Saturday, October 17, 2015

Eugenics by Any Other Name

There is a reason why every time someone I know posts something about vaccines or pesticides causing the "autism epidemic" my heart starts pounding and I feel like I have been punched in the gut . .  . and I am tired of being nice about, tired of pretending this is just some academic question about which we can agree to disagree.

If you are someone who promotes these kinds of articles, what you are about to read might make you a little uncomfortable.  But its nothing compared to what you do to me and to people like me when you spread unfounded stories that treat our existence as a tragedy or a blight.

Before the Nazis began murdering Jews, they rounded up people they considered mentally or physically "defective" and murdered them, often with the knowledge and blessing of their families.

Yes, I went there.  Why?  Because actual fucking Nazis killed actual people like me.

And you know where they got the idea from?  Not from some mis-reading of Nietzsche,   They got it from the leading minds of the Ivy League medical schools in the U.S.  who were promoting the "science" of eugenics -- the practice of "strengthening the gene pool" by deciding who did and didn't get to have children.

Most overt expressions of eugenic thought are frowned upon today, at least in their most extreme forms.   But its influence isn't hard to find.   Just notice the casualness with which people will express their discomfort with two adults with Down's Syndrome kissing each other.  The aversion is based on a fear that those two adults will have a child who is like them.   And treating that possibility as tragic is tremendously cruel.

And one place that eugenicist thinking shows its head is in the search for ways to prevent or "cure" Autism.

You see, when you talk about preventing or curing Autism, you are talking about creating a world in which people like me don't exist, or at least are not as common.

I want you to stop and think about that for a moment.

How do you think a Queer friend would feel if you posted something about xeno-estrogens causing homosexuality?

How do you think a Black friend would feel if you posted a graphic from text book from the last century that purported to show scientific proof that white people were more intelligent than Black people based on comparisons of the shapes of different people's skulls?

Because besides representing the same kind of hatred the memes and articles you post about the "causes of the autism epidemic," these ideas have something else in common with the claims you are promoting -- they are all demonstrably false.

There is no such thing as an "autism epidemic."   The late Dr. Lorna Wing, who was part of the group that developed the diagnostic criteria for Autism in the DSM-IV demonstrated that the increase in Autism diagnoses in recent years exactly followed the increase predicted when the criteria were modified.    There is no basis for asserting that Autism rates are on the rise.

The claim that vaccines cause Autism was first advanced by a now discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield.   Wakefield fabricated the data and seems to have sought to profit from a class action lawsuit.   (Again -- think about this.  Would you sue someone because your child were like me and you wish they weren't).

Now, I no some of you will say that you knew a kid who never seemed Autistic until they were vaccinated.   Maybe the kid was speaking and then stopped.    The truth is we Autistic people frequently experience "regressive" events when we are under stress.   I sometimes lose speech for brief periods of time.   I experience loss of my already limited executive function for longer stretches.   Sure, it is possible that in some instances an immunological response to a vaccine might bring on a regressive event by creating neuroendocrineimmune dysregulation.  But regression has been happening to Autistic people living in a world of enforced neurotypicality long before vaccines existed.

Autisms is not new. We have been here as long as humanity has.   We pre-exist this culture and we will outlast it.

Do you still think you can talk about preventing more people like me from existing and call yourself my friend?    And to think, they say Autistic people "lack empathy" . . .

 p.s.  On that comparison with questioning the origin of Queer people -- "conversion therapy" for Queer people was based on the most popular form of therapy administered to Autistic people, developed in the same lab with involvement from the same researchers.   Conversion therapy for Queer people is finally outlawed in the U.S.   But in Massachusetts, Autistic people are still locked up and given electric shocks.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Unsettling Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Growing up in Ireland, Cora Anderson's grandfather, Pete Rivers learned to work with herbs.  When he came to Alabama in the nineteenth century, he sought out Cherokee healers and they exchanged information about the names and uses of plants.

I tell you this at the outset, because I want to say that there are times in history when people from Europe have met Indigenous people from North America on respectful terms and shared medicine.   But, things were different then.  Like my ancestors, Pete Rivers was an Indigenous person displaced from one continent to another.   He met his Cherokee neighbors on a certain equal footing.

My own great grandfather was probably two generations younger.  When he arrived in Lynn, MA, at the age of 21, a young Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, the Irish were not yet "white."  He, and my grandfather, faced the Ku Klux Klan who were terrorizing Irish neighborhoods in Massachusetts.  (Other ancestors of mine likely faced the same struggles when the Klan was going after Quebecois communities in Maine.)

But, three generations later, my body is read as "white" in thus culture, and I am an uninvited interloper on unceded WSANEC territory.    While the term "settler" doesn't, in my mind, fit my great grandfather, I am, against my will, a beneficiary of colonization, and of a white supremacist capitalist culture that values my life, my voice, my existence more than it values the lives and voices and existence of Indigenous people or Black people or Brown people.   And as much as I try to resist the violence of capitalism and white supremacy, I live within them.    The "privilige" given to me is not something I can renounce or give away.   So I do not enter into relationship with the people whose land I am living on with the same kind of equal footing that Pete Rivers held.   

This doesn't make true exchange impossible, but it complicates it. 

Adrienne Rich wrote that  "poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history."   The same is true of herbalism.

And in the case of relationships between the Indigenous people of this continent and the descendants of Europeans, that history is one where colonizers have again and again taken whatever they wanted and needed from Indigenous communities.    And, now that capitalist colonialism has stolen almost every material thing from the original inhabitants of this land (and is doing its damnedest to take what's left), a lot of people who materially benefit from that theft are looking to Indigenous communities to feel their spiritual needs as well.   Some are approaching respectfully, but most less so.    And so Indigenous communities are rightly and understandably outraged when outsiders claim their medicines and their ceremonies as their own, especially when they profit from them without giving back to the people they took them from.

Its true, plants belong to themselves, not to cultures.   I disagree with the claim I have heard (though it is a rare one, and I hear people denouncing it more than I hear anyone making it) that white herbalists have no right to work with Osha or Devil's Club.   We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms.   And, then, to learn what there is to know about traditional understandings of those plants that might give us better context for our own relationships with plants.   Where I draw the line is at claiming to be practicing the traditions that knowledge comes from without understanding and sharing the full cultural context they emerge from.    And at harvesting these plants in ways that disrespect and disrupt Indigenous people's ability to access the plants that helped to shape their cultures.

Its also true, that even in the presence of this history, real conversation and real exchange around plant medicine can happen between people form different communities.  But most of the time I find that those conversations happen quietly.   And the white people who engage in them don't tend to make bold, public claims about having a special knowledge of Indigenous medicine.   They happen when one plant person recognizes another, and they get curious.  

Just like Pete Rivers and the Cherokee healers he met when he came to Alabama.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fragments from a Lost Suite

for Van

Until you left
your body

You never knew
the limping god
was not a lame god.

Now he rises
to dance
to your tune,

and becomes
a green light
guiding you
into the woods.

But this time
the will o' th' wisp
burns true

guiding you
into the swamp
in March

where a
purple flower
rises from roots
that melt through
the ice.

Its blossom
will be your boat
for the next part
of your journey

floating on dark waters
through the cavern
of your heart

its beating
reminding you
of the rhythms
that anchored
you to the Earth.

Follow that river home.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Political Correctness and Censorship

I have been noticing more and more lately the ways in which the concept of political correctness is stifling free speech.

I see it happening again and again.   Someone in a position of privilege says something cruel or ignorant about a group of people who are marginalized, pathologized, brutalized, or otherwise generally shit on by the dominant culture.   People respond, pointing out the ways in which the things the privileged person said is hurtful or inaccurate or otherwise problematic.  The privileged person complains about how political correctness is destroying freedom.  And then everyone else is expected to shut the fuck up.

But, you see, that's not the way free speech works.  You are absolutely permitted to say whatever you want -- I will always oppose any law that gets in the way of your doing that.    But, then, I am allowed to say that what you said is fucked.    And if you turn around and say that I am taking away your rights by criticizing you and I need to be quiet -- well, then, who is trying to shut down free speech?

Its kind of like the way Christians claim to be oppressed in this culture right now. Allowing people to have marriages that your church doesn't approve of doesn't stop you from practicing your religion -- nobody is requiring or expecting you to change your rules about who your clergy will and won't marry.   But making laws that say  that Quakers and Unitarians and Pagans aren't allowed to perform weddings that your megachurch pastor disapproves of really is curtailing religious freedom.  

I don't go by the bullshit about "what this country was based on"  or "what the Founding Fathers intended" -- what the Founding Fathers intended was for one group of white male landowners to be allowed to make money without paying taxes dictated by another group of white male landowners to pay off the debt from the genocidal wars waged to make both groups richer.   But I am a believer in consistency.   If you want to invoke freedom of speech, you need to realize that includes other people's right to call you out on bigotry.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gathering the Wild Herbalists

When I was a teenager growing up in suburban Massachusetts, the Earth First! Journal brought me news of struggles to protecting old growth ecosystems from the Redwoods of California to the Cedars of Alaska, and I dreamed that someday I would be part of giving voice to those ancient forests.  Among my greatest inspirations was Lone Wolf Circles, and the Earth First! Warrior Poets Society that he founded.  

After a decade and half on the frontlines of opposition to the violence of late capitalism -- visiting war zones, blockading weapons factories, planting sunflowers at nuclear power plants -- I left the city for the woods, and eventually found myself teaching and practicing herbal medicine in the Pacific rainforest, a few hours' drive south of Clayoquot Sound, where forest defenders made their stand in the '80's and '90's, and the Walbran where friends and students of mine will soon prepare to put their bodies on the line in defense of some of this island's last old growth.   I venture from my forest home to come into Victoria to teach and work in the clinic at Pacific Rim College, to buy groceries, and to lift weights late at night when I am the only person in the gym.    And every summer and fall I find myself on the road, teaching at herb conferences.

Plant people are some of the best people I have met, and they make me feel welcome everywhere I go.   But, I have to admit, among all the amazing gatherings I attend, one has a very special place in my heart:  The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, where, a few years ago, Lone Wolf Circles (now known as Jesse Wolf Hardin)  and Kiva Rose took the risk of inviting an unknown herbalist with no formal training and a strange, poetic manner of speaking in spirals to come talk about my relationships with wild plants.    They earned my eternal gratitude then by making room for a new voice, and I have watched them continue to do the same for others, as brilliant people who sat in some of my first workshops have begun to emerge as new, clear, strong, creative voices in our community.   This year I had the special privilege of co-teaching with one of those still newer voices, Asia Suler, whose love and reverence for the land serve as weet but powerful medicine for the re-enchantment of the world.

Wolf and Kiva invite people like me to teach not in spite of our strangeness, but because of it.  They recognize that, as Albert Einstein may or may not have said, the problems we face will not be solved by the same thinking that gave rise to them.  I was particularly moved by the amount of space consciously and deliberately created for neurodivergent voices at this year's gathering.

 But that doesn't mean the conference is a free for all.   The strange truths spoken in the high desert are grounded in lived experience and must pass through the finely tuned bullshit detectors of those willing to challenge what passes for wisdom, be it conventional or unconventional.   The same rollicking spirit that inspired me when I first encountered Earth First! lives on in a conference that grew out of the movement of deep ecology from road blockades into medicine.    I am already counting down the days until next September.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

False Hierarchies and the Backlash Against Silberman's NeuroTribes

Hans Asperger, with guns to the heads of the children he treated, created the myth of "high functioning" and "low functioning" Autism in a desperate attempt to save some of them from being killed in concentration camps.

Those who insist on such a distinction today have no such excuse -- and are leading the backlash against Steve Silberman, the journalist whose meticulous work uncovered this history.

In a review typical of this backlash, Dr. Jennifer Margoulis writes "Silberman is conflating children and adults who have some neurodiversity with children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism and related health issues like gastrointestinal problems and severe pain."

Let's parse her statement a bit.

We'll begin with the most obvious -- Margoulis implies that proud Autistic people and our allies aren't interested in finding solutions to mitigating conditions that are common among Autistic people such as gastrointestinal problems and autoimmune conditions.   Helping fellow Autistic people get to more happily inhabit bodies is on of my passions as an herbalist, and most of my Autistic patients have become amateur medical scholars of their own conditions -- we get obsessive about or special interests, or so the diagnostic manuals say.   One thing many of have found is that conditions we are most prone to are also common among trauma survivors.    To a large extent, they are likely linked to the experience of being neurodivergent in a culture of compulsory neurotypicality.   (Organizations that claim to speak for us silence our voices will funding eugenic research aimed at preventing or existence in future generations.  Our styles of speaking, thinking, and self-regulating are pathologized, often punitively.  Some of us are institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy and chemical lobotomy.   Autistic People of Color are frequently looked in cells in schools as children and all too often become targets of police violence.)

But more troubling is Margoulis's main point -- that we need to make a distinction between "adults who have some neurodiversity" and "children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism."

As I have written elsewhere, such a distinction is false, and serves to further capitalist agendas that value us according to our ability to participate in the creation of wealth.   Those of us who are assigned the category of "high functioning" maintain a performance of neurotypicality at a high cost to our health in order to get access to the things we need to survive in this culture.  And, just as the late Dr. Oliver Sacks found with silent Parkinson's patients who were presumed to be mentally vacant, we are discovering that non-speaking Autistics have inner worlds that are rich and uncannily similar to those of speaking Autistics.

Breaking things down further, talking about "adults who have some neurodiversity" suggests that neurological divergence is something to be accepted in moderation, but policed.  "You Aspies are ok Sure, you are weird, but you talk with us.  Yeah, we do like it best when you are in a separate room writing code.  But you aren't like those other ones.  You don't bite and kick."   It echoes discourses around previously pathologized aspects of human diversity, like sexuality -- "Middle class lesbians and gay men who want to get married and own houses and avoid public displays of affection are ok, but not the flamboyant ones who wave their sexuality our faces.  And Trans people skeeve us out."

It is wrong when talking about sexuality, and it is just as wrong when talking about neurobiology.

We're here.  Our neurobiologies are Queer.  Get used to it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Confessions of a Facebook Witch

Facebook is one of my favorite magical tools.

It is an amazing tool for divination -- I know people of all kinds scattered across a continent or two, and I can see what is showing up along each thread of my connections, and also pick up on things that are showing up at really disparate parts of my web.   This gives me a way to feel what is moving through the world and discern its patterns.

Sometimes, reading those patterns, it is possible to make just the slightest tonal shift in the song being sung by this part of the human world to change the music entirely.   Words, images, songs have this capacity.   Viral in the sense that we would mean if we embraced the necessity of the viral elements of our own microbiomes.    The nature of the movement of the changes across the web predicted by complexity theory and chaos mathematics.

Facebook is in so many ways a simulacrum of the internet itself, which in turn is a simulacrum of a mycelial network, which mirrors a neural network.  The internet itself emerged when neurodivergent people who had been given access to consciousness altering mushrooms and synthetic ergot derivatives were given access to enough silicon, enough electricity, and some new kinds of conductors.   Right now much of the mycelium is still living under laboratory conditions, feeding off information poor simple sugars, but as we bring our wild selves into contact with the technology, it can be fed the rich nutrients of the forest floor (because some of us have forests inside us, and our very exhalations can be like falling leaves) which will allow it to blossom forth the most amazing fruiting bodies from the transformation of the nutrients.

Karina taught me that "a witch works with all things."   This web is one I tend.