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Archive for September, 2010

The Draft

with 10 comments

So, just a couple of words here and there.  It’s Tuesday.  I’ve started to really hate Tuesdays.

Robert wants to know who all the draftees are.  Mostly they’re kids who are bright enough, and who have families that are themselves bright and aware enough to know that a “good” job requires a college education.

They would not consider being a plumber a “good” job. They wouldn’t consider being a carpenter or a mechanic “good” jobs either.  There are definitely Vo-Tech high schools out here.  One of the most famous in the state is just a few miles away from the place I teach. 

But the only people who go to the Vo-Tech are the ones too stupid to do the college course, and they’ll be stuck in dead end jobs that go nowhere.  They won’t ever get rich, or run a big corporation, or become President of the United States.  If they want any of those things, they’ll have to backtrack and make up the “real” schoolwork they lost tinkering with machines and go to college.

The pressure on these kids to go to “college”–even fake-college where the work is nothing at all like actual academic work–is enormous.  It’s so enormous, that the local community college offers lots and lots of certification programs in various Vo-Tech fields, including automotive mechanics. 

But since it’s “college” and the end is an “associate’s” degree, even the kids wanting to be mechanics have to take a raft of General Education courses, including not only Composition but also Composition and Literature, and a third course in the Humanities, usually a water-down thing in philosophy.

I’ve been thinking about all this while watching the news lately, and the firestorm over the winning of the Republican nomination for Joe Biden’s old Delaware Senate seat by one Christine O’Donnell. 

I am not a fan of Ms. O’Donnell’s.  The woman seems to me like a complete idiot. 

But of all the charges the press and pundits have leveled against her, the one with which I do not sympathize is that she never finished college.

Granted, going to college these days is sort of like Robert’s thing about having a credit card.  It’s available to so many people on such a debased basis, it looks a little odd if you didn’t.

But there’s nothing in the Constitution that says that the President of the United States, or a Senator, or a Congressman, or the Secretary of State, or anybody else, has to have “gone to college,” never mind graduated.

And it bugs me that we are increasingly at the point where the entry to any profession at all–including a lot of the old Vo-Tech things–now requires the same structure of training. 

Kids get drafted into college programs because they get told–not without reason–that if they don’t go, they can’t do anything with their lives except drudge away at degrading, menial work while they give up any hope of a successful future.

For me, to get to the point where we put a de facto educational requirement on running for public office is something worse than the old literacy tests. 

But beyond that, given the state of higher education in the US today, it represents a move to homogenize the political culture in truly astounding ways.

Fifty years ago, different universities–including different universities in what we now call the first tier–offered vastly different environments in which to work and study.  Vanderbilt was different from Columbia which was different from CalTech.

These days, while the social environments of those three places may differ significantly, the intellectual environment will be nearly cookie cutter.   They all promote the same social and political agendas.  They all enforce the same policies on everything from diversity to sex. 

A posted an article here a week or so ago by a man who outlined the present political problem in the US by saying that both parties are run by those of their members who are upper middle class, and the upper middle class are always more like each other than they are like anybody else in the country. 

The only difference between them is that the Democratic upper middle class openly looks down on everybody else, while the Republican upper middle class pays lip service to its middle and working class party members while trying to manipulate them into supporting policies that are not in fact in their best interests.

One of the ways to end the problem of the draftees is to end the stranglehold of formal education on what is becoming just about everything.  We forget that it’s only recently that law and medical school became “advanced” degrees.  For much of their history, they were what people did instead of a regular university course.

But in the end it would require fixing the high schools, and we’re not going to do that, for reasons too numerous to mention on a day whenI have to leave the house early.

So I think electing a few people who have not “gone to college” might be a good start, if only to bring home to everybody the fact that there is no such requirement for participating in the political process.

Written by janeh

September 21st, 2010 at 5:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Wastes of Time, Plural

with 8 comments

Well, the biggest waste of time this morning is singular.  But I’ve only got a few minutes before I have to get going, so…

Today, I’m going in to school half an hour early in what is already a very early day.  I am doing it because, last year, we started to test students in English and math twice a year, first to establish their skill levels coming in, then to establish whether they’d learned anything in the program.

I’m not opposed to testing, and I greet howls of rage over “teaching to the test” with something less than sympathy.  It seems sensible to me that if a community is paying for a service, they ought to be able to measure whether they’re getting the service they’re paying for.  If the community wants kids to learn specific things in language and mathematics, then schools should teach those specific things, and communities have the right to find out if they’re being taught.

If the only way schools–or colleges, like mine–can manage to teach what they’re being asked to teach is by “teaching to the test,” then they ought to teach to the test.

And yes, I know.  The real life situation on the ground is considerably more difficult to explain.  At the moment, however, we’ll skip the parts about teachers and systems that cheat and all the rest of it, and go directly to this specific test.

The test we’re using is meant to test specific abilities for college level work, and for that reason it would be a good basis for an admissions decision.

What it is not designed to do is to tell you why students lack the skills they’re supposed to have.  It is therefore useless at telling you what needs to be done to fix the problem. 

The idea that it might not be possible to fix the problem at this stage–that too much time has gone by, that the window of opportunity for learning what you have to learn to do these specific things–is not on the table, so for the moment we’ll ignore it.

The reason my kids are not able to do college level work has different causes in different individuals.  Some of them–I’d say the majority of them–are simply purely prepared.  They’ve attended schools where not much of anything was taught.  They’ve lived in families where there was little or no contact with current events, never mind history and literature. 

The ones who are simply purely prepared are not the real problem.  We can fix that problem if we want to.  We would have to want to fix it more strongly than we want to pat ourselves on the back for being good egalitarians, but if we did want it that much we could fix it.

Give me a couple of hours some day, and I’ll show you how to design a K-12 program that will insure that every one of its graduates is capable of doing “college level” work, and that even those who drop out at sixteen are more skilled in English, math and basic American history than the vast majority of today’s college sophomores. 

That’s not the hard part.  The kids who come in whose problems are the result of the lack of such a program can in fact be brought up to speed.  What they need is the kind of remedial program the women’s colleges ran right after the Civil War.  They wouldn’t water down their programs to accommodate the silliness of “finishing schools,” so they demanded the women who could not pass the usual entry examinations do a couple of years getting ready to pass them before starting actual college courses.

The real problem is twofold. 

In one corner are the kids who can’t do college level work because they can’t do it–they don’t have the native intelligence, period.  Many of them are hardworking, pleasant, ambitious kids.  They come to class.  They try to do the homework.  They don’t get in anybody’s way.  They’ve been passed up the line on the basis of their affability, mostly, and now we have them. 

And one part of me is convinced–absolutely convinced–that we have them as a kind of safety valve maneuver.   They’ve been told all their lives that this is a meritocracy.  They’ve also been told that they can be anything they set their minds to being.  This second thing is not true, but instead of being truthful about it, we need to convince them that their failures are entirely their fault.  So we rope them in, put enormous pressure on them, and then flunk them out.

I can go on for several years about the moral culpability of the schools and colleges in what is happening to these kids, in the way we get them to waste their lives and resources, in the end result of nearly crushing levels of self-blame.  But that’s another post for another time.

In the other corner are the kids who just don’t want to be here.  They haven’t wanted to be in school for years, really.  Lots of them are bright enough.  Some of them are very bright indeed.  I’ve seen a kid who was flunking out of “college algebra” (actually 9th grade algebra given a face-saving title) work out the numbers for pawning a piece of jewelry and getting it safely back within the time alloted, figuring in paychecks from two different jobs paying at two different rates along with necessary bills and a trip to the movies.  It was an impressive performance.  I would have needed a pen and paper.  She didn’t.

The problem with the kids who don’t want to be here is just that.  They don’t want to be here.  And they’re very, very angry about it.  They feel as conscripted as any draftee.  They’re bored by everything they’re given, except every once in a while by some piece stray piece of information that strikes their fancy.  They like learning the word “stercoraceous.”  They don’t give a flying damn about the structure of the five paragraph essay.

Almost all the kids who don’t want to be here have jobs.  Many of them have two.  A few have three.  A lot of them are actively involved in the local music scene, meaning that they write and sing, not just listen.  A lot of them are actively involved in their churches.

These are not the passive kids I’ve talked about before.  The passive kids fall mainly into the category of kids who are not actually capable of doing the work–or maybe that’s what I think they are because that’s the impression such passivity makes.

The kids who don’t want to be here see time spent in the classroom as costing them not only the money they pay for it, but also the money they forgo by not having that time free to do paid work.  They’re aware that people with college degrees are supposed to make more money than people without, and that certain kinds of jobs are open to them only if they get a college education.  My impression is that they’re not much interested in the kinds of jobs college actually prepares them for.

The kids who don’t want to be here lack college-level skills because they want to lack them.  They don’t see any point in acquiring them, and they few attempts to make them as assaults on their persons.  They fight them tooth and nail.

I think all these categories of kids would be served better if the high schools went back to actually teaching high school level skills and in the process making the content of academic work plain to both the kids who are capable of doing it and those who are not.

But I also think that we should not be forcing kids who do not want to be here to be here.  They’ll take the test today, and they’ll do badly.  They’ll take it again in the spring, and do just as badly.  We’ll all sit around and bemoan the fact that they just don’t seem to be learning anything.

In the meantime, they’ll disrupt class after class, chew up great swatches of class time acting out, and generally make life unpleasant and unproductive for their fellow students. 

And in the end, most of them will drop out anyway.

I’m going to get ready to go.  I’m out of a book, too, and that means I’m going to have to find something to tide me over.

God only knows, I’m going to need something to read while all this is going on.

Written by janeh

September 20th, 2010 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Night At The Movies

with 9 comments

Not going to them.  Thinking about them.

Specifically, I’ve been wondering if it is possible to make a movie that would accurately portray the events in the book I’ve been reading, the Whittaker Chambers Witness book.

And yes, I’m almost done with it for real now, less than ten pages to go, so if you’re sick of it you don’t have to put up with it much longer.

But I was thinking yesterday that the movies have one thing necessary that mitigates against their telling the truth on a very basic level, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to solve it.

The simple fact of the matter is that movie actors, even character actors who will never plain a romantic lead, tend to be people who glow in the dark–who have a certain level of charisma, just enough to make them stand out a bit on camera.

If they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t get hired. 

It isn’t a matter of being ugly or good looking, or being intelligent or stupid.  Hell, most of the actors I’ve heard speak seem to be almost monumentally stupid.

But if you want to see the kind of thing I mean, watch one a movie based on a true crime and then watch one of those true crime things where the people in the case are interviewed.

At the moment, I’m thinking of a Nicole Kidman movie called To Die For, based on a case in New Hampshire where a local high school teacher talked a group of low-status, misfit kids into killing her husband for her. 

To start with, Pamela Smart was no Nicole Kidman, or anything close.  She was a nice enough looking, sort of ordinary woman who would not have stood out among women of a similar age in any large city.

But the real kicker is the kids–the difference in sheer wattage between the actors playing the kids in the movie and the actual kids is stunning.  The actual kids were hangdog, nondescript, fade-into-the-background types.  Nobody ever noticed them in high school except to make fun of them, and if they’d had the guts to try a robbery,  nobody who saw them would be able to describe them with any accuracy, or be absolutely sure when trying to pick them out of a line up.  On the other hand, if they’d had the guts to try something bad under their own steam, they’d probably be more memorable than they are.

One of the things that was definitely an issue in the Hiss case was this business of wattage.  The HUAC hearings were being televised, and Hiss was definitely a high wattage person.  Chambers was more like those kids. You can see it in the pictures that accompany this book.

Yes, Hiss was good looking and slender and Chambers was not good looking and fat, but that isn’t the real issue.  Hiss sparkles in photographs.  Chambers looks like he’s fading into the wallpaper behind him.

(Interestingly enough–Nixon looks bad in photographs, but he does not fade into the background.  In fact, if I had to pick the guy with the most wattage in all these photographs, it would definitely be Nixon.)

If you did a movie about this book–and I think somebodyshould have done one, because it’s fascinating–you’d have to have Hiss played by somebody like Brad Pitt and the Chambers character played by…not one of the actors who played the kids in the Kidman movie, but one of the actual kids in the Smart case.

Except, of course, that Chambers was considerably brighter than that.

The movie based on the Drury novel based vaguely on the Hiss case had Henry Fonda in the Hiss part, and that was a good choice–not just good looking and charismatic, but the right kind of good looking and charismatic.

For the Chambers character, there was Burgess Meredith playing it totally, neurotically nuts, probably because one of the things everybody “knows” about the Hiss case  is that Chambers was crazy.

Chambers wasn’t crazy.  He was not the kind of neurotic Meredith played him as, and far from being an unsuccessful wreck, he was at the time of the hearings a senior editor at Time with a wife, two children and a working farm.

But then, you know, I still haven’t gotten over finding out that McCarthy was in fact absolutely correct about every single one of the fifty seven people he accused by name of being or having been members of the Communist Party.  I’ll have to go back to that thought another day.

Because the issue here is wattage–and I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie where one of the central characters has so little of it.  I think the demands of the form forbid it.  In order for people to watch your movie, they need the actors to draw them in, and an actor without wattage would not be watchable.

I’ve been trying to think if the situation would be better in print than in the movies, and I don’t know.

Chambers in print is far more compelling than Chambers in pictures, but that isn’t what I mean.  He was an intelligent man and a professional writer, of course he was reasonably compelling in print.

I’m thinking more of conveying such a character in a work of fiction–portraying him in third person.  You could always say he was somebody nobody noticed, but I’m not sure that that’s the same thing as getting across the sheer muddled, leaden nondescriptness of his presence in a group of people.

And I think something of the importance of this story would be lost if that nondescriptness was not made plain.  Because part of what happened in the country was the kind of kiss of death of television that would later smash Nixon when he ran against Kennedy.

And yet, it’s not that simple, either.

Because part of what turned much of the country in Chambers’s favor towards the end was also the result of television.  Charismatic or not, good looking or not, Hiss’s public reputation never quite surmounted the endless days of his sitting in front of television cameras prefacing every single answer to every single question, or close to, with the words “to the best of my recollection, and it’s a long time ago, so I don’t want to say I’m remember correctly.  For that, I’d need a chance to look at the records…”

Or words to that effect.

If Hiss had been asked his own name, he’d have started the answer like that.

Reading through the large hunks of the transcripts reproduced in this book is mind numbing by itself.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like watching it all on television.

Whatever, it’s Sunday.  I’m going to go listen to music.

Written by janeh

September 19th, 2010 at 8:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And It’s Almost The Week End

with 9 comments

Well, okay.  Not really so almost.

I was attacked in the night by a cat.

I have a feeling that cats do not have sleep cycles.  They just get up when they want to, fall asleep when the want to, and don’t see what the fuss is about just because they got you up in the middle of the night to let them out of the closet they closed themselves into in the first place because they just can’t leave well enough alone.

I’m at the very end of the Chambers book–well, as close to the very end as I am to the week end–and a few things have become evident.

The first is that Chambers may have had a conversion, but it was a conversion from one way of expressing a set of principles to another way of expressing those same principles.  It was not a conversion from one set of principles to another.

When Chambers left the Communist Party, he first became a Quaker and then bought a dairy farm, where he strove to bring his children up free from what he felt were the depredations of modern life, which included most of the fruits of capitalism.  He sent them to public schools.  He kept them away from television.  They did a lot of the work by hand to get the advantages of honest toil.  It’s the hand milking that got me. 

The second is that the actual Hiss case is very different from anything I’ve ever heard about it, and most of what I have heard about it comes not from history textbooks or Hollywood movies,  but from Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, where the Hiss character, although he had once been a Communist, had been so only for a short time–and the Chambers character was a mentally ill misfit whom the Hiss character had only known for a few short months, and then not very well.

In the actual Hiss case, Hiss denied ever having known Chambers–actually, he repeatedly said he had “never known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers,’ which worked, because he knew Chambers under Chambers’s underground Communist name.

But in the actual Hiss case, this was not a casual relationship.  The two families–not just the men, but the families–had lived in each other’s pocket’s for years.  Hiss had loaned Chambers a house when Chambers was between residences.  Priscilla Hiss had babysat for the Chambers children. 

It’s the kind of thing that would have been unearthed in about thirty seconds by bloggers if it had happened in the days of the Internet, but it’s still rather stupefying to think that Hiss ever expected to get away with it even in the 1950s.  Had the relationship really been casual, that would have been one thing.  But it wasn’t, and there was an absolute ton of material evidence that the two men had known each other well for years.

I wonder how different history would have been if the security services–the FBI especially–had been able to use the evidence they had to prosecute Hiss for espionage, of which he was certainly guilty.  Since they were unwilling to signal to the USSR that they had broken certain codes and had informers in certain networks, they were unable to make a court case that would stick on anything but the perjury, which was certainly egregious enough.

But I do think the lack of prosecution for espionage has a lot to do with why the general impression was given–in dozens of magazines, books and movies–that Hiss had been unfairly charged with spying and that his only crime was the wish to conceal a prior experimentation with radicalism in a time when Red baiting hysteria had gone wild.

Robert says that he and I breathed different air,  growing up, and I’m sure that’s true.  But the air I was breathing was shared by almost all the major media outlets that I remember.  And it’s still the air being breathed by anybody who mentions “McCarthyism” in books or movies.  Just look at Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, where, as far as I can tell, there are no Communists, never mind Communist spies.

I have a faint memory of a television show from my early childhood, that later played in reruns in the afternoons when I first went to school, called I Led Three Lives. 

I just looked it up on Amazon, and they’ve got at least some episodes of it up as part of a big DVD packages on best TV detectives.

I don’t know how long the show ran, or if it was successful, but it’s the one thing I can point to in my memory that says that the country did indeed, to at least some extent, take the accusations about a domestic Communist conspiracy seriously. 

I wish they had episodes of the thing up on their own.  I’m not much interested in episodes of Mannix, but I’d like to see I Led Three Lives again.  The only episode I remember was one about a school teacher, and I don’t remember it very well.

Finally, the thing that has made the biggest impression on me in this book has been Chambers’s assertion that liberals (as defined in HIS time, obviously) got outraged when people were accused of being Communists because they could not distinquish the Communist program from their own.

But the program seems to me to be easily distinguished.  It’s what I mean when I say that as long as we’re in agreement on things like freedom of speech and conscience, or on the idea that Western civilization is actually superior to the non-civilizations that allow honor killings and executions for homosexuals, everything else is policy.

You can certainly be in favor of natural rights and still think health insurance should be a public utility or that there should be a basic safety net for people who get sick or injured or are otherwise disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

But the Communist program was not about these things, and you could have figured that out even if you knew nothing at all about the methods of operation of actual Communist states.

In the end, Drury got one thing absolutely right.  A lot of what went on in the Hiss trials–there were actually two–was not about truth or falsehood, Communism or capitalism.  It was simply about class, something Hiss had and Chambers did not.

An awful lot of it was an instinctive, tribal gut urge to protect one of their own. 

And I don’t mean the Communists.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2010 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Late Afternoon and I Don’t Want to Cook Chicken

with 3 comments

So, you know, here I am, dispirited already before the term has even gotten started. 

I gave a quiz today.  It was a ten-answer definitional thing, you took the term, you define it.  All the terms and all their proper definitions were posted on Blackboard last week.

And I still got six people with zeros (out of a hundred) and another eight with tens.

And As The World Turns is ending, as the Guiding Light ended a while back.  I’ve never watched a daytime soap opera in my life–in fact, I can barely stand to be in the same room with them–but my grandmother did, and I have distinct memories of staying over at her house and watching her do it.

That said, I’m not sure that I’d sign on to Lymaree’s claim that the sexual control of women was always one of the prime reasons for formal marriage.  In Christian Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was at least as often aimed at the sexual control of men, which the Church was always having a lot of trouble with.

Of course, in that period, there was no such thing as “homosexuality.”  There were men who liked sleeping with other men and men who liked sleeping with boys, but all that was classified under ordinary lust, under the apparent assumption that your normal male would sleep with a tree trunk if that was all he had available, and that the job was to get him to sleep with his wife and produce children.

But I’d like to say that a lot of the problems we’ve got–and certainly a lot of what drives things like the Tea Party–is the fact that we’ve federalized everything.

Not only are too many rules being made and enforced by unelected bureaucrats, but they tend to be national rules. 

I understand that in two very distinct areas–first slavery, and then Jim Crow–“states rights” were code words for doing the wrong thing and a thing of a kind that could not be allowed at all.

That doesn’t diminish the wisdom of federalism.  We’ve got those 300 million people, 4000 religions and religious denominations, every racial and ethnic group on the planet, and literally millions of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

No matter how much sense it makes to insist that states not deny citizens the right to vote or go to school on the basis of race, it makes none to insist that we should enforce a national policy on childhood obesity, educational focus (NCLB), or smoking regulations.

And the people who insist we should enforce such policies nationally are always ending up in places they don’t want to be.  It was liberal justices, not conservatives, who found against the small homeowners in Kelo and who found in favor of corporations and other employers who wanted to enforce no-smoking and other behavioral regulations on their employees even when those employees were off the job and at home in their free time.

The Tea Party, I think, comes out of the feeling that the nationalization of regulations about everything is inevitable, and therefore the only possible response is to get your own regulators into power.

But maybe that’s because I’m still reading the Chambers book. It’s a very long book.  And the theme music is curiously unchanged between then and now on a lot of points.

But it is really late in the afternoon, and I really don’t want to cook chicken.

Or anything, for that matter.

Written by janeh

September 15th, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

So, The First Question

with 23 comments

Is whether or not the backspace and delete are going to work on t his keyboard the first I wake up this morning, and they did.  Of course, I haven’t had any caffeine yet, so I can’t actually see, but that’s another issue.

And, I’ll admit, today is the parking problem–I have a schedule that is hell on earth, but only because there’s no way to park anywhere near my building after about eight o’clock.  If I could go in at ten thirty, I’d have a perfectly sane day, and be somewhat relaxed in the process.  When I taught in the other building, it was no problem.  Nobody wants to go to the other building.

Okay.  You know the term has started.  I’m complaining about the parking.

But I have been reading all the comments.  And I think–

I agree with Cathy about the fact that both sides want to restrict liberty.  I don’t think I’d use gay marriage as an example of the right wanting to restrict liberty, though, because marriage is not what is at issue in the “gay marriage” debate, and what is is not a liberty issue that I can see.

The issue in gay marriage is not marriage, per se–churches in New England were performing marriage ceremonies for gay people ten years ago, and carrying those couples on their books as married.

The issue in gay marriage is the government recognition of marriages between two people of the same sex.

And that is not a small thing.  Even without the various benefits–from Social Security, for instance–there is the legal right to act as next of kin when one partner becomes ill and other things that amount to having married couples recognized as if they were related by blood.

But, aside from the fact that all rights are properly negative, the mere history of government recognition of marriage argues against such recognition as a right.

All states have always put restrictions on the marriages they would recognize, and not merely restrictions on “miscegnation” as existed in the South under Jim Crow.  States put age restrictions on marriage, for instance.  And states have refused to honor marriages from other states when the age of the one of the partners is significantly below that at which the marriage would be recognized for people in-state.

That was a terrible sentence.  I meant that even in the Fortie and Fifties, states like California and New York were refusing to recognize a thirteen year old girl as “married” even though she and her husband had gone through the ceremony in a state (like Kentucky or Alabama) that allowed her to be married at that age.

The big liberty issues on the right are a) abortion; b) private sexual acts between consenting adults; and c) publicly coerced prayer.

The abortion one doesn’t need elaboration in the present discussion.  The private sexual acts between consenting adults, however, may.  I give you Lawrence vs. Texas, where the SCOTUS struck down a Texas law forbidding sodomy, pretty much saying that if two men wanted to have sex together in their own bedrooms, it was there business and none of the State’s. 

And conservatives were, fairly solidly, behind the “right” of a state to forbid such sexual acts.  What’s more, they were alarmed at the possibility that the decision in Lawrence would mean, in the long run, that it would be impossible to pass any kind of morals legislation at all.

On that one, I agreed with them, and said–yay.  I don’t want the government to pass morals legislation.

Of course, it will anyway, it will just call it something else.  Public health measures, for instance.  On things like smoking.  Or maybe, later, eating Big Macs.

Publicly coerced prayer is, of course, the endless call to bring prayer back into the public schools. 

I tend to be someone who thinks school boards should be local and that local communities should be allowed to teach their children what they want to teach them, even if that makes the teachers’ unions froth at the mouth.

But I actually have a bigger problem with school sponsored prayer than I do with the teaching of Creationism.  And I’m not the only one, and the other people who have, or have had, a problem with it are not necessarily atheists.

We have an enormous system of Catholic schools in this country because Catholic parents would not allow their children to say the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer or read from the King James Version of the Bible–and how that wasn’t a government establishment of religion is beyond me.  It was paid for by my tax money.  It was imposed on the general population by agents of the government as the Official Version of religion.  There were penalties for dissent, if not formal ones than informal ones.  Ask any kid who got to “sit out” the prayer in the Fifties what his classmates said to him later, in the cafeteria and on the playground.

But in spite of all that, I still think it’s sane to be more worried about having left moral prejudices imposed on you in this country than the right’s. 

It’s not that the right isn’t trying to get theirs established as law–they are–it’s that the left tends to work not through the electoral and legislative process, but through bureaucracies and courts.

And the bureaucracies are worse than the courts.

If you were going to ask me what the worst idea we ever had was, I’d have to say it was the one that allowed federal bureaucracies to issue regulations that did not–each one individually–have to be enacted by legislatures.

And yes, I know the rationale for allowing it.  It was still a really bad idea.  And clunky as the resulting system would be, I think we should abolish that particular power of bureaucracies. 

If spanking is ever abolished in this country, it won’t be because somebody passed a law against it.  It will be because various state Departments of Child Protection decided to treat spanking as the same thing as “beating,” call it child abuse, and have children removed from homes where it is practiced.

And this is an enormous power to have, especially in family court, where the due process rights of parents are treated as nonexistent.  (In fact, when parents in one case a few months ago claimed their right to refuse to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment, the relevant state Department went to court on the grounds that, if people could refuse to speak, the Department wouldn’t be able to do its work.  My internal response was:  if your work is impossible when you follow the Constitution, then maybe it shouldn’t be done.)

And the attempts to use CPS to enforce one segment of the population’s ideas on what is good and proper isn’t restricted to physical acts like spanking.  It’s behind all the calls for religious upbringing to be treated as “child abuse,” and for homeschooling to be treated as a “risk factor” for such abuse. 

But it isn’t just CPS that issues and carries out regulations under its own steam and without public imput, support or ratification.  Virtually every government department issues regulations and none of them have been discussed by legislatures, or passed by them.  They’re entirely outside the scope of the Democratic process.

And that, I think, is much more threatenting to people than anything that has to be passed in an actual law.

And it should be.   The point, after all, is self government, and a country increasingly ruled by arbitrary regulations issued by unelected (and job protected) bureaucrats is not self governing.

We have in fact installed a new aristocratic class.  It’s virtually impossible to have them fired.  They can issue rules for the rest of us on their own power, without having to have our consent or our imput.  They can enforce them with everything from fines and jail time to removing children from families. 

If you happen to be on the receiving line of a lot of that, then thinking the Democrats–who tend to support that kind of thing more than Republicans do–are Communists is maybe not as crazy as it sounds.

I’m going to go drink this tea before I fall over.

Written by janeh

September 14th, 2010 at 5:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

I’m dead tired, and it’s late, but I wanted to ask a question:  what is it about me that makes machines lose their minds?

And it’s all machines, not just the computer.  I managed to break not one but four copy machines in the space of about two hours one day, and neither I nor anybody else knows what I did.

Over the last week or so I’ve been breaking my computer, so that eventually the damned thing just would not turn on the monitor no matter what I did.

But I had good friends over who do computer, and when they were here, it behaved perfectly.

Then they took it away to look at it and gave me this loaner thing, which is actually a laptop hooked up to my monitor and keyboard, so it feels like the usual thing and I don’t have to swear at the laptop keyboard, which I don’t like much.

Except when I started working on it, everything was fine except–it wouldn’t backspace or delete.  ANYTHING.  On AOL, on Open Office, on the blog.

I sent an e-mail to Richard to ask about it, and he asked if the laptop keyboard would backspace and delete, and it would.

And then, by accident, I found that now that I’d done that, the regular keyboard backspace and delete would work, too.

Honestly, the machines just hate me.

Or something.

And you don’t want me to get near your car.

Written by janeh

September 13th, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Next Good Thing

with 9 comments

Well, I made it to Saturday. This feels like some kind of miracle that I should celebrate, but instead I’m worried about my mother–yesterday, she was in the hospital all day for a blood transfusion; last night she was back in her nursing home–and I’m intent on drinking this enormous cup of tea.

I want to throw out a proposition, however, that ties in with the posts of the last few days.

Here it is:  the only people who are threatened by competition are people who are afraid to lose.

I want to make that as clear as I can.  I’m not talking about people who think they might lose.  I’m not even talking about people who know theyr’e going to lose.

You can be both of those things and yet not be threatened by competition, as long as you can accept losing.

I am, in fact, one of those people who is often convinced I am going to lose.  And I have, in my life, often lost.  It feels awful, and I hate it, but I get up and give it another shot.

And I don’t hate losing–failing, may be the better word–so much that I’m willing to do anything to avoid it.

I’d rather compete and lose, try and fail, than not compete or try at all.

There are a certain subset of people, however, for whom losing/failing is the worst possible thing.  Some of those people are in situations where their fear makes at least practical sense.

If you’re the sexagenarian owner of the local pharmacy and Rite-Aid moves in next door,  you may very well be afraid of the competition (and seek to find a way to avoid it) because it might mean that your store goes out of business and you no longer have a source of livelihood at a time in your life when you don’t really have the personal resources to rebuild.

But some people just can’t face failure, period.  It doesn’t matter if they think they’re going to win or to lose, because the mere possibility of losing is insupportable to them psychologically.

And I’ll tell you from experience that a fair number of these people end up in highly competitive environments.  It’s not that they don’t compete.  It’s that they hate the competition and are constantly trying to find some way to game it.

I bring these people up because I think they’re the second solid segment of what I remember of the New Left, and the New Left keeps coming up in connection with Whittaker Chambers and the Old Left.

Let me say this first.

I think most people underestimate how large a percentage of the leadership of the campus left in the Sixties was made up of the children of the Old Left of the Thirties and Forties.

Without the Red Diaper Babies, the New Left would never have happened.

And the Red Diaper Babies were not the ones I’m thinking of who were afraid of competition.  They came to Left politics the way a lot of people come to religion.  It was what they were brought up with, and they never questioned the dogma (moral or political) of their faith any more than a Southern Baptist at Liberty University questions his.

In fact, they may have questioned it less.

But the New Left would never have gotten where it got to if it had had to rely on the Red Diaper Babies alone.  There weren’t enough of them.

What it had was the most competitive generation in the history of the country, a phalanx of adolescents who had grown up being told:  a) they could be anything they want to be if they just worked at it and b) the road to riches and power and fame was through the universities that were open to everybody.

The implication, of course, was that if they did not do much with their lives, then it was their own fault and no other.

This was what I was trying to explain the other day about the problems of meritocracy.  Meritocracy leaves nobody an out.  If you fail, then your failure is your own personal sin, and it says something about your worth as a human being.

The New Left was headed largely by students from top-tier universities.  These were the students who had, up to that point, been winning the competition to “be somebody.” 

They were also the ones most likely to be afraid to lose, because losing would mean (given where they had gotten to) being separated from the entire life they had build so far.

Ack.  Every time I try to say this, I feel like I mess it up.

There’s a saying that it’s harder to be poor if you’ve ever been rich.

That’s the sense in which I mean it.  These were kids used to being at Harvard and Columbia.  East Podunk U would be hard to take.  Moving into anonymous, not very glamourous careers would also be hard to take, because they’d look up every morning and see the kids who sat beside them in History and Calculus running the country.

I think that fear of losing resulted in a big minority of “movement” students deciding that the safest thing to do in their position was to try to bring down the system that would judge them.  If the system was destroyed, they couldn’t lose.

I have no idea if any of that makes any sense.

But I think you can apply it to certain kinds of Left-ish pundit, too, and to a lot of the really silly Left faculty on college campuses.

I think that the reason that Humanities professors skew left isn’t that there is something inherent in the Humanities, but that in a world that values science and technology, they will in fact lose, even on their own campuses.

If you’re part of a system that judges what you are to be worthless, then it makes sense to try to bring down the system.

George Steiner pretty well said this in “Archives of Eden,” which is osmething I should talk about on this blog at some point, because it’s a truly astonishing piece of work.

But I think the Communists of the Thirties were different from the Leftists of the second half of the 20th century because they could not have had the motives those second-half Leftists had.  In the world of the Thirties, places like Harvard and Yale were largely restricted to people who had not only money, but the right kind of money.  If you failed to get into them, it had nothing to do with you.

But the fellow travelers are something else.

I think the fellow travelers may very well have been influenced–some of them–by that fear of failure. 

But at the moment, I’m trying to figure out a man named Henry Ware.

And I need my tea.

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2010 at 7:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Couple of Things

with 4 comments

It’s a weird day on a lot of levels.  Trust me.

But there are points.

The first is that I don’t think people like Chambers were interested in workers’ pensions or unemployment insurance.

When I said this was a book about a religious conversion, I meant it.  What Chambers was looking for was salvation, a permanent end to a certain kind of evil–for equality of condition (not just “of outcomes”), period, across the board, and to control of work and working conditions in the hands of the people who did the work.  Or at least the manual and skilled trades work.

And he was looking for that because he honestly thought that things could not get better by simple evolution.  Instead, he was convinced that not only were things bad–and they were very bad, even in the Twenties, for certains classes of people–but that they could only get worse, because the internal logic of the economic system as it was then constituted would force them to get worse.

Second, Chambers not only knew all about the show trials, he knew they were show trials.  It was the fellow travelers and sympathizers who were deluded or self-deluded on that point.  Actual working members of the Party knew what was going on and why. 

They just thought it was justified.  They did not hold free elections, for instance, to be of any value.  They were not looking for democracy, and they did not accept rights, individual or otherwise, as we understand them. 

What seems to us to be scandalous and an obvious sign that we would have to abandon this particular cause meant nothing to them on a moral level.  Chambers was exasperated by what he felt were heavy handed tactics and unnecessary factionalism, but he also thought that the Party was the only possible organ for society’s redemption (as defined above) and that leaving it would not do any good and might do a lot of harm to his own long term goals.

But even complaining about how, in the Sixties, they “should have known” has a few problems.

Part of it is that it’s really amazing how little people do know, even know. 

Part of it is in the assumption that, had they known, they would have disapproved, or found those conditions unacceptable. 

Party members were not, and are not, liberals.  They’re not even socialists if we understand the term as what’s going on in Sweden. 

The book is interesting precisely for this reason–that Chambers does not try to pretend to be a liberal, he doesn’t pretend to have valued (at the time) elections or free speech or any of that, he instead gives a portrait of himself as he actually was, and a portrait of the Party in the US as it actually was.

And still is, for all I know.

For active Party members, complaining that they “should have known” there was no free speech, and no free elections, the the Soviet Union was pointless.  They did know.  They just didn’t think it was important.

In a way, they are the least interesting people in this movement–they are committed believers, their belief is both about the nature of reality now and the possible nature of reality in the future, and they don’t compromise.

The fellow travelers and sympathizers a more of a puzzle, because they did value things like elections and free speech, and went ahead anyway.

And no, after the show trials, I don’t think they could have avoided knowing what was going on if they’d wanted to know.

When we get down to today, of course, things are a lot more complicated, or a lot more murky.  Nobody believes in the coming Communist paradise any more. 

But a lot of people do still believe that the economic system that now exists is inherently corrupt, evil and unjust.

On the other hand, there is politics as fashion, and that’s something else again.

I’ve got to go teach.

Written by janeh

September 10th, 2010 at 6:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

All Things Being Equal

with 6 comments

It’s Thursday, and it’s obvious to me that Tuesdays and Thursdays are going to be the days I hate the most this term.  It’s not the classes or the students, it’s the elongated schedule.  And I actually asked for the schedule, so go figure.


In terms of the Chambers book, we’re talking about Communists in the Twenties and Thirties, not now.  And although I’d agree that, by now, most people who can read past a third grade level ought to know that there is something inherent in the Communist idea that creates dictatorships and totalitarianisms.

I’m not so sure with socialism, because socialism has only a fuzzy definition.  A lot of people mean by it only an expanded welfare state.  Sweden, they’d say, is socialism.  And Sweden is a lot of things–and not a place I’d like to live–but it isn’t a totalitarianism in the ordinary definition of that term.

It comes down, I think, to the way in which one defines “justice.” 

I get a little nuts over the term “social justice,” because what seems to be meant by it is “justice defined in a way contradictory to the usual,” but I do know a number of people for whom “income inequality” is, on its face, simply wrong. 

I don’t think any of them mean that there should be no income inequality at all.  The fact that some people drink and drug and party instead of doing any work is by now obvious to everybody.  But I do know people for whom large differences in wealth and resources among people going around getting there work done are inexcusable.

This is not something that bothers me at all.  I don’t care that Bill Gates has more money than I do, even vastly more money than I do.  I think he’s earned it, but I wouldn’t care that much even if he hadn’t.  Inherited wealth does not seem like an injustice to me.

What I do care about is that people who do go about doing there work be capable of acquiring the basics of a decent life.  If you live right, work hard and play by the rules–God, I hate that phrase–you ought to be able to have a decent place to live, food for your family, clothing, recreation, health care when you need it and education for your children.

What Chambers is talking about is a world in which that was not possible not only for people on the lowest level of employment, but even for many skilled workers. 

Charity would not have answered to the problem–the issue was not giving your money away but the structure of a society that reduced skilled machinists working ninety hours a week to penury and want in an early old age, with no end in sight for themselves or their children.  

This was, after all, in the days before widespread financial aid for colleges, never mind in the days before state universities with tuitions low enough to make attendance possible for virtually anybody.

I think part of what Chambers joined the Communist Party to effect was a world in which that would not be the case. 

I think part of it was to find some kind of organizing principle for his life. 

And that second thing explains why he didn’t “notice” the purge trails, for instance, or the famines.

There’s a real sense that the change that would be needed to make sure that machinist had a decent retirement and a good future for his children would be resisted at all costs by the powers that were, resisted right down to violence.

And that that meant that building Communism would also have to be taken right down to violence.  What’s the old saying?  You can’t make an omelet without breaking legs.

In the 1890s, the 1920s, and for a while after that, it really wasn’t clear that Communism as an idea necessitated the things it eventually did, and there was quite a lot of argument even within the Communist Party USA about it.

But I think the most important thing is that business–something to live for and something to die for.

Because I think that there are some people who are not able to function without a sort of referential frame for their lives.  In the Middle Ages, these people would have been priests and nuns, or–if prevented from that by circumstances–possibly saints of the Doctor of the Church kind, people who worked with the ideas of Christian doctrine.

In a world where God is assumed not to exist, they became Communists.

I’m absolutely convinced that that is what is at the basis of Chambers becoming a Communist.

And it would explain the fascination for Communism among scholars. 

If you are the kind of person who must have such a narrative frame–and I think that people who are attracted to things like Literary Criticism and Philosophy are very often just such people, just as many people who are psychologically troubled are attracted to Psychology–

Well, if you are that kind of person, and you can’t make yourself believe in God, maybe that is going to be the only option available.

I can’t think of any other option available right now, at any rate.

And then there is my favorite explanation, which has not come up in Chambers at all.

In a world in which every man is free to make of himself what he will, the fact that you’re not Bill Gates is something of a condemnation.  Competition becomes threatening when competition determines not just your net work financially but your worth as a human being.

And I do think the meritocratic state ends up presenting something like that.

And it’s late, and I’d better do the rest of this tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 9th, 2010 at 5:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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