Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Interpreting The Canadian Elections

Like most Americans, I'm pretty vague on the details of Canadian politics. Fortunately, my good friend Jennie is a political junkie fluent in both American and Canadian, and highly skilled at translation. Here's her post explaining yesterday's election results, and why they don't mean what most non-Canadians think they mean.
First, the misconception a few of you brought up in comments (and which you all seem to share with Michael Moore, Dan Savage, and Ralph Nader) that a Conservative minority government would have signified an irreversible swing to the right on the part of the haven of liberalism north of the U.S. border. Yes, there are small pockets of conservatives in Canada, and yes, a few of them are even dreaded social conservatives, but on the whole this is not, and is never likely to be, a truly conservative country. If Canadians had given the Conservatives a minority government yesterday, it wouldn't have expressed their confidence in conservatism, it would have been the outcome of voting to punish the Liberals for the sponsorship scandal. Throughout this campaign, in poll after poll, when asked what kind of government they would prefer irrespective of how they were going to vote, Canadians said that they wanted a Liberal minority government. They tried to vote in such a way as to achieve that kind of slap to the Liberals without making Stephen Harper prime minister, and they did it. But we have to keep in mind that if those voting strategies had failed and Stephen Harper *had* become prime minister, it ultimately might not have been such a bad thing. A slight Conservative minority wouldn't have found any allies to help them accomplish anything, there would have almost certainly been a vote of no confidence after less than a year, and the Conservatives would have had the shackles of a failed government on them in the subsequent election.
The "sponsorship scandal" she's talking about, as explained in this New York Times article, involved big-money payoffs to advertising firms in Quebec that were friendly to Liberal Party interests - apparently in exchange for very little work. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin claimed to know nothing about it and to be in favor of making government more accountable, but then he called for an election before the scandal investigation was completed. Canadians, to put it mildly, aren't particularly happy with the Liberal Party right now. The polls have been see-sawing back and forth for weeks, sometimes predicting a Conservative minority government, sometimes a Liberal minority government, sometimes a Conservative majority government. I guess that's what happens when you're trying to send a message with your vote.

At the end of Jennie's post, incidentally, there's a series of links to election commentary from the Canadian blogosphere. As someone who's barely been aware of the Canadian blogosphere, I found it edifying - particularly this very clear dissection of the election from Just in From Cowtown. But here's my favorite bit:
I feel like I had sex with a gorgeous hooker last night.

I go from saying "I can't believe she was a hooker" to saying "at least she was hot" to saying "I can't believe she was a hooker" to saying "at least she was hot" to saying "I can't believe she was a hooker" to saying "at least she was hot" to saying "I can't believe she was a hooker" to saying "at least she was hot"...

"A State Of War Is Not A Blank Check For The President"

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the U.S. is not a police state, that Guantanamo Bay is not a black hole free of accountability and oversight, and that the President is not allowed to "disappear" American citizens and hold them indefinitely without trial.

Breathe a sigh of relief.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld offers a fascinating view of the dynamics of the court. Can the government hold U.S. citizens as enemy combatants? There are four separate opinions among the nine Justices. Are U.S. citizens so detained entitled to a trial? Three separate opinions. The two-part ruling, which asserts that U.S. citizens may be detained as enemy combatants only after a trial before a "neutral decisionmaker," is the result of coalitions between Justices who don't agree on the specifics. And Scalia - my personal bete noire on the Court, and a man who previously has never met a Republican government power he didn't like - is on the right side of both cases. There was a complete split between Scalia and Thomas, who have historically voted the same way 95% of the time.

The full decision is worth reading. Among the points that jump out at me: the majority opinion, written by Sandra Day O'Connor, rejects the idea that the "War on Terror" is so special and different from other wars that it demands different rules. Under international law, POWs are permitted to be held until the end of hostilities, at which point they must be released. Hamdi's lawyers argued that if, as the Bush Administration claims, he is being held in the "War on Terror," hostilities may not be over for generations. O'Connor sensibly points out that in fact Hamdi is being held in connection to the war in Afghanistan, not the War On Abstract Principles, and that he may only be held until the end of hostilities in Afghanistan:
Certainly, we agree that indefinite detention for the purpose of interrogation is not authorized. Further, we understand Congress' grant of authority for the use of "necessary and appropriate force" to include the authority to detain for the duration of the relevant conflict, and our understanding is based on longstanding law-of-war principles. If the practical circumstances of a given conflict are entirely unlike those of the conflicts that informed the development of the law of war, that understanding may unravel. But that is not the situation we face as of this date. Active combat operations against Taliban fighters apparently are ongoing in Afghanistan. [...] The United States may detain, for the duration of these hostilities, individuals legitimately determined to be Taliban combatants who "engaged in an armed conflict against the United States." (emphasis added)
O'Connor also smacks down the Bush Administration's extraordinary claim that they have the right to hold U.S. citizens based on the evidentiary standard of "some evidence," meaning that detentions must be declared legal if there is "any evidence in the record that could support the [Administration's] conclusion," rather than, for example a preponderance of the evidence or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. O'Connor writes:
[A]s critical as the Government's interest may be in detaining those who actually pose an immediate threat to the national security of the United States during ongoing international conflict, history and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others who do not present that sort of threat. [...]

It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation's commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.

But I'm shocked to read Scalia's dissent, which begins, "The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive." He argues that the Administration ought to either charge Hamdi with a crime (such as treason), or let him go. He flatly rejects the possibility of detention until the end of hostilities. Scalia. Yes, I know that the classical conservative is deeply skeptical of the powers of government to restrict individual liberty, but that's hardly the way that Scalia has ruled from the court. I'm astounded. Pleasantly.

Not so astounded by Thomas's dissent: "This detention falls squarely within the Federal Government's war powers, and we lack the expertise and capacity to second-guess that decision. As such, petitioners' habeas challenge should fail, and there is no reason to remand the case." Thomas obviously failed to subject the issue to the often-recommended test of closing one's eyes and imagining Clinton having the power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens.

The Bush Administration is trying, pathetically, to spin these decisions as a win.
"They are basically upholding the whole enemy combatant status and tweaking the evidence test," said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who has advised the administration on terrorism issues. "The only difference I can see is that you are entitled to have you or your lawyer give your side of the story."
Yes, and you're entitled to have a neutral judge determine the validity and legality of the government's claims. While this difference may seem slight to Mr. Rivkin, it is, in fact, the difference between tyranny and the rule of law.

Friday, June 25, 2004

It's Not The Hypocrisy, Damn It

Ezra Klein at Pandagon writes, about the Jack Ryan sex scandal:
Jack Ryan's private sex life, kinky as it may be, has absolutely no bearing on how good or bad of a senator he could be. Bill Clinton's private sex life, kinky and immoral as it was, had no bearing on how good or bad of a president he was. You with me? Good. Now, the reason liberals are cackling over the Ryan revelations is simple -- after spending the last decade beating Democrats with the club of "family values" and cutting down our politicians by exposing their private peccadilloes, Ryan's case exposes the flaming hypocrisy of the Republican Party. [...]

Sex doesn't bother me. Flaming hypocrisy that reveals a Party to have been politically motivated when they claimed moral outrage, does. And that's what I'm talking about here. if you can't get over the titillation aspect of the story, that's your own problem.
Ezra, and everyone else in the lefty blogosphere who's been tempted by that argument, needs to take another look at Jack Ryan's stipulated behaviors:
She said he told her that he had gone out to dinner with her that night even though he didn't want to and "the least I could do in return was go to the club he wanted me to go."

She described the second place as "a bizarre club with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling."

"Respondent wanted me to have sex with him there with another couple watching. I refused," Jeri Ryan continued. "Respondent asked me to perform a sexual activity upon him and he specifically asked other people to watch. I was very upset.

"We left the club and respondent apologized, said that I was right and he would never insist that I go to a club again. He promised it was out of his system."

But later, Jeri Ryan said, Jack Ryan took her to Paris where he again took her to a sex club without first telling her where they were going.

"I told him I thought it was out of his system. I told him he had promised me we would never go. People were having sex everywhere. I cried. I was physically ill. Respondent became very upset with me and said it was not a 'turn-on' for me to cry. I could not get over the incident and my loss of any attraction to him as a result.
"Respondent became very upset with me and said it was not a 'turn-on' for me to cry." This would be okay, if it weren't for the fact that Ryan made "family values" speeches? It would be okay for him to repeatedly pressure his wife to perform sexual activities she found degrading and humiliating, despite her strenuous protests, as long as he did not also align himself with the Christian Coalition? No. Jack Ryan's sex life has bearing on "how good or bad of a senator he could be," not because it's "kinky," but because he tried to force a woman to perform sex acts against her will. That's not kinky, it's abusive.

For heaven's sake, Ezra, the difference between consensual and nonconsensual behavior is not a difficult concept to master. Look it up.

Update: Unbelievable. According to Salatan, here's Ryan's defense: "She says three times over eight years [of marriage], we went to places that she felt uncomfortable," Jack Ryan said Tuesday. "That's the worst of it. I think almost any spouse would take that as, 'Gosh, if that's the worst someone can say about me after seeing me live my life for eight years ... ' then people say, 'Gosh, the guy's lived a pretty clean life.' "

Gosh, indeed. Who knew a "pretty clean life" included trying to coerce someone into having public sex at a club? Can we get that written in to the Girl Scout manual?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Outrage Roundup

Sorry I've been minimally present for a while; I was (a) traveling, and (b) sick. (It's hard to write eloquent blog posts when scrolling text nauseates you.) While we're waiting for me to perk back up, you might want to check out some of these stories:

Kathryn Cramer, who has been on the civilian contractors story from the beginning, has some good comments and links on the indictment of a contractor for prisoner abuse. Most horrifying disclosure: "A U.S. official described him as a self-employed independent contractor." Yes, apparently we're hiring freelance interrogators. Entrepreneurship at its best.

Michael Froomkin has been on fire lately. Don't miss this brilliant Supreme Court wrap-up, which includes the best summary I've seen yet of the implications of the Jose Padilla case:
The basic question in Padilla is very simple: can the federal government grab a citizen off the street and hold them in a military prison without charging them with a crime, without giving them a hearing or a trial, without access to lawyers, family, friends. And, can it do it indefinitely. If the answer is yes it can, then our citizenship is devalued to nothing better than that of the citizens of Argentina during their military dictatorship, a period in which thousands disappeared into military jails, many never to emerge.

Does that sound over-wrought, given there’s only one person so far, and he hasn’t by all accounts, been tortured (other than being confined in solitary with no prospect of emerging) or killed? I don’t think so for two reasons.

First, we don’t call them “precedents” for nothing. If we set the precedent that people can be grabbed off the street, next time Ashcroft, or some future Ashcroft, or some horrible cross between Nixon, John Adams and Burr, won’t bother going through the civilian justice system at all (which is how Padilla’s case got attention — he was first held as an ordinary criminal, and it was only when the government realized it didn’t have the evidence to try him that they decided to reclassify him as an enemy of the state illegal combatant, and put him in the brig). Next time, whenever that is, the victim will just vanish.

That’s bad enough. But I don’t think I understood how much was a stake until I read the Torture Memos. Those memos claim the right to legally inflict hideous intentional pain — what I and most people would call torture — on enemy combatants. That’s right—on people whom this administration considers equivalent to Padilla. So the US government is not only asserting the right to Disappear people, but to torture them in secret as well.
Julia at Sisyphus Shrugged has the complete text of a memo outlining the Republicans' rhetorical strategy for the election, as formulated by Frank Luntz. I don't know why this hasn't gotten more attention:
The overwhelming amount of language in this document is intended to create a lexicon for explaining the policy of “preemption” and the “War in Iraq.” However, you will not find any instance in which we suggest that you use the actual word “preemption,” or the phrase “The War in Iraq” to communicate your policies to the American public. To do so is to undermine your message from the start. Preemption may be the right policy, and Iraq the right place to start. But those are not the right words to use.

Your efforts are about “the principles of prevention and protection” in the greater “War on Terror.” Please do not underestimate the importance of these rhetorical nuances. Let us understand the stark reality of public opinion which provides the context for this language research. Like it or not, the situation in Iraq is the poster-child for the War on Terror. It is today’s ground zero. You must develop a better way to talk about Iraq in the greater context of the War on Terror. Here are the five essential message points:


1) “9/11 changed everything” is the context by which everything follows.

No speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11.
Also from Julia, this site, which speaks for itself. "Este quelpo es delicioso!" Indeed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Otters On The Air

I'm going to be on the radio tonight, talking about my criticisms of Washington psychiatrist Justin Frank's "analysis" of George W. Bush.

I'm told that you'll be able to hear the interview live over University of Illinois - Chicago radio, and it will subsequently be archived for a week or so at the show's website, Collective Interest. The interview should take place at 8:30pm Central/9:30pm Eastern time tonight (June 23).

Never done a live radio interview before, although I've been interviewed on tape for a TV documentary. This should be terrifying interesting.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Critical Shortages Ahead...

...but you won't find this story in the So-Called Liberal Media:
Liberal bloggers are facing a snark shortage that may have serious implications in the coming months, experts say. Blog readers are being warned to expect rationing and long lines at their favorite liberal blogs -- and that some blogs may not make it through the current crisis.

Experts report that the United States Strategic Snark Reserves have been severely depleted, and absent new discoveries of snark may run dry within three years.

"Liberal bloggers have been using snark at an exponentially expanding rate, but it's not a renewable resource" said Lawrence Peters, head researcher at the American Blog Studies Group, a liberal think tank. "Once it's gone, it's gone." [...]

Hesiod and other bloggers accuse the Bush administration of deliberately exacerbating the crisis by intentionally inflating snark usage.

"The administration is constantly coming up with publicity campaigns designed solely to bleed snark," said another anonymous blogger. "They'll introduce legislation with the most absurd titles imaginable, just to force snark usage to spike."

Atrios points to the "Healthy Forests Initiative" as one of the more egregious examples. "There's no way you can tell me that wasn't named that just to try and take out a few of the weaker liberal bloggers. They knew exactly what they were doing."
(Real political content soon, I promise. In the meantime, enjoy.)

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Codes And Spies

Security expert Bruce Schneier makes some interesting speculations about Ahmad Chalabi and the Iranian codes. I confess that I haven't been following the story very closely, so parts of Schneier's account are news to me. For example:
Iranian intelligence supposedly tried to test Chalabi's claim by sending a message about an Iranian weapons cache. If the U.S. acted on this information, then the Iranians would know that its codes were broken. The U.S. didn't, which showed they're very smart about this.
If this story is true, then it makes a little more sense to believe that the Iranians doubted Chalabi's honesty enough to discuss it using the putatively broken code - but only a little more sense. There have been multiple historical examples in which governments didn't respond to captured secrets so as not to reveal their ability to break the enemy's codes. If I know that, surely Iranian intelligence did. So why wouldn't the Iranians keep quiet, and attempt to feed the U.S. false information via the compromised code? It's hard to figure out. Schneier's piece reminds us that where espionage is concerned, it's often impossible to tease out all of the lies, half-truths, and hidden motivations.

He also calls attention to a older story which has apparently been widely covered in the European media, and all but ignored in the U.S. It seems that this isn't the first time the U.S. has been caught breaking Iranian codes. During the first Bush Administration, the U.S. revealed encrypted Iranian messages to France, where the murder of a former Iranian prime minister was being investigated. Iran suspected that the leaks arose from problems with their cryptographic equipment, which was made by a Swiss company called Crypto AG. So in 1992, the Iranians arrested a high-placed Crypto AG salesman, claiming that the company had installed backdoors in the encryption systems sold to Iran. The salesman, Hans Buehler, was imprisoned and questioned repeatedly for months, and finally Crypto AG was allowed to ransom him when it became clear that he didn't know anything.

The fact that Buehler didn't know anything didn't mean there was nothing to know. Investigations by the European press uncovered ties between Crypto AG, a supposedly neutral and independent Swiss company, and the German secret service - and then to the U.S. National Security Agency. The article Schneier links to concludes:
Knowledgeable sources indicate that the Crypto AG enciphering process, developed in cooperation with the NSA...involved secretly embedding the decryption key in the cipher text. Those who knew where to look could monitor the encrypted communication, then extract the decryption key that was also part of the transmission, and recover the plain text message. Decryption of a message by a knowledgeable third party was not any more difficult than it was for the intended receiver.
This story definitely raises more questions than it answers. Have the Iranians discovered a U.S.-exploited flaw in their cryptography twice in twelve years? Or is the information Chalabi leaked related to the events of twelve years ago, codes the Iranians have long since replaced? If so, Schneier suggests, the story might have broken now because one side or the other wishes to discredit Chalabi.

A lot of interesting information there, and I'll admit that I don't really have the background to evaluate it. Hopefully someone who does will pick up this ball and run with it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Justin Frank Responds

In a fascinating development, one of my readers showed psychiatrist Justin Frank my post about his "analysis" of George Bush. Dr. Frank was unmoved by the criticism:
Justin Frank: This is an important question concerning the fact that I never met with George W Bush personally. I am using the technique of applied psychoanalysis which was first introduced by Freud in his analyses of Leonardo, Moses, and Little Hans. That technique, applying psychoanalytic principles to available material, is now used by CIA psychiatrists hired by the US Government who work at the George H.W. Bush Center in Langly VA. I think these techniques should be available to the American public as well. Therefore the APA guidelines you cite do not pertain to my work - Bush on the Couch is not about being "asked for an opinion about an individual" but rather it is an in depth study of writings, videotapes, biographies, news reports, of an individual.
My first reaction is to say that if we're relying on psychoanalysts for our intelligence data, then it's no wonder that the CIA is in such a shambles. Psychoanalysis has no scientific basis or empirical support. It's essentially a form of literary analysis, heavily dependent on symbol and metaphor and the developmental theories of a man who collected no systematic data and rarely observed children. But Frank and I do agree on one thing: I am willing to concede that Frank's analysis of George Bush is precisely as valid as Freud's analysis of Moses.

But I digress.

I find Frank's ethical defense unconvincing. Again, the code of ethics states that:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
I suppose Frank considers his review of public statements and press coverage to qualify as a psychiatric examination; however, the first sentence quoted above suggests that reliance on "information...disclosed through public media" is precisely what the standard forbids.

He also justifies his book on the basis of the election decision before us: "I hope to enrich the discussion about our choices for president in 2004." Other people have made similar comments, and I'm afraid I just don't get it.

If you're not going to vote against Bush because he panders to his wealthy supporters at the expense of the middle class and poor; because of his utterly ineffectual response to the threat of international terrorism, both before and after 9/11; because he led us into an unnecessary, bloody war and then butchered its execution; because he surrounds himself with arrogant, corrupt and incompetent advisors; because when his theories come into conflict with facts, he throws out the facts; because his tax cuts place a crushing burden of debt on future generations without even providing temporary relief to the majority of Americans; because he assists those who would make the United States a theocracy; because he has squandered our international alliances; because he tells bold-faced lies; because no civil liberty appears to be safe from him save the right to own firearms; because he has said that his ideal Supreme Court Justices are Scalia and Thomas, and there are likely to be vacancies on the Court next term - if any or all of these reasons don't lead you to oppose Bush, are you really going to be swayed by concerns about his childhood survivor's guilt? If you're unmoved by the thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed, the hundreds of dead American soldiers, will it really make a difference to hear that as a boy, Bush shot frogs with a B.B. gun?

(Incidentally, later on in the Post discussion is an example of exactly the kind of armchair misapplication of psych which I hate most:
Then there is a nagging sense, too, of something on the Autistic Disorder spectrum (299.90). He appears to meet five criteria: (1b) failure to develop peer relationships (see diplomatic failures); (2a) delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language; (2c) stereotyped and repetitive use of language (responds "9/11 changed everything" to any questioning of his policies); (3a) encompassing preoccupation with one or more interest that is abnormal in intensity or focus (see Iraq obsession); and (3b) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines (see same).
To which anonymous commenter I say: No, you fucking idiot. No. You owe an apology to all people with autism and their families, for this mockery of their agonizing struggle.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Cultists! Cultists! Cultists!

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman is keeping an eye on my blood pressure for me:
Like other Unitarians, Rivka at Respectful of Otters was outraged when Texas Controller Carole Keeton Strayhorn denied a tax exemption to the Red River Unitarian Church in Denton, and pleased when the decision was reversed. I'm not sure whether she'll be amused or apalled to read the reversal described in the following terms by the Agape Press Christian News Service:
Texas officials have reversed an earlier decision denying tax-exempt status to a controversial religious cult in that state. The state's comptrollers office initially ruled that the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church was not a religious organization for tax purposes since it did not have one unified system of belief. However, after a review by the agency's general counsel, that ruling was reversed.
Um... well... Mark, I'm going to have to get back to you on that after Our Leader tells me what my opinion is. I don't want to make him angry, or I might be cast out of the group and forced to think for myself, and then -

But seriously: I've seen lots of websites explaining that Unitarian-Universalism is a cult. Far-right fundamentalist Christians appear to have a very loose definition of what constitutes a "cult;" for example, "A cult according to the Word of God is any group of people that worship anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ, and believe anything contrary to His word or the Word of God according to the Bible." Those folks therefore classify Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Roman Catholicism (and so on) as cults in addition to Unitarian-Universalism - the world's a big seething mass of sinners, and UUs are just one small corner of it. Other folks seem to find us especially objectionable, usually because of our full acceptance of GLBT folks. ("We began our research into this organization after finding that if a homosexual claimed to follow religious teachings, it was within the walls of the Unitarian Universalist Church...") Some of them apparently believe that we try to pass ourselves off as an "ordinary" Christian church in order to snare the unwary:
This free use of Christian terminology has lured many new Christians or seekers into the UU fold. Once inside though, each person will be pressed to relieve themselves of any exclusive notions (such as Jesus Christ being the way and the truth and the life.) They will learn that to be a good UU, he or she must acknowledge that the Buddhists and Hindus, pagans and Muslims have as much claim to spiritual truth as any Christian ever thought of.
Finally, there's the concern that Unitarian-Universalism is such a fulfilling and pleasant religion that members of the UU church will never look elsewhere and find Jesus: "If I were to sit down and devise a cult that would guarantee it's [sic] members would never accept the Gospel of Christ, I couldn't come up with a more appropriate one than the Unitarian Universalist Association."

Now, if you want to see a fundamentalist Christian who's really thought about Unitarian-Universalism, you've got to turn - surprisingly enough - to the Southern Baptists. The link is to an article about how to witness to UUs, and this time the author actually sounds like he's talked with UUs and paid attention. I'm not saying that I think his approach would work, no, but if rigorously followed it might lead to more productive discussions than usually arise from efforts to evangelize the heathens:
1) Be patient and take time to find out exactly what your particular UUA friends believe before charting a particular course of evangelistic action to lead them to saving faith in Christ. They may be atheistic or theistic, or have a Christian or Jewish background. They might even be Wiccan or Buddhist. You can not challenge a set of beliefs unknown to you, and it is very difficult to advance someone's thinking if you do not know where to begin.

2) Be especially gentle, humble and non-judgmental. A confrontational or super-direct approach will almost certainly be met with a great deal of unnecessary resistance. Remember, Unitarian-Universalists highly value religious diversity. Listen carefully to their beliefs, look for some common ground, and gently suggest the Christian alternative. Make sure to communicate clearly that they are free to reject your worldview. [...]

3) Be prepared to use reason. Unitarian-Universalists are generally well-educated or at least well-read. They value reason. They will not be easily moved from their positions merely on the basis of your appeal to an unsubstantiated faith. Emphasize the reasonable aspects of Christian truths. [...]

4) Be conscious of gender and racial equality issues. Be careful not to create any unnecessary stumbling blocks. Unitarian-Universalists highly value racial and gender equality. Any subtle signs of racial or gender superiority by you will be met with extreme resistance. Make sure to emphasize the biblical model of racial and gender equality in God's universal family.
So no, we don't have a Messianic leader who controls the minutest details of our lives, we don't get punished for doubt, we're not brainwashed or punished, and we're not required to turn over all our money to the church... but neither is it all that surprising to hear the "C" word applied to us. Strange to see it in an actual "news" article, though, even a Christian-slanted one.

(And if you really wanted to make notes about my reaction, Mark, I'll go with "amused." Aren't cults supposed to be organized? )

Saturday, June 12, 2004


In two successive weeks, we here at Respectful of Otters have played host to left-wing blogger Julia and Republican blogger Moe Lane. I've devised this handy chart comparing my visits with Julia and Moe, which I believe has obvious relevance for understanding the differences - and yet the points of commonality - between the Left and Right blogosphere.

Blog represented:
Julia - Sisyphus Shrugged
Moe - Obsidian Wings

Positions self as:
Julia - bitchy feminist liberal
Moe - Right Wing Death Beast

Successfully wins my favor by bringing:
Julia - cutest eight year old ever
Moe - mint chocolate chip brownies

Significant other:
Julia - polite, long-suffering, non-blogging husband feigns interest in conversation
Moe - polite, long-suffering, non-blogging girlfriend feigns interest in conversation

Julia - smashed with mallets
Moe - set on fire

Interesting proposition:
Julia - offers to get me in to the Republican National Convention
Moe - offers to get me in to the Republican National Convention

When I bring up partisan politics, responds by:
Julia - diving right in
Moe - laughing nervously and changing the subject

Name dropping:
Julia - Air America
Moe - Harry Turtledove

Recurring conversational theme:
Julia - sexism
Moe - guns

Shows touching concern for my welfare by:
Julia - offering to use her connections to advance the prominence of my blog
Moe - not wanting to sully my reputation by allowing our names to be publicly linked

Frightening and unexpected conversational topic:
Julia - makeup
Moe - threesomes

Weblogs referenced, whether positively or negatively:
Julia - Body and Soul, Electrolite, Pandagon, Atrios, Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, Wonkette
Moe - Tacitus, Little Green Footballs, Daily Kos, Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, Democratic Underground, Free Republic, Wonkette

Unanticipated physical characteristic:
Julia - tall
Moe - cuddly

(Julia comments: "I offered to get you into the Republican National Convention? Boy, I'm important after two or three glasses of wine..." Moe protests: "I seem to remember being the one frightened by the threesome conversation." And a good time was had by all.)

Cruelty To Animals

Phil Carter has some thoughts about the corruption of dogs at Abu Ghraib:
The second common feature of the stories is that dogs tend to reflect the humans they are closest too, for better or worse. This is really a function of dogs' learning ability, but it's more of an empathetic learning ability than a cognitive one. Again, this will come as no surprise to any dog person. For Rico and Peet, this is probably a good thing, since it results in a pet who is able to match our moods and modify his temperament to live among humans. For the dogs at Abu Ghraib, this is a bad thing. Unfortunately for the dogs, the humans there working as intelligence officers and MPs acted in an extremely immoral, sadistic and disgusting way towards the prisoners they held in captivity. The dogs couldn't help but sponge up some of this behavior too, learning from their masters how to attack and hate the Iraqi prisoners. And so, we have an unfortunate example of dogs using their learning capabilities for evil conduct.

This latest news from the prison is quite unfortunate, in my opinion. Setting aside the impact on the dogs, it may lessen support within the military for the continued use of military working dogs generally. That would be a shame. I worked with MWDs extensively in Korea, where their keen sense of smell was a great help on the perimeter when trying to detect opposing forces during training or South Korean "slicky boys" trying to steal American equipment. They also have great utility in the area of drug and bomb detection. The bottom line is that dogs work well when humans work well. If we train the people to act in moral and decent ways, then I think we can expect the dogs to follow.

Friday, June 11, 2004

So Much For "Social Responsibility"

It wasn't okay when their side did it, and it's not okay for our side to do it.
"Bush on the Couch," authored by a longtime Washington psychiatrist who has never met or treated the president, offers "an exploration of Bush's psyche" that delves into such touchy topics as his baby sister's death, his relationship with his mother and father and his drinking history.

In the book, to be released Tuesday, Justin A. Frank, a clinical professor at George Washington University Medical Center, claims President Bush exhibits "sadistic tendencies" and suffers from "character pathology," including "grandiosity" and "megalomania" -- viewing himself, America and God as interchangeable. Frank told us yesterday that his opinions are based on publicly available materials, adding, "I've never met the president or any members of his family."
This kind of garbage is forbidden by the ethics code of my own profession. It took about ten minutes with Google to determine that it also violates the ethical code of psychiatrists:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
You don't diagnose a patient you haven't examined. You don't discuss your diagnoses without the patient's permission. And if your only defense against the latter rule is that the person you've publicly diagnosed isn't really your patient, that alone ought to let you know that you've strayed far from the requirements of professional ethics. A psychiatric diagnosis is a clinical tool, not a rhetorical device; to treat it otherwise substantially undermines the reputation of psychiatry and psychology. Frank is a former leader of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, but there is simply nothing socially responsible about using psychiatric terminology as a stick with which to beat your political enemies. There's nothing socially responsible about misusing the mantle of the professional expert. I am appalled.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

In Memoriam: Ronald Reagan

Via AMERICAblog:
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement - the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?


Q: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that gets this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?

MR SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

Q: No, I don't.

MR SPEAKES: You didn't answer my question.

Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President -

MR SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)

Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

MR SPEAKES: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.

Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

MR SPEAKES: I don't think so. I don't think there's been any -

Q: Nobody knows?

MR SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping -

MR SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he's had no - (laughter) - no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Justice Department Memo: A Commentary Round-Up

It's too bad that it took a pro-torture legal brief to awaken the Washington Post to the grave dangers the Bush Administration poses to democracy. Still, rather than complain about them showing up late to the party, let's embrace the fact that they showed up with this stunning editorial at all.
Perhaps the president's lawyers have no interest in the global impact of their policies -- but they should be concerned about the treatment of American servicemen and civilians in foreign countries. Before the Bush administration took office, the Army's interrogation procedures -- which were unclassified -- established this simple and sensible test: No technique should be used that, if used by an enemy on an American, would be regarded as a violation of U.S. or international law. Now, imagine that a hostile government were to force an American to take drugs or endure severe mental stress that fell just short of producing irreversible damage; or pain a little milder than that of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." What if the foreign interrogator of an American "knows that severe pain will result from his actions" but proceeds because causing such pain is not his main objective? What if a foreign leader were to decide that the torture of an American was needed to protect his country's security? Would Americans regard that as legal, or morally acceptable? According to the Bush administration, they should.
No comment in the Post about the attempted coup inherent in the Justice Department's Nixonian assertion that the president is above the law and can set it aside at will. Josh Marshall comments:
So the right to set aside law is "inherent in the president". That claim alone should stop everyone in their tracks and prompt a serious consideration of the safety of the American republic under this president. It is the very definition of a constitutional monarchy, let alone a constitutional republic, that the law is superior to the executive, not the other way around. This is the essence of what the rule of law means -- a government of laws, not men, and all that.
For a more thorough exploration of the legal and constitutional implications of the Bush Administration's claims, you can't do better than law professor Michael Froomkin, who has posts on the subject here and here. Among other things, he points out that the Justice memo argues that U.S. statutes prohibiting torture only apply to actions taken outside the U.S., while Guantanamo is legally part of the U.S. for jurisdictional purposes. But the Administration also argued in their recent Supreme Court case that the treatment of Gitmo detainees was outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts because Guantanamo was not part of the United States. In other words, the legal position of the United States Justice Department appears to be that Guantanamo Bay exists in some weird science-fictional dimension in which it is neither inside nor outside the U.S., and is therefore subject to no controlling authority but the naked will of men with guns. If that doesn't scare the shit out of you, you're not paying attention. Really: read all of Froomkin's analysis. Phil Carter also continues to address the legal aspects of the Bush Administration's arguments; there are updates here, and he promises that a more thorough analysis is upcoming. The entire Justice memo is here (PDF file), if you want to read it.

It's critically important to note that, for the most part, the legal forces within the military have fought the Bush Administration's attempts to erode the rule of law. JAG lawyers have pushed for greater prisoner protections and are are vigorously defending the rights of foreign defendants sent before military tribunals. JAG Reservist and Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer - a Republican, so obviously this is not about kneejerk partisanship - volunteered to go to Iraq to supervise prison interrogations, a role he filled during the first Gulf War, and was turned down.
Under condition of anonymity, one current JAG officer told ABCNEWS that for the last two years, "the military lawyers have always been the ones speaking for greater protections and recognitions of rights for detainees — and the political appointees have argued for no recognition of rights and careful control of the process. That's an argument, to date, that the political appointees have won."

Several JAG sources report that, to form the rules for military tribunals, the Pentagon initially created a "Tiger Team" of Army JAG officers. But that team was soon disbanded by Haynes and the political appointee attorneys took over the process. JAG sources interpreted the move as being the result of military lawyers' insistence on greater rights and protections for detainees than what Haynes, Feith and others wanted to permit.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

"America Is A Shining City On A Hill..."

I haven't really had the heart for blogging, lately, but sometimes sheer volcanic fury is enough to propel me through.
If a government employee were to torture a suspect in captivity, "he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network," said the memo, from the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, written in response to a CIA request for legal guidance. It added that arguments centering on "necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability" later.
The memo outlines justifications and legal defenses for U.S. personnel involved in torture, and includes a new and restrictive definition that for an act to qualify as torture, the pain "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Beatings? Not torture. Prolonged bondage in painful positions? Not torture. Food deprivation? Not torture. If you're a U.S. soldier or a veteran and any of those things happened to you as a P.O.W., rest assured that you weren't tortured. Our government thinks those techniques are A-OK, and I'm sure that our enemies are taking notes.

Do I even need to address the self-defense argument? The case for it is generally made with hypotheticals: "You have a prisoner who you know has information about an imminent attack on New York..." and so Alan Dershowitz gleefully advocates a sterilized needle under the fingernail. But the hypothetical scenario begs the question. "You have a prisoner who you know..." We don't know. We guess. We assume that, if you've been locked up at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, that you must know something about terrorism. So we go fishing.

Many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were turned in by bounty hunters, in response to U.S. leaflets promising "millions of dollars for helping ... catch Al Qaeda and Taliban murderers ... enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life." Ninety percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were arrested "by mistake," according to the Red Cross - who got their information from military intelligence officers. If you pick up a man in a street sweep, the ticking time bomb hypothetical hardly applies. And yet the memo argues that torturing these prisoners could qualify as "necessity and self-defense."

The Washington Post article linked above apparently leaves out the parts of the memo which - I was going to say "which are the most damning," but upon reflection it really seems to me that the memo is damning from top to bottom. But the Post apparently leaves out the portions of the memo which attribute to the Bush Administration a sort of divine right of kings. Phil Carter - whose post is an absolute must-read - says the Wall Street Journal had more, and links to this reprint of the WSJ story:
The working-group report elaborated the Bush administration's view that the president has virtually unlimited power to wage war as he sees fit, and neither Congress, the courts nor international law can interfere. It concluded that neither the president nor anyone following his instructions was bound by the federal Torture Statute, which makes it a crime for Americans working for the government overseas to commit or attempt torture, defined as any act intended to "inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering." Punishment is up to 20 years imprisonment, or a death sentence or life imprisonment if the victim dies.

"In order to respect the president's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign ... (the prohibition against torture) must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his commander-in chief authority," the report asserted. (The parenthetical comment is in the original document.) The Justice Department "concluded that it could not bring a criminal prosecution against a defendant who had acted pursuant to an exercise of the president's constitutional power," the report said. Citing confidential Justice Department opinions drafted after Sept. 11, 2001, the report advised that the executive branch of the government had "sweeping" powers to act as it sees fit because "national security decisions require the unity in purpose and energy in action that characterize the presidency rather than Congress." [...]

To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."
The Administration is arguing that Bush has the authority to set aside the law as he wishes. They don't think he should be held accountable to U.S. or international law. This memo amounts to an official legal opinion that the President of the United States can do any damn thing he wants to, as long as he cloaks his actions in vague language invoking national security. Of all the ways, great and small, that this Administration has arrogated power to the executive branch, this is the most breathtaking. I try to avoid extremes of paranoid rhetoric, but this really is an attempt to provide a legal defense of dictatorship. It's a complete denial of the separation of powers the Founders instituted to protect us from the overreaching hand of government. No one in a free country has "authority to set aside the laws." No one.

Sunday, June 06, 2004


This morning was the AIDS walk I mentioned a few weeks ago. I hauled myself out of bed far too early for a chilly Sunday morning, and walked 3.2 miles under a cloudy sky that threatened, but did not quite produce, rain.

Three things about the march I did not expect:

(1) An R&B dance warmup. Sadly, we here at Respectful of Otters are just not very funky.

(2) A group marching under a lovely banner that read "Office of the Public Defender."

(3) A priest set up alongside the march route, serving Communion out of the back of his van.

I'd like to thank the 14 Respectful of Otters readers who donated a total of $400 to support my local community-based AIDS service organization, as well as my other readers who support HIV/AIDS services in their own communities. Twenty years into the epidemic, we still need you.

Friday, June 04, 2004

We Get Letters

A couple of days ago I posted about Abbott Pharmaceuticals jacking up the price of one of its HIV drugs. (Damn it, my permalinks seem to be bloggered. That link may or may not work for you - if not, well, the post is dated the first of June.) Someone wrote me to argue that there's no point in complaining, because in our current system corporations are bound to maximize their own profits:
If you want the profit motive involved in getting funding, spending money on research, etc., I can't see how you'd get away from having it involved in pricing the product when it's out there. I don't really see why it matters how much profit Abbot made on the drug, or on all its drugs for the year, or for the last fifty years. If they're allowed to act in their own financial interests, they get to raise prices on drugs for which there's more demand, whether that makes their profits reasonable, pitifully bad, or amazingly good. Similarly, I don't see why it matters whether the state programs that buy those drugs are flush with cash or about to go broke.

I don't see any likely way to get the same level of innovation we get now without some kind of profit motive involved--certainly, the system we see working has that profit motive involved. That seems to require putting up with drug companies that don't really care all that much whether their patients skip meals to buy their pills.
In fact, I am not arguing that we should nationalize the pharmaceutical industry. But in a market economy, my role as a consumer[1] and a public citizen isn't limited to simply buying or not buying products. If it is indeed within Abbott's rights to choose not to care whether their patients skip meals to buy their pills, then it is also within my rights to attempt to make that choice a very, very expensive public relations problem. And it's certainly within physicians' rights to make that choice more costly by avoiding prescribing Abbott drugs and refusing Abbott access to their research populations.

My posts about Wal-Mart met with the same criticism from some quarters: it's unreasonable for me to expect private corporations to behave in ways that don't maximize their own profits. Okay. But that implies that the way to change corporate behavior is by affecting its profitability. If I think Abbott's price structure and Wal-Mart's treatment of its employees are reprehensible, then my response should be to try to make those behaviors more costly. How better to do that than by fomenting massively negative public opinion?

Strangely, though, the pro-corporate folks who write to me don't want me to do that. Aren't I just exercising my proper role in a market economy, maximizing my own interests? You would certainly think so. But apparently, that's only a good thing when shareholders do it.

[1] All Americans are consumers of HIV drugs, in that the majority of them are bought with our tax money.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Oh, For God's Sake.

In Monday's edition of the Guardian, a breathless story warned:
They are going to reintroduce the draft in the US. [...] There is pending legislation in the American House of Representatives and Senate in the form of twin bills - S89 and HR163. These measures (currently approved and sitting in the committee for armed services) project legislation for spring 2005, with the draft to become operational as early as June 15.
Yes, it's our old friends, S 89 and HR 163, still jumping out at people and scaring them. It has now been sixteen months since there was any action on either bill. They are still sitting in committee. They will never move out of committee. They have no support among the leadership. They have no Republican sponsors. They are dead bills.

The Guardian sure doesn't make them sound that way, though, does it? "There is pending legislation [...] these measures, currently approved..." sounds as though the bills have passed and are ready for implementation. There's no way the Guardian can really be that ignorant about the American political process. You don't have to be a Constitutional scholar to understand the difference between a bill - stuck in committee, no less, with not a single vote cast - and a law. But of course, if your goal is just to sensationalize matters and scare people, that hardly matters.

If you want to be indignant about the prospect of involuntary military service, be indignant about this: soldiers won't be allowed out at the end of their enlistment terms anymore. That applies to everyone currently serving in Iraq, Kuwait, or Afghanistan, and everyone within 90 days of deploying. Soldiers who expected to retire, to go to college, to get back to their families and their normal lives at the end of their hitch will now be expected to stay in for the duration of the conflict... however long that takes.

I wonder how many of those soldiers know that Bush got out of the National Guard eight months early because he wanted to go to business school.

(Guardian story via Kevin Drum.)

Dieting Vs. Exercise

According to a newly released study, dieting weakens the immune system. Healthy "overweight" women with a history of multiple 10-pound weight losses over 20 years had poorer immune functioning than overweight women whose weight stayed steady.
Natural killer cells are an essential part of the immune system, killing viruses and leukemia cells, said Ulrich, who is also a research assistant professor in epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine. [...]

Those who reported losing weight more than five times had about a third lower natural killer cell function, the study found. Conversely, women who maintained the same weight for at least five years had 40 percent greater natural killer cell activity as compared to those who maintained their weight for fewer than two years.
It would be funny, if it weren't so sad, to see how the pro-dieting forces are attempting to spin the study results. Their conclusion is that the study proves, not that dieting is harmful, but that the women didn't take it far enough. People are urged to make dieting their permanent status; for example, one of the study authors recommends that people consume "few or no" refined carbohydrates and saturated fats for the rest of their lives. It's hard to imagine that such extreme and restrictive advice will lead to anything but the yo-yo effect of repeated weight loss followed by weight gain.

All of the women in the study were described as sedentary. Ironically, if they had forgotten about dieting and moderately increased their physical activity level instead, they would have been far better off. The health benefits of exercise - improved immune function, lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, improved bone density, higher "good" cholesterol, improved mood - accrue at any weight. And even modest amounts of exercise (ten minutes, three times a day) result in significantly improved health.

Yet the independent benefits of exercise are being overshadowed by our current national obsession about weight loss. In the mid-1990s, the Surgeon General recommended that Americans get 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. That recommendation was based on the amount of exercise necessary to lower the risk of chronic disease. But it's not generally enough to make people lose weight, so the recommendation was recently increased to an hour. Now, apparently, they're considering upping it again - this time to 60-90 minutes every day. In the endless quest to make every American svelte, they're setting exercise goals so unrealistic that most people will take one look and give up.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Drug Money

Once again, Nick Confessore has answered my perennial question, "what should I blog about?" This time, he's pointed me towards an op-ed about those crazy liberals who are against AIDS drugs:
In their relentless campaign against technological innovation, left-wing activists last week came up with a new approach. They're invoking a 24-year-old law that would force a drug company to give up its patent on a key medicine and let generic competitors produce the drug. [...]

In December, Abbott increased the price of its successful Norvir by about 400%, from $1.71 to $8.57 a day. Abbott said it needed the increase to recoup the costs of developing the drug and to finance future AIDS research and development efforts. Why now? Abbott said it had discovered that the drug had an added attraction that made it more valuable: It can boost the activity of other AIDS drugs, including its own Kaletra.
This story should sound familiar to the seven or eight people who have been reading Respectful of Otters since January, when I made several posts about the issue. Briefly: As the op-ed says, ritonavir (Norvir) is valuable primarily because it boosts the effects of other protease inhibitors. The increased price of ritonavir - but not of Abbott's combination drug Kaletra, which contains ritonavir - means that it's suddenly become more expensive to take any other company's ritonavir-plus-protease-inhibitor combination. It's an attempt to grab back some of the market share that Kaletra lost with the arrival of newer drugs. It's certainly not about Abbott having trouble recouping the costs of developing the drug - not when ritonavir has been on the market for eight years, and not when Abbott shareholders earned a 28.3% return on investment in 2002.

The op-ed makes the exact same arguments Abbott was making to the newspapers back when they first raised the prices: low drug prices stifle innovation, modest price to pay for the value, we're giving it away for free to the needy, incentive to develop the next blah blah blah. So what's with this LA Times op-ed, which sounds like it could've been written by Abbott's own PR people? It's funny you should ask. Nick points out that the author of the piece, Jim Glassman, is funded by PhRMA - the pharmaceuticals trade association of which Abbott is a member. Not that Glassman discloses this conflict of interest in his op-ed, of course. Apparently, he thinks that's optional.

The price battle over ritonavir is happening at a time when programs that fund HIV medicines are going broke. Abbott's promised to freeze the cost of ritonavir bought by state drug assistance programs, true enough, but that price break won't extend to other manufacturers' drugs which are dependent on ritonavir's boosting power. Ultimately, the patients will suffer - no matter how much Abbott spends on pretty editorials certifying that they won't.