Friday, December 30, 2011

If You Don't Hear From Me by Monday...

...send a St. Bernard with a cask of brandy to look for me! I'm getting ready to do a memory/system software upgrade on my computer, and I can only hope I'll find my way back. Wish me luck!

New Years... er, Intentions

OK, so I'm getting a couple days' jump on the whole New Years resolution thing, but I just wanted to drop in a placeholder to say that I'm reanimating the shambling corpse that is this blog. I know better than to make promises, but my hope for the coming year is to post here at least twice a week, and to do the same at my other blog, Emerging Foodie. In addition, I hope to...
  • Go to the gym at least 4 times a week
  • Read more fiction
  • Listen to more music
  • Get back into model rocketry

What I'm going not do to make space in my busy schedule for all of this is yet to be determined, of course! ;^)

For now, I'll leave you with this: For reasons that don't bear mentioning, I ended up listening to an hour of right-wing radio this morning, and it seemed that about half the airtime was taken up with ads for get-rich-quick schemes and debt consolidation... which leads me to wonder: If right-wing listeners are so hard up for cash, why do they keep voting for candidates and policies that slam their very own middle-class lives in favor of the already wealthy?

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's Not About How Much The Bullets Cost

Since the President committed U.S. military forces to participation in the international effort to prevent the slaughter of rebels in Libya, much of the criticism, from all points of the political spectrum, has focused on the cost of the action, and its impact on the federal budget... and a good percentage of that discourse has been frustrating to me.

I don’t propose to take a position here for or against the military action per se — it’s not that I don’t have a position, of course; it’s just that I want to focus on one specific issue, and not distract from my own point — but I do want to take on the notion that our current budget woes are a good reason to either support or oppose the Libya involvement. I think they are not, for two reasons:

First, I may be mistaken, but I believe that by far the largest percentage of the cost estimates to date is made up of the cost of the munitions expended. To be sure, there must be some incremental cost from the logistics of moving troops and equipment around... but so far, there hasn’t really been time for much of that. And there’s also no doubt been some additional personnel costs, from reservists and National Guard troops called up, and from combat pay increments as well. But I’m pretty sure that most of the cost to date has been the cost of the “bullets” we’ve fired. I used those quotation marks because we’re not talking about actual bullets, but complex, expensive weapon systems like cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and smart bombs. Unlike actual bullets, you don’t pay for these things as you use them, and you don’t run down to Cabela’s with cash in your pocket to replace them right after using them, either. These expensive weapons have long production lead times, and are (AFAIK¹) purchased in production lots that are contracted for years in advance.

So the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars these weapons represent has already been spent, years ago, at the time they were produced, and the cost of replacing them will be spent — if they are, in fact, replaced — years from now. That’s not to suggest that there’s no cost to using these weapons, of course, but the suggestion, implicit in so much of what I’ve been reading, that they compete directly with current federal spending is way too simple: If a particular missile in our inventory cost a million dollars to acquire, it does not mean that we’ll have a million dollars more in the federal coffers tomorrow if we just don’t fire that missile today. The “we could’ve spent these hundreds of millions on education and infrastructure instead” argument is... not exactly wrong, but too simplistic to be truly meaningful. And this comes from someone who’s desperately eager to see more spending on education and infrastructure.

My second objection to the cost-based criticism is more philosophical: Military action is immensely consequential in moral² terms, and to base the decision to employ deadly force — or not to, in the face of a compelling moral imperative — on mere affordability strikes me as horrific. Nations should base the use of military force on clear national interests (which, literalists and isolationists notwithstanding, often include humanitarian and multinational goals), and the choice should be made in a moral context. I don't imagine anyone would advocate that we embark on military actions simply because we can afford them, without regard to what's right; by the same token, holding back because of cost when action is morally required is also unthinkable.

There is surely an important choice to be made — and regularly revisited — regarding what share of our common resources ought to be devoted to military preparedness. But this guns versus butter debate is at the macro level and over an extended timeline. When deciding, in the immediate historical moment, whether or not to put the military force we possess to use, cost should be the least of our concerns.

¹ Personally, I have more awareness of the production cycle for durable weapon systems like fighter planes, but I believe what I say holds true for expendable munitions, too, at this level of complexity. Cruise missiles, at least, are essentially self-piloting kamikaze aircraft, not substantially less complex than many piloted craft.

² Please understand that I use moral in a strictly secular sense; nothing here should be construed as recommending any sort of religious test for military action.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How Easily We Forget

This morning when I noticed the online headlines announcing Elizabeth Taylor's passing, I was too busy with work to read a celebrity obit. It took a tweet from my daughter to remind me that Taylor was more than just a much-married Hollywood star, she was a pioneering AIDS activist. The Founding International Chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and creator of her own personal foundation, with on the order of $50 million of personal fundraising to her credit, Taylor was one of the first celebrities to speak out about AIDS in the 80s (at nontrivial personal and professional risk)... and decades later she was still working, bringing equipment and care to the HIV/AIDS community of New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

In the wake of a glittering, sometimes apparently tawdry and superficial life, it's easy to forget this other dimension¹... but Taylor knew her celebrity came with responsibilities, which she discharged with courage and commitment. Requiescat in pace.

¹ Of course, the execrable Fred Phelps and his so-called church hadn't forgotten. I wonder if the time hasn't come when being picketed by these Westboro thugs shouldn't be seen as a badge of honor.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thoughts on Wrestling Girls

Last week I commented on Facebook about the story of Joel Northrup, opining that while he probably thought he was being noble and moral when he chose to forfeit his shot at a likely state championship in wrestling rather than wrestle female opponent Cassy Herkelman, I thought he was "just being a sexist jerk." I got pushback from some of my Facebook friends, who said it was his choice to make, and that I was being harsh.

Well, I've been thinking about it. Of course, in the sense that nobody has the right to force a kid to wrestle if he doesn't want to, I agree that it was his choice to make. And I probably was too harsh in using the word jerk: He almost certainly intended to be acting honorably, according to the values he's been raised with. But "intentions aren't magic," and the more I think about it, the less I'm inclined to back off from calling this move sexist. Here's the thing: I believe it's poor sportsmanship, at least, to forfeit a sporting event without a truly compelling reason. Doing so disrespects the opponent and deprives her (or him, but in this case…) all the positive aspects of competing. Some of my commenters seemed to think he was the one who suffered, since she got the win… but I strongly disagree. I was never an athlete in high school, but I was involved in other sorts of interscholastic competitions, both as an individual and a team member. In my experience, what's truly important is not winning, per se, but competing. "Winning" by virtue of an opponent's default is a bitter, potentially humiliating, pill; losing after competing well, as you've trained for, is vastly preferable.

So I stand by my assertion that forfeiting without a good reason is bad sportsmanship, and the question is whether there's anything here that constitutes a good reason, and that is defensible against a charge of sexism. Northrup is quoted in several stories as being concerned about the fact wrestling is a "combat sport," and that he doesn't think it's appropriate to touch a girl in "that way." I'm guessing this really boils down to two issues: The societal taboo related to males doing violence to females, and the worry that wrestling, in particular, involves touching parts of the body generally considered private, in ways that superficially resemble sexual touching. It's easy to see how this boy might have felt discomfited by the prospect of wrestling a girl. But lots of sexist opinion comes under the heading of discomfiture; can we unpack this situation and find some non-gender driven moral imperatives that justify the forfeit?

I don't think so. First, let's take the reluctance to do "combat" against a girl. Leaving aside the progress we've made as a society toward gender equality in actual combat, it's worth remembering that wrestling¹ isn't combat, even if it mimics a form of fighting. The social taboo Northrup is responding to — essentially the admonition to not hit girls — is valid as far as it goes, but it's based primarily on the fact that human males are, broadly speaking, bigger and stronger than human females. Strip gender out of the equation, and it amounts to "pick on somebody your own size." This falls down as an excuse in this case for two independent reasons: Wrestling adheres strictly to narrow weight classes that guarantee your opponent is, for all practical purposes, somebody your own size. And, once again, wresting isn't combat: As a sport, it's a fully consensual experience, and regardless of superficial appearances, it doesn't constitute picking on anybody. If it did, that would be a good reason to abandon the sport altogether… but it's not a reason to default against a female opponent.

So that leaves the concern that wrestling a girl might feel too much like groping her sexually. Certainly a desire not to be guilty of unwanted sexual touching is admirable in a young man, but is that really what's at issue here? IMHO, wrestling is no more sex than it is combat. Incidental (or even deliberate) contact with breasts, buttocks, and genital areas isn't automatically sexual (just ask your gynecologist or mammographer²). This is one area where intent is, if not magic, at least relevant. Besides, whatever touching occurred would not have been unwanted: Herkelman entered the sport, and the tournament, voluntarily, so however she was touched (so long as it was within the normal realm of wrestling) would be entirely with her consent and, this being a high school sport, that of her parents. So it's reasonable to suggest that anything within the normal bounds of wrestling would have been neither unwanted nor sexual.

At least, not sexual from her point of view. Perhaps (and I'm admittedly speculating in what follows; Northrup has not, AFAIK, said this) the real concern is that he might have sexual feelings in the course of wrestling a girl. That seems plausible to me — I'm not so old that I can't remember what it feels like to be a high school boy — but is that… should it be… her problem? That's the logic of the burqua: Because we men can't control our lust, women must give up their freedom, self-expression, and range of activities. I reject that notion utterly; if it's his problem, it's his problem!

And if he had a problem with his ability to behave himself while wrestling a girl, he should have considered the likelihood he'd be faced with that situation, and opted out of the whole sport³. Even after pondering it for a week, it still seems to me that showing up for a tournament and then defaulting when you find out who your opponent will be is a punk move… especially when what bothers you about your opponent is her gender. In the final analysis, I can't think of any way to view Joel Northrup's treatment of Cassy Herkelman other than that he, for whatever reason, systematically treats women differently from men... and I can't think of any word for that other than sexism.

As I said at the beginning, I agree it was harsh of me to call this young man a jerk. His attitude is a product of his culture, and no doubt is in perfect accord with how his parents have raised him. But in this instance, I think his culture and his parents have failed him; he'll grow up to be a better man if he gets something other than unanimous applause for his "principled" stand.

Afterword: In checking name spellings and such before posting, I happened upon this defense of Northrup, penned by a woman who reports having played a variety of sports as a girl. After making many of the same points I have about disrespect and denial of the opportunity to compete, the blogger turns around and gives Northrup a pass, apparently because she's awed by his stalwart religious faith:

...Northrup holds a belief that obviously transcends any event or opponent. He will never wrestle a girl. According to the pastor at the Northrup family’s church, the “elevation and respect of woman” forbids any contact between the two genders in a “familiar way” — the way a contact sport demands.

I'm sorry, but how is that not a textbook description of sexism? Despite the word "respect," the "elevation" of women in a way that in fact restricts their freedom of action is, in my book, the polar opposite of admirable. I'm reminded of my mother's tales of being disappointed, in a male-dominated workplace half a century ago, that the men would hastily stop telling their racy jokes when she walked up. No matter how noble their motives, when men "elevate" women in this way, they're invariably really holding them down.

And BTW, since when is "well, that's what his church teaches" a refutation of sexism? Churches are famously promoters of sexism; couching behavior in terms of faith in no way means that behavior is not sexist.

¹ Keep in mind that we're talking about the real sport of wrestling here, not the torture porn peddled by Vince and Linda McMahon!

² For that matter, ask all the male wrestlers if touching their male opponents' buttocks and groins constitutes homosexual activity.

³ Apparently he did consider it, and said all along he wouldn't wrestle a girl, and even forfeited an earlier, pre-tournament match rather than face a girl. All this, IMHO, makes his case worse, not better: If you have a genuinely principled objection to the rules of a sport, don't play that sport! Showing up to play with your fingers crossed, hoping your principles won't get scraped, is just selfish and cowardly. I really don't understand why people are using words like "classy" and "mature" to describe this young man's behavior.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Love on the 50 Yard Line?

Amid the resignation of a married Republican congressman who got caught trolling Craigslist for dates and tabloid rumors about House Speaker John Boehner, the media "sex scandal" I'm most fascinated with is the story of New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and the 17 year old woman he may have wooed and (if only temporarily) won.

Here's the thing: I was surprised to be reminded it, but Sanchez is only 24 himself, and 17 is over the age of consent in both New York and New Jersey. It's hard to be sure what the actual facts here are, but assuming the story reported by Deadspin is accurate, it's not a sordid tale of illicit hookups, and certainly not a case of child abuse; instead, it's an arguably sweet, if peculiarly modern, story of young love. The NBC Sports ProFootballTalk website, even as it's pointing out that Sanchez has broken no law (nor, it seems, NFL or team policy), opines that Sanchez displayed "bad judgment," but why? The young woman's own story, as she originally told it to Deadspin, doesn't make him out as a creepy predator; quite the contrary, he seems to have backed off initially when she told him her age, and only resumed courting her when she assured him she was of legal age. After which he appears to have treated her decently and impressed her as a "genuine" person.

Apparently the main reason PFT thinks Sanchez showed bad judgment is that he should have known that bad behavior and media hogging by other members of the Jets family would put this story in the spotlight. Huh? Say that again? Mrs. Rex Ryan's (possible) foot fetish video ought to constrain Sanchez's love life? Sal Alosi's sideline cheating means the quarterback has to sit home alone? Seriously?

By all accounts, Mark Sanchez is a decent, well-spoken young man. And while we may wish that young women would wait 'til they're older than 17 to become sexually active, we know many do not. If this girl were having a romance with a 24 year old waiter at the local TGIFriday's, it wouldn't be a scandal in anybody's book; why does it become scandalous when her boyfriend is a college-educated millionaire instead? Because he's famous? Because other famous people have behaved badly? That doesn't seem quite right to me.

Of course, it's almost impossible to know the whole, unvarnished truth in a situation like this, and it's possible that details are yet to come that will put this story in a darker light. But the idea of a young woman in her late teens dating a young man in his early twenties does not, on its face, horrify me. I've just been listening to Joseph Ellis' First Family: Abigail & John Adams, a chronicle of one of history's most successful marriages, and I note that John began courting Abigail when she was only 17 and he more than 9 years older, and they were married when she was still shy of 20. That was then and this is now, of course, and I'm certainly not suggesting Mark Sanchez and "E.K." are any John and Abigail Adams. But don't we all know longstanding, happy couples with an age difference on the order of 7 to 9 years? Don't we all know old married folk who met the love of their life while still teens? Is his fame (and the infamy of some of his colleagues) really a good reason to deny a young man (or, for that matter, his young companion) a chance at romance?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona Blues, Part 3

One last bit of Pharyngula cross-posting in response to the Arizona shooting (actually, these have been responses to the responses to the shooting):

This just in: Rand Paul is still a jerk!

Actually, I recall from his appearances on the Rachel Maddow Show during the campaign that he's a pleasant, polite fellow... but his ideology is jerkish, and his comments on this shooting are no exception. First a perfunctory expression of concern for the victims, then an immediate pivot to right-wing anti-regulatory talking points:

Paul was quick to condemn the act of violence and to offer his prayers and thoughts for the shooting victims during a "Fox News Sunday" interview. That said, he argued, the shooting was an outlier that does not necessarily reflect systemic regulatory problems. [emphasis added]

...followed by a bit of remote diagnosis (and as a physician, shouldn't Paul know better?)...

"It's probably about a very sick individual and what should have been done for that person," he said.

[and later]

Paul, an ophthalmologist, went on to offer a psychological analysis of the suspect. "I looked at some of the writings of this young man," he said. "And from a medical point of view, there is a lot to suggest paranoid schizophrenia, that this man was a really sick individual." [again, my emphasis]

SRSLY? Frist much??

And, of course, what would a right-wing response to a shooting be without that hoariest of anti-gun-control cliches?

"But the weapons don't kill people. It's the individual that killed these people."

Say, edit that just a bit, and it'd make a great bumper sticker, wouldn't it? <sigh>

Monday, January 10, 2011

Arizona Blues, Part 2

Another post cribbed from my comments at Pharyngula:

Hmmm... I want to comment on some of the conversations I've seen around the web about violent imagery:

I have problems with the many "Democrats do it too" and "everybody does it" rejoinders I've heard, on a couple counts —

First, many of these arguments are based on the preponderance of military metaphors and similes in ads, speeches, and political commentary, but I think there's a material difference between standard military imagery and the very particular, personal, and specifically gun-oriented rhetoric we've been seeing from the right recently. We have a long tradition of using war and military operations metaphorically in English, not only to describe political campaigns¹, but in all walks of life. Frequently these metaphors get mashed up with sports metaphors (many of which are themselves military metaphors). Perhaps the pervasive use of military metaphors doesn't say anything too complimentary about our culture, but it's hard to argue that such commonplace, everyday usages amount to incitement: Nobody's going to shoot up a crowd because Chuck Todd says Democrats are focusing on battleground states, where they're raising armies of volunteers, using these troops (among whom I myself have occasionally been a footsoldier) in tactical assaults on key swing districts. Nor will Rachel Maddow saying that House Republicans "have chosen Health Care repeal as the hill they want to die on" likely drive the gunmen into the streets. These bits of common, well accepted figurative language are not the same as the much more indivdualized rhetoric we've observed recently, which names names, implicitly suggests specific sorts of assaults on specific people, and features not the broad conglomerative language of armies, but the particularized language of individual hunters, killers, and their very personal weapons. Even the word targeted has a very different resonance when it's used in a strategic analysis of a campaign than when it's paired with a gunsight image and the name of a targeted individual. Context matters!

And that's my second objection: Many of these "y'all do it, too" arguments neglect context. At the surface level first: I've seen clips of a Democratic campaign spot that briefly uses what many claim is a gunsight superimposed over the opponent's photograph... but the context (the ad copy, the other images in the ad, the theme of the ad) makes it abundantly clear that it's really intended to be a focusing reticle on a surveillance camera, a visual representation of the Justice Department investigation the ad references. Even though some may think it looks like a gunsight, a gunsight would be a total non sequitur in this context. Conversely, many try to exonerate Sarah Palin's website target map by claiming the symbols there aren't really gunsights but surveyors' map symbols... and it may, in fact, be true that that's what those specific markers were published as. But in the context of Palin's website, and the general themes of her discourse, it's clear they were intended to be seen as gunsights. They were understood as gunsight symbols at the time (including, chillingly, by Rep. Giffords herself), and AFAIK neither Palin nor any of her associates disavowed that interpretation (though they may have by now, IMHO disingenuously if so, in the wake of the shootings). Surveyors' marks in that context would've been as much a non sequitur as a gunsight would've been in the previous example.

But I'm not naive enough to assume that people on "my side" of the political aisle are all innocent, and I'm sure some Democrats have crossed the line into inappropriately violent campaign rhetoric. But here again, context matters: A Democrat whose ads seemed to be soliciting violence against an opponent would be an outlier (and, I hope, would be condemned, or at least corrected, by his/her fellow Democrats), because there has been no general tendency on the left² to promote gun culture or images of personal violence as part of its electoral strategy. There has been such a tendency on the right³: There has not been just one appeal to "Second Amendment solutions" or "the blood of patriots and tyrants," nor just one candidate featured in ads with a gun in his hands, nor just one campaign event involving shooting, nor just one person showing up at a rally with a gun strapped to his leg. Instead, gun rights, gun ownership, and the relevance of guns to political action have been broad themes of political discourse on the right.

And in that context, putting a gunsight on a map or exhorting your followers to "take out" your opponent is vastly more toxic and risky than the same communications would be without such a violence-oriented rhetorical backdrop.

More censorhip is not — must not be — the answer. Instead, the answer must be for all of us to be more conscious of the rhetorical context our own metaphors create, to be more openly critical (and consistently so) of our fellows who cross the line, and, as voters, to absolutely stop rewarding this sort of campaigning with our votes. I think that's what Keith Olbermann was getting at in his special commentary Saturday, and many others have echoed.

I said I wasn't naive about my fellow Democrats; I am naive enough to hope this horrific tragedy will serve as a wakeup call. I don't want political discourse that's more "civil," in the sense of backing down from an honest contest of ideas and ideologies, but I do want a political discourse that's less reliant (preferably not at all) on images of personal violence. It may be that only crazy people would act on those violent images, but even if that's so, it's incumbent upon the vast majority of us who aren't crazy to stop giving them ideas.

¹ As an aside, while I haven't looked up its etymology, I suspect the word campaign itself, in its political context, is a military metaphor.

² Yes, yes, I know what passes for the left in the U.S. isn't so leftish by international standards.

³ No, I don't mean to be tarring all Republicans with this assertion. I imagine moderate Republicans (if they're not extinct in the wild) and even mainstream conservative Republicans are chagrined by the naked appeal to violence adopted by many of their more radical colleagues.

Reverse Blogwhoring: Arizona Blues, Part 1

I've been spending a lot of time on Pharyngula since the shootings in Arizona Saturday, and I thought I might post versions of a couple of my longer comments there as blog posts here... which is a turnaround on the usual blogwhoring practice of commenting at some other blog for no reason other than to redirect traffic to your own. So here's the first comment, in response to another commenter who had objected to a plan from Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) to criminalize "language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a Member of Congress or federal official," in part on the grounds that it was cowardly of a congressman to attempt to safeguard himself and his federal colleagues when others had been injured and killed. I said...

I agree that Brady's proposal may be wrongheaded — credible threats of violence against public officials are (AFAIK) already illegal, and Brady's proposed change would put protected political speech at risk of prior restraint on the basis of what is effectively subjective literary analysis — but to suggest his motivation for making it is cowardly personal self-protection is, you'll pardon me for saying so, foolish on your part.

The security of our elected representatives is an important issue not because they're too cowardly to face the risk, but because they're our elected representatives! They deserve extra protection under the law not because they're more valuable as individuals than "regular people," but because, in addition to their value as individuals, they represent the rest of us. When the gunman fired a bullet into the brain of Gabby Giffords, he was not only attacking a daughter, a wife, a sister-in-law, a respected colleague, and no doubt a friend to legions; he was also attacking every citizen in her district by proxy, and attacking the very concept of representative government¹. When you target a public figure for violence, you're doing violence not only to a person, but also to everything the office that person holds stands for... and thus to everyone that office represents.

The tragic price paid by others in that crowd should make us more determined, rather than less, to stand up for the personal inviolability of those individuals willing to take on the grave responsibility of public service.

My own congressman is also a friend; in fact, I was talking to him at a local event Saturday morning, perhaps at the time this was happening in Arizona. When I got home and saw this news, my blood ran cold. I don't need to think my congressman is a coward — in fact, he is the polar opposite of that — to be desperately concerned for his safety. If some deranged right-wing gun nut comes for him at a public event, there's a chance I'll be there, and at risk... but it's certain he'll be there. I need him to stay safe, and we all need an environment in which it's safe for our leaders to lead.

¹ Please note: I'm not making wild suppositions about his motivations here; I'm making observations about the impact of his actual acts.