Bacterial Cities

July 17, 2009

Yes, Horton, there is a city on your toothbrush:

These slimy bacterial colonies, known as biofilms, add a remarkable new dimension to our understanding of the microbial world. Ever since Louis Pasteur first grew bacteria in flasks, biologists have pictured bacteria as individual invaders floating or swimming in a liquid sea, moving through our blood and lymph like a school of piranhas down the Amazon. But in recent years, scientists have come to understand that much, and perhaps most, of bacterial life is collective: 99 percent of bacteria live in biofilms. They vary widely in behavior. Sometimes these collectives are fixed, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull; other times they move, or swarm, like miniature slime molds. Bacteria may segregate into single-species biofilms, or they may, as in the case of dental bacteria, join together in groups that function like miniature ecological communities, competing and cooperating with each other.

Edit: And not just in your toothbrush!

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(Cross-posted at Post Right)

It’s probably a bad idea to get into the habit of linking as heavily to the Times as I have been in the last few week, but, I was really quite impressed by this weekend’s profile of David Cameron…  Go take a peek:

Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s. Tories have spent 12 years mulling over, and fighting over, a version of the problem that now confronts American Republicans. Cameron’s rise has led some conservative thinkers in the United States, notably the Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, to suggest that Republicans follow his lead. Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.

At times I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the Cameron-model may be the only real alternative open to the Republican party in the age of Obama and Palin.  If the big business/big government model remains effectively dead, Paul-style libertarianism stays vibrant but fringey, and the Dems succeed in positioning themselves as the party of bureaucratic competence, then the kind of broad-minded communitarian ethos represented by someone like Cameron might very well have a chance. That is, of course, provided they can find the right leader for it, a mighty big if indeed.

And that leadership vacuum is hardly the biggest problem faced by those sympathetic to Cameron’s thinking. Maybe the biggest issue is the danger that those ideals would amount to nothing more than another stale rehashing of compassionate conservatism, only this time with a communitarian gloss. Granted, the last time we contemplated the dreaded double-Cs, they were completely derailed by Bush’s foreign misadventures, profligate spending, shameless pandering to social issues divorced from concrete institutions, and generally lame policy approach.  That said, it seems the repeated failures of similar policies in the American scene are reflective of the fact that Americans just aren’t given to serious communitarian policy agendas… For all the civic vitality that characterized our early history, we’ve really wandered far from the place where those organizations play a significant role in our lives, and that ideologies based on them can inspire political action.  (The obvious exception here being churches, but as Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone, if we take their vitality in the context of our broader civic decline, their growth is more indicative of the system’s failure to provide other outlets than indicative of genuine growth of social capital.)

The other problem, and to my mind the one most likely to damn an American Cameronism from the get-go, is the gulf separating our political situation from that of Britain. Cameron’s policies, for better or worse, are being articulated against a functional if debt-ridden welfare state with a working health care system, some measure of a social safety net, and a history of state involvement in civic life.  The questions that American politics is faced with right now drive primarily in the opposite direction, namely, how to get a functional health care system, solve educational dilemmas, and construct a energy system not based on the impoverishment of future generations, all of which have been construed primarily as government’s problems and will likely remain so.  Moreover, the primary issue we share with Britain, debt, won’t be solved by anything other than cuts in government and tax hikes, both of which fit comfortably into existing (or reviving) political categories.  To me, it seems these differences pose an insurmountable barrier to Republican absorption of Toryism’s better impulses, and barring some radical shift in the American situation, I see little chance of any serious communitarian options emerging in the next few years, though I wish it weren’t the case.

Oooh man, the New York Times is pondering Minnesota’s electoral politics… Good f-in luck, my friend:

Minnesota was settled by agrarian, church-going folks — Norwegians and Swedes, with many Germans as well, whose subsequent generations continue to take a dim view of political corruption and vote accordingly. The habits of civic life are baked in at early age, with churches and unions — historically strong in Minnesota — reminding members that voting is both an obligation and an opportunity. The presence of distinct regions with separate needs and political agendas — the average union member from the Iron Range has very different expectations from government than a mother from the populous suburbs that ring the Twin Cities — means that each regional constituency shows up at the polling place to make sure its interests are seen to.

Later on, Lambert throws in his bit:

“Because we think we’re such shrewd judges of human nature we’re intensely skeptical of everyone who looks and sounds like us and because we’re so proud of our broad-mindedness, we make a big show of embracing everyone who doesn’t seem like us,” said Brian Lambert, a radio personality and former media critic at The St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I’m inclined to say that the state’s electoral funkiness has more to do with the form of ethnic and religious allegiance than it does with being broad-minded or skeptical.  The relative homogeniety of the state means that its constituent identities are only rarely defined against those of outsiders… This was a big part of why the state was able to lead during the Civil Rights era, and also why Jewish canidates have been so successful; ethnic or religious outsiders are perceived as oddities rather than competitors. (Though that doesn’t mean the state’s flawless by any means. The largest lynching in U.S. history, for example, happened here.)

Palin Speaks

July 3, 2009

I’m only just now watching the video.  I’d forgotten how incapable she is as a public speaker. Its not just grating, its weapons-grade grating.  The ill-timed gasping breaths… The drawl… The rushing… The snide winky dumb jokes… And it continues on her website. Note the imaginative use of capitalization to really emphasize her emphases that make no sense:

Alaska’s mission – to contribute to America. We’re strategic IN the world as the air crossroads OF the world, as a gatekeeper of the continent. Bold visionaries knew this – Alaska would be part of America’s great destiny.

Our destiny to be reached by responsibly developing our natural resources. This land, blessed with clean air, water, wildlife, minerals, AND oil and gas. It’s energy! God gave us energy.

Kvetching aside, there’s no question in my mind this is a run-up to a presidential run. Consider to the points she’s raising: Trig, her overseas trips, the importance of the military, the non-existence of climate change (snidely hinted at), her family life, the crumminess of the MSM, “rights,” “safety”… These are her talking points, not the rhetoric of someone about to go down in a flaming scandal.

Here’s another good reason for Americans to remain staunch realists about this whole shabang:

What’s often forgotten amid the genuinely awe-inspiring spectacle of hundreds of thousands of long-suppressed people risking their lives on the streets to demand change is the fact that the political contest playing out in the election is, in fact, among rival factions of the same regime. Ahmadinejad represents a conservative element, backed by the Supreme Leader, that believes the established political class has hijacked the revolution and enriched themselves and is fearful that the faction’s more pragmatic inclination toward engagement with the West could lead to a normalization of relations that will “pollute” Iran’s culture and weaken the regime. Mousavi is not really a reformer so much as a pragmatic, moderate conservative who has campaigned with the backing of the reform movement because it recognizes that he has a better chance of unseating Ahmadinejad than one of their own would have. (The reformists’ own economic performance, during their eight years in power from 1997 to 2005, unfortunately also left much to be desired, and was a key reason for Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency.)

To my mind, this is one of the best reasons behind Obama’s reticence on the whole issue.  The problem with being aggressive on the diplomatic front is not just that it gives Ahmadenijad a handy whipping boy to justify his thuggery.  Its also that offering an effective endorsement for Mousavi is going to be a very hard thing to deal with once the admittedly intoxicating thrill of the moment is gone and we get back at the same old issues we started with, namely Iran’s domestic troubles and our conflicting international interests. Barring outright revolution, structural change that favor our interests are simply not in the cards. What we have here are two different options for Iran’s future, both of which represent real change either towards authoritarianism or reform, but neither of which escape the basic facts of Iranian political life, including that state’s position towards the U.S. and towards Israel.   The only proper response to this kind of situation is an insistence on due process and the rule of law, both of which Obama highlighted yesterday, and, as I’m writing this, today.

Both Andrew Sullivan and Chris Dierkes are now using the “F” word to describe the situation in Iran.  I agree its headed that direction, and if Ahmadinejad gets his way that will almost certainly be the outcome. But having just finished Agamben’s masterful book on the subject, I hesitate to call it fascism proper. What we have now is civil chaos, which can be a decisive moment for any state. Should Ahmadinejad succeed in crushing the demonstrations, he will have proved not only his power through the law, but also his power in the absence of law, in the state of exception.  If that happens, Iran will be a genuinely fascist state, its foundations built on the intertwining of order and violence under the watchful eye of the sovereign. And that will be truly terrible thing.

However, I think the current situation doesn’t amount to that yet, precisely because the disorder has not been contained, either politically or  semantically.  Consider the images of state-sponsored violence we’ve seen through the last few days.  They are intensely disturbing, not just because of the obvious pain we made witness to, but because those crimes are being committed by the very agencies founded to prevent them.  Who is it beating people in the streets? Who is it breaking into dormitories and arresting without warrant or cause? These are plainly not the acts of a representative of the law. In lieu of that legal grounding, Iran’s authorities are mere thugs, armed thugs with big ideas and central planning. And they cannot amount to more until the government reconstitutes them, either as the hidden arm of state violence or as a reformed entity of civil society.

But so with Ahmadinejad’s thugs, so with Mousavi’s supporters, who now share that strange place between chaos and the exception. The authorities recognize they must exit the exception by containing the chaos as their own, and its this point that the protesters, in their demonstrations and their own violence, have put into question.  Whether their efforts will succeed in creating a new establishment, and how they do so, will set the course of events in Iran. Should protests stay relatively peaceful, we may see something remarkable happen in the next few weeks. Should things turn violent, truly violent, I worry we may arrive at something just as bad as the Islamic Republic; founding states on violence is a dangerous undertaking, no matter what the intentions. But just for this reason, we shouldn’t confuse the reality of the unstable state as the signs of a new fascist order; the weird equality of chaos should teach us that at a minimum.

I recognize that all this may be being overly picky, since one might at least argue that while Iran is not yet fascist is is being run (ostensibly) by fascists. Granted. Mostly I post this to air my own thoughts on the matter, less to argue than to try to comprehend what’s going on here.  And there is so much to comprehend.

Khomeni’s Army

June 13, 2009

Sullivan’s gidy:
The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.
This generation will determine if the world can avoid the apocalypse that will come if the fear-ridden establishments continue to dominate global politics, motivated by terror, armed with nukes, and playing old but now far too dangerous games. This generation will not bypass existing institutions and methods: look at the record turnout in Iran and the massive mobilization of the young and minority vote in the US. But they will use technology to displace old modes and orders. Maybe this revolt will be crushed. But even if it is, the genie has escaped this Islamist bottle.
Historically, family planning in Iran has had its ups and downs. The nation’s first family planning policy, introduced in 1967 under Shah Reza Pahlavi, aimed to accelerate economic growth and improve the status of women by reforming divorce laws, encouraging female employment, and acknowledging family planning as a human right.
Unfortunately, this promising initiative was reversed in 1979 at the beginning of the decade-long Islamic Revolution led by Shiite Muslim spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini. During this period, family planning programs were seen as undue western influences and were dismantled. Health officials were ordered not to advocate contraception. During Iran’s war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, a large population was viewed as a comparative advantage, and Khomeini pushed procreation to bolster the ranks of “soldiers for Islam,” aiming for “an army of 20 million.”
This strong pronatalist stance led to an annual population growth rate of well over 3 percent. United Nations data show Iran’s population doubling from 27 million in 1968 to 55 million in 1988.
During postwar reconstruction in the late 1980s, the economy faltered. Severe job shortages plagued overcrowded and polluted cities. Iran’s rapid population growth was finally seen as an obstacle to development. Receptive to the nation’s problems, Ayatollah Khomeini reopened dialogue on the subject of birth control. By December 1989, Iran had revived its national family planning program. Its principal goals were to encourage women to wait three to four years between pregnancies, to discourage childbearing for women younger than 18 or older than 35, and to limit family size to three children.

Sullivan on events in Iran:

The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.

This generation will determine if the world can avoid the apocalypse that will come if the fear-ridden establishments continue to dominate global politics, motivated by terror, armed with nukes, and playing old but now far too dangerous games. This generation will not bypass existing institutions and methods: look at the record turnout in Iran and the massive mobilization of the young and minority vote in the US. But they will use technology to displace old modes and orders. Maybe this revolt will be crushed. But even if it is, the genie has escaped this Islamist bottle.

He’s absolutely right to see this as generational, though there’s another layer I want to point out here. For Iran, millennials aren’t just one generation among others; they are a generation intentionally created by the revolutionary government’s policy of dramatically restricting  access to family planning with the the stated purpose of building an Islamic army.  Of course, for a nation with seriously limited resources, this wasn’t a viable policy for the long-term, and hence the birth rates dropped in the late 80s, but not before it created the population bulge that now seems intent on major political change.  So those crowds now milling the streets of Tehran were supposed to be an unstoppable army for the Revolution. Irony of ironies that they seem to want a revolution of their own.

Bartlett, Taxes, Etc.

June 11, 2009

Via NeoMugwump‘s aptly-titled post on the same topic, here’s Bruce Bartlett on taxation:

I think conservatives would better spend their diminished political capital figuring out how to finance the welfare state at the least cost to the economy and individual liberty, rather than fighting a losing battle to slash popular spending programs. But this will require them to accept the necessity of higher revenues.
It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year. Nor is it realistic to think that taxes can be kept at 19 percent of GDP when spending is projected to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s without any new spending programs being enacted.

In the end, the welfare state is not going away, and it will be paid for one way or another. The sooner conservatives accept that fact, the sooner they will regain political power.

This isn’t just a politically relevant point either. On principle, the first enemy for fiscal conservatives ought to be the deficit, not taxation. This is why I think there’s a strong case to be made that Norway and Canada represent far more viable models for fiscal conservatism than the United States: both have comparatively large social safety nets, but they are by and large paid for. Both regulate their banking system so as to avoid catastrophic bailouts. Perhaps most importantly, both maintain political cultures based around a right-wing aversion to debt, so the issue of a conservative government running up the deficit isn’t really an issue.

I recognize all of this should be old hat to most readers. But I continue harping on it not just because its true but also because I think it lies in the long term interests of the Right to return anti-deficit policy to the center of their thinking.  Though favoring some tax increases will be unpopular with the base, to a nation who’s savings rate just jumped a good four percentage points, that kind of anti-debt policy could prove popular. Moreover, should Republicans commit to actually doing some good old fashioned deficit reduction, it would go a long way to redeeming their profligate spending during the Bush years, and to regaining the moral high ground on the issue. (Which, incidentally, they must regain in order to have any hope at all in this environment; so long as Obama can portray the Right as incapable of making the tough decisions, .)

Its rare that waking up first thing with a caffeine-induced headache can be a good thing, but today, thankfully, I get to spend my drowsy hours pouring over Obama’s latest…  I imagine there will be a good amount of discussion of this in the next few hours/days, but I just thought I’d point out something intriguing going on here at the get go. Early on he throws out this gem:

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

Later on, he expands on this point:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

And further still:

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

I hadn’t really appreciated how much there is to be gained, from an American perspective, from criticizing the secular bigotry of European (particularly French) approaches to Islam, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Given that much of Obama’s audience’s direct acquaintance with Western religious norms comes via Europe, America’s comparatively rigorous protections for religious expression in the public sphere are likely less well understood than our more obvious Christian culture. Making those protections a central to how we represent ourselves, both on our own and relative to Europe, could play very well in the Middle East, provided its paired with policies that emphasize respect for Islam and a diplomatic recognition that Islam is a rightful part of the Middle East’s political inheritance.  Whether Obama (or anyone, for that matter) can succeed at that broader project, I am doubtful, but its nonetheless an interesting undercurrent to what seemed an overall solid performance.

Via NeoMugwump, Obama seems to have an interesting anti-Republican strategy in play:

Between high-profile conversions from the Northeast to the Midwest to the Rocky Mountain West — not to mention Obama’s warm relations with the nation’s two most prominent moderate Republican governors, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida’s Charlie Crist — it’s beginning to look like a strategy that isolates conservatives, reinforces the impression that the GOP is defined by the borders of the Deep South and all the while underscores Obama’s stated goal of working across party lines.

“Boxing the Republicans into a South-dominated party is very good strategy, because the more you reduce the Republican Party, the more conservative and reactionary it will become, and thus less attractive to moderates,” said Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor and the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.” “The Midwest and the Northeast are the places where there are still remnants of old-line Rockefeller Republicans. And these are the places where the Democrats will build durable majorities.”

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Lets assume Obama’s strategy works, and the Republicans are relegated to the South, alienate everyone whose skin color is darker than snow or whose ideas are contrary to those of their favorite entertainers. Suppose they lose all their support in the Northeast and cease to be players in the Midwest. Suppose further that they shed considerable chunks of what was once safe territory (i.e. Virginia) to shifting demographics. Suppose they are crippled internally and unable to reform, bound to a fanatical base and a cowardly leadership. Suppose that the decline in their popularity does not bottom out in the near future. At what point in this process do we declare the GOP, for all intensive purposes, no longer a major party in American Politics? When 20% of the electorate self-identifies as Republican? 15%?  We call a party fringe in Europe when it gets those kinds of poll numbers, as Le Pen did back in 2002. Ditto in local politics, as those of us who lived through the Ventura administration would be hardpressed to forget.  Why should it be any different for the GOP? And what would it mean if it did?

Just a passing thought I suppose. But not a completely implausible one, given those latest poll numbers. Interesting times indeed.