Mental health cure isn’t available with a pill
26 Sep 2010

My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney Sun Herald:

Crazy Like Us
Ethan Watters
Scribe, $35

About one in five adult Australians will experience mental illness at some point.
In the US, about 27 per cent of people aged 18 and older suffer from a mental disorder each year.
These are startling figures that are constantly rising and show both a growing acceptance of mental illness in our societies and a medical profession happy to prescribe pills to lessen the load. Billions of dollars are spent globally but there is little evidence that mental illness is decreasing in frequency or intensity.
The problem is that the West has convinced itself that it has the answers to manage mental conditions and should offer these “solutions” to the globe. “We are engaged in the grand project of Americanising the world’s understanding of the human mind,” writes journalist Ethan Watters in this fascinating book on the dark side of a contemporary affliction.
His thesis is that multinational drug companies “have an incentive to promote universal disease categories because they can make fortunes selling the drugs that purport to cure those illnesses”.
But this work isn’t simply hundreds of pages bashing drug companies. The author takes the issue much further, arguing for far greater cultural sensitivity by researchers, anthropologists, psychiatrists, human-rights activists and non-governmental organisations when working in countries that don’t subscribe to Western roles and attitudes.
An easy, quick fix for mental issues is seductive and Western practitioners are busy spreading the word across the globe. Watters examines four societies – Zanzibar, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Japan – and finds a confused population often desperate for mental nirvana. But are they losing cultural diversity in the process by being given so-called solutions that may work in Los Angeles but not necessarily in Zanzibar City?
The most fascinating chapter examines Sri Lanka after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The east coast was devastated, families were destroyed and entire towns were washed away. Watters profiles the actions of the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Debra Wentz, who spent the first hours and days working tirelessly to help as many victims as possible. She soon wanted to raise money to bring American trauma experts to train local counsellors to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Watters painstakingly explains the well-meaning but naive effort of wanting to impose Western ways of addressing psychological trauma: “The idea that people from different cultures might have fundamentally different psychological reactions to a traumatic event is hard for Americans to grasp. The human body’s visceral reaction to trauma – adrenalin, fear and the fight-or-flight response – is so primal that we assume that the after-effects of such events would also be the same everywhere … Western traumatologists have developed a set of beliefs about how best to heal from the psychological effects of trauma … Against a growing body of evidence, traumatologists assume these ideas to be universally true.”
Both cultural ignorance and Western arrogance are detailed by Watters. When children affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka wanted to return to school after the event, a counsellor told the BBC that they were “clearly in denial”.
The parochialism worsened. Numerous reports emerged of mental health workers who didn’t speak the local language or understand local culture simply getting in the way of effective community work.
Western drug firms such as Pfizer were fast off the mark, keen to join the PTSD parade. Disaster exploitation for financial gain, something articulated in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, was rampant. There’s nothing like chaos to generate huge income for shareholders, far removed from the scene of the crime. A director of the World Health Organisation’s mental health initiative in Sri Lanka, John Mahoney, told a journalist that his group “found one organisation just handing out antidepressants to people”.
Watters summarises the fundamental fault at the heart of Western post-imperialist do-gooding, dressed up as human-rights outreach: “It is the psychiatric equivalent of handing out blankets to sick natives without considering the pathogens that hide deep in the fabric.”
This isn’t a book that advocates isolationism or avoidance of international disaster relief. Watters questions the ever-growing industry of Western miracle cures for a brain we humans barely understand.
Humility and cross-cultural understanding won’t kill us when entering societies that have thrived long before Westerners came on the scene.


Tutu on why we must isolate complicit Israeli universities
26 Sep 2010

The moral beacon Desmond Tutu on the moral responsibility to take a stand against Israel, an apartheid state that conjures up ugly historical comparisons:

‘The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own.
We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so. It behoves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice.” – Nelson Mandela, December 4 1997
Struggles for freedom and justices are fraught with huge moral dilemmas. How can we commit ourselves to virtue – before its political triumph – when such commitment may lead to ostracism from our political allies and even our closest partners and friends? Are we willing to speak out for justice when the moral choice that we make for an oppressed community may invite phone calls from the powerful or when possible research funding will be withdrawn from us? When we say “Never again!” do we mean “Never again!”, or do we mean “Never again to us!”?
Our responses to these questions are an indication of whether we are really interested in human rights and justice or whether our commitment is simply to secure a few deals for ourselves, our communities and our institutions – but in the process walking over our ideals even while we claim we are on our way to achieving them?
The issue of a principled commitment to justice lies at the heart of responses to the suffering of the Palestinian people and it is the absence of such a commitment that enables many to turn a blind eye to it.
Consider for a moment the numerous honorary doctorates that Nelson Mandela and I have received from universities across the globe. During the years of apartheid many of these same universities denied tenure to faculty who were “too political” because of their commitment to the struggle against apartheid. They refused to divest from South Africa because “it will hurt the blacks” (investing in apartheid South Africa was not seen as a political act; divesting was).
Let this inconsistency please not be the case with support for the Palestinians in their struggle against occupation.
I never tire of speaking about the very deep distress in my visits to the Holy Land; they remind me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like we did when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. My heart aches. I say, “Why are our memories so short?” Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own previous humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon?
Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about all the downtrodden?
Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence – but surely we must recognise that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
South African universities with their own long and complex histories of both support for apartheid and resistance to it should know something about the value of this nonviolent option.
The University of Johannesburg has a chance to do the right thing, at a time when it is unsexy. I have time and time again said that we do not want to hurt the Jewish people gratuitously and, despite our deep responsibility to honour the memory of the Holocaust and to ensure it never happens again (to anyone), this must not allow us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians today.
I support the petition by some of the most prominent South African academics who call on the University of Johannesburg to terminate its agreement with Ben-Gurion University in Israel (BGU). These petitioners note that: “All scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts – particularly in institutions committed to social transformation. South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of ‘purely scholarly’ or ‘scientific work’.” It can never be business as usual.
Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation. For example, BGU offers a fast-tracked programme of training to Israeli Air Force pilots.
In the past few years, we have been watching with delight UJ’s transformation from the Rand Afrikaans University, with all its scientific achievements but also ugly ideological commitments. We look forward to an ongoing principled transformation. We don’t want UJ to wait until others’ victories have been achieved before offering honorary doctorates to the Palestinian Mandelas or Tutus in 20 years’ time.


The Sri Lankan Mark Regev steps right up
25 Sep 2010

Welcoming (some) Tamils to Australia and Colombo’s Israel-style Canberra ambassador (aka the least credible man this side of Mark Regev’s identical brother):
Hold Western military powers to account (and the Hague beckons)
25 Sep 2010

The message is clear; Western powers can’t be exempt from thorough examinations of their war crimes. Hardly a revolutionary idea and yet such plans are virtually absent from “polite” discussions:

A United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan should be launched to identify and prosecute individuals responsible, says a former top-ranking UN official on extrajudicial killings.
Philip Alston called for the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the “conduct of the war” in Afghanistan amid rising concern over the level of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces, including Britain, and by the Taliban. It should be modelled, he said, on the inquiry into Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.
In his first interview since stepping down last month after six years as the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Alston said the lack of prosecutions concerning alleged war crimes was a major cause of concern because of the large number of Afghan civilians killed in the conflict.
“If states are not carrying out reasonably neutral investigations and prosecutions of what appear to be serious violations, it does leave open the possibility that the international community should be intervening in some way.
“An interesting proposal, but one that would draw disdain, no doubt, would be for some sort of international inquiry into the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, along the lines of Gaza. Otherwise, who is going to do a thorough investigation and track down where the decisions were actually taken?”

Selling every public asset isn’t a pretty prospect
25 Sep 2010

Praying to the privatisation religion is a global trend, largely unquestioned and hopelessly mixed in result.
Here’s the latest debate in New York city:

In the face of drastic cuts in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus service, the Bloomberg administration recently decided to allow private vans to carry passengers along several routes in Brooklyn and Queens where city buses once ran. One company began service earlier this month, and four more will be operating by October.
The vans, licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, are meant to be a quick solution to the service cuts caused by the transit authority’s $800 million budget gap. But relying on a private-sector solution to a public-sector shortfall will also incur significant social costs and possibly doom Mr. Bloomberg’s long-term vision for New York’s transportation system.
If you’ve ever spent time in a city in the developing world, chances are you’ve experienced a transit system that relies almost entirely on private commuter services. Thanks to low barriers to market entry — often anyone with a working van or bus can pick up passengers — the streets are clogged with a motley assortment of vans and buses, few of them in optimal working condition. The results are, not surprisingly, higher levels of pollution and more accidents and traffic fatalities than in cities with strictly regulated public services.
Mr. Bloomberg and the Taxi and Limousine Commission have offered assurances that better regulations will keep the city from becoming an American Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro. But that’s an easy promise to make, and probably an empty one: New York’s experiences with crane and building-code regulations demonstrates that enforcement usually costs more than policymakers are willing to spend, especially in lean fiscal times.
Indeed, even though the van companies are already operating on the former bus routes, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has not added enough personnel to cover its new regulatory responsibilities. (It’s worth asking why, if such funds were available, the city shouldn’t reinstate some of the bus routes instead).


Moving Forward? Australia’s relationship with Israel
25 Sep 2010

Kill Your Darlings is a wonderful new Australian literary journal.
I have a lead essay in the latest edition. Here’s an extract:

I first discovered the importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict in my early teens, in Melbourne. I remember sitting around the Sabbath table with my parents and cousins, discussing the events of the week as we consumed schnitzels, soggy vegetables and chicken soup. In an age before the internet, we relied on print and radio for information about the Middle East, and it all seemed terribly far away. During the Intifada in the late 1980s, where there was the first mass-organised Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, many middle-class Israelis suddenly realised that their government’s actions would come at a high moral price.
My family would rail against Palestinian ‘terrorism’, they abhorred then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israel was blameless, cast as the eternal victim of irrational Jew-hatred. But the racism against Arabs, and blindness to the validity of Palestinian resistance, struck me as sick, a hangover from a Nazi-at-the-door mentality. I complained and challenged these positions, but I was usually dismissed as young and ignorant.
More than fifteen years later, I wrote My Israel Question as a statement against predictable thinking on the Middle East. I was writing as an atheist Jew, and called for a Judaism that wasn’t infected with Zionist supremacy. I opposed the occupation, challenged the Zionist lobby’s bullying of politicians and journalists, and asked for open debate. In return, I received vitriol and hate-mail from an insecure Jewish community wedded to the idea of Israel as a homeland (even though most of them never wanted to live there, preferring a far more multicultural nation in Australia).
But times are changing. I’ve seen a growing willingness in the wider community to challenge Israeli actions and question the Australian government’s unequivocal support of the Jewish state. These kinds of views, unprecedented a few years ago in mainstream society, are principally due to Israel’s increased intransigence and criminality – a consensus that is growing, despite both the Labor and Liberal parties refusing to open their eyes to the new reality in Palestine. Not that you heard any of this during the federal election campaign. In fact, foreign policy was mostly absent from the debate.

Times are changing for the best; Zionist bigotry is simply not tolerated
25 Sep 2010

The only way to mark Harvard’s shameful honouring of racist Zionist Marty Peretz is protest loudly. But of course, Zionists can’t be racist, right?
Now Washington can sell Australia far more deadly weapons to liberate Muslims
25 Sep 2010

Boys who like to play with deadly toys, your wishes have come true:

After some behind the scenes wrangling, the Obama administration and Congress agreed this week on terms for new defense trade agreements that will allow freer movement of military goods with two of its top allies.
The Defense Trade Cooperation Treaties, which were signed with the British and Australian governments, were approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 21 and now must be ratified by two thirds of the Senate. Accompanying implementation legislation must also  passed by both the Senate and then the House.
“This bipartisan vote comes after three years of negotiations and thorough examination. It is a critical step toward enhancing our cooperative efforts to combat the mutual threats we face,” committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said in a statement. “These treaties help make cooperation between the United States and two of its closest allies more streamlined, efficient, and effective by removing unnecessary bureaucratic delays.”
Basically, the treaties will remove the need for the British and Australian governments, and a select group of companies from those countries, to apply for arms export control licenses when buying or selling military items for joint projects they are working on with the United States. This will primarily affect the allies’ cooperation in Afghanistan, but it could also have implications for a host of other programs, including missile defense. Nuclear technology and other highly sensitive technologies are not included in the agreements.
Though the vote was unanimous and the agreements enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, it still took three years to get from the initial signing of the agreements to this point. The Bush administration signed the treaties in 2007, after failing in several attempts, dating back to 2003, to push through legislation permitting “executive agreements,” which would not have required Congressional advice and consent.
Congress insisted on maintaining its ability to oversee and monitor these agreements, which are the first of their kind, besides Canada’s country-specific exemption. Lawmakers held hearings in 2008 and 2009 as part an effort to make sure Congress could ensure the agreements were properly enforced and that violations would be punished.
“Senator Lugar and I crafted these resolutions, and the accompanying implementing legislation, to ensure that our law enforcement officials will have the tools they need to catch and prosecute anyone who might try to abuse the treaty regimes,” Kerry said. “These measures will also fully preserve long-standing Congressional prerogatives in the oversight of military assistance and cooperation.”
Administration sources said that in the home stretch leading up to the committee vote, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher played a large role in ironing out differences, not only between the administration and Congress, but also between the State Department and the Justice Department.
No full Senate vote has yet been scheduled.

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