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.

I don't believe in hell

Which is momentarily inconvenient, as there is nowhere else that seems remotely fitting as a final destination for these people.

Update: I will be adding "dance on this man's grave" to my bucket list.

In search of Bartholemew Cubbins

Like just about everyone else in America, I've been thinking a lot about the horrendous assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I don't know if it's possible to be anything but horrified and appalled by an act of violence so senseless and monstrous. As more is learned about the man who (allegedly) shot Rep. Giffords and murdered six innocent people, a clearer picture of derangement and alienation develops. We may never know what motivated him to do what he did. Anyone who would kill a 9-year-old girl is probably beyond the understanding of reasonable people.

However shocking the attack was, though, it didn't seem surprising. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems that the national reaction has not been one of "how could this have happened?" but more "why has it come to this?" It feels like this is the culmination of a corrosive process that we've all been watching. Obviously it's impossible to truly understand any point in history other than the one in which one lives, so things tend to seem unique or extraordinary simply from the accident of having been witnessed without the ability to compare with the past, but it sure seems as though our national discourse has become exceptionally poisonous lately.

Playing on both Devin's post from yesterday and a conversation I had with occasional co-blogger Elizabeth (which means you can blame my ramblings collectively on the entire Bleakonomy team), I wonder what role our opinion leaders have played. The only person who can be blamed in a real sense for the shooting is the unhinged young man who shot the people. However, is it wrong to posit that his lunacy could very well have been informed by the images he was digesting from the national media? Maybe his psychological decompensation was inevitable. But were the particulars of his attack informed by what he had been seeing and hearing about our country's leaders, Rep. Giffords among them? Did talk of "second-amendment remedies" and images of crosshairs over his district have a particularly morbid effect on the festering obsessions of an unhealthy mind?

Do I think that Sarah Palin is proximately responsible for the violence in Arizona? No. Do I think she bears some responsibility? Perhaps. One thing I do know, however, is she needs to stop insulting my goddamn intelligence. Via TPM:
An aide to Sarah Palin claims the crosshairs depicted in her now-infamous target list of Democrats were not actually gun-sights, and that it's "obscene" and "appalling" to blame Palin for the shooting.

"We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps," said Rebecca Mansour on the Tammy Bruce radio show. Moreover, there was "nothing irresponsible" about the image, and to draw a line connecting Palin and Saturday's shooting is "obscene" and "appalling."

As the Gawker link above notes, the images were introduced with the words "Don't retreat, instead- RELOAD!" and a TPM reader submits that even Palin herself referred to the images as "bullseye." Anyone who has ever looked through a gun sight (or watched the opening sequence of a James Bond movie, for that matter) knows what crosshairs are and what they signify. Palin needs to start her damage control by firing Rebecca Mansour for, among other things, being an incompetent fool.

Which brings me to the title of the post. It seems I'm regressing, because I'm once again going to refer to a beloved book from my childhood. In "Bartholemew and the Oobleck," King Derwin of Didd nearly destroys his kingdom. In his hubris, he demands a new kind of weather, having grown bored with the standard varieties. This leads to the country being overwhelmed with a sticky, smothering substance that falls from the sky. As the book draws to a close, he sits glued to his throne with oobleck.

What saves the kingdom is the page boy, Bartholemew Cubbins. After having seen the situation get worse and worse, he finally confronts the king about his culpability and pride. The king bristles and blusters, but finally relents and simply says "I'm sorry." And with that, the oobleck melts away in the sun.

I am not such a numbskull as to believe that such a simplistic lesson holds all that much value for our polarized, fractious country. It wouldn't make things right if Palin were to apologize for her rhetoric. Indeed, there is no way to make the murder of innocents "right." But it would be a beginning if she (or anyone who has engaged in the same kind of brickbat-hurling, incendiary talk) could say "I'm sorry for whatever small part I've played in this." For my part, I think this incident is going to do irreparable harm to any ambitions she had either way, and the best thing she could do now is behave like a states(wo)man and sincerely express some regret.

Update: Over to you, David Frum.

1.09.2011

Sometimes its OK to play the blame game

In the next day or two, I'm certain two things are going to come up in the wake of the assassination of the Hon. John M. Roll, as well as the attempted (so far) assassination of Rep. Giffords. The right wing is going to point out that this terrorist was mentally disturbed (likely true, as are most terrorists), and folks on the left are going to feel guilty and start pretending that it would be inappropriate to 'exploit' this terrorist act as a political issue.

I'm sorry, but after the years of the radical right intentionally undermining people's trust in government, eroding gun control, using racist slurs, and violent images (Sarah Palin just last year published an image of Rep. Giffords in the crosshairs of a gun sight), this IS political.

To pretend otherwise is no different from an abused spouse saying "If I had just been more polite, my partner wouldn't have hit me so much."

There have been increasing violent threats and attacks by the radical right in the last four years, including mail bombs just this weekend against government officials, all of them Democrats, by the way -- a distinction that, if history is any indicator, will spread to moderate Republicans next, followed by any elected official. We can thank, among others, the Supreme Court's decision that the second amendment provides individuals with the right to take violent action against the government

In the meantime, after-the-fact platitudes by Tea Party folks will ring hollow, unless they follow it up with concrete action in their rhetoric, membership, and funding.

1.07.2011

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

Well, it's rare that I agree with Rep. Steve King (R - Mountains of Madness), but today I cannot help but concur. Via TPM:
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) literally accused the Republican leadership of the House of being a bunch of big old liars on the floor of the House last night. But that isn't exactly what he meant.

[snip]

"As I deliberate and I listen to the gentleman from Tennessee, I have to make the point that when you challenge the mendacity of the leader or another member, there is an opportunity to rise to a point of order, there is an opportunity to make a motion to take the gentleman's words down, however many of the members are off on other endeavors and I would make the point that the leader and the speaker have established their integrity and their mendacity for years in this Congress and I don't believe it can be effectively challenged and those who do so actually cast aspersions on themselves by making wild accusations." [emphasis giddily added]
No arguments here, Rep. King. The mendacity of the leader and the Speaker is impossible to effectively challenge.

Because words matter

I'm going to meander my way toward my point today, I think. Thank you for bearing with me.

In Orwell's "1984," there's a scene toward the end wherein Winston is faced with another man incarcerated with him in the Ministry of Love. The man is there because he failed in his job, which was to redact literature to suit the purposes of the Party. He left the word "God" in a poem, because there was simply no other word that would have made sense in its place. The desperate man couldn't make sense of nonsense.

Back in the real world, I own a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories." It is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I love it. My copy contains a publisher's note at the front, explaining that the edition contains Kipling's original language and was published thusly because it reflects the actual words of the author. (I'm paraphrasing a bit.) This note is there because, in one of the stories, the word "nigger" is used.

I plan to read all of these stories to the Critter when he is old enough for them, because they are charming and magical and some of my best childhood memories comprise having them read to me. When I get to the story that includes the word "nigger," I am going to explain to him that it is a word that was used a lot when Kipling wrote the book. I will explain that the word is an awful word that people shouldn't use, because it was meant to insult and oppress black people back when white people thought they had the right to do so. I will explain that using that word today would be very wrong, and I would be very angry to hear the Critter ever use it.

What I won't do is pretend that it isn't there.

I mention all of this as preamble to sharing my thoughts about this:
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of "all modern American literature." Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: "nigger."

Twain himself defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the "n" word (as well as the "in" word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave."
This is so very wrong-headed.

First of all, the two words don't mean the same thing. One is a slur, and another is a social condition, albeit an awful one. One has no use other than as a term of abuse specific to one kind of person, while the other could be used to describe anyone who is in a state enslavement. They do not communicate the same concepts and replacing one with the other is intellectually sloppy and does naive readers a disservice.

I will abashedly admit that I myself have not read "Huckleberry Finn." (As chance would have it, my ignorance of Twain's writing was a subject of much surprised parental conversation over the recent holidays.) But my understanding is that Twain's use of the word "nigger" is not for the purposes of perpetuating the degradation of black people, but as a reflection of the language and attitudes of the society he is depicting. Isn't one of the primary reasons for introducing children to great literature to instill the ability to read critically and with discernment, to understand the layers of meaning in written communication? By depriving them of books that challenge their assumptions and experiences, are we not making them less able to function as mature and intelligent adults?

And even if Twain were using "nigger" with approval, the approach to objectionable speech isn't to silence it or pretend it doesn't exist. It is to thoughtfully and carefully explain what makes the speech objectionable, to counter it with better, more convincing and moral speech. It's not to take an eraser to it.

I obviously object to Gribben's efforts, and hope this edition dies a quick death. But I believe his intentions were good, and meant to counter the ridiculous exclusion of one of America's great novels from our schools. Our history and culture are complicated, and contain much that is ugly and troubling and difficult. Our children deserve nothing less than an honest understanding of this reality, and they deserve to read the literature that reflects it.

1.06.2011

How's that for timing?

Well, if that doesn't just beat all. I make a little joke about Johnny Weir, and he makes the news with the least surprising announcement in the history of homosexuality:
Never a fan of labels, Johnny Weir is giving himself one: He's gay.

The figure skater says in an excerpt of his new book, "Welcome to My World," that being gay is "the smallest part of what makes me me." But he's not ashamed of it — or anything else, telling People magazine he hopes to be an example to other people. People is publishing excerpts of Weir's book in its Jan. 17 issue.

First of all, juuuuuuuuust in case anyone stumbles across this post and gets the wrong impression, let's be clear that I'm not making fun of Weir for being gay. What with my being gay myself, and all.

No, my reasons for not liking Johnny Weir have nothing at all to do with his being gay per se. (Okay, before I go any farther, can I just say that I think it is side-splitting that Weir is saying being gay is an eensy, weensy little part of who he is? Because Johnny Weir is incredibly gay. He's like the Village People to the power of Liberace. He makes Tim Gunn look like Steve McQueen.) I don't like Johnny Weir because he is impossibly obnoxious.

I can't find the link right now, but in a recent issue of Out magazine (which I find pretty damn obnoxious itself, for that matter), Weir responded to criticism of his wearing fur by saying he's not "passionate" about animals but he is "passionate" about fashion. Which means, I guess, that in Weir's world all that one needs to justify one's actions is "passion." I'm sure the toads at Westboro Baptist Church are plenty passionate, but somehow that fails to make me like them.

Anyhow, he's out and we can all stop wondering. Good for him. Now does this mean his fifteen minutes are finally up?

When you wish upon a star...

Oh, Blue Fairy*, if get my one wish on a star, let it be that this is true:
Could it be -- could Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the darling of the Tea Party right who has claimed to get her political marching orders directly from God, emerge as a sensational new entry into the presidential race?

ABC News reports:

A source close to the three-term congresswoman said Bachmann will travel to Iowa this month for multiple meetings to seek advice from political forces there and party elders close to the caucus process before coming to a final decision regarding a potential presidential run. Bachmann, a native of Waterloo, Iowa, also is set to deliver a keynote speech at an Iowans for Tax Relief PAC fundraiser Jan. 21 in Des Moines, Iowa.
I fervently hope that this comes to pass.

First of all, it would be hilarious. Not since Lyndon LaRouche has there been a candidate for President with as... let's say "glancing" a relationship with reality as Rep. Bachmann. I would have material for months. It would be like a day at Barney's with someone else's American Express Platinum card.

But if there's any candidate whose run would cannibalize a Sarah Palin bid, it's Bachmann. The Ladies from Crazytown will split the hard-core social conservative Tea Party vote, and anything that makes former half-term Alaska Gov. Palin less likely to come within a grizzly bear's whisker of the White House is OK by me. (I know that she's supposedly unelectable, but even a remote chance that she could get elected is too close for me, and the GOP nomination would make it far too possible.)

Run, Michele, run. If you and your buddy can rip each other to shreds, the better for everyone else.

* by which I mean, of course, Johnny Weir

If only this ended the debate

An utterly unsurprising bit of news from the Times:
The first study to link a childhood vaccine to autism was based on doctored information about the children involved, according to a new report on the widely discredited research.

The conclusions of the 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues was renounced by 10 of its 13 authors and later retracted by the medical journal Lancet, where it was published. Still, the suggestion the MMR shot was connected to autism spooked parents worldwide and immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella have never fully recovered.

A new examination found, by comparing the reported diagnoses in the paper to hospital records, that Wakefield and colleagues altered facts about patients in their study.

A lie. The first study to suggest a link between vaccination and autism was a lie. Really, what further commentary need one add?

Why is this important? We'll start by looking at the last paragraph of the same article:
But measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.
A disease that is easily prevented with routine vaccination is now endemic in one of the world's wealthiest and most advanced nations. But measles is no big deal, right?

From the WHO:
Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease caused by a virus.

It remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. An estimated 164 000 people died from measles in 2008 – mostly children under the age of five.

Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of deaths occur in the developing world. But the disease has killed in the developed world, too, and doubtless many more would become severely ill or die if the majority of people didn't continue to vaccinate their children. Frankly, it is unspeakable that anyone should die anywhere because of concern about a safe vaccine that was based on a lie.

And yet, as I type this, Wakefield's study is still cited with approval by Jenny McCarthy's "Generation Rescue." I wonder if they will continue to dig in their heels and defend him like they did after Lancet retracted the study, or if they will scrub their page of any mention of him.

For every patient who could have received the vaccine but didn't, only to develop a disease they never would have gotten otherwise, the damage is already done. Here's hoping this goes a little way toward ending the lunacy of linking vaccination to autism.

Update: First of all, anyone interested in a thorough discussion of the Wakefield fiasco would be well-served by this post at Science-Based Medicine. From there, I learned that the wagons are, indeed, circling around the vaccine-autism crowd's charlatan hero.

1.03.2011

I seem to recall a certain oath

Over at TNR, John McWhorter has an interesting essay about the effects of the War on Drugs on the black community. In short, he argues that it would be an incredible boon for black people to have drugs legalized across the board. It's an interesting piece, and the comments afterward are worth reading, as well.

For my part, I am broadly in favor of drug legalization. My libertarian streak is strongest when personal behavior is concerned, and I happen to believe that people should have the right to utterly destroy themselves if they want to. If consenting adults want to ravage their bodies with crystal meth, I don't see why it should be society's job to prevent it.

Further, the War on Drugs has been markedly ineffective at preventing access to drugs and the subsequent problems of addition, crime, etc. Having now worked in a wide variety of settings, from the inner city to impoverished rural areas, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that desperate, determined people can get drugs wherever and whenever they want to. I also do not believe that most people who avoid drugs do so because they are illegal, but because they are harmful. Add in the enormous costs in terms of incarcerating drug criminals, fighting cartels in the increasingly violent border areas and beyond, keeping opium profits away from terrorist groups, etc etc etc, it seems to be that the War on Drugs has been far more costly than it was worth.

However, whatever the particular merits (or lack thereof) of McWhorter's argument as it pertains to the black community, the British authority he cites with approval strikes me as insane. McWhorter quotes Bob Ainsworth's address to the House of Commons:
“We need to take effective measures to rob the dealers of their markets and the only way that we can do that is by supplying addicts through the medical profession, through prescription. We cannot afford to be shy about being prepared to do that.”
He continues: “We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.”
This particular doctor wouldn't touch the drug trade with a ten-foot clown pole, thanks all the same. Frankly, I cannot imagine any ethical doctor or pharmacist feeling otherwise.

Let's start with the idea of what medicine is meant to do. It is meant to promote good health and cure disease. Providing users (not just addicts, mind, but users of all stripes) with a means of getting high does neither. One might argue that certain drugs (most commonly marijuana, and also certain psychedelics) are essentially harmless, and some psychiatric research has explored how they may have therapeutic uses. Fair enough, I suppose. But "I'd like to get high" is not a compelling argument for "treatment," or whatever else one might want to call it. And that's to say nothing of the well-described and overwhelming health risks associated with drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The promise to "first, do no harm" goes right out the window, does it not?

Now, perhaps one might argue that doctors should be allowed to prescribe all manner of narcotics legally to people willing to seek treatment for addiction. I have some qualms with this idea, but at least one could plausible squeeze it into the disease/treatment paradigm. But, as I mention earlier, what about all the people who would want to use a little coke this weekend but are loath to call themselves addicts? What possible argument exists in that case? What physician with any scruples would sign up for the role of dealer? And if only addicts can obtain drugs legally from their doctors, how does medicalizing illicit drug use correct the problem of the War on Drugs to begin with?

Further, it seems to me that wherever drugs are dispensed, there's still going to be a high risk of crime. Those places would be ripe for robbery. I have a hard time imagining Rite Aid being willing to risk selling heroin alongside the Dristan, much less the nice family practice down the street.

I suspect that even if drugs somehow were to become legal across the board, they will never be legitimized. People will always need to turn to the seamier elements in society for a fix, because only those parts of society are willing to assume the risks associated with the trade. (Again, this argument does not apply so much to marijuana as to the more addictive, destructive drugs already mentioned.) It seems not only somewhat fitting that such a harmful personal choice should remain in the demimonde, but also the only feasible option.