Archive for July, 2007


July 31, 2007

The last couple of weeks have been pretty busy for me, as I’ve been enjoying summer in the city, starting a new job, and attempting to move, hence the lack of new posts. But while I take a little more time to get a little more settled, here are a couple of recent articles I think are worth reading:

  • First, Simon Rich (remember, Frank Rich’s 22 year-old Harvard grad son who it’s impossible to hate because he’s funnier than 3/4 of the Shouts and Murmurs columnists out there?) is back with another great column in the New Yorker
  • Also in the New Yorker, David Denby tackles the mood shift of recent romantic comedies. If we are to get along, you must read this. Stay tuned for more thoughts soon.
  • Speaking of romantic comedies, No Reservations is the anti-Knocked Up.
  • And finally, Anna Quindlen has a great piece in Newsweek about what should happen to women who have illegal abortions, should all abortions be criminalized. The column riffs on a video in which a cameraman asks protesters at an anti-abortion rally what they think should happen to women who have illegal abortions. The people cannot form coherent sentences or come up with the logical answer: if abortion is a crime, a woman who has one is a criminal and should be put in jail. As Quindlen says, “There are only two logical choices: hold women accountable for a criminal act by sending them to prison, or refuse to criminalize the act in the first place. If you can’t countenance the first, you have to accept the second. You can’t have it both ways.”

Remembering through Reenacting

July 14, 2007

By 2:00 this past Sunday afternoon, the scar on the back of my knee–where my bike’s chain ring had gouged several holes weeks ago–was sizzling a gluttonous shade of purple in the 100 degree heat.

But I had little time to contemplate the lasting sun damage. Scrappy Confederate soldiers gathered on a hill above the concession tents, while disciplined Union battalions aligned in front of the grandstand. General Lee waved from his horse, while Longstreet rode ahead to check on the cannon-firers.

When they disappeared, men loaded the cannons. Minutes later, clouds of smoke rose in a bang. Another ten minutes passed, as the armies fired cannonballs into the air, and I covered my ears to avoid permanent hearing damage. All the while, the narrator informed the audience of this battle’s similarities to the real Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg’s final decisive moment.

The piccolo notes of Dixie pierced the popping popcorn volleys of the Union soldiers’ guns. Confederates fell as the battalions tried to outflank each other.

Apparently that’s what warfare was all about in the Civil War: who could outflank the other guy. But I hadn’t come to the 144th Gettysburg reenactment for the military tactics. In this shadow sketch of the real battle (more than 23,000 casualties on each side), perhaps 2,000 reenactors had gathered on a field not far from the actual site of the battle of Gettysburg to remember the Civil War and honor the memory of the past.

Growing up in California, I never had the opportunity to steep in the sea Civil War history. The battles were foreign, the terrain incomprehensible, and the people merely silver daguerrotypes in history books. So when I moved to the East Coast, I vowed to visit some battlefields, maybe even absorb a reenactment, to satisfy my curiosity about some of the more defining moments in American history.

If I told you I were interested in military history, I would be lying. In fact, I found the actual battle reenactment segment of the day particularly dry, something akin to watching a football game entirely in slow-motion instant replay. Even though he helped to push along the glacial pace of battle, the narrator was no Ken Burns.

But the people who participated, the culture of the camps, and the implications that it all has for how we relate to our history provided almost four hours of solid entertainment.

The People

It’s not just anyone who can be a reenactor. As the folks who organize Gettysburg wanted interested parties to know, the commanding officer must first approve any wannabe reenactor for their authenticity. Even then, Gettysburg probably shouldn’t be your first reenactment, go “cut your teeth on some smaller battles.”

But once you do get to Gettysburg, boy is it a scene. I imagine that Gettysburg is for reenactors what Burning Man is for aging hippies, except that Gettysburg will never be passe. People set up their canvas tents and cots and quilts and fire pits for three days under the midsummer sun on a private farm several miles from the real battlefield (reenactments are not allowed on public land). They make every attempt to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of the period. Migrant vendors specialize in selling cotton dresses and silk evening gowns for ladies and wool uniforms and muslin undershirts for men. A couple that seems to belong in a condo in Virginia Beach sells dulcimers and banjos. There’s even a gun shop that sells reproductions of Civil War-era firearms. One soldier let me hold his bayonet (picture to come). Those guns weigh about 10 pounds. Nothing light when you’re marching 30 miles a day as the armies did. Perhaps that’s one reason the battles moved so slowly.

These people congregate from all over the country. The chaplain attends 35 reenactments a year, spreading his ministry among the faithful in 19th-century style. At this year’s Gettysburg alone he performed seven marriages. We met several couples who had been married at Gettysburg in the past: they return every year to celebrate their anniversaries among friends, and their children grow up knowing the battlefields as a kind of summer camp (and return to school knowing how to correct their teachers).

I have to admit I’m slightly perplexed by the air of celebration around what, on first notice, seems like it ought to be a somber event. Except for the amusement park concession stands, the bleacher seats, and all the kids playing war in the woods, the reenactors take themselves quite seriously. They are, after all, honoring a memory of the war, of their ancestors, of their heritage.

Several men told me stories of wounded soldiers or unexpected heroism that moved them to the brink of tears. An entire camp of hospital tents demonstrated surgical techniques on blood-stained dummies. One man showed us his set of cast-iron cookware, including a box oven and muffin pans.

But in another sense, like the kids shooting off their cap guns in the woods, the adults are also playing war. They’re dressing the parts, shooting blanks, imitating strategy, and ensuring that no one forgets the old ways of war any time soon. Yet sometimes it seems as though they’re so wrapped up in the military and tactical history that the social context and aftermath of the war are completely lost. This reenactment may be happening in the context of others on the circuit, but it operates in a something of a rosy historical vacuum.

They repeat the details of the past, but leave out the big picture. What was the real significance of Gettysburg? You won’t really find that out at the reenactment. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is a shared experience of channeling the past in a way that makes sense to people in the present. It’s more for the reenactors than for the spectators.

In this subculture, the Civil War lives on as an impassioned battle for states’ rights, a battle to sustain the glory of the Confederacy, and a slightly more real moment in the collective memory for one more student of American history.

The Most-Emailed List

July 8, 2007

Several nights ago, I had one of those typical young-cynical-urbanites-talking-over-drinks kind of conversations about the New York Times most-emailed list. We all generally agreed with the sentiment expressed in this recent Onion article. Reading the articles topping it right now, it seems that the most-emailed list is becoming less relevant to what’s actually in the news. There was last week’s article in the Style section about how mothers and daughters now have closer relationships, and–gasp–even friendships (it’s behind the Times select firewall, but here’s a nice excerpt):

There have always been close-knit mother-daughter relationships. But social, demographic and technological changes have made it more common for adult daughters to keep their mothers’ apron strings tied tighter — and for longer, say researchers who study the transition into young adulthood.

Today, it is not unusual for unmarried middle-class women in their 20s or 30s to share with their mothers the diary-worthy details of their lives, plan weekly outings with them and call the Mommy Batphone when they need backup.

Even Paris Hilton — who has been labeled many things, though never a momma’s girl — revealed that it is her mother, Kathy Hilton, to whom she turns in a crisis. When last month a judge ordered the 26-year-old back to jail, she did not call out for a lover, her lawyer or God. In her hour of need, she cried, ”Mom!” Upon being released Tuesday, she ran into her mother’s arms.

Developmental psychologists and sociologists say this phenomenon of attachment is only now beginning to be studied. They have identified several factors that could be contributing to an intensified mother-daughter symbiosis: technology that makes it easy to stay connected; the smaller number of children in each household; young adults who are prolonging decisions about career, marriage and children; parents who want to have a less-hierarchical relationship with their offspring; and parents who feel the need to keep their grown children close at a time when anxiety and depression levels among young adults are at some of their highest points ever.

Additionally, parent-child contact during the college years has dramatically increased. Professors say that many students these days stroll around campus talking into cellphones — and not to one another. It is not surprising, experts say, that some of that behavior spills over into the post-college years, including a reliance on parents to continue to pay the bills.

”There is a higher level of dependence,” said Vivian Gadsden, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. ”In that way they are very much a product of this period in our history.”

Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., the chairman of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the trend is ripe for research.

”The fact is that very little is known about this topic,” he wrote in an e-mail message. ”Our research network is doing a slew of studies on changing relations among young adults and their parents, but the research is still in the field.”

Many of the women who spoke of their closeness to their mothers also said that they had a warm relationship with their fathers, though hardly as uncensored.

”My mom is absolutely my best friend,” said Jennifer White, 25, a paralegal in Manhattan. ”We do everything and anything.”

Karen Bauer, 36, of Englewood, N.J., and her mother have spent every Saturday afternoon for 14 years having lunch and shopping. ”I won’t give that up for anything,” said Ms. Bauer, an executive assistant. ”I’ve turned down jobs because they wanted me to work on Saturday.”

Wendy Spero, 32, took the analogy further, likening the relationship to that of husband and wife: so long, significant other; hello, significant mother.

If Paris Hilton’s doing it, well, then, it must be a sociological phenomenon!

And then there’s this Sunday’s topper from the Style section, “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” which is pretty much an anecdotal study of hipster librarians living in Williamsburg. Which actually describes in ten words most of what these trendy articles tend to be: hipsters living in Williamsburg (or Park Slope) doing x that used to be nerdy:

How did such a nerdy profession become cool — aside from the fact that a certain amount of nerdiness is now cool? Many young librarians and library professors said that the work is no longer just about books but also about organizing and connecting people with information, including music and movies.

And though many librarians say that they, like nurses or priests, are called to the profession, they also say the job is stable, intellectually stimulating and can have reasonable hours — perfect for creative types who want to pursue their passions outside of work and don’t want to finance their pursuits by waiting tables. (The median salary for librarians was about $51,000 in 2006, according to the American Library Association-Allied Professional Organization.)

“I wanted to do something different, something maybe more meaningful,” said Carrie Klein, 36, who used to be a publicist for a record label and for bands such as Radiohead and the Foo Fighters, but is now starting a new job in the library at Entertainment Weekly.

Michelle Campbell, 26, a librarian in Washington, said that librarianship is a haven for left-wing social engagement, which is particularly appealing to the young librarians she knows. “Especially those of us who graduated around the same time as the Patriot Act,” Ms. Campbell said. “We see what happens when information is restricted.”

Ms. Campbell added that she became a librarian because it “combined a geeky intellectualism” with information technology skills and social activism.

What neither of these articles offer is statistics, or even really many facts, to back up what they claim to be trends backed up by facts. The library article mentions that, by one estimate, there are 13 librarians living in one neighborhood in Brooklyn. There is also a vague statement about the “steady increase in library information science enrollments over the last 10 years.”

The mother article contains absolutely no statistics, just some stories and a couple of quotes from psychologists who seem rather cautious to make any committal statements.

All I can think is that they have to sell papers somehow, and if anecdotal sociology is what NYT readers want–and they seem to, judging by its email popularity–that’s exactly what they’ll get. Everyone wants a little dessert after reading all that dense international news or the depressing week in review. Why not a light, punny article about hipster librarians?

And if it means an enhanced Sunday Styles section and more tipsy conversations about how much hipper those New Yorkers are than us DCers, well, I guess I wouldn’t be so opposed to that.

Sicko–Exactly What I was Thinking

July 5, 2007

This op-ed in the New York Times expresses much more eloquently and succinctly what I was thinking about Sicko than I could write here.

Philip Boffey, a Times editorial writer who specializes in science, writes:

The film is unashamedly one-sided, superficial, overstated and occasionally suspect in its details. But on the big picture — the failure to ensure that everyone who needs medical care gets it — Mr. Moore is right.


Yet it is hard to know how true the stories are — Mr. Moore never gives enough details to help viewers determine — or how common the abuses may be. The stories are told from the viewpoint of the victims, with nary a peep from the insurers and not much from doctors who might know whether the refused care was appropriate.

And finally:

Mr. Moore’s heart clearly lies with the single-payer, tax-supported, governmental health systems abroad. That solution would be hard to sell here, where suspicion of the insurance companies is matched if not exceeded by suspicion of the government. Yet the case for some form of universal coverage is strong. The claim that we provide the best medical care in the world is hollow; international comparisons rank us below other industrialized countries on measures of quality, access and clinical outcomes. Mr. Moore is right to ask how a country that spends so much more on health care than any other nation can’t take care of everyone who is sick.

The movie is worth seeing, keeping these caveats in mind. The common counterargument is that even if Moore had provided a more balanced view, he would not have been taken seriously. I think that his argument would only have been stronger had he talked to doctors or others involved in creating a fuller perspective on these anecdotal cases.

Motivating people to anger is good. But it’s time to grow up, Michael Moore, make yourself even more relevant, and motivate people to actual action.

Your Health According to Google

July 4, 2007

Having been ensconced in learning about health policy and the pharmaceutical industry for the past several months, I’ve been especially interested in Sicko. One of the more interesting blogosphere ripples over the movie originated on Google’s Health Advertising Blog, when Lauren Turner, an account planner, wrote a post defending the healthcare industry:

While legislators, litigators, and patient groups are growing excited, others among us are growing anxious. And why wouldn’t they? Moore attacks health insurers, health providers, and pharmaceutical companies by connecting them to isolated and emotional stories of the system at its worst. Moore’s film portrays the industry as money and marketing driven, and fails to show healthcare’s interest in patient well-being and care.

With all the coverage, it’s a shame no one focuses on the industry’s numerous prescription programs, charity services, and philanthropy efforts.

She then goes on to offer Google’s marketing expertise to the poor, hapless pharma companies that need to defend their soiled images:

Whatever the problem, Google can act as a platform for educating the public and promoting your message. We help you connect your company’s assets while helping users find the information they seek.

Blogs caught hold on this story pretty quickly, and Turner clarified her remarks in another post on Monday. But after she claimed the opinion as her own and not as Google’s official stance, she went on to say this:

, But the more important point, since I doubt that too many people care about my personal opinion, is that advertising is an effective medium for handling challenges that a company or industry might have. You could even argue that it’s especially appropriate for a public policy issue like healthcare. Whether the healthcare industry wants to rebut charges in Mr. Moore’s movie, or whether Mr. Moore wants to challenge the healthcare industry, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue.

The essential message is the same: it doesn’t matter what we think about Michael Moore and his silly movie. It only matters how much you will pay us to place your ad for the newest blockbuster drug or bogus health service in our adwords system. Very democratic.

The people in Sicko who were denied the care they needed or couldn’t afford the expensive drugs didn’t have a democratic way to get their message out to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Instead, they are bombarded every day with commercials about how great Medicare Part D is, or how much they need that new treatment for restless leg syndrome. Hardly democratic.

Google’s corporate stance is that money talks. Which we all knew in the first place. And they’ll take your money and place your ad no matter who you are. It’s just hard to hear it from a company that claims to “share many of the concerns that Mr. Moore expresses about the cost and availability of health care in America” (Google’s main corporate blog).

They must know better. I wonder how they would have lobbied Rep. Anna Eshoo to vote on the ban on direct-to-consumer marketing that was slashed from last month’s FDA reform bill. This health advertising blog raises a couple of questions for me:

  • If a company is dedicated to lowering cost and increasing availability of health care, is it ethical for said company to accept advertising money from groups that work directly against these goals, such as pharmaceutical companies, quack doctors, or online pharmacies, to name a few?
  • Conversely, even if a company has these goals, is it counter to the ideal of free speech (synonymous with democracy for Google) to deny advertising to other companies or groups that work against these goals?
  • Really, I just want to know, what is Google doing trying to befriend and defend the healthcare industry?