11.30.2009

What's the opposite of "surprised"?

Well, well, well.

From the Star-Ledger (via Andrew):
Support for gay marriage in Trenton is draining away like water from a tub as nervous legislators scurry towards safer political ground.

"I can’t say I’m confident now," says Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a lead sponsor. "I think we still have a pretty good chance. But people are getting nervous and weak-kneed."

Bad as that sounds, know that Weinberg is spinning this as best she can. Several other senators, supporters and opponents, say the movement is all but dead.

[snip]

Gay activists are bitter about what they see as betrayal. Democrats, especially Gov. Jon Corzine, told them over and over to wait for this moment.

And now they are getting tepid support, or none at all.

"Many of us in the progressive movement just want to throw up," says Steve Goldstein of Garden State Equality, the state’s leading gay rights group. "Democrats put out one hand out to ask for money, and with the other they stab you in the back."

Perhaps most important, the Roman Catholic Church in New Jersey threw its muscle into the fight. Bishops and priests spoke against it from the pulpit, and more than 150,000 parishioners signed petitions in opposition.

Several legislators said they were impressed by that show of strength, given that Catholics make up more than 40 percent of the state’s population.

[snip]

Only 2 percent of voters said this is the most important issue to them. And these skittish Democrats are almost all in gerrymandered districts that were drawn to ensure they win by large margins.

Ask senators privately what would happen if they all voted their consciences, and you get the same answer over and over: It would pass with votes to spare.

But our leaders, these puny men and women, are too scared to stand up and be counted.
I like that "puny." What an apposite word.

So, let's see. Cowardly politicians? Check. Political muscle of Roman Catholic church cited as major influence? Check. Realization that gay rights issues are a complete non-starter? Check. Crushing ennui on my part? Check, underline, highlight.

If I lived in New Jersey, you can bet your hindquarters that I would be saving my bright, shiny pennies when the Democratic Party made fund-raising calls. As it happens, I live in a state where the Democrats actually demonstrated that they have some stones, so I'm happy to continue to support them. The national party? Not so much.

And I think this shows once again why arguments that a judicial solution to our problem are somehow illegitimate fall flat. The political process is clearly failing us, and it is for precisely this kind of situation that we have an independent judiciary in the first place.

Well, they have it coming

Thank God for the Onion. They did a grateful nation an enormous favor in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks by finding a way for us to take our first traumatized laughs, a gift for which I will always be sincerely thankful. Leave it to them to say it better than I ever could:
Like famished dogs salivating before a warm and steaming carcass, a coalition of bloodthirsty Americans demanded this week that the entertainment industry provide them with newer, fresher celebrities to mercilessly devour.

"Our most sumptuous celebrities have been picked to the bone," a statement by the group, Citizens for Renewed Celebrity Consumption, read in part. "We can no longer subsist vicariously on the travails and public deteriorations of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. These fetid idols are mere shreds of their former selves, and we, the American entertainment consumers, grow ever hungrier for a new crop of stars on which to feast."

"We need meat!" the statement continued. "Raw, bloody meat!"

[snip]

Media experts have been warning for months that American consumers will face starvation if Hollywood does not provide someone for them to put on a pedestal, worship, envy, download sex tapes of, and then topple and completely destroy.

[snip]

"Give me fame—I'm willing to do anything," said Los Angeles resident Jenna Sanders, an aspiring singer-actress. "Dress me up in fancy gowns, parade every detail of my personal life before the world, objectify me, drive me to cocaine and lesbianism. I don't care about the consequences as long as I have my moment in the spotlight!"

"Eat me!" she shouted to reporters. "Rip me limb from limb and eat me alive!"

I've taken a decidedly dim view of fame in America. It strikes me as incredibly toxic, though there remain numerous celebrities who somehow manage to come off as sane, decent people. However, that doesn't stop a seemingly constant stream of lunatics from flinging themselves in front of the American fame train.

On that note, the couple who have offered themselves up most recently certainly seem to have their eventual destruction coming. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation's newest morsels:

Annals of the terribly sad

Somewhere relatively recently, I commented that the referendum process is a lousy way of addressing human rights concerns. My writing at the time was informed by the recent success of Maine's anti-marriage equality referendum, which stripped the Better Half and me of the right to marry before the law granting same had even gone into effect. Rather than flogging a dead horse and running the risk of becoming uninteresting (while hoping, of course, that it's not too late), I will simply say that the experience of being subject to majority disapproval has not enamored me to referenda concerning minority rights.

With that in mind, I read this (via Andrew) with immense sadness:
Swiss voters have approved a move to ban the construction of new minarets in the country.

Final results show that over 57 percent of voters backed the proposal in a referendum that was held today following an initiative by a right wing political party. Turnout was reported at about 55 percent.

[snip]

The controversial proposal to ban minarets was brought up by the right wing Swiss People’s party, which says minarets are symbols of rising Muslim political and religious power that could eventually turn Switzerland into an Islamic nation.

Campaigners demanded the referendum to halt "political Islamization" by amending the Swiss constitution to add a clause stating "the construction of minarets is prohibited."
How can this be perceived as anything other than the rankest xenophobia? What could the Swiss possibly be telling themselves to justify a revolting election result such as this?

It is terribly easy, as a leftist New Englander (albeit by adoption), to gaze longingly toward Europe, and to buy into the narrative that it is a more enlightened and progressive place. If nothing else, the success of this nauseating referendum serves to remind me that America, for all its myriad flaws, has managed a saner stance (intellectually and morally bankrupt harpies notwithstanding) with regard to religious pluralism than much of Europe has.

Update: More on the whole depressing brouhaha here. Indeed, Europe doesn't emerge looking quite so gleamingly enlightened.

11.28.2009

A word too far

Sarah Palin lies. I don't think she's a pathological liar, I don't think she's delusional, as Andrew Sullivan and others have put it. But she's the kind of person who will say whatever it takes to win people over in the moment (e.g., she said thanks but no thanks to the bridge to nowhere, her daughter took a vote on whether she should become VP, etc.). I know a few people like this, and in politics, Bill Clinton is another of them.

That said, Andrew Sullivan is once again taking his crusade to uncover her lies a step too far.
A reader writes:

"Everybody in the family played Scrabble and took great pride in hoarding Ks and Qs and slapping them down in long, fancy words on triple-letter scores." -- Going Rogue, p. 12.

Any good Scrabble player knows it's impossible to "hoard" Ks or Qs, as there is only one of each in a set of tiles. As a fellow Scrabble player said, "Perhaps she was thinking she was playing Poker, where hoarding Kings and Queens might be beneficial?"

Or perhaps she made this up like everything else.

Or perhaps she's talking about what her family generally does when it plays the game, and not talking about what they do in any given instance of playing the game. She might be saying that, in general, they hoard valuable letters such as Ks and Qs.

This witchhunt mentality is only going to make people resist the notion that Sarah Palin does indeed lie sometimes.

Emotional education in formal education

David Brooks has a sweet column about his emotional education at the hands of Bruce Springsteen. I couldn't agree more that this second education is more crucial to one's well-being and flourishing than is formal education.

The major part of this education cannot be formalized. It partially comes from, as David Brooks suggests, the trial and error of pleasure-seeking. It comes from family and friends and romantic partners. (Looking at my close friends and family, the ones who feel unconditionally loved by parents all have an inner reassurance that is lacking in the others. This makes a greater difference than any parenting technique - whether spanked or not, left to cry it out or not, drilled in etiquette or not, etc.)

But formal education can help.

One way in which it cannot help is by overly dwelling on the minutiae of the social lives of kids, trying to ameliorate lack of popularity or peer pressure (trying to ameliorate bullying is another matter and should definitely be taken seriously). I think there is much more of this ham-handed attempt to educate going on in schools these days. But the lessons of the emotional life are subtle, and, as Brooks suggests, not easily brought to consciousness, much less taught to someone else. One learns emotional education from trying and failing and flailing and reaching out and feeling deep pleasure and deep hurt, not from receiving a context-insensitive script from an adult.

One way in which formal education can help is by de-emphasizing rote memorization and math and reading skills at very young ages, and emphasizing and allowing pretend play. Here's one of my bugaboos again: the push to develop cognition in kids when we don't know much about what we're doing can have long-term unintended consequences. (See: Einstein, Baby). Forcing kids to use flashcards instead of spending time playing in the sandbox can seriously impact emotional education and creativity. From an article on the topic:

Locally and across the nation, time for play has been increasingly squeezed out of kindergarten and first grade as schools, bent on raising student achievement, especially among poor and minority students, have focused on literacy and math skills for children at ever-younger ages. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure that all children are proficient in math, reading and writing by 2014.

That proficiency is measured on tests, but the far-reaching effects of play don't show up in answers to multiple-choice questions. They show up in life.

Research has shown that by 23, people who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.

"It's not that direct instruction caused delinquency," said Larry Schweinhart, director of the HighScope Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., which conducted the study and developed the play-based curriculum that Arlington uses in all 31 of its preschool classes for low-income children. "But it wasn't preventing it. It wasn't giving kids an opportunity to develop socially."

Emphasis mine. That's an incredibly dramatic result, far greater than any change in IQ from listening to classical music. It's fine to teach children skills, but make sure that they have time to indulge what they long to do (probably for evolutionarily advantageous reasons): pretend play and socialize. That's how they can teach themselves.

Counterintuitively, teaching older kids using their everyday experiences and teaching them how to manage their social lives can, I think, hinder social and emotional development.

There is a movement to make all education applicable and recognizable to students' lives. Math must use examples from their daily lives, assigned novels should be recently written and reflect the kids' everyday experience, etc. I think this is a terrible mistake. First, it encourages shelteredness - students who live in poor environments who are not exposed to any other environments will continue in their social isolation.

Exposure to other habits and ways of thinking allows one to recognize what is universal and what is particular, what is necessary to human nature, and what is contingent. This is especially valuable to older children. For a teenager, dealing with math on a purely abstract level encourages....the ability to have abstract thoughts and get perspective. Privileged children are expected to learn about other cultures, but we condescend to poor children and have them learn only about themselves. Brooks says:

I followed Springsteen into his world. Once again, it wasn’t the explicit characters that mattered most. Springsteen sings about teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law. These stories don’t directly touch my life, and as far as I know he’s never written a song about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night.

What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia. Certain emotional chords — stoicism, for one — are common, while others are absent. “There is no sarcasm in his writing,” Landau says, “and not a lot of irony.”

I find I can’t really describe what this landscape feels like, especially in newspaper prose. But I do believe his narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events.

Novels moved me more than music when I was a kid, and the novels that moved me were, among many others, A Wrinkle in Time, the Narnia books, Jane Eyre, Charlotte's Web, Little House on the Prairie. Many took place in the 19th century, many were overtly Christian, many were British. None took place in a Jewish suburban family on Long Island in the contemporary day. Yet they still had much to teach me.

For little kids, allow them time to play and socialize. For older kids, force them to read those novels that, at first pass, don't speak to their lives. Have them learn subjects that don't apply to their daily lives. And don't micromanage their social lives. And, if you're a parent, love them a lot and also let them be and explore the world for themselves.

11.27.2009

Thanksgiving

My son is not home for Thanksgiving. I've thought a lot about how difficult it is (and how I expect it will be) to have a severely disabled child. But in honor of the holiday, these are the benefits it has already brought me, even though he's not yet home, and even though he's only 3 months old:

1) Greater patience with and sympathy for disabled people, especially those with mental retardation.

2) Greater sympathy for family members of disabled people.

3) Greater faith in my elder son's ability to handle adversity.

4) The knowledge (which I already had, but has been further confirmed) that my husband is, despite his irascibility, one of the most morally decent people I know.

5) The knowledge that my marriage can handle adversity.

6) The knowledge that I can handle what seems like the worst thing imaginable, and be okay. I'm not taking to my bed, or taking to drink, or whatever.

7) The realization that if any future children have problems, they will seem very minor by comparison and I know I can deal with them.

8) The knowledge that some people are kinder and more caring than I realized.

9) The knowledge that I have a really great friend in Dan, and that I really can tell him anything.

And a special thank you this Thanksgiving to those who work with sick kids.

[Similar post at Cat's Cry]

11.25.2009

What I'll be pondering this Thanksgiving

Last night, I caught bits and pieces of Fresh Air. Terry Gross was interviewing Jeff Sharlet, author of a book about "the Family," "a secretive fellowship of powerful Christian politicians that centers on a Washington, D.C., townhouse." Its members are, it seems, quite powerful, and have an incredibly cracked view of Christianity. (A few of them are, sad to say, having a rather rough go of it lately.) They are deeply conservative, bent on power, and apparently of the belief that God's will for them is to take over the world through cultivating the wealthy and influential. (That they are so very proud of their Christianity while seemingly ignorant of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most beautiful and central text of Christianity, speaks to the warped nature of their belief system.) If Mr. Sharlet's reporting is to be believed, there is even a connection between the Family and the appalling anti-gay law on its way to enactment in Uganda.

This evening, as I sit waiting for the end of office hours before the holiday tomorrow, I happened upon a discussion of the so-called "Manhattan Declaration." By way of Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf and Rod Dreher, I found myself at the blog of one "Ochlophobist." Having been once to that last destination, if I never find myself there again it will be too soon. Now, those three other writers (who have, let's just say, a few more readers than I do) have already weighed in, but let me quote the passage from Ochlophobist that gave them most pause:
This is the I’ll have my cake and eat it too phenomenon – I’ll send my $500 to the Christians Rightly Allied Against Perversion (CRAAP) fund to have them lobby against homosexual marriage, but I still want my 4 large screen TVs in the house so that my 2 kids can each play their video games while my wife watches Desperate Housewives and I watch the instruction DVD which explains to me how to operate the DVD players in my new 26 foot long Ford Explosion. What I do not “get” when I do this is that when I live in a manner that assumes the correctness of grossly gratuitous consumption, I live in a manner that assumes that homosexuality should be socially accepted. Why? Because like calls out to like. Homosexuality as a lifestyle and as a moral act is a decadent, gratuitous form of consumption in which the human person becomes commodified. In fact the normative accoutrements which gays and lesbians themselves often heartily embrace as representative of their lifestyle convey a pervasive quality of consumer oriented decadence (yes, there are exceptions; they prove the rule). It would seem that such a false ontology would naturally follow from a relationship based upon a sexual act which can never rise above entertainment. [emphasis added by Friedersdorf]
Let's just assume right now that Ochlophobist knows no gay or lesbian couples, or if he does, he certainly doesn't know them well (or care to). And let us also accept that I am incapable of expressing in words how galling the above passage is to me. I could type until my fingers were raw nubbins and still have spleen aplenty for such an appallingly arrogant and ignorant viewpoint, which would reduce my relationship, my home and my family to a sexual act, from a writer who styles himself an authority on something about which he knows nothing. To the Ochlophobist, I would merely ask that you read the last sentence of Romans 12:16 over and over and over until it sticks.

The last thing I'd like to highlight before I come to my point is from the last paragraph of the aforementioned Manhattan Declaration:
Because [fundamental truths] are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit ourselves to honoring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them.
And here I am, with my conundrum. For, you see, I am a Christian man. I love my church, and love what I consider to be the genuine truths about Christianity. (See above re: Sermon on the Mount, with the parable of the sheep and the goats thrown in for good measure.) I look at some of the hospitals and charities and universities founded and funded by Christian churches, and I remember all the good my religion can do.

But I cannot ignore the horrifying reality that much of contemporary Christianity is unquestionably malign. It combines an incredible pride with the stupefying belief that its believers are somehow persecuted. It claims to know, with unshakable certainty, the mind of God and congratulates itself for inflicting its beliefs on those who do not share them. Its adherents have controlled the government of the most powerful nation in the history of the world for much of the last decade (with no shortage of famous aspirants) and continue wield tremendous influence, and yet it clings to the notion that it is some kind of bulwark against the Powers that Be.

None of this is, of course, new, nor is the fact that it troubles me. But for some reason it weighs on me more heavily today. I have always been quick to defend religious belief and organized religion when the subject has been debated among my friends. Today, it seems harder to do so while remaining honest about how those beliefs are manifesting in our society.

Ontologically cute!

Julian Sanchez has a parody of the ontological argument.
...it occurs to me that this actually points to a more serious inversion of the real ontological argument that, although it isn’t valid either, strikes me as rather more plausible on face than the original. It might go roughly:

1. For every good thing that exists, I can imagine a still better version that does not exist.
2. Generalizing, extant things are always less perfect than those that exist only in the imagination.
3. God is defined as a supremely perfect entity.
4. Therefore God is purely imaginary.

Of course, to say that this one is more plausible than the original is only to say that the original was not at all plausible.

To be annoying, many versions of the ontological argument are valid, and this argument is valid, too. The question is whether it is sound. It isn't implausible! And it's cute!

Obviously, however, premise 1 would be where the problem really lies (or premise 2, with a problem from induction). If things in the imagination were always better than in reality, many politicians wouldn't get caught with their pants down, and could just have relied on their imaginations for fulfillment. Or dieters could imagine eating macaroni and cheese, etc. etc. We can imagine that things are better - I can stipulate that an imaginary macaroni and cheese is better than the real thing. But I can't force myself to experience it as better. There is something about the richness of experience which seems to exceed imagination. One could probably futz around with the argument and make it more compelling. There is something to the idea that existence may be a predicate, but it is not an excellence - it's a deficit.

For some other parodies of the ontological argument, see here.

11.24.2009

Posted as I head out the door

I don't have much time to comment, but I wanted direct a few eyeballs to a piece written for HuffPo by my friend from high school Tommy Sowers, who's running for Congress in my hometown district back in Missouri.

Money quote:
A debate in Congress on objectives in Afghanistan would be open, perhaps ugly, with compromises and politics at play. Yet the definition of objectives, especially when they involve questions of war and peace, is not a question of style or convenience but one of duty so that our voice, through Congress, could be heard loud and clear.
Tommy thinks we should be debating Afghanistan policy in Congress. From a strictly constitutional point of view, this is probably correct. From a pragmatic POV, considering what a clown college Congress has become, I'm not so sure. And, for good or ill, military intervention has been moving more and more away from the legislative branch to the executive for the past several decades.

Anyhow, I thought I'd do an old friend a solid. Feel free to share thoughts in comments.

Why I will never be a Republican

Not so long ago, I aired some frustration with the Democratic Party with regard to gay rights issues. At this point, I feel that insufficient attention has been paid to such promises made as the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the reversal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy of exclusion in the military. Until I see some movement on those or related fronts, I don't intend to give money to the national party. As I said before, I will continue to support individual candidates, as well as the party in Maine (which demonstrated a lot of courage in supporting LD1020).

Now, since we live in a two-party system, theoretically I could consider supporting the other party if it seemed they were willing to change their stance on issues of concern to me. (As an aside, I should note that I oppose the GOP platform pretty universally, not merely from the perspective of gay rights.) Well, it seems the chances of the GOP being a happy home for gays and lesbians is roughly on par with the possibility of winged pork.

Behold:
From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
First Read has obtained a resoultion being e-mailed around to Republican National Committee members for comments that proposes a conservative litmus test of sorts.

[snip]

The "Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" outlines 10 conservative principles the group of signees wants potential candidates to abide by. The principles include support for:

(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act; [emphasis added]
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership

In the interest of fairness, this is only a resolution (albeit a real one) being suggested by one member of the RNC. It hasn't been made official party doctrine. But it's certainly in keeping with their platform in 2008. And let's not kid ourselves that the GOP is anything but openly hostile to gays and lesbians.

Frankly, I think any party that needs a "purity test" for its candidates is in the serious weeds. But, whatever its fortunes, it's pretty damn obvious that the GOP is happy to do without my support, for the indefinite future.

Because my pain is funny

It's the middle of a short work week, with a major holiday looming. Christmas is coming, and I'm in a festive mood. In that spirit I offer to you, my beloved readers, a gift. For your amusement, I offer the following ludicrous item from my past. Friends, I was once hit on in a bar by this man:



No, I am not making that up. For the record -- yes, I have a witness. No, he was not dressed this way. And no, the interest was not reciprocated.

So, there you have it. My one potentially romantic encounter with a celebrity, and it's not Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper, but the man too tacky for Anna Nicole Smith. Enjoy!

Courting the elusive xenophobe vote

Please, let this be true:
Former CNN host Lou Dobbs fueled already rampant speculation about his political future Monday, sending the clearest signals yet that he's mulling a bid for president—and leaving third-party political operatives salivating over the possibility of a celebrity recruit for the 2012 campaign.

Less than two weeks after announcing his departure from the cable network—and following a series of interviews in which Dobbs encouraged speculation about his political plans—the anchorman known to fans as "Mr. Independent" finally made his presidential ambitions explicit on former Sen. Fred Thompson's radio show Monday.

Asked if he might make a run at the White House in 2012, Dobbs answered flatly: "Yes is the answer."

Let it be. Please, let Lou Dobbs run, and siphon off anti-immigration conservatives from the Republican candidate. Please let 2012 be easier than anyone could have expected.

Also, I think this is fantastic:
"I would assume he's going independent, since he's made a very strong case that that's where he is," said Bay Buchanan, who ran Pat Buchanan's 2000 campaign for president as the Reform Party's candidate. "There's enormous movement out there, I think more so than when Pat ran. I think they've really given up on Republicans, they've given up on Democrats; so he would be stepping into something where a path had been laid."

Buchanan added: "I think he can win."

I think Bay Buchanan is... wrong. I think Lou Dobbs would lose. He would never carry any state with a large Hispanic population (goodbye, Florida or California or New York) and would fail to swing nearly enough left-of-center voters to carry any other large states. He could deep-six the Republican candidate, however. That would be great.

11.23.2009

Where shall we place the blame?

Perhaps you've noticed that I find the anti-vaccine movement infuriating. (It appears that my friend and co-blogger Devin has picked up on this.) There are a variety of reasons it grinds my gears -- it diminishes the communal immunity that keeps us free of deadly infections, is predicated on hysteria with no basis in fact, and is promulgated by idiots and charlatans who prey upon the fears of the public.

It. Makes. Me. Crazy.

Now, there's a whole lot of hysteria about the H1N1 (aka swine) flu out there, as well, and the resulting brouhaha has made for a hopping phone line in our office here at Bleakonomy's northern redoubt. A certain regular commenter has made noises (dare I affectionately suggested predictably so?) that President Obama is to blame for all of this, and that the Snoutbreak is Exhibit L in the ongoing case against his competence.

Contra this viewpoint, there is this article in The New Republic. For what shall we blame the Prez?
If the administration deserves criticism, critics mostly agree, it’s for reporting the vaccine manufacturer’s optimistic predictions about when the doses would be available. Then again, as others have noted, manufacturers had to slow down the process because the government wanted the vaccine produced in single-dose vials--and that was because consumers feared that a chemical used in multi-dose vials might cause autism. It’s indicative of the delicate balancing act the administration has been trying to perform, between responding quickly with a vaccine and making sure the product they put forward was safe for public use. [emphasis cantankerously added]
Literally as I type these words, one of the women at the front desk is answering a question about whether the H1N1 vaccine contains thimerosal. (The infant formulation does not.) This despite ample evidence that thimerosal does not, in fact, cause autism. (As I have mentioned before, the cretins at Generation Rescue even include these studies on their website.) Yet, because of the persistent fear of thimerosal and a desire to allay any concerns that might lead to vaccine refusal, the government opted to have it manufactured in a more time-consuming process that made its use unnecessary. If you are going to blame the President for relying on the optimistic estimates of vaccine manufacturers, then it is only fair that you also place a generous portion of the blame on the people who have created the anti-vaccine culture of fear. Because of them, your access to the vaccine has been impeded.

Just thought you should know.

In which I reveal my inner 80-year-old spinster librarian

I am going to meander a bit here, in the hopes that I eventually arrive at the point I am trying to make. Bear with me.

My parents are visiting this week, and my mother is reading "Julie and Julia." The prevailing opinion from her thus far is that she would be enjoying it more were it not for all the bad language. For my part, I tend not to get exercised about profanity in writing, so long as it seems to be in service to the book as a whole and not merely for prurient thrills or because the writer is too witless to avoid them. After all, writers have been writing with swear words for a long time. I can understand why Mom doesn't like them, but it's nothing I would object to myself.

I mention this to prove my "not generally prudish" bona fides.

I know nothing about the American Music Awards. I don't know where they fall on the scale of meaningless awards, award shows, etc. when compared with, say, the MTV Video Music Awards. I don't watch either, and don't care about who wins or performs, etc. (I do like to read when others make fun of what they wear, on the other hand.) Likewise, I haven't had an opinion about American Idol since halfway through the first season, when Tamyra Gray was booted off and it was made clear to me that talent had little to do with winning.

I mention this to concede that I was not part of the target audience for last night's AMA performance by Adam Lambert. (Lambert, for those of you who are lucky enough not to know, was a finalist on Idol last season [I think], was apparently quite popular, and has subsequently revealed that he is gay, to the surprise of precisely nobody.)

So, with all of that out of the way, let me now move to my main point, which is what the holy hell, Adam Lambert? It seems that last night, on prime time network television, Lambert decided to perform during the AMAs by, among other things, simulating the receipt of oral sex, making out with a band member, and flipping the crowd the bird. If you're interested in pictures, feel free to click here. (They give me agita.)

Here's the deal, Adam. I know there are a lot of factors are play. I know that your heterosexual counterparts typically behave like prostitutes (and their clients) while performing at such events, and so it seems unfair that you shouldn't do likewise in a manner more true to your sexual orientation. Life, she is unfair sometimes. I also understand that you may not be inclined to follow the path of Clay Aiken, another gay Idol also-ran who decided to pursue fatherhood and a stint on Broadway. (For the record, the Better Half and I saw him in "Spamalot," where he was both better than we would have expected and a good sport.) Vive la difference! And finally, I realize that, as a famous person, your only genuine concern is staying famous, not actually doing The Right Thing. I am not so naive as to presume otherwise.

But, as a gay man in his mid-thirties who suddenly feels like taking some nerve tonic and lying down, can I merely point out that it doesn't really help the cause of gay equality to go on national television (during prime time!) and act out one of James Dobson's most florid fever dreams? Is your talent so thin that you have to rely on such empty showbiz chicanery to entertain? I suspect you aren't motivated by such banal concerns as trying to secure marriage rights for yourself, but so long as these things are put to a vote maybe we should avoid carrying on so flagrantly/publicly?

Also, those spikes on your shoulder could put someone's eye out.

For Dr. Dan

11.20.2009

The perfect gift for a blogger/commuter:
The customer reviews are especially wonderful...

Brooks on philosophy

Unlike most liberals, not to mention conservatives, and perhaps all bipeds, I am a big fan of David Brooks. I'm always eager to read his columns, and find him very insightful.

However, he has a bad tendency to make generalizations about the field of philosophy. These generalizations are always disparaging, and usually wrong. From today's column praising Tim Geithner:
But this prudence was the key to his effectiveness. In interviews and testimony, Geithner uses the word “balance” a lot. He talks about finding the right balance point between competing priorities. He also talks like a historian who sees common tendencies in certain contexts, not a philosopher who seeks clear general principles that apply across contexts.

Oy. There is much discussion in philosophy about what is context-sensitive and what isn't. Plenty of philosophers take positions that claim that the truths of an area, such as ethics or aesthetics or linguistic meaning or even math and science, are context-sensitive.

He seems to have a habit of pointing to a topic that traditionally falls under the purview of philosophy, and claiming that philosophers are not answering the question correctly. However, his idea of philosophy has seemed to stop at Aristotle. For example, he claims in a column titled The End of Philosophy (!) that scientists are positing that moral judgments are largely matters of sentiment. He contrasts this with philosophers, who he insinuates, think moral judgments are all a matter of reason. David Brooks, might I introduce you to a rather famous philosopher named David Hume? Ya know, that whole "slave of the passions" bit? Or that entire school of meta-ethics known as non-cognitivism? (Will Wilkinson has some nice critiques of that particular column here).

In yet another column discussing a book by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah on character, Brooks says:
The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life... In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.

In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.
I don't know how Appiah phrased the distinction - I have not read his book. But I find it odd that Brooks learned about this debate from a philosopher, and yet calls one side of the debate the philosophers' view. Obviously, there are philosophers on both sides, or we wouldn't be having the debate. There are, of course, philosophers who would endorse what he calls the psychologist's version.

It seems that if any philosopher holds a position that is in concordance with or influenced by the sciences, it is not real philosophy. By oversimplifying what philosophy is, or what the position of philosophy is with respect to a given topic, Brooks underestimates both our intelligence and our worth.

11.19.2009

Tales of Hoffman

Like the Hoffman of Offenbach's opera, poor Doug Hoffman has been driven off the deep end by the disappointments of love. It seems the voters in upstate New York just didn't love him as much as he thought they should, having handed electoral victory not to Hoffman, the Conservative candidate, but to the Democrat, Bill Owens. Or in Hoffman's words, the "Obamacare supporter." And so, Hoffman is unconceding.

Hoffman writes to his supporters:
...we can't let ACORN or the unions keep that from happening. They have more lawyers and more experience tampering with democracy.
Let's set aside for the moment the fact that ACORN has no offices in this district, NY-23. What I really love here is Hoffman's Freudian slip, implying that both he and ACORN want to tamper with democracy; the issue is evidently that he simply needs more lawyers to help him in his tampering.

On one hand, it was a nice moment of democracy to see a third-party candidate make headway -- though to be honest, he did so not as an outsider but as a parasite, destroying the local Republican party from within. On the other hand, contesting election results with no evidence of fraud other than that the other guy won? I worry it's the narrow wedge of the anti-democracy wing within Libertarians, fundamentalists, and other far-right wingnuts that are rising to the ascendency in the American right. Hoffman's decision to "unconcede" is sloppy, and his reasons for doing so are paranoid, rabble-rousing and delusional.

There are times to contest election results. Take Bush v. Gore in 1996 when there were widespread indications (and convictions) of fraud and mismanagement in 1996. And hey, I was born in Chicago, so I know the Democratic party has tried these tactics as well as the Republicans. But Hoffman's frothing at the mouth? Kinda sad to watch -- like the original Hoffman:




Who are Rob and Kristin?

Jason Zengerle mentions in a post that due to his wife's subscription to US Weekly, he now knows who Josh Duhamel is. I, however, do not know of this person. As I don't know more than half the people mentioned in celebrity magazines. It reminds me of when Marge Simpson's elderly mother says about Judge Reinhold, creakily: "I don't know who that is."

Is this a new phenomenon? It seems that, back when I was younger, people in their thirties (who were not Amish or living under rocks) could identify most celebrities mentioned in People magazine. Is there a greater divide between mass culture for older and younger people than there ever was?

By the way, speaking of celebrities over time, can I just say how surprised I am that the following celebrity couples are still together: Ric Ocasek and Paulina Porizkova, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Woody Allen and Soon-yi Previn.

A very brief post about the breast cancer screening recommendations

I am running late and have to go pick up the Critter at the sitter's, so I'm going to make this post very, very brief and to the point.

To everyone who has seized upon the new recommendations regarding breast cancer screening, and is making a fuss about it -- stop. Just stop. Particularly if you are scoring political points because of it. This was a scientific recommendation based upon evaluation of the data, of the costs incurred (not just monetary, but also in terms of radiation absorbed, surgeries endured, etc.) by unnecessary follow-up for benign lesions, and the number of lives that are actually saved by the current practice of mammography. Scientists may debate the data, and may disagree about the conclusions. It is well out of my area of specialty, and thus I have no business commenting on the actual merits of the recommendations. I am neither a gynecologist nor breast surgeon, and do not treat patients for breast cancer. However, as a practicing physician, I am familiar with recommendations of this kind. They come down the pike every now and then, are sometimes controversial, and have nothing at all to do with the President, the Congress or health care reform.

This was a scientific recommendation based upon evaluation of the data. Spinning it for political purposes is ridiculous and addle-brained. Any assertion to the contrary is wrong, full stop.

Palin on Israel

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see the people at Think Progress have flagged a statement by Sarah Palin:
WALTERS: The Obama administration does not want Israel to build any more settlements on what they consider Palestinian territory. What is your view on this?

PALIN: I disagree with the Obama administration on that. I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

WALTERS: Even if it’s [in] Palestinian areas?

PALIN: I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expand.
Matt Duss and Andrew Sullivan seem to think the take-away from this quote is that Palin supports the expansion of settlements, even beyond what the Bush administration advocated. But what strikes me as odd is the bit about "the days and weeks and months ahead" in which Jewish people will be flocking to Israel. What does she mean by this?! Have you heard about mass movement to make aliyah? I've gotta say, this sounds pretty End-of-Days-y to me. And flags to me why it is important why someone with her beliefs never gets anywhere close to real political power.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg wonders the same thing.

On Elite v. Less-Elite Institutions

So I finally got around to reading the article that Dan blogged about a few days ago about the disadvantages of an Ivy League education. I have some thoughts on this based on my experience, which is the following: my undergraduate education was at an Ivy League school. I am currently a PhD student and teach at the flagship campus of a public university that's huge and pretty good, but not elite (on the order of Ohio State and Boston University). I also got an MA in a different field at a university that's a bit better than my current one, but not top ranked - although it is nationally famous for being tops in the field in which I got my MA.

1) He's overall correct that going to an Ivy tends to inculcate an unwarranted sense of one's own superiority. Students who are of a more socially curious bent will probably be rid of this on their own, just as being socially curious tends to make people from any socio-economic class less sheltered.

2) I think the fetishization of the Ivy League, or elite universities in general, is waaaaay overblown. There are vanishingly few jobs and graduate programs that seem really to require an Ivy education, as opposed to excellent performance at a decent university. The syllabi for my classes are the same as the syllabi for similar classes at elite universities, and my ability to teach the material is (I think) as good or better than is often the case at such institutions.

3) There can be surprising opportunities at a state school. Many state schools have department that exceed the Ivies in their excellence. My husband is a case in point. His undergrad was a giant state school rather similar to the one at which we both teach. However, it is ranked number 1 or 2 in philosophy. Because he was at this program, his talent for academic philosophy was cultivated. At a different state school, or an Ivy, a talented philosopher might not have been exposed to some of the best minds in the field, and might have been pushed down a more applied path (say, law school).

4) The top 10% of my state school students would probably be in at least the top 20% of Ivy League students. The 50th percentile students are clearly worse than the 50th percentile of Ivy Leaguers, and my worst students are functionally illiterate, which is not the case at an Ivy League. Please note that this leaves room for the truth that many, many people at state universities are much brighter and more successful than many people who go to Ivies.

5) That said, what the Ivy League has is a culture of professionalism lacking in my students. Unlike my average and less-than-average students, Ivy Leaguers (even the average and less-than-average) do not audibly groan about the length of a required paper, do not openly do crossword puzzles in class, do not complain to professors about how booo-oo-ooring is the subject they are teaching. They show up to office hours, are more likely to show up regularly and punctually to class (not apparently hung over), they write grammatically correct emails to professors. I imagine this can rub off to some good effect on mediocre students.

6) Professor Deresiewicz says:
There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State...In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines.
Well, it's not as if I make such requirements (and I am strict) because I'm thinking about how best to prepare my students to be cogs in a mindless bureaucracy. I do it precisely because of the lack of culture of professionalism among the students -- one must impose it from without. Also, my class sizes are much bigger than in the Ivies. Missed due dates, etc., makes for an organizational nightmare. That said, my favorite story about this is the time I just stopped showing up to a class and failed to officially drop it (yes, young and stupid). At my current university, that would have gotten me an F and a serious blow to my GPA and chances for grad school. At my Ivy League, it went down in my transcript as an "unofficial withdrawal" and didn't affect my GPA.

7) I love teaching at a state school. In his article, prof D says
Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resum├ęs.
I think there's a lot of truth to that, and I've had some super-bright studnets that clearly just had something of a rocky start in life. Or who are super bright and curious but due to their socio-economic class were never exposed to the more driven and intellectual lives that Ivy League kids were. Even many of the average students, by going to college, are transcending the worlds in which they grew up - in a way that is not true for Ivy Leaguers. It's an honor and privilege and a joy to work with such students.

A Middle Ground

I second the opinion aired by co-blogger and best friend Dan that Andrew Sullivan's Palin obsession is a bit unseemly. From the vehemence of his anger and name-calling to his self-congratulation about how absolutely brave and resolute he is to keep at this story to his excessive fondness for Levi Johnston - one leaves his blog with the unsettled, slightly guilty and slightly disgusted feeling one has after avidly reading a celebrity magazine.

That said, Damon Linker takes it a step too far also when he suggests that we simply ignore Palin. She might not be as popular were she not criticized as much by members of the media, but she would be popular. Ignoring people until they leave you alone doesn't work with bullies and it won't work with Sarah Palin. She is a potent political force. And criticism of her can be effective. Look at her approval ratings before and after Tina Fey's devastating impression of her.

Sullivan is right that she lies. He is right that she is incurious and unfit for office. I actually do think, as I've said before, that her pregnancy story, even taken at face value, says something about her fitness to serve, and should be explored. (For the record, I think her daughter's pregnancy, and her daughter's choice of sex partner, does not say anything about Sarah Palin's fitness to serve.) One can point out her falsehoods without insisting she is a pathological liar or that she's delusional. One can point out the oddnesses in her pregnancy story without speculating about a grand conspiracy. One can point out her tendency not to take responsibility, her lack of knowledge, her apparent impulsiveness without histrionics.

With humor, and a bit of exaggeration for effect, Tina Fey merely pointed to what was becoming obvious about Sarah Palin. With a few questions, Katie Couric exposed the gaps in Palin's knowledge. Both were effective at exposing Sarah Palin, without ignoring her, hurling invective at her, or making unfounded speculations about her.

Because it bears saying

Regular Bleakonomy readers (bless you) know that I have no love for Sarah Palin. None. Zero. Nada.

That being said, I think Andrew Sullivan has gone kind of off the deep end about her. I dig that she's a lying liar, and that it's a cause of constant amazement that her pants do not literally burst into flame at any given moment. I understand. But I think her chances of being taken seriously as a national politician are slim, and growing slimmer, and the amount of attention he is paying to her seems all out of proportion.

And maybe only a fellow gay man can say this, but I have a pretty strong suspicion that he would not be so very pro-Levi Johnston in his inane smack-down against quondam governor Palin were it not for the fact that Levi is a very attractive man. (And Andrew certainly isn't making any efforts to hide his attraction.) The whole thing is unseemly, and I'm not sure it's a great use of The Atlantic's bandwidth for so much notice to be given by its most prominent voice.

Just sayin'.

11.17.2009

I am at one with joy

Dudes, I won.

Omniscient... except for statistics

I don't have a lot to say about the inane demonstration today in front of the Justice Department, enacted by a group of imbecilic right-wing conservatives to protest expansion of hate crimes law to include gays and lesbians. Curious? Read all about it here.

However, I'd like to draw everyone's attention to a fantastic quote. From the article in TNR linked above:
The press conference ended with prayer, during which the ministers joined hands and bowed their heads—but the case still had to be made. “Lord, we pray for the homosexual community today,” began Pierre Bynum of the Family Research Council, his eyes closed. “We pray that there will be fewer hate crimes. Lord, according to statistics, there are very very few, anyway there are more homosexual against homosexual crimes than there are crimes by heterosexuals against homosexuals.”
I think we can all agree that God, Creator of the Universe and Author of Mankind, was probably glad to learn a little bit about statistics today. Doubtless, while swirling nebulae into existence and cramming angels onto various pins, He was troubled by questions about how often homosexuals are the victims of hate crimes. Thank... well... Him that Pierre Bynum was there to give him the 411.

Despicable person of the day

I need to go lie down.

Via HuffPo:
Gov. Don Carcieri vetoed legislation Tuesday that would give same-sex couples in Rhode Island the same right to plan the funerals of their late partners as married couples.

The socially conservative Republican said the proposed protection represents a "disturbing trend" of the incremental erosion of heterosexual marriage. Rhode Island does not recognize same-sex marriage.

"If the General Assembly believes it would like to address the issue of domestic partnership, it should place the issue on the ballot and let the people of Rhode Island decide," Carcieri said in a letter to lawmakers.

Can we be clear about something? "The people" have no business determining what rights minorities deserve. "The people" sometimes get it wrong. "The people" sometimes get it very, very wrong.

Gov. Carcieri is clearly an ass of epic proportions. That much is obvious. What remains obscure to me is why anyone could possibly feel that letting gay and lesbian survivors deal with the remains of their deceased loved ones is a threat to anything. (I'm amazed that heterosexual marriage has managed to survive for thousands of years, what with it being so terribly fragile.) Can someone please explain this to me?

Thankfully, sanity may yet reign in Rhode Island.
Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the Legislature and frequently override Carcieri's objections.

Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. David Segal, the bill sponsors, said they would seek to override the veto.
Please, God, let it be so. I can't handle yet more social conservative malarkey right now. And bless and keep Stephen Colbert.

Should I just replace them all with back issues of "Cosmo"?

A little while ago, the blogger at Naptimewriting (which I discovered during Infinite Summer, and which is a nice stop for people interested in observations on parenting or literature -- her post on ambivalent parenting is a must-read for frustrated new parents who need reassurance that they're not horrible people) mentioned in passing the "lame-o mainstream parenting magazine[s]" in her pediatrician's office. "Oh, my," thought I, "I suspect my office is festooned with lame-o mainstream parenting magazines." While I wasn't particularly concerned that the recommended toys are laden with toxins (which are probably so rife in American society at this point that avoidance is futile), it did occur to me that I'd never actually looked through the magazines that litter our waiting areas.

The other day opened a copy of Parenting to a random page, and immediately wished I hadn't. The spread I found was all about one of my biggest and most persistent pet peeves -- this obsessive, infuriating obsession we have with "making our kids smarter." Elizabeth has already written about this before, and we share an antipathy to any toy that boasts some kind of developmentally-enhancing feature. Because God forbid your kid should just play with a toy for the sake of enjoyment alone. However, this particular spread was about foods that will make your kids smarter. (I cannot find it online, or I would link to it.)

Among the foods that are, apparently, "brain food" (I kid you not) are cereal ("a mix of carbs and fiber that'll keep 'em thinking all morning"), cheddar cheese ("fortified with DHA for extra brainpower") and Goldfish crackers (!) ("complex carbs, which provide a steady supply of energy to your genius's brain"). There is also a Del Monte pear chunk snack with acai juice, "a powerful, damage-fighting antioxidant."

My friends, this is a heaping helping of codswallop. I am all in favor of Goldfish crackers. Acai juice may confer some health benefits, though probably not in proportion to the hype. I take fish oil supplements myself, so I certainly don't see anything wrong with DHA supplementation per se. But none of these foods will make an iota of difference in their intelligence by any measure, I promise you. Your kids will benefit from a good, healthy diet, and will be far more harmed by neurotic attempts to make them into prodigies than can be fixed by a South American berry.

In addition to Parents and Parenting, we also have lots of copies of Cookie. I don't know much about Cookie, other than that the cover moms are typically blond and famous. (Tori Spelling, Amber Valetta, etc.) However, I once had to do an office-wide purge of issues with Jenny McCarthy on the cover, because I'll be damned if I give that lunatic publicity in my office.

The last magazine that we have in spades is WebMD, apparently now available in glossy, dead tree form. It has "MD" in the title, so I assumed it was OK. Right? Right? No, I suppose not.

This is rather a quandary. On the one hand, I hate to think that having the magazines in my office implies any kind of endorsement of their content. On the other hand, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. Most of the information in these magazines appears to be anodyne, and congruent with what you'd find in most "lifestyle" magazines. So, if for no other reason than sheer laziness, I'll probably just leave them where they are and hope nobody starts flooding their kid with pomegranate juice.

11.16.2009

I am far too excited about this

Oh, my GOD!!!

You guys!! You know how I totally love Go Fug Yourself? It is, bar none, the best "deconstructing celebrity" website in the world. One day, if I am very lucky, I will get to meet Heather and Jessica, and we will realize that we were meant to be best friends.

Anyhow, they have caption contests every Friday, in which people are supposed to write captions describing the insane things various celebrities are wearing. And, my friends, this week I am a finalist.

So, if you feel like contributing to an utterly frivolous pursuit that will make me far happier than a grown man has any right to be, please go here and vote for my caption, "Strange Days."

In which I cry a river

Many years ago, I was sitting in a friend's apartment on the Upper West Side. I recall nothing about the conversation other than that I was there with several good friends, one of whom was in the middle of discussing going somewhere or another. By way of describing many of the people she encountered upon arrival at wherever it was she had gone, she said that they seemed like "state school student"-types, or something very similar. This was, of course, because she had assumed all of us had gone to elite private (likely Ivy League) schools, and would thus understand her shorthand to mean "meatheads." When I politely coughed and mentioned that I had gone to a state school, there was a beat or two of awkward silence, after which she said, "Well, you know what I mean" and continued with her anecdote.

Perhaps you can tell that the memory still rankles? Now, my experience isn't entirely apposite, as the particular program I entered was a selective one, which I chose over the chance to attend an elite private university. However, after having had made that choice, for years afterward I had a horrible sense of inferiority when faced with students who had gone to "better" schools. When I visited my brother at the prestigious private school he chose for undergrad, I wandered around and mused that this was a real university, and these were real students. Lest this post degenerate into an extended exercise in pointless whinging, I should state that after years of working with and befriending numerous Ivy League alumni, my sense of inferiority has abated. I figure, if I keep ending up in the same social and professional circles as Harvard grads, either I'm doing something right or the brand is irreparably damaged.

Where was I going with this? My mind is still in a bit of a whirl after being on call all weekend during the Snoutbreak, and dealing with innumerable calls along the lines of "Oh, my GOD!! My baby has a fever and you must save her and why are you not calling a chopper to whisk her to Boston this instant?!?!?" Makes one kind of addled, and glad to come out the other side. Anyhow, I think I was going to mention this article from The American Scholar. It's over a year old, but I only just now read it.

It's titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," and it essentially makes the case that elite universities are factories of conformity, which churn out grads who are adept at entering the upper echelons of the political and professional world, but not at thinking with intellectual rigor or curiosity. Before I get to the merits of the article as a whole, I would like to share my favorite paragraph:
What about people who aren’t bright in any sense? I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
I went to a public high school that, while recognized for its quality both on the state and national levels, was not a feeder school for the Ivies. I don't know if that qualifies it as "mediocre." But I glory in the knowledge that my having attended it may have aided in my ability to relate to the stupid. Indeed, heretofore I had no idea that I was so gifted by comparison to those deprived souls who had attended the best schools from the get-go. Thanks, Professor Deresiewicz! (The good professor starts the article with an anecdote about having a plumber in his house, and having no idea how to talk with him! I would love to read an article from the converse perspective, detailing the travails of a poor plumber who is forced to endure some egghead professor's awkward attempts at small talk.)

I think there is much about the article that rings true. I suspect that many students do conform to an expected norm in order to get into the country's top schools, and once there experience similar pressures to succeed in the right kind of way on the path to the right kind of career. That being said, I think Professor Deresiewicz paints with a broad brush from a limited perspective. Just because the campus he surveys isn't littered with hippies or punks or "gender queers" doesn't mean that there isn't the contemporary equivalent to be seen, and this probably says more about American society right now than it does about the Ivies. (Be sure to let me know if I've missed a resurgence of gender queerness.) I suspect that there is no shortage of students who are driven by intellectual curiosity of the sort he feels universities ought to be cultivating.

The one area where I agree most resoundingly with Prof D is with regard to economic diversity at the top American schools. He writes:
Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it.
One of the best solutions I have heard for the problem of affirmative action is moving away from a race-based approach, and moving toward a class-based one. A great many black and Latino people would still benefit, but it would create more meaningful diversity and direct the help more effectively toward those who need it most.

I am curious to know what other people think of Professor Deresiewicz's article. In fact, a certain couple of co-bloggers may feel compelled to weigh in! Are elite universities really conformity assembly lines? Is there still intellectual life there? Should I get over any lingering sense of inferiority? I'm all ears.

Philosophy short takes

Some funny one-liners about philosophy.

English to Italians

For those of you who, like me, have ever tortured yourselves wondering what English sounds like to non-native speakers, here is a song by an Italian guy who decided to sing in nonsense syllables that sounded like English to him. It has been going through my head non-stop for about three days.

11.15.2009

The Modern Library is high on crack

A few months ago, the Facebook book group of which I am peripherally a member decided it would tackle "Ulysses." I'd never participated in the group before with any real gusto, but I'd wanted to give "Ulysses" another try after an abortive first attempt several years ago. So, regardless of the impending arrival of the Critter, I pulled my old copy off the shelf and started reading. Today, I finally closed the book on the last, breathless "yes."

For those of you uninterested in the thoughts of a pissant little blogger who writes a picayune little blog as regards to The Great Classic of Western Literature, feel free to tune out now. James Joyce is, after all, James Joyce, and I am... me. But having dragged my eyes across those seemingly endless pages, I feel like I've earned the right to express an opinion.

Still here?

I'm sorry, Modern Library, but I think you are full of crap. I don't know what makes for a book to be considered "great," but basic readability strikes me as an important consideration. I would love to style myself the sort of person who would read and enjoy "Ulysses," but after having finished the whole thing I'm damned if I could tell you what the hell was going on for much (most?) of it. Perhaps I am insufficiently bright, or have a poverty of knowledge of culture and history and such, but those pages are so full of needless obscurity and endless allusion that I defy anyone to tell me he/she could understand much of the writing. (OK, maybe the occasional professor of literature.)

If it weren't for this book's vaunted reputation, I would probably not have bothered. Earlier this year I tried to read "Against the Day," and had a "Screw you, Pynchon" reaction at page 353, at which point I inserted the bookmark (in case I get the daft notion to try again) and put it back on the shelf. Is it too much to ask that the author have a basic consideration for the reader, and provide even minimal clue as to what is being described? Is even the thinnest plot thread an unrealistic expectation? There are occasional bursts of humor or brilliance, and I'm sure from a purely literary perspective there is much to admire, but from the perspective of a relatively intelligent and well-educated reader, I found the whole experience thoroughly unenjoyable. What few pleasurable passages I found were buried amid endless thickets of inscrutable references and gestures and winks and pastiches. This may seem odd coming from someone whose favorite novel is "Infinite Jest," but I genuinely believe the value of a novel is compromised or lost outright when it is flagrantly clear that the author cares nothing at all for whether the reader can follow what's going on or not. (For the record, I think "Infinite Jest" is much, much easier to read and enjoy than it is given credit for being.)

Beyond simply finding the text incomprehensible, I was also struck by its obsessive interest in the smutty. Before I read it I assumed that all the noise about its obscenity reflected the prudish sentiments of the early 20th century. But no. It's quite graphic in places, even by today's standards. I wasn't offended per se, but I did get awfully tired of reading about women's undergarments.

Scanning the rest of Modern Library's list, I would choose to reread any of the others I've already read (with the exception of "Tropic of Cancer," another stream-of-consciousness slog about an aggressively heterosexual protagonist with a thing for prostitutes, the appeal of which was similarly lost on me) than reread another chapter of "Ulysses." (And that does include Pynchon's "V.", which managed to be just accessible enough to be worthwhile.) I would rather read Marilynne Robinson's marvelous "Housekeeping" five more times, and it didn't even make the cut.

So, maybe I'm just too damn stupid to appreciate this great masterwork. I'm willing to admit the possibility. But anything that is simply impossible to understand without an equally massive reader's guide is, in my utterly humble opinion, just not worth it.

Your brief anecdote from my weekend on call

The phones, they will not stop ringing!!

Anyhow, in between the many, many patients I have seen thus far, I got a call from the ER giving me a brief description of a patient who will need follow-up. The doctor said that they are seeing whole families there who have moved from other states to Maine in order to get health care benefits.

I do not know if this is actually an observable trend or simply the impression of one ER doc, so take it with a gigantic grain of salt, but I thought it was an interesting enough little blurb to pass along.

Now then... back to the trenches

11.13.2009

The road not taken

Pity the beleaguered primary care physician. Low pay (in comparison to those in loftier specialties), increasing loads of paperwork, little respect.

The Times has a marginally interesting article on the subject today. There's not a lot of there there, but it includes a couple of points worth mentioning.

First up, there is this reminiscence of a remarkable medical student.
When it came time to choose specialties in our last year of medical school, most of us thought Kerry would do what every high achiever and even the not-so-high achievers were already doing: line herself up for a coveted spot in one of the prestigious subspecialties, a field like dermatology, orthopedics, plastic surgery or radiology.

But Kerry wanted to become a primary care physician.

Some of my classmates were incredulous. In their minds, primary care was a backup, something to do if one failed to get into subspecialty training. “Kerry is too smart for primary care,” a friend said to me one evening.
The perception that the smart students will take advantage of their academic standing to pursue subspecialty training is pervasive. This creates the converse impression that primary care providers aren't that bright. Obviously my experience is not dispositive, but (contra this belief) most of the primary care providers I know (certainly in my field of pediatrics) are quite bright, and entered the field because they simply wanted to, not for a dearth of options. (Not me, though. I'm dumb as a post.) I've known many providers who had subspecialty certification, but chose to work in primary care offices providing both primary and subspecialty care. (My particular subspecialty of adolescent medicine occupies a nebulous space in which it is a board-certified subspecialty, with exams and fellowships and such, but still considered primary care. Sadly, being thusly dual-boarded does not increase my earning potential, though it does improve my chances when searching for jobs.) Primary care affords the benefit of getting to know your patients well, and forming a quality physician-patient relationship. It won't pay the rent, but since most of us went into medicine because we wanted to help people (at least, that's the theory), it is something to be valued.

However, the question remains -- why do so many people go into the "prestige fields," such as radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and dermatology (tritely described in the article as "the ROAD")? Again, I should mention that I know many people in some of those fields who managed to get there despite being... maybe not MacArthur Fellowship material, let's say. As with any other profession, success does not always directly correlate with smarts. But many of the very smart, dedicated students at my school did go into those fields. Why?

Obviously, there is the question of money. The ROAD specialties are all procedure-based fields, and thus pay very well. This answer is rather obvious. We are, after all, living in a material world. (Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)

Just as importantly, though, there is this:
In addition, with fewer doctors and more patients, as well as little reimbursement for the specialty’s growing administrative aspects — filling out insurance company and health maintenance organization forms, making telephone calls and writing e-mail messages to coordinate care with other caregivers — primary care physicians end up working longer hours than doctors in other fields just to make ends meet and fulfill patient care responsibilities. Moreover, while pressing and acute care needs arise routinely in patients with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, there are rarely calls of the same urgency among patients with, for example, a skin lesion.
In other words -- lifestyle. Docs in the ROAD fields see their patients, and go home. With the exception of anesthesiologists, who are sometimes needed at odd hours for emergency surgeries, most of these providers can head home at night without worry that they're going to get dragged out of bed for some emergency. As someone who routinely has to haul his carcass out of bed to attend dead-of-night deliveries or admissions, this is no small consideration. I don't know if I would have gone into a different field if I'd known how much that aspect of things sucks (short answer -- a lot), but I'd probably answer the question more definitively if asked while driving to the hospital at 2 AM in February.

Cutting down on administrative costs and changing the way we reimburse for medical care would go a long way toward putting the bloom back on the rose of primary care. But I don't know if the lifestyle benefits of subspecialty care can ever be fully accounted for, and thus there will probably continue to be a pull toward those fields for competitive candidates.

Here's hoping this is the last one!

So, apropos of yesterday's post, I thought I would just mention that today is the 80th birthday of the "Reverend" Fred Phelps, founder and "spiritual" leader of the Westboro Baptist "Church." In honor of the day on which, eighty years ago, Fred Phelps slithered out of his mother's womb to begin his misbegotten consumption of oxygen, I thought we could all sing him "Happy Birthday."

All together now!

Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday, you batshit insane raving baaaaaaaaaaas-taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard,
Happy Birthday tooooooooo yooooooooooooooooooooooooooou!!

Let's hope we don't have to bother singing again next year.

What has he practiced for 10,000 hours?

Isaac Chotiner's blog post yesterday pointed me to something I'd missed: a very funny and dead-on review of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Actually, I only assume it's dead-on. All I've read from Gladwell is Blink and some articles in the New Yorker. But, Gladwell-like, I'll set aside the problem of induction and assume all Gladwellian musings are similarly worthless.

In everything I've read of his, he draws very dramatic and unwarranted conclusions from very limited data. He seems, oddly, to forget what point he is trying to establish and makes some other, unrelated or even contradictory point. His breeziness covers a real lack of familiarity with the topic on which he's writing. I have no idea how he's managed to be a gazillionaire spouting inconsistent, unsupported twaddle.

Stupak is not unreasonable

I may diverge with my co-bloggers here. But I have to say, I am utterly failing to get exercised about about the presence of the Stupak amendment.

To be pro-life is not to have a stupid view. There are very compelling moral arguments against abortion, and, contra many pro-choice people, one need not be an uneducated religious yahoo to be pro-life. Indeed, it is usually a pro-choice argument that has more slippery work to do (that's not to say the pro-choice side isn't right, it's just a bit harder to see on what grounds it is right). Pro-choice people make very silly claims such as "one cannot be a feminist and be pro-life." Seems pretty to easy to me. I hope we are all agreed that someone may not kill a newborn child simply because it is annoying her and she has decided she would rather not deal with it - and that that position is consitent with feminism. So in that instance, a baby's right to life trumps the mother's right to happiness. And suppose I think that a fetus has the same moral claims as a newborn (again, not a stupid view). Suppose I also believe that women should have equal rights and be treated with respect. Seems a pretty plausible pro-life feminist.

Abortion is legal. Fine. No one should hinder someone who is seeking an abortion. But it does seem reasonable to ensure that people who believe abortion is murder should not be asked to pay for abortions. William Saletan was right: if you want government to cover health care, you invite interference in what used to be private decisions. Which is what conservatives had been saying all along, but progressives dismissed. As long as birth control is covered (and such coverage should be required), I am relatively unmoved by those who insist we should pay for abortions.

If progressives want to cover the abortions of poor women, create a private charity. Abortions are not hugely expensive, and it should be easy enough to do. But don't ask people to pay for something that they believe to be actual murder.

UPDATE: Stupak has exceptions for rape, incest, or saving the woman's life. (I'm never sure why incest gets included, unless it is coerced, but then it's rape - but that's an issue for another day). I would like it to be covered in the case of the health of the woman, as well.