Archive for November, 2010

Gossip Time is Over

Blake Lively as Serena van der Woodsen. Photo: The CW Television Network.

No, this isn’t about gossip from WikiLeaks. It’s about something almost equally important, at least to some of us: Tonight’s episode of “Gossip Girl.”

In last week’s episode, Juliet drugged and kidnapped Serena after turning all her friends and family against her.

This week, we found out that while Serena was unconscious, Juliet threw her on a bed in a cheap motel in Queens. Then she forced pills and vodka down Serena’s throat to make it look like she had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, Serena didn’t die from the overdose. When she woke up, she called 911 for help and ended up in the hospital.

When Lily, Rufus, and the rest got to the hospital, Serena’s doctor recommended confining her to the same psychiatric clinic that had treated her brother Eric when he tried to commit suicide a few years ago. Naturally, Lily didn’t even bother to talk to Serena before agreeing. Lily really is an idiot. I’m sorry, but she is.

So off went Serena to be locked up in the crazyhouse.

Dan’s sister Jenny had helped Juliet turn everyone against Serena. However, Jenny had an attack of conscience. She told both Rufus and Blair what really happened.

Rufus, who caught a case of the stupids from Lily, naturally didn’t listen to Jenny. But Blair did. And she told Dan. They decided to go after Juliet, who had left the city and disappeared.

The time for gossip is over. Now, the agenda is revenge. Or justice. As far as Juliet is concerned, either is fine with me.

P.S. Okay, I don’t endorse revenge. It was late when I wrote that. But Juliet is pretty bad.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

The Rights and Wrongs of WikiLeaks

Diplomacy sometimes requires secrecy and hypocrisy. Photo: The New York Times.

I started to write something about WikiLeaks when I got back to school last night after Thanksgiving recess, but I was too tired from the trip to finish it. Sorry. Here it is.

WikiLeaks publishes confidential documents it receives from whistleblowers in government and corporations. Naturally, governments and corporations want to keep the documents secret.

Sometimes, secrecy is a good thing. It means that people can give their honest opinions without being afraid that what they said will end up on cable news or in The New York Times.

Just as often, though, governments and corporations use secrecy to cover up crimes and keep the public from learning what it needs to know.

During last spring’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the BP oil company tightly controlled what information people could get about the spill. It kept most of the information secret, even hiding a lot of it from the Obama administration, Congress, and the EPA. That fact was discovered later.

The U.S. government tried to keep secret the fact that soldiers, contractors, and intelligence agents had tortured and even killed prisoners in Iraq. It also tried to keep secret the fact that soldiers and helicopters had shot unarmed civilians, including reporters.

WikiLeaks’ latest release of documents seems to mix important information (such as U.S. spying on U.N. diplomats) with other revelations that are trivial and embarrassing (such as  ambassadors’ snarky comments about foreign leaders). A lot of it is no surprise: For example, the government of Afghanistan is corrupt, which everyone already knew.

And some of the information is valid but would have been better kept secret, such as private communications between the U.S. and foreign governments.

Yes, it helps understand the Middle East to know that Saudi Arabia wanted America to attack Iran. It means that our pressure on Iran is not, as some people have alleged, all about our “slavish support for Israel.” And the fact that Saudi Arabia wanted us to attack Iran probably did not shock anyone who had thought about the situation.

Still, suspecting something is different from knowing it.

The publication of confidential negotiations will embarrass some people and humiliate other people. It will even endanger people such as the president of Yemen, who rightly or wrongly gave secret permission for the United States to bomb his country in fighting terrorism.

The fact that the information is now public will force governments to react to it in ways that they wouldn’t choose if they knew about it but it was still private. And WikiLeaks’ publication of some U.S. diplomats’ trivial but negative comments about world leaders might damage our relationships with their countries.

Some people have said that it’s the U.S. government’s just punishment for claiming that it can eavesdrop on everyone else’s telephone and Internet communications. That might be true, but it’s not the issue. The issue is whether the WikiLeaks document publication helps or hurts the cause of human rights and international peace.

And I’m afraid that the answer is yes. It helps and hurts.

Some of the information probably should have been revealed. But WikiLeaks would have been on better moral ground if it had released only documents that showed criminal activity, not just the hypocrisy that international politics sometimes requires.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Obsolete Sexist Joke of the Week

It’s only funny because it’s (mostly) not true anymore.

On the TV show “Modern Family” this week, the smart daughter Alex envies the popularity of her sister Haley:

Alex: So dumb guys go for dumb girls. And smart guys go for dumb girls. What do smart girls get?

Father: Cats, mostly.

For the record, we have only one cat. She belongs to the whole family.

And I’ve got a smart guy. So there. 🙂

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

What I Am Thankful For

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for:

The wisdom of parents and grandparents

That includes wisdom about life and the world, how to behave, and what kind of person to be.

My Dad inspired me to love science, which is leading me to a medical or research career that will help people.

My Mom showed me how to believe in myself, to work hard, and to follow my dreams even when the world says “no.”

My grandmothers taught me to treat other people with respect and generosity. Their two most memorable pieces of advice are:

  • We show what kind of people we are by how we treat other people, especially those who are less fortunate or (in my grandmother’s words) “our social inferiors.” We should treat all people with kindness, consideration, and respect.
  • A good deed only counts if nobody knows you did it.

My grandfathers taught me that the world didn’t begin in 1989: It’s important to know what happened before and where we came from.

Wonderful teachers

I have wonderful teachers who not only share knowledge, but share the joy of learning and discovery. They inspire me to explore new ideas and look at the world in new ways.

That applies not just to college, but to high school and earlier. I know that I’m very lucky and that most people don’t have such good teachers.

Good friends

Life without friends wouldn’t be much of a life. I not only have lots of friends, but I have a smaller number of very good, very intimate friends.

In addition to my BFF Sarah, who I’ve known since preschool, I am thankful for all my friends at college. Even when we fight, we all still love each other.

And especially there’s Mark, but I’m not sure where it’s going so I have to wait and see about it.

Miscellaneously …

I’m thankful to live in a country where women have freedom and opportunities to achieve their dreams. America isn’t perfect; in fact we have a lot of problems. But I know how much better my life is than it would be if I lived in an unfree or desperately-poor country.

I’m thankful that I lost seven pounds since the start of the semester and now almost fit into my high school jeans as long as I don’t sit down or take a breath. 🙂

And I’m thankful for all the wonderful readers of this blog! Some of you were already my friends, some of you have become my friends, and all of you have great insights that make me think! You make the world a better place.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

A New Name for Airport Security

I didn’t think of it, but someone mentioned a new name for airport strip-searches and feel-ups:

“Gate rape.”

It might be funny if it weren’t true.

Five Ways to See Me Naked

I see myself naked every day, and I can tell you it’s not that big a deal.

But if it’s something that interests you, or even obsesses you (in a harmless, non-stalker-y way), there are five ways you can do it.

1. Be My Doctor

You’ll need four years of college and four years of medical school. After that, there’s internship and residency. You’ll have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay off. And you’ll have to look good wearing a stethoscope. But that will do it.

2. Be My Roommate

This is possible if you’re a female college student. You don’t have to submit SAT scores, but you should have good grades and be ready to work hard. You need to talk me out of the single room I have this year as a senior. And, of course, you need a little over $50,000 per year for tuition and expenses. But you will get a good look.

3. Be My Boyfriend

This is probably harder than being my doctor or my roommate. You have to be sweet, smart, funny, and considerate. You have to put up with my bullsh*t (after all, I’ll put up with yours). You have to remember what color my eyes are, when my birthday is, and you have to lie convincingly about whether that dress looks good on me even if you secretly hate it. But you will get to see me naked. And stuff. 🙂

4. Be Rachel Maddow

I consider myself straight (though I think people worry too much about labels). But I would definitely make an exception for MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow, who is smart, funny, a former Rhodes scholar, and who gets this incredibly sexy kind of half-smile when she’s making an important point. Rachel’s partner Susan might object, so I wouldn’t just make the offer. But if Rachel asked …

5. Work for TSA

This is the easiest one. No college or medical school required. You don’t have to be smart, funny, or nice. You can be a bully. You can smell bad.

Yes, next week I will fly home for Thanksgiving. And the friendly people of the Transportation Security Agency will use their magical X-ray scanners to inspect me from head to toe. Au naturel, a phrase that has three meanings:

  • In the natural state,
  • Nude, or
  • Cooked plainly.

Natural is good. Nude in the airport, not if I had a choice. And cooked plainly — well, they say their X-ray scanners are safe, but who knows if it’s true?

Of course, I might also get felt up. Here’s a sentence I never expected to read in The New York Times:

“I didn’t really expect her to touch my vagina through my pants,” said Kaya McLaren, an elementary schoolteacher from Cle Elum, Wash.

I don’t like it, but I can’t do anything about it. I’m just so happy that I live in a free country and that President Obama has reversed all those Bush policies. Not.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

They Can’t Tell One Blonde from Another?

Tonight’s episode of “Gossip Girl” had its moments, but it got a little too mean for me.

Juliet has been trying to get revenge on Serena. Apparently it’s because she believes that her brother Ben was sent to prison for having had a relationship with Serena when he was her teacher at boarding school.

Serena, meanwhile, has had absolutely no clue why Juliet hates her so much. Which is hard to believe, if she was in a relationship with a teacher who was Juliet’s brother and who got sent to prison. Also hard to believe is that Lily, Serena’s mother, wouldn’t know anything about that having happened at Serena’s boarding school.

All right, I’ve admitted in an earlier blog that I shouldn’t over-think “Gossip Girl” storylines.

Juliet infiltrated a costume party by posing as Serena. Wearing a mask and the same dress as Serena, she kissed both Dan and Nate, trying to make them angry at Serena.

Okay. Juliet is blonde. Serena is blonde. So because she was masked, we’re supposed to believe that Dan and Nate didn’t realize they were kissing Juliet instead of Serena? Are all of us really that interchangeable? I’m not even blonde and it bugs me. And don’t even mention the fact that Serena is taller than Juliet. You can say they were fooled because Juliet was wearing Serena’s perfume, but I know from experience that guys usually can’t distinguish between perfumes.

And another thing. At the end of the episode, Juliet drugs Serena and kidnaps her. That’s too much. First, it’s way beyond the meanness scale of anything they’ve done before on “Gossip Girl.” Second, when people have done mean things before on the show, there’s been some kind of reason. Serena tends to think with her — well, not with her brain. Blair is crazy insecure sometimes. And Georgina is just plain crazy. Even Jenny, who’s the meanest regular character on the show, is mean mainly from hurt and insecurity. Juliet is just hateful. I don’t like that.

Serena’s kidnapping might be why they’ve been floating rumors that Blake Lively wants to leave the show, suggesting that maybe her character will get killed off. I don’t believe it. As airheaded as Serena has been lately — and we know she is not like that, or wasn’t until last season — it just wouldn’t be “Gossip Girl” without her.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.


Why Do We Need Government?

Why do we need government?

If you ask conservatives, libertarians, or tea party people, they’ll say that the only purpose of government is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud.

Of course, conservatives interpret “protection” very broadly, to include bombing countries that haven’t attacked us and coercing everyone to live as conservatives think they should.

Libertarians, on the other hand, are often students at tax-supported state universities. And most tea party supporters are on Medicare, which they famously don’t realize is a government program.

But there’s a more substantial point involved. The idea that government’s only purpose is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud is based on a very simple picture that doesn’t apply to life in a complex society.

The picture is this: You’re living alone in the forest in a house that you built by yourself. You get your food from a small plot of land that you farm by yourself. A stranger shows up, tries to shoot you, and tries to take your house and your food.

In that situation, it’s perfectly clear that you own the house and the food. It’s perfectly clear that the stranger is committing aggression against you. And that’s the kind of situation in which the tea party idea of government would actually apply.

Ironically, of course, if you were living alone in the forest, then there wouldn’t be any government to help you. But that’s the mental picture some people have of an ideal government. They think that anything more would be “socialism.” Which would be bad. They’re not sure what it is, but they know it’s bad.

Libertarians’ Confused Idea of Government

Think about their definition of the purpose of government: “to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud.”

They don’t mean all violence: just aggressive violence. If you use violence (against a person) to defend yourself, then they say that’s okay. It’s also okay if the government uses violence (against a person) to defend you.

The same thing applies to coercion. And they think that it’s perfectly clear when fraud does or does not occur.

Government Must Define the Rules

But in a complex society, it is usually not clear if violence or coercion is aggressive or defensive, or if fraud has occurred.

Their over-simplified picture of society, as a person living alone in the forest, misleads them.

For example, suppose that I’m walking down the street and you attack me. You knock me down and take my iPod. Is that aggression? On the forest model, yes. But what if you say that the iPod really belongs to you because I bought it with money I stole from your desk drawer? The simple-picture model doesn’t answer the important questions in that situation. Is violence acceptable to retrieve a stolen iPod? How much violence, and by whom? What are the standards of evidence to prove that something is stolen? How sure do you have to be in order to attack someone to retrieve the property you say is stolen?

Or suppose that I sell you a new shampoo I invented. You try it and it seems great. But I know that its chemical formula has a one percent chance of damaging your hair in ways that would be hard to prove are my fault. Am I required to tell you about that risk before you buy it? And if I don’t, have I committed fraud? The simple-picture model doesn’t answer any of those questions.

In a complex society, you need answers to those types of questions before you can even know what constitutes aggressive violence, coercion, or fraud. But the simple-picture model prevents people from realizing that.

You can’t protect people against aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud if you have no way of determining when those things have occurred. In order to determine that, you need a government to define the rules.

Government is Necessary

Therefore, before you can have a simple-picture government, you must have a government that does more than a simple-picture government is allowed to do. So you can’t have a government that does only what libertarians, conservatives, and tea party people want it to do. It’s impossible.

Government has to lay down the fundamental rules of society, and sometimes it must specify those rules with a high level of detail.

Government should also be (don’t laugh, I’m totally serious) the embodiment of our moral ideals and aspirations, promoting justice and good conduct.

Libertarians, conservatives, and tea party people are free to believe whatever they want. But, as someone else said, they’re not entitled to their own facts. If they want to make up their own facts, they’ll have to move to the middle of a forest and try out that simple-picture life that they admire so much.

P.S. Be sure to look at the Government is Good Web site, which you can see by clicking its graphic in my blog sidebar. It’s written by Douglas J. Amy, who explains the good things about government and refutes common myths. He’s also a wonderful teacher and is very funny.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Did Americans Vote for Divided Government?

Divided voters mean divided government. Source: CNN.

A columnist in today’s New York Times recycles the idea that “the public strongly prefers divided government.”

Divided government means that different political parties control the major institutions of government. For the last two years, the Democratic Party has had “undivided” control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.* In January, Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives, so the government will officially be divided.

According to Jonathan Rauch, who is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, that’s how voters like it:

Consistently, when either party, never mind which, obtains total control, its popularity collapses and the voters take the first available opportunity to bring in the other side.

I suppose it depends on what he means by “the voters,” but that statement seems kind of silly.

Does any voter base her vote on a desire for divided government? To ask that question is to answer it.

Nobody says, “I like my representative, but there are too many Democrats in the House, so I’d better vote Republican.”

A lot of voters last week were just bitterly disappointed in the Democrats. Others were fooled or frightened by Republican campaign ads and Fox News (like there’s a difference). And a few people honestly believed that, for all their faults, the Republicans would do better for the country.

But nobody, regardless of party or ideology, based her vote on a desire for “divided government.”

That’s it for me, for today. Time to have dinner, then study. I hope that you have a great week!

* Republicans control the Supreme Court, but that’s not usually included in discussions of divided government.

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

A Feminist in a Beauty Pageant?

Attendants of the eyelash! I shall unloose one feather, like the peacock.
–Sylvia Plath

Aileen Wang recently wrote about her encounter with Helen Hua, who is not only a 2010 Smith graduate but is also “Miss Southcoast 2010” and was in the “Miss America” pageant.

Aileen asked the obvious question:

How could one simultaneously be a “feminist” and strut around in a swimsuit on stage for a panel of judges … to promote conformity and the idea of some male-constructed female “beauty” that’s rated in numbers and percentages?

Though skeptical, she found that Helen made some good points in defense of beauty pageants. In particular, Helen said that “a feminist is a woman who does what she wants” instead of conforming to some predefined role. We can all agree with that.

I have conflicting feelings about beauty pageants. Part of it is just the name, which suggests — wrongly — that they’re all just superficial contests of appearance. And most competitions decided by people voting depend partly on superficial factors. Even the Nobel Prize isn’t exempt: President Obama won the Peace Prize mainly because he got elected president and his name isn’t Bush. So beauty pageants aren’t that different from a lot of other competitions.

But of course, everyone focuses on the swimsuit part. And yes, that part is superficial. As far as I know, the Nobel Committee didn’t ask President Obama to model a speedo.

Helen points out, though, that appearance is only part of beauty pageantry. Depending on the pageant, of course. The Miss America pageant is the largest donor in America of scholarship money for young women, and it requires a lot more than just looking good in a swimsuit. It takes talent, and brains, and determination: qualities that we all need to get through life.

Of course, both Miss America participants and the women who write about them tend to be high achievers. Helen is taking a a job with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, while Aileen will probably end up working for Vogue magazine (and I totally envy her for it).

I’ve always been a believer in lists, so here are my lists of good things and bad things about beauty pageants:

Good Things:

  • Beauty is good in itself. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. The fact that some people watch beauty pageants for lower reasons doesn’t change the fact.
  • Pageants give opportunities to young women. That applies to participants and to recipients of scholarships funded by the pageants.
  • Pageants usually showcase the fact that we can do a lot more than “strut around in swimsuits.” Good pageants showcase the talents, learning, and personal qualities of the participants.

Bad things:

  • There is that swimsuit competition. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s main value is her appearance in conventional, male-defined standards of beauty.
  • And the pageant itself is a competition, meaning that it can be superficial and sometimes brings out the worst in people. We are made for cooperation, not competition.
  • It reinforces the idea that we always have to be pleasing other people. It’s the idea that we should say, do, and look like what’s popular instead of what we really believe in. Not every pageant participant falls victim to this: Helen obviously didn’t. But the danger is there.

I don’t know. Maybe I worry too much. Or maybe I shouldn’t stay up so late on Friday nights. 🙂

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.