Archive for the ‘Disaster’ Category

Reflections on Victim Compensation Ten Years After 9/11

September 15th, 2011 No comments

The tenth anniversary of September 11 has been covered from an astonishing array of angles. There are mainstream pieces inviting us to reconsider our response to terrorist threats, dissections of the mindsets of conspiracy theorists, explorations of how to talk to children about tragedies, a photographic tribute to the World Trade Towers, and, perhaps most oddly, a look at the market for Ground Zero memorabilia.

But one scans the web in vain for an exploration of this question, which 9/11 chillingly raises:

What do we owe the victims of misfortune?

Perhaps this occasion for (mostly) solemn reflection can trigger a discussion of the choices we make in compensating those afflicted by all kinds of personal and collective disasters – because the machine we created to compensate the victims of September 11 bears little resemblance to the way we usually assist those in need.

Shortly after 9/11, Congress rushed into law the Victim Compensation Fund. Born of a combination of generosity and a desire to protect the airlines from lawsuits for their negligent security procedures, the Fund expended more than $7 billion in tax dollars, and payouts to individuals were as high as $8.6 million Why such hefty pay-outs? Because the Fund is largely based on a tort model of full compensation for those injured by wrongful conduct.

This is almost unprecedented, and it isn’t even over. Last December, Congress breathed life back into the Fund, making payments available to those able to prove injuries from their exposure to the toxins present around Ground Zero in the months following that tragic day. While the newly available $4.3 billion will mostly compensate first responders, others who can prove injury that occurred at the broadly defined “crash site” can also file a claim under the Fund.

Criticisms of the Fund mostly come from those claiming it’s not doing enough. Jon Stewart famously let slip his comic mask on behalf of first responders,  railing against Congressional dawdling on reopening the Fund to compensate them. He’s even been credited with having helped embarrass and jolt lawmakers into ponying up the $4.3 billion. And just a few days ago, he and Daily Show guest Sanjay Gupta commiserated on the decision not to treat cancer as a compensable, 9/11-related injury – even though the science isn’t yet there to substantiate causation.

Stewart’s reaction is hard to criticize only if we look at the Fund in isolation. But it’s not unassailable if we take a broader focus. What if we had a serious discussion of the larger questions that the Fund raises: Whom do we choose to compensate for disasters, and for how much? And how do we define “disaster”?

I discussed these matters with a law school classmate, Harry Waizer. He was head of the tax department at Cantor Fitzgerald on that clear September day, and was in an elevator heading for his 104th floor office when the plane struck. Badly burned and given just a five-percent chance of survival, Harry is now flourishing despite the emotional and physical scars of that day. He’s back at Cantor (part-time), and has a happy marriage and three great kids.

Harry realized what he called a “substantial” payout from the Victim Compensation Fund. Although he understandably won’t share the precise amount, the payment included a big chunk for lost income, and another hefty recovery for his pain and suffering.

Is this fair? Harry doesn’t think so.  “I don’t find the argument for having this Fund particularly compelling,” he told me. “I’m a very grateful beneficiary, but if you ask me in an objective way whether this kind of compensation system for victims of this kind of event is appropriate, I’d have to say ‘no’.”

He’s right. Since the source of the Fund is general taxpayer revenue, some of the taxes paid by a low-income worker – for example, a manual laborer with no health benefits – went to pay Harry and the thousands of others who received compensation.

The Fund stands almost alone as an exercise in taxpayer-funded largesse. And its one close precedent only invites further, disturbing questions about our national response to disaster. In response to the 1976 collapse of the Teton Dam in Idaho, which resulted in eleven deaths and thousands of cases of homelessness, the federal government created a compensation program that paid out some $200 million to victims.

It’s true that the government itself had been responsible for that disaster. But government ineptitude (in the design and construction of the levee system) also played a crucial role in the vast human suffering from Hurricane Katrina – and there’s no similar compensation fund for those victims. They’ve had to make do with much less generous federal disaster relief funds.

The Teton Dam case is enough to show that the difference in our national responses to Katrina and 9/11 reflects a distinction between natural disasters and terrorism. If further evidence of our national inconsistency were needed, consider the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. After the Victim Compensation Fund was established, legislation to compensate them was introduced in Congress – but died there.

There’s no principled way to reconcile any of this. Yet there’s a lesson to be extracted from our inconsistent responses to disasters. I turn again to Harry Waizer.

“My brother-in-law was jogging by the side of the road when he was hit by an uninsured drive. He has suffered terribly, no less severely injured than I. And there’s no fund for him.”

But Harry’s brother-in-law, and so many others, deserve more than our sympathy. Where’s the justice in compensating some generously, while ignoring others? Crime victims, those displaced by natural disasters, and even those who lack health care are no less deserving of a helping hand than the victims of September 11. Recovery shouldn’t be made to depend on whether a given tragedy sparks our national imagination, as that tragic day did to an unprecedented extent.

In a society with limited resources, we have to think hard about the choices we make, and it’s too much to expect a perfectly consistent approach. But we should see the consequences of misfortune and tragedy as more important than their origin, and design compensation systems that provide a basic floor for all victims – medical care, basic housing, and help in rebuilding their jobs and communities would be a good start. That’s basically the model that the Federal Emergency Management Agency follows, and would be a good place to start.

As recent natural disasters – and Eric Cantor’s tone-deaf posturing about whether to help their victims – have reminded us, the time to discuss these issues is always ripe. Let’s use the tenth anniversary of that terrible September day to reinvigorate that important discussion.

The 9/11 First Responders Bill is Fair Enough (but just barely)

December 23rd, 2010 No comments

Over at, I have a just-published piece that looks at the 9/11 first responders bill that was passed yesterday.

A regular readers of this site know, I have a strong interest in this issue of compensating victims of disaster: How do we do so in a way that’s fair not only to those compensated, but to others who suffer life’s indignities but don’t have a fund in their name? In this case, I think that the law is probably justified; but if it is, so is compensation for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

I’m only upset that the editor (who’s great) eliminated my favorite phrase: “Jon Stewart’s incinerating anger….” Oh, well. At least you get to read it.

Best of the holidays to all. I’m blogged out for now.

Interpretations of Disaster

October 28th, 2010 3 comments

I awoke this morning to find a Facebook posting by my friend Charley Sullivan that is surely one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Without further introduction, I’ll let this piece speak for itself, in its entirety.

As I woke up yesterday morning, I heard the words “volcano” and “Indonesia” come across NPR.  I was instantly awake.  I am an historian of Indonesia, and in particular of Central Java, and I immediately needed to know more.  It turned out it wasn’t just a volcano that had erupted, it was THE volcano: Gunung Merapi, whose name means Mountain of Fire. It stands at the cosmological center of the Javanese universe, on the north end of a meridian that runs south from the mountain through the royal city of Yogyakarta to the beach at Parangtritis, the home of Kyai Loro Ratu Kidul, the queen of the South Seas. On the rare clear day Merapi dominates Yogyakarta and the pre-Islamic temples of Borobudur and Pramabanan, sometimes smoking gently next to its twin, Gunung Merbabu. This is an ancient and spiritually very potent place, a site of pilgrimages, where sultans and presidents have come to meditate in secret grottos in search of wahyu, the light that is the ultimate source of Javanese spiritual power. According to Javanese legend, it is the place where both Java and the whole world are nailed to the ground, keeping all things in place and in order.

But as I listened to the news, I heard no sense of the specialness of that space.  The mountain, we were told, was 400 miles southeast of Jakarta, the explosion had been caused by an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, and although there was also a tsunami triggered by another earthquake in Riau, all part of the same “Ring of Fire” we know from middle school, the two events were unrelated seismologically, so said the scientific experts. We were told that the area is covered in ash, that some people have died while many more are injured, mostly to burns and inhalation injuries, and still more have been evacuated. The emergency response teams from the Indonesian government, well practiced in volcano eruptions and tsuanmis, are efficiently on hand. President Yudhoyono has delayed his overseas mission to Vietnam to check in on the natural disaster, or at least the one in Riau.

This is all accurate, but stunningly incomplete.  The American media have given us the story we expect to hear – distance from Jakarta, Richter scale, Ring of Fire, ash, evacuations, death, emergency response – that is identical to other (particularly post-Aceh-tsunami) “Indonesia as site of frequent natural disaster” stories. We are missing a much more complex and interesting story.

The distance from Jakarta as the crow flies, unless you’re rich and on an airplane, means little to most Indonesians, though the distance by train or by bus, measured in hours rather than kilometers, would. I study Indonesia, and I still don’t know the difference between 6.2 and 6.4 on the Richter scale, though I know anything in the 7’s would be like Godzilla pounding his foot through your house, and something in the 5’s would barely set the ice cubes in your gin and tonic shivering. The ring of fire covers a third of the earth, but how a tsunami in Kyushu, or even one in Riau, relates to the explosion of Merapi, no-one really knows. There are two things we’ve known about this part of the world since 6th grade: that these are the Spice Islands, and that the whole ring of fire, including Los Angeles, is all going to slide into the sea one day. The place is inherently dangerous and to be feared, and the western news reaffirms what we expect to see and hear in such a situation.

To find out what is really going on in Java then, I turn on my MacBook and open up Facebook, always one of my best and fastest sources for news from Indonesia.  And there it is, an Instant Message from Mas Bambang Irawan, teacher of development economics at Universitas Sebelas Maret in Solo, (another royal city under the shadow of Merapi,) a partner and local organizer of the undergraduate summer seminars I have arranged and led to Central Java and Bali for undergraduates from the University of Michigan, a superbly trained classical Javanese dancer, an important member of one of Solo’s two royal houses, and, with his wife Lina, a good and close personal friend.

The Instant Message is all about the eruption, but there are no Richter scales, or ash clouds, or even government efficiency.  Instead, it runs this way, in a mixture of Indonesian and English:

Bambang: Hello.  I have to tell you that Mbah Maridjan left the world today. We met him two years ago, do you remember? His home is now beneath the ground.

Me:  Aduh!!!!  Yes I remember him, of course I remember him.

Bambang:  It turns out our interview with him was the last he ever gave to foreign researchers.

Me:  Were we that bad??

Bambang:  No, not at all.  We are lucky to have met such a rare and precious person.

Me:  Indeed.  I hope his soul rests.

Bambang:  Amiin.

Mbah Maridjan was the court (kraton) servant in charge of Mount Merapi. His job, inherited from his father, was, officially at least, to build a pathway to Kendah, an important site on the mountain, when the kraton sends offerings to the mountain.  But he was both more simple than that, and much more important and his position was eminently more complex. “I don’t have even an elementary school education,” he told my students in the interview in late June 2008, “so I was just a janitor around here, cleaning up after people’s junk, and cleaning up the environment on the mountain.”

But for being “just a janitor,” he had already become a celebrity before the earthquakes in Central Java in 2006, in which Merapi had also belched.  He was called, by both the international and Indonesian press, such things as “The Keeper of the Mountain,” “The Volcano Whisperer,” or, in a more nationalist Indonesian bent “The respected President of Merapi.” When word got out that he had “predicted” or “known about” the eruptions of the mountain in 2006 before they occurred, which had been largely missed by the electronic sensors placed all over the mountain and manned by international teams of scientists, his fame shot through the roof, and he became a media sensation. His small mountain top courtyard was suddenly full of television cameras from around the world, and pilgrims from around Indonesia. An interview with Mbah Maridjan became a prized commodity, and I’m sure that the people invading his small village (really just a few houses and a mosque) were considered quite a nuisance.

Nonetheless, when my students and I came to Yogyakarta in 2008, looking at the aftermath of the 2006 earthquakes and at the political and mystical geography of the whole region, Mas Bambang had used his court connections to get us an interview with Mbah Maridjan. As I found out yesterday morning, it was the last one he gave to foreigners.

It was a fascinating interview; not for what we learned, but for how my students experienced it.  This interview came towards the end of our time in Indonesia.  We had spent almost three weeks by then interviewing all sorts of people in Bali and in Central Java – artists, community activists, royal, religious and community leaders, fishermen, rice farmers, market vendors, hotel managers and medical personnel.  In all cases, we had been welcomed warmly and our interviewees had been patient through the back and forth of questions, translations, answers, translations, misunderstandings, questions for clarification, and more translations. This all happened with photography, sound recording and note taking alongside the actual interview, and with me sitting behind my students helping them to understand the implications of certain answers, or to guide their next train of thought. By the time we got to meet Mbah Maridjan, my students were very used to getting answers they understood, and their interview skills had become practiced, both in the technical sense, and in terms of approaching the interview in an Indonesian way, which is to say politely, quietly and somewhat obliquely at times.  We had gotten many compliments on how “sopan” or appropriate and respectful they were.

The interview with Mbah Maridjan didn’t go that way.  He was, of course, completely polite and welcoming, even putting on hold a meeting with some young imams to talk with us. It was also the day of his nephew’s wedding at the small mosque just up the hill, where Mbah Maridjan spent much of his time.  In fact, we had needed to wait about an hour beyond our appointed time (not an uncommon occurrence in Java at all, where there is sometimes a very different sense of time,) so he could lead the Asr prayers in mid afternoon.

But my students’ questions, and Mbah Mardjian’s answers, even though very ably translated, just weren’t matching up. They expected his answers to be “spiritual,” and perhaps even a bit odd, but they didn’t realize that they were asking questions in one realm: a very technical, scientific world, (even if tinged with a clear love for the mystical side of Java), and his answers were coming from a very different realm, one steeped in a world both Islamic and full of spirits, which, to Mbah Mardjian’s way of thinking, were one and the same.

My students asked what his job was, and he said he was a simple servant of the kraton, a janitor, who prepared a path for offerings to the mountain once a year or so.  They asked then why the international press had called him the President of Merapi, and he answered that the kraton tells him that he is a simple and lowly servant, so how could he possibly be a President.  When asked whether he could “talk to the mountain,” he said, “of course not, the mountain is spirits, and I am just a man,” and when asked about where the spirits were from, he said they were from the South Seas, guardians of Loro Ratu Kidul, (something I’m sure none of my students actually believed, or even believed that Mbah Maridjan believed).  They were simply not asking questions he could answer with his view of the world, and he was not giving answers that they could make sense of with theirs.

But he did have an interesting take on Merapi itself that they liked. When asked about how he knew the eruptions would happen, he said “an eruption is like the cough of the volcano. There have been large coughs, but there have been many more small ones that no one has recorded. When the volcano is sick to its stomach, the cough forms, and sometimes erupts. I just know when that will be the case because I’ve watched the mountain all my life, following my father around. The mountain changes a lot. The lava used to flow to the southwest, but not it flows straight south towards Yogya.”  He also said that he hoped Yogyakarta would remain safe, and that it was his job to help that happen.

After about 45 minutes of our questions, Mbah Maridjan’s wife, perhaps worried about the wedding arrangements for her nephew, came in and berated him for wasting time with “bulés,” a less than affectionate term for Westerners.  “They don’t understand what you’re saying,” she scolded him, “don’t waste your time.” Even when told of our gift of dried Michigan cherries, unfailingly received with appreciation and interest by other people we interviewed, she said loudly that she didn’t want any “bulé food.” Not receiving a gift with grace and thanks is “kasar,” or unrefined, and “kurang ajar,” or uncouth, both significant breaches of Javanese etiquette.

As we made our way back down the mountain, Mas Bambang and I were ecstatic; the interview had been a gem we thought, and the students must have appreciated the specialness of the occasion and the chance to talk with such a “rare” human being, one who saw the world around him in almost completely different terms. But our students, and one named Dave in particular, were angry. The felt that they had been poorly received, and that Mbah Mardjian had not answered their questions. On a trip where we had stressed being unfailingly polite and respectful (which my students were, without exception,) they actually felt offended, and in Javanese terms, by the way Mbah Mardjian’s wife had treated them.

What had misfired in that interview was based in the mutual misunderstanding of two very different ways of seeing the world, one based largely in things “modern” and “technical,” and the other in an older and increasingly rare understanding of things that is based deeply in local culture and knowledge that acknowledges the presence not just of spirits, but of spirits with names and histories and well-known personalities, and of mountains that can cough. This is not a new miscommunication; it is simply one in which one side of that conversation is harder to hear now, as our world is full the modern technologies of Facebook and television news beaming across the globe instantly.

Last week, the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies marked its 50th anniversary, occurring this year, with a panel of our founding and early faculty. They were all asked what, in an era of rapid change both in the world and in the academy, was essential to retain. Judith Becker, one of the world’s leading scholars and teachers of Javanese gamelan music, noted that there was just so much to be gained from the in depth study of a language and a culture, particularly its music and arts. “This gives you another way of seeing,” she said, and is the fundamental point of a global education.

And yet many of us lack the ability to see the world in multiple ways. Our technological approach is hardwired, even as we use it to express ideas of mystical transformation in Sunday morning religious television shows. Furthermore, we feel angry when we don’t understand other cultures, when they don’t deal with us on our terms, or when they don’t answer our questions in ways we can understand.  And we Americans are very good at seeing what we believe to be the case, often dismissing the things we simply don’t comprehend.

During the last presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked once about what he had learned growing up in Indonesia. His answer was not technical – there were no distances from this or Richter scale that – it was about the beauty of the call-to-prayer echoing across the early morning Jakarta soundscape. Having grown up in Jakarta for the same for years as President Obama, and loving that very same sound, I knew instantly what he meant.  But I fear that for many people listening, he had given a Mbah Maridjan answer, one that they could understand the words and concept of, but whose significance was completely lost on them.  The take-away for some of them? Obama must be a Muslim, which is, of course, a condemnation in their eyes.  And our misunderstandings of Islam continue apace, whether in the form of protests against a mosque in Manhattan or our unease at the sight of a “Muslim dressed” family getting on an airplane. All, I believe, to our detriment.

Mbah Maridjan baru meninggal dunia.  Mbah Maridjan has left this earth. He was among those killed in the explosion of Gunung Merapi, as were 13 others who were up on the mountain trying to convince him to come down. They found Maridjan’s body in the little mosque up the hill from his house, the highest mosque on the mountain, facing Mecca, his body prostrated in sujud, the deepest and most intimate part of the Muslim prayer sequence, where one’s sole purpose is to praise and glorify Allah.

This is all over the Indonesian press; it is something both significant and instantly understood.  Three photographs of his corpse, still recognizably in sujud have splashed across the internet, and old form of communication spread quickly by the most modern of technologies. Even if Indonesians don’t know exactly what led Mbah Maridjan to pray rather than flea, they recognize an echo of an important way of seeing the world.

Perhaps he was simply turning to God in a difficult time, but my instinct is that Mbah Maridjan was in deep mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds, doing his best to hold back the explosive power of the mountain he knew better than anyone in the world. He was trying to keep Yogyakarta and the kraton safe, and to keep the nail holding us all in place pinned to the soil. If that is the case, he was doing so in ways we have increasingly forgotten about and dismissed, but in terms we should work desperately to understand and appreciate.

Please share this wonderful story around.

America Betrayed

March 20th, 2009 1 comment

Hurricane Katrina was a bit player in the disaster that befell New Orleans; a Category 1 hurricane (there, although stronger elsewhere), it was able to swamp the city only because of an egregious, decades-long failure on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the levee system protecting New Orleans was sound.

This failure, which received considerably less attention than the horrific failure of government at all levels to respond to the disaster, is the subject of Leslie Carde’s searing documentary, “America Betrayed.”  The film, about to come out in limited release (so far, only to Portland, Oregon and New Orleans), features prominent scientists, award-winning journalists, and some of the many residents whose lives were tragically and needlessly upended by a combination of neglect and corruption.

I’m in it. Leslie Carde contacted me  because of this article I had written on the generous compensation that had been awarded the families of 9/11 victims.  The compensation, running to millions of dollars of taxpayer money in some cases, represented a dramatic and unprecedented departure from our usual response to disasters, which is to provide just enough government funding for people to struggle back to their feet. Leaning into a strong headwind, I argued that the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund had to be justified by principles of distributional fairness on a society-wide level, and that it could not be so justified.

Based on this article, Carde thought that I might have something to say about the comparatively poor treatment that the victims of Katrina had received from the government. She was on the beam. I had just written another article expressly comparing these two cases. (You can find and download it here, under the title: “What Does Justice Owe the Victims of Katrina and September 11?”)  In polite academic terms that I can cast aside here, I strongly criticized what I saw as disparate treatment in the government’s financial response to the two disasters. While the horrors of 9/11 engendered the Victim Compensation Fund, New Orleans residents received meager FEMA relief, including those now-infamous, formaldehyde-riddled trailers. This appalling disparity was heightened by the fact that the government was in large part to blame in the case of Katrina, but not so much with regard to the events  of September 11.

So in my brief — yet career-making — appearance in “America Betrayed” I call into question this disparity, and invite us to wonder at the reason for it. This comes towards the end of the film, when Carde expands her lens beyond Katrina to talk about deeper problems of infrastructure, readiness, and — ta da! — justice. For most of the film, prepare to be awed (not in a good way) by the horrific failures of your federal government to protect its citizenry. Can we please devote some of the stimulus money to infrastructural improvements that might reduce the chances of another needless catastrophe?

Oh, wait: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — more concerned about his own future star within the out-of-touch Republican Party than with (for example) the citizens of his state, has turned down some of the stimulus the money. In his career-destroying response to Obama’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress, he also criticized money in the stimulus package for monitoring volcanoes for possible eruptions — you know, eruptions that could spell disaster for those in the path of the lava.

Quick study, that Gov. Jindal.


February 6th, 2009 1 comment

Mr. Peanut is off the A-list of celebrity mascots, and not just because his get-up –high hat, monocle and cane — calls to mind the bloated plutocrats of the Gilded Age and of our recent, collective amnesia that allowed Gilded Age II to succeed at the box office. In the wake of the recall of most things peanut because of salmonella poisoning, perhaps he should consider a career change:


 As the FDA scrambles to keep up with events and peanut-dependent companies voluntarily recall their products, a few compelling public health lessons emerge:

  • Federal, state and local departments of public health are understaffed and outgunned by industry. The ominously named Peanut Corporation of America, headquartered in Georgia, was only fingered as the source of the problem by tracing the cases of salmonella back through the chain of distribution. Although it’s impossible to prevent every food-borne outbreak, both corporate quality control and the regulatory apparatus need serious scrutiny.
  • The Idiot-Go-Round is spinning furiously: Neither the federal nor state authorities have the wherewithal (or inclination?) to adequately protect the food supply; FEMA provides such minimal sustenance to disaster victims that the food kits given to victims of recent ice storms contain cheap, but high-protein peanut butter; and the government’s own ineptitude cascades to embarrassing effect, as the kits needed to be recalled, but the government’s inept chain of communication resulted in a two-week lag. The company that packaged the peanut butter notified the Department of Defense on January 19, but FEMA didn’t “get the memo” (literally) until this past Wednesday. By then, the peanut butter in many thousands of kits had long ago been consumed. So to the list of worries for ice storm victims, add salmonella poisoning.     
  • Quick: What can you eat, and what will cause you to begin vomiting into conveniently located trash cans? (I suggest using the $1,400 gem  in former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain’s office for this avulsive purpose — a primal way to express all kinds of outrage.) It seems we can continue eating shelf peanut butter (except, perhaps, for drums of 35 pounds or greater, which might spell trouble for Sam’s Club). After that, you’re on your own: the FDA’s list and the voluntary recall lists don’t match. Can I eat my Little Debbie, or not?

Nuts to all of this.

Categories: Disaster, public health Tags: , , , , , , ,

First Post

January 6th, 2009 No comments

Here’s the problem with starting a blog: Since most of us who consider doing so are blog readers ourselves, we’re acutely aware that the challenge is daunting. There are more blogs out there than you can shake a cyber-stick at, and reading too many in any sufficiently short period of time leaves the indelible impression that the blogosphere is graphically best represented as a series of (possibly rabid) dogs chasing each other in a dusty, never-ending vortex. (I couldn’t find such an image on the internet, although I admit that I gave up after a few minutes. Will this inexplicable coffee table do?)

doggie coffee  table

Possibly because of the intimidating nature of the challenge, I’ve been generating posts for about a month now but haven’t yet committed any of them to public scrutiny. Well, today’s my birthday so I just decided: Sheesh, just start it, already.

One reason for you to read it is that it will shortly become the most read, most interesting and insightful, and most painfully funny of all known blogs. OK, probably not, but that’s really my goal – and, one would hope, the goal of every blogger. And why not? If I’m going to do this, I need to keep in mind that there are many excellent writers out there. I want to be able to say something in a different, or (from my perspective) a better way.

You’re wondering: Around what topics and themes will this blog cohere? I’m a law professor, so some of the posts will analyze legal topics in ways that I hope are accessible, interesting, and more than occasionally amusing, to everyone. (Some legal blogs do this very well. In this vein, consider my colleague Bobby Lipkin’s excellent work. His love of the format has inspired me.) Within the legal arena, I’m very interested in issues of rights (especially gay rights) and social justice, and the connection between law and public health and policy. (See my linked publications list for examples of my articles on these topics.) A bit further afield, politics, literature, (certain) sports, and investigative journalism are other interests that will either inform or be the subject of some posts.

A few words about the blogger: In addition to being a law professor (at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, DE), I teach at the Yale School of Public Health (lecturing on public health law). I’ve published a couple of dozen law review articles and a smaller number of general interest (i.e., magazine and newspaper) pieces, appeared and presented at a number of conferences and symposia, have been on radio (discussing California’s Prop 8 in an NPR show on Dec. 2, 2008) and television, and am one of the featured speakers in a new film about Hurricane Katrina and broader issues of infrastructure and compensating and caring for injured or unhealthy victims of tragedy. (Now available to educational institutions and soon to be scheduled for theatrical release.)

As for my personal life: To the extent it becomes relevant in future posts (and it will, because I’ve already written some of them), I will make due disclosure. I hope you enjoy the blog, and I welcome all serious – not necessarily somber – and civil criticism.

Tomorrow: What is marriage equality for, anyway?