On One Hand

November 20, 2009

Have People Always Been This Crazy?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 11:16 am
Tags: ,

According to a recent poll, 52 percent of Republican voters believe that Barack Obama didn’t actually win the landslide election that gave him the presidency last November 4, instead maintaining that ACORN and the Democratic Party conspired to steal votes and rig the election in their favor.

Meanwhile, 58 percent of Republicans doubt that President Obama was born in the U.S. or is a legitimate American citizen. In some Southern states the numbers of so-called “birthers” are much higher.

The polls are troubling for a number of reasons. George W. Bush lost the popular vote and achieved electoral victory amidst a controversy-ridden, incomplete recount in a state where his brother was governor – the election came down to as little as 500 votes, but was still considered legitimate. Why the hell is Barack Obama’s 10 million vote victory seen as tenuous?

Meanwhile, if a wave of enthusiasm among change-hungry college-aged voters, urban voters and diverse populations sent Barack Obama to national office in a transformative election, who might a wave of highly-motivated tea-baggers and birthers bring to Washington in 2012 or 2016?

One of the reasons why we see such a high percentage of Republican party members leaning towards extreme far-Right opinions is that Republican numbers have dwindled; between 21 and 32 percent of Americans identify as Republican in the first place, most others claiming to be independents or Democrats. “Moderate” Republicans have funneled out of the party to consider themselves Independent, leaving the hard-Right behind. And since the Republican party lacks a clear vision of its own (“low taxes and strong military” might be what they want, but it was a disaster under Bush so they’re reluctant to claim it), it’s main emphasis is to be anti-Obama so the most anti-Obama Americans will cite themselves as such in polls. That means that the half of the Republican Party that thinks Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim is the Right-most 10 percent of Americans, and not such a scary number anymore.

There’s a more insidious reason to suspect an apparent shift to the Right in America – the one that Glen Beck, Karl Rove and other GOP proponents insist has occurred. John Stewart hinted about it in his extended interview with Lou Dobbs this week. In one sense, Stewart points out, this is what happens whenever a Democrat is in the White House. (Remember the litany of allegations against the Bill Clinton in the 90s, which ranged from conspiracy, to rape, to murder.) In another sense (which Stewart leaves unspoken), the president’s skin color may have a big thing to do about it; after all, what people seem most nervous about is “change,” and a multicultural America is a significant break from the past that significantly challenges the racial privilege of white Americans.

Working-class rural Americans might not feel they have much going for them right now in our poor economy, so race becomes an especially poignant part of identity; to those who lean Right, they see Obama challenging their white privilege without reducing their economic un-privilege, leaving them with nothing. To add another layer, diversity is something you see in cities; rural areas tend to be homogeneous; so having a non-white president might be perceived as culturally challenging to exurban and rural lifestyles.

In fairness, we should also point out that there are wingnuts on the Left, too. A pretty hefty number of Americans thought 9/11 was a conspiracy when the Bush administration was in power; a good bunch of the so called “9/11 truthers” were Ron Paul-ites and some of the same anti-government extremists who dominate the healthcare forums today, but it’s safe to assume that many of them are liberals who voted for Obama, or are too far to the Left to even vote (a significant number of non-voters refuse because they see both parties as slaves to corporate money).

But somehow the message that reached the general public was different in that case. Even pundits on Fox News want to argue that the anti-Obama conspiracy theorists are somehow different from the anti-Bush ones. Popular liberal pundits and columnists dismissed the worst accusations against George W. Bush; popular conservative pundits put the fringe Right on a platform and claim they’re the new movement in American politics.

That’s partially what the Obama Administration wants, because having political enemies that virtually everyone finds distasteful helps position yourself in the mainstream. The Republican Party is now purging itself of moderates, which means the Democratic party can only grow and absorb annoyed Independents and Republican castoffs, as it has done with Republicans Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee and may do with the likes of Dede Scozzafava and Charlie Christ.

If the Republican party is left to nominate Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin to national office, that’s great for Democrats. But I don’t think it’s good for the country; most of our lives happen after election seasons, not during them. And in those months, debate and compromise have been replaced by bitterness and obstructionism – as the healthcare debate reveals. One of the most “moderate” and reasonable ideas in a clash between a public and private sector is a public option, letting people choose for themselves what to buy or support – but that has been a bitter fight supported by just one of 177 House Republicans. Republicans are off the radar for Democrats as far too far on the fringe to support any kind of reasoned compromise on big issues.

It’s not because conservative ideas are without merit – they’re not – it’s because the views of those supporting them are increasingly disjointed and antagonistic, and misrepresentative of where most Americans – who are pragmatic and persuadable – really are. That’s good for Democrats hoping to win office, who seem unpopular until they’re juxtaposed with even more unpopular Republicans. Notice how even Hillary Clinton, who’s likability had been below 50 for years, still won in about half of all polls against John McCain before the 2008 presidential election.

The unfortunate thing is, if centrist voters become discontent with the Democrats (over things that are hard to move, like the economy) and do decide that they’d rather take a risk than stay where they are, the far-right Republican party is the only thing they have to turn to. And that’s reason for us all to worry.

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November 18, 2009

Anti-harrassment politicies “discriminate” against harrasers?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:19 pm
Tags: ,

This is the kind of stuff that LGBT people live with and face in the workplace every day.

It’s also another example of what I meant when I complained a few weeks ago about the way LGBT people’s lives are endlessly politicized in social interactions as well as on the national stage.

Peter Vidala, age 24, was fired from his job at a bookstore in Boston’s Logan Airport for telling a regional manager that he didn’t agree with her “so-called homosexual fiance,” or more specifically, that she had one, and that she mentioned that she had one.

Vidala is a straight, conservative Christian man who felt that being fired was victimization on the basis of his religious belief. But Vidala’s claim, unlike most claims of discrimination, was given an audience: Vidala got a chance to speak through the news to explain his whole plight to the country.

In Vidala’s doesn’t even pause to think that most people consider talking about their family a part of a normal conversation, instead arguing it was she, not he, who politicized the workplace.

“This woman repeatedly, and without any kind of provocation on my part, kept making references to this out-of-work homosexual behavior that she takes part in,” Vidala explains, “by bringing up this so-called homosexual fiance that she has. And I don’t believe that controversial issues like that have any place, especially in the Boston workplace, where, you know, it’s such a hot-button issue, um… yeah.”

So in other words, LGBT people have no right to talk about their personal lives, because their personal lives are so political.

It’s comforting that even on Fox News the anchor clearly isn’t really buying it.

His response: “If you were concerned about controversial issues in your Boston workplace, why did you, in turn, raise it with her, yourself?”

Vidala’s response: “Peter, oh, Peter, I uh…”

This is the kind of stuff that people of any minority status: women, people of color, LGBT people, people with disabilities or religious minorities, have to deal with constantly. By joining conversations about personal lives with mention of our own, we are accused of “making people uncomfortable” or bringing up politics. By correcting homophobic, sexist or racist language, we are similarly accused of bringing politics in, this time to an even greater degree, even though the original language was clearly far more “political” than our own expression of nonparticipation in that language.

My guess is that Vidala’s publicly-stated opinion on the matter is not so much a product of his own values and upbringing as his attempt to appropriate anti-discrimination language to his own benefit, and failing. I doubt he so much felt oppressed “as a Christian” by his coworker’s comments as he saw an opportunity to preach his own values, and brought up his own oppression after he got fired.

Still, dominant majority groups with the most power often claim to be oppressed by minority groups trying to make room for themselves, as is the case when conservatives say that legalizing same-sex marriage “shoves it down our throats” or that public acceptance of LGBT people is discrimination against Christians.

In a previous interview with Fox, Vidala told reporters that “In general, I believe people don’t want to hear about controversial issues like that in the workplace. They shouldn’t have to,” referencing his own right to not hear that his coworker has a fiance of the same sex. This is tantamount to saying that people of minority status aren’t allowed to talk about themselves while everyone else is allowed to. This is Vidala’s definition of “nondiscrimination,” which is, in essence, discrimination.

Luckily this is a battle the LGBT people seem to have won, though Vidala won too by getting national attention. But in everyday battles, all across the world, where we are accused of making people uncomfortable by virtue of our existence, the outcomes are more subtle, and often much less favorable.

November 16, 2009

2012: Colonialism Revisited?

Filed under: culture,media — ononehand @ 9:20 pm
Tags:

Few would see a movie like 2012 expecting a heartrending story line or touching lesson in human nature. From the onset the purpose of the film is clear: we’re going to blow this place up.

That was certainly the reason I rushed to see it on opening night, after the trailer laid it out for us in telling sneak peeks: Acres of city blocks slide like clods of dirt into the Pacific Ocean. A Buddhist monk rings a sacred bell as a tidal wave the size of a continent washes over the desolate Himalayas, killing him. 2012 boasts itself with scenes that are as awe-strickening as they are disturbingly beautiful.

As far as that goes, the only criticism I can offer is that the film pivots, about a quarter of the way in, from going too slow to suddenly going way too fast. A few mild tremors shake Los Angeles in the first part of the film – during a painfully tedious exposition to let characters reveal their cliche family backstories – and then without warning, Southern California splits itself apart in an abyss as deep as the Marianas Trench. The next thing we know, Yellowstone Caldera is erupting as a supervolcano in a bang so powerful it sends out shockwaves and a mushroom cloud akin to a Hydrogen bomb. (True to action movie form, the explosion rips over the hills at thousands of miles per hour until it approaches our protagonists fleeing in a lumbering motor home, and slows to their pace for their nail-biting escape. The explosion seems to pause or even retreat for several minutes as they scramble out of the vehicle into a parked airplane, but quickly re-accelerates to barely kiss the tail of their plane as it speeds away, churning with black smoke, glowing rocks and lava all the while.)

By the time Yellowstone has erupted, the world is basically over. The skies darken. Subsequent scenes of destruction are posed as an afterthought. “Oh, by the way,” the President’s Chief of Staff explains to aides in Washington, “Rio de Janiero was just destroyed by an earthquake” (cue footage of Christ Redeemer crumbling off its perch), then in a similarly decontextualized scene, we watch St. Peter’s Basilica collapse and kill the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church along with prayerful masses (we see nothing of the rest of Rome, though). When our protagonists get their airplane to Las Vegas, most of its hotels and casinos have already anticlimactically collapsed into the core of the Earth in a giant earthquake, and we witness the ruins of Las Vegas astride a seemingly infinite abyss. Washington D.C. is next to go, at a pace that is almost too fast to comprehend; an earthquake takes down the Washington Monument, then a gigantic, yawning tidal wave rises out of the Atlantic and looms over the city (which is covered by volcanic ash from Yellowstone), but the film cuts away just as the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, lands on top of the White House.

Scenes such as this will continue through the rest of the film, revealing impending disasters but ending before the actual destruction ensues. Tidal ways loom up, but we cut away before the waves strike, and we assume that the characters who stood watching it are killed. Earthquakes begin but leave the scene before they reach their full strength. In other cases, we happen upon a ruined city that has already been destroyed, as happens with Honolulu, covered by lava. Most often we get even less than this: a military commander tells a diplomat that “Tokyo has been destroyed by an earthquake. Singapore has been wiped out by a wave.” The most dramatic disaster scene of the film remains the drawn-out Los Angeles earthquake from the beginning.

The thing that is notably missing from the film is discussion of the Mayan prophesy (or rather, rumor) of destruction in 2012 that is its impetus and namesake. If the film had the spiritualistic or supernatural overtone, then maybe the rapid succession of perfect coincidences that destroy the Earth’s cities would have a haunting poignancy. Instead, we are left only with science to explain what is going on, and the science falls flat. (According to 2012, solar flares make the lower Earth’s crust melt and the continents slide around through the ocean like leaves on a pond.) We learn that the planets line up in such a way as to lead to these events every 650,000 years, even though there has certainly never been an event like this in Earth’s history, which has been through almost 7 thousand 650-million year periods in its 4.5 billion years. As exposited in the film, the geophysical anomalies leading to the Earth’s destruction cause the continents to shift thousands of miles in the blink of an eye – something that requires them to move at tens of thousands of miles per hour, yet nobody on the ground is flung into space as would realistically happen if that occurred. This all happens magically on the ground without so much as cough of disturbance in the atmosphere, as observers in airplanes don’t figure out that land masses have moved until suddenly what they thought should be Guam turns out to be Tibet.

It is the end of the film that really gets me, though (Spoiler Alert). Beyond all the drama of survivors taking refuge in gigantic futuristic arks (tickets cost a billion Euro, so it is the world’s richest people who survive – our middle-class protagonists are stowaways) that the world’s governments had been building all along for mankind’s survival, the last scene in the movie tells us where humanity will go to rebuild: Africa.

According to the final scenes of 2012, in all the earthquakes and tectonic shifting, Africa has risen in elevation so much that it avoided being washed over by tidal waves that obliterated the rest of the planet. The Cape of Good Hope is now the highest point on Earth, which is, confusingly, where the world’s governments decide to set up humanity again, on the peaks of what will likely turn out to be glaciated mountains (sounds like paradise, right?). Our protagonist tells his children, who mourn the loss of their Southern California home, that they will find new homes where they are going.

But – uh – don’t people already live in Africa? Mayans were the first ethnic group be written out of 2012, Latinos are strikingly absent from the casting, and now the narrative suggests that native Africans are absent from the Earth. Forgive me for my politics, but it seems that having the world’s billionaires land on a dark-skinned continent to “re-build humanity,” as the story explains, is just a tad colonialist. There is no reference to the African governments, which were evidently not even part of the international ark-building program to begin with. I’m confused if the film’s writers see all Africans simply as tribal nomatic peoples, or as so militaristically primitive that it just doesn’t matter whether or not they already own the land you want to take. Perhaps the pending television series will elucidate this further.

I would say that 2012 has the basic structure of a great disaster movie, with awe-inspiring computer-generated explosions akin to Armageddon and Independence Day. But it tries too hard to be something else; if its all about the disasters, then the disasters should follow the same natural arc that any good story line does: subtle at first, but introduced to witnesses (in this case, the world’s population) through a gradual process of discovery, first with small bad news, then in steps to full awareness. In 2012, everyone outside a secretive government agency finds out that the world is ending after it is already well under way. There is no great “pending doom” scenes as occur in the latter parts of The Knowing where the horizon glows red with what is to come. There is no gradual escalation of events like the way small volcanic eruptions and gas emissions precede the big climactic pyroclastic explosion in Dante’s Peak. For the full effect, panic needs to slowly build through political wrangling, small cities taken down, riots, disasters following realistic trajectories, looting and then outright terror before the world’s ultimate demise rather than mundane obliviousness until suddenly your home and city is swallowed by the Earth.

Finally, the end of the movie leaves out bits of information that nerds like me are interested in most. What is the state of natural flora in preserved Africa, or in the rest of the world? The closing scene zooms out to show us a remodeled Africa (with drastically altered coastlines), the lone continent that has not been stripped bare by waves, and its central parts are still green. But what about the rest of the Earth? Does Florida border Argentina now? Is Antarctica to turn into a tropical paradise? The producers were either too lazy or just didn’t think audiences would care enough to want to see what has changed. In a movie that utterly lacks a decent human story, there is too much emphasis on the human story when those of us who did like the film liked it for one reason alone: the awe-inspiring natural world.

2012: Colonialism Revisited?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:48 pm

Few would see a movie like 2012 expecting a heartrending story line or touching lesson in human nature. From the onset the purpose of the film is clear: we’re going to blow this place up.

That was certainly the reason I rushed to see it on opening night, after the trailer laid it out for us in telling sneak peeks: Acres of city blocks slide like clods of dirt into the Pacific Ocean. A Buddhist monk rings a sacred bell as a tidal wave the size of a continent washes over the desolate Himalayas, killing him. 2012 boasts itself with scenes that are as awe-strickening as they are disturbingly beautiful.

As far as that goes, the only criticism I can offer is that the film pivots, about a quarter of the way in, from going too slow to suddenly going way too fast. A few mild tremors shake Los Angeles in the first part of the film – during a painfully tedious exposition to let characters reveal their cliche family backstories – and then without warning, Southern California splits itself apart in an abyss as deep as the Marianas Trench. The next thing we know, Yellowstone Caldera is erupting as a supervolcano in a bang so powerful it sends out shockwaves and a mushroom cloud akin to a Hydrogen bomb. (True to action movie form, the explosion rips over the hills at thousands of miles per hour until it approaches our protagonists fleeing in a lumbering motor home, and slows to their pace for their nail-biting escape. The explosion seems to pause or even retreat for several minutes as they scramble out of the vehicle into a parked airplane, but quickly re-accelerates to barely kiss the tail of their plane as it speeds away, churning with black smoke, glowing rocks and lava all the while.)

By the time Yellowstone has erupted, the world is basically over. The skies darken. Subsequent scenes of destruction are posed as an afterthought. “Oh, by the way,” the President’s Chief of Staff explains to aides in Washington, “Rio de Janiero was just destroyed by an earthquake” (cue footage of Christ Redeemer crumbling off its perch), then in a similarly decontextualized scene, we watch St. Peter’s Basilica collapse and kill the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church along with prayerful masses (we see nothing of the rest of Rome, though). When our protagonists get their airplane to Las Vegas, most of its hotels and casinos have already anticlimactically collapsed into the core of the Earth in a giant earthquake, and we witness the ruins of Las Vegas astride a seemingly infinite abyss. Washington D.C. is next to go, at a pace that is almost too fast to comprehend; an earthquake takes down the Washington Monument, then a gigantic, yawning tidal wave rises out of the Atlantic and looms over the city (which is covered by volcanic ash from Yellowstone), but the film cuts away just as the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, lands on top of the White House.

Scenes such as this will continue through the rest of the film, revealing impending disasters but ending before the actual destruction ensues. Tidal ways loom up, but we cut away before the waves strike, and we assume that the characters who stood watching it are killed. Earthquakes begin but leave the scene before they reach their full strength. In other cases, we happen upon a ruined city that has already been destroyed, as happens with Honolulu, covered by lava. Most often we get even less than this: a military commander tells a diplomat that “Tokyo has been destroyed by an earthquake. Singapore has been wiped out by a wave.” The most dramatic disaster scene of the film remains the drawn-out Los Angeles earthquake from the beginning.

The thing that is notably missing from the film is discussion of the Mayan prophesy (or rather, rumor) of destruction in 2012 that is its impetus and namesake. If the film had the spiritualistic or supernatural overtone, then maybe the rapid succession of perfect coincidences that destroy the Earth’s cities would have a haunting poignancy. Instead, we are left only with science to explain what is going on, and the science falls flat. (According to 2012, solar flares make the lower Earth’s crust melt and the continents slide around through the ocean like leaves on a pond.) We learn that the planets line up in such a way as to lead to these events every 650,000 years, even though there has certainly never been an event like this in Earth’s history, which has been through almost 7 thousand 650,000 year periods in its 4.5 billion years. As exposited in the film, the geophysical anomalies leading to the Earth’s destruction cause the continents to shift thousands of miles in the blink of an eye – something that requires them to move at tens of thousands of miles per hour, yet nobody on the ground is flung into space as would realistically happen if that occurred. This all happens magically on the ground without so much as cough of disturbance in the atmosphere, as observers in airplanes don’t figure out that land masses have moved until suddenly what they thought should be Guam turns out to be Tibet.

It is the end of the film that really gets me, though (Spoiler Alert). Beyond all the drama of survivors taking refuge in gigantic futuristic arks (tickets cost a billion Euro, so it is the world’s richest people who survive – our middle-class protagonists are stowaways) that the world’s governments had been building all along for mankind’s survival, the last scene in the movie tells us where humanity will go to rebuild: Africa.

According to the final scenes of 2012, in all the earthquakes and tectonic shifting, Africa has risen in elevation so much that it avoided being washed over by tidal waves that obliterated the rest of the planet. The Cape of Good Hope is now the highest point on Earth, which is, confusingly, where the world’s governments decide to set up humanity again, on the peaks of what will likely turn out to be glaciated mountains (sounds like paradise, right?). Our protagonist tells his children, who mourn the loss of their Southern California home, that they will find new homes where they are going.

But – uh – don’t people already live in Africa? Mayans were the first ethnic group be written out of 2012, Latinos are strikingly absent from the casting, and now the narrative suggests that native Africans are absent from the Earth. Forgive me for my politics, but it seems that having the world’s billionaires land on a dark-skinned continent to “re-build humanity,” as the story explains, is just a tad colonialist. There is no reference to the African governments, which were evidently not even part of the international ark-building program to begin with. I’m confused if the film’s writers see all Africans simply as tribal nomatic peoples, or as so militaristically primitive that it just doesn’t matter whether or not they already own the land you want to take. Perhaps the pending television series will elucidate this further.

I would say that 2012 has the basic structure of a great disaster movie, with awe-inspiring computer-generated explosions akin to Armageddon and Independence Day. But it tries too hard to be something else; if its all about the disasters, then the disasters should follow the same natural arc that any good story line does: subtle at first, but introduced to witnesses (in this case, the world’s population) through a gradual process of discovery, first with small bad news, then in steps to full awareness. In 2012, everyone outside a secretive government agency finds out that the world is ending after it is already well under way. There is no great “pending doom” scenes as occur in the latter parts of The Knowing where the horizon glows red with what is to come. There is no gradual escalation of events like the way small volcanic eruptions and gas emissions precede the big climactic pyroclastic explosion in Dante’s Peak. For the full effect, panic needs to slowly build through political wrangling, small cities taken down, riots, disasters following realistic trajectories, looting and then outright terror before the world’s ultimate demise rather than mundane obliviousness until suddenly your home and city is swallowed by the Earth.

Finally, the end of the movie leaves out bits of information that nerds like me are interested in most. What is the state of natural flora in preserved Africa, or in the rest of the world? The closing scene zooms out to show us a remodeled Africa (with drastically altered coastlines), the lone continent that has not been stripped bare by waves, and its central parts are still green. But what about the rest of the Earth? Does Florida border Argentina now? Is Antarctica to turn into a tropical paradise? The producers were either too lazy or just didn’t think audiences would care enough to want to see what has changed. In a movie that utterly lacks a decent human story, there is too much emphasis on the human story when those of us who did like the film liked it for one reason alone: the awe-inspiring natural world.

November 15, 2009

Cancer is contagious — wha!?

Filed under: science — ononehand @ 3:14 am
Tags:

The first time any of us witnessed a cancer patient – a bald-headed peer in our elementary school, an aunt or grandmother with an appointment for a mastectomy, or a grandpa who got a dark, funny-looking mole removed – a reassuring adult explained that cancer isn’t contagious like other sicknesses. Cancer is our body’s own growth turned against us, sparked by a precise series of genetic mutations that debilitate a cell’s self-regulation but fail to kill it. It escapes immune detection because it is our body’s own cell; a cancer cell transfered to a new body would be recognized as foreign and pulverized by vigilant white blood cells.

Ther’s also the problem of getting an intact cancer cell into another person’s healthy tissue in the first place. Viruses spread because they are are extremely small packages of genetic material that can float through the air or wait on dry surfaces, hardy because they were never really “living” from the start. Bacteria are contagious because they can grow outside the body, can wait on skin, thrive in saliva or feces, and can often survive drying and re hydration by turning themselves into hardy spores. But a cancer cell is, first and foremost, a dependent tissue cell from a multicellular organism, which needs to be inside an organism to survive. It would have to be carefully detached alive, kept moist and immediately implanted directly into the deep tissue of another organism to recover and begin growing. When cancer spreads through a single person’s body in a malignancy, it does so by traveling through her or his own nourishing blood or lymphatic channels, never emerging outsisde the body.

There are a few kinds of cancers caused by a virus, including cervical cancers, genital cancers (usually caused by the Human papillomavirus) and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, found in people with advanced HIV infections and the elderly. Clusters of cancer cases have sprung up in rare anomalies where a virus is thought to have been the cause. Many common viruses lead to increased cancer risks – for example mononucleosis, caused by the Epstein-Barr virus which virtually everyone gets, is linked to an increased risk of developing leukemia. But in all these cases it is the virus that is contagious, not the cancer itself.

But there are two kinds of cancer that are actually contagious in and of themselves, spreading as living cancer cells from one organism to another. One is responsible for landing the Tasmanian devil on the endangered species list and threatens to wipe out that species.


Tasmanian facial tumor disease, image from the Public Library of Science

Tasmanian devils have the unfortunate habit of biting each other on the face while feeding and mating, often drawing blood. That allows living cancer cells of devil facial tumor disease to be implanted directly into the facial tissue of another Tasmanian devil. The tumors are fast-growing and kill the animal by overwhelming its face and preventing it from eating, leading to starvation. The disease has already affected between 20 and 50 percent of the Tasmanian devil population and has mutated into several different strains. But upon a genetic analysis of one of those tumor cells, you would find neither a fungus nor bacteria, but rapidly-growing Tasmanian devil cells from another individual.

The other kind of contagious cancer is the Canine transmissible venereal tumor, affecting dogs, foxes and coyotes. It spreads by sexual intercourse and affects the genitals and occasionally the face. It is estimated to have originated from a couple hundred to a couple thousand years ago, meaning that the original host’s own cells long outlived it; its cells continue to survive, as a pathogen, in other canines to this day.

Transmissible cancers break the rules of cancer by spreading from individual to individual, but are also unique among contagious diseases because they originate in an animal among its own cells. It would be as if a bump on your skin, part of your body, grew into a disease that started planting itself in other people and killing them. Anyone who got infected with your cancer would contain all of your your mutated DNA in their tumors – they’d essentially be dying of you, as a parasitic disease.

November 10, 2009

Can good urban planning combat racism?

Filed under: sociology — ononehand @ 1:10 am
Tags:

Can good urban planning reduce racism? It’s a pretty audacious point, but Nate Silver, numbers wizzard at fivethirtyeight.com who predicted the 2008 Presidential Election outcome to within fractions of a point, suggested so.

His argument is, essentially, that people living among those of other races and cultures have been shown, through fairly well-grounded scientific analyses, to be more tolerant. The first two thirds of Silver’s presentation go over the scientific examination of where more people with self-identified negative attitudes towards people of another race (focusing on African Amerians) live. In this case, rural uneduated states that are traditionally associated with social conservatism had the most people citing race as their reason for voting against Barack Obama in 2008, and there Obama did the worst compared with Bill Clinton in 1996. (The states include Arkansas, Tennesee, West Virginia, Kentucky.)

The second part of the argument is that people in cities have more interaction with people of other races or cultures. That is obviously true because more diverse people happen to live there, but Silver also argues that a way the city is laid out can play a role in how often people walk around and meet their neighbors.

A possible counter-argument Silver didn’t address is the causality problem, or the chicken-or-the-egg argument. Do people living in rural areas naturally become more racist, or is it, rather, that racists choose to move to rural areas? Do people in a winding, suburban-style subdivision evolve to have more racially problematic attitudes over time or are those neighborhoods just a magnet for people who didn’t want to live among blacks in an inner city? One could easily argue that “White Flight” in the 1960s, when white people fled cities to racially-homogeneous suburban areas, left the tolerant white populations in the city while those seeking to escape the influx of non-white newcomers were less tolerant to begin with.

Still, it’s fairly easy to see how growing up among people of other races and identifying them as part of your peer group would prevent stereotyping and vilification. A white child who has a few Hispanic friends is less likely to believe in insidious stereotypes about them than one who grew up with none (though having friends who are people of color does not preclude somebody from being racist).

This argument may ultimately have less to say about urbanism than it does about racism: in the months leading up to the 2008 elections, commentators often cited strong poll numbers for Obama among blacks, and conservatives claimed “rampant black racism against whites” in America. But this report indicates that white populations would have more negative attitudes towards people in another racial group than blacks or latinos would have towards whites, since it is easy to be white and never interact with a black person (if you live in a rural area) but extremely difficult to be a person of color and never interact with a white person in the United States.

November 8, 2009

A moral thought experiment…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 7:26 pm
Tags:

The Scenario:

For this thought experiment, step into Christian or Roman Catholic theology saying that a fertilized egg is an act of creation that generates a human soul.

You are an employee of an egg/sperm bank and the power goes out, meaning that all the eggs and sperm in the cooler are going to thaw out and be destroyed. You are the only person present in the building when the power goes out.

Say that you realize that there are 100,000 viable eggs, and about a billion viable sperm in a frozen state.

It suddenly occurs to you that you can mix the eggs and the sperm, which represents, in Christian theology, 100,000 acts of creation as each individual egg becomes fertilized embryo and has a human soul.

You realize that the eggs will die shortly after being fertilized since there is nowhere to put them and they will thaw, but because you are Christian, you know that you could say a few words to dedicate them to God (a baptism) and they would all die in a few hours being committed to Heaven. Upon doing so, you would send 100,000 new souls to heaven to spend eternity in bliss.

On the other hand, by NOT fertilizing the eggs, they will die without ever having existed as souls, and the beings who now exist in thought and potential (in your mind) will never exist.

Since the government does not recognize fertilized eggs as humans, there are no legal ramifications, and anyway nobody would find out about it. You could just say you had to throw away the contents of the cooler, which is protocol in this situation, and nobody would fault you.

The Choices:

So what do you do? Say that in either situation, you are unhappy with your choice; you would prefer to allow the eggs to be implanted and become citizens. But you have the choice nonetheless. Is it…

…1) Worse to not fertilize the eggs, meaning that 100,000 potential beings will theoretically “die” in the universal sense because they do not exist.

…2) Worse to fertilize the eggs, meaning that 100,000 human beings will die in the literal sense but be immediately transferred to heaven, and spend eternity there? You are, in sense, “saving” 100,000 souls which is in some way a huge victory for God.

Remember to consider:

1) Assuming that a fertilized egg represents the creation of a human soul, does the person have moral value WHEN

a) the thought and potential for their to be a human being is there (which you definitely have in the cooler)

b) when the human being actually exists and is created

c) when the human being is born and able to choose between good and evil?

2) God’s Biblical commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply” to add to God’s creation on the Earth. You believe that being married and not having children is a selfish decision because it precludes the creation of life and offends God, and you understand that the general tone of the Bible is positive towards the creation of new life, especially the creation of life that is “saved” and will go to Heaven.

A second question:

With a (theoretical) time machine you could go back in time and stop a human being from being conceived. Is it worse to kill a person by altering time and causing him/her to not be born, or worse to kill a person after birth? Say that you don’t have to kill him/her but could, rather, withold medical treatment that would almost certainly end in death?

November 4, 2009

We lost Maine…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:47 pm
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…and Thomas Peters, commentator on The Corner, a section of the National Review Online, sums up the Right-wing’s mind on this issue:

Guilty confession: My favorite part of last night’s election coverage was watching Rachel Maddow’s demeanor go from exuberant, to smug, to infuriated over the results of the marriage referendum in Maine.

Yeah, it’s just hilarious to watch a woman whose relationship with her partner has been stingingly critiqued by a pack of bullies process the fact that a popular vote just torpedoed civil rights. Again.

Hahahahaaaaaaaa, Rachael Maddow! this commentary seems to laugh, you just lost and everybody hates youuuuuuuu.

Excuse my bitterness on this point, but I want to know if Thomas Peters also sits outside of hospital emergency wards and masturbates to doctors giving devastated family members the news that their father has died?

Fights over LGBT rights, and all over civil rights, change the nature of civil discourse. To personally inject yourself into the family and bedroom of countless other citizens and offer an unsolicited rebuke of their marriage is, by its very nature, uncivil.

To exercise the perverse power our government gives people to enforce their collective opinions on same-sex relationships is, similarly, by its very nature, uncivil.

What onlookers consistently fail to realize is that our lives are being put on the chopping block for others to critique. For most people in politics, it is just a job, and straight people can go home to their heterosexual marriages and children to get away from all that. Gay people do not have that privilege. My very existence, according to the Right Wing, is a political issue. If I walk into a shopping mall holding hands with my boyfriend, I am being political, according to them, by “flaunting” my sexuality, and similarly, having my relationship bound by marriage is an election issue. Adopting kids is an election issue. Hate crimes protection is an election issue.

There is no “home” to go to, because even inheritance, hospital visitation, health benefits, adoption and child-rearing are subject to political cycles and whims.

This is part of the reason why my political disagreements with the Right often take on a deeply personal tone. Politics are personal when your life is consistently voted on. Whatever criticism those on the Right levy on the way LGBT people go about pursuing their rights, the truth is that there’s nothing we could possibly do that is more perverse or unreasonable than breaking up other people’s marriages and getting sick pleasure out of it.

November 2, 2009

Some Conversation-Framing Concepts in Free Discourse

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 1:54 pm

When we talk about free speech and the media, we often delve into intellectual absurdities and passionate yet bizarre mentalities that derail conversation. Since I talk a lot about talk, about language, oppression, speech and pop culture, I frequently encounter conflicted views on what “free speech” or “discourse” means. The White House vs. Fox News debate is offering up a litany of examples.

That’s because the Fox News agency is just aghast that the President of the United States is opposing their “free speech” by telling the world that Fox News is unfair and unbalanced. Commentators compared Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Columbia who shut down newspapers that were critical of his government.

Whenever somebody criticizes the effort or purpose of an entity that is exercising “speech” (such as a news organization, a pundit, or even just a loony person ranting), indignant self-proclaimed First Amendment advocates rise to the surface. “How dare you criticize my argument!” the self-serving defendant will say. “My opinion is my free speech! You can’t oppose it!”

Which brings is to the first component of free speech, as part of a set of three components I think need to be acknowledged by all parties to frame healthier conversations about speech. That component is:

Reciprocity.

You have a right to “free speech,” meaning freedom to make your controversial point or offend somebody, and to express views that are sane, controversial or even forehead-smackingly ridiculous. Inversely, others are allowed to respond to your statements, even to offend you back. People may respectfully disagree with what you say, disrespectfully disagree with what you say, tell you that they don’t like you any more because you said it, tell you that you shouldn’t say it at all or even say that you are a vile scum-sucking cretin and your mother was a lunatic. This is because free speech is reciprocal; their rights are equivalent to your rights, and everyone is allowed to respond to speech with speech.

People have a hard time understanding this. For example, when I posted How to Confront Hate Speech on the Internet on YouTube several months ago, I got comments and personal emails from people essentially saying “how dare you condemn hate speech, that’s so totalitarian!” because I am infringing on a hate speakers free speech by responding disapprovingly, or asking others to respond disapprovingly. They said that my video was one step on the road to a fascist society because hate speech is hard to define so who knows what other kind of views against minorities could be argued against using that very video! I struggled to explain that telling somebody who made a racist comment that her or his comment was racist is hardly an infringement of a racist’s rights and is considerably less antagonistic than racism itself. I also struggled to explain that telling someone her or his ethnic slurs are “not cool” is not to infringe on that person’s right to use them, which I even specifically explained in the original video.

I do think that hate speech should be called out and that public misinformation should be called out and condemned. But that doesn’t mean I advocate censorship; I advocate discourse. Which brings me to point two in the components of discourse.

Saying somebody should stop saying a certain thing is not “censorship.”

Understanding this principle requires your ability to make a distinction between force and encouragement. It explains why telling your mother to go jump off a bridge is just frowned upon but throwing her off a bridge is murder.

Censorship entails the use of force. When censorship occurs, the language being censored is removed from discourse by a moderator on an Online forum, by a publisher, editor, or most critically, by government (government censorship of political speech is the only kind that is protected by the First Amendment). Responding to the comments and saying that they are inappropriate is not censorship, because the original comments are still available.

People have a hard time understanding this. Let me use the following reader comment on an NPR online poll over the White House vs. Fox News debacle as an example:

The “White House” and it’s Czar’s are Socialist….the type of people that I feared most when first learning about this type of government in my junior high social study classes. Limiting our freedom of speech and controlling the news is the first step toward absolute tyranny…

This is an example of conflation at its finest, which seems to epitomize the way wacky people of all strips (I’m choosing not to single out the Far-Right) deal with political conflict. First, the commenter conflates “socialist” (which is an economic system practiced in Norway and Sweden) with the totalitarian governments of Orwell’s 1984 and Stalinist Russia. The two may overlap, but do not coincide. Second, the commenter conflates a political comment from the White House with tyranny.

Shutting down news agencies would be a step towards tyranny. Using laws or coercion to remove certain viewpoints from the public discourse entirely would be tyranny. Those are the things that the Bill of Rights seeks to protect Americans against. Censorship is, acknowledgedly, very problematic.

But the White House never made an attempt to shut down a news agency or to control news content; it issued a public statement that it will henceforth treat the Fox News Channel as a political opponent (because it is) and claimed the Fox channel’s news reporting is often conflated with opinion reporting (which is not outrageous to claim, especially considering that Fox constantly accuses every single other news network of doing that). The people who work in the White House have the right to say and do that because the people who work in the White House are protected by the same right to free speech that everyone else is. You can consider their comments inappropriate if you choose to, but it’s a pretty distant stretch to say it’s “totalitarian” for them to make the comments. The Bush White House did the exact same thing when it maligned NBC’s “liberal bias,” and political leaders have always been free to criticize their critics. Any leader who could not do that would be ineffective. Yet 40% of the comments from Fox News fans on the NPR comment forum seem to carry the assumption that the White House took some form of legal action against the Fox News agency.

What the White House essentially did was say, Fox News can say what it wants, but we don’t find it to be legitimate. As in, we don’t find them credible, and anyone listening is invited to decide whether or not to agree.

Ironically, Fox News, which is up in arms over the Obama White House’s statement, was very supportive when the Bush White House launched similar criticism of NBC. Which leads me to my third and final conversation-framing concept in free discourse.

Reciprocity, revisited.

Other peoples’ rights are based on your rights, and vice versa. Think about whether you would be willing to abide by the rules you call for, or whether or not you are doing exactly what you indignantly oppose somebody else doing. Do you ever criticize people? That means they get to criticize you. It is stupid to call somebody out for being mean when you are both being mean. It is stupid to call somebody out for being violent when you are both being violent. It is stupid to call somebody out for being combative when you are both being combative, and for being critical when you are both being critical. If you want to call a “new rule,” you have to stop doing the thing that breaks that rule before you can even consider holding the other person to it.

Interestingly, conservative commentators who celebrated the Bush White House condemning NBC launched scathing attacks on the Obama White House for condemning Fox News. Keith Olbermann, who had criticized the Bush Administration, defended the Obama Administration and criticized the pundits. These sorts of double standards are rampant in political discourse, and make useful bits of opinion or information particularly difficult to find.

Intellectual reciprocity is an important component of any constructive discourse. It is impossible to force compliance, but for any two sides to come to agreement they must first agree that both parties are allowed to respond to each other in analogous ways. It seems that it is the responsibility of K-12 English and Social Studies teachers to explain this concept, and where they fail, we must pick up the slack. That is why I have written this, as a free exercise of my own free speech, and critique of but not an infringement of the rights of those who claim otherwise.

Maine Puts Gay Marriage to the Test on Tuesday

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:12 pm
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Gay rights advocates hope Maine will become the first state in the union to affirm marriage equality by popular vote. Most forecasts are showing tomorrow’s referendum to come very close to 50-50; pro-gay-marriage voters have the population advantage in a very liberal state, but anti-gay groups are likely to over-perform in turnout and enthusiasm since it’s harder to get young voters to the polls in an off-year election.

Donations have been pouring in to the state for campaigns and advertising. Proponents of same sex marriage raised more money than the anti-gay groups, but had a higher percentage of their funds come from within the state of Maine than Conservative groups did. The Right sees Maine, like all states on the brink of affirming gay marriage, as another step in a long-term cultural revolution that threatens to sweep the country. For once, I hope the far-Right is correct.

Maine’s vote will come a year minus one day after California banned gay marriage by popular vote, making itself the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry then revoke the right. In California, anti-gay groups outfunded LGBT rights advocates with huge support from Evangelical and Mormon churches across the country.

I want to post an expert from a sermon by Rev. Al Sharpton discussing Evangelical Christian churches who pour their support into major anti-gay campaigns:

There is something immoral and sick about using all of that power to not end brutality and poverty, but to break into people’s bedrooms and claim that God sent you.

It amazes me when I looked at California and saw churches that had nothing to say about police brutality, nothing to say when a young black boy was shot while he was wearing police handcuffs, nothing to say when they overturned affirmative action, nothing to say when people were being delegated into poverty, yet they were organizing and mobilizing to stop consenting adults from choosing their life partners.

We know you’re not preaching the Bible, because if you were preaching the Bible we would have heard from you. We would have heard from you when people were starving in California. When they deregulated the economy and crashed Wall Street you had nothing to say. When Madoff made off with the money, you had nothing to say. When Bush took us to war chasing weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there, you had nothing to say. But you come out against peoples’ private lives and bust into their bedrooms.

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