Archive for March 2011

Yes Dear, I Remember When Women Were People Too

March 31, 2011

Yes Dear, I Do Remember When Women Were People Too

by Tom Levenson

Blogging  in haste whilst waiting out the sprout’s martial arts class, this from the ACLU blog seems an excruciatingly appropriate follow up to ABL’s post below:
On December 23, 2010, [Bei Bei] Shuai, a 34-year-old pregnant woman who was suffering from a major depressive disorder, attempted to take her own life. Friends found her in time and persuaded her to get help. Six days later, Shuai underwent cesarean surgery and delivered a premature newborn girl who, tragically, died four days later.

On March 14, 2011, Shuai was arrested, jailed, and charged with murder and attempted feticide. Had Shuai, who is being represented by National Advocates for Pregnant Women and local attorneys, not been pregnant when she attempted suicide, she would not have been charged with any crime at all.

I’m fair gobsmacked with outrage and sorrow at this.

Full disclosure: this story strikes home personally—there is a history of depression and associated suicide on one side of my family, and the thought that someone enduring that particularly vicious illness being further tortured by the modern inquisition is just grotesque.  No one who has either suffered major depression, nor anyone who has loved someone thus afflicted would see the state of Indiana’s actions as anything other than vicious.

That this action is enmeshed in religious and political fanaticism and intolerance of views other than those of particular faiths and cults does not excuse the behavior.  The reverse, in fact.

Beyond my personal revulsion and rage at those who would so use a woman already mired in sorrow for their own ends,* the only thing I want to add in this brief piece is that the actions of the state here are part and parcel of a pattern of GOP lawless exercise of state power under the color of law.  Here’s the ACLU blog again on the way Indiana prosecutors are abusing the criminal statutes at their disposal:
The state is misconstruing the criminal laws in this case in such a way that any pregnant woman could be prosecuted for doing (or attempting) anything that may put her health at risk, regardless of the outcome of her pregnancy.

That’s right: according to the ways the laws are being applied here, the state of Indiana believes that any pregnant woman who smokes or lives with a smoker, who works long hours on her feet, who is overweight, who doesn’t exercise, or who fails to get regular prenatal care, is a felon. And the list of ways these laws could be construed to unconstitutionally prosecute pregnant women goes on and on.

That is, as this report goes on to argue, in the view of the prosecution, women are not autonomous citizens.  They are wards of the state…and while I’m sure the earnest sex-phobic, women-denigrating apologists of the right (I’m looking at you, Ross Douthat) would argue that matters would never get this far, I don’t see how the theory of the Indiana prosecution wouldn’t stretch to cover the “reckless” behavior of any fertile, sexually active woman.

After all—if you don’t know whether or not you are pregnant, how can you responsibly risk any potential fetus by injesting the demon rum or what have you.  If there is any woman, or any friend to any woman out there who thinks that the GOP can be trusted with their body, they need to think long and hard on the show trial of Bei Bei Shuai

Image:  Cate Bischop Sorrow, before 1928

Prom Night In The Cosmos/My High School Wasn’t Like This

March 31, 2011

A bit of (not quite) random beauty — and a lovely story parsecs from politics — for your morning pleasure:

(Link to a big  tiff here.)

The story:  This image is the winner in the second annual contest the Gemini Observatory runs for Australian high school students, in which teams identify objects in the night sky that could yield images of both scientific interest and sheer gorgeousness.  The students have to submit an essay defending their choice of object, and this year’s winners, five young women from the Sydney Girls High School, proposed taking a picture of a system of colliding galaxies* with the following scientific rationale:

“If enough colour data is obtained in the image it may reveal easily accessible information about the different populations of stars, star formation, relative rate of star formation due to the interaction, and the extent of dust and gas present in these galaxies.”

As the Gemini press release went on to report, the team also argued for, in essence, the transformative value of art  in the form of the artistry inherent in great works of science:

When viewers consider this image “in contrast to their daily life,” the team explained, “there is a significant possibility of a new awareness or perception of the age and scale of the universe, and their part in it.”

The data for this image were gathered by the Gemini South telescope — an eight meter monolithic mirror telescope of exceptional optical quality — using one of its primary instruments, a multi-object spectrograph in its imaging mode, serving as a camera.

As for the analysis of what we are actually seeing above, the Gemini press office writes:

The primary galaxy in the image (NGC 6872) exemplifies what happens when galaxies interact and their original structure and form is distorted. When galaxies like these grapple with each other, gravity tugs at their structures, catapulting spiral arms out to enormous distances. In NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872. The coalescence of galaxies often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

So, who cares if our current politics is a social-engineering test-to-destruction experiment?  In galaxies far, far, away, they’re getting ready to restart the tape and try again.

You may consider this a cosmic open thread.

*For more images of colliding galaxies — surely some of the coolest objects in the sky — check out this collection of Hubble images.

I’ll Take Godwin for $1,000: Wisconsin Rule of Law Edition*

March 29, 2011

Via TPM, we find that Wisconsin Judge Maryann Sumi (echoing a commenter here, what a great name for a judge) has again enjoined the state of Wisconsin from implementing the union busting law passed in dubious battle last month.

Based on the following, I’m guessing she’s seriously pissed (a legal term of art, you know):

Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was the further implementation of Act 10 was enjoined. That is what I now want to make crystal clear…

adding that

Now that I’ve made my earlier order as clear as it possibly can be, I must state that those who act in open and willful defiance of the court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions, they also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin.

Most sentient puddles would conclude that perhaps they should obey the court’s order until the substantive issues had been fully litigated.  Governor Walker and his henchmen do not share that conviction:

But minutes later, outside the court room, Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said the legislation “absolutely” is still in effect.

Please note that the speaker quoted there is an Asst. Attorney General. As in a lawyer.  As in an officer of the court.

So, I guess this is the time to go all Godwin.  It is important to remember that authoritarians almost always use the simulacrum of law to provide a tattered aura of legitimacy for their lawless exercise of power.  Hitler did certainly; his critical powers derived from  grants by the Reichstag.

Please note:  I am not saying Wisconsin is going the way of Berlin, c. 1933.  I am saying that the disdain for the ordinary structure of governance and law is how people behave when democracy is an accessory, and not essential to the entire idea of legitimate authority.  Courts are convenient to such folks when complaisant, and superfluous if not.

To be sure, Walker is a pissant way out of his depth, but as many others have noted, he’s important precisely because he is so overt and obvious in his anti-democratic hatred of that messy business of governing.  He lets us see plainly what his slicker and more sophisticated co-conspirators plan to do:  achieve ends that could not command popular support on their own by any means necessary.

For that, I suppose we should be grateful to the claque of clumsy thugs now in power in Wisconsin.  They are showing us what lurks below the hood of the Republican machine. And so I’ll say to all those right bloggers who maunder on about Obamacare or the Libyan attacks or birth certificates or whatever, if you wish to invoke the words “rule of law” you better have something to say here.

Gotta give them time, I guess, but my bet is on crickets.

Image:  Lucas Cranach Allegory of Justice, 1537

*By the way.  I do know I’ve been conspicuous (as in, unnoticed) by my absence lately.  There have been two reasons.  The first is a press of work so insane that I have ended each day by curling up with a scotch bottle for the five spare minutes alotted me between unconsciousness and panic.

The second is that I occasionally have these funks brought on by the sheer catastrophe of the world.  Sometimes, the accumulation of stupidity, misery, disaster and sheer capricious accident/horror leaves me gobsmacked for something to say.

It’s been that way lately, and I cannot say how much I admire, for example, the front pagers and commentariat here who sustain articulate smarts and anger despite the evident awfulness of existence.  But I’m better now (though still wrecked by an insatiable inbox), so expect more Hitler references and baroque painting on a semi-regular basis.

You have been warned.

The Libyan Second Amendment Solution

March 20, 2011

I know I’ve been off-grid lately (work is the curse of the blogging classes), and I haven’t had much chance to think about much of anything — but in part it’s because I’ve been getting ready for a meeting with folks whose security clearances greatly exceed mine. (It is impossible to have a lower clearance than I do, just to be clear.  I’m a citizen, and that’s it.)

So now I’m in London getting ready for this meeting, and one of the Very Interesting People from whom I’ll be learning and I are watching the scroll on the silenced TV in the hotel lobby to see one fact roll by:  Qaddifi has distributed arms to a million Libyans.

Smart move, my interlocutor says.  Why? ask I — doesn’t this just destabilize the country further, threatening him as much as anyone else?

Yes indeed says my new teacher.  That’s the point.

As explained:  Qaddafi knows that can’t engage in a contest of strength.  He faces an overwhelming force and so he can’t just roll up his opposition.  Stalemate weakens him.  He doesn’t want to end up like Ceausesco, dead against a wall, ridiculed and reviled.  He wants at a minimum what Saddam Hussein got — martyrdom of a sort amidst the chaos of a country that has become ungovernable, a state that rebounds to the discredit of any successor regime.

This is of course the classic choice of crappy outcomes solution.  I have no idea what could possibly produce what some impartial observer might call a good outcome — either for Libyans or in the realization of actually articulated and reasonable ends for the U.S.

It certainly seems to this non-expert observer that we pursue intervention on the harp seal model:  cute megafauna get protected, snail darters don’t.

But it’s at least arguable that it would make sense to intervene in cases where that rise to the level of media-consciousness even if no realpolitic interest is genuinely at stake — if and only if we can demonstrate that such intervention actually stands a good chance of producing a better outcome than the present situation.  Sheer awfulness is not sufficient, in other words, if the results do not include a lasting reduction in horrible outcomes.

In that context, these million rifles tell you two things:

First:  that there are all kinds of ways for the best intentions to go pear-shaped, and we may already be witnessing one of them here.

Second (and I find this one consoling, in a depressing kind of way):  there are plenty of very smart members of our national security apparatus who understand this.  I have to tell you the most impressive thing to me about this hotel-lobby conversation was the sheer speed with which my conversational partner seized on the skill of Qaddafi’s manouver, and its potential for lasting mischief.

Me talking, not those I talk to — but this is genuinely important.  Folks on the ground have actually learned a lot from Iraq and Afghanistan.  That these lessons do not always reach either end of Pennsylvania Avenue is a problem — the problem I would say.

And with that — it’s off to learn something else, depressing no doubt.

Image:  Melchior de Hondecoeter, Bildnis von drei Kindern in einer Landschaft mit Jagdbeute (translation help, anyone?), 17th c.

Why Do Republicans Hate America So? — Nuclear Nonchalanting Edition

March 14, 2011

Update: Oh damn. For those in peril….
—————————————————————————

So, as reported in today’s New York Times, here’s Mitch McConnell talking trash about how Real Americans™ deal with their neutrons:

“My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan,” Mr. McConnell said.

Which, as I read it, suggests that right thinking folk take their disasters straight upside the head before attempting to learn anything from the experience.

What makes that way of thinking even more risible (if it weren’t so thoroughly tragic, of course) is that elements of the nuclear crisis developing in Japan right now were at least partly made in America.  As the Times also reported in a different article,  the Fukushima reactors were designed by General Electric, and we currently possess a sizable number of plants using the same approach to power generation.  Not a problem for McConnell, it seems, but Congressman Ed Markey sees it differently:

He said regulators should consider a moratorium on locating nuclear plants in seismically active areas, require stronger containment vessels in earthquake-prone regions and thoroughly review the 31 plants in the United States that use similar technology to the crippled Japanese reactors. “The unfolding disaster in Japan must produce a seismic shift in how we address nuclear safety here in America,” Mr. Markey said.

I don’t think much of Markey’s choice of words in that last line (tone deaf is the best that can be said for it).  But I got no problem with the idea of thinking twice before siting more nukes along faults and taking a look at potentially problematic reactors.  Still, even that, apparently, is too much of a genuflection to the train of events in Japan and that known liberal proclivity for prophylaxis for Senator McConnell to swallow.

And that’s O.K.  —  because we know that earthquakes know better than to f*ck with the US of A; that publicly traded companies facing increasingly expensive maintenance demands on aging nuclear power plants will never cut a corner; and that bad stuff only happens to bad places, which, by definition lets out  this exceptional nation most of us call home. Right?

Ratchet down the snark, and the sheer awfulness of McConnell’s statement actually deepens.  This is the “We make our own reality” mentality in action.  We need learn nothing from experience; we need pay no attention to what some folks talking strange languages might know; when we play roulette it’s OK — if you are a Republican it always comes up red.

That isn’t governance; that isn’t leadership.

It’s what little kids do when the world becomes too much.  But the minority leader of the US Senate is supposed to have gotten past tucking up tight in his quilt, eyes closed, pillow firmly over his head to bar entry to any discomforting hint of a reality that fails to conform to his aggrieved sense of what ought to be.

And in this case, I just can’t see how to read McConnell’s position as anything other than saying we gotta sit and wait for our own nuclear disaster — and then pay in our own blood and treasure — before we can even begin to see if we have a problem.

Which begs the questions:  Why does Mitch McConnell hate his fellow citizens so?

Consider this one more episode in the Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est chronicles.

Image:  Philip Absolon, See No Evil 2008

DFH’s Say No Blood For Oil

March 10, 2011

That would be DFH’s like Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke.

Just to take a break from Wisconsin perfidy, consider Burke, whose brief is “operational energy plans and programs,” making the connection between death and dinosaur wine in a speech at Harvard last week:

Though the official price of a gallon of fuel within the military is set at $3.03, Burke said that the actual cost of fuel delivered, depending on the difficulty transporting it and protection needs, can be as high as $50 a gallon.

Burke told a story of tent usage in Iraq. One large tent used as a gymnasium required six generators to power the air conditioning, and even then the temperature was only lowered to 90 degrees. The problem, of course, was that a tent isn’t insulated well, so much of the cooling was lost to the desert.

“People were dying so we can vent our air conditioning to the desert,” Burke said.

Some key factoids from Burke’s speech:

The average U.S. soldier on a 72-hour patrol carries between 10 and 20 pounds of batteries.

There are seven kinds of batteries that power flashlights, GPS devices, night-vision gear, and other equipment considered essential for the modern soldier. Including spares, a soldier lugs 70 batteries, along with the devices themselves, weapons, food, water, and other necessities.

“We’re seeing pack weights of 130 pounds these days,” said Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. “You can’t carry 130 pounds without turning up with injuries.”

The idea that our soldiers can’t fight (or can’t fight as easily and with as much stamina as they need) because of all the tools they must needs carry is a very scary one indeed — but that’s a topic for another day.  In the meantime, back to that blood for oil problem:

The soldiers’ battery burden is just the tip of the military’s energy problem, Burke said. Heavily armored vehicles get just 4 miles per gallon. Air conditioners, computers, and other equipment at forward operating bases are powered by inefficient generators, at an enormous cost in fuel, requiring constant resupply. Delivering the fuel to where it is needed requires soldiers to protect the ferrying convoys, and costs both money and lives.

Hence Burke’s job: to find and support efforts like this one:

In Afghanistan, a company of soldiers is testing energy-saving technology in a frontline situation, relying on solar panels on tents, solar-powered lights, and stand-alone solar panels to recharge batteries — together cutting the company’s generator fuel consumption from 20 to 2.5 gallons a day. That drop means fewer fuel convoys which, in that part of Afghanistan, are almost certain to be attacked.

This, of course, runs directly counter to what Real Americans know about energy.  Part of the GOP conspiracy to accelerate the decline and fall of the United States includes a state-by-state level assault on alternatives to fossil fuels.

Against such purity of purpose, what is one to make of the reckless liberalism of that well-known hotbed of hippie fervor, the Pentagon’s inner rings?  Well — our Galtian overlords know what dangers lurk in the heart of reality’s liberal bias:

The Senate confirmed Burke to the job in June, after she came under initial fire from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) for her apparent support of a 2007 law that bars federal agencies from buying alternative fuels that have higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels (ClimateWire, March 25).

Props to the Obama administration and to the DOD for taking action here…and, as always….

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Jacopo Tintoretto, Young man in a gold-decorated suit of armour, 1555-1556.

A Joyful Voice Stilled: RIP Peter Gomes

March 1, 2011

I got an email this morning telling me that the most purely wonderful voice in Cambridge is now silent.

Peter Gomes died yesterday, of complications from a stroke.

He was sixty eight — younger than I would have guessed, for he seemed somehow outside of time — and much too young to be gone.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m a committedly Jewish atheist, and so the loss a Baptist minister — Peter’s full title at Harvard University was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Memorial Church  —  whose services I never attended might seem of little moment personally.

Acquaintances die; famous people die, and we note each loss as a marker of time passing; the sadness we might feel could simply be the chill on the back of our necks felt as the loss of those not-quite-known anticipates that moment when we must answer the call.

But with Peter, it’s not that.

I did not know him well, but like a lot of people, I think, I found it very well indeed to know him.  In the decades since we first met I learned not just to enjoy his company — that was easy, for he was an absolute beast (in the best possible sense) of sociablility, a grand companion and an extraordinary artist of conversation — but to admire who he was and what he did in the world.

I (again, like many others) owe Peter a personal debt of gratitude.  We met first in my junior year of college when he led the wedding of a couple of friends.  We happened to sit at the same table for the wedding lunch, and we talked, and he asked me what I hoped to do after graduating.  I wanted to travel, I told him, and in particular I wanted to go to places where I would be absolutely unmistakeably an Other, an outsider and a not-much valued one, because I wanted to learn how to step outside at least a little the envelope of American white, male, fancily-educated status.  I planned to go to Japan, I told him, then Number 1, according to my department head, where there would be no doubt that I would be a possibly slightly pitied someone else.

Peter listened — I can’t imagine with what internal sense of irony as an gay African-American Baptist who had somehow managed to overcome the booby traps and ambushes that Harvard University can deploy.   He gave me some advice…and then, when he turned up, months later and unexpectedly on a committee awarding travel grants to (as I remember it now) unbelievably callow seniors, he elicited my story again, then impressed upon his fellow committee members what he saw as the merit of my application.  I got the fellowship; went to Asia; started first writing, then science writing; and thus found a life-long (so far) delight that others call work.

I thanked him many times after that.  But on a day like this, it seems I never quite said it well enough.  It’s the nature of these things, I suppose.

In the three decades since, I would see Peter here and there. I moved back to the Boston area a few years after my travels, and once there, found myself at lunch with him fairly often.  That’s where I learned to call him Peter, rather than Rev. Gomes, sitting at a table with a half dozen or so folks, where, over a two hour meal and conversation, the Rev. Gomes would draw out and offer given  — he might have said Christian — names.

The talk would move around the table, though often I’d simply surrender to that wonderful sound, and listen to Peter declaim.  He loved to talk, and he had a lot to talk about, and he had that voice.

Have I mentioned his voice?

__

His was a bass instrument, resonant.  It had all the power you would want in the bottom range — but also strong overtones a good way up, a voice that could both ground you and cut through the clutter and distraction of the inside of one’s head.  He was a famous pulpit preacher, but at table he could pitch his volume low, and sound almost miraculously as if he were both declaiming and confiding.  He spoke in round sentences, with pleasure in the music of words.  He was, simply, a grand talker.

All this of course, dodges around the blunt, beautiful fact that Peter Gomes was a public man and a good one.

It’s true that part of why this Jewish atheist so misses him — already — is that I loved that his very person gave the lie to the worst mock-religionists and bigots of our public life:

__

There he was, an African American spiritual leader of one of the most elite, mostly white congregations in America.  He was gay.  He believed utterly in his God and in his saviour — and he was wise enough to read in scripture the meanings that celebrated rather than condemned his person and his life. He accepted the wages of rage and invective that his words and his existence sometimes evoked.  He found the best revenge:  a life both well lived and deeply enjoyed.

Again:  his faith I never shared. I argued with him when I thought he was poaching — he spoke at an Aspen  conference where I’d been asked to talk a bit on Einstein, and I told him then that I did not buy his particular path through the science-faith minefield.

__

He parried with enormous gusto, and a bit of that gift of ironic amusement I’d felt before, because, I think, to him the urgent task was to find ways to be of use and value to others and one’s self.  Which is to say that, at least as we talked, we converged on the view that the point of doing religion was not to buy a ticket on God’s train, but to act well enough in this world so that were such a train to come, you’d be able to get on board.  I believe he simply saw the science-religion wars as rather missing that point, which is a view I agree with in the abstract, though I regret that the faux religiousity of the anti-science crowd among us now makes it almost impossible to escape that particular battle.

Peter had flaws; he was, as the rest of us are, hardly a perfect human.

__

But the measure of the man is that he used his public position to preach with firmness in the right as his God gave him to see the right.  He self-described as conservative, but undertook radical action and argument as required — famously coming out publicly in 1991 when incidents of gay bashing at Harvard evoked his sense of duty:

“I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed.”

He was radical too, in his claim that a commitment to Jesus demanded something more than mere fandom.  In an interview on NPR on 2007, he said:

The scandal is the fact that we seem to pay so little attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching and a great deal of attention to Jesus.

So I am proposing here that we might, in fact, look at what Jesus says, rather than who it is that says it, and that might be exciting, and we might find something, by our modern standards, which is rather scandalous.

…I mean, if you look at Jesus in the New Testament, you will discover that he spends almost a disproportionate amount of time with the people who were on the fringes of his society.

And so, if he came back today, we might wonder, who are the people on the fringes of our society with whom he would be spending time? And my guess is he wouldn’t be spending time with most of us who are at church all of the time. I don’t think he’d be spending time with most of the theologians or the radio or TV evangelists.

I think he’d be spending time with those people whom we tend to marginalize. He’d still be spending time with the prostitutes. I think he’d be spending time with minorities of every kind — racial and sexual and others — and I think we might be surprised to discover that nothing on that point has changed, as far as Jesus is concerned.

…Do we practice these things [love thy neighbor, etc.] among people who are very much like ourselves, which tends to be what the church does? Or are we meant to practice them among everybody? And that means people who don’t vote as we do, or who don’t look as we do, or who don’t live where we do, who don’t share all of our values.

It’s Jesus who redefines who the “other” is. There is no other, as far as Jesus is concerned.

I don’t speak Jesus-speak; I don’t go to church; I’m rarely in synagogue these days.  But I get the meaning of what Peter said here in his terms.  It translates just fine into mine.

__

I hadn’t seen Peter for at least a couple of years when I got the news this morning.  The last time I ran into him in Harvard Square he told me to rejoin the lunch group I’d left years ago; there was always more to talk about.  I planned to, and I told him I would, but being a father, trying to grab time with my wife, writing, students, moving house, cats to the vet…you know the tune.  It didn’t matter.  The Rev. Gomes was made of granite, and the mighty river of his voice ran through it.  He would be there when I had time.

And now he is not; Peter Gomes is dead, much too soon.

RIP.

Image:  Claude Monet, The Lunch, c. 1874


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