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US House Floor Today

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US Senate Floor Today

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Nasa News

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VOA News

Obama to Unveil Proposed Federal Budget
Posted on Sunday February 01, 2015

On Monday, President Barack Obama unveils his blueprint for future U.S. government spending, a proposed 2016 federal budget. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the weighty document constitutes an opening bid in a lengthy debate about America’s finances that will expose sharp divides between a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Americans Get Ready for Super Bowl Sunday
Posted on Sunday February 01, 2015

The biggest annual sporting event in the United States, the National Football League championship known as the Super Bowl, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. EST (2330 GMT). The defending-champion Seattle Seahawks, from the Pacific Coast state of Washington, and the New England Patriots, from the Atlantic Coast state of Massachusetts, three-time winners of the Super Bowl, will clash at University of Phoenix Stadium in the southwestern state of Arizona. Each team has an elite-level quarterback, the...

Kerry Discusses Trade, Terror Fight With Mexican, Canadian Counterparts
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has met in Boston, Massachusetts, with his counterparts from Canada and Mexico for talks that covered subjects that included trade cooperation and the fight against extremism. Kerry, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird met Friday and Saturday. Kerry said they discussed efforts currently underway to defeat violent extremism and the battle against Islamic State. He said the three countries were working...

Obama Weekly Address Foreshadows Tough Budget Fight
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama tried to seize the rhetorical high ground ahead of a budget battle with Republicans, saying Saturday that it was time to decide what kind of country America wants to be. In his weekly address, Obama asked Americans if they wanted an economy "where only a few ... do spectacularly well" or one "where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead."  The address foreshadowed the upcoming budget and tax fights Obama will face with the...

Williams Wins Australian Open with Straight-Set Victory over Sharapova
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

Serena Williams of the United States defeated Russia's Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open finals Saturday, in straight sets to claim her 19th Grand Slam title. The victory makes it the sixth in Australia for Williams, currently ranked number one in the world. She has defeated No. 2-ranked Sharapova in their last 16 meetings. The 6-3, 7-6 victory in Melbourne also leaves Williams just three Grand Slam titles shy of German Steffi Graf's record 22 titles in the Open...

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

The recent U.S. decision to restore diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years has interested parties debating whether it will lead to an enhancement or regression of democracy on the Communist island nation. A mix of politicians and analysts in the U.S., some South Florida exiles and key members of Cuba’s dissident community have all pointed to China and Southeast Asia as an area where democracy has retracted in the face of détente with...

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

A leading U.S. newspaper says the spy agencies of the United States and Israel worked together in February, 2008 to kill a senior Hezbollah commander in Damascus. A report in The Washington Post, citing unidentified former intelligence officials, said the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad collaborated their efforts in tracking down and killing Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's international operations chief. The story, posted on the newspaper's website late Friday, said...

Measles Cases Mount; White House Urges Vaccinations
Posted on Friday January 30, 2015

More than 100 people in the United States have become infected with the measles virus since December, prompting the White House on Friday to urge parents to get their children vaccinated. Measles is highly contagious. Symptoms include a blotchy rash, fever and runny nose.  No deaths from the airborne virus have been reported in the current outbreak.   White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the science of vaccinations "is really clear." He said...

Kerry, Lavrov to Hold Talks on Ukraine
Posted on Friday January 30, 2015

Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Ukraine and Germany next week for talks on issues including the heightened tensions over what the U.S. and its Western allies say is Russian aggression in Ukraine. Kerry is expected to raise the issue when he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany. VOA State Department Correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.

NATO: Georgia Training Facility Could Open in 2015
Posted on Friday January 30, 2015

NATO said Friday that it hoped to open a training center in Georgia by the end of the year, signaling a strengthening of its relationship with the former Soviet republic that is likely to antagonize Russia. Georgia's government has long hoped to join the military alliance. But Russia, which fought a 2008 war with Georgia over two Moscow-backed breakaway regions, has said such a move would threaten its security. The Kremlin last month accused NATO of turning another former Soviet...

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Ron Paul News

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The Right-Wing Christians Who Think 'American Sniper' Embodies Christian Values
Posted on Thursday January 29, 2015

They use patriarchal language to defend the American sniper in the “clash of civilizations.”

When George W. Bush launched his war of choice in Iraq in 2003, it was easy to compare the invasion to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. As much as any soldier, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame embodied the fanatical, driven purpose of those 10th-century Christians who invaded the Holy Lands and saw slaughtering Muslims by the thousands as their God-given duty. In his autobiography upon which Clint Eastwood’s hit film is based, the self-professed Christian, who had tattooed the Crusader’s red cross on his arm, referred to the Iraqis he was paid to shoot as “savages” and a “savage, despicable evil” who all “deserved to die.”

So it should come as no surprise that, with American Sniper  tearing up the box office and bestseller lists, conservative Christians have been using apocalyptic and patriarchal language to defend this warrior in the “clash of civilizations” used as a pretext for invading Iraq.

Here are some of the dumbest remarks.

Todd Starnes, a Fox News radio host, television contributor and subject of an infamous and absurdist Twitter meme, responded to criticism of American Sniper by liberals such as Michael Moore by questioning their patriotism and trying to read the mind of Jesus, telling his YouTube audience, “I suspect Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’” This is a reference to the Book of Revelation, written in the first century, which posited a lake of fire in the afterlife, into which were cast the devil, the false prophet, all idolaters and liars, and all of the “faithless” who did not believe in or had turned their backs on the Christian god. Christians such as Starnes and Kyle often see it as their duty to either convert or kill the followers of “false” religions such as Islam, sending them to their eternal torment in the lake of fire. That Islam has a similar vision of a fiery afterlife inhabited by the faithless and non-believers of Allah was probably lost on Starnes.

Also on Fox, Peter Hegseth had an astounding insight: Chris Kyle was not Jesus! Responding to Moore’s sarcastic tweet about Kyle, Hegseth said, “Chris Kyle never purported to be Jesus. Chris Kyle didn’t serve the same function. I know he served and believed in Jesus. But people have different duties and responsibilities in society. Jesus came to save our souls. Chris Kyle went to save the lives of the men that he was over-watching as a sniper.”

No, Chris Kyle never purported to be Jesus. He did purport to be a soldier for Jesus, a Christian warrior killing “savages” in a righteous crusade “for God and country.” This is a perversion of some of Jesus’s teaching in some parts of the Bible, but right in line with the sort of vengeful Christianity found in, among other places, the Gospel of Matthew (“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword”) that drove Crusaders in the Middle Ages and has motivated many of our more evangelical soldiers and political leaders over the last decade and a half of the war on terror.

Owen Strachan, the president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote a review of American Sniper that located Chris Kyle in a biblical tradition of Christian manliness. “The church gives men a vocabulary for their aggression, their innate manliness,” Strachan wrote. “It funnels their God-given testosterone in the direction of Christlike self-sacrifice…It asks them to channel all their aggression and energy and skill into the greatest cause of all: serving the kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.”

Strachan goes on to claim that the enfranchisement of men in the way Chris Kyle has been venerated is exciting to women. These women allegedly see such men as defenders who thrill and inspire and make them believe in virtue again. These “true” men redeem us and thus can never die, but “live forever with their God.”

This muscular Christianity may be at odds with the Jesus who told his followers to lay down their swords, turn the other cheek and love those who hate you. But it is perfectly in line with the Crusaders’ vision of cleansing the earth for the righteous followers of Christ in order to secure their place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Chris Kyle himself took part in a public conversation about this view of Christianity as a sort of testosterone-fueled bacchanalia that celebrates a certain conception of manhood. As part of the publicity surrounding the publication of American Sniper in early 2012, Kyle sat for an interview with Pastor Ed Young in front of Young’s fundamentalist congregation at Fellowship Church in Texas. In likening Kyle’s experience in Iraq to a spiritual war waged by Christians, Young said, “I think so often people think of Christianity as being passive. They see Jesus as always being a blue-eyed, decaf-sipping white boy. He, if you read about him and know about him, a total and complete man’s man…What you have done…is biblical. I believe it is biblical.”

Well, it’s biblical depending on which part of the Bible one is reading. Obviously Young or Kyle or Starnes or any other militant Christian, can pick and choose whichever passage from the New Testament justifies his own desire to kill for Jesus. Unfortunately it’s us non-believers who still have to live in the world they make.


Related Stories

Sick Rationale Allows Texas to Execute Another Mentally Disabled Man
Posted on Friday January 30, 2015

Texas ignores the U.S. Supreme Court and science, but cites John Steinbeck.

Texas has executed another intellectually disabled man under a twisted and unique legal standard that attributed the man’s violent behavior solely to personality disorder, allowing the death penalty, while ignoring his mental retardation—which would have jailed him for life.  

Robert Ladd, a 57-year-old African American whose IQ was measured as 67 as a teenager and reaffirmed during the 19 years he was held on death row, was executed Thursday in Huntsville, Texas, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene.

The execution of Ladd, who was convicted of capital murder in 1997 while working at a community mental health center/mental retardation center, appears to violate two previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings on executing the deeply disturbed and puts a spotlight on Texas’ notoriously unscientific practice of ignoring clinically diagnosed disabilities.

“Texas aggressively pursued Mr. Ladd’s execution, despite the fact that our constitution categorically prohibits the use of capital punishment against persons with intellectual disability,” said Ladd's attorney, Brian Stull, of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Mr. Ladd, whose IQ was 67, was executed because Texas uses idiosyncratic standards, based on stereotypes rather than science, to determine intellectual disability. His death is yet another example of how capital punishment routinely defies the rule of law and human decency.”

The death penalty, used in 34 states, is one of the most abhorrent features of the criminal justice system. But the way Texas administers the ultimate punishment against mentally disabled people is a profound human rights violation as well as a frightening abuse of state power, flouting national medical norms and U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings.

Tragedy From Beginning To End

Robert Ladd was born on March 19, 1957, to a mother who drank “a half-pint of whiskey at least six days a week” during the pregnancy, the ACLU’s Supreme Court appeal said, noting that Ladd was born underweight and a likely victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause severe mental disabilities. He “struggled” to take care of himself as a child, and after many signs of developmental disabilities the state took custody of him and sent him to a “Training School for Boys.” There, a staff psychiatrist found his IQ was 67 at age 13.

Numerous medical reports from state case workers during that period and later refer to Ladd as “rather obviously retarded,” the ACLU noted. By age 19, he was functioning at a fourth-grade level. When he was 21, “Ladd was convicted of murdering a young woman and her two children and setting fire to their home,” the ACLU said, noting that he served 16 years of a 40-year sentence before being released under state supervision.

Ladd worked at the Andrews Center, a state-run program for the mentally ill, where he was treated as a mentally retarded client and paid less than minimum wage. Ladd’s case manager said that he was a “high-level mentally retarded consumer,” meaning he was capable of tasks other clients were not. In 1996, he killed a woman “who worked at Andrews, during the commission of burglary, robbery, sexual assault and arson,” the ACLU brief noted.     

Ladd was sentenced to death in August 1997 and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and the sentence. But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing intellectually disabled people—whose IQ was under “approximately 70”—violates the Eighth Amendment of U.S. Constitution which bars cruel and unusual punishment. But the high court said the states could devise standards for what constitutes mental retardation (a term still used by the courts, while clinicians tend to say "intellectually disabled"). Texas’ response to that opening was to develop standards allowing it to override mental retardation diagnoses by saying the behavior that prompts people like Ladd to commit terrible crimes is due to “personality disorder.”

Lane Florsheim, writing last May for the New Republic,explained how Texas used that wiggle room to find a way to execute the mentally ill:

“A number of states have established their own definitions, so that prisoners who test as intellectually disabled in one state could be eligible for execution in another. Texas, for example, uses a set of guidelines known as the Briseño factors, which consider whether people who knew the individual as a child think he was intellectually disabled and “act in accordance with that determination”; whether the individual carried out formulated plans or conducted himself impulsively; whether the individual can lie effectively; and whether his offense required forethought, planning, and complex execution, among other considerations. The Briseño factors, which were written by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, ask Texas citizens to compare the inmate to the character of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. “Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt [from execution],” they read. By implication, an individual who seems less impaired than the fictional character would not be exempt. The Briseño factors are not recognized by a single clinical or scientific body.”   

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another decision, Hall v. Florida, again ruling that states could not execute mentally retarded individuals, because “the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability.” However, back in Texas, despite efforts by Ladd’s attorneys to convert his death sentence to life in jail, the state kept arguing that Ladd wasn’t mentally retarded when he killed Vicki Garner in 1996, but was acting from other personality disorders that took precedent under the Briseño standards.

“In addition to satisfying the traditional definition of intellectual disability by showing significant sub-average functioning and adaptive deficits before age 18, Texas petitionners [like Ladd] must prove that their adaptive deficits are the result of intellectual disability alone, and not a personality disorder,” the ACLU explained to the U.S. Supreme Court, in its brief that did not stop the execution.

“The core of this approach asks non-scientific questions,” the ACLU said, saying “it lacks any basis in professional, medical, or scientific standards concerning intellectual disability… The [Texas] Court [of Criminal Appeals] went on to cite not science, but John Steinbeck’s character Lennie as an example of someone who citizens of Texas ‘might’ deem qualified for the exemption.”

Beyond the absurdity of creating a life-or-death standard drawn from a fictional character in a 1937 novel, the ACLU also noted what any social worker with mentally ill clients would say: there often is no clear line between mental disabilities and personality disorders.

“The science debunks Briseño’s central premise—the sorting of those with intellectual disability from those with personality disorders,” the ACLU wrote. “It is clinically inappropriate to conclude that the presence of diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder rule out a diagnosis of intellectual disability… Instead of science and medicine, it is this subjective view that ostensibly reflects the consensus of the State’s citizenry that controls [death penalty law] in Texas.”

The Supreme Court did not intervene in the ACLU’s final appeal.

Ladd’s execution on Thursday is not the only recent case of a deeply mentally ill person executed in Texas. In 2012, Marvin Wilson, a convicted murderer with an IQ of 61 who “sucked his thumb into adulthood,” was executed after the high court did not act.

Murder, under any circumstances, is abhorrent. Ladd’s crimes were loathsome, but that does not mean the government needs to take an eye for an eye in an era where there is mass incarceration and a mentally disabled man could spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

“We are eager for a court to address the fact that Texas’ unscientific standards can’t be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s decision in Hall v. Florida, mandating that states must use universal medical diagnostic practices rather than inaccurate and self-invented methods for determining intellectual disability,” the ACLU’s Stull said in a statement. “However, no future ruling can undo the unconscionable fact that tonight Texas ended the life of an intellectually disabled man.” 


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Researchers May Have Found Key to Peanut Allergy Cure
Posted on Sunday February 01, 2015

Food allergies affect around 15 million children in the United States.

A team of Australian researchers may have made progress in finding the cure to peanut allergies. Around 15 million children in the United States are allergic to food — meaning about two allergic kids are in every classroom.

In a relatively small study, scientists from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute gave 30 allergic children small daily doses of peanut protein with a probiotic (Lactobacillus rhamnosus) in increasing amounts over 18 months. They gave a control group of 30 allergic children a placebo.

“Astoundingly, researchers found over 80 percent of children who received the oral immunotherapy treatment were able to tolerate peanut [sic] at the end of the trial, compared to less than 4 percent of the placebo group,” reads a press release. “This is 20 times higher than the natural rate of resolution for peanut allergy.”

“Many of the children and families believe it has changed their lives, they’re very happy, they feel relieved,” said lead researcher Mimi Tang. “These findings provide the first vital step towards developing a cure for peanut allergy and possibly other food allergies.” The next step is a follow-up study to see if the children can still tolerate peanuts years after the conclusion of the study.

Previous research has suggested that probiotics have potential in treating allergies. One such study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August, found that bacteria called Clostridia were effective in preventing mice from developing peanut allergies and reversing any peanut sensitivity already present in the animal.

In an interview with The Guardian, Tang underscored that parents should not attempt this treatment at home: “We would strongly advise against this. In our trial some children did experience allergic reactions, sometimes serious reactions.”


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5 Crazy Right-Wing Moments This Week: O'Reilly Drops Truth Bomb on Palin and Trump
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

Wingnut conservatives are turning on one another and eating their young!

1. In her first offical act as "serious" 2016 presidential contender Sarah Palin declares war (on Bill O'Reilly).

It's extremely lonely being Sarah Palin, lonely at the outer lunatic fringe of the right-wing universe. There are the voices stringing together those non sequiturs in her head, of course, but where are her Fox News friends? They're faux friends, that's what they are.

After the universally ridiculed stream of nonsense that issued from Sarah Palin at last weekend's conservative confab in Iowa, she came out swinging during an appearance on "Hannity." Sean Hannity, it should be noted, is apparently conservative enough for Palin. That's a relief. But O'Reilly, who dared question her seriousness about a possible run for president in 2016? He's trouble.

“There needs to be unity, understanding,” Palin told Hannity. “Conservatives have that strike against us right off the bat, that being the media. Even there on Fox, you know, kind of a quasi- or assumed conservative outlet ... and soon we have all day listening to the tease of Bill O’Reilly’s." 

Hmmm, did Roger Ailes get the memo about the "quasi-conservative" operation he's running? Someone should really tell him. Palin then spewed some more sentence fragments that made sense to her:

“[O'Reilly]’s talking about the guests on his show tonight, the commentary on his show, and that would be, ‘All these GOP contenders thinking about running for president, like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin,’ and he named some others — and he said, ‘Oh, what a reality show that would be, yuck yuck. Well the left doesn’t do that, okay? They take this serious [sic] — because this is war. And hopefully the media — even the quasi-right side of the media — won’t be looking at this as some kind of reality show, a joke.”

Hope away, Sarah. They all see you as a joke. All of them. Every last one of them.

2. Donald Trump declares war on Bill O'Reilly's "journalism."

Donald Trump? Did someone say Donald Trump? Nothing gets Trump's attention like his own name.

When he heard that Bill O'Reilly had questioned his seriousness as a presidential contender, the Trumpster took to Twitter, accusing O'Reilly of "bad and very deceptive journalism." This came as a complete shock to O'Reilly, who had no idea anyone considered what he does journalism. He thinks he is just bestowing wisdom on an adoring public.

The two raging egomaniacs chitty chatted by phone Thursday during O'Reilly's show, and it was amicable enough up to a point.

"I don't think you're going to run for president," O'Reilly told Trump. "But if you decide to run, you've got to know that building the organization that you'd have to build is very difficult for someone who's never done it before."

No one tells Trump he doesn't know how to build things.

"But how do you know I'm not building it now, Bill?" Trump said.

"Because you're playing golf in Miami, Donald," O'Reilly said.

Isn't that what presidents do?

Trump refused to "take back" the tweet, and O'Reilly advised him, "Don't be a pinhead. Don't tweet."

This war within the conservoverse is very, very worrisome. This highly combustible combination of blow-hardism and hot air might just explode. Then conservative brain matter will litter the land like confetti, and hopefully be scooped up by scientists who will study the nature of this soon-to-be-extinct species.

3. Megyn Kelly schools Mike Huckabee on, umm, "reality, Mike."

Aw shucks, and gosh golly. Mike Huckabee sure is shocked at how these city slickers act. The author of God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, and presumed presidential contender, is all about wholesome activities like traveling to the local gun range and not listening to the "mental poison" that is Beyoncé, but he is shocked by the mouths on these big-city women. The cursing! The dropping of the F-bomb! Like it's normal and everything. Someone has to teach these ladies a lesson.

"In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it," Huckabee said in an interview with Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson. "You just are looking around saying, 'My gosh, this is worse than locker room talk.' This would be considered totally inappropriate to say these things in front of a woman. And for a woman to say them in a professional setting, we would only assume that this is a very, as we would say in the south, 'That's just trashy!'"

Fellow Fox newsian, Megyn Kelly does not truck with "trashy." She invited her former colleage on her show this week to give him a quick update on ... women, women who work, life, and reality.

“Well, I do have some news for you," Kelly said at the end of their little chat. "We're not only swearing. We’re drinking, we’re smoking, we’re having premarital sex with birth control before we go to work, and sometimes boss around a bunch of men.”

Huckabee kept that silly grin on his face, but when he realized with horror what she was saying (sex with birth control, egads!) he begged her to stop, said he hated to hear that, and presumably ran screaming into the New York night.

4. Fox News has very nuanced discussion of sexual assault on campuses.

Oh, hahahhahaha. Just kidding. They totally didn't. Several female Fox newsians did sit around on their half-circle couches and discussed the fact that the University of Virginia has suggested sorority women stay home this weekend since fraternities will be partying hard during something Greek-lifers call "bid week." They discussed and deplored it, and naturally pointed out again that sexual assault, when it does happen on campuses (although it basically does not happen on campuses because women always lie about these things), is women's fault. In a piece of sterling analysis, Stacy Dash pointed out, "The good girls stay home." "Women," her co-hosts interjected. "The bad girls—bad women," Dash snickered, "the ones who like to play, go out and play and sometimes get hurt." But that is okay, because, they are, you know, bad.  "Alcohol is not to blame. It's the same thing with guns," Dash said, finally getting to her metaphor. "Guns don't kill people. People do." Also, could we just add, people who play with guns, people who have guns, people who have kids and guns, kids who have parents who have guns, etc....it's never the guns.  "Alcohol doesn't get you drunk," she added. "You get yourself drunk." And to bring it all back home, then you get yourself raped. Because rapists don't rape people, people get themselves raped. Clear? 

5. Texas governor officially declares "Chris Kyle Day" after real-life "American Sniper." 

There are definite perks to being a governor. One is that you can officially declare holidays whenever the hell you want.  Republican Texas governor Greg Abbott enjoyed this little perk this week when he officially declared February 2 "Chris Kyle Day" in honor of the real-life American sniper who killed many Iraqis, bragged about it, called all Muslims savages, and got a movie made out of his exploits starring Bradley Cooper.

Chris Kyle is Gov. Abbott's kind of guy. “In honor of a Texas son, a Navy SEAL and an American hero, a man who defended his brothers and sisters in arms on and off the battlefield," Abbott said during a speech at the Texans Veterans of Foreign Affairs Mid-Winter Convention in Austin. "I am declaring February 2nd Chris Kyle Day in Texas.”


He left out the part where Kyle was killed by a disgruntled U.S. veteran on a Texas gun range in 2013. Nor did he say anything about the uptick in violence and violent rhetoric against Muslims who happen to make their home in Texas (and elsewhere) since the film's release. He had zero to say about the Republican lawmaker who proposed that Muslims in Texas take an oath of loyalty to the United States while sporting an Israeli flag on her desk.

So, how exactly should people go about celebrating Chris Kyle Day? Perhaps by going to their local gun range.


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How the Mindfulness Movement Went Mainstream -- And the Backlash That Came With It
Posted on Thursday January 29, 2015

Meditation is more complex than some people realized.

In 1979, a 35-year-old American Buddhist and MIT-trained molecular biologist was on a two-week meditation retreat when he had a vision of what his life’s work—his “karmic assignment”—would be. While he sat alone one afternoon, it all came to him at once: he’d bring the ancient Eastern disciplines he’d followed for 13 years—mindfulness meditation and yoga—to chronically sick people right here in modern America. What’s more, he’d bring these practices into the very belly of the Western scientific beast—a big teaching hospital where he happened to be working as a post-doc in cell biology and gross anatomy. Somehow, he’d convince scientifically trained medical professionals and patients—ordinary people, who’d never heard of the Dharma and wouldn’t be caught dead in a zendo or an ashram—that learning to follow the breath and do a few gentle yoga postures would help relieve intractable pain and suffering. In the process, he’d manage to reconcile what was then considered fringy, New Age folderol with empirical biological research, sparking a radical new approach to healing in mainstream medical practice.

Not exactly a modest scheme, and in retrospect, it seems astonishing that this nervy young guy—Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—would manage to pull it off. And yet, as the now oft-told origin story goes, he convinced the medical bigwigs at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical Center that this idea was worth trying. With a core body of “interns”—anybody on staff who wanted to learn about meditation—he set up shop and began putting patients through an intensive 10-week (now 8-week) program of weekly classes, yoga postures, 45-minute guided home-meditation practice six times a week, and an all-day retreat during the sixth week. The idea was to teach a set of active self-regulation skills that patients could practice by themselves to help them cope with medical conditions—chronic pain foremost—for which standard medical remedies, such as drugs, rehab, and surgery, had proven useless. The program was, Kabat-Zinn recalled later, “just a little pilot on zero dollars.”

There was just one small impediment to this plan: how was he going to persuade mainstream Americans that this approach wasn’t just New Age hokum? From the beginning, to sell his program to the masses, he decided to use what Buddhists call skillful means, teaching Buddhist principles and practices, but disguising their origin in plain American-style talk—promoting a kind of stealth Buddhism, scrubbed clean of bells, chants, prayers, and terms like dharma, karma, and dukkha, not to mention The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and so on. As he has said, “I bent over backward to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of its being seen as Buddhist, New Age, Eastern Mysticism, or just plain flaky.”

Kabat-Zinn emphasized that this was to be a high-demand program, meaning that patients would be expected to take full responsibility for developing their own inner resources. In other words, they should fully engage themselves, not just make the motions. They needed to work hard every day but without—paradoxically—striving for any particular goal, like relief from pain. They might, however, hope for healing, but only in the sense that it meant “coming to terms with things as they are.” The idea was that hard-won mental and emotional acceptance could generate an inner shift in experience that often resembled a kind of cure—or as he put it, “As you befriend the pain, it can begin to go away.” At the same time, sounding more like a football coach than a spiritual teacher, he said, “I’m a strong advocate of getting tough with yourself. ‘Kicking butt,’ so to speak, or ‘Getting your ass on the cushion.’ You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. And at the end of the eight-week clinic, you can tell us whether it was of any use or not.”

The patients, most of whom were demoralized and skeptical when they entered the program, actually did what they were instructed to do. They earnestly practiced watching their breath, following along to Kabat-Zinn’s taped instructions for the body scan, doing yoga at home, and learning to meditate, which—as he’s pointed out innumerable times—simply means “to pay attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.” Improbably, most of these patients wound up feeling better, and in 1982, Kabat-Zinn’s first research article on mindfulness in the treatment of pain—the first such study ever in a bona fide academic journal—was published, with the ungainly title “An Outpatient Program in Behavioral Medicine for Chronic Pain Patients Based on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation: Theoretical Considerations and Preliminary Results.” He wrote that a majority of 51 chronic pain patients reported “great” or “moderate” pain reduction, and even if their pain didn’t disappear, they experienced less depression, tension, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.

The study was small, without a control group, based on paper-and-pencil self-reports, and rated by the author, rather than a panel of independent judges—a beginning, certainly, but no slam dunk as research papers go, and it didn’t seem destined to smash paradigms. Nor did it inspire many attempts at replication. By 1990, a grand total of 12 papers on the use of mindfulness in medical treatment had been published, with Kabat-Zinn himself producing 5. So while the fledgling program could claim a kind of success, it might have seemed a stretch to imagine it having much staying power as an intervention in mainstream medicine, or much of anywhere else for that matter.

A Movement Is Born

Thirty-five years later and my, how that “little pilot” has grown! Today, more than 20,000 patients have participated in the UMass program, which has produced 1,000 certified MBSR instructors and MBSR programs in about 720 medical settings in more than 30 countries. MBSR—or, more generically, mindfulness training—and other forms of meditation are now used for an almost unimaginable range of medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, brain injuries, fibromyalgia, HIV/Aids, Parkinson’s, organ transplants, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, and tinnitus. Mindfulness has become central to the mental health profession and is commonly used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, and autism. In addition, it’s at the heart of psychotherapeutic approaches like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), mindfulness-based trauma therapy (MBTT), and mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT).

Mindfulness has also spilled (or poured) out of the healthcare/psychotherapy world and into the rest of society. It’s migrated to schools, with training programs and curricula for K-12 teachers and students sprouting up like mushrooms. It’s in universities and often, but not always, attached to medical schools or psychology departments as mindfulness research and teaching centers, including at the University of Illinois, the University of California at Los Angeles, Duke University, the University of Miami, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, and Brown University.

It’s in prisons, where different meditation styles and traditions are brought to prisoners by way of organizations like the Prison Mindfulness Institute in Rhode Island, which directs prison programs itself, acts as an kind of clearinghouse for groups or individuals providing “mindfulness, meditation, yoga (or other contemplative traditions)” to prisoners, engages in or initiates research, and publishes books under the winsome name Prison Dharma Press.

It’s in the US military, which is training soldiers in what they call mindfulness-based mind fitness training (M-fit), drawn from MBSR, as a form of “mental armor,” a kind of inoculation against post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, a nonprofit called the Mind Fitness Training Institute provides courses and tutorials not only to military personnel, but to law-enforcement officers, intelligence analysts and agents, firefighters, and emergency responders. Today, even soldiers learning how to fire M-16s are being given mindfulness training to synchronize their breathing with squeezing the trigger.

Finally, meditation has made its way into high-level sports, beginning with Phil Jackson teaching Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates to meditate and win NBA championships in the 1990s, and continuing, more recently, to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl in 2013 after spending spring training focusing on mantras like “Quiet your mind,” “Focus your attention inwardly,” and “Visualize success.”

Of course, when any major social trend looms into view, US corporations are going to muscle their way to the front of it. Corporate culture has taken to mindfulness training avidly: not only are mindfulness programs and courses showing up in business schools (Harvard, New York University–Stern, Georgetown University–McDonough, for example), but quite an impressive sampling of corporations are bringing it into the workplace. Outside of the usual suspects in Silicon Valley—Apple, Facebook, eBay, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo—traditional corporate stalwarts such as Hughes Aircraft, General Mills, Abbot Laboratories, General Motors, Ford Motor Company, AOL Time Warner, Reebok, Xerox, IBM, Safeway, Proctor and Gamble, Texas Instruments, and Goldman Sachs (!) are jumping on the bandwagon. Naturally, teaching mindfulness to business leaders—“mind fitness corporate training” it’s sometimes called—is itself a growth industry.

But in America, the real test of whether an idea, system, service, or practice has any popular traction is the marketplace. And here, mindfulness is a boffo bestseller, both as a product and as a source of almost endless product spinoffs. Besides the centers, institutes, training organizations, retreats, workshops, courses, seminars, conferences, resorts, and travel packages, all selling various experiences of mindfulness, there’s a vast bazaar out there of mindfulness stuff. A quick look at Amazon under “meditation, books,” reveals 82,405 titles for sale, but “meditation, all departments” lists 483,672 items, including—besides books, CDs, and DVDs—all the accouterments the well-accessorized meditator could ever want: cushions, mats, chimes, timers, gongs, incense burners, prayer beads, meditation benches, prayer shawls, yoga pants, baby rompers with the Om symbol, oriental-style indirect lighting fixtures, mugs (embossed with Om), aromatherapy kits, prayer banners, statuettes, tabletop fountains, and—pièce de résistance—a Carlos Santana fedora with a pin shaped like a combination guitar and Om symbol ($37.99). Needless to say, lots of meditation apps are available for your devices, including one called Buddhify, which allows you to set your iPhone or Android on any of 16 different meditation opportunities, including eating, feeling stressed, walking around, going to sleep, being unable to sleep, taking a work break, and “just meditating I and II.”

How many people actually meditate in America, or at least claim to? Hard to say—a 2007 census report of adults seeking complementary or alternative medicines indicated that 20 million used meditation for health purposes, but these 7-year-old figures appear to be the only ones available for the present and don’t seem remotely big enough to account for the mindfulness/meditation deluge washing over the country.

Finally, remember that little preliminary, imperfect research study that Kabat-Zinn turned out in 1982? For much of the next decade, he almost single-handedly kept the tiny MBSR research flame alive with a gaggle of articles in mainstream journals—on pain reduction, psoriasis, anxiety disorders, and heart disease. Mindfulness research didn’t really take off until after 2000—but then, did it ever! By the end of November 2014, the total number of research articles in the database of the American Mindfulness Research Association was an impressive 3,403—around 1,000 for the last two years alone. And those figures don’t take into account research articles on transcendental meditation (TM), a mantra-based technique first taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during the 1950s before catching on in the West (thanks partly to the Beatles). TM began accumulating a research base as early as 1970 with an article in Science, and now 350 or 430 or 600 (accounts vary) studies can be found in peer-reviewed journals supporting TM’s psychological, medical, social, and cognitive benefits, in both clinical and nonclinical populations.

Even these databases are undoubtedly a serious undercount, if all published “research” studies (ranging in quality from abysmal to middling to excellent) on various forms of meditation (mindfulness, TM, tai chi, yoga, and qigong) are included. In a meta-analysis of meditation programs, psychological stress, and well-being in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine, Madhav Goyal, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of medicine, and his colleagues identified a staggering 18,753 citations, before winnowing the number down to a paltry 47 randomized controlled trials with 3,515 participants. As to what all these studies are trying to demonstrate, a better question is what aren’t they trying to demonstrate: they explore mindfulness as a remedy for every issue that has even a passing connection to physical or mental health or general human well-being.

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

How did this all happen? In the popular mind, about the only people really interested in meditation during the 1970s were New Age hippies, Asian studies scholars, and a small population of home-grown seekers (young middle-class adults, often left-wing Vietnam War dissenters at odds with consumer capitalism and looking for a spiritual lift they weren’t getting from drugs or the rejected Main Street religion of their parents). Mention meditation to Mr. and Mrs. Regular American, and you might just get a blank look, or worse, “Why would any normal person want to get caught up with one of those Eastern cults?” What peculiar constellation of forces and factors were coming into alignment so that one day soon, millions of perfectly normal people wouldn’t just be sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed, watching themselves breathe, but would believe this was the best health intervention since vitamins?

First, to start at the outer ring of the circle, the medical profession badly needed help with its “problem patients.” In a 2010 interview, Kabat-Zinn explained that before opening his clinic, he asked doctors, “What percentage of your patients do you feel like you help?” and was stunned by their answers. At most, they thought they helped only about 10 to 15 percent, while the other 85 to 90 percent either got better on their own or never got better at all, becoming the bane of medical practice: chronic patients with chronic conditions chronically unresponsive to anything the doctors tried. So when Kabat-Zinn offered what was basically a way to take these patients off physicians’ hands, the docs responded enthusiastically, saying things like, “Well, I can think of a hundred people off the top of my head we could send tomorrow.” In short, even though he didn’t really hide the Buddhist and Yogic origins of his plan from other medical professionals, these doctors were desperate enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth, whatever its suspicious origins.

Second, Kabat-Zinn’s idea—to repackage Eastern meditation as a secular health intervention that wouldn’t frighten the locals—had already been road tested. Just four years earlier, in 1975, cardiologist Herbert Benson of Harvard had introduced millions of Americans to a kind of proto-meditation with his bestselling book (its sales aided and abetted by the indefatigable Oprah), The Relaxation Response, in which he described the stress-reducing effects of simply focusing the mind on one thing for a little while. Benson had almost accidentally made his discoveries during the early 1970s, when, much against his better judgment as a self-conscious man of science, he’d been talked by TM practitioners into doing some quick research on what they claimed was their ability to reduce their own blood pressure at will simply by meditating on a mantra. He was astounded by the study results: 20 minutes of meditation caused a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, pulse, stress hormone production, and so on, in effect, reversing the fight-or-flight response. But he was terrified that the merest taint of Eastern spirituality—particularly if it was associated with a long-haired, bearded, robed, flower-draped Hindu with the foreign name of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—might spell doom for his professional reputation.

So in his book, he made only the barest of references to TM, substituted the word relaxation for the dreaded M-word (meditation), and argued for the purely physical health benefits of focusing single-mindedly on a “mental device,” which could be almost anything at all—a mantra or a prayer, sure, but also a neutral word, nonsense syllable, or object—or the “device” could consist of concentrating on a process or “muscular activity,” like yoga or qigong, but also walking, jogging, rowing, swimming, or knitting. It all sounded so normal, so ordinary—which is exactly what made the book sell . . . and sell, and sell; it’s sold more than 4 million copies and is in at least its 64th printing.

By 1979, even though the scientific and medical communities still weren’t entirely on board with this meditation thing, the times they were a-changing. That year, the Dalai Lama made his first visit to the United States, amid a media blitz, visiting cities, houses of worship (including a visit to Cardinal Cooke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York), and universities; giving addresses; and generally wowing people with his unexpectedly charming personality. An obvious exotic, with his shaven head and maroon robes, the master of an alien but strangely glamorous religious tradition, he also professed a totally disarming interest in Western science—since he was a boy, he said—and confessed that he’d probably have become an engineer if he hadn’t gotten into the lama biz. He was particularly interested in any scientific linkages between consciousness and matter. Bingo! Scientists with an interest in Buddhism and/or meditation in general were thrilled: here was a revered spiritual leader who was also a scientist! And here was the chance to find the philosopher’s stone—to bridge the so-far unbridgeable gap not only between science and spirituality, but between mind and matter.

One such smitten scientist was Herbert Benson (apparently no longer worried about associating with “spiritual” types), who boldly asked His Holiness for permission to visit India and study the physiology of Tibetan monks. They could, he’d heard, raise their own body temperature in the freezing Himalayan air just through the intensity of their meditation. The Dalai Lama first said no: the monks were meditating for religious reasons, not so they could have their bodies poked, prodded, and stuck with various measuring devices (including rectal thermometers) for some hare-brained Western scheme. Then, mid-sentence almost, he changed his mind and agreed, explaining to his monks later, “For skeptics, you must show something spectacular because, without that, they won’t believe.” So early in the 1980s, Benson and some colleagues made several trips to India, looking for something “spectacular.” On one trip in 1985, described by Anne Harrington in her book The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, the monks duly complied with a demonstration of “g Tum-mo,” or “inner heat” meditation, raising their own body temperature while, in this case, draped with wet sheets (which sent up eddies of steam in the frigid air for added drama).

Four years later, in 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts on behalf of Tibetan liberation from the Chinese, but also to protest the Chinese massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters), which generated a new paroxysm of infatuation for all things Tibetan. In particular, the Dalai Lama was lionized even more as somehow embodying the exotic mystery and ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism and the rational, empirical spirit of modern Western science.

Soon, it became all the rage to study Tibetan monks scientifically to discover how, through long and advanced forms of meditation, they could not only transcend the usual limits of bodily self-control—raise and lower body temperature, control blood pressure, even improve immune function—but also achieve levels of spiritual transcendence hardly known in the West. Over the next two decades, a panoply of high-tech instrumentation—body temperature sensors, calorimeters (for measuring metabolism), EEGs, fMRIs, and so on—had been used in Western research centers and lugged up Himalayan mountains directly to monks’ huts for studies of what actually happens in the brains and bodies of these adepts.

Meanwhile, back down in the lowlands of pragmatic healthcare, in 1990, Kabat-Zinn produced a book titled Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, based on the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SR-RP) at UMass Medical. A hefty read of more than 500 pages, it recapitulated in print what he’d been teaching for the previous 12 years, but now promoting its relevance for everybody, not just sick people. The “catastrophe” is taken from a line from the movie Zorba the Greek, when Zorba is asked if he’s ever been married and replies (in Kabat-Zinn’s paraphrase), “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!”—shorthand for the poignant enormity of our life experience.

The real big break for mindfulness came in 1993, when Bill Moyers featured Kabat-Zinn’s SR-RP in a 40-minute segment of a five-part PBS television series, Healing and the Mind, which included a look at Chinese traditional medicine and other examples of alternative healing methods. The series won an Emmy Award and turned Kabat-Zinn’sFull Catastrophe Living into a bestseller. While Americans were clearly warming up to Easternism in whatever form—tai chi, yoga, meditations of various kinds—the show substantially boosted the stock of mindfulness. Here were regular people—teachers, truck drivers, carpenters, schoolteachers, business executives, stay-at-home mothers—trying to find the inner stillness beneath the turmoil of their life with bemused tolerance and growing trust. And here was Kabat-Zinn, an intense, good-looking man, whose tough-minded candor and deep kindness to his students made this mindfulness thing look okay. Even better than okay! Who could watch the interaction between patient and teacher—a woman obviously struggling through severe pain to do a simple yoga position and Kabat-Zinn on his knees, speaking softly to her, resting a hand gently on her back, tenderly wiping tears and sweat from her face—and not be moved?

The McMindfulness Backlash

The explosive growth of mindfulness in America has inevitably triggered a backlash—a low, rumbling protest, particularly from Buddhists claiming that mindfulness has increasingly become yet another banal, commercialized self-help consumer product, hawked mostly to rich and upper-middle class white people who still wouldn’t be caught dead in a real zendo. While few critics quarrel with using MBSR as a way to alleviate suffering in mind or body, they’re disturbed by how much meditation in America appears to have been individualized, monetized, corporatized, therapized, taken over, flattened, and generally coopted out of all resemblance to its noble origins in an ancient spiritual and moral tradition.

In a 2013 blog for The Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” Ron Purser and David Loy—American academics and well-known Buddhist teachers—declared that enough was enough. The effort to “commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique,” they wrote, required engaging in a kind of bait and switch, branding mindfulness programs “‘Buddhist inspired’ to give them a certain hip cachet,” but leaving out the heart and soul of the original practice. As a result, what was once a powerful philosophical and ethical discipline intended to help free people from greed, ill will, and delusion becomes just another mass-marketed self-fulfillment tool, which can reinforce the same negative qualities. People can, in effect, use mindfulness to become better at being worse. “According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha),” the authors reminded readers, “even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness.” A terrorist, an assassin, and a white-collar criminal can be mindful, Purser and Loy tell us, but not exactly in the same way as the Dalai Lama.

Further, mindfulness in America is so relentlessly marketed as a form of personal stress reduction that it tends to blind adherents to the larger conditions that create and perpetuate widespread emotional and physical stress in the first place. Stress originating in social and economic arrangements is, the author wrote, “framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments . . . re-fashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam—a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

Google, for example, has developed a now famous mindfulness/emotional intelligence training program, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)—led by Chade Meng Tan, who has the supercute nickname Google’s Jolly Good Fellow—which it offers to employees and scores of corporate and institutional clients. According to the SILYI media kit, “We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.”

A peculiar example of a corporate leader’s “optimizing” what might have been an embarrassing situation occurred early in 2014 at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, a huge yearly Silicon Valley glamorfest, where stars from high-tech firms, academia, science, and show biz come to be inspired by each other and listen to “mindful living” luminaries, including Kabat-Zinn, Roshi Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield, and Eckhart Tolle. During a panel discussion (with Jolly himself on the panel) titled “3 Steps to Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way,” a group of activists infiltrated a hall packed with attendees, mounted the stage in front of the speakers, unrolled a banner reading “Eviction-Free San Francisco,” and handed out leaflets to protest the frequent evictions of low-income local residents from the city so landlords could jack up the rents for well-heeled employees of Google and other area corporations.

After the security guards had managed to disrupt the disruption, a Google senior manager on the panel solemnly asked the audience to “check in with your body [to] see what it’s like to be around conflict with people who have heartfelt ideas that may be different from what we’re thinking. . . . Take a second to see what it’s like.” The crowd dutifully closed their eyes and settled right down. Critics pointed out that rather than even consider what and why the activists were protesting, Google tossed the attendees some vintage mindfulness pablum, exposing what Christopher Titmus, a retired Buddhist monk and teacher, called “the shallowness and absurdity of corporate mindfulness.”

Recently, even the scientific foundations of mindfulness have been the subject of increased critical scrutiny. After all, the science of mindfulness is what got it in the door of the healthcare system; the science that impressed academics, therapists, educators, prison administrators, and corporate honchos; the science that made millions of Americans not embarrassed to say they were taking up meditation. Science is what makes meditation different from Eastern faith healing techniques and New Age woo. So how solid is all that science, anyway—those thousands of studies attesting to the empirical evidence of its power to help heal or relieve just about any physical or mental ailment to which human flesh is heir? There’s little doubt that mindfulness and other meditative discipline are genuinely useful to many people in many ways for many conditions. The question is what discipline, for what conditions, under what circumstances, how helpful, for whom, and when? At this point, the issue gets a little gnarly.

There’s a reason why Madhav Goyal and colleagues, the authors of the massive 2014 review and meta-analysis, found it necessary to winnow nearly 19,000 trials down to 47—or three percent of the total. Mindfulness/meditation-based interventions are inherently difficult to study and compare, like trying to pin down clouds in a gale. Variables of different approaches—TM, MBSR, tai chi, yoga, qigong—are hard to compare. Simply defining what meditation is or what it’s supposed to do tends to devolve into a word-salad of mix-n-match terms, like awareness, nonreactivity, openness, curiosity, describing, acceptance, nonjudging, and self-transcendence. The thousands of trials represented a mishmash of programs, which varied widely by type of meditation, length of meditation practice (three weeks to six years), training duration (roughly 12 to 39 hours), experience and training of the teacher, whether or not physical techniques (tai chi, yoga, qigong) were included, and population (how experienced participants were in meditation, what their complaints or ailments were). Most trials have been small before-and-after snapshots—uncontrolled and unrandomized, with no predetermined criteria, usually no long-term follow up, and high dropout rates.

From the saving remnant of the 47 good (or at least okay) randomized, controlled studies, the authors focused narrowly on research showing that meditation alleviated psychological stress (including pain) associated with medical problems. They came up with some mildly encouraging results, finding “moderately strong evidence” that mindfulness/meditation had a “small but consistent benefit” in relieving anxiety, depression, and pain (though what kind of pain—chronic, acute, or both—couldn’t be determined). The depressive symptoms were improved by roughly 10 to 20 percent, similar to the effect of antidepressants. As for the rest of the literature extolling the healing properties of mindfulness for all kinds of other specific conditions or its ability to improve the overall quality of life, the authors don’t reject these claims; they simply explain that the scientific evidence is insufficient to draw firm conclusions about them one way or the other.

These authors suggest that one reason for the low-to-middling results (compared to the hype, that is), and for the difficulties of doing this sort of research at all, may reflect a profound division between Eastern and Western attitudes toward meditation in the first place. The West, and particularly the research world, views meditation largely as a pragmatic, expedient, short-term intervention, comprising specific behavioral steps, intended to achieve clear, observable goals—such as relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. But historically, Goyal and his colleagues remind us, meditation was conceived as a lifelong practice, a hard-won skill within a rich spiritual, ethical, and social framework. It was never intended to be a quick-acting mental Ibuprofen/Xanax, but a long-term discipline that increased awareness, resulting in deep insight into the subtleties of existence itself—something that perhaps can never be measured or quantified without access to some wizardry for measuring the “subtle energy body” the Tibetan Buddhists describe. As the authors put it in a laconic understatement, “The translation of these traditions into [Western] research studies remains challenging.”

Even if the research doesn’t—can’t—live up to its popular media hype, the hype keeps on expanding. In an interview with Tricycle magazine, Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, who directs translational neuroscience for Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, points out that the problem is twofold. First, the media cherry-pick newsworthy scientific results and ride roughshod over cautiously worded research findings, typically reducing them to a one-sentence factoid, “a circulating meme that people put up on their Facebook pages and that becomes ‘true’ through repetition alone.”

Kerr knows of which she speaks: she was herself a coauthor, with Sara Lazar, on the famous 2005 paper “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness,” which led to countless articles suggesting that you can engineer a complete brain makeover with just a few weeks of mindfulness. As she recalls, “The typical headline in the popular press was ‘Mindfulness Makes Your Brain Grow.’” The problem was that all this took place in the absence of other replicating studies showing genuine evidence for some kind of structural brain change following mindfulness training and without any explanation of what physiologically was causing the apparent change and how it was affecting people’s experience and behavior.

Carefully parsing the results of her own study in the cautious language of science, Kerr will say only, “There are some clues from brain science that meditation might help enhance brain function. That is an evidence-based statement. The mistake is investing 100 percent in a result and not holding a probabilistic view of scientific truth or risk and benefit.”

The second problem is that the science of mindfulness itself isn’t immune to hype and distortion. Researchers need to generate a certain amount of buzz about their early research in order to get grants to carry it on. Observes Kerr, “To get things going, get collaborators, and gain NIH interest, you need to be a little entrepreneurial. . . . Researchers have to strike a tricky balance between expressing genuine enthusiasm and cautioning about limitations.” Scientists, like everybody else with something to sell, increasingly need to advertise, to do the kind of PR that will get them noticed.

And meditating scientists aren’t necessarily less inclined toward bias and overstatement than their non-meditating colleagues—possibly the reverse. “When we first started research on meditation, there was this principle that the scientists should be meditators because they understood it,” says Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown. “But we are all also incredibly biased! Meditation is not just a practice we do, like ‘I like to run.’ It’s an entire worldview and religion. I worry about this kind of bias in meditation research.”

Finally, meditation isn’t without risks of its own. Marketed as a kind of warm bath for the psyche, Britton says, meditation has a shadow side, familiar to experienced meditation teachers but almost never mentioned in the popular media—that is, the not uncommon tendency of some people when they begin practicing in earnest to freak out (lose ego boundaries, hallucinate, relive old wounds and traumas, experience intense fear, and even have psychotic breaks, as well as exhibit strange physical symptoms, like spasms, involuntary movements, hot flashes, burning sensations, and hypersensitivity). These effects are well documented in Buddhist texts as stages along the long, hard path to inner wisdom, but they haven’t been studied in the West and aren’t featured in mindfulness/meditation brochures. Britton is one of the first to begin researching these phenomena seriously, in an undertaking she at first called the Dark Night Project. But since that name wasn’t attractive to funding sources, she renamed it The Varieties of Contemplative Experience Project. Along with the mass enthusiasm for meditation, Britton says, has come “an epidemic of casualties,” which needs to be recognized and incorporated into the promotion and study of these disciplines.

In short, while meditation has been acclaimed and sold as a quick, no-risk, easily mastered technique to achieve just about any conceivable desired goal—health, happiness, freedom from physical or mental pain, relaxation, self-confidence, career success, sexual success, inner peace, world peace!—it’s, in fact, a far deeper, more complex, and less well-understood process than many people realize. For one thing, whatever the measurable effects of meditation on behavior or physiology, the cognitions and feelings it arouses inside are entirely subjective—which makes it inherently unfriendly to the necessarily objective methods of empirical science. But these conscious experiences are as real as the people having them, and, quantifiable or not, they’re as much a part of mindfulness meditation as the mind and brain that produced them. The fact that meditation is fundamentally a matter of consciousness is exactly the problem: what, exactly, consciousness is or why we have it has been called “the hard problem” by many scientists and philosophers precisely because it resists cogent scientific explanation.

All of which doesn’t mean that scientific research into meditation isn’t improving and producing more genuinely valid studies, which will help us better understand what meditation is and how it changes our brains, experience, and behavior. It’s simply that, as both Kerr and Britton argue, a little caution would be advised. After all, we still know precious little about the neurophysiology—and not so much more about the psychology—of love, sex, anger, fear, learning, sleep, feeling, emotion, and thought. How much less do we know about that quieting of the mind, so unusual for Americans, called mindfulness?

People still aren’t entirely clear about what mindfulness is, Britton argues, or what distinguishes the different practices, or “which practices are best or worst suited to which types of people. When is it skillful to stop meditating and do something else? I think this is the most logical direction to follow because nothing is good for everything. Mindfulness is not going to be an exception to that. . . . If we think anything is going to fix everything, we should probably take a moment and meditate on that.”

What Purity?

To the outpouring of complaints by some Buddhist practitioners that secular mindfulness is basically a fraud dressed in bodhisattva clothing, the response of many others is essentially “Chill out, people.” Meditation, these critics of the critics say in effect, is a good discipline that’s helped suffering people all over the world. And if it isn’t always done in a perfect spirit of selfless “right mindfulness,” or doesn’t always produce better, more compassionate, wiser human beings, well, this is Planet Earth, inhabited by the same imperfect human race that lived here 2,500-plus years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama wandered around India preaching the Dharma. To the accusation that Buddhism has lost its purity to the crass ravages of modern corporate America, for example, antipurist critics respond cheerfully, “What purity?”

Jeff Wilson, author of several books on Buddhism in the West, including Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, has pointed out that there has never been just one Buddhism, but a welter of Buddhist practices, organizations, ways of life, and opinions in a never-very-centralized tradition that’s moved from India to China to Burma, Japan, and finally the West, picking up accretions along the way. Whatever anybody said about Buddhism, somebody else could say the opposite. What you had, Wilson said, was just “a great big mess called ‘Buddhism,’” which adapted itself to an astonishing variety of social and political circumstances everywhere it landed.

As to the question of whether poor, innocent, little Buddhism can withstand the withering pressures of the marketplace, there never was a time when it wasn’t deeply connected to the political and economic realities of the world. “The truth of the matter,” says Wilson, “is that Buddhism has not ever at any point from its very beginning, or at any stage of its evolution, been apart from economic matters.” The ideal of the master sitting alone in his cave or high on a mountain, isolated from the nonspiritual hoi polloi, is essentially a myth. Buddhism has long been deeply embedded in the larger political economy. Monks have often exchanged spiritual goods (chanting to produce merit for a donor or a donor’s family) for economic support by the community.

Furthermore, the benefits people hoped to achieve by supporting the sangha (but not meditating; that was the prerogative of the monks) were often less spiritual and more worldly, practical, personal, and even selfish: success in love and business, good health, relief from pain, protection from evil, safe childbirth, better karma for the next go-around. This makes what most lay Buddhists in historical times wanted from their religion no different from what most people in most eras have always wanted, including people today: protection from disaster and harm, hope for the next life (however conceived), and a sense of peace in the security of knowing that there was some greater meaning to the unpredictable, often frightening, frequently miserable ebb and flow of mortal existence.

In a deeply stressed and stressful society, the basic, general mood du jour seems to be some variable mix of depression, anxiety, fear, rage, self-loathing, loneliness, alienation, yearning, envy, and other items in a much longer catalog. So what are we to make of the purist critics of the mainstreaming of mindfulness practices? In a blog last year, Seth Zuiho Segall, science writer forMindfulness Research Monthly and editor of the blog “The Existential Buddhist,” asked himself the question that seems addressed to the purist critics’ concerns: “Is mindfulness guilty of making people happier without making them enlightened?” His answer? “You bet. Guilty as charged.” And then he went on, “Down through the ages, most nominal Buddhists have chosen to pursue better karma and rebirth rather than aiming for enlightenment. If mindfulness only results in happier human beings, then . . . so be it. Those of us who choose to pursue awakening and transformation can still do so, happily untroubled by the sight of all those cheerful, mindful people milling about in our vicinity.”

Now if that’s the worst-case scenario for the vast majority of those who take up mindfulness training (with appropriate psychiatric attention to the freaker-outers, of course), wouldn’t most people be more than willing to make a deal? Mindfulness? Bring it on!


Related Stories

Why Can't Americans Choose to Die on Their Own Terms?
Posted on Tuesday January 27, 2015

If death with dignity is to become available not just a privileged few, many laws will have to be changed .

On January 1 of 2014, 29 year old Brittany Maynard got the kind of nightmare diagnosis we all fear: her rapidly worsening headaches were symptoms of astrocytoma, a deadly cancer that had invaded her brain. Given six months to live, Brittany rocked the country by announcing her intention to die on her own terms.

People Magazine interviewed her, and Brittany posted a Youtube video explaining her decision. The video got 12 million views, and tens of thousands of people followed the final weeks of her life. Most honored her courage. Others called her weak, or pleaded with her to change her mind. Some conservative Christians condemned her to hell. Brittany was unwavering. Despite ever more debilitating headaches and seizures, she checked off her “bucket list” including trips to Alaska’s Tongass, Washington’s Olympic rain forest, and the Grand Canyon. On November 1, after a final walk in the woods with family, her dog, and her best friend, she wrote her final words on Facebook and drank the lethal prescription she had held since summer. She fell asleep in five minutes and died peacefully about half an hour later, surrounded by the people she loved most.

Months earlier, Brittany’s husband Dan Diaz and her mother Deborah Zeigler had moved with her to Oregon, where Brittany would have a legal right to manage her own dying process. Family members spent the summer and fall of 2014 savoring their last precious months together and supporting Brittany as seizures became more intense and frequent and her body started to fail.

But not every family can afford to quit jobs and move across the country to support a dying loved one. If death with dignity is to become available equally to all, not just a privileged few, laws will have to be changed state by state. Brittany’s family has set out to do just that. Dan and Deborah are partnering with Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit that advocates for aid in dying and provides both information and support to affected families.

Washington State, along with Oregon and Vermont, has passed legislation that may serve as a model for the rest of the country, and Robb Miller is the Executive Director of Compassion & Choices of Washington. In this interview he discusses the Maynard case, how the Oregon and Washington Death With Dignity laws work, and some challenges faced by those who want the freedom to manage their own dying process. 

Valerie Tarico:I understand that—like Brittany Maynard’s family—you too became a death with dignity advocate because of personal experience.

Robb Miller:Back in 1994 my long-term partner was diagnosed with AIDS and proceeded to die 18 months later. Unfortunately his death, even though he was on hospice, was very difficult. There was a lot of suffering involved and the suffering couldn’t really be managed. It was very difficult, and during the entire period I was thinking, there has to be a better way, there has to be a way to allow someone to decide when enough is enough.He had said to me and his family that when he couldn’t walk anymore that he wanted to die. And when that time came, I asked his hospice provider, “Isn’t there something we can do to honor his wish? Can’t we provide medication he can take to end his life?” And the hospice said, ”No, we don’t do that. We’re an organization that neither hinders nor hastens the dying process. And we can’t provide any information about that.”

Later on I found out that Compassion & Choices of Washington existed even before the passage of the Death With Dignity Act in 2008, and they could have provided information to us about options he had that would have helped him not have such a prolonged and miserable dying process. And so I felt very betrayed after the fact, when I found that out.

Tarico: I know so many people who say, “I’m not afraid to be dead, but I am afraid of the process.”

Miller: The whole idea is having control, in a situation where everything is out of control. It’s the illness that rules your life. It’s the illness that takes away your ability to enjoy the things that you used to enjoy. Just giving someone the means to say, Ok, I’m ready to go, and I want to go now. This is when and how and who I’m going to die with, provides such peace of mind to people. It’s sort of like insurance, if you will. In 2013, 173 people got medication and 119 took the medication. It’s like .2 percent of the people who die in Washington. Between a quarter and a third of the people who go through the entire Death With Dignity process, even acquiring the medication, end up not taking it. So it’s less about ending suffering at the end of life than it is about having control and peace of mind. 

Tarico:With baby boomers aging, questions about quality and choices at the end of life are looming large. But Brittany Maynard and her family took the conversation to a whole new level.

Miller:Yes. She and her family were very outspoken, and her story created a stir in several ways. The fact that Brittany had to move from California to Oregon pointed out the disparity in where people have the option for a peaceful death and where they don’t. Almost seventy-five percent of Americans think that doctors should be allowed to help patients end their life by some painless mean, and now a majority of physicians (54%) also support this choice. But only five states protect the right to aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana.

Tarico:I understand that the legislation in Washington and Oregon may serve as a model for other states. How do these laws work?

Miller: In Washington and Oregon the laws are very similar. A person must be terminally ill and mentally competent, with a prognosis of 6 months or less to live. Two doctors must be involved, one who prescribes the life-ending medication and another, called the consulting physician. Both physicians must confirm the person’s diagnosis, prognosis and capacity to make an informed decision. The person must make 2 oral requests separated by 15 days and a written request witnessed by 2 qualified witnesses, followed by a 48 hour waiting period. Then they can get a prescription. They can either get it filled or leave it on file at a pharmacy to be filled at a later date should they choose.

At Compassion & Choices we help people find physicians willing to participate. We make sure people know their other end-of-life options. We can also have a volunteer present at the time of death to make sure medical protocol is followed and to support family members and other loved ones who are present. There is no charge for those services. This isn’t something you can initiate when you are at death’s door. When you find out you have a terminal diagnosis is a good time to get in touch with us. We get many calls from people when it is too late—the person isn’t going to survive the mandatory waiting period or they are too sick to go to the doctor. In those situations, we try to help in other ways, for example by providing information about VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking).

Tarico:I know that companion animals—and wild animals too—when they get close to death often stop eating and drinking. But you’re talking about an up-front decision?

Miller: People have been doing this for centuries. It’s natural to eat and drink less as death approaches. Choosing to stop prolonging the dying process by stopping eating and drinking can result in a peaceful, humane death. Symptoms can be managed with good palliative or hospice care. Depending on a person’s health status when he or she starts, it can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. It’s a matter of allowing a natural death—of not prolonging the natural dying process. Widow Phyllis Shacter did a powerful TEDx talk about her husband Alan’s decision to stop eating and drinking.

Tarico: It’s legal? Do people have the right to do this?

Miller: Yes, legally people have the right to not have food and water forced on them, it is a matter of bodily integrity, but not everybody knows that. For example, a 90 and 92 year old New Mexico couple were kicked out of their assisted living facility when they told a caretaker that they had decided to stop eating and drinking. Again, one challenge to patient autonomy is corporations owned or controlled by the Catholic Church. For example, PeaceHealth Whatcom Hospice in Bellingham, Washington, refused hospice services to a man with Alzheimer’s who voluntarily stopped eating and drinking to avoid the ravages of the disease.

Tarico:The people who oppose this . . . Have they never felt unbearable pain or seen someone whose body or mind is failing? How can they say, “I think the law should deny you the right to manage your own body?

Miller: Well, when I was working on the Initiative 1000 Campaign, the Washington Death With Dignity Act, what I came to realize in debates and editorial board meetings with opponents is that really, opposition is primarily religious in nature. There is some opposition from people who have philosophical or professional reasons for opposing the choice, but really, the primary opponent to Death with Dignity is the Catholic Church.

In the case of Brittany Maynard, the family was united in supporting Brittany’s choice, but they felt attacked by the Church. Archbishops in several states issued public statements opposing Brittany’s decision, both before and after her death.

The Catholic hierarchy’s “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” states that Catholic institutions may never condone or participate in aid in dying or Death With Dignity in any way, stating that dying patients who request euthanasia should receive medical and spiritual care necessary so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death. The Directives also say “since a person has the right to prepare for his or her death while fully conscious, he or she should not be deprived of consciousness without a compelling reason,” and “Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

Tarico:Ok, I have to interrupt, because that’s just plain scary. According to Merger Watch, independent hospitals across the U.S. are being bought by big Catholic healthcare corporations. When these merger deals happen, the bishops impose the Religious Directives that you just described on providers and patients whether they are Catholic or not. So, instead of sedation and death with dignity we should all learn to “appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering”?

Even the phrase “redemptive suffering” is deeply disturbing. We’ve all heard stories of medieval monks or Opus Dei performing self-flagellation, like in the Da Vinci Code, which seems more than a little twisted. But it’s 2015, last I checked, and most people who work in or get services from Catholic controlled hospitals aren’t even Catholic.Most of us think that compassion means helping people and other animals not to suffer. There’s a story that Mother Teresa told one dying man to think of his pain as the kiss of Jesus, and he said, “Tell him to stop kissing me.”

Miller:One of the greatest barriers to Death with Dignity is Catholic health care facilities. A fellow in palliative medicine surveyed our client support volunteers in Washington and Oregon and asked about barriers. Catholic controlled health care was listed as the Number One barrier. Sixty percent said that hospice was undermining patient choices, which lines up with the fact that more than half of hospice programs are now Catholic controlled.

Tarico:My primary work is helping young and poor women get access to better birth control, and—not surprisingly—there are lots of parallels. Church control of healthcare is becoming a big barrier for women who want top tier family planning like IUD’s and implants or tubal ligations. The Catholic systems won’t stock the supplies or provide training for their staff. In Washington State, Catholic Corporations like Franciscan and Providence—they call them “ministries”—now own or control almost half of hospital beds along with associated outpatient clinics and doctors’ practices. People say, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else”—but in many communities there’s nowhere else to go. And poor working people get hit the hardest because many can’t afford the time off, childcare, and transportation to get their healthcare farther from home.

Miller: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has been very unhappy. Today about half of tubal ligations occur in a hospital right after a woman gives birth, but Catholic hospitals are denying this service, making patients schedule a separate surgery later, which violates best medical practice standards. Nearly half of women denied a tubal ligation had an unplanned pregnancy within 12 months.

Tarico: What exactly do the Catholic facilities do to stop patients from getting aid in dying?

Miller: Some religiously affiliated systems have policies that prohibit or discourage referrals or even conversations. A client with Providence Hospice of Snohomish County who was denied information about the option of Death With Dignity climbed into his bathtub, put the barrel of a rifle in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Another man in Centralia ended his life violently after he was denied information. As of result of this tragedy, Providence Hospice recently loosened up their gag rules, but all Catholic providers maintain certain restrictions around Death With Dignity. For example, no Catholic providers will refer patients directly to Compassion & Choices of Washington, the only statewide organization that provides meaningful assistance to people who want the option of Death With Dignity.

Even if patients get information, another issue is that as Catholic corporations absorb independent practices, fewer and fewer physicians are able to participate. There are whole regions in Washington where it is almost impossible to find a provider. Yet another way they are limiting patient choice is by suppressing competencies in medical providers. If medical students and allied professions are training in facilities that don’t offer procedures that Catholics disapprove of, then it affects the curriculum. Doctors may not feel comfortable doing procedures that they have not been trained to do or that they have not had any experience doing.

Tarico:I’m surprised that professional physician groups aren’t fighting for the right of their members to practice medicine free from religious interference. Where is the AMA in all this?

Miller: Not very helpful. This is the organization that opposed mandatory warnings on cigarette packages. They opposed Medicare. They have been on the wrong side of many issues over the years.

No professional groups have defended the right of providers to say whatever is best for their client. In Washington State, the Department of Health has said that providers such as hospice nurses and social workers have a protected right to offer information, but they aren’t required to provide it. In other words, the provider has a right to provide it but the patient doesn’t have the right to receive it.

Tarico:For those of us who think that individual men and women should get to make decisions about their own bodies,what is the solution to this kind of religious interference in personal decisions?

Miller:We’d like to see legislation to protect providers that provide the standard of care that is scientifically verified and medically accurate. Another option is shining light on policies that deny patients options or even full information. In Washington, the governor took action that resulted in hospitals being required to post their policies on the Department of Health’s website. A patients’ rights group is evaluating those policies and will post their evaluation. People want information. They want to make their own informed decisions. Brittany Maynard’s decision to go public resulted in a flood of requests for information both nationally and here.

Tarico: Where should people go for more information about death with dignity, either for themselves or because they want to help end the disparities and ensure access for all?

Miller:Contact Compassion & Choices or one of our local affiliates like Compassion & Choices of Washington or call our office, (206) 256-1636, or (877) 222-2816 toll-free. You can join our mailing list on the website.

Tarico:And I know that those who want to follow the work of Brittany Maynard’s family can find news online (here, here, here) or can sign up for updates or to take action in their own state.

Any last words? For this interview, I mean?

Miller: When you withhold information from people you harm them. When you decide that you can make the decision for them, you’re saying you know what’s best for them. When you impose your religious beliefs on someone who doesn’t share them, that is a form of moral and spiritual violence.


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We’re Clean Eating Our Way to New Eating Disorders.
Posted on Saturday January 31, 2015

Welcome to the era of orthorexia.

Because overdoing it is the American way, we’ve now managed to warp even healthy habits into a new form of eating disorders. Welcome to the era of orthorexia.

As Heather Hansman notes this week in Fast Company, orthorexia differs from other forms of disorders in that the obsessive focus is not on how much or how little one consumes, but the perceived virtue of the food itself. As she reports, “Nutritionists and psychologists say that they’re seeing it more often, especially in the face of restrictive food trends, like gluten-free, and growing information about where food comes from, and how it’s grown and processed.” Though the term has been in use since Dr. Steven Bratman coined it in 1997, the uptick in cases is leading to a new push to formally include it in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – aka the DSM 5.


Along with “gluten-free,” “juice fast” and other phrases, you may have been hearing “orthorexia” a lot more lately. Last summer, popular health and food blogger Jordan Younger made headlines – and faced intense criticism – when she announced that she was “transitioning away from veganism” as she realized that she had “started fearing a LOT of things when it came to food,” and had been struggling with orthorexia. Her blog now is called “The Balanced Blonde,” where she talks honestly about her journey to wellness. In a recent post, she observed, “It. Breaks. My. Heart. It breaks my heart to see and hear beautiful, motivated, capable young women being sucked in to an extreme diet and way of life because it has been branded to them as ‘THE HEALTHIEST WAY TO LIVE’ above all else.”


It’s true, this kind of disordered mentality does seem to disproportionately target “beautiful, motivated, capable young women.” Because I like to cook and eat, and because I’ve had life threatening cancer, in recent years I’ve grown more conscious and curious about how I feed myself and my family. To that end, I read a fair number of cookbooks and food blogs, in particular those with a bent toward healthy eating. And it has not escaped my attention that there have been several wildly successful books in the past few years – often featuring pretty, thin, blond women – that I have had to put down and think, “Oh my God, these people should not be giving advice.” But the creeping fear of food isn’t just for women who look like pilates instructors. Just last week, my spouse attempted to make dinner plans with an old friend, who quickly rejected multiple suggestions of places to eat after citing a litany of foods he would no longer touch. This is not a thigh gap aspiring, crunchy young woman we’re talking about here. This is a man in his 50s.


Reading some of the “clean” living writing out there, including bestselling books by authors with cult-like followings, you can find dubious claims about “detoxing” – which is not a real thing unless maybe you don’t have a liver. Enthusiastic endorsements of extreme juice cleanses and fasting – sometimes with a side of colonics. Blanket and inaccurate statements about grains, dairy, animal products, even seemingly innocuous foods like spinach or fruit. But what’s always the tipoff for me that something is a little off is when writing about food and health veers into near obsessive mathematical precision – detailed tips on exactly how much to eat, when to eat, what to combine it with. (For what it’s worth, in contrast, I find the work of Mark Bittman and Jamie Oliver reliably sane and inspiring.)

Food sensitivities and intolerances are real, and there’s zero denying that the Standard American Diet is flat-out deadly. It’s making us fatter and sicker than we’ve ever been at any point in our history, and it’s hurting our children worst of all. But for those who are vulnerable, a quest to eat right can lead to a seriously dysfunctional relationship with food. And we need to have better understanding of eating disorders and support for those who are struggling, because being healthy of body means being healthy of mind too.


Mark Wahlberg Never Stopped Acting Like a Criminal
Posted on Wednesday January 28, 2015

Becoming a multimillionaire simply allowed him to keep breaking the law with impunity.

America’s most public “felon with a firearm,” is a white, A-list actor.

Back in November 2014, Mark Wahlberg filed an application with the Massachusetts Board of Pardons, asking that his record be wiped clean of felonies he committed in 1988. In his petition, Wahlberg says he is “not the same person,” that he is “reformed.” To many, however, he’s the same person, just with more money and new friends with influence.

damning list assembled by Gawker makes it clear that his crimes were hardly limited to the ones mentioned in the petition. His record reveals a flailing soul who gets belligerent when he drinks and a man with a vicious racist streak.

Mark Wahlberg is white. The targets of his violence are people of color.

It’s worth noting that he’s never stopped acting like a criminal. He’s just figured out that money makes it easier to get away with things.

In 1992, he was already a new man with a new name, having found fame and fortune as Marky Mark, rapper and Calvin Klein underwear model. Drunk, Wahlberg turned back into the old version of himself and beat up a black man named Robert D. Crehan without provocation, injuring his jaw so badly it had to be wired shut. 

Wahlberg isn’t asking the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon for this crime, because he settled with Crehan for an undisclosed sum out of court.

In 1996, he was arrested for “boating under the influence,” which is illegal for the same reason ordinary suckers aren’t allowed to drive a car while drunk.

Wahlberg isn’t asking the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon for this crime, because the cops let him off.

But his biggest criminal offense makes a joke out of the high-minded (and totally laughable) concept of equal justice for all. As a convicted felon in Massachusetts, Wahlberg is not allowed to own or handle firearms in California, where he now lives. He’s made a $200 million career out of playing patriotic, well-armed, working-class white guys in films such as "Shooter," "The Departed," "Pain & Gain," "Lone Survivor," and "2 Guns," yet he’s a convicted repeat offender prohibited by federal and state law from touching firearms and ammo of any kind.

Even if every firearm on the set of his films was fake, the promotional team for "Shooter" publicly touted Wahlberg’s extensive training with firearms at Far Sight Firearms Training Center near Las Vegas, under the tutelage of a U.S. Marine scout sniper. Wahlberg wasn’t training with fake guns loaded with blank rounds, but shooting targets using those lethal weapons he has claimed, in media interviews, to hate. His scout sniper trainer, however, let it slip that that Wahlberg excitedly called “all of his friends” after he hit a target at 1,100 yards. If the gun-guy gossip is to be believed, this isn’t the only time Wahlberg’s been practicing target shooting on a range. It's the kind of thing that drives gun nuts crazy, because, contrary to popular belief, they are sticklers for the letter of the law. How he gets away with these repeated violations is the subject of much discussion

Who cares if Wahlberg is handling guns on set? It's all about the intent, right? This is not only called being a “felon with a firearm,” it’s also known as being a hypocrite. It’s also a clear attempt to whitewash the past, practicing historical erasure at will, and exploiting racialized double standards when it comes to what sins are likely to be forgiven.

Like the Pardoner from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Wahlberg preaches one message while violating that message so openly it inspires incredulous disbelief mixed with grudging admiration for his balls.

A religious man, Chaucer’s Pardoner begins by confessing his crimes and freely admitting his moral and personal failings. Yet he is so sure of his ability to entertain and swindle at the same time that his core message to the poor is: “Greed is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6.10). Then he steals their money. His victims admire him.

Says the Pardoner before he launches into his Tale:

        Though I'm a man of vices through and through,

        I still can tell a moral tale to you,                    

        One that I preach to bring the money in.

After confessing to his crimes in his petition, Wahlberg tells us his self-interested motives for seeking a pardon; chiefly, he wants a concessionaire’s license so he can make more money by selling booze at the family chain restaurant, yet these reasons are repeatedly hidden by institutions that profit from his ability to sell movie tickets.

report by CNN not only glosses over the racist content of his crimes, but makes it sound as if he “admits” – reluctantly, humbly – that he is seeking the pardon for the noblest of reasons: to show “‘troubled youths’ that ‘they too can turn their lives around and be formally accepted back into society’.”

Troubled youths? Like Ryan Holle, now serving a life sentence for a crime committed while he was at home, asleep in bed? Or Keith Maxey, sentenced at 16 to life without parole, basically for having the wrong friends? Not only were Maxey’s offenses far less severe than those committed by Wahlberg at the same age, but Wahlberg had a long history of prior arrests. Maxey had none.

Unlike Wahlbeg, Holle and Maxey are black. The list of other juveniles with no second chances is depressingly long. For the crime of being born in the wrong skin, there is no redemption, and no forgiveness.

Can an A-list actor earning $17 million to star in a single film complain that society has turned its back on him? I guess so. Maybe his feelings were hurt that it wasn’t $50 million, which is what Robert Downey Jr. earned for "Iron Man 3."

Downey is another white guy who can’t believe he’s still being hassled by the ghosts of his past felonies. Perhaps not coincidentally, Wahlberg has publicly stated he wants to play that role in the next installment of the Iron Man franchise: the role of a billionaire who inherited a fortune based on selling firearms to the military.

But, Wahlberg’s petition says, he is not seeking a pardon for the “express purpose of obtaining a firearms permit” for himself, which is to say, not old Mark Wahlberg, racist drug addict, or Marky Mark, shirtless racist, but new Mark Wahlberg, loving white father and multimillionaire. This new version of himself hopes, someday, to obtain a position as “parole or probation officer."

That makes perfect sense. In this economy, folks need a fallback to pay the emergency bills. Being licensed to carry a gun just happens to be a corollary requirement of being an officer of the law. He has stated it himself: the benefits of making more money and easing his legal paperwork on set are not the express purpose of seeking a pardon. His motives are pure. It is always about the children.

Last week, the new governor of Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker, issued a set of new guidelines regarding petitions for pardons. “The move,” wrote reporter Matt Stout, “is a signal that Baker, unsurprisingly, isn’t keen on moving anytime soon on requests for the often politically tricky pardons,” including the pending case of actor Mark Wahlberg.

I don’t know if Wahlberg has ever read the Canterbury Tales, but Baker majored in English at Harvard. I’m quite sure that he has, and he knows how that story ends.

As for us, we have been entertained. And the tale goes on.


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Is it Porn or Not? Sexually Explicit Film Maker Says it is Something Else
Posted on Thursday January 29, 2015

The Portuguese filmmaker uses his camera to explore male sexuality.

There are a lot of ways we can interact with sex. Two of the most preferable are having it and watching it. If you enjoy the latter, you’re certainly familiar with the term “pornography.” But what is it about that word that seems so vulgar? And how far does the definition stretch? The question we’re really driving at is, can you watch explicit acts of sex outside of a pornographic space?

Of course, the answer will differ from person to person. But there is one individual who has more experience than most when it comes to merging sex with cinema. Antonio Da Silva is an award-winning filmmaker whose films been screened around the world. In the past three years, his work has been featured at festivals in Israel, Spain, Portugal, London, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, Brazil and more. From Daddies to Gingers, Da Silva holds a close lens to the male body while exploring the intricacies of male sexuality. Each film dedicates itself to a distinct theme. Some are light; some aren’t. Some take place in the bedroom. Some don’t.

On his official site Da Silva explains, “I have always been fascinated by male sex and sexuality. I became increasingly frustrated with how moving image explored this and have begun to make it the subject of my films over the last three years. I do not consider myself a pornographer but a filmmaker who use my background to choreograph short films with explicit sex themes.” 

So, can pornographic images exist outside of pornography? Where does art end and porn begin? And what does the following for this kind of thing look like? AlterNet reached out to Da Silva to help us sort through some of these questions. 

Carrie Weisman: On your site you make a point that you don’t consider yourself a pornographer. So how do you feel about the argument that your films help expand the porn genre?  

Antonio Da Silva: My films can be categorized as experimental documentary films about male sexuality. I will be very happy if someone tells me that my films help expand the porn genre but I do not do porn in the way porn is perceived today (by the average viewer at least). Over all I consider myself as an artist, filmmaker, ethnographer and sometimes a choreographer working with pornographic elements.

CW: Have you looked to other artists for inspiration?

ADS: I have found inspirations in other artists and filmmakers that definitely influenced my artistic vision, aesthetics and my way of expressing myself.

CW: How do you decide which films deserve a narrative? Daddies, Gingers and Mates, for example, all have really interesting and distinct dialogues. Why add that element in there?

ADS: My work is a good excuse to get close and talk to people. I try to have a sort of narrative in all the films. But in some cases it is possible only through “audio-visual narrative” based in actions, movements, interactions and sounds. My aim is to experiment and experience something new in each one of them.

CW: To what extent do you want to include yourself in the films? You obviously have a big presence in Mates and Cariocas, but are noticeably absent in others. Is this something you think you’ll experiment more with?

ADS: The camera has a dual role in my films; sometimes it serves the point of view of the viewer, sometimes it becomes the participant. My aim is to experiment with those possibilities to give the viewer different experiences while watching the film. My personal involvement depends on situations and the subject of the film.

CW: It seems like anonymity and privacy are really important to you. Have you experienced any backlash as a result of your work?

ADS: Anonymity and privacy are really important to me because I want people to be comfortable and genuine in what they do in front of the camera. There shouldn't be any negative consequences in someone’s private life by participating in my films. Sometimes it is also part of the excitement to not reveal everything about the person.

CW: What measures do you take to avoid vulgarity in your films?

ADS: In general when filming I try to not aestheticize too much. I use most of the time only natural light and I also avoid external music. Lots of the magic happens in post-production with the editing of the sequences and the sounds. After all, the penis can also take part in poetry.

CW: Is it hard to find subjects? In Cariocas you mention that you had to sneak around in the bushes for a few shots, and even admitted you felt scared. Is that the only time you’ve put yourself on the line for the sake of getting the shot?

ADS: No, that was not the only time. In films like Bankers, Beach 19 and Limanakia I had to be in the middle of the action and record without being noticed, and while this was very exciting it was also scary and risky. However, now it is becoming easier for me to find subjects thanks to the awareness of the people about me and my work. Many people have recently contacted me because they want to be in my films.

CW: One of your subjects suggests the term “polyamory” has come to replace “promiscuity” when applied to the gay community. Would you agree?

ADS: I don’t agree with the fact that polyamory is replacing the term promiscuity. Polyamory is about emotional connection and the acceptance of different ways of love or loving, and not only about multiple sex partners. I believe that “polyamory” is part of our natural evolution as humans, and yes, I aim to explore that in my future work if I get the chance.

CW: Did you expect your films to gain a following outside of the queer community?

ADS: When I produced my first short film, Mates, the target was definitely gay man, but as times evolve I can see that those films are more about “male sexuality,” not just gay men. “Men” and the male aesthetics appeal to gay and female audiences, and of course anyone who is open-minded to explore that, including straight men.

CW: Are there any other subcultures within the gay community you wish to explore?

ADS: For the moment I am focused on the male sexuality and I would really like to explore that from different angles; for instance, bisexual men, heterosexual men, etc. So to answer to your question, yes there are. I am also not excluding doing something with the female figure, women or transsexuals, but I need to have a better understanding of what I would like to achieve. You girls are gorgeous, but for the moment, the boys have stolen my heart.

Media Continue to Perpetrate Myth that the Superbowl Brings in Big Bucks for Host City
Posted on Thursday January 29, 2015

Here's why mainstream media fall for sports industry's bogus economic claims.

With Super Bowl Sunday approaching, expect plenty of media reports on the projected economic windfall for host city Glendale, Arizona. Last year, when the NFL announced that its big game would provide a $600 million boost to the New York/New Jersey economy, that figure promptly became a fixture in news coverage of the event (CNN, 1/24/14; Newsday, 1/22/14; FoxNews.com, 5/21/14).

In one typical article, the New York Daily News (1/20/14) reported that city business owners were scurrying to grab a piece of the Super Bowl pie, quoting a local limo-service owner: “Nothing comes close to this. Everyone in New York City that has to do with transportation, bars, hotels — all will be making money.”

Never mind that numerous economists have looked in vain for any evidence that Super Bowl host cities strike it rich. In one study, Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson (12/09) calculated that through 2001, the average increase in economic activity during each Super Bowl was about $30 million. Lake Forest College economist Robert Baade has found similar numbers, telling theAssociated Press (1/27/14) that you could “move the decimal point one place to the left” on the NFL’s claims and still have “a generous appraisal of what the Super Bowl generates.”

And that’s economic activity, the total amount of money changing hands within city limits — not the amount that comes back to city coffers. When University of Maryland economist Dennis Coates (International Journal of Sport Finance, 2006) studied the 2004 Super Bowl, he found that added sales tax revenues in host Houston totaled about $5 million — well under the $30 million to $70 million that cities spend on increased police presence and other services for the game (USA Today, 1/25/15).

Economists have provided similarly dismal results for other sporting events, with major sporting events failing to make a dent in everything from local sales tax receipts to per capita income. (One study of sports strikes and lockouts failed to find any measurable impact on local economies even when local teams shut down entirely.) The most likely explanation: Increased spending on sports is largely balanced by reduced spending on other entertainment options, and even new spending quickly leaks out of the local economy into the pockets of out-of-town sports leagues.

Yet despite the overwhelming consensus of economists, taking sports impact claims at face value remains standard operating procedure for most journalists:

Journalists who’ve seen firsthand how newsrooms handle economic impact reports say there are multiple reasons for the uncritical coverage. First off, most reporters lack the expertise to evaluate impact claims properly — news-side staffers don’t know the sports world well, while sportswriters lack the financial know-how. Outlets that cover games on a daily basis may also be inclined to give their regular sources at sports leagues the benefit of the doubt.

Most of all, stripped-down news staffs pressed to operate on a 24/7 schedule are increasingly likely to grab an easy factoid and run with it — as when Turner Sports’ Jared Greenberg remarked on ESPN (2/2/13) in the runup to the 2013 Super Bowl: “Seven and a half years ago, parts of New Orleans under 15 feet of water. The University of New Orleans says the economic impact this weekend, $434 million.”

“Typically, a big number like that comes in and it gets a big headline,” saysLouisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Tim Sullivan, who was fired from his longtime position at U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune) not long after new owner Doug Manchester declared that the paper should be a “cheerleader” for the local football team’s stadium plans (Voice of San Diego, 2/8/11). “It doesn’t always get the scrutiny that it probably warrants, largely because newspapers, particularly, are understaffed and they don’t have the resources to do rigorous examination of a story like that every day.”

On the occasions where journalists have taken the time to dig deeper, some excellent reporting has resulted. The dubious benefits of hosting the Olympics have gotten widespread coverage (CNNMoney.com, 7/30/12; New York Times, 8/5/14). NPR’s All Things Considered (2/3/14) investigated a British government report that projected billions of dollars in profits from the 2012 London Summer Games and found that the only economist who reviewed the study before publication — University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski — termed it “tantamount to a whitewash.”

New York Times columnist Catherine Rampell (1/26/14) wrote that a Super Bowl spokesperson ducked requests for the 2008 study that provided the $600 million New York Super Bowl estimate — “she could not say why it was never released, who created it, what the underlying assumptions were, or even whether it represented just benefits or included costs” — and cited economists, including Holy Cross’s Matheson, as calling economic impact figures “flawed, myopic or outright fraudulent.”

And when Florida officials claimed that the Tampa Bay Rays created $100 million a year in economic impact, the Tampa Bay Times’ Stephen Nohlgren (3/30/13) noted that the study they cited “failed to distinguish between tourists coming specifically for Rays games and tourists who came for other reasons and just happened to take in a ball game.”

Such coverage, though, remains the exception rather than the rule. “For every one good article you see, there are ten others that don’t bother to do it, and the good ones just get lost,” says Noah Pransky of WTSP-TV in Tampa Bay, who also reports on sports economics at his own website, Shadow of the Stadium. “An industry joke is that reporters have always been mathematically challenged, but the problem has been magnified in recent years by the 24-hour news cycle and staff depletion at traditional media outlets.”

It also doesn’t help, adds Pransky, that sports development projects are growing exponentially more complex. Team owners are increasingly packaging “ballpark village” projects with stadiums, and turning to arcane financing mechanisms like bonds backed with payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), or EB-5 loans that offer expedited green cards for overseas investors in US development projects (OZY, 8/20/14).

While Pransky wonders if the proliferation of new media writers with little training in economics is partly to blame, other sports business reporters say that if anything, nontraditional outlets have outperformed their old-media counterparts in this area. Travis Waldron of ThinkProgress, who has debunked claims that the NCAA tournament is an economic boon to host cities (3/17/12), points to web-based sports sites like Deadspin (9/26/12) and Vice Sports (12/7/14) for their consistent skepticism on sports teams’ claims. (Disclosure: I myself have written several articles for Vice, including one onoverly credulous reporting on claims of LeBron James’ impact on the Cleveland economy.)

Limited research time should be no excuse in the modern age, says Waldron, when a quick Google search is enough to turn up studies showing that the average impact of hosting the NCAA tournament was actually negative.

Of course, hitting the Web to present a he-said-she-said report still is no substitute for real investigative journalism that attempts to determine whose claims are correct. “Our role as journalists is not to present both sides of the story, necessarily; it’s to present truth,” says Pransky. “And all too often, tight deadlines and the need for more content clouds that goal.”

Still, even just presenting readers with conflicting impact claims would be preferable to much of what passes for sports economics reporting. When Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin gave a speech earlier this month claiming that a new publicly subsidized basketball arena could generate more than $1 billion in new development, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports business reporter Don Walker responded with an article (1/6/15) that cited Feigin 16 times — and no one else. Maybe his Google was broken.



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