Needles and Threads

The week’s best from the Fray.

Fraywatch thanks all those readers who continue to brave the technical hazards that are making it so difficult to navigate and post to the Fray in recent weeks. In the meantime, fraygrants pull no punches in going toe to toe with Slate’s political contributors…and the Black Eyed Peas. A sample of the week’s best:

…Such conservatives have never accepted the truly revolutionary idea of the American Revolution: that the government is merely the guarantor of rights. They persist in believing that the government is instead the giver of rights, which explains a great deal about the circles in which they twist themselves to accord the codpieced Commander-in-Chief the right to abrogate any individual right or liberty in pursuit of some ill-defined, collectivist Utopia. This isn’t simply a matter of competing legalisms, either. It’s a fundamental philosophical departure from the foundations of republican government (and this is part of the reason that contemporary conservatives are so hopped-up on talk of “democracy”). They do believe in majority tyranny. The conservative intellectual position is that electoral victories alone give governments the right to alter the entire framework of the social compact—hardly, finally, conservative.

Funny. The more I hear conservatarians harping on our past Cold War victory and future victory against some word or other, the more I think of the old truth: capta ferum victorem cepit.–IOZ, here, taking on the prevailing wave of majoritarianism
…tell me Jacob, are you press professionals going to tell us just which one of the nearly countless and blatant assaults against truth, integrity, and the fundamental principle that once made this nation great finally broke your collective credulity back?

…We have known this … for many years now and most people are also pretty much aware of this now in the real world. So why are you people still playing coy when it comes to the dropping the other shoe while finally daring to call propaganda and scummy unethical behavior what it has obviously been all along?

Never mind, it no longer matters. Back when it might have made a difference in such things as - say - elections, when a daring free press filled with professional ethics and the courage of their convictions might have made a significant difference to the future of this nation, it would have been nice to have heard something even as significant as a whisper from you people. But now we are stuck with three more years of this madness. Gee thanks guys…

–Hauteur, here, telling Jacob Weisberg that the train has left the station
Witold Rybczynski … rightly lauds Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial (“The Wall”), yet even in spite of his superlatives it feels like faint praise. There are all other memorials, and there is this one. No other memorial reveals such powerful epiphanies: none feels so much like a punch in the heart as this one.

It’s worth remembering how much anger this memorial generated when it was dedicated. The Vietnam vets association protested that it was not ennobling, and so a supplementary “feel good” memorial had to be developed, showing a politically correct trio of Vietnam-era American soldiers (white officer with sidearm, black soldier with M-16, racially indeterminate soldier carrying an M-60) staring off into space in much the same way you see the Korean War memorial soldiers doing—and to as little effect (the Korean War memorial looks as if the designers were keen to travesty Henry Moore). This little fragment of a squad seems to have it in mind to try a flanking maneuver on The Wall itself. Yet the power of Maya Lin’s inspiration won’t allow that: the Wall remains impervious to bathos. Not since Simonides wrote his immortal epitaph for the 300 Spartans has there been such a multi-tiered memorial to soldiers who died in a war. Like the epitaph, the power of the wall is the power of a simple truth echoing on forever in the hearts and minds of the people who confront that truth. Next to The Wall, all other memorials, even the good ones, seem somehow stunted, lacking both gravity and imagination.–rob_said_that, here, on the weight of the Vietnam Memorial
…I interpret the “Badness” of the song as intentional. While Hsu never really defined what he thought was so awful about the song as to put it in a singular category, I assume that it was not the music, since the melody and complexity of rhythms really does not distinguish it from most of the rest of the music being pedaled today. Catch, yes. Derivative, maybe. Awful? Hardly.

But then the lyrics. Yes. Those humps. Those lumps. Those lovely little lumps. Lady lumps. B E Peas has reduced the feminine to the lowest common denominator - those things that stick out.

But are they serious? Is this a pean to protuberance? Maybe not. Maybe this is more of a sideway commentary than a direct on appeal to the bottom line, so to speak.

After all, who is the one being suckered in this song? Who’s doing the spending?…And what is he getting?…This is certainly not the best song on the Monkey Business album and MB is arguably not their best album. I suspect that the popularity of the song comes mostly from the immature set taking the song at face value and being entranced by Fergie’s over the top sexy vocals. Be that as it may, I would not judge “My Humps” as misogynistic and awful anymore that I would characterize “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a child’s song about magical dragons…..–Trebuchet_, here, pleading irony on behalf of the Black Eyed Peas.
I remember the cancellation of the Apache at Sikorsky a year and a half ago, Joe stood outside the plant in Stratford Connecticut, and decried the cancellation, commiserated with the workers, sat shiva for the manufacturing subcontractors, and then whisked off to Washington DC…

Shays had his own press conference there, but it was sloppy seconds.

Rowland, one of his last acts, was to go to Washington to persuade the Pentagon, that this contract should continue..

Now Dodd, on the other hand, had a quiet conversation with the Canadian government, BF Goodrich about a helicopter contract for the Canadian military, and a joint venture contract for recon equipment for Poland, thru Goodrich, Chelmsford, Mass.

That’s a senator; that’s a statesman; Lieberman did his “woe is me” schtick and went back to Washington…–pace, here, on Joltin’ Joe Lieberman
…How valuable is a Health Savings Account for someone not working? No income, so no money set aside. No job, so no healthcare insurance. The Flex Account is a nice dream for them. Less than 60% of all companies have company sponsored healthcare plans which is down from 67% since 2001. ~40 million people are without insurance either permanently or at some time or another (by the way there is a waiting period before insurance kicks in). ~2 million more of the population has joined the ranks of the non-working regardless of the 4.5 million jobs Bush has claimed to have created (remember Participation Rate plus Unemployment Ratio work in conjunction).

The president’s Medicare Prescription Drug plan is a boondoogle of eminent proportions; however, it is one of the first plans to recognize what many people have failed to recognize … private industry, the medical industry, and drug companies ain’t doing shit to help people. The funny part about this is we keep wandering down that yellow brick road into the “field of poppies” expecting private industry to supply a solution as we are drugged and lulled off to sleep. The solution is not coming from private industry as the cost is to steep for them and they are competing against countries that have no healthcare (or country supplied) besides lacking other benefits…–run75441, here, with a begrudging acknowledgment of flex accounts.
I cannot believe Bruce Reed just wrote “Just when you thought the nation’s political debate couldn’t get any shallower,” about someone’s political arguments other than his own.

Um, no, Bruce, arguing about the appropriate separation of church and state hasn’t made the debate over the court any shallower. To do that, the rest of the world would have to get under the amazingly low bar you have set for us, with such gems as, John Roberts’ father’s supposed advice that ‘real men study law’ tell us about John Roberts, and what would it tell us if John Roberts had said it himself or What does a tongue in cheek letter to the editor that Robert wrote while in high school tell us about his committment to the right to privacy?

Good luck getting shallower than What does a contemporary fictional novel about a prep school that John Roberts did not go to tell us about Roberts’ qualifications for the Supreme Court, pal.–J_Mann, here, continuing his assault on Slate political blogger Bruce Reed
…all of this is designed to destroy respect for the little Baby Jesus, the savior of the fuckin’ world for Christ’s sakes, and why is this? You Jews murdered the fucker the first time he was here, isn’t that enough? Now you have to pretend he was never real, or persecute Christians for having the gall to demand that the Holiday be called what it fuckin’ is, CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!
Boy, when Christ gets back, he is gonna be steamed. The Colonel can just see the looks on your liberal faces when the Prince of Peace plaintively asks, “Why hath ye denied my birth, when I Loved thou so much?” You assholes have broken Christ’s heart, and he’s gonna send you all straight to hell for such temerity. Then we’ll see who has the BEST holiday …to quote a classic Christmas film, “I double dog dare you”: Wish me “Happy Holidays” and see if you can gum your matzoh ball soup through a broken fuckin’ jaw…–Col-BullKurtz, here, getting into the holiday spirit.
…Like any great piece of literature that stands the test of time there are many nuances and subtleties to it. For children these books are a world of giants, talking animals, and magic. For adults there are the moral issues that arise in it as well as the Christian allegories in it. This gives readers of all age’s things to enjoy and think about. I do not believe that Lewis wrote these books to proselytize, see the Scewtape letters and others for that. As a man of faith his religious beliefs did affect his work as they would anybody regardless if that person is a Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic, or Christian. This should not be a surprise to anyone as one’s religious faith, or lack there of, should and does permeate all aspects of our lives.

My liberal friends should take a step back and not worry about the “proselytizing” aspects of the movie and books and just let the kids enjoy a magical world that has finally been brought to life. My conservative Christian friends should not try to use this as a way to convert others, let them enjoy the movie and draw their own conclusions…–Captain_Hair, here, offering an ecumenical take on what promises to be an insufferable cultural debate.
…I think it’s reasonable to suppose that Lewis knew Turkish Delight was not the world’s greatest candy. In fact, that is likely why he chose to use it. Edmund, at the stage when he requests Turkish Delight, is a very conventional and very mean-spirited little boy. Lewis often used poor taste in food as a stand-in for poor character. For example, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is another unpleasant child, who demands “Plumptree’s Vitaminised Nerve Food” instead of delicious spiced wine. Eustace was a product of his parents, who Lewis disapprovingly reports were “vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes” – in other words, lacking the taste to celebrate the gifts of good food and drink. In short, Lewis saw a love of good things, like food, as healthy, and a rejection of good things in favour of bad things (sometimes in the name of health or progress) as a twisting of the meaning of health and normalcy. Bad taste in food, for Lewis, is a symbol of being morally or imaginatively stunted. It shows a lack of discernment, which (without getting overly religious) can be symbolic of a lack of spiritual or moral discernment. Similar metaphors are used repeatedly in Biblical settings, the inability to sense (see, hear, smell, touch, or taste) standing in for the inability to understand the truth of God, prophecy, and redemption.

A positive part of being a child – and certainly children fare much better than adults in Narnia – was being uncorrupted by what you “ought” to like or what was “practical” and instead understanding naturally which things were good. When Edmund demands Turkish Delight as his candy, it highlights the fact that he does not at this time possess the rudimentary facility to know that Turkish Delight is lousy candy compared to something like chocolate. His poor choice of candy is a symbol of his mean and, in a bad sense, very “ordinary” nature (quite unsuited to Narnia), which leads to his worse choice of siding with evil…–HLS, here, on the magical symbolism of Turkish Delight in Narnia.  Please read the post in its entirety to get the full flavor
so, david, it’s not a gay love story because it does not conform to stereotypical perceptions of what is gay?

the premise here seems to be that homosexuality and “gay” are different. frankly, i’d like to be kept abreast of such shifts in semantics. like many, i was under the apparently mistaken impression that “gay” was a term describing either a state of happiness or a homosexual male. i did not realize it meant only uncloseted, effeminate homosexual males. preferably flaming ones.

what do we have then, a homosexual love story, but not a gay one? because gays cannot be masculine? or sleep with women? or be awkward with each other? is there not enough tight leather?

it seems that our author is almost disappointed in the lack of stereotypes. two men who find they prefer each other, sexually. they don’t find it unnaturally, but still struggle with it. they have an emotional, as well as sexual connection. they are portrayed as masculine figures, while still making their sexual preference obvious. and for this, we are told, it is not a “gay” story.

now, i’ll qualify this with mentioning i’ve not seen the film. but if this article’s author is accurate in his description, then i am baffled by his conclusion. what would qualify as a “gay” love story? does it need to be set in san francisco and have the village people on the soundtrack? why bemoan a refusal to propagate stereotypes? isn’t this akin to saying a film is not a black love story because it isn’t set in the inner city and no gangs are in the film?–twiffertheGnu, here, calling out David Leavitt
On the matter of whether Brokeback Mountain is a gay film, Fraywatch wonders why David Leavitt gets to define the gay aesthetic orthodoxy.  When did the faggotocracy put him in charge of the curriculum committee?  Because he grew up as a gay man on “movies like Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo, in which sexual profligacy is at once celebrated as a form of liberation and mourned as a pallid substitute for meaningful connection,” whereas I grew up on The Smiths and Amy Heckerling?   Leavitt, never a master of understatement, fails to recognize that just because a narrative doesn’t “cry gay,” doesn’t mean that it isn’t.  Navigating the world without a fixed identity, being protean drifters—as Jack and Ennis are—are as central to gayness as bad European queer cinema or turning tricks in Juarez back alleys.  Leavitt’s Family Dancing was a formative collection in my life and I’ll forever be grateful to gay voices like Leavitt’s; their generation did a lot of the heavy lifting and a whole lot of dying. Fraywatch grants them a lot—but not the authority to delineate what constitutes a gay narrative … KA11:50 a.m. PST


Saturday, December 3, 2005

White dresses, fey hats, South African wedding gowns, Clark Kent’s undergarments, the emperor’s clothes—the Fray offered several sartorial critiques this week. Here’s a sample of the best:

…I find it curious that an unmarried man who runs about in a white dress and a very fey hat would have the audacity to wag his finger at anybody for their tendencies. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.—Gnostician, here, on Benedict’s eggs

…Larson’s musical, which the Times calls a rock opera for the same unfathomable reason that impels it to call Tom Friedman a writer and to call Satan Dick Cheney, is a wet fart of fetishized nostalgia for a hopeless, destitute, plague-ridden era in the life of its main character, which, for some unfathomable reason, is called New York, although there’s little resemblance. “Artistic license,” I think they call it. In both the stage and film version, a series of motiveless semi-persons who have no reason to like or spend time with each other like and spend time with each other. The film employs the bulk of the original Broadway cast (circa 1995) in roles which they originated in their twenties, just the sort of production logic that would send an ordinary producer reaching for his coke atomizer—anything to get through your brilliant proposal for a stage version of Pretty in Pink starring Molly Ringwald and all the rest of Hughes original cast.

Rent features the sort of dramatis personae that almost commits me to sympathetic readings of the “critical” “writing” of Michael Medved, a creature so miraculously stupid that, were he human, he would rival our aforementioned Tom Friedman for the title of Dumbest Man in the Whole Fucking World ®. The sensitive video artist afraid of selling out. The AIDS-infected stripper looking for love. Bon Jovi. The angelic drag queen named … wait for it … Angel. And so forth. Rent posits that if only we measured our years in major-chord, capital-L Love instead of time, then, by God, the homeless would still be homeless, the poor still poor, AIDS would still be AIDS, but nonetheless … paradise.

Midway through the musical, my mind started transposing the lyrics of “One Tin Soldier” onto Larson’s melodies. I knew it was time to leave.

Today, listening to President Bush give that speech that he loves to give so much, I was struck by a very similar feeling. It’s not only the utter mindlessness of the words, nor merely the ear-battering timbre of his voice. In the seventies, Gore Vidal gave a famous interview to the Paris Review, and in it the interviewer asked (I’m paraphrasing), “Why do prefer film to theater?” Vidal replied, “I’m embarrassed by live actors; they always seem to be having a much better time than I am.” Even now, when he’s more prone to limping than loping through his silly speech, Bush evokes that same familiar sensation—that the guy chewing the scenery is gonna rip into those lines whether you applaud at the end or not.

The audience, in other words, is extraneous. That’s perhaps a counterintuitive point, given the dauphin’s handlers’ penchant for keeping all the autonomous human beings far, far away from his playpen. I suspect, however, that notre dictateur manqué would be just as pleased speaking to and in front of a blue screen. The slate clicks; the cameras roll; his back hunches; he heh-heh-hehs a few times to clear his throat; action!—IOZ, here, measuring his words on Rent and Bush in minor chord.
Will someone, anyone, please teach someone, anyone, on the Slate staff a new song? One that can be sung without hyperventilating? This one has too many verses and they’re all the same: those horrible conservatives don’t need to overturn Roe, they’ll just sneak onto the bench by promising to respect precedent and chip away at the right to abortion until, until, until…

Until the only women who can get an abortion without telling someone are unmarried adults with pre-viable fetuses and anyone else whose life would be threatened? So, does that cover, what, 70%, 80%, 90% of all the people who actually get abortions?

…Children whose parents must be notified? More than half of them, their parents are going to WANT them to get abortions. And of the rest, those who are victims of rape, incest, or abuse are going to be able to get abortions by getting judicial consent. And only some states will impose these kinds of requirements. So you’re left with laws that will impose some kind of burden on maybe 5%, maybe even less of the people who will ever seek abortions. And almost all of those people will be minors, whose parents in most cases should be informed, or women seeking to abort fetuses that may be viable.

In other words, those terrible conservatives will “chip away” at the right to abortion until the laws reflect pretty much what the broad middle of the population agrees with anyway. Pretty radical.—not_abel, here, calling out Slate’s Roe-ving reporters for being outside the mainstream of public opinion on abortion
The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic “difficulty” or “self-consciousness.”

Fuckin’ punk.

If you’re being dryly ironic, this piece is too clever by half. If it’s sincere, then its simply wrong. The author does a great job of discussing why Watchmen is a seminal work, and its contributions to the medium. But his conclusion – that it hasn’t dated well or is somehow beneath the dignity of adult concern – is unsubstantiated by his analysis. As a dystopian vision of the world with an ever-present yearning for a Messiah, I’d argue its a work with a timeless appeal – certainly timeless enough to satisfy an adult reader who came of age after the Cold War’s definitive conclusion.

The allegation that Ulysses is somehow teen lit is absurd enough to compel conclusion that the author’s joking. If he’s not… well, that would speak far more poorly of Tom Shone than Joyce…—Geoff, here, piling on Tom Shone.
In “The Great Comic Book Heroes”, Jules Feiffer writes in praise of junk, in this case, the comic books from “The Golden Age” of the 1940s, but really, he is writing about junk culture in general, and how necessary it is for kids. Junk is not good for you, it is not educational, it provides no morals, it is not approved of by adults. Being junk, it can get away with behaviors that its more reputable cousins cannot—slam bang violence, for instance. In a child’s world, where one is constantly being disciplined by adults like parents and teachers into accepting society’s rules and regulations, the escape into the fantasy world of junk is like a psychic safety valve.

Before Superman stood for truth, justice and the American way, he stood for the schnook who couldn’t take it anymore, turned into a dynamo and beat the crap out of his oppressors, and even got to reject the girl who had been humiliating him. Early comics were simple tales of sadomasochism, bondage and homo-eroticism—no wonder they freaked out Frederick Wertham.

The Comics Code put an end to all that in the 1950s, and turned comic books into mush, eliminating all that was dangerous or transgressive about them. It was only when Stan Lee and company at Marvel switched the tone of comic books from juvenile escapism to adolescent angst in the 1960s that comic books became relevant again. This shift towards complex characters, longer narrative arcs and social commentary continued with fits and starts up through the British Invasion of the 1980’s, when writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore turned out self-consciously literary stories that just happened to feature superheroes. To many people, “Watchmen” was the apogee of this trend.

Much of this work was excellent, although some of it was artsy and unintelligible. But I agree with Tom Shone that something was lost on the road to respectability. Midlife crises and literary allusions do not make for satisfying juvenile fantasies. The junk factor that allowed children’s darkest feelings to be expressed in mindless pop culture was gone. Whereas adolescent boys used to read hyperviolent comics like Batman, they now play hyperviolent videogames like Grand Theft auto.

So the comic book industry faces a dilemma. Kids no longer read comics. Their main audience is made up of adults who grew up with the form as children, and adults need a certain level of intelligence in their fiction to stay interested. But this same sophistication that speaks to adults prevents children from rediscovering the genre. So as the comic book demographic gets older, its sales continue to dwindle, until a graphic novel like “Watchmen” attains the ultimate in literary respectability: widely admired but rarely read.—Utek1, here, in praise of junk.
Jody Rosen’s appraisal of Billy Joel is hands-down and hats-off the best summary/explanation of his career I’ve come across. It’s actually one of the best celebrity/rock star profiles I’ve ever read! I too have had arguments over whether Billy Joel is as good as Bob Dylan (and I was in the lamentable position of having to defend Dylan against a devotee of Joel who shared her idol’s resentment toward the rock canon…)–but this as an adult!! Billy Joel is ubiquitous, which is perhaps the primary reason why he’s so annoying: you can neither forget him nor forget how bad he is. And yet Rosen is convincing on why one should have sympathy for this devil: in another age he would have been capable of writing songs as good as Burt Bachrach or Carole King, and as such he would have been covered or possibly even collaborated with Elvis Costello, instead of becoming the target of Elvis’s easy but irresistible cheap shots. His misfortune, and ours as listeners, is to be born after his historical moment…—bellacohen, here, joining Jody Rosen’s self-effacing rejection of Billy Joel
The Answer to Slate’s Prayers: Sell editor’s pick posts from the Fray through Amazon as shorts. Reduce the price to a quarter for a single post, but let someone access a particular poster’s entire catalog for a larger single price. The collected works of Urquhart or Chango or Splendid Ireny? $10. If you could actually unearth the posts from inception, there’d be a ton spent just by current Fraygrants. And once they start rising through the Amazon list, others will start to notice. Who knows, it could become a cult market…—rundeep, here, using Brendan Koerner’s report on Amazon to develop a profit model for the Fray (beyond that Radio Shack ad).
Like many persons in their situation, they wanted to get married. There was one impediment. They are both women.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa has held [] that that nation’s constitution forbids the state from refusing to allow same sex marriage, but stayed the mandate for one year to allow the Parliament to reform its laws. [Comparable to the Vermont and Massachusetts’ courts’ approach when the issue arose.]

The SA Constitution, a recent document enacted in the 1990s, includes within it some specification on the classes of individuals that are in particular secured against discrimination. Among the criteria listed in “sexual orientation.” Thus, like in some states with constitutions with a specific right to privacy and so forth, the Court had an easier time of it than the U.S. Supreme Court might…

The ruling is interesting on various grounds. Its discussion on the constitutional role of the court – a role that it underlines is mandatory, constitutional protections are the “obligation” of the Court to uphold – is notable. The matter is spelled out in a bit of detail because the Court was accused of overstepping its mandate. Likewise, independent judicial review as practiced by our federal courts is not quite as well entrenched there. American type constitutions with certain liberties backed by strong judicial review is one cultural export that grew in number in the post-WWII era.

The ruling also spells out basic principles of equality, dignity, furtherance of difference, personhood, and so forth that also has clear application in our system. Ditto the various equal protection concerns relevant and proper in same sex situations. Likewise, it underlines that requiring the state to supply equal marriage rights to same sex couples does not invade religious freedom – it does not compel a minister or religious organization to approve or perform same sex marriages. Nonetheless, many organizations do perform them in that country.*

Finally, the opinion cites various authorities to make various points, including Brown v. Bd. of Education to note the “tangible” and “intangible” aspects of marriage. This citation of “foreign law” apparently did not in any way demean the court or corrupt the nation’s law, which clearly in various ways is different from our own.

Dare I say, the opinion has something to teach us…

* Same sex marriage is not such a sensitive issue with only a tiny political party suggesting the need for some sort of extraordinary constitutional provision to stop it from occurring. The fact sexual orientation is specifically protected by the Constitution highlights the point.—Joe_JP, here, on what we can learn from South Africa’s Constitutional Court. 
The nation is starting to realize that it’s the medicine that’s making it sick. Do we really have to amputate our arm to stop the spread of terrorism? Do we really have to ravage our body with toxins and poisons to keep the economy going? Is it honestly necessary that rather than tightening our belt, we instead beg, borrow and steal to pay for all of this treatment? The fact of the matter is, the cures—Bush’s policies—are to the point that people are wondering if they are worse than the diseases that justified them.

Bottom line, not only are we not getting better, but the bulk of our ills are proving to be side effects of Bush’s suspicious habit of cherry picking the worst diagnosis that fit the symptoms. Not to mention the laundry list misdiagnoses, fabricated symptoms and worst of all, the pointing to side effects as symptoms of yet more disease.

Bush’s mistake is he has done too good a job of using the threat of recession and the reality of war to justify his good times and peacetime political agenda. They are no longer a political ideology. They are the extreme measures taken to confront extreme circumstances. He didn’t take the nation to war. He instead subverted our national unity in the wake of 9/11 to implement conservative partisan policies under the guise of the war effort. Is it any wonder the war isn’t won? We still haven’t fought it. The nation isn’t at war, our armed forces are…—Ender, here, offering political commentary while on Fray Survivor hiatus


Monday, November 21, 2005

As a frequent reader of William Saletan’s Human Nature column, American Journal of Bioethics (and AJOB blog) editor Glenn McGee jumps into the Fray to respond to Saletan’s recent dispatch from a forum sponsored by Genetics and Public Policy. The marquee panelists at the event included William Hurlbut, a conservative member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities, and of religion, at Northwestern.  In his column, Saletan assumes his traditionally measured posture—a skepticism of Hurlbut’s incoherent conservatism coupled with a skepticism of the liberal Zoloth’s certitude. McGee, increasingly annoyed with “Human Nature,” believes that, too often, Saletan mistakes “the monasticism of the Kass crowd,” a group that includes Hurlbut, with a moral seriousness that bioethical issues require.  McGee’s response to Saletan can be found in the Fray here:

In a piece that is just a bit too clever, William Saletan accuses Laurie Zoloth of being a bit too clever. He reviews a dialog between Zoloth and William Hurlbut that took place at a typical forum about stem cell research. The impression he takes from the encounter can be summarized very briefly, although the nuanced “I was there-ness” that Saletan’s pieces have taken on will be lost in my summary. Which is not, you will see if you read his new piece, an altogether bad thing.Saletan points out that Hurlbut’s dopey idea (altered nuclear transfer, which we have written about so much in this blog that I won’t bother to put the links here anymore) unraveled under Zoloth’s retorts, leaving Hurlbut livid and incoherent. If you read this blog you will find the latter fact easy to believe. Hurlbut, I have argued, has devolved into a charlatan selling a snake oil science-based solution to the stem cell debate. But he does a fabulous impression of a sincere and devoted scientist who only means well. And, equally, Saletan likes to perform—his act is “the liberal who feels bad for neoconservatives,” and when he is in character he writes with a voice that begun to quite annoy me.

In what seems like a dozen columns for Slate it goes like this: he begins his commentary by telling us that he is ‘sitting in the audience’ at events in which the neoconservatives participate, and the message he brings back each time is that although he himself is liberal, the problem with liberals is that they are too cavalier, too loosy-goosy with the facts, and not … Second … here it comes … serious enough.

So the account he gives of this event is all-too-familiar to me as a loyal reader of his new and fairly comprehensive writing about bioethics issues. It amounts to the claim that Zoloth wins the debate but cheats, and not because she is intending to cheat but instead because the overconfidence of liberals leads them to fail to question facts.

The problem with this argument is simple. It is wrong. Zoloth, he claims, had her facts wrong. His example is the question of whether ANT will reliably produce an embryo that will not implant. He says that he trusted Zoloth - her authority on the matter as a disputant - until she got them wrong:

At lunch, Zoloth said the idea behind ANT—knocking out a gene called Cdx2 to prevent development of an implantable embryo—wouldn’t reliably succeed because gene knockouts produce a range of outcomes. I asked for her evidence that a range of implantation outcomes would occur with Cdx2 deletion. That’s how it works, she assured me. But as I write this, I’m looking at the published report on the ANT experiment. It says “none of the Cdx2[-deleted] nuclear transfer blastocysts formed visible implantation sites (0 out of 40).” There goes my faith.Well, that is a clever claim to make but all Saletan had to do was look deeper and he would see that while this is the report made in the Nature piece, it does not in any way exhaust the claim Zoloth is making. Her point is not that the group who conducted this single experiment should have found “implantatability” but that work on Cdx2 deletion has shown that there are a wide variety of effects on the developing cells that would include some embryos having the potential to be implantable, and that from a pro-life point of view if that potential exists at all, we’re killing someone. Her point is subtle and frankly that is what makes me furious. And not with some sort of simple “liberal indignation” of the sort Saletan has begun to assert that liberal bioethicists hold.

So there’s the rub. Saletan misses the fact that Hurlbut is at bottom disingenuous, he has heard countless times from many disputants including many of the top biologists in several related fields that his purported solution is voodoo and a political tactic at best. Hurlbut is clearly thrilled that the bad science that undergirds the attempts to avoid the stem cell debate has advanced as far as it has, so far in fact that perfectly respectable stem cell researchers are publishing wacky science in Nature in order to keep the dogs at bay. Hurlbut, it should be restated in this regard, apparently has no training in ethics, and is not a stem cell researcher. He is the one playing fast and loose, and Saletan should perhaps have taken just a few minutes to identify that multiple claims to that effect in the voluminous literature on the matter.

So why, when Laurie presents cogent arguments that position stem cells in relation to complex social and political phenomena and scientific issues, is Saletan hammering her for that sin?

Simple. He likes the seriousness, the monasticism of the Kass crowd. It is appealing because it feels academic, sincere, earnest. When Hurlbut pleads for us to take things more seriously, to not be “rude,” it is because that political - and strictly political - tactic works for him. He is flying all over the country on an entrepreneurial mission to kill stem cell research, shows up everywhere he can and courts profile articles like nobody in the history of bioethics, never once confessing to be an amateur in a field where most folks believe you should actually read ethics before professing to be an ethicist.

Saletan is taken in by the claim that moral seriousness is a phenotype, a thing you can see and smell on people when they talk. It isn’t. Real moral seriousness comes from thinking and writing carefully, and that is precisely what Hurlbut does not do. In fact with the exception of the one piece in which he argues for cheating the stem cell debate through the theoretical use of ANT, Hurlbut does not as best I can tell write in the field at all. Either field, in fact, stem cells or bioethics. How can you be a morally serious tutor of bioethics if you don’t write in the field? This the problem Saletan misses: if you are going to take issue with trusting bioethicist, start with the scholarship.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Slate’s “College Week” and the nation’s persistent religious revival provided fertile soil for fraygrants this week—though N and T thanks MsZilla and MichealRyerson for reminding us of the infinite value of the personal and the much maligned (too often by Fray Editor) off-topic testimonial. 

…The problem is that quantifying prayer is the first step toward commodifying it. Once you can prove prayer works, you can isolate whose prayers are most effective and sell their services– both literally and figuratively. New-Agers already successfully sell prayer (although they don’t call it that) in the back pages of holistic magazines with less scientific evidence. You can hire ‘faith healers’ who will come to your bedside to perform miracles for a pretty low price. …The unspoken but patently hoped for outcome of all this “research” is to prove which religion’s prayers are better than others, to prove that Christians are better than atheists, that one religion is “true” – and each conflicting view of God is angling to be proven most “true” at the expense of others. We compete for proof of God’s attention like a bunch of neglected fledglings eager to push the others out of the nest.

Too many religions already treat God as a possession, arguing about who’s “got” God on their side, claiming they know what God is thinking, or what God will do. That’s not prophecy, that’s profiteering God as surely as if Pat Robertson were selling Of Pandas and People online. He’s an extreme example, but he’s not alone. How do you tell the difference between a true believer and a lying charlatan? A true believer will not wave God around like a flag and substitute belief for knowledge, or offer faith in exchange for cold hard cash. It shouldn’t cost anything to believe…—Isonomist, here, suffering from faith-based sticker shock at the most recent prayer healing research

There are lots of sources of conflict between the Islamic world and the U.S., but it seems like a lack of mutual understanding and a severe cultural disconnect are at least a significant part of the problem.

So let’s go back to the ancients practice of royal hostage exchange. When warring rulers wanted to enforce peace, in many cultures the rulers would exchange children. This allowed them to control each others’ behaviour (somewhat) by using the children as hostages, while also letting the children gain familiarity with the opposed culture and people.

But not on a small scale. We’re a democratic republic, we need to get the people involved. Let’s do massive, wholesale child exchanges. Millions at a time. We have about the same population as Pakistan, Iran, and Egypt combined. Send ‘em over. Just think of the collateral benefits: our spoiled, directionless, thankless, hedonistic kids get whipped into shape and humbled by poverty and strict fundamentalist morality. Their angry, indoctrinated, uneducated, desperate kids learn how to consume and how not to care too much about anything. Ours get cowed, theirs get sedated. It’s win-win. Five to ten years should make a good start.

I have a feeling we’d have to make a rule, though, that you’re required to take yours back eventually. Otherwise, it’d just be pointless.—HLS2003, here, with a modest proposal.
…A sin isn’t merely an immoral act. A sin is an act that deserves eternal torture. I’ve seen a lot of horrible acts in my life. I worked in a county jail as a deputy for a time so those acts include some that are outside the experience of most people. And while I would’ve used force up to and including lethal to keep the most extreme of those acts from happening again, I wouldn’t condone torturing anyone for even one fraction of a second for any act I’ve witnessed.

I guess I’m funny that way.

So when it comes to someone deserving eternal torture, no, I don’t buy into that absurdity. And that’s coming from a less-than-omnibenevolent human being.

Perhaps that’s why confession in the Catholic Church is down. People are coming to recognize that the foundation of Christianity, not just Catholicism, but all forms of Christianity—that humans are born damned because of a legend based on moral responsibility passed down through generations—is just plain poor moral reasoning. Maybe people are recognizing that while churches might well provide social and emotional support, Christian mythology no longer holds such strong sway.

One can hope.—Gilker_Kimmel, here, blowing the lid off Catholic confession
These observations and debates concerning education make me wonder whether the purposes … of education reflect our conceptions of human teleology … If self-examination and intellectual enrichment are not either important or necessary educational goals … and instead the creation of “global tourists and consumers” or skilled workers is the educational summum bonum, then aren’t we saying that the “purpose” of human existence is to live it in a kind of utilitarian, maximize-pleasure-minimize-pain kind of way? That is, quite apart from the educational goals of individual professors, wouldn’t this be an admission that American society … has internalized a utilitarian ethos, one that informs its view of human teleology on a general level? If self-examination has given way to consumerism as the end-goal of education, then does that reflect a conception in society that there is no good reason for self-examination – that we must live temporally? We can talk about our Christian (for example) souls all we want, but in fact we live our lives, and view our education, detached from this religious worldview.I realize that this is all a bit more complicated than I have suggested here. For example, no one has had, I think, a greater influence on the way we think about higher education than John Dewey, whose ideas about the democratization of education were inextricable from his ideas about the purpose of education (to train an able workforce and informed citizenry). Whatever we might think about the relationship between our ideas of education and our ideas of human teleology, one also has to wonder if, in an age where education was meant to be “enriching” on an intellectual and moral level, whether such enrichment was really only to be confined to the elites who could obtain education. I’m thinking here more about Catholic Europe, not Protestant America: It’s beggars belief that a Western society having so deeply internalized a Christian ethos would encourage intellectual and moral enrichment only among elites, but perhaps I’m begging the question. That said, contemporary ideas about American education, even if aimed at consumerism, seem to allow greater opportunities for self-examination to a greater number of people … .if that even matters.—ChrisH, here, celebrating Slate’s “College Week” by wondering if self-examination fits into the new curriculum.  
Abortion is the most important issue in American politics. It shouldn’t be. Others have as big an impact on the lives of individuals and a far bigger cumulative effect on society…

And many others (including me) believe that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder…

Wow, those sentences were in the same schizophrenic paragraph. What political issue has an impact on an individual’s life that is bigger than the most extreme government intrusion short of murder?

I guess that extreme government intrusions on people’s lives just aren’t that big a deal to Kinsley. Or is it that this intrusion just isn’t as extreme as some believe? Either way, if all men straddled fences as firmly as Kinsley does here, there wouldn’t be any more pregnancies to abort.—not_abel, here, introducing Michael Kinsley to Michael Kinsley
  …As I read the account of Drezner admitting in his first blog entry that he knew this was professional suicide, I was confused (and kinda outraged) as to why someone would make such a foolish choice. Yet, this is exactly the type of reaction that academia wants its professionals to have. We are supposed to be scared to step out of line for fear of not getting that prime spot of professional achievement.

Foucault spent 20 something years examining this very process of using discourse and tactics to control. Institutions create disciplinary tracts such as tenure and peer-review, not because it wants to guarantee quality research but because it is a way to ensure employees are towing the line and projecting the image/reputation that the University wants academia to see. In some university departments, a tenure-track professor can explicitly be instructed not to publish in highly respected, frequently sourced, peer-reviewed journal simply because that journal is “too radical” or not the “right type” of journal. The implicit message being ‘you won’t get tenure if this publication is on your CV.’ That, indeed, is about control not quality.

Academics see ourselves as being renegade non-conformists but in reality we are subject to many of the same modes of control to which the average working stiff in a corporation is subject. The only difference is that the working stiff was smart enough to find a job that he/she can obtain with less time spent in school and always being paid a living wage-unlike his graduate school counterparts…—funkgenie, here, on whether academics should venture into the blogosphere
…I realize I have gone on about this pedagogical stuff, but it’s for a reason. The replacement of grammar with “intuitive” forms of knowledge distribution, I want to argue, really has enormous historical consequences. We live in an age where in our society those who occupy epistemologically privileged positions, who are in the position of the one who knows, frequently “withhold,” as our Slatester so admirably put it in her article. Just look around, and see what has come of the Boomers’ preoccupation with cool, antiauthoritarian personality: a society that is more divided, verbally inarticulate, becoming more classist, in every way, relentlessly and inexorably, more stratified.

Grammar, I would argue, is a necessary aid to the development of democratic mores. For when the precepts of the system are generally acknowledged it becomes easier to correct not only the student/subaltern, but the teacher/authority as well, when either fails to get it right. In this way social relations become more transparent. Rules are indeed ineluctable, either explicitly through pedagogical instruction, or implicitly through behavior, but to serve as the ground for intellectual or political struggle, rules must be capable of being articulated.—MarkEHaag, here, on whether students should “have the ‘right’ to their own language,” as the National Council of Teachers of English maintains.
…My younger son is apparently in some sort of romantic spot again. I can tell because he’s started writing poetry instead of drawing Square-meets-Gary Gygax weapons in his journal. I don’t mind that so much, because he at least writes it out longhand and isn’t sharing it out somewhere on the Internet for the whole world to see. What I mind is the music.

When he’s happy about the whole thing it’s not so bad. The usual Angry Young Man Mix comes creeping out into the house from under his bedroom door like a damp, thumping fog. The glass in the pictures in the hallway vibrates along like T-rex is coming up the sidewalk. Typical stuff, really.

When it’s not going well things get really drippy. Like bad Good Charlotte ballad drippy, and it’s played loud enough to melt the walls. And it’s the same @)^%#$&’ song over and over. And he sings along. Badly. After a while, the mood infects the whole rest of the house. Everyone starts to bark, and before I know it my living room looks like one of those old Tasmanian Devil cartoons - just a cloud of dust with various limbs sticking out of it and comic book cussing floating in the air above.

I don’t mind that music so much under normal conditions. In the right state of mind I actually enjoy that stuff. But not when it starts coming in on everything that isn’t plastic and I’m dealing with Surly, Jerk-boy, Sybil and Eve.

I made them all watch “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” before bed. Lightened things up considerably.—MsZilla, here, fighting overwrought straight-boy adolescence so you don’t have to.  
Sunday, November the 20th is the anniversary of Marcel Dalio’s death in 1983. It was the end of a serendipitous life. You know him. He was a citizen of the world. Born Israel Moshe Blauschild, in Paris, in 1900, he became a much sought-after character actor. His lovely animated face with its great expressive eyes became familiar across Europe. He appeared in Jean Renoir’s idiosyncratic Rules of the Game, and Grand Illusion, arguably the greatest of all films. True to his Frenchman’s heart, he married the very young, breathtaking beauty Madeleine LeBeau. He worked with von Stroheim and Pierre Chenal. He had it all.But then the Germans crushed Poland, swept across Belgium and pressed on toward Paris. He waited until the last possible moment and finally, with the sound of artillery clearly audible, with Madeleine, fled in a borrowed car to Orleans and then, in a freight train, to Bordeaux and finally to Portugal…After a short time, friends in the film industry arranged for them to arrive in Hollywood. Nearly broke, Marcel was immediately put to work in a string of largely forgettable films…In early 1942, Jack Warner was driving production of a film based on a one act play, ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ but had no screenplay……[W]hen Claude Rains delivers the signature line, ‘I’m shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’ the croupier, Emil, played by Marcel Dalio, approaches from the roulette table and says simply, ‘Your winnings, sir.’ It is a delicious moment ripe with scripted irony, one among many in this film, but one made all the more so knowing where Dalio came from and what he and his wife had endured to arrive at that line.

I have often wondered exactly when they saw the final script or if they only realized the many parallels to their own lives when the film was released.Late in his career, when Mike Nichols was looking for a vaguely familiar face to deliver a long and worldly, near-monologue in Catch-22, he turned to Dalio. Faced with a hopelessly idealistic young American pilot, Dalio, as simply ‘old man in whore house’, in tight close-up, delivers a discourse on practical people faced with impractical circumstances, of the virtues of expedience in the face of amorality. Using his wonderful plastic features, now beginning to sag, in a voice full of melancholy, the old man reassures the young man that regardless of what ‘grand themes’ may be afoot in the world, in the end, little matters but survival.—MichaelRyerson, with an homage to character screen actor Marcel Dario. Please read the post in its entirety here