2011 - %3, September

The Most Awful Question from Thursday's Debate

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 4:21 PM EDT

One particularly telling moment at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate came from co-host and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Speaking to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Kelly repeated a common, if medically inaccurate, anti-abortion talking point:

Congressman Paul, you have said that you believe that life begins at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life. If you believe that, how can you support a rape exception to abortion bans, and how can you support the morning-after pill? Aren't those lives just as innocent?

Let's leave aside the suggestion that we should force women to carry the children of rapists to term and just deal with the premise that using the morning-after pill, or plan B, constitutes taking an "innocent" life. Well, no, not based on any medical definition of pregnancy. Pregnancy doesn't begin until the fertilized egg implants in a woman's uterus. This is exactly what the pill is designed to prevent. Thus, no pregnancy to end.

Let's let the Mayo Clinic explain:

Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, the morning-after pill can prevent or delay ovulation, block fertilization, or keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

If that's the case, then by Kelly's standard, any kind of birth control or even just having your period could constitute abortion, too.

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Plaintiff In Anti-DADT Case Slams Santorum

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 3:33 PM EDT
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R).

Alex Nicholson, a former Army Intelligence Officer who was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell and was one of the plaintiffs in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, harshly criticized Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for his remarks on DADT during Thursday night's GOP Presidential debate. When a gay soldier serving in Iraq, Steven Hill, asked the candidates whether they would reinstate DADT, Santorum expressed his support for doing so, saying that ending the policy granted gays and lesbians "special privileges."

"Rick Santorum has never volunteered to serve our country for one single day in uniform. With the number of armed conflicts in which our country has been engaged throughout his lifetime, he has never volunteered to trade his loafers for combat boots or his briefcase for a rucksack and share in the burden of taking up arms to defend this country," Nicholson said. "Stephen Hill has not only done that, but he was actually doing it in Iraq at the very moment when [Santorum] chose to take cheap political shot at Hill and at over 1 million gay and lesbian servicemembers and veterans who have actually volunteered to serve their country in uniform.... Men and women in the military have a term for people like Rick Santorum - Blue Falcon. He should Google it." (The term refers to people who create problems they leave for others to solve.)

As my colleague Tim Murphy noted, not only were there scattered boos in the audience in response to Hill's question, but not a single candidate on stage thanked Hill for his service or responded negatively to the boos. In a follow-up appearance on Fox News on Friday, Santorum said he hadn't heard the boos from the stage and that "I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier...I thank [Hill] for his service to our country. I’m sure he's doing an excellent job. I hope he is safe, and I hope he returns safely, and does his mission well."

Nicholson, now Director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian soldiers and their families, was discharged after a colleague read a letter he had written to a former boyfriend—the letter was written in Portugese to avoid it being casually discovered—and revealed to others in his unit that Nicholson was gay. Asked whether he was disappointed by the silence of the other candidates, Nicholson merely shrugged that, "I think in order to be disappointed you first have to have an expectation. I had no expecatation that most of these candidates would put themselves out on a limb on this issue beyond the statements that some have given that it is a settled issue."

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 September 2011

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 3:03 PM EDT

Happy autumnal equinox, northern hemisphericans! Domino celebrated by hopping up onto the fence for a stroll and then crashing through the brush like a jungle cat when she saw me there with the camera. The result was quite the rare action shot. Inkblot, conversely, celebrated by summoning his staff for a massage. His staff, as always, leaped to comply.

Have a good weekend, everyone. And remember: if you love catblogging, show some of that love by making a tax-deductible contribution to Mother Jones. It's quick, easy, and practically painless! The PayPal link is here. The credit card link is here.

Image of the Week: Mapping the Salty Ocean

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 2:12 PM EDT

The first global map of the salinity of Earth’s ocean surface produced by NASA's new Aquarius instrument reveals a rich tapestry of global salinity patterns. : Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech.The first global map of the salinity of Earth’s ocean surface produced by NASA's new Aquarius observatory: red/yellow=high salinity; blue/purple=low salinity; black=no data. The Aquarius/SAC-D observatory is a collaboration between NASA and CONAE, the Argentine space agency Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech.The Aquarius Mission, launched in June, is making its first space observations of ocean saltiness—a key component of Earth's climate linked to the freshwater cycle and its influence on ocean circulation. The first map (above) is a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data since Aquarius became operational on August 25 and reveals well-known salinity features: higher salinity in the subtropics; higher average salinity in the Atlantic compared to Pacific and Indian Oceans; lower salinity in rainy belts near the equator and in the North Pacific. One obvious feature: the strong differential between the arid and salty Arabian Sea to the west of the Indian subcontinent and the fresher Bay of Bengal to the east, dominated by freshwater outflow from the monsoon-fed Ganges River. An important detail: the unexpectedly large area of low-salinity water around the outflow of the Amazon River. Aquarius is already providing higher-then-expected quality data this early in the mission and should soon greatly increase our understanding of the connections between global rainfall, ocean currents, and climate.

Texas Senate Candidate Compares Rival to Mythical Bloodsucking Monster

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 1:43 PM EDT

According to the most recent polling from Public Policy Polling, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst currently holds a commanding 29-point lead over former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz in the GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). But maybe that will change after Texans watch this new attack ad from Cruz, in which he compares the state's second-in-command to the mythical chupacabra:

Your move, Demon Sheep.

The Power of Flat Out Lies

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

The level of crazy in last night's debate was too high to really keep track of, but Paul Waldman points to this statement from Herman Cain about why he'd be dead if healthcare reform had been the law of the land back when he was diagnosed with cancer:

If we had been under Obamacare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan that would have delayed my treatment. My surgeons and doctors have told me that because I was able get the treatment as fast as I could, based upon my timetable and not the government's timetable that's what saved my life.

Paul comments:

I have no doubt that the typical Republican voter actually believes that when the Affordable Care Act is implemented, every time one of the nation's nearly one million practicing physicians wants to perform a procedure or prescribe a medicine, they'll have to literally place a call to Washington and get permission from some stingy bureaucrat....Why do they believe that? Because people like Herman Cain keep telling them so. I don't know whether Cain is an ignoramus or a liar, but it has to be at least one, maybe both. He stood on a stage, looked into the camera, and told people that under the ACA, doctors will have to get permission from government bureaucrats for every procedure, and treatment of illnesses will proceed not according to the recommendations of medical professionals but on "the government's timetable."

You might say, "Well, nobody would be dumb enough to actually believe that," but you'd be so, so, wrong. It's not just Cain. If you're a conservative, you hear this kind of thing from politicians you like and trust, you hear it when you turn on Fox News and watch TV personalities you like and trust, and you hear it from radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh that you like and trust. You've heard it hundreds and hundreds of times. Were someone to tell you that it's not just false but spectacularly, insanely false, you wouldn't listen for a second.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a real problem for liberals. Sure, we cherry-pick evidence, we spin world events, and we impose our worldview when we talk about policy. Everyone does that. But generally speaking, our opinion leaders don't go on national TV, look straight into the camera, and just outright lie about stuff. Theirs do. And you know, if you'd been told over and over that Obamacare meant getting government permission every time you want to go to the doctor; if you'd been told over and over that the economy is in bad shape because a tidal wave of regulations are strangling American business; and if you'd been told over and over that stimulus spending didn't create one single job — well, what would you think about Barack Obama's presidency? Not much, I imagine.

It's awfully hard to fight stuff this brazen. Everyone understands that politicians fudge details and engage in partisan hypocrisy. All part of the game. But most of us don't expect them to flat out lie. So when they do, we figure there must be something to it. It's a pretty powerful formula, especially when the mainstream press no longer seriously polices this stuff, and isn't much believed even when it does. The answer remains frustratingly elusive.

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Rick Perry Still Blocking Reporters on Twitter

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 1:03 PM EDT

As a reporter covering the GOP presidential campaign, I follow all of the candidates' Twitter feeds as a matter of course. Their tweets are usually about as interesting as you would assume. But on the plus side, I was one of the first 2,415 people to know what Buddy Roemer thought about Gary Johnson's recitation of his friend's text message conveying Rush Limbaugh's joke about President Obama's stimulus package.

But when I tried to follow Texas Gov. Rick Perry, I hit a dead-end: Apparently, Perry has blocked me from following his tweets:

I can still read his tweets if I go to his Twitter page—"The Iowa countryside is incredibly green," he observantly mused recently—but they don't show up in my feed. As far as transparency violations go, this is pretty small potatoes; it pales in comparison to deleting all of your official emails after seven days, which is the Perry administration's official policy. (Perry, for his part, calls transparency "boring.") But as it turns out, I'm not alone. Perry has blocked a bunch of reporters and bloggers, including some from Texas papers like the Dallas Morning-News. In response to that paper's inquiries, a Perry spokeswoman said: "[I]t is the governor's personal account, so he manages it as he likes. He uses non-state resources."

Perry's scheme of blocking journalists is confusing not just because no other candidate does this, but because, as the Post's Alexandra Petri, put it:

All your account really says about you is that you really like Texas and enjoy the company of dogs. But if you are planning to post embarrassing personal revelations later that you don't want the press to know about, maybe you should reread the Twitter manual, because this isn't really the forum.

Yes, my coverage of the governor's record in Texas hasn't exactly been glowing. I previously reported on his slow response to systematic abuse at the Texas Youth Commission, his coziness with the private prison lobby, his shaky record on the death penalty, and the radical roots of his prayer rally in Houston, The Response. Most recently, I noted that his Florida straw poll co-chair believes that gay people are responsible for natural disasters. But here's an entire post listing good things that Perry has done that progressive might actually like.

Making things all the more confusing, Perry, at one point, was following me:

Maybe Mitt Romney's right—there really are two Rick Perrys.

How to Run With Wolves

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth and the Deadly 60 Team. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous. 

Travelling to the frozen north, Steve and his Deadly 60 team met an animal whose ability to survive in sub-zero temperatures has made the creature one of many Norwegian success stories. But how close could they really get to this hardened predator?

Well, sorry, you can't. No matter what the Twilight movie says!

Wild wolves are extremely hard to get close to, and it's not sensible to try. They are top predators, the largest of the wild dog family living in complex social groups and in remote inhospitable places. They are incredibly hard to see and track in the wild, travelling over long distances and running at speeds of over 30 mph in pursuit of prey. They are ferocious hunters tackling prey many times their own size like elk, bison, and musk ox. Wild wolves are not to be messed with.

But on Deadly 60 Steve wanted a close encounter with this apex predator. So we found a place where a "socialised" group of grey wolves were kept. This doesn't mean the wolves are tame, but they are accustomed to humans. The team travelled to the most northern animal park in the world, a place called Polar Zoo. Located in the Salangsdalen Valley, Norway, the park is home to the Salangen wolf pack which is the first wolf pack in Norway that is socialized to people. In order to stay safe the team enlisted the help of expert Tess Erngren, a dog psychologist who has interacted with this pack since they were young.

So how do you behave around a (socialised) wolf pack?

  • Wolves can sense fear. Their recognition of fear is seen as a social non-starter and they won't want to interact. Steve had to remain relaxed, calm and confident.
  • Don't threaten them or invade their confinement. Never threaten a wild animal, even a socialised one.
  • Move slowly and don't make any sudden movements, this could startle them and they may react defensively.
  • Don't approach them, remain calm and they may approach you out of curiosity.
  • Take advice from the experts–Tess knew these wolves well and could guide Steve on how to behave around them.
  • Try to leave a positive impression–for example, if you step on a wolf's paw, try and divert their attention and don't react to it.

For more great tips and moving moments, check out the Deadly Diaries, direct from Steve and the Deadly 60 Team. 

Score Settling and Narrative Building

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 12:49 PM EDT

Ezra Klein writes today about a tension in Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Suskind apparently thinks Larry Summers is an asshole,1 but at the same time a close reading of the book suggests that Suskind actually takes Summers' side on the merits of an awful lot of policy issues. So what's up with that?

I'm reluctant to say anything specific since I haven't read the book, but I do think this points to something that's a pervasive, and apparently intractable, problem with this genre of book: it relies too much on blind quotes. And in the case of Confidence Men, an awful lot of the sources behind these quotes apparently don't like Summers much.

I know, I know: this is hardly a blindingly original criticism. But it's still a debilitating one, and you could see the same problem at work last year in, for example, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail. The problem, bluntly stated, is that the world of the West Wing, like the world of Wall Street, is a fantastic snake pit of backstabbing, score settling, blame avoiding, and self-aggrandizement. So whenever you read a narrative about anything, you absolutely need to know who it's coming from. Often you can guess at this just by examining which side a particular narrative seems to take, but guessing is all you can do. The plain fact is that the third-person omniscient storytelling style very strongly encourages you to forget about all this.

Which is odd, of course, since books like this usually spend a ton of time talking about all the personality conflicts at work. And yet, the narrative itself acts as if these conflicts don't matter. Form and content are at war, and in the end, form wins: the reader is encouraged to think of the narratives as truth, rather than as Tim Geithner's side of the story or Christina Romer's side of the story or Rahm Emanuel's side of the story. And not to get all postmodern on y'all, but "truth" is a very, very bad way to think of this stuff. In narratives like this, it really is the case that everyone has their own truth, and unless you know that in your bones the story will never really make proper sense.

1Yes, yes, I know: big surprise. Is there anyone left on the planet who doesn't think Larry Summers is an asshole?

Perry Wants To "Mate Up" Gingrich and Cain

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 12:28 PM EDT

Perhaps the strangest moment of Thursday's Fox News/Google debate came when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked who he would pick as his running mate. His reply: "I don't know how you would do this, but if you could take Herman Cain and mate him up with Newt Gingrich, I think you would have a couple of really interesting guys to work with."

Former Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney quipped, "There are a couple of images I'm going to have a hard time getting out of my mind."

I suspect Perry's plan to "mate up" Gingrich and Cain (who actually did say he would choose Gingrich as his running mate) doesn't actually signify a shift in Perry's views on marriage equality. But if the image of a mutant spawn of Cain and Gingrich running alongside Perry doesn't frighten you, consider that Perry didn't exactly excel in his animal science major in college, receiving "a D in veterinary anatomy, a F in a second course on organic chemistry and a C in animal breeding." We can only hope that when this Hermewt Caingrich emerges, Tokyo will be spared.