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Rotten Island

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

rotten islandFour years ago today, New Yorker cartoonist William Steig — one of the greatest American illustrators and children’s book authors — passed away at the age of 95.

Most famous today as the creator of Shrek, Steig published dozens of children’s books during his lifetime, including Amos and Boris, (1971), Brave Irene (1986), and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969). His first Caldecott Award winner, Sylvester was banned from numerous school districts throughout the American South for depicting police officers as uniformed pigs. Inveterately sentimental about childhood, Steig was equally capable of astonishing misanthropic expositions, as the first two pages of the magnificent Rotten Island (1969) suggest:

There once was a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.

The spiny, thorny, twisted plants that grew there had never a flower of any kind.

There was an earthquake an hour, black tornadoes, lightning sprees with racking thunder, sqalls, cyclones, and dust storms.

The vile creatures who inhabit Rotten Island descend over the course of the story into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, provoked by the mysterious, infuriating appearance of a single flower whose beauty drives the creatures to lunacy. It all ends quite well, though I suppose that depends on whether one empathizes with the creatures or not.

I didn’t actually discover Rotten Island until college; after reading it, I was amazed my parents hadn’t dropped it into the regular rotation bin when I was a kid. Audrey hasn’t been quite as absorbed in the book as I had hoped; I’m pleased to report, however, that she’s a great fan of Drummer Hoff, and her favorite Sesame Street character (at the moment) is Oscar the Grouch. Best I can tell, she’s already well prepared for the rest of the century.

He Said He Would, and He Did.

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

Well you can say one thing about President Bush: he’s a politicker til the end. Today, as he promised, he vetoed S-CHIP, the State Child Health Insurance Program. S-CHIP is a popular venture that would extend health insurance to millions of kids whose families make too much money to qualify for medicaid, but not enough to be able to afford private insurance.

The Democrats (predictably) had angry responses at the ready:

“Today we learned that the same president who is willing to throw away a half trillion dollars in Iraq is unwilling to spend a small fraction of that amount to bring health care to American children,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Mr. Kennedy’s fellow Democrat from Massachusetts and Mr. Bush’s 2004 opponent, Senator John Kerry, said, “Today with a single stroke of his veto pen, President Bush single-handedly jeopardized health care for millions of poor children.”

Seems like there’s something of a pattern emerging in Bush’s vetoes: his first veto was of a stem cell bill, and this (his fourth) is of a health insurance plan for kids. Seems to me that though Bush talks a big game on supporting a culture of life, his vetoes speak otherwise: they portend sickness and suffering for millions more Americans. He talks the talk, but in this (and so many other areas) he just doesn’t walk the walk.

Another Defeat for the Grain Alcohol and Rainwater Lobby

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

The fools who live in my town banded together to reject a ballot measure yesterday that would have returned fluoride to the city’s water supply. I wrote about this a few months back, when I was more puzzled than pissed that water fluoridation had generated so much controversy.

In the intervening few months, I’ve been utterly stunned by the raft of bogus arguments lofted against what proved to be one of the most effective and inexpensive public health measures of the last century. In the days leading up to the election, the editorial pages of the local newspaper turned into a rolling open mic might for scientific illiterates, conspiracy theorists, gibbering naturopaths, and people who wanted to blame fluoride for every medical affliction — actual and imagined — from which they suffered. Anti-fluoride activists flew in Hardy Limeback — who appears to be the Richard Lindzen of the anti-fluoride movement — to insist that his entire profession is mistaken in its support for water fluoridation at levels of .7 to 1.2 ppm (levels far below levels actually proven to be toxic).

Reminding us once again of the value of a free press, Juneau Empire editorial board weighed in at the last moment by punting (sub. req.):

The hottest item on Juneau’s Oct. 2 city ballot – whether to return fluoride to the city’s water supply – has triggered an avalanche of conflicting information pounding down on the voters of Juneau.

With the debate on Proposition 2 as technical and complex as it is, people tend to turn to whomever they deem to be authorities, in this case, traditional mainstream medical experts or their counterparts in the holistic, naturopathic medical world. Few have pored over the technical information on fluoride themselves.

“Few” would, of course, also include the Juneau Empire itself, whose coverage of the issue relied on the familiar “scientists say this, but uninformed nutjobs say that, it’s all so confusing” style of reporting that would already be familiar to anyone who follows the “debates” about climate change, evolution, and UFO abduction. Christ forbid reporters — or editorial boards — actually do their jobs by sorting through conflicting claims to discern the valid ones. In the end, the Empire weaseled its way out of the issue by advising voters to reject fluoride because — and I’m not making this up — there were “too many questions abound” regarding its safety, and that “until science can show the true effects of fluoride, it’s better for the city to play it safe.”

In other words, demonstrably uncorroborated “questions” provide sufficient reason to derail public policy until “science” at last applies unscientific standards and proves those questions to be uncorroborated!

In case you didn’t follow that, here’s a visual demonstration of the logic:

Guaranteed 100% Accurate Playoff Predictions!

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

Ah, what an interesting year this figures to be. Dammit, why can’t the Mets let me know if I won the playoff ticket lottery? I’m rarin’ to go!

Wait, what?

PHILLIES v. ROCKIES In some ways the most interesting first round matchup. Both teams are fun to watch. The Phillies have a tremendous offense hooked around 3 legitimate MVP candidates and a terrific young starter. The Rockies have a solid offense and a good pitching staff with an outstanding bullpen. The latter, I think, will be decisive in a series played in good and great hitter’s parks. Colorado’s run differential shows them as 4 games better than Philly, and that seems about right. Philly has the home field, but the evidence says pick pitching over offense in the playoffs. Another problem for the Phils: when it comes to Charlie Manuel in the postseason, I’m thinking “Don Zimmer, 1989.” ROCKIES IN FOUR.

DIAMONDBACKS v. CUBS. Your classic symbol of national league mediocrity. Although any team with Webb in its rotation can win a short series, the Diamondbacks are a fluke, a .500 team that somehow lucked into the playoffs. Their bullpen — which is their main strength — outside of Velverde has a lot of ERAs that aren’t backed up by peripherals or past performance. Besides, the Cubs have to carry their fans for a round before choking. Plus, while the Cubs don’t have a great offense its power-heavy oreintation is a good one for the playoffs (cf. their South Side neighbors in 2005.) CUBS IN FOUR.

INDIANS v. YANKEES. Another good matchup. The Yankees have an obvious edge in offense — only Sizeomore and Hafner would start for the Yankees. Basically, the Indians need two great starts from Sabathia and for Carmona to be as good as his 2007 ERA, and I don’t quite see it. And while to find a time when the Yankees lost to a team with a closer whose sole credential for the job is having both Randy Myers makeup and Jeff Reardon pancake foudation you have to go all the way back to 2006, having Borowski at the back end in a short series certainly doesn’t help. Plus, I think the relevant precedent for A-Rod’s playoff performance will be Bonds v. Overmatched Major League Pitching (2002). GREATEST MANIFESTATION OF EVIL ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH IN FOUR.

RED SOX v. ANGELS. Granted, I underrate the Angels every year. Granted, Lackey is the most underrated pitcher in baseball and I’m not surprised that Escobar had a big year. Still, the Angels are more than ten games worse that the Red Sox in run differential despite Ramirez, Ortiz and Drew all having off years that I don’t think mean much in terms of predicting post-season performance; basically, the Red Sox do everything better and have home field. Plus, Guerrero is hurting and I don’t think the Angels’ put-the-ball-in-play approach can work against the Sox defense the way it used to work against the Yankees. SOX IN THREE.

…As several people have noted, the claim about Ortiz is an egregious blunder; particularly before I made the comment I should have actually looked at the data. I stand by Posada over Martinez, although the latter is certainly very good. (I’ll grant that the difference between the two offensively is not as great as it appears in the 2007 stats, but Martinez having a better year throwing than Posada is also anomalous.)

Oblivious Self-Parody Alert, Part II

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

First the “presidential sock analyst” complains that Toobin’s book on the Supreme Court is too fluffy and unrigorous. Now she wants to “bang [her] head against the wall” because every chair-moistener in the media devotes valuable periods of near-sentience to interpreting the meaning of Hillary Clinton’s laughter.

The onion-rings-and-cleavage jokes pretty much write themselves at this point. I’ll merely note that within eight hours, Althouse — not content to let her apostles hog all the stupid — finally takes a huff from the paper bag and unleashes a potential classic:

I think it was her strategy to make us talk about that instead of substantive problems she has. It’s a distraction. She’s deliberately laughing in a way designed to derail us from going in a direction that would hurt her. (So was the cleavage.)

I suppose there’s something commendable about conceding you’re an unthinking tool. But it seems that Althouse’s narcissism has reached such a degree that she now confuses presidential campaign strategy with her own defensive, post facto gibberish (e.g., “I was trying to draw you into my vortex! I love the traffic!)

(image via)

Executions on Hold In Texas

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

Obviously, this is only going to last as long as it takes the Supreme Court to give the green light again, or for the state to find a new lethal injection formula that might lessen the chance of being tortured to death, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has taken the obvious step. The cases are interesting, in that the problems with lethal injection to my mind raise clearer cruel and unusual issues than other recent death penalty decisions, especially since the almost universal adoption of lethal injection when it was considered more humane makes clear that popular support of the death penalty rests in some measure on accidental torture not being involved. But there’s no way this Court will hand down a decision that makes it significantly harder to execute people; at best, there will be some tinkering around the edges.

Sleazeballs of the Day

[ 0 ] October 3, 2007 |

James Dolan and Isiah Thomas.

Making Sense of High Court Confusion

[ 0 ] October 2, 2007 |

Today, in day 2 of the term, the Supreme Court heard two cases involving the US Sentencing guidelines. Both cases involve decisions by lower courts to sentence drug offenders to something less than the guidelines minimum (downward departure). There’s a whole lotta confusion about the US sentencing guidelines, much of it created by the Supreme Court in its recent jurisprudence on the issue. Ever the pithy one, Dahlia Lithwick sums it up pretty well:

So just to catch you non-Booker people up on what you’ve missed in the last few years: There used to be a lack of uniformity in sentencing. Congress created sentencing guidelines. The court decided the guidelines were merely advisory. Appeals courts said sometimes advisory guidelines are still mandatory. District courts got confused. And now the high court asks the parties to make immutable rules out of standards, and flexible standards out of rules. Kimbrough and Gall think a good rule is that the guidelines should go away. The Justice Department thinks a good rule is that the judges should go away. And the court? It may finally have to pick a side.

Why should you (non-SCOTUS followers) care, you ask? Well both cases today (and many of the cases that arise under the Guidelines) involve drug sentencing. And these cases are a potential giant leap toward chipping away at the crack-cocaine disparity. And in a case where “Scalia seems to be channeling Brennan” no less. A phrase I never thought I’d see.

Nitpickers "Unite"

[ 0 ] October 2, 2007 |

Via Cliopatra, it’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

On days like today, these are the sorts of grammatical transgressions that make me want to garrote a panda.

. . . oh, and what the hell is an apostrophe doing in the middle of the word “gourmet?”

Come back here, stupid panda!

Carhart II and "Polarization"

[ 0 ] October 2, 2007 |

Most of this lament for the polarization of the Roberts Court I addressed in a TAP article recently. The short version is that 1)Roberts will certainly fail in his attempt to create a consensual Court that papers over major substantive divisions, and 2)since I don’t think the Court is entitled to a fixed degree of legitimacy and think that legal and political politics should be open and explicit this doesn’t concern me.

However, Wittes does get at one thing I’ve never understood: how people who criticized Kennedy’s opinion in Carhart II but supported the outcome actually wanted the case to be disposed of. I can certainly understand why the anti-Roe pro-choice crowd didn’t like Kennedy letting the gender subordination and hack pseudo-science cats out of the anti-choice bag — they’d like to war against judicially protected reproductive freedom with the anti-choice movement they wish they had, not the one that actually exists — but without these reactionary assumptions about women’s rational incapacities the legislation (which the state conceded at oral argument would not protect fetal life) has no rational connection to any state interest at all. Wittes explains how he wanted the Court to rule:

Not one of the nine justices was willing to apply to the federal partial-birth abortion statute the logic the court had unanimously articulated the year before for a New Hampshire parental notification statute–in which it had refused to throw out the statute on its face but had ordered the lower courts to block applications of it that would run afoul of its case law.

The problem here is that Ayotte doesn’t actually make any sense. While it’s certainly a sound principle to construe ambiguous legislation to assume its constitutionality, to read a health exemption into a legislative enactment when the legislature specifically considered and rejected one makes no sense at all (and to describe it as “judicial restraint” is Orwellian.) The appropriate remedy is for the Court to send the issue back to the legislatures and invite them to craft legislation consistent with the Court’s precedents (or to overturn the precedent), not to distort the legislation beyond recognition. And Ayotte makes even less sense in this case. While a health exemption, at least in theory, leaves a substantial number of cases in which parental notification would be necessary, to permit doctors to perform D&X abortions when they plausibly believe them to protect maternal health would defeat the purpose of the statute entirely (why would doctors choose a method they believe to be less safe?)

And this is my central problem with this consensus-above-all-other-virtues jurisprudence. The courts owe the public transparency and some measure of internal logic. If they’re overturning precedents (pace Roberts) they should say so, and if they’re effectively nullifying legislation they should do so openly.

Book Review: God’s Harvard

[ 0 ] October 2, 2007 |

A couple of weeks ago, Slate held a dialogue about Hanna Rosin’s new book God’s Harvard. The book is about Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical college of recent vintage in northern Virginia. Patrick Henry caters to evangelical homeschoolers with an interest in conservative political activism, and is envisioned by its founder as an integral part of movement conservatism. Rosin, a religion journalist for the Washington Post, had what amounted to a privileged outsider’s view of the operation of Patrick Henry for about a year.

In the Slate dialogue, Rosin writes in response to David Kuo:

Scary is a word my lefty friends use. When I had negative thoughts, that was never the adjective that came to my mind. Maybe smug, or arrogant or naive.

Call me a lefty, but I found the book kind of scary. Patrick Henry was founded by homeschool advocate Michael Farris as the natural next step; a place where evangelicals sequestered from mainstream society through their teens could be trained a cultural and political warriors for movement conservatism. Patrick Henry (the name apparently originating in some statement by the actual Patrick Henry that American should have an established Christian character) quickly became known as the place to be for up-and-coming young conservatives, and began placing interns at high levels in the Republican Party machine, relative at least to its size, age, and academic rank.

Patrick Henry was established explicitly to counter what its founder believed was leftist bias in the mainstream university community. Patrick Henry isn’t so much a college for evangelicals as it is a college for extremely conservative evangelicals directly interested in working for the Republican party. As such, it’s founded on a profound misconception about the left and the mainstream American university. While it’s true that a large majority of faculty (especially in the liberal arts) are on the left politically, and also true that there is, as Michael Berube argues, something specifically liberal about the liberal arts, there is in my experience simply no counter-part to the Republican political machine that exists at Patrick Henry. Anyone who has spent five minutes on college campus should realize that, whatever may be going on, political action in service of the Democratic Party isn’t it. For a time at the University of Oregon, one of the most leftist campuses in the country, there was no Democratic Party organization on campus at all. The Democrats had disintegrated as a result of vicious infighting between various of their elements, for reasons so arcane that the terms “moderate” and “radical” don’t supply an accurate description. Even if, as David Horowitz would have it, lefty college professors were trying to recruit soldiers for the coming revolution, that project does not manifest itself in terms of institutional support for the Democratic Party. Patrick Henry, conversely, is directly tied in to conservative think tanks, NGOs, and Republican elected officials.

On a related point, most of the students that Rosin describes seem to believe firmly that Jesus hates the estate tax, would exclude young children from government health care, and loves the F-22. That is to say, they don’t think about Republican Party political goals as necessary compromises or means towards alliance building. Rather, they believe that the goals of the Republican Party are firmly in line with the teachings of Jesus himself. Again from the Kuo-Rosin dialogue, this time with a direct quote from a Patrick Henry graduate:

As long as your faith is an ambiguous thing that’s determined by your culture and personality and the parts of the Bible that you like best—that’s fine with most liberals. But the moment your faith becomes grounded in a God that has revealed his opinions and principles in a document (the Bible) that people rally around, study, learn, and believe despite their personalities and personal convictions (which is the sort of “elite” evangelicals you hung around with at PHC)—you’re dealing with a united force with a relatively united voice.

Right; to which the immediate rejoinder ought to be “But where did Jesus express support for supply-side economics? And where did he say that unions were evil? And where did he say that extraordinary rendition was cool?” Rosin may be giving an unfair account of how the typical Patrick Henry student thinks about these questions, but given that a large number of students have been homeschooled, and that the connection of the rest with mainstream American culture is tenuous at best, it’s a plausible account.

Several of the students that Rosin interviewed described an interest in intelligence work. On the surface this isn’t that surprising; intelligence services tend to draw from those who are particularly inclined towards nationalism, and Patrick Henry draws from upper and upper-middle class families that don’t often opt for military service. Still, intelligence work is the kind of field that invariably involves ethical and moral compromise. It is the job of case officers at the CIA to steal things, to work with corrupt foreigners, and indeed to produce as many corrupt foreigners as possible. In the abstract, I can’t think of a profession less likely to attract committed, principled Christians. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my review of James Olson’s Fair Play, intel work seems to hold a bizarre attraction for evangelicals. I’m also forcibly reminded of Breach, in which Robert Hanssen is notable both for his strong attachment to the Catholic Church and for his fondness for trading secrets for Soviet money. As best as I can tell, the answer seems to be that the evangelicals who really like intelligence work also tend to believe that the United States is uniquely blessed by God. I suppose that this belief could even make the compromises associated with intelligence work slightly easier, since they don’t involve grubby national interest so much as the greater glory of the country selected by God to lead the world.

Patrick Henry’s focus on political power is in some tension with its gender program. The female students at Patrick Henry seem content to say that they’ll be happy in the “traditional Christian” roles of wife, mother, and support system to go-getter husbands, but in practice they’re often as ambitious as the men are. Rosin details some incidents in which these smart, ambitious young women begin to figure out that yes, the men really are serious about the idea that the place of the woman is in the home, and no, they won’t vote for a women for student body president, or marry a woman who they suspect of being too ambitious. For a while this tension can be finessed, but the strains it creates are obvious and unavoidable. Eventually, the young women run smack into not simply the patriarchy, but rather a force that believes the patriarchy is insufficiently patriarchal. We don’t get to see all of this, because Rosin only follows the students for about a year, but we get to see a lot of it.

New St. Andrews College, profiled in last Sunday’s NYT magazine, makes a lot more sense to me than Patrick Henry. I don’t support its project or agree with its political stance, but its easier for me to wrap my head around its conservative Christian rejectionist view than Patrick Henry’s tight association with movement conservatism. Indeed, Pastor Doug Wilson of New St. Andrews joked “They [Idaho conservatives] voted for Bush; I’d vote for Jefferson Davis,” a statement which should eliminate any doubt as to whether the school’s project is admirable or not. Nevertheless, it at least reveals an understanding of how far outside the mainstream the ideas are, and implies that there are some fundamental contradictions between evangelical Christianity and the contemporary political agenda of the Republican Party. Moreover, NSA actually seems to value intellectual inquiry, while Patrick Henry recently fired several faculty over a dispute that had its origins in the teaching of material necessary to any basic political theory course. Indeed, Michael Farris apparently refers to the reading of Plato in roughly the same terms that one might treat a reading of Mein Kampf; know your enemy.

In any case, it’s quite an interesting book. Scary, but interesting.

No Post-Putin Russia

[ 0 ] October 2, 2007 |

Putin’s move on the prime minister’s office seems fairly simple. I don’t really disagree with anything Stratfor writes about it:

In our opinion, Putin had both the authority and the informal levers to dominate Russian politics without holding any formal office, simply working in the background. However, this maneuver makes things simple. Whoever replaces Putin as president will be head of state; Putin will be head of government. Putin moves his desk, or he might not even bother, keeping it right where it is.

We would say this is the end of democracy in Russia, except for the fac t that it is going to be a very popular move and it doesn’t clearly violate the constitution in any way. What it does do is promise Russia long-term continuity in leadership by a popular leader. It also means that there will not be an extended period of uncertainty in Russia about the political future, and it will cut off speculation outside of Russia about whether a post-Putin Russia would be less assertive, or at least whether a transition would provide some breathing room.

The answer is now in, although it is not surprising. There will be no post-Putin Russia, at least for the foreseeable future. There will be no transitional period. There will be no breathing space. Russia will continue to assert itself without interruption.

Not much more to say, although Russia experts are welcome to weigh in.

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