Tuesday, February 07, 2006

No Butter No Better

Catchy enough? The post refers to the new study which seems to suggest that a low fat diet does not protect women against breast or colon cancer or heart disease:

The largest study ever to ask whether a low-fat diet keeps women from getting cancer or heart disease has found that the diet had no effect.

The $415 million federal study involved nearly 49,000 women aged 50 to 79 who were followed for eight years. In the end, those assigned to a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer heart attack and stroke as those who ate whatever they pleased, researchers are reporting today.

"These are three totally negative studies," said Dr. David Freedman, a statistician at the University of California at Berkeley, who is not connected with the study but has written books on clinical trial design and analysis. And, he said, the results should be taken seriously for what they are — a rigorous attempt that failed to confirm a popular hypothesis that a low-fat diet can prevent three major diseases in women.

And the studies were so large and so expensive that they are "the Rolls Royce of studies," said Dr. Michael Thun, who directs epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society. As such, he said, they are likely to be the final word.

Perhaps these studies are the final word on the specific question of the value of low fat in the diet, but as one those interviewed points out, now the fad is all about the "Mediterranean Diet": eating little or none of saturated fats but using other fats fairly freely. We could start a study on this and eight years later might find out that this was a wrong guess, too. Or a right guess, who knows.

Who knows, indeed. I'm not happy with the preaching and sure-as-certain way we are given dietary advice based on fairly flimsy studies, not happy, because changing the whole diet means changing much that has social significance for us, that denotes family roots for us, that gives us comfort and even meaning. Yet I seldom read anything from the medical popularizes that would acknowledge this and how hard it really is to change the foods one routinely eats. Instead, there is an unspoken assumption that people who can't change their diets are spineless and greedy and almost deserve to get colon cancer or something similar.

Having said that, I must also point out that this particular study should not be interpreted as meaning that any amount of butter gorging is perfectly fine healthwise.

As my regular readers might know, I like to criticize studies as a public service. I have only two critical comments about the article describing this study, and only the first one is about the study itself. It is the problem of relying on self-reporting of study participants in determining how much fat their diets contain. The study found out that there was no average weight difference between the group who was assigned the low fat diet and the group that was allowed to eat whatever they wished, and this suggests to me that perhaps the low fat group didn't actually follow a low fat diet that religiously. If this suspicion is true the results would be comparing two similar levels of fat in the diets of these women and would mean nothing.

The second critical comment has to do with this statement of one of the people discussing the study results:

Dr. Rossouw, however, said he was still intrigued by the breast cancer data, even though it was not statistically significant. The women on low-fat diets had a 9 percent lower rate of breast cancer — the incidence was 42 per 1,000 per year in women in the low-fat diet group, as compared with 45 per 1,000 per year in women consuming their regular diet. That might mean that fat in the diet might have a small effect, Dr. Rossouw said, perhaps in some subgroups of women or over a longer period of time. He added that the study investigators would continue to follow the women to see if the effect became more pronounced.

I see this done a lot. A lot. There is nothing wrong with Dr. Roussouw suggesting that further research should be done. That is fine. But statistically non-significant results are just that: We have not shown that the two groups differ on average on whatever measure we are analyzing here. Given this, people should not pay so much attention on statistically non-significant findings.

The Racial Suicide of Europe

According to the fairly odd Pat Robertson, Europe is right now executing a racial suicide:

ROBERTSON: Studies that I have read indicate that having babies is a sign of a faith in the future. You know, unless you believe in the future, you're not going to take the trouble of raising a child, educating a child, doing something. If there is no future, why do it? Well, unless you believe in God, there's really no future. And when you go back to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the whole idea of this desperate nightmare we are in -- you know, that we are in this prison, and it has no hope, no exit. That kind of philosophy has permeated the intellectual thinking of Europe, and hopefully it doesn't come here. But nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen, Europe is right now in the midst of racial suicide because of the declining birth rate. And they just can't get it together. Why? There's no hope.

This is hilarious. The average European does not read Sartre, and there is no such race as "European". But what Robertson is really talking about is not at all hilarious: it is about the desire to have more white people and fewer people who are Muslims. Fear. Fear is what energizes most wingnuts nowadays.

If you study history you will find that the fear of "racial" suicides or its reverse, the explosion in the numbers of some undesirable racial or ethnic or religious group, is common. Teddy Roosevelt asked (white) American women to have at least four children each, because he feared the impact of the then strong immigration from Southern European countries.

The wingnuts who worry about the death of the "white race" want white women to have more children and women of color fewer. It is the women who are to blame, by the way, for any lack of more whites. The white women are selfish for not bringing into the world lots and lots of little white babies. But then black and brown women are selfish if they have lots of children, because it shows that they are sucking off the teats of the government if in this country, and because they are contributing to the population explosion if in a developing country. Only white women who have hard-working white husbands should breed, especially educated white women. And they should stay at home with the white babies.

The fear of "racial suicide" is especially weird when it is expressed by the evolutionary psychologist faction of the right-wing. For these people believe that evolution should select for the kinds of people they are (mostly white), and they are furious that this isn't happening through a white population explosion. It is the women's fault, naturally, or probably the fault of the feminists who have somehow stopped evolution from working properly (properly being the idea that there should be lots more white people who are deemed to be the fittest by this group because of their greater "intelligence").

That was a slightly inexact satire of their position, but that position itself is fairly inexact. For evolution doesn't work that fast and what Darwin meant by the term "the fittest" has nothing to do with how smart someone is regarded. And if feminists can mess up evolution, why have we not been able to make the Catholic church accept women as priests?

The reasons for varying birth rates across the world are many, but I very much doubt Sartre's writing is one of them. Access to contraceptives matters and so do social and religious norms. But what matters a lot is the economics of having children. To have many children in a poor agrarian society is a financial necessity for the parents, because so many children die as infants, because even quite small children can be used as labor on the farms, and because adult children, especially sons, are the equivalent of the old-age pensions in the post-industrial economies.

Children in India, say, are not just something people might have for emotional reasons (love, the desire to continue the family line) but a necessary resource and insurance policy. Children in Italy, on the other hand, are a financial drain on their parents: the more children you have the less money you will be able to set aside for your old age, and the more money you need to find to pay for all those classes and computers that are required before the children can become productive members of the society. In India a child who cannot read can still work well on the farm. In Italy a child who cannot read will find it hard to survive off welfare.

This is rarely discussed by Robertson and his ilk. They like simple inflammatory explanations which blame either Sartre or the feminists or the secularization of the society for what they call a "racial suicide". Yet the pattern of declining birth rates in Europe, Japan and, indeed, among American whites has nothing to do with race and a lot to do with the effects an increasingly education and information dependent society has on the costs of having many children. Think about how you would pay for the college education of six children in this country. Then think about what six children might mean if you ran a labor-intensive farm in an Indian village.

The American birthrates are maintained by high Latino birth rates right now, but I have recently read articles which suggest that the Latino birth rate is beginning to decline, too. If true, this is an example of the impact of adapting to the American culture and its economic imperatives; a climb up the social class ladder requires children which are well educated, and this is only possible for most people if there aren't too many of them.

Medicare Drug Plan in Action

As you may have heard the Bush administration Medicare prescription plan has not been introduced very well. It's a mess, to be honest, and one group of very vulnerable patients are the mentally ill:

Since the prescription program made its debut Jan. 1, some of the estimated 2 million mentally ill Americans covered because they receive both Medicare and Medicaid have gone without the drugs that keep their delusions, paranoia, anxieties or stress in check. Mental health service providers and advocacy organizations nationwide say they worry that scores are at high risk of relapse. Numerous people have been hospitalized.

"The continuation of medications is absolutely critical to keep them in community living," said Steven S. Sharfstein, chief executive of the Shepherd-Pratt Health System in Baltimore and president of the American Psychiatric Association. Last week, the association joined other mental health groups in a lengthy talk with Medicare officials about the myriad problems.


The mentally ill are nearly a third of the "dual eligibles" who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid because of income and disability or age. Mark B. McClellan, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told a Senate committee hearing Thursday that a prime focus is resolving the "remaining transition issues" for this extremely vulnerable population.

That will not happen quickly. Like other Medicare-Medicaid recipients, the mentally ill were to have been signed up automatically for Part D at the start of the year, with responsibility for their prescriptions shifted seamlessly to private drug plans. Clinicians expected a bumpy beginning even in the best of circumstances. The new coverage often forces beneficiaries to switch from their usual pharmacies to different locations and strange faces, changes that Pam Cudahy of St. Luke's House in Bethesda said can have a huge effect on someone with few coping resources.

"Is the environment familiar? Is the person [behind the counter] familiar? When I show my prescription card, will the same thing happen as happened before?" Such questions represent daunting challenges, explained Cudahy, whose agency provides crisis care and psychiatric rehabilitation to about 1,000 teenagers and adults. "You don't want something to happen they're not expecting."

But repeatedly, she and others say, people have fallen through the program's cracks and discovered they have no insurance -- and have either run out of pills or rationed their medicine because they feared they would be left without.

Or they have been assigned to plans that will pay for some but not all of their psychiatric prescriptions -- an untenable and potentially dangerous situation given the complicated multiplicity of drugs people often take, with some pills to treat symptoms and others to counteract side effects. Unlike many medicines, psychiatric drugs are not easily substituted.

Indeed. Many of these patients are on multiple medications for very good reasons. If some medications are disallowed, what will happen? If you cut out two of four table legs, will the table still stand?

Some mentally ill patients can live alone and work only because of their medications. Some might even be harmful to those around them without proper medications, and many might be harmful to themselves. Surely taking care of these patients should be of utmost importance to the compassionate conservatives?

Monday, February 06, 2006

More On The Cartoon Wars

Tariq Ramadan has written an excellent article on the reasons and solution to the "clash of the civilizations" represented by the Danish cartoons and the reactions to them among some Muslims. People have died now because of this clash, and the ones who have died have been almost all Muslims, killed not by the cartoons or by the Danes but by the circumstances of the protests in which they themselves participated. If anything, the violence of some of the demonstrations will add fuel to the fears about radical Islam, and another circle of distrust begins. This sad fact is like a metaphor of the potential consequences for all of us: going down the road of rage and anger and refusal to discuss the questions will ultimately hurt ourselves, whoever we happen to be.


We now have a new federal budget which cuts funds from the elderly, the poor and the post-born children. But we still have funds for the snowflakes: the fertilized eggs which have been left over from fertility treatments. You can adopt them! And there is money for this:

The National Embryo Donation Center announced today that it is a partner in a $309,000 embryo adoption awareness grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Baptist Health System Foundation in Knoxville, TN, which serves as the primary recipient of the HHS grant, will work with the National Embryo Donation Center and the Christian Medical & Dental Association to educate the public about embryo adoption.

The genetic parents determine their own level of involvement in the adoption process and whether or not to remain anonymous. After completing the embryo adoption agreement and a home study, the embryos are transferred to the adoptive mother, allowing her to experience pregnancy and the birth of their adopted child. However, in the case of embryo adoption, the adoptive parents are recognized as the birth parents of the child.

Are all these embryos Christian embryos? And will they only go to Christian adoptive parents? And are only Christians paying the taxes for this? Heh.

The Senate Hearings On Illegal Wiretapping

They are live-blogged in a few places, including on Corrente, where Leah says some important things about what the hearings mean and why we should be calling people once again.

The wingnut defenses of the wiretaps have three avenues. The first one is to argue that when the Congress gave Bush the green light to go to war it also gave him the right to ignore any laws he finds inconvenient. The second one is to find polls which show that people don't care about illegal wiretapping if it means that there will be no terrorist under their beds (even if polls don't really say this), and the third one argues that breaking the law has saved American lives and has been a good thing in general.

All these are extremely weak defenses, being totally incorrect, but as Leah points out:

The press decided early on the issue of warrantless electronic surveilance is a loser for Democrats, and having created the CW, aren't anxious to see it proved wrong.

And now we do the dance of the hearings where we pretend to look into the whole question. I hope that they talk about all the unrelated information the program has vacuumed into its files and how much this has cost us.

Betty Friedan, RIP

Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma

Betty Friedan died on Saturday at the age of eighty-five. She is best known for her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. It gave her a place among the launchers of the so-called Second Wave of feminism.

Friedan was not an uncomplicated person. This New York Times obituary sums my views on her fairly well. In contrast, this BBC obituary gives the readers no real substance and fails to explain why Friedan matters. I suspect that it was written by a British anti-feminist.

What was the significance of Friedan's work in the feminist movement? I regard her as a name-giver, one of those who sees something we all see but goes one step further and defines the phenomenom, organizes it and tells us what it is called. Because so many women identified with what she described the relief from having it named and explained was enormous. No longer did individual women feel all alone, vaguely disgruntled, worried about their mental health or their perfection as a loving wife; instead, it was possible to discuss this condition and that was the first stage of doing something about it.

Name-giving is powerful, because a name given at the right time can energize a movement that barely existed until that point, and this is what Friedan's book did, though only for straight, educated, middle- and upper-class women. But it was a start, and the start turned into something more when other name-givers joined Friedan in the effort.

Friedan's power is reflected in the animosity she still provokes among the anti-feminists and wingnuts. But she was not wholly loved in the feminist movement, either, mostly because of her blind spots. But we all have our blind spots and to demand perfection before someone is respected means that we will never respect the achievements of anyone. And Betty Friedan certainly achieved a lot in one lifetime.

Thanks to her and other feminists working hard and courageously (for it does take courage to attack the society) in the 1960's and 1970's we no longer see "Help Wanted" ads segregated by sex and we no longer automatically expect that a newly married woman will quit her job. Thanks to them we also have other names for phenomena that long existed unnamed and under the radar: "domestic violence", "marital rape", "sexual harassment". Once names are given the phenomena can be truly seen, analyzed, debated and corrected.

Thank you for the names you taught us, Betty Friedan.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Taking The Weekend Off

I have left you a silly post for fun and an attempt at a novel that nobody will publish.

Have a great weekend! See you Monday.

Some Saturday Fun

With Chuck Norris.

The First Draft of A Short Story

Rosie and Bruce

The tulips were pushing up from the black soil. They looked like knives, Bruce thought. From his window he could see sharp green knives piercing the cold soil all over the front yard. The tulips were Rosie's. She had planted them last fall, pushing the bulbs into the soil one by one, leaning on her crutches.

There was a list somewhere. A list about the tulips, what they were called and what plants would rise up around them. Bruce knew that he should look for the list; Rosie had spent what little strength she had left to write lists about all her plants, lists about the tasks of gardening, even lists telling him what to anticipate, what to look for, how to enjoy the beauty of her garden. He wasn't ready to look for the lists yet.

The house was silent. Bruce took his breakfast dishes back into the kitchen and then climbed up the steep stairs to the top of the house. There he had his study, his lair as Rosie had called it. The walls were covered with bookshelves and the shelves with books he loved. This is where he had escaped family Thanksgiving parties and rowdy grandchildren's visits. This was where he used to relax, put his feet up and lean back in his old armchair while listening to the faint sounds of pre-dinner clatter Rosie was making in the kitchen downstairs. All was well in the world.

Now, of course, nothing was well in his world. He took down a favorite volume about the Civil War and opened it randomly. The words were just words printed on the paper. He put the book back in its place and turned around. He could see the back yard from his high window. Green knives in the back, too. He turned on the television set and sat down for another day of existence.

Some weeks later he noticed the first buds on the tulips. Most of them were plain green but a group near the dining-room window sported buds which shimmered darkly through the green. Were they infected with something, Bruce wondered? Rosie would have known. Her lists might tell him. He should look them up. He spent the day vacuuming, doing laundry and buying groceries. At night he put on a cardigan and opened the door to Rosie's room, her study. It was cold and smelled stale. He turned on the light and saw the lists she had left him, neatly stacked on her desk. The top one was about tulips.

He sat down to read.
"The ones under the dining-room window are called 'Queens of the Night', Bruce. They are as black as tulips come."
That explained the color of their bulbs.
"They are beautiful. I planted them in the middle of yellow-leaved hostas for contrast. The hostas are probably not up yet."
Bruce couldn't remember about the hostas. It wasn't something he normally noticed. But he would check tomorrow.
"They are stern, these tulips, and sad. But they also have a flame of life in the middle, a kind of sexiness as the name suggests. Do you remember New Orleans, Bruce?"
He couldn't read any further that night.

The following weekend Bruce's son came to visit with his young family. The house was full of children's laughter and cheerful-sounding conversation. Bruce wanted to ask his son about the tulips but couldn't get the topic introduced. They spent the afternoon out, and Bruce came home tired. The sun was setting and its rays struck the now open black tulips with a malicious glee. Bruce glared at them. His anger was quite impartial; he was angry at the tulips, his son and Rosie. He was angry at the idea of gardening. Gardening was what Rosie did.

That night he couldn't sleep because of the heavy meal they had had in a noisy restaurant. He took the tulip notes to bed with him and continued reading.
"The ones in the back yard are lily-shaped tulips. Their petals are tipped. I always thought of them as butterflies trying to take off. The most beautiful ones near the fence are called 'Ballerinas'. You'll see why when they flower: They look just like dancers in their tutus standing on point."
'Ballerinas', Bruce mouthed. What did he have to do with 'Ballerinas'? Who invented these idiotic names in the first place?
"They should flower at the same time as the bleeding hearts behind them. The bleeding hearts should echo the pink in the tulips, or so I hope. Oh Bruce, I so wanted to see them together! I know that you don't care for such things but won't you watch out for them, for my sake?"
Bruce turned off the light and lay there, his eyes filling with tears of anger. How dare Rosie do this, play him like a violin? She always fought unfairly, and now he couldn't even point that out to her.

In a few days all the tulips were in flower. The garden looked deceptive, as if Rosie was still there to care for it. Bruce made notes of the heights of the different varieties and counted their blooms. He tried to appreciate the color harmonies and contrasts, but for this he had to take Rosie's list out and to study it sitting on the front steps. Neighbors passing by complimented him on the tulips. He didn't want to remind them that he hadn't planted any himself. Then he became worried about the upkeep the tulips might require. Surely Rosie used to do something to them every spring?

He looked up her list of garden tasks. It was written differently, it was businesslike with chores, tools and times listed in a table. This was Rosie, too, her cool, professional side. Still, Bruce read through the list twice seeking in vain for a more personal note. He was impressed by the sheer volume of physical labor needed for gardening. Rosie never asked for his help.

He began the following morning with the cleaning of the flowerbeds, raking and aerating the soil. He carted compost from the pile by wheelbarrowfuls and spread it across the beds. His shoulders ached and sweat trickled down his nose. The earth had a deep smell. He didn't know if the compost was spread to the right thickness and he wasn't sure if he hadn't removed something from the beds that was supposed to stay, but he slept well that night.

It rained in the morning. The rain pelted the windows and smeared the view through them with tears. The tulips stood up against the grayness like so many colored flags, like soldiers in gaudy uniforms, refusing to bend in the face of the inevitable. Bruce cracked the window open. The smell of wet earth and green leaves drifted in, mingling with the rain and the soreness in his muscles. He suddenly missed Rosie so much that his body felt stretched thin, pulled infinitely long until it reached the borders of the realm of the dead, until he turned into an insistent throbbing of one desperate thought, this thought knocking on the sealed doors of the dead, asking for Rosie O'Leary. The pain was unbearable, not bearable, but he bore it anyway. After a few moments, or an eternity, it receded, and Bruce stood there looking out into the rain again. He hated being alive.

Later that day he moved all Rosie's lists up to his study and arranged them in an order that seemed logical. He took the top one, titled 'Late Spring-Early Summer' and sat down to read it in his armchair. The rain drummed on the roof. It was almost cozy in his den, warm and dry. He shuffled the papers in his lap and a faint whiff of Rosie's perfume touched his nose. It pierced him for a second.
"You are going to hate the weeding, Bruce. I always hated it. The weeds crop up so fast this time of the year and you can't let them win, that's how you are. That means an aching back, my dear. There is some liniment for that in the medicine cabinet. I am sorry for your pain, but the weeding will do you good."
Bruce grimaced at the thought and turned the page.
"My favorite moment of late spring was always the opening of the peonies. I never planted them, they came with the house, and I don't know what they are called. They have these small hard buds, like hands held in a tight fist against fear or anger, and ants crawl over them, seeking the sweetness in them. I could never decide if it looked like a horror film or the prelude to some erotica. The first spring when we moved to the house, remember, when the children were tiny?, I wanted to pull the peonies out because they gave me the shivers, but there was so much to do that I never got around to it. Now, of course, I am grateful for that, for the next stage is the opening of their buds and that is worth everything. They opened for us all those years, love. All those years we had together."

Bruce was crying now, his body releasing the sobs in tune with the rain on the roof. He stumbled up and leaned against the cold window panes, crying.

When the rain slowed down his tears also did and he was able to stand straighter again. He didn't really want to go back to the list but he wanted to know about the opening of the peonies.

"The buds break when you're not looking. Perhaps they just can't take the stroking of the ants any more, or perhaps the mild night wind blows them open. Anyway, one morning when you go out there they are, these gigantic, blowsy, crushed flowers, like white-and-pink silk, straining to open even more towards the sun. It is so sensual, Bruce. You must touch them, put your senses in your fingertips and lips and touch them. And then you must inhale their scent. Hurry, for they won't last very long.

I miss your body, Bruce. Even in this hell of pain, with my body being pulled apart by the final crunching of death's teeth, I want you. I know that you can't want me now, I understand. But you will want me when I am dead and the peonies will help."

When Bruce went to bed that night the sheets felt like Rosie's hands on his chest. The air was heavier, moister, than usual, and as he drifted asleep he turned to Rosie's side of the bed trying to pull her into his embrace. He dreamt about naked flesh and sex and woke up half-guilty half-relieved.

The spring speeded up. The tulips stretched their petals wider and wider and then dropped them. Other flowers took their place. Bruce fertilized and weeded, staked and weeded, watered and weeded. His muscles ached and he couldn't get his nails clean. He now knew Rosie's early year lists by heart and had started reading her gardening books. He wasn't going to be a gardener; that was what Rosie did, but he wanted to do this one thing for her. When his daughter who lived in France called him he told her all about the garden. She seemed pleased.

Then the peonies opened. It was just like Rosie had written. Yesterday they were all holding their closed fists up to the sky, today they were bending down, heavy with blossoms both celestial and obscene. Bruce looked around to make sure that nobody was looking and then buried his face in them. They were scented with innocence and hope and the smell of love and frenzied couplings. They caressed his face, their silkiness a thousand remembered nights with Rosie. Bruce stood there, half-crouched, while his body filled with longing, grief and desire. That moment Rosie was there with him, one with him, and also saying goodbye to him.

He spent the whole day with the peonies, until a hunger made him so weak that he barely made it back into the house and to a gigantic supper. After supper he moved Rosie's gardening books up to his study and selected a volume to read. He wanted to buy something new for his garden. A rose bush, perhaps.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Today's Action Alert

To stop an eighteen-year old Iranian girl from being hanged:

Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian authorities to take immediate steps to end the use of the death penalty for child offenders. Two new cases have been reported in which child offenders – persons under 18 at the time of the crime – have been sentenced to death by Iranian courts, in breach of Iran's obligations under international human rights law.

On 3 January, 18-year-old Nazanin was sentenced to death for murder by a criminal court, after she reportedly admitted stabbing to death one of three men who attempted to rape her and her 16-year-old niece in a park in Karaj in March 2005. She was seventeen at the time. Her sentence is subject to review by the Court of Appeal, and if upheld, to confirmation by the Supreme Court.

According to reports in the Iranian newspaper, E'temaad, Nazanin told the court that three men had approached her and her niece, forced them to the ground and tried to rape them. Seeking to defend her niece and herself, Nazanin stabbed one man in the hand with a knife that she possessed and then, when the men continued to pursue them, stabbed another of the men in the chest. She reportedly told the court "I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy. At the heat of the moment I did not know what to do because no one came to our help", but was nevertheless sentenced to death.

Bolds are mine. For action, go here.
Via Zainab2.

Friday Panda Blogging

This, too, is courtesy of Helga. I should start paying her. Think of the panda's expression in the context of national and international politics, and it makes even more sense.

Clashes of Definitions

When George Bush says "freedom" he means something very different from the meaning of "freedom" to me and most likely to many of the listeners in his audience. Yet we are all going to plug his message into our own system of memories and values and definitions. That's why the policy wizards in the Republican party spend so much time thinking of soundbites that will play our inner violin strings, melodiously passing our thinking brain. They are experts in this game.

But they are not the only ones playing the game. The recent uproar over the small right-wing Danish paper which published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of the same clash of definitions and systems of memories and values. It is not really a spontaneous clash of civilizations as much as a manufactured clash, having to do with playing different violin strings in different people.

For believing Muslims the depiction of the Prophet is forbidden, and these cartoons amount to blasphemy. For most people in Europe or North America, these cartoons are an unsavory and fairly stupid example of the freedom of expression. My reading of the European newspaper articles on the dispute tells me that what we have here is an enormous difference in the frameworks people use to interpret evidence, an enormous difference in their experiences of how governments work and what this work translates into. For example, many Muslim organizations demand the Danish government to punish the newspaper that originally published the cartoons. But what the newspaper did is not against the Danish law, and the Danish government can't punish it without a legal reason to do so. Countries with less freedom of the press would act differently, and these organizations are located in such countries.

This lack of understanding (and I mean a visceral lack of understanding, not an intellectual one) means that the Muslims then extend the anger they feel at the cartoons to the Danish country, all Danes, and as the cartoons get reprinted elsewhere, also to the governments and citizens of those countries. And then finally to the whole "Western Civilization".

Knowing the history of Europe and the history of how blasphemy has been treated there would have helped. It is equally true that knowing the history of Islam and its rules would have helped, though I think that the original publishers of the cartoons hoped for the exact scandal that has ensued. On both sides there are people who try to light the flames of a religious war. Yet I'm fairly sure that the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike would find the idea of such cartoons in bad taste but would also see the value in the freedom of expression for the media on the whole.

Friday Musical

By Freewayblogger. It is Iraq: The Musical, and it is funny, upsetting, over-the-top and thought-provoking. It is also a parody, of course. Watch at your own risk.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Interesting Reading

This Slate debate between the wonderful Katha Pollitt and William Saletan on the best ways to approach abortion by pro-choicers is quite interesting. The newest response is on top. The newest response is at the bottom of the page.
Via Eschaton.

Paying The Bills

Of the United States government. The people who will pay are the elderly, the poor, children and women on welfare and students:

The House yesterday narrowly approved a contentious budget-cutting package that would save nearly $40 billion over five years by imposing substantial changes on programs including Medicaid, welfare, child support and student lending.

With its presidential signature all but assured, the bill represents the first effort in nearly a decade to try to slow the growth of entitlement programs, one that will be felt by millions of Americans. Women on welfare are likely to face longer hours of work, education or community service to qualify for their checks. Recipients of Medicaid can expect to face higher co-payments and deductibles, especially on expensive prescription drugs and emergency room visits for non-emergency care. More affluent seniors will find it far more difficult to qualify for Medicaid-covered nursing care.

The Democrats did a good job in trying to fight it. They only lost by two votes. The saddest thing about all these cuts is that they won't make much of a difference in the government's budget deficit, even though they will make the lives of the most fragile among us much harder:

The impact of the bill on the deficit is likely to be negligible, slicing less than one-half of 1 percent from the estimated $14.3 trillion in federal spending over the next five years. As the House debated the budget-cutting measure, the Senate moved to begin final negotiations with the House on a package of tax cuts and extension of expiring tax cuts that could cost up to $60 billion over five years, more than negating the savings from the budget bill.

This is the real face of compassionate conservatism.

Friday Thursday Koala Blogging

This is a thirsty koala bear drinking from a wading pool in Australia during a heat wave. Thanks to Helga for the pic.

I don't even know what day it is anymore! Need a break.

Jumping Jacks

Did you ever do those? We used to have to do a hundred at the beginning of karate lessons. Joe Lieberman would have done well in them, because he was always the first popping up to applaud Bush during the State of the Union speech, even before the Republicans! He is very fond of the president, isn't he?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Code to the Wingnuts in the SOTU

You may have heard the assertion that George Bush has coded messages in his speeches for his wingnut base. I think I have found the one in this year's SOTU speech. It is in this part:

BUSH: Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage.

Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well.

Google the bit about finishing well, and what will you find? A sermon given by Jerry Falwell, entitled Learning to Finish Well.


Another self-adulation post. It's too early to do another one of these, so don't feel obliged to say anything nice in the comments, but as this is the time before the voting for the Koufax Awards, the awards for the lefty blogosphere, I have to advertize.

I have been nominated for the Koufax awards this year in two categories: Deserving More Attention (or something close to that) and Best Post. I can't find the link to the first category and as I blogged myself to near-death yesterday I'm too tired to try. But you can probably get it yourself from the Wampum website.

If you do, you will notice that the number of nominations is enormous, so being nominated doesn't raise me above the very high quality pack at all. But I'm so proud to be in that company, so thank you, whoever you are, who nominated me.

I also noticed that I got the Best Post nomination not just for this blog but also for the American Street where I used to blog on Saturdays. What is interesting is that I have no recollection of even writing the latter post! I do blog too much. The two posts are very different in tone. You should read them both and then read all the much better posts among the two-hundred-plus nominees. It will show you how rich the left blogosphere is in talent.