What is Juneteenth? We explain the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery

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Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated on June 19 that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Across the country, the day is marked with events and parades.

“As a Nation, we vow to never forget the millions of African-Americans who suffered the evils of slavery,” President Donald Trump said in a statement Tuesday recognizing the holiday. “Together, we honor the unbreakable spirit and countless contributions of generations of African Americans to the story of American greatness. Today we recommit ourselves to defending the self-evident truth, boldly declared by our Founding Fathers, that all people are created equal.”

Here’s everything you need to know about Juneteenth:

What is Juneteenth? 

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, to inform a reluctant community that President Abraham Lincoln two years earlier had freed the slaves and to press locals to comply with his directive.

Why did it take so long for the news to get to Texas? 

There is no one reason why there was a 2½-year delay in letting Texas know about the abolition of slavery in the United States, according to Juneteenth.com. The historical site said some accounts place the delay on a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news, while others say the news was deliberately withheld.

Despite the delay, slavery did not end in Texas overnight, according to an article by Henry Louis Gates Jr. originally posted on The Root. Gates said after New Orleans fell, many slavers traveled to Texas with their slaves to escape regulations enforced by the Union Army in other states.

The slave owners were placed with the responsibility of letting their slaves know about the news, and some delayed relaying the information until after the harvest, Gates said.

Where does the name “Juneteenth” come from?

Juneteenth, which is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a combination of “June” and “nineteenth,” in honor of the day that Granger announced the abolition of slavery in Texas.

How do people celebrate? 

On social media, many shared photos and videos of their local Juneteenth celebrations.

Warming up to go live on #News4 at 6am for #Juneteenth2018 . Let’s get ready for the Strike Force Drum 🥁 Line @pgparkshttps://t.co/mlUf8D4fuPpic.twitter.com/V5PFkTn4Ie

— Molette Green (@MoletteGreen) June 19, 2018

Berkeley, Ca is BEAUTIFUL!
Black, White, Hispanic, Asian!
One Love✊🏾 #Juneteenth2018pic.twitter.com/tl8BQwvboB

— JunBug (@DaTruJBUG) June 17, 2018

#Juneteenth Parade festivities are beginning on South State St. from Dunbar Center! Cheer on the many organizations and smiling faces from all over our City and Region. #Juneteenth2018#SyracuseJuneteenthpic.twitter.com/fQEFEhVACy

— City of Syracuse (@Syracuse1848) June 16, 2018

Others called for Juneteenth — which some see as a second Independence Day — to be named a national holiday.

The end of slavery should be a national holiday with celebrations on par with July 4th. Why isn’t it? #Juneteenth2018pic.twitter.com/tOsP8KUz9E

— LaneBrooks (@lanebrooks) June 19, 2018

Juneteenth Should Be A National Holiday: https://t.co/hEe5dI95fJ#Juneteenth#Juneteenth2018pic.twitter.com/dhwrCn0VbV

— Unapologetically Us (@unapologetic_us) June 19, 2018

Many use the holiday to call attention to modern racial inequality.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation from slavery in the US, but the fight for racial and economic justice continues. Celebrate freedom! Yet, may we all continue the work to liberate all who are oppressed. #Juneteenth2018

— Juliana Stratton (@RepStratton5) June 19, 2018

Happy Juneteenth ✊🏾 The day the last of the slaves were freed . Although slavery ended & turned into mass incarceration. Keep fighting for justice & celebrate your freedom. #Juneteenth2018pic.twitter.com/wwS5kor11U

— Ayesha 🌻👑 (@Prettie_Dope) June 19, 2018 

From USA TODAY Editors
posted by The NON-Conformist
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Was Autism a Nazi Invention?

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Hans Asperger, left, working with a boy in the Curative Education Clinic in Vienna.CreditPictorial Press

ASPERGER’S CHILDREN
The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna
By Edith Sheffer
Illustrated. 320 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

In February 1981, a British psychiatrist named Lorna Wing published an academic paper highlighting a 1944 clinical account of “autistic psychopathy” by a recently deceased Austrian physician named Hans Asperger. It wasn’t an obvious piece of work to single out: As Wing acknowledged, Asperger’s study had received almost no attention from English-language researchers in the decades since publication.

That was about to change. Wing argued that the disorder that Asperger had described was a unique syndrome, distinct from autism, and should be considered as one of “a wider group of conditions which have, in common, impairment of development of social interaction, communication and imagination.” Wing, whose daughter had been diagnosed with autism in the 1950s, understood from her own experience that this was a disorder with multiple gradations, which affected people across the full spectrum of intellectual abilities. But this was a radical notion: At the time, one of the dominant paradigms for understanding autism was that the condition was caused by “refrigerator mothers” — emotionally frigid women who were not warm enough to nurture developing children.

It’s impossible to know why Wing chose to ground her report in Asperger’s rather flimsy research — his paper, after all, had referenced just four patients — rather than relying solely on her own, significantly more impressive work. (It is worth pointing out that then, as now, virtually all eponymous psychiatric conditions were named after men.) Whatever her motivation, Wing’s efforts were successful: “Asperger’s syndrome,” the term she proposed, soon entered the clinical vernacular. By the 1990s, it was recognized around the world as an accepted diagnosis — and autism was no longer viewed as a singular condition.

Wing, who died in 2014, spent the rest of her life as one of the world’s leading autism researchers and advocates. Asperger, on the other hand, after 1945 and until his death 35 years later, didn’t do any significant research on the condition that would bear his name. But it was Asperger, and not Wing, who came to be seen as the patron saint of the neurodiversity movement.

That could be about to change. In April, an Austrian historian named Herwig Czech published evidence of Asperger’s long-rumored collaboration with Third Reich murderers during World War II. Specifically, Czech uncovered proof that in 1942, Asperger was one of the members of a commission that screened and classified more than 200 Viennese children with mental disabilities. Thirty-five of the children in that pool were labeled “uneducable” and “unemployable”; as a result, they were sent to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, where they were ultimately slaughtered.

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The historian Edith Sheffer’s new book, “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” builds and elaborates on these new revelations. (While Czech had not yet published his findings when Sheffer’s book went to press, he did give her access to his research.) But Sheffer has larger goals than highlighting Asperger’s complicity in wartime atrocities; she also wants to upend notions of autism as a legitimate diagnostic category by locating its source in Nazi notions of mental health and sickness.

Sheffer starts her narrative in the early 1940s, with Asperger examining one of the children he would highlight in his 1944 paper, before pulling back to describe the milieu in which Asperger operated. She is at her best when she unpacks how the Third Reich created what she calls a “diagnosis regime” by labeling anyone who disagreed in any way with Nazi aims, achievements, or ideology as being fundamentally ill. This was done primarily through the use of two catchall terms: Volk, which referred to the importance of the German national character and its people, and Gemüt, a word the Nazis used to indicate a person’s “fundamental capacity to form deep bonds with other people.” Viewing the world through these lenses led to the medicalization of any and all dissent: Anything less than full-throated chauvinism meant a person was deficient in Gemüt, which, in turn, was potentially damaging to the Volk. The most primal end to this line of thinking was that threats to the Volk had to be exterminated.

Sheffer’s account of the “program of systematic child killing” that grew out of this mind-set is chilling. Starting in the summer of 1939, a Nazi decree mandated that all physicians, nurses, and midwives report any child under 3 with mental or physical disabilities. Sheffer goes on to explain: “The children would enter one of the Reich’s 37 ‘special children’s wards’ for observation and, regularly, medical murder.” Her descriptions of children’s pleading letters home or parents’ confusion as to their children’s sudden deaths are devastating in their routine matter-of-factness.

Sheffer’s pivot from describing deadly Nazi conceptions of community to Asperger’s complicity with the Reich’s killing machine is less effective. Because Asperger did not have a direct hand in any of the more than 700 children who were murdered in the regime’s child euthanasia program, she is left relying on conditionals and suppositions: An educational society Asperger helped found “may have disseminated the child euthanasia directive behind the scenes”; surviving documents “suggest” Asperger “had a hand” in transferring dozens of children to a killing pavilion. On one page, Sheffer states that a transfer to Am Spiegelgrund was a “lethal prescription”; on another, she writes that seven out of nine children the “staff” on “Asperger’s ward” transferred there did not die, although “it is possible that Asperger’s clinic still marked some of them for death.”

None of this is to say that Asperger’s actions during the war were blameless — or even that he was not guilty of crimes against humanity. But a more nuanced approach would have further examined the other, conflicting evidence that Asperger was able to save the lives of some disabled children who had been marked for death. It is this evidence, after all, that was pointed to when Asperger was hailed as a hero.

Even more disconcerting than Sheffer’s approach to Asperger’s wartime actions is her attempt to ground the notion of autism in Asperger’s World War II-era work. Because Asperger relied heavily on notions of Gemüt in his treatise on autistic psychopathy, Sheffer argues that he defined the condition “in terms of Reich rhetoric and values.” Fair enough — but she goes on to claim that today, almost three-quarters of a century later, “his final 1944 description has had a lasting impact. His words live on, shaping the lives and the self-images of millions of individuals.”

Even the most cursory comparison of Asperger’s work, which is peppered with descriptions of “sadistic traits” and children who “delight in malice,” with Wing’s groundbreaking paper reveals that it is her research that has helped shape our modern-day understanding of the autism spectrum. (Asperger’s paper wasn’t even translated into English until 10 years after Wing’s 1981 report — and it was done then only at her behest.) What’s more, “Asperger’s syndrome” is no longer even a recognized diagnosis in the United States: In 2013, it was one of three conditions that were folded into a more expansive diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.”

Sheffer is a careful and nuanced researcher, which made her clumsy effort to “destabilize” our notions of autism feel all the more out of place. Then, on the very last page of the book, at the bottom of her acknowledgments, she tells readers that her now-teenage son, to whom the book is dedicated, was diagnosed with autism when he was an infant. “Autism is not real,” she quotes him saying. “It is not a disability or a diagnosis, it is a stereotype for certain individuals…. It made me feel humiliated, and I wanted to put an end to the label of autism.” I was glad to hear his voice: Too often people diagnosed with autism are excluded from discussions about the condition. But I wish Sheffer had trusted her readers enough to let us know about her personal connection to this story at the outset of her book instead of inserting it as a concluding aside, where it became an unsettling coda to her ardent effort to undermine our notions of autism and its origins.

By Seth Mnookin/NYTimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Obamacare Critics and Defenders Team Up Against the Trump Administration’s Refusal to Defend the Health Law in Court The DOJ’s argument for striking down the health law’s preexisting conditions rules is weak.

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Last week, in response to a legal challenge filed by Texas and a group of conservatives states, the Trump administration took an unusual step by announcing that it would not defend Obamacare in court. Instead, the Trump administration took the position that the health law’s was unconstitutional, and that its preexisting conditions regulations should be struck down.

The federal government’s suit has drawn rebuke from some unlikely quarters. An attorney with 20 years of experience at the Justice Department resigned this week as a result of the administration’s position. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said it was “as far-fetched a legal argument as I think I’ve ever heard.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced his party from the argument, saying that “everyone” in the Senate favored maintaining coverage for people with preexisting conditions.

Even Health and Human Services (HHS) Sec. Alex Azar, who signed the brief in question, described it as a “constitutional and legal position, not a policy position.”

It doesn’t appear to be much of one.

Among the more unusual responses to the administration’s argument came today in the form a brief filed by five academic experts with wildly divergent views about Obamacare. The brief is signed by Jonathan Adler, Nicholas Bagley, Abbe Gluck, Ilya Somin, and Kevin Walsh. Bagley and Gluck have both defended the health law’s legality in the past. Walsh has published several analyses of the legal arguments surrounding Obamacare. But Adler and Somin, notably, are libertarian-leaning law professors who have been quite critical of the health law over the years. (Both are also contributors to the Volokh Conspiracy, which is published at Reason.com.)

The opening of the brief stresses that the signers have spent the last several years disagreeing with each other, in some cases quite forcefully, about the legal and constitutional merits of the health law. The brief takes no position on the mandate itself. But in this case, they all agree that the federal government’s argument for striking down the law’s preexisting rules is, legally speaking, pretty terrible.

Understanding the brief requires a little bit of background. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that although Obamacare’s mandate was unconstitutional when viewed as a purchase requirement or economic command, it could stand because it raised revenue and therefore functioned as a tax. But last year, as part of tax reform legislation, Congress eliminated the penalty for not complying with Obamacare’s individual mandate. The mandate remained on the books, but for all practical purposes it had been repealed. And it no longer raised any revenue.

As a result, a group of conservative states, led by Texas, challenged the legality of the (now unenforceable) mandate, and further argued that because it is the centerpiece of the health law, all of Obamacare should be struck down.

This is an argument about what’s known as “severability” — whether the remaining parts of a law should be struck down if a court finds one provision to be illegal.

The Trump administration’s argument does not go quite as far as the states. It agrees that the mandate is now unconstitutional, and takes the position that although much of the law, including the Medicaid expansion and private insurance subsidies, can stand, the preexisting conditions rules should be tossed along with the mandate, because the mandate and the preexisting conditions rules are not severable. To back up its argument, the administration cites findings associated with the statute of Obamacare (that were also cited by the Obama administration in court) declaring that the mandate and the preexisting conditions rules are a bundle that should not be separated.

For critics of Obamacare, there is something naturally appealing about this argument: It uses the text of the health law, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it, to attempt to knock it down. I have been open to arguments along these lines under the Obama administration, and I think they made sense at the time.

The problem, as the new brief points out, is that determining severability is about determining congressional intent. And the current Congress has made its position on the matter quite apparent. Often, this requires some sort of guessing. But at this point, we know exactly what Congress thinks about the law it chose to amend, because it very clearly chose to eliminate the mandate penalty while leaving the preexisting conditions rules in place. That is about as clear a statement of intent as you can ever imagine from Congress.

The brief argues that the administration’s argument relies on “time shifting” to make its case, and that the administration’s case effectively gets severability backward by “[disregarding] the clearly expressed intent of Congress and seek judicial invalidation of statutory provisions that Congress chose to leave intact.”

The findings about severability that the administration cites to back up its arguments about the preexisting were made by a different Congress, prior to the elimination of the mandate penalty and other alterations to the law. They were made in the context of what is now, essentially, a different law. They don’t apply.

I have been a critic of Obamacare for years, and I continue to believe there are many problems with the law. The preexisting conditions rules, while popular, distort the individual market and have contributed to rising premiums in the exchanges. (The popularity of those rules, of course, is one reason why Republicans haven’t touched them, and why GOP officials are distancing themselves from the policy implications of their argument.) But critics of the health law do themselves no favors by signing on to a fundamentally weak legal challenge like this.

The bigger problem with this case is that it has the potential to serve as a substitute for a policy agenda. Republicans still need a broad health policy vision that goes beyond simply attacking Obamacare. But as long as they are basing their hopes on a legal manuever as poorly thought out as this one, that’s not something we’re likely to see.

By Peter Suderman/reason

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Russia’s Putin and Israel’s Netanyahu negotiate . . . about what?

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Russia's Putin and Israel's Netanyahu negotiate . . . about what?

“Russia has friendly relations with Israel, and more than a million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel, but Iran is a strategic ally of Russia.”

Last week major state and corporate news outlets reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met and agreed on removing Iranian troops from Syria and/or Iran’s border with Syria. Then, on June 3rd, Haaretz and other outlets reported that Israel had, for the first time, participated in a NATO “exercise” near the Russian border. I spoke to Rick Sterling, an investigative journalist specializing in Syria, about what could be behind these reports.

Ann Garrison: I’d like to go through some of these disparate reports about Russia and Israel one by one, but first, what do you think of Israel’s first ever participation in NATO war games near the Russian border?

Rick Sterling: The head of NATO recently confirmed that NATO would NOT get into a war involving Israel because Israel is not a NATO member. But Israel is a “partner,” and in 2014 the US Congress designated Israel as a “major strategic partner.” So I think Israel may be participating in the war maneuvers to demonstrate that it’s a good partner. Of course, Russia sees the NATO military exercises on its border as provocative. They are countering with their own military exercises, so it’s just a continuation in the wrong direction away from peace and mutual acceptance.

AG: OK, now to these reports about negotiations between Russia and Israel. Just before the news that Israel had participated in NATO war games near Russia, Bloomberg News reported that Israel was campaigning to break the alliance between Iran and Russia. What do you think of that?

RS: It’s certainly true that Israel is playing the diplomatic game and trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, but the stories are highly exaggerated. They contain both contradictory information and outright disinformation. Russia has friendly relations with Israel, and more than a million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel. But Iran is a strategic ally of Russia.

AG: On June 2nd, the Times of Israel reported that Israel denies inking a deal with Russia on Iranian withdrawal from Syria. What about that?

RS:Well, I haven’t seen any written deal. So what we’re going on are media reports, which are spun in different directions. So, number one, I don’t know if there was a written agreement. Number two, it’s certainly the case that Israel is not only saying that they don’t want Iranian militia or advisors anywhere near the border with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, but also that they want them all out of Syria.

“Israel exaggerates the Iranian involvement in Syria for its own purposes.”

Russia and Syria may have agreed to relocate some of the Iranian advisors or Iranian militias away from the Golan Heights border. There were reports that some of those forces were headed out to eastern Syria to do combat there against ISIS, which continues to hold an important area. But even if Israel is trying to insist that no Iranian advisors or militia be in Syria, I can’t see Syria or any sovereign state agreeing to such a demand. Israel exaggerates the Iranian involvement in Syria for its own purposes.

AG: Asharq Al-Aswat reported, also on June 2nd, that Russia and Israel had agreed to keep Iran away from Syria’s South.

RS: Asharq Al-Aswat is a Saudi-owned newspaper coming out of London, so the Saudi influence and heavy anti-Iran bias is evident. The one element of this story that may be true is that the US may actually be uncomfortable with any agreement regarding the US forces that control the area around Al Tanf, a Syrian border area with Iraq. That’s the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, and it’s currently controlled by US military and various armed militants—including former ISIS fighters—who are trained and controlled by the US. The US doesn’t want to give that up, but the Syrian foreign minister is not mincing his words. He’s saying that all the US forces must leave Syria eventually, and specifically that they should leave that area at the Syria-Iraq border soon.

Al Tanf and the highway between Iraq and Syria is a flashpoint. The US has no right to be there but seems to be digging in while Syria is getting increasingly adamant that they must leave. Things may come to a head there.

AG: Al Monitor says that Russia is “trying a new playbook to calm the escalation between Israel and Iran.” How about that?

RS: I think that’s true. What we’ve seen emerge in the last several years is that the diplomat in the room is Russia. If you look at what’s going on there, the Russian diplomacy is quite impressive and at times quite surprising. Six or eight months ago, the Saudi monarch flew to Moscow for the very first time. Russia brought Iran and Turkey together at the Astana talks, and Russia is trying to soothe the tension and danger of conflict between Israel and Iran. So that story is probably accurate.

AG: Have you seen any reports about negotiations between Russia and Israel on RT, Russia’s state- sponsored English outlet?

RS: I’ve seen some RT coverage, both stories and photographs. They certainly don’t put the spin on it that some of the Western and Israeli media do.

The fundamental fact is that Russia doesn’t want to go to war with the US. They realize how dangerous the situation in Syria currently is. They are not going to give up their long-term alliance with Syria, but at the same time, they’re doing everything they can to cool things down and avoid a head-on conflict.

AG: OK, so we’ve gone through just a sample of the wildly disparate reports and commentary about this, but after reading a lot of it, I had the feeling that this is headed toward the Balkanization of Syria, which has been much discussed for a long time. What are your thoughts about that?

RS: Well, that’s the reality on the ground right now. Turkey is occupying part of the north. Israel and Israeli-supported terrorists are occupying part of the south. The US and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control big swathes of eastern Syria. So Balkanization is already the informal reality on the ground.

In early 2016, John Kerry called it “plan B,” dividing up Syria and partitioning it. He didn’t say it quite that explicitly, but he was clearly suggesting that that’s where things were headed. Now, in opposition to that, you’ve got the Syrian government saying that it will not allow partition and that the US has to leave Syria. Both Assad and the Syrian foreign minister are saying that increasingly forcefully. So we’ll have to see. At the same time it’s dangerous because there’s also threatening talk coming from the United States.

“John Kerry called it “plan B,” dividing up Syria and partitioning it.”

The US, Turkey, and Israel are, of course, violating international law codified in the UN Charter by their military presence in Syria, but the Syrian government seems to be taking things step by step with the support of Russia and Iran. Hopefully, progress can be made and the conflict can be wound down. That would certainly be to the benefit of all Americans as well as Syrians and other peoples of the Middle East.

AG: Do you think that Russia is opposed to Balkanization?

RS: Oh, absolutely. They’re opposed to it. They saw what happened with the war in Yugoslavia and the split, the separation into smaller, weaker states.

Russia also has its own experience with Western and Saudi-funded terrorism. If you look at a map, Syria is not that far from Russia, so of course they are very concerned with the situation there. They have a big stake in seeing the conflict wind down and a peaceful resolution, remote as that may seem. They’re taking the lead in helping to resolve it and working toward reconciliation, which is going to require concessions on the part of Damascus. Russia has explicitly talked about an internationally supervised election in Syria, and hopefully that’s where things will end rather than in World War III.

The question is whether the US and its allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, will give up their goal of “regime change” in Syria. Or will they continue to finance and arm the opposition to further bleed Syria and its allies? The US and allies are prolonging the conflict behind a pretense of humanitarian concern. Meanwhile they ignore obvious travesties such as the Israeli killings at the Gaza border.

AG: And just one more point of clarification regarding the presence of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in Syria. Their presence is legal, according to international law, because they’re there at the request of the Syrian government. Right?

RS: Yes, that’s correct. Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are in Syria supporting Syrian sovereignty. The Iranian presence in the West tends to be wildly exaggerated, but they do have militia there. They also have advisors, and they’ve lent economic support to Syria. Both Lebanon and Iran know that their own governments are at risk there.

Of course, it was General Wesley Clark who said, back in 2007, that the US had a hit list of seven countries, and we’ve already seen several of them overthrown. Lebanon and Iran know they’re on that list. I’m sure they all realize that if the Syrian state is destroyed, if the government there is toppled and chaos reigns as it does in Libya, they’ll be the next targets. So they’re there for their own sake and for regional stability, not just to support their ally Syria.

By Ann Garrison/BAR

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Did Michael Pollan Kill God? Inside the NYT Food Columnist’s Exploration of Magic Mushrooms From Pollan’s new book “How to Change Your Mind” — currently on top of the New York Times best-seller list — it looks like he got what he was after.

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Michael Pollan had enlightenment envy.

Unlike most patients in clinical trials of psilocybin, when Pollan ate a magic mushroom, he wasn’t terrified by a terminal illness, he wasn’t suffering from alcoholism or depression and he hadn’t been diagnosed with a personality disorder.

But he “envied the radical new perspectives” of the people in psychedelic therapy whom he interviewed, and he found the idea of “shaking the snow globe” of his mental life appealing. “I also wasn’t sure I’d ever had a spiritual experience,” he said, and in late middle age, he felt “time was growing short.”

From Pollan’s new book “How to Change Your Mind” — currently on top of the New York Times best-seller list — it looks like he got what he was after.

But Pollan’s account of his journey contests the value or necessity of millennia of spiritual struggles, ages of religious insights and even, most radically, belief in the existence of God.

His lyric depiction of his “egoless, nondual state of consciousness,” of the “obliteration” of the very category of “personal,” of his “I” who was nevertheless not his self, and who was “unbounded by any body” and had “no desires of any kind,” reminded me of William James’s case studies in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Mystical experiences, James wrote, qualify, as “states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance.”

But if a single psilocybin trip could rewire Pollan’s brain, or ours, in the way that Buddhist monks take lifetimes to achieve, are the years we spend wrestling with faith, or ragging ourselves for being lousy meditators, just a waste of time?

Did Pollan really eat his way to a spiritual experience, or was it just a chemical experience — is there even a difference? If ’shrooms open doors to the depths of ineffable truths, does it really matter if God is dead or not?

By the time I hit middle age, I’d worked out my answer to “Is God dead?” without benefit of psychedelics. I got there in stages, like Kübler-Ross’s five stages of dealing with death, only instead of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, for me it was faith, reason, nihilism, mysticism and omg-we’ve-run-out-of-diapers.

I grew up in the same Newark neighborhood that Philip Roth did, though a generation later. Orthodoxy failed me when I asked my mother, who kept a kosher home, why it was OK for us to eat spare ribs at Ming’s on Sunday nights, and she explained that God was not troubled when our kind of Jews, the Jews of the Weequahic section, made common sense accommodations to modern life. Except, of course, when it came to dating shiksas, which carried a mandatory sentence of “he’s dead to me.”

Through the loophole of reasonableness that she opened, I drove a truck bearing I❤SCIENCE license plates. Culturally, I couldn’t have been more Jewish, but theologically, I became the Voltaire of Schuyler Avenue. Like 12-year-old Ozzie Freedman in Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” the 12-year-old me challenged God’s power, questioned God’s morality, even disputed God’s existence. By the time I went off to college, it was to become a molecular biologist – to learn the scientific method and master the evidence for the secular materialist account of life.

But I also learned in college that ruthless doubt, once unleashed, can lay waste to more than childhood faith. It can reduce love to libido, altruism to evolution, justice to privilege, science to politics, taste to class, virtue to tribe, merit to luck, skepticism to cynicism and meaning to myth. I know that there are happy atheists, but it was to the dead end of dread that relentless rationality led me. It also led me to leave J.D. Watson’s lab and seek out new mentors: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Samuel Beckett.

What rescued me from nihilism was finding God everywhere, except in religion. That’s what I suspect a rising number of Americans mean when they tell pollsters that they’re “spiritual but not religious.” For me, it was meditation that set me on that path. I took it up as an adult, to stop grinding my teeth, but meditation took me to a kind of DIY mysticism. My toolkit has ranged from Rumi to Ken Wilber, from Huxley’s perennial philosophy to Heschel’s radical amazement, from mindfulness to gratitude — to being dumbstruck with awe at nature, at art, at my newborn babies’ fingers curled around mine, at Katz’s pastrami, at the starry sublime.

Still, I’m not much of a mystic – I bet I spend more time sleepwalking than mindfully experiencing the moment. But quotidian reality, if we remember to notice it, can be a portal to enlightenment. “I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me,” Pollan says about his daily routine, “and while these are undeniably useful tools for coping with everyday life and getting things done, they leave little space for surprise or wonder or change.” Pollan needed a drug, and a rupture from ordinary reality, to experience transcendence. But my experience is that reality itself can disclose the divine. If you pay attention, everything — not just sunsets, but laundry, too — can be surprising, even startling. Everything can be an occasion for wonderment; everything can prompt the ultimate question, “Why is there anything at all?”

Psilocybin is a turbocharged route to finding enchantment in everyday life. More than a thousand published papers attest to its safety when administered in appropriate settings. I have no problem with Pollan or anyone else taking a short cut to illumination. In fact, according to a Johns Hopkins study in a recent Journal of Psychopharmacology, the drug works best when it’s combined with the kind of slowpoke old-school stuff I’ve turned to, like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and mindful breathing. Psilocybin, the Hopkins study says, brought about the largest, most significant, and most enduring positive changes in “interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping” when subjects also meditated, had a mindfulness practice, kept a journal and “engaged in activities they personally judged to facilitate spiritual growth (e.g. being in nature, contemplative movement, artwork or service activities).”

William James, shaking the snow globe more than a century before Michael Pollan, also tried a chemical on himself — nitrous oxide. He called the “metaphysical revelation” that came to him when high on laughing gas “a reconciliation.” This was how he explained it: “It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity.” Every religion, every mystic tradition, contains that vision of the world. You can reach it with fasting, with sitting, with prayer; you can find it in a fungus; you can see it in a grain of sand, and hold infinity in the palm of your hand.

“Melted into unity”: What a heartening prospect. Whether it’s a struggle or a thrill ride, the seeker’s path to purpose is the world’s path to peace. If God isn’t dead, She won’t care how you get there.

By Marty Kaplan / Forward

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Don’t Worry About That Diet Soda Habit: Artificial Sweeteners Are Harmless, Say Scientists After years of being blamed for weight gain and metabolic issues, zero-calorie sweeteners and the drinks they flavor are being absolved.

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Good news for fans of diet drinks and sugar-free sweets: You can safely ignore the hype about zero-calorie sweeteners somehow triggering weight gain and metabolic issues, according to a team of U.S. and European scientists.

The potential paradox of diet soda fueling weight gain had a lot of traction in popular health media. But this idea was based on inconsistent rodent research results, plus human studies that found links between artificial-sweetener consumption and ill effects but not a causal relationship .

Beyond Calories

A new article in the journal Obesity Reviews summarizes last year’s “Beyond Calories—Diet and Cardiometabolic Health” conference, sponsored by the CrossFit Foundation. The event convened doctors, obesity researchers, molecular biologists, nutrition scientists, and other academics from the U.S., Denmark, and Germany to consider whether all calories are “equal with regard to effects on cardiometabolic disease and obesity.”

“There is no doubt that positive energy balance, due to excessive caloric consumption and/or inadequate physical activity, is the main driver of the obesity and cardiometabolic epidemics,” write Janet King and Laura Schmidt in the paper’s introduction. But there’s also evidence that “certain dietary components increase risk” for heart disease and weight gain in ways that go beyond a simple tradeoff between calories consumed and calories burned.

In the case of diet soda and its ilk, there are all sorts of theories about how these drinks could sneakily imitate the effects of sugary beverages. It was posited that they might trigger our sweet taste receptors to crave more sweet things after consumption, that they might alter our gut bacteria in a negative way, or that they induce a biochemical response as if real sugar had been consumed.

Some speculated that “caloric compensation occurs, negating calories ‘saved,'” writes Allison Sylvetsky in a section of the article that deals with non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS). “This compensation could be psychological, whereby one’s knowledge of consuming a lower‐calorie NNS‐containing alternative may lead to giving oneself permission for greater calorie ingestion at subsequent meals,” or it “could be physiological, in which consumption of lower‐calorie NNS‐containing alternatives promotes heightened hunger and subsequently higher calorie intake.”

But that wasn’t much more than speculation. “Two separate meta‐analyses consisting of 10 and eight [randomized controlled trials] both indicated that substituting [artificial sweeteners] for sugar resulted in a modest weight loss in adults,” notes Sylvetsky. “In 62 of 90 animal studies, NNS did not increase body weight, and a more recent meta‐analysis of 12 prospective cohort studies did not support an association between NNS consumption and BMI.”

Embracing Aspartame

The most popular artificial sweetener these days is aspartame, which can be found in most diet soft drinks. Acesulfame Potatassium, Sucralose (sold in the U.S. as Splenda), and substances derived from the stevia plant are also popular. The paper cautions that aspartame has much more safety evidence on its side than the others, as it has been studied much more extensively. (There’s no particular reason to think the others will prove any less safe, but they’ve been studied “for periods no longer than 16 weeks.”)

Aspartame has been controversial for decades, but fears over its alleged links to everything from Alzheimer’s disease to brain cancer, diabetes, leukemia, and weight gain have proven unfounded. (Such was also the case with saccharine before it.) And there have been ample randomized controlled trials to study its effects.

“It does not appear that any of these [trials] revealed adverse effects of NNS consumption on risk factors for cardiometabolic disease,” writes Sylvetsky, summing up the research. In one six-month study, overweight and obese participants were assigned to drink either sucrose‐sweetened cola, aspartame‐sweetened cola, water, or low-fat milk. Researchers found “no significant differences between the effects of aspartame‐sweetened cola and water on body weight, visceral adiposity, liver fat and metabolic risk factors.”

In “the longest intervention study conducted to date,” 163 obese women were randomly assigned to have or avoid aspartame‐sweetened foods and drinks during a several-month weight-loss program, a one-year weight-maintenace program, and a two-year follow-up period. “The aspartame group lost significantly more weight overall,” reports Sylvetsky, “and regained significantly less weight during the 1‐year maintenance and the 2‐year follow‐up than the no‐aspartame group.”

Controlled trials “consistently demonstrate” that consuming aspartame and other artificial sweeteners is associated with decreased calorie consumption, the paper concludes. And “there are no clinical intervention studies involving chronic [sweetener] exposure in which [it] induced a weight increase relative to sugar, water or habitual diet.”

The team of researchers suggests that more studies should be done on on the effects of artificially-sweetened beverages on children and on how consumption of these drinks is related to glucose tolerance and inflammation.

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown/Reason

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Political Pressure in Nebraska

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The University of Nebraska at Lincoln bowed, at least to some degree, to political pressure when it permanently removed a lecturer in English from the classroom last fall. In so doing, and in denying her the dismissal hearing to which she was entitled by campus policy, Nebraska may have violated her academic freedom.

So concludes a new investigative report from the American Association of University Professors. The document provides new insight into the locally infamous Courtney Lawton case at Nebraska and the university’s shifting rationales for her suspension. It also sets the stage for a possible vote to censure Nebraska’s administration at the AAUP’s annual meeting next month.

AAUP censure for alleged violations of academic freedom is a symbolic gesture, since the association has no actual authority over the institutions with which it disagrees. But many campuses see censure as a reputational black eye and work with AAUP to lift it.

The university, which participated in AAUP’s on-campus investigation, expressed “disappointment” with the association’s findings this week and stood by its decision to effectively end Lawton’s teaching appointment, in the interest of the campus as a whole.

In August, Lawton — who was then an adjunct at Nebraska — was recorded protesting an on-campus recruiting table for Turning Point USA. That’s the conservative group behind Professor Watchlist, which many academics believe distorts their views and chills academic freedom. Lawton called the undergraduate behind the table a “neo-fascist Becky” who “wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids,” and flipped her off. The video was shared on online, went viral and drew the ire of Republican state lawmakers.

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