Monday, January 18, 2010

Rush to Judgment

Just about the only person failing to show any compassion for the people of Haiti has been Rush Limbaugh, as no doubt you have heard. And that is probably the point: would we all be talking about Rush Limbaugh otherwise?

So I'm not going to say anything more and I encourage others to do the same. Let's make Rush really squirm--by ignoring him.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Real Measure of Thanksgiving

No, not about doing good for those less fortunate, or being grateful for the food you're gorging yourself on, etc., etc. The real measure is how you consume your cranberries.

Everyone knows the sine qua non is the Jell-O-like stuff that comes in a can. You splort it out onto a plate and slice it up, but if you can't see the ridges in the side from the shape of the can, it's not the real deal. Anything else is just pretense.

Here is proof: Every year NPR's Susan Stamberg gives her family recipe for cranberry sauce. It has actual cranberries in it, and it sounds pretty plausible until you get to her secret, special ingredient. This is the dead giveaway that this is nothing more than a prank on the people who listen to NPR because they think it makes them seem more high-toned than if they listened to top-40 or WFAN like they really want to. Stamberg's recipe contains horseradish. Now, come on. If you are not laughing yourself silly at that point in the recipe, the joke is clearly on you.

There are other, less extreme recipes that contain more subtle combinations of ingredients, but those are just for show. You see the more complex versions served in restaurants that are trying to garner attention or justify their prices with quirky methods ("All our food is prepared in a medieval firepit that was discovered in Uzbekistan in 1912 and disassembled and carried over by specially bred llamas") and impossible reservations ("We only serve one person per evening so the chef can give that individual meal his undivided attention; our next available seating is in 2218") rather than really good food. You find the easier versions in the homes of people who buy things all covered with designer names and logos to show their good taste (just so you know: slapping a "designer" logo on something is not the same as good design), and read religiously to find out what they should be fascinated by. (A lot of the people mentioned on Gawker are made up--just more pranks on the unwitting. Most people know this. Less well known is that several of the political figures mentioned on Daily Kos are made up, too, for similar reason.)

The real upper crust--the kind of people who could easily have their cranberries grown in private high-moisture cranberry-growing environments ("bog" is such an unattractive word) and their sugar genetically engineered to their exact palate sensitivity for sweetness on their personal islands--prefer the stuff that's shaped like a can. They may have it served on a plate that cost more than your house, brought to the table by a servant who was retained before birth, having been interviewed and hired in utero and trained from infancy in a private academy on a secret space station to insulate them from bad influences like self-determination and labor laws, and eaten with turkey that has been dusted in uranium (gold is so gauche!) but when it comes to the cranberries, the super-rich are eating the same shaped-like-a-can stuff as the trailer park family.

Because it's good. And good is the ultimately equalizer. We can all be grateful for that.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bailing Out

I don't want to see the Big Three auto makers fail, not least because of the impact on an already weak economy if their workers and workers at their suppliers lose their jobs, retired workers lose their pensions, etc. Certainly there is merit in doing something to prevent a catastrophic collapse of a major American industry.

However, any help we give must have major strings attached. GM et al. didn't end up in these straits by way of a natural disaster; they made the decisions that led to their current situation. They chose not to be aggressive in improving gas mileage and taking the lead in hybrids and other alternatives; rather, they lobbied against aggressive standards for gas mileage. And they saw their overseas competition seize a growing share of the market as a result. They could easily have foreseen the possibility that gas prices might go up (there's a war on in the mideast, not to mention an ultimately limited supply of oil in the world) but they continued to focus their resources on big vehicles and inefficient manufacturing that isn't nimble enough to shift with the economic climate.

And then they were sufficiently myopic to show up in Washington with hats in hand looking for a bailout--having just arrived on their (separate) private jets. This is the multibillion-dollar equivalent of a streetcorner beggar asking for money for food then spending it on cigarettes and booze while the person who gave it to him is still standing there. 

But unlike the case of the guy on the corner, the "gimme some money, then screw you" demeanor of the Big Three execs isn't just hurting them. If we don't bail them out, the people who suffer will be the bottom o of the org chart, not the top. 

It's essential to provide some kind of interim aid, but it's critical that that help be contingent on a number of things: executives feel the belt-tightening at least as much as the people at the bottom; the companies demonstrate frugality in every aspect of their operations; the use of the funds be closely monitored; and most important, this financial crutch be used not to keep doing business the (failed) way they have been, but to redirect their business toward environmentally friendly vehicles and innovations. Because if they're not going to build reliable, affordable, sustainable cars using innovative technology and methods, they deserve to lose their business to somebody who will.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I Can Only Imagine

Back when I was a little girl, a man spoke of a dream.
One might say it was not my dream. My experience of racism, albeit proximate, was always at second hand: Lying to my grandmother about whose house I was going to, because if she knew it was Paulita, who was black, I might not be allowed to go. My school closing because race riots had broken out at the nearby high school. A friend attempting to justify the Bogan Broads--mothers of Bogan High students--pelting black kindergarten kids with rocks. An old white man sitting next to me on the bus and muttering insults about the black passengers, on the assumption that as a fellow white person, I must agree with him. 
Sure, it hurt me that I couldn't play with who I wanted, or had to lie to do it, that I had friends who sincerely believed that black children were a threat to them, that a stranger would assume by the color of my skin that I was a bigot. But nobody ever barred me from a lunch counter or a ballot box or a seat on a bus; nobody threw those rocks or those words at me. I was not battered by the storms of persecution, to use Dr. King's phrase. We are all diminished by racism, but I can only imagine how it must feel to be the person who experiences it firsthand.
And yet tonight I shrieked with joy, and tears streamed down my cheeks--still are, two hours later. I am so proud of my country, not because we elected a black man president, but because people looked past the color of his skin to vote for Barack Obama because he is a smart, thoughtful, capable person whose priorities and ideas are in tune with their own. And looking back over the past year: the two leading candidates of a major party were a black man and a woman, both of whose candidacies would have been unlikely if not impossible not very long ago.
A man had a dream about his children being judged by the content of their character. Today that dream is real.
There was a teenage first-time voter in line in front of me at the poll, a kid who beamed with pride after he pulled that lever. I didn't have to wait long to vote, but a lot of people did, waited hours. For too many years, there's been cynicism, apathy, around the political process. Not today. Today there was passion: people clamored to vote, wanted to make a difference (whomever they voted for); they gave a damn. Dr. King opened his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by  calling it "what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." Until now. The greatest demonstration for freedom took place today anywhere people cast their ballots. 
The theme of Dr. King's speech was hope: hope for a better tomorrow: "let us not wallow in the valley of despair." Hope was a theme of President-elect Obama's campaign, and he harkened back to Dr. King more explicitly in his speech tonight. Today we have realized yesterday's hope. Tomorrow we can realize the dreams of today.
Dreams often fall by the wayside as you get older. But when old dreams come true, they give birth to new idealism. And out of that hope can arise greatness.
I started the night looking back, feeling old because I remember when bigotry was institutionalized in the form of segregation. But I end the night looking to the future. We may not all get there together, there will be disappointments and setbacks and hard work, but I go to sleep tonight confident of a bright new day.
In the morning I'll go to work at my same job, where the first thing I have to do is finalize two books we're publishing that are ready to go to press, but were awaiting the outcome of tonight's election so we could know what to put on the last page. Meantime, we as a people will begin to write the first chapter of the next volume.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not Clear on the Concept

Speaking of risk (as we were not too far down the page): the health insurance system is broken, and getting more broken every day. Here, in an article by Gina Kolata (one of the best writers on health and medicine ever, IMHO), is an example: Several insurers have changed the system so they are covering only a tiny fraction of the cost of more expensive drugs--not elective-type drugs that a person could easily live without or replace with a cheaper alternative, but life-saving drugs for diseases such as cancer and MS--leaving sick people with monthly bills in the thousands of dollars, in some cases, for their meds.

[T]he new system sticks seriously ill people with huge bills, said James Robinson, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It is very unfortunate social policy,” Dr. Robinson said. “The more the sick person pays, the less the healthy person pays.”

Traditionally, the idea of insurance was to spread the costs of paying for the sick.

“This is an erosion of the traditional concept of insurance,” [Dan Mendelson of Avalere Health] said. “Those beneficiaries who bear the burden of illness are also bearing the burden of cost.”

Exactly. The whole idea for the insured person of having insurance is to be sheltered from ruinous expense in the event of serious illness or injury. 

The idea of insurance is to spread the risk around. Unfortunately, while spreading the risk around is ultimately a good arrangement for everyone in the risk pool (everybody gets sick sometime), it's ultimately a socialist enterprise. (Ooh, I said the bad word!) But insurance companies are capitalist enterprises--they exist to make a profit. And the way to maximize profit is to avoid paying out. So, you make it hard for sick people to get insurance, and you penalize insured people if they get sick. Basically, the money-making model is to get people to pay in, but get rid of them if you have to pay out. Which is the opposite of the concept most of us are looking for in a health insurance plan. It insures not much of anything.

The obvious solution, then, is a single-payer system that operates to spread the risk across the pool, but not to make a profit. 

What won't be a solution is mandating insurance for everyone without regulating exclusions, increases in premiums or copays, decreases in coverage, etc. This can't be fixed one step at a time. The broken system requires a complete overhaul, and anything less will only exacerbate the problem. Let's hope our new Democratic Congress has the vision to see that clearly.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Risk Reverse

You may have heard about the woman who let her nine-year-old find his own way home on the subway, wrote about it here, and is taking a lot of flak about it. I got involved in the discussion about it on Boingboing. The point I made there and will reiterate here:
There's a book about to come out (full disclosure: I work for the publisher) called Flirting with Disaster, which is about how disasters and their consequences come to occur and can be avoided. In one of the opening chapters, the author talks about perception of risk versus actual risk, and how pervasive media--much more access to much more information--is one of the factors that skews our perception of risk. This is certainly a case in point. Of course we've all heard about every abducted, molested, or murdered child, because we have a zillion channels, 24-hour news networks, the internet, etc. But we don't hear about every car accident that happens, because they're a common, everyday occurrence. Statistically, your kid is probably safer taking the subway than being driven around everywhere. But many people's perception of the relative risk is just the opposite, because it's the unusual that gets the attention, not the commonplace.
So anyway, I decided to do the math and find out exactly how the risks compared.

The most recent year for which I could easily locate both murder rates and vehicle accident death rates was 2006. Rates broken down by age (as well as sex and race) are available on the FBI's site. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (a joint venture of several government entities) has a neat system that permits you to query their databases to get whatever data you need (click Query and it'll walk you through it).

The data isn't terribly specific: the murder rates don't tell us how the children were killed or by whom--that is to say, not all the child victims were kids on their own being abducted and murdered by strangers. But for the sake of this argument, let's assume they all were. This will yield a higher-than-actual risk of a kid on the subway alone being killed. The auto accident data is a slightly more precise: we can't assume all the kids who died in traffic accidents were being driven somewhere by their parents, but we do know they were all riding in cars at the time, which is to say, being driven somewhere by someone. (Pedestrian victims are a separate category in the FARS data, so those aren't mucking up these figures--the fatalities were all definitely in vehicles.)

I chose ages 5 to 12 years because the murder data groups children in age ranges, and I felt that was the range that took in the ages most likely to be able to go somewhere (not just by subway--could be walking in the neighborhood) on their own. For the traffic accident data, as noted above, pedestrian victims are excluded, and I was able to limit the data to passengers (not that I expect there would be many children age 5 to 12 operating cars--but if there were any, they're excluded here).

Okay, let's do the numbers.

Murder victims age 5 to 12 in the US in 2006:
(Interestingly, kids in these age ranges are the least murdered--lots more victims in the younger and older age groups.)

Vehicle passenger deaths age 5 to 12 in the US in 2006:

So . . . more than 20 times as many kids died being driven somewhere as were murdered by someone. Given that some of those children were murdered by people they knew or were related to, the relative risk of putting a kid in a car is probably even higher.

Well, one might argue, the reason so few children were murdered in 2006 is that parents have become more protective: fewer kids are out of their parents' sight than were in the past. That is to say, overprotectiveness is working. But you can go here to download the same FBI data for 1996, and you'll see the number of murder victims age 5 to 12 ten years earlier was 182--not appreciably different ten years ago. The Department of Justice has a chart showing the homicide victimization rate by age from 1975 to 2005; rate for ages 14 and under has remained flat throughout that thirty-year period.

Certainly one can do a more rigorous analysis than I've done here with a little clicking around, but the bottom line will be much the same: The actual risk to so-called free-range kids is very small. The horror stories on the news and in the papers are the exceptions, not the rules (that's why they are news), and parents would be well advised to worry less about those exceptions and more about vastly more common hazards--so common they seldom make the news.

And isn't a kid who has developed a little independence and problem-solving experience on his or her own better equipped to cope with one of those everyday risks when they occur?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Nothing Can Convey the Horror More Effectively Than the Actual Horror

In America, our movies can be as violent as possible, but real violence is sanitized for our protection. Our peace of mind. Things in real life that are violent--like, oh, war, for one--should upset our peace of mind, because if they don't, we continue to live in a land of make-believe where the only threats to our safety we fear are the ones that are manipulated for the benefit of others and control over us. In reality, we are most of us pretty safe and comfortable. Do we appreciate that?

Wonkette took a break from the snark today to give some very graphic perspective. All over the news today we are seeing reaction shots from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the associated deaths of a number of her followers--photos of angst, ash, maybe a little blood. Wonkette posted the graphic, horrifying, uncropped photos of the carnage.
[T]he news tonight will likely focus on the implications for us as a country and on the campaign and blah blah blah, yes, it’s all really important. But, also, a lot of regular people died today, too. Some of them were poor, some were old, and they died taking advantage of their (current) right of free assembly, which most of us probably take for granted. They died and were horrifically injured participating in the political process of their country, even knowing that in the end it might not make any difference because they might still end up under the thumb of a dictator. And every single person in the pictures below is brown, and likely all of them are Muslim. These are the people that some people would like to send back “to their caves”, these are some of the people we mock as poor cab drivers or accuse of taking “our” jobs or simply overlook even when they are in front of us. They had families and lives and probably jobs when they left their houses this morning to see a political candidate speak who probably half-suspected she wouldn’t make it to the election alive but ran anyway. And it makes all the backstabbing and machinations of our candidates trying to plant stupid rumors about drug use and out-of-wedlock babies and all the rest of it seem that much more nauseating and petty to me today.

If nothing else, the photos will make it clear why the number of dead has been given as anywhere from 12 to 20; counting the dead is not a simple matter when they are blown to bits. These dozen or two dozen, added to the hundred-plus killed in an earlier attempt on Bhutto's life. Nothing like that happened in Iowa today.

A few days ago, my friend Laurie Kahn died (suddenly, but not through violence) so she's been much on my mind. Laurie was a great and vocal champion of civil liberties. She often expressed frustration that Americans could so easily sit by and let their hard-won freedoms be taken away. As a nation, the U.S. touts itself as the great champion of democracy. Yet many of us have, as Laurie said, let fear govern us and given up freedoms in return for that peace of mind I mentioned. Meantime, in Pakistan, people want their freedom badly enough that thousands of them went out to campaign for it, knowing full well that someone's gunning for them and scores before them have been blown up for doing just what they're doing. They knew that they could come to the horrific end you saw if you clicked through the photos (go ahead, do it now if you haven't), but they went anyway. They were regular people who didn't shrug off responsibility for their rights as someone more important's job, they didn't stay home and cower in fear. We don't face these kind of risks in the exercise of our rights. We have our peace of mind. If we want to be the real champions of democracy, we will honor the sacrifice of the people in Pakistan, help them in their fight for their rights, and above all treat our own rights and our own democracy with more of the respect it deserves.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007


There's an article in the New York Times about recent discoveries in DNA research and how those might be applied and misapplied:

Scientists, for instance, have recently identified small changes in DNA that account for the pale skin of Europeans, the tendency of Asians to sweat less and West Africans’ resistance to certain diseases.

At the same time, genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA. Ancestry tests tell customers what percentage of their genes are from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The heart-disease drug BiDil is marketed exclusively to African-Americans, who seem genetically predisposed to respond to it. Jews are offered prenatal tests for genetic disorders rarely found in other ethnic groups.

DNA markers and racial difference came up a few weeks ago when James Watson, co-Nobel laureate for the identification of the structure of DNA, was interviewed by the UK's Sunday Times:
[Watson] says that he is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours-–whereas all the testing says not really," and I know that this "hot potato" is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because "there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level." He writes that "there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."
Watson's conclusions about intelligence were soundly debunked by researchers in the field of intelligence (nice summary with links here), who point out that, unlike pale skin or the presence of specific diseases, native intelligence is difficult to measure, and most of our attempts are hindered by socioeconomic and environmental factors; when these are controlled for, racial differences dissipate. Shortly after these remarks, Watson retired from his post at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island. Watson's remarks were a (characteristically, for him--more below) extreme response, but the New York Times article goes on to suggest that there is still reason for concern:
Such developments are providing some of the first tangible benefits of the genetic revolution. Yet some social critics fear they may also be giving long-discredited racial prejudices a new potency. The notion that race is more than skin deep, they fear, could undermine principles of equal treatment and opportunity that have relied on the presumption that we are all fundamentally equal.
But it's a not question of racial difference (or ethnic, or whatever), but of our fundamental values as a people. We may want, as Watson says, to value everyone equally in our society--and why shouldn't we? The fact of genetic and biological difference, if it exists (and it does--men and women are biologically distinct, and no one would argue otherwise, but the fact that certain of my genes and working parts differ from a man's has little to do with my test scores or aspirations or how good I am at my job), doesn't matter unless we decide it does.

Come on, we all know stupid people. And some of them are people we value and love. Does lack of academic ability or of the facility to quickly reason and resolve a complex problem (the kind of things we tend to think of when we use the nebulous term "intelligence") make a person inherently worthless? Of course not. Someone who can't get a decent score on a standardized test may be a hard worker or a compassionate person, may have many other skills and talents, and can contribute to the society and the community just as much as the "smart" people. If we drew an IQ line--even if that measure as it exists today weren't so fatally flawed--what would we as a society lose by excluding those below it? A great deal. That's why we don't do it. We have acknowledged that the constellation of valuable things in a person is varied, complex, and possible infinite, and the way to recognize that is to value all persons.

Those who point at the possibility of racial differences in the measure of intelligence are just looking for support for a prejudice they already harbor, an easy excuse to exclude by race; if they weren't, they'd be lobbying instead to exclude all people below a certain IQ line, regardless of race. (As an aside, Watson in earlier comments also suggested breeding out stupidity. To my mind, it's pretty stupid to cull people based on a single measure, as though no other thing had value. He also suggested genetic selection to make all women beautiful--I guess he gets to decide what constitutes beauty, and bad news for you if you're not his type--and giving mothers the option of aborting fetuses that carried a hypothetical genetic marker for homosexuality. Because apparently being pretty and straight and doing well on IQ tests is what you really need to get every job done.) The debate would be about where exactly that dividing line should rest, not the color of the people on one side or the other.

Here's a measure that is not genetic but is clearly and unequivocally linked with better health and survival, higher standardized test scores, greater access to education and other resources, and a more prominent and influential role in the society: money. Many societies through history have recognized this marker, and explicitly valued those born into better economic circumstances above those born into poverty: for example, societies in which a vote or other political influence is tied to ownership of property.

But we as Americans have chosen to value individuals in our political system without regard to the economic circumstances of their birth: everyone gets the same vote. We believe in access to education for all, and that the opportunity to gain money shouldn't be restricted by how much you're born with--you should have the chance to rise from poverty, you should have the chance even to become rich. But why? After all, it's proven that people born into a higher socioeconomic class are likely to do better overall . . .

It's a matter of what we choose to value, how we have chosen to define justice.

We've made the choice to value more than one thing in a person, in fact to value many things, by attempting to treat everyone equally. (In practice, this needs some work. But that's several other conversations.) In that scenario, what DNA research may show about racial difference in any particular respect is immaterial.

And that is something I value very highly.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Trade Gap

The Gap has learned that an Indian factory it buys clothing from uses child labor, a practice the company has made an effort to avoid, by monitoring vendors' factories to whatever degree they can from a distance. The company's reaction:
The smock blouse will not be offered for sale in the company's 3,000 stores around the world, Gap said, and instead will be destroyed.
Pulling the child-made item from their stores and thereby refusing to profit from exploitation of children: right move. Destroying perfectly serviceable clothing: wrong move. Rather than adding them to landfill, how about donating the blouses to needy kids in India? Let some small good come out of this. How about it, Gap?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

War Heroes

About a week ago, a group of veterans of World War II got together. These were the men who, in so much secret that few have spoken of their work in the half-century since, interrogated Nazi prisoners. They were able to obtain the secrets that were critical to our victory over Hitler. Bound to have useful advice for our current leaders about how to wrench information from prisoners in our current war, one would think. But clearly, they've not been asked. Because at their reunion, here's the kind of thing they had to say:
"During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity."
Our current interrogators can't say the same, a fact that did not go unremarked by these men:

Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army's Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"I feel like the military is using us to say, 'We did spooky stuff then, so it's okay to do it now,' " said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.

When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece.

"I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war," said Weiss.

What's to be learned from these veterans? Of course, that the methods of torture that our current government has claimed are the only way to prise information out of prisoners--well, they aren't the only ways. These guys managed to do a pretty good job without waterboarding anybody. The values that they fought to preserve were the values they managed to retain even in the interrogation of the enemy.

These men are heroes. By sacrificing the values that these men stood for and continue to hold dear, by taking instead the course that the Nazis themselves took, the Bush administration is betraying them and betraying us.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Today, Which Is Tuesday

It is good that it is raining today. There have been five other 9/11s since the one that counts, but this is the first one to fall on a Tuesday. Stephen King wrote a story for an anthology a couple years ago in which his entire plot hinged on the attacks having occurred on a sunny--that part was right--Monday; as the copy editor I flagged it, marveling as I did how anyone could fail to remember that it had been a Tuesday, that the sky was a perfect shade of blue, what shoes they were wearing and what they held in their hands or passed in the street, what words were being spoken at the moment a building collapsed to dust--it seemed ludicrous, implausible, impossible that something so simple as that it was Tuesday might not be seared in the memory as deeply as every other detail of the day, and the ones that followed. This is what I wrote at the time.

People will be born today, others will die--from violence, war, sickness, injury, old age. Some will marry, divorce, get new jobs, win prizes, lose money. This date will carry a different meaning for them and their loved ones than it does in the larger American mind.

The question has arisen at what point do we let go. The short answer is never: memory may fade, but the changes wrought by the events are immutable and, like all of history, what we fail to recall we are doomed to relive. So rather than looking back at what happened in those 102 minutes of a sunny Tuesday morning in September six years ago, let us look instead at where we are today as a result.

More than 3000 people perished on this date six years ago as a result of the attacks; since then nearer to 4000 American servicepeople, and untold thousands of Iraqi people, have died in a war that was launched under false pretenses that revolve around the events of this date. On the train on which I am writing this, they make an announcement every day that our bags and
packages are subject to random--i.e., without showing due cause, as the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution calls for--search. We routinely submit to searches when entering buildings and ballparks and to games of TSA freeze tag; when asked, the majority say its for our own safety--they admit they are so terrified that they are willing to yield the rights that the founders fought and died for. Our government claims we are not patriotic if we protest this abrogation of our fundamental freedoms, and Rudy Giuliani, the fearmongers' heir apparent, is basing a presidential campaign on reminding people to look back and be afraid. If the purpose of terrorism is to spread terror among the populace so that actions are ruled by fear rather than reason . . . well, they did a good job of it. And we helped.

But you know all that.

How has my life changed in the microcosm? I never leave home without a flashlight and radio, and comfortable walking shoes. I never cross the 59th Street bridge without looking across at the animated advertising billboard over near the Long Island Expressway and being grateful to the wise person who changed it that day to read, simply, "Peace." I always leave my cats too much food, so they won't go hungry before someone comes for them if I don't make it home one day, and I prefer to travel before or after the height of rush hour. On my way to work as I pass the ribbons that wave from the Marble Church railings--yellow ones tagged with the names and ages of American soldiers dead in this war; blue and green for the uncounted Iraqi dead and the equally innumerable prayers for peace--I say my own silent prayer and wonder if we all had fought harder at the outset whether we might have slowed or stopped the juggernaut toward quagmire. (We didn't, I think, because we never believed it would happen so easily.) And I think how good our lives are by comparison to those who live with the daily reality of car bombs or starvation or painful death, and wonder how they find the strength.

It is well and good and necessary to build a memorial to what happened six years ago today, and to mark the anniversary, lest we forget this turning point in our history. Have we learned from it? I'm not sure we have. Maybe too little time has passed. Even six years later, the wounds are still open, at least here in New York. But if we're ever to heal, we must begin to examine what and whom we as a nation and individuals have become, and use that knowledge to serve the greater good.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Perfect Irony

Wonder if Alberto Gonzales knows that September 17, the day his resignation takes effect, is Constitution Day. Nahh; that would presuppose him paying actual attention to that document.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ain't We Got Class

This article in the Times got us talking at the dinner table last night. Ruby Payne, the subject of the article, teaches teachers about class in order to make them more able to reach students not of their own background. She takes a pretty simple approach:
At the heart of Payne’s philosophy is a one-page chart, titled “Hidden Rules Among Classes,” which appears in most of her books. There are three columns, for poverty, middle class and wealth, and 15 rows, covering everything from time to love to money to language. In a few words, Payne explains how each class sees each concept. Humor in poverty? About people and sex. In the middle class? About situations. In wealth? About social faux pas. In poverty, the present is most important. In the middle class, it’s the future. In wealth, it’s the past. The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?
Rob found himself sympathizing with Payne's critics, who say that by talking about what may be seen as stereotypes, you perpetuate the notion of class and the problem of poverty without addressing its causes.

While I don't disagree with that, I do see the merit in what she says. Ultimately, the way you get power is learn to understand and act like the people who have it. This is true as much for race (Joe Biden called Barack Obama "articulate," as if most black public figures aren't--but what I think he was quite likely reacting to is the fact that Obama talks like Biden and all the other white political figures, rather than like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton--who are both without question articulate, but don't talk anything like Joe Biden); for sex (girls who want to succeed in business beyond the mid level had better learn to shake hands like men, speak up like men, etc.); as it is for socioeconomic class. Same is true in the microcosm of school: you want to be one of the popular kids? Start dressing and acting like them. Ruby Payne is pointing out that some things that may seem self-evident to a middle-class school teacher may not be obvious to students from poverty; she is telling them how to teach their students to "pass" as middle class, because that's how you get in.

Perhaps some discomfort with Payne's approach also stems from the fact that as a nation we like to think the lines of class are nonexistent, or at least blurred. Defining class with such specificity denies that.

(I think it's interesting too that the article notes that Payne has made a lot of money on talking about class. Is that wrong? Isn't that what many people aspire to do--climb the socioeconomic ladder? It's not as if she has stolen money from poor people to become wealthy. But perhaps envy of the rich is on her list of traits of the middle class.)

There's also the matter of the fine line between characteristics and stereotypes. But again, that's an issue that relates to race and sex as well. Some years ago, a male writer colleague was assigned to write a story from a female viewpoint in order to help him develop better female characters in his stories. He plied the female writers in the group with questions about biology--menstruation, etc. Which was missing the point. As I told him then, the difference is less in our biology (some of us menstruate, some don't; some have babies, some don't) than in our experience of the world. For example: the women were told not to walk alone on campus late at night. The men weren't. We were considered to be inherently at greater--or different--risk simply by being female. It's a given, not something most of us go around thinking about, it's just part of the background noise of life. And it's different than being male. Not a stereotype, but a way we interact differently with our world. So it's not a stretch to think that people who worry where their next meal is coming from might as a group be inclined to think about food differently than those who don't.

Yes, there's something fundamentally unpleasant about people having to learn to pass for something else, to give up their own values and lifestyles, in order to get an education. And it certainly addresses the symptoms of poverty without addressing the root causes that perpetuate it. But the fact is that, as noted above, unpalatable as it may be, it works. And until people who have the experience of poverty--of any kind of powerlessness--become a significant portion of the group that hold power--economic or any other sort--there won't be significant progress in addressing the fundamental issues of poverty and discrimination.

So it's a start. And we have to start somewhere, because students from poverty are falling farther and farther behind. And all of us in society suffer the consequences of that.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Three Anonymous Seconds with Al Gore

I'll probably be commenting on Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason, as I read it, because the excerpts intrigued me, and I've found the first bit I've read to be thought-provoking. Overall, I think I agree with Gore's thesis--I would have said that reason was more than assaulted in the public sphere--more like stabbed, bleeding, and left for dead--but I suspect I may not agree with him on some of the root causes and therefore solutions. But not having read very far yet, too soon to say. I am at least pleased to be reading something that has me wanting to scribble notes in the margin, look things up, have discussions and arguments. Ah, brain activity. So refreshing.

I find it ironic that virtually every article about Gore anywhere--New York Times, Washington Post, Time, etc.--cannot fail to mention either his weight or something to do with his eating. Several have used it as a barometer of whether he's likely to run for president (gee, didn't know it was like a prize fight, where you have to weigh in). Ironic that someone who is trying to talk about substance over image is constantly being discussed in terms of this one physical aspect that has nothing to do with anything, really. (And if it's getting old for me as a reader to see this constant discussion of Gore's weight, it must be damned tedious for him.)

And so I will not mention a word about his weight or physical appearance at the Barnes and Noble book signing Friday. I will say that he spoke for about fifteen minutes at the outset about the themes of the book, basically revisiting the points he'd been making on TV and in print interviews but at a little more length than a five- or seven-minute slot on a morning show or Jon Stewart would permit (again, irony alert: reduce your message about the problems of sound-bite politics to a sound bite). His passion about his message was clear. The "recovering politician" was present, too: before he entered, he passed by the back of the room, and as everyone turned to snap photos, etc., he clicked on the smile and wave, and later as he moved through the process of signing hundreds of books in an assembly-line setup that moved like clockwork while guaranteeing no one person spent more than 2-3 seconds in his presence, he greeted each person with "Hi, how are you?" and a quick glance up as another book was slid under his hand and then was slid away from him to be replaced with another, and another person he never really saw stood for a demi-moment in front of him. Not robotical, but still as if programmed to faux-connect. I guess old habits die hard.

I used my 2-3 seconds to say that I thought he should not run for president. (Gore '08 stickers and buttons were handed out in the crowd, and people were collecting signatures on a Draft Gore petition in the line.) In my view, if he runs, he has no choice but repeating the same few, brief points and analogies and will seldom have any more than five minutes of anyone's time or attention to make his points. In between which, people will gloss over any substantive points he attempts to make in favor of someone else's snappily worded attack, or maybe just worrying about whether he looks fat or stiff or whatever. Or, he can be the impassioned guy who gets to make an entire argument from start to finish, who has the ear of corporate and political leaders not because he's trying to sell them influence or buy their support but because they actually want to hear what he has thought out. Al Gore can make a stronger case against sound-bite politics by declining to be a part of it. One might say he could change the system by being a part of it . . . but I think he's tried that, and not succeeded. Meantime, as a private citizen he is more popular and more listened-to, not least because he's not trying to buy our votes. So I hope he doesn't run, and I said so.

Of course at that signing, my view lost the popular vote.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sorry Doesn't Cut It

Don Imus called the Rutgers female basketball players something offensive to them as women and as women of color (which I am choosing not to repeat; once was enough). He has been slapped on the wrists, with a two-week suspension from his radio show, and has been running around apologizing left and right. He says he wants to apologize directly to the Rutgers women, but I will not be surprised if they choose not to accept his apology, not least because it's all about him, and not at all about them. He kissed up to Al Sharpton on the latter's program, and Sharpton cut to the point:
“I’m scathed,” Mr. Imus said. “Are you crazy? How am I unscathed by this? Don’t you think I’m humiliated?”

Mr. Sharpton replied, “You’re not as humiliated as young black women are.”


All the sorries in the world won't change the fact that those young women were called that name. (Need a little Ntozake Shange right here.) All the sorries won't change the fact that he even thought that for a moment about them (even if, as he claims, he meant it as a joke--the fact that he thought the remark was humorous is just as offensive as if he meant it seriously). All the sorries in the world don't change the fact that these women have worked hard in their sport, and what do they get? Called a racist, sexist, all-around offensive name. How exactly does sorry make that go away? How does beating his breast in public and calling attention to his sorry do anything for anyone but Don Imus, when you get right down to it? It doesn't.

Firing Don Imus (which won't happen) wouldn't make it better. I don't know what would make him experience the same degradation that he dished out by deriding and dismissing young black women's accomplishments with an epithet. In fact, there is probably nothing that could be done to him that would be equivalent.

Which is itself the heart of the problem.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Social Engineering

Last week we went to a taping of the Daily Show. Rob commented while we waited in line outside that it was peculiar that such a large agglomeration of liberals didn't attract panhandlers or proselytizers of any sort: after all, we were essentially captive in that location for an hour or two, and there was no one to stop people from working the line. But maybe the audience weren't such flaming liberals after all.

Once we had been seated by a cast of cheerful minions (Disney Park-happy, if Disney Parks permitted slacker haircuts and jeans and T-shirts), it was time for the self-described "warm-up monkey," who said his name was Paul. He began by making us cheer and shout as loudly as we could, over and over, and then the same for laughter, repeating that it was important that we were loud once the taping began. We practiced cheering and then laughing until we were just short of hoarse.

Then commenced the comedic warm-up, in the form of patter with the audience. There were jokes about a frat guy in the front row, Jon Stewart's height--nothing original. Then Paul said, "Hey, a black guy!" and proceeded to indulge in a series of stereotypes about black men. When someone pointed out that there was another black man in the audience (yeah, so-called liberal gatherings do tend to be mighty white, but Paul didn't do anything with that potentially rich satirical point, one that I expect Jon Stewart would have done a great deal with), he went on in the same vein: black guys prefer white chicks, black guys like to have lots of them, blah blah blah. "Uncoooomfortable!" Rob whispered.

Thing was, though, no one appeared to be uncomfortable. Pretty much everyone laughed.

The jokes weren't funny, but we'd been pretrained to laugh, and laugh a lot. We'd spent the previous few minutes learning that loud laughter earns praise.

The humor was offensive, but we'd been told to laugh. And if you don't laugh, you're left out of the fun.

The black guys who were the focus of these remarks laughed, so that made it okay for us white liberals to laugh.

And come on, this is the milieu of Alpha Liberal Jon Stewart: nothing anti-liberal could be happening here, right?

(There was a black woman in the audience too, but Paul the Warm-up Monkey never took note of her. She too laughed.)

Maybe those gentlemen genuinely enjoyed the racial humor at their expense; I have no way of knowing. But were Rob and I the only people in the place who did find it a bit skeevy? Either Jon Stewart's program isn't the liberal bastian it has been portrayed as (seems implausible, given the content of the show), or it's pretty easy to get us all to check our values at the door.

Which would be a fascinating social experiment, and one ripe for Stewart's pointed wit. But alas, I don't think it was that knowing. More likely that at the Daily Show they're just thoughtless idiots like the rest of the world.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Plot-Driven Society

The new season of 24 is under way. 24 is an odd phenomenon: although it is simplistic, nonsensical, and frequently riddled with notions that anybody outside of the Bush White House and Fox News would reject (torture: fine and good as long as the good guys do it; nuclear blasts: not really a threat if they don't happen in town), it is addictive.

It's the ticking clock. It pops up at commercial breaks and assorted other intervals. And the quick cuts between various story lines. Everything moves plenty fast so there's no time or incentive to stop and think about it.

Same is true of John Grisham's novels (or at least the two I managed to read): cardboard characters and plot holes big enough to fly a 747 through whizz past in a frenzy of page-turning.

This is what writer types call plot-driven fiction: events so fast and furious that mere niceties like character development, theme, or even reason and sense may be left by the wayside. The best authors of plot-driven fiction don't neglect those other aspects, but it seems that those things must slow them down just enough, because the 24s and The Firms of this world tend to be more popular. It's popcorn for the mind, and it races right through you without wasting any time being digested.

Fine if that's what entertains you. The problem is when it infects more critical aspects of our lives.

Someone (I've forgotten who, or where) said that the candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore were both doomed by their use of subordinate clauses. (Both campaigns had other problems than their sentence structure, IMO, but that's beside the point for this discussion.) Why follow a complex sentence--a complex thought--when it is so much easier to grasp a simple declarative sentence, especially one that expresses a simple, unnuanced, black-and-white concept?

Keep throwing new images at people, new sound bytes or new threats, and they will tend to follow along with them like a 24 plotline. No time to stop and go back and reexamine the foundation of the notion, the background of the story, the meaning of it all, whether an argument holds together under close examination.

Some people can handle large quantities of stimuli and critically assess them all (I think first of my friend and Clarion classmate Cory Doctorow), but most people are sufficiently wrapped up in the minutiae of daily living--that ticking clock is the limited number of hours in the day to accomplish work, family, household, and personal responsibilities--that it just flows through them without stopping for analysis. And so we have become the plot-driven society.

Notice too that in 24 you get a lot of ineffectual and/or corrupt leaders? Probably not a coincidence. For 24 the plots depend on it; while here in the plot-driven society it's just a side effect. When candidates' cases are made in snippets and 30-second ads, and analysis of their positions and arguments is left to talking heads whose ratings depend on being just as catchy and concise, the niceties of substance can easily slip past unexamined. A plot-driven culture will select for the candidate who can survive best in that environment--who keeps his arguments concise and easy to grab onto, and doesn't slow us down or overcomplicate our already overfull lives.

If that's the society we want to be, then so be it.

But I am one of those dinosaurs who, while enjoying a page-turner now and again as a sweet treat, prefers substance. I enjoy a book or film or TV show I can sink my teeth into, with some substance and subtext, the kind of thing you get something new from on repeated reading or watching. (Rob is currently reading Finnegans Wake in one of his classes, which is just about the pinnacle of substantial reading, and may well exceed my ability to stick with it. More power to those who do.) And I would like to be able to vote for candidates whose entire worldviews are not summarizable in a sentence, who understand that issues are complex and demonstrate their willingness to grapple with those complexities. But in a plot-driven society, even the candidates who may fit that bill are compelled to hide their substance behind repetition of easily digestible metaphors and catch phrases in order to compete.

And we as a nation are the poorer for it.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007


I received mail the other day from Planned Parenthood asking me to sign petitions/letters to the CEOs of Target, Winn-Dixie, and Safeway about their policies about filling prescriptions for contraceptives. (Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill is the hot button here, but that's not the way Planned Parenthood discusses it, nor is it the way the initiators of this action--those who don't want pharmacists to fill certain prescriptions--have framed it. They both know it's a slippery slope, and the latter like it that way.) Specifically, policies that may permit a pharmacist to decide he or she doesn't approve of a prescription and decline to fill it.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone is entitled to act upon their views. If one has a moral objection to contraception, one shouldn't have to fill the prescription.

But one shouldn't be working as a pharmacist, where filling prescriptions is one's job, and judging prescriptions is not.

Do the companies that permit pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions for contraceptives have similar policies for other viewpoints pharmacists might hold? A Scientologist pharmacist might then decline to fill prescriptions for medications prescribed by a psychiatrist. A Christian Scientist might be hired, and then decline to fill all prescriptions, directing customers to trust in God. Wildly implausible, sure, but just as reasonable as permitting a pharmacist to decide that a woman should not receive a physician-prescribed contraceptive.

The only reason for a person to take a job as a pharmacist if he or she is unwilling to dispense medications as prescribed is with the goal of wielding a moral hammer against some person, group, or issue. A vegetarian/animal-rights activist doesn't sign on to be a butcher except to exercise his or her views in opposition to butchering, and a pharmacist who takes a job and then decides his (or her, but mostly his) conscience doesn't permit filling certain prescriptions is no different; s/he didn't have this crisis of conscience suddenly last night. The butcher shop isn't going to keep the animal rights activist on the payroll; they're going to replace that person with someone who does the job of butchering. Pharmacies should be no different.

The only reason that pharmacies and the companies that own them aren't operating in accord with that basic bit of common sense is the cudgel wielded by those intent on enforcing their version of morality on everyone. They can't win the day through reason; instead they threaten corporations that they will be seen as un-Christian or anti-religious if they don't yield to one view of religion.

In the meantime, they threaten the health and the freedom of everyone else. And that I find unconscionable.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007


I always liked Batman better than Superman (not least because Superman was stuck on the irksome Lois Lane--how could someone so clueless that a mere pair of glasses would form an adequate disguise actually be a reporter? Please. Give me Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday any day). Superman had super powers, but Batman was just a regular guy who decided to do the right thing using the tools at his disposal.

And when a regular guy with no tools at his disposal risks his own life to do something heroic, well, that's even more super in my book. Like this guy, Wesley Autrey, a construction worker on the subway platform with his two small kids:
Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split[-second] decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Read the whole story: if it were fiction, it would be predictable, right down to the (happy) ending. But the reason certain formulas become formulas in fiction is that they are satisfying.

They are more satisfying when they aren't made up. When there are regular people acting like superheroes. Thanks, Mr. Autrey, for saving that stranger's life. Thanks for making my day.

Update: Everyone is taking note of Mr. Autrey's heroism; he's a media celebrity. And he's even using that for good--here's what he said in closing a press conference:
“Maybe I was in the right place at the right time, and good things happen for good people,” Mr. Autrey said. Then he hopped into his brother-in-law’s tan Toyota Corolla. As the car pulled away, Mr. Autrey had some final words: “All New Yorkers! If you see somebody in distress, go for it!”
Hear, hear.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Big Picture

It's raining here today. We haven't had any snow, and only one really cold day. This microscopic-level, anecdotal observation is insufficient to draw conclusions about global warming (you need more than anecdotes to prove a thing; in the case of global warming, there are more than anecdotes to support the not-too-surprising conclusion that the climate is being affected by our increasing interventions), but it's enough to remind me to think about it.

It will take more than anecdotal actions, too, to change the trend toward destruction of the environment. Sure, if every person does something, that helps, but what we're more in need of is large actions. The New York Times has an article about the relative value of various actions (they've had a significant number of articles lately; global warming is flavor-of-the-month right now, not least thanks to Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and his proselytizing on the issue, but how long will that last?):
The Environmental Protection Agency kicked off Energy Awareness Month in October with the slogan “change a light, change the world,” and encouraged Americans to buy compact fluorescent lights instead of conventional incandescent bulbs. Useful as that may be, picking a large sport utility vehicle that goes two miles farther on a gallon of gasoline than the least-efficient S.U.V.’s would have an impact on emissions of global warming gases about five times larger than replacing five 60-watt incandescent bulbs. The dollar savings would be about 10 times larger. And the more-efficient light bulbs would have a negligible effect on oil consumption.
But the bigger issue is changing an entire economic and societal culture that is based on activities that consume large quantities of fossil fuels.

There are two points to consider as we look at this: One is that we must find a replacement for fossil fuel to power our lifestyle and our continued development of technology and industry. (By "our" I mean humanity's--when it comes to the global climate, we are most certainly all in this together, and the fact that the United States has chosen to deny that by not signing on to the Kyoto Accords is just blind--or willful--ignorance.) But the question is, what do we replace it with? And what if the thing we replace it with, faced with continuing increase in demand as more of the world becomes industrialized and the already-industrialized parts of the world continue to create more technologies that use energy, eventually becomes insufficient for the demand? Or turns out to have its own problems? It has to come from somewhere, somebody will probably have to create or control it, etc.--what if it becomes another thing to war over? Or has unforeseen hazards associated with it? What's our backup plan?

The other is to rethink what constitutes our lifestyle. We are going to create more technology to make our lives easier and more pleasant--that's what we have done throughout human history, and there's not much wrong with it. The more we are removed from mundane manual tasks, the freer we are to create. Technology has also opened the door to emancipation: when large quantities of cheap manual labor are no longer required to provide food or make things, it's easier for a culture to move away from slavery. When the preparation and maintenance of food and shelter are no longer full-time jobs, women are no longer chained to the house. And so forth. Technology is good.

But when it becomes a conduit for feeding us information and entertainment, when it interacts with the environment so we don't have to--when people stop thinking because there is no incentive to do so--that's less a good thing. I'm reminded of the short story "With Folded Hands" by the late,great Jack Williamson. (You may be more familiar with the novel he developed from the story, The Humanoids, but the short story is eerier and better.) We can cede our unpleasant chores to machines, but we should be aware what we give up for convenience (one experiences the world very differently on foot than by car, for example; and imagining is work, too--Rob can tell you from his experience teaching that imagination is all but gone from teens raised on TV and videos), and be aware of our dependence. I'm not in favor of limiting technology, by any means--you don't want to know how many computers there are in this house relative to number of people--but it is worthwhile, I think, at the same time that we make changes in our consumption by changing our lightbulbs and driving more efficient cars if we make similar small changes in our relationship with technology so that not every aspect of our lives is technology-driven and technology-dependent.

You know, so that when the oil runs out before we have an alternative, or catastrophic climate change wreaks havoc, or we just have rolling brownouts, we have a clue what to do with ourselves. Otherwise, all of us in the (over)developed world will find ourselves helpless compared to our neighbors in the undeveloped parts of the world.