Archive for December, 2011
So, I had a bad day at work today, which makes me rather grumpy–but all the better to take on Michael’s posted article.
Let me start off by saying that, as a liberatarian by temperament and–well, I’d call it long hard thinking, except that this article assures me that I’m incapable of thinking, because if I was, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.
But then, this article defines “libertarian” in a way that no libertarian I know of would accept as a definition.
But let’s start from the beginning, and I’ll get in everything I can before I have to take the kid to the doctor’s.
First–if you want to speak to me and have me listen to you, you have to STOP doing three things.
a) the first is quoting Jimmy Carter as if he’s a modern day saint. The main is a morally repugnant scumbag. His only virtues are smugness, self righteousness and hypocrisy. He has neither honor nor honest. I didn’t like him when he was president–and I voted for him, twice, on the assumption that anything had to be better than a Republican. After that Nobel Prize speech, though, I’m done. If you’re going to quote somebody, quote somebody I can respect.
b) the second thing is that I am finished with that old canard about “the most prosperous period of our history–the 30 years after WWII–were New Deal liberal years!”
Yep, they were, but they weren’t the most prosperous because we had a New Deal liberal government. They were the most prosoperous because we had just emerged from a world war as the only nation on earth with a fully functioning industrial plant. We could have been making laws by reading chicken entrails and have had squirrels for Presidents, and we would still have been having the most prosperous era in our history.
The conditions that prevailed then do not prevail now. We now have competition, and my guess is that as long as there is actually competition in the world, we’re NOT going to have times that good again.
Bringing this up as an argument in favor of New Deal liberalism is bogus.
c) and third–stop, already, with the “libertarianism is what I say it is, and anything you say is just wrong.”
Sorry, the man defined libertarianism in a way that has nothing to do with libertarianism.
Then he proclaimed the ONLY really relevant thing about libertarianism as “not relevant.”
In fact, he spends a lot of this article heading off any possible criticism of his argument by claiming that any criticism would be wrong–because he says so.
So, for a first shot, let’s go here:
1) The “social stuff” is not irrelevant. It is the ENTIRE point. I am a libertarian because I believe that individual citizens should have the right to make their own decisions about their own lives and the lives of their families.
And because I believe that in order to make that possible, there are some areas of human life from which governments AND other bureaucracies should be strictly prohibited from regulating.
When you hear “regulation,” you think of something to do with the banks, maybe, or health regulations for food production.
When I hear regulation, I think of–your children are too fat! your school can’t have a bake sale, it promotes obesity! your home office has to conform to the safety rules we made last week, and we get to march into your home WITHOUT a warrant or probable cause and make sure you’re toeing the line! no smoking in your office! Your kid needs Ritalin, and if you don’t let us give it to him, we’re going to take the kid away from you without so much as a trial to determine you’re guilty of something!
And on and on and on.
My libertarian touchstones are not Rothbard and Rand–they’re John Locke and John Stuart Mill.
In my experience, liberals who want to tell me how awful libertarianism is never want to talk about this stuff.
The reason, I think, is that for all the nattering they do about sticking up for my constitutional rights, they are more than willing to throw those rights out the window when the government is supposed to be “helping.”
So let me say it again.
THOSE are the most important issues for me–the intrusion of government into more and more of my private decisions, the valorizing of ‘expert opinion” as if “a consensus of experts” trumps any right the Constitution gives me not to listen to them.
Government–not private industry–has been at the forefront of that intrusion, and it takes government power to enforce it.
Slavery, for instance, is supposed to be abolished, but employers more and more insist that they can regulate my behave in my private time away from the job.
Why isn’t there a huge outcry about the big, bad corporations taking away our rights?
Because, by and large, it isn’t the corporations that are doing it. It’s the municipal governments, insisting that their police officers, firefighters and teachers can be fired for smoking cigarettes AT HOME, OFF DUTY.
And they courts have been backing them up.
Neither liberals nor conservatives want to put an end to that kind of thing.
2) I’d be more sympathetic to the whole “if we don’t regulate corporations, they’ll engage in racial discrimination” thing if it wasn’t for the fact that the US government is now the enforcer of a vast system of legally established racial discrimination–including an effort to make sure that anybody who dares to dissent from it is branded a “racist.”
“Racist” means “treating people differently, and some people pejoratively, on the basis of their race.”
But that is, of course, exactly what affirmative action does, and it is also what EEOC does when it swoops down into an industry and declares that racial discrimination must be happening because there aren’t the right percentages of each race working at the enterprise.
Never mind that the “right percentages” are once again a matter of bureaucratic fiat, determined not by acts of Congress but by the discretion of agencies.
3) Then there’s the constant–well, it was a close enough libertarian government! We’re going to count it!
Any economically libertarian government would require, first and foremost, not a lack of regulation, but a lack of the ability of government to pick favorites.
It would mean no bank was too big to fail. We let them go down and crash. We’d leave them open to shareholder lawsuits.
It would mean that those robber barons would have had to buy up land on their own, in competition with their fellows–the government would not have been able to take over such land by eminent domain to give it to them, and the government would not be able to take “public” land and give it to them, either.
If you’ve got an example in which those conditions apply, show it to me, but stop it already with taking one of the most crony-capitalist periods in our history and calling it “close enough to libertarian economics.”
4) No, I am not an “economic conservative.” I’m not a conservative of any kind.
You can figure that out by the fact that I’m in favor of gay marriage, abortion on demand in all nine months, and a pretty much absolutist definition of free speech.
And those are, in fact, the REAL issues between liberal, conservative and libertarian.
Or, as I sometimes think of it, “liberal/conservative” and “libertarian.”
Both the liberals and the conservatives these days seem to think they have the right to run my life.
5) Robert is right–the BIG issue in laws (and regulations, which are laws we don’t pass democratically) is transparency and objectivity.
The endless proliferation of subjective standards for everything has got to stop.
Did sexual harrassment happen in the workplace?
If the employee “feels” it did, it did. If she or he “feels” that a remark was objectionable or created a “hostile environment,” it did.
You know what this is?
It’s a government of men and not of laws.
It means that, on at least some issues, nobody can ever know if they’re in compliance with the law or not.
Law is not something written down that I can learn, learn to understand, and then follow.
It’s whatever somebody says on Tuesday. Which could change on Wednesday. And then change again on Thursday.
You want to hear a libertarian principle?
Libertarianism says that kind of thing should stop, period. Laws should be clear, non-contradictory, passed by elected legislatures, and and capable of being understood (and followed) by the citizens whose lives they’re supposed to govern.
The above is only the beginning of a long list of issues that define “libertarianism” for me.
And it’s my private opinion that liberals like to run around screaming “income inequality! evil corporations!” while the conservatives scream “the free market!” because both of them are desperately attempting NOT to deal with those issues.
So, here’s the thing.
I decided, absolutely, that there was going to be a blog post today. I even had things I wanted to talk about.
It’s just that it’s really hard for me to write anything else after a day when the fiction has gone well. It’s as if my mind is working to a different tempo.
But one of the things that has happened really bugs me, so here goes.
I don’t know how many of you remember a SCOTUS case called Kelo v. New London. It happened a few years ago, and the fast-and-dirty outline was this: the city of New London, Connecticut, used the right of eminent domain to condemn a neighborhood of working class homes and small businesses.
It did not do this, however, to build a new town hall or a public park or any of that kind of thing. It did it so that it could sell the property to a large drug company–I’m pretty sure it was Pfizer–to build a new facilty.
The residents (Kelo among them) protested, saying that eminent domain was to be used only for public projects, not to enrich or advantage private corporations.
The city of New London claimed that eminent domain could be used for any project that would enhance the well being of the town. The residents and small businesses in this area paid little in the way of taxes. The new Pfizer facility would pay a lot, and on top of that would offer good jobs to many locals.
When the case got to the Supreme Court, the judges split 5 to 4 in favor of the town, with all the conservatives voting in favor of the residents.
I remember there being a fair amount of shock expressed at this by posters to various forums I was reading at the time. It seemed to be incomprehensible to most of them that the liberals had voted “for big business and corporations” and the conservatives had voted for the little guy.
It didn’t seem at all comprehensible to me, because of course that wasn’t what the sides were voting for. The liberals were voting in favor of the government having the right to determine what was in its own best interests, and the conservatives were voting in favor of property rights, plain and simple.
At any rate, SCOTUS gave the win to the city of New London, which prompted handed over “fair market value” checks to all the residents and business owners, moved them out, and bulldozed the place.
And bulldozed is where things sit, as we speak.
Pfizer soured on the project, and never built a facility in New London.
What was once a thriving–if somewhat lower-rent–part of town is now a wasteland.
And as if the last storms, the town was suggesting that residents use the bulldozed area to dump their storm debris.
Personally, I think it’s interesting that I found out about all this not through the local news up here, but in this month’s Reason magazine.
But of course, that’s one of the reasons why I never restrict my reading to just one side of the ideological divide.
I really am completely wasted here.
I’m going to go have lunch.
So, it’s nearly Christmas, and for those of you who have been reading this for a while, it’s also obviously my annual hector-you-until-you-feel-guilty post. I have no idea how many of you actually feel guilty, and how many of those who do go and do something about it–but I figure, every little bit helps.
First, on the business as usual front, there’s the matter of the phone cards. What troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and even troops just stationed places like Germany, really want at this time of year is a way to get in touch with their families.
Most of the groups that do that work out here–collect the money for the cards or the cards themselves; ship them overseas; etc–do in fact only deal in phone cards. Groups in some other places I’ve read about have been upping the technology some, though, and sending means for video calls.
This sounds to me like just generally a better idea, but I’m told by a family member in the Army that it can get logistically dicey in war zones.
I think that what he was trying to say, very politely, was that war zones have security issues that video might not be compatible with.
Whatever–the phone cards are really needed, and the troops will not mind getting some a little late.
Go Google an organization in your vicinity and see if there’s anything you can do to help. If you don’t have the money to send a card, most places are looking for volunteers.
And “most places are looking for volunteers” is where the rest of this is going, too. So–
Second, the area in which I live has run into a problem in the last week that may be specific to conditions here or may be general across the country.
We have a number of different local organizations that have been partnering, for years, with various low-income housing projects, low-income-population schools and churches in inner city neighborhoods to put on Christmas Eve parties for the relevant children. At these parties, each child receives a Christmas present.
The organizations do not go in for high end electronics or anything idiotically expensive, but they do give brand name toys, things advertised on TV, etc.
This year, many of these organizations do not have enough toys to give all the children who will be coming to their parties. And I don’t mean they’re short a couple. One organization in Hartford is down 64 presents for a total population of 80 kids.
That may be the recession, or it may be the peculiarities of Connecticut at this moment. A lot of us are still cleaning up and doing repairs from the October snow storm, and a lot of us are still catching up with work from the more-than-a-week of solid power outages that followed.
My feeling, though, is that it wouldn’t really hurt to check.
Finally, and especially for those of you with more time than money, the organizations that bring meals to the elderly and to shut-ins week after week have acute staffing problems on the holidays, and often can’t bring meals on the holiday itself at all.
Most of them would be more than happy with a little extra help right now, and so would the local food pantries, soup kitchens, and turkeys-for-needed-families organizations.
They need people to drive, people to deliver, people to package food baskets and to serve. If you belong to a church, your church may do this, or may be working with an inner city church to do this.
If you don’t (and don’t want to), there are plenty of secular or non-denominational organizations that do the same things. In Connecticut, the major one of these is called Food Share, and it operates twelve months a years.
Finally finally, if you belong to an organization that is looking to do some charity work as a group, I want to suggest again that you look into adopting a local public school–or one in a poor area of a nearby city–to fund field trips to things like the opera and the zoo.
If you adopt a school with a mixed-class population, make sure you provide for all the students, not just the “needy” ones. The problem with means testing in a case like this is that it exposes children to ridicule from their peers, and that it often puts off families who are embarrassed or angry at having to make the personal disclosures usually required to determine if they’re eligible for these things.
Remember that even a $1 family contribution can be more than some families can handle, and the typical $5 to $10 are often enormously prohibitive.
Poorer schools can’t afford to do field trips at all.
If none of that appeals to you, I offer the local public library, which sometimes doesn’t have enough money for week-end openings or for story hours for children.
One way or the other, there’s probably somebody out there who’s looking directly for you.
I didn’t even leave the driveway.
And it’s very odd, but for the last couple of days I’ve been doing really good work, and a lot of it, more of it than I usually do. I have no idea how long that is going to last, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.
In the meantime, however, some notes. I do warn everybody that I’m less coherent outside work when work is going well. You’ve been warned.
1) For years, I always felt healthier and happier in December and January because my father would send me oranges. I mean serious oranges. Four big trays of them, weighing in at around 44 pounds.
Then my father died, in 2006, and that year there were no oranges. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, though, there were, because a friend of mine who was checking in on my mother in her nursing home would send them to me.
My mother died in March, and I thought there would be no oranges this year–but they were, sent by, of all people, my lawyer.
I don’t know if he just feels sorry for me, or if he wants to make sure I’m healthy in case we go to trial, but it was a wonderful gesture, and I love the things. Cold oranges and ginger herb tea. Perfect.
2) One of the things I’d really like to know is if a certain tendency in my life is shared by the population generally, or restricted exclusively to me.
This is the phenomenon of finding that people I have not seen or spoken to in years–and I mean that literally, years–have been spending some of that time not just talking about me, but in constructing elaborate dramatic scenarios about what I was supposedly thinking, feeling, doing, and whatever else, scenarios so detailed and vivid that they make the plots of my novels look pale by comparision.
Then one day I stumble across one of these people and find out that I’m having a fight, executing a plot, or otherwise doing something so heinous that I ought to be ashamed of myself. Since I haven’t been participating in any of this, I don’t always find out what I ought to be ashamed of myself for.
In most of these cases, it doesn’t matter much–there’s a reason I haven’t spoken to some of these people for years.
In other cases, though, the whole thing seems completely gratuitous. They’re people I once knew professionally and might not mind working with again, or people who live in the same town I once did, or people I was once at school with. I’ve got no enmity towards them, and don’t remember parting on a sour note.
In these cases, the so-heinous thing is often completely off the wall: I always secretly thought X was stupid (and I can’t even remember X); I didn’t go to Y’s funeral because I’m a bigot about homosexuals (when I didn’t know Y was dead and had op eds supporting gay marriage in CT twice before it was legal here; I didn’t give Z a blurb or even answer the letter she sent asking for one (which I never got to begin with).
I bring this up only because this is the season when this sort of thing tends to proliferate, or at least to land on my head so that I can’t ignore it, and I don’t get it.
Why would anybody spend her time–yes, it’s mostly women–talking about somebody they never see or don’t know very well? I’m not a celebrity.
And if there is something you’re worried about, why wouldn’t you just call up and ask? Or e-mail?
The blurb thing especially makes me crazy, because I’m pretty promiscuous about giving blurbs. If you sent me your book and haven’t heard from me, why not send me a postcard? Or an e-mail? Just to make sure it got here, or that it hasn’t gotten buried under trees falling on the house or somebody dying?
At any rate, it’s been a day of not driving and getting ambushed. And I’m tired.
3) I’m having a weird thing where I just don’t want to do Christmas this year. Oh, we’ve got a tree, and we’ve got a few presents and the stockings, but I just don’t want to make a fuss about it. I don’t want a big dinner. I don’t want to get up early to prepare things.
I’m not depressed, exactly, but I’m not all warm and bouncy with Christmas cheer.
It really has been a long and wretched year–Greg’s blindness, my mother dying, the tree falling on the house followed by eight days of no power, and a whole lot more.
What I really want to do on Christmas Day is to sleep in until noon and then have somebody peel me grapes.
4) I’m still reading the Hannah Arendt. I still wish I had a mind like that.
Happy solstice and Happy Chanukah for those who celebrate. Happy (or Merry) Christmas to everybody who celebrates that next week.
The papers and exams are graded and all but one set of grades is handed in. I’ll do that tomorrow, probably, when I feel less like having a fit about it.
And that brings me to this morning, which is kind of nice at the moment. I can look out the windows of my office and see my back yard, which is no longer full of debris from the storm in October.
I has, let’s face it, been not one of my better years–it’s been the sort of period where every time I turn around there’s been something else and the something elses have been largely major rather than otherwise. It would be nice to have one big, rousing something good happen to balance it all out, but I’m not expecting it.
With the coming of the end of the year, though, I have at least been reading books, and so on to those, and a little look back at the last post on a perennial issue in the writing of fiction.
First, the book I’m reading now is a collection of essays by Hannah Arendt.
For those of you who have never heard of her, Arendt was a German Jew, born in 1906, who became one of the first women to hold a serious position as an intellectual in post-WWI Germany. She studied under both Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidigger and eventually became Heidigger’s lover.
She remained Heidigger’s lover right up until the day he joined the Nazi Party, accepted the post of Chancellor of the German universities, and promptly expelled all the Jewish students and faculty.
She left Germany for good in 1933, ahead of that particular incident–but she maintained a fondness for Heidigger all her life, even after the war. And although she was asked about it on many occasions–and married other people over the course of time–she never really answered the obvious question.
An all too human tendency to be irrational in love notwithstanding, Arendt is the kind of intellectual I would have liked to have become, if I’d headed myself in that direction.
She had a broad education, which included Christian theology of various kinds in spite of the fact that she wasn’t one. She was not an idiot. She coined the word “totalitarianism,” because she needed it to write about the fact that the foundations of Naziism and Communism were largely identical. She knew Augustine and Aquinas as well as she knew Nietzsche and Marx–and she knew them in their original languages, and she knew how they were all connected.
In the Thirties, she walked away from an intellectual career and from intellectuals generally, to work for Zionist organizations even though she wasn’t a Zionist, on the feeling that there was something about intellectuals that made them fatally attracted to totalitarianisms of all sorts.
Her most famous book did not start out to be a book at all. Rather, it was a series of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, which sent her to cover Eichmann’s trial on charges of genocide in Jerusalem.
The articles were eventually collected in a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is still in print today. It caused a lot of trouble at the time, not the least on account of another phrase she coined–the banality of evil.
Reading Hannah Arendt reminds me of another refugee writer, but a refugee of a later period. His name is Czeslaw Milosz, and if you’re going to ask me to pronounce it, don’t. There is a woman at my place who actually immigrated from Poland, and I got her to pronounce it for me a couple of times, and I’m pretty much hopeless.
Milosz was a refugee from Communism, and a poet. He came to California in the early 1960s as a defector, and remained there for the rest of his life.
In spite of being, by all reports, rather gung ho on the subject of his adopted country, he wrote all of his life in Polish. What appeared in the American press and in English publication generally had to be translated from that.
I’m not really all that entranced by poetry, and I haven’t read his–never mind that language matters with poetry in a way it doesn’t with other things, so I’m not sure what I could have done with the poems anyway–
But about ten years ago his essays were published in a collected edition, and they are spectacular.
Here’s another mind with broad education and broad interests–philosophy, politics, art, literature, history.
Like I said, there is in the back of my mind the intellectual I would have liked to be if I’d gone in for being an intellectual. I think–like Arendt in the 1930s–I had a period of time when I thought that no such intellectual life was possible, that there was something about intellectual life that led one to be, inevitably, Bertrand Russell.
Better red than dead.
But Arendt and Milosz are out there as evidence that the kind of thing I’m thinking off–what the truly well-educated person would look like, maybe–has actually been out there, and may still be out there, just hidden by the idiots. Idiots tend to make a lot of noise.
Finally, the look back to the last post.
I’ve been thinking about Robert’s comment that the problem with “based on a true story” movies and books is that you don’t really know if the people involved were as they are portrayed.
And that, of course, is certainly true.
In a way, it’s a variation on the question of how much accuracy is necessary in fiction–do you have to get the history right? the landscape? the forensics?
And, on thinking about it, I’ve come up with this:
First, Shattered Glass is a movie about a personality (actually, two personalities), not about “the situation.”
It’s actually the movie version of an article that I haven’t read. I don’t know if the article concentrated on the situation, or if it too was about the personalities.
That said, anybody coming to Shattered Glass looking for insight into how a magazine could allow something like this to happen isn’t going to find it, because the question isn’t addressed.
Robert mentioned a few other scandals of the same sort at other places–and another one at The New Republic that I don’t know about–but I don’t think it’s quite as easy as it seems to be to conflate them. The Jayson Blair case at The New York Times almost certainly occurred because Blair was the Times’s post boy for a newly diversified newsroom. The kinds of articles he fabricated were not the same kinds of articles Glass wrote.
And there are issues here that are general, but dealt with only in articles in the Columbia Journalism Review. Things like the fact that newspapers come out every day. There’s a lot of rush. Things like the fact that most editors don’t expect their writers to be fabricating stories, any more than most other employers don’t expect their accountants to be embezzling funds.
I agree that we all tend to believe what we already expect to hear, but that’s endemic to everybody everywhere.
But it seems to me that it ought to be legitimate for a movie to concentrate on the personalities, and as such a movie I think that Shattered Glass is an interesting one.
One of the subthemes throughout the movie is that the grown ups are intrinsically less entertaining than a pseudo-child like Glass. They’re more serious and responsible. They’re less likely to either speak or write primarily for effect, and because of that their effects are often less flashy and startling.
Glass’s nemesis inthe movie is a man named Charles (Chuck) Lane, who took over as editor after Michael Kelly left.
(Some of you may remember Michael Kelly as the reporter who was killed in Iraq while embedded with the US Army 3rd division in the first year of the war.)
Anyway the contrast is played for all its worth, as well as the impression that Lane never could quite stomach Glass and never actually completely believed him.
The movie is, in its way, a riff on the dangers of extended childhood and an ode to being a grown up.
And I don’t know if it bothers me that that may not be what actually happened, that Glass may be simply a sociopath.
I still don’t have an answer to how much accuracy I want or need, but this issues–the issue of the inner lives and inner realities of characters–is, as far as I’m concerned, what fiction is all about.
So I probably should.
Not ridiculously cold, mind you. And today, I’ve got to get my grades up and running, and some paperwork filled out, and then tomorrow I have one last session to get through. It’s very early in the morning, but it’s already caused a mess up where I had to ask a friend to retrieve my older son from the train station.
Oh, and I have to find a way to deal with a student who has just e-mail to say that he absolutely needs to get an A- so that he doesn’t end up flunking out, or something. This from a kid who did not attend any classes at all for the last half of the term. None. Zilch.
At least it answers a question, though–sometimes I think I’m the only one out here insisting that there has to be some kind of bottom line.
At any rate, it’s cold, and I’ve got Handel on again, and unto us a child is born and a son is given. And I wish I could sing like that. My mother had some kind of enormous range. She was a coloratura soprano good enough to be professional, and she probably would have been professional if she’d been a different kind of person.
If you asked my mother why she didn’t do the things she longed to do, she would alway say, “my parents were against it. I couldn’t go against my parents.”
I could have. And my father knew it, too.
But in the meantime I have been reading things, and every once in a while collapsing in front of the television at night, and from that I have a few notes.
1) One of the things I have read is a little book of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s talks to British and American audiences, including an interview with the BBC.
I once spent a year living in Hanover, New Hampshire, while Solzhenitsyn was living in Canterbury. Hanover is the home of Dartmouth College, which has (had?) a large and well-stocked college bookstore–stocked with books other than what was needed for courses, I mean–and Solzhenitsyn would come into town to shop there and then have lunch at this place where I was waiting tables and sometimes tending bar. He always looked enormously tired and a little depressed,
Salinger used to come into the same place and flirt with one of the other bartenders. If I was on break and sitting at the bar, he would tell me what was wrong with all the books I was reading. I was mostly reading Lit Crit, so I think he had a vested interest.
But he never looked tired or depressed. Sprightly, I think, would probably be the word.
And, of course, they’re both dead now.
It’s getting positively depressing to think of just how many people I can say that about these days.
Anyway, the Solzhenitsyn book didn’t have the Harvard lecture, which was too bad–but the impression was that these were the kinds of things he was saying that got everybody upset and mad at him. It boggles the mind, really.
It all seems to be so commonplace these days. He wasn’t even really pushing the Christianity.
The other thing has to do with a silly television program. It’s called Kitchen Nightmares or Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, depending on when in the show’s run you catch it. Once he got famous, he got billing, which is not unusual.
There are a few shows out there like this–Tabitha’s Salon Takeover is another one–where somebody good at a business comes in and reorganizes other businesses are failing.
I find these shows interesting at least in part because they reveal how businesses are run and what can go wrong with them. I would have thought, before I saw the first of them, that most of this stuff would be obious and self-evident, but it isn’t.
The more I watch them, though, the more obvious it is to me that a lot is not self-evident, and a lot more goes into running a business than I have ever understood.
But what brings me to Gordon Ramsey and his projects, at the moment, is something else.
Ramsey rescues restaurants in both the UK and the US, and in the US ones, it is more and more the case that when he points out to the owner that his restaurant will not be successful if there is rotting food in the kitchen or the chef sends orders out raw, the owner goes, “I’m not going to listen to you. All you’re doing is tearing me down. You should have some words of encouragement, to keep my hopes up.”
It’s like we’ve all suddenly been transported back to Kindergarten–it’s not even adult.
And these people mostly won’t see 40 again.
It’s the same impression I got from a movie that was on television the other week called Shattered Glass, about Stephen Glass’s massive con job at The New Republic.
Glass was a staff writer there–in the 90s, I think. The Clinton administration. He wrote dozens of highly acclaimed short articles for that magazine and for half a dozen more (George, Vanity Fair, biggies).
Unfortunately, they were as good as they were mostly because he’d made them up.
And when he got caught making them up, he did really remarkable things–having his brother pose as the CEO of a California software company to provide back-up–and then did those things badly.
It was a huge scandal for a while, and then, you know, it wasn’t.
But what struck me about the movie was this: when it was announced, the teasers kept talking about how this was the story of a sociopath.
The movie, on the other hand, was the story of a child–mentally and emotionally and morally a child.
Glass’s first question when he would get caught was “are you mad at me?” When people were indeed mad at him, he’d complain “But I said I was sorry!”
I do not know enough about Stephen Glass to know how accurate any of this is, but I do know that what I saw on the screen was the portrait of a man who had never actually grown up. Hell, he’d never really reached adolescence.
We talk a lot here about what does and does not make us despair for the fate of Western Civilization, but it occurs to me that this–this sort of rampant, basic childishness–is a worse sign than any outbreak of OWS or the Tea Party.
Off to do stuff.
I wasn’t going to write a blog post today. I’m really very aware of the fact that I tend to be crabby and unreasonable during exam weeks, and that there really isn’t a whole lot of point to it.
But it’s very early in the morning, and I woke up to find an e-mail from a student in one of my upper level classes that just floored me.
This is, remember, an upper level class, and the student who wrote me is probably the best one in it. I suppose that that explains why she wrote, and nobody else did.
Our exam is today, and the questions for that exam are up on a site called Blackboard, where serves as a kind of website for the course while it’s going on.
I have used Blackboard extensively over time, but I’m getting less and less enamored of it.
More and more students seem to think that there’s no point in coming to class or doing the reading, because “it’s all up on Blackboard,” and they can get anything they need from there.
The question concerns a section on the final about how different kinds of mass media are funded–lots of different kinds of mass media (music, movies, broadcast television, cable television, web sites, etc)?
I spent three days going over this stuff in class, because it’s very complicated, it differs depending on the media type, and it’s often counterintuitive.
(For instance: first run movie theaters receive NO money at all from ticket sales for the first two weeks a movie is in their theater. Any money they make for those first two weeks must come out of popcorn and other snacks. That’s why a small coke in a movie theater costs more than your hernia operation.)
Anyway, I went over and over and over this stuff, and kept telling them on and on and on that it would be on the final–and it just didn’t matter.
Not only did the student who wrote me have no notes, but none of the other students in the class that she’d talked to had notes, either.
Now, this class is not a required course. It’s an elective. Nobody has to be there. Nobody requires this and only this for graduation.
Theoretically, at least, students are there because they want to be there. They’re interested in the material.
I spend a lot of my time telling myself that the problems I have in Composition courses arise at least partially from the fact that they’re required, that students are not automatically interested, that they often don’t know why anybody at all would be interested in what they’re required to learn.
I don’t understand people any more.
I can pick up a stray textbook left behind in a classroom and become totally absorbed it reading through it. For all the carping I do on this forum, I’ve at least given a shot to most of the things I THINK I’m not interested in when they’ve crossed my path.
I don’t think I ever signed up for a course I then totally ignored for the semester, whether it was required or not.
I don’t know what is going on with my students, but I do know that the more of it I have to put up with, the less pleasant I am as a human being.
And now I have to go make sure we remembered to put the garbage out, because those are the garbage trucks coming down the hill.
Somehow, it seems like a metaphor.
Actually, it’s The Well Wrought Urn, and it’s the title of a book by Cleanth Brooks
All I can say is that it fit something deep inside my head today, which is as good an explanation as you’re ever going to get from me. I have it–the book, that is–along with F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, on my coffee table. The Great Tradition is about three of the four English novelists Leavis thought were “great.” He left out Jane Austen, because he thought she was the greatest, and would take an entire book to explain. The other three are Hardy, Eliot and James–and James is an American.
This is the kill week, so let me just make a few notes before I get shot out of a canon.
First, Robert says I wouldn’t consider a Ph.D. in biochemistry “educated”–but he’s wrong.
Biology and chemistry are part of the liberal arts. Given the kind of broad distribution program that was common at any good university before, say, 1975, I would expect a Ph.D. in biochemistry to be fairly solidly educated. He’d be heavy on the hard sciences and math and lighter on history, philosophy and literature, but he’d still be well educated.
Of course, a PhD in biochemistry who knew nothing at all about the broad scope of the Humanities and social sciences wouldn’t be well-educated–but neither would a Literature or Philosophy major who knew nothing of science or mathematics.
A liberal arts education requires some knowledge of all these things, not just the Humanities, and not just the Sciences.
The kind of person I would not consider educated–given the way the programs I’m familiar with are usually run–is the one with a “degree” in “Resort and Leisure Management” or “Sports Journalism.”
These are vocational courses meant to fit a student narrowly for some practical career, not foundational areas of knowledge that can be pursued for their own sake. Neither are they areas of knowledge foundational to the enterprise of Western Civilization across the millennia.
But biologyand chemistry? The Medieval scholars called them “natural philosophy” and included them in the Liberal Arts from the beginning.
Second, I require no deference from anybody, but I am automatically suspicious of any person who demands that he be told what you can “do” with knowledge.
I believe very strongly in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–that it is valuable to know just to know, because you want to know and understand, even if it won’t make you a dime or put you on a career path to “success” or any of the rest of it.
And here I’m with ab–there is very little understanding of or respect for the enterprise of learning just because you want to learn in the US.
The issue isn’t “deference” to the opinons of people with PhDs, but the sneering demand to know “what it’s GOOD for!” when you tell somebody you’re studying Renaissance atchitecture or the history of the concept of evil from Greece to Aquinas.
Everybody here has their own bogeymen, but mine are definitely composed of the echoes of endless contempt when somebody from my childhood–other children, certainly, but also quite a few adults–found me reading Aristotle or Henry James.
“That’s STUPID,” they’d say. “What’s it GOOD for?”
And a lifetime of listening to that particular kind of crap explains why, even though I sometimes agree more on policy with some Republicans than I do with most Democrats, I never do vote Republican.
Third, for ab’s information–English was the most popular major in my college in the year I graduated, and of the members of my class who majored in English with me, I know of not one who has ever taught a day in a public high school.
For one thing, you can’t go teach in public schools with a degree in English. You have to get at the least a further degree in education, and the schools in most states prefer education degrees “with an English focus” rather than straight English degrees.
For what it’s worth–English majors tend to go to law school. All the way to the year 2000, English was the most common college major of first years entering prestige American law schools (Yale, Harvard, etc).
The second most likely path after graduation is publishing–all those huge publishing houses like Random House and Simon and Schuster, all those magazines and high-end newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are largely staffed by English majors. The highest end newspapers won’t even look at resumes from people with “journalism” majors, although they’ll talk to English majors from “good” schools who go on to a Master’s at Columbia Journalism.
The third most common career path was, and I don’t know why, the intelligence agencies and the foreign service. There was a while there when the CIA seemed to be staffed by nothing but English majors from Yale.
I don’t know what the history majors did, but my guess is that the categories were similar.
And I don’t know where things are now. But looking at my quarterly alumni magazine, they seem to me to be similar, and I can still count on the Vassar Girl connection to get me free books from any publisher in town.
We seem to be wandering back to the LAE thing all on our own.
But right now, I’ve got to go do stuff.
I know this because what I have on the player behind me is Handel, not Bach, and there are no harpsichords.
And it’s the Christmas season and not the holiday season because it seems silly to me to call the season of listening to Handel’s Messiah the–well, you get what I mean.
But then, that’s why I stopped sending out Christmas cards over a decade ago. I had Christian friends, Jewish friends, atheist friends, Wiccan friends, and when I looked at cards the only thing that really attracted me was the art.
Mostly Renaissance art.
And that didn’t even keep me out of trouble with my Christian friends, because those were split between Protestant and Catholics, and the Protestants had some trouble with some of the art, too.
Sometimes I think that people are less “free” of religion than they tell me they are. The art’s the art. I don’t have to believe in Zeus to like a lot of Greek statues of him, and I don’t have to believe in the Virgin Birth to like Renaissance Madonnas.
But apparently other people do.
I really am going to go back to the Liberal Arts thing. It’s just been a little crazy.
But there’s a side note here, so–
I wish, if you’re going to post a link to something, you would also post a little explanation of what it is. Due to the weirdness of my schedule, I tend to check most comments on my phone, and I do NOT have a “smart phone.”
Matt has a smart phone, and I have seen it work, and I don’t want one.
But what ends up happening is that I try to access the thing and I crash the phone, or just can’t open it, or whatever, and then I forget to go check later when I’m near a computer.
So, some idea of what I’m looking for would help.
I did manage to open Elf’s link to the Atlantic article, and I’ll admit to rolling my eyes a little here.
First, though, I’d have to say that I largely agree with it. But because I agree with it, I don’t think it would be possible to implement here, at least for public schools.
Education majors are the least qualified students on any university campus? You bet, and they’ve got the lowest board scores, the lowest cultural literacy rate, and the worst overall literacy rate, too.
The best American private schools recognize this, and simply refuse to hire “certified” teachers. They demand real degrees from prestige universities.
Certainly, if we could demand the same for the teachers in our public schools, we’d be doing better–but how are you going to bring that about? The teachers’ unions see certification as their lock on the profession. Change certification requirements to the kind of thing the article is talking about, and you would end up rending nearly 90% of the present public school teaching corps unemployable.
Do you really think they’re going to go for that? And if they won’t, how do you think you’re going to get around them?
You’d also end up shutting down most of the present teacher’s colleges and education departments, and rendering most of their faculty unemployable.
Sound possible to you?
But the thing that makes me roll my eyes is this: there really is a form of American exceptionalism at work here, but not in the way we usually use that term.
There is, first, the simple fact that we have a wildly diverse population, something someplace like Japan or Singapore doesn’t have to worry about.
And yes, diversity is a problem in educational programs, because education is not a one size fits all proposition. Teaching ESL to a student whose first language is Korean is different from teaching ESL to a student whose first language is Arabic.
And teaching students from dysfucntional homes (at least in the elementary grades) is different from teaching students whose home lives make some sense.
But I honestly think we could get out from under all that if it weren’t for the real issue of American exceptionalism here–the fact that we are scared to death to actually look at the facts of the situation.
Because we have a tendency to think–without having any way of knowing–that if we ever did have to acknowledge the facts, what we would find is that intellectual and academic ability varies inescapably by…race.
Please note what I did NOT say.
I did NOT say that intellectual and academic ability ACTUALLY varies by race.
I couldn’t know that even if I wanted to, because nobody has ever collected the data–no, not even Murray and Hernstein–and nobody ever will. You couldn’t get funding to do that kind of study to save your life.
What we actually do is THIS–we secretly believe that if a single high standard were imposed across the board, African Americans and Hispanics would not be able to meet it. They would then not attain the highest levels of education, and be pretty much locked out of the best jobs and the prestige professions from off. This would be “racism” because–well, because it would be. The outcome, after all, would be no different than if we were all the way back at segregation.
Having made such a determination based on no actual evidence whatsoever, we do what we have to do to get the numbers up as far as we dare–we dumb down education in our inner city, poor and minority-majority schools so that more of the students there graduate.
The graduation, of course, is bogus–what the students in these schools have received is not a high school education, but at best a sixth-grade one. But it doesn’t look like that on the surface. They have high school diplomas!
We then send these kids on to “college,” which isn’t really college, but sort of high school. And we proclaim that we’ve given students who never before had a chance to go to college a chance to go.
Except, of course, that these students have not gone to college. They’ve gone to high school and been allowed to call it “college.”
And the “colleges” they’ve gone to have dumbed down standards so far, that students who would have been able to use them in times past for a real stab at a college education now no longer can. Real college level work is no longer on offer there.
While we were doing all this, we were operating on an unstated assumption–that we could keep the dumbing down confined to those students over there. It wouldn’t affect our own kids, who would go to real school with real standards, or be placed in “gifted” or advanced placement programs where the standards could be kept where they were supposed to be.
This did not, of course, work. It took no time at all for the pressure to mount to insure “access” to things like gifted and advanced placement programs, even if that meant dumbing down the standards in these so that we could shoehorn in more students in “at risk” groups.”
And it took even less time than that for students from dumbed down school programs to enter the teacher’s colleges.
And by now, you’ve got a very few places with decent programs, mostly in very rich, high educated upper middle class suburbs where the parents aren’t having any guff.
And you’ve got other kinds of anomalies–Connecticut, a few years ago, changed its state standards in math away from the highly-abstract, go on to calculus stuff to more “practical” math. Parents in places like Westport and Wilton had fits, and were told that “not everybody can go on to the analytical math.” So the parents in these places put their kids in tutoring to get the stuff they needed to end up i things like calculus and at places like Yale.
This might seem like a nifty solution, except for this–a kid whose parents are not educated, who comes from a poor background but has the talent, now has NO opportunity to learn advanced mathematics in high school. His family will not have the money to pay for outside tutoring even if they know what they problem is, and they probably won’t know what the problem is.
For what it’s worth, I’ve had black students and white students. My black students are, on average, far worse prepared–but I don’t see much in the way of a difference in native intelligence or academic ability.
I think it’s entirely possible that if we instituted serious standards and stuck to them, we might have about ten years in which the “disparate impact” was glaring–but it would be glaring not because our minority students are stupid, but because so many of them do not actually have access to education at all.
On the other side of that, though, I’d be willing to bet my house that we’d see significant shrinkage in the “achievement gap.”
But, you know, we’re not going to do that. It’s to the advantage of too many people to keep that achievement gap wide, and, more importantly, to keep standards like “disparate impact” in place.
And they kids don’t vote.
I’m going off to read a little novel by a woman called Ellery Adams. It’s title is A Killer Plot, and it’s the first in a series.
Thanks to Dean James for the heads up.
Reading over the comments this morning, I find Michael suggesting that from certain clues in the excerpts I posted yesterday, my students seem to be speaking…Ebonics.
And since Ebonics is a subdialect with its own language rules, an Ebonics speaker who is trying to learn to speak and write standard English is actually learning an entirely new language.
The reference is then to Stephen Pinker.
I’ve read the Pinker. I think I probably own everything Pinker has ever written.
On the subject of the Ebonics, thing, though, I’m skeptical, and for several reasons.
They go like this:
1) Virtually every student in every standard (not remedial) Freshman English class I’ve ever had has been, and is, white.
The students who wrote those two pieces were almost assuredly white.
And, what’s more important–the largely unstated idea we all have that this kind of excruciatingly awful writing product is mostly a “minority” problem is dead on wrong.
My white kids are poor, working class and middle class, and all of them–even the children of doctors and lawyers–write like this.
Of course, the percentages are skewed. A higher percentage of my classes will be poor and working class. The middle class children of doctors and lawyers will take up two or three seats in any section.
But they’re still there, and they’re still doing this.
I’d be willing to bet nearly anything that what I’m seeing is not the result of a “subculture” or dialect but of an instuctional philosophy in the high schools that shrinks from teaching standard English or correcting students who write this way.
The majority of students in my remedial classes are, in fact, minorities–but the way they write makes the things I posted look ready for a Nobel Lit prize.
2) For a hundred years after the Civil War, African American children who were allowed to go to school at all came out speaking and writing English as standard as any Harvard grad. They still do, at places like Harvard.
They issue in minority difficulties with standard English is not about subcultures, learning new languages, or even self esteem. It’s about an educational system that has decided they aren’t going to teach that, because it’s–what, exactly?
For both my black students and my white students, reality is inelastic: private employers in my area are now giving reading and writing tests for applicants for entry level positions, and they’re not declaring substandard (or nonstandard) English just another dialect.
Never mind the obvious: part of the reason for schools like mine is the idea that even the most disadvantaged kids, even the kids who have made bad life choices, should get one more chance to shoot the moon.
But no first rate law school, no first rate med school, no Fortune 500 company or newly minted Cabinet member is going to hire somebody for a serious job with a serious future who speaks or writes like my students.
Either kind of my students, black or white.
3) I have plenty of students who are actual immigrants, whose first language at home is not English or anything like English.
And they have fewer problems reading and writing English than the students whose excerpts I posted.
Hell, they have fewer gaps in their overall understanding of American history and government than my native-born students.
It seems that elementary schools and high schools in Albania not only teach their kids to speak and write English, they also teach them things like the way the electoral college works, the content of the bill of rights and the general timeline of American history since independence.
Most of my white, working-to-middle-class students have never heard the term “electoral college” and aren’t entirely sure what the Supreme Court is and what it does–and this in a state that mandates a year of civics for public high school graduation.
My students do not know these things because their schools are not teaching them.
My students do not know how to read and write because their schools are not teaching that, either.
Almost all of them come from schools that mandate “holistic grading,” a system by which a teacher reads an essay WITHOUT correcting mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling and gives a grade based on the “feeling of the quality of the whole.”
If you can’t figure out how that works, neither can I, and I’ve had a stab at doing it on occassion.
The result, though, is obvious. And I’ve got a hundred more examples of it lying around my office at the moment.
4) Although private employers around here are increasingly balking at the illiteracy of their job applicants–and increasingly refusing to take the word of local colleges that the applicants have language skills of any kind–there are two places my students can go to get hired: school systems and government offices and agencies.
Given the nature of what I do and where I do it, I am required to deal, on a regular basis, with parole officers and social workers.
The parole officers are a bit fumbling and incoherent, but there’s another kind of subdialect, and that’s professional jargon, and they know that. So do I, and since law enforcement tends to have lots of hard and fast rules, it’s possible to learn that jargon and know what they’re saying.
The social workers are breathtaking.
Well, no, not all of them. The higher-level ones are in pretty good shape. They’re also virtually all white and culturally upper middle class.
The caseworkers, however, range from on-their-way-to-administration to completely shocking. I’ve had at least one I am sure could not actually read at all. She would send me forms to fill out on behalf of a student–students get support through DCF through the age of 18, but can only continue to get support after that if they are enrolled full time in a college program–
Anyway, she would send me these forms to fill out. I would fill them out and send them to her. She would call me up and demanded the answers to the questions on the form because I’d “omitted” those. I started keeping copies for myself. I never omitted anything, and I frequently send attached letters explaining special circumstances.
If she read any of them, she didn’t understand them. My guess is that she didn’t read them.
Sometimes my students, indignant at the grades I’m giving them, take their essays back to their favorite English teachers in high school, and these teachers send me notes. Increasingly, these notes exhibit the same grammar, punctuation and spelling errors my students’ work does, along with the endless problems with homophones (your/you’re, there/they’re/their, its/it’s).
Half of my students will never graduate, but half of them will, and they’re headed to a school district or government office near you.
And yes, it will matter.
The kid whose social worker I thought might not be able to read was in real danger of losing benefits he needed. He’d clawed his way through an absolute nightmare of a life, a mother on drugs, a father whose answer to everything was to punch through it (literally), six or seven foster homes, getting beaten to a pulp in every schoolyard he’d ever been in. He had an actual, real chance of clawing his way out if he could get what the state said he had a right to, which was a paid college education in any state school. If he’d been dumped from that program it would be theorectically possible to get him back on–but in the meantime he’d have lost a semester, been chucked out on his ass with nowhere to live, and all the rest of it.
It will matter if the postal worker you have to deal with next week can’t read the address on your envelope. It will matter if the guy who processes your forms at the IRS office can’t read those, and can’t write a memo for your file that states the actual content of the meeting you just had. It will matter if the woman doing HR at your company doesn’t know the difference between a “network provider policy” and a “preferred provider policy.”
5) But the real kicker is this–most of my kids would probably have an actual interest in improving their skills if they had any idea there were actual skills there to be improved.
Most of them have come out of high schools that have convinced them that there is no content (or objectivity) to “language arts,” it’s just some bullshit they have to sit through because they have to.
The first time I hand back papers in a term, with my red pencil circling and correcting every spelling mistake, tense confusion, vocabulary screw up, fragmented sentence I can find–they’re completely stunned.
They’ve never had papers corrected like that.
And they think it’s just me, and of course that I’m being unfair.
PS. A note. Human Resource Departments are almost always the dumping grounds for low-skilled but “college graduate” employees. The companies figure that that way, the inevitable mess such employees make will only harm other employees, and not the bottom line.