MORE HORRIFIC STORIES FROM ZIMBABWE: The Times (London) reports rape and torture, not only of the imprisoned white farmers but also, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, "against black, white, yellow and brown" -- anyone suspected of opposing the Mugabe regime. Many victims have had molten plastic splashed on their bodies and genitals. So far, very little attention is being paid in Western media, and none by Western governments. Jack Straw (whom I've always suspected of having more sympathy for jailers than jailees, regardless of regime) has refused even to respond to complaints. The United States has said nothing. Why?
MILITARIZING THE DRUG WAR seems to be unpopular with the military, according to the posts on this military discussion board. Most, in fact, seem to regard the whole notion of a drug "war" as insulting to warriors. They also seem to think it's likely to breed corruption. Best quote: "If there is a war on drugs it's styled after 'Nam and not WWII."
OVER THE TOP: An op-ed on stem cell research from tomorrow's New York Times goes a bit over the top in comparing Bush's regime to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas. (No, really). As anyone who has read InstaPundit (or who bothers to scroll down) knows, I wouldn't have imposed any of Bush's limits. But really: the Taliban? If Abraham Verghese, the author, ever actually encounters the Taliban or their handiwork, I trust he will appreciate the scope of his error.
INTERESTING PIECE ON CLONING AND STEM CELLS by James Bennett, though he does blow his credibility by recommending me for the bioethics committee. Like that's going to happen. Aside from that unaccountable lapse, the column is otherwise first rate. Bennett's most important point: that it is Kass and other opponents of cloning and stem cell research, not the supporters of the research, who are pushing us onto a slippery slope toward government control of reproductive technologies. And that -- government control in support of a particular vision of society -- is the evil in Huxley's Brave New World, not the technologies themselves, something that is conveniently forgotten by many who invoke Huxley's book as a source of moral authority.
TERRIFIC PIECE ON STEM-CELL RESEARCH by Lee Silver in tomorrow's Washington Post Outlook section. He's clear, evenhanded, and logical -- all of the things that most media discussion on the subject hasn't been.
GRASSROOTS REVOLT AT SLATE! First it was the tax revolt in Tennessee. Then it was the feared 100,000 strong anti-globalization protests in D.C. But now, the biggest grassroots rebellion of recent history is coming to a head: the demand by Slate readers for a return of the popular "News Quiz" feature. Slate's explanations of the reason for the "News Quiz" demise have received mixed reviews, along with some friendly suggestions for replacement features. I predict that Slate will cave before this digital mob-with-pitchforks.
Seriously, though, whatever happens to "News Quiz," one of the great things about Slate, and the one that distinguishes it most from competitors like Salon, National Review Online, and so on, is its reader forum, "The Fray." Salon's "Table Talk" feature was never as good, and is now a special pay service. NRO has good letters to the editor, but they don't run that many. "The Fray" offers an immediate corrective to Slate articles, allowing anyone who is interested to see other sides of the issue with just a few mouseclicks. (It was posters in "The Fray" who first identified problems with Jay Forman's "Monkeyfishing" story, and with his earlier bogus items). This corrective means that one might reasonably regard Slate as more reliable than other online publications. I wish that other webzines would emulate it.
DUMBNESS IN SOUTH DAKOTA: Back during the 1960s, some southern communities closed public parks and pools rather than integrate. Now, South Dakota is removing its "adopt-a-highway" signs rather than give gay groups credit. Realizing that the Constitution doesn't permit states to pick and choose which groups get credit, Governor Bill Janklow is removing the signs entirely. So gays can participate, but their participation, like everyone else's, will now be anonymous. To be fair to Janklow, he appears to be trying to make the best of a politically-charged bad situation. But that doesn't make it right. Without credit, of course, many groups will drop out. That at least means that South Dakota is paying a price for prejudice. Which is one of the things the Constitution is about.
ATTENTION JOHN ASHCROFT: TIME FOR SOME EXECUTIVE GUIDANCE Federal prosecutors have won another round in their effort to force testimony out of Vanessa Leggett. Their case is prety much a winner for the feds no matter what, since nobody has the right to refuse a subpoena absent a statutory or common law privilege, neither of which applies. The First Amendment does not create special protections for "journalists" that don't apply to the rest of us, and a statute that did so would be suspect. That's what makes their stubborn insistence that Leggett isn't a journalist hard to follow. But whatever the reasons, the Bush Administration should be discouraging such a tack. Divisions between "real" and "amateur" journalists merely serve to entrench an elite press that -- as everyone admits by now -- tends to favor Democrats. Ordinarily, the government might take a dumb constitutional position for political reasons, or a dumb political position for constitutional reasons. But both at once? Given that special privileges for the press are not justified by the Constitution, and are politically idiotic to boot you have to wonder: why are they doing this? The Fifth Circuit's opinion isn't available online yet. When it is, I'll post more -- but I'll be astonished to find that the court bought any of the DoJ's argument about a First Amendment distinction between "legitimate journalists" and anyone else.
INTERESTING PROFILE OF JUDGE ALEX KOZINSKI, tracing his support for computer privacy to his youth in communist Romania. Excellent quote: '"I know what it's like to always be on your guard," Judge Kozinski said in an interview. "Everything you say or do will be judged or reported, and you'll have to explain yourself for things that are really innocent."' Is it just my imagination, or has the United States gotten more like this in the last couple of decades? Kozinski is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly bureaucratized and mediocre federal appellate judiciary. (Yes, I said mediocre. I've just completed a project that involved reviewing all the lower court decisions on the commerce clause for the past year. Doctrinally, some are okay and some aren't. But an appallingly large number are just bad: conclusory, sloppy, or just plain wrong. A particularly common and annoying habit is citing cases for things they don't say, or ignoring more recent Supreme Court opinions in favor of older circuit precedent) Instead of ideology, the federal confirmation process might better focus on diligence and legal aptitude..
JOSEPH ELLIS WILL BE SUSPENDED WITHOUT PAY, The New York Times reports. It's a one-year suspension, plus the loss of his endowed chair. That's odd, considering how supportive Mount Holyoke was when the story of his falsified Vietnam service first broke. Mount Holyoke's President, Joanne Creighton, now says that she had simply been sure that Ellis would be exonerated, but apparently a detailed review of his course notes and student evaluations turned out badly. Interestingly, the version of this story on the web last night stressed that the integrity of Ellis's scholarly work had not been challenged, but that line wasn't present this morning. Perhaps that's just editing, though that's an awfully important line to change without some reason. This has to be worrisome for at least one other prize-winning historian whose scholarly integrity has been challenged recently. More on that issue another time.
UPDATE August 20: I have an email from Jodi Wilgoren, the NYT reporter. She says the line was probably cut for space reasons, and that "no one" has questioned Ellis's scholarly integrity.
STILL MORE ON LEON KASS: Nice profile on Kass in The Economist. Two quotable lines: "This philosopher is a politician, too." Also, "Mr Kass is obsessed with the downside of biological research. But are the hundreds of thousands of children who have been born thanks to in vitro fertilisation not a cause for wonder rather than moral hand-wringing?. . . Nor is Mr Kass's "repugnance" much of a guide to policy. Didn't Americans once regard slavery as acceptable and women's suffrage as unthinkable? Are they not today profoundly divided over whether abortion is repugnant or not? When Louise Brown was born in 1978, most people regarded test-tube babies as freaky. Few do today. . . ." This profile from a hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, is also excellent.
ANTI-WORLD BANK PROTESTS IN DC are expected to be huge. According to this article in the Washington Post, as many as 100,000 protesters are expected at next month's World Bank and IMF meetings. Protest is fine with me, even though I don't agree with most of the protesters (they're not unified enough in their message to disagree with entirely). However, I think it's time to meet the protests with a strong condemnation of at least part of their message: that global markets, capitalism and technology are bad. The Smoot-Hawley kind of world that most of the protesters apparently want would be a disaster for the world's poor and struggling. I think it's worth pointing that out. Perhaps President Bush will do so.
THE PROTESTERS SHOULD BEWARE, THOUGH: They're not at much risk from the DC police, who will be busy searching for you-know-who, and who don't have a history of shooting at protesters like their trigger-happy Swedish and Italian counterparts. But, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, there are certain sections of DC that I would not advise them to invade.
UPSIDE OF GLOBALIZATION: Cheap, good-looking Korean cars. I don't know how they drive, but I happened by a combination Saab/Hyundai dealer (yes, I thought it was odd, too) and the new Hyundais on the lot were amazingly cheap and goodlooking. The fit and finish were terrific (sadly, better than a lot of Ford, GM, or Chrysler products I've seen lately) and the prices were ridiculously low. Their top-of-the line car, the XG300, could be mistaken for a Lexus in terms of appearance, and it's $24,000. I hope the dealer sells a lot of 'em, and not too many Saabs, as the Koreans need and deserve the money more than the Swedes, a disproportionate number of whom are protesting globalization and hence presumably don't want us to buy their cars anyway.
INSTAPUNDIT IS IN BEST OF THE WEB TODAY! It's for the George Bush / Nuremberg Files story (see below), which is InstaPundit's first, and probably only, "scoop." Scoop? Do people still say that?
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION AND THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY: The Administration's recent moves to prosecute record labels for antitrust violation and to prosecute some media tycoons for illegal trips to Cuba are likely to be just the beginning. Look at it from the Bush Administration's point of view: (1) record companies and movies studios are almost certainly guilty of price fixing and other antitrust violations; (2) it's well established that the both industries are marketing allegedly "mature" items to underage teens; (3) both industries engage in byzantine accounting that makes them highly likely to be violating some tax law or other; (4) they're also screwing their artists (an entertainment lawyer I know says that when he exercises the audit clause he insists on in contracts, he always finds a lot of money they "forgot" to pay the artist, and never any mistakes in the artist's favor); and, most importantly (5) these are industries that hate Republicans, bad-mouth Bush, and give a lot of money to Democrats. Plus, if Bush is subtle enough he can do this in a way that drives a wedge between studios and labels on the one hand, and artists on the other, thus dividing a crucial Democratic constituency. Finally, young people don't like the labels and studios anymore because of their thuggish behavior with regard to Napster, DVDs, etc., and older voters don't like them because of their products -- and both groups are important for Bush. True, these companies own a lot of major news media organizations -- but the major media already don't like Bush, so he has little to lose there.
LOOKING FOR THE BUSH "NUREMBERG FILES" ITEM? Scroll down.
JURIES: NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL? That's the conclusion of an item by Cass Sunstein that recounts his experience serving on a jury. It's rare for a law professor to get the chance to serve on a jury (we usually get bounced posthaste by lawyers who don't want to be second-guessed) but I was on one once and my experience was similar to Sunstein's. Serving on a jury left me, as it did Sunstein, with far more confidence in juries than the conventional wisdom around law schools and law offices would suggest.
THE ETHICS RACKET: Excellent piece on bioethicists by William Saletan in Slate. Saletan notes that the bioethics field has generated complex and voluminous codes, full of detailed requirements that don't actually have much to do with right or wrong. The most positive spin I can put on this is that this is proof that the underlying industry is real, since it's now doing what all mature industries or professions do. The important thing is to provide ethical cover for what people want to do anyway, or to provide seemingly disinterested arguments for attacking things that the attacker doesn't want done. This problem isn't limited to bioethics -- this is just the latest metastasis of a general trend. As Peter Morgan and I argued in a recent book, The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business and Society we have developed a massive "ethics establishment" in today's society, one that does little to promote ethics. Just look at what experts in "political ethics" have done for that field in the past 25 years! Bioethicists are no better: the industry ones have obvious axes to grind, but so do the non-industry ones. And the field as a whole has a huge interest in ensuring that the whole subject is surrounded by a haze of ethical concern so as to ensure full employment for bioethicists. Great conclusion: "President Clinton's bioethics council says one thing; Bush's will say another. R�sum�s, commissions, and regulations can't settle these disputes. Nor can ethicists. It's not their job. It's yours."
NOTE: The InstaPundit.Com address may or may not be working for you, depending on your luck. It should be working properly in a day or two. In the meantime, instapundit.blogspot.com will always work.
PRIVACY AND SELF-HELP: Professor Tom W. Bell has an interesting argument regarding Internet privacy. In a recently published paper he notes that regulation of pornography has been forestalled by the availability of filtering software, allowing parents to block their kids from accessing porn sites more effectively than any government regulation. Bell points out that there's quite a potent array of privacy protecting software out there, too. He says that it, also, protects privacy more effectively than regulation, and that proposals for far-reaching privacy legislation should take that into account. Bell is careful to point out that he is not talking about government intrusion, or certain kinds of information sharing, but more mundane things like cookie tracking, Browser IDs, etc. An excellent point. I use some of that software, and it does seem to work.
YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: I said that the stem-cell issue was going to marginalize the extreme of the prolife movement just as partial-birth abortion marginalized the extreme of the prochoice movement. More proof: George W. Bush is being attacked by the nutty right-fringe Posse Comitatus for his stem cell position. The Posse says that stem cell research is just like abortion and should be treated the way Eric Rudolph treated abortion clinics. I understand that Bush has also been added to the "Nuremberg Files" list.
THIS IS GREAT FOR BUSH AND THE REPUBLICANS: The big weapon that Democrats have been able to wield against the GOP has been to link it to the farther-out reaches of the religious right. This won't work now.
THIS IS TERRIBLE FOR THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT since they will be marginalized by this not only in society at large, but within the Republican party. But there's not much the (much larger) mainstream prolife movement can do, except try to limit the damage by disavowing these people as nuts.
HOW TO STACK A PANEL: Leon Kass isn't the only one to worry about -- in fact, most of these government panels are stacked to produce a particular result, except where someone is watching. This proposed National Academy of Sciences panel on gun violence is a good example. Of the scholars listed, only one (James Q. Wilson) has even a modest record of support for individual ownership of firearms. Most of the rest, on the other hand, are ardent supporters of gun control (especially Levitt and Civiletti). And notice the absence of well-known experts whose scholarship suggests a social benefit to gun ownership, like John Lott of Yale and Gary Kleck of Florida State. With a panel like this, the report practically writes itself. Of course, with a panel like this, the report won't convince anyone who doesn't already support gun control.
WE NEED MORE PUBLIC BROADCASTING: That's what we're told. After all, commercial TV just follows the ratings. The only way we're going to get quality programming is by having something like the BBC. That's why a certain segment of American media-critic thought has held out the British model as one that we should follow. Er, except that it turns out that the BBC follows the ratings, too. BBC1 has just passed off Tom Hanks' WWII series to BBC2 on the ground that it won't get enough viewers. Being funded by tax dollars (from "licenses" required for TV ownership) doesn't mean freedom from ratings, apparently. The Blair government apparently feels that if ratings fall, the case for the license fees will fall with them.
MORE ON LEON KASS: Readers of InstaPundit might be forgiven for thinking that this is anti-Kass Central, but Virginia Postrel's site really deserves the name, as she admits. But heck, the mainstream media are just beginning to catch on to what you could have learned about Kass from reading her page, or this one. Her site has an excellent summary (scroll down past the globalization item) of new stuff coming out about Kass -- who seems to me very likely to stack his bioethics commision with people who are nominally liberal and conservative but who in fact all pretty much agree that they're against stem cell research. Maybe they'll at least be more broadminded than Kass, who still objects to the dissection of cadavers in medical schools. I thought that was settled with Vesalius.
JOURNALISTIC ETHICS: When visual images are altered in a news story, it's generally considered a breach of ethics. What about audio? Today on NPR's Morning Edition Pam Fessler's report on New York redistricting featured an interview with a Long Island congressman (I think it was Gary Ackerman) that seemed to be altered. At least, whenever Ackerman described the parts of his district that pass under water, his voice made a very pronounced underwater bubbling-type sound. Now either Ackerman is a very talented voice artist, or some NPR editor added this on an audio workstation later. If the former, you'd think there would have been some reaction from Fessler in the interview. If the latter, shouldn't there have been a disclaimer? Or was this so obvious we're supposed to just know? It's kind of a slippery slope, here. (It wasn't that funny, either -- though when the story was edited at 2 a.m. it probably sounded a lot funnier). UPDATE: With surprising ease I got through to a producer at Morning Edition and discovered that the congressman really is a talented voice artist. Apparently the engineers noticed the sound themselves and double-checked. Fessler's non-reaction can, I guess, be put down to sheer journalistic professionalism. Come to think of it, if she reacted obviously to absurd things coming out of politicians' mouths, she'd probably have to find another line of work.... ASIDE: Note that this item, and its update involve actual reporting by InstaPundit. Hope I don't get thrown out of the pundits' union.
ZEPPELINS ARE BACK: For the first time since the Hindenburg era, a zeppelin is carrying passengers again. (Thanks, Slashdot for pointing this story out). The history of this technology -- which has always made economic and esthetic sense -- is proof of the excessive power of bad media. If the Hindenburg had been an airplane, everyone on board would have died. In fact, most of them lived. But the powerful footage of a burning airship, coupled with the ridiculously overwrought commentary of the on-the-scene reporter, killed the technology for a lifetime. And set the tone for lousy modern journalism.
WOULD YOU LIKE DEATH WITH THAT? Interesting little piece in the New York Times on the increasing number of free-toy recalls at fast food places. Predictably, this is because (1) the toys have to be ungodly cheap to make (since they're given away); and (2) they have to be constantly changing and growing in sophistication to appeal to jaded 5-year-olds. For the chains it's a dilemma: give a way a few million toys and the odds are good that some kid, somewhere will manage to choke one one. The bad publicity stinks, and so does the expense of the recall. On the other hand, who would eat a Happy Meal without a free toy? I mean, it's not like people are buying them for the taste.
MY LOST ART CAREER: My daughter, at age 2, covered a naked Barbie doll with an entire roll of scotch tape. I was going to call it "Wrapped Barbie" and sell it to a museum. Joke's on me, because that's basically what artist Tom Forsythe did. Of course, this soon drew the Wrath of Mattel (now there's a scary movie title). But now Forsythe has won in a lawsuit brought by Mattel. What was Mattel thinking? They've given this guy more publicity than he ever could have gotten, and undermined their own intellectual property besides. Of course, if life were fair there would be a "loser pays" rule that would also make Mattel cough up Forsythe's expenses and legal fees in defending against that stupid claim. Want life to be fair (well, fairer)? Suggest this kind of legislation to your Congressperson. Repeatedly.
DO AMERICANS WORK TOO HARD? Yes and no, says Andrew Sullivan in his latest latest piece. Yes, in the sense that we sure work harder than Europeans (well, yeah). But no in the sense that work matters more to Americans -- it's the civic religion, the integrator of diverse groups and the leveller of class distinctions. Just look at George Bush he points out: "vacationing," but actually working the whole time. No matter how elevated, you have to work: "even dauphins are drones here." Well said.
Also, what's work? Here I am, posting at 09:52 p.m. ET. Is this work? Kind of. But not really. As an academic, I imagine the work/nonwork line is blurrier for me than for a lot of people. But it's blurrier for everyone than it used to be.
CLONING HUMANS: EASIER THAN YOU THINK? Well, maybe, according to this article in the New York Times. At least, the more sophisticated human genetic system seems resistant to some of the problems encountered in animal cloning. (This makes sense in a way: animals that breed rapidly and produce big litters are less likely to invest in fancy error-checking processes for fetal development). The question is, is this good news or bad news? And for whom? Many of the anti-cloning types who have been going on about the dangers of cloning probably would really be even more unhappy if cloning worked perfectly every time. Of course, the truth is, we don't know much about this stuff and lots could go wrong. But the "morality of cloning" question really breaks down into two: can it be done safely, and, if so, should it be allowed? I'd say yes. For why the arguments against cloning don't really hold water, see the August 8 post in the archives.
MISSING BUT REAPPEARED: No, not (wait, I want to keep this you-know-who-free so I won't say her name) her. Berke Breathed of Bloom County and Outland fame, has an interview in The Onion. Nice to hear from him. My fantasy would be to have Bloom County, Dilbert and Calvin & Hobbes all running in the daily papers at once.
CHEWING TOBACCO: Big Tobacco is under siege from a number of sources, including California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (who has so far refrained from wistful remarks about tobacco executives being raped in prison) and The New York Times. According to the Times story, the tobacco industry is advertising in magazines aimed at youth despite an earlier promise not to do so. A key witness, quoted repeatedly in the story, is Bill Lockyer. James Taranto has already pointed out some holes in the story -- such as the fact that the number of under-18 readers that Sports Illustrated is supposed to have exceeds the magazine's total circulation by 50%. But Taranto misses another angle here: the story really proves how out of touch with youth the Times and Lockyer are.The magazines in question are Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, People, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide. Earth to the Times: these aren't youth mags. Oh, Rolling Stone was a magazine that you read back when you were young, but now it's a geezer rag; the cool kids read Spin, Q, URB, or XLR8R. And come on, TV Guide? That's for the "Matlock" set. Teens don't read People, they read Teen People (though if they're hispanic they might read People en espanol). Sports Illustrated appeals to teens mostly with its swimsuit issue, but now that they can get all the porn they want on the Internet, that's not such a big deal (besides, nobody looks at the ads in that issue anyway). And as far as I can tell, the only people who read Entertainment Weekly are waiting in doctors' offices, a relatively uncommon activity for teens.
BAD PRODUCT NAMES: The worst thing about talk radio is the advertising. Today, though, I heard an ad for Viagra-by-phone that was also pushing a "stimulative" lotion for women called "Hot Zone." Hot Zone? Who would name a product designed to be applied to the genitals with a term used to describe lethal viral contamination? What were they thinking?
SLOW FOOD: Interesting article on Italy's "Slow Food" movement by Alexander Stille. The best part: though the "slow food" movement is in a sense anti-globalization (well, anti-homogenization) its leaders, and Stille, recognize that one reason why it can flourish is because of the wealth, and market size, created by globalization. People are much wealthier now, and spend a much smaller proportion of their income on food -- meaning that they can afford to splurge on Piedmontese beef or Egyptian kamut without going hungry as a result. I expect that the food area will see the same divergence we've seen in other areas: more utility foods (nutrition bars and fast food), but also more and better quality foods. Both meet people's needs, often the same people's needs at different times.
BLOOD & IRON: My brother's girlfriend, who is Nigerian, is happy that the Red Cross is now barring Europeans or Americans who have lived in Europe for extended periods from giving blood. She's happy because, being African, she hasn't been allowed to give blood and she always felt singled-out. Nobody else is very happy, though. This article explores the problems that it's causing for New York. I didn't realize it, but apparently New York, which has a much lower rate of blood donation (2% vs. 5% nationally) has even been importing European blood to meet its needs, something that will have to stop. So where will the extra blood come from?
Well, good question. The rest of the country won't be able to fill the need. The result: lots of complaints about the Red Cross. But what I'd like to know is why so few New Yorkers donate blood? It is the suspicion of people out in flyover land, of course, that New Yorkers are just meaner and less public-spirited. But of course some of the people who aren't donating (gays, for example) are actually being public-spirited by not giving. But New York would have to be more than half gay to explain the difference. What gives?
It's possible, of course, that the Red Cross is at fault here. They got burned by their sluggish response to HIV, and, as Benjamin Franklin noted, a cat that sits on a hot stove will never do it again -- but it will never sit on a cold one either. The Red Cross is also accused of trying to drive up the price of blood. That's not impossible, especially given its lousy management over the past many years (sorry, Liddy), but I doubt it's the main factor. Still, you have to weigh the possible death of people from contaminated blood years in the future (there's no actual evidence of CJD/Mad Cow transmission through blood, and it takes quite a long time to develop CJD after exposure) versus the near-certain death of people who suffer accidents or injuries and need blood right away.
One clear beneficiary (besides my brother's girlfriend): the people working on blood substitutes. In the meantime, I'm donating regularly. If you can, you should be too. It may even help prevent a heart attack, perhaps by lowering blood iron levels. One Finnish study reported a drastically lower rate of heart attack among men who donated blood. (Women, we're not so sure about).
GENOCIDE IGNORED: A good column in The Times on Zimbabwe. The only upside I can see is that it's proof that the world didn't ignore the looming genocide in Rwanda simply because the victims were black. It's paying no more attention in Zimbabwe, despite predictions as long as six months ago that Zimbabwe was ripe for genocide. But nobody's doing much.
Question: the post World War II international system was largely justified on two grounds: preventing World War III and preventing another Holocaust. We've pretty much made it past the first threat (though not with much help from the UN), and the UN and other international organizations have proven themselves utterly useless in preventing genocide, as episodes in places like Cambodia and Rwanda have proven. So what's the point again?
DO DEMOCRATS MISS BILL CLINTON: The answer, according to Walter Shapiro is maybe. But they miss him not so much for himself as for the way his political talent and charisma deflected attention from the party's many problems. Mike Whouley is quoted as saying "The biggest reason our deficits didn't show up in the last 8 years was Bill Clinton. But we can't gloss them over any more."
The Democratic party has chased away many traditional adherents (for example, alienating enough voters to lose Arkansas, West Virginia, and Tennessee) through its positions on issues like gun control and other matters that aren't fundamentally important to the party's mission but that are embraced by its culture-warriors. That's because the Democratic party has been captured by bicoastal interest groups. The Republicans, on the other hand, are pushed by grassroots enthusiasms with a much broader base. If Democrats actually tried to take the side of workers -- even on symbolic issues like workplace privacy -- they would do much better. But who is championing the tech-privacy issues? Dick Armey! The Democrats don't want to oppose the big corporations on this. Standing up for the self-employed, who get screwed by tax laws, would be another way. But the Dems are afraid of alienating both unions and big businesses. Plus, they want the tax revenue. Clinton actually had the power to stand up to some of these interest groups, but now that he's gone, nobody does.
THE RIGHT IS DIVIDED OVER STEM CELLS because many don't believe that life begins at conception. Here's a column in Worldnet Daily of all places, savaging the anti-stem cell folks for trying to write their religious views into law. This is why, despite some grumblings Bush is winning on this and faces no serious challenge. When push comes to shove, the pro-life people can't abandon him. Even a lot of their own antiabortion troops don't actually believe that stem cell research has anything to do with murder. Again, the stem-cell issue is serving to marginalize the hardcore prolifers, not empower them as some had predicted.
AT LEAST DORIS LESSING SYMPATHIZES: ""It is time we began to ask who are these women who
continually rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests. Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did." That's Doris Lessing in the Guardian, decrying what she calls the "new religion" of man-bashing that seems to have taken over feminism. Another great quote: ""We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men? I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit
while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives."
This will last until men quit putting up with it, just as similar statements about women lasted until women quit putting up with it.
UPDATE: A couple of hours after this was posted, Rush Limbaugh is talking about Doris Lessing. Advantage: Instapundit!
DOES PETER SINGER KNOW ABOUT THIS? Ill-conceived Associated Press headline: "Turkey Sex Boycott May End."
MALE GENITAL MUTILATION: According to this article the Vatican encouraged castration (to produce the sweet-voiced "castrati" singers), with castrati there as late as 1959. Sounds like time for another apology, John Paul.
Maybe next Hollywood will quit portraying a kick in the balls as hilarious. Right.
CYBERLIBERTARIANS are unhappy with some of the things being reported in this Technology Review article about efforts to bring the Web under control. I'm not as worried. Yeah, China and Iran are attacking Internet cafes, Vietnam and China have firewalled their whole countries, the thugs at the RIAA and MPAA are dragging innocent programmers off to jail and trying to intimidate Princeton computer science faculty into not presenting professional papers. Many people have forgotten that when printing was a new technology, governments tried to bring it into control: the English government licensed printers, and the infamous Court of the Star Chamber was responsible for punishing those who printed without the Crown's permission. The instinct of governments and other power centers when confronted with new technologies is always to bring them under control. And they're often rough about it. But it usually doesn't matter. Regardless of what governments can do, they are constrained by what people will put up with -- and because of the empowerment people have experienced as the result of new technologies, and general increases in wealth, people are inclined to put up with a lot less. Talk radio has been the single most influential technology in the US, and the government has the ability to shut it down overnight simply by returning to the old pre-80s "fairness doctrine." But it wouldn't dare because people wouldn't put up with it.
What's dead isn't the notion of a free Internet. It's the notion that technologies will guarantee liberty without any effort on the part of people. They won't. Eternal vigilance is always the price. But around the world, people are ceasing to think like peasants and beginning to think like bourgeoisie and minor nobility (with reason -- even comparatively poor people are in many ways better off and more powerful than minor nobles of a couple of hundred years ago). They simply don't defer to authority the way they used to. You can shut down Napster, or try to firewall China, but that only reminds people that the powerful are frightened. In the end, it destroys the mystique that authority requires, and hence undermines the structures it's trying to save. Or, as Princess Leia put it so well, "The more you tighten your grip, Governor Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." I think George Lucas got this from AA, but it's no less true for all that.
"FRANCO-FASCISM" DENOUNCED ON NPR: Today's Morning Edition featured a commentary by Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford regarding the seemingly invincible corruption of the International Olympic Committee. According to Deford, the IOC's "housecleaning" was entirely for show, and it remains a center of "corrupt, Franco-Fascist" doings. (These words are from memory, since the audio stream won't be up on the Morning Edition site until noon, but they were pretty memorable). Deford is right, of course, but it's unusual to hear such things on NPR. Sadly, most international organizations are bastions of corrupt Franco-Fascism. The IOC isn't an exception. It's typical. What's unusual about the IOC is only that its crimes have gotten significant media attention. That's too bad: I don't have any inherent dislike of international organizations, just of most of the ones we have now. When international organizations cease to be playgrounds for the international bureaucrat and crony-capitalist classes, they'll be worthy of more respect. They aren't now.
TAXES AND TENNESSEE: With the likes of Garry Wills and Sean Wilentz saying that the American people are ready for high taxes and big government (well, they said that last year), the Tennessee experience is a bit different. Jason Zengerle has an account in The New Republic that seems to have grown in the telling (I never saw any local stories about state legislators being spat upon, and the TV footage of the "mob" showed a lot of squeaky-clean thirtysomethings with children) but that hits on the fundamental truth: it didn't sell here. Part of that, as Zengerle correctly points out, is because nobody bothered to sell it. It was all back-room armtwisting and general political ineptitude by our pro-tax Republican governor. This actually ties in with the Michael Lewis item below: you used to be able to get away with this sort of thing, but now with the technologies of the Internet and talk radio it's harder to slip one by the rubes. In fact, the "rubes" are increasingly more sophisticated than those who govern them.
JUST FINISHED MICHAEL LEWIS'S NEXT: A great book. His last book, The New New Thing was good, but not great. I felt that Lewis didn't quite get the geek world of Silicon Valley. But he learned something on that book that helped him with this one. The keys to this book are his opening quote and his concluding discussion. The opening quote is "When we look at revolutions, we find that the outward acts against the old order are invariably preceded by the disintegration of inward allegiances and loyalties. The images of kings topple before their thrones do." In this, Lewis is right. The elites who ran this country have simply lost credibility (a process that I would say started when Eisenhower was caught lying about Francis Gary Powers' U2) and the Internet has vastly accelerated that process by allowing people to share information and by undermining the kind of preference falsification that allowed the systems of earlier eras to convince the dissatisfied that they were crazy or outnumbered. Lewis's conclusion talks about Bill Joy and his celebrated fears regarding AI and nanotechnology. Lewis's take: "Go back to the passage from the Unabomber's Manifesto that transformed Bill Joy. Where it says "machine" plug in "youth," and where it says "human" plug in "grown-ups." Once you've done that the passage works much better as an explanation why a middle-aged technologist might rebel against his own system. The middle-aged technologist knows that somewhere out there some kid in his bedroom is dreaming up something that will make him obsolete."
Well said. I'm not entirely convinced that age and youth are the best distinctions here: it's really more like the flexible and the inflexible. Contrary to stereotypes, many senior citizens are quite computer- and Internet-savvy. And plenty of high-schoolers are still quite computer-ignorant. But it's true that the proportions are different in different age groups. Some of this is rational -- by the time you're thirty, you've already been through so many versions of software or whatever that it's hard to psyche yourself up to learn a new one, since you know it'll be obsolete by Christmas. Fourteen-year-olds haven't figured that out yet. (Well, twelve-year-olds haven't, anyway.) But a terrific book, well worth reading.
IN TODAY'S MAIL: Junk, of course, but one piece whose irony was too delicious not to mention: a mailing from Mr. Thomas W. Horne, Senior Executive Vice President of MBNA America. The kind Mr. Horne has offered to make my debt disappear! How? By lending me money! In the form of a "Disappearing Debt" loan from MBNA. Ending debt by borrowing money: The man is wasted as a banker: he should be an alchemist. I wondered: am I getting a letter from a real Senior Executive Vice President? Apparently so. At least, he's the signatory, on behalf of MBNA, on some major legal documents. I don't have the words to express how flattered I am. He was even thoughtful enough to personally highlight some parts of the letter to be sure I wouldn't miss out on them. I guess he knows how busy I am.
Oh, an added feature of this deal, which he somehow neglected to personally highlight, is that MBNA can raise my interest rate pretty much whenever it wants, but my monthly payment will (for my convenience) stay the same. The amount going to principal will just be reduced! So it'll take longer to pay it off! And at a higher interest rate! What a great way to make my debt disappear! Jeez.
MORE ON EMBRYOS: The New Jersey Supreme Court has just ruled that embryos aren't people. Well, not exactly. What you have is something similar to the landmark Tennessee case of Davis v. Davis , where you had frozen embryos, a divorce, and a couple in which one (ex)spouse wanted to bring them to term and the other didn't. In Davis the Tennessee Supreme Court held that (1) embryos weren't children; (2) the right to procreate and the right not to procreate were of equal importance; and (3) given that the wife (who in Davis was the one who wanted to implant and carry the embryos to term) could have children with someone else, but that the husband could only not procreate by not having them implanted in anyone, his wishes controlled. As best as I can tell from the news story linked above (the case isn't available online yet) the New Jersey court has done the same thing, though here it is the (ex) husband who wants to have the children implanted, this time in his new wife. (No word on what she thinks of this, but I guess she's okay with the idea.) Note that NPR's coverage of this case seems misleading: they're presenting it as a victory for the husband. Not really. Yeah, he got "custody" of the embryos, but only to choose whether they should be destroyed, or continue to be stored. Their implantation is forbidden. He plans to appeal to the US Supreme Court, but I doubt they'll hear it. Several other states have followed the Davis approach already, without the Supreme Court hearing an appeal. UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this the case became available on Westlaw (sorry, no free links). Basically, it's as above. ANOTHER UPDATE: About an hour after this was posted, NPR aired a story getting it right. Advantage: Instapundit!
AMAZING HONESTY: I said earlier (8/10, 06:57 a.m., below) that it's hard for me to believe that pro-lifers really believe that embryos are the same as living people -- because nobody acts that way. Well, it's one thing for me to say it, but now a pro-lifer is saying it: David Klinghoffer in the National Review Online. Naturally, I agree with him. Once again, the stem cell issue is doing to the prolifers what partial-birth abortion did to prochoicers: flushing the extremists into the open and reducing their influence on the public debate.
RUDY GIULIANI AND HENRY REED: When I was a kid I remember reading Henry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson. Reed, who is about 14, journeys across America in search of fireworks, but finds that they're illegal almost everywhere. It was a great tale, but it's an even better illustration of creeping nanny-statism, over three decades ago. Now Rudy Giuliani is proving Henry even more of a prophet than I remembered. It seems that the New York state legislature has passed a bill in both houses that would legalize a few minor fireworks: sparklers, party-poppers, etc. -- stuff that Henry would have regarded as unbearably wimpish. But not too wimpish to arouse Rudy's ire: he's lobbying Gov. George Pataki to veto the bill. Anybody remember the scene from Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart advises the Germans that there are some sections of New York that it would be safer not to invade? That was then. Yes, fireworks are dangerous. But so are people who think they know how everyone else should live. You know, like the Germans in Casablanca. They were the bad guys, remember? Rudy?
WHY TALK RADIO REMAINS GREAT: Limbaugh is still, 45 minutes later, trying to dig himself out of the hole he created. The woman who called has, for the price of a few minutes of her time, hijacked one-fourth of the nation's most popular radio program! And he's still going! Yep, I love this. If only someone could do this to Dan Rather -- though come to think of it, his performance on election night suggests that we don't want him to get away from the TelePrompters....
WHY TALK RADIO IS GREAT: No sooner did I post the item below than a caller came on, savaging Limbaugh for precisely those idiotic statements. She knew a lot about stem cell research, and was the parent of a son with diabetes who is part of a study. Limbaugh went to a commercial with embarrassing speed, but the point was made. This sort of near-immediate feedback is present on talk radio and the Internet, but it's absent from other, "traditional" media. Which may be why fewer and fewer people trust traditional media as much as they used to.
HMM. MAYBE RUSH LIMBAUGH REALLY IS A BIG FAT IDIOT: Al Franken has said so, and I always thought that was a bit mean-spirited. Limbaugh is often an antidote to the very real bias of the mainstream media. But sometimes he seems determined to live up to the worst caricatures of his opponents. His treatment of the stem cells issue is exhibit one on the "pro-idiot" side: ever since Bush's speech he's been counting up, as in "four days without a cure," or, today, "five days without a cure." Coming soon: Einstein's theory of relativity -- almost a century without interstellar travel! Get a grip, Rush.
SKYLAROV, COPYRIGHT, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT: I just ran across this excellent column by Julie Hilden on findlaw.com about the Skylarov case and the abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Skylarov is a Russian computer programmer who came to the United States to present a paper, which described his program for overcoming copy protection on Adobe's e-book system. Adobe made sure that he was arrested for this "crime," on the basis that he was describing an "anticircumvention technology" that would permit piracy. Of course, it could also be used to let you transfer the e-book from one computer to another so that you could read it in multiple locations (you know, like a... book!), or to make backups. Hilden does a great job of explaining the legal issues involved. A couple of other issues: (1) the increasing use of law enforcement authorities as, in effect, hired thugs to enforce economic interest with criminal laws is doing a lot to undermine confidence in law enforcement -- particularly among younger, plugged-in, opinion leader types. The consequences of this are likely to be bad, and to go far beyond the IP area; (2) Congress has the power to pass copyright law under the Constitution, but that clause limits Congress's powers to the granting of monopolies to authors for limited times. The ban on even talking about anticircumvention technologies goes beyond that, and in my opinion is unconstitutional. I coauthored an item with Robert P. Merges (of U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law) on this in the Harvard Journal on Legislation a couple of years ago, but unfortunately, it's not available on the web; for those of you with access to law libraries the cite is 37 Harv. J. on Legis. 45 (2000)). I would like to see some of the conservatives who generally challenge Congressional powers to make an issue of this one -- it would be a good test of whether they oppose limited government even when doing so hurts corporate power. Sadly, as I've said before, there are a lot of fair-weather federalists out there.
BRAVE NEW WORLD: Writing in Slate, Robert Wright makes the point that I've been waiting for someone to make: the facile Brave New World references that come up (especially from Leon Kass) whenever cloning and stem-cell research are discussed are just that: facile. And wrong. The key aspect of Huxley's world, after all, was control of reproduction by the government in the service of a caste system. But the fear of many biotech critics is that such choices won't be controlled by the government, not the fear that they will. But as Wright points out, "This contrast between Huxley's world and ours strikes me as not very obscure and fairly important. Yet it seemed clear that Kass�after God-knows-how-many-years of getting God-knows-how-much conservative foundation money to think about such things�had never before considered it. Of course, considering it wouldn't have changed his dark view of the future. Still, shouldn't the man appointed to oversee the nation's bioethics soul-searching be attentive to all large and glaringly relevant factors? " Very well said.
PRIVACY: I love the two-faced approach to computer privacy taken by the government. As a good article by Jonathan Krim in the Post points out, prosecutors are trying to resolve all ambiguities in the law in their favor. In this case, the argument is that keystroke logging programs aren't wiretaps because they don't "intercept" a communication by wire. (Oh? What about the wire between the keyboard and the computer? Oh, never mind.) Now try this thought experiment: I pass through the FBI on a tour and leave a keystroke logger on the FBI director's computer (not so absurd: after all, Abbie Hoffman once managed to leave a note on his desk) and it's later found and I'm prosecuted. Anyone want to bet on whether they'd accuse me of illegally intercepting an electronic communication? What? No takers? I didn't think so.
ON THE OTHER HAND: An interesting article by Nicholas Wade in today's New York Times compares the U.S. situation regarding embryonic research to that prevailing in Britain. The headline is a bit misleading, though: "Clearer Guidelines Help Britain to Advance Stem-Cell Research." Actually, it's more a question of easier guidelines than clearer guidelines. But on further reading the guidelines aren't always easier. In fact, though they do permit some research that hasn't been allowed in the United States, it appears that they block all research that is not connected to human fertility. That means that Britain has failed to translate some early leads into results. So the guidelines are (sort of) clearer, but actually it's not clear that they've done much to advance stem-cell research. Not a great headline -- not, of course, that that's Wade's fault.
LEON KASS PRAISED -- KINDA: An oped by Bert Stephens in today's WSJ Opinionjournal sings the praises of Leon Kass. But there's a revealing segment:
"On balance, however, Dr. Kass does tend to lean toward
the ancients in their battle with the moderns. Despite
holding an M.D. and a doctorate in biochemistry from
Harvard, and having been a researcher at the National
Institutes of Health, he has spent much of his career
raising seemingly abstruse moral objections to the whole
thrust of the modern scientific enterprise--what Francis
Bacon grandly called "the relief of man's estate."
A recent article of his in The New Republic is
unsparing of the "cheering claque of sci-fi enthusiasts,
futurologists, and libertarians" who favor any new
technology so long ait marches under the banner of
Okay. So he's opposed, basically, to the whole scientific enterprise, at least the part that might actually make people's lives better (the "relief of man's estate" part). This, it seems to me, is a useful piece of data. It's certainly in line with a certain strain of religious thought to believe that humanity was put on earth in order to suffer, but do we really want someone who thinks that way making judgments on research? Question: How long until people start examining the makeup of his bioethics commission in light of Kass's obvious bias?
COMING TO TERMS WITH SLAVERY: Tomorrow's New York Times has an interesting report by Stephen Kinzer on plans for a museum covering the history of slavery in Charleston, S.C. Apparently, Charleston has reached the point where it feels it can come to terms with the evils of its past. Perhaps Yale will manage to do the same someday.
MORE ON JAIL: Wendy Kaminer writes in The American Prospect that opposition to harsh criminal laws is up, largely because people don't trust the police. They don't trust the police because (1) they've learned what lawyers have always known, which is that they lie and plant evidence on occasion; and (2) they're no longer confident that such behavior will be targeted only on the lower classes. Thanks to things like the war on drugs (especially medicinal marijuana), etc. the middle classes are now the targets of the kind of intrusive behavior once targeted only on those who couldn't fight back. She's probably right. This, of course, is why it's important to have laws that treat people equally. It's also important to limit the reach of all laws, since they're all going to be enforced by people who have been known to lie and plant evidence on occasion. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the worst thing that can happen in a society is when the mass of ordinary people conclude that innocence is no protection against prosecution. We are perilously close to that stage now.
HOME TO ROOST: Yale is a fine place (I went there, after all), but one that -- perhaps even more than Harvard, if that's possible -- is extremely satisfied with itself. One thing that is never in doubt is the moral righteousness of Yale and Yalies. Oh, the old guard may be disrespected a bit with references to how Yale ca. 1900 was a "rich man's club," but it's always done in a way that implies that it's only fitting that a place that once catered to the old moneyed elite now caters to the new, SAT'ed elite in their place. One of the things that Yale is -- for the most part justifiably -- proud of is its history in support of abolitionism. Er, but it turns out that things aren't quite as simple as Yale's publicity material makes out. A new piece of historical research, featured in today's New York Times makes clear that Yale's role hasn't always been so pure. Much of Yale's original endowment came frome the slave trade (the role of Connecticut and New York in the slave trade is a much-overlooked subject) and the Yale faculty and administration even worked hard to block the establishment of a black college in 1831. Eight of the ten prominent alumni for whom Yale's residential colleges are named were slave owners. Shocking? Well, no: slave trading money endowed Brown, and helped fund the founding of Harvard Law School.
Does this bear on the question of reparations? Well, no, not really. But it does illustrate that history is a lot more complicated than many people would like it to be. If it punctures the self-righteousness of the Ivy League, this study will be worthwhile all by itself. But that's not likely. After all, the privilege of being pleased with oneself is one of the main things the Ivy League sells.
ALLIANCES: An excellent story in Salon about the steadily closer relationship between the United States and India. The story focuses mostly on geostrategic reasons for the alliance, which are real enough. But there's another interesting angle: after experimenting (disastrously) with socialism for several decades, India has become a major font of capitalism. In particular, large numbers of talented hardworking Indians have come to the United States to work in high-tech industries. Many of them have made a lot of money, and now their entrepreneurial spirit is flowing back to the places they came from. Couple this with a common membership in what columnist Jim Bennett calls the "Anglosphere" -- the community of english-speaking nations with common cultural traditions -- and there is a better basis for an alliance with India than with, say, Pakistan.
FROM THE "I NEVER THOUGHT OF IT THAT WAY" DEPT.: Just listening to Neal Boortz in the car on an errand, I heard him make a point in a way I've never heard. Sectarian schools, he said, always promote their sect: Catholic schools promote Catholicism, Baptist schools Baptism, Jewish schools Judaism, etc. In each case, the schools will teach the overall rightness of their sect, and how its flourishing is responsible for most of the good in the world. So what do government schools promote: government, of course! This explains a lot.
PRISON NATION: The United States is leading the world in the percentage of population behind bars. Is this right for a free country? Probably not -- especially as so many prisoners go in for things (like simple drug possession) that just shouldn't be crimes to begin with. But, as this story in Mother Jones points out, the prisoners who go in for minor offenses often come out trained to commit far more serious ones. The Mother Jones website also has a page featuring links to all sorts of useful information on incarceration rates, prison costs, etc.
I believe that today's mass incarceration, together with authorities' often open approval (as in Calif. Atty. General Bill Lockyer's remarks recently) of prisoner rape, will be viewed the same way in the future that we view crimes like slavery today. Lockyer has apologized under pressure for his remarks, but he will no doubt hear them over and over again in prisoner lawsuits alleging -- correctly -- that tolerance for prison rape has official sanction.
Under Clinton much of the left soft-pedaled these concerns lest they be seen as piling on Janet Reno. Now the left is raising them -- but will the Right, usually an opponent of Big Government programs that don't work, step up to the plate? (I mean besides the libertarians, who can always be counted on to speak up, bless 'em, regardless of the political constellation of the moment). I regard this as a bigger moral test than stem cell research.
MAX BOOT editorializes in the WSJ OpinionJournal about the continuing outrage among many law professors regarding the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision. As I law professor myself, I suppose I should take umbrage -- but I don't.
The latest issue of the Yale Law Report, my law school alumni mag, is devoted to the topic. Bruce Ackerman, predictably enough, is still fuming. A much calmer rejoinder by George Priest puts him in his place. But what struck me the most was how dated all that angry bloviation sounded. Liberals upset over Bush v. Gore are beginning to remind me of those neo-Confederates who are still arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment wasn't properly ratified. They may be right, but who cares? At some point, it just doesn't matter any more. Boot is also right that it's delicious to see people who worshipped judicial activism suddenly "sounding like born-again Borks."
Boot is wrong, though, to heap scorn on Larry Tribe for suggesting that it's okay to reject judicial nominees if you don't like their ideology. It is okay. That's one of the things that the Senate confirmation process is all about. I think that overt focus on ideology would actually make the confirmation process better, by getting rid of phony proxy issues.
BUSH WINS ON STEM CELLS: Mary Tyler Moore and Christopher Reeve are happy about Bush's stem cell decision, but what about Bush's base? Well, it's not scientific -- but it may be more informative than if it were: a National Review Online poll shows 73.91 percent of NRO readers thinking Bush's decision was "acceptable" while 24.3% think it was "immoral." (I don't know why the numbers don't add to 100 on a two-option online poll). Given that NRO has been a hotbed of anti-stem-cell-research writing, I think it's fair to say that it's pretty representative of the more pro-life side of Bush's base. As I said below, the stem-cell issue is doing to the hard-core pro-life movement what partial birth abortion did to the hard-core pro-choice crowd: isolating them.
HYPOCRISY IN DIVERSITY: Nice letter in today's New York Times. Responding to a rather good story by Felicity Barringer last week on conservative (well, really more libertarian) gay journalists Norah Vincent and Andrew Sullivan, the writer notes that just as many on the left do not regard Clarence Thomas as "really" black because of his political views, so many in the gay community want to excommunicate Sullivan and Vincent for political incorrectness. The writer, Matthew Duda, asks: "Shouldn't true diversity embrace all points of view, regardless of the minority-group status of the person who holds them?"
FROM THE CREDIT-WHERE-IT'S-DUE DEPARTMENT: When I referred to Daniel Callahan as playing Ralph Nader to Leon Kass's Pat Buchanan, it seemed familiar to me but I couldn't find where anyone else had said it. But on reading the latest update to Virginia Postrel's site, I realized that she was the one who had made that analogy about a month ago. (The way her site is framed means I can't give you a local URL, but go to her archive page for 7/16/2001). It's a very apt metaphor. Virginia also points up an excellent profile of Kass in the Sun-Times that's well worth reading. It suggests that Kass is a guy who bears watching.
FROM THE HELL-FREEZES-OVER DEPARTMENT: It's an unbiased story in The New York Times having to do with guns. It's by Paul Zielbauer (okay, Hell would really only freeze over if it were by Fox Butterfield). The point is the confusion and unfairness brought about by laws giving police or county judges discretion to issue firearms carry permits. The story just reports on how where that's the case, the rules vary wildly based on the predilections of who's making the decisions, and tend to favor people who are politically connected. This is certainly true -- it's just amazing to see it presented straightforwardly in the Times without antigun editorializing disguised as reporting. Bravo.
PRIORITIES: A revealing moment on "This Week": Bioethicist Daniel Callahan (who sort of plays Ralph Nader to Leon Kass's Pat Buchanan) explained that all the brouhaha over stem cell research was misplaced because addressing death, illness, and suffering is not an "urgent" matter. We'll get to it one day, so why hurry?
Imagine the reaction if some bigshot Republican said the same thing in a debate over Medicare. But we hear this kind of thing a lot where biotechnology is concerned -- though far more commonly from intellectuals in wealthy countries than from, say, Africans. These people -- despite the fact that some of them call themselves pro-life -- are in fact part of what Virginia Postrel properly calls a "pro-death coalition." Many of them, including Kass and Callahan, quite explicitly think that it's a bad thing for people to live longer and happier lives. Such beliefs are their right, of course, but why should the rest of us listen? And shouldn't the press question them more closely about the basis for their ethical pronouncements? A lot of Americans would take them less seriously if it were known that those pronouncements come from the belief that conquering sickness and suffering isn't so great.
ERIC COHEN has an oped in today's Los Angeles Times that is in many ways interesting. It's the final sentence, though, that really makes it: a truly Orwellian sentiment. I'm talking about Cohen's reference to our "inability to rein in our inflamed desire for health." Why Orwellian? Well, the notion that health is sickness (hence "inflamed") is not too far from the notion that war is peace. (Let's leave aside the mixed-metaphor angle: how does one "rein in" somethng that's "inflamed?") Leon Kass, of course, believes that our lives are already too long and too healthy. Apparently Cohen does too. Do their HMOs know about their feelings on medical care? No, I'm not just being cute here: the anti-biotech movement realizes that concern for health trumps almost any concern in America, and that if the biotech campaign turns on that issue they are sure to lose. So their spokespeople have begun trying to characterize concern for health as itself unhealthy. (Gee, does this mean we should stop worrying about DDT?) I think that this approach is a loser, especially coming, as it often does, from people who have built a career out of using health scares to promote environmental and social concerns, though to be fair Cohen isn't really one of these. But it's definitely happening -- just watch the statements coming out of the anti-biotech camp and see what I mean.
Cohen also refers to poll questions that seem to indicate that some Americans at least think that stem cell research is both evil and necessary. This troubles him, though I think he makes too much of it. First of all, large numbers of Americans would say the same thing about government, a matter that seems to leave moral philosophers untroubled. Second, it is most likely (as Cohen acknowledges) an artifact of multi-question polling. I suspect that what people really mean is that stem cell research is something that shouldn't be done lightly, but that should be done where the issues are important. Frankly, I doubt that Leon Kass's views will show such open-mindedness and sophistication.
Despite these complaints, Cohen's column is an interesting and fair-minded one. Check it out.
PROFESSOR ALTA CHARO, who teaches law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, has a thoughtful and well-done op-ed in today's Washington Post. Charo notes that while many theologians of a Christian persuasion view cloning and similar technologies as "playing God," and as exceeding "the delegated dominion given to the human race," many others -- especially those not of a Christian persuasion -- view many of these technologies not as "playing God," but as "playing human," and living within our moral duty to do what we can to prevent suffering. (Joshua Rosenkrantz has argued that we have a moral duty to genetically engineer our children to prevent suffering; unfortunately, his provocative article from Georgetown Law School's Journal of Law and Technology isn't available on the web as far as I can tell).
CHARO made another excellent point in the NIH panel on cloning last week, though it isn't in her op-ed: Speaking of "delegated dominion," it's not at all clear that the federal government is empowered to ban cloning -- at least, cloning research anyway. I certainly agree with this position and I'm quite disappointed that many Republican leaders among the anti-cloning crowd haven't even addressed this issue. There are a lot of fair-weather federalists in Congress, I'm afraid.
SOFT AND FUZZY AMERICA: ONE EUROPEAN'S VIEW: Actually, it's American toilet paper he's referring to. It's generally considered a sign of wimpishness or Ugly Americanism when Americans complain about the poor quality of European toilet paper, but an Austrian news correspondent, returning home after over six years in the States, sings our toilet paper's praises in today's Washington Post. Actually, he winds up praising more than that; it's an interesting view. American newspapers he likes -- Dan Rather's overheated attacks on the right, he doesn't. His children's "wonderfully liberal" schoolteachers, he likes. He also likes the American habit of cleaning up after their dogs, something sadly missing in Vienna. Austrians, he says, are often thought of as depressed because they walk with their heads down. Actually, it's just to avoid stepping in something.
PRIVACY, and Americans' belief in it, is another thing he likes. I think that this concern with privacy may also be behind a conundrum explored in the New York Times Business section today: consumer disinterest in smart cards. I'm not sure that smart cards are much more of a threat to privacy than regular credit cards, but a lot of people think they are. I have certainly heard a lof of people (and not just privacy-obsessed Cypherpunks, either) express those sorts of concerns. Something more like cash -- which is anonymous and self-authenticating -- would probably go over better than contemporary smart cards, which are neither.