Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

My Problem With Religion, 8

with 7 comments

Star Trek.

I meant Star Trek.

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I’m not a science fiction person.  I sometimes get the two of them confused.

And I wanted to point out to Robert that I hadn’t meant to simplify his point, I was just looking for a simple way to refer to it.  I do know the cluster of principles he’s talking about–multicultural everything, opposition to the death penalty, etc, etc, etc–they’re standard in a certain kind of magazine.

I’ll still stick by my original point.  I think they represent things too remote from the nrmal human being to spread to a majority of the population.

But I also think that it’s not the case that the principles come first and the narrative comes second–on the contrary.  I think the narrative always comes first, and has to.  People do not respond to abstract principles.  Even in the case of the cluster Robert is referring to, most of the people involved in the movement are responding to a modified Messiah narrative and not to the particlar principles involved. 

The everyday people who claim to hold those principles, on the other hand, often seem merely to be using them to pride themselves on being more intelligent and evolved than everybody else, and not as ideals they actually use for their everyday lives. 

But it was Mab’s post that caught me.  After I finished laughing–and, I’m sorry, that much misinformation in one place is funny on some level–it occurred to me that I might be wrong about something.

I keep saying that Americans increasingly lack a shared narrative, but I might e wrong.  I tried to think, yesterday, of a list of ideas and principles we all shared, and then of a list of ideas and principles shared throughout the Anglophone sphere, and then throughout the West as the West, and it hit me that there really is a lot that we all agree on.

We agree, for instance–in levels on intensity going out from the US to the others as presented above–that democracy is the only really legitimate form of government, that people should ideally be equal before the law, that those who are unable to provide for themselves should be provided for.  And that’s just for starters.

What’s happening, I think, is that we’ve begun to diverge in our definition of the terms of that agreement, and we increasingly assume the bad faith of the other side.

Take, for instance, equality before the law.  Conservatives tend to define this as “conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, liberals believe in equality of results,” but the issue isn’t anywhere near that simple.

Tradtionally, equality before the law has meant that two people, one rich and one poor, who go before a judge are judged by the same rules.

And that ideal always operated at least somewhat in the breech, since people are people, and people tend to respond differently to the different perceptions of a person’s importance or worth.

But take a look at the modern problem of, say, legally required credentials for certain professions, like law. 

When Lincoln wanted to be a lawyer, he “read law” in somebody’s law offices for a while and then took the bar exam.  In some states, as late as the 1950s, all you had to do was to hang out a shingle.

These days, practically every state requires a prospective lawyer to have a bachelor’s degree as well as a JD from an accredited law school before they’ll even allow them to take the bar exam.  Serious national careers in law require not just that, but that from “name” schools.   Even conservative commentators (see Ann Coulter) went ballistic over Harriet Myers, since she’d only gone to  Southern Methodist–not good enough for a SCOTUS justice.

Now say you’re a kid with an IQ of 150 (meaning, very high), who happens to be born into a family in inner city  Detroit.   The only schools available to you are not just run down, they’re disasters.  Sometimes they’re heated, sometimes the heat goes on the fritz for days at a time.  Classrooms with forty students in them will have only five or six textbooks to go around.   There’s no discipline anywhere.  Kids run wild, and some of them are dangerous.  Most of your teachers are bottom of the barrel failures who can’t get jobs teaching anywhere else in the state.  You work your butt off, you’re conscientious and dedicated, but your high school doesn’t teach math beyond algebra and it barely teaches that.  Kids graduate with skills that wouldn’t get them into fourth grade in Bloomfield Hills.

Over in Bloomfield Hills, in the meantime, the building is state of the art, and there’s an Olympic sized pool for gym class.   There are always enough textbooks to go around, and classes tend to be limited to no more than twenty-five students anyway.  Courses are offered in five different languages, including Lation, and in mathematics through caculus, and there are forty-five different Advanced Placement courses.  Even a not-very-motivated kid of average intelligence coming out of this system will do spectuacularly better on, say, the SAT II exams (the course content ones) than our first kid.  

And given the entry requirements of the best schools, that average second kid who only sort of gives a damn will have a better chance of getting into Harvard or Yale or even the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus than the first.

In what sense can we say that kid A and kid  B have equality before the law when it comes to wanting to become a lawyer?  In what sense can we even say they have equality of opportunity?

And what’s more, that this is in fact a problem is recognized by both left and right–it’s why the left supports affirmative action and why the right supports vouchers. 

Personally, I think both vouchers and affirmative action are bad policies–neither of them solve the problem, for one thing.  Affirmative action further establish precedent law that it’s okay to differentiate by race.  Vouchers threaten the entire private school system in the US, because it is definitely the case that where the government spends money, the government gets to set rules. 

But beyond the objective reasons anyone might have for favoring or rejecting either of these policies, the big issue, to me, is the way in which people on each side of the divide think that people on the other side are not choosing their option for legitimate reasons, but because they’re inherently bad people.

It’s that second thing, that assumption that “people who think like us” do so for legitimate reasons but “people who think like them” do so because they’re evil and malicious, that I think is the real symptom that we are beginning to lack not just a common narrative, but a commonly understood narrative.

No, I don’t think Mab’s Russians are right and that we’re all going to come apart in 2010.  We actually still share far too much for that.

But I do think that it’s time we started looking actively for a narratie that can provide a rationale for people with different opinions to live together.  Because I don’t think we’re going to come to some kind of monlithic unity any time soon.  We’ve never been in that particular place, and we probably never will be.

And I never got to Star Trek today.

But it’s time for me to get up and get moving.

Written by janeh

August 13th, 2009 at 5:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 8'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'My Problem With Religion, 8'.

  1. I still say one way to reduce inequalities in American education would be to enlarge the school districts so they took in the inner cities and the suburbs, the rich district and the poor.

    I know, I know, that reduces local choice and might motivate the rich and middling rich to move even more into private schools thus re-creating the problem, but that proposed solution still appeals to me.

    I used to know someone who swore that kids out of our poor rural schools where they got only the minimum of the provincially-required curriculum caught up really fast once they hit post-secondary, and I think there’s some truth in that. Those weren’t the same size discrepancies as Jane is describing, though, and of course, many youngsters from the poorest backgrounds didn’t even get as far as the end of high school.

    I also think it takes an active effort to create a culture in which people are willing to listen to (or at least not impugn) people who are different – and by ‘different’ I mean hold very different views, not so much different in appearance. There’s something innate that makes us reluctant to agree to disagree. It’s probably related to the way we tend to need and identify with a group.


    13 Aug 09 at 9:30 am

  2. The misinformation which Mab lists is indeed funny to someone who actually knows the US. But its also terrifying – if the Russian government actually believes that or if the general public believe it and its used to make policy decisions …

    Jane’s case of the student with IQ of 150 indirectly illustrates one weakness of affirmative action. If the student is admitted to Harvard or Yale, then he/she will need so many remedial courses that he/she won’t get the true Harvard experience. Futher employers will just think “Yes, its a Harvard degree but does the rigor of a Harvard education lie behind it or is it just a piece of paper?”

    Which is why I support the voucher idea – get the student out of the slum school and into one where he/she can receive the necessary training to benefit from Harvard or Yale.

    And perhaps we should try to shake the preception that Southern Methodist is not a good school.


    13 Aug 09 at 10:24 am

  3. No one really knows what the gov’t here believes; it’s a black box. But they have been actively demonizing the US and “the West,” and everything I wrote is what I’ve personally heard, been asked about, or read. And here’s the first line of an op ed piece written by a provost in the Foreign Affairs Ministry Diplomatic Academy today: “The United States has been growing more insistent lately in its hopes of teaming up with Beijing to rule the world together. Washington’s was driven to this only because its grandiose plan to build a global empire as the single remaining superpower failed miserably.” Bookstores are filled with volumes called things like “The Upcoming War: It starts in Ukraine.” I keep joking that they ought to tell the Americans about this, since I don’t think we’re aware of the war we’re about to start.

    I write all this because one of the weird and frightening – I don’t know what to call it – phenomena? Dangers? Oddities? – of today are these competing realities. They aren’t just differences of viewpoints or perspectives – it’s like people live in entirely different dimensions.

    Over here there is a lot of talk about “common European values” vs “the Russian path.” People who want Russia to be “a normal civilized country” favor “common European values.” The nationalist crowd, the church (very statist these days), and the leaders (former security types) maintain that those “values” are really bad and alien to Russian history, culture and religion. Again, it’s hard to tell if they believe this, but I think some do. And the distinction is all about human rights, the central value of the individual in society. The nationalists insist that it is egotistical individualism; not freedom, but a kind of licentious liberty.

    I think that centrality of the individual does unite the Western world, and is still a common value for Americans. But how to best support and nurture the individual – isn’t that the sticking point?

    You might all laugh at this, but for awhile I thought Obama had a uniting narrative in his life and his political/economic/social views, which are in many ways pretty middle-of-the-road. But no. He’s a socialist, he’s an Al Qaeda plant, he’s going to nationalize all the wealth and put in place death panels. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong direction, but to me the question is: why don’t those people want to like him? Because you can’t come up with something that unites all the people if part of the population really doesn’t want to be united, if they prefer to be angry and bitter.


    13 Aug 09 at 12:32 pm

  4. I don’t know if it’s a case of not wanting to be united and preferring to be angry. I suspect a lot of people who won’t support Obama would like to be part of a more unified country, but disagree profoundly with his policies and his direction since taking office. All the figures I’ve seen out of the US indicate that the people are fairly evenly split politically, which means there are a lot of people out there who don’t much support Obama and probably a good few who think he’s a danger to the country – but because of his stand, not because they prefer to be disunited and bitter.

    As for the people who believe really weird things – well, of course, there’s the old political staple of propaganda intended to unite the people against a common enemy and behind a particular leader. I think they all do it, to a greater or lesser extent.

    Why people believe it, I mean, after the Evil Country has failed to attack or they’ve heard the same implausible stories too many times, I don’t know. Sometimes they want to believe it. We had an incredibly popular politician here a good many years ago. My mother heard him speak, and had no time for him after she caught him changing his figures for the economy mid-speech. It didn’t bother anyone else; he ran the place for decades, even though eventually the veracity of his promises became a bit of a joke.

    Someone or other said that if people don’t believe in religion, they won’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything. We seem to have almost a need to believe in aliens and conspiracy theories and a great national soul that will save us if only we let it. It’s a really odd phenomena, if you think about it, especially if you consider that the West, at least, has been touting reason for centuries, and the smallest application of reason could probably come up with some more logical reasons for our – or Russia’s – economic woes than the evil machinations of the US. But we’re back to politicians wanting some kind of scapegoat to blame problems on – an enemy to blame for the problems. It’s just too difficult and dangerous (for the people in power) to make really major changes to the position.

    Another eastern Canadian politician won an election on the promise of reducing corruption. Then he started to do it, much to the shock of everyone, including other politicians. He didn’t win another election. At least, this being Canada and not Russia, he wasn’t murdered, either.


    13 Aug 09 at 1:55 pm

  5. Do you really want me to get started on education in this country? Public education, for the most part, is outrageous! Having spent the past 40+ years as a teacher, let me add my two cents. I’ve seen countless textbook revisions, and each new edition is weaker in academic content than the previous and more concerned with political correctness. For goodness sakes, I taught a unit on the history of India that never mentioned Ghandi. There was a single sentence that India finally won its freedom from GB. I mean, let’s not offend anyone with historical facts.

    Then there’s the matter of the current “new” way to teach children (emergent literacy, whole language, etc.). Each one lasts about 7-8 years before it’s scrapped and a new one takes its place. We go back to school and are told to forget the hopeless past and embrace the bold new future. Right!

    The current fad is testing and state standards. Last year, our school spent seven weeks of the school year (35 days from the mandatory 180) just testing. The standards eliminate so much of the extra materials a teacher can incorporate, because if you don’t get all the standards in, you don’t get rehired. Never mind that the students don’t master anything. Just throw them at the kids and hope they stick.

    I taught my 39 years in the Lutheran system (which gets forgotten when people refer to parochial education, as though the Catholic schools are the only ones worth mentioning). Consistently, we rose above state averages for student progress, and we took pride in providing a well-rounded education. The biggest mistake the Lutheran schools made was to buy into the idea that being state accredited was important. Since that day, we have been drawn under state-mandated procedures, and our success rate has fallen. Now, we are a religious public school. Yes, we still have the right to teach our doctrines; however, we no longer have the time to devote to a full and rich education for our students. Now, we have to follow state standards and spend seven weeks testing skills we don’t have time to teach.

    Like I said, don’t get me started!


    13 Aug 09 at 3:40 pm

  6. I think the part of the national narrative that’s missing is the part where gratification must be deferred until it’s earned, and the part where we have to share, even though we might not love those with whom we must share.

    People want things *right now* and screw that waiting, saving up, doing without until you have the money crap. Or just doing without when what you want is totally beyond the budget. Our parents got this, coming out of the Depression. Our kids do not.

    Sharing the country, the government and the world has gone the way of sharing with one’s siblings…”I want my own stuff!!” So when Dems are in power, Repubs act as spoilers, because they’ll never get power back, at least in their minds. And vice versa. Never mind regarding our nation as a shared property that both parties should take care of, it’s “GET MINE NOW!!” all the time.

    Sorta like all the large corporations that used to be able to plan and invest for future development, instead of being managed solely for the benefit of current management and their bonuses. Yes, Boeing, I’m looking at you.

    Until the values of earning before spending and sharing without griping or hating the sharers become more a part of the narrative, none of our politicians are going to start playing the game fairly. Why should they? So far they’re all rewarded for unfulfilled promises, blatant lies and nasty practices. Frankly, I’ve started voting against incumbents as a matter of course.

    I don’t know if such a narrative change can come from the top down or has to rise from the grass roots, but it sure would be refreshing to have someone in power say “it would be nice to fund everything, but we can’t. How about we not spend everything we take in for a decade and see what we can afford?”


    13 Aug 09 at 5:08 pm

  7. just a quick note about Mab’s comment. I don’t know much Russian history but I don’t think individual liberites or rights had any significance in the USSR or during the time of the Tzars or Mongols. So they may indeed be “unrussian”.

    As for a common narrative in the US, I doubt it can be created, it will have to evolve. Now that is an utterly useless comment!


    13 Aug 09 at 6:19 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 190 access attempts in the last 7 days.