Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unconscious Sexism and Racism in New Moon

Children are, if they are lucky, taught at home and in schools. But they are also taught with books and movies, where retrograde social conventions and meanings are reinscribed under the guise of good clean fun.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon is a romantic fantasy fusing teen lust and fantasy, but in the story of vulnerable girls swooning over powerful vampires, and rabid werewolves fighting the undead (who nevertheless retain their human form), we have a movie genre best reserved for Halloween.

Critics have been much better at picking up the retrograde gender subtext of the screenplay, at how it exploits the fine line between rape and lust, and how Bella Swan plays a terrible role model for teenage girls. Bella, the female protagonist, is portrayed as weak, vulnerable, virginal, and young while Edward Cullen, her male vampire love interest is portrayed as supernatural, more powerful than he dares admit, 17 and yet over a hundred, young but wise. Throughout the first half of the movie, Bella is depressed because Edward has left her, and she ultimately attempts a pseudo-suicide by going cliff-diving and nearly drowns, but lucky for her, another supernatural male, Jacob Black, who plays a werewolf, swoops in for the rescue. Throughout the movie, young girls are comforted and encouraged in mixing sexual desire with sexual vulnerability, that to be loved is to be rescued. As a preview of the next sequel, we are tantalizingly promised the consummation of Bella's and Edward's love, that he will finally agree to change her into a vampire. He would then take everything that is hers, no less than her life and her soul, and shockingly, it is everything that Bella ever wanted.

If this is what causes teenage girls (and not a few self-confessed middle-aged feminists) to swoon at the movie, the unconscious racism in the movie takes us to a new league of egregiousness.

A google with the search terms "Twilight," "full moon" and "racism" only turned out less than 10 germane hits, with one of them addressing the fact that some fans were agitated that the character, Laurent, was played by a black man. They charge that vampires, whose skin sparkle in the sun (according to author Stephenie Meyer) surely have to be white. These fans probably felt that fidelity to the book (or art) was sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. I'll tell these fans to lighten up (no pun intended) though, since the author as well as the movie's casting director is clearly on their side, because Laurent, the sole black vampire in the screenplay, was conveniently dispatched by the werewolves early on in the movie.

Laurent, in any case is just the side-show to the movie's considerable moral insensitivity. The main battle in the movie is between the vampires and the werewolves, who are ALL native Americans of the Quilette tribe. The vampires are all wealthy, dress well, and live well. They are rational (read human) creatures rather than animals, and vampires do not not, as one puts it in the movie "smell ... like dogs." They abide by a code of rules, and even have a deliberative body seated at the palatial Volturi Tower in Italy. The werewolves, on the other hand, are hot-headed natives running around (half-naked) in packs ready to give in to their rage at any moment. Jacob Black drives a beat-up truck and not a cool black Volvo as Edward does.

Here is the easily missed factoid central to Jacob's angst and hence the plot. We learn that the leader of the pack disfigured his wife in a fit of rage but clearly loves her still. In political theory we would call this the cultural defence of domestic abuse. The author, Stephenie Meyer, would have us believe that wolves / native Americans are less rational and more posessed by rage / spirits. Jacob withdraws from Bella for he fears that he would harm her, conceding that it is in his nature to get violent; while Edward Cullen pursues her because the author believes that he can control his lust for her blood. With every little detail in the movie, we are told that it is better to be a dead human than a live animal; and this is certainly Bella's preference and her chosen future.

One would hope that this type of romantic sub-genre should be kept from our kids. After all, some of us think that Harry Potter should be kept from out kids because there is magic involved. Well, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, was released November 20, and boasted the largest single day domestic gross at $72.7 million. The book rose to the top spot in the New York Time's bestseller list for Children's Chapter books and stayed there for eleven weeks. Unconscious sexism and racism are much more dangerous to pre-pubescent minds than Voldemort, because the former exist outside of books and movies.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On Scientists v. Politicians on Mammograms

Last week, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a government-appointed group of 16 outside experts recommended that women should undergo routine mammograms only after the age of 50 and not 40, against the advice of the American Cancer Society and consistent with the recommendations of the American College of Physicians.

Medicine is not a precise science, so the task force could be right but it could also be wrong. Researchers and scientists make probabilistic claims from the data to offer recommendations, in this case, to the Department of Health and Human Services.

To prevent one additional breast cancer death, 1,000 women would have to get mammograms starting at age 40 rather than 50. But doing this would allegedly result in roughly 500 of the 1,000 women getting false positive results at least once, and 33 of them getting unnecessary biopsies, according to Jeanne Mandelblatt of Georgetown University.

According to researchers on the side of the Task Force, the adage that prevention is better than cure loses its intuitive force when one scrutinizes the risks associated with preventive care such as radiation or hormone therapy on abnormalities that may never have become cancerous tumors as well as the anxiety they provoke.

Now, other experts looking at the same data disagree on its interpretation. "We respect the task force, but we do not agree with their conclusions," says Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. "We are concerned the same evidence we think supports beginning at age 40 is being interpreted by others as not supporting mammography."

Scientists looking at the evidence can disagree, but when they do, they point to the data in order to support their conclusions. Most politicians, on the other hand, do not look at the data and they can in good faith either accept or reject the experts' recommendations since the experts do disagree. Only a few, however, grab one set of these recommendations, and then leap a few light years ahead, with uncanny certitude, to a conclusion solar systems away from the data on which the recommendations were originally offered.

"This is how rationing begins. This is the little toe in the edge of the water," Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. "This is when you start getting a bureaucrat between you and your physician."

This is when you put a politician between the people and responsible government. They will offer answers, explanations, and analogies with more certititude than the scientists who perused the data, and if their golden tongues wagged with enough vigor, people will believe them because it is easier to acquire information via gossip than it is to collect it ourselves.

Our indifference to doing our civic homework would not be a problem but for the fact that demagogues are able to synthesize our indifference with their certainty to create political slogans but not political solutions. Resolution and confidence are virtues only when the answers are always obvious and unambiguous. But in the world of statistics in which researchers on both sides of the mammogram debate inhabit, and in the world of politics where the meaning of public opinion and the general will fluctuates, unsubstantiated certitude is the one cancer on democacy we should be screening for, every day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On whether KSM deserves Vengeance or Justice

There are four reasons which have been supplied to suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) does not deserve a civilian trial in New York:

1. This is what KSM wants - a show trial, and he should not get what he desires.
2. The trial will increase the risks of a terorist attack in New York.
3. Classified information will be released in a civilian court trial, to the benefit of potential future terrorists.
4. The injury KSM has inflicted is a war crime, and not a domestic criminal matter.

1-3 are unverifiable predictions, sub-points to the main point, 4, which is the motive force behind the considerable agitation behind Attorney General Eric Holder's decision. Those who oppose a civilian trial for KSM want vengeance more than they want justice. This is exactly what Michael Goodwin has argued:

"Either try the detainees in military courts on secure bases or, best of all, give them death now. Mohammed and some others already acknowledged guilt and said they were ready to die.

I say we take yes for an answer."

Well, there we have it. Goodwin wants vengeance primarily, and justice only incidentally. Now, vengeance and justice are not unrelated. Vengeance presumes the existence of guilt, so the pursuit of vengeance can lead to justice. Indeed, in an anarchic, godless world of all against all, vengeance is the closest thing there is to justice. To speak of justice would be a categorical mistake because without the apparatus of sovereignty and law, it is a standard that stands on stilts. We say Justice under the Law because without law justice is a meaningless concept.

Goodwin and others like Mayor Rudy Giuliani who want to deny KSM a civilian trial believe, though they have not fully articulated their reasons, that the international milieu exists as a state of nature in which there is no universal law and no universally accepted sovereign law-giver, and as such the pursuit of justice is folly and the pursuit of vengeance necessary. If there is neither legality nor illegality, then there is only strength and weakness. Vengeance will have to do. This is why Rudy Giuliani insists on the frame that we are a nation at war, that we are dealing with terrorists or "enemy combatants" and not what John Yoo called "garden-variety criminals."

To be sure, in a government of laws such as in a liberal democracy, justice takes on higher attributes that vengeance does not (and cannot). While justice is about law; vengeance is about necessity because it privileges immediate judgment over the process that would deliver such a judgment. While vengeance gives solace to those who were injured, justice assures all citizens that the system in which they conduct themselves works - ie. while vengeance is pointed and specific, justice is blind and universal, and while vengeance is preponderant, justice is proportionate.

Well and good. But as we consider whether or not KSM should have been granted a civilian trial, we need to determine the context in which we make this judgment: is terrorism a domestic criminal matter or an act of war? If the former, then the Constitution takes precedence and it makes sense to speak of justice and that is what KSM deserves. If the latter, then because there is neither universal law nor a sovereign law-giver in the international milieu, KSM will have to suffer our vengeance because justice is not an alternative.

We have not settled on an answer to this question of whether or not terrorism is a criminal or a war crime because our historical definition of war has not caught up with its modern incarnation in which de-territorialized non-state actors perpetrate acts of violence. Our discussion over what KSM deserves is a footnote to this larger debate.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On The Disrupted Sequence of Health-Care Reform

Democrats must be thinking: what happened to the halcyon days of 2008? It is almost difficult to believe that after the string of Democratic electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, the vast momentum for progressive "change" has fizzled out to a mere five vote margin over one of the most major campaign issues of 2008, a health-care bill passed in the House this weekend. If you raise hopes, you get votes; but if you dash hopes you lose votes. That's the karma of elections, and we saw it move last Tuesday.

Democratic Party leaders scrambled, in response, to keep the momentum of "Yes, we can" going, by passing a health-care reform bill in the House this weekend. But despite claims of victory, Democratic party leaders probably wished that their first victory on the health-care reform road came from the Senate and not from the House. President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have always hoped to let the Senate pass its health-care reform bill first, initiating a bandwagon effect so that passage in the House would follow quickly and more easily, and a final bill could be delivered to the president's desk.

Instead, the order of bill passage has been reversed, making a final bill less likely than if things had gone according to plan. If even the House, which is not subject to supermajority decision-making rules, barely squeaked by with a 220-215 vote, then it has now set the upper limit of what health-care reform will ultimately look like. Potentially dissenting Democratic Senators see this, and there might now be a reverse band-wagoning effect. Already, we are hearing talk from the Senate about the timeline for a final bill possibly being pushed past Christmas into 2010. This is just what Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were hoping against, by pushing the Senate to pass a bill first. Unfortunately for them, the Senate took so long that to keep the momentum going (and amidst the electoral losses in NJ and VA last week), they felt compelled to pass something in the House to signal a token show of progress.

But the danger is that the move to regain control may initiate a further loss of control. The less than plenary "victory" in the House bill has only made it clearer than ever that if a final bill is to find its way to the President's desk, it will have to be relieved of its more ambitiously liberal bells and whistles. Even though the House Bill, estimated at a trillion dollars, is more expensive than the Senate version being considered, and it has added controversial tax provisions for wealthier Americans earning more than $500,000, what the House passed was already a compromise to Blue Dogs. On Friday night, a block of Democratic members of Congress threatened to withhold their support unless House leaders agreed to take up an amendment preventing anyone who gets a government tax credit to buy insurance from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion. If even the House had to cave in some, there will have to be many more compromises to be made in the Senate, especially on the "public option."

Sequencing matters in drama as it does in politics. It is at the heart of the Obama narrative, the soul and animating force behind the (now unravelling) Democratic majority in 2009. "Yes, we can" generates and benefits from a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect that begins with a whisper of audacious hope. From the State House of Illinois to the US Senate, from Iowa to Virginia - the story of Barack Obama is a narrative of crescendo. "They said this day would never come" is a story of improbable beginnings and spectacular conclusions. The structural underpinnings of the Obama narrative are now straining under the pressure of events. To regain control of events, the President must first regain control of his story.