Innovation Ecosystem

Why is it so hard to hear disruptive truths?

A reflection on the power of dogma, distortion and division, and what it takes to overcome them and find common ground

Courtesy of Twitter feed from @sosomanysarahs

Jasper the cat, as pictured in a tweet responding to the CPAC meeting, under the hashtag #CPUP: “Jasper finished up his #CPUP work and is now heading to #CCAT. He’s not on any panels, but is looking forward to the health care discussions. He was once abandoned at a vet’s office due to cost, and strongly believes everyone has a right to medical care."

Photo by Richard Asinof

The cover of Environmental Action Magazine in May of 1984, reporting on the efforts to avert biological warfare, triggered by a Soviet scientist, Leonid Rvachev, who sent warning letters about how his mathematical modeling were potentially being misused to track biological agents in an attack.

Photo courtesy of Twitter feed from @megfitztweeter

The photo from @megfitztweeter: "#CPUP attendee Penny waiting for the breakout on Blankets: For Security or Snuggling? She hopes it’s both”

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/4/19
An exploration into why it is so hard to hear disruptive truths about our lives, our work and our politics, and the difficulties that political efforts to stoke distortion and division have created in our ability to find common ground, a necessity in health care, in innovation, in research, in science, and as an engaged community.
How important is it for the news media to reject the language of distortion in its reporting on politics? As more and more health systems embrace Big Data as the way to quantify health outcomes, what are prejudices built into the decision-making around the data, favoring short-term cost savings vs. long-term preventive action? In all the reporting around the proposed merger between Partners Healthcare and Care New England, why has population health management analytics been absent from the conversation? How can the success of efforts by the Central Falls High School health clinic, which reduced the rate of teenage pregnancy by 55 percent over the last three years, be replicated in other communities?
There is something quite obscene about the failure of Congress and the Trump administration to secure the benefits for the first responders who helped to clean up Ground Zero after the attack on 9/11. Many of those first responders were sickened from environmental toxins, toxins that the government failed to provide warnings about. Some two decades later, the number of deaths among first responders has exceeded the total number of people killed in the actual attack.
As with other communities poisoned by toxins as a result of government or corporate inaction – look at Flint, Mich., as an example – there is an unwillingness to take responsibility and to pay the costs of such environmental travesties.
Here in Rhode Island, even as the Providence Water Supply found in its latest round of testing that Providence water lead levels were at 22 parts per billion, well over the action level of 15 parts per billion, the reasons why a legislative commission on lead in drinking water never met once in two years remains a scandal in the making, with no accountability about the reasons why from House leadership.

Editors Note: I do not know exactly where this story fits into the spectrum of light in my reporting on health, innovation, technology, science, research and community, except to say, it is an exploration into the reasons why we have such difficulties in hearing disruptive truths about our lives that threaten the status quo of our assumptions.

It delves into our inability to recognize and accept how often we have become fellow travelers, trafficking in the dogma and lies told by our political leaders. Some of our current leaders have proven adept at wrapping themselves in the American flag – and selling themselves as patriots, disguising their own corrupt enterprises that are hidden in plain sight.

When it comes to health care, to innovation, to research and to science, and how we engage with each other as a community, such dogma, distortion and division are the true enemy – not the news media. If we in the news media choose not to report on it, who will?

Some recent news items prompted me to share these reflections, connecting my past reporting to the present:

First, the continuing spread of measles, which had been all but eradicated, as a result of parents being unwilling to vaccinate their children, a chilling preview of what could happen in response to a bioterrorist attack;

Second, the calculated invocation of “socialism” as a threat to American democracy, as a way to discredit the Green New Deal and efforts to combat the threat of climate change, exploiting fear and prejudice;

Third, the use of inaccurate language such as “infanticide” to distort efforts to codify the law in Rhode Island around protecting a woman’s right to determine her own health choices;

Fourth, the underreported threat of war between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, over a boundary dispute in Kashmir; and

The story draws upon my published reporting on the threat of bioterrorism, written 35 years ago, involving the proposed use of Big Data algorithms to track the spread of the biologic agents by the Soviet Union.

It also draws upon a previously untold story, an argument with columnist David Broder, who angrily refused to accept as true my experiences while traveling in what was then the Soviet Union in 1985, on the verge of glasnot and perestroika, in which I described Russia as a gangster state, presaging the rise of Putin.

A third, more positive recollection, reflects on how the boundaries of religious and ethnic strife were broken down by conversation, as I, a Jew, sat between a Hindu and a Sikh traveling on an airplane, at 20,000 feet for some three hours, a captive audience.

The launch pad
Republican Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler, in his efforts to promote state legislation that would make it easier for parents to opt out of mandatory vaccines, recently declared: “They want to say people are dying of measles. Yeah, in Third-World countries, they’re dying of measles. Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying in America.”

The problem, of course, is that measles is a viral infection, and antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections, cannot kill viruses. There is no known treatment for measles, which is highly contagious, but there is a highly effective, preventive vaccine. In the midst of a spreading incidence of measles across the U.S., the stance taken by Zedler is a virulent example of how dogma and ignorance have triumphed over scientific fact.

A similar case of cognitive dissonance took place earlier in February, when Darla Shine, the wife of White House communications director Bill Shine, claimed on Twitter that illnesses such as measles, mumps and chickenpox allegedly “keep you healthy” and “fight cancer.”

As the fascist followers of Franco in Spain once chanted in the 1930s, “Long live death!”

Taking away our hamburgers?
In the face of the catastrophic threat of climate change and the need to take immediate, dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions, some Democrats in Congress have proposed the Green New Deal, an ambitious proposal at least worthy of debate and discussion. Instead, the proposed plan has been derided by Republicans en masse, claiming it would put the U.S. on a dangerous path toward socialism. Everyone on the Republican side has been given the same talking points, it seems.

On Thursday, Feb. 28, at the meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, [who still provides slanted political commentary on Sinclair TV stations, including Channel 10, WJAR, in Providence], said: “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

Taking away your hamburgers? What Stalin dreamt about? Really?

If Zedler’s anti-vaxxer dogma was informed by his own ignorance, Gorka’s speech was grounded in demagoguery – a calculated distortion of the facts, to stir up fears and prejudices. Gorka sought to portray the Democrats and the Green New Deal as wanting to achieve Stalin’s dreams, an absurd claim.

Lost in the distraction and the noise was, of course, the very real need to take immediate action to avert catastrophic climate change. The better questions to ask might be: What does Vladimir Putin want, not Stalin? And, how is President Donald Trump helping Putin to achieve his aims?

A sense of humor
The best medicine to cope with such rhetorical excesses is laughter. Reporter Ana Marie Cox, in response to the excessive rhetoric at the CPAC event, created a Twitter hashtag, #CPUP, featuring endearing photos of dogs and cats with hilarious captions, such as: “#CPUP attendee Penny waiting for the breakout on Blankets: For Security or Snuggling? She hopes it’s both,” tweeted by @megfitztweeter. [See third image.]

From the cat side of the aisle, @sosomanysarahs tweeted: “Jasper finished up his #CPUP work and is now heading to #CCAT. He’s not on any panels, but is looking forward to the health care discussions. He was once abandoned at a vet’s office due to cost, and strongly believes everyone has a right to medical care. [See first image.]

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It is the summer of 1985, a month or so after I have returned from a three-week adventure in the U.S.S.R., now known as Russia, which was on the verge of glasnot under Mikhael Gorbachev and I am at dinner somewhere in the Maryland suburbs, arguing vociferously with David Broder, esteemed columnist for The Washington Post, about my experiences in Russia, which he was having an extremely hard time believing.

What I found in my travels, which included Moscow, Kiev, Yerevan, Tblisi, Odessa and Leningrad, I told Broder, was a country that reminded me of the dark underside of New Jersey, where I had spent my teenage years, in the land of Caponigro, Catena and Provenzano, where Seamus Heaney’s warning about The Troubles in Ireland served as an appropriate watchword: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

It was easy for me, I told Broder, to recognize a country ruled with impunity by mobsters and gangsters and the KGB, where everything was for sale and corruption was the song in the key of Soviet life.

Yet, with each new story I told, Broder challenged me, saying it couldn’t be true, his face turning red. But it was.

One of the major reasons why I decided to travel there was because I had friends, a couple recently married, who were working in Moscow. When else would I have been able to visit the country where I could stay with friends?

The wife was a teacher at the American School, and the husband was working as a house painter, painting embassies and apartments of correspondents, and getting rich. He was getting paid in rubles, which he could exchange for dollars at twice the going rate at the American embassy, and then could transfer the money tax-free to the U.S.

He imported his paints and brushes from Finland; he was even hired by a diplomat to paint his personal residence in a North African country. In a communist country, the reality was my friend was getting wealthy, painting houses, working as a laborer, making more money than he ever could in the U.S., the essence of capitalism.

Broder just shook his head, his face now beet red, saying it couldn’t be true. But it was.

I described going with my friend to the American embassy in Moscow, where security was so lax I was never asked to show my passport by the Marine guards, at the entrance, going to the basement to order: cheeseburgers, French fries, Pepsi. Pepsi, it turned out, had a big franchise with the U.S.S.R., it was available everywhere I went, even in street kiosks.

I talked about how everything was for sale: the man in Kiev who approached us, offering to sell us Russian Army fatigues; and the street hustler in Odessa who tried to buy the backpack off my back, until I threatened to go the local police, known as the militia. I described the scene in a bar at a hotel in Kiev that overlooked Lenin Square, still bedecked with pennants and flags celebrating 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, as a trio of women Intourist guides sang along with Madonna on the bar’s sound system, “I am living in the material world, and I am just a material girl.”

I described the scene when I had arrived in Leningrad, waiting to pass through customs, which was delayed because a group of some 30 Russian tourists were returning from East Germany, each carrying a new Japanese-made boom box back into the communist country.

I talked about the “Mercedes hardship” allowance – how American workers stationed in the U.S.S.R. were allowed to buy a used Mercedes overseas for some $10,000, import it into the Soviet Union, sell it for two or three times that amount in rubles, get a favorable exchange, double the going rate, through the U.S. embassy, and send the money back home tax-free. It was considered a hardship “allowance” for such workers, and despite the rampant illegality of the transaction, everyone – both Russian and American authorities – went along with it.

I talked about trying to visit the monument to the Armenian genocide when I was in Yerevan, only to have numerous taxi cabs refuse to take me. So I took off on foot, traveling through a restricted area to reach the historic memorial site, only to be stopped by guards, whom I was able to bribe with a carton of Marlboro cigarettes I carried with me, for just such a purpose. They personally escorted me to the site.

Broder started to raise his voice and yell at me, saying I was naïve – that I didn’t know what I was talking about, he had never heard anything like these stories before. I calmly responded that I was only reporting what I had seen first hand, what I had witnessed, and promptly changed the topic of conversation, to restore civility at the dinner table.

Here was one of the most knowledgeable journalists in the Washington press corps, and he could not digest what I was saying, because it flew in the face of the dogma that we had been fed for years about the vile Stalinist and communist rule. In the age of Ronald Reagan, my experiences were hard truths to hear.

No, I was not naïve; I had no doubt about treacherous Russian villainy and brutality on a global scale – the purges, the mass show trials, the starving of millions of Kulaks, the labor camps in Siberia, and the daily torture and executions at Lubyanka prison. But, behind it was not ideology but a gangster mentality.

Refusing to act on the threat of bioterror
The relative truths about the “evil empire” cut both ways. As difficult as it was for Broder to hear about the reality on the ground in Russia and its gangster world of capitalism, it proved equally “difficult” for U.S. health officials to hear the warnings of a prominent Soviet scientist, worried about the potential misuse of his mathematical models to track the spread of the flu in order to track the spread of biological weapons.

A year earlier, in 1984, I had written a detailed investigative report for Environmental Action Magazine, where I was an editor, about a Soviet scientist, Leonid Rvachev, attempting to warn his international colleagues about attempts by the Soviet Union to jumpstart biological weapons, using mathematical algorithms Rvachev had developed to map the spread of influenza, attempting to apply them the spread of biological weapons. Each letter from Rvachev was more alarming in its content.

Rvachev had written letters to numerous colleagues in the U.S. and in England, asking for help. Those letters were shared with me. The Washington Post covered the release of my story, but few other U.S. news outlets picked up on the story after it was published. I was, however, interviewed by a number of European TV and radio stations.

Ironically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the places Rvachev had sent his warnings letters, only to be ignored, would soon adopt, with little fanfare, his mathematical modeling to track the spread of influenza worldwide, the scientist’s intended purpose.

More than three decades later, the threat of bioterror has increased, with the government trying to develop new approaches for rapid vaccine response to such threats, through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, established to help secure the U.S. from chemical, biological and radiological threats, as well as from pandemic influenza. There is also the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, established in 2014, to prepare a defense for a biological attack.

Finding common ground
The racial, religious and ethnic divisions that separates India and Pakistan are a recurring violent nightmare, particularly in the border community of Kashmir, which neighbors both an Indian Punjab and a Pakistani Punjab, where millions were casualties in the “civil unrest” during the 1947 partition.

In 1985, flying to Leningrad on an Aeroflot connection through Germany, I found myself sitting between two men, one a Hindu, the other a Sikh, who were both retired from their respective service in the British military.

When the stewards provided lunch, the Sikh to my left broke the silence, asking if he could have my vegetables, because he did not eat meat. I gladly offered him my portion of the unappetizing food. We began to converse. The Sikh was flying home to India, where his family lived, after retiring from service in the British army, traveling on Aeroflot because it was the cheapest flight.

The Hindu on my right soon joined the conversation; he, too, was traveling home, having also recently retired from service in the British air force. It turned out that both men had been born in villages five miles apart in the Punjab.

At some point, both men turned to me to ask about my religious background; with some trepidation I told them I was Jewish, and they said that they had never talked with a Jew before.

There we were, at 20,000 feet, sitting together in the freedom that airspace allows, sharing stories about our families. Most of the conversation was between the retired British officers, about the Punjab, about their desire to return home.

As we landed, we all were smiling, shaking hands. But, as soon was we disembarked from the plane, the protocol of silence took over, we lost our smiles, we did not talk to each other or acknowledge one another, out of a tangible fear of Soviet authorities. Whatever you say, say nothing.

I often think about that encounter when imagining political opponents or business competitors attack each other, wondering what would happen if they had to sit next to each other on a four-hour bus trip, or a four-hour flight in coach, as a kind of therapy.

Or, in a more prosaic world, having to share a gardening plot, weeding and planting together.

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