Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2019

Bronchitis blues

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

In late September I suffered one of the many colds that have plagued me over the years. Unlike most people who soldier on with Nyquil, I am usually barely able to get out of bed. They tend to form a predictable and woeful pattern. The first day or two begins with a sore throat that makes it difficult to swallow or speak. Then, the next phase migrates to the nasal passages with constant sneezing, sniffling, and feeling miserable that can last up to five days. The final phase, occurring in at least three of four colds, is a “wet” cough that yields yellow sputum and makes sleeping difficult. Add these phases together and you are talking about a week and a half of suffering.

In early October, the cold ran its course and life returned to normal, lasting for about five days, if memory serves me right. However, unaccountably, the final phase of the cold returned  on the sixth day. Then, for another five days, I had a recurrence of the cold’s “wet” cough that showed no signs of abating. At this point, my wife pressured me to go to one of those walk-in CityMD clinics to see what was going on. I generally don’t like going for exams and tend to stick my head in the sand like an ostrich. She, on the other hand, probably relies on them too much.

After using a stethoscope for about two minutes, the CityMD physician tells me that my lungs reveal an “abnormal” condition and that he needs to x-ray me to check for pneumonia. About twenty minutes after the x-ray, he said that I tested negative for pneumonia so the diagnosis was bronchitis instead, a viral-based illness for which antibiotics, the normal medication for bacteria-based pneumonia, were useless, if not ill-advised. As most of you know, there is a tendency to overprescribe antibiotics, which leads to bacteria developing a resistance and hence becoming more deadly.

He prescribed benzonatate, a cough suppressant that can actually be purchased OTC. But unfortunately, there is no medication that can halt the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that was producing the wet coughs. After taking benzonatate for a week, it did not even suppress the coughing. Perhaps that is just as well since some physicians believe that the best thing is to cough up the sputum that lines the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier. After the benzonatate ran out, I started taking Mucinex but gave up after it too did nothing to relieve the coughing. I also had decided that it was probably best to just keep coughing and spit out the sputum. Ironically, doctors call this wet cough “productive”. Productive not in these sense of vitamins keeping you healthy but in the sense of producing sputum.

Another odd bit of terminology. I have what they call acute bronchitis, which is distinguished from chronic bronchitis that afflicts many smokers and those living in highly air-polluted cities. So, what’s the alternative to acute bronchitis? Moderate bronchitis? It turns out that all bronchitis, except for the chronic kind, is acute. Don’t ask me why. What I can tell you is that it can last up to three weeks and I am now exactly at that point. This morning I had a couple of wet coughs but am pretty sure that by tomorrow or Monday at the latest I should be 100 percent.

When I learned that I had bronchitis, I had no idea of what this meant anatomically. The word bronchial tube summons up the image of something like the trachea, also called the windpipe. I assumed that the trachea led to the bronchial tubes, which then entered the lungs. But I had no idea that once they entered the lungs they became like the roots of a tree, growing narrower and narrower the deeper they penetrated the lungs. I could understand after seeing a graphic like this how they could produce such a large amount of sputum. If only medical science could figure out a way to reduce or better yet end the inflammation, I’d have a lot less to worry about. As with any illnesses produced by a virus, that’s easier said than done

If you factor in my head cold, I have been ailing for a full month this fall. It means that I could not go out for exercise or to see a film. I have been meaning to see “Joker” and weigh in on the controversy but just couldn’t chance getting worse. Although I feel a little weird even bothering to write about this illness in light of the real horrors many FB friends are enduring, including Neil Davidson’s battle with a stage 4 brain tumor, it does cast a pall over my generally carefree life.

When my mother was my age and in relatively good shape except for a growing crankiness that a young friend of hers attributed to old age, she came down with pneumonia twice. I never gave much thought to how she got it but assumed it was because she wasn’t “taking care of herself”. Looking back in retrospect, her life-style was not that much different than mine other than eating the wrong foods and too much of them, as well as being totally sedentary. Despite that, she lived to eighty-seven and I will be fine with matching that. It doesn’t seem out of the question since I have her genes rather than my father’s. Like me, she suffered brutal colds over the years and likely ended up with pneumonia like I ended up with bronchitis.

I told the doctor at CityMD that I didn’t understand how I could have gotten bronchitis just five days after my cold had ended. He told me that it was a weather change that could have done it. I didn’t want to tell him that this sounded like nonsense but I still can’t explain how a virus could have invaded my bronchial tubes out of the blue. I am sure it was related to the cold but I have no idea how. In discussing this with my wife, who is obviously concerned about my health, I told her that I had to take strict measures to prevent getting a cold ever again. This means being very conscious of not touching my mouth or nose with my fingers when I am out shopping or at a film screening. And when I get home, using Purell immediately.

During the first week of my illness, when I was feeling most desperate, I decided to buy CBD oil which is a derivative of the hemp plant that supposedly has medical uses. On October 16th, the NY Times ran an article on the benefits of CBD that reported on its value in reducing depression, insomnia and other neural disorders. Out of curiosity, I googled “CBD bronchitis” and found a number of articles recommending it as a home remedy. I spent $24 for a tiny bottle and urge you not to waste your money, at least if you get bronchitis. In fact, bronchitis is one of the most common ailments, especially for geezers like me, and just something you have to get used to unless you are like me and ready to take preventive measures to avoid three weeks of suffering.

As part of my search for some relief, I went to the NY Times archives and tried to find some remedies that might work. I figured that the Gray Lady might be reliable since it tends to have useful health articles, especially from Jane Brody who is a couple of years older than me and addresses geriatric issues in her weekly Tuesday column.

What I found shocked me. There were 5,107 articles about famous people who had come down with bronchitis, mostly the elderly like me. Among those listed in the first couple of dozen are: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None of them died from bronchitis but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

About six months ago, I was crossing 88th Street on Third Avenue in the afternoon when I stepped into a shallow pothole and fell on my face, like a tree that had just been chopped down. Fortunately, I caught myself before hitting the pavement so the blow was not bad enough to break a bone. My glasses were broken but I was able to salvage the lenses. I’ll never forget the crowd of people standing over me asking if I was all right. I felt more embarrassed about the whole thing than anything else.

From that point on, I am always very watchful crossing the street but continue to wonder how I could have tripped. It finally dawned on me that I am not 35 years old any more. As with the bronchitis, I have to watch my step. Life is better for me than it has ever been with a marriage now in its seventeenth year to a Turkish woman who has a tenured position in the CUNY system. My fondest hope is to live as long as my mother since the next dozen years can really be great as long as I can avoid the potholes and the viruses.

July 5, 2018

A Skin So Soft

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Although it is far afield from the sort of film I tend to review, I would be remiss in not recommending the documentary about body-building titled “A Skin So Soft” that opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow. Given its subject matter, you’d think that the Anthology that shares my overall political/artistic preferences would be the last place in the world to show a film having anything in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Pumping Iron”. In fact, it does have little in common and is much more of an edgy art film that is totally riveting.

This is a 2017 documentary directed by director Denis Côté that focuses on six body-builders in Quebec who we see on their daily rounds, either lifting weights or walking their dog. Unlike “Pumping Iron”, we hear almost nothing from the principals except for very mundane chatter with their wives or the people they are training, who in two instances are their wives.

The overarching theme of “Pumping Iron” is male aggression, with Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno facing off. In “A Skin So Soft”, it is mostly camaraderie with a strong sense that the men are almost like sculptors using their bodies as raw material. Their pursuit is not so much a worship of masculinity but of beauty. Despite the sheer strangeness of seeing biceps the width of automobile tires, you never get the vibe that these are steroid-gobbling creatures ready to beat a stranger to a pulp.

Indeed, the rituals of depilation, oiling, and posing have the aura of beauty contests rather than gladiator contests. At the end of the film, the six men go off to a country retreat at the director’s expense apparently to swim, sunbathe and relax. Despite the homoerotic suggestion of this scene and other scenes, it is much more like young boys at summer camp.

Director Denis Côté is an extraordinary talent and I hope to track down more of his films. Once again, you will be richly rewarded by a trip downtown to Anthology Film Archives for a screening of “A Skin So Soft”.

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

June 2, 2017

The High Cost of Gadgetry

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

Two new documentaries will make you look differently at your electronic gadgets, especially the cool iPhone or other products from Apple whose logo might be changed to a skull-and-crossbones after seeing “Death by Design” and “Complicit”. They examine the damage done to both the workers who produce them and the environment, especially in China, as well as raise important questions about the meaning of “progress”. If being able to use an iPhone to pay for your Starbucks coffee comes at the expense of a leukemia epidemic for Foxconn workers and making 60 percent of China’s groundwater unsuitable for drinking, then the whole question of progress has to be thought through.

Continue reading

November 28, 2016

Off the Rails; Asperger’s Are Us

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

Just by coincidence, two documentaries about people with Asperger Syndrome premiered this November. Showing through December 1 at the Metrograph in New York, “Off the Rails” is a portrait of Darius McCollum, an African-American famous (or infamous to the authorities) for commandeering NY’s subway trains and buses, often under the assumed identity of an MTA employee. There is also “Asperger’s Are Us” that can be seen on ITunes and Amazon. It follows four young men with Asperger’s who perform together as a comedy group and who were initially drawn together because telling jokes was one of the ways they could break out of their isolation. In an odd way, McCollum’s obsession with trains was his way of connecting with people, especially when one of his joy rides would make the front-page news. Perhaps joy ride is not the right term since McCollum’s sole interest was in following MTA regulations to the letter, often more conscientiously than any employee.

It was nearly 35 years ago when New Yorkers learned of McCollum’s maiden voyage in the NY Times:

Published: January 31, 1981

A 15-year-old Queens boy took over the controls of a subway train Thursday night and operated it as its passengers rode unaware for six stops from 34th Street to the World Trade Center, transit authorities reported.

Both the boy and the motorman were arrested. The motorman, Carl Scholack, 46, said he had permitted the boy to take the throttle because he had become ”violently ill,” according to officials. He was suspended from duty pending an investigation.

The train set out from 179th Street in Jamaica on the IND’s E line at 11:25 P.M. with Mr. Scholack in charge, the police said. They said Mr. Scholack, who has been with the Transit Authority for 13 years, told them he had let the youth take over alone at 34th Street, having tested his ability over a two-stop stretch in Queens.

The idea, investigators said, was for the boy to guide the train, which was carrying about a dozen passengers, to the Chambers Street/World Trade Center terminal. He was then to start the return run to Jamaica with Mr. Scholack waiting at 34th Street to resume control.

Officials declined to identify the youth, but other sources named him as Darius McCollum of South Jamaica, a student at a technical school. Officials said his parents had previously asked to have him declared a juvenile in need of supervision. He reportedly picked up a knowledge of subway equipment and signals while ”hanging out” at the Jamaica yards.

If this was his only arrest, he might have been a footnote but as soon as he got out of jail, he surrendered to his obsession many times to the point where he would end up spending half his life behind bars.

Except for appearances by sympathetic lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers who have been involved professionally keeping him out of jail, McCollum is on camera explaining how became so inexplicably devoted to assuming the identity of a subway or bus operator. You’d think that if you were facing five years in Sing Sing, it would be for robbing a bank and not doing the kind of work that made Ralph Kramden miserable for free.

McCollum is a genial sort who does not seem that troubled by all the years he has spent in penitentiaries. Like a drug offender who has just been released from prison, he always returns to the habit that cost him his freedom. Is it possible that he only feels free when he is operating a subway train or bus?

Like drug addicts, there was never any reason to lock McCollum up since he was suffering from a mental illness that compelled him to return to the scenes of his crimes. In the United States today, the prisons are filled with drug addicts and the mentally ill—a symptom of a society in terminal decay. After one of his releases, McCollum landed an internship working for the MTA museum in New York and was doing an exceptional job—no surprise given his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s transportation system. As soon as the MTA found out, they told the museum to fire him. Once he lost that connection, it was inevitable that he would begin taking over trains and buses again. So, who is mentally ill? McCollum or the men in suits who were ready to crucify him? That is the question posed by this compelling documentary.

Unlike Darius McCollum, the four men in “Asperger’s Are Us” live fairly conventional lives as the children of white middle-class New England suburbanites. They met more than a decade ago at a camp for children with Asperger’s and discovered that they all liked to make jokes.

Like McCollum, there is not much in the way they speak or behave that would give you the impression that they were on the autism spectrum except for those moments when they get stressed out. When they are rehearsing at one of their homes, the youth who lives there begins to pace nervously because his parents are there. Like most people with Asperger’s, he is not comfortable with intimacy. In another scene, we see his father touching him affectionately in the kitchen—something that it took a long time for him to accept.

The film follows the four around as they rehearse for their yearly theatrical appearance that shows the influence of Monty Python. They readily admit that they are indifferent to the audience response since their real goal is to bond with each other doing what they enjoy. As they laugh at each other’s antics, you would mistake them for any four undergrads, which in fact is what they are or will become. One of them has been accepted into a year-long program at Oxford and we learn in the closing credits that he won an award for his academic performance. He is now working on a PhD on the Nordic model for combatting sex trafficking.

Ironically, one of them has the same obsession with trains as McCollum but was able to put it to productive use. His hobby, which involved gaining a detailed knowledge of the national train network, led to him work on a master’s degree in transportation planning.

Both films will help you understand Asperger’s better even if both lack the talking head expertise of psychiatrists. A quick look on the Internet revealed that there are some well-known people with the illness (if you want to call it that) including Dan Ackroyd.

Considered a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from others by allowing relatively normal language and intelligence. It is estimated that 31 million people suffer from Asperger’s globally and there is no “cure” as such. Wikipedia states: “Some researchers and people on the autism spectrum have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that autism spectrum disorder is a difference, rather than a disease that must be treated or cured.”

As is the case with cancer, some experts believe that environmental factors have led to an increase in the number of all autism cases, including Asperger’s. Given the drift of late capitalism, you can be assured that the environmental factor will multiply exponentially as corporations seek profits over well-being. That’s the real madness when you stop and thing about it.

July 18, 2016

Open Your Eyes

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 6.17.39 PM

This is the news release for a 40-minute documentary I just watched and found deeply moving. The film begins by stating that there are 40,000,000 blind people around the world today and that 90 percent are in poor Third World countries like Nepal, where the elderly husband and wife regain their sight from an operation funded by the Seva Foundation. I found the film of more than routine interest because I have cataracts in both eyes like the couple but can rely on Medicare to pay for the surgery when my time has come. Scheduling information is in the press release and I urge you to take advantage of your HBO subscription since it will be about the best thing you see on the premium channel this month.

For Immediate Release


Nearly 40 million people worldwide are blind, mostly from cataracts, and 90% of them live in the poorest countries. Yet most cataract blindness can be cured by simple surgery implanting an intraocular lens that once cost $500 and is now available for less than $2.

OPEN YOUR EYES follows Manisara and Durga, an aging couple from the remote Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, as they embark on a transformative odyssey to regain the sight they lost over the years by undergoing this life-changing procedure. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (HBO’s Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch”), this inspiring documentary debuts MONDAY, JULY 18 (7:30-8:10 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO Other HBO playdates: July 20 (9:00 a.m., 4:35 p.m. ET only, 5:00 p.m. PT only), 24 (11:05 a.m.) and 28 (noon) HBO2 playdates: July 21 (8:00 p.m.), 25 (2:10 p.m., 12:40 a.m.) and 30 (11:30 a.m.)

The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand. In remote Nepal, many hillside farmers’ eyes slowly turn milky white as they lose their eyesight from exposure to a lifetime of harsh sun. A team of resourceful Nepali eye specialists combing the area finds Manisara and Durga, who have been married 50 years, and urges them to come to a distant city for a chance to see again. But Manisara is skeptical. Only when her youngest granddaughter plops onto her lap does she decide to move forward.

Filmed over the course of three days and set against the backdrop of the breathtaking Himalayan Mountains, OPEN YOUR EYES follows their extraordinary journey to see again, as Manisara and Durga are carried and guided through narrow paths and down winding roads, all the while facing the great unknown with courage, grace and hope. Finally, the couple arrives at an eye hospital in Palpa, which offers free cataract surgeries once a month through support from the Seva Foundation. Performing the surgery is Dr. Gurung, who has traveled from Kathmandu. Reflecting on what could be, Manisara says, “What would make me truly happy? I must tell you, I will be happy to see the world again.”

Husband and wife are laid beside each other for the operations, and in mere minutes, intraocular lenses have been inserted and Manisara and Durga’s eyes have been bandaged. All in all, 54 surgeries will be completed successfully that day, with each procedure taking around six minutes. The original title song of OPEN YOUR EYES was composed by Salman Ahmad and features guest vocals by iconic musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel. In addition to the Oscar®-nominated “The Final Inch,” director Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO credits include the upcoming “Beware the Slenderman,” as well as “Saving Pelican 895,” “One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp” and the Peabody Award-winning “Hear and Now.”

Producer Larry Brilliant co-founded Seva Foundation, the international NGO responsible for restoring sight to four million blind people globally. He is also chairman of the board of the Skoll Global Threats Fund and was one of the leaders of the World OPEN YOUR EYES – 3 Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program. OPEN YOUR EYES is directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky; executive producer, Laurene Powell Jobs; producer, Larry Brilliant; produced by Irene Taylor Brodsky and Sophie Harris; original music by Salman Ahmad.

For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

January 26, 2016

The Zika pandemic and the FMLN

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

News is spreading rapidly about the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus that causes birth defects when a pregnant woman is bitten by an infected insect—specifically microcephaly that afflicted one of the characters in Todd Browning’s “Freaks”.

Like many of the diseases that are becoming epidemics in the global South, it is a product of poverty, climate change and the destruction of natural habitat. The most infamous examples are heretofore have been AIDS and the Ebola virus but now Zika looms as the latest pandemic threat.

Zika is related to dengue, yellow fever, and the West Nile Virus that are all transmitted from infected mosquitos. Ironically and tragically, one of West Nile’s victims was Walter Contreras Sheasby, a Green Party activist and Marxmail subscriber who died in 2006. Scientific American wrote about the connection between the climate change that the Greens campaign against and the increased danger of West Nile in 2009:

The higher temperatures, humidity and rainfall associated with climate change have intensified outbreaks of West Nile virus infections across the United States in recent years, according to a study published this week.

One of the largest surveys of West Nile virus cases to date links warming weather patterns and increasing rainfall–both projected to accelerate with global warming–to outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease across 17 states from 2001 to 2005.

Peter Hotez, a physician based in Houston, is now concerned that the same factors that have made Zika a pandemic in Brazil and El Salvador now threaten his own city:

Hotez attributes the rise of Zika and other related viruses to climate change, human migration and poverty. As temperatures have risen, mosquitoes can thrive in new areas, bringing such viruses to previously unaffected populations. As people have become more mobile, both through immigration and worldwide travel, viruses can hitchhike to new regions.

Poverty, he says, provides the perfect conditions for mosquitoes to thrive and infect new victims. Hotez points to economically depressed areas of Houston.

“You see dilapidated housing, houses with no window screens, no air conditioning,” he said, “garbage and refuse that allow mosquitoes to breed, discarded tires on the side of the road.”

The Aedes mosquitoes that carry Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya, like to breed in standing water closer to humans. While local health departments spray for mosquitoes during the spring and summer, it’s primarily targeted at the Culex mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. Those mosquitoes tend to fly longer distances and are active at night.

Aedes mosquitoes are daytime biters and aren’t likely to be affected by the spraying efforts.

Today’s NY Times reported on the drastic measures now being proposed by the government of El Salvador. It is urging women to forgo having children for the next two years until the disease comes under control. Like elsewhere, and probably even more so, El Salvador is the perfect breeding ground because it is so poor. A third of the population lives under the poverty line.

The vice minister of health does not think that avoiding pregnancies is such a bad idea. The Times reported him stating: “The country is the most densely populated country on the entire continent. It wouldn’t be all that bad if we had a reduction in births.”

The Times also mentions the crime epidemic in El Salvador, with poverty and the Zika pandemic virtually constituting a plague on the level visited on the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus. “One community leader said that a government clinic in his neighborhood shut down three months ago after repeated threats from the gangs, the kind of conditions that experts say make it harder to treat and combat the virus.”

As it so happens, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the current president of El Salvador, is a member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that I helped organize support for in the early 1980s as a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). If you would have told me that in 2016 the FMLN would be in power in order to have people like this vice minister of health making such outrageous statements, I would have resigned. I guess I am fated to end up supporting revolutionary movements that end up adopting neoliberal policies. For the sectarian left, the answer is easy. Just build your own toy Bolshevik party and issue denunciations from within your pristine redoubt.

If the NY Times runs articles on Zika or gang warfare in El Salvador, the reader would have no idea that Washington is imposing its trade policies on this small and weak nation that have been intended to pressure the FMLN to function just like the puppet government it supported in the early 1980s. When the left squawks about SYRIZA carrying out PASOK type policies, it really needs to look at the overall picture. From Vietnam to El Salvador, imperialism has a way of taming insurgent governments as NACLA reported in March 2015:

El Salvador’s long civil war between savagely repressive U.S.-funded military forces and a leftist guerrilla army ended in 1992. But while the peace accords ended the “war of bullets,” said labor leader Wilfredo Berríos, “the political, social, and economic war began again,” and “under the rules of the right, the rules of capitalism, and the rules of the United States.” In this context, the triumph of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front)—the former guerrillas—in the last two presidential elections is quite remarkable. The victories of Mauricio Funes in 2009 and Salvador Sánchez Cerén in 2014 have threatened to disrupt the Salvadoran government’s historic pattern of compliance with U.S. interests. Yet as Berríos’s comments imply, forces opposed to progressive change retain great power to shape “the rules” of the game—even under FMLN governance.

The Obama administration has sought to ensure the adoption of corporate-friendly policies in El Salvador by conditioning Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development aid upon a slew of neoliberal reforms that include privatization, the relaxation of business regulations, and the enforcement of trade provisions that privilege U.S. corporations. Since 2011, the U.S. “Partnership for Growth” has provided the overarching framework for advancing these policies. According to the State Department, the program aims to “promote a business-friendly institutional environment” and “catalyze private investment.”

The “Partnership” exemplifies a more general U.S. strategy in Latin America. Since 1998 the region has elected roughly a dozen left-of-center presidents who explicitly reject U.S. intervention and neoliberal economics. In response, the United States has tried to institutionalize neoliberal policies that can constrain future governments regardless of political affiliation. In effect, Washington has sought to mitigate the danger of elections by insulating economic policy from democratic input. As the FMLN’s experience in El Salvador suggests, these left-of-center governments are heavily constrained by forces opposed to progressive change. However, both government choices and popular struggle also help to shape policies on the ground.

“El Salvador is arguably our closest friend in the Western Hemisphere,” wrote U.S. ambassador Charles Glazer in 2007. At that point, the ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party had controlled the Salvadoran government for almost two decades. ARENA was closely linked to the right-wing death squads that had murdered tens of thousands of peasants, students, workers, and religious people in the 1970s and 1980s. After the war, the party continued to enjoy strong U.S. support because of its enthusiasm for neoliberalism, its support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and its militarized approach to both crime and dissent.

Although Mauricio Funes’ 2009 election threatened a change, the new president tried hard to preserve an amicable relationship with Washington, and the White House reciprocated. The U.S. Embassy’s current Economic Counselor, John Barrett, said that “Funes came in with a lot of good will,” which was “one reason why” the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) “stepped up with a lot of new funding.” The Obama administration soon sought to solidify the relationship through the Partnership for Growth, formally inaugurated in November 2011. As part of the Partnership, in September 2014 the Obama administration renewed a $461 million MCC development grant to deliver $277 million in additional funding for education, infrastructure, and other projects. The country’s poverty and unemployment levels—reflected in the high level of migration northward—made the government, and most Salvadorans, eager to get this money.

However, the United States also mandated a long list of policy changes relating to security, governance, and economic policy. Among the most unpopular, a Public-Private Partnership (P3) law allows for private investment in state-controlled segments of the economy like infrastructure and services. A substantial share of the $277 million in the second MCC aid package will be devoted to these projects. The law reduces legislative control over investments and transfers key oversight duties to PROESA, the Export and Investment Promotion Agency, which is nominally within the executive branch but includes leaders from the Salvadoran business world. Many popular organizations denounce such arrangements’ impact on public accountability, highlighting how representatives of business and the right are trying to create an autonomous entity to run the water sector as a sly path to privatization (though FMLN legislators have so far succeeded in excluding water from the list of services subject to P3 investments).

In mid-2014 the U.S. Embassy announced another notorious condition, demanding that the government cease a program that supports peasant agriculture by buying and distributing corn and bean seeds from small farmers and cooperatives. A U.S. Embassy press release argued that the procurement process was not “open,” as required under the 2004 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and therefore violated El Salvador’s “obligations” to “the international community”—namely the ARENA-linked importer of Monsanto seeds that had previously controlled most of the market. Massive domestic and international outcry forced the U.S. government to back down, but the demand itself reflects a main objective of U.S. policy, as elaborated by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman: “to open global markets for U.S. goods and services” and “enforce America’s rights in the global trading system.”

Read full article: https://nacla.org/news/2015/03/16/war-other-means-el-salvador

November 27, 2015


Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Opening at the Cinema Village in New York today, “Stink” is a documentary that examines the health hazards of chemical additives to a wide range of consumer goods and particularly those that are intended to make something smell good. Unlike food products that are now required to disclose their ingredients such as the percentage of saturated fats or cigarettes that carry a warning about the possible risks of cancer, you can sell kids’ pajamas laced with chemicals to such an extent that they positively reek when taken out of their package.

That was the discovery made by Jon Whelan after buying pairs for his two young daughters from Justice, a clothing store geared to the kid’s market. When they complained to him that they had a chemical odor, he decided to track down the cause. He was particularly worried about chemicals since his wife died from breast cancer at a very young age. His first step was to contact people at Justice to find out exactly what was causing the odor and was shocked to learn that they were not obligated to disclose the source.

Eventually he sent the pajamas to a laboratory and the results confirmed his worst suspicions. Made in China (no big surprise there), they were laced with a flame-retardant that was supposedly intended to protect children but without any understanding of the collateral damage a carcinogen can do. The story of how clothing, furniture, rugs, drapes, bedclothes, etc. became drenched with flame-retardants is an interesting one. Some years ago researchers discovered that people falling asleep with a lit cigarette caused most house or apartment fires. When a new cigarette was developed with chemicals that could prevent such an accident, it was rejected because of their somewhat unpleasant taste. So instead the tobacco and chemical companies came up with a new game plan. They persuaded manufacturers to add flame-retardants to a wide range of products, including the pajamas that Jon Whelan’s children would not wear.

As he began his investigation into unregulated chemical additives, the first thing he learned is that a pleasant fragrance trumps health under capitalism. If you opened the cabinet beneath your sink, you’ll learn that just about everything there is laced with crap that is bad for your health. For example, I use Dawn dishwashing detergent made by Proctor and Gamble. On the label it says “original scent” but I’ll be damned if P&G will tell me where that scent comes from. In one confrontation with a chemical industry lobbyist, Whelan asks if arsenic were responsible for a product’s scent, would he favor disclosing the ingredient. The lobbyist evades his question by saying that is up to the FDA or EPA to check on such matters. Since P&G is not obligated to tell these agencies—weak as they are—what they put in Dawn, you are shit out of luck.

Dawn, by the way, hypes their “environmental” credentials on their website as is customary nowadays. They have tips on recycling but not a word on the health risks involved with using it every day.

“Stink” is done in the Michael Moore style with Jon Whelan and his camera crew stalking one industry scumbag or another. While he lacks Moore’s patented shambling, neo-Will Rogers style, he more than makes up for that with his single-minded passion. When you lose a mate at such an early age (Heather Whelan appeared to be in her late 30s when she died), you obviously come to a project like this with a sense of somber dedication.

As might be expected, the film benefits from a wide range of experts like Arlene Blum who could be the subject of a documentary in her own right. Born in 1945, she led an all-woman’s ascent of Annapurna that was the first successful American attempt. In 1960, she requested to join her first mountain climbing expedition but was told that she was welcome to not come past the base camp where she would “help with the cooking.” (Wikipedia)

After earning a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1971, she began the research that would result in the regulation of two cancer-causing chemicals used as flame-retardants on children’s sleepwear. In 2007 she co-founded the Green Science Policy Institute in order to deploy scientific research on behalf of human health and the environment.

As you might expect, all the people who are on the other side of the divide from the CEO of the Justice clothing stores to a Democrat in California named Cal Dooley who served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005. Three years later he became the CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) that is primarily responsible for lobbying against legislation that would curb toxic chemical additives even though they claimed that they never did. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune did a series of investigative reports on how big chemical got its way:

Citizens for Fire Safety is the latest in a string of industry groups that have sprung up on different continents in the last 15 years — casting doubt on health concerns, shooting down restrictions and working to expand the market for flame retardants in furniture and electronics.

For example, the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, based in Brussels, may sound like a neutral scientific body. But it was founded and funded by four chemical manufacturers, including Albemarle, to influence the debate about flame retardants made with bromine.

Albemarle’s global director of product advocacy, Raymond Dawson, said in blunt testimony before Washington state lawmakers in 2007 that the forum is “a group dedicated to generating science in support of brominated flame retardants.”

An official from Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm that helps run the organization, said the bromine group is not misleading anyone because regulators, scientists and other stakeholders are well-aware it represents industry.

Does the name Burson-Marsteller ring a bell? It should. They have been behind some of the biggest cover-ups for the past 50 years. I am no fan of Rachel Maddow but she nailed them pretty good in August of 2012 (Wikipedia):

  • Who’s Burson-Marsteller? Well, let me put it this way — when Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller. When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller.
  • [After the] Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller. Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu — Burson-Marsteller. The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11 — Burson-Marsteller.
  • The military junta that overthrew the government of Argentina in 1976, the generals dialed Burson-Marsteller. The government of Indonesia, accused of genocide in East Timor, Burson-Marsteller.

August 1, 2015

Aspartame versus sugar (a lose-lose situation)

Filed under: food,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

On June 27th I reviewed a film called “Our Daily Poison” that persuaded me to stop drinking Diet Coke. It seems that aspartame, the artificial sweetener that was invented by G.D. Searle, a company that was purchased by Monsanto in 1985, was not very good for you. Among the companies that sell products based on aspartame, NutraSweet is probably the best known. It is used in Diet Coke and is ubiquitous as a sugar substitute for use in coffee in restaurants everywhere. My review cited a Huffington Post article that explained how aspartame dodged the FDA regulations:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

I wasn’t that happy about switching back to regular Coke but it was hard for me to break with a habit of drinking this crappy soft drink going back sixty years or so. Maybe there was still something going on in this rather addictive product dating back to its origins as I pointed out about 15 years ago:

One of the most notable attempts to use cocaine in this way led directly to the formation of the Coca-Cola company, which to this day uses non-intoxicating residues of the coca leaf for flavor. John Smith Pemberton, the Civil War veteran and morphine addict who invented the drink in Atlanta in 1886, thought that the soft drink was the answer for old-fashioned American malaise, as well as being a good substitute for opium addiction, including his own. It was also intended to be a substitute for alcohol, which was under attack from the temperance movement. As his hometown Atlanta was threatening to soon go dry, he saw the need for a soft drink that might prove as a substitute for beer, wine and whiskey. His solution, a fruit flavored sugar syrup that combined the caffeine kick of the kola nut and the narcotic buzz of the coca leaf, was initially designed to be mixed with plain water. Only when it was diluted with seltzer did it become the monstrously successful drink that eventually dominated world markets. It can also be used to remove rust from automobile radiators reputedly.

But now I have a medical professional telling me to switch back to Nutrasweet just one month after I cut it out. It is sugar that is bad for me, not aspartame or even saccharine for that matter, says Aaron E. Carroll who is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine that blogs at The Incidental Economist. Directing his comments to parents who are concerned about their children’s addiction to soft drinks, he advises them to go artificial:

A 1998 randomized controlled trial could detect no neuropsychologic, neurophysiologic or behavioral effects caused by aspartame. Even a dose at 10 times the normal consumption had no effect on children with attention deficit disorder. A safety review from 2007, published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, found that aspartame had been studied extensively and that the evidence showed that it was safe.

Since I have a long-standing tendency to double-check everything I read, I wanted to find out more about that safety review from 2007, whose principal author is one Bernadene Magnuson, a reviewer paid by the aspartame industry according to Wikipedia. In a letter to the journal that published Magnuson’s article, Morando Soffritti, a member of the Ramazzini Institute that focuses on food safety, offered this rebuttal:

Magnuson and Williams’s letter is substantially a repetition of the arguments set forth in a recent article (Magnuson et al. 2007), which was a “safety evaluation” sponsored entirely by Ajinomoto, the manufacturer of aspartame. Their article (Magnuson et al. 2007) and this letter contain numerous erroneous statements about the long-term carcinogenesis studies on aspartame conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF).

First, Magnuson and Williams imply that our findings (Soffritti et al. 2007) should be discounted because the incidence of lymphomas/leukemias in the high-dose group “were within or near the reported historical control ranges.” As reported in our study (Soffritti et al. 2007), the incidence of lymphomas/leukemias observed in both sexes treated with 2,000 ppm aspartame is nearly double the concurrent control (Soffritti et al. 2007). The suggestion that concurrent control data should be ignored is contrary to the widely accepted standard of good laboratory science.

Second, Magnuson and Williams attribute our findings (Soffritti et al. 2007) to some kind of bias (i.e., infection) that would affect only treated animals but not the controls. We have responded in detail to this hypothesis in our article (Soffritti et al. 2007) and in an earlier letter (Soffritti 2006). To support their assertion, Magnuson and Williams mislead readers by stating that “the lung was often the site of lymphoma again in this [second] study.” However, we actually reported that

we observed the diffusion of neoplastic tissue not only in the lung but also concurrently in various organs (liver, spleen, mediastinal and other lymph nodes). (Soffritti et al. 2007)

As it turns out, Magnuson took the tack that many scientists paid for by the tobacco companies took in the 1950s and early 60s when studies concluded that cigarettes caused cancer. As is so often the case, it is almost impossible to establish a direct link between smoking or drinking aspartame-laced soft drinks and cancer because the exact biochemistry of cancer has not been established. When a hired hand of R.J. Reynolds or Nutrasweet claims that there might be some other explanation for someone getting lymphoma, capitalist politicians are inclined to give the corporation the benefit of the doubt, especially in a period when deregulation is the name of the game.

If you are inclined to give scientists the benefit of the doubt, regardless of who funds them, it is worth considering the “Survey Of Aspartame Studies: Correlation Of Outcome And Funding Sources” conducted by Ralph G. Walton, M.D., who is the Chairman of The Center for Behavioral Medicine Forum at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. He observed:

Studies of aspartame in the peer reviewed medical literature were surveyed for funding source and study outcome. Of the 166 studies felt to have relevance for questions of human safety, 74 had Nutrasweet® industry related funding and 92 were independently funded. One hundred percent of the industry funded research attested to aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research identified a problem. A bibliography supplied by the Nutrasweet® Company included many studies of questionable validity and relevance, with multiple instances of the same study being cited up to 6 times. Questions are raised both about aspartame’s safety and the broader issue of the appropriateness of industry sponsorship of medical research.

Well, maybe it is just a coincidence but something tells me that there was the same kind of crap going on that I discussed in my article on “Merchants of Doubt”. You know, he who pays the piper gets to call the tune.

I also wonder about the timing of Dr. Carroll’s article. Just three days before it appeared in the NY Times, there was news about the sugar manufacturers going bat-shit because of the FDA’s new rules. NPR reported:

Sixty-five grams of added sugar. That’s how much you’ll find in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.

But can you picture 65 grams? It’s about 16 teaspoons worth of the sweet stuff.

The Food and Drug Administration wants to make it easier for Americans to track how much added sugars we’re getting in the foods and beverages we choose.

So, in addition to a proposed requirement to list amounts of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panels, the FDA is now proposing that companies declare a daily percent value, too.

What this means is that, instead of just listing the 65 grams of added sugar in that Coke, soda companies would be required to list that it represents 130 percent of the recommended daily intake. In other words, that one bottle contains more added sugar than you should be eating in an entire day.

Just on a hunch, I Googled Aaron E. Carroll and “GMO” since he seemed to be the kind of guy who would give it his blessing. Sure enough, this Youtube clip on his website is an unabashed defense of GMO with some very minor quibbles:

I was particularly intrigued by his reference to his citation of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) statement that GMO’s were safe, perhaps as safe as Nutrasweet come to think of it. As it happens, the director of the IOM is one Victor Dzau, who is also the Chancellor for Health Affairs at Duke University and President and CEO of the Duke University Medical Center. Now how can you not trust the word of a prestigious think-tank that picks someone like that to run it? Well, there’s one guy out there who has connected the dotted lines between big Pharma and the madcap deregulations over past decades:

In 2010, a group of Duke students protested the hefty compensation being given to some Duke officials, Dzau included. He received more than $2.2 million in total compensation from Duke in 2009, an amount some felt was excessive especially when financial difficulties were being reported at the University. However, that figure is nothing compared to the compensation Dzau is receiving from his corporate connections outside of Duke. As reported by Forbes,8 Dzau served on several corporate boards in 2009, including:

–Alnylam Pharmaceuticals: Dzau received more than $234,000 in compensation in 2009, along with owning more than $424,000 worth of company shares

–Genzyme (a biotechnology company now owned by Sanofi): Dzau received nearly $413,000 in compensation plus owned shares worth more than $5.3 million

–Medtronic (a medical devices company): Dzau received nearly $174,000 in compensation plus owned shares worth nearly $494,000

–PepsiCo: Dzau received $260,000 in compensation and owned shares worth more than $1.6 million

In case you lost count, this amounts to more than $1 million in compensation from serving as a director for these companies, in addition to stock valued at more than $7.8 million… and that’s in addition to the $2.2 million from Duke. And, remember, these are 2009 figures. Today, it’s estimated that Dzau owns:9

–90,000 shares of stock in Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, worth more than $8 million

–More than 25,000 shares of Medtronic stock, worth more than $1.4 million

–More than 36,000 shares of PepsiCo stock, worth more than $2.8 million

How Can IOM Provide Unbiased National Health Advice with Corporate-Backed Leaders?

The issue here, of course, isn’t how much money Dzau has… it’s how a person with such extensive corporate board memberships can realistically uphold the IOM promise of providing unbiased health information. As reported by Health Care Renewal:

“Even though Dr. Dzau will apparently exit his board memberships before he becomes IOM President, the IOM has been providing such analysis and recommendations under the supervision of a Council member who had fiduciary duties to the stockholders of two pharmaceutical companies, a medical device company, and a company that makes sugar-laden soft drinks and snack foods. It will continue to provide such analysis and recommendations under the supervision of a President who became a multimillionaire by virtue of the stock holdings he acquired through his board positions.”

July 20, 2015

Still Alice

Filed under: aging,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

“Still Alice” is now the fourth narrative film that I have seen dealing with Alzheimer’s and by far the best. (Brief summaries of the other three appear at the end of this review.) Starring Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset, the film is blessed by an exceptionally intelligent screenplay and direction by the late Richard Glatzer whose wife died of ALS. Some critics feel that his own family tragedy helped him shape the material but probably the most important element was the novel upon which it was based.

Written by Lisa Genova in 2007, the novel not only benefited from the author’s expertise as a neuroscience researcher with a PhD from Harvard but her familiarity with the mandarin life-style of her characters. Given the main character’s lofty perch in an Ivy League school, her husband’s own privileged status as a medical researcher, and their familiarity with Manhattan’s exquisite but pricey restaurants and other luxuries, her descent into an illness that would rob her of both her livelihood and—worse—her identity is unimaginably steep. In a key scene, when she and her husband are at their Hamptons summer home, she wets her pants because she cannot remember where the bathroom was.

Moore’s performance won her an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in 2014 and was one I would have supported if I had seen the film that year. Now that is available on Amazon streaming, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the age of 55, Moore manages to convey the desperation of a world-class intellectual trying to keep her wits about her in the face of insurmountable odds. Her life begins to revolve around her IPhone, which is used to remind her of how to bake a cake or to take the pills she needs for a suicide when the smart phone no longer can bail her out.

Alex Baldwin, who plays her husband, is also very good as a man who does his best to run interference for his wife but finally comes to the sad realization that nothing will make up for her not being able to recognize her own daughter after she has seen her perform in an off-Broadway production of a Chekhov play.

Given the ineluctably predictable nature of the disease, any such film will lack the suspense element that is found in most tragedies. Indeed, it is open to question whether a film about Alzheimer’s can be called a tragedy since it lacks the “fatal flaw”, especially hubris, which is common to the classic tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Some scholars believe that King Lear suffered from dementia although it impossible to pin down which kind. What made his downfall a tragedy was not his illness but his hubris, demanding more from his daughters than they were willing to give. There is an element of this in “Still Alice” to be sure. Alice constantly nags her youngest daughter Lydia (played superbly by Kristen Steward, the star of the insipid Twilight vampire movies) about abandoning her career as an actress and doing something more practical. When Lydia finally makes it relatively big in a Chekhov play, mom cannot recognize her—at least momentarily.

While the film is primarily a character study of how a dreaded illness takes down a very successful and self-possessed overachiever, it is also has universal meaning for any human being, particularly those over the age of sixty. 1 out of 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, increasing to one out of three over the age of 85. Scary odds. A week ago on the first night of my wife’s arrival at her parents’ home in Istanbul, her 87-year old father wandered off and ended up in a neighborhood far from home. When it became obvious to a young couple on a bus that he was lost, they were fortunate enough to find his phone number in one of his pockets. He is safe and at home now, much to my relief.

I hold out hope that my mother’s genes will hold me in good stead. Just a few days before her death in 2008, she was as lucid as ever. It was her circulatory system that was her undoing, an outcome of the wrong foods and a long time lack of exercise. Of course, sooner or later something will do you in whether it is Alzheimer’s, a circulatory system collapse, cancer or some other event associated with being in the “mortality zone” as Tom Brokaw put it in a column dealing with his battle against multiple myeloma.

In one key scene, Alice bemoans the fact that she has Alzheimer’s rather than cancer since at least cancer will not rob you of your identity. It is a disease like no other in that it transforms you into a stranger as if a zombie has taken possession of your body. Perhaps the best way to describe films such as “Still Alice” is as a subcategory of the horror movie with the monster being made up of the plaque in your nervous system rather than one stalking you with a butcher knife.

Other films in this genre:

The Savages”: a brother and sister cope with an ailing father in a nursing home. It is bittersweet comedy/tragedy directed by Tamara Jenkins who had the experience of putting her own father into a nursing home when she was in her 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn in fine performances as the feckless brother and sister. The DVD can be purchased for pennies on Amazon.com.

Away from Her”: Based on an Alice Munro short story, the wife has entered a nursing home and soon falls in love with another Alzheimer’s patient leaving her husband in the lurch. When he visits her, she has no idea who he is and prefers the company of her new companion. I found the film preposterous but you can make your own evaluation through Amazon.com streaming.

Memories of Tomorrow”: A Japanese film about a successful and hard-driving “salaryman”, who the disease takes down, just like Alice. It is much more of a love story than a tragedy since he depends on a newly kindled relationship to his long-neglected wife to help him through his vicissitudes. Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, plays the lead character. It is a very fine film that can be only be seen through a Netflix DVD rental.

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