Archive for December 2013

It’s Always Projection With These Guys

December 31, 2013

So, Dr. Strangelove Charles Krauthammer weighs in on the latest news out of Benghazi — which is to say the non-news that there was no conspiracy to cover-up whatever evil Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are supposed to have done in this latest round of conspiracy mongers.

You may recall that a few days ago, The New York Times showed what real newspapers can do when they put some muscle into a story, and dug into the events that led up to the four American diplomats’/intelligence officers’ last hours in Benghazi.  They concluded that it was a confusing situation, that (as reported at the time) an incendiary video helped gin up a crowd, and that (as President Obama noted, to Romney’s eternal embarrassment, the next day) local Islamic militants were also involved.  The key finding: no meaningful al Qaeda link, as the Benghazi dead enders have been trumpeting for a while now.

So, if you are such a dead ender — that is to say, if you are a member of the modern GOP and/or part of its supportive claque in the DC media — what do you do?

Sane people might say, OK, nothing to see here, let’s move along.  I mean, even the Birthers (in office — not the Orly Taitz variety) finally gave up.  Also: Benghazi does have a real political downside.  The more it becomes obvious that there is, in fact, nothing to see here, that bad things happen in the world and not even a Kenyan Moooslim arsenal of superpowers can prevent them all, then the blowback for using American dead for such obvious political purposes starts to bite.

Hell, it already did.  See, again, Mr. Romney, burned not once but twice on the campaign trail for overeager Benghazi baiting.

But, of course, the set of sanity does not overlap with the set of those professionally committed to the destruction of all things the Democratic Party might support, a gang which includes much if not all of the GOP congressional delegation.

Cold_Shower_by_Georgios_Iakovidis

For example, consider this, from Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a shining light of Georgia’s delegation to the Capitol:

“Of course Secretary Clinton was in charge at the time, and you know there are just now a lot of rumors going and pushing about her running for president in 2016,” he said on Fox News, as recorded by the Hill. “So I think they are already laying the groundwork.”

OK — so utterances of rabid partisanship have become SOP in the House GOP, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked,  But what about that class of folks who consider themselves above the grubby world of politics — AKA the grandees of Washington’s media village.  Enter Charles Krauthammer.  There are none who combine the unmerited mantle of authoritative judgment and sheer malice more completely than our man Krauthammer — inexplicably treated as a serious analyst of modern politics and wholly engaged in the construction of the One True Narrative, reality be damned.

Hence, reacting to the news that the NYT op-ed editor had ridiculed Westmorland et al.’s claims Krauthammer erupted:

“By being defensive about this, he’s making it quite obvious the reason that the Times invested all the effort and time in this and put it on the front page is precisely a way to protect the Democrats, to deflect the issue, to protect Hillary, who was exposed on this issue as almost no issue in her tenure in the administration. It is obviously a political move.”

I actually think that’s what Krauthammer believes, along with Westmoreland and the rest of the GOP officeholders chasing down the Benghazi “truther” rabbit hole.  Why shouldn’t they? It’s what they would do.

Hell, it’s what they are doing:  to belabor the obvious, crying “Politics” avoids the necessity of parsing what the Times actually reported.  It saves having to defend the various claims of whatever it is that Clinton or Obama is said to have done wrong. Most of all, it ducks the obligation to take on what did happen in Benghazi with enough thought to inform deliberations that lead to, for example, not blowing up stuff in Syria.  Much easier to accuse the other side of doing exactly the vicious shit you would have.

These are not people to be allowed near the reins of government. They probably shouldn’t be allowed near scissors.  Danger to self and others and all that.

Image: Georgios Jakobides, “Cold Shower” 1898

 

Because Grinch, That’s Why

December 23, 2013

I don’t mind Christmas so much as these last two-days-prior. All my own fault, of course. I still have some gifts to get; there’s a bunch of stuff to shove off my desk and I’m inefficiently workaholic enough that the enforced leisure of a Christmas afternoon (aka the long dark pre-hangover of the soul) makes me mental and all that.

And so, because I am a generous man, I am more than happy to share the Christmas song that most captures the gestalt (though happily, not the actual details) of my pre-holiday feh:

“I could have been someone”

“Well, so could anyone…”

(Cue Glendower:   I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why so can I and so can any man./But will they come when you do call for them? (Henry IV Part I, Act 3, Sc. 1)

Yeah, I know.  Grump, grump, grump.  If I can’t say anything nice…

Just to show that I’m not wholly hostile to y’all and everyone else this time of year, here’s a fun little gift.  Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Christ Thile and Stuart Duncan doing some modern bluegrass inflected stuff — fast fingers all.  These are the things that remind me that for all the shite we may daily encounter, we do live in bizarrely wonderful times:

Top of the season, y’all. May your friends be kind to you and fail to offer you any a cocktail that floats red liquor on top of green.

Today in GOP Sociopathology

December 20, 2013

We’ve got two headliners today.

First up, child labor cheerleader Jack Kingston, a congressman from Georgia now looking for a promotion to the Senate, claimed that he’s no hater of the poor for saying this:

“Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money,” Kingston said at a Jackson County Republican Party meeting, according to video surfaced by the Huffington Post. “But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”

But nah, that wasn’t aimed at shaming and constraining the poor, swears Kingston (R-eternally misunderstood).  Rather,

“This is not targeted to any one group,” Kingston said. “It would be very helpful for kids in any socio-economic group to do chores and learn the work ethic….I never did say poor kids.”

Over to you, M. Anatole France:

Thomas_kennington_orphans_1885

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

And then there is that noted scholar of the Civil Rights era, Ian Bayne, a Republican candidate running for the nomination to challenge Rep. Bill Foster, an actual smart person and a Democrat representing Illinois’s 11th district.  Mr Bayne identifies the ties that bind two characters most observers of lesser penetration would never have uncovered:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians,” Bayne wrote in the email. “What Parks did was courageous.”

Bayne added in the email that “what Robertson did was courageous too.”

That would be Duck Dynast Phil Robertson, who, as we all know, is convinced that African Americans with whom he worked in the pre-Civil Rights era were, as he put it “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”  And who says in the context of a current civil rights struggle, that gay men and women are bound not for equality before the law, but for Sheol:

“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers–they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right. [via Ta-Nehisi Coates]

So, let’s recap:  Rosa Parks risks jail, bodily harm, quite possibly death to secure the minimal rights of citizenship for Americans who have been subjugated through a reign of terror for a century since the end of outright chattel slavery.  Some guy spouts hate at blacks and gays.

Just the same.

Ladles and Jellyspoons:  Your modern GOP.  A party that does not vomit out such characters cannot be allowed anywhere near the reins of power.

Or, as my man Cato would say, Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est

Image: Thomas Kennington, Orphans,1885.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel edition

December 18, 2013

It’s the third Wed. of the month again (remarkable how that comes around), and I’ll once more be doing my internet radio thing on Virtually Speaking Science (a program within the Virtually Speaking empire that recently featured our own Richard Mayhew in conversation with Jay Ackroyd).

This evening at 5 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m./PT, I’ll be talking with Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.  (We’ll also be live in Second Life at the Exploratorium’s joint.  Come join the live studio audience if you’ve got that kind of virtual bent.)

Titian_-_Rape_of_Europa_-_Google_Art_Project

As many of you I’m sure know, it’s been a tumultuous couple of months in the science writing world. Since October, we’ve seen Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a researcher and blogger at ScientificAmerican.com get called an “urban whore” for the sin of politely declining to write for free — and then have her equally polite explanation why that’s not OK deleted on spurious pretences by a Scientific American editorial staff who thus, effectively silenced an African American woman trying to let the world know this sh*t still goes on — every damn day.  You can listen to Lee herself on all of this as part of the invaluable Story Collider series of tales of science and life.

In the wake of Lee’s story, first one woman, then two, then three reported incidents of sexual harassment by then-Scientific American blog editor and Science Online co-founder Bora Zivkovic.  Of particular note at this stage of events was the pattern of reactions to the news about Zivkovic, who was a cornerstone of the English-language science blogging world, widely known and liked.  By me too, btw.  Devoted fans of my Virtually Speaking Science gig — yes, all 6 of you, counting my cat — will recall that Bora was on the show last January.  He was kind to my fledgling blog as he was to many others, and the reserves of good will he engendered play a role in this story.  The concept of “community” was invoked to suggest that Zivkovic’s role in fostering community as an end in itself suggested some kind of amelioration or alternate context for the one incident on the table.  As more women came forward, that line of argument largely evaporated — but it set the context for the public debate that followed.

Moving forward, there was Rapey-Einstein-Curie-Bobblehead-gate.  I kid you not.  Joe Hanson, who writes the It’s OK To Be Smart blog for PBS digital posted a Thanksgiving video showing famous historical scientists (bobbleheads) gathered around the table.  Marie Curie was the only woman on hand, and the video ended up with Einstein assaulting Curie.  Oy.

What made that particular embarrassment worse that neither Hans0n nor PBS seemed to get quite what was wrong with the piece — as Kate Clancy* writes, Hanson apologized, but said he was trying to draw attention to the insufficient representation of women in science through the video.  PBS merely lauded Hanson and itself for  opening up “up an important, though difficult, debate” — as if the conversation about rape, discrimination or abuse of power was suddenly brought to our attention by this act of intellectual courage.

One of the most striking aspects of the whole last few months was the surprise gap.  Women in science writing were unhappy to hear of each insult and act of diminishment imposed on other women — but, at least as documented in that immaculate scientific assay, Twitter, they were utterly unsurprised by the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.  Men, those with some power and those pretty much without, mostly had a different reaction. They — and this certainly goes for me — had a collective “I had no idea that this happens to all of y’all” reaction.

Cole_Thomas_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_1828

But it does.  Crap gender behavior is a constant, it seems; at least every woman I’ve spoken to in the science writing world reports interactions ranging from the unnecessarily and workplace-inappropriate awkwardness to outright sucker-should-be-in-jail awfulness.  The data on women’s advancement through the ranks of power in both science itself and public science communication reflect both the leaky-pipe impact of such environments and the power of old-boy networks, even in this day and age.  See this and this and this for examples, with Janet Stemwedel’s post as context.

So we’ll be talking about all of this:  what happened to bring the issue of sexual harrassment and gender discrimination to the fore in the professional world of science communication; what it means on the ground for the craft — and hence, inter alia, for the goal of engaging the public in science and the use of scientific thinking for civic participation; and what can be done to address the systemic flaws that have enabled gender discrimination to persist, for all the (often quite spectacular) self-congratulation science communicators have allowed themselves in the very recent past.

As to my guests.  Maryn McKenna is a return visitor to the program, having joined me in April to talk antibiotic resistance and why we’re all doomed.  She’s one of the country’s leading public health journalists, who has spent the last several years diving into the problem of antibiotic overuse and the evolution of increasingly resistant microbes.  She’s also someone who has thought long and deeply about gender issues in our shared profession, and you can find some of her writing on the subject on her blog (variously linked above).

Janet Stemwedel is a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who teaches the philosophy of science and its ethics, among other concerns.  She’s known on the web as Dr. Freeride, and she blogs about a wide range of issues of ethics and public responsibilty in science.  It’s both too horrible and necessarily inaccurate to say that someone is “the conscience” of a group, but Janet is nonetheless one of those to whom many of us turn when we want to talk through a question with rigor and humanity.

Should be a rich conversation this afternoon. Hope y’all can make it, or check out the podcast when it suits your schedule.

One more thing:  it should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t, there’s nothing unique about science journalism or public outreach.  Some of us in the business (almost exclusive the male sort) thought there was, that we had enlightened ourselves as a group past the broader social issues raised by ongoing gender crap.  This program is both a result of and an attempt to further disabusement of that notion — and, I hope, whatever I’ll learn from Janet and Maryn will also serve as a guide to navigating the same issues in settings beyond science writing.

IOW — this may all look like inside baseball for science writers.  It’s not.

*BTW — as I write this the news just came off embargo that Kate’s been named one of the journal Nature’s 10 — “Ten people who mattered this year,” recognized for her work in developing data to demonstrate the reality of sexual harassment and physical or sexual assault in research settings.

Images: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562.

Thomas Cole, The Expulsion from Eden, 1828.

 

David Brooks Agonistes, Outsourced to Mr. Charles Pierce

December 17, 2013

I was going to go all, “Look! David Brooks has written an inadvertent autobiography” in this, his latest and perhaps strangest column.

There are some in the Twitterverse who think that the piece, titled “The Thought Leader,” is actually triple-secret irony, with Brooks — that famously introspective savant — fully aware of the self-parody/indictment.

Me? I think Brooks has the self-knowledge of a capybara, and that he is (or was, until this morning’s point-and-laugh-fest) blissfully, almost heroically gifted with false consciousness, of such total potency as to blind him to the utter vacuum that lies at the core of his life and work.  It takes a special sort of man to surf past salad bars at Applebees to a self-appointed role as the always-wrong philosopher king of American public discourse.

Thomas_Eakins_-_The_Thinker,_Portrait_of_Louis_N._Kenton

Anyway, despite the end of term slough of despond/mountain of unchecked papers on which I descend/ascend,* I was all set to do a line by line fisking — until I reflected that in this vale of tears we are yet blessed by the FSM with the existence of Charles Pierce.

He does not disappoint.  Admittedly Brooks’ catastrophe of a column is an astonishingly target rich environment — but Pierce rises to the challenge of swatting each and every offering.

For example: here’s Brooks’ lede:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

If that’s Brooks’ serve, see in awe Pierce’s return, an untouchable backhand down the line:

Actually, most little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wishing they weren’t slaves, and wishing they weren’t chasing sheep across a rocky hillside, and hoping they wouldn’t be dead of cholera before they were 15. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of not catching the Black Plague. Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens. Who was left to herd the goats, I ask you.  And something can’t be both a phrase and a paragon, not even If You Capitalize It. Any little boy or girl in ancient Athens could have told you that.

It goes on from there.  It’s not pretty.   Read the whole thing.  Then lie back and grin.

*Just to show I can butcher metaphors with the best of them…

Image: Thomas Eakin, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900.

Good One

December 13, 2013

The Soweto Gospel Choir and a local Woolworths got together to organize this Mandela tribute/remembrance:

(Lyrics and translation.) (h/t GOS)

Gotta have something of an anecdote antidote to all the crap out there, and this is it for me today.

Enjoy.

Worst People In The World

December 13, 2013

For the life of me, I can’t see why we shouldn’t invoke the UN convention on genocide against Big Tobacco:

Tobacco companies are pushing back against a worldwide rise in antismoking laws, using a little-noticed legal strategy to delay or block regulation. The industry is warning countries that their tobacco laws violate an expanding web of trade and investment treaties, raising the prospect of costly, prolonged legal battles, health advocates and officials said.

Alarmed about rising smoking rates among young women, Namibia, in southern Africa, passed a tobacco control law in 2010 but quickly found itself bombarded with stern warnings from the tobacco industry that the new statute violated the country’s obligations under trade treaties.

“We have bundles and bundles of letters from them,” said Namibia’s health minister, Dr. Richard Kamwi.

Three years later, the government, fearful of a punishingly expensive legal battle, has yet to carry out a single major provision of the law, like limiting advertising or placing large health warnings on cigarette packaging.

I’m a little emotional on this issue, as my mother died ten days before my scheduled wedding day, murdered by RJ Reynolds.

But at least when Mom started smoking in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the explicit tobacco-cancer connection was still obscure, with the first case-control studies clearly linking cigarettes to cancer emerging in 1948 (per Siddhartha Mukherjee’s first rate The Emperor of all Maladies.  See especially the chapter titled “The Emperor’s Nylon Stockings”).  Her death may reasonably be considered involuntary manslaughter.

Now, though, there is no way to work for a tobacco company and not know that what you do is sell poison, and that the ultimate effect of your product, used as is intended, is slaughter.

2_Andrea_di_Bartolo._Massacre_of_the_Innocents_1380s._Walters_Museum_of_Art.

Most people, I’d like to think, would take a long look in the mirror and decide that there are other ways to spend our three score and ten than making a living off the wholly preventable suffering and death of uncounted others.

But clearly those working for Big Tobacco somehow missed that day in school when the class talked about the golden rule — not to mention  just about any version of the minimum expectations for human moral behavior.  Which is why first world tobacco titans  now seek to compel cash-strapped nation-states to accept the sale of death as just another bit of misery those with power can enforce on those with less.*

Let me be clear:  the law may say otherwise, but forcing tobacco on countries trying to restrict its use seems to me to be murder, pure and simple.

Sure, the victims are unknown, and their deaths in many cases decades in the future.  But the link between cigarettes and fatal disease is clear.  The motive for the companies’ actions are clear.  The gain in exchange for decisions that will inevitably result in many, many deaths is right out there in dollars and cents.  One may argue the formal distinctions between degrees, or between murder and manslaughter, but for me, deaths that the killer has reason to expect will happen as a consequence of his or her own actions count as the worst of crimes.

Regulation is needed.  So are tumbrels.

*Props, btw, to Michael Bloomberg, who the NYT reports paid for Uruguay’s defense in a suit  brought by Phillip Morris at a point where the country would have had to drop its tobacco law for lack of funds to defend it.  But hoping that right-minded billionaires will answer the call is no substitute for policy, and no remedy for the utter moral depravity on display in this story.

Image: Andrea di Bartolo, Massacre of the Innocents,  1380s