Category: Human Rights

Fear the Reaper

By John Conway | December 3, 2008 6:45 pm

I am going to go out on a limb here and write about a subject that I know next to nothing about. But that’s part of the problem…

Imagine the sensation it would cause in the news media: a new disease appears in the US, killing hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands per year. The death rate closes in on 100,000 people per year. People are terrified, the medical community launches a massive campaign to control and eradicate the new pestilence, the federal government creates a new bureaucracy, a special arm of the CDC to deal with this growing death toll.

Here’s the weird thing. It’s here, and we may well top 100,000 dead per year soon in the US. There is no media outrage, no massive federal programs, and precious little available public information at all about it.

The disease? MRSA: methicillin-resistant staphlyococcus aureus. This “superbug”, a virulent strain of staph, has a chilling death rate: about 20-30% of the people who get it die from it. This is a highly variable statistic, because most of these infections are occurring in hospitals, and the people who are there are already very ill, and often immune-compromised. This so-called health-care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA) is to be distinguished from the growing number of cases of community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) which account for around 15% of the incidence.

In fact, getting the total US death toll number is rather difficult to do, because hospitals don’t want to report these deaths and have actively lobbied against state laws requiring them to do so. In California, I am happy to say, The Governator signed into law in September a bill requiring such reporting (though he killed such a bill a year ago!) As of October, only half the states in the country had such laws. (Interesting aside: in 2003, then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama championed such legislation and got it passed.)

Maybe the media is finally getting the story. The Seattle Times recently had an editorial on the subject, lashing out at the hospital industry for bring this pestilence upon us, after an investigative report.

Okay, so what about that 100,000 number? Okay, I made that up. But in 2005, it is documented all over that there were about 19,000 deaths in the US, and infection rates were climbing very, very rapidly. In California the Department of Health Services estimated about 9,600 deaths from hospital related infections, which extrapolates to around 80,000 deaths nationwide. Not all of these are MRSA, clearly. But I am going to take a wild guess that the 9,600 number was low-balled. It is striking that we don’t know how many people are dying from MRSA, but it could become the fifth or sixth leading cause of death soon.

There are a lot of things that need to change, not least of which:

– There need to be more media stories; people need their awareness raised.

– The government, and the CDC in particular needs to get very serious about getting accurate statistics out and available openly.

– Hospitals need to put in place whatever measures they can, from copper door knobs to better MRSA screening on intake, to better staff education (no pun intended) on infection control.

– There should be a major research effort launched to understand the new-gen superbugs like MRSA, C. difficile, and the lovely new one from the Iraq battlefield, A. baumanni.

I guess what I find most chilling here is the almost unbelievable cynicism of the hospital/health insurance companies who actively fight against having to report statistics on MRSA infection rates. To me, it just underscores a general conclusion that I have formed in the past several years: our health care system should not be managed by organizations that have a profit motive. Think about it: the free market has not produced an efficient, responsive health care system. The profit-based health insurance industry has only created an enormously expensive bureaucratic layer whose main effect has been to drive up health care costs at quadruple the inflation rate while continually restricting actual health care services, and has left 50 million Americans with no health care coverage at all.

I blame them.

In bed with Templeton

By Daniel Holz | December 2, 2008 10:58 pm

The movie “Milk” opened last weekend. It tells the story of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States. Although I have not seen the movie, without a doubt the story of Harvey Milk is a tragedy of epic proportions. He fought prejudice, and overcame tremendous odds to get elected. Ten months later he was gunned down, along with the Mayor of San Francisco, by a former colleague. The murderer was Dan White, an ex-policeman who admitted to shooting both men in cold blood, and was subsequently given a light sentence in the infamous twinkie defense. White served five years, and within a couple of years of being released from prison committed suicide. As if all this were insufficiently “Hollywood”, the events are strangely intertwined with the mass suicide at Jonestown (the second largest loss of civilian American lives, after 9/11).

We are tempted to think of all of this as ancient history, and irrelevant to our more enlightened times. But here we are 30 years later, and in the very state where Milk lived and died a (slight) majority of voters have gone out of their way to inscribe into the state constitution a measure explicitly depriving gays of civil rights. This is known as Proposition 8, and Sean has a nice post on why it’s an appropriate issue for a science blog.

As it happens, one of the largest individual donations to support Proposition 8 came from John Templeton. Of course, Cosmic Variance readers are familiar with the Templeton Foundation, as my esteemed co-blogger Sean has tangled with them previously. Templeton, when he’s not spending his money taking away the rights of his fellow citizens, has a predilection for spending money on scientists.fluttua bed (lago design) Historically I’ve been uncomfortable with the Templeton Foundation because of their attempts to conflate religion and science. However, their Foundational Questions Institute appears to be a genuine effort to generate cutting edge science. Although I’m sure there is much I would disagree with in a conversation with Templeton, his support of basic science is to be applauded. Arguably the United States has been immeasurably strengthened by both the separation of church and state and the separation of church and science (the latter is not to be taken for granted; think of Galileo, or Bush’s incursions into stem cell lines and global warming). That even Templeton recognizes that science works best when it is unfettered, as much as possible, by external preconceptions is an encouraging sign. We can only hope that he spends more money on science, and less on politics. We thus wish Sean the best of luck in winning the $10,000 jackpot, a prize he will no doubt share with his co-bloggers.

MORE ABOUT: Religion, templeton

Marriage and Fundamental Physics

By Sean Carroll | October 19, 2008 4:50 pm

Among other important elections, on November 4 Californians will be voting on Proposition 8, a measure to amend the state Constitution in order to ban same-sex marriages. The polling has been very close, with a possible late break toward a “Yes” vote; this would effectively overturn a California Supreme Court decision from this May that held that same-sex couples had a right to marry under the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. Eventually, of course, gay marriage will be accepted throughout the country, and we will look back on today as the bad old days of discrimination. But that’s cold comfort to the couples who would like to celebrate their love for each other right now. You can donate and learn more about the measure at No On 8.

We are occasionally asked why a Physics Blog spends time talking about religion and politics and all that nonsense. A perfectly correct answer is that this is not a Physics Blog, it’s a blog by some people who happen to be physicists, and we talk about things that interest us, blah blah blah. But there is another, somewhat deeper, answer. Physics is not just a technical pastime played with numerical simulations and Feynman diagrams; nor is it a purely instrumental technique for unlocking Nature’s secrets so as to build better TV sets. Physics, as it is currently practiced, is a paradigm for a naturalistic way of understanding the world. And that’s a worldview that has consequences stretching far beyond the search for the Higgs boson.

Charles Taylor makes an admirable stab at a very difficult task: understanding the premodern mindset from our modern vantage point. (Via 3 Quarks Daily.) There are many ways in which our perspective differs from that of someone living five hundred years ago in a pre-scientific age, but Taylor emphasizes one important one:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

Our ancestors lived in an enchanted world, where the boundary between the physical and the moral and the spiritual was not very clearly drawn. It made perfect sense, at the time, to attribute to the external world the same kinds of meanings and impulses that one found in the human world — purposes, consciousnesses, moral judgments. One of the great accomplishments of modernity was to construct a new way of understanding the world — one based on understandable, formal rules. These days we understand that the world is not magic.

This change in perspective has led to extraordinary changes in how we live, including the technology on which we are sharing these words. But the consequences go enormously deeper than that, and it is no exaggeration to say that our society has still not come fully to grips with the ramifications of understanding the world around us as fundamentally natural and rules-based. That’s the point at which the worldview suggested by science has had a profound effect on moral reasoning.

For our present purposes, the most important consequence is this: notions of “right” and “wrong” are not located out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, in the same sense that a new kind of elementary particle (or even a new law of physics) is located out there in the world. Right and wrong aren’t parts of the fundamental description of reality. That description has to do with wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics, not with ethical principles. That is what the world is made of, at a deep level. Everything else — morality, love, aesthetics — is up to us.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Philosophy

Spontaneous Social Symmetry Breaking

By Sean Carroll | July 23, 2008 11:33 am

Physicists love spontaneous symmetry breaking. It’s a great way to reconcile the messiness of reality with our belief in simple and beautiful underlying mechanisms. We posit that the true fundamental dynamics of the world has some symmetry — X can be exchanged with Y, and all relevant processes are unchanged — but the actual state of the world does not respect that symmetry, which leaves it hidden (or “nonlinearly realized,” if you want to sound all sciencey). Deep down, a (left-handed) electron is completely interchangeable with an electron neutrino; but in the world as we find it, this symmetry is broken, and we end up with an electron that is charged and massive, a neutrino that is neutral and nearly massless. The Higgs boson that the Large Hadron Collider is looking for would be the telltale sign of the mechanism behind this symmetry breaking.

For reasons which escape me, this concept has not been borrowed (as far as I can tell) by social scientists and pundits more generally.* Which is too bad, as it explains a great deal. For example, appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently, as she patiently tried to explain to a distraught Elisabeth Hasselbeck why it’s just not the same when black people use the word “nigger” as when white people do. (From Sociological Images, via The Edge of the American West.)

Which is not to say that it’s always okay, or that there is no thoughtful critique of the re-appropriation of derogatory language by targeted groups, etc. Just that “If it’s wrong when white people say it, it should be wrong when black people say it too! It’s just not fair!” is far too simple-minded to carry any weight.

Let’s imagine that, in our view of a happy future utopia, all races find themselves in situations of perfect equality of opportunity and dignity. Everyone enters society with equal status, and people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (The “symmetric vacuum.”) In such a world, arguments like “If you can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to?” would be perfectly legitimate. But even if we want that to be the world — even if we believe that the grand unified theory of social ethics involves a symmetry of rights and obligations under the interchange of various racial categories — it’s not the world in which we live. In the real world, different races don’t go through life with the same masses and charges (if you will). There really are such things as discrimination, legacies of poverty and exclusion, and so on. We can argue about the best way to deal with those features of reality, but pretending that they don’t exist isn’t a very useful strategy.

As Whoopi explains, many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama. But it doesn’t follow that “if it’s fair for you, it should be fair for me.” Here is a guy who sadly doesn’t get it; a white high-school teacher who is genuinely puzzled about why he got in trouble for calling one of his black students “nigga.”

I was contemplating writing this post for a long time, with the relevant symmetry being men/women and the social milieu being the scientific community. Too many physicists reason along the following lines: “Men and women should be treated equally. Therefore, any time we privilege one over the other, as in making a special effort to encourage women in science, we are making a mistake.” That would be a reasonable argument, if the symmetry weren’t dramatically broken by the state in which we find ourselves. Which happily is not a stable vacuum! (Note that the underlying assumption is not that different genders or races are necessarily equivalent when it comes to innate abilities; that is largely beside the point, and obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy. But they should certainly have equal opportunities — and right now, they don’t.) Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

But Whoopi’s little teaching moment was too good to pass up. If the discussion of race and gender in the rest of the MSM rose to that level of sophistication, we’d all be better off.


*I’ve been searching for an excuse to mention Kieran Healy’s Standard Model of Sociophysics. I’m not sure if this is it, but I’ll take it.

Standard Model of Sociophysics

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Humanity

War Crimes

By Sean Carroll | June 26, 2008 7:14 pm

Q: What do the following Army service decorations have in common?

  • Army Distinguished Service Medal
  • Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters
  • Army Staff Identification Badge
  • Meritorious Service Medal with six oak leaf clusters
  • Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters
  • Army Achievement Medal with one oak leaf cluster

A: They have all been awarded to the author of this statement:

After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

That would be Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (ret.), writing the preface to the report Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the US, recently released by Physicians for Human Rights. The “ret.” in General Taguba’s full title is somewhat euphemistic; after 34 years of service, in 2006 he was instructed to retire by the Army’s Vice-Chief of Staff. This might have been related to his authorship of the Taguba Report, the official report of an Army investigation into torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

It’s hard to have a reasonable discussion about the possibility of holding senior officials in the U.S. government responsible for war crimes. It’s the kind of accusation that gets thrown around too lightly for political or rhetorical reasons, by ideologues on one side or the other who are far too quick to find inhumanity and evil intent in the actions of their opponents.

But that doesn’t mean that war crimes don’t happen, or that our country doesn’t commit them, or that responsibility can’t ever be traced to the highest reaches of the government. There is no question that the U.S. tortures; people who have been held without any charges against them have been raped, killed, and permanently psychologically damaged. And there is no question that it’s not just a matter of a few bad apples — not when John Yoo, author of the infamous Department of Justice torture memos, gets asked “Could the President order a suspect buried alive?” and doesn’t know what the right answer is.

The question is, should the President and other administration officials be held accountable for these acts? Taguba thinks the answer is yes:

This report tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individuals’ lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors… [T]hese men deserve justice as required under the tenets of international law and the United States Constitution. And so do the American people.

It it literally sickening that we’ve come to this. But nobody can be surprised. The Bush Administration has been perfectly consistent in its behavior for the last eight years. It’s going to take some time to deal with the consequences, and it won’t be pleasant for anyone. I can’t imagine the sort of havoc it would wreak on the political landscape if a Democratic administration pursued charges of war crimes against a former Republican administration (for example). It would not be the kind of thing that brings the country together, let’s just say.

On the other hand, should the United States have a policy that its political officials cannot, a priori, be accused of war crimes, because to do so would cause a political firestorm? Perhaps we will end up needing a Truth Commission.



By Sean Carroll | June 17, 2008 5:50 pm

September 29, 2007 was the happiest day of my life.


But now my happiness is being undermined. Not by my lovely wife, but by all of these Californians who, starting today, are getting legally gay-married. How can we maintain our marital bliss when all around us other people are feeling blissful with partners of the same gender? It’s degrading, the Pope says, and who can argue?

Okay, it’s hard to be snarky about this issue, I’m too sentimental. Discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual identities is one of the last remaining officially-sanctioned forms of inequity in our culture, and it’s incredibly moving to see the joy on the faces of so many newly-married couples as the barriers come (belatedly, tentatively) tumbling down.

Today is a big day. If anyone is in need of some good last-minute wedding vows, you are welcome to borrow ours. The algorithm was simple: take the Form of the Solemnization of Matrimony from the Book of Common Prayer, remove all the references to God (there are a lot of them), and sprinkle with some quotes that express your own feelings. Also, substitute appropriate names for the numbers.

OFFICIANT: Dearly Beloved — We are gathered together here today to witness the joining of [1] and [2] in Matrimony.

Marriage is an honorable estate: and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and soberly.

Upon completion of the ceremony, we understand that one is not obliged to remain utterly sober, nor for that matter perfectly discreet.

The estate of matrimony attempts the impossible: to formalize the love between two people. In the words of W.H. Auden:

      Rejoice, dear love, in Love’s peremptory word;
      All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
      Exist by grace of the Absurd,
      And without conscious artifice we die:

      So, lest we manufacture in our flesh
      The lie of our divinity afresh,
      Describe round our chaotic malice now,
      The arbitrary circle of a vow.

By our presence here tonight, we elevate conscious artifice to a heartfelt celebration of the uniting of two lives.

Then shall the Minster say unto [1],

O: 1, will you have 2 to be your partner in life? Will you love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keeping only to her, so long as you both shall live?

1: I will.

Then shall the Minster say unto [2],

O: 2, will you have 1 to be your partner in life? Will you love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keeping only to him, so long as you both shall live?

2: I will.

O, to 1: 1, will you take 2’s hand and repeat after me.

      I, 1, take you, 2, to be my partner in life,
      to have and to hold from this day forward,
      for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,
      to love and to cherish, till death us do part;
      and thereto I plight my troth.

O, to 2: 2, will you take 1 hand and repeat after me.

      I, 2, take you, 1, to be my partner in life,
      to have and to hold from this day forward,
      for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,
      to love and to cherish, till death us do part;
      and thereto I plight my troth.

Then shall they again loose their hands; and 1 shall give unto 2 a Ring in this wise: the Officiant taking the ring shall deliver it unto 1, speaking their name out loud, to put it upon the fourth finger of 2’s left hand. And 1 holding the Ring there, and taught by the Officiant, shall say,

1: I give you this ring as a symbol of my enduring love.

Then 2 shall give unto 1 a Ring in this wise: the Officiant taking the ring shall deliver it unto 2, speaking their name out loud, to put it upon the fourth finger of 1’s left hand. And 2 holding the Ring there, shall say,

2: I give you this ring as a symbol of my enduring love.

O: Together we have gathered to share our blessings with 2 and 1 as they begin their lives together. As Rainier Maria Rilke once advised a young poet:

“We must trust in what is difficult. It is good to be solitary,
for solitude is difficult. It is also good to love, because love is difficult.
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps
the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task,
the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation….
Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

Then shall the Officiant speak unto the company.

O: Inasmuch as 1 and 2 have pledged their troth, I now pronounce them together for life. You may celebrate as you wish.

Congratulations to everyone getting married today! Go plight those troths!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Personal

Metaphor to Action

By Sean Carroll | March 27, 2008 10:58 am

By Muriel Rukeyser.

Whether it is a speaker, taut on a platform,
who battles a crowd with the hammers of his words,
whether it is the crash of lips on lips
after absence and wanting : we must close
the circuits of ideas, now generate,
that leap in the body’s action or the mind’s repose.

Over us is a striking on the walls of the sky,
here are the dynamos, steel-black, harboring flame,
here is the man night-walking who derives
tomorrow’s manifestoes from this midnight’s meeting ;
here we require the proof in solidarity,
iron on iron, body on body, and the large single beating.

And behind us in time are the men who second us
as we continue. And near us is our love :
no forced contempt, no refusal in dogma, the close
of the circuit in a fierce dazzle of purity.
And over us is night a field of pansies unfolding,
charging with heat its softness in a symbol
to weld and prepare for action our minds’ intensity.

So I was poking around looking at biographies of some of the founding names of thermodynamics and kinetic theory — Boltzmann of course was an interesting character, but there are a lot of good stories out there. The American physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs obviously was a major player — among other things, he introduced the concept of the statistical ensemble, the primary tool by which we nowadays think of thermodynamic systems.

Muriel Rukeyser One of the notable biographies of Gibbs, it turns out, is by none other than Muriel Rukeyser. That’s a name that should be familiar to long-time blog readers, as she was the author of the delightful poem The Conjugation of the Paramecium. Any poet who spends her free time writing biographies of the titans of statistical mechanics is my kind of poet.

Turns out that Rukeyser led a pretty interesting life in her own right. She was a political activist, drawing on her own experiences as a feminist Jewish bisexual, but agitating for social justice in a number of different areas. She wrote for the Daily Worker, covered the Scottsboro case, and investigated an outbreak of silicosis among miners in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. You can have a look at her FBI file, if you have a morbid fascination concerning what the government might do with information about what friends you have and what organizations you belong to.

Happily, these days we have restored the balance of civil liberties, and the government would never spy on anyone except terrorists, leaving the rest of us free to write poetry and follow the evolution of distribution functions on phase space unperturbed by political considerations.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Words

A More Perfect Union

By Sean Carroll | March 18, 2008 11:21 am

Barack Obama gave a major speech on race in Philadelphia today. Inflammatory statements by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, have been receiving a lot of media attention — they feed into fears that many Americans have about a black guy with a funny-sounding name. Obama has strongly condemned the statements, but refused to dissociate himself from his pastor.

Instead, as evidenced in this excerpt from his speech (which he wrote himself), Obama is choosing to respond with a nuanced and honest assessment of race-based resentment in America. It’s a novel strategy; we’ll have to see if the collective attention span of the media and public is up to the task of absorbing something like this.

… This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

A bit more below the fold.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Politics

200 Lashes

By Sean Carroll | November 15, 2007 4:53 pm

That’s the punishment you get in Saudi Arabia for being a woman and riding in a car with a man who is not in your family. Oh, after your gang rape. (Via Feministing.)

A court in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishing a female victim of gang rape with 200 lashes and six months in jail, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The 19-year-old woman — whose six armed attackers have been sentenced to jail terms — was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes for “being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape,” the Arab News reported.

But in a new verdict issued after Saudi Arabia’s Higher Judicial Council ordered a retrial, the court in the eastern town of Al-Qatif more than doubled the number of lashes to 200.

A court source told the English-language Arab News that the judges had decided to punish the woman further for “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.”

But, lest you jump to conclusions, understand that it’s not only women who have to feel the occasional lash to be kept in line. It’s gay men, too!

About 50 people picketed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in London on Oct. 19 in protest against the nation’s reported floggings and executions of gay men.

On Oct. 2, two Saudi men convicted of sodomy in the city of Al Bahah received the first of their 7,000 lashes in punishment, the Okaz daily newspaper reported. The whippings took place in public, the report said.

I presume that the strong connections between totalitarian impulses, religious fundamentalism, and sexual repression have already been the subject of dozens of Ph.D. theses. There is a truly ugly part of human nature that feels a need to control the lives of others, and theocracy serves as a mechanism for amplifying those impulses into public actions.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, World

The Golden Rule

By Mark Trodden | August 29, 2007 10:44 pm

I know it seems obvious, but two of today’s news stories brought home the absurdity of how people are judged.

On the one hand we have a Republican (who would have guessed?) Senator who is accused of soliciting sex in an airport men’s bathroom.

On the other is this priceless story about legislating against the wearing of too baggy clothes.

What is striking is that I don’t think the first should be news except that the Senator in question consistently votes against gay rights and gay marriage. His fellow Senators seem concerned with the actual behavior, which I think is irrelevant, and unconcerned with his hypocrisy, which I think is abhorrent.

But the individuals involved in the second story seem to ignore completely the behavior of the persons wearing the dangerously low-riding jeans. Even those defending these loose-legged louts seem to miss the point:

“The focus should be on cleaning up the social conditions that the sagging pants comes out of,”

No, the focus should be on how they behave, not on what they wear.

Being a good citizen is about how you behave to others – what rights you support or try to deny them, or how you treat them – not about how you choose to meet sexual partners or about how you dress.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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