Saturday, March 13, 2004

“The Workhorse of Mammal Penis Research, the Armadillo”

In the oldest literary works, the first word or words of the body of the text served as the title as well. Thus Bereshit, “In the beginning,” is the Hebrew name for Genesis and the title of the Babylonian creation epic, Enumah Elish, is simply “When what is above was not yet called the sky…” Early Greek works were often called “About x”—according to Diogenes Laertes, the Pre-Socratic philosophers normally titled their main works About Nature (Peri Phusis); but most ancient works were given their names by anonymous editors long after they were compiled. More complicated and intriguing titles, presumably contrived by individual authors, came later. Plutarch’s titles are rather more fun than the essays they name: How a Young Man Should Listen to Poems, On the Malice of Herodotus, Whether and Elderly Man Should Engage in Politics. Rabelais recognized that titles didn’t even need a text. Chapter 7 of the First Book of First Book of Pantagruel is mostly a list of books from the Library of Saint Victor, including the useful Ars honeste petandi in sociatate (The Proper Method of Farting in Public) and the indispensable Advanced Ass Kissing for Graduate Students as well as the How to Eat Goats with Artichokes, Even When the Church Forbids It and the classic Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimera in vacuo bombinastans possit comedere secundus intentione, et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in concilio Constantiensis (The Infinitely Suble Question of Whether the Chimera, Bombinasting in the Void, Can be Nourished on Second Intentions—Debated for ten weeks at the Council of Constance). I suppose the collection would now include several recent plays such as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, The Death and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Clarendon Under the Direction of the Marquise de Sade, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Constipated by Tom Stoppered. But titles don’t have to be jokes to be memorable. Consider the grave Victorian music of Darwin’s titles: The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects or The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms or, indeed, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.

I love titles almost as much as footnotes. It’s only the body of the books that puts me off; for I subscribe to the theory, universally held by bookworms like me, that the sole function of the text is to keep the table of contents from running into the bibliography. In this spirit, I make it a practice to use apparently arbitrary titles to conceal the secret and profound meaning of my own little essays by way of a make work project for graduate students in the alternative universe where my texts will be expanded upon as interminably as the works of Moses or Freud or Marx are in these parts.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Stunned Ox Pills

Since things conspire to make you more and more of a fool all the time, it makes sense to stupefy yourself even more than necessary just to regain helm control. Or, to put things more prosaically, which is, after all, kinda the point, it sometimes helps to squint at the world and attend only to the looming outlines of things instead of the details. Anyhow, displays of professional subtlety are irrelevant when you aren’t up for tenure. Instead of attempting to get it just right, how about replacing the exquisitely specific question with a coarser, more easily answered question? In political discussions, for example, it often helps to look not at legalistic particulars but at the envelope of the debate, the strategies served by the tactics. Outside of a courtroom, where atomic facts are rightly dispositive, it doesn’t matter very much what you decide about this, that, or the other nicety of international diplomacy. What you must understand, to understand anything at all, are irrefutable general facts such as the implacable hostility of American foreign policy to popular government in the Western hemisphere. We will work to overthrow any regime whatsoever that reflects the interests and desires of the mass of the population. A government doesn’t have to be a Marxist to be marked for destruction. As the current Haitian instance demonstrates, winning a legitimate election is enough. The record is quite clear: though the vicissitudes of Real Politik might oblige us to tolerate a Caribbean democracy now and then, the Monroe Doctrine is very much about propping up oligarchs. Let’s not be too clever about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Particulars

I find it remarkable that really fundamental new facts about how living things work turn up all the time. The 5 March issue of SCIENCE, for example, features the discovery of a previously unknown way that an important class of white blood cells, the neutrophils, attack and disable bacteria. As any textbook will inform you, these cells engulf and destroy bacteria by phagocytosis; but it turns out they also know another trick. They can release DNA and various proteins that form a tangle of fibers, neutrophil extracellular traps or NETs, that immobilize and neutralize bacteria outside the cell. The cover of the 5 March issue is a scanning electron microscope image of Staphylococcus aureus caught in such a web. The bacteria look like oranges stuck in macramé. Apparently, the NET mechanism is a routine feature of innate immunity, activated in every pimple in Christendom. You have to wonder why it was so hard to identify the process and what else is going on all over the place that we haven’t discovered yet. And these things aren’t the details. They’re the particulars.
What Counts as Vanilla?

Public health professionals have long complained that they lack reliable information about human sexual behavior. No entomologist would publish a paper on the maculated okra beetle without knowing more about its natural history than anybody knows about the doings of our own kind. Who does what to whom and how often is highly relevant to policy issues ranging from population control to the spread of HIV, but any attempt to find out automatically raises a hell of a fight and not out of concern about privacy or personal rights. The presumption is that the professors are obsessed with sex and already know too much when, in fact, our ignorance is quite comprehensive. But sex isn’t the area in which endless discussion goes along with a lack of baseline information. For example:

We supposedly live in an era of rampant scientism. This presumption allows devotees of various alternative points of view to represent themselves as daring rebels. I have to wonder whether they are really entitled to romanticize themselves in this fashion, however, since nearly everybody I meet is into astrology or Chinese herbal medicine or homeopathy or intelligent design or morphic resonance or spiritualized quantum mechanics or telekinesis or tarot or ESP or, in one memorable recent instance, traditional alchemy. Amid these dense flocks, it’s the stray positivist who appears as the lone eagle; and that’s in the context of the kind of people I meet, hardly a random sample. To judge by the membership and financial clout of various literalist religious groups, the population as a whole is even more haunted—literally. Many even claim that the dead rise. Survey sampling provides some information on what people actually believe, but the method is a very blunt instrument. Granted that people only seldom think the way they are supposed to as members of a high-tech, postmodern civilization, it would be useful to understand the real worldview of the tribe.

I once read a case study of a supposedly schizophrenic girl who reported that she could read minds and was hospitalized, in part because of this delusion. The shrink who studied her case took the trouble to interview her family and discovered that they one and all believed she could indeed read their minds. Like an unlucky medieval peasant, the girl made the mistake of maintaining a folk belief too obstinately before the wrong tribunal.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

An Enthymeme

In the heyday of the old Soviet regime, Gosplan was the agency that managed the entire economy. Since Gosplan couldn’t evaluate the performance of a firm by looking at its balance sheet—Communism wasn’t about profits—it measured physical output instead. The results were predictable. The manager of the glassworks made very, very thin glass indeed because he was rewarded for putting out the most square meters of windowpane. The same mechanism guaranteed that steel beams would be immensely heavy in order to increase the total number of tons produced by a plant. Unfortunately, similar idiocies can and do occur in capitalist economies. An example:

American drug companies spend an enormous amount of money developing new drugs in order to increase their profits. Because their priorities are set by the market and the market reflects the buying power of people with money, this way of organizing things ensures that baldness will be a more attractive target for research dollars than, say, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Even ignoring this obvious fact, however, and focusing on the response to any given disease, the current system automatically misallocates research money because a huge proportion of research is conducted to match existing and effective drugs with related equivalents that aren’t covered by the same patent. Of course, the variants may be somewhat better than the originals or at least have more amusing side effects; but most of the time they are only sought as a way of making money to make money. The President of Pfizer is gaming the system no less than the commissars who ran the steel mills of Magnitogorsk. Because we’re a much wealthier nation than the USSR ever was, we’ve been able to tolerate this and many other built in inefficiencies with less obvious strain. That may be changing. After all, the Soviets were also able to compete globally for many decades with an economy distorted by ideology; eventually they paid the price.
Ex Parte

When criminal sentences are rigidly mandated by law, the branch that gains in power is not the legislature that makes the law but the executive that enforces it, especially when, as is so often the case, universal application of the law is impossible. Authoritarians love drug, obscenity, and vice laws, even though they are as likely as anybody else to violate them personally. The always highly arbitrary enforcement of such statutes gives them a useful weapon to destroy or silence their political rivals and keep the niggers down, and mandatory penalties ensure that no judge can temper injustice with equity. Since anybody conversant with political history knows how this game is played, it isn't decent to legislate as if such abuses were an accidental consequence of otherwise harmless demagogy. I don't know if we ought to legislate morality at all, but I'm sure we ought to legislate morally.

Monday, March 08, 2004

A Genuine Question

It has become something of a commonplace to claim that a leftist variety of anti-Semitism is on the rise, especially in Europe; but what I mostly encounter is hostility to Likud-style Zionism. Now some versions of this critical attitude may or may not be warranted or even licit, but I don’t think I’ve heard any leftist attacks on Jews per se, though I’d hardly be surprised if there were some. What seems more likely is that the neocons are engaging in an extension of an old rhetorical move. Just as McCarthy and his cohorts lumped New Deal democrats in with authentic communists and the contemporary right has more recently floated the merely stupid notion of a Marxist Hilary Clinton, people like Victor Davis Hanson speak as if an attack on a particular nationalistic ideology amounted to an assault on a whole race or religion, despite the fact that many of the loudest critics of Israel’s policies are not only Jews but Israelis (Ze’ev Sternhell) or even Zionists (Noam Chomsky). If there is a groundswell of genuine anti-Semitism—and maybe there is—I wish somebody would identify the perpetrators and lay off with the facile name-calling.
The Monkeys Tell No Tales in Zamboanga

A few hours after writing a note about our dubious activities in Guantanamo, I ran across this report on the BBC about American human rights violations at concentration camps in Afghanistan. Obviously I have no independent way of assessing whether the report over or understates the seriousness of the situation. But that’s a big part of the problem. Our toothless and corrupt media certainly can’t be counted on to inform the public. In this, as in every other real issue the Press maintains its normal position: finger in the wind, thumb up the ass. Meanwhile, even decently conducted wars are vile affairs; and a war conducted in secret by a violent and duplicitous administration is likely to be far worse than that.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Osama Has Already Won

While people argue endlessly as to how much damage Ashcroft’s antiterrorism campaign has inflicted on American civil liberties, a potentially more important consequence of our overreaction is largely undiscussed, at least outside of the science journals. Since 9/11 and in large part because of new immigration and visa policies, the United States has become a less attractive place for foreigners to go to school. The bright young engineers and scientists who used to travel here to grad school are more like to stay home or train in other countries rather than run the gauntlet of paranoid bureaucrats. [Reference] Since our economy has been dependent on draining talent from the rest of the world for a very long time, this change does not augur well for our continued prosperity, especially since it reinforces other developments that are gradually making the United States a less attractive destination.

Very few people pointed out at the time that Spain was hurting itself by expelling the Jews or dared to inform Louis XIV that the Huguenots made France rich. It’s about time somebody told somebody who matter in these parts that discouraging productive people from moving to the country is a very similar stupidity. At least the Catholic Kings were motivated by religious scruple and righteous bigotry. The explanation of our behavior—you can hardly call it a reason—is even less attractive. We just plain got scared all out of proportion to the realistic threat.
Martha and the Separation of Powers

I have no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Martha Stewart, although I expect my Republican nephew is right that her support of Democratic candidates had something to do with the way in which the whole affair was conducted. Whatever the motives of the prosecutors, however, the case underlines how much power we’ve given these creatures of the executive at the same time that mandatory sentencing guidelines have turned trial judges into powerless clerks. Ever since Congress discovered that legislating draconic and automatic punishments could win them easy points with a vindictive or fearful public, judges have not have the ability to moderate excessive prosecutions with lenient sentences. All of the discretion vests with the prosecutors, who are responsible to no one. Ironically, this gradual change in our judicial system brings us in line with the traditional practices of Imperial China where it was felt that an independent judiciary would thwart the sacred will of the son of heaven and mandatory minimums were the universal rule.