Public Health 1, Anti-vaccination movement 0 (Still)

The Science-based Medicine blog has a fascinating primeron a very large dataset that has just been released as an open-source project tracking the incidence of disease rates before and after vaccinations. What is most amazing, to me, is the depth of this dataset. It goes back 123 years to 1888! There are 88 million individual pieces of data! The bigger the sample size of a study, the more confidence we can have in the findings of that study provided it was methodologically sound. I might return to this topic at a later time but for the moment, there is nothing I can add to the incredibly readable explanation that David Gorski gives at SBM. The crux of it is this; vaccinations have worked. This simple public health technology has prevented millions of cases of infection within the diseases tracked by this study. The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that 100 million infections simply did not happen because of vaccinations. The data is entirely open access and any particular data one might be interested in can be downloaded as an Excel spreadsheet.

I’m Working on Thanksgiving, It’s Not a Big Deal. If I Worked Retail it Would Be.

There’s been much opining about Walmart and other large retailers being open on Thanksgiving breaking with long-standing tradition. I’ve seen people defending the retailers, asking what the big deal is. I’m working on Thanksgiving for about six hours. It’s not a big deal. But it’s not a big deal because working that day means I’ll log in from home around 8:00 or 9:00 instead of being in the office, twenty-five miles to the west of my home, at 7:00. Like we do every year my wife and I are doing ‘widows and orphans’ and we’re expecting guests to start arriving around 2:00. I’ll be home that entire time, babysitting the web chat and web queue. I’ll muck around a bit for the first few hours. Putter about the house for the last few hours ready to take a phone call if it comes in. I’ll do the same thing on Friday. I’m getting paid holiday pay for doing so. I’ll be at home with my wife and my dog and we’ll probably crack the first bottle of wine around 1:30 or 2:00. It’s hardly what one would call a hardship. We host Thanksgiving every year. This is our eighth one. We never go anywhere so its hardly a hardship. It would be more of one if we were planning on being someplace else but realistically I can do this from anyone’s wireless, I just have to have my laptop, cell phone and a my Bluetooth headset and I’m good to go. It’s just not all that big of a deal for me to be logged in from home for two days. If I had to do the six or seven hour abbreviated shift from the office, I just had to go in and be in a building that would be almost entirely empty I would have far less enthusiasm for the whole project and would consider it an imposition. I give the company some time on Thanksgiving because it has to be done, I get compensated for doing so and it does not pull me away from my family and friends.

That is why it is a big deal that these retailers are going to be open on Thanksgiving–it pulls people away from their friends and family and it does so for no good reason. I’m sorry but one extra day of shopping is not a good reason. My employer has me working on a holiday because our business is global and while lives aren’t likely to be lost if someone’s version control server goes down on Thursday but there are shops who will need to have it up and they might call. Development in Dublin doesn’t stop because a bunch of Americans are gorging themselves. So it’s a ‘just in case’ measure. What is the case to be made for being open on Thursday? None that I can see. Yes, there are profits to be made but let me submit to you the heretical idea that the relentless pursuit of profit and gain and the ever constant pursuit of more and more buying of things hasn’t worked out quite as well as it we were lead to believe. The litany of disasters that utter, unrestrained capitalism in its most voracious and predatory form that has been sold to us as the One True Tao of Economies need not be belabored here. They are all too obvious if one pays any attention to current events. This is yet another example of a rapacious metastasizing form of cancerous capitalism trying to intrude into and disrupt another social norm.

This norm I speak of is the idea that we have days where the point is to gather with friends and family. While we are a very religious country we have very little we seem to hold as being actually sacrosanct. Until fairly recently retailers being closed on Thanksgiving was one of that small list. It might seem strange for someone as openly a humanist and freethinker as I am to be concerned with such things as sacredness but I am not talking in a religious sense nor in a spiritual sense at all. I’m talking about sacredness about values. About what kinds of things we hold to be important and non-negotiable or less important and possibly negotiable. It is not that I think Thanksgiving itself is some kind of wonderful, heartwarming day equal parts Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra. Even as I say that, however, I think it is one of the High Holy Days of the American secular religion as deeply problematic as that is.

No, my concern is for something deeper. What does it say about us, as a society, that we think that there are no days when we should come to a stop? Are we ready to be a people who won’t even take a few times a year where we can stop driving ourselves so hard, pursuing lucre with such singleminded devotion, and then turning around and spending like drunken sailors gone ashore? That is what is at stake here. There are sectors of society where the very nature of the function requires it to be 24-7. Retail sales, however, isn’t one of those sectors and we should not be entirely sanguine about the idea that in pursuit of a little bit more profits retailers like Walmart are now trying to chip away at what little is left of some kind of event that tries, imperfectly, to tie us together as one nation, one people.

I know that as an American liberal, it’s expected that I either poo-poo such ideas as an American civic religion or that I am actively hostile to it because of the national history. As I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve read more and looked outside the borders of my country, I’ve come to have an appreciation for those things that promote those values that aid the nation in functioning. I think that the unabashed consumerism that has been allowed to eclipse nearly all other values in American society and its attendant attitude that there is nothing a business can’t or shouldn’t do in pursuit of profits isn’t something we should foster. Is this the kind of nation that either the American left or the right wants? I can see very good reasons why American conservatives, with their concern for tradition should stand opposed to this move. American liberals, even if they are unsympathetic to the argument about tradition should be concerned that this is happening in retail where people are routinely underpaid and abused by management. This isn’t happening to middle class employees like myself. Yes, I know hospital staff have to work that day but see above regarding function. Your stroke isn’t going to wait and neither is the baby. It is happening to people at the low end of the wage scale. Many of the folks working retail on Thursday will have to get to their workplaces by public transit which will be running on a limited schedule that day making it yet more stressful.

I’m not saying it should be illegal for retail stores to be open on Thanksgiving. There’s no need for a law. We, ordinary citizens who prioritize citizenship over consumerism can provide a disincentive for this behavior by simply not shopping on Thursday. There’s plenty of time to go on a spending frenzy the next day. I understand that its supposed to be fun.

The Gag Reflex to Richard Cohen’s Column

BREAKING NEWS!  Sun rises in the East!  In other news, Richard Cohen managed to stick his foot in his mouth again.

The Washington Post columnist, writing about NJ governor Chris Christie’s Tea Party problem managed to say something so fantastically offensive and stupid that, perhaps, he has brought about a detente, however temporary, between the American left and right so incensed are both sides.

His statement, in full, follows:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. [Emphasis mine] (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, some people took this to mean that Cohen has a gag reflex when he sees an interracial couple but I don’t think that is the case.  Rather, he is describing what he thinks modern-day white conservatives reaction is when seeing an interracial couple.  My problem with his statement is that he does not call this out as racist.  What could be more racist than having a gag reflex at the sight of two people who love one another if the only noteworthy thing about that pairing is that one if black and the other white?  I would say that a belief that interracial relationships are somehow morally suspect, socially inferior or promotes the gag reflex is a very reasonable indication of racism.  The problem with Cohen’s statement is that he never, not once, states that such views are racist to their core.  Calling them ‘conventional’, in fact, is to treat America as if nothing has changed since 1967.

My son is biracial and I recall, to this day, sitting in the kitchen of a neighbor at an apartment complex where we lived and her telling me, as I bounced my son on my knee mind you, that she ‘didn’t believe in’ interracial relationships and thought them ‘wrong’.  This was 1987 or 1988.  Her attitude, a quarter century ago, was conventional.  You couldn’t toss a 20-sided dice without hitting some person who would wax loquacious about how ‘god’ disapproved of interracial marriage and seriously disapproved of biracial children because ‘they wouldn’t know what they were’.  What was meant by that was that they wouldn’t know what they were and they needed to know if someone was white and presumed acceptable or black and presumed not.  Interracial children were an uncomfortable reminder that regardless of the trick nature has pulled on our eyes by giving us brains that think that skin tone means greater genetic and phenotypic differences than actually exist, Homo sapiens is one species not several.

Cohen asserts as ‘conventional’ attitudes that were already falling out of favor when my son was just learning to walk and had changed drastically by the time he had graduated high school in 2004.  These are not ‘conventional’ attitudes any longer.  They are belong to the first two-thirds of the 20th century and have no place and can find very little quarter in the 21st century.  Reading his column and seeing that sentence I was transported back 40 years. It was as if all the intervening decades between my 6th and my 46th birthdays had just evaporated, gone like Kaiser Soze–except this one keeps coming back time and time again. I remarked to my colleague Cliff, another ex-Alabaman, that I thought this sentiment was something we had left behind. That we now lived in an America where anyone making those kinds of statements on any media that wasn’t Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage or Laura Ingram would be done, their career over, shuffled off to some writer’s pasture along with John Derbyshire. I mean hell, National Review ditched Derbyshire when he said that he flat out stated that “You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with IWSBs*. In addition to the ordinary pleasures of friendship, you will gain an amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice.”

Unfortunately for Cohen, this isn’t the first meal he has made of his foot.  When George Zimmerman walked scot-free for shooting Trayvon Martin, Cohen stated that “It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime” and, referring to Martin’s choice of a hoodie, “But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”  Mr. Cohen can ‘understand’ why Zimmerman was suspicious of a black man wearing a hoodie which, apparently, is some kind of uniform.

Still, I do not believe that Mr. Cohen is racist, in any active sense of the term. Rather, I think that he is just too quick to excuse or too timid to excoriate racists when they cross his path.  His statement regarding the gag reflex of conservative whites to seeing an interracial couple lets anyone holding such retrograde views off the hook too quickly and too lightly.  The same with those who, upon seeing a young black man, thinks ‘criminal’.

I used to work at a game store in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We sold D&D, Warhammer, chess and go boards, Ravensburgh games like Settlers of Catan, darts and pool queues.  For D&D and Warhammer there were a lot of little miniatures and dice there for the pocketing.  My boss (not the owner but the manager) asked me to tail some black man who had come in and was looking at the darts that were kept in a locked case.  He was dressed in a suit and looked like he had just stepped out of a board meeting at Bechtel.  I balked and it took the owner and I talking to her to get her to understand why I not only wouldn’t tail a black customer but why I was so profoundly pissed off that she asked me to do so because it was all about giving her air cover.  In the meantime, the lossage we suffered didn’t come from the black men or women who came into the store looking for Chutes and Ladders for their children. Rather it came from the teenaged white boys who would walk into the store, say a few words to us at the counter, and then wander over to the miniatures while wearing long trench coats–in August.  Sure, Twain wrote that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” but it wasn’t that cold in mid-summer.  You could, however, hide miniatures or the thin, soft cover adventure books for D&D or Vampire or Shadowrun.

Cohen will weather this.  This isn’t the first time he’s sallied up to the bar, put his foot on the rail and then asked the bartender for a beer with which to wash his yummy meal of Right Foot Under Glass down.  It’s become such a habit that perhaps I should send him a bottle of Sriracha (Rooster sauce) because everything goes better with a little hot sauce.  Maybe I’ll put together a little care package of hot sauces since Cohen puts his foot in his mouth enough that he should probably have some varieties of hot sauces.  One cannot spice with Sriracha alone.  I’ll get right on that–after I’ve finished gagging.

*IWSB stands, in Derbyshire-ish for Intelligent Well-Socialized Blacks.

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It means.

There are actually a triplet of words that get used in New Age nonsense to make the flimflam sound more sciency. The words are:

Frequencies, energy and vibration.

“‘Frequencies’ is definitely a new favorite of pseudoscientific technobabble. It sounds sciencey but is used in a meaningless way – another common feature of pseudoscience.”  (Steven Novella)

All three of these terms get trotted out to provide a patina of scientific gravitas and respectability to utter nonsense.  My touchstone for whether the terms are being used in their technical sense is to ask the person wielding the words what, precisely, they mean by them.  For the record, I’m talking about the physics/mathematical definition for all the words.  To wit:


 Mathematics & Physics The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified interval, as:

a. The number of repetitions of a complete sequence of values of a periodic function per unit variation of an independent variable.
b. The number of complete cycles of a periodic process occurring per unit time.
c. The number of repetitions per unit time of a complete waveform, as of an electric current.
the property of matter and radiation that is manifest as a capacity to perform work (such as causing motion or the interaction of molecules).
an oscillation of the parts of a fluid or an elastic solid whose equilibrium has been disturbed, or of an electromagnetic wave.
Comparing and contrasting is useful here.

Everything in our universe is a vibrational frequency. Through vibrational frequencies we can create and destroy, we can alter emotions, and thought patterns. The vibrational frequency that you are operating on is directly related to your health and well being, as well as others.

Whenever you feel a certain emotion, such as love. Your body is vibrating at a higher frequency. Fear is a very low frequency, it activates less DNA co-dons. So whenever you are in a negative state your vibrations are low and it affects everything around you. 2 things can happen when you encounter a different vibrational frequency. If it’s higher than yours, you can either bring yours up to match it, or if it’s lower, you will be brought down.

Now a couple of things here, at no point is vibrational or frequency defined.  The words are there to give an air of respectability even though what follows is nonsense.  What the author is counting on is that the people who read the paragraph above will be entirely unconcerned about an operational definition of either vibration or frequency. They are almost certainly right to do so.  It has been my experience that people who believe this kind of tripe don’t know and, more to the point, don’t want to know that these words have real, actual, definitions and that it is insufficient, woefully so, to just nod your head at the wisdom and sagacity of both reader and writer who are assumed to know what they are talking about.  This might seem like a harsh statement but it is justified, I believe, by the  third sentence of the second paragraph where the author states that fear is a ‘very low frequency’ that ‘activates less DNA codons’.  This, again, is supposed to be passed over without ever once stopping to ponder what a codon actually is and how a ‘low frequency’ vibration, caused by fear, would affect your DNA.  A codon is a sequence of three adjacent nucleotides on a DNA molecule that specifies the position of an amino acid in a protein molecule during protein synthesis.  How, precisely, could the ‘low frequency vibration’ of fear cause codons to be activated at a lower level? The author doesn’t say and, again, is counting on the reader neither knowing that the statement is nonsensical nor caring enough to actually try to parse the declaration.  Rather we are just supposed to believe that this is true.  After all, doesn’t it sound somewhat like what you remember from high school biology? Wasn’t there some mention of codons or something?

The word energy comes in for the same treatment.  Energy, you will remember from physics, is the ability to do work (bring about a state change in matter or motion). But in the hands of New Age writers and their followers energy is this vague ‘stuff’ that floats around. Energy can, in one instance, be the feel you get from being in someone’s presence. In another instance it is what is transferred when a Reike ‘master’ or ‘quantum touch healer’ wave their hands above your aching back.

Flimflam and flapdoodle thrive on imprecision.  New Age religion (and it is a religion) feeds on that imprecision. The minute someone knows what a codon is or what energy, vibrations or frequencies are then the whole game falls apart.  If you know what a frequency is and you know what a codon is, then you know that any sentence such as “Fear is a very low frequency, it activates less DNA co-dons”  [sic] is complete nonsense.  If you don’t know and you aren’t inclined to find out, and tragically many believers in modern mysticism will claim to ‘love science’ while wanting to have as little engagement with actual scientific texts as is possible, then you are going to be quickly find yourself tossed about by every random charlatan that comes along and can throw around the best sounding pseudo-scientific, technobabble.

That Moment You Realize You Were Right All Along

I know that saying “I told you so” or “I knew it” is bad form. I truly get that. There are times, however, when you just need to say it and this is definitely one of those times. I’m currently reading a collection of essays titled “Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent” which deals with critical theory and the havoc it has wreaked in western intellectual life. In it, one of the authors mentioned an essay by Bruno Latour, a French philosopher and senior doyen of post-modernism and critical theory, in which he offers something approaching a mea culpa for his part in pretty much defanging the left. Latour writes:

        “What has become of critique, I wonder, when an editorial in the New York Times contains the following quote?
Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade
pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican
strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “the scientific
debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize
that the evidence is not complete.
“Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,”
he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly.
Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific
certainty a primary issue.”1

Latour goes on to express utter dismay that the very ideas he spent most of the last third of the 20th century espousing has been turned around by reactionaries and used as a weapon against climate change and other causes near and dear to his (and my) political heart. It was when I read this that I had my moment of “I could’ve told you that.”
When I first encountered critical theory and post-modernist thought a quarter century ago, I had a feeling that there was something wrong and that should these ideas ever fall into the hands of the reactionary right-wing of American politics, from which I had just parted ways, it would spell untold trouble for any cause beloved by liberalism. Now, many miles of intellectual wandering later, I have found that I was neither crazy, stupid nor uneducated but right all along.

The examples are so numerous that to list them is entirely beyond the scope of this blog post. Here are, however, a very partial sampling:

  • Women who have abortions are more likely to get breast cancer and have major depression. (Neither is true)
  • Condoms are ineffective for both preventing sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. (Neither is true)
  • Children of gay or lesbian parents tend to be confused, unhappy, and socially maladapted at higher rates than parents of heterosexual parents. (Untrue)
  • Global warming is a myth made up by socialists, Marxists and Greens to bring American capitalism to its knees and is not happening or if it is happening is not caused by human activity and, at any rate, will not be so bad. (Untrue)
  • Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America and is not an American citizen. (Untrue)
  • Marriage equality (same-sex marriage) will destroy heterosexual families. (Untrue)
  • There is significant controversy within the life sciences about Darwinian evolution and ‘the jury is still out’. (Untrue)
  • A fetus at two weeks has a nervous system and can feel pain. (Untrue)

It is not just that these ideas are wrong but public policy debates about them are treated with a false equivalency. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many times any of the above are debunked in most corners of respectable American media the false statements will be treated as if they were true because the media, from a combination of confusion and cowardice, are almost entirely incapable of saying that a false statement is false. This has had dire, demonstrable implications for American politics and we will likely be paying the piper for our thirty year love affair with critical theory well into the 21st century.

My wife, a student at Portland State University, has regaled me of tales of sitting in classes where critical theory is taken as a given with conservative students who are pissed off right up until they realize that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Men’s Rights activists now argue that to call upon a man to support a child who carries half his genes even though he did not necessarily want to be a father is just like rape. When challenged that it takes two to tango and make a baby after the dancing is done, they claim that the speaker is engaging in victim blaming. This is language straight out of the critical theory toolkit.

Worse yet, because we have now raised two generations of citizens who believe that phrases such as ‘well that’s true for you’ actually have meaning and who deploy them as a modern day equivalent of magical incantations, we cannot even point out how ridiculous the MRAs are being. Why? Because there’s no such thing as ‘truth’ there are no ‘facts’ about the world all that exists–ALL that there ever can be–are narratives which serve this or that hegemonic group. When wealthy, white, Christians claim that they are the real oppressed minority in American society then you know something has gone terribly, horribly wrong.

It is as if no one teaching critical theory, regardless of their academic discipline, ever imagined that a conservative might sit in their class or that anyone who had ever taken a class where critical theory was the substrate upon which all the rest of the theoretical edifice was built, might move from the left to the right side of the spectrum or if they did their brains would somehow purge all of the theory. Wrong! Instead what has happened is that people’s politics either changed or if they started and stayed conservative they had an epiphany that if it worked for the lefty professor then it would work for them as well.

So if you are of the mind that we are trapped in prisons of language and that reason and rationality are just ‘power games’ used to prop up the hegemony, the next time you want to face palm and throw the baked beans at your right-wing uncle who is spouting some nonsense he heard on FOX News and is acting impervious to the idea that there are actual facts about the world, know that the ideas that seemed so liberating when you first heard them in your ethnic or women’s studies classes have been hijacked in the service of a cause you find abhorrent. The question facing the American left now is what do we do about it? That I have no idea but for the sake of my grandchildren, I hope that we can figure it out.

As Thomas Nagel writes in ‘The Sleep of Reason’:

Objectivity is implied by every claim that the justification for one system is better than that for another, because justification always involves, in addition to values that may be contested, appeals to the facts that reveal how well a particular system will serve those values.Objectivity should be valued by anyone whose policies are not supported by lies.2

1. Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical inquiry 30.2 (2004): 225-248. Google Scholar. Web. n.d

2. (2005-06-05). Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (Kindle Locations 14581-14583). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

A Leftist Faustian Bargain

What happens when very large swaths of a populace make political and public policy decisions based on how it makes them feel? In the United States we are running that experiment in real time. On both the left and the right policies are being advocated or opposed not based on science but on emotions. Everyone is familiar with the denial of climate change on the right and have likely heard of one or more vague conspiracy theories as to why the issue is even on the public sphere. That is a well worn path and I will have more to say on that later on. My concern here is the corollary movement of the left, the two most pernicious being the anti-GMO and anti-vaccination. These are the mirror images of the people on the right opposed to stem cell research or who dismiss climate change as a leftist plot to destroy America.

I’ve been trying to get my hands around what is really going on I leftist circles and yesterday after my friend Brandy mentioned ‘wind tunnel syndrome’ that it struck me that perhaps the problem, the root cause of their distress is that they simply dislike the modem world. What could be better symbols of the modem world than the geneticist in her lab and the tall wind turbines generating power? In the first instance there is the image of people working in anonymous corporate parks doing shadowy business at the behest of their capitalist masters. In the second instance there is a paradigmatic example of corporations taking over ‘green’ ideas like wind power. If these wind towers were not owned but held as a co-op or the power generated were free chances we would never have heard of wind turbine syndrome.

The reason that this kind of emotion-driven public policy preference should concern us is that we may be foreclosing solutions to our peril. Imagine a world overheating because from the left a sustained attack on wind power and then solar makes it uneconomical to pursue them. This would end up backstopping the right’s attack on ameliorating climate change. At the same time this goes on imagine that at the very moment when genetic engineering could help with the problems of feeding more people with less land the sustained attacks from the left make it almost impossible for biotech companies to find backing because no one will invest in a company they know will have a tough time getting to market. We could very well witness the spectacle of western leftist decrying the starvation of people in the Third World as a consequence of capitalism when they will have created the circumstances that made things worse!

If there were reasons for the opposition to generic engineering or wind turbines or a number of other emerging technologies then one could understand but there is no reason for the opposition we see. If you do any digging using reliable sources it quickly becomes clear that the opposition has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with fear if the present.

Gimme that ol’ time (racist) religion

Over at the blog ‘Taki’s Magazine’, John Derbyshire, until today a regular blogger for the National Review and the National Review Online (NR and NRO) where he lets his full on racist flag fly high and proud. I’ll spare you the absolute worst of it and just point out the three paragraphs below. I’m bringing these up because part of why I left the Republican party 20 years ago. They are also the least vile of Derbyshire’s paean to the ol’ racism which, clearly, he misses.

(13) In that pool of forty million, there are nonetheless many intelligent and well-socialized blacks. (I’ll use IWSB as an ad hoc abbreviation.) You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with IWSBs. In addition to the ordinary pleasures of friendship, you will gain an amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice.

It was when I realized that this was the purpose I served for no small number of my conservative friends 20 years ago. I was their shield where they could, so they thought, invoke me in order to allow them to make very racist statements. I was the ‘black friend’ of “I’m not racist. I have a very good black friend and she agrees with me” fame. I didn’t enjoy that role, never asked for it and hated the feeling of being convenient instead of liked. I hated myself for staying around as long as I did.

(14) Be aware, however, that there is an issue of supply and demand here. Demand comes from organizations and businesses keen to display racial propriety by employing IWSBs, especially in positions at the interface with the general public—corporate sales reps, TV news presenters, press officers for government agencies, etc.—with corresponding depletion in less visible positions. There is also strong private demand from middle- and upper-class whites for personal bonds with IWSBs, for reasons given in the previous paragraph and also (next paragraph) as status markers.

Now, imagine going through your day with this nagging voice wondering if you are there because you are competent and/or well-liked or you’re there as a totem, a status marker, some ‘bling’ at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is instructive to note that to Derbyshire friendship with a BFTTR (Black Friend To The Rescue) is mostly about convenience and status. The pleasure of having a friend is something you get ‘for free’. If it weren’t for our utility, though, one imagines that Derbyshire and those that agree with him (and there are plenty who do) wouldn’t really go to the trouble of weeding through us black folks.

(15) Unfortunately the demand is greater than the supply, so IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous. To be an IWSB in present-day US society is a height of felicity rarely before attained by any group of human beings in history. Try to curb your envy: it will be taken as prejudice (see paragraph 13).

Coveted? Envied? What world does Derbyshire live in? The link takes you to Barack Obama’s White House page. Because, you know, Obama has had the easiest Presidency ever.
Those of you who know me and the four of you who read my blog regularly have heard me say or write that I would very much prefer to deal with the straight-up racist than have to play the guessing game. This is why. This collapses my decision tree quite efficiently. If I had to deal with a John Derbyshire in my day-to-day life (and blessedly it’s been a while since I’ve had to be burdened with one) I would want to make our interactions as quick, efficient and rare as possible. What makes Derbyshire so odious, outside of his views, is that he openly calls for the kind of maddening gentility that makes dealing with his lot so incredibly tiring. You have this vague sense that you’re being looked down on, not taken seriously, dismissed as not possibly being as smart, educated, urbane or well-read as you actually are. Yet, the person is being civil and one thing I picked up early on from my parents is that my life will be considerably enhanced if I don’t immediately jump to ‘racism’ as the first and most convenient explanation for disappointments that happen in my life. There will be enough of them that will come along, they taught me, so there’s no need to go searching for them, they’ll find me.
Derbyshire also illustrates something else that my friends have heard me say and it is this; I think that, for the most part, Americans know they are not supposed to be bigots–of any sort–but I don’t know that many Americans know why they aren’t supposed to be bigots. I don’t know how many Americans, of any political stripe, could give a cogent account of why bigotry is an odious character trait and one that has to be resisted. We all have the temptations to bigotry. I think it is an unfortunate evolutionary hangover because xenophobia, in our original environment of adaptation, had way too much survival value *not* to have evolved. But we do not have to be victims of our evolutionary history. We have the power to make choices because of other artifacts of that same history. I want Americans to be taught, by the culture–that means the schools, the families, the religious institutions–why bigotry is wrong.
Quoting King saying, “I have a dream…one day we’ll be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin” isn’t an answer to bigotry and while it is, as much of what he wrote was, evocative and poetic the way that phrase is trotted out is too pat by half. I have a link to the full Derbyshire article below. If you can stomach the whole thing, do a little thought experiment. Imagine that John Derbyshire is interviewing me for a position. How many of you think I’m going to get a fair interview out of that man? If I have to work next to him do you think I’ll be treated as an equal even if I surpass his performance in every way? Am I really supposed to believe that a man who believes such things about the likes of me based solely upon some phenotypic traits is going to give me a fair shake? And I’m supposed to believe that this will happen without any kind of laws to spur our employer to have a highly vested interest in making sure that he can’t make his bigotry my problem?
My driven, Type-A personality was molded being an impressionable child during a period of American culture when most of what Mr. Derbyshire said was still uttered in public in polite company. If you were born before about 1975 chances are you heard some versions of this kind of talk. If you integrated the neighborhood you grew up in, as I did, you heard this kind of thing a lot. I was going to be taken seriously and I have tried, over the course of the last four decades, to hone my mind into the mental equivalent of a classically constructed katana. Fast, beautiful and devastatingly sharp.