Friday, August 31, 2012

Corn dogs and turnips and hate, oh my

"Animals don't hate, and we're supposed to be better than them." Elvis Presley

IF YOU'RE FROM Iowa, you know that the Iowa State Fair is iconic. It served as the inspiration for the novel, State Fair, written in 1932 by Phil Strong, who was born near Keosauqua, IA and attended Drake University in Des Moines. It tells the fictional story about the Frake family and their three-day trip to the Iowa State Fair. Three movies, 1933, 1945 and 1962, and a stage musical were subsequently based on his book.

You can find just about every kind of farm-and-family, hearth-and-home competition you can possibly imagine — plus a few you can't — at the Iowa State Fair: sewing, cooking, baking, pickling, canning (and caning), woodworking (and burning), crocheting, quilting, knitting, needlepointing, china painting, picture taking, sculpting, hog (and husband) calling, banjo picking, tractor pulling, sack racing. Pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, rabbits, goats, chickens, geese, ducks pigeons, llamas and more are judged and awarded ribbons and prize money, and so are tomatoes, cabbages, corn, turnips, green beans, onion, apples, peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon, roses, lilies, marigolds and every other cultivated fruit, vegetable, grain and flower that can be grown in Iowa.

Added to that are hundreds of food stands selling lemonade, corn dogs, cotton candy, taffy, ice cream, apple pie, snow cones, barbecue, funnels cakes and anything else that can be deep fried or put on a stick and whole bunch of things that shouldn't, hundreds of win-a-stuffed-bear barker games and amusement rides and every sort of exhibit known to humankind including a life-sized cow made out of butter — and the result is the Iowa State Fair, which is in short, the fair that every other fair wishes it could be.

Into the middle of this celebration of wholesome, all-American endeavors crashed Hank Williams Jr. He was playing a concert in the grandstand about three weeks ago during the fair and said this, "We've got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!"

Aside from being insupportable, what makes this (literally) hateful speech so awful is the wellspring of racism from whence it arises. I have a friend who hangs out with a bunch of Republican codgers who loathe President Barack Obama, and even he admits that so much of the excoriating criticism isn't politics; it's racism cloaked as politics.

This isn't about whether you're a fan of our current president, and it's not about whether or not HW Jr. has the right to say such repugnant things. He does. It is, instead, about whether you think hate and racism make a healthy footing for our country.

If you don't think so, don't buy anything with Hank Williams Jr.'s name on it. Don't go to his concerts, don't download his music, don't buy his CDs. Even better, write, call or email Blaster Entertainment and tell them that you will boycott not just JW Jr., but anyone else on their roster.

Here's a link to a press release issued by Blaster Entertainment about their "star" with whom they've signed a three-year contract, and below are the media contacts:

For Hank Williams, Jr.
Kirt Webster / (615) 777-6995 x230 /

For Blaster/Bocephus Records
Alan Taylor / (615) 777-6995 x226 /
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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Autism and the immune system

"Particularly in autism and schizophrenia, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the brain is in a state of immune activation, and the peripheral immune system is dysregulated as well." — Paul H. Patterson, developmental neurobiologist, Anne P. and Benjamin R. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences at the California Institute of Technology and Research Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine

EVER SINCE I started Hey Look, I've passed along newsworthy articles about the autism spectrum whenever I come across them. Here's a provocative piece that appeared in the Sunday New York Times. It's really worth the read.

An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism
Published: August 25, 2012

IN recent years, scientists have made extraordinary advances in understanding the causes of autism, now estimated to afflict 1 in 88 children. But remarkably little of this understanding has percolated into popular awareness, which often remains fixated on vaccines.

So here’s the short of it: At least a subset of autism — perhaps one-third, and very likely more — looks like a type of inflammatory disease. And it begins in the womb.

It starts with what scientists call immune dysregulation. Ideally, your immune system should operate like an enlightened action hero, meting out inflammation precisely, accurately and with deadly force when necessary, but then quickly returning to a Zen-like calm. Doing so requires an optimal balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory muscle.

In autistic individuals, the immune system fails at this balancing act. Inflammatory signals dominate. Anti-inflammatory ones are inadequate. A state of chronic activation prevails. And the more skewed toward inflammation, the more acute the autistic symptoms.

Nowhere are the consequences of this dysregulation more evident than in the autistic brain. Spidery cells that help maintain neurons — called astroglia and microglia — are enlarged from chronic activation. Pro-inflammatory signaling molecules abound. Genes involved in inflammation are switched on.

These findings are important for many reasons, but perhaps the most noteworthy is that they provide evidence of an abnormal, continuing biological process. That means that there is finally a therapeutic target for a disorder defined by behavioral criteria like social impairments, difficulty communicating and repetitive behaviors.

But how to address it, and where to begin? That question has led scientists to the womb. A population-wide study from Denmark spanning two decades of births indicates that infection during pregnancy increases the risk of autism in the child. Hospitalization for a viral infection, like the flu, during the first trimester of pregnancy triples the odds. Bacterial infection, including of the urinary tract, during the second trimester increases chances by 40 percent.

The lesson here isn’t necessarily that viruses and bacteria directly damage the fetus. Rather, the mother’s attempt to repel invaders — her inflammatory response — seems at fault. Research by Paul Patterson, an expert in neuroimmunity at Caltech, demonstrates this important principle. Inflaming pregnant mice artificially — without a living infective agent — prompts behavioral problems in the young. In this model, autism results from collateral damage. It’s an unintended consequence of self-defense during pregnancy.

Yet to blame infections for the autism epidemic is folly. First, in the broadest sense, the epidemiology doesn’t jibe. Leo Kanner first described infantile autism in 1943. Diagnoses have increased tenfold, although a careful assessment suggests that the true increase in incidences is less than half that. But in that same period, viral and bacterial infections have generally declined. By many measures, we’re more infection-free than ever before in human history.

Better clues to the causes of the autism phenomenon come from parallel “epidemics.” The prevalence of inflammatory diseases in general has increased significantly in the past 60 years. As a group, they include asthma, now estimated to affect 1 in 10 children — at least double the prevalence of 1980 — and autoimmune disorders, which afflict 1 in 20.

Both are linked to autism, especially in the mother. One large Danish study, which included nearly 700,000 births over a decade, found that a mother’s rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints, elevated a child’s risk of autism by 80 percent. Her celiac disease, an inflammatory disease prompted by proteins in wheat and other grains, increased it 350 percent. Genetic studies tell a similar tale. Gene variants associated with autoimmune disease — genes of the immune system — also increase the risk of autism, especially when they occur in the mother.

In some cases, scientists even see a misguided immune response in action. Mothers of autistic children often have unique antibodies that bind to fetal brain proteins. A few years back, scientists at the MIND Institute, a research center for neurodevelopmental disorders at the University of California, Davis, injected these antibodies into pregnant macaques. (Control animals got antibodies from mothers of typical children.) Animals whose mothers received “autistic” antibodies displayed repetitive behavior. They had trouble socializing with others in the troop. In this model, autism results from an attack on the developing fetus.

But there are still other paths to the disorder. A mother’s diagnosis of asthma or allergies during the second trimester of pregnancy increases her child’s risk of autism.

So does metabolic syndrome, a disorder associated with insulin resistance, obesity and, crucially, low-grade inflammation. The theme here is maternal immune dysregulation. Earlier this year, scientists presented direct evidence of this prenatal imbalance. Amniotic fluid collected from Danish newborns who later developed autism looked mildly inflamed.

Debate swirls around the reality of the autism phenomenon, and rightly so. Diagnostic criteria have changed repeatedly, and awareness has increased. How much — if any — of the “autism epidemic” is real, how much artifact?

YET when you consider that, as a whole, diseases of immune dysregulation have increased in the past 60 years — and that these disorders are linked to autism — the question seems a little moot. The better question is: Why are we so prone to inflammatory disorders? What has happened to the modern immune system?

There’s a good evolutionary answer to that query, it turns out. Scientists have repeatedly observed that people living in environments that resemble our evolutionary past, full of microbes and parasites, don’t suffer from inflammatory diseases as frequently as we do.

Generally speaking, autism also follows this pattern. It seems to be less prevalent in the developing world. Usually, epidemiologists fault lack of diagnosis for the apparent absence. A dearth of expertise in the disorder, the argument goes, gives a false impression of scarcity. Yet at least one Western doctor who specializes in autism has explicitly noted that, in a Cambodian population rife with parasites and acute infections, autism was nearly nonexistent.

For autoimmune and allergic diseases linked to autism, meanwhile, the evidence is compelling. In environments that resemble the world of yore, the immune system is much less prone to diseases of dysregulation.

Generally, the scientists working on autism and inflammation aren’t aware of this — or if they are, they don’t let on. But Kevin Becker, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, has pointed out that asthma and autism follow similar epidemiological patterns. They’re both more common in urban areas than rural; firstborns seem to be at greater risk; they disproportionately afflict young boys.

In the context of allergic disease, the hygiene hypothesis — that we suffer from microbial deprivation — has long been invoked to explain these patterns. Dr. Becker argues that it should apply to autism as well. (Why the male bias? Male fetuses, it turns out, are more sensitive to Mom’s inflammation than females.)

More recently, William Parker at Duke University has chimed in. He’s not, by training, an autism expert. But his work focuses on the immune system and its role in biology and disease, so he’s particularly qualified to point out the following: the immune system we consider normal is actually an evolutionary aberration.

Some years back, he began comparing wild sewer rats with clean lab rats. They were, in his words, “completely different organisms.” Wild rats tightly controlled inflammation. Not so the lab rats. Why? The wild rodents were rife with parasites. Parasites are famous for limiting inflammation.

Humans also evolved with plenty of parasites. Dr. Parker and many others think that we’re biologically dependent on the immune suppression provided by these hangers-on and that their removal has left us prone to inflammation. “We were willing to put up with hay fever, even some autoimmune disease,” he told me recently. “But autism? That’s it! You’ve got to stop this insanity.”

What does stopping the insanity entail? Fix the maternal dysregulation, and you’ve most likely prevented autism. That’s the lesson from rodent experiments. In one, Swiss scientists created a lineage of mice with a genetically reinforced anti-inflammatory signal. Then the scientists inflamed the pregnant mice. The babies emerged fine — no behavioral problems. The take-away: Control inflammation during pregnancy, and it won’t interfere with fetal brain development.

For people, a drug that’s safe for use during pregnancy may help. A probiotic, many of which have anti-inflammatory properties, may also be of benefit. Not coincidentally, asthma researchers are arriving at similar conclusions; prevention of the lung disease will begin with the pregnant woman. Dr. Parker has more radical ideas: pre-emptive restoration of “domesticated” parasites in everybody — worms developed solely for the purpose of correcting the wayward, postmodern immune system.

Practically speaking, this seems beyond improbable. And yet, a trial is under way at the Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine testing a medicalized parasite called Trichuris suis in autistic adults.

First used medically to treat inflammatory bowel disease, the whipworm, which is native to pigs, has anecdotally shown benefit in autistic children.

And really, if you spend enough time wading through the science, Dr. Parker’s idea — an ecosystem restoration project, essentially — not only fails to seem outrageous, but also seems inevitable.

Since time immemorial, a very specific community of organisms — microbes, parasites, some viruses — has aggregated to form the human superorganism. Mounds of evidence suggest that our immune system anticipates these inputs and that, when they go missing, the organism comes unhinged.

Future doctors will need to correct the postmodern tendency toward immune dysregulation. Evolution has provided us with a road map: the original accretion pattern of the superorganism. Preventive medicine will need, by strange necessity, to emulate the patterns from deep in our past.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Defacing Facebook

"We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship." C.S. Lewis

I'VE HAD A short, uneasy relationship with Facebook. I was late getting in on it — what's known in marketing speak as a late adopter; on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps I'll prove prescient as an early dismisser.

As Paul would say, I've changed my other mind. My friend, Ann, declined to be on Facebook in the first place; she's my inspiration. I've decided to resume the old- and medium-fashioned means of staying in touch: personal visits, phone, snail mail and email. 

According to the news, the first day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa has been cancelled because of the threat of Hurricane Isaac. In 2005 religious nutcase Pat Robertson implied after Hurricane Katrina struck — killing 1,836 people — that it was punishment by God. Paul wondered what Robertson thinks about Hurricane Isaac. By his (il)logic, God must be punishing Republicans

Saturday Paul played on a float in the parade for Lincoln Highway Days in Nevada and after the parade, on the bandstand in the park. It rained all morning and afternoon. Although Paul was covered during both, he said that playing for an audience of five wet people in the rain is less fun than it sounds.

Late afternoon on Saturday we attended Dave Hansen's 71st birthday party where we met a very interesting and eclectic couple, Cheryl and Greg Long, who've been friends with Dave and Deb forever. Saturday night we cooked dinner at Virginia's and watched PBS and RFD. I keep a pair of slippers and pajamas at her house which, when I remembered, I thought to be positively brilliant on my part since it had cooled off enough to be chilly, and I was grateful to be able to get into something extra comfortable for the rest of the night.

Sunday we went to a "food-raiser" at JoeJoanne and Eddie Nolte's home — a benefit for the Pet Pantry. Friend Kitte Noble was there, too. Joe is president of the board, and Kitte is vice-president.

And this is me not on Facebook. Really, it's quite a relief. There was just so much I didn't need to know. :-)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sean Penn in Haiti

"The world is out of its mind with stupidity and the worship of stupidity." — Sean Penn

PAUL AND I went to an afternoon party at Roxanne Conlin's house this past Sunday. She was hosting it in support of a micro-lending NGO (non-government organization) working in South Africa called Phakamani Foundation. Roxanne's sister, Rhoda Olsen, is leading the outreach and fundraising efforts in the US on behalf of founders, Marc and Shirley Tucker. I'll tell you more about their work in the next few days.

As it happened, we knew quite a few of those in attendance, but we met new people as well. One of our new acquaintances is a neurologist from Ames. He recently returned from two weeks in Haiti treating patients, and we chatted with him at length about his experience. 

Although he was glad to treat as many people as he could while there, he felt he could have multiplied his effectiveness if he had been training local doctors and assistants in procedures they could continue to perform after he left. 

I mentioned to him that I had blogged about an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine about Sean Penn's work in Haiti. I thought it important at the time when I read it, and I still think it is now because in spite of all the aid sent to Haiti and the many NGOs involved in administering relief, progress remains slow. The issue may not be how much aid is being sent, but how efficiently and effectively it's being utilized. H/P HRO seems to be one of a few organizations that has gotten the formula right.

I told our new friend that I would forward my post, but in searching for it, I realized that I had made it when I was very new at Hey Look, and I hadn't actually written anything about it. All I had done was attach a link, and the link is broken — or who knows, perhaps it never worked in the first place. I really didn't know what I was doing back then.

I've sent him an active link to the article, and I'm also including the story here for those who want to help Haiti by donating either time, talent or money.

Here's the link to H/P HRO and below is the NYT Magazine story.

The Accidental Activist

 MARCH 25, 2011

On a hot morning in January, at the Pétionville Internally Displaced Person camp in suburban Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a four-wheel dirt bike pulled up outside the tent hospital, bearing an elderly woman with a deep gash in her cheek. While a group of medics assisted the patient inside, Sean Penn ambled over from under a tree where he had been having a meeting with one of his camp workers. He walked with a slightly bowlegged cowboy gait, a walkie-talkie crackling at his waistband, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Having glanced into the tent and ascertained that the situation was in hand, he turned his rather dour gaze on a newly arrived reporter.

Penn has never had conventional movie-star looks, but he does have the arguably superior gift of a magnificently interesting face. When he is in grooming mode, he tends to shellac his hair into a high, rather splendid, Little Richard-style pompadour, but today, as on most days in Haiti, the hair had been allowed to collapse into a dusty quiff. With his big, arrow-shaped nose and his heavy eyelids hanging at half-mast, he emanated the slightly sinister allure of a fairground carny. “You ready to see the camp?” he muttered.

The Pétionville camp, which Penn’s aid group, J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), has been running since last March, sits on the golf course of a former country club. (Some of the old staff can still be found lurking in the clubhouse, gazing out at the devastation like Alpatych, the loyal retainer in “War and Peace,” after the army has laid waste to his master’s estate.)

Since the first homeless Haitians started arriving here in the days following the quake, the camp has grown into a vast tent city of 50,000. It now has a school, a market, two hospitals, a movie theater, countless salons de beaute and its own red-light district. As Penn led the way along the former golf-cart trails, past women lathering themselves up over basins of water and men playing dominos, he delivered a lecture on the issues facing post-earthquake Haiti. It was a rapid-fire, digressive monologue, studded with the acronyms of the aid world — P.A.H.O., W.H.O., C.R.S., O.C.H.A. — and ranging over a broad number of topics: the merits of the controversial cholera vaccine, the report from the Organization of American States on the November elections, the damaging effects of UV rays on tent tarps, the complex but fundamentally noble character of President Réne Préval, the relative merits of guns over fire extinguishers as defensive weapons. (Penn sometimes carries a Glock, but the fire extinguisher, he claims, is a far more efficient tool for crowd control.)

After about 45 minutes, we reached the western edge of the camp and began climbing a series of steep slopes. Penn broke off from what he was saying and turned to point out the view. Before us lay the patchwork sprawl of the camp, the battered cityscape of Port-au-Prince and, in the smoggy distance, mountains and ocean. “Look at that!” he said. “It’s beautiful, right? Right? That’s the thing! You get the air cleaned up in this city, and it’d be extraordinary. And the whole country’s like this — more so, even. That’s why I never have a doubt — nee-e-ver have a doubt — that this country can be successful. It’s too tangible, too containable to not do it. And the change is going to come of this earthquake.”

Sean Penn in situ in Haiti. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin

WHEN Penn first showed up in Port-au-Prince in January of last year, with a DC-4 full of medics and emergency supplies, and a $1 million pledge of support from the Bosnian-born philanthropist and entrepreneur Diana Jenkins, the reaction was decidedly skeptical. With his long history of prickliness and pugnacity, Penn has never been a beloved celebrity. His growing interest in political activism and “citizen journalism” over the last decade — his sympathetic interviews with Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro, his passionate protests against the Iraq war — have tended to depress his Q ratings still further, fixing him in the minds of many Americans as a tiresome pinko bloviator.

“Everyone was telling me, ‘He’s just in it for the photo op,’ ” recalls David Perez, an American philanthropist who was involved in the earliest Haitian relief efforts, and who later went to work as chief operating officer for J/P HRO. “The people on the board of my charity didn’t like the things Sean had said about Iraq and whatever, so they were telling me to stay away from him. Sophia Martelly [the wife of Haiti’s current presidential candidate Michel Martelly] told me that he had turned up at the airport with a film crew.” Tellingly, the same unfounded claim — that Penn had brought cameramen with him to document his derring-do — had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (To this day, there are people who swear Penn had his own D.P. with him in his rowboat.)

You did not, however, have to object to Penn’s politics, or question his motives, to have some doubts about how useful he could be in Haiti. He had come with no medical expertise and no experience with N.G.O.’s. He did not speak Creole or French. He had two legal cases pending against him (a federal case relating to his embargo-breaking trips to Cuba and a criminal case relating to a violent run-in with a paparazzo), and he was going through a divorce from his wife of 14 years, Robin Wright. To make matters more complicated, his philanthropic partnership with Jenkins began to disintegrate almost as soon as he landed. “Let’s say that I didn’t come here with an agreement to share decisions,” he says now. “I came here to make the impact as I saw fit to do it. That deal changed within the first week. We went through a little shy of half of her commitment, and then we decided to part ways.”

Over a year later, Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

The story of the last 14 months in Haiti has been, by and large, a disheartening one. Less than half of the $5.8 billion pledged for recovery has been dispersed (and much of that has gone toward debt relief). Rubble still fills the streets of Port-au-Prince. Of the 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the quake, half still live in camps. But in an international relief effort characterized largely by paralysis and dysfunction, J/P HRO stands out as one of the rare success stories. By begging and borrowing, schmoozing and shouting, Penn has managed to build one of the most efficient aid outfits working in Haiti today.

In doing so, he has gained some unlikely fans. The commanders of the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who were using the Pétionville Country Club as their operational base when Penn first turned up there had their initial doubts about fraternizing with a bolshie movie star, but they have since become ardent J/P HRO boosters. “What surprised me the most about Sean,” says Lt. Gen. P. K. “Ken” Keen, military deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, “was how he went about learning the humanitarian assistance business. There was no ‘how-to’ book for that. You want to get stuff through the transportation networks? You want to get stuff out of the warehouses? You want to collaborate with the U.N.? How do you do all that? He was always willing to listen, learn and work with everyone.”

Brad Horwitz, the founder and C.E.O. of the communications company Comcel, Haiti’s largest U.S. investor, has provided J/P HRO with logistical support and all manner of resources over the last year. “Sean’s politics and mine are completely opposed,” he says. “His go left. Mine go right. But politics are kind of irrelevant in this. Comcel can only pick so many horses to back, and J/P HRO have shown real staying power. He’s been very good at figuring out and managing relationships. He’s also been extraordinarily efficient in using the resources he gets. I know if I provide J/P HRO with stuff, it won’t get wasted.”

Perhaps most telling of all is the respect that Penn has earned from seasoned aid workers. Dr. Louise Ivers, who is chief of mission for Partners in Health, Haiti, says of Penn: “His newness to this work has actually helped him in some ways. He doesn’t have misconceptions about what works and what doesn’t. He sees a problem, he talks to people, and he figures out solutions. As clichéd as it sounds, I think he really gives a damn about the Haitian people.”

“I’ve known Sean for more than 25 years, and I’m stunned,” says the musician David Baerwald. “He’s always had a tremendous desire to help people. But who knew he had this bizarre skill set? I mean, he may actually be better at this than acting.”

When Penn entered the shabby villa that serves as J/P HRO’s operations center and staff residence, a line of people were waiting to talk to him. A man sitting at a bank of computers in the living room had a jubilant announcement to make about a new cholera grant. A mechanic needed him to know that the walkie-talkies were running out of juice. A woman emerged from the kitchen with news that “Anderson Cooper 360” couldn’t do a taped interview that day and would need to do it live. And so on.

For much of 2010, Penn and his staff slept in and worked out of tents. They moved to these new headquarters after their encampment was destroyed in a storm last September, but their living conditions are still far from lavish. Most of the staff camp in the garden, and Penn’s bedroom, while it does boast a ceiling, has the dimensions — and ambience — of a walk-in closet. Penn prides himself on running a lean operation. J/P HRO’s overhead is a modest 3.2 percent of donor funds. Permanent international staff routinely work 18-hour days.

When accepting a humanitarian award in Los Angeles last October, Penn summed up his managerial style as “vitriol” and “bossiness.” His staff does not rush to disagree with the characterization. Lauren Raczak, J/P HRO’s political affairs officer, laughed merrily when I asked her if Penn was a demanding boss. “He’s like our big dysfunctional grandpa. The other day I said how pleased I was that there’d been no violence in the camp during the elections, and he started shouting, ‘That’s not good enough!’ He meant I was setting my standards too low. That kind of sucked. I really didn’t like him at that moment. But I respect him, I see how much he cares about this thing, so I put up with the temper tantrums.”

Penn claims to be calmer now than he was. “For the first six months, I was country director of this thing, and I was basically pretending I knew what the hell I was doing — yelling a lot and getting things done with blackmail. Now I’ve got a lot of really experienced, great people around me, and they can do the same things, cutting through stuff just as fast, but in slightly more, uh, legitimate ways.”

It’s fair to say, however, that his standard M.O. remains pretty ferocious. Much of the way he conducts himself as a leader has been defined by his intense opposition to “the gigantic boys’ network” of the other N.G.O.’s and his impatience with their bureaucratic procedures.

In moments of great displeasure, Penn’s lip actually curls and his eyelids droop so low that he begins to look stoned on his own contempt. One afternoon, on a trip out to Delmas 32, the neighborhood in which J/P HRO initiated its rubble removal program, he fulminated against the complacent, lazy and otherwise obstructive practices of the N.G.O. world: at the preciousness of groups like Médecins Sans Frontières, which refuse on principle to work with the military, “even though the military is the single most effective organization that’s been here to date!”; at the pompous blustering in aid-group cluster meetings, “where everyone’s trying to show how much they know, but no one’s just reporting their actions, their problems and, you know, figuring out who can help”; at the feebleness of charities that drop out of tough camp management work on the grounds that camps are not “sustainable” projects. “Sustainability! It’s the ultimate cliché — and the ultimate excuse for N.G.O.’s that just want to move on to the next trendy, fundable job.”

When we reached Delmas 32, he proudly pointed out the streets that had, until recently, been 12 feet high with debris. “This was a devastated area with some gang problems, it was an area that needed to be kissed, but U.N. ops had refused even to inspect it, for ‘security reasons.’ We just came in, talked to the people, and after that, it was butter. By the time the U.N. got around to saying they had a plan for this area, we had already done it.” He grimaced and wiped his dusty hands on his pants. “I once said to Charles Bukowski, ‘You’re so irreverent toward your public, why do you even value sharing stuff? Why do you even write? Is it just that you get off at being so great at it?’ He said, ‘No, it was not that I was so great. It was that the rest was so bad. Somebody had to do it decently.’ And I thought, That’s me! That’s me with acting, with film. And that’s me with this thing now. Some people have said, ‘The danger of Sean Penn is that he makes it look as if anyone can do this.’ And my answer to them is, ‘No, I just make it look like you can’t.’ ”

At moments like these, it has to be said, Penn sounds perilously like the dotty narcissist that is his caricature. They don’t occur often, his little bursts of bloviation. Nine-tenths of the time, he is sane and charming and capable of conversing on any number of subjects in an eminently reasonable manner. But every now and then, it seems, the bombastic devil in him cuts loose. He will express the hope on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” that all his critics “die screaming of rectal cancer.” He will demand that one of his particular enemies at U.N.-Habitat “be impeached and gotten the hell out of Haiti.” He will take it upon himself to denounce Wyclef Jean’s presidential candidacy on CNN, prompting Jean to publicly accuse him of drug use. He will predict in self-dramatizing fashion that he will “end up shot in the back of the head, but it won’t be by a Haitian, it will be by another N.G.O.”

Penn rarely admits to any regret about his more excessive statements. He hasn’t burned bridges with anyone who really matters to him or to the organization, he says. In any case, diplomacy is overrated.

“Well, but the line about rectal cancer, Sean. That was a bit — ”

“Yeah, yeah, that was maybe not the wisest choice of words at the time. I mean, if you actually watch it and don’t read it, I was joking. It was clear that I was making a joke.”

In many ways, Penn seems to relish the animosity that his intemperate style inspires. He is deeply invested, to be sure, in the notion of being a good man. All the poetry and prose that he is fondest of quoting tends to celebrate the same romantic ideal of swashbuckling benevolence. (“You can have a barter system,” he told me at one point, “you can have advanced capitalism, you can read Ayn Rand or Joseph Stiglitz. I don’t care, because I don’t understand it anyway. What I do understand is that if your neighbor is screwed, you’ve got to help him.”) 

Yet, for all his sentimental attachment to the idea of being a heroic altruist, he is, it seems, equally attached to the idea of being a hostile outsider — to hating the world and having it hate him back. He is not, he will sternly insist, a good person. “I’m not. I mean” — he lowers his voice, as if to impart a secret — “I’m really not. I have great moments when I feel very connected and loving toward humankind, but I never have a good moment toward human beings. Unless someone shares my angst, I don’t even know who they are and then we’re just angst sharers. That’s the way it is. I love humankind; I don’t like humans. I don’t get along with people very well. I never did.”

Penn’s combination of hostility and principled fraternal feeling makes for a very odd, angry sort of philanthropy. It is probably not a sort that is massively appealing to the American public. As a rule, we prefer it when our celebrity philanthropists make us feel warm and sweet about giving, and being warm and sweet is not Penn’s forte. Still, it would be a pity if the spikiness of Penn’s manners were allowed to obscure the worth of his deeds. He is never going to have the creamy charm of a George Clooney or the unflappable good spirits of a Brad Pitt. But it is quite possible that he will end up doing more palpable good in the world than either of those admirable men.

“If I wasn’t here, I know what I would be doing, and it’s probably got to do with designs on women,” he told me shortly before I left Haiti. “Probably it would be reduced to that. Or surfing. Or seeing my kids smile. That’s about it. I don’t really care about anything else. But you sit here in a situation like this, and you feel part of the history of the world. The world is out of its mind with stupidity and the worship of stupidity. You’re either willing to be part of all time, or you’re going to limit yourself to being part of the current time. And then you end up flying from L.A. to Chicago to celebrate yourself being the sexiest man of the year on People magazine’s cover. And, you know, O.K. — we should have relief work for that person.”

In February, I met Penn one more time, as he was passing through New York on his way to a fundraising tour in Europe. He was looking rough. He had attended a Haiti benefit the previous evening, and it had ended up being what he called “kind of a rugged night.” His hotel room was a smoky mess, and he was in a dark, hungover mood. His hair was standing up, like the splayed pages of a book. He was sporting a little Mephistophelean beard that made him look like Matthew Poncelet in “Dead Man Walking.”

He talked about running into Wyclef Jean, how President Préval had brokered a peace agreement between them. “Haiti is a foxhole, and we’re all in it,” he shrugged. “I find the things that he said loathsome, and were we operating in a different area, I might hold a grudge. But under circumstances like these, it seems so meaningless.” He paused, gave a crooked smile. “Besides, he didn’t get his presidential run, and that was my only investment.”

He ordered a cheeseburger and lit a cigarette. “When dealing with something like this, an organization in which you’re playing a leadership role, you get pulled in a lot of directions. People’s natures define themselves and become spiritually burdensome, so you can have an awful lot of hostility toward people. I like to squint my eyes and see them as a big group. When I see their faces in the crowd, I’m not good with it.”

But surely not all the faces in the crowd were spiritually burdensome to him? Surely there were some people it gladdened his heart to see?

He thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said. “There are. They’re usually under 5 years old.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Legitimate rape

"There are no words for this -- it is just nuts." — Dr. Michael Greene, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology, Harvard Medical School

UNLESS YOU WERE a stowaway on the Mars rover, and you've actually taken up residence there, you know that sitting Missouri Congressman, Todd Akin, who is running against Senator Claire McCaskill for the Senate seat she holds, has been making up his own version of how human reproduction works. 

Oh yes, and coining new terms: legitimate rape.

It might be funny if it weren't so cruel and dangerous. He believes that if a woman is 'really' raped, her body has some magical way of avoiding pregnancy. He said, "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In case you haven't seen it, here's the interview.

I'm wondering if he were raped, since he wouldn't become pregnant as a result, would that be proof that his rape was not "legitimate"? Just asking.

And Akin's 'apology'? Come on! Paul said, "He didn't misspeak. He misthinks!"

Akin has repeatedly let us know what he thinks of women. Here's a post that appeared today on Slate:

The Rape Skeptic
By William Saletan|Posted Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012
Todd Akin wants to be forgiven. Two days after his catastrophic interview on KTVI-TV in St. Louis—in which he claimed that pregnancy from rape was “really rare” because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”—Akin has issued a video apology.

 “I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize,” he tells the camera. “The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.”

Really? Was Akin’s gaffe just a poor choice of words? Or does it reflect a deeper problem?

Akin’s track record on this issue goes back to 1991, when he was a state legislator in Missouri. At the time, Missouri was one of four states in which husbands, by definition, couldn’t be prosecuted for raping their wives. A bill came to the floor of the Missouri House that would abolish this exemption, making spousal rape a crime. Akin joined 118 of 134 state representatives in voting for the bill. But during the debate, according to a contemporaneous report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (flagged two week ago by Sahil Kapur in Talking Points Memo), Akin warned that a law against marital rape might be abused ''in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband.''

Akin was elected to Congress in 2000. A decade later, in January 2011, he co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which, among other things, would have tightened the definition of rape in U.S. abortion law. At the time, federal laws against abortion funding exempted pregnancies caused by rape. The “No Taxpayer” bill altered this formulation, exempting only “forcible” rapes. The change of language (first reported by Nick Baumann in Mother Jones) was widely condemned for excluding statutory rape and for supposedly implying that date rape wasn’t really rape. Eventually, the bill’s sponsor removed the word “forcible.”

Nothing in the record suggests Akin had anything to do with the rape language, which was peripheral to the bill. But yesterday on Mike Huckabee’s radio show, Akin pleaded that when he referred in the KTVI interview to “legitimate” rape, “I was talking about forcible rape.” So he affirms the distinction drawn in the 2011 bill.

When you look at the three episodes side by side—the 1991 comment about marital rape, the 2011 specification of “forcible rape,” the 2012 reference to “legitimate rape”—it’s hard to explain away the pattern. Nobody uses the wrong words accidentally three times in a row. . .

A man who talks repeatedly about “legitimate” rape, “forcible” rape, and spousal rape laws as a “legal weapon to beat up on the husband” isn’t worrying that that too many rapes go unreported. He’s worrying that rape is defined too broadly and asserted too often.

That’s why Akin’s apology doesn’t cut it. He didn’t just “misspeak” in a thoughtless moment. He exposed a longstanding streak of suspicion, aimed not at accused rapists but at rape accusers. Todd Akin is a rape skeptic. If he won’t face that fact, the voters of Missouri will face it for him.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Family Resource Council shooting

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent." — Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi

ON AUGUST 15 Floyd Corkins entered the Washington DC headquarters of the Family Research Council, a lobbying group that strongly apposes legalization of same-sex marriage, and shot a security guard. 

I rarely even kill bugs, so unsurprisingly my reaction to yet another shooting is disappointment, frustration and sadness.

I first learned that blame was being placed on the Southern Poverty Law Center from our friend Kit. To find out why a group so expressly and explicitly non-violent as the SPLC would stand thusly accused, I went to the Family Research Council's website for an explanation. 

I found a page called Washington Update on their site. Written in the first person, though the "I" is not identified, there's no room for doubt that whoever wrote it thinks that the SPLC is . . . well, you can read it below for yourself, taken directly from the website.

It is clear that the gunman is responsible for the shooting. But I believe it was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has recklessly labeled groups like FRC that they disagree with as "hate groups," that created this hostile environment. The SPLC's listing of pro-family and Christian organizations alongside neo-Nazi and separatist groups gives radicals like FRC's attacker a reason to believe they have the license to come into our building to try to take the lives of our friends and coworkers. The SPLC has even labeled local parents' groups that oppose SPLC's pro-homosexual policies as "haters." The type of rhetoric that SPLC has engaged in is wrong, and, as we witnessed this week, it is dangerous.

My first reaction was remembering having learned either in graduate level family systems theory or maybe it was in the crisis hotline training I took years back, that in a two-part sentence where the first part consists of a premise and the second part begins with the word "but", the first part is usually negated by the second part. 

The writer first says that's it's clear that the gunman is responsible for the shooting, and then places the blame unequivocally elsewhere.

I thought I'd peruse the Southern Poverty Law Center's website to see if anyone there had something to say about the shooting. Mark Potok does, and he identifies the "I".

Here's Mark's response to the accusations made by Family Resource Council president, Tony Perkins:

For more than 40 years, the SPLC has battled against political extremism and political violence. We have argued consistently that violence is no answer to problems in a democratic society, and we have strongly criticized all those who endorse such violence, whether on the political left or the political right.

But this afternoon, FRC President Tony Perkins attacked the SPLC, saying it had encouraged and enabled the attack by labeling the FRC a “hate group.” The attacker, Floyd Corkins, “was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Perkins said. “I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center should be held accountable for their reckless use of terminology.”

Perkins’ accusation is outrageous. The SPLC has listed the FRC as a hate group since 2010 because it has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people — not, as some claim, because it opposes same-sex marriage. The FRC and its allies on the religious right are saying, in effect, that offering legitimate and fact-based criticism in a democratic society is tantamount to suggesting that the objects of criticism should be the targets of criminal violence.

As the SPLC made clear at the time and in hundreds of subsequent statements and press interviews, we criticize the FRC for claiming, in Perkins’ words, that pedophilia is “a homosexual problem” — an utter falsehood, as every relevant scientific authority has stated. An FRC official has said he wanted to “export homosexuals from the United States.” The same official advocated the criminalizing of homosexuality.

Perkins and his allies, seeing an opportunity to score points, are using the attack on their offices to pose a false equivalency between the SPLC’s criticisms of the FRC and the FRC’s criticisms of LGBT people. The FRC routinely pushes out demonizing claims that gay people are child molesters and worse — claims that are provably false. It should stop the demonization and affirm the dignity of all people.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012


"At some point in our lifetime, gay marriage won't be an issue, and everyone who stood against this civil right will look as outdated as George Wallace standing on the school steps keeping James Hood from entering the University of Alabama because he was black." ― George Clooney

THE BELOW GRAPHIC is compliments of Gwendolyn Jensen-Woodard. Her Facebook posts are the bomb. They're progressive, compassionate, pithy, funny and sometimes snarky — in short, just my cup of tea.

Gwen is the daughter of my longtime friend, Larry HorrellLarry and I were friends in Pullman, Washington where I was in graduate school at Washington State University, Larry was an undergraduate and Gwen was a baby. 

Speaking of my former state, the last time I mentioned it in Hey Look was in February when gay marriage was legalized there. A month later Maryland also voted to make same-sex marriage legal, making it the eighth state to grant marriage equality. 

Iowa has the proud distinction of being the third state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, and Iowan Zach Wahls has been a powerful spokesperson on behalf of equality. Below is Zach's interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Zach Wahls
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

In other news, former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former Justices David Baker and Michael Streit who were ousted in a 2010 judicial retention vote as reactionary punishment for ruling that allowing gay marriage does not violate the Iowa Constitution, received John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage awards May 7 presented by Caroline Kennedy.

Below is what the San Francisco Chronicle had to say about the ceremony:

Ternus, Baker and Streit were among seven justices who decided in 2009 that an Iowa law restricting marriage to a man and a woman violated the state's constitution. Conservative groups and other gay marriage foes spent about $1 million on a political campaign to oust the judges, who chose not to raise money or campaign to avoid dragging the judiciary into politics.

"We recognized that opposition would surface. We were not naive," Baker said at the award ceremony. "Had we chosen to form campaign committees and actively campaigned, we would have tacitly admitted that we were what we claimed not to be — politicians."

That decision by the three judges was courageous in light of the divisive campaign that was unleashed against them, Kennedy said.

"For judges to be targeted for an individual decision is really something that threatens the liberty of all Americans and that's what happened in this case. So the award is intended to both to honor their decision and also make people more aware of the dangers and the threat to an independent judiciary, which is something all Americans should value." Kennedy told The Associated Press.

"The bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and that means we have to have an independent judiciary, judges who can make decisions independent of the political winds that are blowing," said Kennedy, who is a lawyer.

The danger of politicizing the judiciary is particularly pronounced in areas where state and county judges spend growing amounts of money to get elected or fend off electoral challenges sponsored by groups promoting narrow agendas, she said.

"People aren't so much aware of it, but it's happening in judicial races much more than it ever did before, on the local level and even further up," Kennedy said.

Ternus, the former chief justice, said: "Efforts to intimidate the judiciary and to turn judges into politicians or theologians in robes undermine fair and impartial justice and will, over time, destroy the ability and willingness of judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the constitution."

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