July 29, 2005

Ariel in New York Times (implicitly)

Today's op-ed by Paul Krugman in the New York Times, "French Family Values," discusses a study of international differences in working hours, by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser at Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote at Dartmouth. Ariel was Professor Sacerdote's research assistant for the paper.

New DFP issue online

If you want to check it out, here it is.

July 27, 2005

Confederates target of ethnic cleansing

The plight of the Confederates continues. From the Tennessean:
Group to fight effort to rename three 'Confederate' parks

The Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to donate at least $10,000 to be used in efforts to fight a proposal to change the names of three "Confederate" parks in downtown Memphis.

Nearly 1,000 SCV members approved the "emergency donation" at the group's annual convention, which concluded Saturday in Nashville, according to a statement released by the SCV.

The $10,000 represents the "first installment of cash" and will be used for "any and all purposes including litigation," the statement says.

"This outrageous affront to our Southern heritage will be met with every financial and legal means available to the Sons of
Confederate Veterans," said SCV Commander in Chief Denne Sweeney.

"The park renamings and monument removals are tantamount to an ethnic cleansing."

At issue are the names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis and Forrest parks.
This exact kind of battle gets played out every year or so in Tennessee, it seems. A three-year legal struggle over Confederate Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University ended this month, with Vanderbilt losing to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and being forced to keep the pediment inscription of the dorm name. The moral justification?
"It's a victory for the entire South," [Deanna] Bryant, [president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy's Tennessee division,] who lives in Franklin, said of the decision to keep the inscription on the building. "Regardless, the War Between the States happened. Just because somebody doesn't like something, you can't erase it from the history books."

We're talking about erasing it from a building in which students live, not the proverbial history books, where slavery in fact continues to be a well-documented phenomenon. We've all seen this simplistic line of argument at Dartmouth before, regarding College symbols pertaining to Native Americans. Defenders of the Dartmouth Indian and Confederate Memorial Hall (the two symbols being quite different in their historical context but perhaps equally offensive to many in their function) invoke the sanctity of History when what's at stake is not history but the highly visible symbols in some public domain where people live and interact. It's a distinction that seems to evade many self-styled defenders of tradition. Preserve the pediment, but move it to a museum. Drop the Indian, but let its record persist elsewhere.

Confederate Memorial Hall

July 26, 2005

The Anti-New Yorker Caption Contest

I find the New Yorker's caption contest to be a bit too, well, New Yorkerish. The publication even brags about the similarities that often arise between winning submissions and the captions tagged to the illustrations by their cartoonists. Is this contest then too predetermined and formulaic for me to stomach? Why yes. LGB will thus offer an alternative contest that encourages people to tag the New Yorker's cartoon in a manner entirely unbefitting the style of a New Yorker cartoon caption. I'll start:

Let's fuck.

Image courtesy of you know who.

"Gay marriage -- who the hell cares?"

Iraq war vet Paul Hackett is taking on chicken-hawk Republicans in Ohio by running for Congress on an anti-Iraq war, socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform. Good to see this man standing up to the bullshit:
[GOP candidate Jean] Schmidt commends Hackett for his service, but believes Hackett should "stand with the president" by "supporting the Iraqi war effort and our troops that are over there," her campaign manager Joe Braun said. (Through Braun, Schmidt declined to speak with Salon.) When asked to answer that charge, Hackett is blunt: "The only way I know how to support the troops is by going over there." He doesn't hesitate to criticize Schmidt's support of the war: "All the chicken hawks back here who said, 'Oh, Iraq is talking bad about us. They're going to threaten us' -- look, if you really believe that, you leave your wife and three kids and go sign up for the Army or Marines and go over there and fight. Otherwise, shut your mouth."
I'll be keeping an eye on this race, which is in its last week.

July 24, 2005

Chimp Haven

It's really nice to see this as the front-page New York Times Magazine article. I have a weak spot for chimpanzees, so I found the article really moving. I even donated to Chimp Haven, the permanent home for chimpanzees retired from biomedical research, entertainment, or no longer wanted as pets. The movie on the web site is worth watching. Chimps are totally sweet.

July 21, 2005

Who'd a thunk?

Karl Rove might have lied in his grand jury testimony!

Daily Kos puts it in context and revels in the potential consequences.

Now I Can Be Even Later To Work

NYC subway riders will soon have to start leaving for their destinations one or two minutes earlier. Starting tomorrow morning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will begin randomly searching the bags of commuters at subway stations, commuter rails (except to NJ, because face it, what self-respecting terrorist wants to bomb the armpit of NYC?), and bus lines throughout the city. This new policy continues in the proud post-9/11 history of enacting onerous procedures that waste time and money without making anyone safer. Travelers who refuse to be searched are permitted to leave the station without penalty or prejudice, free to enter another station or pass their parcel off to anyone else. I'm not really surprised by this useless new law though. After all, the illusion of security is all that matters come election time and Bloomberg needs to make up for that failed Olympics campaign somehow.

July 19, 2005

A faithful nominee

At least we know John Roberts would "faithfully apply the Constitution." This has to be one of my favorite conages, uttered by Bush on hundreds of occasions. Thing is, I bet it's pretty effective. I imagine it aroused 9 out of 10 religious wackos and 6/10 uninformed moderates in focus groups.

You now have less than 7 hours of wild speculation...

Any guesses?

My pick to win is Joe Malchow.

I base this guess on the empirical data that Bush tends to pick nominees with a highly disproportionate ratio of ego to actual insight/intelligence(e.g. Bolton, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz...).

Update: Apparently, it's this guy.

July 18, 2005

Framing is a force that gives us meaning

The long article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine is about Democrats' new consciousness of and use of framing. Framing has to do with the way in which information is presented. It is a concept developed by the cognitive linguist and, now, political strategist George Lakoff. Lakoff's research argues that when the human brain processes ideas and language, it does not treat and evaluate each as an isolated piece of data on its own merit, but it views them through frames, i.e. biases and preconceptions that are hardwired into the neural networks of the brain (certainly by information previously encountered, likely also by genetics). If a piece of information is presented to a person in a way agreeable to their neural framework, the person is likely to accept the information. If it's presented in a way that conflicts with their previous experience (of what's good, profitable, right), the person will likely reject it. But presentation is key, and an idea presented in different ways may have very different results.

I posted before about Lakoff months ago, after I read "Don't Think of an Elephant!", his primer on framing in politics. Matt Bai's article does a good job tracing Lakoff's meteoric rise on Capitol Hill and treating the belief in framing as panacea for Democratic woes with a healthy dose of skepticism. The possibility the article considers is that Democrats' problems run deeper than language, and that their recent successes on social security and Terri Schiavo are due more to party discipline, not a common language.

Bai rightly points to Lakoff's own proposal for a 10-word summary of Democratic principles as a sign that Dems lack more than just the mots justs:
Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values," and in "Don't Think of an Elephant" he proposes some Democratic alternatives: ''Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility.'' Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life. Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future? Who doesn't want an effective government?

What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.

Bai's tendency throughout the article, however, is to put language and ideas in a stark dichotomy. This is where he goes wrong, I believe. The process of framing is not a matter of cloaking arbitrary concepts in deliberately chosen, appealing rhetoric. Framing is an active exercise that makes one think about what exactly the values and policies expressed in the language are. Lakoff himself says his 10-word party identity is just a suggested starting point, and that it will take years for Democrats to fully develop their approach. He believes Democrats badly need to launch new and comprehensive policy initiatives (a counterpart to the "Contract with America") to live up to the rhetoric. In Don't Think of an Elephant! he specifically champions the "New Apollo Program" of investing in alternative energy as Democrats' (and America's) great opportunity of the era.

My concern is not so much defending Lakoff as highlighting how potentially useful the idea of framing is. A huge part of Republicans' ascendancy in the past few decades has been their attentiveness to the power of language ("Tax relief," "Constitutional Option," "Death Tax") and the importance of coordinating ALL their communication around a single party line. It's kind of frightening, and the discipline becomes repetitive as hell, but it works. Science tells us so. Sound science. Plus, thinking about how to frame our ideas will help us refine our ideas. It's as simple as that.

So, anyone got a better 10-word summary for the Democratic Party? Cons, here's your chance to really shine.

July 16, 2005

Prison in the Land of the Free

Naturally, I was reading MIM Notes—The Official Newsletter of the Maoist Internationalist Movement—today and I learned from their Facts on U$ imprisonment section that "the United $tates has been the world's leading prison-state per capita for the last 25 years, with a brief exception during Boris Yeltsin's declaration of a state of emergency." Furthermore, "To find a comparison with U$ imprisonment of Black people, there is no statistic in any country that compares including apartheid South Africa of the era before Mandela was president."

You may laugh at the source or the writing, and the data they use in this May 2005 issue are from 1994, but the reality is that this is the truth and the situation is only getting worse. According to a study by the UK Government, the United States had 1.96 million prisoners and the highest prison population rate in the world as of 2002, followed closely by the Cayman Islands and Russia. As of mid-2004 the US prison and jail population was a still greater 2,131,180, with the racial breakdown going:

4,919 black male inmates per 100,000 black males
1,717 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males
717 white male inmates per 100,000 white males
(From the U.S. Department of Justice)

Our (domestic) penal system is a topic that has almost completely fallen out of mainstream political discourse. In the midst of wars abroad and culture wars here, we shouldn't forget it.

July 14, 2005


I'm in the process of making some minor changes to the blog's appearance. So far, I'm pissed off because it's looking better in Internet Explorer. Any feedback is welcome.

July 13, 2005

Congressmen: "Free market free for cons only!"

It is no longer safe for politically active liberals to do business in the United States. Rep. Tom Davis III (R-VA) and Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) "were quoted as suggesting that baseball could face retribution from the GOP-controlled Congress if a group linked to Soros is allowed to buy the Washington baseball team." (from Forward). This retribution would come in the form of Major League Baseball losing their anti-trust exemptions if they were to sell the Washington Nationals to a group in which Soros is a minority investor. Davis also took care to mention Soros' foreign birth and multinational holdings, suggesting that the Hungarian immigrant "wants to buy the world."

More evidence that the cons are hate-mongers:

1) The national director of the Anti-Defamation League has identified this rhetoric as mirroring that of anti-Semitism.

2) Davis has suggested that the team be sold to an investment group headed by Bush fund-raiser Fred Malek who, at the request of Richard Nixon, "...compiled a list of Jews who worked at the U.S (sic) Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics."

Soros is no stranger to persecution from the right. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert stated the following: "You know, SorosÂ’s money, some of that is coming from overseas. It could be drug money." Rep. Hastert later admitted to having no evidence to support his claim.

The most damning quote (the one that makes it clear that this whole thing is politically motivated) is printed in the New Yorker this week via the Times:

"“We finally got a winning team,"” [Rep. Davis] elaborated in a chat with the Times. "“Now theyÂ’re going to hand it over to a convicted felon who wants to legalize drugs and who lives in New York and spent five million dollars trying to defeat the President?"

So this is the FreedomTM that G.W.B. speaks of? Cons, you truly are a bunch of fascists.

Reflecting on real journalism

Roger Mosey, head of BBC Television News, has a piece in today's Guardian (free registration required) discussing what it's been like to be the definitive source for reporting on the tragic London bombings. Coming from the director of one of the world's best news organizations, the brief article is an understated affirmation of what TV journalism should aspire to be: accurate, responsible, thoughtful. And I'm glad Mosey addresses one egregious example of everything TV news should not be. If you still watch Fox News, you should know you're an asshole, and a poorly informed one at that:
Finally, we are never immune from accusations of bias. It goes without saying that there is nothing more sensitive than matters of life and death, and the BBC's audience response has been massively supportive and understanding about the dilemmas we face in reporting terror. There have been two main exceptions. From a smattering of radical websites comes the argument that we are being hypocritical in mourning the dead of London when we allegedly gloried in civilian deaths in Iraq.

This utterly misrepresents the BBC's reporting of Iraq, where we have always sought to portray the whole picture of events in that country. The second exception is principally Fox News in the United States. A contributor to Fox said after the London bombings that "the BBC almost operates as a foreign registered agent of Hezbollah and some of the other jihadist groups". On the Fox website today there is an opinion piece, "How Jane Fonda and the BBC put you in danger". I am writing this in a building which was bombed by Irish terrorists. My colleagues and I are living in a city recovering from the wounds inflicted last week. If I may leave our customary impartiality aside for a moment, the comments made on Fox News are beneath contempt.

July 12, 2005

Setting the record straight about Rove's leak

I've been following the Plame leak case for a few weeks now—and this is a story years in the making—but I thought this article from Salon was particularly good at getting the facts straight and analyzing the possible implications. It gives a brief history of the whole affair and then explains to what extent Rove might or might not be culpable, all in very clear terms.

I suspect Rove was fully cognizant of what he was doing, and what he's done is despicable. He should be fired without question (go tell the White House you think so, too). Also, it was encouraging to see the press finally do its job and hammer Scott McClellan yesterday and today. If the stakes of this case, occurring right around the whole Deepthroat/Mark Felt revelation, don't inspire mainstream journalists to dig deep and take some risks to find out the whole truth, I don't know what would.

While we're at it, how about another caption contest for the above illustration (done by yours truly)?

Photos courtesy of Google Image Search

It Could (Have) Happen(ed)

Apparently, Howard Dean considered running for Mayor of NYC.

Via Gothamist.

On London

A friend alerted me to this little piece in The Nation's blog section, in John Nichol's blog.
This speech is pretty amazing, and I'll post the full text in the comments section.

"For instance, U.S. media pretty much missed the one truly Churchillian response to the attacks -- that of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a committed socialist and anti-war activist, who issued the following statement on the day of the attacks:

I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a terrorist attack. We did hope in the first few minutes after hearing about the events on the Underground that it might simply be a maintenance tragedy. That was not the case. I have been able to stay in touch through the very excellent communications that were established for the eventuality that I might be out of the city at the time of a terrorist attack and they have worked with remarkable effectiveness. I will be in continual contact until I am back in London.

I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever....

(cont in comments)

July 11, 2005

Times to Rove: Zingah!

Drudge reports that the New York Times plans to lead tomorrow by reporting on growing calls for Karl Rove's resignation. With this coming right after Scott McClellan refused to comment on previous claims that Rove was not involved in the Plame leak or to address Bush's previous pledge to fire anyone who was involved, "Turd Blossom" seems to be wilting a bit. The public probably doesn't perceive this at all, but they will if Rove resigns (moderately unlikely), gets indicted (even more unlikely), or is made into some sort of media pariah (crossing fingers).

EDIT: I just have to add this link. It is highly funny.

Image from WTF Is It Now??.

July 10, 2005

Brit Hume is an Asshole

Here's Fox News anchor Hume's reaction to the London transit bombing.

I mean, my first thought when I heard -- just on a personal basis, when I heard there had been this attack and I saw the futures this morning, which were really in the tank, I thought, "Hmmm, time to buy."

I'm so glad to hear that Hume pulled from the wreckage not one of the many lifeless bodies of the victims of an awful attack, but a great opportunity to expand his fucking portfolio. Is this mother fucker inhuman? Discuss.

Tracking the Rhetoric

When this war began, or in the march leading up to it, the case for war was completely predicated on securing Saddam's WMDs. Everything else was just icing on the cake. This little gem, from the 2003 State of the Union, was pretty typical.

"Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. "

Now, depending where you lie on the political spectrum, this statement was either deceitful BS, or a well-intentioned if irresponsible overstatement. But regardless, the statement is indefensible. Report after report has shown no solid Al-Qaeda connection (just some vague and weak circumstantial evidence at best), and certainly no WMDs. The terrible dictator? Well, we’re all glad he's gone. But let’s be honest here, that was never the point of this war. In fact, our track record in Iraq since 1979 shows we were never too concerned with that. Crimes against humanity came and went and we sold weapons and imposed sanctions on our own schedule independent of those events.

So they shifted gears. This became about spreading democracy and freedom, and liberation, a humanitarian campaign with greater ramifications for the entire Middle East. (Although this last bit is kind of the neo-con dogma that pushed the war in the first place, I think.) As the insurgency stepped up, one of the earlier points came back to life: we were fighting terrorists in Iraq, even if we caused them to enter the country or take up arms. In his 2004 State of the Union, the president feebly tried to defend the initial case, and then made this point:

"We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again."

Well, that got kind of tough to back up too. Humanitarian conditions? The civilian casualties (obfuscating and micro-analyzing of the Lancet report aside) are astronomical, and the infrastructure is in complete shambles. In the Sunni triangle, things are hardly secure or safe. Democracy? Maybe. The government is just now cutting deals to include Sunni's in the government after their election boycott. We all know it won't happen any time soon, but hey, I've got hope for the future at least. What about the global war on terrorism? Reports that said the number of terrorist incidents around the world decreased turned out to be completely wrong. The insurgency is more violent than ever and more US (and Coalition) troops are dying than during the pre-Mission Accomplished era. So what became the new talking point?
We're fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
(This comes paraphrased I guess, out of the June 28th Fort Bragg speech)

Maybe I'm making an obvious point here, but London (and Madrid) is as close to 'over here' as anything needs to get. I wonder where they'll go now. I guess we can only strengthen our resolve, since our strategy to fight terrorism was the military equivalent of kicking a beehive, and we’re getting stung pretty harshly. Hopefully though, with the new DoD report about restructuring the military, while the Bush administration keeps trying to save face, a coherent and effective campaign to defend ourselves can begin. I hope so. Because for me, and likely for the people of London who point to the War in Iraq as an instigator of these terrorist attacks, the War on Terrorism has been a miserable and costly failure in money and lives, and this recent statement from President Bush just doesn't cut it.

"The war on terror goes on.... Their resolve is as strong as my resolve. And that is we will not yield to these people, will not yield to the terrorists."

July 6, 2005

An illusory victory, and all the better for it

David Horowitz, our favorite critic of academia, has made a name for himself by going on a crusade to badger governments and private colleges until they start teaching the conservative side of everything along side the “liberal” ideas (i.e. those commonly-held to be true and effective) or something.

Horowitz has been pushing his Academic Bill of Rights around like a cart of rotten mangos for a good while now (Horowitz plagued—I mean—visited Dartmouth in April 2004 to present his opinions), but apparently now he’s getting somewhere. Or so he thinks.

The American Council of Education released a rather brief document designed to outline “some central, overarching principles that are widely shared within the academic community [and that] deserve to be stated affirmatively as a basis for discussion of these issues on campuses and elsewhere.”

Though Horowitz claims this is a “major victory,” he’s really gotten nowhere. The standards outlined in the ACE release simply reaffirm the individual institution’s right to establish curricula (and consequentially the rejection of government intervention/regulation), as well as the idea that disagreement isn’t a bad thing, the (well-understood) notion that profs should grade impartially, and the assumption that some ideas are better than others. Really, no ground has been given, and it shouldn’t be.

Horowitz is trying to turn the same logic that has led to policies like affirmative action and the creation of departments like African-American Studies and WGST against the liberal academics who support and perpetuate them. The truism he is co-opting is “Discrimination is bad.” Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights uses the (very American) philosophy that it is always wrong to exclude people that differ from the socially dominant position and twists it to extend to ideas—it is always wrong, he suggests, to exclude an idea that differs from the mainstream (i.e. liberal) academic position.

For Horowitz, it is wrong to fail to balance a panel discussion, even if that will lead to inviting intellectually discredited figures. It is wrong to select readings for a curriculum without regarding all the alternatives to the mainline academic understanding of the issues at hand. It is wrong to grade an argument based on its speaker’s political beliefs without regard to its academic merit.

Well, one of these three is right (the third in case you couldn't figure it out on your own), but then again, it is unlike the others. The reasons for this difference can be summed up in one sentence:

Unlike with people, equality of opportunity is not a good thing for ideas.

The third case is a case of discrimination against the person, not the idea. The idea's merit does not enter into the reasons for its rejection--therefore, it is not a subject of discrimination. In the other two cases, it is the ideas are not given an equal opportunity, not the people behind the ideas because the situations involved are focused around the exchange of ideas, not the evaluation of people.

Without even touching on the pedagogical problems such a doctrine would create, the simple fact is that Horowitz does not understand the academic mission, which is to identify and disseminate truths. It is not in the business of presenting all sides of the issue; it is in the business of teaching which side works (the best). If it can be shown that another method or idea functions more effectively in explaining, ordering, or fixing a problem, then it should replace the old method or opinion.

To bring in speakers solely to achieve an ideological balance will only corrupt the debate; to present opinions or methods that do nothing other than offer an alternative view (but don’t improve on the mainstream position) will only bog down the class and the discourse with junk. It is this commitment to identifying and disseminating truths that was affirmed in the ACE release, not some nebulous quest for balance.

The only victory for Horowitz is that he can now say that someone has actually taken the time to try to get him to shut up rather than just sitting quietly and hoping he’d go away.
Congratulations, Davy.

[Caveat: I am not under the impression that libs have all the right answers for all academic problems, but, like it or not, that’s the way it stands in a great many fields—-liberal ideas solve or answer the questions that are being asked. Until this changes, it is unreasonable to ask for the presentation of answers or solutions that do not resolve those questions. While it is not the case that the best ideas are always the mainstream academic positions, it is the case that the business of academia is to self-correct, not to balance itself ideologically. Those are not mutually exclusive, but can certainly be at odds, and are within Mr. Horowitz’s Bill of Rights.]

Who's the real activist?

Paul Gewirtz and Chad Golder have a study in today's Times that attempts to quantify judicial activism by the Supreme Court since 1994. Their measure is simple, if a little primitive: find the number of Congressional laws each justice has struck down as a percentage of his or her total number of decisions on Congressional laws. Here's what they found:

Thomas 65.63 %
Kennedy 64.06 %
Scalia 56.25 %
Rehnquist 46.88 %
O’Connor 46.77 %
Souter 42.19 %
Stevens 39.34 %
Ginsburg 39.06 %
Breyer 28.13 %

Surprise! The cons are the activists!

The obvious methodological complication would seem to be that the study doesn't characterize or quantify the Congressional laws being deliberated by the Court. Were they passed by a Democratic or Republican Congress? And when were they passed? For laws passed long ago the whole Democratic/Republican value wouldn't mean much, since the parties shifted so much in the 60s and 70s. Basically, data with the distribution of the laws across the Congressional sessions in which they were passed and the Democratic/Republican composition of each session would make the study more precise.

But, as is, the findings still suggest the conage of "(liberal) judicial activists" to be as meaningless and misleading as most of their Orwellian bullshit.

Until I Find IMDB

Last week, I was lucky enough to score an advance copy of John Irving's newest book, Until I Find You, which will be hitting stores July 12th. I won't comment on my opinion of it as a whole yet because I'm only halfway done (it clocks in at 848 pages) and I didn't really like A Prayer For Owen Meany until the last 100 pages or so.

I know it's nitpicky, but something in the chapter I finished last night really bothered me. Irving uses the fictional porno series Muffy the Vampire Hooker as a plot device throughout Chapter 20. Besides the cutesy attempt to create a funny porno title (come on, at least go with Muffy the Vampire Layer), my main gripe was that Chapter 20 begins in the fall of 1987 and Chapter 21 starts at some point in 1989. Not only was Buffy the Vampire Slayer popularized by the series in 1997, but the 1992 movie that the series was based on also postdates the Irving timeline.

This anachronism really surprised me because John Irving is usually a very well-researched writer. I guess I'll have to wait for next week's reviews to see if Michiko Kakutani and the other lit crits pick up on it.

"A Pat on the Back"

Sarah Vowell has a refreshing op-ed in the New York Times today. I saw Vowell, best known for NPR's This American Life, speak like two weeks ago at the Columbia Publishing Course where I'm at about the books she's written, Assassination Vacation and The Cloudy Patriot. She's an incredibly funny person, and the op-ed is good for quite a few laughs as well as a decent point or two. Basically, the message is: give credit where it's due, and pick your battles. Vowell is able to praise Pat Robertson for his efforts to end poverty and AIDS in Africa (he even supports the use of condoms there!?) while also arguing that we Democrats should fight like hell for this Supreme Court seat:
On Monday, anticipating an epic dust-up regarding his new nominee for the Supreme Court, President Bush said he hoped that special-interest groups on both sides would "tone down the heated rhetoric." They shouldn't, though.

This is about the lifetime appointment of a person who will be making life and death decisions for millions of people for decades to come, not about some petty time waster like - come on, again? - flag burning. It's so important that we should agree to melt together on the slopes of a Kilauea of issue-ad spew.

July 3, 2005


NYU Law Professor Noah Feldman's article in the Sunday Times Magazine justifies a moderate position on the separation of church and state with a logic that parades a fundamental naivete and an ignorance of its own pragmatic implications. Professor Feldman is wrong wrong wrong! His argument centers on the contention that "values evangelicals" (a group in which he includes those of all religious stripes who want religion to be more a part of public life) and "legal secularists" can reach a compromise where public religious expression is liberated and public funding of religion stifled. He believes that the two groups can engage in dialogic discourse, each making arguments about public policy in its own natural manner:

A better approach would be for secularists to confront the evangelicals' arguments on their own terms, refusing to stop the conversation and instead arguing for the rightness of their beliefs about their own values. Reason can in fact engage revelation, as it has throughout the history of philosophy. The skeptic can challenge the believer to explain how he derives his views from Scripture and why the view he ascribes to God is morally attractive -- questions that most believers consider profoundly important and perfectly relevant.

This kind of exchange need not produce agreement on abortion or same-sex marriage or anything else. To the contrary, hard moral questions will remain controversial. But acknowledging a moral debate as a moral debate in which all sides deserve a say will have the effect of communicating to evangelicals that their voices count. In the long run, this approach is more likely to focus our national debates on substance instead of procedure -- on what God or reason or whatever source of values teaches about human life and intimate choices, not about whether God belongs in the conversation at all. Secularists who are confident in their views should expect to prevail on the basis of reason; evangelicals who wish to win the argument will discover that their arguments must extend beyond simple invocation of faith.

Professor Feldman's harmonistic idealism spits in the face of the evidence of bile and bitter hatred that exists between these two groups and that surrounds us every day. Their world views are irreconcilable. I am personally on the side of secularism and science, and I would never be satisfied with a compromise of this sort. Either schools must teach us that dinosaurs existed or that God fabricated and buried their "bones" to test our faith in an earth that is only several thousand years old. The advocates of each interpretation can never be convinced of the other's position. One is right, and the other is wrong. The educated can clearly see which is which.

A few years ago, I took a more ontologically relativist stance, one maintaining a denial of absolute truth. The American left can no longer afford that luxury. We have to assert a hardline position against a conservative right that will never fail to do so. There is a culture war in this country that cannot be won through compromise or sympathy with the enemy. They will continue to beat the fuck out of the muslim or athiest kid in their class until the cultural atmosphere in this country makes this impermissable. God will continue to "hate fags" until such a position is no longer tenable. If you think that such examples emanate from the fringe (and they do) then you should take some time to familiarize yourself with the public words of friends of the White House such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Their voices can be heard loudly echoeing in the halls of power. The volume must be lowered!

Disclaimer: Obviously, I am arguing from an extreme point here. I would not expect it to prevail in an unadulterated manner. Someone, however, must argue for the far left (just as those such as Professor Feldman must articulate a moderate position) so as to pull any eventual compromise as far to the left as possible. Each position serves a political function. Take this into account before you correctly label my post hard line.

Edit: Upon posting this, it occured to me that I may have been imprecise in specifying the groups to which I was referring. I want to make it clear that I am not attacking religion and do believe that their is space for discussion of belief in the national dialogue. I do not believe however, that religious fundamentalists can be engaged in reasoned discussion. I think that allowing prayer in schools, contrary to the assertion of Professor Feldman, opens the door to coercion (primarily de facto, example: violence on the playground against non-participants). If anyone doubts the ability of religious extremests to coerce and resort to violence, they are not paying attention to the news.

I'd also like to add an appeal to conservatives of a different bent. If religion is made too visible a part of public institutions. The economy will suffer. Biotechnology firms, for example, are unlikely to hire those who were taught to doubt the scientific consensus on evolution.

July 2, 2005


An articulate and pragmatic Kos post. I often criticize the Daily Kos for being overly self-congratulatory and superficial, but this post demonstrates the very thing that we need the most: strategy.

July 1, 2005

Now you know the rest of the story...

Paul Harvey, whom I grew up listening to in the mornings, recently made some unspeakably atrocious comments on his radio show.

The gist of it was, America has gotten where it is because we have crawled through the mud and the blood of those we've killed, enslaved, or blown up on our way to the top, and we shouldn't be worried about trying to stand up and walk like decent human beings now, with our nation's fate in the balance.

Here is one choice quote:

We didn't come this far because we're made of sugar candy. Once upon a time, we elbowed our way onto and across this continent by giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans. That was biological warfare. And we used every other weapon we could get our hands on to grab this land from whomever.

And we grew prosperous. And yes, we greased the skids with the sweat of slaves. So it goes with most great nation-states, which--feeling guilty about their savage pasts--eventually civilize themselves out of business and wind up invaded and ultimately dominated by the lean, hungry up-and-coming who are not made of sugar candy.

This man is one of the most widely respected commentators in the business, inspiring the same kind of trust that newsmen of older days like Cronkite or Kuralt carried. According to his website, "Paul Harvey News is the largest one-man network in the world, consisting of over 1200 radio stations, 400 Armed Forces Network stations that broadcast around the world, and 300 newspapers." It is estimated that his shows reach 18 million listeners. He also just signed a 10-year contract with ABC-Disney for 100 million dollars.

If this is the current voice of America, will someone please turn the station?