Wednesday, December 29, 2004


It’s really a heart-warming tale, a yarn perfect for the holidays. A right wing blogger and a left wing blogger find they can get along. And if two bloggers from opposite poles are able to beat their mother boards into plow shares, can world peace be far behind?

It started yesterday when semi-prominent conservative blogger Kevin McCullough posted a missive directed at left wing bloggers. Apparently the bloggers on the left didn’t care enough about the tsunami to suit Kevin’s tastes. He printed a little rundown of those who had avoided or barely touched the subject. One of the blogs Kevin singled out for not caring enough was the notorious Daily Kos.

In an odd twist, it fell to extremely prominent right-wing blogger Jim Geraghty to refute this nonsense. Geraghty pointed out that bloggers write about what captures their interests or strikes their fancy on a given day. In other words, they only say something when they actually have something to say. We’re not politicians who have to comment on the pressing matters of the day; that’s simply not our gig.

This display of non-partisanship and intellectual honesty touched Markos, the proprietor and main writer of Kos, and he dropped Jim a “nice note” to say thanks. In a post this morning, Geraghty mentioned the note, saluted the sudden outbreak of good feelings across the political spectrum and noted how completely McCullough was in error - Kos is on vacation this week and the guys filling in for him did write about the tsunami. The tenor of Geraghty’s post suggested he was warming up his vocal chords for a few choruses of “We Are The World.”

Based on McCullough’s and Geraghty’s posts on the subject, it’s blindingly obvious that they don’t read Kos. I do, and I they should also for a couple of reasons. First, there are a lot of smart people writing there and they represent a prominent part of the Democratic Party. All this talk about Howard Dean as head of the DNC got its start and gained momentum through Kos’ efforts. Second, Kos runs the most popular blog out there, even more popular than Instapundit. It may be a fever swamp, but it’s not a fringe movement.

In regards to Kos personally, after reading him closely for a few months I no longer have the same impression of him that I initially had or that many conservatives still have. I’ve decided that Kos is in many ways a left wing internet version of Rush Limbaugh. Rush is first and foremost an entertainer. While I think he believes his own stuff, ideology is a distant priority compared to Rush’s number one task – shrewdly creating and maintaining a media empire. Rush has an audience he has to please, and please it he does.

I think the same can be said of Kos. Kos is doing quite well because of the blogging empire he’s created. Having read him, I can tell you he’s a pretty sharp guy. His ideas on how to move the Democratic Party forward and assessing the mistakes made in 2004 are a lot more insightful than anything the New York Times editorial board has come up with. But it can’t be all boring position papers. If he wants to keep doing well, he has to keep the customers happy. That means a move to the middle or a repositioning as a more liberal Mickey Kaus is unlikely.

The Kos community is radical. They detest George W. Bush. The latter is their defining characteristic. I don’t for a second think all liberals are like this, but they are Kos’ audience. And for them every subject quickly works its way back to Bush hatred.

For an illustration, check out the comment thread on the tsunami. Typical of the amity Geraghty apparently detects is this little note: “The evil Bush has caused more than twice the number of deaths (from the tsunami) with his brutal crusade for oil in Iraq, and they were all easily preventable. But we had five felons on the Supremes who violated our constitution and installed this madman in office.” Or this one: “I read that his coronation was going to cost us $35-40 MILLION (!) dollars. We are, so far, anteing up about $15 to aid victims. What a travesty. I have said it before and I will say it again: the thing I find most intolerable about junior and his asshole compadres (and it's a tough competition) is their absolute lack of intellect and compassion.” Now remember, this is the open comment thread ON THE TSUNAMI!

Now I don’t deny that you could probably find similarly vile stuff on a right wing comment board, but I don’t know of any prominent ones where you’d find commentary like that. The most edgy right wing comment board that I’m aware of is Little Green Footballs’ and I haven’t seen any instances of domestic political partisanship in the readers’ comments regarding the tsunami. The only political matters that the readers have touched on at all is Sri Lanka’s spurning of Israel’s aid offer and some woman named Nancy Skinner who apparently said something that pissed a bunch of Charles’ readers off.

So Jim Geraghty, I think you’re being a bit premature in heralding peace in our time for the blogosphere. There surely are countless examples of civility between the left and the right, but the Daily Kos is a poor place to go looking for them.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


If you log onto America On-Line this morning, this is what you’ll see:

Tidal Wave Toll Suddenly Soars
40,000 Now Reported Dead
Including Hundreds of Tourists
-Liza Minnelli in Hospital

I know what you’re thinking: It’s terrible about Liza! What possible misfortune has fallen Ms. Minnelli? Is she okay? Here’s the poop from the AOL story:

“She was sleeping and she rolled out of bed," a police source tells PEOPLE. " She hit her head. Her bodyguard got nervous and he called 911. He said he couldn't get her up. She wasn't bleeding. She was on the floor."

Believe me, I’m not here to make fun of Ms. Minnelli or the injuries she might have suffered falling out of bed. But honestly, regardless of what has happened to Liza, is it not unseemly that 40,000 dead have to share a headline with her?

The headline says it all. Most elements of our media are simply incapable of dealing with a serious story in a thoughtful and respectful way. 40,000 dead have to share a headline with a celebrity who has fallen out of bed. Someday when the smart folks try to figure what it was that led to the Mainstream media’s downfall, the MSM’s inability to be serious even at the most serious times will figure prominently in the equation.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Monday, December 27, 2004


It’s good to be a New England Patriots fan. Very, very good.

It’s not just the victories. It’s the professionalism, the diligence, the routine excellence that has come to characterize this franchise. A week ago the Pats were humiliated by the awful Dolphins on national TV. The sports punditocracy, proving itself as eerily prescient as its ink-stained brethren on the op-ed pages, was quick to get to work on the obituary for the two time champions.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Playing their first important game since last season’s Super Bowl before 70,000 semi-literate semi-sober Jets fans on Sunday, the Pats opened up an industrial-sized can of whoop-ass on the Jets. So complete was the thrashing the Patriots put on the Jets, the typically boorish Jets fans turned on their heroes before the first half was complete.

And I knew it would happen. I was so confident of a Patriot renaissance I was willing to assume a forthcoming Patriots Super Bowl victory in my wildly-popular-in-Philadelphia “Whine Like an Eagle” post last week. I wasn’t showing any great prognostication skills in this instance. Anyone who’s been following these Patriots knows they don’t make a habit of underachieving.

Here’s something you may not know about the Patriots: Until Bob Kraft came along and molded the Pats into a model professional sports franchise, the Patriots were a regional embarrassment, a team so disgraceful their presence humiliated not just New England residents but even those who just came here sporadically to look at leaves or ski.

It is a remarkable turn of events for serious Boston sports fans that the Patriots, our Patriots, have become the finest franchise in all of sport. In all honesty, if you asked a Boston sports fan at the start of the decade which was more likely to occur first, the Sox winning a World Series or the Patriots winning a Super Bowl, most would have said the Sox. (Actually most would have said neither but when forced to respond a solid majority would have gone with the Sox.) For us, all this Patriot success was unthinkable not too long ago.

But we’ve gotten used to it. We like it. And we can’t wait to see Pittsburgh again. Are you out there Jay Cost? Tell the Steelers we’re coming.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight


Think about this: A couple of months ago we were told that a shortage of flu vaccine would probably trigger a killing epidemic. Last week the same people who told us that were saying, this time in much quieter tones, that if you want to get a flu-shot you better hurry up because all the surplus vaccine will soon be thrown away.

How can the media be so wrong about so much? It’s a question for our times. Typically my fellow political travelers will blame the chronic media miscues on left wing bias or anti-Bush psychosis. While these phenomena are real, I think they miss the biggest cause for chronic media screw-ups: Often the people that are reporting or opining have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s no great sin; hey, no one not working for the New York Times op-ed page knows everything. But the greater sin is this: Rather than address their ignorance they fill the void created by their ignorance with biases or speculation or just plain nonsense.

Let me offer an example:

Last week in The New York Times Week in Review, Professor Andrew Zimbalist penned a piece explaining how signing Pedro Martinez to an exorbitant contract made financial sense for the New York Mets. Wrote Professor Z:

“Say he starts 16 home games, and the Mets draw an average of 15,000 more fans at those games than their typical crowd last season - 43,979 instead of 28,979. Figuring $25 a ticket and another $8 a head for the team's share of food and souvenir sales, parking and so on, Mr. Martínez 's direct impact on stadium revenue would be to add $7.92 million for the season. If the bump in attendance turns out to be just 10,000 fans at his games, then the impact would be a more modest $5.28 million.”

Professor Zimbalist is doubtlessly a bright guy and I’ve long admired his work. But in regards to this piece and his blithe assumption of Pedro surely adding a bump of “just” 10,000 paying customers per home start, there’s no nice way to put it: He just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The most recent example of a pitcher having that kind of effect on attendance that I’m aware of was the young Fernando Valenzueala in the early 1980’s when he was nothing short of a sensation. Pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, Valenzuela came out of nowhere to be a dominant and charismatic Dodger hurler.

But generally speaking, significant bumps in attendance tied to a particular pitcher’s starts are rare. Spikes of the magnitude that Professor Zimbalist blithely assumes will happen with Pedro in Flushing are incredibly rare. As a matter of fact, there exists an illustrative historical parallel to Martinez’s impending arrival at Shea.

Prior to the 1997 season, living legend Roger Clemens left the Red Sox to join the Toronto Blue Jays. Like Martinez today, Clemens then appeared to be headed into the twilight of his career. Still, the Blue Jays were delighted to have a surefire Hall of Famer join their club.

Clemens’ 1997 season exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Indeed, it was probably the finest year in his magnificent career. Starting the season with nine straight wins, Clemens cruised to his fourth Cy Young award. His starts were pretty much the only exciting thing about a mediocre Blue Jay team that year.

So how many asses did Clemens put in the seats? The average 1997 Clemens home start had an attendance of 34,901. The Blue Jays that year averaged 31,966 fans per home game. (The Mets last year averaged around 28,000.) So Clemens, pitching for a new team and having his most brilliant season was worth slightly less than 4,000 extra fans for each game he started.

I should point out a couple of things regarding my study. First I want to acknowledge in the spirit of Atul Gawande that this is a crude univariate study. I didn’t allow for external factors like weather or who the opponent was or any other outside influences. Second, absolutely no one save clueless Mets’ GM Omar Minaya expects Pedro to have a 2005 that’s similar to Clemens’ 1997. It’s practically beyond the realm of possibilities.

So how could a smart guy like Professor Zimbalist assume a floor for Pedro of 10,000 additional fans a game? There’s only one explanation – he didn’t know what he was talking about. Had he been aware of Clemens’ impact on the ’97 Blue Jays’ attendance, I can’t imagine he would have written such a thing. How could he have become aware of such a thing? The same way I did – by going on line and spending a half hour going through 1997 Blue Jay box scores.

Similar examples of media cluelessness abound if you look closely enough. An American Prospect writer wrote a couple of weeks ago of how the Democratic Party should look to loony leftist Bernie Sanders’ success in carrying “rock-ribbed conservative” portions of Vermont as a template for how to carry the battle to Jesus-land in 2008. Wait a minute – Vermont has rock ribbed conservative parts? John Kerry carried every county there except tiny Essex county (fewer than 3,000 voters total) and even there he got 43% of the vote. There was one city, however, where Kerry got only 13% of the vote and Sanders got 44% of the vote so maybe that’s where the rock-ribbed Vermonters reside. Of course, since little Granby, Vermont had only 52 voters in the 2004 election, that might not be the best place from which to formulate a national electoral strategy.

Or maybe you read my pieces a few weeks ago about Atul Gawande. He’s another example of a guy who authoritatively wrote about something that he didn’t understand.

So where does this leave us, this conclusion that members of the media are often clueless? I think it suggests a course of action:

1) Skepticism is in order. Let’s say someone is saying that the troop level in Iraq is adequate or inadequate. We should ask, what do they base that on? Do they understand military tactics? Are they able to link the current struggle to comparable campaigns in the past? Or let’s say you read a column on stem cells. I think it is always appropriate to wonder, especially where so technical a topic is concerned, whether the author independently grasps the fundamentals of the conversation or is he just parroting the views of the expert whose opinions most closely match his pre-existing biases.

2) Beware that biases will rush in to fill the gaps left by ignorance. If Dan Rather had known what he was talking about regarding fonts and typefaces, he never would have aired those forged documents. But he didn’t know what he was talking about and in short order made an ass of himself and everyone around him. His biases and his ignorance allowed him to believe some pretty unbelievable stuff.

3) Seek out sources who know what they’re talking about. I’ve written before about Wrecthard at the Belmont Club. I don’t know what his background is, but he knows his stuff. So do other bloggers who are writing about stuff with which they have first hand familiarity (you’ll note this blog usually does not qualify). Of course first hand knowledge is hardly confined to the blogosphere.

It’s a brave new age for reporting and opining. It should also be a brave new age for seeking out reporting and opining. A decade ago we were at the mercy of relatively few writers and publications; their ignorance soon became our ignorance. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore.

ADDENDUM: Regarding my post, Moral Blindness II: I referred to six letter writers, the four I quoted and two others. This was unfair to the two others who have been thoughtful correspondents for several months and have repeatedly evidenced a keen understanding of the enemy’s evil nature. I take this opportunity to publicly apologize and express my regrets.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Saturday, December 25, 2004


Before I get to the wonderfully acerbic post that I’ve promised for tomorrow, I have to get some old business out of the way. Because the great Hugh Hewitt linked to my post on Kos we had some new visitors to Soxblog nation over the holiday. That meant more than the standard flood of email arrived in response to the posting.

As usual, the email was strongly supportive. No surprise there – most of you find the views expressed on this site appealing. Presumably that’s why you come here day after day.

But I also received six letters taking me to task for the post. Interestingly, all six letter writers employed the exact same logic and all used a similar analogy to express this logic. To them, President Bush caused the problems in Iraq and the terrorists are unwitting or at least non-deliberate actors in the drama President Bush set into motion. The letters’ analogies were as follows:

1) At a Church picnic, a well intended President Bush shoots a hornets nest. The enraged hornets then sting the picnicking church-goers. Who’s to blame? Bush. (Get it? Bush is Bush, our soldiers are the picnickers, the terrorists are hornets.)

2) Someone shoves someone else in front of an on-rushing street-car (the “T” for those of you living in Boston). Bush is the shover, the troops the shovee, the street-car is the terrorists.

3) Someone unleashes a horde of zoo animals who proceed to maul innocents in a crowded city. Bush is the unleasher, the soldiers are residents of the unfortunate city, the zoo beasts are the terrorists. (Because this one reminded me of a favorite movie of mine, “12 Monkeys”, I went easy on the letter writer.)

4) Someone gives his car keys to a drunk who proceeds to run over a baby. Bush is the car key giver, the baby our soldiers and the “insurgents” are the drunk.

I’m not going to print the last two not because they’re any more fatuous than the first four (actually, to be fair, the other two mixed in some decent observations with the same silly analogy-type), but just because I’ve had enough and I’m sure by now you get the point.

In a delicious irony, all six letter writers unwittingly proved my post's point. My point was that where the murderous terrorists (or “insurgents”) are concerned, many folks are simply unable to grasp the profound evil that we’re dealing with here. By comparing the terrorists to insects, zoo beasts, an inanimate object and a drunk, they neatly displayed exactly the kind of moral blindness I was writing about. By failing to grapple with the evil INTENT that is at the heart of the Jihadi endeavor they have made themselves look foolish, and that's a charitable description.

Now let's be clear - I don’t deny that one can argue in good faith that George W. Bush has mishandled the Iraqi war. One can also maintain that the administration’s missteps have cost American lives. While the anti-Bush argument is one that I’m not particularly sympathetic to, many people I respect hold it and hold it fiercely.

But that has nothing to do with my Kos post. My post was about how some on the left don’t seem to recognize the depravity of our enemies. This was perhaps most profoundly evidenced by Michael Moore’s effort to mythologize the insurgents as the reincarnation of our own Minutemen after they savagely murdered four American contractors in April.

My argument wasn’t that everyone on the left is like this, but that there are many who just can’t see the evil that our enemy represents or choose not to see it. I based this conclusion on the observation that people like Kos spew nonstop bile at the Administration but seldom (if ever) have a bad word to say about the insurgents. In other words, they just don’t get how evil our enemy is or if they do get it, their writings and commentary provide no evidence of that fact. As I wrote on Wednesday, this both angers and concerns me.

So, for those who wrote in comparing the Jihadi murderers and Baathist dead-enders to zoo animals, insects, the inebriated and inanimate objects: You’ve done nothing to dispel my doubts or fears.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight


Merry Christmas to one and all. Even though I’m Jewish and from a somewhat devout background (my grandfather was a Rabbi), I love this holiday. Always have, always will.

Marrying Mrs. Soxblog was unquestionably the best thing I ever did. (Sorry for the clumsy transition there – I don’t compose transition sentences on holidays.) One of the less obvious benefits of our union was that because Mrs. S. is Catholic, I would finally be able to participate in Christmas without feeling at all guilty. This is a blessing. Even much of the rest of my family now gets to hang out with my in-laws, share in good will to all and spoil our nieces and nephews. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Anyway, because I’m a partial celebrant of Christmas, blogging has been light the past couple of days and won’t resume on its regular course until tomorrow. But I promise it will be worth the wait. The piece I’m working on will be a particularly bilious diatribe aimed at the New York Times and other like minded publications.

Until then, peace to all of you. God bless.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Yesterday’s attack in Mosul and some of the domestic reaction to it have me steaming. Let me explain.

Like you I bet, I need no additional reminders of the enemy’s depravity and cruelty. When he assassinates innocent election officials like he did on Monday or deliberately targets medical personnel as he did yesterday, it comes as no surprise. As one who has followed Israel’s battle with similar forces for decades now, I well know the only things that limit this kind of enemy are his imagination and his capabilities. He will rule no potential misdeed out of bounds for being too cruel, too cowardly, or too destructive. He cannot be parlayed with; he must be destroyed.

And yet, and yet…Even in the United States there exists a sizable population that either cannot see the threat the enemy poses or would rather focus their sites on their true enemy, George W. Bush. Go check out the Daily Kos if you dare. The headline announcing the Mosul attack reads, “Bush Destroys another 22 Families.” Read Kos’ thoughts. You’ll find a ton of bile directed at Bush, but not a single harsh word for those who yesterday deliberately targeted medical personnel or who Monday executed unarmed innocents.

But it gets worse. Kos’ next post concludes with the triumphant note, “Looks like Rumsfeld will have to sign a few death letters over the coming days.” Bush hatred has so addled Kos, he eschews even the often insincere “I Support the Troops” boiler plate that has become a rhetorical accessory for his ilk. Nowhere in his entries on the topic does he pay the slightest tribute to our men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way.

Stay with me – we have still yet to hit rock bottom. A few minutes ago, Kos began a post with the inquisitive note, “So, who is to blame for all the deaths in Iraq? Let's mull this one over a bit, shall we?” After the mulling is done, Kos finds Bush and company to blame. Alone and exclusively. For Kos it’s all about Bush.

The fact that Kos blames Bush for everything is at this point hardly astonishing. Talk about a dog bites man story. But I still find it a little surprising that Kos and his acolytes use up all their bile on Bush and Rumsfeld. Regarding the events of the week, Kos expresses no scorn for the slayers of innocents that we battle. None whatsoever.

I’ve written before that a healthy antipathy for the enemy will be a prerequisite for winning this struggle. We are in some ways fortunate that the enemy makes despising him so easy.

And yet there are those so morally blind that they feel the great blight of the day is George W. Bush and that he and Donald Rumsfeld pose the existential threat to our society, not radical Islam.

Some days that makes me rueful or contemplative. Today it just makes me angry.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Lamentable news out of Philadelphia where super-stud wide receiver Terrell Owens has come down with a season ending sprained ankle. The news is also a little funny of course since Owens is probably the world’s most obnoxious person to not sit next to Jimmy Carter at a political convention. Let me be clear, though – I find the situation more sad than humorous.

For three seasons running now the Eagles have made the NFC championship game only to lay successively larger eggs each year. Three years ago they lost to a slightly superior Rams team. Two years ago they lost to a Tampa Bay team they probably should have beaten and last year they lost to a Carolina juggernaut they definitely should have beaten. After the Carolina loss, it appeared these Eagles would never have their day in the sun.

And then they went out and got the spectacularly talented and wondrously irritating Owens in the off-season and suddenly they had by far the best team in the pathetically weak NFC. It seemed there would be no stopping the Eagles in the NFC and that finally they would make the Super Bowl where they would at least have an “any given Sunday” chance of winning a title against the far superior Patriots.

And now this. Is it premature to write the Eagles off? Hardly. Actually it’s a little late in the game to do so. For a while now it’s been obvious that these Eagles were destined to be one of those terrific teams that never breaks through and wins a championship. Much like their spiritual predecessors, the Dick Vermeil Eagles of the late 70’s/early 80’s, this group clearly lacks that indefinable something that turns a contender into a champion. Maybe it’s their obnoxious Santa Claus-booing fan base, maybe it’s their brilliant but still overrated quarterback, but it’s now apparent this team will never get it done.

Oh well. They’re hardly the first. Great teams that never won a title litter sports history. Here’s a few that leap to mind:

1) The Boston Bruins of the late 1970’s: The Bruins of the late 70’s were a wonderfully gritty team known near and far by the endearing nickname “The Lunch Pail Gang.” The problem for the Bruins was that there was a better team around then, the far more gifted and equally gritty Montreal Canadiens. Over a three year stretch, the Bruins lost twice in the finals to the Canadiens and once in the semi-finals. The semi-finals loss was particularly excruciating, coming as the result of a too many men on the ice penalty in the final two minutes of Game 7.

2) The Boston Red Sox of the late 1970’s: You know about these Sox, the ones that were crushed by Bucky “Bleeping” Dent. Over a five year period, this all-star stacked roster managed to make the post season only once and there they predictably broke our hearts in seven games. In 1978 the Sox sent something like 7 players to the All-Star game. Fine good it did them or us.

3) The New England Patriots of the late 1970’s: Widely hailed as the most talented team in football during that era, a team that could beat any other in the league not just on any given Sunday but consistently, these Patriots managed to win a grand total of zero playoff games. The Patriots back then had a genius for pathos unmatched in the history of team sports. (By the way, did Tom Brady’s falling backwards pass last night remind anyone else of the Steve Grogan shovel pass in San Francisco? Believe me, I never thought I would link Brady to Grogan and I promise to never do it again.)

Careful readers have probably detected a pattern. These were the sports teams of my youth. This probably helps explain the hardened realist cum hopeful optimist that I am today. But such losers weren’t confined to the Boston area:

1) The Dan Marino Dolphins – Never got it done. Had the greatest quarterback ever and one of the greatest coaches ever and still managed to not win a title. On a related topic, did anyone else catch the ever modest Shula’s comment last night that the Dolphins have been in constant decline for like the last ten years. Neat observation, not narcissistic at all considering that Shula was shown the door ten years ago. It’s apparently more fun to display Schaddenfreude in warmer climates.

2) The Milwaukee Bucks of the early 1980’s: Terrific teams but never got near a title because they had to play the even better Celtics and 76ers.

And one team that did break through but had no business doing so:

The Detroit Pistons of the late 1980’s/early 90’s. These Pistons timed it perfectly. They weaseled in two titles because the Celtics and Lakers had declined and the Bulls had yet to ascend. There’s no doubt the Pistons would have been killed by the Celtics and Lakers in their primes; the Jordan led Bulls did actually kill them in a 4 game sweep in 1991, a sweep that was concluded by the ever classless Bad Boys leaving the court without congratulating the victorious Bulls who had dethroned them.

Back to the current Eagles – the only question remaining is whether they’ll put up a fight or surrender immediately sensing fate has turned on them once more. I for one am rooting for the Eagles to pull it together, win the NFC, and become fodder for the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl. And if the Eagles do make it, both teams win. The Pats will get their third title, and Philadelphians will get another team to endlessly celebrate like their beloved Vermeil led bridesmaids.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Monday, December 20, 2004


Before addressing the blight on our language and our culture that is Christmukah, a brief anecdote. (For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of this development, Christmukah represents the unfortunate linguistic merger of Christmas and Hannukah.)

A few years ago, I had just returned from a business trip to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and was having dinner with a few friends. One of the friends (a truly wonderful person) and I began discussing the blue state/red state dichotomy. She and I were coming at the subject from dramatically different perspectives. My politics you know. Her politics? Let’s put it this way – she was a member of Hilary Clinton’s health care committee and considered the former First Lady a personal friend.

During our conversation/debate, I mentioned that there’s nothing inherently wrong with either blue staters or red staters but that the two places have sometimes quite different cultures. To prove my point, I offered an anecdote from my recently concluded Hattiesburg trip.

I was meeting with three highly educated professionals. During our meeting we began discussing a fourth Hattiesburg native who would be useful to our project. I asked if the other three knew him; yes, they said – he was in the same Bible study class as they were.

I wasn’t mentioning this in an at all judgmental way (although I think Bible study class is a good thing). I just brought it up because such an exchange amongst four professionals in Boston would be simply unimaginable. Remember, my whole point was about the different cultures.

After I shared this brief anecdote with my liberal friend, she shook her head and intoned sadly, “Scary.” I should add that my friend, like me, is Jewish. And I should also add that she meant what she said – she found the fact that professionals were outwardly comfortable in discussing their Christianity to indeed be quite frightening.

That’s where all this stupidity about Christmukah comes from. American Jews are unnerved by their minority status. Let’s face it, being a minority faith in Christian nations (especially some purportedly enlightened European nations) hasn’t always been a winning proposition for the Jews. Many American Jews look to things like the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition as tragic inevitabilities. This trait is especially common amongst American Jewry’s de facto leadership caste.

This latent fear is what was behind all the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” If you told the New York Times’ Frank Rich or the ADL’s Abe Foxman that “The Passion” was going to gross a gazillion dollars, they would have confidently predicted an upsurge an anti-Semitic acts. Of course, America’s Christians flocked to the film and somehow resisted transforming themselves into saber wielding Cossacks. The “Passion” didn’t trigger a single deleterious effect on the Jews. If it had, believe me, Frank Rich would have made sure we heard of it.

American Jewry’s fear of Christianity is real, but it’s also foolish. America is not Weimar Germany, and Americans have always been way ahead of their European betters in treating Jews as full citizens with full rights. There’s never been an American pogrom (a pogrom is a government sanctioned attack against Jews). The closest things we’ve had to a pogrom would probably be the century old lynching of Leo Frank and the trouble ginned up a decade ago by 2004 DNC speaker “Reverend” Al Sharpton.

But a lot of Jews see outward displays of Christianity as a chilling reminder of their own vulnerability and thus instinctively recoil. They shouldn’t.

Americans have always been a people of goodwill that cherishes freedom and equality. Hell, a semi-major political party saw fit to have a Jew on its national ticket four years ago. Things here are good, and they’re likely to remain that way.

So, my fearful fellow Jews, wish your neighbors a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the splendor of their Christmas trees and Christmas lights. If you really want an experience, have a friend take you to Midnight mass. You’ll be welcome, and I bet you’ll be moved.

And I bet you’ll feel better than ever that “IT” won’t happen here.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight


I’ll be back in a little bit with a more lengthy post but in the meantime check out this post from the increasingly prolific Galley Slaves on how Sprint is supplying cell-phones to our hospitalized returning soldiers who really need them. The post touches on a matter that’s long been near and dear to my heart – the divide between good corporate citizens and bad corporate citizens. I think all of us should make an effort to support the former and financially shun the latter. Of course defining the two will always be subjective, but Sprint’s latest actions without doubt will help put them in the “good corporate citizen” column.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Friday, December 17, 2004


It’s been a while since I wrote about Hollywood for any reason other than to lampoon the political silliness of its denizens. That’s not right – I love the pop culture and have lots to say about it, some of it even potentially worthwhile.

1) “THE WIRE” – I hope you watch this show. It’s unquestionably the best drama on television, and that compliment comes from a huge ‘Sopranos’ fan. “The Wire” does for cops and robbers TV shows what “Heat” did for cops and robbers movies. It’s part of the genre, but re-imagines it, extends it, and indeed practically perfects it. If you don’t watch “The Wire,” watch it on Demand or on DVD when it comes out. You’ll thank me.

2) “SIDEWAYS” – This is one of the ‘it’ movies at the moment. It follows two middle aged college buddies on a trip through wine country the week before one of them is to enter into marital bliss. The one about to be married is a philandering swine; his sidekick is likable but a larcenous shlub. “Sideways” is written and directed by Alexander Payne, the writer and director behind “Election” (which I loved) and “About Schmidt” (which I did not).

One of Payne’s trademarks is his hatred for his central characters. The best a Payne character can hope for is to be pathetic. If a character’s not pathetic, he’ll be loathsome. Every now and then a supporting character can sort of fly below Payne’s radar screen and be sympathetic; even so, he or she will still be a victim or a schmuck. But, in the three Payne movies I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a single major character one could describe as admirable. And with each successive picture, Payne’s attitude towards his characters has grown harsher. In “Sideways” he gives us two fairly detestable protagonists

This makes for some pretty mean spirited entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – mean can be fun, and it can certainly be funny. And “Sideways” is both. You’ll laugh during the movie, sometimes uproariously. You may even be touched. And the screenplay is relentlessly clever.

In spite of its apparently misanthropic auteur, “Sideways” is an enjoyable way to spend two hours. The only problem is you might feel like you need a shower after you leave the cinema.

3) On the other hand, you’ve got “SPANGLISH.” I think it should be mandatory that before viewing “Spanglish” an usher should come out and say, “You will leave this cinema uplifted, goddamit!”

James L. Brooks, formerly the auteur behind “Terms of Endearment”, “Broadcast News”, and “As Good as it Gets” is the writer/director of “Spanglish.” Brooks’ career development is the mirror image of Payne’s. Where Payne has become increasingly harsh and sour, Brooks’ has become increasingly sentimental. In “Terms of Endearment” Brooks (working off the Larry McMurtry novel) gave us some truly unsavory characters doing some truly unsavory things. The conflicts were real, and so was the drama. But with each successive movie, Brooks has become softer on his characters. In “Spanglish” even the piece’s villainess becomes completely sympathetic by the movie’s end.

There’s still a lot of good stuff in “Spanglish.” All the performances are top shelf. Tea Leoni as the heavy is especially noteworthy, and Adam Sandler acquits himself well as the film’s nebishy mensch of a central character.

But “Spanglish’s” narrative is hopelessly muddled. The movie opens with a voice-over; that’s a reliable warning sign. Would any screen-writer envision a script with a voice over? Isn’t a voice-over a sign that the film wasn’t making sense and it needed something to make it coherent?

By the end of the movie, it’s obvious that Brooks created a half dozen appealing and interesting characters and then had little idea what to do with them. Frequently he puts them in sitcom-like situations which isn’t always a bad thing. Brooks cut his teeth as a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” so he knows how to get laughs out of such set-ups. Cloris Leachman’s drunken mother-in-law in particular never ceases to entertain.

But at the end of “Spanglish” you don’t know what it meant or it what it was trying to say. In other words, thematically the movie’s mess.

But it is an entertaining mess. Ultimately, in spite of itself, “Spanglish” even becomes a moderately uplifting mess. Give Brooks credit – he’s trying to entertain in a noble fashion. That’s gotta be worth something.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Thursday, December 16, 2004


As I look around the world today, I find much to be curmudgeonly about. Let’s have at it:

1) DEFENDING RUMMY – My man Rummy is once again under siege from all quarters. Bill Kristol wrote a scathing op-ed piece yesterday calling for the Secretary’s scalp and even the reliably loyal John McCain has turned fickle. (Did the sarcasm on that McCain clause come through?) A few points regarding the once again beleaguered Rumsfeld need to be made and I’m just the guy to make them.

First off, Kristol’s piece has been cited near and wide as a sign that the right is turning on Rummy. While that may or may not be true, Kristol has hardly defined himself historically as a Rumsfeld loyalist. As the GalleySlaves point out, Kristol was way ahead of the curve in calling for Rummy to resign; his first such plea came in August 2001 several weeks before a certain widely known world changing event. As for McCain, we all know his shtick by now.

Second, let’s talk about Rummy’s Q&A in Kuwait last week. Why don’t we have enough armored Humvees in Iraq? The real answer is because our Army was first built to confront a Soviet leviathan head-on in Europe and then re-tooled a bit in the 90’s to confront a Chinese Leviathan head-on in a locale still to be determined. Unfortunately, the Chinese won’t be ready for such a confrontation for a couple of generations and they’ll probably never be willing. But that is the purpose our armed forces was built for, not the close quarter urban fighting that they currently face and are likely to continue to face the next twenty years or so. If the Chinese would only agree to invade Texas, they would be greeted with an army perfectly suited to repulsing them. Regrettably such a scenario as of this writing remains maddeningly unlikely.

That’s what “transformation” was and is all about. Rumsfeld more than any other individual foresaw the asymmetric threats that would define the current era (long before 9/11) and attempted to get the Pentagon ready to confront them.

Now I’ve never worked at the Pentagon but I have driven by it a few times and in the blogosphere that qualifies me as an expert to diagnose its ills. The Pentagon, like any and every other bureaucracy, exists in part to perpetuate itself as currently constituted. For that reason the long knives have been out for Rumsfeld since he arrived at his post in 2001. And that’s why every time he hits adversity there are a ton of critics only too eager and willing to pounce.

None of that is to say there aren’t good faith differences to be found with this Secretary. While I have been and continue to be quite enamored with him and his brainy deputy, I can understand those who feel he has all the wrong ideas. And I can sympathize with those who think he has the right ideas but has been maladroit in realizing them.

But let’s call out this latest skirmish for what it really is. McCain, Hegel and Kristol have long been ideological foes to Rumsfeld. They also don’t appear to much care for him personally either. Whenever the SS Rumsfeld has begun to take on water the past four years, this crew has been reliably eager to toss him an anvil. This week’s antics signal nothing new.

2) “OUR HAIR IS ON FIRE” – That’s the sober title of an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal written by former Senators Rudman and Hart and two other guys. The title pertains to their feelings regarding our current vulnerability to future terrorist attacks.

I’ve written about this before; I think our vulnerability is shameful so I agree with the authors’ thesis. But I spiritedly disapprove of their chicken-shit tone and the comfort it no doubt gives the enemy. Perhaps they could have found a more muscular metaphor. (Oh how I wish Joe Biden had been one of the article’s co-authors so the title could have instead read “Our Hair (or hair-like substance) is on Fire.”

Of course, being former Senators and all, the authors think the answer to every security challenge must necessarily originate in Washington. That kind of thinking is dangerously obtuse.

Every at risk institution must figure out how to secure itself. Washington’s role should be confined to informing America to defend itself and providing funding only when absolutely necessary. As the situation currently exists everyone looks to Washington for security. In a word, oy.

An example: I attend several Boston Red Sox games a season. As you probably know, the Boston Red Sox make a bus-load of money. I trust some of these resources are being dedicated to comprehensively ensuring the safety of the Sox’ paying customers. Multiply that example by about a million, you’ve got a secure country. But if every institution is in effect outsourcing its safety to the Department of Homeland Security, then all of America is a giant vulnerable target.

The former solons are right that the administration must take the lead here. Its failure to do so to date is baffling and frustrating.

3) BUT WHAT ABOUT DETERRENCE? Deterrence has been the administration’s bluntest and I’d argue most successful defensive weapon to date. A simple fact - al Qaeda miscalculated with 9/11. In exchange for 3,000 American lives they lost two friendly governments and have spent the past three years on the run. A lot of people are quick to credit our adversaries with spooky intelligence; those people might conclude that the Jihadi geniuses are thus weighing this President’s potential response to a chemical 9/11 into any future plans.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Time for one of those incoherent numbered postings. I find a lot of things out there worth commenting on, but none worth devoting an entire post to. So here goes:

1) AND THEN THERE WAS ONE – I wrote back in June that part of the Red Sox’ problem was they were led by three superstars who were poor leaders at best. A sports team looks to its best players for leadership – it’s ever been thus. Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciapara, and Manny Ramirez were the Sox’ best players but also self absorbed fruit-loops (except Nomar – he was a self absorbed anal-retentive freak). This meant the Sox had a hole in their heart. Don’t think management didn’t know this. That’s what the Nomar trade was all about – wresting the team away from the superstars and giving it to the merry band of idiots who were terrific players and ideal teammates.

Yesterday Pedro joined Nomar as an ex-Red Sox. Something tells me they’re popping champagne on Yawkey way and offering heartfelt thanks to the Mets for relieving them of this burden while allowing them to save face with their fan base. With his former partners in superstar malfeasance now departed, Manny can become what he’s always been meant to be – an incredibly gifted sideshow.

2) GOSH I MISS JOHN KERRY – Remember a few months ago? We had a leading Democrat who would gallivant in spandex and spew silliness whenever an open mic was near. As an added benefit, he had a billionaire moonbat wife who even loyal Democrats came to loathe. Now what do we have? Zilch. This country is in danger of a looming comedy shortage.

3) BUT WAIT – THERE’S HOPE! Joe Biden is considering a re-entry into presidential politics in 2008. Yes, he’s thinking of tossing his weave into the ring. I can’t wait. I’m giddy over the prospect. The thought of Hilary and Joe Biden debating is just so delicious I can’t stand it. Please Joe – a comedy starved nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

4) JOHN TRAVOLTA WAS ON LETTERMAN FRIDAY – Actually it was a repeat but since I almost never watch the relentlessly unfunny Dave anymore, the episode was new to me. Travolta was talking about his hard-scrabble life. He was showing pictures of his house with his multiple airplanes parked in the driveway. He had a good chuckle with Dave about how the neighbors feel about his occasional takeoffs and landings. He then turned his attention to his surprise 50th birthday party which was held at some sort of foreign resort. Everyone was there; there were private planes with all sorts of monograms. Two Travolta mentioned were the “TC” plane and the “OW” plane. (For those of you who let your subscription to US Magazine lapse, “TC” is Tom Cruise and “OW” is Oprah Winfrey. The latter disappointed me a bit. I always figured rather than monogram her plane with the relatively pedestrian “OW,” the talk show queen would opt for the far more distinctive “OPRAH!!”

This interview got me to thinking. Mrs. Soxblog and I know some people of extraordinary wealth. (We are regrettably not close to being among them.) Among these folks are some truly world class conspicuous consumptioners. Still, we couldn’t imagine any of them engaging in the kind of ephemeral decadence that Travolta was so glibly describing. But even if we have judged these folks wrong, one thing is certain – they would definitely not be such schmucks as to go on national television and describe to millions their ridiculously lavish lifestyles. They’ll pimp their rides in the privacy of their own estates, thank you very much.

As if to prove my point, the Wall Street Journal yesterday ran an article on Monday regarding the new market of super-yachts for the super-rich. These were some boats, let me tell you. Their price tags were actually scraping $400 million, an altitude at which even the well-off Travolta could not fly. Among the purchasers of these things were Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, and a couple of Saudi royals.

But all of these folks, even the Saudi royals, had the good sense to deny comment to the Journal. And yet Hollywood folks (or at least a bunch of them) can’t wait to show off their houses to MTV or regale Dave and Jay with their latest extravagant exploits.

That’s one of the reasons why the rest of the country does not respect their community. Politicians seeking the Hollywood embrace should probably bear that in mind.

5) PARENTAL CONSUMERS – I got a great email yesterday regarding my counsel to patients last week. I wrote: “Here’s my advice: You have to realize that all the doctors and hospitals and clinics out there are resources; it’s your job to figure out how to best marshal and deploy them. It’s true that when it comes to any health situation the hand fate dealt you will be the biggest factor. But it’s also true that how YOU play that hand will be the second biggest factor.”

My reader wrote that the same holds for parents regarding their kids’ education. I couldn’t agree more. This merits a full post and hopefully I’ll get to it later today or tomorrow.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Monday, December 13, 2004


As of this writing, it appears that Pedro Martinez is on his way out of Boston and is about to join the New York Mets.

See with Pedro, it’s always been about respect. Quantifying respect, however, can be a tricky thing. Some people confuse ass-kissing with respect, and others confuse good faith differences of opinion with disrespect.

But still, it can sometimes be possible to measure respect. And that’s where the Red Sox came up short against the Mets. The Mets were willing to offer Pedro more respect than the Sox were.

If we were to think of respect in terms of units, the Mets were willing to give Pedro 50 million units of respect versus the Sox’ paltry offer of 38 million units. Moreover, the Mets were willing to guarantee that they would respect Pedro for a full four years. The Sox were going to revisit the issue of how much they respect Pedro in three years. Given Pedro’s insatiable hunger for respect, it’s unsurprising that he scorned the Sox’ offer and scooped up the Mets’.

But, as they say, caveat emptor. Pedro’s need for respect will not end on that glorious day when Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya bestows a Mets uniform on Pedro as he meets the friendly New York press. Pedro was once, at his peak, one of the most dominant pitchers ever. He expects to be treated that way, even if those days are long since past.

So, Mets manager Willie Randolph, if Pedro decides he wants to leave the park early or to show up to a game a little late, don’t think of rebuking him or of telling him that one set of rules applies to all 25 players. To do so would be disrespectful.

Now, on a serious note, I’m grateful for all Pedro did for the Red Sox. At his best he was without a doubt the most dominant professional athlete I’ve ever rooted for. The 1999 Pedro – he was so freakin’ good it’s almost tough to recall.

Bill James used to write that a player’s career is like a piece of watermelon. There’s the rind, the less tasty parts near the outside, and then the delicious pink part. A franchise has to try to get a player’s pink part.

The Sox definitely got Pedro’s pink part. And the Mets may have just acquired an oversized piece of rind that will be a colossal pain in the ass through 2008.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Pedro is just playing the Mets and is about to toss a bushel of eggs in Omar Minaya’s face. If that should occur, then the Mets will have tasted the Pedro Martinez Experience in a big way. And they should count themselves fortunate that Pedro will be in their rear-view mirror.

To my Mets fans friends like Cousin Gary and the estimable Baseball Crank, I truly mean the following – I earnestly hope Pedro’s your problem now.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight


I figured over a month after the election it would be safe for me to buy the latest CD from Steve Earle. That was probably my dumbest thought since thinking Bush won the first debate. For those of you unfamiliar with Steve Earle, his is quite a story.

In the mid-1980’s Earle practically created the musical format currently known as Alt-Country. Neither rock nor country, Earle’s early albums were genre shattering works of brilliance. But as Earle’s fame increased, so did his assortment of self destructive vices. By the end of the ‘80’s, Earle had become a belligerent heroin addict. By the middle of the ‘90’s, Earle was wearing a government issued orange jump suit.

Emerging from the pokey in 1995 clean, sober and fat (food had replaced heroin as his vice of choice), Earle returned more brilliant and prolific than ever. His work of the past nine years, especially 1997’s “El Corazón,” rivals the output of any modern musician.

Unfortunately, Earle’s worldview has become increasingly radicalized the past several years. That would have been okay so long as he didn’t let his insufferably juvenile politics suffocate his art. After all, Springsteen has been a political dunce for decades but his sophomoric silliness regarding geo-political affairs has seldom made it on to his albums. (Bruce limits his political stem-winding to a tedious lecture or two during his marathon concerts; the lectures actually provide welcome bathroom breaks.)

But with Earle, his albums have become mostly political screeds, and idiotic political screeds at that. But don’t anyone tell Steve, though. He thinks his contribution to the nation’s political discourse is invaluable.

Earle writes in the liner notes to his recently released “The Revolution Starts Now:” “The word ‘immediate’ best describes the atmosphere around the studio as this record was being made in the late spring of 2004…The most important election of our lifetimes was less than seven months away and we desperately wanted to weigh in, both as artists and citizens of a democracy.”

So what vital insights does this artistic citizen of a democracy have to offer? Here’s the chorus to his oft-quoted “F the CC:” “So fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA / Livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA.” Good thing he weighed in. The body politic would have been greatly diminished if it lacked this mature and thoughtful perspective.

Here’s what the artistic community just doesn’t get: No one begrudges them their opinions. But if they opt to mouth their opinions to the masses, common decency demands they be thoughtful and respectful. Earle is neither; neither are the Dixie Chicks and John Mellencamp and Susan Sarandon.

And here’s what so many in the Democratic Party failed to grasp this election cycle: When you surround yourselves with celebrities who obviously belong at the “kids’ table,” you diminish yourself and your prospects for victory.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Friday, December 10, 2004


While I have no interest in becoming Atul Gawande’s personal scourge, his latest effort jibes well with what I was going to write on today anyway so here goes.

Dr. Gawande published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday that dealt with the treatment of wounded soldiers in the Iraqi theatre. Our wounded soldiers are faring much better in this conflict than any of our previous conflicts. Dr. Gawande endeavors to find out why.

His conclusion won’t surprise any of us who are becoming familiar with his work: The wounded are doing better this go round because the doctors in this war are so much better than those in prior wars. His methods also will provide little surprise. There is no indication that he has crunched any numbers, yet he still finds the data “suggestive” (while conceding its incomplete nature) that the higher survival rate is due to the doctors in the theatre. Dr. Gawande marvels at how soldiers losing multiple limbs are surviving this conflict whereas in past conflicts such incidents of survival were extraordinary.

Others doctors who have actually served in the conflict find the higher survival rate probably has less to do with the new and improved modern medical super-men and more to do with technological advances. "The critical core, your chest and your abdomen, are protected (by Kevlar vests)," said Dr. George Peoples, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center surgeon who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Paradoxically, what we've seen is devastating extremity injuries because people are surviving wounds they otherwise wouldn't have."

The doctors serving in Iraq are heroic and are no doubt phenomenally skilled (as were their predecessors in previous conflicts). But once again, Dr. Gawande’s methods give the appearance of being a search to support a pre-existing thesis rather than a scientifically analytical process. With Dr. Gawande it always comes down to the doctor, only the doctor.

Which brings me to what I was going to write about today. I heard from a CF practitioner (from one of the “top 5” centers, for what it’s worth) who praised my efforts this week but took me to task for omitting a critical fact. It’s true, he wrote, that the number one determinant in a CF patient’s fate is the genetic nature of his disease. But I also should have mentioned what the second most important determinant in a patient’s fate its, especially since it’s so relevant to our conversation here. The second most important thing? The patient’s compliance with his physician’s prescribed program.

In CF, the modes of treatment are universally well agreed upon. Few CF patients jet off seeking second opinions since there are no fresh insights out there. Every center treats its patients pretty much the same way.

The great CF doctors, my correspondent reminded me, are considered great because they have unusual success in getting their patients to follow the program. This is no small thing; if you’ve ever seen the studies regarding how many adults take their prescription medicine as directed (damn few), you can well understand the challenges present in getting a patient population consisting disproportionately of teen-agers and young adults to severely modify their lives to follow a grueling regimen.

This provides us with a delicious irony pertaining to this week’s conversation. If there are poor CF doctors, they are most likely poor because they don’t get their patients to follow the program, not because they lack the skill or the know-how to treat their patients’ disease.

I’d argue this leaves the allegedly aggrieved patient population little to bitch about. If your doctor is telling you what to do but you refuse to do it, do you really have a beef with your doctor for failing to inspire you to take care of yourself?

Which brings me to the final point I want to make, and then, I promise, we’ll be leaving this topic behind. I’ve received a bunch of letters from people this week detailing their misfortunes at the hands of semi-competent doctors or a health care system that so often seems designed to frustrate our needs. We all sense that it shouldn’t be like this.

In a perfect world, we’d get ill and find ourselves in the hands of an all-knowing Marcus Welby type who knew what to do and knew how to get it done. Unfortunately, as a patient or as the parent of a patient, you soon find out that there aren’t any Marcus Welby types out there. It’s your job to navigate the medical system yourself.

Here’s my advice: You have to realize that all the doctors and hospitals and clinics out there are resources; it’s your job to figure out how to best marshal and deploy them. It’s true that when it comes to any health situation the hand fate dealt you will be the biggest factor. But it’s also true that how YOU play that hand will be the second biggest factor.

This isn’t easy. Many of us are poorly equipped to deal with the challenges that serious illness presents. But, if that’s the storm in which you fly, you’re not powerless and chances are there is much you can do.

And that should be a source of comfort.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Enough about Dr. Gawande (for the moment anyway). Let’s take a look at The New Yorker.

I was going to move on and then last night I saw the movie “Shattered Glass.” “Shattered Glass” is about the fabulist Stephen Glass who wrote mostly made-up articles for The New Republic for a couple of years. The movie’s message is that The New Republic willfully allowed itself to get snowed by a young con man and that was indefensible, especially the “willful” part.

Let me give you an example: In one article Glass wrote of a fanatically devoted bond trader who, rather than leave his desk and miss an opportunity to make a good trade, was using a hand held urinal, the kind favored by cops walking a beat. Now, anyone who has ever known bond-traders would recognize this claim as being dubious. Yet for the cynical New Republic types who were willing to believe the worst about money crazed Wall Street types, this Glass-fabricated vignette was too good not to believe. It found its way into The New Republic’s pages, and eventually its way into publishing infamy.

The parallel with The New Yorker is unmistakable. Atul Gawande “studied” two different medical clinics treating the same disease. Each clinic was staffed by several doctors, all of whom had comparable backgrounds. One clinic’s patients had a life expectancy a full 50% longer than those in the other clinic. Dr. Gawande claimed that this increased life expectancy was solely attributable to the differing skills between the centers’ respective physicians.

Now, is that not a claim that at the very least should have invited scrutiny? Upon hearing such a claim, isn’t the first thing you’d want to know is whether or not the author has ruled anything and everything else out? Apparently because Dr Gawande is a physician and his article was extremely provocative, The New Yorker decided to suspend the skepticism that Dr. Gawande’s claims so obviously warranted. While someone at The New Yorker clearly should have said, “Wow – what’s the methodology that led you to that conclusion?”, no one did.

Because if they had looked at Dr. Gawande’s methodology, here’s what they would have found: He performed no statistical analysis. He’s not an expert on Cystic Fibrosis. Indeed, he knows about as much about CF as you would expect a high school sophomore doing a research paper would know. (Anyone who wants documentation regarding Dr. Gawande’s unconscionable ignorance on the subject, feel free to write me and I’ll provide it.) The only thing he did by way of investigation is spend a day or two at each clinic. He found a few anecdotes that squared with his theory, and he ran with it.

And The New Yorker let him. The people running the New Yorker bear the ultimate responsibility for what runs in their pages and this article was irresponsible rubbish. There’s a reason this article didn’t run in a peer reviewed medical journal – it would have been laughed out of the editorial office. The New Yorker was grossly negligent, and damage has been and continues to be done.

I’ve heard from several people in the CF community this week. I’ve heard about parents demanding to know where their center “ranks.” I’ve heard about a mother of a CF patient who gained access to a CF medical advisory committee meeting (by virtue of being a pediatrician) and then interrupted the proceedings to demand to know the top 5 and bottom 5 centers. And I’ve heard that the 73 CF centers (out of 117) that aren’t currently a part of the Foundation’s Quality Improvement Initiative (whose findings were hijacked by Dr. Gawande) have become quite reluctant to join the program. No big surprise there. Mind you, all of the above is second hand anecdotal evidence and thus should be taken with a grain of salt, but it does appear that, sadly enough, a destructive chain of events is now in motion.

So what to do? Frankly, I don’t have any constructive ideas. The bell that Dr. Gawande and The New Yorker rang cannot be unrung, I’m afraid. While everyone in the CF community will hear about The New Yorker article in due course, few will read it let alone the follow-up literature (like this) exposing it for what it truly is.

Still, The New Yorker should know what it has done and be held to account. I encourage you to write to The New Yorker, send them an email, take whatever course of action you think is appropriate to let the magazine know they’ve behaved unconscionably. If you have a subscription, think about canceling it (Personal aside to William – you can still go to a newsstand and spend ten minutes thumbing through the cartoons).

Let them know that they have made themselves the heirs to The New Republic’s disgraceful legacy. And let them know that you know it.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Thanks to the many who wrote in regarding yesterday’s piece on Atul Gawande. Before moving on to hopefully lighter subjects, let me wrap up a few loose ends:

1) AFTER EXHAUSTIVE research (you’ll have to take my word for it), I’ve concluded that Dr. Gawande did not have access to the genetic breakdowns of the Cincinnati and Minneapolis patient populations. That means his “statistical” analysis was indeed as sloppy as I feared. Bill James often wrote of baseball scribes who use statistics as a drunk uses a street-light – for support, not illumination. That’s what Dr. Gawande did here. He sought out some numbers that might support a thesis, but he did not care to follow those numbers where they might logically lead.

2) SPEAKING OF TRUSTING ME, a few readers and a couple of bloggers questioned my assertions regarding Cystic Fibrosis such as there being over 1,000 different genetic mutations of the disease, that a patient’s genetic mutation determines the severity of his disease, or that the average patient center has 200 patients. These were uncontroversial assertions –all are accepted fact in the medical community. Nonetheless, I should have provided a link. A quick stroll around the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s website should provide all the supporting data that you might want.

3) SEVERAL READERS wrote in observing the irony that a short while after penning an impassioned piece about how our schools are reluctant to identify excellence and mediocrity, I was writing a piece decrying a physician who was identifying excellence and mediocrity in the medical profession. As they say in the Kerry-Heinz Louisburg Square mansion, touché! Of course, careful readers know that my beef with Gawande isn’t over identifying excellence, but rather the sloppy methodology he used to identify that excellence.

4) SINCE WE JUST TOOK A GRATUITOUS cheap shot at John Kerry, let’s also take one at John Edwards. The estimable Baseball Crank wrote in praising my piece, but lamented that I omitted the most pernicious side effect sloppiness like Gawande’s might produce – a windfall for trial attorneys seeking to profiteer on a patient’s misery. (James from Maine made the same point.) The thinking goes that a medical treatment center that’s in the bottom half of its field of endeavor will be hounded out of existence by trial lawyers. Now, in a perfect world being in the bottom 50% of your medical field of endeavor would not be prima facie evidence that you treat your patients in a negligent fashion. Unfortunately, such negligence trials are unlikely to occur in a perfect world. They’re far more likely to happen in places like Mississippi.

5) BECAUSE I WAS SO WITHERING in my critique of Gawande’s misuse of the CF numbers, most readers assumed I disagreed with everything he wrote. Actually, given his two theses regarding the distribution of doctors’ skills and the need to track such things, we’re not so far apart. We don’t really agree, but the differences are far less visceral than they are on his statistical methodology.

6) ARE PHYSICIANS DISTRIBUTED ON A BELL CURVE? I doubt it, but there does exist a distribution of physician skills. There are good ones and less good ones. Can there be any doubt about that? When it comes to bell curves, random populations are the ones that give you perfect bell curves. The further you get away from random populations, the more likely you are to move away from perfect bell curve distribution.

Let’s say you wanted to graph the height of the entire male population of the United States. That would give you a perfect bell curve. Then let’s say you wanted to graph the height of all Major League Baseball players. Now, when it comes to baseball players, height is no longer a random factor. Other than Eddie Gaedel, no really short people have achieved major league baseball success and there haven’t been any 8’ Hall of Famers either. The baseball players’ graph would look like a straight line between 6’ and 6’4” and then a handful of scattered points on both sides of the graph. There would still be a distribution, but it wouldn’t be a bell curve.

Then let’s say you wanted to graph the height of “The Lower Manhattan Society of 6’3” Men.” You wouldn’t have a bell, you wouldn’t even have a distribution; you’d have a point.

My point is that the distribution of physician skills, given how decidedly non-random the population is, would be unlikely to be a perfect bell curve as Dr. Gawande argues. Of course a careful statistical study could prove me wrong, but what appeared in the pages of The New Yorker was anything but.

7) BUT I MADE A MISTAKE – I wrote my article to expose Dr. Gawande’s dangerously sloppy statistical techniques. There is no denying that his methods were careless at best. I undercut my thrust by commenting on his larger points regarding physician skill distribution and the tracking of physicians’ results.

8) DO I SUPPORT THE TRACKING OF PHYSICIANS’ RESULTS? In a perfect world, yes. In our world…

Does anyone remember Moira Lasch? She was the prosecutor who handled the William Kennedy Smith rape trial back in 1991. How did she get this plum assignment? She was the highest ranking prosecutor in all of Palm Beach County. Her conviction rate was second to none.

Unfortunately, he conviction rate was so perfect because she pleaded practically everything out, especially the tough cases lest they mar her perfect record. She wasn’t a trial lawyer at all, but a plea bargain artist.

At the trial she was up against the truly gifted Roy Black Jr. in his pre-ponytail days. She got killed in what was a career destroying performance. She was hopelessly out of her element.

I’m sure you all see my point: Statistical analysis without identifying and then dealing with all possible variables is likely to do more harm than good.

So what to do we have to do to compare different doctors? A multi-variate analysis. Here’s the bad news - if you don’t know what a multi-variate analysis is, you probably can’t do one.

There’s never anything inherently wrong with information, so I would never be opposed to compiling information. The problem is, raw information can be hijacked by the ignorant.

Or opportunists like New Yorker authors.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Sunday, December 05, 2004


In this month’s issue of the New Yorker, best selling author and surgeon Atul Gawande pens a lengthy article with the thesis that different physicians have different levels of ability; the physicians then achieve different levels of results because of their disparate talents. Dr. Gawande goes so far as to suggest that physicians’ skills may actually resemble a bell curve, a theory that chillingly implies there’s a surfeit of dreadful and below average doctors out there.

To illustrate his point, Dr. Gawande looks at two different Cystic Fibrosis (CF) clinics, one that achieves extraordinary results and one that achieves sub-mediocre outcomes. Regrettably, Dr. Gawande’s article is at best logically weak, at worst perhaps recklessly irresponsible. By handling the data he received from the CF community in a flawed manner, there exists the possibility that Dr. Gawande has done that community a grave and unwarranted disservice. There is a real chance this article will profoundly harm people who don’t currently want for hardships. The doctor should be ashamed of his effort, and the New Yorker should be ashamed of publishing it.


Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic lung disease whose average victim succumbs to the ravages of the disease at the age of 33. That represents great progress from a few decades ago when CF was considered solely a children’s disease because so few sufferers survived into adulthood. There are roughly 30,000 CF patients in the United States. Although the CF gene was discovered roughly 15 years ago, effective treatments for the disease and indeed a comprehensive understanding of how the disease works remain maddeningly out of reach. There are reasons for that, though, which I will get to in a minute.

Fortunately, the CF community is blessed with a wonderful and progressive national Foundation. Over the last several decades, the succession of visionaries in charge of the Foundation have been responsible for extending tens of thousands of lives. One of the Foundation’s initiatives in recent years has been to compile data from all of the country’s 117 CF treatment centers so the centers can learn from each other and treat the disease more effectively.

This initiative is what apparently attracted the attention of Dr. Gawande. Like I said, Dr. Gawande had a thesis that physicians of differing skills achieve different results and that physicians’ abilities as a whole represent a bell curve. Finding evidence to support such a thesis would, however, be difficult.

Physicians and hospitals are loath to track and compare such things for fear that “apples” will be compared to “oranges”. For instance, a gifted oncologist who willingly takes on all the tough cases will doubtlessly have a lower success rate than one who eschews seeing the “hopeless” patients. The oncologist who takes the hard cases would naturally not want his “success” rate compared to the other guy’s, and thus such numbers are hard to come by when they’re compiled at all.

But thanks to the CF Foundation’s initiative in comparing the country’s 117 CF treatment centers, Dr. Gawande hit the mother-lode. Here were reams of data he could use to support his thesis. He found that the results (the patients’mortality rates and lung functions) of the 117 centers resembled a bell curve. To further bolster his case, Dr. Gawande zeroed in on two centers, the one in Minneapolis which has the lowest mortality rate in the country and the one in Cincinnati which has a below average success rate. After spending time at both centers, he found the staff and doctors at Minneapolis to be a lot more skilled at what they do than their Cincinnati counterparts. Dr. Gawande spends roughly 3,000 words suggesting that this skill difference accounts for the longer lives of the Minneapolis patients. At no point in his article does he suggest ANY other factor might contribute to the Minneapolis center’s superior record.

Here’s what’s so incredibly sloppy about Dr. Gawande’s study: Throughout his article, he treats Cystic Fibrosis cases as if they’re all fungible. In over ten thousand words Dr. Gawande never reveals that there are over a thousand variations (remember, out of a population of 30,000) of the Cystic Fibrosis gene. That fact means that most Cystic Fibrosis patients have different “diseases” from one another. There are some CF patients born with such a virulent genetic mutation that they have little chance of living to their tenth birthday. There are other CF patients born with such a mild variation of the disease that they live almost completely normal young lives and avoid being even diagnosed with CF until they’re well into their 20’s. Any CF doctor, or for that matter any doctor, would tell you that BY FAR the biggest determinant in a CF patient’s outlook is the nature of his genetic mutation. Again, this is a fact Dr. Gawande omits from his article. Gawande’s entire thrust is that the physician’s skill is the great variable in a patient’s prospects. Indeed, at no point does he even acknowledge that any other variable might be a contributing factor to a patient’s well-being. For the CF community, this is risible nonsense.

In comparing the Cincinnati and Minneapolis centers, Dr. Gawande never tells us whether or not he’s looked into whether the populations have comparable distributions of the less virulent and more virulent genetic mutations of CF. Given the fact that he never so much as mentions the fact that there are different genetic forms of CF and that those forms present their holders with radically different “diseases” and outlooks, I see little reason to have faith in Dr. Gawande’s thoroughness.

Furthermore, given that there are 117 CF centers throughout the country with an average patient population of around 200, it would be expected that some centers would have unusually large clusters of “mild” cases while others would have unusually large clusters of “severe” cases. Given that the centers come by their patients by a “random” process (most of a given center’s patients are at that center by virtue of where they were born), statistically we would expect different centers to have populations of differing disease severity. The “Occam’s Razor” explanation for the discrepancies between the Minneapolis and Cincinnati centers is that they’re dealing with genetically different populations and that Cincinnati got the short end of the stick. I would be shocked if Dr. Gawande didn’t hear this from the folks at the Minneapolis clinic.

Here’s the great irony of Dr. Gawande’s piece. At one point Dr. Gawande concedes that it’s intellectually unlikely that physicians’ skills would be distributed along a bell curve. The explanation for this is that bell curves typically reflect only random populations and physicians are anything but a random population. All doctors are college educated, medical school graduates, self selected, self motivated enough to have made it through residency, etc. If you were to look at society as a whole as a bell curve, physicians would all be at the far end of that bell curve. Dr. Gawande writes that the physicians’ “curve” theoretically wouldn’t be shaped like a bell at all but instead like a shark fin with the biggest clusters being around the best results.

While physicians don’t reflect a random population, the populations at the CF centers ARE in fact random populations. When it comes to CF we’re talking about an overall community of 30,000 with over 1,000 different genetic variations, so no individual CF center (each of which has between a few dozen and a few hundred patients) would fully reflect the full range of the CF population’s disparities or even a significant portion of those disparities. It is therefore unsurprising that the results of the 117 centers composed of random populations reflect a bell curve. To say this bell is due primarily to the varying skill levels of the centers’ physicians instead of the random nature of the centers’ populations is remarkably implausible and indeed somewhat obtuse. All logic dictates that the bell curve Dr. Gawande finds is because of the randomness of the patient populations, not the self selecting physician populations.

It should also be pointed out, for what it’s worth, that Cincinnati is hardly a Cystic Fibrosis backwater. Those of you who are big football fans who have heard of CF might have first heard about the disease when longtime Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason’s son Gunnar was born with CF. Because of Esiason’s heroic involvement with the Ohio and national Foundations the past decade, Cincinnati has been a veritable hub of the CF community, both well funded and progressive. The Cincinnati center is an unlikely candidate to be an exemplar of sub-mediocre medical practice.

So what’s the big deal about all of this? A lot. The potential pernicious effects of this study are several:

1) Dr. Gawande suggests that the treatment at the Cincinnati center is subpar. To say this will rattle the cages of the center’s patients (and the patients’ parents) would understate things. Indeed, Dr. Gawande interviews the parents of a seven year old patient who are perilously close to concluding they’ll have to move from Cincinnati to preserve their child’s health. Dr. Gawande’s sloppiness is likely to heap hardships on a population that hardly needs more troubles.

2) The Cincinnati center is presumably staffed by doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and others who heroically devote themselves to treating critically ill children and young adults. Their efforts have been unfairly maligned because of a hopelessly sloppy statistical study. Similarly, the 50% of the nation’s CF centers that find themselves in the bottom 50% are likely to find themselves on the receiving ends of similar opprobrium. Again, this article is likely to bring a lot of grief to people who simply don’t deserve it.

3) When people have misfortune in their lives, they look for someone to blame even if their misfortune is just a stroke of bad luck. If you suffer from CF, you’ve had a rough break. Dr. Gawande has now served up a scapegoat for Cincinnati’s CF sufferers. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if CF patients around the country begin clamoring to know where their center “ranks”. But given the crudeness of these rankings and the fact that even a putatively gifted physician like Dr. Gawande was unable to perceive their limitations, one must wonder how much good having this information generally available will do. One can also imagine this effect mushrooming across the entire medical landscape. One can picture gravely ill cancer patients blaming their misfortunes on the oncologists who as a rule take the hard cases (instead of avoiding them) and thus have a “below average” success rate. And one can picture, as a result, the medical community running from the hard cases instead of seeking them out.

4) As Dr. Gawande writes, “One small field in medicine has been far ahead of most others in measuring the performance of its practitioners: cystic fibrosis care.” And he gives the CF medical community its reward – to have its numbers distorted and reported out of context so a magazine writer can bolster his thesis. The people at the CF Foundation doubtlessly know that comparing the raw results of one center to another is comparing “apples to oranges” if one hasn’t weighted the results to reflect the different genetic mutations of the given populations. The readers of the New Yorker, however, do not. What kind of effect do you think this article will have on similar fields of medical endeavor that would like to track such things? Pretty damn chilling, I’d imagine. Since Dr. Gawande is such a fan of tracking physicians’ results, you’d think he’d be concerned about such a thing.

I should say clearly that if Dr. Gawande did check the different genetic mutations of the Cincinnati and Minneapolis centers and made sure he was comparing “apples to apples” none of the above is valid. However, given the fact that he hasn’t shown us any of his methodology beyond looking at the different centers’ mortality rates and lung function tests, I’m not too hopeful. Furthermore, Dr. Gawande is making some dramatic disparagements of the Cincinnati center; it’s appalling that he would make such a commentary without supplying more information regarding the methodology that led him to such dramatic conclusions.

Pending proof regarding the quality of his methodology, I can’t help but conclude that Dr. Gawande’s article is irresponsible journalism of the worst kind. Its author posits an expertise that he doesn’t possess and then proceeds in a recklessly sloppy manner. Worse still, he has made the lives of some CF patients and their families harder than they already were.

I agree with Dr. Gawande that different physicians have different abilities and talents and that the better doctors practice better medicine and, all other things being equal, will therefore achieve better results. But to support his case Dr. Gawande has marshaled inappropriate data paired with a handful of anecdotes.

Most readers of the New Yorker piece will probably be convinced of Dr. Gawande’s case in its entirety. That’s unfortunate. Unless quickly debunked this article is likely to have several pernicious effects on the medical community at large starting with the Cystic Fibrosis community. If Dr. Gawande’s methods were indeed as flawed as I fear, I earnestly hope he’ll do whatever is necessary to unring this bell that he has so irresponsibly and unnecessarily clanged.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Friday, December 03, 2004


A few thoughts about the baseball steroid scandal that’s about to receive saturation coverage in the coming days:

1) I’M SHOCKED, SHOCKED! Just about everyone has known that a ton of major league players have been on steroids for a while now. The recently deceased Ken Caminitti and recently incarcerated Jose Canseco have both estimated the percentage of users to hover between 60 and 70% of all big leaguers. Okay, neither one of them is the most reliable source but looking at the trunk thickness of the typical major leaguer, their estimate doesn’t seem crazy. By the way, during the 2003 season it was widely whispered that a certain Red Sox’ performance was sub-par that year because he had decided to kick the habit. Believe me, if the rumor reached my ears it wasn’t exactly super-confidential.

2) BEWARE MORAL GRANDSTANDING – Is it cheating if everyone does it? Sure, but the fact that most of your competitors are pursuing the same illicit edge should surely minimize the enormity of the sin. Barry Bonds for sure wasn’t the only guy using steroids; he was however the only one hitting 70 homeruns.

What I really don’t like is the self appointed media saints who decry the ballplayers’ reckless disregard for their health while hunching over their keyboards with a cigarette dangling from their lips. The sportswriters then go on to lament the lack of honesty in sports while saluting the ribald chicanery of a Gaylord Perry who could doctor the ball like nothin’ you’ve ever seen. What a scoop the knights of the keyboard have – pro athletes aren’t saints. Is that great or what?

And before condemning the ballplayers consider this: Let’s say you could take a drug that would advance your career or business like steroids advances a ballplayer’s. And let’s say 65% of your competitor’s took that drug. And let’s say that that drug had the exact same harmful side effects as anabolic steroids but you could take them under close medical supervision so as to minimize those pernicious side effects. Would you do it? I wonder how many of the disconsolate sportswriters that will be popping up all over the nation would take such a drug if it would help them land that elusive lucrative book deal.

3) THERE’S AN EASY FIX – When I was in law school, I had a professor who told a story that they took a survey of NHL players in the late 1960’s when virtually none of them wore helmets. The poll showed that the vast majority of the players wished helmets were mandatory so they would have to wear one and not be derided as a chicken-shit when they put one on. In other words, most of the players were doing something they didn’t want to do (playing helmet-less) because they sort of had to, not because they wanted to.

For the life of me, I don’t know why the baseball players’ union doesn’t want mandatory testing. The clean players should want it for obvious reasons; a lot of the dirty players should want it because they would no longer have to take steroids to keep up with the Joneses. Some of the dirty players will of course not want testing but that will be a minority of the league as a whole.

So the solution rests with the players’ union.

4) ALL PRAISE JEREMY GIAMBI – Jeremy Giambi is Jason Giambi’s comically inept younger brother who sullied Fenway Park while playing for the Red Sox in 2003. It came out today that he had taken a busload of steroids to ready himself for the 2003 season. They didn’t work. The 2003 Jeremy Giambi almost single handedly redefined the concept of suckiness. It is very unlikely that legions of Beantown youths will be using steroids to best emulate their hero, Jeremy Giambi. And that’s good, isn’t it?

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight


Thirteen years ago while I was still in law school, I began teaching at a Saturday program for “gifted and talented” 5th graders hosted by one of the Boston area’s more prestigious prep schools. I remained at the program for a dozen years, leaving only when the time commitment proved unsustainable. My association with the program gave me a ringside seat for the battle between excellence and mediocrity that has raged in our schools for the past several years. Sadly, it hasn’t been a good 13 years for excellence or its fans.

When I first started at the program in 1991, the program proudly proclaimed itself as one for “gifted and talented” public school students from neighboring communities. Around 1993 or so the labels “gifted and talented” became incendiary and controversial; by proclaiming the students at the program “gifted and talented” some thought we were labeling non-attendees less gifted and less talented. Since the non-attendees and their parents represented 98% of their communities, their concerns were not easily dismissed even if they were the idiotic manifestations of political correctness run amok.

Cowing to public pressure, we decided that our program would no longer be one for “gifted and talented” children. It instead became one for “independently motivated” children. You’ll note that the phrase “independently motivated” is delightfully meaningless, a piece of silly gibberish guaranteed to neither offend nor please.

When I started at the program, the teachers had to write evaluations for all their students. Typically each teacher would have two classes of ten students in each six week session. As we entered the mid-90’s, the evaluations became increasingly controversial. If a teacher wrote something like one of his 5th grade charges could have paid more attention to his home assignments or that the kid had trouble grasping some of the more complex concepts in the class, that teacher (and the program) ran the risk of enraging a parent who might well fear such a negative comment would forever ruin little Tiffany’s chances of getting into Cornell. So teachers lost the power to write anything negative in their evaluations, which really wasn’t that big a deal anyway since most of the teachers were strongly disinclined to risk parental wrath anyway.

A few years later, the evaluations were ditched altogether. Even with evaluations no longer containing anything that whiffed of negativity, there still remained a bit of potential controversy. If say 4 out of 20 students received particular praise for their efforts, you could be sure that the parents of at least a couple of the sixteen non-exceptional kids would raise a stink.

With no evaluations, there existed a lack of closure when kids completed the program. So for the past several years, every student has received a certificate of completion that looks like a little diploma and pretends that the kids have actually accomplished something but since no kid has managed to not receive a certificate of completion the last six years, you really have to question the enormity of the accomplishment.

I started this little essay about a week ago when I got home from seeing “The Incredibles” which trenchantly addresses the way our society discourages excellence and honors mediocrity. The parallels to my teaching avocation were unmistakable.

I should say here, clearly, that I do not blame any of the above changes on my friends who ran/run the program and who, to a person, are people I admire deeply. Rather, like any good institution, they have been offering what their customers demand. In this case their customers (the parents) want to be told their children are special or at the very least don’t want to hear the opposite. I should also add the guts of the program remain exceptional and unchanged; it’s only the publicly visible portions of the program that have been hammered.

The election was supposedly one about values. Well here’s a couple of values for you – I value excellence and I value honesty. As a program our hands were tied because the parents didn’t feel the same way. And little will change in our schools until that changes.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Thursday, December 02, 2004


As many of you know, I’ve been a little laid up the last few weeks which accounts for the intermittent and incoherent blogging during that time. For those of you with a morbid interest in the health of bloggers, I refer you to Andrew Sullivan’s site where he’ll keep you riveted with the latest details surrounding his sleep Apnea and his lack of REM rest. Fascinating stuff, and a sobering reminder to any blogger who might be tempted to post an entry on a clumsy phlebotomist or something along those lines.

Even though I haven’t been writing, I have been paying attention to the world. Believe me, although it didn’t make it to the site I had 2,000 words in my head each and every day. While I won’t try to unclog the 30,000 some odd words that never saw the light of day, there are two things I want to re-visit before entering the here and now.

The two incidents that really excited me about the past few weeks were the Artest basketbrawl in greater Detroit and the Bush secret-service scrum in Chile. Too much has been written about the Artest thing and a lot has been said about the Chile incident, but no one has tied the incidents together. Until now.

First, a few additional words about the Artest thing. Several readers wrote in regarding my prior post on the subject in astonished disappointment that I didn’t realize that the basketbrawl was a sign that society’s slouch to Gomorrah continues to accelerate. Sorry to further disappoint those of you who wrote in expressing such a sentiment, but my position has only hardened in the past ten days. Take my word for it – ten or fifteen years from now when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, this incident will be an admirable part of Artest’s portfolio, something that illustrates his passion and fearlessness.

I know, you think it’s disgusting but it’s true. Let me offer a historic parallel. The Celtics used to have a center named Dave Cowens who was voted one of the NBA’s 50 best players of all time. He was great. Even though he was 6’8”, he effectively guarded and out-rebounded giants like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (although frankly I probably could have out-rebounded the preternaturally soft Abdul-Jabbar). How was the relatively diminutive Cowens capable of such feats? Because he played with an astonishing intensity (and a lot of talent as well, of course).

But Cowens’ intensity led to some rather curious and at times repellent conduct. He left the Celtics in mid-season once (and in so doing killed their title hopes) to drive a Boston cab. He spent an evening sleeping outside on Boston Common. And, most notoriously, he committed probably the greatest cheap shot in NBA history when he sucker-punched an opponent (Mike Newlin, I believe) in response to the opponent getting a foul whistled on Cowens by taking a dive. Cowens, enraged over the bad call and the perfidy that provoked it, stomped over to Newlin and punched the astonished little man in the face. He then screamed at the referee, “That’s a fucking foul!” and left the court pending his ejection. (Are you smirking? Shame on you!!)

Cowens remains a beloved figure in Boston and indeed throughout the NBA; his intensity is considered something worth emulating. No one defends the Newlin incident, and yet its perpetrator is given a pass. Odd, isn’t it?

Let’s turn to the President in Chile. If you haven’t heard about this incident, you’re missing something. The Chileans were apparently ripped during Bush’s entire visit that the American Secret Service insisted controlling the “personal space” around the President and wouldn’t trust his security to the Chileans. At a State dinner, the Chileans got their revenge. After the President and the First Lady entered the function, a multitude of Chilean soldiers aggressively detained the President’s body-guards. On the video-tape, you can see an enormous scrum break out between the Secret Service and the Chileans as the unaware President walked on with the Chilean President at his side.

After approximately 30 seconds, the President noticed that he was without his bodyguards who were busy wrestling the Chileans approximately 50 feet behind him. The President did a U-turn, waded into the scrum and personally pulled out his body-man who then entered the room at the President’s side. On the videotape, the President looks very satisfied with his brief physical labors as he returns up the aisle with his liberated secret service agent. (Are you smirking again? What’s wrong with you?)

There’s a reason why most of the readers of this blog and indeed most Americans admire what Bush did, grudgingly admire what Cowens did (while realizing it was really, really wrong) and will come to admire what Artest did. Americans admire men (and women) who have a pair; we so admire those who have a pair, we’re willing to overlook a lot of their flaws.

One of the reasons Bush won was because America felt he had a pair and never had the same sense about Senator Kerry. Indeed, while Kerry may have been a war hero, it’s impossible to imagine him scuffling with dozens of enraged Chileans.

What Artest did was hideous, no question. But braving 20,000 hostiles to avenge a beer being tossed on him – you gotta admit, the guy’s got guts. And he plays with guts. While his antics are frequently repellent, he plays the game right.

(By the way, according to Hall of Famer turned annoying broadcaster Bill Walton, Dave Cowens once went into the stands to beat up some fans in San Antonio. In writing about that incident, Walton doesn’t seem nearly as scandalized by it as he was by Artest’s antics while he broadcasted the Pacers-Pistons rhubarb.)

Good to be back. I’ll be writing again soon.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight