Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Tonya Battle, an African-American nurse at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, claims a note was posted on a nursery assignment clipboard reading “No African-American nurse to take care of baby.” Ms. Battle has sued, seeking punitive damages. The hospital’s president explained that the father bore a swastika tattoo, which concerned supervisors about the staff's safety.

This being the United States in the twenty-first century, whoever received the father’s request should have bellowed, “Dude, even the state of Mississippi just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. You can either accept the nurses we give you or take your business elsewhere.” But no. According to Ms. Battle, the note in question was later removed, but black nurses weren't assigned to the baby's care for a month.

What troubles me about this story isn’t the racial angle as much as the fact that more staff—of any race—didn’t scream bloody murder. We seem increasingly reluctant to take moral stands. Ms. Battle served as Rosa Parks here, but why weren’t more voices raised? The major issue is, I think, deference to authority.

For a realistic and compelling view of this phenomenon, see the recent film “Compliance,” about employees in a fast-food restaurant who humiliate a fellow worker at the behest of someone claiming to be a cop. I guess they weren’t aware of Gandhi’s advice, “Never do the wrong thing, even if the authorities require it.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Even the AMA has been saying many years that gun violence in America is a public health issue. Seeing it as such plugs it usefully into the subject of mental health. Unfortunately--and surprisingly--though, that's something we don't have a practical handle on. Plenty of us are way off the beam but not diagnosable under present standards.

Those who are frankly psychotic actually aren’t responsible for much violent crime. In all our gun massacres, few shooters had ever been designated insane. They were odd, alright, but not enough for anyone to summon the white coats. After they finally exploded, neighbors uniformly commented, “Well, he was a little strange. Kept to himself, got angry easily, and oh, yeah, he had a lot of guns.”

One endemic oddness these days combines anti-social isolation with fear. How many Americans are coiled in terror this very moment, eager to strike out in protection? How many will shoot relatives or harmless visitors as suspected intruders? How many of us, fearing any social confrontation, will homicidally “stand our ground?”

The soon-to-be-published fifth edition of psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), won’t feature diagnoses like “doesn’t get along well with people,” or “frightened enough to own an armory, but not full-on paranoid.” Some other country’s DSM might consider these conditions abnormal, but here they’re arguably the norm.

We don’t need laws that address mental health as much as we need mental health itself. We can start by asking why Americans own one gun per capita, ten times the world average. As Gandhi asked armed-to-the-teeth Khyber tribesmen, “What are you so afraid of?”

Monday, February 4, 2013


Amid the abundant downers in the news—climate change, gun massacres, worldwide misogyny—at least one positive is emerging: we’re beginning to care more about what we eat.

School districts around the country are realizing they’ve been feeding kids trash lunches. New programs are serving local organic veggies and other nutritious foods, bought locally and often at lower prices than corporate crap. Until recently, hospitalized patients could literally die of malnutrition; now, here and there, decent food is finding its way in.

Even when food looks okay, dubious but invisible elements can lurk within. Do you know if your food was irradiated for shelf life, creating potentially carcinogenic free radicals? Do you know what your chickens or beef cattle were fed? Reuters reported today that Russia will ban imports of American turkey, beef, and pork due to concerns about the use of the feed additive ractopamine, a growth hormone. Ractopamine is banned in some countries because of concerns that it could remain in the meat and cause health problems, despite scientific evidence showing that it’s safe.

When you consider claims of “harmlessness,” please keep two caveats in mind. First, the exculpating research was almost always done by the corporation that sells the stuff; ‘nuff said. And second, that research takes only the short term into account. Dozens of serious toxins don’t reveal their effect for decades or even entire generations. That fact alone makes most additives and processes corporate dreams in terms of liability: we’re exposed to so many questionable substances that we can’t prove a cancer that appears today was caused by something ingested twenty years ago.

What do we do about that? I actually don’t think we need protective laws as much as we need to educate ourselves about food and buy only what we know to be healthy. The “invisible hand of the market,” as economists call it, takes care of business: the American turkey that Russia will no longer import is a $516 million loss for the ractopamine crowd.