December redux

docu-mental podcasts and essays you might have missed, or might want to revisit

vol. 1 issue 51


We’re fogged in here in DC. I like it. Feels good to have this blanket of white cozy time to separate us from all the big mouthed brash stuff from this week. The view outside my window is less bricks and mortar, more soft, wet air. Rather than the pilot light level angst I have these days wondering what is to come from all this noise, with the fog, there is the sense of being insulated from all the potential chaos.

There have been some new subscribers of late. I thought for that reason, it would be worthwhile to review some of the highlights of the year. These are a few of my favorite issues of docu-mental, and the ones that generated some of the most feedback.

Thanks for being a subscriber. Please consider purchasing a premium subscription as a gift this season. In the next decade — 2020s! — we will be hitting our stride at docu-mental, and reader participation will be a big part of that.

I am excited and look forward to what’s in store for us together!



The end of history? Capitalism gets a re-look in this podcast featuring London economist and New Statesman commentator, Grace Blakeley:

Is mindfulness a way to manipulate the masses? The pros and cons of going within as directed by those without, as discussed in this podcast with ordained Zen dharma teacher and professor, Ronald E. Purser:


Antitrust and the crushing of physicians’ souls:

Thy tyranny of happiness:

Getting along with people who confound you:

This 'bad news' is cause for celebration

WaPo's bombshell Afghan war report is a chance to promote democracy here at home

vol. 1 issue 50


By now, you’re probably aware of the Pentagon Papers redux that exploded off the front page of the Washington Post online last night, or in hard copy this morning, for those of us who still have their paper delivered to their doorstep.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War is an astoundingly good investigation by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock into how our 18 years of war in Afghanistan has been feckless, utterly and thoroughly without purpose. Not only that, as Whitlock reports by way of thousands of pages of internal Defense Department and other agency documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, even though leaders knew it was a pointless war almost from the get-go, as private papers of President George W. Bush’s former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld show, they sold it to us as a win anyway.

It likely will hurt and anger you to be reminded of the senselessness of such destruction at the cost of life and limb. Also, if, like me, you believe that the reason we enter war so easily is because we have spent so much on warcraft there is a compelling obligation our warrior leaders feel to use all those machines, you will feel vindicated in that belief.

But, best of all, if like me you love this country dearly but wake up each day and wonder at our nation’s pervasive derangement, this is a report that could cause you to rejoice.

The report is a clear lens on how we have allowed The System to subsume our individual rights and threaten democracy.

It is my fervent belief that our national derangement, as evidenced in our partisanship and in our trending high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality, is because we know the rights we always thought of as our birthright as Americans are largely compromised or outright gone. This sense of loss is fueling our national identity crisis: if we are not free, then who are we? And why are we not free?

It’s ironic that the papers Whitlock got access to were called by the federal bureaucrats that created them, “Lessons Learned”, since plenty of lessons had already been learned in a much longer line of bellicose stupidity that began with Great Britain in the early to mid-1800s on through the former USSR’s invasion of the region in the late 20th Century. Both nations suffered crushing and expensive losses there for largely the same reasons: arrogance.

The British and the Soviets mistakenly thought that in exchange for the Afghan territory, they could stabilize the region through occupation. That might have worked except that the Afghan people like their own ways, thank you very much. What I am saying is that it has always been arrogant to assume Afghanis will eventually “see reason” and want what we Westerners tell them they should want, which in our case and that of Britain and the Soviets before them, was to accept occupation so eventually they could modernize.

Judge them as barbaric or worse, Afghanis are proud people who really would rather fight invaders forever rather than adapt, even if the invader is heavily and supremely armed. This is why anyone who invades their homeland is in for whopping losses, as history has plainly shown.

Regardless, dumb and haughty as we were to not look at the lessons already established, what impresses me about “Lessons Learned” is that our leaders were so candidly introspective about what they were doing. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which President Johnson’s secretive defense secretary Robert McNamara had classified, these observations were conducted in the relative open in what strikes me as an oblique form of group therapy.

In a federally sanctioned effort to understand what was happening with our war in Afghanistan, so many officials were candid and thoughtful in their critique of the war and responded robustly when asked to record their thoughts and emotions about it. Yes, this report points to corruption and graft. I can’t see how this report won’t lead to public debate over why we allow the defense industry to dictate so much of our policies and face so little consequences while profiting greatly.

And yet…

Comment after comment cited in the WaPo story indicates either implicitly or explicitly, that those tasked with carrying out this war were slipping into an existential crisis around what democracy truly is, and what one’s obligation is within it.

Put another way, what freedom is and how it is achieved is at the heart of all of this. That such questions would arise around a war fought in a land where the people historically have fought mightily to preserve their own definition of freedom is more than a little ironic.

One of the most poignant quotes from Whitlock’s report is this from former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins:

“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”

Aside from begging the question of why we feel the need to be the world’s peacemakers, there is a darker side to this because of how unsettled our “peacemaking” nation is acting at home these days.

Ours is currently a nation where wealth is not just unequally distributed but done so at a level so disproportionate, it is fomenting unrest that threatens our peace. Meanwhile, as we lose our centrist minds to the fringes of partisanship and so edge closer to authoritarianism daily, our own president routinely hints at not abiding by our tradition of a peaceful transition of power.

It makes me think Dobbins’ comments point to a deeper knowing he and the rest of those in the report seemed to be aware of, however consciously or unconsciously they were picking up on it: We do not stand for what we say we stand for in this world. Perhaps we never fully did, but we certainly can’t honestly say we do now.

The collected “Lessons Learned” is filled with introspection about what democracy actually should look like, how it is carried out, how it is sustained, whether it should be achieved by force, whether it is anyone else’s damned business to “export” it by way of invasion is essential if we are to avoid becoming an authoritarian hell in this country. It is also the bedrock for our being able to see that democracy is fragile, and cannot withstand the pressure we’ve placed on it by allowing The System to prevail over the rights of the individual.

Reading this report, it was clear to me that many of these people involved – including Rumsfeld who actually wrote “Help!” when he saw how hopeless the situation was – wanted out. But the momentum was not in their favor, it was in The System’s. There is graft, there is self-serving, there is corruption, there are all the things we will debate and be angry about, but slavishness to The System made it too easy to carry on with the war.

My criticisms of Capitalism lately have prompted some to write me and accuse me of being partial to Socialism. I disagree. As economic systems, each is flawed, but arguing how and why they are defective, and which one is better, is secondary to the argument of whether our democracy is in the ascendant or if “The System” is. Power is neutral, but when The System becomes what we serve first, then democracy is in danger, and no economic notion will fix it. I write critically about Capitalism because it just happens to be the system we’ve let take over and become our boss instead of the other way around.

I am excited about this Washington Post reporting. I haven’t taken in the media commentary on this yet, but I am sure plenty will use it to focus on the depths of the corruption inherent in this story, the hold the defense industry has over us, and the complicity of our leaders in that. Fine. All that will be true and worthy of discussion.

But the real news here is that it shows how there is an impulse to go to the bedrock of our national identity and examine and affirm our shared core values, not the truly bizarre, stupid, bombastic partisan versions of them, but the True ones.

I think this is a day for rejoicing.  


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If you’re in the Washington, DC area, consider attending my mini-course “Deconstructing the News” which I will be teaching at American University’s OLLI Institute in early February. The details have yet to be posted on their website but here’s a preview:

Against the backdrop of "fake news" and an exploded marketplace of news and other information outlets, how can we be sure we are accurately informed? Class participants will learn skills, online tools, and newsgathering techniques journalists use to discern fact from fiction in today’s news and non-news environment. Also covered is how to spot important trends; find under-reported or unnoticed reports that matter; understand and boost the role of local news now facing an existential, democracy-destabilizing threat. The primary objective is for participants to feel confident they are forming opinions about their world based on quality information paired with their own observations.   

I would love to see you there! Class size is limited, so either let me know if you’re interested, or keep an eye on the website or sign up for OLLI’s newsletter for more information.

You can find me online other places, too!

For my reviews of opera, classical and contemporary music:
DC Metro Theater Arts

For my column on creative communities:
The Writer’s Center

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Shave the fluff off the Medicare-for-all debate

It's your problem, which is why the solution should also be yours

vol. 1 issue 49


While I have been writing docu-mental all this year, many bigger plans I have had for it keep getting postponed because of health issues. I don’t like to whine about them, so I generally keep them out of my reportage on things, but something as seemingly straightforward as being told I have an autoimmune disease, one that when treated properly has a high rate of remission, has actually served to be like a scud missile in my life: I never know precisely how its import will be felt, but when it lands on me, everything I thought was in place is suddenly blown to bits. Meanwhile, as my health crisis continues, the healthcare system, I have found, wants me to keep doing the same thing over and over, despite the results being the same poor ones every time, and despite there being emerging evidence that the old ways of treating it don’t work but new ones do.

Which is why I have Occam’s Razor on my mind.

Einstein apparently said that doing the same thing twice and expecting different results was the definition of insanity. For the friar-philosopher William of Ockham, who preceded Einstein by about 600 years, such a sentiment meant that when solving a problem, rather than be “insane”, one’s hypothesis should always be a) the simplest and b) include the least number of assumptions.

In other words, if the old approach doesn’t work, try something new.

That’s the razor part: Instead of doing what doesn’t work because that’s what you’ve been conditioned or trained to do, use the razor to “shave” off the fluff.

Aside from the obvious outcome of the problem at hand not getting solved, healthcare personnel who constantly try the same nonproductive thing contributes to my levels of anxiety, sadness, and other emotional states like fear I’ll never get better, and frustration that burns into being outraged that I seem to be shouting into the wind. I don’t like being blamed for something I didn’t do, and with this illness, as I continue not to get better, the implication is that I am failing to heal, that I am failing to do the right things, not that treatment is failing to make me better.

Now, consider that what I am going through happens in one form or another all the time in our health system. It can be for a variety of reasons, and I will not say that it is because doctors don’t care. I think my doctors do care. But who has time to try something new these days when you’re given 15 minutes per patient? In the end, we’re all feeling helpless, and possibly even hopeless about my situation.

I don’t want to bore people with tales of my health woes, but I think there is a bigger lesson here. And that is, you can’t check out. You can’t outsource your life to people who have artificial boundaries placed on their ability to serve you.

In the case of healthcare, not always, but too often, the person you’re consulting can’t really do much for you because they are not empowered to go beyond the allotted time, or because they won’t get “paid” for that service. Or, because their training is limited to a specific way of seeing things that might not be comprehensive enough for what you’re going through.

If it sounds like I am reverse blaming the physicians, I am not. I know from years of reporting on clinical policy and practice, they largely hate this system we’re in, too. What I am saying is that because so many of us have checked out, we’re focusing on the wrong thing when we debate whether to enact Medicare-for-all, or provide some “new” form of the status quo.

Healthcare reform, blah blah blah. Do you really care? Are you really actually listening to what the current crop of presidential candidates are saying? I wager that unless you are a policy geek or in the industry and stand to lose or gain, the answer is no. That’s not because the subject itself isn’t important, but because experience tells you nothing will actually change for the better, no matter what happens.

Here’s the real bottom line on the debate: whether we should be providing the same mediocre care for all, or continue offering our current mediocre care for a fee, however re-packaged it might be.

A better question is, What is the best kind of care for each of us as individuals and how would each of us pay for it? In other words, if you could design your own healthcare plan, what would it look like? And if you had all the cash and freedom to build it, how would you go about it? Who would you hire to be in your plan, a plan that you and a community of people like you, create? Might the plan use its income to pay for the training of the healthcare personnel you want to be in it?

Current and aspiring physicians would not be averse to this line of thinking. Many physicians would gladly swap the chance to practice medicine as a calling instead of just a way to pay back their ridiculously high college loans. Debt alone is a driving force as to why we have a shortage of primary care physicians; many would-be community docs choose higher-paying specialty care instead because they just don’t want to be in debt for the rest of their lives.

This might just be me riffing, but not idly. It’s not a fever dream to suggest that in a true democracy if what I really want – what you really want – mattered to legislators, we’d get better care we can afford and that meets our individual needs.

To wit, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare or the ACA, had many successes. People who’d never had care before suddenly could get basic, preventative care, and it was making them healthier! Plenty of data confirmed the effectiveness at many levels of the ACA.

But ultimately, cost was an issue. To meet coverage mandates, health insurers had to jack up their premiums to stay pleasing to shareholders. I was one of the many who were more than annoyed that even though the ACA was in theory and to some extent, in practice, a good thing, it was suddenly costing me a crap ton more to purchase health insurance as a result, and yet the cost didn’t yield me any better results.

That’s because no one in charge asked me or you what we really wanted. Legislators and policymakers gave us false choices, and we let them. They talked and continue to talk about letting us “choose our providers”, but when they say “choose” they mean choose between which for-profit insurance company we allow to have the decision- making power over which physicians and hospitals we can visit.

What they DON’T ask first is who would we like to see as our care team and then ask those physicians and other clinicians how much would it actually cost to see them, and build the system from there. Of course not! That would empower individuals and individual practitioners who currently are bound by a lot of regulation that is bidirectional between government and big business. Healthcare is nearly 20% of our GDP! If they gave us individuals power over it, we’d see a very scary economic shift.

In other words, the already powerful would lose power.

Wherever there is money, there is politics. Which is to say, politics are running your healthcare costs, but not meeting your healthcare needs.

What happened once supporters of Obamacare were voted out? The ACA was dismantled almost immediately. So, now a bunch of people who finally had care don’t have it any longer, and people like me who did have care are still not getting the care we want, but paying for it anyway.

In my case, I pay monthly premiums, still have a high deductible and yet on top of that, I still have to see several out-of-network physicians and practitioners to access treatments that are evidence-based but for whatever reason aren’t covered. That’s due to a number of reasons, but a key one is that my specialists have opted out of insurance because they see no upside to having their clinical judgement overruled by bean counters at insurance companies.

In other words, I pay for insurance to meet the system’s needs, and then I pay more for what I actually need.

Why do we Americans have to do these kinds of stupid gymnastics with our health and money?

Because government and for-profit healthcare companies are the ones to whom we have outsourced the decision-making. It is deceptive to say there is freedom and democracy when the choices we start with aren’t really choices at all.

Maybe what we need is to start over.

Let me lob this thought into your weekend holiday plans: maybe we need smaller everything. Maybe Texas and California and Key West and South Carolina and South Jersey should all secede. Or – maybe states’ rights should be greatly restored and the federal government should be left to worry about defense and education only.

Maybe we need smaller forms of government, smaller communities that we build from the ground up, in forms that make the most sense to our concerns and local needs. Then the ones who are closest to the outcomes will be the ones who have the most say in shaping how they will be achieved.

Now that I have your attention, at least consider that progressives and liberals are absolutely correct that good healthcare is a fundamental right, and that government should ensure access to it. They are also correct to say that despite many private health insurance and other related companies’ community-based efforts to improve healthcare outcomes, these are always profit-driven, no matter how much marketing is done to make it seem otherwise.

Meanwhile, conservatives and others sympathetic to them are correct that too much interference from big government makes caring for our communities difficult to do, including making it too expensive.

But don’t be fooled by any sleight of hand that government should be minimized and private industry maximized: too big corporations are no different than too big government – that is, they are both too big to care, not too big to fail. I am not the first to say it.

Let’s apply Occam’s Razor to this debate and pare away all the fluff and lint that has accumulated on our democracy. I don’t have the answers for what form our healthcare should take, only the notion that we’ve not come up with enough ideas that can be shaped into those forms. All I can say for sure is that we cannot assume in our healthcare debates we’ve actually exercised what democracy promises is possible.

For what I am suggesting to work, however, we’d need to pay more attention. We’d need to call out legislators and wannabe power leaders for their false choices and then tell them what we want and insist on getting it.

Doing so would mean we would have to actually participate in our democracy. Stop checking out. Stop swallowing the false choices as fate. Do some research. Maybe even dream about what really good healthcare would look like. I don’t know what to tell you — it’s your dream for goodness’ sake.

Ugh. All this work. Sounds exhausting, I know. But so is being sick at the same time you’re working for cash to pay for healthcare that doesn’t meet your actual needs. I, and a hella-bunch of others, can tell you all about that.

So, here’s my definition of Occam’s Razor:

Ask more questions and demand better answers.

You’ll probably get closer to what you want being what you get, even if it means you won’t be able in good faith to blame everyone else for your world not being what you want.

Happy and Healthy,


The docu-mental holiday reading list

And the rationale behind it

Vol. 1 issue 48


Well, naturally I have a holiday list to share with you. Below is a list of books and other media I suggest is helpful for understanding the deeper currents at play in our nation as we head into the next decade. Hopefully during this holiday season, you will have time to investigate them, or perhaps you will consider giving them as gifts to people you think will appreciate them.

First, here’s my rationale for the list.

I try to read equally across the political spectrum, from far left to far right, and synthesize from my own perspective what I think we are facing in this country. As I pointed out to premium subscribers yesterday, I firmly believe we’re on the precipice of chaos, if not already immersed in it. I know that’s not jolly at all, but our societal problems and the messaging coming at us about them have outstripped our ability to govern and filter them.

I have observed that what used to be the “left” is now considered the status quo. I am not saying that the left is now the center. That is not the same thing. I am saying that what used to be considered a more left fringe perspective is more common, so it is in the ascendant as status quo. People who have a more centrist perspective are increasingly finding themselves out of step with the mainstream media. That is, unless they are persuaded to see things the way the mainstream media does, which is easy to do if that is the messaging you are constantly consuming.

Since the socialist point of view is essentially fixed on the continuum, it didn’t move, but the mainstream media has gotten closer to it. This is due to a number of reasons we have covered here in docu-mental, but a great review of social and economic forces causing this to happen is in this podcast with London economist, Grace Blakeley. In short, it is profitable for the media to lean left, in part because big media is big business, and business begets business. There are other factors, but that’s a valid generalization.

Ironically, as Blakeley and I discuss, the same political factors are also animating the far right. Social media has allowed this contingent to step up its noise. It hasn’t meant the far right has changed their point of view to be more mainstream, it just means that people whose views were formerly viewed as fringe and relatively unpopular are more in the mix because they are amplifying their messaging.

Their position is the same on the continuum, but the swell of people who are publicly sympathetic to it has bloomed from the middle toward the extreme right, which is fascism. They might have always felt the way they felt and thought, but now they are subject to the currents of mob rule. In a sense, it is the opposite of big business begetting big business, but with the same kind of effect to sway the masses.

Mainstream media is, for all the criticism we might have of it, largely subject to federal regulation, and so we aren’t going to be incited to riot by Lester Holt, or anyone else who might hold a prominent anchor position. Social media, by contrast, is a free-for-all. Aside from the First Amendment, the correct application of which is an area of constant debate, there are no meaningful federal laws regulating the kinds of content you, me, or any fundamental extremist terrorist of any stripe can disseminate. And anyway, social media is global, meaning not everyone will have the same response legally or politically to how it is used.

Not that it matters. There is already too much messaging to reign in, as YouTube makes clear: 500 hours of video are posted every minute, and viewership per hour is in the billions. Even if YouTube (a Google company) had the express wish of ensuring all that content is not harmful to society, where on earth will they ever find the manpower to review all that material? Not possible.

Also not possible is to view this all as a straight line where opposing voices move further away, never to meet again. The continuum, as my graphic here – however crudely rendered – shows, is more like a circle superimposed on a cross. As you can see, the result is that as we are engaged in a pitched battle of messaging, we are indeed moving further apart. Ample data prove this is the case.

But! As we become further polarized, we also find ourselves about to meet in the middle, which is, ta-da, authoritarianism.

If we are a nation, we have to have a common story. Without one, there is no ability for the government to keep us together. Stories have to have an element of “other” or “foe”, that the protagonist is protecting someone or something against. In the case of governments, as John Locke has said, their chief concern is to protect their people.

Whether or not we like each other, if we don’t understand that it is our individual minds that form the battleground for each side, we’re going to end up as equals in a non-democratic society anyway, because that is the only place where we will all at least have a common story that a government can use as its rationale for existence. Otherwise, what is the point of the government? There is none. And that is why I say we are on the brink of chaos.

That’s why you have to protect your mind, and then you have to act on what you think.  
So. I have put together the following list. It’s by no means thorough, just some resources I turn to when I think about these things. I purposefully am not linking to any bookseller, because I would like to think you will buy from a source you want to support.


The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas: A history of how and why we think what we think in the West. It’s an elegant description of how one philosophy has evolved into another, what we have kept, what we have discarded, and where we might be headed. Helps to inform my internal debate, over whether we are fated or choose our destinies.

Stolen by Grace Blakeley: An easy-to-read, yet not dumbed down, narrative of why Socialism makes good sense to so many people, and a primer for the application of Social Democracy. It was helpful to me in understanding the how and why we got to where China could own so much US debt, Saudi Arabia and Russia could own so much US real estate, and big banks like Wells Fargo could nearly destroy my financial life through their fraudulent practices (but didn’t because I was too enraged to let them).

The Conservative Sensibility by George F. Will: Because he’s such a great thinker and writer, I will read anything he writes, although you can’t do so when you’re tired. He requires you to sit up and listen and think along with him. He is a polemic, but he is compassionate and honest in his logic. This book feels to me like Will also knows we are on the brink of social collapse and he is desperate for you to wake up. You might not agree with him, but I actually found much of what he writes to be exactly as marketed: sensible. He fears authoritarianism as much as I suspect you do, too.

Subscription newsletters:

docu-mental, of course. Because I believe apathy is abdication of your mind to authoritarianism, but extremism is another route to the same place. The only way through is to know and protect your own mind and to consciously participate in creating what story we will live by and how. This newsletter explores how to do that and gives insight into trends that left to continue unchecked, create anxiety, depression, suicidality, and hopelessness. My aim is to create “herd immunity” to these conditions™. You can read for free, or get more with a premium subscription.

BIG by Matt Stoller: Because he gets it. He understands why and how big data, big anything, can lead to oppression, and he documents how he is uncovering how government is either feckless about putting curbs on these big forces, or are actively abetting their power over us. It is a good way to understand economics and their impact on you personally. Currently, this is a free publication.

The Weekly List by Amy Siskind: A former Wall Street executive now runs this progressive organization that manages to spook me nearly every time I read it because it is fantastic at chronicling how much freedom we are losing daily. You can read it for free, or you can support it at your chosen level. Not for the faint hearted, but neither is docu-mental, I don’t think.

Politi-fact: The Poynter Institute’s way of keeping track of fraudulent claims, fallacies, and follies coming from the mouths of politicians anywhere on the spectrum. Again, you can read for free, but supporting it with your donation is what keeps it running. Easy to read, and nonpartisan.


Dolly Parton’s America: Because who wants to walk around all gloomy and blue?
Not me. Here’s a fun podcast series that anyone anywhere on the continuum can enjoy, I reckon.

Now, go eat your breakfast, lunch, or tea. And get back to me with your thoughts.


(Graphic: Original by Uwe Backes, re-configured by Whitney Fishburn)

Did you realize you're leading a revolution?

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