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madness

MADNESS - July & August 2018 Phillip Morris

The Thing About Thanos

Written by Phillip Morris, Editor-in-Chief

The last three Marvel movies were my favorites and some of the best examples of the superhero genre. The last two, Black Panther and the Avengers: Infinity Wars, really took things to a new level beating out Spawn for its special place in my heart. The stories were compelling, the action engaging, but more than anything, these are my favorites because they allow for some real critical thought. I’m hard-pressed to think of another superhero film, or any film in the broad spectrum of blockbusters, where it was possible for audience members to come away with diverging experiences. Usually, we’re all strapped in for the same emotional rollercoaster laughing, gasping, and crying on cue, but with these films, it’s possible to feel something rare: sympathy for the villain.

With Thanos and Warmonger, Marvel delivered two of the best antagonists of the current wave of superhero films. They were driven by personal, righteous causes that the audience was meant to sympathize with. They weren’t out to cause chaos and destruction purely for their own sake. They craved power for the good they could do with; Thanos to avert an impending disaster life creates for itself by imbalanced consumption, and Warmonger to stop the injustices faced by the African diaspora. However, rather than bringing balance and equality to the people of the world, Warmonger wanted to just flip the script and put his people in control, so between the two of them Thanos’ cause is more sympathetic, so he’ll be the focus of this piece.

It has now been over two months since Avengers came out, and four for Black Panther, so if you don’t know what happens in the movies, that’s on you. By the rules of all polite societies, it’s been long enough that spoilers can be freely talked about. Hell, it’s even been enough time for the subreddit r/thanosdidnothingwrong to gain almost 100K followers. Still, here’s your chance to turn back.

Screen capture from Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) available at Marvel Studio News.

For the first time in a while the main villain of in a superhero movie unquestionable won (Surthur got to bring about Ragnarok but he wasn’t the main villain; in another universe, Ozymandias reached his goal of world peace, but it isn’t expected to last). Throughout the film, Thanos makes his final push to gather the Infinity Stones. Just before the end, he gets his gauntlet on all six and finally makes his dream come true, killing half of all sentient life in the galaxy. Everyone not protected by theirs magically profitable status as an original Avenger was given a 50/50 chance of blowing away like dust on the wind. As any fan of comics will tell you, death is only a temporary set back for most heroes so I’m still looking forward to Black Panther and Spider-man sequels. I’m also expecting Marvel to keep to the high bar they’ve set for themselves with future villains.  In Thanos, I see a villain I can almost agree with.

Let me just say I don’t think his plan is in anyway a solution to the problems we face in the real world that have broadly been blamed on “overpopulation” or capitalism since those would largely be alleviated by reigning in greed, and properly managing resource distribution. But Thanos doesn’t exist in the real world and in his world, his solution works, despite being the bad guy. Superheroes tend to focus on solving the problem immediately at hand, which tends to be saving the lives of those in danger right now. Thanos is thinking on a larger time-scale, and not without reason.

He didn’t start out wanting to kill half of everyone. When he saw the path his planet was heading towards to tried to warn those in charge. He had to then watch his planet die when they didn’t listen to his advice. That’s what put him on the path of taking matters into his own hands, and successfully so. He mentions how Gamora’s planet was once in so much poverty that much of its population was left to starve to death, but following his culling, it is now flourishing. I don’t think there’s any suggestion he’s lying when he tells Gamora this. I feel the film’s presentation of Thanos’ motivation, as just preventing population growth from exceeding a level sustainable level, as a simplification driven by the fact that Hollywood isn’t really one to blatantly critique the systemic flaws in our society and generally thinks the mass audience is dumber than it is.

If you accept the commonly used definition of crazy as doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results, then superheroes are crazier than the villains they fight, and ultimately cause more suffering.  Most heroes don’t kill if they can avoid it (Thanos wouldn’t have won had the Avengers just killed one android). Instead of death, villains can expect to be placed in some form of containment be it in prison, an asylum, or another dimension. Much like how death cannot keep a profitable hero down, neither can any villain be permanently contained. They inevitably escape to wreak havoc yet again. Thanos, on the other hand, offered a permanent fix, then promptly retired. 

The thing about Thanos is he’s a bad guy for the right reasons. Killing half the population of the universe is, of course, traumatic, but trauma induces change. If life across the universe consistently develops in a way that eventually kills itself, then change is necessary. Doctor Stranger saw 14 million futures and still decided it was worth it to give Thanos the Time Stone knowing exactly what it would mean. It could be that ultimately Thanos was right, or more likely that Captain Marvel will be able to undo everything, but the fact that it’s possible to at least for a moment consider that maybe the bad guy has a point is a nice change of pace.

Jurek Wotzel MADNESS - July & August 2018

Politicizing Mental Illness in the Age of Absurdity

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

The madman is a curious category. It works as the opposite of the ideal functioning person: everything that the functioning person is and does, the madman is not and does not. It is a concept that is essentially defined through what it is not, rather than what it is.

While medical literature did exist in premodern times, the scientific interest in mental illness explosively grew from the 1960s onwards. Modern forms of mental illness have been clustered under various terms nowadays.  Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorder, anxiety, psychosis, bipolarity, the list goes on. Categorization still largely relies on the statistical testing of patterns of lived experience. Both, reports of the inner feelings of patients and external observations of doctors, family members, and friends remain to be the main source for classification and diagnosis. While there have been some advances in uncovering physiological mechanisms lying at the heart of these mental illnesses there’s no consensus. There are researchers that believe serotonin imbalance causes depression, researchers who believe it is actually dopamine imbalance, and those who find the real reasons in genetics. Recently, a study found that our chances of becoming depressed in our lifetime is one in four – and if one of our parents had depression, it’s three in four.

The difficulties that we have with finding medical causes of mental illness may be overcome with time, but the dangers that come treating it a scientific problem will stay. One such issue sparked by the insufficient exploration of mental illness by medical researchers is that treatment often does not match the condition. Many times, chemical antidepressants prescribed by doctors bring little actual improvement and fight symptoms rather than causes. A meta-study by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre showed that across the field, antidepressants relieve the symptoms by 50% after two months, but those who have experienced incidences of depression know it comes at a cost. Yes, you sleep better, and your mood is improved, but then you also get the side effects.

Photo by Stefano Pollio

Another trending illness is ADHD. The UK National Health Service says symptoms of ADHD are essentially of two types: inattentiveness and hyperactivity/impulsiveness. A closer descriptions of symptoms lists ‘excessive talking’, ‘acting without thinking’ or ‘interrupting conversation’ as problematic behaviors.

Indeed, these problematic behaviors can cause distress for the patient. Repulsive reactions of peers in school or nursery, as well as problems in managing everyday life as an adult, are common issues related to ADHD. However, framing these behaviors as a disorder ignores the fact that the social organization necessarily produces misfits. Those who struggle to function within the established society are given a medical diagnosis and a medical treatment with the aim to make their personalities fit in. For ADHD, the medications often given, Adderall or Ritalin, are strong stimulants that can have long-term side effects such as heart-rhythm disorders, psychosis, and addiction. Headaches, dizziness, and anxiety belong to the more harmless side effects the patient may experience daily.

The most dubious of all classes of mental disorder are those of the personality disorders. Among them are for example the ‘antisocial personality disorder’ and the ‘obsessive-compulsive personality disorder’. The NHS says that expressions of anti-social personality disorder are “manipulative, deceitful and reckless, and won’t care for other people’s feelings”. They often have histories of repeatedly breaking the law. Obsessive-compulsive behavior means that a certain thought causes stress and anxiety, which is then relieved by repetitive actions that temporarily relieve this. While the antisocial personality disorder does not come with pharmaceutical treatment, OCD is treated with an antidepressant, an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) which can cause insomnia, reduced sexual desire and has been found to double the risk of suicidal thoughts.

All these examples inherently have political relevance. We should ask ourselves to what extent mental illnesses are serious medical conditions of the individual or simply deviations from the norm – which could be totally fine to live with. Only our definition of what is normal produces the unnormal, which we for some reason cannot integrate in the workings of society. It is wrong to give strong drugs to children with the aim of making them behave like all the others, especially since many of the symptoms are based on social interaction in the first place. Even in cases when there’s no medical treatment as with the antisocial personality disorder, personality differences or non-conformism should not be treated as a medical condition, but accepted as a social phenomenon.

It is wrong to pretend as though the upsurge in depression is merely a result of increasing diagnosis rather than systematic causes that lie at the heart of the social order. In the past decade, depression has increased significantly among U.S. teens and it is estimated to become the world’s leading cause of illness by 2030. High-speed capitalism, the progressive up-breaking of stable social ties due to increasing job flexibility, and the constant fear of economic and social decline are just some of the societal developments linked to depressive disorders.

In general, I think there is a lot to be learned from investigating what is called mental illness. Often it can actually give us a hint at societal issues we would not have seen as issues otherwise. This can work in two ways. First, through addressing the question of whether something is an individual mental illness, or actually the symptom of a greater problem; and second, by questioning the extent to which the normalization of the individual is desirable. Repoliticizing mental illness instead of accepting it as a medical condition is crucial and it can be done by saving the debate from revolving around pure pharmaceutical expertise.

MADNESS - July & August 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

Crude: The Black Curse of the Niger Delta

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu

You know what’s crazy? Dying from poverty while surrounded by wealth. The Niger Delta is known for its wealth; it is literally coated in it. The Delta is Nigeria and Africa’s biggest oil producing region, generating Nigeria an approximated $10 billion per year. The ludicrousness is that this wealth pools at the feet of the poorest, taints their skin, and poisons their food. The wealth that is at the fingertips of those who need it the most is killing them instead. The coveted wetland has been tormented by the treasure it sits on for over 40 years.

Major oil corporations such as Shell, Agip, and ExxonMobil have stakes in the Niger Delta with catastrophic impacts. Protected by the government, these corporations act as invincible invaders exploiting and destabilizing the region and very rarely facing accountability. This makes the Niger Delta a paradigmatic case of environmental racism. The environmental and human rights violations are often left unresolved because the outcries of the local black populations hold less value than the black gold provoking the outcries. In trying to take power back, the inhabitants of the Delta have resorted to large-scale illegal harvesting, refining, and selling of the same oil that foreign corporations let leak into their communities, turning the government against its own people. This has turned the Niger Delta into a dark backdrop for a mad battle royale of local militias, large corporations, military raids, and embittered locals.

Once boasting a rich vegetation, the Niger Delta now looks like a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque landscape. Petroleum coats virtually everything; the soil, trees, even water are all highly flammable. The traditional livelihoods of the local communities such as fishing and farming have almost entirely been destroyed. Scarred and abused, the environment has turned against the people. Regrettably, the ones responsible are not there to face the consequences. This is a common phenomenon; environmental devastation is often visited on impoverished rural communities – in the African context, by foreign corporations. Environmental impact is usually not objective, the populations affected are not only impoverished, but there are often racial factors at play as well. These racialized approximations of value create environmental segregation with disastrous consequences for communities.

The Niger Delta has a tragic history with the oil industry, which includes decades of regular oil spills and oil-well fires. Oil contamination has severely damaged the environment; the high rainfall rate and riverland location mean that spilled oil is continually being washed outward and spread. In this way farmland, rivers, and potable water are corrupted.  The oil has penetrated the earth so deeply that agriculture has almost reached a standstill. Ecologists argue that damage can persist in the soil and plants forty years after an oil spill has occurred and been cleaned up. At this rate, the Delta doesn’t stand a chance at recovery. Petroleum so corrupts the groundwater reserves supplying the local communities, that one UN report observed a layer of refined oil as thick as 8 centimeters in a community well. Many oil spills occur from the facilities of these multi-billion dollar corporations, often without appropriate action being taken. For instance, in 2008 and 2009 Shell was responsible for a series of oil spills in the fishing town of Bodo, but Shell did not take action for weeks, and finally only offered the affected community a paltry compensation of $4000. The Niger Delta is a world where even culpability has become a commodity.

Photo by Dewang Gupta

The rapid increase in artisanal refining, where crude oil is refined illegally in makeshift facilities, is creating even more pockets of devastation. Impact areas are on the rise, but the level of damage cannot even be assessed because these enterprises are clandestine. The Nigerian government has taken steps to destroy this black market, going as far as out-right warfare. In the ongoing Niger Delta crisis, the Nigerian army has launched several offenses against rebel groups which have lead to many casualties, including alleged civilian deaths. The military has also made the local population its target, with regular spontaneous raids on villages, where they confiscate and dump any petroleum found. These are communities that have lost almost all other revenue due to petroleum pollution, resorting to trading in what is left: oil. These wanton raids by the Nigerian military are making an already vulnerable environment even more critical; a layer of petroleum left in the African sun is highly flammable and sometimes fires rage uninterrupted for weeks in the Delta.

While the people of the Niger Delta deal with these environmental and armed threats, oil multinationals and the Nigerian government continue to make billions from the region. The stark disparity between the living standards at the frontlines of oil production and the revenue of the industry abroad is a case of environmental discrimination. This chasm is indicative of a divide which neglects one group of people while enriching the other. The black sediment beneath the earth is more important than black lives. The Niger Delta in terms of resources is one of the wealthiest regions in Africa, and yet its inhabitants live in the most deplorable situations, tormented by the misfortune of having been born on rich soil. The bloody origins of oil are rarely questioned as it fuels global economies. The Niger Delta is literally being kept in the dark. When the temporary spotlight is shone on the Delta, it has been fleeting and ineffective.

In an attempt to bring some sanity to this chaos, the Nigerian government launched the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme (NDAP) in 2009. This programme was at its core built on the human capital theory. This theory views an educated population as the most productive investment for society or for a state. And as such the NDAP sought to quell the mounting violence in the Delta by engaging with militants offering them an alternative path. State aid was awarded to militants, and amnesty granted if they dropped their weapons and agreed to enter vocational training that could re-integrate them into society. The premise was simple: forgive the boys, rehabilitate them, save the Niger Delta. Easy.

And yet the programme derailed. It became a channel for corruption. Many allegations have been made that Nigerian politicians were making money bringing in multitudes of people for ‘rehabilitation’ who were not even militants. This meant that a lot of the people who needed this opportunity were neglected.

What should have been a simple solution for these helpless people, ended up being another mockery with which the elite filled their pockets. Militant activity in the Niger Delta only returned with fuller force after the NDAP debacle. More militant groups arose in the Niger Delta with a vengeance. For instance the suitably named Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), whose contribution to the crime and violence cut Nigerian oil production in 2017 to its lowest level in over 20 years. With this, the illegal oil market has again become central to the livelihoods of the Niger Delta’s rural communities. If the NDAP had really lived up to its promise, the people of these communities would not have needed to return to this black market, because there should have been sufficient infrastructures in place to offer them a better way of life. It remains that oil is their only means of survival. Again, facing military raids has become routine.

The retaliation which inspires the Niger Delta Avengers is understandable. The Avengers claim to be more than just a rebel group, and have actual political aspirations. For them, vandalizing pipelines and terrorizing foreign corporations means bleeding out the oil industry in the region. It’s the logic of reprisal: I supply you, you get rich, and yet you keep me in poverty? No, there has to be a reckoning. But what follows in effect is retaliation from the government for being retaliated upon. What is often forgotten in this vindictive cycle is that the environment feels every blow from all sides.

As long as there is oil in the Niger Delta, the global economy will continue to get a hold of as much of it as possible, irrespective of the struggles on the ground. And the actors at the heart of the conflict will continue to play their parts too, because of a dismal thing called greed. How far are we willing to let the environment and human state deteriorate for material gain? The Niger Delta almost resembles a fantasy world and in this twisted drama the cast is driven to madness: all parties distrust each other, fear the combustible land and are driven to desperate points of survival. The fruits of madness are used to fuel a dysfunctional multi-billion dollar industry that the people of the Niger Delta do not benefit from. In this drama ,a kingdom crippled by greed is about to go up in flames.

Christian Hazes MADNESS - July & August 2018

Learning Insanity

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

Being Dutch is inevitably accompanied by a couple of long-lasting stigmas and traits. According to outsiders, but often also according to ourselves, every Dutch person loves cheese, uses a bike to get from A to B, and probably the most notorious habit: “going Dutch” on the bill.

A tradition the outside world is less acquainted with, but that an abundance of Dutch people detests, is what we call zesjescultuur. The fact that the term entails the Dutch word for the number 6 (zes) already makes it a bit more convenient for you to guess the habit’s gist. It is simply the Dutch equivalent of the culture of mediocrity plaguing education. A culture of obtaining a grade that barely meets the threshold to pass a test or a course reigns in the Netherlands.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of prominent Dutch newspapers write about the highly vexed topic of education. Newspapers such as De Volkskrant, Trouw, and De Telegraaf identify challenges, unveil problems and provide recommendations for the future concerning the Dutch education system. What caught my attention is the Dutch newspapers’ tendency to (over)emphasize the prevalence of the zesjescultuur. Lately, it seems to be the only thing they can discuss.

In my opinion, the tradition of the zesjescultuur in the Netherlands is largely non-existent: a contemporary Dutch myth.

There seems to be not a culture of mediocrity, but the opposite: a culture of having to excel in school. This myth is reinforced by the perpetual stream of news that argues that education has to improve and that the majority of the Dutch students are towards education.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson

Together with the dawn of the efficiency pivoted thinking in Dutch education, particularly universities (companies that strive for profit, students are merely products and need to be fabricated as quickly as possible), the two amalgamated into an acceleration of the solidification of the culture to academically excel, including far-stretching consequences. Academic pressure takes its toll, mostly in the form of depression. Many students struggle psychologically; succumbing to the daunting pressure of having to perform. In South Korea, the leading cause of death amongst Koreans aged 15 to 24 is suicide thanks to extreme academic pressure.

Hopefully, the Netherlands (and elsewhere in the world) is able to circumvent such an extreme fate. The first signs are not hopeful. Recently conducted research in higher education in the Netherlands produced baffling figures: a quarter of the students copes with burnout symptoms, 1 out of 7 students face depression and suicidal thoughts which also frequently occur. Oftentimes, the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure on mental well-being are less overt, but not less harmful. The instilled urge to perform and excel academically kills both self-esteem and happiness, and stifles creativity.

Severe academic pressure negatively affects physical health as well, ample research suggests. Insomnia, increased cardiac risk and an increased blood pressure are all valid concerns. The fact that a lot of students turn to coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol does not help either. What’s more, due to the increased focus on performance, education has become substantially more expensive. Many students build up a considerable debt at a young age, especially now that the Dutch government stopped funding students.

The obligation of (excessive) striving and prospering throughout one’s academic career is indoctrinated from a young age on. Many Dutch elementary schools have joined the quest for eradicating the lethargic youngsters. Schools sell and promote themselves with award-worthy marketing, promising to turn your little boy or girl into the next Nobel prize winner. At an age of about five, kids get exposed to government official tests for the first time. A flood of others will follow in the years to come. Most fascinating is the implementation of student-based rankings. A huge in-class billboard shows in which category a pupil belongs. The bright students are identified as “stars” (or something else in a similar vein), those who still need to make considerable progress are called “rockets,” and the hopeless belong to the category consisting of “moons”. But do not panic! If you work hard, outdo your 8-year old peers, and perform well, you can climb the ladder and reach the class’ upper echelons.

Parents can contribute a lot to the solidification of academic pressure. Their role can be summarized with one simple, yet powerful, sentence: there are not a lot of gifted children, but there are a lot of parents with gifted children. Parents to (intentionally) overestimate the abilities of their kids. Parents obviously want the best for their offspring, but the academic pressure they impose on their children might backfire. Children undergo intense pressure in order to fulfill dreams that are sometimes not even their own.

Progress and the need to perform in school are undoubtedly important and justified. The youth needs to be motivated and stimulated in order to develop, not just for their own sake but also for that of the world. Education is invaluable and its fruits are sweet. At the same time, striving comes at a price and poses an inescapable trade-off. Should we always strive for the highest attainable or rather take it easy and aim for general well-being and happiness? A healthy balance should be found, especially when taking into consideration the rapidly enhancing intense nature of society and contemporary life. A step in the right direction might come in the form of pursuing the Humboldtian education ideal. The leitmotif of this school of thought is academic freedom, which is a two-fold concept. Universities should be independent from governmental influence and external economic constraints. But there should also be academic freedom from within, meaning that students themselves are pulling the strings of their educational journey.

Education might be the blueprint for successful living, but let’s refrain from an excess of zeal.

Issues MADNESS - July & August 2018

July & August 2018 – Madness

Dear Infected,

There’s so much craziness going on in the world now that it appears we, as a planet, are going insane.

The US is leading the charge in support of those who deny climate change, while at the same time acknowledging that climate change related incidents are getting worse. Even more shocking is the temporarily halted program of separating families at the US/Mexico border because the trauma of such an event is something the leadership doesn’t really care about. Across an ocean, Europe continues to lament the trickle of refugees coming to its borders, despite the fact that most stay in the region they originate from. It can be frustrating, depressing, maddening that world leaders can carry on with such policies as if they aren’t inherently wrong.

If you’re feeling insane, take comfort that in a mad world only the mad stay sane.

With this in mind, the theme for this summer is Madness. It is our hope that an organized expression of our feelings will work as a form of collective therapy.

We look forward to hearing from you!

The Pandemic Team