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37 posts categorized "Social issues "

June 18, 2005

Patio Man and Radiohead

David Brooks is reverting to type: In a column called Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack, he laments the demise of what he calls "middlebrow culture" (hereafter, MBC).

For Brooks, MBC is a phenomenon: social climbers consuming elite culture as a status symbol. Allegedly, back in the good old days, socially ambitious people had to expose themselves to elite culture whether they liked it or not:

If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950's and early 1960's, you discover they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite.

The magazines would devote pages to the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr. They devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something about opera, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one. [...]

That doesn't happen today. And it's not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial). It's the whole culture that has changed.

Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.

Amanda has already done a good job of dissecting Brooks' arguments. Be sure to check out the comments on that thread, too. There's a lively discussion afoot.

Still, I thought there might be a grain of truth in Brooks' steaming pile of elitist bullshit. It seems as if people are less interested in the conspicuous consumption of elite culture than they were in the 1950's and 1960's. I don't have any personal basis for comparison, but for the sake of argument, I'll assume Brooks isn't just fantasizing about an era when the average middle manager from Omaha felt obliged to bone up on opera and mainstream literary criticism in order to climb the corporate ladder.

I'm not suggesting that people are less interested in culture today, nor that social striving is on the wane.

However, it does seem as if there's less social cachet in consuming elite cultural products. Today's social climbers seem more interested in acquiring the lifestyles, manners, and consumer goods of the class they aspire to.

For example, people used to buy leather-bound books by the foot as an interior design accent. Today, people are more likely to invest in glossy coffee table books as a signifier of taste. The fanciness of your stereo system is probably says more about your social status than the titles in your CD collection. Live performances still have a cachet, but ticket price seems to count for more than content. Opera tickets are a status symbol, but you can get at least as much mileage from posh seats at The Lion King.

Every week there's another story about how a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, or an opera house is "struggling to adapt to modern world." That's a nice way of saying that aspirant people don't feel the need to buy tickets to sleep through the season anymore.

The book club is overtaking the bridge club as a middle class institution. If the books marketed for group reading are any indication, book clubs are more about having fun discussions with friends than about slogging through dry but edifying works in the name of self-improvement. Good.

Unlike Brooks, I don't have much of an emotional stake in these apparent trends. They aren't cause for cultural pessimism, or whatever Brooks wants to call his gloom. I see the blurring of "high" and "low" culture as a good thing. It's better that people feel less pressured to define themselves by embracing the "high" and shunning the "low." These days, everyone can afford to admit to liking their share of both. David Brooks might be embarrassed to admit that he watches commercial TV, or prefers a night at the movies to a night at the opera, but most people have moved on.

June 10, 2005

The rules of Refuge

Zach is a very courageous 16-year-old guy from Tennessee who recently come out to his parents. He's also a damn good writer who has been blogging about their hateful anti-Christian reaction.

Zach's parents have decided to ship him off to a self-professed "Safe Place" known as Refuge--a Christianist residential program that promises to turn kids straight.

Refuge emailed The Rules to Zach's parents. He found them and posted them to his blog. They must be read to be believed.

I learned about Zach's blog and the Refuge through General J.C. Christian. The General is engaged in a lively correspondence with Reverend Smid, the program's commandant.

Refuge isn't Christian and it isn't therapeutic. One look at the rules reveals what it really is: a private detention center for gay teens.

Update: Pam Spaulding has more details on Refuge and its parent organization, Love in Action International. Hat tip to Rainbow Ark.

June 01, 2005

PETA may have done something defensible (or even good!)

Steve Gilliard thinks the animal rights group PETA crossed the line when it hired Lisa Leitten as an undercover agent. Working under her real name, Leitten used her MA in animal psychology and her work experience at a Florida primate sanctuary to secure employment at three corporate animal facilities over the last 3 years.

A Yahoo news headline refers to her as a PETA spy, the bane of companies. So far, according to the article, Leitten has been a friend to at least one corporation, namely PetSmart, which decided it wasn't economically advantageous to retain ties to Iams, a USDA-certified animal abuser.

Her first job began in May 2002, a nine-month stint at a Missouri lab that produced pet food for Proctor & Gamble's Iams label. There, she claimed she found animals that were injured, had untended wounds and receiving unnecessary surgeries. Leitten documented her findings, quietly left the job and let PETA make her allegations public.

Retailer PetSmart and Iams severed contracts with the lab, which laid off nearly half of its workers. Its owner accused PETA of playing on corporations' fear of negative publicity rather than exposing legitimate concerns.

By July of 2003, Leitten resurfaced at her next assignment, a wildlife refuge in Amarillo, Texas. PETA said it had received complaints of tigers and monkeys housed in waste-laden cages and being fed spoiled food.

Six months later, Leitten slipped out of Texas, and PETA held another news conference with another damning video. A subsequent USDA review backed up the group's assertions

For what she says was her final assignment, Leitten was hired as a primate technician for Covance.

Leitten's camera work, and the report issued by PETA, depict frightened monkeys being yanked from their cages and handled roughly by aggressive, often cursing technicians.

She says she watched animals suffer with festering wounds, and that tubes were forced into their sinuses for research medicine to be administered, causing them to scream, bleed and vomit. Monkeys were housed alone in cages that were hosed down with the animals still inside, dripping and shivering, she said.

Laurene Isip, a Covance spokeswoman, says the company has complied with animal welfare regulations for its half-century in business, and doubted the credibility of PETA's charges.

Here's where Yahoo starts cherrypicking from the expert carton:

The company called Leitten's actions illegal. Legal experts agree.

"As an employee she has a legal right to be there, but she's there to fulfill and execute on the tasks and responsibilities give to her by her employer. She's not there to fulfill her own private agenda," said Scott Vernick, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in professional responsibility and legal ethics.

Bruce Weinstein, who has written four books on ethics, said even noble ends do not justify deceptive means.

Legal experts agree? Well, if Leitten signed any kind of confidentiality agreement, the article doesn't say so. Furthermore, even if she had, she might well have been entitled to blow the whistle on any illegal activities she observed during her employment at Covance.

Steve thinks that Leitten and PETA are liable for her actions.

When PETA is sued and bankupted, do not be surprised. Because this is illegal, and could be considered criminal fraud if they got really nasty. Zealots act as if the law doesn't apply to them. I predict they will find out that this isn't the case.

But why should we assume so? Leitten and PETA might be be liable if she signed a non-disclosure agreement, divulged trade secrets, and/or exposed her employer's legal operations with malicious intent. There is no evidence that she committed any kind of fraud in order to get her jobs. Her name and her qualifications were real. As Steve notes, surreptitious recording is legal in some states but illegal in others--so, it's unclear to me whether Leitten broke any laws. Obviously, if she faked any of this footage or caused any of the abuse she filmed, she a fraud and an industrial saboteur who deserves to be punished.

I'm not a PETA supporter. Steve is absolutely right to question PETA's credibility, given the the group's history of extremism and its taste for vulgar and dangerous publicity stunts.

I'm a strong advocate of animal research, but I'm also a proponent of stringent ethical safeguards, especially for primate studies. If corporations are cutting corners on animal welfare, I sure as hell want to know about it.

Given the source of the latest revelations, I'm not prepared to take the claims at face value. Maybe Leitten captured illegal or unethical activities film, and maybe she didn't. Even if she filmed legal activities, I'd like to hear Covance justify its "best practices" to its shareholders and the public.

Maybe Leitten even committed civil disobedience in order to get her footage. If so, I admire her courage.

In Steve's second post, he objects to PETA's handling of the tapes. It seems they released them immediately instead of turning them over to a fact-checking team or to legal authorities, a decision that might be morally or legally questionable.

However, the fact remains that Leitten went under cover to expose publicly relevant information about the business practices of major corporations. She wasn't digging for celebrity gossip or the scoop on Apple's product pipleline. She was looking for either violations of animal protection law, or evidence that current legal standards wouldn't be publicly acceptable if they were widely known. For that, she deserves our thanks.

May 31, 2005

Real women farm

Did you know that Cheryl Rogowski is the first person to win a MacArthur genius award for farming?
Or that the number of female operated farms has doubled since 1978? Julia Moskin has an excellent article in today's NYT about how women are changing farming.

I admire farmers, especially because I come from a very short line of agrarian underachievers. If there had been a diagnosis of ADD in those days, most of my relatives surely would have qualified for simple lack of interest in their nominal vocation.

You see, some of my Norwegian ancestors believed that farming was easy, classy, and romantic. That's because they were book publishers who read somewhere that the Canadian government was giving away land. Predictably, they started daydreaming about the idyllic classless society they might built in a new world.

Careful what you wish for.

Long story short, my great grandfather spent his whole life as a farm procrastinator. That's a kind of avoidant virtuosity in its own right. As an occupation, farming is singularly inhospitable to those who put off anything they might do today at five a.m.

Family lore has it that great grandpa always had some reason not to farm this year. A gig as a government weed inspector? Great! A burgeoning practice as an amateur lawyer? Sure thing. Allegedly, it always sounded really persuasive when he explained it.

Luckily, Canada industrialized fast enough to get subsequent generations off the land.

The womb draft

Catholics Split on Embryo Issue: 'Adoption' Embraced by Evangelicals in Stem Cell Debate

Tanner [Brinkman] celebrated his fourth birthday with a cake at the White House last week, and President Bush offered congratulations on national television. That is because Tanner is the product of what evangelical Christian groups call an "embryo adoption." [WaPo]

I think the fundamentalists are being too soft on this issue. They make it sound like this is a morally optional procedure. But these are little people. Surely every Christian family must do its part.

The believers should divide up all outstanding embryos and assign them to wombs immediately.

A reproductive draft is the only fair way to settle this. I don't care how many kids a lady fundamentalist has, or whether it's healthy for her to be pregnant, or what she might rather be doing with her uterus. If her number's up, it's up. No excuses. Jesus hates whiners.

Update: Ol cranky drafts a workable policy proposal.

May 27, 2005

Friday Pirate blogging


Avast! The International Commercial Crime Service's Weekly Piracy Report:

The following is a summary of the daily reports broadcast by the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre to ships in Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Ocean Regions on the SafetyNET service of Inmarsat-C from 17 to 23 May 2005...

The ICCS also issues global piracy maps graphically representing brigandry in the year that was.

[Via Incoming Signals.]

April 14, 2005

What follows is a matter of enormous public interest

DC Media Girl gives us the heads up on Steve Shapin's review of Jose Canseco's Juiced. And rightly so...

The young man leads another to a toilet stall, cautiously looking around to make sure they’re not being observed. Then he has him lower his trousers so that he can get at his buttocks. What follows is a matter of enormous public interest. Years later, President George W. Bush makes a speech condemning it. Congressional hearings are held to investigate it and to frame public policy.

It is the summer of 1988; the toilets are in the home locker room of the Oakland Athletics; and Jose Canseco is injecting Mark McGwire with anabolic steroids. Or so Canseco recounts in “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big” (Regan Books; $25.95). “It was really no big deal,” Canseco writes. “We would just slip away, get our syringes and vials, and head into the bathroom area of the clubhouse to inject each other.” By the late nineteen-nineties, according to Canseco, teammates were pairing off together in bathroom stalls with such regularity that it became an object of clubhouse drollery: “What are you guys, fags?”

If this is a matter of public interest (and it is!), surely rumors about Apple's product pipeline deserve a special prosecutor, if not their own C-SPAN show.

March 26, 2005

More on Brooks and Schiavo

Brooks' latest column is intellectually dishonest. He is insinuating that Terri Schiavo will die because liberals deemed her life worthless.

The Schiavo case is about the individual's right to accept or reject medical treatment. Even people who uphold the intrinsic sanctity of life aren't obliged to accept any and all life-prolonging care.

The column is dishonest because Brooks isn't engaging with any liberal position, he's just using "relativism" as an epithet. He knows perfectly well that there's nothing relativistic about upholding the individual's right to make decisions about her own body.

Irritatingly, Brooks doesn't even apply the term properly:

The core belief that social liberals bring to cases like Ms. Schiavo's is that the quality of life is a fundamental human value. They don't emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence.

Brooks is pinning a novel hedonic/capabilities/perfectionist model of intrinsic value on liberals and calling it relativism. If anyone took this view seriously, they'd be a particularly nasty and illiberal kind of absolutist. They'd argue, as the Nazis did, that some lives were objectively worthless, regardless of anyone's opinion.

Brooks' unstated premise is that the only legitimate reason to refuse treatment is to avoid a worthless life. He's also attributing to liberals the relativist view that the value of each life is relative to the opinion of the person living it.* That's not what liberals are saying at all. We are arguing that the individual has the final authority over her own medical care. That's an absolutist position, too. A relativist might say that a person's right to control her body waxes and wanes depending on the preferences of her parents and the political fortunes of Tom DeLay.

* Note that Brooks' two charges of "relativism" are mutually inconsistent.

Further reading: Matt Yglesias (I II), John Holbo, David Velleman, and Bill Gardner on Brooks and relativism.

Amanda Marcotte on Brooks' appalling lack of traditional values

Philosoraptor's Field Guide to Objectivism, Relativism, and Nihilism

The shorter David Brooks

David Brooks: Is it okay to kill Terri Schiavo for being worthless? Tough question. Conservatives cherish every human life. Liberals only care about happy, healthy Volvo drivers. Granted, there are some pretty pathetic vegetables out there. Just between you and me, the conservatives should probably write off some of that human garbage. But what about the VAST GRAY AREA between persistent vegetation and exurban life? Liberals haunt that misty zone like hungry ghosts. You can tell they're relativists because they're always moaning about "riiiiights" and "duuue process."

So, you see the dilemma. Some stocks really ought to be de-listed from the Big Board, if you know what I mean--but you don't want liberal snobs writing off your dyslexic kid. If only we could discover an absolute standard of worthiness and enforce it ruthlessly.

March 05, 2005

New philosophy blog: Freiheit und Wissen

I'm delighted to announce a new philosophy-related blog: Freiheit und Wissen by my good friend Charles Norman Todd.

Charles and I were classmates at Tufts. He's currently doing a PhD at the University of Chicago and working hard to organize a grad student union there.

Charles blogs about progressive politics and labour issues with the same intensity and care that characterizes his philosophical work.

I highly recommend his four-part series on Bill O'Reilly and Ward Churchill.