Weekend open thread: Jimmy Carter edition

The longest-lived former U.S. president in history spoke in Des Moines on September 13. Although I wasn’t able to attend his talk at Drake University, I’ve been thinking about how much Jimmy Carter has accomplished since his presidency.

Drake University made Carter’s entire lecture available on video here.  Carter’s speech begins around the 13:00 mark. He started by telling a joke about a boy who wants to grow up to be an ex-president, then added that he would never have been able to become an ex-president without the support of people from Iowa during the 1976 caucuses. He argued that “social justice is really the broadest possible definition of human rights.”

Tony Leys posted more highlights from Carter’s remarks on the Des Moines Register’s blog.

Carter, speaking at Drake University, recalled that many advisers urged him to use American military might to punish Iran for taking 52 U.S. hostages in 1979. He recalled people telling him that “if you go to war, you’re kind of a hero. If you stay out of war and prefer peace, you’re too weak.”

But if he’d taken their advice, he said, tens of thousands of innocent Iranian civilians would have died. Instead, after a failed rescue attempt, he spent months negotiating with hostile Iranian leaders and managed to win the safe release of the hostages on the day he left office.

“Many people still look on that as a symbol that I was a weak president,” he said of the negotiations. “But sometimes it takes more courage to preserve the peace than to go to war.”

After that line, several thousand clapping people rose to their feet in Drake University’s Knapp Center, where Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were speaking.

Carter’s words were in response to a Drake student, who asked how the former president felt about national commentators saying that this week’s fatal attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya was President Barack Obama’s “Jimmy Carter moment.”

Carter also criticized the growing influence of big money on U.S. elections, a theme he discussed at length during a September 12 lecture at The Carter Center in Atlanta.

Speaking at the international human rights center that bears his name, Carter said “we have one of the worst election processes in the world right in the United States of America, and it’s almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money.”

The 39th president lamented a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited contributions to third-party groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

The dynamic is fed, Carter said, by an income tax code that exacerbates the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the electorate, allowing the rich even greater influence over public discourse and electioneering.

He added that he hopes the “Supreme Court will reverse that stupid ruling,” referring to the case known as Citizens United. […]

“You know how much I raised to run against Gerald Ford? Zero,” Carter said, referring to his 1976 general election opponent. “You know how much I raised to run against Ronald Reagan? Zero. You know how much will be raised this year by all presidential, Senate and House campaigns? $6 billion. That’s 6,000 millions.”

It would be even better if the Supreme Court reversed the 1976 Buckley ruling, which declared money (in the form of campaign contributions) to be equivalent to political speech.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter raised an important point at that same Atlanta lecture:

Rosalynn Carter, who concentrates much of her work on mental health access and education, highlighted on ongoing effort to educate mental health professionals in Liberia. After three years of Carter Center involvement, three classes of nurses and other medical professionals have received advanced training in treating behavioral health concerns. The former first lady said the need is acute in the war-torn nation, which had just one practicing psychiatrist three years ago.

In the United States, she said public financing for mental health treatment is often among the first casualties of tight budgets because of the continuing stigma of the conditions. Out of fear, she said, family members and advocates “don’t rise up and become concerned about it … to the degree I’d like them to.”

John Dillon noted in The Atlantic that Carter has become more popular during his ex-presidency and by 1990 was as popular than Ronald Reagan. Although Carter wasn’t the most effective president (and didn’t get enough support for his domestic policies from the Democratic-controlled Congress), who doesn’t admire his extensive charitable activities?

Shaking off the 1980 Reagan knockout, Carter immersed himself in human-rights efforts across the globe, monitoring more than 90 elections and seeking solutions to conflicts. He and his wife Rosalynn spend a week each year building homes with Habitat for Humanity. His efforts through the Carter Center have helped bring about the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease, an infection that has afflicted Africa for centuries. He has authored books on the Bible, diplomacy, the Middle East, poetry, and even a novel set in the Revolutionary War.

Habitat for Humanity “has helped to build over 500,000 decent, affordable houses and served 2.5 million people worldwide.” Click here for more information on that non-profit organization’s work in Iowa.

This is an open thread.

Other stories that caught my eye this weekend: the New York Times Magazine published a feature on Arlene Blum, who led the fight against flame retardants in children’s pajamas during the 1970s. She is now trying to get these toxic chemicals out of furniture and other household items.

Also, intense preparation to take the law school admissions test has been shown to alter brain structure in young adults.

John D. E. Gabrieli, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research, noted that researchers in the past have shown anatomical changes in the brain from simpler tasks, such as juggling or playing a musical instrument, but not for tasks as complex and abstract as thinking or reasoning, which involve many areas of the brain.

“I think this is an exciting discovery,” he said. “It shows, with rigorous analysis, that brain pathways important for thinking and reasoning remain plastic in adulthood, and that intensive, real-life educational experience that trains reasoning also alters the brain pathways that support reasoning ability.” […]

The structural changes were revealed by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans of the brains of 24 college students or recent graduates before and after 100 hours of LSAT training over a three-month period. When compared with brain scans of a matched control group of 23 young adults, the trained students developed increased connectivity between the frontal lobes of the brain, and between frontal and parietal lobes. […]

The study focused on fluid reasoning — that is, the ability to tackle a novel problem, which is central to IQ tests and has been shown to predict academic performance and performance in demanding careers, [UC Berkeley Department of Psychology Associate Professor Silvia] Bunge said.

“People assume that IQ tests measure some stable characteristic of an individual, but we think this whole assumption is flawed,” Bunge said. “We think that the skills measured by an IQ test wax and wane over time depending on the individual’s level of cognitive activity.” One fascinating question, Gabrieli noted, is whether the brain changes observed in this study persist for months or longer after the training.

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