May 24, 2008


We interrupt Goat Rope's usual torrent of hard hitting social commentary to announce the birth of Luna and Juno. Arcadia S. Venus, militant goat union leader, is the proud mother.


...five as yet unnamed chicks hatched on the same day. And then there's Diego, a (confused) new arrival if not a neonate:


May 23, 2008


Orestes at Delphi, courtesy of wikipedia.

It's an interesting fact that great literature and social science seem to agree about the nature of violence: it usually doesn't just come out of nowhere.

While I'm not interesting in excusing any violent behavior, numerous studies show that perpetrators of violence tend to have been its victims in the past (and often in the future) and that today's victim may be tomorrow's perpetrator.

In the great tragedies of literature, the violence that occurs or is alluded to onstage is usually only the latest link in a chain of events. The bloody scene that Fortinbras stumbles upon at the end of Hamlet was preceded by murders and betrayals.

This is also true of group violence such as armed conflict. Wars, too, have their family trees.

The ancient Greeks had a word for the dangerous pollution that could be unleashed by violence: miasma. It was almost like a toxic substance that could infect people who had nothing to do with the original acts and could play out over the generations.

One strand of Greek mythology that shows how the miasma of violence can play out over time is that of the terrible house of Atreus, which figures in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Oresteia of Aeschylus and elsewhere.

Atreus, king of Mycenae, committed an act of sacrilege against the gods and the sacred nature of food and family when he killed the children of his brother and rival Thyeses and fed them to their unknowing father. His son, Agamemnon, was fated to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to gain favorable winds to invade Troy, where bloody warfare raged for ten years.

His wife, Clytemnestra, was outraged by this murder and takes Aegisthus, son of Thyeses as lover. When Agamemnon returns from the bloody sack of Troy, they kill him. Agamemnon's son Orestes is driven to kill his mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father. He is then pursued by the Furies, the dark goddesses who personify vengeance.

So it went. So it goes.

In the end, it took divine intervention by Apollo and Athena to end the cycle of violence and placate the Furies. What will it take to end ours--or even slow it down a little?

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here's an AP article that shows how neighbors can intervene to help dispell the miasma of domestic violence.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE SOME RICE? Here's more on the global food crisis.

THE G.I. BILL helped create the American middle class. The latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot highlights the value of the proposed 21st Century G.I. Bill.

URGENT ANCIENT AMPHIBIAN UPDATE. This critter, found in Texas, was a little bit frog and a little bit salamander.


May 22, 2008


Medieval play, courtesy of wikipedia.

It is in the nature of human beings to create narratives or stories and interpret the world in terms of them. The kind of stories we tell ourselves shape how we see and respond to the world.

In his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, Dr. James Gilligan refers to three kinds of stories that people use to interpret life's painful events: pathos, tragedy, and morality plan (today's equivalent might be good guy/bad guy action movie).

Pathos refers to

those natural disasters or "acts of Nature'--sometimes called "acts of God"--over which we have not human agency or control. When faced with the great malignancies of fate, our only range of choice may be the manner in which we respond. Are we tempted to despair? Can we mobilize the courage to go on? What are the limits of our strength to endure the unendurable? It is in the effort we each make to find our own answers to such painful questions that we still read such ancient sources as the Book of Job, which deals with the undeniable fact that life is inherently inescapably, unfair. Job teaches that it is not only futile to expect life to be just or fair, it is absurd and meaningless even to think about it that way. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike; bad things--terrible things--happen to good people. The language and lessons of pathos have their place in our lives.

Morality plays, by contrast, do involve human agency but look at the issue in terms of guilt and innocence, or bad guys versus good guys. In modern terms, this would be the action movie mode of interpretation, which seems to be the norm at the Bush administration. In the real world, it's usually messier than that.

He argues that violence is best seen in terms of tragedy. Tragedy as a literary genre is ultimately about violence and the result of violence are ultimately tragic. Individual violent acts are often part of a chain or spiral of events that can extend back far into the past and affect the future. More on this tomorrow.

ECONOMIC SECURITY or the lack thereof in the states is the subject of a new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the nation's unemployment compensation system needs a shot in the arm. The Senate is likely to take it up this week.

HEALTH CARE. More Americans fear losing health coverage than a terrorist attack.

TAX CUTS. The latest policy brief from the WV Center on Budget and Policy shows that tax cuts on investment income favor the wealthy at the expense of workers.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. Scientists have found the first dinosaur tracks ever discovered on the Arabian peninsula.


May 21, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope this week is violence, structural and interpersonal. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Dr. James Gilligan, author of the 1996 book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, does a masterful job of looking at the subject at many levels. Much of his career was spent working with violent inmates of prisons and mental hospitals. He draws extensively on his clinical experience but also takes a wide view of related issues, such as the global violence of poverty.

I'm particularly grateful to his work for highlighting the massive scale of economic violence, which is all too little noted across the political spectrum.
"Conservative" politicians sometimes try to cash in politically with promises to get tough on crime and "progressives" may protest wars, but the much larger carnage caused by economic disparities--what Joseph Conrad called "the merry dance of death and trade"--goes largely unnoticed.

Allow me to quote from Gilligan:

...every fifteen years, on the average, as many people die because of relative poverty as would be killed in a thermonuclear war that caused 232 million deaths; and every single year, two to three times as many people die from poverty throughout the world as were killed by the Nazi genocide of the Jews over a six-year period. This is, in effect, the equivalent of an ongoing, unending, in fact accelerating, thermonuclear war, or genocide, perpetuated on the weak and poor every year of every decade, throughout the world.

Structural violence is also the main cause of behavioral violence on a socially and epidemiologically significant scale (from homicide and suicide to war and genocide). The question as to which of the two forms of violence--structural or behavioral--is more important, dangerous, or lethal is moot, for they are inextricably related to each other as cause to effect.

Note: Gilligan's estimation of the death toll from economic disparities is 12 years old, but probably not far off the mark. In January 2008, UNICEF estimates nearly 10 million poverty related deaths per year for children under age five.

MIDDLE CLASS SQUEEZE. Public policies helped create the American middle class. Public neglect has put the squeeze on it. Here's an excerpt from (Not) Keeping up with our Parents.

STIMULUS REVISITED. Here's the Economic Policy Institute on the need for a targeted stimulus package that includes investments in infrastructure, extending unemployment and food stamps, and fiscal aid to states.

YOU'RE NOT JUST GETTING OLDER, you may be getting wiser.

FORGET THE BEATLES. Here's something about a real walrus.


May 20, 2008


Several years ago, I stumbled on a thought provoking book titled Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. The author, James Gilligan, is a physician and psychiatrist who worked extensively in prisons and mental hospitals and who drew extensively on his decades of experience with violent offenders in developing his theories.

Recently, I gave the book another look and found that the public health approach he advocated holds up pretty well both in terms of personal violence committed by individuals and the much more extensive structural violence inflicted every day on poor and relatively powerless people.

The unfortunate fact that this book did not find as large an audience as it deserves is probably because he took it in a direction which many people want to avoid: the economic inequities that are violent in themselves and contribute to the level of interpersonal violence. This isn't exactly new. In the first half of the 20th century Mahatma Gandhi observed that "poverty is the worst form of violence."

Gilligan cites research on economic disparities in his book that indicates that 180 people die prematurely due to economic factors such as lack of food, clean water, health care, public health measures, etc. for every 1 person killed in armed conflict. The numbers have changed since his book came out in 1996, but the vast majority of the carnage is still on the economic side.

Let's start by just looking at (lack of) health care related deaths in the US. Families USA recently reported that in 2006 alone 22,000 Americans died prematurely because they lacked health insurance. West Virginia's share amounts to an estimated 210 unnecessary deaths per year or around four people per week.

If you look at the number of deaths attributable to economic disparities on a world scale, the results would be staggering. According to UNICEF, more than 26,000 children under age five die from preventable deaths every day. That's almost 10 million preventable deaths year, not counting people over age five.

Unfortunately for us all, as Gilligan puts it,

When violence is defined as criminal, many people see and care about it. When it is simply a byproduct of our social and economic structure, many do not see it; and it is hard to care about something one cannot see.

SPEAKING OF VIOLENCE, screening for domestic violence by medical professionals can help to end it, according to this NY Times article.

THE BUTCHER'S BILL. From the Hightower Lowdown, here's a damage assessment of 10,000--I mean nearly eight--years of Bush/Cheney.

HUNGRY COUNTRY. USA Today reports that food stamp enrollment has surpassed the previous record set in 1994. Here's one thing that's changed:

Since 2006, soaring food and fuel prices have combined with lost jobs and stagnant wages to boost the number of Americans needing food aid. More than 41% of those on food stamps came from working families in 2006, up from 30% a decade earlier, according to the latest Agriculture Department data.


RANDOM LINK. Scientists have found millions of starfish hanging out in an undersea volcano. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything but thought it was kind of cool.


May 19, 2008


There are often occasions in life where following our natural inclinations isn't a very good idea. One example is the all-too-human tendency to ignore things we don't like. Violence is a case in point. I think people who want to make the world less violent and less unjust would do well to think and learn as much about it as possible, although preferably not first hand...

I've had many discussions with people over the years about what they consider violence to be and what kind of violence is the worst. The ideas people come up with vary widely, although it seems like many people who have experienced a lot of violence in their lives often consider mental cruelty to be the worst--perhaps because cruel intent is conveyed by physical violence and other kinds of abuse.

I tend to think of violence broadly as any act (or non-action) involving human agency that harms people or keeps them from developing their potential. This would include institutional or structural violence such as poverty as well as physical violence committed by individuals or groups.

(And by the way, way more people die needlessly from preventable things related to the structural violence of poverty and economic disparities that personal violence or even armed conflict. )

To me, the opposite of violence is not so much peace or nonviolence as that state of thriving or well-being that the ancient Greeks referred to as eudaimonia (literally something like "good spirits"), which is often but inadequately translated into English as happiness. As Aristotle argued in his Ethics, happiness or eudaimonia is the goal of human life in the sense that we want other things in order to be happy but desire happiness for its own sake. It's not the same thing as pleasure, although that's a part of a happy life. Rather, it involves not only being able to meet basic human needs but also self-actualization, which for social animals like ourselves inherently involves others.

STRETCHED. As the economy sours for many Americans, people are turning to food stamps to help make ends meet. But as AP reported recently, rising food prices are diminishing their purchasing power.

DEMOCRACY AT RISK. Here's Bill Moyers musing on the future of the Republic.

HALF IN TEN. A new campaign aims at reducing poverty in the US by 50 percent over the next ten years. For more details, click here.

CHANGING LIFESTYLES are likely to come in the wake of higher fuel costs.