Friday, January 25, 2008

So, I see you have some bananas....

Sometimes, I think my life is rather ordinary.

I’m a grad student, so that’s pretty much my job. It’s been frustrating recently due to some labwork not going well (meaning I’m doing stuff which turns out to be pointless), a collaborator not responding to my attempts to communicate with her and get some materials she’s promised me (standard sort of coworker problems), and lab meetings/seminars taking up a large amount of my time (meaning I’m spending too much time in meetings). That’s beginning to look like an underpaid office job, where one of the primary perks is extreme time flexibility. Outside of my job, I’ve been reading some popular fiction, working out, and watching some movies. I’ve even been going to an internet cafĂ© with friends, even if we’re there to play board games. This all seems pretty typical.

And then, in conversation today, I was reminded of the fact that this summer I was asked by a random stranger in the grocery store if I had a pet monkey.

Things like that have a way of reminding me that sometimes my life really isn’t that normal.

Now, in the defense of the random stranger, my shopping cart looked like I was about to open a fruit stand. I had foolishly decided to go to the market while hungry, which everyone knows means you’ll buy way too much food. I’ve learned that for me, personally, going to the grocery store hungry will result in insane quantities of fruit being purchased. As a gay primate, I have plenty of reasons to like fruit. At the time of the question being asked, my shopping cart contained two pints of blueberries, one of strawberries, two bunches of bananas, a couple pounds of cherries, probably a pound of grapes, and a small watermelon. And nothing else. I was in the process of reaching for some raisins when the young woman just blurted out “Do you have a pet monkey?”

“Excuse me?”

No introduction, no previous encounter, just a 20-something woman asking whether I kept exotic tropical primates at home. Maybe she was trying to flirt with me; I didn’t think of that until much later. She just struck me as weird. She repeated her question, at my response. I looked at her like she was a crazy woman, said “No,” and headed over to the deli counter. I was relieved she didn’t follow me. When it was time for me to check out, I noticed she was still standing in the produce area. She didn’t have much produce in her cart, and seemed to be paying more attention to the other shoppers than the food.

I think we can all take some knowledge away from this anecdote:

- What some people consider friendliness, others will consider weird.

- If you want free fruit in the summer, talk me into going grocery shopping while I’m hungry, and then come visit in the next couple of days.

- If you’re a woman who has decided to treat the grocery store as a different kind of meat market, head back to the butcher’s case. The junk food aisle is another good option. The fruit area of the produce section is not the market for you.

When has your time been served?

Until quite recently, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson was a first year medical student at the Karolinska Institute. A world class medical training and research facility, the Karolinska Institute is best known for selecting each year's winner for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Now it is issuing a different judgment.

The institute has decided to expel Mr. Svensson. The technical reason? His high school transcripts bore his current legal surname, though he was born with the last name of Hellekant.

That, of course, is not the real reason he's been expelled. He changed his name after being convicted of killing a man named Bjorn Soderburg in 1999. Police considered the crime to be a hate crime, as Mr. Svensson (or, at the time, Mr. Hellekant) was under surveillance due to suspicions he was a neo-Nazi. He has since served 6.5 years of an 11-year sentence, been paroled, applied to medical school, and been admitted. His admission came about largely from his high school transcripts, several online courses he took during his incarceration, and an interview in which no one asked what he had been doing for the past 7 years.

That being said, the onus of this decision does not lie exclusively with the Karolinska Institute. The Sweedish Medical Association has stated that it will not grant him a license even if he does graduate from a medical school, solely due to his conviction for this murder.

At this point, we are left with a question: from what crimes is rehabilitation possible?

An 11-year sentence for murder strikes me as being predicated on the belief that rehabilitation is definitely possible. 11 years is a long time to spend in jail--though of course, parole* reduces that time--but it's still only a fraction of one's life span. 6.5 years is less than 10% of the life expectancy at birth in Sweeden. Even the full span is less than 15%, and the very fact that he was paroled is a good argument for the system deciding that he has officially been rehabilitated to a sufficient degree to involve his inclusion in society.

At the same time, at least in the US, we believe that some rights and privileges are surrendered upon conviction of a felony. Felons don't get to vote, for example. There may be a similar rule in Sweeden; I don't know.

So what is the message here? If you commit a felony, you can be made into something of a citizen again, but you can't become a doctor? If so, why is the prison system allowing him to take online courses toward that end, and why is it not a question on the application to medical school in the first place? Is the fact that this was considered a hate crime relevant? If so, does that mean that we care more about what you think than what you physically do?

Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that he was indeed a neo-Nazi and that the murder was related to that. I am fully aware of the fact that his hate group would include me on the list. The Jewish people weren't the only victims of the Holocaust; the Nazis also attempted to exterminate the Roma, and the gays. I am a member of the last of these groups, and many strangers assume I'm a member of the first as well. I still don't think whether or not the crime was a hate crime should matter in the punishment he receives for it; that is way too much of thought-crime for my tastes.

For the record, I think the Karolinska Institue is within their rights, but their decision is a shameful one. I would be all for expelling him if he had lied when asked about a felony conviction, what he had been doing for the time he was imprisoned, etc. I'd also be fine with expelling him for lying about his grades. I would even be OK with them deciding not to admit him if he volunteered information about the crime ahead of time, or they asked him before offering admission, choosing instead to offer the position to another applicant who had not committed acrime. All of that would be quite reasonable, and probably prudent. Finding that he used his current legal surname on his old transcripts, on the other hand, strikes me as a very weak way of finding anything they can which would technically allow them to expel him, even though he did nothing wrong in the admission process and was, by current accounts, performing well in his schooling. It seems like a case of manipulating the rules to get the result you want, rather than following the spirit of them. But, as said above, I don't entirely blame them; the Sweedish medical Association deserves blame as well, for stating that he will never be licensed. Particularly for a medical association--which, as part of its existence, oversees the licensing and practicing methods of psychiatrists--to effectively state that one's past negative thoughts and actions can never be recovered from seem to me entirely the wrong message to send.

* The word parole was originally given as "probably". This typo has been fixed after the fact.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Issues of independence

I read an interesting opinion today about why it's bad to be a political independent. Speaking as an independent, I obviously don't think it's such a bad thing, but the article is relatively well written. Essentially, the writer argues that humans are by nature factional, and that once you start trying to actually do anything rather than speak in meaningless generalities, you'll end up with disagreements about terms or priorities, and then you'll need to unite with line-minded people in order to accomplish something. Further, an independent as President would face more politics in trying to get something done than a member of one of the two major parties, as that President wouldn't be able to count on a large bloc of automatic support.

These arguments are valid as far as they go. What I feel the author has overlooked, though, is another reason why many people become independents: the fact that there is more than one political axis. If you align things are a purely left-right axis, I come out pretty much dead center. So does my friend David from freshman year. When you look at two axes, on the other hand, David and I come out as diamterically opposed, as he's essentially a populist and I'm essentially a libertarian. We come out in the middle on a single axis because when looking at the broad scale, the number of issues on which we greatly favor the Democrats balance the number of issues on which we greatly favor the Republicans--it's just that, for the two of us, many of those positions are opposite to each others'.

I'm sure there are some people who are independents because they gain satisfaction from not belonging to a major group, or who may feel superior to others for their lack of assumed allegiances. The author does, however, completely ignore that some people might be independents because on the, say, 4 issues that matter the most to that person, two positions are taken by the Republicans and 2 are taken by the Democrats, and the person thus doesn't have greater loyalty to one side or the other on policy as a whole, but must make decisions more on the basis of the particular Republican or Democrat offered as a choice. By not addressing that aspect, I see the argument as fatally flawed.