4.22.2011

Cryptic

"Are -are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name."

-- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2.17.2011

Something rotten in the state of Pennsylvania

For those of you who have missed the gruesome case of Kermit Gosnell and his victims, Slate has a grim article. It reads like something from an Eli Roth movie. [For the second time in a week, I feel moved to offer a disclaimer that the article details some horrifying crimes. It (and the remainder of this post) should be avoided if you're squeamish.] Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor (I can barely bring myself to type that word, in this case), is accused of numerous things, the most grievous being the murder of newborns by severing their spinal cords.

The case throws into stark relief some of the more pressing ethical questions about abortion and murder, certainly late-term abortions. I intend to side-step that thorny issue, and to focus merely on the same question William Saletan appears to be asking in his series of articles on the subject -- how could this have been allowed to happen, and how did the politics of abortion contribute?

There are these disturbing images:
The grand jury's report, citing forensic evidence and testimony from clinic employees, accuses Gosnell of routinely delivering viable babies and severing their spinal cords. But it also details ill treatment of women. According to the report, Gosnell used unlicensed workers to administer anesthesia, failed to obtain patients' informed consent, gave them expired drugs; endangered their health with poor sanitation and broken equipment, and caused the deaths of at least two women.
Unless I am gravely mistaken, one of the central tenets of the pro-choice movement is that restrictions on abortion will lead to unsafe conditions just like this, except performed in back alleys. Apparently this clinic exists as some kind of horrible converse.
From 1993 on, Gosnell went completely uninspected. The grand jury says the health department "decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. … With the change of administration from Governor Casey to Governor Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be 'putting a barrier up to women' seeking abortions." Casey was pro-life; Ridge was pro-choice.
I cannot understand this at all. In a world where our restaurants are inspected to confirm a basic level of sanitation, how can a "clinic" where invasive medical procedures are performed escape even the barest scrutiny? This seems like the worst effect of the worst kind of political cowardice.

This just sent me over the edge:
The other agency that could have stopped Gosnell was Pennsylvania's Department of State, which included the state Board of Medicine. According to the grand jury, the department ignored complaints about Gosnell for years. The complaints involved unlicensed administration of anesthesia; sexually transmitted infections (apparently spread by the clinic itself); perforated uteruses, cervixes, and bowels; hospitalizations of infected patients; and family members prevented from summoning emergency aid. The consequences allegedly included a hysterectomy and a patient's death.
This truly enrages me. A few years ago, a completely frivolous complaint was filed against me; it was absurd on its face. Despite its obvious lack of merit, I had to go through a lengthy response process, during which time the complaint and the records were reviewed by the Board (in a different state). The complaint was dismissed as soon as it could be, but even for a gripe as patently ridiculous as the one I faced, a very formal protocol was followed.

Seeing how grossly patient welfare can be affected by a break-down in the system meant to protect it, I am almost grateful for the seeming other extreme of my own experience. (I still think there should be a speedier process for dispensing with complaints that are clearly frivolous or abusive.) Given the gravity of the multiple complaints lodged against Gosnell, every single person involved in handling them is guilty of negligence, at the very least.

I understand that the abortion issue is immensely fraught. I can see how onerous regulations could be used to stymie access to legal, safe abortions. But using those issues as an excuse to abdicate regulatory responsibilities is partially to blame for the death of at least two women and many infants. Everyone involved deserves our collective anger, not merely the monster who perpetrated the acts themselves.

2.14.2011

Still, it's better than Crash

A few disclaimers:

1) I am not a big fan of hip-hop music. This probably has much to do with the kinds of music I was raised with, which tended toward Nanci Griffith and classical. I do not consider my lack of appreciation a reflection on the inherent quality of the musical form.

2) I am not a big fan of Eminem in particular. I think he is a misogynistic, homophobic lout.

3) I did not watch the Grammy Awards last night. Acting awards shows I watch like a religion. Anything else, music awards shows especially, I skip.

All that said, I know with 100% transcendent certainty that the winner of a couple of last night's big awards was wrong. Deeply, deeply wrong. From the Times:
Asserting the power and versatility of the new Nashville, the country-pop trio Lady Antebellum was the big winner at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, which were presented on Sunday night at the Staples Center arena here.

In a night of upsets, the band won five prizes, including the top two awards for a single track — record and song of the year — for “Need You Now,” besting Eminem and Jay-Z, as well as sweeping the country categories. It won in every category in which it was nominated except album of the year, which went to the indie-rock heroes Arcade Fire for “The Suburbs,” the first time a band solidly in the alt-rock world has taken that top category.
No. No, no, no.

I have heard "Need You Now" in various shopping centers, occasionally when flipping through channels, and maybe once on the radio before frantically spinning the knob to anything else. "Need You Now" is like Xanax-laced pudding being forced into one's brain through the ears. It makes "We've Only Just Begun" sound like "Darling Nikki." It could make Ambien obsolete.

It is inoffensive enough, I suppose. But there is no way it could possibly be considered the "Best" of anything.

Which cafe is to blame for Pol Pot?

I read a harrowing article in Slate (via Yglesias via Plain Blog) about Stalin and the enforced famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It is, among other things, an exploration of the question about which was "worse," Communism or Fascism, Hitler or Stalin, or whether one can ever meaningfully answer such a question. The article itself hinges on the gruesome facts about cannibalism during the famine, and what it says about the depths to which humanity can plunge itself.

Anyone who clicks through the link should be aware that the article contains very graphic and unsettling descriptions of cannibalism. These details are not central to my point. Ron Rosenbaum, the author, believes it important to state open-eyed at what people are capable of doing to each other in the extremes of suffering and deprivation. I disagree somewhat, in that I think most of us know that unspeakable circumstances produce unspeakable horrors. However, knowing the truth about human history allows us to view the present more honestly, and I think it is important for us not to fool ourselves that human beings are innately incapable of ghastly crimes. (It is also important to remember that the same extremes of suffering and cruelty can also bring out remarkable heroism and charity.)

Having made my way through the article, though, I found myself started by this rather baffling conclusion:
Finally, the only other conclusion one can draw is that "European civilization" is an oxymoron. These horrors, Nazi and Communist, all arose out of European ideas, political and philosophical, being put into practice. Even the Cambodian genocide had its genesis in the cafes of Paris where Pol Pot got his ideas. Hitler got his ideas in the cafes of Vienna.
I don't think that this holds up under even cursory scrutiny.

First of all, it is absurd on its face to say that the killing fields of Cambodia or the horrors of the Great Leap Forward were "European." Their beginnings may have been in the cafes of foreign capitals, out of "European ideas," but they actually occurred far away at the hands of different people. Power-mad, depraved leaders can make the worst of any idea from anywhere, and one civilization is not responsible for the corrosion of another. Pol Pot and Mao did what they did where they did, to and with their own people. You can't blame that one Europe.

Further, even if the most heinous crimes of the 2oth century had their origins in European thought, the Holocaust was a wholesale failure of European civilization, not a negation. European civilization was and is not uniquely resistant to failure (as any passing student of history could tell you), but that doesn't mean that it hasn't existed. The worst that a society can do doesn't cancel out the best. Josef Mengele doesn't void Louis Pasteur, and Joseph Stalin doesn't nullify Immanuel Kant.

Finally, if we're going to blame Europe for the worst foreign iterations of its ideas, then it's only reasonable to credit it for the best. Which means Europe gets credit for American civilization, with its system of laws and civic virtues that herald back to their European roots. Unless one recognizes only the ugly and repellent as true, there is plenty to show that European civilization has inspired beauty and excellent.

Rosenbaum's larger points about the futility of comparing epic evils and trying to determine a system of ranking them stand up much better. When a figure blots out the lives of millions of people, that person defies our ability to categorize and parse, and deserves only the grimmest judgments of history.

2.11.2011

If only they'd all boycotted

Oh, bother. I was really hoping that the presence of gays at CPAC would keep social conservatives away en masse. (Good luck infiltrating, guys! We'll squeak our agenda through yet!)

In all seriousness, it would be grand if the GOP would jettison the more obviously theocratic elements of the conservative movement. It would be a small first step toward making them sane again.

Sadly, this guy apparently showed up:
[Grand Hierophant Rick] Santorum also called social issues "the issues that bind us," and that when it comes to those issues, "just because it's not popular doesn't mean it's not true."

"The Judiciary cannot create life, and it did not create marriage, and it has no right to redefine either one," he continued.

"America belongs to God," Santorum said, "and we are the stewards of that great gift."

Who is this "us" that is bound by social issues? I feel a sneaking suspicion that I'm not included in that "us." I rather fear I fall into the "them" category. Further, I suspect that if it gives you pause to think that God owns America, you may also fall into the "them" category.

Between Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump (Donald Trump? Really?), I don't think there's been a sane headliner at CPAC yet this year. As much as it chills my spine to think I might agree with Sarah Palin about anything, part of me understands why she never bothers to show up at this thing.

2.10.2011

Internet Use 101

Every so often, someone uses a computer in such a flagrantly stupid way that it demonstrates how unfit they are for the job they have, even if the offense itself doesn't seem disqualifying per se. A little while ago it was those SEC officials using their work computers (which also happened to be government computers) to surf the Web for porn. Now it seems that an astounding lack of Internet savvy has cost former Rep. Christopher Lee (R - 1994) his job.

Mr. Lee, if you're reading, here are some tips to guide you as you enter the job market. I wouldn't have thought this was necessary in 2011, but apparently I was wrong.

1) If you're a married member of Congress, you should probably not be using Craigslist to troll for sex.

2) If you disregard tip #1, you should probably not troll for sex on Craigslist by sending out pictures of yourself sans shirt. It makes the fact that you are trolling for sex a wee bit more obvious than is seemly. (Nice guns, though.)

3) If you disregard tips #1 and #2, you should probably crop out your face. Should you find a woman who is interested in hooking up with you despite your rather blatant goals, I imagine you can find a less compromising way to get a picture of your face to her without making you seem quite so indiscreet.

I do feel a little bit sorry for ex-Rep. Lee. I don't really think being a complete nincompoop about Craigslist is disqualifying for elected office, and none of this was really anyone's business. (His wife being the obvious exception.) Perhaps a classier, more admirably live-and-let-live young woman wouldn't have sent the pictures on to Gawker, but that's the risk one runs when disregarding tips #1-3 above, and maybe she thought a married member of Congress had it coming.

Lessons learned too late for quondam MOC Lee. Hopefully his former colleagues are a bit wiser than he.

2.07.2011

Unenthused

I am not at all excited about this:
The Huffington Post, which began in 2005 with a meager $1 million investment and has grown into one of the most heavily visited news Web sites in the country, is being acquired by AOL in a deal that creates an unlikely pairing of two online media giants.

The two companies completed the sale Sunday evening and announced the deal just after midnight on Monday. AOL will pay $315 million, $300 million of it in cash and the rest in stock. It will be the company’s largest acquisition since it was separated from Time Warner in 2009.

[snip]

Arianna Huffington, the cable talk show pundit, author and doyenne of the political left, will take control of all of AOL’s editorial content as president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. The arrangement will give her oversight not only of AOL’s national, local and financial news operations, but also of the company’s other media enterprises like MapQuest and Moviefone.
I don't think anyone can argue that HuffPo isn't huge. It is an enormously successful site, and there's no question that it's managed to draw lots of eyeballs.

What it isn't is all that good. Its headlines often misrepresent the content of the articles to draw more attention to them. Its health and wellness section is rife with ridiculous pseudoscience and celebrity hooey. In less than twenty seconds I found this article about "doctors" of homeopathy, for whom I have roughly the same degree of collegial respect as your friendly neighborhood witch doctor. This kind of content needs less credibility and exposure, not more.

Further, I'm not sure I understand why Arianna is going to be in charge of content at AOL. HuffPo traffics largely in content generated elsewhere, and then tarted up with an inflammatory, eye-catching headline. True, she has lots of famous friends willing to write pieces of questionable quality for her, but being a well-connected self-promoter isn't necessarily a sign of editorial savvy.

Arianna Huffington is the left's Mitt Romney, pretty much willing to take whichever view is ascendant. While she is ambitious and well-spoken, I am skeptical that she is all that insightful or talented. On the other hand, this can't work out any worse than AOL's Time Warner fiasco.

2.04.2011

Hopping off the Hopey-Changey Express

During my evening commute last night, I caught an excerpt of the President's speech at Penn State yesterday on the radio. In the brief bit I heard, he talked about increasing energy efficiency in buildings around the country as a way of helping both the environment and the economy.

The content of what he had to say seemed reasonable enough, and on its face appeared to be part of a sensible economic plan. What left me musing wasn't what little I heard him say, but rather my response to it.

I didn't find him annoying.

Sad to say, the last couple of times I've heard President Obama deliver major addresses, I've come away unimpressed. I'm still very much a supporter, but his much-vaunted oratorical skills have been leaving me cold. Both his speech in Tucson after the Giffords attack and his State of the Union sounded hackneyed and formulaic. Given that most of the reviews I read gave him positive marks, at least regarding the former, clearly it wasn't just that he had given lousy speeches. Why did I find him such a thrilling speaker as a candidate, only to watch the bloom come off the rose when he assumed office?

I think I figured it out. Both his Tucson speech and SOTU were heavy on broad themes. Lots of rhetoric about unity and America's character, lots of grandiloquent language and orotund prosody. In many ways, they were reminiscent of some of his more famous speeches, going back to his heralded (and, in my opinion, brilliant) speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The problem is that we all know what happened after all those fabulous speeches about changing the culture and tone of Washington, and Hope and Change and such. I remember 2008 fondly, but 2009 came immediately thereafter and blew any illusions about changing DC to smithereens. It was, if anything, even more rankly partisan than before. And while I place the blame for that almost entirely with the GOP, it was a bummer to see that part of my hope for the Obama administration was nothing more than idealistic hooey.

(Yes, yes. I should have known better. Shame on me. But it's not like that was the ONLY reason I voted for him. Hell, with Palin on the other ticket, I would probably have voted for Captain Kangaroo.)

Having now come back to my misanthropic, politically cynical senses, I no longer yearn to hear the POTUS wax poetic about American virtue or character or beauty. Heard it, thanks. Didn't take. Not sure it's his fault, but no longer interested in hearing any more about it. Even if the Tucson event called for such rhetoric, I'm no longer personally receptive to it. (And, sorry, but I still think all the audience whooping was inappropriate.) Any time I hear it now, it sounds hollow and devoid of much merit.

When he gets to specifics, on the other hand, I'm happy to hear him speak.

2.03.2011

A question for our media overlords

If I just make crazy shit up, can I be a[n overpaid at any price] pundit, too?

On humility

Yesterday's Times Magazine has a harrowing article about shaken-baby syndrome. Its tragic and shocking subject matter makes it particularly challenging to read. I have (blessedly) never been directly involved in the care of a shaken infant. I remember a case being discussed at morning rounds once during my fellowship in New York City, but my subspecialty is unrelated and I heard nothing further about it. I hope I am lucky enough never to encounter this diagnosis again in the course of my career.

What I know about shaken-baby syndrome (on which I will not dwell in detail) is retained from residency, with a medical education conference or two on the subject since then. There is a constellation of findings that, viewed together, are pathognomonic for the syndrome. That is, if you find these things, they point conclusively toward shaken-baby syndrome. If these, then that, QED.

Except, maybe not?
A dozen years ago, the medical profession held that if the triad of subdural and retinal bleeding and brain swelling was present without a fracture or bruise that would indicate, for example, that a baby had accidently fallen, abuse must have occurred through shaking. In the past decade, that consensus has begun to come undone. In 2008, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, after reviewing a shaken-baby case, wrote that there is “fierce disagreement” among doctors about the shaken-baby diagnosis, signaling “a shift in mainstream medical opinion.” In the same year, at the urging of the province’s chief forensic pathologist, the Ontario government began a review of 142 shaken-baby cases, because of “the scientific uncertainty that has come to characterize that diagnosis.” In Britain, after one mother’s shaken-baby conviction was overturned, Peter Goldsmith, then attorney general, reviewed 88 more cases. In 2006, he announced doubts about three of the convictions because they were based solely on the triad; in the other cases, Goldsmith said, there was additional evidence pointing to the defendant’s guilt.
I found this genuinely startling. There was such certainty in how I was taught regarding this diagnosis. If this, then that. If retinal hemorrhages and subdural hematomata are present, shaken-baby syndrome is the horrifying but clear diagnosis. Nothing left but to find the perpetrator. While this emerging information doesn't mean a baby with these findings wasn't shaken, it seems this diagnostic certainty is unfounded.

In my current position, I am not on staff in an emergency department. It is supremely unlikely that I will ever be called upon to make this diagnosis. The impact of this new controversy on my particular practice is likely to be minimal.

And yet, this was rather a dizzying article for me to read. It serves as an important reminder that, as a physician, there must always be humility in my approach to individual patients and accepted treatments. As a profession, we must always be willing to admit new information, and to question even the most seemingly unimpeachable evidence. It's good to be reminded of this now and then.

(As an addendum, this might lead regular readers to question if I would be willing to accept a link between vaccines and autism if evidence emerged to suggest it. My reply to this hypothetical question is that I have always been willing to accept a link between the two, were said evidence to meet the standards required of medical science. Given that the supposed link was first introduced through fraud [a fact his supporters are all too happy to blithely ignore] and no compelling science has actually supported a link despite vigorous and good-faith efforts to investigate it, I remain confident in my convictions. Should credible evidence emerge that causes me to question even this belief, I would give it my honest attention.)

1.31.2011

Absent from any ledger

I've been meaning to write an additional follow-up post about one thing President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address, and am only just now getting around to it. As a bone he seemed to throw toward the ascendant GOP, the POTUS mentioned a willingness to consider malpractice reform as the health care reform bill is tossed around during this next Congress.

I, of course, think this is just dandy. I am, after all, a doctor. However, I think it's dandy because I really do believe it will lower health care costs in America.

During my morning commute the next day, they were fact-checking the speech on Morning Edition. Among the things they questioned was how much malpractice costs contribute to health care costs overall. The take-home lesson is that tort reform would save very little money. A similar argument was made a while ago in the Times, and the amount that could be saved was described as a "rounding error" because it would be so small.

I think this misses the mark. Buried in the Times piece is this exchange:
Q.

But it’s not just the cost of premiums and litigation. What about the charge that it causes doctors to practice “defensive medicine,” ordering tests that are expensive and unnecessary?

A.

A 1996 study in Florida found defensive medicine costs could be as high as 5 to 7 percent. But when the same authors went back a few years later, they found that managed care had brought it down to 2.5 to 3.5 percent of the total. No one has a good handle on defensive medicine costs. Liability is supposed to change behavior, so some defensive medicine is good. Undoubtedly some of it may be unnecessary, but we don’t have a good way to separate the two. [italics in original, but emphasis added]


In other words, nobody really knows how much so-called "defensive medicine" (or "CYA medicine" -- you figure it out) really costs. Allow me to suggest that it costs a whole hell of a lot.

I defy you to find a medical provider who has never ordered tests he or she knew to be unnecessary in order to placate an anxious or irate or demanding patient or parent. This is not to say that anxious/irate/demanding health care consumers do not sometimes have real medical problems that are discovered because they pressed for further testing; medical providers are fallible, and sometimes the tests prove to be more important than initially suspected. But there are, I guarantee, innumerable instances when tests or consultations are ordered with low suspected yield, and with little or no useful outcome.

Speaking merely for myself, I try like the dickens to avoid ordering unnecessary tests, and I go to great lengths to explain why I don't think they are indicated. I try to do this in a way that addresses parents'/patients' concerns, so as to avoid making them feel ignored or dismissed. But sometimes the demand persists, and it's a hard call whether it's better to acquiesce or have a pissed-off patient.

Nowhere is there a box to check "I am ordering this to appease a demanding mother" or "This test is to cover a plausible number of obscure diagnoses, thus creating the appearance of due diligence and limiting potential liability." No provider is going to put any indication of this reasoning in the medical record. In fact, just the opposite is likely, with physicians and other practitioners making an effort to explain why they did what they did in case the chart is ever audited by insurance carriers. These costs are, and will remain, hidden.

How much of an impact would tort reform have? I have no idea. But I suspect it is much greater than any study would be able to determine a priori.

Almost makes me wish I ate there

I have never eaten a Chick-fil-A sandwich in my life. I've seen it in various mall food courts (mainly back in the day when I lived in Missouri), and have never been moved to try the food. Something about the weird way they spell the chain's name, with the bizarre phonetics and hyphens and capitalization, gets on my nerves. For an unapologetic nerd like me, that's reason enough to take my chances on the reheated pizza next door.

It seems I've inadvertently been making a sound dining choice. From the Times (with a tip of the hat to my friend Ken):
Nicknamed “Jesus chicken” by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.
Damn. I can't stop eating at a chain I never tried in the first place.
On a petition posted on the Web site change.org, [Georgia Equality] asks the company to stop supporting groups perceived as anti-gay, including Focus on the Family, an international nonprofit organization that teamed up with Chick-fil-A a few years ago to give away CDs of its Bible-based “Adventures in Odyssey” radio show with every kid’s meal.
Can I just say that a CD of a Focus on the Family radio show may quite possibly be the crappiest kid's meal prize ever? It's like getting a box of dessicated raisins on Halloween.

I think attempts to get the chain booted from college campuses are misguided. While I find the organization's support of fundamentalist Christian, socially-conservative policy odious, it's a free country and the owners of a privately-held company can do whatever they want with their money. I support the rights of people to hold views I consider anathema. The answer to objectionable speech, as my pal Burt would say, isn't to silence it, but to counter it with more speech.

I support the drive to inform people what their money may be subsidizing. People who object can choose to clog their arteries with chicken sandwiches purchased elsewhere. If enough people choose to penalize Chick-fil-A (that is incredibly irritating to type) where it counts, they may choose to stop funding dogmatic bigotry.

---

OK, this is totally off-topic, but since I've already mentioned by nerdish tendencies I'm going to gripe about an unrelated pet peeve in the article.
But Douglas Quint, a concert bassoonist who operates The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York during the summer, said he believed that people should make informed decisions about their food.

“It literally leaves a bad taste because I know the people who are putting this food in my mouth actively loathe me,” he said. “I’m all for freedom of religion, it’s just that I know where I want my money to go and I don’t want my money to go.”

I agree with Mr. Quint about where people spend their money. I love the idea of a concert bassoonist who operates The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. I only wish he knew what "literally" means. Because unless the actions of Chick-fil-A's owners have altered the flavoring of their sandwiches or the function of Mr. Quinn's taste buds, I believe the word he was looking for was "figuratively."

1.27.2011

A less beautiful place

You know, I have no idea how much it costs to have illegal immigrants in this country. I suspect that, being undocumented, it's nearly impossible to get accurate information about how much they contribute to the country by doing hard, unpleasant, low-prestige work for low wages. Maybe they cost more than they contribute, but somehow I doubt it.

No matter the costs, however, I just can't get myself all that riled up about illegal immigrants. Perhaps it's my weak, liberal soul that insists about seeing them as people seeking a better life for themselves instead of menacing parasites. Perhaps it's because fully half of my family arrived in this country after fleeing the Ukraine at the turn of the last century (cue "Anatevka"), and I suspect if you'd polled Americans at the time they wouldn't have been too thrilled at having them here. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I lived in Arizona or another border state with an undeniable problem with drug cartels and crime. Who knows?

However, this just makes me angry (via TPM):
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have now teamed up -- and they're aiming very high. The two have proposed a constitutional amendment, to get rid of birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

From their joint press release, their proposal will declare "a person born in the United States to illegal aliens does not automatically gain citizenship unless at least one parent is a legal citizen, legal immigrant, active member of the Armed Forces or a naturalized legal citizen."

I sought clarification from Vitter's office as to whether this would be a full-fledged amendment to the Constitution, or a lesser legislative route. It is indeed a proposed amendment to the Constitution.

I hope they fail. I hope they fail spectacularly.

One of the things I love most about this country is its embrace of its immigrant past, and its symbolic welcome to oppressed and suffering people from around the world. I thought (wrongly?) that it was a source of national pride. We were ready enough to affix words to that effect in one of our most famous monuments. (Given our more recent disdain for all things French, should we give it back?) It makes America more beautiful, as far as I'm concerned.

Clearly this vision isn't shared by the likes of David Vitter and Rand Paul. Which I don't find surprising. Tragic, but not surprising.

You only get one brain

A few weeks ago, I went onto The Google to look for running resources in my hometown. I enjoy running a lot (except when the Powers that Be insist upon dumping piles of snow on New England every few days *shakes fist angrily at sky*), and was looking into resources for a family member who had indicated an interest in running herself. By searching with "[hometown]" and "running" I found nothing helpful for her, but I did come across a YouTube video of high school running back being interviewed after a game. The description caught my eye, so I watched it. (Sadly, I'm not particularly keen to tell everyone where I'm from, so readers who don't already know my hometown won't be able to find the video in question. Were they so inclined.)

In the video, the player describes taking a hit and blacking out briefly. However, as the interviewer approvingly notes, the player "manned up" and got right back in the game, wherein he apparently made a some impressive plays.

Suffice it to say, my own reaction was less approving. While I am loath to make any diagnosis without my own history and physical, what the player described was almost certainly a concussion. Presuming this diagnosis is valid, he absolutely should not have returned to play, and should have instead received medical attention shortly thereafter. But that wouldn't have been "manning up," I suppose, and would have lacked heroic appeal.

Ben McGrath has an excellent article about football and concussions in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Anyone who is interested in the subject would do well to read it. It is a subject that deserves as much attention as possible, because the long-term effects of repeated concussions are only just now coming to light. Parents of athletes, particularly in contact sports, should read it with care.

I encounter a lot of patients who have sustained some kind of head trauma during sports participation, and I'm glad to say that coaches and trainers in the area increasingly seem to be treating concussions with appropriate vigilance. I work in a relatively affluent and well-educated area, so it's no surprise that parents here would be more attuned to shifting norms and health care recommendations. While the best approach to concussion management is an area of ongoing research, and there's still a lack of clarity in how best to advise and treat these patients, it is definitely a condition to be respected, and not downplayed or shrugged off.

I don't want to make too much of one video found randomly, even if it is from my hometown. But it certainly reminded me that there are plenty of players and coaches and fans who don't appreciate the long-term significance of concussions (especially more than one) in athletes. We are learning new and encouraging things about brain plasticity, but brain-damaged patients can find themselves progressively and permanently disabled. No sport is worth that.

My long-awaited SOTU reax

Meh.

I'm with Jonathan Bernstein on this one. I thought it was a pretty lackluster speech. I didn't hear anything important or newsworthy. There were still umpteen tedious standing ovations, they just weren't as entertaining because they weren't as obviously partisan due to the seating arrangements. (I was all for the mixed seating in principle, but having sat through the speech and realized once again how full of meaningless theater the SOTU often is, the least I could hope for is entertainment in the future. Switch back.)

I still like President Obama a lot. I think he's shaping up to be a very good president in many ways. There are things I'd like him to address that he hasn't because they're political kryptonite (like entitlement reform), but generally I agree with his policies more than I disagree. I can (almost) guarantee I will vote for him again (given the lack of any GOP candidate I could even conceive of voting for), and I will likely contribute to his campaign.

But man, I just no longer enjoy his speeches. I hear all the rhetorical flourishes and modulations in tone and get annoyed, not inspired. I find him heavy on boilerplate and light on specifics. To quote one of my favorite lines of all time from "The Simpsons," his reference to our "Sputnik moment" smacked of effort. But at least I like him more than this guy.

I consider it something of a duty to watch major presidential addresses, no matter who's in office. It seems like a necessary part of being an informed citizen. But even for a political junkie like me, the State of the Union felt more like a visit to the dentist than even an enjoyable piece of political theater, much less a forum for introduction of anything important. Maybe next year I'll skip it.

1.24.2011

Funniest thing I've read all day

This side-splitter from the Dish:
The Dish doesn't hate Palin.
Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, hahahahahahahahahahaha!!

*whew*

Look, I think Sarah Palin is the pits. I think she is the embodiment of all that ails American politics these days. If she were to eschew all thoughts of running for high office for perpetuity, I would breathe a sigh of relief and consider the country safer. I make no bones about this, and would be fooling nobody to pretend otherwise.

I am practically the president of the "Up with Palin!" fan club compared to Andrew Sullivan. He haaaaaaaaaaates her. He hates her so much that pretty much everyone who reads his blog has started rolling their eyes whenever he talks about her. It's drawn plenty of commentary and criticism within the political blogosphere, and he occasionally even publishes letters from readers saying "enough already!" His hatred for Palin so clouded his judgment that he embarrassingly embraced the obvious reprobate and famewhore Levi Johnston because Levi possibly had dirt about her. (It didn't hurt that Johnston is good looking.) In fact, this isn't the first time I've said this.

Now, it's his blog and he can bash whom he wants to. But this high-minded sniffing that he doesn't "hate" Palin is galling. It's annoying and fools nobody.

That's it. I'm old -- redux

I remember, in the misty reaches of my youth, a time when Madonna was considered provocative. (Young readers [if you exist], don't snicker. It's true.) Why, watching her writhe around on stage in a bridal gown while singing a song that implied she wasn't a virgin anymore was downright scandalizing!

I was a teenager when MTV decided not to air her "Justify My Love" video, a decision that was considered newsworthy for some reason. I was very into Madonna at the time (what some might consider an example of "foreshadowing"), and was really, really interested in knowing what my favorite pop star had done. My father, being an obliging chap, recorded the episode of "Nightline" during which the video was aired and discussed. I was, as the kids these days would say, totes excited. Imagine my dismay then, when I eagerly pressed "play" on the old VCR, only to find that someone had paused the recorder during the part where the video was shown, and restarted it for the subsequent analysis and discussion. Someone, it turns out, was not so very obliging after all. This was an example of what I understand to be "parenting." (I have since managed to pollute my mind with the video in question.)

I bring all of this up to make two points about the new MTV series "Skins," which they gleefully ripped off from the BBC. I've seen a couple of episodes of the British original, which seems to revolve around the louche lives of a bunch of desultory teenagers. I found it kind of dull, but then again I'm old. Here's what the Times has to say:
Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Senior executives are now considering additional editing for coming episodes, but that’s a little like trying to lock the door after a naked 17-year-old has already busted out and gone running down the street, which is precisely what one of the characters does in Episode 3 — with a pill-enhanced erection, no less.

Charming.

In retrospect, MTV's refusal to air Madonna's video seems downright quaint, doesn't it? In two short decades they've gone from a firm "no stylized video orgies" stance to possibly violating child pornography laws. Strong work, MTV! Shall we expect hard-core porn in another twenty?

The other thought that crossed my mind reading the Times article this morning was that today's well-intentioned parents are pretty much outta luck if they wish to keep their kids from watching this show. (Lord knows, if I were still an adolescent now, the chances I would be allowed to watch "Skins" are somewhere between "diddly" and "squat.") Media technology being what it is, would-be viewers of any age can find the content with minimal effort on the Internet.

Now, the debate about whether shows like this corrupt otherwise innocent youth or merely reflect the already-corrupt state that they're in is nothing new, and I'm not going to cluck my tongue that society is going to crumble before our eyes because of this particular program. I do think that MTV has done more than any other single media outlet to make our popular culture more obnoxious, idiotic and crass, and yes, I am including Fox in that statement. However, I suspect the Republic will survive yet another assault on its crumbling sense of taste and decorum.

What are modern parents to do? Here's my plan for when the Critter wants to watch whatever horror MTV or the like has made popular when he's a teenager -- I plan to suffer through watching the damn thing myself, and then make him talk to me about it. (If I can suffer through "V," I can suffer through anything.) Trying fruitlessly to prevent him from watching what will then probably be streamable right into his visual cortex seems a waste of effort. Watching it myself and making him listen to my opinion will serve two purposes -- I will be able to at least temper the malign influence of the show with my own perspectives, and I will be able to suck all the pleasure out of his watching it by making it a chore. Nothing is less cool than something your parents make you talk about.

If I can ruin something tantalizing and prurient for my own adolescent son, I will consider myself a success as a parent.

1.22.2011

That's it. I'm old

I once caught about half of the tail end of an episode of "Jersey Shore." Knowing it to be a cultural phenomenon, I elected to keep watching once I figured out what I'd found.

I do not understand the appeal of this show on any level. It is poorly-made and edited, with awful production values. It features characters who are not merely boorish and stupid, but are boring to boot. Nothing even remotely fascinating happened, and the only thing I learned is that apparently "smoosh" is the euphemism for fornication favored by a certain subpopulation.

The world does not make sense to me. From the Times:
MTV’s “Jersey Shore” set yet another viewing record Thursday night and once again crushed every competitor in television in terms of reaching younger viewers.

The latest episode of the hit reality show attracted 8.9 million viewers, a new record for any series ever on MTV, up 300,000 from the record the show set a week before.

More viewers watched “Jersey Shore” from 10 to 11 p.m. on Thursday than watched programs on both NBC and ABC. Only the CBS drama “The Mentalist” had more total viewers, with 14.8 million. But “Jersey Shore” had almost double the number of viewers in the advertiser-preferred group of 18 to 49 — 6.2 million viewers to 3.7 million for “The Mentalist.”

The only explanation I can concoct is that some process within my brain has occurred, on some kind of time-released basis. I must have passed a threshold at which point my neurons or endocrine system or something must have stopped synthesizing whatever compound is necessary to enjoy entertainments of this kind. Where I see a collection of louts whose stupidity and crassness are exceeded only by their banality, those lucky people with this mystery hormone or neurotransmitter still in their systems must see a troupe of lovable rascals, whose jolly exploits never fail to captivate and amuse.

Well, nothing to be done about it, I suppose. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go boil myself an egg, leaf through a nice back issue of Reader's Digest, and lie down for a while.

1.21.2011

Hahahahaha... oh, wait.

I just drove over an hour in really awful snow with some of the worst drivers in the developed world (take a bow, New England!), so I was in the mood for something simple and soothing after sitting down to start my day. With coffee in hand, what could be better than making fun of Michele Bachmann? Just what my jangled nerves needed!

Via TPM:
"This is not symbolic, this is why we were sent here and we will not stop until we repeal a president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill, until we repeal the current Senate, put in a Senate that will listen to the American people and repeal this bill," Bachmann said on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.
Ha!! "Repeal" the President and the current Senate! What a nincompoop!

Except, before I posted another lazy "I do not think it means what you think it means" snipe, I wanted to be sure she was actually wrong. Sad to say, friends, technically she wasn't.

From Mirriam-Webster:
1: to rescind or annul by authoritative act; especially : to revoke or abrogate by legislative enactment
2: abandon, renounce
3 obsolete :to summon to return : recall

Damn! Curse you, Bachmann! Spoil my fun with your awkward, obsolete but technically (and probably inadvertently) correct usage! You win this round!

Now, if only we could teach her the correct definition of "socialism."

1.20.2011

Want to read an interesting take on class in America?

Try this.

Confidential to the creators of "V"

First of all, let's just deal with the embarrassing fact that I am watching your series at all. I do this, because like all married people (legal or not), sometimes one accommodates the guilty pleasures of one's beloved. I'm allowed to mock and complain, loudly and persistently, about the incredibly crummy plot/dialogue/acting/production values, which contains a certain pleasure of its own (as any fan of MST3K can tell you). The Better Half seems to enjoy my looks of incredulity at every dunderheaded depth you manage to plumb, so in the end it's a win-win. Kind of.

And I am grateful that you're giving Morena Baccarin work. I'm glad to see anyone from "Firefly" get work. (Unless the work is for Andrew Breitbart.) While it's hardly saying much, her performance is the best on your wretched show, which is otherwise uniformly dreadful. (And it's hardly her best work. See above re: "Firefly.")

Finally, it's not that I'm not sympathetic. Doubtless, sitting around whatever fancy room Hollywood types sit around when they decide what bandwagon to jump on, it seemed like a no-brainer to revive another retro sci-fi franchise after the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot did so well. (It is one of the absurdities of my life that I have not yet seen that critically-acclaimed series but am suffering through this one.) Sadly, there seems to be a tremendous gap between their creative achievement and yours.

[Readers who are subjecting themselves to this travesty of a television program, haven't seen this week's episode and wish to remain ignorant of its plot should note my SPOILER ALERT here.]

This week, you crossed two lines. The first is appalling in its way, but relatively innocent and even somewhat amusing. The second is morally ugly.

I am willing to accept a certain degree of silliness in my science-fiction or fantasy entertainments. Trying to, for example, suss out the economics of Harry Potter novels misses the point a bit, if you ask me. I'm willing to accept that, somehow, egg-laying alien reptiles are able to reproduce with placental mammals like humans. It makes no sense, but some suspension of disbelief is often necessary to enjoy sci-fi. There are many, many absurd scientific holes in your plot, but I've tried to swallow them all. This week, you made my jaw drop.

Apparently you expect us to believe that one of the characters has had all of the base-pairs of his DNA removed, in an insidious plot to replace them with alien genetic material. After running complicated tests (on a tiny spot of blood, in itself preposterous but only obviously so to people who have had to submit blood tests in real life), the nerdish scientist wondered aloud how the character has survived with his DNA thus altered. The answer is, of course, that he couldn't. It is 100% impossible to construct any explanation for this. DNA provides instructions for all basic cellular functioning, without which people cannot live. He could no more live without base pairs than he could live with his lungs packed solid with plaster of Paris. Thanks for doing your part, however, to make the American viewing public dumber.

Worse than your intellectual crimes, however, is your moral one. Last night featured the graphic torture of one of the alien characters, which we are meant to watch approvingly. Your characters are suffering from "Jack Bauer syndrome," it seems. Watching the "good guys" do unspeakably horrible things to one of the bad guys then toss her body aside made me sick to my stomach. Moreover, the "heroes" committed their crimes with minimal hesitation (and they hesitated for utilitarian reasons, not ethical one), and with evident gusto and smug, swaggering satisfaction.

Good guys don't torture
. Ever. There was no need to construct the plot to create a "ticking time bomb "situation," and the scene was the very definition of gratuitous.

I can forgive your show for being asinine and shoddy. I suspect nobody's knowledge of biology will be seriously affected by your lame-brained storyline. But your small contribution to America's moral corrosion is beyond the pale.

Stop now.

1.17.2011

Enough with the whining

Freddie DeBoer, late of the League, has a long, griping piece on his blog about the dearth of truly liberal voices in the blogosphere (via Plain Blog.) It's difficult to find a paragraph that is truly indicative of the whole piece, but here's as close as I can find:
That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention. Who, exactly, represents the left extreme in the establishment blogosphere? You'd likely hear names like Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald. But these examples are instructive. Is Hamsher a socialist? A revolutionary anti-capitalist? In any historical or international context-- in the context of a country that once had a robust socialist left, and in a world where there are straightforwardly socialist parties in almost every other democracy-- is Hamsher particularly left-wing? Not at all. It's only because her rhetoric is rather inflamed that she is seen as particularly far to the left. This is what makes this whole discourse/extremism conversation such a failure; there is a meticulous sorting of far right-wing rhetoric from far right-wing politics, but no similar sorting on the left. Hamsher says bad words and is mean in print, so she is a far leftist. That her politics are largely mainstream American liberalism that would have been considered moderate for much of the 20th century is immaterial.
The first thought that springs to mind is how very, very picayune this complaint is. "Insufficient leftist voices in the Blogosphere" has got to be one of the least pressing of humanity's ills, ever.

Here's the deal. I have my wee little blog, and I enjoy spending (a probably unhealthy amount of) my time reading political blogs and news sites and such, and then writing this one. And those of us who spend our time this way tend to forget how eensy, weensy is the importance of what is said by the Internet's chatterers, paid or otherwise. I was over the moon when Andrew Sullivan linked to a post I wrote for the League ages ago, as he is as big a fish as exists in the blogging pond. But have you ever stopped to think how very, very few people know who the hell he is? Much less all the "neo-liberal" and other bloggers DeBoer finds so very disappointing? The relative lack representation of a viewpoint he finds in keeping with his own in a tiny part of the American discourse is hardly worth the time it took him to complain about it.

The Internet offers vast space for anyone to share any viewpoint they wish. DeBoer already has enough people interested in what he has to say that he had to update his post over and over again to respond to the various criticisms that sprang forth. He already has a fantastic platform to share the very particular viewpoint he feels is underrepresented, as he concedes in one of those updates. Why doesn't he?
It's worth saying that I once had the opportunity, not too long ago, to blog for money-- not a lot of money-- for a fairly mainstream progressive enterprise. I turned it down for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my continuing fear that my blogging will come back to ruin my career in the academy, as it may even without professionalization. In fact, I stopped blogging because my personality is a poor fit with the prerequisites of being a good blogger. That's my fault, not blogging's fault, but there is it. And this is my larger point to Erik and to others: I reserve the right to want more from left-wing blogging and punditry than I am capable of providing myself.
First of all, I think his first reason for not blogging is hogwash. If something you write in your blog is going to demolish your career, whether or not you were paid for it will make no difference. Please. No, the only reason he doesn't blog is his "personality," which apparently did not prevent him from writing paragraph upon paragraph of complaint.

I suppose he has the right to want whatever the hell he wants. But there's something profoundly unconvincing about someone who goes to such great lengths to complain about a lack he could very well correct himself, if only he were so inclined. The Internet is vast and free. DeBoer enjoys an enviable amount of attention, so there's really nothing stopping him besides himself. But he wants someone else to do it.

Poo. As much as I joke about my very small readership, I've decided it's important enough to me to share my opinions about whatever varia float through my mind that I'll write this blog no matter who does or doesn't read it. As delighted as I would be to suddenly enjoy links a-go-go across the (very small pond of the) Blogosphere, writing this has never struck me as being all that Important.

DeBoer clearly thinks having a truly leftist voice in the Blogosphere is Important. He has the eyeballs to disseminate that viewpoint with relative success. He apparently doesn't feel up to it. Fine. But he should also spare himself the effort of whining so very much about it.

My one prediction for 2012

I have no idea who will be the winner of the GOP nomination.

I haven't a clue about the Patriots' chances for the Super Bowl.

I do not know if the world is suddenly going to end shortly before Christmas.

But you can take one thing to the bank -- they are not going to ask Rick Gervais to host the Golden Globes ever again. (So it looks like he reached his goal.)

Too mean, Ricky. Too mean.

On a tangent, every single time Tina Fey presents at an awards show (the Oscars with Steve Martin, last night with Steve Carell) she brings the best moments of genuine wit and good humor to the event. (Having those two along doesn't hurt.) I'm guessing she probably doesn't want to host a gig like those, because surely they're invited her, but whenever she leaves the stage I lament that she isn't the person we'll be watching for the rest of the evening.

1.15.2011

'umble pie

And yes, you don't have to be a Republican to make a death threat.

If we're lucky, this will turn into a compassionate conversation about PTSD and the pitiful state of mental health care (and coverage) in the U.S. But I doubt it (and here I should probably put a link to my own angry screed a few days before).

1.14.2011

This answers that question

I was wondering how long it would take the newly-minted governor of my adopted state to make me hang my head in abject pathos.

The answer? Starting the clock at his inauguration, he made it a full ten days.

That was close

Guys, you have no idea how relieved I am to know that my zodiac sign hasn't changed. If I had to stop being a Leo....I... dear God, the idea is too monstrous to even consider.

For those of you who are finding your worlds upended by the knowledge that you are no longer who you thought you were (or are suffering the indignity of being an "Ophiuchus"), I hope you are seeking appropriate mental health care. Nobody should have to suffer pain like this alone.

(Dad, if you're reading, the knowledge that you are no longer an Aquarius, but actually a Capricorn must be really, really hard. I assume you're booking your flight out to see us ASAP, and we'll have the bed ready in the guest room so you can devote yourself to inconsolable weeping.)

You know, as critical as I was of HuffPo, it's clear they do us a valuable service by raising public awareness of important issues like this.

This is not helpful!!!!

ARGH!!! ARGH, ARGH, ARGH!!!

Courtesy of Huffington [expletive deleted] Post, this headline:

Mary Fallin Suffers Constitution Oath Fail At Swearing-In Ceremony

Which you get if you click on a link with this title:
New Gov Suffers Constitution Fail
Wanna know what that "fail" was?
Mary Fallin was sworn in Monday as Oklahoma's first female governor, but in reciting the oath of office she really didn't promise to "support, obey and defend the Constitution."

At an outdoors ceremony in bone-chilling and teeth-chattering cold, Fallin told Oklahoma Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor that she would "support, obey and offend" the U.S. and state constitutions.

In freezing cold, she mispronounced a word. That's it.

Neener, neener, neener!!

I know that Gov. Fallin was endorsed by Sarah Palin and had the support of the Tea Party, so I should hate her. (I should note that, it being Oklahoma where she was elected and her being the Republican nominee, she would probably have won with the endorsement of Benedict Arnold's reanimated corpse and the support of the Village People.) Right? So it's totally OK to call a perfectly innocuous slip of the tongue a "fail" that's worth mentioning and mocking, right?

Crapspackle! If we liberal types expect civility and respect from the conservatives, then there is no excuse for this kind of juvenile, idiotic nonsense from one of the most (lamentably) prominent liberal websites. I am embarrassed for HuffPo (even if they're not for themselves) and feel like I should call Gov. Fallin and apologize on behalf of liberals everywhere.

Cut. This. Crap. Out.

Yay! A mixer!

I see (via the always-excellent Plain Blog) that an argument has been made against the idea that the Democrats and Republicans should mingle for the upcoming SOTU speech, rather than sitting on their respective sides like usual.
Why do we watch the State of the Union address? Is it to hear our president say patriotic, optimistic clich├ęs about our country, or explain his agenda for the upcoming year? Certainly not. It is to marvel at the amusing spectacle of clapping and standing performed by our elected representatives. Nothing is more fascinating than seeing the Democratic side of the chamber rise and applaud with gusto to something President Obama has said while Republicans either politely clap in their seats or fail to react at all. Or catching the Democrats squirm at the mention of, say, entitlement reform or the war in Afghanistan. But Mark Udall, a Democratic senator from Colorado, wants to put an end to all that:

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall released a letter Wednesday proposing that members of both political parties sit next to each other at this year's State of the Union address instead of the normal seating which is divided along party lines.

[snip]

Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union's partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president's agenda and the issues of the day. It's actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.

Let us start by supposing that you are the sort of person who bothers to tune in to the State of the Union in the first place. That already implies that you are the sort of person who pays a minimal amount of attention to politics, and who cares enough to stop watching whatever reality show is on TLC to flip over to CNN. Let us further take as a given that it is important to you to suss out how the different parties feel about various bits of the President's agenda.

Is it really all that useful to watch the (admittedly hilarious) display of standing and sitting to determine where the parties stand (ha!) on the issues? Isn't there some other way of getting this information that is more detailed and nuanced? Say, the news? If viewers are savvy enough to spot and recognize Eric Cantor (much less their own Representatives or Senators) and note when he stands up and when he sits down, do they really have to rely on that information to know about the different parties' agendas?

Furthermore, as amusing as these political calisthenics may be at first (and as useful as they are for drinking games), they prolong the speech and grow tedious after a relatively short period of time. Plus, for anyone who is paying the remotest bit of attention to DC, they are not at all informative but utterly predictable. Of COURSE the Democrats are going to bring the noise for Obama's agenda. Of COURSE the Republicans will look incredibly cramped during their opponents' standing ovations. Of COURSE they will all stand up when the President lauds something anodyne. This is supposedly helpful to anyone?

For my part, I think this is a great idea. If the threat of getting elbowed in the solar plexus by Dianne Feinstein keeps Joe Wilson from opening his pie hole, more's the better. A display of civility would be genuinely nice, for a change, and whatever "information" is lost in the process was probably not all that important anyway.

1.13.2011

Enjoy your boycott!

Nothing could make me chortle with delight quite like this:
At least half a dozen groups have announced they will not attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) next month, which will attract thousands of activists to Washington and feature most of the Republican hopefuls for the party's 2012 presidential nomination.

They have objected to the status of GOProud as a co-sponsor of the event, though the group does not advocate actively for gay marriage, believing it is an issue that should be resolved by states and not the federal government. GOProud, whose name is derived from the Republican Party's nickname Grand Old Party, did however strongly support the recent repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy on military recruitment of gay people.

"The baseline reason is that homosexuality is not a conservative value," said Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. "It's the conservative Pac, not the libertarian Pac."

Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Centre, which tracks liberal bias in the mainstream media, said: "We've been there 25 years, since our inception. To bring in a 'gay' group is a direct attack on social conservatives, and I can't participate in that."

The Family Research Council, which has participated in the conference for several years, said in a statement: "Organizations whose whole reason for existence is to promote the forced public affirmation of homosexual conduct should not be welcomed at Cpac, because that is not by any stretch of the imagination a 'conservative' agenda."

While I realize that I am not an organizer for CPAC, on behalf of the gay community I would like to invite every single socially conservative group on the planet to hereby boycott all future GOP meetings for perpetuity throughout the universe. Nothing would please me more.

I have a lot of trouble with the Republican Party as currently incarnated. I don't like their rumblings about balancing the budget but curious silence when asked what they'd cut. I don't care for their jingoism or their unblinking defense of the excesses of the last president. I'm not entirely sure I believe that racism isn't a factor in their current obsession with immigration.

However, there is a lot to be said for conservatism, for skepticism that government intervention is the broad-spectrum cure to society's ills. For individual and market freedom within reasonable restraints. For limits in the size and scope of government power. Principled conservatism is a valuable part of our civic discourse, and I would sincerely love to see its return to political prominence.

But I will probably never make my way toward a party that embraces the likes of the FRC, AFA, CWA, blah blah blah. They hate me, and I hate them. They still have way too much power over the Republican Party, and as long as that's the case then count me out. There is little common ground between me and people who think their interpretation of their holy writ gives them license to tell anyone else how to live. No dice.

So any daylight between them and the GOP power structure is dandy with me. Doubtless all the 2012 hopefuls will attend the Values Voters Summit and kowtow to the assembled masses, so I don't expect any changes to occur within the near future. But the sooner cracks appear between the social conservatives and the rest of the conservative movement, the better for the country.

Final thoughts on the Tucson shootings, for now

First of all, let me just dispense with Palin's video response to the Tucson shooting. It certainly wasn't what I had in mind, and suffice it to say that I didn't like it. However, the lefty blogosphere is awash in criticism of the video, the use of "blood libel" and the missed opportunity to present a more gracious persona than previously displayed. I have nothing particularly new or insightful to add, so I won't bother trying. (Interested parties can start their digging here.)

For what it's worth, Obama's speech at the memorial service left me cold. Pace Joe Klein, but it seemed full of warmed-over pabulum to me. It's all very well to exhort us to use "words that heal," and I can't argue with avoiding "words that wound" (or whatever his precise phrase was), but what about when we really have no option? How can one use "healing" words when in the middle of a genuine, passionate debate? I oppose just about everything that, say, Jim DeMint stands for. Is there a "healing" way to say that? I agree that we should all try to avoid vilifying "the other side," but I didn't hear anything last night that the President hadn't already said a million times already during the 2008 campaign. And don't get me started on being an American "family." Whatever meaning the word "family" has is lost if one conflates it with "nation."

And I know I've already said it, but I'm going to say it again -- I found the atmosphere during the memorial deeply strange. Admittedly, I only tuned in at the point that Gov. Brewer (who, I think, was very gracious) started speaking, but the cheering and applause for Janet Napolitano, Eric Holder and the President seemed totally out of place at an event to honor the dead and wounded. I really don't want to be overly critical, but I think the tone was far too much in keeping with a pep rally and not nearly solemn enough for the circumstances.

Obviously, one shouldn't keep score and judge a moment of national tragedy as a time to score points. However, as far as addressing the American people as a leader goes, not a particularly memorable day for anyone from my perspective.

Update: No big surprises, but it seems that everyone in the whole world feels differently than I do. Which is fine, but doesn't change my opinion.

Update the Second: Aha! So I'm not alone. Good. Also, Fallows mentions this reader comment:
The one thing that the MSM seemed completely baffled by was the tone of the speech and the rousing nature of the audience. This was a university audience. This is the one thing that Obama understood that most people could not even conceive. That the 18 to 25 year olds in that audience wanted to have hope, to be inspired, to wish for a more reasonable discourse.
You'll forgive the emergence of my inner curmudgeon, but I couldn't possibly care less about the wants of an 18- t0 25-year-old audience. Unless they were all related to the victims, their desires are hardly germane. In fact, given the high likelihood that a college audience would do such juvenile things as whoop at the mention that a deceased victim went to their school, perhaps that was an argument for holding the event elsewhere. Rather a smaller and more respectful audience than a capacity crowd, if you ask me.

Yet MORE update: Over to you, Michael Chabon.

1.12.2011

One live-blog thought about the Tucson memorial service

I know this is meant to be a memorial service, but the Better Half and I keep turning to each other and noting how weirdly like a pep rally it seems. Perhaps those in attendance have little other way of expressing the collective emotion, but frankly the cheering (and most certainly the whooping and whistling) feels out of place and a bit unseemly. Am I wrong in thinking a bit more decorum would be in order for an event one would expect to be somber? Is it churlish to find the constant applause unsettling?

1.11.2011

I believe this is your fiddle, Mr. Nero?

Sigh.

What do I do now?

Bear with me as I try to figure out what I'd like to say.

It would be false to pretend that I don't have a pretty clear bias in my political views. Anyone who reads this blog (for whom I am sincerely, unironically grateful) knows that I fall pretty tidily on the Left of things.

Now, I like to believe that this bias comes from an informed and honest appreciation for facts and truth and "the American way," whatever that means at any given moment in our nation. My own self-image is of someone whose viewpoint is informed by compassion and a diligent attention to the way the world really works, and to the needs of people in my community, my country, and the world as a whole.

Perhaps I am deluded in this, or at least naive. Perhaps I give myself too much credit. Perhaps I am as prone to assumptions and intellectual sloppiness as anyone I would decry on the Right. I hope not, but perhaps.

When Sharron Angle talks about "second amendment remedies," not as some fringe lunatic at a rally but as the GOP nominee to replace the Senate Majority Leader, I can neither interpret that as anything other than a thinly-vieled justification for political violence nor think of an equally troubling statement by someone currently within hierarchy on the Left. Whatever my biases might be, I honestly cannot find an equivalent example. If someone can fill this lacuna in my knowledge and mention an equally worrisome statement from an equally notable member of the Left (not a blogger at Daily Kos or HuffPo but a politician seeking or holding an office of equal power) in the comments, they are genuinely welcome to do so.

In a similar vein, I remember Nancy Pelosi making it very clear that there would be no effort to impeach President Bush making its way through the House. I do not understand why John Boehner is not willing to make an equally strong statement about any potential bills calling President Obama's citizenship into question. I would sincerely love to give the GOP the benefit of the doubt, but I see precious little room to do so. Is this mere bias on my part? To me it seems like an honest assessment of the world as it is. Again, people with a contrary point of view are welcome to elaborate in the comments.

I will step back a bit from impressions I gave in earlier posts and make it more clear that the responsibility for Rep. Giffords's shooting rests firmly on the shooter, at least in my opinion. After Princess Diana's death, there was all manner of noise about the awful, awful paparazzi and how they killed her, when really it was her intoxicated driver and lack of a safety belt. As inappropriate as I still consider the crosshairs to have been, Sarah Palin is no more responsible for the Tucson shootings than Martin Scorsese was for Reagan getting shot or Marilyn Manson was for Columbine.

So now, where do I go from here? I find so much of the conservative agenda highly objectionable. I find the GOP's continued allegiance to the religious fundamentalist Right deeply worrisome. I am suspicious that the Republican Party would once again turn the creation of public policy over to industry lobbyists, given its druthers. I think certain high-profile potential candidates for the White House are dangerously unqualified, and too incurious to correct that problem. What do I do?

I realize that the likely impact of what I write on the national discourse will be roughly nil. But the only things I can control are my own language and actions. How do I write truthfully about my honest opinions without contributing in some small way to the further coarsening of our civil conversation?

Update: Fair is fair. I was unaware of this and if I'm going to criticize Palin for using imagery that could be construed as inciting violence, then it's only fair that the DLC should admit to having done something similar.

1.10.2011

The New American Myth of Bipartisanship


Two caveats first:
  1. To be clear, what I'm posting here isn't run past my fellow bloggers -- and it's put up in the few hours I have while taking care of newborn twins, so I may be a bit incoherent from sleep deprivation.
  2. Second, there continue to be wonderful moderate Republicans in this country -- though fewer and fewer of them are getting elected to office.
OK, on with the screed: This weekend's assassination attempt, one in a chain of violent extremist acts of terrorist by the radical right, has been seen as a political football. Somehow it is in poor taste to point out that the right wing has been carrying out multiple acts of terror in the last two years.

Politics is not Football. It's not baseball, either, or any other competitive sport. "Left" and "Right" are not two equal teams who happen to wear different jerseys and have different mascots.

The new American myth of bipartisanship, however, says that to be 'fair,' we have to pretend that there is no difference between our political parties, and no difference between the political left and the political right. This is at best mush-mouth, brainless hooey. At worst, it is deeply cynical and anti-democratic, imagining that elected officials are in office only for their own selfish desire for power or prestige or free healthcare.

People on the Left and the Right understand politics, nationalism, rights, freedoms, and community in very different ways.

This is important to acknowledge because Republican Party is being taken over by right-wing extremists, under the broad, camo umbrella of the Tea Party -- elected officials, party officials, as well as ordinary registered Republicans. (Not everyone, no. See caveat #2 above. )

Many of these extremists believe that individuals have the right to use violence against the government. Elected sheriffs who fantasize about shooting IRS agents. The extreme Right believes that the federal government is inherently oppressive, that gun control is a form of tyranny.

Are there wacked-out Leftists who use violence? Yes. My brother was held hostage for a year by Marxist guerrillas, so don't lecture me on the violence of the Left. But the fact is, in this country most the internal terrorism that we have seen, from Oklahoma City onwards, has been fueled by the political philosophy of the extreme Right.

While Jared Loughner may be unstable or seriously mentally ill, his crazed ramblings o (verlap with those of the Tea Party (except, I suppose, for his belief that the rules of grammar are a form of governmental mind control). We see in Jared a horrific caricature of the 'logical' conclusion of many of this nation's extreme right-wing politicians.

Did Palin cause Loughner to carry out this assassination? No. But Loughner's actions help us see more clearly the dangers of the violent anti-government rants that have become de rigeur for many right-wing politicians.

The Republican Party has in recent years seemed perfectly willing to sell out to this extremist movement; from local Republican headquarters to elected governors and congresspeople, the Republican Party is increasingly filled with members who believe that government is a beast which should be slaughtered, that Muslims are de facto terrorists, that academics cannot be trusted, that white people are being oppressed, and that armed insurrection is a viable alternative.


There is hope, I suppose. When GOP candidate Stephen Broden said that he wouldn't rule out violent overthrow of the government, if elections didn't move the country to the Right, other party officials condemned his statements. But by that point, he was already the GOP's nominee for Congress.

Unless the GOP makes concrete steps to distance itself from the radical Right, I fear that the multiple right-wing acts of terrorism will only grow more bold and bloody.

A few scattered additional thoughts

1) I know that a lot of attention is being paid to over-heated right-wing rhetoric just now. This is mostly because there's been more over-heated right-wing rhetoric of late, given that until very recently the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Now, while I happen to think that the right-wing rhetoric is consistently more over-heated, as well as being stoked and taken more seriously by its mainstream opinion- and policy-makers than the equivalent rhetoric on the left, I will certainly concede that the left wing has plenty of over-heated rhetoric of its own. This was certainly true during the Bush years.

If a deranged maniac had shot a Republican member of Congress in the head after an intensely vitriolic election season, I like to think I would be aghast in the exact same way as I am right now, and would be asking the exact same questions about the people whose politics I typically share. Perhaps I am naive or self-deluding. That's certainly how I would hope to react.

2) Some of the commentary I've seen from the right has focused on how Loughner couldn't have been influenced by the Tea Party's invective because he was "left wing" and listed "The Communist Manifesto" as one of his favorite books on his YouTube users profile. (I seem to recall this spin coming from Rebecca Mansour, but I can't find a link right now.) Saying he can't have been influenced by the Tea Party because his views included some from the lunatic left holds no water. After all, it didn't seem to stop Naomi Wolf.

3) When I make mention of the very worst right-wing rhetoric, I refer to the "death panels" and "you lie!" and "second-amendment remedies" nonsense we've all heard and seen our fill of. (I know I should provide links to all of this, but I'm feeling lazy and I'm going to guess that people who are bothering to read this far know what I'm referring to with all of this.) As I said above, I tend to notice and get irritated more by the crazy from the right than I did about the crazy from the left during the Bush years. (I seem to recall getting pretty irked by the shoe-thrower being treated like some kind of hero, however.) Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the right often has it coming. Listen to what the new Speaker has to say about an issue that (against all reason) still has currency among certain Tea Party types:
Williams noted that 12 Republicans are co-sponsoring legislation expressing concern about Mr. Obama's birthplace, and asked Boehner if he would be willing to say, "this is a distraction, I've looked at it to my satisfaction. Let's move on."

"The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there," the speaker responded. "That's good enough for me."

Williams asked if Boehner would be willing to express that same message to the dozen Congressional Republicans who don't seem to feel it's good enough for them.

"Brian, when you come to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us," Boehner responded. "We're nothing more than a slice of America. People come, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It's the melting pot of America. It's not up to me to tell them what to think."

Bull. Shit.

It is 100% up to you, Mr. Speaker, to tell idiot members of your caucus that they are NOT to introduce legislation that calls the President of the United States a liar and his presidency illegal. I cannot think of a more apt person to do it.

It is precisely this kind of uneasy two-step the leaders of the GOP have with its crazy elements that make me consider their culpability in the wake of a national tragedy like the Giffords attack. It's one thing to criticize the POTUS, and another thing entirely to fan the flames of sedition.

Update: An excellent piece by Conor Friedersdorf here.