Friday, June 24, 2005


This is some funny stuff. I like this one. And this and this . Can't ... stop ... linking ...

**Warning**: do not click on the last two links if you are easily offended. And do not click on the last "this" link if you do not like poop jokes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

update from Iraq

"[We] have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. [We] have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows... Our unfortunate troops,... under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad." - T.E. Lawrence, Sunday Times of London, August 22, 1920. Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

a movement based on love

Russell Shorto takes an in-depth look in the NYTimes Magazine at how gay marriage has galvanized the religious right, and examines the uncompromising nature of the movement:

[F]or the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: ''I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don't believe gays should be allowed to marry.'' Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.

One activist said:

''I used to feel that as a Christian my job was to deal with political issues from a prayerful standpoint,'' she said. ''Now I think this is the defining issue of my generation, and I want to take a stand.''

is planning to run for the State Senate in 2006, and he said that the gay-marriage issue was one important reason. He put it in historical terms: ''I remember talking to my parents about Roe v. Wade. And I asked them, 'Where were you while it was happening?' They didn't think they could do anything about it, and really they couldn't because it was done by the courts. I want to be able to tell my children that when people were battling this issue, I was on the front line.''

It is tragic that so many people are so convinced they are on the right side of history. Only after years of needless pain and courageous struggle will we reach a tipping point where the anti-gay movement loses mainstream support and becomes irrelevant, and then abhorrent, to most Americans. What will those who fought so hard against the “scourge” of gay marriage then tell their children and grandchildren? What did Strom Thurmond and George Wallace tell their grandchildren? Probably nothing resembling the truth.
Of course, this view of homosexuality -- seeing it as a disorder to be cured -- is not new. It was cutting-edge thinking circa 1905. While most of society -- including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the World Health Organization and many other such groups -- eventually came around to the idea that homosexuality is normal, some segments refused to go along. And what was once a fairly fringe portion of the population has swelled in recent years, as has its influence.

Shorto is clearly mistaken here. While the positions of the APA and other groups are representative of many educated, upper-income people, society has not yet “come around to the idea that homosexuality is normal.” The anti-gay movement has grown only as the gay rights movement has gained momentum. While the consensus held that homosexuality was abnormal and repugnant, there was no need for an anti-gay movement. There is no need to start a movement when the vast majority of the population supports your position.

Gay rights leaders say that gay marriage has become useful for their counterparts on the religious right in part because it allows them to tap into an antipathy toward homosexuality. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said that the emergence of gay marriage last year was not the doing of groups like his. ''We didn't want this fight,'' he said. ''It is being driven by a certain brand of evangelicals and fundamentalists as part of their agenda and because they sense an opening. I don't think their leaders care about gay people. And I don't think people as a whole understand how deep-seated the loathing is.'' In this calculation, gay marriage serves as a vessel for containing opinions that many social conservatives have but which in the past they might have felt were socially unacceptable to voice.

Robert Knight, the director of the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women for America, conceded as much. ''People feel liberated,'' he said. ''They feel like we don't have to go along with this stuff anymore, the idea that we're repressed backwater religious zealots just for wanting a decent society in which our children can thrive. It's O.K. today to say that marriage is between a man and a woman. Saying so does not make you a hater or bigot.''

Indeed, a constant refrain among the anti-gay-marriage forces is that they are motivated not by hate but by love. Most of the activists I spoke with say that they know gay people -- several said they have relatives who are gay -- and that they have approached them, with love, to try to get them to change. Rick Bowers, a pastor of a nondenominational church in Columbia, Md., is the head of Defend Maryland Marriage, another activist group, which works with Focus on the Family. ''There are those extremists who say that if a gay person were on fire you would burn in hell if you spit on them to put out the fire,'' he told me. ''But we're not like that. We love the human being. It's the lifestyle we disagree with.''

I would like to give the Christian activists mentioned in this story the benefit of the doubt, and take them at their word when they say they “love the sinner and hate the sin”, but based on the history of fervent and hateful conservative religious opposition to civil rights movements, opposition based on unapologetic prejudice, I find it hard to believe. When evangelicals stop cutting off gay members of their families, when they stop referring to gays in derogatory terms, when they stop teaching their children to distrust and ridicule gays, in short, when they stop treating gays as subhuman, I will believe that they love those they believe to be sinners, as Jesus did.
For [the Christian activists], the issue isn't one of civil rights, because the term implies something inherent in the individual -- being black, say, or a woman -- and they deny that homosexuality is inherent. It can't be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened.

Shorto’s choice of words here is interesting (“morally blackened”), because you don’t have to look very far back to find explicitly religious justifications for repression based on inherent characteristics. I don’t know how prevalent the “Mark of Cain” theory was in mainstream Christianity, but in the Mormon church, it played a prominent role in justifying discrimination against blacks. (In short, the story goes that Cain’s progeny was cursed with dark skin for his sin, and cursed with eternal second-class status. Another variant is the “Curse of Ham”, Noah’s son.) Conservative reasoning on this point represents an advance, of sorts. Conservatives of yesteryear found no need to justify repression of ethnic minorities based on immutable characteristics.
At its essence, then, the Christian conservative thinking about gay marriage runs this way. Homosexuality is not an innate, biological condition but a disease in society. Marriage is the healthy root of society. To put the two together is thus willfully to introduce disease to that root. It is society willing self-destruction, which is itself a symptom of a wider societal disease, that of secularism.

This diagnosis is accurate from my experience. The crucial element is that “the disease” is chosen, that the gay person is somehow culpable. Everything else depends upon that—otherwise there is no personal responsibility for the sin, no opportunity for repentance. Sin, by definition, must be chosen, or it is not sin.
Understanding the logic of the evangelical position was a relief to me at first; realizing that I was dealing with a rational impulse after all, that this wasn’t pure animus. But with mounting evidence that same-sex orientation is not chosen, as gays become more outspoken and the younger generation sees the reality of healthy, happy, productive people, rather than the miserable, diseased degenerates their elders speak of, as the arguments for stigmatizing same-sex orientation crumble under scrutiny, the conservative view looks less like a reasoned position and more like undiluted prejudice.

Shorto sums up the enormous gulf in perception that exists between activists on each side with this sad story:

When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was ''doing this'' to the woman's children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray's Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. ''Then I hugged her neck,'' she said, ''and I said, 'We love you.' I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion.''

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That's a hard gap to bridge.

Maybe in five years, Shorto will be able to come right out and say what he thinks, that this evangelical woman is a nutjob, or worse, willfully ignorant of the harm she is causing. But not yet, apparently.

I think over the coming years, as the tide turns in favor of gay marriage, we can expect more of the same revision of events from conservative activists, the complete blindness to reality that this woman evinced. People have to look themselves in the mirror, after all. They have to justify their actions to their grandchildren somehow.

Update: Andrew Sullivan makes the case that the modern conservative reaction to the gay rights movement has more in common with historical persecution of Jews than of blacks: “the arguments now made by some Christianists are replicas of the old anti-Semitism, peddled by so many Christians in the past: that Jews are to be loved, but loving them is dependent on their conversion to Christianity; that you can love individual Jews while disdaining Judaism; that Jews' stubbornness in resisting conversion is evidence of their inherent evil; that such evil, at some point, has to be segregated from mainstream society as much as possible.”

Another update: Again from Andrew Sullivan, refuting David Frum's argument that since Canadian gays haven't been taking advantage of their right to marry, they must not have wanted it much anyway, and no grievous harm is being done by denying American gays that right. A reader responds that by that logic, there should be nothing wrong with antimiscegenation laws, since rates of interracial marriage are still very low. Sullivan then posits a correlation between "those states that were the first to ban gay marriage and those that were the last to hold onto miscegenation bans." Sounds plausible to me.

Sunni Strongman

Kevin Drum cites the Downing Street Memos to put the lie to Bush’s claim that he’s been pushing for democracy in Iraq since day 1.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

top ten dumbest top ten lists

Ok, there are really only two lists. It’s been kicking around the sphere for awhile now, but the truly silliest thing I’ve seen in a long time was this list of the top ten most harmful books of all time, put out by Human Events, a conservative newsweekly. It’s not so much that books by Nietzsche and Keynes, as well as the Kinsey Report made the list, or that books by Freud, Darwin, or Mill were runners up. That is certainly silly. But it is the concept itself that is inane. Labeling books as “harmful” is always the first precursor to banning or burning them, with the attendant stifling of independent thought and muffling of free exchange of ideas. What good does putting Mao’s Little Red Book on the list do? How many card-carrying liberals have ever read the thing, or would believe a word of it if they did? I doubt many hippies read it even when they were foolishly waving it around in the ‘60s. The book was symbolic of the communist movement under the tyranny of Mao, which turned out to be one of the worst things to ever befall the long-suffering Chinese people. Do we really need to be told that Mao was a bad guy? Putting the book on the list is also symbolic—it expresses the message: “I’m an idiot.”

That is why I was dismayed to see the normally sensible Kevin Drum formulate a list of his own. Um, dude, the point is not to show that we on the left can be just as closed-minded as conservatives. Hayek’s works may have been used to stymie social programs, but his formulation of the idea that the private market is the most efficient mechanism for communicating information is widely accepted on the left and the right, and was born out by the abject failure of communism. Milton Friedman won the Nobel prize ... putting him on the list is just as silly as putting Keynes on the Human Events list. All Kevin manages to communicate with this list is that he doesn’t like libertarians, racists, or religious extremists. That’s great. At least he managed to resist putting the Bible or the Koran on the list.

Upon seeing the first silly list, I promptly ordered Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” and the “Will to Power” from Amazon. I think now I will get Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” If everyone read one book a year they disagreed with, the world would be a much better place. Human Events and Washington Monthly, you have inspired me.

counterproductive + morally offensive = don't ask don't tell

What’s a good way to increase military recruitment in wartime? How about allowing an entire segment of the population that’s currently excluded from openly serving to sign up? The arguments against allowing gays in the military are patently bogus, and barely deserve a response. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is part of our principal current national shame, in the proud tradition of Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and second-class status for women. We can do so much better than that.

reasons to like Bush

1. Immigration policy
2. No Child Left Behind
3. Good relationship with Russia (may fall off the list if Putin keeps up his current shenanigans)
4. More minorities in the cabinet than anyone before

There may be more ... Here's a scary thought: is Bush as much of a moderate as Clinton was? I'm thinking about welfare reform, strong support for the death penalty, PR-based church attendance, bombing Iraq and Sudan, NAFTA (NAFTA was much more ambitious than CAFTA)--all the things Clinton did to win over the center that people on the left generally took in stride, knowing he had their best interests at heart. But did he?
Why do both sides seem so much angrier now? My theory: 9/11 polarized the country, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of. Any thoughts? (ha! I write this as if it will actually be read ...)

Update: Kevin Drum analyzes why Clinton was a moderate with broad appeal and yet so despised by a sector of the population--his answer: the wingnuts. The more the wingnuts hated on Clinton, the more popular he became. That is one piece of the puzzle that is the wingnuts' general disconnect from reality.

Publius follows up with his take on the culture wars meme. "He was hated not so much for his personal characteristics or his policies, but because of what he was perceived to represent," namely, the Sixties.

et tu, Andrew?

One more reason not to read Andrew Sullivan. Or maybe to read him--I can't tell--I like people who keep me guessing. He thinks Sean Hannity is a partisan hack. True. But Sullivan is unhappy because Hannity didn't press Cheney hard enough on immigration reform. WTF?
Me and Andrew--it's a love-hate relationship. Now if he only knew I existed ...
(John Stewart to Colin Powell regarding George W. Bush: "Does he know who I am?" Powell: "No.")

democracy now

Bloggers on the left and the right seem to regard Nicolas Kristof as some kind of crusading loony with nothing of much relevance to say. They couldn’t be more wrong. He has been the only major pundit I’m aware of regularly writing about the atrocities in Darfur. And now he calls out President Bush on the hypocrisy of supporting one tyrant in the middle east in order to depose another. While I realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the world can’t be democratized overnight, I think it’s clear to everyone that the administration is more concerned with making Americans safer than with spreading democracy. It’s a shame that under our current policies, the former has to come at the expense of the latter. Transparent power plays cloaked in the guise of democracy dissemination, even if driven by the laudable intent of protecting Americans, can only engender support for those who want to harm us. Matching action with rhetoric and making democracy the first priority will make everyone safer—rural Pakistani women included. President Bush: support the people of the Middle East, not the power.

the persecuted elite

Poor, poor Arthur Anderson. The once-mighty accounting firm, thousands of employees strong, now with only a couple hundred left to make its final arrangements. I’m sure many who worked there had little to do with the wrongdoing that brought the firm into the harsh spotlight of public opinion, but I find it hard to shed too many tears for the enabler of both WorldCom and Enron’s worst excesses. Stanford law professor Joseph Grundfest points to prosecutorial overreach in the jury instructions given in the Anderson case to suggest the greater problem may lie with power-hungry, unaccountable prosecutors than with the corporations they try to reign in. It’s a load of bunk. CEO compensation is on the rise again, buoyed by soaring profits. Growth is projected at around 3.5% this year. Corporate America is doing just fine (and, incidentally, predictions of sudden fiscal and economic doom from the left have been nearly constant since the beginning of the last election cycle, disregarding fairly steady economic improvement.) The only reason a lower court won’t try Anderson again with more reasonable jury instructions is because it would be gratuitous—like kicking a dying dog because you know it can’t bite. There seems to be a good deal of evidence to suggest that Anderson knew it was doing bad things, and there’s no telling that a new jury wouldn’t find it guilty—if it were ever brought to trial.
The Economist recently wondered whether the governance reforms instituted after Enron were cosmetic. Even if that is the case, the public is much less willing to give big companies the benefit of the doubt these days. The threat of prosecution or investigation that Grundfest is so concerned about may be the de facto solution to corporate rot, rather than more restrictive regulations. For this we have Enron’s corporate officers to thank for fleecing all those grannies out of their pensions.

Monday, June 13, 2005

stuff on my cat

The other day, I put a dirty sock on my girlfriend's cat, and laughed. Little did I know the depths of depravity some have sunk to. Why are PETA and the ASPCA silent on this story? What have we come to?
My favorite is the baby on the cat.

Goodbye Gitmo?

The Newsweek debacle is still paying dividends, but perhaps not in the way the White House intended. While revelations of new abuses continue to surface, it looks as though Gitmo’s days may be numbered, as Republican lawmakers begin to question the value of keeping it open. You can tell the political ground has shifted when you find Rumsfeld laying the groundwork for the demise of Gitmo, saying that the United States would rather have detainees taken back by their home countries (this could raise complications if it leads to further extraordinary renditions, but it’s nice to see that the administration is finally beginning to realize that you can’t indefinitely hold people without charge or legal recourse in this country, even in time of war).

The same factors that made the Koran-flushing story so explosive abroad are present in the more recent stories: crimes perpetrated by a powerful actor in an atmosphere of impunity. But the domestic dynamic was different before the Newsweek story—the public was shocked by Abu Ghraib, but accepted the administration’s lame explanations, and went about its business. With its overreaction to the Newsweek incident, the White House essentially dared the press to shine its investigative light into issues of prisoner abuse. When an obscure news item makes front-page headlines (thanks in part to conservative uproar in the blogosphere), that is a good signal to the press that it’s covering the right issue, or at least one that will make scads of money. The White House, as is so often the case where the cover-up surpasses the original misdeed, fanned the flames of controversy by pretending nothing was wrong.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

GM's pain = whose gain?

Daniel Drezner links to Gregg Easterbrook, who finds a silver lining in GM’s announcement that it is cutting 25,000 jobs.

Easterbrook makes an interesting point that global competition does not always benefit the corporate behemoths, as is often assumed. McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart are all losing market share to more savvy competitors. Few are shedding any tears for those companies.

But GM has long been vaunted as one of the engines of change that propelled workers into the middle class during much of the last century. What will happen to workers in auto manufacturing if the entire sector is on its deathbed? Well, it may not be quite as dire as that:

. . . the same week that G.M.'s cut made the front pages, DaimlerChrysler announced it would invest $40 billion in North American operations over the next five years, including building a new assembly plant in Illinois and expanding factories in Ohio and Michigan.

According to a study by the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, non-Detroit automakers have in the last two years created 55,000 new factory jobs in the United States. Today just under 50 percent of the "foreign" cars sold in America are made here, with BMW, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and others operating large factories in Alabama, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee. About 800,000 passenger vehicles are expected to be manufactured this year in Alabama, all for global brands; cars have become to the state's economy what cotton once was.

And American auto workers aren’t the only ones benefiting from GM’s pain:

According to the consumer price index, new cars and light trucks today cost less in real-dollar terms than in 1982, despite having air bags, antilock brakes, CD players, power windows and other features either unavailable or considered luxury options back then.

This means that during the very period that General Motors has declined, American car buyers have become better off. Competition can have the effect of "creative destruction," in the economist Joseph Schumpeter's famous term, harming workers in some places, while everyone else comes out ahead.

Even if society is better off if GM cuts its workforce, though, the individuals who get laid off are certainly not. While redistributing some of the gains of creative destruction to the losers looks good on paper, we have not been particularly good at implementing actual policies along those lines. Until we get serious about cushioning the fall of workers in declining sectors, globalization and trade liberalization, which have such potential to improve lives around the planet, will remain convenient targets for anyone more concerned with justice than efficiency.

Baby steps in education

Well, after a brief hiccup (it’s amazing how life can get in the way of posting—this is the naïve realization of a neophyte blogger you are witnessing here), I’m back and ready to blog. Good news comes today from the NYTimes that fifth graders in New York City’s public schools improved 19.5 percentage points in reading and 15.2 percentage points in math.

While the gains weren’t universal, and come tempered with news that eighth graders have fallen behind, significant progress was made in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods. How did this happen? While New Yorkers haven’t necessarily stopped griping about the upheaval caused by Bloomberg’s reforms of a couple years ago, the Times has a simple answer:

. . . in interviews at P.S. 45 and other schools across the city with large increases in test scores, principals, parents, superintendents, teachers and students offered this most basic explanation: They worked hard.

. . .

Principals and teachers described a relentless focus on literacy and math and a ceaseless scrutinizing of tests, quizzes and writing samples to understand which skills the students had mastered and which lessons had somehow fallen short.

We find cause to be a bit skeptical with this graph:

In part, the sharp increases reflect the way the tests are presented. The results focus on whether students are above or below grade level rather than on their underlying scores. In recent years, thousands of students had scored just below grade level, and this year many of them finally cleared the line.

Even so, something seems to have gone right.

. . . principals and other officials insist that this year's scores reflected real achievement, a result of increased spending on many initiatives. Some practices were new this year, like the Saturday classes in fifth grade. Other initiatives are nearly a decade old, like New York State's push to widen the availability of prekindergarten.

I don’t work in education, nor do I have kids in school. All I bring to bear is my experience as a public school student and what I’ve read about education reform. But it seems to me a shame that No Child Left Behind, which promulgated a mix of rigorous standards and increased, directed funding similar to Bloomberg's reforms, is in danger becoming another casualty of our polarized times. Complaints about “teaching to the test” and having less time to devote to art, music, science and other non-core areas miss a fundamental point. Don’t get me wrong—I think a well-rounded education is important, and my early music classes were an invaluable part of my overall education. But if a child gets to junior high and can’t read or do basic math, no amount of art and music instruction is going to give her a good life. We are dealing with children on (educational) life support here, and we’re discussing what flavor of toothpaste will encourage them to brush more. Amp up the defibrillator! Clear! We need to jolt some life back into the system. Holding students and teachers accountable to measurable standards, in schools that have been written off for decades, is half the solution. NCLB does this better than any plausible alternative. The other half of the solution is giving schools the money to institute the support programs needed to meet those standards. As long as Democrats are seizing on any opportunity to snipe NCLB, Republicans are happy to underfund it--what do they want with a well-funded, nationally standardized education system rammed down their throats from Washington, anyway?

But meanwhile, many public schools are, by any objective standard, in terrible shape:

. . . even with this year's unprecedented increases, only half the city's students were proficient in reading and math. In Grades 3 to 8, 51.8 percent performed at or above grade level in reading this year - demonstrating how far Mr. Bloomberg still has to go in his effort to fix the schools.

Regardless of what the best solution to these seemingly intractable problems is, I find it hard to believe anything will be solved while the decisionmaking class has absolutely nothing personally invested in seeing the worst public schools succeed. The first pundit or politician on the left or the right who sends their kid to P.S. 45 in Queens or another school like it will get my wholehearted support for whatever solution they advocate for the educational system. This is a statement I make with confidence because no one is going to take that step—anyone who can avoid it sends their kids elsewhere. We will know we are not consigning an entire segment of the population to the same shitty jobs, tenement houses, rapacious interest rates, and substance abuse that their parents lived through when sending your kids to public school in the inner city is not a laughable proposition. Proposals for reform ring hollow when they come from people to whom the results of any reforms don't matter because their kids aren't at risk.