Don’t Mistake Oliver Sacks for a Hat

Oliver SacksLet’s start this day with two of the early masters of the Gothic novel. First is Ann Radcliffe who was born on this day in 1764. Second is Matthew Lewis who was born in 1775. Elias Howe was born in 1819. He invented the sewing machine.

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born in 1879. Although technically a Romantic period composer, that gives the wrong impression. Like Claude Debussy, he is more proto-modern. But it depends. He did a whole lot of different things. This may not be that surprising, given that he was a notable musicologist. Here is his Antiche Danze ed Arie Ottorino, Suite Three performed by the Camerata Bern chamber orchestra:

Author of more than 700 novels, Barbara Cartland was born in 1901. She lived to be almost 100, but I don’t think that was how she managed to write so much. It was more that she wrote crap. But racy crap. Think: Jackie Collins.

Actor Brian Dennehy is 75 today. Richard Roundtree is 71. This is for him:

Novelist Dean Koontz is 68. O. J. Simpson, the great running back and probable psychotic killer, is 66. The great actor Chris Cooper is 62. Tom Hanks is 57. Crush of my youth, Kelly McGillis is 56. Crush of my late 20s, Courtney Love is 49. And the kid in The Princess Bride, Fred Savage is 37.

The day, however, belongs to the great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. I love his writing on neurological disorders. They terrify me, because I am very much a hypochondriac, and I can almost feel the diseases taking over my brain while reading about them. One of these books is the brilliantly titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. His book Musicophilia was the basis of the Nova program “Musical Minds”:

Happy birthday Oliver Sacks!

Disloyal Democratic Party

Eliot SpitzerI am very glad that Eliot Spitzer has decided to re-enter politics by running for New York City comptroller. And right on cue, Matt Yglesias has said what had to be said, Eliot Spitzer Never Should Have Resigned in the First Place. Mostly, his article was an excuse to point out that Spitzer most likely wants this “lowly” job because it will give him control of the public employee pension funds. And that means, he will have some power to go after Wall Street. Surprisingly, Yglesias does not go to the next step, which is that Wall Street is going to put big money behind Spitzer’s primary opponent Scott Stringer. And it may not be that hard for Stringer to get the advantage given he isn’t a bad guy himself. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the election goes.

What I’m more interested in is the Spitzer resignation itself. As with Anthony Weiner, I think his resignation had more to do with the complete lack of support by his own party than anything else. In both of these men’s cases, the scandal was relatively small. But Democrats are not a group prone to circling the wagons. They are more in the habit of waving a white flag and yelling, “We’ve got him here! He’s all tied up! We’ll bring him right out!”

This has long been a problem for me with the Democratic Party. As much as I hate just about everything the Republicans stand for, at least they are loyal when it comes to all of this non-ideological bullshit. Of course, they are like the medieval Catholic Church when it comes to ideology. The Democrats are just the opposite. A Democratic candidates can be anti-individual welfare and pro-corporate welfare and we will herald him as the greatest Democratic President since FDR. But let a sex scandal show up and suddenly the Democratic Party is as pure as Mother Teresa. In fact, I wonder if the Democratic Party would have stayed as loyal to Bill Clinton had it not been for the constant ridiculous trumpeting of fake scandals all through his presidency. (Regardless, it was only his will to fight that saved him.)

It is interesting, this comparison of the two parties. They kind of show the main ways that parties can go wrong. The Republicans have become too pure in terms of ideology and the Democrats have become too impure. Both of these failings have advantages. But what it means as a practical matter is that the very best politicians in both parties are drummed out: Republicans because they are too reasonable and Democrats because no one is ever that perfect. At least, no one who has anything going on intellectually!

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California, Eugenics, and the Drug War

Eugenics - Negro Sane CriminalsAh, yes! The good old days in California when a man could argue for forced sterilization with words like race and purity without having those meanies in the PC police get all over him. How far we’ve come! Now, there is no such thing. People know not to talk about it. They just move right past discussion to doing something about it. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals.”

In the clip below from last night’s All In, Chris Hayes looks at the larger issue of the out of control California prison system. And this gets to an important point that he does not discuss. In fact, it is something that I don’t like to discuss because I am a big supporter of labor unions. We need strong unions, but when those unions can affect government policy on how we deal with people caught up in the justice system, we have a problem. And that is most certainly the case with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). They have enormous power and they lobby for ever harsher sentences and more prison building.

Of course, the problem is much bigger than this. Politicians get nothing but plaudits for making harsher and harsher laws. Prosecutors get promoted for convictions. Convicting innocent people has almost no down side. The same goes for the police. The truth is that we have an entire law enforcement system that has nothing but incentives to make the system worse and worse. And our great governor (I do not mean that sarcastically!) who still is against the death penalty, is very much a proponent of everything short of that.

Hayes is right that a future governor will make a public apology about this. From 1982 to 2000 the California prison population grew to five times its original size—mostly due to increased drug law enforcement. I think that is where future generations will really look back in horror. “You put people in overcrowded jails with violent criminals and without access to proper medical care for what? Because you didn’t like their choice of drug? Really?!” That will be right up there with ideas like, “We must stop the inferior races from breading.”

Our alcohol good! Their cannabis baaad!

Negro Cocaine Fiend Myth Alive in Zimmerman Trial

Trayvon MartinI haven’t been following the George Zimmerman trial. I don’t have strong opinions about the man. What I do have strong opinions about is the screwed up “stand your ground” laws that even make this trial necessary. But I heard something yesterday that really angered me. The judge in the case decided to allow the toxicology report that shows that Trayvon Martin had a small amount of THC in his system at the time of his death. This perpetuates the use of the myth of the scary black man on drugs.

The defense argues that this is relevant because on the 911 call, Zimmerman said, “It looks like he’s on drugs or something.” This was in reference to the fact that Martin seemed to just be wandering around. I never quite got that aspect of Zimmerman’s motivation for following the young man. After all, Zimmerman was supposedly looking for people who had broken into places and stole stuff. Someone wandering back from the store doesn’t fit the profile. I also think that saying he looks like he’s on drugs is more or less the same as, “He looks like a young black man.”

Unfortunately, we do not know how much THC was in Martin’s system. The defense has made a big deal of the fact that the medical examiner changed his opinion on the effect of this amount of THC from being “none” to “some.” THC stays in the body a very long time and the courts have ruled that the mere existence of chemicals in the body does not mean the person was intoxicated. Regardless of the effect, is cannabis known for for making people more violent? How does this make the murder of Martin more acceptable?

This whole thing is very creepy, but entirely typical of our judicial system. The defense wants to bring up cannabis use by Trayvon Martin for the same reason that a rapist’s defense wants to bring up how the victim was dressed. It is a way to prejudice the jury into thinking that the victim had it coming. So the defense creates a narrative. Martin was high on “drugs” and behaving very oddly. Of course, Zimmerman followed him. But then Zimmerman was going back to his car and Martin—all hopped up on Mary Jane—chased after him and beat poor Zimmerman savagely to the point where he had no choice but to put a bullet in Martin’s heart.

None of this is surprising. This is the kind of nonsense we get when we have laws that allow people to kill each other if they can justify feeling threatened. So now we watch as this trial descends into the murky waters of who Martin was and what he was doing. Note also how vague the “feeling threatened” defense is. A bigot might feel threatened anytime a young black man is within shouting distance. And a cowardly man might feel threatened anytime someone pushed back a little against his bullying.[1] So the big murder trial is all about the scary black man on drugs. We have not moved far from 1914, when the New York Times wrote, Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.


[1] Yes, I am saying that Zimmerman is a bigot, coward, and bully.