I can’t stand it

My guess is that most readers of this blog hadn’t been born in  November 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated, or April 1968 for the assassination of Martin Luther King, or November of that same year when Bobby Kennedy was killed.  The media had a political field day with these three tragedies, and it is terrible to see the same thing happening once again with the assault on congresswoman Giffords.

Some history:

The initial narrative about JFK’s assassination was that it occurred in Dallas, in a ‘climiate of hate’ in big bad conservative Texas.  Dan Rather was just getting started, and reported that children in the Dallas schools cheered when they heard about it (actually they were told that school was closing early — just as medical school did that day for me). Dan later went on to bigger and better things, with a forged letter about Bush Jr’s deferral from the Texas National Guard hoping to swing a presidential election with it.   Only later did it come out that Lee Oswald was a committed leftist.

The two assassinations of ’68 were played the same way.  America, violent America.  The fact that Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy because of his support of Isreal didn’t receive much play.  Interestingly, he wasn’t Muslim, but Christian.

Things haven’t changed much. Today the New York Times put an article “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics” on page 1.  This, long  before we have any idea what really  motivated the killer.  Politically motivated assassins don’t usually kill 9 year olds and shoot 20+ people.  Sarah Palin has already been blamed.

To the mainstream press with an agenda, a tragedy is too good to waste.  If you think I’m kidding, imagine the press coverage had the shooter  been Muslim.  Actually you don’t even have to imagine it.  Just look at the mainstream coverage of the killings at Fort Hood in November 2009.

Things are nonetheless better now.  Back in the 60’s there was basically only the mainstream press — CBS, NBC, ABC, the New York Times etc. etc.  It was less obvious that what they were publishing was narrative not news.  They weren’t even called narratives back then. There is now a large and ferocious blogosphere presently, ready to fact check and contest.  It’s why we have jury trials and prosecuting and defense attorneys, and just let them slug it out.  Hopefully truth (and justice) emerge.

All we can do now is hope for the congresswoman.  Speaking as a former neurologist, what I’ve heard so far sound extremely grim. “”This was a devastating wound that traveled the length of the brain on the left side,” Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma director atUniversity Medical Center in Tucson, told reporters, according to ABC.”  Assuming that this is truer than the initial report on NPR that she had died, it’s very, very bad.  90 – 95% of right handed people have their speech center in the left hemisphere (left side of the brain), as do 50% of left handed individuals.  The surgeons had to remove half her skull (on the left side) for the brain swelling which they know will ensue after severe trauma like this. The swelling  is usually maximal 24 – 72 hours after the injury.  The swelling can push on the brainstem and stop breathing and depress the circulatory reflexes.  Swelling can raise intracranial pressure so high that blood can’t get in (this is why they removed half her skull) with subsequent death of the entire brain.  One can always hope for miracles (like Phineas Gage — look it up).

Back to matters scientific in future posts, but I thought some of you might be interested in how it was back than, and the parallels with today.

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  • Wavefunction  On January 10, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Yes, the press always has a field day with every bit of news. Yes, the media is irresponsible and is quick to draw causation before even correlation is established. Yet I agree with the general sentiment in the NYT article that the political discourse has become corrupted by polarizing and gratuitously inflammatory language. No matter how strongly you disagree with your government’s policies, constantly saying things like you want to put political leaders on the “firing line” and drawing maps with political “targets” illustrated by cross hairs is highly irresponsible (and in some cases plain crazy) and will certainly encourage such wanton acts. Somewhere people seem to forget that with power comes proportionate responsibility. I can only feel disgust for people who routinely and willfully forget this.

    We can only hope that Giffords- who by all accounts that I have read seems like an unusually sensible and moderate politician, a rare breed- recovers at least part of her identity after this terrible event.

  • luysii  On January 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    ” will certainly encourage such wanton acts. ” This is certainly logical. But, what evidence do we actually have for a statement like this?

    A similar very logical implication is that playing violent video games or watching violent television leads to real violence. Few would disagree with the statements that both have increased in the past 10 years, or that the young and impressionable (who commit crimes out of proportion to their number) spend more time in ’09 doing this then they did in ’99.

    Yet crime statistics show just the opposite. The population in ’09 was 307 million, an increase of 35 million, or over 10%. Yet all violent crime dropped in absolute terms (1,426,044 in ’99 vs. 1,392,638 in ’09). Similarly the number of murders and rapes were slightly less in absolute terms. Economic conditions were far worse in ’09 than they were in ’99, giving the lie to another quite logical assumption — poverty causes crime.

    I was quite pleased to see that Paul Krugman read yesterday’s blog. Today’s column in the Times reads “Climate of Hate” . Perhaps a certain intellectual poverty prevents him from inventing a new phrase.

    People wanting to constrict speech always do so for the very best of reasons. When I started grad school in ’60 Lady Chatterly’s Lover had just been UNbanned in Boston the previous year. Hilariously In 1964, bookseller Ranjit Udeshi in Bombay was prosecuted under Sec. 292 of the Indian Penal Code (sale of obscene books) for selling an unexpurgated copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

  • luysii  On January 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Very good to see that David Brooks has a column in today’s NYT expressing the same sentiments (but far more eloquently). You’d never know there was anything amiss from reading yesterday’s editorial in the NYT, or the the letters to the editor on the subject (which almost always agree with the Times editorial positions).

  • Wavefunction  On January 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Well, the point was about the inflammatory language even if it had nothing to do with the gunman. Political leaders are in direct contact with the people and have a much greater responsibility than the makers of video games. The fear-mongering language and symbols used by Palin’s ilk have no place in civil discourse. There was nothing in her accusatory video laden with ridiculous language (“blood libel”) released today which indicated the slightest mellowing down of the vitriol. People like Palin should be ashamed of themselves, but they never will because sadly there are many people who remain inspired by the climate of hate that they perpetuate.

  • luysii  On January 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Palin was accused of inciting Loughner to murder people by a variety of members of the mainstream press (Krugman, NYT) on absolutely no evidence (even days later). Blood libel is exactly what this is, a false accusation of murder or inciting to murder — used with particular effect against Jews — sacrificing a young Christian boy to drink his blood at passover. Blood libel is an accurate description of what was said against her.

    For more expressions of anger from the left. See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703791904576075660624213434.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_MIDDLETopOpinion.

    The whole point of 1984 was to suppress certain forms of language. I think political discourse should be vigorous.

  • Wavefunction  On January 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    I agree that Palin probably had nothing to do with the killer and it was scientifically invalid at the very least to make that connection. Krugman is about as much to the left as they come. But that certainly does not let her off the hook and detract from some of the alarmist and plain crazy things she says. As you know, blood libel was specifically used to tar- and target- the Jews. It was one of the most ignominious stratagems in history used by one religious or ethnic group against another. Giffords is Jewish. At the very least Palin should have had the political sense (if not commonsense) to realize the implications of using that phrase. Even Republicans are criticizing her for that. A single statement like “I absolutely never intended the map to imply anything like what has happened” would have exonerated her. Basically the woman seems to display a combination of dogma and muddleheadedness, always a dangerous one.

    I agree that political discourse has to be vigorous and no words should be so sacrosanct as to be considered off limits. Yet Palin has resorted exactly to what Orwell cautioned us about; by removing the map and deleting some of the more incendiary phrases from her Twitter updates, she is selectively expunging parts of history and memory in the service of propaganda. Nobody is arguing against free speech, but when your words are expressly designed to solely provoke and not inform or empathize, when the phrases that you use have scant connection to reality (“death panels” as another instance), when your sentiments detract from the very reason that you constantly press upon your opponents, then the bovine waste that you spew has to be called out for what it is. And this applies to all political parties.


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