Friday, May 30, 2008

Our Daily Meds

In her book, "Our Daily Meds," Melody Petersen has given us a new understanding about what's behind prescription drug advertising on television. Money, that's what's behind prescription drug advertising on television. Who knew? In Big Pharma it's called direct-to-consumer marketing, and the official pharma jargon for this is DTC. Beyond that, however, nobody (including the Big Pharma companies themselves) really understands much of anything, because most of the money is only going into the pocket of the PR firms that create the drug ads. For the pharmaceutical companies, the DTC experiment has been a mixed bag.

Take the recent case of Dr. Robert Jarvik, hyping Lipitor umpteen times a day on the TV in scenes that depicted him rowing and running. Working through the New York PR firm of the Kaplan Thaler Group, Pfizer paid Jarvik $1.35 million to be the mouthpiece for Lipitor. What Kaplan Thaler failed to mention in the advertisement was that Jarvik was not a rowing devotee (they used a body double for that scene), and Jarvik was not a runner, and Jarvik was not even licensed to practice medicine. Under pressure from the U.S. Congress and the pharma blogosphere, Pfizer eventually pulled the ad from TV in February of 2008. Both Pfizer and Dr. Jarvik suffered a substantial loss of reputation. As for Kaplan Thaler, it wasn't necessarily a sure bet that they'd be working on another Pfizer DTC commercial, but now it seems that they're the firm behind the Lyrica ads.

DTC advertising is relatively new. The FDA first allowed these prescription medicine advertisements to be shown on television in early 1997, and the Big Pharma players jumped on the opportunity like Dobermans on a prime rib roast. The high point for this DTC activity was reached about three years ago. In July of 2005, Pfizer was one of the top ten advertisers on television (the U.S. military is number one). Starting in August of 2005, Pfizer began cutting back, but the recent Jarvik debacle didn't intensify that pullback. Quite the opposite. With the lion's share of the industry's 5.1 billion-dollar TV ad budget, Pfizer is now actually on track to surpass the high water mark for TV ad spending set in early 2005. Meanwhile, Merck has been virtually absent from DTC activity after being forced to pull the Dorothy Hamill ads for Vioxx.

One of the main points of contention in DTC advertising concerns the issue of "risk advisement." The warnings of adverse side effects that accompany DTC ads are not the least bit informative or understandable for the average TV viewer who might need the medicine. Meanwhile, the Big Pharma players and the PR firms like Kaplan Thaler are only concerned with "compliance," meaning that they do just enough full disclosure to keep the FDA from pulling the ad. For this reason, as well as a host of other reasons, the pharma industry is taking it on the chin from the blogosphere and the Congress and the AARP. According to several market research polls conducted in 2006 and 2007, the pharmaceutical industry, handgun manufacturers, and tobacco companies are all held in the same low esteem in the court of public opinion. Big Pharma, generally perceived as an obscenely prosperous cash-cow, actually posted a measly 3.8% increase in 2007, and is on track to an equally anemic performance in 2008. The last time that the pharmaceutical industry showed numbers like this was in 1961. One extremely well-placed pharmaceutical industry insider has gone on record saying that, in his opinion, at least one of the major Big Pharma companies will completely disavow the use of DTC advertising by the end of 2009. If advertising for prescription drugs could be summed up with two words, they would be, "unfulfilled promise."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Elitist Candidate

Once again Barack Obama has been targeted for being an elitist. Those so-called hard-working, white voters certainly know a leadership deficiency when they see one. Too bad they weren’t around to sandbag the nominations of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and JFK, for all of these presidents were unabashed elitists. Thomas Jefferson embraced scientific intellectual pursuits, spoke French, and had actually visited France. God forbid. The same was true for Ben Franklin who was also an elitist. All four of the faces on Mount Rushmore would be elitist icons if not for the fact that Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin, and that he struggled with bi-polar depression all his life.

George W. Bush came from, perhaps, the noblest stock of all. Surrounded from birth by tremendous wealth and power, he could easily have slipped into elitism. However, wisely anticipating that he would one-day need to curry favor with hard-working white voters, he transformed himself at the earliest opportunity into a drunken frat boy, and then stayed at that performance level throughout his adult life right up to the present time. By forging an anti-intellectual, non-elitist skill set early on, he was able to put together a remarkable resume of business failures before starting his political career. Success came his way when Karl Rove entered the picture. Rove wisely understood that most Americans fail more than they succeed, and they would identify with candidate Bush based on the kindred qualities shared by all, just as long as Bush betrayed no hint of elitism or intellectualism. The sad thing (sad for the United States, not for Karl Rove) is that Rove had nailed the situation spot on. The result has been the last seven years.

Here’s the thing. If Americans won’t let themselves remember that all of our very best presidents were elitists, then there’s nothing in our democracy to keep us from electing one failure after another.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been a Cannibal?

Papua New Guinea attracts anthropologists the way that New York City attracts stockbrokers and theater wannabes. It’s where the action is, the place where human cultural evolution took a left turn and never looked back. The local name there for a helicopter is, “Food mixer from sky blong Jesus Christ.” It’s a dark tropical place, ancient and unknown, enchanting and deadly, pandering throughout time to an exotic people with their dreadful rituals of exquisite mystery and peculiarity that seem to roll on through the ages in seamless linkage to stone-age antiquity.

Like some anachronistic throwback to Amazon mythology, much of PNG is a matrilineal society with most of the land owned by women who pass it down in families from mother to daughter. In these places where women hold the only meaningful power, they staff most of the governmental positions and sell the betel nuts. Both functions seem to be equally important. The visitor there sees the shriveled old black-skinned crones selling coconuts and bananas as well as that peculiar local mood-altering combination of betel nuts, lime powder ground from coral, and leaves from the betel pepper plant, and the visitor never knows that the person who controls the betel nut supply controls the society.

The dark-skinned men mostly fish all day, after first stopping by the market to load up on their mood-enhancers, and loading up seems the only proper description for the process where betel nuts are chewed along with lime and betel pepper leaves in a mouth-filling intoxicant mix that stains the teeth and gums a bright vampire red.

Considering the second-class status of the males in the society, it becomes all the more astonishing when one first encounters the life-size wooden carvings of the male ancestor spirit figures in the Sepik River region to the north. These are nothing less than an artistic poke in the eye of matrilineal female authority, with their anatomically-correct male members exaggerated in length such that the standing totems achieve a kind of geometric triangular stability based on the principle of the three-legged stool. The elongated wooden genitals are one of the defining features of PNG statuary.

In 2000, my wife and I joined an anthropologist in PNG to investigate an episode of true cannibalism that had just taken place a month or two before we arrived there. We made a trip up into the mountains to get to know the people involved in that affair, and to try to understand it from their viewpoint. To our surprise, we were struck by the absence of anger and hostility in the whole affair. A group of women had killed an unfortunate chap, drained his blood, gutted him out, cooked him over an open fire, and then ate him. The poor chap whose misfortune was at the heart of this episode was old and feeble. That’s part of what made it all seem so Darwinian.

They spoke English, or at least a kind of Pidgin English that has been perpetuated in PNG out of necessity. It’s the only common language they have in Papua New Guinea. All the various tribes speak six-hundred different native languages. So before the missionaries came, people in one village could simply not communicate with people in another village only twenty kilometers away. As we interviewed these strange people, we came to realize that at no time, apparently, had any of these female cannibals lost their temper. It all just seemed so very natural the way they explained it, and because of that calm demeanor, we never felt threatened in any way. I came away with the strange belief that there is much more violence on American highways than what we found on that adventure in the high mountains of PNG.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Gay Marriage Triggers Loud Twang from John McCain

Last week, on May 17th, the California State Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, and the floodgates opened for same-sex unions. Ellen DeGeneres immediately announced her wedding plans, and actually asked John McCain to walk her down the aisle and give her away (I'm not making this up). That loud twang you heard was McCain's Republican underpants twisting into a rigid knot to guard his tight little sphincter. "Gay marriage" McCain believes, along with the religious Right, "Is an assault on the traditional family." Well, let's just see about that.

In today's America, 43% of all first marriages end in divorce. The failure rate for second marriages is 65%, and for those who believe that three strikes and you're out, they're right 75% of the time. Three quarters of all third marriages fail. When the numbers are aggregated, the divorce rate in America is 52%. It's the highest divorce rate for any nation or culture in the world by quite a wide margin. And the road to divorce can be cruel indeed, for public health statistics tell us that 17% of all wives suffer some level of spousal abuse.

It's no better for the children. Anybody who has taught in public school for more than 25 years will tell you, without exception, that students have diminished in their behavior, their work ethic, their respect for authority, and their overall learning ability. And this diminution has built upon itself incrementally, year by year, until American youth is now the most poorly educated in the industrialized world. The reason behind this decline is that fathers and mothers have abdicated their parental responsibility and left it up to the school system to tend to the upbringing of their children. Mothers no longer consider it a pleasure to dish up a hot meal for the kids, with the result that an astounding number of students get all three meals on weekdays from their school. And if parents are blessed with a high-energy child, they would prefer to medicate the kid with Ritalin rather than use good parenting skills to focus and develop the child's energy.

If one heterosexual marriage is good, evidently more is better, so we also have the American phenomenon of "plural marriage." Thanks to the recent shenanigans of the Mormon-offshoot polygamist sect in Texas, we have an insight into this freakish world. While exercising their religious faith, they begin turning their daughters into sex slaves at age 13 or 14, and for the next few years the young girls are bred like canine bitches in a puppy mill. They eventually grow up into clone-like women who appear on television as brain-dead Stepford wives. It ain't pretty, but it's, sure enough, heterosexual. And, of course, it's all rationalized with theological crapola.

The anti-gay Right wingers get a lot of their notions about marriage from the teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately, the guy left us with no personal example to guide us. He talked the good talk about "A man and wife cleaving to one another," but he was in no hurry to do much "cleaving" himself. His personal example was that of a man living an adult life in the company of other men.
So here's my question. When it comes to the debasement of traditional marriage, and the ruination of the American family, what can gay marriage possibly do that hasn't already been done?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hard Working White Americans

As Barack Obama gets closer to locking up the nomination, it’s suddenly dawned on everyone that there is a certain segment of our society that will never vote for him, no matter what he says or does. And now Hillary Clinton has been kind enough to give us a tidy little euphemism to label these folks, and thereby avoid the dreaded “R’ word. They are, in Clintonspeak , “Hard-working white Americans.”

They might be hard-working now, but it’s worth noting that they are descended from people who were too lazy to pick their own cotton and tobacco.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bird Flu and Racism

Threatened with rampant bird flu, Seoul, South Korea just became the latest Asian city to eradicate 100% of its chicken population. Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, Los Angeles is expanding its chicken population. Under a Tsunami wave of Mexican immigration that has made The City of Angeles look like a third-world metropolis, the city fathers were recently forced to change the law regarding house pets. Chickens are now considered house pets with no limit on their numbers, although roosters do have a cap. Evidently, a house full of chickens now has the cultural status once held by the Chihuahua.

You don’t need to be a virologist to visualize the possibility of a virulent H5N1 outbreak in the land of movie stars and sunshine. So here’s the question- If the time comes that it’s necessary to exterminate all the Hispanic cluckers- will this be labeled as an act of racism?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Geopolitics of Denver

When they start welding the manhole covers in place to deny sewer access, you know that some kind of extravagant dog-and-pony show is coming to town. For Denver, the big attraction will be the Democratic National Convention in August, and this seems like a good time to explain why, politically, Denver is like a pinball caught between the machine’s two bottom flippers. It all has to do with the location, and the pinball flippers are the two neighboring towns.

Twenty miles west of Denver sits a town that is often referred to with tongue in cheek as The People’s Republic of Boulder. To say it is “liberal” is like saying that Washington D.C. is political or Vatican City is religious. The description, while true, is insufficient. Like utopian residents living inside the hole of a donut, surrounded by a growth-inhibiting greenbelt of protected wildlife sanctuary, the left-leaning citizens of Boulder go about their daily lives, listening to NPR, and motoring about in their low-carbon-footprint compact Volvos while avoiding all use of forbidden tobacco products. The Federal Government always keeps a close eye on the citizens lest they betray their insufficient level of patriotism by advocating for peace. And everybody in town knows that the NRA would have fewer members if guns were used to perform abortions.

Democrats, even those with a middle-of-the-road, it-doesn’t-make-any-difference view, will probably feel right at home in Boulder. There’s a semi-socialist comfort to be found in the normal Boulder leftist way of looking at things, and certainly life in this town, for liberals, is vastly superior to what it’s like down the road.

Down the road means Colorado Springs, 70 miles to the south. It’s a place where the citizens really know now to put the “Right” in righteous, and where seldom is heard the discouraging words, “gay marriage.“ Here is to be found an incestuous colony of world headquarters for outfits like The New Life Church, and The Navigators, and Global Harvest, and Focus On The Family, and numerous other para-church think-tanks devoted to the overthrow of evolution and homosexuality and stem-cell research and any other facets of biology which they find offensive. I never get it, that hang up with biology, since nowhere in the Gospels, as far as I can tell, is there anything to say from Jesus on the subject of biology. Nevertheless, the self-righteous biology police are famous for periodically calling a national news conference to announce that they’ve found homosexual traits in yet another animated cartoon character from the make-believe world of kiddie’s television. For me, watching this is more entertaining than Saturday Night Live, but the local citizens tend to keep their TVs glued to the Fox News Channel.

As home to the United States Air Force Academy, NORAD, the missile defense center, and the huge Ft. Carson army base, Colorado Springs is, arguably, the most militaristic city in America. Only a couple-dozen or so sovereign nations on earth have more firepower and military infrastructure than this single Colorado town, so the citizens of Colorado Springs tend to think of themselves as the last great bastion of patriotism and 2nd amendment protection. But deep down, if they’re forced to admit it, they also know that the NRA would have fewer members if guns were used to perform abortions.

Convention Democrats in August, intending to sneak down to Colorado Springs and, perhaps, revel in some pro-war happy-talk, are urged to go incognito. Don’t openly display your convention credentials and remember to dress conservatively (no pun intended).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Putting a Stop to Illegal Immigration. Wanna Bet?

South Africa has been called, "Africa's America" because it holds the dominant place on that continent in much the same way that the U.S. dominates North America. To carry the analogy a bit farther, Cape Town is that nation's Los Angeles. It's the nearest great city that immigrants dream about as a destination where they can start a new life.

Like the United States and Mexico, South Africa and Mozambique share a common border that is partitioned with a formidable fence, constructed by the rich country to keep out refugees from the poor country. But here the similarity ends, because in Africa the people who wish to migrate to the south of the African continent face the ultimate obstacle: animals who see them as food.

On our last trip to Cape Town, my wife and I sat with a local couple in a trendy bistro down on Cape Town's wonderful seaport development with its world-class shops and restaurants and hotels. There, in posh surroundings with a view of the harbor, the locals described to us how would-be immigrants try to deal with the predator cats that block their way to a better life. Unlike our situation along the United States southern border where the immigrants are mostly fit and able young men, the would-be immigrants in Africa begin their journey with entire extended families including the old and feeble. It is generally understood by everyone that, if lions or other predators are encountered along the way, the old and the feeble will be sacrificed as food so that the younger family members can survive. Such are the harsh realities in that part of the world.

If immigrants are fortunate enough to run the gauntlet and reach Cape Town, their lot is still bleak. Chances are, they will find themselves living in one of the townships. These are the shantytowns, like the slums and Hoovervilles in Depression-era America, but with populations that can number a million or more. Townships are characterized by narrow dirt roads, lack of running water, and flimsy shanty dwellings constructed by hand from confiscated materials. The local euphemism for this is "informal housing." We really have nothing like this in the United States, and in Cape Town the contrast between the townships and the rich upscale neighborhoods is absolutely staggering. Our conversation in an atmosphere of elegance about predator cats eating old and feeble human beings was a kind of metaphor for Cape Town itself, with all of the economic and environmental differences that are found there.

Informal housing, slums, shantytowns- by whatever name you call these desperate neighborhoods- they are found throughout the third world. In South America they are called "favelas." However, unlike the "favelas" of Rio (which are so deadly that even the police won't enter them), these Cape Town slums are safe enough for white outsiders to go in and spend time. So we did just that on the morning after our seaside dinner. I had some doubt about the authenticity of the story we had been told the night before, but our trip to the slums dispelled that. Inside a tiny hand-built shack we interviewed a man who had lost his parents to a lion attack. He had left Zimbabwe with his extended family and headed south on foot. Near the northern border of South Africa, they had encountered a pride of marauding lions. The mother and father had advanced toward the threat while the younger family members retreated in the opposite direction, and several days later they were told by people in a local village that human bones are routinely found out in the bush.

As I listened to this man tell his story, and as I saw the intensity in his eyes, I wondered if he might not chuckle at the thought that leaders in the United States think they can stem illegal immigration with a fence, or with electronic surveillance equipment. That’s American hubris for you, believing that gizmos can change human behavior better than the threat of being eaten alive by a beast.

Friday, May 9, 2008

I Still Call It Burma

Pathetically inadequate response to a devastating natural disaster, from a leadership that is stubborn to the point of national suicide. I’m speaking, of course, about Myanmar, although I guess the description also fits Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration. The deeper tragedy about the devastation in Myanmar following the cyclone is that it will now come to define this country that was once known as Burma. For years to come, the very mention of the name, Myanmar, will conjure up images of chaotic human suffering and pompous military leaders decked out in ridiculous uniforms. But the fact is, for several thousand years, Burma was a land of incredible beauty and human achievement. For my wife and I, Burma is still our favorite Asian country.

Until the nineteenth century, with the building of the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower, the second tallest manmade structure on earth was the Shwedagon Paya in Rangoon, Burma. For nearly a thousand years, only the Great Pyramid of Giza was taller than this great Burmese Stupa which was built as a place of worship for the Buddhist monks. At the base, the circumference is nearly a quarter of a mile around. And at the top of the giant 326-foot-tall central tower is a flawless 76 carat diamond. In my opinion, only the Taj Mahal in India can compare with the Shwedagon when it comes to ancient architectural perfection of design and construction.

Ignoring the U.S. State Department’s warning about travel to Myanmar, my wife and I obtained the proper visas and sailed to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in 2004, aboard a ship delivering cargo. The military rule there made life miserable for native citizens, but for visitors, Yangon was considered one of the five safest cities on earth. We went to study life in a Buddhist monastery, and we ended up studying the history and architecture of the Shwedagon. I am writing about this now, during the news coverage of the cyclone’s aftermath, because I’m perplexed at the failings of the media. (That should tell you about my naiveté). If the media organizations can drag out endless file footage showing the Myanmar Generals motoring about like little dictators, why on earth can’t the same so-called journalists produce one single photo of the most beautiful temple on earth?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fear and the Loss of Freedom

Freedom is a little bit like virginity. You don’t just helplessly lose it like some risky financial investment in a down market. Freedom is something that you willingly surrender to somebody who‘s out to screw you, and then sometime later, down the line, you wonder what it might be like to have it back.

The travesties of the Bush Administration will be recited and debated well into the next century, and only the hindsight of history will tell us how bad it really was. Even a short list will certainly include the following: Squandering a trillion dollars of our national wealth. Failing to address problems on our southern border. Initiating an unjust and needless war. Trampling on the United States Constitution by attempting to render the Congress irrelevant. And cynically exploiting the trust of Christians and conservatives. To me, however, the most lasting damage inflicted by Bush and Cheney was this: They made us change our understanding of the word, freedom.

Every dead Marine who comes home from Iraq is eulogized with the words, “He died for our freedom.” Nothing could be further from the truth, although I completely sympathize with the need for the dead man’s family to believe this. The fact is, our freedom was never threatened by Iraq. Our freedom has never been actually threatened in a military way by any outside power since 1945. We can’t ever lose our freedom to foreign enemies by force of arms because our military is too powerful. Instead, we give it away willingly to leaders who know how to manipulate us. And Bush and Cheney are the best that there has ever been at taking what we willingly gave them.

My perspective is that of a travel writer who has spent time in 110 foreign countries. Among these countries are India, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, Indonesia, and several of the breakaway republics that were formally part of the Soviet Union. All of these nations have one thing in common: They have experienced repeated attacks of terrorism that were, collectively, far worse than 9/11. In the case of India and Indonesia, they have been fighting militant Islamic extremism for over half a century, with their loss of life counted in the tens of thousands. All of these terrorist-target countries have something else in common. None of their populations went insane with fear, surrendering much of their own freedom to their own governments. None of their governing bodies have initiated anything like our Patriot Act and our Homeland Security Department. The terrorists repeatedly inflicted death and destruction, but the people and the governments of these countries never “freaked out” like we did in the United States.

Why not? Are the foreign populations idiotic? Are their governments reckless and uncaring about the people’s safety? Are Americans cowards? The answer to all of these questions is, “No.” The difference is this. For one thing, their leaders didn’t use the opportunity to seize additional power in a time of peril. But the deeper reason is that these terrorist-target countries have a certain wisdom which is lacking in America. They understand that fundamental Islam seeks to use jihad to make target populations philosophically surrender intellectual freedom and embrace Islam, and you don’t counter that threat by simply surrendering your freedom to an alternate threat and embracing a different power that also seeks to dominate. It is useless for us to throw our Marines into battle against an Islamic jihad while, at the same time, we knuckle under to things like the Patriot Act without so much as a whimper. The Islamic terrorists know that the Bush Administration will be out of power in 2009, but now they also know that the American people will willingly give away personal freedom if sufficiently intimidated. And God knows, Americans are easily intimidated. George W. Bush gave them that example, and in doing so he altered our notion of what freedom really is. That’s his tragic legacy.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Does the United States Need a Revival?

In God we trust. America has always been a Christian nation, and that explains why, of all the nations on earth, God smiles on The United States of America. Anyway, that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

The U.S. is 5% of the earth’s population, but we have 25% of the world’s prison population. Countries like China and Indonesia incarcerate political prisoners as well as criminals, buy they don’t lock up citizens in numbers like we do in America. They aren’t even close to us in their ability to fill their slammers. Helping to drive this prison population explosion is the fact that we have the highest murder rate on the planet, by a HUGE margin. No other Western, non-third-world country comes even close to our kill rate, and even countries at war like Iraq are only slightly ahead of us in wasting the lives of their own citizens. What I’m describing, here, is just the “civilian” part of the Great American Killing Machine. Add to that the fact the America spends more on military hardware than all the rest of the world combined, and every penny spent on this so-called “defense” has just one purpose: erasing human life. Backing up all that hardware is the manpower of the “armed services.” Television advertising to recruit volunteers for the military accounts for the single largest TV advertising budget spent by anyone running ads on the tube. And the average person doesn’t even see most of the recruitment ads, unless they are black or Hispanic, because 60% of all that money is spent on the BET and Telemundo networks. Only in America can a career in the Marine Corps look more glamorous than a career in medicine or teaching.

As Americans, we excel at squandering lives, but we’re not all that good at saving lives. America is #24 in the world in infant mortality. That means that 23 countries do a better job of keeping their youngest citizens alive. America is #19 in the world in providing healthcare to its citizens. That means that 18 countries on earth do it better. These other 18 countries don’t have better doctors or better hospitals. They just choose to spend their money on healthcare instead of their Army and Navy. But we do hold the #1 spot in one area of medicine. We lead the world in the number of elective cosmetic surgeries performed purely for enhancing appearance. I guess we like to look good for God.

There’s another area where we are #1,and that’s in the purchase and recreational use of drugs that are illegal and unrelated to medicine. Whether it’s cocaine from Columbia, or marijuana from Mexico, or heroin from Afghanistan, we in the United States buy it, and snort it, and shoot it, and smoke it with enthusiasm and gusto not seen anywhere else on earth.

The family has always been considered important in every culture on earth, and we are told that the family is important to God, too. Let’s see how we’re doing. More than half of all American marriages end in divorce. 52% to be exact. This is the highest divorce rate of any country, so that makes us number one in that dubious category. Sometimes, the wives that get out of marriage are the lucky ones because public health statistics report that 17% of all married woman report spousal abuse. Illegitimate birth rates in America are also the highest of any nation or culture, and in some U.S. minority population segments the illegitimacy rate is 70%. This is the picture of the “traditional family” in America that the hate-mongers say is threatened by homosexual marriage. The hate-mongers ought to know since they claim to speak for God. It would sure be helpful to hear from The Big Guy himself, but I won’t hold my breath on that.

So, here’s the question: Is the U.S. due for a revival? Evangelical revivalism is a good old-fashioned American invention, and Americans have been “revived,” over the years, more than the citizens of any other nation. We can see where it got us. And just who would do the reviving? James Dobson? John Hagee? Ted Haggard? (I heard that Pastor Ted has, himself, been revived, so he get back into the swing of things and tend to our salvation). One last comment from me. If the U.S. does hold a revival, I will be the first in line to buy tickets. I’m beyond salvation, but I could use the entertainment.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Conference on World Affairs

I’ve just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Conference on World Affairs, and- as I’ve been doing for the last 15 years- I will pass along my observations. Quite simply, this year’s conference seemed to be the best ever, with all of the panels and lectures rising to a level that exceeded anything in years past. Of course, all of the usual topics were presented, discussed, and debated: climate change, global petro-supply projections, geo-engineering solutions, 4th generation warfare tactics, looming global food shortages, U.S. foreign policy as a destabilizing element, exponential rise in population numbers within the Islamic world, and something new this year- a look at the neurobiology of the human belief process. It is this last topic on which I want to report, for it represents something that may possibly have a bearing on everything else.

On a panel titled, “Hardwired to Believe,” neurobiologists presented data on a study which looked at brain response differences in people who classified themselves as either a believer or a skeptic. Here’s how it worked. The person was put into an MRI machine which looked at blood flow in the brain when the person was presented with certain statements of belief. Such statements were “Patriotism is always a virtue,” or “Democracy is worth dying for,” or “Jesus is the Savior of mankind,” or “Evolution is a hoax.” Self-proclaimed believers responded to such statements with brain activity in the pleasure centers- brain activity similar to that which resulted from seeing the image of an attractive member of the opposite sex, or from hearing a favorite piece of music. Self-proclaimed skeptics had no such pleasure response to the belief statements.

The MRI tests were done in the United States with the belief statements reflecting the cultural and religious ideas that stir debate here in America. Presumably, the same results would be seen in a Muslim believer who was stimulated with statements like “The Koran is the source of all truth and wisdom,” or “Religious martyrs go to Heaven,” or “The U.S. invasion of Iraq is a modern crusade.” Assuming that the MRI tests show a real and valid neuro-response to the universal phenomenon of human belief, and assuming that the biological mechanism works the same way in the Islamic world, the implications are staggering. All the happy talk that “The U.S. Marines are winning hearts and minds in the Mideast,” is probably completely bogus. The science seems to show that people don’t change beliefs easily, not even at the point of a gun.

How, you might ask, does this science impact the other topics at this year’s conference? Wendy Chamberlin gave a sobering lecture about the rise of Islam. Chamberlin was the United States ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 9/11 and during the year leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Here are some of her statistics. In the Islamic world, half (50%) of the entire population is under the age of 25. If you increase the age to 30, then 70% of the entire population is under that age. And within that gigantic population of young Muslims, the unemployment rate is 40%. The replacement rate within Islam is 4. That means that for every Muslim who dies, 4 are born. In Japan, the rate is .8, so Japan is losing population. In the United States, the replacement rate is 1.2. By the end of the 21st century, Muslims will outnumber all the rest of the non-Islamic world combined.

Muslims have beliefs that are different from the beliefs of non-Muslims. And as the neurobiological research shows, beliefs within Islam won’t change just to suit the United States. Now, back to that reservoir of the 40% unemployed Muslims under the age of 30. These are the young people who are writing the book on something called 4th generation warfare, which means that there are ways of projecting cultural and religious influence without building aircraft carriers. If the wars of the future will be fought over ideas (which seems like a certainty), then maybe we should be training fewer Marines and more scholars.