Issue 28: Winter 1991 from http://processedworld.com
Processed World #28
Table of Contents
Splicing Heads: "New Technology" Again
from our readers
My Best Job
tale of toil: research assistant, by kwazee wabbitt
The Quest For Microwavable Pasta, & Other Vital Needs
tale of toil: biotech secretary, by robin wheatworth
Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology
analysis by tom athanasiou
Generation X(cerpt): I Am Not A Target Market
fiction excerpt by douglas coupland
Genetic Engineering Pioneer
interview with marco schwarzstein, by chris carlsson
prose poem by marina lazzara
People's Ambulance Chaser
tale of toil: paralegal, by r.l. tripp
by nathan whiting, marc olmsted, alan mendoza, d.s. black, mbundu, blair ewing & art tishman
Pissing In The Gene Pool
analysis by primitivo morales
a look at cuban health care, by michael dunn
ward valley nuke dump report, by lili ledbetter
brazilian environmental activists speak out, by joao de castro ribeiro
popular video in wake of the persian gulf war, by deep dish tv
We Don't Gotta Show You No Stinkin' Gene Screens!
interview with dr. paul billings, by shelley diamond & greg williamson
Shadowboxing The Future
analysis by sam bulova
REVIEWS: You Might Not Count in the New Order:
review of douglas coupland's generation x, by d.s. black
review of pat murphy's the city, not long after, by chris carlsson
review of mondo 2000, by d.s. black
review of science as culture, by primitivo morales
review of karen brodine's woman sitting at the machine, thinking, by
Reproductive Rights Rant
by angela bocage
This is a pro-choice poem
poem by paula orlando
tale of toil: legal temp, by mickey d.
My Best Job
tale of toil: research assistant, by kwazee wabbitt
The best job I ever lucked into was a ""work-study'' gig as the research assistant for an epidemiologist. My boss, Joel, was the typical absent-minded professor. In retrospect, I can see that he was a brilliant bio-statistician, but at the time I was more aware of his comically nurdy appearance and laudably relaxed management style.
Joel was the junior member of a research duo investigating the environmental causes of cancer. The senior member, a suave and famous scientist, wrangled grants and handled PR. Joel, I suspect now, did all the actual research. He was an assistant professor in a tiny, newly formed department -- Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences -- at the state School of Public Health.
I worked half-time, 20 hours a week, on a pay sheet I filled out myself (very generously). Joel really didn't mind how much I worked, or how many hours I claimed. He would give me a list of articles to hunt up, and as long I produced the data he was happy. His life was so disorganized that being able to delegate this arcane but vital task was a relief to him. At the time I considered myself to be getting a very cushy deal, but I realize now that I was, in fact, giving pretty good value. Tracking down medical research data is a tricky task. It's not easy to find someone who can penetrate the jargon and work for student wages. I enjoyed hanging out in the library and the challenge of digging up an obscure study or squeezing raw data out of a reluctant researcher. I also got along well with my co-workers, not easy for an oddball like me. Everyone in EOHS shared two characteristics: we were a) radicals and b) underpaid.
Any serious look at the environmental causes of cancer quickly turns up a fact so obvious, so blatant, so patently true that it seems trite to pronounce it: industrial pollution is the major environmental cause of cancer. The huge corporations producing most of the carcinogenic waste pump millions into research obscuring this fact. However, Industry is rich and the Public is not. There was not a single person working at EOHS who couldn't get paid at least twice as much (for some, ten times as much) doing the identical job for ""the other side.'' Anyone who stayed was either an idealist/radical/environmentalist, not very serious about Advancing Their Career, or too wierd to hold a mainstream job. Most were all three.
Joel was focused on his esoteric research. He wasn't insensitive to Advancing his Career, but he wasn't one of the (far more typical) academic careerists who research only what will get them tenure and promotions. He seemed content to let Sam, his collaborator, hog most of the glory. As a teacher he was unpopular. His stuff (advanced biostatistics) was far too arcane for most students to follow, even if he didn't speak in an unintelligible mumble, and he had no talent for intra- departmental power struggles. He depended on Sam's clout to shield him from hostile administrators and competitive colleagues.
Sam, the department head, was the least oddball, most mainstream, and fastest advancing careerist in the outfit. He frequently spoke on TV, wrote environmental books, fished for the slippery but huge federal grants so vital to research, and fought the interdepartment battles. EOHS was his creation and power-base. His famous name went on the top of all the research proposals as ""principle investigator.'' This meant he got a personal percentage of the funds and top billing on any published studies.
I think Sam was a sincere crusader, but he was no blind idealist. He always managed to profit personally from his "selfless'' crusading. When one of Sam's lab workers complained of unsafe working conditions (lack of adequate ventilation in a carcinogen lab), he was swiftly fired -- this in an outfit supposedly dedicated to defending worker safety! The rank-and-file ranged from mildly liberal Sierra Club types to committed radicals of various stripes. I ranked towards the bottom. At the time I was an openly gay revolutionary socialist, showing many early warning signs of Bad Attitude -- not exactly Fortune 500 material. Had I been interested in anything other than sex, drugs and the Revolution, I could have been using my position as a good "in'' to a lucrative career in biomedical research. But I wasn't, and to me it was just a high paying ($6 an hour -- good for a student in 1980), low hassle job.
So we were a pretty counter-cultural crowd. There was a minimum of hierarchical bullshit, and we were all sincerely dedicated to the cause. Environmentalism was a popular and growing issue, and we were proud to be at its cutting edge. I don't think any of us ever dreamed, 12 years ago, that our work would be so completely ignored, and that Polluters would triumph so completely over Defenders of the Environment.
That we were out-numbered and out-gunned was obvious. Every study we published was immediately challenged by literally dozens of big name researchers. It didn't seem to matter that they were directly funded by corporate polluters. Nor was the publication playing field level. The editors of the major journals were all members of the medical Good Old Boy network, and they instinctively took a dim view of radicals and environmentalists. We had a much harder time getting articles published than the industry apologists did.
Finally, our work had little potential to "pay off'' in standard academic terms. Pleasing a major industry could easily result in millions of research dollars, a lucrative consulting career, and/or a Chair at a prestigious university. In fact, entire universities have been created/funded by Industry (e.g., Carnegie Institute). Our major source of funds, aside from federal grants, was unions. They were a natural counterbalance to business interests, at least in the matter of occupational risks. But they had nowhere near the money, and none of the academic clout, of the major corporations. They were David facing Goliath, and we were their sling. Even so, I naively hoped that Truth Will Out. Our case was so strong, our studies so clever, that I didn't see how they could fail to triumph. As I learned to search out flaws in research, I found that much of the opposition's work was blatantly faked (see "Sleazy Research Tricks" sidebar).
But none of this seemed to matter. "Everything causes cancer!'' people would say, disregarding any specific lab report on carcinogens. What we called "Lifestyle'' theories of cancer were becoming increasingly popular -- studies "proving'' that high-fat diets, or smoking, or Bad Attitude were "responsible'' for cancer. And these lifestyle theories were quickly picked up and promoted by secondary interests -- the stop-smoking clinics, the weight and stress reduction programs, and various Power-of-Positive-Thinking scamsters.
After all, our studies led to conclusions that nobody liked. The environment was becoming increasingly toxic, billions would have to be spent to clean it up, and dozens of profitable industries providing millions of jobs would have to be curtailed (or at least rendered less profitable). Where would one even start to remedy the situation? It's so much easier to start a low-fat diet than it is to save the environment!
Ultimately, we depended on support, both moral and financial, from federal environmentalism to maintain this unequal stuggle. When Ronald Reagan was elected we were doomed. The Reagan administration, like Bush's after it, was slavishly dedicated to "Business'' interests. The Environmental Protection Agency was one of their first targets, and it was soon reduced to chaotic impotence. Funding for projects like ours was cut off as fast as possible. My layoff (along with many others) was announced within weeks of Reagan's victory. Within a year the entire operation had been shut down. Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences was soon cannibalized by its jealous sister departments. The rank-and- file dispersed. Some of the shrewder, less idealistic researchers found ways to market "environmental'' studies so they fit in with Lifestyle theories -- for example, researching the effects of "secondary'' cigarette smoke on non-smokers in the same room. Joel lost his academic appointment and moved to another state and I soon lost track of him. Sam alone is still at the School of Public Health, producing well-reasoned critiques of the ever-popular Lifestyle theories of cancer. Much of what made my job at EOHS so good was that I was working for a decent boss in a tolerant workplace. But the cards were stacked against us, Joel and me both. Mere competence is rarely enough. The Carter years were an anomaly, and EOHS a heavily protected environment, a kind of wildlife preserve for absent- minded professors and radicals. I only wish I'd fully appreciated it at the time.
SLEAZY RESEARCH TRICKS
According to the rules, theories attain the status of Facts after they have been rigorously tested by reliable, replicable, high-quality research. In practice, a substantial body of published studies in The Best Journals (e.g. The Big Three: The New England Journal of Medicine, Science and Journal of the American Medical Association) supporting a given theory establishes it as a Fact.
Often, however, the harried researcher, pressed for time in the pursuit of lucrative grants, or frustrated by studies that refuse (for unknown reasons) to produce the desired results, has recourse to certain short-cuts.
Some of the most popular time-savers are listed below. This is far from a comprehensive listing, but it gives a general idea of what you can get away with. Get a big-name scientist as co-author, the backing of a Prestigious Research Institute or University ("backing,'' in this case, can be as minimal as use of PRI's letter-head and mailing address), and you're in business.
Important Note: The underlying active ingredient in any of the following ploys is usually a powerful "Tell us what we want to hear'' effect. If your study "proves'' something the prospective funder wants to believe, there will rarely be any problem.
CIRCULAR REFERENCING: Researcher A mentions, in a footnote, that Compound X has been "proved'' completely harmless. Researcher B quotes A, and is in turn quoted by Researchers C, D and E. The next time Researcher A discusses the topic, he cites the papers by B, C, D and E as further proof of his original claim.
If someone tries to pin you down on your original footnote, cite a "personal communication'' (i.e., phone call or unofficial letter) with another scientist. It's best if your personal communicant lives far away, is difficult to reach, and doesn't speak English; or, better still, is dead.
STEP-WISE EXAGGERATION: Famous Researcher A publishes a study proposing that smoking is responsible for 8 percent of all lung cancer. Researcher B cites this study, saying that smoking is responsible for "nearly a tenth'' of all lung cancer. Researcher C translates this to 10 percent, and Researcher D points out that since smokers are only half the population, this 10 percent is really 20 percent (logically this makes no sense, but on a fast reading it SEEMS to).
Researcher E casually refers to D's paper, giving the statistic as "almost a quarter'' of the population (having forgotten that it was only smokers that D was talking about). Finally, Researcher A, upon reading E's report, notes that current studies show that smoking is responsible for three times as much of the lung cancer as he originally thought (i.e., 25 percent instead of 8 percent). When A's statement is published -- prominently in several major daily newspapers -- Researchers B, C, D and E all triple their previous estimates, citing the highly respected A. Thus, the original 8 percent has ballooned up, in E's revised estimate, to 75 percent percent.
NAIVE SUBTRACTION: Dr. Industry decides to estimate the environmental causes of cancer by taking the known cancer rate and subtracting all "proven'' sources of cancer from it. By using generous estimates for these causes -- preferably "lifestyle'' factors, like smoking and diet -- Dr. Industry finds that only 2 or 3 percent of all cancers are "unexplained.''
This tiny, residual number thus becomes the ceiling figure for environmentally-caused cancers.
DRY-LABBING: To "dry-lab'' a study means to fake it; to make up the numbers without actually bothering with all those test-tubes and things (thus leaving your laboratory nice and clean -- i.e., "dry'').
The chances that anyone will ever ask you to produce your original lab reports and notebooks are pretty slim. Recent experience shows that even if a lab worker sells out and denounces you, they are unlikely to be believed. Of course, someone could replicate your study and fail to get the same (i.e., faked) results; but you simply accuse them of screwing up somewhere. It will take, at the very least, several years for anyone to sort it all out.
COMPETING TOXICITY: The Fed has demanded, as a precondition to licensing, that DeathCo's new product, Liquid Death, be tested for its potential to cause cancer. So DeathCo gives Liquid Death to 17,000 mice -- but at a dose so high that they all die within weeks. Since it usually takes several months to develop a tumor, very few cancers are reported.
Such a high death-rate could be some cause for concern; however, the Fed didn't ask "how many mice will drop dead in weeks?'' it asked "how many will develop cancer?'' DeathCo's study is published as "proof'' that Liquid Death doesn't cause cancer -- "even when very high doses are administered.'' This proof will stand, unchallenged, until someone with 17,000 spare mice decides to replicate the study.
The Quest For Microwavable Pasta and Other Vital Needs
tale of toil: biotech secretary, by robin wheatworth
When the agricultural research group where I work first formed, it was looking into new ways to produce hardier and more productive cereal crops. There were four scientists, all Ph.D.'s in their mid-thirties. Edgar, a chemist, was running the show; Pete, a biochemist; Rob, a plant physiologist; and Sergio, an agronomist from Central America. I was hired as their secretary and bookkeeper. Our little outfit was funded by a large industrial group which had decided to diversify its operations and explore agriculture.
We had a couple of small labs and a greenhouse on site. Cereal varieties were analyzed and tested in the greenhouse by Rob. Potentially interesting varieties were crossed to make superior cereal lines using a non-toxic chemical method developed by Pete. Then Sergio would supervise test plots out in the Sacramento Valley to see how the plants actually performed in terms of added yield.
The pace of the work was moderated by the seasons. In November they planted in the fields, while during the spring, lab and greenhouse work continued. In June we would go out to the hot valley to look at the results -- maybe 20 acres of test plots of old and new varieties of grain, all turning from green to golden under the strong sun. The hybrid plants showed obvious new traits, some plants very short and close to the ground, some nearly as tall as us, some with good seed set, some with poor, some beset by disease, some thriving. The crops were harvested and taken back to the labs for analysis. Then, in autumn, the planting cycle began again.
The program continued like this for several years. In agriculture they call it classical breeding. Desirable traits are developed in a hit and miss manner. You take one plant with a good strong trait, you cross it with another plant and with other good traits, and you hope the resulting offspring will combine all the desired traits. It's a long, slow process. The produce in the supermarket represents decades of development.
Our small group expanded with the hiring of a few more associate scientists for the chemistry work (one from Taiwan and one an immigrant from mainland China), the first woman scientist of the group, who was a botanist to assist with lab and greenhouse work. We were a long way from any sort of actual product, and Edgar was getting nervous about continued funding.
The parent company seemed ambivalent, and Edgar thought we needed a hook to keep them interested. So Edgar, being an enterprising and up-to-date scientist, launched a huge lobby for a genetic engineering program.
Genetic engineering of plants really represents a quantum leap over traditional plant breeding. Instead of a trial and error procedure that lasts a decade, you can potentially identify, isolate and introduce a new gene into a plant in a year. The parent company, after some struggle, was won over to the wave of the future--the allure of reaping profits from the newborn science of plant genetic enginering. During the next couple of years the tone of the operation took on a totally new dimension. We constructed the latest in high tech labs in addition to several million dollars in equipment purchases. We hired a whole new group of credentialed scientists in the disciplines of cell and molecular biology. Men and women in their 20's and early 30's, these scientists were the hotshots from the latest university genetics programs.
In the new structure, Edgar became the scientist administrator. Pete and Rob continued the original work in biochemistry and plant physiology. Sergio spent all his time at the field station. Tim, a bright and driven Asian-American, was the Ph.D. running cellular biology. Stephanie, an intelligent Ph.D. of few words, was running molecular biology. The cell and molecular groups each had a retinue of young new breed genetic scientists, mostly Americans, three more Taiwanese, one east Indian and two Europeans.
The workplace was a lot livelier. The group until then had consisted of your basic dedicated bench scientists, pretty much locked into their fields, sports being their main outside interest. The newer group consisted of generally younger singles who attended concerts, liked sports, paid some attention to the media, drove new sports cars and met socially outside work. A few of the new scientists professed interest in environmental causes and set up in-house recycling of paper and cans.
SPECIALIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS
When the new labs opened, a rift developed between the original scientists and the new group. In science these days, molecular and cell biology is ""in.'' Chemistry and biochemistry still play a basic role, but biological disciplines such as physiology, which consider the whole organism, are ""out.'' At the universities all the aspiring biologists want to study genetics. As a result, their overall outlook tends to be limited to the microscopic level at best.
For the first few years of the genetic engineering labs, Rob, the plant physiologist, was down in the dumps. He had been counseled that his specialty -- the study of the overall plant and how it reacted with the surrounding environment -- was no longer where it was at. To be more employable he needed to get into molecules. When the labs developed plant lines that had to move into the greenhouse, and then outdoors into an actual field, it became apparent that the molecular and cell people didn't know the first thing about whole plants. They didn't consider, for example, that if you move a gene that influences a certain stage of growth, it might affect the overall maturation of the plant. At that point it was decided that the plant physiologist better give a few quick seminars to the rest of the group. His dignity was partially restored until the young assistant botanist transferred to the cell biology lab to rev up her skills. Now Rob can't find another assistant to hire. He told me, ""They don't train people like me anymore.'' This man is 39 years old!
A QUICK HISTORY
Observing this episode with Rob, and seeing the whirlwind changes brought by genetic engineering, made me look more closely at what was happening. It's been barely 20 years since the first gene splice. The field of molecular biology, initiated by Rockefeller Foundation grants in the mid-1930's, has finally come into its own during this past decade and a half. It has received tremendous research and development funding.
1970s: For the first time molecular biology succeeded in controlled manipulation of genetic material. Pieces of genetic material were successfully moved from one organism to another.
In 1975: the international scientific community, awed by the magnitude of this breakthrough, held a conference at Asilomar, California, and actually declared a moratorium on all genetic research until enough was known to control this emerging technology.
1980s: The business element in the scientific community gained enough influence to reverse the scientists' moratorium. Huge venture capital investments were made as genetic engineering research again proceeded at full speed. The door was opened wider by a 1980 Supreme Court decision granting the first patent on a process for genetic manipulation to Stanford and UC Berkeley. It was astonishing in two respects. It was the first patent on a life form, and it was the first time academia formally entered the business world with a patent. During the 1980s, investment poured into medicine and agriculture to develop applications.
1990s: After ten full years of major investment there are few significant biotechnology products on the market. Research takes time and the developing technologies are so new they have barely matured. Biomedicine is a little closer to bringing products to market than is bioagriculture. The venture capitalists are getting very anxious and are pushing hard for products.
Under this pressure there could be a whole series of useless and/or damaging genetic technology spin-off applications, such as herbicide tolerance. Not only is industry usurping the new technology to protect its earler investments in obsolete technology, they are also in a mad rush to commercialize and get immediate returns on investment before the technology's potential is even halfway realized.
In an infinite range of possibilities, the industrial sponsors are having a bigger say than ever before in what science is actually developing. The universities are busy organizing academic biotechnology consortia to facilitate the flow of basic research to industry (in return for funding and a piece of the patent action). The ties between academia and industry, always present, have reached unprecedented levels in the case of biotechnology.
Genetically engineered herbicide tolerance is an interesting case in point, though it's not a project at the labs where I work. The agrichemical companies became the biggest backers of genetic engineering of plants in the early 1980s. They invested early, and financed full scale in-house research labs. Finding a specific gene that carries a specific trait is one of the difficulties of genetic engineering.
The scientists in those labs isolated the gene for herbicide tolerance during their continuous testing and studying of how herbicides act on plants. The agrichemical companies now have an ""isolated herbicide tolerant gene'' that they can move into crops that are plagued by weeds, like cotton. A farmer sprays his cotten crop like crazy, the cotton thrives, the weeds don't grow, and the company sells genetically altered crop lines and more herbicide than ever. This herbicide tolerance is actually one of the few genes currently isolated, identified and in the stage of advanced product development. In many other agricultural labs the rush is on to get to market with a similar product in order to stay competitive. It is very likely that some of the first genetically engineered plants will be herbicide resistant varieties, both crop plants and forest timber trees.
The research stops here--the skills developed toward gene isolation and manipulation are put on hold while the rush to product development takes over. Imagine the implications of spraying all the timber plantations in the semi-wild with herbicides. But there is no research into these ecological consequences -- research dollars are committed to bringing products to market as soon as possible.
YES, BUT HOW DO THEY FEEL?
Back in our labs, the push is also on. I've asked a number of scientists how they feel about herbicide tolerance being the pilot product of genetic engineering? How do they feel about the way the technology they develop is actually applied? Stephanie smiles, and though she is the leader of the molecular biology group, she just shakes her head and says she's glad herbicide tolerance isn't one of our projects. Rob also shakes his head, doesn't say anything. He's already had the funding pulled out from under projects he's worked on at two other labs, losing his job both times. He's not too anxious to make any statements. Pete, busy at the chemistry bench, shrugs his shoulders and acknowledges that funding is everything. ""You work on what they are willing to fund.''
Steven, one of the younger scientists, once confided to me that the herbicide tolerance work is dangerous. He was labeled a liberal by the rest of the group for being against the attack on Iraq. This relatively mild political stance made his lab mate so uncomfortable she stopped speaking to him. He recently left the labs to go back to graduate school and study environmental law. Two years ago, another young cell biologist left for law school. He, however, was going to be a patent attorney.
Stephanie, Rob and Steven, the dedicated bench scientists, are not the driving forces of the operation. There is another career track in the labs, the scientist turned businessman/manager. Tim, the cell biology leader, is competent and professional, definitely a candidate for the business track, although he rather ruefully told me one day, ""I went to graduate school in the '70s. The structure of DNA had just been identified. It was incredibly exciting. The scientists in those years had a say in the direction the discovery could take. There was a tremendous amount of debate on the responsible application of the science. I never would have believed then that I would end up working in industry.'' He now is wholeheartedly committed to the projects assigned to him. Edgar has been sharpening his business and management skills, and has teamed with with go-getter Matt, who is a Ph.D. in biochemistry turned MBA. Together they have plans to take our group to the top, to be first in both technology and business development. They are a fair representation of what science is these days: competitive and very business oriented. Not long ago I heard Matt commenting, ""we've got the solution, now all we need is the problem.'' He was talking about some finding on altering the starch content in wheat that had the potential of being applied to pasta production. It turns out that the big food processors have a problem with pasta microwavability -- the pasta gets mushy. Excited discussion percolated throughout the company about the microwave oven application.
Greenwashing Agricultural Biotechnology
analysis by tom athanasiou
To generalize is to be an idiot.
A specter haunted the Third National Agricultural Biotechnology Conference (NABC-3), held earlier this year in Sacramento California -- the specter of ecology. One felt its presence almost immediately, when a more-or-less generic industry hack, Ralph W. Hardy, president of Boyce Thompson Institute, gave an obviously well-rehearsed rant against radical environmentalists. Nothing special -- just your standard environmentalists-as-anti-technology-Luddites-who-want-us-to- freeze-to-death-in-the-dark stuff -- but the crowd loved it.
As the day wore on, though, it became obvious that Hardy's old-school ideology wasn't the only item on the menu. This sterile hotel conference center was host to some notably up-to-date, even experimental, forms of greenwashing. Biotechnology was no longer, as in the early 1970s, being framed in Promethean, steal-god's-thunder, engineering-of- life terms. Now it's just a science of genetic ""modification,'' not so very different from brewing or bread making. As one recent volume, Agricultural Biotechnology: Issues and Choices, put it: ""biotechnology is around us every day, just as it was for our ancestors.'' Today's techniques, from gene splicing to industrial cloning, are just a bit more precise, but this is only an evolutionary -- not be a revolutionary -- difference.
Still worried? Better get used to it! There were lots of midwestern research homeboys here to explain that in a time of rising population and famine, productivity is the only important fact of agricultural life. The world needs more food, and biotechnology is the only practical way to provide it. Ask British multinational ICI Seeds, which has devoted an entire publication, Feeding the World, to arguing that biotech ""will be the most reliable and environmentally acceptable way to secure the world's food supplies.'' Or ask Eli Lilly, a transnational drug company that's diversifying into biotech: ""We will need dramatic progress in the productivity of agriculture to limit starvation and the social chaos which overpopulation will bring.''
Biotechnology has its critics, of course, but they are largely naive urban dwellers who don't even realize they're speaking for starvation! In fact -- and this is the real kicker--biotechnology is the key to making the ""sustainable agriculture'' we all want more practical. It'll even make it possible to phase out dangerous chemical pesticides and herbicides (in favor of new ""biopesticides'') without suffering catastrophically reduced yields.
Ecology was, in other words, the theme of NABC-3. Once, we were even shown a slide of some agricultural research buildings surrounded by high cyclone fencing, and invited to bemoan the precious funds wasted protecting such facilities from marauding bands of ""technology-hating Luddites.'' Then we got a report on progress towards ""more efficient cows'' able to produce more protein per measure of fodder. This is an especially twisted homage to ecology, for the realization that cows are ""inefficient'' producers of usable protein, and that there would be plenty of food to go around if people ate less meat, traces directly back to Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971 by Friends of the Earth.
Welcome to the future, where ""sustainability'' -- the vaguest term in the environmental lexicon -- joins ""productivity'' as the basis of the campaign to once again equate technology and hope. And why not? Sustainability is like apple pie -- everyone loves it. The tough questions concern how the apples are to be grown, and if the wheat in the crust should be a mix of native varietals or a high-tech hybrid. The answers to these questions are significant both as propaganda and as agricultural technique. In fact, it's beginning to look like the biotechnology industry has, to some extent, chosen research programs suitable for backing up its new claims to be environmentally friendly.
If you doubt these claims, don't make the mistake of assuming that others share your suspicions. As Walter Truett Anderson put it in the NABC-3 keynote address, ""Environmentalists tend to be very suspicious of technological fixes, but the general public has no such reservations. Technological fixes will do fine. They will not only be tolerated, they'll be demanded.''
Anderson as keynote speaker is itself notable. Anderson is a regular at the Pacific News Service, a left-liberal outfit with a love for the offbeat, but not necessarily radical, angle. An ""environmentalist'' with career ambitions in apolitical mainstream futurism, Anderson is the author of To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal, a book in which he steps back and takes the big picture of biopolitics, counting it as encompassing everything from ecosystems restoration to genetic engineering, industrial policy to the dilemmas posed by emerging medical technologies. Anderson was speaking at NABC-3 because he sees biopolitics in a way that, if not altogether flattering to the biotechnology industry, is actively hostile to the radical green culture, which he claims makes ""a religion out of being frightened.'' The inevitable reality, according to Anderson, is that from now on nature must fall explicitly within the ambit of politicals. Evolution must be managed, whether we like it or not! It's an abstract assertion, though true enough -- the problem is that Anderson was clearly speaking, at this conclave of industry functionaries, as one manager to his fellows.
LUDDISM: JUST SAY NO?
In 1986 a group of radical greens stole onto the grounds of Advanced Genetic Sciences and destroyed a strawberry field that had been sprayed with a ""genetically manipulated organism'' named Ice Minus. The media attacked them as ""Luddites,'' but they were hardly offended. I know one of them, and he wears the label ""Luddite'' proudly. Not that my buddy (a graduate of MIT) is the enemy of ""technology'' in general. Better to say that he opposes biotechnology because he sees it as embodying the interests of a dangerous and perhaps insane society. In fact, the real difference between him and all the millions of others who harbor fears about high-tech society may be one of degree -- and, of course, that he has found occasion to express his feelings on a few benighted strawberries.
Is Anderson wrong, then, to claim that most members of the ""general public'' will welcome technological fixes -- especially if things get much worse? It's impossible to say. Technological utopianism, an old and well-established tradition that thrives in apolitical America, endures despite the decidedly bad reputation that science and technology have picked up in the last 20 years. The spirit of the day is ambivalence, composed of equal parts of dread and techno-fixism. Terminator II, the killing machine as good guy and responsible father, is our perfect mascot.The fog of fear and television within which we live keeps most of us from getting a clear fix on the core institutions of society, the institutions that shape the machines. But the machines are right before our eyes -- easy to admire, to desire, to fear. They promise ease and comfort, or at least images of ease and comfort. But, as the agents of a new and threatening world, they seem to be out of control. What better response than confusion and ambivalence?
Among environmentalists, science and technology are topics of daily conversation in a way that would have surprised the early radical critics of technoscience -- Lewis Mumford for example, or Herbert Marcuse. In fact, the ideas of such thinkers find an unprecedented popularity in the green movement, though their precise histories are rarely known. The odd thing is that among the greens these ideas find a strange company of fine, strong radicalism and bucolic simplemindedness. Regrettably, green radicalism seems to somehow depend on the simplemindedness, to lean on it for support and fortitude.
The perfect case in point is Jeremy Rifkin, the man whose inspired fusion of legal activism and highfalutin' anti-biotech proselytizing has virtually defined the battle against genetic engineering in the United States. A self-styled ""heretic'' who has made it his mission to lead a prohibitionist campaign against biotechnology, Rifkin has worked hard to find solid theoretical ground for his politics of almost complete refusal. He has found this ground in a theory of ""species integrity'' and the morally transgressive nature of biotechnology -- and, not coincidentally, this theory has been widely influential among biotech's deep- green foes. It's difficult to criticize Rifkin's ideas without seeming to fall into league with an industry that would happily see him dead. And yet it is important to do so. Rifkin has come to stand for the politics of technological taboo, and has defined the issues raised by biotechnology in an overblown way that -- though catalyzing both attention and opposition -- has also led us into a ideological backwater from which it will be hard to escape.
Rifkin's attack on biotechnology is -- to use the jargon of the day -- essentialist. What he is telling us is that the fundamental techniques of the new science, those that mix genetic materials between animals and between species, are irredeemable expressions of a drive to subjugate nature and of a mania for ""efficiency.'' It is a position that is close enough to the truth to be dangerous, but not close enough to make real sense of our predicament. Rifkin, like almost everyone else who has tried to find a politics of technology that is both radical and popular, punts on the really tough question. How does one simultaneously focus on the momentous macro issues raised by the new technologies and the all-too prosaic social institutions that shape them? Instead, he draws a line in the sand, charging biotechnology with the sin of reducing species to information sequences and then going on to mix these sequences without regard to their ""sanctity.'' It is truth, but only in caricature -- all detail, political as well as scientific, has been banished. The issue becomes simply ""Should we play God?'' Thus, Stephen Jay Gould, one of our finest evolutionists, has described Rifkin's Algeny as ""a cleverly constructed piece of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.'' In fact, Rifkin's work is so undermined by shoddy overgeneralization that its major points of interest may be its popularity and the part it has played in mobilizing a campaign against biotechnology.
At issue here is the politics of fear and exaggeration. The larger ecology movement often relies on campaigns much like those that Rifkin uses to organize resistance to biotechnology. So note well that while Rifkinite hyperbole backs an agenda most of us would probably support, it hasn't actually stopped, or even significantly slowed the overall development of biotechnology. In fact, it has helped to prompt the current effort by biotech's boosters to position it as a green technology, and worse, it has theoretically disarmed environmental activists in the bargain. The new ""we-feed-the-hungry'' line is a strong one, and may succeed is washing most of Rifkin's accomplishments off the map.
All of which is to say that a short-cut politics of refusal (Luddism, in a word) was never enough, and certainly will not do today. ""No nukes'' is not enough. ""No biotechnology'' is, at best, a sad joke. If you don't think so, ask a friend with AIDS. In fact, spend a few moments considering why AIDS activists and green activists -- who would seem by their common interest in the politics of science to be natural allies -- disagree so deeply about genetic research.The widespread anti-biotech politics is not and cannot be coherent. Better to see it as a statement of purpose, a seeking after a radical biopolitics that does not yet exist. Radical greens call for a revolt against the engineering mentality and the domination of nature by an exterminist industrial capitalism. Opposing biotechnology seems like the right thing to do.
Radical greens are trying to come up with a politics as revolutionary as technoscience itself. And why not? The daily papers are heavy with articles about synthetic growth hormone extending human lifespans, and even about plans for increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis. Meanwhile, the left press runs the odd piece about DNA as key to a new generation of biological weapons. A certain fear is appropriate, and only the industry's PR flacks think we should stop worrying and love the clone.
I can agree with Anderson's big-picture definition of the biopolitical battleground, if not the false impartiality in which it is framed. Biopolitics does include everything from the politics of extinction to the ethics of life extension and the economics of artificial growth hormones. And, as Anderson points out, agriculture -- where biotechnology meets ecology -- is on the front lines of the battle.
Shall we see biotech as do the radical environmentalists, the ones for whom that expensive chain-link fence was built? Is there any alternative in a debate defined on one side by reductionists like Rifkin who argue that biotech violates some essential sanctity of life, and on the other by an industry PR apparatus that seeks to frame biotechnology as high-tech beer making?
It is a tough question, because biotechnology is a product not of any magical inspiration, but of a long process of gradual refinement and innovation. Yet biotech really does seem to be revolutionary, more evidence for Hegel's old saw about quantitative changes adding up to qualitative ones. DNA is, at bottom, a script, and biotechnology a writing technology. We may never be able to equal the works of evolution, that grand playwright, but we do seem to be learning to read -- and to plagiarize -- and it's a prospect that should scare us, especially given the nature of the institutions within which these breakthroughs are taking place.
BIOPOLITICS ON THE GROUND
The biotechnology revolution is overwhelming in its implications; no argument here. Still, we must deal with the issues it raises without immediately falling back on abstractions like ""the sanctity of nature'' and ""technology.'' Such concepts put too much stress on the large and the mythic -- not always the wrong thing to do, but dangerous if specifics get pushed into the background. Who's doing what to whom? -- this is the primal question of politics, and biopolitics is no exception.
In the case of agricultural biotech, the specifics are Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops and all the other high-tech farm products. The myths of the biotech revolution are best tested by examining such specific facts. Is BGH a violation of the metaphysical integrity of the cow, or as a fancy new way to make money? ($250 million has been spent on development alone, and some estimates peg annual sales at $2.5 billion.) The answer makes a difference.
In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben -- who hews to the deep-green line -- quotes a grotesque British work named Future Man in which future genetically-engineered farm animals are celebrated for their efficiency and productivity. The ""battery chickens'' of the future, ""whether they are being used to produce eggs or meat,'' will no longer look like birds. Biotech will allow us to design chickens without the ""unnecessary'' heads, wings and tails. ""Nutrients would be pumped in and wastes pumped out though tubes connected to the body.'' Lamb chops will be even better, since they will be grown on a production line ""with red meat and fat attached to an ever-elongating spine of bone.''
The more one knows about the marriage of biotech research and corporate agriculture, the clearer it becomes that -- despite its horror -- such a system of meat production would most likely be put into practice as soon as it was technologically feasible. Jonathan J. MacQuinty, the president of GenPharm (which has developed the ability to alter cows so that their milk contains human proteins like lactoferrin, useful for treating both cancer and AIDS), recently set us straight on the nature of farm animals: ""We think of them as cows, but these are actually self- feeding, self-replicating bioreactors.''
Some environmentalists are soft on biotechnology, though not as many as Monsanto would have us believe. To be sure, crops altered to resist pests without chemical pesticides have a place in a green future. There are even those in the environmental movement (more of Anderson's persuasion than of McKibben's) who have begun to talk about a biotechnological ""soft path.'' Still, the real question isn't if such a potential is there (it almost certainly is) but if there's any good reason to think that it can be realized in this society. It is a very different question indeed.Even herbicide-resistant crops could be helpful, depending on the herbicides they're resistant to. It doesn't take much research, though, to learn that real-world product development is running along lines altogether askew from those implied by the rhetoric of the greenwashers. New developments in herbicide tolerant crops, for example, are not limited to developing less toxic herbicides (the ""potential'' that the green critics of agricultural biotech are forever being reminded of). Rather, agricultural biotechnology is being developed in ways that almost guarantee that it'll become just another escalation in the ecological war between biochemicals and insects.
Margaret G. Mellon, Director of the National Biotechnology Policy Center of the National Wildlife Federation, also spoke at NABC-3 -- and it was clear that she in no way fit Anderson's stereotype of the emotional green Luddite. Mellon made the most important point of the day: biotech is being shaped not by the aesthetic joy of fundamental science, or even by the hard-headed practicalities of a world on the edge of mass starvation, but by ""the nature of its being a product.'' That is about as close as anyone can come, these days, to publicly saying ""by its nature as a commodity.''
In fact, that it is shaped by its ""nature'' as a ""product'' is the dirty public secret of biotechnology, as it is of information technology and energy technology and just about any other kind of technology you care to mention. The PR flacks may sputter about how bioscientists are hunched in their labs, working hard so that little Johnny and Juanita will have enough to eat in the dark days ahead -- but it's bullshit and they know it themselves. Agricultural biotechnology is being shaped by the corporate farms and the academic/corporate network that stands behind them. This is the world of chemical monoculture, of factory-floor farming and dying rural towns, of mealy apples and tasteless tomatoes that never ripen. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent developing BGH because some executives somewhere think they'll make a killing. End of story. Sustainable agriculture is only a convenient lie. Margaret Mellon didn't come right out and say all this, of course. Instead, she took industry rhetoric at face value, and argued that biotechnology can't lead us to a new, sustainable agriculture, and that by ""siphoning off scientific talent into genetics rather than ecology, I think it's actually going to make it harder for us to get to where we ought to go.'' She's right, but this is only the beginning of what could be said if there really were free speech. Her plea to directly pursue specific goals (like sustainable agriculture) rather than fixating on high-tech approaches to those goals (like biotechnology as a possible contributor to sustainable agriculture) is a soft, safe way of saying that we should be making social choices and then developing technologies to help us along the road to those choices. True, of course, but the matter is altogether too important to be left in such abstract terms.
There's little hope without a reversal of the ecological crisis, and little chance of such a reversal in the First World alone. Sustainability means nothing unless it applies to the Third World, where populations are booming and ecosystems ravaged by hungry peasants and slum-dwellers turned pioneers. And in the very concrete social world of Third-World poverty there's no hope for sustainability without land reform on a grand scale. Massive cash-crop plantations must be broken up into small holdings where peasants can safely establish themselves. This is the forbidden truth behind the rhetoric of ""sustainability,'' the truth that will never be discovered while the conversation remains locked in technoscientific frameworks. Here, as everywhere, if you want the truth -- the social truth that shapes the scientific truth more deeply than most scientists imagine -- you have to follow the money.
In the real world, controlled by the planetary corporations and constantly reshaped to their benefit, biotechnology will have a starkly negative effect on Third World peasants -- just the opposite of a radical land-reform program that had nothing at all to do with biotechnology. The future is already visible in research now focused on coffee, chocolate, sugar, vanilla and other ""cash crops,'' research aimed at developing bioengineered substitutes for such traditional agricultural products. Most such substitutes are still very experimental, but even in the short term biotech can be expected to accelerate the shift from small farms to large-scale plantations by promoting techniques that smallholders cannot afford -- like machine-harvesting techniques based on bioengineered hybrids that all ripen in perfect, machine-like unison. In this, biotechnology's impact in the Third World is likely to be similar to the effect it will have here at home. BGH, for example, will increase the costs of doing business as a dairy farmer, thereby promoting larger herds and concentration of ownership.
The ""potential'' of a technology must be clearly distinguished from its likely applications, and science cannot be abstracted from either social context or technological form. The Human Genome Project is a fine example -- it is a frightening development, but not because it reduces life to ""information,'' as a die-hard Rifkinite might argue. It is, rather, frightening in its promise to further increase the power and hegemony of today's reductionist medical establishment. And this is true despite the fact that real improvements in therapy and healing, as well as some amazing science, can be expected to flow from it.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LUDDISM
The original Luddites were skilled artisans, and smashed the automated looms of the encroaching factory system not because they hated machines but because they knew no better way to fight for their way of life. They were heroes, but the day was not theirs. They were destroyed.
It is a lesson today's Luddites should learn, and as soon as possible. The passions that fuel refusal are one thing, but the conclusion that refusal -- of compromise, complexity or technology -- is the only basis for radicalism is quite another. There is no future, not even any hope, in a politics defined by the rejection of advanced technology. If simple living is the only way, then there is no hope at all. The really radical Luddism knows this, and sees the tragedies of our time as results not of ""technology over the invisible line'' but of the social institutions that shape both our lives and our machines. In fact, a truly radical technopolitics would quickly put "technology'' aside in favor of more immediately social notions like "capitalism'' and "democracy.'' What is needed, in fact, is a democracy deep enough to function even at the level at which the machines are shaped -- from the uses to which those machines are applied to their design and construction and use, all the way down the pipeline.
The questions are legion. Why does technology always seem to betray its promise? Why are alternate paths so often ignored? Who, to ask the primal political question, decides? These are the questions that define a truly radical Luddism. Who decides that agricultural biotech research will focus on the development of herbicide-resistant crops? Who decides that autos are to be the backbone of the U.S. transportation system? Who decides if RU-486, the French ""abortion pill,'' is to be banned? Who decides that nuclear energy is the best answer to greenhouse warming? These are specific questions, and they yield specific answers -- the best kind.
Prose poem about our work by Marina Lazzara.
"Are you waiting for me to tell you to sit down?'' The shades shadow lines against her forearm. Moon must be nearing fullness. "You're still standing?''
The man breathes deeply in, loudly out. His breath rises above and over the air between his soles and the barstool. He could take off at this second, take off back over the boats along the marina behind the restaurant. He could start flapping his arms with that breath and sail even further. But he doesn't. He stiffens. His eyes are tired and brown. He tells us about the dream: elms topped with copper hair like seahorses. In the background are mills. Puffed from a millstack are slow dancers bending ashy arms out of sooty silk veils. "They were beautiful,'' he confesses. "Their arms were open, aching.''
"You don't like that they seemed beautiful?'' I ask.
"No! Not the elms, the dancer's arms!''
"Oh!'' we sigh pretending to follow his story. He thinks we lose control so he turns from us, bends to tie a shoe, looks back so far his eyes cross.
"I have to go now,'' he says. "I'm late for work.'' His barnap wraps the last moist chill of the mug in indentations his fingersize, cradling the oblong glass, slobbery, slipping from its side.
When the window cleaner raises his arm to scrape the top layer of dust, his forearm rubs against the glass. In this bar, there are nothing but windows and men with beige suits holding on for dear life.
You pour and a voice comes from the bottle, impersonal and predictably sweet. "What can I get for you? What can I do?'' And you say to the voice, obviously you: "I don't think I want to hear this.'' There's a distant click of glasses. The voice says: "There will be a toast in your honor and tips for you and smiles through and through.'' And you say Yes and turn your back away because you want to sleep. The waves of a lisped voice reaches across to you: "I'm sure you've heard this all before.''
On mornings the rain came and stayed for four days, the kitchen floor filled up with food resin from the walk-in box where the drain would overflow and lose control. We'd place large mayonnaise buckets in various places where we thought the leaks were. It never worked. We spent more time pushing around buckets until our knees were stained from crouching down to scoop up slime. When the rain came, we knew one of us would, by the end of the night, owe the Reprimand Jar some quarters. Each check on the Reprimand Sheet was worth a quarter. It was created to keep us all on top of our employment duties: proper dress, proper conduct, proper use of time. At the end of a month, the money would go to a staff party, and the employee who paid out the most received a series of warnings eventually leading to his/her dismissal. This meant that every time someone got fired, we had a party. On days the rain comes, the bar fills up by noon. As the others prepare the buckets, I make extra Bloody Mary mix with handfuls of celery salt and thyme. Worcestershire separates to the jug's top layer and twirls into brown spirals before anyone even orders any.
By the end of the day, we throw buckets of water on the bar floor to loosen tomato juice from down under cracks. "Ship's in tomorrow, girls!'' The manager calls the staff the night before any ship is due to dock after months in the middle of an ocean. We know then not to wear short skirts unless we're desperate for money. Once, SC thought she'd fake them out and wore her husband's painting overalls, a spotted white jumpsuit with slabs of paint dripped unevenly down the front, baggy and stretched just above the back of her knees. It didn't work. The boys thought it was cute. Thought she was sexy, trying to relate to them somehow. She made $175 by midnight. Her shift starts at eight.
One part gin. One part a mixture of dark, light, and spiced rum. One part pineapple. One part soda water. A dash of creme de menthe. A dash of creme de cacao. Mix vigorously. Strain. Top with 151. Garnish with cherry and orange slice.
"Anything in a green bottle. I don't care what it is. Just anything in a green bottle. And nothing foreign. Got it straight. Nothing foreign.''
Mary likes her Bloodys spicy so her tongue and inner cheeks numb. Saves the thin red cocktail straw for trips to the bathroom. She ages rapidly. The lack of sleep and cigarettes are making marks around her face. Faint lines aim to create ovals that begin from her nostrils veering down over each side of her mouth. She's got secrets, she tells the others at the bar, then says once she slept with a woman in her youth as though she robbed a bank and threw the money in the bay. She goes to the bathroom every twenty minutes or so. Her drink dilutes, grows pink. She returns and orders another, fresh.
When the band's on break, they bring the bartenders to the walk- in and cut out three lines for each. They each share a few beers, then mark them as comps on the nightly inventory sheet. They check each other's noses as they return with six-packs to stock the cooler for the rest of the night. From there on, the clock moves.
The Last Call Bell was brass and two and half feet tall. It hung, always, above my left-side head, near the cash register and variously-flavored schnapps.
She's one of those people who pride themselves on their ability to make a decision and carry it out. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions aren't really decisions. A real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named. Decisions are elaborate systems of illusion for her, designed to make here and the world appear to be what she and the world are not.
He was an old man who drank Stoli straight up, chilled, with a twist of lemon. He was born with only thumbs and small nubs of bone where the fingers were supposed to be; his hands were like tiny tree stumps. His lips were dry and cankered, his eyes blue and green with brown-tan outlines. His elephant ears which rubbed up against wrestling mats in his youth, now protruded in her peripheral view. He watches her mix his order. Watches her arm arch bottle over tumbler with ice as he stares at her as though sketching her portrait. She strains the chilled brew into a rocks glass and rubs a lemon rind around the lips before dropping it into the liquid. He rarely talks except to order, explain his ears, or tell how to mix the martini. Watching her hands and fingers master the tilt of the tumbler and the twist of the rind, he pays her with a fifty for four, leaving always the same tip: more with the ice, and less with the hands.
Sully says not to look for anything profound in my daily explorations through mixology. He reaches into his back pocket, pulls up a tiny rubber ball, and begins to squeeze it. "It's like money. You can't think about it too much. It can't control you, or it loses all power to benefit you.'' He asks me to smile as he stands to leave. I smile. He places a fifty beneath his barnap, smiles back, turns, then leaves.
"Always pay attention to the same sex customer when waiting on a couple. If you're a woman, talk with the woman, and a waiter should address the man. Never the give the partner reason for jealousy. Get her/him on your side so she/he persuades their partner to tip you nicely.''
"A nice tip is one which demonstrates to the waitperson that she/he has demonstrated to the customer(s) that their service satisfied their palates, their stomachs, and their overall idea of human interaction.''
Each time he sat at the bar, he asked when I would settle down. "Why hasn't a girl like you become hitched yet? When ya gonna settle down?'' And whenever he said that I saw the sediment at the bottom of a stagnant pond. Every time he asked, I had the feeling that he and his buddies were taking bets on me. They were like priests of a strange holy order, watching me to discover by means of gestures I made (which only they could read) whether or not I had a true vocation.
WORK NIGHTMARE #86: One night I dream the bottles are not just covered in dust, but full of black soot caused by the railroad workers from the night shift. I dream they each carry in their lung, and place it on the bar like a lover or drinking pal. They dust them off between sips. I'm confused. I don't know who to pay attention to this time. After a few rounds of bourbon and sevens and Coors Lites, they grow attractive. I take one home with me. His eyes are blue like creeks covered over by dry branches. He brings his lung, black and rough with calloused entrails. He places it on the night stand next to us. I don't come for him--instead vomit. It's what he wants me to do. He falls asleep. I patient the night for sunrise with wide eyes while the lung breathes mucused dreams in my right ear.
To hold small objects in the palm of the hand, glass, delicate objects, to break and listen. Sharp notes, angelic and high as if the greens of the leaves soar toward the sky in an effort for redness.
I drop glasses easily. They demand drinks so quickly I can't concentrate on the money flow, so I concentrate on the demand. My hips can't move to the music anymore. I just move automatically, until I rinse some glasses and hang them above my head in haste. They collide together, they shake then break over a row of heads. No one is hurt. $85 is taken from my pay for a case of glasses. My tips decrease for two weeks until the regulars realize I don't shatter glass on purpose.
Now it's time to move, I think, and I move. I'm being paid for this. They've raised me to crave such redundancy.
Such are my bodily needs: each thought goes into my clothes. My sixth pair of black pants are ironed, the white button down shirt cleansed of ketchup stains. Everything goes into my clothes although it isn't noticeable to others. I could be fired for not getting out that stain from the ninth white shirt in my wooden closet. They could fire me for not standing over my sink all day rubbing the stain from the cloth. They could fire me if they read my thoughts as my hands go up and down over the spot until only a faint outline of pale pink is visible up close. I have thoughts of pushing the clock forward, and I do, push the clock forward, but still last call rarely comes soon enough. They could fire me if they knew I was thinking off the job.
I'm too serious and not serious enough to take this seriousness seriously enough.
He doesn't like me, that new manager. Thinks I laugh too much.
Sully says you can't take them all so seriously. He reaches into his side pocket and brings up a sack of tobacco, rolls a cigarette, bites the end, and lights it. "It's like sex, ya know. You can't think about it too much, it can't be regulated, or it loses all power to dissolve your being into complete breakdown and orgasm.''
Mash cherry with sugar in rocks glass. Add ice. In separate tumbler, mix scotch and sweet vermouth. Shake. Drain contents over ice with cherry and sugar. Garnish with orange or lime and cherry with toothpick.
We are as the next person to leave us. A religion that allows us only sense enough to understand the last word in any conversation. Is there some glory in adapting the brain to a national idiocy: to replace the eyes with masks? To paint on smiles or expressions of interest? But when one isn't looking for glory in life can the face easily be splashed with cool water? (Too many questions, girl. Just smile. I am smiling, on the inside. Just drink your beer, man, and mind your own business. Can't you see I'm thinking?)
The color of my hair as I ring the black out to go white. Here I float along in moods behind bars, back there where my legs don't matter, where my arms perform mimical utterances of stifled thought. Where the smoke comforts corners. Where the mirrors behind me reflect no one but myself, and when I take second looks, I'm gone. It is landscape lacking here. Depth and the open security of nothingness, and everything's in front of me, constantly. But eyes themselves do something different. They ask for pleasing things inside the bottle, inside the habitual faces. They can't detect the life.
To the beauty of the drunk at my feet; to the cry of the cat at my feet as I walk on top of him. (What are we toasting to now? To anything, girl. Just keep toasting.) To shy and strong friends. To three more hours in a day. To the imagination. To the cry of the tires sound and the word we give to rubber, outside the valley where the Mack trucks strut from lane to lane. To the CB vocals adrift above the car roof out over the highway. Come in Big Buddy. Come in Big Buddy. Come in. 10-4. We need another language. I need a new job.
We Don't Gotta Show You No Stinkin' Gene Screens!
interview with dr. paul billings, by shelley diamond & greg williamson
This interview with Dr. Paul Billings, a specialist in clinical genetics with a Ph.D. in immunology, was conducted in July, 1990 at his office in the Pacific Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco by Shelley Diamond and Greg Williamson.
PB: Modern genetics is about 20 years old. We can test now for about 500 medically related disorders that have a genetic component. We have mapped about 2000 human genes on specific chromosomes within each of our cells. We don't really know how many human genes there are, probably about 100,000. So we've mapped about 2%, and in a very short period of time. The curve is growing at an unbelievably quick rate. We'll probably have a very high quality map of most human genes within about 5 years.
I was a member of a group called "Science for the People,'' which had a sub-group, "The Genetic Screening Study Group.'' We were studying sociobiology, the XYY controversy, and intelligence testing issues. We wondered if there was any evidence that ge netic testing was being used in a discriminatory fashion, but there wasn't. That was 1987, and I advertised in 1988 to see if people would write me about discrimination.
SD: Could you give us some history of how insurance companies, government and employers have used genetic test results?
PB: Well, each has a different type of history. Insurance companies historically factored out costs over large groups, and the healthy people paid for the sick people. That was the principle of insurance -- spreading the risk. A variety of influences , including better testing, certain laws and taxes, and competition, made it fashionable to begin insuring smaller and smaller groups, looking at that group's experience over a period of time in terms of how many medical costs they were incurring, and th en, if it was high, rating them as higher risks. That's called "experience rating,'' rather than "community rating.'' And that led towards medical assessment of people as they were coming up for insurance.
At about the same time most people in the United States started getting their insurance through their workplace. So these forces coalesced to make small businesses and individuals the object of o7 3 medical underwriting, which is the assessment of hea lth prior to the delivery of health insurance. Insurers solicited doctors' records and began asking people to undergo testing for things like high blood pressure and cholesterol, and HIV. They would also solicit genetic information, even a detailed famil y history.
The insurance industry has invested in genetic testing laboratories and companies that assess one's genetic health. Insurers would like more genetic information about their clients, because they could rate people with bad genes higher, and they could lower -- quote "lower'' -- the rates for people with good genes, whatever they might be. They have been kind of cagey about the whole business, but genetic testing suits insurers because they can stratify the population more. But there is no epidemic of genetic disorders. The number of genetic diseases and the number of people affected with genetic disease is roughly the same as it was a hundred years ago. What we've been able to do over the last 20 years is to detect these d isorders much more early. In fact, we can detect them maybe even years before they become a disorder, so insurers are stratifying people genetically even though their actual genetic disease- related costs are not much higher.
SD: So everything that the insurance companies do, as far as requiring tests or getting access to the test information, all of that is legal?
PB: Yeah, because they make your ability to get insurance contingent upon consenting to their seeing that information. Employers are not covered by the same rules as insurers. There's virtually no control over what they can do in the pre-employment s etting. Unions have been a strong force in trying to get employers to act in a reasonable fashion. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act says that employers have to offer a job to anyone who's qualified to take that job as long as they don't have a di sability which will prevent them from doing the job properly. That could force employers not to do medical underwriting, which they often do for the insurers.
GW: Do you think the recent decision on Johnson Controls in the Supreme Court might have any bearing on this? I mean, this idea that women who were supposedly more at risk couldn't get some jobs without being sterilized?
PB: I would like people to have as much of their own genetic information as they wish, but I would like to see them retain complete control of it so that they can't be coerced into sharing it. In order to get jobs, in order to get certain kinds of en titlements, people will give up a lot. I would like to see that minimized.
The Johnson Controls Case is in the same ballpark as what we've been talking about. People should make up their own mind if this is an appropriate risk assessment. Employers don't need this information, and shouldn't have it. Employers should be conce rned with risks in their workplace -- that is, risks that they're creating by exposing workers to toxins, to unsafe practices and equipment--and let the individual decide whether they're at high risk or low risk.
If employers start saying "Everybody with this kind of history -- or this kind of genetic test -- can't work here,'' that will be discrimination. Some people in that group can and should be there, and might be the best for that particula r job. So it should be an individual decision.
GW: Why do we test for things that tend to affect blue-collar workers rather than management?
PB: There's another way of looking at that. Companies might be interested in doing genetic testing to identify those people who they might promote to an executive job, but who might cost them too much in health or life insurance. Someone told me about a vice-president discovered to have a genetic disorder which didn't actually have any impact on his longevity or ability to be productive, who was denied promotion on that basis. But you're right--we see genetic testing used to promote labor-force stratification to reduce the power of blue-collar workers.
SD: The problem becomes limiting access to employer databases. How do we get a handle on that?
PB: Once you have a database, it's almost impossible to make it secure. The point of attack is to say "Why? What right do they have to keep that data in the first place?'' Or from the federal government point of view, "What is the public interest in saving this data?", which is, according to law enforcement bureaucracies, detecting crime. If databases contain genetic material, people could learn virtually everything about your genetic make-up. Now that wouldn't tell them much about you, but t hey may think that they know something about you, and certainly might use that in some way against you.
SD: Could you give us some examples of discrimination? I'm particularly interested in people who were discriminated against for just being at risk versus actually having a disease.
PB: One is the couple who were at risk for having Huntington's Disorder. And they decided to forego undergoing the DNA test, instead deciding to adopt. They were very nice, made a nice income, a perfect adoption family. When the adoption people asked about family illnesses, they told them about the Huntington's. And that excluded them from the adoption process!
It's classic in clinical genetics to advise people that adoption is a way to avoid transmitting a genetic trait. The wife was in her thirties, and statistical analysis indicates her risk of o7 3 having the gene for Huntington's when she was born was 5 0%. But as time goes on and she's unaffected, her risk goes down. If she's passing through her thirties without showing it, there's less chance it's there. So her risk is less than 50%. That's the same as people with family histories of diabetes or cance r, yet they don't exclude people for those.
Then there are neuromuscular disorders, which are highly variable in the people who have it. Some people in the family might be wheelchair-bound, while others wouldn't even be affected, and you'd need a DNA test to detect it. There was one case in which someone went in with a parent who showed it. Specialized testing revealed that the child had it, too. The child applied for a job and was turned down because they admitted to a positive test for the disorder. But they were perfectly fine, and i n fact, a severe case wouldn't even affect their ability to do the job.
Or take the case of the salesman who had been driving for 20 years with a neuromuscular disease without an accident, a ticket, or any change in his illness. This guy had the gene, had a physical manifestation, but he wasn't ill. He wasn't compl aining, he wasn't using extra medical care, he wasn't taking medicine for it. His car insurance agent found out about it through an application for life insurance, and canceled his auto insurance, so he couldn't make his living. The man's doctor sent a l etter to the insurance agent, saying this guy is perfectly healthy, a perfectly good driver, but it had no effect.
Then there are cases in which someone is identified as a carrier for a recessive disorder through the diagnosis of the full-blown condition (say, Cystic Fibrosis), in a nephew or a relative, and their carrier status is used as a reason not to i nsure them.
SD: So what is someone's alternative when they feel they've been discriminated against? Is a lawsuit the only answer?
PB: It depends. If it's an insurance issue, people who have persisted have sometimes gotten satisfaction from the appeal process. They go many months without insurance during this process, but people can win. You have to be a very good self- advocate, speak English, and have enough money to persist. You can't be afraid to embarrass yourself at work, or worse, risk your job. If you're able to do all that you'll probably get satisfaction from the system. And, of course, there are lawyers who'd like to argue these issues in court. The system is stacked against you, and you have to able to fight it, and that's hard.
SD: Do you anticipate a precedent-setting case in the courts?
PB: I don't know. I don't think there's any evidence that that's how things change in our society. [laughs] You have to change people's attitudes through education. I think the health insurance issue is clear cut. I don't think we need to research the idea that people should have access to health care in this country, and they should be able to stay financially solvent while getting it. You may need to research the best way of changing this inequitable system into an equitable one. I would rather have people know that genetics doesn't tell you very much about how someone is going to use the medical care system, or how good an employee they're going to be.
SD: Is it the job of human geneticists to take on this kind of educational role? Should business and government be required to consult with human geneticists before they make policy?
PB: Yes, and I've actually heard about a number of wonderful new programs where clinical geneticists, even those with disabilities, are conducing corporate programs, demystifying genetic disorders as employment criteria or indicators of high insurance risk. That also presupposes that human geneticists can give a responsible account of their own discipline's history, both its applications and its limitations. Many genetic scientists don't know the history. These guys -- like me -- are lab rats who never see the light of day, and really don't know what the problems are. They just do their experiments and write their grants, which are hyped versions of their work's importance and how it's going to transform society. Look at the rhetoric around the human genome project -- "the holy grail, the essence of humanity, every illness is genetic.'' It's a skewed and narrow way of looking at the problems. We have to re-educate the human geneticists -- or at least historically educate the human geneticists, as well as the public at large. Human geneticists have to be in the vanguard of teaching the limited applicability of human genetic information in making social decisions.
SD: What about eugenics?
PB: Ideas about genetics start out positive and hopeful -- liberation from the curse of one's parents, new treatments for disorders, new freedom to make choices. But then questions of control and determinism appear. What are we going to pass on to our children? The history of genetics in the U.S. is just full of eugenics -- from forced sterilizations and the Immigration Acts, to sickle-cell screening programs, to new calls for population and immigration controls.
GW: Issues of crime and heredity?
PB: Crime and heredity is a very good example of applying genetic explanations to social problems. If the link is accepted, it implies the elimination of the people who are genetically susceptible to one thing or another -- and that's eugenics. If you look at other cultures it's even more profound. I don't think that genetics necessarily has to be that way. It has to do with the way people learn about genetics, with psychology, with inherently racist societies. Popular genetic science tends to reinforce ethnic and racial stereotyping. My hypothesis is that if we could find societies which are relatively free from racism and sexism and other forms of stereotyping, they may be less likely to abuse and more likely to intelligently use genetic information.
GW: In Backdoor to Eugenics, Troy Duster compares Denmark or Scotland -- which are very racially homogenous -- and what's seen as a legitimate question in more racially-mixed countries, like the U.S.
PB: Yeah, well, I think it can run either way, right? I just took care of a Vietnamese kid who has Down's syndrome, and his family had never noticed! I attribute that to fairly homogenous societies -- it either has to be so shocking, so different that they just say "it's different,'' (and probably discriminate against it), or they assume its part of the homogeneity of the group. Our society is economically and politically stratified. The genes of the lower ranks are thought to be less desirable than genes of the high ranks.
SD: How are people reacting to possibile and real discrimination? Are people lying or refusing to be tested?
PB: I'm to some extent pleased that many people who would potentially "benefit'' from a new test are declining it. One of the reasons is that they have a sense that discrimination will follow. They also don't want the information for other personal reasons, that's their business. Many people will decline to have the test for Huntington's or Cystic Fibrosis if they're given the option. Other people who have genetic information about themselves will lie about it. Some insurance agents will encourage people to lie because they know honesty will lead to denial of coverage. Physicians will obfuscate this material in medical records and billing so that insurance companies don't get it, because many physicians -- quite correctly -- want to protect their patients.
SD: Would that impair later treatment?
PB: If that information were readily available and the patient were having an acute something-or- other, yes, that could be a problem.
SD: Have you heard of people who are forced to stay in jobs for insurance?
PB: Well, not exactly. I've heard many people take it into consideration, and I'd encourage that. If you're considering undergoing genetic testing for anything, you should take care of any job and insurance issues before you do it. And you should be aware that insurance companies may not want to pay for it, or they'll make insurance contingent upon you paying for it.
SD: What do you know about the bill introduced in the House of Representatives?
PB: The Genome Privacy Act protects one's right to find out what genetic information is being held by an agency, to rectify it, and to sue if it's being abused. It's an interesting starting point. I like the civil rights model better than the consumer credit model which doesn't get at the issue of why companies should have any right to store the information in the first place. I was listed as one of its sponsors but I think it's flawed. I hope that the discussion heads more towards "rights.''
GW: Do you see any roadblocks to a darker use of genetics -- forcing people's decisions rather than informing them?
PB: There'll be a group that'll say we should look at high susceptibility and low susceptibility individuals, and people who are highly susceptible and act irresponsibly should not have access to care or should pay more for it. It's like, "if you smoke, you can't have health insurance'' -- or if you have a "bad gene'' and you act irresponsibly, you should be punished. I don't think it's right, but I can see that happening.
GW: There seems to be an unhealthy fascination with technique, and little consideration among research geneticists of the implications. Or is that just a reflection of what gets published?
PB: No, I think you're quite right. I think genetics is a "gee whiz'' kind of science. No one anticipated that it would get so detailed, sophisticated, and miraculous so quickly. People just don't talk about the limitations. No one ever said that basic scientists could understand the problems of society. These are narrow, focused, ambitious guys. There's no reason to want them to be leading our society.
GW: The people who are pushing for a genetic explanation of complex behaviors -- alcoholism, mental retardation, crime -- are often people who aren't geneticists.
PB: Yeah that's true. Troy Duster actually has some nice data on that.
GW: What would you be doing if you had control over, say, National Science Foundation funding?
PB: That's a good question. Well, I would apply it to the common disorders of man. That's a reasonable application of genetics, because we don't have a clue about the etiology of many common disorders. We know that environmental factors are involved, so genetics should be funded equally -- or more. I don't think it's inappropriate to apply genetics to any and all questions. At the same time you have to acknowledge the limitations of the insight that you're going to get. And if you find a genetic link to cancer, or a genetic link to heart disease, or even to mental disorders, it's only the first step in trying to describe a system which is extremely complex. Genetic information may be an important step, or it may be a totally irrelevant step. It's right to study things that affect a lot of people and cause a lot of misery. So that's what I'd do.
GW: This is sort of related to our magazine. Our last issue was looking at "The Good Job,'' and we had a lot of people who were leftists, or at least liberals, who drifted into jobs that had pretensions in that direction -- the ACLU, labor unions, co-operatives, etc. Do you have a good job? And if so, why?
PB: The only good part about my job is that I teach. Education is a very big part of this. I sit around with people like you, and do a lot of TV and other stuff, because I think it's a modern form of public education. And I do research, which has a "morally redeemable'' side to it. But I work in the private medical world, and my salary is paid out of the profits of a private medical institution, so in that case I suppose I am a representative of a system which is in fact disordered, and causing people problems.
A tale of toil from legal temp Mickey D.
I always worked as a temp, usually doing light industrial work, but it wasn't until I moved to San Francisco that I got a job in a law firm. I had no relevant experience or interest in law; my last job before moving here was cleaning up rat feces in a Lipton warehouse. I got my first job interview through a ""clerical'' help wanted ad. When I showed up for my interview, I was an hour late, I had holes in my shoes, and I flunked the office competency test. Much to my surprise, I was working right away at one of the biggest law firms in California. Later I realized that the only worthwhile advice I'd been given about job interviews--lie through your teeth--had paid off: I told them I was ""thinking about'' law school. Truth was, I was thinking about the least painful way to make a buck, and working in a posh office seemed better than crawling around with a Dust Buster in a damp gloomy warehouse looking for piles of rat shit.
Having stood for hours at photocopiers, my eyes nuked by the rolling strobe light, I've had plenty of time to contemplate my naivete. I always get stuck where no one else will work, so I either fry in direct sunlight behind a plate glass window or freeze in a room with out-of-control air-conditioning. I once worked in an office that every day at 11:30 filled with a mysterious noxious-smelling gas from a vent; despite my numerous complaints, nobody ever responded. So instead of screwing caps on deodorant cans one after another, I'm turning pages of paper. At least I have some energy left at the end of the day to pursue other things. A short stint as a furniture mover cured me of any fond illusions about manual labor (something I often hear among male office workers). As a temp, there's always the hope that you might land an easy job where you can get away with a lot of fucking off; I've had a few.
For the last four years, off and on, I've temped in about twenty big law firms in the San Francisco financial district. Assignments have varied in length of time from nine months to nine minutes, but the introduction is always the same: you are under suspicion, a likely pick-pocket or information thief.
You forfeit your rights when you start work as a temp in a law firm. You're asked to sign a statement that looks like a confession, swearing you will divulge absolutely nothing about the case you're working on to any person for any reason. According to the warning, if you so much as mention the case to anybody, the full weight of the law will descend on you. ""You might be able to plead spousal immunity,'' flecked one supervisor after threating us with merciless fines and jail time.
Law firms "hire'' temps, when need arises, to do what they haven't got machines to do yet, or what they can't get their other employees to do: the most monotonous, labor-intensive tasks involved in labeling, indexing, storing and retrieving vast quantities of documents.Whole weeks of my life have been consumed by "bates stamping,'' a task in which a small numbered sticker is transferred by hand from a computer-generated sheet onto another piece of paper, thus making it a "document.'' Repeated thousands of times eight hours a day, five days a week, this would give anybody repetitive stress injury as well as brain damage. I recently did this seven days a week, twelve hours a day, while a beserk legal assistant badgered me to ""Go faster! Go faster!'' so that I wouldn't "cost the client (Cetus Corporation, a biotech giant) so much money.''
A common task I perform is called "coding.'' That means reading each document (usually something like an invoice) for information (date, names, subject) and entering it onto a form. Its then sent to a word processor, who puts it into a tidy data base which the lawyers can access with the stroke of a finger.
The emphasis on secrecy is absurd. I'm kept in the dark beyond what's necessary for the job; I have no idea to what ultimate purpose my labor contributes except the meaningless perpetuation of bureaucracy.
Occasionally while coding I'll see an internal memo which reveals the prepubescent character of your typical lawyer or executive, giving me a bitter laugh. I remember one top honcho drawing analogies between the services his company provides and the superhuman qualities of his favorite toy, Action Man, which he proceeded to describe in admiring detail, as advertised on one of his favorite Saturday morning cartoons.
My experience at one law firm (appropriately named ""Cooley''), coding on a Genentech case, was not an easy job. We were segregated from the main office in a gloomy warehouse down the block, over a hundred of us, working at crowded tables in two six-hour shifts, six days a week. It was explained to us that six hours was the maximum amount of time in a day that a human being could reasonably be expected to perform this mind-mulching work, though later we were put on eight-hour shifts with the expectation that we would do overtime. To read the documents we had to peer into the dim greenish light of a microfilm machine that caused viscious eyestrain. In an office behind us, the supervisor, an insolent, condescending shmuck with an unconscious twitch in his hands as if he was suppressing the urge to strangle somebody, scrutinized us from his window, making sure that no deviation from the work took place. Data entry was done "off- shore'' (i.e., the Philippines).
Temps regularly endure periodic purges, the random process by which you or your co-workers are suddenly "let go.'' You don't get sentimental about getting laid off from a lousy job, but suddenly being unemployed in the middle of the month and not knowing where you're going to get the rent sucks.
The first layoffs at Cooley took place the day before Christmas Eve (holidays being a good time to cut temp costs). About a third of the temps went home from work to find messages on their answering machines giving them the axe. This is the preferred method of termination, I was informed by a temp who had been there for five years (known as a "permanent temporary''). The theory, probably correct, being that if told ahead of time or on location, vengeful temps would trash the place in a desperate effort to get even with all the abuses they had endured.
Those of us who remained were selected because our handwriting was considered legible enough for a Tagalog-speaking word processor to decipher. Over the next couple of months, they weeded out more and more of us, until the last five masochists were called into Psycho Boss's office and informed that we were now on Cooley's payroll. ""We can finally start to make some money off you now,'' he said. There was no change in our status- -we still were denied paid holidays, sick days and vacations; still without benefits of any kind. The only difference was that we no longer had temporary status and were now Cooley property. Outraged, I called the job placement lady at the agency, Gratified Flex-staff.
"They just told us we're working for them now,'' I gasped. "I don't want to work for them! I want another assignment.''
The old crow officiated. "Ohhhh, what kind of assignment?'' I was never informed of it, but Cooley had paid a substantial amount of money to Gratified to buy my services off them, and she was probably amused at my stupidity.
"One where I don't have to work too hard,'' I told her, in all honesty, figuring that since now I was on Cooley's payroll I had a bit of clout with them. She feigned shock. I never saw a penny of that money I was auctioned for.
The relation of temp to agency is one of indentured servitude. The temp agency puts the most positive spin possible on it: they offer ""flexibility'' to workers who are ""in between'' jobs. They get you a job in exchange for a hefty cut of your wages. Usually, the temp agencies have a monopoly on the job market in the form of contracts with employers; job-seekers who go to law firms looking for benefits (usually older people for whom such things are a necesity) are told that the quickest way to permanent status is through a temp job--which could last for years. Or a few days. Temp agencies start you out with the worst assignments, jerk you from place to place--each of which writes a review of your performance for the agency--until they figure out how much you're worth. Because the work is erratic, temps are assumed to be eager to do as much overtime as humanly possible. You're usually called in right before a deadline and worked around the clock. Most times you're desperate for the money since its usually several weeks between jobs.
The only real function that the agency plays is to screen potential temps to make sure they aren't sending drooling zombies out on assignments. Its now common for employers to request an additional interview, even for a week-long assignment.
If you misbehave, talk back to your boss, cheat on your hours, or even turn down an assignment, you get blacklisted by the agency. I had a friend who was working in an office that was destroyed by an out-of-control crane from a nearby construction site; if he had been sitting just yards from where he was, he would have been killed instantly. When he told the agency he didn't want to return to that job, they were pissed that they lost a valuable contract. He never got another job, even though he worked for Gratified for years.
Receiving unemployment insurance is next to impossible if you're a full-time temp. The agencies balk at nothing to make a case against you. They once called my roommates to ask questions about my whereabouts in order to (successfully) contest a claim I made with the EDD for $120. I've never seen more than $11,000 a year. Sweetheart contracts enrich both the temp agencies and the law firms. At my last job, I was getting paid $10 an hour. The temp agency was billing the law firm $20 an hour. The law firm, in turn, was billing their client $40 an hour. Other than what I earned hourly, I got zilch. Once I got a plastic coffee cup with the Gratified logo emblazoned on it in order to "increase [my] environmental awareness for Earth Day,'' as I was told in all seriousness by my ""assignment cooordinator.''
Another benefit to the two employers' partnership is that whenever a problem comes up, they can pass the buck endlessly. If there's ever a pay discrepancy or a raise due, the ball is always in the other court. They wear you out going back and forth.
Fortunately I don't have to deal with attorneys, although riding in the elevators with these jackoffs, listening to them boast about the macho magnitude of their settlements, give me fantasies of ultra-violence.
One time I worked as a filer for a fascist Cuban named Carlos Bea, a multi-millionaire "exile'' whose family owned a roof-tile manufacturing business. He considered being a lawyer a past-time befitting a man of his station, and specialized in giving his secretaries nervous breakdowns. A member of such illustrious organizations as Nixon's CREEP and the Bohemian Club, he spent his time soaping up powerful people who could do him political favors; I remember a personal letter he wrote to Ed Meese, who was staying at his castle in Spain, warning about Basque terrorism. Evidently, his cronyism paid off. His friend Governor Deukmejian appointed him to replace a retiring district judge in San Francisco. When his term was over, an expensive election campaign was run on his behalf, covering the streets with his smiling face, his name seemingly everywhere: buses, streetlights, billboards. It was torture.
An assignment coordinator from Gratified once informed my supervisor (in my presence) that she "tries to group people together who I don't think will have anything in common so they'll be less likely to talk.'' Not much opportunity for collective action when you're deliberately stuck with people you'll probably hate.
There seemed to be a different spirit among the temps I encountered four years ago. They were more likely to be struggling punk rock musicians, ne'er-do-wells or students. Now temping seems to be more of a way for careerist office drones to a gain a foothold into a big corporation. Temps tend to be older, people suddenly out of work or law students awaiting their bar scores.Temps can be cutthroat. Most would rat on you in a minute for the slightest crime if it meant enhancing their status with the boss. ""Permanent'' jobs are secured through these means. I was once fired from a job thanks to a goateed and granny glassed temp supervisor who I thought was my friend, sharing a common interest in Latin American fiction.
Law firms extract an amazing degree of ideological loyalty ("positive attitude") from their employees. Even temps who work on a case for no more than 10 minutes refer to ""us'' as in ""which side are we on?'' Most yearn to work on a pro-bono case which they imagine will be socially beneficial.
I've heard few inspiring ideas from temps about challenging our degrading situation. One (a law school grad) made a lot of noise about how he was going into politics so he could go to Washington D.C. and get a law passed prohibiting the grosser aspects of temp exploitation; another wanted temps to organize a union. Given that both the government and the unions are big contractors of temp labor, I considered these ideas unfeasible; large institutions don't slash their own throats. In any event, temps move around so much that conventional workplace organizing is futile.
Actually, what makes temping bearable for me is the tenuous nature of the employment. I don't participate in the ass-kissing, smiley face office etiquette. I've never worn a tie in all my years of "white collar'' employment. A necessary tool of the trade is a walkman, for 1) giving me some sort of sensual stimulation so that I know I'm not dead and 2) sending a symbolic ""fuck you'' to my surroundings.
The temp agency, the law firm, other temps, every financial district lifer expects me to have an alibi for temping. It's not enough that I'm trying to keep a roof over my head while I pursue my interests, I have to have some deeper reason to explain why I'm not pursuing a career. They're worried that there might be people who have no work ethic.
By the estimate of one big law firm I worked at (Heller, Ehrman) ninety percent of the labor on a big case is what's called ""discovery'' -- that's the paper-shuffling that temps do. The other ten percent -- meeting with clients, legal research, drafting pleadings -- is supposedly done by lawyers, though most of that is done by secretaries and legal assistants. Legal assistants boss around temps.
When I was at Heller there were over 50 temps working full-time. Heller specializes in suing insurance companies, so they keep their fees (which temps contribute to) as high as possible. They milk their client to give them the incentive to settle. They then sue the insurance company, thus generating a whole new round of litigation and legal costs.
Legal assistants are usually nephews and nieces of lawyers who participate in a carefully cultivated preppy culture (skiing in Tahoe on weekends, lunches at the Hard Rock Cafe) meant to instill the ethics of the law business. One legal assistant took the ethic too seriously. She did nothing for six months and billed enormous overtime, accruing a small fortune before her boss got wise. Heller was happy with the booty, but she made the error of indiscretion so they fired her. She threatened a wrongful termination suit in which she would drag Heller's dirty laundry into the courtroom. She settled out-of-court for $14,000 shut up money.
I managed my own form of revenge, by stealing my life back. The whole time I worked at Heller, I never took less than a two and a half hour lunch and always took several hour long breaks during the day. When the Gulf war began I got paid for two days of disruptive activity in the streets of SF. Still, given the rules of the game, my fictitious labor time contributes to enriching the parasites who suck me dry day after day. What would bother them is that I found the loopholes in the rules governing their office. Drinking a beer in the park, I toasted the loopholes.