A lot has been written about how women are perceived to be either "not funny" or "not as funny as men." Now that there are a number of respected women comics, that paradigm has changed somewhat in that women can be funny as long as their humor is not aggressive. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, is generally considered funny by anyone who is not a hopeless homophobe, partly because her humor is not at all aggressive (this is not a criticism, by the way--I think DeGeneres is hilarious). Margaret Cho is another story: She says bad words, and she talks about sex in great (and hysterically funny) detail. She not only makes people uncomfortable--she is a woman, she is Asian-American, and she is a member of the LGBT community, to boot.

Perhaps no one, though, has fueled the "women are funny as long as they are 'feminine'" fire as much as Sarah Silverman, whose television series debuted last Thursday night. Both men and women have walked out of her shows, and I have heard many supposedly liberal people call her humor "tasteless" and "disgusting." But the fact of the matter is that Silverman, and other female comics like her, do not push the envelope any farther than a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle, whom these same critics admire.

Silverman's humor is not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. I am not making a case for whether she is a good comic; I am just pointing out that the "shocking" things that come out of her mouth would be considered "badass" if they came out of the mouth of a male comic. Drew Carey says it well: "Comedy is about aggression and confrontation and power. As a culture we just don't allow women to do all that stuff."

Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair, recently acknowledged that there are some funny women comics around, but "Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." One might just as well say that most of the really funny male comics are black or Jewish (forgive me, those who think Robin Williams is still funny).

Hitchens, to his credit, also says:

Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit.

The Duke Cunningham of Iraq

Well, maybe slightly worse than Duke Cunningham. He bombed a U.S. embassy, and a French embassy, and maybe killed a Kuwaiti police officer and is maybe spying for Iran. And yep, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed is an elected member of Iraq's parliment. Let's hear it for Iraqi Democracy. Makin' us proud!

Is a Deal with Dingell a Deal with the Devil?

Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

"Economic Man" = Boring Old White Man

In another last-one-to-say-"Not me"-when-somebody-farts move, George Bush announced last week that income inequality was a problem in the United States. (Mother Jones has reported on the problem here, here, and here to take but a few examples.) Today, the Washington Post reports, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also acknowledged the income-inequality problem. Like Bush, he blamed the increasing value of education.

Bush and his Fed chief don't want to admit that tax breaks for the wealthy might have something to do with the increasing income gap. But the education claim is not just an excuse; it's a big fat lie. It's false even if all kinds of education are lumped together; breaking education down by field (i.e., business or science vs. anything in the humanities) reveals even more clearly that education itself is no passkey into the upper, upper class to which the concept of "income inequality" refers.

Bernanke's proposed solutions are fascinating, because they suggest that the Fed chief knows that a true free market screws the poor. He concedes that

the U.S. economy "creates painful dislocations," such as factory closings and layoffs of workers with obsolete skills. "If we did not place some limits on the downside risks to individuals affected by economic change, the public at large might become less willing to accept the dynamism that is so essential to economic progress."

There have been some very revealing articles lately about the assumptions that economists make to be able to argue that the free market is best for everyone. Bascially, they assume everyone is the same. They call that everyone "Economic Man," and assume that he is informed and rational in all of his economic decisions. Nobel-winning economist George A. Akerlof argued recently that Friedman's free market approach, which champions Economic Man, rather oversimplifies human behavior. As Louis Uchitelle reported in the NYT:

For example, [Akerlof] says, people don't automatically insist on raises that keep their pay on par with inflation. They often are happy with smaller raises, considering them a compliment from the boss for valued work. That makes pressure for higher pay less inflationary than the Friedman approach would assume.

Has there ever been a better example of how a bunch of affluent white men sitting around pontificating will completely block out what real life is like for real people?

Last week, Salon's Andrew Leonard profiled the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which, it turns out, explores the same oversights Akerlof is talking about by way of brain scan. Leonard worries that brain scans, too, will become standardized. On the up side, maybe they'll have to use poor people as guinea pigs and the assumptions will begin favor the needy.

Specter Remorseful About Role in U.S. Attorney Purge

We've written in the past about the Bush Administration's purge of trouble-making U.S. Attorneys nationwide. In you don't know the story, read up, because it is some legitimately scary stuff. Talking Points Memo, who has been following the story more closely than anyone, uncovered the fact that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) enabled the purge by slipping a small provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization at the Bush Administration's request that gave the administration increased control over Attorney hirings and firings.

Democrats have pressed the White House on this and in a hearing on the subject today, Specter defended his action as having reasonable intentions and unintended results. From TPM:

According to the original law, the Attorney General could appoint interim U.S. Attorneys, but if they were not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate within 120 days of being appointed, the federal district court would appoint a replacement. Justice Department officials apparently didn't like that judges were able to appoint U.S. Attorneys, members of the executive branch, so the new language removed the court's involvement in the process. But in doing that, the change also allowed the administration to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity.

Specter, who has been one of only a few Republicans to regularly challenge the administration's overreach of power in the past, said today that he hopes to change the law back to its original version.

Spotted on ThinkProgress:

"Bush's proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant for lower-income undergraduate students was greeted with fanfare when it was announced last week. But his FY08 budget released Monday contains no new money to pay for it," CongressDaily reports.

This is hardly the first time President Bush has made a promise on education and then failed to follow through come budget time. He eliminated funding for Even Start after calling the program "incredibly important" in 2002, he underfunded No Child Left Behind by $30 billion, and screwed a whole series of educational programs after making education reform a major domestic priority.

More details? Sure. At an elementary school in Maryland in 2003, the president said [pdf], "We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the millions of children it serves.... There needs to be a guarantee that the federal money spent on Head Start, only go to Head Start." The White House then attempted to hand control of Head Start over to state governments by blocking federal funding. States could use a portion of their Head Start funds for other state needs.

In September 2003, President Bush said [pdf] "Our economy demands new and different skills. We are a changing economy. And therefore, we must constantly educate workers to be able to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And so, therefore, I went to Congress and asked for increased funding for Pell Grants for higher education scholarships." Later that year, Bush revised the information used to determine financial aid eligibility, leading to 84,000 students losing their right to a Pell Grant. Additionally, Bush's FY2004 budget cut minimum Pell Grant awards.

It's a matter of priorities, not fiscal discipline. If Bush tried to balance the budget every year and cutting benefits to education was the only way to do so, he could make the case that it is all part of the conservative credo. But Bush has created and maintained massive deficits, mainly because he insists on tax cuts for the wealthy and huge defense expenditures. The rich and the armed come before the nation's children.

Good Intelligence Reporting Making a Comeback

As everyone knows by now, good journalism was late to the party on the Iraq War. Many very, very good books have come out in the last two years that detail how intelligence was twisted, how reconstruction was bungled, how sectarian violence was inflamed instead of dampened, and on and on, but all of them came several years too late to nip support for the war in the bud or to end it in its early stages. There was some serious work done before the invasion that examined the Bush Administration's justifications for war, often finding -- like in the case of the aluminum tubes that Iraq allegedly was using for a nuclear program -- that the evidence was flimsy, but stories of that nature were frequently overshadowed by front-page reporting by people like Judy Miller that put incorrect evidence into the public realm and helped the administration make its case.

Journalists know this sordid history, and one of the positive consequences of it has been a robust skepticism on their part about the Bush Administration's claims about Iran. A good example comes from Newsweek, where Mark Hosenball is asking difficult questions and his sources, more so than before the Iraq invasion I would wager, are willing to answer. Hosenball looked at the administration's claim that Iran is inflaming violence in Iraq, and then at the recent NIE's claim that foreign actors are actually playing a relatively small role in the Iraq turmoil, and went to some people in the know to see who was telling the truth. The results:

...three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is "ambiguous," in the words of one of the officials. For example, U.S. troops have been attacked by homemade bombs triggered by infrared sensors (like ones used on American burglar alarms). U.S. agencies know Iranian purchasers have made bulk orders for the sensors—which cost as little as $1 each—from manufacturers in the Far East. Some analysts think most of the sensors are used for innocent purposes: they note that the devices are so widely available that would-be supporters of Iraqi militants could simply buy them in an Iranian store and smuggle them to Iraq; high-level government involvement wouldn't be necessary.
Last week U.S. military officials in Baghdad were set to brief reporters about evidence American forces had assembled about Iran's interference in Iraq. But the briefing was canceled; one of the U.S. officials suggested it had been put off because intel officials couldn't agree about the info.

The simple fact that the press is reporting skepticism as a major story in itself is a big improvement from the pre-Iraq period. And the Christian Science Monitor reports today that even the White House realizes it has to back down on the tough talk with Iran. As we wrote in the Iraq War Timeline, truth was a casualty of war long before we invaded Iraq. Looks like it's making a comeback.

Read my post on The Blue Marble for the answer, and for more about California's "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act," which, if passed, would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Via Think Progress, we find out that the National Journal has just released a "Congressional Insiders Poll," which surveyed Congress' position on global warming. Think Progress thinks the results are startling. Unfortunately, I think they are fairly predictable. Just 13 percent of Republicans in Congress say they "believe that human activity is causing global warming." Some of the comments that follow though, are fairly amusing, like this choice one zinging Gore:

"The only Inconvenient Truth is that anyone can be a movie star, even someone as boring as Al Gore."

Ha. So that's some really pertinent insight. Thank you, Congressmen and women. The thing is, global warming is most definitely a product of human behavior and apparently, it's just the beginning of an even larger problem. According to Julia Whitty, writing today on our new environmental blog, The Blue Marble, "climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease scientists call global environmental change (GEC). Global warming is the rash. GEC is the bubonic plague."

New, Improved Environmental Destruction!

BP and the University of California Berkeley announced on Thursday a public-private partnership agreement to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute will focus on developing biofuels.

Besides just firming up BP's reputation as the most earth-friendly of the oil companies (an honor no greater than being the most Jew-friendly member of the SS) and Berkeley's reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, the announcement marked biofuels' entry into the mainstream.

I should be dancing, but I'm not. First of all, public-private partnerships: Ick. Secondly, biofuels advocates keep missing the point. Prime example: Ethanol--at least the corn-based ethanol Bush is pushing--requires an absurd amount of fossil fuel to produce. The European Union recently made a similar gaffe when it required that biodiesel be used as an additive. The Houston Chronicle reported in September that production of soy in Argentina is expanding so rapidly that environmental groups fear deforestation and anti-poverty groups fear the food supply will be jeopardized.

Meanwhile, Craig Venter, formerly of Celera Genomics—the company that wanted to patent the human genome—is trying to manufacture, as in from scratch, an organism that would break down crops such as switchgrass that could provide ethanol more sustainably if they could be processed more efficiently.

These approaches miss the forest for the trees. Nature has its own very functional system, of which we are but a part. We do not fully understand that system, or else we would have no more need for science. We have to learn how to respect it and stay out of its way.