The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, March 31, 2014

Destroying the Peg

Expanding or Limiting the Definition of Autism Could Be Harmful to Children

Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced last week that the rate of U.S. cases of autism had risen again to about one in every eighty-eight children.   This represents a doubling of the figure in just five years.  The CDC credited wider screening and better diagnosis for the rise.

Conventional wisdom runs that most of the new diagnoses come from the milder end of the autism spectrum – kids who, in the past, would have been assigned learning disabilities or written off as anti-social nerds and geeks.  Others, such as Columbia University Sociology Professor Gil Eyal, believe a significant number of new diagnoses come from the more extreme end of the spectrum as well.    His 2009 research found the rise in autism cases coincided with a drop in the number of diagnosed cases of mental retardation.
Up to now, the diagnosis of autism
has been blurry.  That may be about
to change.

A more inclusive definition of autism confirms some trends and defies others when crunching numbers.  Autism remains five times as likely in boys as girls.  However, an increasingly large proportion of children with autism have IQs of 85 or higher, contradicting a past assumption that most autistic kids have IQs of 70 or lower.  A study by the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, entitled Macroeconomic Environment During Infancy as a Possible Risk Factor for Adolescent Behavioral Problems, found that mothers of autistic children are fifty-six percent more likely to be under the poverty line.

Yet the widespread acceptance of autism as a spectrum disorder may be the biggest breakthrough of all.  Some applaud the new inclusivity for allowing earlier diagnosis that has led an explosion in treatments and services for at-risk children.  Others criticize including milder forms of disorders, such as Asperger’s’ Syndrome, in the spectrum, arguing this tends to trivialize very serious conditions suffered by other children.

Diagnosis of autism has long been controversial because, up until now, it was simply a subjective evaluation, based on observation of social awkwardness, fixated interests, and/or repetitive behaviors.  There is no specific test for autism because its physical causes (if any) are unknown.  That may be about to change.

A study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the University of California, San Diego finds autism begins during pregnancy with subtle disruption of the brain's frontal and temporal cortex.   It identifies a mechanism of abnormal gene activity causing overgrowth in the brains of autistic children that disappears by adulthood but leaves lingering effects.

The study builds on the findings of other research published by UCSD just last year.  That research found twenty-three percent of autism cases are linked to a specific combination of antibodies in the mother's blood. Women with the antibodies are ninety-nine percent likely to give birth to a child with autism.

Other experts may be busy attempting to limit the new inclusivity in autism diagnosis.  In January 2012, Dr. Fred Volkmar, Director of the Yale Child Study Center, told the New York Times a new definitions of autism  was about to come from the American Psychiatric Association that would nip the recent autism surge “in the bud.”

Such pruning would be just fine with Sociologist Frank Furedi, formerly a professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury and the author of many books, including Wasted – Why Education Isn't Educating.  Furedi contends in The Telegraph that many parents – sometime subconsciously and sometimes deliberately – are using autism as dispensation for poor performance from their children as a result of normal hardships.  He largely dismisses the autism surge as an invention of convenience.  “It is unlikely to be a genuine unprecedented increase in autism, rather an institutional use of this condition to allow people to get easier access to resources.”

It is easy to demonize Furedi as callous but he may be making a useful point.   Temple Grandin, possibly this country’s most high-profile autistic person following a widely-viewed HBO biography, notes that while an autism diagnosis might help the parents of at-risk children feel more supported and less alone, the children themselves are not necessarily helped by the new emphasis so many are placing on autism.  She frets in Salon magazine, “Now kids are getting fixated on their autism instead of [other interests].  I’d rather get them to fixate on that something that could give them a career.”

Grandin contends that many of history’s most famous thinkers and doers probably fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.  She once mischievously described society without autistics as “A bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.”

Fellow autistic, writer Paul Collins, author of Not Even Wrong – Adventures in Autism, sums up what is at stake even more cogently.  “Autistics are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work.  It's that you're destroying the peg.”

Right now, a lot of very smarts people are hammering away at the autism spectrum.  Some are trying to smash it flat, elongating it to the greatest extent possible.  Others are banging at the ends, trying to compress it back into a more manageable length.  What all those bright minds are missing are the people in the middle, also with some bright minds of their own.  Less important than their numbers or the degree of their differences is that fact that they are simply different from the rest of us and not deficient.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Rest Is Silence

The Legacy of the Reverend Fred Phelps 

O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news . . .
But I do prophesy . . .
The rest is silence. 
      ~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

The Reverend Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, died last Wednesday at the age of eighty-four.  One of the most hated men in America, Phelps and his congregation – mostly consisting of his extended family – pushed free speech boundaries by protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers and others to promote their message that God has abandoned the United States over our tolerance towards homosexuals.

Phelps was admittedly an extraordinary individual.  He was an Eagle Scout and graduated high school at age sixteen.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1947 and earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964.  Phelps specialized in civil rights issues, including free speech.  He used his legal knowledge to leverage his right to deliver religious messages so cruel and hurtful that many felt he crossed the boundaries of decency.

Some of those Fred Phelps
chose as his enemies
Yet Phelps was not only unrepentant but disdainful of critics.  He was sure he was a superior person and correct in his views.  He was certain the obscene quality of his protests paled in comparison to the moral judgment faced by most Americans.  He was positive he was one of a few elect, prophesying to the damned.

Richard Kim wrote a scathing eulogy about Phelps in The Nation.  “What distinguishes him from any other raving street-corner prophet is the simple-mindedness of his message.  In the place of the modern religious emphasis on God’s love, Phelps ranted on about God’s hate . . . It was a juvenile substitution.  And to discuss Phelps as if he were a morally vexing and profound evil is to dignify him with a complexity he lacked.  His hatred was banal . . . In the end, he was only sound and fury.  On his own merits, he accomplished nothing.  He was a nobody.”

Phelp’s estranged son Nathan, although he mourns his father’s passing, warns of him as something still dangerous after death.  “"Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on . . . among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share.”

While this is doubtless true, I am more inclined to side with those like Kim who view Phelps as more an aberrant than a threat.  When we seek ways to weigh a human life, we sometimes ask who that individual viewed as his or her enemies (i.e. what values did they oppose)?  In his endless hatred of homosexuality, Phelps chose as enemies the men and women willing to die to protect his freedoms, including free speech.

Another method of judging an individual life’s worth is their words – both what they had to say as well as how likely those words may outlive them.  Compare a few of Phelp’s words, found in (surprisingly few) places such as this one, against others who served the same God he professed to serve.

“By refusing to heed Westboro Baptist Church, that God hates fags, and by continuing to persecute Westboro Baptist Church, America is pouring gasoline on the raging fires of God's wrath. America may expect many more dead and maimed bodies from Iraq, many more Katrinas and other natural disasters, and many more Virginia Tech massacres. Westboro Baptist Church rejoices, not grieves, when we see God's vengeance.”
~ Phelps 

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.  Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.  For if ye love only them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  ~ Matthew 5

“Thank God for 9/11. Thank God that, five years ago, the wrath of God was poured out upon this evil nation. America, land of the sodomite damned. We thank thee, Lord God Almighty, for answering the prayers of those that are under the altar.”
~ Phelps 

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath ought against thee.  Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. 
~ Matthew 5

"God hates fags! God hates America! Thank God for dead soldiers! You're going to hell!"  ~ Phelps 

Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.  No soldier entangles himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.  ~ II Timothy 2

Those earlier words have persisted for two millennia now and may well continue for many more because they speak to something uplifting in the human spirit.  In contrast, Phelp’s words are harsh rants of pride, fear, and anger.  Perhaps Phelps gave his message a certain power while he lived through the fury and certainty that burned within him.  Yet they seem hopelessly trite without his passion.

If there is an afterlife, Phelps is most certainly suffering in hell, if only through his own discontent.  After a lifetime of booming prophecy, he has ended in silence.  And that is all his life’s work will ever be for the rest of eternity.

Friday, March 21, 2014

¡Viva Crimea!

When Honduras Met Sevastopol

There is a classic scene in the film When Harry Met Sally in which Sally loudly demonstrates a fake orgasm for Harry in a crowded restaurant.  Following its conclusion, a woman at another table, unaware of what was happening, puts down her menu and tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s [Sally] having.”  I will always wonder exactly what that waiter brought her but I am pretty sure she ended up disappointed.

Maybe countries are like that too.  History has a funny way of repeating itself.  Consider the case of Crimea, formerly an autonomous republic associated with Ukraine that is about to be annexed by Russia.  Its population is apparently thrilled by the prospect.  Let’s ask them again how they feel in three to five years.
Out of the ashes of an old motto arises a new one.

Here’s the story – Ukraine had a long-term relationship with Russia.  That changed with the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010.  He began flirting with the European Union.  Alas, Yanukovych proved abusive at home, then seemed about to go back to his old lover [Russia].  A series of populist protests in Kiev caused him to flee the country.  He was subsequently divorced as President by the new Ukraine legislature.

In the midst of this turbulence, Russian President Vladimir Putin removed his shirt and dispatched troops to Crimea, ostensibly to protect the large former Russian population living there.  A week later, Crimea held a populist referendum.  The vote to succeed from Ukraine and join Russia was almost orgasmic in scope.  President Obama immediately condemned the affair as unlawful.

The situation was reminiscent of the ouster of Honduran President Maunel Zelaya back in June 2009.  Zelaya also abused power.   The final straw came when he announced a populist referendum to amend the constitution allowing him to run for President again.  He was forcibly exiled by the Honduran military and removed from office by its legislature.  Obama also protested these actions as unlawful.

For his part, Putin argues President Yanukovych was ousted in an illegal coup, thereby ending the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy and its authority over Crimea.  Putin also contends the right of Crimeans to decide how they want to be governed, citing Article 1 of the United Nations Charter regarding the principle of self-determination.

This does seem to place Obama in a hypocritical light over his past condemnation of Honduras for the removal of its President in similar circumstances.  If the usurpers were the bad guys in Central America, why are they now the victims in Eastern Europe?

However, Russia’s government also had problems at the time with the legitimacy of Honduran actions.  Former news agency RIA Novosti reported a Foreign Ministry spokesman’s condemnation of the coup.  Specifically, “All actions by political players in the country must lie within the bounds of the law and the constitution."  That Russian government was led by a Prime Minister also called Putin.  (Hint – He was not current President Putin’s father).

So it was the Honduran constitution, not a U.N. resolution, which was supreme according to Putin in 2009.  Title III, Article 73 of the Ukraine constitution clearly states, “Alterations to the territory of Ukraine shall be resolved exclusively by the All-Ukrainian referendum”.   Thus, the Crimean referendum was too limited and unconstitutional.

Moreover, Fred Kaplan points out in Slate magazine that the annexation of Crimea violates other international law.  “The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom – while it didn’t have the binding effect of the North Atlantic Treaty that established NATO – did offer Ukraine security assurances in exchange for giving up the 2,000 nuclear weapons left in its territory as a remnant of Soviet days.”

The presence of Russian military in Crimea impacted Ukraine’s ability to maintain control over the region.  Crimea’s Russian-speaking population was likely emboldened to attempt succession by that presence.  Finally, an editorial in The Economist notes, Crimean fervor to succeed was stoked by “rabid anti-Ukrainian propaganda which portrayed the government in Kiev . . . as a bunch of crazed fascists hell-bent on exterminating the Russian-speaking population of Crimea”.

Some Americans were sympathetic to Honduran President Zelaya’s ouster.  This often had less to do with the coup’s legality than Zelaya’s cozy relationship with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.  Preventing South America from being swallowed up by socialism apparently was viewed as more important than honoring the integrity of foreign consitutions.   A populist referendum was democracy in action at the most basic level.  A motto became popular that ran ¡Viva Honduras!

Out of the ashes of that motto rises a new one – ¡Viva Crimea!  What right has the U.S. to complain about what the people of Crimea clearly want, ask critics?  Maybe so.  But the Crimeans might want to remember that a big part of Zelaya’s unpopularity resulted from his defiance toward the corporate oligarchies that were (and remain) the traditional power in Honduras.  Such oligarchies also exist and hold the real power in Russia, as Alexey A. Navalny, a Russian lawyer, anti-corruption activist and opposition politician, points out in a New York Times op-ed piece.

John Perry, writing at in 2012, profiled conditions in Honduras three years after that nation rejected its President and the rule of law.  “Its murder rate is four times that of Mexico and it has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 23 having been assassinated over the last three years. “  Zelaya’s eventual successor came to power through “highly questionable elections.”

If I were Crimea and choosing from a menu of possible futures, I would not tell the waiter, "I'll have what she's [Honduras] having."  It would be a shame if Sevastopol ended up another small, failed republic.  Even bare-chested, Vladimir Putin is no fiery Latin lover of her dreams.