The fantasy of perfection: student suicide and the lies that cause it

There is a corridor of collective hysteria in this country. It is the stretch of land between the 101 and 280 freeways, starting in San Francisco and moving south, eventually ending when the latter turns into 680 and intersects with 101 due east of downtown San Jose.

For the billions of people who know nothing about northern California, I’ve marked the area for convenience.

A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.

A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.

This isn’t exact, but this post deals with places that are within two miles of either side.

The feature “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” by Julie Scelfo in the New York Times is excellent. Halfway through, I was not at all surprised to learn that Kathryn DeWitt, the centerpiece of the story, is from this area.

Ms. DeWitt is younger than me, but we both lived through a different Gunn High School suicide cluster around the time we graduated. This is an excellent piece about the two clusters– which are very rare but happened twice at the same school within five years of each other. Student suicide is so commonplace that I’ve never had a conversation about California’s high speed rail project with someone my age without a detour into “will they build it so that kids won’t be able to jump in front of it?”

Student suicide is a classic social problem. It’s complex. There are a ton of institutions that may play a part. Norms are established about academic performance and image are difficult to change. If any part of the system is poisonous, it can undermine everything else. School, peers, parents, media, society, politics, money, sanity- all play a part in the problem, and all have to be addressed to create a real solution.

The prep school culture in the Bay Area isn’t unique. But it is unusually concentrated and reinforcing. It’s a high concentration of wealthy adults, often from immigrant backgrounds and low economic standing. Their kids are expected to make similar progress in their own lives. The high population means not one but many schools that mesh together to create a social scene where failure means weakness and worthlessness. Harker, Crystal Springs, Castilleja, Bellarmine, Pinewood, Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. Then there’s all the larger Catholic schools; St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and so on. Then there’s the public schools like Aragon (where Ms. DeWitt went), Gunn, Palo Alto High. All the public schools have a substantial honors track that’s insular and indistinguishable from the private prep schools.

Anyone who’s not in the culture would find the whole apparatus absurd. It is, and you should.

William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty and current polemicist against the narrowness of mind that selective schools of all levels create, points out that elite schools that fail their students when you look away from the resume-building:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history. (“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League“, The New Republic, July 2014)

Suicide clusters at elite high schools and universities should not be a surprise. These institutions have taken the regular level of stigma in society and piles on. Not only is mental illness stigmatized, as it is everywhere, but a million different forms of imperfection are as well. All the contributing factors to suicidal ideation are turned into overdrive. As all three of the stories I’ve linked to concur, students think they are isolated in their unhappiness. It’s a lie that’s allowed to persist. In Scelfo’s profile, it’s the college counselor who breaks through the illusion. People are messed up. There’s a culture supposedly based on intellect and critical thinking that frequently uses neither. And people are dying because of that.

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Journalism, propaganda, and the police

“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams 

Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.

So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.51 AMThe body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.

A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.

This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.

Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 1.10.47 AM

Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.

Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.

Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.

In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.

Posted in journalism, Media, police, Race, racism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playgrounds as a civil rights struggle

There’s a nice three-minute video released today by Al Jazeera America, part of a much wider collection of material on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s about playground accessibility, which is a struggle that has emerged largely in the aftermath of the ADA. Indeed, in the year I spent on a county disabilities commission, the ADA compliance committee (its most important part, since they decide how to spend limited grants from the state and federal governments) spent a huge chunk of time on playgrounds. Basically no playgrounds created prior to the ADA met code. Like all other structures, they have to evolve with the many amendments to the Act, which have made many new areas in violation.

Disability accommodation and accessibility are civil rights struggles. The failure of conservative lawmakers to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities due to a series of vague, conspiratorial concerns is not the exception, but rather part of an ongoing undermining of a large, diverse group of oppressed people that was in no way ended when the ADA was signed.

How tax money is spent is a reflection of a society’s commitment to their ideals. The United States prioritizes defense spending above programs that would help implement what the Constitution and American idealism espouse. Indeed, how much time and attention is paid to playgrounds can tell us much about the larger social justice struggles of the 21st century.

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Sandra Bland: No need to defend the well-defended

I was wondering yesterday how I would articulate the system oppressing black Americans, were I given a chance on the open mic at a protest rally. It distilled down to a single sentence:

The names change, but the system stays the same.

Sandra Bland is just the latest of an ever-growing roster of unarmed black people killed due to the actions of law enforcement. What happened in that jail is something I don’t know. But the talk of murder vs. suicide cannot overshadow the fact that both are different variations of the same injustice. Bland should never have been pulled over, never been arrested, restrained, booked, jailed. Her death is the result of how little we as Americans restrict the acceptable behavior of the police. She joins four centuries of victims of structural racism.

What keeps coming up in all these interrelated struggles- against the murder of trans* individuals, against corporate actions that attack working class people and pollute the environment, and against US-NATO imperialism all over the world- is that there is a group or institution that is well-defended and there is another who are open to interrogation. Why did that transgender person make those men angry? Why should burger-flippers make a living wage? If they don’t want to get bombed, why don’t the Palestinians commit to the peace process?

These are all questions borne of a certain unjust system, which put the vulnerable on trial for the misdeeds of the secure.

I have no need to defend the police. They don’t need me even if I wanted to. They have their own lawyers, union reps, and politicians to defend them. They have a vast majority of the media who rely on the police for stories and tend to accept their side of the story as more valid and official. The justice system simply does not prosecute police officers, and even when charges are brought they are usually watered down to something far less than what they actually did. The whole world tilts towards them in this fight.

What the world needs are people willing to defend the undefended.

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The good fight: a farewell to Olbermann

There is no media journeyman like Keith Olbermann. Over the past three decades he has left or been fired from shows, both sports (including an almost uncountable number of stints at ESPN). His Countdown show enjoyed popularity on MSNBC, before being exiled to Current TV- the Siberian gulag where journalists went and were never heard from again.

After a two-year contract, he’s been let go from Olbermann, an obscure ESPN2 program that generally competed with marquee live sports on the other ESPN channels. I’m not surprised it’s ending, as nobody watched it live and the YouTube content (which was most of my exposure) had pretty dire viewing numbers.

Plenty of people are sick of Keith and his shtick, and while he’s never been able to pick his battles, some of his battles were important and I’m glad he gave them due coverage. It had excellent coverage of the NFL’s negligence on domestic violence, the griminess of the Angels’ treatment of recently-relapsed drug user Josh Hamilton, and how many sports teams took money from the military in order to showcase seemingly-altruistic ceremonies to honor veterans. These are important things, and Olbermann was a merger of the pundit-heavy cable news style of sports show, and the more serious and provocative Outside the Lines. However, Outside the Lines never compared bizarre player statements and press releases by teams to the church scene in Blazing Saddles, where the minister thanks a crotchety old sourdough for his “authentic frontier gibberish”.

So maybe that’s why I liked the show and many people did not. It had that strange mix of culture callbacks and jokes that I find funny, material that was intentionally dated and different from most sports shows, that tend to stay near to the present.

Thanks for letting this show run for two years. While his material on MSNBC was pretty forgettable once Rachel Maddow became a better alternative for liberal pundit shows (if you were into that sort of thing), this was the best in its field, mostly because it made its own niche that nothing else quite fits into.

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The crushing consensus on austerity

The news of a third bailout deal for Greece has been a dagger in the heart of many on the left- not only in the country itself but all over, including in America. Facing an incredibly powerful, entrenched economic system, success against banking interests elsewhere are an important morale booster. The joy of SYRIZA winning the January election has been completely wiped clean. Its campaign promise of ending “blackmail” and “humiliation of the Greek people” are proven hollow. The only successful response to the financial crisis in Europe was the decisions of Iceland to nationalize banks, forgive debt, and strict capital controls. Other countries in Europe recovered quickly, yes, but creditor countries like Germany with strong control of the financial institutions that dictate monetary and fiscal policy are different from countries like Spain and Greece drowning in debt.

The path of Iceland seems similar to what has been proposed by SYRIZA’s Left Platform. What will become of the Left Platform? It seems that they are likely on the way out- many were rebelling at a previous, less harsh austerity package put before Parliament. For the past few years I have been impressed at the degree of left-wing unity within the party, with social democrats existing in the same structure as hard-left Maoists and eco-socialists. However, the last few months have shown that the largest component, the Prime Minister’s more moderate group, has carried the day and negotiated something similar to what center-left Pasok has. It serves as a warning to all attempts to construct a popular front- socialist unity is key to creating legitimate political alternatives, but if the party itself has a very fundamental divide, the radicals may end up providing political support for something they would never have tolerated if it has come from the usual sources.

Shining like ten thousand suns is the truth about SYRIZA: it is unable to have a coherent, substantively different alternative about austerity. In a country like Greece where austerity is the driving force of all social and economic issues- from poverty to the rise of far-right politics- there is no policy position more important.

Beyond Greece, radical politics in other countries like Spain are dealt a terrible blow. The Podemos party along with the socialist left were looking to be the “Spanish Syriza“. It is jarring to see that phrase turn toxic so quickly. Seven years into the debt crisis and there has still not been a major country in Europe that has developed a plan for liberation. The technocrats in the European Central Bank and the IMF carry the day, having never truly been challenged.

There will be more chances, of course, because austerity will drag this crisis out for many, many years to come. These zombie banks in debtor countries that are being eternally propped up with borrowed money, allowing finance to be valued above people.

Neoliberalism has been one of the most destructive ideologies in the past century. While the club is mostly just fascism and Stalinism, neoliberal policies by the IMF completely destroyed countries in Africa and Latin America. Note that when Greece missed its payment to the IMF a few weeks ago, the phrase was that Greece was the first developed country to default. Developing countries have default dozens of times, some like Argentina have do so often that it becomes predictable. The sun rises in the east, the Pope is still Catholic, and Argentina is underwater financially again. What has been different about neoliberalism from fascism is a sense that fascism could be (and has) been defeated- both in war and through regular politics. Because of the sorta-factual, academic veil that exists with neoliberalism, the narrative has always been it is an inevitable progression of human civilization. Phrased that way it is a capitalist clone of the Marxist theory of history, which is similarly rigid and presented as science.

A reason I joined a socialist organization is that there are now real attempts to go on the offensive and dispute the seeming inevitability of globalization, a race to the bottom, and stark inequality. The move for a $15/hr minimum wage all over the United States is a very rare thing indeed: business interests, large corporations, conservative politicians and everyone else who made a huge fuss about it didn’t win. They won some caveats, but they lost the biggest battle. It was an offensive campaign by workers and regular people.

SYRIZA did not find their own offensive campaign against austerity. A group within their own party had a plan, but the economics of the banks and their political allies won out over resistance.

It is a sad day for Greece, but it is not the end. If the people do not end austerity, austerity will end them.

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The pride parade: a new part of the corporate agenda

This pie chart of the groups listed on the website of Chicago Pride, which was held last month. The actual portion of a modern major-city pride parade that is specifically about LGBT+ communities and their struggle is tiny. As was seen with the legalization of same-sex marriage, a portion of the least radical sections, whose demands avoid issues of class and race, are now a market for the same regular capitalist crap as everyone else. This pie-chart shows an event about the queer community, but dominated by corporations, politicians, and institutions that are still in the hands of white, heterosexual men. Being “gay-friendly” and marching in the parade has gone from being a political and moral statement to something to put in the annual report brochure.

Never mind that millions of queer individuals, who don’t fit into the gender binary or the heterosexual institutions like marriage that form the narrow bounds of acceptability. The renaissance of alternative pride events attests to the contradictions of the mainstream ones. Simply put, the forces of capital cannot share a stage with radical, anti-oppression, anti-capitalist groups. Any event with fancy multinational conglomerate sponsors has to be swept clean of ideas and ideologies that challenge the basis of racism, homophobia and transphobia. To the newly gay-friendly corporation, things are also best done without a serious conversation about intersectionality, an issue that is often ignored even in non-corporate settings (for instance, a long-running conflict in the feminist movement about who sets the tone, and how oppression is not uniform among all female-identified people). The new capitalist LGBT+ construction is simple (not really interested in most gender identities and sexual orientations), uniform, and commoditized.

But this is the battle that all civil rights movements have to eventually deal with. Martin Luther King is often used in commercials these days, after all.

Posted in bisexual, capitalism, Chicago Pride, corporations, gay, lesbian, LGBT, LGBT+, marriage equality, pride parade, Project Queer, radical queer, same-sex marriage, transgender | Tagged , | Leave a comment