NO, *THIS* IS HOW YOU BLOW AN INAUGURATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 23rd, 2009 by Ed

We have seen the video from Tuesday of Chief Justice Roberts getting a serious case of…stage fright? Amnesia? Whatever it was, it resulted in a botched version of the Constitutionally-mandated Oath of Office. For most of us this was a source of comedy, embarassment, or complete insignificance. Fox News, conversely, is spoon-feeding its conspiracist fringe audience an "I'm not sure (he) is actually President of the United States" (actual quote) line. This incident qualifies as one of the more noticeable inaugural mishaps in our nation's history. But right now Andrew Johnson, from beyond the grave, is saying "You call that a blown inauguration? I'll show you fuckers a blown inauguration."

In 1864 Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee Democrat chosen by Abraham Lincoln as his Vice-President to emphasize north-south reconciliation, arrived in Washington to take his oath of office with a not-so-minor case of typhoid fever. Typhoid fever killed a lot of people. Still does. So for starters the guy was sick as a dog. If you know anything about medical theory and patent medicines from the mid-19th Century you realize that Andy treated his malady with absolutely heroic quantities of alcohol. The night before the inaugural he got John Bonham drunk on whiskey at a Senate party. Hung over, he redoubled his consumption of brown liquor on the morning of the Big Day. Outgoing Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, in a move he would soon regret, was particularly generous and enthusiastic about plying his replacement with "medicine." At the ceremony Hamlin briefly spoke before yielding the floor to his successor.

This is where things got awesome.

In contrast to the stately tone typical of elitist 19th Century politics and which dominated the ceremony, Johnson was glowing red, soaked in sweat, and approximately piss drunk. The official Senate record, in what I can only assume is a kind understatement, states that Johnson "rose unsteadily to harangue the distinguished crowd about his humble origins and his triumph over the rebel aristocracy." The record notes that Lincoln sat in the audience with an expression of "unutterable sorrow" while Senator Charles Sumner was noted to bury his face in his hands. Hamlin made a valiant effort to end Johnson's performance, eventually quieting him down long enough to move on to swearing in the incoming Congress.

Before we go any further I want to recap: Andrew Johnson's inaugural address consisted of him blind drunk and screaming at all three branches of government.

Johnson ineptly attempted to swear in the incoming Senators but was too drunk and disoriented to accomplish this simple task. A Supreme Court justice eventually took over and Johnson was mercifully escorted from the premesis. Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote that:

The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.

That he did, Zachariah. That he did. He F'ed that inauguration in the A. Andrew Johnson took one look at the highest peak of American public service and went straight for the whiskey. And he is now looking at the "controversy" over the Obama/Roberts flub and thinking, "Back in my day, it wasn't a blown inaugural until someone in the line of presidential succession got ripped to the tits and told off all and sundry of Washington's elite."

IT'S NO SECRET

Posted in Election 2008 on January 22nd, 2009 by Ed

During the 2008 Primary season Barack Obama visited the IU campus and made an appearance at the "Little 500" bike race, the school's signature event as depicted in the film Breaking Away. I prefer to call it Drinking & Biking week, as it is essentially seven days of the campus looking like Bon Jovi's tour bus circa 1986. Obama paid a visit to a portion of this event and boldly waded into a crowd of several thousand balls-drunk 18 through 20 year-olds. At the time I had the same feeling that I had on Tuesday as I saw the crowd of 2,000,000+ strewn about Washington: man, the Secret Service's job blows.

The Secret Service (which I will abbreviate "SS" regardless of the unsavory historical associations with that pairing) spent its first 150 years as part of the Treasury Department, joining Homeland Security only in 2003. Their job was and remains overwhelmingly focused on busting counterfeiters. The figure of the SS agent is stereotyped and quite recognizable – sunglasses, earpiece, lapel pins (which are changed hourly to make identification of fake SS agents easy), dark suits, and folded hands. It leads most Americans to believe that they are the President's private guard; in reality they're probably better described as the private army of the United States Dollar. Their task of protecting the President is a 20th Century invention and it occupies only a fraction of its personnel. And to my way of thinking it is one of the worst jobs imaginable.

The simple fact is that there's very, very little that the SS can do to protect any of its various VIP charges. Watching Obama wade into a group of 5,000 drunk kids or parade before 2,000,000 people and every window in Washington makes it very obvious that protecting the President is like trying to bail out a ship with a bucket – the only thing to do is pray that the water never comes. If it does, well, there's not much to be done.

There just isn't a way for the Secret Service to secure every window, every person, every sewer cover, and every car that will come near enough to the President to do him harm. And let's not even talk about what happens when he goes overseas; trying to secure the President in Central Africa has to involve phenomenal amounts of prayer and finger-crossing. The best defense they have is preventive – discovering and interrupting individuals or groups who may want to harm the President before anything happens. Aside from that, history has shown that the President is vulnerable and there are always a handful of crackpots out there who set their warped sights on attacking him. I'd love to think that the new President and all who succeed him will avoid that problem. The odds are not in his favor, though. Every recent President has had one or more serious brushes with death and only remarkable luck saved a few of them.

Reagan was hit by a bullet that missed all vital organs. Bush Senior was targeted with a huge explosive device that was only discovered at the last moment by Kuwaiti police. A guy walked right up to the White House and opened fire on Clinton with a WWII-era semi-automatic rifle, getting off 29 shots. And, in an incident that received almost no media coverage but saved him from death only by incredible luck, a man had no trouble tossing a hand grenade at George W. Bush in Tblisi in 2005. The pin was removed but a strip of cloth used to disguise the grenade kept it from detonating. He was saved by a scrap of fabric.

I'm afraid for Obama, as I'm sure the Secret Service are as well. There are so many lunatics out there and his election seems to push all of the rage buttons with the bunker dwelling, tax protesting, gun hoarding Militia crowd – black, liberal, foreign-sounding name, Secret Muslim, popular, committed to multinational organizations and diplomacy, and likely to govern in a way that infuriates the US Out of UN Now crowd to no end. I tip my hat to the Secret Service for undertaking the daunting and thankless task of staring down the world's lunatics. Four of the first 43 Presidents have been victims of assassins. That is both horrifying and, when you really stop to think about it, miraculous.

2,922 DAYS

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2009 by Ed

It's over. Really, it's over.

Numerous times over the past eight years I have discussed the concept of "Outrage Fatigue," the Bush administration's purposeful effort to bury the nation under such an avalanche of cronyism, malfeasance, deception, disregard for the rule of law, and brazenly stacked bullshit that we would simply accept it as the natural state of affairs. Previous presidents found out the hard way that a scandal can cripple an administration. Bush's lasting contribution to the presidency was the discovery that, as animals herd together so that predators cannot target any single member, piling 1001 scandals on top of one another negates the damage any one could cause.

I tried to get up the nerve for a retrospecticus of two terms of this administration of nitwits and thugs. Suffice it to say that like the rest of the nation I am simply sick to death of George W. Bush and everyone associated with him. Once again I think back to the words of the famous epilogue to the Lincoln assassination once the conspirators were executed. The Evening Star noted, "In the bright sunlight of this summer day the wretched criminals have been hurried into eternity…We want to know their names no more." That is the entirety of what Americans want from this administration, this (now ex-) president: to go away. Go away and never be heard from or seen again. Get out of our sight while we attempt to put band-aids on the gaping wounds left by eight years of willful negligence and thundering incompetence. We never want to look at any of the Bush inner circle again unless they are seated next to a team of defense attorneys and attempting in vain to testify for their legal freedom.

In lieu of a retrospective I tried to think of the quintessential Bush moment, the single image or anecdote which can be used decades from now to summarize the experience of living in Bush's America. That is a tall order. Eight years is a long time. I dare you to think over those years and try to remember every disaster, scandal, and legal subterfuge wrought by this administration. No single example can encapsulate everything that happened, but I humbly submit the following as the quintessential Bush Presidency moment: the testimony of Alberto Gonzales, Monica Goodling, and Sara Taylor in the DoJ scandal. That scandal itself is unlikely to be historically relevant, but that testimony…holy shit.

What better sums up the past eight years than Sara Taylor, who went from VP of the College Republicans to White House Political Director in the span of 3 months, testifying about her oath of loyalty to the President? Who better represents the kind of people Bush appointed to run the most powerful nation on Earth than Monica Goodling, the vacuous, unqualified hack from Pat Robertson University whose deer-in-headlights testimony looks more like an SNL skit than historical reality? But if I have to pick one single moment it has to be Alberto Gonzales with that idiotic oops-I-shit-my-pants smirk on his face testifying about all of the things he didn't recall (hint: everything)

I don't really have to stick to a single example, do I? Because the time he denied that the Constitution grants the right of habeas corpus (nearly blowing Arlen Specter's jowls off in the process) is pretty awesome too:

This sole example doesn't provide substantive information about everything that went to hell over 2,922 days, but when I need to show my kids (or more realistically my students) the five minute version of 2000-2008 I will use these videos and say, "These are the kind of people who were in control of the largest and most powerful government in the history of the world." And that, as improbable as it may seem, says it all.

(chime in if you think there's a better Bush-in-nutshell moment)

THE NEW NUREMBURG DEFENSE

Posted in Rants on January 20th, 2009 by Ed

Sometimes having a sibling does not work out well for people in the public eye. Jimmy Carter had Billy. Bill Clinton, Roger. Jessica Simpson, Ashlee. Jose Canseco, Ozzie. Alec Baldwin, Daniel (and Stephen). And pill-popping pundit extraordinare Rush Limbaugh has David. As the "talented" member of the Limbaugh family is intolerable under the best of circumstances it will horrify you to learn that Rush is a modern day Daniel Webster compared to his kid brother. David is the author of instant remainder pile books like Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today's Democratic Party and Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. But he is best known on his own as a columnist for, who else, the Washington Times, i.e. the last rung on the conservative pundit ladder, just ahead of Little Green Footballs, the John Birch Society newsletter, and Swank magazine.

While Rush's afterbirth is too unoriginal and repetitive to make a full-scale FJMing tolerable or fun, his latest Times missive ("Bloodlust of the Avenging Left") is an example of right-wing logic not to be missed. To wit (emphasis mine):

This returns us to the Ackerman op-ed urging impeachment of (Jay) Bybee for "his legal distortions" concerning those "torture memos." In the liberal spirit of declaring their opinions the only reasonable opinions — as with global warming — Ackerman apparently believes that any lawyer who opines that tough interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, do not constitute torture is guilty of legal distortion and is "a systematic enabler of the war crimes that have disgraced America." Ackerman allows that Bybee "may have acted in good faith," but his opinion "fails minimum tests of legal competence." There you have it. If you disagree with this liberal professor about an issue on which reasonable people clearly disagree, you are incompetent, and unless you can demonstrate your good faith, you should be punished.

There are two major flaws with this "logic." First, this mischaracterizes the question as some sort of innocuous difference of opinion, as if Jay Bybee opposes tax cuts and his political opponents support them. Perhaps the author should familiarize himself with the Nuremburg Judges' Trial, after which a lot of people ended up on the gallows for concocting sham legal rationalizations for committing crimes against humanity. Is authorizing torture the same thing as the Holocaust? Of course not. But the fact remains that torture is indeed a war crime and ludicrous, selective, and deterministic interpretations of the law to excuse it carry the burden of culpability.

Second, the circular nature of Limbaugh's false dichotomy is obvious. Neocon extremists argue that torture is OK (or that what they do isn't torture) therefore they have committed no crime because this is an issue about which people disagree – for instance, neocon extremists argue that torture is OK. The existence of conflicting opinion does not make an issue contentious. As usual, right-wingers live in a fantasy world in which every opinion has validity, and as long as someone holds said opinion then it is an equal partner in public discourse. Reasonable people (like John Yoo and Doug Feith!) say that torture is permissible. Reasonable people (like, we asked EVERYONE in Cheney's office!) believed the pre-Iraq War intelligence. Reasonable people (like David Irving!) argue that the Holocaust never happened. See? This is the goal – establish a discourse in which facts are irrelevant and all that matters is saying what you think loudly enough.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the outgoing administration's behavior and the fact that Obama is clearly a gigantic pussy who isn't going to authorize his DoJ to investigate war crimes is this new iteration of the Nuremburg Defense. Instead of "I was just following orders" we now have "(I/he/etc) acted in good faith." What the fuck does that even mean? It's not just a poor justification; it's no justification at all. It's an empty platitude which vaguely suggests that the people who approved, ordered, and executed torture didn't really think it was torture so therefore they committed no crime. To suggest that acting in good faith is any sort of legal defense negates the entire purpose of a criminal justice system. Obama's statements send a clear message: pervert the law however you want. There are no consequences.

Combining two different opinions does not automatically create debate. Some people argue (in good faith, no doubt) that the world is 6,000 years old. Choosing to believe something idiotic and only defensible outside of the rules of logic doesn't oblige the rest of us to take your opinion seriously. Everyone's entitled to his or her opinion, a maxim that in no way implies that said opinions are presumed valid simply by virtue of being uttered.

PHILLY FANS

Posted in Rants on January 19th, 2009 by Ed

No, this is not about the throttling that the Philadelphia Eagles endured at the hands of my beloved Cardinals and "Hail Larry" Fitzgerald. It's about a new friend of mine who is graciously enriching our lives and this website.

In the comment section of the recent thread about the murder of an unarmed, restrained 22 year old black male in custody of the BART police in San Francisco, we were all treated to the elegant pontifications of Ku Klux Kommenter calling itself "mimi." Read the comments at your leisure, as I see no purpose in recapping them here. I long ago learned the futility of debating knuckle-dragging racists who can barely stammer out an uncapitalized, poorly spelled non-sentence of sub-moronic hate.

Through the miracle of teh internets I was able to locate this modern day Byron via its IP address. Proving that there is some sort of god who loves and watches over me, said commenter is from Philadelphia. Not the city of brotherly love adult onset diabetes fans who booed Santa Claus the World Series Champion Phillies. I'm talking about Philadelphia, Mississippi. Could this have worked out more perfectly?

Philly Junior has no World Series baseball team, delicious namesake sandwiches, Ben Franklin impersonators, or Liberty Bells. The only noteworthy aspects of its decrepit, pointless existence have been to host two important events that help explain the kind of America that produces "mimi" – the infamous murder of three Civil Rights workers in 1964 (as retold in the popular film Mississippi Burning) and Ronald Reagan's 1980 masterpiece of dog whistle win-'em-over-with-racism politics, the "I believe in States' Rights" speech.

Rather than discuss the history of those events in any depth, it is more instructive to look at what has happened to Philly Junior since Reagan's visit so many years ago. A tactful contemporary description of the town notes:

As has been common for small towns across the U.S. in the last part of the twentieth century and since, the economic base of the town and surrounding area has been adversely affected by the abandonment by long-present industries that have down-sized, consolidated or moved to more financially beneficial locations.

Read: like the Rust Belt, only worse because it's in Mississippi. But wait! In free market wet dream America there are ways for economically dying communities in the middle of nowhere to save themselves. I will now pause while you place bets on whether the next thing I say involves a casino or a prison.

However, this adverse effect has been offset or even reversed by the development of an entertainment and casino center at Pearl River Resort, located on the nearby reservation of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

As we know full well what kind of "development" seedy casinos in impoverished areas bring, let us safely assume that Philly Jr has been and remains broadly representative of post-industrial towns everywhere. The jobs leave, the community descends into an uncontrolled death spiral, and people who have burned more books than they've read are desperate for salvation or, failing that, a scapegoat.

Now. I wonder who the folks of Philadelphia, Mississippi might choose to blame for their shitty lives. I wonder who they might consider responsible for the death of Republican Fantasy America from 1952, the great era that never was. I wonder if they blame Austrian School economics or multinational political agreements which have fundamentally (and unfavorably) altered the economic landscape from the perspective of the American working class.

Shit. I was wrong. It's the negroes. I thought I had two good guesses, but the problem is negroes. To quote Frisky Dingo's Mr. Ford, "And you can thank Ronald Reagan's ass for that!"

The Conservative God himself is more responsible than any politician not named "George Wallace" for the mainstreaming of, if not overt racism, race-based scapegoating. That the timing of this series of comments allows me to make this post on MLK Day, a holiday Reagan repeatedly and vigorously opposed until Congress submitted it with a veto-proof majority, is just one more example of how everything's coming up Ed on this subject. As most of the South (and certainly rural Mississippi) evenly mix dirt-poor white and dirt-poor black, Reagan put into action the famous words of the 19th Century robber baron Jay Gould: "I can hire on half of the working class to kill the other half."

The "mimis" of the world are no more than the logical end result of political discourse that is so eager to provide poor, angry, ignorant people with someone to blame for their plight. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain; your depressing shit hole of a town is so because of black people. In the Great Communicator's words, working peoples' paychecks shrunk because of "welfare queens driving Cadillacs", "strapping young bucks" buying steaks with food stamps, and the Voting Rights Act, which was "humiliating to the South."

Racism is nothing but the product of willful, proud ignorance and opinion leaders, be they on talk radio or in the White House, who actively encourage those who wear illiteracy like a badge of honor to find scapegoats rather than think about the root causes of declining prosperity. Racism didn't begin in 1980, of course, but you almost have to marvel at the skill with which the GOP turned the latent fear-of-anyone-different racism of the stupid into a comprehensive answer for the questions raised by the rapid and total socioeconomic collapse of places like Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I ALWAYS KNEW I WOULD LIVE TO SEE THIS

Posted in Quick Hits on January 18th, 2009 by Ed

But I wasn't so sure about saying the same for my dad. I'm glad it worked out for him. For us.

I am going to the Super Bowl.

Fuck yeah.

FEAR

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 16th, 2009 by Ed

Everyone has a phobia that qualifies as irrational; needles, heights, insects, water, and so on. Phobias can get obscure and, to an outside observer, ridiculous. I am afflicted with the horrors of gephyrophobia – the fear of bridges – albeit not severely. I don't go out of my way to avoid driving over bridges (and strangely walking over them doesn't bother me at all) but sometimes I get a little nervous about driving over them. It makes no sense, obviously. My purpose in admitting this is to emphasize that I understand that phobias do not respond to logic before I point out the logical flaws in one of the most common fears: the fear of flying.

The amazing story of the airline pilot who put an A320 down on the Hudson River yesterday with no loss of life reminded me of two very good non-fiction books which are worth your time: Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things and Ben Sherwood's new Survivors Club. As the incident in New York illustrates nicely, the books combine to argue that people are prone to be afraid of things that are almost immeasurably unlikely (plane crashes, being attacked by poisonous snakes, being on a bridge while it collapses, etc) or, when they do actually happen, aren't nearly as dangerous as we think.

The exhaustive database at Plane Crash Info, a site intended to simultaneously entertain the morbid and soothe the fearful with statistics, shows that even when large airliners crash the vast majority of passengers (78%) survive. So not only are your odds of being in a plane crash miniscule, but on the unbelievably unlikely chance that you are in one you're probably going to live. Images of a very small number of sensational accidents with hundreds of fatalities are seared into our minds and drive our fears. We employ our tendencies toward dichotomous, black-and-white logic and decide that Plane Crash = Fiery Death. We remember the 9/11 crashes or TWA Flight 800, examples that confirm our conclusions, but not Aloha Flight 243, a plane that literally came apart at 35,000 feet with 90 people aboard – 89 of whom survived.

I understand that the fear of flying is independent of statistical probabilities. Aviophobes know that flying is a hundred times safer than the driving they do fearlessly every day. I know that my odds of being on a collapsing bridge are roughly equal to my odds of being the next Pope. The books mentioned above are both very interesting as studies of how our fears are often socially constructed in addition to being rooted in psychology. Our minds are rarely swayed either by numbers or by appropriate anecdotal evidence. Irrational fears are among our brains' most stubborn tenants.

AS LONG AS EVERYBODY'S VIDEOTAPING EVERYBODY ELSE…

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2009 by Ed

You are all well aware how much I like to rail endlessly about police brutality. The temptation has been strong, but I held off on the New Year's Eve BART shooting until some sort of administrative decision was made regarding the offending officer. Well, now that he has been charged with murder shortly after his resignation I think that we have enough context to make a few conclusions.

Theoretically I should be pleased with the short-term outcome: prosecution on a murder charge rather than a lesser offense or, as often happens, no charges whatsoever. Unfortunately I have little faith in the verdicts returned by the inevitable all-white jury with very specific ideas about what cops are allowed to do to black males. Alternatively, they may choose to go with the "one minority juror" system which virtually guarantees a mistrial. Regardless of what happens next it's good to see that he was prosecuted, though.

But does the DA actually deserve applause for this? Was there any alternative to prosecution for murder or something similar? The entire world has seen video – from numerous angles – of a police officer standing up, fumbling with his holster (which he had plenty of time to do because the suspect was cuffed, not resisting, and being kneeled upon by another officer) and then shooting a kid in the back for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This is no Rodney King video with margins just big enough for the professional cop apologists to offer an alternative version of events. The video is what it is and not even the most imaginitive Fraternal Order of Police rep or AM Talk Radio host can concoct a plausible explanation for the shooting.

The truly sad part about this story isn't the pointlessness of the victim's death or the brazen manner in which police abuse their limited authority. No, the sad part is how the story would have unfolded without the timely intervention of camera phones. Imagine that the folks on the trains didn't notice the incident until after it happened or didn't think to record it. What would be the reaction in that case?

Well, first of all we wouldn't be talking about it. It would be just another one-paragraph story on page 18 of the Metro section – "Umpteenth young black male dies in police custody." Yawn. Second, the police would have been able to tell with impunity their boilerplate tale of violent, resisting suspects who left no option other than the application of lethal force. You are familiar with the story by now. A scrawny black kid goes berserk and has the strength of 20 stout longshoremen, flipping over cars and coming close to killing two officers simultaneously with his bare hands. When the officers were just inches from death at the hands of a madman, they were left with no alternative except to shoot him with heavy hearts and deep sadness. After a few days of "paid administrative leave" (i.e., vacation) the deeply shaken officers return to work praying that they will never again be forced to use their weapon in the line of duty.

How many times has this storyline played out? I can't give you a number, but it would have been +1 on New Year's Eve but for the intervention of bystanders with cameras. The truth is that many instances of people dying in police custody have more in common with this incident than we will ever know. Without a (living) witness to contradict the Official Version of Events, deaths in custody almost inevitably get chalked up to justifiable force against an Incredible Hulk of a suspect. It is a particularly pathetic commentary on the state of the post-War on Drugs, militarized police in the United States that guerilla video footage is our last best hope for enforcing some version of sanity in law enforcement.

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INTERNONYMITY

Posted in Rants on January 14th, 2009 by Ed

A colleague raised an interesting point not terribly long ago.

Everybody googles everybody, right? If you're an employer seriously considering hiring someone, unless you happen to be 65 or Amish it's likely that you'll see what Mr. Internet has to say about John or Jane Doe. This is why many people cloak themselves in the anonymity that the internet allows. If you want your very own website about your regular conversations with extraterrestrials, it is reasonable to expect that you might not want the boss to know that you are insane. So John Doe becomes "John in Texas" or "AlienGuy01", author of AlienBlog.net. If you feel like becoming a regular commenter at PissInMyMouth.com, you wouldn't post as "Mary Jones, Public School Teacher from Pittsburgh" would you? Of course not. It's common sense.

Mike, the guy who used to live here and now lives here, politely asked that I not use his last name when I re-designed the site. Another regular poster, who may get involved with my exciting new side project BillKristol.net (coming soon!), was explicit about the work-related need to conceal his identity. One of the members of my band is, for identical reasons, quite enthusiastic about not using his real name. These examples are the norm. In a society in which a lot of people take offense to language or subject matters more risque than a Leno monologue, it makes perfect sense.

Which raises an interesting question: why don't I take advantage of internet anonymity? Blogging is particularly dangerous for academics – at least this kind. People have been denied tenure over blog-related controversies. And as my colleague recently pointed out, it's entirely possible that members of hiring committees google me and find this site. Then 90 seconds later my file is in the trash. Maybe that's paranoid. Both academics who blog and the Chronicle of Higher Ed insist that it happens. To wit:

Job seekers who are also bloggers may have a tough road ahead, if our committee's experience is any indication.

You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, "Oh, no one will see it anyway." Don't count on it. Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.

I don't know how much stock to put into such talk. Regardless, I would seem to be an excellent candidate for keeping things incognito. Students, for example, could find this website and, with little effort, assemble a Magna Carta-length list of material for formal complaints.

I've certainly thought about all of these issues and considered the potential consequences of my daily bursts of profanity and dick jokes. Here's the thing. I don't give a shit. I'm not ashamed of anything I've ever said or thought in this context and I don't really care who wants to read it. Moreover, I have two big issues with the academic bias against blogging.

First, it only seems to be a problem when someone has a blog that offends the Talk Radio crowd. It's OK for Glenn Reynolds to essentially be wrong about everything and distort reality to fit his shrill talking points so long as he doesn't tick off David Horowitz and Glenn Beck. Hell, it's OK for John Yoo to be on faculty while simultaneously, you know, being a war criminal but heaven forbid someone has a blog where they use words like "fuck." Lying and distorting the truth are acceptable. The line must be drawn at the moral evil of swearing, though.

Second, this anti-blog bias represents a very petty and narcissistic side of some tenured (hence older) academics. They react very angrily and with considerable bitterness to the idea that anyone could care about what one of their underlings (grad students, untenured assistant profs, or, god forbid, even an undergrad) has to say. I have a modestly successful blog with a consistent base of readers now in the high triple digits. Believe me, that really bugs people who have dedicated their careers to creating a huge academic output that absolutely no one cares about. Academics publish incredibly compartmentalized work in journals no one reads. In a month more people read a decent blog than will ever read the output of most tenured academics in a lifetime. And most importantly, the blogging format circumvents the gatekeeper function of the academy. The idea that a lowly grad student could write anything without the Elders first giving it a stamp of approval…well, it's practically academic heresy.

So, screw it. At this point I'm in way too far to backtrack anyhow. Regardless, I take solace in the fact that I am a flat-out terrible academic and no one would hire me sans blog either. This thing makes me happy, and if I'm going to be unemployed or driving a bus for a living I might as well do what makes me happy.

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TRUST ME, DOC, I READ ABOUT IT ON WIKIPEDIA.

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2009 by Ed

Microsoft Flight Simulator is a very popular PC game and its appeal is based largely on its realism. It gives a nation full of adults who thought as children that it would be really cool to fly an airplane the opportunity to sit before a fake instrument panel in an imaginary cockpit and say things like "Tower, are we cleared for takeoff?" Juvenile thrills abound. If we suddenly thrust an avid Flight Sim player into control of an airliner in mid-flight, he might have some useful information. He could probably identify certain instruments or grab the right lever to lower the flaps, but said flight is ultimately going to end in disaster. Despite its significant realism, no amount of playing the game makes one an airline pilot.

Last week's post about VBAC raises a very interesting question that the advent of the internet hath wrought. Like the gamer who thinks that his simulated experience makes him a real airline pilot, the overwhelming amount of information made available on the internet can easily lead people to overestimate their own capacity for decision-making. Having the world of information at our fingertips is both empowering and deceptive. For every individual who makes better decisions by educating herself there is another who does what Americans do best: consume a small amount of superficial, decontextualized information which he believes makes him an infallible expert.

In recent years medical professionals have noted a disturbing new trend which is illustrated in this recent Canadian study of 300 doctors:

(Some) doctors said many patients are quick to self-diagnose using the Internet, and are often resistant to the physician's diagnosis and course of treatment.

Apparently this phenomenon, the "WebMD effect" if you will, is quite familiar to doctors and nurses these days. I can only imagine how many suburban hypochondriacs walk into the office/ER and offer the name of a condition rather than a list of symptoms. Microsoft released an internal study showing that not only is such self-diagnosis common but it often leads to unduly dire conclusions (headache = basal skull fracture). While some people who played doctor offer cautionary tales of self-diagnosis turned disastrous, my impression is that WebMD continues to serve as the Build-a-Bear Workshop of American healthcare – a one stop U-Diagnose-It site for hypochondriacs, the uninsured, and the "What makes the damn doctors and their fancy book-learnin' think they're smarter than me?" crowd. And WebMD seems like Johns Hopkins compared to what the rest of the internet offers the unwell. My personal favorite: "How to Self-Diagnose Appendicidis" which includes helpful tips like "You feel a pain in your gut."

Americans generally do a terrible job of locating happy mediums. There is a wide, unpopulated gulf between empowerment through knowledge and a dangerously false sense of security and expertise. Tools and information intended to allow Americans to make better, more well-informed decisions quickly jumped the shark and turned into blog posts with gems like "I just went to WebMD for a self diagnosis of a fluttering I feel in my chest at times." Rather than thinking, "I should probably ask a medical professional about my irregular fucking heartbeat" the classic American combination of laziness and arrogance sends people running to the nearest we browser to quite literally cure what ails them.

More information is always better, but it must be kept in context. Having all of the pieces does not mean that one knows how to assemble them. The internet can tell us a lot but it can't make us doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, Generals, chefs, historians, scientists, and auto mechanics. Bringing the argument back to last week's post, spending time on pregnancy message boards and perusing MyNaturalHomeBirth.com (or something equally amateurish) does not give the reader the ability to pass a qualified medical judgment on anything. Sure, "experts" and professionals are wrong sometimes. However, something tells me that a doctor is right a little bit more frequently than some knucklehead typing "Is VBAC safe?" into a search engine.