Regarding Jonah Lehrer

That Jonah Lehrer was finally fired from Wired after resigning from The New Yorker should not surprise, it was only a matter of time.  His patterns of plagiarism, fabrication, and recycling his own material effectively ended his career even before the official end came.  It was the same with Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.  But that is not really what interests me.

What fascinates me most about the whole Jonah Lehrer affair is that while the media cannot stop talking about it, the general public does not really care at all.  True, there is nothing the media loves to talk about more than itself, but while the Blair scandal was national news for weeks, Lehrer’s crimes–which are quite serious–have barely elicited a shrug outside of newsrooms.  I wonder why that is.  Is it because Lehrer was an online contributor (re: blog) whereas Blair wrote print articles (considered more serious)?  Is it because Blair was a fixture at the New York Times whereas Lehrer wrote for Wired; because he was relatively new at The New Yorker did his crimes not taint the magazine’s brand?  Does the background of the plagiarists have something to do with it?

I have another theory.  I think the public may just be too jaded to care.  While the media has a very high image of itself, the public really hates the media in a way that is unprecedented.  It is a self-inflicted wound, less from people like Lehrer, Blair, and Glass, and more because of people like Blitzer, Hannity, and Olbermann.  Journalism is not about truth it is about ratings and circulation–now more so than ever in the era of the mega corporations that control print, online, and television news.  Journalism today is also about “parity” at the expense of facts (a problem given that a sizable portion of America simply disregards reality on a regular basis.)  At some point there is so much unnecessary noise and so little enlightenment, people just tune out.

Maybe that’s what happened in the Jonah Lehrer case.  People stopped caring about the media, so the media alone cares about Jonah Lehrer.

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Diplomacy

For a very long time, the State Department has been on the losing end of a turf war.  For all the prestige of the Secretary of State,* the department is nowhere near as large or as organized as the Pentagon, which has used that advantage to great effect in the shaping of US foreign policy.  The White House too has evermore increased its role in foreign affairs, further squeezing out State.  Therefore, despite the allure of the State Department (so much so that it is simply referred to as “Foggy Bottom”, referring to the DC neighborhood where it is located), the truth is that its influence is not what it once was.

When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, this waning influence was a concern of hers, especially as she believes in the importance of diplomacy.  She agreed to take the position only if the President gave her a direct line to him.  Although there are still turf skirmishes with the Pentagon, things are generally better in the Obama Administration.  It’s not that Foggy Bottom has become as organized or as competent as the Pentagon, but the two organizations work much better together. In large part this is because Robert Gates, the previous Secretary of Defense, shared the belief with Clinton that diplomacy is important, and he supported good relations with the State Department.  Contrast that to the last administration where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney (himself a former Defense Secretary) were often bitterly at odds with the Secretary of State–first Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice.**

There are understandable reasons why State and Defense would be at odds, merely beyond the egos of the people in charge.  In a sense, State and Defense have oppositional outlooks out of necessity.  The Defense Department cannot afford to make mistakes lest tragedy occur while diplomacy between nations is an ongoing process full of pitfalls and setbacks.  It is also easier to see the Defense Department in terms of black and white or good and evil depending on the eye of the beholder.  This reductiveness overlapped very nicely with George W. Bush’s own dichotomous view of the world–a view that ominously is shared and espoused by the current crop of Republican candidates for President and the Tea Party base.  In contrast, diplomacy is made up of shades of gray; it is complicated and time-consuming and full of compromises.  Good and evil are replaced by costs and benefits, which is not always pretty.  (Americans also tend to love their troops and hate their politicians who are akin to diplomats because diplomacy occurs in the political sphere.  Guilt by association.)

Back to Hillary Clinton.  I have already expressed my appreciation for her speech about LGBT rights, and there have been some incredible diplomatic victories for the State Department.  First, there was the Armenia-Turkey accord from 2009.  Second, and probably most notable, was the fact that she was the force behind the successful intervention in Libya (success of course being the overthrow of Gaddafi, whatever comes next remains to be seen).  While the Pentagon wanted to stay out of the conflict, Clinton forcefully advocated for humanitarian intervention, a logical followup to her husband’s successful intervention in the Balkans and failed intervention in Somalia.  Through Clinton’s efforts, the State Department pioneered the use of social media and smart power in political relations.  Clinton became the face of the US response to the Arab Spring–for better or for worse only time will tell.

To my mind, the most unlikely achievement of Clinton’s State Department is the apparent transformation in Myanmar (Burma).  One of the earliest posts in this blog was about Myanmar and the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.  That, it turned out, was the initial step in what has tidal waved into seemingly real democratic reforms.  Aung San Suu Kyi herself will stand for parliamentary elections, an indication that she too believes these reforms to be genuine.  Last month Clinton visited Myanmar, and, following the pardon and release of over 600 prisoners (at least some political prisoners) two days ago, formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Myanmar are about to be reestablished with an exchange of ambassadors.  As the Myanmar government continues to reform, more diplomatic ties will be restored or created.

It is hard to determine exactly why Myanmar is reforming.  Despite Western sanctions, Myanmar has not exactly been hurting.  Neither China nor India, two major allies, have cared much about the Myanmar government’s human rights record.  Nevertheless, Myanmar has been taking steps to create and a legitimate democratic process favored by the West.  For this, I believe that at least a little bit of credit belongs to the State Department.***  Since Obama and Clinton took over, diplomacy has been used as the first resort rather than the last.  It is true that often the Administration’s diplomacy efforts badly failed (e.g., Iran, Syria, North Korea), but at least diplomacy was tried.  In the carrot and stick diplomacy.  The United States looks far more reasonable and agreeable than under the with-us-or-against-us outlook of the Bush 43 Administration,† and other nations are more willing to follow where the United States leads if diplomacy is tried first.  Clearly the Myanmar government responded to such diplomatic persuasion; the carrot was good enough even if Myanmar did not fear the stick.

Whether Myanmar stays on this path or reverts back to military dictatorship remains to be seen.  Presumably, Aung San Suu Kyi is not going anywhere any time soon, and she will remain both leader and symbol to so many of her countrymen.  She will also continue to be the beacon that the West focuses on.  The Myanmar government will continue to work with her if it wants the benefits of friendship with the West.

I am hopeful.  Myanmar seems to be taking the right steps.  Just as the world is full of dictatorships, it is also full of former dictatorships and juntas that became democracies.  Hopefully the latter is Myanmar’s future.

Finally, Clinton begins a tour of four African nations this week where she will emphasize nation building, economic development, good governance and democratization.  Her stops include Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and Liberia.  In the latter nation, she will attend the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who, following her Nobel, won a second term as Liberian President.  The elections were not always pretty; there was some violence, and the run-off was plagued by low voter turnout and a boycott by the opposition party.  Nevertheless, outside observers judged the elections to be free, transparent, and fair.  In a country that until just recently was plagued by violent civil war, to have a second consecutive relatively peaceful and transparent election is progress.

Footnotes:  

* Secretary of State is one of the big four Cabinet positions, along with the Secretaries of Defense and Treasury and the Attorney General.  These were the original four positions in George Washington’s Cabinet (sort of; the Secretary of Defense was preceded by the Secretary of War), and the first Secretary of  State was none other than Thomas Jefferson.  The Secretary of State is also the first Cabinet Secretary in the line of Presidential succession.

**  Three of the last four Secretaries of State (Clinton, Rice, and Madeleine Albright) have been women.  On one hand this would appear to be a good thing, a progressive sign that it is not only okay that the chief diplomat of the United States is female, it is almost expected.  (The fourth, Colin Powell, is a black man.)  On the other hand, two positions of more authority, the Defense Secretary and the White House Chief of Staff, have been held only by white men.  I just thought this was interesting.

***  Cabinet secretaries are generally chosen for their political ties rather than expertise.  They are politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats who determine policy but generally lack the specialized experience of career employees (Stephen Chu at the Department of Energy being an exception).  Often they are selected as a way to repay political favors or to make a statement of policy intent.  Clinton is actually a very good choice as Secretary of State.  Through her experience as First Lady, Senator, and Presidential candidate, she has acquired a breadth of  foreign policy experience (if not depth) that makes her uniquely suited for the position.

†  I am always amazed by Obama’s critics on the left who criticize his foreign policy because generally they apply the same good/evil world view and “us against the world” mentality of the Bush Administration.  Positive proof that stupidity knows no political party.

The Other Side Of The Nobel Prize

Earlier this month the Nobel Prizes were announced.  Every year they cause controversy of some kind.  Occasionally the science awards cause a minor stir, but usually it is the Literature and especially the Peace Prizes that make the biggest waves.  (The Economics Prize is not a real Nobel–i.e. established by Alfred Nobel’s will–which is why the winner is announced after the other prizes are awarded.)

I have no expertise in medicine, physics, or chemistry, so I cannot speak to how deserving this year’s recipients are, or really any year’s recipients.  Occasionally a deserving person is ignored (Robert Gallo), but usually the public just accepts the results with a smile and a shrug.  This year’s Medicine Prize caused a tiny bit of a controversy.  One of the winners, Ralph Steinman, had died three days before the prize was awarded, and posthumous winners are forbidden.  The fact that the Nobel Committee chose not to rescind the award however, met with universal approval, so that hardly counts as a controversy.  Neither of this year’s Physics or Chemistry Prizes (for the discoveries of dark energy and quasicrystals respectively) have been questioned.

But the science awards are different because the winners’ contributions to the world are . . . not exactly tangible, but measurable.  Although there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding recipients, it is hard to argue that those recipients have not benefited humanity in some way.  One can point to actual results and progress.  Objectively.

The Literature and Peace Prizes on the other hand are entirely subjective.  Both awards are infamous for who did not win even more than who did.  Giants of 20th century literature (Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov) and arguably the greatest novelist of all time (Tolstoy) were snubbed by Nobel.  And then there is the case of Gandhi.  Even Nobel admits that it grievously erred by never awarding Gandhi a Peace Prize.  (The year Gandhi died, the Peace Prize was not awarded; a tacit admission that Nobel screwed up majorly.  Nobel’s website is apologetic and somewhat defensive about its greatest oversight.)

Both the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are inherently political.  Obviously the Peace Prize is overtly so, but what makes the Literature Prize both aggravating and disingenuous is the pretension that the prize is solely a reward for quality.  Glance at the list of winners and ask yourself if you’ve even heard of most of them.  For every literary giant–a William Faulker, for example–there are at least two Dario Fo’s.  This year’s winner is Tomas Tranströmer.  I have not read his work, nor am I, by any stretch of the imagination, a poetry expert, so I cannot judge his literary merit.  It excited his native Sweden.

No American has won since 1992 (Toni Morrison), and that has caused a tempest in a teapot. Giving out literary prizes is ridiculous (time rather than a committee determines greatness), but I do understand the anger a few years ago that ensued following the comments of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, who said that American writers are too insular and ignorant to win.  Engdahl went on to say that Europe is the center of the literary world.  These sentiments were echoed again this month by Alexander Nazaryan in Salon, although his observations are deeply flawed and easy to pick apart–i.e. par for the Salon course.  Arguments about the death of American literature never die.  Perhaps the problem is that American literature has become so removed from the general public that only a select few care enough to take part in the debate.  On one hand this would prove Engdahl’s point.  On the other, it underscores the fundamental flaw in his argument–the Committee does not look deep enough.  No one ever bothers to look past “serious” fiction to the unfairly derided “genre” fiction, yet in such works one can find far superior outlets for exploring the overarching universal themes which Nobel claims to love.

It is true that academia and the Masters of Fine Arts have gentrified the oh-so-serious American novel to a certain degree, but it is nothing short of galling to hear cries of insularity coming from the Nobel Committee.  Claiming Europe is the center of the literary world is merely a justification for the fact that Nobel largely ignores everywhere that is not Europe.  More accurately, Nobel ignores literature published in non-Western European languages.  Take a look at the list of winners.  Most wrote or write in English, French, German, Spanish, or the Scandinavian languages, and even those that don’t often have very strong ties to Western Europe.  Yet world literature is more than just Germanic and Romantic, and that is why the criticism is especially grating.  Nazaryan can claim that Nobel has “given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists,” but this is a disingenuous statement.  Rather Nobel has awarded the prize to a Caribbean poet (Derek Walcott in 1992) and a Chinese absurdist (Gao Xingjian in 2000, who has lived in France since 1987 and been a French citizen since 1997), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Were it were not for the large purse attached, and the association with the Peace Prize, no one would take the Literature Prize seriously.  Even the judges themselves cannot agree what constitutes worth (see here and here).  Moreover, the Literature Committee is not above emulating their counterparts in Oslo by trying to send a political message.  When V.S. Naipaul won in 2001, it was just after the September 11 attacks.  It was no coincidence that the prize went to a prominent critic of Islam and fundamentalism.  When Harold Pinter won, it was less for his plays and more for his strident criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American government.  It was the same with Doris Lessing a couple of years later.  These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  Even if the political undertones do not detract from the winner’s worth, they nevertheless undermine the Literature Prize’s selection.   Furthermore, those undertones are monolithic in their outlook; they always mirror the ideals and beliefs of the European political left.  Who exactly is insular again?

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Far more than the Literature Prize though, the Peace Prize is the Nobel Committee at its most didactic and political.  For all the money, fame, and prestige attached, the Peace Prize is really a giant farce.  One must remember that a handful of Norwegians choose the Peace Prize recipient (and those Norwegians are chosen by the government of Norway.)  Hence Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Kofi Annan won the award while Gandhi did not.  If the Literature Prize subtly mirrors the European left, than the Peace Prize boldly announces that to the world.  Never was this more apparent than in the 2000’s where the majority of the awards were ultimately criticisms of the administration of George W. Bush.  Six times between 2000 and 2010 the Peace Prize was awarded to critics of the Bush administration, either because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or because of his horrific anti-environment policies.  Barack Obama’s win can only be seen as the final rebuke to the Bush administration.

This year, clearly sensitive to the charge that Nobel does not consider enough women, the Committee split the Peace Prize between three women, Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  (The lack of female recipients is a very real concern.  Only 15 women have won the Peace Prize, and that is more than any other Nobel Prize.)  Karman was chosen because Nobel wanted to publicly approve the Arab Spring, and Karman is the only prominent woman in the movement.  Whether or not she is worthy (or whether her efforts are successful) is a different story.

Honestly, any award for the Arab Spring is very premature at this date.  The Arab Spring is a rousing story–the people toppling powerful dictators–but it remains to be seen  whether those revolutions will be successful, including in Karman’s Yemen.  Even in Egypt and Libya, where the dictator was toppled, it is yet unclear that whatever comes next will be better.  After Louis XVI came Robespierre and Napoleon; after the Tsar came Lenin and Stalin; after the Shah came the Ayatollahs.  Waiting to judge whether the Arab Spring actually succeeded would have been more prudent, but then the Peace Prize Committee couldn’t have given its imprimatur so quickly.  Should these revolutions go the way that most revolutions do, it will be very hard to justify that the Peace Prize was given to those who (as Alfred Nobel required in his will) “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

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I can neither defend nor attack the Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Leymah Gbowee.  I had never heard of before, and I am unfamiliar with her work.  I suspect though that her selection has less to do with her own accomplishments and more to do with her co-winnner, countrywoman, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I have written about Johnson Sirleaf before.  Like many in the Western world, I am fascinated by her.  Nevertheless, I have the luxury of not being Liberian, and her government does affect my life.  Undoubtedly, she has done much for Liberia; most notably she managed to get billions of dollars of her nation’s debt forgiven.  Furthermore, in a country with such a troubled history as Liberia, under her rule, free, fair, and peaceful elections were just held, and her position is at stake.  (At the time of this writing, the opposition claims election fraud by Johnson Sirleaf’s party, although official African Union observers have reported the elections to be fair.  What happens next remains to be seen, and I fear it will be ugly.)  Nevertheless, life for the average Liberian is incredibly difficult and charges of corruption have plagued Johnson Sirleaf’s government but not her personally.  What has plagued her is her former association with her predecessor, the genocidal dictator Charles Taylor.  A commission in her own country recommended that for that association she should be barred from holding public office for 30 years (she is 72.)  Obviously this recommendation was ignored.

The Peace Prize was given out just a few days before Liberians went to the polls to determine whether Johnson Sirleaf should have a second term.  For this reason, the timing of the award was awful from all angles.  Just as there is no other way to justify Obama’s award than as a rebuke to Bush, one cannot see Johnson Sirleaf’s award as anything other than a way for the Nobel Committee (i.e. white, rich Europeans) to suggest to Liberians (i.e. poor, black Africans) how they should vote in their own elections.  Yet, this belies a fundamental lack of understanding.  Johnson Sirleaf’s approval in Liberia is far more complex (and far less universal) than in the West.  As with Karman, it would seem far more appropriate for the Nobel Committee to have waited to assess what Johnson Sirleaf has actually done.  Did she leave Liberia a better place than she found it?  If the answer is yes, then she would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, but that is a question only time could tell.

But patience and careful consideration?  These are not Nobel virtues.

A Lesbian Walked Into A Bridal Shop…

This story has been making the rounds, and I find it both disturbing and fascinating.  A woman by the name of Alix Genter was shopping for a wedding dress at a bridal store in New Jersey.  Ms. Genter found the right dress, but the owner of the shop refused to sell it to her after discovering that Ms. Genter is a lesbian who planned to marry her girlfriend in New York.  Her bizarre reasoning for refusing to sell the dress was that the marriage was “illegal” and she would not participate in an illegal action.

Ronnie Polaneczky of Philadelphia Daily News wrote a column (linked above) apologizing to gay people everywhere on behalf of straight people.  She interviewed Ms. Genter and the store’s owner Donna Saber (Ms. Saber refused to give her last name, but other news sources have printed it, proving yet again that privacy is a thing of the past in the Internet Age.)

As a rule, I try to be skeptical of discrimination claims because (a) it is up to the (allegedly) wronged party to prove, and (b) it is very easy to make a claim based on discrimination without actual discrimination ever having taken place.  In this case though, it is very clear that Ms. Saber discriminated against Ms. Genter.  She admitted as such to the Ms. Polaneczky (as a side note, as lovely as the sentiment may seem to be, apologizing to all gay people on behalf of all straight people is a touch condescending.)  Ms. Saber’s voicemail message for Ms. Genter, the one that describes her marriage as illegal, was posted online.  Ms. Saber, for her part, sees nothing wrong with what she did, and told Ms. Polaneczky that she sensed Ms. Genter’s father was disappointed that his daughter was not marrying a man.  (Although she is trying to reach Ms. Genter’s parents to smooth things over.  Notice which party was excluded.)  She also told Ms. Genter that it was a shame that a girl from a nice Jewish family was gay.  It’s incredible arrogance.

The backlash against Ms. Saber has been fairly universal.  Yelp, a site which allows customers to reviews businesses, now has (at the time of this writing) over 450 reviews for this store, the vast majority of them incredibly negative and posted solely because of this incident.  The reviews will be removed eventually; Yelp is a review site for customers only and has stated it will not let the reviews stand.  Probably that is for the best.

The damage is done though.  This story has blown up and has hit the blogs (major and minor), the local media, and the national news.  This incident is probably going to put Ms. Saber out of business one way or another.   In the past her store has been poorly reviewed, and customers cite her as their primary source of discontent.  The reason Ms. Saber’s store still exists seems to have less to do with her business savvy and more to do with the fact that her store filled a vacuum–there are just not that many bridal shops in her area.

A more impending threat though is the lawsuit that will inevitably rise.  Despite Ms. Saber’s contention that Ms. Genter’s marriage was illegal, it is actually Ms. Saber who violated the law.  New Jersey has a Law Against Discrimination, which, much like the federal Civil Rights Act, prevents discrimination in (among other areas) hiring, firing, public accommodation, housing, and business transactions.  Unlike the Civil Rights Act, the Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation (most famously from the Boy Scouts, although that was overturned by the Supreme Court.)  By refusing to sell a wedding dress to Ms. Genter, Ms. Saber committed an illegal act.

As noted by the Reuters article I linked to above, courts generally do not accept religious beliefs as an excuse for violating the Law Against Discrimination unless the discriminating party is a religious institution.  In this case however, religion would appear to be a red herring.  Ms. Saber did not actually use religion as an excuse.  In the Daily News column, Ms. Saber makes it clear that her refusal to sell a dress to Ms. Genter comes directly from personal rather than religious animosity toward gays and lesbians.  All this is a simple way of saying that should Ms. Genter pursue a lawsuit, she will win.  Easily.  (Conversely, had this happened in a state without protections based upon sexual orientation, then Ms. Genter would not have a case.)

Never let it be said that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Ms. Saber is finding out that is simply untrue.