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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

California cowardice: The morning after

The vow by proponents of gay marriage in California to put the measure on the ballot again next year and try to overturn Proposition 8 is laudable, but it underscores the absurdity of the position that the California Supreme Court decision has put all of us in.

Barring a pro gay marriage decision one day by the U.S. Supreme Court, which won't happen unless Obama gets two or three more nominations (Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia look unhealthily overweight to me, does anyone believe in the power of prayer?), gay marriage can only become legal via a new proposition or a state law. Does this mean that the rights of gays to marry will come and go with the political tides, as the fortunes of the political right and the political left rise and fall (like the way that international family planning organizations do or don't get U.S. funding depending on who issues executive orders?)

That's the logic of the atrocious opinion written by California Chief Justice Ronald George, who wrote that Proposition 8 carved out merely a "narrow and limited" abridgement of the equal protection promised by the California Constitution and by the Court's own previous decision on the matter, also written by George. The number of Jews in California is most likely fewer than the number of gays, so if a new Proposition passed that prohibited Jews and Gentiles from marrying, would that also be a "narrow and limited" exception? The number of African-Americans is also fairly small, less than 7%, so how about an anti-miscegenation proposition, would that pass constitutional muster too in California?

So gay rights activists, to get their rights, will be forced to accept that it is legal for them to be taken away by the political process. Given that sad situation, perhaps the best way to go is a proposition simply guaranteeing that in the state of California any human being has the right to marry any other human being (one at a time, however, please) and leaving it at that. A measure like that would be harder to argue against politically, and harder to overturn--even by a Court that thinks rights can be passed out or withheld like after dinner mints.

Photo of Ronald George: Paul Sakuma/AP

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cowardice in California

The California Supreme Court, by upholding the Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage but allowing the 18,000 people married before its passage to stay married, has now stomped on the very equal protection principles that it upheld in its original decision to allow gay marriage. If that sentence seems twisted and tongue-tied, so is the logic of the Court's cowardly opinion today.

More on cowardly decision. Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten spells out chapter and verse about why six (out of seven) "clearly nervous justices" turned out a "morally incoherent decision."

More judicial news. According to the New York Times, Republicans are cogitating over whether an all-out fight against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court would get them in more trouble with Hispanics than they already are. Why, um, no, why would they think that? :-)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Donna Reed, antiwar activist

Many of you have probably seen the front page story in today's New York Times, "Dear Donna: A Pinup So Swell She Kept G.I. Mail," about the cache of letters that soldiers wrote to Donna Reed during World War II. It was discovered in an old shoebox by her children after she died. In many ways the article is typical Memorial Day fare, although often interesting and moving as it quotes from the letters as well as interviews with the very few soldiers still alive who were in touch with the actress by mail or even in person.

The most interesting part of the article, however, comes at the very end:

Gauging the impact that the letters had on Ms. Reed is difficult. “I knew she had feelings about her country and participating as a concerned citizen,” Ms. Owen [her daughter] said. But, she added, her mother did not talk about the letters. Ms. Reed lamented to a female pen pal in 1942 that “my effort to win the war hasn’t amounted to much” and “I wish I could find more to do.”

Later in life, however, Ms. Reed became an ardent antiwar campaigner, serving during the Vietnam era as co-chairwoman of a 285,000-member group called Another Mother for Peace and working for Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential race. In his biography, Mr. Fultz quotes her as saying that “she looked forward to a time when ‘19-year-old boys will no longer be taken away to fight in old men’s battles.’ ”


The Times article, a nicely crafted piece by reporter Larry Rohter, points out that soldiers related particularly well to Donna Reed, because they saw her as the kind of typical American girl they would like to come home to. Perhaps they also sensed the basic decency of someone who didn't think that war was swell.

Update on Jared Diamond and the New Yorker. There have been a lot of interesting comments in the blogosphere about my Science story on the lawsuit against Diamond and the magazine by two men from Papua New Guinea. Here is a particularly thoughtful one by blogger Jessica Palmer, even if it makes some criticisms of my report.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Catholic Church's torture chambers


I was traveling between Colorado Springs and West Hollywood yesterday so did not have a chance to blog about a front page story in Thursday's New York Times that is well worth taking note of. Sarah Lyall writes about a 2,000 page report by an Irish state-appointed commission, released in Dublin on Wednesday, that details 60 years of abuse of children by nuns, priests and others who worked in the Church's schools for poor and unwanted children. It is worth reading all of her story, but one quote out of the report about the treatment meted out to the children was particularly striking:

“Punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods, made to sleep outside overnight, being forced into cold or excessively hot baths and showers, hosed down with cold water before being beaten, beaten while hanging from hooks on the wall, being set upon by dogs, being restrained in order to be beaten, physical assaults by more than one person, and having objects thrown at them.”

Does this sound a little familiar? Just think about the activities that Dick Cheney thinks are perfectly legal and you will see what I mean (by the way, since Cheney has confessed numerous times to supporting war crimes, is there any reason he should not be transferred to The Hague post haste?)

But back to the Catholic Church. I have written before that the Catholic clergy, by all indications, has in the past seemed little more than a glorified pedaphile ring. And while we have all heard anecdotal stories about the cruelty dished out by nuns and priests in Catholic schools, reports like this seem to provide evidence that the brutality was at times very systematic. It is almost as if the Catholic Church has taken everything that Jesus reportedly preached (according to the New Testament, anyway) and did the exact opposite. Catholics today have only two morally defensible choices: Work actively and tirelessly to reform the Church, beginning with the Vatican, or chuck the entire enterprise.

A hard job, to be sure. For one thing, it means abolishing the office of Pope, a man who wears ridiculously funny hats and robes and claims to be God's word on earth (a claim that should make any sensible person laugh out loud.) Next, allow priests to marry (including marrying other men) so they won't take out their sexual frustrations on children, something which is no doubt still going on and which the highest levels of the Church have condoned and covered up.

If there is a Jesus, one wonders why he allows such barbarity to be carried out in his name.

Update: Writer John Banville comments on this story in Saturday's Times, saying that everyone in Ireland knew but looked the other way:

Amid all the reaction to these terrible revelations, I have heard no one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know. Human beings — human beings everywhere, not just in Ireland — have a remarkable ability to entertain simultaneously any number of contradictory propositions. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it. Think of Turkey and the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, think of Germany and the Jews in the 1940s, think of Bosnia and Rwanda in our own time.

Jared Diamond and the New Yorker: Columbia Journalism Review weighs in

Last week I previewed my Science story about the $10 million lawsuit against Jared Diamond and the New Yorker by two men from Papua New Guinea who allege that they were defamed by a story Diamond wrote in the magazine last year.

Today Columbia Journalism Review online columnist Craig Silverman discusses the journalistic implications of the affair and makes numerous references to my story. Give it a read. One issue Silverman raises is why other media outlets have not yet covered the lawsuit, which does seem of interest from multiple viewpoints.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sick days, sick pay, sick system

Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would give many Americans seven--count them, 7--paid sick days every year, according to today's New York Times. Can socialism be far behind? (In the United States, any policy that treats human beings with sympathy and compassion is considered socialistic, it seems.)

Of course seven days is not a whole lot, especially compared with the much more generous sick leave policies of pretty much every other industrialized nation on the planet and possibly in the universe (I will bet even those evil Klingons do better than Americans on this score.)

Of course there is always a catch: The Healthy Families Act would only apply to employers with 15 or more employees, and to earn one hour of paid sick leave you have to work 30 hours at your job. That means that once you have used up your seven days you can't get sick again any time soon.

So how is the "business community" reacting to this proposed legislation, which went nowhere during the Bush administration? Why, they're against it, of course! Too expensive. I suppose that during this economic crisis, when people are losing jobs right and left, is not the best time to say that I think any employer that can't or won't treat its workers humanely does not deserve to be in business. But that is exactly what I think.

And something tells me this isn't just about the money. Indeed, the lack of paid sick leave leads to workers coming to work when they are sick, which means that other workers get infected, which means that more workers are out sick (paid or not), which means that profits and productivity go down rather than up. The Times article quotes one boss who understands this:

But Lindsey Lee, a coffee shop owner in Madison, Wis., who adopted a policy of paid sick days in 2006, said it had been a success, helping to prevent the spread of illness among his employees.

“A person is not coming in sick, and then two days later there are two employees not coming in, and then three days later three employees not coming in,” Mr. Lee said. “It has helped in the long run.”

So if providing paid sick leave is actually good for employers in the long run, why are they so opposed to it? Perhaps it is because anything that loosens the power of bosses over their workers even the slightest bit is seen as threatening to the master-slave relationship that characterizes so many sectors of U.S. capitalism. No wonder socialism is no longer a dirty word to many Americans.

Worst slide story. A cartoon musical by Walt Handelsman. Laugh until you cry.

Friday, May 15, 2009

War crimes in Afghanistan

Many readers of this blog will have by now read the front page story in today's New York Times about the many civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan's Farah Province last week.

The Bush adminstration failed utterly to honor its obligations under the Geneva Conventions to protect civilians in times of war and to avoid airstrikes that would put them at risk. When such atrocities did occur, which was often, Bush and company blamed the Taliban and al-Qaeda for putting civilians in harm's way by sheltering in their villages--an excuse also used by the Israelis to justify their wanton, indiscrimnate violence in Gaza in a failed attempt to root out Hamas.

The moral bankruptcy of such excuses was clear to many during the previous administration. The airstrikes last week, which may have caused more than 100 civilian deaths according to Afghan officials quoted in the Times article, demonstrate that the administration of Barack Obama is continuing Bush policies in Afghanistan. Worse, an administration that has given considerable lip service to human rights, and even taken a few good steps to protect them here and there, is demonstrating daily that it has complete and total disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians. As always, they are merely "collateral damage" in this blind attempt to "win" in Afghanistan.

The movement against the war in Iraq failed to stop that disastrous conflict. Can we hope that a movement against the war in Afghanistan might do better? And Obama supporters, of which I am one, would be doing their main man a big favor by stopping the war in Afghanistan, which threatens to ruin his presidency as well as the lives of the people we think we are saving.

Photo: A 12-year-old recovered at a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, from burns suffered during an American airstrike on her village/ Joao Silva for the New York Times.

Is Twitter Worse Than Useless?
One of my colleagues sent this Gawker link around, concerning a false rumor about the California Supreme Court overturning the voter-mandated gay marriage ban. Read it and weep, or read it and Twitter it?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

'Vengeance' Bites Back at Jared Diamond

That's the title of my three-page News Focus in this week's issue of Science, about the lawsuit filed last month by two men from Papua New Guinea (PNG) against Jared Diamond and the New Yorker. They claim that they were defamed by an article Diamond published in the magazine in April 2008, called "Vengeance is Ours," about a revenge war that took place in the 1990s.

The lawsuit has received very little news coverage until now, possibly because both Diamond and the New Yorker had refused to comment. Our story features their first on the record comments, and is an attempt to be scrupulously fair to both sides of the issue while digging beneath the surface of the affair for its deeper meaning, both journalistically and anthropologically. The full article is available to subscribers only, although anyone with university or other online access can read it. Thus for copyright reasons I can only provide a few excerpts here, but here they are. It is also possible that other news media will now get more interested in covering this story.

The lead:

IN APRIL 2008, THE WELL-KNOWN biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp’s uncle, Soll. In Diamond’s telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone’s garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp’s story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance.

The lawsuit:

On 20 April, Diamond, 71, was sued in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for allegedly defaming both Daniel Wemp and Isum Mandingo, the alleged target of Wemp’s revenge war. The lawsuit, which also names as a defendant Advance Publications Inc., the owner of the New Yorker, demands at least $10 million in damages. It follows a year long investigation led by Rhonda Roland Shearer, an artist and the widow of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

The reaction of anthropologists:

The affair has raised concerns among anthropologists familiar with PNG, who worry that the New Yorker’s “Annals of Anthropology” banner has tarnished the field’s reputation. Anthropologist Pauline Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a leading expert on tribal warfare in PNG, thinks Diamond was naïve if he accepted Wemp’s stories at face value, because young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely. “I could have told him immediately that it was a tall tale, an embellished story. I hear lots of them but don’t publish them because they are not true.”

The response from Diamond and the New Yorker:

Diamond stands by his story, arguing that it was based on detailed notes that he took during a 2006 interview with Wemp as well as earlier conversations the two men had in 2001 when Wemp served as his driver in PNG. “The complaint has no merit at all,” Diamond told Science in an interview in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is a professor of geography. Diamond adds that he still considers Wemp’s original account to be the most reliable source for what happened. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, also defends the magazine’s story: “It appears that the New Yorker and Jared Diamond are the subject of an unfair and, frankly, mystifying barrage of accusations.”

That's about all the quoting I can do, but I do hope you get a chance to see the story and read it. If all else fails, try your local library!

Update: Those of you with online access to Science can now read the story at this link.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Balter talks about the origins of art and symbolism

Tomorrow, Monday May 11, I will be one of the keynote speakers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Ninth Annual Colloquium on Teaching and Learning. My topic: "What Made Humans Modern: The Origins of Art and Symbolism." If anyone is in Troy, New York, they might stop in and see if any seats are still available. To see a list of all the speakers and the program, click on the link.

The colloquium will be held in the RPI's new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), located on the edge of the Rensselaer campus overlooking the city of Troy (and the Hudson River Valley.) This is apparently an architectural marvel and you can get some more views of it here; and you can see a sped-up view of its construction and other info here.

Photo: Chuck Choi

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Coming into Los Angeleeze, bringing in a couple of keys...

Not really, drug enforcement buddies! Nor am I staying at the place depicted in the photo, the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. But nevertheless I am very well accomodated thanks to the kindness of friends.

I will be in Los Angeles, my home town, for the rest of May except for a couple of sidetrips here and there. I can't promise that this blog will get completely under the skin of this great metropolis and cultural center, but I will pass on any local knowledge I acquire.

Back soon...