Saturday, May 26, 2007

Guest post by Blue Lily -- The Case against Perfection

A new book by Michael J. Sandel, called The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, explores the moral issues created by the increasing knowledge about genetics and the scientific abilities to manipulate our future because of it. I haven't read the book yet, though I do plan to. But an excerpt from the opening pages (available here in .pdf format) offers some intriguing questions which are related to an upcoming post I'm working on.

Sandel begins by looking at a deaf lesbian couple who chose to have a deaf child and juxtaposes that rather radical decision with those couples who seek genetic perfection in their child:
Is it wrong to make a child deaf by design? If so, what makes it wrong -- the deafness or the design? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that deafness is not a disability but a distinctive identity. Is there still something wrong with the idea of parents picking and choosing the kind of child they will have? Or do parents do that all the time, in their choice of mate and, these days, in their use of new reproductive technologies?

Not long before the controversy over the deaf child, an ad appeared in the Harvard Crimson and other Ivy League newspapers. An infertile couple was seeking an egg donor, but not just any egg donor. She had to be five feet, ten inches tall, athletic, without major family medical problems, and to have a combined SAT score of 1400 or above. In exchange for an egg from a donor meeting this description, the ad offered payment of $50,000.

Perhaps the parents who offered the hefty sum for a premium egg simply wanted a child who resembled them. Or perhaps they were hoping to trade up, trying for a child who would be taller or smarter than they. Whatever the case, their extraordinary offer did not prompt the public outcry that met the parents who wanted a deaf child. No one objected that height, intelligence, and ahletic prowess are disabilities that children should be spared. And yet something about the ad leaves a lingering moral qualm. Even if no harm is involved, isn't there something troubling about parents ordering up a child with certain genetic traits?

Some defend the attempt to conceive a deaf child, or one who will have high SAT scores, as similar to natural procreation in one crucial respect: whatever these parents did to increase the odds, they were not guaranteed the outcome they sought. Both attempts were still subject to the vagaries of the genetic lottery. This defense raises an intriguing question. Why does some element of unpredictability seem to make a moral difference? Suppose biotechnology could remove the uncertainty and allow us to design the genetic traits of our children?
The technology of genetic engineering is one cultural location where the politics of reproductive freedom and disability rights come together. These are not the only issues, or the only place these two interests intersect, but it is probably the most culturally compelling in our time.

Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade

Guest post by Hybrid: Medicinal Cybersex?

You may have already heard something about this lawsuit in the United States, in which a former IBM employee is suing IBM for wrongful dismissal, on the grounds that they neglected to provide adequate support for his cybersex addicition.

And I quote:
In his legal action against IBM, James Pacenza admits that he spent time in chat rooms during work hours, but claims his behavior is the result of an addiction and that IBM should have offered him counseling instead of firing him. Employees "with much more severe psychological problems, in the form of drug or alcohol problems ... are allowed treatment programs" at IBM, Pacenza argues in his lawsuit.


In his suit, Pacenza says his use of Internet chat rooms is a form of "self medication" he uses to treat post-traumatic stress disorder suffered as a result of combat experience in Vietnam. On the day before he was fired, Pacenza says he wrote a letter to a fallen Vietnam comrade lamenting his death. Afterward, he ventured into an Internet chat room "as a brief diversion from work," according to court papers.
Presumably, IBM does not allow someone to drink on the job, and presumably, you could be fired if you just smoked a little pot "'as a brief diversion from work,'" even if you have PTSD. I have yet to work at a company that did not similarly prohibit adult material of any kind on its networks, systems, and computers.

Here is where the only grey area seems to exist for me: I would wager that with the exception of some corporate events, IBM does not provide its employees with alcohol at work, and hopefully never provides them with illegal substances. Pacenza had a computer on his desk, though, and access to the internet, as so many of us corporate shills do these days.

It's a false distinction. Computers and internet access are as neutral as any other piece of office equipment. If someone looks at the work-provided fridge and sees a place to store their beer, or sees a lock on their desk drawer and sees it as a perfect spot for the stash, or sees their desk phone and thinks about calling their dealer, then they have a problem. If someone looks at a computer and internet access as chat rooms and pron, then they also have a problem. At the point at which the abuse of the work-provided tools becomes extreme, I think employers are justified in taking action.

Incidentally, I could probably fill a whole separate post on how the internet becoming synonymous with pron is problematic to begin with, but I'll resist the urge and just note in passing that this case appears to be predicated on the notion that pron and cybersex are simply harmless and normal parts of the internet experience that can become addictive for some people.

My feminist objections to this notion in general, and this kind of lawsuit in particular, are fairly standard: I worry about whether or not any harm is coming to women through the chats, or pron being created or exchanged, or if any harm is being done to minor children. (How this passes for "sex" is still a bit unclear to me. I can chat with someone online about going out for pizza, but it wouldn't occur to me to think that I ate in doing so.) I worry about how the pronification of this man's reality affects the women who have to work with him.

The objections that I have to this kind of thing as an IT worker are perhaps obvious as well. In my experience, people aren't all that careful about hiding their pron. So the moment I arrive to fix your computer, there is a good chance that I or one of my coworkers will see it, grossing us out and spoiling our day. Congratulations! You have exposed the company to a sexual harassment lawsuit!

Not to mention that this behavior hits me where it hurts - in the IT budget. If you are transmitting huge files and sucking up bandwidth, IT has to cover that cost. If you break your computer through spyware infections and virus infestation, it puts legitimate data at risk and costs the company time and money to repair the damage. If we are asked by HR to monitor your internet activities, that takes time and money away from getting other work done. Which is all fine if you are the size of IBM and have one employee like Pacenza, but this is a problem that doesn't scale. IT departments already cost companies a lot of money. Companies have no interest in increasing their IT costs to cope with a workforce who cannot or will not refrain from excessive personal use of their work computers and the consequences arising from such use.

It pains me to come down on the side of Big Blue instead of the little guy. But I have to admit that while I hope that Pacenza gets the help that he needs for his addiction and his PTSD, I hope on behalf of IT workers everywhere that this lawsuit is dismissed. As a feminist, I will continue to see harm to women as the elephant in the room of this discussion. And as a feminist working in IT, I think about how a positive outcome for Pacenza in this case could affect my future in an already sexist industry.

Ethel, The Last One.

Posted by olvlzl.
The widow was a gold star mother. Her son killed in Korea, no other children. She was old when I knew her. Her husband, one of my father’s “radio bug” friends, “another ham, WWI”. Antennae all over their yard. And a tower held up with guy wires. He told my father to take it when he died but he never got around to it.

She talked on and on about nothing. Usually nice, sometimes she’d fret and no one knew why. Pixilated, someone said. She died last. They came to clean out her house, take away the old radio stuff she’d never gotten rid of. She left movie magazines. Thousands of them, in neat bundles all over the house. She’d played piano in the theater a town over, before talkies.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Guest post by Skylanda: One more word on Baby Emilio and the Texas futility of care law

The recent death of Baby Emilio - first and foremost a beloved though very ill child, secondarily the test case for the Texas futility of care law - forces a re-examination of the intersection between ethics, health care finance, and since that's not complex enough, the differential value of life in the context of a world that still doles out merit points based on race, origin, and membership to a class that can pay for private medical insurance in one of the few industrialized nations that still allows vast numbers of its own citizens to go without.

As a health care worker, I sympathize with placing limits on futile care. Doing time in the ICU, I've seen innumerable cases where family choices for a dying and incognizant loved one were misguided at best and self-indulgently cruel at the worst - an elderly women with metastatic breast cancer in the dying throes of septic shock whose family wanted to know when the next round of chemo was to begin, a young man with motor vehicle injuries so severe his only brain activity was relegated to the grand mal seizures he succumbed to every time his sedation was lifted enough to run a useful EEG whose family refused for weeks to let him go. Give anyone on the blunt end of an intensive care shift a couple of beers and they can haul out half a dozen stories like these. And though the health care professionals who choose this field are obligated and skilled at performing many unpleasant tasks, it is beyond their calling - and ethically unconscionable - to ask them to repeatedly perform acts that are rooted in causing suffering without measurable gain to the patient anywhere in the equation.

But no health professional is a monolithic care provider alone. Last summer, in a guest spot here at Echidne, (scroll down to my post most of the way down this page) I wrote about a little girl who suffered from a profound lung injury during a bone marrow transplant gone terribly wrong; that little girl was my niece, and at the time I hit the "post" button, she was eight weeks into her ICU stay. Half a dozen times, when her blood pressure bottomed out, or when her chest x-rays looked particularly gruesome, or when some resident had to crawl out of bed at an ungodly hour of the night to poke yet another hole between her ribs to thread a chest tube into her frail body, the doctors on the service asked my brother and his wife to withdraw her care. She was too sick, they said. Other children that sick have not made it, there is no reason to think she will. The odds are so stacked against her...even if she survives, she has probably stroked out during all those episodes and there may be nothing there to wake up to. Her care, they argued, was futile.

Another eight weeks into her ICU stay, she was just stable enough to lift the sedation. She awoke, slowly, over a period of weeks, and she began to communicate. Five months after the crisis began, she left the ICU for a rehabilitation floor and began a long convalescence. On February 1st of this year, she went home to live with her mommy and daddy and baby brother again, physically disabled from her long stay in bed but growing stronger every day, and with no discernible cognitive impairment. She'll start school again this coming fall, perhaps even with the second-grade classroom of kids she left when she fell ill a year and a half ago; the only obvious marker of her four months rapping at death's door is the thin plastic line that runs between the tracheostomy hole in her neck to the oxygen machine she still relies on to get her through the day.

Needless to say, your worldview gets a weird little tweak when the universe hands you a big fat smoochy miracle. We won the karmic lottery - with every statistic against her (only 3% of bone marrow kids who go into the ICU come out alive; only a quarter of the kids who come down with one of the vicious viral infections she suffered from respond to treatment; and on and on), she pulled through, egged on by some truly spectacular care and some wildly dedicated parents who would hear nothing of "futility" and "withdrawal of care."

So. Sometimes forcing the withdrawal of care against family wishes is an act of mercy. Sometimes it's closer to murder. Most of the time, one cannot tell without being right in the thick of it which is closer to the truth in any given case, and sometimes even from that vantage the truth is obscured by conflicting realities. Media coverage rarely tells anything like the whole story - especially given the draconian privacy directives of the HIPAA law, which allows involved individuals to disclose information at will but muzzles hospital staff, thereby biasing media reports heavily toward the only side that is allowed to tell the story.

But there are a few things that need to be sorted out in every case like this. One is that finances need to be both a fundamental consideration in care algorithms at the planning level but entirely extricated from decision-making at the individual level. A health care system needs to decide how - or perhaps if - it is going to finance resource-intense cases like premature babies, traumas with lengthy convalescence periods and questionable outcomes, high-morbidity cancer cases, and the like. Once the tough decisions are made (and make no mistake, they are tough...try this one on for size: should a 23-week preemie, at the very edge of viability, be revived and sent to the NICU or considered a tragic but conclusive miscarriage?), they should be applied evenly across the board. Rich or poor, black or white or Hispanic or otherwise, privately insured or on the Medicaid roles, the rules need to apply to everyone.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Baby Emilio's case was the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that oozed out of the woodwork. When Blue Lily's blog, The Gimp Parade, was linked from an AOL story, the commentary that escaped moderation on this topic ranged from point blank questioning on whether this kid was "illegal" or not (answer: mom's family has been in the US for generations) to tirades about who "deserves" to access the public dole. But guess what, folks? Anyone who undergoes expensive medical treatment is a drain on the system. The pretense that the payment of a few premiums into a Blue Cross account prior to your life-threatening motor vehicle accident puts you in a financially less leech-like position than the kid who just crossed the desert in his mom's belly to be born into a NICU in a border-town hospital is a happy delusion designed to make the privileged feel less edgy about the entitlement to care we receive as a member of the somewhat arbitrarily designated class of "insured" people. In fact, no insurance premiums that you will ever pay will cover a million-dollar hospital stay - under our current system, even private insurance is still very much a public good: your expensive hospital stay drives up premiums for your coworkers, your neighbors, your family, the next state over. Emilio on Medicaid was no more a drain on the system than a cancer-ridden CEO with the fattest private insurance policy on the market, because all of these are billed to a collective pool that some group of Americans are kicking into and will have to cover. No one pays for this kind of stuff out of pocket because no one short of the Bill Gates social strata can pay for it out of pocket. For example, my niece's first medical bills - for an ICU stay and induction chemotherapy - topped out at around $100,000, billed to the military's Tricare system in deference to my brother's recent return from Iraq; after the bone marrow complications began and she was transferred to the Medicaid system, the hospital quietly stopped sending bills home at all, so we have no idea what the final total was, but the best guesses range up into the $1-2 million realm. The fact that she is white and middle class and so darling (don't make her adoring aunt bust out pictures!) she could charm the socks off the most hardened able-ist bigot does nothing to change the fact that she drew just as much off the regional Medicaid budget as a poor Hispanic kid named Emilio. The fact that this price turned out to buy her life back was a roll of the dice none of us could have predicted - at the time, one could have argued against her care the same way they argued against Emilio's: futile. Too costly. Time to face the harsh reality of life and let her go.

Most of us will become disabled at some point in our lives. Unless you are hit by a bus and die at the scene, or suffer a fatal heart attack without years of prodromal symptoms, or find some equally precipitous way to go, most of us Americans will eventually draw off the intensive, expensive care provided by the US medical system as we grow older and ever more impaired. The question of futility of care needs to be a balance of mercy and love in an imperfect system that sorely lacks the resources to give indefinite life to everyone - but it needs to be divorced from the idea that some do and some do not deserves it and the delusion that some are paying for it themselves just because they kicked in a couple hundred a month in insurance premiums for a few years.

Despite every mixed feeling I have on forcing doctors to continue futile care for terminally ill individuals, I for one am glad to hear that this child died not from care withdrawn but under as natural circumstances as possible; the family has been through enough, and the trauma of this very public episode is certainly not going to come to a close just because Emilio's life has ended. His mother deserves whatever peace she can squeeze out of this unhappy circumstance. Instead of sniping at a desperate mom, maybe we could each take a moment to be thankful for not being in her shoes: there but for the grace go we.

Posted by skylanda.

We Are At War With The War Party. May 25, 2007 Has No Time For Cry Babies.

Posted by olvlzl.
In May 2007 that means they have to find the way to end the Republicans’ lock step support for it because that is the wall between us and the end of the war.
Yesterday was the long version of this, today let’s getting right to the point. The left has no option but to work with the Democrats who oppose the continued occupation of Iraq. They are our only tool. There is no other choice available.

Those in the house and senate who opposed the funding bill need to lead us to do what will work to end the war as quickly as possible. They can’t be coy about it. They can’t consider legislative etiquette unless that is necessary for success. They know that they were put into office to END THE WAR IN IRAQ. In May 2007 that means they have to find the way to end the Republicans’ lock step support for it because that is the wall between us and the end of the war.

The Republicans need to be attacked on this issue and those seats that are at risk earliest, in the places most likely to throw them out of office, are were we need to focus our fire. Those are the Republicans who can be turned, they have to be made answerable for the war of their president and their party. It has to be the constituents in those places who make the attack, national groups run the risk of giving them a campaign dodge which they will welcome. That was the lesson we learned from Connecticut last year.

The temptation is to go into the wider implications about these issues, if you’ve read me you know my weakness for that. But this is the here and now problem. We face a terrible situation of having to stop a war. Over the past fifty years the real ability to prevent a president from starting and sustaining even the most criminal and idiotic war has disappeared. We have had absolute proof that even the power of the purse isn’t in the hands of the congressional leadership any more. The political and media realities of May 2007 have destroyed the balance that made congress a hurdle for unbridled presidential war powers. That is what we have to restore, it involves strengthening the position of the Democratic leadership, not weakening it. Anything that doesn’t do this is helping Bush and his war party and will prolong their war.

Grousing about the fact that the Democratic leadership has to work with the reality they’ve got will only strengthen the Republican war machine. It’s time for the left to stop crying about what it can’t have now and to get what can be gotten. Only after that can we work with a new reality instead of the one we have today.

Ending American involvement with the Iraqi civil war is the most urgent and important issue we face. We don’t have time for make believe in 2008 or, as some deluded fantasists are alreadly dreaming, in 2012. We have to win politically as fast as we can. It’s time for clear thinking and concentration on as much of the reality as we need for success as soon as that can be managed. Wishful thinking and chasing after theoretical rainbows that have proven to not be there are a waste of our dwindling time.

It’s time for the leaders of the anti-war majority to lead us and for us to focus our efforts on the attainable.

Guest post by Blue Lily -- Check out Disability Blog Carnival #15

Disability Blog Carnival #15 at Ryn TalesThe latest edition of the twice-monthly Disability Blog Carnival is up at Ryn Tales, where "Family" is the theme. Under that theme, host Kathryn gathers posts on the following topics: Loss of Anonymity, Don’t speak for me, What it’s like, Demystifying and Diversifying the Meaning of Perfection, Get a Clue! Tips for Family and Friends, Impact of Prejudice, A Day in the life: Parenting, and Hope for Ellie's Future.

The next carnival is at PilgrimGirl where the theme is "Borders": submission deadline is Monday, June 11, 2007, and further info is here.

Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade

Guest post by Blue Lily -- Movie review: Emmanuel's Gift

I didn't expect to like this 2005 documentary, the story of Ghanaian Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, born without a tibia in his right leg and one of the two million people in his country living as a second class citizen.

Why did I dread watching this flick? Yeboah "overcomes adversity." That tired inspirational trope that dominates stories of disabled people's lives. He rides a bicycle across Ghana. I've never really understood athletic endeavors meant to be attention-getters for some cause. Go pound some nails instead, okay? Do some activity with actual value beyond it's celebrity. And the film is narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who has never before uttered the words "disability rights," though she has no problem exploring the medical aspects and social misfortunes of impairment. Oh, Winfrey's had guests who happen to discuss ableism and crip rights -- Chris and Dana Reeve (to some degree) and William H. Macy* (eloquently) are celebrity examples. Never once did I see her take that bait and follow the thread of social injustice or call for people to demand change.

So I had reservations aplenty.

But here's the thing: In Ghana, where an astounding one in ten citizens have some sort of disability, infanticide of visibly disabled infants is common. If they aren't killed or hidden away shamefully, disabled Ghanaians become beggars on the street. That is the range of options.

So a guy with one working leg riding a bicycle across the nation -- 380 miles -- and calling for disability rights and opportunities had an incredible impact on a society that thought it had everyone in their rightful place.

When Yeboah was born, his father saw him and promptly abandoned the family. His mother was encouraged to kill her son, but instead she sent him to school and taught him he deserved all the privileges and opportunities nondisabled people have. When Yeboah had trouble getting the other schoolkids to let him play with them, he ingeniously saved his money (no easy feat) and bought his own soccer ball -- a rare commodity. The price of playing with it was letting Yeboah join in the game using his one full-grown leg and crutches.

With his mother ill and medical bills to pay, young Yeboah shined shoes for money. He left his village and family behind to go to Accra, the nation's capital, to earn $2 per day shining shoes instead of just $1 per day back home. So, he's a teenage boy on crutches shining shoes far from home to support his family -- mom and two younger siblings, I believe. Yet after his mom dies and he applies to the Californian Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), he asks not for cash but for a bicycle because he's thinking big. He wants all Ghanians to see that disabled people can do more than be street beggars.

Yeboah's bike ride makes him a national hero and celebrity. The film follows his visit to America, where he competes in some athletic events and decides on amputation of his limb so he can wear a prosthesis. He returns home without his crutches, but with political momentum. We see him meeting with tribal chiefs, disabled beggars whom he encourages to reach for more, and most poignantly, the father who abandoned him.

The film's slick editing interferes with the story, but the celebrity created by Yeboah's bike ride forces public officials to reconsider national disability policy and respond, as one canny bureaucrat notes, that ''we may have underestimated the urgency of the matter." Returning to the United States, Yeboah meets with fellow Ghanaian and then-U.N. President Kofi Annan, and also receives grant money for his goals of helping other disabled Ghanaians and starting a wheelchair basketball team for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

In a historic meeting at King's Palace in Kibi, Ghana, where because of superstition and stigma no disabled person has ever before been invited, King Osagyefuo praises Yeboah and throws his support as leader of 2.5 million people in Eastern Ghana behind efforts to improve the lives of disabled citizens. Says King Osagyefuo:
“The society and country are not set up to take care of handicapped people. Emmanuel has tenacity, endurance and he has a strong heart to do the things that he is doing and to use what he has done as an example for other disabled people. We will support him and tell the government that they are also part of us—they may be physically challenged, but mentally and intellectually they are the same as us.”
The King's statements are nothing short of revolutionary in a culture where disability is commonly believed to be the karmic result of immorality.

Yeboah hopes to become a member of the Ghana Parliament one day. In the meantime, he's married -- to a nondisabled Ghanaian woman, which is apparently a feat of disability acceptance in itself due to cultural stigmas -- and has a daughter. The film fails to show these last and most ordinary achievements in his life, but Yeboah's story shines through any directorial shortcomings to show what a single person can achieve when he is taught his own self-worth.


* IIRC, Macy appeared on Oprah after the release of Door to Door, his award-winning made-for-tv true story of Bill Porter, a man with cerebral palsy who confounded all expectations by becoming a top door-to-door salesman. Macy had become a national ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and when prompted by Oprah about his volunteer position he spoke eloquently and at length specifically about disability prejudice and discrimination.

Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Late Birthday Greetings To The Not Late Studs Terkel

Posted by olvlzl.
Studds Turkel turned 95 on May 16. Here is a recent interview in the magazine In These Times.

Take this story. You know I walk to the bus. Bus number 146. They know me in the neighborhood. They know I’m a writer. They know me as the old guy who’s garrulous. I talk to myself. [Laughs.]

So one day there’s this one couple, they ignore me completely. So my ego is hurt. And I say, “The bus is late.” And I say, to make conversation, “Labor Day’s coming up.” And the man just turns and looks at me—Brooks Brothers, under his arm, the latest Wall Street Journal. And she’s a beauty. Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s. She’s got Vanity Fair in her hand. And he turns, looks at me, and says, “We despise unions.” And then he turns away.

And I said, “You what?” And the bus hasn’t come yet. “Do you know that in 1886, ‘87, four guys got hanged? How many hours a day do you work?”

He says, “Eight,” reflexively. I said, “How come you don’t work 18 hours a day? Four guys got hanged for you. Did you know that?”

They think I’m crazy. They’re scared. (Laughs.)

He says that the book he's got coming out in the fall is his last one. I think he's said that before though.

I Kid You Not, This Was A Question I Got Asked Yesterday.

Posted by olvlzl.

“Even worse than the invitation to bias is the basic idea that the normal processes of science wouldn’t suffice to falsify claims called “extraordinary”.*

I suspect the normal processes of science will not suffice to falsify the statement that there is a china teapot orbiting somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn for a long while yet, because it’s just too big a space to search. Does this bother you?

I’d be bothered if I found out that publicly financed science was looking into this, if that’s what you mean. Though I'd want to know if the science wasn't falling victim to a sensational claim of what was being looked at first. If it’s some balm pot looking for a tea pot and not potting someone else in the process, no, that doesn’t bother me.

Who do you know who is attempting to answer this question with science?

If it was someone I met who shared with me that they had the belief that there was such a tea pot? I might be charmed to have come by an example of that too rare species, the genuine harmless eccentric. If there was no reason to suspect that they were going to do themselves harm I might lend them up to a half hour of my time for their exposition, knowing that they were probably enjoying themselves and were providing me with a useful anecdote.

* I’d said that if the normal processes of science couldn’t falsify “extraordinary claims” that they would, by the rule that science had to have consistent standards of objectivity, also be unable to be relied on for “ordinary” claims. You don’t want to hear my full rant, it sounds too eccentric.

Update: An e-mail points out that even if finding the tea pot would have involved more effort than it's worth that the search itself would be a matter of fairly conventional though pricy technology. I don't care to consider "extraordinary technology". Being in enough hot water already.

Texas Enlightenment? Renaissance? Maybe They’d Better Come Up With The Name For It.

For Tena and RMJ
Posted by olvlzl
I’ve learned recently that it’s not only history but also the law that is better able than the behavioral sciences to deal with complex, political realities through reasoning. Lawyers are trained in rigorous reasoning about very complicated things, some of them even favor liberty and the common good. The great and futile yearning for final answers and clear results might be what obscured that common sense conclusion. But reality shows that there is no rational reason to expect that satisfying finality is available in the areas of government and the law. We get what might be called a preponderance of effective benefit. What works just has to work better than the alternatives, at least more often than not. That’s as good as we are going to get.

As long as there are people to have governments and laws there isn’t going to be an end of history. I hope that this is true and time doesn’t produce any of the various utopias proposed when some of those of a scientific bent start speculating on the perfect society.

Some people like to go on about modern democracy as resulting from the Scottish Enlightenment, those dour philosophers sometimes including, oddly enough, Locke and stretching it out rather too far and for rather suspect reasons to Smith. Maybe those guys informed some of the Constitutional Convention but that was a long time ago. We’ve learned a lot through living under the Constitution and correcting just a few of its major flaws. But repairs don’t seem to be doing it for us anymore. We might be at the major political crisis since the Civil War. We need a new Enlightenment for the renewal of our politics and society. And perhaps history has provided in answer to that need. Why it’s taken us so long to realize that Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, Ronnie Dugger, Bill Moyers, .... constitute a vastly impressive and vitally useful body of thought can only be because they aren’t concentrated in one of our major attention grabbing locations. It’s almost certainly the accent too.

While we have been lucky enough to not have escaped their influence I propose that they get the full attention that such a brilliant, miraculous, group of thinkers and writers warrant. They aren’t providing the kinds of final proclamations that others have, it’s not their style. I think they, themselves, all realize that they are fallible and that their worlds aren’t written in stone. They seem to have benefitted from seeing that no philosophical pronouncements in these areas has proven to be the last word. I sense a trust in the force of evolving, informed thinking in this group, a full appreciation for good will and common decency that could take a dead piece of paper and use it to kindle a real enlightenment here. It would be good for the United States, The World and it wouldn’t do Texas any harm to have them to be proud of for a change.

Keith Olbermann Gets It Right

But, as always, the whole story won’t fit on TV
Posted by olvlzl.
The deal on funding the ongoing occupation of Iraq stinks, there is no avoiding that smell. It isn’t anything as natural as methane, it’s more like a chemical toilet. Entirely artificial, worse than the thing it’s designed to cover up.

The Democratic leadership is going to take the heat for it and I’m sure they know it. That’s part of being leaders. But let’s give them their due, they tried for better things and failed to resist Bush's veto power. That failure was, in part, through trying to do with internal congressional politics what in a real democracy would have been a question of legitimate politics. They should have been able to end this disaster by relying on their rank and file members to heed the express will of The People*. The temptation will be to see this as entirely their fault and to abandon them. A case might be made for them deserving a heap of blame, either through lack of courage or just insufficient skill. But dumping them won’t fix it in time. It will hand Bush complete victory.

A disaster as huge as Bush War II requires that the political system that produced it be changed to fix the disaster and to avoid it happening again. It’s the political system that requires fixing. I think the reason is pretty clear. Our system was never perfect, it always had deep flaws, no human institution works as it’s supposed to. But it used to work somewhat better when we had a free press that was required to make an effort at informing The People in objective reality. Olbermann aside, the commercial media in this country is a fully vested member of the Bush regime. FOX triggered the coup** that put him in office, effectively the entire media, including the New York Times ratified the coup so as to not break up the cotillion. The disastrous war in Iraq is the direct result of our not having a political crisis over that stolen election. There is every reason to believe that it would have been less damaging to the lives of hundreds of millions for us to have fought it out and changed our antiquated election system when it produced the abomination of Bush v. Gore. Government of The People is infinitely important. The struggle for its establishment, preservation and extension at the cost of real blood, is nothing less than the best part of our history. Without that there is no reason for the United States to exist.

The media is the real reason that the Democratic leadership can’t do the will of the people. They proved that they want to. It is the Democratic members in swing districts in the house that prevented the limits on Bush’s insanity to become law there. The reason they did that was fear from the media and the Republican lie machine. That lie machine doesn’t have to work with the majority of the voters, it just has to work in enough swing districts to immobilize the opposition to the Bush junta.

In the Senate, the rules allow Republicans to block anything the Democrats push, in that case it is the “moderate” Republicans and conservatives elected in more liberal states who know they have nothing to fear from The People who are effectively propagandized not to throw them out of office. Exposing those frauds would end their effective veto of the will of The People. The lesson in Chaffee’s loss apparently hasn’t taken there.

It is the media that are the cause of the rot in our system. Either we fix the media through breaking up the monopolies and forcing them to stop being a propaganda arm of the corporate state or forget democracy. The presence of Olbermann and a handful of others shouldn’t shield from the reality of what they are.

We’ve discussed what it will take to fix our elections and to force our representatives to do what we want. I’m sure we’ll have to get back to that again. But even that struggle will be in the face of a full media lie campaign to keep things as they are. The way they are works for them, it doesn’t for us. The Iraq disaster is the result of things as they are.

* The People, it’s time to stop hiding the real foundation of our government in lower case letters.

** In case anyone has forgotten, it was the cousin of George Bush, John Ellis, who made the crucial decision on FOX to hold up declaring Gore the winner. Ellis was in direct consultation with Jeb Bush while he was doing that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What The Hell Is E8?

Posted by olvlzl.
Ok, if you want to see some rally mind blowing stuff, complete with ideas for 70s style “string art”, go to David Vogan’s MIT site and read about the eight dimensional "figure" yourself.

If you’re like me and reliant on a non-technical description:

Mathematicians Map E8
Mathematicians have mapped the inner workings of one of the most complicated structures ever studied: the object known as the exceptional Lie group E8. This achievement is significant both as an advance in basic knowledge and because of the many connections between E8 and other areas, including string theory and geometry. The magnitude of the calculation is staggering: the answer, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan. Mathematicians are known for their solitary work style, but the assault on E8 is part of a large project bringing together 18 mathematicians from the U.S. and Europe for an intensive four-year collaboration.

"This is exciting," said Peter Sarnak, Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University (not affiliated with the project). "Understanding and classifying the representations of Lie Groups has been critical to understanding phenomena in many different areas of mathematics and science including algebra, geometry, number theory, Physics and Chemistry. This project will be valuable for future mathematicians and scientists."

Bigger than the Human Genome
The magnitude of the E8 calculation invites comparison with the Human Genome Project. The human genome, which contains all the genetic information of a cell, is less than a gigabyte in size. The result of the E8 calculation, which contains all the information about E8 and its representations, is 60 gigabytes in size. That is enough space to store 45 days of continuous music in MP3 format. While many scientific projects involve processing large amounts of data, the E8 calculation is very different: the size of the input is comparatively small, but the answer itself is enormous, and very dense.

I notice they specify tiny print, with my eyes, naw, it's got to be Large Pring or I'm not bothering to read it.

Popcorn Toppings For Senate Hearings

Posted by olvlzl.
Monica Goodling might have been playing chicken with the Senate Judiciary Committee, if that’s so she might have to blink. My understanding is that if they give her immunity from prosecution she’s got to talk and no lies or the deal is off and she still has to talk. Though that peculiar brand of Bushheimers disease which afflicted her former boss may have tragically claimed any memory she’s got of things.

I like air popped popcorn with a couple of tablespoons of warm canola oil - just the tiniest bit of butter in it - and a trace of salt. Lightly sprinkled with tamari and plain canola is pretty good too. If those who are saying this could blow the scandal open are right we might need more variety. Any other favorites?

A Shield Against The Power Rangers Of Occam

or A few random ideas as a late birthday present to the late Bertrand Russell
And the fun folk at The Friendly Atheist
Posted by olvlzl.

Occam is best known for a maxim which is not to be found in his works, but has acquired the name of “Occam’s razor.” This maxim says: “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” Although he did not say this, he said something which has much the same effect, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.” That is to say, if everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it. I have myself found this a more fruitful principle in logical analysis.

Bertrand Russell: A History of Philosophy
In order to apply the “razor” to a difference of belief between two people or to find the truth or untruth of a general idea, you first have to have an agreement on the definition of the problem. Without that you can’t exclude things from the solution. Exclusion is the purpose of this “razor”. And it can exclude only those aspects of a problem you know about, there could be others you don’t know about. If you doubt that one, please explain to me how you would exclude something you didn’t know about.

While logical analysis is very useful and sometimes impressive it doesn’t encompass the entire universe of possibilities, it can’t keep those unknown to it but which, nonetheless might be there. It can’t include those which could contribute but which aren’t known and necessary to the immediate solution of the problem at hand. And unskilled use of the razor, rampant in some of its make-believe masters, runs the risk of cutting out things that are relevant and even necessary.

A fun thing to think about, but which we don’t know to be of much practical use, are the extra dimensions of the universe which are being examined. How many of these dimensions exist? Are they really there? What qualities do they impose on existence? Do they impinge on our universe of sense? Could their effects permeate our lives unknown? Perhaps there are aspects of our lives too subtle for us to have discovered yet but which are understandable only through the added, as yet unknown, qualities of these extra dimensions. Just to throw one in for the entertainment of the atheists in the audience, maybe one of them has a quality that bridges the physical universe and the non-physical. Notice I said “maybe” before you fly off the handle.

For most of the problems we deal with those aren’t important considerations, we might cut out their consideration but that’s only a matter of the necessities imposed by contingency, not a definitive exclusion. As the math and perhaps someday the science done with these develops maybe that will change, though I doubt it will turn out to be a closed matter. The difficulties of dealing with just the equations might outstrip the efforts of the entire body of scientists and mathematicians to discover them before the species goes extinct*. Maybe some of the less “knowable” aspects of human experience really are impinged on by these dimensions. Consciousness, for example. Maybe that’s why it escapes those would be-scientists who attempt to work around it. Who knows?

You’ll notice that Russell said, “if everything in some science can be interpreted.” That great master of logic used a conditional construction, he certainly would have known the implications of doing so and would have done that for a good reason. Science is a very specialized activity, many vitally important things in life can’t be discovered through science. My favorite example this week is to try to find “the separation of church and state” with science. To start with, there isn’t a discreet “thing” , defined and bounded, that is “the separation of church and state”. Just the lack of unanimity of the legal definitions of it clearly demonstrates that to be true. You would have to have a “discreet thing” there to do real science about it. “The separation of church and state” is there, or at least I hope it is, it has an impact on our lives and I hope it is preserved and strengthened but it is entirely outside of the reach of science.

I’m not sure if he meant to imply it, but Russell’s endorsement of this mainstay of modern materialist fundamentalists seems more of a conditional endorsement than a final requirement. You’ll notice Russell called it a maxim, not a foundation of logic. I’m guessing he meant it less as law and more as tool. The “razor” is really more of a convenience than an infallible tool, it doesn’t do everything necessary. And it might have been called a “razor” by people with painful experience that those tools are often not sufficiently sharp and prone to go farther than they should. He also endorsed it as a tool of logical analysis, formal logic reduces the complexity of real life to analyze the form of the problem. It can be useful but the possible solution of many real life problems are too complex to fit into its forms.

The kind of pop-materialists, cultists of scientism, etc. who are always ready to pull out the old chestnut “Occam’s razor” often mistake their wielding of pat assertions of prejudice and dismissive bigotry for this tool. That is an advertisement of their fundamentalism, not their mastery of logic. They often can’t get to step one of the use of the razor, finding out if it is useful in the question at hand.

A less than honest use of the form of the razor popular these days is to apply it to a question beyond its ability, the question of the existence of God. “The material world is most simply explained without a God so the idea of a God is false”, or some such construction. This begins by assuming that our knowledge of the physical universe and the methods we know to analyze it are effectively comprehensive, when they certainly aren’t. It also assumes that a God, by definition supernaturally outside of the physical universe, would be susceptible to the known limits of the physical universe and answerable to its laws. They do this even on those occasions when they assign qualities to “God” such as “all powerful” “all knowing”, etc. Just the first of these “all” qualities would include the ability to surpass the known laws of nature.

It compounds those follies with the assumption that only a yes-no answer is possible when neither are. The only honest answer to the question of God’s existence is “I don’t know”. You can go on from there to believe, not believe or abstain from voting on the existence of God. This fact is a declaration of intellectual freedom, not a requirement to believe. But belief isn’t considered to be the same thing as knowledge.

* That E^8 figure they recently published at MIT, if I recall correctly, needed equations that would have covered Manhattan twice. I don’t know if there would be a regular progression of any kind to the size of paper needed for higher dimensions but the mind boggles.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I'm Going on Vacation

From tomorrow the 23rd to Tuesday the 29th. You will have blue lily, hybrid0, skylanda and olvlzl to read during that time. I am very grateful for all four of them. Have fun! I shall miss you all.

P.S. Remember to check out the article I have written on the (un)safety of our foodstuffs and medications. It should come out tomorrow.

No More Menstruation?

A new birth control pill can suppress periods indefinitely:

Called Lybrel, the pill is expected to win Food and Drug Administration approval Tuesday, becoming the latest approved oral contraceptive to depart from the traditional 21-days-on, seven-days-off regimen that has been standard since first birth control pills were sold in the 1960s. But the Wyeth pill is the first designed to be taken continuously.

Lybrel contains the lowest dose of two hormones widely used in birth-control pills, ethinyl estradiol and levonorgestrel.

Taking the pill daily would let women suppress their monthly bleeding indefinitely. However, unanticipated breakthrough bleeding may occur in some women.

A female science-fiction writer once wrote a short story about a world in which women no longer need to menstruate. The point of the story was that something of that sort would be a much greater feminist victory than the kind of crap us feminists usually bother our little heads with. Or so I recall it now in my great and bitter state of exhaustion.

The idea of not menstruating is quite appealing to me. Just imagine the money saved and the convenience. But then there are the questions about possible adverse health consequences. I'd like to know more about those before deciding if this is purely good news.

Menstrual blood has long been associated with the impurity of women and may even have something to do with misogyny (though at least one feminist has inverted this idea by pointing out that menstruation could be viewed as cleansing in itself). If women no longer menstruated (except right before intended pregnancies), would women then be viewed as less filthy? I wonder.

A Hero

I'm a cynical goddess and seldom admire people that much. But Malalai Joya, a young feminist Afghan woman, deserves my adulation:

Twenty eight year old intrepid Afghan MP, Malalai Joya, has just been suspended from Parliament for comparing warlords in power to donkeys. Joya is the youngest and most outspoken member of Parliament and has survived 4 assassination attempts for denouncing warlords, many of whom were funded at various times by the US government in the fight against the Soviets (1980s) and the Taliban (post-9-11).

In a recent interview Joya said the country's parliament was like a "stable or zoo," and added, "this is a word that fits — a cattle house is full of animals, like a cow giving milk, a donkey carrying something, a dog that's loyal." The video of her interview was shown in Parliament and a majority voted to suspend her for the remarks, invoking a little known Article 70 of the Parliament that forbids MPs from insulting one another. [Click here for news about the suspension.]

Such words are quite typical for Joya who is the bravest person I have ever met. In 2003 she first publicly denounced the men at a Constitutional assembly which she attended as an elected delegate from her rural Farah province. For her actions she was lauded by her people and threatened by the warlords. Since then she has consistently criticized the warlords whose hands she says are "stained with the blood of my people." When I visited Afghanistan in 2005, this was a common refrain among ordinary Afghans. Malalai, according to journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, is "speaking for millions." During my visit I interviewed her before her 2005 bid for the Parliament. During the interview she told me, "Maybe one day they will kill me. But I will never be afraid."

Read the whole thing as they say.

A New Study on Sexual Harassment And What It Tells Us

I learned about this study (pdf) through Jennifer L. Berdahl of University of Toronto carried out three studies on the interrelationship between masculine and feminine personality types and the amount of sexual harassment a person undergoes.

The background to her work is interesting: From those early days when sexual harassment was given a name and could be talked about a confusion reigned in the public debate about its meaning. What is sexual harassment? Isn't it just normal sexual attraction? Love affairs gone astray at work? Boys being boys and liking to pinch girls' butts? Can we ever legislate such behavior away? And so on.

On the other side of the argument, there was much concern that sexual harassment was a power tool, something superiors could use to exploit their subordinates and a way to stop women from advancing in the organization.

Berdahl's studies cast a little bit more light on this confusion. Her basic hypothesis is this: If sexual harassment is mostly a form of courting game then the women who get most harassed should be the types which the society generally regards as most sexually desirable, both physically and personality-wise. On the other hand, if sexual harassment is mostly a form of punishing or controlling women, then the women who get most harassed are not going to be of the type that the society generally regards as most sexually desirable. They are going to be the uppity women who need punishing.

Berdahl's studies did not address physical desirability in the experience of sexual harassment but the question of personality. Her study subjects (both men and women) were asked to self-test their personalities using a scale which is used to measure masculine and feminine characteristics. For instance, the following are regarded as desirable masculine characteristics in the United States: assertiveness, dominance and independence. On the other side, desirable feminine characteristics include warmth, deference and modesty. Note that the test results include the possibility that a person tests high in both the so-called masculine characteristics and the so-called feminine characteristics, or that a person tests low in both these groups.

If sexual harassment is mostly about sexual attraction, Berdahl reasons, the women who score high on the feminine characteristics should get harassed more. If, on the other hand, sexual harassment is mostly about punishing those individuals who deviate from their expected gender roles then the women with "masculine" characteristics should get harassed more.

This is the major question the studies address, although they also evaluate the same question in the context of men who get sexually harassed. But on the whole the men in Berdahl's studies don't find sexual harassment "harassing".

In other words, when the study subjects were asked about the occurrence of certain events in their lives (such as the telling of sexist jokes or unwanted sexual advances) and of the feelings of those events caused most men rated the emotions they provoked as either neutral or positive.

Now there is a whole book to write on the reasons for that difference! It would be interesting to study the question within same-sex sexual harassment of men. Would those events provoke a more negative reaction? Or would it matter if the harassment is carried out by a boss?

The most important finding of Berdahl's three studies is that the women with masculine characteristics experience more sexual harassment than other types of women, even if they also score high on the female characteristics. This suggests that sexual harassment is at least partly not a courting game or a form of flirting gone bad but an actual strategy to punish women who are seen as violating traditional gender roles.

The three studies are not without problems. For example, the sample sizes are fairly small and the first two studies use university undergraduates as the study populations. Given the geographical catchment area of the university in which the studies were carried out the vast majority of the study subjects gave their ethnicity as Asian. It would be interesting to replicate the study in other types of populations.

Berdahl is not the first researcher to study the reasons for sexual harassment. At the beginning of her article she quotes an earlier study by Maass and colleagues. That study can be used as a shorthand description of the topic of sexual harassment that Berdahl studies. She writes:

Using a computer paradigm,Maass and colleagues had men receive an electronic communication from a purported interaction partner (Dall’Ara&Maass,1999;Maassetal.,2003). Half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying economics,intended to become a bank manager,thought women were as capable as men,and participated in a union that defended women’s rights. The other half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying education,intended to become an elementary school teacher to allow time for family and children,and chose not to become a lawyer because the job is more appropriate for men and she is afraid to compete with men.

Men had the option of sending a variety of images to their interaction partner in reply and were more likely to send offensive pornography to the woman who expressed nontraditional beliefs and career ambitions than to the woman who expressed traditional ones.

The rationale provided by Maass et al.(2003)for why men gender harass nontraditional women is that men are motivated to derogate women when they experience a threat to their male identity.Women threaten male identity when they blur distinctions between men and women and thereby challenge the legitimacy of these distinctions and the status they confer men.

Most men don't engage in acts of sexual harassment, of course, and those who do may have multiple motivations. But the idea of harassment as a form of punishment for what is viewed as deviant gender behavior is useful.

News on Iran

The British Guardian is not a conservative newspaper, to put it mildly. So it is somewhat surprising to see it publishing a story with the headline "Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq." Of course the first paragraph tells us that the source of the story is not Iran or some independent reporter bravely covering the ground in Iraq but the U.S. government:

Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal, US officials say.

"Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it's a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces," a senior US official in Baghdad warned. "They [Iran] are behind a lot of high-profile attacks meant to undermine US will and British will, such as the rocket attacks on Basra palace and the Green Zone [in Baghdad]. The attacks are directed by the Revolutionary Guard who are connected right to the top [of the Iranian government]."

Very tricky this. It could be that the "US officials" are correct in their predictions. Or it could be that all this is about a different war, the political war here at home and the attempt to scare the Democrats into letting Bush have his way. It is not impossible that Iran has heinous plans, of course, but I'm not sure if they would also be suicidal plans.

Come to think of it, suicidal plans or no plans at all seem to be the fashion of the day in international politics.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Meanwhile, in China

Two stories about Chinese women appeared in May. One was of yet another criminal caught killing young women to create "ghost brides", dead women that can be buried with a man who has died so that he can get the wifely services in afterlife. It's like those archeological digs where skeletons are found with tools and food for afterlife. The woman is a similar form of resources. Don't try this in reverse. It doesn't work.

The other story is about the high rate of suicides among the young rural women in China:

The suicide rate for women in China is 25 percent higher than for men, and the rural rate is three times the urban rate. In Western countries, men are at least twice as likely and sometimes four times as likely as women to commit suicide, studies show. But in China, being young, from the countryside and female is an especially lethal combination.

Because the women who commit suicide are almost exclusively poor, their desperation
is a reminder of the social inequalities that plague China and the difficulties hindering government efforts to raise rural standards of living. Despite the fast- paced modernization of cities, women in the countryside have been left to face what they consider insurmountable obstacles, often stemming from the traditional view that wives play a subservient role in the household.

Drinking pesticides is how this is done, this escape from an unbearable life. And why is it unbearable? Poverty, rapid social change and the great contempt the traditional Chinese culture has for women are all to blame. But this struck me as one of the obvious reasons:

Li Guiming, 49, a local community leader who came to help Wang and later sent her and others to Beijing for training, suggested that traditional gender roles in the countryside are powerful.

"Women are inferior from the time they're born," Li said. "When you give birth to a girl, people say you have a poyatou, a worthless servant girl. When it's a boy, they say you have a dapangxiaozi, a big fat boy."

Fish can't taste the water and women growing up under these beliefs will absorb them.

What I found saddest of all in the story about suicides was the resolution offered to one of the women whose suicide attempt is described at the beginning of the article, because there was no resolution, no real focus on her problems. She still didn't matter as a person.

Why delve on such sad stories? China probably has millions of happy women, too. Christina Hoff Sommers might argue that I should personally go to China and save all these women from societal oppression and self-hatred or I don't count as anything but a feckless feminist.

Perhaps I am writing about this because Hoff Sommers argued that the kind of feminism that is really needed in other countries will be family-based and faith-based, not the sort of selfish stuff we Western feminists spout.

Yet both the ghost brides and the subjugation of women within families are old religion-related traditions. So are honor killings in the Middle East. They are explicitly linked to the honor of the whole family. A feminist who can't address problems caused by certain ways of thinking about families will not do much good for women.

Giving You Nightmares

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sees himself as the good angel sitting on George Bush's shoulder:

Gonzales, a friend and adviser to Bush since their days in Texas, calls their close relationship "a good thing."

"Being able to go and having a very candid conversation and telling the president: 'Mr. President, this cannot be done. You can't do this,' — I think you want that," Gonzales told reporters this week. "And I think having a personal relationship makes that, quite frankly, much easier always to deliver bad news."

"Do you recall a time when you (were) in there and said, 'Mr. President, we can't do this?'" Gonzales was asked.

"Oh, yeah," the attorney general responded.

"Can you share it with us?" a reporter asked.

"No," Gonzales said.

An Elite Enterprise

Richard Schickel, a book critic for Time magazine, tells us what is wrong with blogs:

THE MOST grating words I've read in a newspaper recently were in a New York Times report on the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation's leading newspapers.

The piece suggested that this might not be an entirely bad thing. Into the breach, it argued, will charge the bloggers, one of whom, a former quality-control manager for a car parts maker, last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.

"Some publishers and literary bloggers," the article said, viewed this development contentedly, "as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books."

Anyone? Did I read that right?

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Later in the piece Schickel compares blogging to finger-painting, but mostly he focuses on the Great Man Ideal of book reviewing:

But instead, let's think about what reviewing ought to be. For example, French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant. In the middle of the 19th century, his reviews appeared every Monday for 28 years. He was a humane, tolerant and relentlessly curious man who once summarized his method in two words: "Just characterization."

That "just" did not mean "merely." It meant doing justice to the work at hand and to the culture in which it appeared. Another way of putting that is that he wrote with a blogger's alacrity but with a thoughtful critic's sense of responsibility to, yes, "the great tradition" the author aspired to join.

Think also of Edmund Wilson, the best book reviewer this country ever had — alert to the possibilities, both moral and aesthetic, of the "classics and commercial" (to invoke the title of one of his collections) that passed before him. His method was usually rather reportorial — generally he let his opinions emerge indirectly, not as fiats but as muted implications of the way he read (and quoted) the work at hand. He was not a showy, or even particularly quotable, critic. But the clarity of his prose remains exemplary.

Finally, there was George Orwell, scrambling to make a living by writing reviews for London's intellectual press for maybe $20 or $30 a piece. He was more pointedly political than Wilson, and more attuned, perhaps, to the vagaries of trash culture, but his defense of honest vernacular prose in the face of bureaucratic (and totalitarian) obfuscation remains a critical beacon.

All of these men wrote ceaselessly, against deadlines and under economic pressure, without succumbing to the temptation of merely popping off or showing off. None of these men affected the supercilious high Mandarin manner of, say, George Jean Nathan — as annoying in its way as hairy-chested populism is in its.

I read Schickel's piece twice. The first time I read it the way he intended: as a defense of elitism based on better knowledge, talent and hard work. The second time I read it the way my inner feminist reads these things and counted exactly zero references to women in the piece. Even populism is hairy-chested.

Try doing a reversal with the story. Give Schickel a female name and change the sexes of all the people he writes about. You might get the feeling I had on my second reading. The point, of course, is that Schickel thinks he is not writing a guy lit piece at all but a piece of general importance to all intelligent and discerning readers.


This being Joss Whedon's take on misogyny (via Amanda, whom you should also read). An example:

Last month seventeen year old Dua Khalil was pulled into a crowd of young men, some of them (the instigators) family, who then kicked and stoned her to death. This is an example of the breath-taking oxymoron "honor killing", in which a family member (almost always female) is murdered for some religious or ethical transgression. Dua Khalil, who was of the Yazidi faith, had been seen in the company of a Sunni Muslim, and possibly suspected of having married him or converted. That she was torturously murdered for this is not, in fact, a particularly uncommon story. But now you can watch the action up close on CNN. Because as the girl was on the ground trying to get up, her face nothing but red, the few in the group of more than twenty men who were not busy kicking her and hurling stones at her were filming the event with their camera-phones.

There were security officers standing outside the area doing nothing, but the footage of the murder was taken – by more than one phone – from the front row. Which means whoever shot it did so not to record the horror of the event, but to commemorate it. To share it. Because it was cool.

I could start a rant about the level to which we have become desensitized to violence, about the evils of the voyeuristic digital world in which everything is shown and everything is game, but honestly, it's been said. And I certainly have no jingoistic cultural agenda. I like to think that in America this would be considered unbearably appalling, that Kitty Genovese is still remembered, that we are more evolved. But coincidentally, right before I stumbled on this vid I watched the trailer for "Captivity".

A few of you may know that I took public exception to the billboard campaign for this film, which showed a concise narrative of the kidnapping, torture and murder of a sexy young woman. I wanted to see if the film was perhaps more substantial (especially given the fact that it was directed by "The Killing Fields" Roland Joffe) than the exploitive ad campaign had painted it. The trailer resembles nothing so much as the CNN story on Dua Khalil. Pretty much all you learn is that Elisha Cuthbert is beautiful, then kidnapped, inventively, repeatedly and horrifically tortured, and that the first thing she screams is "I'm sorry".

"I'm sorry."

What is wrong with women?

I mean wrong. Physically. Spiritually. Something unnatural, something destructive, something that needs to be corrected.

How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I'm no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn't buy into it. Women's inferiority – in fact, their malevolence -- is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they're sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished. (Objectification: another tangential rant avoided.) And the logical extension of this line of thinking is that women are, at the very least, expendable.

Perhaps a guy saying all this works. It doesn't seem to take when I say it, but then I'm a woman. Or perhaps it's just that I don't write well enough. In that case, read what Katha Pollitt says about it.

On Religious Discrimination

It is something that Newt Gingrich frets over. In his recent speech at the Liberty University (Jerry Falwell's school) he complained about "anti-religious bias" and "radical secularism". Then he started on the horrors of religious discrimination:

"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard," he said in the 26-minute speech. "It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."

So nice of Gingrich to worry about the Wiccans and the Muslims, probably the two religions whose believers may face anti-religious discrimination in their daily lives in this country.

Of course Gingrich didn't mean that. He meant something quite different when using the word "discrimination", and it has very little to do with discrimination in education or employment or with the other common parlance uses of the term. Indeed, it has very little to do with the idea that it is people who are the victims of discrimination. In the world of Gingrich, and probably of his audience at Liberty University, too, it is religion itself that can be the victim of discrimination. An odd interpretation, even though a common one these days.
Cross-posted on the TAPPED blog.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Joy of Blogging

Posted by olvlzl.
It is a privilege to instigate
Involved discussions.

Especially when everyone ends up still talking at the end.
A man who acts as his own editor

has a blogger for a client.

olvlzl: May 15, 2006 revised and edited.

And Now For Something Really Controversial

Posted by olvlzl.
You might find it surprising to hear me say so, if you know I'm a native of Maine, but there are few things you can do that will get my back up faster than bringing up The Elements of Style, also know as Strunk-White. It starts with the second name, E. B. White, who many call the most prominent of all “Maine authors” was from away. The first thing of his I ever read was a story about the disasters that befell an island family. It embodied his famous style, simple, warm, sentimental, just skirting the cloying. But for a native Mainer it also embodied an amused and patronizing condescension that has plagued my people for as long as we’ve been the subject of reports sent to Boston and New York concerning the manners of the natives*. I don’t like E. B. White.

The matter of style, now, that’s something I don’t like for another reason. I’m not a trained writer. I’ve never really studied the craft of writing. You are getting it pretty close to how I’d say it if someone would let me go on without pulling the talking stick out of my hand. Needless to say, that’s never been allowed to happen in real time. I tried Strunk and spent a lot more time wondering where he came up with his unconditioned pronouncements and dicta on writing than I did in producing specimens as practice. And what might the results be if I’d practiced? Did I really want to write like White, an author I really didn’t see the point of anyway?

Last year I tried again. I got a book, cheap, published by a popular writers magazine and read through it’s advice on simplifying style. It looked mighty familiar and I remembered reading through one of Rudolph Flesch’s books. Which while more detailed and practical than the sage of Yale, wasn’t much less prone to arbitrary advice. I noticed that some of those sentences containing “fewer syllables” weren’t objectively better than the rejected alternatives. The newer book was largely cribbed from Flesch, though at a dollar from the remainders bin, I wasn’t out much.

I turned to technology and found out that the “Grammatik” feature of Word Perfect had tools to analyze your writing based on Flesh’s theories. You could see how your style matched Hemingway or Lincoln. I fail both tests, though I come closer to Lincoln, which is good. If White annoys me, I’ve never gotten Hemingway. It’s not just his homosexual-hysterical machismo, it’s that when you reduce writing to mono-syllables and sentences of five words on adult subjects the results tend to be entirely vapid. I’ve heard endless streams of praise for the Hemingway style, notably more florid than the model, but I’ve heard few people talk about Hemingway moving them deeply. Why he is more respected than Katherine Anne Porter is a complete mystery. I didn’t test my writing against the income tax instructions model, also provided in Grammatik. Income tax instru ...?

If you could last through that rant, you might want to read this column on the hot topic of adverbs. I don’t understand the fuss, considering that adverbs are probably the second most endangered part of speech, after prepositions. They’re being supplanted by adjectives at an alarming rate. Maybe Strunk is to blame. He hated adverbs.

Now! To your corners!

* My favorite Maine author is Ruth Moore, though I’m not from the coast or a New England Yankee. Sanford Phippen, another real Maine author, has written a lot about the colonial aspects of our literary and artistic culture and the way it thwarts native talent.

Update: Thanks to the comment who pointed out the slightly embarassing mistake. Though I didn't really feel it.

Jimmy Carter And the Ghastly Truth.

Posted by olvlzl.
For The Deacon
Jimmy Carter will surpass John Quincy Adams as the most successful ex-president in our history but only among historians. I’ve mentioned before that there won’t be movies staring Anthony Hopkins made about him. Carter’s work doesn’t have the drama of the anti-slavery struggle that Adams joined, to his everlasting merit. Carter has been plugging away for almost thirty years at the hammer and nails level of things, occasionally making headlines by doing that most shocking of all things, telling the truth. Despite it’s having gained him a vicious enemy in Alan Dershowitz, hardly an arduous or unique accomplishment, Jimmy Carter continues to talk about what’s going on today as well as continuing his work of improving the lives everywhere.

His statements on the BBC last week about Tony Blair’s PR value in selling the biggest military and moral disaster in modern US history were right on. He said that Blair’s support was instrumental in destroying the effectiveness of those who were opposed to the invasion on the basis of knowing what the reality was. The British seal of approval on the Bush lies was widely assumed to carry a royal guarantee of fully tested soundness. Of course that involved dragging Churchill out of the mausoleum for display. As well as the subject of the post below, that Churchill-Chamberlain stuff, good for any demagogic use, should be sent back for re-embalming. No, final burial.

Now it’s left to Gordon Brown to fix the damage to the brand name. A lot of people doubt that someone with his background and inclinations can do it. But updating Winnie’s picture on the box isnt’ the problem. It’s not the logo, it’s the contents. Blair was just a smoother salesman of the post-Thatcher, Anglo-American order. That’s his legacy. The market religion and the mega-corporations are the real government of the English speaking peoples. That’s the effective merger of church and state that endangers all of us. Despite the snark you can expect from anti-religious blog bigots over Carter’s new audio book, Bible based fundamentalists here are just a side show.

Jimmy Carter was probably the last president of the United States proper. He made mistakes, many of them listening to the forerunners of what was to come to power after him. Deregulation was one his biggest in economic policy, listening to Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller’s pleas to let the Shah into the US, definitely was the beginning of his biggest mistake in foreign policy.

I’m glad that he keeps speaking out on many topics but he should concentrate his expertise on elections here. If he wants to fix those he’ll have to consider more than the process of the elections. Our elections are corrupted through processes planned for stealing elections but that’s only half of the story. As with the selling of the invasion of Iraq, the reestablishment of democracy in the United States is essentially a matter of cutting through the PR lies, of exposing the trade marks trusted by millions as the come ons covering up trans-fats and corn sweetner. It might satisfy those habituated to the junk but it will kill you in the end. It could be the most perilous project of his career, it would certainly earn him a mountain of criticism, but Jimmy Carter, and all of us, have to destroy the lie machine of the Empire.

Note: The crowing about the French election probably won’t lead where the pundits predicted. Not a surprise since most of them didn’t know who Sarkozy was until he started sounding like Pat Buchanan translated. Their gassing on about the French having rejected France for the Anglo-American system probably won’t turn out to be entirely accurate. I suspect that Sarkozy will not be enthusiastic about becoming just the spare tire on an Anglia.

His Mediterranean Union could be the beginning of a second market church-corporate state empire. The best hope for people under it might be the subversive* attachment the French and others have for their quality of life in the present time. Maybe it will prove to be more attractive than the pacifying struggle for wealth and social status in an imaginary future have been here. If so, Sarkozy will have to work around that. Who knows? But anywhere neo-feudalism crops up it is over the dead body of democracy.

Bill Clinton might represent the best Americans can hope for under the present regime. His spotty record of producing lasting benefits to the majority of people were a success for us only by comparison to the others. We have to face up to that and try for the best we can do now while we struggle to restore democracy.

* Among our best defenses against modern America’s suicidal social climbing straight to the bottom, are generosity and fairness. Nothing is more subversive than those universally held virtues. Yes, that includes what they try to convince you is decadent France. Genreosity is universal and even a rather cool French intellecutal is able to be fair out of principle. The unselfish virtues are deeply subversive, that is why they are under attack everywhere in our culture.