I’m gonna set your flag on fire

19 08 2013

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

I wasn’t clear in defining “punishment”, nor in distinguishing that undefined punishment from a beat-down from one’s political opponents.

The ultimate punishment (for an incumbent) is, of course, to be tossed from office, and is the standard for any other concerns about punishment. For example, falling poll numbers might invite either a primary challenge or a better-quality challenger from the other party, which could result in losing one’s seat. Similarly, a beat-down from a political adversary could lead to softening poll numbers, which, in turn, lead challengers to believe the incumbent is vulnerable.

I also wasn’t clear in distinguishing between fear of losing one’s seat from fear of being hammered for an allegedly weak response. As with the issue of punishment, the fear of hammering is a second-order fear linked to the primary fear of election loss.

The difficulty for the incumbent representative or senator, or for either the incumbent or possible presidential candidate, is discerning whether one will be considered weak if one counsels a less-aggressive stance as well as whether one would be able to fend off any attacks in ways that, if they do not strengthen one’s candidacy, do not appreciably weaken it. In the United States, DO SOMETHING!!! is the default mode in response to provocation, so in the absence of other cues, taking a highly aggressive stance is likely the safest tactic.

There are other factors, of course. Pressure from party leaders and threats to withhold campaign funds or boot a member off a favorable committee can steer a wavering politician toward aggression. A sustained media assault can also erode one’s resistance.

Finally, the politician might truly believe that the most aggressive response is, in fact, the correct one, and as such, acts in accordance with his or her principles in voting for aggression.

Now, as to my hypothesis that the supposed problem with a softer response is actually a problem with an unclear response, well, because elections are rarely about one thing and one thing only, this is tough to test.

Russ Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act and laid out his reasons for doing so, and he lost his re-election; however, he had always had tough races, and lost his bid in the 2010 Tea Party surge. Rep. Ron Paul counseled and Senator Rand Paul counsel non-intervention; the father repeatedly won re-election and the son is popular enough with the base of the Kentucky Republican Party that Mitch McConnell is looking to him in his tough re-election bid. Yet it’s also clear that Rand Paul’s non-interventionism runs into strong opposition within his own party, and while he might be able to ensconce himself in his senate seat for decades to come, it might limit his appeal as a presidential candidate in the Republican primaries.

So, no clear lesson.

Except: to the extent that there is no clear lesson regarding the necessity of the most aggressive response, it is just possible that a sitting politician or a presidential candidate who strongly believes in a less-aggressive/non-interventionist approach could effectively inoculate him or herself against charges of being “soft on terrorism/crime” by crafting a strong and clear alternative and selling it as the most effective way of dealing with the problem.





Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

18 03 2013

Oh that Rand Paul, champion of liberty! Look how he’s standing up for freedom now:

“The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward,” Paul said in a statement. “ The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.”

Ahh, conceptional personhood: An idea utterly lacking in biological sense.

Charlie Pierce has the right idea regarding the Paul family: His Five Minute Rule  states that, for five minutes, both the son and the father, Crazy Uncle Liberty (!), make perfect sense on many issues. At the 5:00:01 mark, however, the trolley inevitably departs the tracks.

As Pierce notes, with this we are at the 5:00: 07 mark: The trolley has jumped the tracks, tipped over on its side, and is skidding down the boulevard.

I believe I have covered this before, but let’s go over this again, shall we?

There is no such thing as the “moment of conception”.

As Moore and Persaud note in the 6th edition of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology:

Fertilization is a complex series of “coordinated molecular events (see Acosta, 1994 for details) that begins with the contact between the sperm and a oocyte and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote, a unicellular embryo. Defects at any stage in the sequence of these events might cause the zygote to die (Asch et al, 1995). . . . The fertilization process takes about 24 hours. [p. 34, emph added]

“Process”, Senator Paul, not “moment”. Shall we break it down even further?

  • Passage of sperm through corona radiata surrounding the the zona pellucida of an oocyte.
  • Penetration of the zona pellucida surrounding the oocyte
  • Fusion of plasma membranes of the oocyte and sperm
  • Completion of the second meiotic division of oocyte and formation of female pronucleus
  • Formation of male pronucleus
  • Membranes of pronuclei break down, the chromosomes condense and become arranged for a mitotic cell division—the first cleavage division [pp. 34-36]

There are many more details involved in those stages, but the highlights ought to be enough.

At this point, the zygote is still in the ampulla [middle portion] of the fallopian tube, ambling its way toward the uterus. Beginning around 30 hours post-fertilization, it undergoes a series of mitotic or cleavage divisions, in which the internal cells (blastomeres) divide and become successively smaller. “After the nine-cell stage, the blastomeres change their shape and tightly align themselves against each other to form a compact ball of cells. . . . When there are 12 to 14 blastomeres, the developing human is called a morula (L. morus, mulberry).”  The morula forms about 3 days post-fert, and enters the uterus 3-4 days post-fert. [p. 41]

Okay, 4 days in and the mulberry is still wandering around, unattached, developing away. A fluid filled space called the blastocyst cavity or blastocoel forms, which separates the blastomeres into two parts:

  • a thin outer cell layer called the trophoblast, which gives rise to the embryonic part of the placenta
  • a group of centrally located blastomeres known as the inner cell mass, which gives rise to the embryo [p. 41]

At this point the berry becomes a blastocyst. (FYI: If you are an embryonic stem cell researcher, this is when you’d harvest the inner cell mass in order to cultivate stem cell lines. The blastocyst would, of course, be destroyed in the process.)

The blastocyst continues to float around in “uterine secretions” for a couple of days as “the zona pellucida gradually degenerates and disappears”. [p. 41] With the dissolution of the zona pellucida, the blastocyst is free to bulk up on those tasty secretions, until around day 6 post-fert, when it attaches itself to the endometrial epithelium.

All hell breaks loose now, as the trohoblast differentiates itself and its outer layer, the syncytiotrophoblast, insinuates itself into the endometrial epithelium and into the connective tissue, or stroma. “The highly invasive syncytiotrophoblast expands quickly adjacent to the inner cell mass, the area known as the embryonic pole. The syncytiotrophoblast produces enzymes that erode the maternal tissues, enabling the blastocyst to burrow into the endometrium.” [p. 42]

Although it takes another week for the embryo to implant itself fully into the endometrium and stroma—which further details I will spare you—this is the stage at which one could say a pregnancy begins.

Got it? One day for the process of fertilization, 6 days for sufficient development to begin a pregnancy, for a grand total of 7 days or one week.

Oh, and one more thing: Of all the zygote-morula-blastocysts formed, 25 percent wash out before implantation, and another 35-55 percent miscarry before birth. Only 20-40 percent of those berries results in a baby.

Anyway, if I wanted to be kind to the momentary conceptional folks, I could say that “conception” is achieved after 24 hours; if I wanted to be strict, I could say 7 days, and if I wanted to be a real bitch, I could argue that not until 14 days has the embryo done anything worth considering a “conception”. Even granting a kindness, it’s clear that the moment is, at its shortest, a day.

Why does this matter? After all, for many people who are pro-life, the issue is less the biology than the morality; that the conceptus takes awhile to get itself together does not obviate the fact that the process begins—that human life begins—when the sperm drills itself into the egg. The biology matters only because it is a trigger for something more, not in and of itself.

This, of course, is how you get bullshit proposals like personhood bills and amendments: by treating biology as a chit in the culture war rather than a reality on its own terms.

Human development is an amazing, complicated, and fraught process, one which does not comport itself easily to our moral preconceptions (sorry) about it. By all means, make a moral argument, but don’t pretend that biology tucks up neatly into it.

Senator Paul is free to believe all he wants “that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward”, but I am also free to point out it is a belief untethered to biological reality.

That trolley done run into nonsense.





On and on, on and on, on and on

7 03 2013

For all the problems with his mention of Lochner and his unconcern about the use of lethal and surveillance techs on non-US-citizens and  his multitude of other shitty positions. . .

Rand Paul, after ending his filibuster.           Charles Dharapak/AP

. . . Senator Rand Paul did a solid in filibustering since-confirmed CIA chief John Brennan on the issue of presidential authority over the use of drones against American citizens.

And fie on those Democrats who didn’t support him. President Obama has been dreadful on drones, and there is not a little justification for those who claim that many Dems* who screamed about power grabs by President Bush are rather aggressively silent when it’s their guy doing the grabbing.

I’m not surprised by this silence, mind you, but goddamn Democrats, do you have to be so disappointingly and opportunistically predictable?

(*It is not fair to go after leftists and liberals in general, as this is among a number of issues about which various libs, commies, and other malcontents have excoriated Obama and the Dems.)

I’m sympathetic to (my old grad school colleague) Sarah Binder’s concern that “In an age of intense policy and political differences between the parties, no corner of Senate business is immune to filibusters.” And she notes that Paul’s talking filibuster overshadowed the threat-filibuster of the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the DC Court of Appeals, which meant her nomination was blocked.

I was among those who, back when the Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, believed that the filibuster ought to be reformed; that the old asses of the Democratic leadership knocked back any chance of real reform at the beginning of this session is an ongoing irritation. I believe in effective and accountable government, and the way the filibuster has been all-too-often deployed hinders responsible government.

Still, if ever the filibuster were to be justified, this is it. Given the expansion of presidential power in the ever-expanding national security state—with the acquiescence of the majority of the members of Congress—Senator Paul’s willingness to take a stand on the matter of a presidential perogative to assassinate citizens ought to be applauded.

And so I do.