Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take That, Hippie!

From Reuters:

LONDON (Reuters) - Organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over conventionally produced food, according to a major study published on Wednesday.

Its conclusions were challenged by organic food campaigners.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said consumers paid higher prices for organic food in part because of its perceived health benefits, creating a global organic market worth an estimated $48 billion in 2007.

A systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years, however, found there was no significant difference.

"A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance," said Alan Dangour, one of the report's authors.

"Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority."

The results of research, which was commissioned by the British government's Food Standards Agency, were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Update: Props to Jason for this post, which takes a deeper look at the sources and science of this report.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You lost today, kid. But that doesn't mean you have to like it.


PLAIN CITY, Utah - Police in Utah say a 7-year-old boy led officers on a car chase in an effort to avoid going to church.

Dispatchers received reports of a child driving recklessly on Sunday morning. Weber County Sheriff's Capt. Klint Anderson says one witness said the boy drove through a stop sign.

Anderson says two deputies caught up with the boy and tried unsuccessfully to stop the Dodge Intrepid in an area about 45 miles north of Salt Lake City. The car reached 40 mph before the boy stopped in a driveway and ran inside a home.

Anderson says when the boy's father later confronted him, the boy said he didn't want to go to church. The boy is too young to prosecute and no citations were issued, although police did urge the father to make his car keys more inaccessible to children.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quit makin' stuff up, will ya?

Yesterday Sarah Palin gave her farewell speech as governor of Alaska. Here it is in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

In a way, the speech encapsulates Palin's public persona. On the one hand she presents her chief appeal: the working mom who wants to bring kitchen-table pragmatism and so-called "small town" values to state and federal politics. On the other hand, Palin also displays many of her worst traits: passing ignorance, inexperience, and an unwillingness to learn as authenticity, an abhorrence for government unless she and her Republican cohorts are the ones running it, talking up public ownership of local resources while admonishing socialism, confusing blind and mindless praise of America with patriotism, and hiding behind the troops and her family in the face of criticism.

Here is Rachel Maddow arguing that while Palin is still popular with a certain segment of American society, it is unlikely that she will ever be elected to a major position again:

Finally, here is William Shatner on The Tonight Show giving a poetic interpretation of the speech:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

The Bush administration left a wake of scandals, illegal acts, and all around fuck-ups over the course of its eight years. After suffering through misguided stem cell research policies, abstinence-only sex education, the 9/11 attack, torture, misleading the congress on the use of torture, the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, an assassination squad, million dollar no-bid contracts, failed economic policies, the bailout, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the PATRIOT Act, outing a CIA agent, and other cluster fucks, it is hard to imagine that there is anything more to be discovered.

But of course there is always room for one more: According to the New York Times, Dick Cheney wanted to use US military forces on American soil in 2002. This would have been done, according to the Times, to "test" the Constitution, and invalidate the Fourth Amendment. Fortunately, Bush decided against it.

Glen Greenwald of has published a piece extrapolating the implications of this and similar policies:

Though it received very little press attention, it is not hyperbole to observe that this October 23 Memo was one of the most significant events in American politics in the last several decades, because it explicitly declared the U.S. Constitution -- the Bill of Rights -- inoperative inside the U.S., as applied to U.S. citizens. Just read what it said in arguing that neither the Fourth Amendment -- nor even the First Amendment -- can constrain what the President can do when overseeing "domestic military operations"
Before we get too relieved and treat this as a bullet dodged, consider this: President Obama has endorsed using indefinite detention on terror suspects. What kind of change is that?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And That's the Way It Is

Glenn Greenwald has written an opinion piece on about the death of Walter Cronkite, pointing out that the establishment news media is attempting to strike an odd balance of revering the man while ignoring what he did that made him so important to the news profession and so unpopular with people in places of power, namely the Department of Defense.

Greenwald identifies a pattern for this kind of behavior, comparing the eulogies for Cronkite with those prepared for David Halberstam, who proudly stood up to intimidation from military brass when he reported on the Vietnam war:

All of that was ignored when he died, with establishment media figures exploiting his death to suggest that his greatness reflected well on what they do, as though what he did was the same thing as what they do (much the same way that Martin Luther King's vehement criticisms of the United States generally and its imperialism and aggression specifically have been entirely whitewashed from his hagiography).

So, too, with the death of Walter Cronkite. Tellingly, his most celebrated and significant moment -- Greg Mitchell says "this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million" -- was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn't trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false. In other words, Cronkite's best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do -- directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won't even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.
Greenwald, in an update to the piece, negatively compares the legacy of Walter Cronkite to Tim Russert, referencing a piece by Lewis Lapham written shortly after Russert's death:
Speaking truth to power doesn’t make successful Sunday-morning television, leads to “jealousy, upsets, persecution,” doesn’t draw a salary of $5 million a year. The notion that journalists were once in the habit of doing so we borrow from the medium of print, from writers in the tradition of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, H. L. Mencken, I. F. Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Walter Karp, who assumed that what was once known as “the press” received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government . . . On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless.
For viewers of my generation and younger, those of us who came of age after Cronkite's tenure at CBS had passed, we have experienced news in a very different way. We grew up watching heads in boxes on our televisions scream incoherently at one another, attempting to prove their point by shouting their opponent down. We learn about the world from blogs and wikipedia, where opinion, rumor, and facts all run together with no oversight or critical restraint. Entertainment news and gossip are now reported with the same, if not greater, depth of coverage given to wars and economic collapses. Things have reached a point where a satirical news program provides more insight into the events of the day than most of the major news networks.

On the other hand, Lee Siegel of The Daily Beast has put the idealized view of Cronkite to question. He writes that all television news, by its nature is entertainment and the anchors on it are performers.

America and Cronkite both shared the illusion that public life did not consist of a series of masks that had to be ripped away. If Cronkite said that’s the way it was, then his audience happily believed that’s the way it was. We accepted his performance of sincere authority because we wanted to.

Now the Olbermanns, O’Reillys, Stewarts et al sign off after assuring us that nothing is as it seems. Their job is to puncture anyone who in the previous 24 hours told us, with any kind of authority, that this is the way it was. And we happily accept their performance of ironic, sarcastic anti-sincerity because we want to.

Yet all we’ve done is exchange Cronkite’s illusion of knowledge acquired (all that’s worth knowing is what he told us) for the current illusion of knowingness achieved (all that’s worth knowing is that every claim to knowledge is a sham).

The question is, which is more dangerous? A situation in which we feel that news authority is to be taken at its word—thus making us vulnerable to deception? Or a situation in which we feel that the function of the news is to keep stripping away the illusion of its own authority—thus making us vulnerable to the deception that, well, we are now invulnerable to deception? Is it better to have the wool pulled over our eyes, or to be blinded with the illusion of transparency? Better to be deceived as gullible fools, or as knowing fools? Either way, we still keep getting deceived.

I think what Siegel says here is important, especially his question about the "illusion of transparency." Although I am not a fan of binaries, we could think of news as swinging between two poles, with the stoicism of Cronkite at one pole and the emotion of Olbermann, O'Reilly, and Stewart on the other. Each style has its own advantages and disadvantages but I also can't help but think that this new era of commentary impairs our consumption of news by deliberately focusing the facts through an ideological lens. (In this case, John Stewart might be exempted since he is, after all, working in the realm of satire and his show often skewers the news networks and their performers.)

As I watch the televised tributes and eulogies to Walter Cronkite, I cannot help but think that some part of American culture and journalism has died with him. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope that we can correct course and find a way of deciphering and organizing the noise of information that we are inundated with. But it will take a demand from consumers for a better quality of news and a willingness from the producers of news to provide it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Carter: Religion Perpetuates Discrimination Against Women

Former President Jimmy Carter has published an op-ed in The Guardian, calling out religion on its misogynistic politics:

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.

Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.

At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
Carter's statement is not all that bold or original; feminists and critics of religion have been making this accusation for a long time. And he doesn't go the extra step to suggest how we solve the problem. Should religion be reformed? Can we dissolve or amend the religious traditions and structures that perpetuate injustice? Or do we just need to abandon this superstition altogether?
That said, the fact that this statement comes from a former president is impressive because it indicates a willingness to confront religion in a way that would have been unthinkable decades earlier. Just the fact that this criticism exists and is a part of the public discourse is itself important.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Meet Audra Shay and the Future of the Republican Party

Over the weekend, the Young Republican National Federation, an organization that bills itself as the future of the Republican Party, held their annual convention in Indianapolis and elected Audra Shay to the head of the organization. Writing for The Daily Beast, John Avlon followed the convention and election process, focusing on the controversy over Shay. In this piece he catalogued online comments in which Shay compared Barack Obama to terrorists, made racial jokes, and in general made an ass of herself:

* In October 2008, in the wake of news that an effigy of Sarah Palin was being hung outside an affluent Hollywood home as an offensive Halloween decoration, Shay replied, returning to the “LOL” style that she employed after the “coons” comment: “What no ‘Obama in a noose? Come on now, its just freedome [sic] of speech, no one in Atlanta would take that wrong! Lol.”

She picked up the thread again the next morning with a clarification and a new insight. “Apparently I could not spell last night. I am wondering if the guys with the Palin noose would care if we had a bunch of homosexuals in a noose.”

* Posting and endorsing a conspiracy-theory video that attempts to prove that Obama believes he can only “ensure his own salvation” and “fate” if he helps African Americans above whites, complete with Barnum-esque captions (“LISTEN AS HE ATTACKS WHITE PEOPLE”).

* Numerous posts in which Shay says that President Obama is “anti-American” and has “disdain of this country.”
These comments became public knowledge at the convention, splitting the support of the delegates, and before the vote, things got very tense:

The process, it turned out, took about eight hours, and it was dominated by a parliamentary maneuver to cast ballots privately, rather a verbal roll call. (The irony that the “true conservative” slate was pulling a card check and fighting secret ballots, while they vociferously support mandatory secret ballots for unions, seemed lost on them.) Pandemonium ensued. Fistfights nearly broke out between the two camps, and a [Rachel] Hoff supporter from the Oklahoma delegation, who was handing out fliers protesting Shay’s Facebook comments, had to be physically removed. The high-stakes, high-tension vote reflected an awareness of its now-national implications, and the physical drama between the competing slates' supporters recalled the smoke-filled early-television convention of 1952, featuring skirmishes between Robert Taft's conservatives and Eisenhower's centrist supporters.
In a follow up piece, Avlon wrote that Shay's election was an embrace of the anti-intellectual, xenophobic, paranoid, and theocracy-inclined wing of the Republican party:
Shay’s election also reflects a reactionary impulse within the GOP that seeks to dismiss any criticism or inconvenient facts as the work of the liberal mainstream media. This self-segregates the GOP into ideological isolation. Even the term "big tent"—a banner advanced by Ronald Reagan—is dismissed as code for “squishes” or closet liberals. The hunt for heretics increasingly seems like a hobby for the far right, with special venom reserved for centrists like Colin Powell and even John McCain. Shay’s immediate decision to “de-friend” those who called out the racist comments on her Facebook page reflects this impulse to purge any disagreement or departure from conservative orthodoxy. There is a reluctance to confront extremists for fear of angering the base. And in this, partisan conformity and cowardice is confused with personal courage.

The Republican Party must return to its roots as the Party of Lincoln to revive over the long run. It must reach out to different regions and not just play to the Southern conservative base. It must actively recruit candidates who reflect the full diversity of our country—by articulating an alternative entrepreneurial philosophy of how best to rise out of poverty and achieve the American Dream. It can find common cause with independents and centrists on the issues of fiscal responsibility and national security. But to connect with a new generation, it must resolve the core contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism—the rhetoric of expanding individual freedom is at odds with strident social-conservative policies that alienate anyone with libertarian impulses. The reality is that all young voters are less conservative on social issues ranging from gay rights to the role of religion in politics. Applying narrow social litmus tests to the active exclusion of all others will only further isolate the party.
So, does this matter to us non-Republicans? Yes, it does. First, the Republican party, however marginalized, is not going away any time soon. And if Shay and people like her will set the tone for the future voice of the party, then this is an example of who we will be dealing with in the coming years. Second, the close vote and accounts of near fist fights on the convention floor indicate the volatility within the party and the possibility of a schism that splits the party in two, with progressive or centrist conservatives (the Megan McCain and Mitt Romney crowd) on one side and right-wing neocons and evangelicals (the Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin crowd) on the other. The result could be the birth of two new political parties which could, over time, change the political map.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Google's Digital Sinkhole

Newsweek has an interesting article about YouTube and how Google's business plan for it has backfired:

Google wouldn't make any movies or TV shows, of course. Instead it would get people to send their videos to YouTube. Then Google would place ads next to those videos and keep most of the money. The dupes churn out the content, and Google gets richer! What a brilliant idea! Users felt like they were getting a great deal because they could upload videos for free—and it never occurred to them that they were turning themselves into unpaid employees of Google.

But the plan hit a brick wall. It turns out advertisers weren't crazy about placing their brands next to that "user-generated content." Yes, YouTube generated some advertising revenue, but not enough to cover costs. Worse yet, YouTube became wildly popular. The dupes did as they were supposed to, and started flooding YouTube with videos. These days YouTube is the third-biggest site on the Internet, with 426 million monthly visitors who upload 20 hours of video every minute. But the more stuff people put on YouTube, the more computers and data-storage equipment Google must buy. Google also pays to ship videos across the Internet to viewers. Instead of creating a digital gold mine, Google has created a digital sinkhole—the bigger YouTube gets, the more Google must spend to keep it running.

This scenario has other implications: If Google's implementation of this business plan worked for professionally generated content from newspapers and comparable sources, what happens when those original, professional sources disappear, as traditional newspapers very likely will in the next ten to twenty years?

Is it possible that the news media is setting up a digital house of cards that is going to come crashing down in the next few years? And if that happens what are the implications for the Internet, for the economy, for the mass media, and even for democracy if that happens?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Robert McNamara Dead

While it seems every news organization has given itself over to coverage of the death of Michael Jackson, someone far more important to our history has just passed away: Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

McNamara is often considered the architect of the Vietnam War, which is in some ways true, although he served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 - 1968, starting two years after our involvement in Vietnam began and ending seven years before the fall of Saigon. While Secretary of Defense, he oversaw a tremendous troop surge in Vietnam but he also encouraged Kennedy and Johnson to find a way out of the conflict. While in office he also signed the Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces directive, declaring that military officers should oppose discrimination within the personnel under their command as well as in the communities that they live and work.

In 2003 Errol Morris made a documentary film The Fog of War, which consists of interviews with McNamara mixed with archival footage. This film is among the best documentaries on the Vietnam era and upon the United States' use of military power in the postwar period.

I don't know that McNamara was a saint or a martyr, but he wasn't a devil either. And while the summation of his life may not be subject to celebration, it is important to contemplate.