Category: Online

Jon Stewart’s Never-Neverland

When the going gets tough, the tough get ironic
Published at CJR.org

The first irony of the major outlets’ prohibiting their employees from attending this weekend’s Stewart/Colbert rally is that their effort to preserve impartiality was, in fact, an admission of bias. Unless I missed the memo, no such edicts preceded Glenn Beck’s event in August, probably because it never occurred to anyone that legions of reporters would want to take part in a conservative faithapalooza on the spot where Martin Luther King once stood.

The New York Times went to great lengths to draw the event as “a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician,” but that wasn’t the rally I saw. Indeed, the second irony of the ban on journalist participation is that Stewart’s fake rally was truly apolitical, even anti-political. (This is in contrast to Beck, who presented an indisputably political rally keynoted by a politician, Sarah Palin, while straight-up lying that the event was “not about politics.”) The only specified target of the performers’ ire was cable news, and everyone already knows radio and print journalists don’t think anything on television can be called journalism. It was left-leaning only in its satirical disdain for right-wing hyperbole. This irony may be a political critique, but its overall effect is to promote a juvenile political disengagement.

While it may be heartening to progressives that Stewart’s turnout walloped Beck’s, they should be deeply concerned about the event’s message to the people the movement must rely on to advance the causes it cares about. By relentlessly parodying the divisive tone of political debate without offering an alternative model for politicking, the event’s net effect is to make walking away from the political process seem like a rational decision. Or, even worse, a principled one. Continue reading

Information Overload?

HealthCare.gov and the challenge of making health-care data useful to consumers.

Originally published at Newsweek.com.

Even before health-care-reform measures mandating the largest changes to the industry go into effect, the Obama administration is hoping a little sunshine will start clearing up our confusing and fragmented system. On June 30, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled HealthCare.gov, a site designed to provide information about health insurers and providers so Americans can make better health-care decisions and create a market incentive for offering better care at lower cost. “HealthCare.gov helps consumers take control of their health care and make the choices that are right for them, by putting the power of information at their fingertips,” Sebelius said in a statement. But how much information is too much?

More information is definitely needed. Patients have little data about their options in the current system, which leads them to make decisions about their care that do not always make them healthier and often cost them—and the insurance system—more than it should. Though various government agencies already collect a range of data on providers, it is often inaccessible to the public. Private insurers have been able to keep information about their practices hermetically sealed. The hope is that educating Americans to become better health-care consumers will create market pressures to provide high-quality care and bring down costs.

The current tools, while a step in the right direction, underscore the challenge of providing medical information to citizens who don’t have specialized health-care knowledge. Continue reading

Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Originally published in Religion Dispatches.

Aronoff reading at torah dedication. Picture by J. Lester Feder

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith? Continue reading

An Americana Girl

What does Chely Wright’s changing musical style say about the state of country music?

Published at Newsweek.com.

This week, singer Chely Wright will come out not just once, but twice. The musician who had country-radio hits a few years back, including “Single White Female” and the pro-military “Bumper of My SUV,” reveals to People magazine that she is a lesbian. This announcement coincides with the release of her first album in five years, Lifted Off the Ground. The album is a coming out of a second kind: a quick listen makes clear that she is breaking from country music as defined by mainstream country radio and instead casting her lot in the genre known as Americana.

Americana—also known as alternative-country—is now roughly two decades old, and it remains a delightfully ill-defined sound. No Depression magazine, the leading publication for the genre, long described itself as covering “alternative-country music (whatever that is).” Today, Americana is home to bluegrassers (and sometimes bluesmen) who reach hipster audiences, country singers popular in the 1970s who have been left behind by country radio, and singer-songwriters too idiosyncratic for the cookie-cutter hits churned out by the Nashville factory system. But some artists have sought refuge in Americana primarily because Nashville became politically uncomfortable. The Dixie Chicks are the most notable act in this camp: always a little heavy on the mandolin and Patty Griffin covers that are at home in alt-country, they would have likely remained the queens of country radio were it not for an offhand quip against the Iraq War in 2003 that instantly got them effectively banned from the mainstream country airwaves.

If Americana is a refugee camp for political liberals in Music City, it is ironic that the genre’s political impulse has evolved much the way mainstream country’s did. Continue reading

Mysteries of the Flu

Influenza is a common virus with a long history. Then why do we know so little about it?

Published at Newsweek.com.

There is a joke among flu researchers: “If you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen…one flu season.” The translation, for those not up on epidemiological humor: the joke is wry commentary on the unpredictable nature of the flu virus. Every year it looks different, and every strain follows its own pattern. This is not just a quirk that frustrates scientists—it’s the reason new strains like H1N1 are impossible to anticipate and fully prepare for.

“I know less about influenza today than I did 10 years ago,” quips Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Minnesota Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance and a former adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Every stone we’ve turned over, we get more questions than we do answers.”

The flu returns every season and the world periodically experiences catastrophic pandemics, but epidemiologists still do not understand why some strains evolve to infect people and others do not; they are not entirely sure about how the flu is transmitted; nor do they understand why some patients become fatally ill while others develop minimal symptoms. As a result, when a new strain shows up—like H1N1—they often have little information to fall back on, and the lessons of previous pandemics are only somewhat helpful. While epidemiologists are still putting together a complete picture of H1N1, for example, its most striking difference with the seasonal flu is that the elderly are not the most vulnerable population. And when H1N1 does cause serious illness, patients develop different complications (that are more difficult to treat) than those with seasonal flu. “It’s a very different death,” says Osterholm. Continue reading

Hand-Washing Won’t Stop H1N1

It’s become conventional wisdom that simple soap and water can protect against the flu, but the science suggests otherwise.

Published at Newsweek.com.

In a speech to schoolchildren last week that had some conservative opponents up in arms, President Obama delivered at least one line that seemed incontestable: “I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.” The Disney corporation is now marketing Musical Hand Wash Timers featuring characters like the Little Mermaid, and encouraging parents to “take precaution against swine flu” by teaching children to wash their hands correctly. “Studies prove that regular hand-washing dramatically reduces the spread of infection,” says the Disney Web page, which links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site.

Thanks in part to this and other campaigns run by the CDC, it has become conventional wisdom that hand-washing is the best way to protect yourself from the H1N1 strain of influenza. But while hand-washing has been shown to be a great defense against the common cold and other respiratory diseases, it might not actually be that helpful against the influenza virus, including the H1N1 strain.

That’s because there is virtually no evidence that people can catch the influenza virus from germs that they pick up on their hands, according to Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, and codirector of the CDC-funded California Emerging Infections Program. Instead, humans are most likely to catch influenza by breathing in microscopic particles exhaled by infected people. Continue reading

Echoes of Kennedy’s Battle With Nixon in Health-Care Debate

This originally appeared at Newsweek.com.

It must pain those fond of Senator Ted Kennedy that his death comes just when the current health-reform effort is threatened by the same kind of attacks that tanked previous efforts. In fact, the Obama health-reform package Kennedy supported in his last days is similar to one Kennedy helped defeat when proposed by President Richard Nixon. If anything, the Obama plan is more conservative. Nixon would have mandated that all employers offer coverage to their employees, while creating a subsidized government insurance program for all Americans that employer coverage did not reach. It would take a miracle to pass such a plan today—a public insurance plan and an employer mandate are two provisions of the proposals now in Congress that are most in doubt.

But Kennedy helped kill Nixon’s proposal not only because he preferred a government insurance option for everyone, but because he believed it was politically achievable. Medicare, the government program for the elderly, was then only nine years old, enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to expand the social safety net. Liberals hoped this would be a first step toward a national health-insurance program that the next Democratic president could enact. That victory seemed around the corner—Nixon proposed his plan in 1974, while embattled in the Watergate scandal. Continue reading