Saturday, May 28, 2005

Don't Be Afraid

You do not know the little girl in the picture, but you would want to. She smiles irrepressibly at the camera, her arm lightly crooking a puppy nearly as big as she is. You might assume this photograph was professionally cast and staged, the child so radiant, with strong cheekbones, broad smile, dark eyes and exotic gaucho outfit.

But you don’t know her, and this is not a costume. She simply lives in a world of infinite possibility, where girls can be gauchos, and anyone she meets can be her friend.

You have not seen her in action, as she create eddies of smiling people wherever she passes. Making friends with passengers waiting out a flight delay, then insisting upon introducing them to each other. And so we board, strangers no more.

You do not know her story — of how she escaped a dismal life on the streets of Guatemala City. Homeless and fatherless, and for all practical purposes, motherless, she arrived here infested with parasites, but with two people prepared to love her, no matter what.

You do not know her American parents, but you can behold their influence in the confidence and joy with which she greets the world. Yes, she has had great advantages and comforts in a privileged household, but the greatest of these is love.

You do not know her adult friends, who can take pleasure in, if not credit for, her upbringing. We are pleased to be in her orbit, to baby sit, to take her hand in a crowd, to be part of her extended family. She comfortably converses with doctors and nurses, judges and lawyers, writers and actors, carpenters and business people. On this day, she is the only gaucho.

You have not heard the comments made in the presence of this beautiful brown child: “Too bad you couldn’t get a white man to marry you.” And, sad to say, that is not the worst of what her mothers hear — or what the daughter will begin to hear once she gets older and starts to read.

If you do not know this child, her two mothers or other families like hers, how can you claim to know what works for families and what doesn’t? How can you claim to love all people while denying their individual humanity? How can you support laws based on your fear of what might happen, without at least trying to understand what is actually happening right here before you?

I wish you could know this child. She would tell you not to be afraid any more.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

War as Porn

Last winter, I was riding an exercise bike and the TV remote was broken, so I had to pick a channel and stick with it. Somehow, I ended up on the Outdoors channel, watching two hunters shoot a deer, and then track it through the deepening darkness.

The hunters were mic'd and as they followed the blood trail you could hear the shooter's respiration quicken — from excitement, not exertion. At first, he sounded like a giddy kid seeing his first Santa, but as he closed on the wounded buck, the hunter turned teenager panting toward orgasm. Once the killer reached his prey, he could only babble a few phrases over and over. Kneeling beside it, he wrenched the buck's head toward the camera. At that moment, the buck was not a once-living creature, not a trophy, not even meat. It was simply what tipped him over into a brief moment of primitive ecstacy.

I'm not anti-hunter, but I learned long ago that killing any living thing is not for me. Death should be a sacred moment, and browsing through a meadow, then taking a 30.06 slug through the lungs, hardly qualifies. Watching this reminded me that killing is exciting. But if you are not very careful, it distances you from life. It becomes pornographic. And you become Johnny Wadd, holding back while hammering away at whatever's in front of you.

I felt unclean for watching this.

At the time, I accumulated some notes, including an article about torture by bombing cities in Iraq, but never finished a post. The linked article, written from the point of view of Iraqis on the ground, shows that collateral damage is not simply physical. My recent post on war brought this back to mind, and a Village Voice article on the face of war prompted me to resurrect the notes.

Deer Hunter troops breathless with fear and stress and power.

War as corrupter of all participants, of course, is the point of view of Chris Hedges, and my notes compiled excerpts from his book review of Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright and The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson. It has since gone to pay-per-view, so instead of link, I will offer a few quotes. I don't think Hedges will mind.

Rereading the Hedges quotes, I was struck how he seemed to describe the roots of the culture of abuse that had developed in prisons where Afghans were interrogated by US troops, who carried it to Abu Grhaib.

Physical courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not. Those who defy the machine usually become its victim.

Those who make war betray those who fight it. This is something most enlisted combat veterans soon understand. They have little love for officers, tolerating the good ones and hoping the bad ones are replaced or injured before they get them killed. Those on the bottom rung of the military pay the price for their commanders' vanity, ego, and thirst for recognition. These motives are hardly exclusive to the neocons and the ambitious generals in the Bush administration. They are a staple of war. Homer wrote about all of them in The Iliad as did Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. Stupidity and callousness cause senseless death and wanton destruction. That being a good human being—that possessing not only physical courage but moral courage—is detrimental in a commander says much about the industrial slaughter that is war.

Combat has an undeniable attraction. It is seductive and exciting, and it is ultimately addictive. The young soldiers, trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in invulnerability, have in wartime more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again. From being minimum-wage employees at places like Burger King, looking forward to a life of dead-end jobs, they catapult to being part of, in the words of the Marines, "the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth." The disparity between what they were and what they have become is breathtaking, intoxicating. Their intoxication is only heightened in wartime when all taboos are broken. Murder goes unpunished and is often rewarded. The thrill of destruction fills their days with wild adrenaline highs strange grotesque landscapes that are almost hallucinogenic, and a sense of purpose and belonging that overpowers the feeling of alienation many left behind. They become accustomed to killing, carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than they take to relieve themselves.

This mythic narrative of war is what most at home desire to see and hear. The reality of war is so revolting and horrifying that if we did see war it would be hard for us to wage it.

Thucydides wrote of Athens' expanding empire and how this empire led it to become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. The tyranny Athens imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. If we do not confront our hubris and the lies told to justify the killing and mask the destruction carried out in our name in Iraq, if we do not grasp the moral corrosiveness of empire and occupation, if we continue to allow force and violence to be our primary form of communication, we will not so much defeat dictators like Saddam Hussein as become them.

Wartime comradeship is about the suppression of self-awareness, self-possession, and self-understanding.

(Hedges has had to go from working off the readymade content of his war zone assignments to recycling his experiences in as many forums as possible. This is familiar territoory to anyone who has freelanced, and I don't begrudge him at all. He's doing valuable work. But some of this may be familiar if you've read a lot of him.)

You can also find a Hedges introduction to a book of photographs by Laurie Grinker, called AFTERWAR: Veterans from a World in Conflict. Thanks to Runaway Sun for the tip.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Echidne offers insight on what our Faith-based Federal government will fund with taxpayer dollars, at least indirectly: One more shot at freedom for those tiny frozen orphans, or "Snowflakes," as the President's favorite embryo adoption agency calls them.

It appears that even this organization allows for leftover embryos when it sends six to each adopting family. But now, it's not waste. It's God's will.

As for the sperm's sacred role, Pop+Politics cites a CNN report that says the FDA was “about to implement new rules recommending that any man who has engaged in homosexual sex in the previous five years be barred from serving as an anonymous sperm donor.”

As P+P points out, this means the rules are different for gay donors versus, say, another significant source of genetic material, your average promiscuous hetero college student. Is this new different strokes for different folks rule based on science, or just one more example of gayphobia seeping its way into policy?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sperm Cell Research

Too bad today's national leaders missed out on sex education in school. I am of the generation of Frist and Bush, and I doubt that high schoolers in Tennessee and Texas got better guidance than those of us in Colorado. The highlight from my high school Health class was Tony Sante, a senior taking a sophomore class, drawing a 69 on the blackboard to help us understand a mystifying new term. I will testify that we did not progress further into how to distinguish between an embryo and a fetus or a fetus and a newborn. As for blastocysts, get real!

If the public schools had done their jobs back in the '60s, we would not be subject to statements from our president, such as: "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

Although the Bible wasn't necessarily big on nixing the "ongoing destruction of emerging life," adherents have made a lot of the sin of Onan, and if that's a sin, it's a short trip to condemning anything as anti-life.

At least Bush was more discriminating than in his previous statement about how it was wrong to take a life in order to save a life. Given the innocents killed in Iraq, that one had limited applicability. And Bush was more measured than Tom DeLay, who opined: "An embro is a person" and embryonic stem cell research is "a scientific exploration into the benefits of killing human beings."

DeLay also decried "dismemberment of living, distinct human beings," making it sound like the embryos were having their arms and legs yanked off by scientists — or liberals. This image is not quite as good as Rep. Chris Smith's "frozen orphanage," as if the embryos were like the frozen Han Solo, awaiting freedom and a return to life, instead of facing the natural odds of making it to term.

Thus we have the spectacle of the president addressing people who have "adopted" embryos that were not needed by the couples who contributed the sperm and eggs for their in vitro fertilization. They are parading the kids born from these cells as if they were snatched from death. In fact, fertilized eggs frequently fail to turn into human beings, for a variety of natural reasons. Yet Smith and other supporters of a ban on stem cell research are resolute in personalizing the fertilized eggs. No one is calling the kids "leftovers," as Smith implies, and no one is calling for a halt to letting other other couples accept the embryos in order get pregnant — a practice that could continue if the donors wanted.

I am not cavalier about drawing lines between life and death. I just happen to think functional but frozen cells and human beings are distinctly different. The real slippery slope is in the opposite direction, in which government starts sanctifying clusters of a few dozen cells the size of this . with personhood.

The next intervention step could be reclaiming unborn sperm cells before some godless humanist bites their little heads off. Will these people be demanding to adopt my sheets?

Don't laugh. There may be people praying for you to get pregnant right now.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

What Part of Checks and Balances Don't You Understand?

My buddy Rick Scarborough keeps sending me judicial alerts that contain riffs like this:

"I attended hearings in the U.S. Senate last year. Senators opposed to the FMA [Federal Marriage Amendment] repeatedly wrapped themselves in the cloak of states’ rights — insisting that citizens of a state should be allowed to determine the definition of marriage for themselves. Well, 70% of Nebraska voters did just that, and one federal judge overturned their decision. If that doesn’t prove the need for a Federal Marriage Amendment, I don’t know what does."

[Yes, I can see your problem, now. You really don't know why a judge should be able to overturn a decision that's wrong, no matter how many support it.]

"There’s a growing consensus for judicial reform, including impeachment of judges who can’t resist the urge to play legislators. Judge Bataillon [the offending Nebraska judge] would be a great place to start."

The growing consensus, of course, is made up of people who are bit vague on the respective roles of the branches of government. Crazed opinion holders like the following commenters to a post on the Conservative Tymes [Note the inevitable banner ads.]

"Another judicial traitor to the US joins the ranks of his Commie brothers and sisters."
— Proud Texas

"The Dems and their judges and ACLU have already drawn their lines in the sand against the American people. This is just another example. If we can't do anything to stop them from usurping our rights as citizens, another civil war will be unavoidable. Maybe that's what they want. If they ever get back into power, they can declare Martial law against us!"
— Anonymous

"As you can see, we are racing against time. If we are able, as we hope, to turn the tables on them and thwart their plan, this will be good. If the other scenario happens — and we seek refuge in God — and the government extends its control over the country, we will have to pack our bags and break camp for another land in which we can resume carrying the banner or in which God will choose us as martyrs for his sake."

— Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

... Oh, wait, that last one was on another fundamentalist site.

My younger brother retired a year ago after teaching American Government in high school for about 30 years. I'm beginning to see why he might not have been feeling fulfilled of late.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

War as a Piece of Cake

A remnant of my former employer has announced successful field tests of technology that can "safely detonate" remote controlled bombs of the sort that have killed most of our forces in Iraq.

I'm all for saving lives, and if lives are saved by exploding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while people are still at a safe distance, then go for it. But as former war correspondent Chris Hedges has tried to make us understand, no bombing is "surgical," and neither will be a method of prematurely detonating bombs to save our forces. Because they aren't going off at Yuma Proving Ground or in some simulation. They're exploding on public roads and in crowded streets.

Back in the shock and awe days, on NOW with Bill Moyers, Hedges was talking about plans to unleash 3,000 precision guided missiles on Iraq in 48 hours. He could just as well have been commenting on the latest announcement:

"[O]nce you unleash the 'dogs of war' and I know this from every war I've ever covered, war has a force of its own. It's not surgical. We talk about taking out Saddam Hussein. Once you use the blunt instrument of war, it has all sorts of consequences when you use violence on that scale that you can't anticipate. I'm not opposed to the use of force. But force always has to be a last resort because those who wield force become tainted or contaminated by it. And one of the things that most frightens me about the moment our nation is in now, is that we've lost touch with the notion of what war is."

We have a slightly greater sense two years later, but it is still a notion competing with the myths of glory, noble causes and short wars that can taint all of us, especially those removed from the reality of combat.

During my days in the military industrial complex, I helped engineers depict the performance of weapon systems. For one sweet little number, I developed a diagram showing the weapon's Pk, which stands for probability of kill. Stylized shock waves radiated from the site of the explosion. At varying distances were icons for aircraft on landing strips, in hangars and behind revetments. Oil depots, ammo dumps, buildings and armored tanks. And, of course, a solider icon. Never a woman or child icon.

Those icons helped us all rationalize. The bomb was for the fuel storage, so the tanks and personnel carriers couldn't attack. It was for knocking out the airstrips and the aircraft on the ground, so the enemy pilots never got up in the air. It could knock out a radar or communications station without a direct hit. It wasn't necessarily for killing people; it was for stopping the bad guys from killing the good guys.

Yeah, that's it.

The weapon was originally developed to clear jungle landing pads in Vietnam, but it had also proven devastatingly effective against any life in the vicinity. Older editors told me of seeing a test film in which monkeys were killed, and they didn't recommend a repeat screening. So I translated the engineer's data into an antiseptic graphic showing theoretical Pk, which sounds like "piece of cake" the first time you hear it spoken.

I'd like to believe the weapon wasn't being tested on monkeys. That they just happened to be there, but then, it hardly matters to the monkeys. As Pliny the Elder said: "Small boys throw stones at frogs in jest. But, the frogs do not die in jest. The frogs die in earnest."

I'm sure the people working on this IED-buster believe they are doing important work to protect our troops. They are working hard to get it into the field soon. (In the reported test, it succeeded only 75% of the time.) But I wonder if some of them wish they'd instead won the contract to disable bombs without an explosion. That would leave other problems, of course. But they wouldn't have to face the day when their defensive weapon blasts its first Iraqi family to kingdom come.

For more of Hedges, read this interview:

"Sustain yourself through community and try not to become too focused on what you can accomplish, because it may very well be that, by the time we’re gone, the world will be a worse place. But we have to validate our own existence, our own morality, our own life. And that comes by taking a stance, by standing up and remaining human. And there are times when remaining human is the only resistance possible."

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Balm in Gilead

The key to crossing the divide, I think, is to leave the sidelines. To forsake the jolly company of the peanut gallery. To get off the freeway and out of your car. To seek conversations instead of fights. To question your own assumptions, especially when tempted to question the motives of others. To accept that "smart and unreflective" is good working definition of "arrogant asshole," and it just might as well apply to you as to the other guy.

To get to know the other.

Of course you'll be disappointed sometimes. Bamboozled. Insulted. But sometimes not.

You can have these conversations in bars, particularly if you've passed the age of testosterone or pulchritude, but the discourse tends to devolve after a few drinks. A more reliable way is to read a good book that opens up a mind and worldview for you. And there are far fewer repercussions if you take it to bed with you.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, won the National Book Critics' Award for fiction and made numerous best lists, but it may not have crept onto your reading list. Its conceit of an elderly Iowa preacher leaving behind an account of himself to his young son doesn't grab the same attention as, say, Dan Brown's version of religious intrigue. See this review for a good summary.

But for the unchurched and the anti-evangelical, it's a moving reminder that not all Christians are fanatics out to repress whomever they can't convert. And that religious thought has much to recommend it, especially as presented here, filtered through a life instead of an institution.

The Rev. John Ames recounts family history to his son, mixing it with meditations on faith, trust, friendship, love and the pleasures of just being alive. Ames's grandfather was dedicated abolitionist, his father a determined pacifist, and Ames himself rather middling at everything — but profoundly, humanly so.

He writes:

"This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impluse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.

"I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own failure to live up to it recently..."

And indeed, one theme of the book deals with overcoming mistrust and misperception.

The passage is a fair representation of the way the narrator wanders and wends — from ponderous throat clearing, as if to embark on a really tedious lecture, to beautifully encapsulating an article of faith, to wry self-abnegation.

Stuff this rich you just can't find in the bars or in the blogs.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Weeds, War and Words

A few weeks ago, I rode past a short Hispanic man whacking at a giant, four-trunked cottonwood stump with an ax. I could not recall the great tree, but the remaining stump was impressive — approximately the size of a Geo Metro, coming nearly to the man's shoulder. Whoever removed the tree had taken down the individual trunks and left behind the gnarly work where the respective grains converged and twisted.

Having recently spent many evenings hand-splitting a felled and sectioned birch, I knew how much work he was in for. Did he?

That evening an absurdly small pile of paperback-sized chips had accumulated at its base. Over the week, more chunks gradually appeared, arranged in a semi-orderly stack. How had he drawn this job? Was it his yard or had he been hired? Didn't he own a chain saw?

Maybe he just liked to do things the hard way.

Grass, we are told, once tumbled down our backyard hill all the way to the creek, on a slope ideal for somersaults. But by the time we bought the house a decade ago, the lawn had retreated by half. The hundred-year oaks now had an understory thicket. Great for privacy, but we wanted to see more of the creek.

We did not know then about buckthorn, an invasive, noxious weed tree once imported as hedging.

There should a special place in the Inferno for those who let their lands go over to buckthorn, because it creates a Brush Hell for the living. Buckthorn propagates from runners, quickly sending up tough and springy shoots. Ax blows to a two-inch sapling that would behead Charles Barkley in one swing will keep bouncing back at you until you are rubber-armed. So you take the Swede saw to cut down the trees close to the ground, knowing those stumps will sprout again with five or ten new shoots.

Once buckthorn gets established, it seems only a bulldozer or dispensation from the EPA will fully eradicate it. Attack it solo, and people will probe gently into your methods in case you don't understand the futility of your mission. Let them know you're fighting it by hand, without chemicals, and they will express pity or horror. Like an ultramarathoner, you choose to take their apalled look as a compliment.

Because it is so nasty, buckthorn is very satisfying to kill, so you will stagger from slitting one tree to the next, until, blinded by sweat, back aching, arms and legs throbbing with lactic acid and heartbeat fully audible, you begin hauling the trees through the underbrush up to the curb, where neighbors have begun to erect their own Viking funeral pyres for the annual spring brush pick up. Now is the time for puncturing forearms and ripping flesh on the two-inch-long spikes that project at irregular intervals along the trunks. Next, you cut, saw, snap and otherwise rearrange the trees into the acceptable 6-foot lengths. Once your heart rate recovers, you make another sortie down the hill.

Repeat until darkness falls. Or you do.

Then, in a trance and bleeding from your wounds, you pray to St. Sebastian for the trucks to come on Monday instead of Friday, so you don't have to haul any more brush to the street. Because otherwise you would keep going. Spring is a glorious time in Minnesota, but guilt exerts an even stronger call.

Though it's work, blogging is the antithesis of hard labor. The computer makes short shrift of publishing and thus devalues to weight of each word. Once, revising meant retyping a page. Mark Twain and Ben Franklin set type, fed sheets, and cranked the heavy armature of the press. Scribes made perfect letters and fanned the ink dry. Carvers faced blocks of marble with no delete key.

Facing the bucktorn and cottonwood stump, I don't question the necessity of machines. Not every task needs to be embraced as a moral and physical challenge. Pain isn't torture if it's optional. But lately, I am taking more time to get places. Doing stuff the hard way. Accepting fewer impossibilities.

After five springs, there is a near-perfect clearing under the oaks. And if it weren't for the stack of odd little slabs, you would never suspect a mighty cottonwood had stood along the road.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Books as Props

One of the sadder spectacles available to the careful reader is on display whenever politicos pretend to be regular people. For example, our own State Sen. Michele Bachmann pretended to reveal her inner Suzy Homemaker by vacuuming while wearing high heels. Critics who suspected the photo was staged to accompany a semi-admiring newpaper profile might have reconsidered when the Senator was later observed wearing heels while spying on a gay rights rally. She is short, and maybe that's just her footwear of choice.

Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede was single when in office, and if memory serves, still lived in his parents' house. The regular guy photo story showed the mayor relaxing at home, reading a book on the couch. A careful reader could see that the book was a prop, unless the mayor enjoyed kicking back with a chemistry textbook.

The reading habits of our president are likewise suspect, as the Rude Pundit points out in So Speed Reading Ain't His Strong Suit: Briefly no.... Has he finished Tom Wolf's I am Charlotte Simmons or hasn't he?

Since I still haven't tackled A Man in Full, which I believe is better book than Wolf's latest 700-pager, I'm not going to diss Bush. After all, he allegedly made it through Yale and Harvard Business School without actually reading a book all the way through. I'm a little behind on my reading myself.

But please spare us readers the book as prop, as flight suit, as telegenic red tie. We do care about what's between the covers, just as we care about what's between the ears.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

How to Gain Populist Credibility Without Really Being Populist

I spent the weekend pulling weeds, playing golf and writing songs. But thank god, Digby was on the case.

He parses populism and progressivism, quotes other writers liberally, and helps you think about why the right has been more successful "in inflaming the populist impulse in America."

"They are not squeamish about using just those pathologies -- and only those pathologies [fascism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, persecution of unpopular minorities, exaltation of the mediocre, and romantic exaggeration of the wisdom and virtue of the masses] -- to gain populist credibility in spite of a blatant lack of populist policy."

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Approve Clinton Judicial Nominees Now!

As a uniter, not a divider, one of my periodic duties is to read stuff from sources with which I may disagree. Not to debate, not to snipe, ridicule or contradict, but simply to try to comprehend, with empathy.

Some days it is, as they say, hard work. Very hard work.

One of my email subscriptions is The Rick Scarborough Report on the War on Faith. Scarborough is the acting chairman of the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration, which is the Christian name for As his day job, he has a similar gig as president of Vision America. It's the usual stuff: Homosexuality out of schools, military recruiters and creationism in; stop activist judges and activate the "Constitutional Option" to prevent filibustering of federal judge nominees.

The newsletter features the usual tactics for stirring up the faithful and shaking loose donations (warning: not tax deductible). Here's the formula. Pick a ridiculous example — such as a public school dance instructor being fired for playing religious music in class — and then inflate it into a transgression of the judiciary: "Even when the courts are willing to allow something like this, over-zealous school officials seem determined to expunge even mild manifestations of religion from our public schools." Huh?

If true, this might be grounds for a little empathy with the beleaguered. I mean, we might go along with banning "Kumbaya" and the "Barney Song" on aesthetic grounds, but firing teachers who play Handel, Bach and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"?

A search for the source of the item, which lacked specifics except for "a dance teacher in the San Diego [sic] was terminated," failed to unearth coverage by mainstream local media. The only two references found cited the same source as Scarborough's tale, a news release from the pro-faith Pacific Justice Institute, which has filed suit against the unnamed school district on the unnamed teacher's behalf.

So much for the attack on the court's role in removing religious music from schools, which pales in comparison to the real fight, which is to preserve any teaching of the arts by specialists in public schools being slowly starved across the nation.

But it was the lead item — "Clinton judge puts hold on sex-ed indoctrination" — that really got me reading this morning...


Last week, we reported on a new “sex education” curriculum about to be inflicted on children and families in Montgomery County, Maryland. More propaganda for the homosexual agenda [Editorial note: For two definitions of the agenda, see here and here..] than instruction, among other absurdities, the material claims, “Many religious denominations do not believe that loving people of the same sex is immoral.” The material does not specify which denominations or their rationale for taking this anti-Biblical position.

Only churches that have abandoned the clear and unambiguous teachings of the Bible (to make their peace with modernity) are willing to sanitize exceedingly sinful conduct. The curriculum neglects to note that most denominations – Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, etc. – flatly reject this heresy.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones who find the “instruction” outrageously one-sided. Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. (a Clinton appointee, no les)
[sic] issued a temporary restraining order to prevent implementation while arguments are heard.

In his decision, Judge Williams noted that the Montgomery County Public Schools propose to “open up the classroom to the subject of homosexuality, and specifically the moral rightness of the homosexual lifestyle. However, the Revised Curriculum presents only one view on the subject – that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle – to the exclusion of other perspectives.”

The judge added that the public interest is served by preventing school officials “from disseminating one-sided information on controversial issues.” He’s absolutely right. Too many schools have taken sides in the culture war – against Christianity and in favor of secular values. It’s good to occasionally have a federal court acknowledge this reality.

Gee, if only the Republicans hadn't prevented so many Clinton nominees from being approved by a full vote of the Senate, think how far ahead they might be!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Judge Not

The baggy pants teen is doing that half strut/half slouch we call the Tito Walk along the inner city street. Suddenly, he stops next to a pimped-up SUV parked on the street, pressing his body tight against the driver's door, his face close to the tinted window.

Admiring the interior or scoping out a smash & grab?

A swift commuting cyclist approaches silently from behind, ready to foil any break-in attempt. Shout and scare the hell out of him. Kids think old guys on bikes around here are cops, anyway.

Right up on him before he knows it, caught in the act... checking his teeth in the sideview mirror before he gets to school.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Cabbie Conscience

This is as close as I have come to having a prescription refused.

Returning from New Zealand a few years ago, we arrived in Minneapolis late at night after being en route for about 25 hours. We were dragging luggage, two sets of golf clubs and a carton containing six bottles of Kiwi wine. The starter directed us to our cab. We'd be home in bed within the hour.

As the Somali cab driver loaded our baggage, he looked at the box.

What's in there? he asked.

Wine. I thought he wanted to be careful where he placed the bottles.

Instead, he started unloading our belongings. A Muslim, he would not allow alcohol in his cab.

Travel-numbed, we simply turned back to the starter, who looked disgusted and waved him away from the stand. A second cab pulled up. The starter stood next to the driver's window, and after a brief conversation, that cab pulled away, too.

The third cab didn't even pause as it drove back to the end of the queue. We began to wonder how we would get home.

The fourth driver, also African, agreed to take us and our cargo.

Like pharmacists, cab drivers are licensed. They operate a public accommodation, and the system cannot function if drivers are free to exercise their personal biases. As a cabbie in the mid-'70s, I conveyed all comers and didn't redline some of the bars or cab stands like other drivers did. But I worked days and never felt endangered.

The rigidity of the men who passed us by runs directly opposite the tolerant makeup of this wine-carrying agnostic. On the ride home, I did not tote up my grievances or mentally compose a letter to the cab company. My only thought was: What a great country!

Maybe it was jet lag or personal history that led to this reaction, but I hope it was respect for a principled act.

Those drivers had come here from a disintegrating society and found work and a place to freely practice their religion. They were not making much and had little prospect of making more that night by passing on a good fare after waiting at the airport for an hour or more. Their refusal was not aimed against us, though it struck glancingly.

I do believe people should have a right to be wrong. But I also fear we are handing the keys of government over to the zealots, and it's the tolerant ones who will be standing dazed at the curb with our baggage as the sweet chariots swing past.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Pharmas Have It Easy

Last month, former President Clinton’s foundation negotiated a deal with Indian generic drug manufacturer, Cipla, to produce anti-AIDS drugs at half the normal cost for children in developing countries.

The news provoked the question why how our current president, with considerably greater buying power and negotiating leverage, failed to get any concessions from U.S. drug companies on prescription prices for seniors.

Using this flip observation as a springboard, I started to dig into big pharma company claims about what was preventing them from allowing their drugs to be sold at reduced prices in sharply regulated circumstances. I even began to envision a global exhange — similar to the emissions trading system which allows power producers to swap pollution credits — that would give drug patent holders an additional period of protection on another drug to offset concessions on price to fight the AIDS epidemic.

The more I read about the complexities of international trade policy and the difficulties in administering programs and delivering treatment in third world countries, the more I decided I was getting out of my depth.

• The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, published a paper outlining why the numbers receiving HIV/AIDS treatment might be lower and the actual drug prices might be higher than press releases trumpet.

• We know that Bush's global AIDS program coordinator is a political contributor and former Eli Lilly exec, not an AIDS expert or third world advocate.

• An article in the Canadian press noted that country's legislation to export cheap drugs to poor countries hasn't resulted in a single pill being shipped — in part, because drug companies aren't charities, and the bill didn't build in enough financial incentive to make exporting worthwhile.

Even where demand is high, a real market for a product only exists where its developers can hope to recover their costs — and then some. Couple the economic realities with the political realities, and it became pretty clear we'd hear a lot of compassionate rhetoric, but no American leader would seriously take this on. So, I let it slide...

Then over the weekend, I ran across three other semi-related items, and decided to excuse myself from having to draw any conclusions. Sumbitted for your consideration as you hear about drug prices and pharma profits:

Day in the Life of a Drug Rep
McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers has a new book coming out this month, Teachers Have It Easy, a call for improving the working lives of public school teachers. One illustration of how hard they work presents a day in the life of a high school math teacher compared with how a pharmaeutical sales rep spent his day. You can see the comparison here. The drug rep mixes personal errands with five minute pitches to physicians, while the teacher follows a much more intense schedule.

Drug companies argue that their pricing is driven by high research and regulatory costs required to bring new drugs to market. Because many potential products don’t reach the market, they need higher profit rates and extended patent protection to recover costs on the non-starters. Tellingly, they do not argue that marketing, advertising and lobbying costs also inflate their overhead. The consumer advertising we see for popular drugs like Claritin or Viagra is a small drop in a very large bucket of direct promotion to the medical establishment. Just ask a doctor in any drug-prescribing specialty about the volume of elaborate promotional packages and samples delivered to home and office; the pastries and pizzas left at clinics by drug reps; and the steady diet of educational dinners and junkets sponsored by the drug companies.

By the Numbers
IDC analyst Jonathon Gaw produces a newspaper feature called By the Numbers. Last week's edition contained these:

55: Percent of the time that doctors prescribed an antidepressant in an experiment where actresses posing as patients pretended to have a mild form of depression, a condition that does not require antidepressants, and asked about a specific antidepressant that they had seen advertised on television.

10: Percent of the time that doctors prescribed an antidepressant when the actress posing as a patient did not mention an advertisement.

$3 billion: Approximate amount of money that pharmaceutical companies spend each year on direct-to-consumer advertising.

How to Make Money Overseas Without Selling Cheap AIDS Drugs to Africans
A story in the New York Times reported that drugmakers are expected to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the Bush Administration's one-year tax break that allows U.S. corporations to repatriate foreign profits and pay 5.25 percent tax rate, compared with the standard 35 percent rate. Drug companies are believed to be adept at taking advantage of loopholes that allow them to shelter profits from U.S. taxes by moving them overseas.

"[T]he drugmakers have told the IRS for years that their profits come mainly from international sales, even though prescription prices are far higher in the United States than elsewhere and almost 60 percent of their sales take place in America."

The article explains how the dodge works, primarily by assigning patents and manaufacturing to overseas subsidiaries, selling the drugs in the lucrative U.S. market, and then credit as much of the sale as possible to the subsidiary.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Pharmacists, Protestors and Popes

con • science — the internal sense of what is right and wrong that governs one’s thoughts and actions, together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. From Latin conscientia, from conscient-, consciens, present participle of conscire to be conscious, be conscious of guilt, from com- + scire to know

con • science — against science

It's so easy to fall in line over the issue of pharmacists who refuse on grounds of conscience to fill birth control prescriptions. Step right up, the lines form here: reproductive rights, free exercise of religion, the obligations of professional practice, opposing government intervention in the marketplace. (For a good series of libertarian-oriented posts on the subject, start with Ryne McClaren. For a Redneck Feminist viewpoint, start here.)

If the lines don't cross and I can only stand in one, which should it be?

As someone who is pro-choice, I reflexively rise up in favor of those denied lawful prescriptions by state-licensed professionals. But as someone who is also pro-conscience, I say, not so fast. What ought to be the rules governing exercise of conscience? By what right can we judge another's internal sense of what is right and wrong? And if we deny a retrograde pharmacist's stand based on conscience, where do we stand when our own beliefs dictate resistance?

This isn't simply a matter of respecting each other's free speech. As I've written before, there's a difference between moral words and actions.

Professional Ethics
For the professional viewpoint, I asked my wife — an Ob-Gyn who is pro-choice and prescribes birth control pills for a variety of reasons, but who has also elected not to perform abortions. Pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control are going against their professional training, she says. Why, she asks, is this a moral issue for them now, and not when they chose their profession? She suspects this sudden swell of refusals is less a product of conscience and is more likely being orchestrated politically to serve as just one more example of how religious rights are being 'trampled" by government.

I can't speak for pharmacy training, but as part of my wife's entry into medical school, we attended a long session designed to help break down the medical students' preconceptions of what was normal or acceptable sexual behavior, so they would not have their professional judgment clouded by personal judgments of their patients. The orientation included spouses and significant others under the assumption that our shared experiences and attitudes toward sexuality influenced what our partners viewed as acceptable, moral and normal.

Our session for featured discussions of attitudes toward sexuality, exercises in sensuality, and jointly viewing a multimedia presentation that ranged from pornography, to a handicapped man masturbating, to elephants copulating. [Note: Link is to a poem, not a picture.] I can only say that if you have a chance to witness elephant insemination, don't miss it. Four Stars. Two Thumbs Up!

But we were talking pharmacy.

Did early training also impress upon Future Pharmacists of America that the exercise of their profession should involve suspending their personal judgments? Even if not, wasn't there an inkling the job might involve dispensing such common pills or occasionally running condom packages through the scanner?

Entering a profession in which standard practice goes against a deeply held personal belief is a bit like enlisting in the Marine Corps, going through basic training, and then later protesting the possibility you might actually have to carry a loaded weapon: You should have enlisted as a medic or joined the Peace Corps. Next time, exercise your moral outrage a little farther upstream.

Yet I don't want to hold fast to that position, because it denies the possibility that someone's moral reasoning can evolve.

The pharmacist's contrary position also goes against science — it is con-science — but conscience isn't obligated to follow reason. By definition, it is an inner belief, and both professional ethical standards and scientific consensus are external systems.

Obligations to the Employer
So what about the pharmacist's employment contract? Typically, businesses expect employees to serve their customers appropriately and not make independent judgments about them. As business owner, I have had a writer who was a strong environmentalist work on an account that promoted ATVs and snowmobiles. I've personally worked for a company whose policies my wife does not support. I've approved work for a beer company and accepted a pro bono project for Planned Parenthood, but would not expect employees who disagreed with either to work on the account. I've done work for a defense contractor but would refuse work from a cigarette company.

When you're the boss, you get to make those choices, and within reason, I believe individual employees should be able to request the flexibility to make choices when work conflicts with personal beliefs. But if accommodating the request would reduce or deny service to the company's customers, it's time for the employee to suck it up or find another job.

This is where I finally must draw my own line. You cannot claim conscience and expect to escape the consequences. The moral authority of resistance comes from the willingness to suffer for your beliefs; it does not come from being willing to make others suffer. It was not the draft dodgers in Canada or the Weather Underground who helped end the Vietnam War. It was the people willing to risk arrest and imprisonment for their stand, just as it was the civil rights protestors who faced police dogs and the possibility of a one-way night ride to a levee.

The Anonymous Protestor
In 1966 in my Colorado town, the Vietnam War was only the occasional subject of two-inch back-of-the-paper stories about a bombing run or a fighter being shot down. Somehow, through independent reading and a fierce anti-dogmatic streak, I had formed anti-war views, but knew not a single person in my high school or town that year who had expressed the same beliefs. Thanks to a special two-day-a-week study hall, I had relatively unrestricted movement for one period, and used it for awhile to post unauthorized anti-war handbills in the restrooms and hallways. The object of these anonymous posters was to kindle more general outrage at what I saw as an immoral war that was killing civilians.

One of my posters managed to stay on a bulletin board outside the cafeteria until lunch time, and I remember standing behind two classmates as they read it. I was shocked to hear them impugn the patriotism and morals of the person responsible — not for the war, but for the protest. I did not step forward to take credit.

I realize now that my protest allowed me to feel morally superior, without having to take a strong moral stand. And it had no impact whatsoever on my peers. Had I been willing to risk my personal credibility and position as a school leader, perhaps it might have.

I don't know what sacrifices the individual pharmacists have made. Maybe they expect to retain their jobs. Maybe they expect their victims to bear the brunt of their protest. Maybe they expect to be rewarded in heaven. But some may have reasoned it through, anguished, prayed over the decision, and taken a stand that made them quake.

For those latter protestors, if there are any, I don't want to repress their inner voice just because I happen to disagree with what it is saying. Denial of conscientious objection can cut both ways. People who integrated lunch counters, who resisted the Vietnam War and who stood up against totalitarianism in Tianamen Square were also exercising conscience, opposing legal authority and going against the grain of society.

I respect any pharmacists who put their employment on the line for their beliefs, but I don't respect any employer who will allow customers to suffer as a result. I don't think a protestor who breaks the law and then runs for the woods has done anything worthy. A protest that hurts innocents is bullying at least, terrorism at worst.

The Living Pope and the Martyred Archbishop
There's one more dimension of principled protest I'd like to draw into this discussion. It's quite simple to criticize the stands taken by others, just as it is to expect others to make sacrifices we ourselves would not make.

The new Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger ) was a member of the Hitler Youth, joining at age 14 when membership became compulsory. I don't believe any teenage acts should disqualify someone from a future position of trusted authority. Indiscretions and mistakes are to be expected. What is important is what they take away from the experience. Do they learn from it? Or do they make excuses for it?

I guess the point I'm scrabbling toward is this: Most of the time people think they are taking moral stands, they are taking positions of convenience, of cowardice, of self-preservation or self-exaltation.

At Body and Soul there's an excellent post on this subject, comparing Ratzinger's choices with the choices of the assassinated archbishop Oscar Romero, whose liberation theology movement in Latin America was effectively eradicated by the future pope.

"Clearly, when Ratzinger and his brother (who is also a priest) say that anti-Nazi resistance was 'impossible,' they're lying. And it's not an insignificant or harmless lie. Denying the option of resistance insults, indeed, denies the existence of, a lot of people who made far braver and more difficult decisions than the Ratzingers. Failing to exhibit extraordinary courage is human and understandable. Denying the extraordinarily courageous their due is shameful. Denying moral agency is surely unworthy of a man who would be pope.

?The Ratzingers lie about this because if they admit that moral choices were involved, they'd have to explain their choice. In fact, I would suggest that anyone who cared about moral agency would recognize the need for self-reflection, for either admitting moral failure, or asserting moral principles."

–The German Shepherd and the Salvadoran Pastor, Body and Soul

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Some Things We'd Rather Not Know

Like why do see these ads only on right wing blog sites?



Sometimes the Headlights are in the Deer

Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, has resurfaced. Early in her disappearance, some were implying that her fiance might have been responsible, and now there are suggestions her flight was a desparate bid for attention. Others ask, should she be prosecuted? You can sample all the other theories and blaming here.

A criminal profiler thinks she may suffer from Munchausen syndrome. And Edrie of the Daily Kos attempts to be sympathetic when she says, "she looks so much like a deer in the headlights in all the released photos."

There's another point of view. That deer in the headlights look indicates she should be treated. And the sooner the better.

Like Senator Doctor Frist, my physician wife was practicing telemedicine this morning, and she says the photos of Wilbanks bear the signs of hyperthyroidism. The symptoms? Protuberant eyeballs, weight loss, accelerated heartbeat, persistent sense of anxiety and agitation.

If left undiagnosed and untreated, she could have a cardiac event. Let's all offer a little compassion, shall we?

Not to mention medical attention.

Monday, May 02, 2005

I'm Not the Only One, Heh Heh

On the infrequent occasions I get together with my bandmate, we typically work over our own songs. But last time, we were moved to do an arrangement of John Lennon's Imagine.

It appears I'm not the only one. Hear the President's remix here.

Thanks to boingboing via Thoughts from Kansas.

"A sex change is the only way to preserve the sanctity of marriage."
– From the remix, "Dick is a Killer," on The Party Party album.
Parental Advisory

Sunday, May 01, 2005



Sometimes I just can't stop myself, and before I know it, I am poring over spreadsheets with titles like: Estate Tax Returns Filed in 2003: Gross Estate by Type of Property, Deductions, Taxable Estate, Estate Tax and Tax Credits, by Size of Gross Estate.

Consider yourself saved.

I just wanted to see for myself. What level of jack are we talking about with this estate tax?

The data from the IRS for 2003 (estimates based on sample returns) indicate that of slightly more than 66,000 estates over $1 million, only 30,627, worth nearly $110 billion, were taxable. Those avoiding the estate tax weren't only those in the $1-$2.5 million range. More than 7,000 above $2.5 million escaped the tax, including nearly a third of the $20 million-plus estates.

Were family businesses and farms being decimated by the tax? Hard to tell case by case, since farm assets and real estate were separate reporting categories. Let's just say there was more "Art" than "Farm Assets" reported in the taxable returns line, and that "Personal Residences" at $8 billion was almost as high as all the "Other Real Estate," at $10.5 billion, which presumably included more apartment buildings, shopping malls and office towers than grazing lands.

"Closely Held Stock," which could indicate family owned business, represented $5.3 billion of the taxable wealth, or less than 5% of the value of the taxable returns — and less than the $8 billion in cash and more than $50 billion in stocks and bonds held by those estates.

It may make sense to raise the threshold for the tax to cull out a few more of those exceptional cases, and to recognize that "millionaire" is neither the pinnacle nor pejorative it once was. But it's pretty clear who really benefits from phasing out the estate tax.

It's the folks like Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay, the stars of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," the movie I saw this evening. I'm not sure I can recommend it. There is not really much pleasure to be gained from watching rich men lie to the people who work for them, but there's a certain fascination in seeing how dead Ken Lay's eyes were as he stood up in front of his managers and told them how excited he was about the future, well after it was clear the ship was going down. And if you ever had the job of putting carefully crafted words in the mouths of executives, it was positively soul-chilling.

After the movie, I stopped in a nearby bookstore. Soon after, another post-show couple came in looking for a book. She was the former executive assistant of a CEO we'd both served in the 1980s. There we were on the second day of screening, all these years later.

Then it struck me. I wasn't there for the Enron story. I was seeking reassurance — maybe even absolution. We got out in time, didn't we? I wanted to say. We got out just in time.