June 30, 2007
Liberal Fascism With LOLcats
Jonathan Swift shows how it's done.
Love the Cook, Hate the Food
Imagine if the dining section of the Washington Post had an editorial page. And on that page, they weighed in on both the quality of restaurants, but also the hiring processes of kitchens. And let's assume, finally, that the page repeatedly endorsed cooks who promised to make dishes the Washington Post didn't like, and then the Post repeatedly wrote editorials condemning those dishes, and the direction of the restaurant, and the state of dining today. Wouldn't that seem...weird?
And yet, it would almost be less weird were the stakes actually confined to a satisfying meal, rather than the direction of the Supreme Court:
Media Matters notes a curious trend. The Washington Post endorsed the confirmation of John Roberts. The Washington Post endorsed the confirmation of Samuel Alito. Now, The Washington Post has gone an excoriated the recent spate of 5-4 decisions in which Roberts and Alito, predictably, joined with fellow conservatives William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas to do the sort of things that conservative judges do.
One wishes, at this point, that the Post would simply endorse the decisions as well. If the Post wants to become conservative on judicial issues, the way it's become conservative on foreign policy issues then it is, of course, free to do so. But hewing to a liberal line when it doesn't matter only adds a veneer of credibility when they put forward conservative views on question that do matter -- who should and who should not be confirmed.
We Can Rebuild Her, Make Her Thinner, Bustier, More Beautiful...
Mulling over beauty standards, Peter Suderman asks:
Concerns about the buying and selling of beauty derive in large part from our longstanding concern for anything that isn’t “natural.” Just as we worry about despoiling nature, we fret over changes made to the human body, always with the idea that whatever is natural is “good.” But why should we be forced to live with what nature assigns us? Why be stuck with bodies that don’t please us or others, and why shouldn’t anyone with the means be able to purchase something new, more satisfying, more functional? When more vital parts of our bodies fail, we have no problem with replacing or fixing them—why should cosmetic improvements be any different?
There's a big difference between purchasing a body that is more functional and buying one that is more aesthetically pleasing. If the cartilage in your knee has worn out till it's mere bone scraping against bone, it's a real blessing that our society has developed the sort of reconstructive technologies that will restore your mobility and reduce your pain level. Excruciating pain when you walk is an objective bad, and worth resources to fix.
But crow's feet are not an objective bad. Nor is a healthy weight that doesn't translate into a washboard stomach. Individuals fight against those physical tendencies not because they render their bodies less functional, but because they are bombarded with cultural messages suggesting they're ugly. And so the question isn't whether people should be able to improve their bodies, but whether the constant message that they must fight the aging process, or conform to a difficult body ideal, is a good thing. In other words: Purchasing beauty isn't on trial, or shouldn't be. It's the forces that generate the aching desire to tone up and slim down and grow younger that should be questioned. Those desires, particularly in their contemporary guise, aren't necessarily natural, and I'm hard pressed to believe they're making many people happier.
Shed a Tear for the Lobbyists
Ken Silverstein is a national treasure:
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I put on a brand-new tailored suit, picked up a sleek leather briefcase and headed to downtown Washington for meetings with some of the city's most prominent lobbyists. I had contacted their firms several weeks earlier, pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan. I told them I wanted to hire the services of a firm to burnish that country's image.
I didn't mention that Turkmenistan is run by an ugly, neo-Stalinist regime. They surely knew that, and besides, they didn't care. As I explained in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine, the lobbyists I met at Cassidy & Associates and APCO were more than eager to help out. In exchange for fees of up to $1.5 million a year, they offered to send congressional delegations to Turkmenistan and write and plant opinion pieces in newspapers under the names of academics and think-tank experts they would recruit. They even offered to set up supposedly "independent" media events in Washington that would promote Turkmenistan (the agenda and speakers would actually be determined by the lobbyists).
All this, Cassidy and APCO promised, could be done quietly and unobtrusively, because the law that regulates foreign lobbyists is so flimsy that the firms would be required to reveal little information in their public disclosure forms.
Howie Kurtz, however, is not:
Now, in a fabulous bit of irony, my article about the unethical behavior of lobbying firms has become, for some in the media, a story about my ethics in reporting the story. The lobbyists have attacked the story and me personally, saying that it was unethical of me to misrepresent myself when I went to speak to them.
That kind of reaction is to be expected from the lobbyists exposed in my article. But what I found more disappointing is that their concerns were then mirrored by Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who was apparently far less concerned by the lobbyists' ability to manipulate public and political opinion than by my use of undercover journalism.
"No matter how good the story," he wrote, "lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects."
Press on, dear reader, press on.
NO MORE HILTON
This is compelling stuff. Can we get her an excellence in broadcasting award? Or maybe her own show, where she's not surrounded by jabbering fools to cowardly to join with her protest?
My column on eschewing values in foreign policy rhetoric has sparked a fascinating salon of sorts over at Obsidian Wings. Go scroll around and learn why I'm wrong, and why I'm right, and why I'm understandable. I'll have a longer post on this stuff later, but for now, I'm just tossing up some content before I go fly kites.
June 29, 2007
Megan looks straight into the face of evil -- and finds it sorta dutiful. Responding to one of those Hayekian types who think that deep within any government bureaucracy a purely black heart pumps a statist ichor, she writes:
In this climate, with this cabal leading our country, you somehow look around you and decide that what scares you, the real threat to our democracy is a bunch of civil servants? WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK WE DO?
I am dead serious. What do you think we DO? We sit here, thousands of us, infiltrating the entire nation. Every day we come to work and do something that is scarier than making a mockery of the Constitution, disappearing and torturing people, killing thousands of our own and theirs in a country that wasn’t an aggressor, spying on Americans, evading laws to tilt elections. What the hell could that BE?
Part of me wants to explain this one more time. I can tell you what we do. Dave, upstairs? He monitors a bunch of gaging stations in the Delta and likes to talk about telemetry. Amy? She tracks grants and reads invoices very carefully. The guy down the hall? He holds public meetings, dozens per year, to figure out what the public wants us to do with our water. Three cubes over? He surveys culverts along the 1 to see whether salmon can get through them. Also upstairs? They inspect dams and think about whether sirens or radio announcements are more effective for announcing a dam break. Those FIENDS! There are some people whose jobs I don’t know. Maybe they’re the ones doing whatever it is that terrifies you.
Things You Won't Learn From Industry Propaganda
I'm not entirely sure there are words to describe how bizarre it is to watch Andrew Sullivan rely entirely on research from the pharmaceutical industry's web site to make his case for why drug companies should get to charge anything they want. I mean, really, we're going to need a new term. Gullimarkable?
In any case, Sullivan's case is a mess even if you excuse his sources. He gets really excited about a 1994 European Commission report saying "Europe as a whole is lagging behind in its ability to generate, organise, and sustain innovation processes that are increasingly expensive and organisationally complex." The quote from the report then ends, and we have to rely on Pharma's interpretation of how it relates to drug research on the continent.
If Sullivan weren't just parachuting into the issue with a copy of Free to Choose and a tone of extreme indignation, he'd know that a similar study was released last year showing problems in the American pharmaceutical market -- notably, a precipitous drop in new drug development from the pharmaceutical industry.
A report by the General Accounting Office concludes that current patent law discourages drug companies from developing new drugs by allowing them to make excessive profits through minor changes to existing pharmaceuticals. While pharmaceutical research and development expenses have increased by 147% since 1993, applications for approval of "new molecular entity" (NME) drugs, or drugs which differ significantly from others already on the market, have risen only 7%. According to the report, the majority of newly developed medicines are so-called "me-too" drugs, which are substantially similar to existing drugs, are less risky than NMEs drugs to develop, and which "offer little in the way of therapeutic breakthroughs."
Entirely 68 percent -- two-thirds -- of the industry's new drug applications are for knock-off, me-too drugs. The incentives for copying tried-and-true products are far, far too high. So it turns out profit -- generated here by patents -- can actually harm drug development! Am I blowing your mind yet?
Here's a bit more: Those molecular advances Sullivan thinks come entirely from the magic of private enterprise? They're socialism in action. One survey found that taxpayer-funded research developed 15 of the 21 most important drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992. And these aren't joke pharmaceuticals:
A study of the 21 drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992 that were considered by experts to have had the highest therapeutic impact on society found that public funding of research was instrumental in the development of 15 of the 21 drugs (71 percent). Three-captopril (Capoten), fluoxetine (Prozac), and acyclovir (Zovirax)-had more than $1 billion in sales in 1994 and 1995. In addition to these drugs, other members of the group of 21 drugs, including AZT, acyclovir, fluconazole (Diflucan), foscarnet (Foscavir), and ketoconazole (Nizoral), had NIH funding and research to help in clinical trials.
Another study, this one from 1990, looked at 32 drugs on the market and concluded 60 percent would've never been developed without public funds. Yet another "traced more than 45,000 references from U.S. patents to the underlying research papers, and tabulated both the institutional and financial origins of the cited science. We found that more than 70 percent of the scientific papers cited on the front pages of U.S. Industry patents came from public science -- science performed at universities, government labs, and other public agencies."
Pharmaceutical companies don't develop all their drugs. They spend a lot of time buying, patenting, and bringing to market advances made in the public sector through NIH grants and university research. If you're curious as to how this works, take a look at the cancer drug Taxol. Discovered by the NIH and licensed to Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, Taxol is sold for $20,000, costs $1,000 to produce, and the NIH gets .5 percent of the royalties. The pharmaceutical industry was damn innovative, to be sure, but not in the development of this drug -- only in the selling of it.
But you won't find that on the pharmaceutical industry's web site.
While trying to find a clip of the Morlock's to defend myself from accusations of class bias -- rather than comic book geekery -- in the thread below, i came across this great clip from the old X-Men cartoon.
Man. I forgot how much I loved that show.
Update: In comments, Josh writes:
The X-Men concept works best in a limited medium like animation or film than in a comic-book series that must go on forever. An endless comic run means that the X-Men must always fail in their goals. And that undermines the basic concept on which the book is based. We're supposed to believe that Professor X's methods are superior to Magneto's, yet Professor X must never win any real or lasting gains. If he did, then it would undermine the comic's premises. So there must always be setbacks and there can never be any real improvements in the mutant situation. This makes the Professor look not like an idealist, but a misguided fool - and leads to the conclusion that maybe Magneto was right after all. I don't think that's what the writers were going for.
Now we're getting somewhere! I disagree that success for the X-Men is based on lasting gains of the sort that would resolve the Xavier/Magneto conflict. A flowering of enduring tolerance and harmony will never exist in a world where mutants walk around with world-ending powers locked behind the shaky bars of their willpower and sunny outlook. In that way, Magneto is almost obviously right in a predictive sense: In the long-run, there will be either a world run by mutants, or a world destroyed by mutants. Traditional humans are just too weak to remain competitive.
The success of the X-Men is entirely in delaying that world, in protecting the suboptimal status quo, rather than moving towards some delightfully multicultural future. Even if true respect and acceptance isn't in the offing, keeping the uneasy balance between a world in which humans are institutionally dominant but mutants are more powerful is probably better than one in which humans are either killed or in servitude. Xavier's ideology may speak of something far more pleasant than that uneasy balance, but in reality, it works to keep that compromise viable.
With Great Publishing Contracts Comes Great Responsibility
Sean Carroll comments:
I don't think "You shouldn't be talking about Hegel unless you've spent several years reading his works in the original German, along with the most important secondary sources" is the right angle for the Jonah-mockery to take. If we're not allowed to talk about the works of thinkers about which we are not as knowledgeable as the world's true experts, the public discourse would become a little arid.
I agree. Which means I should probably, just this once, take a break from mockery (Actually, this isn't such an either/or choice. What follows is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care) and make my critique of Goldberg a little more explicit, because there's actually a reason so many on the left are taking aim at the book.
It's certainly allowable to muck about with the works of thinkers you've not comprehensively read, or even particularly understand. But that has to be balanced -- particularly in certain mediums -- with an understanding of what the reader is expecting, and, more to the point, assuming. Blogs, for instance, are largely about puncturing the writerly authority that permeates more established forms of published expression. I feel no compunction about spouting off half-cocked in this space. Not so with articles, or op-eds, where the very fact of your entrance into the medium denotes your passage through a gatekeeping mechanism which, in theory, is meant to assure readers of your credibility and fluency with the relevant material. Dead tree material doesn't have links, or comment sections, and most of it doesn't offer footnotes. The audiences, rather, have been taught to trust the writers, or at least the reputation of the outlet. That places a different burden on the author.
And books are all the worse. They are artifacts of erudition and learning. It's problematic, as they actually go through far less editing and fact-checking than the average magazine article. But the tangible weight of a book, the mass of its pages, the blurbs on the back, and the entire literary culture exist largely to imbue these tomes with a very, very high level of authority. The reader is told, implicitly, that no one who didn't fully understand what they were talking about could complete such a large project, or amass praise from such distinguished personages, or get a contract with a major publisher, or be placed on a book table near truly great tomes.
These are the heuristics Jonah's book will rely on as it makes its case for "liberal fascism." The inclusion of thinkers like Hegel will only add to its projected aura of intellectual mastery. And yet, in everything Jonah writes about it, in every preview and early glimpse we've been offered, it looks like the platonic form of hackish overreach. The switch from a subtitle featuring Hillary Clinton to one elevating Hegel was to make the book look all the more serious, even as it's still the same book that was meant to appeal to the audience of braying morlocks who purchase Coulter's venom-drenched slash fiction. And given Jonah's demonstrated tendency to always go for the partisan jab rather than address the actual issue, it's unlikely that this book will offer anything different. Indeed, how could it, given that he's also been writing a weekly column for both The LA Times and The National Review, and 92 daily blog posts, and magazine pieces? But unsuspecting readers won't have all that context. They'll just know it's a book, with a provocative title, a namecheck to a famed philosopher, and all the assumed authority that comes with a publishing contract and a book tour.
So this deserves mockery, at least till some counterevidence is introduced. And given that every time Goldberg tries to assure critics of his book that they're doing him wrong, he inadvertently reveals how cosmically awful this effort is likely to be, I think it's actually the duty of all right-thinking people to question why anything in this book should be believed, and why anyone should take it seriously.
And finally, I'm tired of the right-wing publishing paradigm. The Party of Death, Liberal Fascism. Unhinged. Slander. Godless. Etc, etc. This stuff is insulting, embarrassing, and hackish, and it's long past time that got pointed out, again and again. Right wing authors who want to be respected should demand that their publishers let them write respectable books. If they don't, there's no reason anyone need ignore that choice. Were Jonah's book either on an inoffensive topic, or on some topic he seemed in real control of, I'd probably just ignore the thing. But so long as he's slurring my ideology as fascistic and doing so through a lot of intellectual hand-waving and rhetorical fireworks, it's worth pointing out what a farce this all is.