Monday, October 27, 2014

There Are Worse Things Than Divorce

Ross Douthat sounds like a guy who stopped by the cafeteria, only to discover that the chef may be changing some of his favorite dishes:
On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial....

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.
What has Douthat so concerned?
And in the synod on the family, which concluded a week ago in Rome, the prelates in charge of the proceedings — men handpicked by the pontiff — formally proposed such a rethinking, issuing a document that suggested both a general shift in the church’s attitude toward nonmarital relationships and a specific change, admitting the divorced-and-remarried to communion, that conflicts sharply with the church’s historic teaching on marriage’s indissolubility....

In the end, the document’s controversial passages were substantially walked back....

Over all, that conservative reply has the better of the argument. Not necessarily on every issue: The church’s attitude toward gay Catholics, for instance, has often been far more punitive and hostile than the pastoral approach to heterosexuals living in what the church considers sinful situations.... But going beyond such a welcome to a kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally, as the synod document seemed to do, might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.
If we're going to invoke the horror of Henry VIII wanting an annulment from his first marriage such that he could marry Anne Boleyn, might it not make sense to ask if the Church's decision was the right one -- let alone a decision driven by theology as opposed to politics? Might it not also make sense to look at Henry VIII's subsequent history and hesitate -- to contemplate that just maybe it's better that annulments and divorce be more freely available than to have a husband decide that the best way out of a marriage is through decapitation? As Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich can attest, it is much easier now to get a divorce and yet remain a Catholic in good standing, by virtue of annulment, than it was in Henry VIII's time -- but politics are still involved and it seems much easier for the wealthy, powerful and connected to get an annulment from the Church than for most others.

While the notion that the Church might find a way to accommodate the millions of Catholics who are separated from their faith by virtue of a divorce may deeply offend some Catholics -- a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West -- a faction that apparently includes Douthat, it's interesting to see how dismissive Douthat is of Catholics who feel every bit as strongly about homosexuality. Douthat appears to be very concerned that "conservative Catholics" believe something that he, himself, does not appear to believe -- the doctrine of Papal infallibility.

My guess is that many of the same people who, on the issue of divorce, Douthat praises as "the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were", are every bit as opposed to his progressive views on homosexuality. It would be interesting to hear them surveyed, in retrospect, as to whether the Church made the correct decision with Henry VIII.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Marc Thiessen, Ignorant Alarmist on Ebola

That Marc Thiessen... he just loves to argue from fear. Today, from the starting point of a "worst case scenario" involving an intentional release of smallpox in a series of U.S. shopping malls, he's feigning concern that Ebola could be use for biological warfare. Describing this "worst case scenario" for smallpox,
After 13 days, 16,000 smallpox cases have been reported in 25 states and 1,000 people have died. Vaccine supplies have been depleted. Canada and Mexico have closed their borders to the United States. It has become logistically impossible to identify and isolate smallpox victims and their contacts to prevent the disease from spreading. Trading on the stock exchanged is suspended. International commerce grinds to a halt. No country in the world will allow flights originating in or transiting through the United States to land. States have closed their borders with other states. There are riots and looting throughout the country.

After 25 days, the number of cases has risen to 30,000, with 10,000 expected to die, and the National Security Council is advised that, absent large scale and successful vaccination programs, the epidemic “could conceivably comprise as many as 3,000,000 cases of smallpox and lead to 1,000,000 deaths.”
If we're assuming that smallpox is epidemic within the United States inside of two weeks, it would be too late to close the borders. The U.S. is a highly mobile nation, and U.S. travelers would already have spread the virus around the world. In terms of what might happen in the absence of a large scale and successful vaccination program, we need not be particularly worried as we would see such a program immediately implemented. Whether it would be compulsory, or whether we would allow people to let themselves and their children become infected with smallpox due to religious objections or fantasies about the evils of vaccines, is a discussion for another day -- the vast majority of people would eagerly extend their arms for the jab of a needle.

Thiessen appears to be unaware of why biological warfare has been largely avoided. Certainly we have a history of smallpox being used as a biological weapon of sorts in this country, with the "plague traders" who would sell infected blankets to an Indian village, collect them after the virus wiped out most of their customers, then sell the same infected blankets to another village. But the fact is, playing around with germ warfare is extremely dangerous. If you release germs to the wind, assuming you can create an effective means of delivery, you can't count on the winds not to blow them right back in your face. If you try to strike a more technologically sophisticated opponent with a virulent disease, you risk having that disease communicated back into your own population -- which lacks the same level of sophistication and resources for containment, vaccination and treatment. If we're talking about state-sponsored terrorism, let's just say that a sudden, mass-vaccination program for smallpox would be noticed -- and if you don't protect your own population, "successful" germ warfare with a disease like smallpox is going to bite you in the posterior.

This is Thiessen writing, so you know his argument is going to get worse. And it does.
So what about Ebola?

Unlike smallpox, which is hard to come by, the Ebola infection is raging right now in parts of Africa where Islamist extremists could have easy access.
Except that the people who use it in "worst case" germ warfare scenarios aren't imagining that it would be stolen from a secure laboratory. They know that at present the smallpox virus can be synthesized, and they know that as time progresses the lab technology to synthesize viruses like smallpox and polio will only get cheaper. But never mind that, Thiessen has come up with a dark fantasy that he believes will scare your pants right off of you:
Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come here with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids.
Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the total number of suicide bombers who have made it into the United States and blown themselves up in shopping malls. With the number "zero" resonating in your head, now picture Thiessen's fantasy -- these would-be suicide terrorists would be picked from people wholly unknown to the United States government or any of its internal or allied intelligence agencies. They would get visas to the United States. Shortly before coming to the United States, they would visit an Ebola-infected region and deliberately expose themselves to infected blood and vomit. Nobody would notice this unusual travel pattern. Then they would come to the United States before becoming symptomatic, acquire the material to build suicide vests, build those vests, and blow themselves up in shopping malls.

Thiessen seems to realize the absurdity of his own scenario, as he continues,
Or, the virus could also be released more subtly. Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.
Of course, we're back to the question of containment. Even in this scenario Thiessen is taking the approach of the worst case scenario, the notion that Ebola can survive for long periods of time in trace amounts on surfaces and remain highly contagious. Thiessen also seems to know, despite his earlier fear-mongering, that such a means of attempted transmission would not be very effective -- now he's imagining "what would happen if 50, 100 or more Ebola patients started showing up at U.S. hospitals". He posits that it would result in mass panic -- which may be true, but if so would have a lot less to do with Ebola itself than with demagogues like Thiessen. And, again, the more widespread the infection, the more likely it is that the disease is going to spread to other nations -- and potentially devastate the nations Thiessen fantasizes as being the source of the "germ warfare".

Having played a central role in the beating of the drums of war, Thiessen is fully aware of how the U.S. managed to manipulate the segment of the population that was unaware that Saddam Hussein played no role in the 9/11 attacks into supporting a full-scale assault on Iraq. What does Thiessen believe the response would be to a group that claimed responsibility for an effective germ warfare attack within the United States, or for a government that sponsored such an attack? That is, Thiessen's terrorists would not only have to operate with a significant level of sophistication in preparing their plot and getting infectious matter to the United States, while being simultaneously ignorant of the inherent dangers in germ warfare, they would have to be wholly undeterred by the idea that the United States would respond with a military fury that would make "shock and awe" in Iraq look like a children's party.

Also, but for the fact that it's presently in the headlines why Ebola? It's a terrifying disease, certainly, but it's not particularly communicable and to date the evidence is that an infected person is not infectious until they're symptomatic -- at which time, due to the severity of symptoms, at least in this country they're apt to be seeking emergency medical attention. That helps explain the zero cases identified to date where an infected person in the developed world spread Ebola to another person while outside of a hospital.

As is Thiessen's wont, he has to include a gratuitous slam against the President,
Then there is the impact of all the false assurances from President Obama that Ebola was unlikely to reach our shores and that if it did that “our doctors, our nurses and our medical staff are trained, are ready, and are able to deal with a possible case safely.”
which brings to mind a column by Fred Hiatt, the guy who believes that Thiessen is an asset to the Washington Post's editorial pages:
With a new week, and the possibility of additional Ebola patients, Americans — or at least American politicians — have an urgent need: someone to blame.

After all, while more than 4,000 Africans dying of Ebola was not enough to grab our attention, two infected nurses in the United States is a full-fledged crisis.

To save readers from viewing hours of repetitive cable television and political advertising, I assembled a handy list of villains proposed (or soon to be proposed) by talking heads of the left and right. Feel free to select one or more.
  • President Obama, for caring about Africans more than he cares about us....

  • Obama, for not listening to the World Health Organization’s warnings on Ebola....

What’s striking in the present case is how the absence of that sense of unity feeds on itself. Obama shouldn’t have suggested that Ebola was unlikely to reach America, Frieden shouldn’t have assured us that every hospital would be ready on Day One.

But in a climate that is so unforgiving, so quick to pounce, so unwilling to accept that mistakes will be made and should be learned from, it’s understandable that leaders trap themselves into promising more than they can deliver.

A desire for accountability does not have to preclude a certain generosity of spirit, or some empathy for those who are performing public service. We seem to have forgotten that.
There's a danger in taking a stance against demagogues, fear-mongering and gotcha politics when one need only scan across the printed page, or click a link on the virtual page, to see one (or more) of your own columnists engaging in the behavior you are pretending to decry. If you want "talking heads of the left and right" to display a more generous spirit, holding people accountable while admitting their own role in trapping leaders into over-promising, perhaps the first thing to do is to clean house.

Meanwhile, Thiessen should reflect on the comments that his column is generating which, unlike those he hopes to generate -- angry rant against the President and Democrats -- mostly identify him as having written a terrible column designed to create fear.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

What's a Résumé?

David Brooks complains that kids today, at least those coming out of elite colleges, are too perfect. A big part of his lecture to prospective employers is about their résumés and cover letters:
If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with résumés from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success....

When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity....

Reward cover letter rebels. Job seeking is the second greatest arena of social pretense in modern life — after dating. But some people choose not to spin and exaggerate. They choose not to make each occasion seem more impressive than it really was. You want people who are radically straight, even with superiors.
I don't want to overstate the case, as traditional résumés and cover letters still play a role in a lot of hiring, but the trend is toward having an initial review of job applications performed not by a person but by a computer, and also toward LinkedIn, a site where employers and recruiters can look for people who may be interested in a position, see their experience, review endorsements, and look for connections who they might trust to give a candid appraisal of how the person is likely to perform on the job. And that's on top of the long-standing issue, "It's not what you know, it's who you know", with roughly 80% of jobs being obtained through connections.

As others have argued, one of the reasons why the graduates of elite colleges have résumés that are similar in documenting certain forms of high achievement is that the colleges have defined those classes of achievement as the path to admission. If colleges and employers change the criteria, applicants will conform to the new criteria.
Would you prefer that applicants have lower GPAs? Ask it, and those students will show up at your door. Do you want them to not have any global travel experience? Ask, and the next batch will assiduously avoid or hide it. If you control something incredibly valuable and name a price, don’t be surprised when those willing to pay show up at your door. Make “experienced a major life setback” a requirement for admission to Yale, and you can be sure that parents will get their kids hooked on meth so that their kids can explain how they struggled with and eventually overcame the problem. Businesses will set up summer meth camps to make it easy. The next David Brooks column will complain about applicants being uniformly perfect avatars of success in this newly defined way. “The I learned I lot from my meth habit” will become the new “I learned a lot from helping those people in Mozambique.”
Brooks also misses the primary reason why arbitrary criteria are used to distinguish between job applicants. Employers cannot interview everybody, so when swamped with applications they will find ways to narrow the applicant pool to a reasonable number of candidates. It may be that the criteria are in many ways arbitrary and unfair, that a job doesn't actually require a college degree or a high GPA to assure good performance, but if you're looking for a quick way to reduce a stack of applications setting a minimum education requirement or a minimum GPA is one way to do it, and may be better than the alternatives. Sure, that may mean that somebody who has overcome significant life obstacles is ruled out, even if he might be a perfect fit for the job, but how can you (or your keyword-scanning filter) identify such a candidate as a promising applicant from hundreds of other candidates applying for one job? Odds are, even if you were to look for it, that information won't even be present in the candidate's résumé or cover letter.

As Brooks has previously pointed out, there's another side to the coin -- the "perfect" résumé may indicate that the applicant is a good cultural match for a job. Now it may be true that getting some new blood, some different ideas, into a stiff and moneyed workplace could actually improve the workplace, that's not necessarily what employers want:
Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. When they get there they often find a culture shock.

They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of social equality and now find themselves in a culture that emphasizes the relentless quest for distinction — to be more accomplished, more enlightened and more cutting edge. They may have been raised in a culture that emphasizes roots, but they go into a culture that emphasizes mobility — a multicultural cosmopolitanism that encourages you to go anywhere on your quest for self-fulfillment. They may have been raised among people who enter the rooms of the mighty with the nerves of a stranger, but they are now around people who enter the highest places with the confident sense they belong.
Back then, Brooks was describing this as the result of meritocracy, with students striving to distinguish themselves through their accomplishments. Now Brooks is arguing that the very same students are not distinguishing themselves, but are conforming to an arbitrary and often meaningless set of standards that may not mean much in the workplace. He may be correct about the standards, but it simply cannot be the case that the students are simultaneously distinguishing themselves and rendering themselves indistinguishable. As Brooks then noted, the brand name of the institution can be more important than the relative qualification of the graduate -- an arbitrary standard that Brooks does not touch in his new essay.

There's a message for employers within Brooks essay that is valuable, and I think it can be boiled down to this: Don't focus on arbitrary criteria instead of figuring out if you're hiring the right person. Particularly with college graduates, odds are you're hiring somebody who is going to grow into the job, who will have to do a lot of learning during his or her early years of employment to become a significant long-term asset to your company. If you focus on other factors, even those that seem objectively reasonable, you can end up with a highly qualified person who simply isn't a good fit with the job, the company, or both.

Law school graduates may appreciate this argument:
You could argue that you don’t actually want rich, full personalities for your company. You just want achievement drones who can perform specific tasks. I doubt that’s in your company’s long-term interests. But if you fear leaping out in this way, at least think of the effect you’re having on the deeper sensibilities of the next generation, the kind of souls you are incentivizing and thus fashioning, the legacy you will leave behind.
In many law firms, being able to document that you are an excellent drone is what gets you your first job, and large law firms require a constant inflow of new drones. You can worry about your soul if you make partner.

The Relative Value of a College Education

Richard Cohen reacts to his perception that people today are too concerned with the economics of college, and shares his perception of the college education he received back in the 1960's,
I apply my own set of metrics to my college education. I met some wonderful people, particularly fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was. I had some great teachers, one of whom became a mentor and taught me how to suffer criticism. (I’m still suffering.) Whole worlds opened up to me — philosophy, which I never would have read had I not been forced to; the clotted verses of Chaucer; and, of course, the aforementioned anthropology, both cultural and physical. The latter had me going from desk to desk. Upon each was placed a human skull. I had to determine the sex, the race and the age.

I went five for five. This is not the kind of thing you’re likely to do on the job. I came of age when jobs were plentiful and college not exorbitantly expensive. I graduated with debt, but it was manageable, and I set off to do something I loved — journalism. I had tried my hand at it in college. I know things have changed and I do not dismiss today’s economic conditions. But I tell you this — college made me a happier person. I don’t know what that’s worth in dollars, but I know what it is worth to me: everything.
Whatever his intention, I do think that Cohen fails to give sufficient weight to today's economic conditions. Tuition costs have soared since the 1960's, and pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at an elite university is the sort of pursuit of a dream that is likely to leave you underemployed and struggling to pay off your student loans. Cohen writes that his decision to go to college wasn't about money, but it didn't need to be. But a few decades earlier the type of college experience Cohen describes was a luxury few could afford, and a few decades later it is again increasingly becoming a luxury. Cohen states that he might have become an insurance salesman had he not gone to college, and might have become more wealthy by virtue of that choice. He also could have returned to the insurance industry after college had his journalism career not panned out, as his debt load did not define his choices.

I recognize and value the four year college experience, the opportunity (if you choose to take it) to learn subjects to which you might not otherwise be exposed, to have your ideas challenged and tested, to learn a subject in depth. But the shift toward "But will my degree help me get a job that pays a decent wage," or "Might I not be a lot better off if I instead learn a trade, find work that does not require a degree, or find some other path toward a career," are not manifestations of a shallow rejection of those values in favor of economics. They're a reflection of the reality that it's not much fun to spend a large amount of money (not to mention opportunity costs) to get a degree that might not only be insufficient to help you get a job, but could also leave you with a huge amount of non-dischargeable debt yet without the means to pay it off.

If you want to help today's college students and you value the four year college experience, rather than suggesting that students are somehow wrong or shallow to consider the economics of a degree program, it would be helpful to instead focus on how we can improve the economics of college -- how we can shift the cost-benefit analysis back to where it was when Cohen was able to attend college on the cheap with a wide range of job opportunities upon graduation. If we find that we cannot move the economics of college back in that direction, while we can continue to value the four-year college degree, we should also recognize that we're talking about a luxury that fewer and fewer people will be able to enjoy.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Bill Maher vs. Islam

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Maher closed his show with a monologue that was primarily a critique of those on the political left who don't join him in an unequivocal condemnation of Islam.

The concept that appears to be at the root of Maher's rant is cultural relativism, not in the sense of trying to interpret actions and behaviors in light of a person's culture, but in the sense that you should not view one culture as better or superior to another, and that there is no objective measure of right and wrong that can be applied between cultures. It's a belief that few hold in theory and that is unworkable in practice, but it is associated with parts of the political left. If in fact somebody is arguing that it's awful that Mel Gibson made a sexist statement, but that Saudi Arabia's treatment of women is acceptable because we should not judge their culture, it's reasonable for Maher to argue that they're objectively wrong and that Saudi Arabia's misogynistic systems are a far greater problem than something Mel Gibson says while drunk. He could also point out that in condemning Mel Gibson they're not giving fair weight to his cultural background, and by their own unworkable standard they should refrain from judging him.

Maher also makes a valid point when he suggests that celebrities can become the victims of what amounts to a feeding frenzy, with a poorly thought-out comment, an unfortunate resort to a childish insult, or even the expression of reprehensible beliefs, resulting in opprobrium and consequence that may be disproportionate to the offense. Maher no doubt takes that type of reaction personally, given how quickly he lost his job after he made an impolitic comment on the relative courage of the U.S. in bombing foreign nations to the 9/11 bombers. However, such is the price of celebrity -- if you want to make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars as a celebrity, at least if your target demographic is not the same as Duck Dynasty's, you had best learn to guard your tongue or be prepared to apologize when you make a racist, sexist or homophobic comment.

From that foundation, Maher goes wrong: He attributes a fringe belief to liberals in general. He denies the obvious fact that it is possible to simultaneously oppose wrongs that occur both at home and abroad. He ignores that it is reasonable for people to focus on domestic issues and issues that they've actually heard about as opposed to foreign issues or problems that occur at the periphery of, or outside of, their awareness. And, in relation to his targeting of Islam, he paints with far too broad a brush, conflating offensive minority practices that have their origins in tribal society and pre-Islamic culture with Islam.

Maher opened his monologue with a criticism (and joke) about the President:
President Obama keeps insisting that's ISIS is not Islamic. Well, maybe they don't practice the Muslim faith the same way he does. But if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.
Maher is going for a laugh, and his is a comedy show, so even if it weren't Maher it would be too much to expect that the Obama Administration's position would be framed in a fair context. The Administration is going through great pains to avoid any suggestion that its attacks on ISIS are based upon its religious beliefs, and to disclaim the notion that it is waging a war on Islam or intends to defeat the Islamic faith as opposed to an extremist group that it believes distorts the faith for its own ends. The comment about Obama's practice of Islam is a decent laugh line, and Maher's intended audience understands that Maher doesn't buy into the conspiracy theories that suggest that the President is secretly Muslim, but it is important to note in a non-comedic context that the Obama Administration's positions on ISIS have a basis in global politics that has nothing to do with being politically correct.

Maher's comparison of the Muslim world at large to ISIS is an example of the spotlight fallacy crossed with the hasty generalization. The principal actions of ISIS, along with the groups history of violence against Muslims, is ignored in favor of spotlighting some positions associated more generally with radical Islam, in order to conflate the general practice of Islam with the beliefs and actions of an organization that was once deemed too extreme for al Qaeda. That type of generalization is consistent with Maher's historic commentary on Islam, and his history of (at best) indifference to the rights of even secular Arab groups in relation to non-Arab actors.

There are vast numbers of Muslims in the world, many of whom live in despotic nations with extremist religious leadership, so it's no surprise that Maher can recite that there are "vast numbers" of Muslims who hold views that are offensive to a progressive western democracy. Maher is critical of religion across-the-board, and would no doubt acknowledge that people believe odious things in the names of other religions. To the extent that he is arguing that, due to the extraordinary levels of extremist belief within parts of the Muslim world, Maher is correct that a danger exists as a result of that extremism that does not presently exist in relation to extremism in other religions. It's not that you can't find people of any faith that hold odious views or commit hideous acts in the name of their faith, or that you cannot find pockets of extremism in which most members of the community hold those odious views, it's that the ratio of extremists to non-extremists is vastly lower.

With Maher, it seems that the analysis ends right there. He may acknowledge that extremism was higher in the past, and that much of what we see in the Muslim world is not dissimilar to medieval Christianity, but he shows little interest in examining why religious extremism has faded in the other major religions, even as it has expanded in parts of the Muslim world. That is, he refuses to address the historic, military, sociological and economic factors that contribute to extremism. Is there a problem inherent to Islam, or would similar levels and forms of extremism arise in others of the world's major religions in similar contexts -- such as occurred with the Tamil Tigers, a faction that grew out of a population that is largely Hindu.

Maher's next statement is simply an endorsement of progressive democracy,
There's so much talk -- you can applaud -- there's so much talk about wiping out ISIS. You can't, not with bombs. You can only expose that something is a bad idea like extended warranties. Cultures are different. It's okay to judge that rule of law isn't just different than theocracy, it's better. If you don't see that, you're either a religious fanatic or a masochist, but one thing you certainly are not is a liberal.
There seems to be some hollow manning going on in that argument -- the fabrication of a rhetorical opponent who does not actually exist, then swatting down an argument that nobody is actually making. I think it's more than fair to say that liberals should not be endorsing theocracy -- I'm simply not aware of any liberals who are endorsing theocracy. If in fact such a liberal exists, they deserve the rap across the knuckles that Maher delivers to them. But I'm not sure that any exist, and to the extent that they do they are so insignificant in number that they're unworthy of mention.

Maher is correct that ISIS won't be defeated with bombs. I've personally analogized ISIS to the liquid metal terminator from Terminator 2, and the scene in which the terminator is frozen with liquid nitrogen and shattered into millions of pieces. As soon as the pieces start to melt, they aggregate back into the terminator. The people who aggregate to form groups like ISIS are no different -- bomb them and degrade them, and you may well make ISIS less significant, but its adherents will immediately start aggregating into new groups that may turn out to be as bad or worse. That said, telling them that they're backward misogynists who have no place in a modern world, although correct, is going to be completely ineffectual.

Maher continued,
To count yourself as a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. Free speech, separation of church and state, freedom to practice any religion or no religion without the threat of violence. Respect for minorities including homosexuals, equality for women. It amazes me how here in America we go nuts over the tiniest violations of these values while gross atrocities are ignored across the world.
The first response to that statement seems obvious: When you live in the United States, when you can participate in the U.S. political process, when it's your friends, neighbors and countrymen who are the targets of a wrong, when voicing your concerns could actually make a difference, you will likely be more inclined to act or speak out. Moreover, you have a greater duty to speak out when a wrong is occurring in your name. The second response to that is, seriously? This is Bill Maher, the guy whose weekly "New Rules" ridicule issues that are often among the most trivial facing society? This is Bill Maher, whose choice of a Congressman to target for defeat is based upon issues that are largely domestic, and was largely due to the Congressman's support for private colleges:
The comedian recited a litany of items that he said [Congressman John] Kline was wrong about, including voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his vote during the partial government shutdown, denying funding for climate change research, and failing to adequately address the rising student debt. Maher charged that Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is ”the champion of for-profit colleges”
I'm not accusing Maher of hypocrisy, just of a bit of myopia, in that as a matter of routine he personally takes very strong stances on trivial issues. If you were to rank Maher's criticisms of Kline against his specified criticisms of Islam, it would be more than fair to ask, "Why are you obsessing about student debt when people are getting killed in other parts of the world for holding the wrong ideas?" Similarly, why does Maher spend so much time talking about how ridiculous U.S. marijuana laws are, when people are facing long prison terms and even being executed for possession of drugs in other nations, including decidedly non-Muslim nations like Singapore and Thailand? The quite obvious answer is that it is possible to oppose a domestic law or political agenda while also opposing worse practices overseas.

Why does Maher's show focus primarily on U.S. news and culture? Because he's speaking to his audience. Why did he make his $1 million dollar donation to the Democratic Party? Because he hopes to effect domestic political change. Nothing is wrong with any of that. It's okay for Maher to make jokes about Taylor Swift and Sarah Palin, to advocate marijuana legalization, and to close his show with a rant that in the greater scheme of things is trivial, while at the same time deploring the absence of democracy and human rights in parts of the Muslim world. It's okay for him to focus his time, attention, and political contributions on things he may be able to influence or change, rather than focusing on more serious issues upon which he can have no impact.

Maher complained,
Jonah Hill yells "suck my dick faggot" at the paparazzi and an entire nation goes into Twitter outrage until he is forced to perform that most debasing of acts -- the talk show apology tour. Meanwhile, in 10 countries actually sucking a dick can get you stoned, and not a good way.
This statement reflects one of the prices of celebrity -- if you say or do something stupid, you are apt to attract a lot of negative attention and you may have to apologize in order to protect your career. The reaction may well be disproportionate, but such is the life of a celebrity. Given the option of apologizing or retiring from an extraordinarily lucrative public life, celebrites tend to apologize. Further, as the Duck Dynasty clan has established, if you want to make anti-gay statements there is an audience that will be receptive both to your beliefs and that will applaud your refusal to apologize. Is that the audience that Maher prefers? Is that an audience he believes would be more apt to stand up for the values he hopes become established across the world?

And that brings us to something Maher fails to mention: The nation that has received the most attention in recent years for its anti-gay laws and policies is Uganda. Uganda is not a Muslim country. Uganda's ugly anti-gay laws are driven by a Christian movement that in turn is driven by U.S.-based anti-gay ministries. Russian hostility to homosexuality has also worsened in recent years. I suspect that Maher's list of "ten countries" is the same list offered here, which includes nations that make no distinction between forms of extramarital sex (all qualifying the participants for the death penalty) and nations that could theoretically execute somebody for engaging in homosexual acts even if they aren't in fact doing so. Should a U.S. citizen be more concerned about the U.S. activists who are agitating anti-homosexual sentiments in Africa, to the point that for a time homosexuality was a capital offense in Uganda and remains punishable by life in prison, or by puzzling over whether the UAE imposes the death penalty only for homosexual rape as opposed to all homosexual acts in the absence of any actual executions?

All of that is to point out the obvious: anti-gay bigotry exists across the world, is anything but unique to Islam, and some of the worst anti-gay actions are occurring in non-Islamic nations at the behest of U.S. Christians. There is absolutely nothing wrong with condemning anti-homosexual bigotry among any particular religious or cultural group, and there is also absolutely no reason you need to rank the acts from least to most offensive, or sort them by religion, before you condemn a bigoted law, act or statement. It may not seem fair to Maher that some who grew up in an era where "gay" was a common schoolyard taunt to learn, the hard way, that it's no longer an acceptable epithet, but that's the way our nation has evolved -- and surely Maher would concede that evolution toward full acceptance of gay Americans into society is a good thing.

Maher continued his complaint,
We hear a lot about the Republican war on women. It's not cool. Rush Limbaugh called somebody a slut. Okay. But Saudi women can't vote or drive or hold a job or leave the house without a man. Overwhelming majorities in every Muslim country say a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. That all seems like a bigger issue than an evangelical Christian bakery refusing to make gay wedding cakes.
That, of course, is more of the same. Contrary to what Maher suggests, it is possible to hold that Republican efforts to roll back reproductive rights and freedoms is "not cool", and that a prominent radio host should not be calling a woman a "slut" merely because she argues that health insurance should cover prescription contraceptives, while also believing that Saudi Arabia's treatment of women is abhorrent. On a global scale, certainly the oppression of women in many other societies around the world is a "bigger issue" than whether a local business discriminates against gay people, women, ethnic minorities, Jews, or any other citizen. But as I've already pointed out, that doesn't mean it's wrong to speak out against a small or local injustice -- and in fact, that's often the place where your voice is most likely to have an impact. Frankly, the entire issue is a red herring -- Maher offers no reason to believe that those who believe that businesses should not discriminate against their customers are accepting of Saudi Arabia's oppressive laws, let alone that, if asked, they would say that discrimination by a small business against a wedding cake customer is worse.

Maher next inadvertently highlighted one of the weaknesses of his criticisms of Islam:
Ninety-one percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises removed; 98% of Somalian women have.
That's horrible, and it shouldn't happen, but here's the thing: Female genital mutilation is a practice that exists principally in parts of Africa, and is not a mainstream Islamic teaching. It is not surprising that the practice continued with the introduction of Islam or that some proponents of FGM believe it is a religious teaching, and we do need to address the reality that the practice has even spread to the west for the most part within Muslim communities. It is certainly no surprise that FGM, a fundamentally misogynist practice, exists largely within nations that hold misogynist views. But a billion Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia, where FGM is not part of the culture or religion.
Experts say the practice stems from social pressure to conform to traditions passed down for centuries -- one that predates not just Islam but also Judaism and Christianity. (The origins of the practice are subject to some dispute, but some scholars say it may correspond to areas of ancient civilizations, in which the cutting of females "signalled controlled fidelity and the certainty of paternity," the UNICEF report states.)

In areas of high prevalence today, "this is perceived to be the normal and correct way of bringing up a girl," Moneti said. "If a girl is not cut, she may be considered impure and not marriageable, and she and her entire family may be ostracized."

While it stems from neither Christianity nor Islam, some women in Chad, Guinea and Mauritania report a "religious requirement" as a benefit of cutting. Some communities consider a clitoridectomy -- one type of female genital mutilation -- as "sunna," which is Arabic for "tradition" or "duty," according to the UNICEF report. However, it is not a requirement of the Koran and has been specifically rejected by some Muslim leaders in Egypt.
We can certainly criticize FGM, and should do so, but we can do that without insulting the majority of the world's Muslims for whom FGM plays no role in their lives or religion.

Maher continued,
Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and was one of them. She was scheduled to speak at Yale last week but the school's atheist organization, my people, complained that she "did no represent a totality of the ex-Muslim experience." Meaning what? That women like mutilation? You're atheists. You should be attacking religion, not siding with people who hold women down and violate them which apparently you will defend in the name of multiculturalism and then lose your shit when someone refers to Chaz Bono by the wrong pronoun.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali lost a considerable amount of support when she switched her target from FGM to Islam at large. While I can appreciate her anger, given her life story, her message was more effective when it was focused on actions that virtually all Americans agree are outrageous. The Atheists at Yale clearly don't agree with Maher's position that the role of an Atheist is to attack religion -- they appear to view religion as something that people should be free to exercise, or not exercise, consistent with their own beliefs. The Yale group penned a relatively innocuous statement,
As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience. Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam. We believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents a sadly common voice in the atheist community that attacks and provokes, rather than contributes to constructive criticism or dialogue. We remind our fellow atheists, Humanists, and agnostics of the rich history of dissent within our community, and do not believe belonging to this community necessitates an endorsement of all community members and their beliefs.
Maher may prefer the type of atheist who "attacks and provokes", but there's room in this world for atheist who are tolerant of religious belief. Maher's appeal to ridicule being duly noted, nothing in the organization's statement suggests tolerance of FGM, or that they would not have welcomed Ali to speak to her personal experiences including her strong condemnation of FGM if she had not shifted her focus to condemning Islam in general.
Donald Sterling isn't allowed to own a team because he told his mistress not to post pictures with black guys. Okay.
With that statement, Maher took us back to the world of entertainment. The problem that caused Sterling to have to sell his team was not that he was a racist, a philanderer, or a crass individual. The problem was that with his personality and beliefs having come to light, he threatened the income stream of a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment enterprise. While it's fun to play rhetorical games about whether we should be more tolerant of intolerance, in that type of situation it comes down to money. It's not really any different that losing an endorsement deal or movie contract because your all-American image becomes tarnished by the discovery of a series of affairs, because it turns out you run dog fighting rings in your spare time, because you go on a drunken anti-Semitic rant, or anything else you should know better than to do if you want to maintain your public image and popularity.
But if we're giving no quarter to intolerance, shouldn't we be starting the mutilators and the honor killers or will that divert us from the real problem that when Mel Gibson drinks he calls women sugar tits?
It's not a question of where we start, nor is it the false dichotomy that Maher presents -- as I previously pointed out, it is possible to condemn somebody in this nation for making a racist, sexist or anti-gay comment while opposing and condemning greater evils in other nations. And here, again, Maher confuses culture and religion. Honor killings should be deplored wherever they occur, and they do occur in some Muslim nations and communities, but they're also a huge problem in India. Again we are speaking of a cultural practice that arose independently of Islam, and is not in fact part of Islamic (or Hindu) faith, even if its adherents believe there is a religious mandate. Would it not make more sense to argue that a practice should be ended not only because it is not required by religious belief, but is in fact an act that contravenes the actual teachings of a religion, than to attribute that act to a religion in defiance of the fact that most adherents to the faith already reject the practice?

As I've previously suggested, I support the condemnation of oppression, bigotry and misogyny -- but I have no illusion that my statements on one issue or another are going to change the world. My criticism of Saudi Arabia would be read by a handful of people, none of whom have any influence on the Saudi government. Even Maher's criticism, which reach millions, have no impact on Saudi Arabia. As a nation, we prioritize a cooperative relationship with the Saudi regime, one that allows us to have military bases in Saudi Arabia, one that helps to keep the world's oil flowing, over pressuring that nation to improve its treatment of women, step back from Wahhabism and the export of radical Islam, or even to step back from its support of groups that act against U.S. interests. When it comes to slowing the expansion of radical Islam, or rolling it back, I see the importance of addressing cultural, political and economic issues that provide a fertile breeding and recruitment ground for radicalism. The thirty-year transition through which Iran went from being at the extreme of Islamic radicalism to being the nation now viewed as a potential reasonable partner for the stabilization of Iraq and Syria is not a reflection of how much Iran has changed -- it's a reflection of how much worse things have become throughout much of the Middle East -- and that's certainly not a result of the recent arrival of Islam. A better approach than Maher's is to take a look at Islamic nations that are more politically inclusive and democratic, or periods of time in which the nations presently falling into civil war and increased radicalism were more secular and inclusive, and ask, "What is different? What has changed?"

When you look at the region in that light, you can see how oil wealth, the echoes of colonialism and the Cold War, the historic tolerance of oppressive dictatorship, and the ill-conceived plan to try to replace Iraq's oppressive government with a progressive democracy through the application of force, have all contributed to the present mess. Maher himself occasionally pulls out archival pictures of bin Laden's family, dressed in western garb. The question is not so much whether Islamic nations can become more western in nature, or more accepting of democracy and western values. The question is not whether Islamic nations can reject honor killing or the mistreatment of women. The question is, having seen considerable progress toward that goal, why we have since seen such profound backsliding toward fundamentalism.

George Will's Odd Argument for Congressional Term Limits

Although I understand the sentiment behind term limits, dissatisfaction with career legislators, a "throw the bums out" attitude, and the like, I have not been particularly impressed with the reality that they create. Specifically, rather than having perhaps a few too many career legislators we seem to end up with far too many neophytes, many of whom fully intend to have long political careers by transitioning from one office to another as they're term limited out. It also seems that the point at which many legislators are term limited out of office roughly corresponds to the point at which they finally have enough experience and seniority to actually do their jobs effectively.

George Will wrote an editorial in favor of congressional term limits, based principally upon his personal dislike of Democratic Presidents Congress's failure to assume its role in a decision to take the nation to war. Will tells us,
The president should present to Congress the case for war. The House, structurally the government’s most democratic institution (short terms, small constituencies), should express itself. The Senate, whose powers (to approve treaties and confirm ambassadors) give it special pertinence to foreign policy, and whose structure (six-year terms) is supposed to encourage sober deliberation, should speak. Then the president, through relevant civilian and military officials, executes the approved policy.
Okay, fair enough. But despite being in near-constant military conflicts since WWII, we have not had a declared war since that time. So, what gives?
What has actually transpired since Barack Obama’s Sept. 10 address to the nation has been, Corbin and Parks argue, “a parody” of propriety. In his address about the Islamic State (which did not mention Khorasan, the asserted imminent threat that supposedly justified acting without Congress), Obama spoke to the public, not to the public’s institutional embodiment, Congress, whose support he said would be “welcome,” implying that it is unnecessary. Next, the administration argued with itself about what it was that Obama was going to do without congressional approval. (This was before his press secretary identified it as war.) Then the House tacked onto a spending bill its approval of arming certain Syrians (the “vetted” moderates?) and dispersed. The Senate, having added its approval without discernible deliberation, also skedaddled.
So, pretty much what we have seen in every armed conflict since WWII, except the President happens to be a Democrat?

I've commented before on this particular failure of Congress -- and make no mistake, it is a failure of Congress. The fact is, Congress does not want to have any responsibility for the entry into our outcome of armed conflicts, and thus does its best to wash its hands of the issue. The net effect is that they delegate war-making power to the executive. Will is correct in his inference that only one branch of government can correct the imbalance that this delegation creates -- Congress, the very branch that doesn't want that responsibility.

I can't help but think of Jack Kingston's admission, some months back, in relation to Syria and ISIS:
”A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later,’ ” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who supports having an authorization vote. ”It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”
For the House of Representatives, every other year is an election year -- but truly, they never go out of election mode. Kingston correctly identifies the strategy of the opposition party -- do everything it can to avoid having any responsibility for military action, and criticize the President no matter what happens. A president's own party, though, doesn't want responsibility either, so the biggest difference is that by avoiding authorizing military action they can avoid taking responsibility for the outcome, but with less finger-pointing at the President.

Will cites a professor from a small Catholic college, who argues that Members of Congress are seeking office "for something other than the power, for power is something with which they are not merely willing but often eager to part." I think that's incorrect. I think that Members of Congress want power without responsibility, and that there remains plenty of power within the halls of Congress but that when they are looking at a context in which they may have to face voters over a bad outcome they are happy to let somebody else make the decision and take the heat. Congress as middle management. While Will seems to endorse the professor's theory, "[Congress] has an ever-higher portion of people who are eager to make increasingly strenuous exertions to hold offices that are decreasingly consequential", I have little sense that the power of Congress has in fact lessened.

The professor believes that long-term politicians who should be "more competent [and] confident" aren't standing up to the President, apparently because "something has gone wrong with Federalist 51’s assumption that members of Congress seek office for power and not perquisites", and that the solution would be term limits:
[']Members of Congress who serve for brief periods will have . . . every political reason for taking up the power available to them while they can. . . . Members so situated will be likelier to defend their branch as a branch.”
Except perhaps those new, less confident, less competent legislators will in fact be more likely to defer to the executive. And perhaps those neophyte legislators, looking at a short term of office, will be more interested in perquisites, more interested in moving onto their next jobs, than they are with legislating or standing up to the White House. What is the incentive for a Member of Congress, being term limited out of office, to take a strong stand? Congress is to soar on the wings of lame duck legislators?
erm limits are Madisonian measures, altering the incentives — the “interests” or “personal motives” — for entering and using public office. Term limits can define a conservative agenda of taming executive power by enhancing the power of Congress.
To me it seems more likely that term limits would weaken Congress in favor of the executive, and potentially make Congress even less functional. But even if I presuppose that Will is correct, I can't help but think of how recently the "conservative agenda" involved expanding executive power through the theory of the unitary executive. As Will himself once put it,
Because contemporary conservatism was born partly in reaction to two liberal presidents -- against FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society -- conservatives, who used to fear concentrations of unchecked power, valued Congress as a bridle on strong chief executives. But, disoriented by their reverence for Reagan and sedated by Republican victories in seven of the past 10 presidential elections, many conservatives have not just become comfortable with the idea of a strong president, they have embraced the theory of the "unitary executive."

This theory, refined during the Reagan administration, is that where the Constitution vests power in the executive, especially power over foreign affairs and war, the president, as chief executive, is rightfully immune to legislative abridgements of his autonomy. Judicial abridgements are another matter. When in 1952 Truman, to forestall a strike, cited his "inherent" presidential powers during wartime to seize the steel mills, the Supreme Court rebuked him. In a letter here that he evidently never sent to Justice William Douglas, Truman said, "I don't see how a Court made up of so-called 'liberals' could do what that Court did to me." Attention, conservatives: Truman correctly identified a grandiose presidency with the theory and practice of liberalism.
You'll notice an inherent inconsistency to Will's thinking -- he argues that Truman, who was not a particularly liberal President, was rebuked by the Supreme court when attempting to seize control of steel mills, rendering the expansive view of executive power relatively inert until it was revived by Reagan and kicked into overdrive by George W. Bush -- and thus it's a liberal theory. Will can call it what he chooses, but to the extent that he believes that modern conservatives eschew the unitary executive in favor of a weak President, it would be because he sees in them a reflection of his own thinking -- that it's absolutely horrible that the President continues to have power when he's a Democrat -- and he can expect their concerns about executive power, like his own, to face the moment a Republican takes office.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

By The Time You're Talking About Prison-Like Schools, Love Isn't Enough

Michael Gerson dips his toes into what he deems the "prison schools" of the inner cities, and their efforts to build character. Apparently one doesn't need educational credentials to run a good school for inner city kids. One simply needs a prison-like environment and a whole lotta love:
Students are urged to be “Ginn men.” It is an ideal with the strong imprint of a particular man, Ted Ginn, the high school football coach who was seized with the initial vision for the academy. While possessing few academic qualifications, Coach Ginn has a credential often lacking in prison-like, urban public schools: a passionate belief in the potential of at-risk children. “You can’t have people around young people who don’t love kids,” he says. “If you don’t have love, you don’t have nothing.” Love creates a child’s internal desire to meet external expectations.
Even as he recognizes that the theory of inculcating "character" into inner city schools is predicated upon jargon-laden language, Gerson laps it up:
But the basic idea is sound and should be familiar to anyone who has read cultural anthropology or changed diapers. From the very earliest age, children need one adult — preferably more — who believes in them utterly. And that belief is expressed in a series of social and moral expectations. (At Ginn, for example, the boys must learn to iron a dress shirt, a ritual reinforcement of the fact that there are rules for everyone.) The early connection between love and rules creates behaviors — sitting still, keeping your hands to yourself, focusing, respecting others, deferring gratification — that make the educational task possible.
The problem with Gerson's notion, in practice, is that even the most loving of school principals (wardens?) cannot give enough love to every student, and perhaps not even enough love to any student, to make them believe that somebody "believes in them utterly". Frankly, the very creation of the prison-like environment Gerson notes, then blissfully ignores, is a hallmark of the very deep mistrust these schools have for their students. In fairness to Gerson, the school he visits does offer "life coaches":
The most innovative part of the Ginn approach is the use of “life coaches” — one for every 25 boys — who are mentors from the community, embedded in classrooms and available 24 hours a day. “You learn everything you can about the child,” one life coach said, “if they have a single parent, if they need extra cereal in the morning, who is having a bad day. If you catch it early, you’ve changed the course of his day — and maybe not just his day. Who knows what might be his choice on that day?”
It's difficult for me to see, however, how a "life coach" of unknown qualification can effectively track and mentor twenty-five children around the clock, no matter how much love he has to share. Life coaches cannot make up for struggling homes, poor parental guidance, food uncertainty and dangerous neighborhoods.

Here's the biggest problem, as reported on a right-wing education blog: No matter how much these schools hope to teach character, there's no evidence that it works. Quoting a report analyzing KIPP schools, a highly structured network of inner city charter schools with strict, often extreme and even bizarre, behavior codes and rules:
[T]he KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.
What KIPP offers is consistent with what other studies have found -- better academic performance due to the fact that its students spend more time in the classroom. The rest is window-dressing, even if well-intentioned, that creates the prison-like environment that would keep somebody like Gerson from ever dreaming of sending his own kids to one of their schools.

Gerson, stepping into the role of "the blind leading the blind", complains that the political parties don't understand the issues facing these kids.
Republicans tend to ignore the urgency of this cultural challenge. It is not enough to blame parents (who are often deeply disadvantaged) or to call on charities to fill the mentoring gap (since the scale of the need is too large for volunteerism).

Democrats tend to underestimate the complexity of the cultural challenge. This gap of adult commitment and involvement will not be filled simply by extending schooling downward by a year to cover 4-year-olds. Even the best early-childhood education programs seem to have fleeting or marginal effects unless they are followed (and preceded) by complementary efforts. Programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership — in which nurses visit first-time, low-income mothers to provide information on nutrition and parenting — may be a more focused (and cost-effective) way to increase the school readiness of at-risk kids.
I was not aware that Democrats opposed educational programs for new mothers, or that they opposed nutrition education and programs for new mothers. I was not aware that Democrats thought that quality child care should not be offered, or even subsidized by the state, before the age of four.

At the end of the day, Gerson falls into standard tropes about inner city youth -- they just need to be taught discipline, even if in the form of meaningless symbol:
Education is the cumulative result of such choices. And Ginn provides a vivid expression of the educational task: Iron your shirt and get “right for a miracle.”
Do you think Gerson irons his own shirts, or do you think he uses a service -- and no matter what the answer, do you think it would tell you anything about his character? I'm quite certain that Gerson has worked with a large number of privileged men who have lived their entire life blissfully unaware of how the clothes they strew across the floor get picked up, laundered, and placed back into their drawers and closets... mom, spouse, maid, maybe elves or pixies....

One of the favorite studies of the people behind this form of character education is the marshmallow study -- a study that revealed a strong correlation between whether a child can resist the immediate reward of a single marshmallow in exchange for the promise that if they resist they will receive two, and future success. I've read that at some KIPP schools they even use "Resist the marshmallow" as a slogan. But I have read about a follow-up study by a graduate student, working at a homeless shelter, who found that the biggest predictor of a child's ability to resist the marshmallow was whether the person promising the greater reward was reliable. If that person broke an earlier promise to the child, children were far less likely to delay gratification. My formulation connects reasonably well with Gerson's notion that every child needs somebody "who believes in them utterly" -- in essence a trustworthy caregiver. The reason that character education fails in KIPP schools is that it comes too late, and in the wrong form.

Frankly, the best way to lift a population out of poverty is to make work available at a decent rate of pay. But barring that possibility, if you want to create the type of personality that is primed for success, you have to intervene at the family level long before a child reaches school, and when you identify a vulnerable child you need to do a lot more than have a nurse visit and provide nutritional education or parenting advice. By the time you get around to telling a vulnerable child, pushed into a "prison-like" school, that somebody utterly loves him (and, simultaneously, 24 of his classmates), you're too late.

There's No Such Thing as a Secure Back Door

The Washington Post editorial board, rather predictably, follows its tendency to defer to the state on issues of law enforcement and national security,
Law enforcement officials deserve to be heard in their recent warnings about the impact of next-generation encryption technology on smartphones, such as Apple’s new iPhone. This is an important moment in which technology, privacy and the rule of law are colliding.
The issue arises from the fact that Apple's latest version of iOS, and the next version of Google's Android OS, will automatically encrypt many routine communication functions, and will also remove any mechanism through which Apple or Google can decrypt phone content for law enforcement.
The technology firms, while pledging to honor search warrants in other situations, say they simply won’t possess the ability to unlock the smartphones. Only the owner of the phone, who set up the encryption, will be able to do that. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said this could imperil investigations in kidnapping and other cases; FBI Director James B. Comey said he could not understand why the tech companies would “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”
While certainly, over enough time and enough cases, situations will arise in which content saved on a smart phone could be useful to law enforcement, and some of the criminals in those cases won't already be using readily available third party encryption apps, I am reminded of the saying, "Bad facts make bad law" -- a comment on the propensity of courts to carve out exceptions to constitutional protections because, in the most common example, a really bad person did something particularly awful and existing law would render key evidence inadmissible. We should not compromise everybody's rights based upon the inevitability that a very small number of people will do bad things.

The Post argues that "This is not about mass surveillance", but really it's not about surveillance at all. It's about accessing the content of a smart phone that has been physically seized by the police. If the police have a warrant that allows them to intercept voice and data transmissions from a smart phone, or to remotely activate the phone and use it as a listening device, the change doesn't affect their ability to do so. The change means that law enforcement cannot take a seized iPhone to Apple and ask them to bypass its pass code to decrypt its content.

The Post argues,
But smartphone users must accept that they cannot be above the law if there is a valid search warrant.
Similarly, owners of safes and vaults must accept that they aren't above the law if there is a valid search warrant -- but that being the case, sometimes the only way into a safe or a vault is through the application of brute force. The idea that law enforcement would be handed a master key that could open any safe, vault or lock box in the nation would be ludicrous to the editorial board, which writes,
A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too.
An encrypted smart phone is similar to a safe, with the pass code serving as the key or combination you need to access the contents. It happens to be a particularly good safe, such that if the owner uses a complex pass code or you don't have the patience to work through the 10,000 basic four digit pass codes without locking yourself out of the device, it's really tough to get the content.

When the Post writes,
However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant.
They're engaging in wishful thinking: "We can't have a back door, as that would create an unacceptable security hole, so what we should have instead is... a back door!" A back door that would be the immediate target of criminals and intelligence agencies worldwide. A "golden key" that would have to be stored somewhere, and attempts to gain access to it not only through reverse engineering or brute force, but by bribery, blackmail, theft and extortion, would begin immediately. The editorial board appears to be aware that making everybody's phone vulnerable to bad actors is a bad idea. Unfortunately, once you ungild the "golden key", it's their only idea.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Kathleen Parker and the War on Women

Kathleen Parker is one of those people who appears to have an amazing ability not to blush, at least on paper. Take for her example her screed about "The silly, selective ‘war on women’":
Let’s be clear. The war on women is based on just one thing — abortion rights. While it is true that access to abortion has been restricted in several states owing to Republican efforts, it is not true that women as a whole care only or mostly about abortion.
Well, no. The Republican war on women is about women's reproductive rights in general, and notably includes sex education, access to birth control and insurance coverage for birth control. More than that, it includes no small amount of "slut shaming", and a huffy dismissal of the notion that women haven't achieved wage equality with men. If you don't believe me, take a look at this column by a person named "Kathleen Parker" in which she admits that the "war on women" includes insurance coverage for birth control. Parker makes a fascinating argument,
The alleged war on women was based essentially on the notion that people who think abortion is a bad idea — or who don’t think the government should mandate insurance coverage for birth-control coverage — are anti-woman. Democrats point mainly to new state laws that have limited access to abortion, not to mention the unforgettable observations of a few Republican men about “legitimate” rape and so on.

Whatever one’s own position, Republicans could be characterized as waging a war on women only if no women agreed with the premises mentioned above.
That sort of illogical and narrow thinking is mirrored by those who defend the practice of female genital mutilation by arguing that the arrangements for mutilation are made by mothers, for their daughters, and the procedure is performed by women. If even one woman is involved in the practice, under Parker's logic, the practice cannot be deemed oppressive toward women. Would Parker argue that slavery in the U.S. cannot be said to be oppressive to the slaves because there were black slave owners? I would hope not, but that argument would be completely consistent with her logic.

Next take a look at this column also by somebody named "Kathleen Parker" in which she whines that evil liberals want small children to have access to the "morning after pill". Parker's concern is, of course, not about safety or whether one over-the-counter medication should be treated differently than others based on objective concerns -- her concern is that a minor might be able to go into a pharmacy and purchase a medication that is safer than a lot of the other OTC drugs the same minor is free to purchase, without having to tell an adult that she's sexually active.

Fundamentally, though, she's making a "What about the children" argument in order to distract us from the fact that she's defending people who want to keep certain forms of birth control (and in some cases, all forms of birth control) out of the hands of women of any age. But even if we ignore that fact, contrary to Parker's pretense, the issue is not one about the role of government in relation to the family. It's about the relationship of parents and their daughters, and whether the government should stick itself into the middle of that relationship by imposing nanny state rules to keep certain OTC medications out of the hands of minors. Parker also pretends that she has safety concerns about the morning-after pill, never mind that pregnancy and childbirth are vastly more dangerous to young women than the pill she hopes to keep out of their hands.

Next take a look at this column, also... wow... by somebody named Kathleen Parker,
With each generation, the question becomes more declarative and querulous. Recent demographic shifts show women gaining supremacy across a spectrum of quantitative measures, including education and employment. Women outnumber men in college and in most graduate fields. Increasingly, owing in part to the recession and job loss in historically male-dominated fields, they are surpassing men as wage-earners, though women still lag behind at the highest income and executive levels.
So you see, women are doing just fine, thank you very much, and what you really need to focus on is how terribly men are doing -- "If we continue to impose low expectations and negative messaging on men and boys, future women won’t have much to choose from." Except it's implicit in Parker's argument that, at least outside of college enrollment numbers, men are doing as well as or better than women.

For more evidence of my point, you need only read further into Parker's column about the "silly" war on women,
Yet Sandra Fluke, whose appeal for insurance coverage of birth control prompted Limbaugh to call her a “slut,” was elevated to martyr status and perhaps a political career.
I suspect that most people had forgotten about Sandra Fluke before Parker brought her up, but she's a great example of how Republicans engage in anti-birth control rhetoric and slut shaming.

After telling us that her column is not about abortion, then proceeding with what I guess she expects her audience to view as some sort of ironic humor by writing a paragraph-long screed against abortion rights, Parker gets to her real target: The fact that on occasion she can identify a Democrat who says stupid or sexist things about women. As if we needed to be told? Needless to say, though, she's nutpicking -- selecting isolated examples of people saying silly things -- and conflating them with her party's problem, the fact that its politicians have established a clear pattern of making sexist comments -- one that makes columnists like, you know, Kathleen Parker regret that Republicans have not yet learned to talk to women.

Parker reminds us in her column that Bill Maher, a left-leaning comedian who is not a Democrat but is presently supporting the Democratic Party, is a sexist.
Sarah Palin, whose potential vice presidency I politely opposed for legitimate reasons that are now widely embraced, has been outrageously abused in the vilest terms — by Maher among others — and left to twist in the wind.
Twist in the wind? Try "laugh all the way to the bank." So why bring Bill Maher, a man she sees as inclined to make vile, sexist remarks, into the column at all? Because he offers a useful distraction from domestic concerns:
On the latter’s offense, and the silliness of the so-called war in general, I defer to Bill Maher, who recently chastised liberals for their selective outrage regarding women’s rights.

“We hear a lot about the Republican ‘war on women.’ It’s not cool Rush Limbaugh called somebody a slut. Okay,” said Maher. “But Saudi women can’t vote, or drive, or hold a job or leave the house without a man. Overwhelming majorities in every Muslim country say a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. That all seems like a bigger issue than evangelical Christian bakeries refusing to make gay wedding cakes.”
One could easily turn that around -- why is Parker obsessing over whether the Republicans are fairly being accused of a war on women, when so-called honor killings occur in parts of the world, and where rape victims can even be killed in the name of protecting the honor of their families? If Parker were better at logical thinking, she might realize that it is possible to be opposed to discrimination against women at home and abroad. If she were a better thinker she might realize that U.S. voters have a better chance of effecting policy change in this country than they do of convincing Saudi Arabia to grant women full equality. On an international scale, the mistreatment of women in many other nations is a larger issue than the mistreatment of women in the U.S., but when you live in the U.S. you actually are allowed to comment upon and even prioritize domestic policy concerns, as well as those issues that you could actually affect through your speech and votes.

Parker then moves on to her penultimate attack -- the statement of a single Democratic politician about his female opponent,
A more recent example of a war-on-women event occurred in Virginia’s closely watched congressional race between Democrat John Foust and Republican Barbara Comstock. This time it was a Democratic male attacking a Republican female in, shall we say, the most clueless of terms. Lacking facts or finesse, Foust mused to an audience that Comstock hadn’t ever held a “real job.”

Meaning, what, that she’s just a mom?
Probably not. It sounds like an echo of Republican attacks on President Obama during his first campaign. I don't recall that Kathleen Parker leapt to Obama's defense, "How dare my party suggest that being a father isn't a 'real job'" -- recall the column linked above where Parker claimed deep concern over the marginalization of fathers. I'm not sure that Parker mouthed those exact words about Obama, but she certainly embraced the sentiment:
The faith of the American people may not have been misplaced in Obama. But the young senator from Illinois became a president overnight, before he had time to gain the confidence and wisdom one earns through trials and errors.
Parker then whines,
Even if this were so, and it is not, why should Foust get a pass for such an ignorant, sexist remark? Is any Democratic male — even one who manages to insult while pandering — better than any Republican female? In my experience, a woman who can manage a household and juggle the needs of three children while obtaining a law degree from Georgetown University, as Comstock did, can run a corporation or a nation.
Foust is getting "a pass"? Then Kathleen Parker's criticism of him in a column published in one of the nation's leading newspapers and syndicated across the country must be a figment of my imagination.

Never mind Parker's criticism of Obama's lack of experience -- or, for that matter, her disdain for Sarah Palin, mother of five. When Parker is not pretending to be offended, and not pretending to be a sudden believer in the power of motherhood, she is actually willing to acknowledge that knowledge of foreign policy and economics are important, even in a vice president. Parker's able to recognize that it's possible for somebody to be a mother and to have held conventional employment or elected office on top of it, yet be woefully unprepared for a position of responsibility. Parker is simply playing the game of gotcha politics -- her concern is not actually the sentiment that the Republican candidate is unprepared -- a type of criticism she, herself, has made in different words -- it's that the Democrat used the wrong words and made himself a convenient target, whatever he in fact meant.

Parker takes a momentary step back from her feigned outrage to inform us,
[Comstock's] résumé includes such non-cookie­baking activities as serving as a senior aide to Rep. Frank Wolf, whose congressional seat she is pursuing. She currently is serving her third term in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she has advanced legislation to thwart human trafficking and supported several conservative positions related to health-care and tax reform.
It's interesting to me that Parker conveniently sidesteps the discussion of Comstock's actual job experience in order to pretend that her opponent's comment was intended to diminish motherhood, as opposed to being an echo of the refrain of the political right, that work in politics or as an elected official... or for a non-profit, or as a college professor, or for the government (other than the military)... doesn't count as a "real job". Parker could have pointed out the obvious -- that being a senior aid to a politician is a "real job", and that serving as an elected legislator is a "real job". But to acknowledge those facts would be to acknowledge the probability that the criticism of Comstock's résumé was an echo of the criticism directed at President Obama, not a commentary on motherhood.

Parker still isn't done....
When a Comstock ad recently called Foust’s comments “sexist, bizarre, insensitive, ignorant,” the 10th District’s Democratic Party tweeted, “If @barbaracomstock were a man, she’d be down 20 pts w women. Her record & policies are horrible for women.”

No, if Comstock were a man, she wouldn’t have to counter such slander.
Wait a second.... What's the "slander" here? If it's "slander" to suggest that a candidate who is a parent has never held a real job, the record is replete with that type of attack on President Obama. If it's that a candidate who has actually held real jobs has never held a real job, see also the résumé of President Obama. If it's that it's a slander to say that taking pro-life positions is bad for women, that's certainly not a criticism that has never been raised against a male candidate. What slander are we actually talking about?

Further, if we really want to get into scurrilous, unfair, gender- and implicitly race-based attacks on candidates, we need look no further than a columnist... whose name momentarily eludes me. No, wait, I remember now: Kathleen Parker, and her attacks on Obama as not being a full-blooded American, his being effeminate (or at least low on testosterone) for his supposed use of the passive voice, or of being a (pussy) cat.

At this point, surprisingly, Parker still finds room for another bad argument,
Virginia voters who oppose Comstock’s legislative record have a clear alternative. But if they cast their ballots for Foust, they’ll be electing a man whose disrespect toward women and the single job only women can do — mothering — is at least as offensive as Limbaugh’s name-calling.
Alas, those poor voters. They have no choice but to accept Parker's position that any suggestion that a candidate who happens to be a mother has never held a "real job" completely disqualifies her opponent from office, or they may as well be calling defenders of women's reproductive health "sluts". Don't bother looking for the logic -- it's not there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How Not to Retain Teachers

From MSU,
Contrary to popular opinion, unruly students are not driving out teachers in droves from America’s urban school districts. Instead, teachers are quitting due to frustration with standardized testing, declining pay and benefits and lack of voice in what they teach....

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, assistant professor of teacher education, conducted in-depth interviews with urban secondary teachers before they quit successful careers in teaching. In a pair of studies, Dunn found that despite working in a profession they love, the teachers became demoralized by a culture of high-stakes testing in which their evaluations are tied to student scores and teachers have little say in the curriculum....

“As previous research has shown, it is not, contrary to popular opinion, students who drive teachers out of the classroom,” Dunn said.

But the negative factors – including lack of quality instruction time and low salaries – outweighed the positive aspects of teaching and led the teachers to quit. The average U.S. teacher salary decreased 1.3 percent between 2000 and 2013 – to $56,383, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Further, the United States ranked 22 out of 27 participating countries in a 2011 study of teacher salaries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In addition, lack of support contributed to teachers’ decision to quit. Dunn said teachers need more than professional development – they also need personal support, even if that’s a colleague or an organized group to talk to about the pressures they face.
As should be obvious, you're not going to attract new, highly qualified students into teaching programs if these trends continue. You'll get some students who really want to be teachers despite the declining compensation and status of the job, but on the whole you're likely to see a less qualified pool of students entering teaching schools.