Taking him at his word

I am embarrassed to admit that I was not aware of President Obama's speech about LGBT rights today until I read about it over at the Daily Dish. And, while I agree with Andrew that there wasn't much by way of actual news in it, I also agree that it was a moving and heartening speech.

First of all, it is very encouraging, and something for which I am grateful, that the President of the United States saw fit to speak specifically about gay and lesbian rights. The only thing we have heard about our issues until now was either rank opposition from W. (and what a friend to the gays he was) or a quick flash of tepid support followed by waffling, collapse and triangulation from his predecessor (thanks a big heap for Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA, Bill). So, in all sincerity, I am pleased that Obama spoke up for us at all.

I also took the following as an encouraging sign:
And I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps. And by the time you receive -- (applause.) We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration. (Applause.)

I like the "we will make more" more than I care for "by this time this administration is over," since the Prez may be banking on a second term and I'd rather not wait another seven years. But I appreciate that he appears to be willing to keep his promises.
The truth is when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago no one could have imagined that you -- or, for that matter, I -- (laughter) -- would be standing here today. (Applause.) So we are all witnesses to monumental changes in this country. That should give us hope, but we cannot rest. We must continue to do our part to make progress -- step by step, law by law, mind by changing mind. And I want you to know that in this task I will not only be your friend, I will continue to be an ally and a champion and a President who fights with you and for you.
Again, I am glad that we have a President who appears to want to be our friend, publicly, than one who either wants to use us as a wedge issue or run the hell away from us. So, again, points for progress made and the right words said.

I understand what he says about the patience that is required while the process takes its necessary steps. And, for now, I am placated. But I still expect progress, and I want to see it during this first term. Words, no matter how moving and comforting and refreshing, are still less important than action.

Presumably, they also use paddles

In addition to the various political blogs that I troll for material, I've started reading more written by other doctors. I think this started when I wrote my Jim Carrey piece for Ordinary Gentlemen, but since then I've kept it up. A particular favorite of mine is Respectful Insolence, and I've more recently discovered Skeptical OB.

The author of the latter, Amy Tuteur, made reference in her latest post to a spot of trouble the Massachusetts General surgical residency training program has gotten into recently. It seems that they are not abiding by regulations limiting residency work weeks to 80 hours, and have been cited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. From the Boston Globe:
Junior surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital have been working too many hours, in violation of patient safety rules, according to a national accrediting organization that is threatening to put the hospital’s surgery training program on probation.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education cited the hospital because a significant number of its surgeons in training, known as residents, were exceeding hour limits and working seven days straight. The organization believes these workloads contribute to fatigue-related mistakes, and has given the hospital until Aug. 15 to fix the problem.
Now, to me this is a good thing. While the surgeons produced by Mass General are assuredly top-notch, beating the crap out of them with grinding shifts seems an unnecessary part of the experience. Surprisingly, Dr. Tuteur differs:
I recently read that the prestigious surgery training program at Massachusetts General Hospital is in danger or losing its accreditation. It's not because it has failed to properly train surgeons, or because of mistakes. The program may lose its accreditation because the trainees, also known as interns and residents, have worked more than the maximum of 80 hours per week. The hospital seems to have clearly violated the rule, but I find myself strangely ambivalent about both the rule and the punishment.
She goes on to describe her own experience of being crushingly, dangerously tired, including the following hair-raising anecdote:
My most notable transgression while sleep deprived, though, was when I began hallucinating during surgery when I was one of the surgeons. It was a relatively minor case, and my role was simply to assist, but I kept forgetting where I was and talking to people who were not there. This resulted in gales of laughter from everyone else in the operating room. When the case was finished I was allowed to go home early (5 PM) since I clearly could not be trusted to care for patients.
To me, minor role notwithstanding, she was clearly too tired to be caring for patients in any capacity, and this is a pretty striking indictment of her work schedule as a resident. Oddly, this isn't how she sees it:
The system was brutal in the extreme … and yet. And yet it taught me to be a doctor, to take complete responsibility for someone else's life, and to never give up, no matter how long it took, until the best possible result was achieved. It was drilled into me that the patient came first; my comfort: my hunger, my tiredness was meaningless. All that counted was what the patient needed.
I... do not agree with this. I think Dr. Tuteur falls into the same nostalgia trap that other doctors who were trained under similar circumstances do, which is that they somehow conflate the brutality of the training with their attachment to their profession. "We went through it, and it made us who we are," so to speak, "so you go through it, too." This is merely a justification for institutionalized hazing, which is what much of residency really is. (That, and cheap, abusable labor.)

Plus, while Dr. Tuteur thinks much of the medical errors that we ascribe to doctors can actually be pinned on nurses, pharmacists, etc, let's not kid ourselves that hunger and fatigue are "meaningless." As Spartan and stoic as that sentiment may seem, it is also manifest balderdash and empty bravado. Your fatigue does matter, and putting off rest until some vague benchmark of clinical success is acheived merely inculcates the misguided belief that doctors are heroic miracle workers instead of normal people doing their best. If people aren't allowed to drive trucks without getting sufficient rest, I really can't imagine why residents should be expected to function safely while similarly fatigued.

My residency, which actually did comply with regulations limiting my hours, still made me incredibly tired after working a 24 hour+ shift. I remember being so tired going home that I felt like I was moving through pudding. And, rather than making me a more committed doctor, it simply made me surly and unyielding. The tasks that stood between me and sleep didn't feel like something I was doing for my patient, but came to feel like barriers to the rest I desperately needed, and merely made me resentful. (Perhaps these were simply defects in my character coming out, but being chronically sleep-deprived didn't help.) Residents at Mass General can learn to be superlative physicians without a training program that is dangerous and inhumane.


Affirming me

Today's Supreme decision (about which Dan has created a very exciting open thread) has raised the issue of affirmative action -- as, I imagine, will the Sonia Sotomayor hearings. I have mixed feelings about affirmative action, although generally in favor of it when there is not an outrageous insult to merit. I certainly don't think such measures amount to "reverse racism."

I thought, however, that I'd share my own experience with it in the field of philosophy. Philosophy is more like the sciences than the other humanities in that the field is still extremely male-dominated. And things aren't changing - I don't believe there is a higher percentage of female graduate students than professors (in my own department, I have just calculated, we have 17.9% female graduate students). As few women as there are, there are far fewer blacks. I have met fewer than 10 black philosophy professors - seriously. There is an even smaller percentage of female undergraduates who major in philosophy at my university (a ginormous flagship state U), although blacks are majors in proportion to their attendance at the university.

In my department, female graduate students receive preference for teaching, on the theory that it encourages the female undergraduates. It is not explicitly stated, although it is generally understood, that female applicants for graduate school in philosophy are chosen if all else is equal with another candidate. When applying for tenure-track jobs, it is generally understood that as a female you are more likely to get an on-campus interview, but are not more likely to get an actual offer.

I have been on the receiving end of a tiny bit of sexism from the professors in my department. Most showed none at all. With one or two, I sensed that I had to prove myself more than the male students (this includes a female professor). I have received many questions about whether I'm able to handle parenting and philosophy work - my husband has received

This makes my heart hurt

David Foster Wallace was my favorite author, and Infinite Jest is one of my two favorite novels. (The other is Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis.) I've read it two and a half times, and will doubtless read it at least a couple more. (The first half attempt came when I took it with me on residency interviews, and accidentally left it in Washington, DC.) When DFW died, I ran out and bought all the books he had written that I hadn't read at Barnes & Noble, and I'm just finishing Consider the Lobster.

As strange as this may sound, DFW's suicide came to mind with last week's death of Michael Jackson. Obviously, this isn't due to any similarity at all between the two men. However, I remember how utterly disorienting it felt when I learned that he had died. Here was a man whose writing had informed the person I am now, who was funny and wise and sad in a way that mattered to me. I had never met the man, had hoped to one day, and now never would. How was I to mourn someone I didn't really know? Was it awful and pretentious and maudlin to even considering myself to be "mourning"? So, as vastly different as the two men were, I have some sympathy for people who are kind of messed up that Michael Jackson is dead, even if I can't relate to their specific fandom.

So, it is with a great degree of pleasure that I learn via Julian Sanchez that he (along with a few other bloggers I happen to read regularly) will be reading Infinite Jest this summer and blogging about the experience. I am so terribly excited about this, it's almost embarrassing. But I also am incredibly jealous, because I really love this book. It is, without a doubt, the truest thing I've ever read about how hard it can be to be happy, and how wonderful it is when you are. I would love to be in a room with these people and talk about the book, and share my guesses about some of its (many) unanswered questions. And, of course, it reminds me that I miss a person I never actually knew.

I will, of course, have to content myself with being a persistent commenter, and hope that I don't get too irritating.

Update: This is all part of Infinite Summer, wherein people read and comment on Infinite Jest in a summer-long reading project. In other words, Dan has something else to obsessively check and recheck this summer.

Blogging, meet brick wall

For the life of me, I don't know what to say about the Ricci case, in which Justice Kennedy wrote for the SCOTUS majority in overturning the lower court's decision in the New Haven firefighters' suit against the city. I probably wouldn't even be trying to formulate an opinion, were it not for the attention paid to the case because of Sonia Sotomayor's involvement in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which was reversed.

So, instead of muddling through a post of some kind, in which I try to figure out what I think, I'm going to inaugurate the First Bleakonomy Open Thread.

What do you think?

Update: Apparently, even though some people clearly have nothing intelligent (or accurate) to add, it doesn't stop them from talking anyway. (H/t Political Animal.)

Update II (Son of Update): Here's a handy little encapsulation of why today's decision is not an historic repudiation of Judge Sotomayor. (H/t HuffPo.)

Update III (Revenge of Update): Don't all yell at once.

Pervert, yes. But harmless?

As it happens, I don't think people should go to jail for fake child porn that has not harmed an actual child. But I think it is odd for Chris Bodenner, writing on Andrew Sullivan's blog to conclude that a guy who photoshops pictures of a 10-year-old girl of his acquaintance onto the body of a naked adult female is "harmless." If perhaps we don't want to immediately conclude he is harmful, harmless seems a hasty conclusion as well. At the very least, some harm alarm bells are rung. If I were the mother of that 10-year-old, I'd probably rescind any outstanding dinner party invites I'd made to the guy.

Incidentally, I'd love to see a study that examines whether fake child porn reduces the number of actual children harmed (perhaps because those who are inclined that way have some sort of outlet for their feelings) or if it increases the number of children harmed (perhaps because consumers of such porn want to enact what they've seen).

Funny, he looked Jewish

Full disclosure: I am Jewish. I believe I look Jewish (Lubavitch Jews who wish to get me to say prayers can spot me a mile away).

Apparently, a suspected robber in Vail was described in the local paper as appearing to be of Jewish descent. It also mentioned that the suspect had a large nose, eyes close together, and narrow face (h/t Jeffrey Goldberg).

Apparently, this led to a flood of angry letters to the editor of Vail Daily as trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. I really don't get this.

Judaism is a religion, yes, but it is also an ethnicity, with its own high rate of certain genetic diseases. I can't always pick apart Jews from non-Jews on sight, but you know what? I'm a hell of a lot better than fifty-fifty. I've always found Leslie Howard playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind kind of amusing, as Howard looks so obviously Jewish to me that it just doesn't quite work to imagine him as an aristocratic Southern WASP.

There is not only one way to look Jewish (as it happens, I don't have a big nose, olive skin, eyes close together, or a narrow face, and yet I look Jewish), but certain people do indeed look identifiably Jewish. Some of those people have big noses. I can't see what's wrong describing someone as looking Jewish, and if they do look Jewish, mentioning that he has a pronounced schnoz (since, after all, not all Jews do have big schnozzes).

I understand people in the past have trafficked in stereotypes about Jewish appearances. But let's not deny the obvious reality that Jews share some genes, and are often identifiable as Jewish from their looks.


Must you legitimize this man?

I read an article in the Times about political shifts and public opinion about gay rights with some bemusement. It's headline kind of says it all:

Political Shifts on Gay Rights Lag Behind Culture

You think? Anyhow, the article goes on to describe how, while public acceptance of gay marriage and open service in the military continues to increase, you'd never know it from watching the glacial pace of reform in DC. The article is interesting, but it's really only a rehash of information well-known to those of us who care a lot about the issues in question. (Side note -- the accompanying photo of the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which I can't reproduce here, has captured on film two of the gayest men I have ever seen.)

But what bugs the snot out of me is that the Times decided to quote the insufferable Tony Perkins for the article:
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a group that opposes gay rights initiatives, said Mr. Obama’s reluctance to push more assertively for gay rights reflected public opinion.

“He’s given them a few minor concessions; they’re asking for more, such as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ being repealed,” Mr. Perkins said. “The administration is not willing to go there, and I think there’s a reason for that, and that is because I think the American public isn’t there.”

There are sooooooo many things that bug me about this.

First of all, can someone please explain to me what is so damn "family" about the "Family Research Council"? I went to their website, and for the life of me I found precious little that has to do with actual, real-life, flesh and blood families. There's a whole hell of a lot about the socially conservative politics they promote, but not much I could see that had to do with making parents and kids healthier, happier or more successful. (The closest I could find was a page about tax cuts for families, and a surprisingly sane page about the HPV vaccine.) There is something distinctly Orwellian about seizing the word "family" and conflating it with religious conservatism. (Maine's own odious Michael Heath has followed this lead, and has changed the name of his increasingly irrelevant "Maine Christian Civic League" to the equally-inaccurate "Maine Family Policy Council.") The only message about families that I get from these organizations is that mine doesn't count.

But, beyond that, can someone please explain to me why the head of an ultraconservative "family" organization is holding forth on Don't Ask, Don't Tell? What on God's green earth does that have to do with families? Moreover, he is not a neutral observer of public perception regarding certain military policies. Part of the reason that the American public "isn't there" is because reactionary theocratic fear-mongers like him have held it back. Why is the Times treating him as some kind of expert when his entire relevance and raison d'etre are based on creating the exact same perceptions as they are quoting him about? They quote him about a perception that is enhanced by their quoting him, in an inane Ouroboros of reinforced status quo.

It doesn't help his credibility that he is flagrantly wrong, of course. From later in the same article:
A New York Times/CBS News poll last spring found that 57 percent of people under 40 said they supported same-sex marriage, compared with 31 percent of respondents over 40. Andy Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, said the generational shift was reflected in his polling, in which the number of Americans opposing gay people serving openly in the military had dropped to 32 percent now from 45 percent in 1994.
So, in the past fifteen years, the number of people opposed to open military service for gays and lesbians has fallen from a minority to an even smaller minority? Gallup has found that even the majority of self-described conservatives support ending DADT.

So, if Tony Perkins clearly doesn't know what he's talking about, and is the head of a deeply biased organization whose ambit is "the family" and not military policy, why the hell is the Times legitimizing him?

Liberal media bias, my eye.


Dept. of Very Short Memories

I wonder what's wrong with House Minority Leader John Boehner's memory. He's been in Congress for ten terms, during which time presumably he's been paying attention to how things have been done. Which makes his comments today very confusing to me. Via TPM:
"Republicans are offering common-sense solutions that will make a real difference in creating jobs, making health care more affordable, and promoting a cleaner, healthier environment, and reducing energy costs," said Boehner. "We hope our Democrat colleagues will abandon their failed go-it-alone approach and work with us to make these reforms a reality."
Their "go-it-alone" approach? Hmmm. That seems to ring a bell. Where have I heard of a party extending a big, fat middle finger to the opposition before?

Oh, yes. Five years ago, when the Republicans brought us this charming policy:
In scuttling major intelligence legislation that he, the president and most lawmakers supported, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert last week enunciated a policy in which Congress will pass bills only if most House Republicans back them, regardless of how many Democrats favor them.

Hastert's position, which is drawing fire from Democrats and some outside groups, is the latest step in a decade-long process of limiting Democrats' influence and running the House virtually as a one-party institution. Republicans earlier barred House Democrats from helping to draft major bills such as the 2003 Medicare revision and this year's intelligence package. Hastert (R-Ill.) now says such bills will reach the House floor, after negotiations with the Senate, only if "the majority of the majority" supports them.

"Only if the 'majority of the majority' supports them." Yes, I remember that well. You'd think Rep. Boehner would have remembered, too, what with his being in Congress at the time and all.

(Just as a side note, I don't really buy his premise either, since I think the Democrats have made their fair share of overtures to the House Republicans. I just think that, even if Boehner's point were valid, the House GOP kind of has it coming.)


Come again?

I've had rather a trying day at work, and I'm on call this weekend, and so I decided to indulge in one of my more leisurely and relaxing pass-times -- reading the Huffington Post and looking for really, really dumb celebrity opinions about things. It's always good for a giggle, and thankfully Alec Baldwin comes through.

Alec Baldwin is a very, very funny actor. He is also, from what I gather, considered one of the "smarter" celebrities out there. That wasn't necessarily the impression I got from his rambling, incoherent defense of Mark Sanford.
So South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford had an affair.

Big deal.

Now is a wonderful opportunity to show the country what Democrats/liberals/progressives/unaligned learned from the Clinton era. Whatever personal problems that public officials deal with privately, leave them alone. This could happen to anyone, in any state, regardless of party. Why make the voters of South Carolina suffer while Sanford is skewered? If he wants to resign, so be it. If not, let him deal with it in private.

Well, no. I don't really agree that this could "happen to anyone." Earthquakes happen to anyone. Strep throat happens to anyone. Love affairs happen to those who choose to sleep with people other than their spouses, which we tend to attribute more to a combination of libido and free will than to happenstance.

I understand why Baldwin is defending Sanford, because dude has been there himself, you know? And I agree that cackling and rubbing our hands with glee at the lurid details of the affair is unseemly, and is an impulse we should try to rise above. But, as I said elsewhere, the voters of South Carolina are also entitled to a governor who doesn't vanish into thin air, or spend their taxes on questionable junkets to other countries where his mistress just happens to live. There's more than just the extramarital shenanigans to consider here, Mr. Baldwin.

What really caught my eye was this particularly startling description, however:
The Clinton scandal was one of the most horrific political episodes I have ever witnessed. Henry Hyde and Richard Mellon Scaife and Kenneth Starr, the right-wing's goyish Roy Cohn, chasing down Arkansas state troopers and bank records and real estate documents until they found what they were looking for in Monica Lewinsky's closet. [emphasis mine]
Uh... what? I don't really understand quite what point Baldwin is making by highlighting Starr's gentile status. First of all, the right wing already had a Roy Cohn -- Roy Cohn. Baldwin's formulation is odd, in that most people would use similar phraseology to describe someone similar on the opposite side, as in "the left wing's Latina Scalia" to describe Sonia Sotomayor. Is he implying that the right wing plans to collect an ethnically diverse number of Roy Cohns? Are they scouring Liberty University for a Laotian?

But, more than that, what is Baldwin trying to say about Starr that he clarifies by mentioning his non-Jewishness? Because, to me, it seems like a gratuitous and confusing ethnic dig, made even weirder coming from a fellow gentile. It certainly doesn't enhance an opinion piece already lacking in rhetorical precision.

Why Sanford has to go

I tend to take a relatively laissez-faire attitude when it comes to marital indiscretions on the part of public figures. Do I think it's disgraceful when our elected leaders pay for sex (Vitter, Spitzer), sleep with their staff (Clinton, Ensign), or just seem to have trouble keeping it in their pants (Edwards, Paterson, Giuliani)? Sure. But, by and large, I think infidelity is between the transgressor and his (because it's almost always men, isn't it?) family. (On that note, I think Jenny Sanford is plenty justified in giving the Governor the old heave-ho.)

But Gov. Sanford is different. He has shown awful, awful judgement, not only with regard to his personal moral conduct, but with regard to his duties as governor. This is made plain by two different factors.

The first is that he just up and disappeared for five days. He took no steps, as far as I can tell from everything that has been reported thus far, to have a clear protocol in place should something have required his urgent attention during his absence. Who was to be in charge? Who would have been able to get in touch with him? If I were to up and disappear for five days, leaving who knows who to see my patients and take my calls, I would have some serious 'splaining to do. As much as it pains me to admit this, the governor of a state (even a small one like, say, Vermont) is more important than I am, and the people of his state are perfectly right to be incredibly angry that he absconded.

Even worse than that, he spent taxpayer money on an earlier trip to visit his mistress. (Yes, apparently there was a "legitimate" business purpose to the trip, but Sanford is in no position to expect people to cut him any slack at this point.) This is a huge breach in the public trust, and effectively obliterates any reasonable expectation that he will be able to function in his job any longer.

He should resign.

The deformations of fame

I agree with Elizabeth that it is impossible to separate the artist from the art created, though I think it's easier to distill in some media than others. (Seeing Sean Connery swagger across the screen, and hearing his voice, I have a much harder time shaking his cavalier pronouncements about hitting women than I do Picasso's treatment of the women in his life when I look at "Girl Before a Mirror.") This ambivalence about Michael Jackson is an unalterable part of his legacy. While John McWhorter's essay about him mentions his early-season "Simpsons" appearance, which is full of sweetness and affection, in a later season Bart jokingly likens Jackson to the Boogeyman as "something grown-ups made up to scare children." Nowhere in American popular culture has an artist so transformed from icon to pariah more than in his case.

Which brings me back to our earlier exchange about fame, particularly as it pertains to children. By all accounts (except, perhaps, his father's), Jackson's childhood at the pinnacle of fame was hellish. As he grew into (arguably) the most famous performer in the world, he became more and more removed from reality. The gruesome result was literally as plain as the nose on his face.

I attribute this in no small part to what Elizabeth has called the "Caligula complex." (I beg her leave in holding forth on it.) As fame becomes more and more the highest and shiniest prize in America, surpassing power and wealth and long since having obliterated dignity, the people who have access to it, even by proxy, become less and less willing to jeopardize their access. If one is lucky enough to be one of Michael Jackson's lackeys, hangers-on, acolytes, etc., how willing would one be to politely clear one's throat and say that sleeping in the same bed with small children not his own is a really bad idea? That he doesn't need more facial surgery? That he shouldn't dangle his kid off a balcony? Presumably, anyone foolish enough to direct any rational, level-headed criticism at the Gloved One would be immediately replaced with someone more accommodating. (One would have hoped that professional ethics would have kept whichever plastic surgeon from agreeing to do anything further to his face as it became more and more ghastly, but this apparently did not come to pass.)

Those of us who inhabit the un-famous, mundane world are expected to conform to social norms, and very few are willing to risk being ostracized by, say, wearing a sailor suit and carrying a big lollipop to a father/daughter dance. But we expect, even celebrate the outre in the famous. And, when they go too far and become unmoored from the stanchions of sanity, they lack the kinds of honest friends or coworkers who will raise an eyebrow and ask gently if they're sure they want to shave their head with the photographers around? (Family could theoretically serve this purpose, but Jackson seems to have been SOL in this regard.)

What could be better than being rich, famous and beloved by millions of fans? For my part, I'll settle for having a face that looks similar to the one I was born with, and friends that would talk me out of messing with it.

Michael Jackson and the morality of the artist

John McWhorter says, and says with his usual clarity and grace, pretty much exactly what I thought of Michael Jackson. The one exception is that he passes over Jackson's molestation accusations more breezily than I am wont to.

Which brings me to what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say on the matter.

Ray Lewis may well be an accessory to a man's murder. But when I watch him run up and down field on Sunday, it sparks something in me. Woody Allen wooed his wife's adopted daughter, and may well be a child molester. But I think Bananas makes me laugh. Mike Tyson is, among other things, a convicted rapist. But I had not lived until I saw him demolish Trevor Berbick. And so on...

I guess I could peel these people out my life. I guess I could stop seperating art from men. Regrettably, I think, I wouldn't be left with much art worth admiring. Sometimes awful people, do beautiful things. One doesn't cancel the other.

I agree that awful people do beautiful things. I disagree that one can separate art from artists. Art is a form of communication, and is in part understood by understanding the author's intentions. (I could go on and on about this, and I have in writing philosophical work, but I'll refrain here. Suffice it to say that I think the concept that we look at, say, a poem as simply a text or series of words with dictionary meanings, with no regard for the author or context in which it was written, often results in a failure to properly understand the poem).

That said, I don't only enjoy art created by people I find morally acceptable or with whom I would be excellent friends. Like Coates, I find Bananas quite funny (although my favorite early Woody Allen still has to be Love and Death). What seems to matter more is whether or not the artwork communicates something about the immorality. A movie such as Manhattan, which seems to defend and glorify his sexual preference for high school age group (and not simply for reasons of tauter skin, but because older women are too sophisticated and challenging) is much more off-putting given the facts I know about his life.

In the case of Michael Jackson, I am apparently one of the relatively few people who does not think he is a genius. I like his voice quite a lot when he was a child, much less so as a falsetto adult. His songs are often catchy enough. His dancing was very good. And that's about it. Knowing how brutal his father was in forcing him to perform does influence my enjoyment of his childhood recordings. But his later music, which does not seem to deal with or defend his apparent preference for young boys, is still reasonably enjoyable for me.

Pop philosophy gets it silly again

Last week, I tentatively defended the possibility of writing philosophy for a popular audience against Julian Sanchez's skepticism. Today's David Brooks op-ed (called, hubristically enough, "Human Nature Today" - as if such a topic could be adequately covered in less than 900 words) almost makes me want to give up. I have a new suggestion - let's say that you can definitely describe philosophical work that has been done in the popular press, but it's very very hard to actually do philosophical work in that forum.

Brooks is a smart guy, and I'm glad he's really taking the time to learn about psychology and cognitive science. In his op-ed today, though, he dismisses an entire school of thought by using a straw man and suggesting the vaguest of problems with the explanatory adequacy of evolutionary psychology and modularity of mind. He has no space to actually discuss this, so the majority of his readers, who are learning about this from him, might well take his word for it.

I don't mean to suggest I can adequately reply in a blog post. But I can sketch where a response to his article would lie.

He says:

The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations.

Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials.

The evidence for modularity is far more compelling than Brooks discusses, and I can't recount it all here. People working on modularity are aware that they need to account for creativity and fluidity, as well as g -- that is, general intelligence. Most think it can be done (by loosening restrictions on what it means to be a module). And as for adapting to different environments, almost everyone thinks that modules are more like capacities - you are hardwired to get certain capacities tuned on given certain environmental circumstances. It's similar to your genes in this way. Anyone who has a toddler will be struck by how cognitively undercooked they are, and yet how certain cognitive capacities get switched on. It makes sense that humans have evolved to be particularly flexible. We have modules that turn on in one way or another under certain circumstances.

Brooks also says:

The second problem is one evolutionary psychology shares with economics. It’s too individualistic: individuals are born with certain traits, which they seek to maximize in the struggle for survival.

But individuals aren’t formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.

To which I have the same response. Our modules, if we have them, are flexible and adapt to culture. There is a lot more to say on this, but blogs and op-eds are not where you can actually hash out what human nature is.

It is a disservice to his readers to suggest that the answers he has given are in any way adequate to the discussion of the problem at hand.


Sanford is a virtue ethicist!

Among the more interesting statements (in addition to, as William Saletan notes, his admission of real love for his paramour) in Mark Sanford's tearful apology was this: "It's not a moral, rigid list of do's and don'ts just for the heck of do's and don'ts."

Maybe Sanford is a virtue ethicist!

It would be nice if he had discussed this with his fellow GOP'ers before all this went down. He might have suggested to them that one can be moral while being unsure as to whether certain acts are right or wrong, or even sure that it is acts or thoughts that constitute what's right and wrong, or that the questioning of certain rules does not immediately devolve into relativism. While he's at it, could he let also let the GOP know that one does not need God to have rules of morality? That, in fact, there is a rather well-known and rather long-discussed problem with saying that morality merely is that which God tells us to do?

I'll tell you what my identity is, Katie Roiphe

Apparently, it's feminism and parenting week for me here at bleakonomy. I'll get back to gender neutral blogging soon! I've been meaning to post for some time about how silly this article by the often level-headed Katie Roiphe is. Her thesis: the fact that many moms use images of their children as profile pictures indicate that parents have subsumed their own identity into that of their children. (Full disclosure: my current facebook profile photo is a picture of me holding my son. It's the both of us, not just my son, but I'm not sure if Roiphe would object. My husband briefly had a picture of just our son as his profile picture, now also has one of our son).

Here are some problems with this thesis:

1) It's not only women who use their children as facebook profile pictures. Plenty of my male friends do. Also, plenty of my single friends use their pets, or cartoons, or what have you.

2) I think she's taking a little too literally what a facebook profile picture is supposed to communicate. I did not look through my pics trying to decide which one best represented the totality of my many facets. I picked one where I thought I looked okay, and had my son, who is awfully cute. I don't imagine my friends who post pics of their pets think that their identity consists entirely in that pet.

3) The part of me that uses facebook is not the totality of me. I take my job very seriously, and it is a big part of my life. I am friends with philosophers on facebook, of course, but our communication on the site is largely limited to jokes and our personal lives. We don't discuss serious philosophy on wall posts. I have a serious history-reading habit, and that's a fairly large portion of my life, but I don't think I've ever posted on facebook about it. No one else I know is all that interested, and it's a solitary pursuit, anyhow.

To all those of you who are not thirty-something mothers of toddlers, let me tell you what we use facebook for: to discuss mommy stuff, post pictures of our kids, and coo over pictures of other people's kids. Facebook is not a good forum for discussions of philosophy, or for habits that are not particularly social ones. It's an excellent forum for parent talk! If you are friends with any of us on facebook, then you may have noticed that we have constant updates such as: "Liam's nose has finally stopped running! It was his molars, not a cold." You may have wondered who cares. The answer: other parents do. Facebook easily mimics playground chit-chat. If it weren't for parent talk, I wouldn't use facebook half so much as I do.

So facebook is something that only part of me really uses. So please do not draw conclusions about what I value from facebook postings.

4) When Roiphe lists what makes up one's identity, she lists everything apart from children. As it happens, I LOVE being a mom. I have been prouder of nothing than my son, nothing else has fulfilled me so much, nothing else has made me so complete a person. I have parts of me that are not related to my son, and I value them, but my son is a huge part of my life, and I see no reason to apologize for that. Roiphe says:

The mystery here is that the woman with the baby on her Facebook page has surely read The Feminine Mystique in college, and The Second Sex, and The Beauty Myth. She is no stranger to the smart talk of whatever wave of feminism we are on, and yet this style of effacement, this voluntary loss of self, comes naturally to her. Here is my pretty family, she seems to be saying, I don’t matter anymore.

Actually, I have not lost myself. Here's what I'm saying with my pictures: here is my pretty family, and they are what matters to me. It is my self that values my family. I have read those books, yes. I have been gratified that we have gotten beyond the implication, especially in the first two books she lists, that motherhood is part of a trap that disallows full self-actualization. Roiphe has apparently not gotten beyond that.

5) Roiphe conflates this idea she has of loss of identity with the idea that parents are too involved in their children's lives, and that family dynamics are too child-centered. I actually agree with this: the long-term interests of everyone (including children) are not best served by making sure that children's needs always trump parents' needs. This, however, is a separate issue than the supposed loss of identity of mothers of our generation. One need not suffer a loss of identity in order to feel pressured to hover or do more for one's child than is necessary.

Another suggested change to the Oscars

In addition to this change made to this year's Oscars (about which I am neutral), I would like to suggest another one: can we please get rid of separate awards for best actor and best actress? Why on earth does this still happen? Actors and actresses do largely the same job. Sure, actresses will tend to play different kinds of roles than actors, since they play females and not males. But old actors play different kinds of roles than young actors, and the Academy doesn't split the awards up this way. We don't give separate awards for best female director and best male director, because they do the same job.

Having separate top honors in sports makes sense, where body mechanics mean that men and women cannot be competitive with one another. In acting, though?

If you want to have more acting awards, give separate awards for comedy and drama, not for men and women.

In which I correctly guess something

So, when I read about today's Supreme Court ruling that strip-searching a 13-year-old girl for the purposes of finding two Advil is illegal, I saw that the ruling was nearly unanimous at 8-1. I turned to the guy working to my left and said "Bet you it's Thomas." (He had no idea what I was talking about, but smiled politely anyway.) Sadly, the article in the Times (at least as of now) doesn't say who the lone hold-out was. Thankfully, the HuffPo came through:
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas found the search legal and said the court previously had given school officials "considerable leeway" under the Fourth Amendment in school settings.

Officials had searched the girl's backpack and found nothing, Thomas said. "It was eminently reasonable to conclude the backpack was empty because Redding was secreting the pills in a place she thought no one would look," Thomas said.

Thomas warned that the majority's decision could backfire. "Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments," he said. "Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secret contraband in school."


Let's read from Justice Souter's majority opinion, shall we?
"What was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear," Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion. "We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."
So, in other words, the two-bit crime being investigated (which, for the record, the 13-year-old in question hadn't actually committed) and the lack of any real evidence that she had the two Advil in her knickers pretty much put the kibosh on the school's right to humiliate a student and violate her privacy so thoroughly.

Justice Thomas continues to astound me with his unwavering belief in executive authority (even as small as a vice principal's) over civil rights. (Also, apparently, his belief that otherwise stymied drug smugglers will suddenly start stashing things in their briefs because of this case, as though it had never occurred to them before.) In his world, the rights of the authority to enforce its rules, no matter how minor the infraction at hand, supersede any consideration of the individual's dignity.

Ridiculous crack-pottery from an unusual source


Among my various guilty pleasures is a weakness for advice columns. I enjoy Margo Howard's wry sophistication, for example, and think she's more level-headed than one might expect from a person so obviously used to privilege. And I also generally enjoy what Emily Yoffe (who took over the "Dear Prudence" column from Howard over at Slate) has to say, though she has a bit more of an edge to her writing. However, something she wrote in today's column nearly made me spit out my tea.

The letter in question was from a man with the following problem:
Dear Prudie,
A year ago, I broke my leg. During my recovery in the hospital, I contracted an infection and had to have a below-the-knee amputation. I have been seeing a girl for a few weeks. I'm afraid she'll be freaked out and leave if she finds out I'm less than whole, and I can't say I blame her.
He wants to know when/how to tell her, etc. Yoffe's answer was, taken as a whole, pretty decent and kind and level-headed. But her conclusion was horrifying:
One other thing: Losing a leg in this way could mean that the hospital's infection control procedures are putting patients' lives at risk. You might want to talk to a lawyer about pursuing why things went so wrong.


Really, Prudie? That's where he should start? A lawyer?

Perhaps the reasons behind the infection were explained already to his satisfaction, which is why he didn't ask your advice about how to deal with his anger or frustration or whatever about it. Perhaps the kind of fracture he had was more susceptible to infection, such as a compound fracture. (That might explain why he had to recover in a hospital in the first place.) Perhaps he has unanswered questions, and should ask someone about it. Maybe he should start with his doctor, or the hospital, and give them a chance to explain things more fully before he starts getting litigious!

But no. Dear Prudence thinks his best bet is a lawyer. And people wonder why doctors practice defensive medicine.


A promise is a promise

So, I’m just taking a short break from my usual Wednesday in the 3-dimensional world to note, as per my promise to do so should it turn out that he was correct, that my brother totally called the upshot of the missing hiking philandering Gov. Sanford story, which I did not. This is now the second time he has been right about something when I have been wrong. When he starts his own blog, full of political prognostication, I will duly let you know.


Squinting at the bright lines

Julian Sanchez raises an objection to a question that the President took at his press conference earlier today. The question came from Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post, who has been doing amazing work collecting and reporting on the situation in Iran as it has unfolded. (As much as I may dislike HuffPo in general, I have to give it proper credit for the reportage Pitney has been providing.) While it is now clear that the President Obama specifically called on Pitney as a conduit for a question on behalf of Iranians, the question itself wasn't vetted and wasn't a soft-ball:
"Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of the – of what the demonstrators there are working towards?"
Sanchez cries foul:
It’s a credit to Pitney that he still posed a tough question, but it seems fairly clear-cut to me that he should have rebuffed any effort to prearrange a question, even in this very broad and loose sense. It’s harmful to reporters’ independence and sets up some toxic incentives. The White House shouldn’t be trying to stage manage this way, and bloggers shouldn’t accept it when they do—however flattered they might be at being treated on par with the legacy media.
In a response to a comment I made, he added this:
Addendum: A commenter suggests that it’s not “objectionable” so long as it’s an “isolated” instance. The way you keep it isolated is by objecting. The harm here is a funtion of psychological effects as much as any conscious quid pro quo—which is a risk reporters will systematically underrate if they’re making case-by-case judgment calls. Sometimes we need bright lines.
I agree with what he is saying in principle. When the press colludes with the White House to stage manage its coverage, it compromises its integrity and diminishes its function. I concede that. However, it appears that the question from Pitney was coordinated in the very loosest sense, and occured for a specific and (in my opinion) laudable purpose, which would have been otherwise difficult to accomplish.

So, I would move this particular interaction between President and press from the brightly delineated "should not have happened" category to the much less tidy "is OK in a few very rare instances, and should not become a habit" bin. I think that Sanchez (and Michael Calderone) serve a valuable purpose by raising their objections (though Calderone's sniffing about HuffPo being called on before the reporter from Reuters seems a bit persnickety for my taste), but this time it seems to pass the sniff test.

Why stop at reality TV?

Today, both Dan and Michelle Cottle make similar points about the irresponsibility of the Gosselins in allowing their children to be filmed for reality TV. I agree; it is exploitative. The children cannot give informed consent to have their lives made public.

I'm not sure, however, that we shouldn't continue questioning the morality of using child labor when it comes to scripted fare. It is true that in the case of reality TV, the child's life is more directly exposed. That probably makes the situation worse. But it also seems exploitative to allow one's child to model or act when the child cannot give informed consent. Why is there this exception to child labor laws? We recognize children cannot enter into work contracts, have their parents enter them into such contracts, in most other arenas of work.

There are many things in a child's life to which a child cannot give informed consent: education, diet, etc. In order that children grow into healthy adults, we sometimes act without their consent. I know my child would receive no medical attention whatsoever if I could only get him to submit to an exam with his consent. But allowing a child to act or model seems to have (I have no data on this, just a general impression), generally speaking, a neutral or even negative impact on their lives. With some notable exceptions, many child actors, especially perhaps successful, famous ones, seem to go down in flames. But there are certain things that we do not allow children to do even if the benefits outweigh the harms ( we don't allow children to get married, even if we think it would in a specific instance be a benefit to the child). We are agreed that children generally cannot work in, say, a stockroom before a certain age even if it would greatly benefit them.

Now I can't imagine an artworld without child actors. And I'm sure there are many many healthy happy children who act and model who suffer no ill effects, and perhaps even credit their early acting careers with building character or camaraderie or what have you. I am sure, before child labor laws were established, that not every single child who labored was hurt by the laboring. That doesn't mean that the parents had the right to exploit them in this way. Rights should be respected without regard to harms and benefits. I simply wonder why we think parents have the right to allow their children to work in these circumstances, where we don't permit it in others.

Piggy-backing on one of the Gents

Will over at League of Ordinary Gentlemen says what I think many people are feeling:
A few days ago, Sonny Bunch rightfully observed that we have remarkably little context with which to process the information coming out of Iran. And as fascinating as it is to watch demonstrations unfold in real-time or to follow every protester’s tweet, I don’t feel appreciably more informed about the situation despite all of the data at my disposal. The result of this information overload hasn’t been a clear picture of what’s going on inside the regime; instead, we’ve replaced traditional filters (media commentary, expert analysis) with ideological blinders, picking out stirring images or quotes that conform to our preconceived notions of how things ought to be. Many commentators seem to feel empowered by the flood of information emanating from Iran; I just feel confused and overwhelmed.
I second that. While it's remarkably clear that something incredibly important has happened, the thing that has been made most clear to me as the drama has unfolded is my own ignorance. (That's why I have had just about nothing to say on the ol' blog about it.) While it certainly seems clear that there was electoral fraud, I have to rely on analysis and commentary from others because I have just about no basis for processing what I read and see on my own. When I read contrary opinions from purported experts, I feel intellectually deracinated and have no way of judging the validity of what they are saying.

All I can really tell is that something incredibly important has happened, and that the Iranian people are at a tipping point of some sort. Beyond that, I can say little more and do even less.

How to raise eight screwed-up kids

What the hell is wrong with you people??!???!

From the AP, via HuffPo:
Celebrity parents Jon and Kate Gosselin say they plan to divorce.

In a statement, Jon Gosselin says he and wife Kate filed for divorce Monday afternoon.

The co-stars of "Jon & Kate Plus 8," who are parents of sextuplets and twins, spoke of their decision to separate during Monday's episode of the TLC reality series.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Who cares, right? I agree. But this really bugs the snot out of me:
But both parents say the show will continue, with their segments of the show filmed separately.
I will admit to having watched an episode or two of "Jon & Kate Plus 8," for reasons that are lost to me now. (I have copped in the past to occasionally indulging in Low Entertainments. Don't pretend like you don't have guilty pleasures, people.) From the small little glimpse into their lives my viewing afforded, Jon and Kate didn't seem like horrible people. But now I have some pretty serious doubts.

The bright Kleig lights of contemporary fame may, perhaps, be the most corrosive influence in the wide world. It has been morbidly fascinating to watch it speedily demolish the mental stability of a sweet, simple woman from Scotland who has, by all accounts, dreamed of it her whole life. One of my favorite blogs devotes much of its space to the travails of those who will stop at nothing to prolong their time in the public eye. Coming up with examples of people who got far too famous for their own good is like shooting fish in a barrel.

It shows just how very corrosive fame can be that two people are willing to thrust cameras in the faces of their children to keep their show going, even as their family dissolves. As time goes by, and we are treated to the inevitable avalanche of drek that is sure to pile up on them, I suppose we can look forward to various different Very Special Documentary Shows about how some or all of the Gosselin children are coping with rehab.

People. I know that the most important thing to you right now is your own fame. But, dig down deep into your brains, find that one selfless synapse lurking there, and fire it up. Your kids need to figure out what's happening to their family without the whole damn country watching. If you want to destroy your own souls for the sake of your celebrity, you'll find lots of company. But can you please spare society the eight sociopaths you will create if you inflict your horrible decision upon your children?


Someone please update the OED's "irony" entry

I may never stop laughing.

Pat Buchanan, that triumph of American statesmanship, attended a conference this past weekend in support of, among other things, making English the official language of the United States. In between the declarations that the GOP should reach out to its base of "white Americans" and encouraging outreach to "yellow people" (no... I did not make that last bit up), apparently there was no time for spell-checking.

(h/t TNC)

Everybody loves a parade!

The Portland gay pride festivities were this past Saturday. The Better Half and I were otherwise committed, though we were actually in Portland at the time. Having now been in the New York City gay pride parade twice, and the Boston parade once, I was mildly bummed to have missed it, on the same order as having missing an episode of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."

I say all of this to establish my gay pride parade bona fides, which I feel are sufficient that I can criticize Cord Jefferson's article on gay pride parades in The Root. He's not a fan, it turns out.
Probably the most succinct critique of the modern pride parade is a 2001 article from satirical paper The Onion, "Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years." In it, a straight female witness to a gay pride march in Los Angeles says, "I'd always thought gays were regular people, just like you and me, and that the stereotype of homosexuals as hedonistic, sex-crazed deviants was just a destructive myth." She then adds, "Boy, oh, boy, was I wrong."

The quote, like the rest of the article, is an exaggeration, of course, but the underlying point stands. With their ribald costuming and hyper-sexualized theatrics, pride parades are certainly things of joy, excitement and bawdy humor.

But at the risk of sounding like a staid homophobe, I'm often left wondering where the pride part comes in.


Knowing that there are people—voters who have the power to deny them rights—who will judge them based on the flamboyance of their appearance in one parade, why hasn't the gay community decided to tone down the pride festivals?
Jefferson's premise is that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s conservative attire played a role in changing the perceptions of Americans regarding the civil rights struggle. He maintains that we are at a critical juncture in American attitudes towards gay rights, and that we had best not freak people out by parading around in thongs and chaps.

I think there are a lot of things to say in response to this. It's telling that the (admittedly satirical) article Jefferson cites as validation for his point is eight years old. The more flamboyant members of the LGBT community have let their freak flags fly for lo these many years, and yet attitudes continue to change regardless. I don't think it's a big surprise to anyone that, yes, some gay men behave like epicene satyrs, and some lesbians behave like Hell's Angels with glandular issues (at least once a year.) LGBT rights continue to progress because straight people have gotten to know gay and lesbian people in their families and workplaces as our normal, boring, mundane selves.

Further, gay pride parades are a mixed bag. In addition to the drag queens and leather-clad lesbians, there are plenty of other groups marching around. As I mentioned, I've been in three parades, and I would rather drink a Drano margarita than wear a thong in public. All three times I've marched with a contingent from the Episcopal Church, twice in the company of a bishop. (Once it was the openly-gay bishop of New Hampshire, but the first time it was just the really, really progressive bishop of Newark.) For all the attention Jefferson focuses on the more hedonistic or outre aspects of the parades, most of the people marching are pretty damn normal.

Finally, as Ta-Nehisi points out in his own response to the article (which is how I came upon it in the first place), the parades are more a celebration of LGBT liberty than a political statement. Sure, there are plenty of political statements made in the course of the parade, but it's mainly just a big celebration of the freedom to be ourselves, with a little bit of reaction formation thrown in. Jefferson confuses the purpose. When we have a civil rights point to make, we usually wear ties (or military uniforms).

So, yeah. There's some spicy stuff that happens along the parade route from time to time. I'm 100% sure that James Dobson has made as much hay with it as he possibly can. In the long run, it won't make any difference.

Horrifying and fascinating

A new study from Reuters (via Daily Kos) has some interesting information about Americans and healthcare.
Americans are struggling to pay for healthcare in the ongoing economic recession, with a quarter saying they have had trouble in the past 12 months, according to a survey released on Monday.

Baby boomers -- the generation born between 1946 and 1964 -- had the most trouble and were the most likely to put off medical treatments or services, said researchers at Center for Healthcare Improvement, part of the Healthcare business of Thomson Reuters.

The study, available here, found that 17.4 percent of households reported postponing or delaying healthcare over the past year.

A quarter of those surveyed had had trouble paying for health care in the past year? And the aging Baby Boom cohort, who are at an age where preventive care is of paramount importance, are the most likely to put off treatment? Those numbers are much higher than I would have guessed, and paint a very depressing picture of the American health care non-system.

There's also this:
They found 40 percent of all households planned to postpone care in the coming three months, with about 15 percent planning to put off routine doctor visits.
This is, of course, a false economy, allowing conditions that are easily treated to worsen, and allowing potentially life-threatening conditions to be overlooked due to missed opportunities to screen for them, both of which will be more costly in the long run. That people are forced to make this kind of financial calculation is egregious.

But let's not overlook this little tidbit:
People born before 1946 were the least likely to delay care, probably because most can take part in Medicare, the federal health insurance plan for the elderly, the researchers found.
As the poster over at Kos points out, the people who have access to the public health option are the least likely to delay care. Which, from my perspective, is yet another reason to wonder why the "centrists" in the Senate are against it.

Well, that would make two of us

Apparently, that appalling DOMA brief has made some White House officials "chagrined." From Politico:
President Barack Obama's staff secretary, Lisa Brown, said tonight that she had regrets about a Justice Department legal brief which attempted to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act by citing cases about incestuous and underage marriages.

" It was an awful lot better that the brief that was written in the Bush administration," Brown said at a panel discussion during a conference of a liberal lawyers group, the American Constitution Society. "There's no question--personal statement--that there were some cites in there that should not—that should not have been in there...They were trying to...essentially eliminate arguments that the Bush Administration had made."

The citations in the brief have caused an uproar in the gay and lesbian community and have prompted calls for a boycott of a Democratic National Committee fundraiser next week. Gay activists are also mad that Obama has not acted to change the military's don't ask don't tell policy.

Well, at this point "better than the Bush administration" doesn't really hold a lot of water with me. I think an orangutan with a typewriter and plenty of time could probably write something I'd like better than most Bush-era policy. I'd like a more clear improvement from "less horrible" all the way into the "good" end of the spectrum, if you please.

I would also quibble just a bit with attributing the uproar to the citations in the brief. As I tried to explain earlier, the arguments put forth in the brief are what rankles. The citations in question are part of the background section of the brief, and are only angering gay and lesbian people too lazy to read more carefully.

Oh, and about that Don't Ask Don't Tell policy?
However, when a former Bush appointee suggested that Obama could take unilateral action to reverse the don't ask don't tell policy, the Obama appointees on the panel stood mute.
Hmmmm. How about that?


The New New Fatherhood

About a year or two ago I read a feminist (can't remember who or where, sorry) waxing rhapsodic about how she overhead two men at work discussing how they dealt with their children's illnesses. She was just in disbelief at how far we've come - even 10 years ago, men would never have been talking about how to raise children in such a hands-on, day-to-day way.

Presumably the men that this writer had overhead were relatively enlightened types, conscious of the historical unfairness of domestic arrangements to women, and the consequent need to split parenting duties more equitably with women, who were now equal partners in the enterprise.

We have officially come further than that. The nitty-gritty of parenting has made its way even to unenlightened fathers.

I was with my son at a playground today, as were two dads with their sons. The dads were chatting and I overheard them. They were exchanging parenting tips of the everyday sort formerly reserved for mothers: discussing the various merits and demerits of local playgrounds, how to deal with recalcitrant nappers, etc. One of them, however, was wearing a T-shirt. I managed to find the image of his T-shirt online:

Now to be fair, it could be some kind of critique of this hilarious item. But going from violent to merely sexist seems an unlikely critique. More likely, the guy at the park really is a sexist idiot. Which means sexists now change diapers, too!


You'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath

And lo, the Democrats' plan for health care is unveiled. From the Times:
House Democrats on Friday answered President Obama’s call for a sweeping overhaul of the health care system by putting forward a 852-page draft bill that would require all Americans to obtain health insurance, force employers to provide benefits or help pay for them, and create a new public insurance program to compete with private insurers — a move that Republicans will bitterly oppose.
I am happy with the inclusion of both mandates and a public health option. I don't see how meaningful health care reform can be expected to succeed without it. While I (obviously) haven't actually reviewed the bill itself, from what I gather it sounds consistent with what I would have wanted.

We shall see how quickly all the good bits are beaten out of it.
The three chairmen described their bill as a starting point in a weeks-long legislative endeavor that they said would dominate Congress for the summer and ultimately involve the full panorama of stakeholders in the health care industry, which accounts for about one-sixth of the nation’s economy. They described their efforts as the historic culmination of a half-century of failed attempts across the tenure of a dozen presidents.

Mr. Miller, a Democrat of California, said that completing a bill would require extraordinary cooperation among lawmakers. “In order to change American’s health care system,” he declared, “Congress itself must change.”
And 3... 2... 1... cue GOP talking points.
“Families and small businesses who are already footing the bill for Washington’s reckless spending binge will not support it,” the Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said in a statement. “Raising taxes, rationing care, and empowering government bureaucrats — not patients and doctors — to make key medical decisions is not reform.”
I've spoken about the question of "rationing" elsewhere, so I won't repeat myself. (In a nutshell, your private insurance company "rations" your care all the time by refusing to pay for things, they just don't use that particular term.) Suffice it to say that I don't really have a lot of hope that "Congress itself" is too keen to change.
The House proposal unveiled on Friday was a decidedly progressive measure, which reflected many of the ideas championed by the White House, including such initiatives as the creation of public insurance plan, which Republicans have said they will never support.

In the Senate, lawmakers have been working on a number of potential compromise proposals, including the creation of nonprofit health care cooperatives that could compete with private insurers but would be regulated rather than controlled by the federal government.
I don't really know enough about the concept of health care cooperatives to comment with authority, but there must be a nonprofit alternative to private insurance. Private companies will always favor measures that improve their profits over the welfare of their customers, which they are all to happy to concede. But considering that the GOP will "never support" a public health insurance program (and assuming the Democrats will be their usual ineffectual selves at countering their opposition), the cooperatives may be a necessary alternative.
The House proposal also included a requirement that employers either provide health insurance or pay a fee equal to 8 percent of their payroll. The House chairmen said that the 8 percent figure, along with virtually every other aspect of the draft legislation, was negotiable and intended as a starting point for deliberations.

But Republicans have voiced opposition to imposing any such requirement on employers, arguing that it would effectively lead to the elimination of jobs.
What Republicans won't voice, however, is any acknowledgement of the reality that health care costs are crippling American business, which must shed jobs to pay for the mounting expense of insuring their workers. Which would be an argument for a public health insurance program... the ones they will never support.

An uncharacteristically silly Dahlia Lithwick piece

What was Dahlia Lithwick thinking? Normally, I very much like her stuff written for Slate and doubleX, both on parenting and on legal issues. But this article just seems loopy to me.

First she says that jokes are "only funny if you accept the premise." I'm not sure what this means, and she does not clarify. It surely can't mean that jokes are only funny if you think the set-up is true -- I don't think that a priest, a rabbi, and a minister really did walk into a bar.

Presumably she means that a joke is only funny if you think the subject worthy of mockery, or you agree that the subject of the joke is either immoral or worthy of being taken lightly. I don't think that's true. In the first case, I could see a funny joke about Obama's Greek columns, even though I didn't believe the columns to be worthy of notice, much less mockery. In the second, the Daily Show has been making repeated jokes about a pedophile van. It's not really funny, but I don't for a second believe that Jon Stewart or the writers on the Daily Show (who do seem to find it funny) actually take pedophilia lightly.

Lithwick says on one hand:

They are funny only if you accept the premise, in this case, that Palin is the slutty mother of sluts or that Letterman is a dirty old man with designs on 'tween girls. If you don't accept that premise, the jokes become cancerous hate speech. There's no middle ground here.

Then in the next paragraph:

It's easy to view this whole Palin/Letterman dust-up through the lens of political opportunism: As Kevin Drum remarks, Palin "was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick." Columnist Mike Littwin calls it "a faux-culture-war story that falls somewhere between sublime and ridiculous, which is exactly where we need a headline-grabbing, culture-war story to land."

Seems those people found a middle ground.

Then she ends, oddly, quoting Freud for three paragraphs as an authority on jokes on their role in our psychology. Um, really? Freud? He has been discredited in so many ways -- either cite someone more recent and less controversial, or simply make the surely widely acceptable point that jokes are sometimes mask hostile intent, and listeners sometimes take offense.

What matters is not the premise or content of the joke. A joke about pedophilia may be neither hate speech nor funny. What really seems to matter is what the listener perceives as the intentions of the joke teller. A joke can be funny so long as the listener feels the teller is telling the joke in good faith, or at least a faith that largely agrees with the listener's (let's say it's a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for funniness). So Jon Stewart might get a pass. Stupid guy joking about Obama and aspirin, not so much. Similarly, each of two movies can depict the same immoral act. But a movie in which there is an implied authorial excoriation of the immoral act will feel quite different than one in which the act is celebrated.

Insofar as people really are taking umbrage at either Palin or Letterman (as opposed to empty posturing), my guess is that it is not because of the actual content of the joke, but by what they take to be mean-spiritedness on the part of the teller.

A very qualified walk-back

I am grateful to Elizabeth for her level-headed semi-defense of the Obama administration. I've done a bit of follow-up reading, via the Salon article to which she linked and beyond. And I'm willing to simmer down, but only just a very little bit.

The objections I have to the Obama administration's record on gay rights issues is threefold:

1) No progress on Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and similar discriminatory federal policies. The President promised the LGBT community that he would be a "fierce advocate" for us on these issues. Nevertheless, gay soldiers who have served honorably in important capacities continue to be discharged, simply for being openly gay. I believe that DADT is a flagrantly disciminatory policy, and (pace friend and commenter charo) I think the country shares that opinion at this point. I don't really think inaction on this point can be attributed to anything other than a lack of will.

DOMA will take more work, as will a legislative repeal of DADT. (As opposed to a stop-loss executive order, such as has been used to extend the tours of duty during the Iraq War.) If it were merely a question of prioritizing other legislation (eg. health care reform), I might (might) be willing to give the Obama administration a pass, or at least a bit more time.

Sadly, it is not merely a case of inaction. What has made me, along with many, many gay people very, very angry, is a brief filed by the Department of Justice in federal court defending DOMA. Which bring us to:

2) The Obama administration didn't have to submit the brief. Now, this opinion is based largely on points made by John Aravosis at AmericaBlog, and by an opinion offered there by John Socarides, who used to work in the Clinton administration. To quote briefly:
I was equally troubled by the administration’s explanation that they had no choice but to defend the law. As an attorney and as someone who was directly involved in giving advice on such matters to another president (as a Special Assistant for civil rights to President Bill Clinton), I know that this is untrue.
However, the brilliant Laurence Tribe has defended the administration's filing in an interview he did with The Advocate:
Under the traditions of the solicitor general’s office, the government does have an obligation to provide a defense in any lawsuit where there is a plausible argument to be made, even if the president does not agree with the law.

There certainly are cases where the government declines to defend the law, but those are few and far between. If congress were to pass a law that flew directly in the face of a binding Supreme Court precedent -- a law outlawing early-term abortion or a law providing for "separate but equal" schools -- the obligation of the Justice Department to the Constitution would trump its obligation to defend the laws of congress.

But DOMA is in a gray area where there are experts like me, who think it’s unconstitutional, and you can find experts who hold the opposite view, and it’s certainly not a slam-dunk.

I may be many things, but dumb enough to think I know the law better than Laurence Tribe is not one of them. Based on what he said, I will give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt and assume that the filing itself was appropriate. That does not, however, temper my anger at:

3) The content of the brief (pdf) is appalling.

Now, assuming that the DOJ really had to defend DOMA in the Smelt case, it could have done so simply by arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing. While the brief does make that point, it doesn't stop there, and proceeds to defend DOMA on its merits. It argues, in essence, that DOMA is not discriminatory in its intent or effect. For example, there is this:
Moreover, because DOMA protected "the ability of elected officials to decide matters related to homosexuality," including their right to recognize same-sex marriage, it plainly was not born solely as a result of animosity towards homosexuals.
This is plainly absurd on its face. While DOMA may allow for states to recognize same-sex marriage, its intent was clearly to permit other states to do the opposite. This statement is both obviously wrong and deeply insulting.

DOMA simply provides, in effect, that as a result of their same-sex marriage they will not become eligible for the set of benefits that Congress has reserved exclusively to those who are related by the bonds of heterosexual marriage.
If someone can explain to me how this is not a flagrant defense of discrimination against same-sex couples, I'm all ears.

The brief is rife with legal points defending DOMA. It is utterly inconsistent with what we would expect from an administration that has pledged to support us. As GLAD's Mary Bonauto (a woman I was honored to work with briefly in support of Maine's marriage equality law) puts it:
[W]e had a very particular interest in reading how the Obama Department of Justice would tackle the Smelt DOMA challenge in California, even though it does not deal with concrete harms imposed by DOMA. All we knew in advance is that it would be different from the Bush administration's response, and it was. At the same time, some things in this new brief were startling; while others were silly, wrong or offensive or all of the above.
I was very curious to see what Ms. Bonauto (who will not be attending the DNC fundraiser next week) had to say, because she is someone whose opinions I trust, and I consider my objections to the brief to have been validated.

So, while my anger is dimmed ever so slightly, I remain furious about the content of the Smelt brief, which provides opponents to same-sex marriage with a handy primer of arguments against it. And it will take more than a handful of benefits for gay and lesbian federal employees to make up for it.

Another way in which I hope Obama is like Lincoln

I hear Dan's anger at the Obama administration's slowness to act on gay rights. While I probably don't see him and raise, I at least second it (although I hope those dissenting voices are correct that the DOMA brief is not so bad as it initially appears -- I'm no legalese expert). I am also, generally speaking, an Obama admirer, and it is discomfiting to see him punting on something I hold so dear. I have hope, however, that he has more in common with Lincoln than lack of executive experience, principled opposition to an unpopular war early in their respective political careers, unlikely primary victories, and announcing their candidacies in Springfield, Ill.

It is worth remembering that Lincoln was anti-slavery, but not an abolitionist. He opposed slavery in principle, but was unwilling to enact major social change by top-down fiat. He was elected in the primary as a moderate on the slavery issue over others who had much more radical anti-slavery views than he, and it is worth noting that the Emancipation Proclamation did not happen until almost two years after he took the oath of office. The proclamation also only covered those territories over which Lincoln had, at that point, no jurisdiction, so was sort of toothless. The thirteenth amendment was not until much later. This was by no means with the approval of most of the anti-slavery north, who excoriated him repeatedly for his foot-dragging on the issue.

Lincoln waited, in part, because he believed in the greater efficacy of following public opinion than in an imposition of values, even if those values are the correct values. More can get done with less resistance, if the demand for change is from the bottom up.

So, like Dan, I don't believe that the president is waiting on gay rights because he has other fish to fry at the moment, and when he has a spare instant, he'll get to it. Unlike Dan, I believe there is a justification for waiting a year or two other than Obama's lack of caring about gay rights. The public is clearly in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but the military is behind on this issue. Right now Obama is in charge of a military who is, on the whole, leery of his intentions. On gay marriage, public opinion is changing rapidly. Right now, sweeping changes to gay rights could incur a serious backlash among those who feel that they are being led by those who do not have their interests at heart. In a year or two, after public opinion continues to change and the military comes to realize that Obama is indeed attentive to their interests, the backlash will be lessened and the change will go much more smoothly. Gays will be hurt in the meantime. But it may well be that Obama calculates that more will be hurt by a backlash if he does not wait. I will wait until the end of his first administration to conclude that he simply does not care about gay rights.

The top-down appraoch can sometimes work and may sometimes be necessary (integration of public schools, etc.) But Obama may sense that we are quite close to not needing such an approach, that comes with so many costs. In the meantime, I do not at all mean to suggest that anyone should not criticize Obama's slowness. Protest, criticize, agitate! This is what changes public opinion. I am merely saying that I hope, and cautiously believe, that this is exactly what Obama would like to see happen.