June 22, 2009

another article about Iran

A professor at the protests. Definitely worth reading. Two particularly intense moments in the annals of humans in bad situations:

There is a woman who is being beaten. She’s horrified and hysterical but not as much as the anti-riot police officer facing her. She shrieks, ‘Where can I go? You tell me go down the street and you beat me. Then you come up from the other side and beat me again. Where can I go?’ In sheer desperation, the officer hits his helmet several times hard with his baton. ‘Damn me! Damn me! What the hell do I know!

and later,
At Gisha, there’s a similar scene. Again the people have the whole crossing in their control and you can hear the uproar and horns. Motorcycles are burning in smoke. But I’m suddenly stunned. I see a red object, which later proves to be a man, about 50, his head covered with blood, crouching, people passing him by as if he was a garbage can. Then comes a guy with a long stick who wants to beat up the already beaten Basiji. People gather and stop him. He’s furious, ‘Why should I not? They beat tiny girls! They beat everyone! Bastard!’

via hilzoy.

June 21, 2009

read about Iran

One, by Roger Cohen from Tehran, is both opinion and reportage, and the writing is excellent.

The second is by someone I'm going to grad school with this fall, about her cousins in Iran and how she sees the current situation.

June 20, 2009

more important

You wouldn't know it from the blog, since I don't have much to say about it, but I've mostly been thinking about Iran.

Andrew Sullivan is the best Iran news aggregator I've found. The
liveblog of today's protests is full of raw information and links to unfolding stories and things pulled out of the #IranElection twitter feed. Also video of the deaths of protesters, which I did not watch.

June 19, 2009

not that hard

The DOJ is going to sit down with queer law organizations and try to strategize about the best way to deal with all the DOMA cases. This is the kind of thing they could have done beforehand to avoid the kind of fall-out the DOJ brief had last week. Not complicated. If you care about a policy issue, you make a strategy for dealing with it. Glad to see they're willing to do it now.

In some ways, I think it's better to have had this reason for people to get all riled up. It's being riled up that makes people organize, and leads to the kind of pressure that gets meaningful progress.

(via Dan Savage)

June 18, 2009

selective walkback

So, it seems pretty clear now, despite the NYT's assertion to the contrary, that the DOJ did have to defend DOMA. And John Aravosis at Americablog has been absurdly misleading and hysterical. But I still think this highlights Obama's lack of strategy on queer issues, and the importance of pressing the issue and not being patient. The hysteria may have been unwarranted, but it's the bad press that got Obama to act on federal partner benefits. Basically, Obama's been claiming he'll do something about this eventually, be patient, etc, but because he's a politician and not a hero, he'll respond to political incentives (especially if those political incentives get to work on Congress, as well.)

I disagree with Tammy Baldwin that he's gone as far as he can, though. Harry Reid, the embarrassingly incompetent Senate Majority Leader, says there are no Senate co-sponsors to repeal don't ask don't tell. Obama's famous congressional machine can't find a couple senators who want to sponsor a bill that 69% of Americans support? Puh leez.

bad cases make bad law, cont.

You have a defendant who won't claim he's innocent, but still wants DNA testing on the off-chance it might exonerate him? You get Supreme Court FAIL, and the worst effects are on other people who might have had stronger cases.

Choose your test cases wisely.

June 17, 2009

can't look away

Wow. No wonder this is a New York Times article. Fat panic? Check. The trivial concerns of the super rich? Check. Major league cat fights? Check.

What sets her off is the junk food served on special occasions: the cupcakes that come out for every birthday, the doughnuts her children were once given in gym, the sugary “Fun-Dip” packets that some parent provided the whole class on Valentine’s Day.
“Is there or is there not an obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country?”

When offered any food at school other than the school lunch, Ms. Roth’s children — who shall go nameless since it seems they have enough on, or off, their plates — are instructed to deposit the item into a piece of Tupperware their mother calls a “junk food collector.”

The reaction from other parents? "Please, consider moving." Her poor kids.


This is right on. Much as the DOJ shouldn't be defending DOMA with badly written briefs that insult queer people, and much as I think Obama failing to do anything on queer issues is bullshit, the people filing the DOMA lawsuits should stop. Now. The most likely outcome of a DOMA lawsuit right now is a lot of bad precedent, and that's probably why Lambda Legal won't touch them.

(and yes I know the man has a lot on his plate, but don't ask don't tell? I mean come on. Unless this is a clever strategy to get the queers all riled up so we put enough pressure out there that Congress will actually pass things. In which case, awesome, but I gotta say I doubt it.)

smallest possible treat

During the same conversation with the Gardener and Stupendous Fish that brought us the piece about self-control, Stupendous Fish recommended Don't Shoot the Dog, which is about obedience training. I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so. In any case. The book apparently describes some of the results of operant conditioning studies on rats. It turns out that, while you can train a rat to press a lever for a treat, the rat eventually gets bored if it gets a treat every time. I would to. If you want the rat to keep pushing the lever, the trick is to give it a treat at random intervals, the longer the better. You want to give it a small treat - the smallest possible treat that still feels like a treat - because you don't want the rat to get full or feel satisfied: if it feels satisfied, it might stop pushing the lever. So: smallest possible treat, longest possible interval.1 If you time this right, the lever-pushing habit gets nearly impossible to break. It works for humans, too, and is one of the reasons it's so hard to get kids to break bad habits. Stupendous Fish described a pre-schooler who's whining a lot; attention itself is a reward, so if you even look at her for a second when you hear her start whining, you're reinforcing the behavior. But not very much. Smallest possible treat. Keeps her coming back for more forever.

But this post isn't just about operant conditioning! No, no, it's actually about gay politics. Because I can't leave it alone. Obama's reaction to the indignation over the DOMA brief isn't to explain that it was a mistake, it isn't to introduce legislation to repeal don't ask don't tell (which, did I mention, would be a popular thing to do? large majorities of conservatives support repealing don't ask don't tell), it isn't to do anything substantive: instead, Obama plans to sign a presidential memorandum (which expires when he leaves office; not even an executive order) giving partner benefits to same-sex couples employed by the federal government. Some partner benefits. Not health insurance.

Oh, and the administration flat-out admits that they only did it because there's been so much fuss, and because there's a GLBT fundraiser for the DNC coming up next week.

I think Obama's thought process in this was, give them the smallest possible treat so they'll shut up and go to the fundraiser. But I think he miscalculated. He's not reinforcing support for his presidency among queers. He's reinforcing making a fuss. Because this treat exists - so we know it's worth pushing that lever - but it's nothing. It barely whets the appetite. It's not even health insurance for the .06% of Americans who are gay partners of federal employees. Perpetual fuss, here we come.

I think, by the way, that there was a time for putting queer issues off to the side, and not worrying about them temporarily. But I think that time is over. Policy is actually lagging public opinion in some places. Time to expect better, and then demand it.

1. As an aside, this is creepily similar to slot machines; they probably both invoke what Temple Grandin calls the SEEKING system.

annals of cookery

"Spear the garlic with a fork, and use it to beat the eggs, egg yolks, cream, and goat cheese together."

OK, Deborah Madison. If you say so.

June 16, 2009

build a better protest

I love this idea.

"Here's the idea: one gay or lesbian couple—a couple currently denied their rights under DOMA—shows up at the entrance to the White House grounds. A different couple every day. They ask to speak to the president about DOMA. They're refused. They sit down. They refuse to leave. They're arrested, carried away by the police. Couples would be recruited from all over the country, demonstrating that gay marriage isn't just an issue in liberal California or godless New England, and the media in each couple's home city and state would be notified in advance of their arrest. The occasional famous couple—Rosie and Kelli? Ellen and Portia?—would participate to pull in celeb media. But most of the couples who come to D.C. to get arrested would be average folks. The couples would need support, legal and logistical, and we would need someone to organize media outreach and maintain a website. The website would include a photo and profile of each couple that comes to D.C. to get arrested, collect all the press, and be used to recruit couples willing to travel to D.C. and get arrested.

"The action would be small scale—it would be human scale—and it would go on and on and on. It would demonstrate better than another gay march just how seriously we take this issue: we take it seriously that we're willing to travel to D.C. and get arrested. It wouldn't be a one-day event that the White House could ignore or bluff its way through with some lame statement about its "commitment" to ending DOMA. The couples would keep coming. Every day an arrest. Drip, drip, drip. Members of the White House press corps would see couples getting arrested every day on their way to work. Gibbs would be forced to address DOMA on a near-daily basis. The president would be asked about the issue again and again."

If this turns into a reasonably well-organized process, with legal support and everything, look for the Gardener and me to get arrested. Dan Savage, whose idea it is, says that his publicity-shy boyfriend will do the same. I'm tired of being patient.


I actually was planning to write about Obama and queer issues a few weeks ago, when Rachel Maddow was inviting Daniel Choi - gay soldier fluent in Arabic - on her show. Choi came out on the air, and is now getting kicked out of the Army. Obama could do something about this, by ordering the military to stop issuing determinations that soldiers are gay or invoking his powers while stop-loss is in use, but he won't. And hasn't. He won't even say anything about it himself. Dan Savage has been calling this "the fierce urgency of whenever."

Now something else has happened: one of the many DOMA challenge cases currently working their way through federal court has gotten to the point where the Justice Department files a brief. DOJ normally supports federal law - it's their job - but in unusual cases may decide not to support the law when an important policy issue is at stake. I'm not a lawyer, and have a slightly hazy grasp on these details, but this much is vouched for by other people who know this better than I do. If DOJ does choose to defend the law even though the administration opposes it on policy grounds, they can tailor the defense so it is as narrow as possible, and thus not imperil future efforts to exercise those rights. In this case, DOJ decided to file the brief; they also assigned the task of writing it to a Mormon Bush hold-over.

Bet you can guess how that worked out. It's an extremely broad defense of DOMA - "scattershot" has been mentioned; "kitchen sink" as well - which compares same-sex marriage to incest and child rape, claims that same-sex marriage is too expensive given scarce government resources, and anyway, gay people can just have straight marriages. Seriously. I'm not joking. It's a fucking disaster, and there is no way in a million years that any fierce advocate of gay rights would write something like that.

Like Andrew Sullivan, I doubt that Obama personally wants to screw over gay people. But it's not like no one knew there were DOMA suits being filed, or like no one had ever heard him mention that he's opposed to DOMA. I suspect that Obama supports gay marriage, himself. He said he did in the 90s, when he was running for something smaller and more local. He can't come out in favor of it right now, because it's too politically expensive, and honestly, that's fine with me.

What's not fine is this: Obama ran partly on a claim that he got it, and that queer people would not be second-class citizens in his administration. He hasn't delivered. Not at all. He hasn't mentioned the Iowa court decision except in a joke, he hasn't done thing one about don't ask don't tell, and he hasn't bothered to get someone to coordinate his administration's response to a major set of civil rights litigation. That's bullshit. I know the man is busy: I don't expect him to personally sit around writing the DOMA brief for the DOJ. But nothing? Nothing at all? And then this bullshit? If I were running HRC and this were an election year, I'd be looking for another candidate. Not saying I wouldn't vote for him myself, just that if you're a single issue gay rights group, this isn't your man. (And they have pulled out of the LGBT DNC fundraiser. As well they should.)

I think this amounts to cowardice. Obama's not willing to stake even a tiny amount of prestige - even the tiny amount required to get rid of don't ask don't tell, which a majority of conservatives want to get rid of - on queers. Ta-Nehisi Coates points to Jelani's comparison of Obama and JFK, one fo the few that makes neither of them look good. And I can't tell you how disappointed and sad I am to agree.

June 13, 2009


I'm really mad at Barack Obama.

I'll have more about this, and what Dan Savage is calling the fierce urgency of whenever, tomorrow, when I haven't been out drinking with a bunch of queers. Just fyi, that means the post has to show before 3 pm if it's going to.

After that, I'll be drinking with a bunch of people who can't marry their partners. At a march. Because what's a march in Philadelphia without beer?

June 11, 2009

a field guide to health insurance

We're moving, so the Gardener is leaving her job, which means she needs health insurance. Grad school doesn't cover partner benefits (for anyone, not just for queer partners), so it's the private market. Have I ever mentioned how godawful it is to buy private health insurance? Even though we're both young and healthy - and thus privately insurable - it's a damn mess. There's no standard format for the policy description, so it's practically impossible to directly compare plans: ehealthinsurance is the closest I've found to something that will do that, but it's sometimes hard to interpret. For example: the Kaiser plan lists out of network services as "not covered." What that actually means, according to the Kaiser representative I called, is that only emergency and urgent care are covered out of network. Which is good, because insurance that doesn't cover you in an accident when you're out of town doesn't hedge your risk very effectively.

So this is a half-genius idea. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wants to create some kind of guide to health insurance via a non-profit trust. The plan is to give letter grades in categories like adequacy of coverage, affordability, transparency, blah blah blah. Great idea. I'd love to have some real reputational data on the insurers I've been looking into. But even more than that, what I need is a standard format for the underlying coverage data. I need to be able to know exactly what I'm comparing to what. Kind of like a nutrition label, but with money.

I've spent a lot of time on the phone researching this, so let me tell you how to pick your health insurance (on the off-chance that it's useful to one of this blog's 2 readers):

1. Look at the premium, then stop looking at the premium. This is the least useful piece of information available, except insofar as it rules out the plans that are far too expensive for you. More expensive plans are not always better.

2. The deductible. That's how much you have to pay, right off, if you get hospitalized/seriously ill/whatever. It should be an amount that will not destroy you financially, because in fact that's a major reason for having health insurance. But plan that if you get hit by a truck, you will be out this money right away. In fact, if you're the sort of person who keeps money around for emergencies, it would totally make sense to keep that money in your emergency cash account. If you have solid savings and usually use minimal medical care, it might make sense to have a high deductible plan; but you're making a bet that you won't need to pay the deductible.

3. But that's not all! What services have the deductible waived? Many plans waive the deductible for primary care or specialist visits, so if you have a suspicious mole and need to go to the dermatologist, you don't have to pay the full office fee yourself.

Some plans waive the deductible for only a certain number of visits: Anthem Blue Cross has a plan that's directly aimed at young healthy people and covers only 4 doctor visits/year. Basically, you can get a pap smear and go to the doctor to get your strep throat checked out, but anything chronic or weird or hard to diagnose is going to cost you the deductible. So if you take a plan like this, you're essentially betting that you're not going to develop a chronic or complicated health problem: it's good for catastrophic situations and preventive care, but not for things that are in between.

4. Still not all! What you really need to keep your eye on is the Out of Pocket Maximum. Even after you've paid the deductible, you're still responsible for co-insurance. Frankly, I don't really worry about the co-insurance percentage: you end up having to pay between 20% and 50% of your costs other than office visits once you've hit the deductible, but once you're in the hospital or getting surgery everything is so damn expensive that I figure I'll end up hitting the Out of Pocket Max if something like that happens. So. That's what I worry about. And here, you need to be careful. Sometimes the OOPM is listed as an additional amount after the deductible; sometimes it includes the deductible. I looked at an Aetna plan that listed the OOPM as $8000 in network or $12,500 out of network when you figure the deductible in. I figured that would mean the total OOPM - the amount I'd be liable for in a real health problem - would be $12,500, but I called to check and boy was I wrong. The in network and out of network costs rack up separately, so the real OOPM was $20,500.

The OOPM should also be an amount that will not destroy you financially, that you could come up with via credit cards or loans from family or a payment plan from the hospital, and that would not force you to declare bankruptcy. We looked for plans with an OOPM between $3000 and $5000. It would suck to come up with that, but I bet we could. $20,500? Not so much.

5. Lifetime maximum benefit does matter. If something really bad happens (cancer, etc), you can run through a low lifetime max in a couple of years. I would prefer to have a plan with no lifetime maximum benefit, and am actually a little worried about the fact that my grad school health insurance has a $400,000 lifetime max. If I had to choose a plan with a lifetime max, I'd rather have it be over $5 million.

6. How much do you hate referrals? If you really hate them - if they keep you from going to specialists because you hate them so much - get a PPO instead of an HMO. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry that much about the distinction (unless you have a particular doctor/specialist you really need to see).

7. Here's my theory on mental health coverage: if you need it, because you have a mental health condition that requires ongoing management, worry about mental health coverage, but worry about prescription coverage more. I basically think bad therapy is useless, and that it's hard enough to find a good therapist that even if your insurance covers therapy, there's a good chance you'll end up paying out of pocket anyway. If you're the kind of person who sometimes likes to see a therapist to talk about your family, get advice about transitions, etc, don't bother worrying about mental health coverage. (All of this, of course, is for people who have a fairly clear handle on their own mental states: sometimes these change, and you suddenly need more treatment than you used to. And if you have kids, it probably really is worth worrying about mental health coverage, because you never know how they're going to turn out.)

8. Speaking of prescriptions, I found several plans that cover only generic drugs. This doesn't really make sense to me, because it leaves you exposed to substantial risk of very expensive medical bills.

9. Try calling the insurer to ask questions. If the person you reach isn't helpful, they're not going to get any more helpful once you've bought the insurance.

10. Insurance is more expensive for women. I don't really have anything to say about this, other than that it sucks and is dumb.

June 9, 2009

fish in a barrel

I am so tired of hating on New York Times columnists. Sort of. It's also kinda fun. They've managed to replace Bill Kristol, who was spectacularly wrong on matters of political strategy, with Ross Douthat, who's spectacularly wrong on gender issues, which he writes about with some frequency.

Why does he inflict his ideas about gender on us? I don't know, because he likes showing off both his ignorance and his poor reasoning skills? Because he thinks dudes with penises have an obligation to us poor bereft ladies to show us the way and the light? Per latest example: Douthat thinks (or perhaps merely claims) abortion is nearly unregulated in the second and third trimester. Why he thinks this, I cannot say; why his editors allow him to claim this, I cannot imagine.

He also recognizes the moral complexity and particularity of each individual decision to abort or continue a pregnancy, but then claims that this is an appropriate subject for public debate. Because when 300 million people try to come up with a set of rules for when people should stay pregnant, they're likely to be able to make very subtle distinctions that don't push people into miserable positions. Not! Just kidding! Douthat never claims that the decisions 300 million of us will come to in our clumsy attempt at Jeffersonian deliberative democracy will be good ones; he just thinks there'll be more restrictions on women's rights to abortion, and that this will somehow satisfy pro-lifers and they'll pack up their bloody fetus signs and go home, never to murder another doctor.

To which I have 3 responses:

1. Bitch, Ph.D. has nailed my view on this over and over again in saying that abortion is a highly personal moral decision, and that the best decisions are the ones made by a woman who has good medical advice and care, and good social support. You have to trust women. Yes, sometimes people will make bad decisions. But that's true about all kinds of things, and the fact that people will sometimes make bad decisions is not a reason to deny women - and only women - the right to full sovereignty over their bodies, to the decision of whether to allow their uteruses and the rest of their bodies to bring another person into the world. And you have to trust them to make those decisions in the moment, because bright-line rules almost always end up putting someone in an untenable situation. That's why Douthat is wrong, and this isn't an appropriate subject for public debate. We shouldn't argue about fetal abnormality rules, or whether the exemptions should count mental health (and, if they didn't, what we would do with suicidal pregnant women), whether it's just innocent virgins who were raped who can have abortions or whether the rest of us sluts get health care too, how severe the health threat has to be, or whatever else Douthat thinks he should get some say in. No. We should help women make good decisions, and LEAVE IT. And Ross Douthat, who's never going to be pregnant, isn't a parent, and has shown a truly remarkable lack of empathy for women in his previous writings, should well and truly leave it.

2. Moderate restrictions on late-term abortion will not satisfy the pro-life movement. They claim to believe that abortion is murder and we're living through a modern-day mass slaughter. Most members of the pro-life movement are also ineradicably opposed to birth control and are deeply committed to enacting controls over women's sexuality via legal or cultural means. There's no way they would be satisfied with mostly banning second and third trimester abortion, because guess what? If they could be satisfied that way, they'd already have called off the protests.

This doesn't mean there are no pro-life or 'with reservations about abortion' people who couldn't live with that solution; just that for any measure that allowed elective abortions the pro-life movement would keep right on working, and the debate would stay just as highly charged and contentious, and people like Tiller's murderer would have everything they need to become radicalized. And if they ever won, we'd be right back to the days of septic abortion wards in hospitals and a lot of dead women who didn't want to be pregnant. Douthat's claims that we can compromise our way out of the abortion debate are patently disingenuous. He brings up other countries with legal restrictions, as if to say his strategy worked there; but in most of those countries abortion is actually easier to get because it's paid for by the universal health care system, and the real issue is that they just don't have organized fundamentalist political groups. If Douthat can get rid of our organized fundamentalist political groups, maybe then we can talk. Absolute best case scenario, if most pro-life activists and politicians weren't also anti-tax movement conservatives, it might be possible to find some common ground on social services; but slim fucking odds on that too.

3. Where is my NYT column? I could clearly do a hell of a lot better than their current line-up. I'm even willing to frequently mention Aristotle and virtue, too, if it makes me seem conservative and thus acceptable.

Update: Also, of course, see hilzoy. Who not only dismantles Douthat's argument (which, let's be honest, is a little beneath her formidable skills), but also makes a fantastic statement of my first point. Only more clearly, and in one sentence: "When it's not easy to tell the exceptions from the rest, whether or not it's OK to have a rule depends on how bad it is to miss those exceptions, and how bad it is not to have a rule." (And I think the consequences of missing the exceptions are, in the case of abortion, really bad.)

how it's done

This interview with Barney Frank has got to be one of the best examples of how to respond to leading questions I've ever seen. The man is a bulldog: every time the interviewer tries to get him to broaden his claim that Scalia is a homophobe to a claim that people who oppose same-sex marriage are homophobes, he returns to his original point and explains why it's not the one the interviewer is attributing to him.

It's old news, obviously - I wrote something about it ages ago, and was reminded of it when I saw GQ's interview with Frank. He does the same thing: the reporter asks why bonuses and pay on Wall St are back up, Frank explains that although he'd prefer they stayed low that's not how the system works, and the reporter pushes him, saying it's a crappy way for the system to work. Frank says,

"I have to have one rule: If you want me to explain something, and if you’re gonna assume that when I explain it I support it, then I can’t explain it to you."
The other thing he does is that when he decides what he's saying, he sticks to it. If the reporter kept pushing him that way, I have no doubt that Frank would have said, hey, I'm not talking about this any more. He has near-perfect control over whatever message he's putting out. It's a hard skill to master.

June 8, 2009

the perils of data

When this article ran in the NYT magazine, several months ago, I had a whole post planned out about one particular thread. Joe Nocera describes the evolution of Value at Risk - VaR - which was a system JPMorgan developed for measuring risk. It became the financial industry standard for measuring risk for a number of reasons: it gave a single number for the primary riskiness, JPMorgan developed it and then gave it away, and it gave bank regulators a simple thing to look at to figure out if banks were taking on too much risk.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that there's a whole set of events out beyond the 99% of normal variation that VaR covered which, over time, became very significant; there were also several critiques of Nocera's article which pointed out that VaR assumed that prices essentially varied randomly, and couldn't account for real-world events that affected risk. I've lost the links to those articles, or I'd link to them - they were by actual economists who actually know things.

But here's what's more interesting to me than the near-collapse of the financial system: it's a problem that Nocera does cover, by summarizing what Till Guldimann, a former JPMorgan banker involved in creating VaR, told him:

"The big problem was that it turned out that VaR could be gamed. That is what happened when banks began reporting their VaRs. To motivate managers, the banks began to compensate them not just for making big profits but also for making profits with low risks. That sounds good in principle, but managers began to manipulate the VaR by loading up on what Guldimann calls 'asymmetric risk positions.' These are products or contracts that, in general, generate small gains and very rarely have losses. But when they do have losses, they are huge. These positions made a manager’s VaR look good because VaR ignored the slim likelihood of giant losses, which could only come about in the event of a true catastrophe."

In other words, the people who created the policy environment built incentive structures around a particular data point. So the people operating in the policy environment privileged that data point over all others. Turns out that credit default swaps look very good in a VaR model; turns out they also create huge systemic risks by entangling many financial actors into any particular problem.

Can anyone think of any other time this has happened? Like maybe in higher education, with a set of rankings? Or how about in K-12 education? Oh that's right, it's called "accountability." It's what NCLB would be doing, if it had more teeth.

We live in an age where people are very interested in data, and in a lot of ways that's great. We should try to figure out how to measure things: the same NYT article mentions a situation in which a recurring data point tripped some managers' attention at Goldman Sachs, and as a result they met, discussed the mortgage market, and decided to take on less risk. That's a good use of data. But blindly privileging any particular data point will leave any system vulnerable to being gamed. I guarantee you that there are schools out there that are figuring out how to game - not cheat, but game - the testing system. Some of those schools are also doing a good job on other things; others are focusing on specific tests, at a real cost to their students. My school tried to game the test by setting up a special academy for students they thought might make 'proficient,' and having higher behavior and academic standards for that academy. It may or may not have helped those students; it certainly didn't help anyone else.

The same thing is happening with Clemson University in the Inside Higher Ed article: some of the reforms they're making are good for their students, others are attempts to game the system, but none of them proceed from an honest evaluation of what would make Clemson a better university. It's schmality instead of quality, and I wish the data evangelists would be honest about the way a laser-like focus on data makes the pursuit of schmality worse.

June 5, 2009

Christianity and war

I know there are at least two people who read this blog who actually know stuff about Christianity, and I'm wondering if you (or other people! people I don't know!) could help me with something I find confusing. I've read the New Testament, and I know a little about the early history of the Christian church, but I know more or less nothing about more recent theology. Jesus is very clear in the New Testament, mostly. "Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also." (from Luke, and also from Matthew.) He hangs out with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors, and I don't remember a single instance in which he does anything violent (though I'm ready to be corrected on this). There's some talk of how God will judge people, but really nothing about how anyone should carry out that judgment now, and in fact various injunctions against judging, more or less on the concept that it's God's job to do that and we're not God. At least that's how I remember it, from my New Testament class seven years ago.

So obviously Tiller's murder raises some questions for me, but so do the Crusades and pretty much every war that any Christian organization has blessed or waged. What's up with that? How do Christian theologians justify war and retribution? There's plenty of bloodthirsty behavior in the Old Testament, so I can see where Jews are getting it. I know basically nothing about Muslim theology, but it does seem like there's not the same crazy pacifism in Muslim tradition. I mean, it seems like it's mostly a situation of "people will be people, no matter what the scriptures actually say," but I do wonder how the people who claim to buy into that scripture then square it with their own desires for violence and retribution. Especially if there are people who grapple with it in a serious and honest way.

June 4, 2009

what I've been reading (abortion edition)

One more thing about late-term abortions: people tend to sneer at mental health reasons for abortion. They think that means "I'd rather not have a baby." I tend to think that these people have never met anyone suffering from mental health difficulties - or at least have never known what it meant. Being suicidal is a direct threat to a person's life. Depression is not the same as being kind of unhappy, and I can't imagine anyone who has known someone suffering from depression who would then think it wasn't a big deal to inflict that on someone else. And adoption is not a simple solution. The outcomes for women who relinquish children for adoption are BAD. Lots of suicidal ideation, lots of depression, feelings of grief which are often more intense and persistent than the grief of women whose children have died. A teen-ager who is suicidal about her pregnancy is someone with a life-threatening mental health condition which can be resolved by abortion. I would hope that even people who don't believe she should get that care would understand and accept the seriousness of what they're asking.

I've been reading a lot the last few days. Some of it:

Dr. Tiller was a remarkable person

Violence and rhetoric:
One anti-choice activist from Kansas, and another who's given it up. Plus one more ex-anti-choice activist. Ellen Goodman and m. leblanc. Sara Robinson ties the murder - appropriately, I think - to other far-right organizations.

More about late-term abortion
Helping teenagers navigate the system. Two stories from Andrew Sullivan.

Hilzoy posts stories about Tiller's work and a description of how Operation Rescue harassed Tiller's staff. She proposes legal changes that would make us all safer, and argues with Megan McArdle about whether this sort of thing is justifiable, if you are sufficiently opposed to abortion (and there's a second part, also very much worth reading). Also: the logical consequences of suspending civil rights.

Anne Lamott talks about her abortion.

June 1, 2009

George Tiller

I'm a lot angrier about George Tiller's death than I would have expected, and I think it has to do with the way my thinking about abortion has changed over the last few years.

I don't think abortion should be legally restricted. Pretty much at all, with the exception of the same kinds of ordinary, minor restrictions we have on all medical procedures. I don't really understand how people can argue that a woman should be legally compelled to donate her uterus to another human being when they wouldn't argue that she should be legally compelled to donate her kidney once that child is born. I mostly have minimal respect for the arguments for criminalization, or rather for the people who make those arguments, because they're so tremendously unwilling to support measures that actually reduce the number of abortions, like contraceptive access and a social welfare net. I heard a woman on Radio Times recently describing her experience bearing a disabled child while she was a member of a very active evangelical church - she and her husband felt completely abandoned by her church, which in her view had a commitment to children which ended at birth. She was furious that the same politicians who vote to restrict abortion also vote to gut funding for health and education of already born children. That's par for the course with anti-choice politicians. (I'm especially disgusted by anyone who thinks it's relevant how someone got pregnant. Pregnancy and childbirth are the ways another human being is created, and human beings shouldn't be turned into punishments or consequences for having sex. It'd be a terrible way to treat a child. See m. leblanc's comments in this thread for more.)

But what I really don't understand is the particular discomfort with third-trimester abortions. No one wants to have a third-trimester abortion. There are about 100 third-trimester abortions a year in the US, and I would be astonished if any of them are elective. The second trimester is different. Women end up getting pushed into the second trimester because they're having trouble coming up with the money for an abortion, or because they're trying to work out a way to raise the child that falls through, or because they don't realize they're pregnant. But very few women don't realize they're pregnant for 6 months (those who do are often children - 9, 10, 11 - who had been raped, had never menstruated, and learned they had ovulated for the first time when they suddenly realize they are very pregnant). Third trimester abortions are so difficult and expensive to arrange that it takes something pretty serious for a woman to make that particular decision. Something like finding out that her child is developing with no face, and will die shortly after birth regardless. That she is carrying conjoined twins, one of whom might be saved for a short life of surgery and organ transplants. Something like learning that her pregnancy has a good chance of killing both her and the baby, or that giving birth to a doomed child would jeopardize her ability to ever have another child. There are problems that develop or show for the first time late in pregnancy, and George Tiller's willingness to perform late-term abortions at a risk to his safety and his life helped these women in desperate situations. Not only that, but it sounds like he did so with tremendous care and kindness to each woman helped: one person says, "I remember he spent over six hours in one-on-one care with my wife when there was concern she had an infection. We're talking about a physician here. Six hours." (That link, by the way, is really worth following if you want a sense of what kind of doctor he was.)

There are a few people - mostly the sort of "consistent ethic of life" Catholics who also work very hard against the death penalty, war, and poverty, and routinely get themselves arrested protesting on military bases - who oppose intervening in such cases because they believe it devalues human life, and that in such cases a woman's moral responsibility is still to do her best to allow that life to continue. It's not my own moral view, but I can respect it, especially since the people I've known who espouse it vigorously tend to have turned over their own lives to fighting injustice and violence. But I bet that most people who read the stories of Tiller's late-term abortion patients will think that these are people who did the best they could in terrible situations; that Tiller really, truly, helped them; and that should they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they would want to have that option. I would hope that even people who oppose abortion - even "consistent ethic of life" Catholics - could have sympathy for the women who have late-term abortions, and see that actually these are the absolute last situations we should try to make more difficult. Protesting Tiller's clinic, harassing his staff, and murdering him look to me like pretty low-yield ways to end exactly the kinds of abortions that, when you really know the stories in question, seem like some of the hardest to really be angry about.

This is without even mentioning the fact that if all obstetricians knew how to perform late-term abortions, women whose fetuses die in utero would not have to spend days risking hemorrhage while they carry around a dead fetus because no one within a distance they can travel knows how to safely remove the fetus.

I think my anger about Tiller's death, like my increasing anger that women constantly find their own reproductive decisions (from contraception to pregnancy to childbirth) interfered with and denied, has to do with my increasing realization that this is the kind of thing that could affect me. I know that six women I know - in my and my parents' generation - have had abortions; I'm sure there are many more. I'm not likely these days to get pregnant accidentally, but if I do want to have kids I don't want to find that, thanks to a bunch of white men desperate to hold on to their own power, I can't get health care in an emergency.

If you're in Philadelphia, come to the Love Park rally even though it's raining.

p.s. go read everything at Bitch, Ph.D., and Obsidian Wings about Tiller and abortion. I'll put together some abortion-related links soon, too.