Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thinking about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In 1936, Fortune magazine assigned its reporter James Agee (then only twenty-six) and government photographer Walker Evans to study the lives and work of tenant cotton farmers in the Deep South. Agee and Evans settled near the rural Alabama town of Cookstown (a pseudonym for Moundville, near Tuscaloosa), and for several weeks they stayed with the Gudger family (also a pseudonym), observing them as well as two other nearby households. By all respects, it was a wonderful career opportunity for both, but Agee became dissatisfied with attempting to craft a story to Fortune’s liking. After he refused to work on a second draft, the magazine terminated the assignment, and he began to expand upon his findings.

Agee’s efforts would turn into the first edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The book went out of print after selling around 600 copies, and Agee went on to become one of the most important film critics of his generation, working for Time and then The Nation. Agee died from a heart attack (and hard living) in 1955, and won a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958 for his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. But it wasn’t until 1960 that Let Us Now Praise was re-released and found a widespread audience. Today, it stands as a landmark journalistic achievement for Agee’s combination of innovative self-reflexive accounts, literary sensibility, and thorough fact-finding, along with Evans’ simple yet evocative photographs.

It is also a book that, for all of its accomplishments, is notably divisive. Even during the nominating process for the Top 100 Works of Journalism list, committee member Madeleine Blais derisively referred to “the usual knee-jerk worship of this volume,” arguing that only Evans’ photographs made it worthy of inclusion. Let Us Now Praise’s structure is a particular target of criticism. As Agee writes, “the ‘truest’ thing about the experience” is not to create a chronological account, but to record the experience “as it turns up in recall…If this is so the book as a whole will have a form and set of tones rather less like those of narrative than like those of music” (215).

And indeed, this is what we get. The chronological “beginning”—when he meets for the first time George Gudger, Bud Woods, and Fred Ricketts, the patriarchs of the three families he observes—occurs about three-quarters through the book. Highly poetic and existential reflections are sandwiched between thick slabs of description on Agee’s spatial surroundings (such as the Gudger’s house and land). This is why David Denby is right to suggest that “it’s one of those books which many people read parts of when they were in school but never got around to finishing.”

Agee’s writing style often isn’t helpful, either. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda finds in a 2005 review that Agee “keeps talking about what he's going to talk about, and the pages roll by, until the reader eventually arrives at the book's very last sentence. And there our author announces that he is finally turning to the story ‘which I shall now try to give you.’ ” Along the way, Agee’s intense attention to detail and reverence for human experience arguably results in overwriting, particularly within his philosophical vignettes. He defensively postures himself in the book’s beginning (see page 8: “If I bore you, that is that”), yet later decamps in his repeated efforts to convey his earnestness and sincerity. He oscillates between a hard-bitten realism and what Denby characterizes as a “stargazingly wide-eyed” stance, as well as a range of positions in between. And for all of his incredible insights—and there are plenty—he also is contradictory and confusing at points.

On the other hand, I think Bruce Jackson’s 1999 essay for the Antioch Review provides some welcome insight that is more positive. Jackson admits that “[i]t is a difficult and in some ways an intimidating book,” but he also is able to clarify what Agee and Evans were attempting, and why the results are so important. Two of his arguments particularly stand out.

First, he identifies that “[t]he structure of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is grounded in the relationship between the words and the pictures.” As I would come upon certain sections while reading Let Us Now Praise, I would flip back to Evans’ photographs at the beginning, connecting them with whom or what Agee was discussing at that point. The photographs adhere to what Evans would call a “transcendent documentary” style, presenting their subjects in an austere and unsentimental manner that is notably resonant. As Jackson argues, they act as a type of anchor that helps ground and provide context for Agee’s descriptions, allowing us “a vision of the reality he’s writing his way toward.” Although the photographs’ placement at the beginning may be contradictory to what we assume is “normal,” I think this serves as a preparation for what we are about to encounter. From this perspective, it’s easier to view the arrangement of the book for what it is—innovative—instead of puzzling.

Secondly, Jackson makes the following contention about Agee’s writing:

“This book is no more and no less about cotton tenant farming than Moby Dick is about whaling. Which is to say, there is no way Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could exist without cotton tenant farming and you'll learn a lot about cotton tenant farming reading it and if you want to read it just for the cotton tenant farming parts you'll learn many good things. But probably not the most useful things. And what you'll miss entirely is precisely the experience of what matters…

“He can't explore the consciousness of the people he and Evans met in rural Alabama, nor does he really try. He explores the surface of their world and what he can see of the depths of his own in an attempt to show you not himself, but to help you see as if through his eyes. To do that, we must understand the limitations of those eyes, that mind, that sensibility. He uses the first person not to tell us what to see, but how to see. It is as if he is saying, ‘You think you are standing here and seeing this? Well, you're not, because you are this and this and this’ ” (emphasis mine).

Agee struggled in writing the original article for Fortune because he felt that a standard factual account of cotton tenant farming was impossible. So although Let Us Now Praise contains thick descriptions of the Gudger’s home, land, and daily activities (as well as other areas), the primary goal isn’t to provide readers with an “objective” investigation. In fact, it is the opposite—he is telling us how little we can know about the farmers and their lives. This is why, as Jackson notes, we should think about how Agee places human experience as the central focus of his writing. As Agee writes in a flowing sentence:

“All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent…”

Instead of providing answers, Agee seeks to raise more questions—about what it means to live and interact within a culture different than your own, about describing the actions of others, and even about what it means to do journalism.

This barely even makes a dent into the complexity of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And to be honest, I’m still wrestling with my opinion of it in light of the shortcomings I mention above. Yet with Jackson’s essay in mind, I’m trying to remain open to the richness of Agee’s dialogue and Evans’ photographs, and what they might teach me.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Medical Technology and the Ethics of Life-Ending Decisions

This morning’s online edition of the Washington Post has an interesting article discussing the intersection of new and experimental medical technology with the evolving ethics, morals and duties of healthcare professionals. The article focuses on the increasing use of heart pumps in what is becoming a rather large elderly population; in doing so, it addresses the question of what is to be done when these heart pumps fail to work, and possibly increase the health problems of these elderly users.

As a point of reference, the Washington Post article discusses an individual who had one such heart pump implanted as a final effort to deal with his medical issues. However, upon implanting this device, his condition only grew worse as he experienced infections and other complications. Overall, this device has caused him to experience a lower overall quality of life, but removing the heart pump means certain, almost immediate, death.

Doctors are caught in a legal and moral dilemma when such problems arise. As one member of the ethics committee at New York-Presbyterian Hospital states, “[t]urning it off would be ‘tantamount to removing the patient's heart’”. While the article states that most requests are honored, there have been several instances where such patients have apparently turned to self-help and deactivated their heart pumps themselves.

Such heart pumps appear to be just the beginning of potential issues with replacement organs. Artificial organs are being seen as “destination therapy” for many new patients; instead of ultimately receiving a transplant, these artificial organs will be the final answer for many patients. It is expected that researchers will continue to develop other such artificial organs other than just hearts.

The use of technology to aid the ever-aging population seems to be an ideal answer, especially in a time when it seems there is an insufficient supply to meet this demand. The question then becomes, as this article demonstrates, is what type of aid to provide to those who experience problems from such devices and eventually want them removed or shut off. Hospitals have both legal and moral concerns to observe. It is the business of the hospital to save lives and cure disease, not to assist in the ending of these lives. Hospitals then also have to consider potential litigation from family members who are unhappy with any such life-ending assistance.

The removal of these “organs” does not appear to fall within already settled hospital procedures. When the proverbial “plug” is pulled for those in permanently vegetative states, it is the family or holder of a power of attorney who comes in and makes the decision; the patient is not in a position to make their own decision as they apparently are in cases such as the one mentioned in the Washington Post article. Even in such situations, there are strict procedures to be followed by the hospital even before getting to the point of speaking with the family regarding their options. The problem with implementing procedures such as these for those wishing to have their medical devices removed is that it may still not remove the stigma on such procedures by people who will assuredly view these deactivations as nothing more than assisted suicide, which will inevitably lead to further issues and potential litigation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Supreme Court upholds use of lethal injection for executions

The Supreme Court upheld use of a lethal injection cocktail for executions, by a 7-2 vote – turning back a constitutional challenge that argued it was cruel and unusual punishment.

At issue was whether the most common method of capital punishment can cause excruciating pain for death row inmates, violating the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," and thereby giving inmates a proper challenge in court.

The Court rejected claims by two Kentucky death row inmates that the method violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by inflicting needless pain and suffering, mostly in the risk that the designated procedures would not be properly followed in all cases.

The justices spent nearly six months debating behind closed doors.

For more information:

High court upholds lethal injection method (CNN)
Executions to resume after high court OK's lethal injections (Chicago Tribune)
Supreme Court Allows Lethal Injection for Execution (NY Times)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Review of Rightward Bound

(Quick note: This review will run sometime in the near future on PopMatters. In the meantime, I have a review on the site for Randall Balmer’s God in the White House).

Rightward Bound arrives at a prescient moment. Modern American conservatism is far from its political death, but the ruinous legacy of George W. Bush has helped dash Karl Rove’s dreams of a “permanent majority.” Culturally, the story is similar. Annual abortion numbers have remained steady, public acceptance of gay rights continues to increase, and immigration has failed as a Republican wedge issue. So what are the reasons for this mixed record? As co-editors Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer argue, the movement’s “past has much to say about the contemporary condition.”

The most common historical account for America’s turn to conservatism has been the “backlash” theory. This theory holds that Vietnam and the stark cultural changes of the 1960s caused many to ultimately make a hard right turn in reaction. (Some scholars point at economic conditions instead of cultural ones as a primary cause.) More recently, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has advanced a pithy, quite concise explanation of his own: “southern whites started voting Republican.” Krugman finds that racist political tactics—such as Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy”—created a key turning point.

In contrast, Rightward Bound renders both of the above ideas as oversimplified. The book provides three broad reasons why. First, it demonstrates that the 1970s—and not the previous decade—was when conservatism found long-term success. Second, a variety of factors contributed to America’s rightward turn during the ‘70s; race and economics were important, but so also were gender issues, foreign policy debates, and concerns among white ethnic groups. Third, conservatives gained traction at both the grassroots and within government during the decade. Yet they also struggled against liberalism as well, and those conflicts continue to linger today.

Schulman and Zelizer state in a recent article that these new conclusions largely emerge from scholars who have been able to study the 1970s “with fresh eyes.” Accordingly, some of Rightward Bound’s strongest chapters come from the young historians that they go on to specifically mention. A notable example is Joseph Crespino’s look at private Christian schools in the South. He outlines how controversy erupted when the IRS stripped certain schools of their tax-exempt status due to racial discrimination. As Randall Balmer also argues, the response among conservative Christians was critical to the Religious Right’s formation. In just sixteen pages, Crespino does a nice job of summarizing the conflict and its eventual importance to the Republican Party’s message.

Meg Jacobs also provides an outstanding essay. In her overview of the 1973-74 energy crisis, she finds that the Nixon White House had to “create the perception of government leadership” for the public. Yet at the same time, they and other conservatives sought to limit the federal government’s role in regulating energy policies. This strategy failed in the short term, but it allowed the movement to develop an anti-government message that was central to the Reagan presidency. Jacobs writes that the crisis ultimately taught “conservative reformers a valuable lesson: fighting liberalism is hard.” She demonstrates why one reason those reformers remain in battle today.

Elsewhere, the authors of Rightward Bound form a compelling case for how and why conservatives gained power during the ‘70s. Schulman and Zelizer note that “areas of consensus” have emerged among historians concerned with the decade, and the book makes this clear. For example, Crespino’s findings relate to those of both Matthew Lassiter in his chapter on “family values,” as well as Paul Boyer on evangelical politics. Yet thanks to careful editing, the book captures a diverse cross-section of events and influences that ultimately played to the advantage of conservatives. As a result, it serves as a constructive starting point for recent historiography on the subject.

The only essay that I think lacks a convincing argument is Bradford Martin’s study of “singer/songwriters” during the early 1970s. Martin identifies how artists such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell chose to create “soft” music with introspective lyrics. He contends that this form of songwriting “accommodated” conservatism, even though the artists were themselves liberal. It’s an intriguing claim, but becomes lost to due to both a muddled narrative and insufficient supporting evidence. In particular, Martin could have used detailed analyses for a couple of specific songs to provide more concrete examples.

Rightward Bound offers remarkably little to complain about, however. It is a highly important and useful study, and one that offers scholars a new way of grasping conservatism. Just as importantly, this is a book that will hopefully be valuable to a broader general audience. If the public is to make sense of why the conservative revolution faces an uncertain future, they must look backwards as well, and appreciate its laborious beginning.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More on the FLDS

In a follow up to Maureen’s post this past Saturday, more information is being revealed about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the FLDS), much of it only reinforcing the original suspicions. Also being revealed in an AP article written yesterday is additional information on prior raids on the sect.

According to the article, raids on the FLDS had previously been carried out in 1935, 1944 and 1953. After each of these previous raids, children were taken to foster care and arrests were made, mirroring the present day events. In these previous raids, families returned and more joined this sect once given the opportunity, allowing the sect/cult the ability to continue and grow.

In another article posted on MSNBC, the question of whether the FLDS is a cult or sect is debated. While this debate is very interesting, one of the most intriguing issues covered is why people join these cults or sects. Among the reasons provided as to why people join these groups is that they know nothing else, most often being born into the cult/sect. In the FLDS, it has already been revealed that minors are being married to adult males to have their children; some of these children who have been born into this cult and have now grown up assuredly know no other way of life, leading to the possibility that they will eventually return to the FLDS.

With these past instances of the FLDS continuing to grow and thrive after previous raids, coupled with the fact that many of these members most likely know no other way of life, it is expected that the FLDS will once again reemerge and be able to recruit “willing” members. Members are used to having “Church leaders have kept a strict hold on every aspect of FLDS life — from the modest prairie-style clothes worn by members, to amount of time their kids stay in school and which house a family calls home.” Some are eager to break free, as evidenced by the sixteen-year-old girl who initially contacted authorities, but it seems that many will return to their previous way of life once given the opportunity.

Even conceding the FLDS’ First Amendment rights and ignoring the fact that polygamy is illegal, there remain several disturbing issues. The primary issue is that many of these members have not been given free choice in joining. Having grown up from birth in a lifestyle of polygamy and underage marriage may seem like a perfectly ordinary life for those who do not know anything else. Some, perhaps many, of these members joined the FLDS of their own free will and remain of their own free will; those that have become members solely due to birth cannot be said to have exercised this same level of free will.

In a case such as this, there is no clear cut method for resolving the problems associated with groups such as the FLDS. Obviously, government intervention has not worked as such intervention has only allowed the FLDS to grow. Removing underage children to foster homes has also been tried and failed. Education would seem to be nearly impossible as many members are exposed from birth and are taught this way of life from day one. Accordingly, apart from arresting every single member of the organization, an impossible feat, or constant vigilance, also impossible, it seems that the only method available at this time to curb the growth of the FLDS, at least temporarily, is to wait for further reports from members wishing to leave and willing to provide information as to the present location of the group.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

In Brief: Organic Agriculture’s Benefits and “Academics and Athletics”

--Several years ago, I took an independent study on food culture for my history major. One of the books I read was former presidential candidate George McGovern’s treatise The Third Freedom, where he argues that the U.S. has the capacity to end world hunger. In outlining his proposal the federal government, McGovern is quite optimistic about genetically modified (GM) foods, believing that without them, “the task of defeating hunger becomes more difficult and less certain of victory” (39). This book was the first time I had heard of GM foods, but I was already a bit skeptical, and remember bringing this up during conversations with my professor. (Reading this book soon afterward confirmed my suspicions.)

Just as Mark Bittman admits about himself, I remain a near-complete novice on the important points of comparison between organic and GM foods. Regardless, I think he on target in his positive assessment of The Ecologist’s recent articles “10 Reasons Why Organic Can Feed the World” and “10 Reasons GM Won’t." Ed Hamer and Mark Anslow argue that an organic agricultural system is sustainable, provided that we reduce our meat consumption, eat more locally, and reconsider certain farming strategies. They also offer plenty of statistical evidence, though it would be nice to see proper citations for their numbers. Still, they make a fairly compelling contention, and hopefully someone will be able to consider their arguments within an American context.

Likewise, Mark Anslow’s arguments against GM food seem pretty on-target. He re-iterates its most glaring problems: cross-contamination with non-GM food, proven risks to animals, lower yields, and strongly negative public opinion. Currently, none of these factors are enough to derail industrial agriculture’s insistence on GM techniques. Yet at the end, Anslow makes this bold claim: “In a world that will soon have to change its view of farming - facing as it does the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil - GM crops will soon come to look like a relic of bygone practices.”

--What should we make of the Ann Arbor News’ recent four-part investigative series “Academics and Athletics”? AAN has clearly done its homework (seven months worth of research), and the series make a persuasive argument that the University of Michigan’s athletic department deliberately steers scholarship athletes—particularly football and basketball players—into easy academic tracks. Consequently, this series bears some similarity to the Seattle Times investigation about which I wrote in February. Like the Times, the AAN has received overwhelmingly negative local feedback on its findings, including several references to dropped subscriptions in their online comments sections.

I think the best way to place this particular series into perspective is to consider an NCAA study from earlier this year on time commitments for student-athletes. In the study, football players—the central concern of the AAN series—self-reported spending an average of nearly 45 hours per week on athletics. While they also reported spending around 40 hours per week on academics, University of Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber was somewhat skeptical, estimating “the time spent on academics to be between 25 and 35 hours.” With this sort of demanding schedule, it’s apparent that football players in particular are probably not going to have the same sort of educational opportunities as non-athletes (or even other athletes). The question then becomes one of whether universities choose to encourage and challenge football players academically, or whether they take the easy road. The University of Michigan has clearly chosen the latter path, but I’m certain that they’re not alone.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Children rescued from polygamist compound

Polygamy was outlawed in the United States and Canada in 1890. Apparently, Warren Jeffs didn’t get the memo. In 2002, he declared himself Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the FLDS), a group with 30,000-plus members in North America, after his father Rulon died. After becoming Prophet of the FLDS, he married all but two of dad's 75 widows, including two adolescent sisters given to the old man for his 90th birthday. Unfortunately for Jeffs, federal authorities didn’t like what he was up to and he was convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. He got 10 years to life last November for his role in the arranged marriage of the teenage cousins. To read more about State of Utah v. Warren Steed Jeffs, click here.

Well, life at the ranch hasn’t gotten any better since Jeffs was imprisoned. Child welfare officials are scrambling to find foster homes for dozens of girls removed from the highly guarded West Texas religious retreat after a 16-year-old living there complained of physical abuse. According to authorities, the girls that were placed in protective custody were believed to be in danger.

CNN is reporting that officials from Texas Child Protective Services, escorted by state troopers, took 52 girls, ages 6 months to 17 years, from the remote retreat on Friday afternoon. Child welfare officials were looking for foster homes for the girls, most of whom have rarely been outside the insular world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were being housed for now at a civic center, she said.

I firmly believe that we should all be able to live life as we see fit . . . as long as it is legal. However, I get bent out of shape when I see that children are put in dangerous and abusive situations. Children need guidance in order to make good choices. When adults are forcing teenage girls into marriages with grown men then there is problem. It is a relief to know that these girls were rescued without another Waco like stand-off. How authorities help these girls deal with the realities of a world outside the ranch is going to be no small task. We can only hope that they aren't returned to that life anytime soon.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Surreptitious Sampling and Privacy Rights

The New York Times reports this morning on a practice which some claim circumvent requirements of probable cause – surreptitious sampling. Such sampling is performed by gathering “abandoned” DNA samples from alleged criminals in order to match to evidence on hand. As this DNA is alleged to be “abandoned”, there is no need for a court to approve such evidence gathering or issue any type of warrant.

Those challenging this practice claim that such evidence collecting violates the privacy rights of those accused, and perhaps even ordinary citizens. As no probable cause is required to collect these DNA samples, some argue that the police can easily collect evidence on so-called “targeted” persons for later use, whether the person is suspected of illegal activity or not at the time of collection.

Those supporting such evidence collection point to its success in the assistance of prosecuting criminals. According to the law enforcement officials, “Over the last few years, several hundred suspects have been implicated by the traces of DNA they unwittingly shed well after the crime was committed”. Additionally, such sampling has actually assisted in eliminating suspects in many cases.

In a recent decision, a Massachusetts court held that the Defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his saliva he spit on the sidewalk. As such the DNA evidence collected from this sample was admissible in Court. Other lower court judges for the most part appear to agree with such reasoning. The United States Supreme Court has not yet been faced with addressing this issue.

Some suggest that a middle ground would provide the best solution to this problem. As one expert suggested, the middle ground may lie in continuing to allow such evidence gathering, after the standard of reasonable suspicion is met. Adding this requirement would ensure that random people are not subject to such surreptitious sampling.

Even without having to meet this standard of reasonable suspicion, the courts so far have sided with that of the police, and perhaps rightfully so. It seems a stretch that police will follow “targeted” persons just to create a database for future use. And it has long been accepted that anything picked out of a person’s garbage is considered abandoned and fair game to be used in a court of law. As is the case with searching garbage, it is unlikely that such DNA collection would take place without some type of suspicion, most likely reasonable, and denying the right to obtain “abandoned” DNA may have unknown consequences on other evidence collecting techniques. While I stand by the fact that a person’s Constitutional rights and privacy deserve the utmost protection, it is hard for me to grasp either: (a) how such surreptitious sampling will become so random and so broad that it will infringe on anybody’s rights who is not under reasonable suspicion to begin with; and, (b) how any person can reasonably have an expectation of privacy in their so-called “abandoned” DNA.