barack-obama-sad-250x200.jpg Right now, the new era of bipartisanship in Washington is unilateral.

The massive stimulus package passed the House yesterday with zero Republican votes. Obama, who had hoped for a widely supported bill, got stonewalled despite doing three things: (1) fashioning roughly 1/3 of the package out of tax cuts, which the GOP loves; (2) going to the House Republican caucus and asking for their input; and (3) pulling provisions from the bill that Republicans didn't like (see previous post). House Republicans acknowledged all of this, thanked the President, talked smack about the House Democrats, and voted against the bill anyway.

So what does Obama do now?

You know, the one that the White House had removed from the bill after everyone on the Right mocked it for funding condoms instead of economic recovery. (Democrats should have just left it in; taking it out enticed exactly zero House Republicans to vote for the bill.) Turns out, it would have saved the states $200 million that they could budget for other things. Here's the New York Times:

The White House encouraged other gestures as well. As the House version of the legislation came to the floor on Tuesday, Democrats stripped from it a provision that Republicans had ridiculed as having nothing to do with economic stimulus, one expanding federal Medicaid coverage of family planning services. (The Congressional Budget Office had estimated that the provision would actually save the government $200 million over five years by reducing pregnancy and postnatal-care expenses.)

But hey, Drudge put up a big headline making fun of it and the Republicans are really, really good at choosing one provision of a massive bill and using it to play PR games. So don't try to defend it. Just back down. Much less trouble that way.

Update: All sarcasm aside, Katha Pollitt has some very wise things to say on this subject.

Diplomatic Pouch

DIPLOMATIC POUCH....The Guardian reports that the Obama administration plans to send a letter to the Iranian leadership:

The US state department has been working on drafts of the letter since Obama was elected on 4 November last year. It is in reply to a lengthy letter of congratulations sent by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 6 November.

Diplomats said Obama's letter would be a symbolic gesture to mark a change in tone from the hostile one adopted by the Bush administration, which portrayed Iran as part of an "axis of evil".

....State department officials have composed at least three drafts of the letter, which gives assurances that Washington does not want to overthrow the Islamic regime, but merely seeks a change in its behaviour. The letter would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.

An accompanying story suggests that the letter "represents a determined break from past US policy," but then strikes a less hopeful tone: "There is one thing everyone agrees on — it is impossible to do any kind of business with the current Iranian president. Ahmadinejad's speech in Kermanshah yesterday, demanding complete US withdrawal from all overseas deployments, clearly illustrated that." Stay tuned.

Nyet!

NYET!....The Obama administration wants to extend the February 17 deadline for TV stations to switch from analog to digital transmissions. I don't have a strong opinion about the merits of this delay, but check out the results of the roll call vote in Congress:

[Joe] Barton led the push to scuttle the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday night after lawmakers in that chamber struck a bipartisan compromise....But those concessions did not placate most Republicans in the House. Only 22 Republicans voted for the bill, while 155 voted against it.

So here we have a relatively nonideological issue. It went through a modest amount of give-and-take and a compromise was struck. And the result? 100% of Senate Republicans voted in favor but 90% of House Republicans voted against. Shazam!

Apparently the House GOP caucus really has decided to blindly stonewall everything Obama wants, no matter what. This is even more of a wakeup call than the vote on the stimulus bill.

The Sweet Song of Bipartisanship

THE SWEET SONG OF BIPARTISANSHIP....Welcome to Washington, President Obama:

[Today] the House approved an $819 billion stimulus plan that will serve as the cornerstone of President Obama's efforts to resuscitate the economy, an early victory for the new president but still a disappointment because of the lack of Republican votes.

The measure passed 244 to 188, with 11 Democrats and 177 Republicans voting against it.

There are 178 Republicans in the House and 177 of them voted today. Every single one of them voted against the bill. In case there were still any doubters, I think it's now safe to say that the GOP caucus has decided to pick up where it left off last year, in full-on obstruction mode.

Atheists

ATHEISTS....One of Andrew Sullivan's readers is annoyed with us atheists:

Telling me what you don't believe tells me very little....But you can no more avoid making a positive choice about the source of meaning in your life and the universe than you can avoid living in some country. You can talk about which country is best to live in, but the atheist pretends you can live in no country at all.

You gotta live somewhere, and you gotta believe in something, because your beliefs are being expressed every day in how you live your life. Atheists should be forced to articulate their positive position (say, secular humanism) as price of admission to the conversation.

This is a very odd complaint. I suppose the answer varies with the atheist (some people with a vague belief in "spirituality," for example, might describe themselves as atheists), but surely the bulk of us simply believe in a physical universe governed by physical laws. If you asked me, my rough answer would be, I believe in quantum mechanics, with the right to revise and extend if evidence for something better comes along.

Or, sure, secular humanism. Whatever. But although it's probably true that most conversations of this sort revolve around conventional religions and whether or not we believe in them, surely the flip side of that is fairly obvious even if it's not always directly articulated. Isn't it?

The FDA's Poison Lunch Box

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If I didn't know better, I'd say the FDA was engaged in a plot to kill schoolkids by poisoning them with peanut butter and honey sandwiches and a side of Yoplait. This popular lunchbox meal's virulent mix of salmonella, illegal antibiotics, and mercury is made possible, respectively, by the FDA's lax oversight of a peanut butter factory in Georgia and honey imports from China combined with its failure to care that a common method of creating high fructose corn syrup produces mercury (a fact it appears to have known since 2005). The only upside to this food pyramid of death is that it might scare parents into feeding their kids healthier foods. Spinach anyone?

Photo used under a creative commons license from Faces of Death

Those folks who bother to worry about the war in Afghanistan--not a large slice of the population--had reason to fret on Wednesday morning when they picked up (or clicked on) the New York Times and read a front-page story noting that President Barack Obama is adopting a new "approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development." The piece cited unnamed senior administration officials.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had said that the administration was in the early stage of reevaluating Afghanistan policy. He had noted that Obama intended to meet with US Army General David McKiernan, the commander of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the course ahead. It seemed as if no decisions had been rendered about Afghanistan.

Yet the Times indicated key calls have already been made:

Are Pro Football Players Brain Damaged?

From CNN:

Until recently, the best medical definition for concussion was a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been considered an invisible injury, impossible to test—no MRI, no CT scan can detect it.

But today, using tissue from retired NFL athletes culled posthumously, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) is shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain. The findings are stunning. Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE has thus far been found in the brains of five out of five former NFL players..."What's been surprising is that it's so extensive," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

McKee, who also studies Alzheimer's disease, says the tangles closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia.

These former jocks also suffer long term anger and sleep disorders: "The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells." Many former jocks find themselves bankrupt, divorced, and cut off from society, all without a clue as to why.

Perhaps, and I'm not being sarcastic, the damage begins quickly enough to explain some of the inexplicable problems we see among pro athletes (though basketball and baseball don't seem to offer the same out for its misbehaving players).

Needless to say, young men will still kill themselves to make it to the NFL; they're young and much fussed over. Also needless to say, the NFL denies that football causes brain damage.

The NFL is planning its own independent medical study of retired NFL players on the long-term effects of concussion.

Methinks some unemployed former Big Tobacco lobbyists and "scientists" will find themselves working again. I pray my son opts for swimming or soccer.

John Updike: RIP

Updike2Resized.jpgThe biography at the end of John Updike's novels was always the same:

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of the New Yorker….

Then his life story stops, in 1957, landing him in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.

And there he remained, for the rest of his life, raising his four children, becoming a New England gentleman even as he unflinchingly exposed the sins and hypocrisies, particularly with regard to adultery, of the American success story.

Updike, 76, died yesterday of lung cancer. An incredibly prolific author, like other fruitful writers he faced mixed reviews and the lingering suggestion that his writing served a sort of masturbatory function. Like Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, his readers came to suspect that—with more than more than 50 books—there was nothing else much to learn. "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" David Foster Wallace wrote, somewhat uncharitably, in a review of Updike's Toward the End of Time.

Updike's works included several series (the Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech novels), A Month of Sundays, about the midlife crisis of an Episcopal priest, Terrorist, about an American kid attracted to Al Qaeda (sort of a John Walker Lindh of working-class New Jersey), several short stories , and numerous books about adultery among the prosperous couples of suburban Massachusetts.

"Sex is like money; only too much is enough," said Piet Hanema, the protagonist in Couples, the 1968 novel that made Updike rich and put him on the cover of Time. This obvious, and somehow unsatisfying kind of realization, appeared often in Updike's work. Those weird insecurities, characters uncomfortable with their own lives, occurred over and over in his fiction. Updike was forever surprised and sort of fascinated that he was not still stuck in Pennsylvania, the son of a retail clerk with literary aspirations. Having reached the pinnacle of his profession early on, Updike was keenly aware that the neat, ironed out existence of haute-bourgeoisie America, of the two martini lunch and unacknowledged adultery, was often shallow and unsatisfying.

Unlike the characters of John Cheever, a writer to whom he was often compared—who quietly and tastefully go insane—Updike's protagonists just muddle through. Miserable in their jobs, worried about their children, unhappy with their wives, they serve as telling and honest commentary on the discomfort many Americans felt about their own accomplishments.

Because so many of Updike's characters represented Nixon's "silent majority"—white, conservative, vaguely resentful of political change—Updike was sometimes called a racist, a misogynist, and a defender of the status quo.

All of this, while possibly true, entirely misses the point. Throughout his life Updike was a committed, though not particularly outspoken, supporter of progressive causes. The fact that his characters were often old-fashioned and bigoted is to his credit. It is not, after all, the duty of a writer to show the world as it ought to be; it is to paint a compelling picture of the world as it exists and the people who inhabit it.

He was not a writer of my generation. The sort of world he observed—of Oldsmobiles and after-dinner cigarettes, of post-war success and geriatrics—is not one I inhabit. But those things always seemed to me like mere details. An incredible researcher, Updike created a diverse cast of characters: painters, preachers, computer scientists, writers, dentists, actors, building contractors—the whole gamut of 20th century American professional success. But what he managed to do for all of this characters was demonstrate that everyone had AN inner life. He created a world, over and over, in which the mundane was made complicated and compelling.

With the death of John Updike America has lost a selfish, prejudiced, and astoundingly talented man, the sort of person who could see through the barriers Americans put up and tell readers what was truly going on.

—Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user John McNab