Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Pandering, Part Five: The Sean Goldman Case

After five years of battling the powers that be, David Goldman has finally gained custody of his son, and father and son are now in the United States following the terrible ordeal which has played out over two continents.

Sean's mother had taken him to Brazil, but she later died and the battle was between his father and third-party relatives (actually step-relatives). One can't help but think back to the Elian Gonzalez case in 2000.

The law is clear that a parent has priority over non-parent third parties. One has to say kudos to the Brazilian court system for being wise and mature enough to honor settled international law, and to resist the nationalistic passions pulling it in the direction of the Brazilian third parties seeking custody.

One only wishes that that pandering SOB Al Gore had had this sort of integrity when the Elian Gonzalez issue came up in 2000, when Gore decided to pander to Florida voters in an attempt to become President in his own right. Instead of showing integrity, Gore broke with the Clinton administration and made the horrendous statement that custody of Elian should be determined by a Florida family court. Imagine! If it were up to Al Gore, Elian's father would have had to come to a foreign country where he'd never been, and did not speak the language, hire a lawyer, and fight for his right to custody of his own son!

Kudos to the Clinton administration for its understanding of the basic rights and obligations here. And shame on Gore and all those right-wing nuts in Florida who he tried to get into bed with.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Sanctimonious Presidents

On his Q and A show on C-SPAN Sunday, Brian Lamb interviewed the author of a recently-published book on James K. Polk. The author made the comment that Polk was sanctimonious, and he went on to say that sanctimonious Presidents have never been good Presidents. He listed John Quincy Adams, Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush as being in this category.

This is a concept I have never thought of. Perhaps those of us who have been critical of Obama for being too accommodating and conciliatory, in other words, the opposite of sanctimonious, should take a step back and give the man some credit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Necessity Defense

Word from NPR this morning is that the killer of Dr. George Tiller is seeking today to be allowed to present the so-called "necessity defense", that it was necessary to kill him to protect the life of unborn babies. This is ludicrous of course and one hopes the Wichita court system will have the good sense to laugh him out of court as he should be.

But it reminds me of that dark time in the early '90's when an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of Dr. Tiller. The defendant in that case had the good fortune to draw Paul Clark as the Judge for her case. Now Paul Clark was normally one of the better Judges in Sedgwick County, so his actions in this case were inexplicable, at least inexplicable at first blush. In a series of actions on the case Clark revealed severe bias and a total absence of impartiality. For the first appearance of the defendant, he surreptitiously borrowed another Judge's courtroom, and sneaked into it while the news media waited in his courtroom to tape the appearance. He even passed one of the reporters on the stairs going up to the other courtroom (the stairs being the best way to sneak around, as they were used considerably less frequently than the elevators). He greeted the reporter but said nothing about the change in courtroom for the court appearance.

But this was only the start of Judge Clark's shenanigans on this case. The same request was made, and Clark *allowed* the necessity defense, making the case into a total mockery of justice. But why did Judge Clark do this? In retrospect, all these many years later, the answer seems clear. It was no secret at the time that Judge Clark was angling for an appointment to the Court of Appeals. The person making that appointment would have been the governor, who at that time was a pro-life Democrat. It appears Judge Clark was cynically trying to ingratiate himself to this Governor, so as to secure the appointment that he so desperately wanted.

The bottom line is that Clark never did get the appointment he sought, and the administrative judge for Sedgwick County ultimately removed him from the case because of his obvious bias. Sometimes lady justice prevails despite the best attempts of men to defeat her.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Scientific Illiteracy

In discussing the recent recommendation against yearly mammograms for women between 40 and 50, NBC reporter/analyst Dr. Nancy Snyderman opined that "we are on the verge of becoming scientifically illiterate". Dr. Snyderman is much too generous in her observation. We have actually been scientifically illiterate as long as I can remember.

The agency involved balanced the negatives and the positives in making the new recommendation. The negative of course is that of every 1900 women, one will actually get breast cancer. The positives are an avoidance of anxiety based on the many false positives in those 1900 cases, and of course the reduction in expense and trouble.

The media perpetuates this scientific illiteracy by prefacing every statement with "Of course if you are that one person, then it is important." This is akin to the statement often heard from folks when you try to tell them that the odds of winning the lottery are one in ten million. The response one often gets is, "But what if you are that one person". Or, upon telling my ex-wife the odds on something, she said "But there's a 50-50 chance the odds are wrong!"

Recently I heard it said that a single person who wants to work and can't find a job is unacceptable. This represents not only scientific illiteracy, but a sort of pandering to the least common denominator of intelligence which is completely unacceptable, whether it comes from the media or from the administration. It is the same sort of mathematical illiteracy demonstrated by the acceptance of Dan Quayle's justification for getting into the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War, which was that "there were a hundred openings at the time", ignoring the fact that in a Guard of 10,000, there are always going to be at least 100 openings based on normal comings and goings in personnel. In other words, the Guard was full and the stats show that Quayle *did* get special treatment; but of course the media, in its ignorance, let this slide.

Now today we have a report that radiation causes 29,000 deaths per year. Part of the problem is said to be the insistence of many patients that they be given CT scans. It will be interesting to see if this information is processed by the media and the public with any kind of scientific literacy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Public Option Bites the Dust

Recently I heard Howard Dean say that in Vermont they have had universal health care for children under 18 for 15 years. And of course under Medicare we have had universal care for those 65 and older since 1965.

The question is, if we can do the above, why can't we go the next step and make it universal? What is it that the Republicans fear so much about it? What is it that all European countries have figured out, but we can't seem to?

The Republican plan is to leave the control in the hands of private insurance companies. In fact, the current plan would expand the role of private insurance companies, as coverage would be mandated through the private system for every American.

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse! Private insurance companies exist to make the maximum profit for their sharehodlers, not to promte the public welfare. Current plans mandating that the companies can't reject an applicant for a pre-existing condition will only drive up premiums past their already ridiculous heights.

It is a damn hame that Obama and the Democrats are so willing to cave in on providing real health care reform, which can only come through a single-payer system. And it is a damn shame that archaic Senate rules require 60% approval, instead of a simple majority.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lessons from the Fifties: Part One, McCarthyism

Treatment of President Obama by the far right has been aptly called "the new McCarthyism". In light of this despicable current syndrome taking place, I thought it would be useful to examine what the original McCarthyism was like and how it developed. The account is taken from David Halberstam's "The Fifties".

Halberstam says the phenomenon had already existed, but McCarthy's involvement began with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on 2/9/50. He made an offhand comment during his speech that there were Communists in the State Department and that they controlled foreign policy. He claimed he "had in his hand" a list of 205 Communists in the State Department, but didn't have time to name them. A local Wheeling reporter mentioned this in his story on the speech, and it was picked up by the AP and the circus began.

McCarthy next flew to Denver where he said at an airport press conference that the list was in his other suit. Then he was on to Reno, where two reporters undertook to pin him down on this list accusation. McCarthy had never met them, but he put his arms around them like they were old buddies. McCarthy would not be pinned down, but said to come to his speech that night and names would be given. At the speech that night he did name four names, but it was unclear what he was accusing them of. His words were deliberately vague, which led one reporter to exclaim that "Talking to Joe was like putting your hands in a bowl of mush".

Since it was unclear what the number was being claimed (seemingly it had gone from 205 to 4), the reporters collared McCarthy after the speech and went out drinking with him. One said later that he had never seen anybody drink so much so quickly. The reporters repeatedly tried to pin McCarthy down on just what he was claiming, but he dug into his pockets and could find no list, and at one point he accused the reporters of stealing his list!

And so it continued. McCarthy's basic charge was that the Democrats were "soft on Communism". Halberstam says that "the real scandal in all this was the behavior of the members of the Washington press corps, who, more often than not, knew better". But they enjoyed the way McCarthy cozied up to them, and they consistently refused to press him for substantiation of his vague charges.

Many right-wing demagogues in Congress played the same game. Richard Nixon beat a respected incumbent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, in a campaign which Halberstam says was "virtually a case study in red-baiting". The most interesting example is Robert Taft, "the most elegant and principled Republican in the Senate", who Halberstam says was like two people: one was "the thoughtful conservative who was uneasy with the coming of America the superpower and its growing obsession with anti-Communism", while the other Taft "could exploit the fall of China and attack the administration for being soft on Communism". Halberstam says that Taft's throwing in with McCarthy was "a low moment in an otherwise highly principled career".

Similarities to today are readily apparent. The "birthers" disdain the documentary evidence of Obama's birth, in favor of vague charges which they cannot substantiate. Even when shown a birth certificate and a newspaper announcement of his birth, they refuse to back off of their baseless accusations.

The role of journalists in McCarthyism is disturbing. At first blush one might suppose that after Watergate the role of the press has improved in regard to investigative journalism. Certainly Watergate led to a huge increase in interest in journalism on the part of college students. But it is one thing to be interested in a field, and another to actually be able to pursue the interest and make a living at it. In order to make a living, somebody has to be willing to pay you.

Upon examination it seems the failing of the press today is as severe as ever. Just think of the thousands of inches of ink, and the thousands of hours of air time, devoted to things like the O.J. Simpson trial and President Clinton's affair with a White House intern. Where is the coverage of truly important things, like global warming, going to war in Iraq on phony evidence, all the problems of disease and poverty in Third World countries, and on and on. The conclusion is inescapable that the media fails us daily in not reporting on the truly important issues that we need to know about in order to become better citizens of this world. The axiom "if it bleeds, it leads" is, sadly, still the norm.

The "soft on Communism" charge has been plaguing the Democrats ever since McCarthy. Sensitivity to this charge led Democratic Presidents to take us into war in Korea in the '50's, and Vietnam in the '60's. And today, Obama is no doubt sensitive to the charge of "soft on terrorism", the modern counterpart to the old accusation during the McCarthy era. People like Dick Cheney irresponsibly throw this type of charge around every chance they get. No doubt Obama's unfortunate Afghanistan escalation is based on a desire to appear tough on terrorism.

Another point is the danger of letting fear rule our lives. We did it in the McCarthy era, when we lost sight of our core values, and when fear of Communism caused Truman, an otherwise great President, to go off the deep end under the delusion that "fighting Communism" was essential. Today we let fear dictate a surge in our troop presence in Afghanistan, a surge which is totally unsupported by any intellectual thought process. In the process of surging, we will lose more Americans than would otherwise be in danger from terrorist acts.

A final point is that McCarthy showed how negative campaigning can work, if by "work" we mean win an election. We have seen despicable use of negative campaigning by Republicans ever since McCarthy. Nixon hit "law and order" in '68, his point being that Democrats were "soft on crime". Watergate can also be seen as an outgrowth of McCarthyism, the idea that it is an "us against them" world, a world in which it was deemed necessary to compile an "enemies list", and persecute your political opponents using the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA. Ford and Reagan were decent campaigners, but then we come to the first Bush in '88 and his despicable Willie Horton ads, painting Dukakis as soft on crime because of a furlough program, the irony of which is that the federal government at the time had a similar furlough program and a similar mishap which Dukakis could have fired back with had he been willing to get down in the gutter with Bush. Then of course in '04 we had the "Swift boat" ads which lied about John Kerry's war record. All of this can be traced back to the demonstration by McCarthy that just saying negative things, regardless of whether they are factual or not, and repeating those things over and over, will bring success in an age in which the media is willing to disseminate everything you say to a gullible and ill-informed electorate, without offering that public any intelligent analysis of the lies being propagated.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the Metaphor of War

When John McCain says you go into a war to win, no matter how long it takes, and you don't quit until you have broken the will of the enemy, he is arguably right if you are talking about war in the traditional sense.

However, it seems we have expanded the use of this term "war" to include many things totally unrelated to warfare, and this has led to much confusion. I believe this whole syndrome started in the'60's when Lyndon Johnson characterized his anti-poverty efforts as a "war on poverty". Then in the '80's we had the "war on drugs". Now, in this decade we have the "war on terrorism". None of these are wars in the legitimate sense of the word, and we should recognize this and find better terminology. We set ourselves up for failure in that there is no way any of these so-called wars are ever going to be "won". Why not use precise terminology and use clear thought for a change?

Obama's Double Blunder on Afghanistan

Obama first blundered by not firing General McChrystal for his obvious insubordination in going public with his request for 40,000 more troops, rather than respecting the chain of command. He should have fired him just as Truman fired MacArthur for the latter's insubordination.

Now he announces his ridiculous plan to send 30,000 more troops to this so-called "country". CNN had an interesting panel of people who were familiar with Afghanistan talking about this after Obama's speech Tuesday night. One was a journalist who had spent substantial time with the troops and knew the state of things there. He described what he had found going into police stations. One had a former chief who had been harboring theTaliban right in the station. In another everyone in it was high. In another the policemen were afraid to leave the station.

Obama's plan is that we are going to train these people to provide the security for their country. How do you correct these problems with "training"?? The very thought is ludicrous; hence, Obama's plan is ludicrous. The fact is that Afghanistan is not a nation in the normal sense of the word, but rather is a collection of tribes. There will never be a government there strong enough to control the territory and take over the duties we would expect them to assume when our troops leave.

On Pushing to Game in Contract Bridge

The other night at men's bridge I pushed to game twice when by rights I should have stopped a trick short of game. I got to wondering what the math of this decision is.

The scoring for this type of bridge is that a non-vulnerable game is worth 300, a vulnerable game 500, and 50 points are awarded for a part score.

Say it is 50-50 whether you make 4 spades or 3 spades. Bidding 3 spades yields you 140 half the time, and 170 half the time, for an expected gain of 155. Bidding 4 spades when not-vulnerable yields you 420 half the time, and a minus 50 half the time, for an expected gain of 185. If vulnerable, you make 620 half the time, and lose 100 half the time, for an expected gain of 260. (This sounds great, but remember if you are doubled and go down the penalties can be severe.)

Hence, one can conclude that if you have a 50-50 shot, go for it. The reality in the men's group is that there is such a variation in skill level, that the decision really rests on your evaluation of the relative skill levels of you and your partner, compared to your opponents.