The Portman/Foer Correspondence Revisited

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Jonathan Foer

On July 14, Jonathan Safran Foer published an email correspondence between himself and Natalie Portman in the New York Times Magazine.

The correspondence we read is not the private correspondence of Foer and Portman. The email correspondence is essentially meant to take the place of a face to face interview for the magazine, and Foer says as much in the beginning. This leads to an inevitable awkwardness at the start of the correspondence, because the first email is not merely “for” Portman, but it also has to be “for” the reader. There had to be a separate dialogue between Foer and Portman setting up the “interview”. We might say that, in that sense, it lacks the authenticity of a genuine exchange between two people who are speaking in confidence, and it is burdened by the constraint of the knowledge that there is a wider audience of observers. In other words, it does not and cannot begin with a mere “sup?”.

Natalie Portman

By taking this unconventional approach to the interview, the interviewer and the interviewee unwittingly or perhaps wittingly put themselves at great risk. If the American public wants anything with the whole of its heart, it is to read a private correspondence between an A-list celebrity like Portman, well known for her intellect and “nerdiness”, and the successful writer of “Everything is Illuminated” that is Foer.

The media fallout was mostly thoughtless, gossipy, and takes the easy, obvious approach of laughter and ridicule. From the generally illiterate social media perspective of Twitter, the most important issue raised was “where are Portman’s pants?”, referring to the fashion magazine type photo shoot of swimwear-clad Portman that accompanies the article. If and when the media trolls take the time to look at the actual words of the article, from their perspective, Portman generally comes off much better than Foer, who can seem obtuse and boring. On the other hand, if viewed more closely, one can see that Foer is making a more strict attempt at Letters with a capital L. Overall, I believe that the correspondence can be seen as an attempt at authenticity.

What is missed in the media coverage is that this is an attempted development in journalism, and it deserves recognition as such, whether it turns out to be a dead end or the first spark of something new. It is an interesting attempt at a more literary approach to the interview. It is an attempt at Letters, and not an easy one, because of the overwhelming constraint of the knowledge that they will be viewed by a large audience. It is all too easy–when anyone attempts something novel–to ridicule, but those ridiculing are quite often on the wrong side of history.

Perusing the letters yet again, I see it. There is both awkwardness and beauty there. The appeal of the letter is its ability to capture something about a relationship that even the relationship itself is oblivious to. One can say that they are good letters or bad letters, but that misses the point. They are letters, damnit, and letters are a good thing.

An Unconventional Argument: Isolationism

In philosophy, argumentation is elevated to being an art form. Arguing for something that might be generally considered absurd can be considered a useful exercise from a philosophical point of view, with a long tradition that dates back at least as far as Socrates. This writing is an example of an unconventional argument.

 

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A protest by the 15M movement in Madrid, 2012

It has been widely commented that, in general, the media does not make us happier as individuals. When we look at social media on our phones, we are immediately inundated with an ugliness that in all likelihood does not exist in our present environment: police brutality, violence against animals, terror attacks, other violent attacks, protests, racism, fights, and so on. I don’t deny that these things happen. I don’t deny that for some unfortunate people, a “volatile” atmosphere is a fact of life, and it’s also true that no life, however seemingly secure, is free of risk. Here I would like to argue something that may at first sound absurd and counter intuitive: you should isolate yourself as much as possible from any and all knowledge of what is going on outside of your immediate sphere of experience and, when new information does enter that sphere, you should try your best to ignore it and not do anything whatsoever about it.

Lets say that you are vegan and, in looking for butter alternatives, earth balanceyou landed upon Earth Balance at Whole Foods. You felt for a while that you were doing the right thing, but then you find out through social media that Earth Balance is made of palm oil, and that palm oil is responsible for the destruction of the native habitat for the endangered orangutan.

My argument here is that, even so, you should still continue to purchase Earth Balance, and only when the crisis is knocking on your front door should you do anything whatsoever to change your behaviors.

This argument of course is difficult to make and flies in the face of ethical theory. My behavior of continuing to purchase Earth Balance cannot be universalized for all, as would be suggested by a Kantian approach, without my also consenting to the destruction of the endangered species of orangutan. It’s equally difficult to justify from a utilitarian perspective. Allowing oneself to contribute to species extinction does not seem to promote happiness for humans or animals. It’s clear that traditional ethical theory does  not bode well for my behavior, much less an environmental ethic.

orangutan

Yet, there is no real contradiction in it if I am the sort of person who will willingly assent to the destruction of the orangutan. The point was clearly stated by Hume in his devastating critique of moral theory, which concludes concisely: “Since reason alone can never produce any action or give rise to volition . . . . It is in no way contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

If there were only a dozen people on this planet, that dozen people would pose no environmental threat to this planet whatsoever, however they behaved. They could kill orangutans, lions, fish, really anything that they were capable of killing. They could pour oil into the water, burn tires, spray aerosol cans, and they would simply be incapable of making a dent in the vast well-stocked Eden which they inhabited. Their lives would likely be impoverished and barbaric, equally likely to perish as to survive as a species. Even if they did survive and reproduce, it would be a long while before their descendants were able to bring about the sort of global catastrophes we hear about on the news everyday.

One can view overpopulation as the fundamental problem that is leading to all of the other problems humanity has to face. Why are there factory farms in which innocent animals suffer and die? Why is the wilderness being destroyed for farm land.

If you view it in this light, there is very little you or I can do about it in our lifetimes, whether or not you do have kids. If you already have kids, it’s not like you’re going to kill them off. If you don’t have kids, then I suppose you can pat yourself on the back. I suppose you could decide to “not have” that other kid you were thinking about having. But, all this is in a way beside the point.

This is because even if you live your life as a saint, foregoing Earth Balance, following the Categorical Imperative, and going childless or not having that other kid, some guy down the street who abides by different ideals is going to take three wives, have twelve children, and negate or ruin the Eden that you spent your meager, solitary life trying to build. Not only that, but once you die with your ideals, his children, who are more likely to inherit his ideals, are going to continue to overpopulate the world, and the world will once again find itself in the same situation.

Incidentally, not overpopulating the world is one thing that Americans are good at, with a total fertility rate of 1.84, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Our increase in population is the result of immigration. Of course, we offset this by our consumption. Our five percent of the world population is said to consume 20 percent of its resources.

It may be argued that this stance is a consequentalist one. If one takes the opposed Kantian/deontological approach, then one can theoretically say that certain acts are wrong/immoral in themselves. Thus, from the Kantian perspective, it’s always wrong to tell a lie, and it may always be wrong to purchase Earth Balance.

I don’t buy it, and I do not believe that it is even possible to construct an ethical theory that does not give a thought to consequences. Kant suggests to us that we universalize the maxim upon which we are acting in order to assess its moral value, and ask ourselves if we could assent to the results. Therefore, according to Kant, my act of telling a lie is wrong because I would not agree that it is ok for everyone else to do it.

One does have to think about consequences in order to apply the Kantian ethic. We always have to ask ourselves: what would happen if everyone acted this way? And this is a good thing. We don’t want an ethic in which we have all behaved in a saintly way, but in which we leave a hell for our children. But we also need to keep in mind that Kantian theory fails to overcome Hume’s critique. Even if everything were to go to hell if everyone lied all the time, it is in no way irrational to assent to it.

This brings another point unconventional point to light. Lets say, in sympathy with an environmentalist ethic, that I do not agree to the destruction of the orangutan or the planet’s environmental degradation (plastics in the water, clear cutting of forest, species extinction, global warming, etc.) It may be the case that the large part of the work that I am capable of doing is determined by whether or not I decide to have children and how many I decide to have.

If I believe that the world is overpopulated already, then my decision to have more than one child is forbidden by the Kantian ethic itself. If I have two children, then I have neither contributed nor helped the problem. If I have more than two, I have made it worse.

If, as I have suggested, we always have to think about consequences when determining our behaviors, it is important for us to think about whether or not little efforts like forgoing Earth Balance, or larger efforts like going vegan will or will not make a difference in the long run given the steady increase of the human population, because it is that increase that is driving the demand that is causing the destruction. If we believe that our efforts will result in no net benefit, then it’s just as well we not trouble ourselves with them. In the words of Shakespeare: “Things without all resolve should be without worry, what’s done is done.”

overpopulatioon

 

 

Exposition and Critique of Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”: Part I

book-on-genealogy-morals-ecce-homoNietzsche is and ought to be considered both icon and iconoclast in philosophy. “On the Genealogy of Morals” is considered to be his greatest ethical work. The work is made up of three essays, and this essay will involve an exposition and critique of the first essay. My plan is to continue this series by writing two more parts, covering the entirety of this masterwork of Nietzsche’s.

Exposition

The first essay is entitled “Good and Evil/Good and Bad.” In this essay, Nietzsche finds two separate historical meanings for the term “good”: one of which was prior and more natural, and the other arose as a reaction to the original term. The term “good” originates as a sort of feeling of pride that a certain type of person feels towards hirself. One might imagine an ancient warrior-ruler looking in the mirror and feeling pride in hirself and hir power. That feeling is, for Nietzsche, where the word “good” originated. It is a sort of naive, bro-ish view for modern tastes: anti-intellectual and self-centered, with an emphasis on healthiness, dominion, status, beauty, and excellence. It is naive in the sense that the original expression of “good” is unaware of the possibility of there being other forms or interpretations of the term. Being a philologist, the evidence that Nietzsche brings to bear is linguistic. Originally, the opposite of “good” was not “evil,” but it was rather the elite contrasting themselves with the “common,” the “bad.”

[W]hat was the real etymological significance of the designations for “good” coined in various languages? I found that they all led back to the same conceptual transformation–that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” “with a soul of high order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebian,” “low,” are finally transformed into the concept “bad.” The most convincing example of the latter is the German word schlecht [bad] itself: which is identical with schlicht [plain, simple]–compare schlechtweg [plainly], schlechterdings [simply]–and originally designated the plain, the common man, as yet with no inculpatory implication and simply in contradistinction to the nobility. (i.4)

This is the core of Nietzsche’s argument in the first part. He draws attention to it in an uncharacteristically straightforward manner, saying:

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Nietzsche, small mustache

With regard to moral genealogy, this seems to me to be a fundamental insight . . . (i.4)

With regard to Nietzsche in general, and this work in particular, the issue of Nietzsche’s “racism” and “anti-Semitism” has to be addressed early on. It ought to be common knowledge by now that an accurate reading of Nietzsche shows that he was neither racist nor anti-Semitic. Kaufmann gives a thorough treatment of the issue in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. The soiling of Nietzsche’s reputation was precipitated by his sister, who laid claim to his work after his death and ruthlessly attempted to appropriate it for Nazi use in full knowledge of Nietzsche’s true opinions. Her case of academic deceit cannot be attributed to ignorance. In correspondence with her as well as in his published writings, Nietzsche never misses an opportunity to slander the anti-Semitism which was growing in Germany at the time. Reading Kaufmann’s vindication of Nietzsche is truly a delight, because Nietzsche not only makes his opinions known, but he does so in his characteristically clever manner.

N3Yet, in reading this first essay in particular, one can see how easily the Nazis could appropriate Nietzsche’s work for their use. By altering or ignoring details, one could construe Nietzsche as racist, especially because, in the course of his “genealogy,” he must allude to different races and conflicts between races. One race can be construed to be “superior” based on the fact that it came to dominate another race, as the Romans historically came to dominate the Jews. The Nazi lie about Nietzsche was a subtle one, like accusing someone interested in anthropology of being a racist. Kaufmann has shown that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is just a creative way of saying “lion.” Yet, Nietzsche, aware of these opinions and the desires of others to misconstrue, takes pains to separate himself from a racist interpretation. To cite but one example:

[B]etween the old Germanic tribes and us Germans there exists hardly a conceptual relationship, let alone one of blood. (i.11)

Let us now leave the question of racism and return to the gist of Nietzsche’s argument. We have on the one hand the original meaning of “good,” an interpretation which I have described as bro-ish, that originated in the ruling class, and these rulers contrasted themselves with the “common” and “bad.” The original rulers were, in fact, rather simple. For them, “evil” literally did not exist. In their world, the commoners were to be pitied, and their enemies were respected with the respect that fighters give to other fighters.

The second meaning of the term “good” arises as a reaction when those ruled by the bros have to look themselves in the mirror. This interpretation of the term might be called the “evil twin” of the original, because it arises from a suppressed emotion, which Nietzsche calls by the French term ressentiment. When the ruler looks hirself in the mirror, hir notion of “good” is one of pride and is aligned with health, power, and physical beauty. Yet, those who are ruled, the subdued class, powerless to counteract the rulers, appropriate and invert the term, and now to be truly “good” is described as to be humble, meek, impoverished, ugly. What was formerly “good” has now become “evil:” the exertion of power and the subjugation of the weak. Christian religion in particular, coming from the Judaic tradition, is the preeminent example of this inversion, and the religious doctrines of Christianity act as a fantastic justification of this view through recourse to an other-worldly metaphysic. Yet, it is not the only example of such an inversion. Nietzsche also includes in this group the “indifference” or “detachment” (Kaufmann does not use the term in his translation) of the Chinese religion. The latter interpretation of “good” is conveyed as the product of an “inactive,” “festering” psychology, plagued by ressentiment.

The primary conflation of the debunked Nazist interpretation is to view Nietzsche’s work as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Nietzsche invents a form of linguistically-based historical psychology to explain the origin of moral tastes and preferences, showing how the tastes of one group influenced and overcame those of another. He attempts to explain what happened, for better or worse, not what “ought” to happen in the future. In fact, as Nietzsche sees it, intellectualism itself originates in the subdued class, and we ought to never forget that, in the end, the slave morality was victorious and became what is perceived as “fact.”

A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree: namely, as a condition of existence of the first importance . . . .(i.10)

While the slave class is the originator of intellectualism, members of the ruling class are conveyed as beasts of prey, and something intrinsic to them wants to get back to nature.

One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey . . . this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness . . . (i.11).

Nietzsche ends this first section with a lengthy Latin quote from Tertullian’s “De Spectaculis,” an essay about the notoriously gruesome “public games” of the Romans. Tertullian’s piece might be called the written expression of ressentiment incarnate. The lengthy passage of the early Christian father might be paraphrased as follows: If Roman games in the arena are considered enjoyable, imagine how enjoyable it will be when Christ returns and all of his enemies throughout the world are consumed by flames of wrathful fire, and the Christians get to watch for their own enjoyment.

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1872Critique

A genuine critique of Nietzsche’s work would involve a critique of his methodology and would require an entire work of its own. My “critique” here instead accepts Nietzsche’s argument more or less wholesale and looks for inconsistency in details. That said, I would like to focus on Nietzsche’s interpretation of Judaism.

Nietzsche paints the Jews with too broad a brush. Judaic writings of the Old Testament have more in common with the “warrior class” ethos than that of “slave morality.” Consider Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the Psalms, which are said to be from his pen, the (fictional) story of the wandering Hebrews, led by Joshua, overtaking the fortified “promised land.” In other words, Judaism needs to be contrasted with the Christianity that is a later development.

The following passage is, and ought to be, extremely perplexing.

About the time of the Thirty Years War, late enough therefore, this meaning changed to the one now customary. (i.4)

That Nietzsche places the slave revolt in morality so late shows who he considers his audience to be. It is at once charming and alarming to the modern reader to realize that Nietzsche is talking, not about world history here, but about German history. Yet, everything he says about a slave revolt in morality ought not to be about Germans versus Jews, but about Romans versus Jews. The whole construct fits together perfectly: As the Romans overtook the Jewish “promised land”, the powerlessness of the Jews gave rise to ressentiment. The resulting psychological unrest among the Jews resulted in factionalism, which eventually gave rise to Christianity.

Considering that Nietzsche’s focus is on German history, a more involved critique would require answering the question: Does Nietzsche’s genealogy apply accurately to German history? My suspicion is that it does not. To establish this, however, would require more time and space than we have available here.

Activists Make Last Ditch Efforts to Prevent Controversial Primate Tests

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Last July, Noah Philips wrote an article in which he exposed some controversial upcoming animal research that had been approved at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Under the direction of lead researcher Ned Kalin, 40 rhesus monkeys would be taken from their mothers at birth. For their first weeks of life, they would not be socialized. They would be placed alone in incubators with feeding bottles and a “soft surrogate,” and masked researchers would give them only the bare human contact necessary to keep them alive. After this initial period, the infant monkeys would be placed together in pairs to be “peer raised.”

Throughout their first year of life, the infant monkeys would be exposed to threats in an attempt to evoke an anxious temperament. The test protocol calls for the use of not only the monkeys, but a live king snake. The rhesus monkeys have a genetically programmed fear of snakes, and that is why a large, intimidating snake was chosen. Researchers would attempt to terrify the monkeys in other ways as well. One method includes the introduction of an unfamiliar human who approaches them without making eye-contact.

The test protocol is vague about what the difference would be between how the control group and the test group would be treated. Previously, Kalin published a paper on a similar experiment in which he selectively brain-damaged a group of test monkeys and then exposed them to stressors. This was accomplished by applying acid to the amygdala. The presumed end result of Kalin’s research, of which this experiment is only a part, is developing a drug for use on adolescents at risk for developing anxiety disorders.

The tests will take place at the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology on the UW Madison campus. The center is named after the psychologist Harry Harlow who first introduced maternal deprivation experiments on rhesus monkeys. In now famous and infamous experiments, Harlow removed newborn monkeys from their mothers and gave them the option of a wire mother that had a feeding bottle or a cloth mother. The infants would feed from the wire mother, but cling to the cloth mother, spending the majority of their time with the cloth mother.

UW Madison has received about half a million dollars of federal funding from the National Institutes of Health for Kalin’s upcoming experiment. It is part of a larger research grant from the NIH that totals about $1.5 million. According to Rick Bogle, co-founder of the Alliance for Animals and the Environment, UW Madison stands to make much more money than this if it results in a patented drug.

In response to Kalin’s proposed experiments, the Animal Legal Defense Fund requested information on the approval of the experiment. Universities are required by the Animal Welfare Act to gain approval for all use of animals in testing by an Internal Animal Care and Use Committee. When UW Madison refused the records, the ALDF sued. According to the ALDF, it was in response to this that Scott Walker attempted to introduce an amendment into the Wisconsin state budget bill to protect UW research from the state’s open records laws. The amendment was thrown out of committee this month.

Last year, Dr. Ruth Decker wrote a Change.org petition opposed to the experiments. At this point, the petition has over 400,000 signatures.

The petition notwithstanding, UW Madison has shown no indication of reconsidering or delaying the experiments. To date, there have been five separate protests, as well as leafleting campaigns, conducted by activists associated with the Madison-based group, the Alliance for Animals and the Environment. Last fall and winter, there were two protests and a candle light vigil. On April 10 of this year, protesters stood outside the UW regents meeting in Waukesha holding signs and attempting to engage the regents. On April 20, there was a “sit-in” protest at UW Madison, outside of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, where the experiments are slated to take place.

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Animal Rights activists outside of the Harlow Center at UW Madison, April 18, 2015

Prior to the protest, UW Madison had placed an anti-protest sign, seen above, leading people to a website of its own that defends animal testing.

With tests slated to begin in June, time is running out for Kalin’s monkeys. UW Madison has conducted tests on primates since Harlow joined the faculty in the 1930s. Currently, UW Madison houses approximately 2,000 primates for research between the Harlow Center and the adjacent Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, of which 1,500 are rhesus monkeys. According to the Harlow Center website, all of the rhesus monkeys used there were born on site.

Given that primate testing has gone on at UW Madison for over 70 years, one wonders what would be necessary to see a stop to primate testing at UW Madison. Some animal rights activists claim that animal testing is ineffective and outdated, pointing to statistics showing that most drugs that are successful in other species do not succeed in humans. The truth may be more complicated. Animal testing may lead to scientific advances and breakthroughs, but, like testing on humans, it may be considered ethically unsound and should be regulated anyway. It may be the case that animal testing can only come to an end in any country if a federal law is made granting animals protections, and thus shielding them from scientific testing.

The U.S. lags behind other countries in protecting animals. In 2002, Germany made strong constitutional provisions to protect animals under their Animal Welfare Act, provisions that extend to lab animals and farmed animals. Experiments that are currently legal in the U.S. would be illegal in Germany. Still, there are no species-specific provisions in German law to protect primates.

In 2007 the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous community in Spain, granted personhood rights to all great apes, and urged Spain as a whole to do so. If approved, the law would “ban harmful experiments on apes and make keeping them for circuses, television commercials, or filming illegal under Spain’s penal code.”

New Zealand has forbidden the use of five great ape species in research and teaching.

Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden have all banned the use of great apes in testing.

The U.S. has shown the smallest glimmer of hope via a New York judge’s recent decision to grant habeas corpus to two chimpanzees.

At the same time, there are no protections for other primates, such as rhesus monkeys. Philosophers are quick to point out a contradiction. If rhesus monkeys are similar enough to us for us to use them to gain valuable insights into our own psychology, then they should be granted a corresponding degree of legal protection. A lot of animal research may be considered to be good science but bad bioethics.

It is no coincidence that philosophers are willing to speak out against animal testing. When we farm and test on “lower” animals, we are treating them in a way that we would not want a stronger life form to treat us. We are also behaving as if there is a strong distinction to be made between the human and animal world, a distinction that science shows simply does not exist.

If it is the case that research institutions will not voluntarily leave behind the cash cow of animal research, and the only way to prevent primate experiments is through granting them legal protections, then activists are fighting an uphill battle. Although the great apes are protected from research in some places, those places are the minority, and there are no specific protections for primates in general. It appears that research will continue on primates, dogs, cats, and other species for the foreseeable future, and activists will continue to speak out against it, hoping for a long-term change.

Walker’s Attempt to Close Open Records at UW Madison: Not Just an Animal Rights Issue

rhesusLast July, Noah Phillips broke a story about some extremely cruel research that had been proposed and approved by UW Madison. Ned Kalin, chair of psychology at Madison, had proposed a study in which 40 rhesus monkeys would be removed from their mothers on their first day of birth, denied any form of human or animal contact, and raised in an incubator with a “soft surrogate” (think: small pillow), and a feeding bottle. After living like this for some weeks, the monkeys would be paired with others their same age to be “peer raised.”

Throughout, the young monkeys would be exposed to threats to attempt to cause anxious temperament and depression, such as exposing them to live snakes and menacing humans.

The experiment would bring over half a million dollars to UW Madison from the National Institutes of Health.

After 18 months, all of the monkeys would be euthanized, and throughout their short lifes, they would be subjected to a barage of tests including spinal taps and blood draws.

The news sparked outrage, and about 400,000 people signed a Change.org petition to stop the experiments. In the aftermath, Kalin decided that “maternal deprivation” was not necessary for the experiment, stating: “We’re changing the experiment based on science, not based on pressure that I’ve had.”

The Capital Times article that broke the news of the change to the study was misleading in one crucial regard: it neglected to mention that the monkeys would still be removed from their mothers at the age of 6 months.

One could just as easily say that the experiment is more cruel and inhumane for this reason, because the baby and mother will bond for six months before being separated.

A similar omission was made in a Badger Herald Article.

Meanwhile, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) had requested details of the proceedings for the approval of the research from UW Madison in order to ensure that they followed the federal Animal Welfare Act. When UW refused to provide the information, the ALDF sued UW Madison. In response to the lawsuit, Scott Walker proposed an amendment to this year’s budget: UW would be exempt from Wisconsin’s open records policy.

It may be the case that Scott Walker’s actions were actually not a response to the ALDF lawsuit, but something that he was planning on doing anyway, because this is his third attempt at it in three years.

In 2013, proponents claimed that the exemption was in order for UW Madison to have a competitive advantage for grant money. The 2014 lawsuit happened to also coincide with a lawsuit from PETA regarding treatment of sheep at UW Madison. Both of those attempts failed, of course.

Now, the National Association for Biomedical Research and the Foundation for Biomedical Research, both front groups for the animal testing, animal breeding, pharmaceutical, agribusiness, and processed food industries, are claiming that the amendment is necessary for the protection of researchers from animal rights activists.

This is misleading, at best, because, according to Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, under current law, information that can be shown to be “harmful” if disclosed is already exempt from the open records policy, and information that reaches the people that request it has already been redacted.

Animal rights groups and advocates for freedom of information in government both have a stake in ensuring that this amendment is not passed into law.

Although Wisconsin research is still open to the public, 24 other states have already passed laws granting them some form of exemption from public records.

In response to this issue, people acting in association with the Alliance for Animals and the Environment have been attempting to spread the word about the issue through leafleting campaigns.

Although animal rights activists have taken up the cause against the open records amendment, there is, of course, more at stake, given the sweeping wording of the proposed resolution.

More information about the ALDF’s attempts at keeping records open can be obtained from Kelsey Eberly, the attorney working for the ALDF on the lawsuit, and also Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. More information about taking a stand against the amendment can be obtained by contacting the Alliance for Animals and the Environment.

Are the Rich Reframing the Concept of the One Percent?

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A few weeks ago, a sponsored article from CNN Money appeared on my Facebook page. The article went by the title “Who are the one percent?” Using taxpayer information, the article showed that one has to make only $343,927 to be included in the top one percent of income earners in America. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the article was from 2011, and the most recent information given was from 2009. It caused me to wonder, “Why would a sponsored article appear on my Facebook page from 2011?”

The article appeared not long after a Slate article, “West Virginia is for Egalitarians,” that showed similar results about the one percent in America. This article was novel insofar as it broke down the income by state. For example, according to the diagram in the article, one has to earn a mere $320K per year in order to be in the top one percent in Wisconsin. Connecticut tops the list, where $678 grand per year will put you in the top one percent of income earners.

An article by James Piereson appeared in the Wall Street Journal just this week (“The Truth about the One Percent“) that uses tax data to support the following conclusion:

The typical “rich” person today is someone who works for a salary and accumulates stocks and bonds through savings, retirement plans and (for business executives) stock options.

Piereson does not neglect to mention that athletes like Tiger Woods and performers like Jay-Z and Beyonce are one-percenters.

What are we to make of all this? If these articles are to be believed, no one–or hardly anyone–is really “rich” in this country. The word “rich” henceforth will have to be placed in quotation marks.

It ought to be widely known that corporations and wealthy people are able to place strong influence on the media, especially in America. “Experts” are sought out and articles are written for profit. Money is spent to place articles on your newsfeed even as traditional newspapers close up shop. In this transitionary period, it is a sketchy time for ethics in journalism, and the casual reader ought to beware.

The sorts of influence that money can place on the media are highlighted nicely in a recent documentary (“Big Boys Gone Bananas“) about Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s attempts to expose the Dole corporation for its use of infertility inducing pesticides in Nicaragua. After losing a lawsuit to the workers, Dole started upon an aggressive campaign to hush all talk of the lawsuit.

The documentarians became the subjects of the documentary when Dole came after them.

Putting itself in unabashed opposition to free speech, the Dole corporation  put pressure on the LA Film Festival not to show Gertten’s film, sent scary cease and desist orders drawn up by lawyers to Gertten and everyone else involved, hired PR firms to place slanderous articles, and initiated lawsuits which tied the filmaker up in court for over a year. If Gertten were an American filmmaker, we likely would have never heard of him or his cause, but he found an ally in the Swedish government, who backed him.

This leads us back to our original question: Are the rich reframing the concept of the one percent?

There is no way of knowing for certain whether or not the articles that appeared on my Facebook feed have money and political interests behind them, however suspect. We can and should instead focus on the content of the articles, asking ourselves simply:

What is the real state of economic inequality in America?

When the Occupy movement adopted the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” they did not stipulate “of taxpaying income earners.” The three articles mentioned above all hold the latter stipulation in common. The issue of whether we are talking about the distribution of wealth in general or of annual income equality could only be of interest to those who wanted to reframe the issue.

If we want to know what the protesters meant, we have to ask ourselves who they considered their opponents to be, and I think it is safe to say that the Occupy movement is more opposed to billionaires than to some small business owner pulling down a healthy $320K per year. In other words, the Occupy movement was about the distribution of wealth and not about “income inequality”.

Switching the emphasis from one to the other is actually a very crafty way of causing the widening distribution of wealth to seem less ominous. A person who owns part of a corporation may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but for tax reasons only gives hirself a salary of a few hundred thousand or a million. We all know that CEOs and other high ranking managers are known to take home many millions per year, but there are so few of them that the numbers become watered down when the rest of the population evens it out. Paradoxically, the more poor people there are, and the fewer the members of the super rich, the less it takes to enter the one percent when considering it from the view of income inequality. But, that shouldn’t distract from the lopsided distribution of wealth in this country.

Articles that focus on annual tax income serve to detract from the status of the distribution of wealth in America, and the real figures are abysmal. The top one percent holds 40 percent of the wealth in America, while the bottom 80 percent only holds 7 percent of the wealth. In other words, the wealth of the top one percent could make every member of the bottom 80 percent about 5.7 times more wealthy than they are. This is the important statistic to remember if we want to talk about what the Occupy movement had in mind by “one percent”, because it takes into account, not only the rich, but the super rich.

Recall now the handy state-by-state graph of “income earners” in America. Isn’t it odd that taxpayers in Connecticut should make so much more per year and also be so close to Wall Street?

Further reading: Joshua Kennon’s article: How much money does it take to be in the top 1% of wealth and net worth in the United States?