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The Laramie Project

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Yesterday, I had to take my older son to the train station so that he could get back to school, and I came home in the middle of the day bone tired and not much interested in doing anything that took effort.

The result is that I spent the late afternoon watching a little movie playing on my local cable station called The Laramie Project, a fictionalized examination of the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard case–well, sort of.

I’m not much for docudramas, but this was not actually a docudrama, and it was very well made.

The premise is that a group of people from a New York film project have decided to go out to Laramie and make a documentary about the Shepard case by talking to the people involved in it both about what happened and about how they feel–and how they think Laramie feels–about gay people.

Okay, it sounds awful.  It wasn’t.  It wasn’t even particularly ham handed on the ideological front, although the underlying premise was indeed ideological.  There was also the fact that the talent was good, mostly a long list of second-tier actors and actresses who have been in everything are were easily recognizable:  Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garafolo, Christina Ricci, Peter Fonda, on and on.

The basic underlying idea here is that what happened to Matthew Shepard happened because although most people tolerate homosexuality, they do not accept it, and the lack of acceptance sends a message to the idiot wing of the population that it’s “all right” to commit violence against gay people.

I do get the argument, and it is not completely silly.  Black people in the South after Reconstruction and (especially) in the early to mid-twentieth century were in the same position.  It wasn’t that most people were violent towards them.  It was that, being despised, they were seen as fair game by thugs and lowlifes, and therefore in greater danger than they would have been if they had been accepted in the same way as any other citizen.

What bothered me as I watched this movie, though, was the thought that this particular approach to what happened misses the real issue, and I think the real issue will be with us long after the entire country has accepted homosexuality without prejudice.

The mistake is to think that Henderson and McKinney’s hatred of gay people was essential, rather than opportunistic.

In other words, these two men were going to end up killing somebody.  If they had lived in a society that was totally accepting of gay people, they would have killed a black guy.  If there were no black guys, they’d have picked on a little old lady.  The issue was not who, but that–and that was a structural social reality that isn’t going away any time soon.

The good news is that we live in a scientifically and technologically advanced culture that requires more and more people who can do math and science and engineering and communications and–well, all that stuff.

The bad news is that we live in a scientifically and technologically advanced culture that increasingly has no place for people who cannot do that kind of thing.

And let me be clear about the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Even working on an automobile assembly line requires at least some technological skills.  So does working as a receptionist in even a small company–you’ve got to know how to run the computer, how to use various business software programs, how to handle the digitalized phone system.

For people like Henderson and McKinney, for people who are not very bright at the best of times, there is not a lot of wriggle room–jobs for convenience store clerks and fast-food restaurant cashiers are there but not endlessly plentiful, and they don’t go anywhere in the long run.

The more complex and sophisticated a society becomes, the larger the group of people whose innate level of ability is just not good enough to function in it.  Every advance for the rest of us means that another layer of the least well endowed of us becomes superfluous to the functioning of society as a whole.

I am not trying to say here that Henderson and McKinney couldn’t help themselves.  Most people in their circumstances do help themselves, at least in the sense that they don’t go out and torture and murder somebody.  They do do a lot of drugs, and alcohol, and petty theft, but the scale is hardly the same.

I’m not trying to say that Henderson and McKinney couldn’t have gotten low level jobs and, by dint of hard work and self discipline, have survived as solid citizens.  They could have.

But they would always have been on the bottom.  And they knew it.  What’s more, they would know that the work they did was not important in any way, that they were always dispensible, that they had very little to be proud of.

The real work of their society was something they could not participate in.

Henderson and McKinney would have found somebody to beat the crap out of not because they hated gays or blacks or anybody else, but because they hated themselves for being utterly worthless on the only scale of worth this society has any use for.

And it’s not money.

Bleh.  I’m losing it here.

But I do think we should start thinking–as a society–about the people we leave behind, because we are inevitably going to leave some people behind.  And a lot of them are going to be furious about it.

This as an addendum:  John wants to know if we wouldn’t be better off if there was less emphasis on culture and more on training.

I’d say that there is NO emphasis on culture in the vast majority of American colleges and universities these days.

We are relentlessly focussed on training, and have been for over thirty years.

The result is not better scientists and engineers–it is, by and large, worse ones.  

Newman would say that knowledge is not divisible, and when you teach it as if you could learn a part and not the whole, you get people who don’t know the part all that well. 

I’d also point out that Newman’s idea of what would be taught in a university included mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology–which were then and are now part of the liberal arts. 

But it wouldn’t have included English literature, which was not part of the university curriculum until Newman had been dead for fifty years.

Written by janeh

April 6th, 2010 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

20 Responses to 'The Laramie Project'

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  1. Doesn’t it all depend on where people find their value? If you consider yourself of value, as a human being and child of God, and doing well whatever job, however menial, that presents itself, you aren’t going to think of yourself as scum because you sweep the floors at a fast food restaurant. Similarly, if the job that presents itself is very well-paid and high-status and fulfilling, you won’t consider the floor-sweeper as human trash as long as he’s doing an honest job, and doing it well.

    The problem isn’t in the lack of opportunity for those too stupid to learn to use MS Office; it’s in the way people are assigned value based on what they do and how much they earn; and the assumption that a basic job (and the person holding it) is worthless unless it’s the stepping-stone to a job providing wealth and fame.

    We could change our society to provide more niches for people who never will be rich and powerful. It’s not that long ago that almost the entire female population was out of the wage market and in the household doing basic but useful work, and there’s a steadily increasing demand for home care workers, many of whom require only the most basic of skills. It wouldn’t suit me – I hate doing even do the most basic forms of housework at my own home – but it’s an example of the way in which society can be structured to provide simple, useful, non-technical jobs.

    Of course, there will still be the thugs who want lots of money fast and get involved in the drug trade (or similar forms of violent crime) and the ineffectual and – do they still use ‘poorly socialized’? – types who’ll take their frustrations out on anyone they see as weak or unprotected by most of society. But there’s no particular reason a highly technological society couldn’t have roles – particularly in the service industry – for those who can’t become engineers and technicians. It’s not going to happen as long as people at the bottom of the economic ladder are believed to be disposable scum, or everyone is taught that anyone who doesn’t have a highly-paid, high-status job is a total failure as a person.


    6 Apr 10 at 7:10 am

  2. Some questions:
    1–exactly what do you mean by culture? I know how I would define it and, woefully, parts of it were omitted from my academic education–my fault in higher education, not included in elementary or secondary school.
    2–how do you convey to students who are more adept at learning technological or manual skills rather than academics, that culture or the classics have some relevance in their lives?
    3–Isn’t the perspective that people with low paying jobs or even blue collar jobs are disposable a result of capitalism? Money first, then everything else that follows is of less importance?

    That we should change our society so there are more niches for people who won’t become rich and famous and that we should start thinking about the people left behind are commendable goals. But as long as there is more emphasis on the amount of money a person with a particular job or profession can earn, how is this going to be achieved?


    6 Apr 10 at 10:09 am

  3. Well, a couple of things here.

    First, I never said I thought this culture found people “with low level jobs” disposable.

    I said that as the technological complexity of a society rises, the skill set necessary to function in such a society also rises.

    If you lived in 1200, your IQ could be fairly minimal and the society would still have lots of stuff for you to do.

    In this society, if your IQ is minimal, there are a few jobs you’re capable of doing, but not many.

    And even day to day life is difficult, because you’re not bright enough to get the hang of the common, everyday skills you need to get along: how the computer runs, how to do the math to figure out what your vegetables are going to cost, etc.

    Whether you realize it or not, this society has reached the point where even an IQ of 100 may not be high enough to get the day to day ordinary stuff handled.

    That’s not “capitalism,” that’s technological progress. And it would render some people incapable of functioning no matter what the economic system that contained it.

    Second–I don’t think capitalism reduces everything to being about money, and I REALLY don’t think it results in thinking of some people being disposible.

    In fact, quite the contrary. If you want to see people being treated as disposable, go look at the old Soviet Union, which was perfectly happy to use people up and spit them out without even bothering to entertain them along the way.

    In general, capitalist societies have higher standards of living across the board, for all classes, and a greater likelihood that the best the society has to offer will be available for all classes.

    Health insurance or not, you’re more likely to get your cancer cured in the US than you are in Cuba, ESPECIALLY if you’re poor or not very well connected, and you’re more likely to live in a house with electricity and running water and central heating, to see your children go to college, to own your own car.

    The issue is I was trying to broach was not about how much money people make, but about the level of innate intelligence required to do things people now need to do even LOW LEVEL jobs–like run a computer (in the old days the receptionist just picked up a phone, now she’s got a digital system to run), or handle the GPS system on the taxicab (no more just driving the car).

    A person who, fifty years ago, could be a receptionist or a cab drive now finds he’s no longer smart enough to do those things–so there’s another layer of jobs he doesn’t qualify for that he would have in the past.


    6 Apr 10 at 10:27 am

  4. 1 I think must be for Jane, and I have several different definitions, depending on context.

    2. You need really good teachers and a strong and widespread conviction that certain bits of culture or the classics are of such immense value that at least a nodding acquaintance with them is well worth the effort. That’s happened before – look at the self-education efforts that went on during the Industrial Revolution in England and the teaching that goes on in some classrooms even today.

    4. Again, looking at the past and today – culture changes in response to events, and also in response to the efforts of people in the public eye to define those events and put them in context. It’s complicated, because there are so many aspect of culture and people’s reaction to attempts to change the current culture are influenced by their own background and personal and family culture as well as the efforts of people speaking to the larger group. But as long as riches and the tools to get it are seen as the ONLY characteristic worthy of praise, that’s what you’re going to get. There are attempts to reduce this – voluntary simplicity now, various stories about the poor but honest soul in the past. But I don’t know how to predict or explain why groups of people choose one focus in life over another; listen to all these ‘get rich quick’ gurus or the rich drug dealers rather than their poor but honest grandparents. Maybe a lot of it is envy, which seems innate and isn’t being battled as much as it was when it was considered a sin and not a spur to greater riches.


    6 Apr 10 at 10:38 am

  5. There is a huge and ongoing effort to make computers and other technology accessible to those who have average-to-lesser levels of intelligence. Witness the level of discourse on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and other social networking arenas. Every doofus and his dog can figure out how to upload a YouTube video. The same happens in many jobs…it used to be a cashier had to be able to remember prices for items, and then make change by counting backwards from the tendered cash.

    No longer. Now technology offers a separate button for every product in a fast-food restaurant. Hit the “double burger” key 3 times, and “large fries” twice, and then the cash register tells you exactly what’s owed, and exactly what change to give back. Cashiers no longer need to be able to do anything but recognize coins and count their total. I expect the next change to be that the register will tell the cashier to give back “3 quarters, 1 dime and 3 pennies.”

    So technology, properly used, actually makes *more* jobs available to the lesser-endowed. The cab driver doesn’t need to learn the entire city the way he used to, he only needs to learn which buttons to push to enter the address in the GPS, and frankly, I expect voice recognition will make that even easier in a few years. Somebody still has to dig the holes that fiber-optic cable runs in, somebody still has to swing the hammer that builds a house or an office. Those jobs aren’t substantially different from decades ago, except that in many cases the technology that gives new materials and techniques makes things *easier*.

    In fact, wasn’t there some concern that the use of computers would make access to video and spoken word so prevalent that literacy itself would be threatened, and we might have huge numbers of people who were no longer considered smart enough to learn to read. We can’t have it both ways, either technology enables the less-smart, or it disables them.

    There are always going to be people who, when confronted by work, choose crime. I don’t believe that more of those people exist today than in earlier times. Crime rates are down, pretty much, including murder, despite hard economic times. This chart:


    shows that highest crime rates were back in 1990, they’ve been declining ever since, so Jane’s hypothesis that technology is creating more dispossessed who will turn to crime doesn’t seem to be bourn out by the facts.

    It may be that common everyday tasks are evolving. If you choose to, you can do all your banking online. This is not as simple as going to the bank personally. But I propose that the people we’re talking about probably don’t have a complex financial life anyway, and in any case, legacy methods of paying bills, by going in person to payment sites, getting money orders, etc, *still exist* and always will.

    So I’m not buying that there are increasing numbers of the “technologically obsoleted” out there. I’m more concerned that the current values of mediocrity and conformity tend to mitigate against the gifted among us getting the education and opportunity they need to excel. It’s the extraordinary people who push society and technology forward, and it’s technology that will solve food, energy, and population problems that threaten us all.


    6 Apr 10 at 11:55 am

  6. Mmm. ok but “In general, capitalist societies have higher standards of living across the board, for all classes, and a greater likelihood that the best the society has to offer will be available for all classes.”
    What do you mean by “best?” Material things, education, social standing?
    Also, according to the Human Development Index–which has three dimensions: life expectancy, knowledge and education and standard of living– rankings 2009 http://www.hdr.undp.org, the United States is 13th. The first 9 countries are a mixture of capitalism and socialism.
    Cab drivers, at least the ones I’ve observed in my part of Florida, are no more or less intelligent than I noticed them being in the past. Cab drivers are a very diverse group of folks, from college educated to high school drop outs. And, although I found the GPS devices complicated, most of the cabbies I’ve watched (my roommate was a cabbie for a short time) had no trouble with GPS.
    And people with no skills can do fast food, manual labor, etc. Not that those jobs pay well but it beats starving. And there are chances to move up to management, which pays slightly better.
    But is there an answer to: how to convince scientists or engineers, much less skilled workers in technological occupations, or a those with a job not requiring a college education that cultural education would be beneficial at them?


    6 Apr 10 at 3:07 pm

  7. I agree with Lymaree, and I’ve manned a cash register myself. In 1971 this required calculating and counting back change–arts as lost today as the secretarial skills of centering documents on a typewriter, or spelling. London cabbies had to pass a test on The Knowledge–essentially carrying a map of the city in their heads where now it’s carried on the dashboard. Plenty of jobs to be done by the unskilled, BUT (1) fewer jobs for the strong, and (2) we may be upsetting the proportions by not doing very well at imparting skills.

    Jem, does it occur to you that the HDI was INTENDED to produce just that result? Give me half an hour to work out the “important” values, and I can produce a “scientific objective” ranking with Saudi Arabia in the lead, or Haiti at least respectable. Wonderful tricks can be played with the factors HDI picks for standard of living, for instance.

    Back to Newman. Note that scientific training was fairly new as a university field in his day. Oxford and Cambridge resisted such a notion, and the lead in England went to “dissenter” academies, training non-Anglicans for technical and commercial jobs because–like Catholics–they weren’t likely to see government positions. Newman, like others before and Carver to follow, is making sure his students can support themselves. I persist in thinking this is a good idea.

    As for modern university being all about jobs and training, looking back I’d have said that the “diversity” requirements–courses out of my major field of study: I don’t know what they’re called today–involved about a semester’s worth of Movement propaganda packaged as “Macroeconomics” “Ethics” “Political Science” “Sociology” and “Environmental Biology.” It was religious education, except that the Movement doesn’t want to admit it’s a religion. And that was before they started “orientation.” Would today’s students get less of this? By every measure I can find, the faculty has gone steadily further left over the past 40 years.

    The University still has and imparts a consistent cultural value. It just isn’t one I care much for.


    6 Apr 10 at 4:26 pm

  8. Well, first.

    I went and looked up the Human Development Index, but I’ll admit I was suspicious as soon as I heard “life expectancy.”

    That’s because there’s a simple truth about life expectancy–in developed countries, it’s always longer in homogenous or near-homogenous populations.

    Of the twelve nations ranked about the US on the Index, eleven are massively non-diverse–small European countries where the populations are almost entirely white and Northern European.

    The one country with a significant minority population–France–has a problem, in that you can’t trust its statistics. Paris is ringed by “suburbs” that are largely no-go zones, massive ghettos for a North African Muslim population that does not integrate into French society and makes damn sure its territory is not easily accessed by social wokers, teachers, or police.

    The US is not only massively more diverse than these places, but it’s home to literally millions of immigrants who come here legally and often already in bad shape in terms of health, and millions more who come here illegally, often sick or pregnant, and afraid to see a doctor or hit the emergency room until they realize nobody’s going to ask if they’re undocumented.

    If you look at the small print in the report, you find that the countries in Europe which post a higher percentage of immigrants in their population than the US turn out to be taking in immigrants–from other countries in the EU.

    In other words, to be just as nondiverse as I’d expected.

    We also have far more cars per person, which means far more car fatalities–but would it really be a higher level of “human development” if the women were stuck on the farm when the men went off town because there was only one care in the family?

    The report itself leaves out practically everything I would consider important in a culture, and its bias is so obviously to the left (gender equity!) that I’d asssume it was measuring things far less important to me and not measuring the ones I want to know about.

    For instance: in many European countries, your chance to EVER attend a university is decided somewhere in your teens. If you don’t make the cut–and in France the cut is the top 10%, the people who here go to Harvard and the Ivies–you’re SOL, with no alternative route to a degree.

    What’s more, a lot of these countries–and France is a biggie here–have established official pathways into a lot of professions. A French filmmaker who wants to work in France has to get a degree from the right Ecole in order to get his films considered for government subsidy.

    That means that people like Steven Spielberg (nearly flunked out of high school, did flunk out of college) can’t get into the profession at all.

    What about the rights of individuals and families to refuse to take expert advice and instead make their own decisions about their families?

    I’d use as a stand-in for this the right to home school, and the right of private schools NOT to teach a nationally adopted curriculum–something that’s virtually impossible in most European countries.

    What about the birth rate? The US is at or above the replacement rate–all twelve of the countries above it on the Index are under the replacement rate, and graying rapidly.

    What about suicide?

    In other words, if the kind of things you’re interested in are the kind of things they’re measuring, then this is an interesting report. It doesn’t say much to me on any subject I think is really important.

    I’ll say it again–for anything I really care about, give me capitalism every time.

    But give me CAPITALISM–in capitalism, you do not bail out banks that fail, and you do not give special protections for health insurance companies to operate as monopolies in their home (or any other) states.

    And Robert–yes, things have changed a lot since you were in college. A UConn may have those orientations, etc, but places like Western Connecticut State or its equivalent does not, concentrates heavily on graduating students in business, criminal justice and nursing, and restricts distribution requirements to maybe three or four courses over the course of the four years, including composition.

    Composition in these places is a course in writing nonfiction essays. It includes no literature at all.


    6 Apr 10 at 5:03 pm

  9. “Jem, does it occur to you that the HDI was INTENDED to produce just that result?”

    Um, no it doesn’t occur to me. I don’t have any valid reason to distrust their conclusions. Why would it be “intended” to produce that result? Because the US didn’t top the list? Does the fact that the UN uses it and that an article in a Stanford School of Business journal referred to make it unreliable?

    “Give me half an hour to work out the “important” values, and I can produce a “scientific objective” ranking with Saudi Arabia in the lead, or Haiti at least respectable. Wonderful tricks can be played with the factors HDI picks for standard of living, for instance.”
    Why is scientific objective in quotation marks? What would be the reason for playing wonderful tricks with the factors that HID picks for determining the standard of living? And actually Saudi Arabia is 59th on the list.


    6 Apr 10 at 5:14 pm

  10. The reason for playing around with the criteria is to make sure your preferred form of government comes out on top.

    And if I’d known it was a UN project, I would have assumed it was biased and unreliable by virtue of that fact alone.

    They lost me when they put the Sudan–a country that still practices and condones actual slavery–on the Human Rights Commission.


    6 Apr 10 at 5:19 pm

  11. I know what the other thing was–the other thing that makes the red flags go up when I read these reports (other than life expectancy), is “equality,” by which they almost always mean that there should be little variation in income levels across the population.

    But I don’t have a problem with inequality–I don’t mind that Bill Gates and Michael Jordan and Stephen King make tons more money than I do, and I think that the old saying is probably true–you can have liberty or equality, but not both.

    And I’ll go for liberty every time. A society like that of Sweden’s, with the endless conformity and official oversight into public life, isn’t something I’d consider even marginally “good” in a society, no matter what the material benefits of the welfare state that imposes the rest of that.


    6 Apr 10 at 5:44 pm

  12. I agree with Jane about the UN. I don’t trust anything it puts out.

    As for equality of income, the inmates of Belsen and Auswitch were all treated equally – they were all starving. That doesn’t make them desirable societies.


    6 Apr 10 at 6:43 pm

  13. Interesting thoughts about Laramie. Is it a lack of a future that drives them or would they have done exactly the same thing if there was something out there for them? Do you look at the so-called ghetto and the plight, if you will, of black youth the same way?

    While technology certainly makes it easier to do some things (make change), getting the job where you can make change is increasingly more difficult for those of marginal/low intelligence. That job becomes the way of making up for someone who was previously fully employed becoming “underemployed”.

    There was a story in yesterday’s local paper about the end of the Theater/Performing arts degree program at the #2 WA State university (WSU). It truly wasn’t surprising to read some of the comments made along the way – many, many people out there see no use for anything other than a 4-year “training” degree. By that, I mean not one that prepares one for a low-paying stage career, rather the engineer, accountant, etc.

    I do have to admit that we spent a lot of time discussing with our older daughter the cost/benefit relationship of attending a higher priced private university if she were to study English, History, or (horrors) Psychology. All worthy subjects, but not ones to spend $100K+ on. Better to do that at a public school ($40K or less). The university she attends has a core curriculum, but it isn’t the same.

    I have a bachelor of arts with a major in Economics. Plenty of reading, writing went along with it. It got me my job & I do financial analysis for a v. large company. When I hired in, many of my co-workers or managers had no college or an AA. Now, you can’t get in the door w/o a 4-yr degree in accounting or finance. For jobs that are clerical in nature. No one wants to file a damn paper w/a BA or BS.

    I noticed Newsweek this week – the death of the liberal arts college or something of the sort. (This is what ultimately brought me here as I knew from RAM that the whole education vs. training was a BDD to you.)

    Would we show better results as a nation in the “better at math” scorekeeping if we didn’t have a mandate to educate all? Would we have better shopkeepers and engineers if we did it differently?


    6 Apr 10 at 7:21 pm

  14. Ok, I don’t share that distrust. Not that I necessarily want a socialist society, just giving data as I find it. And I think the comparison to Belsen and Auswich is about as valid as the Catholic priest’s comparison of the bad press the Pope is currently receiving with the mistreatment of the Jews during the Holocaust.
    But I think we’ve lost the plot. Of my original questions, these two haven’t been addressed:
    1–exactly what do you mean by culture? I know how I would define it and, woefully, parts of it were omitted from my academic education–my fault in higher education, not included in elementary or secondary school.
    2–how do you convey to students who are more adept at learning technological or manual skills rather than academics, that culture or the classics have some relevance in their lives?


    6 Apr 10 at 7:35 pm

  15. I also think that any “report” from the UN or its organs is instantly suspect and more likely than not to be inherently unreliable. So also is jem’s assertion that the first nine of the countries listed are mixtures of socialism and capitalism. If it is true that Australia is a mixture of socialism and capitalism, the mixture is fairly lean on the socialist side. But from what I can tell, the same is also true of the US where Medicare and other socialist government policies achieve the same ends by very similar if not identical means as other countries welfare provisions.

    However, if one needs a simple rule of thumb to measure the perceived cultural worth of the listed countries, there is one criterion alone from that report puts the US’s place in the world in proper perspective. Check out the relative emigration rates between, say, this Oceanic Paradise, Australia, (No 2 in the hierarchy of nations) and that of the US. I’ve lost the link, but from memory, the latest available figures show that the Australian net emigration rate is something in the order of 3.5% while that of the US is 0.8%.

    Says all that needs to be said about that, methinks.


    7 Apr 10 at 1:12 am

  16. I have seen people argue for equality just for its own sake without specifying why they think its important.

    The point of my reference to Belsen and Auswich was that equality as a goal is meaningless – equal starvation is still starvation even if everyone starves.


    7 Apr 10 at 2:51 am

  17. Re Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa – I’m probably going to start something, but I do like to see the original statement when someone’s opinion is vilified, and i can’t do it in that case because I don’t read Italian and I can’t find a translation of his entire sermon. But he’s quoted on CBC as basing his comments on the quotation “The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,” he said, quoting from the letter.”

    And that’s certainly true. It’s also true that being sexually abused is less damaging than being killed, but he doesn’t appear to have said that they were even remotely equivalent – he’s preaching against collective blame.

    Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/04/02/good-friday.html#ixzz0kPRoB096

    Equality of opportunity is important – I think we get the best of everything from maintenance to music to science if we don’t put artificial barriers in place to stop part of the population from doing their best. Equality of outcome won’t happen from the point of view of money and success; it should be there for more basic things – enough to eat to avoid starvation; ability to participate at a basic level (voting) although having only a fair chance to try to reach the higher levels (eg PM).

    I’ve got a Sudanese friend who claims vehemently that there’s no slavery in the Sudan. Admittedly, I find some definitions of ‘slavery’ weak – there are people who claim that children sent by their families to work and be cared for in richer relatives’ households are ‘slaves’ – but I think there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on in the southern part of the Sudan and neighbouring countries. It seems to be changing slowly with increased ease if transportation to the cities, but in some cases, there’s not a lot of difference between being so poor and desperate you’ll do anything for the local rich guy in return for food and shelter, and being a slave.

    The UN is at least attempting to look at a lot of these issues, although their criteria may be subject to criticism. That’s true of any attempt to compare countries on the basis of as hard data as one can get. It doesn’t mean governments and other organizations shouldn’t keep trying, and keep criticizing their attempts.

    And Mique, what is your definition of ‘culture’? Some emigrants to the US are for sure going there for the social and political aspects of culture – they want to be involved in the biggest entertainment (and other ‘cultural industries’) businesses on the planet, or they prefer American ideas in government or societal structures. A lot, including a lot from Canada, are undoubtedly economic migrants, although they (or at least the Canadian version) doesn’t like to say that they are. I wouldn’t count ‘I can pay off my student loan a lot faster’ as meaning ‘the American culture attracts me’, even if the speaker finds out when he gets there, settles down, meets and marries a local, that he’s going to make his life there after all and the culture isn’t half bad.

    If Australia were a little closer and cheaper to get to, it might attract more people from North America! I mean, the Australians HAVE to travel a considerable distance to emigrate to most other western-style countries, but North Americans don’t; there are a LOT that are closer than Australia, and they speak English in a couple of them.


    7 Apr 10 at 6:56 am

  18. I think you misunderstood my point, Cheryl. Essentially, it is that there can’t be too much wrong with how American culture is perceived by American people (whatever their socio-economic status) when a country like Australia which, according to the UN, ranks 11 places higher than the US, loses 3.5% of its population every year to emigration (mainly to the UK, I would imagine) while the US loses only 0.8%.

    This suggests to me that Americans are much more satisfied with their country, warts and all, than are Australians, and this is surely a reliable measure of cultural contentment. In other words, the UN report is a crock. :-)


    7 Apr 10 at 7:47 am

  19. Ah, I misunderstood you. Americans certainly aren’t voting with their feet to search for better options! You do get some Americans emigrating permanently (as opposed to, say, being employed abroad temporarily by multinational corporations), but not a lot.

    I have a formerly American choir director who prefers our climate to that of Alabama, and a local doctor who practiced in the US for a while said in his little online biography that he came home because he missed our weather. You really have to know our climate to appreciate these exceptions, though.


    7 Apr 10 at 7:59 am

  20. “The result is not better scientists and engineers–it is, by and large, worse ones. ”

    “One thing that’s not in short supply are scientifically talented American students, whose academic achievements have been increasing rather than declining in recent years. “Students emerging from the oft-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying science and math subjects more and performing better in them, over time,” said Teitelbaum in Congressional testimony in November 2007. “Nor are [they] lagging far behind comparable students in economically competitive countries, as is oft asserted.”

    * * *

    “But scientists are not generally recruited from the average students, Salzman notes, but from those with the top scores, of whom America has large numbers. Compared with the products of Asian secondary schools, American students “are free thinkers,” says Vivek Wadhwa of Duke and Harvard Universities. “They didn’t spend the last 12 years of their lives memorizing books…. They’ve spent the last 12 years dealing with real problems and solving them. [In America], you can walk up to your teacher and tell her that she’s wrong or he’s wrong.” In Asia, he continues, “you wouldn’t dare do that.”

    Raising America’s average scores on international comparisons is, therefore, not a matter of repairing a broken educational system that performs poorly overall, as many critiques suggest, but rather of improving the performance of the children at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities. This discrepancy , of course, is a vital national need and responsibility, but it does not reflect an overall insufficient supply of able science students.

    Nor do American students lose interest in science once they reach college. “The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in S&E [science and engineering] has been relatively stable over time, as has the proportion of freshmen in an S&E major,” Lowell and Salzman state. Over many years, Indicators notes, the U.S. has produced about three times as many science and engineering degree holders as it employs in those fields.”

    * * *

    “So why all the talk of a shortage?

    Perverse Funding

    Many ascribe the shortage not to failings of America’s schools, but to the structure of its scientific labor market. “No one who has come to the question with an open mind has been able to find any objective data suggesting general ‘shortages’ of scientists and engineers,” according to Teitelbaum. Salaries, for example, have not risen, as would happen in a shortage. But, says Ted Greenwood, also of the Sloan Foundation, “we have made preparation for scientific and increasingly for engineering careers—and in some respects, these careers themselves—…so unpalatable that it is difficult to attract Americans to these fields. But non-Americans, with different incentive structures, flock to the United States and flock to these fields here” because being a student or a postdoc offers admission to the country. “We need to make science and engineering careers and the preparation for these careers more attractive to Americans,” Greenwood adds.”



    9 Apr 10 at 12:30 am

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