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28 posts categorized "Charles Norman Todd"

May 12, 2005

Chile and Social Security

Guest: cntodd

Much could be said about Chile’s privatized social security system (for example, see here and here) given that it is the model President Bush is following for his own privatization plans, but MaxSpeak leaves little doubt today with his must read post.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

A Moral Argument for the Draft?

Guest: cntodd

It seems that even the U.S. Army has to care about ethics now and then. With Army recruiters failing to make their monthly quotas, the shadowy side of conscription has reached systemic proportions. Unable to hide the problem any longer, the Army has called for the suspension of all recruiting day.

"Army to Spend Day Retraining Recruiters" [NYT]: Responding to reports about widespread abuses of the rules for recruitment, Army officials said yesterday that they would suspend all recruiting on May 20 and use the day to retrain its personnel in military ethics and the laws that govern what can and cannot be done to enlist an applicant.

Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the recruiting command at its headquarters in Fort Knox, Ky., said that every member of the command, including 7,500 recruiters nationwide and senior officers, was scheduled to take part in the day of instruction, called a "values stand-down."

Unfortunately, the problem is more serious then anything that can be resolved in a single day of a so-called "values stand-down." After all, recruiters already know that the underage and the mentally challenged may not be enlisted – they do not need a day of "kumbaya," they need to fire officers who violated recruiting laws. Consider these examples:

At least one family in Ohio reported that its mentally ill son was signed up, despite rules banning such enlistments and records about his illness that were readily available.

David McSwane, a 17-year-old who lives outside Denver, also recently caught one recruiter on tape, advising him on how to create a fake diploma, and another helping him buy a product that purportedly cleansed his system of illegal-drug residue. This week, a CBS affiliate in Houston, KHOU-TV, played a voice mail message from a local recruiter that threatened a young man with arrest if he did not appear at a nearby recruiting station.

Army statistics show that substantiated cases of improprieties have increased by more than 60 percent, to 320 in 2004 from 199 in 1999.

This "values stand-down" is not about correcting any ethics improprieties, but about public relations. Indeed, part of the "ethics retraining" will involve a plug for counseling services:

Mr. Smith said the Army would re-introduce recruiters to legal recruiting practices and the rules that prohibit them from lying to applicants or hiding information from the military that could make them ineligible to serve. He said the focus of the day would also be on reminding recruiters to take advantage of counseling services that might alleviate stress brought on by long workdays and the repeated rejection of their appeals by prospects.

Something needs to change fundamentally in the way conscription takes place. We have known for years that the Army targets some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in this country. It’s all well and good to have an all volunteer army, but it seems rather reprehensible to have the poorest dieing on the battlefield to protect the profits of the richest. Either something drastic needs to change in recruitment incentives to attract the rich and the poor, or else conscription should not be voluntary.

Let me be clear – I don’t like war and I don’t support the current occupation. Nor do I want a draft, particularly if the only reason is to make up for a recruiting shortfall. But it is immoral and unacceptable to create an army of the most underprivileged in this country. Wealth should not be a factor in deciding whether you are on the front lines or whether you get to stay at home in cushy Air Force base job. Wealth should not be a factor in whether you have to fight at all or whether during war time you get to run a company and make boon profits.

War is immoral enough without letting it divide society along lines of privilege for who gets to fight and who doesn’t. Its as simple as that.

If each division was composed equally of recruits from all ranks of the economic spectrum, perhaps the President and Congress would be a bit slower to sending them to war.

UPDATE (05/16/05):

For the record, I do not in any way support the draft. Given the discussion in the comments at Majikthise, I feel like many misunderstood my post (for example, see here and here).

The defense of state power can certainly be criminal or abusive. It is particularly abusive when the state decides to force its people against their wil - i.e. the draftl. But the state can also defend its power by exploiting the class of needy or disadvantaged citizens. In that case, the defense of state power can be just as abusive.

Those who rightfully oppose the draft are led to the conclusion that an all volunteer army is the only morally acceptable route. But in arriving at the decision, we can also fail to see that such an outcome, at times, can be just as immoral. In that case, one might be led from the all volunteer army in the opposite direction, i.e. to the conclusion that a draft that equally represents the population is the only morally acceptable route.

To be clear in my original post, I should have presented this as a moral dilemma, but I took for granted that the draft was an unacceptable option. The point of bringing out the dilemma was not to argue on behalf of the draft, but to bring attention to just how difficult the defense of state power can be from a moral point of view.

Another way to look at things would be to compare military recruitment to ordinary employment. Some might think that just as with the military, people have the free choice to gain employment wherever they chose, even if it means taking a job for 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for next to nothing. But we recognize that although such decisions are not forced, they are also not free. If the two parties who enter into a contract are on an unlevel playing field to begin with, then the contract is not fair. That is one reason we have unions. By enabling workers to collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the union attempts to partially correct the imbalance of the playing field, to make sure that workers have a fair employment contract.

Workers take jobs with unfair wages, inhumane hours, and unsafe working conditions all the time, but we know that just because they seem to enter into the working arrangments of their own choice, that does not make their decision free. We don’t say, “Oh, well, it was their decision to work for 1 dollar a day, 80 hours a week” or “Oh, well, it was their decision to work around toxic chemicals without adequate protection.”

The fact that no one is holding a gun to their head when they decide to take such a job does not make it right. The same holds true for those who take jobs in known hazardous conditions – like military service.

In short, the point of all of this discussion is simply to bring attention to the moral difficulty a country faces when attempting to defend its power. It is certainly an evil when it decides to enslave its citizens. But knowingly recruiting those who are economically destitute for the defense of state power can be a form of enslavement just as much, and unless we are mindful, we may fail to see that our “all volunteer” army is just as pernicious as the forced enslavement of the draft.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

May 11, 2005

Big Tackle May Get You Caught

Guest: cntodd

Apparently there is an evolutionary trade off to being well-endowed:

When it comes to females and a male's ... uh ... equipment, it seems size really does matter — at least among certain fish.

A study of mosquitofish — guppy-like creatures that feed on mosquito larvae — shows that females definitely prefer well-endowed males to their shrimpier brothers.

But sex aside, being bigger isn't necessarily better. Male mosquitofish with large genitalia have a greater risk of dying — even if it is with a smile.

“Its a classic evolutionary trade-off between attracting mates and avoiding predation,” said Brian Langerhans, a graduate student in evolutionary biology at Washington University, whose study was published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Having a large genital organ may increase your probability of mating, but it also may increase your probability of being eaten.”

That's because mosquitofish with large genitalia — known as a gonopodium — can't swim as quickly, Mr. Langerhans said Tuesday from St. Louis, Mo.

“Females may prefer to mate with males exhibiting a large gonopodium ... but having such a large non-retractable organ hanging off the body might contribute substantially to drag and would contribute nothing to thrust.

[From Globe and Mail]

Watching the Watchers

Guest: cntodd

Yes, I think it is ridiculous and outrageous that a cop tasered a pregnant woman with a 50 thousand volt stun gun simply over a speeding ticket.

But apparently Michelle Malkin disagrees.

Note to Michelle: the reason we see more media coverage of a cop out of control then we do of a cop who gets killed is because we have a collective responsibility to make sure those in positions of power do not abuse that power.

Pop Quiz for President Bush

Guest: cntodd

If it so chooses, the Bush administration now has a golden opportunity to silence critics and to reveal its sincerity on the so-called “war on terror.”

First, a well-known Cuban exile now resides within our borders – an anti-Castro exile suspected of bombing a civilian aircraft in the mid-1970s that killed 73 passengers. Although he was never convicted, National Security Archive documents reveal that he attended at least two meetings with the conspirators of the bombing.

But now this anti-Castro terrorist is living in Florida where he has requested asylum. Despite the fact that the Cuban-American population seems cognizant of his presence, federal authorities say not only that they have no idea whether or not he is in the country, but they also deny that they are even looking for him.

Here is a chance for President Bush to impugn the claims of his critics. Many in Washington and throughout the country have not taken President Bush seriously when he claimed he wanted to fight a global “war on terror.” Given that during his first term he remained focused entirely on Islamic terrorists, ignoring completely the right-wing paramilitary groups now raging terrorist campaigns in Latin America as they battle Marxist rebels, one seems more than justified in that belief. Indeed, every country on Bush’s list for the war on terror conveniently have one thing in common: oil.

What’s a guy to do? Its very simple, really. Known terrorists who blow up civilian airliners should not be allowed refuge in our country. Period. It does not matter if some consider the guy a hero for his anti-Castro attacks. If the word “terrorist” is to have a legitimate use, it must be decided by action and not ideology.

A second opportunity has also surfaced for President Bush to show his seriousness towards reforming our country’s security. In a panel discussion yesterday, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said that during his tenure in that department, he felt pressure from the administration to raise the terror warning to orange, even when the intelligence suggested only a minor threat. Ridge at one point said:

Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). … There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' [AP]

Such comments by Ridge suggest two things that many Americans already feel: 1) The color coded system does not work; and 2) The terror warning level was raised for reasons other than genuine threats to national security.

Such evidence seems rather damning for a President whose security record has already been challenged by members of his own party and whose ratings have sunk to an all time low for any second-term president.

What’s a guy to do? Its very simple, really. Given that the color warning system is costly, ineffective, and capable of being exploited for political reasons, President Bush needs to step up to the plate and abolish it. By dismantling the terror warning system, President Bush has the opportunity to say, “Hey, we tried it out, and I admit it didn’t do what we had hoped, but I am committed to national security and so we will continue to devise new strategies.”

How President Bush decides to handle these two situations – the anti-Castro terrorist now in Florida, and the further evidence that the color-warning system does not work – should send a very clear message to Americans. If he does nothing, stubbornly defending the color-system and ignoring the terrorist seeking asylum, President Bush will leave little doubt in the minds of his opponents that the “war on terror” has been an opportunistic political venture to justify the unjustifiable.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

May 10, 2005

Baby Tales

Guest: cntodd

How old would you think this baby is given that he weighs 48 pounds (22 kilograms)? He is actually only 11 months old! This poor kid in Calcutta consumes 5 liters of milk and 1 kilogram of rice-flour every single day. Apparently he suffers from a rare hormonal disorder. [Via the AP]

The Epistemology of Journalism

Guest: cntodd

We had some good discussion yesterday in response to the NYT’s new efforts to “regain the public’s trust.” In particular, the conversation focused on objectivity in the media – or lack there of – which then raised the following question: does adding more voices make the media more objective?

The epistemology of journalism is an incredibly fascinating topic, one over which much ink could be spilled.

To the extent that journalism is itself a kind of public discourse, we can evaluate it as a kind of truth-telling. I would argue that our attitudes towards practices of truth-telling vary depending upon the medium in which that discourse takes place. [I think that one of the most interesting discussions on the relation between truth-telling in journalism and journalistic medium is Neil Postman’s short work Amusing Ourselves to Death.]

Consider the following examples:   

  • In oral cultures, sayings and proverbs are themselves a medium for truth-telling – bits of wisdom passed down from the elders. Such bits of wisdom both guide daily life and adjudicate civil disputes.
  • In the American legal system, oral truth gets displaced by written truth – briefs, citations, law books, etc. – but in the courtroom speech itself gets privileged over print in that testimony is the medium for truth-telling. The short proverbs and sayings of an oral culture would not be accepted as a valid form of testimony or evidence.
  • In academic writing, the printed word is privileged over the spoken. Postman tells of a story in which a doctoral candidate was rebuked by his dissertation committee because of a citation that read: “Told to the investigator at the Roosevelt Hotel on January 18, 1981.” The committee said, you are not a journalist, you are supposed to be a scholar. The academic practice of truth-telling takes the medium of print to be essential.

But why are these examples relevant? They are relevant, I would argue, because they draw attention to the way various practices of truth-telling themselves bias our attitudes towards what would count as “truth” or “objectivity” within that practice. And in journalism itself, the medium has changed dramatically over the past decades – thereby changing our attitudes as to what counts as objectivity and truth.

With the rise of television, the medium shifted from print to a combination of visual and oral. As television journalism grew, it gradually became more and more visual, relying less on reporting of the news and analysis, and more on images. The shift from the medium of language to the medium of image itself had an impact on print news as newspapers like USA Today sprang up that relied more on image than text.

As a result, our culture now privileges the visual in journalistic practices of truth-telling, perhaps far beyond any other medium. (One could have an entire discussion here on the so-called objectivity of the photographic image.)

I would argue that the privileging of the image as the bearer of truth over print is part of the reason that many in our society think objectivity comes simply by adding more voices. If you are in a place that I cannot see, you could take one picture, but that picture would be flat, it would be from one perspective, from one angle, and with a limited horizon. If you took two pictures, from different angles, I might see a bit more. Three pictures would be even better, and so on.

In short, when we associate truth-telling with the medium of image or film, more seems like more truth. (I will leave aside whether or not that is a correct assumption.)

If we adopt that standard for truth-telling in journalism, then we will assume that simply showing one more “perspective” will add to the objectivity or truthfulness of the reporting. But I would argue that this is simply false. Indeed, I would argue that such a presumption is part of the reason that serious journalism continues to degenerate.

There is no substitute for the hard work that comes with investigative reporting – speaking to sources, uncovering the facts, reading documents and records, sorting through testimony, and so on. But if objectivity and truth-telling simply involve “showing different perspectives,” then two or three sides could merely give their opinion on some issue or situation and the journalist would have done her job. Why bother then checking the facts or records because we have already been given “different snap shots” on the situation?

Unfortunately, the media corporations don’t really seem very interested in viewing their profession as part of the practice of truth-telling - or even a public good for that matter. Even discussions about credibility, like the one the NYT is having, seem more like opportunistic pandering to the public to gain a larger share of the market.

But how can we regain a serious notion of objectivity and truth in the journalistic practices of truth-telling as long as the public is barraged by the flashy images of the 24-hour cable networks?

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

Gay Men Smell Like Women

Well, not quite, but just as interesting:

"For Gay Men, an Attraction to a Different Kind of Scent" [NYT]: Using a brain imaging technique, Swedish researchers have shown that homosexual and heterosexual men respond differently to two odors that may be involved in sexual arousal, and that the gay men respond in the same way as women.

The new research may open the way to studying human pheromones, as well as the biological basis of sexual preference. Pheromones, chemicals emitted by one individual to evoke some behavior in another of the same species, are known to govern sexual activity in animals, but experts differ as to what role, if any, they play in making humans sexually attractive to one another.

The two chemicals in the study were a testosterone derivative produced in men's sweat and an estrogen-like compound in women's urine, both of which have long been suspected of being pheromones. Most odors cause specific smell-related regions of the human brain to light up when visualized by a form of brain imaging that tracks blood flow in the brain and therefore, by inference, sites where neurons are active. Several years ago, Dr. Savic and colleagues showed that the two chemicals activated the brain in a quite different way from ordinary scents.

The estrogen-like compound, though it activated the usual smell-related regions in women, lighted up the hypothalamus in men. This is a region in the central base of the brain that governs sexual behavior and, through its control of the pituitary gland lying just beneath it, the hormonal state of the body.

The male sweat chemical, on the other hand, did just the opposite; it activated mostly the hypothalamus in women and the smell-related regions in men. The two chemicals seemed to be leading a double life, playing the role of odor with one sex and of pheromone with another.

Somehow I doubt you needed to do research to figure out that gay men prefer the scent of male sweat over female urine. But the whole article seems a bit distasteful to me. Why do men get divided into “gay” and “straight” but women are just “women”? The way the research is presented, at least by the NYT, it seems to reflect the bias that gay men are just girls with dicks.

There is a big difference between “Gay Men Have Brains Like Straight Women” and “Gay Men Have Brains Like Women.”

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

May 09, 2005

O'Reilly on the First Lady

Guest: cntodd

Apparently Bill O’Reilly is a bit ticked off that some Americans found First Lady Laura’s comedy routine to be a bit inappropriate. Indeed, on his Factor show tonight he called such people “extremists” and part of the “Kool-Aid left”.

In response to some comments Bill said the following:

Jim, who lives in Delaware writes, "Laura Bush's speech disparaging her husband before the international community demands an apology to God."

Wow. With all due respect, Jim, don't you think God has better things to do than critique a few harmless jokes? Perhaps the deity is offended by the word "Chippendales", but I kind of doubt it.

Ellie from Ohio picks up the theme. "I no longer think of Laura as a lady of good faith and taste. No Christian woman could compromise her values that way."

It's just amazing. What this brouhaha proves once again is that extremism is irrational, but plenty of people are caught up in the trap. All Laura Bush did was provide a few laughs in a gentle, well-meaning way. And the ideologues go nuts.

Maybe O'Reilly should listen to his own words of advice for once.

Of course, I didn’t find Laura’s comments offensive, but I don’t think someone who did makes them an extremist. My little old conservative grandmother who has been in church every week of her life would probably have been offended if she knew Laura was making horse masturbation jokes. That doesn’t make her an extremist.

What pisses me off is that O’Reilly, who is normally the anti-smut and pro-family champion, had a cow last summer when Whoopi Goldberg made some sexual jokes about the President’s last name. Indeed, in an interview with Ben Affleck shortly after the event, O’Reilly asked,

Now what do you think when Whoopi Goldberg gets out there and denigrates the office of the presidency?

So if those who get upset by First Lady Laura’s jokes about sexual tension and horse cock are “extremists,” then what does that make Bill O’Reilly for griping about Whoopi?

By the way, he ended the segment wondering just how many extremists are out there. To find out, he is taking a poll over at his main website, that asks readers whether or not they approve of First Lady Laura’s comedy routine. Why not help poor Bill out by heading over and voting no! He promises to air the results on his show.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

The Mother of all Blogs

Guest: cntodd

Yes, the "Huffington Post" otherwise known as Arianna’s celebrity blog whose tagline reads “Delivering News and Opinion since March 9, 2005” is now up and running. [Via Preemptive Karma]

Complete with posts from Walter Cronkite, Senator Jon Corzine, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Ellen DeGeneres, this “Mother of all Blogs” backed by plenty of hype is supposed to wow conservatives with shock and awe and send soothing vibrations of nirvana to liberals everywhere.

But as you may guess, I am a bit skeptical about such massive group blogger venues, particularly one with such a star studded cast.

I ask you, could a blog with Hollywood glamour and journalism’s all-stars from days of yore really be a benefit to the blogging world?

Blogging has a way of leveling the playing field a bit, connecting people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected, and decentralizing structures of power. Part of this ability comes from their openness to feedback from readers, something with which the Huffington Post does not seem equipped. By not enabling feedback either in comment or trackback form, the H.P. enshrines its status as a celebrity enclave, removed from the rank and file of the everyday blogger.

The Huffington Post: Good for bloggers? Good for Democrats?

CORRECTION:The “Newswire” portion allows comments, but the “Blog” portion does not.

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]