Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why I Hate the Frat Thing

Quick note: college fraternities suck. They're abusive, counter-educational institutions, and should be banned.

I obviously sort of always knew this, in the dim way you do when you're in college and find you actually prefer hanging out in the library to getting drunk and slipping in somebody's vomit at a frat house. As fun as that can be, of course.

My son, who is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, is completely unlike me (to his credit, I'm sure), and actually enjoys social interaction, so he was thrilled to be accepted into the pledge program, if that's what it's called, at one of the "better" fraternities at school. I was a bit alarmed, but he wanted it "more than anything," and besides, his tripled-up dorm room was getting on his nerves. At least the frat had some space. If he could only make it through about six weeks of frat boot camp. If only he could prove his commitment.

For many, many days, he had do things like this: get out of bed and rush to the frat house at 1:30 a.m. in shirt and tie to memorize a bunch of pointless statistics about the house "brothers" for a 5 a.m. quiz (yes, that same morning). Break into the house with other pledges and "kidnap" a brother and take him to an undisclosed location where they could all chuckle and guffaw at the sheer transgressive coolness of, well, kidnapping a brother. Accompany brothers, on demand, while they did their laundry. Swab the house down after major parties.

The problem here is twofold: 1) this is really moronic stuff that certain 18-year-olds are naive and needy enough find "important," and 2) my son got pneumonia in the middle of it and ended up in an ambulance in the middle of the night, headed for the hospital. Full of self-recrimination over his weakness, but hacking too much to make nightly appearances, he ultimately had to drop out of his fraternity quest. His dormmate, who was also pledging this particular fraternity, dropped out a few days later, after failing an exam - yes, these boys have classes, too! - the morning after an all-night quiz session at the, you got it, frat house.

It's not complicated: many kids want to belong to a small, exclusive community; they want to rest for a while in a cozy way station on their way to adulthood. Too bad fraternities - and this one could hardly be called the worst - are run by kids not much older, who themselves only dimly realize what a community is, and what it should take to get into one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Times, The Atlantic and Elizabeth Taylor (No, Not That One)

I stopped my weekday subscription to the New York Times a couple of months ago. They raised the delivery rates and couldn't get the paper to my driveway reliably anyway. And it was hard to justify the all-around waste of resources when I could just read it online. (Though that's always a disappointing experience, if only because I can't do it lying in bed.) But I still get the Sunday paper. Not because it's the best paper of the week - in fact, it's usually the worst, with all its bloated, unnecessary sections and gruesome "style" inserts. (To me, those sections are almost Fellini-esque in their bizarreness. The journey to absurd has been long and tiring, and I wish they'd just prop up a corpse in a prom dress and be done with it.)

It's the Book Review I can't do without. A couple of weeks ago I found an article - no, wait. I'm thinking of The Atlantic. Never mind the Book Review, which I do love but isn't the subject here after all. It's in The Atlantic that a found a homage to the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor, and immediately ordered three of her books. (They've been out of print for years, but were just reissued by Virago Modern Classics.) She specializes in those small, deeply nuanced domestic dramas where everyone sips cocktails and makes polite conversation while wondering why they feel so desperate. Very British stories, and of historical interest, too, since they take place during and just after World War II, just as the country is struggling anemically back to its feet.

Taylor was well-enough known in her day, but is almost forgotten now, probably because her books lack any blockbuster potential. They're just gems of quiet insinuation and gently darkening mood, even more extraordinary because she works with such mundane material.

If I could turn just a few people on to her, I'll feel I've done my good deed for the week.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Giving by Getting, Giving by Freezing

Every year about this time I find myself rather unhappily immersed in two projects: a fundraiser dinner-auction for Haiti, and a "Polar Plunge" for abused and neglected children.

Leaving aside the topic of why I should be interested in such causes, except to assure you that I am interested, I'd like to concentrate on why these fundraisers are, each in their own way, so disturbing.

The Haiti fundraiser is kind of easy to attack. Think about it. Is there anything quite so surrealistically weird as throwing a country-club soiree, with canapes and wine and dancing, to benefit Haiti? I love Haiti. It's an interesting place, pretty in some ways, with a vivid Caribbean culture and many warm-hearted and devout people. It's also rags-and-bones poor. I wonder what they'd think, the Haitians I've met, about all of us toned and Botoxed white suburbanites forking up cheesecake and outbidding each other on high-priced chotckes in an effort to correct inequality in the world? And in a way that satisfies some rich-country rubric whereby the more we lavish on ourselves, the less poor they supposedly become? I suspect they would be sensible enough to think that we were nuts, which we are. I myself am merely kind of offended, mostly by my own sheeplike participation.

I know, I know. I willingly participate in this fundraiser. I want to be decent person, doing what I can to help people who, by sheer accident of geography, seem fated to watch their children grow up hungry and sick and uneducated. And the possibilities my middle-class life give me are limited - by imagination and energy, obviously, but also by a cultural ethic that maintains the people in party clothes are the best people to solve any problem. And it does raise some money for food and medicine and housing materials that presumably the Haitians are better off for having received.


Now, the other fundraiser. In February, I'll do a forced march into Boston Harbor to become a 'Polar Bear Plunger.' That's where a bunch of people jump into the icy water for a few seconds, stagger back out of the water and then run straight inside for a scalding shower. To what end? Pledges, of course. We raise money. Money you'd think would be made available through some more appropriate social mechanism, but which isn't. Schools working with deaf kids need classroom supplies; homeless shelters for teenagers need gas for their vans. The state and federal governments, who are ultimately responsible for the very expensive care of these children, throw in some money, of course, but not enough. And so we jump in the ocean in February. Microsoft never had to do this, of course, but then, as David reminds me, Microsoft makes something people want. I remind him that agencies that turn troubled kids around are making something people want, too. And that their products are arguably more necessary to society than software upgrades.

But this bleeding-heart stuff, this quest for spiritual integrity and meaning, gets old, doesn't it? Even I'm bored by it, and I'm the one wallowing in it. If anyone has something approaching an answer, or even a reasonable insight, I'd like to hear it. Until then, I'll just consider my pangs of conscience another symptom of what Marian Wright Edelman called "affluenza."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kicking Them While They're Down

Digby, in her blog Hullabaloo, wonders why it is that conservatives so often seem intent on blasting to smithereens the character of anyone receiving public assistance.

She writes:

Ridenour's post (among others) reminds me of a well-off acquaintance of mine who agreed to give an aging relative a hundred dollars a month. He made sure that everyone knew how generous he was and then he would regale us all with stories about how he would go over to the old fellow's house once a month and inspect it to make sure he wasn't doing anything "bad" with the money. After all, he gave him a hundred bucks a month. He forced the old guy to stop buying cheap beer and made him quit smoking a pipe and pored over his bills to make sure he wasn't overusing the utilities. He had a right, you see. The man was taking his money.

The question to me when he would tell me this stuff was why this very well-off man (a Republican, by the way) took such pride at controlling the behavior of one sad old man through a meager offering of a hundred dollars a month. I could only conclude that it was because his sadistic joy at making someone else miserable was coupled with his inflated belief in his own goodness and pride in his superiority. He was allowed to deny this man his freedom in the name of helping him. The authoritarian's path to heaven.

In telling this anecdote, Digby is referring to the case of Graeme Frost, the 12-year-old boy recruited by Congressional Democrats to make the case for the S-CHIP program. Frost had had the misfortune to be in a car accident with his parents and sister; he suffered a brain stem injury, she a cranial fracture. Surely harrowing enough, right? But the point of his story was somehow a positive one: low-cost health insurance worked for his family. With an income of only $46,000, it was the only insurance they could afford. When catastrophe struck, they were covered. Whew.

But now, thanks to some over-the-top conservative bloggers, we need to hear about how the family should never have been eligible for this bit of social help, because after all, its kids all went to an expensive private school (though on scholarship, it turned out), and lived in a nice suburb in a decent house, and hey, why should we, the overburdened and much-abused taxpayers of America, have to pony up for people who aren't all that bad off? (And if they were bad off, it would no doubt be their own damn fault, but that's another issue.)

Aside from impugning the integrity of a family that has endured such unimaginable tragedy, this line of attack is notable because of what it says about our fundamental differences as human beings. What's the conservative-liberal split really about, and where does it come from?

Digby looks deep into the conservative psyche, finding the old Puritan need to control unseemly and unproductive behavior through social mechanisms. (Which often translates to financial mechanisms, of course.) The attitude goes thus: If poor choices and sub-standard behavior got you into this mess, I'm not bailing you out. Unless you change. And even then I'll humiliate you, because you're such a loser to have gotten into trouble in the first place.

And since conservatives don't like or believe in the social compact, their gripe is personal: My money belongs to me, and I really, really hate giving any of it to you.

But I think the real attitudes that lead to this kind of thinking are even more primitive, and are rooted in the tendency of each individual to cast himself either within a group or outside the group. We either acknowledge the reciprocal arrangements we have with one another, accepting that at any given moment some individuals will get more out of the deal than others, or we reject them, scrutinizing every social transaction as though the circumstances that necessitated it must by definition be pathological. Because we're not supposed to need each other. Are we?

Well, leaving the supposeds out of it, we in fact do need each other. That includes conservatives, who, in my experience, are perfectly happy to push their snouts into the government trough whenever they smell something tasty. In fact they do it all the time, pausing only to squeal when desperate parents with banged-up kids tap them on the haunch to get a nibble themselves.

So please. Let's get serious. Low-cost insurance is a good thing. Slam a 12-year-old with a brain stem injury if you like, but ... be sure to take a good look in the mirror while you're doing it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al, Lardbutt Yanks, and a Hillary Preview

As the rabid haters of liberals gear up for open season on Hillary, it's useful to consider the reaction of one English columnist to another famous liberal in the news. I have to wonder what our British friend would prefer - no efforts on global change at all? Or one undertaken by, say, an Aborigine from the Outback, whose mansion doesn't emit greenhouses and who therefore has earned the right to speak up?

From The Telegraph:

So Al Gore is the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Admittedly, he has to share it with the United Nations’ climate change panel - but, even so, I think we need to declare an international smugness alert.

The former US Vice-President has already taken over from Michael Moore as the most sanctimonious lardbutt Yank on the planet. Can you imagine what he'll be like now that the Norwegian Nobel committee has given him the prize?

More to the point, can you imagine how enormous his already massive carbon footprint will become once he starts jetting around the world bragging about his new title? Just after Gore won an Oscar for his global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth - in which he asked American households to cut their use of electricity - the Tennessee Centre for Policy Research took a look at Al's energy bills.

It reckoned that his 20-room, eight-bathroom mansion in Nashville sometimes uses twice the energy in one month that the average American household gets through in a year. The combined energy and gas bills for his estate came to nearly $30,000 in 2006. Ah, say his defenders, but he uses rainwater to flush his lavatories. Is there enough rainwater in the world, I wonder?

I'm not saying that these are trivial questions. They're fairly trivial, given that individual uses of energy are absolutely nothing compared to energy policies of nations. But I get it. And you know what? I say, why not - let's put Al on the hot seat and make him explain himself. (Oh, wait, he already has. Check this out.)

But need you be quite so petty? We got it - you hate liberals, and the more praise they earn, the more you hate them. If one saved your child from drowning, you'd denounce him as an attention-seeker with a hidden agenda. Liberals think they're so perfect. But they're just the opposite. We hear ya.

Well, all that said, let's give Al Gore some credit: he's done a good thing for the world, lardbutt or no. More than our British reporter here will ever do, I dare say.

"What Did Al Gore Do for World Peace?" That was headline over this column in The Telegraph. If you haven't given it any thought at all - and this writer obviously hasn't, probably because he doesn't want to - you'll realize that global warming has quite a bit to do with peace. Doubt it? Read "Collapse," Jared Diamond's book on why societies like Easter Island, Greenland and Haiti fell apart. His thesis - that marginal human habitats that become stressed by overdevelopment and climate change fall like houses of cards, frequently after fierce factional warring over dwindling resources - should be a warning bell to us. Does anyone really imagine that the peaceful nations of the world couldn't easily be incited to war over water, arable land, food, migrating populations?

Friday, October 5, 2007

George Draws the Line

From a Washington Post editorial:

To say that George W. Bush spends money like a drunken sailor is to insult every gin-soaked patron of every dockside dive in every dubious port of call. If Bush gets his way, the cost of his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will soon reach a mind-blowing $600 billion. Despite turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit, the man still hasn't met a tax cut he doesn't like. And when the Republicans were in charge of Congress, Bush might as well have signed their pork-stuffed spending bills with a one-word rubber stamp: "Whatever."

So for Bush to get religion on fiscal responsibility at this late date is, well, a joke. And for him to make his stand on a measure that would have provided health insurance to needy children is a punch line that hasn't left many Republicans laughing.

Bush's veto Wednesday of a bipartisan bill reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program was infuriatingly bad policy. An estimated 9 million children in this country are not covered by health insurance -- a circumstance that should shock the consciences of every American. Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft an expansion of an existing state-run program that would have provided coverage for about 4 million children who currently don't have it.

I'm a social worker; I care about kids and know something about the ways that poor kids live.

Myself, I'm firmly in the upper middle class. I have nice stuff, a nice house, a reasonable job, decent clothes in my closet and good food in my refrigerator.

I mentor a 10-year-old girl who doesn't have these things. She spends most of her time shuttling between a housing project, where she and her mom live (illegally) with mom's boyfriend, and a ramshackle house dominated by a sometimes-abusive grandfather. This girl is adorable, spirited, fun, appreciative. And she's poor. Before she met me, she'd never been in a movie theater. Never played miniature golf. Never gone ice skating. These are simple and inexpensive pleasures that middle-class kids take for granted. Not so for poor kids; they don't expect these treats and rarely get them. They just cost too much.

A couple of months ago my little girl fell when she was playing in a sprinkler and broke her wrist. The next time I saw her, she was wearing a cast. How did her mom afford the care? The state of New Hampshire's S-CHIP program. Without it, this girl simply wouldn't have had insurance. Would she still have gotten treated? It's hard to say. Probably eventually, and begrudgingly, and at high cost to her mother, who wouldn't have been able to pay the bills in any case. Luckily for her, she had the low-cost S-CHIP insurance, and nobody had to worry about it. She got to get the same medical care that richer kids would get.

Enough said. We're spending $333 million a day on Iraq. And children's health insurance is where we're drawing the budgetary line?

My live-in David is a Republican, which makes him a big anomaly in my life. My sort generally don't mix with his sort. But I've learned quite a bit from him about how conservatives think, and, shocking to admit, not all of it necessarily appalls me. In fact, I get some of it. I agree with some of it.

This is what David says about the Washington Post editorial. It doesn't specifically address the S-CHIP veto, which David hadn't been following and didn't know about. But it does speak to how conservatives are feeling about this president. (Yes, I know. We dislike our president for different reasons, but not even David is against insuring poor kids.)

I'm a life-long Republican who leans towards the Libertarian end of the spectrum. Politically, I operate on the principle that one votes for a party, not an individual. The party you select mirrors, in the aggregate, your personal values and beliefs. It is the coherence and discipline of a party that generally ensures that it’s members operate (and vote) in an expected fashion.

Something sad has happened to the Republican Party in the last dozen or so years. First, they lost focus on what they ought to stand for – what their core supporters expected. There was less and less to distinguish them from Democrats. This resulted from the repeated “triangulation” beatings administered by Bill Clinton. Then they fell victim to the natural pitfalls of being the party decisively in power (think Democrats in the '80s).

Over time, the Republican Party has drifted further away from me. George W. Bush embodies this drift. I voted for him – twice. The second time without enthusiasm. He has demonstrated a shocking lack of conviction or purpose. President Bush has consistently approved ever greater government spending of money we don’t have. He has encouraged monetary policies (first under Greenspan and now Bernanke) that promote debt creation, asset bubbles, and currency devaluation. None of this helps to maintain a healthy middle-class, a necessary condition for a healthy democracy.

I have become disappointed in President Bush and disillusioned with the Republican Party.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Stop at Post-Pregnancy Makeovers?

From the New York Times:

Dr. David A. Stoker, a plastic surgeon in Marina Del Rey, Calif., has a surgical cure for the ravages of motherhood. He, like many plastic surgeons nationwide, calls it a “mommy makeover.”

Aimed at mothers, it usually involves a trifecta: a breast lift with or without breast implants, a tummy tuck and some liposuction. The procedures are intended to hoist slackened skin as well as reduce stretch marks and
pregnancy fat.

“The severe physical trauma of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding can have profound negative effects that cause women to lose their hourglass figures,” he said. His practice, Marina Plastic Surgery Associates, maintains a Web site, amommymakeover.com, which describes the surgeries required to overhaul a postpregnancy body.

What a moron. He's ignoring the obvious. Duh. If we want women to retain their hourglass figures forever, we need only do two things:

1) ban pregnancy, or

2) euthanize women who violate society's esthetic standards by reproducing

I see two immediate benefits: first, we'll cut way down on our child-related social costs (no more annoying S-CHIP debates or welfare payments or expensive schools with their whiny teachers) and second, we won't have to look at ugly, deformed, lumpy women whose bodies have been destroyed by childbirth. Think of it as a policy twofer.

Of course, we'd have to kill women over 40, too - but we're already sort of doing that, with our obsession about beauty and youth. Might be we could just continue ignoring them, and they'd kind of disappear of their own accord.

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