Sunday, September 30, 2007

Eschew Binarity

Another ridiculous Sunday morning, beautiful clear sunshine -- it was cold last night, I actually got out my jacket and put it on. I slept in this morning. Last night the greatest movie was on TV, like at one in the morning. They don't tell you the name of the movie at that hour, they just show it, but it might have been called "Door-to-door Maniac," or "Five Minutes to Live," or "Last Blood." As I see it on the Internet, this movie has been released under all those names. Johnny Cash is a bad guy who has a plan to rob a bank by holding the bank president's wife hostage and ... well, it was a really surprisingly good movie. She's the president of the Women's Club, y'know, all in curlers and stuff. Johnny breaks into the house, he says, "Bank presidents might like their women looking like that but I don't." Blurry focus, low budget, Ron Howard is in it, he looks like he's about five -- pre Opie, I'd guess. So anyway, that was over at three or so, and I woke up with the sun burning my face through the window.

But I've been thinking about something.

Being that we live here in the bedroom of Washington, DC, a lot of our readers work for the government. And you guys know, the fiscal year starts tomorrow. Right now, you can't buy anything, you can't sign up for classes or training, you can't plan any travel, because you don't know what your budget's going to be.

Congress doesn't have to decide how many paper-clips you get this year. Their budgeting doesn't go that far. They'll decide though if the program you work for is going to have little things like ... salaries, say. I don't know how it actually looks on the inside, but it seems that they allocate money for particular agencies, and even within the agency they subdivide it down into programs, this one gets this and that one gets that. When you look at how big the federal government is, this is a huge job.

October first is the start of the fiscal year. Last week, nobody in the government had any money, because everything had to be accounted for, these last weeks, and once there's a budget nobody will still have any money because the agencies have to find out how much they're getting and then divvy it up internally. Both houses of Congress vote on it, and then the President signs it. It is never ready at the start of the year. Never. (How do you spell CR?)

This has got to be about a forty-hour-a-day job. Nobody could really do it right, you can't know what's going on in every little office out there, you have to have some kind of policy guidelines and a bunch of people working for you who gather information, and then you juggle the numbers blindly and see what you think ought to be done, who ought to get what.

Looming behind all that, you have a gazillion-dollar-a-month war going on, pointless, ineffective, winning us enemies around the planet, implemented both deceptively and ineptly, sucking money out of the country's bank account at a rate that is unknown but estimated in the cotillions (that's a one with a gazillion zeroes after it, in a floor-length dress). You've got the spectre of China calling in their loans, busting our bank overnight. The constitution is being ripped to shreds, the environment is boiling over, sick people can't see a doctor and poor people can't pay their mortgage.

So now I see Congress is ... censuring

Scuse me, I like to goof off at work as much as the next guy. I'm sympathetic, but ... isn't there a better time for this? put an ad in the New York Times, with a little pun: Petraeus or Betray-Us. Everybody knew the general was sitting over at the White House getting instructions for his presentation at the Capitol. Everybody knew he was going to say the war is going wonderfully great, and everybody knows that's not true. It's a military guy giving a political presentation -- a very dangerous combination. We saw it before, when Colin Powell went out and cashed in all his respect to tell a string of lies at the UN, that was a hard one, because you really did think the guy was honorable, but they sucked it out of him, he betrayed us too. So a general lies to Congress, what's new about that? --Well, it might not be new, but we cannot let it become acceptable.

Certainly we can't make it a crime to say something when the emperor comes out in a transparent, weightless suit of big ol' nothing.

Why did Congress stop everything, in the middle of the busiest time of the year, with all this going on, to discuss and vote on whether they were bad people or not? Do you understand that?

We get the Washington Post, there are full-page ads in there all the time. Israel, Syria, Russia, whole countries buy a page in the Post and put some stuff in there, with a bunch of names at the bottom of the page endorsing it -- hey, isn't the whole first section mostly bra ads? Does Congress want to vote on whether Playtex actually lifts and separates?

The real question is, how did they let this issue, the issue of some group buying an ad in the Times, rise to the top of their list of priorities? I guess anybody with money can buy an ad. So somebody bought an ad that took one side, as opposed to the other, so what?

Somehow the Democrats have let the Republicans define the situation. Again. It's just bizarre that this has happened to us. It seems to me they all -- both parties -- have such a low estimation of the American voter that they think all that matters is slogans. They may be right, that's the hard part, this might actually be what matters to people.

But no. Nobody really cares about, this is bull-oney. Look at this SURVEY. Fifty-six percent of people have never even heard of Twenty-two percent have an unfavorable opinion of them. Look: nobody cares.

Here's the deal, it seems to me. When Aristotle systematized the rules of logic, he included something called the Law of the Excluded Middle. It seemed obvious at the time. Everything is either A or not-A, it can't be both. A sentence is either true or false. The sky is either blue or it's not. Given that, the rest of the principles of logic follow pretty easily.

Problem is, it's wrong, for two reasons I can think of. First of all, there are degrees. If you held up a paint sample labeled "Blue" and compared it to the sky, you'd find that the sky isn't actually blue. It's bluish, but blue doesn't really look like that, it's darker, and you gotta get rid of the greenish tint. This is the basis for fuzzy logic, which allows degrees of truth and is extremely useful as far as engineering applications go, because that's the way the world actually works, your motor doesn't suddenly overheat at whatever number of degrees it says in the manual, it gets hotter a little bit at a time. In between, the statement "the engine is overheating" is partly true.

Second of all, the negation of a statement can be two things: it can be the absence of a quality, or it can be the opposite of it. If I say I'm "not angry" at somebody, for instance, it can mean I actually like them, or it could mean I've never given them a thought. And this is the trap.

MoveOn put an ad in the paper. Seems to me the correct response, if you think they went too far, is to not notice. The general is working for the administration, OK, we've seen this before, there're worse things going on over there. You might think the MoveOn wording was a little harsh, or extreme, or poorly timed (I don't happen to think any of the above), but really -- why does this call for a vote in Congress?

Because if you're dumb enough to stay in the chambers when they call for a vote, you have to say if you're for it or against it. The smart thing is to go get a drink of water, or go out in the hall and talk on your cell phone, or practice your wide stance, something. Abstain, don't vote. Don't encourage them.

Here's the bad thing that's going on, and I don't know if this is new or if America has always been this way. It comes down to the idea that "If you ain't fer us yer aginst us." It's the reduction of the world to a single binary dimension, where you're either at the zero end or the one end, with no middle. In this case, Congresscritters thought they either had to support MoveOn or oppose them. Even Democrats. So they filed into the hallowed halls and sat in their places and voted on whether was being nice when they made a pun on General Betraeus' name.

This need to bifurcate is at the heart of our controversy here in Montgomery County, with the sex-ed curriculum. Here's an example: the curriculum says "Some transgender individuals want to live their life as the opposite gender or have surgery to become the opposite gender. Many others do not want to do so," and somewhere else it says, "While cross-dressers change their clothes, transsexuals sometimes change their body by means of hormone therapy or sexual reassignment therapy to match how they feel." OK, those are facts. You go out into the world, you go out in public, you're going to see somebody like that. It seems sensible to me to take a few minutes out of a kid's long life to tell them what this is about, just so they know. Never mind the ones that are sitting there confused and disoriented about living in a world that requires them to live a lie.

But look how the CRC paraphrases that on their shadow web site. They say the curriculum "directs students to chop off body parts and change their gender." That is it, really, a direct quote from their down-low web site, their paraphrase of the sentences in the curriculum I just quoted to you.

How does that happen? It happens because they are defining the world in extreme binary terms. They are confusing the two kinds of negation. To their minds, you have to either approve of something or oppose it. There's no option to live and let live, you're either with em er yer aginst em. You can't just learn a fact, you have to take sides. And telling a kid a fact is the same as directing them to behave in that way.

Reading through their whining complaint to the state court, I was struck by how much of their case depends on the excluded middle. The fact is, some people are gay, some are transgender, some people speak a different language from us -- you don't have to choose if you're for it or against it, it's just how things are. When I go to Portugal, they eat blood. I don't know how they do it, they bake it or something, and there's just this big blood clot on your plate. They love it. I don't eat it. I have found that people are pretty good if you say, sorry, but in my country we don't eat that sort of thing. They usually laugh -- though three times I have had Chinese people trick me into eating some kind of guts or bugs -- but they don't feel offended, because it's not a binary world. Normal, intelligent people understand that. If you don't like to eat the blood, so what? It just means more for them, right?

No, the CRC would want to go to court to stop Portuguese people from eating stuff like that. Because yer either fer em er aginst em. If you're one of those blood-lovers, you're a liberal and a sissy. And by blood-lover, I mean somebody who doesn't actively oppose the Portuguese diet.

Don't fall for the dichotomy. There is always something higher that reconciles the two sides, you need to look for that. Don't react with ones and zeroes, find the continuum in between, we need to take a breath and think some of these things through, you can't live in a constant state of panic. We need to start using our brains again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MCPS Slams the Suers

Back at the end of July, several groups filed papers in state court to review the decision by the Maryland State Board of Education to allow implementation of the new Montgomery County, Maryland, sex-ed curriculum for eighth and tenth grades. In early September they filed the actual petition. You can read their whining complaint HERE. This week, Montgomery County Public Schools responded to the appeal with a filing of their own: see it HERE.

The school district gets right to the point:
There is a fundamental flaw in Petitioners' motion for a stay pursuant to Md. Rule 7-205. That Rule does not authorize the remedy that Petitioners seek. Md. Rule 7-205 grants this Court the discretion to stay the decision of the Maryland State Board of Education ("State Board"); it does not grant this Court the power to enjoin the Montgomery County Board of Education ("County Board") from implementing revisions to its health education curriculum (the "Revised Lessons"). Cf. Motion for Stay at 1.

A stay is intended to maintain the status quo as it existed prior to the agency decision under review in this Court. The County Board approved implementation of the Revised Lessons before the State Board ruled, and the State Board upheld the County Board. Therefore, a stay to maintain the status quo is unnecessary.

Petitioners effectively are asking this Court to use Md. Rule 7-205 to alter the status quo and enjoin the County Board because their view of good educational policy differs from that of the elected members of the County Board, who are statutorily authorized to adopt curriculum, and from that of the State Board, which the General Assembly has vested with the last word on educational policy. This Court should reject Petitioners' attempt to employ Md. Rule 7-205 in a way that is not authorized and for a purpose that is unavailing.

Good one. CRC asked for a stay. A stay maintains the status quo, it prevents a change. The status quo is that the curriculum is adopted. Hey, win-win, our favorite. CRC gets the status quo, we get our new classes.

Like I said, I'm no lawyer, but this sounds pretty good to me.

This 22-page document does the usual thing, reviews the facts of the case, and then lays out the argument. I will follow their outline, but omit a lot of the stuff that takes up space (you know, the important stuff). Hopefully I leave enough for you to make sense out of it.

This Court should deny the requested stay of the State Board decision on two grounds. First, decisions of the State Board are entitled to heightened deference, particularly where the agency upholds a quasi-legislative policy judgment of a local board of education. Second, a stay is not necessary to maintain the status quo prior to issuance of the State Board's decision.

There are then sections titled A. Petitioners Ignore the Deferential Standard of Review of State Board Decisions and B. A Stay is Unnecessary to Preserve the Status Quo Prior to Issuance of the State Board's Decision. These sections have text supporting the title statements.

Then, I guess to cover their bases, they have address the CRC's whining complaints anyway:

Petitioners effectively request that this Court use Md. Rule 7-205 to alter the status quo as it existed at the time that the State Board ruled and instead stop implementation of the Revised Lessons by the County Board. Md. Rule 7-205, however, does not authorize such relief, and Maryland courts do not permit expansive readings of the state's Rules of Civil Procedure. See Colonial Carpets, Inc. v. Carpet Fair, 36 Md. App. 583, 584 (1977) (Maryland Rules "are not to be considered as mere guides or Heloise's helpful hints to the practice of law but rather precise rules that are to be read and followed[.]"). Md. Rule 7-205 authorizes only a stay of the "order or action of the administrative agency" under review. Here, the order of the administrative agency under review is neither the County Board's decision on January 9, 2007 to field test the Revised Lessons nor the County Board's decision on June 12, 2007 to approve system-wide implementation of the Revised Lessons. Petitioners' administrative appeal solely concerns the decision of the State Board on June 27, 2007 to "uphold[ ] the decision of the local board to adopt the three additional lessons." State Bd. Op. at 16. Md. Rule 7-205 is, thus, an improper vehicle for enjoining any action by the County Board regarding the Revised Lessons.

And then there is more explanation.

I love that Heloise's helpful hints thing. Sounds like these rule are not something to ignore.

Under this heading there are several sections, titled A. Petitioners Fails to Demonstrate Irreparable Harm from the Revised Lessons, B. The Balance of Harms Weighs Strongly in Favor of MCPS, C. Petitioners Have Little Chance of Success on the Merits of Their Administrative Appeal, and D. A Stay Would Be Detrimental to the Public Interest.

Importantly, under part A:
the opt-in structure of the health education curriculum undercuts any claim of irreparable harm. Parental consent is required before any student enters a class where the Revised Lessons will be taught. See COMAR 13A.04.18.03(B)(3)(b). Any parent who objects to the content of the lesson for any reason can simply decline to provide written consent and their children are not exposed to these lessons. Courts have declined to find an educational, much less a constitutional, harm where a school offers students such an opportunity to forego participation in courses to which they object.

They also make this argument (and we thank them for it):
Petitioners also exaggerate any alleged harm by overestimating the length of time that students who do not opt-in will be out of their regular classroom...

with explanation about how the opt-in/opt-out works,

and this one:
If the harm is so great, why didn't Petitioners ask this Court for a stay when it filed its notice for judicial review on July 26, 2007, instead of waiting until September 4, 2007? Such an unexplained delay by the moving party weakens a claim of irreparable harm because it demonstrates a lack of urgency to the request for relief.

Mmm, yes, because we remember last time, when they did wait till the last second. Let's defuse that idea right from the start.

And under part B:
If the Court employs the preliminary injunction factors to guide its decision on whether to grant a stay, it should find that the balance of harm prong favors Respondent. While there is no harm to Petitioners, halting implementation of the Revised Lessons undermines the statutory authority of the County Board to determine curriculum, ignores the deference to be accorded State Board approval of the material, places little value on the extensive curricular development process, and denies the vast majority of students whose parents decided to opt-in the right to receive important information about the need for tolerance and protection against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.

Remember, I'm leaving out the bulk of it, this is the Reader's Digest version. But I like it.

Here's another nice chunk from B:
... It would work a significant hardship upon MCPS -and may, in fact, be impossible - to rearrange student and staff schedules so that all Grade 8 and Grade 10 students whose parents have opted-in could receive the information in the second semester.

Accordingly, the balance of hardships clearly weighs in favor of the County Board. Petitioners seek to deny the majority of local students access to a comprehensive health education curriculum vetted by medical experts, approved with broad community support, and upheld by the State Board simply because they object to some content, notwithstanding their ability to avoid any exposure simply by not opting-in.

Hey, didn't I just say exactly that, like, yesterday? They must have read this blog, ran right back to their office, typed out everything I said, and ran to the courthouse with it. Man, I am feeling powerful.

Or, maybe ... great minds think alike.

Or -- maybe this is common sense.

The discussion under this section is substantial. For instance, petitioners have to show a real probability and not just a remote possibility of winning on the merits of the case. MCPS tears apart the Establishment Clause argument, extensively quoting the State Board's own opinion.

Here's a good part in section C:
Contrary to Petitioners' claim, cf. Motion for Stay at 11, the Revised Lessons are carefully tailored to avoid value judgments about any sexual orientation or beliefs about particular sexual orientation. It is Petitioners - not the County Board - who attempt to impose a religious meaning on the Revised Lessons' purely secular message of tolerance. Id. / Petitioners' Establishment Clause allegations boil down to a complaint that community values do not coincide perfectly with their opinions. Yet, the principal bulwark against an improvident curriculum - or any ill-conceived government message - is the democratic process. [they quote another ruling: JimK] ("The curricular choices of the schools should be presumptively their own - the fact that such choices arouse such deep feelings argues strongly for democratic means of reaching them.").

Next they go through the errors that CRC et al. made in interpreting the laws. Again, I am abbreviating:
The first regulatory provision that, in Petitioners' view, the State Board incorrectly construed is COMAR 13A.04.04.01, which prohibits religious education in the public schools. Cf. Motion for Stay at 10. For the same reasons that it rejected Petitioners' Establishment Clause claim, see supra at 12-14, the State Board concluded that the Revised Lessons did not violate this regulation. See State Bd. Op. at 12. The State Board's reasonable, non-arbitrary regulatory determination that COMAR 13A.04.04.01 should be construed consistently with the Establishment Clause is entitled to deference.

Second, Petitioners claim that "teaching impressionable students about anal intercourse runs contrary to the prohibition in Maryland law that erotic techniques of human intercourse may not be taught." Motion for Stay at 12-13 (citing COMAR 13A.04.18.03(B)(3)(b)). This claim is meritless. The State Board reasonably interpreted the term "erotic" by relying on a standard dictionary definition that the material must be "sexually arousing or suggestive symbolism, settings or allusions" ...

Third, Petitioners contend that the Grade 10 condom lesson constitutes unsound education policy in violation of COMAR 13A.01.05.05(B) because it "fails to warn students that the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases through anal intercourse has not been proven to be significantly reduced by the use of condoms." Motion for Stay at 12. The State Board properly concluded, however, that the health curriculum as a whole provided ample opportunity for students' questions about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. State Bd. Op. at 14. Moreover, the Grade 10 health education curriculum repeatedly emphasizes that abstinence is the only completely effective method to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and infection.

Fourth, Petitioners claim that the County Board "den[ies] the existence of other sexual variations such as those who are ex-gay or attempting to overcome unwanted same-sex attractions or gender confusions." In Petitioners' view, this deficiency violates the requirement in COMAR 13A.04.18.03(B)(3)(c) "that 'sexual variations' be taught and not just the ones the appellees/respondents favor." Motion for Stay at 8-9. The Revised Lessons, however, make clear that all students should be treated with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation...

Fifth, Petitioners allege that inconsistencies between the Grade 8 and Grade 10 Lessons regarding sexual orientation violate COMAR 13A.04.18.03(C)(2), which requires curricular materials "to be factually correct." See Motion for Stay at 7. This claim, too, is wholly without merit. Petitioners misconstrue - and take out of context - statements in the Revised Lessons in an attempt to manufacture inconsistencies that do not, in fact, exist. Cf. Motion for Stay at 6. Surely, the expression of an "innate" characteristic, the term used in a published textbook excerpt in the Grade 10 Lesson, can be influenced by "the interaction of other cognitive, environmental, and biological factors," as the Grade 8 Lesson explains. There are many innate factors in human beings that do not necessarily express themselves absent certain environmental or psychological triggers. Innate intelligence, for example, may or may not find expression in academic success. In sum, Petitioners present no compelling reason why this Court should not defer to the State Board's conclusion that it was reasonable for the County Board to exercise its quasi-legislative judgment to adopt Revised Lessons reviewed by an expert medical panel as accurate and age-appropriate.

Why, you could knock me over with a feather -- you mean, the CRC misconstrued and took something out of context? I am flabbergasted. Don't know what to say, never dreamed of such a thing.

I for one am glad that they addressed the challenges on the basis of content as they did, succinctly, directly, and lethally. It's fine for a lawyer to argue on the basis of the law, but it's good to have these things on the record -- not only should CRC be thrown out of court for not knowing what a "stay" is, but if they aren't, they'll lose.

Under D, they make a good case:
Halting implementation of the Revised Lessons does not advance the public interest. It would deny many current Grade 8 and Grade 10 students access to necessary and potentially life-saving information, as described above. See supra at 10-11. Both the State Superintendent and the State Board commended the Revised Lessons for addressing "[o]ne of [the] serious problems in our schools today": bullying and harassment of students. State Superintendent Order at 5; accord State Bd. Op. at 10-11. They further noted that the Revised Lessons' emphasis on promoting tolerance and reducing bullying meshes well with state law requiring school systems to report all incidents of harassment, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity. See id. (citing Md. Code, Educ. § 7-424 (2006)). It is difficult to see how the public interest is served by halting lessons that address these vital concerns.

Moreover, Maryland courts have long recognized that it is not in the public interest to second guess school administrators' expert judgments in any but the most exceptional cases ...

I am hoping some legal minds will say something in our comments section about this. To my mind it appears comprehensive and devastating. Not only does CRC et al. not have any basis for asking for maintenance of the status quo, but all their complaints are baseless, too.

Remember, I'm an idiot when it comes to law, I only know what I've seen on TV -- don't trust my judgment on this subject, in other words. But I like the way this sounds.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Last Paragraph

I wanted to go back to the latest post on the CRC's down-low web site. They say these things, and they get quoted on the news, and people might believe them -- and that's where we come in. Here's the start of the last paragraph of their recent post, which I won't link to.
Weast and the Board have a chance right now to remove the “innate” teaching before another court rules against them. Don’t forget, the sex ed curriculum does not discuss families (although the curriculum is called Family Life) spends much time pushing the gay agenda and directs students to chop off body parts and change their gender. (A whole separate topic coming soon)

When they say before another court rules against them, they are sort of stretching it. In 2005 a court hastily issued a temporary restraining order, holding up implementation of an earlier curriculum, so that a proper lawsuit could be filed and a proper ruling received, based on proper evidence introduced in a thorough and proper trial; instead, the schools and the suers worked out a settlement agreement. There is nothing in this curriculum that was in that one, no court has ever said there was anything wrong with this one.

In fact, this curriculum has been reviewed and accepted by the MCPS Superintendent's office (including their legal team), the Montgomery County Board of Education, the State of Maryland Superintendent of Schools, and the State of Maryland Board of Education. All of those entities ruled that the curriculum was just fine the way it is. The CRC and a couple of other groups are now appealing the state's decision to a state court.

I think that they are trying here to imply that they have some momentum.

Don't look down, Wile E.!

It is not true that "the sex ed curriculum does not discuss families," just wrong. I don't think the sections on Respect for Differences in Sexuality talk about families, but that's just two days in eighth grade and two days in tenth. Those classes have a topic they talk about, and it is not a criticism to note that there are days that the sex-ed curriculum talks about something other than families.

The CRC is saying this because they know they can trigger a whole cascade of Family Blah Blah reaction by asserting that the schools are somehow opposed to families, which is absurd. But ... we're not talking about real deep thinkers here.

They say it's "pushing the gay agenda," well that's original. They said that about the other curriculum, too. In fact, you can bet money they'll say that about any curriculum anywhere, ever, that talks about sexual orientation in an objective and unbigoted way. They're saying it pushes the gay agenda because that's what they're supposed to say, orders from headquarters. That's their biggest talking point. It's a meaningless assertion, since nobody actually knows what a "gay agenda" is, beyond that it's a conspiracy plot where gay people are trying to take over the world, but it is their duty to say it.

But that last bit gets you. They are saying the curriculum directs students to chop off body parts and change their gender. I guess it needs to be said: this is a lie.

Of course the curriculum doesn't direct students to do that. The other day I quoted what it says; one topic that is discussed in tenth grade is gender identity and the fact that some people are transgender. And the fact that some of those people choose to have sex reassignment surgery and hormones, and some don't. That's all.

I challenge any reporter who reads this -- and I know you all do -- to ask the next CRC member who tells you something like this to show it to you in the curriculum. They have the documents, we have them posted on our web site RIGHT HERE. Look through it, search the files. And when you interview these people and they're saying this, ask them to show you where it is. Don't just repeat their lies. You owe it to the community.

But there's more to this paragraph.
Oh, if you have ANY negative feeling about homosexual conduct, you are labeled a “homophobe” according to the sex ed curriculum. Stay tuned, we expect the Rockville Circuit Court to send the curriculum back to the trash heap where it belongs. How much will this cost you and me?

The homophobia allegation is an interesting one. We've gone over it before. Homophobia is a tenth grade vocabulary term, and it is also discussed in a textbook section.

Here's the vocabulary item from the tenth grade curriculum: Homophobia -- "an extreme or irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people." (Random House Webster’s Dictionary, 2001).

OK, that's not too bad, is it?

I think the part they complain about is from the Holt textbook, which says: Homophobia is a fear or hatred of people believed to be homosexual. The term is used broadly to describe any range of negative attitudes toward or about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgender people. Homophobia may be shown in ways as mild as laughing at a gay joke or as severe and violent as gay bashing or murder. Like any other prejudice, homophobia is learned. Children are not born hating; they learn to hate and fear from messages they receive while growing up.

In fact, the term is used broadly just as it's described here. Notice how the CRC capitalized "ANY" in their rant? That's because they want to interpret the phrase "any range of negative attitudes" in a special way. I would have said "a range" instead of "any range," but then the person who wrote this never imagined that a group like the CRC was going to try to go to court over what the word "any" means. The problem of course is that the word "any" can mean one, some, or all -- the CRC is choosing to use the third meaning, and then clutching their pearls in indignant horror.

You may find that the word homophobia as it's described here applies to you sometimes -- I'm as guilty as anybody -- but that doesn't mean it's wrong. This is how the word is used. And hey, I'm not as guilty as anybody, in the sense that "any" means ... oh, never mind. (The CRC would say that I just admitted being as bad as the guiltiest, most homophobic person in the world. See how that works?) (And anyway, some gay jokes are actually funny, this doesn't mean any gay joke. I mean, it ... I give up.)

And OK, they expect the circuit court to take their side, if they didn't expect that they wouldn't file, right?

You should look carefully at that last question, because that's what it's all about, really. How much will this cost you and me? They love the fact that this is a big drain on the taxpayers. There's a game you can play. You can sue somebody, and they'll be forced to come to an agreement with you because it would be too expensive to fight. Lawyers aren't cheap, and the CRC thinks they can get the school district to accede to their bizarre demands just because it will be expensive to fight them. I'm sure it's tempting for MCPS, and the district needs to be careful not to cause unnecessary expense, fighting fights that they can't win or that don't matter.

But the school district knows there's a county full of people out here watching, and we are counting on MCPS to do the right thing. This curriculum has met every standard. These are good classes, and the change is long overdue.

It Starts When You're Always Afraid

I had never heard of Joppatowne, Maryland, before, had to look it up when I read this.
Dedicated to everything from architecture to sports medicine, "career academies" claim to offer high school kids focus, relevancy, and solid job prospects. Now add a new kind of program to the list: homeland security high. In late August, Maryland's Joppatowne High School became the first school in the country dedicated to churning out would-be Jack Bauers. The 75 students in the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness magnet program will study cybersecurity and geospatial intelligence, respond to mock terror attacks, and receive limited security clearances at the nearby Army chemical warfare lab.

The new school is funded and guided by a slew of federal, state, and local agencies, not to mention several defense firms. Officials say it will teach kids to understand the "new reality," though they hasten to add that the school isn't focused just on terrorism. School administrators, channeling Cheneyesque secrecy, refused to be interviewed for this story. But it's no secret that the program is seen as a model for the rest of the country, with the Pentagon and other agencies watching closely.

Students will choose one of three specialized tracks: information and communication technology, criminal justice and law enforcement, or "homeland security science." David Volrath, executive director of secondary education for Harford County Public Schools, says the school also hopes to offer "Arabic or some other nontraditional, Third World-type language."

Black Ops Jungle: The Academy of Military-Industrial-Complex Studies

The new reality. It's like America just isn't paranoid enough.

You're reading the stuff about the kind of data the TSA is compiling about travelers. Like this, from Wired:
Privacy advocates obtained database records showing that the government routinely records the race of people pulled aside for extra screening as they enter the country, along with cursory answers given to U.S. border inspectors about their purpose in traveling. In one case, the records note Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore's choice of reading material, and worry over the number of small flashlights he'd packed for the trip.

The breadth of the information obtained by the Gilmore-funded Identity Project (using a Privacy Act request) shows the government's screening program at the border is actually a "surveillance dragnet," according to the group's spokesman Bill Scannell.

"There is so much sensitive information in the documents that it is clear that Homeland Security is not playing straight with the American people," Scannell said. U.S. Airport Screeners Are Watching What You Read

You ought to read that one. They write down anything, like what it says on your t-shirt; they noted that one guy had a picture of a marijuana leaf on his flashlight.

And what does it come down to?

Here we are being safer. This MIT student is lucky to have gotten away with her life, the officials say, after she went to the airport to pick somebody up, directly from an MIT career fair where she had been showing off a project of hers.
It was an art project, meant to entertain career-day visitors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.I.T. sophomore assured security officials after she had been arrested at Boston’s airport yesterday.

But the officials were not amused. The student, Star A. Simpson, 19, is “very lucky to be alive,” said Maj. Scott S. Pare of the state police, commanding officer of the airport’s security contingent. “Had she not followed our instructions” when confronted by state troopers, “we would have used deadly force,” Major Pare said.

The trouble began when Ms. Simpson, wearing a lighted circuit board sewn to her black hooded sweatshirt, walked up to a customer service desk at Logan International Airport and asked about an arriving flight carrying a passenger she was to meet. A nine-volt battery was attached to the circuit board, and Ms. Simpson carried a wad of modeling clay in one hand. Her Taste in Art? Scary, Police Say

Fear is self-amplifying. You get scared, you jump, the jumping scares you... I'll tell you, I didn't like the idea of going to work on September 12th, 2001, but like hundreds of thousands of workers in New York and Washington, DC, I did it, we got on the Metro and took our chances. You're frightened, you don't know what's going to happen, but you've got to deal with it.

Fear is easily manipulated by politicians. You make decisions you wouldn't ordinarily make when you're afraid, you're less trusting, less thoughtful. It doesn't mean you make better decisions, you just make different ones.

Can you imagine if they'd killed that girl, which they were fully prepared to do? As it is, they're threatening her with a long prison term for bringing her art project to the airport, which is just insane.

I often wonder what would have happened if Bill Clinton had reacted to the Oklahoma City bombing the way George Bush reacted to 9/11. The Democratic Party could easily have gone on the offensive against right-wing radicals; it wouldn't have been hard to drum up a pretty convincing conspiracy theory, and it would have been politically expedient, as it would cast suspicion on the Republican Party. But they didn't do it. The Republicans though took the attacks of 9/11 and turned them into a gigantic propaganda tool, allowing them to undermine fundamental principles that we had understood to be the American way.

Now high school kids are being sent to paranoia school, personal database records are being compiled on innocent travelers, a geeky MIT student is on the brink of being executed if she doesn't get her hands up fast enough. We've got to stop this.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday Morning Ramble About Being Less Stupid

Ridiculous. That's the only way to describe this sunny fall morning. Yellow leaves are drifting down on a light breeze, the sun at an angle illuminating them as if from within against the morning shade on the hedge across the street. There are a few cars on the road, but not many, I think lots of people slept in today. I probably should have, but I woke up and decided to come downstairs -- I'm thinking there will be a nice, brisk nap in my future.

I've been thinking about something recently that's hard to put into words, which means of course I'll try and probably end up offending someone, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

There is a debate in Montgomery County over the sex-ed curriculum. Nominally, the controversy is about the content of some classes, whether they are objective or if they "go too far" or something. But except for a couple of reporters who misunderstand what's going on, I don't think anybody really thinks this is just about a couple of health classes.

It's about two kinds of ways of thinking. The people in the CRC are certain that they're right and everything else follows from that. They make up facts, they distort what people say, they ignore the obvious. Some people call this "faith-based reasoning," which is to say, not reasoning at all, but a belief that they are doing what God wishes and so everything is justified. There is a right way to live, a straight and narrow path of righteousness surrounded on both sides by temptation, and anyone not on that path is lost and needs to be saved. Oh, and anyone not on the path is also contributing to the temptation and must be opposed in every way -- this is the "love the sinner, hate the sin" paradox, they want to love everybody and hate who they are at the same time.

Our side takes it differently. We tend to think there are many paths to wisdom, and someone on a different path from ours might have something to teach us.

Well, I'm just stating the obvious here. The point is, these are two entirely different ways of thinking. I don't mind if people think the way the CRC folks do, I was never offended by religious or conservative people, but when their narrow views become the driving force for prejudice it is necessary for reasonable people to speak up. We could just as easily be fighting about evolution, or book-banning, or preaching in the classroom, this controversy isn't just about what some teachers will say in some health classes.

Teach the Facts has some gay and transgender members, but most of us are straight, and only a couple of our members are in this specifically because of their advocacy of gay rights. I think I can say that our members are people who see something going terribly wrong with our society, America becoming the opposite of what it should be, and we are people who believe that if we work together we can turn it around.

Because the issue of sexual orientation is on the table in our county, that's what we talk about. Well, it is an important issue, and the school district has gotten itself into a position where it has to tip one way or the other, there is no neutral position they can get away with. Gay and transgender people have come a long, long way in the past several decades, it is amazing to see how our society's views have changed. They've changed our minds deliberately, consciously, taking every opportunity to explain their perspective, to portray themselves in a sympathetic way, to argue for fairness, and people have listened and mostly come around. The sea-change is built on little events, one at a time, and the sex-ed curriculum in our county is one of those events.

Gay folks are watching what's happening with their fingers crossed, hoping the school district is able to do the right thing and get this curriculum implemented. It's not a big thing, but ... well, yes, it is a big thing. It might make a lot of difference if students could get accurate facts in the classroom, it could prevent a lot of ugliness and pain. But mostly, my point here is that the gay community is watching from the sidelines, they haven't been a big part of this battle.

We at Teach the Facts are what the gay activists call "straight allies," or at least most of us are, the straight ones. We support their cause, we believe that sexual minorities should be respected like anybody else, we oppose discrimination and hatred based on somebody's sexuality, even if the outcome of the debate doesn't really affect us personally. They are correct in seeing us as allies.

And now I want to try to talk about something that is kind of difficult, and I'll probably say this wrong. It seems to me sometimes that gay people, including the "activist" ones, don't really understand straight people very well. I can understand why, and of course it goes both ways, but I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk about this.

One thing about straight allies is ... we're straight. It is a different experience, being a straight person in the world. We don't worry about how people will react when they find out. We don't feel like a minority everywhere we go. Our gay-dar is mostly pretty bad. Our orientation is not something we are reminded of every time we talk to another straight person.

Over the years, we have talked with people from some of the gay rights organizations, and they seem to have figured out the best way to fight their particular fight. Almost universally, they have counseled us not to engage the opposition, not to name them, not to talk about what the other side says. They advise us to develop a positive message and stick to it. I see the sense of this, and it is a strategy that has worked well for them, but it seems to me that this is how you act when you're outnumbered. But we aren't outnumbered in any sense, being straight in a straight world, blue in one of the bluest counties in the country; we are free to speak out. If we catch the CRC telling a big fat lie, man, we want to stop them. I don't see anything wrong or even risky about pointing out their inconsistencies, with explaining to the world why they are saying the nutty things they say, with pointing out the insanity of their distortions. It seems to me, somebody has to do it, somebody has to keep track of the facts, and when the CRC says something it needs to be dragged out into the light of day and exposed for what it is.

Years ago, a friend stitched this little sampler with a favorite saying of mine on it: Be less stupid. I doubt you can actually increase a person's intelligence, but you can decrease their stupidity level. In our controversy over this topic of sexual orientation, it is easy to forget what the issue is. To read the papers, you'd think it was about gay people: it's not. This is about straight people. This is about straight people becoming less stupid. Gay people have staked out their turf, they are not unclear about what they want, they want to be treated like everybody else, and that is perfectly reasonable. They may disagree among themselves about where the lines should be drawn, if they should demand marriage, for instance, or settle for civil unions, how outrageous they should be in public, and why or why not. Stuff like that. But we aren't involved in any of that, every community has its issues to work out. This isn't about gay people, they are what they are and they do what they do. What we care about is getting other straight people to be less stupid.

Let me tell you what this is to me, this Teach the Facts thing. This is about living a multidimensional life in a multidimensional world. It is human nature to simplify, to reduce the number of factors you have to think about at any one time. I do it, you do it, it's the only way to survive without bumping into things. But life is so much richer than that, there are so many really cool things going on, great people and interesting thoughts, and I hate missing out on all that good stuff. If all you can do is evaluate whether something is consistent with the Bible, or what effect some event will have on your particular community, then you are reducing the world to one dimension, and it will be impossible to understand really how things fit together.

I am sure it is possible to see the numerous moving parts and how they all work together without becoming remote and coldly intellectual about life. Personally I love the complexity of the world, the impossibility of resolving some things, simultaneous with the absolute necessity of resolving them. I love engaging with that. You have to keep expanding, you have to spread your arms wider and wider to sweep it all in. I don't recommend it for everyone, but for me, that's what this is. This is not about taking one side or the other, it's about transcending sides.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Innateness, Immutability, and CRC Distortion

The Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum have a shadow web site that they link to under several names, none of which I'm going to give here. Sometimes there's offensive, ignorant stuff they are dying to say, but somewhere down deep inside they know how ridiculous it sounds, so they put it on a different web site than their official one, and link to it. I take it as a good sign, they do know when they are being offensive, and they know that people can tell. They can't control their impulses so they do it on the down low.

If it's any surprise, the domain is registered to the same guy who registered the old, as well as the current official CRC web site.

So now they've put up a new statement, trying to tie the recent ruling against marriage equality to the MCPS sex-ed curriculum. I'm going to take one piece of this idiocy for now (don't worry, there's more than one meal in the oven), just the first two paragraphs.
Weast and Nancy Navarro must be sick about the landmark decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals. As reportedhere on June 14th, Weast, Navarro and the rest of the Board, except Steve Abrams voted to sneak into the unconstitutional sex ed curriculum a statement that homosexual conduct is “innate.” At the hearing, parents pointed out that there is no credible scientific evidence for the existence of a “gay gene.” Weast and the Board refused to listen to the parents and boldly proclaimed that the gay gene exists and homosexual conduct is most assuredly “innate.”

It's pretty hard to be sneaky when you're sitting in a crowded boardroom, surrounded by people with signs and TV cameras, with your image and every word you say streaming out on the worldwide web and live television.

The wording that sexual orientation is "innate" has been in the curriculum since it was first proposed by the team of pediatricians. The Superintendent's office and all their lawyers discussed it and decided to keep it, the citizens advisory committee discussed it and kept it, the school board read it, talked about it, and kept it. The CRC is whining because on the day of the final vote some wording used in the the tenth grade class was added to the eighth grade class, to make them consistent.

Here, they start out talking about the word "innate," and then seem to think they're really hitting hard when they say, At the hearing, parents pointed out that there is no credible scientific evidence for the existence of a “gay gene.” Because to them, "innate" and "gay gene" are the same thing.

Oh, love this: Weast and the Board refused to listen to the parents and boldly proclaimed that the gay gene exists and homosexual conduct is most assuredly “innate.”

No, that little sentence has two lies, very efficient. They never said there was a "gay gene," never mind "boldly proclaiming" it. And neither Weast nor the school board said a thing about "homosexual conduct" being innate. Nothing is said anywhere in the whole curriculum about "homosexual conduct" or anything that gay people do. No "homosexual behavior," no "homosexual sex," no nothing. It's just about how people feel. No conduct.

We're going on three years of this, non-stop.

By the way, the marriage ruling they're talking about does not use the word "innate," even once. It talks about immutability, but never innateness.

Sexual orientation is innate. Everybody knows that. I can't tell you why some people are funny, some are good-looking, some get fat easily -- I don't know if there's a funny gene, or a good-looking gene, or a fat gene. I doubt that there are any of those. But these are ways some people are, innately.

But the down-low CRC haven't made their point yet. All these lies are just being told so they can get to the good part, this has just been the set-up.
Unfortunately, the Maryland Court of Appeals has determined quite the opposite. The Court stated repeatedly that homosexual conduct is not immutable (the term lawyers use for innate, for example, skin color is immutable, sex was thought to be immutable, but the Board also tells kids to change their sex so the Court of Appeals would disagree with the Board on that as well). The Court quoted legal decisions from all over the country, even California, which have ruled likewise. The Court also quoted laws from every state in the union except Massachusetts to support its finding that no gay gene exists.

To review. In the first paragraph they pretended that "innate" meant "gay gene." They also pretended that "sexual orientation" was the same as "homosexual conduct."

Now they assert that "innate" is the same thing as "immutable," which is simply bizarre. The two concepts are not the same at all.

Listen, this is weird: the CRC should like "innate," because it doesn't mean "immutable."

Somebody who is innately funny doesn't have to be funny all the time, and in fact if their life is full of tragedy they may never be funny. The innately good-looking person might dress badly and have a bad haircut, or slump, or get burned. People who innately tend to be fat can lose weight. They aren't immutably fat. (I am glad of this, by the way.)

You can get your crooked teeth straightened, you can dye your hair, and if you're gay you can stuff yourself into the closet. All these things are innate and not immutable.

Immutable means that something can't be changed. If the schools had said that sexual orientation was immutable, a legitimate argument might ensue, but they didn't say that. Innate and immutable are not the same, in fact the concepts hardly overlap.

For purposes of law, the courts have to decide what kinds of traits deserve to be protected from discrimination. I'm no lawyer and I don't know how it all works, but it seems they give extra points to "immutable" traits. I can see the sense of that, but of course it's not absolute -- religion, for instance, gets protection, even though it's not immutable.

And I should point out that it is not true that The Court stated repeatedly that homosexual conduct is not immutable. The opinion against marriage equality does discuss laws about various forms of sexual activity, and it does discuss the immutability of homosexuality, and concludes that even though some courts have ruled that it is immutable, this particular court doesn't think there is enough evidence to say that it is. It says this once: "we decline on the record in the present case to recognize sexual orientation as an immutable trait and therefore a suspect or quasi-suspect classification." Where, in their legal-eagle-lingo, "suspect" means something special having to do with whether it is OK to discriminate on the basis of a trait.

There's just so much in this posting on this gross web site, even in these two ugly paragraphs. Like, look what they threw into the middle of that bizarre, rambling sentence: the Board also tells kids to change their sex.

I know, not everybody is going to back and read the curriculum. But people, I guarantee, you won't find any place that "the Board also tells kids to change their sex." The tenth grade curriculum says, "Some transgender individuals want to live their life as the opposite gender or have surgery to become the opposite gender. Many others do not want to do so." A little later it says, "While cross-dressers change their clothes, transsexuals sometimes change their body by means of hormone therapy or sexual reassignment therapy to match how they feel."

Those statements are absolutely true. Nobody tells kids to change their sex; this kind of disregard for truth only proves that you can't believe anything the CRC says. It's not just a matter of disagreeing with their opinion. They will say anything, it is irrelevant to them whether it's true or not.

The CRC talks like they've really got the school district over a barrel here. If that was true, why would they have to lie about what's in the curriculum and what the superintendent and board members say? Why do they have to pretend that "innate," "gay gene," and "immutable" all mean the same thing? Do they expect to convince the people of Montgomery County, using a technique of misquoting people and redefining the English language?

Duchy, Valerie, Marc: Thank You

The marriage ruling this week was a setback, but I believe those who promise to work twice as hard in the coming year, and as we can see everywhere we look, the tide is turning, no doubt.

This was in The Sentinel this week -- it's behind a firewall, so I'll just put the whole thing out here:
Legislation proposed to help transgender people

By Sarah Barr
Montgomery Sentinel Staff Writer

New legislation would create a protected class for transgender people by adding gender identity to the County's non-discrimination laws and could also help bolster awareness and support for the rights of transgender people.

Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) described the legislation as "not radical" at its introduction to the County Council last week, noting that 13 states, the District of Columbia and 91 local jurisdictions have adopted similar nondiscrimination legislation, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The bill would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, cable television service and taxicab service.

She's right, this isn't a radical idea. For one thing, this feeling that their subjective gender is different from their physical sex not something transgender people feel now and then, or something they made up -- just think what it'd be like with everybody thinking you are whatever it is you aren't, like they're talking to somebody else but looking at you. This is a real, persistent, distressful experience for many people every day.

The other thing, there is no question that this is a group of people who are discriminated against.

I wonder if anybody we know would have anything to say on this topic?
"Passing a law like this sends a message that you don't have to be afraid," said Dana Beyer, a senior advisor to Trachtenberg who also serves on the board of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Equality Maryland, which advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Beyer, a transgender woman herself and whose 2006 campaign for a Maryland delegate seat was one of the first by an openly transgender person, said that the law is a step against the "overt discrimination" that has been perpetrated against members of the transgender community in some cases.

"I know too many people who have been afraid," she said.

When discrimination does happen, it can lead to unemployment and homelessness for transgender people, making them prone to be victims of violence and experience other difficulties, according to Beyer.

The legislation is also a way to increase awareness and consciousness among Montgomery residents about transgender issues, thus spreading knowledge and acceptance throughout society. "This is just one more part of the conversation," said Beyer.

According to the staff report submitted with the legislation, it is unclear whether current County antidiscrimination law would cover gender identity discrimination; the new legislation would make it explicit.

In the current language of the proposed law, gender identity is defined as "an individual's actual or perceived gender, including a person's gender-related appearance, expression, image, identity, or behavior, whether or not those gender-related characteristics differ from the characteristics customarily associated with the person's assigned sex at birth."

The language is similar to the definition included in the Baltimore City Code, the only Maryland jurisdiction with a non-discrimination law that protects people on the basis of gender-identity. An attempt to pass a similar measure in the Maryland legislature was voted down in committee this spring.

The Montgomery bill is cosponsored by Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-5) and Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large). A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 2.

Once again, somebody doing the right thing. Let's keep this ball rolling, Montgomery County isn't a place that wants to discriminate against people for the way they feel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Mayor of San Diego Does the Right Thing

Man, you don't see politicians act like this very often. Watch this video, all of it: CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO.

It is a very emotional presentation; he can hardly get through it. Mayor Jerry Sanders was a cop for 26 years, including serving as Chief of Police of the City of San Diego from 1993 until 1999.

Here is the text of the statement by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, as he announces that he will not veto the Gay Marriage Resolution that had been passed by the City Council.
With me this afternoon is my wife, Rana.

I am here this afternoon to announce that I will sign the resolution that the City Council passed yesterday directing the City Attorney to file a brief in support of gay marriage.

My plan, as has been reported publicly, was to veto that resolution, so I feel like I owe all San Diegans an explanation for this change of heart.

During the campaign two years ago, I announced that I did not support gay marriage and instead supported civil unions and domestic partnerships.

I have personally wrestled with that position ever since. My opinion on this issue has evolved significantly -- as I think have the opinions of millions of Americans from all walks of life.

In order to be consistent with the position I took during the mayoral election, I intended to veto the Council resolution. As late as yesterday afternoon, that was my position.

The arrival of the resolution -- to sign or veto -- in my office late last night forced me to reflect and search my soul for the right thing to do.

I have decided to lead with my heart -- to do what I think is right -- and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice. The right thing for me to do is to sign this resolution.

For three decades, I have worked to bring enlightenment, justice and equality to all parts of our community.

As I reflected on the choices that I had before me last night, I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community that they were less important, less worthy and less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of marriage -- than anyone else -- simply because of their sexual orientation.

A decision to veto this resolution would have been inconsistent with the values I have embraced over the past 30 years.

I do believe that times have changed. And with changing time, and new life experiences, come different opinions. I think that's natural, and certainly it is true in my case.

Two years ago, I believed that civil unions were a fair alternative. Those beliefs, in my case, have changed.

The concept of a "separate but equal" institution is not something that I can support.

I acknowledge that not all members of our community will agree or perhaps even understand my decision today.

All I can offer them is that I am trying to do what I believe is right.

I have close family members and friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community. These folks include my daughter Lisa, as well as members of my personal staff.

I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones -- for each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back; someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's wondrous adventures.

And I want their relationships to be protected equally under the law. In the end, I could not look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships -- their very lives -- were any less meaningful than the marriage that I share with my wife Rana.

Thank you.

And so, one person at a time, the tide is turned.

NYT: Boomers Worse Than Kids

I almost missed this great piece in the New York Times the other day. It touches on several of my favorite themes -- Chicken-Little decision making, the pseudoscientific overemphasis on brain measures in research, and of course the fact that we're over the hill and the younguns are cooler than us.

Especially if you've got teenagers, check this out.
A SPATE of news reports have breathlessly announced that science can explain why adults have such trouble dealing with teenagers: adolescents possess “immature,” “undeveloped” brains that drive them to risky, obnoxious, parent-vexing behaviors. The latest example is a study out of Temple University that found that the “temporal gap between puberty, which impels adolescents toward thrill seeking, and the slow maturation of the cognitive-control system, which regulates these impulses, makes adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability for risky behavior.”

We know the rest of the script: Commentators brand teenagers as stupid, crazy, reckless, immature, irrational and even alien, then advocate tough curbs on youthful freedoms. Jay Giedd, who heads the brain imaging project at the National Institutes of Health, argues that the voting and drinking ages should be raised to 25. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, asks whether we should allow teenagers to be lifeguards or to enlist in the military. And state legislators around the country have proposed raising driving ages.

But the handful of experts and officials making these claims are themselves guilty of reckless overstatement. More responsible brain researchers — like Daniel Siegel of the University of California at Los Angeles and Kurt Fischer at Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Education Program — caution that scientists are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work.

“People naturally want to use brain science to inform policy and practice, but our limited knowledge of the brain places extreme limits on that effort,” Dr. Siegel told me. “There can be no ‘brain-based education’ or ‘brain-based parenting’ at this early point in the history of neuroscience.” This Is Your (Father’s) Brain on Drugs

It's funny how research that talks about some brain function, or uses some brain imaging technique, gets everybody's attention, when straightforward psychological research just bores them. We had a story the other day about the differences between liberals and conservatives, and everybody was taking the differences in brain activity to mean that people are born liberal or conservative. No, the brain activity just shows how you're thinking, and liberals and conservatives think differently -- the research didn't say anybody was born that way. You have to be careful there.
Why, then, do many pundits and policy makers rush to denigrate adolescents as brainless? One troubling possibility: youths are being maligned to draw attention from the reality that it’s actually middle-aged adults — the parents — whose behavior has worsened.

Our most reliable measures show Americans ages 35 to 54 are suffering ballooning crises:
  • 18,249 deaths from overdoses of illicit drugs in 2004, up 550 percent per capita since 1975, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
  • 46,925 fatal accidents and suicides in 2004, leaving today’s middle-agers 30 percent more at risk for such deaths than people aged 15 to 19, according to the national center.
  • More than four million arrests in 2005, including one million for violent crimes, 500,000 for drugs and 650,000 for drinking-related offenses, according to the F.B.I. All told, this represented a 200 percent leap per capita in major index felonies since 1975.
  • 630,000 middle-agers in prison in 2005, up 600 percent since 1977, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • 21 million binge drinkers (those downing five or more drinks on one occasion in the previous month), double the number among teenagers and college students combined, according to the government’s National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • 370,000 people treated in hospital emergency rooms for abusing illegal drugs in 2005, with overdose rates for heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals and drugs mixed with alcohol far higher than among teenagers.
  • More than half of all new H.I.V./AIDS diagnoses in 2005 were given to middle-aged Americans, up from less than one-third a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What experts label “adolescent risk taking” is really baby boomer risk taking. It’s true that 30 years ago, the riskiest age group for violent death was 15 to 24. But those same boomers continue to suffer high rates of addiction and other ills throughout middle age, while later generations of teenagers are better behaved. Today, the age group most at risk for violent death is 40 to 49, including illegal-drug death rates five times higher than for teenagers.

Wow -- soak that one up for a minute. Turns out the kids are all right, after all, compared to us olde folke.

Kids, cover your ears, I'm talking to the grown-ups now. [I've always thought that the main thing we worry about is that our kids are going to do the things we did when we were that age. True, we lost a few good ones along the way, but most of us survived it.]

Okay, kids, you can uncover your ears. As I was saying, when we were young, we never did any of those crazy things the kids do nowadays.
Strangely, the experts never mention even more damning new “discoveries” about the middle-aged brain, like the 2004 study of scans by Harvard researchers revealing declines in key memory and learning genes that become significant by age 40. In reality, human brains are highly adaptive. Both teenagers and adults display a wide variety of attitudes and behaviors derived from individual conditions and choices, not harsh biological determinism. There’s no “typical teenager” any more than there’s a “typical” 45-year-old.

Commentators slandering teenagers, scientists misrepresenting shaky claims about the brain as hard facts, 47-year-olds displaying far riskier behaviors than 17-year-olds, politicians refusing to face growing middle-aged crises ... if grown-ups really have superior brains, why don’t we act as if we do?

Put that in your bong and smoke it, grandpa.

Good That This Guy Is Caught

This prosecutor from the Justice Department got caught on his way to have sex with a five-year-old girl.

Yes, five years old.
DETROIT—An assistant U.S. attorney from Florida was arrested in an Internet sting operation after flying to Michigan to have sex with a 5-year-old girl, authorities said Monday.

John D.R. Atchison, 53, was arrested Sunday at Detroit Metropolitan Airport after several weeks of Internet conversations between the prosecutor and a detective posing as the mother of a 5-year-old girl, authorities say.

"There wasn't much reaction from him at all," Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel said. Atchison was cooperative with authorities, he said.

He was charged with using interstate communication to entice a minor to have sexual contact and traveling across state lines with the intent of engaging in illicit sexual contact. If convicted of both charges, he faces up to 40 years in prison.

According to court records, Atchison initiated an online chat Aug. 29 with an undercover officer posing as a mother interested in letting men have sex with her daughter.

At one point, Atchison said: "I'm always gentle and loving; not to worry; no damage ever; no rough stuff ever ever," according to an affidavit filed in court.

Atchison, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., is a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney's office for northern Florida, based in Tallahassee. He requested a court-appointed lawyer at his hearing Monday. Feds: Prosecutor sought sex with girl, 5

The implication of that quote is that he's done this before, more than once. He didn't say "the other time" he was gentle and loving, or "I promise to be" gentle and loving. He said he's "always" gentle and loving. Now they'll have to trace his steps and see who else he's done this to.

Other news stories quote him as saying, "I can be absolutely sure; just gotta go slow and very easy is how; I've done it plenty."

It's just mind-boggling to think of this guy raping preschoolers and then going to work putting other people in prison.

This character was the pillar of the community, a husband and father of three, president of the Gulf Breeze Sports Association, which runs youth baseball, softball, cheer leading, soccer, football and basketball programs.

He's every parent's nightmare. I'm glad he got caught.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Madaleno Deconstructs the Ruling Against Maryland Marriage Equality

Yesterday, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a 244-page opinion that said the state's ban of same-sex marriage was legal. It would also be OK if the legislature passed a law approving it, but for now it won't be the courts who decide, it has to be the legislature.

You can read the entire ruling HERE. As you can imagine, it's a pretty big file.

Delegate Rich Madaleno sent around an email after the ruling that summarized his disappointment and his criticism of the opinion, and he does know how to put things. I'm just going to paste his whole message here. (I emailed him and asked if was OK, but haven't heard back yet. Rich, let us know if you want us to un-post this.)
As I am sure you have heard by now, today the Maryland Court of Appeals denied equal rights for gay and lesbian couples in our state. While I am disheartened by this decision, I am more incensed by the poor quality of the majority opinion, which relies on several flawed arguments.

The Court held that the current law does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of sex because it "prohibits equally both men and women from the same conduct." If that argument sounds familiar, it should: it is the same discredited argument that southern racists used to claim that anti-miscegenation laws did not discriminate on the basis of race, because everyone was subject to the same restriction. In fact, Judge Lynne Battaglia noted in her dissent that "In reaching this result, the majority breathes life into the corpse of separate but equal…" The US Supreme Court saw through that twisted logic four decades ago. It is sad that the Maryland Court grasped onto such a discredited argument today.

After reciting a long history of the often-brutal discrimination that gays and lesbians have faced in our society, the Court went out of its way to hold that laws discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation are nevertheless not subject to the same elevated level of scrutiny as those based on race or sex, in part because the gay and lesbian community is not so politically powerless that they constitute a suspect class. Under that reasoning, race and sex should no longer be suspect classes. As General Counsel to the General Assembly, Robert Zarnoch, pointed out in his argument against upholding Judge Murdock's decision, "In Maryland, we have openly gay legislators who, in fact, are legislative powerhouses in leadership." While I and my openly gay colleagues are flattered at the idea of being legislative powerhouses, to say that we as a class are more politically powerful than our African-American or women colleagues is a bit of a stretch.

Another reason that the Court said discrimination against gays and lesbians is constitutionally permissible is that sexual orientation - unlike race or sex - may not be immutable. That's certainly an interesting viewpoint, totally at odds with reality. Do the judges who are in the majority routinely change their sexual orientation? I doubt it. Regardless, we prohibit discrimination - and rightfully so - on other bases that are not at all immutable - religion being chief among them.

Perhaps the worst argument the court used to deny marriage equality was the one that right-wing activists have espoused all along: that marriage is explicitly about procreation. Judge Irma Raker recognized the failed logic in her dissenting opinion, stating that "This disparate treatment of committed same-sex couples, exhibited in a multitude of Maryland laws discussed supra, directly disadvantages the children of same-sex couples, and there is no rational basis to allow such disadvantages when the State's proffered interest is to promote a stable environment for procreation and child rearing. Each child raised in a household headed by a same-sex couple in Maryland needs and is entitled to the same legal protections as a child of married parents." For those of us who are lucky enough to be proud gay and lesbian parents, the idea that the state has less desire to protect our children than those of our heterosexual neighbors is particularly disturbing.

Today, gay and lesbian Marylanders feel a devastating kick in the gut, as the Court blithely writes us out of our own constitution with little or no thought to the impact on real people. Regardless of what the Court says, those of us who are prohibited from civil marriage by the state can attest that we are being denied a fundamental right. And the glee with which this decision will be greeted by anti-gay forces intent on dehumanizing us by denying us the fundamental human right to marry indicates that the reason behind retaining the discriminatory law is animus, and nothing more.

Yet, our struggle does not end with this decision. As the Court makes clear, there are no constitutional barriers to the General Assembly and the Governor taking action on expanding the legal recognition of same-gender couples. I fully expect bills to legalize marriage equality will be introduced next session as well as bills to authorize civil unions and the like. Rest assured, I will be advocating for full marriage equality. However, as a community, we will face a major decision over the next few months as to what we might accept out of the legislative process. I hope you will stay engaged with me and Equality Maryland as the debate unfolds.

I would like to leave you with a comment I read today on the blog "SCREW DESPAIR! It's time for a strong pot of coffee and some political work ethic." Let's get to work and redouble our efforts in Maryland. Make no mistake, we will prevail. Not as soon as you and I had hoped, but it will happen. Please stay involved and let your elected officials know that you want action now that our courts have let us down.

With hope for the future,

Rich Madaleno

Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., writing for the majority, said "Our opinion should by no means be read to imply that the General Assembly may not grant and recognize for homosexual persons civil unions or the right to marry a person of the same sex,"

This was a 4-3 vote, and the tide is turning.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anti-American Values

You know that yesterday there was a kind of "Values Voters debate" among Republican presidential candidates. Well, it wasn't a debate, really, it was kind of a ... I don't know what you call that, everybody took turns getting up on the soap box. And also, none of the real Republican candidates dared to show up.

But this is incredible. They opened with a choir singing something that sounded like "God Bless America." Except it wasn't "God Bless America." They changed the words, so it was against America.

The crowd went wild, they loved it. This is what we're up against, people who think America needs to be punished.

Here's what they're saying:
Why should God bless America?
She’s forgotten he exists
And has turned her back
On everything that made her what she is.

Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sin and heal our land

The courts ruled prayer out of our schools
In June of ‘62
Told the children “you are your own God now
So you can make the rules”
O say can you see what that choice
Has cost us to this day
America, one nation under God, has gone astray

Why should god bless America?
She’s forgotten he exists
And has turned her back on everything
That made her what she is

Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sins and heal our land

In ‘73 the Courts said we
Could take the unborn lives
The choice is yours don’t worry now
It’s not a wrong, it’s your right

But just because they made it law
Does not change God’s command
The most that we can hope for is
God’s mercy on our land

Why should God bless America?
She’s forgotten he exists
And has turned her back on everything
That made her what she is

Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sins and heal our land

Just unbelievable. Fred Phelps and his God Hates Fags congregation would be right at home there.

Postscript: I started wondering where this song came from. Maybe it's something they've been singing in their churches and stuff all along, and I just never heard of it. So I googled the name, and got 1,490 hits -- all different sites, where bright and original people came up with that same line. Look:

OK, that's enough cutting-and-pasting, but there are a ton more. I saw at least two books titled that, lots of forums and bulletin boards discussing the subject.

It turns out, this isn't just some freaked-out gospel group that stopped taking their meds and pole-vaulted over the outer boundaries of the realm of good taste. This is a core concept for these people: they are praying for bad things to happen to America.

One Way It Can Work

I've been to a lot of back-to-school nights where the teachers, the PTA, the administrators talk about how they want parents to get involved, and most of the time I can't figure out how to do that without making somebody mad, or getting mad myself. Because they've got their routine in the school, they've got their roles, they've got their acronyms and their habits and philosophies, and I don't even know what those are, never mind agree with half of them. Sometimes when I talk with a teacher, I end up not ... having a good experience. And it appears it is not always a joyous occasion for the teacher, either. And it's not just me, I hear the stories.

So it's nice to read in the Washington Post about some parents here in MC who had a problem with their school, and they ran into a brick wall, and then it worked out.
It was "The Case of the Missing French Teacher." Last month, one week before school started, parents learned that because only 77 fourth-graders had enrolled in Maryvale Elementary School, one of the two French immersion teachers at that grade level would have to be dropped and some students shunted into a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class.

Outraged parents flooded the Rockville school with complaints. "Our children and staff are expendable," one wrote in an e-mail. "This is completely unacceptable," wrote another. The school system's response seemed to them limp and unconcerned. "I am confident that all Maryvale students will have a successful school year," wrote Stephen L. Bedford, a Montgomery County school official. "Thank you for your interest in Maryvale Elementary School." Parent-School Conflict Is Lesson on Efficacy

I hate it when they do that.

Maryvale is not too far from our house. One of the kids used to practice some sport there, or maybe it was in a park next door. The French immersion program always sounded kind of cool, except for the part about it being French. Once when we were having guests from France, I thought I'd learn a few words. But I don't think that's something you teach yourself. Another language, yes, I've learned (and forgotten) a couple of them, but I could not tell one sound from the other. I didn't learn any French.

You see how these parents felt when they took that old advice to get involved. It sounds like a good idea, but the system really isn't in place to make it work.
It had all the makings of a typical parent-school battle, full of frustration and resentment. Yet these particular parents and educators began to look for a way to work it out, exchanging information rather than epithets, trying to stay positive and employing several methods that experts in the growing field of school-family partnerships say are essential to reaching solutions rather than creating long-term feuds.

Washington area school leaders have shown increasing interest in advising parents on how to complain. Montgomery, for instance, is starting a Parent Academy. But school systems often limit guidance to where parents should send objections and how long they should wait for an answer. Experts on school-family relations say it is also important for parents to know how to mobilize and how to word complaints. Likewise, it is critical for school officials to know how to respond.

Storming in while the buses are pulling up and trying to solve your problem with the two ladies who happen to be standing in the attendance office, it seems to me, is not probably the best strategy. But people seem to do that. I've seen it. I have also tried to talk to somebody when the ladies at the front desk really didn't want me to. It can be very frustrating, especially when you're seriously concerned about what's happening with your kid.
At the heart of the Maryvale dispute were a PTA president, Anne-Marie Kim, and her husband, Caius Kim, a nonprofit-company executive with a business and science background and a fondness for breaking down conflicts into comprehensible parts. They began a dialogue with two Montgomery school officials: Sherry Liebes, a community superintendent; and Bedford, the chief school performance officer.

School administrators are often uncomfortable, experts say, when parents such as the Kims seek to insert themselves into management decisions. But "being defensive and saying, for example, that parents have 'no business inquiring about personnel decisions' and 'no right to interfere with administrators' professional judgment' is not just insensitive but poor public relations," said Anne T. Henderson, a senior consultant with the Community Involvement Program at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

In a letter to Caius Kim three days before school started, Bedford explained that class-size guidelines called for adding a teacher when the student-teacher ratio exceeded 28 to 1. He said officials were doing their best to ease any difficulties caused by the loss of a teacher. Liebes attended a parent meeting at the school that day, Aug. 24, to answer questions.

Oh great, there's a memo somewhere. You lose, this doesn't meet a criterion. That's the rule.

But wait.
At that stage, the administration's response was not making parents feel much better. "Creating a combination class is not only detrimental to the learning environment of students but defies the strong educational objectives of Montgomery County," Maryvale parent Bahram Meyssami wrote in an Aug. 26 e-mail to Liebes.

The Maryvale parents adopted what experts say is the best approach to such disputes: getting as many people as possible on their side with a strong argument. "One parent complaining is a fruitcake," Henderson said. "Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend; five parents will get some attention; 20 parents can be seen as a powerful organization."

Fruitcake? What do those have in them, I can't remember. I'm sure it's not fruits. Is it nuts?

Here the story takes a fortuitous twist. The memo is still lying on the countertop, parents on one side and administrators on the other, scowling across the well-Listerined linoleum at one another, when ...
To organize parents, Caius Kim sent a long message the week before school started with precise data on Maryvale's staffing situation and exact quotes from relevant county policy guidelines. He argued that although the 77 students were not enough for four teachers under the usual staffing ratio, 43 of those students were in the French immersion program and should be considered a separate part of the fourth grade. Combining fourth- and fifth-grade French students in one class would overburden the teacher and betray previous promises to parents, he said, as well as contradict Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's plans to reduce class size and the number of combined classes.

The two sides went back and forth, keeping the conversation going. Family-school experts Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, a former Boston school administrator and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education -- asked by The Post to review a sample of the Maryvale messages -- said they were "on the whole, respectful, courteous and trying to understand the other's position."

Henderson and Mapp noted, however, some missteps, including an administrator's failure to thank parents for their diligent research and a parent's dismissal of any hope that an official would respond to her message.

On the morning of Aug. 29, two days into the school year, good news arrived in a telephone call from Liebes to Anne-Marie Kim. Kim was out walking the family whippets, Devo and Ella, so Caius Kim chatted with Liebes until his wife returned. She was the first parent to hear that two new students had enrolled, and one previously registered student had shown up late. The new students brought the class sizes to a level where she could justify a fourth classroom teacher, Liebes said. In the end, the school wound up with a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio in fourth grade.

Win-win! Our favorite! Everybody gets what they wanted.

Oddly, some parents seem to have been skeptical.
Several Maryvale parents said they thought the slight enrollment bump provided the school system a convenient excuse.

"I truly believe that [Montgomery County Public Schools] only changed its position and reinstated the teaching slot because of the enormous pressure from parents and the overwhelming facts that they presented," Martha Desnoyers said. Mary Ann Holovac said, "Obviously, the squeaky axle gets the grease, and we made a lot of squeaks."

Reading this, I'm thinking, no. The memo said what ratio they needed. So some parents are mad, parents are always mad. Who hasn't been mad at the ridiculous rule-following people who run the schools? I don't think that makes them change their mind.
Some experts advise school systems to involve parents in decision-making before complaints arise

But schools often don't know what their class sizes will be until the last minute, as happened at Maryvale. "Just because we may not end up agreeing on a particular issue doesn't mean that we haven't listened," Liebes said, "and that is important for parents to always keep in mind."

The Kims said they were happy to send their daughter Chloé and son Caius off to a school where the French program was back in shape. Anne-Marie wrote in a bulletin to parents: "Congratulations on your professionalism, letters and phone calls. Our children will benefit from your dedication."

It's good to see that everything worked out for these guys. It seems to me that a school is a kind of organization that needs to be stable. Well, for one thing, when you've got a gazillion screaming kids running around, the administration needs to provide a reliable and sturdy framework for teachers, or they'd lose their minds by the end of the day. They need their acronyms, and their memos, and those ladies in the attendance office screening complainers.

On the other hand, it can be very frustrating watching your kid fall through the net, and nobody doing anything, no acronym assigned to them, no policy or program they can go into. The schools need to be responsive to families, because they don't know what kind of people they are -- you can't just treat every kid like a normal kid, and ignore them when they deviate from that. If you're going to educate them, you've got to know who they are, and you're going to have to bend the rules sometimes.

There should be a flexibility rating on every memo, telling administrators and teachers just how far they can bend it. Some are strict, some are just guidelines, really. The 28-to-one rule shouldn't apply a hundred percent here, because this is the French immersion class, which is a reason people move to this neighborhood and send their kids to this school (and I should tell you, Maryvale is not in a fancy neighborhood, you might say, it's just regular folks). They need to have these classes, more than they need to have some geography class, or PE or something. The rule needs to loosen up here.

I'm glad it worked out. The Post plays it up as if the parents and the school worked it out. They didn't. They demonstrated what happens if the two sides stay out of each other's faces, and I guess the lesson is that there's no sense burning your bridges when things can still change for the better. This was resolved by sheer luck. Those parents were going to get the short end of the deal, but three kids happened to show up to tip the ratio and then the rules worked in their favor.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Worst Book Ever

Have you see Richard Cohen's book for kids? CLICK HERE It's a picture book that looks like it's for kids up to about kindergarten age, called Alfie's Home. Here's a synopsis of the plot:
  • A little boy was not happy
  • His dad worked and yelled a lot, and his mom cried
  • Uncle Pete came over and was nice, and had sex with the little boy
  • Then, when the boy was bigger, the other kids called him a faggot
  • He went to a counselor who told him he wasn't gay: "I just missed my Dad's love and was taught wrong things by my uncle."
  • The counselor told Dad the little boy needs more attention, and worked with the parents
  • The boy got close with his father
  • Uncle Pete was sorry
  • And now the boy is happy

All told with simple pictures, one or two sentences on a page, a regular picture-book for a toddler.

Anybody who actually reads this book to a preschool-age child should be shot. That's the first thing.

But this book isn't for kids, it's for adults.

It might be that some people who think they're gay really aren't. It is possible that some stupid person would hear about that and infer that all people who think they're gay really aren't. Is that the point -- is that what he's trying to do here?

(And there might be people who think they're straight and really aren't, causing that same stupid person's head to explode.)

If you had any doubts about Richard Cohen's general level of creepiness, this should dispel them. He has written this thing to look like a children's book, but this material is not suitable for children, and it's not for them, obviously, this is for their parents.

But, can you imagine if some gung-ho ideologue actually read this junk to their kid?

Oh, hey, has a review from School Library Journal that says, in part:
Everything about this book screams fake. The illustrations are flat and garish in their simplicity, lacking any personality or appeal. If the generic illustrations aren't a complete turnoff, the saccharine tone of the writing gives further challenge to credibility. If readers were able to ignore the presentation, there is still the message of the text to choke them. A boy from a dysfunctional family who is abused throughout his childhood and into his teens sees a counselor and everything is suddenly wonderful. Now if everything is pulled together, there is still a problem-the format of a picture book with large print makes this look like a book for preschoolers, but the writing attempt is aimed more at preteens who would scorn such a presentation-and rightly so.-Nancy A. Gifford, Schenectady County Public Library, NY

Yes, exactly.

The comments at Amazon are great, too.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

About Being Lost

I don't have much time for my usual Sunday morning coffee-pot-draining, rambling, uninteresting ruminations, please hold the applause. We're going to be out at Takoma Park this morning, and I have to leave in a few minutes, to allow myself a half hour of being lost before I figure out where we are.

I don't know that everybody does it that way. Some people seem to know where they're going, they've got a map of the territory in their head, and they know where they are on it. Of my two kids, one's like that, one's like me. I like to think that I'm ... open to surprises. You know, opportunities, maybe. Other people don't always see it as a virtue.

I have been lost on my own street. Drove right past my own house, didn't see it. I can't explain this, unless it's something that evolution created in order to provide amusement to the population in general. You know, one guy is going around in circles, but the rest of them are laughing and pointing at him, so what's one guy, huh? Overall the average level of merriment is increased.

These things are fun. It's the Takoma Park folk festival. We went to the jazz festival over there, too, and it was nice, you sit out in the sun and people come by, and you yack with them, no pressure, no hurry.

Today is strange, I actually turned the heat on this morning. Remember? I said after Labor Day it gets too cold to swim, and they shut down the pools. Like clockwork, the seasons out here. I just checked the weather in my old home town, Phoenix, and I see it's cooling down there, too, it's only going to get to 84 degrees today. A few days ago it was a hundred and six. Trust me, it'll hit a hundred a lot more before "winter" gets there. (There's nothing like autumn, what, the cactus is going to lose its stickers?)

Growing up, I never saw it snow. Sometimes we went up to the snow, in Flagstaff or somewhere, but I never saw it actually coming down from the sky until I was in my twenties. Couldn't imagine it. Earlier this year I told somebody it "never" snows in Phoenix, but then I looked on the Internet, and it had just done that a few weeks before, for like two minutes. They said people stopped their cars on the freeway and got out to see what was going on, just to make me a big fat liar. It would be like seeing a rainbow out here in the East. You never see one, they happen all the time out there.

So here's what I'll do. I'll go down Georgia Avenue to Takoma Park and start looking around. Maybe I'll see people walking, they might have coolers or something to indicate that they're going to the festival. Then I'll look for a place to park, and try to remember which direction the people were walking. I'll either have to go away from the festival to park, or I'll get mixed up about which way they were walking, and I'll end up farther from the festival than I started. As that suit guy says, I guarantee it.

Last week when we went to the Birchmere, which is in Alexandria, we -- euphemism for "I" -- got lost. We ended up finding the beltway in Suitland. Drove down Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way through DC. (As for Pennsylvania, I admit, I have always told my kids that's where pencils come from. If any of their professors are reading this, please understand, it's my fault they're like this.) I think everybody understands that Alexandria is an insane place, it just doesn't make sense, you only know where you are if you live there. There's that great sign on 95N that points you toward Richmond, to get to Baltimore -- you know what I mean, you've driven around Anacostia too, looking for Montgomery County, I know it, I'm not the only one.

At the Birchmere, I asked a lady behind the bar how to get to the beltway. She started to answer, and then the big bouncer-looking guy next to her asked another guy. This seemed to rub her the wrong way, you might say. She said to him, "Did you think I couldn't answer that question?" and she tore into this guy. He ended up saying, "Look, she can tell you, but let me give you my phone number, 'cuz if you get lost following her directions, I want to hear about it." I treated it like a joke, didn't get his number. We weren't really lost, there were signs that said "495 this way," it was just a l...o...n...g way. Her directions were, go right, go left, then when you're by the airport watch for the signs. We never did see the airport.

And by the way, did you notice that Valerie Smith, the singer we saw at the Birchmere, commented on our blog? There is something about her, I can't say what, when she sings she just has it. I've worked with a lot of singers, I even had a band with a lady who had had a Number One hit. The bass player was named James and my name starts with J too, and so we called the band "Mary and the Blue Jays." But this Valerie has something, I can't explain it, I don't usually gravitate toward singers, being a guitar player ... maybe that's not clear, but if you're a player you'll know what I mean ... But she's got a way that is just enchanting, I think it's something spiritual but I can't really say, it's just different from ordinary life. And I said something here about the show, and she Googled it and commented here. I looked at the log, and somebody had hit our site from Tullahoma, Tennessee. I think that must have been her. Woo, I am one lucky dude.

There's a kind of saying that goes, "No matter where you are, you're there." There are variations on this. It's kind of an interesting thing. Like, the sentence "I'm here" is always correct. Can you imagine -- a statement that can't be wrong. It's like the statement "I'm sleeping" can never be true. So no matter where you go, there you are. Usually the reason for saying this is to point out that running away is not a solution to your problems, because you leave one place but you go to another one. But like somebody said, running away might be underrated. There are some situations where the sensible thing is to get out. You have to know though, are you running away from something that can change, or are you going to run back to your same old self, and the same old problems? Ah, that is the question, isn't it? Probably the hardest thing in the world to know, is it you or something out there?

All this is a way of saying that Teach The Facts will have a table at the folk festival, and we'll be handing out some fliers and talking with people. So if you're in the mood for enjoying the weather and hearing some good music, come on out and drop by. I think quite a few of us plan on being there, we'll be glad to talk with you. It doesn't matter if I get lost, somebody else will be setting it up, and I imagine I'll be there eventually, no matter what.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ex-Gayness in Pretend Science

There are a few psychologists -- very few -- who align themselves with the view that sexual orientation is subject to change. Well, that's no big deal, in itself, I suppose psychological theory is big enough to allow some dynamics along that dimension, but these are people who specifically think (or hope) that people with a homosexual orientation can become heterosexual. It only goes one way, if you were straight and you went to the shrink and said you wanted to be gay, they wouldn't be much help to you. Though it would be hilarious, and I want to hear the "pranked shrink" mp3 when you do it. As I understand it, most of these guys make a living trying to "help" gay people turn straight.

The problem is that psychology is no long a subset of shamanism. Back in the day before Malleus Maleficarum, say, all you had to do was shake a stick, chant a few incantations, and The Gay would be gone. Just like that. Uh, except for the occasional wide stance now and then. But sometime since then, picky liberal college professors have swept psychology into the domain of science. That means there needs to be empirical evidence to support theories and, in clinical psychology, empirical evidence that treatment strategies are effective. PS Please don't think this means I have anything against shamanism. I can just see the comments...

This makes it unnecessarily tough for the religious shrink who just wants to bring strays back to the flock. Because now, say you want to hang out a shingle to make gay people straight, because of this science business you have to show some evidence that what you're doing works. You can't just shake a rattle and sprinkle some herbs around the room, you need to point to books on a university library shelf, and say, see, there it is, scientific proof, this really works.

And the evidence has been ... slim, let's say. You won't find very many people out there who decided what their sexual orientation would be. You reach an age, it just happens. But this branch of shamanism psychotherapy specializes in converting gay people to straight. So it just has to work.

This week a couple of guys from Christian colleges, Wheaton College and Regent University, issued a press release about their new book. Nobody has seen the actual book yet, it's not out, but Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse gave a presentation at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where they went over data gathered from self-acclaimed "ex-gays." The good news is that they did ask a lot of the questions that had drawn a curtain of confusion over Spitzer's previous study, which was the only one that ever showed any chance that gay people could become straight.

But, listen people, this is bad. As I mentioned above, psychology is a science. There are methods, standards, procedures, that must be maintained by real psychologists. Science is a society that polices itself. Every scientific paper goes through a process called peer review, which is the very essence of the scientific method. It's what makes science works. And it goes like this. You do some research, get some results, write them up, and then you submit that document to a jury of your peers. You send your paper to a journal and the editor sends it out to experts in your field, who are selfishly motivated to find something wrong with it. They know the details of your procedures, the history of every technique you use, the arguments over every theoretical twist and turn, and they will criticize your paper expertly. Then you change it, and it goes back and forth, until it meets their standard.

You get through that, and the journal will publish your work. It's not perfect, but it is the best system I can imagine, and it has resulted in an explosion of knowledge over the past couple of centuries. It's science, and it serves us well.

But Jones and Yarhouse chose not to participate in science. Instead, they gathered their data like a scientist would do, they wrote it up so it looked like science, they announced it at a scientific-sounding religious conference, but they failed to submit the material to peer review. It's not science. They can do whatever they want, call it anything their agent likes, but if it didn't go through peer review, it isn't science.

Naturally, groups like NARTH, some religious groups, the Family Blah Blah groups, etcetera, don't care if it's really science. The point of "research" is to confirm what you already know, so who needs a bunch of peer-whatever?

On the other hand, there are some who are reading this a little more carefully. The words "critical" and "skeptical" come to mind -- science words, sorry. Remember, all there is so far is a conference presentation and a press release. The book won't be out till next month. Here's how Timothy Kincaid, writing at Box Turtle Bulletin, summarizes the information that's available at this time:
It appears that the study was over four years and included 98 people who were referred by various Exodus ministries.
  • 33 people reported change in the desired manner (from gay at time 1 in the heterosexual direction at time 3)
  • 29 reported no change
  • 8 reported change in the undesired direction
  • 3 were unsure how to describe their experience of change

and 25 people discontinued participation in the study during that time. The study also reports:
  • Success: Conversion - There were subjects who reported that they felt their change to be successful and reported substantial reduction in homosexual desire and addition of heterosexual attraction and functioning at Time 3. 15% met these criteria.
  • Success: Chastity - These people experienced satisfactory reductions in homosexual desire and were living chaste lives. 23% were in this category.
  • Continuing - These persons experienced only modest change in the desired direction but expressed commitment to continue. 29% were in this category.
  • No-response - These people experienced no change and were conflicted about the future even though they had not given up. 15% were here.
  • Failure (from their perspective): Confused - No change reported and had given up but did not label themselves gay. 4% were in this group
  • Failure: Gay identity - No change, no pursuit and had come as gay. 8% were in this category.

Assuming that these are percentages of the 73 participants who made it to the fourth year, this would break out as follows:
  • Success: Conversion - 11
  • Success: Chastity - 17
  • Continuing - 21
  • No-response - 11
  • Failure: Confused - 3
  • Failure: Gay identity - 6

With four people left unaccounted for.

OK, this is pretty good to see, I'm glad he's broken it down like this. The numbers don't add up, though there will probably be an explanation.

Timothy notes:
Try as I might, I can’t get these two findings to reconcile. Did 33 people report a change in the positive direction, or did 28? Did 8 people identify as gay or did 6?

...At present, we can only conclude that, at best:

Perhaps eleven percent of an nonrepresentative sample of 98 highly motivated gay people who went through Exodus programs reported that after four years there was “substantial reduction in homosexual desire and addition of heterosexual attraction and functioning”.

Oh great, that's what we all dream off, a reduction in our sexual desire. This is a great success, I'm sure.

Anybody have a good explanation just why somebody would want to reduce their natural, God-given sexual desire? Is that what makes Viagra such a failure in the drug market?

BTB quotes a paragraph from Christianity Today (linked above):
Most of the individuals who reported that they were heterosexual at Time 3 did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and did not report heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated. … We believe the individuals who presented themselves as heterosexual success stories at Time 3 are heterosexual in some meaningful but complicated sense of the term.

In case this analysis is getting too hard to follow, here's the wrap-up:
These sound less like Mom and Dad heterosexuals and more like Larry Craig heterosexuals. In other words, the number of individuals who went from plain old gay to plain old straight: zero.

Being heterosexual doesn't seem very complicated, does it? I mean for actual straight people. It appears to work pretty much automatically. I mean for actual straight people.

To understand this, try turning it around. Imagine the world was a different place, and straight people were the weird ones. Imagine that if you liked the opposite sex, everybody would want to "fix" you. How effective would that be -- I mean, for you yourself?

Two things. It's not science. If they went to all this trouble to collect this data, and these guys are "college" professors even, with doctorates we assume, they should know how the game works -- why didn't they submit this study to a respectable journal? Why go directly to a publisher with it? Did they think this was too ... I don't know, ... powerful ... too true ... to pass through peer review? Did they try it and fail? Why would you disguise something as science and publish it commercially, if you were serious about it?

Second, it doesn't sound like anybody actually changes, even when they really want to. Even when you search out the best "success" stories. I hate to tell you, but reducing your desire for same-sex partners isn't the same as being straight.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

David Fishback On The Radio

David Fishback, former chair of the MCPS Citizens Advisory Committee for Family Health and Human Development and currently speaking for and PFLAG, was interviewed on the Human Rights Campaign X-M radio program, The Agenda, on August 27. Click the link HERE to listen.

The Art of Hasslement

My kid, seventeen years old, was driving home at the end of a big day last week. He'd been allowed to drive down to Arlington, going on the Beltway, and then he'd come back to Rockville and visited a friend. The way driver's licenses work in Maryland, for the first six months you aren't allowed to drive after midnight, so it was about eleven thirty and he was headed home. School hadn't started for him yet, he was enjoying the last days of vacation.

He turned onto the little road that runs alongside our house when he saw in the mirror that two cars had pulled up behind him and were driving side by side. One of them sped up to pass him -- he thought this was some kind of carjacking or something.

No, it wasn't. It was cops. A combined force of Rockville and Montgomery County police stopped him, he thought afterwards there were four cars, about a hundred yards from our house.

The problem: fuzzy dice, hanging from his mirror.

Apparently those are illegal here, on the assumption they obstruct your view. Well, OK, they were kind of cool, but I can see that you shouldn't have stuff hanging down in front of the windshield. I can't quite get excited about it, but whatever.

They got him out on the sidewalk and asked him if they could search the car. We'd talked about this before, and, as I would expect, he told them no, they couldn't search it. So ... this is incredible to me. A MoCo policeman walks over to the car, remember this is the middle of the night on a dark street, he looks in through a tinted, closed window, and says he sees a marijuana seed on the floor. Which is probable cause for a search. (In case I need to say so, I am quite sure there was no marijuana seed there.)

So they went through the car and the trunk, pulled everything out of the glove compartment and threw it on the floor, threw the kid's keys down alongside the seat where he had to look for them, went through the junk in the trunk. He was sitting on the curb, within view of our house though we didn't know it, and he started to call us on his cell phone, but they wouldn't let him.

They ended up writing him a warning for the fuzzy dice.

The next day, I talked to the sergeant whose name was on the ticket. He told me that they find contraband in most of the cars they stop. I have no comment there, none at all. This guy also said the most interesting thing. He said, "After twenty-three years on the force, I can spot a marijuana seed on a gravel road."

Listen, our prisons are overcrowded with people who have been arrested on charges related to marijuana, but it's not clear to me why the stuff is even illegal. And this guy seems to think this makes him a really good policeman, being excellent at spotting microscopic quantities of marijuana.

I told him I didn't want him harassing members of my family any more. I guess that wasn't very nice, and I may get a slow response if I ever have to call 911, but really, what should a guy do? I mean it, I'm asking. What are we suppose do when something like this happens? I support the police, I donate money to them every year, I think it's really important to enforce the laws. But why should this be okay?

A few nights earlier when I was walking the dog, I had seen this same thing at the same corner, a bunch of police cars and some teenagers sitting on the curb while they went through the car. I figured they'd caught some bad guys. Sorry, but I just don't like the look of this. I definitely don't like to see it in my neighborhood.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Neuroscience Looks at Liberals and Conservatives

You might have already seen this article in the LA Times, or heard about it, looking at EEGs and behaviors of liberals and conservatives. First, an opinion. Scientists studying the way we think sometimes discuss it in terms of "the mind" and sometimes in terms of "the brain," as if these were interchangeable. Sometimes this is valid, but sometimes we act as though brain-explanations are equivalent to mind-explanations; this is an instance of something called the mereological fallacy. Brains don't think, for instance, minds think. This is an important distinction in my research, and I am sorry when I see cognitive neuroscientists or the journalists who report on them make that kind of error. Mind is a quality that emerges when a human brain is nurtured in a mindful social context, let's say; minds need more than a brain, minds need other people.

But still, there are times when it is interesting to see how an effect plays out in the correlation between brain activity and thought, and this might be an example of that.
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

In a simple experiment reported todayin the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research.

Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter. Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain

So the background: liberal and conservative minds differ, conservatives like to stick with the familiar ways of doing things and liberals like to try something new sometimes. Pretty much sums it up.

But is it "because of how their brains work?" Or do their brains work that way because of how they have learned to think?

And that last sentence is ... just wrong, comparing the generalization of a learned association to an unconditioned reflex.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

Researchers got the same results when they repeated the experiment in reverse, asking another set of participants to tap when a W appeared.

Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

There are two kinds of data here: the rate of correct responses and EEG of this particular part of the brain. Liberals responded better when the unexpected stimulus was shown, and their brainwaves correspondingly showed activity in the part that computes whether a habitual response is inappropriate.

You see that this can be interpreted in two ways. Liberals and conservatives behave differently, okay, that's interesting but not especially surprising. Liberals' and conservatives' brains function differently -- okay, given that they behave differently, you'd expect that, wouldn't you?

It's not like they've proven that liberals' brains are inherently different from conservatives' brains. You can't tell if this is a learned pattern or an inherited one, for instance. So let's not use this to argue that our side and the other side are "just different" from one another.
Analyzing the data, Sulloway said liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy.

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.

Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

"There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science," said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals.

But look, the EEG data don't affect these conclusions at all. All you needed to know was the error rates with the presentation of the less-familiar stimulus.
Lead author David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, cautioned that the study looked at a narrow range of human behavior and that it would be a mistake to conclude that one political orientation was better. The tendency of conservatives to block distracting information could be a good thing depending on the situation, he said.

Political orientation, he noted, occurs along a spectrum, and positions on specific issues, such as taxes, are influenced by many factors, including education and wealth. Some liberals oppose higher taxes and some conservatives favor abortion rights.

Still, he acknowledged that a meeting of the minds between conservatives and liberals looked difficult given the study results.

"Does this mean liberals and conservatives are never going to agree?" Amodio asked. "Maybe it suggests one reason why they tend not to get along."

See what I mean? Even the author of the study thinks that because their brains react differently, they might never see eye-to-eye. Maybe he knows something beyond what is carried in this newspaper story, but the study as reported does not give any evidence that this is an innate difference, shall we say, versus a learned one. Brains change as people learn stuff, that's no secret. I think it is dangerous and gullible to assign greater causal weight to the physiological process than to the social ones, to act as if "the brain" is making decisions that "the person" is responsible for. And I think our more conservative readers will want to agree with that view, as well.

The brain activity doesn't have anything to do with any of these conclusions, except maybe to show what brain processes correlate with what kind of decision-making. Some people adapt better to unusual situations, some people seek out new experiences, some people look at what's in front of them before they make a decision, and some don't, or some do it more than others. We expect brain activity to reflect thinking, and vice versa -- the brain is obviously a physical mechanism that supports thinking. This difference in how we respond to unusual circumstances may turn out to be an important, fundamental dichotomy across human beings, hard-wired, as they say, before birth, or it may turn out to be one of a gazillion individual differences that arise as people are enculturated, as they learn how to respond to the world from their parents, teachers, friends.

I think it really is interesting that self-identified liberals and conservatives respond differently like this. They do about the same when the "familiar" letter is shown, but when a different letter is shown, the liberals notice the difference and the conservatives respond as if the familiar one had been seen. It's a kind of neat experiment to show what is actually probably an important difference between "us" and "them," and a constant source of frustration for the difference-noticers.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Trapped For A Week

Wow, this is an amazing story. On September 1st this eighteen-year-old kid crashed his car into a deep gorge out in Prince George's County, where it was hidden by the foliage over a creek, and he was trapped inside it. Yesterday -- the 8th -- he was finally able to get himself out and climb back up to the road.
A college student missing for more than a week was found dehydrated late yesterday on a roadside in Prince George's County, and he said he had finally managed to extricate himself from his car, which had plunged into a nearby ravine.

Julian McCormick, 18, a first-year student at Bowie State University, had been the object of an intensive search since he failed to keep an appointment with his girlfriend Sept. 1.

He was found scraped, bruised, dehydrated and possibly malnourished about 6 p.m. yesterday at Powder Mill and Soil Conservation roads near Beltsville, authorities and his family said.

"A burden has been lifted from my shoulders," his father, James McCormick, said last night. "Every night we went to bed wondering where our child was, whether he was hurting or suffering." Teen Found Alive More Than a Week Into Search

It sounds like not much is really known about what this guy did all week. He was in pretty bad shape when they found him lying by the side of the road.

WTOP has some more:
McCormick said he believes his son was stuck in the car the whole week and only climbed out Saturday.

[Leigh Ann] Hess said her mother was driving her and her two children from her mother's house in Beltsville to their home in Bowie at about 5 p.m. Three months pregnant, she wasn't feeling very well and was staring out the window when she spotted Julian McCormick lying by the road. He looked like he was bleeding heavily from his head, she said.

Her mother pulled over and dialed 911, while Hess ran up to McCormick.

"He wasn't moving but he was kind of reaching out with his fingers, like he was trying to flag down a car," she said.

As she stood talking to him, more cars pulled over and a crowd gathered. He told her his name, his age and that he goes to Bowie State. But when she asked how long he'd been there, he said, "At least since this morning."

"This kid has such a will to live," Hess said. "It just floors me." College Student Found Alive After Being Trapped After Crash

Man, this could've easily turned out differently. Those are going to be some happy parents.

Empathy and Disgust

OK, this morning has agreed to accept the award as Most Beautiful Morning Out There Ever. This is a great time of year, leaves are falling, we've got a ton of box elder bug nymphs swarming around the box elder tree, a herd of deer including two bucks has been grazing up along the street, relatively fearless. I know some people who are going to the Renaissance Fair today, and man, they picked a great day to do it.

Yesterday was a busy one. First, some friends have this great crab feast every year, out in Darnestown. They set up rows of tables covered with brown paper, and boxes of crabs, and a bunch of other food, and have about a hundred people over. The lady there and my wife are friends from way back, and we go every year, my wife gets to see a lot of her old friends and of course that's some good eating, which I don't mind.

Then we went to the Birchmere, in Alexandria. The Seldom Scene were playing, they've got a new CD and I guess that's a big deal locally, everybody loves them, but that's not why we were there.

We went to see the opening act, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. This was a weird thing. There was a TV show a couple of months ago, late at night on some unwatched channel, somebody had videotaped some bluegrass bands at a festival or something. I was clicking the remote at two in the morning or so, and we came across this. And I can't tell you what it was, but I started crying like a baby. I told you, it was weird. Every time I'd look at the TV screen, the tears would start pouring out of my eyes. I couldn't explain it, still can't. Like, look, I played music for a living for twenty years, you've gotta be pretty good to get my attention. But this singer got my attention. She projects this honest ... I don't know what ... feeling, she has a great voice, incredible dynamics and phrasing, but hey I've worked with a lot of singers in my day, including some really good ones. I don't know what to say, Valerie Smith is an angel. And the band is perfect, they frame her performance perfectly; they're not just excellent musicians, they get it. Sometime I'll talk about Becky Buller's influence on this group, but not now, I got too much to say already.

So Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike were playing at the Birchmere, and they were definitely worth seeing: it was an extraordinary show. The Seldom Scene were good, too, but the truth is they changed the world, they revolutionized bluegrass music, and now they almost don't stand out from the crowd. And this is strange, because I don't really even listen to bluegrass music, but the Seldom Scene are bigger than their genre. They were a bunch of happy, likeable old guys (like, my age), playing an idiosyncratic repertoire skillfully. OK, that's worth seeing, but I was there for the openers, the amazing Valerie Smith and the amazing Liberty Pike band (with the amazing Becky Buller, who makes the whole crazy thing work).

But that's not what I want to talk about this morning. I want to talk about a research paper I read this week.

First, there is a matter of empathy. Empathy is when you feel how somebody else is feeling. There has been some really interesting research in neuroscience recently, which I've mentioned here, on "mirror neurons," which might go some way toward explaining how empathy works. It turns out there are some brain cells that fire when you see someone doing something, they're running a sort of simulation in your mind of what that person is doing. So if they raise their hand, your brain is mimicking the action is real time, telling you to raise your hand, too. Sensors on the muscles in your arm will show that they are getting the message to lift up, even though you don't actually do it.

So think about this, this is cool. You are actively imagining along with what you see, your brain is doing what it sees other people doing. If you think it through, you can see how this would give language its meaning, for instance; you are able to imagine what it must feel like to utter the words that you hear someone else saying, and so you know what they mean.

OK, let's go over to Ba Le and get a pot of tea and we can talk about it. That is cool indeed, but it's not exactly why I'm here.

What is the opposite of empathy? You'd have to say the opposite is disgust. I remember years ago when a psychologist up in Pennsylvania said it should be added to the list of basic emotions. It seemed to me he was mainly trying to justify some grant money, you know, but more and more it makes sense. This paper by Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello, in Canada, says, "Disgust is associated with turning away from, avoiding, and distancing oneself from offensive stimuli, as opposed to instigating attack or fight responses." But there are different kinds of disgust. This paper focuses on a type they call "interpersonal disgust," which is that feeling you have when somebody is just too close, that creepy feeling you get sometimes about somebody else. Some people feel this more than others, and they have a questionnaire they can give that asks how you feel about, for instance, sitting on a chair that is still warm from the last person who sat there, or how you'd feel about wearing clean second-hand clothes. You could go to the extreme, like, how would you like it if a stranger drooled on you, but almost everybody is disgusted by that. The questionnaire is looking for individual differences in how much people experience interpersonal disgust.

Interpersonal disgust is different from, I don't know, impersonal disgust, like you would feel looking at rat guts or something. There are four subcategories of disgust; interpersonal, core, death, and sex. Some people are disgusted by some kinds of things, and others by another kind, these are the main categories of things that psychologists have found disgust people. See how interesting this is already?

These researchers hypothesized that interpersonal disgust is a predictor of negative attitudes toward outgroups, what we normal folk call "prejudice," and found experimental evidence to support that. A little bit of a quote:
These findings highlight dehumanization as a cognitive antecedent to intergroup attitudes... We introduced an indirect method of assessing dehumanization based on the perceived relative absence in out-groups of traits seen as uniquely human.

Let me go back to mirror neurons. I'll suggest a way to look at this.

Let's say that when we look at another person doing something, there is a part of us that does the same thing. When they laugh, there is a part of us that laughs, too (and look at this interesting study showing that autistic kids don't "catch" yawns like the rest of us do). When someone gets hurt, there is part of us that hurts right along with them. We actively participate in what we perceive of other people, simulating what we see in real time, you might say. This is what we call "understanding," it's more than just seeing patterns of light or objects moving in space, it is knowing what it's like (to use Chalmers' term) to be that person.

It seems clear to me that there is pleasure in this. Why do people read novels? It is to go through the experiences of the protagonist as if it were themselves, people enjoy taking someone else's perspective. We watch movies, gossip, all kinds of things that show that we like taking another person's point of view, and we do it well. It is really the foundation of our social behavior, which is the foundation of everything having to do with thinking and behaving -- everything about us as people, in other words.

But sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes we try to take somebody else's point of view and it just doesn't work. Try, for instance, to imagine what it's like to be a child molester. If you're like me, you just hit a brick wall, it doesn't compute, the child molester to me is not a human being. This is the dehumanization they were talking about, and you can see how it has a functional application. You don't want to empathize with child molesters. Soldiers in a war don't want to see the enemy as a human being. It's okay to be disgusted by some people, for a number of reasons. And really, I don't think it would be a good thing if strangers drooled on us; disgust serves its purposes.

It seems to me that maybe there is some effort involved in empathizing with someone, and if they are different from us in some crucial ways it may not be worth it. This is the glue that holds groups together, we identify with "our people" but not with everyone. And for some people, this failure to empathize is experienced as interpersonal disgust.

This week I saw the most offensive web site. It was comparing gay people to Nazis, and had other statements like that, and it had a picture of this homely boy in drag (or so they say, it looks like a girl to me) being led around on a leash by a homely lesbian. And you think, of all the gay people in the world, why would these idiots want to show a picture of these particular ones? And the answer comes pretty easily, given what I've just been talking about.

The point is disgust. You want to portray these people in such a way that ordinary straight people simply cannot imagine themselves doing what they're doing. And I really can't, I can't imagine weighing ninety pounds and wearing eye make-up and walking around with some lesbian holding my leash.

If I had come across this picture on Flickr or something, I would have just clicked to go on to another one. But the people who put up this web site wanted to keep it, to dwell on it, to show it to everybody. And why? Because they want to nourish the feeling of interpersonal disgust that comes when you see something you would never do yourself. They like that feeling, they live for it, and they want others to share the feeling with them.

I think this dimension of empathy versus disgust is at the heart of the culture wars' focus on homosexuality. Really, there aren't very many gay people. According to the CDC, about six and a half percent of men, and about twice that many women, have had sex with someone of their own gender, and only about 2.3 percent of men and half as many women label themselves as homosexual. No question, they're a minority.

What this means is that most people simply can't imagine being that way. And people differ in how they deal with that, and this is the interesting part, for me. Some people see somebody do something they themselves can't imagine doing, and they think, ooh, that's disgusting. From there it only "makes sense" to define that non-empathic feeling as one of moral judgment, and say that the observed behavior is not only disgusting but wrong. If people wouldn't act like that, you wouldn't have this bad feeling, right?

On the other hand, some people see something they can't imagine doing, and just keep moving. They figure, well I can't understand why they want to do that, but it's not hurting anything, and it's none of my business, and they move on.

The people who put up that gross web site want disgust to work in their favor. They want those people who hate what they can't imagine doing to join up with them. A good way to do that is to feature pictures of people doing what no ordinary person would think of doing, what no ordinary person can imagine themselves doing, and imply that the entire outgroup is like that. They love for you to think that all gay people are homely boys in eye make-up being led on leashes by homely lesbians, because it is very difficult to empathize with that, and easy to feel disgust.

Luckily this doesn't work on most people.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Gazette Covers Litigation

Marcus Moore has this story in The Gazette:
Three groups of critics want the county’s Circuit Court to halt the Montgomery County school system’s sex-education lesson plans before they are taught in all middle schools and high schools this fall.

In their request, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, and Family Leader Network claim that the school system released inaccurate information and did not put material out for public review before approving the curriculum earlier this year. They also claimed the lesson plans violate students’ constitutional rights.

The critics are asking the court to throw out only lesson plans that discuss homosexuality, said Michelle Turner, a spokeswoman for the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum.

The lessons include a video in 10th grade on how to properly use and discard a condom and two 45-minute lessons on sexual orientation in the eighth and 10th grades.

The groups filed two appeals with the Maryland State Board of Education this year — one in February to have the curriculum thrown out before it was piloted in the spring and another in June to have the lessons scrapped before the beginning of the school year. In March, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick allowed the sex-ed pilot to move forward. In June, the state school board upheld the approved curriculum.

The request for a stay is expected to be heard in January.

The state board has already rejected the critics’ claims, said Brian K. Edwards, a Montgomery schools spokesman.

‘‘It appears that a small group of opponents is intent on forcing Montgomery County Public Schools to spend thousands more in taxpayer dollars to argue the same points all over again,” he said. Activists try to block lessons on homosexuality

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Examiner Reports

The Examiner carried this story today:
Montgomery County (Map, News) - Groups opposed to the new sexual education curriculum in Montgomery County Public Schools are asking a Circuit Court judge to prevent controversial lessons on homosexuality from being taught until an appeal can be heard early next year.

The motion, filed this week in Rockville, is the latest volley in a two-year battle between the county and three groups: Citizens For A Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, and the Family Leader Network.

Lawyer and CRC President John Garza on Thursday told The Examiner a hearing date has not yet been set on its most recent motion, filed Tuesday.

The particular lessons, which are planned for all county eighth- and 10th-graders in health courses, are not scheduled to be taught until sometime in October, he said, well before a January hearing in Circuit Court on the opponents’ appeal.

That appeal challenges the state board’s decision this summer upholding the county’s approval of sexual education curriculum that Garza called “blatant discrimination against certain religious groups” because of its treatment of homosexuality.

The parents disagree with the lessons on three main points:
  • The accuracy of the lessons, specifically their teaching that homosexuality is innate;
  • The fact that anal sex is not distinguished as being more dangerous than vaginal sex;
  • That it teaches being against homosexuality makes someone homophobic, even if the objection is on religious grounds.

“This is a moral issue that flies in the face of most religions in the United States. Most religions in the United States still believe that homosexuality is sinful,” Garza said. “The information provided to students is dangerous and inaccurate.”

Schools spokesman Brian Edwards disagreed.

“We believe that they are bringing up the same arguments again, forcing the taxpayers of Montgomery County to spend thousands of dollars to defend what’s already been decided,” Edwards said.

Still, the case is gaining attention of national groups.

Last week, Lambda Legal, which represents the rights of gays and lesbians, filed a notice in support of the county on behalf of Metro D.C. PFLAG, an advocacy group. Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, told The Examiner that her group views the updated curriculum as healthy.

It was formulated “in a smart, responsible way, with a lot of input,” she said.


Montgomery County has long required parents or guardians of all students attending health classes, including sexual education curriculum, to sign a paper giving them permission to attend, spokesman Brian Edwards said. Children whose parents choose not to allow them to take the controversial lessons are given supplemental instruction in other health curriculum, he said. Parents will also have the opportunity to attend information sessions, complete with all videos and supplements, that their children will receive during the sex ed portions of the course.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

PFLAG Joins Lawsuit

Yesterday's news release from Lambda Legal:
(Montgomery County, MD, September 4, 2007) In court papers filed recently in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland Lambda Legal represents Metro DC Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in a lawsuit over a decision by the Montgomery County School Board to include information about sexual orientation as part of the health education curriculum for 8th and 10th graders.

The Respect for Differences in Human Sexuality curriculum will provide education on sexual orientation that includes medically accurate information as it relates to homosexuality.

"Schools have a right to create an accurate curriculum -- not a curriculum guided by individual beliefs," said Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director of Lambda Legal. "In Geography class teachers aren't required to teach that the Earth is flat just because someone believes it."

On June 12, 2007, the Montgomery County School Board voted to implement the curriculum for the upcoming school year. The lessons had been field tested in several schools and received the recommendation of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Development. However, opposing groups, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, and Family Leader Network have challenged the curriculum and appealed the decision to implement it to the Maryland State Board of Education, which dismissed the challenge. The groups have now appealed that decision to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County seeking to have it overturned.

Christine Grewell, who co-founded the organization Teach the Facts to support the new curriculum, said, "As a mother who raised three children in this school system I understand that education is key in dispelling the idea that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), is an illness or taboo. Children deserve an education that will help them have a better understanding and respect for themselves and others."

David S. Fishback, a member of Metro DC PFLAG, said, "Our two now-adult sons are gay, and we know that if there had been such a curriculum when they were teenagers, their lives would have been much easier. We owe it to both LGBT and straight students to provide medically accurate information, for ignorance breeds fear. No child should have to go through school in fear of themselves or others."

"Classrooms are for facts -- and for many LGBT youth, their classrooms will be the first place that they find out that even though they feel 'different' they're completely normal and healthy," said Jody M. Huckaby, Executive Director of PFLAG National. "Making sure that our schools are relaying this fact is an issue to parents everywhere and the obligation of our schools."

The papers filed today by Lambda Legal seek to participate in the ongoing lawsuit between the Montgomery County School Board and the groups opposed to the curriculum.

Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director in Lambda Legal's Headquarters is handling the case with co-counsel Jonathan Frankel, Daniel Matheson, Brian Simmonds, Kenny Wright and Daniel Squire of the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Washington DC. Lambda Legal Stands on the Frontlines with Local Maryland Groups in Support of Inclusive Sex Education

Groups Seek to Stop New Curriculum

Story in The Post this morning about the CRC et al.’s latest filing:
Three groups seeking to halt the new sex education curriculum in Montgomery County schools filed papers yesterday seeking a court order to prevent the school system from teaching the lessons this fall.

The groups requested a stay in Montgomery Circuit Court so that the lessons, the school system's first foray into sexual orientation as a classroom topic, will not be taught countywide. Absent court intervention, eighth- and 10th-grade health teachers will embark on the new lessons starting in October, said Michelle Turner, a spokeswoman for lead opposition group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum.

Opponents of the sex education lessons, approved this year by the county school board, turned to the courts this summer after an initial appeal to the Maryland State Board of Education was rejected. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in January.

School board members and education leaders say the lessons are age-appropriate and pedagogically sound. "The Maryland State Board of Education has already considered and rejected the opponents' arguments as having no merit," said schools spokesman Brian Edwards.

It appears that a small group of opponents is intent on forcing Montgomery County public schools to spend thousands more in taxpayer dollars to argue the same points all over again."

Opponents say the lessons promote homosexuality and unsafe sex.

"We're only asking that these individual classes, these units, not be taught," said Turner, whose group is joined in the appeal by Family Leader Network and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. The Thomas More Law Center, a Christian public-interest firm, is assisting

Court Order Against Sex-Ed Lessons Sought

Monday, September 03, 2007

McGreevey Explains Why We Are Here

This has got to take the prize for the most interesting thing in the paper this morning. You will remember that James McGreevey was the governor of New Jersey who resigned after it was revealed that he was having an affair with a male employee. McGreevey's opinion piece in this morning's Post lends us some understanding that a lot of us wouldn't have otherwise. Check this out:
My gut wrenched when I read of Sen. Larry Craig's bathroom arrest. I remembered my own late-night encounter with the law at a Garden State Parkway rest stop following a political dinner in north Jersey.

I pulled into the rest stop, parked my car, flashed my headlights, which was "the signal," and waited. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I saw a state trooper approaching. I desperately tried to convince the trooper of my innocence, showing him my former prosecutor's badge, a gift from the office when I left. The trooper radioed his office and returned. "I never want to see you here again," he said. I survived for another day.

I was in my late 20s. It would be another 25 years before my parallel lives collided and I was coerced out of the "closet."

Why do grown men in their 20s, or their 60s, do such things? I can answer only for me.

As a child, recognizing my difference from other kids, I went to the local public library to try to better understand my reality. Back then, many library card catalogues didn't even list "homosexuality" as a topic. I had to go to "sexuality, deviant" to learn about myself, and the collected works were few and frightening: "Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases," "Homosexuality: Its Causes and Cure," "Sexual Deviance & Sexual Deviants."

If you haven't experienced it, it may be hard to understand the sinking feeling most every gay boy or girl of my generation experienced upon coming across that section of the library. All I could do was slam the drawer closed and leave, steeped in hopelessness.

No relief was forthcoming from my then-Catholic faith, which said the practice of homosexuality was a "mortal sin" subject to damnation.

In the way that teenagers do, I came to the conclusion that my only options were suicide, something for which I could never find the courage, or "closeting" my homosexuality. After all the whispering, fights, insults, reading of academic journals and lessons from the church, you simply say to yourself: This thing, being gay, can't be me. Everything and everyone told me it was wrong, evil, unnatural and shameful. You decide: I'll change it, I'll fight it, I'll control it, but, simply put, I'll never accept it. You then attempt to place "it" in a metaphorical closet, keep it separate from open daily life and indulge it only in dark, secret places.

The danger of this decision is the implicit shame it carries. I was convinced I was worth less than my straight peers. I was at best inauthentic, and the longer I went without amending that dishonesty, the more ashamed I felt. And the third shame, for me, was my behavior. From the time in high school when I made up my mind to behave in public as though I were straight, I nonetheless carried on sexually with men.

How do you live with this shame? How do you accommodate your own disappointments, your own revulsion with whom you have become? You do it by splitting in two. You rescue part of yourself, the half that stands for tradition, values and America, the part that looks like the family you came from, and you walk away from the other half the way you would abandon something spoiled, something disgusting. This is a false amputation, because the other half doesn't stop existing. When I decided to closet my desire, I also denied the possibility of life as a healthy, integrated gay.

But being in the closet uniquely assisted me in politics. From my first run for the state legislature until my election as governor, all too often I was not leading but following my best guess at public opinion. Politics was for me a way to secure the crowd's approbation while maintaining a busyness that obfuscated the desires of my heart. Despite being a moderately liberal governor, my stance on marriage was: "between a man and a woman." The position, in my mind, created a tension with the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community that affirmed my bona fides as a "straight." Only after the crisis that resulted in my resignation, when public opinion no longer mattered, did I realize the importance and legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Ultimately, like Sen. Craig, I resigned for the perceived good of my family, state and political party. And in so doing, I at long last accepted a fundamental truth, namely, that I am a gay American. In my soul, I found peace. In my heart, I found love. In my psyche, I disassembled the twisted separate strands of my life to create a healthy integrated person. And with my God, I found purpose.

I can only pray that Larry Craig and his loving family come to peace with his truth, whatever that may be. To those who judge him harshly, I ask that they fill their hearts with compassion and equanimity. The senator did not have a lover on the payroll, as I did; nor did he engage in sexual relations for money or use his office for unethical professional or personal gain.

Is it possible that we hold him to a different standard because a same-sex entanglement is involved? If being gay is, as I believe, a natural gift of the creator, what choice does a gay person have in being gay? If we condemn sin in an equal manner, so be it. But what if our condemnation tells to members of the next generation that they are to be shamed, repudiated and vilified inequitably for being gay?

I pray that the tide of American history continues to sweep toward the inevitable expansion of freedom that recognizes the worth and dignity of every individual -- and that mine is the last generation that is required to choose between affairs of the heart and elected office.

I don't have anything to add to that; he has explained, better than I ever could, why there is a

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bush Apologizes

Well, there isn't enough time in the world for him to give all the apologies he owes, but he may have gotten backed into a corner on this one.

Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart of Fernley, Nevada, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005 when his helicopter was shot down, and was buried in Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Sgt. Stewart was a Wiccan, and it was his wish to have a pentacle (improperly called, more accurately a pentagram) engraved on his tombstone. He was surrounded by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other Americans whose religious symbols were displayed, yet the Department of Veterans Affairs and its National Cemetery Administration argued that Wicca was not really a relgion, and would not allow the symbol.

You probably weren't following this story: I was. It was just one little battle in the struggle against Christian theocracy, but an important one. I won't go into it, you can Google the guy's name, but in the end, his wife won after a tough fight, and there is today a five-pointed star on his tombstone.

Last week, President Bush met with Nevada families of soldiers killed in combat, and, oddly, Mrs. Stewart was not invited.

There was some outrage on the Internet, but the story didn't carry much weight in the corporate media -- if only there had been a missing blonde. Still, a lot of people noticed this insult, which seemed to people like me to be unnecessarily petty. I mean, really petty. Let's not forget, this was a man who gave his life serving his country.

The Post:
President Bush has apologized to the widow of a Wiccan soldier after she was excluded from a Nevada meeting this week that the president held with the families of soldiers killed in combat.

Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005, was left off the invitation list for the private meeting Tuesday even though other members of her husband's family were invited.

When she heard about the exclusion from her mother-in-law, Stewart said, she concluded that it was done because of her public fight to force the federal government to engrave the symbol for the Wiccan faith on her husband's marker on a memorial.

"I was devastated," Stewart said. "I was crying and upset. I couldn't believe that my country would continue this discrimination."

On Thursday, after publicity about the omission, the White House and the military scrambled to put things right. Stewart said she received phone calls from Department of Defense officials, who told her that her name was inadvertently left off a list of guests they forwarded to the White House.

Bush, who had been in Nevada for a speech to the American Legion's national convention, also called Stewart and, in a conversation that she said lasted about five minutes, expressed regret over her exclusion. She said she told the president about the Wiccan faith.

" 'I don't know whether you believe me or not, but I hope you know that this president would not dishonor a soldier,' " she said Bush told her. Bush Apologizes to Wiccan Soldier's Widow for Meeting Slip-Up

The Washington Post calls it a "slip-up," right in the headline, which is what I would call a "cover-up" by the media. Nobody in their right mind thinks this was a "slip-up," unless you mean by "slip-up" that he didn't anticipate that anybody would notice. This was the common case of our nation's leader discriminating on the basis of religion. If he had invited this widow to the meeting, there would have been no negative publicity, no newspaper would have said, "President Endorses Witchcraft In Meeting With Families." Instead, he chose -- didn't "slip up," chose -- to make the point that only some of those who sacrifice their lives for their country deserve recognition.

It was a bizarre thing for him to do, and it backfired on him. Can you recall any other time, ever, in his presidency that he has apologized for anything? Anything at all?