Friday, December 30, 2005

Reading Lolita in Washington

USA Today reports that Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books -- much of which focuses on the secret book club Nafisi held in her home in Tehran after losing her university job -- is planning to launch an international online book discussion group.

In a world that she says has become too politicized, she wants to create a "domain of imagination that is not political. ... Read Shakespeare or (Margaret) Atwood. We don't know if they are Republicans."

Details of her online book club are being worked out. By spring, she hopes to organize free online discussions about books and authors.

The discussions, Nafisi says, will focus on writers who initially may seem unrelated. However, they can be discussed as part of larger themes.

For example, she hopes to contrast Jon Stewart's satirical textbook, America (the Book), with Allan Bloom's Shakespeare on Love and Friendship, to give the rest of the world a taste of American diversity. Or, the club will compare Atwood, the Canadian novelist, with human-rights activist Samantha Power and their approaches to human rights.

A book club "is a gold mine in terms of creating ideas" and getting people to communicate, she says. That's true both in Iran, where books that are considered subversive are banned, and in the USA, where "everything is so polarized that you have very little room for debate and understanding."

My first reaction: it's a great idea. One of the problems with today's public discourse, it seems ot me, is that it is so focused on politics and political issues, including personal issues turned political -- to the detriment of all the spheres of thought that deal with the vast aspects of the human condition that exist outside or beyond politics. It's entirely possible, for instance, to read, enjoy, and derive insights from the novels of Dostoyevsky while finding his politics (which were extremely reactionary and bigoted) abhorrent -- or knowing nothing about them. Sadly, too many of the institutions that should be promoting the study, understanding, and love of literature as a source of both truths and pleasures that transcend the present moment are busy politicizing it instead, with English departments as the worst culprits.

I once stumbled on a literature discussion board about a month after the 2000 election. While the board looked interesting, there were threads filled with so much anger and hatred toward Bush voters -- perceived in the most stereotypical terms as ignorant bigoted rednecks -- that I had no desire to stick around. (Even though I did not vote for Bush.) A woman I know who did vote for Bush, despite disagreeing with him on many issues including same-sex marriage, told me that she left another online book club for the same reason. An online book club tolerant toward political differences sounds like a great idea.

One of the things I loved about Reading Lolita in Tehran was Nafisi's evocation -- and creation -- of a world in which books mattered: book, ideas, the life of the mind, the inner life created by reading. It was also a world in which people of vastly different politics and ideologies could meet, and find a common language, in literature's realm. If Nafisi can recreate that, more power to her.

My second reaction: If Nafisi wants a nonpolitical book club, it's odd that one of the first projects she mentions is a comparison between Margaret Atwood (who, by the way, we very definitely know is not a Republican) and Samantha Power, not a "literary" writer but a political one who has written about genocide prevention. At the same time, I like the fact that Nafisi's vision for her book discussion groups includes popular culture (Jon Stewart) as well as "high culture." It will be interesting to see how this one works out.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More on women, families, and careers

Tuesday's Boston Globe has an article about women in science dealing with the career/family balance. Highlights:

As a graduate student at Harvard University and also a mother, [Deborah] Rud hopes to inspire female undergraduates to pursue both a career in science and a family. The trouble is, she's still figuring out if she herself can have both.

Rud nearly dropped out of her doctorate program after she gave birth, and she still fears that her family would suffer if she devoted herself to an academic research career.

The career choices of young women like Rud will to a great extent determine whether their generation will approach equality with men in university science departments.

In Rud's field, biology, women are 46 percent of the doctorate recipients from the nation's top 50 biology departments. But they make up only 30 percent of assistant professors and 15 percent of full professors. A similar ''leaky pipeline" is seen in other sciences, as well. A sizable number of the women who train in the sciences never enter the academic profession -- and the desire for more family time is a major reason.

''I don't know how many tenured female professors there are who have children and are a really big part of their children's lives," said Rud, 27. ''I don't know of any who go to soccer games and sometimes pick up their kids from school. I don't need to be there for all of it -- frankly it's a little mind-numbing -- but I want to be there for some of it."

Rud is a little unusual in having given birth to her first child in graduate school, but her soul-searching was echoed by more than two dozen other young female scientists in interviews with the Globe. Many of them are preoccupied with the question of whether to stay in academia at all, or whether to settle for less prestigious instructor positions.

These women, most of them studying in the booming field of life sciences, often describe working in laboratories where women are a robust minority, or even a majority, of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Few of them say they have experienced much discrimination. The primary barrier, they say, is the conflict between lab and family under the grueling demands of today's academic culture.


Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist, has spoken about how in her field, women are nearly half of new doctorate recipients, but only a quarter of faculty job applicants at top-tier universities.

''It does not take much imagination to recognize that the drop coincides with prime child-bearing years," Tilghman said in a speech this year at Columbia University.

The typical scientist is 32 by the time he or she earns a doctorate. In most cases in the life sciences, graduates then have to spend several more years as low-paid postdoctoral fellows, or ''postdocs," before getting their first academic jobs.

In a 2000 survey of University of California at Berkeley postdocs, most of whom were scientists, 60 percent of married women with children said they were considering leaving academia.

Rud's adviser, James A. DeCaprio, said few of the graduate students and postdocs he has trained, male or female, have gone on to academic research positions. Those who have made it tend to work about 70 hours a week. The rest end up choosing business or law school, the pharmaceutical industry, or teaching in less prestigious positions.

''If you work 80 hours a week, you will be twice as successful" than if you work 40 hours, he said, explaining that more hours translates directly into more experiments, and more discoveries. ''They move the science along faster than the competition."

DeCaprio called Rud smart and creative, and said she has ''as good a chance as anybody to be extraordinarily successful." What happens will depend mostly on how many hours she is able, or willing, to put in at her bench.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., by a single mother, Rud always knew she wanted children. Her love for science came later. Today, Rud gushes about the elegance of biological systems -- how clever viruses are, for example. ''It's like an art critic discussing a work of art," said her husband, Ryan Rud, an English teacher at English High School in Boston.


Still, like many of her peers, Rud found herself in graduate school uncertain about what she wanted to do with her life, except that she and her husband wanted to start their family early.

Her pregnancy brought her confusion to the boiling point. She worried about the hours it would take to succeed -- hours away from her family.

At the same time, she wasn't sure if she loved the repetitive work at the lab bench, altering the salt levels in experiments, for example. And she couldn't imagine taking a job in a pharmaceutical company lab, where she'd have better hours but feel like ''a drone."

A six-week maternity leave ballooned into a year-long leave of absence, although she worked as a teaching assistant this fall.

Ultimately, Rud decided to return to school. When she joins her new viral oncology lab in January, she hopes to work weekdays from about 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Her thought now is that she'll probably pursue a career that's mostly teaching, for which she has an obvious gift. But if she doesn't put in 70-hour weeks, she has no idea whether she could still get a tenure-track job at a liberal arts college, or whether her only academic option would be a low-paid instructor position. Maybe, she thinks, she'll go into patent law.

Rud doesn't blame her struggles on Harvard. Still, a growing chorus of scientists says that the responsibility for this lab-vs.-life conflict lies with institutions. Recently, the presidents of nine leading universities, including Harvard and MIT, pledged to do more to make academic careers ''compatible with family caregiving responsibilities."

That will mean changing expectations about work hours and offering more support to families. The Ruds could not afford Harvard day care. They get by on their salaries only because Jackson attends the subsidized center for babies of teenage mothers at Ryan's high school.

A Harvard task force on women in science, convened after Summers' comments on women, recommended paid maternity leave and child-care scholarships for doctoral students. It is not yet clear whether Harvard will adopt these recommendations.

A survey of people who received Harvard doctorates between 1997 and 1999 found that three years later, slightly more women than men who studied natural sciences remained in academia. It's a result that cheers Harvard officials, although they can't explain the difference.

The article raises some interesting questions.

(1) Is the "leaky pipeline" problem as bad as the article suggests? If women make up 46% of new Ph.D.'s in biology (from the nation's top 50 schools) but only 15% of full professors, surely this is at least in part a generational problem. It would be helpful, for instance, to know the average age for biology professors.

(2) We are told that 60% of the female postdocs at Berkeley who are married and have children are considering leaving academia. What are the comparable figures for postdocs who are single (male and female), or married without children? And what about men? Is this purely a work-family issue, or also an issue of the work environment in science?

(3) I have no doubt that (for whatever reason) women in science are more concerned with issues of balancing work and family than men are, but shouldn't at least some attention be paid to men in this discussion? A friend of mine who is working toward a science Ph.D., as is her husband, makes it very clear that they are both concerned with how to balance work and family once they have children. Surely, they can't be unique.

(4) I'm not sure that the work environment in science can ever be made "family-friendly" for those who are interested in high-level scientific achievement. I'm not sure that the idea of science as a stern taskmaster, of the scientist as somewhat aloof from the real world and living in world of his -- or her -- own, is merely a cultural "stereotype." Serious scientific discovery, I think, probably does require a tremendous amount of dedication and focus. But should there be more opportunities for people to teach and to do lower-level scientific work, perhaps teamwork, without having to put in 70 hours a week?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy holidays/Season's Greetings/Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Merry Solstice/greeting of your choice

Hope you all are having a wonderful day.

And here, in honor of this day, is a masterpiece of modern folklore: the ultimate politically correct greeting for the season.

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all . . .

. . . and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2000, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country or is the only "America" in the western hemisphere), and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform, or sexual preference of the wishee.

(By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others, and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

If nominated ... I will graciously bow

Yours truly is one of the nominees for "Conservative Blogress Diva" at Actually, I don't know about "conservative," I've never fancied myself a diva, and I think "blogress" sound a bit too much like "ogress" ... but how ungracious to quibble! It's an honor to be nominated after only 3 months in the blogosphere, and while my chances of winning are close to those of, say, Olympia Snowe getting the Republican presidential nomination, I offer the guys at GayPatriot my humble thanks for the nomination.

Update: Oh, and you can go here to cast your vote.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A win for sanity in Dover

So, I'm back from my vacation, to more news of political messes as well as the encouraging news that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones has ruled against adding "intelligent design" to the biology curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. Judge Jones's 139-page opinion eviscerates ID's scientific pretensions, noting that it is "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory," and that it utterly fails all the tests a scientific theory must meet. He also pointed out the fundamental dishonesty of the pro-ID school board faction in Dover: "Several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy."

This is a good day for science and reason. I'm particularly pleased that Jones is a Bush appointee, which runs counter to political stereotypes of Republican and conservative judges and which should also, at least in theory, mute the ID backers' cries of a liberal conspiracy to keep them down. Only in theory, of course: Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who represented the old school board in the case, was quick to tell the Associated Press that the ruling looked like "an ad hominem attack on scientists who happen to believe in God." Nice try, Mr. Thompson; keep obfuscating about the fact that most scientists who "happen to believe in God," and even those who happen to teach at religious colleges, firmly support evolutionary theory and reject ID.

By the way, Judge Jones is not only a Republican but a churchgoer as well. Not that it's going to stop the ID'ers from painting themselves as victims of anti-Christian bias, but it may make it harder for their whining to be taken seriously by others.

Update: John Cole points to news that some of the witnesses who testified for the Dover school board may be investigated for perjury.

Update, again: Added link to the Kitzmiller ruling. See also Richard Bennett for a good roundup.

And more: ID advocates react. Here's a contender for dumbest quote of the week:

"This decision is a poster child for a half-century secularist reign of terror that's coming to a rapid end with Justice Roberts and soon-to-be Justice Alito," said Richard Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and is a political ally of White House adviser Karl Rove. "This was an extremely injudicious judge who went way, way beyond his boundaries -- if he had any eyes on advancing up the judicial ladder, he just sawed off the bottom rung."

Can you say "unhinged"? I'm hoping Land is wrong and there's no reason to believe that Roberts and Alito are going to be any more receptive to pseudo-scientific buffoonery than Judge Jones.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Linda Hirshman's feminist script

My Boston Globe column today deals with Linda Hirshman's article in The American Prospect on "the opt-out revolution." Since it's fairly short, I'll give the whole text here.

First, there were the ''mommy wars" -- the much-ballyhooed antagonism between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Then, there was the ''opt-out revolution" -- the much-ballyhooed phenomenon of high-powered career women scaling down or giving up careers to raise children. All this is causing intense debate among feminists, who increasingly recognize that gender inequality today has more to do with sex roles in the family than sex discrimination in the workplace. As former Brandeis visiting professor Linda Hirshman puts it in a controversial article in this month's American Prospect magazine: ''The real glass ceiling is at home."

For years, most feminists have stressed respect for women's choices. Now comes Hirshman, saying that ''choice feminism" was a mistake. Feminism, she argues, needs to become more judgmental and tell traditional women that their choices are bad for society (women won't achieve full parity with men when so many voluntarily leave the track that leads to power), and bad for them because the lives they're leading allow too few opportunities for ''full human flourishing." With views like that, no wonder Hirshman made conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg's list of ''100 people who are screwing up America." Actually, I doubt that she's having much effect on America; but her prescription for feminism is screwed up all right.

Hirshman does make some valid points. First, the opt-out trend is real, despite a recent attempt to debunk it by Heather Boushey of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic Policy Research. Boushey notes that the small decline in mothers' labor force participation has been paralleled among women without children, and is due largely to the recession; but her analysis lumps together full-time and part-time jobs. A woman lawyer who leaves a partnership-track job to work part time as counsel to a community organization still counts as employed.

Second, ''choice feminism" does gloss over some real conflicts in the ''mommy wars." Companies will be warier of investing in female employees when there is a high risk of women quitting. Former career women who put their energy into motherhood may set impossible standards of maternal perfection (you're a bad mom if you don't spend two days hand-making a Halloween costume), and may justify their choice by implicitly denigrating working mothers.

But Hirshman's solution is no solution at all.

For one, the feminist movement is not a totalitarian regime. It has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their personal lives, as Hirshman wants. (Her script includes choosing a husband whose career is least likely to eclipse yours, and having no more than one child until the government coughs up day care.) And, if feminists start disparaging women's ''incorrect" choices, women will likely tell them to buzz off. Hirshman's tone is insufferably patronizing: women, she laments, think they're making free choices and never realize that their lives are shaped by traditional sex roles and by feminism's failure to revolutionize the family. Are there really many Ivy League-educated women who aren't aware of challenges and alternatives to traditional roles?

Besides, many intelligent people may not share Hirshman's notion that life as a high-priced lawyer or Fortune 500 executive is the best pathway to ''human flourishing." Yes, life with no significant activities outside one's intimate circle is incomplete. But Hirshman's disapproval extends even to part-time workers. And what about women (and, increasingly, men) who don't work for pay but are active in community work? Don't many of them meet Hirshman's standards for good living: making use of one's mind, having autonomy in one's life, doing good in the world?

In her simplistic analysis, Hirshman ignores the social impact of working women who don't follow a rigid model of success -- those who leave corporate jobs to start businesses or who work in social service jobs. She also ignores the flexibility of the modern marketplace. In 1998, Brenda Barnes stepped down as CEO of a PepsiCo division to spend more time with her family; six years later, she went back to work and now heads the Sara Lee corporation.

Should feminism strive for more flexible roles and more sharing of family responsibilities? Of course. But the way to do it is to expand options for both men and women, not to narrow women's options. And, by the way, to deride parenting as a demeaning task unworthy of an intelligent adult is not a good way to encourage men to become more involved fathers.

Acutally, Hirshman's article reminded me of the infamous comment Simone de Beauvoir made in a 1976 interview with Betty Friedan: "No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one." Friedan, despite being an outspoken advocate of careers and independent life for women, emphatically rejected de Beauvoir's dictatorial vision of feminism to embrace freedom of individual choice; Hirshman would have us choose de Beauvoir over Friedan.

To expand on a point I only touched on in my column: I share some of the feminist misgivings about full-time parenthood as a long-term occupation. Even aside from financial dependency, I think that, in the long term, human beings need to have a sense of self and identity independent of personal relationships; without employment, or a strong commitment to unpaid work, there is a danger of getting too enmeshed in emotional intimacy. (By the way, it's worth noting that historically, women's domestic roles were primarily productive, not relational: In agricultural societies, women were always engaged in economically vital work; in the cities, the wives of shopkeepers and artisans were typically partners in the family business.) I think Freud was right that work and love are the two essential elements of human life. Child-rearing certainly involves work, but its most important component is surely love -- and attempts to make it too much like a career run the risk of treating a child more like a "project" than a person in his or her own right.

That said, I think there are many, many ways to maintain a separate identity and to combine work and love besides the full-throttle career that seems to be Hirshman's ideal. (A 1995 Harris/Whirlpool Foundation/Families and Work Institute poll found that, when asked what they would do if they had enough money to not need to work, only 15% of women and 33% of men said they would choose full-time work; 33% of women and 28% of men preferred part-time work, and 20% of women and 17% of men would choose volunteer work.) What I found most shocking about Hirshman's article is her contempt for women who choose the "wrong" ways to work.

While I'm at it, I'd like to put in a good word for Lisa Belkin, author of the 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Opt-Out Revolution," that ignited the current phase of this debate. In this thread at Alas, a Blog, for instance, Belkin gets it from everybody: Hirshman and her critics. (Hirshman, in this comment, implies that while Heather Boushey's article showing no spike in mothers leaving the workforce does not rebut her argument -- mainly because so many of Boushey's working mothers are only "dabbling" in work -- it does rebut "Opt-Out Queen" Belkin.) But read Belkin's article. She explicitly acknowledges, even stresses, that most of her "opt-out moms" are not full-time, lifelong housewives but women who move in and out of the workforce and maintain at least some ties to their profession. (Indeed, one of Lisa Belkin's examples of "opting out" is Lisa Belkin herself: she has made professional choices that have taken her off the track to top jobs at the New York Times but have allowed her to maintain a challenging and satisfying career as a writer.) She also explicitly acknowledges that she focuses only on elite women who can afford the choice to curtail or even give up paid work, and explains why. And she is certainly no champion of a return to Ozzie and Harriet. This is the conclusion of her essay:

This, I would argue, is why the workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them. It is why the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche has more than doubled the number of employees on flexible work schedules over the past decade and more than quintupled the number of female partners and directors (to 567, from 97) in the same period. It is why I.B.M. employees can request up to 156 weeks of job-protected family time off. It is why Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., hired a husband and wife to fill one neonatology job, with a shared salary and shared health insurance, then let them decide who stays home and who comes to the hospital on any given day. It is why, everywhere you look, workers are doing their work in untraditional ways.

Women started this conversation about life and work -- a conversation that is slowly coming to include men. Sanity, balance and a new definition of success, it seems, just might be contagious. And instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women. Because women are willing to leave, men are more willing to leave, too -- the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent. Because women are willing to leave, 46 percent of the employees taking parental leave at Ernst & Young last year were men.

Looked at that way, this is not the failure of a revolution, but the start of a new one. It is about a door opened but a crack by women that could usher in a new environment for us all.

There are, to be sure, certain things I would quibble with in Belkin's article. But I think that, overall, her message is a much more positive and relevant one, for women and men alike, than Hirshman's "To the office -- go!"

More: A relevant passage from a post I made over a month ago:

The latest issue of Fortune, which focuses on women business leaders, has an interesting feature on why some women step off very high rungs of the corporate ladder. No, it's not mommies "opting out" and trading briefcases for diapers, and it's not women fleeing the corporate world in frustration at the "glass ceiling" (though I'm sure there are examples of both). Most of the women profiled in the article have traded the boardroom for new business ventures of their own, or work in new fields such as politics or entertainment, or travel and other pursuits. In many of the cases profiled, the change of direction is prompted by a life-changing event such as a near-death experience, which presumably leads to some soul-searching and a reassessment of priorities. Women, the article suggests, have more social freedom and more flexibility than men to make such unorthodox choices. The article concludes:

If there's a single thread that ties together the experiences of these women, it's that taking control of one's own life can feel as bold as wielding power in a corporation. "It's not that they're abandoning it or walking away," [former Genentech executive Myrtle] Potter says. "I see it as women really exercising their full set of options. And I think that's just a gutsy, powerful thing to do."

I think that women do, culturally and socially, have more options in this regard, while men, once they have reached a certain level, have more rigid expectations of success and staying on a set career track. In practice, this means there will be more men in positions of power, and probably also more men locked into unsatisfying lives.

"Autonomy" and the ability to control one's own life is one of the things Linda Hirshman finds lacking in the lives of women who "opt out." But, apparently, for some women -- and, I'm sure, for many men as well -- power in a corporation (or a law firm) and power over one's own life are more mutually exclusive than related.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The price of integrity

As a research associate at the Cato Institute, I've met Doug Bandow a few times, and it was truly a shock to me to learn that he was taking money from lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff for writing articles favorable to Abramoff's clients such as Native American-run casinos. (A second think tanker, Peter Ferrara, is implicated as well.) Franklin Foer also write, here, that Bandow flatly denied a financial relationship with Abramoff when Foer asked him about it for an article earlier this year. I'm not sure I can really understand what makes people do such things. Ethics aside, what about the strong possibility of exposure and disgrace? Bandow has now lost both his position at Cato and his syndicated column; all this for a maximum of $48,000 spread out over 10 years. If I decided to sell my integrity, I would hope that even $48,000 a year wouldn't do the trick.

I suppose the self-justification mechanism goes something like, "I'm not writing anything I don't believe in." But even if that were an excuse -- how do you really know, in your own mind, that you'd be writing the same thing even without payments?

It's particularly irksome that some are making excuses for this behavior:

Neither Ferrara, nor Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, expressed any ethical qualms about the pay-for-play. Giovanetti said critics are applying a "naive purity standard" to the op-ed business, adding, "I have a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements."

"Naive purity standard"? There's an interesting term.

Meanwhile, kudos to Cal Thomas; he and I differ on a lot of issues (Thomas is a social and religious conservative), but over the years he has shown himself to be a man of genuine principle, and this is no exception:

"My view has always been that there are too few journalists left in journalism, and too many columnists with actual or potential conflicts of interest writing for mainstream newspapers," said columnist Cal Thomas, who's syndicated to nearly 600 papers via Tribune Media Services (TMS).

The conservative commentator told E&P Online that what Bandow did was "a big no-no" that "damages the credibility of everybody" who writes columns.

"I'm getting tired of this," Thomas added, alluding to other 2005 revelations about columnists on the take. One of them was Armstrong Williams, whose contract was terminated by TMS this past January -- hours after it became known he had received federal money.

Without in any way excusing the sellouts, here's an interesting question to ponder. Does taking money taint opinion journalism more than blind partisan or ideological zeal, on either side of the fence?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Girls gone wild?

Some startling results from a Hillsborough County, Florida survey of about 5,000 randomly selected middle-school and high school students:

More male high school students - 16 percent - reported being physically hurt by their significant others than female students, at 11.8 percent.

More than 9 percent of male and nearly 12 percent of female high school students said they were physically forced to have sex.

"I know that is happening, because my son constantly gets letters from girls who want to do sexual things to him," said Paula Thomas, mother of five children ages 9 to 16. "It starts in the sixth or seventh grade."

(Hat tip: Dr. Helen.)

The findings on dating violence contradict a lot of received wisdom, and are in line with findings from previous studies. When will dating violence prevention curricula reflect this reality?

As for the findings on sexual aggression: I'm not questioning the fact that males can sometimes be sexually forced by females. But when a study finds that 9% of high school boys (only slightly lower than the figure for girls) have been "physically forced" to have sex, I have to wonder how this study defines "physically forced." (Surely gay male students cann't account for more than a fraction of this figure.) Are we talking about being physically overpowered or restrained, or threatened with violence, or being otherwise placed in a situation where they cannot avoid sex without some risk of harm? Or one person making persistent but non-forcible, non-threatening physical advances, and the other giving in for lack of assertiveness? There's a big difference between being forced into sex and being pressured into sex, and it's unfortunate that a lot of the rhetoric on date rape has blurred that line (with the ironic result, it seems, of branding many teenage girls as date rapists).

Arctic oil driling: Environment, politics, and religion

George Will has an interesting op-ed today about the debate on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress may soon allow. Will is for it (the drilling, not the debate).

Conservatives and Republicans have a reputation for wanting to cut down the forests, kill the spotted owls, use lakes and rivers for toxic waste dumps, and pave over every acre of wilderness for factories and shopping malls. And they've certainly had a number of anti-environment wackos in their ranks (remember James Watt?). Protecting the environment, it seems to me, should be recognized as a legitimate function of the state even by (reasonable) proponents of limited government: it falls pretty clearly under any definition of the "general welfare." We all like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and surely the vast majority of Americans support the preservation of national parks and wilderness areas as a part of our heritage.

Nonetheless, I think Will makes some good points:

Area 1002 is 1.5 million of the refuge's 19 million acres. In 1980 a Democratically controlled Congress, at the behest of President Jimmy Carter, set area 1002 aside for possible energy exploration. Since then, although there are active oil and gas wells in at least 36 U.S. wildlife refuges, stopping drilling in ANWR has become sacramental for environmentalists who speak about it the way Wordsworth wrote about the Lake Country.

Few opponents of energy development in what they call "pristine" ANWR have visited it. Those who have and who think it is "pristine" must have visited during the 56 days a year when it is without sunlight. They missed the roads, stores, houses, military installations, airstrip and school. They did not miss seeing the trees in area 1002. There are no trees.

Opponents worry that the caribou will be disconsolate about, and their reproduction disrupted by, this intrusion by man. The same was said 30 years ago by opponents of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings heated oil south from Prudhoe Bay. Since the oil began flowing, the caribou have increased from 5,000 to 31,000. Perhaps the pipeline's heat makes them amorous.

Ice roads and helicopter pads, which will melt each spring, will minimize man's footprint, which will be on a 2,000-acre plot about one-fifth the size of Dulles Airport. Nevertheless, opponents say the environmental cost is too high for what the ineffable John Kerry calls "a few drops of oil." Some drops. The estimated 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- such estimates frequently underestimate actual yields -- could supply all the oil needs of Kerry's Massachusetts for 75 years.

Flowing at 1 million barrels a day -- equal to 20 percent of today's domestic oil production -- ANWR oil would almost equal America's daily imports from Saudi Arabia. And it would equal the supply loss that Hurricane Katrina temporarily caused...

If there are practical counterpoints to Will's pro-drilling argument, I'll be glad to consider them. But I think Will is also right when he says:

For some people, environmentalism is collectivism in drag. Such people use environmental causes and rhetoric not to change the political climate for the purpose of environmental improvement. Rather, for them, changing the society's politics is the end, and environmental policies are mere means to that end.

The unending argument in political philosophy concerns constantly adjusting society's balance between freedom and equality. The primary goal of collectivism -- of socialism in Europe and contemporary liberalism in America -- is to enlarge governmental supervision of individuals' lives. This is done in the name of equality.

People are to be conscripted into one large cohort, everyone equal (although not equal in status or power to the governing class) in their status as wards of a self-aggrandizing government. Government says the constant enlargement of its supervising power is necessary for the equitable or efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Therefore, one of the collectivists' tactics is to produce scarcities, particularly of what makes modern society modern -- the energy requisite for social dynamism and individual autonomy. Hence collectivists use environmentalism to advance a collectivizing energy policy.

And there is another, equally important factor as well: environmentalism as a religion (as Michael Crichton put it in a speech a few years ago, "the religion of choice for urban atheists").

I wrote about this in a column a few years ago, dissecting a Nicholas Kristof column about ANWAR:

Kristof writes that, in his view, the danger drilling would pose to wildlife has been exaggerated by environmentalists; he also points out that it would benefit the local Eskimo population. Yet ultimately, he comes down on the anti-drilling side, arguing that development would damage "the land itself and the sense of wilderness"—the sense of "a rare place where humans feel not like landlords or even tenants, but simply guests."

The refuge, in other words, is something like a living temple, which is not to be desecrated.

Some environmental writings have explicit religious overtones. A popular idea among environmentalists is writer James Lovelock's "Gaia hypothesis"—the idea that the Earth is a living entity with a super-consciousness of its own, of which we are all a part. (Gaia was, of course, the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth.) Native American religions with their nature worship are popular as well. Some people who turn away from traditional religion and then embark on a spiritual quest in a need to fill the void say that they find that spirituality in environmental activism.

Environmentalist philosophy has a religious dimension other than the fantasy of the Garden of Eden. Its anti-consumerist animus reflects, to some extent, the puritanical notion that material pleasures and comforts are wicked and corrupting, and self-denial is ennobling for the soul.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with religiously or spiritually based beliefs. But perhaps some forms of environmental philosophy and activism should raise questions about introducing religion into public policy—or public schools, where environmental education programs often have elements of Earth worship and moralist condemnation of consumerist sins.


The preservation of our natural heritage is undoubtedly a worthy goal. But when seen from the perspective of human benefit, it is one of many competing values that must be balanced—including the need to alleviate our dependence of foreign oil. To treat wilderness as something mystical and sacramental short-circuits the debate as surely as an appeal to biblical principles.

If it can be shown that oil drilling in ANWAR poses a risk of actual damage to the environment (e.g., contribute to climate change with unforeseeable consequences for humans), then by all means, continue the ban. If it's about preserving a living church sanctified by mystical values, I think that, particularly at this point in time, a little separation of church and state is in order.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Public opinion in Iraq: Some interesting results

As election time nears in Iraq, some interesting poll results, via John Cole:

Despite the daily violence there, most living conditions are rated positively, seven in 10 Iraqis say their own lives are going well, and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve in the year ahead.

Surprisingly, given the insurgents’ attacks on Iraqi civilians, more than six in 10 Iraqis feel very safe in their own neighborhoods, up sharply from just 40 percent in a poll in June 2004. And 61 percent say local security is good—up from 49 percent in the first ABC News poll in Iraq in February 2004.


Preference for a democratic political structure has advanced, to 57 percent of Iraqis, while support for an Islamic state has lost ground, to 14 percent (the rest, 26 percent, chiefly in Sunni Arab areas, favor a “single strong leader.”)

Whatever the current problems, 69 percent of Iraqis expect things for the country overall to improve in the next year—a remarkable level of optimism in light of the continuing violence there. However, in a sign of the many challenges ahead, this optimism is far lower in Sunni Arab-dominated provinces, where just 35 percent are optimistic about the country’s future.


Fewer than half, 46 percent, say the country is better off now than it was before the war. And half of Iraqis now say it was wrong for U.S.-led forces to invade in spring 2003, up from 39 percent in 2004.

The number of Iraqis who say things are going well in their country overall is just 44 percent, far fewer than the 71 percent who say their own lives are going well. Fifty-two percent instead say the country is doing badly.

... Two-thirds now oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, 14 points higher than in February 2004. Nearly six in 10 disapprove of how the United States has operated in Iraq since the war, and most of them disapprove strongly. And nearly half of Iraqis would like to see U.S. forces leave soon.

Overall, I think (as does John) that this adds up to a positive picture more than a negative one. The growth of pro-democracy attitudes and the decline of support for Islamic state are particularly encouraging. That 6 out of 10 Iraqis disapprove of how the United States has operated in Iraq is not surprising; if anything (given how mismanaged the occupation has been) the figure is surprisingly low. Note, too, some contradiction in the numbers: two-thirds oppose the U.S./coalition presence, but fewer than half want to see U.S. forces leave seen. (Does this mean that a sizable proportion of Iraqis don't like the presence of American troops, but recognize it as necessary for the time being?)

I also find it remarkable that, even with continuing insurgent violence and the disarray in the country, half of Iraqis do not believe it was wrong for the U.S. to invade (and in February 2004 the corresponding figure was 40%). It's a remarkable figure in view of the fact that no one likes being occupied -- particularly people in a culture with strong traditional beliefs about honor and faith, and particularly when the occupiers are of a different religion.

It is also worth remembering that people who believe the invasion was wrong include those who, in my view, have no moral authority in the matter: those who enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and loyally served his regime.

This is why, whatever misgivings I may have about the wisdom of this war (particularly in view of its mismanagement), I categorically reject the view that it was a crime against the Iraqi people. If the U.S. has committed a crime against the Iraqi people, it was encouraging them to rebel against Hussein during the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and then leaving the Hussein regime in place and abandoning those who rebelled to their horrible fate.

Feminism, labels, and principles

An interesting discussion at Protein Wisdom about feminism and labels. Equity feminism, gender feminism, establishment feminism, liberal feminism, ifeminism... my head is spinning.

I don't have time for a long post right now, but a few thoughts. Christina Hoff Sommers' "equity feminism/gender feminism" distinction (originally made in the 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?), which I've sometimes used myself, is rather imprecise, and too open to being used as shorthand for "feminists I like/feminists I don't like." Sommers defines "gender feminists" as those who see women as oppressed by a "sex/gender system" ingrained in cultural gender roles, and "equity feminists" as those who want simply to establish legal equality and equality of opportunity. But one needn't be a particularly radical feminist to believe that various aspects of traditional gender roles lead to unequal opportunity, and one can seek to transform those roles while seeking "equity" rather than female advantage. (Many of the early feminists Sommers praises, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were harshly critical not only of legal and institutional inequality but of traditional femininity.)

So, what terms would I use? Actually, "equity feminism" and "gender feminism" still make sense to me, but I would fine-tune the definitions somewhat. "Equity feminism" is focused on fairness and equal treatment for individuals regardless of gender; "gender feminism" -- a form of identity politics -- is focused on solidarity with women and seeking the betterment of women. However, as Jeff has found out, the term "gender feminism" is fairly useless in discussions with feminists to whom one would apply the term, since they regard it as a slur (much as I do "anti-feminist"). I wonder if "identity feminism" would be an acceptable term?

In any case: Here are a few basic principles of my kind of feminism, whatever one wants to call it.

1. Equal treatment regardless of gender. No excuses for unequal treatment such as "we need to make allowances for women's lack of power/history of oppression," "real equality means redistributing power from the oppressor to the oppressed," etc. Feminism should be about equity, fairness and judging people as individuals, not "siding with women" (individually or collectively).

2. We should seek to achieve greater equity/equality by expanding choices for both men and women, not narrowing them -- e.g., not make it less socially acceptable for women to stay home with their children, but to make this option more available to men. Equity does not necessarily mean full parity in every field; it means equal opportunity, including freedom from cultural barriers that can hold men or women back from excercising their options (e.g., the belief that it's unmanly to be a child care worker, or that a woman should be interested in "people things" rather than scientific abstractions).

3. Western women today are not an oppressed or powerless group. While women have some gender-based problems, so do men. Gender-based disadvantages and prejudices should be addressed whether they affect men or women. In today's society, "more for women" is not necessarily synonymous with justice.

4. Women as well as men can be sexist -- toward men as well as women -- and can have sexist expectations of and prejudices toward men. Female chauvinism (e.g., the belief that mothers have a special bond with their children inherently superior to that of fathers) should be taken as seriously as male chauvinism.

5. Not everything bad that happens to women (e.g., rape or domestic violence) is the result of sexism or "the patriarchy" (which, in my view, is a meaningless concept when talking about the West in the 21st Century). Women's personal wrongs in relationships with men should not be considered a feminist issue unless some institutional or cultural bias against women is involved (for instance, a man's belief that he is entitled to multiple sex partners but his wife or girlfriend is not).

6. Claims of sexism, sex discrimination, or male mistreatment of women should be taken seriously, but not given a presumption of truthfulness and objectivity. Giving a woman's account greater credence than a man's because of her gender is just as sexist as presuming a man to be more believable.

7. Finally, my kind of feminism takes a non-adversarial stance toward Western and American society. This was brought home to me by Jeff Goldstein's exchange with Lauren, who sees a young Muslim immigrant's decision to wear the hijab as possibly a positive and empowering one because it's a protest against the majority culture. I don't regard an adversarial stance vis-a-vis American culture as something valuable in itself. For all its flaws and its much-less-than-perfect history where women are concerned, the West today is the civilization that champions freedom and equal rights for women. For that alone, from a feminist point of view, it is worth defending.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Warning: light blogging ahead

It's vacation time: I'm headed to Europe, back on December 21.

I'll still have online access, and expect to do some blogging, but only a limited amount, and I won't be able to participate in much discussion in the comments threads.

Just so you know.

Have a great time, everyone!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Extremism, hate speech, and moral equivalency

My post on "unhinged" political behavior on the right and the left (on Dave Neiwert's critique of Michelle Malkin's book Unhinged) has generated a rather heated discussion in the comments, as well as a thoughtful response here.

The main thrust of a lot of the responses from the left is that is that I am drawing a false moral equivalency between extremist rhetoric on the left and the right when the right is demonstrably worse. (Some posters from the right make the same criticism in reverse.)

Most of the criticism focuses on what Neiwert calls "eliminationist rhetoric" -- talk of getting rid of political opponents "either through violence or through mass roundups and incarceration." Ann Coulter provides some grist ("My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building"; "We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too"). There's also a 1995 quote from Rush Limbaugh ("I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus -- living fossils -- so we will never forget what these people stood for"), and another one from 2005 where Rush muses aloud that if it's a good idea for us to learn from the laws of other nations, we ought to borrow the new British law allowing the deportation of hate-preaching extremists: "Wouldn't it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country? Anybody that threatens this country, kick 'em out. We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic Party if we would just import that law. That would be fabulous." There is also Bill O'Reilly's suggestion that the staff of Air America be locked up for "undermining" the country, and his comment about not protecting San Francisco from terrorist attacks in retaliation from the city barring military recruiters from schools.

All this is, of course, vile stuff, and there is no excuse for it (including "humor"). And I'll concede that it has no precise equivalent on the left (Ward Churchill is too negligible to count -- his only fame comes from the right). I'll show interpretive charity to Michael Moore and assume that when he lamented that if the 9/11 terrorists wanted to get back at Bush, they struck at cities where most people didn't vote for him, he meant only that the attack made no sense from that angle, not that it would have been better if they had struck in, say, Dallas. And I'll stipulate that when Garrison Keillor -- who has an audience of nearly 4 million on National Public Radio -- joked about taking the vote away from born-again Christians, it wasn't quite so bad as joking about killing them off.

But is it that qualitatively different? Dave Neiwert, after all, cites as one of his examples of Ann Coulter's out-of-bounds rhetoric her suggestion that women shouldn't vote (because they tend to vote the "wrong" way).

No one really thinks (I hope) that Limbaugh, Coulter, and O'Reilly are seriously advocating the murder and incarceration of millions of liberals. What makes their rhetoric so poisonous is that (a) as Neiwert points out, it amounts to "a declaration of enmity" rather than a desire to debate, and (b) certain ideas, such as killing or rounding up one's political opponents, are too vile to be broached even as a "joke."

Viewed that way, there isn't that much distance between urging deportation and urging secession. Laudably, Neiwert points to the "Fuck the South" post-election screed, which calls for the expulsion of the Southern states from the Union and ends with "Fuck off," as a lamentable example of hateful speech on the left: "[I]n the end, it's an argument for writing off your fellow Americans." But there are other, more mainstream examples of this mindset; two prominent Democratic pundits, Lawrence O'Donnell and Bob Beckel, made post-election comments about Southern secession.

The issue is hate as a dominant mode of relating to people on the other side of the political divide. It can be expressed in "liberal hunting license" bumper stickers as documented by Neiwert. Or it can be expressed in this Democratic Underground thread, where a poster writes that she didn't stop to help a stranded motorist with a small child in sweltering heat after she saw a "W" bumper sticker on the woman's car, and most of the other posters not only reassure her that she shouldn't feel bad but congratulate her. (One poster writes, "[E]verytime I see one of those stickers, the hate that fills my mind is almost embarrassing. People I don't even know, and I see that sticker and all of a sudden I hate their guts.")

And in some cases, of course, there are pretty close parallels. Here's Rush Limbaugh (once again documented by Dave Neiwert) on the four Christian peace activists taken hostage in Iraq the other day:

I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality. ... I'm telling you, folks, there's a part of me that likes this. Probably, even with this, though, you know, they're not going to see the light of day.

And here's Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) on the four U.S. contractors murdered in Fallujah in 2004:

I feel nothing over the death of merceneries (sic). They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.

As for extreme rhetoric migrating into the mainstream: in an earlier post, Dave cites Karl Rove's liberal-bashing remarks to a Republican audience in June ("Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers") as an example. Yes, I agree, that was a nasty, divisive, unfair comment. Some liberals seem to think no high-ranking Democrats have made equivalent conservative-bashing comments. Really? Well, here's Howard Dean:

"This is a struggle between good and evil and we're the good."

"I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for."

And here's more Howard Dean:

Speaking about election reform, he said it is unconscionable for voters to have to stand in lengthy lines at polling places given the demands of work and family. "Republicans," he said, "I guess can do that because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives."

In terms of actual violence toward political opponents: As Dave Neiwert says, it obviously exists on both sides, and I'm not going to try to figure out who's done it more. Ideologically, there are trends at the extremes on both sides that lend themselves to condoning political violence: on the right, the flirtation with vigilantism; on the left, the flirtation with revolutionary violence. (The tendency to romanticize such violence exists even among mainstream liberals: check out, for instance, this analysis of a 2002 New York Times piece about Chesa Boudin, the devoted son of two Weather Underground terrorists who are serving time for the 1981 murder of two police officers and a security guard in a Brinks armored car robbery.)

Now, another important point. Dave argues that extremist elements have gained too much influence in the Republican Party; and, especially after the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I'm inclined to agree. I have been appalled, for a long time, by the fact that a shrill hatemonger like Ann Coulter was being treated as a legitimate pundit on the right. (I was also pretty disgusted by the right's anti-Clinton vendetta.) However, Dave also adds:

The only left-wing extremist movements of any note in 2005 -- the animal rights/eco-terrorist extremists particularly, though the anarchists and anti-globalists who helped make the WTO demonstrations a fiasco also fit the bill -- do not have any kinds of significant footholds or influence within the Democratic Party.
Note that here, Dave defines extremist movements very specifically as ones that engage in lawlessness and violence. In that case, I'm not sure who those extremist elements in the GOP are. Dave has cited the embrace of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry by mainstream conservatives during the Terri Schiavo battle, and I'll be the first to say that Terry is odious. But if we're going to look for counterparts on the left, let's ask who has more influence: Randall Terry in the Republican Party, or Al Sharpton in the Democratic Party? (For Sharpton's long record of extremism, including his role in fanning the flames of racial violence in several cases, see this column by Jeff Jacoby.)

If we define extremism to include people and movements that engage in violent and, well ... unhinged rhetoric, then I would point to at least two extremist elements that do have influence with the Democratic Party mainstream.

(1) The Congressional Black Caucus has endorsed the "Millions More Movement" led by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as the Anti-Defamation League). On July 20, 2005, most of the CBC's 43 memers attended a strategy session with Farrakhan. (See this page for some of Farrakhan's more interesting comments over the years.)

(2) While being opposed to the war in Iraq is certainly not an extreme position, the antiwar movement, unfortunately, has been heavily enmeshed with extremist elements such as the hardcore communist group A.N.S.W.E.R. (see this critique in the liberal magazine

The issue of the anti-war movement and extremism also brings me to the rather painful issue of Cindy Sheehan. Yes, I know that some people on the right have crossed the bounds of decency in attacking Sheehan (for instance, Rush Limbaugh when he bizarrely suggested that her story was the equivalent of Bill Burkett's "forged documents"). But Sheehan's very real grief does not excuse her very extreme rhetoric ("The biggest terrorist in the world is George W. Bush"), of which many examples can be found here. See also here, and here, and here. (The last link is to a transcript posted on David Horowitz's website, not the most reputable source in the world, but I haven't see any suggestiong that the transcript is inaccurate.) Among other things, Sheehan has hailed as a hero Lynn Stewart, the attorney who was convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist conspiracy for serving as a liaison between her incarcerated client, terrorist mastermind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, and his network outside. Stewart is known for openly sympathizing with radical Islamic terrorism (which she sees is as a part of the anti-imperialist struggle). It is also worth noting that Sheehan's writings are carried by the far-right website

Back in August, a poster on Daily Kos mused:

Last night, occurred to me: Cindy Sheehan, Terry Schiavo reincarnated?
I'm not quite sure what she meant, but she was right: if the Terry Schiavo fiasco was the triumph, and nadir, of "unhinged" politics on the right, Cindy Sheehan's protest has been the same for the left. (And, in both cases, those responsible are somewhat insulated from criticism by personal tragedy.)

Finally: if we're going to talk about a left-wing counterpart to Ann Coulter, I would say that Michael Moore definitely qualifies. And how.

So, all in all, I stand by my earlier point. There is nastiness and ugliness aplenty on both sides, regardless of the exact forms it takes. To some extent, of course, perceptions of "ugliness," "nastiness" and "unhingedness" (so to speak) are subjective. To me, saying that Bush didn't lift a finger to help the victims of Katrina because he doesn't give a damn about blacks is obviously unhinged. To someone to the left of me, that might not be so obvious. Likewise, to me, saying that any mainstream Democrats are sympathetic to America's enemies is obviously unhinged. Others may differ. So, in the end, when approaching this issue, we are all to some extent captives of our own biases and perceptions; and I do not exempt myself from this general rule, as someone more "right" than "left" but deeply disenchanted, and troubled by, many aspects of conservative politics.

Trying to figure out who started it is fruitless, as well. Each side regards its own nastiness as reactive, and has examples to point to. And, for each side, "they started it" and "they're worse" serves as an excuse to condone or even encourage nastiness in its own ranks. (A liberal friend of mine who had always despised Michael Moore, and prided himself on the fact that mainstream liberalism has not embraced Moore the way mainstream conservatism has embraced Coulter, concluded upon the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 that if this movie helps defeat Bush, then maybe Moore is exactly what we need in today's political climate.)

Remember the proverb, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind"? That's what's happening here. Eye-for-an-eye political debate is leaving us blind.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote in his essay, "The Prevention of Literature" (quoted with apologies to Catholics, though not to Communists):

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives.

Today, this mindset has become rampant on the left and the right, and not just on the fringes but in the mainstream as well.

In my earlier thread, one poster asked if I would suggest any remedies for this problem. I wish I could. The only solution I can think of is to rebuke political hate speech and to ostracize its perpetrators -- starting with those in one's own camp. It should be up to politicians to take the initiative. Imagine if the next Republican or Democratic presidential contender gave a "Sister Souljah" speech denouncing the political hatemongers in his or her party. Is this really an impossible dream?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The morals police comes to New Orleans

Congress has found a fine time to legislate morality. And a fine place: New Orleans, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina and getting far too little help.

Now, here's a kind of government assistance everyone should be able to get behind: tax breaks for businesses rebuilding in flood-devastated areas. Not handouts, but letting people keep more of their money so they can do more for themselves.

And what has Congress done?

From the Associated Press, December 7 (Hat tip: To the People, via Radley Balko):

The House approved a multibillion-dollar package of tax breaks on Wednesday that are intended to revive Gulf Coast businesses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

So far, so good.

But the tax relief excludes the casinos and country clubs that underpin the area’s leisure economy.

The incentives for Gulf Coast commerce include tax credits for low-income housing and rehabilitating commercial structures and historic buildings. Businesses could claim an additional 50 percent depreciation deduction for software, equipment and other expenses, and small businesses could write off more of their new investments.

Other tax breaks would help businesses recoup cleanup and demolition costs and aid small timber operations with reforestation.


The tax breaks would not extend to leisure industries, including country clubs, casinos, hot tub facilities, liquor stores, massage parlors, golf courses, racetracks and tanning parlors.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., led the effort to carve those businesses out of the bill. He said Congress should not allow “our constituents’ hard-earned tax dollars, in these kinds of record deficits, to subsidize the rebuilding of a massage parlor, a liquor store or a casino.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said she was “astounded” and “angry” that Wolf won on gambling establishments, an industry “that employs thousands of people in the region and generates millions of dollars in tax revenue.”

Well, what's a few thousand jobs when we've got morality to enforce.

Note that while this moralism on the backs of hurricane survivors is driven by the GOP, its targets include not only "sin" as traditionally defined by cultural conservatives (massage parlors, liquor stores, casinos) but also the luxuries that commonly draw the moralistic ire of egalitarian liberals (country clubs and golf courses).

Conservatives and liberals, united against the selfish pleasures of humankind, and bravely prepared to screw over thousands of jobless, homeless people in the process. All's right with the world.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Andrew Sullivan on torture, and more

Andrew Sullivan responds to Charles Krauthammer's article on torture, here. Definitely worth reading.

Some highlights:

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility--the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person's body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood.


This is a radical and daring idea: that we must extinguish human freedom in a few cases in order to maintain it for everyone else. It goes beyond even the Bush administration's own formal position, which states that the United States will not endorse torture but merely "coercive interrogation techniques." (Such techniques, in the administration's elaborate definition, are those that employ physical force short of threatening immediate death or major organ failure.) And it is based on a premise that deserves further examination: that our enemies actually deserve torture; that some human beings are so depraved that, in Krauthammer's words, they "are entitled to no humane treatment."

Let me state for the record that I am second to none in decrying, loathing, and desiring to defeat those who wish to replace freedom with religious tyranny of the most brutal kind--and who have murdered countless innocent civilians in cold blood. Their acts are monstrous and barbaric. But I differ from Krauthammer by believing that monsters remain human beings. In fact, to reduce them to a subhuman level is to exonerate them of their acts of terrorism and mass murder--just as animals are not deemed morally responsible for killing. Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit.

And, if they are human, then they must necessarily not be treated in an inhuman fashion. You cannot lower the moral baseline of a terrorist to the subhuman without betraying a fundamental value.

These two crucial points bear repeating.

(1) One of the great dangers of sanctioning torture in any form is the risk of developing the mentality that "they deserve it" -- which means that torture may be used even when it's not necessary to extract vital information, and may become an occasion for morally sanctioned sadistic enjoyment.

(2) However horrendous the terrorists' deeds may be, to regard them as subhuman is a betrayal not only of our own humanity, but of the need to hold them accountable for their evil acts.

Sullivan also addresses Krauthammer's question about what is to be done in a "ticking timb bomb" when we have in our custody a terrorist possessing information that could prevent, say, the nuclear annihilation of New York in the next 24 hours.

It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They do so for demonstrative reasons. They are not saying that laws don't matter. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

In extremis, a rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with the kind of horrendous decision on which Krauthammer rests his entire case. What should a president do? The answer is simple: He may have to break the law. In the Krauthammer scenario, a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself--and so must those assigned to conduct the torture--to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punished -- or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law for, in Krauthammer's words, such a "terrible and monstrous thing." In Michael Walzer's formulation, if we are to have dirty hands, it is essential that we show them to be dirty.

What Krauthammer is proposing, however, is not this compromise, which allows us to retain our soul as a free republic while protecting us from catastrophe in an extremely rare case. He is proposing something very different: that our "dirty hands" be wiped legally clean before and after the fact. That is a Rubicon we should not cross, because it marks the boundary between a free country and an unfree one.

Krauthammer, moreover, misses a key lesson learned these past few years. What the hundreds of abuse and torture incidents have shown is that, once you permit torture for someone somewhere, it has a habit of spreading.


Sullivan also offers a helpful historical analogy:

In World War II, American soldiers were often tortured by the Japanese when captured. But FDR refused to reciprocate. Why? Because he knew that the goal of the war was not just Japan's defeat but Japan's transformation into a democracy. He knew that, if the beacon of democracy--the United States of America--had succumbed to the hallmark of totalitarianism, then the chance for democratization would be deeply compromised in the wake of victory.

No one should ever underestimate the profound impact that the conduct of American troops in World War II had on the citizens of the eventually defeated Axis powers. Germans saw the difference between being liberated by the Anglo-Americans and being liberated by the Red Army. If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe. If you didn't, the terror would continue in different ways. Ask any German or Japanese of the generation that built democracy in those countries, and they will remind you of American values--not trumpeted by presidents in front of handpicked audiences, but demonstrated by the conduct of the U.S. military during occupation. ...

If American conduct was important in Japan and Germany, how much more important is it in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... In Iraq, we had a chance not just to tell but to show the Iraqi people how a democracy acts. And, tragically, in one critical respect, we failed. That failure undoubtedly contributed to the increased legitimacy of the insurgency and illegitimacy of the occupation, and it made collaboration between informed Sunnis and U.S. forces far less likely. What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West's reputation in the Middle East.

And that's an excellent point, too. In response to my recent column on torture in The Boston Globe, I received an email with the saracstic subject line, "The horror. The horror," whose author wrote:

You write: "If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there's no telling how low we're going to go on that slippery slope."

But if we declare torture is never acceptable and broadcast it to the world, the next time we capture a couple of terrorists they can comfort one another with this gentle reminder, "Don't worry; all they can do is mess with your head."

But is there any appreciable benefit for us from terrorists, including rank-and-file insurgents in Iraq, knowing that they may be tortured if captured? Will such knowledge lead some to commit suicide or fight to the death rather than surrender, thus preventing us from obtaining useful infomation? And is it possible that the rank-and-file insurgents are people whose hearts and minds could still be won -- something that will be much less likely if we gain a reputation as torturers?

Update: A question that has come up in the comments, and has also been raised by Jonah Goldberg at The Corner: Why is it so much worse to torture someone than to kill or imprison them, since loss of freedom and especially death also amount to drastic violations of human rights? It seems to me that one of Andrew Sullivan's points -- that torture uses what is animal in us to defeat what is human -- is very salient here. Unlike imprisonment, torture robs the individual of all control of his or her body and mind. It's quite possible to maintain one's human dignity and selfhood while imprisoned; not so under torture, which reduces one's entire being to animal sensation. Death does not do that; it simply ends the individual's existence, in this world or altogether (depending on what your beliefs are). Of course, there are many examples of people choosing death over severe pain -- not only because of the suffering involved, I suspect, but also because of the loss of dignity.

Update 2: Jonah replies, arguing, in essence, that Andrew Sullivan and I (and other anti-torture absolutists) are merely expressing a subjective viewpoint that torture is worse than death or punishment. He makes an argument that I think has showed up in my comments as well:

I would take fifty lashes and some waterboarding over the death penalty any day of the week. Indeed, I'd take fifty lashes and waterboarding over fifty years in jail.

Well, so would I, probably. But I think that's neither here nor there. If I had a choice between being gang-raped and being accidentally run over by a car and killed, I'd choose the gang rape, but that doesn't make the rapist morally superior to the reckless driver. A lot of criminals here in the U.S. might choose having a hand chopped off over serving 25 years in prison. Yet we, quite rightly I think, regard societies that chop off people's hands and ears as punishment as far more barbaric than ours.

Jonah also writes:

Young and Sullivan are imposing their aesthetic standards of their consciences, for want of a better term, to the torture debate and elevating them above everyone else's.

Not to sound overly melodramatic here, but I find it rather frightening that Jonah is reducing a basic principle of post-Enlightenment Western culture -- the bodily inviolability of the individual as a cardinal principle -- to mere aesthetic preference.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas wars update: Blame Bush!

This is too funny (hat tip: John Cole).

This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy “holiday season.”

Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings.

“This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn’t act like one,” said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

In other news, Robert George wonders if Bill O'Reilly will boycott Bush.

By the way, last night Bill was fulminating about a Los Angeles Times column which claimed that he was calling for a boycott of stores which use the "Happy holidays" greeting instead of "Merry Christmas." Oh no, of course he hasn't. He has merely written that if stores don't use the word "Christmas," "I'm shopping elsewhere." Oh, and his website has a helpful list of various companies' Christmas policies. So that viewers and readers can decide for themselves, you know.

That's right. No calls for a boycott at all.

Update: Here's Foamy the Squirrel on the Christmas controversy, weighing in on the O'Reilly/Gibson side, more or less. (Warning: language.) Yes, it's funny, but I think it misrepresents the issue. Right now, it's not the secularists with objections to Baby Jesus figurines who are whining, bitching and making a fuss over imagined slights; it's the Christmas warriors who somehow discern evil intent in the innocuous phrase "happy holidays."

Unhinged, left and right

I have been meaning for days to comment on Dave Neiwert's though-provoking six-part series (the last post has the links to the first five) critiquing Michelle Malkin's book Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, but I wanted to wait until I got a copy of the book.

Having read it, I certainly agree with the main thrust of Neiwert's criticism: Unhinged is egregiously unbalanced.

Malkin sets out to prove that while conservatives are commonly stereotyped as intolerant, extreme, rabid, etc., it's really liberals who are all of the above. And she collects some good examples of left-wing nuttiness and nastiness, from conspiracy theories on the "stolen" 2004 election to kill-Bush fantasies to Cameron Diaz suggesting that voting for Bush meant voting for legalized rape to her own (Malkin's) racist and misogynist hate mail. But it's absurd for her to suggest that there is no similar nuttiness and nastiness on the right, or that conservatives "conservatives zealously police their own ranks " against extremists and conspiracy wackos. I don't recall anyone anyone "policing" unhinged right-wingers like Dan Burton, the Indiana Congressman who called Bill Clinton a "scumbag" and shot pumpkins in his back yard to prove Vince Foster was murdered. Ann Coulter, the very model of the unhinged right-winger (and assassination-joke maven), is featured in Malkin's screed only as a victim of the nasty left. Malkin has only words of praise for Rush Limbaugh, who (among other things) has compared then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to "the devil" and "Satan." The Terri Schiavo case was an appalling example of the unhinged right, but the only bad behavior Malkin notices is liberals criticizing the Randall Terry freak show outside the hospice.

So Dave Neiwert's critique, on those grounds, is entirely justified. As he says, it is deeply disingenous for Malkin to pretend that the kind of ugliness she documents on the left has no counterparts on the right, or to reduce "unhinged" right-wing behavior to a few negligible acts by a few "nutballs." And Malkin's lack of response to Neiwert's criticism is, well, telling. (I should note, by the way, that I am not a Michelle Malkin fan. I used to like some of her columns, and we met for lunch when I was in Seattle in 1999; but later on, I began to find a lot of her rhetoric increasingly ... well, unhinged, and I was particularly appalled by her defense of the Japanese-American internment.)

The problem is, while Neiwert clearly strives to be fair-minded and acknowledges that there is a lot of ugly behavior on the left, he can't resist the partisan temptation to argue that right-wing nastiness is a lot worse.

For instance, he discusses what he calls "eliminationist" rhetoric on the right -- talk, a lot of it ostensibly "humorous" but with a genuinely nasty undertone, about deporting, arresting, or killing liberals and leftists. Neiwert writes:

This is really only found on the left in the form of the "jokes" about assassinating Bush, which are indeed grotesque and worthy of real condemnation. But the left doesn't appear to harbor fantasies about wiping out all conservatives -- as the right does for liberals, commonly, frequently, and loudly.

Well, I'm not so sure about "commonly, frequently and loudly," though Neiwert does cite some pretty egregious examples from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly (who was "joking," not so long ago, about how if SanFrancisco wants to bar military recruiters from its high schools, we should tell Al Qaeda that "every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco"). But some of the left-wing examples Malkin cites are pretty bad as well.

Thus, Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fan, has "joked" about amending the Constitution to deny evangelical Christians the right to vote. Eric Alterman, in an Esquire interview, remarked that he wished Rush Limbaugh had gone deaf and that "the country would be better without Rush and his 20 million listeners." Arguably, "humor" about cutting off the "red states" has an "eliminationist" streak to it, as well. And Malkin documents a lot of left-wing nastiness wishing death and suffering on individual conservatives, such as Laura Ingraham when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Let's not forget the admittedly marginal Ward Churchill asserting that the capitalist pigs who died on 9/11 deserved it, and a professor at a Columbia University anti-war teach-in wishing for "a million Mogadishus" (i.e. mass slaughter of U.S. soldiers) in Iraq. And let's not forget Michael Moore's 9/11 comment: "Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes' destination of California -- these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!" Okay, this is not quite the same as saying that people who voted for Bush deserved to die in a fiery conflagration (in the next line, Moore says, "Why kill them? Why kill anyone?"), but the suggestion, you have to admit, is there.

Neiwert also asserts that the left-wing ugliness documented by Malkin is something new, and primarily "reactive" to years of liberal-bashing by El Rushbo and his ilk. That's true if you want to talk about "kill Bush" rhetoric, or in-your-face, "lies and the lying liars who tell them"-type conservative-bashing.

But I think Neiwert is overlooking a lot of nastiness of a more genteel variety -- the "Republicans are evil people who want to poison the air and water, starve kids, throw Grandma out on the streets, enslave black people and kick puppies" variety. Remember the "If you elect Republicans, black churches will burn" campaign ad? Or the one in the 2000 presidential campaign in which the daughter of James Byrd Jr., the black Texas man who was deliberately dragged to his death behind a car, said she felt as if her father was killed all over again when Gov. Bush refused to sign the state’s hate crimes law? Or the "Uncle Tom" slurs directed at black affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly? Or the charge that Robert Bork would take us back to segregated lunch counters? (I am not at all a Robert Bork fan, but that was disgraceful.) There's been a lot of that stuff; I remember a 2001 a cartoon in the New York Daily News which showed Bush Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton (accused of being too friendly to polluters) mouthing the slogan, "Leave no child alive."

Here's another example where I think Dave Neiwert overlooks extremism on the left while going after (and, I think, somewhat exaggerating in this case) the right-wing variety:

Meanwhile, let's not forget the American right's newfound infatuation with Joe McCarthy. First it was Jonah Goldberg, then Ann Coulter, and now this. Pretty soon we'll hear it coming out of Sean Hannity's mouth too: "Joe McCarthy was not so hot in the way he went about doing things, but he was right."

First of all, I think Neiwert is being a bit unfair to Jonah Goldberg, who was talking about the rampant use and abuse of the term "McCarthyism" (and who called McCarthy "a lout, generally speaking"). Ann Coulter did pen an apologia for McCarthyism in her book Treason (see more on the subject here), which was widely criticized by conservatives (even David Horowitz thought she'd gone too far). As for the latest example cited by Neiwert -- well, that's kind of an interesting story (via Steve Benen at

About two months ago, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wanted to name a post office in Berkeley after a 94-year-old former city councilwoman. Rep. Steve King of Iowa accused the woman, Maudelle Shirek, of having communist ties and he led a fight to defeat Lee's measure. Accused of engaging in blatant McCarthyism, King said, "If [Lee] studied her history, she'd recognize Joe McCarthy was a great American hero."

All right, so Steve King is a jerk and an apologist for an authoritarian bully who deserves his ill repute (and who did more damage to anti-communism than he ever did to communism). But who's Maudelle Shirek? This complimentary feature on her from the San Francisco Chronicle includes this tidbit:

Her ideals have found expression not only in Berkeley but also all over the world -- in Africa, Moscow, Prague, Nicaragua and Cuba, where she dined with Fidel Castro.

So it's extremist to praise TailGunner Joe, but not extremist to hobnob with Fidel? I would suggest to Dave Neiwert that Maudelle Shirek's choice of heroes is at least as bad as Steve King's. Maybe even worse.

So what's the bottom line? There's a lot of ugliness, extremism, and "unhinged" behavior across the spectrum of American politics right now. And there is a regrettable tendency, across the spectrum, to ignore, downplay or excuse it when coming from one's own side. Michelle Malkin doesn't even try to rise above this partisanship. Dave Neiwert tries, but doesn't, in my opinion, quite succeed.

Addendum: Not to plug my old articles in every blogpost, but here's a relevant Reason column from 2003: "Bipartisan Coulterism: Who's meaner, conservatives or liberals?"

Update: For a follow-up to this post, see: Extremism, hate speech, and moral equivalency.