The Pasty Little Putz has decided to hold forth on what he’s calling “The Democrats’ Abortion Moment.” He drools that Representative Todd Akin’s comments are a gift to liberals, but only if they don’t overreach. If LIBERALS don’t overreach? That’s effing rich… MoDo says it’s “Too Late to Shake That Etch A Sketch,” and that Mitt Romney throws out red meat while refusing to be “a piece of meat.” The Moustache of Wisdom is back [sigh] and in “I Made the Robot Do It” he serves up a piece of pie in the sky and says a coming revolution in innovation and robotics may eliminate bad jobs and create good ones. Gee, Tommy, will those robots pick strawberries or scrub hotel toilets, jobs I’m sure you consider “bad jobs?” Mr. Kristof, in “Big Chem, Big Harm?”, says chemicals in everything from canned food to A.T.M. receipts could affect you, your children and your children’s children. Mr. Bruni, in “Ever Meek, Ever Malleable,” says an unsettling movie and our political culture illuminate our readiness to obey. Here’s The Putz:
In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson used an arresting thought experiment to make the case for legalized abortion.
Imagine, wrote Thomson, that you awoke to find yourself lashed to a famous violinist. The violinist suffers from a lethal kidney disease, and because only your blood type can save his life, his admirers have kidnapped you and looped your circulatory systems together. If you consent to remain thus entangled for nine months, he will make a full recovery. Disentangle yourself, however, and he dies.
Thomson suggested that a woman facing an unintended pregnancy is in a similar position. Her body is effectively being held hostage, and while carrying the unborn life to term might be a heroic act, it cannot be required of her, any more than you could be required to meekly accept your fate as a prisoner of the violinist.
Provocative as it is, there are obvious problems with this analogy. It implies that there’s no difference between declining to provide medical treatment and taking a life directly, and no difference between the moral obligations owed a stranger and the obligations owed one’s own child.
The biggest difficulty, though, is that most women considering an abortion were not kidnapped and impregnated against their will. They freely chose the act that brought the fetus into being, and analogizing their situation to a kidnap victim implies a peculiar, almost infantilizing attitude toward female moral agency.
There is, however, one case where Thomson’s famous thought experiment has a real and gripping power: pregnancies that result from rape. Then the woman’s body has in a sense been kidnapped by her assailant, and the life inside her is the consequence of a violation rather than a choice.
From a rigorous anti-abortion perspective, that life has the same inalienable rights as any other innocent. But even the most rigorous abortion foe recognizes the unique agony — and perhaps, the political impossibility — involved in asking a woman to bear her rapist’s child.
It’s the desire to escape from this dilemma, no doubt, that explains the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s instantly infamous claim that there’s actually no problem at all, because “legitimate” rape victims don’t get pregnant in the first place.
Blending superstition, sexism and stupidity, his comments have been a boon to the Democratic Party not only in Missouri but nationally as well. In an election season where the Democratic incumbent has been transparently eager to change the subject from the economy to social issues, Akin handed the president and his party a great and unexpected gift.
But great gifts are also great temptations. Having Akin front and center is clearly helpful to the Democrats. Having liberal politicians harping incessantly on the issue — accusing Mitt Romney (falsely) of favoring banning abortion in cases of rape, headlining abortion rights at the Democratic Convention, and so on — is a riskier maneuver.
As the Republican Party has discovered in the past, when voters want to talk about the economy and you can’t stop talking about the culture war, it’s easy to seem out of touch even when the public agrees with what you’re saying.
On the abortion issue, too, Democrats have a tendency to forget that the public doesn’t necessarily agree with them. Only 22 percent of Americans would ban abortion in cases of rape or incest, according to Gallup. But that’s an exceptional number for exceptional circumstances. The broader polling shows a country persistently divided, with women roughly as likely to take the anti-abortion view as men. (Indeed, the small minority that opposes abortion in cases of rape includes more women than men.)
The polling also shows plenty of cases where public opinion cuts strongly against the pro-choice side. Large majorities support bans on second- and third-trimester abortion, on sex-selective abortion and on the controversial “partial birth” procedure.
These are issues where many Democratic politicians have something in common with Akin: They have abortion positions well outside the American mainstream.
Because the press is reliably sympathetic to the cause of abortion rights, and because pro-choice extremism tends to be the province of sophisticates and tastemakers, this reality does not always get the attention it deserves. But it’s crucial to understanding the risk that the Democrats are taking if they set out to make this election a referendum on abortion.
That’s because in Barack Obama, they have a nominee who occupies the far leftward pole of the abortion debate, with a long and reliable record of voting against even modest regulations on the practice — including a vote he cast as an Illinois lawmaker against regulations intended to protect infants born accidentally as a result of a botched abortion. President Obama rarely bothers with Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” formulation: he’s pro-choice with almost no limitations or exceptions.
Hence the dangerous (for liberals) question lurking beneath the surface of the Akin controversy. If the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri is an extremist on abortion, what does that make the president of the United States?
It makes him a rational human being, you moron. Christ, this asshole annoys me… However, again as usual, he’s being flayed alive in the comments. Here’s MoDo:
So now comes the Big Reveal?
Not the stripper in Tampa made up to resemble Sarah Palin, but something far more intriguing.
Will Mitt Romney use his Florida convention to finally peel away the layers of opacity and show us who he really is?
Romney told The Wall Street Journal that he won’t indulge those who want him to “lie down and let it all out”; he won’t be personalized “like I’m a piece of meat”; he won’t do a version of “This Is Your Life”; and he won’t “take everybody to my childhood home and say, ‘Here’s where I rode my bicycle.’ ”
Even if he wanted to, Mitt couldn’t reveal himself. He has recast his positions so many times, he doesn’t seem to know who he is.
He presents himself as a uniter who disdains negative campaigning, and then in the next breath, in his home state of Michigan on Friday, he makes a cheesy birther crack about the president — a bat’s squeak calling to the basest emotions — especially bizarre given that his own father was born out of the country, in Mexico, with a questionable right to run for president.
Being a merchant of doubt, spreading canards under the guise of humor, is a nasty business.
Even Bob Dole, known as the conservative Hatchet Man in his day, is warning that his party could curdle if it doesn’t start appealing to ethnic minorities, young people and the “mainstream,” and stand up to the far-right lunacy. The G.O.P. has veered so far right that Jack Kemp, Dole’s running mate in 1996, now looks like Teddy Kennedy compared with Kemp’s protégé Paul Ryan.
“We have got to be open,” the 89-year-old Dole told The Daily Telegraph of London. “We cannot be a single-issue party or a single-philosophy party.” He added that he was concerned about the “undercurrent of rigid conservatism where you don’t dare not toe the line.”
Sometimes pols pander so much they never find their way back to their core, or try to find their way back too late.
Romney seems to be forever on a journey out of vagueness, an endless search for identity.
Even teaming up with the most policy-specific Republican House member in a bid for reflected ideological clarity has not worked. Rather than Mitt’s gaining focus, Paul Ryan is losing it.
When he was put on the ticket, Ryan had an aggressive record of fighting against abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. He also had a reputation for sticking to his convictions, despite the political consequences. But he told reporters he would abide by Romney’s view that abortions should be allowed in cases of rape and incest. On Thursday, asked during a TV interview in Roanoke, Va., whether a woman should be able to get an abortion if she was raped, he replied: “I’m very proud of my pro-life record, and I’ve always adopted the idea, the position that, the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” But he also said he would adapt to Romney’s position, which he described as “a vast improvement of where we are right now.”
Ryan’s budget proposed the same $716 billion in 10-year Medicare savings that President Obama did in his health care law. But now Mitt says he’ll restore those payments to health care providers, payments he asserts — wrongly — that Obama “robbed” from Medicare. Ryan is echoing the attack with more vitriol than his new master.
We will be told in the next few days what a wonderful father and grandfather Romney is, and that is no doubt true. But being the son of a onetime presidential aspirant and the privileged patriarch of a coddled clan should not be sufficient reasons to be promoted to the Oval Office.
Romney may remove a few bricks, but he will likely leave intact the walls encircling Mormonism, his Mormon tithing, the cult of Bain, hidden tax returns, and the job that dare not speak its name — moderate governor of Massachusetts.
Poor Eric Fehrnstrom. The Romney spokesman got in trouble in March when he was asked how the candidate would pivot from far-right positions in the G.O.P. primaries to more centrist ones in the general election.
“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Already suspicious conservatives pounced on the remark as proof that Mitt would say anything to get elected.
But Romney never did shake up the Etch A Sketch. He remains too insecure about his base. Romney and Obama are both running for their bases — and Mitt is running from his own elusive better angels.
And that is what’s disturbing about the prospect of a President Romney. Even though he once seemed to have sensible, moderate managerial instincts, he won’t stop ingratiating himself with the neo-Neanderthals.
That’s the biggest reveal of all.
Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:
When you hear the insane notion of “legitimate rape” being aired by a Republican congressman — a member of the House science committee no less — it makes you wonder some days how we became the world’s richest, most powerful country, and, more important, how we’re going to stay there. The short answer is that, thank God, there’s still a bunch of people across America — innovators and entrepreneurs — who just didn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that Germany will eat our breakfast or that China will eat our lunch. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession and heading for a fiscal cliff. They’re not interested in politics at all. Instead, they just go out and invent stuff and fix stuff and collaborate on stuff. They are our saving grace, and whenever I need a pick-me-up, I drop in on one of them.
I did just that last week, visiting the design workshop of Rethink Robotics, near Boston’s airport, where I did something I’ve never done before: I programmed a robot to perform the simple task of moving widgets from one place to another. Yup, I trained the robot’s arms using a very friendly screen interface and memory built into its mechanical limbs.
And therein lie the seeds of a potential revolution. Rethink’s goal is simple: that its cheap, easy-to-use, safe robot will be to industrial robots what the personal computer was to the mainframe computer, or the iPhone was to the traditional phone. That is, it will bring robots to the small business and even home and enable people to write apps for them the way they do with PCs and iPhones — to make your robot conduct an orchestra, clean the house or, most important, do multiple tasks for small manufacturers, who could not afford big traditional robots, thus speeding innovation and enabling more manufacturing in America.
“If you see pictures of robots welding or painting” in a factory, “you will not see humans nearby because it is not safe” being around swinging robot arms, explains Rethink’s founder, Rodney Brooks, the Australian-born former director of the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the co-founder of iRobot, which invented the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot. Traditional industrial robots are fixed and not flexible, and they take a long time — and a skilled engineer — to program them to do one repeatable task.
“Our robot is low-cost, easily programmable, not fixed and not dangerous,” says Brooks. “We were in a small plastics company the other day, and the owner said he is using the robot for two hours to do one task and then rolling it over to do another. With our robots, you teach them about the specific task you want done, and when you are done with that, you program another one.” And if your hand gets in the way, the robot just stops.
The Rethink design team includes Bruce Blumberg, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter — as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Britain, Sri Lanka, the United States and China. “It is all made in America,” says Brooks, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world.”
This is the company of the future. Forget about “outsourcing.” In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out.” There’s only “good, better and best,” and if you don’t assemble the best team you can from everywhere, your competitor will.
The Rethink robot will be unveiled in weeks. I was just given a sneak peek — on the condition that I did not mention its “disruptive” price point and some other unique features.
“Just as the PC did not replace workers but empowered them to do many new things,” argues Brooks, the same will happen with the Rethink robot. “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here. … The minute you say ‘robots’ people say: ‘It’s going to take away jobs. But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them,” the way the PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did.
Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills. I watched a Rethink robot being tested at the Nypro plastics factory in Clinton, Mass. A single worker was operating a big molding machine that occasionally spewed out too many widgets, which forced the system to overload. The robot was brought in to handle overflow, while the same single worker still operated the machine. “We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,” said Michael McGee, Nypro’s director of technology.
This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools. Alas, it isn’t. So I’m just grateful these folks here in Boston didn’t get the word.
And maybe funding education would help? Nah… better to attack teachers. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
New research is demonstrating that some common chemicals all around us may be even more harmful than previously thought. It seems that they may damage us in ways that are transmitted generation after generation, imperiling not only us but also our descendants.
Yet following the script of Big Tobacco a generation ago, Big Chem has, so far, blocked any serious regulation of these endocrine disruptors, so called because they play havoc with hormones in the body’s endocrine system.
One of the most common and alarming is bisphenol-A, better known as BPA. The failure to regulate it means that it is unavoidable. BPA is found in everything from plastics to canned food to A.T.M. receipts. More than 90 percent of Americans have it in their urine.
Even before the latest research showing multigeneration effects, studies had linked BPA to breast cancer and diabetes, as well as to hyperactivity, aggression and depression in children.
Maybe it seems surprising to read a newspaper column about chemical safety because this isn’t an issue in the presidential campaign or even firmly on the national agenda. It’s not the kind of thing that we in the news media cover much.
Yet the evidence is growing that these are significant threats of a kind that Washington continually fails to protect Americans from. The challenge is that they involve complex science and considerable uncertainty, and the chemical companies — like the tobacco companies before them — create financial incentives to encourage politicians to sit on the fence. So nothing happens.
Yet although industry has, so far, been able to block broad national curbs on BPA, new findings on transgenerational effects may finally put a dent in Big Chem’s lobbying efforts.
One good sign: In late July, a Senate committee, for the first, time passed the Safe Chemicals Act, landmark legislation sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, that would begin to regulate the safety of chemicals.
Evidence of transgenerational effects of endocrine disruptors has been growing for a half-dozen years, but it mostly involved higher doses than humans would typically encounter.
Now Endocrinology, a peer-reviewed journal, has published a study measuring the impact of low doses of BPA. The study is devastating for the chemical industry.
Pregnant mice were exposed to BPA at dosages analogous to those humans typically receive. The offspring were less sociable than control mice (using metrics often used to assess an aspect of autism in humans), and various effects were also evident for the next three generations of mice.
The BPA seemed to interfere with the way the animals processed hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, which affect trust and warm feelings. And while mice are not humans, research on mouse behavior is a standard way to evaluate new drugs or to measure the impact of chemicals.
“It’s scary,” said Jennifer T. Wolstenholme, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the report. She said that the researchers found behaviors in BPA-exposed mice and their descendants that may parallel autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit disorder in humans.
Emilie Rissman, a co-author who is professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at University of Virginia Medical School, noted that BPA doesn’t cause mutations in DNA. Rather, the impact is “epigenetic” — one of the hot concepts in biology these days — meaning that changes are transmitted not in DNA but by affecting the way genes are turned on and off.
In effect, this is a bit like evolution through transmission of acquired characteristics — the theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 19th-century scientist whom high school science classes make fun of as a foil to Charles Darwin. In epigenetics, Lamarck lives.
“These results at low doses add profoundly to concerns about endocrine disruptors,” said John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences. “It’s going to be harder than just eliminating exposure to one generation.”
The National Institutes of Health is concerned enough that it expects to make transgenerational impacts of endocrine disruptors a priority for research funding, according to a spokeswoman, Robin Mackar.
Like a lot of Americans, I used to be skeptical of risks from chemicals like endocrine disruptors that are all around us. What could be safer than canned food? I figured that opposition came from tree-hugging Luddites prone to conspiracy theories.
Yet, a few years ago, I began to read the peer-reviewed journal articles, and it became obvious that the opposition to endocrine disruptors is led by toxicologists, endocrinologists, urologists and pediatricians. These are serious scientists, yet they don’t often have the ear of politicians or journalists.
I’m hoping these new studies can help vault the issue onto the national stage. Threats to us need to be addressed, even if they come not from Iranian nuclear weapons, but from things as banal as canned soup and A.T.M. receipts.
But that would mean control and regulation, Nicholas. And we all know what happens when regulations are proposed… Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
I instantly bought the strip-search. The nude jumping jacks, too.
But the spanking?
That’s the point in the provocative, gripping new movie “Compliance,” about the degradation of a restaurant employee, when some people in the audience reportedly shake their heads and walk out.
Like them, I was tempted to reject the plausibility of what was happening on-screen. It’s hard to swallow. But “Compliance” asks questions too big — and too relevant to a political season of grandiose persuasion and elaborate subterfuge — to be dismissed or ignored. Although it’s playing in just nine theaters nationwide for now, it deserves a higher profile, broader notice and a viewing from start to finish.
It’s an essential parable of human gullibility. How much can people be talked into and how readily will they defer to an authority figure of sufficient craft and cunning? “Compliance” gives chilling answers.
Made on a modest budget and set during one shift at a fictional fast-food restaurant called ChickWich, it imagines that the manager, a dowdy middle-aged woman, gets a call from someone who falsely claims to be a police officer. (I haven’t spoiled much yet but am about to, at least for anyone unfamiliar with the real-life events on which “Compliance” is based.)
The “officer” on the phone tells the manager that he has evidence that a young female employee of hers just stole money from a customer’s purse. Because the cops can’t get to the restaurant for a while, he says, the manager must detain the employee herself in a back room. He instructs her to check the young woman’s pockets and handbag for the stolen money. When that doesn’t turn up anything, he uses a mix of threats and praise to persuade her to do a strip-search. And that’s just the start.
The manager’s boyfriend later assumes the duties of watching over the detained employee. Cajoled and coached by the voice on the phone, he makes her do those jumping jacks, which are meant to dislodge any hidden loot. By the time he leaves the back room, he’s also been persuaded to spank and then sexually assault her.
Preposterous, right? But the details in the movie are more or less consistent with an incident at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004. And that incident was part of a series of hoaxes in which a prank caller manipulated workers at McDonald’s franchises and at other fast-food restaurants into the kind of invasive, abusive behavior depicted in the movie.
History has amply documented the human capacity for cruelty and quickness to exploit vulnerability, and “Compliance” touches on those themes. But it has even more to say about the human capacity for credulousness, along with obedience.
People routinely buy into outlandish claims that calm particular anxieties, fill given needs or affirm preferred worldviews. Religions and wrinkle-cream purveyors alike depend on that. And someone like Todd Akin, the antihero of last week’s news, illustrates it to a T. The notion that a raped woman can miraculously foil and neutralize sperm is a good 10 times crazier than anything in “Compliance,” but it dovetails beautifully with his obvious wish — and the wishes of like-minded extremists — for an abortion prohibition with no exceptions. So he embraces it.
People also routinely elect trust over skepticism because it’s easier, more convenient. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; the climate isn’t changing; Barack Obama’s birth certificate is forged; Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. To varying degrees, all of these were or are articles of faith, unverifiable or eventually knocked down. People nonetheless accepted them because the alternative meant confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt, or potentially hunkering down to the hard work of muddling through the elusive truth of things. Better simply to be told what’s what.
As Craig Zobel, the writer and director of “Compliance,” said to me on the phone on Friday, “We can’t be on guard all the time. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you’d never get anything done.” It’s infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.
In fact, what’s most distinctive about the current presidential election and our political culture isn’t their negativity — though that’s plenty noteworthy and worrisome — but how unconditionally so many partisans back their side’s every edict, plaint and stratagem. Some of them behave, in a smaller and less sinister way, as characters in “Compliance” do. They surrender to and accept instructions from a designated leader rather than examining each new assertion on its own merits, for its own accuracy. They submit, nudged along by emphatic oratory, slick advertising, facts thoroughly massaged and lies smoothly told.
“Compliance” charts the mechanisms and progress of mind control. The “officer” introduces himself with utter confidence, sure of himself and unambiguous about the necessary course of action. He expresses sympathy, telling his human puppets that he knows how confusing and difficult everything he’s asking of them must seem. He doles out compliments and rebukes, establishing himself as someone who sits rightfully in a position of judgment. He insists that he’s mindful of their self-interest: “You need to listen to me for your own sake.”
And he grows bolder in studied increments, knowing that once a person has decided to believe you, he or she is more likely to continue to, because to rebel at a late juncture is to admit that you’ve been duped all along. At a certain point you’re psychologically invested in fealty. At a certain point a spanking is no longer outside the realm of possibility.
After the restaurant’s manager and employees realize that the “officer” was nothing of the sort, the manager defensively tells a journalist: “He had an answer every time that I asked a question.”
The great hucksters do, and that’s why we should all bear in mind something that the journalist subsequently asks her.
“It never occurred to you,” he says, “to think twice?”
The Times cut off comments on all the Sunday columnists early Sunday morning (or before for all I know). I wonder why?