Monday, August 30, 2010

The Glenn Beck Way

Over the weekend Glenn Beck "reclaimed" the civil rights movement.  To his way of thinking, racism was only ever about skin color.  And now that we all agree that "judging one by the content of his character, not the color of his skin" is wrong, well then anything we do to actually try and help the disadvantaged minorities in this country must also be wrong.  It's a warped perspective for sure.  But how did it get that way?

The civil rights movement was about a heck of a lot more than simple skin color. It was never about just that and it still isn’t. It’s about lifting all people up. As long as there are still people in this country suffering the legacy of discrimination and poverty, then the civil rights movement will be fighting for them. Beck and his race-baiting Tea Party friends still don’t get it. They don’t have any solutions for poor ghetto children. They don’t have any solutions for poor ghetto children. They don’t… well, you know.

What’s interesting is that Beck’s base is cut from the same cloth as those who would have been opposing MLK. They now understand that racism is wrong. But they still don’t know what it is. They see it as simple as skin color. But it was never just about that. It was about fear of the other, of taking all one’s fear and bitterness and laying it on a particular sub-group. And much of this happens below the surface of consciousness, where these deeper reptilian emotions reside. It’s no coincidence that Beck’s people feed on anger, fear and hatred. It the the right-wing authoritarian way.

The last thing they want to do is the emotional geometry required to step into the consciousness of an other for a second, to see the world through their eyes. The idea of being a poor single mother. Of being a young kid in the ghetto. Listen to the way they talk about “gang-bangers” and “punks”. They can’t relate to the idea of finding government services helpful. Of being hopeless and alienated by society. Of truly being out of options, with no one to get them through hard times. Of being a different religion. Of being a different sexuality.

Theirs is a black and white reality in which the “right” way is there for all to see, and you either grab the ring or you don’t. And if you don’t then damn you – it’s your own fault for seeing an opportunity and not taking it. But they cannot imagine not seeing opportunity. Being a young mom and not knowing how to prepare your child for Kindergarten. Being a young dad and not knowing how to be there for his family. The only thing separating the John Galts from the Welfare Queens is simple choice. “OK, I think I’ll stop smoking crack and go to business school!” As if it were all so easy. As if that’s how people work. As if that’s how society develops. As if there is no such thing as privilege and structural advantage.

Beck's people find much to admire in Martin Luther King Jr.  He was a religious man.  he was serious.  He was bold, but not too angry.  He made a fair point about race.  And that's about as far as they take him.  They round him out and soften his edges into a sort of cartoonesque, Disneyfied version of what he actually stood for.  Instead of a martyr for the disenfranchised, exploited, impoverished and dispossessed, he becomes a soothing reminder of a closed, shut-tight troubled past.  His image and certain memorable refrains - surgically extracted and re-imagined - sit atop that dark chamber of historical nightmares like a calm satin bow.  The fact that the cultural wreckage of American racism never went away, but merely grew more violent and despairing, becomes something firmly apart. Connected no longer to an historical tragedy, if anything the modern ghetto is now traced to nothing more than misguided liberal benevolence at best, Democratic political conspiracy at worse. 

And so to Beck, the new civil rights movement is simply about doing away with nanny-state interference.  And once this fancy pandering, this Nancy meandering, is removed, the ghettos will at long last be free from the "chains of tyranny" and the crisp sound of bootstraps will echo through broken windows and litter piles everywhere.  Let freedom ring.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Reform through Dignity

Law and Grace, Franz Timmermann
Well God damn it, Keith Humphreys just made up for a terrible post with an excellent one.  He describes a piece for Newsweek he co-authored with Mark Kleiman, about a promising new sobriety program in South Dakota.  My favorite part of the piece:

For a criminal justice program, 24/7 Sobriety is remarkably respectful of offenders. I sat in one morning at a breath test station and watched dozens of people convicted of DUI come in, blow their breath test and then move along, each taking no more than a minute or two. The staff members were friendly, greeting each person by name and wishing each a good day. The building looked like a credit union. Because there were no uniformed officers, cell bars or guns visible, offenders with aversion to law enforcement would not have any instinctive ambivalence about coming in. The offenders also had some camaraderie among themselves, expressing pleasantries as they saw other offenders they knew in the testing station.

This is an excellent point. Society has to get over the notion that there are “bad people”. There are bad behaviors, and there are people who have a really hard time not doing them. But it is a moral imperative that we honor the dignity of every man, woman and child. Not only is this a moral issue, but as you point out, a utilitarian one as well. People do not respond well to humiliation. Most negative behaviors arise from dysfunctional feelings of low self-worth. They know right from wrong, but they choose the negative behavior because they lack the inner strength to choose otherwise. Doing the “right” thing seems unimportant because they don’t feel valued enough to show they have integrity – why bother?.

So what every “deviant” needs desperately is a sense that they are valued and that their behavior matters. In my classroom, my philosophy is that every kid is a “good” kid. There is nothing they can do to show me otherwise. There are rules, and consequences. But this is made clear, and then – most importantly – they are shown that they will be loved no matter what. As soon as a kid is on my side, the defiant behavior stops. They want to please me. They want to show me that they can do the right thing. I'm no miracle worker, and there are plenty of students who are just dealing with too many issues.  But regardless, this becomes one of the few places in their lives where they feel like they actually matter.  And that is a start.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Democracy and the DMV

In a post titled, How the DMV Undermines Democracy, Keith Humphreys has just lowered the bar for critical thought at the Reality Based Community.  In a lengthy diatribe on his recent experiences at a California DMV, his thesis is that government inefficiencies play right into the hands of the Tea Party movement, specifically the guy protesting at his local DMV.

Like most DMVs around the country, this one set its weekly hours to correspond with the times when most Americans are at work and cannot go to the DMV. As a small concession to serving those whose taxes pay for the DMV to exist in the first place, this office was open on Saturday mornings from 8am to noon. I arrived at 7:30am to avoid a line. Too late: it already snaked back a hundred feet and around one corner of the building. By the time 8am rolled around, it wrapped back several hundred yards until people were standing next to, you guessed it, the protestor, who got a receptive audience as he railed at the government.

The DMV is the perfect place to demonstrate the incompetence of many public services, and to instill completely justifiable rage on the part of taxpayers. Almost every single person interacts with it each year, and therefore almost every single person is treated like garbage rather than what they are: The owner and employer of the DMV.

This is hands down the worst posting I’ve seen at the RBC. It is filled with absurd claims, anecdotal evidence, generalizations, false equivalencies, and exaggerations. I completely agree that government services can often be poorly implemented, and sometimes more so because of inherent structural problems that inevitably lead to more bureaucracy. But it is just as true that government provides services that the private sector simply will never be able to, that bureaucracy also exists in the private sector, and that government often times does a wonderful job providing services (even, as others have pointed out, and I can also personally attest – at DMVs).

Yet what I find most offensive is the suggestion that poor performance by government is an existential indictment of government. No, it is an indictment of poor performance. Just as poor performance by the private sector is not an indictment of the private sector but an indictment of  poor performance. The only time the two should be existentially compared is when one might be able to provide a better service than the other. Yet remember, most services the government provides are those that must be provided to all citizens equally. And because, unlike the private sector, you seldom have the opportunity to vote with your feet by taking your business elsewhere, the remedy requires an extra level of active citizenship in the form of writing letters, filling out evaluation paperwork, voting in elections, etc.

Of course this may or may not work, but it is the only reasonable option. On the plus side, there is an actual democratic mechanism to government, unlike the private sector. There are countless areas of the market in which there is just no good mechanism for holding the business accountable, save from starting your own.  For better or worse, government is about fulfilling a promise we make to the citizenry.  We can do a poor job of it, but that doesn't mean the promise should not be made.  It only means we need to find ways to doing our job better.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Monk's Voyage

Of all the days, of all the rainy days, Monk had to have picked this one. He tugged on the brim of his canvas cap and stepped into his boat. And why the hell did seagulls always have to hang around those crates in the corner? He had asked Rusty to swap that mess and it obviously never got done. He picked up a plastic bucket and threw it in their direction. He missed wildly. One hopped out of the way, gave him what appeared to be a look of affrontation and continued his eager perching.

Monk climbed into the cabin and closed the door. Fuck, it was cold. He flipped on the little brown space heater and shrugged off his raincoat. He went to hang it up but remembered the hook had come out days ago. Chiding himself for not having replaced it, he tossed the coat into the corner and laid his hat on top. He lit a smoke and leaned against the console. What a day. Through the thick beads of rain on the windshield the sky was a swirling mass of gray. It wasn’t raining but it was windy. His blue and orange flag fluttered about nervously high above the prow.

The radio crackled and a garbled voice tried to come through. Monk leaned over and turned it up. More crackling, but no voice. Probably some kids playing around on their dad’s CB. He took a deep drag and wondered once more why he was here. Because Sheila was slowly dying and the bills were starting to pile up. Danika wasn’t going to have to grow up in a God-damn shit box like he did. She wants violin lessons, she’s getting them.

Damn it, Monk. He cursed himself for wasting his time thinking about things he had no business thinking about. You’re 43 years old and life doesn’t get easier just because you want it to. The boat rocked a little. “Must be Rusty,” he thought. “Punk kid's actually on time for once.” He stubbed out his half-burnt cigarette and grabbed a log book, absent-mindedly steeling himself for the teenager’s entrance.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Best Case Against the "Ground Zero mosque"

In all the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, many reasons have been floated for its opposition.   But I have yet to hear one that doesn't seem to ultimately be about bigotry.

bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; A person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a particular religious creed, opinion, or practice; a person blindly attached to an opinion, system, or party, and bitterly intolerant of those who believe differently.
I think what's interesting is the emphasis on the "irrationality" in bigotry.  Many people claim that Islam is an inherently violent or dangerous religion.  I think there is some merit to this, but no more so than most other religions, and that it is really a very sort of serious and specific argument that must be made carefully and in full awareness of its precarious nature.  And it needs to be very clearly a rational argument.  For instance, opposition to homosexuality is not rational at all, as there is no evidence that there is anything wrong with it at all, aside from religious teachings, which themselves are, by definition, not rational.  But are there large organizations or groups that one can oppose?  Certainly.  But to avoid bigotry, opposition must be rational.  I oppose the KKK for very clear reasons, and thus am not bigoted toward them.

But so I recently came across a comment on a Michael Kinsley article that seemed at least made an argument for opposition that was at least somewhat plausibly not based in bigotry:

"Let us assume, hypothetically, a Jewish shopkeeper in Manhattan who lost a loved one and close friends in the tragedy. Let us further assume that they do not blame Muslims as a group for the actions of the terrorists, but they do have difficulty understanding why some Muslim leaders seem less than enthusiastic about condemning terrorist acts. If they view the Cordoba imam as one of those leaders who always condemns the taking of innocent life, with a “but” tacked on after the condemnation, as in “But, we must understand why young Muslims are drawn to radical Islam” and infer that U.S. policy is complicit, they may question the bona fides, or moderation, of that imam. My hypothetical shopkeeper may not have all of the facts, and personal grieving may interfere with objective assessments, but to say that any reservations they may express about the wisdom of the project are founded in bigotry or opportunism miss the mark, in my opinion."

But I still don't buy it. First of all, bigotry is mostly unconscious. I say this in the sense that if one is bigoted, one likely doesn't really understand why - they just "feel" it. It's irrational after all, right? Much of our thought is influenced by the unconscious. So there are plenty of people who do not consider themselves bigots, yet still act under the influence of unconscious bigotry.

So that's a really squishy concept. Welcome to discrimination (race, sex, etc.), right? So I think when singling out an entire religion for skepticism we have to be really careful. The Nazi/papal example certainly doesn't cut it because that is a particular church. So your example essentially rests on the idea that maybe there was a question about the particular imam's political beliefs. OK, but now we're getting into really tricky territory. No church, just a single man.

So where is the evidence? This has been going on for a long time and the whole project has been looked into. There are no terrorist ties. He's no terrorist sympathizer. There's nothing really. So there is a complete legal right. And there is no sensitivity problem. These are evidently good people trying to do something good.

What's left over is bigotry. You simply can't ignore the history of hateful attitudes towards Muslims - certainly many of which have been specifically expressed by mosque opponents. There is simply no case for suspicion any more. It's all hate now. Even if it's been drummed up by the right-wing media and become a political football, at its core that's what it is. 

Even if there may be some cause to be - somewhere, by someone - the vast majority of the arguments heard in opposition do not articulate the issue thusly. Instead, they refer to not wanting to "offend" New Yorkers/victims, implicitly acknowledging that they themselves don't even hold such suspicions. Or they explicitly argue that Islam is inherently bad, dangerous, etc. Or they worry that Sharia law will be imposed. Or they argue that the mosque is simply there to be "rubbed in our faces". Or that it is part of a larger conspiracy to attack. Which I think can all be attributed to bigotry.

Look, what's the big deal with calling something bigoted? This goes back to my original post: we think bigoted things all the time. But we censor ourselves, possibly not always quite understanding why but out of respect for the idea that unconscious attitudes can creep into all of our judgments at any time. My worry is that too many people are forgetting how much of this still exists. They think that just because we all consciously "know" that bigotry is wrong, that suddenly we no longer have bigoted thoughts. That is absolutely the wrong lesson to take from the civil rights movement and it is dangerous.

Plenty of people - as one can clearly see all over the internet and from the mouths of TV pundits - have no problem saying horrible and false things about Islam & Muslims. I'd bet none of them consider themselves bigots. But that is exactly what they are when they are saying those things - by definition. So I have a very hard time finding sympathy for the idea that there is any rational basis for existential opposition to the center at this point. 

photo: David Shankbone

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Baby Fashion

If you haven't noticed, baby clothes have been getting pretty hip.  It's now possible to find infant clothes festooned with rock and roll skulls, ironic iconography, or classic band logos.  This look then extends into toddlerhood with entire collections of outfits that are little more than miniature versions of grow-up attire.  Since when did kids need to be cool?

Well, when did people need to be cool?  I imagine as soon as they felt like wearing the kids of clothes they thought were interesting.  Baby clothes have traditionally been, well, traditional.  Or specifically uninteresting.  Although this could also be said to extend of fashion in the past fifty years - essentially since the sixties' breakdown in so many traditional normative standards of cultural behavior.  In time there has been a flowering of variety in individual fashion.

So maybe children's clothing is just finally catching up with the times.  And the times happen to be very individualistic.  One's clothes have in many ways taken on hyper-significance.  While we may take this for granted in adults, in children it seems awkward and garish.  If we as adults have been able to craft identities at least semi-consciously, actively choosing to distinguish ourselves via dress, who is doing the choosing for our children, who simply haven't reached that stage in their development. 

The answer of course is us.  We are choosing it for them.  And this may be part of what seems so odd.  Our children have become little accessories to our identity.  But is this new?  There have always been identities.  There there may have not been so many.  As the modern world has thrown old paradigms into question, identities have become more fluent, less easily defined.  So where in the past a child's dress was no less a reflection of the parental identity, the relative sparseness of the identity landscape limited children's fashion overall.

 So is it impossible to escape incorporating our children into our own identity?  Maybe not.  Maybe it is inevitable.  Like the pink elephant, you can't not think about it.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  And after all, the people who probably care the least are the children who have to wear the clothes in the first place. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flying First Class

As the LA Times story on teacher performance continues to stir up debate, I just have to keep mentioning that while good teaching is important, the real problem is much greater.

I spent some time yesterday traveling around LA schools via The site uses google maps and gives every school a color code based on their academic performance index rating. Red is the lowest, blue the highest. The effect is pretty mindblowing. Inner city schools are largely red, while those in more affluent neighborhoods, forming a general ring around LA – the hills and coastal areas – are largely blue.
One of the findings in the article was that teacher performance tended to vary within schools as much as across them, so that essentially you have an almost random distribution of performance. What this tells us is that those red schools have generally the same quality of teachers as the blue schools. Of course, a really awful teacher in a poor school is going to set those children back much further than a really awful teacher in an affluent school. Hence the special importance of making sure a lot of really good teaching is going on in poor schools.

But every major reform now in place is solely targeting teacher performance. Assuming we make great strides in rooting out the really bad teachers, and assuming we can find enough good replacements, especially if we target our efforts in poor schools, where the environment is most difficult and burn-out is greatest… assuming all of that. Does anyone think all those poor inner city schools are going to go from red to blue? And why is that? At this point I could really go into detail.
But we aren’t even having that discussion.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All Reform is Not Created Equal

Kevin Drum wades into the debate over the recent LA Times piece on teacher evaluation.  He quotes Democracy in America's Roger McShane at the Economist, who sees UTLA president AJ Duffy's angry reaction to the piece as symptomatic of broader union intransigence towards education-reform:
Mr Duffy's reaction fits with a broader resistance to more formal evaluation methods by teachers unions across the country. And that has coincided with extensive union efforts to defend teachers who are obviously failing our students. If the education-reform debate has come to seem like an attack on teachers, it is in large part because of the unions' misdirected passion and priorities.
This is a telling remark by McShane. He defines reform a specific way, and then argues that unions and teachers are opposed to it. Modern education-reform has essentially been based on the assumption that school failure is the fault of bad teachers. Every policy proposal has thus targeted teacher performance.

But this is completely untrue. School failure is the fault of socio-economic differences, which bad teaching only makes worse. But at failing schools, even average teachers can appear to be "bad". The idea that you can solve the achievement gap in public schools by only keeping "above-average" teachers is simply ridiculous.

What we need is education-reform that massively redistributes resources from affluent to poor schools. Every neighborhood is not equal, and thus some schools need a lot more help than others. They need extra support, smaller class sizes, longer days, after-school programs, parent counseling/classes and childcare. None of that kind of reform is happening. And that is reform that teachers will wholeheartedly embrace.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Teachers (and Students) Need

A recent hard-hitting LA Times piece on teacher performance in Los Angeles schools has dropped like a bombshell.  Reporters analyzed data from 7 years of student testing, from which they were able to determine specific students and teachers.  They developed what they call a "value-added" model, creating a hypothetical projection from past scores that they then matched to future scores, so that they could compare the two - what students would be predicted to score versus what they actually did.  They then used this as an assessment of individual teacher performance.  In order to compensate for individual student outliers, the results were averaged, pointing toward what they regarded as clear trends over time.

Then they published the results, identifying teachers by name.  While I do have some skepticism regarding the sweeping claims they make, the analysis does seem very interesting and I'd like to see further investigation.  However, some findings in the story raised some questions for me.  For instance, they made this claim:
Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
This doesn't make much sense.  We know for a fact that schools in more affluent districts dramatically outperform those from poor ones.  Yet while teachers in poor schools do tend to be less experienced, on average you would expect similar rates of good teaching across districts.  The Times story supports this.  However, the fact remains that poor schools perform worse.  The only possible explanation for this is socioeconomic differences, which has be found time and again to have dramatic effects on student readiness and what I like to call Student Capital - a given student's measure of human and social capital resources that facilitate academic agency.

This site, which maps individual school test score data across multiple states, shows clearly that the number one factor driving overall school performance is socioeconomic demographics.  I'm not sure how the article can say that teachers had 3x the influence on a student as the school.  My guess is that this is a misreading of the data.  A poor student may on his own do better at an affluent school, although I'm pretty sure I've read this benefit is actually pretty marginal.  But in order to properly test such a claim, you would have to take every student at a poor school and swap them out for every student at an affluent school.  Although from what the research tells us, the results just wouldn't be that different.  Not only are the teachers going to be of generally similar quality on average - as the findings in this story back up, but the students are still going to possess the same levels of Student Capital as they did before.

To the extent that teacher quality is emphasized to the diminishment of socioeconomic considerations, we just aren't going to make the kind of progress towards real reform that is necessary to truly making sure that every child is academically successful.

Yet the findings in the story are still important.  And teachers, and teacher unions need to take a deep breath and maintain the conversation.  Jonathan Zasloff, at the Reality Based Community, points out how some of the lessons of a story like this can get lost.  He contrasts the response of an LA teacher to the findings:
Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn’t been shown such data before by anyone in the district.
“For better or worse,” she said, “testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I’m an ineffective teacher, I’d like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?”
with A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, responding to the story:
     The Los Angeles teachers union president said Sunday he was organizing a “massive boycott” of The Times after the newspaper began publishing a series of articles that uses student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers.
    “You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.
    Duffy said he would urge other labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions.
Zasloff finds Duffy's response as emblematic of teacher union intrangigence:
If progressives want to reinstitute faith in government, then we must demand the best possible results from public institutions.  And we also need to confront directly dinosaurs like Duffy who simply refuse to accept any accountability for his profession. 
I think Zasloff makes a good point. But he also has to acknowledge that teachers are under heavy attack right now, and that in such an environment people tend to get suspicious, reactionary and acrimonious. Much of the liberal establishment seems to have turned on us as well, and are pushing reckless policies without listening. But I agree with you, as a teacher the number one priority I have – and I know this may sound shocking – is that my kids are actually learning. If a standardized test can help facilitate this, then I’m all for it.

Of course, one of the big issues is, as he points out, being able to drill down and separate out the causal factors. Largest among them, yet routinely ignored, is the incredible difference in teaching environment that two schools in the same district might hold. What this means for teachers is that not only is performance going to be much different owing to demographics, but any progress made will have been much more hard won at one school versus another. This one single problem is something that neither NCLB or Race to the Top have dealt with in any serious way.

So while I completely agree with the teacher, and have a similar reaction to AJ Duffy’s response, I also know that he is on the front lines, trying to do the heavy lifting that is protecting teacher’s genuine and reasonable interests in an increasingly hostile policy environment. I think the type of testing in the story sounds promising, and it ought to be looked at more closely.

What everyone needs to remember is that what the modern public school system is trying to do is nothing short of revolutionary. It is essentially asking generational poverty to be broken on the backs of teachers. And I love this. This is why I became a teacher. But if we are really serious about doing this, we need to take a moment and look at what we are trying to force the system to do. Some teachers at poor schools will be achieving amazing things. The teacher next door may not be. But she may actually be just as competent as the teacher a few schools over who doesn’t have to deal with nearly as many issues. The reality is that you just can’t expect to put relatively equal resources into schools with wildly different demographics and expect every teacher to be amazing enough to compensate. It isn’t fair. You can’t build a transformational system around the idea that every teacher in a poor school has to be amazing.

And I guess that’s kind of the rub of how teachers are being treated today. We signed up to do this job because we wanted to help, and a certain amount of sacrifice goes with that. But it feels like society in general has seen so many Jaime Escalante movies that they think seem to think if we all aren’t working 14 hour days and coming in Saturdays we aren’t good enough. Maybe we shouldn’t have to, right? Maybe society ought to invest a little more money in its poor schools so that the job requirement isn’t super man, but maybe average man.

Imagine if we approached other public sectors this way? What if wars were won, streets were policed, fires were put out, mail delivered, etc. by spending as little as possible (indeed not enough to effect real reform), then complaining when the job wasn’t getting done that the workers just weren’t doing their jobs?

If teachers are going to be expected to get on board with looking at increased accountability, they need to feel like there's an equal policy response that addresses their legitimate concerns about the equity of the task they are being asked to perform.  Teachers wouldn't be in the profession, already making they sacrifices they do, if they didn't want every child to succeed.  And if you give them the respect they deserve, by acknowledging the complexities of their work and providing them the resources and tools to be effective, they will back you 100%.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Poverty and Moral Cowardice

John McWhorter reviews Race, Wrongs and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, by Amy Wax.
 There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned.
This central theme of the book, which McWhorter laps up none too eagerly, sickens me not only in its falseness but in its utter complacency and moral cowardice.  They both agree that society can really do nothing to help solve black poverty disparities, and so we should stop trying.  I suppose if this was true, then maybe we ought to stop.  But how could we even know this?  What a horrible failure of imagination?!!

So, let's ask whether this is true: can government policy make a difference?  OK, I'm a teacher, so I have a few thoughts.  Say I have a class in which a good 3rd refuse to do their homework and study, and their parents have no idea how to help their children.  But my day is full enough just managing to teach well.  So I literally have no time to spend 2-3 hours after school everyday tutoring/mentoring these kids.  I know for a fact that it would help them.  But there is no one to do it.  I, like McWhorter and Wax, must rely on some magic ghetto fairy to get these kids and their parents on the right track.  Yet sadly, unlike those sad individuals, I know that there are things we can do to help.  I could list a dozen programs that have proven to be very effective in helping to facilitate self-efficacy among poor minority families.

McWhorter laments that Wax offers no possible solutions to the problem.  No, really?  Of course she doesn't!  Because aside from government programs and a smattering of charity (which I imagine would be useless as well, right?), the only answer lies in sitting back and watch the world to turn, hoping in vain that minorities might someday "lift themselves up by their own bootstraps".  McWhorter offers us a metaphor I've heard him use before.
A pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossibleThe legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.
This metaphor is broken because it assumes that black people - or any minority behind the disparity gap - must not want to succeed.  Obviously the pedestrian must make some attempt to walk.  Traffic accidents generally do not cause depression or catharsis.  But if they did, would not the driver be responsible?  What if in this case the traffic accident destroyed the person's family, driving his mother to drugs and his father to criminality and prison?  What if it forced him to grow up in a hostile environment where social pressures surrounding him all pointed downward?  That's one bad fucking accident!

Yet, in a way, this isn't even about guilt, or reparations.  This is simply about human decency.  If we ask ourselves can we help, and the answer is yes, then end of story: we must.  These are our fellow citizens.  If Wax and McWhorter truly think that nothing can be done to help and they just want to sit around on their asses while millions of poor kids could use a helping hand, then that's on them. 

As I said, I'm a teacher.  Waiting's for others.

Making Galt

Over at Crooked Timber John Quiggin's post Not Going Galt has generated a considerable degree of debate.  The thrust of the piece is this: The hero of Ayn Rand's objectivist/libertarian opus Atlas Shrugged eventually decided that he was going to leave behind all the "moochers" in society, who clung to him (and men like him like parasites), and establish a sort of libertarian paradise in the wilderness he would call Galt's Gulch.  The reason that no state like this actually exists on the planet is that it is Utopian.  Structurally, its economic model is incoherent.
   "While our hero would never become disabled or unemployed, it’s bound to happen to some people. That means either budgeting for organised charity or putting up with lots of beggars. Randians might appreciate this daily testimony to their own superiority, but I suspect others would prefer that these losers move elsewhere.
   All things considered, it seems pretty clear that Libertopia would yield its residents a greatly reduced standard of living, compared to what they could get from a government. Of course, the ideal would be a nearby government jurisdiction that would provide the large-scale industry needed for a ready source of consumer goods, a home for contracted-in service providers, support for losers and so on, but would not be able to tax the Libertopians."

I would go further.  While from a strictly economic standpoint, I agree that it would be a farce.  But it would also be silly because of the faulty assumptions it makes about human nature.  Not necessarily because some humans are incapable of living in such a fashion, but that the nature of human development itself could not function in anything like an equal or free manner because such a system of government could not provide a sustainable level of social cooperation required to facilitate even current levels of civilization.  Society must be capable of providing its citizens with not only the opportunity to attain some level of social equity, but the means with which to take advantage of it.  The choice can be there, but the will must also be there to take advantage of it.  And because will is not free, society must establish certain structures that facilitate its use.

I always think this is the central issue between the right and left on economics, that is, the idea of what choice is and its relation to human social behavior. It's basically the free will debate, upon which rests all of our assumptions about the way society ought to be structured. 

So take the idea of choice and advertising.  It is not a gun to someone’s head, forcing you to make the decision to buy a certain product. But it isn’t nothing either. The fact that it works is evidenced by the billions spent on it every year. It functions in very coercive ways, in the sense that it operates in areas of the unconscious that, by definition, people can’t be said to be consenting. There are any number of examples, but as someone with bad neck pain, I always think of the example of acetaminophen: Tylenol costs 2x as much than the generic, which is exactly the same stuff, yet enjoys no million dollar advertising campaign. That’s coercion.

Now, coercion is a pretty negative word, yet I think that it is often quite benign. Just because advertising is coercive, it isn’t necessarily bad. Maybe it’s a net gain for the economy. Maybe people actually feel happier buying Tylenol. That’s a fascinating rabbit hole to go down, but I’ll just say right now that there is an empirical process happening, for good or bad.

Back to “free will”, choice, coercion, etc. There is very good research on human agency, or the ability for people to facilitate their own choices in life. If we were to create a life from scratch, there are optimal and sub-optimal structures we would want that individual to develop within. And our assessment of each is mostly based on how much agency it provides the individual. So things like parenting, culture, nutrition, education, peers, etc. would all be organized around providing the individual maximum efficacy. Another word for this is “freedom”. We want the structures to provide him the maximum development of his ability to facilitate his own freedom.

What liberals (and modern research) says is that citizens have great variation in this self-efficacy because of structures in which they have developed. Thus, in order to maximize freedom, we ought to structure society so that each citizen is guaranteed a minimal amount of freedom, or agency. So for example, an individual who inherits millions, comes from a stable home in a nice neighborhood, goes to school with similar children, learns the important cultural norms, etc. will be – in general – more more free, that is, have much more self-efficacy and agency. This is incredibly predictive. If you look at the numbers the pattern is born out in any number ways.

The counter example is the individual who grows up in poverty, from a broken family in a dysfunctional neighborhood, who goes to school with similar children, who does not learn the norms, etc. will be – in general – less free. He will have much more limited self-efficacy and agency. Again – totally born out in the data.

The standard argument against all of this is essentially absurd: people have free will and make their own choices. Hah! This hypothesis would thus predict that individuals in different circumstances would, on average – being essentially the same biologically (I won’t go into the logic that here begins to feed into racism on the right) – generally end up with similar levels of self-efficacy. Basically, we should see as many millionaire white children in prison as poor blacks. Its preposterous really, but this seems to have never quite been worked out by conservatives/libertarians in general. Like I said previously, this is not rational, evidence-based thinking.

So, in terms of coercion, or the ability of an individual to be free from it, in the sense that he possesses a high degree of consciousness about himself and the world, as Bob Marley put it “emancipated from mental slavery”, individuals all possess it in varying degrees. And it is entirely dependent upon biological and social structure. We all make choices, but upon what do we base those choices? And upon what is that basis itself based? This deterministic conclusion is indeed quite frightening to many. But it isn’t any less true. The facts are facts, no matter how much we wish they might be otherwise.
The real question is what to do about it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doing What We Can

Some thoughts on Afghanistan.

When Obama was deliberating with his generals over the next course of action in Afghanistan, I felt considerably conflicted.  On the one hand, we were experiencing an economic crisis on the home front, and the prospect of spending hundreds of billions more on that war, not to mention the risk to soldier (and civilian) life, when a positive outcome - a somewhat stable and democratic government - seemed a tall order.  But on the other, leaving would seem to pave the way for a Taliban resurgence, bringing with it a horrible humanitarian crisis and the likely return of terrorist "safe havens", where global Jihadist groups would be able to establish operations with impunity.

But I accepted that there were likely those in power - such as Democrats in congress and the Obama administration - whose moral courage I had faith in, and more specifically who had access to expert advice that I did not.  Now that the planned draw-down nears, and yet the situation seems no better, one wonders whether it was worth it after all.  Will we achieve anything like stability there in the next year?  Or two?  Or ever? And with recent activity in Somalia and Yemen, the "safe-haven" argument seems less and less important after all.

As popular sentiment grapples with this reality, appeals to the humanitarian aspects of the war have grown louder.  Time magazine recently presented the case on its cover:

Peter Worthington at the Frum forum said this:
If anything indicates the need for a civilized presence in Afghanistan, it’s the recent slaughter of 10 aid workers by the Taliban.
But I don't think that's indicated at all.

First, “by civilized presence” he's speaking of our troops, for whom we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention putting their lives at risk, and it is not at all clear whether they are now or will ever be a “civilizing presence” to that wretched and chaotic region.

Second, if we’re going to start arguing that any country in which horrendous abuses of human life are occurring ought to be invaded at great expense, the murder of 10 aid workers hardly puts Afghanistan at the top of the list.

If the question is “should Afghanistan not be the way it is?”, the answer is obviously “no.” But reality doesn’t care what you or I think. Thus we are forced to make rational decisions about what we should do based upon what we can do. Whether fighting the Taliban might result in a justifiable diminution of terrorist safe-havens is one argument. But humanitarianism is quite another. There are many areas of the world in which we can spend much less money and alleviate much more suffering.

I'm not sure our options are any better than they have ever been.  I'm really worried about what Afghanistan will look like when we leave.  But at some point, you just have to say, "it's a shitty world", and hope for the best. Are we there yet?  Again, I feel like I need to defer to those in power whom I trust to a degree.  In many ways I'm thankful I don't have to make the decision.  I'm OK with that.  This is why we elect people we respect.  But it doesn't feel much better.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Plight of the Baron

I think it's a safe assumption that some of the least interesting writing on the internet can be found in any given website's commentary.  Of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this rule to be found on any number of blogs, especially the smaller ones where actual discussion takes place and is frequently enlightening.  The New York Times commentary, owing to the size of its readership, is too large for dialogue.  But through a recommendation system provides both a somewhat edited digest of responses as well as an (admittedly unscientific) feel for the value readers place on the expression of particular views.

So, where the hell am I going with all this?  OK, so the times did an editorial today championing the Obama administration's commitment to enforcing the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the requirement for voter registration at state food stamps and welfare offices.  Popularly known as the "Motor Voter" act, it mainly focused on registration at DMVs, and thusly was widely praised.  The welfare part, not so much. 

I remember as a young man in the mid-90's working for a company that delivered meals to people with AIDs, driving around the streets of San Francisco listening to conservative schlock-jock Michael Savage.   A memorable moment came - oh, but weren't there many?!!! - when during an interview with then Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, the two just couldn't seem to get over the idea that we should actually be trying to get poor people to vote.  I suppose that there is a logic to the fact that poor people tend to vote Democratic, especially in the city, and that you wouldn't want to support your political opponent in any way.  But if your ideology depends at least in part on the disenfranchisement of certain sectors of the public, you may need to rethink your ideology.

Well the fangs came out in the NY Times commentary section today.  The first 20 responses were almost entirely along these lines:
"Maybe everyone should quit trying to find employment and just go down to the blasted welfare office...
The Democrats need to start caring about working Americans...
Every voter needs to remember that our very freedom is at stake...
The Democratic Party - the party of dependency....
I think that spoon feeding registration to citizens who are otherwise unwilling to independently pursue it dilutes an electorate that seems only marginally civic-minded as it is...."

You get the point.  (Remember, part of my writing this blog is the hope that by inflicting my witness to insanity on you, dear readers, knowing that you've now experienced the insanity might give me catharsis.  Is there a word for such a thing?  Schadenfrarsis?)  But I was taken aback by the sort of FOX-frenzyishness that apparently had penetrated my New York Times.  I thought this was my bastion of liberal elitism?  Anyway, it's not usually quite this bad. 

But just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I came across a particularly eloquent comment that seemed to say what the others wanted to, but likely lacked the proper combination of historical ignorance, anti-democratic illiberality, and crude hatred:
I totally agree with all the posters saying that voting should be a conditional right. In fact, I think votes should be earned and apportioned in exactly the following way:                                       1) No job or education -- 1/5 vote.
2) Get an education through college -- 2/5 vote.
3) Have a job but no education -- 2/5 vote.
4) Have education and a job -- 3/5 vote.
5) Have a job and don't own property -- 4/5 vote.
6) Have a job and own property -- 1 vote.
7) In prison, on the street, mentally ill, 0 votes.

Then there are the situations where people contribute more than their fair share, and therefore have more of a stake in ensuring things go correctly. Of course, these people should have more than 1 vote. So I suggest this:

1) One vote per every post-graduate masters degree earned (not including professional degrees).
2) Two votes for every professional degree (MD, JD, MBA, etc). Obviously someone with a professional degree has a higher stake in ensuring the government runs smoothly.
3) One vote per home owned. So if a person owns 2 homes they get 2 votes, 3 homes 3 votes, etc.
4) If a person owns a business where they employ other people, they get 1 vote for each employee. So a person with one hundred employees gets 100 votes, one with a thousand employees gets a thousand, and so on.
Talk about taking it old-school.  This guy is going medieval.  I mean, to his credit, this is an improvement on the Magna Carta.  Hey, Republicans may not be aiming very high, but no one can say they aren't classy.

*** Interesting to note, there is much in this argument that conservatives extend into free speech, specifically with regard to money and politics.  Unfortunately on that issue this logic has been taken seriously, by no less than the supreme court.  Just as corrupting and undemocratic when applied to free speech, this argument has similar consequences: by allowing unlimited money in politics, the outcome is no less than mass-manipulation of the process of democratic enfranchisement. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Certainly Uncertain

Brad De Long weighs in on the new Republican argument of uncertainty, or the idea that Democratic policy initiatives (repealing tax cuts, heal care, cap & trade, stimulus deficit spending, etc.) are driving uncertainty in the business world, which in turn is keeping businesses from hiring.
In 2001 and 2003 George W. Bush and his Republicans created an enormous amount of uncertainty for American businesses. They deliberately unbalanced the federal budget for the long term, enacting tax cuts and spending increases, leaving businesses uncertain of who or what would be taxed in the future in order to restore eventual budgetary balance--and uncertain of whether the ultimate balancer might be another prolonged outburst of high inflation.
In 1994 the Republican Party, united behind Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich, created an enormous amount of uncertainty for American businesses by blocking the Democratic effort to bring health-insurance costs onto some sustainable trajectory. Ever since then American businesses have faced enormous uncertainty: they have no idea how expensive the health coverage they have traditionally offered will be a decade hence.
Barack Obama, in a year and a half, has taken very large steps to dissipate these sources of uncertainty, to bring the long-term budget back toward balance--so businesses no longer have to worry that they will be victims of some sudden and random confiscatory tax--and to bring health care under control--so businesses no longer have to worry that their profits will be eaten up by the health-insurance administrators.
It is a better and less uncertain long-term environment for American business than any since the 1990s, or perhaps even the 1960s.
I actually really like this new argument. I think conservatives need to just start using it for everything: I don't like gay marriage because I'm uncertain about it. I don't like Obama because I'm uncertain about him. We need to cut taxes because they cause me to feel uncertain. I don't believe in science, or academic experts, or the media. This makes me really uncertain. I don't like it. I'm not certain why, but I just don't.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Elite Is Us

Kevin Drum finds himself agreeing with Peggy Noonan when she writes:
The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought — wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances — that their children would have better lives than they did....Parents now fear something has stopped....They look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won't be made at a great enough pace, that taxes — too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it — will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up.
Of course, his reasons are different:
It's not high taxes (which are lower than any time in recent history) or social changes (which have been overwhelmingly positive) that bother me, it's the fact that we increasingly seem to be led by a social elite that's simply lost interest in the good of the country. They were wealthy 30 years ago, they've gotten incomparably more wealthy since then, and yet they seem to care about little except amassing ever more wealth and endlessly scheming to reduce their tax burdens further.  Shipping off our kids on a growing succession of costly foreign adventures is OK, but funding healthcare or unemployment benefits or economic stimulus in the midst of a world-historical recession is beyond the pale.
Drum makes a mistake here that is all too common.  While things have gotten much worse and government policies are failing dramatically, the blame for it does not lie with a social elite.  Sure, one exists, but whether or not it has the best interests of the country at heart is irrelevant and probably unknowable.  The blame lies with the vast numbers of Americans who support the policies that have lead us here.  They have elected the state and local leaders who have pushed for war, opposed funding healthcare, unemployment benefits and stimulus.

Now, one could argue that they are all mindless followers of the propaganda that a social elite delivers.  And this is surely true to a degree.  But it's not a very serious argument.  What we are talking about here is a radical conservative movement that has been building for decades.  It takes two to tango and there is something within the conservative philosophy itself that they are responding to.  To simply say that this large number of Americans bears no responsibility for their beliefs is nonsense.  Whatever propaganda they are digesting works because it rings true for them.  It makes connections deep within their religious and social values and norms.  If we are to truly understand this current of conservative anger and social nihilism that is tearing the country apart, we must start by looking not at some conspiratorial elite, but at our friends and neighbors.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We're Paying What for What?!!!!

Well, it's that time of year again.  Republicans are posting their latest and greatest examples of wasteful government spending.  As usual, the list includes colorful projects chosen to appear as silly as possible:
  • $1.9 million for international ant research
  • $89,298 to replace a new sidewalk that leads to a ditch in Boynton, OK
  • $760,000 to Georgia Tech to study improvised music  
So I have a question for these folks.  Should the government ever be involved in scientific research, transportation infrastructure, or national parks?  I assume the answer is yes.  At which point the question becomes how to separate out the useful from the non-useful spending.  Of course, in a recession, there's also the question of whether stimulus works.  Keynesians would likely argue that, in terms of stimulus, how you spend money is less important than how fast you can spend it.  Keynes famously said of stimulus theory:

"If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing."

Setting aside for a moment whether any of the published list is useful, the government spends a ton of money in each of those areas.  For every questionable project, there are plenty of very unquestionable ones.  The problem I have with this perennial endeavor is that it often frames the problem as an existential one: "We need government out of our lives!"  Well, no.  We need government to not waste money.  I return to the first question I asked.

Now for the specific projects.  I'm not going to go and check every single one to see whether it makes sense.  I have better things to do.  But I guarantee you that when looked at more seriously, many of these so-called wasteful projects end up making more sense.  Science often works this way.  Just because the research involves ants or rat sperm it doesn't mean it isn't important.  It just makes for a nice Republican punch-line.

In the end, lists like these are dishonest.  They cherry-pick items, finding the most silly sounding even if the actual project might be important.  Then they're used as a way of arguing that because government is sometimes wasteful, it is always bad.  But the totals generally amount to a drop in the bucket of federal spending. 

What's more, there are areas of the government in which spending is rarely questioned.  Because Republicans tend to love anything involving the military, they rarely spend much time picking over that colossal piece of the budget.  But since it is spending they have an affinity for, they simply ignore it.  That's hypocrisy. 

I'll admit there is waste.  But I'd like to see a more honest and objective discussion, rather than the immature petulance.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Better Dialogue on Race

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are back with their usual arch commentary on race in a recent Bloggingheads.  Both express great boredom with the endless cycles of this hoary American Dialogue.  I grant that it is perpetually juvenile and superficial.  But when John calls the whole enterprise "unnecessary", I entirely disagree.

I would distinguish between what could be learned and the tendency for little to be learned.  I agree that much of it tends to be theater - but that doesn't mean there isn't anything of substance to be learned, or discussed.  The problem is that so much of our political discourse is simply hackish in general.  Partisanship, talking points and scorekeeping take the day.

So when Glenn and John say there is nothing to be learned (again, I prefer "discussed"), I think that's really not true.  For instance let's take the Rand Paul flap.  The libertarian/tea party willingness to even entertain such foolishness speaks volumes about their priorities, and especially their view of race and class in America. 

This is how I see it being important: Paul's anti-civil rights view diminishes the legacy of racism, resulting current social and human capital in minority communities.  He and Tea Party's homogeneity and claims of "government intrusion" largely framed around minority/welfare issues, specifically in regard to social programs.  Granted these are pieces of a puzzle, but I think you can draw a pretty straight line from his statement to his party platform.  Ditto the Macaca (?) comment.  And generally the large number of racist Tea Party crap ever published.

Glenn points to "structural problems" driving minority poverty.  But how can he divorce this from Republican opposition to government intervention?  He can't seriously by the BS notion that these communities will pull themselves up without targeted government help?  And that's exactly what modern conservatism does not want.  They may pretend that they want smart government - but they never show any platform but cuts.  They basically have zero to offer minority communities.  Their one proposal for ending generational poverty through education - vouchers/charters - is aimed solely at parents motivated to escape the ghetto.  This is not a scaleable solution, it is a band-aid for certain parents who already have enough human/social capital to succeed and are stuck sending their kids to school with other ghetto kids.

The dialogue on race needs to be better.  It is definitely stuck in a sort of racist vs. non-racist framework that is absurdly inadequate to what we're dealing with in the 21st century.  Race is no longer just about racism, but about justice.  Most Americans want to be there, but they have no idea how to get there.  There are still many unconscious assumptions and prejudices that will eventually need to be exorcised.  We need to get back to looking at causality and practical steps we can take to move the country forward.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cumberland Cavern Claustrophobia

I had a very interesting experience recently.  With my father and brother, I visited the famous Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee - one of the largest in the nation!  Although the Cumberland Mountain State Park is nearby, the caves themselves are privately owned.  That was not my impression on arrival.  The traditional color scheme for state and national parks is yellow lettering on  a brown background.  The entrance sign in the parking lot, painted in like fashion, was misleading to say the least.

The caves themselves were quite beautiful.  Our tour guide, a young man with short curly hair and sensible sandals, was knowledgeable and able to provide a good deal of insight into the cave's geology.  As we climbed deeper, the features became more magnificent, culminating in the "mountain room".  An amazing cascade of flowstone featured prominently, and a small seating area had been built so that our group of twenty might rest and take in the mineral splendor.

The young guide the informed us that he would be turning the lights off and entertaining us with a brief light show.  I don't recall his exact words, but he mentioned something about a "pageantry", and "God's glory".  All went black.  A deep and authoritative voice came out of the blackness.  "In the beginning..."

The light show was nothing more than a few colored lamps placed in a few different sections of the wall feature before us.  First a red glow to the right, then a green glow to the left, then blue and red on the right again.  Objectively, it was kind of pathetic.  By light show standards.

My knowledge of the bible is limited, but I could make out that, if not word for word, the narrative generally followed the Genesis account of Earth's creation.

At this point I was considerably uncomfortable.  I began to fear that I would have to say something.  The impropriety of a state park delivering what amounted to a sermon, the assumption that the audience would have the same world view, the arrogance in assuming that there would not be those who might have wished to experience the profundity of an extraordinary environment in a non-Christian, or even just non-religious manner, the audacity to think it appropriate to attempt any kind of conversion 3/4 of a mile beneath the Earth's surface, in pitch-black darkness.

At some point the rhetoric of the deeply intoned voice began to ask how any one might not see the obvious connection between the cavern's splendor and accept the Christian God.  I could resist not longer.  "Because I'm an Atheist!," I blurted out, obviously loud enough to be heard above the righteous din.  How could one not see this place as a preview of things to come in heaven?  "Because I'm going to Hell!", I loudly protested.

When the lights came back on the guide said a few words - none of which I recall.  My body had been long since flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones.  My heart was racing.  My limbs were quivering.  Look what I had been reduced to!

At this point it I must pause and admit that my reaction to preceding events was likely inflated by my own sense of moral justice, and ideas of social propriety.  There is nothing about atheism that would necessarily lead one to feel the way I did, or to take the actions I chose to take.  In fact, the tour guide admitted to me later that he had long since stopped forewarning groups of the religious nature of the "light show".  Apparently, when he failed to do so he noticed no protest from the audience.  This was likely due to the cultural homogeneity of the visitors.

But nonetheless, it is certainly not easy to step forward and stand up for what you believe, especially when doing so disrupts any assumed social cohesion.  Your protest simultaneously accuses the offender of moral infraction, and claims for yourself the moral high-ground.  The onus then falls immediately on you to establish the correctness of your convictions.  Failing to do so risks at best embarrassment, at worst, great offense.  Often times the decision of whether or not to speak up must be made within literally seconds' time.

Further complicating things, during events in which the offense was prolonged for a period of time, the decision must be undertaken and then carried out in a brain environment of rapidly deteriorating cognitive function.  As the brain stem recognizes increased stress, mental activity is re-routed from brain structures responsible for higher-order reasoning, and autonomic stress responses come to the fore.  Thus, anger, fear and anxiety get in the way of productive communication.

So I spoke up.  I told the tour guide that, as an atheist, the light show made me uncomfortable.  I thought it was offensive.  And I thought it inappropriate for a state park.  To my embarrassment, at this point he informed me that the cave was actually privately owned.  I pointed out that the design of the entrance sign gave the opposite impression.  And there was nothing either on the website, brochure or around the park that indicated any sort of Christian theme at all.  He said that surprised him.  I asked whether he would have thought it appropriate to feature an ode to the glory of Allah, or maybe a Hindu god, or maybe Zeus.  At this point a fellow member of our group turned to me and said, "OK, thanks.  I think we get your point."

One wonders after such events what the point of it all was.  My speaking up felt cathartic.  Fuck those weasels!  But what did they learn from me?  Was there a net positive gain?  Maybe I came on too strong?  Maybe I made them angry and acrimonious.  Maybe it was OK for them to have there little ceremony.  It was a private park after all.  It was rural Tennessee.  This is a majority Christian country.

But I was uncomfortable.  As would I assume any other atheist, or Jew or Muslim.  The show had an explicitly Christian narrative.  If they wanted to have that kind of show, they should have posted some form of notification.  As it was it felt deceptive and arrogant.  Maybe my protest caused them to rethink their operation.  Maybe other members of the group were empowered in some way by my courage - even if they didn't entirely agree with my position.

In no small way what I did that day was what America represents.  A nation is heterogeneous and must take great care to respect and affirm the right of each citizen's liberty of mind.  Structures which serve to support only one group's way of thinking over another, to bully via their majority or any other inequitable influence, only serve to weaken a nation.  The founders understood this - at least in principle, and we've been struggling ever since to live up to such lofty ambitions.  While it may be unfair, it is the burden of every minority group to assert its civil rights.  It may not always go so smoothly.  It may sometimes be poorly planned or carried out.  But we must never be afraid to stand up for ourselves.  Not only are we better for it, but so too are all our fellow citizens and future generations.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Clinging to Darkness

The thing is not sturdy.
And so it must be clung to.

From where comes rigidity of thought?  In black and white thinking is righteousness an indication of unstable ground?

The ability to incorporate nuance is an indication of ideological coherence. The coherence is a comprehensivity.  The greater the points of logic, of consonance, the greater the ability to incorporate nuance. 

This often appears as simplicity.  And simplicity is often mistaken for coherence.  Its elegance and apparent universality is deceptive.  Truth, in its absolute coherence, often takes a simple form.  Yet when pressed upon, it is infinitely comprehensive.  2 + 2 will always equal 4.  Whether apples or plums.

Although simplicity does not imply falsity, it does not automatically provide for incorporation.  Thus, through elaboration, through incorporation, simplicity becomes complexity.  And in a debate of ideas, simplicity is at a disadvantage to complexity.  It lacks the means with which to meet complexity. Thus when truth, in simple form, encounters nuance, it unfolds.  This unfolding, ordered and without dissonance, is beautiful and elegant.

Falsity masquerades as truth by claiming simplicity and elegance.  Yet, because it is false, it can not be comprehensive, it can not bear nuance.  Unable to extend itself without creating dissonance, falsity must always resort to fascism, bullying, self-interested conquest by force.  Built upon a weak and malformed foundation, it compensates via rigidity and brutality. In contrast to truth's elegant unfolding, falsity unfolds through trickery and legerdemain, relying on devious maneuvers and distractions.

The one thing that falsity can not suffer is magnanimity, recognition of the other.  To do so would allow that critique is possible.  Yet critique - and this is often only understood by the unconscious - is the surest path to dissonance, to ultimate defeat.  Oh, what armies we command within our depths, all knives sharpened for the dissonant hordes.  The more fragile the kingdom, the longer the axe.  Barricade upon barricade must encircle and defend the weakest idea.

The easiest strategy of course is to relocate.  While a good idea may take solace from its eternal truth, able to live comfortably within the brightest fires, a bad idea must remain forever vigilant, comforted only in darkness and isolation.  Within this pit of snakes it slithers, unaware, ultimately, of its own form.

Truth cannot help but build upon itself.  Like a gracious host, or a wise and empathetic teacher, it strengthens all other truths it touches.  Its firmness gives shelter to the radical, bedrock to the speculative.  It lends itself to the erection of beautiful cathedrals of possibility.  In contrast, falsity brings only confusion and hindrance.  It remains atomized and shy, an impediment to expansion.  Like an unstable and reactive chemical, it must be hidden away and protected from interaction. 

In the end, falsity does not really exist.  Under examination it collapses into contradiction.  Its pretense to logic falls away and substance is revealed as vaporous illusion.  For many, this devilish smoke is intoxicating.  But ultimately it nourishes nothing but malcontent and dissatisfaction.  The human mind, having become addicted and accustomed to this state, becomes limp and zombie-like, autonomatonic and reactive, predictable and without self-awareness.  From necessity, cognition has been forced into wrinkled and craggly spires, teetering in its own heated wind and pathotropic catharsis. 

Comfort in this state comes only through tradition and habit.  Yet like a patient suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, the fear and dependency induced by never ending cognitive dissonance creates for itself a life-like alternate universe in which truth is adjusted for and falsity is substituted for through an elaborate series of perceptual detours and cognitive trusses. 

From an evolutionary psychological perspective, or at least one of cultural evolution, this has been a universal human adaptation to cognitive and perceptual limitation.  Even with the sharpest logic cannot cut through a lack of information, or a lack of a theoretical framework for understanding an event's causality.  So it is easy to see why reliance upon magical thinking would have seemed a very logical resolution to the unknown - especially when the unknown presented a very real and dangerous threat.

In today's world, while cognition and perception are orders of magnitude more advanced, a wealth of information is at hand, this adaptation is still with us.  Viewing the same event, the same data, two minds can vary wildly in their interpretation.  The project of synthesis and the discrimination it involves is still no small task.  Thus these old adaptations, these old habits of mind remain strong.  We erect our fragile pinnacles of fallacy, our islands of thought.  Yet as has been the trajectory of history and progress, the tide of human knowledge and interconnection, with its powers of abrasion, cannot but slowly bring enlightenment, if only ever in fits and starts.

We are young.  But we have minds.  And these minds are designed for truth.  If nothing else, that is unlikely to ever change.