Friday, November 24, 2006

Journey to the bottom of the well

I almost never read Charles Krauthammer, not because I disagree with him, but because he has a funny name. Kraut Hammer. What the fuck is that? The German Hammer? Does he prance around his house in tights chanting Kraut! Hammer!? Sorry for that image, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. (note to young writers, making fun of a person’s name is always a good way to build credibility in an opening paragraph!)

But seriously, I almost never read Krauthammer because he is a man of low moral standards and a tool for the worst elements of Conservatism. I would just say he is an evil moron, which would be accurate in the vernacular, but I don’t like to use the word evil because of its supernatural connotations and the question of whether or not he is a moron requires a nuanced argument. Does he believe his own twaddle or does he simply espouse it to further some Conservative cause? If he believes it, he is clearly a moron. But I would argue that he is a moron even if he has a very high IQ and cynically and effectively uses it to craft arguments with the express purpose of suckering the rubes. That’s still stupid to me.

Regardless, genuinely stupid or not, he is definitely a man whose political desires, if fulfilled, would lead to a lot of death, destruction, oppression, and other bad things for the world. And unlike most of these terribly wrongheaded (to give them the benefit of the doubt) people, he is mysteriously granted a national platform to peddle his destructive nonsense. And reading him normally makes me sick. Not physically sick, but existentially sick, not just for myself, but for the entire human race. Sick that such creeps lurk among us. Sick that all too often they prevail. And doubly sick that a newspaper with the reach and prestige of the Washington Post publishes such a sicko.

Nevertheless, this morning my stomach is steeled with mass quantities of turkey and dressing from the night before and he was writing about Borat, so I read what he had to say. Krauthammer’s columns are always instructive in a bad way or two and today’s column was no exception.

He notes that Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, went around the United States spouting anti-Jewish nonsense in order to expose the casual anti-Semetism, or indifference to anti-Semetism, of the American people, which Cohen maintains illustrates the path to the Holocaust.

Krauthammer’s argument is two-fold. One fold illustrates a tried-and-true propaganda technique, the other a logical fallacy.

Krauthammer does not dispute Cohen’s assertion that Americans are generally anti-Semetic beneath the surface or at best indifferent. He argues that we should instead focus on anti-Semites everywhere else in the world -- in Iran, Venezuela, France, and other members of the axis of evil too numerous to mention.

This is the “hey look, over there!!!” propaganda technique. It is employed when one is caught with one’s pants down and wants to focus attention elsewhere. In politics, the underlying argument when this technique is employed is always: focus your denunciations on places where you have no influence rather than here in the U.S., where you do.

The logical fallacy underlying the propaganda is that Krauthammer simultaneously argues that indifference paves the path to the Holocaust and that it doesn’t. He strenuously rails against anti-Semetic leaders and popular indifference to anti-Semetism in the rest of the world, but gently notes that “America is the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-Semitic country in the world” because notable American anti-Semites have helped Israel.

Basically what he’s saying is that anti-semetism is okay as long as the anti-Semites are Americans and they don’t act on it. Does he believe that crap? I doubt it, but Borat is making Conservatives look bad, so all good propagandists must denounce or distort its message and/or messenger.

Logically, it goes like this:

Harry Truman was an anti-Semite
Harry Truman helped Israel.
Therefore, America is the greatest country in the world and fuck those goddamned anti-semetic foreigners, kill, kill, kill!!!!!!!

Heckuva job, Charles.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I just finished Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. It was a very enjoyable read, only took me four days. And it was a happy book, truly a rare thing in literature.

Monday night I was part of a wonderful dinner with the children. I didn’t realize how great it was until it was almost over and I also realized how common those types of meals are for us. Long and leisurely, with lively, interesting conversation. We don’t have them every night, and maybe not even every week, but I’d say at least once every two weeks we have a well-prepared three course meal where the whole family sits around talking contentedly for at least an hour. It’s a wonderful thing, and rarely planned. The type of experience I know I shouldn’t take for granted. Some moments in life I need to savor. And I do, I do.

The only thing different about this particular meal was that my wife was not there. She has been out of the country for nearly six weeks taking care of her father as he lays dying. He has been in bad shape for a long time now, going in and out of comas. He has improved a little since she has been there though he will never fully recover, or even communicate. She said she saw them turn him over and the bed sores were so terrible her knees buckled and she almost fell. It appears that he will not die before she returns, which is unfortunate. She had expected him to die early in the six weeks. She thought she would both make the funeral arrangements and attend it, but such will not be the case. It’s very hot there and rains pretty much every day. She is not having a good time.

It’s odd that we haven’t missed her that much. I was traumatized when she left and spent the first few days drinking heavily in my room, letting the kids fend for themselves. But that got old fast and we settled back into our normal rhythm. I cook a well-balanced dinner pretty much every night and we have our leisurely meals. It’s not that we don’t like her, we do, but for some reason we don’t get upset when one of us is away. I guess that represents emotional security. We do care about each other. I was only bothered at first because I would have to pay the bills and manage the kids’ schedules. Not that I mind, but these are important things and I am just not good at them. But I’ve done okay. As long as she doesn’t extend her stay, our credit will probably not be ruined. And the kids have done fine. Aged seven and 14, they’re pretty much self-maintaining these days. They do their homework without prodding and get themselves ready for school.

I have been blessed with a great family, a fact which bothers those who know me from childhood no end. Given my behavior as a child, the fact that my children are abnormally well behaved is proof that there is no God. Many predicted that some day I would learn what it was like to put up with a brat like me. And in a perfect universe, that would have been my just desserts. But it is not a perfect world.

Last year in the United States, about 1.6 million children and teenagers — 280,000 of them under age 10 — were given at least two psychiatric drugs in combination, according to an analysis performed by Medco Health Solutions at the request of The New York Times. More than 500,000 were prescribed at least three psychiatric drugs. More than 160,000 got at least four medications together, the analysis found.

That, according to an article in this morning’s New York Times.
Fate Riske, 3, of Fond du Lac, Wis., takes two antipsychotics and a sleeping medicine to control what her mother, Elizabeth Klein-Riske, said were hours-long tantrums, a desire to watch the same movies repeatedly and an insistence on eating the meat, cheese and bread in her sandwiches separately.

That information just makes me sick. What child doesn’t want to watch the same movies repeatedly? What child doesn’t play with food? I don’t know about the tantrums. My educated guess from the information available would be “bad parenting,” but whatever the child was trying to communicate, it shouldn’t have been translated as “give me drugs, and lots of them.”

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I were growing up today, they would have put me on meds. I threw tantrums for as long as it was necessary to get what I wanted. I wouldn’t eat a sandwich without cutting off the crust! And I could give another hundred examples of genuine bad behavior. Stimulants, anti-depressants, anti-pyschotics, anti-convulsives -- I’m sure the would have thrown the pharmacy at me.

And I’m equally sure of the results. Just like the poor kids in the article, I would have been docile for awhile, then exhibited weird behavior when my body and brain got used to the dosages, then totally flipped out if they stopped the meds.
Joanne Johnson of Hillsborough, N.J., described a psychiatrist’s effort to wean her 17-year-old son, Brad, off of all five of his psychiatric medicines as “the biggest mistake of our lives.”

Brad, then 13, became suicidal and was hospitalized for weeks, Ms. Johnson said.

“He went into the hospital on five drugs and came out on five different ones, but he was unstable,” she said. “It took a little over two years to find the right match again.”

Brad is now taking lithium, an antipsychotic, an anticonvulsant, an antidepressant, a stimulant and a sleeping pill.

“He’ll probably be on these for the rest of his life,” Ms. Johnson said.

Of course I didn’t need a quack doctor to prescribe me all that crap. It was the seventies and I was, as they say, self-medicated as a teenager. At one time or another, I took all those classes of drugs. Various amphetamines, Valium, Quaaludes, Nembutal, Tuanol, I forget the name of the anti-convulsant that was popular, and everything else we could find in our parents’ medicine cabinets. All that along with weed and alcohol. I didn’t go over the cliff like so many others, but I could see the chasm. So I know from where I speak.

The conscious reason we (I had a lot of friends) drank and took drugs was because it was fun, but I now see that there were underlying psychological problems. Some of our parents were divorced, others alcoholic, many prescription drug-addled from some combination of diet pills and tranquilizers, all dysfunctional in one or many ways. Everyone was at least spanked and yelled at. Some beaten more severely. And we lived in a small town hell-hole with lots of small people in it. School was not challenging, to put it mildly.

Fortunately, I came out of all that okay. I never became a drug addict or an alcoholic. I went on to college and eventually became part of a healthy family. But that outcome was hardly assured. I could very easily have fucked up my life. A lot of people I know did. And nowadays, as the Times article illustrates, there are plenty of doctors who get paid lots of money to fuck up kids’ lives. I’m sure that if I been diagnosed as mentally ill at a young age and put on a drug regime like the poor kids described in the Times article, I’d be dead or a mess now. Most likely dead.

So of course when I had kids of my own I did not want them to go through any of that. I examined my own life, did quite a bit of research on brain development, and my wife and I came up with our own plan. First, and this should be obvious to everybody, we never hit them and tried very hard not to yell at them or humiliate them in any way. When they were babies, the kids got whatever they wanted. When they were hungry they were fed, when they wanted to be held, they were held, when they wanted attention, they got it, when they cried, they got sympathy. And on the flip side, if they weren’t hungry, they didn’t have to eat and if they weren’t sleepy, they didn’t have to go to bed. When they were babies, there was never any contention between us.

Then when the kids were very young and could understand words and reason, we had a few simple rules for which there were no exceptions. The most important rule was that, regarding things such as toys or candy, whining or crying would not get them what they wanted. Not once. Not ever. We did not get angry when they whined or cried. We did not yell at them or try to humiliate them in any way, much less hit them. In fact, we were sympathetic to their feelings, but we never, ever, rewarded whining or crying for material things. And for that, we were rewarded with children who did not whine and rarely cried.

And we educated them, I think fairly well, for whatever level they were at. We were never the neurotic super parents, but we spent a lot of time with the kids and talked to them a lot. That, it seems, is a better predictor of educational success than getting bent out of shape with the latest educational gadgets and tutoring. We’ve also lived in places with a lot of culture, things to do, and great natural beauty. I think place matters as well, at least if you use it. I’m sure it helps.

Up to this point at least, and I’m knocking wood, all this has worked very well. The kids are happy. They are nice. They do very well in school and, more importantly. love it, They have good friends who are happy as well. My daughter is fifteen and has never smoked, drank, or taken drugs. I don’t doubt that she will be exposed to sex, weed and alcohol in the next few years, but all signs point to her being able to make intelligent decisions. We’ll see, but at least she’s been happy till now. Not every 15-year-old can say that.

I don’t know if it’s some kind of genetic luck or our enlightened parenting, but I suspect it’s quite a bit more of the latter. My niece is an unfortunate example. She is at least as smart and talented as my daughter and has a lot of the same genes. But her parents divorced when she was six years old and to punish her mother, her father refused to see or speak to the child for many years. My sister remarried well and my niece grew up with all the material things a child could ever hope for. But they are not enlightened parents and the girl is horribly unhappy. She does poorly in school, fights constantly with her parents. Recently she began cutting her arms. She has been put on drug cocktails like the poor kids in the article and she keeps getting worse. She’s started drinking and smoking pot. Her boyfriend’s four years older than her. I have tried to help. I tell her these things can pass, that she has to get out of that town and go to college. That’s what I did. It was hard, but you can do it. Yes, uncle Chuck, she says in Eddie Haskell mode. That’s exactly what I’ll do. But more likely it will be Meth. Or pregnancy. Or both. I am helpless. It sucks.

Be that as it may, in a few hours we will have Thanksgiving dinner, my two children and I. My daughter has done some research and has a plan for preparing the turkey and dressing. My young son will set the table. We will have a nice long meal together, talk and enjoy each other’s company. Of this I am confident.

The future? Who knows? Global warming, a puff of Meth, car crashes, war, or crime. Life is fragile and so much can go wrong. As parents, we lose a little more control every day. Soon they will be on their own. But no matter what happens in the future, I am thankful for all that has come before. And I am thankful for today.

I hope you are too. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A mendoza line for the MSM

The Wapo’s Richard Cohen fesses up to being wrong in his initial support for both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. But after his initial error (someone else’s fault), he tells how he heroically realized that he would not want to fight in either one because his life was too valuable to be thrown away in a stupid, counterproductive war.

I guess that compared to other prominent columnists we should give him credit for admitting his mistakes, but why the fuck doesn’t he just shut up when he has been so horribly wrong about so many of the great issues of his time? Vanity and weakness, I guess, but someone needs to shut him up before he’s horribly wrong again. He’s no doubt already thinking about what a good idea it would be to bomb Iran. And he’s far from being the only one.

Just so there’s no misconception, I’m saying it's management’s job to shut these people up, or at least keep them off the editorial pages of the country’s most influential news outlets.

Why don’t major media such as the Washington Post and New York Times hold their columnists to any kind of standards regarding the quality of their opinions? If they were playing baseball, most of the highly paid pundits in the Post and the Times, as well as the vast television wasteland, would be batting well under .200. They have struck out on just about every major issue for the past twenty years, and then some.

Why is there no quality control beyond hair, makeup, and writing technique? Why no metrics, as we say in the corporate world, to track whether the opinions these people express turn out to be right or wrong?

The media need to hire an employee to chart the columnists’ analyses of issues and then when reality proves them right or wrong, compute their average. Then there would be something like baseball’s Mendoza line. The Mendoza line is a batting average so low that it gets you cut from the team. It means failure.

Perhaps they could call it Kagan or the Krauthammer line? No, only firing those who are wrong about everything all the time would be setting the bar too low. The Cohen line would work though. Anyone who is wrong as often as Cohen, or more, should not be playing in the major leagues.

When the craven rule

Yesterday brought another example of Muslims being arbitrarily removed from an airplane because at least one passenger was uncomfortable about their presence. They should remove the scared and ignorant fool who wrongly accuses people of plotting mass murder based on no evidence whatsoever rather than those who are wrongly accused. That’s a story I’d like to see in the news. More likely, the poor Imams will be put on the no fly list for being thrown off the flight.

A matter of perspective

The uproar over Fox’s attempt to exploit murder for profit in the case of O.J. Simpson is predictably unexceptional. First, we’re talking about a network that openly, and quite loudly, advocates murder and war crimes on a global scale and actively promotes those who kill and torture hundreds of thousands, probably millions before it’s all done (if ever), and profits from it handsomely, so it figures that they wouldn’t expect any outcry over promoting a solitary killer with only two victims to his credit.

And again it goes to show how we, as a species, lack perspective. Literally millions of people die in stupid wars or famines in Africa, or elsewhere, and we shrug. Yet when bad things happen to people we know – and we got to know poor Ron and Nicole – it is, for us, of paramount importance. And the greater the cultural distance, the less we care. African-Americans care little, if any, more about four million dead in the Congo than whites, but it’s different when someone they can relate to gets killed by a racist in Texas. And not a lot of tears were shed by white Americans when horrible war crimes were committed in Bosnia. We only became involved because the Europeans, who were so much closer, demanded it.

So Fox is exposed, which is a good thing, but I doubt anyone will make the connection between the wrong of profiting from O.J. and the wrong of profiting from the Coulters, Malkins, Hannity’s and O’Reilly’s who would kill millions. Two is a number to which we humans can relate. Numbers become increasingly fuzzy as we add more zeros.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Off to the races

“Schools Slow in Closing Gaps Between Races,” we are told by the New York Times. The article goes on to point out that white kids are improving their test scores faster than black and Hispanic kids. It also says that Asian kids are doing as well or better than whites. The article says nothing about how the Arab race is doing, or the Jewish race, or the Native American race, or any of the hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other races out there. Clearly, the article is racist.

Why does the New York Times continue to peddle this racist tripe?

It would be an exaggeration to say that science has abandoned the concept of race altogether, but I believe it is accurate to say that no one has come up with a definition that cannot be easily debunked. Yet the New York Times, as well as most the rest of the world, continues to attempt these ridiculous classifications.

For example, just using this article on test scores, what the fuck is the Hispanic race? There is no such thing. Even the census differentiates between Hispanics of African background vs. Hispanics of European background? But no mention is made of Hispanics of Native American background, which is the largest group, or Hispanics of Asian background, or Hispanics of Lebanese background, of which there are many.

Or the black race? Equatorial people from around the globe have as much melanin in their skin as most Africans. A person from southern India will have about the same skin color as a person from Ghana. A person from Ethiopia will have roughly the same amount of melanin as a person from Spain. Of course it’s not just skin color, but any other marker, or group of markers falls apart just as readily when scrutinized. The only racial classification that makes sense across the board is “human.”

...there is more genetic similarity between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans and between Europeans and Melanesians, inhabitants of islands northeast of Australia, than there is between Africans and Melanesians. Yet, sub-Saharan Africans and Melanesians share dark skin, hair texture and cranial-facial features, traits commonly used to classify people into races. According to Templeton, this example shows that "racial traits" are grossly incompatible with overall genetic differences between human populations.

"The pattern of overall genetic differences instead tells us that genetic lineages rapidly spread out to all of humanity, indicating that human populations have always had a degree of genetic contact with one another, and thus historically don't show any distinct evolutionary lineages within humanity," Templeton says. "Rather, all of humanity is a single long-term evolutionary lineage."

One cannot deny, however, that there is such a thing as ethnic groups or populations and that customs differ among groups and that these customs can, and do, affect education. One should certainly note that customs that affect education differ within ethnic groups as well. In fact, one can note all kinds of differences among people. One can go on and on and on noting differences among people. The supply of differences to note is endless.

What organizations such as the New York Times should be focusing on is the similarities rather than the differences. There are children who do extremely well on tests from all ethnic groups. What do they have in common?

Money, as we know, is color blind and the children of the wealthier members of any ethnic group generally do better than the less wealthy. So what should we do about that? Just give everyone a lot of money? No, we know that welfare without strings just doesn’t work and it’s often true that the more successful people are smarter, but still, closing the income gap among people who do work would help.

But just as in life, money in education is not everything. Intelligence has to count for at least something, doesn’t it? Not all humans are equally intelligent. The upper limit of our intelligence, we know, is inherited, but how close we come to reaching that limit is a result of how we are raised and individual choices we make. Thus, as any teacher will tell you, the quality of a child’s family life is a better predictor of success at school than anything that could remotely be classified as race. A recent study corroborated the obvious:

The principle is straightforward and has long been recognized in plants and other simpler organisms. In one famous example, often repeated by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, two genetically identical seeds of corn, planted in very different soil conditions, will grow to very different heights.

Some social psychologists and behavior geneticists have hypothesized that the same must hold true for the relationships linking human genes, socioeconomic status and IQ. Like corn in depleted soil, the thinking goes, minorities and the poor (two categories with so much overlap that researchers find it difficult to tease apart their effects) perform worse not because of their genes but because they are raised in an environment lacking in resources and poisoned by racist attitudes.

If the quality of family life is the most important factor in test scores and people from certain ethnic groups do better than others on tests, does that mean that some ethnic groups do a better job of raising their kids to take tests than others. That’s the obvious conclusion, isn’t it?

So wouldn’t it be cost effective to throw some money at an attempt to raise the child-rearing skills of parents? Yes, I’d say. In fact, I think raising the child-rearing skills of Americans, with the enhancement of our national IQ that would result, should be our number one national priority, the single best thing we could do to improve our national security.

The only caveat is that maximizing our children’s IQ and test taking ability should not be the only goal of our national campaign to dramatically increase parenting skills. Many people, for example, beat their children and although those kids may become quite smart and do well on tests, they are often damaged in other ways that are mirrored in the aggregate society. But more about that another time.

Update: The Daily Howler has a few things to say about the same Times article.

Update II: The British have the right idea.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

He did no harm to anyone

This article discusses movies about Beethoven and ponders why none have ever been made that approach the popularity of Amadeus.

Well, I neither know nor care anything about that, but I find it interesting that Beethoven's music has been used by characters in at least two of the more interesting films about violence to help put them in the mood for mayhem. Most famously, little Alex in A Clockwork Orange uses Beethoven's music to get up for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

And in a pivotal scene in Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a different violence obsessed Alex plays a haunting version of Fur Elise that serves as a surreally appropriate soundtrack for a killing spree.

So what is it about Ludwin Van that causes great filmakers to associate his music with violence? Beethoven looks like a maniac. There's some weirdness in his biography, particularly regarding his nephew Karl. Maybe there is something real there? Maybe that's the hook soemone needs to make a great Beethoven movie? Make him a psychotic killer, call it A Score for Violence and dig up Steve Railsback to play him.