Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

We're out here in Phoenix, it was a chilly sixty degrees today. Visiting family, eating too much, today we went through a box of old stuff and heard grandpa tell all the old stories about every little thing. We got a couple of bottles of champagne in case anybody can stay up late enough to shout "Happy New Year." We might make it to midnight, some of us might not.

I understand there is freezing rain back home. We left a foot and a half of melting snow to fly to Iowa, where we got another twenty inches. Yesterday the family went up to Sedona, Arizona, where it was snowing, too (but not very much). Today was beautiful clear sunshine, just what you picture when you imagine the Arizona desert in wintertime.

It will be good to get home to Maryland. We all miss people and the routine of our own home. It's been great seeing relatives and doing things but we're ready to start our new year with a nice boring routine, sleeping in our own beds, hanging out with familiar friends.

It's getting dark here and it's a couple hours later there, you're getting ready to go out, and I wanted to take the moment to tell you Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Strange Co-Signers

I was traveling and did not notice last week that FireDog Lake's Jane Hamsher and the Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist have co-signed a letter calling for an investigation of President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Jane Hamsher has been one of the most thorough and tenacious progressive bloggers out there, for a long time, a true lefty. I admit that when I saw her on Rachel Maddow's show a couple of months ago I developed a bit of a crush on her, she turns out to be beautiful and articulate and funny in person, too. Grover Norquist, on the other hand, is a key conservative strategist, he's the guy who said, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." She represents the "left of the left" -- the term used by a "senior White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity" talking to the Washington Post a while back -- and Norquist represents the right of the right. The fact that they went in together on this is remarkable, to say the least.

Here's their letter:
December 23, 2009

Attorney General of the United States of America
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

We write to demand an immediate investigation into the activities of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. We believe there is an abundant public record which establishes that the actions of the White House have blocked any investigation into his activities while on the board of Freddie Mac from 2000-2001, and facilitated the cover up of potential malfeasance until the 10-year statute of limitations has run out.

The purpose of this letter is to connect the dots to establish both the conduct of Mr. Emanuel and those working with him to thwart inquiry, and to support your acting speedily so that the statute of limitations does not run out before the Justice Department is able to empanel a grand jury.

The New York Times reports that the administration is negotiating to double the commitments to Fannie and Freddie for a total of $800 billion by December 31, in order to avoid the congressional approval that would be needed after that date. But there currently is no Inspector General exercising independent oversight of these entities. Acting Inspector General Ed Kelly was stripped of his authority earlier this year by the Justice Department, relying on a loophole in a bill Mr. Emanuel cosponsored and pushed through Congress shortly before he left for the White House. This effectively ended Mr. Kelly’s investigation into what happened at Fannie and Freddie.

Since that time, despite multiple warnings by Congress that having no independent Inspector General for a federal agency that oversees $6 trillion in mortgages is a serious oversight, the White House has not appointed one.

We recognize that these are extremely serious accusations, but the stonewalling by Mr. Emanuel and the White House has left us with no other redress. A 2003 report by Freddie Mac’s regulator indicated that Freddie Mac executives had informed the board of their intention to misstate the earnings to insure their own bonuses during the time Mr. Emanuel was a director. But the White House refused to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request from the Chicago Tribune for those board minutes on the grounds that Freddie Mac was a “commercial” entity, even though it was wholly owned by the government at the time the request was made.

If the Treasury approves the $800 billion commitment to Fannie and Freddie by the end of the year, it will mean that under the influence of Rahm Emanuel, the White House is moving a trillion-dollar slush fund into corruption-riddled companies with no oversight in place. This will allow Fannie and Freddie to continue to purchase more toxic assets from banks, acting as a back-door increase of the TARP without congressional approval.

Before the White House commits any more money to Fannie and Freddie, we call on the Public Integrity Section in the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the cause of Fannie and Freddie’s conservatorship, into Rahm Emanuel’s activities on the board of Freddie Mac (including any violations of his fiduciary duties to shareholders), into the decision-making behind the continued vacancy of Fannie and Freddie’s Inspector General post, and into potential public corruption by Rahm Emanuel in connection with his time in Congress, in the White House, and on the board of Freddie Mac.

We also call for the immediate appointment of an Inspector General with a complete remit to go after this information.

We both come from differing political ideologies. One of us is the conservative head of a transparency foundation, and the other is the publisher of a liberal political blog. But we make common cause today out of grave concern for the future of our country in the wake of corruption-riddled bailouts. These bailouts continue to rob Main Street to benefit Wall Street, and, because of that, we together demand the resignation of Mr. Emanuel, a man who has steadfastly worked to obstruct both oversight and inquiry into the matter. Rahm Emanuel’s conflicts of interest render him far too compromised to serve as gatekeeper to the President of the United States.

We will lay out the details further below, and are available at your earliest convenience to meet with you directly.

Jane Hamsher

Grover Norquist
Americans for Tax Reform

Jane Hamsher, Grover Norquist Call for Rahm Emanuel’s Resignation

It is hard to imagine an alliance forming between progressives who want to see a powerful government that protects its citizens from corporate greed and works toward world peace and conservatives who want to bolster the interests of big business and shrink government. But both sides have expressed intense disappointment at the action of the current administration so far.

The best analysis I've seen of this particular alliance between left and right appeared on Ellen's Illinois Tenth Congressional District Blog. I recommend reading the whole thing. One point that jumped out at me:
Progressive populists argue that you have to fight the large corporate interests to achieve reform. Conservative populists argue that you have to fight big government to keep taxes down.

She describes how these messages have been appropriated by powerful groups, delegitimizing them as populist positions, though they are opinions held by a great number of Americans. The problem is that the only force that can control corporate greed is government regulation, and to reduce government you have to move responsibility to the private sector, e.g., corporations that are motivated by profits. So while the vast majority of ordinary citizens would like to see minimal government interference with their personal liberties, lower taxes, and a competitive marketplace that drives prices down and quality up, there are two polarized viewpoints about how to get to that point. And these days the messages for those viewpoints are controlled by government and corporate propagandists, so the populist plea is effectively drowned out.

The conservative teabaggers might carry signs demanding their country back, but progressives also feel that the vision of the Founding Fathers is being undermined as the Obama administration measures its decisions against a centrist position that is held only by voters who aren't paying attention. It is possible to look at a piece of legislation or a new policy with the question in mind, will it affect me? And if it doesn't, it is possible to shrug your shoulders and accept whatever Washington does as some kind of inevitable background noise. I am not affected if gay government employees don't get benefits for their partners, it doesn't affect me if we bomb innocent Pakistani villagers with drones, I won't really feel it personally if corporations getting gigantic bailout donations from taxpayers give their undeserving CEOs ridiculous bonuses. That is the position that Obama seems to weigh his positions against, the position held by the majority of Americans who are too busy living their lives to pay close attention to Washington politics. Meanwhile, those who are honestly interested in the integrity of government feel they are being undermined, left and right. The press can call them extremists, but they are the people who are paying attention, and the administration has alienated progressives and conservatives alike.

I am not in a position to judge whether Rahm Emanuel is the guy to go after here to get things back on track, but it is significant to see these two individuals, representing opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, co-signing a letter demanding accountability from the White House.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hoo Boy, Watch the Security Lines Now

We flew from Maryland to Iowa this week and I've got to say, security lines have not been a big problem on this trip. We had some terrible delays, some flights were canceled because of weather and some because of mechanical problems, we sat for two hours on one plane while the pilot was stuck in traffic coming to work, but the security lines in the airports were mostly orderly and fast.

I got picked in Chicago for a special check, they put me in one of those new scanners that look through your clothes. The guy was so serious, he told me to show him what was in my "right front back pocket." He got quite impatient with me when I didn't know where my front back pocket was. I had some coins in my "right front" pocket, but not enough to set off the metal detector, and my wallet was in my "right back" pocket, and they allowed me to fly.

It was interesting to see how they pat you down. This big serious guy says, "I am going to pat your pocket to see if there's anything else there" after I had taken the change and guitar picks out. Then he had me turn around and said "Now I'm going to pat your back pocket with the back of my hand," after I had taken my wallet out of it. Just a little institutional homophobia, I guess, making sure I didn't think he was getting frisky with me. Frisky involves the palm, not the back of the hand, very important distinction.

Here's the New York Times:
Transportation authorities began imposing tighter security measures at airports on Saturday as investigators conducted searches to learn more about the Nigerian engineering student accused of igniting an incendiary device aboard a Northwest Airlines jet as it landed in Detroit on Friday.

The White House declared the incident "an attempted act of terrorism." The plane landed safely around noon on Christmas Day after passengers helped subdue the suspect.

As a result of the attack, British Airways announced on its Web site on Saturday that passengers flying from London to the United States would be allowed to carry only one item onto a plane. In addition, an official of the United States Homeland Security Department said Friday night that other unspecified security measures would be imposed at the nation’s airports. The Transportation Security Administration was also holding a briefing on Saturday morning. Governments React After Terror Attempt on Airplane

I hate to be in the Midwest and see the words "tighter security measures at airports" in the news.

I guess this guy entered the system in Lagos -- our security in the US depends on screening in Nigeria. But like, what would they have found? Of course at this early point the news is vague, it's mostly rumor and propaganda, you don't know if he was actually connected to any organization or if he had a real explosive. I read somewhere that he set his crotch on fire. That is not intelligent terrorism.

Here's the NYT:
It was unclear how the suspect managed to get the explosive on the plane, an Airbus A330 wide-body jet carrying 278 passengers that departed from Amsterdam with passengers who had originated in Nigeria. A senior administration official said that the government did not yet know whether the man had had the capacity to take down the plane.

The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.

In classic fashion, they refer to the stuff as "the explosive," though it did not explode and nobody knows what it is, really. He could have been lighting his airplane trail mix on fire for all we know, they would have still called it "the explosive" because that sounds much scarier than "airplane trail mix."

And this "ranking Republican:"
“This was the real deal,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Saturday. He was briefed on the incident and said something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. “This could have been devastating,” Mr. King said.

Of course it's the real deal, because only the real deal will scare Americans in the way we learned to enjoy in the Bush era. If it was some Nigerian mental case pouring his airplane trail mix into his pants and setting it on fire there would be no reason to panic, and we like to panic.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official said that the materials Mr. Abdulmutallab had on him were “more incendiary than explosive,” and that he had tried to ignite them to cause a fire as the airliner was approaching Detroit.

Mr. Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had mixed it with chemicals held in a syringe.

A federal counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified said Mr. Abdulmutallab was apparently in a government law enforcement-intelligence database, but it is not clear what extremist group or individuals he might be linked to.

I'm trying to make sense of that. The guy's in the database but they don't know why. Somebody went to the "government law enforcement-intelligence database" and typed in "Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab" and got a hit, and then didn't scroll over to read what else it said. Yup, boss, he's in there, well that's the end of my shift, I gotta go. And wouldn't it have been a good idea to check the database before letting him on the airplane?

As far as public decision-making goes, I don't like the way this is heading. Guy has a Muslim name, he's from Nigeria, he fits the stereotype, so right off the top "ranking Republicans" and government experts are crowing that he's the real deal and everybody should freak out. The security level at the airports was orange already -- did you know they still announce that every few minutes, even though it's been orange for years? Now they caught a guy trying to do something, they're going to bump up security and slow everybody down, frighten everybody, but it's too late. You have to catch the terrorists before they set their crotches on fire, it's no good to inconvenience everybody for nothing after the painful event.

One guy tried something, let's say it was real, let's say he had been assigned by al Qaeda to put actual explosive trail mix in his pants -- what is the true statistical predictive value of that fact for similar acts in the near future? In the weeks after the Shoe Bomber got stopped, exactly how many people attempted to use their shoes as bombs? At least eight gazillion people took their shoes off to be x-rayed -- they're still doing that, we're still going through security barefoot -- and nobody had a bomb in their shoes. It is unproductive to lock everything down after a guy has ignited an incendiary trail mix crotch-pack on an airplane already, but you know it's going to happen just to make people feel that the government is doing something.

Some may object to my tone here, I should not make light of a serious attempted terrorist attack. I am a firm believer in real security, and I am a critic of faux-security. After 9/11 we allowed our government to manipulate our fear level, we handed common sense over to the Bush administration and they used it politically to get people elected and to suppress objective discussion about whether we should attack a couple of countries that had not done anything to us. The stereotype of the Muslim terrorist emerged, even as more probable terrorists of the right-wing variety were demoted in the press. And now we've got this, an incompetent Nigerian scorching his genitals with incendiary trail-mix, and the TV news loves it.

It is possible that this character was sent by an anti-American organization to blow up an airplane. If that is true, he didn't do a very good job of it. He could have gone into the bathroom to set off his bomb, for instance, or he could have used a material that would actually explode and not just pop like a small firecracker and burn his britches. If he was sent by an organization, in other words, they were not very well organized.

I do want the airlines and our federal government to ensure safety for air travelers as well as they can. I do not want terrorists to blow up airplanes with innocent people on them. And there might be ways to prevent that, it makes sense to keep a list of known members of terrorist organizations, for instance, and then monitor or prevent their use of airplanes. But many, if not most, of the measures that are taken do not make anyone safer. We saw this scare-everybody approach in the Bush years, and it appears the same stuff will continue in the new administration, techniques have been designed to remind people constantly that they should live in fear, to encourage people to be suspicious of one another, to persuade people to rely more on big-brother government.

Word is just coming out on the new procedures as I write this. Early reports say you won't be able to get out of your seat or set anything on your lap for the last hour of a flight now. Great, so people won't be able to get out of their seats now, like the people did who jumped on this Nigerian guy and prevented him from doing whatever he was starting to do, while he stayed in his seat. Whatever, people have to feel like somebody is doing something, I guess.

NBC News is reporting on the new procedures:
  • Pat downs of passengers at airport security, concentrating on the upper torso and legs;
  • Physical inspections of all carry-on bags at the gate;
  • Requiring all passengers to be seated for the full hour prior to arrival;
  • Banning the use of blankets and pillows one hour prior to arrival.

In other words, they're going to treat every passenger on every flight as if they were going to do exactly what this last guy did. If you carry your explosives incendiary stuff on your arms instead of your legs and set if off in the first part of the trip rather than the last part you'll have no problem.

We do need to be careful, in a realistic way. There are lots of people out there who don't like the United States, and some of them are violent. I would like to see the threat of random attacks treated objectively. I would like to know that government officials are able to assess the probability of an attack at any time, and that they will have done the reconnaissance necessary to anticipate where it will come from -- they had advance warning that this Nigerian was bad news and did not capitalize on it. I would like to know that there are evacuation procedures and a plan for responding when an attack does occur, given the fact that it will probably not resemble previous incidents. I would like them to eliminate or at least reduce danger before guys start lighting their crotches on fire on actual occupied airplanes in the air.

Clamping down our national sphincters after a scare does not make anybody safer, and that should be the goal, to make people safer. It's very difficult to defend against random violence, I understand, but frightening the public advances a xenophobic political perspective without increasing real security.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve in Iowa

We're holed up all cozy at the in-laws' house in Sioux City, Iowa, where we are having three days of blizzard conditions. They expect twenty inches of snow, winds around fifty miles an hour here. Driving over from the airport in Omaha we passed dozens of cars that had slid off into the ditches or overturned. Right now we have a mixture of new snow falling and clouds of snow-dust blowing off the roofs and trees. There are no kids outside playing in it.

Indoors, we have brownies and wine and the house is warm with the smell of corned beef cooking. Some of my wife's relatives just dropped in to say Merry Christmas and swap stories, catching up on who's married, who's died, whose kid has turned out badly, who got a new dog and how cute it is, scooping up snow in its cone while it heals from some surgery. The husband is in the agriculture department at Iowa State, and we talked about Russians and computers and other things we both had something to say about. I had never met him before but he's good people.

It's Christmas Eve and we're far away from our home. There's so much to miss while we're out here in the Midwest, but it is important and good to spend some time with our extended families; the kids -- who are hardly kids any more -- need to hear their surviving grandparents' familiar old stories again while they can. We'll be back to our new home soon enough, to new friends and the new things we love to do. I hope you all are getting to spend some time with family during these holidays, getting some time away from work and worry, recharging the batteries before we jump back into unimagined adventures in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Light Blogging For A While

I'm expecting to have a period of light blogging here over the next week or two, due to the holidays. There's plenty to talk about -- hey, how about that Senate vote? How about that snowball fight? What about Houston's new mayor? How do you think the war in Afghanistan is going? Cold enough for ya?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You Don't Bring a Gun to a Snowball Fight

In DC yesterday, a bunch of people were having a big time, a snowball fight, maybe two hundred people lined up across the street from each other at 14th and U. Apparently the snowball fight was set up on Twitter, everybody was having a lot of fun.

At one point a police car got stuck in the snow and the snowballers helped him out and the crowd cheered. The City Paper quotes a witness:
"... A couple moments later, at the intersection, heading west along U was this big maroon Hummer. A small faction of people decided to target it with snowballs. They're throwing snowballs at the Hummer. It turns out the driver of the Hummer is a detective. He gets out. He's waving a walkie talkie. It's not going well. Then he starts waving a gun. He hadn't identified himself at this point. There was a point where things cooled off a bit, more police showed up, and he identified himself at that point. The name was Det. Baylor. My guess was B-A-Y-L-O-R."

"There was a point where it got really tense. The experience for many people was snowball fight kind of fun...and then there's a guy with a gun." Eyewitness Confirms: D.C. Cop Freaks Out Over Snowball Fight–Brandishes Gun

This was a plainclothes cop in an unmarked vehicle, threatening to shoot somebody because snowballs hit his Hummer.

Don't watch this video if you or anyone in the room is sensitive to strong language. People are upset and the audio is not censored. It starts with the crowd chanting "You don't bring a gun to a snowball fight."

It is really scary to see this guy in the middle of the intersection with a pistol, defending his Hummer from a snowball attack with a big police revolver. A guy who would kill somebody for throwing a snowball at his fortress-on-wheels should not be wearing a badge.

Oh, and this is good, the City Paper has a message from Assistant Chief Peter Newsham: "There was no police pulling guns on snowball people." Uh huh, well in this video I see two cops with their guns drawn. You watch this detective in the video, see the anger in his eyes, see him shoving people and provoking them, getting in their faces, he's so mad, all these young people out here having fun and not respecting his Hummer!

On Executing the Innocent

I heard a most interesting interview on the radio this week with a guy from the Innocence Network, which is a group of organizations that work to exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. As forensic science advances, it becomes possible to conduct tests on evidence that might not have been possible when the evidence was collected and the trial was held. If you can show that the DNA from a rape or murder does not match that of the convicted person then it is often possible to have the conviction thrown out, and the person can be freed.

It's bad enough when somebody spends years in prison for something they didn't do, but you really have to focus on cases where the guy has been executed. You can free a prisoner but once they've been put to death there is no apology that can correct the mistake.

ICM News is a British site generally aimed at commercial and business development managers. They have a good story about the problem.
The US death penalty has been brought into question following the release of a man wrongly imprisoned for 35 years. This brings the total number of exonerations to 140 since 1973 – 10 of which occurred this year.

The issue has been highlighted by the case of US citizen James Bain, who was charged with the kidnap and rape of a nine-year-old boy when he was just 19. Throughout his imprisonment Bain protested his innocence and now, aged 54, he has been cleared and set free following new DNA proof.

Washington’s Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has released its 2009 year-end report, which has revealed the number of people sentenced to death in the US has fallen considerably over the last few years – in 2009 there were 106 death sentences, compared with 328 in 1994.

Sadly, one possible reason for the drop in executions is the current economic crisis – for example, the cost of just one execution in Maryland is US$37 million (£23m). According to the DPIC, 11 states have considered abolishing the death sentence because of the high costs involved. US death penalty brought into question

Does anybody know why it costs thirty seven million bucks to kill a guy? I wonder how many people the government would execute if it was cheaper.

You can imagine a world where everything everyone did was recorded, and there was never an error in evidence or testimony. This would bring the wrongful conviction rate to zero, but would you want to live in a world like that? Every time you spit on the sidewalk the cops would come out and write you a citation. Oh, I know, you don't spit on sidewalks, I didn't mean you. You'd get a ticket for going twenty-six in a twenty-five zone, for crossing against the Don't Walk light, I'm sorry but I am not virtuous enough to wish for a world like that.

Instead of that, we wait until after a crime has been committed and then try to see if we can prove who did it, looking back at shreds of evidence including eyewitness testimony. And then we present that to a jury of the defendant's peers, roughly speaking, at least some randomly picked, hopefully unbiased citizens. They listen to the arguments on both sides and then decide whether the person is guilty or innocent.

So in the end, this is a process of social judgment, jurors look at all kinds of cues besides the evidence. I was on a jury once where a young black guy was charged with throwing a bag of dope on the ground as the police chased him, and as soon as we went into the jury room one lady said, "I'm a nurse and I see this all the time, he's guilty as can be." And I am not complaining, this human aspect of the jury also introduces the element of empathy. Sometimes a guy has technically broken the law but does not deserve to be punished.

I've been pointing out lately that science is a kind of social judgment process, based on peer review. Government, too, is founded on the principle of social judgment, the community elects the leaders of government in a pure moment of social judgment, putting a checkmark next to the name of the person they like the best. Law, too, depends on a special kind of social judgment, a judge or a jury evaluates the evidence and decides, maybe for the wrong reasons. All of these processes are known to be flawed, but they're the best anybody can think of. You sure wouldn't want a computer program deciding who should run the government, what scientific finding is significant, who is guilty or innocent.

American prisons are overflowing with people, we are a society that believes in punishment. There is no such thing as a politician being "too hard on crime." The bad guys in our movies are always ugly and evil to the core. We actually declared war on a whole country a few years ago because they belonged to an "axis of evil," we allowed our President to reason from that assertion to a declaration of a war that has no enemy but the people of the country, because they are evil. We don't think well about these things, let me say.
In the case of the recently-freed James Bain, the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) helped secure his release. Bain had previously submitted handwritten motions four times requesting DNA testing, but he was denied each time. An appeals court overturned the denial of his fifth appeal.

Bain, having been imprisoned for 35 years, had missed much of life’s advances. He used a cell (mobile) phone for the first time in his life, and told CNN: “I’m not upset [about what happened] because I understand what took place. I always had God on my side.”

Sometimes you need more than that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baby It's Cold Outside

I hope all of our readers are safe in their homes today. Driving home from a gig last night I saw all kinds of crazy traffic situations, cars sideways, people stuck, traffic on Veirs Mill was going ten miles an hour and even that was dangerous. I was coming down a long hill and traffic was stopped in front of me, I stepped on the brake pedal and nothing happened, I kept sliding down the hill. The car in front of me got nearer and nearer, luckily I was able to steer into the righthand lane and miss it. And that was when there was less than an inch on the ground.

Looking at the fenceposts it appears we've had about ten inches here. I see people are saying this could be the biggest snowstorm we've ever had in this region. I have not yet seen any snow-plows coming through, and there is almost no one out on the road. From the snugness of a warm house it is beautiful. But if you have to drive in it or even walk you may not appreciate it quite so much. This is a good day to stay home.

The National Weather Service is saying 12-22 inches of snow in Montgomery County. That's a lot. I went out to dig the newspaper out of the yard and it seems to me that the snow on the ground is soft, light powder. A brisk wind could pile up some nontrivial drifts.

The Metro has stopped serving above-ground stations, they say they can't keep the third rail clear. Ride-On buses are going to stop at three o'clock. It always does seem funny to me that public transportation is worst at those times when people need it the most. The trains get delayed even when it rains. You can't drive anywhere, if you can even get into your car -- this will be a day when you hope you don't have anywhere to go.

It's not so bad being indoors. WPFW is playing soul and blues Christmas songs, the dogs are snoozing beside the heater vents, it's not all bad.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Do Not Confuse These Two Books

David Fishback forwarded this to me, we tip our hat to his son Dan for catching this one. Dan blogged about Rachel Maddow's fine demolition of Richard Cohen -- the counselor who claims to be able to make gay people straight -- on her show, and then said:
After that interview aired, my mother noticed something totally weird - namely, that Cohen's book, "Gay Children, Straight Parents," bore a remarkable surface resemblance to a book she read when I first came out - "Straight Parents, Gay Children." While the latter helped my mom come to terms with my sexuality, and eventually to become an activist in her own right, the former is totally bogus "ex-gay" propaganda, denounced by every major medical and psychiatric institution in the country. Check out the covers:

Weird, right? When you google the good one, the bad one comes up second! I hope no one makes a terrible mistake and accidentally buys the bad one for their parents! Parents Children Children Parents

Man, this is bad. There is nothing on Cohen's Amazon page to indicate that his book is trying to tell parents that there's something wrong with their gay children, and that they can help their children quit being gay. Unless you know some of the codewords and recognize reviewers' names like Joseph Nicolosi, you'll never guess what this is about. You think your kid might be gay, you go to learn something about it, somebody recommended a book about gay children with straight parents, and you could very easily end up with Richard Cohen's malicious hypocrisy instead of real advice on how to relate to the child you love but don't understand.

Cohen's title is a rip-off, for one thing, just like PFOX's name is a rip-off of PFLAG, just like the whole "ex-gays are persecuted" thing is a rip-off of people who are really persecuted. The author of the real Straight Parents, Gay Children ought to take every penny Cohen has made off his book -- this is just a phishing scam done with books. Amazon should be careful about marketing these two juxtaposed -- there is almost zero probability that any one person will want to read both books, their audiences are entirely different. One book is written for people to learn to show love to their children and the other is written for parents who reject their children or want to change them into something they aren't.

Thanks to Dan -- you might remember I saw his band in London a couple of years ago -- for catching this. Richard Cohen has been thrown out of every professional organization he has ever belonged to, he does not conduct research, there is no scientific support for what he says. As Rachel Maddow pointed out, his work is being cited to promote the execution of gay people in Uganda, and his appearances on television are just embarrassing to watch. You really do wish there was a way to make sure that people who want to give love and support to their gay children get the right book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Richard Cohen and the Creeping Ugliness in Africa

Terrible things are happening in Africa. As this Guardian article notes, "As far as gay rights are concerned, it would appear that much of Africa is going backwards." Because this blog has a local focus on Montgomery County, Maryland, we have not talked about the issue here. But it is turning out that there is a local connection. You may have seen Rachel Maddow's brutal takedown of Maryland "ex-gay" Richard Cohen on her show this week -- watch the remarkable footage HERE. Cohen was one of those who spoke to the Montgomery County school board to oppose the new sex-ed curriculum, he was President of PFOX, who actively opposed our health classes and has filed lawsuits against the school district. Maddow had him on her show because Cohen's writing is being used in Uganda to support legislation calling for the death penalty for homosexuality.

I am going to skip around the article in Sunday's Guardian, discussing how the American Christian right is supporting brutal anti-gay law-making in Africa.
Uganda is likely to pass a law within months that will make homosexuality a capital offence, joining 37 other countries in the continent where American evangelical Christian groups are increasingly spreading bigotry

"Learned behaviour can be unlearned," said David Bahati. "You can't tell me that people are born gays. It is foreign influence that is at work."

Bahati has just presented his anti-homosexuality bill 2009 to Uganda's parliament. The bill, which will be debated within a fortnight and is expected to become law by February, will allow homosexuality to be punishable by death. Anti-gay bigots plunge Africa into new era of hate crimes

The idea that homosexuality is learned is nonsensical and can be traced directly back to the American "ex-gay" hoax, which teaches that "change is possible." Richard Cohen's life mission has been to tell people they can stop being gay.

It is hard to imagine why any American would want to get involved with this kind of legislation in a foreign country, except maybe to denounce it and try to promote diplomatic pressure to stop it. It appears that anti-gay attitudes are spreading around the African continent.
There is wide support for Bahati's law which, while being an extreme piece of anti-gay legislation, is not unique. As far as gay rights are concerned, it would appear that much of Africa is going backwards. Nigeria has a similar bill waiting to reach its statute books and already allows the death penalty for homosexuality in northern states, as does Sudan. Burundi criminalised homosexuality in April this year, joining 37 other African nations where gay sex is already illegal. Egypt and Mali are creeping towards criminalisation, using morality laws against same-sex couples.

The Ugandan bill extends existing laws to make it illegal to promote homosexuality by talking or writing about it, and forcing people to tell the authorities about anyone they know who is gay. The bill, said Bahati, 35, an MP from the ruling party, aims to "protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda against the attempts of sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sex promiscuity on the people of Uganda".

After a lifetime of hearing about bloody massacres, mass rapes, brutal dictatorships, violent revolutions, famine and starvation, Americans may feel numb to the real lives of people across the African continent. We simply cannot imagine the scale of these kinds of tragedies. Yet, it seems, there are some in our country who do tune in to the African cultures, in order to help make things even worse.
[Bahati] denied reports that international pressure might result in parts of the bill being toned down. "We are not going to yield to any international pressure – we cannot allow people to play with the future of our children and put aid into the game. We are not in the trade of values. We need mutual respect."

But many suspect that it was outsiders who inspired this bill in the first place. In March, Bahati met several prominent anti-gay US Christian activists who attended a conference in Uganda where they pledged to "wipe out" homosexuality. The conference featured Scott Lively, president of California's anti-gay Abiding Truth Ministries and co-author of The Pink Swastika, a book claiming that leading Nazis were gay. Also there was Don Schmierer, on the board of Exodus International, which promotes the "ex-gay" movement, believing people can change their sexuality and be redeemed. The third extremist evangelical to attend was Caleb Lee Brundidge, who is linked to Richard Cohen who believes that psychotherapy can "cure" homosexuality.

Bahati's bill was drawn up within weeks of the conference, but it has only just begun to cause waves within America's powerful evangelical community. Legalising killing gay people has triggered a bad press for the bill.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Bad press, oh my! I would think the bad thing about "legalising killing gay people" would be ... killing gay people.

To his benefit, Pastor Rick Warren, who you will remember delivered a benediction at the Obama inauguration, spoke out against the law.
This weekend, Rick Warren, the most powerful evangelical in America, released a video statement. "As an American pastor, it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations, but it is my role to speak out on moral issues," he said, adding that the bill was "unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals".

Okay, you gotta give him credit for that, even if he is only trying to prevent bad press.

Skipping down...
In Entebbe last week, 200 religious leaders, under the powerful umbrella group Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, demanded diplomatic ties be severed with "ungodly" donor countries, including the UK, Sweden and Canada, who are "bent on forcing homosexuality on Ugandans".

Joshua Kitakule, the council's secretary-general, said: "Those countries should respect our spiritual values. They shouldn't interfere. All senior religious leaders have been given copies of the bill to read and educate people in churches and mosques."

Further down...
Ugandan newspapers often out "homos" and the bill will force many more like Nyombi to leave, said Peter Tatchell, veteran gay rights campaigner. "In many cases, these countries are using laws imposed by the British in colonial times. Before that, homosexuality was actually tolerated or accepted in the traditional cultures.

"The right-wing are losing the battle in the US, so they are exploiting the poverty-stricken developing world. The response of the Commonwealth is pathetic. Of the 80 countries who criminalise same sex-relationships around the world, over 40 of them are in the Commonwealth – where is the concern for human rights?"

It is not just Africa where homophobia is rife – Iran and Jamaica have seen homosexuals imprisoned and attacked and many American states have laws against sodomy. In South Africa, gay rights have advanced: its first gay pride march was held in 1995 and it has now legalised civil same-sex marriage.

But for developing nations, the attraction of right-wing organisations with dollars to spend, combined with fears over a creeping "westernisation" of societies, is increasing the demonisation of gay people.

In 2004, Ruben del Prado, co-ordinator of the Joint United Nations programme on HIV/Aids in Uganda, was prematurely transferred out of the country after he held meetings with lesbian and gay groups about preventing HIV/Aids. The Ugandan government later accused him of holding secret meetings with undesirable groups. Since then, NGOs and aid officials have kept silent.

This is a tough kind of problem, because Ugandan society is so different from ours, it is hard for us to know what to do. Even as Westerners become more liberal in their acceptance of diversity, other parts of the world are cracking down, forcing a kind of tyrannical conformity that is shocking. It is not our place to pressure members of other cultures to behave like us, to dress like us, but it is our place, if America is to consider itself a world leader, to do what we can to promote justice around the globe.

This article covers a lot of ground, and I am omitting most of it. Here's how it ends:
In Uganda, the ethics and integrity minister sees the uproar surrounding the bill as positive. Uganda was "providing leadership" to the world, said James Nsaba Buturo.

"It is with joy we see that everyone is interested in what Uganda is doing, and it is an opportunity for Uganda to provide leadership where it matters most. So we are here to see a piece of legislation that will not only define what the country stands for, but provide leadership around the world."

It has certainly created some religious unity. It came as the Muslim Tabliq youth revealed plans to form what they called an anti-gay squad, to seek out and expose homosexuality.

Sheikh Multah Bukenya, a Tabliq cleric, said: "It is the work of the community to put an end to bad practices like homosexuality."

But Gerald Sentogo, of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said the bill was inhumane. "It violates every aspect of a human being. I mean, you cannot tell me you will kill me because I'm gay," he said. "How will somebody know about my sexuality unless he comes to my bedroom? You will trust nobody because everyone will become a spy over the other.

"Imagine people fighting over other issues and somebody will say you are a homosexual to get rid of you, and then you are arrested and you spend seven years in jail or life imprisonment."

American nuts like Richard Cohen are being taken seriously overseas, and are having an effect. Cohen may say he does not approve of the legislation itself, but it is a natural consequence of the inflammatory things he has been saying all these years, and they are holding up his book and quoting from it to support their positions (plus, his organization sent somebody over to work with the Ugandans on this). I think this article is probably correct in saying that the religious right in the US is realizing that their crusade of hatred is failing within our borders, and so are taking the show to the developing world where reaction is not likely to be so sophisticated, people will not be so well educated.

What they get out of it, I don't know, but I know that the good people of the world have to remain vigilant against this creeping ugliness.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The "No-Transgender" Controversy

Wow, there was a big blow-up at Bilerico this week. Bilerico is a top-shelf LGBTQ blog (as they call it), and Thursday they published a piece by gay activist Ronald Gold suggesting that there is no such thing as a transgender person. The article was poorly written and poorly thought out, the writer seems to have no insight into human experience and absolutely no understanding of the activist environment into which he dropped this bomb.

The editors at Bilerico didn't know what to do. They were unanimously offended by the piece but they are also committed to the idea of open debate of issues that are important to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. In the end they decided to delete the post and remove Gold's contributor status. You can see their statement HERE and further explanation HERE.

Behaviorist psychologists in the middle of the twentieth century tried to explain human behavior without reference to covert subjective variables. They explained everything in terms of stimuli and responses, and, to summarize, it didn't work. If you want to understand people you have to listen to what they say about themselves, you have to make some judgments about whether they're being honest with you and with themselves. And when someone tells you that they experience life as if their gender were the opposite of the apparent one, you might tend to view their statement skeptically. It is an unusual kind of statement to make, and for us cisfolk it is impossible to imagine what it's like to feel you have been assigned the wrong gender at birth. Counterintuitive, unusual, hard to comprehend, whatever, at some level you have to take people at their word, and the transgender people I have known have been entirely consistent and believable. There is just no reason to doubt them. They make the transition at great personal cost to themselves, losing friends and loved ones and enduring discrimination and random attacks, and in the end they insist their lives are better for it.

Though the article was deleted, I found a blogger who had re-posted Ronald Gold's original piece, and it certainly does not meet the quality that a site like Bilerico wants to maintain. It reminds me of a favorite Saturday Night Live skit, a TV show called "Women's Problems" opens with harps and dainty sounding music (as I recall, it's been many years), and the chiffon curtains swirl open to reveal a panel of men. They discuss problems that women might have such as, "When they get old they get ugly," and how gross it is when they menstruate. Ronald Gold appears similarly unqualified to discuss whether any person is truly transgender or not. In every paragraph he demonstrates that he has no insight into the personal choices that a transgender person makes, and he tries to explain the whole thing with an oversimplified theory about kids who feel different: "when they discovered that their personalities didn't jibe with what little boys and girls are supposed to want and do and feel, they just assumed they mustn't be real little boys and girls." Gold cites no evidence for this explanation, and there isn't any, he's just an ignorant person speculating about something he doesn't understand.

This might be the core idea that motivated this piece in the first place:
So, parents of such little boys and girls, do not take them to the psychiatrist and treat them like they're suffering from some sort of illness. Explain to them that, whatever the other kids say, real little girls do like to play with trucks and wear grimy jeans, and real little boys like to prance around in dresses and play with dolls.

It is not wrong to talk about subjective gender as a social construction, but it is wrong to talk about it as if it were only a social construction. The hopeful idea here is that people can learn to realize that gender is not a binary variable, there are degrees of maleness and femaleness -- boys can do what girls do and girls can do whatever boys do, without losing their identity. It doesn't make sense for someone to be less than they can be, just because conservative forces in society impose an arbitrary limit on them. The writer apparently suggests that the traditional concepts of gender can be stretched to include all qualities of the opposite. And I would agree that a society should accept variations without prejudice, but if you take his suggestion to its logical conclusion you see that the concept of gender will be watered down to nothing -- and that's just not going to happen, because the concept is too useful. The majority of humans are located somewhere near the center of the bell curve for their sex, and gender is an excellent heuristic for guiding unmindful interactions between individuals, which are the most common type. Gender is a very useful concept, the sexes differ statistically on many dimensions and many of the norms of a society have to do with regulating reproduction, and the concept of gender facilitates that, among other things.

So while I would agree that individuals who differ from gender stereotypes should be accepted by others and not be made to feel ashamed, it seems entirely possible that someone's experience may be so far from the norm for their assigned gender that it is more appropriate for them to re-label themselves and perhaps take steps to completely cross the gap. This makes their life simpler, that is, is the roles and expectations for each gender are fairly well defined, and it is easier for others to apply the expectations of the chosen gender rather than giving up the heuristic of gender stereotypes altogether.

So far I have been talking about sex and gender in reference to social norms and expectations, but in reality I don't think that's what it's about. There are virtually no social forces, for instance, that push a child to behave in counternormative ways, it seems obvious that the motivation is intrinsic. The Intersex Society of North America lists these as disorders of sex development that sometimes involve intersex anatomy: 5-alpha reductase deficiency, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), Aphallia, Clitoromegaly (large clitoris), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), gonadal dysgenesis (partial & complete), hypospadias, Klinefelter Syndrome, micropenis, mosaicism involving "sex" chromosomes, MRKH (Mullerian agenesis; vaginal agenesis; congenital absence of vagina), ovo-testes (formerly called "true hermaphroditism"), Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS), Progestin Induced Virilization, Swyer Syndrome, Turner Syndrome. And remember, each category listed contains subcategories, there are for instance many kinds of "mosaicism involving 'sex' chromosomes." These syndromes may exist to some degree and may not be diagnosed in many instances. Further, this is not a complete list of physiological factors that may affect an individual's subjective experience of themselves as one gender or the other.

Sex and gender are not "about" genitalia. In reality, your subjective gender is part of your sense of self, the way you experience yourself, not what kind of equipment you have. As such, gender is located in the brain, not in the reproductive organs. The brain, with twenty billion highly interconnected neurons, may contain patterns that promote a male or female gender identity, but good luck finding them. Some areas have drawn attention, but with so much to look at and so much other variations among individuals and so many possible patterns of connectivity that could affect such a global sense, it is almost certain that no single pattern will ever be identified that explains a majority of cases.

Clearly the biological substructure of sexual identity is complex, and though a physiological explanation for every instance of a transgender individual may not be known, it is likely that there is one. In this kind of world, Gold's folk-psychological model of gender identity doesn't hold water at all. Some people report very convincingly that they feel subjectively like they are one gender or the other, and not necessarily the one they were assigned when the doctor took a first look and spanked them. Subjective gender correlates with anatomical sex, something makes a person feel like a man or a woman, and it is not just inferred by looking down in the shower, likely the experience of gender has physiological causes as well as social ones, and some people experience their gender incongruously from expectations. These people are transgender, no matter what Ronald Gold says.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fun For the Whole Family

This has been floating around the Internet lately. Play Anti-Gay Bingo!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Research: Testosterone Does Not Cause Aggression

I recently shocked my daughter in a conversation when I told her I didn't believe in endorphins. Actually, I'm sure there are endorphins, I just don't think that's a good way to describe your state of mind: "I'm happy" is better than "I can feel the endorphins." Same for adrenalin, it's just as easy to say "I'm excited" as it is to say "I feel the adrenalin rush," ignoring other aspects of the sympathetic nervous system, the limbic system, and other physiological components that you can't feel directly, but they affect you. We have preconceptions about the effects of endorphins and adrenalin, and other natural parts of ourselves, but those preconceptions are socially constructed, we don't really know if it's adrenalin, or endorphins, or something else. We may, however, really know introspectively if we are excited, or tense, or happy. I guess I have a suspicion of laypersons offering mechanistic theories to explain their own behavior -- we're people, not robots.

An article in the current issue of Nature takes on our preconceptions about testosterone. You know what testosterone is; though women's bodies produce testosterone, men have forty times as much, it is the primary male sex hormone. Testosterone is used to explain why our prisons are full of men, why men get into fights, why men are sexually aggressive, why men are jerks. It's all part of our common folklore -- men act that way because nature made us that way. Testosterone makes us behave badly. Or so we believe.

Here is Nature News:
The popular idea that testosterone always makes people more aggressive has been debunked by researchers. A team based in Switzerland has shown that the hormone can make people behave more fairly in an effort to defend their social status.

Ernst Fehr, an experimental economist at the University of Zurich, and his colleagues used the 'ultimatum bargaining' game to test how testosterone would affect behaviour in a group of 121 women. Counter-intuitively, women who were given testosterone bargained more fairly.

But the idea that testosterone causes aggression in humans, as it clearly does in rodents, is so firmly ingrained in the human psyche that women who believed they had been given testosterone — whether or not they had — bargained much less fairly.

Women, not men, were tested because they have less variable 'baseline' blood testosterone levels.

The study is published in Nature. "It is a folk hypothesis that testosterone causes aggression," says Fehr. "But human society is more complex than this." Testosterone link to aggression may be all in the mind

We often discuss issues here that have to do with attitudes and beliefs about variations in aspects of gender. There are some people who believe that gender is a binary variable, you are either male or female, and once you have been assigned to a category you are expected to behave according to social expectations for that category. Some people believe this so strongly that they believe gender-related behavior norms should be enforced, for instance by punishing individuals who violate them. But, as the article says, "human society is more complex than this." I would put it this way: Human society is much more interesting than this. On a good day I might even say beautiful.

I'll skip the description of the study itself, which gave a shot of testosterone or placebo to some women and had them play a game where they could cooperate or compete. Subjects who had received the testosterone made more cooperative, fairer decisions.

Skipping down...
"In the socially complex human environment, pro-social behaviour, not aggression, secures status," says Michael Naef, an experimental economist at the Royal Holloway, University of London, who is a co-author on the paper.

That's a thought, isn't it? People respect a nice guy.

Skipping a little further ...
Adam Goodie, a psychologist at the University of Georgia in Athens who works on decision-making, says: "The paper is a major blow to the popular wisdom that testosterone simply makes you more aggressive and less cooperative — the true picture is not nearly as negative."

This re-opens the question, why are the prisons full of men? Men commit the vast majority of violent crimes, for instance. The civilized human being is a strange creature, optimizing two kinds of variables. As physical beings, products of evolution, we inherit physical bodies and the complicated layers of motives and drives that keep the species alive. And as social beings we are subtly and powerfully influenced by our culture and our language. There may be a physiological explanation for the aggressiveness of males -- there is certainly more to the physiology of sex differences than testosterone levels. Cross-cultural variations in violent behavior demonstrate that there are social factors at work, as well.

Sex and gender in human beings are complex abstractions. Men and women differ, on average, on many dimensions, but the distributions overlap -- though men are taller on average, some woman are taller than some men, for instance. Everyone who lives has a physical body, and everyone you know participates in a social system, a culture, a circle of acquaintances, a family, and those two domains of explanation cannot be separated. Science is able to help us understand ourselves and our neighbors, in this case it seems that one excuse explanation for bad behavior by men has been eliminated.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Teabaggers More Popular Than GOP

This is an interesting development. People like the teabaggers more than they like Republicans. Here's Politico:
Should the “Tea Party” movement organize itself to run congressional candidates across the country, it would poll better than the Republican Party, according to a new survey by Rasmussen Reports.

In the national telephone poll of 1,000 likely voters released Monday, 23 percent said they preferred to vote for a candidate from the yet unformed “Tea Party” for Congress in 2010. The Republican Party trailed the non-existent political organization by 5 percentage points, getting the support of 18 percent of respondents.

Democratic candidates were preferred of 36 percent.

Local tea party organizations have sprung up in states across the country, but there is little national – or even state-level – cohesion among them. Most states have several groups competing for support. 'Tea party' polls better than GOP

The Tea Party movement is a kind of interesting phenomenon. It is not made up of politically astute or particularly involved individuals -- you might have seen the Sarah Palin book-signing video, where people love Sarah Palin but don't have any clue what her position on domestic or foreign policies might be. People just have an idea that they're fed up, they don't really have any better idea how to manage a country of three hundred million extremely diverse citizens in a world of fickle friends and enemies, but they know "we want our country back."

The Republican Party built its foundation on the unlikely alliance of wealthy capitalists and working-class white people, where the working people were persuaded to prefer policies that were bad for them. Eight years of Bush presidency embarrassed the whole bunch of them, of course the rich got richer and the poor got poorer as expected, but the in-betweens began to realize, dimly, that their needs were not being met. Now that America has elected an African-American as President, their revulsion is gelling into a movement that has no real leaders, no doctrine, it is an aggregation of people who feel that their values and their ways are better than other people's, and they feel that they are being left out while elites and minorities get all the goodies. They are suspicious of government, suspicious of scientists and academics, suspicious of foreigners and people who are not white, suspicious of people who are not heterosexual and who are not stereotypical in their gender behavior. They see themselves as normal people and believe that's how everybody should be.

This is what you get after decades of second-rate education, after eight years of an anti-intellectual Presidency, where you had a President who mocked the PhD's who worked for him and claimed to make decisions "from the gut" rather than using his brain. Bush was the perfect teabagger President, though nobody will ever want to claim him. We tried it, it didn't work.

Bush was a Republican, and you can distance yourself from his failure by ... starting a new party that's just the same, but with a different name.
Despite the disorganization, the tea party brand is strong enough that a number of conservative candidates, including Republican California Senate hopeful Chuck DeVore, have tried to adopt the movement’s message.

According to the poll, 41 percent of all respondents said they had a “favorable view” of the so-called “Tea Party,” while only 22 percent characterized their view of the grassroots anti-tax movement as “unfavorable.” Thirty-seven percent said they were unsure.

Seventy percent of Republicans said they had a favorable view.

Fifty-seven percent said they were following news about the new movement either “very” or “somewhat” closely, while 40 percent said they were watching “not very closely” or “not at all.”

It will be interesting to see if these people can organize themselves into a political movement with any real power. This CNN story suggests that it might fall apart before it gets itself together...
It emerged in anger and it threatens to split in anger.

One major group in the Tea Party movement -- named after the famous Boston Tea Party -- is set to host its first convention in February, with former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as its keynote speaker.

But there are fractures in the movement that threaten its future. And if history's any guide, such movements tend to flame out.

The Tea Party movement erupted on April 15 -- tax day -- over criticism of President Obama's economic policies and what organizers called big government out of control. The movement, made up of local, state and national groups, continues to protest what it considers fiscally unsound policies.

And the movement is well funded. Action groups like FreedomWorks -- chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey -- helped organize and fund its April 15 rally in Washington.

Other groups, including Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots, are also vying for the helm of the movement, and it's creating what some are calling "competitive chaos."

Some Tea Partiers have voiced anger and concern over whether the powerful groups are "astroturfing'' what is supposed to be a grass-roots coalition -- the idea that the movement is being organized by old-fashioned GOP bigwigs to promote their agenda. Tea Party movement threatened by internal rifts

For one thing, the party has no core principle, unless it's opposition to paying taxes, and I just don't see that going anywhere. Yes, government is big, it's inefficient, but it's stable and a country needs governing. Anybody can point to any particular incident of wastefulness, and the government can constantly try to streamline itself, but there's just no way to manage a country this size without redundancy and bureaucracy. Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society, you put in something, you get something back. I understand not enjoying having a big chunk of your paycheck disappear before you see it, sorry, we do enjoy the stability and prosperity that result, we would not enjoy anarchy or the tribalism represented by these primitive groups.

They're fighting among themselves before they get off the ground -- are these the people you want running things?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Nature on Climategate

Some emails among scientists were stolen recently and posted on the Internet, and some who have gone through those emails claim to have found evidence that research has been faked regarding the warming of the earth. I don't know if the earth is getting warmer or not or why the temperature fluctuates, and I do not know climate science well enough to evaluate their research results, but I am interested in the effort by agenda-driven people to cast the pearls of science before swine. Of all the gifts that liberal democracy brings us, I would have thought that science would be one that we would all agree on. Of course there are errors in science and sometimes fraud and everything else human, but the paradigms of science have given much to our modern lives, knowledge of the world and advances in tools as well as touching the leisurely moments of our lives. You have to say one thing about science: it works.

But not everybody seems to appreciate science so much. Some propagandists would like to assign science a value equivalent to one of Sarah Palin's off-handed comments about foreign policy, science is treated like just another opinion, and as we know, everybody's got one and they all stink.

You can understand the climate-science email controversy by reading conservative columnists and bloggers, or you can find out what scientists in the field say about it. Nature has an editorial this week on the issue called "Climategate" (and isn't it great that the White House party-crashers controversy can be called "gatecrashgate?").

Here's what Nature says:
The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists' scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial 'smoking gun': proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails. Climatologists under pressure

This editorial is a little long, and this isn't really the place to repeat and reexamine the evidence about global warming.

The thing that worries me is a trend away from critical thinking, a tendency of some members of our society to reject clear reasoning in favor of oversimplified visceral responding to complex events. At the local level it is a rejection of education itself, and disrespect for scholarly accomplishments. In our county we saw this when a small group of extremists wanted to keep valid medical and scientific facts out of the public schools' health curriculum, other regions have seen the attacks on the teaching of evolutionary facts in biology, there are lots of ways this tendency manifests itself. The attack on climate science advances a corporate agenda that has nothing to do with the truth or validity of scientific results, and we are seeing that some would like to broaden the excitement gleaned from these stolen emails to taint all of science.

This is the important point, I think:
A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists' conspiracy theories. In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

Scientists are people, they have all the weaknesses of ordinary people. But the formal system of science works pretty well in spite of being nothing but human beings. Peer-review is nothing more than social influence, but it is conducted in a certain atmosphere, with certain well-qualified participants, according to certain strict rules, and over time it has allowed human civilization to accomplish amazing things. Published research results are one thing, chit-chat among scientists is another.

Nature closes their editorial warning researchers to be careful in the way they discuss their work.
In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Pregnancy Center Bill

I am told that fifty-three people signed up to address the Montgomery County Council last night about the new health regulation proposed by Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg. They started at seven-thirty and went on into the night. Sounds like it was about fifty-fifty for and against.

The proposal is really nothing. There are three places in the county that advertise "Pregnancy Counseling" and don't have any medical staff. These places exist to steer young pregnant women away from the option of abortion, and not to counsel anyone, not to explain their options to them but to influence them. Generally these places are backed by religious groups, but because of the way they present themselves, a young woman might think there are doctors and nurses there, people who are trained in issues regarding pregnancy.

So Trachtenberg, with six other Councilmembers co-sponsoring, has proposed requiring these places to tell the young women who go there that the place does not give medical advice, and requiring staff to counsel the pregnant woman that she should go to a doctor.

There is really nothing there to object to. Women who seek counseling might think they are seeing a health professional, and it's only truth-in-labeling to be clear to them that that's not what the place offers. And advising a girl that she should see a doctor, what could possibly be wrong with that? The mother has special needs during pregnancy, and the baby needs to be monitored, too. It's the advice her mom would give: Honey, let's get you to the OB-GYN. I'm sure these places know doctors who won't offer abortions, that's fine, make the girl an appointment with one of them. But she needs to know that she should be under a doctor's care.

The anti-abortion crazies are taking this personally, it appears. They think this new bill will somehow encourage women to get abortions.

The word "abortion" does appear in the bill, in describing the identifying features of a place that needs to present a disclaimer. This bill is directed at places that do not refer for abortion or comprehensive contraceptive services, and don't have medical personnel on hand.

Some anti-abortion pregnancy counseling places in the county, for instance the Rockville Pregnancy Center in my neighborhood, which is a licensed medical clinic and is not affected by this bill.

I see that people are trying to confuse the issue by saying that this bill requires things that it does not require. I think it will clear things up if we have the bill itself in front of us as we go forward.
Required Disclaimers for Certain Pregnancy Resource Centers

(a) Definitions
  1. "Client" means a client or potential client.
  2. "Limited Service Pregnancy Resource Center" means an organization or center that:

    • (A) has a primary purpose to provide pregnancy-related services that do not constitute the practice of medicine
    • (B) provides information about pregnancy-related services, for a fee or as a free service; and
    • (C) does not provide or refer clients for:
      • (i) abortions; or
      • (ii) nondirective and comprehensive contraceptive services.

(b) Disclaimer required.
  1. A limited service pregnancy resource center must provide a client with the disclaimer required in Section (c):

    • (a) by the staff assisting the client;
    • (b) during the first communication or first contact with a client; and
    • (c) in a written statement or oral communication that the client reasonably understands.

  2. Any written disclaimer must be provided in English and Spanish.

(c) Contents of disclaimer. Any written disclaimer must state that:

  1. the information that the limited service pregnancy resource center provides is not intended to be medical advice or to establish a doctor-patient relationship; and
  2. the client should consult with a health care provider before proceeding on a course of action regarding the client's pregnancy.

(d) Enforcement.

  1. Any violation of this regulation is a Class A civil violation. Each day a violation exists is a separate offense.
  2. The County Attorney or any affected party may file an action in a court with jurisdiction to enjoin repeated violations of this regulation.
  3. The Department of Health and Human Services must investigate each complaint alleging a violation of this regulation and take appropriate action, including issuing a civil citation when compliance cannot be obtained otherwise.

(e) Applicability. This regulation applies Countywide.

(f) Severability. If the application of this regulation or any part of it to any facts or circumstances is held invalid, the rest of the regulation and its application to all other facts and circumstances is intended to remain in effect.

(g) Effective Date. This regulation takes effect on the date on which it is adopted.

This is a correct copy of Council action.

This is my sloppy transcription from a fax copy, if I see any typos I'm going to fix them, so it could change slightly over time.

Gazette Cartoon

Pretty good!

Leon Rodriguez is the Montgomery County Attorney who ordered a secret search of at least one County Council computer in order to find out if Council staffer Dr. Dana Beyer was communicating with activists (including us) and working on a piece of Council legislation using her office computer.

(See original at The Gazette.)

Climategate Open Thread

I hate to see the comments on a post being overrun by irrelevant topics. A professor has resigned temporarily while there is an investigation into statements found in stolen emails among climate scientists that were posted on the Internet. Let's use this thread to discuss that subject.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

MoCo Bill Will Address Pregnancy Counseling Centers

The Washington Post commented yesterday on a controversial issue that is coming up for debate in our suburban county, in fact I believe that tonight the County Council will be getting input from the public on this. I'll let The Post introduce the subject:
MONTGOMERY COUNTY Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) has introduced legislation that is meant to target inaccuracies allegedly peddled by pregnancy centers that try to steer women away from abortion. The legislation, which is scheduled to be debated next month, is flawed and should be rejected.

Pregnancy centers are most often nonprofit organizations that offer free services to women facing unwanted or unexpected pregnancies. They do not offer abortion or contraception services and instead provide adoption or parenting counseling for those who choose to carry to term. Abortion advocates say that, in the effort to persuade women not to terminate their pregnancies, the centers give out misleading or inaccurate information about the risks of abortion. Two local pregnancy centers, for example, assert on their Web sites that women face an increased risk of breast cancer after an abortion -- an assertion that has been debunked by the National Cancer Institute. Pregnant, and in need of help: Montgomery's legislation on disclosure to women is flawed.

These are places that offer "counseling," but some of them are run by anti-abortion groups and the counseling they give is incomplete and biased. A young woman who finds herself pregnant may in fact need counseling, especially if she is unmarried. The choices are pretty clear, you can have the baby and raise it, you can have the baby and put it up for adoption, or you can have an abortion. Each of those choices will have lifelong consequences for the mother, and the decision should not be made carelessly. But some of these places that advertise counseling will only discuss the first two options, and they will do anything to talk the woman out of choosing the third option. They have an array of persuasion techniques to try to tweak her conscience in some way so she will feel guilty if she chooses to abort. These places do not present all the options and discuss the pros and cons of each one, which is what you and I would think of as "counseling."

Duchy Trachtenberg's proposal is a modest one. The businesses can continue to operate as they have been, they will simply be required to tell their customers that they do not have trained medical staff on hand and that they should talk to a doctor.
Ms. Trachtenberg's legislation does not directly address this problem. Instead, it would require pregnancy centers to tell women, either in writing or orally during a first visit, that the centers are not medical clinics and that women should seek professional medical advice before making a decision. The bill would require disclaimers in English and Spanish. As long as a pregnancy center makes this disclosure, it is free to provide whatever advice or information it wishes.

There is absolutely nothing shocking about expecting a counseling center for pregnant women to inform women that they should consult with a doctor, and tells them that the counseling center does not have a doctor. Beyond that, they can continue to do whatever it is they do, trying to talk young women into giving birth. There really isn't anything to oppose here, it sounds like good advice: see a doctor.

The Post seems to dislike this bill for two reasons. First, it doesn't go far enough:
No woman -- especially the young, poor and uninsured woman who tends to seek free pregnancy services -- should ever be given false information about her choices. Providers should be transparent about what services they do and do not offer. No woman should be coerced -- by a pregnancy center or an abortion clinic -- into a decision. But if a woman is intent on obtaining an abortion, she will soon find out that a pregnancy center is not for her. The proposed disclosure is too cryptic to be an effective alarm bell for many women and yet is suspect because it singles out pregnancy centers while absolving abortion clinics of any disclosure requirements regarding adoption or parenting options.

Second, they seem to see some unfair asymmetry between counseling services and abortion clinics, as if there is something wrong with requiring a counseling service to give a disclaimer if an abortion clinic doesn't have to.

A woman "intent on obtaining an abortion" who goes into an anti-abortion counseling center will, I agree, eventually realize that this is not the right place. A woman "intent on obtaining an abortion" should go to a clinic that performs that operation. A woman intent on counseling should go to a counseling center to help her decide what to do. These are two kinds of services. A counseling center helps you decide what to do. Once you have decided, you go to an OB-GYN, an adoption agency, or a clinic that performs abortions, to follow through on your choice. No matter what she has chosen a woman should receive counseling before committing herself, so she will understand the consequences of her choice.
Montgomery County maintains three full-time medical clinics that provide free abortion, contraception and counseling services. These clinics employ licensed medical personnel and are regulated by the state and county. If county leaders and abortion rights advocates want women to have greater access to the full range of medical services, they could concentrate on ensuring that the clinics' existence is known to those who might need them.

Yes, young pregnant women who go into a place for counseling should be told about these services. Trachtenberg's bill doesn't even go that far, but it's a good idea.