Paranoid maturity | Paranoid impunity

June 6, 2018

Coming of age is an act of unveiling. Ignorance gives way to experience, innocence is swayed by its first great doubts, and it’s out of the nest and into the lifeworld of housing-insecure underemployment, hand-to-mouth, not being able to afford the next level of education and the slippery slope into the political cynicism of the disenfranchised, in a world of money politics. Money buys rights as well as food, shelter, and learning. Money is the defense of our rights, and without it we are at the mercy of the world.

Fringe voices that seemed alien when we lived in our childhood homes begin to sound like the forlorn voice of reason filtered through the histrionics of despair. Hip kids pick up tropes and make cheeky fan references inspired by the outside-over-there, the forbidden language of open revolt.

Demagogues know how to push adolescents’ buttons.

How to coattail on their slang, their informalities, their insincerities and experiments with seriousness. Violence isn’t native to the language of late childhood and coming of age, it’s the idiom of one of many borrowed shades of off-color jokes that they trade in, collecting ideas like exotic stamps for show and tell, testing the limits of comprehensibility with mash-ups of rapid-fire soundbytes intended as riffs on the obscene.

These are the immaturities of the first flowering of paranoid maturity. Immature because students still harbor the grandiosity of children, whose ignorance is a grant of impunity.

And then there are our vigilantes, the party wolves in civilian clothing, the improvised weapons of hearth and home – animalistic in their cynicism, adult in their financial commitments, paranoid in the way only a mob can be, counting on herd impunity. These are the inverse of child soldiers.

The answer to weaponized hostages is, of course, fear itself. And to speak fear to ‘terror’, civilian power wears a crony’s face in the mobilization machine of vote-buying partisan politics.

From the top, a lone madman rages on television, consistent in his rages whether there is any need for a microphone to deafen his hearers or not, shaking as only a justly maligned devil can, secure in his seat of power, rejecting psychotherapy.

What can peace journalism do in this toxic situation?

Draw young people away from the sirens of radicalization? Deny their killers anonymity? Put out the fires of vandalism with the clarity of television? Shelter the refugees?

The endless corruptions of public discourse involved in normalizing underdevelopment, youth unemployment, income inequality and everyday microaggressions among neighbors who are learning to see themselves as in-groups and out-groups in a winner-take-all polity are the only forces of radicalization capable of inciting grown children to open revolt. But to shed their blood over the excesses of adolescence is obscene.

Isolation breeds paranoia.

Isolating the man in power will not induce him to refashion electoral rules in ways that repair the fractures along which his country is falling apart. Something has to be said to slow this progressive disease that is rapidly setting in – this epidemic of paranoia, this fruitless search for spaces of impunity.

So I turn to a long letter from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, written to a friend who lived in occupied France and later published as the book, Letter to a Hostage. In this heartfelt letter that could not be sent, to a Jew trapped in France under Nazi rule, a soldier writes with the utmost gentleness and sincerity about the importance of remembering to smile.

He recalls a time during the Spanish civil war when, as a journalist, he was intercepted and taken to a rebel hideout, where it was indicated in a language he did not quite understand that he should produce his papers. He tried to explain that he had left them at his hotel.

“Several times I attempted to protest in Spanish. But my protestations came to naught. They gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

“They were waiting. What were they waiting for? The return of a companion? The dawn? I thought … ‘They are going to do a silly thing. It is absolutely ridiculous..’ My feeling then, more than anguish, was a disgust of absurdity. …

“Was I really in danger? Did they still ignore the fact that I was neither a saboteur nor a spy, but a journalist? …

“I did not know anything about them, except that they shot without debating much with their conscience. The revolutionary vanguards, to whichever party they belong, chase symptoms rather than men (for they do not value man in his substance). The opposite truth appears to them like an epidemic. Even diagnosing a doubtful symptom, they send the contagious to the isolation hospital and the cemetery. That is why I found so sinister the monosyllabic questioning which fell upon me from time to time, and which I could not understand.  A blind wheel was gambling with my life. That is also why, in order to load myself with the weight of real presence, I felt a strange need to cry out something about myself, which would impose upon them the truth of my existence – my age for instance! That is impressive, the age of a man! That summarizes all his life. This maturity of his has taken a long time to achieve. It has grown through so many obstacles conquered, so many serious illnesses cured, so many griefs appeased, so many despairs overcome, so many dangers unconsciously passed. It has grown through so many desires, so many hopes, so many regrets, so many lapses, so much love. …

“Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie, but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was like the dawning of the day.

“This miracle did not conclude the tragedy, it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colors, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. It was a sign just as final, as obvious in its future consequences, as unchangeable as the rising of the sun. …

“The men had not moved either, but, though a minute earlier they had seemed to be farther away from me than an antediluvian species, now they grew into contemporary life. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence. That is it: of presence. And I was aware of a connection.

“The boy who had smiled at me, and who, until a few minutes before, had been nothing but a function, a tool, a kind of monstrous insect, appeared now rather awkward, almost shy, of a wonderful shyness – that terrorist! He was no less a brute than any other. But the revelation of the man in him shed such a light upon his vulnerable side! We men assume haughty airs, but within the depth of our hearts, we know hesitation, doubt, grief.

“Nothing yet had been said. Yet everything was resolved. To thank him, I laid my hand upon his shoulder, as he gave me the cigarette. And now that the ice was broken, the rest of the militia also became human, and I entered into their smiles, as into a new and free country. …

“Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are the faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.”

The hardest thing about learning hospitality work is learning how to smile, again and again, no matter what, and in a genuine way, for each and every patron. Be pleasant and genuine, we are told. It doesn’t come as easily as cash handling, not by a long shot. But it is the most valuable skill I have ever been taught.

The informed shrug

May 1, 2018

In thinking ahead to CIMSA 2018, I have had to do a little soul-searching as a scientist. My first thought was, “holy ***! my deliverables aren’t ready yet, and it’s coming up fast!” My new thought is: “Whoa, dammit. Those deliverables won’t be ready any time soon. Why don’t you plan on going there to listen and learn?”


Because all I have is a desk review in progress: an incomplete annotated bibliography, a time-consuming search strategy, and some hunches that have yet to be substantiated. And when I finish, all I’ll have is one of dozens of new systematic reviews that get published EVERY DAY. Far more than these stakeholders have time to read and learn from. From the evidence landscape maps I glimpsed on the Africa Evidence 2018 website (which appears to have moved and left them behind, sadly), I gained a greater appreciation of the distance between the publication process and the implementation of evidence-informed decision-making in public health practice, and the potential for connectivity between these two fields of activity.

From a conference like CIMSA, I hope to learn more about how these decision-makers set their expectations for evidence reviews, what types of evidence they are looking for, how they hope to find it packaged, and how they go about sifting through the available evidence in their day-to-day routines.

One thing is for sure, I don’t want to be like the other guys. I don’t want my exhaustive efforts to synthesize the available evidence to end in an “informed shrug”. I see too many Cochrane reviews end like this: “Having reviewed 100 papers, we found 2 that were almost good enough to take seriously. Neither was conclusive. We hope that more research will be forthcoming in this area. Thank you.”

That’s not helpful. You don’t seriously expect me to believe that after reading 100 papers in a given discipline, you learned nothing useful that could inform the design of these wished-for additional studies, do you? Don’t just tell me they should’ve used blinding and randomized designs. Tell me what they thought they learned, too.

Use your best judgment – if they lied in the abstract about the effectiveness of the intervention, I don’t need you to repeat that sort of nonsense. But if they noticed contextual variables that were frustrating their implementation of the intervention and that may have contributed to its lack of effectiveness, by all means bring that data to light in your review! In other words, show me that you were actually paying attention when you read the papers, not just skipping to the results sections after glancing at the methods.

the stop-go patter of subtext

April 22, 2018

how often do we hint, delicately or indelicately, the simple interpersonal signals from simon says: stop! or go!, meaning “don’t [do that]” or “go on, it’s okay”? how little else needs to be said in between the lines really, when you’re on the go and at an intersection?

how much of our preverbal mental map of our social space, our options and our interior evaluations is colored by this black-and-white thinking about momentum, force, collision paths and conciliation moves?

why else hesitate to draw a private conclusion? whose imagined voice urges us to give pause, or urges us on?

what clutter of green and red lights must we navigate in order to find a hearing in our own drawing rooms or in the fractious public conference rooms for any message more substantive and carrying than the everyday patter of apologetic shrugs with which we continually “rub elbows” in the traces, wearing the blinkers we rely on to reproduce routines that make us who we are by paying up our bills?

living with indifferences is needful in the moment, for now if not for always, for the best we hope.

subtext is where we put out feelers for feedback, where our ideas find traction or fail to catch on, and for that they need a conscientious driver-cum-negotiator, not just a demagogue with a corner soapbox.

and yet it is so chock full of primitive, preverbal gestures that no thinking person would want to own up to. hence the disdain of the demagogue on the soapbox for the petty dramas unfolding all around him every day at the intersection.


subtext is like a sodium-gated channel, unreflecting yet influential, receptive to its own currency only and thus easily programmed by marketing gurus who play on our lowest common denominators, and in this way it urges us to habituate to the worship of that invisible and fantasmagorical seat of power from which all riches come in the (e)mail.

subtext finds the path of least resistance and paves it with the multifarious intentions of all comers, part entropy and part inevitability. subtext states the obvious. subtext is what keeps us from stepping on the toes of the elephant in the living room.

and to weather its unadorned insults, we cultivate that wonderfully adult discovery of adolescence – ambivalence.

now consider, what is the positive content of ambivalence?

if not this, that or the other, commitment to what else instead? the immaculate superiority of ambivalence has to come from somewhere. where?

clearly, oneself.

one is flexing and luxuriating in one’s own power of choice when one examines the field of action in an aloof, noncommittal attitude.

ambivalence, then, is the resting state of black-and-white thinking – the diffident “no thank you” that neither imposes or concedes anything. the coil in the spring.

game theory either has or ought to have an equation for it.

Question and answer: nonverbals

April 9, 2018

We say what we’ve been waiting all day to say to someone else, ourselves, God, etc.

We test our luck, probe for a smile, a squirm, a down-ranking, chagrin, c’est la vie.

We flirt, stare, wince, admire, react, flatter, or reach out to help someone save face.

We hold back and release our frustrations on each other, ourselves, or the following person in line.

We ignore hints, insults, being ignored, crime, fear, impatience, embarrassment, or efforts to elicit a smile or a laugh. We ignore pointedly, thoughtlessly, or with apologetic glances indicating that we will be paying attention again in just a moment.

We appease, intimidate, cut down, build up, stereotype and deploy microaggressions with the direction and movement of a neutral gaze.


We score, keep score, watch our averages, count our eggs, lick our wounds, celebrate, or shrug.

We mark time, sustain disjointed rhythms, impose habits on the people around ourselves, enforce routines, train one another to go with the flow, jazz things up, wind it down, let missed beats go, learn to get our lines out in one breath, and get cross when third parties interrogate us before we’ve paused for breath or when our breath was appointed to someone else ahead of them in line, withholding, getting steamed.

We daydream, plan, ruminate, second-guess, people-watch, and chit chat.

We make eye contact, glare, anticipate, let our gaze slide, tighten the muscles between our eyes, cock an eyebrow, squint with pleasure, mock in play, look away, look again, apologize with our  eyes, blink too soon, too significantly, relax, regret, recognize.

We smile easily, less easily, with or without joy, with stage feeling, formally, informally, as if sharing a secret, with familiarity, belatedly, with a sense of compunction, habitually, slightly, ironically, cynically, obsequiously, casually, cheerfully, contentedly, with worry or with warmth.

We turn in, aside, towards, to broadside, askew, away, at once, too abruptly or slowly, too mechanically or aggressively, in embarrassment or in concert.

We move, musically or unmusically, in a certain key or chromatically, gently or not.