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Archive for September, 2012

Rome Burning

with 5 comments

Well, it got to be one of those nights when I was actually trying to join in the comment thread from my phone.

This morning it was a Schubert string quintet and Handel’s harpsichord pieces.  The harpsichord will always be my favorite instrument, but I really needed that quintent.

So, is Rome burning?

Yeah, I think so, on a number of levels, although  not necessarily the levels Mique is most interested in.

In the first place, as a side issue,  let me point out that it’s a good thing Linda McMahon didn’t take Robert’s advice.  This kind of thing–Murphy voted to give money to Big Pharma!–is exactly the kind of thing that’s got Murphy in so much trouble. 

It takes thirty seconds to figure out that all that means is that Murphy voted for Obamacare.  Most people in Connecticut are in favor of Obamacare, and they understand the compromises. 

They’re not in love, but they’re willing to take what they can get now and hope for better later. 

To run an ad like that would make the McMahon campaign look like it was deliberately attempting to trick voters it considered too stupid to notice–exactly the backlash now happening against the Murphy campaign for the ad about how McMahon is in favor of allowing “my employer to deny me coverage for contraception.”

When it turned out that that just meant she was in favor of a religious exemption from the contraception mandate–well, Connecitcut is not just full of liberals.  It’s full of Catholics.

That said, Obamacare IS an issue related to–deeply related to–the economy.

Not only is it going to cost a lot of money–a lot more than anybody has been willing to admit so far–but it will fundamentally change the economics of health care in the US in a way that will have an impact not just on health care costs, but  on the way business (small and large) are run, and even on the availability of full time vs part time work.

That said, there are certainly larger problems. 

I would say that the worst of these is the metastasizing growth of the bureaucracies, both in the government and out.

It should matter if the bureaucracy in question is in the government or out of it, but it doesn’t, because the people who staff these bureaucracies have idential training, identical value sets and identical goals.

It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a government hospital, a nonprofit private hospital, or a for profit one.  It doesn’t matter if you’re attending the state university or a tony private liberal arts school or a Jesuit college.

In the US today, there is an administrative monoculture–and that administrative monoculture has an internal logic that is absolutely irresistable on any level but all out war.

The most important thing to know about bureaucracies–public or private, and of any kind–is that they exist to aggrandize and perpetuate themselves. 

They need and want to get larger and more influential (if not powerful) at every minute of every day, even if the only way they can get that is to act against what is supposed to be their mission.  And they need to survive in perpetuity even if that means directly acting against that mission.

They will blather on about their core mission until your eyeballs fall out, but at the end of the day they will always act to defend themselves and their institutions ahead of all else.

The Penn State-Sandusky scandal makes perfect sense to me.  Everybody involved in it was obeying the bureaucratic imperative:  protect the institution.

You’d be amazed at  how often that kind of thingdoesn’tend in any scandal anywhere.  And by “that kind of thing,” I DONT mean child abuse.

I mean blatant and concerted cover-ups of institutional wrongdoing.

Consider the present state of higher education.

Don’t say this is trivial and we should be concentrating on the deficit, or whatever.

Everything is connected, and this particular bubble will most definitely explode in our faces in the next decade.

It also has a lot in common with all the other bubbles.

First, it begins with the passionately held assumption of something that is demonstrably not true.

This is the idea that education can solve all our problems–unemployment, crime, the disparities in income between races and sexes and ethnic groups, you name it.

This in turn is founded on the untrue assumption that the failure of our children to learn must be the fault of either teachers (the right) or funding (the left), because if it’s something else (personal choices to study or not, inate differences in intellectual ability, even parental choices about how to raise children or conduct their own lives) then education cannot solve all our problems, and where will we be?

When the second of these two assumptions hits the wall of reality, the bureaucratic instinct is not to ditch the assumptions and try something else.  That would not preserve the institutions.

In the US, what happened was this:  there came to be a widespread consensus among professional educators that the standards that defined high school graduation were “elitist.”  Not all students could meet them–don’t ask why; it has to do with poverty and oppression somehow or the other, but the less said the better.

To insist that all students meet such standards was racist and oppressive.  It made students feel like failures, and made them more likely to drop out of school early, and use drugs and alcohol, and get pregnant out of wedlock at  younger and younger ages.

To fix this problem, we reconfigured the standards to make it possible for more people to “graduate from  high school.” 

In the state of Connecticut, state math standards were changed to concentrate on “practical” mathematics instead of the theoretical kind that led to the kinds of courses usually required for university study.

Rich school districts with parents who understood what was going on often got out from under this kind of thing and managed to insure that their children actually got a high school education in high school. 

But they were vastly in the minority.

The result was that many more students “graduated from high school,” but  more and more of those students did not actually have a high school education.

The skills they needed to actually do work in the world had not changed, however, except that in some areas they had grown more rigorous.

The proclaimed solution was to push more and more students into colleges and universities, which started out providing remedial classes and then–when the number of students in those classes  proved to be an embarrassment–lowered their standards.

The same spiral that had occurred in the high schools then set in at all but the most selective universities. 

The most selective universities had huge apply-to-admit ratios and could protect themselves from lowered high school standards by taking only a tiny number of the students who wanted to attend their schools, and only from that minority that had actually met college readiness standards.

As for everybody else, they found themselves in a position where their high school diplomas were increasingly worthless, and where they needed a college degree to indicate they had the same skills their older brothers and sisters had acquired in 12th grade.

Actually, by now, the situation is considerably worse than that. 

These days, fourth tier schools do no more than insure that their students “graduate from college” with skill levels that used to be the standard for sixth grade.

And some fourth tier for-profit schools, who take in students nobody else in the system will touch, do more than that.

But now comes the really nasty part.

Elementary and high school education in the US is “free” in the sense of not requiring anything out of pocket from students or parents.

Higher education is not free.  Even the cheapest parts of the state system–usually the community colleges–can cost several thousand dollars a year, and that’s not counting books and other supplies. Any tier above that will cost a lot more.

A lot more.

This means that any student today who wants to be educated to the same level as the middle class parents in his community will  have to spring for a lot of cash and a lot more time in “college.”

If this student has a first class mind and a lot of determination, he might qualify for one of the top tier schools, which will cover his expenses through grants if he’s from a family that’s poor enough.  (Harvard tuition for students with parents making under $60,000 a year is $0.)

But even this doesn’t solve the problem, because top tier colleges and universities usually require a student to be in residence, which means there are (hefty) room and board fees.

And money for room and board fees was first declared taxable income (for the student) under Reagan, and then forbidden on college loans (for Obama).

And the colleges get around this by steering students to loans outside the official student loan system, which are monumentally more expensive (an official student loan is about 1 to 3% interest, one of these private loans is closer to 10%).

But yes, impossible as it may be to believe, it gets worse than this.

The Federal student loan system and Pell Grants are themselves pushing up the cost of higher education.

That’s because, if colleges were charging $4500 a year before the loans and grants, they simply raised their prices to $4500 a year above the limit of the loans and grants when those became available.

Why not?  They already knew you were willing and (somehow) able to pay that $4500. 

Over time, of course, the institutions and the government started playing a game of chicken that the institutions were bound to win.  Tuition at private universities now routinely runs between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. Tuition at public universities routinely runs over $20,000.

Which means that there are kids out there running up debts as high as $200,000 for a fourth tier college education that gives them no better skill set than they would have gotten in 6th grade in 1954.

And that debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  They’re stuck with it forever. 

At this point, we hear a lot that the solution to this problem is for the states to put more money into their state university systems–but it won’t work, because the universities will not use that money to lower tuition, room and board for students.

They’ll use it for what they’ve been using it for all along–more departments, staffed with more bureaucrats, addressing more “problems.” 

The Office of Affirmative Action.  The Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The LGBT Resource Center.  The Office of Women’s Issues. The Office of Student Success and Retention.  The Office of Disability Issues.

  And on and on and on and on and on.

At the place where I teach, each of these departments has a staff of fifteen or more.  None of them has anything to do with teaching students.

In fact, actually teaching students anything is the lowest priority on the list for any American  university you can think of, including Harvard.

It’s what the institutions spend the least money on, and the first thing they cut if they don’t get all the cash they ask for.

There isn’t a university out there that doesn’t prefer to cut teaching and other student services before administration.  Faced with a budget shortfall, they’ll cut foreign language instruction and expand the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.  They’ll cut sections of required core courses and add another secretary to the nine already working in the Office of Student Achievement and Retention.

Hey, cutting those core courses is even an overall win.  Since students cannot graduate without them, if there are fewer sections then more students will be forced into a fifth or sixth year in order to get into one.

This system is not only insane, and unjust, it is not sustainable. 

The “necessity” of college is real enough, but it is a politically engineered reality. 

Reset the skills level necessary to graduate from high school to where it was in 1954, and the “necessity” of college will disappear. 

But the kicker is going to come in just about a decade, when all those kids with college loan debts requiring payments of $500 to $2000 a month suddenly find that they’ve hit the financial wall. 

A lot of them will be in default, but more of them will just be stalled–can’t buy a house, can’t buy a car, can’t afford the latest iPhone or television or computer gadget, can’t even rent an apartment.

The refusal to allow college loans to be discharged in bankruptcy won’t last–not because this is a generation of spoiled brats (I think they’re more sinned against than sinning), but because to allow it to last would be to blow up the rest of the economy and blow it up permanently. 

What happens then is unclear.

The institutions will pick their own survival over that of the country, that IS clear. 

But what everybody else does depends on a lot of variables, not the least of which is the fact that Eric Holder was right–we cannot, at the moment, have an honest discussion about race in this country.

Now take this schemata, and apply it to everything else the US does–welfare, policing, defense, agriculture…

Then consider the fact that we have two men running for president, one of whom wants to preserve and expand this system because he (delusionally) thinks it’s “fair,” and the other of which wants to preserve and expand this system because he thinks it will keep the have-nots quieter if they get stuff.

I assume I have now permanently ruined  your day.


Written by janeh

September 30th, 2012 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Luck of the Draw

with 9 comments

I am embarked, at the moment, on a long series of revisions for a book, longer than the ones I’m usually asked to do.  We won’t go into that.

But since I’m not usually asked for anything this extensive, I hadn’t (until today) checked out the possibility of listening to music while I worked.

I know I can’t listen to music, even classical instrumental music, when I write for real.  Revising on this level seems to be to be halfway between writing and something else. 

Well, this morning I tried it, with Mozart’s Posthorn Serenade–okay, I have no idea if I’m spelling that correctly–and it turns out that all is well.  I can in fact revise with music.

So I’m a fairly happy camper at the moment.

Except, you know, for my usual neuroses and paranoia.

I am also finding myself in a rather odd position in terms of the coming election.

Let’s forget Romney and Obama for the moment.  I never took Romney seriously as a candidate.  I never thought he could win the election, no matter what he did.  He’s the ultimate dinosaur, extinct even if he doesn’t know it.  He’s a vision out of the Republican past and that past is not coming back. 

Look at it this way.  The membership of the Republican Party is now thoroughly split between the people who wanted to bail out the banks and the people who didn’t want to and did want to see a lot of bankers bankrupted and jailed.  That last group includes the Tea Party, the Evangelicals and the libertarians. 

I never did believe the line about how people only voted Republican because they were being hoodwinked by the capitalists.  And right now, there’s a good demonstration of why that line was never accurate.

But it’s not the Presidential race I want to talk about here. It’s the race for the Senate in my own state.

There’s a Senate seat open in Connecticut because Joe Lieberman–the guy who ran for VP with Gore–has decided to retire.  The Democrats have put up a guy named Chris Murphy.  Murphy happens to be my own Congressman.  The Republicans had a primary race, and ended up nominating a woman named Linda McMahon.

This was depressing from off, because there was a guy I would have been interested in voting for in the Republican field.  That was Chris Shays, who had also been a Congressman from Connecticut until redistricting plowed him under.

Shays was plowed under a second time by McMahon’s money machine, and she had lots of money–her own.  McMahon is the female half of the couple that made professional wrestling a cash machine, and she put mostly her own funds into the race and hammered until she got the nomination.

It was, in fact, the second time she’d done that.  She also ran against Richard Blumenthal for the open seat after Chris Dodd retired.

And she got creamed. 

At the time Blumenthal ran, he was probably the most popular State Attorney General in Connecticut’s history.  His constituent service was outstanding.  He had a clear record and he ran on it.

This time, something very odd is going on.

Murphy has been a Congressman for a while now, so I’ve got to assume he has a record somewhere. 

But his ads have said nothing at all about that record, one way or the other.

They have been, virtually exclusively, attacks on McMahon.

And in every single case in which I know the basis for the attack, they have been either outright lies, or misleading to the point where they might as well be outright lies.

There is, for instance, the story of the ads that accused McMahon of “not paying social security” for her “employees,” and denying them “health care coverage and disability benefits.”

This was so absurd–and so easily disproved by the public record–that those ads disappeared after a while, to be replaced by nearly identical ones that claimed all the same things but about her “wrestlers.”

The problem?

Professional wrestlers are actors.  And like other arts workers–writers, musicians, illustrators–they are not usually classified as “employees” but as “freelancers.”  Even long term standard contracts for most of these people do not result in the guy buying your services paying half your social security taxes or giving you health care or other benefits.

This has been the standard in arts professions for decades–a lot of decades.

There is a case to be made that this is not how the arts industries should operate.  And in some cases particular arrangements have been made to get arts workers one or another of the benefits involved.

But the fact is that McMahon was not only doing nothing wrong by paying her wrestlers in the way she did, she was following standard industry practice.

And the ad relies on the assumption that most of the people listening to it will be bone ignorant of that practice. 

Then there is the ad–filmed oddly in black and white, with only women speaking–that declares that Linda McMahon’s business “demeans women” and that she forced violent images on children and sold violent toys to them.

In other words:  that Linda McMahon was one of the founders and owners of the world’s largest professional wrestling companies. 

As if they think their viewers will not know what professional wrestling is.

This is also the ad that includes the statement that McMahon wants to abolish the Department of Education, which would wipe out “early childhood education” funding and Pell Grants.

But that’s simply not true.  Abolishing the Department would not necessarily abolish any program.  Pell Grants existed before the Department existed.  The Department didn’t establish them.  It just administers them.

I won’t go into the rest of this nonsense–Linda McMahon supports a “radical Republican” proposal that would allow employers to deny women coverage for contraception!

Yes, she does, and so do I.  It’s not radical at all.  It’s the free exercise of religion, and the Constitution guarantees it. 

And this, too, is based on the assumption of voter ignorance.  The voters these ads are going after mostly approve of the religious exemption to the contraception mandate, and Murphy’s people must know it.

But the biggest and most bewildering aspect of all this is the fact that Murphy’s ads consistently call her “CEO Linda McMahon.”

I mean, really?

The woman started a successful company and ran it.   I think that’s the good news.  Does Murphy honestly think that voters will reject a candidate solely because she’s been a success?  They’re not coming out w ith any wrongdoing, or with scandals, or anything else.  Linda McMahon and her company pulled themselves up out of bankruptcy and founded a successful company.  In my book, that’s a good thing.

McMahon’s ads have, of course, also slammed Murphy for various things.  The difference is that the charges they make against Murphy are entirely verifiable–that he took campaign cash from a bank and then voted (from his seat on the banking committee) to hand that bank a bailout, and the bank later gave him a great rate on a new mortgage, in spite of the fact that his last mortgage company had to sue him for nonpayment; that he missed something like two thirds of his committee meetings.

Whenever McMahon’s people put out one of these ads, Murphy’s throw out ads about how she’s “lying.”  Then the local press–newspapers and even the local NPR station–check into it and verify her facts, and she puts out an ad quoting them.

And McMahon also puts out ads that outline what she wants to do and what her political philosophy his. 

After a while, the skew of the Murphy campaign became so bizarre that the press began to comment on it.  The local NPR station  did a story where they tried to figure out why Murphy wasn’t running on his record–why there hadn’t been any mention of that record, or of his political philosophy, for all the months the campaign had been ongoing.

Murphy responded with what I think of as a “kittens and puppies” ad–lots of fuzzy happy children and small things and an urgent message to preserve the future for them, without anything like the details of how Murphy expected to do that.

Those ads correspond to the very first one the Murphy campaign put out, where he and his wife are shown walking through a grocery store and his wife talks about  how they can’t stop because constituents always have so much to say to them.

There was, in those ads, once again nothing about what in particular Chris Murphy has done or intends to do.

The only think that makes sense to me in all this is that the Murphy campaign must be completely and utterly panicked that he’s going to lose the election.

But I can’t understand why.

This is Connecticut.  It’s one of the bluest states in the Union.  We don’t usually vote Republican.

And this is Connecticut in another way, too.  Ann Coulter put it crudely when she was opposing McMahon in the primary–this is prep school and Ivy League central.  Connecticut voters are not going to get behind somebody whose claim to fame is as low rent as professional wrestling.

Chris Murphy may do what nobody else could. 

The ads are so bad and so relentlessly dishonest, he’s probably doing McMahon more good than her own campaign could even if it always ran on optimal.

Written by janeh

September 29th, 2012 at 10:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Career of “When” as a Verb

with 8 comments

There’s an essay link up on Arts and Letters Daily today that sort of ties in with this:


But at the moment, I want to point out, again, that this is the beginning of the term, and the beginning of the term brings with it…something. 

It’s too early for despair.

A couple of days ago, somebody posted a long status on Facebook about the fact that her students couldn’t write a decent paper, or even a decent sentence.  I would have responded to this post if I’d been anywhere near a real computer, but I was out and about and all I had was my phone.  What I had to say was too long to be manageable on my phone.

From what I remember, the responses to this status were what you’d expect:  the problem was high stakes testing, or the fact that the kids didn’t read. 

I don’t have a problem with high stakes testing myself–if you want to make sure students learn something, you test, and you make the consequences significant–but I’ll vouch for the fact that students don’t read.

But the real reason students can’t write a decent sentence is that nobody teaches them to do it.  In fact, from what I can tell, students no longer study grammar at all. 

My students arrive in my classroom completely unaware that there is any such thing as a “part of speech.”  They don’t know what a “subject” or a “predicate” is.   They don’t know what a “preposition” is, and they don’t know that a word this is part of a preposition phrase cannot be the subject of a sentence. They don’t know that there are forms to verbs, and they don’t know how tenses work.

They don’t know these things because nobody has ever taught them. Nobody has ever taught them directly, and nobody has ever taught them indirectly.

Virtually all grading of essays on the high school level these days is “holistic,” which specifically FORBIDS correcting for grammar, punctuation and spelling.   Instead, teachers are supposed to read through the entire piece and get a “feeling” for its overall quality.

And the high stakes tests don’t help, because those are graded “holistically” too.

So are the qualifying tests  for being tracked into regular or remedial classes on the college level. 

That is, they are unless the college uses a computer tests like Acuplacer, which seems to be a multiple choice type of thing that’s concentrating on a lot of stuff, but not if the student knows what a verb is.

Aside from not knowing the parts of speech or the basic mechanics of an English sentence,  most of my students quite literally are unable to read.

Somebody in the postings and comments on the FB status said that people were functionally illiterate if all they could do was read maps and directions–but it’s worse than that.

The functionally illiterate CAN’T read maps and directions.  They can sound out the words of various pieces of low-level writing, but they have no idea what they mean.

In this system, being able to follow a bus schedule is all it takes to make you “literate.”

My students by and large don’t read, but that isn’t surprising–they can’t read, because they do not have any idea how writing works.  They do not know that the first person narrator of a novel is not the author himself.  They don’t know how to decipher sentences with clauses, or follow a train of thought.

The reading they have been given in high school has been chosen from what teachers think is “relevant” to them, what supposedly follows their own “interests.”

By and large, though, they have no interests, only diversions they’ve picked up on television, the Internet and the radio.  They have no cultural context at all, so they not only fail to understand the references in what they are asked to read, they fail to understand them in the movies and music they supposedly “like.”

I’ve said before–yeah, yeah, I repeat myself a lot–that I think the Harry Potter phenomenon is a direct result of this inability to read.  Childrens books are, by definition, easier to read than those written for adults.  They have smaller vocabularies, fewer complex sentences and usually a near dearth of writing techniques that, if you don’t already know about them, might be confusing or ambiguous.

There is only one way to fix this–require the schools to stop all holistic grading, to teach solid eighth grade grammar, and to grade for spelling, punctuation and grammar even in non-English courses.

The problem is, I don’t know if this is even possible.

I’ve got an increasingly strong feeling that this generation of teachers doesn’t know these things, either–that they were themselves “holistically” graded, that nobody ever told them what a verb was, that their reading comprehension level tops out at children’t books.

And  no, I have no idea, this morning, what we’re supposed to do about it all.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2012 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The World Owes You A Living

with 5 comments

The problem with my schedule this term is that there isn’t any problem.  The actual schedule is great, and my students actually make me happy.

What that means, though, is that when I’m finished on Friday, I have a lot of good intentions about doing things like writing blog posts, which I never do because I’m relaxed, and it’s Saturday, or Sunday, and I’ve got a book, and…

And Frescobaldi this morning, to tell the truth.  Harpsichord pieces.  Nicely done by an academic in Indiana.

But in the middle of all this happy happy, I’ve been reading other people’s blog posts, and FB posts, and articles in magazines, and I have discerned a trend.

It’s remarkable how many people out there, and especially young people under thirty, think they are entitled to things like food, clothing and shelter, a college education, a job…

Or, to put it the way they tend to put it, they have “a right” to these things.

I’m getting to the point where I think we ought to retire the use of the word “rights,” because almost nobody knows what it means any more.

Rights inhere in the person–they are part of ourselves whether any particular government observes them or violates them.   Rights are also both negative and absolute–they are restrictions on what your government can make you do (or not do), and they are uncompromising.

You can’t have a “right” to anything you can only get if somebody else gives it to you, for the obvious reason that to have such a right, you’d have to own the person who must supply you.

If you don’t own that person–if he cannot be coerced into giving you what you’ve decided you have a “right” to–then he can always simply refuse to play, and your “right” evaporates.

Obviously, most people don’t think through the issue of what it would mean to declare that people have a “right” to this sort of thing, and they won’t think it through no matter how hard you try to get them to.

What most people mean when they say this kind of thing tends to be muddled at best.  And not everybody means the same things.

Some people simply mean that they are aware that there are some things they need to have to survive, and that the prospect of trying to get these things and not being able to is scary.

This is, in fact, true.  It is very scary to realize that you could come to a place where you just couldn’t manage it.  And there isn’t a single one of us who could ever be sure that we could manage it all the time, always.

There is a variation on this theme that is the realization that if you can’t get access to some things (like a college education), your life might be less accomplished and happy than it would have been otherwise.

Maybe it’s just that we have been told so often that we can be “anything we want to be” that we’ve lost sight of the fact that that is virtually never true.  The world is full of people who will never be what they could have been because they had to drop out of school to support a family, or because a mother or father or sister or brother because catastrophically ill and needed somebody to care for them, or for a whole lot of other reasons that are not “fair.”

These sorts of things are evidence of a failure to grow up.  and they’re not necessarily catastrophic.  Most of the people making these kinds of arguments are not in fact grown up–that is, they’re chronologically young. 

It’s a little disturbing to look at pictures of the Occupy camps and see just how many  aging hippies there actually are, but that’s another discussion.

One of the other reasons for this kind of thinking is sentimentality–we secure enough ourselves, but we hate the idea that other people are insecure, or without resources, or suffering.

The actually adult version of this can be a very good thing indeed.  There are good cases to be made that we should support people unable to support themselves, that we should provide schooling for every child, and maybe even that we should help to minimize the impact of catastrophic life events on family members.

The non-adult version of this, however, is a form of sentimentality that lacks any connection to reality whatsoever. 

It begins in the mostly unstated assumption that these things–providing a livelihood, taking care of family members who are sick or disabled–are the responsibility of individuals and families, even when the tasks are difficult, or even onerous, and even when meeting those responsibilities means we are cut off from opportunities we might otherwise have.

We none of us has a “right” not to be burdened by those things.  It’s largely the luck of the draw. 

A few years ago, I had as a student a man who had come to America as one of the Vietnamese boat people.  He and his wife had worked like crazy and built up a huge fund of savings to make sure their two sons could go to college.

Then my student had a massive stroke that made him unable to work ever again.  The two boys quit school and went to work to support the family.

Was this “fair”?  No, of course not.  It was a tragedy.  But it was also reality. 

It is one thing to say that there are good, practical reasons for instituting systems that would help to lessen the impact of events like this.  It is another thing to say that we have a “right” not to have reality impinge on us, or that it is the state’s responsibility, and not the family’s, to respond when such events do happen.

The sentimentalized version of this does a couple of other things as well.

The first of these is that it divorces itself from the actual practice of providing government help as a “right” completely.  And it divorces itself from that practice in two ways.

The first of these is the obvious one:  it flat out refuses to accept the fact (and it is a fact) that some of the people getting the help are free riders gaming the system, and that those free riders will always make up a significant proportion of recipients.

We are told–on the basis of statistically evidence that doesn’t answer the objections–that such free riders are only a small minority of recipents, or that they don’t exist at all because nobody would prefer to live in the kind of penury a government stipend provides if he had any other option.

We are presented with anecdotes of people whose needs are real, and people who have used the system to get themselves out of the holes they were in.

And these stories are true.  What they aren’t is proof that the system isn’t being significantly gained and that the existence of it isn’t causing something even worse–that sense of entitlement we’ve been talking about so far. 

But what else is going on here is that people move inexorably toward the position that relieving the sufferings of their fellow citizens is the job of the government and not of the individual–that is, they move to the position that we don’t have to grow up at all, we don’t have to make the sacrifices necesssary to actually help other people.  That’s the government’s job.

This, by the way, is why I have no use for “Republican budgets are unChristian because they don’t help the poor,” and why I have no use for modern Catholic social teaching about the welfare state. 

Christ did not say “go get your government to help poor people!” He said, “go do it YOURSELF.” 

What Christ was asking for was not a welfare state, but a world of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohys.

Yes, of course, private charity does not meet all the needs, and never could.  But that’s really not the issue here.  One of the things private charity does do–when it’s really private, and not a matter of a technically private agency that acts just like your local welfare office–is that it makes it possible to know things about inidivual cases that are invisible to social welfare agencies and case workers.

Your ne’er do well Uncle Buck may fool the caseworker who shows up once every couple of months, but he won’t fool you, because you’re there all the time. 

The last kind of person who makes this sort of argument–for a “right” to food and shelter or an education or whatever–is actually trying for something else: he’s trying to get the government to put its imprimatur on something he wants to be a social norm that isn’t one yet, and that might never be one.

This is how we get “rights” to birth control and abortion that are not actual rights–the right to be free of government interference in your pursuit of same–but that are mandates on the public purse.   You are the slavemaster. Nobody is allowed to disagree with you in any substantive way.  Everybody is required to acquiese that your position is the only right one.

I don’t know how we got here, exactly.  I think in large part the issue is that we just have, in this society,  far too much money.

But I do know this.

We cannot survive for long in a world where most of our citizens feel entilted to things that, in reality, they’re only entitled to work for.


Written by janeh

September 24th, 2012 at 9:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Challenge To The Reader

with 6 comments

But not the kind in the old Ellery Queen novels.

A friend of mine sent me a list of ten modern writers he thinks will still be being read a hundred years from now. 

I couldn’t come up with twelve, but I did come up with some. 

But in coming up with them, it occurred to me that the issue here has substantially changed since the 19th century, when people first tried to make such lists.

It’s not so much that literacy is more widespread than it was when Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy. In fact, in some ways, it’s probably not.

But what is more widespread is our ability to publish. 

Even print publication is monumentally easier and cheaper than it used to be, but you can add to that ebooks, audiobooks and all the rest of it. 

Books that would have sunk without a trace fifty years ago can now reach the much-lowered critical mass to keep themselves alive without a problem. 

And that changes the nature of the exercise.  A book that beat overwhelming odds to last a hundred years had to have a quality we needed to pay attention to.  A book that beat very small odds to last that long, not so much.

But, for what it’s worth, the following are the writers I think are going to make it, plus three individual books.  They’re in no particular order.

1) W. Somerset Maugham

2) Ernest Hemingway

3) Stephen King

4) Robert Heinlein

5) J.R.R. Tolkein

6) Arthur Conan Doyle

7) William Faulkner

8) Flannery O’Connor

9) The Godfather

10) Gone With The Wind

11)Atlas Shrugged

Please note:  I am NOT saying that any of these are “great literature.” 

I’m just saying I think they’ll still be around in 2100.

Now give me yours–not what you like, or what you think is “good,” but what you think will last.


Written by janeh

September 18th, 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

So, it is Sunday, and I’m doing my usual Sunday morning thing.  Gustav Leonhardt is playing the harpsichord with The Well-Tempered Clavier on the CD player behind me, and I’ve just spent the entire first disc reading more of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times.

I’ve just reached the point of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but what interests me more at the moment is the account of Stalin’s rise to power in the USSR.

And what interests me there is not Stalin  himself, who seems to have been mostly a common grade thug with good opportunities, but the response of European and American intellectuals and artists to him. 

Every once in a while, I make mention here of a long essay by the critic George Steiner called The Archives of Eden.” 

In it, Steiner makes the point, repeatedly, that although  he is willing to grant that democracies do in fact make life infinitely better for the vast majorities of mankind, only authoritarian societies can produce great art, or great civilization.

Great art, Steiner says, needs either to be supported by a class recognized as superior to the common run of mankind, or actively resisted by a class bent on destroying it. 

In both cases, art is recognized as serious and important and as having a standard that is not relative, that is not merely “taste” but that has an objective basis that must be learned and is not entirely natural.

Democratic society, being what it is, recognizes only taste, and implicitly implies that one man’s taste is just as good as another’s.  This leaves only one standard for the worth of art:  popularity.   

This need to seek validation is the acclaim of the multitude corrupts all art because it draws the artist into a position where he is required to satisfy the public taste rather than the internal and objective requirements of his art.

The public taste, in this case, means not only the obvious public taste (like, say, Die Hard movies), but the taste of the kind of people who run the National Endowment for the Arts or PBS.   Although the percentage of the public that supports the kind of art supported by these organizations is small than the percentage that supports action movies, they still, at base, accept the idea that art is entertainment, that it is a minor part of life, and not the most important thing.

Now, I’ve got a lot of problems with Steiner’s thesis, not the least of them being that I think that last bit–art becomes merely entertainment and a minor part of life–is just plain wrong.  It’s of course true that some people in democratic societies look on art that way, but my guess is that some people in authoritarian societies do, too.   But I also think that if you look around you in this society, you’ll find plenty of people who believe passionately that art is the most important thing.  It’s just not necessarily the kind of art Mr. Steiner would call “great.”

But right now, what I want to look at is Steiner himself, as a person, at least as he presents himself in what he writes.

Because Steiner doesn’t just say that authoritarian societies are the only ones that produce great art, but that the suffering of larger numbers of people in those societies is an acceptible price to pay for that great art.

I think that would be a questionable thing to say no matter who said it, but coming from Steiner, it stops me cold.

Steiner is here, in the United States, because his father pulled his immediate family out of German just ahead of the Nazis.  Of the uncles, aunts, and cousins who refused to believe that Hitler had to be taken seriously, not a single one of them survived the war. 

I don’t know if Steiner thinks that any of the art that came out of (or out of the resistance to) Nazi Germany is great, but he certainly does think that some of the art that came out of the Communist USSR is. 

To be fair, of course, I should note that his preferred authoritarian and hierarchical societies are not the totalitarian ones, but the aristocratic ones.   He is not nostalgic for repression and terror as public policy, but for a world in which categories of human beings and their habits and tastes are recognized on a hierarchical scale.

All that being said, however, the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I read this essay is that Steiner ought to know better.  Creating a society where the vast majority of human beings not only get to live reasonably well but get to develop into decent and moral people is not a small thing, and it’s also certainly worth the possibility that no one in it will ever create a David or an Eroica.

But knowing better is something it seems that a certain kind of  intellectual mind is not capable of. 

One of the things that is very clear in reading a history of the period strictly chronologically is that it becomes impossible to avoid the knowledge that virtually every single thing we think of as a signature of Naziism was in fact done at least a decade earlier by Stalin. 

The first concentration camps and death camps were instituted by Stalin, almost 10 years before Hitler ever became Chancellor. Mass executions without trial, forced starvation of particular ethnic groups (note the racism), the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the coercion of children into reporting their parents–all of it was invented not by Hitler but by either Lenin or Stalin, and where Lenin was the inventor, Stalin was the perfecter.

 What interests me here is this:  there was, during the Twenties and Thirties, a positive parade of English and American writers and artists who visited the new Soviet Union and declared it a paradise, or the next best thing to one.

Some of these were people–like Lincoln Steffens–who had prior commitments as Communists.  Most of them, however, were not. 

They did, of course, have the vaguely “socialist” leanings that were common on most levels of Society in the Thirties and common in intellectual circles in the Twenties as well. 

For most of my life, the explanation I’ve heard about how this all happened was that the writers and artists involved, shell shocked from the Great War and further traumatized by the Depression, were so desperate to believe in something that they deluded themselves about the things they say in Russia.

The more I read in the history of the period, however, the more obvious it is that this cannot be true.  They saw and they were not deluded.  They just lied.

And not only did they lie, they lied on a scale so monumental, it can sometimes be difficult to take in.  They looked on labor camps, general starvation, state terror, and all the rest of it and then just made stuff up to send as “reports” back home. 

And, what’s worse, in some ways, many of them are still doing it.  The Nation devoted an issue, a few months back, on what was good about the Soviet Union.  They left out all the labor camps and the engineered famines and the mass summary executions, but they left them out as if they’d never existed, as if they weren’t something we needed to take into account about the society in question.

But it’s worse than this, really, because in spite of the frequently made claims that intellectuals only make these allowances on the Left, the fact is that they have no trouble at all making the same allowances on the Right.

And big allowances.

You could make a case that Nietzsche’s message was distorted by his devotees, but Martin Heidigger was a Nazi.  He was a member of the Nazi Party, and he personally carried out the policy of removing Jews from the faculty of his own university after Hitler came to power.  Paul de Man was a Nazi collaborator during the German occupation of France, and it’s not possible to look very long at the wartime behavior of Jean-Paul Sartre without realizing that he was one, too.  After the war, he became a doctrinaire Stalinist, because that’s how that works, and Sartre was always doctrinaire.

Steiner’s take on the conditions necessary for the production of great art is one possible explanation for this behavior, as is Johnson’s that these were the people who, in a believing age, would have been the clergy, and they were just looking for another religion to be the clergy of.

But these explanations seem to me to be grossly inadequate, as does the one that says these people expect to be part of the ruling class rather than the ruled.

In fact, for most of these people–the historical people now, Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor and the Webbs–the issue seems not to be wanting to be part of a ruling class as wanting to have a ruling class to look up to. 

They all seem to be looking, desperately, for somebody or something to worship.

What I want to know, at the moment, is something more basic.

I want to know if there is something inherent in certain kinds of intellectual work that predisposes people to be apostles of totalitarianism. 

Or if this is an aberration brought about by the particular history of the West in modernty.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2012 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

In a couple of minutes, I have to go into the other room and correct my first set of papers of the term.  I have friends who say I shouldn’t assign the things this early.  I have friends who say I shouldn’t assign the damned things this early, but here we are.

At any rate:

1) I looked at the comments to the lost post, and I have to say that I didn’t designate the curriculum on purpose.

I was asking a question of principle, IF we think that some things are good to know in themselves (whether or not the student will eventually “use” them in a job), THEN shouldn’t we do everything we can to make sure that all children learn them.

For the purposes of this question, WHAT we decide is necessary for all children to learn is irrelevant–it could be long division, or carpentry, or the complete works of Lord Paul McCartney.

Once we have decided that it is important for all children to learn whatever it is, it seems to be to be necessary to make sure that children do in fact learn them.

What we do now is to put a bunch of children in a room and accept–even under our various accountability schemes–that some children will simply never get it. 

And that’s why I said I think that we don’t really mean it when we say we want all children to learn X.  We run, rather, a kind of sorting scheme–X serves as a standard by which we separate sheep from goats from aspidistra plants.

2) When I said that if we do want all children to learn X, then we must consider X useful in and of itself in some way and  not just “useful” in the ordinary sense.

Consider, for a moment, algebra.

If Susan is a student of very low academic ability who will, no matter what we teach her, be unable to do any job but that of a fast food server or a convenience store clerk, should we insist she learn basic algebra?

How about Jack, who is brighter than that, but only wants to spend his life as a garage mechanic?

Bringing Susan to the pont where she can do algebra is going to take a lot of time and tons of money–but if we think algebra is important for people to  know, then we should spend both in the project of getting her where she needs to do.

But neither Susan nor Jack will likely “use” algebra in their adult lives.  If we want them to know algebra, then there is something about algebra that is “good in itself,” that functions in some way for Susan and Jack and for the rest of us.

Maybe it provides good mental training and makes the people who understand it more intellectually disciplined than they would be otherwise.  Maybe we think all children should be inducted into the cult of Protagoras.

We had a huge fuss over just this issue a few years ago in Connecticut, when the state Board of Education put out guidelines requiring schools to emphasize “practical” mathematics and not the “theoretical” kind, because most people can’t learn that stuff to begin with and nobody will ever use it again after they leave school.

When we commit to bringing all children up to speed on whatever set of standards we decide to have, we must know at the beginning that some subset of them will never use the information they get. 

If we still think it’s important that they learn it, then we must think the information and skills it imparts (algebra, carpentry, whatever) is “good in itself,” functions for us beyond the basically utilitarian.

3) It is possible that we do NOT think there is anything that is important for all children to learn–that what we’re looking at is a system meant not to make sure all children learn X, but to separate children who learn X easily from those who don’t, and shuffling them to their respective vocational destinies.

The system we have now certainly behaves as if this is the case. 

And I have a lot of objections to sorting systems, not the least of which is that they almost always end up sorting for the wrong things.

But if this is what we’re doing, and what we want to do, I think we should say so.

4) This sort of thing would, of course, be very, very expensive, but a lot of things are very, very expensive.  If we think they’re important to do, we do them.

Like I said, the answer here may be very simple.  We may not really be after doing what we say we are doing.  We may not think that algebra, or even reading comprehension, is important for every child to learn.  We may only want to separate “bright” children from the other kind.

5) When I was much younger, I used to think the educational system was set up the way it was (and is) so that society could say, “It’s not OUR fault that you ended up going nowhere in life.  YOU screwed up.  Just look at your grades!”

I’d better go correct those papers.

Written by janeh

September 13th, 2012 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Pop Cult Epiphanies

with 3 comments

I suppose the real news is that fall is definitely coming.  This is the second day in a row I’ve woken up to find myself cold enough to want the heat on.  I haven’t actually put the heat on, mind you.  I’ve got some deep seated ideological resistance to putting the heat on before October. And later in the day, the air will warm up enough for me to want the air conditioner.

Still, just a week ago I’d come downstairs and wait the air on as fast a I could get the machine to work. 

So the term has started, the weather is cooler in the mornings, and I’m reading a book by a man who has always seen a great many similarities between the student unrest in Weimar and the student unrest in the US in the Sixties.

I’ve started getting up very early and going to bed very early and being nearly catatonic by midafternoon. 

Lately, I’ve been catatonic while watching a little movie called The Blind Side, which is one of those things based on a true story, and based on one whose main characters are all still living.

It would be something to consider, I think, just how close to reality we need things “based on a true story” to be, but for right now, I want to take the story in this movie as if it were completely real, because it’s made me think about something.

For those of you who have never seen it, The Blind Side is the story of  how a homeless black teenager named Michael Oher was taken in by the (very) well-off family of Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy, shepherded through high school, helped through college and–well.

These days, Michael Oher is an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. 

I could use this story to go on a rant about the way we require people who are good at playing football and want to play football to suffer their way through college just to get a chance to play professionally, but there’s something else going on here.

If the movie is to be believed, Michael Oher only managed to make the minimal high school grade point average to be eligible for college football scholarships because the Tuohys provided him with a tutor, and he only maintained his eligibility at the University of Mississippi because the Tuohys paid for that same tutor through all four  years, including providing her with an apartment near campus.

In other words, Michael Oher was extremely talented athletically, but he was not talented at all academically.  In an everyday world, he might have stumbled through school with a D average and then out into the world to flip burgers.  In fact, athletic talent or not, that’s almost certainly what would have happened to him if the Tuohys hadn’t found him, assuming he managed to finish high school at all.

The Tuohys did find him, however, and the tutoring did work.   Oher even made the Dean’s list at Mississippi at least once. 

The chances are good that other kids, given that kind of intense tutoring, could learn at at least the same level. 

But lacking the athletic ability, or some other kind of talent, that would learn at that level in order to end up flipping the same burgers they would have flipped without it. 

Would it therefore make any sense for us to teach it to them, to push them until they reached a standard they could never reach without pushing and that they would almost certainly fall away from as their lives went out?

One of the things about discussions of schools and learning is that we all of us–no matter what side of the issues we’re on–tend to tacitly assume that the major function of education is sorting.  We separate smart people from less smart ones and shuffle them each off to their proper spheres of life.

This tacit assumption is the same for the people who want to maintain standards and allow a lot of kids to just plain fail, and for the people who know that if standards are maintained a lot of kids will fail and who therefore want to lower or corrupt the standards. 

For all the yelling and screaming about whether kids can find the United States on a globe or write a standard English sentence or divide 4,954 by 72, all we are really talking about is sorting, and how it ought to be done.

What if, instead of doing that, we do for every kid–and I mean every kid, not just “disadvantaged” ones or ones with “learning disabilities”–what the Tuohys did with Michael Oher. 

If there is some intrinsic worth to the information we want children and adolescents to learn in schools and colleges–if the standards they are asked to meet have some point beyond giving us a handy little tool to judge them , why aren’t we making sure that all children learn it, whether they’re academically gifted or not?

This would, of course, require a lot more than the kinds of “accommodations” now required under various forms of education policy. 

And it would cost a lot of money.

And if we mean “everyone,” then some children would be using that tutoring time to start learning differential equations in eighth grade or to read Moby Dick in fifth.

What I am suggesting here is not a plan for reducing inequality of results among students.  It might even exacerbate them, as children with higher levels of talent would almost certainly find themselves in a position to outpace their slower classmates even more than they do now.

But if we actually think it’s important for people to know how to do long division and what caused the War of 1812, then maybe we should do whatever it takes to get them to know it. 

And yes, I know that’s what all the educational reform projects say they’re trying to do, but it isn’t what they’re actually doing. 

It’s not even what they’re trying to do. 

A Michael Oher would never be able to sit in a classroom, absorb a bunch of information and then regurgitate it.  It doesn’t matter what kind of pedagogy is on offer, or how good his teacher is. 

Some students are simply not going to get it without truly heroic, and intensely i ndividualized, kinds of help.

The question is–does it make any sense to give it to them?  Is the content of the material we want them to learn valuable in and of itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a “good job” or a college education?

Will their lives be better in some way if they learn these things?  Will our lives be better in some way if they learn these things?

What is it we’re actually trying to do here?

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2012 at 7:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

It is the first Sunday of the term, and therefore the first Sunday I’ve had in a long time that fits the pattern of my Official Day Off. 

It’s also the first day in five without the depredations of Extreme Weather, including violent thunder and wind storms and ongoing tornado warnings.  Today is just pleasant and sunny and nice, and I don’t have to worry about the electricity going off any second.   I may even get a chicken cooked for dinner this evening without being on pins and needles that I’m about to lose the use of my oven. 

In other words, I’m actually fairly calm.

I therefore spent the morning with a huge cup of Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey tea, a copy of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, and a lot of Elgar, including the Enigma Variations.

I have what I can only call a variable taste for Elgar.  The early work tends to a triumphalism that makes me uncomfortable.  A lot of the later work is so depressing it’s hard to listen to without drifting into thoughts of suicide. 

Johnson, however, is someone I can recommend without hesitation.  I discussed one of his books on this blog a couple of years ago–Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky–but most of what he writes is straightforward history, and that includes Modern Times. 

Johnson is interesting to me on a lot of levels, including being himself interested in the connection between the history of ideas and the history of events, but what I can never forget is that he’s made a life for himself as an historian outside the university. 

There’s a certain ongoing history of that in the UK that is not so evident here, especially lately.  It makes a difference, I think, to the way the history is understood and treated.

In Modern Times, Johnson traces the influences of four men–Marx, Freud, Darwin and Nietzsche–on the formation and eventual character of what we think of as, well, now.

What all this reading and calmness brought me back to was that long discussion about education back there, which stopped before the Enlightenment period. 

I always did mean to get back to that place, and I think I’m coming up on doing it in the next few days, but before that I want to ask a question:  why is it that all the periods of history that I truly admire are unstable?

In fact, it’s not just that those periods are unstable.  It’s that they seem to be inherently unstable.  It’s as if the aspects of them that make them congenial to me also make them incapable of lasting very long.

In a way, of course, this is less of a puzzle that it seems.  Western civilization is itself more unstable than many others. 

Every once in a while, when we have discussions about Natural Rights Theory (modern version),  someone here will chime in with “there are lots of civilizations which last for millennia without observing  individual rights!”

And, of course, there are.  But there is no phase of Western civilization that lasts more than a few centuries.  The Classical world gave way to the Dark Ages which gave way to the Medieval which gave way to the Renaissance which gave way to the Enlightenment which gave way to whatever it is we have now. 

And although there definitely were continuities between them, each phase was and is distinctly its own,

This is, I think, our legacy from the Greeks, a group of people who could never take yes for an answer–and if you think they’ve changed, you should pay more attention to the news from Europe.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates is supposed to have said, and we’ve been obsessively analyzing ourself, our neighbors, our institutions, and the very claim that existence is a fact ever since.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me think Aristophanes may have had a point.

(If you’re new here and you don’t get that reference, I suggest you get hold of Aristophanes’s play The Clouds and give it a shot.  You’d be amazed at how much nothing has changed in 3000 years.)

At any rate, the kinds of civilizations I admire seem to require lots of thinking and questioning and pushing and pulling, and because they require those things, they are unstable.

The bigger question here is why these periods always seem to collapse into awfulness of one kind or the other.

That’s not to say that they lead to nothing but awfulness.  They don’t. Without the Dark Ages, there could have been no Middle Ages and no Renaissance.  Without the mess in the wake of the Reformation, there could have been no   Victorian era as we know it.  Without the squalid and murderous Twenties-to-Thirties, there could have been no Forties-to-Fifties. 

I keep looking at things like that and hoping that the mess we created with the Sixties will eventually result in another admirable era down the road.

What’s undeniable, however, is that whenever the crash and burn happens, it happens because people are rebelling not against the worst of the era, but against the best of it. 

Luther wanted to obliterate not only the manifest crimes of the Renaissance church, but the movement to rely on reason and empirical observation as a method to understand the world.  The nationalist revolutionary movements that arose after the First World War sought to break up those consolidations that had finally put an end to ethnic warfare in Europe for close to 100 years.

It’s enough to give you the idea that Freud was right in one and only one thing:  that human beings do have something called a death wish, an internal and sometimes unstoppable craving  for suicide.

In the meantime, I have come up with some preliminary notes on what it is societies have to have to seem to be admirable to me.

Maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.  It’s a nice day, for once, and I could actually be getting something done.


Written by janeh

September 9th, 2012 at 9:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Equality in the Morning

with 5 comments

So, it really is the start of the term, and at the end of the first week, I’m completely exhausted.  I’m exhausted even though I slept in this morning as much as I ever sleep in if I’m not sick.  I think I made it all the way to six o’clock before.

And maybe it was because I was tired, but when I got onto the computer this morning, instead of working, I read articles.  Just before I logged on to the computer, I finished the Roger Kimball book I was talking about last time.

Why is it that some people are almost fanatically addicted to the idea of “equality.”

I put the scare quotes around that word because we have to be very careful with it.  There are all kinds of equality, and some of them are in direct contradiction to other kinds.

There is equality before the law, which should mean that Wall Street bankers go to jail when they break it just like low level drug dealers do. 

Lately, this kind of equality seems to have been completely obliterated in this nation. 

 And there has, of course, been no time in all of history when equality before the law operated perfectly.  Human nature is what it is. 

A lot of people decrying “income inequality” today claim that they want to make people’s incomes more equal because by doing so, they will make it more likely that there will be equality before the law.

But this is not true, at least on an historical level.  Societies with enforced equality of condition (well, for most people) have in fact had far less equality before the law than societies without it.  What changes is  not the abuses of power, but the people abusing it.   It’s really not progress when “rich guy can buy better lawyer to get him off” is exchanged for “the law is what the regulator says it is, so if he doesn’t like you, you’re screwed.”

Then there is equality before God, which is in fact where our idea of equality before the law comes from–the largely Christian idea that each and every one of us is responsible morally on exactly the same terms, before a judge who doesn’t give a whit for things like rank and power, money and race.

Some of us believe in God and some of us don’t, but the fact is that those two kinds of equality are not only admirable in themselves, but actually possible in the real world. 

Given the nature of human beings, we may only be able to approximate equality before the law, but we can approximate it fairly closely–and we’ve done it, and not necessarily at times when equality of condition was anywhere evident.

As for equality before God–well, that would depend on whether God exists, and whether, if he exists, he follows a description at least similar to the Christian story.

There is then equality of condition, which seems–also from the historical record–to be largely impossible at any level of social organization above the most basically tribal.  Stone Age societies had equality of condition.  At any level of society beyond that, what we see is increasingly inequality of condition. 

Some people say, of course, that there ought to be equality of condition, that we should make it happen even if it does happen.

The underlying assumption there, of course, is that none of us “deserves” any more than anybody else, or that none of us “deserves” any more above a certain level, usually left vague, if not completely undefined.

In order to argue this, however, we must do one of two things.

Either we have to say that nothing matter but our initial born formal equality:  that what each of us “deserves” is to be defined by the fact that we are equal in the sense of being equal before the law or equal before God, and nothing else about us actually matters.

Or we must make a case that the obvious inequalities between us do not really exist.

This is the “social contruction” argument about human differences.

It’s  not true that we are born with different aptitudes, and it’s not true that our choices are actually choices. 

Rather, our aptitudes develop and our choices are determined by the environments in which we grow up, by the attitudes and prejudices of the people around us, by the opportunities we were offered and the judgments we received from the people around us.

The problem with arguing against this sort of thing is that it’s half true, and the half that is true is largely trivial except in very extreme cases. Yes, of course, environment, education and culture all have an impact on how human beings grow, behave, and choose,   but in any even relatively open society they are not definitive for most people.

And they don’t, in fact, obliterate what is born into us–an ability to sing or tone deafness, a facility at thinking abstractly or a talent for mechanics.

There’s also a purely pragmatic argument to be made for providing every child out there with the best resources available to us–we may not be able to turn every John Henry into a nuclear physicist or the next Mozart, but it surely can’t hurt him (and can only help us) to give him a shot and learning what’s out there to be learned.

What’s really interesting to me, however, is the fact that the people who clamor most for equality of condition do not in fact believe that people are equal in this sense–that they are born with the same talents and abilities and only fail to develop them because of inequality of condition.

In fact, nobody believes this.  It is so obviously untrue, it’s staggering to me that anybody ever pretends otherwise. 

But what’s even more staggering is that these same people also do not believe that talent is evenly spread across races and sexes.

If you want to find people who truly and deeply hold the idea that ability and behavior have nothing to do with race, you go to any community college classroom in the Northeast.  You don’t go to the Ivies, because there isn’t anybody there who honestly believes that race is irrelevant. 

To a man and women, they think people are born smart or not, and that’s an end to it.  A friend of mine, who teaches at an Ivy located in the New England states–there are three of them–says that feminism was a Godsend to the upper tier because it made it possible to limit the number of people who just couldn’t cut it that they would have to accommodate on campus.  “Diversity” might be an imperative, but it could be achieved by your daughter’s first class mind instead of by keeping a a smile on your face while some barely literate product of the black middle class tried to sound intellectual at the departmental Christmas party.

These are not pleasant attitudes, and these are not very pleasant–or in any sane sense moral–people, but my question is this:

Since these people obviously do not believe that ability and behavior are socially determined (no matter what they say), and since they do not believe talent is equally distributed by race and ethnicity–why do they want to say they do.

I think part of it can be attributed to an overflow of the envy factor. 

What they really resent is that other people–people they don’t respect very much, like popular writers and single-minded entrepreneurs who cater to the mass taste–make so much more than they do and (inevitably) get so much more respect from society at large.

They leveling they really want to do is not to bring up people from the bottom, but to bring down people from the top, so that their own condition is more equal to that of those now materially above them.

But the entire thing gets too hysterical for that to be the entire explanation. 

Part of it is surely a deep seated moral guilt.  On the most important moral issue of their time–the relative inborn abilities between races–they’re on the wrong side, even if they pretend not to be when they’re speaking in public.

But the phenomenon is still very confusing to me.

Written by janeh

September 8th, 2012 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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