Who knew BP was even that popular? Almost 19,000 fans for BP. Huh.

Yes, I'm doing this in hopes that Google Ads will dump some BP ads on me, so you can click on them, and I can do my part to drain a few pennies from BP. That's British Petroleum. Got that Google Ads? British Petroleum.


This is what demonizing a population gets you:

At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.

"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.

"Get out," others shouted.

In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.
It got so bad that police had to come to the rescue of the two Egyptian Copts. Mind you, I don't have a lot of sympathy for anyone involved in this story, from the ignorant non-Arab protesters who consider a mosque to be an insult to the ignorant Arab protesters who consider a mosque to be an insult. One of the charges we have as citizens of a secular, inclusive country is to make room for and tolerate all different beliefs. Notice I didn't say "respect"--I said tolerate. More on that later.

The first thing I thought of when I read this article was "that's what happens when you spend eight years conflating Muslim with Arab." When you have know-nothings like the ones who were in charge until January 2009 constantly saying Muslims are terrorists and yet downplaying the fact that not only are there significant numbers of non-Arab Muslims in the world, but that there's a sizable non-Muslim population in the Middle East, it's no surprise that you'd have an ignorant mob fail to notice that the Egyptians at the protest are on their frigging side. After all, we've seen politicians and pundits argue that anyone who looks like they're of "terrorist descent" (thank you forever, Aaron Magruder, for coming up with that) should be profiled before being allowed to board a plane--why shouldn't the public assume that everyone with a name like Karam isn't ready to blow up a crowd of people? Besides, Idol's on, and the news media's biased anyway.

I wish I had any confidence that anyone involved in this mess would learn a lesson from it, but I don't. I'm cynical today--I'm cynical a lot when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics these days, because we can't seem to get the basics of human interaction down. We're all sharp elbows and hurt feelings and looking for a shortcut to get mad at each other, and religion doesn't help that. The people who are going to get along are going to get along, and if they're religious, they belong to some moderate faith which uses some variant of the "all roads to the same place" metaphor. And the people who are looking to hate on the other are going to hate, and if they're religious, they're going to relate to some version of the "we're right and you're going to hell/should die, infidel" metaphor. Add in a dash of racism and you get what happened in this story--a case of mistaken identity nearly causing a (sort of) fratricide.

There are a lot of things I could rant about here, lessons that could be taken away. The first would be that this is a great example of why profiling is foolish, but no one who matters is going to listen to that one. None of the people in that mob would listen to it. They're the kinds of assholes who carry signs to identify themselves as "A Proud AMERICAN Infidel."

But I want to go back, instead, to what I mentioned in the first paragraph--tolerance. In the past, I've thought that we need to be more than tolerant of other faiths, or other belief systems. I've said that I think we need to respect those systems. Not anymore. I can't do it. I can't respect faiths which treat women as less, which demonize non-believers or different-believers, which preach peace and loving kindness one week and justify war and death the next. I can't respect Islam either (see what I did there?)

But I can tolerate them, because I neither expect nor even desire everyone else to think the way I do. I'm not one of these Pollyanna atheists who thinks the world would be unquestionably better if everyone gave up God, because it's not belief that makes us assholes (though it doesn't help)--the assholes are just assholes. Some of them use religion as an excuse for acting that way, just as some truly wonderful religious people use their religion as a justification for being wonderful (like they need it).

All I ask--all I demand, as a citizen of this nation--is that you tolerate my non-belief, and that you tolerate your neighbor's different belief. You don't have to like it, you don't have to pretend to like it. You just have to tolerate it, just like they have to tolerate you. And that means that if some New York Muslims get all the necessary clearances and permits to put a center up in the general vicinity of the former World Trade Center, and you don't like it, tough. I don't like that the Catholic Church is still allowed to run elementary and junior high schools given their recent record, and I don't like that creationists can open up "museums" that show humans and dinosaurs walking together, but I deal with it. That's the price of the United States. We're diverse. We're secular. Get used to it.

I really shouldn't, because all it does to me is make me shake my head and wonder about the world he inhabits, and why he's getting a paycheck for this. Take today's column, for instance. Hell, take the first paragraph:

As a friend of both Turkey and Israel, it has been agonizing to watch the disastrous clash between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla of “humanitarian” activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Personally, I think both Israel and Turkey have gotten out of balance lately, and it is America’s job to help both get back to the center — urgently.
Sounds reasonable, except for those snarky, sarcastic scare quotes around the word "humanitarian." Why put those in, unless your motive is to suggest to supporters of a two-state solution that you're anti-Israel? The scare quotes are there to suggest that the supplies headed to Gaza weren't really aid at all, but we're all going to pretend they are for the sake of this conversation. John Cole has provided a graphic with a partial list of what's forbidden by the blockade--take a look at it and then tell me if Friedman's scare quotes are anything other than a dick move.

It's not Friedman's last, either.
I have no problem with Turkey or humanitarian groups loudly criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel’s actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria’s involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime’s killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a U.N.-sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn’t force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children.
Of the four instances he mentions, the first two were criticized loud and long by many of the same people who want the Gaza blockade lifted, and I'm not exactly sure what the last two have to do with this discussion, other than to try to link opponents of the blockade with Muslim extremists. Note to Friedman--it's entirely possible to be a supporter of Israel's nationhood and the two-state solution, and acknowledge that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Supporting an end to the Gaza blockade is not equal to supporting Hamas, no matter how much you would like it to be so.

I'm also curious as to exactly how Friedman thinks this flotilla was a "setup." Israel's done a pretty good job on its own of making itself look bad in recent years. To treat this situation as though Israel is the victim of crafty opponents is insulting to anyone who's followed this story. It's offensive.

I'd like to think that some day, the Catholic Church will be nothing but a bunch of men yelling about how unclean women are while the women who were once Catholic shake their heads and wonder what took them so long to leave an institution that seems to hate them.

Suppose you're a woman, a nun, working at a hospital as an administrator, and as part of your job, you're asked to help decide whether the hospital can perform an abortion on a woman who's 11 weeks pregnant in order to save her life. Now at 11 weeks, the fetus is nowhere near viable, and the mother can't survive long enough with this fetus inside her to get it to viability, so the options really are 1) do an abortion and save the mother or 2) let them both die. The nun chose option 1. She's since been rebuked by the local Bishop and has been reassigned to different duties.

Lest you think my title was unfair, here's Bishop Olmsted's reasoning on the matter:

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, indicated in a statement that the Roman Catholic involved was "automatically excommunicated" because of the action. The Catholic Church allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus.

"I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese," Olmsted said in a statement sent to The Arizona Republic. "I am further concerned by the hospital's statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition.

"An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."

Olmsted added that if a Catholic "formally cooperates" in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.
The arrogance in that statement is overwhelming. Forget a health-of-the-mother exception--Olmsted doesn't even see a life-of-the-mother exception for rape--and yet Olmsted is described in the very next paragraph as "the voice of moral authority over any Catholic institution operating in the diocese." I don't see anything moral about that stance.

There's nothing moral about telling a woman who's alive today because medical professionals did their job that she should be dead based on your misogynist and archaic value system. There's nothing moral about telling all women that it's better that they die rather than have a fetus (one that has zero chance of survival in this case) removed. There's nothing moral about telling a woman that her current life is worth less than the potential life she's carrying around inside her. At least, there's nothing moral about that to me.

What about the Cubans?

This morning, The Miami Herald reported that Republican candidates for statewide races had come out firmly in support of Arizona's recent immigration laws, and have suggested Florida should follow suit. (Rubio isn't quoted in the Herald, but he's in support of the law as well.) But I think this could very well backfire on all of them--could, I emphasize.

A big part of Florida's problem with immigration has to do with the different ways we deal with the various groups who show up on our shores. If you're from Cuba, the law says that if you make it to land, you can stay, and in a year you can apply for residency. If you're from anywhere else and you come here in less-than-legal ways, you're out of luck, assuming you get caught. And your chances of getting caught is, of course, dependent on how you look. Let's put it this way--if you go to one of the many Irish pubs in the area, there's a decent chance that someone working there is here on a tourist visa or has overstayed a visa or just came in through some other means. In other words, they're illegal. But the chances they'd be asked for documentation by a local cop should Florida pass an Arizona-type law? Practically none.

But Cubans? If Florida adopts this sort of law, some Cubans can expect to be confused for Dominicans and other Latino/as, if only for this reason--not every cop is going to discerning enough to differentiate between them (assuming the cop makes an attempt in the first place). So there's a big chance for insult, right alongside the insults that every other legal Latino/a immigrant is likely to face.

But if that's not enough to convince you, then think about this. Arizona is already getting economically pummeled by boycotts. Our economy is beyond fragile right now, and we can't handle a hit to our tourism industry in the best of times. We need people to come here not only from the rest of the country, but from other countries, and if we become Arizona 2: Immigration Bougaloo, we'll see an economic hit that makes the bursting of the real estate bubble look like a hiccup.

So there's two good reasons to not adopt an Arizona-type immigration law. The problems Arizona faces with racial profiling are multiplied here, and the potential economic hit is too much to bear. How much confidence do I have that Florida Republicans will come to their senses and not do something like this? Not much.

Dear Republicans:

To the RNC in particular, which is acting pretty stupidly right now, I have some words. I understand that, for any political party, the nomination of someone to the Supreme Court is an opportunity for fundraising, and that the party is going to go to some pretty outlandish lengths to raise outrage, even when there's nothing to get outraged about. But this is pretty freaking stupid, even by that measure.

In its first memo to reporters since Kagan’s nomination to the high court became public, the Republican National Committee highlighted Kagan’s tribute to Marshall in a 1993 law review article published shortly after his death.

Kagan quoted from a speech Marshall gave in 1987 in which he said the Constitution as originally conceived and drafted was “defective.”...

“Does Kagan Still View Constitution ‘As Originally Drafted And Conceived’ As ‘Defective’?” the RNC asked in its research document.
You know who else felt the Constitution, as originally drafted and conceived, was defective? The people who wrote the damn thing. That's why there's a method for amending it written into it. That's why they added ten amendments to the damn thing almost immediately upon ratification--because it was defective. It lacked some things they felt were necessary. And it's been amended an awful lot since then, in order to meet the needs of a changing society.

Marshall was talking about the 3/5ths compromise as a defective part of the Constitution, but let's go with something nearer and dearer to Republican hearts--the right to bear arms. Not in the Constitution as it was "originally drafted and conceived." It came later, in the form of an Amendment. Given that, conservatives should be first in line to acknowledge that the original Constitution was defective.

This is one of the main reasons I'm tired of people who deny that the Constitution is a living document, and who argue that the original intent of the Framers should be the end of the discussion. The Framers obviously knew that they were putting together an imperfect document, and that the needs of the country would change over time. That's why they made it possible to amend the thing. To deify the Framers is to do them a disservice. We do ourselves a disservice as well, because we assume that a group of men who lived over two hundred years ago have a better grasp on our world than we do today. How does that make sense?

Tina Harden brought the books back, she says because she'd brought attention to the issue, and not because of the attention she'd received. Or the fact that others had donated more copies of those books to the library (so many that the library is refusing to accept them now). Or that public opinion was pretty solidly against her. Nope--she'd done what she set out to do, she claims, and now it's over.

Oh, and she'd like that $85 fine waived now too, please.

"It's not that I lost the books or I didn't feel like turning them in," she said. "I want us to work together. Hopefully they have the same goals as I do."
The Seminole County Library Services Manager has said they can't waive the fines, and I hope she sticks with that. There's a principle at stake here, and it's not the money. The $85 is nothing. I don't know Harden's financial status, but even if she couldn't afford the fine, there are enough people out there who support what she's doing that someone (or a group of someones) could pay it without blinking.

The principle is that there has to be some cost, some payment you have to make if you break the rules, even if (maybe especially if) you're breaking them in what you consider a good cause. If I chain myself to the fence outside the White House to protest DADT or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm doing so knowing that I'm likely going to spend some time in jail, and probably pay a fine and court costs. I'm not going to get to dodge that simply by saying I did so as a matter of conscience. And if I think a book should be removed from a library (which I wouldn't) and take it upon myself to do so, then I bear the expense of that, whether it means I get sent to a credit agency for a bad debt, or lose my library privileges, or have to pay either late fees or for a new book. That's the deal. If you don't pay a price, you're not really making a statement. You're just being a douche.

About a month ago, I went down my driveway to go to work, and I saw my neighbor had torn up his lawn. It wasn't just a part of the lawn, and it's not a small lawn: we're talking a half acre of land turned to naked dirt. Our neighbor has a lawn maintenance business, so I knew he'd done this himself, on purpose. But I was mystified as to what would bring a man to take such drastic measures. Had there been some toxic spill on his lawn that required draconian clean-up? Was he installing some massive new sprinkler system that meant digging up the whole plot? Turned out, he'd dug up his lawn because he had weeds. He'd decided it was easier to re-sod his entire property with fresh-farmed Bermuda grass than to try to get rid of those weeds. A few days later, his yard was (once again) a flat plane of green.

It no doubt annoys my neighbor, but my yard is ALL weeds, 100% pure natural Native Florida wild-growing groundlings that float in on the wind. My landlord pays our neighbor (the same one who tore out his own lawn) to come over once every couple of months and beat them back with a weed-wacker, but if he didn't, they would grow about a foot high. And stop there. They ain't bamboo.

Although we do have a stand of lovely bamboo in the front yard, which I love: it shades the house in evening and provides a little privacy. But our neighbor who takes care of the place, who de-turfs at the first happy dandelion, hates the bamboo. If it were up to him, our yard would look like his, complete with a sign warning:

Comical in its over-politeness (I picture a lab on his hind legs reading this over the rim of his glasses, a newspaper under one arm), but the message is clear: this is a household that cares about its lawn. Don't tread on this.

I will admit I feel a constant glare of disapproval coming from that house. This is a free country, and every family maintains its property the way it chooses, but one person's "au natural" is another person's "au neglect." One person's shady, privacy-granting bamboo is another person's nuisance.

It reminded me of a short (27 minute) documentary I'd watched recently, about grass. I met the filmmaker, Isaac Brown, at an artists' conference, and he generously handed out DVDs. Most of us are busy, and most of us are not looking for new things to be outraged about, but after watching Gimme Green, I definitely feel it's worth at least 27 minutes for us all to become aware of what our lawns (or our neighbors' lawns!) are up to.

I love the length, by the way. Compare that 27 minutes to a TED video, which is usually about 18 minutes, and those are just "person on a stage with slides" videos -- Gimme Green moves and travels, it gives us great "characters" and great visuals. It's perfect for the web. Go here to watch the full movie, but here is the trailer:

There's a fellow in the film who shows the film makers his yard: it's lovely. Lots of tall trees (probably ficus?) protecting a cool, shady ground where grass won't grow: a great place to sit and relax, a cool comfortable haven from the hot Florida sun. But then the man points out that he's being hassled by his neighbors and code enforcement. They want him to cut down his trees and lay squares of sod. It seems to run in the face not just of individuality, but of common sense: in Florida, where it is steamy and hot, a flat plane of green grass is a useless patch of work: you must mow it and maintain it and you will derive no joy from it. A cool shady grove is not just his choice, it's a wise choice.

But as the film's interviewee's frequently imply, that flat, useless product of pointless labor we call a "lawn" is a signifier about one's relationship with a god, or his neighbors, or the state of one's life or mind, and what it seems most to signify is "a nice, safe nothing": that there is nothing unique (and therefore nothing threatening) about the person or his mind, that his "god" is a mindless platitude (safe), that his concept of his neighbor is of nice, safe strangers, that his life and mind are nice, safe blanks, too terrified of a thought to do anything unexpected. The flat lawn is the blank slate of the subconscious, sitting in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, made obvious through a ritual so accepted as necessary that people who live in desert places sacrifice their water to it.

I'm not going to sum up the film or give a blow-by-blow, but I do want to point out that the film primarily takes place in two places, Florida and Arizona, and that these two places are as different as can be. Florida has its droughts, but it is generally a wet and sunny place; things grow here. But when we learn that in Arizona (in the desert, where massive projects have already diverted all the water than can be diverted and it is running out) that households are pouring three times as much water onto the ground as they drink or use to flush the toilet just to have those plots of grass -- grass that has no business being in a desert at all, it smacks of the same madness that drove the Easter Island people to destroy themselves.

Hey, those Easter Islanders may have cut down every tree and destroyed their civilization, but look at that sweet lawn!

It seems to be an article of human nature that we will destroy ourselves for our totems. In one society that might mean a giant statue, but in ours it means (at least in part) a clean square of green.

This is the fourth in my series on Florida Artists, especially the ones I just met. Previous posts here and here and here. Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

It's Not All About You

Amy told me about this yesterday--Tina Harden is an Orlando mom who thinks she ought to be able to decide, unilaterally, which books belong on the public library's shelves.

Longwood parent Tina Harden was so disturbed by references to sex and drugs and foul language in the world of fictional teenager Jenny Humphrey that she is ignoring overdue notices and phone calls from her neighborhood library and its bill collector.

Harden refuses to return several books connected to the Gossip Girl series that detail Humphrey's life, even though she's had them since 2008.

"If I turn them in, they will be put back into circulation and they'll be available for more young girls to read," said the mother of three, who keeps the four books hidden in a closet. "Some material is inappropriate for minors."
I'm going to make a quick prediction here--the daughter that Harden is trying so desperately to "protect" from these books is going to try all those things that Harden is trying to protect her from, possibly in very public and foolish ways. That's what teenagers do.

Harden has every right to restrict her daughter's reading material. I think it's a little silly and a little late--Harden, after all, didn't discover the nature of the books until after her daughter had checked them out and read them--but that doesn't mean she has the right to steal from the library just because she disapproves of the content of those books. Harden justifies her actions this way:
That's not good enough for Harden, who said that as a taxpayer she should have a say in which books land on the libraries' shelves. "They're supposed to be public servants," she said.
There's a couple of interesting things going on in this argument. First, there's the idea that being a taxpayer gives you the right to set the rules for everyone else. The fact is that Harden, just like everyone else in the community, gets to "have a say" in which books show up on the shelves. You can "have a say" by donating books, by requesting certain books be carried, or by objecting to certain books. What you don't have is the final say--the librarians do--and that's what's cheesing off Harden, because she obviously feels that they're not good enough to make those decisions.

Why do I say that last part? Harden said "they're supposed to be public servants," and in the context of this disagreement, that seems to me to throw a lot of weight on the "servant" part of the sentence, as though the librarian is supposed to be the serf who bends to your every literary demand. But she neglects the "public" part of that construction, or rather, she narrows it. I figure it works this way:
The librarian is a public servant.
I am a member of the public.
The librarian is my servant.
The flaw in that argument is apparent to anyone who doesn't think the world revolves around their arrogant asses. You are not the public--you are only a member, and there are other members with equally valid positions, some of which may gasp! differ from your own. And that's why we give public servants a fair amount of autonomy, because they have to balance all these competing interests.

If there's a good thing to take away from this, it's that the library has come off as completely reasonable in the article, and the journalist illustrated the important and difficult jobs that librarians have, especially given the cutbacks they've had to endure the past few years. I'd be interested to know just how Harden votes when it comes to taxes that support the library her daughter frequents.

Note: this piece ran earlier today at The Rumpus.

Joe Lieberman is introducing something he calls the Terrorist Expatriation Act--TEA Act for short, though the redundancy seems lost on them--which would make it possible for the State Department to strip the citizenship from anyone they determine is "involved with terrorist activities."

Lieberman claims that he's simply trying to update existing law. Current law makes it possible for a citizen to be stripped of their citizenship if the state can prove that the citizen intended to revoke it. One way of doing that is by joining the armed forces of a state engaged in hostilities with the US. Lieberman's legislation would expand that to include "providing material support or resources to a Foreign Terrorist Organization, as designated by the Secretary of State." So why is this such a big deal?

It wouldn't change the action that got the undershorts of Lieberman and many others all twisted up, namely, the Mirandizing of Faisal Shahzad. Due process rights extend to everyone arrested in the US, citizen or not. You'd think a US Senator would know this. What this legislation would allow, however, is for people like Shahzad to be tried by military tribunals instead of civilian courts, at the discretion of the State Department, and that's what he's really after.

It's hard to come to any conclusion other than that Joe Lieberman likes the trappings of democracy, but not the hard work of it. Any chance he gets, he's in favor of trading trials for tribunals and saying that law enforcement isn't up to the task of convicting and punishing those who would use terrorist tactics as a way of disrupting our day-to-day lives. Lieberman is, as today's NY Times Editorial pointed out, "co-author with Mr. McCain of a bill that would require that anyone arrested on any terrorism-related charge, including American citizens, be declared an enemy combatant and tried in a military court."

Lieberman, and those who side with him including Senator John McCain and Representative Peter King, are cowards. (Peter King is a hypocrite too, of incredible proportions, but that's another story.) The Framers of the Constitution included certain protections because they had seen just how much an unchecked state could abuse those under its power. They could have limited due process rights to citizens only, but they didn't. They took the more difficult path because they felt it was necessary to the existence of a free and open government (even if that government was only free and open to white male landowners at the time).

Here's what I think really puts Lieberman's position in perspective, though. Who do you think said the following about Shahzad?

He's a citizen of the United States, so I say we uphold the laws and the Constitution on citizens. He has all the rights under the Constitution. We don't shred the Constitution when it’s popular.
Some ACLU lawyer? Some hippie law professor from Terrorist Coddlers University? Some poet with no idea how the real world works? Nope. Glenn Beck. When the rodeo clown is making more sense than you are, you need to seriously reconsider what you're doing.

Oklahoma's full of liars

Someone else must have pointed out the glaring contradiction in the reasoning between two of Oklahoma's recent abortion laws, but it bears repeating here. The ultrasound law is based on the idea that women should have every piece of information possible before having an abortion, even if that information is obtained via an extraordinarily invasive procedure. That law's implementation has been delayed temporarily while the state retains the services of Teresa Collette to defend it. Collette said this: "It would be remarkable if a women would undergo a medical procedure and a doctor would not have an obligation to describe the procedure and the results of that procedure to the patient." Indeed, that would be remarkable. In fact, that makes the bill sound somewhat reasonable, if you ignore the whole invasive procedure against the patient's will part of it.

But let's assume, against all evidence, that the state of Oklahoma and Professor Collette are arguing in good faith. Why, then, this?

Under this new law, a doctor may withhold information, mislead or even blatantly lie to a pregnant woman and her partner about the health of their baby if the doctor so much as thinks that fetal test results would cause a woman to consider abortion.
This is HB 2656, passed at the same time as the first law, and whose veto was overturned at the same time. So the state mandates an invasive procedure--the ultrasound wand has to be inserted vaginally if that will produce the clearest image--ostensibly because the doctor has an obligation to describe the results of all tests and procedures to a patient, while simultaneously giving the doctor the option to lie to the patient about the results of that procedure if he or she thinks those results would cause the patient to consider an abortion. If Oklahoma isn't the Republic of Gilead yet, it's real close.

It's possible--even likely, I'd argue--that the legislators who voted for these measures didn't see this contradiction when they voted on, or even when they wrote this legislation, because it's very obvious how they feel about women. Women, in their minds, are incapable of coming to the "correct" decision on an abortion, and so must be forced into that decision by whatever means are available. If that means they have to make doctors rape their patients with an ultrasound wand and turn the screen toward them while describing what they're seeing, it's a small price to pay as far as they're concerned. And if a doctor thinks that telling a woman that her fetus might be born with SMA or Down's Syndrome would cause her to consider getting an abortion, well, the doctor knows better, and the woman should just deal with the consequences.

Not that this should be surprising. After all, one of Oklahoma's Senators is a doctor who was accused of sterilizing a woman against her will and thought there was an epidemic of lesbianism in Oklahoma high schools. Okay, that second one isn't really relevant, but it does show the kind of people who can get elected to statewide office in Oklahoma. Oklahoma politicians respect women the way radical Muslims do--women can't be trusted to make their own decisions about their own bodies and so must have that ability taken away whenever possible, contradictions be damned.

I'm tired of this excuse

At Balloon Juice, it's called "hoocoodanode," the excuse that lots of people come up with in a weak attempt to cover their asses when something bad happens. It's all the more frustrating to hear when what happened was pretty predictable. The one that sticks in most peoples' memories is from Condoleeza Rice in 2001 with her "no one could have predicted someone would fly planes into buildings" (I'm paraphrasing from memory here) when in fact the author Tom Clancy had written just such an event into a novel some years earlier. Forget the PDB--a fiction writer had come up with just such a scenario.

And the list is miles long. The latest version comes from BP spokesman Steve Rinehart who said "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now." Well, the governments of Norway and Brazil did, Steve. They require another failsafe above and beyond what your rig had on it, which means that they felt what you had might not be enough in the case of a catastrophic failure. Guess who was right? That's not to say that the actions Norway and Brazil would have absolutely stopped this sort of failure, just that they saw the potential for a problem and decided to require one more level of security.

I'm not saying we can plan for every eventuality (though I grew up hearing stories about the odd things the US military had planned for, just in case--I bet there's multiple plans of action in case a UFO shows up on top of the White House, for instance), but we ought to stop taking a Titanic-esque view of our technology. Anything can fail, and fail badly, so we ought to try to plan out ways we can deal with worst case scenarios. Take a look at this bit from the first piece I linked above:

BP did not build the containment devices before the spill because it "seemed inconceivable" the blowout preventer on the rig would fail, Rinehart said. 
I'm going to pass up the opportunity for a Princess Bride joke here and instead say that it was also inconceivable that the Titanic would sink, but it happened anyway. Or actually, that it wasn't inconceivable. It was unlikely, perhaps. It was improbable. But not inconceivable.

And I'm not just nitpicking over words here. We need to do a better job of conceiving potential disasters, because we're capable of doing incredible damage to our eco-system, damage we might not be able to rebound from one day. We need to do a better job of figuring out if the potential damage from a worst-case scenario is worth the short-term economic benefits.

I keep thinking about a sign I often see behind the desks of office workers, which says "failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part," and very often I agree with that sentiment, even if I'm the one who failed to plan enough. But in these sorts of cases, the failure of people in places of responsibility to plan can cause an emergency for me, and for all of us.

My daughter lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and she went to the beach this morning to see what effects the oil spill were having. So far, this is the only animal she's seen washed up, but it certainly won't be the last. She told me that it was dead. I'll pass along more photos as she sends them to me.

So I go to Balloon Juice this morning and I see a link to this, something called "The Lady's Brunch Burger" from Paula Deen at the Food Network. Check out the picture.

If that picture looks familiar, it might be because it's a sandwich that's been around for a long time. It's called the Luther, and I wrote about it over 4 years ago. The name supposedly comes from Luther Vandross, either because he ate them or he invented them--no one really knows for sure. It's famous enough that it warranted an entire scene in season 1 of the animated series The Boondocks, in the episode titled "The Itis." And if I could find the video of Granddad making it and Riley eating it, I'd post it.

But no mention of it on the page where Deen re-invents it as "The Lady's Brunch Burger." When I posted this on Facebook, Amy replied with "By "lady" I assume she means 400 pound post-amputation pre-stroke diabetic in an Ambien fugue." So I started to wonder, might it be a good thing that Deen "created" this burger for a different (whiter) audience? Maybe I just ought to lay low on this one, for the good of everyone involved.

I keep seeing this pop up in my Facebook feed--"So-and-so and 18 of their friends joined the group 'Petition to remove facebook group praying for President Obama's death.'" Here's the "prayer."

In other words, it's a joke. Not a particularly good one, and not an original one either, as there was one circulating earlier which put George W. Bush in the place of Barack Obama, and a former student of mine put Fred Phelps in there as favorite preacher. And the people who are part of the original group aren't exactly covering themselves in glory--neither are those attacking the members of the page, I should point out as well. Put on boots if you're going to wade through that morass.

I think the people who are calling for this group to be removed are overreacting more than a little. Obama hatred is irrational but not illegal. And the joke? It's on the members of the group. All of the people the joke references died in 2009, so if the members are serious about this, then either God told them to piss off, or Obama's mojo is stronger. I'm cool with either result. What's more, the joke misspelled the names of two of the people it includes--Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett.

But Brian, no doubt someone will reply, these people are fomenting hate against the President of the US. Perhaps. Then again, look back (or don't) through some of the things I wrote here during the Bush administration. You won't find the same poor quality of grammar or spelling, but you will find similar levels of vitriol, all aimed at George W. Bush and his administration.

Lastly, even if this were an actual attempt to pray Obama to death, objecting to it doesn't really make a lot of sense. If you actually believe in a benevolent, omnipotent God, then you'd have to have faith that He's not going to be swayed by a group of Facebookers with questionable language skills, wouldn't you? The kind of God who'd cave to those people wouldn't be worth worshiping. And of course, if you're an atheist, then you're not worried about it having any effect. And on the plus side, a Facebook group like this makes it easier for the Secret Service to track people who might actually take this sort of thing seriously.

Some questions

This flier started appearing on campus today, which is fine--I fully support conservative groups bringing on people to help advocate for their positions. And there's no hiding the agenda here--the Heritage Foundation is mentioned at the bottom and in the credits for the primary speaker. So good for them--open and free exchange of ideas and whatnot.

If I were going, and if there were a Q&A at the end that I could get to the microphone for, though, I would have some questions about the premise of some of the claims mentioned on this flier.

For example, the claim that Big Government is bad for free markets seems, at least from recent experience, to be pretty ludicrous. I mean, unless you like seeing market collapses across the board complete with massive unemployment, you know, the way we did pretty much all the time before and during the Great Depression. We had small government before then, I'd say, and it didn't work out so well for anyone but the Robber Barons.

But if the free market claim is ludicrous, the environment one is exponentially worse. Before big government got involved in the form of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the EPA, the Cuyahoga River used to catch on fire, and pollutant levels were off the charts. Before big government got involved, you couldn't breathe in LA (and elsewhere) because of the smog, and acid rain was a part of daily life. Industry didn't slow polluting because it was bad for business--they did so because big government made them do so, and as a result, our air and water, while still not as clean as we'd like, are demonstrably cleaner than they were even thirty years ago.

And that's much the same story when it comes to energy needs. Big government forced higher efficiency standards on housing and automobiles and industry, and as a result, we produce far more per unit energy than we were thirty years ago. Would we have made some improvements without the prodding from big government? Undoubtedly. Would they be as far-reaching as they have been? I have my doubts, mainly because industry showed no inclination toward such changes when they were less-regulated.

I suppose those aren't really questions so much as they're statements, so here's the question I'd ask. Given industry's dismal track record on free markets, the environment, and energy production and conservation, why should anyone trust them over big government, whose results are easily recognizable and beneficial?

Good Idea

This is a great idea. We drive through Wilton Manors nearly every day, and we see the danger for pedestrians there. We were there the night one of those pedestrians was killed crossing the street, and we applauded when they dropped the speed limit from 35 to 30 mph. Wilton Manors has done some other things to try to improve the situation--installing more crosswalks and better lighting along with better enforcement of the speed limit has done wonders--but it seems to me that the only way to really make the situation better is to do what the locals are suggesting, and that means making it less accessible to fast traffic. Taking Wilton Drive down to one lane and emphasizing the pedestrian aspect of the town would be excellent, and I say this as someone who would be fairly inconvenienced if it happens, because I use Wilton Drive as a way to cut through from Sunrise to Oakland Park Blvd. all the time. Wilton Manors is one of those rare places in south Florida which is amenable to foot traffic, and we need to encourage those, nto discourage them. I hope this goes through.

Whither the Rubio Love?

Jesse Taylor of Pandagon asks "Can anyone tell me why conservatives love Marco Rubio like he was made of frosting and bacon?" Not in 140 characters, which is why I'm on here instead of grading papers. (Work out the logic of that statement on your own.)

Part of the reason has to do with what conservatives see their problem as being. They honestly believe that they have the more popular positions on issues, and that the only reason Obama won was because he had the press on his side and because he was young, handsome, and could sell his story. Rubio, they feel, is their Obama, or he could be anyway. He's Cuban-American, but born in Miami. He's young--younger than me, which stings a little--and he's good-looking. Plus, he's full blown wingnut, and uncompromising about it. So in Rubio, conservatives see a savior--a right-wing Obama--and they figure that if they can counter liberal media with Fox News, and young-handsome with young-handsome, and not-white with not-white, then maybe the election gets reduced to issues, and they can win that fight.

There are some major problems with that. For starters, conservative ideas aren't the most popular out there, and they never have been. If Rubio runs for President some day on a platform of repealing Medicare and Social Security, he'll lose like Goldwater. Plus, Rubio is way dirty financially speaking. Crist is starting to hit him hard on that, and I hope that Meeks will too, if Rubio wins the nomination. It's one thing to just be a hypocrite on fiscal responsibility--it's another to be personally corrupt. On the other hand, he will have the full backing of Fox News and the rest of the wingnut press.

But for Rubio, the near future all rides on this Senate campaign. If he wins, he can be a rising star, and the wingnuts will indeed continue to love him like he's made of frosting and bacon. If he loses, either to Crist or to Meek, he's going to have a hard time coming back from that.

How Apt

My daughter tweeted this earlier. No idea how old it is or where it's from, but I thought it was too funny not to share.

Ross Douthat takes on E.J. Dionne's column on the Florida Republican Senate primary in a blog post at the NY Times, and assails Dionne for praising a "'nonpartisan, non-ideological' Charlie Crist, with his 'sunny' attitude and his 'buoyant moderation.'" Douthat does this because Dionne is criticizing the Tea Partiers for being hyper-partisan and Douthat doesn't want to acknowledge that he's, well, one of them in a lot of respects.

Douthat claims that Dionne fails to acknowledge any of Crist's failures as governor, and suggests that this is the real reason why Tea Partiers have deserted the once-popular governor, as opposed to the rabid know-nothingness that they display fairly regularly.

Notably absent is any defense of Crist’s actual record as governor, which has been “moderate” in the worst sense of the word: Fiscally irresponsible on taxes and spending alike, and eager to use bailout dollars to delay the hard choices that Crist’s own profligacy created.
Douthat conveniently overlooks one major problem with his own argument here. Crist doesn't set the budget alone. The Florida legislature has a prominent hand in it, and who's been serving in a prominent position in the legislature of late? Oh yeah--Marco Rubio, who was Speaker of the Florida House. What--he gets credit for being fiscally responsible? Marco of the sketchy spending of party and state funds? And Rubio's not alone--the Florida legislature has been in the hands of conservative Republicans for quite some time now, with many of the spending policies that Douthat calls profligate instituted under the governorship of Jeb! Bush, whose conservative credentials never seem to be called into question.

In fact, the closer you look at Florida's fiscal wreckage, the more it becomes clear that it's hard-right conservatives who ought to be getting kicked in the teeth, not moderates, and especially not liberals. They've been in charge while the economy down here went careening off into the ditch, and if it hadn't been for Crist's embrace of the stimulus package, we'd have slid down even further. Funny how that never occurs to Douthat, isn't it?

A brief word on oil drilling

I don't like it. It's unnecessarily damaging to the environment, both from the drilling side and from the usage side, and the longer we drill, the longer we push off the necessary pain of switching over to clean, renewable energy sources. But I'm also incredibly cynical about human willingness to endure even slight discomfort in the short term for amazing benefit in the long term. I've been dieting for the better part of a year--I know of what I speak here. Even though I've dropped 25 pounds and kept it off without any major trouble, I still have another 25 (or so) to go, and that'll get me down to a hirsute 5'10" and 225. But pass up a chance to get a Popeye's three-piece? Can't do it, even though my heart would no doubt thank me later.

It's the same with us--humans--and oil. Drive a smaller car to save gas, or even better, use public transportation or buy an electric car? Heaven forfend! Use less plastic? What are you, a commie? No--we'll drill until there's nothing left to wring out of the earth and until south Florida is under water because we've melted off the icecaps, because we're crap at changing and sacrificing. Maybe some new technology will save us, but we can't count on that.

Am I disappointed that the Obama administration is pushing for more oil exploration? Absolutely. Am I surprised? Not at all.


I've been thinking about this off and on all day, since I saw this story over at Pharyngula. I have to admit that I was a little surprised by the way the story was framed, not by the general slant but by the actual language used. It's a story about a billboard in Orange Park, FL, not far from Jacksonville, with an ad purchased by the Northeast Florida Coalition of Reason. You probably know where this is going. Here's the ad.

But here's the odd thing. The article refers to the sign, in both the headline and the body, as an "anti-God billboard." Anti-God? Of course the sign isn't anti-God. It's simply suggesting that if you're an atheist, you're not alone, which isn't even a particularly radical thing to say. I mean, you might feel alone if you're an atheist, since we atheists don't tend to group together in mutual support of our lack of belief, but it's a long leap from a factual statement about the existence of other non-believers to an active dislike for an entity that, well, we discount the existence of in the first place.

I wonder, though, if I am anti-God, at least as concerns the typical understanding of the capital-G God, i.e. a personal, interfering-with-everyday-life, thou shalt have no others before Me, binary, good vs. evil, disobey me and spend eternity in torment kind of god. And I think I am.

Amy and I talk about this a lot, especially as it deals with narrative and story. She believes, and I agree with her, that religion is the most successful fiction ever created by humans, and that for the last couple thousand years, monotheism has been the most successful religious story type. Monotheism is so successful that more than half the world's population, to some degree, think it accurately depicts the physical state of the universe. (There's a wide range of belief encompassed here, from vague notions of a consciousness to young-Earth creationism--I'm talking about about how successful the meme is right now.) So why does that matter?

It's the binary part that drives me round the bend, because it reduces complex questions to simple good-bad, right-wrong dichotomies, and mature minds recognize that there's rarely a moral circumstance where the answer, every time, is absolutely clear.

I'm far from a scholar of ancient civilizations and their religious practices, but I have to say that it seems to me, at this far remove, that there's something to be said for looking at your gods as beings to be placated rather than imitated. After all, the gods have disagreements; they wind up on opposite sides of wars; they cheat on their spouses; rape; steal; kill their parents and each other (depending on the culture). They also, on occasion, work together in common cause, and they've been known to hash out agreements and compromise when necessary. They are, in short, reflections of humankind.

But here's the important bit. Because they are often petulant and moody, and because they change their minds as often as three-year-old children, they can't really be looked to for moral leadership. They're looked at as warning examples of what not to do rather than as shining examples of what to do, and so the responsibility for deciding what is socially acceptable and unacceptable devolves to the humans in that society. As a result, they're already equipped to deal with moral ambiguity, because their religious universe is filled with it.

But monotheists don't have that challenge. They get to point to a single deity who's provided some sacred writings with some occasionally contradictory requirements and directions for salvation and say "that's what we have to do." Doesn't it have to be more difficult to deal with moral ambiguity if your religious experience is based on the binary of good and evil? If you look at the spectrum of Christianity in the US, you discover that the more fundamentalist the person, the more extreme he or she is on almost any political or social issue. The more locked into a single God they are, the more they're likely to be a hardliner.

Obviously, I think the world would be a better place if the population were a lot more atheist or at least agnostic, and approached life as though this were the only one we have and so we'd better make the most of it. But if that's not going to happen just yet, I think I'd rather have the dominant worldview be one where there are lots of gods who are all horribly flawed in multiple ways, because that, at least, is closer to reality than one in which an all-powerful, all-knowing God gazes down on the suffering of His servants and does nothing to alleviate it while simultaneously claiming to be the ideal of benevolence and justice. If that's God, then yeah, I'm anti-God.

I think I have to pass on this invitation.

I really don't have a problem with the stunt Senate Republicans pulled yesterday by refusing to give unanimous consent to allow hearings to continue after 2:00. It's a matter of consistency for me.

There were a number of times when Democrats were in the minority in the Senate when I wished they would do the same thing to oppose legislation. Just off the top of my head--some of the Bush tax cuts, the expansion of the war in Iraq, after the Gang of 14 allowed some egregious choices to make it to the federal bench and the filibuster was threatened (a position I came around on not long after that). And of course, I've been in favor of making Senators who threaten to filibuster actually make good on it, rather than do the fakey version we have today. The ability to slow down government deliberation is a good one to have at times, and what I and others may see as petulance, others may look at as a necessary action to slow down harmful legislation. It's all a matter of perspective.

Which is not to say I agree with the current Republican obstructionism. Critics of it are correct when they say it's the equivalent of a temper tantrum from a spoiled child. The most obvious reaction to Sen. McCain's threat that Republicans were going to refuse to help after health care reform passed was, after all, "so what's different now?" But I do understand where it comes from, because there have been times when I pleaded with my own Senators to engage in those types of tactics.

I'll be surprised if it lasts--there are too many ways for Democrats to create a backlash against it, and this health care win seems to have provided them with a feistiness they're often accused of lacking. And then things will return to normal, until the next major legislation comes up for a vote, and we'll get to hear how this is the WORST THING EVER!!!! and how Democrats will lose more seats than actually exist unless they immediately cave in to every demand the Republicans make. And so on.

Give Them Some Space

If, like me, you welcomed the passage of health care reform legislation last night--even if you were wishing for greater reform--you probably wanted to express your joy. If, like a lot of people, you're connected to others through social networks, you probably went there to celebrate, and you might have been surprised/disappointed/upset when you realized that not everyone shared your excitement over this legislation. I wasn't surprised by the reaction so much as I was surprised by some of the people who reacted the way they did.

I wasn't surprised by the reaction because I saw the same reaction less than a year and a half ago when Barack Obama was elected President and conservatives were lashing out. Then, in the post-mortem, when lots of my fellow lefty bloggers were offering what they considered to be sage advice to conservatives, I said we needed to mind our own business. I said we needed to remember what it felt like to be on the losing side and how incensed it made us to have the winners gloating and telling us what we needed to do. And it bears repeating today.

Yes, the reactions coming from conservatives are overwrought. I called out someone last night because he used the word "traitor" to describe House members who voted for the legislation. And in the face of that sort of reaction, it would be easy to gloat, to remember the way it felt to be on the receiving end back in 1994, or 2000, or 2002, or 2004, and to jam it back in their faces. But it would be unwise, and more importantly (to me anyway), it would be unkind.

If you're on Facebook and you see someone you went to grade school with having a really bad day over this legislation, let it slide for now. They're hurting and lashing out. You can be Walter Sobcek or you can be The Dude. Just abide.

Health Care Roundup

I did this post over at The Rumpus and thought I'd repost it here for anyone who isn't clear on what this legislation is going to do.

The debate over this round of health care reform has been nasty for a long time, and yesterday it reached epic proportions when protesters reportedly called Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) "faggot" and Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-IN) "nigger." Perhaps this will die down a little once the votes are counted this afternoon, and it almost certainly will (assuming the bill passes) once those in opposition realize that their fears aren't coming true. And it's with that in mind that I've collected the following links--stories which focus on what this legislation will actually do, and why it's necessary.

For starters, here are ten immediate benefits that you'll get when health care reform passes.

Ezra Klein explains how this reform will reduce costs, as well as who health care reform helps.

This study, published today, shows that lack of health insurance causes an additional 45,000 deaths a year, and "that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts."

Jonathan Cohn looks at the closing arguments in this debate as the final votes near.

It is not uncommon for artists to create work that aspires to disturb. And I believe this is a worthy impulse. Much of what we encounter from day to day does not move us. Often things that should move us do not, because we're used to hearing about such-and-such number of deaths as bombs blast some faraway land, or about the young lives cut short by a traffic accident on the highway a few miles away, or about the little child in the neighborhood, or related to a coworker, stricken by the terrible disease for which there is no cure. Always we are surrounded by suffering and pain, yet it is human nature to limit just how much we feel. It is good and adaptive. It gets us through our days. It keeps us productive. But to be human, we must do more than get through days and be productive; we must feel, even when it's inconvenient. One of the most important things that art can do is snap us out of our platitudes and euphemisms, even if just for a short time, and make us look at the naked reality of our lives: the fragility, the unfairness, the pain, the truth.

It is not uncommon for artists to create work that aspires to disturb. But it is very rare that I am disturbed.

The exception to this is Janis Brothers. Janis Brothers is an artist who is from and who works in rural North Florida, and, she told me, she worries that others won't get her work, that it doesn't have a universal appeal, because it is so personal to her. Brothers' art preserves and recreates the tragedies she's witnessed and suffered from, true, but just as a small town in the hands of William Faulkner can seem to contain the world, so can a single tragic car accident in the hands of Janis Brothers seem to crystalize the universal emotions, and questions, that we all experience in the face of death.

And none of us are untouched by death. You might just manage to dodge paying taxes, but death? It is the ultimate universal topic; the paradox is that every death is supremely individual. I have not yet seen one of Brothers' installations in person, but I had the opportunity to see images of her work, and to talk to her about it, and now she is the only artist who comes to mind whose installations I both fear and deeply desire seeing.

To me, the most disturbing project Brothers has shown is a film called "Squirm," an apt description both of the content of the video and the reaction it will evoke. Squirm shows a collection of dead mice stuck to a glue trap, surrounded by flies, as one last mouse struggles for survival and ultimately succumbs. 

Now I know what you're thinking: that's gruesome. Yes. But mousetraps are a big business in this world, and with good reason. Drive down any street in America and you are passing houses where rodents are being trapped and killed. It's a matter of what we choose to look at and what we choose to ignore.

Brothers found the opportunity striking because of the connection she made between the struggles of the mouse and a tragic car accident she'd witnessed. I'd like to quote her directly:

When I saw that one mouse was still alive but stuck to the trap, I decided to film it even though I did not have a particular plan as to how I might use the footage.  To remove the mouse would have been impossible.
In review, the struggle was similar to the experience I encountered with Cleansing, a reaction to the experience of witnessing a car accident.  All four of the passengers died.  The crash was so severe, the car had to be cut away to remove the victims.  The struggle to hang onto life only to die is a tragedy and very difficult to witness. 

The video of the dying mouse reminds me of the films I've seen lately (Fast Food Nation, Temple Grandin) where they show cows being slaughtered. No one likes this. Many look away. But those deaths are frequent realities we seem, as a people, in no hurry to stop. And we know, as a people, that we could save human lives by (for example) outlawing cell phones in cars and lowering speed limits, but we don't. We like to drive fast and talk on the phone. So some must die. We allow it. Why don't we feel this?

Tonight, while Brian and I were taking the lawn waste to the curb, we heard a series of screeches and bangs. Because I grew up on a busy street, I consider my familiarity with the sounds of car crashes better than average. "That's a bad one," I said right away. "They got several cars with that one." We walked out to the intersection (so did several dozen other people, by the way -- the first time I've seen most of my neighbors!) and there was one small Toyota terribly mangled, struck from several directions. Three larger trucks had their front ends smashed in. We watched for a moment, the emergency vehicles came, and we turned and went home. I told a joke, and he laughed. What could we do? Accidents happen... all the time. 

So yes, Squirm shows mouse death, but Cleansing is about the deaths of four human beings. I'm posting some stills from these pieces, but I encourage you to go to Janis Brothers' website and look around. Here are just a few photos:

This picture shows the medical equipment, and we get a sense of the four individual lives lost from the four stations.

This detail (latex obscures the news clippings, but not so much that you can't read them) shows that four were killed in a fiery crash -- the same kind of article we see all the time and usually think little of, the kind of information that does little more than put a barrier between us and the horror, the tragedy of the event.

The medical equipment drips its blood into religious vessels: vitrines covered with pristine cloth and communion wafers. The transmission of the blood from the medically to the religiously symbolic vessels is particularly meaningful I think, and says more than words can.

After the exhibition, the vitrines and wafers are permanently transformed, destroyed, bloodied. 

What I love about this piece is its layers: the news layer, the medical layer, the religious layer, the way the pristine thing is transformed/destroyed by the blood/wine while the news article with its emotional distance and professional tone is kept at bay behind latex, its words visible but muted while the things themselves enact the deaths -- that one-way movement through time -- the taking of a person with flesh and blood and hope and need and desire and fear and destiny down, via this destruction, to simply the blood and flesh. 

We have all lost people. I have lost people. Each of those deaths was individual, an event indivisible from the unique person whose life was lost. You can no more generalize about death than you can generalize about people. And I think that's why Brothers' art really works for me, why I feel she's managed to transform the personal into the universal -- her work is careful and respectful, and she never loses sight of the individual who lived and was lost. And through that care and respect and clarity of vision, she makes us feel that moment, that universal sense of loss and tragedy. The unwanted that came. The desperate desire to just reverse that one thing that happened whose consequences were so outsized, so awful, so beyond comprehension -- and so utterly irreversible.

And I both love it and am left profoundly unsettled. But it is an unsettling that I want to feel, because this is life, and it is too important not to.

Brothers also has a piece on sex offenders that would surely chill even the most hardened heart, but I would like to stop with these two pieces, and encourage you to view more on her website.

This is the third in my series on Florida Artists, especially the ones I just met. Previous posts here and here. Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl.

Like Jesus in the Toast

This is the only thing that might get me to pick up a copy of Newsweek.

Why is there a portrait of Karl Marx in the apple sitting in front of our “fashion icon” First Lady, in her latest appearance on the cover of Newsweek (which replaces her bulbous giant belts with Nosferatu nails as the de rigeur accessory for spring)?
Right. Karl Marx is in the apple, and the White House is so appalled by this that they had the picture cropped.
Early this morning, 3/16/10, it looks like the White House ordered Newsweek to crop the photo so the apple is no longer visible online. Newsweek has cut the table out completely, now, because whatever’s going on in this photo was noticed by the public.
Of course, that won't keep the millions of copies of Newsweek with the actual image on the cover from being seen by poor impressionable souls in checkout lines and doctor's offices everywhere.

I'm not sure what the deal is here, though. Let's set aside sanity for a moment and assume that there really is a picture of Karl Marx in the apple in front of Michelle Obama. Why? Presumably, Newsweek would have put it there. If they did, then either they did it as a subtle commentary on what Michelle Obama wants to do to the schools or they did it at her behest as part of her great indoctrination program that will turn our nation's youth into communists. If it's the former, and the White House indeed objected, then wouldn't it make sense for Hillbuzz to celebrate Newsweek's brave stand against a communist power structure? And if it's the latter, then why would the White House have the picture pulled?

I just don't get conspiracy thinking, I guess.

Electronic Motherhood

Yesterday afternoon, I became a mother. It happened quite suddenly. I was browsing facebook, happily making snarky comments on people's news stories and supportive comments about people's cats' health problems, when an alert pops up telling me that Brittany Spears (my boyfriend's daughter) has made a "family request." I'd never seen a "family request" before, so I clicked right away with more than average curiosity. And here's what I saw:

I will admit my heart pounded a bit out of my chest. Here is a strange new circumstance: a facebook request suggests I am someone's mother, then gives me the options "confirm" and "ignore." The emotional implications of ignoring motherhood need not be mentioned; the emotional implications of confirming motherhood, however, are not to be taken lightly.

But then, this is facebook. I have dozens of "facebook friends," which is a category quite distinct from "friend." A "facebook friend" is someone that you may or may not have even met. You may or may not actually talk to this person via facebook. You might even find some few "facebook friends" kind of annoying, or even just republican, and so choose to silence them from your news feed. Aside from appearing on your list of friends, these "facebook friends" have no real presence to you at all.

"Facebook motherhood," though, feels like a less callous category. And while I don't want to get into the long and complex history between Brittany and me, needless to say it's long and complex. When Brittany asked me to be her facebook mom, it's probably the sweetest, most loving thing she's ever done towards me. (And when I accepted, that may have been the sweetest and most loving thing I've ever done towards her -- "long and complex" history, after all, is a term that applies just as well to the Israelis and Palestinians, China and Taiwan, Hutus and Tutsis, as it applies to us.)

And of course Brittany has had other moms. She has her real mother and her mother's long-time girlfriend, too, and they are much closer to her than I am. But I've always known that and never tried to "compete." Far from it. I'm not technically old enough for her to be my daughter, so I've always resented the parenting role a bit. I've been more comfortable thinking of Brittany as a cousin. But of course she's not. A cousin is an equal. She's my boyfriend's daughter. It's not the same thing.

So being a "facebook mom" is actually the best possible description of our relationship. We're not family, but we are family. We love each other, but there's this weird barrier. We know each other well, and maybe over time we'll get closer, because we'll share news stories and updates about our pets.

Driving up the highway last night, to visit with friends, I found myself reminded that earlier in the day I had become Brittany's fb mom. It made me feel a little different, I realized. I little more motherly. I guess I'm getting older. But there was also this neat little fact: I'm writing a book about an electronic daughter. And now I have one.

Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

A month ago, I blogged about an attempt by the Christian fundamentalist community in Texas to change the history and social sciences curricula for K-12 textbooks. There's been a fair amount of reporting on the story since then, most recently in the NY Times, and the changes that have been pushed through so far are disturbing.

That I find these changes disturbing shouldn't be taken to mean that I think the current curricula in history and the social sciences are sacrosanct or above criticism. Every area of study should be reviewed and updated periodically, with scholars and educators taking the lead, bringing in new understandings and material and discussing what works and what doesn't in the classroom. But that's not what's happening in Texas. What's happening there is far more agenda-driven.

And the people pushing their agenda aren't shy about the fact that they have one:

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

And presumably they know this because they are experts in these fields, perhaps engaging academic discourse, researching and promoting their views using time-honored scholarly methods, right?

There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

This would be bad even if all they were doing was nibbling around the edges, like their desire to include "'the unintended consequences' of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation" (which is lightly coded racism and sexism) or the replacing of the word "capitalism" with the phrase "free-enterprise system." But some of their choices are insane, most notably this one:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

It's one thing to add in Aquinas, Calvin and Blackstone and make the curriculum deeper, richer, more complex. But to remove Jefferson? You know--the third President of the US, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father. The man's face is blasted out of the side of a mountain, for crying out loud. But he also coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," and for that, he has to disappear from this list.

The most disturbing thing about this push is that, as I've written before, what happens in Texas doesn't stay there. No, because Texas is such a large purchaser of textbooks (and because California's economy is a hot mess and unable to act as a counterweight), the textbooks which get approved in Texas become the standards for textbooks in other states. And this should be a concern, because that means agenda-driven fundamentalists with little regard for scholarship or accuracy are writing the textbooks that your children could be learning from, even if you live far, far from the heart of Texas.

Math and Translation

I believe that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the purest fiction ever devised. And when I say "pure" I mean that it is centered directly and wholly in the genre of fiction. Most stories wander into poetry from time to time, and dance rhythmically around in the domain of drama. But Alice in Wonderland is fiction, pure fiction.

My test for this is translation. Translation is a trial by fire for any work of art; translation is the Darwinian test. A novel that can be translated into drama, into film perfectly or even near-perfectly, no longer needs to exist. It has evolved into a preferred form, a form more likely to survive in our current cultural ecosystem.

My favorite examples: Breakfast at Tiffany's. Midnight Cowboy. In both cases the book is better, but in both cases, for most people, the movie is good enough.

These two novels were replaced in our cultural consciousness by the movies made from them because at their hearts both stories are dramas about characters and events.

To me, "pure" fiction is distinguished from dramatic fiction or prose-told drama by its uncompromising allegiance to ideas. A fiction will violate all good dramatic standards of character and plot and sense itself to communicate its ideas.

Most everyone knows that Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson was a mathematician, and I think this recent NYTimes Op-Ed does a great job of explaining to we lay-people how Dodgson's Alice wandered through a wonderland of ideas -- of mathematical concepts he brought to life through fiction.

There are have been more than two dozen attempts to turn Alice into a film, and while some have had more impact than others, none has ever threatened to replace the fiction, the prose as Dodgson wrote it. I believe none ever will: because film shows drama, and this story doesn't dance in dramaland, it frolics in fictionland, Wonderland, the land of questions unanswered, the land of nonsequiturs more true than sense, the land where ideas and concepts and abstractions come to life.

The single most amazing thing about mathematics is that, while the world of numbers appears to be entirely man-made, math describes our real, actual, natural world better than anything else. One, two, three, four -- these neat, discrete units of precise size and order are themselves ideas and ideals (in the platonic sense), concepts, abstractions. And yet: everything around us can be described through these strange little creatures that seem very much to be an invention and yet indicate at every turn that they are instead a discovery of something fundamental and (literally) universal.

It seems that the more dedicated we become to describing the world in terms of empirical fact, the more necessary these abstract ideals become. And it seems that the deeper we go into the misty magic land of these numbers themselves, the closer we come to that everyday complexity that seems to belie the cleanliness of a mathematical approach.

Consider the art of Nathan Selikoff: I've been considering it for days, ever since I met Nathan at an artists' workshop last weekend.

You're looking at "Chinese Warrior," a fraction of a much larger work, called "Faces of Chaos." Selikoff produced numerous images based on complex math, then sorted through the images, selecting 1024 that looked like things we could recognize. This is something like watching clouds, and making out shapes, only with much more discernible detail, and with absolute clarity on what numbers and what processes created the image.

This piece is called "Helios," (not to speak for the artist, but, very likely) because it looks like the sun. It's part of a separate project called "Strange Attractors," but it shows a similar idea: simple math gives us spheres and cubes and triangles, sure, but when the math gets complex enough, the images seem to leave that world of ideals and take a place in our real world: it looks like the sun not just because it is round and seemingly-spherical; there's more discernible detail than that:

This is a detail of "Helios" I made from a screen grab of the image on Selikoff's website: the seeming-sphere seems to have a surface, as you can see, and something seems to be radiating from it, some kind of dusty liquid heat -- a plasma. We see this image and recognize other images we've seen...

...like this actual image of the surface of the sun. And the most astonishing thing of all is that the image produced by an artist through mathematics is more clear and detailed than the image made through optics by a scientist.

I look again at Selikoff's image and I ask myself: do the numbers tell us more than our eyes and instruments? Can the mathematical models predict the physical nature of the universe? Sure, this image looks like a Chinese Warrior, and this one looks like a star, but what about all those others? What other shapes exist in the universe that we do not recognize because we have not yet seen them?

I look again at "Helios," at the ribbons of energy that move "within" the "sphere" and I wonder if these lines tell us something about the movement of energy within a star that it may take scientists decades or centuries to confirm? We know numbers are useful in describing the world we understand, because we understand it; we can compare. But what about all those numbers who are useful in describing the world we do not yet know?

What Wonderland can they reveal? Only the Artist-Mathematicians like Dodgson and Selikoff can show, and tell.

This is the second in a series of posts on Florida Artists, and how I experience their work. I would love references to more artists, working in any medium, in Florida.

Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

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