President Barack Obama touched on one of the most remarkable aspects of democracy in the US during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. He said, “If you want more justice in the justice system, then we’ve all got to vote – not just for a President, but for mayors, and sheriffs, and state’s attorneys, and state legislators. That’s where the criminal law is made.” Turns out your American correspondent is registered to vote in the state of Florida, and the ballot for several of those roles just came in on the mail: it lists 20 elected positions, including US Senator, State Attorney, State Senator, State Representative, Clerk of the Circuit Court, Sheriff, Supervisor of Elections, and 11 Circuit and County Court judges, among others. This is, in fact, the ballot for the primary election of the candidates for those roles from the Democratic party. Later on there will be a final vote between the winners for each of the two main parties and possibly, independent candidates. Multiply that for hundreds of cities across the third most populous country in the world: you get an impressive number of people putting their names forward for public scrutiny and be voted up or down by their neighbors. As Obama said, “democracy isn’t a spectator sport”. Indeed.
It may feel like ages ago, but some social media users may remember not too fondly the videos of people emptying buckets of ice on friends. It was the Ice Bucket Challenge. It went viral. The clips were all over the place on YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms. Very few understood what all the fuss was about. Like so many other things, it was supposed to support a worthy cause. But unlike other calls for aid, this one worked. The Ice Bucket Challenge was supposed to help find a cure for a rare genetic condition, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It is most commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Ice Bucket Challenge campaign was started by the ALS Association, a charity. In six weeks, the seventeen million YouTube videos yielded a staggering $115 million, $21.7 million of which the charity allocated to research programs. Two years later, the first breakthrough came. One of the beneficiaries of the funding, Project MinE, sequenced the DNA of 15,000 ALS patients. Project MinE researchers pinpointed a gene called NEK1 as key. It has a vital role in DNA repair. If gene NEK1 stops working, it may lead to neuronal degradation that can cause ALS.
At the time, critics had bemoaned this type of collective campaigns in support of worthy causes as the sort of “feel-good,” lazy activism best labeled as “passivism.” Have a bucket of ice thrown on you, post it on social media, and fight disease, poverty, and a thousand other ills. This success has proved critics wrong. The disease is named after Lou Gehrig, a baseball legend. In July 1939, he gave a farewell speech to his fans at New York’s Yankees’ stadium. The condition was putting him out of the game. Fighting back tears, he called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” for his family and the talent he had been blessed with to enjoy his passion. May his words serve as an inspiration for those who may be luckier than him in this race to find a cure.
Research by Professors Elaine Fox, from Oxford University, and Chris Beevers, from the University of Texas at Austin, sheds new light on our state of mind. Contrary to what is generally believed, there is no gen that “causes” mental illness. Instead, they suggest, the same genes respond differently to variations in the environment. “If you take a gene that is linked to mental illness, and compare people who have the same genetic variant, it becomes clear that what happens to their mental health is based on their environment,” Professor Fox said. “We suggest that while no gene ‘causes’ mental ill health, some genes can make people more sensitive to the effects of their environment—for better and for worse.” This means that anyone with those genes, who is in a negative environment, will have a propensity for mental disorders. By the same token, those very same genes would contribute to a vigorous, or happy, outlook if you are in a supportive environment.