Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Girl Who... Made This Blogger LOL Today

This blogger, who recently slogged through Stieg Larsson's Swedish mystery trilogy, was in a grumpy mood because he couldn't get video clips to behave in this blog this AM. Then, he happened upon Nora Ephron's parody of the Larsson novels. So, it's an inside joke today, folks. If you haven't read The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo (2008), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), or The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (2009), you're SOL (straight out of luck) with today's post. If this is a (fair & balanced) skämt, so be it.

[x The New Yorker]
The Girl Who Fixed The Umlaut
By Nora Ephron

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There was a tap at the door at five in the morning. She woke up. "Shit. Now what?" She’d fallen asleep with her Palm Tungsten T3 in her hand. It would take only a moment to smash it against the wall and shove the battery up the nose of whoever was out there annoying her. She went to the door.

“I know you’re home,” he said.

Kalle fucking Blomkvist.

She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe.

Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Et cetera.

“Please,” he said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.”

He was cradling an iBook in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head.

“I can’t really go on without an umlaut,” he said. “We’re in Sweden.”

But where in Sweden were they? There was no way to know, especially if you’d never been to Sweden. A few chapters ago, for example, an unscrupulous agent from Swedish Intelligence had tailed Blomkvist by taking Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm, and then driving down Hornsgatan and across Bellmansgatan via Brännkyrkagatan, with a final left onto Tavastgatan. Who cared, but there it was, in black-and-white, taking up space. And now Blomkvist was standing in her doorway. Someone might still be following him—but who? There was no real way to be sure even when you found out, because people’s names were so confusingly similar—Gullberg, Sandberg, and Holmberg; Nieminen and Niedermann; and, worst of all, Jonasson, Mårtensson, Torkelsson, Fredriksson, Svensson, Johansson, Svantesson, Fransson, and Paulsson.

“I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?”

It was a compelling argument.

She opened the door.

He handed her the computer and went to make coffee on her Jura Impressa X7.

She tried to get the umlaut to work. No luck. She pinged Plague and explained the problem. Plague was fat, but he would know what to do, and he would tell her, in Courier typeface.

Where are you?


There’s an Apple Store at the intersection of Kungsgatan and Sveavägen. Or you could try a Q-tip.

She went to the bathroom and got a Q-tip and gently cleaned the area around the Alt key. It popped into place. Then she pressed “U.” An umlaut danced before her eyes.

Finally, she spoke.

“It’s fixed,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said.

She thought about smiling, but she’d smiled three hundred pages earlier, and once was enough. Ω

[Nora Ephron is an American film director, producer, screenwriter, novelist, journalist, author, and blogger. She is best known for her romantic comedies and is a triple nominee for the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay for "Silkwood," "When Harry Met Sally," and "Sleepless in Seattle." Ephron's most recent film is "Julie and Julia." Ephron graduated from Wellesley College and worked briefly as a White House intern in the Kennedy administration. Although Jewish by birth, Ephron is irreligious. "Because you can never have too much butter — that is my belief. If I have a religion, that's it," she told NPR in an interview about her 2009 movie, "Julie & Julia."]

Copyright © 2010 Condé Nast Digital

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Roll Over, Bill W.! Welcome To A Virtual Meeting!

Wow, thanks to brain science, we know that the synaptic plasticity in this blogger's mesolimbic pathway is impaired. Witness this blog, the Thirteenth Step for the poor soul slaving over a hot keyboard. If this is (fair & balanced) compulsive behavior, so be it.

[x Wired]
Secret Of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How It Works
By Brendan I. Koerner

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The church will be closed tomorrow, and the drunks are freaking out. An elderly lady in a prim white blouse has just delivered the bad news, with deep apologies: A major blizzard is scheduled to wallop Manhattan tonight, and up to a foot of snow will cover the ground by dawn. The church, located on the Upper West Side, can’t ask its staff to risk a dangerous commute. Unfortunately, that means it must cancel the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held daily in the basement.

A worried murmur ripples through the room. “Wha… what are we supposed to do?” asks a woman in her mid-twenties with smudged black eyeliner. She’s in rough shape, having emerged from a multiday alcohol-and-cocaine bender that morning. “The snow, it’s going to close everything,” she says, her cigarette-addled voice tinged with panic. “Everything!” She’s on the verge of tears.

A mustachioed man in skintight jeans stands and reads off the number for a hotline that provides up-to-the-minute meeting schedules. He assures his fellow alcoholics that some groups will still convene tomorrow despite the weather. Anyone who needs an AA fix will be able to get one, though it may require an icy trek across the city.

That won’t be a problem for a thickset man in a baggy beige sweat suit. “Doesn’t matter how much snow we get—a foot, 10 feet piled up in front of the door,” he says. “I will leave my apartment tomorrow and go find a meeting.”

He clasps his hands together and draws them to his heart: “You understand me? I need this.” Daily meetings, the man says, are all that prevent him from winding up dead in the gutter, shoes gone because he sold them for booze or crack. And he hasn’t had a drink in more than a decade.

The resolve is striking, though not entirely surprising. AA has been inspiring this sort of ardent devotion for 75 years. It was in June 1935, amid the gloom of the Great Depression, that a failed stockbroker and reformed lush named Bill Wilson founded the organization after meeting God in a hospital room. He codified his method in the 12 steps, the rules at the heart of AA. Entirely lacking in medical training, Wilson created the steps by cribbing ideas from religion and philosophy, then massaging them into a pithy list with a structure inspired by the Bible.

The 200-word instruction set has since become the cornerstone of addiction treatment in this country, where an estimated 23 million people grapple with severe alcohol or drug abuse—more than twice the number of Americans afflicted with cancer. Some 1.2 million people belong to one of AA’s 55,000 meeting groups in the US, while countless others embark on the steps at one of the nation’s 11,000 professional treatment centers. Anyone who seeks help in curbing a drug or alcohol problem is bound to encounter Wilson’s system on the road to recovery.

It’s all quite an achievement for a onetime broken-down drunk. And Wilson’s success is even more impressive when you consider that AA and its steps have become ubiquitous despite the fact that no one is quite sure how—or, for that matter, how well—they work. The organization is notoriously difficult to study, thanks to its insistence on anonymity and its fluid membership. And AA’s method, which requires “surrender” to a vaguely defined “higher power,” involves the kind of spiritual revelations that neuroscientists have only begun to explore.

What we do know, however, is that despite all we’ve learned over the past few decades about psychology, neurology, and human behavior, contemporary medicine has yet to devise anything that works markedly better. “In my 20 years of treating addicts, I’ve never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps,” says Drew Pinsky, the addiction-medicine specialist who hosts VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. “In my world, if someone says they don’t want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren’t going to get better.”

Wilson may have operated on intuition, but somehow he managed to tap into mechanisms that counter the complex psychological and neurological processes through which addiction wreaks havoc. And while AA’s ability to accomplish this remarkable feat is not yet understood, modern research into behavior dynamics and neuroscience is beginning to provide some tantalizing clues.

One thing is certain, though: AA doesn’t work for everybody. In fact, it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people who try it. And understanding more about who it does help, and why, is likely our best shot at finally developing a system that improves on Wilson’s amateur scheme for living without the bottle.

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AA originated on the worst night of Bill Wilson’s life. It was December 14, 1934, and Wilson was drying out at Towns Hospital, a ritzy Manhattan detox center. He’d been there three times before, but he’d always returned to drinking soon after he was released. The 39-year-old had spent his entire adult life chasing the ecstasy he had felt upon tasting his first cocktail some 17 years earlier. That quest destroyed his career, landed him deeply in debt, and convinced doctors that he was destined for institutionalization.

Wilson had been quite a mess when he checked in the day before, so the attending physician, William Silkworth, subjected him to a detox regimen known as the Belladonna Cure—hourly infusions of a hallucinogenic drug made from a poisonous plant. The drug was coursing through Wilson’s system when he received a visit from an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who had recently found religion and given up alcohol. Thacher pleaded with Wilson to do likewise. “Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to God,” Thacher counseled his desperate friend. Wilson, a confirmed agnostic, gagged at the thought of asking a supernatural being for help.

But later, as he writhed in his hospital bed, still heavily under the influence of belladonna, Wilson decided to give God a try. “If there is a God, let Him show Himself!” he cried out. “I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

What happened next is an essential piece of AA lore: A white light filled Wilson’s hospital room, and God revealed himself to the shattered stockbroker. “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing,” he later said. “And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.” Wilson would never drink again.

At that time, the conventional wisdom was that alcoholics simply lacked moral fortitude. The best science could offer was detoxification with an array of purgatives, followed by earnest pleas for the drinker to think of his loved ones. When this approach failed, alcoholics were often consigned to bleak state hospitals. But having come back from the edge himself, Wilson refused to believe his fellow inebriates were hopeless. He resolved to save them by teaching them to surrender to God, exactly as Thacher had taught him.

Following Thacher’s lead, Wilson joined the Oxford Group, a Christian movement that was in vogue among wealthy mainstream Protestants. Headed by a an ex-YMCA missionary named Frank Buchman, who stirred controversy with his lavish lifestyle and attempts to convert Adolf Hitler, the Oxford Group combined religion with pop psychology, stressing that all people can achieve happiness through moral improvement. To help reach this goal, the organization’s members were encouraged to meet in private homes so they could study devotional literature together and share their inmost thoughts.

In May 1935, while on an extended business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson began attending Oxford Group meetings at the home of a local industrialist. It was through the group that he met a surgeon and closet alcoholic named Robert Smith. For weeks, Wilson urged the oft-soused doctor to admit that only God could eliminate his compulsion to drink. Finally, on June 10, 1935, Smith (known to millions today as Dr. Bob) gave in. The date of Dr. Bob’s surrender became the official founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In its earliest days, AA existed within the confines of the Oxford Group, offering special meetings for members who wished to end their dependence on alcohol. But Wilson and his followers quickly broke away, in large part because Wilson dreamed of creating a truly mass movement, not one confined to the elites Buchman targeted. To spread his message of salvation, Wilson started writing what would become AA’s sacred text: Alcoholics Anonymous, now better known as the Big Book.

The core of AA is found in chapter five, entitled “How It Works.” It is here that Wilson lists the 12 steps, which he first scrawled out in pencil in 1939. Wilson settled on the number 12 because there were 12 apostles.

In writing the steps, Wilson drew on the Oxford Group’s precepts and borrowed heavily from William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, which Wilson read shortly after his belladonna-fueled revelation at Towns Hospital. He was deeply affected by an observation that James made regarding alcoholism: that the only cure for the affliction is “religiomania.” The steps were thus designed to induce an intense commitment, because Wilson wanted his system to be every bit as habit-forming as booze.

The first steps famously ask members to admit their powerlessness over alcohol and to appeal to a higher power for help. Members are then required to enumerate their faults, share them with their meeting group, apologize to those they’ve wronged, and engage in regular prayer or meditation. Finally, the last step makes AA a lifelong duty: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” This requirement guarantees not only that current members will find new recruits but that they can never truly “graduate” from the program.

Aside from the steps, AA has one other cardinal rule: anonymity. Wilson was adamant that the anonymous component of AA be taken seriously, not because of the social stigma associated with alcoholism, but rather to protect the nascent organization from ridicule. He explained the logic in a letter to a friend:

[In the past], alcoholics who talked too much on public platforms were likely to become inflated and get drunk again. Our principle of anonymity, so far as the general public is concerned, partly corrects this difficulty by preventing any individual receiving a lot of newspaper or magazine publicity, then collapsing and discrediting AA.

AA boomed in the early 1940s, aided by a glowing Saturday Evening Post profile and the public admission by a Cleveland Indians catcher, Rollie Hemsley, that joining the organization had done wonders for his game. Wilson and the founding members were not quite prepared for the sudden success. “You had really crazy things going on,” says William L. White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. “Some AA groups were preparing to run AA hospitals, and there was this whole question of whether they should have paid AA missionaries. You even had some reports of AA groups drinking beers at their meetings.”

The growing pains spurred Wilson to write AA’s governing principles, known as the 12 traditions. At a time when fraternal orders and churches with strict hierarchies dominated American social life, Wilson opted for something revolutionary: deliberate organizational chaos. He permitted each group to set its own rules, as long as they didn’t conflict with the traditions or the steps. Charging a fee was forbidden, as was the use of the AA brand to endorse anything that might generate revenue. “If you look at this on paper, it seems like it could never work,” White says. “It’s basically anarchy.” But this loose structure actually helped AA flourish. Not only could anyone start an AA group at any time, but they could tailor each meeting to suit regional or local tastes. And by condemning itself to poverty, AA maintained a posture of moral legitimacy.

Despite the decision to forbid members from receiving pay for AA-related activity, it had no problem letting professional institutions integrate the 12 steps into their treatment programs. AA did not object when Hazelden, a Minnesota facility founded in 1947 as “a sanatorium for curable alcoholics of the professional class,” made the steps the foundation of its treatment model. Nor did AA try to stop the proliferation of steps-centered addiction groups from adopting the Anonymous name: Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous. No money ever changed hands—the steps essentially served as open source code that anyone was free to build upon, adding whatever features they wished. (Food Addicts Anonymous, for example, requires its members to weigh their meals.)

By the early 1950s, as AA membership reached 100,000, Wilson began to step back from his invention. Deeply depressed and an incorrigible chain smoker, he would go on to experiment with LSD before dying from emphysema in 1971. By that point, AA had become ingrained in American culture; even people who’d never touched a drop of liquor could name at least a few of the steps.

“For nearly 30 years, I have been saying Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective self-help group in the world,” advice columnist Ann Landers wrote in 1986. “The good accomplished by this fellowship is inestimable.... God bless AA.”

There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea. “These are questions we’ve been trying to answer for, golly, 30 or 40 years now,” says Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, California. “We can’t find anything that completely holds water.”

The problem is so vexing, in fact, that addiction professionals have largely accepted that AA itself will always be an enigma. But research in other fields—primarily behavior change and neurology—offers some insight into what exactly is happening in those church basements.

To begin with, there is evidence that a big part of AA’s effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: the power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually. The first to note this phenomenon was Joseph Pratt, a Boston physician who started organizing weekly meetings of tubercular patients in 1905. These groups were intended to teach members better health habits, but Pratt quickly realized they were also effective at lifting emotional spirits, by giving patients the chance to share their tales of hardship. (“In a common disease, they have a bond,” he would later observe.) More than 70 years later, after a review of nearly 200 articles on group therapy, a pair of Stanford University researchers pinpointed why the approach works so well: “Members find the group to be a compelling emotional experience; they develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their acceptance and feedback.”

Researchers continue to be surprised by just how powerful this effect is. For example, a study published last year in the journal Behavior Therapy concluded that group therapy is highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder: 88.3 percent of the study’s subjects who underwent group therapy no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms after completing their sessions, versus just 31.3 percent of those who received minimal one-on-one interaction.

The importance of this is reflected by the fact that the more deeply AA members commit to the group, rather than just the program, the better they fare. According to J. Scott Tonigan, a research professor at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions, numerous studies show that AA members who become involved in activities like sponsorship—becoming a mentor to someone just starting out—are more likely to stay sober than those who simply attend meetings.

Addiction-medicine specialists often raise the concern that AA meetings aren’t led by professionals. But there is evidence that this may actually help foster a sense of intimacy between members, since the fundamental AA relationship is between fellow alcoholics rather than between alcoholics and the therapist. These close social bonds allow members to slowly learn how to connect to others without the lubricating effects of alcohol. In a study published last year in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, Tonigan found that “participation in AA is associated with an increased sense of security, comfort, and mutuality in close relationships.”

And close relationships, it turns out, have an even more profound effect on us than previously thought. A 2007 study of a Boston-area community, for example, found that a person’s odds of becoming obese increase by 71 percent if they have a same-sex friend who is also obese. (Wired covered the study in more detail in “The Buddy System,” issue 17.10.) And in April, a paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that a person is 50 percent more likely to be a heavy drinker if a friend or relative is a boozehound. Even if an alcoholic’s nonsober friends are outwardly supportive, simply being around people for whom drinking remains the norm can nudge someone into relapse. It is much safer to become immersed in AA’s culture, where activities such as studying the Big Book supplant hanging out with old acquaintances who tipple.

As for the steps themselves, there is evidence that the act of public confession—enshrined in the fifth step—plays an especially crucial role in the recovery process. When AA members stand up and share their emotionally searing tales of lost weekends, ruined relationships, and other liquor-fueled low points, they develop new levels of self-awareness. And that process may help reinvigorate the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is gravely weakened by alcohol abuse.

To understand the prefrontal cortex’s role in both addiction and recovery, you first need to understand how alcohol affects the brain. Booze works its magic in an area called the mesolimbic pathway—the reward system. When we experience something pleasurable, like a fine meal or good sex, this pathway squirts out dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates a feeling of bliss. This is how we learn to pursue behaviors that benefit us, our families, and our species.

When alcohol hits the mesolimbic pathway, it triggers the rapid release of dopamine, thereby creating a pleasurable high. For most people, that buzz simply isn’t momentous enough to become the focal point of their lives. Or if it is, they are able to control their desire to chase it with reckless abandon. But others aren’t so fortunate: Whether by virtue of genes that make them unusually sensitive to dopamine’s effects, or circumstances that lead them to seek chemical solace, they cannot resist the siren call of booze.

Once an alcoholic starts drinking heavily, the mesolimbic pathway responds by cutting down its production of dopamine. Alcohol also messes with the balance between two other neurotransmitters: GABA and glutamate. Alcohol spurs the release of more GABA, which inhibits neural activity, and clamps down on glutamate, which stimulates the brain. Combined with a shortage of dopamine, this makes the reward system increasingly lethargic, so it becomes harder and harder to rouse into action. That’s why long-term boozers must knock back seven or eight whiskeys just to feel “normal.” And why little else in life brings hardcore alcoholics pleasure of any kind.

As dependence grows, alcoholics also lose the ability to properly regulate their behavior. This regulation is the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex, which is charged with keeping the rest of the brain apprised of the consequences of harmful actions. But mind-altering substances slowly rob the cortex of so-called synaptic plasticity, which makes it harder for neurons to communicate with one another. When this happens, alcoholics become less likely to stop drinking, since their prefrontal cortex cannot effectively warn of the dangers of bad habits.

This is why even though some people may be fully cognizant of the problems that result from drinking, they don’t do anything to avoid them. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, my family is falling apart, I’ve been arrested twice,’” says Peter Kalivas, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “They can list all of these negative consequences, but they can’t take that information and manhandle their habits.”

The loss of synaptic plasticity is thought to be a major reason why more than 90 percent of recovering alcoholics relapse at some point. The newly sober are constantly bombarded with sensory cues that their brain associates with their pleasurable habit. Because the synapses in their prefrontal cortex are still damaged, they have a tough time resisting the urges created by these triggers. Any small reminder of their former life—the scent of stale beer, the clink of toasting glasses—is enough to knock them off the wagon.

AA, it seems, helps neutralize the power of these sensory cues by whipping the prefrontal cortex back into shape. Publicly revealing one’s deepest flaws and hearing others do likewise forces a person to confront the terrible consequences of their alcoholism—something that is very difficult to do all alone. This, in turn, prods the impaired prefrontal cortex into resuming its regulatory mission. “The brain is designed to respond to experiences,” says Steven Grant, chief of the clinical neuroscience branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “I have no doubt that these therapeutic processes change the brain.” And the more that critical part of the brain is compelled to operate as designed, the more it springs back to its pre-addiction state. While it’s on the mend, AA functions as a temporary replacement—a prefrontal cortex made up of a cast of fellow drunks in a church basement, rather than neurons and synapses.

Finally, the 12 steps address another major risk factor for relapse: stress. Recovering alcoholics are often burdened by memories of the nasty things they did while wasted. When they bump into old acquaintances they mistreated, the guilt can become overwhelming. The resulting stress causes their brains to secrete a hormone that releases corticotropin, which has been shown to cause relapse in alcohol-dependent lab rats.

AA addresses this risk with the eighth and ninth steps, which require alcoholics to make amends to people they’ve wronged. This can alleviate feelings of guilt and in turn limit the stress that may undermine a person’s fragile sobriety.

Bill W., as Wilson is known today, didn’t know the first thing about corticotropin-releasing hormone or the prefrontal cortex, of course. His only aim was to harness spirituality in the hopes of giving fellow alcoholics the strength to overcome their disease. But in developing a system to lead drunks to God, he accidentally created something that deeply affects the brain—a system that has now lasted for three-quarters of a century and shows no signs of disappearing.

But how effective is AA? That seemingly simple question has proven maddeningly hard to answer. Ask an addiction researcher a straightforward question about AA’s success rate and you’ll invariably get a distressingly vague answer. Despite thousands of studies conducted over the decades, no one has yet satisfactorily explained why some succeed in AA while others don’t, or even what percentage of alcoholics who try the steps will eventually become sober as a result.

A big part of the problem, of course, is AA’s strict anonymity policy, which makes it difficult for researchers to track members over months and years. It is also challenging to collect data from chronic substance abusers, a population that’s prone to lying. But researchers are most stymied by the fact that AA’s efficacy cannot be tested in a randomized experiment, the scientific gold standard.

“If you try to randomly assign people to AA, you have a problem, because AA is free and is available all over the place,” says Alcohol Research Group’s Kaskutas. “Plus, some people will just hate it, and you can’t force them to keep going.” In other words, given the organization’s open-door membership policy, it would be nearly impossible for researchers to prevent people in a control group from sneaking off to an AA meeting and thereby tainting the data. On the other hand, many subjects would inevitably loathe AA and drop out of the study altogether.

Another research quandary is how to account for the selection effect. AA is known for doing a better job of retaining drinkers who’ve hit rock bottom than those who still have a ways to fall. But having totally destroyed their lives, the most desperate alcoholics may already be committed to sobriety before ever setting foot inside a church basement. If so, it might be their personal commitment, rather than AA, that is ultimately responsible for their ability to quit.

As a result of these complications, AA research tends to come to wildly divergent conclusions, often depending on an investigator’s biases. The group’s “cure rate” has been estimated at anywhere from 75 percent to 5 percent, extremes that seem far-fetched. Even the most widely cited (and carefully conducted) studies are often marred by obvious flaws. A 1999 meta-analysis of 21 existing studies, for example, concluded that AA members actually fared worse than drinkers who received no treatment at all. The authors acknowledged, however, that many of the subjects were coerced into attending AA by court order. Such forced attendees have little shot at benefiting from any sort of therapy—it’s widely agreed that a sincere desire to stop drinking is a mandatory prerequisite for getting sober.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that while AA is certainly no miracle cure, people who become deeply involved in the program usually do well over the long haul. In a 2006 study, for example, two Stanford psychiatrists chronicled the fates of 628 alcoholics they managed to track over a 16-year period. They concluded that subjects who attended AA meetings frequently were more likely to be sober than those who merely dabbled in the organization. The University of New Mexico’s Tonigan says the relationship between first-year attendance and long-term sobriety is small but valid: In the language of statistics, the correlation is around 0.3, which is right on the borderline between weak and modest (0 meaning no relationship, and 1.0 being a perfect one-to-one relationship).

“I’ve been involved in a couple of meta-analyses of AA, which collapse the findings across many studies,” Tonigan says. “They generally all come to the same conclusion, which is that AA is beneficial for many but not all individuals, and that the benefit is modest but significant … I think that is, scientifically speaking, a very valid statement.”

That statement is also supported by the results of a landmark study that examined how the steps perform when taught in clinical settings as opposed to church basements. Between 1989 and 1997, a multisite study called Project Match randomly assigned more than 1,700 alcoholics to one of three popular therapies used at professional treatment centers. The first was called 12-step facilitation, in which a licensed therapist guides patients through Bill Wilson’s method. The second was cognitive behavioral therapy, which trains alcoholics to identify the situations that spur them to drink, so they can avoid tempting circumstances. And the last was motivational enhancement therapy, a one-on-one interviewing process designed to sharpen a person’s reasons for getting sober.

Project Match ultimately concluded that all three of these therapies were more or less equally effective at reducing alcohol intake among subjects. But 12-step facilitation clearly beat the competition in two important respects: It was more effective for alcoholics without other psychiatric problems, and it did a better job of inspiring total abstinence as opposed to a mere reduction in drinking. The steps, in other words, actually worked slightly better than therapies of more recent vintage, which were devised by medical professionals rather than an alcoholic stockbroker.

AA is still far from ideal. The sad fact remains that the program’s failures vastly outnumber its success stories. According to Tonigan, upwards of 70 percent of people who pass through AA will never make it to their one-year anniversary, and relapse is common even among regular attendees. This raises an important question: Are there ways to improve Wilson’s aging system?

AA is obviously not about to overhaul its 75-year-old formula. But there are a few alterations that would almost certainly make the program work for more people, starting with better quality control. Since no central body regulates the day-to-day operations of local groups, some meetings are dominated by ornery old-timers who delight in belittling newcomers. Others are prowled by men looking to introduce nubile newcomers to the “13th step”—AA slang for sexual exploitation. Finding a way to impose some basic oversight of such bad behavior would likely reduce the dropout rate.

Some AA groups would also do well to shed their resistance to medication. There is nothing in the Big Book that forbids the use of prescription drugs, but there are plenty of meetings where such pharmaceutical aids are frowned upon. Perhaps this sentiment made sense back in AA’s formative years, when a variety of snake oils were touted as alcoholism cures. But today there are several medications that have been proven to decrease the odds of relapse. One such drug, acamprosate, restores a healthy balance between glutamate and GABA, two of the neurotransmitters that get out of whack in the brains of alcoholics. Naltrexone, commonly used to treat heroin addiction, appears effective at preventing relapse by alcoholics who possess a certain genetic variant related to an important mu-opioid receptor. Both can be valuable aids in the recovery process.

But the best way to bolster AA’s success rate may be to increase the personalization of addiction medicine. “We’re starting to get an inkling that something about the initial state of the brain prior to therapy may be predictive as to whether that therapy will be a success,” says Grant of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In other words, certain brains may be primed to respond well to some therapies and less so to others.

NIDA and other government agencies are currently funding several studies that aim to use neural imaging technology to observe how various therapies affect addicted brains. One alcoholic might have a mesolimbic pathway that normalizes quickly after receiving a certain type of therapy, for example, while another will still suffer from dopamine disregulation despite receiving the same care. The hope is that these studies will reveal whether neurobiology can be used to predict a person’s odds of benefitting from one treatment over another. Perhaps there is one sort of mind that is cut out for the cognitive behavioral approach and another that can be helped only by the 12 steps.

A person’s openness to the concept of spiritual rebirth, as determined by their neural makeup, could indicate whether they’ll embrace the steps. Last September, researchers from the National Institutes of Health found that people who claimed to enjoy “an intimate relationship with God” possess bigger-than-average right middle temporal cortices. And a Swedish study from 2003 suggests that people with fewer serotonin receptors may be more open to spiritual experiences.

For the moment, though, there is no way to predict who will be transformed by AA. And often, the people who become Wilson’s most passionate disciples are those you’d least expect. “I always thought I was too smart for AA,” a bespectacled, Nordic-looking man named Gary shared at a meeting in Hell’s Kitchen this past winter. “I’m a classical musician, a math and statistics geek. I was the biggest agnostic you ever met. But I just wrecked my life with alcohol and drugs and codependent relationships.”

And now, after more than four years in the program? “I know God exists,” he says. “I’m so happy I found AA.”

Maybe one day we’ll discover that there’s a quirk in Gary’s genetic makeup that made his prefrontal cortex particularly susceptible to the 12 steps. But all that really matters now is that he’s sober. Ω

[Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor for Wired magazine and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate magazine. He is a former fellow at the New America Foundation. Koerner is a graduate of Yale University and he has written Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II (2008).]

Copyright © 2010 Condé Nast Digital

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Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

-Lobster- Woodchuck Thermidor?

Tom Tomorrow has grown fangs in today's 'toon. However, the Lefties had best be careful about their wishes for the future if the POTUS (44) is a one-term wonder. Remember, you heard it here in this blog: On his worst day, the POTUS (44) is better than any Dumbo. Just think, The Dubster will be eligible for a draft after sitting out this term. If this is (fair & balanced) anti-Thermidoreanism, so be it.

[x Salon]
"This Modern World — Sensible Liberalism In The Age Of Obama"
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2010 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Answers To A Pair Of Questions Of The Day: #1 - Black #2 - White

As the day dawns on Elena Kagan's ordeal by Dumbos in the U.S. Senate, the NY Fishwrap offered a meditation on the changing ethnic face of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The Fishwrap's opinionator, Noah Feldman of the Harvard Law School, noted that his former Dean, Elena Kagan, would be traded for John Paul Stevens: a Jew for a Protestant, no cash involved. In his ethnic analysis, Feldman (also a Jew) adopts the old WASP-acronym coined or popularized by Andrew Hacker (1957), Erdman B. Palmore (1962), and E. Digby Baltzell (1964). Thanks to these three scholars we witness the redundancy of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

So, consider the questions of the day: #1 - What color options were available to Ford Model-T buyers between 1915 and 1925? As Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography: "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." So Model-T Fords (1915-1925) were monochromatic. Now, as to the second question, what skin-pigmentation was found among all Anglo-Saxon Protestants? The opposite of Model-T Fords (1915-1925) would be very light- or light-skinned English speakers of British Isles ancestry, commonly described as white. Thus, it is redundant to refer to Anglo-Saxon Protestants as white since Anglo-Saxon Protestants only came with a single skin-pigmentation, commonly termed white. With all due respect to Professors Hacker, Palmore, and Baltzell (and Feldman), their WASPs are more accurately ASPs. This blogger ought to know, because — thanks to good ol' U.S.-internarriage — he's a half-ASP and today's NY Fishwrap commentary should be entitled, "The Triumphant Decline Of The ASP." If this is (fair & balanced) self-hatred, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Triumphant Decline Of The WASP
By Noah Feldman

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Five years ago, the Supreme Court, like the United States, had a plurality of white Protestants. If Elena Kagan — whose confirmation hearings begin today — is confirmed, that number will be reduced to zero, and the court will consist of six Catholics and three Jews.

It is cause for celebration that no one much cares about the nominee’s religion. We are fortunate to have left behind the days when there was a so-called “Catholic seat” on the court, or when prominent Jews (including the publisher of this newspaper) urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 not to nominate Felix Frankfurter because they worried that having “too many” Jews on the court might fuel anti-Semitism.

But satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court. Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of The Sun Also Rises as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lipschitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated. Ω

[Noah Feldman is the Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of F.D.R.’s Great Supreme Court Justices. Feldman graduated from Harvard College and earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he earned a D.Phil in Islamic Thought. Upon his return from Oxford, he received his J.D. from Yale Law School.]

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Long War: The USA Is Exceptional — Exceptionally Stupid!

Unlike former general Stan (The Man Unusual) McChrystal or the POTUS (44), Professor Andrew Bacevich has paid the price of losing a son to The Long War (as it is known in Pentagon) — On May 13, 2007, Bacevich's son, also named Andrew J. Bacevich, was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device south of Samarra in Salah ad Din Governate. The younger Bacevich, 27, was a First Lieutenant assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. If this is (fair & balanced) outrage at monstrous folly, so be it.

[x Boston Review]
Americans Misperceive The World And Their Role In Determining Its Evolution’
By Andrew J. Bacevich

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created at

This article is a response to "Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan."

Nir Rosen is rightly skeptical of the counterinsurgency campaign the United States seems hellbent on pursuing in Afghanistan. Yet the problems highlighted by U.S. military action in that unfortunate country go much further: Americans misperceive the world and their own role in determining its evolution.

The bedrock assumption to which all of official Washington adheres, liberal Democrats no less than conservative Republicans, is that the United States itself constitutes the axis around which history turns. We define the future. Our actions determine its course. The world needs, expects, and yearns for America to lead, thereby ensuring the ultimate triumph of liberty. For the United States to shrink from its responsibility to lead is, at the very least, to put at risk the precarious stability to which humanity clings and in all likelihood would open the door to unspeakable catastrophe. Alternatives to American leadership simply do not exist.

Reject these propositions and your chances of working in the White House, securing a cushy billet at some Washington think tank, or landing an invitation to pontificate on one of the Sunday-morning talk shows are reduced to just about zero.

This self-image, combining grandeur with insufferable smugness, both energizes and perverts U.S. foreign policy. It inspires American policymakers to undertake breathtakingly bold initiatives such as the Marshall Plan—Harry Truman setting out to rebuild a Europe laid prostrate by war. Yet it also inspires the likes of George W. Bush to pursue his Freedom Agenda—an expressed intent to transform the entire Islamic world, providing a rationale for open-ended “global war.”

The conviction that the United States is history’s prime mover also blinds Washington to forces that may well exercise a far greater impact on the course of events than do the actions of the United States itself.

During the Cold War, for example, U.S. policymakers viewed events through the lens of bipolarity. The world, they insisted, broke neatly into two camps divided by an iron curtain. In the 1950s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that neutrality was immoral and impermissible. Governments had to choose: you either sided with the free world (led, of course, by the United States) or you aligned yourself with the communists.

This oversimplified with-us-or-against-us mentality made it difficult, if not impossible, for Dulles and other U.S. leaders to comprehend the eruption of third-world nationalism triggered by and feeding off of the collapse of the old European empires after World War II. In Washington “non-aligned” became a synonym for “fellow traveler.” Faced with expressions of self-determination that did not fit neatly into the prevailing East-West paradigm, U.S. officials assumed the worst and acted to enforce conformity to Western—i.e., American—requirements. This misperception—that self-professed nationalists in places such as Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam were actually agents of the Kremlin—produced a penchant for U.S. intervention, both overt and covert, that yielded disastrous consequences, many of them still dogging us today.

Had U.S. officials accurately gauged the wellsprings of postcolonial nationalism, the United States might have demonstrated greater self-restraint when faced with third-world recalcitrance. The insistence that Egypt’s Nasser or Cuba’s Castro toe some line dictated from Washington turned out to be neither necessary nor productive.

Yet appreciating the new nationalism might also have offered Washington an insight into the profound internal weakness of the multinational, multiethnic Soviet Empire. Poles, Afghans, and Chinese had no interest in taking their marching orders from Moscow. Nor, as events would show, did Ukrainians, Georgians, and Kazakhs. The post-1945 Soviet Empire was as obsolete as the empires of Great Britain and France. Its collapse was a bit longer in coming, but was equally foreordained.

A similar misperception afflicts U.S. policy today. In the wake of 9/11, a with-us-or-against-us mentality once again swept Washington. “Terrorism” assumed the place of communism as the great evil that the United States was called upon to extirpate. This effort triggered a revival of interventionism, pursued heedless of cost and regardless of consequences, whether practical or moral.

In the Pentagon, they call this the Long War. With his decision to escalate the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama—effectively abandoning his promise to “change the way Washington works”—has signaled his administration’s commitment to the Long War.

Yet, as with the Cold War, the Long War rests on a false premise. To divide the world into two camps today makes no more sense than it did in Dulles’s time. Rather than creating clarity, indulging in this sort of oversimplification sows confusion and encourages miscalculation. It allows Americans to avert their eyes from the gathering forces—largely beyond the control of the United States—that are actually reshaping the international order. Sending U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan sustains the pretense that we ourselves, exercising the prerogatives of global leadership, are somehow shaping that order.

Violent anti-Western jihadism—a cause that has about as much prospect of conquering the planet as Soviet-style communism—is not going to define the 21st century. Far more likely to do so is the transfer of power—first economic, then political—from the West to the East, from the Atlantic basin to the heartland of Asia. In that regard, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops shipped to Afghanistan matter less than the hundreds of billions of American dollars shipped each year to China.

Complicating this transfer of power and creating conditions from which a new era of violent conflict may emerge is the challenge of dealing with the detritus created during the age of Western dominance now ending: weapons of mass destruction; vast disparities of wealth; the depletion of essential natural resources; massive and potentially irreversible environmental devastation; and a culture ravaged by the pursuit of “freedom” defined in terms of conspicuous consumption and unbridled individual autonomy.

The Long War that President Bush began and that President Obama has now made his own provides an excuse for Americans to avoid confronting these larger matters. A policy of avoidance will not make the problems go away, of course. It will merely advance the day of reckoning that awaits. Ω

[Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations and history at Boston University. Bacevich graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Vietnam from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971. Afterwards he held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in diplomatic history from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. His latest book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is forthcoming in August 2010.]

Copyright © 2010 Boston Review and its authors

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Our Praetorian Guard?

The Great Wikipedia teaches us that the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Republic and Empire

...has become synonymous with intrigue, conspiracy, disloyalty and assassination, it could be argued that for the first two centuries of its existence the Praetorian Guard was, on the whole, a positive force in the Roman state. During this time it mostly removed (or allowed the removal of) cruel, weak, and unpopular emperors while generally supporting just, strong, and popular ones. By protecting these monarchs, thus extending their reigns, and also by keeping the disorders of the mobs of Rome and the intrigues of the Senate in line, the Guard helped give the empire a much needed stability that contributed to the period known as the Pax Romana.

Only after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, when this period is generally considered to have ended, did the guard begin to deteriorate into the ruthless, mercenary and meddling force that has become infamous. However, during the Severan dynasty and afterwards during the Crisis of the Third Century, the legions, the Senate, and the emperorship along with the rest of Roman government were falling into decadence and decline as well.

In 2012, will we see the presidential candidacy of Stan (The Man Unusual) McChrystal? This former general easily could become a Dumbo/Tea Party pinup boy. In a blast from the past (2004), Lawrence Kaplan portrayed retired generals and admirals of our post-Vietanm (all-volunteer) military as having the potential to be a "ruthless, mercenary, and meddling force" in the land o'the free and the home o'the brave. If this is (fair & balanced) distrust — learned at this blogger's maternal grandmother's knee and other low joints — of a military caste in government, so be it.

[x TNR]
Officer Politics
By Lawrence F. Kaplan

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Merrill "Tony" McPeak doesn't like George W. Bush. But it's more than that. McPeak has contempt for the president, which he freely expresses. Speaking from his home in Oregon, the John Kerry partisan describes Bush in terms usually employed by the likes of "Not even his best friends would accuse this president of having ideas," McPeak says. Mild stuff in the age of Michael Moore. Except that McPeak's first name is General.

The former Air Force chief of staff is not the only general describing the president in such vivid terms. On behalf of the Kerry campaign, an entire phalanx of generals — McPeak, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili, former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe Wesley Clark, Army Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, and a parade of eight others that the Kerry campaign set loose at the martial-themed Democratic convention in July — has taken to the airwaves in what a Kerry press release trumpets as an "unprecedented display of support from the military establishment." They've been touting Kerry's war record, and the president's lack of one, ever since.

This week, the Bush team responded in kind, boasting of 100 admirals and generals who have endorsed the president. And, though the Democratic convention had to make do with an address by the mild-mannered Shalikashvili, Republicans gathered in New York were treated to the folksy Texas wisdom of Army General Tommy Franks, fresh from invading Afghanistan and Iraq and barely out of uniform. Like Kerry's generals, Bush's generals — who include former Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogelman, former Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley, and Medal of Honor recipient Army General Pat Brady — won't confine themselves to touting the martial prowess of their chosen candidate. They'll also tear his opponent to pieces.

Thus begins a quadrennial ritual, in which the two campaigns vie to squeeze as many generals as possible onto their convention podiums and into our TV sets. And this year, the competition is fiercer than ever. "It really tells you something about John Kerry," says one of his aides, "that so many high-ranking officers would line up behind him." Not so, says Brady. "There are a miniscule number of general officers supporting Kerry," he says, "and I've talked to three times that number who support Bush." During a presidential contest in which both sides have embraced militarism as a campaign theme, such statements may not seem particularly notable. Over the long term, however, showcasing generals in the political arena harms both the services and the civilians who must control them.

Until a decade ago, the practice of senior officers endorsing politicians was virtually unheard of. True, from Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight Eisenhower, the United States boasts a long tradition of generals endorsing themselves. But, when a general runs for president, he openly presents himself as a partisan. Absent is any pretense of neutrality and, hence, any room to create the impression that, because a retired officer endorses candidate X, that candidate enjoys the unanimous support of the military establishment. In fact, in his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State, Samuel R. Huntington estimated that, in the period following the rise of a professional officer class during the Civil War, not one in 500 officers even cast a ballot. Nearly a century later, General George C. Marshall refused to vote while on active duty, making no secret of his rigid neutrality. Rather, the principle of subordination to civilian control and nonpartisanship at the heart of American military professionalism encouraged retired officers to follow the lead of General Omar Bradley, who opted to "hold my tongue and keep my name out of the papers." This nonpartisan ethos began to erode after Vietnam, with the advent of the all-volunteer — and, because of self-selection, increasingly conservative — force, which embraced, and was embraced by, a GOP that billed itself as the defender of the military.

This mutual admiration intensified during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, but the clearest evidence that partisanship had infected even the most senior generals came, oddly enough, in the form of a Democratic endorsement. In 1992, Bill Clinton persuaded former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe to support him publicly during the height of the controversy over whether Clinton had avoided the Vietnam draft. (Crowe was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Great Britain.) Picking up where Clinton left off, Bush rolled out the endorsement of no less than 27 flag-rank officers in 2000, prompting an Al Gore aide to remark to The New York Times, "This is the kind of thing you see in the Third World — all these generals lining up behind politicians." Today, by contrast, neither Bush nor Kerry share Gore's compunctions. While Bush has continued collecting generals, Kerry, too, has been wooing them for over a year — in green rooms, dinners at his Georgetown mansion, and phone calls from the candidate and his national security adviser, Rand Beers. Nor did Kerry's quest end with the Democratic convention: he continues to solicit endorsements from the brass culled from lists of officers put together by his own generals.

For their part, many generals say that, while they would prefer to remain nonpartisan, today the stakes are too great to remain silent. In fact, retired generals in both the Bush and Kerry camps agree on two points. First, that active-duty officers have no right to engage in partisan political activity; and second, that they themselves have every right to do so. Even Christman, a former superintendent of West Point, sees no harm in offering his endorsement to Kerry. "There's a clear red line between officers on active duty and retired officers," Christman says. "But, after retirement, there is no reason we cannot participate in the political process." Echoing this assessment, Brady says, "The idea that a retired general officer loses his citizenship is insane."

But the issue isn't sanity; it's propriety. To begin with, the line distinguishing retired generals from active-duty generals isn't so clear, and the campaigns have done their best to blur it. As Richard Kohn, the nation's preeminent scholar of civil-military relations, puts it, "Those in the know understand that four-stars never really 'retire' but, like princes of the church, embody the core culture, and, because of their experience and diversity, collectively represent the military community as authoritatively as the active-duty leadership." Whether shuttling back and forth to the Pentagon offices of their protégés, consulting for the Pentagon, or sitting on the boards of military contractors, in name and influence, they remain generals for life. Yet, the retired generals insist it is self-evident that they speak for themselves, not the establishment that made them. Thus, in response to an op-ed earlier this month in which military historian Eliot Cohen criticized the retired generals, Shalikashvili wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal objecting that officers "have spoken as individuals, rather than for the military institution." But, if so, why did the Kerry campaign bill Shalikashvili's endorsement as evidence of "unprecedented support from the military establishment?" And why did Shalikashvili open his speech to the Democratic convention with the caveat, "I do not stand here as a political figure. Rather, I stand here as an old soldier?" Retired Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor, who directed Harvard's National Security Program, sees through these explanations. "If these guys didn't have the name 'General,'" he says, "what value would they have? They're being exploited for their titles, and it politicizes the military."

The harm, indeed, accrues mostly to the military establishment on whose behalf the generals pretend to speak. When generals take to the hustings, politicians respond by treating the military as if it were an interest group like the AFL-CIO or the NAACP — a constituency to be coddled, as Republicans have done since the Reagan era, or ignored and treated with suspicion, the response of many Democratic legislators during the same period. The practice also exacts a price in public confidence. "The military, along with the Supreme Court, is the most respected public institution because it is viewed as nonpartisan," says Duke University's Christopher Gelpi, co-author of the new book Choosing Your Battles: Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force. "When the public views the military as a special interest out for pork, as it certainly has done before, it distrusts the military like any other lobbyist."

Nor is the problem solved when both parties compete for the affections of generals. If the pattern of senior officers retiring and endorsing candidates becomes the norm, it won't be long before generals find themselves promoted on the basis of political affiliation rather than expertise. What president, after all, would want advice from an officer who, a year from now, might be denouncing him on The Today Show? (The Clinton team didn't; in at least one instance, it asked a candidate for promotion what party he belonged to.) Politicization, then, creates the danger that presidents will end up with yes-men rather than military professionals, a phenomenon whose downsides became famously apparent when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor surrendered his critical faculties during the run-up to the war in Vietnam.

The politicization also may have a longer-term pernicious effect. There is a reason—beyond the Constitution — that political neutrality and military professionalism go hand in hand: As the nonpartisan ethos of the Armed Forces weakens, so, too, can traditional measures of military effectiveness. "Politicization erodes the cohesion, morale, and professional dedication of the officer corps," says Kohn, who points to a hemorrhage of officers during the Clinton era as evidence of what follows when the military adopts partisan views and expectations. And it has: According to a survey taken by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies before the 2000 election, 64 percent of officers identify with the Republican Party, twice the percentage who did two decades before, and only 8 percent list themselves as Democrats. Given recent history, this may stand to reason. But, now more than ever, the Armed Forces need to be able to retain officers, maintain morale, and operate effectively, regardless of the party in the White House.

Alas, having called the generals out of retirement, the politicians may find they won't easily go back to the barracks. By inviting senior officers into the political arena, Kerry and Bush have sent a message that it is legitimate for the officer corps to take sides on politically charged issues. It is a message that needs no encouragement. Asked about the propriety of retired flag officers endorsing political candidates, Christman rightly notes that it has been over two centuries since the threat of a coup hung over the republic. But the danger isn't as dramatic as a coup: it is that the military may gain undue influence over decisions that, properly understood, remain the exclusive property of civilians. During the '90s, the Armed Services swelled with such contempt for their civilian superiors that service chiefs had to admonish subordinates to behave themselves in front of the commander-in-chief; at the top, the same chiefs publicly opposed White House policy on issues ranging from gays in the military to U.S. intervention in Bosnia. Asking generals to vet our presidential candidates simply encourages more of the same.

The campaigns, filled as they are with P.R. specialists and Ivy League interns who view military officers as anthropological totems, do not understand the implications of their own actions. But do the generals? In Boston for the Democratic convention, Wesley Clark insisted that former military officers "have an obligation at this time in our nation's history to speak up and be heard." No, they don't. Ω

[Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he is currently a Merrill Fellow in Strategic Studies.]

Copyright © 2004 The New Republic

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