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The most frightening thing about the Supreme Court: Narrow range of life experience

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Dahlia Lithwick has a thought-provoking article in The New Republic:

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has emerged as one of the most ideologically aggressive in decades, and its rightward trajectory is usually attributed to this simple fact: a majority of the justices are very conservative. Today’s Court contains, according to one study, four of the five most conservative justices to sit on the bench since FDR; Anthony Kennedy, the putative swing vote, is in the top ten.

But having covered the Court for 15 years, I’ve come to believe that what we’re seeing goes beyond ideology. Because ideology alone would not propel the justices to effect such massive shifts upon the constitutional landscape, inventing rights for corporations while gutting protections for women, minorities, and workers. No, the real problem, I think, is that the Court as a whole has gotten too smart for our own good.

The current justices are intellectually qualified in ways we have never seen. Compared with the political operators, philanderers, and alcoholics of bygone eras, they are almost completely devoid of bad habits or scandalous secrets. This is, of course, not a bad thing in itself. But the Court has become worryingly cloistered, even for a famously cloistered institution. Every justice is unavoidably subjected to “public deference” when they ascend to the bench, as I heard Sonia Sotomayor describe it at a conference last June. Now, on top of that, today’s justices filter out anything that might challenge their perspectives. Antonin Scalia won’t read newspapers that conflict with his views and claims to often get very little from amicus briefs. John Roberts has said that he doesn’t believe that most law-review articleswhere legal scholars advance new thinking on contemporary problemsare relevant to the justices’ work. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia’s opera-going buddy, increasingly seems to revel in, rather than downplay, her status as a liberal icon. Kennedy spends recesses guest-teaching law school courses in Salzburg.

Before the Affordable Care Act cases were heard in 2012, aspiring spectators lined up for days (mostly in vain, because seats are so limited). Meanwhile, this Court goes to considerable lengths to keep itself at oracular remove. The texts of many of the justices’ speeches are not publicized. Cameras and recording devices remain barred from oral arguments, and protesters may not even approach the spotless white plaza outside. But the most symbolically potent move came in 2010, when the justices closed off the giant bronze doors at the front of the building, above which the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW are engraved. Today, the public must enter the building from the side, beneath the marble staircase, through dark, narrow entrances feeding into metal detectors. It is a fitting setup for a Court that seems to want neither to be seen nor to really see us.

Paradoxically, the Court that has gutted minority voting rights in Shelby County and limited women’s access to birth control in Hobby Lobby has never looked more like the country whose disputes it adjudicates. It includes three women, an African American, the first Hispanic, two Italian Americans, six Catholics, and three Jews. On the federal bench, President Obama has appointed more women, minorities, and openly gay judges than any president in history.

But while we have gained diversity of background, we haven’t gained diversity of experience. A study released in February revealed that 71 percent of Obama’s nominees had practiced primarily for corporate or business clients. The Supreme Court is even more homogeneous, because the modern confirmation gauntlet only lets one kind of person through. Post-Robert Bork, a nominee must not have too obvious an ideological agenda, as some judges and almost all elected officials do. Post-Harriet Miers, a prospective justice must possess not just a stellar résumé but also a track record of judicial rulings and legal writings from which future decisions can be confidently deduced.

The result has been what Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School calls the “Judicialization of the Judiciary,” a selection process that discourages political or advocacy experience and reduces the path to the Supreme Court to a funnel: elite schools beget elite judicial clerkships beget elite federal judgeships. Rinse, repeat. All nine sitting justices attended either Yale or Harvard law schools. (Ginsburg started her studies in Cambridge but graduated from Columbia.) Eight once sat on a federal appellate court; five have done stints as full-time law school professors. There is not a single justice “from the heartland,” as Clarence Thomas has complained. There are no war veterans (like John Paul Stevens), former Cabinet officials (like Robert Jackson), or capital defense attorneys. The Supreme Court that decidedBrown v. Board of Education had five members who had served in elected office. The Roberts Court has none. What we have instead are nine perfect judicial thoroughbreds who have spent their entire adulthoods on the same lofty, narrow trajectory.

A Supreme Court built this way is going to have blind spots. But right-wing legal and political groupswho are much better at the confirmation game than their equivalents on the lefthave added a final criteria that ensures the Court leans strongly in their favor. They have succeeded in setting the definition of the consummate judge: a humble, objective, nearly mechanical umpire who merely calls “balls and strikes,” in Roberts’s insincere but politically deft phrasing. This lets conservatives sell nominees who are far more conservative than liberal nominees are liberal. A Democratic-appointed justice makes the short list by having her heart in the right place, but will be disqualified for heeding it too much. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2014 at 8:47 am

Posted in Education, Law

States Where Fewer Kids Get The HPV Vaccine Have Higher Rates Of Cervical Cancer

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No real surprise. And of course it’s the most ignorant states where the incidence of cervical cancer is highest.

Tara Culp-Pressler writes:

The states with the lowest rates of HPV vaccination are the same ones with the highest rates of cervical cancer, according to a new study that was presented on Tuesday at a conference for the American Association for Cancer Research.

HPV, which stands for the human papillomavirus, is linked to several different types of cancer. In fact, an estimated 91 percent of cervical and anal cancers are probably caused by HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And HPV-related cancers have actually been on the rise over the past several years.

Rates of cervical cancer have always varied across the country — so when the HPV vaccine was introduced for widespread use in 2006, public health experts hoped that it would help even out some of those disparities. But that hasn’t been the case. The states with particularly high cancer rates aren’t vaccinating kids against HPV at very high rates.

For instance, according to the new study, 69 percent of the girls who live in Massachusetts get at least one HPV shot. The cervical cancer rate in that state is one of the lowest in the country, affecting just 6 women out of every 100,000. But in states in the South, where cancer is more common, fewer girls are initiating the vaccination process. There are 10.2 cases per 100,000 women in Arkansas, but only 41 percent of girls there get at least one HPV shot. In Mississippi, where there are 9.6 cases per 100,000 women, only 40 percent of girls get a shot.

“These states could really use some interventions to increase the rates of HPV vaccination now, and hopefully there will be big dividends in the coming decades in terms of cancer mortality,” Jennifer Moss, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, told TIME.

Previous research has found similarly low rates of HPV vaccination in the South, something that’s concerned researchers for years. “If a lower rate of HPV vaccine uptake in the South persists, it could contribute to the national burden of cervical cancer in the long run,” Dr. Abbey Berenson, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, pointed out last year after publishing the results from a study that highlighted this discrepancy.

Moss and her team recommend some simple policies to encourage more girls to get vaccinated against HPV. Health care providers should be more intentional about recommending the shots and explaining their benefits, while state officials could implement programs to fund vaccines for low-income and uninsured families. Moss believes that could help start changing public opinion about the HPV shots.

Public opinion has historically been a big barrier to increasing HPV vaccination rates in the United States, which lag far behind the rates in other developed countries. Since HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, some parents are uncomfortable with the idea of giving their young daughters a vaccine for it — they worry the shot will encourage kids to have risky sex, even though there’s absolutely no link between the vaccine and promiscuous sexual behavior. Others still worry that the HPV shot isn’t safe, even though the CDC recommends it for both boys and girls.

Plus, many parents don’t understand why the vaccine matters in the first place. About70 percent of U.S. adults don’t realize the HPV shot can protect against cancer, and about a quarter of parents surveyed by the CDC in 2013 said they don’t believe the vaccine is necessary for their kids.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2014 at 10:16 am

Interesting essay on age-old issue: The relationship of fiction and reality

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Discussing fiction (and, more generally, art) and reality—and the relationship of the two—probably began with any seriousness in the first breakthrough modern novel, Don Quixote, which explores the relationship in many ways, including the first use of metafiction. So it’s not the sort of discussion that ends in a clear-decision. But still, it’s an important and an interesting discussion and often can help clarify our own views and experience. Noah Berlatsky writes in Pacific Standard:

Earlier this year I gave a talk to a college class about Wonder Woman, superheroes, and gender. The class was mostly engaged and interested—especially when they found out, to their mixed outrage and amusement, that I rather like Twilight. But toward the end, one student raised her hand and said, loosely paraphrased: “Why are we talking about this nonsense? Superhero films are just fictional entertainment that you’re supposed to sit back and enjoy. Why overthink it?”

That’s a response you get a lot when you write about pop culture—or any culture, really. What’s the point of discussing racism in Lovecraft, or violence in action movies? Shouldn’t we focus instead on real racism, or real violence, rather than talking about fictional representations which, by definition, aren’t real?

Sometimes these protests seem aimed at avoiding the conversation—people often have ideological reasons for not wanting to talk about sexism, and/or (perhaps like the student I spoke to) may just not be interested in critical approaches to entertainment. But still, the question remains: Does it make sense to criticize fiction in terms of real-world issues?

Critic Isaac Butler, in athoughtful and focused article, makes a strong argument that, at least in some cases, it does not. Butler is responding to a trend in criticism which he calls “the realism canard.” The realism canard is the idea that fiction should be fact-checked, that the critic’s job is to look at a film and point out the ways in which it fails to conform to reality. A critic working from the realism canard might point out that (contra Star Wars) you can’t hear explosions in space, or that (contra Orange Is the New Black) prisons do not systemically dump ill inmates on the streets through misguided compassionate release programs. “What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters createdfeels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes,” he writes. “It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure ofThe Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works toward the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them.”

Again, Butler’s point here is narrowly aimed at a particular kind of fact-checking. Butler himself has written astute criticism (at the blog I edit, among other places) about topics such as the political failings of V for Vendetta. He’s not demanding (as the student was) that we stop altogether using real-world rubrics to think about fiction. But it’s easy to see how his argument could end up leading in that direction. If the main criteria for The Hunger Games is whether “the world works toward the purposes of the novel,” how can you get traction to criticize the way the novel both disavows and revels in the spectacle of violence? If hyperbolic atrocities against children work toward the purposes of the novel, what grounds are there for criticizing it if you rule out references to real-world violence?

JEFFREY M. ZACKS’ NEW book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, provides some surprising answers to the problem of criticism in general and the realism canard in particular. Zacks is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on studying what happens in your brain when you watch movies. One of his most provocative discussions in Flickerfocuses on the relationship between memory and film.

Butler’s objection to the realism canard is based on the idea that reality and fiction are separate. This is obviously, even definitionally, true; fiction isn’t real. But while you know that, and I know that, Zacks presents strong evidence that our brains aren’t always so sure. He points to a recent psychological study by Andrew Butler (no relation to Isaac) in which test subjects were asked to read accurate historical essays and then watch Hollywood movies about the periods discussed in the non-fiction pieces. As is often the case with Hollywood, many of the movies distorted history substantially. For example, the Civil War film Glory presented the 54th black Massachusetts regiment as composed mostly of slaves, even though the actual regiment was made up almost entirely of Northern freemen.

So did the psychological subjects fall prey to the realism canard, and start fact-checking the Hollywood films willy nilly? Nope. Instead, they confused history and fact. According to Zacks: . . .

Continue reading. It gets even more interesting.

And the fact that films can override historical fact is why (a) propaganda is so important to governments that want people to view the present in a particular way, and (b) a sound education, including not only history but also critical-thinking skills, is so important to true freedom. (My view is that a person whose worldview has been manipulated by others to see things as they want is not someone who is truly free. If you can shape the premises on which he operates, his decisions will mostly go in the direction you have determined. Freedom ain’t in it.

As noted later in the article: “Getting history wrong in Hollywood affects how people see real history, which can have an effect on how they see the present.”

Do read the article.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2014 at 11:53 am

Seems very much on the mark

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Remember this post from yesterday on the destruction of our educational system? It’s continuing.

Remember this post from yesterday on how Wall Street simply controls the government and will never be truly punished for their grand-scale theft and fraud? while those impacted by the theft get no relief whatsoever?

Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2014 at 2:05 pm

Obama’s utter failure in Education

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Read the entire column by Paul Rosenberg in Salon. It’s powerful. Look at this one section of it:

5. Continuing Bush’s top-down war on public education.

Diane Ravitch is an education historian, author and activist who once believed strongly in much of what flies under the banner of “school reform”—until the real-world results convinced her otherwise. A former assistant secretary of education under G.H.W. Bush, no one can seriously accuse her of being a wide-eyed radical. And yet, she has emerged as the most prominent critic of Obama’s education policies—along depressingly familiar lines: they are virtual carbon copies of George W. Bush’s policies. And she’s anything but alone in raising this criticism, as she has repeatedly pointed out in her writings.

In July 2009, Ravitch wrote:

The great mystery of education policy today is why the Obama administration is embracing the Bush program. I recently wrote in Education Week (June 10) that it is time to kill the Bush-era No Child Left Behind program. The overwhelming majority of teachers agree with me. Those who educate our kids know that NCLB is a failed program that is not improving our schools but rather turning them into test-prep factories and dumbing down our kids.

Almost two years later, in March 2011, Ravitch wrote:

Over the past year, I have traveled the nation speaking to nearly 100,000 educators, parents, and school-board members. No matter the city, state, or region, those who know schools best are frightened for the future of public education. They see no one in a position of leadership who understands the damage being done to their schools by federal policies.

They feel keenly betrayed by President Obama. Most voted for him, hoping he would reverse the ruinous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of George W. Bush. But Obama has not sought to turn back NCLB. His own approach, called Race to the Top, is even more punitive than NCLB.

Another two years later, in May 2013, Ravitch wrote:

Remember when candidate Obama in 2008 spoke of hope and change. That encouraged many educators to believe that No Child Left Behind would be ended, tossed into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Sadly, President Obama built his Race to the Top right on the flawed foundation of NCLB, and made teaching to the test a necessity.

As the for-profit charters proliferated, he said nothing.

As radical governors destroyed collective bargaining and teacher due process, he said nothing.

As cyber charters grew, garnering huge profits but terrible education, he said nothing.

As vouchers spread, he said nothing.

As privatization accelerated, he said nothing.

The very idea of a “race to the top” refutes the principle of equality of educational opportunity.

If the fundamental criticism hasn’t changed much over the years, the way that it resonates—which matters enormously for base mobilization—certainly has. The growth of resistance from below was charted this past July by Jeff Bryant (a Salon contributor), in piece tellingly titled “Education ‘Reform’ Loses the Netroots.” In 2009, he wrote:

The first Netroots Nation I attended, Pittsburgh in 2009, was mostly a celebration of the Obama victory the previous year. But as events rolled out the rest of that year and into 2010, it became painfully obvious that the new White House would maintain – actually even increase – a disastrous policy agenda carried over from the George W. Bush administration for the nation’s public schools. Public schools activists looked to Netroots Nation as a venue where progressives could push back.

We had our work cut out for us.

Bryant cited 2011 as a “turning point,” when he led an impressive panel titled “Engaging Progressives in the Fight for Public Education,” in which he said “we warned attendees of the dangers of current education policies and urged attendees to get involved in the growing movement to take back our public schools.”

Finally, this year, he wrote:

Six panels on education topics – ranging from curriculum standards, to student suspensions, to student loan debt, to reclaiming the promise of public schools – presented a unified front against current “reform” policies and for a vision of equity and excellence in public education.

Indeed, the dialogue at the meeting made clear the term “education reform” has become a pejorative in the progressive community.

That’s what’s happening with the activist base. But the battle is still fiercely raging in the party at large. In California, a “reform” candidate, running as a Democrat backed by massive outside spending came within a few points of defeating incumbent Tom Torlakson in the contest for California superintendent of public instruction. For the first time ever, it was the most expensive statewide race in California for the general election cycle. The war against public education is still raging full force—and President Obama is still on the wrong side. Is it really any wonder Democrats are having base mobilization problems in light of that? . . .

By all means, read the whole thing. Note that the above is point 5.


Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2014 at 1:30 pm For the video-game enthusiast

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Full disclosure: Ethan Ham, the author of the book and the site, is my son. However, I think this will be of interest to anyone interested in video games—and particularly those interested in designing such games.

Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2014 at 10:14 am

The anchors are CNBC’s Squawk Box must be quite blissful

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Read and enjoy, with a certain amount of cringing.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2014 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Education, Media


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