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    The Rogue Wore Ann Taylor

    Posted by Sean at 10:33, November 22nd, 2009

    I usually pass the trip back to my parents’ place with Japanese poetry or a book of crossword puzzles, but yesterday I did my patriotic duty and started reading Going Rogue . Finished late last night.

    Verdict: It’s a political memoir.

    Andrew Sullivan, whose mission in life is apparently to give continued currency to the old charge that homosexual men are freaked out by fecund, motherly women, has bizarrely characterized Palin this way:

    And once again, for Ann [Althouse]’s sake, here are the lies I mean. Go through them. See if you think they are Clintonian type parsings of the truth or artful political hedging or anything like what we find in most pols. They really are not. They are functions of delusion and a worldview that wants things to be a certain way and cannot absorb that they are not. If you find the slightest error or come across a fact that we should add to this list of current lies, please let us know. We want this list to be as accurate as Palin is delusional. We want to create some template of easily-accessible reality as some kind of guard against the fantasies and fabulisms of our post-modern and fundamentalist age.

    It’s extraordinary for Sullivan to be leveling that accusation, given his (ahem) fruitless obsession with the provenance of Trig Palin. (To my admittedly unkind amusement, Palin didn’t mention Sullivan’s name once in the book, IIRC, though she mentioned “The Atlantic” as the primary rumor mill related to her youngest child.) Talk about someone who wants something to be true when it plainly isn’t!

    But it’s also extraordinary to make the Clinton comparison he explicitly makes. The Clintons, after all, gifted the world with quotables about “what the meaning of is is” and the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” among many, many other moments that seemed to be pretty clear manifestations of not having a clear grasp on hard, objective realities. And many of the Palin “lies” Sullivan lists are of the he-said, she-said sort that politicians are, in fact, notorious for telling:

    “I didn’t know that photo shoot was going to be staged to make me look bad.”

    “Policy X is polling badly? Well, gosh, I never supported it!”

    “Policy Y has become a sleeper success? Well, gosh, I supported that from the very beginning, when it was principled and unpopular to do so!”

    “Of course, I’m trying to get lobbyists away from government. I didn’t hire that old friend of the family because he was a lobbyist; I hired him because he’s an industry expert!”

    If politicians stopped getting in front of cameras and saying that stuff, the nightly news could be shortened to five minutes.

    I’m not trying to wave away Palin’s distortions—she really does seem to be misrepresenting some things, perhaps from wishful but sincere misremembering or perhaps from political calculation. But the idea that there’s something special about how she goes about it is ridiculous, and Sullivan has spent enough time around DC to know that.

    Also, the literature major in me wonders just how the hell it became possible to be at once post-modern and fundamentalist, but that’s a topic for another day.

    The literature major in me further wishes that more of Palin’s feistiness had made it into Going Rogue, which was written in exactly the same voice as Living History , Dreams from My Father , and every other memoir by an upwardly-mobile politician I’ve ever read. The tone is resolutely even-tempered—now relaxing into humor for a childhood anecdote, now pulling taut into high seriousness when weighty decisions must be made—but never working itself in a satisfying, personality-specific froth. There’s the telling story about little Sarah’s first attempt to fly, after which she picked herself up, skinned knees and all, and kept right on walking toward her destination. There’s the telling story about her refusal to sit out the high school state basketball championship game despite her broken ankle. There are several telling stories about how a child’s interruption or need for a diaper change brought Palin back to Earth when she was getting too worked up over some policy abstraction.

    This is all according to recipe, and I don’t mention it to belittle Palin. Part of her image problem is that she’s seen as not having a clue about how to package herself articulately, and Going Rogue shows that she’s capable of doing exactly what an ambitious politician is supposed to do: get a good co-author and come up with a carefully formulated memoir that shows she has talent, self-reflection, and tenacity, implying along the way that becoming a political leader is pretty much her destiny. As a woman, Palin the would-be Political Force has an extra task: to prove that she’s a bitch but not a castrating bitch. She does a good job of it, casting her aggressive moves as “Mama grizzly” fierceness. She indicates that she’s equally at ease with a close group of girlfriends and with the men friends in her life. She talks about swooning (my word, not hers) for Todd’s macho-outlaw side.

    She also engages in much more self-criticism about her behavior during the 2008 campaign than early reports suggested, which is reassuring but is also where things get complicated for the reader who’s sizing up her political potential. I realize that Alaska is in many ways a world unto itself, but it’s hard to believe that anyone who’d been playing hardball politics in a state with such huge energy and federal-funding issues could have been so naive about what was in store for her when she joined McCain as his running mate. In a way, her attitude is charming. Unlike the jumped-up Barack “I’m so totally shaking hands with an emperor—this is so cool!” Obama, Palin really doesn’t come off as seduced by the trappings of her new environment. (She’s seduced by Theory trousers, though, a weakness with which I can empathize.)

    Nevertheless, the transition is seriously jarring. As governor of Alaska, she depicts herself as unafraid to shake up politics as usual even when told it could be political suicide. Then, in the blink of an eye, she’s meekly following the orders of louche, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, cynical campaign managers because she figures they know what they’re doing—and that’s when she’s not assuming that people acting all soulful must actually be sincere. How was it possible to be that unaware in 2008? A mere flip through Primary Colors at an airport bookstore sometime in the last fifteen years would have indicated that campaigns are governed by swarms of dictatorial consultants pushing their own agenda. And if Palin didn’t like the fictionalized format, she could always have paid attention to reports about the actual Clinton presidency, with its menagerie of pushy aides and hodge-podge of mixed messages. Or the Bush presidency. Or congress. Politics as an industry, like celebrity image-making and interior design, has been completely demystified over the last few decades. Palin says several times that she should have put her foot down about this or that disagreement with the campaign staff, but if there’s a passage in which she acknowledges that her overall instincts about the machine were bad, I missed it.

    That doesn’t make her stupid, which she clearly is not. But it does keep alive the central question of whether she has the right kind of smarts to use her “rogue” instincts to change the way the federal government does business. She’s good at sparring with high-profile figures, which is a useful role in and of itself. But working politics involves outmaneuvering entrenched, behind-the-scenes string-pullers, and she doesn’t seem to know much about that. Perhaps she can learn. Perhaps she doesn’t need to because she really isn’t contemplating a presidential run, though that strikes me as highly unlikely. But I’m not sure she even knows she needs to. (Twice she’s reacted to being red-taped by resigning.)

    And one final note: except for some non-specific references to Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” line, she seems to view geopolitics exclusively through the lenses of military readiness and fossil fuel access. Those are very important things, but they’re nowhere near a big-picture view.

    So my mind isn’t changed. I doubt many others’ will be, either. But if you’re not already heartily sick of the whole Palin-related flapdoodle, you might enjoy the latest diavlog between Ann Althouse and Michelle Goldberg, to which Sullivan alludes in the passage quoted above. Althouse encounters heavy weather in just trying to talk Goldberg down from her apparent belief that Palin is the embodiment of evil.

    Added after a sticky bun: BTW, if you need further evidence that the system really does need shaking up, here‘s how Eric spent his Saturday night.

    I miss Margaret Thatcher

    Posted by Sean at 07:12, November 20th, 2009

    Virginia Postrel writes that hyperventilating over Newsweek‘s Sarah Palin cover is pointless and more than a little hypocritical:

    I am generally bored by the hysteria, pro and con, that surrounds Sarah Palin. As a bona fide coastal elitist intellectual snob, I can’t see voting for her. But neither do I share the visceral hatred for her or her fans. (Megan McArdle dubs it Palinoia.) I consider her intelligent but ignorant and unworldly. I even liked her convention speech.

    That said, the flap over the Newsweek cover shot is as ridiculous as it is predictable. I’ve read enough comment threads over the years to know that conservatives regularly make a point of proudly declaring that their female icons are good looking compared to the old hags on the other side. When did they suddenly adopt politically correct second-wave feminist attitudes toward female beauty, even in the public sphere? 

    Like it or not, Sarah Palin’s good looks are a big part of her superwoman appeal: governor, earth mother, and sportswoman, with a pretty face and a great body despite all those pregnancies. Besides, I seem to recall some widely circulated topless beach shots of the current commander-in-chief. (Not to mention Condi Rice strutting in those great black boots.) There’s no double standard, except for the one that says if you have bad legs, we don’t want to see you in shorts.

    I don’t think the right has been complaining that the photo emphasizes her prettiness as much as that it presents her in a fluffy extracurricular-activities context and seems to have been chosen to undercut her as an emerging hard-policy force. It’s hard to imagine Newsweek using one of President Obama’s beach shots as a cover image the week his latest memoir is released. On the flip side, the famous photo of Condoleezza Rice actually emphasized her image as a power player with an serious edge. So while Virginia’s general point that both male and female politicians are sized up for looks is well taken, I’m not sure her examples are all parallel.

    Be that as it may, she’s right that Palin’s claque can’t expect to have it both ways. It’s fine if they want to swoon over her casual, man-pleasing, heartland femininity as a fresh alternative to the uptight-harpy lawyer persona that (the line of thinking goes) has overrun womanhood in the big, bad liberal cities. But then they’re hardly in a position to get all screechy when a major magazine fails to picture her in hard-nosed, dark-suit-and-pearls debate mode.

    Come visit me/Inspired insanity

    Posted by Sean at 00:31, November 19th, 2009

    I know—I haven’t posted much lately. Political goings-on have been thoroughly distasteful, and I generally don’t like discussing things I find distasteful. (That doesn’t mean I avoid keeping up with the news, only that I haven’t been keen on writing about it.) I also started a new job last month, which has cut into the free time somewhat. But I should be getting back into writing more regularly.

    A few weeks ago, my ‘net friend James, editor of The Painful Truth, asked a few of us for some thoughts on the current health care debate. Mine was the shortest response; it appears toward the bottom of the resulting page, beneath more broad-ranging and fully worked out comments from others. James’s premise—an interesting one—was that having come out of a repressive, you-don’t-know-what’s-good-for-you religious sect might be a factor in whether we liked the idea of ceding responsibility for health care to Big Brother. He didn’t speculate about which side of the divide we’d be likely to come down on, but if anything, I was the gentlest critic of the policy direction taken by the current bill.


    Paul, formerly of Coming out at 48, has a new blog. Happily, it’s not called Now I’m 51 and Wondering Why No Other Fag My Age in This Entire Room Can Move His Forehead, so he seems to have fallen in with a good crowd. Paul’s writing is always thoughtful and a rewarding read–he doesn’t whitewash things, as he’s already demonstrated with his latest post—so while it was nice to think that he’d moved beyond having to post because he was busy enjoying his life, it’s great to have him back, too.


    Yet another diva from Snow Country has been writing lately—you’ve heard of Sarah Palin, right? I plan to buy the book for the trip home to my parents’ place for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. (My father’s side gathers the Sunday before. My parents are hosting this year, so tonight when I called home, I got to hear about how heavy a brining turkey is, among other prep reports delivered with you-are-there verisimilitude.) Ann Althouse has been covering the brouhaha very well, especially in this post. I don’t agree with every last thing she says, but it’s depressing to read the return volleys from Palin’s defenders. Too many of them seem to assume that there’s some sort of Law of Conservation of Political Aptitude, by which you must concede that at least one of the four major-party candidates in the 2008 election was a good one. Actually, poor, boring John McCain and Joe Biden are pretty much left out of it. Therefore, if you say Palin was under-qualified, it’s assumed that you must have been gaga for Obama.

    In reality, it’s possible to have believed that every realistic option sucked and that, as a good citizen with a responsibility to vote, it was necessary to prioritize as best one could. I don’t agree with Althouse’s Obama-Biden choice, but it was clearly not the result of being dazzled by Barack Obama’s rhetorical arabesques. Regarding the few pages of Palin’s book that had been released when she posted, Althouse wrote:

    If Sarah Palin did not see the limited value of Nicolle Wallace’s comment about Katie Couric [that Couric had low self-esteem and, like, totally related to Palin as a working mom, with the implication that the interview would be aired as a puff piece—SRK], then she is too pollyannaish and unsophisticated to be trusted with presidential power. Couric is a pussycat compared to the world leaders who will smile and exude pleasantries and then stab you in the back.

    Yeah, I really wish Palin’s defenders would stop trying to have it both ways. If you want to argue that she’s too pure of heart to have known what she was getting herself into, fine—but then don’t argue that she should be facing off with heads of state. If you want to argue that she’s exceptionally shrewd, then please try to explain why she didn’t realize that any segment she did with a big-guns interviewer would be edited to suit the interviewer’s agenda. Palin has done very well at throwing elected officials and other public figures off balance, but she seems to have little sense of how to out-maneuver functionaries and bureaucrats. Maybe that’s evidence of her uprightness rather than her lack of smarts; I don’t know. But either way, it suggests that she wouldn’t have been much good at shaking up the system as a working politician. I’m as desirous as anyone of getting some outsiders into Washington who haven’t spent their entire lives, from the moment they were named Scissors Monitor in first grade, dreaming of lording it over their fellow citizens. But just being an outsider is not a qualification.

    Who has seen the wind?

    Posted by Sean at 11:01, September 28th, 2009

    Bjorn Lomborg has an op-ed in the WaPo about proposed climate-change policies, which, he argues, will be bad for the world’s poor (via Hit and Run). Enlightened energy policy is being used as an excuse for increased protectionism.

    The struggle to generate international agreement on a carbon deal has created a desire to punish “free riders” who do not sign on to stringent carbon emission reduction targets. But the greater goals seem to be to barricade imports from China and India, to tax companies that outsource, and to go for short-term political benefits, destroying free trade.

    This is a massive mistake. Economic models show that the global benefits of even slightly freer trade are in the order of $50 trillion — 50 times more than we could achieve, in the best of circumstances, with carbon cuts. If trade becomes less free, we could easily lose $50 trillion — or much more if we really bungle things. Poor nations — the very countries that will experience the worst of climate damage — would suffer most.

    Aside from trade barriers, there’s the sheer improbability that the goals being trumpeted can be achieved. Lomborg specifically mentions Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s promises:

    Japan’s commitment in June to cut greenhouse gas levels 8 percent from its 1990 levels by 2020 was scoffed at for being far too little. Yet for Japan — which has led the world in improving energy efficiency — to have any hope of reaching its target, it needs to build nine new nuclear power plants and increase their use by one-third, construct more than 1 million new wind-turbines, install solar panels on nearly 3 million homes, double the percentage of new homes that meet rigorous insulation standards, and increase sales of “green” vehicles from 4 percent to 50 percent of its auto purchases.

    Japan’s new prime minister was roundly lauded this month for promising a much stronger reduction, 25 percent, even though there is no obvious way to deliver on his promise. Expecting Japan, or any other nation, to achieve such far-fetched cuts is simply delusional.

    It’s not that people don’t know that underneath all the upbeat sloganeering. Several years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was the big thing, the Asahi carried this story:

    With the landmark Kyoto Protocol on global warming finally taking effect today, Japan probably should own up to a major embarrassment: that it may well be unable to meet its obligations under the treaty.

    This possibility, suggested by an Asahi Shimbun survey, contrasts sharply with the fanfare that greeted Japan’s decision to hold an international conference on climate change in 1997 in Kyoto to set reduction goals.

    Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan has agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions between fiscal 2008 and 2012 by an average 6 percent from the fiscal 1990 level.

    The Asahi Shimbun established that only a few prefectural and municipal governments have done anything about it. In fact, a nationwide survey found that only three of the 47 prefectural governments and seven of the 13 major cities can actually boast decreases in their greenhouse gas emissions.

    Also, latest statistics offered by about half the prefectural and municipal governments surveyed showed double-digit increases over the fiscal 1990 level in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Unlike the central government, prefectural and major municipal governments are not obligated to establish emission reduction goals, and so are still not feeling the heat.

    Grand-scale pronouncements are easy. Putting them into effect at ground level without aftershocks that the economy might not be able to absorb is less easy. And note that, as Lomborg states, Japan is already very good at energy efficiency. The Japanese occupy a resource-poor archipelago; despite being rich, they’re used to relying on ingenuity and near-obsessive parsimony to make the most of what they have. They are very good at it. But there are limits to what a modern, industrialized country of 127 million people can cut down on and still function. The increased use of nuclear power sounds great as far as I’m concerned (though one hopes that it will be accompanied by increased rigor in enforcement of safety standards), but it takes a while to get plants online. And that’s an awful lot of wind turbines.

    Learning to do more with less is always a good thing. So is caring for the environment. But for all the talk about how responding to the greenhouse effe…oops! global war…oops! climate change…means we’re entering a new era, what we really seem to be seeing is a lot of recycling of long-standing political wish lists wrapped in new (at least 50% recycled material!) packaging. And unsurprisingly, the world’s poor stand to get screwed yet again while developed-country politicians curry favor with their constituents.


    Posted by Sean at 16:13, September 27th, 2009

    Hi, there, you four remaining people who are still checking back to see whether I’ve posted anything. Just to prove this is really Sean, I’ll make this about homosexuality and atheism and partisan politics and Japan.

    The Unreligious Right linked last week to this very good post about being an atheist out in the public debate. The one problem, as commenter lilacsigil points out, is with the comparison Christina uses to illustrate why it’s out of line to tell self-identified atheists that they’re not actually atheist:

    Let me make an analogy. If you’re not gay, would you say to a gay person, “You don’t understand what it means to be gay”? Would you say to them, “Being gay means that 100% of your sexuality is directed towards people of the same sex”? Would you say to them, “If you’ve ever had sex with someone of the opposite sex, or have even had a slight passing inclination to be sexually interested in someone of the opposite sex, then you’re not really gay”?

    Would you say to a gay person, “I understand what ‘gay’ means better than you do”?

    If you were a busybody, you most certainly would. And, non-hypothetically, if you are a busybody of that particular type, you most certainly do.

    Plenty of anti-gay commentators (both in the media and in informal conversation) are constantly telling us there’s no such thing as a “real” homosexual (we’re just confused, underdeveloped heteros with unexplored anger toward the opposite sex, you see) and that we’re practicing gays because we don’t want to do the hard work of facing up to the truths of nature and the moral strictures that flow from them. If you’re both gay and atheist, the condescension is even more dismissive–along the lines of “You just don’t want to believe in God because if you did you’d have to exercise sexual discipline.” (No, not everyone is like that, but I’m only talking about busybodies.) Anyway, Christina’s post is very good, and so are the comments, some of which are hers.

    [Added after loading the dishwasher and pouring a Scotch: Actually, if you really want to ensure you can never discuss anything but the weather with new acquaintances without stepping into a political minefield and being informed what you think, you can try being gay, atheist, and libertarian. Sententious busybodies on the right will be happy to tell you that you’re a libertine who wants to pretend society doesn’t need rules and order; sententious busybodies on the left will be happy to tell you that you don’t want to acknowledge the degree to which circumstances beyond people’s control affect their ability to make their way in life. And both sides will be happy to tell you you’re not a “real” libertarian if you happen to take a position that isn’t congruent with whatever they’ve decided the libertarian position should be based on some article they read in The Wall Street Journal or something a few years ago. Both sides like to use the same triumphant, “GOTCHA!” tone, too.]


    This diavlog between Michelle Goldberg and Megan McArdle (who’s a libertarian, not a conservative, but who’s naturally seen as being “on the right” in our current political climate) is almost a month old now, and it got a lot of attention when it was posted. Still, if you haven’t watched it, there’s a lot to munch on that’s illustrative of the way things are framed in the public debate lately. I particularly thought this was interesting:

    My sense is that Goldberg’s reflexive assumption about gun owners—that they’re running about eager for an opportunity to shoot someone—is shared by a lot of people, but I don’t think she’s right. McArdle doesn’t go into much detail, but the way she describes the gun enthusiasts she’s met fits those I know, too: they enjoy shooting at the range, and they like the feeling of autonomy that not depending on 911 in an emergency gives them, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy contemplating killing an actual human being. Instead, they rest easier knowing that they’re prepared if they meet some miscreant who threatens them or their property when the police are too far away to do anything about it. It really is a self-reliance thing, and I agree with McArdle that it’s likely that that’s the message those who wear their guns to so-called Town Hall meetings or protests were trying to send: don’t think you have to patronize me, Madam Senator, or protect me, Mr. Congressman—I can handle my own life and only need you to stop getting in my way.

    That having been said, I think McArdle’s right about the PR factor. Carrying a deadly weapon to a political protest is a great way of signaling that you (at least) think there may be occasion to use it, which does not help to bring the tenor of debate back down toward poised, reasonable argument.


    New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama met with President Obama this week. (He also addressed the UN General Assembly and was presumably in one of the motorcades that made getting to work or home in Midtown East utter hell.) The Asahi editorial contained this priceless quotation:

    The chiefs of the Democratic parties that govern Japan and the United States met for the first time.

    This fresh start for the bilateral relationship came after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took over government by promising “change” from more than half a century of virtually one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, and U.S. President Barack Obama took power by promising “change” from eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush.

    After the meeting, Obama told reporters he is “very confident that not only will the prime minister succeed in his efforts and his campaign commitments, but that this will give us an opportunity to strengthen and renew” the alliance between the two countries.

    And Obama should know, because, after all, he’s all about keeping campaign commitments (to rein in spending, to close Guantanamo, to prohibit anything that could be construed as torture in the prosecution of the WOT) and strengthening and renewing alliances with existing partners.

    Hatoyama apparently wanted to convey his intention to guide his nation away from this traditional relationship [i.e., Japan’s playing second fiddle to the United States–SRK] toward new relations in which Japan is more assertive and ready to play a more active role.

    Some tricky issues were not discussed at the Hatoyama-Obama meeting but must eventually be addressed. Among them are Tokyo’s plans to terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission to refuel coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean and review the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan, including the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

    The Japanese government must make decisions on these issues before Obama’s scheduled visit to Japan in November.

    Mishandling these delicate issues could strain Japan-U.S. relations and stir up criticism against the Hatoyama administration at home.

    A power transfer can lead to a major policy shift. What is happening in Japan now is a natural part of democracy. The diplomatic challenge facing Hatoyama is how to persuade Washington to accept this change in Japan without hurting the mutual trust.

    Well, it might be noted that the push for a permanent UNSC seat for Japan began under Koizumi and that the plans to restructure United States military deployments to have fewer personnel in Japan began under Bush; I’m not sure those things represent substantive change as much as evolution in a preset direction. The nuclear-disarmament part sounds nice, but surely everyone is aware, underneath the genial dialogue, that it’s not going to happen now that the toothpaste is out of the tube. And Japan has spent decades talking about internationalization and global outreach, but those processes are a two-way street, and the adapting it would need to do at the level of nuts-and-bolts approaches to politics and business is not one that it welcomes.

    “This yuai (fraternity) is a way of thinking that respects one’s own freedom and individual dignity while also respecting the freedom and individual dignity of others,” he said during his 20-minute speech in English.

    He said that based on the spirit of yuai, Japan can become a bridge for the world in five areas.

    I’d love to see Japan, as the most mature democracy in the region, take more of an active geo-political role, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen on what seem to be the current trajectories. Serving as a “bridge” between the rest of the world and Asia makes sense given Japan’s economic power and corresponding contributions to the UN. But fraternity (the Japanese word indicated actually means more like “friendship” or “amicability,” but let that slide) among East and Southeast Asian peoples is notoriously unstable, despite their many elements of shared heritage, and Japan’s history does not, shall we say, establish it unequivocally as the obvious choice for role of altruistic, disinterested referee.

    Brother, it don’t matter/Sister, don’t worry

    Posted by Sean at 13:48, July 30th, 2009

    This writer is exercised over the Euro-cutesying of vampires, especially in fiction aimed at young girls (via Instapundit):

    At least Anne Rice’s vampires were still primarily bloodsuckers. The first sign that something was awry came with the introduction of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prime example of the brooding, crying-on-the-inside, leather-jacketed emo boy of the ’90s (see also: Dylan McKay, Beverly Hills, 90210; James Hurley, Twin Peaks), Angel was a vampire who had a soul. He fell in love with Buffy, teared up a lot, and believed in random acts of kindness. Angel, in short, sucked. Or, rather, he didn’t suck, which was the problem. When he did suck, he took limited amounts of blood from consenting human women, or sucked blood against his will, or sucked rat blood.

    Rat blood.

    Think about it. Faced with the impact of his diet on humans, Angel accepts a yucky, cruelty-free substitute, then endlessly lectures other vampires about their moral failings because they don’t do the same. He’s not a vampire—he’s a vegan.

    I’m not nearly the Buffy fan a lot of my friends were, and David Boreanaz is a bit on the non-hairy side for me, but I have to say I think that’s unfair to the Angel character, at least at first. After all, he didn’t just randomly “have” a soul: it was restored to him by Gypsies as part of a curse after he’d practiced typical-vampire predation for hundreds of years. The message that being a good person is worth straining to overcome your most evil instincts and not giving into every craving never struck me as a namby-pamby one, despite the soft-focus teen-romance setting. And besides, there were plenty of other repellantly predatory vampires populating the series to convey to viewers that Angel was not the norm. Whether Grady Hendrix is right about the other stories mentioned, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    That’s what they told me before/Who knows what they’ll say today?

    Posted by Sean at 20:46, July 26th, 2009

    This blogger is, like me, an atheist who was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect, and she makes several very good points in this post about arguments between believers and principled non-believers (via the Unreligious Right):

    When I believed I did so because I’d been indoctrinated as a child, and then later on as a young adult, because I desperately wanted it to be true. There was no evidence, no proof, no real good logical defense for my belief. I just felt it; I felt such certainty I thought I knew it was true, although if you’d asked me why I’d have been pressed to defend my belief. I probably would’ve have said it was a matter of faith, if forced to have such a conversation at all. I certainly would not have presumed to understand atheism.

    Seriously though, saying “I don’t know, but there’s no real evidence” doesn’t require faith. Saying, “I know there’s a God, and I know what he wants, and he wants me to worship him”? That requires faith. Undoubtedly. Can you see how those are not truly equivalent though? Stating a positive claim (“There is a god”) asserts that something is true. And, as Tracy often says on The Atheist Experience, “Things which exist manifest in reality.” Since there are NO manifestations of a supernatural all-powerful deity in our reality (zip, zero, zilch, nada, nein, none), disbelief seems only rational. It is not the same as asserting the positive claim “There is NO god”. Lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. But I have to say it seems more likely to me.

    That said, although I blog about it regularly here and on Atheist Nexus, I’m not so invested in my atheism I’d be unwilling to chance my stance. If I was presented with sufficient evidence, I would discontinue my disbelief, and have to accept the existence of whatever deity was proven. (Whether or not I’d worship a god would be entirely dependent on the character, attributes, and actions of said deity.)

    Those aren’t original points on Angie Jackson’s part, of course, but they’re the sorts of things that keep needing to be addressed. I’ve known some Christians who are very consistent about where they draw the line (or at least the grey zone) between the sphere that human beings can know empirically and the realm beyond posited by their faith. But far more frequently, believers push through faith into non-falsifiability. If good things happen to good people, God is blessing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe. If bad things happen to good people, God is testing them. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If good things happen to bad people, well, the wicked spread themselves like green bay trees, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get theirs. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If bad things happen to bad people, God is punishing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe.

    Just to make things even more arbitrary, in my congregation growing up, our pastor would pull up every few months and deliver a sermon reminding us that God doesn’t micromanage everything. Sometimes while He’s letting the world run along, stuff just happens. It’s still part of His plan, but you’re not supposed to draw blockbuster inferences from it.

    So not everything indicates something important about what God’s cooking up. Except when it does. Maybe you got that flat tire because God was trying to keep you from getting to the post office. Or maybe it was Satan afflicting you. Or maybe you just happened to run over a spike and it didn’t “mean” anything. I grew up around people who spent their entire lives mulling things over this way, and most of them did so because they genuinely believed it would help them serve God better. I remember what that was like, and it really was a source of solace in many ways. There was an answer for everything. You did your best, and if things still came out badly, you trusted God to make it right eventually in His own way.

    As Jackson says, the existence of God was such a part of the reality principle that whether there was really, really, really enough evidence to support it tended not to come into the equation. You believed it, you liked believing it, and you wanted to keep believing it. Of course, you studied the Bible, but the approach was less like “Does this square with reality?” than like “Is there an interpretation of reality that makes it possible to keep believing this is a holy book?” Verses that contained good folk wisdom were evidence that the Bible was the word of God; the rest could be explained away as necessary—it’s a metaphor…God’s sense of the passage of time doesn’t match ours…when it was written this was actually socially progressive…when it was written this was the best available interpretation of the natural phenomenon in question…God’s plan is beyond beyond beyond our understanding.

    Eventually, it occurred to me to wonder why, if we were supposed to be so tolerant of ambiguity and paradox, we didn’t go the whole way and just become Buddhists. The Bible started seeming to me like any other book. If, to the best of our human comprehension of the text, it had some wise parts, some dumb parts, some beautiful parts, some execrable parts, some lucid parts, and some obscure parts, then styling it God’s handbook for living and trying to gain understanding of it through close and closed readings might be comforting, but it probably wasn’t very useful. Human society still progressed by experimenting with new ways of doing things and continuing with what proved to work (capitalism, representative democracy, the scientific method). That Christians then circled back to look for ways the Bible could be seen as the underpinnings of what proved to work didn’t change the process of discovery. Our knowledge keeps growing because we keep pushing for more of it, but it remains flawed and provisional.

    I don’t begrudge Christians their faith. We all get at most several decades on Earth to figure out how we believe we should live and then act on it, and that involves figuring out what meaning we think the spiritual part of experience has. No one is entirely rational, and few of us would really want to be. I also have no problem when it’s pointed out that people on all sides of the God question believe things for which they have no proof. What bothers me is when believers want to toggle back and forth between “God’s love and mercy are obvious” and “God’s plan is unknowable” depending on which line happens to help them argue for theism at a given point in the discussion. That simply isn’t the same as an atheist’s arguing that there’s not enough reason to think God exists.

    SLOW: stimulus area ahead

    Posted by Sean at 23:54, July 17th, 2009

    The newspaper of my Lehigh Valley hometown in Pennsylvania reports that PennDOT, the commonweath’s version of the DMV (as beloved as those of most other states, if not less; when it comes to service, New York’s is like TGI Friday’s by comparison), is spending $60,000 of its stimulus money on signs to advertise projects intended as stimuli:

    PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said Pennsylvania elected to take a ”middle-of-the-road” approach to the federal government’s strong encouragement that the signs be put at every project site around the state, choosing only those that were most visible to the public. The stimulus package is pumping $1 billion into the state for hundreds of road and bridge repairs.

    PennDOT’s not alone in touting the stimulus package. The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority requires all contractors to post the act’s logo on construction sites. ”The logo must be at least six inches in diameter and displayed in a prominent place,” reads a line in the agency’s Recovery Act requirements.

    The state also is paying political strategist and media consultant Ken Snyder $9,090 a month to help with publicity relating to the stimulus package.

    ”Obviously it is important to educate the public about where the recovery dollars are working in the commonwealth,” PennDOT’s Chizmar said. ”The public deserves and has a right to know.”

    I’m not entirely sure this is worth getting exercised over. Depending on the kind of installation, sign crews do dangerous work outdoors no matter how crappy the weather, and their industry’s been hit hard by the recession; so I find it hard to complain that some extra work’s been thrown their way. And PennDOT seems to have forgone the opportunity to put signs up at every last project site. Given Washington’s current spending practices, $60,000 hardly seems worth remarking on.

    The part I find irritating is the flagrantly cynical spin put on the thing by PennDOT’s mouthpiece. The public does, indeed, have a right to know how the tax dollars that happen to wander back here after making their U-turn through sticky-fingered Washington are being apportioned out, but surely that right could be satisfied with a webpage or downloadable PDF file. (Surely not, my experience a few years ago with PennDOT’s online presence suggests, but I’m talking hypothetically.) The idea that the signs in question are about transparency—rather than about conveying a message along the lines of “See, citizens? We’re Getting Something Done!”—is balderdash.

    Regarding the publicist, my main question is whether he’s being asked to work without pay like those on the regular old state payroll. (And yes, I know that the money paid to Snyder probably comes directly out of the stimulus fund and not from the general budget in Harrisburg. The contrast is still a droll one.)

    My parents are hosting a family reunion on my mother’s side tomorrow. A few dozen relatives will descend on Shimerville, and there are now enough sausages cooked in beer, deviled eggs, potato salad, and beef barbecue for all. An uncle is bringing the (handmade) pierogies. My father ventured to ask what those who wanted a vegetable should do. My mother looked at him as if he’d just landed from Mars. “There are peppers in with the sausage. And I think someone’s bringing a vegetable tray.” Talk of a salad surfaced briefly a few weeks ago, then retreated to the dark-green, leafy depths* and has not, to my knowledge, been raised again.

    My job…well, okay, I sort of volunteered…was to attend to the booze list. It would be disrespectful not to have enough whiskey on hand for Ciocia H’s highballs, after all. How frequently I’ll be offering to freshen her drink as a cover for topping my own will depend on how successfully the rest of the family keeps a lid on the passive-aggressive grudge-working. (My mother’s side of the family is Polish Catholic.)

    * Actually, now that I think of it, that’s misleading, since salad in this family refers to a quarter-head of iceberg lettuce covered, Vesuvius-destroying-Pompeii-like, in hot bacon dressing.


    Posted by Sean at 12:32, July 16th, 2009

    Japan has a new organ transplant law, which recognizes brain death as death and could make younger donors possible:

    The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is set to begin discussing the criteria by which doctors would diagnose brain death in children under 15 under the revised Organ Transplant Law enacted Monday.

    The ministry also will examine how to confirm whether potential donors did or did not intend to donate their organs.

    The revised law has paved the way for children under 15 to become organ donors, which is prohibited under the current law enacted in 1997. A bill to revise the law passed at the Monday plenary session of the House of Councillors with 138 votes in favor of it and 82 opposed. Twenty lawmakers were absent or abstained.

    The existing criteria for recognizing brain death apply to people aged 6 and older. A health ministry research team of medical experts prepared a draft of criteria for children under the age of 6 in 2000.

    Not surprisingly, prominent supporters of the revised law include families of potential recipients:

    On June 23, Koki Sampo, from Aoba Ward, Yokohama, and his wife, Yuki, lost their 1-year-old son, Ikki, who had been suffering from a severe heart disorder. He died in the United States after undergoing heart transplant surgery there.

    Ikki was diagnosed as suffering idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy in April 2008, when he was just 6 weeks old.

    “My mind went into a blur the moment the doctor told me the name of the disease,” Yuki, 29, said.

    The couple decided to go to the United States after Ikki’s condition worsened at the end of the year and he suffered temporary heart and lung failure. The family arrived in the United States in April.

    Sampo said he was told several times by medical staff at the U.S. hospital that they should have come to the hospital much earlier, when Ikki’s condition was not as serious.

    Ikki was able to undergo transplant surgery in late May. However, his parents’ dream of being able to take their son back to Japan in a healthy condition did not materialize.

    Ikki’s funeral was held on July 3 in Yokohama. When Sampo, who returned to his job last week, heard the news of the revised Organ Transplant Law being enacted he said, “I hope this means there will be fewer patients and families who have to go through the same kind of sad experience as we did.”

    “I can’t understand why Japan, which has one of the world’s highest standards of medical care, is unable to make progress when it comes to organ transplants. Why did Diet deliberations on this bill take so long? My son wasn’t able to receive a transplant operation in this country, but I hope Japan will become a nation that can save the lives of as many people as possible–even just one life.”

    Opponents include families that have gone through the agony of deciding whether a loved one is brain-dead:

    Akemi Nakamura, 45, from Ota Ward, Tokyo, had a daughter who was declared brain dead by a doctor at the age of 2 years and 8 months. However, with the aid of an artificial respirator, she was able to live until her heart failed when she was 4. During that period, her hair and nails grew, and she grew more than 10 centimeters taller, Nakamura said.

    “My daughter continued to live [after being declared brain-dead]. It was only the form in which she lived that changed. Just to feel the warmth of her body filled me with so much love,” Nakamura said.

    The revised Organ Transplant Law allows people to become organ donors under the premise that people who are brain dead are legally deceased. To transplant organs from people who have been declared brain dead, in addition to a diagnosis of brain death from a doctor other criteria such as confirmation of respiratory cessation also have to be fulfilled.

    Family members of people judged to be brain dead also have a right to refuse the transplantation of their organs.

    However, Nakamura expressed concern. “The enactment of the revised Organ Transplant Law will make families like us who have been living happily feel anxious,” Nakamura said.

    Another woman’s daughter was a teenager who survived a traffic accident in a coma:

    Masako Ide, 60, serves on the board of an association of families of traffic accident victims. One of Ide’s daughters, a third-year high school student, was in a traffic accident on her way to school in 1990. She was immediately taken to a hospital but was declared brain dead 12 hours later. She died after her heart stopped four days later.

    “Urging victims’ family members, who are in a state of confusion following unexpected accidents involving their loved ones, to decide [if they agree to have the victims] be diagnosed as brain dead or agree to organ donations will further confuse families and force them to shoulder even more burdens,” Ide said. “Measures should be taken to improve the emergency medical system and pediatric care system.”

    It’s impossible to avoid pitting the concerns of those who will die without donated organs against those who could live longer if life support weren’t terminated in order to harvest their organs, but it can be (and has been) argued persuasively that the existing Organ Transplantation Law in Japan was extremely conservative and weighted against recipients:

    The enactment of the Organ Transplant Law [in 1997] was greatly anticipated by patients with no other means for survival than obtaining a transplant as well as those involved in the transplanting process. This new law was expected to have a major impact on transplanting in Japan, but its regulations turned out to be extremely stringent. The donations of organs by a brain dead donor is permitted only if “…the donor expressed in writing prior to death his/her intent to agree to donate his/her organs and agree to be submitted to an authorized brain death declarations, and his/her family members (spouse, parents, siblings, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and live-in family members) did not object to the donation.” In addition, the law states that “only persons 15 years and above can express an intent to donate.” This stipulation has greatly reduced the possibility of transplants to small children; heart transplants to small children have become impossible.

    There are other problems, of course. Japan is very rarely at the leading edge in medical treatments. It tends to let the U.S. and other countries with researchers willing to forge into unknown procedural and ethical territory make the gains (with the attendant instructive mistakes). And the caution means fewer transplants are performed, which encourages people to go elsewhere if they have the necessary resources. This article, to which I was first referred by a friend, is three years old, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that the information doesn’t remain basically current:

    A survey of Japan’s overseas organ transplants, published by Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare shows that from 1984 to 2005, at least 522 Japanese people underwent organ transplant operations. Among these operations, 151 cases were conducted in 50 foreign medical institutes, of which 34 were carried out in China—accounting for 75 percent of the total.

    According to Japanese media, the number of Japanese patients accepting organ transplants in other Asian countries has notably increased in recent years. A Tokyo doctor who treated nine patients who came back from China with new kidneys complained, “The Chinese hospitals didn’t provide any donor information, nor did they provide the patients with usage of immunizing agents.” He pointed out that four out of the nine patients died within two years of the operation. “The survival rate after organ transplants in China is terrible compared to that in Japan.”

    These incidents have triggered another round of debates in Japanese medical circles over the human rights and ethical issues related to organ transplants. Related medical associations have forbidden doctors from getting involved in the foreign organ transplant trade. Debate has also started in Japan over modifications to laws related to organ transplants first implemented in 1997.

    So getting your transplant in Japan is ideal, assuming you can actually get an organ. It’s not hard to see why Japanese seem to have been flouting the PRC ban on selling organs to foreigners.

    The Japanese patients spent an average of about 595,000 yuan (US$87,000) each for their operations at an unidentified hospital in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong Province, the report said. The patients received treatment in the hospital for up to 20 days, the report said.

    The money covered fees to the hospital and doctors as well as traveling and accommodation costs in China, according to the news agency.

    Some patients were admitted to hospital under Chinese names as requested by the hospital, Kyoto said. Most of the organs they received were probably from executed prisoners, the report said.

    The Japanese official denied it was organ trade as none of the patients had paid their organ donors and no introduction charges were paid.

    The report added that no Japanese had had such surgery since the Beijing Olympics last August because of “international pressure.”

    China banned the trade in human organs in May 2007, and prescribed that foreigners were not allowed organ transplants in China to protect limited resources.

    China is the world’s second-largest transplant nation after the United States, with about 5,000 operations performed in the country each year.

    Even in the United States, waiting for organs is a big problem, of course, but donors might not be as scarce as they seem if the process were reformed. Virginia Postrel had a piece in The Atlantic last week specifically about kidneys:

    For those who survive long enough to get transplants, the wait routinely lasts years. The odds are particularly bad in large cities. Take the nation’s largest transplant center, the University of California, San Francisco. In 2008, its surgeons did an impressive 347 kidney transplants, including 231 with organs from deceased donors. But 5,271 people are on UCSF’s waiting list—meaning that, relying entirely on deceased donors, they would expect to wait an average of almost 23 years. If, like Steve Jobs, who recently got a liver transplant in Memphis, you can travel great distances on short notice, you can register all over the country. But few kidney patients are that flexible. They wait, they get sicker, and, too often, they die.

    Outlawing payments to donors is ostensibly a way to keep the system fair, giving rich and poor an equally lousy chance of getting a kidney. But wealthier people can already more easily register at distant centers with short lists. They’re also more likely to have friends and relatives who can afford the nonmedical expenses that living donation often entails, including time off from work, child care, hotel rooms, or cross-country travel. (It is legal for recipients or third parties to pay such expenses, but, unlike medical costs, they are not covered by insurance.)

    Patients with enough money and the right networks have yet another option. They can go abroad, to countries where the authorities sanction or ignore payments to living donors. That’s how Henry David got his new kidney.

    Virginia discusses donor pairing and chaining in ways that don’t require new legislation but do present practical challenges. The possibility of paying donors for organs may make the gesture seem less saintly, she writes, but it would provide real incentives in line with the transfer of value involved.

    Super trouper

    Posted by Sean at 00:13, July 14th, 2009

    At From the Maenianum Secundum, Herself (that’s not my being queeny; it’s her actual blogname) uses Heather Mac Donald’s most recent post about Sarah Palin’s resignation as a point of departure for a rumination about the role of learning in guiding the citizenry.

    All Americans are not required to do the heavy lifting with regard to understanding all of history’s lessons (nor are all Americans capable of doing so), but because there has always existed a small, select group of intellectuals (synonymous with “Men of Letters”) who would warn us if we were walking too closely to the edge of the slippery slope, we were protected. Our culture used to recognize and respect them for the benefits they provided to all of us. But all intellectuals, even those of the right kind, are being tarnished by those of the wrong kind, and are being relegated to the American equivalent of Siberia: irrelevance.

    Herself doesn’t mention her at all in the text of the post, but my interpretation is that she’s aiming her criticism at the Palin cult, if not necessarily at Palin herself. But the point she makes is more generally applicable, and it helps to illustrate why some of us are ready to go berserk if one more person starts in with the “But she has such great instincts!” routine. Instincts, like charisma, are of genuine value. But sometimes there’s no substitute for actually knowing what the hell you’re talking about.

    And while I’m (for what even I myself hope is the last time) gretzing yet again about Palin-groupie-ism, can her defenders please stop expecting to score points in her favor by repeating that Biden is worse and Obama is screwing up the economy? We know. Most of us skeptics who are on the right voted for her and McCain despite our reservations and would not have voted Obama-Biden at gunpoint. Pick-ing ve-ry slow-ly o-ver the syl-la-bles while you ex-plain that Palin was not necessarily the worst ninny on the ballot last year contributes exactly zero new pieces of information to the discussion. And if we’re going to have to get used to hearing “Not at baffled as Joe Biden” as an endorsement from here on, kindly warn me up front so I can stock up on whiskey.