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October 2004
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December 2004

Return of the Blacklist

Capitol Hill Blue reports on a case in which a young activist appears to have been added to some kind of official list that causes her to go through an aggressive search when she goes through airports.   Actually, I think it's a bit of a misnomer to refer to it as a return of the blacklist, or to compare it to the Nixon era enemies list.  These were small potatos compared to what we're dealing with now.   The blacklist targetted a very small and specific group of Hollywood figures who were suspected of Communist ties; Nixon's enemies list was born from his own personal political paranoia.  Both reprehensible, certainly, but minor league.

What we're seeing now is a return to the very broad surveillance and suspicion of the American public that occurred during the sixties, when the government was truly afraid of revolutionary tendencies emerging, and felt that those fears fully justified ignoring civil liberties in order to infiltrate activist groups and target dissidents for special surveillance and treatment.  There is reason to think that for the last quarter of the 20th century that sort of activity decreased, but it would be very naive to think that it ceased.  Now, as was pointed out in Fahrenheit 9/11, this sort of harassing behavior is becoming more common and aggressive again.

Part of what distinguishes W's regime in this arena is that they have been extremely effective in laying both the legal and the political groundwork for this sort of activity -- much more effective than the government in the sixties.  Back then, such activities were clandestine -- the government didn't want us to know that we were being spied upon.  The current group is much more sophisticated -- the do very much want us to know we're being spied on.  If they didn't plant the story on Capitol Hill Blue, they certainly applauded it.  The know the value of the chilling effect.  And on the other side, they've been extremely effective at cranking up the fear factor so that people are willing to give up those civil liberties, willing to go through the harassment and hassle -- we've been well taught to believe that these things are necessary. 

Remember -- these people believe they are on a mission from God.  The normal rules don't apply.

It's Not About Facts

In the aftermath of the election, with the commentariat scrambling to understand why people voted as they did, I find a piece by Drew Westen that aired yesterday on All Things Considered to be quite fascinating.   Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory, who has been doing  research on how people come to the conclusions they do about political issues, and he has found that facts play a relatively minor role.  He says,

"An experiment completed right before the election shows just how powerful these emotional polls can be. Here's what we told the participants. A soldier at Abu Ghraib prison was charged with torturing prisoners. He wanted the right to subpoena senior administration officials. He claimed he'd been informed the administration had suspended the Geneva Conventions. We gave different people different amounts of evidence supporting his claims. For some, the evidence was minimal; for others, it was overwhelming. In fact, the evidence barely mattered. Eighty-four percent of the time, we could predict whether people believed the evidence was sufficient to subpoena Donald Rumsfeld based on just three things: the extent to which they liked Republicans, the extent to which they liked the US military, and the extent to which they liked human rights groups like Amnesty International. Adding the evidence into the equation allowed us to increase the prediction from 84 percent to 85 percent."

The point of Westen's piece is that TV journalists need to be more careful to "distinguish what's debatable from what's not."  I certainly agree with him, but I doubt that better reporting will make a difference.  The facts about the administration's miserable performance have been available for anyone who was interested in facts.  Most people aren't.

ALHeLA and Health InfoNet

The main program session at this year's annual meeting of the Alabama Health Libraries Association is an update on progress that's been made since the statewide planning meeting was held last spring.  The two most concrete aspects are the expansion of Health InfoNet statewide (following its beginning focus on the two main counties in the Birmingham area), and the decision to implement GoLocal as the primary focus of the Health InfoNet website.

I'm inordinately proud of the work that Kay has done in moving this whole thing forward.  This is not to diminish the wonderful work that has been done by many other people, but a project like this takes off only when it is driven by someone who is willing to make a mission of it, and that is certainly what Kay has done.

Rice at State

I'm dismayed, but not surprised, at the selection of Condi Rice for Secretary of State.  She has been shockingly ineffective as NSA, as was so well demonstrated during the 9/11 hearings.  Her statement immediately after the towers were hit that "no one could have imagined" such a thing, when the Rudman/Hart report had explicitly warned of that sort of a possibility, is typical.  One would have thought that in an administration that actually valued accountability, she would have been fired before the end of 2001.  But she brings the trait that Bush values most -- intense loyalty.  Bush is carefully purging the cabinet of anyone who might on occasion be thought to hold a view contrary to his own.  He has been the most insulated president ever, and the moves he is making now will only increase that.  It's time for career diplomats, who believe that we have obligations to understand the world at large in order to play our part, to start looking into early retirement options.


The first thing I do when we walk into our room here in the Huntsville Hilton is open my laptop to see if there's a wireless connection.  (The second is to set up my marvelous iPod travel speakers and get some music going).  One becomes dependent on the changes so quickly.  It's only six months or so since I've been using wireless regularly, only that long since we set it up at the house and it is very hard for me to imagine being without it.  When I check into a hotel that doesn't have wireless now I'm annoyed.  In June or July I was in DC for a grant review meeting.  We stayed at the Bethesda Marriott, great big conference hotel that hosts loads of NIH-related meetings.  Sherrilynne Fuller and I arrived at about the same time, flipped open our laptops, expecting that there would be a signal.  We were offended when there wasn't.

A dozen or more years ago, when I started travelling with a computer, the modem was the larger and heavier than my current laptop and required a separate power supply.  I thought it was fantastic.  I wonder what'll come next? 

What I Read

Tom Roper sends me a note in which he questions the usefulness of the Typelists on TypePad's blogs.  He says, "Why on earth should anyone else in the world care what I listen to or read?"  He quotes from TypePad: "one of the best ways to present your identity is by presenting supplemental information that's important to you, such as the media you consume."  He's troubled by the narcissism inherent in blogging, and I agree with that.  But I think there's another way to look at the lists -- there are indeed people whose reading habits matter to me.  I recall  Mark Frisse saying that one of the ways that he kept up with the issues that were important in his professional world was by tracking what the people that he respected were reading.  In the never-ending struggle to wade through the morass of information that bombards us, I'll take any guide that I can get.  If Mark Funk tells me that there's a new Skeletons CD available, I'm going to get it.  If Mike Flannery tells me that he's found a new book on the political development of the media that he thinks is worthwhile, I'm going to look into it.   If I find that Tom Roper is listing a new album by Robert Wyatt (who I've never heard of) or a book by William J. Mitchell (likewise), I'm going to consider it worth looking into.  The value of the lists comes not from what they might tell anybody about me  but that they might serve as a useful signpost to someone else.

Multiple versions

It has been suggested that since some journals are now posting "pre-publication" versions of articles on their e-journal sites, the concern about multiple versions of articles that could result from the Zerhouni proposal is disingenuous.  "It can't really be a problem, because it's already happening, so this must just be another ploy on the part of the publishers to protect their profits."  This is an overhasty reaction from the guys on my side who are anxious to ward off any possible criticism.  That kind of knee-jerk defensiveness is unfortunate, and it puts blinders on the critical faculty that needs to stay open and alert.

When journals put pre-publication versions of their articles up, it's always clear what that version is; and when the final version is released, it replaces the earlier one.  The publisher takes responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the provenance.  The worry that I have with the NIH proposal is that the link between the articles is broken.  The two versions could exist simultaneously, and while the fundamental results of the article will usually (but not always!) be unaltered, there can be numerous changes between the two versions.  Most troubling, perhaps, is the notion that in the final editing, critical errors can be discovered that, were the publisher controlling the article, would be tracked back.  But what is the guarantee that the author will make those same changes?  And how does an author go about replacing one version of an article that has been deposited in PubMed with another?

Then there's the issue of retractions.  If the publisher retracts an article after publication, what happens with the pre-publication version in PMC?  These are not trivial issues.  They are not arguments against the proposal, of course.  They are merely issues that must be addressed in the final version.

From Orange to Yellow

What a relief!  I can go to the NYSE in a lighter frame of mind now. 

I've been wondering for months how the admin was going to lower the threat in DC, NY & New Jersey.  They jumped the gun back when, freaking out over the finding of those surveillance tapes of financial buildings...  and then they found out that all the news was old.  But they'd already raised the threat level...

It's like the cat who leaps from the window sill to the freshly polished table without realizing that her momentum is gonna slide her like a hockey puck to the end where she's gonna tumble onto the floor before she raises herself up, shakes off the hurt, and looks at every human within eyeshot, saying... "Yeah, I meant to do that..."

In another coincidence of timing, we hear that it has nothing to do with the election.  It's just that the increased security procedures around those sites have made it safer. 


Goodbye, John

Ashcroft's resignation is a relief, but no surprise.  While he was useful in helping to keep some of the religious right on board, his penchant for grandstanding and stupid remarks became an embarassment for the administration.   It is noteworthy that he was kept almost completely under wraps during the campaign.

I wish that I could be hopeful that a new AG would be somewhat more moderate in regards to policy, but I suppose that's unlikely.  And somebody who was a little smarter about how they handled the press might actually be more effective in eviscerating civil liberties in the name of fear.  Please don't tell me that we might get to the point where I'll be missing Ashcroft!

Sacred Spaces

We huffed up the tower at the Mount Auburn cemetary and saw the city of Boston spread out before us.  An astonishing view.   It was a little chilly, but there were no clouds and the sun lit up the trees below us magnificently.  We had walked over from Harvard Square, after a delightful lunch at Sandrine's Bistro.   Walking briskly in the sun kept the chill off.  Lynn is reading a novel, the central plot points of which take place at Mount Auburn, so she wanted to see it.  The walk was just the thing after some  trout & frites & a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage.

Truly sacred spaces exude a calm that touches the receptive heart as soon as you approach.  At Mount Auburn, with all of the monuments and gravestones, one doesn't feel at all surrounded by death; one is surrounded by life and the love of friends and family.   Their literature claims that it is the most beautiful cemetary in the world.  Walking from the stunning consecration dell, where a little pond at the bottom of the path feels like a baptismal font for an entire city, up to the top of the tower, one is certainly inclined to agree.

The feeling of magnificence and the upwelling of spirit was similar the day before when we stopped in to visit Trinity Church.   My interest in the church was sparked two years ago when, in reading up on Henry Adams in anticipation of spending some time in Boston, I found that one of his best friends, H.H. Richardson, was the architect.  Then, in investigating further, I found what an important role in the life of the city the Trinity congregation has continued to play.  So I was delighted when we checked into our hotel room to see that we were looking out on the church, and on our way to lunch the other day we stopped in. 

They're doing some massive renovations, so the vault itself is obscured by heavy scaffolding, but you can still get a sense of what it's going to be like when the renovation is done.  And the stained glass windows, with designs by LaFarge and Burne-Jones are truly stunning.   

I don't think one needs to be a Christian to know that there is something profound happening in these spaces.  It is something that human beings need -- the true sense of connection to the deeper mysteries of life and death and community.   Sacred spaces provide the physical manifestation of that spiritual world.