Conservatives ruining lives as usual, this time in Myanmar.


Rohingya Muslim Woman in Myanmar.
Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve seen this story about Myanmar reported a couple places and thought I’d bring it to your attention, my beloved Loyal Readers™. And perhaps, you know, opine thereon. As far away as Myanmar is from the US on the other side of the globe and given the relative dearth of Buddhists here, see if any of this sounds oddly familiar to you.

Ma Ba Tha is a group of hardline, ultranationalist, racist Buddhist monks in Myanmar. The name Ma Ba Tha is an acronym for, roughly, “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.” They are not the only Buddhist monks in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar (also known as Burma), but they have seized an outsized amount of power and influence in the Southeast Asian country.

Buddhists in Myanmar make up 69% of Myanmar’s population, with the rest comprised of a diverse array of much smaller religious and ethnic minorities. Rohingya Muslims make up less than 3%. According to some historians (and the Rohingya people themselves), they are indigenous to Myanmar’s Rakhine State where most of them live; other scholars claim they mainly migrated to the region from Bengal during British rule (1824-1948). Regardless, Rohingyas are denied Myanmar citizenship and considered illegal immigrants, despite many of their families having lived in the country for more than three generations. Long-neglected economic conditions in Rakhine State have led to demonizing and scapegoating the Rohingya as the source of all their problems and a cultural threat.

The Rohingya people are routinely described by human rights organizations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In recent years especially, they have been fleeing Myanmar by the tens of thousands to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and to ghettos and refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, often on crowed and dangerous boats. Many have died on these journeys after traffickers abandoned them at sea, while those that arrive at their destinations are repeatedly turned away. Rohingyas that remain in Myanmar are frequently confined to prison camps and not permitted to leave. They have also had much of their arable farmland confiscated by the military and given over to Buddhist settlers. (Ahem.)

myanmarmapMyanmar and surrounding region.
Image: The New York Times (via International State Crime Initiative)

Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative in London obtained leaked government documents, conducted an 18-month investigation and released a report (pdf) in October:

[D]etailed research found ample evidence that the Rohingya have been subjected to systematic and widespread violations of human rights, including killings, torture, rape and arbitrary detention; destruction of their homes and villages; land confiscation; forced labour; denial of citizenship; denial of the right to identify themselves as Rohingya; denial of access to healthcare, education and employment; restrictions on freedom of movement, and State-sanctioned campaigns of religious hatred.

It also found compelling evidence of State-led policies, laws and strategies of genocidal persecution stretching back over 30 years, and of the Myanmar State coordinating with [local] ultra-nationalists, racist monks and its own security forces in a genocidal process against the Rohingya.

While Myanmar’s genocidal policies against the Rohingya began to emerge in the 1970s, the process has accelerated during its recent transition to democracy. Since 2012, the state’s terror campaign has only intensified and remains unrelenting. The report also notes:

The State’s persistent and intensified ‘othering’ of the Rohingya as outsiders, illegal Bengali immigrants and potential terrorists has given a green light to [local] nationalists and Islamophobic monks to orchestrate invidious campaigns of race and religious hatred reminiscent of those witnessed in Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the early 1990s.

All of reality notwithstanding, in an interview with a local magazine in Myanmar, Ma Ba Tha monk Ashin Wirathu referred to them as “the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize control.”

monkassholesMa Ba Tha monks marching to denounce foreign criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims, May 27, 2015.
The banner reads “UK (something something) Rohingya, Boat People are not Myanmar.”
Photo: Reuters (via Human Rights Watch)

Not content to confine the Rohingya to destitution and squalor or drive them to their deaths at sea, Ma Ba Tha has rallied to enact four new laws, all of them designed to roll back women’s rights and harm the Rohingya.

Birth control law. The Ma Ba Tha monks are very concerned that the Rohingyas, who make up 3% of Myanmar’s population, are outbreeding them, presumably at a faster rate than they can imprison, exile or kill them. The Rohingyas were previously required to sign a statement committing to not having more than two kids; now the law permits local authorities to “organize” women to wait 36 months between births. The factors to be taken into account by officials include “a high number of migrants in the area,” and critics fear that it will be selectively enforced against the Rohingya.

Even assuming they want to comply, it’s a little hard to envision how people can limit and space their pregnancies without access to reproductive health information and access to birth control. Meanwhile, the activists in the region teaching fellow women about reproductive health have been subject to death threats, intimidation and public humiliation from the monks, who have declared them “national traitors.” One prominent women’s rights campaigner told The Guardian that she and others have seen their pictures, names and phone numbers on posters displayed at Ma Ba Tha monasteries.

Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill. Buddhist women who desire to marry non-Buddhist men must register with government officials, who can deny them if they have “objections.” Human Rights Watch calls the law “incredibly dangerous” and says it is purposely designed to incite hatred toward the Rohingya.

Religious conversion. The law creates “Religious Conversion Scrutinization and Registration Boards at the township (district) level.” The way it works:

Anyone wishing to change their religion will have to be over 18 and will be required to file an application with a local board, including the reasons for the conversion. The applicant would be interviewed by at least five board members, followed by a 90-day study period for the applicant to examine the “essence of the religion, marriage, divorce, and division of property practices in that religion, and inheritance and parenting practices in that religion.” If the board approves the conversion, the applicant would then get a certificate of conversion.

The local board would forward all information it collects about the person to national religion, immigration, and identification agencies…[and] bars anyone from bullying or enticing another person to convert or deterring them from doing so. Punishments for breaching the law would range from six months to two years in prison…

No word on deconversion to atheism, but I’d hazard a guess that the monks no likee.

Monogamy Bill. Every married person in Myanmar (including foreign nationals married to Burmese citizens) as well as citizens living abroad are prohibited from “unofficially” living with another person, essentially criminalizing adultery. Violators are subject to sentences of up to seven years in prison and fines. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch writes that “laws criminalizing consensual sex disproportionately impact women. For example, a rape victim may be deterred from filing a criminal complaint if the failure to win a conviction puts her at risk of prosecution for adultery.”

monkassholes2They seem fun.
Ma Ba Tha monks and supporters march to celebrate new interfaith marriage restrictions in Mandalay, Sept. 21, 2015.

Photo: AP (via Jezebel)

But who cares about women anyway? Certainly not the monks. FYI, there isn’t even a Burmese word for “vagina.”

The good news is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party overwhelmingly won the recent elections, despite the Ma Ba Tha monks running around for the past 18 months shrieking that “the NLD is the party of the Muslims,” and that Myanmar’s Buddhists face a grave threat from the 3% minority population of Rohingya Muslims who are desperately fleeing the country in droves. The NLD will now select the next president. The bad news is that under Myanmar’s constitution, ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs are appointed by the head of the military, not the president—and the constitution cannot be changed without the military’s consent.

Governments and agencies in the wider world have condemned the four laws:

The international community, including the European Union in a statement in January and another in July criticizing the marriage law, and United Nations Special Rapporteurs, including the present rapporteur on situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, have warned that the bills breach Burma’s commitments to international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The US has officially expressed its disapproval: in Myanmar in May, US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said about the four laws that he was “deeply concerned” they “could exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions.”

The countries that have not ratified or acceded to CEDAW are Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, the Holy See (Vatican) and the United States—a regressive outlier as usual. 196 countries are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including every single member of the United Nations except one. Care to take a guess which country? Go ahead, I’ll wait…

No I won’t. I got shit to do, people. SPOILER ALERT: It’s the U. S. of A. Because no one’s gonna tell ‘Murikkkans that they cannot control their women and beat their children as they see fit—to say nothing of who we imprison, under what conditions we imprison them, and how we treat refugees and immigrants.

But by all means, let’s have the US ‘splain to Myanmar that its backward ways simply will not stand.


So. Once again we see the problem clearly: it isn’t Buddhism (or Islam or Christianity or…), it’s conservatism. The pathological need to dominate and impose hierarchies, enforced by any means necessary, always harms women and minorities.

Conservatives, why you gotta?


How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101.

[CONTENT NOTE: racism, sexism, other -isms. names have been changed.]

Longtime Loyal Readers™ may recall that once upon a time, I was a legal secretary. I toiled for years at NYC law firms—and, with apologies to my veteran friends—for what we in the staff ranks called “combat pay.”

The gig pays much better than average in part because it requires a specific skill set that includes fluency in legalese (and esoteric dialects thereof), software proficiency across the entire MS Office suite, superhuman abilities in deciphering truly horrendous writing (“make the edits I wrote with the giant green Sharpie and the smeary red Flair pen, but not the ones in pencil or blue fountain pen ink, plus add the purple crayon edits but only the ones circled with the orange highlighter not the yellow one”), and so much more. But let’s face it: that job pays well because lawyers.

lawyereditsLawyer Edits*
by Iris Vander Pluym
oil on canvas
8½ feet by 11 feet

Lawyers are the butt of many a nasty joke, and I can assure you this is justifiably so. Quite. Although firm cultures vary and some are better than others, they all were (and still are) strictly dominated by an Old Boys Club. This manifests in various ways, the most obvious being that the biggest rainmakers, their favored protégés and those in firm management with real power are overwhelmingly, indeed almost exclusively, white men. Thus it should surprise no one—and it will not in fact surprise people of color, women and other minorities—to learn that I regularly witnessed sexism and racism (and etc.-isms) more times than I can count. Just off the top of my head:

  • At a group meeting of attorneys that included only one woman, who was not among the most junior people in the room, she is the one asked to get coffee for everyone while the men get down to work.
  • Male lawyers routinely entertaining firm clients at strip clubs on the company dime, thereby effectively blocking client access to their female colleagues.
  • Being expected to cover for men’s extramarital affairs: once after a close call, one Big Willie told me that if his wife ever found out about his mistress it would cost me my job.
  • Male partners regularly returning from lunch completely smashed and saying all kinds of inappropriate shit to the staff, like telling my black co-worker who had a gift-boxed liquor bottle on her desk, “Whoa Yvonne! I didn’t know you were easy! Heh-heh-heh,” and then continuing to “flirt” with her until finally giving up and staggering into his opulent corner office.
  • Senior male attorneys becoming bitterly exasperated because a female subordinate left to pick up her sick child from school, when they themselves had never missed a single second of work in their entire careers due to childcare responsibilities: they had wives and nannies for that.

Most of this crap naturally went unreported; it was clear that except in the most egregious cases, little if anything would ever be done beyond a Very Stern Talking To™, followed by some hearty back slapping and then perhaps some scotch and cigars. But raising such issues could impact the career of the troublesome, humorless and oversensitive tattletale, if not the perpetrator. Only once do I recall anyone receiving serious consequences for inappropriate behavior: it was a senior associate attorney who constantly stared at women’s breasts when he talked to them, although he looked men right in the eyes. It was so flagrant that even d00d lawyers noticed it (Oh man, what’s up with that Dave guy staring at you ladies’ chests?”). After many complaints from women—plus the apparently required corroboration from men that this was (a) really happening and (b) disturbing to them—someone finally gave Dave the Very Stern Talking To™ and told him to knock it off. He didn’t, and eventually got fired. (I just googled him: he’s still practicing law, at a firm where women make up about 15% of the attorneys.)

Also—and this is not just my observation—the kinds of (male) lawyers who go into private practice, especially litigators, tend to be preening, vicious, chest-pounding apes alpha types: domineering, entitled, quick to anger, narcissistic. Many are verbally abusive to those they consider beneath them—which, at the end of the day, is pretty much everyone.

Still, over the course of all that time spent in the trenches cubicles, I met a handful of truly wonderful and extraordinary people, some of whom became very close friends. Including, as fate would have it, My Amazing Lover™. I point this out because a recent conversation led me to write this very post.

PARTNER: I have a mandatory diversity training class tomorrow at one.

IRIS: You could probably teach it.

PARTNER: It seems like they’re always scheduled after some incident happens, not before. More like law firm CYA than “hey, we really want to be more inclusive and here’s how we can do it.

IRIS: Sounds about right. So who failed How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 this time?

PARTNER: [White male partner.] Apparently he told a black secretary who just had her hair done in short braids that she looked like Buckwheat. 

IRIS: Jeezus fucking Christ.


IRIS: Just imagine the kind of fantastic bubble you have to maintain for yourself in order to live and work in Manhattan, and feel free to say that. To a black woman. At her job.


IRIS: Well you enjoy your How To Be a Minimally Decent Human Being 101 Class tomorrow, my love. I hope they bring in a nice catered lunch at least. And I hope it’s all ethnic foods.

[The next evening.]

IRIS: How’d it go?

PARTNER: It was terrible. Really poorly done.

IRIS: Oh no!

PARTNER: I went in hoping to learn something, even if some of my partners probably wouldn’t. For one thing about half the time was taken up by one of my partners who just wouldn’t shut up. He kept interrupting, and talking over people.

IRIS: Let me guess—it was a white d00d.

PARTNER: Why yes it was.

IRIS: And the presenter didn’t put a stop to that? That’s just…bad presenter skills. You have to politely shut that shit down as soon as it starts, maybe repeat yourself once, and then escalate your tactics if necessary—you sure as hell don’t allow it to continue.

PARTNER: They were two women law professors, and they used a lot of jargon and buzzwords that went right over most people’s heads.

IRIS: Like what?

PARTNER: Like “microaggressions.”

IRIS: Very important concept. Did they define them, and show you the research about what happens to people as a result?

PARTNER: Not really. There was a one-page handout with some examples. You’re not supposed to tell women they look pretty, or ask Asians for help with math, things like that. But, we never discussed it. It was as if they were talking to a class that was already familiar with it, so it just seemed…mostly incoherent. And the microaggression thing is just one example. It went on and on like that.

IRIS: Holy shit. What a wasted opportunity. The very people in that room are the people who most need to hear and understand this stuff. Did they cover heterosexism? Or gender? Like trans antagonism?





This epic failure bugs me for many reasons, mainly the enormous waste of an exceptionally rare opportunity. Then there’s the fact that when this sort of education is done badly it risks backfiring, and people end up more closed off to learning than open to it. I started thinking about how I might engage that particular audience in a discussion about diversity. I mean besides making that one d00d STFU 4EVAH, obviously. I might even turn him into a teachable moment, by asking everyone to just imagine a woman (or a person of color) constantly interrupting the presenters, talking over everyone else and expecting to be the center of attention at a presentation about diversity. Nine out of ten times (and I think I’m being generous here…) the person who does those things in a diverse group is going to be a white man. Maybe we can all ask ourselves why that is.

I perused the Palace Library and came up with a few resources I would tap into with respect to discussing microaggressions, which seems to me as good a place to start as any.

1. This Psychology Today article. It’s a decent 101-level explanation of microaggressions that summarizes key research findings:

  • although they may appear insignificant or trivial, studies reveal that microaggressions may be more harmful than overtly bigoted words and actions.
  • microaggressions have been found to:
    (a) affect mental health
    (b) create a hostile, invalidating work or school climate
    (c) perpetuate stereotype threat
    (d) create physical health problems
    (e) saturate society with cues that signal devaluation of the group
    (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities
    (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care
  • most people harbor unconscious biases and prejudices.

2. The Tumblr Microaggressions. There are so many excellent examples here it would be hard to pick just a few, but I would include some of the images from a photography project dealing with racist microaggressions by Kiyun and her friends at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus:

normalblackreallyfromcarrieunderwoodeyes2. This 2 page pdf entitled Making the Invisible Visible: Gender Microaggressions (via the University of New Hampshire). It looks like a handout from a (good) presentation. Ostensibly focused on gender, it’s a nice primer on microaggressions generally.

4. As I was thinking about all of this, right on cue came a very interesting article from The Atlantic: The Odds That a Panel Would ‘Randomly’ Be All Men Are Astronomical. Mathematician Greg Martin worked out the odds that speaker panels at tech conferences would be all (or overwhelmingly) men: next to zero. Martin concludes that “any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly.” He attributes this effect not to deliberate sexism or misogyny, but to unconscious bias. He also notes “how truly dismissive and defensive people get when gender disparity is pointed out.” Martin hopes his work can counter the stubborn illusion of meritocracy with a reality check—or as Lauren Bacon puts it, “Greg has found a way to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”

Other findings that cannot so easily be explained away by those who may prefer to remain in denial about how human culture and human brains work:

5. This is probably a bit advanced for a 101-level presentation, but perhaps it would be worth including either as a handout, or on a list of suggested further reading: White Fragility. DiAngelo, R., International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011). (pdf) If you haven’t seen it, it is a beautifully written, jargon-free academic paper that has received heavy traction in social justice circles since it was published. It occurred to me when I first read it that one could do a search-&-replace with sexist (or heterosexist or virtually any other axis of privilege) terms and the analysis would be just as powerful, interesting and accurate. Really an excellent read. From the intro:

I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.

Now that I think about it, opening a presentation with this story or something similar (along the lines of “unfortunately this is what we often hear whenever we talk about these issues with audiences like this one…”) could potentially tamp down this reaction in the first place.

It seems to me that microaggressions would make a very good starting point for a discussion about diversity, before launching into some broader concepts like privilege and intersectionality, and ultimately discussing effective ways to leverage some of these principles in the real world. I wouldn’t expect to have much of an impact in an hour and a half session; for one thing this stuff takes time to process, especially if you’ve never been exposed to it before. And of course there are some people who will never, ever be reached—they’re too closed-minded (fragile?) to tolerate even a hint that their behavior is ever anything less that unimpeachable at all times (despite evidence to the contrary). I have to admit I find it darkly funny that if we take the research findings seriously, my presentation would have the most impact if the person giving it is were a white, straight, fit, able-bodied, heterosexual male. But I do think a reasonable goal would be to get some peoples’ gears turning, such that they take better care with what they do and say, and begin to notice problems and issues that they did not see before. This is especially important, because once you see privilege operating, it becomes difficult to unsee it. I know from my own experience that this awareness is only the start of a personal journey. It will take many, many personal journeys to make meaningful progress.

But if there are people who genuinely want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem—and I believe that there are—they have to start dealing with reality somewhere, sometime. That means they have to be willing to confront facts and ideas that will almost certainly make them uncomfortable and defensive. I figure they may as well start with the kick-ass slides and handouts I would make for my (hypothetical**) awesome and wildly infotaining diversity presentation. I am the fucking Priestess of PowerPoint™. FYI.

Look, I drew a bobblehead of Sam Harris. In PowerPoint. For no reason.

harrisbobbleheadHahaha. I crack myself up.

*You probably think I’m kidding, or at least heavily exaggerating with the image of that draft markup. Nope.

**I’m semi-seriously considering putting something like this together. Thoughts?

Iris has a terrible headache from drugs.

Here we have a promoted story from The Washington Post highlighting a recent “scandal,” whereby some douchebro Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of an off-patent AIDS drug by like 5,000 percent or something, and now the entire Internet hates him. Even all the other drug companies hate him! The Post reports:

The major pharmaceutical and biotech industry groups have portrayed Shkreli’s actions as totally repugnant and the work of just one company, acting alone, with a flippant young chief executive who doesn’t reflect the broader values, practices, or trends of other companies.

Hahaha. Sure. The Post article proceeds to demonstrate that this is rank bullshit:

For example, tetracycline, an antibiotic discovered in 1948, cost 5 cents for a 500 milligram capsule back in November of 2013…Nearly two years later, it’s coming in at $11 a pill — a nearly 2,200 percent increase. Clomipramine, an antidepressant developed in the 1960s used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, cost 22 cents per pill in November 2012. Now, it’s $8.17 — a 3,600 percent increase.

In 2010, Amedra Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to abendazole, an off-patent drug used to treat intestinal parasites. At the time, the average wholesale price of the drug was $6 a day. By 2013, it was $120 — a nearly 2,000 percent increase.

These are hardly the only egregious examples the Post could have mentioned: this nifty interactive infographic from Bloomberg charts 74 top-selling drugs for which the cost increased in the US between 2007 and 2014 by at least 75 percent, and sometimes many multiples of that. Why, one might be inclined to wonder what’s going on here with all these skyrocketing drug prices. Alas, the Post only offers: “The trouble is this: right now, we can’t tell why prices are high, or even if they are high.”


Oh wait, no. No, it’s not. See, drug prices are not this high everywhere else, or even anywhere else: USians pay from two to six times more than the rest of the world for pharmaceuticals. Why?

Well, the short answer is that US taxpayers and consumers massively subsidize the world’s pharmaceutical research costs. For a more comprehensive answer, anyone (presumably including the bewildered author of the Post piece) can read an in-depth article at Medscape Medical News entitled, appropriately enough, Why Are Drug Costs So High in the United States?

But that is not our forte at the Palace. Here, we will just want to highlight a few perverse and corrupt policies that impact US drug pricing, and what is responsible for them. SPOILER ALERT: it’s conservatism.

Econ 101: desperation vs. demand. 

In the mythical world of the Free Market™, buyers and sellers will come to a compromise on the price for goods and services: too high, no one will buy; too low, and sellers will not have viable businesses. This is the storied principle of supply and demand, blah blah blah. But when it comes to health care, the “demand” side of the equation is driven by factors very different from those that drive demand for ordinary consumer goods. We are talking about human suffering, often profound, and sometimes the kind where life and death hangs in the balance. When that suffering human is you—or your child, or indeed anyone you love—you will pay anything for medicine and appropriate care, even if it means you lose everything.

Even post-ACA, health care is still the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the US:

A recent Harvard University study showed that medical expenses account for approximately 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in the US. Interestingly, the study also showed that 72 percent of those who filed for bankruptcy due to medical expenses had some type of health insurance.

That said, the ACA is having a positive effect on some cost-related trends. For example, in 2012, 80 million people “didn’t visit a doctor or clinic for a medical problem, didn’t fill a prescription, skipped a follow-up, treatment or test, or did not get needed specialist care” because of the cost. Two years later, only 66 million people reported the same. That trend is encouraging, and so is the fact that in 2014 almost 9 million more people had health insurance coverage than in 2013, bringing the total share of uninsured down to 10.4 percent.

Now I really hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that (a) bankruptcy and poverty are terrible fucking outcomes, (b) 33 million of us still remain uninsured, and (c) the 66 million of us who delayed or denied ourselves health care because we could not afford it is greater than the total population of the UK, where no citizen faces any of these problems for accessing health care. Ever. Nor do all 35,749,600 Canadians.

The ACA is based on a for-profit (read: conservative) health care reform model, one that Mitt Romney rolled out statewide as governor of Massachusetts. It did not slow medical bankruptcies there.

Price negotiation.

Elsewhere, single-payer and nationalized systems like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) negotiate a single price with drug manufacturers for the entire country’s supply. By contrast, the US “system,” if one can even call it that, is mainly comprised of multiple for-profit insurance companies and hospital systems, all running countless different programs and plans, each of which negotiates pricing separately. In this scenario the sole supplier of any drug, patented or generic, has the upper hand. But where there are only a few large payers—or only one—drug companies are forced to come to the table and offer a reasonable price if they want access to that market.

And here’s the kicker: government-run Medicare, one of the largest payers for prescription drugs, is prohibited by law from negotiating drug pricing. You read that right. This was already true before the ACA, which only cemented it. That is because pharmaceutical companies got what they wanted with the ACA: “We got a good deal,” wrote Bryant Hall of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), one of the largest, most influential lobbying groups in Washington.

One need look no further for proof of the power of negotiation than the government-run Veterans Administration, which is not barred from negotiating drug prices: costs run 25% to 50% lower than Medicare.

In 1992, federal Medicare spending on drugs was $400 million. By 1999 it was $7 billion. By 2013, $50 billion. Gosh, I wonder what it’ll be in a decade? EXCITING.


The ACA also banned reimportation: US patients cannot legally purchase less expensive drugs from another country like Canada. While the ACA was being cooked up by lobbyists and the Democratic president behind closed doors, PhRMA lobbyist Bryant Hall wrote that “WH [the White House] is working on some very explicit language on importation to kill it in health care reform.” Neat, huh?

But don’t you feel left out, my Canadian friends! PhRMA is coming for you, too:

“America’s big drug companies are intensifying their lobbying efforts to ‘change the Canadian health-care system’ and eliminate subsidized prescription drug prices enjoyed by Canadians” … “A prescription drug industry spokesman in Washington confirmed to CanWest News Service that information contained in confidential industry documents is accurate and that $1 million US is being added to the already heavily funded drug lobby against the Canadian system.” PhRMA was the leading drug industry trade group behind the increased lobbying and PR campaign. PhRMA was also independently spending $450,000 to target the booming Canadian Internet pharmacy industry, which has been providing Americans with prescription drugs at lower prices than in the United States.

And the UK’s NHS is barreling down the same road.

But fret not. This is only happening because Free Market™ health care is SUPER AWESOME! Once people wake up and smell the freedom, they will never want to pay reasonable prices for drugs again.

Comparative drug review.

Other countries compare drugs to determine whether a new, higher-cost treatment is any more effective than existing alternatives. These investigations can inform price negotiation, or determine whether a drug gets approval at all. In the US, our FDA has no legal authority to consider pricing, or to compare medications to one another. Even if it did have the authority, FDA does not even have the resources to confirm that data supplied by drug companies is accurate and complete—or, you know, not. Conservatives, chronically infected with deregulatory fever, will never task a federal agency with assessing the value of a new drug. After all, that might interfere with the Free Market™ gouging US patients on drug pricing. NO ONE WANTS THAT.

But what about research and development huh what about R&D?

The pharmaceutical industry defends its US pricing more or less thusly: it costs over a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market, and furthermore, more drugs fail to make it than succeed. We want to incentivize new and better drugs, don’t we?

YES! And that is why US taxpayers fund 85% of the basic research. No wonder US companies generate most new drug discoveries! GO USA! We also helpfully elect corrupt politicians who let the industry’s lobbyists write our nation’s health care laws. Yet strangely, we get nothing in return for any of this, while other countries reap the benefits. Consider the new hepatitis C drug, sofosbuvir. US patients will pay $80,000 to $160,000 for a course of treatment, while in Egypt and India the manufacturer has agreed to charge $900 per patient. And it’s still enormously profitable: a course of sofosbuvir costs only $138 to produce.

Nobody disputes that it’s a risky and expensive proposition to develop a new drug. But they do dispute the numbers. An oft-cited analysis by the Tufts Center pegs the development cost for a new drug at about $1.3 billion. Hagop M. Kantarjian, MD, professor and chair at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, begs to differ. In a 2013 paper he co-authored on cancer drug costs, Dr. Kantarjian and his colleagues suggest the actual figure might be as low as 10% of that:

“The figure may be inflated, because it includes ancillary expenses, salaries, bonuses, and other indirect costs not related to research or development, as well as an 11% compounded discount rate over 10 years based on stock market returns on capital investment,” they write. “Other independent estimates of cost of drug development put the figure as low as 4% to 25% of this estimate.”

Moreover, “R&D” for some new drugs apparently means “buying a smaller company that already did the R&D.” Gilead’s sofosbuvir, the hepatitis C wonder drug, is once again illustrative. When Gilead bought Pharmasset, Inc. in 2012 for $11.2 billion, Pharmasset reported $62 million in R&D costs over the three years to develop sofosbuvir (out of $177 million spent on R&D company wide over the same period). Before the Gilead buyout, Pharmasset was planning to make a reasonable profit selling sofosbuvir at $36,000 for a course of treatment; Gilead is now charging $80,000 to $160,000. Unless you live in Egypt or India, of course—then it’s only 900 bucks. FREE MARKET™ HEALTH CARE, everyone.

Another analysis published in the BMJ estimates the typical R&D cost at between $60 million and $90 million. But even if the $1.2 billion figure is accurate, there is no justification for US taxpayers and patients disproportionately footing the bill. Especially when we pay dearly in other ways, too: with people bankrupted for accessing life-saving medication, or going without it altogether.

There is a solution: Medicare For All, where “all” includes congresscritters. Just for starters, you would see drug prices negotiated so fast it would make your head spin, and we’d all find just how far they can fall. We really could have a less corrupt and more equitable system, in which corporate greed is not the driver of pharmaceutical innovation or pricing—human health is. But it’s just not going to happen unless and until we find the cure for conservatism. And it sure as shit isn’t in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry to cure that.

And listen. Lest you think I’m just a lefty kook talking out of my ass with no skin in this game: I am alive today only because of pharmaceutical innovations and the privilege to access them affordably. I’m a Type 1 diabetic, and I inject two different bio-engineered insulin analogs daily. I also take several oral medications to mitigate or prevent complications of the disease. I am grateful for this every fucking day. My grandmother’s generation had few alternatives to pig-derived insulin, which could be suddenly and violently rejected at any time by the body’s immune system (sometimes causing premature death), and rendering it useless as an intervention such that the disease would take its natural course (always causing premature death). In fact, as a young adult my grandmother’s sister died from complications of Type 1 diabetes.

I am not arguing for abolishing profits and nationalizing the drug companies. (Not yet, anyway. But if they keep this shit up I just might.) Again, I am arguing for a less corrupt and more equitable paradigm, wherein corporate greed is not the primary driver of pharmaceutical innovation or pricing—human health is.


Today in Mockery.

This week not one but two outstanding activist mockers managed to warm my cold little heart and ignite a tiny spark of hope for humanity, however fleetingly.

First via Raw Story, we learned of comedian Ted Androsky’s Twitter campaign to raise money for Planned Parenthood by taunting Sen. Ted Cruz in an effort to get himself blocked by the Republican presidential candidate. Cruz has promised to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood if elected president, because like the True Conservative Christian™ he is, he really wants poor women to give birth to a whole lot of babies they do not want and to suffer from numerous preventable and curable diseases, all of which the state will have to pay for one way or another. In reality, of course—a concept with which conservatives are only minimally acquainted—it is already true that no federal funding can ever be used for abortion services, anywhere, precisely because of disease-loving Forced Birthers like Ted Cruz.*

After Androsky tweeted about getting blocked by the Church of Scientology, a friend dared him to target Cruz next by promising to donate $100 to the charity of his choice if the Cruz campaign blocked him. Game on.

What started with silly memes escalated when Androsky began urging supporters to use Planned Parenthood’s online form to donate directly, then “select ‘in honor of’ and use the name fields to make a joke about @tedcruz.” That led to screenshot captures such as gems such as: 

“On behalf of everyone here at Planned Parenthood, thank you so much for your gift of $10 to Planned Parenthood, in honor of Ted Cruz’s Minions bath toys.”


“in honor of that time Ted Cruz tried to pet a dog but it farted and he cried,”

and my personal favorite:

“in honor of the time Ted Cruz pouted for a week because his wife wouldn’t sleep in the garage when she was on her period.”

There are so many more on Androsky’s Twitter timeline, peppered with outraged anti-choicer rantings about Planned Parenthood’s terrible Nazism etc. Good times.

The comedian also had some insightful things to say about activism and this Twitter stunt specifically:

“I think the reason this has resonated with people is because this Republican field is so cartoonish. They’re monsters and they’re dangerous, sure, but it’s so over-the-top now that it’s so easy to push it into comedy. Activism is a serious thing, but online activism in many cases is so self-serious that it gets in its own way of actually doing anything. Being another white guy who just complains or makes jokes about injustice while my life isn’t under any threat felt hollow.”

“Ted Cruz is truly evil,” he explained. “Why not combat it with targeted silliness?”

Why not indeed.

When asked how much money he hoped to raise for Planned Parenthood, Androsky said, “My goal is to raise $2,294,642, because that spells out ‘bazinga’ on a phone keypad.”

Well played, Mr. Androsky.

Next up comes a speech from perhaps our greatest living mocker, Stephen Colbert. It’s from 2012, but we only stumbled upon it recently—and it remains just as relevant today if not more so. The occasion was a gala celebrating Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and among the honorees were Colbert and notorious supervillain and enemy of all life on planet Earth, David Koch. The whole speech is fantastic, but the section directed to Koch is some seriously primo shit:

Of course, all of us should be honored to be listed on the TIME 100 alongside the two men who will be slugging it out in the fall:  President Obama, and the man who would defeat him, David Koch. Give it up everybody.  David Koch.

Little known fact — David, nice to see you again, sir.

Little known fact, David’s brother Charles Koch is actually even more influential. Charles pledged $40 million to defeat President Obama, David only $20 million.  That’s kind of cheap, Dave.

Sure, he’s all for buying the elections, but when the bill for democracy comes up, Dave’s always in the men’s room. I’m sorry, I must have left Wisconsin in my other coat.

I was particularly excited to meet David Koch earlier tonight because I have a Super PAC, Colbert Super PAC, and I am — thank you, thank you — and I am happy to announce Mr. Koch has pledged $5 million to my Super PAC. And the great thing is, thanks to federal election law, there’s no way for you to ever know whether that’s a joke.

By the way, if David Koch likes his waiter tonight, he will be your next congressman.


It reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook recently:

billlawHard to say whether this qualifies as mockery, straight up journalism, or just an ordinary page from a U.S. middle school civics textbook.

*Of course conservatives generally have no trouble at all funding the killing and maiming of brown babies and pregnant people on the other side of the globe with sanctions regimes, cluster bombs and drones. No word yet from the Republican presidential candidates on inflicting numerous preventable and curable diseases on these folks too, but we can assume statements from their respective campaigns on this important issue will be forthcoming shortly. I will promptly update this post when we have them.

The Condom Pope.

condompopeArtist Niki Johnson has created a portrait of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (a.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger) fashioned entirely from 17,000 colored condoms. She says the work aims to “critique Benedict’s views while raising awareness about public health.”

Benedict’s views.


In March 2009, Pope Ratzi ‘splained to the world that the AIDS crisis in Africa could not be mitigated with condoms, and that indeed condom use would only aggravate the epidemic and make the spread of HIV worse. Here in reality of course, condom use is actually “highly effective” in reducing the spread of HIV. Just FYI, in sub-Saharan Africa, 25.8 million people are currently living with HIV. Last year an estimated 790,000 adults and children died of AIDS and 1.4 million people became newly infected.

The Archbishop Archvillain of Milwaukee, where Johnson’s condom pope portrait is currently on display, well he no likee:

An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church, whose charitable outreach through its missionaries and ministers has eased the pain of those who suffer throughout the world, must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted.

Apparently in the unique Catholic dialect of the English language, “charitable outreach” means lying to people about the efficacy of condoms and thereby inflicting early death upon millions of people, as well as the kind of unfathomable agony that makes Jeezus’s notoriously bad weekend seem like a holiday at a luxury spa resort by comparison. Also, “easing the pain of those who suffer throughout the world” explicitly excludes the pain and suffering of sub-Saharan Africans. Good to know.

And yes, clearly the Real Victims™ here are Pope Ratfucker and his fellow believers: they have been insulted, people. That’s, like, WAY worse than millions of people dying of AIDS.

A favorite quote from Madalyn Murray O’Hair comes to mind:

I’ll tell you what you did with atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanized them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were women, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disemboweled them, hanged them, burnt them alive.

And you have nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you?

Personally, I think we should all do a lot more insulting of Catholic religious leaders. It’s obvious to me that if they really don’t enjoy being insulted, and their tender fee-fees are just so, so hurt, then they can stop behaving like horrible lying genocidal fucking shitweasels. Easy-peasy.

Until then, though…

palacefuckyou…they can simply go fuck themselves. With or without condoms.

Have a nice day.



[CONTENT NOTE: racism, ableism (mental health-flavored), transmisogyny.]

ericksonBecause it just wasn’t terrible enough for Fox News to frame a mass murder of nine black people at their church by an unequivocally racist white man as an “attack on faith,” here comes Fox pundit Erick Erickson to straighten everybody out about the Real Problem™. You see, liberal society is plagued by “a mental illness” characterized by “overwhelming narcissism and delusion” — yes, a conservative actually said that with a straight face — and therefore “cannot recognize what crazy or evil looks like.” Exhibit A for this little theory? Caitlyn Jenner. That’s right: accepting trans people is proof positive that liberals are ignoring “real evil” and allowing mental health problems to run rampant.

After dismissing out of hand the obvious and proven solution of gun control to virtually eliminate mass murders, Erickson said:

“A society that looks at a 65 year old male Olympian and, with a straight face, declares him a her and ‘a new normal’ cannot have a conversation about mental health or evil because that society no longer distinguishes normal from crazy and evil from good.”

Now because conservatives are constitutionally incapable of meaningful self-reflection, their dehumanizing rhetoric and vile policies can never be the problem. This is why they resort to all sorts of fact-free rationalizations, victim-blaming, denialism and projection, rather than ever admit to being factually and morally wrong and changing their views accordingly. If conservative policy isn’t working, well, that just means we clearly need more of it. Q.E.D. Let’s arm the clergy!

I can damn well recognize what evil looks like. It looks like Dylann Roof. It also looks like Erick Erickson. Because he will never, ever take a hard look in the mirror and own his repulsive, deadly and toxic shit, I have taken the liberty of illustrating what the rest of us see when we look at him.

erickericksonErick Erickson.
If the bowl cut fits… #youareDylannRoof.

[h/t the fierce and fabulous feminace for inspiring this graphic, by calling Roof “RacistFuck McBowlCut.”]

More proof the NSA surveillance debate is a total sham.

AP did some good investigative reporting and published this story yesterday:

FBI behind mysterious surveillance aircraft over US cities

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology – all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.

“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement.

And technically this is true: as the AP piece notes, “A 1990 report by the then-General Accounting Office noted that, in July 1988, the FBI had moved its “headquarters-operated” aircraft into a company that wasn’t publicly linked to the bureau.” But then the spokesweasel says this:

“Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.”


The surveillance flights comply with agency rules, an FBI spokesman said. Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.

Got that? The existence of the FBI’s aviation surveillance program is not secret. However, everything about the FBI’s aviation surveillance program is secret. But not to worry: they are complying with their own secret rules that they made in secret.

Then the spokesweasel says:

Allen added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”

O rly?

The FBI does not generally obtain warrants to record video from its planes of people moving outside in the open, but it also said that under a new policy it has recently begun obtaining court orders to use cell-site simulators.

A cell-site simulator, in case you were wondering, mimics a commercial cell tower, thereby tricking cell phones in the region into providing identifying information, even if the phone is not in public or actively using a cellular network (i.e. on a call or texting). This technology can effortlessly sweep up thousands of identities. So while the official FBI spokesweasel says its planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance,” it turns out that other official spokesweasels interviewed by the AP say that use of cell-site simulators is “rare.” So which is it, nonexistent or rare? And rare compared to what? Capturing HD video of the public without warrants? Get your shit together, official spokesweasels!

President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance, and has called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified programs.

Hahaha. Sure.

The Obama administration had until recently been directing local authorities through secret agreements not to reveal their own use of the devices, even encouraging prosecutors to drop cases rather than disclose the technology’s use in open court.


A Justice Department memo last month also expressly barred its component law enforcement agencies from using unmanned drones “solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment” and said they are to be used only in connection with authorized investigations and activities. A department spokeswoman said the policy applied only to unmanned aircraft systems rather than piloted airplanes.

According to my Ladylogic™, that means piloted aircraft can indeed be used solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment.

“Aircraft surveillance has become an indispensable intelligence collection and investigative technique which serves as a force multiplier to the ground teams,” the FBI said in 2009 when it asked Congress for $5.1 million for the program.

“Force multiplier” is a military term. Hell, I’m actually surprised they used the words “ground teams” instead of “boots on the ground.” Of course all of this technology comes out of our disastrous War on Terror generally, and drone use specifically. In other words, America’s Owners (Military-Industrial Weasel Division) have seen to it that domestic law enforcement is a lucrative and booming market for their war toys, which necessarily means that the US public is the intended target. Need I remind anyone that virtually all of this is paid for by taxpayers? Or that we are all terrorists now in the eyes of the state?

Among many other salient facts apparently lost in the NSA reform “debate”—like the fact that none of these domestic surveillance programs work for their alleged purposes—is that NSA is only one of many local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI, funneling surveillance intel to fusion centers. Loyal Readers™ should not be surprised to learn that a two year Senate investigation into fusion centers “could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.” But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been very busy treating enormous swaths of the citizenry as threats to national security: anti-war and peace activists, Muslim lobbyists, abortion rights activists, environmental groups, third-party voters and motorcycle clubs. The Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a foreigner with an expired visa who had been caught shoplifting shoes at a Neiman Marcus was added to the list of “known or appropriately suspected” terrorists. The right isn’t spared*, either: fusion centers have tracked Tea Party groups, a Second Amendment rally, Ron Paul supporters and pro-lifers.

Tl:dr: The idea that even the most radical, ACLU-endorsed reform of NSA’s activities will in any way hinder the surveillance state is laughably absurd.

As is often the case, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Trent Reznor perfectly sum up my view:


*This should go without saying, but in case it does not: as much as I hate conservatives—and I do, I really, really hate conservatives—I do not want them subject to blanket surveillance either. There are constitutional law enforcement methods of investigation that cannot possibly be less effective (or any more expensive) for preventing terrorism than mass surveillance, with none of the downsides. Unless, just maybe, that is not actually what these programs are designed to do…? Oh, I forgot to mention: another source of the intel sent to fusion centers is “the private sector.” I’ll let you ruminate on what exactly that might entail, but I’m pretty sure they rhyme with Oldman Hacks, A.B. Organ Face, Crank Love Numerica and ShittyStank.

Ask Iris: How can that happen?

I’ve been conversing in the comments on my seminal post on Conservative Personality Disorder with reader jim davis, who asks: “Why don’t progressives use facts and statistics to make their case?” He then provides irrefutable evidence—in the form of facts and statistics—that the (conservative) economic policies enacted over the past decades have utterly failed the American public and systematically devastated the middle and lower classes.

I responded that the utility—or futility—of deploying facts as a method of political persuasion depends on one’s target audience, and that unfortunately, for many of our fellow citizens facts are not only irrelevant, but exposure to facts can actually backfire. <—That article summarizes the research demonstrating that conservatives are especially prone to this effect, whereas liberals are more likely to change their minds when presented with new evidence and sound reasoning (i.e. reality-based).

jim davis responded:

How can that happen? Iris, I just read exposure to facts can actually backfire. I don’t buy it because all we have to do is change a very small percentage of peoples minds to tip the scales.
MLK, and a small group of activist did it in the 60’s and we can do it now, and we better begin before it’s too late.

I started answering in the comments, but instead I thought I would share my response here.


How can that happen?

The short answer is that humans are not particularly rational creatures—although some are, or at least potentially can be, more rational than others. Unconscious biases and our physical and social environments motivate our actions and reasoning to a far greater extent than we generally like to admit. But for now, we don’t need to know how the backfire effect happens to observe that it clearly does. (See also reactance.)

Behold just some people you would like to persuade with facts and statistics:

Almost half of Americans believe that a god created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, and, except in the relatively rare case of extremist homeschoolers, it isn’t because they’ve never heard the facts about the age of the earth and evolutionary biology. We recently learned that the Governor of Texas ordered the state guard to monitor military training exercises based on widespread fears that President Obama is planning to invade Texas and declare martial law. Influential American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke—a ranking member in perhaps the most patriarchal institution on Earth—blames the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandals on…feminists. Abstinence-only sex education is an unrivaled policy failure, and yet its proponents only double-down in the face of indisputable facts:

Officials with the Crane Independent School District are meeting to discuss their sex education program after nearly two dozen cases of Chlamydia were reported among the high school student body.

The school district’s superintendent, Jim T. Rumage, stands by his chlamydia-friendly strategy of telling kids to wait until marriage. “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease,” he told the Express-News in a phone interview.

I recently wrote about conservatives in the Colorado legislature ending funding for a program that saves the state many multiples of its cost by providing long-term contraception to low-income women. Under that initiative teen birth rates plummeted, and abortions fell 42 percent among women aged 15 to 19. The legislators’ “reasoning,” if we can call it that, for ending the program is the (false) belief that IUDs cause abortions. In other words, in order to curb the horrifying scourge of fictional abortions, actual abortions are now going to rise—to the tune of about 42%. And I can guarantee you that these same legislators will insist without even blinking that they are fiscally conservative and fiercely anti-abortion. And they believe it.

So. For whatever reason(s)*, our society continues to generate a critical mass of highly illogical, willfully ignorant, stunningly selfish, aggressively petty, historically naive, self-righteous, shallow-thinking and empathy-deficient (when not actively violent) apes—i.e., conservatives. And I would argue that precisely to the extent one is conservative, one is an arealist at best, and anti-reality at worst. (Yes, I just coined that word “arealist.” Like amoral, or atheist. You’re welcome, people!)

And let us not forget for one single second that the power center of the Democratic Party—which includes Barack Obama—is economically conservative (“neoliberal”). That makes them arealist, too. (See?! It’s come in handy already!)

I just read exposure to facts can actually backfire. I don’t buy it because all we have to do is change a very small percentage of peoples minds to tip the scales.

I don’t understand your disbelief in the fact-backfire effect. As I noted in my first reply, whether facts can be persuasive depends on (among other things) one’s target audience. For conservatives, that approach is particularly counterproductive. The effect is real, and that article I linked does a decent job of reporting the solid research that backs this up.

Your contention that “all we have to do is change a very small percentage of peoples minds to tip the scales” is also a bit confusing to me, as I am not entirely sure what claim you are making. By “tip the scales,” do you mean “get people who are uninformed, misinformed, unmotivated non-voters to consistently turn out to vote for liberal candidates and support liberal policies”? Because that is a very different order than “get a small percentage of conservatives to vote for liberal candidates and support liberal policies.” The former is exceedingly difficult; the latter, nigh impossible.

There is a key axiom that underlies all conservative ideology, namely: conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed. In other words, when conservative policies fail (and fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail…), well, this only proves that we obviously need more of it. It’s a cognitive cousin to narcissism: since they can never, ever be wrong about anything, it therefore follows that anything that contradicts their beliefs simply cannot be true. QED. This is why they cannot help but spin bizarre rationalizations, believe wacky conspiracy theories, and accept all manner of conveniently confirming bullshit as “fact.”

Relevant to the facts and statistics you presented in your comments, virtually all conservatives, all libertarians and an unconscionable number of Democrats have bought into the Just World Fallacy of the Free Market™ as a moral arbiter, i.e. that based on the inherent moral character and work ethic of the individual, the poor and the rich “deserve” their respective lots in life. Now obviously if this myth were even remotely true, Mexican day laborers would all be millionaires and the idle rich would be living on the streets. I mean, it doesn’t even hold up to the slightest empirical scrutiny. Nevertheless, the belief makes those who hold it readily susceptible to messages that we should further punish the poor until they get their goddamn bootstrappin’ shit together, and enact more tax cuts for all those wonderful wealthy job creators. The fact that the American Dream is now an empty promise for nearly everyone is either outright denied, or—contrary to all available evidence—blamed on liberals.

Likewise, if the middle and lower classes have had their income and wealth decimated for decades—and as you document, they certainly have—conservative economic policies simply cannot be responsible. Thus people are eagerly gullible dupes for messages that claim the source of our economic woes are our (inadequate) social safety net programs like Medicaid or food stamps that benefit Those Other Undeserving People at the expense of me and my own, and oppressively high taxes on rapacious corporations and wealthy individuals—and not, say, our absurd “defense” budget, or deregulating the banksters. It is simply a fact that over the past three decades 100 percent of income growth has gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans, and that this is the direct result of conservative economic policies. (And no, neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama are liberals on economic policy: they are neoliberal True Believers™). But good luck convincing the American people of that: conservative economic dogma so dominates our political discourse to such an extent that even people who are not particularly conservative by nature adopt conservative economic beliefs unquestioningly.

You will never, ever reason conservatives out of their wrong ideas. It is not just what people believe, but how they think that makes the task so daunting. That too, my friend, is just a fact. When it comes to the forces driving the economic status quo, Americans are among the most propagandized populations in the world, and the overwhelming majority cannot or will not interrogate the myths they have been force-fed since childhood. They have absolutely no fucking idea what their government is up to, or who it serves. And I am not convinced that even if they did, a sufficient number would be any more rational, compassionate, or motivated to do anything effective about it. There is something going on here that makes us uniquely irrational among Western nations.

Last, I would be remiss if I did not address this:

MLK, and a small group of activists did it in the 60’s and we can do it now, and we better begin before it’s too late.

Again, I’m not exactly sure what you are trying to say here, but facts and statistics did not drive the civil rights movement any more than reasoned argument got women the right to vote. As the brutal state violence visited upon peaceful protestors (including whites) was splashed across the nation’s TV screens, black activist leaders seized the moment and maneuvered politically to force the federal government to intervene. The FBI wanted Dr. King dead, and I am 100% certain that if a leader with the potential to upend the status quo arose today, the same would be true. More to the point, for all practical purposes blacks are still segregated in housing and education, legally lynched and discriminated against in ways large and small. Whatever gains the civil rights movement made, the backlash was swift, severe and continues to this day. Do you think Dr. King, if he were alive today, would declare victory for civil rights?

*I have my pet theories on the causes of Conservative Personality Disorder. Religiosity is a likely vector: faith is antithetical to critical thinking and a reality-based worldview; it is no accident that the least religious countries are the most socially advanced. A permanent war footing is another: War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Whatever Bogeyman is Coming Next, war, war, and more war. Presently, we are bombing at least seven Muslim countries; meanwhile we are bombarded with images of Islamic terrorism (not our terrorism, silly) that serve up easy justifications for our counterproductive state violence abroad and worse-than-useless mass surveillance domestically. Militarization invariably degrades the humanity and empathy of any citizenry, and that trend is only increasing in the US. Economic insecurity also spawns conservatism, and as your examples demonstrate there is certainly plenty of that to go around. And perhaps the greatest impediment to meaningful change is that this state of affairs suits some very, very powerful interests very, very well.


I hope this edition of Ask Iris has been helpful. And I would like to thank jim davis very much for his comments and question.