Coming out on mental illness

Kristen Bell is my new hero. And it’s not just her charming rendition of “Love is an Open Door” as a Disney princess in Frozen (in duet with Santino Fontana). In an interview released last week, Bell acknowledged her long term efforts to manage anxiety and depression, including the effective use of medication since she was a teen.

Bell is clear, composed, and very sharp in explaining how important it is to challenge the stigma that comes with mental illness. Coming out is a powerful way to do so, but it’s also risky. As an actor with a star profile, she commands high fees and is expected to carry big budget films. Producers wary about their investments can always think now about someone else. But acknowledging risk is part of coming out. In this way, she is just like those brave undocumented youth, gays and lesbians, and many others who challenge stigma head-on. Her celebrity and her candor makes it at least a little easier for the next person as well.

Surely, there couldn’t be a much smaller share of mentally ill people in Hollywood than elsewhere in American life. Indeed, a growing tranche of journalism is devoted to documenting the crazy stuff tha635720452396985694-Screen-Shot-2015-07-09-at-1.26.56-PMt celebrities do. But more typically, that’s troublesome behavior: substance abuse, tantrums, and acting out–on and off set. You’d think those things would make it harder to get hired.

Kristen Bell, deliberately or not, is part of a larger effort to destigmatize mental illness. Less famous folks have taken on displaying a semicolon, often tattooed, to make the same point (comma underneath): that mental illness is more common and more treatable than we think. Organized by Project Semicolon, the idea is to show people struggling with mental illness that they are not alone–and to show the rest of the world that they need not be ashamed.

Kristen Bell isn’t the only well-known actor to choose to reveal her struggle–and success. Wil Wheaton, best known as a teen actor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has been admirably candid on his blog for years. I think he first came out in 2012:

I haven’t ever talked about this in public, but today’s a good day to start.

I haven’t ever felt suicidal, but I do have Depression and Anxiety. I suffered for no good reason for decades, until I couldn’t reconcile my awesome life with feeling terrible all the time. Talking therapy wasn’t ever enough for me, and I was very resistant to medication, because I believed (and continue to believe) that we are an over-medicated culture.

But, still, I wouldn’t just sit around and suffer if I had a treatable non-mental Me, cosplaying as an adult who knows exactly what you're up to.illness, so I went to a doctor, and I got better. Now, I take some medication every morning, and it has made all the difference in my life….

So, please, if you or someone you know suffer from Depression — with or without thoughts of suicide — please talk to someone, and get help from a doctor. As Jenny says, Depression lies, and you don’t need to let it control your life.

Both Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton are coming out to make it easier for others.

But however much risk they took on in going public, one place even worse than Hollywood is high school.  Two years ago, 

Again, the message was clear and smart and sharp and the messengers courageous. I haven’t heard them sing or watch them act, but I admire them even more than I do Kristen Bell and Wil Wheaton. If they’re all successful, one day it won’t take courage to come out.

Is mental health awareness a movement? Battling stigma and exposing a problem is surely a start. But there’s also policy work to be done. Although federal law now compels health insurers to cover mental illness comparably to physical illness, no one even pretends that this is actually the case. And while the crusaders in this post had not only the conviction, but also the resources, to get effective treatment, many many people are left behind.

Coming out, often the culmination of a long process for an individual, is the first step of a political movement.



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UC Davis, the protest challenge, and history

Remember Occupy? At the height of the movement, students at UC Davis attempted their own encampment. Pepper spray appeared, like a pop quiz, as an unexpected and painful addition to the curriculum. Image result for UC davis copy meme

The overly enthusiastic response of campus police made for an awful image. (You can see the video at the link above to an earlier blog post above.) It made the officer, the campus police, and the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, look bad. It wasn’t just the public; a task force charged by the university with investigating the incident, and headed by a former California Supreme Court Judge, found the pepper spray completely unjustified, and the product of gross mismanagement at every level of UC-Davis, including Chancellor Katehi.

The magic of photoshop allowed innovators all over the internet to memorialize the pepper-spraying cop. The Last Supper, at left, is my favorite, but it’s still easy to find images of the Davis officer spraying cartoon animals, the Beatles, Spongebob Squarepants, the founding fathers, a baby seal, and oh so many others.

We’ve just learned, however, that UC-Davis worked hard and spent a lot of money to try to make it more difficult to find such pictures. Seeking to cultivate a better image, Chancellor Katehi approved expenditures totaling at least $175,000 to purge the story from the internet. That’s tuition, fees, and expenses for nearly six students, or a good chunk of a middle level administrator’s salary. In a time where money is tight at public universities–and I’ve never known any other sort of time–it’s hard not to be offended. Making it even worse, it couldn’t ever work so well. Do your own search.

In the meantime, think about how important the way authorities deal with protesters is–particularly in a democracy. We’d hope that alumni tear up for other reasons in looking back at their college careers. Clearly, there’s good reason to want to hide the past. If that doesn’t work, it makes sense to be careful about how to respond in the present.


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LGBT rights and the arts embargo

I’d been waiting for James Taylor to announce that he would not be going to Carolina…even in his mind–but Bruce Springsteen beat him to it. On April 8, Springsteen announced on his website that he was canceling his concert scheduled for last weekend:

As you, my fans, know I’m scheduled to play in Greensboro, North Carolina this Sunday. As we also know, North Carolina has just passed HB2, which the media are referring to as the “bathroom” law. HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. Right now, there are many groups, businesses, and individuals in North Carolina working to oppose and overcome these negative developments. Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th. Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.

Springsteen’s artistic boycott must be disappointing to Tar Heel fans of classic rock, but it’s also an economic blow against all those who would earn some money at the concert: sellers of tickets, snacks, t-shirts, drugs…. And Springsteen isn’t completely alone.  Bryan Adams canceled a show in Mississippi, which just passed a similar, but harsher, law. Ringo Starr also canceled a show in North Carolina. Springsteen, Adams, Starr–and everyone on their tours–are losing some money now–and may lose some more in negotiating exits from their contracts, but that’s not all. Disappointing your fans and generally dissing an area of the country is risky for any entertainer. The Dixie Chicks never quite recovered from coming out against George W. Bush years ago. There’s also an argument that engaging with people who disagree with you, by making a statement and or donating some money, is more powerful Students on the campus of Appalachian State held an anti-HB2 rally on Thursday afternoon. Photos by Ken Ketchie unless noted otherwisethan publicly opting out.

Not all the Tar Heels are happy about this. At least one Republican legislator in North Carolina called Springsteen a bully, and others have noted that the sites for these artists concerts, particularly internationally, don’t always live up to their standards. This may be a weak argument: To say: you played in Egypt, for example, and it’s even more oppressive than we are–concedes too much. Everyone makes political decisions based on what’s possible and promising at any moment.

The boycott is coercive, as Springsteen acknowledges. If not bullying, it’s at least Boss-y. The rock star is probably less consequential for now than the many businesses like PayPal, that promise to move as much of their operations as possible elsewhere. It was such direct economic pressure from big business that led Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to veto a similar bill, and Indiana to reform and weaken a religious freedom (to discriminate) bill last year.

But social and cultural pressure can matter as well. The artists who won’t work in states that allow discrimination are trying to highlight a strong moral conviction that many in ringo_starr_gty_1160.jpgtheir audiences may already share. This highlight signals allies in North Carolina to do more, maybe even that it’s not okay to do less. It also pressures other entertainers who cultivate similar audiences to consider joining in.

Three senior rockers opting out of parts of their Southern tours doesn’t mark for real cultural isolation and stigma, but that’s how such an isolation would start. The artistic boycott of South Africa in the 1980s, in conjunction with a sports embargo and economic pressure, all added up to a severe isolation that  helped end apartheid.Bryan Adams

Now, Southerners don’t have to get visas to travel elsewhere in the United States, and commerce generally continues, but the signals matter.

Most significantly, Republican governors like Pat McCrory and Phil Bryant have to work much harder to navigate the increasingly strained alliance between economic conservatives–who generally support business–and social conservatives–who want the state to express their values. Other conservatives in office will watch how they walk these tightropes, and mostly try to stay on the ground.

In the short haul, with gerrymandered America, most legislators are likely to be playing to the people who brought them into office.

But over the long haul, bet on business. The arc of the economic universe bends toward trade.

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Protest, violence, and the Trump campaign

Selling himself as a man of action, not bound by law, conventional standards, or “political correctness”–whatever that is, Donald Trump is determined to keep control of his events, even if that includes letting his supporters or staff lose control. Trump has commissioned a large and aggressive force to maintain order.

Maybe it’s generic paranoia, or a megalomanical sense of the threat he represents, or Anti-Trump rally in Phoenix.maybe a realistic evaluation of how much he angers people, but Trump has determined that the Secret Service agents provided him (and other candidates for the presidency) aren’t enough. To be sure, other candidates–if they can afford it–supplement local police and Secret Service, but at least this year, none been able to generate the violence that has become endemic at Trump rallies. Then again, maybe no one else is trying.

At PoliticoKenneth P. Vogel and Brianna Gurciullo detail the development of harsh private policing at events intended to project an impression of power and unity. The story details armed security forces destroying signs, provoking confrontations, and forcibly removing people from events if they think might be critical of Trump, including journalists. Often, the security forces can tell by age, color, clothing, and gender. (Elsewhere, this is called profiling.)

A fight between supporters and protesters at Donald Trump's aborted rally in Chicago.

The threat of violence keeps the media presence at Trump events large, and also helps keep the crowds coming. Anything can happen. Paradoxically, this threat of violence also keeps the protesters coming. At Vox, Dara Lind says the tendency to overreact makes the Trump rallies a more attractive site for activists. Confrontation with professional security–or even the volunteers caught up in the moment, makes for dramatic images that could go viral, giving the demonstrators a chance to reach a broader audience. It’s not about inviting discussion about immigration policy or civility, as Lind notes, but creating a ruckus large and visible enough to engage bystanders–even those watching on a screen hundreds of miles away.

And provocation provokes provocation. Last week, in advance of today’s Wisconsin primary, Trump scheduled a rally in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s home town. (Ryan has, timidly in my view, criticized the tenor of Trump’s candidacy, the violence, and the lack of civility. Trump took it right back to the Speaker. And Trump opponents showed up as well, vigorously criticizing the candidate’s racism.

Shouting and swarming led to screaming and pushing and a (volunteer) Trump supporter at right pepper spraying a teenage girl. (You might not have known that you wanted to bring pepper spray to a political rally–just in case.)

Confrontation like this is polarizing, inviting spectators to take sides. Everyone involved has bigger concerns than Donald Trump–except, of course, for Trump himself.



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Fighting religious freedom (to discriminate)

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced that he was ordering all City departments to suspend paying for travel to North Carolina unless it is essential to the City. The problem is the new religious freedom (to discriminate) law that North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory just signed. You see, the City of Charlotte had expanded its non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT people, and the state’s legislature quickly worked to invalidate the protections Charlotte offered–and then some.

It is, of course, bizarre that an elected official on one coast gets involved with the allocation of bathroom stalls 3,000 miles away, but such is the way of civil rights and American politics.

Despite vigorous opposition, this “religious freedom” bill won overwhelming support in both houses of North Carolina’s legislature; Democrats walked out of the state senate session, claiming they were shut out of the discussion anyway. The short story is that the losers in the debate in Charlotte found support from a majority elsewhere. Now, the losers in North Carolina find even broader support as they expand the scope of the conflict. (This, by the way, is what protest politics is all about.)  And the battle is playing out across several states already.

Playing politics on a bigger field is only an advantage for LGBT advocates in North Carolina these days. Powerful business allies have weighed in strongly. Disney, Biogen, Intel, Bank of America, the NFL, NBA, and NCAA, PayPal, and the Motion Picture Association of America have all weighed in with their opposition to the bill, offering more or less explicit threats to limit the business they do in North Carolina while this law is in place. The threatened economic consequences are far greater than the few trips canceled by Mayor Lee’s edict. Although it’s more than possible that some of the corporate leaders have personal commitments to decent treatment of LGBT people, the more powerful explanation is that they are looking out for their business interests. Public support for gay rights is now strong, particularly among younger people, and that means potential customers and employees. Discrimination is bad business.

Nathan Deal, governor of Georgia, got the message from local and national businesses, and just vetoed his legislature’s religious freedom (to discriminate) bill, because the state of Georgia wants to project a welcome to everMarch 23, 2015 Atlanta: Emma Stitt, from left, Megan Harrison, Jessica Reznicek and Lorraine Fontana stand in Sen. Josh McKoon's, R-Columbus, office in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in protest of the "religious liberty" bill that McKoon is sponsoring. The four were arrested after they were asked to wait in the hallway, but they refused to leave. The protest was part of Moral Monday Georgia. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.comyone.  Dell, Marvel, Microsoft, Virgin, and Unilever had all weighed in on the debate over recent days.

But please note that activist efforts to stop Georgia and North Carolina from limiting health care, education, and voting rights have received no comparable corporate support. (Track the moral Mondays.)

One interesting wrinkle: Nearly fifty years ago, antiwar activists on American college campuses called for their schools to divest their holdings in Dow Chemical, which made some of the napalm that American planes dropped on Vietnam. Like Mayor Lee’s announcement, it was a statement of moral principle, and an effort to exert some economic pressure. Dow got out of the napalm business in 1969. This week, it was one of the companies urging North Carolina not to pass this bill, and promising to work for its repeal.

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2016

I hadn’t realized that today was Cesar Chavez Day until I arrived at a campus mostly empty and locked.  In fact, it’s not Cesar Chavez Day in California or the United States–that’s next week–but just on campus, so it doesn’t interfere with any other school business.  Some holiday commemoration.   This is a repost for the holiday. 

On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day early, yesterday, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing.  The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit.  In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.

A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday website seems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values.  Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time.  Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide  and empire (e.g.).

Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now.  His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here).  Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California.  With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.  Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice.  Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.

Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic.  Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence.  He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause.  He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns.  He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.

But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.

On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States.  The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy.   The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent.  (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago.)  The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.

And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor campaign.  When Chavez and Huerta started their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions.  The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.

And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well.  The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions.  The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.  Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.  Importantly, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.

Note: things have gotten worse for organized labor since I first wrote this. Wisconsin has become a right-to-work state, and organized campaigns to follow suit are everywhere. 

Or should I say, US?

Cesar Chavez’s birthday is an opportune time for thinking about Latinos, civil rights, and American labor, and not just the start of Spring. A few California teachers are fronting an effort to end the closed shop/agency fee model here–and across the United States–in a case the Supreme Court heard in January, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Justice Scalia’s death provides a clear reminder that we may have yet one more turning point on the horizon for organized labor.

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Trumpism and the threat of violence

Although supporters, opponents, bloggers and observers of all sorts throw the word “movement” around to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy, so far it’s been about nothing more than a dyed and bloated real estate magnate. least once, local toughs cited Trump when they beat a homeless man in Boston, but mostly actual violence has been confined to the candidate’s events–at least so far. And, at least so far, it all works for Trump.

A candidate’s event is  a great place for activists to organize to advance their claims. Someone else has already gathered a local audience and the press, and the possibilities for drama and even discussion abound. An activist might be able to ask a question, drawing attention to favored issues, maybe even eliciting a position from a candidate. If not, activists may elicit an unforced error that affects the campaign.  See, for example, Occupy Charleston’s hijacking of a Michele Bachmann event in 2012.

Flustered, Rep. Bachmann left the premises. Senator Bernie Sanders did a little better last year: when Black Lives Matter activists seized the podium at a rally in Seattle, Sanders left the stage and worked the crowd. He then worked over the next months, with some success, to incorporate the movement’s concerns into his message.

The point is that there’s nothing new, unusual, or unAmerican about protests at a political event. A successful candidate, particularly one who claims to want to unify the American people, needs to find ways to deal with dissent at the grassroots. Typically, this involves some combination of policing, keeping protesters far from the stage, and engagement, taking questions and holding meetings with political opponents.

From the start, Donald Trump promised something different. He tagged Sanders’s response to protesters as a sign of the senator’s weakness, promising that he–or “his people”–would dispense with opponents more quickly and vigorously. This is one promise the candidate has kept. Egged on by Trump, both paid security and vigorous attendees at his rallies, have attacked protesters, and Trump’s staff has confined, ridiculed, and attacked (not only verbally) members of the press. Even at the beginning of his campaign, Trump required those who might attend his events to pledge allegiance–to the candidate, not the flag. He himself has pledged that, if elected, to make it harder for the press to criticize people (him) unfairly (not defined). Thin skin has never previously been a prerequisite for the presidency.

But the violence. Much more than specific promises about matters of policy, Trump is selling himself as a man of action. The solution to America’s problems, he promises, starts with a gold T. Both he and his few identifiable advisers have tried to allay voters’ fears by emphasizing that the candidate isn’t committed to anything he now commits to in the heat of the campaign–even populist racist xenophobia. So it’s all his persona and action.

Social scientists know about a campaign based on the promise of exceptional personal characteristics and action; Max Weber called it “charismatic authority” ( for more, you can watch an academic lecture or read Wikipedia). Importantly, social scientists see charisma as contextual, rather than as something that comes from individual characteristics. Charismatic authority is inherently unstable and thrives during turbulent times. The charismatic leader rules only as long as he delivers on the aspirations of those who support him. For this reason, Trump has been stalwart in emphasizing how awful everything is and how dangerous the world is and how stupid everyone else is. Partly, he’s better on the attack than in outlining alternatives or preferred policies. But even more than that, it’s clear that few people would be willing throw in with someone who obviously lacks all of the qualities for the job he seeks unless times were truly desperate. Stoking the threat of terror and enemies without and within all helps candidate Trump.

Violence, and even more the threat of violence, supports this vision of the now. Trump rallies are fun, the candidate promises, because anything can happen. Identifying the enemy nearby, a protester brave enough to hold a sign or scream, or a pen of reporters who claim to care about telling the truth, generates the tension that he needs to offer an appeal. Some supporters attend thinking that they might get a chance to haul off and smack the enemy, but even more come just to see what might happen.

Now the challenge is whether Republicans who claim to value civility and democracy and recognize the threat Trump represents are willing and able to do something about it. But soon the responsibility is likely to shift to more of us. In the meantime, the people who take protest about this candidate to his rallies are on the front lines.

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