Homo homini rodentius est

Every Day is Like Sunday

This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down… come Armageddon, come!

I grew up in a small village on the Hudson about 130 miles north of New York City called Catskill. Its economic history goes back a long way, to the purchase of its lands from the native Americans in 1638. Through the following centuries it had its share of good fortune — Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, was married there and Alexander Hamilton tried his first case as a young lawyer in the building I knew as the local Masonic Temple. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting, lived in a mansion on Spring Street where, a century in the future, my aunt Rose would purchase what may have been his dilapidated studio on a parcel of land adjoining her house and blithely tear it down to make room for her garden.

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Tracing the causes of scientific illiteracy

If it comes out of a lab it’s science, right?
In 2005, a political scientist at Northwestern [found] that one out of every five Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Given this situation, when I wrote a piece on [genetic fundamentalism], I had no illusions about it making the slightest dent in the popular obsession with finding the “cause” of homosexuality. Even still, it’s disheartening to see the same uninformed debate play out [over] and [over]. Worse, even a respected magazine like New York trots out a puff piece (so to speak…) called [The Science of Gaydar] by David France that catalogs a string of meaningless correlations (Gay men’s cowlicks turn the wrong way!) that explain nothing because they don’t belong to any kind of rational theoretical framework. What is perhaps most disheartening is the profound ignorance of science and theory that makes any pseudo-scientific claptrap look reasonable not just to the general public, but to the editors of the piece.

The Medium is the (wrong) Message
Standing between the impenetrable opaqueness of the scientific academy and the man on the street are the science writers in the mass media who are playing an ever more important role in our society as translators and guides. In the gene piece I wrote I singled out a New York Times writer for contributing to the simplistic genes = culture meme that winds its way through our discourse. Well, over the weekend the NYT published [a story] on new understanding of the complexity of gene effects that implies refutation of some of the more breathless genetic coverage they’ve done in the past. Alas, those implications are not fleshed out in the article — out of scope perhaps. Too bad for readers who look to the Times to provide meaning to what they read. Is it too much to ask that writers for the most important newspaper in the country think about what their own paper has written in the past and place new findings in some context that will help their readers better understand the world?

Why is this man smiling?
Ultimately, the state of scientific literacy is a reflection of public policy priorities and political leadership. During the Cold War, when the Russians were breathing down our necks with a bazillion ICBMs and satellites floating over our heads, science education was a public priority — you better believe it was. One of the untoward outcomes of Cold Peace was the [relaxation] of science education priorities and [redirection of federal funding] from science programs. Coincidentally, conservative politicians came to rely on fundamentalist voting blocs who exert extraordinary influence over social policy. That helps explain the prominence of idiots like Senator Sam Brownback who, in a presidential debate, [brags his ignorance] of evolution theory and somehow doesn’t get laughed out of the building. In his case he probably believes the stupid things he says, other fellow-traveling ignoramuses are more likely pandering to their electorates when they backpedal on rationalist explanations of natural phenomena. And so the cycle of illiteracy is reinforced. Very disheartening, indeed.

Flashback: When The Gap Defined Cool

A recent blog storm erupted over advertising online and its impact on journalistic ethics and, as expected, many decried the corruption of the pristine internet with base advertising. But — as with anything — ads aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes they’re even transcendent. Back in 1997 there was a golden moment when advertising and culture fell into perfect alignment. This is how I wrote about it, then. The ad in question can be viewed at the end of the article…

 


30 seconds of perfection and, yes, soul.

 

The best of the new Gap Khaki campaign is an ad called “Khaki Soul”. The irony of the name is almost killing: it suggests that khaki-colored cotton cloth made up into loose-fitting pants can have soul or, at least, be a brand of soul. That takes some marketing balls. I can hear the rabid ad-busting anti-capitalist drones in my audience seething already: “How dare they devalue the word soul by association with a pair of pants!” Yadda, yadda, yadda. That they dare, and succeed, is why I love the ad so much. Unlike the other ads in this campaign, the dancers here dance (for the most part) alone — well, almost alone. They look right at you and it’s that intimacy maker (they’re sharing with you or you are peeping at their dance epiphany) that cements the bond with the audience. It is at the same time the most artificial of intimacies and, happening in your home in your head, most real — like a lot of what happens between you and your TV. The ad is a little cultural artifact of music joined to motion that conveys a vision of expression and style that very effectively touches the soul of its audience. Blasphemy.

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First look: Sicko by Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s latest opus, Sicko, opened here in New York City yesterday and, as one would expect, was very warmly received. The venue — a theater nestled cozily between Lincoln Center and the Ethical Culture School — was a bit surprising, though. The Upper West Side of Manhattan is the mothership for liberals in this country — a safer space for the ultra-liberal Moore could hardly be imagined. In fact, the middle-aged woman I sat next to (who was practically hopping in her seat with anticipation) declared, “He should be here, after all, we’re his people!” One might have expected Moore, ever the provocateur, to have chosen a more controversial spot to debut his take down of the US health care system like, say, Oakland California — home of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization (which comes in for special attention in the film) — but maybe he had something else in mind. More on that in a moment.

Sicko is not a documentary so much as it is a political polemic, though like a documentary it makes its case through presentation of personal histories of people who have suffered extraordinary hardship at the hands of the for-profit health care system we “enjoy” in this country. Likewise, Moore uses interviews with people living and working in Canada, Britain, France and (most dramatically, Cuba), to promote the virtues of socialized medicine. And make no mistake about it, Moore wants socialized medicine. He states it flatly in the [Prescription for Change] that is posted on his website:

1. Every American must have full, uninterrupted health care coverage for life.
2. Private, for-profit health insurance companies must be abolished.
3. Profits of pharmaceutical companies must be strictly regulated like a public utility.

For Moore, there is a fundamental moral flaw in a health care system designed to maximize profits of the providers of treatment (especially the drug companies) and of the insurance companies that are supposed to fairly dispense payments for that treatment. Whatever its virtues on paper, in fact such a system ends up hoarding profits at the expense of sick people who must pay exorbitant sums out-of-pocket to try and get the care they need. Or die trying.

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Who owns the war, now that Rumsfeld is gone?

A year ago [I was wondering] what effect Condi Rice would have on the Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance. A year later, we know. Frontline on PBS has produced an hour-long documentary entitled [Endgame] that details the unbelievably incompetent war strategies of the past 4 years and discloses Rice to be the principal sponsor of the “surge” — a strategy that finally vanquished Rumsfeld. As Colin Powell famously warned Rumsfeld during the manic run up to the war, “you break it, you own it.” Well now it appears that Rice has inherited ownership.

From the start, there was no strategy from the Pentagon for dealing with the possibility of an insurgency and the only real strategy (if it can be called that) was to exit Iraq as soon as possible. Repeatedly caught unaware, the Pentagon and White House lurched hither and yon, all the while ignoring what appeared to be an apparently successful strategy happening right under their noses. In May of 2004, acting on his own, outside the game plan from Washington, Col. H.R. McMaster had secured the city of Tal Afar through what he called “Clear-Hold-Build” — a strategy of using sufficient troops and force to clear insurgents from the city and then maintain troop levels to maintain security while rebuilding could take place. But more than a year would pass before this news would make its way back to the White House. Leading her own military reconnaissance — in a bold challenge to Rumsfeld’s power — Rice had Philip Zelikow scout Iraq in the fall of 2005. He reported back to her on McMaster’s apparent success and, in October of that year, she made an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where she promoted a new strategy of “Clear-Hold-Build” in a stunning repudiation of Rumsfeld’s leadership. It was the beginning of the surge and the beginning of the end of the Cheney-Rumsfeld lock on power.

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