Friday, March 31, 2006

Button-Pushing Prayer

So here is the absurd denouement of one of the sillier stories of recent years--the futile, Templeton-funded attempt to prove the value of intercessory prayer by experiment.

Like so many of the blind alleys stumbled into by people eager to defend the value of religion in the modern world (such as creationism), it's traceable to a category error. Like the other great monotheistic faiths, Christianity is neither magic nor science. It's not a box into which you can keypad specific instructions and expect to get predictable results. It's about our personal relationship with God. And like all personal relationships, our relationship with God doesn't obey simple and obvious rules.

Think about the people you know. Most of them are fairly difficult to manipulate, aren't they? And those who are easy to manipulate--the ones whose buttons you can push and be sure of getting a particular, stereotyped response--are the ones you tend to hold in contempt, no? Whereas the people we love and respect are at least a bit unpredictable. And the richest relationships are the ones where we can say, after twenty or thirty years, "Sometimes she still surprises me."

Given that, why on earth would anyone believe that God responds to prayers like a pigeon in a Skinner box, automatically pecking a lever in response to a flashing light? And how could someone who holds God in such contempt be considered "religious"?

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World Wide Webers Sells Out

Frequent visitors to this site will notice two changes today. First, we are now running ads in a new right-hand column. With traffic having quadrupled over the past six months, we've crossed the threshold to a place where advertising revenues are possible. (I guess that place is called "the free market." First Romania, now World Wide Webers.) We don't expect advertising to enable us to quit our day jobs or even upgrade our wardrobes, but perhaps we'll be able to pay for Internet access. We'll keep you posted.

You are of course urged to visit and patronize our advertisers. And if you would like to reach our remarkably discerning and rapidly-growing audience with a message of your own, contact Blogads via the link on the right. Or email me if you're a "friend of the family" and would like to cadge a special discount. (No one can accuse me of not knowing my readership.) We'll be very accommodating, especially in these early days when advertisers are just beginning to discover us.

Second, we have switched to HaloScan to host our commenting. I think most people will find this system faster and easier to use than the old Blogger interface. There is one downside: Previous comments posted via Blogger will no longer be accessible (though they remain archived in the nether reaches of cyberspace). But I think the tradeoff will be worthwhile. Check out the new HaloScan setup and start posting your comments--including any diatribes against us for having become capitalist whores.
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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Steroid Frenzy Goes Into High Gear

So former senator George Mitchell will be heading an investigation into steroid use in professional baseball. Maybe I'm slow, but I still don't get it. That is, I don't get the huffing, puffing, and general bloviating in the sports pages and on the talk shows about the dangers steroids pose to "the integrity of the game," "baseball's sacred records," "the purity of sport," etc. etc. For all the talk about Barry Bonds "making a mockery of baseball" and all the hand-wringing about "what will we tell the six-year-olds?" I don't fathom what it is about steroids that makes them so profoundly offensive to so many fans.

I can see several possibilities:

1. Use of steroids without a valid prescription is illegal. This is true. But it's rare to see fans or commentators getting red-faced about other illegal actions on the part of athletes. If a guy hits his wife or cracks up a car or cheats on his taxes, he gets prosecuted by the government and is generally suspended or otherwise punished by his team. It's a P.R. black eye, and usually costs the athlete some endorsement income. But no one claims that this kind of behavior poses a threat to the future of sports.

As for using "illegal substances," no one advocates stripping from the record books all the stats of Keith Hernandez or any of the other 1970s users of cocaine, pot, and greenies. If we're going to go that route, Babe Ruth should be erased from history, too. He's famous for his abuse of a certain substance that was definitely illegal in his day--alcohol. Most people act as if this made him "colorful"--not Public Enemy Number 1, like Barry Bonds.

2. Steroids are bad for you. This is also true. I don't advocate pro athletes using stuff that will shorten their lives, and I certainly hate the idea of college and high school kids taking steroids in a competitive arms-race modeled on the behavior of the pros.

But since when do we get hysterical about athletes doing things that are bad for them? Keith Hernandez was a chain smoker, which any actuary can tell you is not good for your life expectancy. (I don't mean to pick on Keith Hernandez. Despite his bad habits he is actually my favorite all-time Met, which I guess shows how seriously I take this whole "role-model" business.) Plenty of other athletes drink, eat crap, drive recklessly, etc. etc. This behavior is deplorable but, again, never seems to provoke the indignation caused by steroids.

3. Steroids give some athletes an artificial competitive advantage. Now I think we are getting closer to the real source of the general outrage. Fans and pundits seem to think of steroids as "cheating," which is why Barry Bonds's pursuit of the home run record is such a focus in the current controversy. The idea seems to be that he doesn't "deserve" to surpass Hank Aaron, because after all Hank Aaron hit his 755 home runs without being juiced.

There's a certain logic to this. But also a huge inconsistency. Let's assume (what I think no one has ever proven), that taking steroids gives a ballplayer a physical advantage he wouldn't otherwise have. How exactly is this different from the many other "artificial" physical treatments used by athletes that are widely accepted, even lauded? Of course steroids aren't "natural." But are massive doses of vitamins natural? Is Tommy John tendon-replacement surgery natural?

In a column in today's New York Daily News, John Harper talks about some of the scientific advances that are enabling today's athletes to extend their careers into their late 30s and beyond:

Recently retired Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, for example, recalls his career coming to an abrupt end in 1974 at age 32 when he tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder.

"In those days they didn't do surgery for an injury like that," Stottlemyre recalls. "I remember I had a doctor tell me my shoulder was a surgeon's dream. He said he could repair the damage but that I'd have what he called a frozen shoulder, and I wouldn't be able to pitch.

"So all I could do was rest the shoulder, do some exercises for it, and hope for the best. It started to feel better after several months but then I hurt it again doing some exercises with weights, and that was it. I had to walk away.

"Now you see guys come back from that injury and continue to pitch for years, because the surgical techniques are so much more advanced."

Same goes for knees. Surely Mickey Mantle would have hit 600-plus home runs, maybe 700, had the arthroscope been around 50 years ago to repair his various knee injuries without having to cut his leg open every time.

Now, if Mantle were living today and were threatening the home run record on surgically-repaired knees, would anyone be talking about striking his achievement from the history books on the ground that Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth didn't have the edge provided by arthroscopy?

The truth is that I don't think any of the people who are frothing at the mouth about steroids have actually thought through the reasons for their attitude. They generally speak as if the offensiveness of steroids is self-evident and therefore needs no explanation.

In the end--since I really can't see any rational reasons why steroid use should be considered so much worse than any of the other behaviors I've compared it to--I strongly suspect that the anti-steroid frenzy is driven by a mixture of irrational factors. My hypothetical list would include (1) the unthinking anti-drug hysteria to which most Americans subscribe (even as they ingest ever-increasing levels of medications); (2) the toxic sense of resentment and alienation toward pro athletes generated by their high salaries and the negative propaganda produced by most sports commentators over the past three decades; and (3) an element of racial prejudice--which is one reason why Barry Bonds has taken a lot more grief over his assumed steroid use than Mark McGwire.

What do you think? Is there some logical reason for the steroid frenzy that I've overlooked? (Other than the purely esthetic argument that I wrote about almost a year ago.) If there is, I'd love to hear it.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I Also Have To Make My Own Photocopies

What a day. My Internet connection has died somehow. Especially maddening since both computers keep blissfully announcing that my wireless network connection is in particularly fine fettle ("Status: Connected. Signal strength: Excellent"). A little like having your auto mechanic assuring you that your car is an absolute dream, a creampuff, except that you have to push it to go anywhere.

So I am blogging from the beautiful Chappaqua public librarary, which our realtor told us seventeen years ago when we were house-hunting had been built by the town's education-minded citizens in lieu of a swimming pool . . . one of the smaller factors that led us to settle here.

Anyway I have spent about two hours on the line with my ISP trying to get the problem straightened out. The last conversation ended with the service person advising me to phone Intel, a scary suggestion that bodes many more fruitless hours on the phone.

Meanwhile in the car on my latest trip to the library I caught five minutes of The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, New York's NPR station--just enough time to hear Eric Burns, author of Infamous Scribblers, a book about journalists during the American Revolution, explain that the world's first newspaper was founded by an Italian named Aretino, "a Renaissance pornographer and blackmailer." That I guess is the high journalistic tradition we bloggers can't be trusted to uphold.

But now I'm just being bitter. If I worked for the New York Times or even The Village Voice I bet I would have an Internet connection that worked. Being freelance is absolutely wonderful except for those times when it's sheer hell.
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Now We're To Blame for Ben Domenech, Too

Here's the latest example of the bizarre lengths to which some in the media will go to Blame Liberals First. In The New Republic, Rob Anderson bemoans the shallowly stereotyped image that liberals supposedly have of red-state Americans. He then links this to (of all things) the recent case of the ill-fated Washington Post blogger Ben Domenech:

Last week, the Post breathed new life into those old stereotypes by launching Red America, a blog dedicated to offering "a daily mix of commentary, analysis, and cultural criticism" from a right-wing perspective.

And Anderson then goes on to berate the Post for hiring Domenech--a vitriolic right-wing hack and, we now know, a plagiarist--rather than one of the many "respected" conservative journalists he says were available.

Fascinating. A conservative blogger who has extensive writing experience for National Review Online, The Washington Times, and RedState.com, and is also an editor at Regnery, the favorite book-publishing house of the right, is given a role on the big stage at the Washington Post--and when he turns out to be a sleazeball, it's the liberals' fault?!

This is of a piece with the emerging conservative meme (via Bruce Bartlett, et. al.) that the problem with Bush's policies has been that he is a budget-buster, an internationalist, and a big-government supporter--in short, a liberal.

Any day now we'll be hearing that Howard Dean and Russ Feingold were responsible for appointing Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez, and Chertoff. As for invading Iraq--hey, Bush did it solely to satisfy the demands of the NAACP, the ACLU, and the teachers' unions.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

A President Who Knows How To Hyperlink

Novice blogger Jimmy Carter fields questions on Daily Kos. It's a love fest combined with some thoughtful policy exchanges . . . until President Carter compliments James Baker, which is a little too much Southern gentility for most Kossacks to swallow.

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The Difference Between a Priest and a Politician

In the letters column of today's Times, Donald M. Sullivan of Edina, Minnesota, takes aim against a Catholic leader who has criticized the harsh anti-immigration bill sponsored by House Republicans with what he apparently feels is a telling riposte:

Wow! Cardinal Roger Mahoney puts the separation of church and state issue right out there by stating, "Denying aid to a fellow human being violates a law with higher authority than Congress--the law of God."

Evidently he wants a line-item veto for his God.

Gee, I guess those liberals who criticize Republican politicos for their quasi-theocratic impulses are total hypocrites, eh?

Er, not exactly. Cardinal Mahoney is a priest. When a priest cites religious doctrine in support of a particular social policy, it doesn't violate church/state separation because a priest is part of the church. He speaks for the church, works for the church, and even gets paid by the church. So when he stands up for church teaching and tries to persuade others of its correctness, he is simply doing his job.

The rest of us, of course, are free to decide for ourselves whether or not we agree. And when a Catholic priest (for example) takes a position I think is ridiculous, I'm free to ignore him--especially since I'm not a Catholic.

By contrast, a president, governor, or senator is supposed to represent all the people. (He certainly gets paid by all of them.) So when he cites religious doctrine in support of a particular policy, he is straddling the church/state divide, positioning himself not just as "President of the United States" or "Governor of Texas" but as "the Baptist President" or "the evangelical Governor."

Which leaves the rest of us without representation. And since he's the governor or the president, I can't just ignore him. The bills he signs and the executive orders he issues apply to me, whether I'm Jewish or Muslim or an atheist. So there better be some serious non-religious justification for them. If there isn't, we might just as well order all the Jews, Muslims, and atheists to color Easter eggs and eat pork and take holy communion, and stop pretending they have equal status to other citizens.

Contrary to what some confused conservatives like Donald M. Sullivan seem to think, the liberal defense of church/state separation isn't about silencing priests (or ministers, rabbis, or imams) when they talk about social issues. It's about reminding politicians that we hired them to be politicians. Not priests.

Hey, don't bother to thank me, Donald. Just glad I could clear that up.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Digby on Republican Lawlessness

Our man Digby over at Hullabaloo is always good, but this post is one of his best--a reasoned but impassioned plea for Americans to recognize the full implications of the lawlessness of the Bush administration and the long-term threat it poses to our constitution.

He finishes the post this way:

Back in 1974, I was in favor of pardoning Richard Nixon. I thought that it was wise to "bind up the country's wounds." I was wrong. The Republicans barely missed a beat and just went right on with the program. Whether George W. Bush can be charged with a crime, I don't know. But I have no doubt that it would be good for the country, not bad, if the Republicans were held to account for their undemocratic actions once and for all. They're impeaching, stealing eleactions and starting unnecessary wars now. What is it going to take before people realize that we are dealing with an outlaw political party?

How well I remember being infuriated over that pardon of Nixon. (Ford had previously promised never to do such a thing, saying, "I don't think the country would stand for it.") It wasn't important that Nixon should be personally punished. If he had been indicted for his crimes (obstruction of justice, invasion of privacy, mail fraud, breaking and entering, money laundering, and what-have-you) and convicted by a jury of his peers based on evidence entered in open court, I would not have objected if Ford had then chosen to pardon him, obviating a jail sentence.

But the process would have been healthy. It would have reaffirmed the truth that no person is above the law. It would have upheld not just the letter but the spirit of the constitution (which specifically states that an officer holder who is impeached shall not be exempt from sanctions under the criminal and civil law (Article I, Section 3):

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

Most important, it would have made it much harder for the Republicans to respond as they did--by mounting a decades-long whispering campaign that claimed the Democrats and the media destroyed Nixon for purely political reasons. This campaign helped foster a generation of Republican activists bitterly convinced that power had been stolen from them by traitorous liberals and prepared to do whatever it took to return the favor--and to fix the system so that power will remain in their hands permanently. Which they're now in the process of doing.

It's impossible to know how history might have been different if Ford had never pardoned Nixon. Maybe it wouldn't have made much difference. But I think there's a real chance that politics today might be much healthier if we'd dealt with the crimes of the Nixon administration publicly and legally, demanding full and open accountability for them.

Which is why the consensus image of Gerald Ford as an amiable, decent, and ultimately insignificant figure is seriously askew. The Nixon pardon was a major blunder for which, I believe, the nation is still suffering.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Hypnotic Blue Marbles

You owe it to yourself to try this link (via Pharyngula, one of the finalists for Blog Most Deserving Wider Recognition in this year's Koufax Awards). And if you end up wasting some time on it, spare some sympathy for whoever created it in the first place.
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Bush: LBJ Without the Torment

In today's WaPo, the well-meaning David Ignatius diagnoses Bush's problem with Iraq as a communications failure: If only the president could figure out a better way to explain his policies to the American people, all would be well. The author's assumption that Bush has a sensible Iraq policy is one that the majority of American people abandoned several months ago--and with good reason.

But even more questionable is another assumption Ignatius makes, this one about the president's own psychology:

Bush has lacked the tragic sensibility found in many of our great presidents. He works so hard at his show of easy informality that you rarely sense the inner man and the anguish that must be there. . . . Bush works hard to disguise it, but one senses the same inner conflict that afflicted Johnson as Vietnam began to go bad. In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam described LBJ's torment: "He was a good enough politician to know what had gone wrong and what he was in for and what it meant to his dreams, but he could not turn back, he could not admit that he had made a mistake. He could not lose and thus he had to plunge forward."

Actually, I don't read Bush this way at all. Nothing he says or does in public suggests any inner torment over Iraq or anything else. Neither does anything reported by the many insiders who have written or leaked accounts of the inner workings of the administration. Bush is universally described as serene, confident, incurious, and unconcerned. He thinks it's appropriate to make jokes about the failure to find WMDs. When Paul Bremer visits him to discuss the challenges of forming a new Iraqi government, the only question Bush asks is whether the new leaders will publicly express their gratitude to America. When a distinguished array of past secretaries of state visits the White House, Bush doesn't seize the opportunity to tap the wisdom they gleaned from past struggles such as Vietnam; instead he poses for photos and then gets the hell out of there lest he hear any unsolicited advice.

As Ignatius notes, Bush appears "tightly-wound" in his recent public appearances to defend his Iraq policy. But the flashes of emotion he shows when sharply questioned don't seem to reflect any profound personal anguish. Instead, they suggest the petulance of a man who resents being challenged, wishes he could exercise dictatorial powers, and is venturing outside his cocoon of yes-men (and yes-women) only because his advisors have pushed him to do so.

As I say, Ignatius is well-meaning. He wants to believe--maybe he needs to believe--that our president is a decent, open-hearted, caring human being who understands the pain his policies have caused and desperately wants to alleviate it. I'd like to believe it, too. Unfortunately, there's zero evidence that it's true.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Frequent-Flyer Miles and the Droit du Seigneur

Here is an exchange from today's "Work & Family Mailbox" in the Wall Street Journal that epitomizes part of what's so depressing about life in the corporation:

Q: My manager and I were traveling together on a five-hour flight during a business trip. We have a very good working relationship. To my surprise, my manager decided to upgrade to first class using his personal miles. He said he wanted the free drinks and better food. Is this bad manners or no big deal?--R.A., San Ramon, Calif.

A: It's usually fine for a manager or a co-worker of equal status to treat him or herself to an upgrade, says Peter Post, a Burlington, Vt., author and etiquette expert. The manager's error, he says, was mentioning the better food and free drinks, which understandably may have made you feel slighted. He might more wisely have said something like, "I fly a lot, and this is an opportunity to treat myself." The answer might be different, however, if you, the subordinate, had been the one with extra miles for an upgrade.

"Probably the better part of valor is not to use an upgrade if the person you're traveling with is of higher rank," Mr. Post says.

I wouldn't quarrel with the advice offered by Peter Post (via the Journal columnist, Sue Shellenberger). It's probably sound. But it brings back vividly the petty anxieties and humiliations that pervade the corporate world I left almost nine years ago (forever, God willing). Business etiquette largely involves agonizing over all kinds of actions that are insignificant in themselves but may have symbolic resonance in terms of power relationships. What will my boss think if I say or do the wrong thing? Am I eating or drinking something I shouldn't? Did I laugh too loud at his joke--or not loud enough? Is it safe to leave the office yet (I finished my work hours ago) or should I sit here pretending to work for another twenty minutes just to be on the safe side? And what about my clothes--dear Lord, my clothes . . . !?

For all the talk among consultants and new-age business theorists about "flat organizations" that have "no hierarchy" and supposedly consist of self-organizing teams that freely form and reform as conditions demand, the culture of most companies still involves this medieval stuff about "rank" and finely-calibrated gradations of power, prestige, and privilege. From the outside, it appears silly. But from inside--when your family's livelihood depends on negotiating it successfully--it causes plenty of sleepless nights and tension headaches.

I'd love to see this system truly reformed, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, we ought to at least question the right-wing assumption that laissez-faire capitalism and political democracy automatically go together. It's hard to see how the social structures of the corporation promote genuinely democratic values and attitudes among those most deeply enmeshed in them.

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Jimmy Carter Joins the Blogosphere

. . . with this post on Daily Kos requesting support for his son Jack's senatorial candidacy in Nevada. Is that cool or what?

If you want a fascinating read, check out Carter's book Turning Point, which recounts his first political campaign, a successful bid for a seat in the Georgia state senate in 1962. It's a story from another era. Carter had to overcome overtly racist bosses who twisted laws and committed violence to prevent Blacks from registering to vote, while also using their control of local welfare programs to keep the beneficiaries--overwhelmingly white--under their political thumbs.

Now, more than forty years later, Jimmy Carter is still active in supporting progressive change, using new weapons to fight against new forms of repression and fraud. This is a remarkable moment in history.

Welcome to the new grass roots of democracy, Mr. President.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bush Tackles the Cuban Missile Crisis

As part of my research for a book I'm editing, which deals in part with decision making, I'm rereading a wonderful book called Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (Free Press, 1986). It was written by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, two academics and high-level government policy advisors, and I highly recommend it for the light it sheds on how effective decisions get made and on the right and wrong ways to go about tackling complex problems.

However, I was incidentally struck by one element from Neustadt and May's account of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which they discuss as an example of the value to decision-makers in time of stress of sophisticated historical awareness. They describe the make-up of ExComm, the hastily-assembled working group of six to ten key advisors chosen by Kennedy to deliberate in secret about what to do in response to Krushchev's placement of missiles in Cuba:

[Kennedy] included in ExComm men who did not have to be there. [Treasury Secretary Douglas] Dillion is one example. The Treasury Department had no title to representation . . . Since Dillon had been Under Secretary of State for Eisenhower and was the most conspicuous Republican in the subsequent Administration, Kennedy may have wanted him for the sake of seeming bipartisan. The same could hold true for his inviting former Defense Secretary Robert A. Lovett to join ExComm, for Lovett was a leader of New York's Republican establishment. Or Kennedy may have turned to Dillon and Lovett just because he valued their judgment. Whatever the case, he got as a bonus the benefit of long and wide-ranging experience.

And Neustadt goes on to detail the specific contributions to the debate that Dillon and Lovett made during the eight days of the crisis.

It's stunning to turn back the calendar by a generation or two and see how much has changed. Can you conceive of George W. Bush inviting two prominent Democrats, including a member of Clinton's administration, to be among the handful of people meeting with him in secret to make crucial decisions about Iraq or Iran? Even among Republicans, it's well known that the spectrum of opinions Bush is willing to hear is very narrow. And as you recall, when he invited past secretaries of state to visit the White House for a ceremonial photo op, he allowed almost no time for actual conversation, lest he be subjected to a point of view not his own.

I don't know about you, but I find it pretty scary to picture the people that Bush would gather around him if he had to tackle the Cuban missile crisis today.

I mustn't exaggerate Kennedy's wisdom. It was his team that soon got us into Vietnam (although historians still debate whether or not he would have gotten us back out if he'd lived).

Also, the changes since 1962 aren't purely personal. Back then we still had the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of the Cold War (a mixed blessing of course), which meant that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats wasn't as deep and wide as today.

But Neustadt was writing in 1986, by which time the Cold War was over and Reagan was in power, and he doesn't express any astonishment over Kennedy's bipartisanship in a time of crisis. Whereas today such openness seems unimaginable--yet another deplorable legacy of the Bush presidency.

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Instant Karma's Gonna Get Him

Sister Ingrid sends along this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer and adds, "You have my permission to turn this into a good blog entry--I won't be able to do it justice." Here's the gist:

In an awe-inspiring disregard of decency, taste and respect, not to say a sublimely cynical bet on the stupidity of the public, Starcast Productions will air a pay-per-view seance from the grave of Beatle great John Lennon.

Responding to claims that the show, which says it'll try to to speak to the singer, is tasteless, producer Paul Sharratt said, "We're making a serious attempt to do something that many, many millions of people around the world think is possible." (What, separate a fool from his money?)

Sharratt, who does not have Yoko Ono's blessing, says he's not a believer in the paranormal, but claims his previous effort, the Spirit of Diana, had a therapeutic effect for the 500,000 folks who paid $14.95 each for its inspiration. At $9.95, the April 24 Lennon atrocity is a bargain.


Actually, Ingrid, I think this is one of those stories that speaks for itself. Pretty depressing. Although I do hope they get around to asking John's spirit what he thinks of Len It Be. The world wants to know.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

What's In A Name? Medical Department

Part of my day is spent submitting medical claims to insurance companies for a primary care physician. I use a series of diagnotic codes called the International Classification of Diseases or ICD-9 codes. The most common codes my doctor submits are 477.9 - Acute Allergic Rhinitis (the sniffles) and 780.52 - Insomnia (insomnia) .
While flipping through the code book, I came across these other interesting names. Here they are with their corresponding codes, in case you want to submit them to your insurance company .

Plague - 020.9
Bird Fanciers Disease - 495.2 (You just don't hear the word "fancier" very much these days.)
Living Alone - V60.3 (I didn't know it was a disease!)
Fort Bragg Fever - 100.89
Poker Spine - 720.0 (My personal favorite.)
Soduko - 026.0 (Isn't this the puzzle craze sweeping the nation? Okay, that's Suduko. Actually, the truth is kinda creepy--this is described as rat-bite fever.)
Preacher's Voice - 784.49
Nun's Knee - 727.2
Found dead - 798.9
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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lucre and Love Among the Literati

So I open up my email this afternoon and I read:

A Book Dedicated to You

Later this year, the second editions of The Dimwit's Dictionary and The Dictionary of Concise Writing, both by Robert Hartwell Fiske, will be published.

Since The Vocabula Review struggles endlessly to make ends meet, we thought we would offer book dedications to the highest bidders.

If you would like one of these two books dedicated to you, or to someone you know, please make your bid. You'll write the dedication, and we'll publish it (so long as it's in good taste, of course). Bidding starts at $250.00. Bid here: info@vocabula.com.

The Vocabula Review is an online magazine about the English language edited by the same Robert Hartwell Fiske who has authored the two books in question. The magazine takes a prescriptive bent (bemoaning the misuse of words and widespread ignorance of correct grammar), which is not exactly my cup of tea, but it's amusing.

Among other eccentricities, the magazine's header notes, "The February issue is 34,211 words long." Reminds me of the old Liberty magazine from the 1930s and 40s, where each article was tagged with its reading time: "Nine minutes, 30 seconds." A weird convention that never caught on.

When I read about Fiske's auction-dedication scheme, I assumed it was unprecedented. The only analogy that occurred to me was an instance a few years ago when some mystery writer auctioned off naming rights for a character in a forthcoming novel (proceeds going to charity). But in this crazy world, anything that can be done has been done, usually many times. A few seconds on Google showed that auctioning off naming rights for fictional characters has become surprisingly common, as you can read here or here. And auctioning off dedication rights isn't unknown either, as seen here and here.

So Fiske's buy-the-dedication ploy isn't a first. But he may be first author driven to it by being unlucky in love. When I asked him about where he got the idea, Fiske explained:

I have written a few books, some of them published once, some published twice, and in more instances than not, the person (often a woman) whom I have dedicated a book to I no longer speak to. It's terribly disheartening--this dedication business. I have a third book coming out in a revised edition in June: The Dictionary of Disagreeable English--Deluxe Edition. That book I sweetly dedicate to the woman I now love, but I am terrified that it'll be the death knell of our relationship.

I thought I might give others a shot at dedication.

Poor fellow. It must be depressing for a writer to assume that every time he publishes a book, his current sweetie is sure to dump him. Of course, the problem may be caused by his titles. The Dictionary of Concise Writing is all right, but a woman might well get her nose out of shape about being presented with a book where the biggest word on the cover is Dimwit or Disagreeable.

So there's really a sad, almost tragic, backstory behind what might otherwise appear to be a crassly commercial strategem. Who knows?--Maybe Fiske and the ultimate winner of his dedication auction will fall in love and live happily ever after.

By six thirty this evening, Fiske had received a starting bid of $300. Good luck, Bob--here's hoping she's pretty.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Paging the Anti-Religious Elite

Over at The Washington Monthly, guest blogger Steven Waldman frets about the supposed anti-religious hostility of liberals. He says he was about to apologize for describing this tendency with too sweeping a brush, but changed his mind after reading this quotation from Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine:

Overwhelmingly, the white activists who shaped the Left of the 1960s have remained mired in a culture of hostility toward religion and spirituality. If this were merely a historical curiosity, I'd leave this issue to the cultural historians. But since the Left's hostility to religion and spirituality has become such a major stumbling block to the chances that progressive forces will ever win enough power to actually change the socially and environmentally destructive policies of the West, it becomes important to explore the roots of this hostility.

I don't know what makes Lerner the definitive expert on the American left. But I'd take even stronger exception to Waldman's final comment:

I think a distinction should be made between the elites and the rank and file on this. The fact is that most Democrats are religious. But secular liberals, who made up about 16% of the Kerry vote . . . seem to have a disproportionate impact on the party's image and approach.

Says who? The fact is that the vast majority of members of any meaningful "elite" group in this country--including virtually all Democratic politicians, party leaders, and activitists--make a point of behaving with respect or deference toward religion, even if they themselves are not religious. I'd love to see citations of any actual "anti-religious" comments uttered by anyone with meaningful influence in Democratic circles. (Obscure academics and spokespersons for small, little-known advocacy groups don't count.)

Actually, Waldman is right when he says that the militantly secular have a disproportionate impact on the party's image. But that's not because they have any real impact on its approach. It's because of decades of phony propaganda by the right, which likes to pretend that defending religious pluaralism and state-church separation is tantamount to being "anti-Christian."

As a liberal Democrat--who also happens to be religious--I'm tired of seeing Democrats issue public apologies for political sins we actually haven't been committing.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Only Southerners Need Apply

Today's New York Times Magazine features a cover story by Matt Bai about Mark Warner, presenting him (in accordance with conventional wisdom--which of course is the stock in trade of the New York Times Magazine) as the centrist southern alternative to Hillary. Typical quote:

Results do matter to voters, Warner says, but only if you make it impossible for Republicans to paint your nominee as another protester-turned-windsurfer who looks down on people who go to a megachurch and like to watch the stock cars race.

I don't have anything particular against Warner, although I'd favor a much more liberal candidate myself. But why does the mainstream media allow the white South to get away with depicting the Northeast as a haven of elitist liberals unfit for national office?

Democrats from around the country have repeatedly supported centrist southerners as presidential candidates--Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, even Lyndon Johnson (if you care to reach back that far). We haven't been put off by their accents or their clothes or their religious affiliations or their taste in food. But every four years we have to listen to lectures about how middle America won't vote for someone who talks fast or drinks white wine or likes to watch foreign films--and how, if the Democrats want to win an election, they must nominate a southerner.

If "elitism" means a bigoted belief in the superiority of one's own kind and a rejection of those from different backgrounds, who exactly are the elitists here?
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Friday, March 10, 2006

Take Your Lumps, Andy

Sorry, Andy, it just won't do.

In this post, Andrew Sullivan tries to defend himself against Paul Krugman's I-told-you-so blast in today's Times against the johnny-come-lately conservatives who have suddenly noticed the moral and intellectual holes in the Bush presidency and especially in his ill-conceived Iraq war.

As Krugman says, it's nice that about-facers like Sullivan and Bruce Bartlett have come around to the liberal perspective on Bush. It would be even nicer if they hadn't spent three years denouncing liberals as unpatriotic for espousing the very views they now embrace.

Here's how Sullivan now tries to justify his past blindness:

Yes, I lionized George W. Bush for a while after 9/11, and, in retrospect, my attempt to place trust in him at a time of national peril was a misjudgment. But then, in times of peril, some of us feel that supporting the president, whoever he is, and hoping he gets things right, are not contemptible impulses. I should have been more skeptical. In less dire circumstances, I might have been. But some of us, in the days after 9/11, did not immediately go into partisan mode, put aside some of our other objections (like the fiscal mess and the anti-gay policies), and rallied behind a president at war.

Sorry, but it just doesn't wash. There's a world of difference between the moderate stance Sullivan describes above--"Sure, we all have our differences, but let's give Bush a fair chance"--and the actual tone he struck at the time. Not just this, in a long essay shortly after 9/11:

The middle part of the country--the great red zone that voted for Bush--is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.

But also this, in a column responding to (of all people) Anthony Lewis:

A movement to oppose all and every Western response to terrorism is already afoot, and it is based on the notion, widely held in these quarters, that the United States is morally inferior to the hoodlums who killed thousands, or is so morally crippled that it has no right to a robust response.

And this, during the run-up to Iraq, describing "the anti-war left":

These people hate Bush more than they care about the fate of the oppressed people they pretend to care about . . . because they have deeper suspicions about the U.S. than about Saddam's Iraq. Yep, they're that depraved and out of it.

And this, after quoting an editorial in the Times opposing preemptive war:

There you have it: the moral equivalence, the short-sightedness, the moral preening, all disguising a fantastic error of judgment. If Saddam had had that nuclear capacity, there would have been no Gulf War, or one with disastrous consequences. The Times, of course, never learns. But this time, the security of the United States is at stake. We cannot let ourselves be led by the deluded and the defeatist any more.

I could go on quoting excerpts, but you get the idea. Sullivan now pretends to be shocked and saddened that anyone could have been offended by his well-meaning, open-hearted readiness to support our president in time of crisis. But at the time he was calling those who disagreed with him decadent, depraved, deluded, defeatist, and traitorous (which is the plain meaning of the "fifth column" jibe, though he later pretended otherwise). And not just once or twice, in the heat of rapid composition, but repeatedly, over a period of many months.

One of the things I've learned in thirty-plus years of marriage is that, when you do something really mean and stupid, you forfeit the right to dictate how the person you hurt reacts to your apology. You may think that saying "I was wrong and I'm sorry" takes a lot of guts and honesty and deserves to be rewarded with magnanimity and even admiration. But that's not your call. You've lost the moral high ground, and if the person you wronged wants to take you to task--even in a loud and angry tone of voice--you have no right to complain. Just shut up and take what's coming to you.

That's the position Andy Sullivan now occupies in relation to all his liberal "friends." He was wrong about Bush and the war--totally wrong--and he was a prick about it, too. Now he has to take his lumps, even if it is Paul Krugman who administers them.

That's life, Andy.

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Rich? Poor? Either Way, You Deserve It!

Wow, David Brooks really had me going there. For the first time in memory, I read a column of his (yesterday, March 9) without once thinking, "What incredible idiocy! And how eloquently and cleverly expressed!"

That is, until the very last sentence, when Brooks returned stunningly to form.

The column was about the sociological research of Annette Lareau, author of (among other books) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Lareau has studied the parenting styles in upper-middle-class and working-class families and observed marked differences in the amount and kinds of cross-generational communication, parental involvement in kids' activities, and emotional and psychologial distance between parents and kids. To over-simplify, working-class parents tend to give orders, refuse to explain decisions, and generally talk with their kids less, while middle-class parents accept backtalk, try to persuade rather than command, and encourage kids to express themselves. The middle-class parents also tend to program their kids' lives with organized activities, while working-class parents let the kids amuse themselves.

Most everyone would consider both of these behavioral patterns partly good, partly bad. For example, the capacity of middle-class kids to reason, argue, and talk with adults on a sophisticated level seems good; the fact that they're prone to whining and are unable to entertain themselves seems bad. But Lareau's point isn't that one style of parenting is good, another bad. Her point is that the structures of society tend to reward the upper-middle-class style, and that therefore these differences are one way that class distinctions tend to get perpetuated--and that people get pigeonholed from childhood.

Interesting and potentially valuable stuff, I'd say. And in his column, Brooks actually appears to summarize Lareau's work fairly accurately. Until that last sentence. Here is the grand take-away that Brooks actually believes is demonstrated by Lareau's analysis:

But the core issue is that today's rich don't exploit the poor; they just outcompete them.

What the--? How on earth is it possible to deduce this from Lareau's study of parenting styles?

I can think of lots of factual data that might help us resolve the question of whether today's rich exploit the poor. We might consider how the income gap between CEOs and front-line workers has changed over time or how the current minimum wage compares to top executive salaries. We might look at the array of health care, pension, and other benefits offered by major corporations and see how it has changed in the past generation. We might move to the macroeconomic scale and consider what percentage of the national income is flowing to hourly workers as compared to shareholders, or perform a similar who-gets-what analysis on an individual company basis.

Any or all of these data might help us determine what fraction of the national wealth is going to those at the bottom of the economic ladder and what fraction those at the top are keeping for themselves. And we could then apply our innate sense of fairness to deciding whether the current distribution pattern seems equitable or exploitative.

But, silly me!--that sort of economic analysis is evidently unnecessary. All David Brooks needs to know is that Lareau's working-class mom refuses to help her daughter build a playhouse out of boxes, and what's more she does it "casually and without guilt." This alone suffices to prove that the rich and the poor are both getting exactly what they deserve.

Which after all is the overarching, oh-so-comforting truth that David Brooks has dedicated his career to demonstrating.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I Won't Get Mike Tomasky's Vote

Ouch! I knew the answers to just 13 of the 25 questions in Michael Tomasky's Jeopardy-style quiz covering topics he thinks presidential contenders ought to know about. (Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias bemoans the fact that he knew "only" nineteen answers. Nobody likes a braggart, Matt, especially one who disguises his bragging as self-criticism--it's just soooo transparent.)

Happily, I'm not the only person who struggled with these tricky questions (as evidenced by the flood of criticism Tomasky has received for posting the quiz). Just call me a down-home populist, proud of my non-elite (i.e. sketchy) education. And pass the pork rinds.
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Teaching Iraq the ABCs of Democracy

The current issue of Economist, the right-leaning but honest British magazine of business and world affairs, contains this gloomy "leader" (i.e. editorial) summing up the current state of violence in Iraq. "What began as a Sunni-dominated insurgency against the occupiers," say the editors, "is now beginning to look increasingly like a civil war between Iraqis themselves."

Not to worry, however. The editors offer a series of suggestions about what the fledgling Iraqi government can do to avert the growing disaster:

The Shia majority that came out on top in January's general election needs urgently to show that it is willing to share real power with the parties that represent the Sunni minority. . . . It is equally vital that key ministries--defence, interior and finance, among others--be shared out, with Sunnis getting serious ones, and that ministers are prevented from packing them, as before, with cronies. And the Shias should respond to the urgings of America's ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, that the present interior minister, a Shia who is said to have allowed sectarian death squads to operate out of his ministry, be sacked.

Well, that all sounds simple enough. We just have to explain to the Iraqis that, in a democracy, the party in power must be willing to share power fairly with the opposition; that government jobs must be filled by capable people rather than cronies; and that incompetent or venal officials must be fired rather than retained out of "loyalty" or sheer stubbornness. It'll be easy for George Bush to convey to his Iraqi charges these simple lessons in democracy, won't it?

Hmm. On second thought, maybe the outlook in Baghdad is even worse than we'd feared.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

More Hybridized Beatles

My mad genius friend Arthur Maisel has done it again. As you may recall, he earlier rewrote John Lennon's "Imagine" in the style of Paul McCartney in an attempt to demonstrate the falsity of my (offhand) claim that "Imagine" was more like a McCartney tune than a typical Lennon production. (He later said that the process convinced him that I was sorta right.)

Now he has gone one step further, rewriting one of McCartney's schlockier tunes, "Let It Be," in the style of John Lennon. The result is fairly mind-blowing, featuring a weirdly brooding chord progression that reminds me, in my non-musically-educated fashion, of "Strawberry Fields."

Arthur says that translating Lennon into McCartney involves making the music less interesting, while the reverse operation involves, well, just the reverse. But he hastens to add that he doesn't actually consider Lennon a better composer than McCartney, as that might imply:

I think that McCartney is the more naturally "gifted" of the two, the "Mozart" of the pair, in the sense that beautiful ideas seem to occur to him almost effortlessly. Lennon, in this surely exaggerated analogy, is the "Beethoven," a man who had to work hard for his ideas. Lennon's successes are the result of dogged craft overcoming limited, though very real, talent; McCartney's failures are the result of too much reliance on what comes too easily.

I personally would add that McCartney's successes occur when the gift of melody and some personal emotional drive are somehow united by an apposite theme and form (as in "Penny Lane," for example), while Lennon's failures occur when his ambitions--literary, social, political, artistic--outreach his talents, producing some songs that are conceptually interesting but teeth-gratingly difficult to listen to (as in most of the cuts on Mind Games, for example).

Anyway, if you're a Beatles fan, you shouldn't miss these two musical curiosities, especially "Len It Be." They're fascinating and fun. You can download the MP3 files for "McImagine" here and "Len It Be" here.

Now, how would George Harrison have written them . . . ?

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

I Know That Spring Is Here . . .

. . . despite the fact that my deck sports three inches of freshly fallen snow--because the radio is reporting that the Mets defeated the Cardinals in Jupiter, Florida, today 12-7, boosted in part by a 4-for-4, six-RBI game by new Met Xavier Nady (including a grand slam). Carlos Delgado also had three hits--another auspicious Mets debut.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the off-season hasn't reduced the inanity of some of the baseball conversations on WFAN, the Mets' home station, to which I can't help dialing occasionally in hopes of hearing some gossip about Mets' rookies or an interview with Willie Randolph. I just caught a few minutes of Chris "Mad Dog" Russo ranting about how insufferable he finds Johnny Damon's professions of loyalty to New York and the Yankees after helping win a World Championship for Boston and the Red Sox. The idea is that Damon is some kind of phony for abandoning one team and signing a contract with another. Puh-leeze! As if Chris Russo wouldn't change employers for a twenty-five percent pay hike.

This is capped off by a caller complaining bitterly that "Baseball's not a game any more, it's a business." How many hundreds of times have I heard that line? Considering that baseball has been a business since 1869, I can't help wondering how much longer it will take some fans to get used to the idea. Pretty slow on the uptake, I'd say . . .

If baseball weren't a business, it wouldn't be available for our enjoyment, unless we created leagues featuring only players who are independently wealthy--which would eliminate ninety-nine point seven percent of the players anyone would want to watch. (What kind of TV ratings would polo matches from Newport, Rhode Island, fetch?)

So, yes, baseball is a business. How many more centuries will it take for some fans to stop pretending that this is some kind of tragedy?

P.S. Maybe you wonder why I respond to baseball commentary in the same blog where I analyze the political musings of E.J. Dionne and Michael Kinsley. It's simple: Like millions of people, I love baseball. And it irks me to hear the blowhards on sports radio and TV stations--both hosts and guests--spouting ill-informed, mostly right-wing, social and economic opinions in the guise of sports talk. Countless listeners--especially the young men who make up a big percentage of the audience--have their views of the world shaped, consciously or not, by the silly prejudices they imbibe from sports commentators. I think we liberals ought to do our part to challenge such bunk wherever it appears--not just in op-ed pages or on CNBC but also in sports talk shows, in the business pages, on shows about celebrity gossip, and in all the other places where conservative claptrap gets retailed between the lines.

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