Sunday Bookchat

February 9, 2008

The farcical War on Terror has opened the door to all manner of abuses and distortions, from the appalling attacks on the Bill of Rights that make all of us more vulnerable to government mistreatment, to the petty tyrannies inflicted on airline passengers in the name of Homeland Security. But the corruption of the medical profession by making it complicit in the torture and brutalization of prisoners is one of the blackest stains on this era of sleaze, and Steven Miles’ Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror shows us the extent of the horror that has soiled America’s image in the world.

This review lays out the issues:

[Miles shows that] medical personnel were far more involved in the ‘torture lite’ that occurred under the supervision of the American military: medical personnel monitored ‘patients’ to insure they could be tortured without dying; they used prior medical knowledge to devise torments for particular prisoners; and they used their expertise to cover-up evidence of torture, both on paper and on the bodies of those who were its victims. As Miles succinctly puts it, “[t]orturers need medical accomplices to keep prisoners alive as trauma is inflicted, to predict how severely detainees can be twisted, and to see that torture evaporates, leaving behind neither scars nor documentation.”

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E. J. Dionne’s book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right will be the topic of discussion this week at TPM Cafe.

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Partly because I gave a favorable mention to Jonathan Chait’s book The Big Con in this space last month, and partly out of a basic sense of fairness, I must note the dust-up that’s developing over Chait’s New York Times Book Review piece on David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill). Johnston has protested to the Times that Chait’s review not only distorts his book but neglects to mention that Chait himself is the author of a competing book that touches on many of Johnston’s themes. Reading Chait’s review, it seems obvious that Johnston has a legitimate beef.Chait presents Free Lunch as a Naderite rant in which corporations are inherently evil, a depiction at odds with the book’s real content. And it’s downright puzzling to see Chait, whose book The Big Con is about the rise of crackpot economic nostrums that coddle the wealthy, going after Johnston in smoke-blowing terms that might have come directly from the George W. Bush playbook:

The weakness of the book is its sudden leaps from tight-focus reporting to broad generalizations. The government, in Johnston’s telling, is a tool of the rich: “The net effect of our policies, the evidence for which is overwhelming, is that we are redistributing income up.” In fact, the government’s taxation disproportionately falls on the rich, and its spending disproportionately benefits the nonrich. Johnston documents many of the exceptions — ways in which the rich gain special benefits or shirk their burdens — and considers them the rule.

It’s a little hard to reconcile the author of that paragraph with the author of The Big Con, a book that that covers some of the same ground as Johnston’s work. And while I still think The Big Con is a fun, gossipy read, it simply isn’t in the same weight class as Free Lunch, which overshadows it in every way. And Chait’s review is an unworthy piece of work.

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Elsewhere in the NYTBR, Michael Lind surveys two of the latest conservative books — John Bolton’s Surrender Is Not an Option and Michael Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism — and finds the tradition of intellectual incoherence and denial of reality firmly in place.

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Because kicking around the pseudo-science of creationism is every bit as much fun as kicking around the pseudo-scholarship of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism — and far more intellectually rewarding — here’s Peter Forbes on two new books about evolutionary theory:

The most vivid and bounteous evidence we have for natural selection concerns two kinds of genes: those that never change (immortals) and are going strong at more than 2 billion years old; and those that are no longer used (fossil genes) but live on, moth-eaten, accumulating more and more deleterious mutations. The immortal genes are the 500 or so that are vital for the life processes of every cell. These are virtually identical in every living creature, from primitive archaeobacteria that can live in the boiling geysers of Yellowstone Park to Einstein’s brain cells. They have been preserved intact by selection because most mutations to these would be fatal: if a cell stops working it cannot reproduce.

The fossil genes are at the opposite pole: they hang around, gathering mutations, making them even more useless. Because they are no longer used, selection cannot keep them in trim. Moles still have rudimentary eyes but because they are not needed underground they have furred over. All of the eye genes are still there but they are shot to pieces. We humans have lost the functionality of half of our odour genes, confirming what we always knew about animal senses. We still have all the genes dogs use to sniff out their world – we can tell because most of the DNA sequences are still there – but again the holes, insertions and other damage have disabled them. The elegance of this double whammy – immortal and fossil genes – for natural selection is almost beyond poetry.

Which brings me to so-called “intelligent design”, the idea that some biological structures are too complex to have evolved under natural selection. Fossil genes are the nemesis of intelligent design. What sort of grand designer would litter his creations with decayed copies of genes that we know are still functional in other creatures? There is a simpler explanation. Fossil genes have decayed because they are no longer under selection pressure. We humans use our eyes more than our noses. As Carroll says: “the rule of DNA code is use it or lose it.”

Could this, then, be the explanation for how the conservative movement lost its mind?

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Guess which horror novelist is a big fan of the Kindle electronic book. Guess which folk-pop icon is waaaay better read than you. And guess which House Speaker could have taught Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a thing or two about playing political hardball.


2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. frank Says:

    Can I indulge in shameless self promotion? My book, just out from Three Rivers Press, touches on a lot of the topics mentioned here. “The Department of Homeland Decency: Decency Rules and Regulations Manual” satirizes the trend to unite church and state that became so obvious in the last 10 years. “Words lead to ideas, which are the saplings of indecency. Pretty soon you have a forest that needs to be burned to the ground” summarizes the motivation of right-wing Evangelicals. We’ve lost some civil liberties, but, as they say in the book: “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. You have nothing to hide if you have nothing to fear. So fear nothing and you need not hide. Hide nothing and you need not fear.”

    That’s our Homeland.

  2. Batocchio Says:

    Sometimes the NYT review really picks some odd reviewers. Chait has his insightful moments, but this sounds rather appalling on his part.

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