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Be a Leader, Not a Liter

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Be a Leader, Not a Liter

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 20, 2019

Be a Leader, Not a Liter

Who needs the metric system, anyway?

World Metrology Day is Monday. Forgive me if I don’t raise a pint—sorry, 473 milliliters—in commemoration. This date is meant to celebrate the International System of Units, otherwise known as the metric system. Against pascals of pressure, the U.S. stands nearly alone in maintaining its own “customary units” of weights and measures. We should stand tall on our own 2 feet. The metric system has never measured up. It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.

Proponents of the metric system have been metering out contempt since their inhuman invention emerged from the French Revolution. In 1793 France’s own customary units, including the pied du Roi (king’s foot), fell victim to Jacobin Terror. The radicals standardized regional differences and went the extra mile, rationalizing their measures through the blinding logic of Enlightenment thought.

The metric system became a symbol of modernity. More than overturning millennia of custom, the meter also overturned man and his labor as the basis of measurement. Nearly all customary units derive in some way from use. The acre was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could till in a day. The fathom is 6 feet, the span of the arms, useful when pulling up the sounding line of a depth measure. The meter is unfathomable, calculated (imprecisely) as a tiny fraction of the Earth’s circumference.

Worse than the abandonment of human measure is the imposition of decimal division. From calendars to clocks, French radicals went all in for 10. That works well for abstract calculations, as with dollars and cents, but not when measuring things in the real world. The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.

The abstract inhumanity of the metric system may be newly measured as new bases are adopted to replace “Le Grand K,” a platinum cylinder kept locked away in France that has been the kilogram standard. The metric kilogram will now be determined through a new fixed agreement of Planck’s constant, the length light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, and the amount of time it takes a cesium-133 atom to vibrate 9,192,631,770 times. It’s so simple!

The U.S. has come close to compulsory metrication more than once. The latest push came out of the 1970s, with metric textbooks, metric road signs, and “The Metric Marvels,” a “Schoolhouse Rock” knockoff. President Reagan ended the effort in 1982.

With the European Union being cut down to size, can we hope for a return to British imperial units, which the U.K. was forced to abandon after it joined? A pint’s a pound, the world around, and it beats walking the Planck.

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Culture of Denial

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Culture of Denial

CITY JOURNAL, March 30, 2018

Culture of Denial

DJ Jaffe’s harrowing account of the half-century-long breakdown of America’s treatment of the mentally ill. A review of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill (Prometheus Books, 363 pp., $25)

“We heard it after Sandy Hook. You heard it after Aurora. You heard it after Arizona. You heard it after Parkland. That these mass shootings are the result of somebody suffering with mental illness and the only thing we can do is address this as a mental illness problem. So let’s get the facts straight right away.” So begins a video spot by Congressman Joe Kennedy III, produced by “NowThis” for Facebook and watched by millions of viewers, that discounts the relationship between mental illness and mass violence. The voices of American liberalism have long refused to acknowledge the slightest connection between the two.

“The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Yet in his next sentence, Gopnik concedes: “Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given.”

Such atrocities should warrant an examination of root causes and their implications. And, yes, such shooters are often crazy. Kennedy states that “only 22 percent” of mass shootings were “conducted by somebody suffering from mental illness.” The actual numbers may be much higher. The shooters in at least three of the four examples that Kennedy cites displayed symptoms of mental illness. But shouldn’t even a rate of 22 percent suggest further review? And shouldn’t the call for further gun control go hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of our treatment of the mentally ill?  

But, in fact, a culture of denial has long surrounded the half-century-long breakdown of America’s treatment of its mentally ill. As it happens, the Kennedys themselves have long been at the center of this rollback in care for those suffering from extreme mental illness due. In 1941, 23-year-old Rosemary Kennedy, Congressman Kennedy’s great aunt, underwent what was then a widely used treatment—the transorbital, or “ice-pick,” lobotomy. Rosemary’s father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the autocratic family scion, believed that the procedure would calm her mood swings, which had become a family embarrassment. Unfortunately, the botched procedure left Rosemary severely mentally disabled. Partly as a consequence, the Kennedy family has embarked on a multi-generational crusade against institutionalization and invasive treatment. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy proposed replacing dedicated institutions for the mentally ill with decentralized Community Mental Health Centers (CMHCs). As I described for City Journal in “A New Moral Treatment,” the result not only led to the shuttering of the asylums but also to a near-ban on committing patients for treatment against their will and to prevent them from harming themselves and others.

The madness of this present system of care is the subject of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, DJ Jaffe’s harrowing, personal, and all-too-timely account of how a system that now prioritizes “mental health” does little to treat true mental illness. Like many advocates for the severely mentally ill, Jaffe, a self-described “aging hippie” and the founder of the Mental Illness Policy Org, came to his cause through personal experience. In the 1980s, his wife’s sister, Lynn, developed schizophrenia. The diagnosis was bad enough, but the mental health system’s inability to help her, and to help her family help her, proved disastrous. Doctors refused to share findings about her condition. “Lynn returned home to us,” writes Jaffe, “and stopped taking the antipsychotic medications we didn’t even know she’d been prescribed.” Jaffe (an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute) came to realize that the law “prevents parents from helping psychotic or delusional loved ones who refuse treatment until after they become a danger. As ludicrous as it sounds, rather than preventing violence, the law requires it. That realization led me on a thirty-year journey to try to find out what is wrong with the mental health system and what can be done to fix it.”

As Jaffe makes clear, the headline-making cases involving gun violence and mass murder are only the most atrocious symptoms of a much greater systemic failure, one that leads to the expense of billions a year on mental health yet leaves hundreds of thousands of mentally ill Americans to the cruelties of the streets, the “trans-institutionalization” of the prisons, and the life-threatening dangers of their own diseases.

One problem is “anosognosia,” the clinical term for the lack of understanding of one’s own mental fitness. Anosognosia is “present in up to 50 percent of those with untreated schizophrenia and 40 percent of those with untreated bipolar disorder,” writes Jaffe. In a system that relies on patients serving as their own health-care agents and that no longer permits consultation on treatment with parents or loved ones, the consequences of anosognosia mean that the severely mentally ill often go untreated or undertreated. The result: “there are ten times more people with mental illness incarcerated as hospitalized.” Those are just the ones who make it to jail. Thousands die each year by their own hand or are shot by police committing crimes that shouldn’t have happened.

“We should move away from a system that requires tragedy before treatment to one that offers treatment before tragedy,” writes Jaffe. Insane Consequences details the “catch and release attitude” of today’s mental health system and the Kafkaesque trials that concerned family members often endure to protect their loved ones from themselves.

The implications extend far beyond gun violence, to harm of any kind. Consider the subway pusher Andrew Goldstein, whose lack of treatment for schizophrenia led to the death of Kendra Webdale in 1999; a law written in her name now permits at least limited involuntary treatment of the mentally ill. Or Richard Rojas, a driver high on PCP with known psychological issues who rammed his car into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017, injuring 20 and killing 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman.  

Jaffe could go further in advancing the argument for new institutions for those mentally ill who pose such a danger to themselves or others that they should not be integrated into society—a measure with real relevance to the gun debate, for example. Federal law already bans the sale of firearms to people who have been involuntarily committed. Written into existing policy, institutionalization therefore remains a proven path to reducing gun deaths, if only such intervention were still readily available to the severely mentally ill.  

“A lot of kids threw jokes around like that, saying that he’s the one to shoot up the school,” said Eddie Bonilla, a former classmate of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter. “But it turns out everyone predicted it. It’s crazy.”

Crazy, it is.

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Old Museums, New Tricks

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Old Museums, New Tricks

THE NEW CRITERION, February, 2017

Old Museums, New Tricks

On the Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History, the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia, and the lessons we can learn from older museums.

The best museums are often museums of museums—institutions that put their own history on display alongside their collections. The museums that fascinate me are never the buzziest models off the shelf but those that have been allowed to age. Either through conscious efforts at preservation or through the preservative fluids of neglect, such institutions invite us to experience history as a part of history. Rather than attempting to exist outside of themselves by erasing their past, museums that seem antiquated or even “out of date” can reflect the highest values of their mandates to protect and present the objects in their collections, which must include themselves.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is of course one example of a museum that has preserved its own history better than most, something I wrote about in these pages in December. Even as it has evolved into more contemporary forms, the museum has worked to reveal the ornamental details of its architectural past—from the Victorian Gothic heart of its initial 1880 building by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould (now its gallery of Medieval art), through its many later additions in the Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, and modern styles.

Such a presentation can be even more revelatory in museums of science. Here older buildings and displays serve a vital and often overlooked role in teaching us about the history of instruction and inquiry. By seeing what older halls get right and wrong (or what we now believe to be right and wrong), we gain perspective on our own scientific certainties and the charismatic methods through which museums now present themselves to the modern public.

The American Museum of Natural History, the grand institution just across Central Park from the Metropolitan, and with a similar history, has likewise developed as an accumulation of buildings in a wide variety of styles. The institution has also been blessed with generations of naturalists and craftsmen who were the best in their scientific fields. History has borne that out, and we can continue to see it in the wondrous animal dioramas that have become the hallmark of the institution and have fascinated patrons across the ages (including this reviewer, beginning with almost weekly visits as a child).

After the naturalist and taxidermist Carl Akeley died in 1926 on the slopes of Mount Mikeno in the Belgian Congo while developing his Hall of African Mammals—beneath the spot now represented in his gorilla diorama—background painters such as James Perry Wilson, foreground sculptors such as Raymond DeLucia, and taxidermists such as Robert Rockwell carried on his work though the Hall of North American Mammals, one floor directly below. A decade ago, Stephen Christopher Quinn, who has continued what is now a century-old legacy of dioramic design at the museum, published a history of their efforts in his book Windows on Nature.

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1920

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1920

An equally interesting but less frequented area of the museum is the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians—in part because the room has been diminished over the years from its original brilliance. Directly off the museum’s Seventy-seventh Street entrance, now fully enveloped by later additions, the hall occupies the first floor of the museum’s first building.

This room is remarkable not only for its age but also for the work of the museum’s iconoclastic anthropologist, Franz Boas, who developed it at the turn of the last century. A curator and field worker, Boas was, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, one of the country’s primary Pacific Northwest explorers and personally responsible for acquiring many of the objects the museum now possesses from the region.

Anti-evolutionary, Boas was also anti-theoretical and argued for pragmatism and a high degree of intra-cultural observation in research. Departing with his day’s progressivist beliefs in the eugenic order of evolution, which grouped non-Western cultures together with primitive man, Boas displayed ethnographic objects on their own terms. He divided the large hall into sections and dedicated each to a certain tribe of the Northwest Coast: the Tlingit, the Haida, the Kwakiutl. Within these alcoves he further assembled the items of each group: ceremonial masks, pots and bowls, ceremonial ladles, the blankets and coppers of the potlatch. Extensive texts and descriptions were located with the objects, and additional pamphlets and monographs were available for museum patrons within the hall and in the museum bookstore. During his time at the museum, Boas himself even led tours of the collection in order to explain his advanced method of display.

Franz Boas with a ceremonial mask from the Northwest Coast

Franz Boas with a ceremonial mask from the Northwest Coast

The result was distinctly non-hierarchical, allowing each object to exist in tribal specificity. But more than just recognizing the value of his objects, Boas also acknowledged the intelligence of his patrons. Far from the feeble-headed immigrant masses envisioned by his trustees, Boas believed his museum-goers were able to take on the complexities of his own field experience and understanding. (He was, unfortunately, less charitable to a family of Greenland islanders dying in the museum basement).

The young Claude Lévi-Strauss happened to be one such new arrival to absorb Boas’s lessons. Boas’s displays served as a visual structure for Lévi-Strauss’s developing methodology when he visited the hall in the 1940s. The opening paragraphs of The Way of the Masks, Lévi-Strauss’s book on ceremonial masks in the Pacific Northwest, is dedicated to the museum and its “outmoded but singularly effective museographic methods.”

Boas feared that elisions and simplifications of ethnographic material would delude the museum public into believing they had mastered complex information. “There appears a multiplicity of converging and diverging lines which it is difficult to bring under one system,” he said against surface conclusions and quick assumptions. Yet Morris Ketchum Jesup, then president of the museum and an ally, nonetheless objected to what he saw as Boas’s cluttered display. He wanted a presentation that combined didactics with entertainment, and set about instituting these changes after Boas’s departure in 1905.

While Boas’s tribal enclaves were maintained, the number of objects on display was reduced, large totem poles were commissioned for the room, and wax mannequins were created to add an element of theater to the large Haida canoe in the center of the hall. Between 1910 and 1926, the artist Will S. Taylor painted theatrical murals along the inside walls while the windows were blacked out and the architectural ornamentation covered over. Each of these post-Boas additions raised the stakes of spectacle but retreated from the radicalism of the presentation. What has resulted today is a muddle of intentions in a hall that calls out for a return to his original design.

The totality of the museum’s rich history, its masterpieces and its missteps, must now inform its latest efforts at building and development. Since its founding in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has always been a work in progress. With a wide range of buildings, the museum has gradually expanded over a quadrangle between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue that was, in fact, set aside in the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which established the original street grid.

This past month, the museum unveiled plans for a 194,000-square-foot, $340-million new wing known as the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, to be constructed facing Columbus Avenue in line with Seventy-ninth Street and set to open in 2020. In recent years, a pocket of local residents has objected to any additional encroachment by the museum onto what is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Park, yet the museum has every right to build there. Arguments for green space ring hollow considering the proximity to Central Park, and new construction will fit within the footprint outlined in the museum’s nineteenth-century master plan, which remains incomplete.

More pressing should be questions of how the building—costing as much as a stand-alone museum—relates to the values of the institution and reflects the culture in which it has been conceived. It might be said that every generation gets the museum wing it deserves. The fanciful rustication of J. Cleaveland Cady’s south façade gives way to the Beaux-Arts grandiloquence of John Russell Pope’s Roosevelt Rotunda on up through Polshek’s vitrine-like computer-age planetarium. Such organic expansion at the very least allows for the preservation of older buildings and halls.

Model for the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center, facing Columbus Avenue and Seventy-ninth Street.

Model for the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center, facing Columbus Avenue and Seventy-ninth Street.

The Gilder building, by Studio Gang Architects, will dispense with historicized style altogether in favor of sculptural concrete resembling “slot caverns, riverbank canyons, and hydrologic flow,” explains Jeanne Gang, who used water and blocks of ice to study the forms. The monumental effect will be post-diluvial—a natural history museum at the eschaton.

Inside, some of what is planned sounds very promising. A five-story “collection core” will line the interior with visible storage displaying 3.9 million specimens, or about 10 percent of the museum’s collection. Large areas will be dedicated to live butterflies and other insects as the museum continues to drift into a role traditionally taken up by zoos.

Still unknown remains the proper use of the building as a center for education—the same questions that dogged Boas’s original hall. With new “exhibition techniques for diverse audiences” offering an “authentic engagement with science,” here is a fully immersive diorama that promises seamless storytelling on the deleterious effects of humanity but one that may not fully consider the “multiplicity of converging and diverging lines,” as Boas put it, in the Malthusian shade. With a new building designed to “combat the post-truth era” and provide “wisdom for how to treat your environment,” according to museum leadership, it remains to be seen whether such mandates will also lay bare the history of science in the hands of progressivism. In this museum of natural history, the Gilder Center must not become a temple of doom.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphi

The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphi

It is taken as a given that museums must keep current with contemporary dictates and modern expectations. Yet just consider an exception to this rule, and a truly exceptional one at that. The Wagner Free Institute of Science, incorporated in 1855, has operated out of the same building in North Philadelphia since 1865. Much like Boas’s famous hall, but without a growing museum to envelop it, the institute and its displays remain nearly untouched since the late nineteenth century.

As a remarkable specimen of Victorian science, the institution deserves a visit by anyone interested in the history of museum culture. Yet more remarkably, even with its antiquated resources the Wagner continues to operate today as the oldest free education program in the country, teaching 18,000 low-income children annually while offering free access to its 100,000-object collection, mainly to an under-served local community. On the day I visited, while educators had organized a collection hunt upstairs, a paleontologist was unwrapping his findings for an enraptured assembly of children in an auditorium that still retains hat hooks beneath every seat.

With barely the resources to remain in operation, here is an institution that continues to instruct us on just what it takes—or doesn’t take—to learn from the objects of our fascinating world.

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