forced campaigners to scrap plans for the fiftieth annual Earth Day in April, or alternatively move such commemorations into the digital realm. While organizers have changed their tactics, some acknowledge that hashtag activism may not exert the required impact or just wind up reaching the same people within a constant echo chamber.
It’s time to shift gears and focus on healthcare, wellbeing and the delivery of essential supplies, says Extinction Rebellion. To its credit, the environmental group seems to have given some thought to shifting exigencies, though statements are still somewhat vague on specifics. The pandemic, campaigners note, “calls for an evolution – not a shelving – of our rebellion. This is a time to remember what we are rebelling for – a thriving and just world of regenerative cultures that can weather crises, foster cooperation and look after each other on a global scale…We are living through an emergency response that shows us things can be done differently. The possibility is opening up to make the necessary and urgent changes to respond to the intersecting global crises – financial, health, climate and ecological – creating a world where life can thrive.”
Crafting a New Environmental Message
Though certainly laudable, such statements must be accompanied by more specifics. If cable news and the likes of CNN and MSNBC continue to ignore international environmental trends while adhering to their usual short-term outlook, then campaigners must try to raise the profile of long-neglected issues which have failed to enter public consciousness. To be sure, it may be difficult to distill a succinct and cogent message given the complexity and magnitude of environmental challenges ranging from factory farms to wildlife protection and the link to public health. Perhaps, however, people may be more receptive to environmentalism in light of the challenges which we currently face.
Activists might start by updating their approach to industrial farming. Traditionally, campaigners have criticized factory farms for being environmentally wasteful, contributing to greenhouse gasses, driving deforestation and placing a burden on natural resources. Others have addressed the link between meat consumption and obesity and illness. What has been overlooked, however, is the connection between factory farms and the potential spread of new pathogens. Perhaps, by combining many of these concerns about public health, the environment and diet, activists might finally manage to break through.
The Coronavirus epidemic should also prompt environmentalists to become more creative in their organizing strategy. While they have the facts and science on their side, campaigners haven’t done a very good job at conveying their message to the public since climate change can sometimes feel abstract. The pandemic, however, offers a unique opportunity to promote symbolism and iconic animals such as palm civets and pangolins. Since children are more prone to embrace wildlife, it makes sense for campaigners to venture into schools and organize wildlife clubs, perhaps by promoting emblematic flags or badges sporting a pangolin with captions such as “Coronavirus wasn’t my fault!” If children prove receptive, then perhaps in time this might encourage a ripple effect which reaches parents and families alike.
While devastating on so many levels, the Coronavirus epidemic could offer an opportunity for environmentalists to advance and even broaden their goals, provided they are willing to improvise and experiment a bit more, while at the same time seeking to distill and sum up the current public zeitgeist.
Recently, young climate change activist Greta Thunberg has done much to not only draw the world’s attention to the vital issue of climate change, but also raise awareness about a little known behavioral “disorder” called Asperger’s Syndrome. At one point, the sixteen year-old Swedish girl referred to Asperger’s as a “superpower.” In a break with conventional societal norms and perceptions, which tend to stigmatize supposed handicaps, Thunberg embraced her condition, remarking that “being different is a good thing. It’s something we should aspire to be.”
People with Asperger’s, who sometimes refer to themselves as “Aspies” or “Aspergians,” argue they are “neuro-untypical,” as opposed to “neuro-typicals” or NT’s. In certain circumstances, Thunberg believes it can be advantageous to be “neuro-diverse,” which allows one to think differently. In an era of climate change, people with Asperger’s are valuable since they can “think outside the box” by helping to solve systemic problems.
Technically labeled a neurological disorder, Asperger’s is characterized by difficulties with social skills and communication. It gets a little hazy to pin down, however, since people with Asperger’s, who may display normal language development and even a high IQ, and are therefore considered to be “high functioning,” nevertheless fall within the range of a so-called “autism spectrum.” There’s huge variability within this “range,” with some individuals straining to perform everyday tasks, and others going on to high powered careers as doctors or other professions. Statistically, autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) individuals constitute one to two percent of the population, with boys four times more likely to have it than girls.
Creative but Lacking Marketing Skills
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define ASD as a behavioral, and not an intellectual disability, in which people approach learning and thinking differently from the rest of society. For example, Aspies may display an intense focus on singular or restricted interests, pursue a desire for sameness, and demonstrate a remarkable persistence and attention to detail (take, for example, this young man who was driven to learn “random points and facts about languages in far corners of the world,” which was fascinating to him but left others puzzled).
Indeed, patients are driven to explore a topic to its ultimate end in exhaustive detail, and when no new information is available, they proceed to the next topic. People with Asperger’s, moreover, are blessed with extreme discipline and analytical abilities, like to proceed slowly and methodically when exploring new interests, and may become irritated with errors in lecture handouts or other students whispering in school.
When Asperger’s individuals are given examples of a new concept in class, they may find it difficult to apply such examples on an exam if they are only slightly different. On the other hand, ASD individuals have pushed back against the notion that they somehow lack creativity. Hans Asperger, a pediatrician who performed research on autism, once remarked that “it seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” But while Aspies may display creativity, they lack sufficient marketing skills to get their ideas across to the rest of the world. As a result, their creativity may go undiscovered by those around them.
Hardly “Team Players”
In addition, ASD individuals prefer to work alone as opposed to being “team players.” Furthermore, many Aspergians express interest in at least one field of artistic or intellectual life. Since ASD individuals have difficulty in engaging in creative play, and may display “patchy” abilities where some skills are more developed than others, they may turn toward writing and painting as a form of “self-help.” Indeed, retreating into writing may provide a kind of “safe space,” because it allows for control over one’s own world and one can explore many different aspects of life.
From an early age, Aspergians demonstrate great skill in their areas of interest and may excel in such pursuits later on, be it photography, design, music, philosophy or engineering. Because they are good at spotting errors, they can make for great orchestra conductors. While it may be a little questionable to posthumously diagnose famous individuals, Beethoven, Mozart and Immanuel Kant are all thought to have had Asperger’s, not to mention Bobby Fischer, Albert Einstein, Alfred Kinsey and Stanley Kubrick. American actor Dan Akroyd has said that his Asperger’s has helped him creatively. Echoing such sentiments, Anthony Hopkins has remarked that his mild Asperger’s has helped him get into character. It is thought that Andy Warhol, too, may have had Asperger’s, since he was socially awkward while cultivating a repetitive artistic style.
Other Quirky Characteristics
To the outside observer, Asperger’s individuals may seem to display a narrow emotional range. Asking open-ended questions such as “tell me about yourself,” tend to elicit very limited information from an Aspie, who feels lost without a specific context or frame of reference. In other respects, too, Aspergians eschew an “open-ended” or improvisational approach to life and — by conventional standards at least — may seem inflexible when it comes to travel, scheduling and punctuality. This so-called rigidity may carry over into the sensory environment, with ASD individuals avoiding driving as it involves too much visual information. Similarly, they may feel overwhelmed by noise or become agitated when neighbors make a lot of racket.
Aspergians act in ways which others might consider eccentric, and may retreat into social isolation. Typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, they’re aware of the presence of others but may approach people in a peculiar manner, or prefer long-winded conversations with adults concerning a narrow topic. Though they may express interest in meeting people and making friends, their awkwardness and strange facial expressions may doom such encounters to failure. Indeed, Aspies find it difficult to form proper facial expressions at the appropriate time, or alternatively they simply remain expressionless or produce looks which may seem opaque or difficult to interpret to the casual observer.
Conversely, Aspergians may find other facial expressions difficult to read. Tony Atwood, a British psychologist and professor who is known for his work on Asperger’s, has remarked that ASD individuals “use up so much energy processing facial expressions that this leads to depression or depletion of energy.” Other particularities and tics may include speaking formally or in a monotone. Aspergians moreover may fail to grasp certain nuances in language or jokes, or have difficulty with motor skills such as catching a ball.
On the surface at least, such definitions can seem clear enough, but there’s some disagreement about Asperger’s itself, which has fueled a debate as to whether the disorder even exists as a unique condition. Originally coined as a term in 1981, Asperger’s became an official diagnosis separate from autistic disorder thirteen years later. Even then, however, the lines were somewhat hazy, and in 2013 an official scientific manual finally eliminated Asperger’s altogether, replacing it with the notion of an autism spectrum ranging from level one, meaning someone requiring support, to level three, requiring substantial support.
The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, has eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome from its own classification of diseases, calling the condition “autism spectrum disorder without disorder of intellectual development and with mild or no impairment of functional language.” Today, experts may use the term “high functioning autism” instead of Asperger’s, though over time society has concocted any number of terms for such individuals ranging from misfits, oddballs, introverts, nerds, geeks or other labels which may encourage marginalization and social ostracism.
Some observers worry that rulings by the WHO may jeopardize recent progress in identifying and providing support for Asperger’s individuals, who might otherwise return to a state of ambiguity, since they are “too well-functioning to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but still in need of significant support.” But on the flip side, others worry that as Asperger’s becomes “part of the cultural landscape,” patients might seek out treatment and wind up getting categorized as being on the spectrum, when in actuality they are simply experiencing some form of mild social disability. In this scenario, shy and timid individuals with quirky interests may get lumped on to the spectrum, which renders a disservice to them in the long-run.
Without a proper understanding of ASD, many people resort to blame or shame if the individual seems uncaring. In such circumstances, Asperger’s individuals may feel swamped and overwhelmed by the majority culture, at best, or alternatively be driven to addictive behaviors and fall through the cracks of the social support system, at worst. The “seeds of depression can be there from rejection from one’s peers,” Atwood notes, “and you’re different and bad. But you didn’t get that belief from your parents or teachers, but from friends.”
Though Aspergians can be honest, trustworthy and reliable, they lack other crucial qualities which are vital to social functioning. In an intriguing video, therapist Sonya Bruner explains how ASD individuals may have difficulty understanding where other people are “coming from.” Indeed, Aspies lack “social pragmatics” shared by the majority and find “small talk” challenging. As a result, they can wind up monopolizing a conversation, particularly if the discussion turns toward their own particular interests. In the process, ASD individuals miss vital social cues and drive people away.
Young Aspergians have a high rate of suicide, perhaps related to anxiety and depression. In fact, the only other groups with a higher teen rate of suicide are transgender and homosexual individuals. Wrong-headed psychiatric evaluations of depression, meanwhile, may result in misguided strategies and treatments. Atwood has also claimed that Aspies are much more likely to be preyed upon and victimized, as opposed to being victimizers.
The Case of Adam Lanza
But some have pushed back against such hyper-romanticized views, arguing that Aspies are indeed capable of committing horrific acts. Writing in Guernica, Aspie Charli Devnet writes that “wounded prey may…grow desperate and strike back. A lifetime of being bullied, rejected, and relegated to the periphery of life can give rise to anger and bitter fantasies of revenge, especially perhaps among lonely young autistics that have grown up in a culture where violence is glamorized and who may turn to perfecting their skills at violent video games in lieu of a social life.”
Devnet suggests that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut elementary school massacre, may have had Asperger’s. Though advocates vehemently reject such notions, Devnet argues that we cannot fool ourselves. “Advocates prefer not to address these negative aspects of autism. The reason for this is easy to understand. First of all, scare no one. Better to portray us as shy, gentle, quirky geniuses. This is a safe depiction, but perhaps not complete. Yes, we want acceptance, but must we sacrifice some inconvenient facts, and pretend all aspies are saints? The one who is not a saint, who carries the scars of unbearable pain, must hide himself in shame.”
What is “Empathy”?
On the other hand, Bruner declares that people on the spectrum are indeed concerned when others are experiencing pain, and want to help ameliorate or relieve such pain. Crucially, however, they lack as many miR-neurons located in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex as the majority population. Such neurons are vital in helping us recognize and imitate behavior in others, while also picking up on emotions. This inability to “put yourself in someone’s shoes,” shall we say, isn’t really a lack of empathy but “more of a neuro-typical inability with perspective taking in the same way as others.” To call the behavior uncaring, therefore, renders a “disservice” to ASD people.
Dylan Dailor, a sixteen-year old Aspergian, says it’s too simplistic to say that ASD individuals “lack empathy.” In a TED talk, the young man joked that some of his classmates labeled him “a future serial killer” because of his supposed lack of empathy, though in time they realized he was a nice person. There are two types of empathy, Dailor remarked to his audience: “cognitive,” when you are able to look into someone’s mind and understand why they act in a certain way; and “affective,” “when there is this tension in the room, and you can feel it but you don’t know why.” Some research suggests that Aspergians have affective but not cognitive empathy, which leads to frustration in the ASD individual, since there is a sense of “disconnect” and a “missing piece.” Whatever the case, the concept of empathy is simply too complex for many psychologists to understand in the first place.
For me, the issue of Asperger’s carries keen personal resonance. Years ago, I was driven to search out a therapist due to a stressful teaching experience. Specifically, I experienced a meltdown after making a rather minor computational grading mistake. As I recall, the error was easy to correct and re-submit, but for some reason I blew things out of proportion. After calming me down in the initial sessions, my therapist turned things around to teaching as a whole, asking me leading questions such as “what do you think has gone wrong in the classroom?”
I’ve always wondered why certain things in life, such as writing meticulous and detail-oriented essays, seem to come naturally to me whereas social relations and particularly group situations can be confounding. In particular, the classroom presented its own unique challenges and torments. Though I got on reasonably well with my disciplined and regimented students from the former Soviet Union, there was little rapport with American white and African American working-class students. Inexperienced and guile-less, I failed to stay on top of things which led some students to cheat and take advantage of the situation.
My therapist suggested I try to engage the students by asking probing political and philosophical questions about the historical material presented in class. While a minority of students seemed to appreciate the discussions, others were passive, blasé and indifferent. Perhaps, my facial expression did not help matters: as a general rule, I do not like to have my picture taken, but when I do pose for a photo in a group setting, I marvel at how everyone else is smiling and my expression is frozen into a perpetual scowl.
After my therapist brought up my “affectless-ness,” I made a conscious effort to be more expressive in class and in other social situations. Despite my best efforts, however, I still struggled with both worlds. At one point, my therapist suggested I join his group therapy session. In the initial encounter, I asked a woman a mundane question about herself, and she turned around and announced to the group that she felt “judged” by me. Later, when the group failed to gain any cohesion and disbanded, my therapist blamed me, remarking how I had failed to contribute much to the conversation. At another point, after we had an argument, my therapist remarked, “you suck at meeting new people!”
Profile in the Guardian
For years, I remembered my argument with the therapist, reasoning that I just needed to try harder in social situations. One day, however, I read an article dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome in the Guardian. Best-selling author Tom Cutler found that his aloof disposition was damaging friendships. His frowning mien, meanwhile, exuded an unpleasant air. “I’ve always known there was something different about the way I relate to the world,” Cutler writes. “Chatting I found impossible,” he added, “and for as long as I could recall, parties had been a special kind of torture, provoking silent dread days ahead.” The writer added, “I am sometimes accused of being overly critical. I often have to button my lip at somebody’s…language error. I have had to learn that people do not want you constantly criticizing them and underlining their weaknesses.”
Seeking answers, Cutler sought out a therapist who diagnosed him with Asperger’s. The medical evaluation read, “Tom is a concrete thinker, with difficulties in reading people and social signals, which results in social awkwardness and difficulties in understanding the emotional perspectives of others…Tom’s experiences of anxiety and depression could be related to this atypical cognitive profile and its impact on a sense of ‘fitting in.’” “At last,” Cutler writes, “this condition made sense of the non-sequitur of my often lonely and overridingly out-of-sync life. I wasn’t, as I’d thought, mad; I wasn’t, as I’d thought, alone. I had unwittingly been autistic my whole life.”
Reading Cutler’s article, I began to wonder if I, too, might have Asperger’s since I exhibit many of the same traits. After talking with me for about an hour about my life experiences, a psychiatrist with experience in such matters remarked, “I would be reasonably confident you have provisional ASD,” meaning that I might be on the spectrum, though this would require additional follow-up. On my way out, after charging me a tidy sum which was not covered by my insurance provider, the psychiatrist recommended I read a couple of books, including Simon Baron-Cohen’s Autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Back at home, I read Baron-Cohen’s study and took a sample diagnostic test at the end of the book. Tabulating the results, I was shocked to find that I scored very high, indicating Asperger’s. In a text, I expressed puzzlement and asked the doctor if he could reconcile the two different findings. “It’s too complicated to explain over the phone,” he texted back, “but I am more than happy to schedule a follow-up.” I agreed and asked him when might be suitable, but bizarrely the doctor disappeared. Going online, I noticed that others had experienced similar problems with this particular psychiatrist, which led me to wonder what type of Hippocratic oath he thinks he’s subscribing to.
Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of the matter isn’t as straightforward as one might expect, since few doctors possess the necessary expertise, while others “aren’t taking new patients.” One practice, Spectrum Services, doesn’t even answer the phone or e-mail, and needless to say no one accepts common forms of insurance. Under such circumstances, it is easy to see how most people, unless they are incredibly persistent, will just give up over time. As for myself, I finally landed another appointment with a psychiatrist, though there’s a very long wait time. Assuming the second doctor can reach a definitive conclusion, then perhaps I can finally get to the bottom of the mystery.
In the wake of my appointment with the psychiatrist, questions swirled in my mind. Unlike Greta Thunberg, who has her whole life ahead of her, getting diagnosed in middle age might be a bitter pill for me to swallow. If I do indeed have Asperger’s, then what should I “do” with this information now? Judging from the online world, I am not the only person who has reflected on such matters. Take, for example, this woman who went undiagnosed well into adulthood. “I wasted what should have been the best years of my life,” she remarks, “and I’ll never get them back.” Another young man who was diagnosed in his twenties has remarked, “realizing that I was actually different wasn’t relieving, it was depressing and infuriating. For me, I was angry. Angry I missed it, angry how my family treated me before and after I was diagnosed, and angry how things were so difficult academically, mentally, socially.”
The “Little Professor”
If I am indeed an Aspergian, then this might explain certain things. For example, I suspect I have always been a “scowler” since I am constantly grimacing in old photos from childhood, except for one fourth grade photo in which I muster a half-smile, perhaps at the behest of the photographer. In this sense, I resemble Greta Thunberg, whose scowl, particularly when standing in back of Donald Trump at the United Nations, has become legendary.
On the other hand, some childhood photos capture me fully engrossed in my favorite hobbies, such as stamp collecting. To me, sorting, cataloguing and affixing stamps in my album always felt satisfying. Once I had collected all the stamps from one country, I would methodically move on to the next country. For as long as I can remember, I have been very detail-oriented, and fortunately in grammar school my quirky personality didn’t cause me much trouble.
Then, my family briefly moved to New Mexico in the late 1970s. I didn’t have anything in common with the kids at school, whose parents worked in the defense industry. My teacher, a gay man from New York, took me under his wing however. I remember how many boys my age belonged to the cub scouts, and though I had no desire to join the club, I was oddly fixated on my classmates’ blue outfits and specifically different animal badges sewn into kids’ shirts.
I loathed American summer camps and group sports, but at age eleven my parents sent me away to an international camp in Sweden which I found fascinating. Separate delegations of kids would hand out informational packets from their respective countries and perform dances while discussing varied cultural practices. I appreciated learning about the world through my experience, but it felt a little detached, almost as if I was a miniature ethnographer or “little professor.” Once more, I did not form lasting bonds with the kids though I did become friendly with an older counselor.
Focus on Animal Rights
In fourth grade, I vividly recall how our teacher told us to write reports about endangered animal species. I picked the black footed ferret, and found that I excelled at research and detail. To this day, I am still drawn to the topic of animals, particularly ones that are in peril. For a while, one of my favorite TV shows was Unlikely Animal Friends, a program documenting “heartwarming tales about special friendships an animal forms with either an animal of a different species or a human being.”
In recent years, I have kept up my interest through other favorite TV shows such as Extinct or Alive, in which an intrepid explorer sets out to remote corners of the world to see if supposedly extinct species can still be found. In addition, some of my favorite Twitter accounts include “Strange Animals” and “Extinct Animals.” On the wall of my apartment hangs a color poster of two endangered snow leopards from the Himalayas. I live with a Siberian cat, a breed known for being highly engaged and having the character of an “old Russian soul.”
To be sure, many people are passionate about animal rights, though I seem to be particularly fixated on these issues. Could there be some kind of connection to ASD? Apparently, I’m not the only one to wonder about such issues. One chat thread on the Quora web site asks “Why do people with Asperger’s/autism often like animals so much?” According to the Asperger-Autism Network, it’s very common for people on the spectrum to exhibit deep concern for animal rights. Another blog remarks that Aspies and animals “are like bread and butter.” ASD individuals, moreover, “tend to bond more with animals than they do with people…Animals will seemingly listen and not judge you based on your social skills.”
In one interesting video, an Aspergian talks about how his different perception of animals and people. “With people,” he remarks, “it’s like watching multiple channels: not only do I have to pay attention to what they’re saying, but their tone of voice, where their eyes are looking, their facial expressions, their posture. But when interacting with animals, it’s like they only have one channel. I think we’re the only species capable of lying to each other. Animals don’t lie to you.”
“Wheels Fall Off”
Happily concentrating on my assignments, such as the report about the black footed ferret, I got through grammar school without too much trouble. Later, however, I really started to run into difficulties, a phenomenon which has been remarked upon by medical professionals. As Atwood has noted, Aspergians “can hold it together in pre-school and primary school, but later in high school the wheels fall off because life is now much more complicated and they must relate to toxic teenage boys.”
People started to comment on my disposition, remarking that I seemed “aloof,” and “arrogant.” In a student evaluation, my ninth grade English teacher wrote, “he does not suffer fools greatly.” In high school, I did not identify with the jock or “popular crowd,” though conversely, I was not drawn to geeks, either. As a result, there was always a bit of ambiguity about my proper place, though in time I gravitated somewhat to the “artsy Bohemian” clique.
Fortunately, I attended an unusual high school in which some teachers recognized and cultivated my interests and talents, though if I had gone to a school in the U.S. south or Midwest, things might have turned out for the worse (not surprisingly, navigating hyper-ingrained power relations and social hierarchies later on in life turned out to be a real challenge, particularly in graduate school).
High school was perplexing in other ways, since I displayed “patchy” learning typical of people on the spectrum. My grandfather once remarked that I had a very analytical mind, and as a result I excelled at certain forms of writing. On the other hand, I was a failure at guitar, particularly jazz improvisation. In chemistry class, I could memorize scientific formulas, but I could not apply them to separate scenarios or situations on the exam (in a student evaluation, the teacher wrote charitably that “I tried”).
Over time, I have wondered about my own quirks. I don’t care for imprecise speech and typically vague American expressions such as “like,” “I mean,” and “you know.” On the other hand, though I appreciate irony, too much witty banter leaves me feeling frustrated, and when I briefly lived in the UK, I sometimes grew impatient with the theatrical English sensibility. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that I’ve always been somewhat guile-less and a terrible actor, particularly when it comes to improvisation. Though I appreciate other creative pursuits, I have my limitations. For example, though I enjoy fiction writing, I have always found it challenging to develop wider plot and story line.
I tend to speak in a flat and affect-less tone, and though I can make eye contact, I have never gotten any medals for being “warm and fuzzy.” I prefer discussions on serious topics, and I’ve never been very good at “small talk.” When people speak on their cell phones around me, or there is cross-talk in the classroom, it’s not just irritating but upsetting. If there is a couple talking animatedly to each other on the street, I will wait until they pass and resume walking. I am very sensitive to noises throughout my building, and being subjected to performers in the subway feels like a true assault. Though I got my drivers’ license without much of a problem, I have not gotten back into the drivers’ seat since my initial exam…which was in the summer of 1987.
I am generally very reliable, responsible and punctual, and if people are disorganized, frequently arrive late, try to constantly re-schedule with me or change a routine, I find it not just enervating but extremely frustrating. Though I value international travel, I don’t have a very “go with the flow” or improvisational manner, which means that I rarely meet anyone outside the usual hotel staff or tour guides. When getting together with others, I prefer one-on-one interactions, particularly in familiar settings or cafes. But when someone digs in, insisting on meeting in loud and noisy restaurants with other unfamiliar people, accompanied by cross-talk or discussions concerning topics which are new or alien to me, I feel like I am being obliged to socialize on someone else’s “turf.”
Throughout history, the majority has always sought to marginalize, ostracize or even eliminate those who don’t fit underlying political or social “norms,” and Aspergians are certainly no exception. Indeed, in light of the not-too-distant past, Aspies might even want to re-consider their own name for themselves. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician credited for his pioneering work on the autism spectrum, was hailed as a kind of Oskar Schindler-type figure who protected patients, but recent findings suggest a much darker record of Nazi collaboration and persecution of children.
Prior to World War II, Asperger was reluctant to classify children into separate groups. Within the more tolerant and leftist political climate of interwar Vienna, the pediatrician emphasized the need for treating the whole child and celebrating neuro-diversity as opposed to labeling conditions as “disorders.” Rather than labeling autism as a form of idiocy, Asperger realized that certain children were intelligent and even brilliant. He even argued that society might benefit from the unique intelligence of these “little professors,” who displayed a keen ability to think in abstract and unconventional terms. In 1944, the pediatrician reported that his patients displayed “autistic psychopathy,” a term which later simply became Asperger’s Syndrome.
Even though Asperger never joined the Nazi party, he was a member of Nazi organizations. For example, prior to Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, or Anschluss, the doctor was affiliated with Bund Neuland, a Catholic youth group which upheld fascist ideas and pan-German ideology. In addition, Asperger worked as a psychiatric expert within Vienna’s Nazi-operated juvenile court system, and sought a consultancy position within the Hitler Youth.
Within months of the Anschluss, Asperger reversed course and started characterizing autistic children as a “well-characterized group,” and later he began to call them “abnormal.” If that were not enough, by 1944 Asperger claimed such children fell outside “the greater organism” of Nazi ideals.
There is some speculation that the pediatrician was simply trying to get with the program, since he was up for promotion. By taking pro-Nazi positions, Asperger benefited professionally and his career took off, even as his Jewish colleagues were removed. The ambitious and opportunistic pediatrician fit right into the Nazi state with its hyper ideals of social conformity. Whereas psychiatry had previously been based on notions of compassion and empathy, the discipline now became part of an effort to classify the population of Germany, Austria and elsewhere into genetically fit or unfit groups.
For the Nazis, instilling the concept of Gemüt, meaning “disposition” or “temperament” was highly important, and child psychiatrists were tasked with molding and socializing the individual to the needs of the collective. Gemüt, it was believed, was actually quantifiable and could be learned by joining community organizations such as the Hitler Youth. Unfortunately, autistic children were regarded as lacking Gemüt, which made them “incorrigible,” disconnected from society and unable to fit in.
Within the context of euthanasia programs, psychiatrists and others were obliged to decide who would live or die, and children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were murdered in nursing homes. Some in fact were starved, whereas others were dosed with lethal injections and their deaths chalked up to such factors as pneumonia. Though Asperger protected some children who he deemed intelligent, he referred others to Vienna’s infamous Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a center of child euthanasia.
Indeed, some of Asperger’s closest colleagues and mentors had set up the Am Spiegelgrund eugenics program in the first place, which reinforces the idea that Asperger was hardly some sort of passive follower. After the war, Asperger perversely claimed he was a Nazi resister and called the euthanasia program “inhuman.” After casting himself as a child savior, he was allowed to go back to the Vienna university clinic, where he enjoyed a long academic career.
Mocking ASD Individuals
Though society has certainly made great strides in understanding ASD individuals, rightists continue to insult those who are different. Take, for example, Donald Trump, who has mocked Greta Thunberg, someone who has openly spoken about her Asperger’s Syndrome. When the young climate change activist was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, the president stooped to a new low. Thunberg, Trump tweeted, should work on her “anger management issues” and should simply “go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend,” as opposed to pursuing issues of weighty importance.
Not to be outdone, Trump’s cohorts joined the fray, with some claiming Thunberg was “deranged” and a “mentally ill child,” while others mocked the girl’s voice. At one point, Fox News host Laura Ingraham juxtaposed Thunberg giving a speech on climate change with the 1984 horror film Children of the Corn. “I can’t wait for Stephen King’s sequel, Children of the Climate,” Ingraham mused charmingly. Others have quipped that Thunberg has been exploited by the left or her parents, which feeds into an underlying narrative that autistic people can’t have their own independent thoughts or beliefs.
In a race to the bottom, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on an epic rant, remarking “The first thing to notice about Greta Thunberg is that she’s 16 years old. She claims she has Ansperger’s type — Ausperger’s — or autism — Asperger’s — some kind of problem in that area…So she’s out tweeting and politicizing, and she is free to lie and say whatever she wants to say about climate change and who’s responsible for it. And nobody is permitted to question her, you see, because she has — what did they call it? She is in the autism spectrum, so you can’t disagree, you can’t question, because she’s not well.”
Rain Man and the Autistic Savant
Perhaps, if the wider public was better informed about ASD, Limbaugh and the like would find it more difficult to get away with their spiteful attacks. Unfortunately, however, Hollywood and the entertainment industry haven’t really depicted the topic of Asperger’s very thoroughly or convincingly. To date, the only successful Hollywood film to deal with autism is Rain Man. In that 1988 movie, Dustin Hoffman played autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, a portrayal which later became a kind of common trope.
“As a beginning for autism on screen,” the Guardian notes, “Rain Man deserves applause. It gave autistic people a visibility that had previously been denied them. In one fell swoop Rain Man achieved almost overnight the kind of representation that parent advocacy groups had been working towards for decades. But as the dominant depiction of autism on screen, it also deserves derision. The autistic community is more than Raymond Babbitt.” The publication continues, “Autistic people are frequently met with the same question that a doctor asks Raymond in the film: ‘Does he have any special abilities?’… The idea that all autistic people are geniuses, or that they all have savant abilities such as extraordinary memory, is a myth, a myth that is largely alive and kicking today due to Rain Man. Yet the cultural stereotype of Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, persists…But Rain Man’s ubiquity and its influence is hardly the film’s fault. The blame lies with the wider industry. Rain Man should have been a cultural beginning for autistic characters on screen. Instead it became a singular event, an end point.”
From Rain Man to Young Sheldon
TV shows have taken their cue from Rain Man. Take, for example, The Good Doctor, which also pushes the trope of the autistic savant. In the Big Bang Theory, another recent TV hit, Jim Parsons plays a kind of “cuddly” theoretical physicist and poster boy for Asperger’s Syndrome. The character of Sheldon Cooper, in fact, turned into a pop icon and even led to a spin-off show, Young Sheldon. But tellingly, perhaps, the Big Bang Theory never spelled out that Sheldon had Asperger’s, which meant that writers could “have their autism jokes and avoid being accused of stereotyping.”
For those who live with family members on the spectrum, such shows fall short of the mark because they tend to portray an overly rosy or “cuddly” reality. As one mother put it, “characters who make viewers go ‘aww’ over autism spectrum behaviors create an unrealistic expectation that autistic people be consistently endearing and quirky, and ultimately socially successful. There will never be a very special episode of Young Sheldon where Sheldon…cries himself to sleep because his last friend has decided he’s too weird and turned his back on him. The writers won’t allow that.”
For openly “coming out” as someone with Asperger’s, Greta Thunberg deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, some fellow Aspergians now view Thunberg as a role model and have embraced the Twitter hashtag “Autistics for Greta.” Perhaps, the high-profile climate change activist will encourage others to disclose their Asperger’s Syndrome and stop feeling a sense of shame. One enthusiastic user tweeted “such a fearless, articulate young woman. We might be considered ‘odd, weird, quirky….’ Or whatever adjectives that you prefer to insert but I’m convinced folks on the Autism Spectrum have superpowers that you all just don’t…”
On the other hand, Thunberg’s comments have stirred some controversy with fellow ASD individuals. Some have pointed out that different rungs on the spectrum can feel like a kind of “ranking,” ranging from impaired to less so. On Twitter, the hashtag aspiepower has prompted pushback from the more inclusive hashtag AllAutistics. One user tweeted, “thinking that ‘aspies’ are special shiny autistics who are functionally different from ‘severe’ autistics is aspie supremacy. Fight that. Always.”
Other Aspergians have given credit to Thunberg, albeit with certain caveats and reservations. Lizzie Huxley-Jones, who was diagnosed with ASD in her twenties, found that being on the spectrum got her into trouble in the workplace as she was seen as “uppity, going above my station, or disruptive for pointing out logical inconsistencies.” Writing in Prospect Magazine, she notes that “given the right circumstances, autistic people can use their strengths—such as passion, thoroughness, willingness to research a topic until we know everything we can about it, a strong sense of justice—to flourish.”
On the other hand, Huxley-Jones adds, “my main concern is whether these same people are making the connection between Greta’s behavior and that of the blunt, slightly-odd and brusque woman in their office, or at the school gates, or even in their family. While Thunberg’s passion and willingness to point at complacency are praised, this reverence does not necessarily play out for adult autistics, who are often seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘too blunt.’”
Special X-Men “Super-Powers”
Others have questioned Thunberg’s turns of phrase, specifically taking issue with the term “super-power.” “With the greatest of respect, I don’t view my Asperger’s as a ‘superpower,’” remarks Aspie Eliza Ketcher. Nevertheless, Ketcher adds that her disorder has allowed her to cultivate abilities which “other people may not have…There’s a clarity that comes from feeling like an outsider…Complex ideas can seem simpler…I can cut through all the unnecessary extra air around them and dive straight into what’s important.”
Meanwhile, some have gone into over-drive by taking the “super-power” metaphor to a whole new level, claiming that Asperger’s could be “the next stage of human evolution.” “In the future,” professor Tony Atwood remarks, “some of our major problems will be solved with people with Asperger’s, whether it be pollution, electricity, or whatever it might be, by people thinking ‘outside the box.’ I think we need to embrace and encourage the particular abilities, because our future is based on such individuals.”
Others, however, have remarked that far from being a super-power, getting diagnosed with ASD represented “more of a roadblock than a stepping stone.” Sara Luterman, who is autistic, has criticized progressives for putting Thunberg on a pedestal. Writing in Slate, Luterman remarks, “if not quite consecration, Thunberg has drawn intense adoration from the left, largely from well-meaning people who see a revolutionary figure in her. And that praise, too, has too often crossed the line into the dehumanizing.”
As an example, Luterman points to an article in Jacobin, a trendy web site popular amongst the socialist and Bernie set, which claims that Thunberg is “uniquely suited” to leading a world-wide movement because she is autistic. While Luterman praises Thunberg for her tenacity and seriousness, she believes that romanticizing ASD has its downsides. By implying the climate change icon forms part of a kind of “X-Men” class of mutants, the left is repeating age-old clichés such as the “blind seer.”
Penchant for Social Justice
Moreover, Luterman asks, if Thunberg’s leadership has more to do with ingrained biological traits than her ability to inspire others, then why would other neurotypicals follow her lead? “To flatten her gifts to a result of her diagnosis undercuts exactly what’s made her such a powerful advocate in the first place,” Luterman writes. “More than that,” she adds, “it’s important to remember that superhuman and subhuman are both something other than human. They are two sides of the same degrading coin. It seems that no one is interested in simply allowing Thunberg to be what she is: a remarkable, talented young person who’s breaking through to millions.”
But without getting all “mystical” about it, some have remarked that ASD individuals seem to simply display a penchant for social justice. Dania Jekel, Executive Director of the Asperger/Autism Network, has remarked that “when you grow up feeling like you’re kind of on the outside or you’re different from other people, I think it makes you empathetic for animals or people who have differences in our society.’’
Attwood, meanwhile, claims that Aspergians are renowned for being direct, and “don’t like it when something doesn’t seem fair and breaks with routine. Their allegiance is to the truth, pointing out errors and even people in power.” To hear Thunberg talk about herself, it seems there may be some truth to the professor’s theory. Indeed, the young activist has shown that she’s not afraid of politicians or bigwigs, remarking “I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way.”
Minority Within the Minority
On a purely personal level, I have often reflected on my own outsider perspective. Whether I had some kind of innate predilection toward outsiders, or this was borne out of my own personal experiences and politics, I can’t really say. Whatever the case, writing about forgotten, obscure or neglected groups in society has been something of an obsession. In the wake of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, for example, I crisscrossed the country four times while conducting exhaustive interviews with ethnic, religious, social and political minorities.
I have in fact probably spoken with ethnic minorities that some Ukrainians haven’t even heard of. In Odessa, for example, I interviewed a member of the Gagauz minority, who seemed surprised and taken aback to speak with a foreign journalist. Later, after compiling my interviews from Odessa, I wrote an article about an obscure region called Bessarabia. On another occasion, I traveled ten hours by overnight train to the small city of Uzhgorod, which lies close to the Hungarian border. When I checked into my hotel and explained that I wanted to learn more about the Rusyn people, the concierge was flabbergasted and dismissive, remarking, “no one is interested in that!”
Undeterred, I proceeded to conduct interviews with members of the Roma community and Hungarian minority, not to mention Ukrainian Jews who face a resurgent right-wing tied to World War II-era symbolism. In light of the many political challenges facing Ukraine, writing about minorities and their plight seemed like a worthwhile goal. Back at home in New York, I have parted ways somewhat with traditional leftists, some of whom display an overly pat and simplistic view of society in which certain groups are made into martyrs, while others are conveniently swept under the rug. On a very basic and intrinsic level, such viewpoints seem incomplete and fail to convey how I perceive the world. But perhaps somewhat oddly, my interest in drawing attention to “the minority-within the minority-within the minority” sometimes feels a little detached and scientific, which seems to hark back to long-held personal patterns.
Reframing the ASD Debate
For behaving differently or “thinking outside the box,” ASD individuals have been relegated to the margins while paying a stiff social price. But in an effort to level the playing field, some have questioned the entire notion of social norms and acceptability in the first place. “When a person doesn’t fit in with others,” asks Forbes, “is the problem the person or the others? Not fitting in is not necessarily a bad thing. ‘Normal’ is often defined by what most people are doing at a given place and time. Sometimes, being ‘normal’ can be all about maintaining the status quo, which clearly shouldn’t be done in many situations such as pollution and climate change.”
Ivonne Fernández y González, an artist on the spectrum, has remarked that she was always fascinated by the idea of multi-faceted teams in which each individual member could bring their own unique skills to bear. Unfortunately, however, in real life conformity and homogeneity are propped up as the ideal, and those who are different are marginalized. Moreover, the neuro-typical majority gets to define what is normal and that becomes the status quo. But ultimately, aren’t the supposed “weaknesses” of ASD individuals a mere matter of interpretation and context?
ASD vs. Neurotypicals
As a “thought experiment,” Fernández y González compares and contrasts neuro-typical NT’s with ASD individuals. NT’s, she writes, are more prone to obey authority, “even in violent and immoral ways.” What is more, they are “needy for belonging to a group, and belonging to such groups can in turn lead to exclusionary behavior.” ASD people, on the other hand, “own a strong moral system in the sense of Kant’s categorical imperative that is not easily shaken by peer pressure. They have a high sense of justice and high sensitivity to the suffering of others [and they] act in favor of the greater good based on what logically benefits the most people as opposed to what benefits their social status.” Unfortunately, having a strong moral system is labeled as “inflexibility” whereas blind obedience common to NT’s is regarded as normal.
In an attempt to re-frame the debate around so-called disability, Fernández y González states “I wish for neurotypicals to reflect that they also have weaknesses that some of us autistic people could well supplement if we were included in teams. I think if people listened more to autistics, we would be able to create a better world together…I would like to see diverse, heterogeneous teams full of mutual respect in which individual weaknesses and strengths are reflected and accepted. Because we have all strengths and weaknesses, but unfortunately neurotypical people too often forget their weaknesses and do not pay attention to the strengths of the neuro-diverse people. They seem to not understand how teams should work.”
Co-opting Special Abilities
Fernández y González makes some valid points, but just what kinds of “teams” are we talking about, and toward what end? In an ideal world, perhaps, NT’s would seek greater teamwork on issues of vital political and social concern, while allowing Aspies’ unique voices to be heard. Unfortunately, however, the establishment has been trying to “co-opt” Aspies for its own opportunistic purposes. As Fortune has reported, neuro-diverse individuals have become an attractive recruiting target for the corporate world, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Ford.
Goldman managers believe that failure to employ ASD individuals could represent “a missed opportunity for employers and society, considering this highly intelligent and skilled talent pool embodies intense levels of concentration and dependability, and often higher retention rates than neurotypical people.” The company recruiting program, therefore, “aims to empower and integrate neuro-diverse people into the workforce and give individuals an opportunity to bring their unique strengths and skills to our workplace.” “Once onboard,” Goldman seeks to find ways to position ASD individuals “for success,” while recognizing that not all Aspies are good with numbers.
Some ASD individuals are moving up the Goldman chain and want to make it big. Goldman managers are salivating at the prospect of herding disciplined Aspies into the company and placing individuals within engineering, operations and compliance divisions. Company bigwigs, meanwhile, remark that “employers are thinking more diversely about their workforce because they want to get the best talent through the door. We’re increasingly recognizing those talents can be found within this historically underrepresented group. It’s a lot easier than most people think to integrate someone with autism into the workplace.”
ASD and Radical Politics
Is this really the kind of “empowerment” that ASD individuals should aspire to? Instead of trying to fit in to hyper-conformist society, perhaps Aspies should cultivate their strengths to rein in the excesses of a world dominated by NT’s. Though Aspies don’t represent a monolithic bloc, let alone a community of like-minded political individuals, I cannot help wonder how many anarchists are on the spectrum. It seems logical, in fact, that ASD individuals would naturally be attracted to radical political philosophies which seek to eradicate hierarchy.
Writing in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson remarks, “the anarchist has a brain that won’t shut up. They cannot keep themselves from asking ‘What is this? What is it for? Must things be this way? Can they be different?’ Children, of course, ask questions like these, and one reason I like anarchists is that they refuse to stop asking questions that we all had as children but never received satisfactory answers to.” Robinson adds, “some of us just stop asking questions eventually, but anarchists are uncommonly stubborn people who do not accommodate themselves to the society around them no matter how intense the pressure. This can make them difficult, but it also means that they are like George Bernard Shaw’s ‘unreasonable man’: The reasonable person adapts themselves to the world, while the unreasonable person waits for the world to adapt itself to them.”
Perhaps, ASD individuals are more “wired” to criticize authority and hierarchy, because on a certain level these notions simply don’t make sense to them. Pete Wharmby, an English teacher with Asperger’s, writes that Aspies simply don’t care how they act around authority figures. “It’s not that we’re deficient,” he adds, “it’s more that this authority business is a neurotypical notion that we don’t seem to share, and thus we tend to ignore it…We automatically seek to be on a level with everyone we meet. This is subconscious and not controllable, unless we really need to. It occurs throughout our lives from childhood to old age.”
Such attitudes make Aspies “really weird” to NT’s who gladly accept authority. “This is a very good and a very bad thing,” Wharmby writes, “because sadly, unearned authority is a big part of human existence. From police and the armed forces, whose authority is granted by an abstract ‘State,’ to random adults in the street telling kids off – it’s everywhere.”
From Orwell to Traven
Whether I chose radical political philosophies or they chose me, I’m not sure. But from an early age, I became fascinated by George Orwell, an anarchist writer who may have had ASD himself since he “displayed the social impairment, narrow focus, repetitive behavior and clumsiness typical of the syndrome.” The New York Times remarks, “Orwell had major problems fitting in at British preparatory schools — not surprisingly, he hated the totalitarian tenor of teachers and school administrators — but someone on the autism spectrum could probably never have become a police officer in Lower Burma, as Orwell did.”
In high school we were encouraged to read from our favorite books for a public forum. I chose a selection from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about the author’s anarchist experiences in Spain. I later delved into other anarchist works, including The Ego and Its Own, an obscure book written by Max Stirner. To this day, I have a full library of B. Traven’s works which mostly deal with the plight of Indians in the Mexican region of Chiapas. Traven, whose real identity remains something of a mystery, became famous after his book Treasure of the Sierra Madre was adapted to the silver screen. But my favorite Traven book, The Death Ship, is centered around a stateless man who gets abandoned by his crew and winds up on a doomed ocean tanker.
Bernie’s Political Revolution
Dipping in to my books here and there, I was a bit of an “armchair anarchist,” though that would shortly change. In 2015, I got involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign and worked as a volunteer for about a year on and off. Previously, I had been inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement which prompted me to start this web site showcasing and exploring unconventional political ideas. On a purely personal level, I was less interested in joining the notion of “Team Bernie” and more intrigued by the idea of re-energizing Occupy. Even if Bernie lost, I reasoned, perhaps the Vermont Senator might create a social movement.
Indeed, Sanders himself raised expectations by speaking about the need to create a grassroots movement and a political revolution. He also remarked that Obama’s chief mistake was to have demobilized his followers after the 2008 election. In a nod to socialist union organizer Eugene Debs, the Vermont Senator declared that he wouldn’t make such tactical blunders. Hoping that Bernie would follow through on his rhetoric, I participated in the campaign in Brooklyn and even went to the south to canvas in advance of the South Carolina primary. But then, when Bernie lost to Hillary Clinton in the New York primary, I became disillusioned when it became clear that thousands of people had mysteriously been thrown off the voting rolls.
What had all my efforts actually achieved? I recall attending a Bernie town hall late in the campaign, when it had already become clear that Sanders would withdraw from the race. Despite the campaign’s imminent demise, I hoped Bernie would spell out how the political revolution might proceed and spur the growth of a grassroots movement. What I got instead, however, was a canned Bernie speech reciting a long list of social ills. If Bernie had any tactical vision of how to channel the energy of his supporters, the candidate made no mention. Far from becoming a “movement politician,” Sanders seemed poised to go back to the Senate in order to work with his “esteemed colleagues across the aisle.” Despite these disappointments, when I looked around the auditorium, I saw the enthralled crowd rapt in attention. At various points, people rose up from their chairs to deliver standing ovations, as if we were singing the Star-Spangled Banner at a ballgame. When I stayed in my chair and refrained from clapping, I noticed some in the crowd giving me the “evil eye”: a crystallizing moment and yet another instance of not fitting in with “the team.”
ASD and Buddhism
If I do have ASD, then I can probably get some use from self-help books. Such works are hardly in short supply, with titles such as Living Well on the Spectrum: How to Use Your Strengths to Meet the Challenges of Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism,Emotional Mastery for Adults with Aspergers – Practical Techniques to work through anger, anxiety and depression, and A Self-Determined Future with Asperger Syndrome: Solution Focused Approaches. But even if I don’t have Asperger’s, and it is simply a social disability, or alternatively I am just an overly cerebral person, then I can probably benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.
Others, however, have criticized western psychological approaches while embracing Buddhism. Take, for example, Aspie Thomas Clements who “grew disillusioned with conventional treatments” and cognitive behavioral therapy. “Autism is often a heavy burden,” he writes. “It’s a barrier to life that keeps us from being instinctive, free, and spontaneous. People with Asperger’s have to go on a much more tortuous and far less accommodating road than most before they can discover their place with others.”
Ultimately, Clements turned to writing as a form of therapy. In his book The Autistic Buddha, he sought “alternative ways of reducing my own mental suffering.” Through meditation, he was able to become more pro-social in his behavior and “far more at ease in my own skin, to the extent that I began…initiating conversation with strangers.” Specifically, Clements found that by letting go of the self, “I quickly dissolved much of the naive egocentrism associated with my autism.”
Aspies’ Place in Society
I am sure that self-help books might provide helpful coping strategies, but the reality is that, fairly or unfairly, ASD people are a tiny minority and it is probably unreasonable to expect that other people will adjust to Aspies’ way of seeing things. Since Asperger’s is a personality type which does not change over time, the only remedy for the ASD individual is to try to adapt to the outside world as best they can.
Others, however, argue that society should be more accommodating. Writing in The Hill, Sam Farmer remarks that neuro-diversity should form a significant aspect of our social fabric. “We acknowledge diversity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, skin color and political affiliation, among others,” he writes. “Why not neurology?”
As a psychological experiment, I decided to “out myself,” as it were, reasoning that if gay people could come out of the closet, then why should that be any more valid than ASD? In casual conversations both online and off, I mentioned that I was probably on the spectrum, which elicited a range of responses. Some people said nothing, others had no idea what I was talking about, still others took a pitying and sorrowful tone, while other acquaintances expressed understanding. One person remarked, “we’re all on the spectrum,” while another added, “we’ve all got something.”
Seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy, reading tons of self-help books or trying to adjust to the majority culture sounds like an exhausting task. In light of the mess which conventional NT’s have created in the world through their conformist team culture, maybe it is time for the majority to start recognizing Aspies for their problem-solving talents. Indeed, as the New York Times has put it, “members of the political establishment may have other kinds of psychopathology; but, unlike the rest of us, they at least cannot be thought of as Aspies.”
Perhaps such NT politicians have become part of the problem, not to mention the whole non-governmental organization or NGO complex. Environmental NGO’s, for example, might recognize they have become something of an industry while failing to make a meaningful dent in climate change, all of which suggests it’s time to recruit more people like Thunberg who can “think outside the box.” Going further, Jacobin remarks that the majority is afflicted with ADHD “which has become the neurological metaphor of our internet age.” In light of our predicament, therefore “perhaps a dose of autism is just the right antidote to our collective ADHD.”
Postscript: after waiting several months for another appointment, a new psychiatrist told me I most likely have ASD, and as a result there isn’t much use in pursuing formal testing which is extremely time-consuming and costly. Unfortunately, though he suspected I have ASD, the psychiatrist lacked sufficient expertise in following up with patients and referred me to a social worker and therapist who had such experience. But oddly, during one session the latter therapist remarked that he wasn’t convinced that ASD exists in the first place. At long last, I heard back from Spectrum Services and I have been working with one psychologist who has long experience with ASD. Though I have not gone through the gauntlet of expensive testing, some anecdotal tests indicate mild Asperger’s.
On the surface at least, one might expect New York activists to fully support Rojava, that is to say an area comprised of Kurdish cantons within northern Syria. The Kurds have been promoting arguably the most radical experiment in direct democracy in recent memory, from feminist empowerment to eco-socialist revolution to ethnic pluralism to economic cooperatives. Though perhaps not all Syrian Kurds would choose to define themselves as such, Rojava displays many core anarchist beliefs from conducting business on a barter system to neighborhood communes to sustainable farms.
Rojava has taken on patriarchy with a vengeance, and women must comprise at least 40 percent of all governing bodies. Moreover, women serve in Kurdish military units along their male counterparts. Meanwhile, local assemblies must include not just Kurds but other minorities. Determined not to repeat tired old political models of the past, Kurdish leaders believe the nation state itself is bankrupt. In line with such notions, Rojava has proclaimed a “social contract” rather than a constitution, which places great importance on environmentalism and equality while rejecting state, religious or military-style nationalism.
Now that Donald Trump has given Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria, which has placed the overall future of Rojava in some doubt and led to a humanitarian and refugee crisis, some activists in New York have organized rallies in Union Square while protesting at Turkish airlines, whose offices are located within the Empire State building. On the whole, however, the political response from those who would define themselves as leftists has been sorely lacking.
Making Sense of Rebellion
Such inertia is even more jarring in light of the rapid advance of world-wide revolt from Lebanon to Chile to Hong Kong and beyond, suggesting that rebellion is spreading and could prove difficult to contain. Like the Arab Spring of 2010-11, which leapt from country to country, toppling dictators in its wake, the current ferment seems poised to sweep aside corrupt elites intent on preserving the status quo. But unlike the Arab Spring, which was limited to one specific region and later sputtered out, today’s rebellions are broader in both political and geographical scope and could give rise to more profound structural changes.
On the superficial level, today’s most recent rebellions seem to share certain traits in common. Fed up with the rising cost of living and simmering inequality, Chilean students and young folk have protested by taking to the streets of Santiago. But despite government pledges to tackle social-economic disparities, such moves have failed to quell waves of unrest. In Lebanon, meanwhile, protests broke out after the authorities tried to impose a charge on voice over internet protocol use, a feature used by Whatsapp and other applications. But as in Chile, official promises to scrap the tax and implement other reforms failed to mollify protesters, who are fed up with crony capitalism and want the government to disband.
Other rebellions, however, have been sparked not so much by economic inequality but rather by political repression. Take, for example, the case of Hong Kong, where young protesters have once again taken a leading role. Incensed by a bill which would have allowed extradition to the Chinese mainland, citizens took to the streets while battling the police and thug-like elements linked to organized crime. But as per the cases of Chile and Lebanon, government moves to address protesters’ demands — in this case scrapping the extradition bill — failed to reassure many Hong Kongers, who now seek full democracy and greater police accountability. Concerned about Beijing’s greater encroachment, demonstrators want to secure the right to protest, a free press and independent judiciary.
Lack of Environmental Consciousness
On the positive side, the current wave of leaderless global protest eschews traditional political power brokers and the partisan divide while embracing militant tactics. Taken as a whole, however, the rebellions can be inchoate from one region to the next, and fail to articulate a coherent radical vision. Most glaringly, with the exception of Britain and isolated protests in the United States, where climate action group Extinction Rebellion has been making steady progress, environmental issues haven’t surfaced as a concern for the latest generation of protesters, thus highlighting the growing gap between protest culture within the global north and south.
Indeed, some demonstrators have seemingly thumbed their noses at the environment, for example in Ecuador where citizens revolted after the government announced it would end subsidies which have helped to keep fuel prices low. The Chilean government, meanwhile, has announced it will cancel next month’s United Nations climate change summit, COP25, out of fear the meeting would be disrupted by street protests. The cancellation throws South American environmental concerns into some doubt, since previous plans to hold the summit in Brazil had also been shelved, notwithstanding forest fires in the Amazon rainforest, a dire situation which will have global consequences.
Convenient and Inconvenient Victims
Given that protests can now spread rapidly over social media, with protesters exchanging information and advice from country to country, the need for greater coordination has never been greater. In light of such underlying needs, I have been baffled by the almost complete blackout, indifference and even open contempt for what has been happening in Rojava, where Kurds have managed to articulate and give voice to disparate political strands in contrast to many other areas of the world where rebellions have taken place.
There may be several different explanations for this lackluster response. On the one hand, progressive-liberal folk are ill-served by the likes of cable news and narrow-minded MSNBC, which serve up a daily diet of parochial fare amidst the latest ins-and-outs of the Trump presidency. Even Rachel Maddow, the network’s most thorough and dogged news host, tends to steer clear of foreign events, only choosing to mention the Kurds in the midst of the Turkish invasion, and even so failing to utter the word Rojava or provide vital context about the region’s radical political accomplishments.
Other folk, who may define themselves as more hardened leftists as opposed to simply progressive, are similarly ill-served by a daily diet of ideological fare, from The Nation to the Intercept to “Jacobin” magazine (whose mere title, evoking proto-Stalinists of an earlier era, should be instantly disqualifying). To a greater or lesser degree, all of these outlets tend to reinforce a rather “statist” view of the world which gives Russia and other backward actors the benefit of the doubt, that is to say, “we” should deal with the Kremlin, “Turkish interests” or strive to get along and cut deals with the likes of Assad, all of whom are viewed as somehow more legitimate than the Kurds, who are a complete afterthought or marginal footnote.
Within such a black and white perspective, there are convenient and inconvenient victims. In accordance with the leftist playbook, Palestinians are viewed as worthy of support, but others, such as Uighurs and Hong Kongers, who are being repressed by the “Communist” Party of China, are viewed as undesirable. There’s been a similar lack of outcry over the plight of Crimean Tatars, whose territory was annexed by Russia and who have also been persecuted. In this sense, Kurds too fall on the wrong side of history, since up until recently they were military allies of the United States. Ridiculously, and in line with post-modernistic nonsense, many leftists claim that “it’s not my right” to speak up for repressed groups unless they are being targeted by Israel or the United States.
From Kurds to Anarchists
What are the prospects of injecting a greater appreciation for foreign struggle within activist circles? Here in New York, Syria protests have drawn together the Emergency Committee for Rojava, a group of scholars and activists based at City University of New York, as well as Kurds and anarchists. The Kurds constitute a small immigrant group primarily based in New Jersey, while anarchists operate within different “scenes,” i.e. the “Bushwick scene,” the Ridgewood “Woodbine scene,” etc.
In this sense, New York is quite different from, say, Berlin where whole neighborhoods are taken up by leftists and housing collectives, or for that matter Exarcheia in Athens. Though Ridgewood hosts a kind of anarchist hub, including the Woodbine political center and a café/bookstore, it’s a far cry from European cities which display more of a real leftist “counter-culture.”
With the exception of a few elder statesmen and women, the anarchist scene is made up almost entirely of twenty somethings or ex-Occupy Wall Street activists. There doesn’t seem to be much of a real discussion within such circles about how to expand or conduct genuine political organizing beyond the usual black leather contingent, which serves to put a brake on overall effectiveness. Judging from recent history, anarchists don’t seem particularly interested in sparking creative protest which will elicit interest from the media, thus consigning righteous demonstrations to obscurity.
The View From New York
Perhaps, anarchists could learn a thing or two from the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA, which has been more successful at organizing. Like anarchists, DSA has attracted many young participants from Occupy. Unfortunately, however, the group has invested most of its energy in electoral politics, which saps endless time and resources. The organization is probably split between left ideologues and some rogue members who express interest in self-indulgent foreign struggles.
In this sense, DSA takes after its two heroes, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz, both of whom fail to express any political curiosity about leftist struggles beyond their predictable and immediate playbook. At long length, in the midst of the Turkish invasion, Sanders spoke out about the need to support the Kurds, though he failed to even utter the word Rojava. AOC, meanwhile, who boasts 5.5 million followers on Twitter, likes to engage in pointless spats with Ivanka Trump on social media. Reluctantly, it seems, she finally condemned the Turks though she too conveniently neglected to mention Rojava.
Extinction Rebellion, a more recent environmental group, has been growing steadily in New York and could breathe more dynamic life into this picture. Though activists don’t seem particularly informed about social struggle abroad, let alone eco-socialist revolution in Rojava, and some members are apocalyptic crackpots with others embracing a kind of “kumbaya” touchy feely sensibility, nevertheless Extinction Rebellion has engaged in vital non-violent civil disobedience tactics. The outfit doesn’t call too many actions, but Extinction Rebellion gives a lot of thought to its protests which always manage to get into the media spotlight, from Rockefeller Center to Wall Street to the New York Times.
Return to the United Nations
Without getting too sidetracked about New York and its various leftist sub-cultures, it’s worth considering how to recapture militant politics which has been noticeably absent since Occupy. Part of an activist’s responsibility is to cover his or her home base, and New York is unique in playing host to all countries of the world at the United Nations. While activists who know this area of Manhattan well may shrug at the suggestion, it makes sense to think about the United Nations and how it might fit into a wider strategic vision which could revive and improve upon the earlier history of actions here.
Currently, Rojava is calling for a no-fly-zone over its territory, as well as additional pressure to be brought to bear against Turkey. The logical place to start is the United Nations, home to the Security Council as well as the Turkish Mission to the United Nations. But given that most New Yorkers have never even heard of the Kurds, much less Rojava, activists cannot marshal large numbers of people. In the past, however, activists have been able to maximize their impact through small and pointed actions which have elicited attention from the media.
In the run-up to George Bush’s war in Iraq in 2003, I was briefly active in a political group called No Blood for Oil. With few members, the outfit wasn’t able to organize large anti-war protests. However, our group shrewdly decided to call for ongoing protests outside the United Nations at certain fixed times and days of the week, so that all activists knew where and when to show up. Gradually, the momentum started to grow as curious foreign correspondents working nearby at the United Nations came out to interview us.
Finally, in a carefully choreographed action, we marched up to the gates of the United Nations with a petition asking Kofi Annan to observe the UN Charter and call on the United States to halt its plans to invade Iraq. Once we reached the gate, we sat down in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. Though the police arrested us, images of the protest were beamed around the world by the BBC, thus reassuring the public that not everyone in America was on board with Bush’s designs on the Middle East.
Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and Environs
Historically, Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and the surrounding area have witnessed countless human rights protests, from demonstrations highlighting the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs and Hong Kongers to Kashmir to the Rohingya of Burma to Ambazonia (not to be confused with Amazonia). In addition, important and historic civil rights protests highlighting women and gay rights have occurred here. And it’s not as if Rojava activists are unfamiliar with the area, as they too protested Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the UN in 2017. The trick, however, is to figure out how to build momentum, as opposed to conducting “one-off” actions which quickly dissipate.
Rojava is now entering into a period of shifting geopolitical flux, and organizers might want to think about how the area allows activists to uniquely interact with key regional players ensconced at the Turkish mission, the U.S. mission, the Russian mission, the Iranian Mission and the Syrian Mission. If activists can bring in more people from the groups I previously mentioned, while approaching the situation creatively, perhaps in a kind of “tyranny tour” displaying props of leading authoritarian leaders and strongmen, then journalists at the UN Correspondents Association might take note, thereby creating more visibility.
Admittedly, the UN is isolated on the east side of Manhattan and there’s not a lot of foot traffic in the vicinity. On the other hand, Grand Central, Bryant Park and Times Square are just a short walk away, and the area presents interesting opportunities for activists to engage with other international campaigners determined to bring attention to their own human rights struggles. Perhaps, such interactions can help shape meaningful dialogue about the current wave of global protest and how these demonstrations might fit together in a more cohesive fashion. To be sure, an activist strategy built around the United Nations could easily fail, but as recent history has shown, protests can emerge all across the globe in areas that few would have initially anticipated.
To read my article, click here.
After an energetic and dynamic summer, the Bernie Sanders campaign seems to have stalled. With the Benghazi hearings behind her and the e-mail scandal receding, at least for the time being, Hillary Clinton has regained political momentum and much of the pundit class has returned to its usual establishment mantra stressing the supposed “inevitability” of the former Secretary of State’s electoral prospects. What is more, recent developments on the international stage, including real fears over terrorism and ISIS, have obscured the Sanders campaign within the media spotlight.
Indeed, the media has paid more attention to the wild antics of Republican presidential contenders who have made outrageous statements about Syrian refugees, for example. Even as the media amps up its coverage of the GOP field, it has curtailed attention of the Democratic candidates. With the media class beating the drums for increased war once again, it’s unlikely that Sanders will be able to get his message across, and if anything pundits are far more likely to toast Clinton when it comes to being “tough on defense.”
Recent polling data underscore the depth of Sanders’ current dilemma. Over the past six weeks, Clinton has increased her lead over Bernie in both national polls and in early voting states. The former Secretary of State now leads Sanders by a whopping 20 points at the national level, and some pollsters believe that recent attacks in Paris will help Clinton, who is viewed as having strong national security credentials.
Obtuse Media Strategy
What accounts for such dramatic reversal of fortune? To be sure, the American public often lacks the ability to think for itself, and if pundits say that Hillary is a more plausible candidate then the polls may follow suit. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine how the Sanders team could have pursued a more obtuse or misguided media strategy over the past few months. Rather than capitalize on early summer momentum, during which time Sanders held a series of mass rallies, the upper echelons of the campaign seem to have concluded that it is now time to cultivate a more cautious approach designed to appease the mainstream.
Frittering away much of the campaign’s early energy, Sanders’ media handlers have produced slick ads which emphasize irrelevant information, such as the fact that Bernie is a grandfather. Despite such packaging, Sanders himself seems to eschew small talk and tends to shift attention away from personal details during media interviews. Intuitively, Sanders seems to realize that the packaging distracts attention from his core message stressing a veritable “political revolution.”
Just what this Sanders rhetoric really means is open to some question, though such utterances have surely galvanized many followers. Bernie suggests he would break with the traditional mould of presidential politics, though he’s been far too coy when it comes to providing specifics. Rather tantalizingly, he has stated that Obama’s chief mistake was to have demobilized his followers after the 2008 election. In a nod to socialist union organizer Eugene Debs, Sanders’ historic role model, the Vermont Senator declares that he won’t make such tactical mistakes in the event that he gets elected.
Defining “Political Revolution”
Such declarations, in tandem with Sanders rhetoric stressing the need for a grassroots movement, suggest that this veteran legislator may seek to transcend the narrow and limited contours of a traditional presidential campaign. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Bernie remarked “I am not running to fulfill some long-held ambition.” On another occasion, he told students at the University of Chicago “change never takes place from the top down. It always takes place from the bottom up.” In line with such talk, Sanders has hired a firm called Revolution Messaging to oversee his political digital strategy.
If more people turned out to vote, Sanders says, the Democrats could win the presidency and potentially take back Congress from the Republican majority. Once ensconced in the Oval Office, Bernie would seek to get the public engaged when it comes to crucial votes. “What the president can do,” Bernie declares, “is to say to the American people, ‘OK, if you think that it is important that public colleges and universities are tuition-free, and that that program be paid for based on a tax on Wall Street speculation, well, on March 15th there is going to be a vote in the House, and let’s see if we can bring large numbers of people here to Washington to say hello to members of Congress.’”
Such talk has won Sanders some plaudits on the left end of the spectrum. “Even a somewhat cynical 71 year old socialist like me could be thrilled to see Bernie Sanders talking about the need for an American political revolution on MSNBC,” says Sandy Boyer of Socialist Worker no less. “To be honest, I’m not sure that I ever expected to see a leading presidential candidate say we need a revolution on prime time TV.”
Bernie’s Counter-Revolutionary Adviser
Despite the fiery rhetoric, some of Sanders’ personnel choices seem perplexing and lead to questions about the candidate’s judgment. Take, for example, Tad Devine, one of Sanders’ longtime advisers. Judging from his career, Devine is no radical. To the contrary, he has advised such political mediocrities as Michael Dukakis during the latter’s failed 1988 campaign. Four years later, Devine moved on to Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, another establishment politician who failed to win his own respective presidential bid. In 2000, Devine backed yet more inside the beltway politicians when he advised Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. Four years later, Devine was at it again advising yet another Kerry who similarly went down in flames.
Bernie’s reliance on Devine is even more perplexing in light of the latter’s track record on Latin America. In 2002, Devine took his expertise to Bolivia where he advised Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada — otherwise known as “Goni” — on the latter’s presidential campaign. Working with his colleagues at the Washington, D.C. firm Greenberg-Carville-Shrum, Devine advised Goni on how to overcome his image problem. As I write in my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, Goni had a lot of political baggage left over from his previous stint as president in the mid-1990s. At the time, Goni had done his utmost to privatize Bolivia’s energy sector while opening up the nation’s resources to the likes of British Petroleum and Enron no less.
Latin America Contradiction
Devine plays a key role in the 2005 documentary, Our Brand Is Crisis, which takes the viewer behind the scenes of the Bolivian presidential campaign. At one point in the film, Devine is caught brainstorming on how to change his client’s poor standing with the electorate amidst a climate of economic malaise. “The frame, for us, is crisis,” Devine remarks. “That’s our brand. We must own crisis and we must brand crisis — who can deal with it, who has the capacity to deal with it.”
Despite the enmity many Bolivians felt toward Goni, Devine and his team orchestrate a come from behind win for their candidate and manage to defeat indigenous coca farmer Evo Morales. As I wrote in a previous article, however, victory proved to be short-lived. Angry over Goni’s gas policy, protesters took to the streets to spark an outright rebellion which forced the new president to flee to the U.S.
The revolt proved costly, with a hundred people dying in clashes. In the wake of the fiasco, the Boston Globe remarked “Globalism extends to the American way of campaigning, it seems, and the hubris of the gringo strategists — earnest ex-Clintonistas employed by James Carville’s Greenberg Carville Shrum group — would be hilarious if human lives and a country’s political will weren’t at stake.”
It would be one thing if Devine were apologetic about his role in Bolivia’s misfortunes. But reportedly, he is adamantly proud of his work and sees Goni as “an honest leader” and “a guy who wanted to do the right thing.” Though Devine concedes that Goni caved in to the demands of the International Monetary Fund, nevertheless the former president was an economic leader and made unpopular decisions on behalf of Bolivia.
It’s a little unfair to question Sanders on his record based on the actions of a sole adviser. Yet, Bernie’s tapping of Devine seems to go against the grain of the Vermont Senator’s own instincts on Latin America. In fact, as Mayor of Burlington, Sanders attracted national attention for taking anti-imperialist stands like supporting the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In 1985, Bernie met with President Daniel Ortega and became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Nicaragua. In his own book, Sanders praised Ortega and called his trip to Nicaragua a “profoundly emotional” experience. Moreover, Burlington even became a sister city to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.
Whither the Political Revolution?
Perhaps more significantly, Bernie seems to have a very limited definition of the scope and parameters of political revolution. Writes Boyer, “When Bernie Sanders says we need a political revolution, he’s mostly talking about turning many thousands of new people out to vote. That would obviously be a very good thing. It’s just not enough to win the meaningful social changes that would add up to a political revolution.” Boyer adds, “Before he died Dr. King was organizing the Poor People’s Crusade to bring tens of thousands of people to Washington and shut the government down until Congress acted to end poverty. So far Bernie Sanders’ political revolution doesn’t seem to involve that kind of radical popular mobilization.”
So what should Bernie do to reverse his lackluster poll numbers? While there is no silver bullet when it comes to mounting successful political campaigns, demonstrating commitment to grassroots social change might be one way to shift the media narrative in Sanders’ favor. So far, Bernie has hinted rather obliquely that he might call for protests on meaningful votes once he is elected. Such an approach, however, smacks of inside baseball.
There’s another option on the table, albeit a rather untested one: Bernie could call for mass protest during the actual presidential campaign. To be sure candidates eschew such tactics, though Sanders has a huge e-mail list of followers which he might call upon. Boyer seems to anticipate such an unorthodox approach, noting that “Bernie could be there any time an innocent African-American is murdered by the cops. He could speak at climate change demonstrations from coast to coast. He could walk the picket line with minimum wage workers demanding $15 an hour. These kinds of actions would accomplish much more than getting out the vote for Democratic politicians.”
There’s no guarantee that such a strategy would be successful or even rouse the media from its endless mantra of national security and terrorism. Furthermore, adopting radical tactics would probably fly in the face of Devine and Bernie’s more cautious advisers. As the countdown begins to Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Sanders may not have much to lose.