Saturday, April 21, 2007

La, La, La, ... We Can’t Hear You.

Posted by olvlzl.
Back in the last congress if you asked someone in the media why their guest lists, on-air clips and quotes were so lopsided with Republicans they sometimes said that it was because they had control of the legislative and the executive branches. In my state, Maine, that situation was particularly bad, the amount of time the two Republican Senators get as opposed to the two Democratic Congressmen (Maine has only two) is entirely out of wack. As she prepares to go back on her solemn promise, to only serve two terms, Susan Collins is everywhere on the radio and TV, her likely Democratic challenger, Congressman Tom Allen, is seldom seen. A casual observer in Maine might be forgiven for not knowing what he even looks like.

You might think that in the aftermath of the Gonzales fiasco the other day that the Democrats, who did most of the questioning, including the hard questioning would have gotten the majority of the coverage. But starting with the hour long wrap up on NPR that night and in news story after news story the coverage has been all about the Republicans and their reaction. Even in this story, carrying the headline, “Pelosi Joins Calls For Gonzales Resignation”, the positions of four Republicans make up the majority of the story, Leahy the only other Democrat mentioned.

he media are acting as if Republicans were still in control of the legislative branch of the government. Arlen Specter, who just might be the biggest camera hog in the entire congress, is treated as if he is still in control of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This can’t be an accident, it has to be the result of an intentional policy to silence Democrats in order to lessen their impact. By pretending that they don’t exist, by putting the cameras on Republicans, the media is shamelessly providing them with publicity. And in politics, if it’s not bad publicity, it’s campaign publicity. You might have understood there to be a financial motive for them doing that when they were in a position to hand the corporations in control of the media favors and perks but they aren’t in that position anymore.

It’s time for Democrats in the congress to take notice and start drafting legislation to diversify the media and to force equal time provisions on them. The media are not their friends. The media has demonstrated its bias so fully that there is no point in getting into a debate. Democrats have nothing to lose by leveling the media playing field. And it has to be based in the law instead of just easily changed executive branch regulations.

Coda: If, as is being floated, Ted Olsen is nominated to succeed Gonzales, the Judiciary Committee should hold no-holds barred hearings and go over his entire record. Since it is the most shameful violation of democracy and voting rights in modern history, Bush vs. Gore should be a major topic of the hearings. Olsen argued the case in front of the Supreme Court, he certainly was a party to stealing an election. All relevant records should be subpoenaed, he and other members of the administration should be required to respond to questions and then he should be rejected on the basis of contempt of the most important branch of government, The People.

Olsen would be infinitely more dangerous as the head of the Justice Department. He shares Gonzales’ character defects and magnifies them through not being incompetent at what he does. He would do what has been done and be smart enough to cover it up better. The Bush regime, now being exposed for the bunch of mobsters they are, can’t be allowed to put someone like Olsen in charge of investigations and prosecutions.

Help The Geezer Get A Clue

Posted by oldvlzl
This morning a 12-year-old relative went into a towering, ‘tween rage at me because, while telling her she looked cute with her hair that way, I mistook her braids for pig-tails. Two minutes into the event she seemed to think that my excuse, “Look at me, do I look like I know anything about hair styles,” was entirely inadequate and unforgivable.

Can anyone enlighten me, what’s the difference? When did they become different?

Esteemed Readers,

Thank you for the information about breast cancer and finding the best options for treatment. My sister says her daughter found it useful and is grateful for the advice. So am I. My niece’s oncologist said that the situation isn’t nearly as grave as her obstetrician had suspected last week, though it is certainly serious.


Liberalism Isn’t Libertarianism, Profit Isn’t a Civic Value, Mindless Diversion Isn’t Important.

Posted by olvlzl.
The reaction to NBC broadcasting part the Virginia Tech murderer’s self-made trailer carries a warning to the media about how far the public is willing to go. Or, eventually perhaps, what the public will tolerate in the media. NBC running with it has been defended, just as Don Imus and other obvious excesses by the media have been defended and excused. Having heard those defenses they seem to come down to two things.

Some say that they should have run it just because it’s their right to run it, a sort of “see, you can’t stop me” kind of argument. I'll get back to that attitude problem in a minute.

Some have said that it was newsworthy because it was timely. Anyone who has seen the portions of the video released by NBC, with their unremovable sticker attached, and says it has any kind of news value, is an idiot. The video was useless, watching it had exactly the same value as rubber necks gawking at a scene of carnage before going off to seek newer thrills.

Behind these assertions lies a deeper and largely unstated value held by increasing numbers of our jaded media. Despite their empty assertions otherwise, profit , and in the media that means viewers sold to advertisers, is really the only responsibility accepted by the media. It’s the media version of that self-serving dogma of business ethics, that the only responsibility of the corporation is to maximize the returns to investors. That value seems to guarantee that all other values will be buried, that they will have to be to insure maximium return.

Another angle on the showing of the psychopath’s video was made the other night on a prominent blog I usually respect, that NBC shouldn’t have edited the thing but should have shown it in its entirety. The argument was that their doing so was an instance of paternalism. It would be tempting to reflect on the difference in this use of the word “paternalism” and the way it is used on this blog and on others like Hecate’s and I encourage others to look into that.

Here I’ll say that while it isn’t an appropriate use of the term, it is revealing. In this use of the word it’s exact synonym is the ever increasingly used favorite of conservatives, “nanny state”. The two terms complain about the restraints put into place by responsible adults and which inevitably are meant as means to protect someone. I don’t know what kind of world the liberal libertarians think we’re headed for but when I see irresponsible corporations given free reign to do whatever it takes to maximize profits the direction is to hell. It won’t be exactly the same horror as that produced by a fully ripe Bush regime but it will still be horrible.

Those working in the corporate media shouldn’t ever forget that their professional freedom isn’t a natural one. Corporations aren’t born, they aren’t endowed by nature or by nature’s God with rights. They were merely incorporated under laws that are subject to change as needed or desired. Freedom of the press was guaranteed only because accurate information is necessary for free people to govern themselves. That service, providing accurate and useful information is the only reason anyone should care about press freedom. If just about all of the junk put out by the media disappeared today it would have no impact on the ability of people to vote or conduct their lives.

They should also realize that this also makes them vulnerable to losing their freedoms if people suspect that they are contributing to increasing violence. The old arguments requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that violent media promotes violence are receiving an increasingly skeptical response. I used to be an absolutist but I don’t buy it anymore. I don’t think that any corporate action should enjoy that standard of proof, one increasingly denied to human beings*. When it comes to a media bent on maximizing profits by broadcasting ideological lies, FOX, etc. conviction by a preponderance of the evidence is much more than they should be allowed.

* The very preliminary research, which needs following up badly and right away, that cell phones might be killing off bees could lead to an important decision. Do we risk the food supply while we wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt proving that cell phones are contributing to the problem, or do we take action on less than certain information that could prevent a famine? Considering that cell phones are primarily used as an entertainment medium it could be a question of bread or circuses.

Note: I’ve written about the copycat issue before. I stand by what I wrote then. There is some reporting that the V.T. murderer was probably influenced by a movie. I won’t name the movie or the murderer, I won’t lend them any glamor. And I’m going to be restarting my other blog this weekend.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Pet Blogging

This is a picture Bruce sent me some time ago. I hope he is ok with it being used here.

Henrietta the Hound is doing quite well, these days. She has recovered from her vestibular disease and the temporary deafness that followed it. For a while I was concerned as her eyesight isn't that good anymore and although dogs use their sense of scent much more than humans I wasn't sure how well I could communicate with her. But the hearing came back. Well, it came back in the usual selective way she has of listening to me.

We do have a major disagreement about house decorating. She carries her disgusting chewies around and places them in focal points in the rooms. If I throw one away she brings it back and rearranges the room to her liking. Sigh.

The Russian Dolls

I was reading Ezra's post on TAPPED, about how five men decided that the health of women doesn't count in the so-called partial birth abortion, unless she is going to die right away without that particular procedure, and I wrote something in the comments of that post which I want to expand on a little here.

The comments turned, as is the case when abortion is discussed, to the question whether abortion is murder. One commenter asked why a child is regarded as a person the second after birth but not the second preceding birth. It's possible to take this question back all the way through the pregnancy, of course, to the point of conception, and this is what many pro-lifers do. But I don't see why we should stop there. Why not take this question even further back in time, to the ova and sperm, and why not decide, as some in the middle-ages did, that it is the sperm which is the person? Then men would be asked to mind what they drink, eat or smoke, how they work and how they exercise.

The usual argument against this little thought experiment I have done in the past several times is to say that conception is when the egg and the sperm join, and that this is where a separate life becomes possible. Now, this is very convenient for those who are not going to be the place in which this joining happens, because they will remain free of all the limitations that follow when another person lives inside you, and they will also remain free to fight for the rights of that inside-person not to get exposed to glasses of wine or tuna with mercury. But it's also not much different from arguing that birth is the point at which a person becomes a person, because it is only at that point that independent life apart from the mother's body is possible. Both these cutoff points are points of convenience for someone. They are also decided on philosophical grounds.

To return to the Russian dolls mentioned in the title, the kinds that nest within each other until all you see is the largest doll, containing all the others. If we accept the extreme pro-life position that a person is created the instant an egg and a sperm meet, then we are going to have a legal situation like the one mentioned here, where a woman can be chained to the operating table for a Caesarian section that she doesn't want, just because some physicians have decided that this is the best thing to do for the fetus. Or we might ultimately have laws which ban pregnant women from doing anything that might endanger the fetus, perhaps even including receiving medical care they themselves need. And we certainly would get a world where most everybody watches what pregnant women eat and drink and where they work and how they exercise or don't, because it's another person they might be harming by whatever they do. In the most extreme wing of the pro-life movement, these restrictions would apply to women who are pregnant from rape, too.

Take this even a step further. Suppose that pregnancy is more dangerous to a fetus if the woman has done certain things before in her life, before she got pregnant. In the so-called pre-conception stage. Now, if it is a full person she might be carrying one day and if her lifestyle today harms her uterus, shouldn't she be restrained from inflicting such harm? Perhaps women shouldn't drink alcohol at all? Perhaps women should never eat tuna. Perhaps women should never box or work at a factory which has chemicals which might harm her future fetus?

We don't live in that world, yet, and I hope that we never will. But the assumption the SCOTUS made that any negative health consequences to the woman short of immediate risk of death don't matter in the banning of one abortion procedure is the first step down that slippery slope towards the Russian dolls.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Tale of Two Columnists

Both Bob Herbert and David Brooks have written about the VT massacre in today's New York Times columns. Comparing the two pieces is a fascinating exercise.

Brooks sees in the massacre a bigger moral question about individual responsibility and his newest pet idea that we are all just toys acting out evolutionary schemes orchestrated by those all-powerful genes:

Over the next few days, we'll ponder the sources of Cho Seung-Hui's rage. There'll be no shortage of analysts picking apart his hatreds, his feelings of oppression and his dark war against the rich, Christianity and the world at large.

Some will point to the pruning of the brain synapses that may be related to adolescent schizophrenia. Others may point to the possibility that an inability to process serotonin could have led to depression and hyperaggression. Or we could learn that he had been born with a brain injury that made him psychopathic. Or perhaps he was suffering from the ravages of isolation.

It could be, for example, that he grew up with some form of behavioral illness that would have made it hard for him to interact with and respond appropriately to other people. This would have caused others to withdraw from him, leading to a spiral of loneliness that detached him from the world and then caused him to loathe it.

Over the next weeks, we could learn these or other things about Cho Seung-Hui. And as we learn the facts of his life, we'll be able to fit them into ever more sophisticated models of human behavior.


But it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists' insights without allowing them to become monopolists. It should be possible to reconstruct some self-confident explanation for what happened at Virginia Tech that puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.

After all, according to research by David Buss, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid homicidal fantasy. But they didn't act upon it. They don't turn other people into objects for their own fulfillment.

There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It's just that these selves can't be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.

I'm too tired to do a proper spring cleaning on this, but note how Brooks reads lessons to all of us from the behavior of one mentally ill man. Bob Herbert looks at the behavior of that one man and reads lessons about other men like him:

But a close look at the patterns of murderous violence in the U.S. reveals some remarkable consistencies, wherever the individual atrocities may have occurred. In case after case, decade after decade, the killers have been shown to be young men riddled with shame and humiliation, often bitterly misogynistic and homophobic, who have decided that the way to assert their faltering sense of manhood and get the respect they have been denied is to go out and shoot somebody.

Dr. James Gilligan, who has spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts, and as a professor at Harvard and now at N.Y.U., believes that some debilitating combination of misogyny and homophobia is a "central component" in much, if not most, of the worst forms of violence in this country.

"What I've concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal," he said, "is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one's manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act."

Herbert's angle lets us see something that might be done to stop such massacres in the future. Brooks' angle would make us throw our hands up and decide that we are all either condemned just to sputter on as gene-directed machines or that we can somehow wrest ourselves from that by individual acts of free will.

Go And Read

Lynn Paltrow on yesterday's SCOTUS decision banning the so-called partial abortion procedure. She says important things.

From Echidne's Mailbag

A new website, Media Action Board, is up: is focused on calling out gender bias in the media. This is a community board to bring your outrage and insight and do something about it. Do you have an example of outrageous use of gender stereotypes or misrepresentations in media? Find out who we can contact to complain about it and then post it here to make it easy for others to follow your lead! Did you write a great letter that got a response? Share it to inspire and motivate others! What about those of you who have examples of media getting it right? We want to hear about that, too, so we can encourage more of the same.

Check it out. It's a service that was sorely needed, I believe.

The National Women's Law Center has an art competition for young artists:

To kickoff NWLC's 35th anniversary celebration, we're excited to announce a national art contest for students 13-19 years old! The winner will receive an award of $500 and their work, along with other chosen works receiving honorable mention recognition, may be featured in NWLC materials and on its web site.

NWLC is looking for visual artwork, such as photography, painting, Flash animation, and other web-based media, that creatively depicts the contest's theme of "expanding the possibilities for women and girls".

Globalization and Gluten

Yet more pet food recall:

Wilbur-Ellis Co. said on Thursday it was voluntarily recalling all lots of a rice protein concentrate its feed division had shipped to pet-food manufacturers.

Wilbur-Ellis said the recall was because of a risk that rice protein concentrate may have been contaminated by melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers that can lead to illness or fatalities if consumed.

The announcement is the latest in a widening recall of dog and cat food products across the United States since mid-March. More than 100 brands of pet food have been recalled after reports of cases of pets developing kidney failure.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 14,000 reports of pet illnesses so far. Officials have confirmed just 16 deaths but believe the actual number could be higher.

Wilbur-Ellis' said it obtained rice protein from a single source in China and shipped it to five U.S. pet-food manufacturers, in Utah, New York, Kansas and two in Missouri.

The company said it had told the FDA on Sunday that a single bag in a recent shipment of rice protein concentrate from its Chinese supplier, Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd., had tested positive for melamine.

The conservatives like to think of free markets as God's fingers in our lives. Everything will be just fine if we let the "free markets" function. This religious view of something that is just a method of getting goods and services from their producers to their consumers is extremely dangerous. Extremely.

Every economist knows that markets can fail in the efficiency sense, that they might not exist in cases where it would be beneficial for them to exist, and that markets couldn't care less about fairness or equity. For all these reasons unregulated markets can cause problems. They can also function extremely well, of course. But we should never assume that they work in some divine sense, so that we can turn our monitoring eye off.

In this case the problem has to do with lack of information, one of those bugbears which make markets function less than optimally. It is not possible for the buyer to see that gluten is tainted just by looking at it. Testing, which costs money, is the only sure way of finding out. Because testing costs money some firms will not do as much of it as the consumers would like to see done, unless there is a regulatory mechanism which forces them. Well, the pet food markets are not regulated very much.

Here comes the paradox: It would have been in the interest of the pet food manufacturers to have government inspection and regulation. Because consumers are also unable to spot tainted pet food by simple visual inspection, their distrust will spread to all pet food brand names. The whole market will suffer, and many pet owners start cooking for their pets instead.

The link to globalization has to do with the fact that the environmental and health regulations are not identical across the world. The Chinese farmers can use products which are banned in the United States, for instance, and the same holds for other countries. This increases the level of uncertainty buyers face.
Also check out this odd post on the topic by the Horse's Ass, via TAPPED.

Today's Question

Or rather yesterday's question, but nobody has answered it satisfactorily yet. The question is:

Why is the media paying so much attention to the writings and videos of Cho Seung-hui?

He was seriously deranged. It seems a pointless exercise to look at the forms which his derangement produced for some clues other than the fact of his derangement.

How The Republican Presidential Candidates Value Life

John McCain, (N.U.)* on banning the so-called partial birth abortion:

John McCain was the first presidential candidate to respond to today's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling. "Today's Supreme Court ruling is a victory for those who cherish the sanctity of life and integrity of the judiciary," he said in a statement. "The ruling ensures that an unacceptable and unjustifiable practice will not be carried out on our innocent children. It also clearly speaks to the importance of nominating and confirming strict constructionist judges who interpret the law as it is written, and do not usurp the authority of Congress and state legislatures. As we move forward, it is critically important that our party continues to stand on the side of life."

John McCain (N.U.)*, on controlling firearms:

Republican presidential candidate John McCain declared Wednesday he believes in 'no gun control,' making the strongest affirmation of support for gun rights in the GOP field since the Virginia Tech massacre.

The Arizona senator said in Summerville, S.C., that the country needs better ways to identify dangerous people like the gunman who killed 32 people and himself in the Blacksburg, Va., rampage. But he opposed weakening gun rights and, when asked whether ammunition clips sold to the public should be limited in size, said, 'I don't think that's necessary at all.'

Rudy Giuliani (N.U.)* on banning the so-called partial birth abortion:

Giuliani said in a statement that he approves of the high court's action.

``The Supreme Court reached the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional ban on partial birth abortion. I agree with it,'' he said.

Rudy Giuliani (N.U.)* on controlling firearms:

GOP rival Rudy Giuliani, too, voiced his support for the Second Amendment on Wednesday, but not in such absolute terms. Once an advocate of strong federal gun controls, the former New York mayor said 'this tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment' while indicating he favors the right of states to pass their own restrictions.

Freedom for some, bans for others. That is how it works. And I don't care how many times I've tried to twist my brain around the idea that the very same people want no abortions, not even in self-defense by someone who is ill or has been raped, but reserve the right to shoot at others should they deem that necessary self-defense.

That combination stinks in terms of logic.
*N.U. = Never possessed a uterus.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To Put Things In Proportion

Suspected Sunni insurgents penetrated the Baghdad security net Wednesday, hitting Shiite targets with four bomb attacks that killed 183 people - the bloodiest day since the U.S. troop surge began nine weeks ago.

Late Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the arrest of the Iraqi army colonel who was in charge of security in the area around the Sadriyah market where at least 127 people died and 148 were wounded in the deadliest bombing of the day.

Is the surge working?

On John Edwards' Haircuts

Yes, I am indeed writing on this! The Associated Press has published this article by Joan Lowy on the topic:

Looking pretty is costing John Edwards' presidential campaign a lot of pennies. The Democrat's campaign committee picked up the tab for two haircuts at $400 each by celebrity stylist Joseph Torrenueva of Beverly Hills, Calif., according to a financial report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

FEC records show Edwards also availed himself of $250 in services from a trendy salon and spa in Dubuque, Iowa, and $225 in services from the Pink Sapphire in Manchester, N.H., which is described on its Web site as 'a unique boutique for the mind, body and face' that caters mostly to women.


Edwards, 53, who has made alleviating poverty the central theme of candidacy, has been criticized for building a 28,000-square-foot house for $5.3 million near Chapel Hill, N.C. The complex of several buildings on 102 acres includes an indoor basketball court, an indoor pool and a handball court.

Edwards, who was John Kerry's vice presidential runningmate in 2004, is also the subject of a YouTube spoof poking fun at his youthful good looks. The video shows the candidate combing his tresses to the dubbed-in tune of 'I Feel Pretty.'

In 1993, Cristophe gave former President Clinton a $200 haircut aboard Air Force One as it sat on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. Late-night comedians and columnists poked fun at the president for the expensive cut.

What wonderful smearing! Notice the term "looking pretty", not usually applied to men in this country. Notice the neat summary at the end of the piece, to make sure that you got the main points of the story: That John Edwards is effeminate and rich and spends more money than you and I ever would and that he preaches poverty alleviation while living in wealth. Got it?

Now go and vote for someone who is even wealthier than John Edwards but who doesn't care about the poor at all. Don't bother your pretty head by wondering what the other guys' haircuts might have cost or whether there is any difference between a wealthy candidate who cares for the poor and one who does not.

And under no circumstances inquire why one has to be very wealthy indeed to run for president in this country.

The Oscar For The Best Supporting Role Goes To...

The little woman! Applause, please.

A long time ago I read about movies and television sitcoms containing about twice as many men as women. The reality, if you remember, contains slightly more women than men in this country, and lots of those women are -- gasp! -- over fifty years old. But in movies and sitcoms we only need one woman over fifty, at most, to play the mother of the hero.

We might need some younger mothers, naturally, and we certainly need some younger women to play the good-and-sexy (in a subdued way) girlfriend/wife and the bad-and-sexy (in a flamboyant way) seductress. That is about the sum of female roles, because "female" means that these roles are viewed as supporting the story of the male hero, and there are not that many ways to do that within the framework of "female". Mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister, evil seductress, whore. That's about it.

I mentioned that I read the story a long time ago, and things have changed a little since then. Not much, but a little. Now we have what is called "chick movies", but nobody, as far as I know, calls the other types of movies, the most common ones, "stud movies".

The concept of a "supporting role" strikes me as very apt for much of the cultural discussion of women, even today. Think about it. If women don't play those supporting roles the system will collapse. But if they do continue playing them, few people will applaud what they are doing, because the limelight goes to the main characters in the story: the presidents, the generals, the hero killing the dragon which guards the princess, the hero who then gets the princess and half the realm.

A "supporting role" explains why there is so much concern in the media over women's supposed bad behaviors (latchkey children! promiscuity!), but very little concern over men's supposed bad behaviors (absent fathers not paying child support, prisons filled with men), and why there is always some hesitancy about praising a woman who has decided to go for one of the star roles. Because if she does that, who is going to pick up afterwards?

This is an angry post, caused by that SCOTUS decision and the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has exactly one woman. But perhaps I should end up with some good news: Live television for children has almost as many female characters as male characters these days. Cartoons, on the other hand, have twice as many male characters as female characters. See how I can't stay on that positive ending?

Partial Death Of Choice

The so-called partial birth abortion, a term which is from the conservative codebook and not a medical one, has now been banned by the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision. It was five middle-aged and old men who decided to do this, men, who will never have an abortion themselves, just to remind you all, and all these men were elevated to the court by conservatives. Elections have consequences.

What is unusual about this decision is that it allows for no exceptions for the woman's health. It doesn't matter what the health consequences for her are, as long as she won't die on the operating table, even if the fetus is already brain dead and even if not having access to this technique means that she will have her uterus perforated or her cancer spread more quickly, say. The physicians who use this technique after the ban can face a two-year prison sentence.

Now how are you going to defend those other abortions, the ones which are not medically required, the ones in which the woman will not suffer ill-health consequences, when the Supreme Court has started on this road from the other end, the end where the woman had decided to have the child and where only some serious health concern stopped her from carrying the pregnancy to term?

Added later: Scott Lemieux on the TAPPED blog gives a good summary of the reasons why we should be worried:

Upholding ludicrously arbitrary legislation that puts women's health at risk without furthering any legitimate state interest, while signaling that the "undue burden" standard will be interpreted to uphold virtually any abortion regulation short of a ban, sets an extremely dangerous precedent.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Distant Bravery

Think Progress reports on this piece by Nathaniel Blake at the conservative Human Events:

College classrooms have scads of young men who are at their physical peak, and none of them seems to have done anything beyond ducking, running, and holding doors shut. Meanwhile, an old man hurled his body at the shooter to save others.

Something is clearly wrong with the men in our culture. Among the first rules of manliness are fighting bad guys and protecting others: in a word, courage. And not a one of the healthy young fellows in the classrooms seems to have done that. …

Like Derb, I don't know if I would live up to this myself, but I know that I should be heartily ashamed of myself if I didn't. Am I noble, courageous and self-sacrificing? I don't know; but I should hope to be so when necessary.

Odd speculation, and tasteless. How common are such heroic acts in the case of massacres? In any case, none of us knows how we would act in an emergency until one happens. But note how Blake assumes that it is only the men who are expected to act with bravery, against a man who is armed and when they themselves are unarmed. He appears to regard this all as a game of war or potential for vicarious bravery. He also assigns courage as an attribute of maleness.

But what makes this all truly tasteless is, of course, that he is writing far away from the events and without any chance that he is going to be tested for his assertions.
Added later: Other acts of bravery than that of Professor Liviu Librescu are reported here.

Decoding David Brooks

Brooks is a conservative columnist at the New York Times. Every once in a while he writes a column that seems to consist of just personal philosophical musings, something to ignore, unless one happens to be interested in personal philosophical musings. Warning! Brooks never engages in anything in his columns that isn't intended to prop up the status quo.

A good example is his last Sunday's column, entitled "The Age of Darwin". On the surface, it seems a bunch of thoughts caused by him visiting a museum:

Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you're really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind's upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

But then he goes on to argue that we all once looked up to God, then to Marx, then to Freud and that we all now look up to Darwin:

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn't have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

He's painting with a broad brush there, you might say. But what is wrong with his sentences? Nothing much if you are comfortable with a religious view of science, because that is how Brooks uses science, like a fundamentalist: He picks out the pieces he likes and ignores the rest of the findings. He then tells us that the pieces he likes are unavoidably how we are living and thinking and that we must just bow down in front of this new altar.

And why? Because Brooks' view of evolution explains why the rich are rich and why the poor are poor and why women are not good at mathematics and why none of this can be changed. Here is the crucial paragraph:

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don't enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food.

Think about that last sentence a little. How does David Brooks know this? What were our genes before they were formed while we were still hunters and gatherers? That makes no sense at all. But it isn't meant to make sense. It is meant to make the status quo seem impossible to alter, ever. It is meant to make change seem impossible, despite the fact that change over time is what you see in that museum of history Brooks visited, And it is meant to convey the idea of human beings as impossibly inflexible, despite all the evidence we have of our innate flexibility.

Some Cold Water

Dumped on mah haid. In the form of a survey which shows that 31% of the recent respondents to a Pew survey could not name the Vice President of the United States. Many people are not into politics at all. It's possible that those are the people who don't vote, but perhaps not, and this raises all sorts of awkward questions about which arguments work to make people vote a certain way.

The same survey pointed out something that has been found earlier, too: The political comedy shows tend to be watched by the people who are the best informed. Note that this doesn't necessarily imply causality, but it's interesting nevertheless.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Spoonerism

In my mind. I was reading various newspaper headlines and saw this one:

Bush makes impassioned plea for war cash

I read it as:

Bush makes impassioned plea for car wash

The sad thing is that the latter really makes about as much sense right now, given that the surge in Iraq, with its policy of controlling Baghdad, seems to be working by driving the violence into the outskirts of Baghdad and into other cities in Iraq.

And Bush's arguments in the piece following the "car wash" headline are also unlikely to work. He insists that the surge will make us safer here in the U.S., but most signs I see suggest that the surge will make more terrorists, and the more terrorists there are the more likely it is that they will strike on the American mainland one day, to take vengeance for the deaths of their parents, spouses or children.


A massacre at a university campus:

A gunman opened fire in a dorm and classroom at Virginia Tech on Monday, killing at least 30 people in the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history, government officials told The Associated Press. The gunman was killed, bringing to death toll to 31, but it was unclear if he was shot by police or took his own life.

It is far too early for analysis, both in the emotional sense and in terms of facts. But the deranged murderer would not have killed so many without guns.

Winning Debates

Thers linked to a funny quote from a National Review piece on Saturday, this one:

I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy but, increasingly, the next guy doesn't want to argue — he wants to demonize me. He doesn't want to win the debate; he wants to shut it down.

Whether the topic is global warming or Saddam Hussein's links to terrorists, daring to contradict the "consensus" brings hoots and hollers and worse.

What makes the quote funny, of course, is that the writer wants other debaters to take seriously such positions as "Hussein was behind the 911 massacres" or "there is no human cause for global warming", and Thers discusses that most admirably. All I want to add to what he said is that we get into the la-la land if one of the debating rules is that evidence doesn't count at all.

And this is far too often one of the hidden debating rules. I have had a thousand rounds of these debates in cyberspace; "rounds", because the argument always returns to its initial form, never mind what evidence has been presented in the middle. I used to find this incredibly exasperating and struggled to find better ways of discussing the evidence. Until I realized that this game of debating has nothing to do with the evidence: it is all about winning. So if it looks like I'm "winning" on the basis of the evidence, the argument shifts to a slightly different form, and then I have to defend against that with new evidence, and so on, until we suddenly are back in the starting positions. That way the other person didn't "lose".

And now for the real point of this post: Imagine a debate on how yummy broccoli is. We set up the two sides: Here, in the right corner, wearing green and green, stands Ms. Broccoli, with the slogan "Broccoli - Better Than Orgasms". And here, in the left corner, wearing vomit and vomit, stands Mr. Cheetos, with the slogan "Broccoli -Worse Than Death." Now let the match begin!

So Ms. Broccoli and Mr. Cheetos box and then the referee decides who won the match. Broccoli is either the most delicious food ever or worse than rat poison. The end of the story. This is how many political debates go. Nothing about shades of gray, nothing about complicated positions on complicated topics, and nothing about the possibility that neither Ms. Broccoli nor Mr. Cheetos had it right. It's all about winning.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Important Literary Date

Posted by olvlzl.
One of the greatest authors in the English language had a 91st birthday April 12. While any number of other writers have flashed across the scene in the past fifty-seven years and burned out into obscurity, Beverly Clearly’s books remain in print and popular with their readers. For once, the quality more than matches the popularity. I read Henry Huggins and Ribsy when I was in grade school and they are still being read. The Ramona books and Ralph S. Mouse are probably even more widely read.

For me, though, her masterpiece is still Dear Mr. Henshaw, one of the best depictions of how a child sees their world. It is an achievement in imagination that could only be attained by a real genius.

I don’t know if Beverly Cleary was the one who said it but I remember reading about a prominent children’s author who when asked why she wrote “juvenile books” said that she liked it better than writing “senile books”. Having stood this long, it’s pretty clear that they won’t age and grow cranky.

America Is Governed By Lies of Omission

As well as those that get told.
Posted by olvlzl.
If any of the shock jocks came out strongly in favor of increased progressivity in the income tax, perhaps appealing to a hard pressed working class audience in the process of advocating it, I will promise you that they wouldn’t have stayed on the air as long as Imus and McGurik did after their last racist patter. It’s an interesting question of why, when the majority of Americans are shafted by The System it’s women, black people, gay people, and others who aren’t in control of The System and not shafting anyone who are the radio bigots targets. Don’t think for a second it isn’t planned. Everything about our media is governed by intentionality and extensive research. If it wasn't intentional it wouldn't account for such a large proportion of talk radio today.

The advocates of free speech and freedom of the press don’t much seem to get around to discussing the blacklist on ideas that are important. Thinking back over First Amendment advocacy over the past couple of decades, it seems that the frequency and force of free speech advocacy tends to be in inverse proportion to the importance of what was being said. The defacto blacklist of entire categories of important public business goes just about unmentioned by the professional free speech absolutists. Doesn’t the importance of what is being suppressed count for anything? Would it really matter if Entertainment Tonight or about 98% of what gets said on air or over cable was suppressed? Only in that the vacuum might just be filled by information people need to make intelligent choices in voting and leading their lives.

Here is an interesting article about progressive taxation by Christopher Shea, asking if we are about to reach a tipping point due to non-progressivity. Notice the talk about what gets included in the various analyses of the issue and who is including and excluding various data.

The authors also say it is “improper and misleading,” to point out that the top 1 percent, as a group, contributes more tax revenues than ever - without clarifying that this is soley becuse they receive a larger share of income than ever.

This is a good example of how excluding information is intentionally used to structure arguments. There is nothing so easy as twisting an issue to serve an intended purpose by the exclusion of data, the right wing and the media that serve it are masters at excluding what doesn’t serve their financial interests. That is the standard operating system in our media. Our dying democracy is the result.

Note: As I was typing this George Will was on ABC trying to put a damper on talk about reviving the Fairness Doctrine. See what I mean?

Unanticipated Obligations

have prevented me from doing a lot of writing this weekend. Thanks to everyone who gave advice to the questions about breast cancer and getting services. I am forwarding them to my niece.
I hope to write more substantially this afternoon.