Dept. of Forced Apologies

Surprise, surprise. From the Times:
A bishop whose recent rehabilitation by Pope Benedict XVI provoked global outrage has apologized for remarks in which he denied the Holocaust, a Catholic news agency reported on Thursday.

The bishop, Richard Williamson, was one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications Benedict revoked last month. In an interview broadcast on Swedish television several days before that, Bishop Williamson, a Briton, denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers and the scope of the Holocaust.

In a statement published by the Zenit news agency on Thursday, Bishop Williamson said: “I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them.”
I've already written about this, so perhaps I'm a bit biased. But it seems a bit vague. Let's try to be a bit more concise, shall we?

"Wow! Whoa! Hey, world! Didn't expect that you'd be paying attention! Those are some horribly offensive views of mine, aren't they? Bet the Vatican didn't see that coming, huh? Anyhow, now I have to feign surprise that the world's Jews are offended by my saying something horribly offensive, and knit my brows and pretend I had NO IDEA they took that whole Holocaust thing so seriously. So, um... I totally had no clue you'd all be so upset. Or that it would make the Church look bad. And I don't get back in the Vatican's good graces until a say so, and look really sad. If I had known the huge [excrement] [weather pattern] that this would cause, I wouldn't have made those comments on the record. Whoopsie!"


I have a tacit agreement with the Better Half that I will avoid profanity on this blog. This is probably a good policy, and doubtless will serve me well in the long run. Today, however, I am chafing a bit. Because polite language really fails to deliver the appropriate response to this:
[Colorado] State Sen. Dave Schultheis restated his opposition to a bill requiring HIV tests for pregnant women by claiming that infected babies would cause families to “see the negative consequences of that promiscuity.”

The Colorado Springs Republican with a penchant for foot-in-mouth moments tells The Rocky Mountain News in a follow-up story to Wednesday’s Senate floor controversy:

“What I’m hoping is that, yes, that person may have AIDS, have it seriously as a baby and when they grow up, but the mother will begin to feel guilt as a result of that,” he said. “The family will see the negative consequences of that promiscuity and it may make a number of people over the coming years begin to realize that there are negative consequences and maybe they should adjust their behavior.”

I know that this is such an unbelievably monstrous thing to think, much less say in public as an elected official that it almost beggars belief, but there you have it. The man that represents Focus on the Family's headquarters at the state level has said that babies should be allowed to contract AIDS to teach their mothers a lesson.

I really am having trouble coming up with a cogent response to this, because it's so awful I think it may have shorted out my cerebral cortex. Apparently the women in question would feel insufficiently guilty about having contracted HIV themselves, and thus the suffering of their children would be required to really hammer the idea home. Because guilt is so very, very important.

Dave Schultheis, you [unbelievably profane gerund] [part of the alimentary tract]. You [male offspring] of a [livestock]. I don't know what kind of warped, Morlock-like value system you have, but you have no place at all in American public life.

Naturally, of course, party leadership in his state has really gone to bat for basic human decency.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry told the Rocky that “he’s not going to muzzle his caucus.”

“People are entitled to their opinions,” the Grand Junction Republican said. “It’s not my job to go around and censure people and tell them what to say.”

Three guesses why the GOP is in the minority in Colorado.

Olympia Snowe apparently doesn't like being bullied

What a surprise. Apparently Michael Steele's recent comments didn't sit well with some of their intended targets. Via TPM:
Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), a pro-stimulus Republican who will be up for re-election in 2012, told Roll Call that she approached Steele about his comments and asked him bluntly: "You didn't really mean that, did you?" She said that Steele has agreed to set up a meeting with the three pro-stimulus GOPers to discuss this.

Snowe pointed out that the loss of GOP moderates, and the view that they don't belong in the party, has contributed to the party's overall decrease. "When we were in the majority, there were more of us. Now that we're in the minority, there are less of us," Snowe explained, also adding: "If that's what they want to be, well that's their choice."

Here's the deal, Michael Steele. Snowe, Collins and Specter are all more powerful than you are. You need them more than they need you. I can only imagine how that "meeting" between the four of you will go, but I can only imagine the take-home message will be some variation on "shut your cake hole."


Oh, please

I came across the following musing in Slate's post-Oscar conversation between its movie critics.
I sense that the culture is in full Kate Winslet backlash: The Reader is dreadful, her dress looked matronly, she wanted it too much and too openly. But much as I loathe that the road to Oscarsville is paved with Holocaust victims (and, as of this year, perpetrators), I did love hearing Kate's dad give a proud taxi-whistle from whatever remote corner of the audience he'd been plonked in. And the part of her speech about having practiced for this since age 10 in the bathroom mirror, with a shampoo bottle standing in for the statue, captured what these awards are for most of us watching them, an excuse to fantasize for a moment about being recognized as the superstar that every child knows he or she is.
To which I reply: the "culture" can stick it in its eye. I know that celebrities are genetically programmed to be attuned to cool, and that anything smacking of the merely mortal is anathema. Yes, yes. Fine. Sure. Whatever.

Now, admittedly, I am biased. I love Kate Winslet, and think she's a fantastic actress. While I didn't love her dress, it wasn't that terrible, either. And I was much less down on The Reader than most. With all of that said, I would like to voice my unambiguous preference for a movie star acknowledging that she feels exactly like every other normal human being would feel. She wanted to win, especially since she'd been nominated and lost five times already.

In contrast, let's take Angelina Jolie. She shows up at these things wearing an expression normally associated with burying animals one's pet has killed. She doesn't deign to talk to the assembled press (which I can't really blame her for, all things considered) and generally just seems to have been forced to go. That doesn't stop her from wearing a designer dress and emeralds that doubtless cost more than the GDP of Bolivia, of course. Either do like George C. Scott and boycott the thing in its entirety, or smile, dammit!

Where is this "Maine" of which you speak?

Apparently today is going to be Michael Steele Day here at Bleakonomy. What can I say? The man is the gift that keeps on giving. And with him in charge of the Republican Party, somehow my nights have gotten more restful.

From the Department of Meaningless Threats (via Washington Monthly, again):
Greg Sargent flagged this clip from Fox news yesterday, during which Neil Cavuto asked, "Will you, as RNC head, recommend no RNC funds being provided to help [Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter]?" Steele said he'd "talk to" state party officials in Maine and Pennsylvania about the possibility. When asked if he was at least open to withholding party support to three incumbent Republican senators, Steele added, "Oh, yes, I'm always open to everything, baby, absolutely."
I imagine Senators Snowe and Collins are planning to release a joint statement along the lines of "Boo, hoo, we're so scared, Michael Steele," at which point their public relations staff will collectively burst into raucus laughter.

Apparently Steele hasn't been paying much attention to Maine lately, and hasn't noticed that it is reliably blue. Both houses of the legislature are controlled by Democrats, and the governor is a Democrat. Both of our members of the House are Democrats. Maine went for Barack Obama by a wide margin. The only reason we have two Republicans in the Senate is that they have reputations for being sane, moderate and willing to work across the aisle to get things done. It's what the state likes about them. Neither of them are up for re-election for several years, and both of them would spread a primary opponent thinly on toast and enjoy him or her for a nice, light snack between meals. Should a more conservative Republican somehow magically make it to a general election, it would simply mean Maine sends Democrats to the Senate again.

Perhaps Michael Steele doesn't know this, and thinks his threats carry weight. In that case, he is an idiot. Perhaps he thinks it makes sense to make meaningless threats while irking two very powerful members of his own party. In that case, he is inept. Either way, it's good to know he's shepherding his own party in exactly the way I would have hoped.

Off the hook, indeed

Y'know, I seriously wonder what the GOP's current iteration is trying to do to itself. It seems hell-bent on totally demolishing whatever chance it has of ever regaining the majority, and of appealing to anything but its most decerebrate followers.

Leaving aside its lock-step opposition to the popular stimulus plan, which I will charitably ascribe to simple philosophical disagreement, its rhetoric is baffling. Take, for example, one Michael Steele, newly-minted chair of the Republican National Committee. Some recent comments of his make me wonder how (or, frankly, if) his mind works. Via Washington Monthly:
Here's the Republican National Committee head talking to conservative talk-show host Mike Gallagher yesterday:

GALLAGHER: Is this a time when Republicans ought to consider some sort of alternative to redefining marriage and maybe in the road, down the road to civil unions. Do you favor civil unions?

STEELE: No, no no. What would we do that for? What are you, crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country? I mean this isn't something that you just kind of like, "Oh well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage." [...]

GALLAGHER: So no room even for a conversation about civil unions in your mind?

STEELE: What's the difference?

I am perplexed, first of all, about how marriage is a founding value of this country. The issue of gay rights was completely absent from the public sphere back in the days of powdered wigs, and the legal definition of marriage had no more a role in the founding of this country than did credit default swaps. Both of these issues are now pressing in society today, and hearkening back to days of yore is no more relevant for the former than for the latter. Societies change with time, as do the issues they face.

But further, Steele's comments totally belie some previous statements, as well as his (apparently meaningless) rhetoric about reaching out to constituencies that are not typically Republican.
Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee wants the GOP to reach out to candidates who support gay marriage and are pro-choice. Steele told Fox's Chris Wallace that it was "important" to reach out to those voters.

WALLACE: You are one of the co-founders of something called the Republican Leadership Council which supports candidates who favor abortion and gay rights.


WALLACE: Does the GOP needs to do a better job of reaching out to people who hold those views?

STEELE: I think -- I think that's an important opportunity for us, absolutely. Within our party we do have those who have that view as well as outside and my partnership with Christy Todd Whittman was an effort to build a bridge between moderates and conservatives.

So Steele supports candidates that hold views that are contrary to GOP dogma, but thinks it's crazy to have conversations with them about those views? He wants to improve the party's image with everyone (including, apparently, "one-armed midgets") except gays? (This despite widespread support for civil unions?)

Is Steele merely stupid? Does he not realize that, once he makes comments for the public record, people can go back and read them again? Does he think taking consistent positions isn't "hip-hop" enough? Or is he hopelessly pandering to a particular audience while hoping that nobody notices his flagrant intellectual bankruptcy? You tell me.


Oscar reactions

Oh, Oscars. You started so well. You really, really did. Huge Ackman's cheese-tacular opening number was hilarious (once I decided to go with it), particularly some of the lyrics. (Lamenting the lack of nominations for movies based on comic books, and copping to not having seen The Reader, all the while referencing the recession? Brilliant.) I sincerely enjoyed the new way of honoring the acting nominees by having past winners deliver short tributes. (Though it does rather hammer home the reality that nobody watching at home really cares about the other categories.) Steve Martin and Tina Fey were, far and away, the funniest people to appear on stage. And the winner for animated short, a Japanese man I had never heard of, managed the most awesome acceptance speech moment by closing with "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto." Sweeeeeeet!

And then, with a thud, came the second musical number. The musical may be "back," Huge Ackman (and, since Chicago won Best Picture a few years ago, isn't it a little late to be observing this?), but that movie musical medley may have been the single greatest argument for taking it behind a shed and shooting it. I can only guess that Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfriend were all somehow contractually obligated to look like repurposed Vegas lounge entertainers. Beyonce, what on earth was your excuse? My inaugural ball goodwill for you wears thin. The entire number was heinous in a way that might have been awesome, had it not stood between Kate Winslet and her Oscar, and me and my bed. (Actually, never mind. There is no conceivable circumstance in which that number would have been enjoyable, even ironically.) Bad Oscars! No biscuit!

And finally, I don't know why ABC felt the need to lie to me so very blatantly. The perky-voiced announcer woman kept saying "Coming up, the awards for Best Actor and Actress [ie. the Awards You Actually Care About]" when they cut to commercial. Apparently, they meant "coming up" in the same sense that Independence Day is "coming up." Best Director. Commercials. We're-sorry-you're-dead montage. Commercials. Why are you people doing that to Kate Winslet? Why are you so confused about your slipping ratings? We have already seen those J.C. Penney commercials many times this evening!! Show us the famous people! That is why we are watching! If you shamelessly milk the ceremony for every advertising dollar you can wring from it, of course people will stop tuning in.

As for the actual winners, I am happy. I was very touched by the Best Original Screenplay winner's speech. (I can relate, dude.) It seems that the Academy's taste for the wackadoodle is limited, which is why I think Mickey Rourke lost. (Props to my brother for calling that one.) I am delighted to know that, on balance, I am still better at picking Oscar winners than Nate Silver. And, as you can tell, I am thrilled that my favorite actress now has her Oscar, and no longer has to care about the Golden Globes.

And finally, an offer to the TV Guide Channel. I don't know how much you are paying Joey Fatone and Lisa Rinna to accost the nominees as they arrive, but whatever it is is too much. (Lisa, if you're reading, fire your plastic surgeon and go into hiding until your lips again resemble those of normal Homo sapiens.) They are awful. I look relatively nice in a tux, have several neurons that can actually fire, and will take the trouble to think of thoughtful things (as in, "things that represent actual thought") to say to the famous people on the red carpet. At this point, whatever bang you get from Grade L celebrities is meaningless. Hire me.


Purchasing Power, or, Food Politics 101

Two things came up this week that made me think about how we exercise purchasing power by treating every dollar spent as a vote:

1. for the survival of local businesses: one interesting idea

2. for an entire way of life, one that may be killing us. (We saw King Corn today, and then, as if to prove that there is something quite large at stake here:) 

The connection between food and law has fascinated me for some time: let's get together and call ourselves an institute I say, at which we would read, among other things:

My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan or, Vote with Your Fork, or:

Gourmet magazine
Frankie Moore Lappe

Oh, oh, and film, too.

I could go on: it's a very very nerdy dream, but everyone has to have one. What would you put on the syllabus? 

Schmuckola Bellgrande

Now, I'm sure Richard Shelby, the honorable Senator from Alabama, would never, ever consider himself a racist. (Mercy, no!) However, let us look at his recent statement about Obama's citizenship (via TPM):
"Well his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven't seen any birth certificate," Shelby said on Saturday, in response to a constituent's question at a public event. "You have to be born in America to be president."
Would he be saying this if Obama's father had been from, say, Canada? Or if his name were Brent O'Brennan? No, I don't think so. To foment the ridiculous notion that Obama is anything other than a 100% legitimate American citizen is disgraceful, contemptible behavior. It is totally unbecoming for a US Senator to act this way. Further, he is impugning the integrity of the sitting President of the United States on a matter of constitutional law.

He should be censured by the Senate.


Suddenly, I have an urge to hug a British customs agent

There are many reasons to feel depressed these days. The economy is tanking. There are continuing wars all over the globe. People are still paying Scarlett Johansonn to act. So, if you're glum, I'd like to share a brief, shining moment of sanity with you. It comes courtesy of our friends Across the Pond. Via Washington Monthly, it appears that British immigration has declined to accept a visit from the most loathsome human being in the United States.

The British government has banned Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper from entering the United Kingdom.

The Phelpses, whose protests at military members’ funerals in the U.S. have prompted lawsuits and legislation, apparently had planned to fly to the United Kingdom to protest a performance of “The Laramie Project.”


The Phelpses have become notorious in the U.S. for carrying provocative [ed: that's one word for them] banners with the phrase “God Hates Fags.” They have picketed the funerals of U.S. servicemen who died in Iraq and Afghanistan because they believe their deaths were the result of the government’s tolerance of gays.

Turns out that virulent hate-mongering can put a crimp in one's travel plans. Now, I support the right of the toads at the Phelpses' "church" to say what they wish, but I certainly don't think that any other country has to welcome them in so they can say it while they visit. What I particularly love is this quote:
“You just have to wonder why they did it,” said Phelps-Roper, who on Thursday was in Topeka, where the family’s Westboro Baptist Church is located. “We’re going to picket a second-rate play, put on by a third-, fourth-rate college. What the heck?”
If the play is so lousy, and the venue is so chintzy, why are you flying all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to picket in the first place, you ignorant harpy? I, for one, don't wonder why they did it at all. They don't want you there. I think I speak for the vast majority of people on the planet when I agree with their sentiments.


A vote for pragmatism

Let us start by saying that China's record of human rights abuses is appalling. Let us accept as a given that China's policies on Tibet and Taiwan are disgraceful. Let us accept these as such commonly-accepted facts that outside links are superfluous. Should you wish to argue that this is not the case, please feel free to do so in the comments section. But, for my purposes, let us begin there.

I understand why the human rights community would be concerned by Sec. Clinton's comments about China today. Via TPM:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the debate with China over human rights, Taiwan and Tibet cannot be allowed to interfere with attempts to reach consensus on other broader issues.

Shortly before arriving in Beijing on the last leg of her inaugural trip abroad as America's top diplomat, Clinton told reporters accompanying her that she would raise those contentious issues, but noted that neither side is likely to give ground on them.

Instead, she said it might be better to agree to disagree on long-standing positions and focus instead on U.S.-Chinese engagement on climate change, the global financial crisis and security threats.


"We know we're going to press them to reconsider their position about Tibetan religious and cultural freedom and autonomy for the Tibetans and some kind of recognition or acknowledgment of the Dalai Lama and we know what they're going to say," Clinton said.

"I have had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders and we know what they're going to say about Taiwan and military sales and they know what we're going to say," she said.

"We have to continue to press them," she said. "But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."

It is the job of groups like Amnesty International to safeguard human rights, and to highlight abuses thereof. That they are critical of Sec. Clinton's comments (and my fingers still want to type an "n" instead of a "c" in her title, by the bye) is neither surprising nor problematic. I would expect nothing less, and I have no doubt that they will continue to gadfly the Obama administration's China policy surrounding these issues.

But let us be frank. China is going to remain obdurate on those issues for the foreseeable future. They have huge investments in the American economy, and their cooperation is going to be crucial in dealing with the global financial meltdown. If you take seriously the issue of climate change (or, if you prefer, peak oil), then any meaningful discussion must include a cooperative China.

A "with us or against us" mentality served no useful purpose during the past eight years. This is not to say that I want a strategy of appeasement, or that pressure should not be exerted when possible. But we cannot base our entire China policy on Tibet, and I support Sec. Clinton's perspective.

Oscar picks, the final guesses

Well, it's that time again. The Oscars are this Sunday, and all my protestations aside (buried in long-forgotten old posts) I still care. I've already spoken about the Best Supporting Actress race in particular (and it looks like the Vegas oddsmakers haven't read Nate Silver), but here are my official guesses at who will win:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire. It's won everything else. And while I agree with others that it's a pretty weak field this year, and that the sublime WALL-E should have been nominated, in the field of nominees we have it's a lock.

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke. I haven't seen The Wrestler, since my taste of unremitting bleakness has been off lately. (The name of this blog notwithstanding.) He certainly brought the crazy to the BAFTAs, but his is the come-back of the year, and by all accounts his performance was phenomenal. Let's all take a moment of silence, however, as we all remember what his face used to look like.

Best Actress: Fine. She should have been nominated for Revolutionary Road. But please, can we give Kate Winslet her freaking Oscar already? Her performance in The Reader, as morally questionable as the film itself may be, was typically fantastic, even if it is more of a supporting role. Give it to her!

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger. Bet your house. I also missed The Dark Knight (see above re: bleakness), but he apparently pulled out all the stops for an amazing performance. And then, in the Greatest Tragedy Mankind Has Ever Witnessed, he died of a drug overdose. He's the lockiest lock that ever locked.

Best Supporting Actress: Again, I've already mentioned this. It's Penelope Cruz. She's the biggest star, she's been nominated before, and the Academy likes Spaniards.

Best Director: Danny Boyle. Easy.

In all other categories, bet on Slumdog Millionaire. If Slumdog isn't nominated, go with The Dark Knight for some minor consolation prizes.

Oh, and pray I have a light night of call this Sunday.


The Reader: a defense

The other day, the Better Half and I went to see The Reader. We had wanted to see Frost/Nixon, but were too late and had to go with a second choice. Being a big fan of Kate Winslet, I went along with the back-up choice, and I'm glad I did. While I didn't love to movie, I liked it just fine, and I thought her performance was typically fantastic.

I've read a lot of criticism of this film, and I found a typical example here in Slate. I should probably give a SPOILER ALERT, since further discussion requires that I reveal a large plot point. (I saw the film already knowing the secret, and still enjoyed it, but I don't want to presume.) Many people have found the movie morally questionable, even repugnant. I didn't see it that way.

To quote the review:
A deeply depressing indication of how the film misreads the Holocaust can be found in a recent New York Times report on the state of the Oscar race. The paper gave disproportionate attention to The Reader by featuring a wistful-looking still of Kate Winslet above the headline "Films About Personal Triumphs Resonate With Viewers During Awards Season."

What, exactly, was the Kate Winslet character's "personal triumph"? While in prison for participation in an act of mass murder that was particularly gruesome and personal, given the generally impersonal extermination process—as a death camp guard, she helped ensure 300 Jewish women locked in a burning church would die in the fire—she taught herself to read! What a heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer!
I agree that, if one views the movie as a story of redemption through literacy, then it is repulsive. Similarly, to somehow excuse Hanna (Winslet's character) for being ignorant because she was illiterate would be disgusting and facile. Perhaps people have interpreted the movie this way, but that is not how I did.

I did not get the impression that Hanna was ignorant of the crimes she had committed. I did not view her illiteracy as an excuse. And I did not view her shame at being illiterate, which leads to a greater share of blame for certain crimes than she (perhaps) deserves, as anything other than misplaced and pathetic. Perhaps I am wrong, but I didn't think the film presented that viewpoint.

Similarly, I don't think the film portrays Hanna as having been redeemed because she has learned to read. In fact, when Hanna tells her former lover (all grown up) that what she has learned in prison is "to read," it is a matter-of-fact statement that that is all she has learned, and that she has neither had a morally relevant revelation of her own guilt or any kind of redemptive change of heart. She's learned to read, but that's it, and in the face of her crimes, so what? Maybe I'm missing something, but I rather enjoyed (my sense) that the film wasn't trying to absolve her. In fact, a proxy character (a little girl nearly killed by Hanna's indifference) at the end pointedly refuses to absolve her, or to accept her attempt at restitution.

Now, again, perhaps I'm missing the point. Maybe the film is trying to conflate illiteracy with ignorance, and literacy with redemption. It seems that it was certainly marketed that way. But, ignorant of this marketing and of Oprah's response to the book many years ago, I enjoyed a different film (perhaps) than intended. One that presented, in my view, a morally compromised character that, at times, evokes our sympathy, but never earns our absolution.

Thank God they didn't interview medical students

Michelle Cottle over at The New Republic had a lot to say about this article in yesterday's Times about feelings of entitlement in today's college students. From the original article:
“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”


James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ "


Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”
Michelle's take?
Um. No. While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we're trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail--much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere. (As could the rest of us: Not to state the obvious, but I don't want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.) Go ahead: Aim for the stars. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you're not so hot at it, don't whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren't properly appreciated in the real world.
The original post has already generated 69 comments, and I didn't feel like weighing in so late in the game. So, instead, I'm weighing in here.

I'm willing to believe that the attitudes described and decried are rampant in the current undergraduate world. (I'm sure that certain other posters might want to contribute? *coughcoughElizabethcough*) This is probably due to a variety of factors, including a high school experience where the students coasted to As, parents all too willing to harangue teachers for higher grades for their kids, and pressure to have stellar transcripts in a competitive grad school/work application pool. I don't really have anything to contribute other than my own experience from school.

I went to a six-year medical program, and so my classmates and I were (at least with regard to maturity and life experience) very much like undergraduates. I will never forget the poor, hapless plant physiology professor who got stuck with a whole pile of us one semester because of a combination scheduling/course requirement snafu. Poor guy didn't know what hit him. After every test, he was surrounded by a bevy of students, demanding to know why their answers were wrong. (Being totally comfortable with mediocrity myself, I like to think I kept my harassment to a minimum.) But it was pretty much par for the course in all our classes. For many of my fellow students, anything less than an A was unthinkable.

It was even worse when I was a resident at NYU. Since it's my blog and I can dish if I want to, I will state plainly that I met some real hum-dingers in their pool of medical students. (For the record, I also met some wonderful, wonderful people. Like this one.) I had students that would blatantly refuse to do admissions because they had already admitted that kind of patient once, and didn't see the point of doing it again. I had one student disappear for most of the day, then show up in the mid-afternoon, having obviously gotten a cut and color. And I guarantee that every single one of them got As. Hell, nobody was willing to face a student's ire for a mere A minus, much less a B.

I have no earthly idea how to fix any of this. Again, I would be delighted to hear from anyone in academia these days, and see how they handle stuff like this. But the articles sure do make me want to collectively throttle an entire generation.

The gift of Chris Buttars

It's a perverse kind of feeling that I get when I read something horrible. (Well, horrible in a certain kind of way. Natural disasters, major crimes, etc. are horrible in a totally different way, devoid of nuance.) On the one hand, the recent comments of one Chris Buttars, state senator of Utah, are just appalling, and make me want to find his neighborhood and drive around blasting Cher music. (And I don't even like Cher music.) On the other hand, the following comments (via Washington Monthly) are just the kind of hilariously awful crap that I love to write about. Regarding homosexuality:

* "To me, homosexuality will always be a sexual perversion. And you say that around here now and everybody goes nuts! But I don't care."

* "They say, 'I'm born that way.' There's some truth to that, in that some people are born with an attraction to alcohol."

* "They're mean! They want to talk about being nice -- they're the meanest buggers I ever seen. It's just like the Moslems. Moslems are good people and their religion is anti-war. But it's been taken over by the radical side. And the gays are totally taken over by the radical side."

* "I believe that you will destroy the foundation of American society, because I believe the cornerstone of it is a man and a woman, the family.... And I believe that they're, internally, they're probably the greatest threat to America going down I know of. Yep, the radical gay movement."

Let's go through these, one by one, shall we?

Actually, I'm going to pass the first comment by. He's free to think I'm a pervert. I'm free to think that he's an antiquated lunatic reactionary theocrat. Fair's fair.

On to the second quote. Yes, some people are born with a predisposition toward alcoholism. Some people are also born left-handed. Or really tall. Or gay. Or looking like Jake Gyllenhaal. Now, these are not equivalent things. Some are wonderful. Some are neutral. Some are really bad. Apparently, Sen. Buttars thinks that being born with a predisposition toward loving members of your own gender is the same as being born with a predilection for melting your liver and ruining your life. I don't actually experience it as being that way, since my life is much, much better for having the Better Half in it, and alcoholics seem a bit worse off when they're on the sauce.

I'm not sure which "they" Buttars is referring to when he says we're mean. Some of us are very mean, it's true. Some of us are bitchy and unkind, some of us are jerks, and I wouldn't wish the company of some of us on anyone. Then again, some of us are very nice. I suspect that Buttars doesn't know many gay people personally, and experiences us mainly in the context of having our rights serially abrogated, which hardly brings out one's best.

That last statement is so ridiculous as to be almost beneath rebutting. Look, Chris. I don't want to destroy traditional marriage. I don't want to destroy America. I don't actually know any gay or lesbian people that do. (And I know a fair number of gay and lesbian people, unlike you.) If the America you love is one in which people you don't like keep quiet and in their place without challenging the hegemony of morons like you, then it deserves to be replaced with an America that looks suspiciously similar, but with fewer miserable people. Canada seems to have avoided going up in flames since gay marriage was legalized. Spain hasn't slid into the sea. And, while Tom Brady had an off year, Massachusetts as a whole appears to be surviving.

I also think it's hilarious that a Mormon is rallying in support of traditional marriage. Because there've never been any conflicts there, now have there?


Sorry about the Apology

Kudos to our readers for successfully baiting the bloggers!

Today's post, a day late and a dollar short (I promised to post on Tuesday, and to include a syllabus -- more on that below), is a response to a question about why Muslims never seem to apologize:
Just wondering if you might have a few words of snark for religions that, oh, publicly execute raped women, or topple stone walls on top of gays. And, as far as I can see, the soi-disant moderates of these religions don't even bother to register a protest when this stuff happens. Can we get a witness?
I responded (making the assumption that the snide reference was to Islam) that there is a flood of Muslims who disavow and criticize oppressive misrepresentations of Islam.

Since beginning to compose this post today in the snippets of free time (obligations to my parish and family coming first, dear readers), a further comment has been made crossing the line from critical to blatant, willful ignorance fueling Islamophobia. I won't bother reproducing it here, but you can read it in the "Stupidity is non-discriminatory" thread).

Here I'm going to ignore the advice of Holy Scripture, "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself" (Proverbs 16:4) but take the advice of Holy Scripture, "Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes" (Proverbs 16.5 Go figure...). I'm responding because the views expressed are hardly unique.

The promised syllabus is going to have to wait another week -- not because there is a lack of sources, but because there are many and to provide a useful annotated bibliography requires more time than I can provide in the week before Ash Wednesday. Writing about this, as I do below (at crazy length), I can do in bits of free time. A useful syllabus takes a different kind of research that can't be done from my laptop at work. Sorry about the delay.

Now, in scholastic tradition, I will lay out a series of arguments. There's nothing funny in this post; if you want funny, I suggest going to "Allah Made Me Funny" instead.

Argument the First: There is a significant movement in every Muslim community working against extremist fundamentalism.

The assertion has been made moderates don't protest acts of violence carried out by Muslim extremists. This assertion is patently untrue.

Yes, there are a number of Muslim-majority countries with extremists governments or judiciaries, just as as well as Muslim majority countries which are fully democratic but may have radical muslim movements. In each of these countries, there are also movements of Muslims who believe that Islam and human rights (including equal rights for women) are totally compatible. Here are just a couple : Sisters in Islam (Malaysia), Change for Equality (Iran). There are more, but that reference work is part of the syllabus project that you'll just have to wait for.

Being a human rights activist is dangerous work in countries that don't respect human rights -- witness the murder of Zil-e Huma Usman in Pakistan-- and so it's not surprising that those countries which are both Muslim-majority and non-democratic, we hear less about the activists. The murder of human rights activists in Pakistan is seen as a proof that Islam is undemocratic. Is the murder of human rights activists in Burma a proof that Buddhists are fanatical oppressors?

What is true, is that protests by Muslim moderates are very rarely covered by the press for a variety of reasons. One reason is that what bleeds leads; a story about rabid bearded men is going to get more play than a peaceful protest or letter to the editor. Another reason is that a number of developing countries have oppressive governments that suppress such protests -- and most Muslims live in developing countries.

Finally, there are a number of Muslim majority countries that have very good human rights records. Morocco, for example, has enacted a number of reforms that support women's rights (while the United States voted down the Equal Rights Act a number of years ago). Malaysia is a large Muslim country with a strong matriarchal and matrilineal culture. Indonesia has a steadily improving human rights record. [Interesting side note, there is a higher percentage of women in the Iranian parliament than there is in the US congress; ditto for the percentage of women at University/College. I'm not saying that Iran is great on women's rights, but that perhaps the pot shouldn't be so quick to call the kettle black.]

If you compare neighboring Muslim and non-Muslim countries in a given region, you don't see any strong correlation between religion and human rights (for eg, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia -- only Malaysia, a Muslim majority, is not ruled by a military junta [or in the case of Thailand, recently ruled by a junta though now a democracy again]). There is nothing within Islam or any other religion that predisposes folks to extremism -- the factors that lead to oppressive state regimes have to do with economics, education, colonial and military history.

Argument the Second: Who should be apologizing, and to whom?

I do not expect the pope to apologize for the rape and violence carried out in the name of Jesus by the Fundamentalist Church of Later Day Saints. Yet both the Pope and the FLDS both consider themselves Christian, and the Pope is the leader of the largest group of Christians in the world. I don't expect Thich Nhat Hanh to apologize for the actions of the Burmese junta, even though Burma is majority Buddhist and particularly discriminates against their Christian and Muslim minorities. I don't expet Elie Wiesel to apologize for sections of Deuteronomy that encourage Jews to rape war captives ( cf. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ).

Why would I expect that Muslim moderates, working to uphold an Islamic tradition of human rights, apologize to me or to the West in general? Am I God because I'm an American, that they should apologize to me?

Argument the Third: Crimes Committed by White Christians are treated as abnormalities, while crimes committed by Muslims are treated as "Islamic"

Until very recently, it was legal in Texas to kill your wife if you discover she is committing adultery (Article 1132 section 2 in, Title XV of the Texas Penal Code, which you can read thanks to google books here) . This is not seen as a tenant of the Christian faith, though the law was written by a majority Christian state and is supported by Christian scriptures (Deuteronomy 22:21; while Jesus prevented the carrying out of this penalty, he also stated that he did not intend to change one iota of the law [Mt. 5:17-18], and did not directly disavow the Deuteronomic text). If a man kills his wife for adultery, on the other hand, under sharia (Islamic law) this would be considered murder.

The gruesome beheading of Aaisiya Hassan this week in New York is a murder case, and would be treated as murder in Islamic courts as well. It is not an act condoned by Islam. While sharia, like Jewish, Christian and other religious laws, does have a death penalty for adultery, the penalty is almost impossible to carry out in Islam -- it requires two respectable witnesses to have seen the actual act of penetration, and by seeing the act they themselves become less than respectable witnesses. As far as I can tell from the hadith (the acts and sayings of the prophet), the Prophet Mohammed worked to make sure to minimized the use of the death penalty -- a dramatic and liberal reformation for his time.

According to the United States Department of Justice, over 50% of murders in the United are committed by family members -- spouses, relatives or boyfriends/girlfriends. Quite honestly, the idea that "honor killings" are a particularly Muslim idea is not supported by the data. "Honor Killings" are against Islamic law, and the rates of such killings are comparable to that in other societies including here in the US.

Argument the Fourth: Secularists and Atheists are not Immune to Stupidity

Dan has already made the argument that stupidity occurs with fundamentalists in every religion, so I won't repeat it much further. I will say, though, that violent fundamentalism is not caused by religion. Religion is a convenient vehicle, but some of the worst genocides of the modern era have been carried out by atheists (Stalin, the Khmer Rouge), secularists (Ataturk), and neo-pagans (Hitler, who claimed both to be Catholic and lamented the loss of pre-Christian pagan religion and worked to restore it in Nazi propaganda). Eliminating religion would in no way end racism, sexism, homophobia, or the violence that accompanies these sins.

Argument the Fifth: The West shares some culpability in supporting Extremists within Islam

It is interesting to notice how much modern Islamic fundamentalism is borrowed from Western sources -- the nasty anti-semitism coming from fundamentalists, for instance, often uses a source created by Christians, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The recent stance against Darwinism by some Muslims (including Yusef Islam) is likewise a copy of Christian fundamentalism. Nor should we forget that the United States funded and supported the Taliban for years. What would Islam look like today if we hadn't been giving money to Muslim extreemists in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and been giving that support instead to pro-democratic Muslim movements?

Is it all the evil colonialsts fault? Of course not. We're talking about grown adults here, and idiots like Ahmenidjad have only themselves to blame for being stupid, violent, anti-semitic homophobes. But I object to a kind of exceptionalism that believes that every other religion has 'outgrown' violence except Muslims. We continue to inform one another, in both directions -- witness Pete Sessions, a Republican congressman from Texas, who declared to the National Review that the GOP should model themselves on the Taliban.

Arguement the Sixth: Islam was historically the most progressive religion viz. human rights, and many Muslims are working to restore Islam to the progressive edge.

At the beginning of Islam, Muslim countries had the most progressive stances in the world on the rights of women and religious minorities -- rights to own property, to be safe in ones home, the right to divorce, access to education, etc. This at a time in Europe when women were chattel and Jews were being killed in progroms.

Until this last century, married women in Christian countries such as the United Kingdom could not own property. Women did not have the right to a divorce even from an abusive husband. It was legal to kill your wife in Texas (and several other states) if she commits adultery; it is still legal throughout most of the United States to discriminate against someone if they aren't heterosexual, and it is still legal in many states to rape your wife -- permission for spousal rape being largely based on the writings of Saint Paul. Women did not gain the right to vote in some parts of Christian, calvinist Switzerland until 1971 (and in at least one canton in 1990). Perhaps we should be apologizing to Muslims for how many of our governments have treated women as well as racial and religious minorities? Oh sorry, it's only Muslims that have to apologize...

In conclusion...

Yes, there are huge areas of civil rights in some Muslim-majority countries that need to be addressed and fixed, and every one of the Muslims I know (and that's hundreds) are working to address those issues. Some of them are vocal activists, others work quietly behind the scenes or within their own communities without feeling the need to issue personal statements to Christians about their commitment to human rights.

Yes, we err if we think that because our nation is killing hundreds of Muslims a week that we should cut them some liberal 'slack' about human rights. And we err if we lie about the violence of the West and pretend that Islam is a uniquely violent religion. Such lies may boost our own egos and insescurities, but they do a grave diservice to Muslim human rights activists and put them in a terrible bind -- when we repeat those lies, we help perpetuate the false impression that "human rights" is a Western trojan horse for attacking Islam.

I believe human rights across the world will improve much more quickly if we are honest about our own shortcomings as well, and if we hold everyone to the same standards and expectations, without resorting to anti-religious bigotry.


But where else can I find such great material?

I love feeling like I'm ahead of major publications, even if a bunch of people read them and a couple dozen people read me. (Thanks, couple dozen!) So this morning's article in The New Republic made me feel like I'm ahead of the curve. I've been making fun of Politico for a while now. From the article:
On the evening of January 22, a few hours after his administration's debut news conference, Barack Obama made a surprise visit to the cramped quarters of the White House press corps. It was meant to be a friendly event, and Obama glad-handed his way through reporters and cameramen, exchanging light banter as he went.

But Politico reporter Jonathan Martin wasn't there to chat. Martin pressed Obama about the president's decision to nominate William J. Lynn III, a former defense lobbyist, to deputy defense secretary and about Obama's pledge to curtail the influence of lobbyists. The exchange turned tense. "See, this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here," a visibly exasperated Obama said. Martin wouldn't relent. "I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself to you guys--that's all I was trying to do," the president added. Within an hour, Martin and Politico writer Carrie Budoff Brown reported the exchange on Politico's website: "OBAMA FLASHES IRRITATION IN PRESS ROOM," the headline read.

I love that headline. "OBAMA SHOWS ANNOYANCE WHEN ANNOYED BY SOMEONE ANNOYING." The article goes on to describe how this brainless non-story got picked up by other media outlets, eventually landing in the intellectual cesspool of Limbaughland. Thusly is our Republic strengthened.

In fairness, Politico did break a number of stories, including the Giuliani travel expenses mini-scandal, the McCain "how many houses do I own?" gaffe and the budget for Sarah Palin's wardrobe. (One could argue that all of them are pretty picayune, but at least they appeared to say something important about the candidates in question.) And it's obviously easier to make fun of crappy reportage than it is to generate good journalism.

Even so, Politico is a great source of easy material. Today, for example, there is this dunderheaded offering:
President Barack Obama and his team of change agents may think every tactic in their political arsenal is original — but in turning their fire on the capital’s process-and-power-obsessed political class they’re actually indulging in a time-honored Beltway tradition.

Pitting Washington Insiders against Real People, as Obama and his top aides have increasingly done in recent weeks, is often a refuge for presidents who have suffered missteps or drawn critical coverage, particularly in their early weeks in office.
What a stunningly stupid, speculative opening sentence! Jonathan Martin may think that he's a ninth-order paladin, but he's actually an overpaid hack.

Nowhere has Obama or his team indicated that they think "every tactic in their political arsenal is original." This is a ridiculous straw man, created in the service of facile political "analysis." Further, if Martin would like to argue why Obama shouldn't decry the actions of Washington Insiders when said insiders have been the source of a lot of his recent woes, I'm all ears. Heaven forfend he should do something other politicians have done!
A not-incidental benefit from this us-vs.-them strategy: A new administration that has just won a smashing campaign victory gets to go back to what innocent bystanders might say looks a lot like campaigning.
Oh, how very droll. "Innocent bystanders," indeed. I'm sure those innocent bystanders are simply detached observers, who have no vested interest in concocting a story from weak tea. Apparently campaigning in favor of policy goals signals a wholesale failure of some kind, though what in particular Obama is doing to deserve such arch commentary is beyond me.

Anyhow, in the rush to remain ahead of the Washington journalistic pack, this kind of vapid writing is commonplace at Politico. I still read it, and am grateful to have a ready-made source of risible fodder for the ol' blog. But I hope it doesn't herald the trend in which political journalism is heading.

An open letter to parents everywhere

Hi. I'm Dan. You may or may not know me in real life, though if you're reading this blog it's probably a safe bet that we're personally acquainted. (Unfortunately, the people I would most like to read this are people who aren't friends or family. Don't take this personally, F&F! Stay cool!) If you read this blog, you're probably aware that I'm a pediatrician. I may not be your pediatrician, but as a pediatrician, I'm going to go out on a limb and speak for pediatricians in general.

It serves absolutely zero purpose for you to be a mean, demanding jerk to members of my office staff, the phone triage nurse, or anyone else involved in the care of your child. Even if your tune suddenly changes when I enter the exam room or take your call, and you are respectful to me, I will already know if you were senselessly rude to the people who are just doing their jobs taking your initial call or checking you in. I may know full well that you are just a concerned parent, and will try to remind myself that you're probably really nice when you're not stressed and tired with a sick kid. But it does nothing for our relationship when I have to stifle feelings of anger on behalf of my coworkers before we've even exchanged a word.

Thank you. That is all.


In which I foolishly question Nate Silver

For those of you unfamiliar with Nate Silver, he is the scary-smart political analyst whose blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, was a daily stop for me in the run-up to the election. (In fact, I would refresh the page over and over, hoping for any new analysis or predictions). His final electoral predictions were almost entirely spot-on. I will leave it to certain other people to question his take on climate science, but I consider him to be a reliably intelligent and well-informed source of excellent thought.

And so, it is with some trepidation that I disagree with his Oscar predictions. Or rather, his prediction for Best Supporting Actress. (I agree with him about all the others. Bet your house on Heath Ledger.) His pick:

Supporting Actress
Taraji P. Henson.......................51.0%
Penélope Cruz..........................24.6%
Viola Davis................................11.6%
Amy Adams...............................11.6%
Marisa Tomei.............................1.2%

Most of the major awards in the Supporting Actress category have been won by Kate Winslet for The Reader—a role the Academy misguidedly considers a lead. That’s nice for Winslet, not so nice for our computer. Penélope Cruz, who won the bafta for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, would seem the logical default. But computer sez: Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson! Button, which looks like a shutout everywhere else, is the only Best Picture nominee with a Supporting Actress nod, and Best Pic nominees tend to have an edge in the other categories.

Well, I'm sure that the calculations are rock-solid, and Nate's prediction is based upon the best artificial intelligence in the world. Sadly, there's a nuance that no computer can fully take into account -- Taraji P. Henson is a nobody. (Well, a nobody compared to Penelope Cruz. She is an Oscar nominee, which is no small potatoes. Real nobodies write blogs about them, after all.) While it's hard to predict this category given the muddying factors Nate mentions, I'm putting my money on Penelope. She's been nominated once before (for her wonderful role in Volver), and the Academy will probably give her the Oscar.

I also disagree with Nate's take on Kate Winslet's role in The Reader, which the Better Half and I saw the other night. While it would have been preferable for her to have been nominated for Revolutionary Road, a more clear-cut leading role, if the Academy can lob a statuette at Judi Dench for a glorified walk-on role then it can nominate Winslet for a Leading Actress award for her central role in The Reader. She is excellent, as always, in both films, and really, really deserves to win. (On a related note, Ralph Fiennes's work in The Reader makes him a shoo-in to win this year's Lifetime Acheivement Award in Cinematic Sad-Sackery.) It is ludicrous that Reese Witherspoon (who I generally kind of like) has an Oscar for Walk the Line but the best actress of her generation doesn't have one yet. FIX THIS, ACADEMY!

To placate the indomitable Nate Silver, I will also refer you to this excellent post on progressivism in America. Like him, I consider myself a rational progressive, and share his sentiments about those with a radical bent.

Dept. of earth-shattering surprises

Pardon me as I pick myself up from the floor. Who could have seen this coming?
A month to the day after he was sworn into office by Dick Cheney, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is under an ethical cloud that threatens to upend his turn on the national stage.

In an affidavit made public on Saturday, Burris for the first time said that he had been solicited for campaign contributions by the brother of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who named him to the seat. The governor, who’d already been arrested on charges he’d sought to sell the appointment before selecting Burris, was subsequently removed from office by the state Legislature.
I am shocked. SHOCKED!

Update: Oy.

Since when did equal = "special"?

There was a "big" rally in Augusta last night to oppose two bills that have been introduced in Maine to extend the rights of gay and lesbian couples. ("Big" is relative. In Maine, 1,000 people is a relatively decent crowd.)
Staff members for the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Family Research Council, which organized the event, estimated the crowd at close to 1,000. Those in attendance were there to show their opposition to two bills that would legalize same-sex marriages in Maine.
On the other hand, one should be wary of head counts conducted by the people that organized the event in the first place. The above paragraph is also incorrect, in that one bill would legalize same-sex marriage, and the other (submitted as an alternative) would essentially create civil unions but would not call it marriage. If the protesters oppose both bills, then their argument is about legal protections for gay relationships period, not about marriage per se.

As usual, the arguments proffered are about God and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage as ordained thereby.
Marta Sisco, 56, a homemaker from St. George, said she believes marriage is actually instituted by God.

"It's largely about the family," Sisco said. "It's his intent to save us as families and that children are entitled to be born in families that have a mom and a dad."

I wonder why Ms. Sisco thinks her beliefs about God are sufficient argument against specific public policy. I wonder why Ms. Sisco fears that my potential gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage. (I would prefer to marry the Better Half, not snag myself some previously-married straight guy. They never buy the right drapes.) I wonder which steps Ms. Sisco is taking to make heterosexual marriage stronger, like maybe making divorce more difficult or mandating that heterosexuals that procreate get married.
Michael Heath of the Maine Family Policy Council, formerly known as the Christian Civic League of Maine, said this is a moment of crisis and people need to band together to uphold traditional marriage.

Heath said family is the building block of society. It exists, he said, for procreation.

This whole argument is a boon for Mr. Heath, whose sole claim to relevance these days is hating gays. His last effort to roll back gay rights in Maine was a total failure. By focusing on the "M word," his flagging ability to attract attention may get a boost, kind of like when roaches multiply when you leave leftovers out in the open. Again, I wonder when Mr. Heath will get around to corralling all the single moms and absent dads and forcing them to marry.

He said same-sex couples are seeking special rights.

"We are for equal rights, not special rights," Heath said.

I love it when people describe the rights that they themselves have as "special" when they are sought by other people. How does Mr. Heath delineate what is merely equal, and what is "special"? Does he support civil unions then, which would confer equal protection for gay and lesbian couples under the law? Because that would be a pretty big change in his tune. Or is he merely spouting meaningless claptrap in an effort to sound less like an ignorant bigot?


Stupidity is non-discriminatory

There are few things that I am less keen on that loudmouthed religious fundamentalists. As a Christian (and a gay one, at that), I think the following is a helpful reminder of how utterly ridiculous some of my coreligionists have managed to sound:

JERRY FALWELL [ed: discussing the terrorist attacks of 9/11]: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."
Oh, Jerry Falwell. Let's hope God is more merciful than you believed, because it's hard to explain to the Almighty that you think several thousand innocents were incinerated to give the ACLU the what for. Add in other conservative Christian arguments that the terrorists were right to hate America, and that's one spicy meatball.

Now, Christians are hardly alone with this. Nobody really needs to be reminded of what the Taliban have wrought. Ultra-Orthodox Jews haven't exactly covered themselves in glory with some of their means of protest.

Still, I have to give it to the conservative Hindus in India that are protesting Valentine's Day. Nothing says "take my beliefs seriously" quite like burning a greeting card. I'm not sure how roughing up women who decide to have a drink in a local pub is meant to advance India's standing as a growing economic and political power, but it does make me feel less bad about my own religion when James Dobson opens his pie hole.

Emboldened. Embiggened. Embarrassed.

Oh, Politico. You are a delight. This remarkably silly article makes me smile.

Gregg flip-flop emboldens GOP

Those must be some serious, serious weeds the GOP is in if the sudden reversal of Judd Gregg is a particularly emboldening circumstance. What else do they find emboldening? Nicely pressed slacks? Mixing some regular Folgers in with their Sanka? Getting an extra packet of Funyons from the Senate vending machine?

I mean, come on, Rep. Jack Kingston.

"He made a difficult decision to turn down a job that a lot of Republicans could take," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "Here's a guy who's going to turn down his place in the history books."
Really? The history books? Can anyone honestly make the claim that Secretary of Commerce is a position of Historic Proportions? Outside of a few dusty academics and the odd political savant, can anyone even name any? Quick, who were W.'s? (No cheating with Wikipedia.) From my perspective, being Secretary of Commerce lands you in the history books somewhere between Thutmose IV and Chester Greenwood.

I especially love their rallying issue:
[B]y noting his differing view on the census, Gregg breathed life into Republican charges of a White House power grab over a critical Commerce Department function.
The right wing spinmeisters are also flogging this line.

On Fox tonight Sean Hannity called the Obama team's plan to have the Census director report directly to them "the biggest White House power grab ever."

His guest, some guy named Karl Rove, told Hannity he just might be right.

So I guess the GOP is no longer backing the unitary executive theory? Because they seemed all in favor of it a very short while ago, and to be worried about the Census being controlled by Commerce or the White House seems a wee bit intellectually inconsistent.


100% apropos of nothing

So, between patients this evening, I've been reading this lovely little article in the Times about the lesser-known nominees in this year's Oscar pool. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link for Michael Shannon's name (he's nominated for Supporting Actor for "Revolutionary Road") to see what else he's been in. I don't know what to make of this:

Alternate name Linda Mason Rockstroh? In trying to pin this down (aka Google searching), I came across yet more ambiguity.

Is Linda Rockstroh female, as her own Times bio states? The following certainly doesn't clear anything up:

Is Linda the drag secret identity of Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon? Are they married, and "alternate name" is code for "spouse"? Who on earth is Steve Posey, and is he also Michael Shannon?

I totally hope Michael Shannon shows up to the Oscar ceremony as alter ego Linda Rockstroh. It would confuse Joan Rivers, whose baseline is generally pretty addled to begin with, into a mental state that would make for once-in-a-lifetime viewing.

One small, meaningless thought

I can understand why Judd Gregg would withdraw his nomination to be Commerce Secretary. If he can't see eye to eye about (for example) the Census, then I suppose it makes no sense to be part of Obama's Cabinet.

My first thought, however, was to consider how much it must suck eggs to be this lady.

Teaching Philosophy of Science in High School

Speaking (again) of vaccines and autism...Jenny McCarthy is the self-appointed spokesperson for the vaccine-autism link, criticized here and many, many places elsewhere for presuming to know more than do scientists, doctors, etc.

I've always quite liked Jenny McCarthy, because she mixes funny and sexy. Sexy too often takes itself Very Seriously, and it's been nice to have something of a Mae West figure again. I recently bought the book McCarthy wrote on pregnancy, which is jaw-droppingly and very disarmingly honest, vividly scatological, and (as it happens) quite funny. You can't quite believe someone would admit such truths to her own doctor, much less the world at large.

What comes across very clearly in this book is that this is a woman who LOVES her son. Who really dotes on him. Perhaps even unusually so, for the world at large and most likely for former Playboy models.

I don't defend what she did, because I do think it has led to a lot of harm with people avoiding vaccines. But I sympathize with it on a gut level. She is a very loving mom who is searching for explanations, hasn't found any, and hasn't been given a reason why to trust the scientific process. She also seems to think her kid has improved.

Most importantly, I think there's a way of avoiding people pulling Jenny McCarthys in the future. What we can do is not simply tell students in schools that smart people trust scientists, and looking up stuff on the web on your own is for bimbos. Anyone who watches the news is provided frequently with counterexamples that show scientists are not always right. Most people have had the experience of being told to trust their doctor, and their doctor turned out to be wrong about something. If you are told just to trust scientists and doctors, but you have not learned anything about the scientific method....why would you then continue to trust scientists and doctors? Presumably you were told to trust them because they know more and are correct. So when they aren't...of course it would get anyone to wondering whether they really do know more. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. If someone has been introduced as having much expertise, and she turns out to have made a significant mistake in the field of expertise, it would certaily get me wondering.

But, of course, we don't simply trust doctors and scientists because they know more. It's part of it, but not all of it. It's because we believe in the use of scientific method. It might be more valuable to teach a little philosophy of science in our high schools. Explain how the scientific method was developed, and, most importantly, how it is to be preferred to wild conjecture even though scientists sometimes get it wrong. Teach what constitutes good evidence, and why it does. Teach why we still think what scientists do is valuable, even if mistakes have been made. My guess is that had Jenny McCarthy and others of her ilk had learned this stuff (she's no idiot, even if she's not a Rhodes Scholar), and learned it well, rather than simply being asked to have a blind faith in the scientific community, much fewer of them would be challenging the scientific community.

Sanity. Hurrah.

From the Times:

A special vaccine court ruled against parents with autistic children Thursday, saying that vaccines are not to blame for their children's neurological disorder.

The judges in the cases said the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the parents' claims -- and backed years of science that found no risk.

''It was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive,'' the court concluded in one of a trio of cases ruled on Thursday.
My opinions about this are clear. Either one believes that medicine is based upon science, or one does not. Sometimes that science is flawed. Sometimes it is incomplete. But medical investigation is always ongoing, and there has been a huge amount of attention paid to vaccines, thimerosal, and autism. As I say to families that inquire, if there is a link between the three, it is so minute and unclear as to be scientifically undetectable.

I cannot imagine how much more complicated and unpleasant practicing pediatrics would have been had the court decided otherwise. I am grateful for their clear, correct and unambiguous ruling.

People shouldn't have litters

Well, after a couple of days attending to non-blogosphere matters, here I am again. Did you miss me?

Now that the stimulus package appears to be on its way to passage, with the collective hopes of many behind its success, I think it's safe to turn our attention to other matters. Pressing matters. Matters regarding women who give birth to entire sports teams.

Three smiling siblings, he says, were the first Japanese-American triplets conceived in a laboratory, while the robust-looking quadruplets were born after sperm was injected into their mother’s eggs with a needle.

To the couples who turned to Dr. Chiu to have families, the babies were special gifts. To the government and fertility industry, though, such large multiple births have begun to look like breakdowns in the system. The issue has taken on renewed scrutiny since a California woman, Nadya Suleman, who already had six children conceived through in vitro procedures, gave birth to octuplets near here last month.
Ms. Suleman has 14 children now, all of them conceived artificially. While I do not know Ms. Suleman, I wonder if perhaps there is a degree of vanity involved in deciding that one's genetic material is so very, very valuable that it should be propogated well beyond usual numbers. Particularly through artificial means. It is also questionable how ethical it was to implant [edit -- six] embryos in the first place.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the association of fertility doctors, even adopted guidelines in 2008 encouraging the transfer of only one embryo for women under 35, and no more than two, except in extraordinary circumstances. The guidelines allow more for older women, up to a maximum of five.
Ms. Suleman is 33. Correct my math if I'm wrong on this, but six > one, no?

It is easy (so, so easy) to criticize Ms. Suleman's decision. She is single. She is unemployed. Some people are supposing that she has a desire to emulate Angelina Jolie (in both behavior and appearance), though it should be noted that Ms. Jolie is gainfully employed and adopted many of her children. While I think Ms. Suleman is due for her fair share of criticism (and starting up a website so people can donate to the care of her brood is beyond the pale), I would like to ask a question of one Michael M. Kamrava, the doctor Ms. Suleman identifies as the man who implanted the embryos.

What, Dr. Kamrava, is your problem? You have an obligation to practice medicine ethically, and you have failed to do so in a profound and very public way. Apparently you are under investigation by the California Medical Board, and I can only imagine how you plan to defend yourself. Ms. Suleman, it seems needless to say, has some psychological problems that doubtless motivated her decision to seek your services. What, Dr. Kamrava, motivated you to provide them? Or shall I guess?

It also seems odd to heap opprobrium on one woman with 14 kids, when another family with eight has their own show and a website for fans to read devotionals. (It should be noted that the Gosselins used a different method of getting pregnant, and were not aware they were headed for sextuplets. However, this distinction isn't necessarily clear in the court of public opinion.) It's really not all that hard to imagine that an unhappy young woman would see birthing her own jury (plus alternates) as a ticket to fame and adulation. Again, one would have hoped that an ethical physician would have declined to proceed with such a risky and unnecessary procedure, but it appears that one wasn't involved.


Disaster Watch

Hollywood has known for decades that we love watching disasters. Fictional disasters on film are one thing (and we're talking about films intentionally about disasters, such as "Flood", rather than films that are in and of themselves disasters, such as, well, "Flood"), but there are lots of ways to watch real-life disasters.

Some of them are passing wonders, such as the burning of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Beijing...

..and some are too sad and horrific to list, such as the wildfires in Australia. But sometimes the best real-life disaster rubber-necking is the speculative kind, the apoclyptic imagination wondering which event signals the end of the world. Here are just a few:

Mount Redoubt is getting ready to blow, potentially covering Anchorage in ash and pyroclastic flows damning inlets. You can even sign up for the Twitter feed, with updates every two hours. Alaskans aren't that worried, but that makes the dramatic tension even more exciting.

While the Atlantic hurricane season is still five months away, cyclones are springing up in the Indian Ocean and there's always the off chance of a typhoon in the Pacific.

You can always troll through the CDC and the WHO and worry about the next outbreak of avian flu, toxic peanut butter, and drug-resistant TB.

And you can watch the RNC self-destruct. Of course, I'm biased. I'm sure a link to the DNC, Congress, or WhiteHouse.gov could be equally entertaining for disaster mavens. Sausage-making, it's fascinating but it isn't pretty.