Friday, October 31, 2014

That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard

(Not really. The competition is stiff.  But it's close.)

I live in Arkansas House of Representatives District 35, an area that covers my own Cammack Village as well as The Heights, Riverdale, and some other neighborhoods of Little Rock.  In this election, the candidates are Clarke Tucker for the Democrats and Stacy Hurst for the Republicans.

As I indicated Monday, I planned to vote for Clarke Tucker--and later that day, I actually made good on my threat by early voting.  As the three or four of you who read this blog* know, Stacy Hurst had virtually no chance of getting my vote, so this was more of an academic exercise from the beginning. You can think of these comments as sort of a coda.

* - Hey, I said "read," not "enjoy."

Consistent with this district's left-leaning reputation, Hurst has run a campaign that emphasizes how moderate she is--sort of.  She has certainly cultivated a reputation as an independent politician, which I suppose is kind of refreshing, coming from a Republican.  I quickly reviewed her campaign materials, and they tend to be long on platitudes and short on detail.  In fact, her campaign website is utterly devoid of any substantive discussion of what she's planning to do.

I probably would have left well enough alone if I hadn't gotten this letter in the mail on Tuesday.

(Click on the images for a larger view.)

Now, let's be clear:  Stacy Hurst has no shot at winning the election unless she gets votes from some Democrats.  There just aren't enough Republicans in the district for her to win if she runs the kind of hard-right campaign that has characterized the mainstream GOP over the last 10 years or so.  So it's unsurprising that she would put this kind of letter out.

To summarize:  The author, Chris McNeal, claims to be a Democrat and speaks highly of Clarke Tucker.  But McNeal says he voted instead for Stacy Hurst.  Why?
  • In his opinion, she's a fantastic candidate who as "served well as a city director" for 10 years, with associations with lots of non-profit organizations.
  • She supports the "private option" implementation of Medicaid expansion.
  • She supports pre-K expansion.
  • She "has expressed to me personally a number of refreshingly progressive stances on some social issues."  No real word on what those are; for all we know, she could be against the "no abortions after 12 weeks" law but in favor of the "no abortions after 20 weeks" law, which would be progressive for a Republican.

McNeal then concedes that Clarke Tucker more accurately represents his views.

Turns out that the real reason McNeal supports Hurst is because Republicans are "unwilling to compromise with Democrats"--which means, in his view, that we need to elect a Republican.  His theory is that electing Clarke Tucker will lock our district "out of the room" because the Republicans won't work with him.  (McNeal assumes that Republicans are going to be in control.)  Instead, if we're going to have any hope of influencing the Legislature, we need to elect a Republican.  And his choice is Stacy Hurst, because she's willing to stand up to her fellow Republicans.

As the post title indicates, that's one of the dumbest, most self-contradictory things I've ever heard.

Here's the real story:

The last edition of the House of Representatives featured 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and one Green.  Because of the extraordinarily short 3-term limit, the makeup of the House turns over frequently.  Because few organizations poll state house races, we simply don't know what the makeup of the House will be come January.

Let's say the GOP does retain control of the House and Hurst wins.  If they have more than a one-vote margin, who will be the first Republican they ignore?  Stacy Hurst--because the more conservative Republicans are professionals at shutting out those who disagree with them, which will almost certainly include Hurst on any issue that McNeal thinks is important.

Meanwhile, since we know little about how Hurst would vote in the House (aside from her support for the private option, which passed a Republican-led General Assembly to begin with, so Representative Hurst wouldn't be unique), it's entirely possible that as a functional matter Hurst will be a reliable GOP vote on most issues.

Which means that her votes would, in most cases, not reflect anything that is broadly representative of her district.

I have little tolerance for Democrats who whine that we need to elect Republicans because the Republicans are so mean.

If electing Clarke Tucker means he's "out of the room," so be it.  But what happens if we elect Hurst, and the Democrats somehow end up controlling the House?

Well, I suppose it's a fair point that the Democrats would work with Hurst, because Democrats are interested in good ideas no matter where they come from.

I don't agree with McNeal that the "glory days of the Democratic Party of Arkansas are probably over."  True, there aren't any liberals left with the stature of a McMath, a Clinton, a Bumpers, or a (David) Pryor.**  But you can't fight demographics.  There will be a time in the near future when the Republicans find themselves locked out of the majority, even in Arkansas, by their relentless anti-minority programme.  How do we profit as Arkansans by rewarding the Republicans for that agenda at a time when it doesn't quite cost them elections?

** - There were plenty of Democrats in those "glory days" who weren't so progressively glorious, either. **cough** Faubus **cough** As the pre-eminent political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., observed back in 1949, the one-party (Democratic) system in the South was really a "no-party" system--everyone, conservative to liberal, was a Democrat, so the party label meant nothing about actual politics.

The Republicans have spent a lot of energy and money over the last decade or so to purify their party into an arch-conservative theocracy-loving economy-wrecking machine.  It's a terrible thing, but it has happened.  When you put the R by your name, you're signing up for that legacy.  Stacy Hurst doesn't get to throw us a few bones and pretend that legacy doesn't apply to her.

If you're in District 35, and you haven't voted yet, please consider voting for Clarke Tucker.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I'm voting for the Democrats

I've been voting in elections for 21 years now, and in all that time, I can count on one finger the number of Republicans I've voted for--and still have a finger left over.

It's true.  I've never voted for a Republican, and unless something changes drastically, I'm not likely ever to do so.

If you want to dismiss me as a partisan hack, then just stop reading here, and go read something else.  I won't mind.

But those of you who care to know why, keep reading.

It's not that I'm on Team D.  I'm moderately interested in politics, but I've never given a campaign contribution.  I rarely put out yard signs.  I don't go door-to-door canvassing for my candidates.  I haven't phone-banked.  There was a time in my life when I imagined I would do these kinds of things, and more--even maybe running for office one day.  I won't rule it out, but it's not really on my bucket list.

To be honest, I'm less than enthusiastic about most of the candidates this year--on both sides.  Mike Ross is a nice guy, a good guy, but he's far more conservative than I like.  Mark Pryor...what to say about him?  I loved being represented by his father.  Let's just say Mark is no David Pryor. And his commercials have been incredibly uninspiring.  I'm not sure what to make of John Burkhalter, the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor.

For reasons I'll discuss below, I'm voting for them anyway.  But before I explain why, I'd like to relay a bit of insight I gained into what most people seem to feel.  Many times, the comment is that voting is choosing the lesser of two evils (or, variantly, the lesser of two lessers).  In the city where I live, Cammack Village, there is a contested non-partisan race for alderman.  The two candidates are the incumbent, whom I don't really know, and a challenger whose principal motivation in running for alderman is that he owns several rental properties and doesn't like a new ordinance that requires rental properties to undergo extensive inspections.

I know the challenger.  On a personal level, I like him a lot.  Politically, he's a hard-core Republican.  I would never vote for him for high office.  But I don't like the ordinance that was passed any more than he does.  (I'm all for holding landlords to reasonable standards, but this ordinance goes too far, and it seems plain that the primary purpose is to reduce the number of rental properties in this town.)  So our interests are aligned on that issue, and beyond that and the rates the city is able to negotiate for utilities, I really don't care what the city council does.

The problem is that at least until recently, he didn't live here.  He owns several properties here, and he's supposedly occupying one now, but I think it's a stretch to say he lives here.

The incumbent is also a Republican (judging, at least, from the signs in her yard).  She voted for the ordinance, and her campaign literature doesn't give the slightest clue as to what she stands for.  She did put out a letter that engaged in a lot of mudslinging against her challenger, which I could have respected except that she didn't explain anything about what she wanted to do if re-elected.

To me, negative campaigning is often necessary, but negative campaigning without a positive counterpoint is worse than useless.

So I have come to understand why it is that a lot of people just can't stand either candidate, or either party, and can't bring themselves to vote.  I can't make a decision on the known merits of either candidate, and I refuse to vote for someone just because I know him (or don't know her).

I'm going to vote.  In that race, I probably won't make a decision until I'm in the booth.  On the rest of the races, though, I'm decided.

Why for the Democrats?

There are three reasons.

First, the quality of the Republican candidates is poorer than I've seen in a long time.  As the GOP gets pulled to the radical right, the nominations process is only attracting people who care very little about making the government function well and very much about being combative against the things they are against.

Asa! Hutchinson (I think borrowed the apostrophe from Lamar! Alexander for this race) has run for governor four times and lost three times (pending this election).  He's a hyperpartisan Republican who's served in whatever radical role the GOP has thrown at him for twenty years.  And he borrowed his economic plan from Sam Brownback, who's run Kansas so far into the ground economically it might never climb out of the hole it's in.  No thanks.

Tom Cotton wants to be the Senator from Kochland.  He claims to be in favor of making tough choices--but sometimes those choices are tough because they're economically stupid.  What he prescribes will be great for the billionaires and horrible for everybody else.  He strikes me as a sociopath.  No thanks.

French Hill, banker, running for Congress.  My mind about him was made up when he put out an ad talking about how ordinary people don't spend money they don't have, so the government shouldn't either.  It's not true.  Ordinary people spend money they don't have all the time.  They buy houses and cars on credit.  They use credit cards.  If people didn't spend money they don't have, our economy would grind to a halt.  But, even more importantly, French Hill is a banker.  His entire business model is based on people borrowing money because they don't have enough to do what they want to do.  Either he is that dumb, or he thinks we are.  No thanks.

(On the other hand, I'm a big fan of Hill's opponent, Patrick Henry Hays, and will cast my vote for him enthusiastically.)

Leslie Rutledge, running for Attorney General.  Matt Campbell over at Blue Hog Report* has done yeoman's work in exposing her for the fraud she is.  This is a woman who worked as an attorney for DHS, who used her state email account to send and/or forward racist, lewd, and otherwise inappropriate messages, and who committed misconduct gross enough for her DHS bosses to mark her file "DO NOT REHIRE."  (We still don't know what the misconduct was; she refuses to have her personnel file released.)  No thanks.

* - One of my favorite blogs.  Matt is an attorney, he knows how to use the Freedom of Information Act, and he applies his considerable analytical skills to hold his targets' feet to the fire.  I wouldn't want to get crosswise with him as several Republicans have done recently.

Mark Martin, running for re-election as Secretary of State.  He's not the famous NASCAR driver.  He's rarely in the office; he doesn't live in Little Rock (even though he's required to do so by law); he makes few public appearances.  And all of that's fine.  There have been some other issues, like spending $100,000 of state money to hire attorneys in violation of a court order, that are less fine.  But when his opponent set up a section on her webpage where people could check their voter registration status--using a technology that is perfectly legal to use, which linked to the Secretary of State's official website lookup--he sent a State Capitol police officer to her campaign office to hand-deliver a letter demanding that she take the section down.  The purpose was clear:  To use the prerogatives of his office and taxpayer dollars to intimidate his opponent for political purposes.  No thanks.

Stacy Hurst, running for state representative in my district (35).  Engineered, with some allies in the Little Rock School District, a scheme whereby her opponent's four-year-old would be denied admission to the pre-K school her opponent and his wife preferred, while simultaneously attempting to bait them into accepting special consideration for acceptance into a different school (ahead of other applicants). No thanks.

These are genuinely scummy people.  These are, by far, not the only Republicans who meet that definition.  (Jason Rapert is one, but he's not on my ballot.)  Not all Republicans are scummy, of course.  One who's not is John Thurston, who's running for re-election as Commissioner of State Lands.  I've known John for a long time, and he's a good man.  But by being a Republican, he aligns himself with these scummy people, so I'm voting for his opponent, Mark Robertson.

Second, the Republicans can't seem to articulate what it is they're for.  Each of the Republicans is running, in some measure, against Barack Obama.  I'm hardly Obama's biggest fan.  I did vote for him three times (2008 primary, 2008 general, 2012 general) and I don't regret any of those votes.  It's probably politically smart to run against him, given how irrationally unpopular he is in this state.  But gee whiz, he's not on the ballot.

What I don't hear a lot of from the Republicans is what they are for.  Being against Obamacare isn't being for anything.  Other than that, virtually nothing.  Asa!, for example, is vowing to "hit the ground running and never look back."  What does that mean?

Apparently it means he wants to cut income taxes on the wealthiest Arkansans.  We've tried that before on the national level.  It doesn't work.  All it does is hamstring the ability of the state government to function.

I don't view any of the candidates I noted before as seeking to serve the people of Arkansas. What they seem to be interested in doing is gaining the powers and prerogatives of the office, mostly in order to institute radical policies, like abortion restrictions, that have little to do with the quality of life in Arkansas but much to do with imposing their moral views on everyone, regardless of rights or merits.

Third, there is a difference between the parties.  I know there are a lot of people who don't see much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.  Sometimes that's true.  But there's a big difference that might be the most important of all.

There are lots of things I'd like to see the General Assembly take on--ideas that aren't partisan, just good ideas about how to bring good jobs and a better economy to this state.  For example, broadband access in rural Arkansas is non-existent or prohibitively expensive.  I know how having access to broadband has changed the way I work and play.  I'd like to see the state government make a special effort to spend money to improve broadband access statewide.  Eighty years ago, FDR brought us the Rural Electrification Administration, which financed the wiring of rural America, such that mostly reliable electricity is available everywhere people live.  How much better could life be if we could do the same to bring broadband to rural Arkansas?

I have no confidence that a Republican-led state government would ever give that idea any consideration at all--at least, unless they could funnel the money to wealthy people.

For the last thirty years, if not longer, the Republican Party has been animated by the guiding principle that the government is incapable of doing anything right.  When you believe that the government can't do anything right, what is a government that you head going to look like?  Will it ever do anything right?  Of course not. 

The truth is that the government gets a lot of what it does right.  Sometimes the government does things that interfere with what you want to do.  The police officer writes you a ticket for exceeding the speed limit.  The EPA regulates the toxic waste you want to dump rather than disposing of properly.  The IRS requires your business to keep detailed records to make sure that you're paying taxes at the legal rate.  The city building inspector holds you to the fire code.  These are things that we really need the government to do because they affect all of us. 

What I want is a government that will step in to protect the public interest and to protect individual rights, that will use its weight to make life easier here, and that will foster an economic environment that is both fair and free.  I think of it like a baseball game.  On the sandlot, there are no coaches and no umpires, and there are a lot of fights and the winner tends to be whoever's the biggest bully.  I want our experience with government to be more like the World Series, where there are umpires to make sure everybody plays fair and where there are coaches to help us players make decisions about how to play.

Of course, the analogy breaks down, as all analogies eventually do.  But the larger lesson is that the GOP seems dedicated to making certain that the government works as poorly as possible.

If you owned a business, would you hire employees who hope the company fails?

Of course not.

So why would you ever put people in office who think the government is bad and needs to be destroyed?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Much ado about something

Annise Parker is the openly gay mayor of the City of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.  At her urging, earlier this year, Houston's city council enacted a broad anti-discrimination ordinance, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family or marital status, military status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

These last two categories have proven controversial--particularly the "gender identity" category.  The ordinance prohibits discrimination against persons who are anatomically or genetically one sex but who identify with the other sex. For some reason, protecting people who fall into that category engenders (if you'll pardon the pun) a great deal of hatred and histrionics among conservatives.  

The City of Fayetteville recently enacted a similar ordinance.

I suppose that the people who oppose this measure are uncomfortable with being unable, legally, to express their hatred and intolerance of differences by deliberately causing unnecessary pain in those who are different.  In some cases, they clothe this hatred, this desire to treat others inhumanly, in the mantle of "traditional values."  Traditional values, they argue, prohibit us from giving societal approval to gender-bending.  Hate may indeed be a traditional value among that crowd, but traditional does not necessarily mean "good."

In other cases, opposition to this ordinance is driven by what they term a desire to protect innocent citizens from sexual predators.  The argument is that an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against men who dress and live as women requires businesses and organizations to allow men to enter women's bathrooms in order to engage in various types of sexual deviancy, up to and including sexual assault.

The theory is that in order to assault women and children who are using a women's bathroom, men will pretend to be women, dressing as women for the purpose of lurking, undetected, until they can execute the planned assault.

The truth is that this ordinance will make it illegal to bar anatomical men who live as women from using women's facilities.  But to suggest that it will somehow leave us without recourse to prohibit sexual assault, or that sexual predators will be emboldened by this ordinance, is simply foolish.

I've been in probably thousands of public restrooms in my lifetime.  Never once has anyone checked my genitals at the door to determine whether I could enter or not.  Men who want to commit this kind of sexual assault are no freer to do so than they have always been.  A man who makes a practice of gratuitously exposing his genitals in the women's restroom--or worse--could be reported and could, even under this ordinance, be arrested and charged.

Like so many conservative attacks on progressive legislation, this one is also ridiculous.  HERO is the law in Houston, and in time I believe it will properly become the law everywhere.

Several Houston-area megachurches, conservative in theology, have launched a challenge to the ordinance.  Unsatisfied with representative democracy in which their position is no longer dominant, these churches have led the charge to subject HERO to a citywide referendum.  They gathered more than 50,000 signatures on petitions to force a vote, but because of numerous errors in the signature-gathering process, there were only about 17,000 valid signatures, not enough to call for a referendum.  So they have sued the city, seeking to have their invalid signatures counted.

And that's where things get sticky.  As part of that suit, the city issued civil subpoenas to the churches, demanding that the churches turn over sermons and other communications with parishioners regarding HERO, the mayor, the petition drive, and other related topics.  As you might imagine, that act has been met with howls of derision, complaining that Houston is now seeking to make it illegal to preach against homosexuality, and that this is merely the first (or latest) step toward interning conservative Christians in concentration camps.

These complaints, as far as they go, are rooted in ignorance.  Houston is not seeking to outlaw speech against homosexuality.  It claims it is not even interested in assessing whether these churches violated their obligation not to engage in political activities based upon their tax exemption.  Rather, Houston is attempting to determine whether the churches gave instructions to their parishioners regarding how to fill out a petition, in order to show that the advocates were aware of the requirements for petitions but deliberately disregarded them.  That might be relevant to the lawsuit, depending upon what arguments the advocates make in support of their lawsuit.

But probably not.  It was a bad idea to issue these subpoenas.  Communications between a religious leader and his or her congregants are essential to the exercise of religious freedom.  Creating a situation where religious leaders believe their statements can be subpoenaed by the government and used against them in a proceeding creates a chilling effect on those statements.  The government has no business inquiring into the content of those statements.  I can see only two reasonable exceptions to that policy--one being the situation in which a religious leader incites followers to violence, the other being political activities that violate the requirements for tax-exempt status.  Even the second makes me uncomfortable; instead, I would prefer that we simply repeal the tax exemption.

Less importantly but with more impact, the city miscalculated, or forgot about, the extreme sensitivity of many Christians to any real or imagined attack on their privileges.  For that reason, it was a bad political maneuver.  Nothing motivates many Christians into a tantrum more quickly than suggesting that they aren't above being questioned.

Somehow I doubt that many of the people who are so outraged by the subpoenas because of the loss of rights those subpoenas represent would be equally outraged if the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were taken away by a majority vote. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Journamalism: School Lunch Edition

I hardly spend my time clanging around right-wing websites, mostly because I can feel myself losing IQ points when I do.  But sometimes a story just grabs the imagination, and I have to follow it where it goes.

My journalism experience is limited to high school sports reporting, which I undertook mainly to get in free to all the high school sporting events.  But I believe I may be a better journalist than the fashion plates at Fox News, because it took me almost no time to get to the bottom of this story with some original reporting.

The right wing outrage machine is perpetually turned up to 11, but lately one of the prime targets has been the new school lunch nutrition standards, for which Michelle Obama has been the most vocal advocate.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country (as is adult obesity).  Now, I'm not the poster child for healthy weight.  I have more room than just about anyone for improvement.  But I support what Michelle Obama is advocating for (and what the USDA, which is responsible for setting standards for school lunches, is requiring).

Earlier this week, a photograph began circulating.  The photo, which appears at the right, purportedly shows the school lunch offered on Monday, October 13, 2014, in the Chickasha, Oklahoma Public Schools.  Chickasha student Kaytlin Shelton took the photo; she and her parents are complaining about the low quality and minimal caloric value offered.  Miss Shelton, 17, is particularly miffed because she is pregnant and therefore "eating for two."

Now, I don't find that lunch to be particularly appetizing, and I question whether the person who designs the district's menus has a firm understanding of what school lunches ought to look like, if that is considered an appropriate lunch.

So it's not surprising that the outrage machine is whirring at close to maximum capacity.  Here are a couple of the links carrying this story:

Fox & Friends

EAGNews (Educational Action Group)

Several local news outlets also covered the story.

The photograph, it turns out, is pretty misleading. 

The school lunch guidelines, which came into force in 2012, require schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to provide lunches to high school students that are, on average, between 750-850 calories.  That amount is consistent with government recommendations for daily food intake.  School breakfasts, which are also regulated, are supposed to provide 450-600 calories to high school students.  So that's 1200-1450 calories provided in two meals at school, and for the standard 2000-2200 calorie recommended diet, that leaves 550-1000 calories for snacks and dinner.

The regulations also specify balanced food selections, promoting vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, and so forth.

The picture shows about four slices of ham, a couple of slices of American cheese, four wheat crackers, two pieces of cauliflower, and about a tablespoon of ranch dressing.

Four slices of ham contain about 90 calories.  Two slices of American cheese have about 140 calories. Four wheat crackers have about 90 calories.  That amount of cauliflower has about 5 calories. A tablespoon of ranch dressing has about 75 calories. 

Adding it up brings us to 400 calories.

So, when EAGNews, or Fox, or whoever, tells you that this lunch meets "Michelle Obama's" guidelines, they are lying.  That amount of food is about half of what is required to meet the guidelines.  It's not even enough to meet the minimum requirement for breakfast.

But it turns out that there's more to the story.  I went to the Chickasha Public Schools website to see if they publish the lunch menu--and they do.  With a little digging, I found the actual lunch menu [PDF] Chickasha published for last Monday.  Here is what it says:

Ham&Cheese Munchables
Wheat Crackers
Ranch Dressing
Baked Beans
Pears, Red
Milk, 1%White, LF
Milk, Chocolate FF

It didn't take much to get this information--certainly nothing a journalist wouldn't be expected to do.  And it's easy to see how the additional items would get the lunch up to the required minimum number of calories--a normal serving of baked beans is about 200 calories; pears are about 100; and a cup of 1% milk adds 100.  Those additional items would also turn what looks like a very bland lunch into something reasonably tasty.

Incredibly, the Oklahoma official responsible for school lunches defended the lunch in the photo rather than pointing out the facts that took me only a few minutes to uncover: 
"We have a meat-meat alternate, we have a bread grain, we have vegetable," said Asst. State Superintendent for Child Nutrition Joanie Hildenbrand, looking at the photo she received from Fox 25, "it's the student's choice of what they want to take."

Unfortunately, this kind of "reporting," which is focused on making a political statement rather than informing the discussion about nutrition, is a standard tactic from right-wing "news" sources.

The tactic is this:  Put up something that looks true but is misleading and therefore false, then blame some government official for it.

And those on the right who can't seem to get the hang of critical thinking--they just lap it up, because it fuels their hatred.  For people like me, who tend toward the left, it is utterly unbelievable how these people accept what they're told, uncritically, without doing even the barest bit of checking.  I have to conclude that these people don't have any real criticisms of the Obamas, because every last one of their complaints is based on falsehoods.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Worse than useless

Up to this point I have been vocal in my support for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its handling of the Ebola outbreak in Dallas.

And I'm still a supporter.  No other agency or entity, public or private, has the resources and expertise necessary to contain and eliminate this outbreak.

But I'm disturbed by this morning's development.  It was reported yesterday that a second Dallas nurse who cared for the original Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, has now tested positive for Ebola infection.  That's unfortunate, of course, and it increases the urgency of the review of and training in Ebola protocols.  There are but two real possibilities:  the protocols weren't followed, or the protocols are defective in some material respect.

To infect a person, the virus must enter the person's body.  Entrance can be gained through the various orifices of the body or through the mucous membranes. A person properly encased in a PPE suit is protected from the virus during that time.  The problem occurs when it becomes necessary for the person to leave the suit.  "De-gowning" is a difficult task when the outside of the PPE suit contains Ebola.  While health care workers need to be careful about putting on the PPE correctly and avoiding tearing or punctures while being around the patient, de-gowning presents a problem.

Think about it:  How would you take off your clothes without touching the outside of them with any part of your body? 

There are ways to do it, but they are difficult to learn and follow with 100% accuracy.

I am confident that the CDC will be able to solve the protocol problem.

But this morning brought a disturbing report about that second Ebola nurse.  Apparently she found herself in Cleveland for personal reasons, knowing that it was possible that she had been exposed (if not probable, given that one of her coworkers had contracted the disease), and running a low-grade fever, 99.5°.  She called the CDC for guidance, and she was told that because she hadn't reached the known threshold for being contagious--100.4°--she technically did not meet the guidelines for quarantine, and she was OK'd to fly.

It may well be that this woman wasn't contagious, that she posed no risk to her fellow passengers.  But the CDC's decision--which, granted, probably wasn't made by higher-ups in the agency--is tone-deaf to a remarkable degree.  Given that it's difficult to transmit the virus to begin with, at least if you are well enough to walk onto an airplane and have only a low-grade fever, the chances are excellent that no one will become infected.  But the CDC ought to know that outbreak management is not a game in which the adversary knows or follows the rules.  Even if the science says the disease is transmissible at 100.4° but not 100.3°, you don't run up to the margin like that.  The CDC official who told this nurse it was OK to fly was taking an unnecessary risk.  Any fever in a person who has likely been exposed should be treated as though the disease is active.

Failing to follow protocols is useless.

But elevating the protocols over common sense is worse than useless.

However, it's still not time to panic.  It's also not time to create a new layer of federal bureaucracy over the CDC.  What they have in place might not be perfect, but it can be made perfect with more common sense and direction.

What we could use, though, is a Surgeon General.  Obama has nominated one, but the GOP is stonewalling the nomination as a favor to the National Rifle Association because of some semi-controversial remarks the prospective SG made about gun regulation.

We could also stand to end the sequester as it applies to the CDC and the NIH.  These entities, which provide essential services that the private secton can't or won't.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tommy Lewis

Tommy Lewis is dead.  Most people would be hard-pressed to identify the name; only the most die-hard of college football fans and trivia buff would recognize him as the central figure in one of the most famous, and infamous, plays in college football history.

The year was 1954.  The Alabama Crimson Tide met the Rice Owls in the Cotton Bowl.  Rice had finished the 1953 season 8-2, its only Southwest Conference loss to SMU, and had finished in a tie with Texas for the conference championship.  Because Texas had appeared in the Cotton Bowl more recently, Rice received the SWC champion's bid to play in the New Year's Day game.

Alabama, the 1953 SEC champion with a 4-0-3 (yes, three ties!) conference record (6-2-3 overall), was still four years away from the start of Paul "Bear" Bryant's tenure there.  But it had clawed its way to the top of the SEC, so it was invited to play in Dallas on New Year's Day 1954.

Tommy Lewis was Alabama's fullback, and by no means the team's star.  (That honor went, literally and figuratively, to Bart Starr, who would later become an NFL Hall of Famer and 5-time NFL champion as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.)  Rice, then something of a football power, was led by running back Richard "Dicky" Moegle, who was always sure to remind people to pronounce his last name "MAY-gull"--so sure, in fact, that later in life he changed the spelling to Maegle to make it easier to remember how to pronounce.

Back in the 1950s, the players played both offense and defense, owing to a rule that if the player left the field in favor of a substitute, the player could not return to the game until the next quarter.  (Later that decade, the "free substitution" rule would fundamentally change the game of football, leading to greater specialization of offensive and defensive players and situational substitutions.)  That rule would lead to the first big play of the 1954 Cotton Bowl--Starr's interception of a Rice pass.  In the ensuing possession, Alabama drew first blood when Lewis punched it into the end zone from the two yard line to make it 6-0.  (The extra point attempt was blocked.)

On the first play of the second quarter, Moegle broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then raced 79 yards for a touchdown to put Rice up 7-6.  Later in the quarter, Lewis was replaced on the field to give him a breather.  After the teams traded punts, with a few minutes left in the half, Rice was pinned on its own 5-yard line.  Then Moegle struck again.  Taking the handoff on a sweep, he broke down the sideline for a long run--and only one Crimson Tide player could catch him.  That player, unfortunately, was Lewis, who ran off the bench, without a helmet, and flattened Moegle at the Alabama 42-yard line.

The officials ruled that Moegle would have scored but for Lewis's interference and awarded Rice the touchdown.  The play became one of the most famous in football history.

For his part, Lewis was distraught at what he had done.  "I kept telling myself I didn't do it, I didn't do it," Lewis said in a post-game interview.  "But I knew I did."  At halftime, Lewis ran up to Moegle, put his arm around him, and apologized, then offered an apology to Rice's head coach, Jess Neely.  After the game, Lewis famously said, "I guess I'm just too full of Alabama," in explaining what he had done.  Lewis would repeat the line on the Ed Sullivan Show two nights later, when he and Moegle appeared together.

Rice went on to win the game, 28-6, with Moegle adding another touchdown in the third quarter.  Moegle would be named an All-American after the next season, then enjoyed a seven-year NFL career, mostly with the 49ers, but short stints with the Steelers and Cowboys.  He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

After college, Lewis played professionally in Canada before returning to Alabama, where he coached football for a time, then became an insurance agent in Huntsville.  He was married for 62 years and died yesterday at 83.

In an interview in the Houston Chronicle on Lewis's death, Moegle said that the two had become friends in later years.  "He was a good guy who got caught up in the moment and the excitement," Moegle, now 80, said.  "He was very remorseful, and I thought he was sincere. I liked him."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

We don't. Really.

In the last week or so, some genuinely ridiculous stuff has been popping up on my Facebook feed, all centered on a particular theme.  First it was the ridiculous assertion that atheists were outraged with Carrie Underwood, the country/pop singer and former American Idol, who late last month released a song called "Something in the Water."  An excerpt of the lyrics:

Then somebody said what I'm saying to you
Opened my eyes and told me the truth."
They said, "Just a little faith, it'll all get better."
So I followed that preacher man down to the river and now I'm changed
And now I'm stronger

There must've been something in the water
 As Christian-themed pop songs go, that one is pretty innocuous.  It's hard to imagine anyone being "outraged" by those lyrics.  I mean, it's not like she was forcing public schoolchildren to sing them during an assembly.  I have to conclude that this meme is an attempt by an overzealous publicist to tap into the Christian persecution complex in order to sell records.

By the way, this song is from the same singer who gave us "Jesus, Take the Wheel."

Then, today, the following image popped up on my feed several times:

Um, what?

As far as I can tell, this image is actually a couple of months old at least, but it's in the same vein as the so-called "outrage" that atheists supposedly feel toward Carrie Underwood.

Obviously there's been a bit of a miscommunication here, so let's clear that up.

As a rule, none of us atheists are outraged at Carrie Underwood.  We really couldn't care less.  I suppose it's possible that some atheist somewhere is outraged at her, but that person has not made his or her existence known to the Internet.

And we really, truly do not care if anyone prays to God or god or anything else.

If it bothers you that we don't care, I sincerely apologize for disturbing your worldview.

To be honest, this seems like some kind of reverse psychology trick.  As a Constitutionalist and a civil libertarian, I strongly support the right of individuals to make their own choices about religious matters and to practice their religion largely as they see fit.  Where things break down is when folks try to use the heavy hand of government to coerce people into a particular religious belief, or to isolate and ostracize nonbelievers, or to treat religious dogma as science.  And, as long as we are being honest, the folks who are trying to do that are pretty much all Christians.

If you want to pray before a city council meeting or a public school test, or if you want to try to convince people on your own time that the earth is about 6,000 years old, then, by all means, go ahead.  The problem isn't with the prayer.  It's with giving the prayer special status by including it in the official proceedings.

I suspect, of course, that such prayers aren't really about the prayer at all.  They're really about using the government to give Christians special status and to coerce people into participating in a religious activity that they would not independently, voluntarily engage in.

And these Internet memes aren't about any real complaint from atheists to anyone.  They're about continuing to ostracize atheists by accusing them of attempting to persecute Christians.  That idea activates a powerful response in the Christian psyche.  Even though Christianity is by far the dominant religion in this country, comprising wide majorities of the population as believers, and even though Christians are freer here to worship as they see fit than in any other country in the world, there is a growing sentiment among many American Christians (certainly not all) that they constitute a highly disadvantaged and oppressed minority, mostly in response to efforts by non-Christians to exclude religious activities from official proceedings.*

* - I've modified this paragraph from the original.  My good friend Jon, who is a Christian seminarian, and with whom I have had many thought-provoking conversations on this subject, pointed out that the previous version painted all American Christians with a broad brush in attributing that attitude to them.  Generalization is almost always unfair, but it was particularly unfair in this instance because it may not even be the majority position of American Christians.  It was also sloppy, because it wasn't even what I was trying to say.

Now, that is something I am outraged about.  Keeping you from using the authority of the government to proselytize others to your faith is not persecution.

And to the creator of the Carrie Underwood meme and the photo I reproduced above, I must ask:  Why does it bother you so much that I don't believe what you do?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I have written a few times about how much I enjoy watching CBS This Morning, with Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell, and Gayle King.  Compared to the other morning news shows, which universally comprise fluff of the lowest order, CBS has managed to put together a genuinely useful morning news program.

But that does not mean that they get it right all the time.  Periodically over the last few months, they've had their medical correspondent, Dr. Jonathan LaPook, on to discuss the unfolding Ebola crisis.  LaPook has been on the last few mornings in a row because of the man in Dallas who brought an Ebola infection here.  He's has been doing his best to tamp down the rhetoric on Ebola.  This morning, as well he should have, he got onto Rose for asking him to give the "worst-case scenario" about Ebola.

These are the facts:  Ebola poses zero risk to nearly every American.  In order to become infected by the Ebola virus, and thus to contract Ebola hemorrhagic fever, it is necessary to engage in the intimate exchange of bodily fluids with a person who is both infected and symptomatic.  Ebola is not spread through casual contact.  It is not spread through the air.

We know these things to be true, because we have almost 40 years of experience, almost all of it in Africa, of dealing with this virus. 

The Ebola outbreak in west Africa is a genuine crisis that has overwhelmed the third-world medical facilities available there.  This outbreak is likely to be the worst in history, for reasons that we don't fully understand, but most likely for multiple reasons that come together to produce ideal conditions for this outbreak to occur.

This is not west Africa.  I have my criticisms of the American medical establishment, but the truth is that even the most downtrodden of American hospitals is better than virtually all medical facilities in west Africa.  American hospitals may lack the latest equipment and fully trained personnel, and a (fortunately shrinking; thanks, Obama!) percentage of Americans lack health insurance and thus inexpensive access to care, but every facility in America has the ability to maintain basic hygienic conditions; if they cannot, they will be shut down by the government or inundated with a flood of lawsuits, or both.

The reason why the Ebola patient in Dallas has garnered so much attention is not because he came to the U.S. with Ebola--that's virtually impossible to stop with 100% effectiveness--but because the hospital he initially visited broke the protocols set up to identify and quickly quarantine possible Ebola victims.  That was a human error, as happens, but it is one that is likely to have minimal extended consequences beyond serving as a reminder to health care workers to follow the protocols.

We have the facilities to contain, treat, and minimize the spread of Ebola.  It is simply not the grave threat that some people are making it out to be.

That has not stopped the breathless, ignorant, and alarmist reporting among the news media and opportunistic right-wing politicians who see value in ginning up a panic right before the election.

Over the last few days, I've been considering why we are so susceptible to this.  I have come to the conclusion that the problem is attributable to two related factors.  First, there is in this country a general lack of understanding of science.  Over the last few decades, science education has lagged behind for a number of reasons, but mostly because understanding science and scientific processes requires higher-order critical thinking skills at a time when our educational focus has been measuring rote performance through testing.

The second factor is that the progress of science over the last few decades in particular has been perceived to have a liberal bias. Our understanding of biology, the origins of human life, chemistry, environmental science, the origins of the universe, and numerous other areas of scientific inquiry has grown so much during that time that the effect has not been very good for the conservative worldview.  Conservatives, particularly those who are especially religious, regard the progress of modern science with a wary eye.  The response of some conservatives has been to fabricate an alternate reality, fixed around Biblical scholarship and understanding.  That approach is logically fallacious and scientifically suspect, yet these people are utterly convinced that their approach is right and that those who oppose them--namely, everyone in the world of science--are motivated by hatred or the supernatural control of an evil being.  They appeal not to critical thinking or to evidence but to the egalitarian concept that we should give equal treatment to "both sides," no matter how ridiculous or unsupported one of the sides may be.

So, though the scientific consensus is that human activities are causing large-scale climatological change that is very likely to cause sea levels to rise and drastic changes to climate patterns, these people demand equal treatment for the idea that these things are not occurring, or that if they are, they are caused by extrinsic factors outside human control.  In reality, their position boils down to one or more of three simple facts:  They believe that the changes that science is demanding will cause some people to lose out and have to change what they do for a living, or they believe that their God would not allow the earth to be damaged by human activities (or, relatedly, they believe that the end of the world is nigh), or they believe that the people who research climate change have a political perspective that must be opposed regardless of the merits of what they are saying.

On that last point...the surest way to get a conservative to like something is to tell him that liberals hate it.

I don't have a problem with questioning the conclusions that scientists draw.  The questioning process is a part of science, and it is how we make progress--by challenging old ideas, even those that seem to have scientific merit.

But I must insist that the questioning be informed and open-minded.  As a rule, the climate-change deniers aren't interested in finding out whether human activities are at the root of climate change; they're not interested in gathering evidence and drawing conclusions from it; they are interested in undermining any evidence that contradicts their position. 

And climate change is far from the only issue where this has occurred.  Look at the vaccination rates for measles in some areas of the U.S.--rates that are below those of some third-world countries--simply because of an utterly debunked, highly irrational fear that vaccines cause certain diseases, like autism.  Look at those clamoring for public schools to teach a religion-centered version of the origin of the universe and of human life on earth--so-called "Creation Science," which is not science and has no place in a science classroom.

The result of all of this has become rather tragic.  The Centers for Disease Control, the finest biological research organization in the history of mankind, is regarded by a significant, ill-informed portion of our population as suspect, as the root of some conspiracy that is designed to endanger Americans.  That view fails even the most basic of sniff tests.  The scientists at the CDC care about one thing:  understanding the ways in which risks to human health begin and propagate so that those risks can be mitigated and eliminated.

When we allow science to be undermined by politics and religion on the basis of "equal treatment," we only hurt ourselves.  Not all ideas have equal value.  Not all positions have equal support.  When we pretend otherwise, that makes it possible for the ridiculous--like the idea that Americans, generally, are in danger from Ebola--to infect our thinking and create the kind of fears that lead to horrible, damaging decisions.