THE SCENE |
Comments on current ideas and events
NEUROECONOMICS: My latest NYT column reports on the new field of neuroeconomics, which is combining the tools of neuroscience with experimental economics to discover what goes on in the brain when people make economic decisions. (The article has a really bad headline, for which I take no responsibility.) [Posted 2/26.]
I wonder if the 'Human Shields' sitting in Iraq have read this report available from the non-partisan (and largely pacifist) Federation of American Scientists on the bombing of Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War?
Reader C. David Noziglia writes:
Since reading about these nitwits in the Post today, I've come to the attitude that, good for them. If they want to think that they are responsible for the U.S. not hitting targets that it announced weeks ago it wasn't going to target (including orphanages), let them. If they want to be used by the Iraqis as propaganda dupes, let's wait 'til they return to beat the crap out of them.
ICED IN: I'm writing from a hotel near DFW Airport. I have to catch a plane to New York a little after 6 a.m., and the roads may be too icy to get to the airport. Dallas has been iced in for two days, ever since sleet pounded the city Monday night. We didn't even try to leave the house on yesterday. No matter—pretty much everything was closed down, a holiday on ice my Pennsylvania-bred husband found a little odd.
Examples of the effects: Neither the NYT or the WSJ delivered my paper, and today the Dallas Morning News didn't even make it. Airborne was supposed to bring my book proofs yesterday. They still hadn't made it this afternoon, although my mailbox service had managed to open. SMU was supposed to re-open this afternoon, and Steve was supposed to teach. He couldn't get the car out of the driveway this morning and walked to campus, only to find that afternoon classes had been cancelled. The streets melted this afternoon, but they'll freeze again tonight. Hence, the airport Holiday Inn. [Posted 2/26.]
FREE LUNCHES: The Bush administration is taking heat for tightening eligibility for school lunches. They aren't changing the rules, merely making some attempt to enforce them. Way back in the mid-70s, I spent my ninth-grade study hall period helping the teacher who managed our school's free lunch program. It was an open secret that many kids getting free lunches didn't qualify for them. All they had to do was fill out a form specifying a qualifying family size and income; no one even tried to verify the change. And apparently not much has changed since then. In many school districts, conscience and social stigma (and, perhaps, a preference for other meals) are all that keep every kid from claiming a free lunch.
GOODBYE BUFFY: As expected, Sarah Michelle Geller has announced she won't be returning to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer after this season. As a dedicated fan of the show, I'm glad. This season is shaping up to be an excellent finale, and another would almost certainly propel the show into a decadent phase. [Posted 2/26.]
DISEMBOWLING CELLS: Charlie Murtaugh dissects a particularly irresponsible polemic against cell cloning by Sen. Sam Brownback. The people at National Review know better. [Posted 2/26.]
TRIVIALITIES: The fairly trivial nature of today's items reflects time spent not on blogging but on actual journalism research for this week's Times column. But, hey, if the Justice Department has time to waste pursuing the deadly menace of bongs, I can write about Frito pie. At least I have a national security angle. [Posted 2/24.]
FRITO PIE: I'd never heard of Frito pie before I moved to Dallas, and I've still never eaten it. But this NYT piece on the local delicacy, by Texpatriate John Schwartz, caught my eye. This passage seems worth a blog item:
I realized that other Texpatriates might be feeling the same nostalgia, and packed up a few cans, with bags of Fritos, and sent them off to my wife's Cousin Jim, who is in Kuwait with the troops. "Aw gee! You shouldn't have!" he wrote back in an e-mail message. "Why bless your little white trash hearts, this is a present I will cherish for a long, long time (thank God for Tums)."
If you're among our troops—or if you know someone who is—and are craving the taste of home, send your requests and mailing instructions to me and I'll post them. [Posted 2/24.]
LOST G'S: David Frum, who speaks impeccably proper Atlantic English, is ragging on Dick Gephardt for dropping his g's and saying iddn't instead of isn't. David seems to think it's an affectation to stop talkin' like a news anchor. I hate to defend Gephardt, but that's how people who aren't from the coasts talk when they go back where they come from and can talk like normal Americans. I know I've been usin' a lot fewer g's since I moved to Texas. Using the g's is the affectation; droppin' them is natural. (But, note to David, the word has to have at least two syllables before you can drop the g.) [Posted 2/24.]
UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT: This article about the would-be human shields almost makes me feel sorry for the Iraqis who have to deal with these dim-wits. Clue for the clueless: Orphanages already have human shields. They're called "orphans." (Via Charles Oliver.) [Posted 2/24.]
AGAINST OVERINTERPRETATION: Scott Rosenberg weighs in on the cultural meaning of Lord of the Rings, taking on (belatedly) Lev Grossman's Time essay from December. Rosenberg notes a little zeitgeist problem. Tolkien seems popular regardless of the cultural climate:
But now we're having it both ways: Tolkienian good and evil are appealing in times of (ostensible) moral clarity like the present—and they're appealing in times of moral ambiguity, too!
Rosenberg offers some more plausible explanations, both time-sensitive and timeless. The subject reminded me of a section in Anne Hollander's great book, Sex and Suits, in which she discusses the tendency to impose cultural significance on fashion's formal shifts. A (much condensed) selection:
Waves of sartorial desire sweep over certain portions of the public, and observers must marvel before they even try to analyze. Most of it I would insist is a desire for the shape or form itself, not for expressing any meaning by it; the love of its looks is enough, and modern assumptions about art and design support such love. Love for a particular form is engendered by the slackening of keen desire for an earlier form, a sort of esthetic lassitude that is often unconscious, and becomes conscious only when a new form is offered. Since the ideal of formal change has been internalized, any form must arise, flourish, and sink; but in the subversive flow of fashion, we invent something new to like before we acknowledge that we are sick of the old.
For more on the complicated relations between aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic meaning, see my new book, The Substance of Style, coming in September. [Posted 2/19.]
I was born in Greensboro, NC on May 5, 1979, and I was vaccinated for smallpox. I have the telltale scar to prove it, too. Yes, that's pretty long after it stopped being mandatory, but the OB/GYN who delivered me was about the last one in the country who went ahead and gave smallpox vaccinations anyway. I don't know anyone else as young as me who was vaccinated, or indeed anyone else within a couple of years except for my older brother. (Born May 25, 1977) However, there probably are a few others out there.
My father was vaccinated in 1978. He happened to be visiting England when there was a smallpox outbreak in a Birmingham laboratory and you had to get a vaccine to leave the country (and maybe for other reasons). [Posted 2/19.]
ECONOMIC HISTORY: David Warsh, who's been on the econ beat since the 1970s, draws on his long memory to provide some interesting insights into the Bush tax plan:
To understand where we are today, it helps to recall that the group in power at the White House has been together for nearly thirty years, ever since they joined up in the Ford administration in 1974. Their shared history determines more than just their political philosophy. It conditions their underlying view of tax policy, too....
Read the rest, not only for the current policy relevance but for the history lesson. [Posted 2/19.]
CONFIRMING EVIDENCE: Blogger Zack Ajmal, who was born in Pakistan but now lives in the CDC's hometown (and my ancestral city), adds confirming evidence to my speculation about vaccination rates in the American population: "I imagine most immigrants from the developing world were vaccinated at least in the 1970s. Both my wife and I were vaccinated against smallpox when we were kids and have the scars to show for it." That's not much comfort to people born after 1970, but it does increase the overall immunity of the population. [Posted 2/18.]
SENSE OF PROPORTION: Ken Layne puts the weekend protests in perspective, using generous crowd estimates. The kicker: "Or, to be a bit cruel, the protests attracted about as many people this weekend as the movie 'Kangaroo Jack.' I'm sorry, but it's true."
Personally, I don't find protests of any sort particularly interesting, except when they reveal new information. We already knew that assorted antiwar activists, like anti-abortion activists, are fervent, well organized, and inclined to take to the streets. This weekend didn't add anything to that. [Posted 2/18.]
ABOUT OIL? Energy economist Lynne Kiesling carefully examines the question of the day: Is the confrontation with Iraq "about oil"? [Posted 2/18.]
HART, IMMIGRANTS, ETC.: Some of the more interesting responses to my original and followup posts on Gary Hart's mysterious comments about "original homelands." Paul Donnelly, who works on immigration issues for a living (his latest article) writes:
I thought you nailed it, with the sort of odd, knee-jerk reaction that Hart MUST have been talking about Jews. It struck me as particularly curious, because I am working on a book about Teddy Roosevelt's views on immigration and citizenship. TR is the ranking prophet in American history against what he called "hyphenated Americanism".
My L.A. friend David Link writes:
Your post on Gary Hart's comments strikes close to home for me. My mother's parents immigrated here from Italy, and their thoughts about immigration have helped form some of my own ideas. When I was growing up, my grandmother in particular told me I would not like Italy—it's poor and dirty, she'd say. And, I'm pretty sure, that was her experience of it. She grew up in a small, poor town in Calabria (the toe of Italy's boot), the poorest part of Italy then and now. When she came to America, it was for a very clear reason in her mind: America was better. There were more opportunities here to get ahead, more sheer possibilities, things that she felt were lacking where she grew up. The enormity of the enterprise of packing up and moving to another country in the early part of the 20th Century is something we maybe can't fully comprehend today; but knowing one fact alone—that it took weeks and weeks on a ship to get here—helps, I think, to understand a mindset of that time.
David makes an interesting point, but he's mingling two separate phenomena: immigration from nearby Western Hemisphere countries and today's easy of travel back to almost any "old country." The latter is nothing new. Mexicans, for instance, have moved back and forth across the southern border for ages, and many who became Americans have maintained familial ties to the old country. (Those ties can, however, be exaggerated. When I interviewed restaurateur Mico Rodriguez for this D Magazine piece, he said he'd never visited Mexico until long after he was a successful Tex-Mex entrepreneur. This is the grandchild of Mexican immigrants, who speaks fluent Spanish and lives in Texas!)
The ease of travel is, however, fairly recent, especially when you factor in cost. It does pose dangers, which we can see in the risks of Islamic terrorism. But the flow works both ways. At a recent conference, I met a Guatemalan classical liberal academic who speculated that El Salvador is liberalizing more effecively than Guatemala because of the influence of Salvadoran immigrants to the U.S. One in four or five Salvadorans has spent time in the United States, including those who still live here. In Guatemala, the number is more like one in 10. That means, he said, that every family table in El Salvador has someone who knows things can be different, and that person usually particular clout because of his or her American income. Guatemala hasn't yet reached a critical mass of American-influenced migrants.
Finally, ArchPundit writes in response to my most recent posting on Hart:
I tend to think you have given a good explanation of what Hart probably meant. He has always tended to couch language in pretty theoretical terms and the situation with his comments would fit that sort of word choice. However, a big red flag that goes up is his past relationship with William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation who has spoken (though claiming he doesn't share the view) at a Barnes Review conference chalk full of Holocaust Deniers. Lind has strange views on both Jews and Arabs so he is an equal opportunity loon. While using the Lind as an advisor doesn't mean they share all views, they have written a book on security issues together and that makes me not dismiss the comment as I would without the connection.
I have nothing to add on William (not to be confused with Michael) Lind, except that Weyrich wrote this weird letter about him to TNR recently. (Scroll down to "See No Evil," and note the absence of any connection to a TNR article.) [Posted 2/18.]
WHO'S VACCINATED: Speaking of immigrants, I can't help wondering whether the estimates of how many (or rather, how few) Americans have been vaccinated against smallpox fully account for the immigrant population. I've noticed quite a few vaccination scars on the upper arms of relatively young Vietnamese manicurists.
Jay Manifold says vaccinations are good for 50 years, but I'd rather not bet my life on that estimate. My last vaccination was in 1966, as a requirement for entering first grade, but it "didn't take" because I still had immunity from my vaccination in infancy. See how common these things used to be? [Posted 2/18.]
WHACKING THE FRENCH: A friend writes in response to my post below:
I don't know how far you agree with Drezner, but whacking the French is not silly. This is not simply self interest playing out—the French have been actively blocking the administration. They should at worst have sat on the sidelines on this Iraqi war. Instead they got Powell to agree to 1441 and then reneged on their commitments—which I'm certain were far broader in private than in public.
For the record, I have nothing against "whacking the French," but not because we saved them from the Nazis or even because we were stupid enough to pretend they were important (or victorious!) enough to rate a Security Council seat. The reason to whack the French is, as my friend suggests, because they favor bad policies.
Besides, as I told a peeved Pakistani correspondent shortly after 9/11, there is a difference between friends and allies: "The French are our oldest allies, but they basically hate us."
Plus, I'm still ticked that I wasted my youth learning their useless language when I could have been learning Spanish. [Posted 2/18.]
GENETIC SCREENING: Interesting piece in today's NYT on the near-eradication of Tay-Sachs disease and efforts to target similar recessive genes common among Ashkenazi Jews. Interestingly, and weirdly, I'm a beta thalessemia carrier, despite my WASPy genes. (The trait is generally found in people of Mediterranean descent.) The doctor who diagnosed my beta thalessemia trait speculated that it could just be a random mutation, like the ones that now account of nearly all Tay-Sachs births. [Posted 2/18.]
LIBERTARIAN GLOSS: Julian Sanches provides an interesting philosophical gloss on Susan Lee's recent WSJ piece on libertarianism. (See Julian's site for links.)
In addition to the issues Julian responds to, I'd fault Susan for underplaying the importance of tradition in Hayek's thought and of accumulated knowledge of effective institutions (and mores) in the thought of libertarian thinkers like Richard Epstein and me. Like the scientific discovery process, the cultural discovery process does not start anew every generation. We don't have to figure out for the first time that some behaviors, institutions, and attitudes lead to happiness and peace and some do not. But, contrary to the claims of conservatives, we do not already know everything we need to know about how to live, for all time and every circumstance. And some of the things we do know are still contested. [Posted 2/18.]
CALIFORNIA SPENDING: Dan Walters, California's leading political analyst, notices an interesting pattern in the state budget:
Two major revenue deviations occurred during the period, one in the early 1990s, when a severe recession buffeted the state, and another in the late 1990s, when it had a high-tech boom.
Walters seems to think Californians are undertaxed, which is absurd given the sales and income tax rates. But cutting the car tax, the Republicans' big boom-time victory, wasn't exactly fundamental reform. Meanwhile, John Howard of the Orange County Register reports that Gray Davis plans to fill the budget gap by socking it to Californians who earn more than $$136,115 a year. [Posted 2/18.]
SUVs AND TAXES: In response to my comment about loathing SUVs, a number of readers wanted to know whether I have any policy agenda on the subject. It's not uppermost in my mind, but I do think it's ridiculous to bias federal policy in favor of SUVs and against station wagons and minivans. That's what the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for fuel efficiency do. But, rather than raise standards for SUVs, I'd prefer to dump CAFE regulation altogether. It's a ridiculous approach to the issue. If we must have a federal policy to reduce fuel consumption, it should take the form of a hefty gasoline tax, preferably offset by cuts in income or payroll taxes. A tax affects actual fuel use and treats all cars, of all years, equally. (See my NYT column on the subject here.) So let's see Arianna Huffington come out for dumping CAFE and taxing gasoline at the same rate regardless of what vehicle you drive. Too bad there's no celebrity to be had for such wonkery.
Speaking of Arianna, according to public records, the Huffingtons bought her Brentwood mansion for $4.1 million in 1994, when L.A. real estate prices were still depressed. That has nothing to do with SUVs, but keep it in mind when she bashes professionals in condos and tract homes for wanting lower income taxes or, even more hypocritically, criticizes Americans in general for materialism and greed. [Posted 2/18.]
ANOTHER REASON TO DISLIKE FRANCE: In a move perhaps calculated to win good will from the Bush administration, the French Senate has voted unanimously to criminalize all forms of human cloning, including cloning cells for research. The bill's provisions make the U.S. version, with its 10-year prison terms and $1 million fines, seem positively liberal. The French ban imposes a 30-year prison term and a fine of 7.5 million euros. The bill also declares reproductive cloning a crime "against the human species," a provision that perhaps the United Nations is expected to enforce. The bill now goes to the Assembly. [Posted 2/16.]
HART'S WAR FEARS: Several readers, including Jesse Walker and Mickey Kaus, pointed out in emails that ABC's The Note reported that, when questioned about his remarks, Hart "seemed at first reluctant to give any specific examples, but then offered up Irish Americans and Cuban Americans as two of many examples of lobbying groups who exercise disproportionate power, sometimes, in his view, skewing US policy."
"Lobbying groups who exercise disproportionate power, sometimes...skewing U.S. policy" is not a list limited by national origin. If that's the problem, Hart's complaint amounts to no more than that some people support policies he disagrees with and that those policies have something to do with their self-interest and personal identity. Well, duh. K Street is full of lobbyists who represent groups whose definition of the "public interest" is skewed by who they are. (On the other hand, financing terrorism against British citizens, including trying to kill Margaret Thatcher, pretty objectively does contradict U.S. national interests. But only a few people, out of many millions, did so, hardly the measure of an entire ethnic group.)
Several readers, including Professor Postrel, argue that Hart must have been talking about Jews because of the context of the Iraq war debate. But that isn't the context of his remark. It comes in the part of the speech devoted to general principles, a section separated from all the specific examples, including the Iraq discussion.
This objection, however, made me rethink my original posting. No, I don't think I was wrong. But I do think there was more to my reading than the textual analysis I thought I was doing. I realize now that my interpretation was informed by extratextual knowledge of Hart's concerns. Several years ago, I spent a couple of days working for the Hart-Rudman commission. Our group wasn't there to advise on military or foreign policy issues but to develop scenarios for the domestic environment in which U.S. defense and foreign policy would be made. As these sorts of exercises tend to do, we wound up with a two by two matrix of possibilities: "high economic growth" vs. "low economic growth" and "high social cohesion" vs. "low social cohesion."
Most people, definitely including Hart, considered "low social cohesion" a threat to American security. They defined low cohesion pretty much as the opposite of the supposed consensus reality and conformist society (and "universal" draft) of the 1950s. The two forces breaking down social cohesion were individualism and large-scale immigration. The big question was whether an individualistic society of people with a wide range of ethnic identities could (or would) rally to defend America against external threats. I was one of the few people who thought the answer was yes.
So, to get back to the question at hand, I believe Hart was voicing a long-time and largely theoretical fear that has nothing specifically to do with any particular ethnic group, Jewish or otherwise. I'll post some further responses from readers on Monday. [Posted 2/16.]
BLIND BLOGGERS WANTED: That title isn't metaphorical. Maureen Duffy, who's director of the Graduate Program in Rehabilitative Teaching at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry and one of my frequent correspondents, is looking for blind or visually impaired bloggers to interview for a book she's working on. It's "about the full range of recreational and leisure pursuits for blind and visually impaired individuals." You can contact her through her website (link above) or send me an email to pass on. Thanks. [Posted 2/16.]
ELLE'S INTELLIGENTSIA: Women don't usually make the evoked set labeled "intellectuals," and female intellectuals who don't write about "women's issues" rarely even make the evoked set labeled "female intellectuals." In the March issue of Elle, Lauren Sandler attacks the latter problem with mini-profiles of five women she finds interesting. Guess whose "must reads" are The Constitution of Liberty and Sex and Suits? (The typos in the online edition do not appear in the print magazine.) [Posted 2/16.]
HIGH-TECH HEART: Last fall, Nathan Bierma of Books & Culture interviewed me as background for his article on the book Habits of the High-Tech Heart. He now has a blog and has posted our entire Q&A on the Internet and community. InstaPundit gets a plug, and there are links to articles establishing my non-utopian voice during the height of Internet hype. [Posted 2/16.]
HART'S JEWISH PROBLEM: Did Gary Hart making veiled attacks on Jews? Armed Prophet (via InstaPundit) thinks so:
"We must not let our role in the world be dictated by ideologues with their special biases and agendas ... or by Americans who too often find it hard to distinguish their loyalties to their original homelands from their loyalties to America and its national interests."
A sensible analyst would take that last observation as reason to think twice about interpreting Hart's remarks as indicative of a belief in the World Zionist Conspiracy, or even a Buchanan-style "amen corner." There's a much more obvious explanation that has nothing to do with Jews.
I'm no Tucker Carlson, but I'll step up to claim that in his speech, Hart is indeed "talking about someone other than Jews." The language he uses—"their original homelands"—clearly refers to immigrants with loyalties to the old country. Jews come from countries they were only too glad to leave. And while people do refer to Israel as "the Jewish homeland," that doesn't mean Israel is "their original homeland" in this sense.
Nope. Hart is talking about immigrants. I'm not sure which ones: Mexicans? Arabs? Chinese? There are plenty of groups that might take offense. But absent further evidence, assuming he's talking about Jews doesn't survive Occam's Razor.
Indeed, Armed Prophet and Tucker Carlson are the ones doing the disturbing word association. You say "dual loyalty," and they think, "Jews." Why? [Posted 2/12.]
BUFFY STILLS: Todd Seavey sends this link to "Sixteen pieces of art from the Buffy animated series that almost happened." [Posted 2/12.]
IT'S BAAACK: To no one's great surprise, the House bill to make human-cell cloning a federal crime has returned. The Judiciary Committee is marking up the bill today. Declan McCullagh is following the story on Politech and posts some responses. [Posted 2/12.]
READ THIS: Lileks is always good, but today's Bleat is especially good. [Posted 2/12.]
EMERGENCY KIT: Like my old friend Charles Oliver, as an ex-Angeleno I don't find the idea of emergency supplies all that new. (As I always say, nuclear war might happen. The Big One will happen.) I haven't gone for the duct tape yet, but I did buy the old list of water and canned goods, which we'll eventually eat anyway. How are you supposed to seriously stock up for a disaster without one of those giant six packs (eight packs?) of matzoh, the food that truly keeps forever? Unfortunately, it's a seasonal item.
Does anyone have an answer to Charles's suffocation question? If so, post it in his comments. And check out the new name of the blog, courtesy of their man in Japan: "Chiizu wo taberu koufuku-shiteiru saru (The surrendering ape that eats cheese.)" [Posted 2/12.]
BAD SUN: For the record, I'm with Eugene Volokh and assorted liberal bloggers in saying that the New York Sun was way out of line to editorialize in favor of suppressing anti-war demonstrations on the grounds that they're treasonous. Why hasn't there been more of an uproar? My guess is that it's because most of us never see the New York Sun. Tim Noah rounds up the story on Slate. It's surprising that Seth Lipsky would let such sentiments run as the voice of his paper. [Posted 2/11.]
UNGRATEFUL FRENCH: Daniel Drezner ably dissects the silly idea, popular in the blogosphere, that the French should go along with U.S. foreign policy because if we hadn't saved them in WWII (or WWI), they'd be speaking German. One thing he neglects to mention is that presumably we fought World War II in our own self-interest. Saving the French, among others, was just a byproduct. [Posted 2/11.]
CHEAP STAPLES, II: Brad DeLong gets a good Wired column out of my observation that you can buy five pounds of Gold Medal flour for 69 cents. Until Movable Type ate the post, he gave me credit on his blog as the anonymous "smart shopper." I'm sure real smart shoppers, who go to Wal-Mart, can do even better. Brad previously responded to the flour post here. (Before you send me screaming email: No, I don't agree with Brad's rather simplistic view of how to overcome Third World poverty.) [Posted 2/11.]
BLOGGER'S EYE IN THE SKY: Chuck Watson of Shoutin' Across the Pacific (and, of more relevance, Watson Technical Consulting, which among other disasters does forecasting of potential damage from Terror and War) has set up a page to monitor satellite photographs of potential targets in Iraq. [Posted 2/11.]
WE HAVE A TITLE: My book will be called The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. Coming in September. When I get the cover redesign, I'll post it. And, yes, the photo to the left is the one that will be on the book, though in black and white. [Posted 2/11.]
SMALLPOX FEARS: The nation's health workers are refusing smallpox vaccination in large numbers, thereby leaving the rest of us even more susceptible to a bioweapon attack. As a Dallas resident, I can't say it's reassuring to read in the NYT that "Of the roughly 350 noncooperating hospitals found by The Times, 175 are in Texas, which, unlike most other states, last month pressed all of its 550 acute-care hospitals to make a decision." That makes me worry not only about safety from smallpox but about the way our nurses and hospital administrators think about health risks.
In his most recent column, Jonathan Rauch takes on the arguments against vaccination. He has tough words for our sniveling nurses:
If health care workers reject vaccination, the effect may reverberate through the general population. The voluntary vaccination of, say, 60 percent of the American public could help reduce the toll of a smallpox attack by more than 90 percent, as recent simulations by the Brookings Institution's Center on Social and Economic Dynamics vividly showed. Two polls in December found, respectively, 59 percent and 46 percent of the public willing to take the vaccine even when apprised by the pollsters of "some risks involved" (59 percent) or "serious side effects or death in a small number of cases" (46 percent — still a plurality). The public's willingness to volunteer for inoculation represents a precious civil-defense asset; health care workers' well-publicized skittishness risks squandering that capital. After all, if the vaccine is too dangerous for my doctor or nurse, it surely must be too dangerous for me....(Jonathan's biweekly column is a must-read, always thoughtful and well researched and often funny. It's now regularly available on Jewish World Review. He previously wrote about smallpox vaccination in December's Atlantic.)
For a scary idea of what's at stake, see the lead editorial in today's WSJ (subscription required). It recounts the results of a National Security Council smallpox simulation. A sample:
In the simulation, 12 members of the National Security Council are informed that smallpox has broken out: 20 cases confirmed in Oklahoma, with reports of more in Georgia and Pennsylvania. (They will later discover it was released in three shopping malls.) They are told the facts: Smallpox has a 30% fatality rate, there is no treatment, and it spreads from person to person. The country maintains just 15.4 million doses of vaccine.
Anita Manning of USA Today proved herself less cowardly than the average Texas nurse by getting vaccinated and documenting the (rather undramatic) results. "I was vaccinated against smallpox on Dec. 16 and survived to tell the tale," she writes. "In fact, though it's just one woman's experience, it might help ease the minds of many now considering whether to be vaccinated." [Posted 2/11.]
BILINGUAL REBELLION: Latinos who want their kids taught English have rocked the political establishment of Santa Ana, California. Writes Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub:
The recall from office of a school board member in a medium-size Southern California city wouldn't normally be big news. But the ouster last week of Santa Ana Unified School District's Nativo Lopez should send a signal to ethnic-enclave politicians across the state, if not the nation.
A 40-point margin! Now that's a mandate. [Posted 2/11.]
LAST WORD: Gary Farber corrects the title of Earth Abides (I changed the entry accordingly) and adds some thoughts. I'm done writing about this topic, since I haven't read the relevant literature. [Posted 2/9.]
John Derbyshire is a fan of a post-apocolyptic science fiction book—Earth Abides. I am a big fan of old time radio (just another 35-year-old married Libertarian old time radio and professional ice hockey fan who sometimes reads comic books—right out of central casting, except for the grown-up job) and own an excellent adaptation of the book that aired on the "Escape" series in the 1950s.
Maybe I should have been more specific. What I really meant was "contemporary, near-future science fiction." I've never read Earth Abides, but post-apocalyptic s.f. of that era has a different tone from the books written today (not that I've read that many of the books written today—I'm mostly a nonfiction reader). To generalize wildly and beyond my actual knowledge, I'd guess that today's writers are interested less in apocalypse than in adaptation. They're more intrigued by resilience, by the adaptive but strange new social structures that might evolve in response to new dangers. That's different from the appeal of fiction set in a world destroyed.
Indeed, Derbyshire's love for a mid-century post-apocalyptic novel fits well with the end of his essay, in which he a tad too eagerly foretells the end of contemporary society. One appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is the slate wiped clean by catastrophe. Another, one in keeping with Derb's essay, is the end of bourgeois pleasure and economic specialization, the return to a subsistence existence in which the strong and omnicompetent survive. No more Camrys! [Posted 2/8.]
WAITING ROOM: In response to my waiting room woes, reader Mitch Berkson sends a link to this cartoon from the most recent New Yorker. BTW, my eyesight was great today, almost as good as with my old contacts. [Posted 2/8.]
ATTENTION PLANO RESIDENTS: If you live (or have lived) in Plano, TX, and don't mind being quoted (by name or not), please send me an email before Monday with your thoughts on the place: why you like/don't like it, what makes it special, what you think of the residential architecture. Thanks. [Posted 2/7.]
SMALL WORLD: Referring to the item below, Charlie Murtaugh writes: "But here's what stopped me, and suggests that the apocalypse may be closer at hand than even Derb thinks: what the hell is Elf Sternberg doing reading John Derbyshire columns? (You don't forget a name like Elf Sternberg, even if almost a decade has passed since you last encountered one of his creations.)" You'll have to check out Charlie's site to see just how funny this is.
Less funny, but still of possible interest: Derb's review of The Future and Its Enemies, which he said, "left me feeling glum." [Posted 2/7.]
SMART REAGAN: Steve Hayward, whose The Age of Reagan is on my "to read" list, reports on the "subtle revision of Reagan's reputation...taking place among the nation's intellectual elite." (Via Rick Henderson.) [Posted 2/6.]
HALF-FREE EQUALS NOT SAFE: Ron Bailey disagrees with the libertarian foreign policy I call "defending the country on the beaches of Santa Monica" and works to formulate an alternative. I'm not convinced that his reliance on a revived Reagan Doctrine makes tremendous sense. Libertarian hawks like the Reagan Doctrine approach, because it minimizes direct U.S. involvement in military action abroad. In a confrontation of nuclear-armed superpowers, indirect means had definite advantages. But while backing genuinely liberal movements against tyranny is good policy, it isn't always an option. What then? Ron's analysis would suggest direct intervention, at least where prudent, would be preferable to backing illiberal opposition (as we did against the Soviet Union). But it's not clear from Ron's piece what he thinks or, perhaps, what Reason is willing to let him think in print.
Update: Ron emails to assure me that no one at Reason is stifling him. [Posted 2/6.]
MY OPTIMISTIC NATURE: Reader Elf Sternberg asks, "By the way, any comment on John Derbyshire's latest NRO piece, 'Last Days'? I actually hadn't looked at The Scene in a while but after reading it my reaction was, 'Damn, I need a fresh dose of Virginia Postrel optimism after that!'"
Derbyshire recounts a vision of London destroyed by nuclear terrorism, a vision limned by the usually cool Paul Johnson in a recent article. Such apocalyptic notions are, he says, new and terrible: "My friend here on Long Island, waving his arm at the busy suburban landscape beyond the window of the diner, and saying: 'When New York City's been taken out, all this real estate will be worth zip.' Nobody talked like that ten, five years ago. Nobody even thought those things."
I hadn't seen the piece before, but reading it makes me think about what that "Virginia Postrel optimism" really is. Not, certainly, the belief that the future will inevitably be better than the present. Pollyannas do not write books with titles like The Future and Its Enemies—enemies is a divisive word—nor do they respond to Bill Joy's odd, utopian doomsaying with articles like this.
As for the idea that "nobody even thought those things," Derbyshire has a strangely limited idea of "nobody." Far into the 1990s, I would pick up the morning paper, and Steve would ask, "Did the world blow up?" We were Cold War babies. And, unlike Derbyshire (as far as I know), we read enough science fiction—Steve reads a lot, I read a little—to imagine futures very different from just more of the same, including futures in which anyone can launch plagues or other devastating weapons. (To take a famous example, consider the society envisioned by Neal Stephenson in The Diamond Age.)
Optimist that I am, I wasn't surprised by Islamofascist mass-terrorism against Americans, only by its timing and nature. I expected a biological attack, with more casualties than September 11. It still may come.
My optimism isn't a faith that the future will be better, only that it can be better. Making a better future possible depends not only on having, but on defending institutions and ideals that are always at risk from those who wish to destroy them. One of those ideals is that the ordinary joys and sorrows of individuals' earthly life are important, that "the pursuit of happiness" is so central to human life that securing that right is one of the reasons for government.
Derbyshire doesn't seem so wild about mundane happiness. He starts with C.S. Lewis's Narnia books: "The shadow worlds are wound up, and they pass on in joy and glory to the real world....C. S. Lewis was an Anglican, like me, and we Anglicans know the score." He ends by first heaping contempt on a poor young woman who lost her beloved car to a thief, leveraging that contempt into a rant against our entire society.
The other day I was on the checkout line at a convenience store. The people in front of me were having a conversation. One of them, a middle-aged man, was talking about his daughter, whose car had just been stolen. The girl was, apparently, inconsolable. Said her Dad: "She just mopes around the house saying, 'They stole my Camry.' The poor kid, she loved that car. It had a CD player with a six-disk changer. Really, she just can't get over it." The man speaking looked to be no more than 45. I can't imagine his daughter was much over 20. And this was the great disaster of her life: "They stole my Camry."
You get the impression that some not-so-small part of John Derbyshire prefers the "young men with burning eyes" to those overstuffed closets and the woman who who loved her car. The men with burning eyes are idealists. They share the conviction that this is not the real world but a mere shadow. They serve a higher cause, seek a reward not of this earth. If earthly existence matters so little, and if modern society is so rotten and contemptible, why worry over terrorism? A little death and destruction could be good for the soul, allowing us to escape the world of shadows. Maybe Derbyshire is the optimist after all.
"Virginia Postrel optimism," by contrast, assumes that there will be enemies, and struggle, in every generation. So we should foster the resilience that permits not only the defense but the survival of the civilization we cherish. At the same time, we should celebrate, not scorn, the joys and blessings of ordinary life, including even the overstuffed closets and CD-equipped Camrys. Those things are not important for themselves but for the pleasures human beings derive from them.
But then, I'm not an Anglican. [Posted 2/6.]
EYES UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who has sent good wishes about my ongoing recovering from Lasik surgery. My vision is now 20/40 in my left eye, 20/60 in my right, and 20/30 together. (Binocular vision is stronger than a single eye.) With assistance from artificial tears, those poorly explained "plugs," and a nighttime ointment, my eyes are no longer dry, which means the lenses are more likely to reach sharp focus. The post-surgery inflammation has disppeared, so I'll have only a few more days on antibiotic drops.
I'm optimistic about progress toward 20/20 vision, but even at its current acuity, my vision is better than it was throughout the second and third grades.
Best of all, I didn't have to deal with Dr. Personality today, seeing only an optometrist who actually explained what was going on. I go back for my next checkup in a month. [Posted 2/6.]
MAKING THE CASE: In keeping with my recent habit of interrupting important speeches with medical procedures, I had to leave in the middle of Colin Powell's address for a long-standing dental appointment. I caught most of the rest on a C-SPAN replay. It was an impressive performance, not only in the quantity and quality of the evidence presented but in Powell's manner. He is simultaneously forceful, respectful, and calm. In a few places, he was even darkly humorous. No wonder he has the reputation as the nation's greatest briefer.
Georges Rebelo Chikoli, Angola's vice foreign minister, referred in his comments to the "respected and upright voice of Secretary Powell." He is as persuasive a voice as the United States could present. That's not just because he's seen as a "dove" turned "hawk" but because he pulls off the great trick of combining U.S. moral authority, which stems from the ideals of liberty and equality, and American military power in a single voice. He respectfully treats the representatives of other countries as social equals, part of a fictious "we" of shared values and shared dignity (dignity offended by Saddam's repeated dissing), without seeming the least bit obsequious or even humble.
Powell's voice puts opponents of military action in an uncomfortable position. They can recommend delay and further inspections, but they can't argue that Iraq is complying with U.N. resolutions unless they're willing to say (as the Iraqis suggested) that the evidence is fabricated and Powell is a liar. Nor is it credible to say that Powell takes war lightly.
I'm not a fan of Andrew Sullivan's overwrought tone on the present dangers, preferring rhetorical stoicism. But he makes a good point when he notes the implications for the coming conflict: "The main, horrifying conclusion from Powell's presentation, however, is not about the U.N. It's about the direct threat we are still under. If Saddam has what Powell outlines, then this war could be horrendous. It could lead to massive casualties among American troops and a possible attack on civilians in Europe and the U.S."
Unlike Andrew, I don't see how that conclusion "makes it more important that we get international cover and support for the terrible duty we now have." The danger may make international support more valuable. But that support does not significantly reduce the risks of war. The only reason to go to war, taking enormous risks today, is to prevent greater risks tomorrow. Wisdom dictates that we make that decision based on the worst-case assumptions about war today, not on happy scenarios of easy victory with minimal casualties. That's true with or without international support. And it was true before Powell's speech.
All intelligent discussion of the pros and cons of war is, in fact, about weighing risks. I recently had a conversation with a former Marine who said he supports war with Iraq not because he likes war but because he's seen the museum at Hiroshima and doesn't want his children to face nuclear terrorism. He suggested that "those bleeding hearts" might think differently if they'd seen what he has. But, of course, "those bleeding hearts" draw the opposite conclusion from the same evidence, concluding that since war it terrible it must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately for that argument, avoiding war today may bring more terrible war tomorrow. [Posted 2/5.]
OUTSIDE THE BOX: Reader Joseph Stirt was kind enough to applaud my latest NYT column for helping readers think outside the proverbial box: "The business sections of bookstores are replete with books exhorting variations on a theme of 'think outside the box,' yet none of them ever tells us HOW to do so. Your piece does, incisively and clearly." We need categories to think, but sometimes they can get in the way of our decision-making. Taking a look at other categories can help find good solutions to all sorts of problems.
The column looks at the marketing concept of the "evoked set" as it might be applied to affirmative action. We often hear from its advocates that "affirmative action" does not mean quotas and preferences, and some opponents of quotas and preferences (notably Ward Connerly) say they support other forms of affirmative action. What might those other forms be, and what reason might we think they'd enhance rather than degrade standards? Thinking about how "evoked sets" helps answer these questions. It also offers a benign (or at least not malevolent) explanation for the bias against West Coast pundits that Hugh Hewitt recently, and rightly, criticized: If you have someone mentally categorized as a "California commentator," you won't think of that person for general commentary. [Posted 2/3.]
EYE REPORT: My eyes are much better, thanks to time and lots of lubrication, and they seem to be improving by the day. Though my vision is still not perfect, and I'm not comfortable driving at night, I have to say it's a tremendous relief not to be completely dependent on corrective lenses.
But I'm still mad at the doctor for acting as if patients have nothing better to do than sit in his waiting room. Dallas reader Billy White, who had successful surgery there last September, calls it "the Mr. Personality (Dr. Boothe) assembly line." It's not as though the doctor has to run out for emergencies. The schedule should be fairly predictable, with no four hour waits. I go back on Thursday, and plan to take plenty to read. [Posted 2/3.]
LATE COMMENTS ON SOTU: The State of the Union was a good speech but, as Andrew Sullivan remarked, it was also Kennedyesque. That tone made it both rhetorically inspiring and programmatically disturbing. Acting as though every problem can be solved with enough will and central direction is inspiring in a speech but tends to come to a bad end. As Hugh Hewitt remarked when I was on his show, there were at least three "We will go to the moon" moments in the speech. Going to the moon was great, but the way we did it wasn't. Space exploration became a bureaucracy's monopoly and wound up hampered rather than promoted by NASA's one best way. After the Columbia tragedy, I'm uncomfortable making that point, but discomfort doesn't make it any less true. [Posted 2/3.]
MORE LOCAL COVERAGE: The NBC affiliate is also doing a good job. A written report is here, with streaming video, photos, and more here. One obvious, if overlooked point they made: For TV cameras to catch the first pieces breaking off the shuttle, those pieces had to be much larger than mere tiles. [Posted 2/1.]
SHUTTLE EXPLOSION: Streaming video coverage from WFAA, our Belo-owned ABC affiliate, is here. They're doing a good job—interview with a local private pilot who was watching and recorded information on exactly where the shuttle was when it began to break up, interview with a Chicago Tribune reporter in Israel, interview with a man who has a tennis-shoe-size piece of debris on his roof, all cool and calm.
"A potential bang, followed by a roar—an unnatural roar," is what locals report hearing, according to a reporter who's covered a lot of shuttle landings. "Pieces are falling all over there," he says, quoting the sheriff of Nacogdoches, the town where most of the debris has fallen.
Since so little is known, the locals are actually getting more info than Fox News, which is what I turned on after my mother-in-law called to make sure no debris had landed on us. We went to bed at 2:30 and woke up around 10, so her call was the first I knew of the disaster. Very sad.
Come to think of it, I was briefly awakened by what I thought was an unusally loud airplane this morning. We're in the flight path to Love Field, so I assumed that was what it was, although we don't usually hear the planes from inside the house. [Posted 2/1.]
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