Posted in Rants on August 31st, 2010 by Ed

So apparently there is something of an outbreak of pertussis, a.k.a. Whooping Cough, in California. Not Calcutta. Not Khartoum. California. The one on the left hand side of the wealthiest nation on the planet.

Pertussis. In California. How does that happen, like, ever in the U.S. let alone in large enough clusters to attract notice? Pertussis is one of the many diseases that we consider largely eradicated in the "developed" world, i.e. the parts of the globe with reliable systems in place for water treatment and waste removal. Nobody in the U.S. should be getting whooping cough anymore than they should be getting monkeypox, filariasis, the measles, or yellow fever. And none of those diseases are to be expected in this country because reliable vaccines are available, often free of charge, everywhere in the Western world.

To put the California issue in context, this is where pertussis is most prevalent:

See that dark red one, California? That is Niger. The same Niger ranked 182nd out of 182 nations in the U.N. Human Development Index. While it has little in common with California (except for Merced…am I right people? *rimshot*) a growing number of Californians are imitating the people of Niger in one respect: they are not vaccinated against basic, easily preventable diseases long ago banished to the undeveloped parts of the globe.

Thanks a pantload, retards!

America – and the rest of the planet, for that matter – has a long tradition of backward knuckleheads who prefer hokum to science and folk remedies to actual medical care. This is what poorly educated people do. They reject things they don't understand. This is why we educate ourselves as a nation, to teach people not to reflexively trust their neanderthal instincts or revert to the intellectual equivalent of shamanism when confronted with the products of an educated society. But now such impulses have the appearance of mainstream legitimacy (Just look at all this information on the internet! Some of these people look, like, real scientific and stuff!) and rather than dropping the hammer on it with maximum force, the media and your more gullible friends and relatives nurture it along.

Why? If Jenny McCarthy started a movement claiming that Pepsi or Centrum Vitamins cause autism, you would recoil in horror from the sheer violence with which the mainstream media and society at large would beat her down. It would be like watching a small puppy flattened under a steamroller. Yet in the interest of "controversy" or ratings (the stay-at-home mom audience being a large one, and being a Mommy who Knows My Child being a more valid form of medical expertise than actually practicing medicine when it comes to the vaccine-autism question) this ridiculous "movement" is entertained up to the highest levels. All of this, of course, is endlessly fueled by the internet: transparently stupid conspiracist websites, echo chamber "communities" for the afflicted (be it with illness or imbecility), and syrupy, drooling MommyBlogs where people who know a great many things As a Parent explain why science is wrong and post hoc most definitely allows us to conclude propter hoc. Every time a Mommy explains how MMR gave little Ethan autism, God adopts and drowns a helpless kitten.

The internet is the greatest thing to happen to idiots since Walter Freeman pioneered the transorbital lobotomy, and it has done almost as much to make them even dumber. Let's really go for the gold and see if we can't work up a nice outbreak of polio, diphtheria, or tetanus right on the doorstep of some of the finest medical and scientific infrastructure on Earth. You can do it, Jenny.


Posted in Rants on August 30th, 2010 by Ed

Anthony Downs' An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) is among the most widely read and influential works in both economics and political science (a feat made more impressive by the fact that it contains no data, but I digress). For me, however, Downs' finest moment came later in his career when he defined the "Issue-Attention Cycle" in Western democracies. It remains the single best model for describing social and political reactions in the United States to a sudden, overwhelming crisis – famines, riots, disasters, outbreaks of disease, and so on. The Haitian earthquake and the Gulf oil spill were great examples. The 1980s Ethiopian famine was another.** And on this 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I can't get Downs' theory out of my head.

The cycle has five stages.

1. The pre-crisis stage: All of the conditions exist for a crisis, but no one is interested. No attention is paid to the underlying, obvious, and persistent problems that will eventually become the crisis. In New Orleans, everything that led to the disaster was apparent to anyone who cared to look, although no one did. Staggeringly inept and corrupt local political leadership. Crumbling, inadequate infrastructure. High susceptibility to natural disasters. Stark racial divides and nearly city-wide grinding poverty. Poor to nonexistent Federal emergency preparedness.

2. Alarmed discovery: "Holy balls," says America, "New Orleans is an impoverished hellhole bitterly divided by race and drowning behind broken levees known to be inadequate for the past several decades! And the Federal government doesn't give a shit! No one is able to compensate for the appalling shortcomings of the local government!"

2a. Euphoric enthusiasm: "We can fix this! We're America! Honey, get my wallet. Let's send $25 to the Red Cross. Everyone get on board! Pull! Pull!" The problem, however, is understood as exogenous to society, thus the problem can be solved without any fundamental reordering (or even reappraisal) of society itself. No one asks sticky questions about entrenched racism or decrepit, disintegrating cities. That would be hard. The problem can – nay, must – be solved the same way Americans solve everything: throw some money at it and never think/speak of it again. As the saying goes, they will call you a hero if you feed the poor but a Communist if you ask why there are poor people who need someone to feed them.

3. Realizing the true costs: "What, you mean my $25 donation didn't fix everything in Haiti? It didn't feed sub-Saharan Africa? It didn't drain, dry, and repair New Orleans? WTF." At this point the public realizes that the problem runs much deeper and would require substantial resources and sacrifices to fix. When everyone realizes that $100 million in charitable donations and a few billion in international aid were barely enough to make a dent in the problems in Haiti or New Orleans or Banda Aceh or Bam, we are taken aback. The problem, we realize, stems from something that benefits vast portions of the population. Americans benefit from squalor in other countries. Suburbanites save money by abandoning cities and letting them rot. White people benefit from a black underclass. All Americans take advantage of desperate, exploitable Mexican labor. We like cheap oil made possible by unspeakable things done in oil-rich regions. So the real problem is…us.

4. Declining interest: People have one of three reactions to the realizations that accompany Step 3. They grow discouraged from the enormity and seemingly insolvable nature of the problem, they get bored, or they suppress it because thinking about the social changes that would be necessary to address the problem is frightening. So the number of news stories peters out, and 24 hour coverage becomes twice hourly coverage becomes twice daily coverage becomes something that isn't covered at all outside of specialty niche media.

5. The post-crisis stage: The name is misleading because nothing about the crisis has been resolved, but in the public mind it is history. We all did our part by pledging $25 to the Red Cross, and since the stories are disappearing from the TV and newspapers we can only assume that the problem has gone away (like that whole genocide thing in Darfur!) It will occasionally pop up again – the odd news report here or there, often on anniversaries – but for the most part we are through with it. More importantly, some other "new" issue is entering Stage 2…

As many of the Five Year Reflections will tell you about Katrina, a lot has changed. There is rebuilding. Some people have come back. The city carries on with its social events as usual. But in a more important way, nothing has changed. Many of the problems that caused the crisis, not to mention many lingering problems caused by the last crisis, persist. New Orleans is still poor and divided. Large portions of it still look like disaster areas five years after the fact. The local political leadership is corrupt and incompetent. The infrastructure remains poor in New Orleans, not to mention every other city in the country (Didn't a highway collapse in Minnesota or something? I don't remember.) However, lacking a public, media, or political class willing to do anything except slap bandages on gaping wounds before moving on to the next one it should come as no surprise to see retrospectives about New Orleans as the Brave Little Toaster, trying to get back on its feet while ultimately failing.

The current news items struggle mightily to remind us that problems still abound and the crisis isn't over; the problem is that for most Americans, no matter what evidence is placed before them, it is. We have not only moved on to new issues but also to our favorite way of obliterating social obligations to think or care about problems – blaming the victims and washing our hands of the issue.

**See Bosso, C. (1989). Setting the agenda: Mass media and the discovery of famine in Ethiopia. In Manipulating public opinion: Essays on public opinion as a dependent variable



Posted in No Politics Friday on August 27th, 2010 by Ed

When the first humans set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11), many people know that they left behind a plaque and an American flag to clarify that We conquered space and not You. Space aficionados probably know some other neat trivia about the event, but I've rarely encountered anyone who knows the story of the most interesting artifact left behind by the astronauts.

The U.S. collected 73 "goodwill messages" from nations around the world and, showing off some technology that was new at the time, engraved every word on a tiny silicon disc. If you look closely, the tiny blocks of text are faintly noticeable in this picture, with a 50-cent piece for reference:

Thankfully, NASA's archives contain a photocopy, albeit of mediocre quality, of the full text of the tiny messages. It is an amazing time capsule of the world in 1969. Scrolling through the document reveals a parade of CIA-supported right-wing dictators, Soviet client state puppets, and the combination of earnest revolutionaries and genuine crackpots governing African nations less than 10 years old. I can't help but point out a few highlights.

We have craziness, courtesy of Liberian president W.V.S. Tubman:

We salute these explorers of outer space and pray for their security and safety while we admire their courage and intrepidity. I ask them to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there. If they do not, it is my desire that this message be one of greetings from the people of Liberia and myself to the Moon, Nebulous satellite of the Earth.

Is "nebulous" the right word there? L.S. Senghor, the president of Senegal, gives us the flavor of the late '60s with a line straight out of a blaxploitation film:

This is a message from black militants. It is a message of human solidarity, a message of peace.

I…see. The Polish Ambassador offers tidings simply drenched in the sentimentality and human feeling for which Soviet Bloc governments were so well known:

Although we are not suggesting any message from the Polish Head of State, please be assured that the achievements of the U.S. astronauts are followed by us with great interest, appreciation and best wishes for the success in their endeavor.

But seriously, a few of the messages are remarkably lyrical, using the kind of language that modern political leaders have abandoned in the continuing effort to dumb it down:

The Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago acclaim this historic triumph of science and the human will. It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world. (Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago)

I would hope that when this passenger from the sky leaves man's imprint on lunar soil, he will feel how proud we are to belong to the generation which has accomplished this feat. I hope also that he would tell the Moon how beautiful it is when it illuminates the nights of the Ivory Coast. I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up there. May his word, descending from the sky, find in the Cosmos the force and light which will permit him to convince humanity of the beauty of progress in brotherhood and peace. (Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast)

We feel admiration and confidence toward all those who have cooperated in this performance, and especially towards the three courageous men who take with them our hopes, as well as those, from all nations, who were their forerunners or who will follow them in space. With awe we consider the power with which man has been entrusted and the duties which devolve on him. We are deeply conscious of our responsibility with respect to the tasks which may be open to us in the universe, but also to those which remain to be fulfilled on this earth, so to bring more justice and more happiness to mankind. (Baudouin, King of Belgium)

Pope Paul VI also contributed the oddly appropriate-for-the-occasion Psalms 8, although we may safely assume that its author did not have lunar conquest in mind.

Overall, I love the story of this disc and its text as quasi-time capsule from a very different time. For those of us who were not alive to see this happen these words provide valuable context for one of the most interesting eras in history, politically speaking, representing the peak of both the Cold War and American power. For you old timers who saw this happen live, hopefully these well-wishes lead to a positive trip down memory lane.


Posted in Rants on August 26th, 2010 by Ed

I was born in Illinois, and in fact I have spent the majority of my life thus far living in that wonderful political trainwreck of a state. Despite my deep affection for it, Illinois' penal code provides an excellent example of an alarmingly under-reported problem with sentencing disparities in this country. No, I'm not talking about that hilariously awesome crack-vs-cocaine sentencing disparity. I'm talking about the puzzling differentials between sentencing for battery and domestic battery.

According to these statistics from the Illinois Department of Corrections, mean/median sentences for aggravated battery, a Class 3 felony, were 3.0/3.0 years in 2004. For Domestic Battery, a Class 4 felony, the mean and median in the same year were 1.9/2.0 years. The strategic batterer will note the incentive to hit someone with whom they live rather than a stranger in Illinois.

Here in Georgia, domestic battery is considered a kind of Aggravated Battery, punishable by a minimum of 3 years in prison. In the same section (16-5-24) of the criminal code, Aggravated Battery on a public bus is punishable by a minimum of five. Take note: punch your wife, not an Atlanta bus driver.

In Arizona, a mandatory prison sentence, albeit one with no defined minimum, is imposed for the third conviction for domestic violence. Welcome to Phoenix, where the first two are free! (Different penalties may apply for Mexicans). Similarly, Mississippians treat domestic violence as Simple Battery punishable by "a fine of not more than Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six (6) months, or both." However, Battery on a court reporter or school bus driver is punishable "by a fine of not more than One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00) or by imprisonment for not more than five (5) years, or both." Indiana treats domestic battery as a Class A misdemeanor (although that's more severe than regular battery, a Class B).

Some states get it right – and by "right" I mean that domestic battery is treated at least the same aggravated battery, if not more seriously. But the number of states that do not is troubling. (Caveat: The FBI Uniform Crime statistics don't help here and I don't have time to research 50 states individually. Feel free to offer supporting evidence or counterpoints from other states). What is the logic behind this? Is there any logic behind it at all? My guess is that either the average state legislator doesn't think about this issue enough to bother looking up the statutes or they believe that the domestic nature of the crime is a mitigating factor rather than an aggravating one. Which is, uh, interesting.

Yes, I understand how a court might want to see it as a mitigating factor in specific hypothetical situations. Wife hits husband first, husband hits back, husband is the only one charged. But how often is that the case? What percentage of DV cases fit that description? If it was as large as 5% I'd be shocked shitless. I think the, um, 'traditional' model of husband beating the crap out of wife is somewhat more common and somewhat more problematic. By somewhat I mean a lot.

Perhaps the real "logic" is that domestic battery doesn't result in the same degree of bodily injury (on average) as aggravated battery on the street. In some cases there is no physical injury at all. That misses the point entirely. DV isn't about how much damage is done and "Oh, he only slapped her a little" isn't a valid way to downplay it. It's about people being in a relationship (or formerly so) in which one thinks it is OK to dominate and control the other. There is enough evidence to justify the use of the slippery slope here: verbal abuse turns into a push, a push turns into a punch, and a punch turns into something with worse consequences than a bruise. That pattern plays out so reliably because being on the giving end of domestic violence isn't something most people just decide to try on a whim. It's the manifestation of psychological or personality disorders reinforced by social attitudes that say it's OK, it's just something that happens, or that it's bad but excusable. And isn't it kinda the abused person's fault for staying in the relationship?

I honestly understand why the law would want to hand down a stricter sentence for violently assaulting a stranger than for me slapping my spouse or verbally abusing her. Based on a "physical damage done" criteria, the current laws would place those crimes in the correct order. The problem, however, is that both crimes suggest a pattern of behavior. If I get in a bar fight today, I'll probably get in another one later. If I beat my wife now, I'll beat her later too. But we have all the evidence we need or will ever hope to have that the latter is indicative of a patten of violent behavior that will get progressively more severe unless it is interrupted. In a country in which so many elected officials are desperate to get "tough on crime" to compensate for their tiny genitals or shore up the suburban vote, the attitude of "Well we can't really throw the book at 'em until we see some blood or a corpse" is as counter-intuitive as it is silly.


Posted in Rants on August 25th, 2010 by Ed

Here in the State o' Georgia, a solid majority of the population tends toward Teabaggery. Many are under the hypnotic spell of Neal Boortz, Lord of the Airwaves, or one of the many charismatic and highly intelligent local politicians like Sonny Perdue, Saxby Chambliss, or Paul Broun. Georgians don't like taxes, big gub'mint, liberals, uppity colored presidents, or any of the other things the modern conservative is contractually obligated to hate. This doesn't describe every Georgian, of course, but…there are no doubts about our redness.

Here are the 10 largest employers in Georgia:

Or, to put it another way:

1. The government
2. The government
3. The government
4. The government
5. Private university heavily dependent on state/federal grants and federal student loans
6. The government
7. Private university hospital
8. Government contractor
9. The government
10. Private employer

Think that's funny? Check out Florida!

The inability of these people to understand that "fiscal responsibility" and "cutting spending" are slogans for cutting their own throats is beyond me. I mean, what this state and its 9.9% unemployment rate really need is for the state to stop spending money (and Congress too!). They rationalize it, I'm sure, with some bullplop about cutting "waste" or maybe old favorites like "welfare" which, according to Boortz, is probably like 70% of the state budget.

On the other side of the country, DWT brings us the charming story of remote Modoc County in Northern California. The "citizens" of this tiny county (population: 9,449) are currently debating a ballot measure to institute a small tax to keep its only hospital open. If it closes, the next-closest hospital might be hours away (a nearby hospital is over mountains that are impassable in winter). And like many rural hospitals, it is the county's largest employer. The parcel tax will cost each land owner an extra $195 annually.

In the county that handed McCain his largest victory in California, that's heresy. To the Teabagging faithful, dying before they can reach a hospital after having a stroke on the farm is a small price to pay for that extra $195 – although once the county's largest employer folds I can't imagine who will be left except for the sizable population of old, immobile, and angry retirees.

I don't sincerely expect the average talk radio fan to have a great grasp of the numbers or, you know, reality, but it is amazing how ignorant Americans are of the extent to which our economy is dependent on government spending. State, federal, and local governments combined have employment rolls running into the millions (2 million for the Federal government alone, not counting the military or the private sector defense industry that depends entirely on Pentagon money). Yet all we hear is cut, cut, and cut some more. Fire the teachers, screw the cops, and shut down the hospitals. That will make everything better, right?


Posted in Rants on August 24th, 2010 by Ed

With recent news that the Department of Defense surveyed not only the enlisted men and women but also their spouses about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), the topic of gays in the military is once again fodder for the talk shows and water coolers. Thanks to a well-placed inside source who must remain nameless, I managed to secure a partial copy of the surveys. Pretty revealing stuff, I think.

Part I: For MALE members of the Armed Forces (spouse should not be present)

1. While stationed in the Middle East, I prefer to spend my downtime:
A) Learning about the local culture
B) Sleeping
C) Looking for a pickup basketball game
D) Calling home
E) Loitering around the latrines

2. I would feel morally or emotionally troubled if I had to follow an order:
A) That subjected me to unnecessary risks
B) That involved harming civilians
C) Without being certain of the objective
D) Despite previous objections to the same order
E) Given by a big ol' homo

3. My attitude toward gays in the military is closest to:
A) None of my business
B) Don't like it but will accept it if ordered
C) Refuse to accept it
D) I'm fine with it
E) Haven't been this excited since Moulin Rouge came out on DVD

4. My favorite part of a Yankees-Red Sox game is the:
A) Quiet leadership of Derek Jeter
B) Unharnessed raw talent of Jacoby Ellsbury
C) Pure intensity of the Boston-NY rivalry
D) Late inning heroics of Jeter or Big Papi
E) Taut, rippling buttocks of Robinson Cano

5. I joined the Armed Forces:
A) To make a difference
B) To serve my country
C) Because it's a steady paycheck and good benefits
D) Parental pressure
E) Rampant homoerotic horseplay; group showers

Part II: For the WIFE of male service members. Your spouse should not be present.

1. At the state fair, my husband usually:
A) Gets a funnel cake
B) Falls for whatever deep-fried novelty is popular that year
C) Has a few beers too many
D) Is too busy riding coasters to eat
E) Sucks the batter off a foot-long corn dog

2. In bed, it bothers me when my husband:
A) I have no complaints. We're fine.
B) Is too stressed out or tired
C) Expresses interest in other women
D) Is more concerned about his needs than mine
E) Tapes a picture of Robert Pattinson to the back of my head

3. When your husband hangs out with his buddies, they are most likely to:
A) Fish or hunt
B) Drink cheap beer and get loud
C) He doesn't have many close friends
D) Watch or attend sporting events or play sports
E) Do something involving elaborate sequined costuming

4. It would bother me most if I knew that my husband was _____ in (Iraq/Afghanistan):
A) Doing immoral things
B) Seeing things that will traumatize him
C) Forgetting about me and/or his children
D) Developing a taste for violent acts
E) Forced to serve alongside big ol' homos

5. Based on my experience and contact with him, my husband's behavior is ______ since deployment:
A) Mostly unchanged
B) Quieter and less animated
C) Obviously depressed
D) Erratic and unpredictable
E) Super gay

I'm still working on getting the results, but I hear that the Department of Defense is troubled by the number of "E" responses. I'll keep looking over this data to see if I can figure out why.


Posted in Rants on August 23rd, 2010 by Ed

Despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Information, relatively little attention was paid to last week's withdrawal of the last active combat battalions from Iraq. My first reaction was to wonder why the media and public were not treating this as a major story, instead focusing on the idiotic Ground Zero nontroversy and various other tabloid quality nonsense. But the reasons are pretty obvious. First, this is largely symbolic and the U.S. military presence remains considerable. The idea that this is a withdrawal is eerily reminiscent of Bush's "end of major combat operations" with its glaring adjective. Second, Iraq is completely fucked up to an extent that we dare not speak. To draw attention to the withdrawal would raise too many questions about what we're leaving behind. Lastly, we'll probably be going back in soon if the performance of the Iraqi Army is any indication.

The victory narrative – er, "success," since the word "victory" has been stricken from our political lexicon – is entirely hollow, as Hannah Gurman points out. A national myth might be a small price to pay, however, if it contributes to getting us the hell out of there. That seems unlikely. While the administration(s) have been touting the might of the 650,000 strong Iraqi Army for eight years now, only a fraction of its manpower is remotely reliable and an even smaller fraction (estimated at 50 battalions) is capable of carrying out combat operations unassisted. Ray Odierno is already working the media and laying the groundwork for an American return, noting that we'll go right back in if there is a "complete failure" of the security forces in place. I'd put the odds of the Iraqi Army's failure at, oh, about 100%.

It goes without saying that "success" applies only from the American perspective, and even then only inasmuch as success is defined at getting the hell out. Iraq is a disaster. The talk of success and withdrawal contrasts markedly with the car bombings and mortar attacks and this cute little story about terrorist sympathizers who infiltrated the police and let some al-Qaeda guys out of prison. Does that sound like stability? Like something that will function as a state? At best it sounds like a second Afghanistan. The American Embassy, the grandiosity of which has been pointedly noted over the years, includes its own water, power, and sewage facilities, a telling statement of what Washington really thinks about the "progress" made in Baghdad.

The reality is that Iraq lacks functioning infrastructure, an economy outside of servicing the U.S. military and foreign contractors, or anything resembling an effective government (in which ex-Baathists, hidden insurgents, and plain ol' corruption remain epidemics). To be brutally frank, this amounts to par for the course in Central Asia and much of the Middle East. Hell, even given its sad state of affairs at present, Iraq is still in better shape than a number of countries in the region that haven't suffered eight years of foreign invasion (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, most of Pakistan, and so on). But the war was supposed to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the region. If the outcome is that we made Iraq into West Pakistan or Lesser Armenia, I'd say we aimed for the moon and ended up exploding on the launch pad. The outcome, even though it is what any thinking person would have expected at the outset of this misadventure, will linger on as an embarrassment to the U.S. much in the same way that Vietnam did for an earlier generation.

What happens next in Iraq? The neocons were right about one thing: without the U.S. military there, things will probably get much worse in a hurry. Where my opinion diverges from theirs is that I don't see this undeniable fact as a reason to make an indefinite commitment to keeping a presence there and sustaining a couple hundred U.S. combat deaths per year until 2030 or whatever. Our military presence is still substantial – there are almost 70,000 troops still in the country – and of course our economic investment will continue (and continue bankrupting us). I get the feeling that we'll have a hard time defining anything as "success" except for getting the hell out, and the State Department and Pentagon might want to dust off some tricks from the Cold War playbook, starting with the chapter about how to prop up a failing puppet regime.



Posted in No Politics Friday on August 21st, 2010 by Ed

So, here's my Worst Flying Experience tale. It pales in comparison to your stories of defying death on Third World airlines or taking hard landings with white knuckles, but it has its own unique flavor of misery nonetheless.

I was in Hawaii for an academic conference. More accurately, I was ready to jump off a bridge after my first year in grad school and I used the conference as an excuse for a vacation in Hawaii. My inbound flight was uneventful, as was my stay.

As is common with Hawaii-US Mainland flights, my outbound flight departed around midnight. Departing at midnight local time puts one in the continental US around midday the next day. Of course, leaving at midnight means that everyone on the flight immediately goes to sleep. Among several hundred people on a full 777, there was not a soul awake 20 minutes after takeoff except for the flight attendants. And me. And the person sitting next to me.

I am going to try to be delicate here.

I had an aisle seat and the passenger to my right was a large (severely) developmentally disabled boy of about 15. His handler, for lack of a better term, sat to his right. With an attitude that unmistakably said "I have been dealing with this kid 24-7 for a week and I'm goddamn tired of it" and without so much as a word to the kid, the handler put on a sleep mask, inserted earplugs, took a quantity of prescription sleeping pills that I imagine would adequately tranquilize most zoo animals. She immediately fell asleep.

This confused the kid. He did everything he could to get Mom/Handler's attention but she was out cold, clearly with the intention of not having to deal with him. So he turned his attention to me. Intermittently for the next eight hours, I was slapped, poked, headbutted, and unintelligibly slurred at by a child with some obviously extreme developmental handicaps. I tried talking to him to no effect. So for the duration of the flight, every time I tried closing my eyes, reading, or listening to music I wouldn't make it a full minute before he started doing something that involved all or part of his body from striking mine. I am pretty sure he shit his pants around hour six.

The icing? Since everyone on the flight was asleep, the attendants did not bother changing the in-flight film. Thus Miracle, the jingoistic Kurt Russell film, played three times in its entirety. An attendant offered me headphones for the audio, which I politely declined. I was the only way I could think to make the experience worse.


Posted in No Politics Friday on August 20th, 2010 by Ed

We scholars (or in my case, "scholar" in skeptic quotes) of American politics miss out on a key rite de passage in graduate studies in the social sciences: doing fieldwork. We don't spend a year or two of our lives in places no sane person accustomed to the pampered American lifestyle would go. We do not interview Uzbek peasants in unelectrified villages in the Pamir Mountains. We do not live among the undiscovered tribes of Borneo. We do not subject ourselves to thrice-daily malaria prophylaxis or vaccinations for diseases eradicated in the West during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Our data are readily accessible or, if not, can be collected in the comfort of various Capitals.

On the one hand, this is great. We finish grad school a little faster than our foreign-oriented colleagues and we don't have any hardships along the way. But on the other, we don't have bitchin' fieldwork stories like, "I lost a toe in Siberia to collect my data" or "Yeah, my hut was only accessible by burro." Granted, not everyone who does overseas fieldwork ends up roughing it to that extent, but you get the idea. It is worth many Experience Points and if it doesn't build character it will at the very least provide some colorful stories.

The most consistently amusing of the Field Work Tales, in my opinion, is the Third World Airline tale. I mean, we Westerners think our airlines are bad, and they are. They lose luggage, they are always late, and their staff range from indifferent to openly hostile. That said, our airlines are not bad like most of the world's airlines are bad. As much as Delta sucks, it's not Air Angola or Garuda Indonesia. It never ceases to amaze me that people actually get on domestic flights in undeveloped countries. They are almost entirely unregulated and they fly planes that have been used up and discarded onto the scrap heap by the major airlines.

The travel writer Robert Young Pelton offers some sage advice about flying in underdeveloped places: "Never board a plane if its logo has a goat in it." This strikes me as excellent advice, but we know that being picky is not always possible. In places with no road networks, you take the Flying Yak Airways flight to Point B if that's where you need to go.

I never tire of horror stories of the in-flight variety, largely for three reasons. I have led a soft life, the airline industry is very interesting to me because it represents so much of what is wrong with our economy and society, and I am a 9 year-old who thinks airplanes are Neat. So go ahead and regale me with your airborne adventure tales. What was your worst flying experience? Scariest? Funniest? Sure, I'll take the "Delta lost my suitcase" variety, but I'm hoping that a few of you globetrotters or old-timers will have a good story or two of the Holy Shit variety.

Don't let me down.


Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2010 by Ed

You know, we Americans like to think of our political system as one that is immune to the extremes found elsewhere around the world and throughout history. There is some truth to that. For all the times we accused George W. Bush of being a "dictator" or having totalitarian ambitions, the American experience pales in comparison to a real totalitarian state (say, Myanmar or North Korea). This is partly a matter of semantics and partly reflective of our higher standards and expectations. It's sort of like saying "Man, I am really starving." Sure, you may not have eaten all day, but your statement would look pretty ridiculous if you said it next to someone who was actually starving.

I hope this is always true of the U.S., that even the lunatic extremes of our political spectrum fall short of subjecting the country to roving death squads, racial pogroms, government-controlled access to information, and so on. But if we can step outside of the comfort zone of our cushy life of contesting politics in the confines of a liberal democracy, an objective view of this country is pretty scary. I struggle to think of modern democratic state in which the conditions for the success of fascism would be better. I mean, we have it all: simmering racial hatred, extreme xenophobia, sharp class distinctions, a ravaged economy, and the grandiose belief in our own exceptionalism.

That thought is simultaneously paranoid and plausible. Watch a Teabagger rally and tell me those people would not fall in line behind the right charismatic fascist leader if given the opportunity. And I don't mean Tom Tancredo. I mean a real, honest-to-god, working from Hitler's playbook fascist. Because as the Ground Zero mosque story underscored in yesterday's post, most Americans don't believe in rights except for themselves. Sure, we talk about rights a lot, along with freedom, liberty, the Constitution, and all kinds of other high-minded concepts. But when the chips are down, we are willing to deny (other) people rights at the drop of a hat. The cry of the American right quickly changes from "Constitution! First Amendment rights! Freedom of religion!" to "Yeah, but I hate Muslims more than I love any of that stuff." I came across this interesting question on the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large survey of over 30,000 adults during election years. The question asked respondents to indicate their support or opposition for a number of proposed election reforms:

Yeah, we don't so much understand that Constitution thing. We can turn into King George in a hurry when our prejudices so dictate.

Hannah Arendt may have written some of the most important political analysis of the 20th Century when she characterized the post-War analysis of Nazi Germany as "the banality of evil." The people seated on witness stands were not horned monsters or satanic comic book villains (even if they committed acts that we'd expect from Satan himself). They were your parents, your neighbors, and your dentist. Arendt concluded that just about any person was capable of committing Nazi-style atrocities under the right circumstances. How much urging do you think a crowd of Teabaggers would need to burn down a mosque or start rounding up brown people? It's like Bill Hicks said about alcoholics – anyone can become one. All it takes is the right bar, the right friends, and the wrong woman.

We've all seen Sinclair Lewis' quote that "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." (Unfortunately he never actually said that; the real quote is "When fascism comes to the United States it will be wrapped in the American flag and will claim the name of 100-percent Americanism." according to the Sinclair Lewis Society. Nothing about a cross. And there is evidence that he got the quote from – get your irony pants ready – Huey Long). We've all heard that because it gets brought up regularly, and it gets brought up regularly because, well, it's really, really plausible.