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Friday, March 12, 2004
TRUE LOVE WAITS ? OR AT LEAST IT TRIES For years, religious-types have been arguing that a mass effort to teach children the benefits of sexual abstinence -- rather than teaching them how to use condoms, which the pious say is akin to teaching sexual technique -- would eradicate all manner of social scourges, everything from unwanted pregnancy to venereal diseases to premature ejaculation. Abstinence education would also lead to a less deviant, more moral society, the sort of hellish God-paranoid nation the pew-fillers have long wanted America to become. To prove their point, various Godly groups have instituted sexless pledges for children, a kind of honor-system chastity belt: Teenagers, no doubt on the advice of their parents, promise to keep their pants on until their wedding night, whence they'll discover true glory of sex in one majestic, unforgettable night.
That's the idea, at least. But teenagers are people too, and people have a hard time suppressing biological urges. A new study -- reported in the New York Times -- shows that of 12,000 teens who took this stay-pure pledge, about 88 percent failed, and they developed sexual diseases at the same rate as youngster who had not promised to stay clean. Boosters of the pledge are unruffled by this news. Jimmy Hester, a spokesman for True Love Waits, a group that claims 2.4 million pledges, gave the Times a tautology in response to the news that the chastity vow didn't work: The vows were broken, he said, "because we're not following up on pledges well enough."
Which is, of course, the point. Pledges to remain chaste won't work if they're not followed up -- i.e., if the teenagers, caught up in the pleasant heat of the moment, decide that the quickening thrill of sexual intercourse offer sufficient benefit to counter the cost of breaking a meaningless promise to themselves, they'll do what's logical, and they'll take off their clothes. In other words, biology will win. Teenagers were meant to engage in sexual intercourse, and no mere promise to God, let alone to parents, can derail their urges.
DEATH BY INDOLENCE Alarms were raised this week on news that citizens of our fair nation are dying at a record rate from afflictions related to obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "obesity will become the leading cause [of death] by next year, with the toll surpassing 500,000 deaths annually, rivaling the number of annual deaths from cancer," reported The Washington Post. Julie Gerberding, the dashing and very un-obese director of what in thriller-novel shorthand is referred to as the 'CDC,' called the new numbers "a tragedy," and she and the other health experts in the government announced "a humorous advertising campaign that encourages Americans to take small steps to lose weight." But many "experts" said these measures were unsatisfactory: "The government should have been much more aggressive about this much earlier," a Yale doctor told the Post. "Even now, the administration defaults to explaining the problem away by individual responsibility and lack of physical activity rather than focusing on the toxic food environment."
Toxic food environment? Is the Yalie sure that this is the problem? If Americans are getting as fat as the moon, wouldn't it be more reasonable to assume that the food environment is not toxic enough?
I have a feeling "toxic food" is another modern-day pseudo-scientific explanation for an ages-old, common-sensical problem: Obesity caused by overeating and an antipathy toward exercise. America, start moving! Even the homeless in our nation are fat; all around me I see indolence, sloth, the sins of idleness. We need neither a better food environment nor a government-sponsored advertising campaign to realize the obvious: That we are a nation of gluttons, super-sized and bloated, and we need to close up the refrigerator and turn on the treadmill.
Friday, March 05, 2004
MARTHA THE MARTYR Martha Stewart is often called a "domestic diva." This alliterative appellation is, I am sure, almost never meant as a compliment. "Diva" implies difficulty; Martha is said to be demanding, abusive, exacting, the sort of woman who will cut you from cuticle to cummerbund for fouling up the temperature of her bath. Martha is, in short, tough as nails. This is not mere rumor; it is substantiated not just by numerous press reports but also by sheer force of logic: Of course Martha Stewart is not nice, of course! Just by the straightness of her smile and the sweet lilt of her voice she built an empire of taste -- does anyone seriously believe Ms. Stewart could have done this while being nice?
But yes, apparently some people do believe that Martha should have been nice. And they believe that Martha's current troubles -- as you must know, she was convicted today on charges of lying to the government during an investigation of insider trading, an investigation that was concluded without finding evidence of such fraudulent trading -- serve Martha right. Martha, it is said, got what she deserved for being a shrew. Were she more pleasant, were she not so exacting, were she not so superior, she would not have been found guilty. Vast numbers of Americans are smilingly thinking this little thought right at this second: If Martha recognized that she was not better than me -- if Martha Stewart recognized that she and I were equal -- Martha Stewart would have found freedom today. As Chappell Hartridge, one of the jurors who convicted Martha, said today, "This is a victory for the little guys ... No one is above the law."
But that is all wrong. Yes, Martha Stewart is not above the law, but neither is she beneath the law. And in this case, Martha Stewart was treated by the government and by a majority of her fellow citizens as if she were below the law, as if being mean -- and, to put a finer point on it, being a mean, famous, wealthy woman -- were itself a crime. This decision is not, as the misguided juror states, a victory for the "little guy" as in the "average citizen." It is, instead, a victory for little guys -- by which I mean small men, men who have no talent and no spine, men who would cower in the presence of a woman as splendid as Martha Stewart. It is a victory for polite: A victory for those who lack confidence, for those full-up with apathy, for the talentless, for those who live by the drab status quo, for everything that Martha Stewart stood against and stood up to change. Martha Stewart is a victim of a society that increasingly values cautiousness over coolness, and the verdict today is a step -- the biggest step so far, but certainly not the biggest step to come -- on the road toward a uniform, saccharine, smiling, hellish society of polite brothers in arms.
Friday, February 06, 2004
NOONAN'S A NINNY No sophistication is required to understand the pleasure -- even if it's just pleasure in shock, which is not a lesser sort -- of seeing a beautiful breast unexpectedly uncovered on live television. None. It is only a breast, and breasts, by design, are meant to be loved. So it pains me to see such featherweight philosophers as Peg Noonan, speechwriter to presidents and moralist for millions, see in Janet's breast the end of our civilization. This morning Peg writes: "I am disturbed about our culture and can't stop thinking about it. I'm embarrassed by our culture too, and made anxious by it. Aren't you?"
The short answer: No, I'm not. A breast is no marker for catastrophe. Why make so much of a tit? How does it hurt Peg Noonan to see this flash of flesh -- what possible pain could this cause a woman such as she? The question needs not be asked, because there is no possible answer. There is nothing about Janet's Jackson's naked breast that need threaten Peg Noonan's sacred civilization. Janet, I have one request of you: Let's see the other one.
AIR FORCE TWO Among members of the news media there is currently a fuss over whether Antonin Scalia, strong-headed, stern-minded, activist intellectual Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, ought to recuse himself from an upcoming case involving the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, because the two enjoyed a duck-shooting trip together.
The current hubbub is over the justice's specific mode of transport to the duck shoot -- he rode, it turns out, with the Vice President on Air Force Two. While the plaintiffs in the case against Cheney -- involving the veep's energy task force secrecy -- have not yet decided whether to ask Scalia to sit this one out, other legal scholars say that the ride on the plane suggests a conflict of interest. "It does raise the level of closeness a little bit higher," Bill Allison, a Washington ethics watchdog, tells the Washington Post. "It makes it seem more like Cheney was courting Scalia."
But here's what the pressmen miss -- Air Force Two is not at all a splendid bird. In my long life I have had the opportunity, once or twice, to ride on this purportedly distinguished plane. In the 1970s I accompanied Nelson Rockefeller, undistinguished second to Gerald Ford, on an hour-and-a-half hop from Lansing, Mich., to St. Petersburg, Fla. A bumpy, bumpy, chaotic flight it was, I tell you. Owing to security concerns she cruises at an uncomfortably stratospheric altitude, so high one's ears pop like a hot pan of Orville Redenbacher's. The seats are small and hard with back-rests angled acutely; sitting gives one sympathy for prisoners of war. And the cabin is noisy, ten-fold the din of your standard commercial liner, as the engines on AF2 have been made, I'm told by engineer friends, to space-ready specification.
Certainly, it's possible that Antonin Scalia enjoyed a nice flight with Mr. Cheney to their duck shoot. And certainly it's possible that this nice flight would predispose Scalia toward Cheney's side in the energy case. But perhaps the plaintiff's in the case are hesitant to raise the conflict-of-interest stink because they're all too aware of the hazards of Air Force Two -- maybe, you see, that awful plane will lead Scalia to throw the book at Dick.
Thursday, February 05, 2004
RUSSERT THIS As you know, I do not have regular access to a television. But even if I did own a television (not to mention a room to keep it in), I doubt that "Meet the Press" -- NBC newsman Timothy Russert's popular Sunday morning current affairs program -- would be the first thing I would watch.
There are, believe it or not, many homeless men and women who swoon for Russert's hard-hitting interview style; in the smelly shelter where, to get out of the rain, I sometimes spend the weekends, fisticuffs often fly between lovers of the morning evangelical shows and fans of "Meet the Press." (The "Meet the Press" obsessives often win the battles, but the religious-types warn that they'll one-day lose the war.)
But I don't like Russert. He's rude. He'll badger a politician with facts and figures and statistics, offer up to the man some of the press's harshest criticism of his policies, confront him on why he sometimes says one thing and often does another, and generally make a fool out of the poor representative of the people. (Jack Shafer, my fellow in media criticism at Slate -- who is generally on the mark, despite his love of the New York Times -- has documented Russert's tactics here.) In my opinion, journalists ought to be respectful. They can certainly ask pointed questions; but if we accept that a journalist's job is to elicit information that was otherwise unknown, then Russert's style is too harsh by half. Watching Russert pile on a pol elicits no new information for the audience; often the only thing the audience gets is newfound sympathy for the poor man at the other end of Russert's finger. (Good journalists know to cojole, to coddle, to stroke, to slowly pet, to kiss and to linger, to finger, to probe, to enter slowly and burrow deep; journalism, an old, dear friend of mine liked to say, is a lot like making love, only dirtier.)
We learn today that our press-dodging president will appear with Russert this Sunday, making him one of only a handful of sitting presidents to do on the show. No doubt George W. Bush is sitting through this to show that he's not afraid of tough questions, as some of his opponents have asserted. (As the online muckracker Matthew Drudge reports, though, the White House does appear afraid: "White House staffers have participated in mock "Meet The Press" sessions ahead of the interview, Kurtz claims, with Adam Levine, a former White House aide, playing Russert...") And online, critics of the Oval resident have suggested that Russert bring out the very toughest of the tough questions. Bradford Delong, an econo-blogger of some repute, puts out a list of these here; one of them is:
Mr. President, your budget reports estimates for only five years, rather than the standard ten. Outside observers have said that this is because the deficit estimates for the sixth through the tenth years look really really bad--and that you and your staff think that if you don't release the numbers for those years, the press corps is too dumb and lazy to ask about them. Is that correct? Is that the reason?
But these online commentators are, in my opinion, terribly misguided if they believe these questions will cause lasting damage to the president. George W. Bush, who, as I've said before, has profited enormously from our underestimation of him, is a master at winning arguments with generalities. He performed this superbly in his debates with Albert Gore. Ask him about holes in his budget and he'll accuse you of relying on fuzzy math. Ask him about a budget deficit and he'll tell you that we're spending the funds to fight a war on terrorism. You cannot pin anything on the man by pointing out inconsistencies, inaccuracies, exaggerations, even outright lies.
IRRATIONAL LOYALTY In a moment of serendipitous frivolity, a few months back, I was among those swept up in the swell of interest in Dr. Dean. My fervor was always tepid, and indeed proved to be fleeting, but I was taken enough at the time to sign up for his electronic correspondence. Needless to say, I had no idea I had unleashed upon myself a relentless and perpetual torrent of rather pathetic appeals and sham enthusiasm. Will it ever stop?
My efforts to scrub my name from the rolls having failed, I took some comfort after Dr. Dean's appeal failed to infect the sturdy farmers, prim school marms, stoic pragmatists, tottering seniors, and soiled laborers of Iowa. "Perhaps this will staunch the torrent of shrill missives," thought I, reasoning that surely the good, rational, doctor would make a quick a diagnosis and euthanize his campaign.
Yet Reason has failed; the torrent continues. Today, the surrogates of the doctor begged their legions of cyber-pseudo-soldiers to fund a quixotic assault on the citizens of Wisconsin, in hopes of winning them over to the doctor's lost cause.
Who would respond to so much vanity and chasing after wind?, thought I. Surely those who had once supported him can see this would-be Napoleon is really just a prickly gnome cursing the sky. But lo! A later message informs me these cultists have dedicated another half million dollars to this little man so he may take his dander and bluster to Madison.
Loyalty is indeed a noble quality, but blind allegiance is irrational. These supporters would just as well send their ducats to me: I'll take Montana! And Louisiana! And Arkansas! And Shangri-La!
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
MR. EDWARDS' CHARM I have only seen pictures -- never video -- of John Edwards, the fresh-faced young Senator from the Carolinas, but, my, is he a pretty man. My! Update: I can understand why the fine men and women of South Carolina went for him.
posted by Robert 5:12 PM
SIMPLY A BREAST Lacking a television, your correspondent from the streets did not have a chance to bear witness to a certain notorious breast's fall from lace during the Super Bowl half-time show. (Instead, I was at the soup kitchen, lolling about as I do on Sundays with my dog-eared copy of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles.") Therefore I cannot, as so many of my more puerile readers have asked, assess either the droop or the sway of Ms. Jackson's apparently aged-looking appendage, and I cannot, to answer a certain reader, say whether or not J. Jackson is still do-able, or merely done. Indeed, I shall not enter any opinion on the matter here; it is not for me, a keen analyst of current affairs and interpreter of worldly comedies, to put my agile mind toward a task so banal as criticizing what, in my day, we called a pair of ta-tas.
In general, however, I should note that I take an ecumenical stance on that most prized of womanly parts: A breast is a breast is a breast, I say. They all perform the same function, and through function, they are, for me, all well-formed. I do not mind small ones; I do not consider a double-D more precious than a mere single-D, and you're crazy, constable, if you think prying my fingers from an A is any easier than from a B. It is no secret, of course, that I used to have a problem with this. Before I took to the streets, I was, as is widely known, something of a grabber. This did not fit well with my former lifestyle of professionalism and politeness, and of course I was shunned for doing what came naturally to me. (Yes, I sought help; but in these matters the cure is often worse than the disease.)
The problem has long ago ceased to be a problem. Being on the street has a way of focusing one's energy on food and shelter rather than cleavage. Still, we are only human, and thoughts of breast, of buttocks, of mid-riffs, these can disrupt our day, even if we're spending hours with Thomas Hardy's Tess rather than Janet Jackson's breasts. I am not ashamed to admit this; I am proud, indeed, as it affirms my humanity, my oneness with all of the homed out there, the men and women who pity me. To them I declare: I grab, therefore I am.
Saturday, January 31, 2004
A NOTE ON HUNGER In Germany, Armin Meiwes, the man who killed and ate a computer engineer a few years ago, has been sentenced to about eight years in prison, a far more lenient term than prosecutors in the case had been hoping for. Miewes, after all, fried parts of his victim "with olive oil, garlic, pepper and nutmeg," and ate him with "sprouts, potatoes and a bottle of South African red wine on a festively decorated table." In the minds of many Germans -- a historically law-and-order-loving people -- such a crime merited a stiff penalty.
But I must beg to differ with the kindly German volk. It is not just that, as the judge said, Miewes evidently happened to be "psychologically sick," or that Bernd Jurgen Brandes, Miewes's "victim," had actually answered the cannibal's ad seeking a man to eat and had actively cooperated in his own death. Those facts are mitigating enough. But as homeless man, a man who, I'm not ashamed to say, has felt the wincing pain of hunger, I must question society's very outsized abhorrence of cannibalism.
Of course, cannibalism, if it's not consensual, can have its downsides. Nobody wants to be someone else's dinner, let alone his mid-morning snack. But when two people come together in mutual recognition of their needs, and if these two -- one hungry, one suicidal -- decide, in the fullness of intellectual discourse, that cannibalism is the only logical and practical route to pursue, who are we to stand in their way? We may question the pragmatism of their plan, and we may mind the mess and may quibble with the recipe, and it would not even be too forward of us to criticize their nutritional sagacity -- but we cannot call them evil. And we cannot stop them from having a pleasant dinner.
This isn't me, but it looks like me.
The library doesn't have those scan machines. And I don't have a camera.
My name is Robert Sore. I am a homeless man in San Francisco, scraping out a living from trash cans and odd jobs. But don't think that I need your pity. If you see me on the street, keep walking, buddy. I don't need your money and I don't need you, in fact -- but I'd be willing to wager that you need me.
I have lived a long time, and I spend a lot of time in the library. A lot of time. I know what's wrong with this world. Why the politicians have it wrong, why the fancy professors have it wrong, why the United States has it wrong. Why the liberals are wrong and why the conservatives are wrong.
But I damn sure know what's right, too. And I'm going to tell you what.