Monday, December 11, 2006

Election Reform, Part 2

Americans have an amazingly and overwhelmingly low opinion of their elected officials. The vast majority of Americans distrust the politicians who represent them, and it appears that that distrust is warranted. Yet, we keep electing the same people, and if not the same people, seemingly the same type of people. Our trust in our politicians is declining, and the democratic process is not working as it theoretically should to reverse that trend.

Why is this? In theory, a democratically-elected representative should be at least palatable to at least a majority of the population that is willing to express an opinion. Ideally, our democratic process would cause the natural leaders who hold broadly-accepted viewpoints and have strong leadership qualities to be chosen for leadershop roles. But this does not seem to be the norm. Why?

There are a few reasons for this that I can hypothesize:

* Our single-vote system forces people into making an economic decision to vote for a least-bad candidate that has a "chance of winning", rather than "wasting" their vote on a more desirable candidate. This forces a "rich get richer, poor get poorer" system where new viewpoints cannot get a fair hearing.

* Reliable and useful information about candidates is too hard to come by. Media spin and advertisements dominate the information landscape. It is not possible to communicate complicated concepts in those environments, so the best marketers get elected, not the best legislators.

* Growing out of the first two, the entire political landscape has turned into a two-sided war of attacks that flow out of protectionism, power-grabbing, and arrogance. "Bipartisanship" requires mutual respect and understanding, qualities which are lacking not only from our politicians but from the majority of the electorate.

Given that, I'd like to offer a few suggestions for steps that I think are plausible (though not likely), which I think would move us toward a more healthy democracy.

It's a bit peculiar to have a "Part 2" to this series when there was no "Part 1". But, you'll have to bear with me, because Part 1 developed itself in comments to previous posts, and I don't feel like rewriting it. :)

In short, Part 1 was my suggestion of switching to an alternate voting process that allows for multiple tiered votes, so that a voter can actually express their support for their preferred candidate, while also hedging their bets with a vote for a "least-bad" candidate. There are a number of suggested systems, and one that is actually beginning to be used in various cities and counties. For more, read the comments from the posts here and here.

For Part 2, I want to suggest a method of improving our knowledge about the legislative abilities of our candidates. I got the idea for this from a post on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, which refers to an article on titled Democrats' New Intelligence Chairman Needs a Crash Course on al Qaeda. Don't misunderstand that article because of it's title... it rightly criticizes Republicans as much as Democrats.

Jeff Stein, who wrote the article, interviewed a number of politicians, asking them relatively basic questions about the political landscape in the Middle East. Their answers, as reported by him, were frighteningly wrong.

So here's my suggestion. Some organization should put together an annual exam for politicians. For national leaders, it could include basic pertinent facts about world leaders that we have interactions with, international dynamics, that sort of thing. There could be a couple of more difficult questions, and an essay question. For domestic issues, there could be questions about the state of Social Security, pertinent details of various significant trade and immigration issues... a test, in short, to show whether our elected officials actually know anything of what they're dealing with, or whether they're just salespeople and marketers making guesses at public opinion (or, even worse, making uninformed decisions because of their love of power).

The multiple choice parts of the test could be easily graded. The rest (essay questions and the like) would simply be published as written. Politicians would have to take the test themselves (no pawning it off on a research assistant), in a monitored and timed environment.

I suggest that the President and every member of Congress should be required to take the exam every year. Imagine how much useful information that would give us! In election years, the test could also be given to candidates.

It would be wonderful, in my opinion, to be able to evaluate candidates not based on policy stances (I will vote for this, but not for that... probably... unless I change my mind once I'm elected), but based on their grasp of the facts that will be critical in making decisions.

Maybe, instead of the written essay part of the exam, it could be a recorded 10-minute speech on a given topic. Then, we would have not only a good read on their knowledge of the situation, but a feel for their ability to communicate and persuade as well.

An exam such as this would not bring immediate improvement. Most people would get their information about the exam through the media, and would only hear soundbites from the speeches and brief overviews of the test results. But, those of us who were willing to take the time to learn more would have all that information available to us... and, having the format restricted would allow us to compare and contrast candidates effectively in substantive areas, in ways that are not possible in the current spin-driven political landscape. Over time, the availability of that information would hopefully build an audience for it.

What do you think? Is this at all plausible? Would it be useful, if it were plausible? Do you have other suggestions for ways that we could get more substantive information about our elected politicians and candidates for office?


Monday, December 04, 2006

Invade Darfur?

The genocide in Darfur has been going on for a long time now, and the situation is only getting worse. The question that perplexes me is this: what can we, as Westerners, do?

Most of the advocacy that I've heard here in America has been political (whether overt or suggestive). In fact, the majority of the talk about this issue in America seems to be primarily focused on President Bush. See, for example, this appeal on the Evangelicals for Darfur website, which says that without Bush, "Darfur doesn't have a prayer"; this, of course, assumes that it has a prayer if Bush would only do something. That something, as far as I can tell, is only specified as "leading the world" in "supporting the deployment of a strong U.N. peacekeeping force and multilateral economic sanctions".

The site takes a similar line on its splash page. It also has a "Take Action" section which lists a few steps individuals can take: Lobby Congress... and get other people to lobby Congress. That's about it.

The site proclaims boldly on its headline, "Darfur: A Genocide We Can Stop". It also has a "Take Action" page. It advocates emailing President Bush "urging him to end the genocide" (how, exactly?), signing a petition, or... getting other people to do the same things.

A quick Google search of the Common Dreams progressive news site for the word Darfur makes quite clear that here in America, the Darfur situation is attached to President Bush, not to the militants themselves or to the Sudanese government which is inexcusably supporting the genocide... or even to the leaders of the Arab world community, who have remained largely silent (and who could have more potential diplomatic impact, certainly, than Westerners).

A blogger that I respect, Mark Daniels, posted a plea on his site recently for us to "stir ourselves to take the substantive steps to bring [the genocide] to an end." I asked him, in the comments, what steps he would recommend. He couldn't suggest any beyond a UN peacekeeping force... presumably more powerful than the one that currently exists, and more determined than the one that gave up when it met resistance from the Sudanese government.

Here's what primarily perplexes me, though. It appears to me that there is only one solution that the Western world can provide to the Darfur genocide... overwhelming force. That force will be fought against a ruthless indigenous force that is expert at blending into its civilian surroundings. And, the official Sudanese government has made it clear that we'll also have to fight the Sudanese military, so a regime change will also be necessary. Are we picking up some familiar themes here?

Oddly, it is primarily liberal/progressive groups that are calling for overwhelming UN forces and regime change (though they certainly don't use those words). Can we expect that the results in Sudan would be any better than the results in Iraq?

And, if the onus is on President Bush to "lead the world" to bring this about... then shouldn't we expect that the bulk of the troops that make up this UN force would come from the United States? It's not like the UN has its own army. Leadership would require commitment of troops.

Are progressives/liberals actually suggesting that we invade Sudan, impose regime change, and occupy the Darfur region indefinitely to prevent genocide? I see no other possible result of their advocacy, were it followed.

America has, to this point in our history, generally avoided any sort of military action that was not (at least purportedly) related to our own security. Vietnam was a bulkhead war against the Communists, as I understand it. The World Wars were to prevent a fascist regime from taking over Europe, eradicating our allies, and getting strong enough to take over America as well. The first Iraq war was to protect the oil supply that we (and our military) rely on, and again to protect critical allies. The second Iraq war was at least sold as a protective measure against future invasive terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, there was an enemy, whether the direct enemy we were fighting or some other enemy behind the scenes, that was threatening us in some way.

No such justification for military action can even tangentially be considered for the Sudan situation. Darfur, in that way, is much more similar to the Bosnian War. The UN did send a peacekeeping force, and the US was involved... but I have a feeling that if we were to replicate that level of involvement in Darfur, it would be inconsequential. The landscape is different, the nature of the conflict is different.

Are we willing to lead the way on a Bosnia-style intervention, except on a much larger scale? And are progressives/liberals actually pushing for such intervention?

Apart from a massive military invasion by a UN peacekeeping force largely peopled with US troops, fighting not only insurgents on their home turf but the Sudanese army as well, and maintaining a military presence in Sudan for an indefinite period of time to maintain the peace... apart from that, are there any practical suggestions on the table for what Western nations can do about Darfur?

I did come across one possibility in my researches. General economic sanctions aren't working, because Sudan is having no trouble finding non-Western customers for its goods. But, this article from the Genocide Intervention Network suggests indirect economic sanctions. That is, find any ways that any organizations we might have influence over do business with any other organizations that do business with Sudan... and cut off those business ties. That would take a huge degree of collective effort and will from the American people. I wonder if it would be feasible, and if it would be effective were it carried out. And, I wonder what I can do to start the process.

Unfortunately, as long as the bulk of our energy is aimed at President Bush, or even the UN, I doubt we'll see any progress at all.


Who's the head white guy?

That quote came from Jay Leno (at least, according to Joseph H. Brown in the Tampa Tribune) in his comic monologue in the aftermath of Michael Richards' recent racist outburst. Richards, it seems, sought out Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his effort to apologize to blacks in this country that were offended by his comments (and, presumably, to salvage some chance at a future career).

Why are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson the de facto "spokespeople" for the entire black community in America? As the Tampa Tribune points out, this presumed lack of diversity is "more racist" even than Richards' epithets.

And, Mark Byron adds an additional perspective on his blog (which got me thinking this direction in the first place)... evangelical Christians have such purported spokespeople, too, spokespeople that most of the evangelical Christians in my community could care less about. Why are Pat Robertson and (to a lesser degree) Jerry Falwell still quoted so consistently? I can understand James Dobson... he certainly is a massively influential leader. I can understand Rick Warren, too. But Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?

I'm sure other groups of every political stripe have the same not-necessarily-representative spokespeople appointed for them in the media. It's an issue of convenience, I'm sure, and the need for quick turnaround and attention-grabbing soundbites, that drives the trend. But it's not benign by any means.

I would love to see news reporting that, even (or especially) in the early stages of a story, is focused on fact-gathering and confirmation of details, and minimizes the "opinions and reactions" angle. For example, consider the recent story of the six imams getting kicked off a US Airways flight. I still don't have a clear picture in my head of what happened, because the news reports rushed out without sufficient detail, or without confirming what they were told, and focused on opinions and reactions from various involved individuals or national advocacy groups. How can we evaluate those opinions without knowing what happened?

Were the six imams led off in handcuffs, or not? For quite a while I heard that they were, then more recently I heard that they were not. Did they cooperate with airline personnel with regard to their seating arrangements or not? Were they praying in the terminal or on the airplane, or both? Why exactly did the pilot determine that they were a risk to the safety of the flight? What is their explanation for getting seatbelt extenders that they didn't use?

And why were none of those questions answered (and most of them not even asked) in the news reports I read and heard? With so many witnesses on the plane and in the terminal, why did news organizations have such a hard time getting reliable eyewitness reports, correlated with other eyewitness reports, to determine what really happened, even within the first day after the event occurred? As far as I know, that didn't happen, and misinformation was propagated for days before much-belated corrections became available.

For a much worse, costly, even disastrous example of how such sensational, uncorroborated reporting can go awry, one need only look at the situation in the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I wish we as a society could learn to care more about questions of fact, more about the "what really happened", than about the sensationalism of the offended parties, the politically-motivated spin of the advocacy groups, or the staged debates on "news" programs between uninformed "experts" spouting opinions that are as controversial as possible in an effort to be sensational and get more viewers. They'll keep doing it as long as we're watching.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ann Coulter

What's your opinion of Ann Coulter's writing? Is it useful, useless, critical, destructive? That question was posed on the RedBlueChristian blog today, and I've been active in the conversation there. Take a look, and join in either there or here if you have thoughts on the matter.

The short version of my opinion:

[Ann Coulter] is a polemical rhetoricist of the worst kind, and it is a sad thing that she has any sort of audience at all.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Civilian or Combatant?

Recently, there appears to be a increase in the explicit use of voluntary human shields in Gaza, resulting in the bizarre conflation of seemingly peaceful demonstrations organized to protect militants.

One case occurred in Beit Hanoun: Hamas Urges Women, Children to Shield Gunmen in Mosque (also here: Female human shield killed in Gaza siege), where Palestinian militants took refuge in a mosque and Hamas radioed for thousands of local women to surround the mosque, allowing some of the militants to escape dressed as the women. It appears that at least a couple of the women were killed in the process.

More recently in Beit Lahiya, Palestinians form human shield to protect home from Israeli air strike (also here: Palestinian shields foil Israeli strikes), where Israel warned residents (as usual) to leave a building they were going to destroy because it was a weapons cache, but instead of leaving, the residents called upon women and children to stand in and around the home to prevent the Israeli air strike. Apparently, they were successful and no air strike occurred. If the strike had proceeded, it would no doubt be considered by many to be a massacre of civilians by Israel.

Logically, in both cases, it would seem the women (or children or men) have discarded their civilian status as they insert themselves into the violent conflict, but it is nevertheless emotionally troubling to consider them combatants due to their ostensibly non-violent behavior. Are they still civilians? Of course, this moral quandary is what the militants are depending upon, and they will use the result as propaganda regardless of Israel's choice.

I recall scenes of how the British used to fight, lining up in rows and firing, symbolic of the pinnacle of civil warfare. How silly of them, standing there, open to be shot. But I wonder, are we (or Israel) also hampered in some way by our civility? By our unwillingness to sacrifice enemy "civilian" casualties? By our requirements for a fine granularity of justice, perhaps encouraged by unrealistic media?

Are we at a real and significant disadvantage due to our sensitivity? If so, how can we overcome this cultural and moral paradox?


UPDATE: New in Gaza: Priest, nun human shields. Foreign peace activists are getting involved in protecting targeted buildings, including a Father Peter and Sister Mary Ellen of Michigan.

They believe that Israel is primarily attacking these buildings as a form of collective punishment: "If Israel claims family member involved in violence, arrest them, don't destroy home populated by entire family". I wonder if they have considered that they might be protecting weapons or resources of militants?

Meanwhile, Israel is considering how to adapt its tactics, including moving in ground forces (placing both sides at greater risk) or changing the amount of time given to Palestinians to evacuate the area (has been about 15-30 min.).

Hezbollah's strategy in the recent conflict also involved human shields, through the unsolicited adding on of rooms with no doors to civilian homes near Israel to hold missile launchers.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do Differences Result in Blogger Discrimination?

Yesterday I wrote a post on The Purple Puzzle Place about discrimination among "mommy blogs".

Andrea at Beanie Baby recently did a small study looking at various elements and statistics in this slice of the blogging community, and was surprised at the results.

She found that, all other things being equal, mothers of children with highly visible special needs were likely to be linked to less, have fewer readers, and have to work harder to attain a similar ranking among blogs. She postulated that perhaps parents of special-needs children were held to an artificially higher standard when it comes to the quality of content and what it takes to get people interested enough to continue reading.

I think people do tend to be uncomfortable with differences. There's nothing wrong in itself with being uncomfortable with differences, or with picking and choosing which blogs you read according to which you find more interesting and have a natural connection to. However, I think there is a problem if, in general, we tend to respond to differences by withdrawing from them instead of being open to interacting with them.

Do you think that this is a problem in the blogging community in general? Are bloggers from marginalized or minority groups, whatever that may be in their particular blogging niche, likely to have to work harder to get the same readership and results?

For instance, a female Asian animation blogger/artist contributed to a similar discussion. She said that she has purposely avoided disclosing her gender or race on her blog, because she feels it would hamper her progress in her field and make people prone to bypass her blog. Do you see this type of thing happening in the blogging world?

If you think this is a problem, do you have any ideas about how we as bloggers could be part of a solution? If you don't think it's a problem, I'd like to hear why.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Self Administered Abortion

Judge Dismisses Charges Against Woman Who Killed Her Unborn Child: Pregnant Mother Shot Herself in the Stomach, Killing Her Child, Va. Judge Rules Causing Your Own Abortion Is Not a Crime (ABC News).

Tammy Skinner was a poor, desperate 22-year-old with two young children and another one on the way. She said her boyfriend wouldn't pay for an abortion, so she carried her pregnancy to term. Then she did the unthinkable.

Prosecutors say that on the morning she was scheduled to give birth, Skinner drove to an auto dealer's parking lot, took a gun, and shot herself in the belly, killing the fetus in an act of self-abortion. Skinner was charged with carrying out an illegal abortion.
Apparently, there is precedence for such a ruling:
Martingayle cites a 1997 Florida case in which a teenage mother shot her womb, effectively giving herself an abortion. The woman in that case, State vs. Ashley, was acquitted, as was the mother in a similar 1998 case in Georgia.
Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago makes a good point:
If the right to kill the child resides totally in that child's mother -- which it does -- why would it be illegal for her to do this with a gun as opposed to with a suction vacuum machine in a doctor's office
There does seem to be a logical conflict... or does this case evince that rare exception wherein a medical professional could rule that Skinner's mental health would be so gravely damaged by birthing another child that a third trimester pregnancy could be legally aborted?

I'm not sure what to derive from this case -- either early abortion or birthing to adoption would have been far preferable. Can pro-lifers and pro-choicers at least agree that her actions should be illegal? If so, what should be the punishment? If it shouldn't be illegal, does this encourage self-abortion?

I would not doubt that some kind of insanity was involved, though doesn't it seem that most heinous, irrational crimes require some modicum of insanity?

Skinner also said, "I got somebody to load the gun, because I didn't know how." It strikes me as strange that she couldn't load her own gun. And I wonder if that "somebody" could be liable?


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Foley -- Getting the Facts Straight

I'm having a difficult getting my facts straight with regard to this Rep. Foley fiasco. I'm particularly concerned with the behavior of the House Republican leadership, particular Rep. Hastert, a man that I have had great respect for. If he has covered up in any way for Foley's behavior, my respect for him will disappear in an instant.

But, facts can be elusive, and there are lots of different stories and opinions floating around, masquerading as facts. I'm going to present here the facts as well as I understand them. If you have corrections, additions, or clarifications, please add them in.

Once we get the facts straight, we can start to make sense of the analysis, and what our response should be.

* As far back as 2001, pages were getting "internal warnings" about Foley. I have no idea what the content or nature of these warnings was.

* In 2003, Rep. Foley had an IM exchange with a page, attempting to set up a sexual encounter. Nobody in the government or the media knew about this exchange until last Friday.

* In 2005, Rep. Foley had an email conversation with a page, which was not sexual but was troublingly personal (asking for a picture, etc.).
- The boy's parents knew about the exchange, and Rep. Hastert's office was contacted.
- The emails were also leaked to two newspapers in Florida.
- The boy's parents (according to Hastert) asked that the situation not be followed up
- Hastert spoke with Foley about the incident, accepted Foley's word that it was not a problem, and asked Foley not to have any further contact with the boy.
- The Florida newspapers found the language to be inconclusive, and opted not to print the information.

* Since Friday, I understand that other conversations have come to light, but the two referenced above are the ones constantly and predominantly referred to, so I'm not clear what content is in the other emails or messages.

Primary Sources:
AP, Oct 2
NY Daily News

What else is out there that I'm missing?


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Making Sense of the Military Tribunal Law

Today the Senate passed a law giving the President power to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals, and stripping those prisoners of habeus corpus rights in American courts. It also gave some definition to the question of interrogation tactics.

From my reading in various places, it appears that this law is either (a) the end of liberal democracy in America, and the beginning of an executive/military dictatorship; or (b) the only way to keep terrorists from destroying America. There aren't many people, either amateur bloggers or professional writers, who seem to have moderate or tempered views about this bill.

My views are relatively unformed. I have concerns about the bill, but not at the level that others seem to have. For the most part, I'm uncertain, and looking for more concrete information.

My starting point was the text of the bill itself, as it passed in the Senate. It's rather long and repetitive, though, so I didn't get through it in detail yet.

I then read a news article summarizing the bill and its surrounding political situation from Yahoo News. It was a nice overview, but I found one part of the article to be, though not literally false, rather deceptive. The article states:

Those subject to commission trials would be any person "who has engaged in
hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against
the United States or its co-belligerents." Proponents say this definition would
not apply to U.S. citizens.
I was a bit curious about the beginning of the quoted sentence from the bill, as it seems to be significant. Does it really say "any person"? I did a text search through the bill, and found the phrase in question. Here is the full quote:
Any alien unlawful enemy combatant engaged in hostilities or having supported hostilities against the United States...
It seems to me that an "alien unlawful enemy combatant" is quite a different thing than "any person". Why did the Yahoo News article leave out those four words, and replace them with the vague statement that proponents of the bill say it only applies to non-Americans? I don't know. It seems a very strange, probably political, editorial decision.

On a broader note, though, I'm curious... do you believe this bill is important? Disastrous? Somewhere in-between? Do you think the bill's definition of an "alien unlawful enemy combatant" could possibly apply to Americans? Do you think the bill's handling of interrogation techniques is positive or negative, and why?

There's a great deal to discuss here, and I'm having a hard time finding useful (not extreme, fatalistic, exaggerated, or cynical) discussion about the issue in other forums. Here's hoping we can have some here! :)


UPDATE: Some useful analysis and opinion from elsewhere, to help the discussion along...
Volokh Defining the Limits of Interrogation
Balkinization What Hamdan Hath Wrought

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Discussions Elsewhere

There are two discussions I'm currently involved in on the RedBlueChristian blog, which might be of interest.

First, it was suggested that Democrats are becoming more and more anti-Semitic. We touched on the topic recently in the Moral Madness discussion. There still seems to be some confusion about (1) whether disagreement with political Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism, and (2) whether commenters on Democratic blogs can be reliably cited as evidence of a move in the larger Democrat party. Read up, and join in the discussion here.

Second, criticism was raised about a speech given by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, which seemed to be highly political. At first the writer questioned whether Focus on the Family should have its tax-exempt status questioned, but I pointed out that the event was actually organized by "Focus on the Family Action", a separate (legally, at least) organization dedicated to political action that is not tax exempt. The conversation has broadened somewhat from there. Join in that discussion here.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Should Christian couples embrace kinky sex?

My question is primarily lighthearted, but was prompted by this recent article:

Apparently this does address a set of sincere concerns:;f=3;t=002470;p=.

And then there's these folks:

I must need a little relief from war and politics! Or maybe I just need a little, um, "relief" (sorry, couldn't resist...!)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Abortion and Constitutional Interpretation

Methods of interpreting the Constitution are high on my list of intriguing topics for discussion. Applying such methods to central controversial issues of current law is not just intriguing, but important. Such a discussion is currently happening on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. If you're interested in those topics, I strongly recommend that you read the post, and at least skim through the comments. Then, join in the discussion over there, or post a comment here. I'd love to discuss...


The Murky Moral Waters of Embryonic Science

There has been a burst of news relating to embryonic science in the last two days, raising some very interesting (and difficult) moral questions.

First, there was the report in the journal Nature that a group of scientists had found a way to generate new embryonic stem cell lines for research without harming the embryo in the process. The procedure used is similar to what is currently performed in fertility clinics to screen pre-implanted embryos for genetic defects.

Then today, the Plan B contraceptive debate hit the front burners again, as the FDA approved it for over-the-counter use in America. Many are up in arms, saying that President Bush has gone against his pro-life principles by approving the use of an abortion drug. Others are up in arms (or have been), saying that the delay in approval was an example of religious conviction overriding science.

Is the Plan B contraceptive an abortifacient? Specifically, does it inhibit implantation of a fertilized embryo? We had a discussion closely related to this previously on this blog, comparing breastfeeding with other forms of contraception such as the pill, arguing that both had the possibility of inhibiting implantation and therefore being abortifacient. I also came across (via RedBlueChristian) a seemingly well-researched opinion on the Ales Rarus blog, arguing that there is no solid evidence that either breastfeeding or Plan B inhibits implantation at all (the post is in two parts, and due to bizarre web formatting, you'll want to read the printable versions of the posts here and here).

I confess that I'm confused. The citations on the Ales Rarus blog sound very convincing... but are they comprehensive? According to the Washington Post article, "Some research suggests Plan B also may keep a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb". What research is that? Does anyone know? The quote on Ales Rarus from Joe DeCook (VP of American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists) seems to suggest that there is no such research: "The post-fertilization effect was purely a speculation that became truth by repetition". Also, as cited on Ales Rarus, the results of the testing in Chile that showed that "when [Plan B] was given [to monkeys] after mating—at a time when fertilization was believed to have occurred (on the basis of previous monitoring)—the pregnancy rates observed were identical in cycles treated with levonorgestrel or with a placebo". In other words, if ovulation had already occurred, Plan B had no effect in that study on the fertilized embryo.

So what are the studies that show that Plan B does affect implantation, or that it has any effect on a fertilized embryo? Are there any such studies? Or are people opposed to Plan B simply because it might affect embryos, even if there's no evidence to show that it does?

This focus on preserving embryonic life also is central to the importance of new process developed to extract embryonic stem cell lines for research without harming the embryo itself. It's fascinating, and could be significant... but I have one pressing question.

14 embryos were used by the research firm that developed the method. Those 14 embryos each had a single cell extracted, and were then still healthy and able to develop. What happened to those 14 embryos? I can easily guess... they were probably treated like countless other results of IVF procedures, and destroyed.

If we, as a society, are OK with intentionally destroying embryos that are "left over" from IVF... then why exactly again are we so concerned about not using those embryos for research? There is a large sector of our society that is opposed to embryonic stem cell research (somewhere between 40% and 50%, I think, from most polls I've seen). There is nothing near that type of movement in opposition to IVF, with consequent embryo destruction.

So how is it that such a significant percentage of the American population is OK with destroying embryos intentionally for convenience, but is not OK with destroying embryos intentionally for research purposes? This, for me, is a conundrum.

Personally, I have significant concerns about IVF in general, though I can see its value in very limited circumstances, and carried out in very specific ways. We've had discussions on that topic on this blog in the past, here and here.

These topics bring up so many potential interesting questions, I won't even try to suggest a subset of them here. :)


Friday, August 18, 2006

An Unusual Diagnosis

I've heard a good number of diagnoses about the (purported?) failure of American foreign policy in the last few years. Most have centered around an image of President Bush as (a) a do-it-alone gun-slingin' cowboy, (b) a "God tells me what to do and I do it" arrogant exclusivist, or (c) an idiot who can't always tell his right shoe from his left, and probably is just a puppet of corporate entites pulling the strings. One or more of those themes is generally central in the critiques I've seen of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

But, this one's different.

According to Gerard Baker, writing in the London Times, the problems with the Bush administration's foreign policy have come from a lack of "resolute leadership". Bush has waffled too much, caved in to pressure too much, been too inconsistent.

What do you think? Is Baker on to something?

As one of his supporting points, Baker suggests that one of the main results of our Middle East policy of the last few years has been the elevation of Iran's importance. "The despised regime in Tehran has emerged as the true hegemonic power in the region, leeching on the battered bodies politic of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, elevating its brand of Shia fundamentalism into position as the dominant force in the Islamic world and continuing on its path towards nuclear status." If that is true, that would certainly be the opposite of the direction we wanted to go. Our aim must be the marginalization and weakening of Iran. Have we made Iran more influential in the Middle East? If so, what could we have done differently to prevent that from happening?


Monday, August 07, 2006

Moral Madness

Last week in the National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson wrote an article titled The Brink of Madness -- A familiar place. (Thanks to Douglas Groothius for pointing me to the article.) Hanson suggests that the state of moral judgment in the Western world today regarding Islamic terrorism is much the same as the situation before WWII toward Germany. His thoughts raised some pointed questions in my mind.

Hanson states his thesis this way;

Our present generation too is on the brink of moral insanity. That has never
been more evident than in the last three weeks, as the West has proven utterly
unable to distinguish between an attacked democracy that seeks to strike back at
terrorist combatants, and terrorist aggressors who seek to kill civilians.

He points out that the methods of the Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents both are to use civilians (and the UN and, I might add, Muslim shrines) as shields to either (a) protect them from more civilized societies that would prefer not to kill civilians (or freedom fighters or holy shrines of anyone's religion); or (b) allow them to claim moral superiority (or at least ambiguity) if they are attacked and the innocent shields they are hiding behind are damaged.

Hanson highlights the general difference between the Islamic terrorists and the Israeli and Western forces by an observation. European cartoonists, he says, are afraid to display Islam disparagingly, but "they now portray the Jews as Nazis, secure that no offended Israeli terrorist might chop off their heads."

He builds up to this statement: "the amoral Westerner cannot exercise moral judgment because he no longer has any."

In his summary, Hanson makes some other claims of causes of our "moral insanity", particularly in the Middle East.

He argues that the West is a "corrupt world" that, among other things, "is largely anti-Semitic" and "finds psychic enjoyment in seeing successful Western societies under duress".

Is the West largely anti-Semitic? I don't see evidence of this in the people that surround me, but that is admittedly a very small slice of "the West". I don't see it in the public statements of political leaders or influential people. I'm sure anti-Semitism exists... but is it fair to characterize the world as "largely" anti-Semitic?

Does the West in general find "psychic enjoyment" in the demise of its own success? This I can believe more readily, and I found Hanson's way of putting it quite insightful. It explains for me what has been one of the great conundrums of the age... the same people who fight hardest against conservative values in Christianity, fight nearly as hard to empower (or at least enable) the far-more-strident and violent conservativism of Islamic fundamentalism. As quick as they are to make claims of fundamentalism and theocracy and ignorance and ignominy toward Christians in the West, they are just as quick to contest such claims made toward Islamic radicals. Possibly Hanson's suggestion of a deep desire to see successful Western society come on hard times has some merit.

Thoughts, either on the points I brought out or other things that Hanson has to say?


Friday, July 21, 2006

Just War

Was the war in Iraq a just war? I'm afraid I'm stepping into a hornet's nest with this one... or at least I might, if I'm not careful. But, I hope to frame the discussion carefully, and direct it less toward pejorative blame regarding the past and more toward improving our ability to make ethical decisions in the future. The future for America, as far as just war questions go, could very well come quite soon.

Mark Daniels wrote a post today on his blog with a link to a detailed analysis of just war tradition as applied to the Iraq war situation. The analysis is by Franklin Eric Wester, an Army chaplain, writing in the US Army War College quarterly Parameters, and I found it very helpful and informative.

The hinge point of Wester's analysis is imminence. The Bush administration made a subtle shift in traditional just war policy, a shift which Wester does a good job of explaining.

[T]he 2002 National Security Strategy indirectly acknowledges the Just War
ethic. Logic in the document relies on the special case of preemption based on
“imminent threat,” recognizing that Just War tradition makes room for arresting
or resisting “imminent threat” as an extension of legitimate self-defense.
However, the National Security Strategy goes on to assert, “We must adapt [that
is, change] the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of
today’s adversaries.” How to change a concept like “imminent threat” or the
moral reasoning associated with the Just War ethic is not specified.
Later, Wester gives a one-sentence conclusion on the question of imminence with regard to the Iraq war:
No persuasive case was argued that the threat was imminent, at least in any
conventional definition of imminent.
Expanding on that thought a bit, Wester refers to Paul Griffiths:
To Paul J. Griffiths, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of
Illinois, the definition of imminent has not changed: “It means the gun is at
your head.” And in the case of Iraq, “We just don’t have that.” He states that
redefining imminent offers “well-intentioned support for US foreign policy, but
it’s not defensible in terms of traditional Just War theory.”

In the "Recommended Areas for Further Study" section, however, it appears that Wester gives a nod to the Bush administration's perspective:
On a theoretical level, the case of Iraq’s possible possession of WMD raised the
question to be further explored regarding an imminent threat: How does imminence
apply in cases where time and space before attack are not clearly discernible?
In other words, when is it timely and when is it too late to act?

That is a rough summary of the central theme of Wester's paper. It is not Wester's only argument, nor the only interesting point of discussion that could come from the paper. If you read the paper, and want to discuss something else from it, go right ahead.

There are, however, two areas of discussion that I would like to declare off-limits for the sake of this thread staying on-topic.

(1) The motives of the Bush administration. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that they had the best motives, let us avoid all questions of revenge or clandestine empire-building or power-grabbing cowboy cockiness. I would like to consider the theoretical nature of the just war question in the context of terrorism, not the specifics of the Bush administration's foreign policy motivations.

(2) The quality of the intelligence used by the Bush administration, and/or the honesty and forthrightness with which it described that intelligence. I would prefer to avoid the specifics of the nature of our intelligence knowledge (and communication of that knowledge) with regard to the Iraq situation. Let us assume for the sake of this discussion that the Bush administration's intelligence about Iraq was right, that Iraq did have dangerous weapons, and plans to use them or give them to others that would use them.

It seems to me that just war theory was largely established in an era when armies moved relatively slowly, and major destruction required movement of a significant number of people. In this way, threat was relatively easy to identify, and imminence could be established with relative certainty. What is more, if your intelligence told you that there was no obvious imminent threat, you could feel pretty safe that you wouldn't have an army able to incur massive destruction on your doorstep the next morning.

That is no longer the case. At any time, a terrorist who could obtain a nuclear weapon of some sort could appear in the middle of a major US city and cause massive destruction. Imminence is constant, as long as terrorist organizations are in existence that are actively targeting the US (that's certainly not in dispute) and there is the possibility that they could obtain massively destructive yet nearly indetectable weapons.

How does the concept of imminence in just war tradition function in this type of constant-undetectable-danger environment?

With the Soviet Union, we at least knew where the missiles would be coming from, and were guaranteed at least a few minutes of warning before they hit. We ensured that during that few minutes, we would be able to unleash an equally devastating barrage on them... a sufficiently effective deterrent to keep them from pushing that first button.

But that also brings us to another dimension of the war with terrorists. There does not appear to be any effective deterrence against terrorist actions. There is, it seems, no threat we can hold up to balance against the threat they maintain toward us that would deter them from taking action. There is nothing on earth that they hold so dear as the destruction of America. Their motivations come from the after-life, so no balanced-threat deterrent can hold sway with them.

What is an effective way of construing just war ethics in this type of threat situation? Was the Iraq war ethical given the two presuppositions I laid out above (realizing that this is not an evaluation of the reality of the Iraq war as a whole, but a subset of the factors involved in it)? What would determine whether a future war (such as one against Iran) would be justified?


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is teen pregnancy really a bad thing?

Here's a fascinating article titled Let's Have More Teen Pregnancy which argues that teen pregnancy is not in itself a problem. Read the article to see why.

I'd love to see some discussion on the ideas presented there. Do you agree, disagree, or have thoughts to add?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


A new blog is starting up which I think may be of interest to many readers here. It appears to have a similar focus to this blog, though focused on politics, and coming from a particularly Christian perspective. The blog is called RedBlueChristian, obviously intimating that Christianity is neither distinctively Republican nor Democrat. The junction of Christian faith and politics is more complicated than such a simplistic analysis, and deserves a good deal of healthy dialog.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel's Conflict

The current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is dominating the world news, as it rightly should. It has the potential to grow into a catastrophic situation that would affect our global community in very direct ways.

Here are a few representative attitudes about the conflict. Whose perspective do you agree with, and why?

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post last week. His position is largely what one would expect from someone in his position. He portrays Israel as the unilateral aggressor, waging a constant war against the Palestinians to subdue and destroy them, using the defensive actions of Palestinians as excuses for its aggression.

Charles Krauthammer responded, offering an alternate political perspective. He argues that Palestinians are (and always have been) committed to the complete destruction of Israel, have no interest in compromise, and have taken every concession Israel has offered and turned it into a staging ground for further unilateral aggression against Israel.

David Clark, writing in The Guardian, argues that both hardline Palestinians and the Israeli government have similar agendas... that both desire the escalation of aggression, and are opposed to peace. He argues that Mahmoud Abbas is the primary leader in the area espousing the proper commitment to resolve the situation peacefully. He makes no mention of the recent land concessions by Israel, so I'm not sure in what way he views those.

William Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard, gives a broader perspective, pointing toward Syria and Iran as the ultimate culprits. He argues that this has gone beyond a conflict between Israel and Palestine, and even beyond Israel and Arabs (since most of the Arab powers in the region are ambivalent about the conflict). He argues that instead this is an "Islamist-Israeli war", with stridently Islamist (and non-Arab) Iran as the primary motivating force.

A blogger called The Maverick Philosopher (from whose site I found Krauthammer's and Kristol's articles) gave his defense of Israel's current response, depicting the Palestinians as the "in the wrong" aggressors, and Israel's response (however disproportionate) as "in the right" self-defense.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that either the Palestinians or the Israelis have the moral high ground in this situation? Do you feel that Hezbollah are pawns in a larger Islamist movement to eradicate Israel, as Kristol suggests? Do you feel that Israel is a pawn in a larger American movement to subjugate the Middle East, as Haniyeh suggests (or at least hints)?

How should the American government respond? Have you been pleased or troubled by our response so far?


Monday, July 17, 2006

The Questionable Wisdom of Calvin

The papers are re-running old Calvin and Hobbes strips, much to my enjoyment. This one came out last week. I think it speaks for itself.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Public vs. Private School

Yesterday the federal government released the results of a statistical study it commissioned of academic test results, comparing public and private schools. The results are interesting.

Here's a news article summarizing the results.

Here's a link to the executive summary of the report (which I have read).

Here's a link to the full text of the report (which I have not yet read).

The results are fascinating, though far from conclusive. To put it roughly, it appears that students at private schools test much better than students at public schools, but that statistically those differences are largely accounted for by other demographical differences.

The main differences come in 8th grade math, where Lutheran schools were significantly better than public schools, and "conservative Christian" schools were significantly worse (after the numbers were adjusted for other likely demographics).

I wonder how charter schools and home schools would fare in a similar analysis?

I also wonder how the results would match up at grade 12, in SAT results or some similar measurement. I was moved from public to private school at grade 7... I wonder how many others are in the same boat?

Does this in any affect your opinion of the value of private schools in our society? Does it affect your opinion about a system such as school vouchers?

If you sent your child to a private school, would you expect him or her to learn math and reading better than he or she would at a public school? Note that I am not asking if you think your child would learn math or reading better than other students at the public school... but do you think the public school would give your child as good of an environment for learning math and reading as a private school would?

My public school education through grade 3 was excellent... because of the teachers. My public school education in grades 4 through 6 was dismal... again, because of the teachers (and to some degree the system). My parents moved me to private school from grade 7 on. I don't think the academic education was particularly improved, but of course I have no public school experience at those grades to compare it to.

I'm also rather under the impression that most people that send their students to private school (or home school) do so for reasons other than basic academics... but I make that observation only from very limited anecdotal evidence.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Obama on Religion in Politics

Last week, Senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the Call to Renewal Conference. His focus was on the role of religion (and religious people) in politics and in society. The speech is worth reading.

Obama sets the groundwork for his talk by saying:

"I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy".

I'm all for that "serious debate" (carried out respectfully, of course). How do we reconcile faith, particularly exclusivist religious belief (which are the types Obama focuses on in all his examples, both positive and negative), with pluralistic society and political involvement?

Obama first gives advice to liberals who are uncomfortable with religion. I think this section is central to his argument:

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical -- if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord," or King's "I have a dream" speech without reference to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

He goes on to give these examples:

But what I am suggesting is this -- secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Next, he turns his sights on religious conservatives:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

His closing thoughts, I think, are excellent. He says that, in our public discourse, we should give to each other, even (maybe especially) those who disagree with us, a "presumption of good faith". We should be "willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms". If we can have the conversation on that basis, it certainly will be, as Obama said, "a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come".

This speech has generated a great deal of response. I'd love to hear what people around here think about the speech, and the subject in general.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted a response on his blog. He argues that when Obama tells religious people that they must, when entering the social sphere, argue based on "some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all"... that in so doing he is nullifying all that he has said previously, and institutionalizing secularism as the guiding social principle.

I might respond slightly differently, though I found the same paragraph to be troubling. What are these "principles" that are accessible to everyone? What does accessible mean? If it means some principle that nearly everyone already agrees on, then you are simply playing to the lowest common denominator. If you mean a principle that people can be convinced of through persuasive argument, then I'll be more convinced by the idea.

Also, I found his specific example quite confusing. He picked abortion, a practice which he supports on the principle of the woman's right to choose. Those who argue against abortion generally do so based on the principle that pre-born children are still living humans, and that killing living humans is wrong. Now... which principle is the more generally accessible, in either sense? Yet it appears to me that Obama is saying that in some way when conservatives argue that abortion is bad they simply "point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will". There may be some issues of public policy where religious conservatives do that (though none come to mind right off the bat)... but abortion is certainly not one of them.

More responses to the Obama speech, and to the general topic of religion in politics, can be found at the GetReligion blog. I found the comments under the post to be very interesting, as well.

What should the role of religion be in public dialog on social issues? To what degree should religious people rely on their religious principles in voting for candidates or legislation?


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Abortion in American Society

Last year, on my blog, I linked to an opinion piece written by Patricia Bauer in the Washington Post titled The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have. She argued that abortion in American society is not as much about underprivileged women who can't raise a child choosing out of necessity, but about overprivileged women choosing out of convenience or preference not to have (for example) a Down's Syndrome child.

A few months back on that blog, we had a rousing discussion about abortion in America, and one of the key questions was asked by Kevin:

"Why are most abortions performed? to save the mother's life? or due to rape or incest? or to prevent the 9 months of hardship and pain before giving the baby up for adoption? Are some reasons for abortions worse than others? If so, are we doing all we can to minimize the worst?"

Through that discussion we were able to find a few statistics, from the Alan Guttmacher Institute primarily, but nothing that seemed highly reliable.

Recently, though, Melissa Kearney, an economist with the Brookings Institution, performed an analysis of information from the Guttmacher Institute and arrived at some conclusions about the majority of abortions in America. I wish I could find the actual report on the Internet somewhere, but I can't. All I have at this point is a summary of it written by Susan Reimer in the Baltimore Sun titled Defying Stereotypes on Abortion.

Most abortions (70%) are performed on women in their 20's or early 30's, not teenagers. Most abortions are performed on women who have either had a previous abortion, or already have children... not young women still figuring out that sex has consequences. Most women who have abortions have some college education. Most (75%) are not living in poverty.

What motivates these women to have abortions? This question is important because we appear to have universal consensus that abortion should be rare. How do we get to the point where abortion is rare? We have to identify the felt needs that are causing women to choose abortions, and change those situations. Depending on the nature of the need, the change may need to be in external circumstances (alleviating poverty, for instance); the change may need to be through external regulation (making abortion less convenient, if it's a choice of pure convenience); the change may need to be through aggressive marketing and education. To reduce abortions, we must identify why people are choosing abortions and find a way to change the factors affecting their choice.

Based on this research, and the previous discussions on my blog, does anyone have specific suggestions of steps that could be taken to make abortion rare in America?

Note that I am avoiding the moral question here. We discussed that some previously, but when the moral question is raised it tends to derail (or endlessly sidetrack) discussion of practical considerations, so I'm particularly interested here in discussing concrete suggestions for reducing abortion in our society.

And yes, making at least some abortions illegal is a valid suggestion... but I'd like to hear it argued from a social standpoint, not a standpoint of moral abolutes, at least for now.

Suggestions, anyone?


Friday, June 09, 2006

Broadcast Content Regulation

Yesterday, Congress passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which dramatically increases penalties for indecent programming on broadcast (not cable) TV during daytime/primetime viewing hours. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, flows out of the hubbub about the infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

Senator Brownback offers an argument in favor of the act on his website. The use of the airwaves, he argues, is a public privilege which brings with it social responsibility.

In an editorial column written two days ago for, Jacob Sullum disagrees. He argues instead that use of public airwaves is no different than use of public roads, and brings no special social responsibility. Rather, the social responsibility lies in the hands of the viewers and parents of children viewers. He believes that market forces should control what content is displayed, and that viewers have the responsibility to intelligently choose what to watch or avoid.

I tend to lean toward Sullum's position, maybe because I already exert a great deal of effort and research to filter what I watch. Or, maybe it's because I have pretty strong philosophical leanings toward market forces over governmental regulation in most cases.

But, on the other hand, maybe some mix of the two approaches is in order.

I can't help but feel, though, that the way our policies are currently being implemented is rather silly. That Super Bowl halftime show is a perfect example. A fleeting glimpse of a nipple created an uproar that is still echoing two years later... but the actual content of the song, the words and message being communicated, have hardly warranted a mention in our social or political dialog.

It's almost as though we as a society are falling into a stupor, drifting into a groggy sleep of sexual saturation, losing our ability to be shocked or to turn away from anything however harmful. Then something unexpected jolts us, and we drastically over-react to soothe our latent social conscience... before drifting back into our drugged numbness. Legislation such as this, it appears to me, allows politicians to score points off those seizures of social conscience without risking their political lives by threatening the pervasive flow of sexuality that we've become addicted to.

But maybe I'm just over-reacting, to soothe my latent personal conscience. :)


Monday, June 05, 2006

Parenting Styles and Child Health

Today I came across a news article reporting on a study performed by the Boston University School of Medicine. The article was published in the June issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I can't read the article, however, without a subscription, so I'm out of luck there.

Still, the summary is quite interesting. The researchers studied 872 children for a number years, starting at birth. They categorized the children based on the type of parenting style used by the parents: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or neglectful. The compared the weight of the children at age 6, based on the parenting style used.

According to the summary, authoritarian parents had the most overweight 6-year-olds. Permissive and neglectful parents raised similar children, overweight but not to the extreme of the disciplinarians. Authoritative parents are defined (by the Reuters summary) as "having high expectations for self control but respectful of a child's opinions and who set clear boundaries".

This isn't a greatly surprising study, I guess, but it does highlight how important parents are to the full well-being of their children, even at a very young age. Also, considering the drastic difference of results between authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles, that giving one's children respect and some degree of autonomy is a critical part of child-rearing.

I'm hoping that there will be further similar studies, possibly trying to clarify why weight gain in particular is affected so strongly, and also identifying other development traits in children that might be similarly affected.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Prison or Pulitzer?

Earlier this week, my brother Brad forwarded me an editorial from the LA Times, Weak on leaks by Gabriel Schoenfeld. The editorial makes a compelling argument that the reporters from the NY Times who broke the story about the government's wiretapping of international phone calls (and won a Pulitzer Prize for it) should be prosecuted under the law.

Schoenfeld compares two laws. The first, Section 793 of the Espionage Act, is currently being used to prosecute two officials of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee for passing on classified information. Schoenfeld describes Section 793 as "vague" and "sloppily drafted". I found the text of the law in question, and the link to it is above. Read it, and see if you agree with Schoenfeld's analysis. I do.

The second law is Section 798 of the act, which has a different history. Here's how Schoenfeld describes it:

One of the more extraordinary features of this comint provision is that it was the fruit of a compromise, drawn with the very purpose of protecting public discussion of national defense material from more draconian restrictions. In 1946, a joint congressional committee investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor had urged a blanket prohibition on the publication of government secrets. But Congress resisted, choosing instead to carve out an exception in the special case of communications intelligence, which it described as a category "both vital and vulnerable to an almost unique degree."

With the bill narrowly tailored in this way, the comint statute not only passed in Congress but, astonishingly in light of contemporary attitudes in the media, won the support of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Unlike Section 793 of the Espionage Act, this comint statute is a model of clarity. If you publish classified information pertaining to communications intelligence, you have broken the law; it is nearly as simple as that.

Again I read the law in question, and again it appears to me that Schoenfeld's analysis is accurate. Here's the relevant aspects of the law:

Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates ... any classified information ... concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States

Is there any question that the NY Times broke this law? It seems pretty clear-cut to me.

Is this law, or at least this particular case, a First Amendment issue? In January of this year, the Weekly Standard ran an article discussing primarily that issue. It discusses the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, and other cases that seem to apply to the situation, in more detail that I will attempt to recount here.

This all raises three interesting questions for me. (1) Are the NY Times and/or their reporters prosecutable under current law and precedent for their actions? (2) Should the NY Times and/or their reports be prosecutable, in light of the First Amendment? (3) If your answers to both of the first two questions are yes, would you recommend that the current administration carry out that prosecution?


Friday, May 19, 2006

Daddy Ducky (or "How Steviepinhead Spent Mother's Day Weekend")

On the Friday evening leading into the Mother’s Day Weekend, my son Lars's girlfriend Christine was in town visiting from NYC, where she’s a writer/reporter for CBS and occasionally the Village Voice and NYT. The two of them very thoughtfully invited Celia and me to come over for dinner (to my own house!) for spaghetti. We brought red wine, beer, etc., and they did the cooking. Once we got there, I realized it was time to change the cat litter. Celia, for some reason (probably not wanting to be "abandoned" to the two younger people at the outset of the visit) insisted that she would do the cat litter chore, but I put my foot down. (I know, your reader-ly intuition is already going, “Dong, dong, dong! You should always listen to your girlfriend!”) So Celia took herself out and down to the parking strip in front of my house, where I long ago built a treated wood planter box. There she meant to just take in the pleasant evening until I was done with litter duty and we could jointly socialize with the young folk.

So, as Celia’s innocently sitting on the edge of the planter box, along comes a peeping sound. At first she thinks it's a bird flying overhead, and she's craning her neck to try to spot it, but then it turns out to be a little three-inch high duckling, waddling its way through the grass of the parking strip, with no Mama Duck or string of babies anywhere in sight. It was a cute mallard duckling, all down-covered, with a dark brown mohawk running from the base of the beak over the top of its head to the back of the neck, where the darker color merged with the dark brown coloration of its back, an "undercoat" color of yellowy-tan along the sides of the face, body, and belly, and two cool darker horizontal "racing stripes” running back across the eyes to the back of the head, and stubby wings. The little guy was not naked anywhere, but was not yet starting to "fledge out" with full-blown feathers either.

Of course, in an ideal world, you handle a little lost wild creature as little as possible, and try to re-unite it immediately with its own family or (in the case of ducklings) with another mama duck with little ones at the same stage of development.

By this time, I had rejoined Celia and discovered the ducky's plight, but our quick but thorough search of my north Seattle neighborhood that night yielded no sign of a mama with ducklings. My house is about four or five blocks uphill from the "Ship Canal" that runs from Lake Washington to Shilshole Bay on Puget Sound. After canvassing the neighborhood, we wandered on down to the canal, but saw only a group of two or three green-headed male mallards, and no signs of females or little 'uns.

Once we got back to the house, we immediately tried calling Animal Control and Fish and Wildlife, but both had closed for the weekend at 5 pm, before we ever encountered the duckling. The Seattle Animal Control message made it clear that we were supposed to call the state Fish and Wildlife folks for cases of "immature wild animals," so we left a message with that office. We probably should have tried PAWS, too, but I assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that they would also be closed for the weekend. In any event, Celia has had problems with them in the past being rather officious (oh, no, we can't accept a lost King County pet, we're located in Snohomish County, that sort of thing).

So the little duckling hung out in Celia's “pile” (spun polypro) vest pocket for the rest of the evening while we chatted and drank with the young folks for a couple of hours, before we headed back to her house. There we contrived a meal of some squished-up wetted bread, then tucked our duckling in for the night in a straw waste-basket fitted out with polypro and wool items, all wrapped in a sweater, and with a light shining on it for warmth (thermoregulation is the most immediate challenge to survival for immature birds).

Celia had a climbing commitment for Saturday, another gorgeous day (she wound up summiting), and I had to do some stuff at work, so I was Daddy Duck that day. I performed some internet searches to try to figure out what to feed it--again, ideally you're not supposed to feed or medicate immature wild critters, but we figured we were stuck with our little duckling for the weekend, at least, and all the internet info we had consulted said that nestling-stage birds need to feed every 60-90 minutes. I was also searching the 'net to try to get a fix on the best strategy for returning our ducky to the wild (with half a chance for success, as opposed to just tossing it into the bushes in a neighborhood filled with outdoor cats and not-always-leashed dogs, or into the Ship Canal with its steady weekend stream of powerboats).

So I took Ducky into work, bringing along a Ziploc bag containing bread crusts, bran flakes, cracker crumbs, and the like, and alternated between holding it in my hand inside my polypro jacket pocket or letting it peck at a plateful of water and water-soaked food particles. (I still have little ducky tracks all over my acrylic plastic desk-protector thingy as I'm typing this!) He sure was a cute little devil, peeping away, "hoovering" up little slurps of water and soaked crumbs, whipping his head from side to side to dismember larger pieces, then immediately chasing after the resulting shower of particles to try to scoop those up too, stretching his body out and waggling his wing-stumps, then curling up in my hand inside the dark, warm pocket, working his way as far upwards as possible (higher up under duck moms presumably being the safest location, like the penguins continually working their way toward the center of the pack in the "March of the Penguins" movie), placing his delicate and awkward-seeming, but incredibly strong and dexterous, webbed feet on my palm and tucking his mini-beak between my fingers...

Celia got home from her climb of Baring Peak in mid-evening, in time to “supervise” our feeding and nesting routine, then we tucked the boyo back in again.

On Sunday morning, we had some plans (picking up Celia's thoroughly-pleasant but mildly-demented mom from the adult care place for a planned Mother's Day brunch, and I had a phone appointment to call a young driver-client who wasn't able to talk for extended periods during the workweek due to his job, to prepare him for an upcoming deposition), so we ate a quick breakfast, went back to my neighborhood, and did a more thorough canvass.

This further investigation (cue the Dragnet theme, dun dun DUN dun) determined that there was a pair of ducks who did return year after year to an area focused about a block and a half away from my house. The female had indeed been seen heading downhill leading a string of ducklings toward the water on Friday afternoon. Our best guess was that there was probably a hidden nest somewhere deep in the neighborhood vegetation, and that the mama duck would be very unlikely to make the perilous multi-block journey to the Ship Canal (across at least two major arterials, one a four-lane wide, 35-mph road, and several other streets) through the gauntlet of traffic, dogs, cats, and crows, more than one time.

Obviously, little ducky must've gotten separated somehow fairly early on--traffic? dog or cat attack? last in line?--and then wandered west (across the hill) instead of south (downhill), for approximately a block and a half, crossing at least one residential street on the way, a journey that probably took him an hour or two of determined navigation and desperate peep-peeping, before he had come to Celia's attention (which is why the rest of the family was long gone by the time we started looking).

The best chance for success of an "amateur" attempt to reunite a lost duckling with a duck family is during the first 24-36 hours, and involves "smuggling" the baby into a crowd of other ducklings while the parents are distracted. But, though we returned again to the banks of the Ship Canal that Sunday morning, and did sight one mated pair of mallards, there were no little ones in evidence. The male mallard showed zero interest in the peeping of our little guy. The female turned her head in our direction, but kept waddling away whenever we tried to approach. And just turning our little peepster loose on the edge of the four-foot concrete embankment, poised above wave-washed rock rip-rap, on the off chance that the probably-strange female might permit him to approach before he fell off into the rough water, did not seem like a good bet.

So ducky spent another day with us, pooping, eating, splashing, getting dried off, getting cuddled, and sleeping or snuggling in pockets or other warm niches. Celia's Mom was extremely sweet and gentle with the duckling--Bridget has capacious hands for a woman (she’s been a lifelong spinner and knitter) in which the duckling felt entirely secure. She sang all the verses of "All Creatures Great and Small" a number of times while cradling our cute little peepster.

We tucked the little boyo in for the night again. When we got up Monday morning, we performed a more diligent job of rounding up and calling all possible phone numbers for animal shelters and similar outfits. The state Wildlife office were jerks ("it's not legal for you to keep him"--duh! we're not trying to hand-rear him as a pet, we're trying to turn him over to you!--"oh, just throw him back in the water"--a sure death sentence with no adoptive mamma mallard, as our duckling began to become hypothermic after only a few minutes of eating and splashing in a quarter inch of water in a plate!--no suggestions for who might be willing to rehab the duckling, a basically worthless tax-wasting bunch of burned-out bureaucrats).

PAWS (the only entry in the phone book that even listed the phrase "wildlife rehabilitation") told us--much more empathetically--that they simply had no more room at the inn for baby ducklings, and that all the likely agencies were probably also full-up with baby ducks, because it was "that time of year,” when ducklings were being herded from nest to water, with the resulting inevitable “attrition." But PAWS did give us the numbers of a couple of wildlife shelter places to try and--while I was in the shower--Celia did hear back from a place up in Arlington, a small town one county north of here, who had told her that they'd be "delighted" to take our little duck!

Celia had the day off, so she undertook to drive little ducky up to Arlington! The place involved was Sarvey’s Wildlife Center, which turns out to have been in operation since 1981. They specialize in rehabilitating avian raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls), but their five-acre facility houses songbirds, deer, raccoons, seagulls, pigeons, coyotes, squirrels--they handle 3,000 animals a year on a budget of around $200,000, 99% of which goes to animal care and only about 1% toward fund-raising and administration. Ducky went into a pen full of other similar-stage well-cared-for ducklings (the property has its own ponds and streams) . Celia took some great photos of eagles, hawks, and owls there.

Of course, we miss our little friend in our hearts, but our minds rest easy, knowing that he’s probably quacking away at this moment, telling his new brothers and sisters all about the virtues of polypro pockets, acrylic desk protectors, and Formica counter-tops (not to mention Bridget’s all-encompassing hands). Doubtless he’s also teaching all his new “siblings” to peep out the tune to “All Creatures Great and Small.”

And that was my weekend of duty as Daddy Duck!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

President Bush on Illegal Immigration

Last night President Bush gave a speech to the nation about illegal immigration. This topic has been much discussed lately, though not on this blog. I'm interested to hear what people think.

The text of the president's speech is here.

Do you think the President's plan, if implemented fully, would be productive? How would you modify his plan if you were in his shoes? What flaws do you see?

Do you think it likely that the President's plan will be carried out? If not, which areas do you think are most likely to get sidetracked, and what are the roadblocks in their way?

And remember... this discussion isn't intended for venting, or debating, or arguing. It's a place to share different ideas and perspectives, to ask questions, and to learn from each other. In a discussion like this that evokes such strong emotions and widely differeing opinions, that can be hard to remember. Let's keep it civil, please. :)


Thursday, May 11, 2006


Last night, I watched Gattaca. Yeah, it's from 1997, and I'm way behind the times... but oh well. :)

The movie is part sci-fi concept, part action/drama, and part romance. The sci-fi concept part worked very well. The other two parts... well, I can see why the movie wasn't a blockbuster.

The sci-fi part of the story involves a world (quite believable, from my perspective) where handheld machines can instantaneously evaluate any skin/hair/saliva/etc from a person, identify them genetically, and also print out their genetic probabilities for various diseases, weaknesses, imperfections, etc. Because of this ability, job interviews consist of nothing more than a blood sample... those with the right genetic makeup have opportunities unbounded, those without... are janitors.

The natural consequence of this ability is that nearly all parents opt for IVF. They have a number of eggs fertilized, then have the genetic makeup of the resulting fertilized eggs examined, and select their child from the resulting options based on the child's genetic probabilities... which will obviously determine the child's opportunities in such a genetically-aware world.

This ties in to the recent IVF post, and also has some fascinating connections to an earlier post on my other blog about whether human consciousness is purely biological. The main character is a young man who was not selected from IVF, but was allowed to be conceived naturally. He has physical weaknesses that genetically-selected individuals don't have (such as bad eyesight), but also has a strength of character that sets him apart. Is that "strength of character" something that comes genetically, but which the scientists had not been able to isolate? Or is it something beyond genetics altogether?

If any of you have seen the movie... what did you think? Even if you haven't... does this scenario seem plausible to you? Healthy? If not healthy, what can be done to avoid it?


Monday, May 08, 2006

Breastfeeding and the Pill--Different methods, same results?

A post by Phantom Scribbler led me to this article from the New York Times on Contra-Contraception, by Russell Shorto.

The article discusses the links between abortion, contraception, and a person's view about sex itself. It highlights well the inconstency of being against a morning after pill like Plan B while supporting other forms of hormonal birth control, making the valid point that ALL forms of hormonal birth control, as well as the IUD, have a small chance of preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg.

But the paragraph that Phantom Scribbler pointed out is what really drew me in:

What's more, Dr. Trussell added: "There is evidence that there is a contraceptive effect of breast feeding after fertilization. While a woman is breast feeding, the first ovulation is characterized by a short luteal phase, or second half of the cycle. It's thought that because of that, implantation does not occur." In other words, if the emergency contraception pill causes abortions by blocking implantation, then by the same definition breast feeding may as well.

I found a website about ecological breastfeeding from a natural family planning standpoint that actually cites a study:

"Several studies have indicated that fertility and ovarian activity return step by step (Ellison 1996, p. 326-327):

  1. "Follicular activity without ovulation (No chance of pregnancy.)
    1a. Menstruation without ovulation (This does not always occur--see below.)
  2. Ovulation without luteal competence (After the egg is released, fertilization may take place. During the luteal phase, the uterine lining is prepared for implantation as the egg travels down the fallopian tube and into the uterus. If the uterine lining is not adequately prepared for implantation, the implantation will probably not be successful.)
  3. Full luteal competence (Full fertility -- at this point breastfeeding no longer has any effect on your chance of pregnancy.)"

The site has a chart with information about these stages, including a notation that a study by Gray showed that 41% of breastfeeding mothers showed "First ovulation without luteal competence"--in other words, ovulation with likelihood of creating a fertilized egg that is unable to implant due to changes in the uterine lining from breastfeeding.

A little further down the page:

"Do I need to wean to get pregnant?
Probably not. If you are still transitioning to full fertility (as discussed above), breastfeeding may affect the success of implantation. Once implantation is successful, breastfeeding should not affect a healthy pregnancy (see A New Look at the Safety of Breastfeeding During Pregnancy for more information). "

An earlier article from the New York Times says,

"Trussell said he supports doctors who say women need to know it's possible that emergency contraception may affect embryo implantation. But that's true for nearly all methods of contraception, he added--including breast-feeding.

Breast-feeding, which can have a contraceptive effect up to six months after the birth of a child, also causes changes in the uterine lining. In that respect, it carries the same possibility of interfering with implantation.

"If you're talking about informed consent," said Trussell, "then it's not right to withhold evidence that breast-feeding may work in the same way."

Here's a summary of a study done on rats, looking at the relationship between lactation and ovulation. They found that if the timing was right, lactation did inhibit implantation of a fertilized egg.

Here's an interesting and thought-provoking paper by a group of Christian physicians that examines the studies and information about various forms of contraception. It analyzes the way hormone contraceptives work and compares that to the way a woman's fertility works when not on the pill. The paper makes the point that studies show "spontaneous pregnancy wastage" at 73% between fertilization and 6 weeks.

The article makes a pretty good case that hormonal contraceptives work primarily by preventing ovulation, then by thickening the cervical mucous, and also thin the uterine lining. There is a small theoretical risk of the pill preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, but numerically this doesn't seem to happen more often with the pill than it does without it.

So, essentially, it seems that progesterone is progesterone is progesterone, at least when it comes to avoiding pregnancy (we know the pill carries other health risks and side effects not entailed in breastfeeding). Breastfeeding apparently prevents conception in the same ways the pill does, because both methods operate by producing hormones that have the same effects. The pill is essentially designed to mimic the effect of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding on the body's response to ovulation and pregnancy.

The difference, of course, is that breastfeeding is almost never done solely for the purpose of contraception, although even Catholic organizations such as The Couple to Couple League actively promote its use and effectiveness as a contraceptive. The pill, though it is often used to treat other issues, and though it can have a positive effect on breastfeeding (causing better milk production, etc), is usually used with the goal of preventing pregnancy.

That seems quite relevant to our earlier discussion on Mark's blog about contraception and the relationship between sex and reproduction. As I mentioned there, if the desire to prevent a pregnancy is in itself wrong (which I don't think it necessarily is), then it could be equally wrong for a person to take an extra-hot bath to try to minimize chances of a successful pregnancy or to time intercourse only during infertile times to avoid having children.

That's quite debatable, as we previously established, and I know there's disagreement among members of this blog on this topic. I'd love to pick up the discussion again about whether intercourse can morally be separated from the goal of procreation or not.

I do tend to feel that purposely preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg is morally wrong, although this information is making me reconsider where I might draw the line on this issue. That has seemed a more clear-cut issue to me than the contraception debate in itself.

But, of course, it could be very difficult to draw a line there, too. There are so many things one could do that might inhibit implantation or cause early miscarriage--including overdosing on vitamin C or parsely, taking ginger or rosemary, having an eating disorder, taking drugs to treat rheumatic disease (such as lupus), having endometriosis, using acupressure/acupuncture, not to mention all the things that people think prevent implantation and really don't--like taking a hot bath or jumping up and down after intercourse. Any of those things would be very hard to regulate or prove damage from, and some are unavoidable.

Even if something is wrong, it is not necessarily right (or even possible) to regulate it by law. That's one of the reasons I see big problems with laws that would prosecute women for causing damage to their baby by taking drugs or drinking during pregnancy. If you're going to prosecute a woman for hurting her baby by drinking alcohol or taking drugs during pregnancy, where are you going to draw the line? Could a woman be prosecuted for drinking caffeine? Eating sushi? Not taking prenantal vitamins? Overexercising? Any of the other myriad things that could possibly be harmful during pregnancy?

Regulating things that prevent implantation is just as problematic. If we make Plan B illegal for that reason, we would also have to make the IUD and hormonal birth control illegal to be consistent. But if we did that, then what about breastfeeding or taking too much Vitamin C?

What do you all think?