Peculiar institutions by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2009, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Human Rights and Torture, Religion, United States

Hilzoy asks: “[W]hat sort of person would not only forswear gay marriage for him- or herself, but actively work to deny this kind of happiness to those who do not share his or her religious views?”

I dunno. But as of about 15 years ago, if you’d asked me, I’d probably have said I preferred civil unions with full rights for homosexual couples, rather than “marriage”. I felt this way for conservative aesthetic reasons that are similar to the reasons why people disliked “New Coke”, or why they feel sad when the college they attended renovates an old building they remember fondly. And I think the opposition of cultural conservatives to gay marriage is really rooted in the same kind of conservative and nostalgic aesthetic attachments.

Once the issue became a live one around a decade ago, I realized that the fact that millions of Americans profoundly wanted to be able to marry the people they loved trumped whatever piddling aesthetic or linguistic concerns I might have. And the aesthetic excitement of the new, equal-opportunity vision of marriage overwhelms any sense of aesthetic loss. (I miss the Washington Capitals’ old uniforms too, but let’s face it, the new ones are much better.) What has flummoxed conservatives like Rod Dreher is that they persist in trying to articulate a moral case for their opposition, when there’s simply no moral case to be made; their opposition is really rooted in emotional and aesthetic responses.

But I don’t think those emotional and aesthetic responses should be ridiculed, as liberals like myself tend to do. Many people who support gay marriage like to make fun of opponents’ claims that allowing gays to marry somehow alters or diminishes the marriages of heterosexuals. “How does Portia de Rossi’s marriage to Ellen DeGeneres affect the marriage of Richard Land and his wife in any way?” Such dismissals are deliberately obtuse. In an aesthetic sense, it does make a difference when the set of members of an institution you belong to undergoes a dramatic expansion, and it’s understandable that people’s conservative defense mechanisms are triggered by such a shift.

I’ve spent some time trying to think of an aesthetic conviction I hold that’s analogous to the way religious conservatives feel about gay marriage. The best I’ve come up with is my revulsion towards choirs and organs in synagogues. I feel strongly that choirs and organs have no place in the Jewish faith. And my revulsion is not limited to the synagogues I attend; I am offended by the idea that any Jews anywhere are worshipping in synagogues with choirs and organs. Synagogues should be places where simple melodies are approximately rendered by a few dozen stoop-shouldered men and shawled women in off-key baritones and wavering sopranos. At those few moments in the service of real musical intensity, such as the “Khashivenu l’adonai” in the Ashkenazi rites, the power and resonance should be achieved by the swelling participation of the diffident ignoramuses in the congregation, as those of us who had stood there nodding and mumbling finally join in a prayer we know.

I am exaggerating here for effect, but in all sincerity, when I’m exposed to Jewish congregations that borrow the musical trappings of generic American Protestant Christianity, my reaction isn’t just get me out of here but something closer to this must be stopped! But I recognize that this is a purely aesthetic concern that has no moral grounding. I also recognize that I am wildly unqualified to make any such purist complaint; as someone who married a non-Jewish woman, I’m happily engaging in a violation that any observant Jew would consider infinitely more serious than working out a three-part harmony for the sh’ma.  And I recognize that it would be ludicrous to try and impose my aesthetic preferences on others who disagree. People who oppose gay marriage need to recognize that they consider gay marriage an abomination in the same sense that Van Halen fans considered the Sammy Hagar years an abomination. They’re allowed to hold that aesthetic position. But there is simply no moral ground for them to try and impose their aesthetic position on anyone else. Gay people who want to get married, in contrast, have an extremely strong moral claim for the right to do so.

Every man a John DeLorean by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2009, 12:50 am
Filed under: Marxism, Transportation

I think the answer to Matthew Yglesias’s question of where the relentless increase in government-subsidized auto industry overcapacity will end might lie in C. Wright Mills’s vision of the ultimate non-alienated society where everyone builds his own car.

The quest for diversity will long outlive affirmative action. by mattsteinglass
May 30, 2009, 1:11 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Law, United States

I agree with Megan McArdle that conservatives are making a huge mistake by focusing their attack on Sotomayor around the idea that she’s not really smart and must have benefited from preferences for minorities. As Megan says, everyone gets networking advantages based on race, ethnicity, religion, and so on: white people benefit from white networks, Jews benefit from Jewish networks, blacks benefit from black networks. Fundamentalist Christians were massively over-represented in new hires by the Justice Department during the Bush Administration. And the reverse: everyone gets discriminated against, in other contexts.

But beyond issues of cronyism, there is a natural good governance interest in seeking out diverse leadership. Everywhere in the world, effective governments recruit diversity in order to extend their reach throughout the population, to represent the popular voice in a broad and inclusive fashion and to be able to project government authority into diverse minority communities. This is something that governments do. They do it because it works. And it’s not just government; any organization that wants to gain access to diverse social communities and resources needs to recruit diverse members. And for that reason, elite leaders of under-represented communities will always be recruited by effective organizations because of their community background, regardless of whether or not there are official government affirmative-action programs administered by law.

Think about Sotomayor: no one is even trying to claim she benefited from official government-mandated affirmative action programs. Instead they seem to be claiming that private institutions like Princeton and Yale gave her preference because they saw their private interest in recruiting diverse student bodies, and that President George H.W. Bush appointed her to a Federal district court because he felt the courts needed a diverse bench.

This is not an ideological or single-party issue. When I was in college, an illustrious graduate who had just been elected to the alumni board asked me to get together a group of students to have dinner with him, so he could find out what undergrads were concerned about at the university. He was an old blue-blood and a former ambassador to the USSR. “Don’t make it a bunch of white men,” he told me. In the end, because of my inferior recruiting skills, I screwed it up — both black people I invited declined; I had one white female, one gay Hispanic male, and a bunch of white men. I think the black folks felt they were being recruited…because of their race. So these things are complicated. But looking at it from the board member’s point of view, one can understand perfectly why he wanted to have dinner with a diverse cross-section of the undergrad population. That kind of dynamic will always be present, and top people from under-represented or outside-network groups will always “benefit” from it.

If you avoid recruiting people who are different from you, you’ll have nothing to counterbalance your natural tendency to recruit people from the group you belong to. And then you wind up where the Republican Party is right now: unable to govern, in part because it has no ties to large segments of the country it seeks to rule. But in any case, conservatives right now aren’t presenting any evidence Sotomayor is unqualified or isn’t smart. There is no such evidence. The woman graduated summa cum laude  from Princeton for chrissakes. Instead conservatives are arguing simply that Sotomayor should be presumed to be unqualified or not smart, because she is Hispanic. There’s no way for that line of thinking to stop itself before it careens into all-out racism.

Worse than Hitlary by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2009, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Law, United States

Apparently the current conservative line is that Sotomayor is an empathetic bleeding-heart liberal violent racist aggressive bitch.

It’s like watching the Movement’s eyeballs pop out. Sproing!

Memorials to Heinz Guderian and Stonewall Jackson by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2009, 5:56 pm
Filed under: United States

I’m pretty sure I disagree with the implication in this Matthew Yglesias post that the US shouldn’t have any memorials to Confederate politicians or military heroes:

Jefferson Davis was the political leader of an organized insurrection against the United States government, whose aim was to perpetuate the enslavement of black people. And there’s a highway named after him just a few miles from where I type. When I drove back to DC from North Carolina on Tuesday, I passed the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, which is an official National Parks Service site. 

I actually think it’s extremely important to any society that it not pretend that it can simply wash away the embarrassing figures from its past. I also think that the question of how figures from the “wrong” side of a war should be presented is a pretty complicated one, in any country.

I’m living right now in Vietnam, a country that has no memorials to the “wrong” side in its civil war. The armed forces cemetery outside Saigon that holds thousands of war dead from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam stands neglected and deteriorating. I happen to agree with the standard Communist Vietnamese historical line that the South Vietnamese government was a brutal, weak dictatorship beholden to foreign powers. But many of those who fought for the South did so nobly, and for good reasons — because the Communist Party had persecuted their Catholic or landowning relatives, say. People in Hanoi may have thought Southern soldiers were just cowardly puppets of America, but Southern soldiers thought they were fighting for different reasons, and their own understanding of what they fought for deserves consideration. And the current Vietnamese historical orthodoxy, which leaves Vietnamese kids growing up with little knowledge of who Gen. Duong Van Minh was or why he fought against Ho Chi Minh, impoverishes Vietnam’s understanding of itself.

Now, it’s true that to a contemporary American like myself, the cause the Confederacy fought for was far more evil than the one South Vietnam fought for, and so the comparison is inapt. So let’s try a different comparison. One might say, for example, that Stonewall Jackson was fighting for his homeland and his culture, and that one can only apportion him a limited amount of blame for the fact that the culture he was born into happened to be horribly, violently racist. Then again, one might say that Nazi General Heinz Guderian was fighting for his homeland and his culture, and bears only limited blame for the fact that the homeland he was fighting for happened to be horribly, violently racist.

And then yet again, one might say: yes, exactly, and there ought to be memorials to Heinz Guderian and other figures of the Wehrmacht that make that complexity clear and force people to deal with it. And such memorials might also, for example, force contemporary Americans to confront the fact that the praiseworthiness of our own military and political figures is dependent on the subsequent verdicts of history, verdicts which may be different in different places. (Personally, my attitude towards Moshe Dayan has shifted pretty radically under the influence of the past decade-plus in Israeli-Palestinian relations.)

I imagine the Stonewall Jackson Shrine is a pretty interesting place to contemplate these kinds of thorny historical issues, and that kids who visit both that shrine and the Lincoln Memorial may learn to think about history in a more sophisticated way than kids who only visit one of the two. Given that the shrine already exists, through the vicissitudes of America’s changing historical memory, I think it would be an act of vandalism to tear it down. It might be worth re-contextualizing the place every generation or so, as historical attitudes evolve, and erecting any new memorials to Confederate figures might be impossible because the African-Americans on the board would probably have views incommensurable with those of the whites on the board. It’s kind of hard to picture a mashup of the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the Alamo. But I’m not sure it’s not a good idea in principle. It’s just that designing memorials with this kind of reflective approach to history demands more sophistication than most governments or communities are usually capable of. In any case, the Jeff Davis Highway thing seems pretty useless; I’m not really sure whether there’d be any utility at all to a Heinz Guderian Autobahn.

What *would* make a female Hispanic nominee qualified? by mattsteinglass
May 28, 2009, 10:02 pm
Filed under: Gender, United States

Just curious, but if, in the eyes of the National Review crowd, graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, editing the Yale Law Review, and spending 10 years as a Federal Appeals Court judge doesn’t make Sotomayor qualified to serve on the Supreme Court…what would? Would she have to have won a Nobel Prize? Reached the rank of Admiral as a US Navy JAG? Earned billions of dollars with her own legal-themed cable TV network? Would she have to be capable of creating infinite clones of herself and seeing the curvature of space-time? Or what?

Oh wait! I know! She’d have to be a conservative.

Atul Gawande on haggling in the quadruple-bypass souk by mattsteinglass
May 28, 2009, 2:48 pm
Filed under: Health, United States

At the end of Atul Gawande’s terrific article in The New Yorker on the factors that drive up American health care costs without improving health, Gawande talks about ideas for health-care reform with a surgeon named Lester Dyke who is critical of how the profit motive has corrupted health care. Dyke thinks neither a single-payer system, nor an all-private-insurer system, will do anything to control costs. Then Gawande talks about the individual “medical savings account” concept pushed under many Republican proposals over the past few years.

The third class of health-cost proposals, I explained, would push people to use medical savings accounts and hold high-deductible insurance policies: “They’d have more of their own money on the line, and that’d drive them to bargain with you and other surgeons, right?”

He gave me a quizzical look. We tried to imagine the scenario. A cardiologist tells an elderly woman that she needs bypass surgery and has Dr. Dyke see her. They discuss the blockages in her heart, the operation, the risks. And now they’re supposed to haggle over the price as if he were selling a rug in a souk? “I’ll do three vessels for thirty thousand, but if you take four I’ll throw in an extra night in the I.C.U.”—that sort of thing? Dyke shook his head. “Who comes up with this stuff?” he asked. “Any plan that relies on the sheep to negotiate with the wolves is doomed to failure.”

Obviously, Gawande and Dyke are misrepresenting the Medical Savings Account model here. The idea isn’t that patients will haggle over whether to get three or four valves bypassed. The idea is that Dr. Gawande will offer to perform the quadruple-bypass for $40,000, while Dr. Dyke will say he can do it just as well for $30,000. The patient will go back to Dr. Gawande, who will move his price down to $35,000 but say his bypass is of much higher quality and can’t really be compared to that low-rent charlatan Dyke down the road. Then the patient will go back to Dr. Dyke, who will take his own final offer down to $28,000. Finally, the patient must walk out of Dr. Dyke’s office — this is the most crucial part of the negotiation, patients! Never buy any major medical procedure without letting the doctor see you’re willing to walk away from the deal! — and Dr. Dyke will run after her and make her a final, final offer of $26,000. The patient comes back, Dr. Dyke operates, and if Dr. Dyke’s services really turn out to be inferior and she dies, then next time she’ll go to Dr. Gawande.

World’s youngest Vietnam veteran swims to Suu Kyi by mattsteinglass
May 28, 2009, 8:32 am
Filed under: Burma, Vietnam

The Telegraph reports:

During a three-hour appearance at a court in Rangoon, John Yettaw, 53, a Vietnam veteran, said that he had a vision in which the Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader was assassinated by terrorists and he had wanted to warn her and the government.

The last US troops left South Vietnam in 1973, 36 years ago. If John Yettaw is 53 now, he would have been 17 then. What’s the deal?

…Some specifics on just how many US military were left in Vietnam in 1973, from Joseph Treaster in the NY Times, March 30, 1973, “Last US Forces Out of Vietnam” (paywalled):

The last American troops left South Vietnam today, leaving behind an unfinished war that has deeply scarred this country and the United States…


…Remaining after the final jet transport lifted off from Tan Son Nhut air base at 5:53 PM were about 800 Americans on the truce observation force who will leave tomorrow and Saturday. A contingent of 159 Marine guards and about 50 military attaches also stayed behind.

It seems highly likely that either John Yettaw is older than 53, or he did not serve in Vietnam.

Agent Orange: One of these things is not like the other by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2009, 10:32 am
Filed under: Law, United States, Vietnam

In today’s Wall Street Journal, former State Department legal adviser John Bellinger pens an op-ed arguing that US courts are being improperly used as a venue for disputes that have nothing to do with the US, under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789. Bellinger supplies a few examples; see you if you can spot the one that seems strikingly out of place.

In recent years, for example, Caterpillar Inc. was sued for selling bulldozers to Israel that were eventually used to demolish Palestinian homes. Dow Chemical Co. was sued for manufacturing the Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam War. And Yahoo Inc. has been sued for sharing user information with the Chinese government, which resulted in the arrest of Chinese dissidents.

In the Caterpillar and Yahoo cases, US companies were sued for providing equipment or information to foreign governments that allegedly used them in ways that violate international law. But in the Agent Orange case, Dow Chemical and other manufacturers were sued for providing chemicals to the US government, which allegedly used them in ways that violate international law. Bellinger is trying to argue that US courts are not the proper venue for a suit involving actions by US corporations and the US government. That seems like a pretty weird argument to make.

As a matter of record, the suit by Vietnamese plaintiffs against US manufacturers of Agent Orange has failed at every level of appeal and in the Supreme Court. But it’s failed for a combination of concrete and technical legal reasons. At the sharpest end of the stick, US courts have ruled that while Agent Orange’s toxicity was due to manufacturer negligence — it shouldn’t have contained as much dioxin as it did — the manufacturers had made the US government aware of the high dioxin levels, and the government ordered them to keep producing it anyway. That means the government, not the manufacturers, is responsible for the defects. And the government has “sovereign immunity” from suits of this nature. So the Vietnamese plaintiffs are left with nobody to sue in US court. But the various appeals court judges who have looked at this suit have never argued that US courts are the wrong venue in which to bring a suit against US companies that carried out actions at the behest of the US government. That would be a bizarre thing to say.

LSU B.A. thinks Princeton/Yale J.D. isn’t smart enough by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2009, 9:24 am
Filed under: Gender, United States

Rod Dreher received a BA in Journalism, without honors, from Louisiana State, so perhaps the extremely stupid thing he wrote yesterday reflects ignorance of how academic achievements are awarded, rather than malice. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, let’s just get this clear. Neither Princeton nor any other university takes race into account when deciding which graduates will be granted their degrees summa cum laude. Antonin Scalia presumably earned his summa from Georgetown, even though he is Italian, just as Sonia Sotomayor earned her summa from Princeton, even though she is Puerto Rican. Samuel Alito presumably earned his spot as an editor at the Yale Law Review, just as Sonia Sotomayor earned her spot as an editor at the Yale Law Review. Similarly, Clarence Thomas presumably earned his cum laude from Holy Cross and his J.D. from Yale Law School, though, unlike Sotomayor, he graduated in the middle of his class and did not serve on the Law Review.

There’s exactly one reason conservatives are accusing Sotomayor of lacking the intellectual “firepower” to serve on the court. (“Firepower?” WTF? Maybe John Yoo, before he gets disbarred for ignoring relevant cases in legal advice to the POTUS, could address the question of whether Sotomayor has the balls to take on other justices mano a mano, whether she has the intellectual power tools to get under the hood of the court and give the law a tune-up? Because I’m not really sure what he’s implying here.) Or, to be precise, there are two. One involves ethnicity. The other involves gender. We all know exactly what’s going on here.


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