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Genetically Engineered Happiness Probably Doesn't Mean Fewer Geniuses

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias says that becoming a new father has changed his mind about genetic engineering:

The main thing is that I now have an instinctive, gut-level understanding of what it is I want for my kid as a parent. And the main thing is that my parental aspirations are very asymmetrical. You want the kid to grow up to be basically happy and healthy. Anything beyond that in terms of genuinely noteworthy achievements would be nice, but honestly not that much nicer than "basically happy and healthy." By contrast, falling significantly short of "basically happy and healthy" would be really bad.

....Long story short, while I used to think of genetic engineering as primarily about making future generations "better" on average, with my dad-glasses on I think it would be largely about making them more mediocre. You would curtail the left end of the distribution curve, but also the right end. Fewer tortured geniuses and alienated, awkward loners who push the boundaries of society and technology.

The image of the tortured genius is rife in Western literature, but in real life it's basically a myth. Are there tortured geniuses among us? Sure. Vincent van Gogh was famously tortured. Kurt Cobain. Georg Cantor.

But the boring truth is that geniuses, on average, are about the same as everyone else aside from being geniuses. Einstein was perfectly well adjusted. Ditto for Shakespeare, Edison, Picasso, Maxwell, Newton, etc. They all had their own quirks and foibles, and were maybe a bit more driven than average, but fell well within the usual norms for healthy and happy. Historical studies of geniuses have all confirmed this. Being unhappy just doesn't have any effect on being a genius.

So no worries on that score, though there are plenty of other things to worry about in the brave new world of human genetic engineering—including the fact that not all parents share Matt's value system in the first place.

Besides, my guess is that trying to engineer geniuses is a dead end anyway. Artificial intelligence will get there first. By the the time we've finally figured out how to reliably produce the next baby Einstein, the machines will just be tittering at us behind our backs.

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Rand Paul Blames the Baltimore Riots on Absentee Fathers

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 2:15 PM EDT

As one of a growing number of GOP 2016 wannabes, Sen. Rand Paul has tried to sell himself as the best Republican candidate to reach out to African-American voters. He's talked about the need for criminal justice reform. During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, he called for demilitarizing police forces. Yet his response to the riots in Baltimore show that he has a long way to go. During an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday, the Kentucky senator blamed the turmoil not on the police brutality that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray, but on absentee fathers and a breakdown in families.

"It's depressing, it's sad, it's scary. I came through the train on Baltimore last night, I'm glad the train didn't stop," Paul said, laughing at his own unfunny joke. He then pontificated of the unrest: "The thing is that really there's so many things we can talk about, it's something we talk about not in the immediate aftermath but over time: the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society. And this isn't just a racial thing, it goes across racial boundaries, but we do have problems in our country."

By the way, a week ago, Paul's 22-year-old son William was cited for driving while intoxicated after he was in a car crash.

Listen to the audio of the interview, recorded by Media Matters (hat tip to TPM):

Paul wasn't the only presidential aspirant to comment on the riots. Hillary Clinton sent out a tweet on Monday calling for peace but supporting the protestors who were upset by Gray's death.

Former Baltimore resident and likely presidential candidate Ben Carson pleaded with parents in the city to keep their children away from the disorder. "I urge parents, grandparents and guardians to please take control of your children and do not allow them to be exposed to the dangers of uncontrolled agitators on the streets," Carson said in a statement.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lamented the school closures across the city. "No man, woman, or child should fear for his or her safety in America—not in their schools, not in their neighborhoods, not in their cities—but today families are scared," the GOP contender said.

But long-shot Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley went further than just a simple statement. O'Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore, canceled a string of paid speeches in Europe to return home.

Some Hopeful Images From Baltimore: Residents Uniting to Clean Up the City

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

After an evening of violent unrest, Baltimore residents emerged Tuesday morning to clean up after the destruction and prepare for what could be more chaos. On Monday, at least 15 police officers were injured and dozens of businesses were destroyed, as rioters clashed with law enforcement officials throughout most of the evening.

Residents, including children, were seen gathering around a CVS that had been looted and torched the night before. An affordable housing unit for senior citizens was also among the buildings destroyed by fires. Many businesses remain closed until further notice.

A large part of the clean-up effort was initiated by a Facebook group seeking volunteers to help amid Monday's violence. By Tuesday morning, nearly 2,500 people gathered at various meeting points throughout the city.

Monday's rioting followed the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose death after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody sparked protests. Initially, those protests were mostly peaceful; Gray's family was quick to denounce the ugliness that erupted Monday. "To see that it turned into all this violence and destruction, I am really appalled," Richard Shipley, Gray's stepfather, told NBC.

Many community members have also condemned the destruction. On Monday, one unidentified mother was seen reprimanding her son for participating in the violence.

Another protest is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

One Last Fundraising Pitch for Our Spring Drive

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Editor's note: Kevin asked us to repost his message below if we thought it would help in the final days of our Spring Fundraising Drive—and we sure do, the response has been great and we want to be sure everyone sees it. Read his touching letter and pitch in a couple of bucks—or more—via credit card or PayPal if you can swing it.

Our annual Spring Fundraising Drive is wrapping up at the end of the month, but as you all know, I'll be recuperating from my final round of chemotherapy in lovely Duarte, California, right about then. But I didn't want to be left out, so I asked if I could post my note a little earlier than I usually do.

I figure if there's ever been a time when I'm allowed to get slightly more maudlin than usual, this is it. (But just slightly. I have a reputation, after all.) I've been writing for Mother Jones since 2008, and it's been such a great job that it's almost getting hard to remember ever working for anyone else. They've provided me with more freedom to write whatever I want than anyone could hope for. That's been great for me, and I hope for all of you too.

Writing for the print magazine has been a huge gift as well, and it's something I dearly hope to return to when all the chemotherapy is over and my strength is back to normal. It's been a privilege to share pages with such an amazingly talented bunch of journalists.

Truthfully, I've been blessed to have such a great editorial team over the past few months, as well as such a great readership. You guys are truly the best to go through something like this with.

So here's the ask: Mother Jones has done a lot for me and a lot for you over the past few years, and when I get back they're going to keep right on doing it. That makes this fundraising request a little more personal than usual, but if there's ever been a time for you to show your appreciation, this is it. If you can afford five dollars, that's plenty. If you can afford a thousand, then pony up, because you're pretty lucky, aren't you? Either way, when I get back I sure hope to see that my readers have really stepped up to the plate.

Readers like you are a big part of what makes Mother Jones such a unique place. Your support allows me to write about what’s truly important, rather than obsessing over whatever generates the most clicks and advertising revenue. And it's not just me. It gives all of us the independence to write about issues that other places won't touch. It means that we ultimately answer to you, our readers, and not a corporate parent company or shareholders (and you've never been shy about letting us know what you think!).

Thanks for helping make Mother Jones what it is, and for making the last seven years some of the best of my life. And thanks in advance for whatever you can give to keep both me and Mother Jones going strong. Here are the links for donations:

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Politics Is Theater—and Sometimes We Need to Cover it That Way

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from BloombergView's Jonathan Bernstein, who began his career as political scientist. Since launching his blog in 2009, he's gone on to write about politics and government for the American Prospect, the Washington Post, and many other outlets.

I write today in defense of the theater criticism style of campaign reporting, which took solid hits from Derek Thompson and (in somewhat different wording) Paul Waldman this week. Thompson puts it this way:

A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theater criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances....

To state the obvious: This is a really dumb way to try to cover elections. Theater-critic journalism is certainly not as substantive as policy analysis. It's also neither as meaty as terrific behind-the-scenes reporting, nor as harmless as anodyne horse-race coverage. It is, rather, personal opinion about a candidate's authenticity masquerading as nonpartisan analysis of their ability to connect with voters, often detached from any analysis of whether the candidate is really connecting with voters. It is a popular critic, in the orchestra section, writing in the first-person plural.

Sure, there's some terrible theater criticism stuff out there, and if we retired debates about "authenticity" today, it would be a great victory for common sense.

But the problem isn't reporting on candidate rhetoric as if it was theater. In many ways, it is theater! General election debates or official declarations of candidacy, for example, mostly do not affect election outcomes or reveal who candidates truly are. But that doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Let's start over. The real problems come when reporters go beyond what they know, and sometimes beyond what they can know.

That's the case when they use candidate performances to try to figure out who the "real" person underneath the candidate persona might be. In politics, it's the persona that counts. Politicians, when elected, try to keep their promises. But that includes more than policy promises. It also means that they try to "be" the person they promised to be on the campaign trail—and they're often punished if they try to deviate from that (so, for example, Barack Obama is punished when he acts as a partisan cheerleader in part because he promised to be a more unifying figure).

It's also the case in "game changer" journalism, when reporters insist that whatever they are covering is important because it will have a direct effect on election outcomes. The brutal truth is that most campaign events don't have much to do with winning and losing. But they can still be important because they might affect how the winner will govern. Or they may not be "important" at all, but are still interesting in the way any human interest story can be interesting. If politics is important—and it is—then there's nothing wrong with wanting to know what it's like to be at events, or in the back rooms.

Good (regular) theater criticism doesn't usually focus on what an actor's choices mean about who he really is; nor does it primarily concern itself with whether a particular bit of staging will turn a show into a hit or a flop. If theater-critic political journalism can avoid those traps, I'm all for it.

Bloods and Crips Members Say They Want "Nobody to Get Hurt" in Baltimore Protests

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 9:03 AM EDT

Amid mounting unrest in Baltimore, an unexpected alliance—members of the Bloods and Crips—emerged yesterday to call for protection of local residents. At an event in a local church shown in a Baltimore Sun video, a man named Charles, who said he was a member of the Crips, wrapped his arm around a self-described Bloods member named Jamal to call for an end to riots over the death of Freddie Gray.

Hours earlier, Baltimore police had warned that members of "various gangs," including the Bloods, Crips, and Black Guerrilla Family, would "team up" to attack police officers and posed a "credible threat." In January, a member of the Black Guerrilla Family walked into a Baltimore police station with a loaded .22-calibur handgun, marijuana, and cocaine to "test security."

"We not here for nobody to get hurt," Charles told the Sun reporter. "We don't want nobody to get hurt. All that about the police getting hurt by certain gangs, that's false. We not here for that. We here to protect our community, and that's it. We don't want no trouble. We're doing this because we don't want trouble."

"The police department hate to see us right now," Jamal said.

Though unusual, a Bloods-Crips alliance would not be without precedent. On Saturday, members of both groups joined protests throughout Baltimore, marching side by side against police brutality. The Daily Beast reported that in August, several former Bloods and Crips carried signs while protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, that read: "NO MORE CRIPS. NO MORE BLOODS. ONE PEOPLE. NO GANG ZONE."

And more than two decades ago, when four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the 1992 beating of Rodney King, the two factions struck a truce that drew skepticism from officers and community workers, but is thought to have helped limit street violence in LA for years.

 

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Orioles Executive on Baltimore Unrest: It's Inequality, Stupid

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 12:45 AM EDT

Unrest and violence in the streets Monday forced the postponement of a matchup between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox—but an impassioned speech on Twitter from one Orioles exec days earlier puts the ongoing clashes between police and demonstrators over the death of Freddie Gray in a different light.

Two days ago, when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people's actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties.   

Deadspin transcribed Angelos' tweetstorm (emphasis added):

Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.

As Major League Baseball decides whether to play a day game at Camden Yards on Tuesday, Angelos' message is clear: At the end of the day, it comes down to social and economic inequality.

"The Wire" Creator David Simon to Baltimore Rioters: "Turn around. Go home. Please."

| Mon Apr. 27, 2015 8:35 PM EDT

As tensions escalate between residents and police on the streets of Baltimore, David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and showrunner for the critically-acclaimed show The Wire, took to his personal site to call for an end to the protests.  

First things first.

Yes, there is a lot to be argued, debated, addressed.  And this moment, as inevitable as it has sometimes seemed, can still, in the end, prove transformational, if not redemptive for our city.   Changes are necessary and voices need to be heard.  All of that is true and all of that is still possible, despite what is now loose in the streets.

But now — in this moment — the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease.  There was real power and potential in the peaceful protests that spoke in Mr. Gray’s name initially, and there was real unity at his homegoing today.  But this, now, in the streets, is an affront to that man’s memory and a dimunition of the absolute moral lesson that underlies his unnecessary death.

If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore.  Turn around.  Go home.  Please.

The demonstrations erupted Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who died in police custody over a week ago. Reports of looting, cars set aflame and violent clashes between protestors and Baltimore police led Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to declare a "state of emergency."

In March, President Barack Obama, a self-described fan of "The Wire", riffed with Simon about the challenges in today's criminal justice system for communities like Baltimore affected by the drug trade. Watch that interview below:

Update: Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce, cast members from "The Wire", joined Simon in calling for an end to the violence in Baltimore on Twitter.

Here's What the Nepalese Earthquake Devastation Looks Like From a Drone

| Mon Apr. 27, 2015 4:43 PM EDT

Over the weekend, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and multiple aftershocks wiped out buildings, infrastructure, and historic sites in Nepal, killing more than 4,000 people, injuring thousands more, and leaving tens of thousands homeless. As fatalities continue to rise after the worst earthquake to hit the country in more than 80 years, the Wall Street Journal reports that the disaster could cost the country $5 billion to rebuild over the next five years.

So far, rescue teams have struggled to reach remote villages, and news orgs are having a hard time getting reporters into the country. This amateur aerial drone footage, zooming in and out above the devastation in Kathmandu, shows why:

Good Luck Going After the Pope, Climate Deniers

| Mon Apr. 27, 2015 3:18 PM EDT
Pope Francis in Tacloban, Philippines

If you write about climate change for a living, you get used to being on the receiving end of tweets, emails, and comments explaining why manmade global warming is a colossal hoax. But it turns out that if you're the pope, the trolls take things a bit further. From our partners at the Guardian:

A US activist group that has received funding from energy companies and the foundation controlled by conservative activist Charles Koch is trying to persuade the Vatican that "there is no global warming crisis" ahead of an environmental statement by Pope Francis this summer that is expected to call for strong action to combat climate change.

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative thinktank that seeks to discredit established science on climate change, said it was sending a team of climate scientists to Rome "to inform Pope Francis of the truth about climate science."

"Though Pope Francis's heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations' unscientific agenda on the climate," Joseph Bast, Heartland's president, said in a statement.

Jim Lakely, a Heartland spokesman, said the thinktank was "working on" securing a meeting with the Vatican. "I think Catholics should examine the evidence for themselves, and understand that the Holy Father is an authority on spiritual matters, not scientific ones," he said.

The pope and his aides have publicly embraced the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet, and tomorrow the Vatican is putting on a summit entitled "Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development." Heartland beat them to the punch, setting up a "prebuttal" event on Monday in Rome. Heartland seems especially upset that the Vatican summit will feature two notable figures—UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and economist Jeffrey Sachs—who, it says, "refuse to acknowledge the abundant data showing human greenhouse gas emissions are not causing a climate crisis."

Heartland is also encouraging its followers to send letters and emails to the pope and to spread the gospel of global warming denial to their local church officials. "Talk to your minister, priest, or spiritual leader," advises Heartland's website. "Tell him or her you've studied the global warming issue and believe Pope Francis is being misled about the science and economics of the issue."

As my colleague James West reported, a sizeable majority of US Catholics actually share the pope's belief the climate change is a serious threat. Heartland seems to be trying to shift their views on the issue by portraying climate activists as hostile to Catholic values. In an American Spectator op-ed today (headline: "Francis Is Out of His Element"), Heartland research fellow H. Sterling Burnett writes:

Those pushing for bans on fossil fuel use think too many humans are the environmental problem. Many of them worship the creation, not the Creator. The same people pushing the pope to join the fight against climate change support forcible population control programs such as those operating in China. That is not a Christian position.

On its website, Heartland goes even further, writing that "climate alarmists have misrepresented the facts, concocted false data, and tried to shut down a reasonable, scientific debate on the issue of climate change. This conduct violates the Eighth Commandment: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.'"