Dept. of Remainders

As the holidays wane and I return to working (and blogging!) after several days off, I'm trying to catch up with all the news and commentary and gossip that I've missed. For those of you wanting trenchant analysis of the failed airplane terrorist attack, I'm a little late to the game. (Somehow, I imagine that you've managed to muddle through without my opinion.) I hope to be back into Full Snark Mode by next week.

In lieu of any original thought or insight, I offer a few bits and pieces for you to ponder as you're spiking the eggnog.

I don't understand a word of what he says about online gaming or football, but Ta-Nehisi Coates remains at the top of my list of favorite bloggers simply because he hates a film I detest with an active, seething passion.

Via Andrew's list of lists (in a round-about way), I submit what may be the most unsettling (but hilarious) peak at the underside of the human psyche you're likely to find for at least another year. Seriously, the one about the noodles gives me the howling fantods.

We may not be able to get married here in Maine (and kudos to you, Tierra del Fuego), but gay equality has finally made inroads where it really matters -- daytime soaps.

And finally, in a Politico twofer, I give you two men who should probably keep their damn fool mouths shut/stay the hell out of politics forever. Not that they wouldn't make blogging fun in the new year.


Update: Hold the phone! Also via Politico, there is this list of the weirdest political moments of 2009. It contains what may be the most apt (as well as unintentially hilarious and inadvertently insulting) description of Rod Blagojevich I've ever read.

How could so many calendars be so very wrong?

Ten years ago, my best friend and I celebrated the Turn of the Millenium together. (For purists who insist that the millenium did not actually change until 2001, I applaud your attention to detail and hope your sense of superiority makes up for all those swirlies you got back in grade school.) Standing on a rooftop landing on the Upper West Side, our group of celebrants shouted Happy New Year to the other revelers we could see in neighboring buildings. It was a wonderful night, and a wonderful night to be a New Yorker.

I can scarcely believe that ten years have passed since then. Tonight the Better Half and I will probably head for bed well before the shiny ball drops over Times Square, several states away from our home. Our biggest source of joyful celebration will probably be related to whether or not the Critter sleeps through the night after having a yuletide monkey wrench thrown into his schedule. I seem to have morphed into the sort of person I used to make a lot of fun of, back when sleep was something I was willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of merriments and entertainments of various sorts.

So, as I return to reading the news after a brief hiatus with the family (three days hardly counts as a vacation, if you ask me), I wish you and yours a wonderful, safe, happy and prosperous New Year. If you are awake for your respective midnights, may you delight in whatever you are drinking and whoever is handy for you to kiss. I hope to be unconscious, in pursuit of a new decade of well-restedness.


Off to deck the halls

To our loyal readers and my fellow bloggers, I send my heartiest wishes for a joyful holiday season. Wherever you are, whatever you believe, may you find yourself surrounded by warmth, many loved ones, and whatever brings you happiness and comfort.

How Obama did nothing of the kind

E. J. Dionne has a wholly confounding column over at TNR. The subheader is what caught my eye:
How Barack Obama ended the culture wars--for now.

"OK," thought I, "I'll bite." I didn't really notice that the culture wars had entered detente, but sometimes I miss things.
It is 2009's quiet story--quiet because it's about what didn't happen, which can be as important as what did.

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health care debate. But what's more striking is that other issues--notably economics and the role of government--trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

Whether the culture wars have actually receded is a question in itself. (More on that in a second.) But whatever you think about the existence of culture wars, it's hard to see how President Obama had much to do with their quiescence.

In a nutshell, Dionne credits Obama for not flogging issues like gay marriage and abortion, and for using religious language comfortably. On the latter point, I say "fine, but so what?" Rhetoric is rhetoric, and Obama's facility with a particular kind doesn't impress me one way or the other. On the issues like gay marriage and abortion, I'd actually rather he did say more about the former. And he doesn't need to say much about the latter, since he essentially supports the status quo.

What has overshadowed cultural issues? The economy.
Of course, it was inevitable that cultural and religious issues would at least partially recede during a sharp economic downturn. Such matters also declined in importance during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and none more so than the previous decade's struggle over the prohibition of alcohol.

At the time, historian William E. Leuchtenburg reported, a Missouri Democrat told James Farley, one of Franklin Roosevelt's top lieutenants, that it was "ridiculous for a jobless wet Democrat to wrangle with a jobless dry Democrat over liquor when neither could afford the price of a drink."

Nifty quote, I suppose. But what does that have to do with President Obama? His handling of the economy aside, it's neither to his credit or through his fault that it's the issue on everyone's minds. Dionne somehow conflates our paying more attention to the economy with some virtue of the President's. I like the guy, but our preoccupation with our pocketbooks isn't something he's somehow earned. (In anticipation of comments, I will also concede how those who aren't fans would be inclined to actually blame him for not taking our minds off of the economy by magically fixing it.)

But, finally, are the culture wars over?
And while gay marriage continues to roil politics at the state and local level, this argument has now become part of the routine of American politics. Republican politicians have shown a limited appetite for nationalizing the issue, something they did eagerly before the 2004 election. Judging by the closeness of some of the referendum votes--notably this year in Maine, where it lost narrowly--support for gay marriage has grown, although its backers are still short of a majority in most places.

Um, if the issue is still roiling politics... it's still roiling politics. It may not be doing so at a national level, but if you happen to live in a place like Maine (*polite cough*), then you know the issue is still plenty divisive (even if the result was relatively close). I think people who live in New York and New Jersey could also bear witness to this. In much of the rest of the country, the issue has already been settled one way or the other, sadly more often against equality. But again, Obama hasn't covered himself in glory by going to bat for us, though I suppose we could give him the faint praise of noting that he hasn't tried to make things worse, unlike his predecessor.

And, while the tone of the demonstrations wasn't overtly religious, I would argue that those Tea Parties smacked strongly of the culture wars. I think the resentments (or ressentiments) of the protesters are entirely cultural, and have simply morphed from abortion protests to querulously asking to see Obama's birth certificate. One way or another, I think the culture wars rage on.

Minor housekeeping detail

For some reason, the computers I use during the day won't allow me to post comments any longer. I do not know why this is. However, any silence on my part in follow-up comments is related to technical issues beyond my control (shaking my fist mightily at the screen has effected no improvements to date), and not to any lack of trenchant, witty "zingers" on my part.

Because, if there's one thing I'm chock full of, it's zingers.


Happy Frickin' Holidays!

I'm a Jew who takes exactly zero offense if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. I like Christmas lights, trees, red and green stuff, Santas - what have you. And that's a good thing, too, because I can't avoid it.

Apparently, however, some Christians don't know what it's like to be in a religious or cultural minority. This was brought to mind not only the idiotic war-on-Christmas yearly brou-ha-ha, or with Garrison Keillor's nonsense (Hint to GK: if Christians made up less than two percent of the population in a nation where Jews were a vast majority, they probably would write Rosh Hashanah songs), but with two incidents I recently experienced.

1) Recently at a play date, my kid and the only other Jewish kid in the play group were the first to show up. The other kid brought over a Hanukkah book to me, and I was reading to her and to my son. Another mother showed up with her kid, listened to us reading, and said, "Wow, I guess we're reading about something that has nothing to do with us."

2) At a restaurant, my son showed an otherwise perfectly nice waitress his stuffed dreidel and said "Happy Hanukkah!" She said, taken aback, "For me, it's Merry Christmas."

Holy crap, Christians (or some of you, anyway). This is what it's like for us every single year. Every store, every TV channel, every house. We are constantly exposed to a holiday that is not ours.

So take a deep breath. It's not a huge deal that other people celebrate a different holiday. You can wish Jews a happy Hanukkah. You can bear to see a menorah or a Hanukkah song. Really, it doesn't hurt - I promise! It seems only polite to say "Happy Holidays!" when you don't know if the other person is Christian. And wishing someone Happy Holidays does not indicate that you don't think Christmas is not an important, beautiful holiday. It is a mere acknowledgment that there are people who don't observe it.


Really, America?


"Inadequate eyelashes"? This is what we've come to?

I think I speak for physicians everywhere when I say "Thank God." Thank God I no longer have to turn away the weeping sufferers from my office, bereft of hope that their pitiful, scanty eyelashes will ever be remedied. No more will I have to care for the maimed whose false eyelashes have caught a cross-breeze and who have been blown into traffic. Never again will I have to treat acute mascara intoxication, caused by a desperate attempt to hide the shame of "inadequate or not enough eyelashes."

Thank God for the brave men and women of Allergan, who saw a true human need and said "No more." Truly, you are the best and brightest of the American pharmaceutical industry. "Take that!" I say to those who would question the humanitarian bent of our country's drug companies. What further proof do you need that Big Pharma cares?

Let me answer that for you

USAToday poses a question (hat tip to the man who uses the computer to my left):
Are celebrities crossing the line on medical advice?

Allow me to answer that question with a hearty "Sometimes!"

I don't think it's any secret that I take a dim view of American celebrity. (Well, it's no secret to our teeming throng of readers.) On the other hand, while it's pretty apparent that lots of people are too weak or stupid to handle the pressures and excesses of fame, celebrities are not necessarily stupid or weak by definition. It would be ridiculous to dispute that many celebrities have parlayed their fame into wonderful good.

So, it's a mixed bag. As the article makes pretty clear. For example, on the plus side:
Colorectal cancer screening. The number of colonoscopies rose 20% in the year after TV news anchor Katie Couric, who lost her husband to the disease, had an on-air screening in 2001, according to a study in the Archivesof Internal Medicine.

While I found the idea of an on-the-air colonoscopy to be a bit disconcerting, I think the benefits in increased public awareness of the need for screening are clear.

On the minus side? Oy:
Vaccines. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,017 adults found that more than half were aware of McCarthy's warnings about childhood shots. More than 40% of adults familiar with her message — 23% of all adults surveyed — say McCarthy's claims have made them more likely to question vaccine safety. The Nov. 20-22 poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Pardon me for a moment while I choke on my own rage. Forty-freaking-percent?!?! And where has McCarthy gathered sufficient expertise to call into question the opinion of the assembled masses of the world's doctors, epidemiologists and public health officials, with their studies and labs and fancy book learnin'?
In her book Mother Warriors, McCarthy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, says she learned about autism from "the university of Google."

Ah, yes. Where her dissertation on the Power of Stupid was very well-received. I think we can all agree that the University of Google offers nothing but the very best in scientific thought.

At least, to their credit, the good people at USAToday are making it pretty clear that McCarthy and her ilk are doing genuine harm. If, bit by bit, the lunacy of the vaccine refuseniks and their famous friends can be exposed for the genuine harm they are doing, then bring on the softball journalism.


Via Politico:

POLITICO has learned that Rep. Parker Griffith, a freshman Democrat from Alabama, will announce today that he’s switching parties to become a Republican.


The switch represents a coup for the House Republican leadership, which had been courting Griffith since he publicly criticized the Democratic leadership in the wake of raucous town halls during the summer.


He has bucked the Democratic leadership on nearly all of its major domestic initiatives, including the stimulus package, health care legislation, the cap-and trade energy bill and financial regulatory reform.

Hmmmm? What? Oh... oh, right. Right. That's my cue. Sorry. Ahem.

*rends garments*

Woe!! Woe!! Whither the progressive agenda without this man? How ever shall the Democrats pull off their policy goals without this man in their caucus? How ever shall we survive with him voting against us from the other side of the aisle? We've gotten so used to his voting against us from this side. Woe!! Woe!!

*dons sackcloth*

Enjoy your new opportunist, GOP! At least when Specter jumped ship, he actually changed the way he voted a little bit. Since the "before" and "after" pictures of Griffith's voting patterns will probably look exactly the same, all this does is give the Democrats a (slim) chance of replacing him with someone who will actually vote to further their agenda. This guy only had a "D" after his name in order to land a consistently Democratic seat, and his switch is no surprise.

I also found this (from earlier in the article) interesting:
Griffith, who captured the seat in a close 2008 open seat contest, will become the first Republican to hold the historically Democratic, Huntsville-based district. A radiation oncologist who founded a cancer treatment center, Griffith plans to blast the Democratic health care bill as a prime reason for his decision to switch parties—and is expected to cite his medical background as his authority on the subject.

One wonders what Griffith was doing back in 2008 when the Democratic Party was making health care reform such a prominent part of its platform. Maybe he didn't notice?

Anyhoodle, it's no surprise that he would be against health care reform. He practices an intervention-intensive specialty, and he owns his own center. He has a vested interest in continuing the current means of reimbursement, which heavily favor interventionalist care. (As an aside, it's opposition such as this that makes me irritated by articles that conflate the AMA with doctors in general. Providers of primary care have a very different perspective than those who earn their [heaps of] money performing procedures.)

So sail on, Rep. Griffith. Enjoy your new pals. I'm sure Nancy Pelosi will miss you exactly as much as you will miss her.


I once thought Megan McArdle was smart

These days? Not so much.

She muses about the pending passage of the health care reform bill in the Senate:
So there's now about a 90% chance that the health care bill will pass.At this point, the thing is more than a little inexplicable.

Democrats are on a political suicide mission; I'm not a particularly accurate prognosticator, but I think this makes it very likely that in 2010 they will lost several seats in the Senate--enough to make it damn hard to pass any more of their signature legislation--and will lose the house outright. In the case of the House, you can attribute it to the fact that the leadership has safe seats.

But three out of four of the Democrats on the podium today are in serious danger of losing their seats.No bill this large has ever before passed on a straight party-line vote, or even anything close to a straight party-line vote. No bill this unpopular has ever before passed on a straight party-line vote. We're in a new political world. I'm not sure I understand it.

Let's start with her prognostications, which I think are best described as "cracked out." I think some losses in the Senate are likely. (Blanche Lincoln should probably update her CV, just in case.) But the GOP taking the House outright? They're going to flip 41 seats*? On a platform of lock-step opposition to the central domestic policy piece on which the Democrats campaigned the last time around? I would change "not a particularly accurate" to "an absolutely terrible" in that second paragraph up there.

And that new political world? That she doesn't understand it is patently obvious, despite its being pretty straight-forward. (And the fact that reform is passing on a party-line vote is absolutely zero indication of the merits of the legislation.) I will defer to the Ordinary Gents to offer further explanation:
I don’t always (often?) agree with Paul Krugman, but his column today hits thehammer on the head. Instead of progressives railing against Obama and his failure to get the public option in the Health Care Bill, the outrage should be focused on the institutional failure of the Senate. As League contributors often reminds its readers, there are three parties in America: Democrats, Centrists (some with Rs after their names, some with Ds), and Republicans. If The Democrats want to actually govern, given the Senate’s screwed-up rule system and the total “nein: position of the Republicans, then the Centrists are holding way too much power. But unless you want nothing passed, the Centrists have to be placated. This leaves us with seriously damaged legislation (imo), but what other option is there? Invoking the mythical “power” of the Presidency to cajole Senators to vote for bills?

I will disagree only insofar that I think the Centrists with Rs after their names are precious few, and I don't know how much they deserve any cred for being "centrist." Whatever the flaws and merits of the health care reform bill (and I don't know if anyone has anything intelligent to say about either until it emerges from conference committee), it is readily apparent that the Republicans voted on a party line because the Republicans were (and remain) determined to block Obama's agenda by hook or by crook. (Click on the imbedded Krugman link above for even more on the current dysfunction in the Senate.) It takes no analytic ability to see this.

What keeps McArdle employed appears increasingly mysterious to me.

*Amended to correct my sloppy math. (This is why I shouldn't compose posts in a hurry.) I still don't think the GOP is going to take the House, even with the lower bar set.

"Deck the halls with ill-advised statements, fa-la-la-la-la"

I enjoy "A Prairie Home Companion," in a kind of "warm tea, cozy fire" sort of way. It rarely makes me laugh particularly loudly (or all that frequently), but it's comforting and pleasant, and a nice way to fill the silence of the afternoon. Thus, I have a certain affection for Garrison Keillor.

That said... oh, dear (via Jeffrey Goldberg):
You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bon mots that have been leading people astray ever since. "To be great is to be misunderstood," for example. This tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable people to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness.


Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't.

Christmas is a Christian holiday - if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah.

That was... not a good idea. I know that Keillor suffered a minor stroke recently, and I'm not being glib or sarcastic when I say that I hope his faculties are intact. Because man, that column was a mistake. (It also doesn't make a whole heap of sense.)

I actually agree with Keillor up to a certain point, at least about the hymns. I have had occasion to sit in the pews and leaf through what I suppose could be described as "inclusive" hymnals, and been vaguely horrified by the gelding some of the hymns have undergone. I'm no great fan of, say, "Onward Christian Soldiers," among others, but I would choose to simply skip those songs I find theologically suspect in favor of those with a less "we will watch you roast in hell for all eternity" theme. Making some of the overtly Christian hymns less so merely drains them of meaning in an almost Orwellian manner. So, I agree that progressive denominations should either write new hymns or find old ones they like, not monkey with the words of the bothersome tunes.

However, the dig at Jewish songwriters? Yikes. (Frankly, I doubt most Jews would choose to listen to those songs, either.) "Buzz off"? Double yikes. I don't really want to wade into the "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" culture war (handled nicely here), but Keillor should probably have a nice, thoughtful friend read his columns from now on before he turns them in. One cannot cram Christmas down the collective throats of non-Christian Americans and then demand that they not mess with it. Christmas is everywhere from the moment the last trick-or-treater falls asleep until bleary-eyed New Year's revelers start trying to shake off their hang-overs. Many Christians still try to celebrate it purely (or largely) as a religious holiday (which is how we view it in our home), but trying to pretend it remains thus for many (most?) Americans is like trying to mush toothpaste back into the tube.

I hate the thought that a man whose persona is crafted so much around affability has veered so close to crank territory. Nothing in the column really justifies its having been published, and plenty in it would have justified it getting quietly killed. It would have been a gift to Keillor, whether or not he knew it at the time.

Is this even really being considered?

Flipping through the paper this afternoon while the nice lady made my sandwich, I came upon a startling item. From the AP:
A judge is weighing a critical legal question in the case of a man who confessed to killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers: Can the man claim at his trial that the slaying was justified to save the lives of unborn children?


District Judge Warren Wilbert has yet to rule on a bevy of court filings that will set the course for the Jan. 11 trial, and will consider some of them in court Tuesday. But the documents offer a glimpse at the unfolding legal strategies in a case played out amid the rancorous debate over abortion.

Since the killing, Roeder has confessed to reporters that he shot Tiller, while his anti-abortion allies have urged Roeder to present the so-called "necessity defense" in hopes that an acquittal could turn the larger debate over abortion in their favor.

Surely the judge cannot seriously be considering allowing this defense.

Anyone with a background in the law should feel free to correct an error in my thinking, but we don't allow people to determine who consistutes sufficient threat to others to justify our killing them, correct? People who believe war is murder aren't allowed to gun down recruiters. I'm not allowed to sit outside bars and pick off intoxicated people as they walk to their cars.

I'm probably over-reacting to a pro forma legal proceeding, and presumably the judge won't allow this line of defense. (I'm still trying to catch up on what I missed during my long weekend, so maybe my game is off. Assuming that it could ever be described as "on.") But it's a terrifying thought that this defense has even the faintest chance of making it to trial.


Let the prognostications begin!

I like the Oscars.

No, strike that. I love the Oscars. In all their tacky, self-congratulatory glory, I love them. They celebrate the mediocre and ignore the sublime. They are of questionable artistic validity. For some reason, Kim Basinger has one. But love them I do, no matter how much I may protest to the contrary.

Thus, it is with great relish that I greet the advent of Awards Season. Like low-flying swallows, one may divine the future from the portents in the earlier, lesser award nominations. And predicting who will be nominated (and win) is half the fun. (Well, maybe not if you're straight. Enjoy your fantasy football, I guess.)

Within the past few days, nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards were announced. As far as prognosticatory value goes, the Globes are sort of meh. (They function better as paperweights than signifiers of artistic merit. Madonna has one. For acting.) It gives one a decent sense of who's got buzz, but the show is mainly an excuse for a bunch of famous people to hang out together, drink too much, and make funny acceptance speeches.

The SAG awards, on the other hand, are the closest thing to a sure bet as one will find. Actors make up the biggest voting block in the Academy. I had a sense that the execrable "Crash" was going to win Best Picture when it took the "Outstanding Cast Performance" SAG award that year, which is as close to Best Picture as the SAG awards get.

So, on that note, it looks like "Up in the Air" and Clooney have a lock on nominations. I think it's safe to look for Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'nique to get nods for "Precious," though I think it's more of a long shot for Picture. And I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that this is Meryl Streep's year to finally get a richly-deserved middle-career Oscar for "Julie & Julia."

Anyone else wanna play? Guesses welcomed.

Have I mentioned that I love "Infinite Jest"?

Over at Ordinary Gents, Will laments reality TV:
I seldom watch reality television, but some shows – Survivor, The Amazing Race – strike me as basically benign competitions among well-adjusted adults. ‘Jersey Shore’ and its ilk seem fundamentally different. Instead of competition, MTV (and Vh1) collect a bunch of of maladjusted personalities and throw them together under one roof. Add money, booze and sex and the show’s original premise is almost irrelevant – the core appeal of these programs is the chance to watch people make fools of themselves on camera.


I believe in personal agency, so if people want to subject themselves to what amounts to ritualized public humiliation, I can only shake my head and look the other way. But I do have a plea for the viewers who sustain these misbegotten franchises, the same people who would never consider subjecting themselves to the whims of MTV’s cameras: Please, don’t feed the beast. It’s not funny or clever to laugh at people whose failings are mercilessly exploited by the reality television industry.

Tucked away in endnote 24, in which James Incandenza's filmography is listed and described, the late (and desperately missed) David Foster Wallace put this:
“Cage III – Free Show. B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions/Infernatron Animation Concepts, Canada. Cosgrove Watt, P.A. Heaven, Everard Maynell, Pam Heath; partial animation; 35mm; 65 minutes; black and white; sound. The figure of Death (Heath) presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators’ s eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life (Heaven) uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into giant eyeballs. INTERLACE TELENTFEATURE CARTRIDGE #357-65-65″

My friends, we are rapidly assuming giant eyeball shape.

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote about a bit of MTV reality show offal called "A Double Shot at Love," possibly the worst show in the history of television. Sadly, the dial is now crowded with programming devoted solely to the very worst excesses of human behavior. (I know that there is a lot of great television to be watched as well.) And the harpies, trollops and louts that populate this demimonde are more and more treated as de facto celebrities instead of the awful, awful people they are.

And the truth is that this hurts. Literally. After watching an episode of "Shipmates" years and years ago, my best friend (you know who you are) and I looked at each other with queasy expressions and realized that half an hour of atrocious reality television had made our souls ache. As glib as that may seem, it was true. While we may not be watching prisoners being ripped apart by lions, the televisual Colosseum of today offers degradations that are undeniably disquieting. What this says about us as a culture is no similarly unsettling.

Sand in the clam, indeed

Julian Sanchez has a fantastic post (via the Dish) about the ressentiment of the contemporary conservative base.
Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag. Sure, there’s an element of “schadenfreude” in the sense of “we like what annoys our enemies.” But the pathology of the current conservative movement is more specific and convoluted. Palin irritates the left, but so would lots of vocal conservatives if they were equally prominent—and some of them are probably even competent to hold office. Palin gets to play sand in the clam precisely because she so obviously isn’t. She doesn’t just irritate liberals in some generic way: she evokes their contempt. Forget “Christian conservative”; she’s a Christ conservative, strung up on the media cross on behalf of all God’s right-wing children.

Think back to the 2004 RNC—which I happened to be up in New York covering. After witnessing three days of inchoate, spittle-flecked rage from the people who had the run of all three branches of government, some wag (probably Jon Stewart) puzzled over the “anger of the enfranchised.” And it would be puzzling if the driving force here were a public policy agenda, rather than a set of cultural grievances. Jay Gatsby learned too late that wealth alone wouldn’t confer the status he had truly craved all along. What we saw in ‘04 was fury at the realization that ascendancy to political power had not (post-9/11 Lee Greenwood renaissance notwithstanding) brought parallel cultural power. The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

The whole post is well worth reading.

I know that I keep returning to this theme, but the state of our civic discourse is such a shambles for precisely this reason. While my politics in general align pretty solidly with the Left (certainly when it comes to my banner issues like marriage equality and universal health care), I am not such a fool as to deny that there is much about the liberal political milieu that is ridiculous, objectionable or unworkable. (The sanctimony and the pernicious belief that all problems have a political [read: governmental] solution to name just two valid criticisms.) Conversely, conservatism as political philosophy is an indispensable part of any real, intelligent discussion of how the country should be run.

But no! In the Dish link above, Conor Friedersdorf provides a nice little list of smart, reasonable conservative voices:
I hope readers who share in [Sanchez's] lament will check out some of the great work being done at Cato and the Institute for Justice, or the writing of folks from Reihan Salam to Tim Carney to James Poulos to Rod Dreher to Yuval Levin to Eugene Volokh to Daniel Larison, some of the writers at National Review, especially the print version, old standbys like City Journal and The New Criterion, the always intelligent Claremont Review of Books, even the radio show of Dennis Prager and certain feature pieces at The Weekly Standard that involve neither foreign policy nor Sarah Palin -- this is a woefully incomplete list, but it begins to signal that there is indeed an intelligent loyal opposition in America, one that gets some things right and other things wrong, but that would certainly improve upon our politics if its best ideas were more influential.

More influential, indeed. If you think the "conservatives" on Capitol Hill spend any time thinking about Rod Dreher's writing, I have several shares in a mining concern you might be interested in buying. None of those (certainly intelligent) thinkers come within a country mile of influencing "conservative" thought as vividly expressed by Fox News, Limbaugh et al or (almost) the entire GOP caucus. No, they're too busy thinking of new ways to inflect "obstruct!" and to make sure no Christian is mistakenly wished a Merry Solstice.

I remember, way back in my Ashcroftian Christian childhood, how beset the people in my church believed themselves to be. Admittedly, much of this was a literal belief in the existence of malign spiritual influences behind most of what was considered objectionable in the world. But there was a general sense that we evangelicals were a bulwark around the battered remains of moral decency and right thinking. This despite the fact that you couldn't swing a maypole in my hometown without hitting three churches. This aggrevied sense of victimhood, of persecution clearly informs the majority of rhetoric spouted at various Tea Parties.

Like Sanchez, I think things are going to get worse before they get better. While the GOP is almost certain to pick up a passel of seats in the upcoming midterm elections, heaven only knows what they will do with more influence, other than have more voices to sing the same dissonant chorus. I keep wanting to shake the Republicans and say "you're better than this!" and they keep wanting to prove that they're not.


Humming "At Last" to myself

Well, it's not quite the crest of a massive wave of marriage equality, but it's not nothing.

Via TPM:

The Washington, D.C., City Council voted Tuesday to legalize gay marriage in the nation's capital, handing supporters a victory after a string of recent defeats in Maine, New York and New Jersey.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to sign the bill, which passed 11-2, and gay couples could begin marrying as early as March. Congress, which has final say over Washington's laws, could reject it, but Democratic leaders have suggested they are reluctant to do so.
Allow me to congratulate the City Council of Washington, DC. I am sincerely grateful for their vote. It was the right thing to do.

And to me friends, the Democratic leaders. You had better be plenty reluctant to reject this law. It's bad enough that you are doing precious little advance the cause of LGBT rights at this time. Make things worse, and I may have to sit out an election or two.

Still, opponents plan to try. Members of a group called Stand4Marriage, led by local pastor Bishop Harry Jackson, have met with members of Congress to urge them to oppose the bill.

Attorney Cleta Mitchell said that after Fenty signs the bill and it goes to Congress, the group will ask a district elections board to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters to overturn it. She said in a statement before the vote that the law is a "decision for the people, not a dozen people at city hall."

The group Mitchell represents made a similar request this summer, when the city passed a law recognizing gay marriages legally performed in other states. The board declined to put the issue on the ballot, saying that would violate a city human rights law.

Well, being as it were that the District has a civil rights law, I'm also pleased to know that it prevents a referendum by which the majority could curtail the rights of the minority. And Ms. Mitchell surely understands the concept of representative democracy, and that the "dozen people at city hall" are there precisely for the purpose of making decisions such as this.

I can go into my mid-week blogging hiatus happy to pause on an up note.

Why I cannot take HuffPo seriously

On my regular rounds through the Internets, I always make a stop or two at the Huffington Post. It's a pretty decent news aggregator, I can get snippets of celebrity gossip while pretending I'm just keeping up with the news, and there are even occasions when the original content is decent.

But, whatever its virtues may be, I won't be able to have much respect for HuffPo as a news organ until they jettison their regular helpings of pseudo-scientific, quasi-medical, crack-pot quakery. It gives the most ridiculous people a space in which to share the most appallingly bad and misleading "alternative medicine" mumbo-jumbo, content that any legitimate newspaper or magazine would reject out of hand. Often the so-called "experts" invited to spout nonsense are celebrities. As I've written about this phenomenon before, I'll spare you a repeat. However, the idiocy is not limited to the famous.

A recent (painful) example is this post by "expert in homeopathic medicine" (per HuffPo's own byline) Dana Ullman. In explaining how homeopathy "works" (and we already know how it works), Ullman reveals how devoid of valid scientific backing the practice really is. The post is so risible that it's really a waste of time to debunk (and the comments attached do a good job with no help from me), but in essence Ullman posits that, despite the lack of any actual medicine in homeopathic treatments, something about the dilution process and vigorous shaking changes the structure of the water itself. (Kind of like ice-nine, but without the global catastrophe.) What this change is, how it comes about, or any real evidence that it actually occurs is not something Ullman provides. But still this preposterous person is given a venue for disseminating flagrantly unsupported medical claims.

I don't expect HuffPo's science or health sections to be America's liberal Lancet. But if it expects to be taken seriously as a source of real information, it has to provide real information.

Don't. Do This!

Fellow Bleakonomist Devin sent me a link yesterday, in an act clearly meant to aggravate my already shaky grasp on sanity. While I try to steady my trembling hands and calm my twitching eye, check out the newest option for neurotic, obsessive parents. From Wired:

Allen Fawcett admits he and his wife are mildly addicted to keeping track of their babies’ schedules. The pair of economists have been recording every diaper, feeding and nap since they became parents.

With the help of the Trixie Tracker website, they know they’ve changed exactly 7,367 diapers for their three-year-old son and 969 for their three-month-old daughter. They also have a graph of precisely how many minutes each of their children slept on nearly every day since birth. During their daughter’s first month, the data shows she averaged 15 hours of sleep a day, which is two hours more than her brother at the same age and well above average for other Trixie Tracker babies.
Sweet merciful crap! "Above average for other Trixie Tracker babies"?!??! Who the hell cares?

Why one earth would anyone need to know that they have changed 7,367 diapers? What purpose does that serve other than to create another reservoir for meaningless information? Your child is not a spreadsheet!

This, though, makes me want to hurl:
Fifteen years ago, tracking your baby’s development meant going to the pediatrician every few months and recording his growth on a simple height and weight chart. Today, baby tracking is a booming business. In addition to websites that let you track your infant’s schedule, there are iPhone apps that translate and record your baby’s cries, wearable devices that keep track of how much you talk to your child, and even electronic toys that record how your child plays with them, so you can compare his progress to developmental norms.

On one level, I can relate to this. As a pediatrician with a new baby, I am tempted on a daily basis to dig out my old Denver developmental assessment kit and see how the Critter is progressing. When he masters some new skill I make note of it, and there's a pleasure in seeing him do well. I can understand the desire to know that one's child is making strides as one would hope.

But, for the love of God, put down your damned iPhone and act like a normal human being. I don't need an app to tell me what the Critter's cries mean. At this point, I can tell the difference between "tired" and "angry" and "hungry," using a process developed over the centuries known as "paying attention to my child." (For example, if he is crying and it has been several hours since his last bottle, I emply this process to figure out that I should make a bottle.)

Further, tracking how much you're talking to your kid plays into the worst aspects of the "Baby Einstein" syndrome. Your kid is going to be your kid, and no amount of developmental hectoring is going to make the difference between dropping out of high school and making it into Stanford. The kinds of parents who are inclined to monitor how much they're talking to their kid are probably the sort who are affluent and educated enough to be talking at amounts sufficient to foster good language skills. The guilt (or smug one-upmanship) that a talking tally will induce will lead to no good outcome.

And toys that give you a developmental report card are the absolute pits. Let your child play with toys for the sake of playing with toys! Elizabeth has already written about this pathological need to teach one's kids at all moments, at the expense of simple free-form play for its own sake, so I don't need to add much. But enough already. The very last thing kids need are report cards for how they are playing.


Rethinking 2000

I was stuck in the pediatric emergency room at Bellevue for a night shift when the election results of 2000 came in. I remember clustering around one of the computers with the other people on that night, refreshing the electoral map and watching Florida change colors. I particularly recall how deeply, deeply worried I was for my country after the whole Bush-Gore brouhaha wound to a close. My feelings at the time are best summarized by the upper graphic here.

Anyhow, despite the incredibly depressing fact that the Bush administration actually ended up being worse than I feared, I have finally seen the silver lining around Gore's loss in 2000. And that, my friends, is that Joe Lieberman will never, ever be President of the United States.

For those of you recently back from an extended time-share in a cave on Mars, ever since the Democratic primary voters in Connecticut decided they'd like a senator who didn't carry water for the Republicans, followed by Lieberman's eventual win in the 2006 general election, he's moved from a political stance of hawkish foreign policy married to progressive domestic goals to an agenda best described as "[obscene gerund] the Democrats."

His latest stunt is to threaten a filibuster for health care reform if it includes an option for people aged 55-64 to buy into Medicare. This despite the fact that he was explicitly for such a buy-in when he ran for VP. Various reactions to this perfidy are handily collected here. The long and the short of it is that Lieberman has abandoned all pretense of working with the Democrats on their major domestic policy goal of this session out of what can only be described as a protracted fit of pique.

So, really, is there any further benefit in pretending that Lieberman is in any way a Democrat, "Independant" or otherwise? Efforts to keep him in the tent were aimed at advancing the party's policy goals. With it now made clear that Lieberman has no intention of helping the party toward which he patently feels nothing but ill will, what is the point of keeping him nominally a member? Let him do a reverse Specter, join the GOP, and then Connecticut can finally get rid of him in three years.

Because I am a good sport

As an amuse-bouche between posts, I'm going to pause and salute two people about whom I typically have almost nothing nice to say. I think they are both, in general, empty-headed loudmouths who represent everything wrong with the contemporary GOP, and who are both personally responsible for worsening the quality of our civic discourse.

However, despite my overall lack of respect for both Michael Steele and Sarah Palin, I'm going to give them credit for each doing something that I have to admit I think is kind of awesome.

First, Michael Steele. I think he's something of an idiot, frankly. But, for what it's worth, I think he's probably not a bad guy. And I found myself admiring his willingness to act like a complete buffoon while clowning around during a photo-shoot with the RNC interns recently. Admittedly, maybe not the most dignified manner for the head of the GOP to behave, but I still think it was kind of a nice way of relating to the kids. Sample picture:

As for Palin, if you read this blog with any regularity (bless you), my opinion of her is already well-known to you. Suffice it to say, not a fan. However, her appearance on the Tonight Show last Friday night was truly amusing. Conan O'Brien had William Shatner on to read excerpts from "Going Rogue," which is funny on its own. And then Palin showed up to read excerpts from Shatner's autobiography, which is hilarious. I can't figure out how to embed the video, but you can see it here.

So, credit where it's due. For showing a little bit of humor and humanity, I tip my head ever so gently in the direction of two people about whom I otherwise have little good to say.

Wish I could say I found this surprising

From the Times:
New federally financed drug research reveals a stark disparity: children covered by Medicaid are given powerful antipsychotic medicines at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. And the Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.
This is entirely consistent with my experience. I nodded in bemused resignation as I read the whole article.
Those findings, by a team from Rutgers and Columbia, are almost certain to add fuel to a long-running debate. Do too many children from poor families receive powerful psychiatric drugs not because they actually need them — but because it is deemed the most efficient and cost-effective way to control problems that may be handled much differently for middle-class children?
Hmmmm. How to answer this question? I'd go with "yes."

There are numerous reasons for this disparity, from what I see here in rural Maine. Impoverished families lack both awareness of alternatives to medication and resources to access them. Children raised in these homes often have very disordered, stressed lives, and lack the structure necessary to foster good mental health. Their parents often have little wherewithal, financial and otherwise, to cope with their behavioral problems. In addition, schools seem to have diminishing patience for unruly children, and numerous children have been directed to my office because the teacher has begun issuing imperatives about getting their behavior under control by whatever means necessary. Conversely, more affluent children often have parents who are educated enough about powerful psychotropic medication to be very resistant to management by prescription. They can drive their kids to appointments and explore other resources in the community.

I hasten to add that I am loath to prescribe anti-psychotic medication to children. I can think of very few instances in the past five years when I have done so, excluding situations when I merely prescribed refills for medications already started by a mental health provider. Having seen the marked weight gain many patients have sustained following initiation of an anti-psychotic regimen, I remain gravely concerned about the long-term ill-effects of inappropriately cavalier use of very powerful drugs. I also object stridently to how aggressively some of these medications are marketed.

Bad medicine is, of course, part of the problem.
Too often, Dr. Suite said, he sees young Medicaid patients to whom other doctors have given antipsychotics that the patients do not seem to need. Recently, for example, he met with a 15-year-old girl. She had stopped taking the antipsychotic medication that had been prescribed for her after a single examination, paid for by Medicaid, at a clinic where she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.


The F.D.A. has approved antipsychotic drugs for children specifically to treat schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disorder. But they are more frequently prescribed to children for other, less extreme conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, aggression, persistent defiance or other so-called conduct disorders — especially when the children are covered by Medicaid, the new study shows.
While my characterization of contemporary mental health culture that "bipolar is the new black" may be a wee bit on the glib side, this diagnosis is being given with dubious frequency. It seems that the diagnosis is being given to suit the treatment desired, and not the other way around. Add in the predilection of some providers to throw medication at something until something works (the "thrown spaghetti" approach to medical management), and the result is an ill-advised liberality with potent anti-psychotics. It is incumbent on physicians to use their prescription pads judiciously, and it is all too easy to just write out a script for Seroquel and hustle the challenging cases out the door. Nobody is well-served by this approach, least of all the children who come from poor homes.

Perhaps awareness of this disparity will lead to greater scrutiny for how these medications are prescribed, for whom and for what reasons. These are children who need more care, not necessarily more medication. The last anecdote in the article offers a cautionary example.
“They say it’s impossible to stop now,” Evelyn Torres, 48, of the Bronx, said of her son’s use of antipsychotics since he received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at age 3. Seven years later, the boy is now also afflicted with weight and heart problems. But Ms. Torres credits Medicaid for making the boy’s mental and physical conditions manageable. “They’re helping with everything,” she said.
Perhaps they are. But one wonders how valid a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is for a three-year-old, and what other options were closed off to Ms. Torres and her son by her poverty.


Perhaps I am missing something?

From the Telegraph (via HuffPo):
The latest Harry Potter film will feature a “very sexy” love scene in which actor Daniel Radcliffe appears nude alongside co-star Emma Watson.


Mr Yates said: “We’ll create something that feels very sexy and very intriguing to bring about a reaction in Rupert.

“Dan has appeared nude in the past. There are a couple of scenes in the new film in which he will undress, but we’re still thinking about how we present it.

“There is another scene in King’s Cross station, where Harry almost dies and sees Dumbledore. In that scene, he will also be naked.”

I am... confused. Harry Potter novels are, in fact, for children. Yes? I realize that they are enjoyed by fans young and old, but the target audience is kids, right? The novels are typically found with other children's literature in bookstores, correct?

With this in mind, would someone like to explain to me what a nude scene is doing in a movie targeted at children? I understand that the novels get progressively more dark as the series draws to its conclusion, and the movies are thus too scary for small children. However, it seems incredibly inappropriate to me to include "very sexy" nudity in a film that parents will be taking their kids to.

Seriously, whose brilliant idea is this? I feel like an aggrieved, matronly martinet as I write this, but is it really necessary to push that particular envelope in this particular film?

Will no-one think of the children??!? *swoons*


Up In The Air

Bleak-onomy. n. blĭ-kŏn'ə-mē. 1. The study of phenomena related to our current moment of economic tailspin; 2. The practice of navigating our current moment of economic tailspin; 3. Our current moment of economic tailspin.

Up In The Air is a bleakonomic movie in all three senses of the term. It begins and ends with ennui, but the good kind - the kind once felt when staring out the window of an airplane at dusk, at the beginning of a long flight to nowhere special. The lights are dimmed, dinner has come and gone, everyone else is in a little personalised bubble with nothing to do, nowhere to be, and plenty of time to get there. Jason Reitman has achieved something quite remarkable in this film - he's made airports, airplanes and highway hotels feel safe and stable, and turned home, office and family into the places where distance and rootlessness can most keenly be experienced.

George Clooney (like a cross between salaryman and the Marlboro man) sweeps through ticketing, security, car rental and hotel lines, assured of his place in the world and his function: in Detroit, in Miami, in Kansas City, in Wichita, in St Louis, in Phoenix, in Dallas, his character's (Ryan Bingham) task is to fire people in ailing companies, dying industries. What do people do and say when they're faced with a stranger brought in to jettison them from their offices and careers? Reitman used real people, recalling real firings: they take out pictures of their children, they ask for reasons, they feel betrayal and outrage, they weep. In response he offers them the choice of believing in an obvious and tantalising hope: that being fired is the beginning of something good, that they are being let go - as in set free - to pursue happiness, without the burden of a job (or a paycheck, or health insurance.)

In a story about rootlessness, the pivot is a woman (Vera Farmiga: warm but not soft, frank but not honest) - herself a traveller, who makes Bingham wonder if his own happiness might lie on land. Their chemistry is lovely to behold, but is it dependent on their continuing to meet only in airports and motels? One watches Bingham begin to make new choices, seek out connection, himself becoming more vulnerable to the dangers of hoping.

There's a lot that's interesting here: Reitman began this film well before the economic troubles, but also captures the drama taking place in office parks, conference calls, cubicles everywhere these days. This is a funny tragedy, a sad comedy, a romance without love. It's also part of a growing genre of American films (Away We Go, Juno, anything by Wes Anderson) whose view of the world reflects, I think, a new American aesthetic - close to the ground, invested in the drama of the everyday, nostalgic, sincere, but also clinical in its view of human failings, gently resigned to disappointment.


To hell with it. I have a headache


I'm having one of those "virtue vs. fun" blogging moments.

On the one hand, there is no shortage of Important, Substantial Topics to be discussed. The House just passed a landmark financial regulation bill. Atul Gawande has an article in The New Yorker about health care costs and reform. I should be reading and attending and commenting, yes?

On the other hand, I don't know jack crap about financial regulation. You could tell me the Fed plays a significant role in policing the international bunny trade, and I would probably believe you. (Well, OK, maybe not that.) In fact, I checked Megan McArdle's blog (hence my most recent post below) because I wanted to see what she said. And I've been thinking about and working on health care all day, what with it being my job. And I'm on call and I have a headache and I had to attend not one, not two, but three C-sections yesterday, and I just don't feel like it. So I'll finish the Gawande article later. Maybe.

Instead, I'm going to talk about the season finale of "Glee." For those of you who don't care, or are inclined to roll your eyes at my frivolity, or don't watch the show, etc., I say "sue me." Check in on Monday, when maybe my headache will be gone. This probably leaves me with no readers at this point, but I'll live with it.

So, about that finale? I didn't love it. I should go ahead and warn you that the rest of this post will be laden with spoilers.

First of all, Rachel's spilling the beans about the whole Quinn/Puck/Finn pregnancy secret was just a crappy thing to do, and I don't buy for one second that Quinn would have found a way to forgive her so readily. I also don't believe that the other members of the show choir wouldn't crucify her for lousing things up so badly for them. I found that whole abrupt resolution of the ongoing father of the baby lie to be completely implausible, and too pat.

Next, can we talk about Mercedes singing "And I Am Telling You" from "Showgirls"? Over at Project Rungay (which I only just now learned about), they think she "[expletive deleted] NAILED IT." No, she didn't. I love her voice, and think she's a great character/performer, but her rendition was empty and mannered. There's just no comparison with Jennifer Hudson's recent rendition (which was fantastic, and was probably the sole reason she landed that Oscar), and Amber Riley didn't come off well in the comparison.

Two more gripes, then I'll be done, I swear. I also had a hard time buying the crowd's reaction to Rachel's performance of "Don't Rain on My Parade." True, she sounded fantastic and really sold it, blah blah blah. But isn't this supposed to be a show choir competition? Why did everyone go nuts when the rest of the choir just strolled in at the end? Nope. Didn't buy it.

And finally, I know that they scripted the judging scene for laughs, but I think they sacrificed something meaningful in doing so. By having three stupid/indifferent judges, the win for New Directions was arbitrary and hollow. We've been rooting for them all season, and they win in what amounts to a fluke? Sure, the scene was funny, but it was funny at the expense of a satisfying conclusion to the story arc.

I still love the show, largely for the big production numbers. (Oh, I also think they've made Kurt a wee bit too bitchy. But now I'm done for serious.) I loved that last poignant, sweet kiss. But I found the episode as a whole a bit of a let-down.

Right. Back to Important Matters at Hand next week.

On throwing your pals to the wolves

Megan McArdle thinks Max Baucus has to go. She links to this story in Politico about some questionable choices the Senator from Montana has made vis-a-vis his mistress.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, gave a nearly $14,000 pay raise to a female staffer in 2008, at the time he was becoming romantically involved with her, and later that year took her on a taxpayer-funded trip to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, though foreign policy was not her specialty.

Late last Friday, Baucus acknowledged his relationship with Melodee Hanes, whom he nominated for the job of U.S. attorney in Montana, after it was first reported on the website MainJustice.com. But he said that Hanes withdrew from consideration for the job when the relationship became more serious. The following day, Baucus dismissed calls for an ethics investigation, saying, “I went out of my way to be up and up.”

I will agree with Megan that this is unseemly. While I don't know that I agree that this rises to the level of meriting resignation, I do think it reflects poorly on his judgement. The raise can plausibly be explained by the raises other staffers received, as well. The trip to Asia is harder to explain. The nomination to the U.S. attorney position is also pretty shaky. An ethics investigation would not be out of order.

That being said, Ms. McArdle makes an odd statement at the end of her post. She says:
Say what you want about Republicans, but they have a much better sense than their opponents of when it's time to grab one of their own and throw him off the sled to the wolves running behind.
Really? I don't think that this is true. Bush didn't can Rumsfeld until after the GOP had been thoroughly creamed in the mid-term elections. (Witness also how long he held onto Alberto Gonzalez.) I don't get the sense that Sen. Ensign is being treated like a leper, despite his transgressions being at least as troublesome as Baucus's.

Conversely, while the Democrats are certainly more tolerant of some ethically challenged members of Congress than I think they should be (I'm thinking of a Congressman whose name rhymes with Marles Mangel), sometimes they also make the ethically correct and politically intelligent decision to cut someone loose. I don't think either party can claim to be more savvy in this regard.

Knowing when to fold 'em

Friends, it's not our year.

From the Times:
The battle over a bill that would legalize gay marriage in New Jersey shifted locations unexpectedly late Wednesday as sponsors of the legislation canceled a vote scheduled for Thursday in the State Senate, where the measure appeared headed for defeat.
While I understand that this is part of a larger series of maneuvers by supporters of the measure, I think a clear-eyed assessment is that 2009 is not going to be the year that marriage equality sparks a nationwide wildfire of acceptance and legalization. It's a pity, but I think our side needs to play the cards we've been dealt, call it a day, and regroup. For my part, I think it's pointless to hope that rallies and phone calls are going to change any minds at this juncture, and I've made my peace with the facts as they stand.

However, lest you think me complacent and lackadaisical, I'd like to alight briefly on this:
Carrying signs declaring, “God says no, Baroni votes yes” and “Phony Baloney Baroni,” a half-dozen demonstrators called out to passing motorists and party guests, warning the senator that constituents would hold him accountable for his vote.

“The Bible is very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, and homosexuality is a sin,” said Bob Pawson, who said he is a longtime friend of Mr. Baroni’s and has volunteered on his campaigns. “So to promote this lifestyle — it’s actually a death style — is sending the wrong message.”

Really, folks? God says no? Was there a status update on His Facebook page that I missed? Or are you referring to a book that's a few thousand years old (give or take for various parts), and has been translated and redacted so many times as to make the certainty of understanding God's perfect will a wee bit on the dicey side?

Further, let's take a moment to look around. When people hear voices these days, we're less inclined to attribute it to demons, and more likely to prescribe antipsychotics. (They stacked up better in clinical trials.) Sometimes we actually allow women to speak in church, or even to run for public office (though only, presumably, with their husbands' permission). Very few people are executed by stoning these days, even the ones we're pretty sure have committed adultery. Perhaps we've reached the moment in American history where the Bible is no longer a valid justification for public policy? Hmmmmm? Mmmmmmmaybe?

And I like that "death style." Because gay = AIDS = death, especially for those gays in long-term committed relationships for which they are seeking legal marriage. Gay monogamy is the cholera of our time. This Pawson guy, he's a real sharp thinker. I'm glad he's such an important voice in our civic discourse.

So you win some, you lose some. Or, more accurately, you win in five states, and you lose in 31. But I still remain confident when I take the long view. Stupidity has a way of making itself obvious, sooner or later, and so we will be served well by being patient, organized and intelligent.

Update: Hark! What have we here? Why, it seems that despite the fact that divorce is forbidden explicitly by Jesus (who made no mention of homosexuality, as it happens), one particular modern woman has decided her marriage is a shambles and is walking away. Since nobody with a brain in his head would question her perfectly sensible decision, I think we can all agree that biblical dictates sometimes don't jibe with contemporary life.


Call me Ebenezer

I have never believed in Santa Claus. (Or, possibly more accurately, any belief I had in Santa Claus was so weak or brief as to be unremembered.) What I do remember of Santa Claus as a child was hearing the kids on the bus talk about things like sleigh marks on roofs and other evidence for his existence, and being wholly unconvinced. I was never particularly strident in my skepticism, but I remember the efforts of fellow bus riders to help me see the light. I seem to recall a combination of pity and fervor in their efforts. (A somewhat fey, hopelessly unathletic child, you can imagine the boost this gave my popularity.)

Despite my disbelief, I've always enjoyed Christmas. The period between Halloween and New Year's Day is my favorite time of year. While I would dearly love for America's retailers to refrain from foisting yuletide cheer upon us until after Thanksgiving, I love the trappings and trimmings once the time has arrived.

However, now there is the Critter. And thus, the eventual question of What To Say About Santa? Prudie, the advice columnist tackled a question of a similar nature today. A dismayed mother wrote about her ex-husband's choice to debunk Santa for their child. Prudie responds:
Gee, thanks, Dad. Maybe he also threw in that when he realized he was going to have a child, he ran for the hills and cursed himself for not using a condom—that's the truth, too. It's good your son has a relationship with his father, but it would have been nice if his father, before he unilaterally shot down Santa's sleigh, had discussed this with you first. After all, the boy already knows that when someone says, "Mommies and daddies love each other," that isn't necessarily true, either. But don't worry about being caught out in a lie. Telling your children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy is not lying—it's sprinkling a little magic dust on childhood. While people have funny, even poignant stories about realizing none of it is true, I've never heard anyone rail against those elementary-school years of deceit.
Somehow "not lying" and "years of deceit" are meant to be compatible, and I'm not sure I buy the former assertion. While Santa may be a beloved shared myth, telling a kid something you know with certainty to be false certainly feels like a lie to me. Now, before I suddenly discover how many readers we actually have as I am inundated with angry comments from affronted parents who wonder how I can pump blood with the hunk of coal in my chest, let me make it absolutely clear that I know my feelings are:
1) Uncommon
2) Unpopular
3) A little on the airless, sterile, tight-lipped, blue-nosed side.
I also should hasten to add that I really have no beef with what anyone else tells their kid.

Perhaps my problem is this -- I have no memory of a cherished belief in Santa. (On a related note, the Tooth Fairy assigned to our house was absent-minded to a credulity-shaking degree.) Thus, my ability to invest in a long-term deception is just not there. All I can feel is downside, the knowledge that I am telling my kid something I don't believe. So, all you childhood Santa believers out there, would I be doing him a disservice by failing to play along? Am I a big, fat party-pooper? Is the joy you felt believing in Santa worth my discomfiture as an adult?

I'm all ears.

Obama's Nobel speech

My workday began with an indescribably tedious morning (which would be no more enjoyable for me to recount or you to read about), and I've not had much opportunity to do my usual sweep through the Internet tubes. Thus, I'm a little late with commentary regarding the President's Nobel acceptance speech. However, knowing that I had an obligation to my loyal readers (some of whom aren't even related to me) to offer my thoughts, I finally found the time to read the whole thing. (If you've not done so, you can find the text here.)

I think the speech was as good as anyone could possibly have wanted, given the circumstances at hand. Obama was presented with two significant obstacles in crafting this speech:

1) He hasn't done a whole heck of a lot to justify receiving recognition of this magnitude. I think nobody but his most starry-eyed admirers would dispute this. He seems to have won the Peace Prize through a combination of being America's first black President (no mean feat, but also as much as reflection on the country as on the man) and not being George W. Bush. He offers the chance for a new chapter in America's relationship with the world, but it's still only a few months into his first term, so that relationship is still very much in the making.

2) He has very recently announced an increase in American forces in Afghanistan. No matter what one's feelings are with regard to the legitimacy of our action there (and I happen to think our continued involvement is justified in a way that the war in Iraq has never been), it is a very fine needle to thread to accept a prize for peace in the run-up to an escalation in war.

On the former note, his audience in Oslo was no worry, certainly in comparison to his more vociferous critics here at home. He had to appear humble, and aware of his current standing with regard to the arc of history. I think he did this adroitly:
And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. (Laughter.) In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who've received this prize -- Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela -- my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women -- some known, some obscure to all but those they help -- to be far more deserving of this honor than I.
As to the second problem, he addressed it directly, promptly and clearly.
But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 42 other countries -- including Norway -- in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.

Still, we are at war, and I'm responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict -- filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.


I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Just so. I would doubtless find myself disagreeing with many of my friends on the Left, but I think history makes undeniably clear the lesson that peace cannot be pursued at all costs. War is sometimes necessary. One need only recall the gash in history inflicted by the Third Reich to know that this is so, no matter what our dreams for a better world may be. We must conduct war as rarely, justly, briefly and gravely as possible, and only as a last resort. But sometimes it must be conducted, nonetheless.

So, whatever my feelings about his receiving the award in the first place (an occasion I think even he would have chosen to delay until a later point in his life), I was proud of my President today, and applaud him for a speech well done.

Dudes, I learned so much

I love push polls. Trying to figure out what the "wrong" answer is, and then deliberately choosing it, brings me a perverse sense of delight. The one I got last night, sponsored by our friends at the Family Research Council, was no exception.

First off, they asked if I'm in favor of tax-payer funded abortions. My real feelings on the subject are nuanced, and fall along the lines of Kang-as-Bob-Dole's policy of "abortions for some, miniature American flags for others." But, since it was already obvious what the right answer was, I happily said "yes."

Next up, I was asked if I would still support "the Democrats' plan" if I knew it would mean the end of life as we know it. The nice recorded voice didn't say that exactly, but I wasn't able to transcribe the script in time to get it all verbatim. I do know that, apparently, it would cost us all choice in medical coverage, would encourage physician-assisted suicide, and would lead to health-care rationing as decided by a faceless panel of bureaucrats who will override choices my loved ones and I would otherwise make. Since the recording didn't understand my first answer -- "of course, you lying sack of crap" -- I was forced to go with a simple "yes."

My favorite question was next. I was asked about "research" conducted by some guy at Syracuse, which apparently indicates that even though liberals make more money than conversatives, they "give" 25% less. I was asked if I thought this was "plausible." Now, of course I believe this. Most of my friends are liberals, and you've never met a colder, more tar-hearted batch of skinflint bastards in your life. (I, myself, am notorious for stealing the buckets from Salvation Army bell-ringers, which is why I love the Christmas season.) This is especially true of the liberals I know who sit on the boards of various charities. Anyhow, despite how obviously true this "research" must be, I answered "no."

The last two questions confused me a bit. Penultimately, in a question that invoked the Holocaust, I was asked something about whether I cared more about how Israel is threatened from all sides by hostile forces, or about the death of countless Africans from malaria. I have no idea what those two things have to do with each other, and frankly had a hard time figuring out which answer was "right," so I simply said "no." This led to a question about how stupid pesticide laws had led to the proliferation of malaria-causing mosquitos, and do I think the UN should do more. Now, in all seriousness, I think the question of pesticide use vs. malaria is a complicated one, and that there is a valid argument that the toll of the disease justifies the use of the pesticides. (I was also confused why an obviously hard-Right push poll would advocate for UN action, since my understanding is that the seething wing of the conservative movement conflates the UN with Communism, global government, and Satan worship.) However, since I would rather glue my nostrils together than evince any agreement with the FRC on anything, I answered "no" to that one, as well.

The call concluded with an announcement that the entire mendacious exercise had been funded by the FRC, and that the poll was in service to the risibly untrue purpose of increasing awareness of malaria in Africa. I was left wondering what on earth any of this had to do with "families," and musing at the depths of deception the conservative movement has sunk to. (Seriously, it amazes me that an organization that so loudly touts its claims to "Judeo-Christian value system" is willing to lie so baldly.) Truly, it was a marvelous experience, and I just had to share.


A defense of Sarah Palin! (ok, and then a criticism)

I've been meaning to respond to this Andrew Sullivan reader, who said:
I’m sorry but every time I see a picture of Trig on the book tour I cringe. As the mother of a Special Needs child, I know that Trig should be home getting intensive speech, physical and occupational therapy at this point in his young life. He shouldn’t be used as his mother’s prop to boost her favorability with a certain segment of voters who appreciate that she didn’t abort him.

Sarah Palin is potentially setting her child’s potential progress back by years. Any parent of a Special Needs child can vouch that early, intensive therapies are key to future development. Every time I see her with him on her hip, instead of with a speech or other therapist, I keep wondering what she’s thinking.
I, too, will write as the mother of a special needs child. And I want to tell this other mom: stop the criticism. You have no idea what accommodations Sarah Palin has made for this child. Perhaps he is receiving therapies on the road. You have no idea what decisions were made regarding his care, why they were made, and what factors were weighed. You have no idea what his needs are - different special needs kids have different needs. Only Sarah and Todd Palin could make that decision. As long as she is not clearly harming him -- everyone, back off. I'm sick to death of people (including other parents of special needs kids) telling parents of special needs kids exactly what their priorities should be. People making decisions in good faith about such things can come to different conclusions about how the child should be raised.

OK. Now on to the criticism. There is something distasteful about the way she is holding up her kid as a badge of moral honor. First of all, it is using her child as a means to a self-promoting end. Second of all, he cannot consent to becoming a public figure, and there is potential harm in becoming a public figure. Third of all, Sarah Palin might well have made the right moral decision not to have an abortion. For the record, I tend to think she did. But that's not absolutely clear. Plenty of very good people make a good faith decision to abort a baby with a genetic disorder. Again, that is a difficult decision that requires the person who is undergoing it to weigh many many factors that are not available to outsiders. It is hubris to repeatedly publicly congratulate oneself for making such a decision, and disrespectful to those who made good faith decisions in the other direction.


I believe this is your knife, Gov. Palin?

Let me start by saying that the chances I would ever vote for Mike Huckabee are somewhere between nil and zilch. I could never, ever endorse his social conservatism, among other issues, and I disagree with him far more than I agree. However, that being said, he has always struck me as one of the more decent conservative politicians, and I've gotten the sense that he's been willing to take a higher road than many others from his party. So, while I'm not exactly a fan, I have a certain respect for the man.

On that note, I think the [excrement weather pattern] that has descended upon him following the Clemmons cop killings is lamentable. For those of you who missed it, back in 2000 then-Governor Huckabee commuted Clemmons sentence for a series of robberies/burglaries he had committed as a teenager. He was eventually paroled. However, over the past few years he began to demonstrate signs of emerging mental illness, which culminated in his killing several police officers in Washington state at the end of November. (He was killed by police shortly thereafter.)

Huckabee has laid out in clear and convincing language why he made to decision he made. Hindsight offers plenty of opportunity for strident criticism from the law-and-order Right. However, given what Huckabee knew at the time, I think he is right to say that he would have made the same decision if he had it all to do over again.

You know who I don't think has any basic decency? Sarah Palin. She was all too happy to make clear why I think she represents the absolute worst in American politics today. From Politico:
Sarah Palin says former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made a “horrible decision” nine years ago in granting clemency to a man suspected of killing four police officers two weeks ago in Washington state.

“It was a bad decision obviously, but my heart goes out to Huckabee,” the former Alaska governor said of her potential 2012 GOP presidential rival during an interview Monday with conservative radio host Lars Larson. “I love him, and I feel bad for him to be in this position. But I feel even worse for the victims’ families in this situation.”


“It’s absolutely tragic and just unfathomable what has happened there, and I do feel bad for Huckabee,” Palin said. “But it was a horrible decision that he made.”
No, it really wasn't. It was the best decision he could have made at the time, and a dispassionate and disinterested observer could easily come to that conclusion. Not Sarah Palin, though. She knows what the base wants, and she's all too happy to deliver.
As governor of Alaska, she said she had never been in the position of having to grant a prisoner clemency, adding that “most Alaskans know me well enough to know that I don’t have a whole lot of mercy for the bad guys.”

“I’m on the good guys’s side,” she said. “I’m all about redemption and recovery and reform and all that. But I will always error on the side of punishing even stricter, even harder on the bad guys.”

What a lovely way of formulating it, "on the good guys' side." (Nice copy editing, Politico!) Way to imply that Gov. Huckabee is not on the good guys' side with you.

Ugh. Now I feel like I need to go take a bath.

I need to go lie down

A few years ago, the Guggenheim staged an exhibition of Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" cycle. Barney, a well-known contemporary artist (and you have no idea how hard I'm trying to resist putting scare quotes around that word), transformed the iconic museum into an extravaganza of assorted fetishes, large-scale installations, and big screens that played the different films in the five-movie cycle on a continuous loop. It was big. It was garish. It was outre. It was stupid.

I went twice. You don't get many chances to see a such an epic con first-hand. That Barney managed to get the Guggenheim to pay for an exhibition that Freud would have dismissed as "too weird," and which was so patently devoid of actual meaning, is a testament to the vacuum that exists at the heart of the contemporary art world. I left with a grudging admiration for the man who dressed up as (among other things) a dancing red-headed goat creature on the Guggenheim's dime.

I had wondered what Barney had gotten himself up to lately. He and fellow pop culture lunatic Bjork made a movie together (and may or may not be in relationship with each other), but there haven't been any more grandiose artistic emissions named for parts of the male reproductive system. Sad, really.

But now I see what he's been up to. Clearly, he's gotten a sex change, and is now calling himself Lady Gaga.