Our Chemical Society

Our Chemical Society

By Matthew Barad, Jun 22, 2017

America’s Holy Trinity

Anyone who has spent time on a college campus, or even in a high school, knows that caffeine dependency has become a rite-of-passage. Be it student, teacher, or professor, you often hear people bragging about how many cups of coffee it took to finish an assignment, or even more absurdly, how they can no longer make it through the day without 4–6 cups. All told, 54% of Americans drink coffee daily, consuming three cups, or 27 ounces, on average. That’s almost 300 milligrams of caffeine every day from coffee alone.

But coffee is far from the only way we get our fix. A single energy drink, for example, can contain upwards of 500mg. The newest craze, caffeine laced candy bars, has taken campuses by storm. AWAKE brand bars, which are specifically marketed towards students, have been lauded by Wall Street as an incredible innovation. When you take all of these sources together, you find that the average American consumes nearly half a gram of caffeine daily, with younger Americans leading the pack.

It is at this point that you might expect a passionate plea to abandon caffeine, or a critique of those who rely on it. Instead, I view this as just another symptom of our production-focused culture. In this post-industrial hellscape, caffeine is one of many drugs we rely on to function, to survive, and to live.

Average Hours Worked Among Leading Economies, Acc CNN

In the United States today, the average full time employee works 47 hours a week. Perhaps more absurdly, the average part time worker still labors for just over 34. In fact, we lead the developed world in average hours worked, while still refusing to offer paid time off, or even guaranteeing paid maternity leave. And this is in spite of dramatic increases in worker productivity in the last few decades. To put it simply, we are working harder, longer, and being paid less. With such low hourly compensation, and such high demand placed on laborers, it is no surprise that we have become dependent on chemicals to keep us running. Our nation is so grossly overworked that entire brands have been built around the need for stimulants in the workplace.

But as I mentioned earlier, this reliance is built well before Americans enter the workforce. Nearly 70% of college students don’t get enough sleep, just as we face 80 hours of work every week by some estimations. For those students who drink 6–7 cups of coffee every day, it’s not irresponsibility that drives them, it’s desperation.

An Ad directed at millennials, glorifying self destruction.

And just as Americans rely on caffeine to survive, they rely on other chemicals to live. Alcohol is such a chemical. In fact, just 30% of American adults have ever gone a year without drinking, nearly 27% of Americans binge drink monthly, and more than 10% of American children live with an alcoholic parent. Without the time or energy for books, sports, or hobbies, bars have become the spas of the middle class.

Cigarettes provide a similar escape, but only for the poor. Today, low income Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer 18–20% more often than their wealthy counterparts. Facing those same long work weeks — alongside skyrocketing costs of living — alcohol and cigarettes offer some respite from an uncaring nation.

And tragically, heroin and meth have also become staples of impoverished life in the United States. In his best seller, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes how his Appalachian homeland was desolated by unemployment and governmental neglect. He tells the story of entire towns being ravaged first by poverty, and then by the drug use it begot. Indeed, by some measures, poverty alone increases likelihood of abuse by 25%. In this broken world, chemical bliss is a rare refuge for the impoverished.

In 2015, 50,000 Americans died from drug abuse, and another 88,000 from alcohol. These were not casualties of moral failings, nor were these men and women responsible for their fate. They are victims of a homicidal society, which places a person’s production value over their humanity — meaningless sacrifices to the insatiable god of capital.

Contrary to the narrative of progress, we are living in a dystopia. Monday through Friday we pump ourselves full of stimulants so we can scrounge enough to survive, only to spend that money on artificially induced fantasies every weekend. If you truly oppose drug abuse, don’t blame the victims, and don’t ignore the drugs-by-other-names. Just as our society has forced reliance on caffeine, it has dragged many into the claws of opioid addiction and alcoholism. What the world might look like without the pressures of artificial poverty and neglect, I cannot know. But I am certain that there would be fewer deaths, less suffering, and much, much more living. That is the future we must fight for; that is the future we deserve.

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The Story of Her

The Story of Her

By Matthew Barad, Jul 27, 2017

Trump’s Tweet

The following story was written nearly a year ago, after I got back in touch with an old friend. I intended to write an article condemning Trump’s bigoted decision to ban trans people from America’s armed forces when I remembered this piece. While identities have been changed and details modified, it is a true account. Better than any treatise or punditry, this illustrates the harm of President Trump’s newest mistake. These are the people who Trump has decided to target, and these are the people for which we must fight.

I first met Robert in middle school. We were both white, blonde boys who loved music and enjoyed school a little too much. We were band geeks and political junkies, and we both wasted hours playing risk. And yet, in spite of these similarities, our stories could not be more different.

Being raised in the wealthier part of Colorado Springs meant that we had experiences and opportunities which few other students enjoyed. As we entered high school, I came to know Robert as one of very few who understood this; one of the few who recognized how incredibly lucky we were. In freshman biology, he and I would play games of risk while discussing politics. In a class with some who rejected evolution, many who doubted climate change, and more who had never learned to empathize for the poor, we were almost alone.

As the year went on, I came to know Rob better by the day. After many hours of band and honors biology, we became close friends. I knew that he had a very Christian and conservative family, and, thanks to his gradual lean further and further left, I was under the impression that I had “converted” him. I thought that my obnoxious leftist railings had reached him somehow, that I had changed his mind. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One summer afternoon, I was sitting at my computer when facebook dinged.

“New message from Robert Smith,” it read.

I was surprised by the notification. Robert and I were good friends, but we ran in different circles, and he had never messaged me before. Why now?

“Hey Matt, can I tell you something?”

“Anything,” I responded, with admitted hesitation.

“I think I’m trans.”

Four words, and suddenly a year’s worth of discussions made sense. All this time, while I had been lauding myself for correcting a misguided friend, she had been fighting a battle I knew nothing about. It wasn’t my clumsy, aggressive rhetoric that had reached her. It was her realization of self, her epiphany, that changed her so drastically.

Like I said, Robert (henceforth called Rachel) came from a religious, conservative family. When she came out to her parents, a man and a woman not so different from my own, they responded not with kind understanding, but with bigotry and betrayal. They forced Rachel into religious counselling, made her move schools, and cut her off from friends she had known for years.

The school year ended, and a quiet summer followed. I heard nothing from Rachel, and, in all honesty, she hardly crossed my mind.

Only months later did I discover that, in May, she had been hospitalized for self harm, and told by a saintly hospital orderly that it was okay to be different. When she finally returned to school (before being moved by her parents), she found nothing but love and support from the staff and her peers.

But the fight wasn’t over. In response to their daughter feeling loved and wanted, her parents sued the school district. Rather than accept her for who she was, they attempted to banish her from their home. When they realized that was illegal, they instead kept her away from loving and supportive relatives who might have taken her in. Instead of being a compassionate family, they chose to be hateful strangers.

Rachel and I were eerily similar. The opportunities we were given and the young lives we lead, nearly identical. If anything, Rachel exceeded me in both ethic and intelligence. And yet, thanks to a cruelly woven web of fate, she works at McDonald’s while I study Political Science.

I know her future will be bright, but her path will be difficult. She will struggle to survive while I take my luxuries for granted.

Rachel didn’t choose her body, nor did she choose her family. But for the crime of being different, she will be punished for decades to come. We were raised only a few miles apart, in the same community, and yet, her life will be a triathlon where mine is a 100 meter dash.

Every so often I reach out to Rachel. I tell her how much of an effect she has had on my life, and on my creed. I tell her that one day we will right this world of wrongs, so that no one will have to face the obstacles she did. I tell her that I will share her story and demand that others join me. I tell her that we will fix this broken world.

So please, if you ever needed a reason to fight for change, there she is. Her story, her life, her future, is in our hands. It’s time we got to work.

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Hotdogs are sandwiches. Cereal is a soup. And fascism is very, very bad.

Hotdogs are sandwiches. Cereal is a soup. And fascism is very, very bad.

Hotdogs are sandwiches. Cereal is soup. Poptarts are baked ravioli.

As innocuous these claims may seem, they are sure to inspire controversy, if not outright disgust, in most communities. Food categorization, as it turns out, fuels passionate outrage across the world — but why?

I submit that, although these debates are meaningless, they reveal an inherent and ever-present tension in modernity. Be it sandwiches or scholarships, we are conditioned to believe that categories should not merely describe the world as it is, but that they prescribe how the world should be.

All categorization is ultimately arbitrary. When we draw boxes around similarities, or place lines between differences, we aren’t accessing some higher objective reality, but rather, practicing the evolutionarily-advantageous skill of pattern recognition. To an early human trying to survive on the savannah, the statement “all predators are threatening” is a much more effective survival strategy than the nuanced, though highly accurate, claim that “most predators tend towards aggression except under certain edge circumstances.” This is to say: humans have evolved to create and adhere to categories, not to develop nuanced understandings of each part of the world.

In the obscure world of Philosophy of Science, this problem has been understood for centuries — even as the first philosopher-scientists began their careers with categorization. Aristotle remains nearly unmatched in terms of sheer number of categories and systems of categorization which he created, thereby attempting to explain everything from morality to biology on the basis of these constructions. In the time since, not only have Aristotilian systems of morality faced opposition, his biological schema has as well. Arguably we are less certain of how to distinguish species today than we have been in centuries — all because our observations continuously discover exceptions to the rules of categorization.

I suppose this is why we have the saying, “the exception proves the rule” — as illogical as it is. Our descriptions of the world always have been and will always remain subjective and insufficient. Whatever descriptive rule you create, whether it governs sandwiches or organisms, it will fail in some circumstances.

On its face, this is more of a curiosity than a problem. So what if we are always a little wrong about how the world actually is. Should we not just accept that and move on?

Indeed, we should, and I sincerely wish that we would. Unfortunately, as I wrote in the introduction to this piece, people often react to the insufficiency of categorization not by accepting our subjective nature, but by attempting to make descriptive categories into normative claims. It’s not about whether a hotdog is really a sandwich, it’s about how claiming a hotdog is a sandwich makes us feel — how it appeals to our deep desire to maintain tidy groupings.

Once taken outside of the hypothetical or irrelevant, this becomes a genuine social problem. The struggle of nonbinary and queer people illustrates this; to conservatives, the objective existence of nonbinary anatomies, identities, and sexualities is irrelevant. Rather than adjusting their description of the world to be more inclusive, conservatives attempt to normatively enforce their flawed categories on a messy world.

Extended outwards, this is a compelling, though limited, avenue of describing fascism. It is the effort to enforce a vision of artificial and flawed hierarchies upon the world, and is fundamentally opposed to any effort to empirically describe the world as it is. What conservatives conserve are primitive understandings of natural and sociological relations at the expense of nuance, new information, and very often, basic empathy.

Admittedly, the debate on whether a hotdog is a sandwich is not nearly as dire — however it does point to a conflict which is both very real and potentially threatening. Unless we can move beyond the desire to force our categories on the world, and unless we can move towards a more empirical and inquisitive analytical frame, we will always find ourselves unprepared to accept the new realities which progress will inevitably uncover.

Hotdogs are sandwiches. Cereal is a soup. And fascism is very, very bad.

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