Saturday, May 05, 2007

Jonathan Chait on Netroots

Jonathan Chait has written a long and interesting piece on the meaning of the "netroots", that part of the liberal/progressive blogosphere which focuses explicitly on electoral politics and the support of Democratic candidates. The piece came out in the New Republic some time ago and many bloggers and journalists have responded to it already. This means that I am, as usual, either too early or too late. But I didn't feel like writing about it until I knew what my thoughts were.

Chait's article has several different themes, all intertwined with each other, but his basic assertion is that the progressive netroots are the equivalent of the wingnut media machinery: an attempt to create political propaganda and to make the left walk in step, the same way the wingnuts do. Hut, hut.

This was a necessary development, according to Chait:

It has taken an abnormally long time for this message machine to come into existence. In the decades after World War II, the news media evolved a strong professional standard of nonpartisanship. Network news broadcasts faced little financial pressure, and newspapers--fattened up by advertising monopolies--followed the dictates of their professional values rather than the demands of the market. They maintained costly bureaus in Washington and abroad, and their ideology was mostly high-minded establishment centrism.

The first outlets to break away from this news oligarchy all sprang up on the right--talk radio, Fox News, the Drudge Report. Such partisan outlets did a brilliant job of injecting pro-Republican stories and ideas into the mainstream public discourse, using classic propaganda techniques, endlessly repeating ideas, phrases, and images that helped their side with little regard for truth or intellectual consistency. During the '90s and the outset of the Bush years, this was the landscape: a large mainstream media, with a social liberal bias mostly buried beneath studious nonpartisanship, and a wildly partisan conservative media. All the pressure on the mainstream media came from the right. Even liberal opinion journalists, in this unbalanced world, felt obliged to demonstrate their nonpartisanship.

That is it, pretty much. If you were a journalist who got attacked all the time for being a liberal and never attacked for being a conservative, how would you write? Whom would you fear? And which readers and citizens do you think might start getting a little bit angry as a consequence? Which stories would be put on page eighteen in the newspaper and which ones on the front page?

There are two subplots Chait weaves into his analysis with which I disagree. The first one has to do with his ideas of the political center, the moderate middle. The mushy middle, if you like, and it can be called mushy in the kind of world the previous quote outlined. What happens to the political center when the right pulls and pulls and yells and yells and the liberal pundits say "On the one hand...yet on the other hand...and on the third hand..."? It moves to the right, inch by inch, day by day until Attila the Hun is the human rights secretary.

It isn't that Chait doesn't see this. He does, and writes as much. But he doesn't appear to notice that the way this center is defined leaves only a few "nonpartisan" liberal commentators in it. The task of the netroots is to tug the rope from the other end when the wingnuts pull it from the other end. A country which uses "liberal" as equal to "Maoist" needs such an adjustment. A country which engages in just writing down what the wingnuts say and then reporting it without any other evidence needs such an adjustment.

The second subplot with which I disagree has to do with Chait's views on netroots as not caring about truth:

The notion that political punditry ought to, or even can, be constrained by intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the netroots. They have absorbed essentially the same critique of the intelligentsia that the right has been making for decades. In the conservative imagination, journalists, academics, and technocrats are liberal ideologues masquerading as dispassionate professionals. Those who claim to be detached from the political struggle are unaware of their biases, or hiding them.

Norquist once said something to me that gave perfect expression to this view. During the 2000 campaign, the two of us were making small talk before we were set to debate, and he offered that the event would be clarifying for his team as well as for my team. I replied that, while I certainly have strong opinions, I wasn't working for any "team." Norquist smiled at me in a slightly condescending way and said, "Sometimes, we're on a team and we don't realize it."

This is more or less the same view of the netroots. They attack liberals who, in their fervor to be seen as fair-minded, bend over backward so far that they do violence to truth. And they are quite right to do so. But the netroots critique is not that the liberal intelligentsia has stretched the conception of fairness too far; it is that the conception of fairness itself is folly. Any sense of detachment from the partisan fray is impossible.


This ethos helps explain the enormous distrust between the netroots and the traditional liberal intelligentsia. (Or, as Black put it, the "incredible gap between those who see the debate as a kind of game and those who, you know, actually give a shit about stuff.") Part of it is the slight whiff of anti-intellectualism in some quarters of the netroots. (Moulitsas, echoing Black's thoughts, suggested that "intellectuals' who'd rather read books and measure purity are next-to-useless. I prefer people of action, not of [sic] elitist academics.") The prevailing sentiment here, however, is not a distrust of pointy heads. Rather, it's a belief that political discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical. Their interest in ideas, and facts, is purely instrumental.

I could write a very long post on "truth" and its various meanings and whether one can be a detached observer of politics without also coming from some other planet. Then I could write another very long post on why it would be, nevertheless, important to try to be as objective as one can. But instead of all that let me just point out that I cannot see how a political idea could ever be judged without including its real-world consequences as an essential part of the whole idea. Chait isn't arguing against that, of course. What he argues is that the consequences are all the netroots care about. I don't think this is actually true, but if it were would it be any worse than the alternative he appears to recommend which is "to hell with the consequences"?

There are millions of blogs and many of them might be regarded as a part of the netroots. It's not possible to say that all of them are propaganda or that all of them are earnest hunters of truth or any such thing. But an important aspect of many liberal and progressive blogs is a certain type of hunt for truths: They pick up stories and interpretations of stories that the mainstream press ignores and they then frontpage them. That these stories are buried in the traditional media may be unintended or it may be purposeful. If the latter, the blogs would appear to be biased in promoting these stories, but the initial bias might in fact be in the way they were buried.

I kept feeling that I wasn't getting Chait's point about the nonpartisan truth completely. Reading a follow-up story of his made all much clearer. In this quote he responds to Matthew Yglesias:

There are three possible stances to take. One is that you should go out of your way to highlight your disagreements with the left, to show your independence. Another is that you should go out of your way to minimize your disagreements with the left, in order to avoid adverse political effects. The third is that you try to ignore the political effects and just say what you think. He explicitly renounces options number one and number three.

Put this into a wider perspective in which the pundits of the right never criticize the right. If liberal pundits are expected to "highlight" their disagreements with the extreme left (is there such a thing?), say, what will the overall impression be? What will the readers of opinion columns come away with?

This doesn't mean that I advocate avoiding the criticism of the left. I'm all for it, especially as soon as the left is in power and can actually affect our lives. But given the current setup of the media with its openly partisan conservative wing all criticisms of the left will have a ready-made echo chamber. Criticisms of the right do not. Something to take into account before one "just says what one thinks."

Meet Your Daemon

I have a head cold. But I also have a daemon now, an ocelot (found via Hecate). You can find yours at a website which advertises a new movie based on His Dark Materials. Click on "Daemons" and then on "Meet your Daemon".

If you have read the books you know what daemons are all about. If you have not read the books the site gives quite a nice little summary.

Pamela Martin and Associates

This is the escort service operated by Deborah Jeane Palfrey in Washington, D.C.. Palfrey gave her client phone numbers to ABC and tonight ABC's newsmagazine "20/20" told us about the clients on Palfrey's list:

In what had become a highly anticipated story about an escort service operating in the capital for the last 13 years, ABC News reported Friday night that the business catered to many men throughout the federal government.

The network also disclosed that some customers were prosperous businessmen from out of town and that the women worked for the service to earn extra money.

If none of that seemed surprising — or even mildly interesting — what about the names of the men who supposedly sought respite from their high-pressure duties by paying $300 to have the women attend to them in 90-minute sessions?

Friday's broadcast of the program "20/20" did not disclose any names beyond those of the two men who have already been identified as customers of the escort service.

"Our decision at the end was not to name any names," said Brian Ross, the news correspondent who presented the segment. Mr. Ross said that the network went with a "conservative approach," and that "based on our reporting it turned out not to be as newsworthy as we thought in terms of the names."

Nothing to look at here. Please move along.

I have very complicated thoughts on whether I should even write about any of this (over and above pointing out the Tobias case because of its relevance in judging his professional opinions). But I'm not happy with what looks like a deliberate attempt to out as many escorts as clients, if not more. The escorts are unlikely to be as wealthy or powerful as the clients and this makes them less able to survive the outing with few scars. Add to that the fact that many people view being an escort as worse than using the services of one, and you have something quite unsavory here.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Housekeeping and Such

Olvlzl has a well-earned rest from blogging this weekend. I found some 1930's House and Garden magazines, and I may just scan some of the ads for your entertainment. The one in this post (click on it to make it bigger) is about bathrooms and how a nasty bathroom reflects badly on the woman. There are also ads about how bad breath will keep a woman from getting married, but a feminist twist takes place when the readers get angry at the concept that only women's breath can stink.

Still the selling of anxiety to women has been going on for a very long time.

Friday Pet Blogging

This is John JS's snake, or at least a snake that has decided to live near him.

More on A Man's Field

The title is a reference to yesterday's post on this topic. The Los Angeles Times has an opinion piece with much the same thesis as mine: that much of the discussion about haircuts and wind-surfing (Edwards and Kerry, respectively) has to do with the fear and loathing of femininity which is seen as weakness. Coincidentally, I read a comment somewhere last night where the writer accused the Democrats of pussyism and said that they might as well just spread their legs.

Back to the LA Times opinion piece:

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of American masculinity when Newsweek branded his father a "wimp," a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to look like a wimp is the key to Dubya's psychology: the you-talkin'-to-me pugnacity at news conferences; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that moved G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on "Hardball," for Freud's sake — "what a stud."

Doesn't all this machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it produces Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"

The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it's maintained by frantically repressing every man's feminine side and demonizing the feminine and the gay wherever we see them. In his book, "The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity," clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat calls this state of mind "femiphobia" — a pathological masculinity founded on the subconscious belief that "the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman."

Praising the Lord for testosterone is so old hat. The Orthodox Jews have had a prayer about that for a long time. But I agree with the argument that being a "man" is often defined as not being a "woman". In the usual flow of events this ends up meaning that every good attribute will be assigned to the male category and every not-so-good attribute will be assigned to the female category by those who worry about their own masculinity. Nothing is left over for the "human being" category.

This a false duality. It is as if we take the sexual organs of men and women, see that they have opposite uses and then decide that everything about men and women should have opposite uses. Hence "the opposite sex" term can annoy me, too. If it was used logically a man walking upright would require a woman crawling only horizontally and so on.

The emotional costs of this false duality are obvious for women. We can witness a public struggle among politicians to prove that they are not at all like us and therefore worthy to lead.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Huffington Post Headline Today

Ten Middle-Aged White Men

Heh. This is in reference to the debate tonight between the Republican presidential candidates. It seems that Ronald Reagan was the last Republican president, based on what I'm hearing...

Added later: Check this out to see which Republican presidential candidates do not believe in evolution.

Meanwhile, in Ireland

A seventeen-year old Irish girl is stopped from traveling to the U.K. to get an abortion:

A 17-year-old pregnant Irish girl is appearing in the High Court in Dublin to press for the right to travel to Britain for an abortion.

Doctors have told the girl that her four-month foetus will not live more than a few days beyond birth.

She is in the care of Ireland's health service which has issued an order stopping her from going to Britain.

But a lawyer for the girl argued that the health authority had no right to stop her travelling.

Eoghan Fitzsimons told the court that police had responded to a request by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to prevent her leaving the country, saying they could not and would not do so without a court order.

Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where the mother's life is threatened by a medical condition or suicide.

It has been decided that the girl is not suicidal. The fetus suffers from

anencephaly, a condition which means that a large part of the brain and skull is missing.

Babies with anencephaly live a maximum of just three days after birth.

This is, of course, an extreme example of what might happen in the world of the pro-lifers (or forced birth brigade). The rights of an anencephalic fetus to survive for a few more months in the uterus are more than the rights of the teenager not to have to carry it to term and then to speedy death, with all the extra medical risks this causes her.

A Man's Field

What do the following things have in common? "I'm the commander." "It is the haircut that will not die." "The need for one-man rule."

The first is a comment by George Bush, the president of the United States. The second is a comment by Roger Simon at the Politico about the hair of John Edwards, a Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States. The third is what Harvey Mansfield believes this country needs at this time of war: the setting-aside of all laws except for the primal testosterone-based right of the strongest male to run the pack.

Glenn Greenwald has written two valuable critiques about the last two of the sentences I chose at the Salon. He points out that while Politico discusses the price of Edwards' haircut, news happen:

This week, the Bush administration sought vastly increased powers to spy on the telephone conversations of Americans, and then threatened to begin spying again illegally and without warrants. It was revealed that Condoleezza Rice would meet with Syrian officials, a significant shift in Middle East policy.

Yesterday, it was disclosed that Iraq's government is actually purging itself of anyone who seeks to impede lawless Shiite militias. And one of the right-wing's most influential academicians published an article on The Wall St. Journal Op-Ed page explicitly advocating "one-man rule" in America whereby the President can ignore the "rule of law" in order to fight The Terrorists.

None of that -- or virtually anything else of even marginal significance -- was reported by The Politico, an online political magazine founded by some of the nation's most prestigious and admired (in Beltway terms) political journalists. But yesterday, The Politico's so-called "chief political columnist," Roger Simon, published a 674-word article -- prominently touted on The Politico's front page -- exclusively about John Edwards' haircuts, cleverly headlined "Hair today, gone tomorrow."

Greenwald's other piece is about an article Harvey Mansfield wrote for the online edition of Wall Street Journal, an article which wants the rule of law to be replaced by a chest-thumping silverback among the chimpanzees. Mansfield has written a lot about masculinity in the past, and his use of the term "one-man rule" is not a slip of the tongue:

The article bears this headline: The Case for the Strong Executive -- Under some circumstances, the Rule of Law must yield to the need for Energy. And it is the most explicit argument I have seen yet for vesting in the President the power to override and ignore the rule of law in order to recieve the glories of what Mansfield calls "one-man rule."

That such an argument comes from Mansfield is unsurprising. He has long been a folk hero to the what used to be the most extremist right-wing fringe but is now the core of the Republican Party. He devoted earlier parts of his career to warning of the dangers of homosexuality, particularly its effeminizing effect on our culture.

He has a career-long obsession with the glories of tyrannical power as embodied by Machiavelli's Prince, which is his model for how America ought to be governed. And last year, he wrote a book called Manliness in which "he urges men, and especially women, to understand and accept manliness" -- which means that "women are the weaker sex," "women's bodies are made to attract and to please men" and "now that women are equal, they should be able to accept being told that they aren't, quite." Publisher's Weekly called it a "juvenile screed."

Greenwald bemoans a media which pays more attention to the haircut diaries than to Mansfield's proposal of setting aside the rule of law (or to the recent news that senior officials in the administration believe the president still has the right to order wiretapping without first seeking court approval):

They write about John Edwards' haircut and John Kerry's windsurfing and which political consultant has whispered what gossip to them about some painfully petty matter, but the extraordinary fact that our nation's dominant political movement is openly advocating the most radical theories of tyranny -- that "liberties are dangerous and law does not apply" -- is barely noticed by our most prestigious and self-loving national journalists. Merely to take note of that failure is to demonstrate how profoundly dysfunctional our political press is.

But in another sense the haircut diaries are simply the other side of the same masculinity coin Mansfield polishes with his sleeve: The story of politics as a manly man's game, to be powered with testosterone and to be judged with those emotions which make one wonder if a man caring about his hair could really tear off someone else's throat with nothing but his teeth. That all this appeared at the same time as George Bush's hopeful comment about being the commander may be purely accidental, of course.
Cross-posted at the TAPPED.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles

The police seems to have gotten "a little heavy-handed" at an immigration rally. You can read about the event and various explanations here. And then you can watch this video of the event.
Via John Gillnitz.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

He Said, She Said

Dana Goldstein has an interesting post about a site which calculates the percentages of "he" and "she" on various websites. I ran my archives through the calculator and came up with 49% of "he" to 51% of "she".

What does it mean? Perhaps not very much, given the examples of various websites the calculator page gives. It's true that most of the "deciders" are men and that "he" is probably more common on political sites for that reason.

The more interesting question might in some ways be why we need two (or more) separate terms for the third person singular. Why is it so important to know the sex of the person? I grew up speaking a language which has only one word for the third person singular and it also worked just fine.

From the "It-Should-Be-Onion" Files of Political Discourse

First there is the comment of our president that Thers picked upat Eschaton:

We put in more troops to get to a position where we can be in some other place. The question is, who ought to make that decision? The Congress or the commanders? And as you know, my position is clear -- I'm the commander guy.

Then there is this interchange between Tucker Carlson and Bruce Bartlett:

BARTLETT: Well, I'm just not very happy about any of the Republicans running. I think Giuliani has -- seems like an -- has an authoritarian personality. [Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney seems --

CARLSON: And Hillary Clint -- wait, wait. And Hillary Clinton doesn't? You're saying he has a more authoritarian personality than Hillary Clinton?

BARTLETT: Well, that --

CARLSON: If both of them had absolute power -- let's just say, a mind experiment -- if they had absolute power, if they were stuck, who would kill more?

BARTLETT: Gee, that's a tough question. I think Giuliani would kill more. I think he's a tougher guy, and I don't mean that in a positive way, really.

Then there was the heated discussion about Hillary Clinton's name.

And if all else fails there are always the haircut diaries....

My Troll Post Is Up

My apologies for posting about it earlier. But now you can read it here.

Note the other great posts there, too. These are all part-and-parcel of the newest number of Scholar&Feminist Online. You can read the academic articles here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Deep Thought For The Day

Ursula le Guin writes like a paradox. Her words are so simple, so calm, so obvious, and yet what she says is complicated and often ambiguous. The more she hones her writing down the stronger it bites on all the deep levels. Reading her is like having a glass of cool water from some immensely deep spring.

I am not sure why her EarthSea series isn't more famous. She presents an alternative to the stark good-and-evil ethical structure of most of fantasy, and she does it very well.

More Haircuts

Eric Boehlert has a good post up on the media's interest in John Edwards' expensive haircut. He points out, among other things, that it is only the Democrats' haircut prices that are criticized, and that getting cheap haircuts, even if your house costs millions, is a sign of being connected to your blue-collar roots, whether imaginary or real.

The haircut test is an odd one for the media to use. But its point is a subtle and wingnutty one: An expensive haircut is supposed to disqualify a Democrat from being concerned about the poor. As the conservatives are explicitly not concerned about the poor it is quite acceptable for them to have expensive haircuts. So acceptable that we never find out how much those haircuts cost. But someone who speaks about poverty, such as John Edwards, is viewed as a hypocrite if he is rich himself. The same arguments were used about John Kerry and wind-surfing and the money his wife has.

There is a Catch-22 in all this. A poor person doesn't have the money to run for the presidency. If only poor people are genuine advocates for the poor, this means that no president could ever advocate for the poor without being seen as two-faced. Not at least until we change the way elections are financed. Which will be right after we get a new Zamboni for the ice-rink in hell.

Something For You To Read

On the more militant aspects of the pro-life movement and on the consequences of abortion clinic bombings. Warning: Pictures can be upsetting.

Or you could go and read me on the toothless FDA on TAPPED.

What Is In A Name?

This story is one of those which make me think that if there is a god he is a sadistic journalist:

As you may know by now, the non-story of the day surrounding Hillary Clinton is that she apparently uses the name "Hillary Clinton" on Presidential campaign material while sticking with "Hillary Rodham Clinton" on her Senate-related stuff.

This alleged "gotcha" story was first pushed by Hearst newspapers in a piece linked (natch) on Drudge, Newsmax, Free Republic and a few other far-flung outposts in the wingnuttia hinterlands. It's now the subject of an Associated Press story -- carried by ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN and others -- that actually says in its lede that Hillary has an "identity crisis." Both the Hearst and AP stories strongly imply that Hillary's people are calculatingly using "Rodham" to speak to the New York audience while sticking with "Hillary Clinton" to appeal to the national audience. Says Hearst:

Clinton identifies herself as "Hillary Clinton" in her campaign press releases and on her campaign website. The lone mention of her maiden name is in a campaign biography that says "Hillary's father, Hugh Rodham, was the son of a factory worker from Scranton."

She continues to use "Hillary Rodham Clinton" in her New York-focused press releases and in the Senate.

You must be burning to learn now that this isn't actually true as Horse's Mouth explains.

But what is the point of talking about Hillary Clinton's name? There are two wingnut points: First, the idea is to show her as a chameleon who never stays the same and therefore has no inner core. A flimflam woman. Second, the idea is to show that she is a feminazi-in-hiding, only coming out with her true colors where it is safe. Why feminazi-in-hiding? A real traditional woman discards her maiden name altogether. All anxious conservative men know this.

Me And The Trolls

The post is up now.
Sorry, all. The blog I linked to isn't supposed to start until Wednesday, so my post has been hidden for the time being.

That would be a good name for a band. I actually like the Scandinavian kind of trolls, the ones which turn into stone if they stay out after sunrise. The other kind of troll, the cyberspace one, is more of a nuisance. If you are interested in that topic, check out what I scribbled today.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Cutting the Cake Again

Paul Krugman (behind the firewall) talks about the high profits today:

Last fall Edward Lazear, the Bush administration's top economist, explained that what's good for corporations is good for America. "Profits," he declared, "provide the incentive for physical capital investment, and physical capital growth contributes to productivity growth. Thus profits are important not only for investors but also for the workers who benefit from the growth in productivity."

In other words, ask not for whom the closing bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Unfortunately, these days none of what Mr. Lazear said seems to be true. In the Bush years high profits haven't led to high investment, and rising productivity hasn't led to rising wages.

The second of those two disconnects has gotten a lot of attention because of its political consequences. The administration and its allies whine that they aren't getting credit for a great economy, but because wages have been stagnant — the median worker's earnings, adjusted for inflation, haven't gone up at all since the current economic expansion began in 2001 — the economy feels anything but great to most Americans.

Less attention, however, has been given to the first disconnect: the failure of high profits to produce an investment boom.

Since President Bush took office, the combination of rising productivity and stagnant wages — workers are producing more, but they aren't getting paid more — has led to a veritable profit gusher, with corporate profits more than doubling since 2000. Last year, profits as a share of national income were at the highest level ever recorded.

Krugman then asks what happened to these profits, the ones which were supposed to be invested to give all those workers new jobs and higher wages. It could be just lack of confidence in the economy in general, given what is happening to the housing bubble of the recent years (it is bursting). But he also suggests another theory:

But as Floyd Norris recently reported in The Times, there is a more disturbing possibility. Instead of investing in physical capital, many companies are using profits to buy back their own stock. And cynics suggest that the purpose of these buybacks is to produce a temporary rise in stock prices that increases the value of executives' stock options, even if it's against the long-term interests of investors.

It's not a far-fetched idea. Researchers at the Federal Reserve have found evidence that company decisions about stock buybacks are strongly influenced by "agency conflicts," a genteel term for self-dealing by corporate insiders. In the 1990s that kind of self-dealing often led to excessive investment, which at least left a tangible legacy behind. But today the self-interest of management may be standing in the way of productive investment.

Interesting. Then there is the possibility that the demand sides of various markets are not very strong, given the unchanging earnings of the workers who also happen to make up most of the consumers in the economy.

Peeking Into The Aquarium

William Saletan is an abortion expert and a centrist one, too. This means that what he writes on the issue will be taken seriously. More seriously than the rantings and ravings of feminists who are also women, I suspect.

Today Saletan has written about the idea that women contemplating getting an abortion should be made to watch an ultrasound of the fetus. This is something pro-lifers advocate because it is intended to make the women suddenly realize that it is a fetus they have in their wombs, not an aquarium fish! Wow. Saletan likes the idea, because it opens up the aquarium to the general public. He begins by noting that the recent SCOTUS ban on the so-called partial birth abortion relied partly on the method having part of the fetus outside the uterus, and he points out that this distinction is immaterial:

In other words, it's rational and constitutional to ban abortions based on how they look, not what they are. Inside the womb, a fetus bears just as much similarity to an infant as it does outside. But killing the fetus inside is OK, because the public won't perceive and be "coarsened" by what's being done.

That's a pretty cynical distinction. It's hard to accept if you see abortion as a woman's right. But it's even harder to accept if you see abortion as the taking of a human life. That's one reason why pro-lifers are turning their attention from partial-birth abortion to ultrasound, from the fetus outside the body to the fetus within. They're trying to open, in their words, a "window to the womb."

Pro-lifers are often caricatured as stupid creationists who just want to put women back in their place. Science and free inquiry are supposed to help them get over their "love affair with the fetus." But science hasn't cooperated. Ultrasound has exposed the life in the womb to those of us who didn't want to see what abortion kills. The fetus is squirming, and so are we.

Actually, what the ultrasound would show in the case of the most common early abortions is a minute dot, I suspect. But that is not what is odd about Saletan's piece. The oddness comes from the way he writes as a spectator of these horrid events, but a spectator who demands even more access to his viewing experiences and some respect for his expert knowledge of the sport he is watching. William doesn't have an aquarium but he knows a lot about its upkeep.

More Melamine

It's not just for your countertops. It can be for the belly of your pets and even for your belly! The reason is that melamine is cheaper to add to animal fodder than real protein and that it registers as protein. The fodder then looks like it is rich in protein and sells at a higher price. The manufacturer makes more and everybody is happy. Medears, this is how the free market of the conservative daydreams sometimes works.

Or so it seems to work in China, the source of that contaminated pet food you may have read about. Too bad that many cats and dogs had to die for us to find out about the melamine. Though of course nobody knows just exactly how many pets have died, because nobody is keeping those burdensome bureaucratic books on all this stuff. Isn't it fun to get a glimpse into the operation of a totally unregulated (free!) market? You see, melamine isn't poisonous, so who cares if it isn't exactly food. All those dead pets? Well, perhaps they didn't stir the melamine hard enough this time. But the market would self-correct over time, I'm sure, and stir harder in the future. Or find something else that registers as protein but doesn't cost as much as protein.

Is this only about the pet food market? Read the following quote:

The Food and Drug Administration has already banned imports of wheat gluten from China after it received more than 14,000 reports of pets believed to have been sickened by packaged food. And last week, the agency opened a criminal investigation in the case and searched the offices of at least one pet food supplier.

The Department of Agriculture has also stepped in. On Thursday, the agency ordered more than 6,000 hogs to be quarantined or slaughtered after some of the pet food ingredients laced with melamine were accidentally sent to hog farms in eight states, including California.

The pet food case is also putting China's agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China's food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For their part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

Accidentally? Perhaps. On the other hand, has anybody tested the fodder intended for the animals humans eat? And what is the Food And Drug Administration doing? Well, they have blocked the imports of certain types of gluten from certain sources which is like closing the door after the horse bolted (scared of melamine in the oats), and they have also given a press conference on the safety of eating pork-with-melamine:

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Through the salvaging practice, melamine-tainted pet food has likely contaminated America's livestock for as long as it has been killing and sickening America's pets — as far back as August of 2006, or even earlier. And while it may seem alarmist to suggest without absolute proof that Americans have been eating melamine-tainted pork, chicken and farm-raised fish for the better part of a year, the FDA and USDA seem to be preparing to brace Americans for the worst. In an unusual, Saturday afternoon joint press release, the regulators tasked with protecting the safety of our nation's food supply go to convoluted lengths to reassure the public that eating melamine-tainted pork is perfectly safe.

In a fit of reverse-homeopathy the press release steps us through the dilution process, tracing the path of melamine-tainted rice protein through the food system. The rice protein is a partial ingredient in pet food, we are told, which is itself only a partial ingredient in the feed given to hogs, who then "excrete" some of the melamine in their urine. And, "even if present in pork," they reassure us, "pork is only a small part of the average American diet."

All this makes me very angry. See how "free markets" can work:

The origin within China of the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate remains murky. For example, ChemNutra's source for the two vegetable proteins, Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co., told The AP that food ingredients aren't part of its business _ but that employees often take on side deals. Stern said ChemNutra dealt with the company's president.

The FDA has blocked wheat gluten imports from a second Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. That company has told AP it bought the ingredient from other undisclosed firms and then sold it to Suzhou Textile.

It appears that a textile firm has been selling gluten to American pet food manufacturers. Or perhaps an employee of the textile firm has been selling it? And the FDA sternly blocked any further sales from that company and others already caught! So decisive, so exhaustive! Don't you feel safe now?

Of course the Republican administration doesn't like to regulate firms that much:

The link to China has set off concerns among critics of the Food and Drug Administration that ingredients in pet food as well as human food, which are increasingly coming from abroad, are not being adequately screened.

"They have fewer people inspecting product at the ports than ever before," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "Until China gets programs in place to verify the safety of their products, they need to be inspected by U.S. inspectors. This open-door policy on food ingredients is an open invitation for an attack on the food supply, either intentional or unintentional."

Inspecting imports would just waste taxpayers' hard-earned money, you see. Let the markets decide.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ya Wanna See An Irony?

Posted by olvlzl
Wanting to try to figure out what the poem means when it talks about “Scots” I looked up “Nixon” to see it’s derivation. Here’s what I found.

NIXON - Name Meaning & Origin
Last Name Meaning & Related Resources for the Surname NIXON

Definition: Patronymic surname meaning "son of Nicholas." From the Greek name Nikolaos, meaning "victory of the people" from the Greek element 'nike,' meaning "victory" and 'laos,' meaning "people". (!!!)

Surname Origin: English

Jacob Bronowski's Christmas Card

- an act of voiding urine:
Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1808

"I'll watch your watergate": that is, "I'll watch for an advantage over you." - Kelly's Collection of Scottish Proverbs, 1721

With what contempt the Scot's defined
The sly betrayal of their kind,
Blasting with prophetic rage
The desecration of the age.

Some elective Pharisee
Having bugged the Christmas tree
Or muzzled them with privilege
Gave their tongue an acid edge.

To fix a synonym for rage
Without benefit of tape,
And assure posterity
No mincing prince will go scot-free.

Source: Listener, 23 December 1973.

Two Things

Posted by olvlzl.
As if you haven’t seen enough of this kind of thing here already, all I’m going to say is no comment. Ok, I lied. Plato makes me break out in a rash.

Here is a wonderful essay in memory of Kurt Vonnegut. I particularly like the ending.

And now, I’ve got an obligatory birthday party to attend. I’ll post later.

A Surprise Birthday Present April 29, 2007

Posted by olvlzl.
One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the natural world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable.
Knowledge or Certainty, [The Ascent of Man; Jacob Bronowski 1973]

I hadn’t intended to address the excellent stream of responses to the proposition posed yesterday in a post this morning. Last night I thought of posting the entire response on my own blog tomorrow, without objection by the participants.

Then this morning, reading the response of MKK Mary Kay to the part of the debating point that really interested me, the political implications of the end of belief in free will, I knew it couldn’t go without emphasis. Her response, after expressing her skepticism in free will based in her personal experience, is:

including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief.

We have to make sure they do because I might be wrong.

It shattered me, for both intensely personal reasons* and because in one sentence it makes an argument that has cost me tens of thousands of words over the past year.

In Chapter Eleven of the companion book to his great BBC TV series “The Ascent of Man”, the physicist, writer, artist and poet Jacob Brownoski addresses just about every conceivable point relevant to the political uses of science, both good and very bad science. Since his exploration covers the uses to which science has been put in the 19th and 20th centuries, the intersection of science and politics has to be presented in the dark shadow of the resulting moral decisions made by human beings, including scientists, and their societies.

History has many ironies. The time-bomb in Gauss’ curve is that after his death we discovered that there is no God’s eye view. The errors are inextricably bound up with the nature of human knowledge. And the irony is that the discovery was made in Gottengen.

... The University is a Mecca to which students come with something less than perfect faith. It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies, they are not here to worship what is known but to question it. [Bronowski p. 360]

Bronowski, with his miraculous knowledge of science, culture and history had an ability to find coincidences that are extraordinarily enlightening. The coincidences in this essay show what happens when that questioning stops short of honesty to assert that something “has been proven”.

He was able to compellingly link Gauss, the uncertainty of knowledge, the railroad linking Goettengen to Berlin, the anthropometrically analyzed skull collection at Gottengen , the use the science derived from that collection by the Nazis and Different Trains** that resulted. I couldn’t pretend to address his work of genius without quoting the entire essay. If you can get your hands on it, I beg you to read it and consider what it has to teach us about the unintended implications of scientific folly blended with professional arrogance.

Some, if not many, scientists find it convenient to pretend that their work exists in a bubble of intellectual purity. Some of that convenience is professional, some just the results of having to publish and not being able to point out all the necessary ambiguities. But some of the most dangerous uses of “certainty” are the results of ego and arrogance. If they took history more seriously, the scientists who enjoy the Olympian view would know that they are being watched and that any possible idea, enjoying the prestige and glamor that the label “science” carries, has an irresistible appeal to people outside of their own, smaller world. As they write their papers, build their careers and squabble internally, they won’t notice that both their intended conclusions and their unintentional lapses will be pounced on by people smart enough to understand their implications for uses the scientists would find horrifying.***

Brownowski ends his essay after looking at the issues surrounding the Manhattan project, which he knew from his personal experience.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

* Re-reading the book this morning, in response to Mary Kay’s sentence it strikes me as maybe the best popular science series ever made. Of all of the excellent essays, this is the one I find the most compelling, the one that has changed my thinking after reading it.

Today is my mother’s birthday. After searching for her copy of the book, which Mary Kay’s response made me remember, I notice that the inscription says that it is an early Birthday present which I gave her thirty years ago today. Please indulge me by saying how proud I’ve always been that my mother, the first person in her family to attend college and a feminist of her generation, has a degree in Zoology. I owe any knowledge I might have about science, as well as just about everything else, to her.

** Steve Reich’s great composition of that name makes different connections.

*** I will post a short piece about this on my blog Tuesday.