Friday book post

Well, last week I started with a post about one of my favorite non-fiction books, so this week, I’ll go fiction.  I absolutely love Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.  I’ve also read War and Peace, which is a great book, but really could have used a good editor (less philosophy of history, more novel).  For my money, nobody writing fiction gets the human condition better than Tolstoy.  Throughout both novels, I was consistently awed by Tolstoy’s ability to limn universal truths of human nature from life in upper-class 19th century Russia.

It’s also worth noting that as long as these works are, and as daunting as reading Tolstoy sounds, he’s incredibly readable.  Just a terrific narrator telling you a story that you want to keep spending time with.  Of course, Tolstoy is often grouped with Dostoevsky, but alas, the latter has left me disappointed in comparison.  I had especially high hopes for the beloved by many Brothers Karamazov, but after slogging through the first hundred pages, could force myself no further.

Several years ago the New Yorker had a terrific article on the husband and wife translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky who have injected new life and style into translations of great Russian literature.  I’ve always been intrigued by their team work– apparently Pevear has a genuine writer’s ability to craft prose whereas Volokhonsky, a native Russian, has terrific insight into the most appropriate translations.  Put them together, and it brings these Russian novels alive in a new way (not that I plan on comparing with the older translations).

Women and Tuesday’s elections

I thought the most notable thing about all the success of various women on Tuesday was how little a role gender apparently played in all these elections and the coverage of them.  I’d say that’s a really good thing.  The more women are thought of as just “candidates” and not “women candidates” women are seen as just an ordinary, everyday part of electoral politics.

Somewhat disappointing then, to see a female right in the spotlight for attacking the appearance of another female candidate (Carly Fiorina making fun of Barbara Boxer’s haircut). Ruth Marcus has a great take:

Adding insult to insult, Fiorina didn’t back down when asked about the comment by Fox’s Greta Van Susteren. “I was quoting a friend of mine,” said Fiorina, who lost her hair during cancer treatment and is now sporting what my mother would call a pixie cut. “My goodness, my hair’s been talked about by a million people, you know? It sort of goes with the territory.”

No no no no no! It does go with the territory that women in politics have more attention paid to their appearance than male candidates. It doesn’t go with the territory that one candidate — female or male — gets a free pass for dissing an opponent’s looks.

For heaven’s sake, John Edwards got in hot water during one debate for joking about Hillary Clinton’s choice of jacket. The point of having women in politics was not to produce a “Mean Girls” sequel in the form of the California Senate race.

Well said.  Fiorina’s original comment is forgivable as, let’s be honest, we all judge other people’s looks all the time, but 1) an apology is definitely in order; and 2) it’s a shame how much media attention this is sure to get, especially because it’s two women.

Against deep sea drilling

Will Saletan, moving beyond his regular specialty of bio-ethics, had a really good article on the “insanity of deep water drilling” this week.  I really like his simple lesson:

Of all the lessons we can learn from the BP fiasco, the simplest, and the first we should apply to offshore-drilling laws, is this: Don’t open any holes you can’t close. If the well site is too deep for humans to reach, drill a simultaneous relief well so you can plug a blowout promptly. If a relief well is too expensive, don’t drill at all. Or you can keep robots on hand to shut down leaks. But they’ll have to be better robots than the ones we’re now watching.

I don’t know about the economics of drilling a simultaneous relief well as a failsafe, but I really like this idea (first brought to my attention, oddly enough, by our local conservative columnist).  If the operation is still economically profitable while requiring a relief well, which I suspect it is, nothing short of that should be the standard.

Child pornography and judicial nullification

The Times ran this really interesting story a few weeks ago about an NY judge who is basically engaging in judicial nullification on child pornography cases.  He thinks the sentences are unduly harsh, so he’s just throwing them out:

Judge Weinstein, who sits in the United States District Court in Brooklyn, has twice thrown out convictions that would have ensured that the man spend at least five years behind bars. He has pledged to break protocol and inform the next jury about the mandatory prison sentence that the charges carry. And he recently declared that the man, who is awaiting a new trial, did not need an electronic ankle bracelet because he posed “no risk to society.”

There is little public sympathy for collectors of child pornography. Yet across the country, an increasing number of federal judges have come to their defense, criticizing changes to sentencing laws that have effectively quadrupled their average prison term over the last decade.

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a 20-year child pornography sentence by ruling that the sentencing guidelines for such cases, “unless applied with great care, can lead to unreasonable sentences.” The decision noted that the recommended sentences for looking at pictures of children being sexually abused sometimes eclipse those for actually sexually abusing a child.

I meant to blog on this, but never got around to it.  But my Public Policy class came across the article and got into a really interesting discussion in our on-line forum.  Most of the students favored very harsh sentences in order to prevent the possessor of pictures from actually abusing children.  I wrote enough for my response there, that I thought I’d repurpose it for a blog post…
You know what, we don’t know that he won’t ever harm a child, but we’ve never been in the business of locking people up for something they might do in the future.  Punish him for the illegal act of trafficking in child pornography, not because he might harm a child sometime in the future.  That’s Minority Report.
If I had a statistic that said 60% of Black male youths growing up in a particularly bad housing project were likely to commit violent drug crimes, would you support locking up all the Black male youths in that community because they might commit a crime in the future?  Or, if we found out that 50% of these youths arrested for marijuana possession went on to armed robbery and felonious assault, should we give them extra stiff sentences for simple marijuna possession because of what they do in the future?
I’m pretty sure that research suggests that the vast majority of child pornography viewers never actually engage in sexual assault/molestation of children, just like most adult pornography viewers are not rapists.  Obviously, the very production of such materials is horribly exploitative and harmful to children, which is why it is quite rightly outlawed and punished.  (Let’s not also forget that a lot of adult pornography has been shown to be quite exploitative of the not necessarily willing subjects).  Thus, I think it is important that we punish people for the law they have broken, not the laws we think they might break in the future.
Just so we’re clear here, I’m in no way defending child pornography or the possession of it (which creates a market for a genuine harm), but I think Judge Weinstein is onto something.  It seems to me a lot of the punishment involved comes from what we’re afraid the possessors might do in the future lacking any evidence they will.  That’s no way to have real justice.
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