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December 2009 Archives

December 2, 2009

Afghanistan and Stem Cells--Skeel

I may the only person in the country who was reminded by President Obama’s speech last night of President Bush’s announcement of his stem cell policy in August 2001. In both cases, the President was announcing his policy on a controversial issue during the first year of his presidency. And in both cases, the President adopted a policy that seemed to reflect his own preferred position, but also concede a small amount of ground to critics. In Bush’s case, the prohibition on research with new stem cells reflected his opposition to stem cell research, but the policy allowed scientists to continue working with existing lines of stem cells. In Obama’s case, the troop escalation reflects his repeated emphasis on the importance of the war in Afghanistan (as contrasted with Iraq), while his proposal to begin scaling back in 2011 seems a concession to the war’s critics.

 There are at least two major differences between Bush’s compromises and Obama’s, however, and neither bodes well for the new policy. First, as David Brooks pointed out in a New York Times column several weeks ago, Obama’s stance seems intellectual and aloof rather than fully committed. Second, a compromise position on the war runs the risk of undermining the effect of the troop escalation altogether, since it seems to contemplate a prompt reversal. This may be one of those places were lukewarm is worse than either hot (a fully committed escalation) or cold (plans for a withdrawal).

December 11, 2009


Apologies for the long silence. Chemo brain has taken hold of me, and writing of all sorts has become a good deal more difficult than it was. I’ve never found writing easy, but I’ve always been able to do it. These days, I sometimes feel as though I’ve forgotten how. (What are all those letter keys on my laptop for?) That makes work on the crime-and-criminal-justice book I’m writing go more slowly than I’d hoped; recently, that has absorbed all my too-limited writing energy. I’ll try to do better in the future.


Cancer News--Stuntz

This past week, I heard the results of the latest round of films: none of my tumors has grown in the past couple of months, and the one on my liver appears to be slightly smaller than it was. This is very good news, about as good as one can get at my stage of cancer and cancer treatment. For which I’m very thankful. Enough italicized verys.

Silver linings usually come with clouds attached, and in this instance the nature of the cloud is, well, not at all cloudy: I have to do more chemo. The basic drill for most cancers that have metastasized in multiple places (three in my case), multiple times (twice so far) is simple: you do chemo as long as it holds the stuff off, shrinks it, or keeps it from growing. I’ve been on this round of chemo since the beginning of August, which feels like a long time.  But it will go on some months longer—and, if things go better than expected, the number of months gets larger. Meaning, the outcome for which I’m rooting involves more of something I hate. On the other hand, when the cancer news turns bad, as one day (probably soon) it will, perhaps I’ll be able to celebrate chemo’s end. Cancer news is always a mix of good and bad.
But plainly, this news is mostly good. Thanks to my docs and nurses, thanks to the spouse who sits through every one of those chemo sessions with me, thanks to the friends who pray for me regularly and, most of all, thanks to the God who has seen fit to keep me alive awhile longer.

December 15, 2009

Two Italian Poets--Skeel

Here is a little review of a pair of very interesting Italian poets that might be of interest to a few folks-- particularly those who are tired of my rambling on about the proposed financial reforms.

December 17, 2009

Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer--Skeel

The flurry of comparisons between President Obama’s Nobel Peace Price speech and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realist theology reminded me of a debate over whether Niebuhr is the author of the “Serenity Prayer,” which has long been attributed to him. Last year, Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro produced evidence that the prayer pre-dated 1943, when Niebuhr was said to have composed it. Several weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Duke University librarian Stephen Goranson has uncovered a 1937 Christian student newsletter that attributes the prayer to Niebuhr, thus strengthening the case for Niebuhr’s authorship.

For me, the differences between the earlier and now classic versions of the prayer are even more intriguing than the authorship debate itself. In the familiar, classic version, the supplicant prays: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
The 1937 version is a little different: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
To my ear, the 1937 version sounds a lot more like Niebuhr.  Niebuhr’s thought tended toward dichotomies and tensions. He argued that anxiety tempts us toward sin, but that it is not inherently sinful and is the fount of our creativity. The 1937 prayer, with its initial emphasis on courage and change, and request for serenity (a very un-Niebuhrian word and concept) only with respect to “what cannot be helped” seems Niebuhrian to me; the classic version, with its tone of placid acceptance, doesn’t.
Based on no evidence whatsoever, I would even speculate that Niebuhr’s earlier prayer (assuming he was indeed the originator) was shaped into its final form by others, not Niebuhr himself.  Is it appropriate to do this, to alter and reuse a prayer penned by someone else? I think it is. Like hymns, prayers are part of our communal worship. We may argue about whether the changes are appropriate—changes to increase gender neutrality, for instance, or to remove references that seem theologically dubious or specific to a different era. But this back and forth is part of participation in Christian community. 
This isn’t an argument against identifying the original author. I think we should recognize Niebuhr or whoever the author was, just as we recognize Charles Wesley or John Newton as the author of their hymns. But prayers and hymns are a gift to the Christian community, to be adapted and adjusted by the community as part of our life together.

December 21, 2009

Person of the Year?--Skeel

The selection by Time magazine of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke as its person of the year has been met by a collective yawn. Perhaps this reflects a general disinterest in financial regulators. It also could simply be one more illustration of the diminishing influence of newspapers and weekly magazines.

Even for those of us who find regulators fascinating, the Bernanke pick seems misguided in two respects. First, if Time wished to single out the regulators who flooded the markets with money to avert a Depression, it didn’t make sense to select Bernanke alone. For better and worse, Bernanke was part of a team effort that included then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and current Treasury Tim Geithner. The did everything from the Bear Stearns bailout to TARP in tandem. It doesn’t make sense to include just one of the three musketeers. The second problem is much more revealing, however. Time seems to have had a problem with its calendar. Nearly all of the major financial interventions took place in 2008, not 2009. Perhaps Bernanke should have gotten some votes for person of the year last year, but his contributions were so 2008.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich had an interesting column yesterday suggesting that Tiger Woods would have been a better pick, since the complete mismatch between his carefully crafted public image and his actual private behavior fits a pattern that includes financial wrongdoers like Enron.
With the benefit of several extra weeks of political developments to consider, I would make still another pick. My pick for persons of the year would be Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, President Obama’s advisors. If the story of last year was Obama’s sensational election, this year’s story is the legislation at all costs strategy that the Administration’s advisors have persuaded the President to adopt. It doesn’t seem accidental to me that the most quoted political comment earlier in the year was Emanuel’s statement about a crisis being a terrible thing to waste; and the most quoted recent comment is his statement that everything is negotiable except success. Only time will tell whether this strategy of doing whatever it takes to line up votes will seem to have been well-founded in retrospect. But in my view, it is the story of 2009.

December 23, 2009

Back in the Day--Skeel

Am I imagining it, or is the old cliché “back in the day” enjoying a renaissance?  I seem to see it everywhere, even in “objective” newspaper stories.  When I was a kid (back in the day, in other words), it was one of two phrases people often used to link the past to the present.  To compare the old days to the present, they said “back in the day” (as in: “Back in the day, that pot-bellied man was the fastest sprinter in the state”).  To compare the present to the old days, they said “anymore” (as in: “Anymore, you pump your own gas; they don’t pump it for you”).

I personally never much liked “anymore”—perhaps because it sounds so much like “nevermore.” But there’s something more hopeful and pleasingly nostalgic about “back in the day.” I’m glad it’s back.