Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Today's Social Psychology Lecture

A story I read in a social psychology text long ago has been going through my head for a couple of weeks now. I finally had to track it down:
[A]fter four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard, several rumors quickly spread: (1) both of the women who were slain were pregnant (and therefore, by implication, were oversexed and wanton); (2) the bodies of all four students were crawling with lice; and (3) the victims were so ridden with syphilis that they would have been dead in 2 weeks anyway. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, these rumors were totally untrue. The slain students were all clean, decent, bright people. Indeed, two of them were not even involved in the
demonstrations that resulted in the tragedy but were peacefully walking across campus when they were gunned down. Why were the townspeople so eager to believe and spread these rumors? It is impossible to know for sure, but my guess is that it was [...] because the rumors were comforting. Picture the situation: Kent is a conservative small town in Ohio. Many of the townspeople were infuriated at the radical behavior of some of the students. Some were probably hoping the students would get their comeuppance, but death was more than they deserved. In such circumstances, any information putting the victims in a bad light helped to reduce dissonance by implying that it was, in fact, a good thing that they died.
Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable collision of two or more contradictory beliefs. It usually results in (unconscious) efforts to reduce the discomfort by modifying one's appraisal of the situation. The classic example is a smoker resolving the dissonance between "I want to live" and "I smoke cigarettes" by downplaying the health risks of smoking or deciding that old age isn't worth living through anyway.

Cognitive dissonance gets particularly ugly when reality collides with the just world hypothesis, the belief that "the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve." Faced with tragedy, victimization, or injustice, just world believers have four options to reduce the cognitive dissonance: they can act quickly to help relieve the victim's suffering (restoring the justice of the situation), minimize the harm done (making the tragedy a less severe blow to their beliefs), justify the suffering as somehow deserved (redefining the situation as just), or focus on a larger, more encompassing just outcome of the "poor people will receive their rewards in heaven" variety. The first response - the only actually helpful one - isn't always possible. Unfortunately, the latter three pretty much always are.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina confronted Americans with a constant parade of images of suffering. Terrible suffering, to extremes hardly imaginable in a wealthy and highly developed society. American citizens dying of thirst, dead bodies lying uncollected on the streets of a major city, elderly people and children penned into the Convention Center and the Superdome in unimaginable squalor, denied even the most basic of aid from their government. There was no immediate way for private citizens to help them. Faced with those horrific images, most of us had powerful reactions of grief, rage, shame, fear, pity. In others, however, the images of Katrina caused cognitive dissonance too great for them to tolerate. Where is the "just world," when wheelchair-bound grandmothers die of thirst? How to maintain, watching the abandonment of New Orleans victims to day after day of imprisonment without relief, the conviction that this is the "greatest country in the world"?

So rumors about the depraved criminal nature of stranded New Orleans citizens spread like wildfire. People managed to convince themselves that the suffering and dying victms of Katrina were too bad to be let out of their flooded prison. People argued that they chose to be there, that they were freeloaders in it for the relief money, that ther losses meant less to them than we would feel in their situation. In short, many people were desperate to restore their faith in a just world by clambering over the bodies of innocent hurricane victims, by convincing themselves that the starving, dehydrated, ailing people in the Superdome had somehow gotten what they deserved.

And who were those people, exactly?
people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice.
Most people subscribe at least somewhat to the just world hypothesis, on an unconscious level - if you didn't, you'd have little reason to try to do anything. But conservative media commentators have surely taken it to a higher art, and - to the detriment of their essential humanity - their listeners have become experts themselves.

Update: In the comments, Siobhan links to a particularly nasty version of the genre. Now I want to go take a shower.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Friday Baby Blogging

I'm all too aware of the wrenching contrast between the pictures in yesterday's post and the pictures in today's post. But here she is, the sole reason why I'm not down in Louisiana or Texas volunteering my psychological services with the Red Cross:



It's hard to feel the pull to help, and not be able to go. "These people," as we keep hearing them called with disdain, are pretty much the same as my patient population: poor, urban, African-American, traumatized. It's not a specialty that many psychologists have, but I love working with them, and I'm good at it. They could use me. But I have another commitment right now.

I do have to say, though, that when the rage and the bitterness and the sick hopelessness threaten to overpower me, it helps to have my attention claimed by a little person who is learning how to eat cereal, likes to have poetry read to her, and keeps rolling over onto her tummy and getting stuck there. I was about to call it "perspective," but it's not that. It's just solace.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

"Executed Absolutely Flawlessly"

They're not ashamed of leaving those people trapped and desperate for days. They're proud.
We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition,


complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance,


no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.

Some people asked why didn't we go in sooner.


Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents' lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down.


Those that were undesirable to re-enter the convention center were segregated from the people that we wanted to provide water, shelter and food. Those people were processed to make sure they had no weapons, no illicit dugs, no alcohol, no contraband, and then they were escorted back into the building. Now there's a controlled safe and secure environment and a shelter and a haven as they await movement out of that center for onward integration to their normal lives.

It's a great success story -- a terrific success story.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What Might Have Been

From CNN:
The Yves St. Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger labels may be phony, but the thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims getting knockoff items seized by federal customs officials probably don't mind.

Displaced survivors in the Houston Astrodome can choose from counterfeit and abandoned clothing, toys, and even dog food.

More than 100,000 items were quickly taken from warehouses and more will follow, said Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.

The agency has some 1 million items stored, and Customs officials are going through their inventory to see what else would be useful. While the initial shipment went to Texas, officials are looking toward a wider distribution, Clemens said.
At first that story made me smile. I could picture some frustrated worker at Customs, someone whose responsibilities had nothing at all to do with disaster relief, watching hour after hour of CNN until it hit them: we've got things those people could use. Disaster relief isn't supposed to be our mission, but it could be.

Then perspective seeped in, and I began to feel bitter.

Our sermon at church on Sunday was about the soul- and world-transforming power of work, and about the fundamental impulse people feel, when faced with something like the devastation on the Gulf Coast, to ask "how can I be useful?" It's the impulse that led Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to fly a refugee family of nine up to Boston and personally take on the responsibility for housing them and supplying their needs, instead of just writing a check. It's what led a caravan of Minnesotans on a 2,300-mile, 52-hour journey to deliver 100,000 pounds of "food, water, diapers and hygiene items" to Louisiana. (No permalinks - scroll down to 5:14pm.) It's what's led Kathryn Cramer to help evacuees figure out whether their houses are under water from her home thousands of miles away. Across the country, around the world, people are using their ingenuity and their desire to be useful to address a million needs of evacuees, small and large. School uniforms for evacuated children who will be attending Dallas public schools, so they won't look different from the other kids. Animal blood for veterinary casualties. Admission to universities all across the South for students whose college educations have been disrupted. (All stories here, sadly without permalinks.)

Properly harnessed, this impulse to be useful could have created the greatest rescue and relief effort the world has ever seen. If FEMA had facilitated and directed - or even allowed - the spontaneous direct help offered to Katrina survivors, thousands of lives might have been saved and untold amounts of suffering might have been prevented.

Instead, offers of help were disregarded, delayed, deferred. One hundred surgeons and paramedics sat idle in a superbly outfitted mobile hospital, prevented from entering the diaster area, while other doctors attempting to volunteer were ignored or delayed and evacuees died of treatable illnesses and injuries. While people trapped in the Convention Center had no water and those in the Superdome were rationed to a pint a day, the USS Bataan waited for federal orders just offshore:
The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.

The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.

But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship.
National Guard units offered by other states were held up until late Thursday night because of paperwork not been signed in Washington. Federal caches of fire-fighting equipment designed to be shipped anywhere in less than 12 hours remained unshipped because hurricane-ravaged governors had not made formal requests for them. But that's okay, because the thousand volunteer firefighters FEMA requested, many of whom had special qualifications in search-and-rescue, paramedic training, and hazmat experience, were told they would be used only for PR work. The only 50 to enter New Orleans? Were sent to stand beside Bush during his photo ops. A flotilla of 500 small boats was refused permission to help evacuate the stranded and dying in New Orleans. The American Ambulance Association wanted to send 300 ambulances from Florida, former Senator John Breaux reported, and "were told to get permission from the General Services Administration. 'GSA said they had to have FEMA ask for it,' Breaux told CNN. 'As a result they weren't sent.' "

So, good for the Customs Department, I guess. But it's such a frustrating glimpse of what could have happened if all federal agencies had been directed to figure out what they could contribute to the relief effort, and if everyone who had skills or supplies to offer had been allowed to provide them.

I'll close with one final emblematic story. This comes from Door County, Wisconsin, a region so un-central to the recovery and relief efforts that you can be guaranteed that if it happened there, it happened everywhere.
Early on Friday morning Christie Weber watched the Mayor of New Orleans screaming on CNN, "We need buses to get these people out of here. Get off your ass and get down here."

She picked up the phone and started calling local charter bus companies. By 6 AM she discovered that there was an abundance of vehicles ready and waiting to be deployed - if and when they were called upon. But, until now no one had called. All of the charter bus companies that Weber rang up had already signed on with FEMA several days earlier, and they were just waiting for a call back regarding financial reimbursement, a destination and an approved route.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lost In Translation

(This post is a collaboration between Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist.)

We here at Respectful of Otters were in the middle of putting together a post about Bush's visit to the Gulf Coast, and wanted to lead with the horrifying report Laura Rozen received from a reader:
"Dutch viewer Frank Tiggelaar writes: There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF."
We here at Otters looked around for more information, and found that the story had spread to more than a hundred other blogs by Monday night, all of them quoting Laura's commenter, none of them providing a link. That began to seem strange. ZDF News is the German equivalent of the NBC Nightly News in the United States--a respectable mainstream institution with a broad nationwide presence. It seemed probable that if they'd reported something as shocking as food distribution points being set up only during Bush's visit, it would be easy to find out more.

So we here at Otters turned to Idealistic Pragmatist, who is an English/German bilingual, and asked her to look through the ZDF News site for the story. A second post at War and Piece provided a video link and a link to a text summary, to get her started. IP discovered that the blogosphere--beginning with Laura Rozen's Dutch commenter--had gotten several crucial facts about the story wrong. Although the images do show Bush visiting a New Orleans food distribution point, there is nothing in the New Orleans segment that suggests the distribution point had been specifically set up for Bush, and in fact nothing that even represents his visit as staged:
[This comes about a third of the way through the broadcast, all of which has thus far been about New Orleans.]

Voiceover (over pictures of Bush visiting New Orleans): And U.S. President Bush actually did come to the region of the catastrophe today. He spoke with flood victims and toured a site where they were passing out supplies; one of the few in existence, mind.

Bush (in voiceover translation; partly the English is audible, and partly it's been reconstructed from the German): We're gonna stabilize the situation; we're gonna bring water and food. I was traveling with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army today. People are gonna see compassion pour in here.
It isn't until a later part of the story--a part that details Bush's visit to Biloxi, Mississippi--that the charges of Potemkinism are mentioned:
Anchor: President Bush also paid the almost completely devastated small town of Biloxi a quick little visit as a part of his tour. Claudia Rueggeberg in Biloxi, how did the citizens react to the visit from the President?

Claudia Rueggeberg: There was a lot of variation. We talked to people here after the visit: one woman said a symbolic visit like that was better than none at all, and it was good that the President was showing his face there and looking at the situation up-close. Others tended to react with desperation. One woman burst into tears and said, full of rage, that the President shouldn't come here, he should finally see to it that help comes. All of the people, his whole entourage, these cars, they should be loaded up with supplies and not with bodyguards, and he shouldn't play the good samaritan here, and a staged visit like this doesn't help. And it actually was the case that all of a sudden this morning helper personnel showed up here, people who cleared away the rubble, who went through the houses in search of bodies, but exclusively along the route where the President traveled. Two hours ago the President left Biloxi again, and all of the helper personnel along with him.

Anchor: We know that President Bush promised quick help. Can that be felt where you are? For example, is there clean water and food?

CR: There's nothing here at all. Aside from what was cleared aside by the helper personnel this morning, the rubble is lying all over the street exactly as it was several days ago after the storm. There are no reasonable provisions; there's an emergency medical station and otherwise nothing. There is a stench of decomposition across the entire city. There are bodies that haven't been covered up in the buildings. Everything has been reduced to rubble, and help--from what we can see here and what others from other cities have also said--isn't coming.

Anchor: Thank you in Biloxi, Claudia Rueggeberg.

(Translation by Idealistic Pragmatist, based on her transcript of the ZDF video.)
Looking at the transcripts, it seems easy enough to figure out what happened. Laura's commenter, who appears to have been reconstructing from memory a news story he'd seen on TV, elided the New Orleans segment (which had Bush speaking at "one of the few" supply distribution points) and the Biloxi segment (which had cleaning crews working only along Bush's route, and disappearing afterward). Combined, these two segments became a story about supply distribution points disappearing after Bush's visit.

That story fit in well with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's report that construction equipment had been brought in to the levee for Bush's visit, and then removed again. And it also fit in well with the lefty blogosphere's traditional distrust of the American media ("There was a striking discrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV"), and their perceptions that foreign reporters are more likely to get it right.

The fact that the story fits so well with our current frames for interpreting Katrina news may explain why, when War and Piece posted a translation the day after the original report, no one (including Laura Rozen) seemed to notice that the translation was substantially different from the original story. It's natural that rumors are flying everywhere right now. But we should be careful about what we do with unsourced news, especially when it confirms our biases. We here at Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist are hardly Bush supporters, but we do think it's important to set the record straight. It's easy to lose the subtleties--or even the main point--of a news story that isn't in your native language. But we need to be careful not to undercut the points we're trying to make with even unintentional amplification. The news coming out of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the biting commentary by ZDF news, is damning enough as it stands.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Depraved Indifference

CNN reports on "the big disconnect" between conditions in New Orleans and the official party line. They present a damning series of quotes from FEMA Chief Michael Brown, who said Thursday that he didn't know anything about uncollected corpses, people trapped in the Convention Center, or problems with hospital evacuations. You know, the same things everyone else has been reading about in the paper and seeing on 24-hour cable news for days. I guess he was too busy making big decisions to turn on the TV.

He's not the only one who's had better things to do than hurricane relief:
Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service?

On Wednesday reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics.

Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!

When asked why these young men were not being used to help in the recovery effort, our reporters were told that it would be pointless to send military personnel down to the beach to pick up debris.

Litter is the least of our problems. We need the president to back up his declaration of a disaster with a declaration of every man and woman under his command will do whatever is necessary to deal with that disaster.
Although at least one person was able to borrow a sense of shame from the public to make up for her own congenital deficit:
All day Thursday, from the New York Post to several popular blogs, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice came under attack and ridicule for having fun in Manhattan while New Orleans sank and exploded in violence. By nightfall, she had cut short her vacation and returned to her post in Washington. [...]

Wonkette and Gawker got in on the action, with the latter revealing that she had just been spotted shopping for expensive shoes at a chic New York City boutique -- where she had to endure another female customer shouting at her about enjoying herself in such a way while thousands were perishing down South. All of this sparked criticism at many other sites.

By Thursday night she was back in Washington, convening a perhaps-overdue staff meeting to discuss ways of coordinating offers of foreign assistance from dozens of countries and organizations.
Perhaps the best display of depraved indifference comes, unsurprisingly, from Bush himself, who went on Good Morning America to say that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Fortunately - and at last! - the mainstream media's not letting him get away with that one. There's been widespread reporting of the extensive history of scientific and media reports anticipating that very disaster. Bush has finally lost USA Today and Tim Russert - evidence that there are substantial cracks forming in his "America's hero" facade.

Finally, as several people have pointed out, small-government conservatives have now seen their vision of how America should operate fulfilled.
One of the most core principles of Republican philosophy is to get rid of big government, and worse, to disparage all sorts of government. But emergency planning is a government job and function. FEMA is a government organization. Stockpiling of emergency resources is the responsibility of government.

The way Republicans not very subtly attempt to dismantle government and the agencies of government is to cut taxes and starve it. Republican philosopher Grover Norquist said he wanted to starve government so it was small enough to drown in a bathtub. Drown was a sadly ironic word.
(Incidentally, I hope everyone out there is following Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Jim MacDonald's hurricane coverage in Making Light. They've got the best information warehouse, link collection, and discussion I've seen anywhere on the web.)

Why The Aid Wasn't There

The Red Cross has been ordered not to enter New Orleans with relief.
Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
  • Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.

  • The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
"Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city." See, and here you thought that tens of thousands of people spent the last few days trapped in the Superdome or the Convention Center without food, water, medical care, electric power, or basic sanitation, in constant fear of violence, surrounded by the unburied corpses of their fellow victims, because they couldn't evacuate. But all this time, they've been there by choice. If they had a Red Cross station distributing fresh water and sandwiches, they'd choose to stay in their fetid, corpse-riddled, life-threatening, lawless swamp of a city indefinitely. You know what those people are like, always sitting around waiting for a handout. Humanitarian aid just encourages them.

Yes, clearly, it's far better to evacuate Katrina's victims than to leave them in place in New Orleans. But when you can't get them all out right away - and they haven't even been able to finish evacuating the hospitals, much less the lower-priority evacuees - you need to provide aid in place. Immediately, not five days later. To willfully withhold basic life support from tens of thousands of desperate people because you think it will discourage evacuation is - actually, I have no words strong enough for what it is. Unconscionable. Morally depraved. A crime against humanity. Nothing seems strong enough.

Meanwhile, the Administration's lapdogs rush to assure us that none of this is their fault:
[T]he administration's defenders noted that the waist-deep floodwaters -- not a lack of effort by the federal government -- kept relief convoys from arriving to help stranded residents in New Orleans.

"The problem is not a lack of resources, will or the organization to provide assistance," said James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow in homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The problem is how to get it to the tens of thousands of people who need it."
Yeah. If only the United States had, oh, I don't know, a branch of the military specializing in dangerous amphibious landings. Or, you know, boats. Think what they could have done then. But no, "the greatest country in the world" (as the conservatives never tire of assuring us) is utterly flummoxed by the insurmountable obstacle posed by waist-deep water.

That leaves me much more terrified than anything Osama Bin Laden ever did.

(Update: Superdome evacuations have stopped with thousands of people still stranded - but not before wealthy hotel guests were permitted to jump the line. Via Sisyphus Shrugged.)

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Friday Baby Blogging

Originally uploaded by Rivka5.

It's just not fair for the daughter of two feminists to look this sweet in a rosebud-studded pink dress.

I think Alex looks older in this picture than she actually is. Probably because the pose suggests that she's able to sit on her own, when in fact she is leaning parasitically on her Mama. She is a fine strong baby, though, currently dedicating all her mental and physical powers towards figuring out how to take an object in her hands and put it in her mouth. Not food, you understand, because she's way too young for that. Just... stuff.

Same-Sex Marriage And The Goals Of The State: The Canadian Frame

I like the Toronto Globe and Mail's summary of this week's vote to make same-sex marriage legal Canada-wide: "It is rare that a law can be both momentous and anticlimactic..." Anticlimactic, of course, because court rulings had already extended same-sex marriage rights to some 28 million of Canada's 30 million citizens - with a notable lack of the civilization-crumbling effects predicted by foes of gay marriage in the United States. (No one in Canada has petitioned to marry their dog, to give just one example.) But momentous, also of course, because it's a strong affirmation of dignity and equality for all families. Marriage rights are now granted to GLBT Canadians, not just because the courts compel it, but because it's the will of the majority. That's momentous.

My favorite Canadian, Idealistic Pragmatist, sent me a link to an excellent analysis of how the same-sex marriage debate is framed in light of differing concepts of the purpose of the state. The post, at Crawl Across the Ocean, is framed in terms of Canadian politics and the Canadian blogosphere - but I think there's a lot there that Americans can learn from. It draws on a Joseph Heath book called The Efficient Society, which contrasts two models of government:
[T]hroughout time most societies have viewed the pursuit of good (virtuous) living as the goal of society. Whether in the world of Islam, Europe in the middle ages, or Communism in the Soviet Union, society functioned by requiring everyone to buy into the same set of moral values. Of course this required getting agreement on what actions are virtuous and which are vices - here religion traditionally (although not always, as the Communist example shows) plays a big role in determining which actions are good (those which please God) and which are bad (those which offend God).

The (potentially) fatal flaw in this type of arrangement is pretty clear - it only works if there is near unanimous agreement about what is virtuous and what is bad. [...]

Heath argues that the combination of advancing technology (which made disagreements much more lethal) and the Reformation which split the church in Europe and caused numerous civil wars led people to reconsider whether this was a sustainable model for society. He suggests that it was the 'social contract' theorists, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke et al, who developed a new set of values for society. In this new model, the state would no longer seek to impose values on society but would only use the powers which society agreed (contracted) that it should have, most notably a monopoly over the use of force to enforce contracts and prevent disagreements over values from getting out of hand and causing more civil warfare.

Heath calls this new model 'the efficient society' because, with the state's role reduced to enforcing contracts rather than values, legitimacy is shifted to those transactions which both parties enter into voluntarily.
Both the blogger at Crawl Across the Ocean and Heath appear to agree that Canada has a national consensus for the values of the efficient society, rather than the virtuous society. I think we'd all probably agree that the two models are in much greater tension in the United States. What's interesting to me is that I don't think the split falls along party lines. The division within the Republican Party is pretty clear; it's easy enough to arrange libertarians and free market conservatives on the "efficient society" side of the debate and religious conservatives on the "virtuous society" side. But I'd argue that Democrats aren't of one philosophy, either. The kinds of Democrats who win elections may be substantially less inclined to moralize - or at least more diffident about asserting their moral values - than their equivalents across the aisle. But within the liberal activist wing of the Democratic Party is a strong current of belief that the purpose of government should be to make people good. Heck, sometimes I lean that way myself.

Crawl Across the Ocean brings these philosophical points back to concrete political issues with a discussion of how arguments about same-sex marriage can be framed within the context of these differing models of society. It's an interesting perspective on framing, from a refreshingly different direction than the American blogger's must-quote, George Lakoff. Give it a look.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Nationals, The Pioneers, And The Hypocrites

Fred Vincy of Stone Court backs up my visceral baseball outrage with plenty of inconvenient facts for Representative Davis and his pals:
A Soros critic, John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), asks, "from a fan's perspective, who needs the politics?"

Who indeed? Does Mr. Sweeney also object to Bush pioneer William O. DeWitt, Jr., owning the Cardinals? Or Bush pioneer Carl Lindner owning the Cincinnati Reds? Or Bush pioneer Tom Hicks -- who also made W a rich man -- owning the Texas Rangers? (In fact, thirteen current or former owners and their family members are Bush Rangers or Pioneers.)

But it gets worse. How about George Steinbrenner III, convicted of making illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign and obstruction of justice, owning the Yankees? How about Fred Malek -- Deputy Director of Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) who compiled a list of high-ranking Jews in government for Richard Nixon and senior advisor to George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign -- owning part of the Texas Rangers in the 1990s along with George W. Bush?
Excellent questions, Fred. Longtime Respectful of Otters readers may also remember that the Yankees funded attack ads linking Howard Dean to Osama Bin Laden. "Who needs the politics," indeed.

Giving Voice To The Liberal Military

Karl Rove's repellent comments about liberals seeking "therapy and understanding" for the September 11th attackers have had one positive outcome: it led to the creation of the website Take It To Karl, which hosts the responses of liberal and Democratic soldiers, veterans, and military relatives to Rove's slurs. The site makes for compelling reading:
Whenever I get into an argument with a conservative, the story is always the same. First, they tell me I'm unamerican and unpatriotic. After I show them my military ID and mention I was in OEF, their next response is to say that I'm hurting my fellow soldiers. Then I confront them and ask them what they've done for the troops. Have they petitioned congress to make sure that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have all the armor they need? Do they make sure that the Reservists still have jobs when they come home? Do they lift a finger to look out for soldiers families while they're away? Did they even send a care package? So far, everyone I've debated has given me a no to all of these questions.

Then I ask them why they haven't stood up and fought against Bush when he slashed veterans benefits. Why don't they care about troops being undermanned and underequipped in Iraq? Their answer is always the same: Vet's have all they need, and troops in Iraq are doing just fine. Nevermind all of the reports and newspaper stories saying otherwise. Nevermind that soldiers are dying. We're doing just fine over there.

I served in the Navy for eight years, and while I never voted for Clinton I have also not voted for Bush. I am a centrist who finds himself a Democrat for voting purposes here in Florida, although the ranks of Democrats and Liberals must surely be swelling, since they are the monikers applied to all who are left of Bush&Co.’s ideology. Mr. Rove himself is not worthy of my anger, for his words alone are nothing more than rhetoric and media baiting from a man too contemptible to challenge my patriotism or service. The true disgrace belongs to those who were quick to reinforce his words in the public eye, from the President on down - people who knew better but chose to ignore the truth in favor of advancing their personal cause or vendetta.

The government I remember, the one I grew up trusting, the one I served, the one that the Founders thought was a great experiment filled with hope and promise; it has nearly vanished overnight. We live in a house divided when we need compromise and cooperation the most.
Thanks to the Respectful of Otters Military Advisory Board for the link. Please follow, read, and spread the word. These soldiers and vets eloquently give the lie to the propaganda that patriotism is solely a Republican virtue.

In other military news, Phil Carter of Intel Dump is shipping out to Iraq. We here at Respectful of Otters send our thoughts and prayers with him.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Putting The Squeeze On Major League Baseball

Garance Franke-Ruta quotes a subscription-only Roll Call story about the latest flourish of the Republican fist - an effort to intimidate Major League Baseball so that they won't sell the Washington Nationals to George Soros.
While the Soros-Ledecky group is not seen as the frontrunner to win the bidding for the Nationals, who should be awarded to their new owner at the end of the 2005 season, the very prospect that Soros could have a stake in the team is enough to irritate Congressional Republicans.

“I think Major League Baseball understands the stakes,” said Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R), the Northern Virginia lawmaker who recently convened high-profile steroid hearings. “I don’t think they want to get involved in a political fight.”

Davis, whose panel also oversees District of Columbia issues, said that if a Soros sale went through, “I don’t think it’s the Nats that get hurt. I think it’s Major League Baseball that gets hurt. They enjoy all sorts of exemptions” from anti-trust laws.

Indeed, Hill Republicans could potentially make life difficult for MLB in a variety of ways.
You'd think that I could no longer be shocked. But I am utterly astounded by this unashamed, on-the-record threat to prevent a private business from conducting a legal transaction with a private citizen. Davis and his colleagues make no attempt to cover this naked exercise of brute power with even the thinnest veneer of a pretense to legitimate governmental interest. They don't even seem to be aware that this kind of petty bullying is the sort of thing that people usually try to hide.

They simply believe that Congressional Republicans are entitled to demand that every aspect of American society, from great to small, be ordered as they wish. They simply display the two-year-old child's astonished outrage that anyone has the temerity to thwart their will.

I'd close with something about "surely this interference with private business transactions is a wake-up call for American conservatives," but I'm too busy trying to figure out how they sleep at night at all.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Apparently while I was away there was a blogosphere rape controversy. What a nice thing to come back to.

I find myself wondering how many of the men who argue that it's incumbent on women to prevent rape by restricting their behavior (as one commenter at Pandagon says, so very reasonably, "this girl wasn't forced to go to Aruba and wasn't forced to get drunk and wasn't forced (from what i've heard) to leave the bar with a group of relative strangers.") also believe that the problem with feminists is that they're so angry, and such man-haters. Because if men, in the aggregate, are so rape-prone that whole countries ought to be considered off-limits to women who don't want to be raped (no one forced her to go to Aruba; American women need to remember that we're perceived as "easy" abroad), so rape-prone that women must never let their guards down for a minute, so rape-prone that our default assumption should be that any man might rape us... well, I'd say that the only appropriate response to that situation would be anger. And hate.

It's a classic anti-feminist double-bind. Women are supposed to believe that men's sexuality is so powerfully animalistic that they can't be expected not to attack women, and we're supposed to believe that men are good guys. We're supposed to teach our daughters never to be alone with a boy, and yet we're not supposed to embitter them against men. We're supposed to constrict our lives so extremely that no man could ever perceive even the slightest hint of a sexual invitation, and we're supposed to be okay with it.

No thanks.

Anti-feminists love to claim that feminists believe that "all men are rapists."[1] Nothing works them into a condemnatory lather more quickly. But when they say that women ought to know better than to go to Aruba, drink alcohol, get in a guy's car, go back to his dorm room, leave the bar with him, of course they are saying precisely the same thing. The difference, I suppose, is in how women are supposed to feel about it: angry, or placidly resigned.

I don't hate men. (Does it really need to be said? I'm afraid that it does.) But I don't believe that men lack the capacity to control their sexual urges, either. If I did, I'd buy a gun and shoot any man who got too close to me or my female loved ones. If women truly are the ones responsible for preventing rape, that would be the most sensible way to do it, right? But strangely, the helpful advice being doled out in the blogosphere has much more to do with dressing modestly and staying inside after dark. And keeping a positive attitude, because, really, otherwise we're just going to alienate men.

[1] I notice that this quote from Marilyn French's The Women's Room appears over and over on anti-feminist sites: "Men are rapists, and that's all that they are." What they never mention is that The Women's Room is a novel, and that the line is spoken by a fictional character whose daughter was brutally raped and then re-brutalized during the trial. Well, another character in the novel says, "I like cheese," and yet somehow that one never gets elevated to stand as the universal opinion of feminists everywhere. It's almost as if they have some sort of agenda.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Politics In The Pulpit

I take back everything I've ever said about my church being too political.
The minister of a Haywood County Baptist church is telling members of his congregation that if they're Democrats, they either need to find another place of worship or support President Bush.

Already, the Reverend Chan Chandler has ex-communicated nine members of East Waynesville Baptist Church. Another 40 members have left in protest.
Rev. Chandler apparently believes that God has directly endorsed the Republican ticket; astoundingly, he offered the defense that his actions were "not political." Well, okay, actually, there's nothing astounding about that defense. The Christian Right has worked very hard to define Christianity as a Republican religion, its tenets primarily expressed as a set of hard-core social conservative positions. They've convinced themselves, the media, and unfortunately, many liberals - who should know better, if they've been reading Slacktivist or Body and Soul.

Here's something I wrote a while back about the intersection of politics with my own religion:
One of the things that bothers [my Significant Otter and I] about our church is the tendency some members have to blur the distinction between a Unitarian-Universalist church and a Green Party convention. The strongest example of this is the reflexive assumption that everyone in our church opposed the war in Iraq, but there's a whole spectrum of other political stances (disapproval of Israel, for example, and support of gay marriage) that almost assume the role of tenets of our faith. It's a strange position for a non-creedal religion to be in.

I have no problem with the idea that religion informs people's political judgments. Most of my political beliefs are founded upon principles that I consider to be part of my religion: the UU first principle of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, for example, and the Christian obligation to protect the weak and provide for the needy. Religions provide people with principles for how they should behave in the world, and as such, they affect political opinions.

The problem, to me, comes when you assume that there is a unitary relationship between a set of religious values and a set of political positions. My personal interpretation of affirming "the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings" leads me to be pro-choice, but it may equally lead another UU to be pro-life. The second principle's call for "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" may lead some to be pacifists, and others to see the necessity for certain just wars.
Okay, so obviously, when you put the politics/religion failings of the Unitarian-Universalists up against the politics/religion failings of Rev. Chandler of East Waynesboro Baptist Church, you have a case of me worrying about the speck in my own eye instead of the big ol' beam in my neighbor's eye. But the same argument definitely applies to Christianity, whatever Rev. Chandler and the Christian Coalition would like to think.

There is nothing intrinsic to Christianity which demands, for example, that a Christian privilege the three or four verses condemning homosexuality over the more than three hundred verses expressing God's special concern for the poor and condemning those who fail to aid them. (That hasn't escaped the National Council of Churches - no wonder they're a perennial favorite target of the right.) Christians who pay heed to those three hundred verses might very well find that their religious faith leads them to vote Democratic. And even the standard hot-button issues of the Religious Right are open to more than one Christian interpretation - take a look at Ampersand's compelling argument for why a pro-life person might in good conscience vote for pro-choice candidates. The Bible dictates religious principles; it's up to the individual believer to decide how those translate into political stances.

This shouldn't be news to anyone calling themselves a Baptist, as my Significant Otter - a recovering Baptist - points out. At the foundation of the Baptist faith is belief in the "priesthood of all believers" - the idea that no one has a more direct line to God than anyone else:
One person or group simply cannot claim more spiritual privilege than another. There are no spiritual classes when relating to God. All believers are children of God. Of course, churches will have ministers or officials to perform certain duties, but they are not the masters of the life and faith of other believers. [...] The autonomy of the believer is an intrinsic part of grace.
Sounds like Rev. Chandler needs to head back to seminary. Hopefully he'll have plenty of time to do so after his church loses its tax-exempt status.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Friday Baby Blogging

Originally uploaded by Rivka5.

I know that cat blogging is far more traditional, but I just can't resist posting this anyway.

Alex is now two and a half weeks old, and we're settling in nicely. She's starting to get comfortable riding in a sling, which means that in the near future Mama should be able to spend more time at the computer. So yes, political blogging will return someday soon. In the meantime, enjoy the cuteness.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Otter Pup Arrives

Alexandra Calvert Otter was born at 6:21pm on April 11th. She weighs 8 pounds, 4 ounces, is stunningly healthy, and has a full head of reddish brown hair. We here at Respectful of Otters are well, but very tired.

Expect to see photos soon, but probably not any political posts for a while.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Respectful Of Beavers

We here at Respectful of Otters don't normally take requests - especially given our current bowling-ball-strapped-to-the-pelvis stage of pregnancy, which makes it awfully hard to sit at the computer. But some people could convince us of anything, especially given that they'd get indicted if they tried to post about it themselves... so here it is, a post about recent developments in the Canadian sponsorship scandal.

If you don't read either the Canadian press or (in the past week or so) certain conservative American weblogs, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Briefly, the sponsorship scandal involved the diversion of more than $100 million of federal money from its intended purpose (promoting Canadian nationalism in Quebec) into the pockets of the Liberal Party and its supporters, via several pro-Liberal advertising agencies. The scandal has been a hot issue since February of 2004, and the continuing investigation caused problems for the Liberals in the June 2004 elections.

What's happened lately? The official investigative body for the scandal, the Gomery Commission, has been hearing testimony from one of the implicated advertising executives, Jean Brault. Because Brault is also facing a criminal trial for fraud, Justice Gomery placed his testimony under a "publication ban," a rarely-used Canadian legal procedure which attempts to prevent the contamination of potential jurors by forbidding the media to publish or broadcast information about the case before trial. Weirdly - or at least it seems weird to me - the proceedings themselves weren't secret. The press was allowed into the hearings, as was the public. Pretty much everyone in Parliament reportedly knew all the details of the testimony. But until the ban was lifted yesterday, no one was allowed to print articles or commentary about it - including, according to the commission, bloggers.

Last weekend, Brault's testimony was leaked to a conservative American blogger by an unnamed "Deep Throat" figure who appears to have been directly connected to someone in the hearing room. Subsequently, a few Canadian websites linked to the American blogger and CTV mentioned the name of his blog. Since then,
Mr. Morrissey saw the traffic on his website increase tenfold as Canadians clicked on to read the testimony from Quebec ad executive Jean Brault.

By midday, 131,000 people had visited the site. In just one hour before lunchtime, he had 26,000 hits and by the end of the day he estimated he was on track for about 300,000 hits, many from Canadians. He averages 22,000 visits a day.
So the case was a real windfall for Morrissey (a.k.a. "Captain Ed"), in terms of vastly increased blog traffic, blogosphere influence, and interviews with the traditional media. But it was also a windfall for Conservative Party interests in Canada. Until the publication ban was lifted, just about the only coverage of the banned testimony occurred in conservative U.S. weblogs. The mainstream Canadian media, of course, respected the publication ban. Liberal and left-wing blogs in the U.S. have been largely silent - other than a brief mention by Kos in which he misses the point completely by casting the story as attempted government suppression of "citizen media." (In fact, this is a case in which the "citizen media" was treated in precisely the same way as the professional media.) So a strongly conservative slant dominated the only coverage Canadians saw. If Morrissey's "Deep Throat" is a Canadian Conservative, as seems likely, then leaking the testimony to him was a brilliant political ploy.

U.S. conservative commentary on the scandal has involved two primary threads. Unsurprisingly, there's plenty of American First Amendment triumphalism:
The fact of the matter is that while Western Canada has close similarities to the rugged individualism of the American West, Canada, as a whole, is a smarmy country filled with spineless liberals who allow a corrupt government to clamp down on freedom.
We in the United States have the First Amendment to protect our freedom of speech and freedom for churches to take moral stands. Canada has no such protection and Canada's Queen has long since abdicated any responsibility she has for her subjects to the hands of a corrupt government.
(An even more ludicrous example of this argument can be found here.) Yes indeed, America is a country in which the press can say whatever it wants about governmental and judicial activity - which is why we all know exactly what's been happening in the Valerie Plame case and what the grand jury testimony has been. ("But that's different," because... um, because it's conservatives who have been accused of wrongdoing, as far as I can tell.) Even Howard Kurtz got into the act:
You often hear about dictatorships cracking down on Internet news to maintain censorship as tightly as possible. These are generally the kind of regimes that not only try to choke off free expression but are fighting a losing battle against technology in the process.

And the latest offender is . . . Canada?
There are two problems with this line of reasoning, not counting its inaccurate portrayal of America's perfect First Amendment freedom. In order to cast the Gomery publication ban as the oppressive quashing of political criticism by a banana republic-style totalitarian government, one has to ignore the fact that the ban was not put in place by the Liberal government, but by an independent judicial commission charged with rooting out corruption in the Liberal government. As the Canadian blogger Kevin Brennan says at Tilting at Windmills:
I'm becoming increasingly annoyed by the weird partisanship displayed by some in this case. People are talking like Gomery is an agent of the government all of a sudden. Funny, I don't remember many of those people making that claim before, say, Monday. If Gomery cannot be trusted to fully investigate this matter then we have a much bigger problem than the publication ban, and that's what we need to be talking about. [...] The publication ban was not requested by the federal government or by the Liberal Party. It was requested by individuals who are facing criminal charges who are concerned that it could affect their trials.
The obfuscation regarding just who imposed the ban is helped along, perhaps intentionally, by the fact that the word "government" means something quite different to Canadians and Americans. In the U.S., the word "government" typically applies to all three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judiciary. Using this definition, it makes sense for an American blogger to say that the "Canadian government" imposed the publication ban. However, in Canada, "government" is a much narrower term applying to the prime minister and the cabinet of the ruling party - in this case, the Liberals. A Canadian reading U.S. weblog commentary might therefore come away with the impression that the Liberal Party is directly responsible for the publication ban. Thus, the fact that the story was broken by U.S. commentators using U.S.-centric terms strongly increased the appearance of corruption underlying the ban.

In order to portray the ban as an effort to cover up government corruption, one also has to ignore the fact that the ban was clearly defined as temporary, intended to last only until Mr. Brault went on trial in May. (It has now been mostly lifted because Justice Gomery ruled that Brault's testimony was unlikely to affect his fraud trial.) Members of the opposition parties heard the banned testimony. The press heard the banned testimony. There was simply no way for it to be permanently suppressed - nor was there any indication that it would be. It was a temporary secrecy measure, much as the secrecy surrounding grand jury deliberations in the U.S. is temporary, or the Pentagon-imposed embargo of certain information known to the press (for example, embedded reporters) during wartime.

So the need to whip up a froth of outrage about the publication ban despite its temporary nature led to the other main thread of U.S. blogger commentary: the suggestion that the Liberal Party would deviously attempt to hold a "snap election" to further their hold on government power before the Gomery Commission released Brault's testimony. So, for example, Captain Ed: "The potential damage of their testimony has so unnerved the Liberal Party that they have reportedly started working towards a snap election so that they will not have to face the voters once the facts surface from the record."

Let's try to imagine how that might have worked. It was widely known throughout Canada that Brault's testimony to the Gomery commission was going to involve very bad things about the Liberal Party. No one knew the details, but it was clear from the commentary surrounding the hearings that Brault's testimony was expected to be very damaging indeed. Here's Canadian blogger James Bow:
As expected, the testimony delivered by these individuals has been explosive. How explosive? Explosive enough that the Liberal Party has sought (and received) official standing at the commission to cross-examine the witnesses. Explosive enough that the Conservatives are seriously considering tossing out the government and running the next election on an anti-corruption platform.

Thing is, we can’t tell you what the witnesses have said because of the publication ban. When Canadians look to the opposition parties, all they get is: “we’re thinking of throwing out the government.” / “Why?” / “Because of recent testimony at the Gomery inquiry” / “Why? How big were the revelations?” / “Big.” / “How big?” / “Trust us: BIG!”
Can anyone really look at that situation - besides, apparently, Captain Ed and his fellow U.S. conservative bloggers - and think, "Gee, what a perfect political situation for the Liberals! Boy, I wish I could stand for election under a cloud of racy and unspecified accusations!"? In fact, the only cited evidence that the Liberals wanted an election appears to involve the fact that the Liberals, like the other three Canadian parties, were beginning to prepare for an election - as you would expect them to do, given declarations by the Conservatives that the government should be brought down.

In the post cited above, Bow went on to suggest that the Brault testimony would be most damaging to the Liberals under the ban, when rumor and innuendo could drive the coverage: "How disappointed are people going to be when the publication bans lapse and the Canadian public just shrugs its shoulders? That’s what’s going to happen, folks. For a number of reasons; not the least of which is that all the speculation over the fall of the government has raised expectations over just how bad the revelations are going to be." That seems about right to me - the greatest Conservative Party advantage was during the period of time that the Brault testimony was banned from legitimate news media commentary, and yet widely discussed in coverage driven by U.S. conservatives.

Honestly, although the right-wing blogosphere seems to see this story as one more example of mighty blogs triumphing over corrupt mainstream institutions, from my cynical viewpoint it looks a lot more like U.S. conservative bloggers were used, via Captain Ed's "Deep Throat," to further the political agenda of the Canadian Conservative Party. What made a bunch of American conservatives - including Michelle Malkin , for Lord's sake - sudden experts on Canadian politics? I suspect that they didn't just get fed Brault's testimony - they got fed background and interpretation as well. In many cases, their ignorance of Canadian politics (for example, on the exact nature of the publication ban) served Conservative interests much better than the facts would have. All I'm saying is: both the ban and its violation by Americans have worked out very conveniently indeed for the Conservative Party.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Everyone already reads the brilliant Amanda Marcotte of Mousewords, who is now permanently at Pandagon - right?

She took my breath away today:
I have also noticed that two values that BushCo likes to fling around are "life" and "freedom", but I have also noticed that the two are opposite values in their rhetoric. You can have freedom or life, but not both. They are pretty consistent in this viewpoint, and if they evoke freedom, you can be sure they are covering up for someone's death, and if they evoke "life", you can be sure they are trying to take away your freedoms.
Thank you, Amanda. It chills me to say that I think you're exactly right.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I Swear This Is My Last Schiavo Post

I've given my opinion about the Terri Schiavo case at length, and I don't necessarily want to keep contributing to the media frenzy. (As of this morning, Respectful of Otters is the number one hit on Google for "Terri Schiavo CAT scan." The next few links are to Alas, A Blog and Abstract Appeal. Fortunately.)

Through my referrer logs, I found a link to some additional information which does seem worthy of Yet Another Schiavo Post. The blogger who writes Pekin Prattles wrote to Ronald Cranford, one of the examining neurologists from the original Schiavo trial, inviting him to respond to the National Review article condemning the medical handling of Schiavo's case. Among other things, Dr. Cranford's reply addresses the questions about additional scan techniques:
An MRI was never recommended because, in this case and other patients in a permanent vegetative state, the CT scans were more than adequate to demonstrate the extremely severe atrophy of the cerebral hemispheres, and an MRI would add nothing of significance to what we see on the CT scans. Plus the MRI is contraindicated because of the intrathalamic stimulators implanted in Terri's brain. A PET scan was never done in this case because it was never needed. The classic clinical signs on examination, the CT scans, and the flat EEG's were more than adequate to diagnose PVS to the highest degree of medical certainty.
Pekin Prattles also reproduces a lengthy journal article by Dr. Cranford (it's mislabeled "Dr. Cranford's complete Terri Schiavo report," but it's obviously a summary article, not a medical report). It's well worth reading. He discusses the series of CAT scans taken between 1990 and 2002 (not just the 1996 one which has been widely reproduced on the net), the EEG evidence over the same time period, and Schiavo's clinical records from her attending physicians - correcting the widespread misapprehension that Schiavo's neurological condition has not been re-evaluated since the 1998 trial. The article also provides this searing dismissal of the parents' "experts" who testified that there were treatments which could restore Terri Schiavo's brain function:
The following is a sample of the completely fallacious opinions rendered about Terri’s medical condition by Drs. Maxfield and Hammesfahr. Twelve years after an hypoxic-ischemic insult, and serial CT scans showing extremely severe atrophy of the cerebral hemispheres, both doctors said there was a “chance for recovery,” with the potential for response to treatment. Dr. Maxfield testified that “abnormal brain dissolves, so what’s left [as seen in the CT scans] is “normal, functioning brain.” He further stated that the most recent CT scan shows “improvement.” They gave no published data to support their opinions on their proposed treatments of HBO and vasodilator therapy but instead presented an infomercial style approach of anecdotal cases of dramatic responses to their therapies. There are no credible articles in the peer-reviewed medical literature on HBO or vasodilator therapies as effective treatment for patients with chronic brain damage. The articles on the internet on vasodilator therapy, including those by Dr. Hammesfahr, are extremely poorly written, and only a cursory examination of these articles would tell any medical professional that they could not have possibly been peer-reviewed.
"Abnormal brain dissolves, so what's left is normal, functioning brain." Well, no problem, then. She didn't need her cerebral cortex, it was abnormal. If this is the best the Schindlers' experts could do, it's no wonder the trial and appeals courts have found so consistently for Michael Schiavo.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo's Freedom Of Religion

I am relieved to see that the U.S. District Court was unimpressed with Congressional grandstanding in the Schiavo case. But I found something unexpectedly chilling in the arguments presented by the Schindlers' lawyer. Among the expected due process claims was the argument that Schiavo's rights to the free exercise of religion were being trampled:
Gibbs said that "fairly dramatic developments," including a statement by Pope John Paul II that removing a feeding tube would be a sin except in rare instances, are proof that Schiavo's constitutional rights to freely practice her religion are being infringed upon. Refusing to resume her tube-feeding would "jeopardize her eternal soul," Gibbs said.
Law professor Ann Althouse paraphrases the argument succinctly:
The federal religion claims assume that she must now want what the doctrine of the Catholic church requires, because, when she was able to think about such things, she was a Catholic.
The Schindler family is arguing that, regardless of what has been determined in court about Terri Schiavo's actual wishes, the courts should be required to place a higher weight on what the Catholic Church wants her to have wished. If the Appellate Court agrees with them, it sets up an enormously disturbing precedent in which religious doctrine is presumed to trump individual conscience.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholics have Living Wills - would they be rendered legally invalid if they include provisions to refuse artificial nutrition? What about cases in which a Catholic minor seeks judicial bypass to obtain an abortion without parental consent? Would the judge be required to take the Catholic Church's position into account, if it is indeed a violation of religious freedom to allow someone to make a choice which "jeopardize[s] her eternal soul?" It's hard to imagine anything so theocratic happening in the United States, and yet the argument is being made, in federal court, that the Vatican's opinions should be allowed to intrude upon personal family decisions.

Needless to say, the proposition that "she must now want what the doctrine of the Catholic church requires" is entirely specious. American Catholics widely disagree with the church on a broad number of social positions, including the use of artificial contraception (90% believe that it is acceptable, and as of 1988 59% of all Catholic women of childbearing age were using methods of birth control other than periodic abstinence), abortion (31% of U.S. women seeking abortions are Catholic), the death penalty (48% support it), and - as a matter of fact - the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube (pdf). The last link is to a recent ABC news poll which found that 63% of American Catholics supported removing the feeding tube. So much for the Schindler's argument that, because Schiavo is Catholic, the court is required to determine that her wishes are identical to the Pope's.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Terri Schiavo, Part II: The Ethical Post

(Read Part I: The Medical Post.)

People who have been reading Respectful of Otters since the start know that I am strongly opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Because the concepts of "euthanasia" and "killing" (as in, "so now it's okay to kill someone just because they have a mental disability?") are being thrown around a lot in the Schiavo case, I wanted to write about where I see the differences.

What is at issue in the Terri Schiavo case is not whether it is legitimate to kill her or actively promote her death (for example, by an overdose of morphine), but whether it is legitimate to refuse medical treatment intended to prolong her life. (Make no mistake about it: nutrition and hydration are medical treatment, when they're supplied through a stomach tube.) While the distinction between active promotion of death and witholding lifesaving medical treatment may seem like hair-splitting, in fact they are critically different.

No one has the responsibility to submit to everything that medical science could potentially do to prolong life. As individuals who own and have sovereignty over our bodies, we have a fundamental right to bodily integrity. No one has the right to invade our bodies without our consent, even if their purpose is apparently benign. If we are competent adults, we have the right to refuse medical treatment at any stage of an illness. That might mean opting out of a second round of chemotherapy after a first round of cancer treatments has failed, preferring to focus on preserving quality of life for the time we have left. It might mean deciding to die of a terminal illness at home, even if hospitalization could add a few extra hours or days. It might mean requesting aggressive pain management, knowing that it might depress respiration and shorten our lives. We have the right to say "enough," and let the natural dying process take its course. We have the right to have the integrity of our bodies unviolated by unwanted medical treatment - just as we have the right to insist on aggressive efforts for life extension. We have the right to choice. And when we are no longer able to exercise that right ourselves, we have the right to designate our closest others to do so on our behalf.

To define the exercise of that right as "killing" is to pervert the end of life unimaginably. My grandfather died at home at the age of ninety, after a slow decline from Alzheimer's disease. He died in his own familiar bed, surrounded by people who loved him. He was not in pain. His breathing slowed and slowed, and finally stopped. If it is "killing" to refuse life-preserving medical treatment, then my grandmother murdered my grandfather when she failed to call the paramedics. The others present at his death were accessories to murder. But who would have benefited had my grandfather been forced to squeeze out a few extra days in an intensive care unit, on a respirator, confused and disoriented? In what way would that have furthered a culture of life?

The natural course of life ends with death. To allow that natural process to take its course is profoundly different than hastening it along. Asking others to refrain from interfering with nature is profoundly different from asking them to make, or be complicit in, the decision that nature is not progressing quickly enough - as in euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Euthanasia asks the physician to play God, to decide whether another person's life is sufficiently without value that it should be actively terminated. The cessation of life support asks the physician to stop playing God, to refrain from intervening further in a disease process which has its natural terminus in death.

Terri Schiavo is under no moral or legal obligation to stay alive at whatever the cost to her bodily integrity, in order to assuage our fears of death or nuture her parents' unrealistic hopes of a miraculous recovery. A court has determined, based on the testimony of several witnesses, that Schiavo's wish would have been to remain unviolated by a feeding tube if she had no hope of recovering. That ruling has been affirmed and re-affirmed. It is our best estimate, our only estimate, of what Terri Schiavo would have wanted. If we want our own rights to bodily integrity preserved, we have no choice but to uphold hers.

Update: Whoa. Never mind me; go read Hilzoy.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Science And Lies

One of my favorite women called my attention to the obscene fraud perpetrated by Dr. Eric Poehlman, who falsified data in order to pump up his federal grant applications. Grant reviewers typically rely heavily on the "Preliminary Studies" section of the application, in which researchers describe prior data supporting their current hypotheses. It's common to include the results of studies conducted so recently that the data hasn't yet been published (and thus subjected to peer review), so it's easy to see the potential for fraud. Not that peer review alone would have been likely to uncover a fraud so egregious:
Dr. Poehlman represented in the 1995 Annals Article that he had tested 35 healthy women for basic metabolic characteristics and retested the same women six years later for the same characteristics. In fact, Dr. Poehlman falsified and fabricated test results for all but three of the 35 women in the study. [...]

In 1996, Dr. Poehlman initiated a new project where he planned to recruit subjects who had previously been tested at UVM from 1987 to 1993 and retest them for the same and additional physical and metabolic characteristics over time. [...] Dr. Poehlman exaggerated the number of subjects tested and changed the values for the physical characteristics of the subjects and the test results for these subjects (often reversing the values from the initial test and the retest) in order to create trends during the aging process that were not reflected in the actual research data. [...]

Dr. Poehlman used data purportedly from the Prospective HRT Study in two grant applications to NIH seeking federal funding for additional HRT studies. In fact, Dr. Poehlman did not have access to the data and just fabricated the preliminary test results in the grant applications.
As far as I can tell from a quick Medline search, the main thrust of Poehlman's "research" appears to be that women get fat when they hit menopause, that this poses enormous health risks, that hormone replacement therapy should be used more widely, and that menopausal women should be encouraged to diet. Just to add a feminist outrage component to my scientific outrage.

I admire Walter F. DeNino, the research assistant who blew the whistle. DeNino must have known that he might be ending his own research career forever. A research assistant typically doesn't survive going up against a tenured professor. Fortunately, now that Poehlman's been so conclusively brought down, DeNino shouldn't suffer any worse consequences than the loss of his Poehlman-related publications from his vita.

As someone who makes her living off grant-funded research, I admit that I take considerable satisfaction in seeing the Hammer of God descend on Poehlman, via the federal Office of Research Integrity:
Dr. Poehlman has agreed to pay $180,000 to settle a civil complaint related to numerous false grant applications he filed while at UVM. In addition, Dr. Poehlman will pay $16,000 in attorney's fees to counsel for Walter F. DeNino, a research assistant whose complaint of scientific misconduct spurred an investigation by UVM. Also, Dr. Poehlman has agreed to be barred for life from seeking or receiving funding from any federal agency in the future, including all components of the Public Health Service, and to submit numerous letters of retraction and correction to scientific journals related to his scientific misconduct. Dr. Poehlman also agreed to be permanently excluded from participation in all Federal health care programs.
That last line means that not only is his research career over, but so is his clinical career. You can't be a practicing physician in the U.S. if you're barred from accepting Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement - unless you become a private practitioner to the wealthy, and how likely is that if you're burdened by a fraud conviction?

But there's more. "He's also facing criminal charges," I announced to my Significant Otter. "He could go to prison for five years."

"But that settlement sounds like a plea bargain," he said, sounding surprised.

"It is. In exchange for Poehlman doing all those things, the U.S. Government has agreed not to give their opinion on whether or not Poehlman should get a more lenient sentence."

That's all his deal got him - not an agreement to seek a lesser charge, but simply a "no comment." That's what I mean by the Hammer of God.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Terri Schiavo, Part I: The Medical Post

I had hoped not to blog about the Terri Schiavo case, but was driven to it by today's report that she was subpoenaed by House Republicans today in a last-ditch effort to prevent the removal of her feeding tube. Apparently, interfering with a person subpoenaed by Congress is a federal offense, and the Party of Big and Intrusive Government had no hesitation about using its naked power to interfere in a family dispute which has already been heard at every level of the courts.

If you haven't been following closely, the best summary I have found is here, with links to relevant court documents. I'm not going to review the whole case - I want to concentrate on the 17 medical affidavits recently introduced by Schiavo's parents, "based on the fact that new evaluation and therapeutic technologies can significantly impact brain damaged and disabled persons." The affidavits can be found on Schiavo's parents' website. I learned about them from Ampersand, who also linked to Majikthise's perceptive commentary.

Ampersand prefaces his analysis (with which I fully agree) with the disclaimer, "I’m not a doctor, of course." Neither is Majikthise (with whom I also fully agree), but I am. I have a doctorate in clinical psychology. I have completed a year-long practicum in clinical neuropsychology. I'm not qualified to evaluate Terri Schiavo myself - that would take a board-certified neurologist or neuropsychologist - but I am certainly qualified to evaluate the adequacy or inadequacy of someone else's evaluation. And so I have read every one of the 17 affidavits, plus the report of the examining physician on whose findings Schiavo's parents are basing their case, plus the rulings from the trial court and the court of appeals.

None of the 17 affidavits are by providers who examined Schiavo. Only one of the 17 providers claims to have reviewed her medical records. The remaining 16 providers apparently based their statements primarily on six snippets of videotape, totalling 4 minutes and 20 seconds, which have been posted on Schiavo's parents' website and broadcast repeatedly on the news. Several of them explicitly say that they viewed these clips on the net, and the others all refer to the same short samples of behavior (e.g., Schiavo's eyes tracking a balloon). Many of them say they read news stories about Schiavo. One admits to only seeing news stories and photographs. They all reference their experience with "similar patients," but without qualifying what they mean by "similar." For example, one doctor draws comparisons to catatonic patients - but catatonia simply refers to an absence of voluntary motion or interaction, and can be caused by any number of things. Another references stroke patients, and two more talk about patients with Alzheimer's. As Ampersand points out, not one of them mentions the specific degree and type of brain damage that Schiavo has, as documented by her CAT scans:
Theresa's brain has deteriorated because of the lack of oxygen it suffered at the time of the heart attack. By mid 1996, the CAT scans of her brain showed a severely abnormal structure. At this point, much of her cerebral cortex is simply gone and has been replaced by cerebral spinal fluid. Medicine cannot cure this condition. [...]

Although the physicians are not in complete agreement concerning the extent of Mrs. Schiavo's brain damage, they all agree that the brain scans show extensive permanent damage to her brain. The only debate between the doctors is whether she has a small amount of isolated living tissue in her cerebral cortex or whether she has no living tissue in her cerebral cortex.
Most of the affidavits mention sophisticated new neuroimaging techniques which have been developed since the 1996 exams, and recommend that Schiavo receive a functional MRI (which tracks blood flow in the brain in response to specific stimuli) or a neuroSPECT exam (another functional imaging test). They note, correctly, that functional tests are capable of providing much more information about the nature and extent of brain damage than structural tests like a CAT scan. Yet Terri Schiavo's cerebral cortex is not damaged, it is absent. The affidavits repeatedly fail to engage with this finding. Thus, we have Dr. Ankerman: "The long duration lack of speech seen after injury trauma is not always due to destruction of brain structure. Sometimes it is due to a state of brain dysfunction that is reversible." Dr. Uszler: "Standard MRI or CAT scans are anatomy scans; they tell you if the tissue is there and its current structure, but these tests do not tell you whether the brain is working." And, most incredibly, Dr. Terman: "If the results of her response to certain neurological tests, for example the fMRI, were similar to that of normal individuals with undamaged brains, such data might indicate that there is some potential for her rehabilitation."

I suppose that these statements are technically true. Speechlessness is not always due to destruction of brain structure, but if massive destruction of brain structure is present, that's certainly the way to bet. CAT scans tell you if tissue is present and structured normally, but not if it's working; however, if tissue is absent, you'd think its lack of functionality could be assumed. And yes, if Terri had the same fMRI results as a healthy person, that would bode well for rehabilitation - but as we sometimes say here at Respectful of Otters, it's equally true that if my aunt had testicles, she'd be my uncle. Terri Schiavo doesn't have a cerebral cortex. She's not going to have a normal fMRI pattern. She simply couldn't. So it's pointless to speculate about what it would mean if she did.

What about the "new treatments" which might help Schiavo? Many of the providers assert that she could be trained to swallow, and they're probably correct. Swallowing is a brainstem reflex, and Schiavo still has her brainstem. The muscles of her throat could be stimulated - Mr. Lakas suggests using electric shock - to produce an automatic swallowing response to liquid nutrition. It's hard to see how that would amount to an increase in quality of life, however, given the mechanical nature of the reflex and the likely increased risk of choking or aspiration pneumonia. What else? One of the doctors (Ankerman, again) recommends the off-label use of an Alzheimer's drug, based on unpublished anecdotal evidence that it helps catatonic patients (not patients in a persistent vegetative state). Another recommends hyperbaric therapy, about which the trial court judge had previously pointed out, "It is interesting to note the absence of any [published] case studies since this therapy is not new and this condition has long been in the medical arena."

Two others make unsubstantiated claims that Schiavo could somehow be taught to communicate: "By helping Ms. Schiavo to communicate she will be able to tell us things, such as whether or not she wants to die, and if she wants a divorce" (Ms. Hyink), "sometimes even if a patient can only answer "Yes" or "No" it is still possible to determine what that patient wants in terms of end-of-life medical care" (Dr. Terman). Indeed, if Schiavo were capable of speech or meaningful communication it would be much easier to determine her wishes. That hypothetical, however, is completely irrelevant to the case.

The 17 affidavits all put considerable weight on the fact that, in the video snippets on Schiavo's parents' website, she appears to be responding to stimulation. Her eyes track a balloon. She smiles in response to her mother's voice. The affidavits therefore conclude that Schiavo is appropriately responsive to external stimuli, and that she is at least minimally conscious - not in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) at all. Yet none of the exhibited behaviors are, in themselves, unusual for patients with PVS. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:
Individuals in such a state have lost their thinking abilities and awareness of their surroundings, but retain non-cognitive function and normal sleep patterns. Even though those in a persistent vegetative state lose their higher brain functions, other key functions such as breathing and circulation remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur, and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli. They may even occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. Although individuals in a persistent vegetative state may appear somewhat normal, they do not speak and they are unable to respond to commands.
So the presence of smiles, grimaces, vocalizations, and eye movements alone is not relevant to the question of whether Schiavo has retained any degree of consciousness or may benefit from therapy. They may be in part reflexive - as when she "smiles" when her cheek is stroked - and they may be completely random. The key to the 4 minutes and 20 seconds of video is that Schiavo seems to be responding in a meaningful way to specific stimuli. All 17 experts who reference the videos take for granted that they demonstrate meaningful emotional or communicative responses. Could they really all be wrong?

Oh, yes. All you need to know to illuminate the question is that the six snippets of video were selected from 4 1/2 hours of tape. As do most people with PVS, Schiavo emits random behaviors and noises. If a person gives enough commands or makes enough interaction attempts over the course of several hours, by sheer coincidence some of Schiavo's random behaviors will appear to coincide with their commands. Both the trial court and the appeals court viewed the entire 4 1/2 hour tape, and both concluded that her responses were indeed random. As the original court decision pointed out:
Dr. Hammesfahr testified that he felt that he was able to get Terry Schiavo to reproduce repeatedly to his commands. However, by the court's count, he gave 105 commands to Terry Schiavo and, at his direction, Mrs. Schindler gave an additional 6 commands. Again, by the court's count, he asked her 61 questions and Mrs. Schindler, at his direction, asked her an additional 11 questions. The court saw few actions that could be considered responsive to either those commands or those questions. The videographer focused on her hands when Dr. Hammesfahr was asking her to squeeze. While Dr. Hammesfahr testified that she squeezed his finger on command, the video would not appear to support that and his reaction on the video likewise would not appear to support that testimony.
Hammesfahr's own report makes clear that he relied on a ludicrously low standard to conclude that Schiavo's responses were purposeful:
Interestingly, some of the commands, such as close your eyes, open your eyes, etc. she tended to do several minutes after I gave her the command to do so. She had a delay in her processing of the action. However, when praised for the action, she would then continue to do the action repetitively for up to approximately 5 minutes. As we had moved on to other areas of the exam, at times she was continuing to do the previous command, then at inappropriate times since the focus of the exam had changed.
He commanded her to emit some of her known behaviors, such as closing or opening her eyes. If she did, that was a "hit" - a sign that she had obeyed the command. If she did so several minutes later, that was still a "hit," apparently no matter what else he'd asked her to do in the interim. If she continued , long after he'd moved on, that was not a sign that she was unresponsive to his subsequent commands but, instead, a sign that she was responsive to praise. Almost any response, correct or incorrect, could apparently be interpreted to signal consciousness. Hammesfahr, like Schiavo's parents, wanted to be convinced.

Terri Schiavo's case is tragic, but not medically complicated. Nothing about it suggests any room for diversity of medical or neuropsychological opinion. The "experts" who submitted affidavits appear to know little about her case beyond what they were able to glean from cherry-picked videotape segments only a few minutes in length. They recommend sophisticated neuroimaging techniques which are not relevant to the question of the feasibility of rehabilitation when the cerebral cortex is gone. Frankly, I can't imagine what led any of them to believe they had sufficient information to submit an affidavit. But some of their statements offer disturbing clues.

Dr. Eytan would seemingly reject any pre-injury statement about the conditions in which a person would prefer to refuse medical treatment, "because we are all in the process of changing." In the greatest unintentional irony of the entire stack of affidavits, she remarks that "Ms. Schiavo is not the same person as she was when she made her alleged remarks about not wanting to live in a certain condition." By this logic, she would apparently argue to invalidate any Living Will or advance directive. Dr. Senno states that just because Schiavo hasn't had any higher neurological functions for the past fifteen years, that doesn't mean she won't suddenly develop them today or tomorrow. By that standard, again, no one could ever be removed from life support. These doctors reject the fundamental right to refuse unwanted medical intervention. Imagine being kept alive forever in a mindless, volitionless, decerebrate, unresponsive condition, regardless of anything you might previously have said about your wishes to avoid such a state - just in case some new treatment were developed in the future which might cure you. That appears to be the new standard these medical providers are advocating.

(Tomorrow I'm planning to post about the ethical aspects of the case.)

Update: Ampersand posts an image from Terri Schiavo's CAT scan, next to an image of a healthy brain. The amount of brain tissue missing is truly shocking.