Monday, May 31, 2004

Marching Morons

Barely Tenured linked to this series of articles on the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank." (In quotes because that wasn't its real name, and because very few of the donors were actually Nobelists.) These are old articles - from early 2001 - but hey, I didn't have a blog back then. And besides, the ideas I want to engage have a tendency to keep popping up.
Graham, who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof eyeglasses, feared mankind was in danger because natural selection had stopped working on human beings. He explained his views in a muscular 1971 book, The Future of Man. Over millenniums, nature's brutality had strengthened the human gene pool, allowing the strong and smart to reproduce, while killing the weak before they could. But once man mastered his natural environment, Graham argued, he jumped the evolutionary track. Better living conditions allowed "retrograde humans" to reproduce. In modern America, thanks to cradle-to-grave social welfare programs, these incompetents and imbeciles were swamping the intelligent. This dysgenic crisis would surely bring communism and the regression of mankind. All that could save us, Graham warned, was "intelligent selection": Our best specimens must have more children. [...]

But by the time Graham opened the repository, eugenics had been utterly tarnished by Nazism. It was considered at best elitist, at worst racist and genocidal.
As a modern reflection on the American eugenics movement, this passage is pretty typical. Eugenicists are described as contaminated by their association with Hitler, and perhaps - as happens elsewhere in the Slate series - their tactics are mocked. It's easy to get the impression that the eugenic movement had worthwhile aims, if only the lamentable tendency to genocide could be avoided. Rarely do modern discussions of eugenics point out that the most basic assumption of the movement was flawed: the "dysgenic crisis." It didn't exist then. It doesn't exist now.

In 1951, C.M. Kornbluth wrote a dysgenic-crisis story called "The Marching Morons," in which generations of underbreeding by intellectual and cultural elites, combined with overbreeding by the poor, uneducated, unsuccessful masses, have led to a world in which the average person is an illiterate moron, incapable of contributing to the upkeep of society. In reality, over successive generations IQs are rising worldwide. Every revision of IQ tests makes them harder, so that the average score will continue to be 100 rather than creeping up to 105, 110, 115.

Moreover, the percentage of Americans who are diagnosed with mental retardation - defined as an IQ below 70 plus substantial difficulties performing necessary skills of daily life - has remained steady for a full century. Hundreds of thousands of "mentally defective" individuals were sterilized under eugenics laws in the first half of this century, yet that practice didn't even cause a blip in the prevalence of mental retardation among children. Nor did the repeal of involuntary sterilization laws cause an increase in mental retardation rates. There is simply no evidence that low IQs or low levels of functional intelligence are increasing in the general population, "dysgenic" breeding habits or not.

Why not?

The rise of genetic testing and counseling, plus the availability of legal abortion, has led to declining rates of genetic forms of mental retardation such as Downs Syndrome. One relatively common type of mental retardation, PKU, can now be diagnosed at birth and prevented by a strict diet avoiding phenylalanine. Iodized salt, of all things, has reduced the rate of cretinism, a form of mental retardation caused by iodine deficiency. But these types of mental retardation aren't usually what eugenicists are worried about. They're relatively uncommon, and they tend to be severe and disabling enough that persons affected by them rarely reproduce.

Eugenicists worry much, much more about people who are normal in most respects, but aren't very bright. The vast majority of people with mental retardation have mild forms which don't necessarily prevent them from, for example, living outside institutions and being attractive to the opposite sex. They're the ones who were sterilized in large numbers in the 20s and 30s, and they're the ones who were supposedly going to provide us with our future "Marching Morons." Except that they don't. If two people clinically diagnosed as "mentally retarded" marry and have children, 72% of their children will not be mentally retarded. IQ is only partially heritable, and there tends to be regression toward the mean.

It concerns me that people may come away from the Slate series, and other modern discussions of eugenics, with the impression that eugenicists correctly identified a problem to which the solution was morally unacceptable. In fact, the eugenicists incorrectly identified a problem, to which they proposed morally unacceptable solutions. The difference is considerable.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Girl Talk

Matthew Yglesias, bless his heart, wonders why women aren't interested in politics. His primary evidence: 80% of people who answered the recent BlogAds survey were male, and the readership of political magazines is overwhelmingly male.

Most of Matthew's commenters took exception to this claim. Spike suggests that women might be turned off by the sexism which is still present even in liberal political communities. He also brings up the "leisure gap," which is the well-documented tendency for men in two-wage households to have more free time. Various estimates put the leisure gap at somewhere between 11 and 19 hours per week. Probably the most famous articulator of the leisure gap is Arlie Hoschchild, who reported in "The Second Shift" that the leisure gap between men and women in two-wage households worked out to an entire extra month of 24-hour days. More recently, a 1995 diary study showed that working men had, on average, 43.6 hours of free time per week - compared to 33 hours for working women. That's a lot more time for blog reading, as Mary from Stone Court, a demographer, also points out in Matthew's comments section.

So women may spend simply spend less time on politics, rather than being less interested. Erika from Apartment 401 points out that young women are more likely to vote than young men [PDF file], and that women are more likely to get involved in influencing others' votes when female candidates are on the ballot. The same link asserts that American women are as likely or more likely than men to participate in non-proselytizing political activity.

While trying to find hard data on women's political participation, I found this fascinating article [PDF file]:
With respect to political development, the knowledge gap is smaller where the democratic history is longer, where there has not been a recent history of authoritarianism, and where civil liberties are higher. The results for women's political context shows an interesting mixture: although, as we might expect, where the national mass culture supports more integrated, egalitarian gender roles, the political knowledge gap is smaller, in countries with more generous parental leave benefits, the knowledge gap is larger. [...]

The longer a country has had experience with electoral democracy, at least for men, the smaller is the impact of gender on political engagement. Similarly, gender differences in political engagement are relatively strong in the democracies recently emerging out of domination by authoritarian communist systems. The
political engagement gap is also relatively small in countries with a gender ideology that is more egalitarian and integrated in its view.
The cross-cultural comparisons suggests to me that the more women have reason to believe that their political opinions are valued, the more involved they are in politics. And that's certainly supported by changes in political involvement as U.S. society becomes more egalitarian: the same article reports that "in the United States in the early 1990s, for example, Burns, Schlozman, Burns, and Verba (1995) found no significant gender differences in voting, protest activity, serving on a local board, or working in a campaign, but they did find gender differences in making campaign contributions, working informally in the community, contacting officials, and political organizational membership," and notes that the gender gap appears to have closed considerably over time.

It seems that Matthew is taking women's lesser involvement in a particular kind of political activity - vigorous engagement in political argument - as evidence of lesser interest. Certainly there's more to political participation than rhetoric, although you wouldn't know it from reading a lot of blogs. I put more stock in women's equal involvement in campaign activity, and our greater voting rates. But then again, I'm so vigorous with my rhetoric that people who read my blog have mistaken me for a man - so maybe I'm not the one to ask.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Why It Matters

In yesterday's post about the privatization of the government contracts database, I mentioned that information about contracts could still be requested from individual agencies under the Freedom of Information Act. That initially suggests that information isn't being hidden now, just made more cumbersome to retrieve.

But alert commenter Dave Bell made the connection to this post by Phil Carter:
the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) has a report on contract irregularities in the agreement that allowed CACI Corp. to send personnel to Iraq to assist in the interrogations at Abu Ghraib. (For non-WSJ subscribers, check out this AP version of the story.) Apparently, the contracts were actually held by the Department of the Interior — not the Army, as previously reported. And, there were other irregularities too, which may have been devised to evade proper oversight.
Carter goes on to explain that the CACI deal was actually a contract for computer services, and that CACI had no experience whatsoever in interrogation work. Dave's point is that, if you're a reporter or citizen trying to research civilian contractors with the U.S. military, you wouldn't have any way of knowing that you ought to check with Interior. We need the capacity to do comprehensive searches for contracts awarded across the entire federal government - otherwise, it's just too damn easy to hide things.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Wal-Mart Redux

About a month ago, I made a couple of posts about a client of mine who had no health coverage for her HIV care, despite working full-time at Wal-Mart. Many people were moved, but others were angry at me.

Some of them thought that, no matter how tragic her situation, my client shouldn't expect legitimate rules and policies to be changed just for her. And they had a point. It's just as if someone, a corporation perhaps, tried to say that the laws other people have to follow shouldn't apply to them. Wouldn't that be contemptible? Oh, such a person's supporters might try to gain our sympathy by complaining that the person was a victim of irrational hatred and prejudice. But a clear-minded person knows that rules are rules. People need to take a little more personal responsibility instead of wanting others to make things easy for them.

Why do I revisit this issue now? Because, thanks to Kick the Leftist, I've finally come to see that people who constantly ask for handouts and feed from the public trough deserve our contempt, not our support.

Note: The last time I made a post of this nature, it was thoroughly misinterpreted. I can't quite bring myself to abandon my beloved friend irony, but I would like to encourage you to follow a few of the links in my second and third paragraphs before you fire off an indignant comment.

Second note: I promised I wouldn't ask more than once, but I am weak. I'm participating in an AIDS Walk on June 6th, to benefit my clients and others like them. Wouldn't you like to help?

Every Day, New Levels of Secrecy

The always-sharp Nick Confessore pointed me towards the latest refinement in the Bush Administration's campaign to restrict public access to information. This time, the target is awards to federal contractors, and the method is outsourcing:
Established by an act of Congress in 1979, the Federal Procurement Data System was a rare island of public information, the only complete record of federal contracts. Using the database, journalists, auditors and federal investigators could review the million or so agreements with corporations Uncle Sam signed each year. They could find the companies reaping the largest awards, track the rise in no-bid deals, and measure the recent drive to replace federal employees with corporate employees. But under a new contract, the General Services Administration has now turned over responsibility for collecting and distributing information on government contracts to a beltway company called Global Computer Enterprises, Inc.

In signing the $24 million deal, the Bush Administration has privatized not only the collection and distribution of the data, but the database itself. For the first time since the system was established, the information will not be available directly to the public or subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to federal officials. "It's a contractor owned and operated system," explains Nancy Gunsauls, a project manager at GCE. "We have the data."
GCE is required to produce reports for the government, and to allow "limited access" to the database for fees set at "market price" - which, given that they hold a total monopoly, apparently translates as "however much we want to charge." They also appear to be able to set their screening process for access - for example, requiring a Mother Jones magazine reporter to first schedule a one-on-one meeting with company officials ("We like to meet with folks and find out how they are using the data") at the company's leisure.

Reporters or community organizations trying to track federal contracts will now have to approach each of the hundreds of federal offices and agencies individually, filing separate Freedom of Information Act requests, unless they want to pay GCE's price - quoted by one potential user as $35,000 - for whatever limited information GCE wants to release. In the meantime, GCE will be able to collect piles of money from wealthy Beltway Bandits who want to check up on their competitors.

Privatization of governmental functions isn't just a matter of enriching contractors, shrinking the federal government, eliminating federal workers' employment protections, and allowing the government to distance itself from suspect actions - although all of those things are bad enough. Privatization of governmental functions strikes at the heart of democracy by eliminating public oversight of government. We can't hold our government accountable if information about its actions is considered to be proprietary data, owned by a private corporation rather than by the American people.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Tax Exempt

After a storm of protest, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's office reversed her earlier decision and granted tax-exempt status to the Red River Unitarian Church in Denison. Unitarian-Universalists everywhere will sleep soundly tonight.

Several people wondered, after my previous post, why churches are tax-exempt in the first place. The original rationale was the separation of church and state, under the theory that the power to tax is the power to control. But churches fall more generally into the category of non-profits - like museums, charities, and schools - which aren't taxed because they provide services generally recognized as beneficial to society. (Yes, I know, many of you don't see any benefit to religion. I have a friend who can't stand art, but that doesn't mean that art museums should have to pay taxes.) They can't simply register as charities, as some people suggested, because charity is just one of their purposes. In the same way that a museum which runs an outreach art education program for inner-city children isn't primarily a charity, a church which runs a soup kitchen doesn't qualify as a charity. But charity isn't the only qualification for tax-exempt status - both the museum and the church are tax-exempt as non-profit cultural institutions.

If most of your exposure to religion involves televangelists, you may not realize just how many churches run on shoestring budgets. Most are supported purely by member donations, with perhaps a small endowment income from past donors. Being required to pay taxes would likely close their doors entirely - a result that some obviously hope for. I saw gloating speculation in the comments sections of other blogs - mercifully, not here - about the number of churches that would have to shut down in response to tax bills. I couldn't help but take that personally. My church is located on prime center-city real estate, and our $200,000 budget is barely enough to keep the roof repaired and cover the ministers' health insurance. Property taxes would kill us, and no doubt our historic 200-year-old building with its Tiffany windows would be torn down to make room for another shiny office tower. We'd probably move out to an unincorporated part of the suburbs, inaccessible to city dwellers without cars. In the meantime, wealthy suburban mega-churches would probably still flourish. Who would benefit, other than the developers?

Monday, May 24, 2004


Scout, at And Then..., links to an interesting article in yesterday's Guardian:
In a high-profile launch this week, Education Secretary Charles Clarke will announce the findings which disclose that young children carry a daily expectation of being kidnapped by a stranger, sexually abused by a paedophile or becoming a victim of terrorism.

'We are not just failing to give children the opportunities to explore the real world,' said Di McNeish, director of policy and research at Barnardo's, which carried out the study with the Green Alliance, 'but are actively dissuading them by making them over-anxious about their external environment.

The survey of more than 1,000 children aged 10 and 11 reveals that the choice to remain indoors is being made because of an increasingly unrealistic assessment by children and their parents of the risks of the outside world.
When I was a kid, I thought juvenile diabetes was very common. Any time I felt unusually thirsty, I wondered if I might be coming down with diabetes. I was really worried about it. What was my problem? My father was a pediatrician who specialized in endocrinology. He treated most of the diabetic kids in town, and he talked a lot about his diabetic patients - especially the ones who wound up in the hospital. I didn't know that he saw more diabetics than other doctors did, and I didn't know that he talked about sick patients more than he talked about well-baby checkups, so I concluded that my risk of developing diabetes was sky-high. I was a victim of the availability heuristic.

Heuristics are mental rules of thumb, cognitive shortcuts which help us make sense of the overwhelming amounts of data bombarding us every second of the day. Mostly, heuristics are a good tradeoff - what you lose in accuracy, you gain in reaction speed and ease of processing. "Things that leap out at me are dangerous," for example, is a good general heuristic even though someday Ed McMahon might leap out at you with the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes check.

The availability heuristic is the tendency to perceive events which easily come to mind as more common or more likely. For example: are there more words in the English language that start with R, or more words that have R as the third letter? Most people try to come up with an answer by thinking of some words, and conclude that words that start with R are more common when in fact, they're just easier to bring to mind.

The availability heuristic is what leads us to be overly influenced by big news stories. The more people hear about something, the more common they tend to think it is. For example, not many people are aware that in the era of Columbine and other well-publicized school shootings, the overall rate of lethal school violence in the U.S. actually decreased.

As a species, we're not very good at estimating risks - particularly uncommon risks. We overestimate the danger of spectacular, showy, newsworthy, or intensely frightening threats (such as kidnapping, or terrorist attacks) and underestimate the danger of commonplace, everyday threats (such as car accidents). More parents worry that their daughter will be given poisoned Halloween candy than worry that she'll date a boy who hits her, and yet the second threat is common and the first almost unheard-of.

So claims that today's children are "overprotected" are both true and false: we overprotect our children from some dramatic or well-publicized risks, while failing to protect them sufficiently from other risks which receive less attention. It's not surprising that the kids in the Guardian study aren't any good at making accurate risk estimates either.

(Test your ability to avoid the availability heuristic here. See heuristics gone drastically, drastically wrong here.)

Saturday, May 22, 2004


[Darby] said that he asked Graner, a Pennsylvania prison guard in civilian life, about the photographs. Graner replied: "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.' "
I don't have much to say about the "Christian" in Graner. I try to focus on temporal judgment, and leave religious judgment up to God. But damn, sometimes it's hard.

According to new documents obtained by the Washington Post, some of the most sickly inventive of the Abu Ghraib escapades had nothing to do with Military Intelligence or interrogation. They did it for fun, or as perceived retaliation for prison crimes. "Approved" methods of torture quickly spread not only to unauthorized acts, but also to unauthorized purposes. So much for the various commentators speculating about how torture is necessary in extreme circumstances. So much for White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales' specious argument that "The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians...In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." They did some of it for fun.

In an earlier post, I talked about how the pressures of the insurgency might have led soldiers to stretch the definition of a prisoner with "high intelligence value," pushed by the increased U.S. death toll to push for actionable intelligence even from unlikely sources. Looks like I overestimated them. I've no doubt that some of that was going on - it's clear from Taguba's report that MI, civilian interrogators, and "other government agencies" were pushing for the mistreatment of specific prisoners. Seymour Hersh has further described the secret Pentagon program authorizing harsh prisoner treatment in the name of intelligence gathering.

But intelligence gathering isn't where it stopped. Permissiveness led to lawlessness. Given the green light to abuse some prisoners for some purposes, given a prison atmosphere in which the rights of prisoners were completely suspended, given a complete failure of accountability and supervision with respect to prisoner treatment - some of the MPs report following orders of MI personnel whose identities they didn't know - some people started freelancing. They gave way to their ugliest impulses. They had no higher motives.
In one of the most striking images to surface, a detainee jokingly referred to as "Gilligan" by the MPs was forced to stand on a box of food, with wires connected to his fingers, toes and penis.

Harman said she attached the wires to "Gilligan" and told him he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

"Why did you do this to the detainee 'Gilligan'?" a military investigator asked.

"Just playing with him," Harman said.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Tough On Crime

Controlled studies show that it results in 54% fewer juvenile arrests and 69% fewer juvenile convictions and probation violations. And for every dollar it costs, four dollars are saved in future costs. Why aren't tough-on-crime conservatives all over it?

Probably because it doesn't involve more cops or more juvenile detention centers or harsher punishments or religious indoctrination. Instead, it's all about nurses.

The program started in my hometown - my mother is now the program coordinator; yay Mom! - and has since spread to 22 other states. It's a simple concept: "high-risk" prospective parents get visited at home by a nurse, beginning as early in pregnancy as possible and continuing until the baby is two years old. The nurses provide prenatal care, support, advice, and parenting education. It's a voluntary program, but more than 90% of parents approached recognize a good deal when they see one.

In a 13-year follow-up of the program, researchers found that it reduced child abuse and neglect by 79 percent. Treated mothers (most of them teenagers) had 33% fewer additional pregnancies. The kids, at age 15, were not only less likely to commit crimes (as cited in the first paragraph), but had 58% fewer sexual partners. As someone who has read a lot of intervention studies, let me assure you that these numbers are phenomenal. They're almost unheard-of. This is a program that works, and it has snowball effects long after the active intervention is over.

It also languishes in obscurity, with barely enough funding to keep the doors open. The registered nurses (who, keep in mind, have a 79% effectiveness rate at preventing the extremely expensive social problem of child abuse) get paid salaries more appropriate for nurse's aides. They cast apprehensive eyes towards Albany every time the Republican governor is looking for new ways to trim the budget. Strangely enough, budget-trimming time never seems to affect the prison guards at the Supermax prison down the road.

No matter how much "compassionate conservative" rhetoric comes out of the White House, we remain a country much more comfortable with punishment than prevention. We're also more comfortable with quick fixes than with long-term social changes, and more comfortable with the rhetoric of personal responsibility than we are with creating a genuine social safety net.

How else to explain the chronic neglect of a program that effectively fights some of our most pernicious and recalcitrant social problems? We do, genuinely, deplore child abuse and adolescent promiscuity and juvenile crime - and yet there is somehow never enough money and resources for programs to prevent them, even when those programs have been proven to pay for themselves.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Why I Love Slacktivist

Only Slacktivist could make a post like this:
Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.

That, in a nutshell, is their goal: a Greater Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates (so it's actually larger than Old Testament Israel) and a reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem. Their reasoning is not so much theological as magical. By bringing about these things, they hope to make Jesus come back. This is sorcery, not eschatology.

I've mentioned this before, but this so-called-theology precisely parallels the plot of many an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Zealous fanatics loyal to some secretive prophecy try to bring about the signs that will summon their master and bring about the apocalypse and the death of nearly everyone on earth. (Buffy and the gang, contra the Apostolic Congress, regard this as a Bad Thing that should be stopped.)

Losing My Religion

Previously, I've identified myself in this weblog as a member of the religious left. It didn't seem like a particularly hard call: I go to church every Sunday, I pray, I read religious texts. But now Texas has decided that Unitarian-Universalism isn't a religion.
Questions about the issue were referred to Jesse Ancira, the comptroller's top lawyer, who said Strayhorn has applied a consistent standard -- and then stuck to it. For any organization to qualify as a religion, members must have "simply a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power," he said. [...]

"The issue as a whole is, do you want to open up a system where there can be abuse or fraud, or where any group can proclaim itself to be a religious organization and take advantage of the exception?" he said.

Those who oppose the comptroller's "God, gods or higher power" test say that it can discriminate against legitimate faiths. For example, applying that standard could disqualify Buddhism because it does not mandate belief in a supreme being, critics say.
I suppose it's true that the comptroller of Texas needs to be on guard against fake religions made up to take advantage of tax-exempt status. But if I were trying to draw the line, I don't think I'd worry about a religious group that has a national association of more than a thousand congregations, historical roots hundreds of years old, and a list of famous members that reads like Who's Who in American History: John and Abigail Adams, Ethan Allen, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, Louisa May Alcott, P.T. Barnum, Fannie Farmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry David Thoreau, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Linus Pauling, Carl Sandburg, Sylvia Plath, Christopher Reeve, Buckminster Fuller, e.e. cummings, Elliot L. Richardson, Adlai Stevenson, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut...

Ahem. Excuse me. They say there's no zealot like a convert.

When a state government defines the essential character of religion in a way which includes the Texas Republican Party and excludes congregations that have worship services, marry and bury their members, and promote spiritual development, there's something wrong. Just ask the Supreme Court, who, in Torcaso v. Watkins, argued that "neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally...aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs."

Interestingly enough, that link comes from a website arguing that "secular humanism" is a religion, and that avoiding God talk in public schools amounts to the unconstitutional establishment of secular humanism as a state religion. We'll see if the Texas religious right will try to have their cake and eat it too, or whether they'll support the Unitarian-Universalists in order to strengthen their own claims about humanism. (I'm sure that would be a fun internal debate: "should we protect the argument we use to justify school prayer, even if it means taking a stand for the legitimacy of a church that performs same-sex marriages?" Hee hee hee.)

I suspect that the real issue in Texas is that Unitarian-Universalism is a non-creedal religion, with no uniform or required set of religious beliefs. Plenty of UUs believe in "god, gods, or a higher power," the Texas comptroller's standard, but we don't expect the person sitting next to us to believe the same thing. Our unifying quality is not what we believe, but how we try to live. It's a religion which requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, which is not a particular strong point of the Texas state government. It doesn't surprise me that, to their eyes, a non-authoritarian religion doesn't look like a religion at all.

(Via Sisyphus Shrugged.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

A Hero's Welcome

I really wanted to be wrong. When I speculated that Spc. Joseph Darby, the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, would have trouble coming home, I really wanted to be wrong.

I wasn't.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Darby for his "honorable actions." But Washington is a universe away. "They can call him what they want," says Mike Simico, a veteran visiting relatives in Cresaptown. "I call him a rat."

The sentiment is so deeply felt that even those who praise him do so only anonymously, or with many reservations.

The feeling is starting to bubble up elsewhere, too, among people who feel that what Darby did was unpatriotic, un-American, even faintly treasonous. [...]

His sister-in-law, Maxine Carroll, who's served as the family spokeswoman for the last couple of weeks, told reporters she's "worried about his safety," about "repercussions." "It scares you a little," she told the Associated Press, when asked if some might consider him a traitor. On May 8, she and her husband slipped away from their housing complex in Windber, Pa., to an undisclosed location.

An Army spokesman confirmed that Darby is on leave in the United States but wouldn't disclose where he is.
In our great national exercise of blame-shifting, the hometowns of the 372nd MP Company have very few options. Americans? That's them. A brutish military culture? That's them and their family members. Ignorant, animalistic hillbillies? That's them again. Women in the military? Those are their daughters and sisters. The isolated moral depravity of six psychopaths? You're talking about their kids. The Bush Administration? They're patriotic enough to claim that one as well. The Iraqis? Yeah, but they can't really get to them. So they turn their anger and shame and frustration at the one target within reach. It's ugly and wrong, but I understand where it comes from.

Where did Darby get the moral stature to resist going along with the corrupt Abu Ghraib culture? The Post article makes the intriguing suggestion that it's because he never really fit in with the crowd:
Darby was one of the handful of new kids in a school where everyone had known each other since kindergarten. And something about him provoked others. For most boys on the football team, hazing stopped after their sophomore year. But with Darby, the boys kept it up well into his junior year.

"He was arrogant," recalls Manges. "He seemed to want to fight you for some reason. We had to bring him down a notch." [...] Manges theorizes that Darby's action had something to do with the bullying. "Maybe he felt sorry for them, because he got picked on, too."
I have reservations about that theory, because so often it's the case that perennial targets turn viciously on those beneath them when given the opportunity. The surest way not to be the outcast, the victim, is to reinforce shared hatred of a shared enemy. Darby could've done that, and he didn't. And yet: we also know that one of the best predictors of a person's ability to stand up against social pressure is practice. Darby had plenty of opportunities to learn the lesson that the strongest aren't always right, and he had plenty of practice being the odd one out. (More on that later.)

Monday, May 17, 2004

Marriage Still Intact, Foundations Unshaken

Same-sex couples have been able to marry in Massachusetts for almost nineteen hours now, and my marriage still seems to be okay. Moreover, the foundations don't seem to be shaking - and given that we live in a 125-year-old brick house, I'm guessing that we would notice even the slightest tremble.

So I'm just going to relax and enjoy the celebrations and the pictures and the personal accounts. And I'll wait patiently for Mr. and Mrs. Middle America to realize that their marriages and foundations are also just the way they left them on May 16th. I think Kevin Drum has the best take on that one:
The Christian Right storyline has always been that gay marriage is a sign of moral depravity and therefore to be fought tooth and nail. But then San Francisco started performing gay marriages by the thousands. And what did everyone see?

Answer: no depravity. No Village People. Instead, what they saw on their TV screens was a bunch of ordinary people displaying a disarmingly normal exhuberance about getting married and an obviously sincere delight about holding a marriage certificate in their hands. How could you help but feel happy for them?

That's not the whole story, of course, but I think it's part of it. The apocalypse that the leaders of the Christian Right had been foaming at the mouth about finally happened, and it didn't seem so bad after all. Just a bunch of ordinary newlyweds squealing in delight at finally being married, just like everyone else. There was nothing to be afraid of after all.

What do you do when people who are supposed to be the devil's spawn turn out to be as ordinary as your next door neighbor? Maybe you decide they really are as ordinary as your next door neighbor.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Fixing AIDS Funding

The Institute of Medicine has issued a report calling for a streamlined federal funding program to cover HIV/AIDS care. It's about time.

Low-income people with HIV currently receive care through a patchwork of federal and state programs. If the federal government considers them to be disabled, after a certain amount of time they become eligible for Medicare, which covers most medical costs but not prescription drugs. So they can supplement their Medicare coverage with Medicaid, which does cover prescriptions - at least, until the new Medicare bill goes into effect and that program closes. Low-income people who aren't disabled may be covered by Medicaid, which is funded by federal block grants to the states, depending on the state they live in. Or they may receive free health care from a state or private organization which receives grants directly from the government under the Ryan White CARE Act. Depending on how much grant money their local service provider receives from Ryan White, they may be eligible for medical care plus all kinds of support services - housing subsidies, transportation assistance - or they might be put on a waiting list for anti-retroviral therapy. Regardless of where their primary health care comes from - even if they have private insurance through an employer, if it doesn't cover prescriptions - low-income people with HIV probably get their medications from the government, usually through AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAPs) funded by the federal government but administered through the states. It's not necessarily obvious which programs will cover a particular patient's care, so upon entering treatment patients have to file application after application. In my state, for example, in order to receive medications from ADAP patients first have to apply for, and be rejected by, the state's Pharmacy Assistance program. That application process is required even if it's obvious that the patient will be rejected by PA.

Confused yet? Imagine trying to negotiate this system with the benefit of an eighth grade education, just after you've been told you have an incurable and terminal illness.

As state budgets strain to the breaking point, existing HIV funding programs are drying up. Sixteen states have waiting lists for HIV medicines or have capped enrollment in their ADAP programs. For example, as of April 2004, North Carolina's waiting list has 449 people who have been told that they won't be eligible to receive HIV medicines until someone else in the program dies. (see this PDF fact sheet.) Eleven other states plan to institute cost restrictions to their ADAP programs in the upcoming year. Even Massacusetts is talking about rationing HIV drugs, a sure sign that the system is completely broken.

Back to the Institute of Medicine:
Despite the advent of new and improved AIDS drugs, thousands of people are left with inadequate treatment because government programs are hampered by shortfalls in state budgets and confusing eligibility standards that vary among states, says the report. [...]

The study's authors argue that a single public financing arrangement -- including uniform eligibility requirements across the country and a federally defined set of services -- would address gaps and a lack of coordination in the current system, where, for example, a single patient can lose benefits after moving to another state.

"The current federal-state partnership for financing HIV care is unresponsive to the fact that HIV/AIDS is a national epidemic with consequences that spill across state borders," the panel wrote.
Providing adequate medical treatment for HIV isn't just an issue of human decency and compassion - it's a public health issue. HIV treatment reduces the likelihood of transmission in two primary ways:
  • The availability of treatment encourages HIV testing and counseling. Ideally, people would get tested regardless of whether treatment was available, motivated by a desire to avoid unwittingly transmitting the virus. That doesn't happen. If no treatment is available, the majority of people would rather not know. For all of the talk about universal precautions, testing is still the cornerstone of HIV prevention.

  • Drug treatment dramatically reduces the amount of HIV in the blood and in other bodily fluids. Although HIV is probably still present in genital secretions even if undetectable in the blood, transmission risk is still much, much lower when viral replication is suppressed by medication. People who don't receive treatment are more infectious - especially as HIV disease progresses.
So the proposed program is a winner from a public health standpoint as well as a compassionate standpoint. It eliminates the inequalities which make an HIV-positive person in North Carolina more likely to die waiting for treatment than an HIV-positive person in New York. It eliminates redundancy and confusing bureaucracies and piles and piles of paperwork. The Institute of Medicine estimates that it will extend coverage to 58,000 people not currently eligible for treatment, and could prevent 20,000 deaths over ten years, all for the relatively modest (in federal budget terms) cost of $5.6 billion over ten years. The Administration's response?
The Department of Health and Human Services, which sponsored the study at Congress' request, suggested the panel's recommendations were overreaching.

Friday, May 14, 2004


The Manchester Union Leader would like us to know that "parts of the Geneva Conventions are naive."

It's a good thing that the men who liberated the concentration camps have clear-eyed newspaper editors in New Hampshire to explain to them the evils that are possible in war.

In The Shadow Of The Torturer

We now know that physically and psychologically harsh interrogation techniques were approved as official U.S. policy.
Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of "harsh" interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay, including stripping detainees naked, making them hold "stress" positions and prolonged sleep deprivation, a senior Pentagon official confirmed yesterday.

Stephen Cambone, the under-secretary of defence for intelligence, also said severe interrogation techniques, including the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners, had been approved for use by military commanders in Iraq.
(Here's a description of some of those approved techniques, which the New York Times says is taken from an standard Army field manual.) Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy) and Peter Pace (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) both acknowledged yesterday that the physical and psychological stress techniques approved for use at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq probably violate the Geneva Conventions. (Rumsfeld still denies it.)

Harsh treatment of detainees was supposed to have limits. It was only supposed to be applied to people who were likely sources of high-value intelligence, and it was supposed to stop just short of the nebulous line where actual torture begins.

But inevitably, fine distinctions like these are lost. We know that from case studies: the Israelis and the Palestinians, the British and the IRA. Things get out of hand.

Aversive techniques were only supposed to be applied to prisoners with high intelligence value. But as things worsened in Iraq last fall, as American soldiers came under constant attack, as people became exhausted, scared, angry, disgusted, suspicious, that target got a lot bigger.
The worsening war outside the walls of the U.S. prison system in Iraq had a direct bearing on the abuses that occurred inside the facilities, according to Iraqi and American sources. Through the summer and fall of 2003, when detainees at Abu Ghraib prison suffered mistreatment now notorious throughout the world, the security situation in Iraq and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners ran parallel courses, both downward.

U.S. officials were under mounting pressure to collect wartime intelligence but were hobbled by a shortage of troops, the failure to build an effective informant network and a surprisingly skilled insurgency. In response, they turned to the prison system.
People tend to assume, even in the U.S., that an arrested person is guilty of something. (Senator Inhofe is hardly alone.) In Iraq, add the difficulties of dealing with an alien culture and the constant fear of being killed. Eventually, under stress and without proper restraint imposed from higher levels, the question becomes not "what reason do I have to believe that this guy knows something?", but "how can I be sure that this isn't a guy who knows something?" Roughing him up starts to seem like a reasonable thing to do "just in case."

Similarly, while Rumsfeld seems to be satisfied that Pentagon lawyers have adequately identified just where "things that really sound like torture" cross the line and become "torture," it's ludicrous to expect that untrained, minimally supervised, tired, stressed, overburdened, threatened Army Reserve privates are going to know where that line is. "Stripping them naked is okay, but not stripping them naked and sexualizing the context. Making them do painful things is okay, but not making them do humiliating things or doing painful things to them." You may be able to assume a suitably Jesuitical attitude when you're sitting in the Pentagon with your legal advisors, making out a list of approved techniques, but it's unrealistic to expect troops on the ground to understand just how much distress and suffering crosses the magic line. If you tell them to mess with the prisoners, some of them will go too far.

Reading this over, I'm afraid it sounds as though I'm saying that torture is inevitable, or that the behavior of U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib is understandable enough that their moral culpability is diminished. Nothing could be further from my position. I'm saying that both history and psychology tell us that you simply can't do what we attempted to do. You can't walk the line between almost-torture and torture, and you can't approve abuse for a few without having it spread. This is something you have to keep starkly black and white: there is a right and moral way to treat prisoners, and there is an illegal and punishable way to treat prisoners. We know from past experience that trying to live in the grey area between inevitably leads to abuses.


I've been feeling like I ought to say something about the horrible murder of Nick Berg.

I haven't been feeling like I have something to say about it, you understand, just that I ought. Precise measurement and comparison of outrage (Abu Ghraib v. Nick Berg) has become the right-wing talking point of the day, a simple metric to determine who a blogger (or a Congressman, or a news editor) likes better: Al Qaeda, or America. Wade through enough of that stuff and you do tend to start asking "so why haven't I posted about it?" But it's more than just that, of course. I looked at pictures of Berg's grieving family yesterday and thought, the world should stop. What happened to their son is so outrageously awful that the world should just stop, for a moment.

Someone wrote to Josh Marshall accusing him of caring more about partisan politics than he does about Berg's murder, saying that "the fact that you've gone on a rant over Sen. Inhofe's comments (which is probably appropriate) and continued your assault on the the president and have neglected to give even one line to this guy who was brutally slain for being one of us just sickens me." Here's Josh's response, every word of which could have come from my own head:
You've just misjudged how I run the site and why I do so. I don't write about everything I think. I don't write just to say that X is good or Y is bad. I write when I feel I have something I can add to a discussion, and only then. I could write a post saying that I thought Berg's execution was horrifying and awful and that I couldn't get to sleep last night because the ugliness of the images wouldn't leave my mind. But what would that tell you? That al Qaida is awful and that I think they're awful too? Perhaps I simply have nothing to add. The online world has lots of vociferous me-too-ism, going on record saying in fist-clenched tones things I think we all know we all feel. That's fine; I just don't like doing that.
Some blogs do a pretty good job of comprehensive coverage. If you want lots of short reactions to events as they happen, read Atrios. If you want in-depth analysis of every aspect of the news and American politics, read Kos. That's not my style. Like Josh Marshall, I pretty much just post when I think I have something to add - some new slant or overlooked point or, especially, some scientific expertise. That doesn't happen on every story.

If I were to make an analytical post about Nick Berg's execution, I'd say this: They claim they murdered Nick Berg in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib pictures. Get real. Berg had been missing since April 9, long before the pictures hit the net. They probably were waiting for a good propaganda moment to kill him, but they would've found another one - some military action, some civilian death, something to "justify" what they'd been planning to do all along. Al Qaeda doesn't need a reason to kill American civilians, remember? Especially not Jewish civilians. If they'd really wanted "retribution" for American military abuses at Abu Ghraib, wouldn't they have gone after one of the 150,000 members of the American military who just happened to be on hand? They picked an unarmed civilian because that's always been their favorite target. And all the right-wingers blaming Berg's murder on the U.S. news media's decision to release the photos - they all know that. Never before have they accepted the idea that Al Qaeda had to be incited to commit atrocities.

That's what I'd say if I were going to make an analytical post. But this is all I really want to say about what happened to Nick Berg:

They made him recite the names of his family members to the camera, and then they cut off his head. What the hell kind of a world is this?

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Blood On Their Hands

As you've no doubt heard by now, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe excused the Abu Ghraib atrocities because the prisoners were all bad men (and women and children):
"These prisoners, you know they're not there for traffic violations," Inhofe said. "If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals."
Most of the outraged commentary has focused, and rightly so, on the well-publicized estimate by Coalition military officials that 70-90% of detainees at Abu Ghraib were probably picked up by mistake.

But Inhofe's statement would be disastrous and wrong even if it could be documented that every single detainee in Abu Ghraib personally killed American soldiers. Their "guilt" or "innocence" doesn't matter in this regard, because they're prisoners of war - Rumsfeld himself has acknowledged their status. The assumption underlying prisoner of war status is that most P.O.W.s have killed members of the nation holding them prisoner - they're soldiers. Just about all soldiers in a war zone have "blood on their hands," and the Geneva Conventions entitle them to humane treatment regardless of that fact. Inhofe's statement amounts to a flat denial that soldiers captured in a war zone have a right to humane treatment by the enemy. It's not a big leap to extend that logic to captured American troops - certainly not too big a leap for the Iraqis to make.

Josh Marshall reports that John McCain walked out in the middle of Inhofe's rant. I wish he'd stayed and asked Inhofe whether the Vietnamese blood on his hands was supposed to have justified the torture and abuse McCain experienced as a P.O.W. But it's hard to imagine how that conversation could've ended without bloodshed on the Senate floor.


Atrios asks:
What is it with right wingers who are unable to grasp that there's a tiny bit of difference between consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity?
Good question. Atrios is talking about Rich Lowry's claim that if the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had "done this stateside in different circumstances, they might be very rich and perhaps even up for an Adult Video Award." But of course, there are plenty of other recent examples to choose from - the endless "fraternity hazing" analogies, for example.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this technique is this bit by George Neumayr, writing in the American Spectator:
And why is the behavior depicted in the photos so appalling to liberals? If the behavior had been voluntary, liberals would call it free speech. [...] Who is to say those acts are wrong? After all, in Massachusetts now, they are construed as courtship.
Yes, indeed, liberals do tend to draw a distinction between voluntary, consensual behaviors and forced, nonconsensual behaviors. Did you ever see such hair-splitting?

I did, actually, because the right wing has been using this tactic for a long time. Remember all the accusations about feminists being hypocritical for not regarding Bill Clinton (who had a consensual, albeit improper, sexual relationship with an intern) the same way they regarded Bob Packwood (who forcibly groped multiple women, to their horror and without their consent)? There have been repeated insinuations that the pro-choice position implies support for forced abortions as population control. And there are even people who claim to be unable to distinguish between consensual gay sex and rape: "When sodomy is a 'right', what can a teacher or principle or parent do about it when a boy comes to them and says 'Bruce made me have sex with him'? All they have the power to do now is say 'That's ok, sodomists have their rights, and they need to express their rights.' "

The neat bit about eliding the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sexual behavior is that it has a twofold effect. In one stroke, George Neumeyr can both minimize the harm done by American soldiers (because it was just what passes for "courtship behavior") and taint loving gay relationships with the horror and shamefulness of Abu Ghraib. "What's the big deal about sexual harrassment? You're the ones who didn't want to save sex for marriage" excuses men who use sexual power to undermine women in the workplace at the same time that it attacks women's sexual freedom. It's a powerful and versatile weapon, and I suspect that no amount of argument will ever convince them to abandon it.

It's also, of course, complete nonsense. Look, if I wanted to lead a naked man around on a leash, it would probably take me all of ten minutes to find a willing volunteer. What does that say about the infamous Lynndie England picture? Nothing. Consensual and nonconsensual behaviors are not similar, they are opposites.

Update: In the comments, Columbine identifies a useful distinction between two groups of people who may employ this technique:
There are the people who have such a narrowly defined range of acceptable sex acts that they really DON'T see a difference between the consensual and non-consensual stuff, because it's all so far into the danger zone for them. From a million miles away it's all the same size. I weep for these people, but at least there is some hope they can be taught.

The other group knows perfectly well what the difference is but is obscuring it deliberately for rhetorical purposes, to further their agenda.
I think this is entirely on the mark, and I agree that differing motives seem to call for different responses. My thanks to Columbine for introducing some grey into a fairly black-and-white discussion.

Let There Be Baseball

Alert fans of Jane Austen have long known that Abner Doubleday couldn't possibly have invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. (For those disinclined to investigate links, Catherine Morland plays baseball in Northanger Abbey, written sometime between 1795 and 1798.)

Now historians in Pittsfield, Massachusetts have unearthed a 1791 law prohibiting people from playing baseball within 80 yards of the Pittsfield Meeting House, which presumably had expensive glass windows. They're claiming it as the earliest written reference to baseball. This puts them an unimpressive four years earlier than Austen, although they would rather you compare them to a much later "earliest reference" in an 1823 American newspaper.

But even their four year head start doesn't seem to hold up, according to this historical account, which references a 1744 woodcut drawing of boys playing a game called "baseball," and a 1748 letter describing English Royals "diverting themselves with baseball, a play all who are or have been schoolboys are well acquainted with." The topper is the complaint of a Puritan minister that "I have seen Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord's Day," which another site dates to 1700.

So who cares? That's a good question, actually. I'm not a fan of other sports, so I might be missing something, but I'm not aware of any other sport that is so obsessively dedicated to its own history. Since the dawn of modern organized baseball in mid-19th century America, the game has been heavily weighted down with myths and symbolism. Supposedly, baseball illuminates the American character, and pastoral longing, and democracy, and every other damn thing you can imagine. This Stephen Jay Gould article on the baseball origin myth puts it well:
The silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentleness, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. (The effort reeks of silliness because baseball is profound all by itself and needs no excuses; people who don’t know this are not fans and are therefore unreachable anyway.) [...]

Stories about beginnings come in only two basic modes. An entity either has an explicit point of origin, a specific time and place of creation, or else it evolves and has no definable moment of entry into the world. Baseball provides an interesting example of this contrast because we know the answer and can judge received wisdom by the two chief criteria, often opposed, of external fact and internal hope. Baseball evolved from a plethora of previous stick-and-ball games. It has no true Cooperstown and no Doubleday. Yet we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation—for then we can have heroes and sacred places. By contrasting the myth of Cooperstown with the fact of evolution, we can learn something about our cultural practices and their frequent disrespect for truth.
Gould's essay explains how necessary it was to the myth of baseball-as-microcosm-of-America that a thoroughly American origin be established - thus the denial that baseball is related to British stick-and-ball games, in favor of the myth that it sprung fully-formed from the head of Abner Doubleday. The necessity for an American origin, combined with baseball's heavy employment as an icon of boyhood, perhaps explains why none of these loving historical explorations of the game's roots ever bring in Northanger Abbey, where baseball is the province of a fourteen-year-old English girl.

Se we'll probably always be groping for baseball creation myths, even after our faith in the divine inspiration of Abner Doubleday wanes. It's no coincidence that the folks in Massachusetts have chosen to present their evidence like this: "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden."

(For the best articulation ever of baseball's mythic resonance, I recommend Michael Chabon's Summerland. It's much more true than those books which are merely factual.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Losing The Military

"Today, the Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy Times, civilian-owned papers which are effectively the trade papers of the military, ran editorials calling for the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Myers," according to The Raw Story.
"General Myers, Rumsfeld and their staffs failed to recognize the impact the scandal would not only have in the United States but around the world," the editorial reads. "On the battlefield, Myers and Rumsfeld's errors would be called a lack of situational awareness — a failure that amounts to professional negligence."

The editorial was acquired by CBS and read Sunday by CBS News Chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.

"This was not only a failure of leadership at the local command level," it continues. "This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability is essential, even if that means relieving top leaders from duty during a time of war."
Only this brief excerpt from the editorial is available - it won't go up on the Army Times website until tomorrow, and even then will only be available to subscribers. (Not so; see update at bottom of post) So I can't tell whether Rumsfeld and Myers are being criticized for creating a leadership climate which resulted in U.S. troops and contractors torturing prisoners, or whether it's just their botched handling of the scandal and the investigation. Either way, the message is devastating. The "just a few, low-ranking bad apples" argument is not holding at any level of military, public, or world opinion. Soon it should be clear even to the Bush Administration: they won't be able to drape this one with the flag. It's not going away.

It's impossible to understate the importance of this editorial. The usual attempts to bluster through criticism of the war effort with appeals to patriotism, to "supporting our troops," to the "harsh realities of war," simply won't hold up when some of the strongest condemnations come from veterans and serving members of the military. These are people who understand exactly how our troops are imperiled by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. These are people who understand the personal responsibility inherent in military command. And they won't be brushed away by reproofs that they don't know what it's like for our poor boys under fire.

I think Rumsfeld is history, and possibly Myers. I suspect that, as it becomes increasingly clear that the scandal isn't going to go away, Bush will jettison them and then argue that the problem has been solved. But what's needed is nothing less than a re-working of the Administration's entire Iraq strategy - particularly the attempt to rely on far too few troops - and their entire philosophy on how prisoners should be treated in the War on Terror. We need to shine a bright light on Guantanamo Bay and on prisons in Afghanistan. We need to re-visit the detention and mistreatment of War on Terror suspects in the United States. This problem won't be solved by one high-level official accepting symbolic responsibility and resigning - it's going to require profound systemic change.

Joe Biden had it right on Face the Nation: [PDF]
Karen Tumulty: Senator, you did say a few days ago that if this goes all the way to Rumsfeld, he should go.

Biden: Well, by--he should go. I me--mean, in my view, he should go, but--but I--I'm almost reluctant to say that...

Tumulty: Well, do you think...

Biden: ...because that makes it seem like that is the answer to the problem. [...] I mean, this is about accountability, but it's well beyond Rumsfeld is the only point I'm trying to make.
UPDATE: I discover, via New Century, that the full editorial is available online after all. And it's good. For example:
There is no excuse for the behavior displayed by soldiers in the now-infamous pictures and an even more damning report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Every soldier involved should be ashamed.

But while responsibility begins with the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership.

The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish. From the moment they are captured, prisoners are hooded, shackled and isolated. The message to the troops: Anything goes.

In addition to the scores of prisoners who were humiliated and demeaned, at least 14 have died in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has ruled at least two of those homicides. This is not the way a free people keeps its captives or wins the hearts and minds of a suspicious world.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Your Chance To Help

On June 6th, along with thousands of other people nationwide, I'll be participating in an AIDS Walk to raise money for HIV/AIDS services.

My local walk benefits a community-based service organization that's been fighting HIV at the street level for more than twenty years. I know their work well. They offer free mental health care, support groups, substance abuse treatment, case management, and legal services (not for criminal offenses, but things like wills, and for discrimination law). They help low-income people with HIV find housing, and subsidize their rent or move-in expenses if necessary. They have a drop-in center where homeless people with HIV can do their laundry, take a shower, get a hot meal, use the telephone, talk to someone friendly.

They do hardcore prevention work, taking mobile counseling-and-testing vans at night to neighborhoods where I wouldn't walk in broad daylight. They give out condoms and teach people how to sterilize their injection equipment. They help people access medical services. They train people with HIV to be community educators and advocates.

They do good work.

I'd like to invite Respectful of Otters readers to sponsor me on the AIDS Walk. I'm not going to be a pest about this - I'll only make this request once. You can send PayPal donations to, or you can e-mail me for information about how to send a check. If you give me your legal name and street address, the AIDS service organization will send you a receipt. All donations are tax-deductible under U.S. law; I don't know about other countries. As an extra incentive, for a $40 donation I will research and write a post about the topic of your choice. (You don't get to pick my opinion, just the topic.)

Please consider helping out. Thank you.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

What Real Journalism Looks Like

Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, continues to do an outstanding job of investigating Abu Ghraib. He's the one person you must read... even if you're suffering from outrage overload, as I increasingly am.

Here's what I didn't want to read today:
The dogs are barking at a man who is partly obscured from the camera’s view by the smiling soldier. Another image shows that the man, an Iraqi prisoner, is naked. His hands are clasped behind his neck and he is leaning against the door to a cell, contorted with terror, as the dogs bark a few feet away. Other photographs show the dogs straining at their leashes and snarling at the prisoner. In another, taken a few minutes later, the Iraqi is lying on the ground, writhing in pain, with a soldier sitting on top of him, knee pressed to his back. Blood is streaming from the inmate’s leg. Another photograph is a closeup of the naked prisoner, from his waist to his ankles, lying on the floor. On his right thigh is what appears to be a bite or a deep scratch. There is another, larger wound on his left leg, covered in blood.
But the Hersh article goes well beyond the recounting of atrocities, as critical as I think those are for Americans to hear. He extends the story to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, to abusive photographs taken of John Walker Lindh, to Rumsfeld's desperate efforts to suppress "negative thinking" about the war. And there are significant new details about the investigation, including an attempt to explain why Major General Ryder's investigation of detentions in Iraq, conducted just at the time of the worst abuses in Abu Ghraib, reported that nothing was wrong.

And there's this story, which shows what might have happened if the MPs at Abu Ghraib had had competent leadership:
A company captain in a military-police unit in Baghdad told me last week that he was approached by a junior intelligence officer who requested that his M.P.s keep a group of detainees awake around the clock until they began talking. “I said, ‘No, we will not do that,’” the captain said. “The M.I. commander comes to me and says, ‘What is the problem? We’re stressed, and all we are asking you to do is to keep them awake.’ I ask, ‘How? You’ve received training on that, but my soldiers don’t know how to do it. And when you ask an eighteen-year-old kid to keep someone awake, and he doesn’t know how to do it, he’s going to get creative.’” The M.I. officer took the request to the captain’s commander, but, the captain said, “he backed me up.

“It’s all about people. The M.P.s at Abu Ghraib were failed by their commanders—both low-ranking and high,” the captain said. “The system is broken—no doubt about it. But the Army is made up of people, and we’ve got to depend on them to do the right thing.”
Hersh's article is investigative reporting at its most brilliant and wounding. Read it now.

Gendered Otters

I'm fascinated to find out that there has been substantial, widespread uncertainty about my gender, as these comment threads show. Honestly, I wasn't trying to be cagey. I've been active in online communities for more than ten years, usually under the name "Rivka," and as far as I know, I've always been perceived as female before. Of course, in other settings I've talked more about my personal life. That may be where the really good gender cues come from.

Mark Liberman at Language Log takes a couple of passes at explaining the current state of the research on gender differences in language. If the passage I quoted in my previous post irritated you because it seemed like a bunch of unsubstantiated generalizations, please go read Mark's posts. I went looking for a vivid general statement to quote, but of course that's not all there is to the science of linguistics.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullam has a go at determining my gender scientifically. I'd take issue with his conclusion, except that I'm too busy basking in all the kind things he said about my writing. (If not my grammar.)

Saturday, May 08, 2004


...I can't stand to have my blog pink for even one more minute. You're going to have to just imagine the girliness yourself.

Another Wrinkle On "No Female Bloggers"

In the last few weeks, two different men have linked approvingly to Respectful of Otters - using male pronouns to refer to me. One of them even used male pronouns with my name, which, although it's not common, does follow the traditional "English female name" pattern by ending in "A."

What's going on here?

"Do I write like a man?" I asked my Significant Otter. He gave me a look like, "I'm waaay too smart to answer that question."

I asked my favorite linguist. She said, "You do have a way of putting words together in that thing that comes across as kind of male much of the time."

Kind of male, how? She said she would need to spend a lot of time with tools of discourse analysis to figure it out, but, "You're more prone to sarcasm and avoidance of stating personal feelings in your blog, I think is part of it."

When I started this blog, I adopted what I thought of as a "blog tone of voice" - similar to the style I'd seen other bloggers use. It's not the way I write in online settings where I assume that I'm mostly talking to my personal friends, or where I'm mostly talking about my personal life. It's more formal, more abstract, and more oriented towards strangers. It's more explicitly oriented towards explanation and persuasion. And it turns out that it's more the style that most people perceive as "male." Take a look at this description:
In the keynote speech at the American Library Association annual convention in 1994, Herring (1994:3-4) proposes that this is the case in that "women and men have different characteristic online styles" that echo the differences of culturization and integration into society: "The male style is characterized by adversiality - put-downs, strong, often contentious assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, and sarcasm"; while the female style, in contrast, is characterized by "supportiveness and attenuation" with expressions of appreciation, thanking, and community-building; as well as apologizing, expressing doubt, asking questions, and contributing ideas in the form of suggestions."
The "male style" described here looks an awful lot like the standard "blog style," to me. So maybe part of the reason that female bloggers seem "invisible" is that, if they write with a traditionally female style, their sites don't look like "real" blogs - and if they write with a standard blog style, they don't look female.

I felt a little hurt by the implication that I write like a man, and it took me a while to tease out why. In a society as gender-polarized as ours, it's hard to characterize something as differing along gender lines without taking sides. "If men do this thing, and women do that thing, which one's better?" Even if you refuse to draw evaluative conclusions yourself, other people inevitably will. In pre-feminist days, "you write like a man" was supposed to be a compliment - Dorothy Parker strived for it. Then came arguments that privileged a female writing style. "Which way is better, the male way or the female way?" By adopting a male style, am I implying that I think it's superior to a female style?

So then I just get pissed off. I write like Rivka; Rivka is a woman; therefore, I write like a woman. Strong assertions and all.

(And no, Respectful of Otters isn't going to stay pink. It's just a temporary statement.)

Friday, May 07, 2004

Who's To Blame? Alternative Theories

Who's ultimately to blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? Various conservative commentators are rounding up the usual suspects:

1. Women.
2. Feminists.
3. Muslims.
4. The academic left.

(Courtesy of Media Matters, plus alert Respectful of Otters commenter pepi.)

5. Lesbians.

(Courtesy of Kathryn Cramer.)

6. Feminists and gays, acting in cahoots.

(Courtesy of World O' Crap, who has also been all over the "it's women's fault" argument.)

And of course, ultimately,
7. It's Bill Clinton's fault.

(Courtesy of Atrios.)

And thus we see the lengths it's possible to go to in order to avoid having your worldview shaken.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

More Abu Ghraib Analysis

I'm sick of blogging about Abu Ghraib, and you must be sick of reading about it. But nothing else in the political sphere seems important to me right now.

Lots of people have pointed out that the Major General Miller who argued that MPs should "set the conditions" for MI interrogations is the same General Miller who has been sent over from Guantanamo Bay to take charge of Iraqi detention facilities. I don't know how I missed that, except that I had burrowed so deeply into the Taguba report, and was trying so hard to translate it into English, that it took me a while to make connections to things outside the report. Josh Marshall does a good job of explaining why putting Miller in charge of Iraqi prisons is a horrible, horrible idea.

My Significant Otter has introduced me to the weblog of Phil Carter, a former U.S. Army MP who is now in law school. Phil's been blogging nonstop on Abu Ghraib - start here and scroll up to get his read of the Teguba report. I was particularly struck by this:
"Lawyers representing two of the accused soldiers, and some soldiers' relatives, have said the pictures were ordered up by military intelligence officials who were trying to humiliate the detainees and coerce other prisoners into cooperating.

'It is clear that the intelligence community dictated that these photographs be taken,' said Guy L. Womack, a Houston lawyer representing Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, one of the soldiers charged."

Is this right? I floated this argument on the national security list-serv that I subscribe to, and was met with a barrage of criticism for it. Most people agreed that this was a far-fetched argument, and that practically speaking, such a tactic just wouldn't work. But I'm not so sure. I'm not ready to believe that all of these MPs were that sociopathic as to document their abuses in such graphic and voluminous fashion. [...]

The literature suggests that a small portion of the population does harbor such psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies -- somewhere around 2% of the population. [...] Yet, we see a lot more soldiers involved than this statistic would indicate, and I think there may have been a larger plan in place which rationalized, justified, and sanctioned the taking of these photos for official purposes.
Psychopaths essentially have no conscience, no morals, no regard for the rights and feelings of others, no proper appreciation of other people as being real. Carter's right - there were too many people implicated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib for all of them to be psychopaths. But you don't have to be amoral to commit horrific violations of the rights of others - you just have to be socialized to an aberrant set of morals. Street gangs, the Mafia, the KKK - these organizations aren't really places for purely amoral people, because they typically have strict moral codes and behavioral expectations to which members are expected to conform. Members of these organizations commit atrocities because atrocities are permitted (or called for) by the group's moral codes. They don't have to be psychopaths for that.

It's probably important to note at this point that the moral codes which support this kind of socialized violence need not be handed down from official superiors - they can arise on a peer-to-peer level. The aberrant moral codes in Abu Ghraib may have involved a completely different "chain of command," or chain of influence, than was depicted on military org charts. We have some evidence that happened in Taguba's report - he says that friendships, rather than military hierarchy, came to be the most important determiner of who people obeyed and who they went to for directions. In the leadership vacuum that was the 800th MP Brigade, there was plenty of opportunity for that kind of a sick peer culture to develop.

Which brings me to the Stanford Prison Experiment, which my brother, among others, has urged me to write about here. In the 1970s, a social psychologist named Phil Zimbardo converted the basement of a Stanford building into a makeshift prison and randomly assigned psychologically healthy young men to play "prisoners" and "guards." Within days, a sick and abusive "guard" culture had developed, and "prisoners" had become cowed and submissive. Zimbardo actually had to stop the study after six days because the abusive behavior of the "guards" had gotten so far out of control. (I'm not going to discuss his repellent lack of experimental ethics, except to say that no one would be allowed to do this study today.)

What does the Stanford experiment tell us about Abu Ghraib? I don't think it absolves the low-level MPs from moral responsibility, but it should steer us away from explanations which depend on their moral exceptionality. The Stanford experiment tells us that there needn't have been anything psychologically or morally deficient about these MPs at the outset of the war, just as the "guards" in Zimbardo's experiment were psychologically indistinguishable from "prisoners" when the study began.

If anything, the Stanford study damns the leadership of the 800th MP Brigade even further than they've already been damned. We know that, in the absence of continuous training, supervision, and strict controls, people given absolute power over others will tend to become vicious. No one in that chain of command has any business acting surprised that their failures of leadership led to exactly what anyone who's taken Psych 101 at any time since the mid-1970s could have predicted.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Taguba Report, Part 2

So, about the substance of the Taguba Report:

I like this Major General Antonio M. Taguba. He pulls no punches. Once you get past the forest of military acronyms in his report, it's fairly easy to figure out what happened and what he thinks of it. The overall picture is of a criminally dysfunctional and incompetent chain of command in which soldiers at the lowest levels were essentially on their own. Here are some points that seem especially relevant, drawn out with substantial assistance from the Respectful of Otters Military Advisory Board:

1. In August and September, a Major General Miller conducted a study to "review current Iraqi Theater ability to rapidly exploit internees for actionable intelligence." Miller said that "“it is essential that the [Military Police] guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”

2. In October and November - just when the worst abuses were happening at Abu Ghraib - a Major General Ryder conducted a major analysis of detention and corrections in Iraq. He failed to uncover the abuse, but all the same he explicitly said that MPs should not participate in interrogations and not be asked to "set conditions" for interrogation, because those actions "run counter to the smooth operation of a detention facility."

3. No one seems to have noticed that Miller's and Ryder's recommendations were contradictory. Military Intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib appear to have been following Miller's recommendations when they urged MPs to "set the conditions" for interrogation. No one in the chain of command for the MP Bridgade seems to have told the MPs whether or not they should assist MI.

4. An order was given in November 2003 that appears to have actually placed the MP units at Abu Ghraib under the tactical command and authority of MI officers. Taguba says: "This is not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties."

5. The commanders of the MP and MI units at Abu Ghraib didn't work together at all. Taguba: "There was no clear delineation of responsibility between commands, little coordination at the command level, and no integration of the two functions. Coordination occurred at the lowest possible levels with little oversight by commanders." So, essentially, the critical judgments about how MPs should assist MI and which tactics were acceptable for "setting conditions" were being made by the lowest-level personnel, because no one higher up in the chain of command cared to involve themselves.

6. The command structure of the 800th MP Brigade was totally and horrifically buggered. Just one example: one of the Battalion Commanders was so incredibly incompetent that General Karpinski sent him to Kuwait for two weeks to give him (and presumably everyone else) a break from the strain of command. She put another Battalion Commander in his place temporarily. Except: she didn't write any orders relieving the first guy of command or putting the second guy in place. She didn't notify any of her superiors about the change. She didn't notify any of the soldiers in the battalion that they had a new commander. Taguba, who must have been bleeding from the eardrums at that point: "Temporarily removing one commander and replacing him with another serving Battalion Commander without an order and without notifying superior or subordinate commands is without precedent in my military career."

7. General Karpinski rarely, if ever, visited the prisons she commanded. She made no effort to secure appropriate training for her troops and failed to provide them with anything like clear instructions on how to perform their duties. When interviewed by Taguba, she blamed everyone else in the world except herself. Taguba: "What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers."

8. There were multiple indications that the MP Brigade wasn't operating as it should - lots of people being reprimanded or punished for various infractions, prisoner escapes and riots, complaints about the incompetence of officers, morale problems. There is no indication whatsoever that any of the officers responsible for the brigade responded to any of these problems.

9. Everybody realized that the MPs weren't trained to do what they were being asked to do. There were various training resources available from different Army schools and organizations, but none of the officers made use of them. Instead, they simply encouraged the low-level MPs who had been civilian prison guards to teach the others - and let the MI guys come up with their own rules for how MPs should handle "special cases" being held for interrogation.

10. Taguba: "I find that there is sufficient credible information to warrant an Inquiry UP Procedure 15, AR 381-10, US Army Intelligence Activities, be conducted to determine the extent of culpability of MI personnel, assigned to the 205th MI Brigade and the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib (BCCF). Specifically, I suspect that COL Thomas M. Pappas, LTC Steve L. Jordan, Mr. Steven Stephanowicz, and Mr. John Israel were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) and strongly recommend immediate disciplinary action as described in the preceding paragraphs as well as the initiation of a Procedure 15 Inquiry to determine the full extent of their culpability."

My Military Advisory Board tells me that courts-martial of intelligence personnel are kept secret, so the fact that we've only heard about MPs being court-martialed doesn't mean that the MI guys are escaping prosecution. On the other hand, they might be. There's no way for us to know.