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July 31, 2007

My Commentors Are Smarter Than Me (Eugenics Edition)

Two comments worth highlighting. The first, from Warren Terra:

I have heard of couples who choose to adopt or to use donor sperm because they know they carry the same recessive, and I've heard of Huntingtin's carriers who choose not to have children (Huntingtin's is that rare thing, a dominant-lethal, and is not lost from the gene pool because it causes lethality long after the onset of fertility). Technically, these people are making 'eugenic' decisions.

On the other side of the argument, Downs and other spontaneous defects often aren't inheritable genetic conditions, and so aborting affected fetuses technically isn't 'eugenics'. Curiously, aborting a Tay-Sachs homozygous fetus also isn't 'eugenics', as this victim of inherited disease cannot reach adulthood and thus will not transmit the condition to the next generation (aborting a Tay-Sachs heterozygous fetus, which is not an event I've heard of, would be 'eugenics').

The point is that in the context of a political/ideological debate, 'eugenics' doesn't mean exerting decisions about your own reproduction on the basis of knowledge that your offspring will suffer from serious disabilities. It means a massive, usually state-led, movement to discriminate children, teenagers, and adults, and to sterilize and murder those of whom it disapproves. Genetics - and even the technical meaning of 'eugenics' - has little or nothing to do with it.

Allegations of 'eugenics' are just another Godwin's law violation, and deserved to be treated as such.

And this one, from Hob:

the essence of Douthat's argument is that progressives are in favor of access to abortion, and abortion can be used for eugenic purposes, therefore progressives are in favor of eugenics. This is ridiculous for reasons that have nothing to do with the motives behind particular abortions. It's like saying that if you oppose banning guns, you're in favor of bank robbery, hunting bunny rabbits, and suicide.

Also in that thread, Kathy G., who used to work for the developmentally disabled, gives a more sober and informed picture of Down Syndrome than I did. Well worth reading.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (79)

I Trusted You!

Foreign Policy magazine ticks off "5 lies my economist told me."

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (16)

Rawls Didn't Start The Fire

Linda Hirshman, continuing her bizarre jihad against John Rawls, writes:

In the thirty five years between the publication of the Theory of Justice in 1971 and the election of 2006, the conservative Republican Party held the Presidency for twenty-three years, controlled the Senate for seventeen years, effectively controlled both houses of Congress in the last twelve and outperformed the Democrats in state government at an increasing rate until surpassing them in states controlled also in the last twelve. But more importantly, until the election of 2006 finally cost the Republicans the House and their superiority among the states, the trend was steadily in their direction at all levels of government. The Iraq war interrupted that trend, but liberals cannot always hope for colossal, long term, clearly visible foreign policy disasters to win elections.

Also occurring within this thirty year period: Stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, Welcome Back Kotter, Watergate, Nixon goes to China, the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Transformers, deregulation, the acceleration of inequality, the crack epidemic, the first Gulf War, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the second Gulf War, 9/11, Bosnia, Iran-Contra, the internet, the Christian Coalition, Lazy Sunday, the realignment of the Dixiecrat South, the Shining Trailer, etc, etc, etc.

But Linda traces the Democratic struggles during this period to a philosophy book? Really?

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (44)

15 Years

After relating yet one more insane go-around with our country's health care system, Kevin Drum snarks, "But did you know that in France they're so impoverished that they only have one MRI machine for the whole country? And the waiting list is 15 years? And nobody knows how to operate it anyway because the instructions are in English and no one in France speaks English?"

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (27)

New ARG Polls

The new American Research Group polls are out, and they show Edwards slipping behind Clinton in Iowa, and Obama tying for first in New Hamshire, and taking the lead in Soth Carolina.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (9)

More on "Eugenics"

Ross Douthat questions whether I'm right to term Down's Syndrome "medically disastrous." Brian replies:

Between the amount of money spent on supervisory care for a baby with Down's Syndrome, the amount of money spent on associated medical ailments for a baby with Down's Syndrome, the extreme mental retardation and physical disabilities of a baby with Down's syndrome, and the very early deaths of a very large percentage children with Down's syndrome, I'd say that Down's Syndrome is extraordinarily medically disastrous unless you're very heavily invested in the idea that aborting a baby with Down's Syndrome constitutes a type of eugenics.

In any case, Ross believes it's perfectly correct to term parents aborting fetuses with significant genetic abnormalities -- many of which would be fatal -- "eugenics." He writes that the ends are the same: "the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process." Suggesting that a couple who terminates their pregnancy because their son exhibits the marker for Tay-Sachs disease -- which will render their child blind, deaf, and unable to swallow, and then kill him around the age of 5 -- is seeking the "the genetic improvement of the human species" seems, again, a real stretch.

In any case, were Ross a biologist, or were he writing a scientific blog about genetics, I wouldn't quibble with his invocation of the word "eugenics." But he isn't. He's a political commentator writing for an august, mainstream magazine. Within that context, using the term "eugenics" is misleading as to what's actually being discussed. Even the definition Ross uses -- "the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process" -- suggests a sort of societal engineering project aimed at enhancement, rather than families individually deciding to abort fetuses whose genetic mutations will cause great hardship, pain, and, in many cases, early death.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (53)

In Which I Praise David Brooks

His latest column on poverty is quite honest, and quite good. I think he's too focused on the utility of social capital within a neighborhood, rather than social capital into new economic classes and social strata, but that's a fair disagreement. If you want to read, incidentally, a phenomenal article on social capital within neighborhoods and its remarkable potential to alleviate poverty and various inner-city ills, Eyal Press wrote a really interesting piece for The Prospect on exactly that topic:

For several decades, the debate over the myriad problems of America's inner cities has been dominated by two schools of thought: on one side, liberals who have emphasized the structural factors (racism, poverty) at their root; on the other, conservatives who've stressed the behavioral pathologies (out-of-wedlock birth, criminality) they believe are to blame. Yet over the past decade, a new theory has emerged to explain why some areas fare better than others even when their residents face similarly daunting odds. It stresses neither jobs nor personal behavior but something at once more elementary and more difficult to capture: the nature of the social interactions taking place among neighbors, and the degree to which they foster a shared capacity to solve problems and enforce collective norms. These qualities appear to have a powerful effect on everything from the level of violence in a community to the conduct of adolescent youth to the likelihood that a neighborhood will remain poor, which is perhaps why a growing number of scholars and policy-makers are interested in teasing out what exactly fosters such traits.

The first indication of this dynamic came nearly a decade ago, in August 1997, when the journal Science published a seven-page article titled "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." It reported some findings from one of the largest social-science research experiments ever launched in the United States.

The experiment took place in Chicago, where, in the mid-1990s, surveyors fanned out into 343 "neighborhood clusters" -- geographically contiguous tracts consisting of roughly 8,000 people each -- to interview thousands of residents. One of the elements the surveyors were measuring was the level of "social cohesion and trust" in a community. To gauge this, surveyors asked residents to rank, on a five-point scale, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements: "People around here are willing to help their neighbors"; "This is a close-knit neighborhood"; "People in this neighborhood can be trusted." A second set of questions sought to measure "informal social control" -- the capacity of adults in a community to work together to achieve a sense of public order. Here, individuals were asked how likely they thought their neighbors were to intervene in various situations: when a fight broke out; when someone was spray-painting graffiti; when the local fire station was threatened with budget cuts. Researchers supplemented the interviews by crisscrossing the city in vans fitted with video cameras to conduct systematic social observation of street life in various neighborhoods.

The results of the survey were striking. Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher -- qualities that, taken together, constituted something the designers of the experiment called "collective efficacy,"...it appeared to explain why similarly impoverished neighborhoods do not always share the same fate: When researchers compared two neighborhoods with similar levels of concentrated disadvantage (unemployment, percentage of welfare recipients) but different levels of collective efficacy, they found that in the neighborhood where collective efficacy was higher, the odds of being victimized by a crime were 30 percent lower. The chance of being murdered was 40 percent less. The absence of collective efficacy, the study found, correlated even more powerfully with some types of violence than did poverty or race.

Read the whole thing.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (42)

Meanwhile, In Iran

It's not only the US which may be on a more moderate bent. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, chairman of the mega-powerful, 86-person, "Experts' Assembly," died yesterday. The early favorite to replace him is Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran and a generally more stable, internationalist, and, compared to Ahmadinejad, pro-Western member of the country's ruling elite. Rafsanjani, to give folks an idea, was the presidential candidate we were comfortable with last time, until he was beat out by an unexpected swell of populist support for Ahmadinejad.

Currently, Rafsanjani has the support of three-quarters of the assembly. That leaves him the heavy favorite. But relations between him and Khatami are famously fractious, and Khatami could try and block him, though it doesn't appear to be expected. In any case, the Experts' Assembly chooses the country's Supreme Leader who, unlike Ahmadinejad, actually runs Iran. If Rafsanjani were to wrest the chairmanship, it would be heartening news indeed.

July 31, 2007 in Iran | Permalink | Comments (11)

The Passion of the Cheney

I'm not really sure what Brian is getting at here. The fact that there are NeoCons and Christian Rightists and atheists (are there atheists?) in the Bush administration doesn't detract from the outfit's ideological coherence in recent years. It just means they have separate spheres of influence. The Christian Right controls the social policy, while the NeoCons have, at times, governed the international sector. There are business types in there too, and they control regulatory policy. And all these groups unite around Bush because he sections the place off to give them their own personal fiefdoms.

But within these fiedoms, there can still be conflict. The central division in foreign policy has been between Scowcroft-style realists and NeoCons. In the years following 9/11, the NeoCons -- led by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz -- were ascendant. In the last few years, they have lost Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, and a variety of lesser known, but still important, fellow travelers. These are big losses for the NeoCons. And literally every one of these positions has been filled with a realist, Rice-type of some sort. Rice passed over Bolton for Zoellick. Gates succeeded Rumsfeld. Gordon England succeeded Paul Wolfowitz. This dude you don't know succeeded some other guy you didn't know, but who mattered. Cheney's Middle East advisor just quit. And there are more.

And this has been over Cheney's objections. One of the interesting stories in Stephen Hayes book-length massage of the vice-president is that after Bush let Rumsfeld go, Cheney was angry enough to disagree publicly:

An aide fired one tough question after another at the vice president. Then: Did you agree with President Bush's decision to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense?

"Absolutely not," Cheney replied without elaborating. His answer surprised the small group with him, but it was the answer he was determined to give if Wallace asked, even at the risk of angering his boss. But the story was a month old, and Wallace never asked the question.

To believe that America will go to war with Iran is to believe that Cheney will overcome Condoleeza Rice, Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just about everyone controlling the machinery of the government, and convince Bush to make a move that could very well lead to impeachment and would, at the least, imperil the project in Iraq -- to which Bush ties his legacy -- beyond anything we've yet seen. And unlike with Iraq, he will be making this argument without an available military, without public support, without an ally heading the Defense Department, without Tony Blair providing international cover, without the memories of 9/11 emboldening the president, etc. It's a far tougher road to hoe.

That doesn't mean it won't happen. Events can take over. Cheney could input the launch codes during Bush's next colonoscopy. But, for now, Cheney's power appears to be ebbing, and the odds are against an attack.

July 31, 2007 in Iran | Permalink | Comments (10)

No End in Sight

As a statement on what's gone wrong in American foreign policy over the last seven years, it's a bit limited. As a wide-angle view of what's happened in Iraq, it's searing, and unbelievably important/ We spend so much time on the daily atrocities and outrages there that we lose sight of the sheer scope of the incompetence, and the number of mistakes, and the stupidity and malice with which this was all brought off. The movie is, in certain ways, imperfect, but everyone should see it.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1)